Wednesday, August 15, 2007

St. John Damascene on the Assumption of Mary

Sermon II on the Dormition of Mary
By St. John Damascene (John of Damascus), (A.D. 676 - 754/787)

There is no one in existence who is able to praise worthily the holy death of God's Mother, even if he should have a thousand tongues and a thousand mouths. Not if all the most eloquent tongues could be united would their praises be sufficient. She is greater than all praise. Since, however, God is pleased with the efforts of a loving zeal, and the Mother of God with what concerns the service of her Son, suffer me now to revert again to her praises. This is in obedience to your orders, most excellent pastors, so dear to God, and we call upon the Word made flesh of her to come to our assistance. He gives speech to every mouth which is opened for Him. He is her sole pleasure and adornment. We know that in celebrating her praises we pay off our debt, and that in so doing we are again debtors, so that the debt is ever beginning afresh. It is fitting that we should exalt her who is above all created things, governing them as Mother of the God who is their Creator, Lord, and Master. Bear with me you who hang upon the divine words, and receive my good will. Strengthen my desire, and be patient with the weakness of my words. It is as if a man were to bring a violet of royal purple out of season, or a fragrant rose with buds of different hues, or some rich fruit of autumn to a mighty potentate who is divinely appointed to rule over men. Every day he sits at a table laden with every conceivable dish in the perfumed courts of his palace. He does not look at the smallness of the offering, or at its novelty so much as he admires the good intention, and with reason. This he would reward with an abundance of gifts and favours. So we, in our winter of poverty, bring garlands to our Queen, and prepare a flower of oratory for the feast of praise. We break our mind's stony desire with iron, pressing, as it were, the unripe grapes. And may you receive with more and more favour the words which fall upon your eager and listening ears.

What shall we offer the Mother of the Word if not our words? Like rejoices in like and in what it loves. Thus, then, making a start and loosening the reins of my discourse, I may send it forth as a charger ready equipped for the race. But do Thou, O Word of God, be my helper and auxiliary, and speak wisdom to my unwisdom. By Thy word make my path clear, and direct my course according to Thy good pleasure, which is the end of all wisdom and discernment.

Today the holy Virgin of Virgins is presented in the heavenly temple. Virginity in her was so strong as to be a consuming fire. It is forfeited in every case by child-birth. But she is ever a virgin, before the event, in the birth itself, and afterwards. To-day the sacred and living ark of the living God, who conceived her Creator Himself, takes up her abode in the temple of God, not made by hands. David, her forefather, rejoices. Angels and Archangels are in jubilation, Powers exult, Principalities and Dominations, Virtues and Thrones are in gladness: Cherubim and Seraphim magnify God. Not the least of their Praise is it to refer praise to the Mother of glory. To-day the holy dove, the pure and guileless soul, sanctified by the Holy Spirit, putting off the ark of her body, the life-giving receptacle of Our Lord, found rest to the soles of her feet, taking her flight to the spiritual world, and dwelling securely in the sinless country above. To-day the Eden of the new Adam receives the true paradise, in which sin is remitted and the tree of life growl, and our nakedness is covered. For we are no longer naked and uncovered, and unable to bear the splendour of the divine likeness. Strengthened with the abundant grace of the Spirit, we shall no longer betray our nakedness in the words: "I have Put off my garment, how shall I put it on?" The serpent, by whose deceitful promise we were likened to brute beasts, did not enter into this paradise. He, the only begotten Son of God, God himself, of the same substance as the Father, took His ] human nature of the pure Virgin. Being constituted a man, He made mortality immortal, and was clothed as a man. Putting aside corruption, He was indued with the incorruptibility of the Godhead.

Today the spotless Virgin, untouched by earthly affections, and all heavenly in her thoughts, was not dissolved in earth, but truly entering heaven, dwells in the heavenly tabernacles. Who would be wrong to call her heaven, unless indeed he truly said that she is greater than heaven in surpassing dignity? The Lord and Creator of heaven, the Architect of all things beneath the earth and above, of creation, visible and invisible, Who is not circumvented by place (if that which surrounds things is rightly termed place), created Himself, without human co-operation, an Infant in her. He made her a rich treasure-house of His all-pervading and alone uncircumscribed Godhead, subsisting entirely in her without passion, remaining entire in His universality and Himself uncircumscribed. To-day the life-giving treasury and abyss of charity (I know not how to trust my lips to speak of it) is hidden in immortal death. She meets it without fear, who conceived death's destroyer, if indeed we may call her holy and vivifying departure by the name of death. For how could she, who brought life to all, be under the dominion of death ? But she obeys the law of her own Son, and inherits this chastisement as a daughter of the first Adam, since her Son, who is the life, did not refuse it. As the Mother of the living God, she goes through death to Him. For if God said: "Unless the first man put out his hand to take and taste of the tree of life, he shall live for ever," how shall she, who received the Life Himself, without beginning or end, or finite vicissitudes, not live for ever.

Of old the Lord God banished from the garden of Eden our first parents after their disobedience, when they had dulled the eye of their heart through their sin, and weakened their mind's discernment, and had fallen into death-like apathy. But, now, shall not paradise receive her, who broke the bondage of all passion, sowed the seed of obedience to God and the Father, and was the beginning of life to the whole human race ? Will not heaven open its gates to her with rejoicing ? Yes, indeed. Eve listened to the serpent, adopted his suggestion, was caught by the lure of false and deceptive pleasure, and was condemned to pain and sorrow, and to bear children in suffering. With Adam she received the sentence of death, and was placed in the recesses of Limbo. How can death claim as its prey this truly blessed one, who listened to God's word in humility, and was filled with the Spirit, conceiving the Father's gift through the archangel, bearing without concupiscence or the co-operation of man the Person of the Divine Word, who fills all things, bringing Him forth, without the pains of childbirth, being wholly united to God? How could Limbo open its gates to her ? How could corruption touch the life-giving body ? These are things quite foreign to the soul and body of God's Mother. Death trembled before her. In approaching her Son, death had learnt experience from His sufferings, and had grown wiser. The gloomy descent to hell was not for her, but a joyous, easy, and sweet passage to heaven. If, as Christ, the Life and the Truth says: "Wherever I am, there is also my minister," how much more shall not His mother be with Him? She brought Him forth without pain, and her death, also, was painless. The death of sinners is terrible, for in it, sin, the cause of death, is sacrificed. What shall we say of her if not that she is the beginning of perpetual life. Precious indeed is the death of His saints to the Lord God of powers. More than precious is the passing away of God's Mother. Now let the heavens and the angels rejoice: let the earth and men be full of gladness. Let the air resound with song and canticle, and dark night put off its gloom, and emulate the brightness of day through the scintillating stars. The living city of the Lord God is assumed from God's temple, the visible Sion, and kings bring forth His most precious gift, their mother, to the heavenly Jerusalem, that is to say, the apostles constituted princes by Christ, over all the earth, accompany the ever virginal Mother of God.

It seems to me not superfluous to bring forward and insist on the past types of this holy one, the Mother of God. These types succinctly announced the Divine Child whom we have received. I look upon His Mother as the saint of saints, the holiest of all, the fragrant urn for the manna, or rather, to speak more truly, the fountain taking its rise in the divine and far-famed city of David, in Sion the glorious; in it the law is fulfilled and the spiritual law is portrayed. In Sion, Christ the Law-giver consummated the typical pasch, and God, the Author of the old and the new dispensation, gave us the true pasch. In it the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, initiated His disciples unto His mystical feast, and gave them Himself slain as a victim, and the grape pressed in the true vine. In Sion, Christ is seen by His apostles, risen from the dead, and Thomas is told, and through Thomas the world, that He is Lord and God, having in Himself two natures after His resurrection, and consequently two operations, independent wills, enduring for all ages. Sion is the crown of churches, the resting-place of disciples. In it the echo of the Holy Spirit, the gift of tongues, His fiery descent are transmitted to the apostles. In it St John, taking the Mother of God, ministered to her wants. Sion is the mother of churches in the whole world, who offered a resting-place to the Mother of God after her Son's resurrection from the dead. In it, lastly, the Blessed Virgin was stretched on a small bed.

When I had reached this point of my discourse, I was obliged to give vent to my own feelings, and burning with loving desire, to shed reverent yet joyful tears, embracing, as it were, the bed so happy and blest and wondrous, which received the life-giving tabernacle and rejoiced in the contact of holiness. I seemed to take into my arms that holy and sacred body itself, worthy of God, and pressing my eyes, lips, and forehead, head, and cheeks to hers, I felt as if she was really there, though I was unable to see with my eyes what I desired. How, then, was she assumed to the heavenly courts? In this way. What were the honours then conferred upon her by God who commands us to honour our parents? The cloud which enclosed Jerusalem as with a net, by the divine commands, brought together eagles from the ends of the earth, those who are spread over the world, fishing for men in the various and numerous tongues of the spirit. By the net of the word they are saving men from the abyss of doubt and bringing them to the spiritual and heavenly table of the sacred and mystical banquet, the perfect marriage feast of the Divine Bridegroom, which the Father celebrates with His Son, who is equal to Himself and of the same nature. "Where the spirit is," says Christ the Truth, "there shall the eagles be gathered together." If we have already spoken concerning the second great and splendid coming of Him who spoke these words, it will not be out of place here by way of condiment.

Eye-witnesses, then, and ministers of the word were there, duly ministering to His Mother, and drawing from her a rich inheritance, as it were, and a full measure of praise. For is it a matter of doubt to any one that she is the source of blessing and the fountain of all good? Their followers and successors also were there, joining in their ministry and in their praise. A common labour produces common fruits. A chosen band from Jerusalem were there. It was fitting that the foremost men and prophets of the old law, they who had foretold God the Word's saving birth of her in time, should be there as a guard of honour. Nor did the angelic choirs fail. They who obeyed the king heartily and consequently were honoured by standing near Him, had the right to serve as a body-guard to His Mother, according to the flesh, the truly blessed and blissful one, surpassing all generations and all creation. All those were with her who are the brightness and the shining of the spirit, with spiritual eyes fixed upon her in reverence, and fear, and pure desire.

We hear divine and inspired words, and spiritual canticles appropriate to the parting hour. On this account it was meet to praise His boundless goodness, His immeasurable greatness, His omnipotence, the generosity surpassing all measure in His dealings with us, the overflowing riches of His mercy, the abyss of His tenderness; how, putting aside His greatness, He descended to our littleness with the co-operation of the Father and the Holy Spirit. Again, the supersubstantial One is supersubstantially created in the virginal womb. Being God He became man, and remains according to this union perfect God and perfect man, not giving up the substance of His Godhead nor ceasing to be of the same flesh and blood as we are. He, who fills all things and governs the universe with one word, took up His abode in a narrow place, and the material body of this blessed one received the burning fire of the Godhead, and as genuine gold it remained intact. This has taken place because God willed it, since His good pleasure makes things possible which could not happen without it. Then followed a strife of praise, not as if each was seeking to outdo the other--for this is vainglorious and far from pleasing to God--but as if they would leave nothing undone for the glory of God and the honour of God's Mother.

Then Adam and Eve, our first parents, opened their lips to exclaim, "Thou blessed daughter of ours, who hast removed the penalty of our disobedience! Thou, inheriting from us a mortal body, hast won us immortality. Thou, taking thy being from us, hast given us back the being in grace. Thou hast conquered pain and loosened the bondage of death. Thou hast restored us to our former state. We had shut the door of paradise; thou didst find entrance to the tree of life. Through us sorrow came out of good; through thee good from sorrow. How canst thou who art all fair taste of death ? Thou art the gate of life and the ladder to heaven. Death is become the passage to immortality. O thou truly blessed one! who that is not the Word could have borne what thou hast borne?"

All the company of the saints exclaimed, "Thou hast fulfilled our predictions. Thou hast purchased our present joy for us. Through thee we have broken the chains of death. Come to us, divine and life-giving receptacle. Come, our desire, thou who hast gained us our desire."

And the saints standing by added their no less burning words: "Remain with us, our comfort, our sole joy in this world. O Mother leave us not orphans who have suffered on thy Son's account. May we have thee as a refuge and refreshment in our labours and weariness. Thou canst remain if thou so willest, even as thou canst depart hence. if thou departest, O dwelling-place of God let us go too, if we are thine through thy Son. Thou art our sole consolation on earth. We live as long as thou livest, and it is bliss to die with thee. Why do we speak of death? Death is life to thee, and better than life -- incomparably exceeding this life. How is our life -- life, if we are deprived of thee?"

The apostles and all the assembly of the Church may well have addressed some such words to the blessed Virgin. When they saw the Mother of God near her end and longing for it, they were moved by divine grace to sing farewell hymns, and wrapt out of the flesh, they sighed to accompany the dying Mother of God, and anticipated death through intensity of will. When they had all satisfied their duty of loving reverence and had woven her a rich crown of hymns, they spoke a parting blessing over her, as a God-given treasure, and the last words. These, I should think, were significant of this life's fleetingness, and of its leading to the hidden mysteries of future goods.

This, it appears to me, is what they did at once and unanimously. The King was there to receive with divine embrace the holy, undefiled, and stainless soul of His Mother on her going home. And she, as we may well conjecture, said, "Into Thy hands, O my Son, I commend my spirit. Receive my soul, dear to Thee, which Thou didst keep spotless. I give my body to Thee, not to the earth. Guard that which Thou wert pleased to inhabit and to preserve in virginity. Take to Thyself me that wherever Thou art, the fruit of my womb, there I too may be. I am impelled to Thee who didst descend to me. Do Thou be the consolation of my most cherished children, whom Thou didst vouchsafe to call Thy brethren, when my death leaves them in loneliness. Bless them afresh through my hands." Then stretching out her hands, as we may believe, she blessed all those present, and then she heard the words "Come, my beloved Mother, to thy rest. Arise and come, most dear amongst women, the winter is past and gone, the harvest time is at hand. Thou art fair, my beloved, and there is no stain in thee. Thy fragrance is sweeter than all ointments." With these words in her ear, that holy one gave up her spirit into the hands of her Son.

What happens? Nature, I conjecture, is stirred to its depths, strange sounds and voices are heard, and the swelling hymns of angels who precede, accompany, and follow her. Some constitute the guard of honour to that undefiled and immaculate soul on its way to heaven until the queen reaches the divine throne. Others surrounding the sacred and divine body proclaim God's Mother in angelic harmony. What of those who watched by the most holy and immaculate body? In loving reverence and with tears of joy they gathered round the blessed and divine tabernacle, embracing every member, and were filled with holiness and thanksgiving. Then illnesses were cured, and demons were put to flight and banished to the regions of darkness. The air and atmosphere and heavens were sanctified by her passage through them, the earth by the burial of her body. Nor was water deprived of a blessing. She was washed in pure water. It did not cleanse her, but was rather itself sanctified. Then, hearing was given to the deaf, the lame recovered their feet, and the blind, their sight. Sinners who approached with faith blotted out the handwriting against them. Then the holy body is wrapped in a snow-white winding-sheet, and the queen is again laid, upon her bed. Then follow lights and incense and hymns, and angels singing as befits the solemnity; apostles and patriarchs acclaiming her in inspired song.

When the Ark of God, departing from Mount Sion for the heavenly country, was borne on the shoulders of the Apostles, it was placed on the way in the tomb. First it was taken through the city, as a bride dazzling with spiritual radiance, and then carried to the sacred place of Gethsemane, angels overshadowing it with their wings, going before, accompanying, and following it, together with the whole assembly of the Church. King Solomon compelled all the elders of Israel in Sion to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord from the city of David, that is Sion, to rest in the temple of the Lord, which he had built, and the priests took the ark and the tabernacle of the testimony, and the priests and levites raised it. And the king and all the people sacrificed numberless oxen and sheep before the ark. And the priests carried in the ark of the testimony of God into its place, into the Holy of Holies, beneath the wings of the cherubim. So is it now with the dwelling-place of the true ark, no longer of the testimony, but the very substance of God the Word. The new Solomon, the Prince of peace, the Creator of all things in the heavens and on the earth, assembled together to-day the supporters of the new covenant, that is the Apostles, with all the people of the saints in Jerusalem, brought in her soul through angels to the true Holy of Holies, under the wings of the four living creatures, and set her on His throne within the Veil, where Christ Himself had preceded her. Her body the while is borne by the Apostles' hands, the King of Kings covering her with the splendour of His invisible Godhead, the whole assembly of the saints preceding her, with sacred song and sacrifice of praise until through the tomb it was placed in the delights of Eden, the heavenly tabernacles.

Perchance, Jews also were there, if any, not too reprobate were to be found. It will not be beside the mark to mention here a thing that is asserted by many. It is said that when those, who were carrying the blessed body of God's Mother, had reached the descent of the opposite mountains, a certain Jew, the slave of sin, and pledged by his folly, imitated the servant of Caiphas, who struck the divine Face of Christ our Lord and Master, and made himself the devil's instrument. Full of wicked passion and malice, he rushed at that most divine tabernacle, which angels approached with fear, and impiously dragged the bier with both his hands to the ground. This was prompted by the envy of the arch enemy, but his labours were in vain, and he reaped a severe and fitting reminder of his deed. It is said that he lost the use of his hands, which had perpetrated his malicious deed, until faith moved him to repentance. The bearers were standing near. The wretched man placed his hands on the wondrous and life-giving tabernacle, and they again became sound. Circumstances had made him wise, as often happens. But let us return to our subject.

Then they reached the most sacred Gethsemane, and once more there were embracings and prayers and panegyrics, hymns and tears, poured forth by sorrowful and loving hearts. They mingled a flood of weeping and sweating. And thus the immaculate body was laid in the tomb. Then it was assumed after three days to the heavenly mansions. The bosom of the earth was no fitting receptacle for the Lord's dwelling-place, the living source of cleansing water, the corn of heavenly bread, the sacred vine of divine wine, the evergreen and fruitful olive-branch of God's mercy. And just as the all holy body of God's Son, which was taken from her, rose from the dead on the third day, it followed that she should be snatched from the tomb, that the mother should be united to her Son; and as He had come down to her, so she should be raised up to Him, into the more perfect dwelling-place, heaven itself. It was meet that she, who had sheltered God the Word in her own womb, should inhabit the tabernacles of her Son. And as our Lord said it behoved Him to be concerned with His Father's business, so it behoved His mother that she should dwell in the courts of her Son, in the house of the Lord, and in the courts of the house of our God. If all those who rejoice dwell in Him, where must the cause itself of joy abide? It was fitting that the body of her, who preserved her virginity unsullied in her motherhood, should be kept from corruption even after death. She who nursed her Creator as an infant at her breast, had a right to be in the divine tabernacles. The place of the bride whom the Father had espoused, was in the heavenly courts. It was fitting that she who saw her Son die on the cross, and received in her heart the sword of pain which she had not felt in childbirth, should gaze upon Him seated next to the Father. The Mother of God had a right to the possession of her Son, and as handmaid and Mother of God to the worship of all creation. The inheritance of the parents ever passes to the children. Now, as a wise man said, the sources of sacred waters are above. The Son made all creation serve His Mother.

Let us then also keep solemn feast today to honour the joyful departure of God's Mother, not with flutes nor corybants, nor the orgies of Cybele, the mother of false gods, as they say, whom foolish people talk of as a fruitful mother of children, and truth as no mother at all. These are demons and false imaginings. They usurp what they are not by nature to impose upon human folly. For how can what is bodiless lead the wedded life? How can that be god which, not being before, is present only after birth? That devils were bodiless is apparent to all, even to those who are intellectually blind. Homer somewhere testifies to the condition of the gods he honours:

They eat not barley, and drink not ruddy wine,
So they are bloodless and are called immortal.

They eat not bread, he says, neither do they drink fiery wine. On this account they are anaemic, that is, without blood, and are called immortals. He truly and appropriately says, "are called." They are called immortals. They are not that which they are called. They died the death of wickedness. Now we worship God, not God beginning His being, but who always was and is above all cause and argument or created mind or nature. We honour and reverence the Mother of God, not ascribing to her the eternal generation of His Godhead. For the generation of God the Word was not in time, and was co-eternal with the Father. We acknowledge a second generation in His spontaneous taking flesh, and we see and know the cause of this. He who is without beginning and without body takes flesh for us as one of ourselves. And taking flesh of this sacred Virgin, He is born without man, remaining Himself perfect God, and becoming perfect man, perfect God in His flesh, and perfect Man in His Godhead. Thus, recognising God's Mother in this Virgin, we celebrate her falling asleep, not proclaiming her as God -- far be from us these heathen fables -- since we are announcing her death, but recognising her as the Mother of the Incarnate God.

O people of Christ, let us acclaim her today in sacred song, acknowledge our own good fortune and proclaim it. Let us honour her in nocturnal vigil; let us delight in her purity of soul and body, for she next to God surpasses all in purity. It is natural for similar things to glory in each other. Let us show our love for her by compassion and kindness towards the poor. For if mercy is the best worship of God, who will refuse to show His Mother devotion in the same way? She opened to us the unspeakable abyss of God's love for us. Through her the old enmity against the Creator is destroyed. Through her our reconciliation with Him is strengthened, peace and grace are given to us, men are the companions of angels, and we, who were in dishonour, are made the children of God. From her we have plucked the fruit of life. From her we have received the seed of immortality. She is the channel of all our goods. In her God was man and man was God. What more marvellous or more blessed? I approach the subject in fear and trembling. With Mary, the prophetess, O youthful souls, let us sound our musical instruments, mortifying our members on earth, for this is spiritual music. Let our souls rejoice in the Ark of God, and the walls of Jericho will yield, I mean the fortresses of the enemy. Let us dance in spirit with David; to-day the Ark of God is at rest. With Gabriel, the great archangel, let us exclaim, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Hail, inexhaustible ocean of grace. Hail, sole refuge in grief. Hail, cure of hearts. Hail, through whom death is expelled and life is installed."

And you I will speak to as if living, most sacred of tombs, after the life-giving tomb of our Lord which is the source of the resurrection. Where is the pure gold which apostolic hands confided to you? Where is the inexhaustible treasure ? Where the precious receptacle of God? Where is the living table? Where the new book in which the incomprehensible Word of God is written without hands? Where is the abyss of grace and the ocean of healing? Where is the life-giving fountain? Where is the sweet and loved body of God's Mother?

Why do you seek in the tomb one who has been assumed to the heavenly courts? Why do you make me responsible for not keeping her? I was powerless to go against the divine commands. That sacred and holy body, leaving the winding-sheet behind, filled me full of sweet fragrance, sanctified me by its contact, and fulfilled the divine scheme, and was then assumed, angels and archangels and all the heavenly powers escorting it. Now angels surround me, and divine grace abounds in me. I am the physician of the sick. I am a perpetual source of health, and the terror of demons. I am a city of refuge for fugitives. Approach with faith and you will receive a sea of graces. Come, you of weak faith. All you that thirst, come to the waters in obedience to Isaias' commands, and you who have no money, come and buy for nothing. I call upon all with the Gospel invitation. Let him who longs for bodily or spiritual cure, forgiveness of sins, deliverance from misfortune, the possession of heaven, approach me with faith, and draw hence a strong and rich stream of grace. Just as the action of one and the same water acts differently on the earth, air, and sun, according to the nature of each, producing wine in the vine and oil in the olive-tree, so does one and the same grace profit each person according to his needs. I do not possess grace on my own account. A tomb given up to corruption, an object of sorrow and dejection, I receive a precious ointment, and am impregnated with it, and this sweet fragrance alters my condition whilst it lasts. Truly, divine graces flow where they will. I have sheltered the source of joy, and I have become rich in its perennial fountain.

What shall we answer the tomb? You have indeed rich and abiding grace, but divine power is not restricted by place, neither is the Mother of God's working. If it were confined to the tomb alone, few would be the richer. Now it is freely distributed in all parts of the world. Let us then make our memory serve as a storehouse of God's Mother. How shall this be? She is a virgin and a lover of virginity. She is pure and a lover of purity. If we purify our mind with the body, we shall possess her grace. She shuns all impurity and impure passions. She has a horror of intemperance, and a special hatred for fornication. She turns from its allurements as from the progeny of serpents... She looks upon all sin as death-inflicting rejoicing in all good. Contraries are cured by contraries. She delights in fasting and continence and spiritual canticles, in purity, virginity, and wisdom. With these she is ever at peace, and takes them to her heart. She embraces peace and a meek spirit, and love, mercy, and humility as her children. In a word, she grieves over every sin, and is glad at all goodness as if it were her own. If we turn away from our former sins in all earnestness and love goodness with all our hearts, and make it our constant companion, she will frequently visit her servants, bringing all blessings with her, Christ her Son, the King and Lord who reigns in our hearts. To Him be glory, praise, honour, power, and magnificence, with the eternal Father and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Presuppositions of a Bible Scholar

What follows is a paper I wrote on the presuppositions of Fr. Raymond Brown. But, before you read it, I must first say a few things. I don't really like this paper. In fact, I hesitate to even post it. I feel that it is very superficial and that it raises too many questions without providing enough answers. For example, my professor wrote the following questions in response to my paper:
  • [in response to the end of paragraph 4] Does McCarthy base his view on the conclusion(s) of Brown's work or on the presuppositions of the work, which are or may be the same as Dibelius? Are all of Dibelius's conclusions wrong?
  • [in response to the end of paragraph 6] Since these are questions of a historical nature, are they inherently wrong? If not, what puts these questions into proper perspective?
  • [in response to paragraphs 7 and 8] Yes, but yet again, these are conclusions. What are Brown's presuppositions? You raise only the problem of doubt. But there is a difference between theological doubt and reasonable doubt.
  • [in response to the end of paragraph 8] Why not begin with wedge driven between faith and reason?
Basically, he marked all over it, but, for some reason, he still gave me an "A." He even wrote "Nice analysis!" at the top. Maybe I'll ask him what from my paper merited such a grade. Anyway, just know that, as the writer of this paper, I am aware of the possible criticisms that could be lofted against it and that I hardly present this as the final say on Brown's hermeneutics.

Pax Christi,
- - -
The Presuppositions of a Bible Scholar

Fr. Raymond Brown is certainly a most maligned individual. Fr. Richard Gilsdorf called him "a major contribution to the befogged wasteland of an 'American Church,' progressively alienated from its divinely constituted center."1 After making some brief rebuttals to what Brown saw as contradictions in Scripture, Fr. William G. Most called him "an unperceptive interpreter."2 In his address at the Conference on the Bible and the Church, Msgr. George A. Kelly, who wrote The New Biblical Theorists in 1983 as a critique of Brown and scholars like him, summarizes the stances of a few more of Brown's critics:
In the world beyond journalism, Fr. Brown did acquire his own share of scholarly critics, but he paid them no mind. Msgr. Jerome Quinn, at one time (1980) the only U.S. member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, disagreed with Brown's views on the ordination of women. Paulist Neil McEleney, a 1979 President of the Catholic Biblical Association, considered Brown's view of Mary's role in Christ's life as "minimalist." John McKenzie, S.J., author of the impressive Dictionary of the Bible, thought that Brown hedged his controversial conclusions with the appearance of objectivity, while marshaling his evidence in favor of the position to which he was committed. Dennis McCarthy, S.J., a professor at the Biblicum in Rome, suggested (1979) that Brown operated out of a "squirrel cage," i.e. he ran round and round in circles, always returning to the same place — doubt.3
You judge a tree by its fruit, and many of Brown's critics firmly believe that the fruit of his scholarship is a loss of faith in the historicity of the Gospels and in many of the truths that the Church has always professed. However, the intention of this paper is not to address the validity of Brown's conclusions, nor is it to judge the impact of his efforts. I am interested here only with his presuppositions. What theories, philosophies, and understandings inform his approach to Scripture? From what methodological basis does he derive the various conclusions about Scripture that have caused so many scholars (and Christians not so scholarly) to respond to him so forcefully? To answer these questions, I will draw primarily from Brown's own defense of his philosophical and methodological approach as articulated in his address at the Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church.4

Inherent in my own purpose for this paper is the presupposition that every interpreter brings his own pre-conceived understandings of Scripture (and really of the world itself) to the text when he sets out to interpret it. Otherwise, there would be no point in attempting to discover a set of beliefs that informs Brown’s interpretive method. Brown agrees with this a priori condition. In the Addendum to his address, he recounts how one of the lessons he and his fellow classmates learned from his principal teacher in Biblical studies was that "their task was to become aware of their own presuppositions with the goal that these might not become total prejudices, distorting evidence rather than accepting it."5 He later adds that "As we look for a new way to make the Bible and its 'story of the dealings of the Triune God with his people and his world' typologically applicable to the present, we must be aware in this as in all exegesis of our own presuppositions and the likely limitations of our results."6

Since Brown uses the historical critical method, some people identify as his presuppositions the very ones that informed the forefathers of the method (and similar methods, such as form criticism and redaction criticism). The idea here is that a particular method of interpreting Scripture cannot be used without simultaneously buying in to the presuppositions out of which it arose. Brown thinks this is unfair, and he distances himself from the philosophies of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann that governed the use of the historical critical method when it was first put into practice.7 He states at the beginning of his lecture, "I believe that most theological apprehensions about historical criticism are focused on something past and are not relevant to the moderate and adapted form of criticism that I shall be discussing."8 He believes that he learned the method in an entirely different way than they did.9 Of course, not everyone agrees. For example, Msgr. John F. McCarthy asserts that, at least in Brown's interpretation of Mt 2:22-23, he "follows the lead of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann, the two principal founders of the form-criticism of the Gospels."10

Another presupposition of Brown is that the Bible has a meaning both to the immediate audience of the inspired author, and of Christians today.
Because of the human element, one needs scientific, literary, and historical methods to determine what the ancient authors meant when they wrote—that knowledge does not come from revelation. But the meaning of the Bible as the Church's collection of sacred and normative books goes beyond what the authors meant in a particular book. Not only scholarship but also church tradition and teaching enters into the complex issue of what the Bible means to Christians11 (emphasis original).
While this is certainly nothing new, nor is it distinctive to Brown, critics of Brown and of the historical-critical method in general have often accused him and other proponents of this method of creating an impassable abyss between what Scripture meant and what it means.12 Although, on an intellectual level, Brown may acknowledge that Scripture has multiple meanings and that Scripture can speak in new ways to a contemporary audience13, in practice he seems to alienate this meaning from the historical meaning of the text and to put a near solitary emphasis on this historical meaning.14

The hermeneutic that Brown is most accused of harboring is one of suspicion, in which the interpreter approaches Scripture with the preconceived notion that very little of what it relates is historically accurate, what the Church has traditionally believed about Scripture is largely naïve and simplistic, and whatever appears as miraculous in Scripture should be dismissed as mere fable used to express some theological truth or religious imagination. Questions of doubt are constantly raised: Is this miracle really in fact miraculous? Did Jesus really institute all seven sacraments? Was Mary really a perpetual virgin? Is this the real Jesus, or the Jesus of the faith-filled community?

It is easy to see how one could find this hermeneutic of suspicion at the heart of Brown’s interpretive method. After all, he is constantly raising doubts about long-held beliefs of the Church, and constantly coming to conclusions that seem to be contrary to these beliefs. Hints of this appear in his Conference address. For instance, Brown approaches the Biblical text with the firm conviction that "nothing depends on being certain of the personal identity of the biblical authors."15 From there, it is easy to see how Brown can assert, as if it were a given, that "no one of the four evangelists was himself an eyewitness of the ministry of Jesus."16 He also says in his address that he does not think that biblical criticism can prove "that Jesus willed any particular Church structure, or even that the New Testament sanctions one church structure above all others."17

In The Critical Meaning of the Bible, he summarizes a position first presented in his earlier work Priest and Bishop that "an ordained priesthood, a priesthood of altar and never presented as a Christian institution in the NT" and "no member of the Church is called a priest in relation to the Eucharist."18 Regarding the Infancy Narratives, he is particularly "critical": he seems to think that the only truly historical aspect of these narratives is the genealogies and that everything else was constructed by the author to reflect his own Christology.19 Of course, my purpose here is not to address the validity of these conclusions, but only to show that they arise out of a particular presupposition.

Ratzinger sees Martin Dibelius and Rudolph Bultmann to be at the heart this hermeneutic of suspicion, and it is not difficult for him to believe that they are influencing biblical exegetes still today:
It goes without saying that the form-critical works of Dibelius and Bultmann have in the meantime been surpassed and in many respects corrected in their details. But it is likewise true that their basic methodological approaches continue even today to determine the methods and procedures of modern exegesis. Their essential elements underlie more than their own historical and theological judgments and, to be sure, these have widely achieved an authority like unto dogma.20
Characteristic of their method was a definite distrust of anything mysterious or miraculous in nature. "Whatever has to do with cult, cosmos, or mystery must be rejected as a later development."21 Dogma or church doctrine had already appeared "as one of the real impediments to a correct understanding of the Bible itself."22 Generally, anything that is more complex must be a later development. "The more theologically considered and sophisticated a given text is, the more recent it is, and the simpler something is, the easier it is to reckon it original."23

As mentioned earlier, Brown distances himself from the particular philosophies of Dibelius and Bultmann, and presents the American Church as no longer susceptible to such philosophies. Perhaps Ratzinger should get out more! At least, that seems to be what Brown would suggest.24 As to whether or not Brown should be implicated as among those whom the Cardinal rejects, I suppose the matter is still up for debate.25

To be fair, the assessment of Fr. Raymond E. Brown's methodological presuppositions and his impact on modern Biblical scholarship has certainly not been entirely negative. Roger Cardinal Mahoney hailed him as "the most distinguished and renowned Catholic biblical scholar to emerge in this country ever" and his death, the cardinal said, was "a great loss to the Church."26 Mahoney and Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, PA. are described as "effusive in their praise" of Brown.27 He received 24 honorary degrees from various institutions of higher learning, and his Jerome Biblical Commentary is still considered one of the greatest works of American Biblical scholarship ever written.

However, the limitations of his approach, and of the historical-critical method in general, cannot be ignored. Cardinal Ratzinger was aware of these limitations, as was the PBC document (cf. I.A.4). At the core of these limitations are some very real presuppositions about knowledge, truth, history, God, and the world. Admittedly, my presentation here only scratches the surface of what could be said regarding the specific presuppositions of Fr. Raymond Brown. The criticism he has received, even after his death, has been quite voluminous, and how he will be viewed by subsequent generations, especially as he compares to Dibelius and Bultmann, remains to be seen. It is perhaps the greatest irony that the one man who studied Scripture with the most critical eye would himself fall under such a fine, and often unrelenting microscope.
- - -
[1] Henry V. King, "Traditional Catholic Scholars Long Opposed Raymond Brown’s Theories" in The Wanderer (The Wanderer Printing Company: September 10, 1998), 1 and 11.
[2] Fr. William G. Most, Free From All Error: Authorship, Inerrancy, Historicity of Scripture, Church Teaching, and Modern Scripture Scholars, Ch. 9.
[3] Mrgr. George A. Kelly, "A Wayward Turn in Biblical Theory," Address at the Conference on the Bible and the Church (November 12, 1999).
[4] Raymond E. Brown, "The Contribution of Historical Biblical Criticism to Ecumenical Church Discussion," in Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church, Gen. Ed. Richard John Neuhaus (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 24-49.
[5] ibid., 45.
[6] ibid., 49.
[7] In the document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1993), the Pontifical Biblical Commission states not only that this has been done in modern use of the method, but that the historical-critical method, "when used in an objective manner, implies of itself no a priori" (p. 40).
[8] He adds in the Addendum: "In other words, most of my training as a historical critic was just the opposite of what the Cardinal has described as the philosophy of historical criticism that in his judgment fundamentally flaws the method. All of this causes me to suggest that more frequently we should speak of the philosophy of the practitioners of the method rather than of the philosophy of the method itself" (Brown, "Historical Biblical Criticism and Ecumenical Discussion," 45-46).
[9] ibid., 46.
[10] Msgr. John F. McCarthy, "Regarding the Background of Matthew 2: In answer to the form-critical analysis of Raymond Brown," in Living Tradition (No. 86, March 2000).
[11] Raymond E. Brown, The Critical Meaning of the Bible: How a modern reading of the Bible challenges Christians, the Church, and the churches (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), x.
[12] See Prior’s list of the limits of the historical-critical method in Peter S. Williamson, Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture: A study of the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2001), 225-226, footnote #9.
[13] "This is not an imperialistic claim that the meaning detectable by historical biblical criticism exhausts the meaning of the sacred text. Jewish and Christian readers of subsequent centuries have read their sacred Scriptures in different contexts from that of the original author and audience and have found meanings appropriate to those new contexts. Well and good;...." (Brown, "Historical Biblical Criticism and Ecumenical Discussion," 27).
[14] The PBC document acknowledges this as a potential hazard of the historical critical method: "Concerned above all to establish the meaning of texts by situating them in their original historical context, this method has at times shown itself insufficiently attentive to the dynamic aspect of meaning and to the possibility that meaning can continue to develop" (PBC, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, 134).
[15] Brown, "Historical Biblical Criticism and Ecumenical Discussion," 25.
[16] Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1977), 27.
[17] Brown, "Historical Biblical Criticism and Ecumenical Discussion," 33.
[18] Brown, The Critical Meaning of the Bible, 102.
[19] For such an assessment of Brown’s treatment of the Infancy Narratives, see Msgr. John F. McCarthy, "Regarding the Background of Matthew 2" and M. Robert Mulholland, Jr., "The Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke—Of History, Theology, and Literature."
[20] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today," in Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church, Gen. Ed. Richard John Neuhaus (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 8-9.
[21] ibid., 12.
[22] ibid., 1.
[23] ibid., 10.
[24] "I know that in a few influential positions on the American academic scene the last Bultmannian students are teaching; but for most of the distinguished professors of exegesis in the United States, Bultmann and Dibelius are only components in a much wider scene....Also, on the level of the American Catholic teachers of religion, the situation is different from that in Germany" (Brown, "Historical Biblical Criticism and Ecumenical Discussion," 41).
[25] Brown, commenting on the press conference attended by Ratzinger, is quick to point out that "He encouraged the practitioners of moderate exegesis among whom he generously included me" ("Historical Biblical Criticism and Ecumenical Discussion," 38). Later, he says, "I suspect that little or none of the Cardinal’s criticisms and apprehensions about the over-influence of Enlightenment rationalism could apply to the articles in [the Jerome Biblical Commentary]. However, many a critic of Brown is equally quick to disagree.
[26] Quoted in Henry V. King, "Traditional Catholic Scholars Long Opposed Raymond Brown’s Theories" in The Wanderer (The Wanderer Printing Company: September 10, 1998), 1 and 11.
[27] ibid., 1.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Some Interesting Artifacts

An ancient maniple with an image of the apostle John. A maniple is worn on the wrist as a symbol of the ropes with which Christ was bound and as a sign of perseverance and penitence. I've yet to figure out why the wearing of the maniple has become so rare since 1970.

A classic image of a ciborium.

A rather beat up fifth century ciborium.

A 12th century ciborium.

Part of the 12th century Warwick Ciborium.

Eucharistic Doves II

Friday, August 3, 2007

Eucharistic Doves

It is clear that from the fourth century on the Eucharist was often reserved in a gold or silver dove, sometimes suspended above the altar. The earliest extant evidence of this practice is found in the writings of Tertullian (155–230 AD).

I've collected a few pictures of Eucharistic doves for the pleasure of those who may be interested or edified by this ancient ancestor of the modern tabernacle.

"The Lord Is at Hand": Tracing the History of Christian Eschatological Thought

"Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come."
-- Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians (2 Thess. 2:1-2)


If man’s purchasing habits be any indicator of what excites him, we are certainly experiencing a time of unparalleled interest in the coming of the Lord. The Left Behind series, a collection of apocalyptic[2] novels about life on earth around the time of the rapture and the Tribulation, has sold over 55 million copies. The official website for the series declares it “the fastest-selling adult fiction series ever.” Of the twelve books in the series, the last six have all topped the charts of The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly and the Christian Booksellers Association. Book nine, Desecration, was the best selling novel in the world in 2001.[3] Though the series may be classified as fiction, its authors, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, use them to propagate very real beliefs about the end times and the coming of the Lord. Since, 1995, when Left Behind, the first in the series, was released, LaHaye and Jenkins have been declaring that the Second Coming will take place in the very near future, and that the true Christians will be raptured into heaven, freed from the terror and suffering that will immediately precede this Coming. Yet, such predictions are not unique to our time, and neither are the eschatological views espoused by the Left Behind series. As evidenced by Paul’s plea in his second letter to the Thessalonians, there were even in his day men who were being “quickly shaken” by sensational, end-times prophets.

This then raises several questions: “What exactly did these Christians of Paul’s time believe? What of the successive Christians of the Patristic age? How do their beliefs compare to what is being popularly propagated today regarding the end times? Is today’s presentation of the eschaton truly unique to our time, or do we see roots of this in previous generations?" By answering these questions we can place the current craze within its proper perspective, determine the voice that we should truly follow, and avoid being “quickly shaken” when all manner of “prophets” come to the fore. Since most of the terminology used to describe the end times is strictly particular to the field and thus foreign to many, I have attached an appendix of key terms to aid the reader as we investigate the history of eschatological thought.

Eschatology in Apostolic Times

The verses in the Bible that discuss the coming of the Messiah are quite numerous. With much ground left to cover, we can allow ourselves only a general overview. First, it is important to note that the New Testament writers understood the “end times” to be not just some future period of the Second Coming, but also the very age in which they were living, an age inaugurated by the First Coming, the advent of the Messiah with His Incarnation.[4] In the letter to the Hebrews, we read, “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb 1:1-2). The letter goes on to say, “But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself (9:26b). Furthermore, we see in the account of Pentecost from the Book of Acts that Peter applied Joel’s words about the “last days” to his own day:
But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams….’” (Acts 2:14-17; cf. Joel 2:28-32; emphasis mine).
Much later, Peter will tell us in his first epistle that Jesus “was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake” (1 Pet 1:20). Even when the New Testament writers speak of the “last days” as a future event (cf. 2 Tim 3:1; 2 Pet 3:3), their descriptions can easily be applied to the present age.[5] St. John agrees (1 Jn 2:18), as does Jude (Jude 1:17-18). Essentially, we have been living in the last days since “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). This is an important point because it shapes how these writers also understand the Kingdom of God and the Church.

Now, we see throughout Scripture[6] that it is in the last days, at the coming of the Messiah, that the Kingdom of God is established:
Gen 49:10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.

Isa 9:7 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Jer 23:5-6 "Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: 'The LORD is our righteousness.'

Dan 2:44 And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, nor shall its sovereignty be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand for ever

Mic 4:8 And you, O tower of the flock, hill of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, the former dominion shall come, the kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.

Zech 9:9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass.
From this, we can derive a second important belief of apostolic Christians. They understood this kingdom foretold by the prophets as inaugurated in the time of Christ. He heralded the kingdom with his preaching[7] and instituted it when he left them the Holy Spirit[8] to “guide [them] into all the truth” (Jn 16:13). The believers in Christ knew what was taking place when Our Lord rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. They cried out, saying, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mk 11:10). The apostles knew the kingdom was at hand, for Jesus had explicitly assigned it to them (Lk 22:29-30). The Father transferred His people “from the dominion of darkness” to “the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13-14), and they were grateful for having received it (cf. Heb 12:28). Belief in reception of the kingdom in this life leads to the third and final belief of apostolic Christians: this kingdom, inaugurated in the last days, is forever being realized in the Church.

Jesus preached many parables about his Kingdom, especially in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. He said that it was like a sower’s field (cf. Mt 13: 24), a mustard seed (vs. 31), leaven for bread (vs. 33), a hidden treasure (vs. 44), a fine pearl (vs. 45), and a net (vs. 47). All of these images point to the Church. The Church sows the seed of the gospel, which grows and bears much fruit in the hearts of those who believe. Like a mustard seed, the Church has humble beginnings, yet it has become a great and sturdy tree for all those who seek her shelter. Just as leaven gradually ferments all the dough, so the Church spreads to convert all the nations. Like the treasure and the pearl, the Church is a great find, and one will do anything to have it. Finally, the Church is a net that collects both the good and the bad, which co-exist until their separation “at the close of the age” (vs. 49). The apostles understood all these things (vs. 51), and strengthened with the Spirit they will make the Church these things and much more.

We see the most intimate connection between the Kingdom and the Church in the famous discourse between Jesus and Peter in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel:
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:17-19).
Why would Jesus give the keys of the kingdom to the person he was building His Church upon unless there was some inextricable union between the kingdom and the Church?

Now, believing that the “last days” were inaugurated with the Incarnation, that the kingdom was established in these last days, and that this kingdom is the Church may at first seem irrelevant to a study of eschatological thought. But, as we will soon see, the presuppositions about the Church that a person brings to the Bible shape the very way in which he interprets eschatological events. “The doctrine of the Church …must be carefully examined before eschatology can be understood.”[9]

Eschatology in the Patristic Age

The Early Church Fathers unanimously held to the ecclesiology that has already been mentioned. These beliefs will shape how they understand the role of the Church when the last days find their culmination in the Second Coming of Christ.

A central phenomenon in the events of the Second Coming, or Parousia, is the millennium. Literally “a thousand years,” this period is most explicitly seen in Revelation 20:1-10, and there are many different views concerning it. Some have interpreted the millennium to be a literal period of one-thousand years in which Jesus Christ will reign in a physical kingdom on earth. This view is commonly referred to as millennarianism, or chiliasm. Others understand the millennium to be the Age of the Church, inaugurated at Pentecost (and continuing until He comes again) in which Jesus reigns in heaven, at the right hand of the Father, and on earth through His Church. This view exemplifies amillennialism. Regarding the relation between the Second Coming and this millennium, there are two views: premillennialism and postmillennialism. Adherents of premillennialism believe that Jesus will come first, or “before (pre-) the millennium”, and then establish his one-thousand year reign. Adherents of postmillennialism believe that there will be a time of peace on earth and widespread Christianity and “after (post-) this millennium” our Savior will come. All of this can be quite dizzying (!!) and it makes one wonder: What did the Early Church Fathers believe?

While the Church has traditionally been amillennial (because of its ecclesiology), we do find examples of millennarianism in the Fathers. St. Justin Martyr says, in his response to Trypho’s inquiry regarding the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the gathering of Christians to “rejoice with Christ in the company of the patriarchs and prophets,” that there were many Christians in his day that both agreed and disagreed with it:
“I am not such a wretched person, Trypho, that I would say other than what I think. As I admitted to you before, I and many others are of this opinion, and we believe absolutely that this will happen. But still, I signified to you that there are many Christians of pure and pious faith who do not share this belief.”[10]
Eusebius Pamphilus tells us that “many ecclesiastical writers” believed in an earthly, one-thousand year reign, these writers apparently being influenced by Papias.[11] Olson lists 9 such writers: Barnabas, Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Methodius, Commodianus, and Lactantius.[12]

Justin, in the paragraph previously cited, goes on to say, “I and such other Christians as judge rightly in everything believe that there will be … a thousand years in which Jerusalem will be built up, adorned and enlarged, as the prophets Ezechiel and Isaias and the others declare.” The Montanists were proclaiming that this would happen any day now, and when it did, Jesus would set up his kingdom, the “New Jerusalem” in Phrygia, of Asia Minor.[13] Likewise, Tertullian, in his treatise Against Marcion, confesses, “a kingdom has been promised to us on earth, but before heaven and in another state of existence. It will be after the resurrection for a thousand years in the divinely built city of Jerusalem, let down from heaven, which the Apostle also calls ‘our mother from above.’”[14] Lactantius says, “Truly, when He shall have destroyed injustice and shall have rendered the great judgment, and shall have restored to life all the just who ever were, even from the beginning, He will remain among men for a thousand years, and He will rule them in a most righteous reign.”[15]

The most popular Church Father cited in support of millennarianism is St. Augustine. It is true that in his early works he espoused this view.[16] For example, in Sermon #259, we read:
The eighth day signifies the new life at the end of the world; the seventh day, the future rest of the saints on this earth. For the Lord will reign on earth with His saints, as the Scriptures say, and here He will have His Church, into which no wicked person will enter, separated and cleansed from every contagion of iniquity.[17]
However, we find that later in his life, Augustine retracted this view in favor of the amillennial one, which understands the millennium not as a literal one-thousand year reign of Christ, but as the current Church age, in which Jesus reigns in heaven and on earth. Augustine admits of the change in his City of God:
Those who, because of this passage [Rev 20:1-6] in this book, have suspected that the first resurrection is future and bodily, have been influenced, especially, among other things, by the number of a thousand years, to suppose that it were fitting that among the saints there should be during that time a kind of sabbatism, a holy vacation as it were after the labors of the six thousand years since man was created … This opinion would be somewhat tolerable, if the delights of that Sabbath to be enjoyed by the saints were through the presence of the Lord, of a spiritual kind. For we too were at one time of this opinion[18] [emphasis mine].
However, he says immediately after this that millennarianism is untenable and “only for the carnal”:
But, as they assert that those who then rise again shall enjoy the leisure of immoderate carnal banquets, furnished with an amount of meat and drink such as not only to shock the feeling of the temperate, but even to surpass the measure of credulity itself, such assertions can be believed only by the carnal. They who do believe them are called by the spiritual Chiliasts, which we may literally reproduce by the name Millenarians. It were a tedious process to refute these opinions point by point: we prefer proceeding to show how that passage of Scripture should be understood.[19]
In Ch. 9 of the same book, Augustine articulates what Daley calls Augustine’s “ecclesiological interpretation”[20]:
But while the devil is bound, the saints reign with Christ during the same thousand years, understood in the same way, that is, of the time of His first coming. For, leaving out of account that kingdom concerning which He shall say in the end, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, take possession of the kingdom prepared for you,” the Church could not now be called His kingdom or the kingdom of heaven unless His saints were even now reigning with Him, though in another and far different way; for to His saints He says, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” Certainly it is in this present time that the scribe well instructed in the kingdom of God, and of whom we have already spoken, brings forth from his treasure things new and old.[21]
In the same chapter, Augustine goes on to say:
Therefore the Church even now is the kingdom of Christ, and the kingdom of heaven. Accordingly, even now His saints reign with Him, though otherwise than as they shall reign hereafter; and yet, though the tares grow in the Church along with the wheat, they do not reign with Him. For they reign with Him who do what the apostle says, "If ye be risen with Christ, mind the things which are above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God. Seek those things which are above, not the things which are on the earth." Of such persons he also says that their conversation is in heaven. In fine, they reign with Him who are so in His kingdom that they themselves are His kingdom.[22]
Essentially, we have in Augustine the culmination and the refinement of what the Fathers were gradually coming to understand about the nature of the Church. Instead of waiting for Jesus to establish a new kingdom when he comes again, we instead wait for the fulfillment of the kingdom that he has already established in the Church. Instead of establishing this millennium in a future, one-thousand year period, they instead began to see “one thousand years” as symbolic of the fullness of time in which the Word became flesh in Jesus Christ. They began to see themselves as not just awaiting the “last days” but living in them. These insights, which we have already seen in the New Testament writers, will have a great effect on how they will come to understand the apocalyptical works in the Bible.

Of course, another reason for their rejection of millennarianism was the way in which the majority of the Fathers read scripture. It was not common for the Fathers to read scripture as literally as fundamentalist Protestants do today. It requires a very literal reading of scripture to separate the Church from the Kingdom, and to understand the millennium as a literal one-thousand year reign of Christ on earth. Instead, early Christians tended to focus, at least initially, on an allegorical interpretation of Scripture. Olson tells us this about Origen:
Origen (ca. 185-254), a Scripture scholar from Alexandria, was a strong opponent of chiliasm. Famous for his allegorical interpretations of Scripture, Origen located types and foreshadowings of Christ in nearly every nook and cranny of the Old Testament. He taught that the book of Revelation is highly symbolic and should not be interpreted literally.[23]
Eusebius Pamphilus will use this same approach to scripture in response to millennarianism:
The same author [Papias] presents other accounts as if they had come to him from unwritten tradition, and some strange parables and teachings of the Savior, and some other more mythical accounts. Among them, indeed, he says that there will be a period of about a thousand years after the resurrection of the dead, when the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this earth. I suppose that such ideas came to him through a perverse reading of the apostolic accounts, he not realizing that they had spoken mystically and in figures. For he appears to have been a man of very little intelligence, if one may so peak on the evidence of his words.[24]
Perhaps Theodoret of Cyr asserts it the most plainly:
The Munificent Giver promised that He would give not a perishable nor a transitory enjoyment of good things but an eternal one. For, unlike that of Cerinthus and of those whos views are similar to his, the kingdom of our God and Savior is not to be of this earth, nor circumscribed by a specific time. Those men create for themselves in imagination a period of a thousand years, and luxury that will pass, and other pleasures, and, along with them, sacrifices and Jewish solemnities. As for ourselves, we await the life that knows no growing old.[25]
But it is Augustine who is the definitive voice on the matter. After his interpretation of Daniel and the Apocalypse in City of God, millennarianism would essentially die out altogether. But what about all of these Left Behind books? At what time did Protestantism pick millennarianism back up again? With these questions in mind, we can turn now to the final chapter in our history of eschatology.

Protestant Eschatology: From Darby to Left Behind [26]

John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), an ex-Anglican priest who founded the Plymouth Brethren, is often considered to be one of the most influential proponents of dispensational, premillennial beliefs in America.[27] Although we do see dispensationalism and millennarianism in a few earlier Protestant sects[28], none of them had quite the impact, nor were they as novel in their teaching, as Darby.

As noted in the introduction, a prominent theme of the Left Behind series is the rapture, in which Christians will be “caught up together … to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thes 4: 17) and thus avoid the Great Tribulation, a time of persecution that will befall the world before the Second Coming. In Darby, we find one of its earliest proponents. Around 1830, Darby met Margaret MacDonald, a young girl who claimed to have had a vision about the secret rapture of true believers. Eventually, Darby and his followers would develop a theological system that would propagate this belief. He also believed that immediately after the rapture, the seventieth week of Daniel[29] would be ushered in, which describes the Great Tribulation and the defeat of the Antichrist. After this, Christ will reign on earth for one-thousand years, for the benefit of those among the “left behind” who turned to Christ and were not persuaded by the Antichrist. After the Millennium, Satan will have one last opportunity to win back the world, where he will finally be defeated, launched into the pit for all eternity (cf. Rev 20:9-10). Currie outlines the implications of Darby’s beliefs regarding the Millennium:
Although it is questionable whether Darby himself was even aware of the full ramifications of his theology, his Millennium also forced his followers into a new view of the Church. It meant that the Church was not God’s main plan of redemption, but a parenthetical time—dubbed the “Church age”—that would eventually give way to God’s primary plan: a corporeal reign of the Messiah over the Jews. Jews who came to God in the Millennium would never become a part of the Church. They would be a part of redeemed Israel, which would remain forever distinct from Christ’s Bride.
Soon, other prominent Christians and pastors began to embrace these beliefs and spread them throughout the United States. W. E. Blackstone, Charles Erdman (famous for his Erdman’s Bible Dictionary), and J. Hudson Taylor all championed the cause. C. I. Scofield was particularly influential. His Scofield Reference Bible became the definitive source for a rapturist and dispensational premillennialist perspective on the Bible. Even today, his work is widely read. Moody Bible Institute, Dallas Theological Seminary, and Talbot Seminary all trained future pastors in this perspective, focusing on the rapture as one of the most central messages of the Gospel.

Before long, a whole host of prophecy preachers began declaring the imminent return of Christ. Scofield himself claimed that World War I marked the beginning of Armageddon. Oswald J. Smith, a Canadian missionary and pastor, and founder of the People’s Church, predicted that the Armageddon would take place before 1933. Blackstone posited 1934 or ’35. American was soon becoming a frenzy of end-times speculation.

With the Second World War came even more predictions of the end. Stalin was the obvious choice for Antichrist, and the Soviet Union, his evil empire. Dan Gilbert proclaimed in his work on the subject that “Stalin is now in the process of building the very Empire outlined in Ezekiel 38-39.”[30] The Christian periodical Pentecostal Evangel declared, “that we are nearing the great battle of Armageddon.”[31] Billy Graham even got involved, claiming in a 1950 issue of U. S. News and World Report that in “two years it’s all going to be over.” He would make similar predictions in 1984 and 1995.

A tremendous contribution in spreading the rapture doctrine and end-times fever in America came in 1970, when Hal Lindsey wrote The Late Great Planet Earth. One of the most sensational works of the genre, it became the best-selling work of the decade, selling over thirty-five million copies.[32] It held all of the popular dispensational themes: the restoration of Israel as a nation, the bible as prophetic of world events (cf. the apostasy of mainline Churches, the collapse of morality in Western culture, the Cold War, natural disasters, etc.), predictions of the end of the world (he thought it would come in the 1980’s), and of course, the rapture. “While Lindsey broke no new theological ground, his confident linking of obscure and difficult passages of Scripture to modern-day events and global situations endeared him to millions of readers.”[33] I doubt if anyone ever imagined that his work would be eclipsed … that is, until a certain series of books threatened to leave it behind.

As noted in the Introduction, the Left Behind series[34] has already sold at least 55 million copies, easily eclipsing Lindsey’s work. It has essentially turned into an industry, spawning a parallel series for kids, audio books, picture books, calendars, clothing, Left Behind: The Movie (starring the oh-so-“painful” Kirk Cameron), the Tim LaHaye Prophecy Study Bible, and online “Readers Groups” where fans can discuss the series.[35] Its impact on our culture cannot be exaggerated.

What is perhaps most unique about this series is that it takes the events of the Book of Revelation and renders them in a fictional narrative, following the lives of several characters in the aftermath of the rapture.[36] But, what makes these books like their predecessors is the message: the end is coming soon, prepare for the rapture, the Great Tribulation, and the Millennial reign of Christ. “In essence, the books are ‘tract novels’, stories wrapped around huge chunks of blatant proselytizing.” [37]

After purveying the history of this message, an intriguing question comes to mind: Why has this rapture become a “trap”[38] for so many people? Why are the beliefs found in these books held by so many Christians, and the stylized packaging of these beliefs enjoyed by so many people? Carl Olson gives us the following assessment:
For Christians trying to make sense of the world in light of Scripture, popular dispensationalism offers a convenient vision and an air-tight solution. Matching up current events to passages of Scripture fulfills both the desire to understand the Bible better and to make sense of what is happening around the globe. It assures people that the bible is true and historically accurate without any need to grapple with the complex challenges of the Bible. It also frees the reader from any sense of obligation to improve or change significantly the culture, the arts, the political order, or any other aspect of society. The impending end of the world makes such pursuits trivial, even ridiculous—what matters is saving souls from the approaching tribulation. The ability of popular dispensationalists to frighten people with talk about imminent disaster and to link current events to Scripture is what will determine the longevity of the movement.[39]
However alluring it may be, as Catholics we must cling to the Church, the sure and steady guide when “every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14) attempts to whisk us away. We have seen what Scripture and the Early Church Fathers can teach us about the end times, and how the beliefs of this craze compare to our sure rules of faith. Even when the earlier Fathers did believe in a literal Millennium, they still did not believe in dispensations, a pretribulational rapture, or a radical distinction between Israel and the Church. Instead they held an enduring view of the Church as the presence of Christ until He comes again in glory. So, we stand with this Church, and we hope that when we meet Him face to face, he will be able to say, “well done, good and faithful servant” (Mt 25:21).
- - -
[1] Phil 4:5 (RSVCE) “Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand.”
[2] all italicized terms can be found in the appendix.
[3] all sales figures and ratings are from the official website of the series,
[4] “For the Catholic, adequate answers to these questions start with the understanding that the terms ‘end times’ and ‘last days’ refer not only to the end of time at some future date, but equally—even especially—to the last two thousand years. Scripture teaches that it was the Incarnation, the entrance of God into time and space, in the person of Jesus Christ, that marked the start of the end times and the last days” (Carl Olson, Will Catholics Be Left Behind?: A Catholic Critique of the Rapture and Today’s Prophecy Preachers [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003], p. 27).
[5] “So, we can observe that when a prophecy is fulfilled, that fulfilling event may itself become a prophecy, pointing to another, more final and complete fulfillment. … To put it succinctly, history can become prophecy” (David B. Currie, Rapture: The End-Times Error that Leaves the Bible Behind [Manchester, NH: Sophia Press, 2003], 62). The Navarre Bible uses this rule for interpreting bible prophecy: “‘The last days’: strictly speaking, this means the time immediately prior to the second coming of our Lord; but because it has not been revealed to us exactly when that will be (cf. Mt 24:3ff), the ‘last days’ can be taken to mean the entire period between the Incarnation (cf. Heb 1:2) and our Lord’s coming in glory: these are the times when the vices mentioned will afflict mankind” (Jose Maria Casciaro, General Editor, “The Second Letter of Paul to Timothy [2 Tim 3:1-5]”, The Navarre Bible: The Letters of Saint Paul [Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005], 599).
[6] cf. 1 Chron 17:12,14; Psa 45:6; 89:3-4; 103:19; 145:10-13; 2 Sam 7:12-16; Isa 11:1-16; 49:1-26; Jer 33:15-18; Dan 4:17; 7:13-14,18,22,27; 12:11-12; Zech 14:4-9.
[7] Matthew tells us, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Mt 4:17), and elsewhere: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Mt 12:28). In Luke, Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Lk 17:20-21).
[8] “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Sama'ria and to the end of the earth’ (Acts 1:6-8). This will be fulfilled at Pentecost (cf. 2:14-26).
[9] John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), 221, cited in Olson, 208.
[10] Dialogue with the Jew Trypho, ch. 80; in William A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers: Vol. 1 (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1970), 61, hereafter referred to as “Jurgens1.”
[11] History of the Church, bk. 3, ch. 39; in Jurgens1, 294.
[12] Olson, 118.
[13] ibid., 143.
[14] Against Marcion, bk. 3, ch. 24; in Jurgens1, 139.
[15] The Divine Institutions, bk. 7, ch. 24; in Jurgens1, 270
[16] “The millennium, for the early Augustine is still not eternity but a part of history, ‘the seventh and last period of this age’” (Brian E. Daley, S.J., The Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991], 133); cited in Olson, 138.
[17] Sermons, #259, ch. 2; in William A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers: Vol. 3 (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1979), 31; hereafter referred to as “Jurgens3”
[18] City of God, bk. 20, ch. 7; in Jurgens3, 103-104.
[19] City of God, bk. 20, ch. 7; online at:
[20] Daley, 133.
[21] City of God, bk. 20, ch. 9; cited in Olson, 139.
[22] cited in Olson, 139, footnote 57.
[23] Olson, 144.
[24] History of the Church, bk. 3, ch. 39; in Jurgens1, 294.

[25] Compendium of Heretics’ Fables, bk. 5, ch. 21; in Jurgens3, 245.
[26] my account of the history of Protestant eschatology is taken primarily from David B. Currie, Rapture: The End-Times Error that Leaves the Bible Behind (Manchester, NH: Sophia Press, 2003), 14-23, unless otherwise noted. For a more exhaustive history of Protestant eschatology, see Olson, chapters 5 and 6.
[27] see, for example, Currie, 14; Olson, 162; Thigpen, 144.

[28] “The more anarchistic Protestants, such as the Anabaptists, made an imminent Millennium a centerpiece of their theology, taking their cue from the radical Taborites and Hussites of a century earlier … In the mid-seventeenth century, the Fifth Monarchy Men arose in England. They believed that the four kingdoms of Daniel were about to be replaced by the fifth kingdom of Daniel—Christ’s Millennium. They sought to bring about Christ’s Return through ‘fire and sword’ and set up a supreme council called the ‘Synhedrin’” (Currie, 10 and 12).
[29] “Seventy weeks of years are decreed concerning your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place. Know therefore and understand that from the going forth of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks. Then for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time. And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off, and shall have nothing; and the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war; desolations are decreed. And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week; and for half of the week he shall cause sacrifice and offering to cease; and upon the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator” (Dan 9:24-27).
[30] Will Russia Invade Palestine? Russia in the Light of Prophecy (Los Angeles: Jewish Hope Publishing House, 1944).
[31] Pentecostal Evangel, 1949.

[32] Olson, 188.
[33] Olson, 189
[34] There are at present 15 novels in the series: 1. Left Behind (1995), 2. Tribulation Force (1996), 3. Nicolae (1997), 4. Soul Harvest (1998), 5. Apollyon (1999), 6. Assassins (1999), 7. The Indwelling, 8. The Mark (2000), 9. Desecration (2001), 10. The Remnant (2002), 11. Armageddon (2003), 12. Glorious Appearing (2004), 13. The Rising (2005), 14. The Regime (2006), The Rapture (a prequel, 2006).
[35] Olson, 51.

[36] ibid., 55.
[37] Olson, 56.
[38] borrowing from the title of Paul Thigpen’s work on the subject, The Rapture Trap: A Catholic Response to “End Times” Fever (Ascension Press, 2001).

[39] Olson, 203.