That the Church of Christ May Be Shown to be One

April 22, 2012

What is the principle of unity in the Church? How are we to understand Christ’s words to St. Peter: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”? (Matthew 16:18) St. Cyprian of Carthage (about 250 AD) explains how this unity of the Church is held together:

If anyone considers and examines these things, there is no  need of a lengthy discussion and arguments. Proof for faith is easy in a brief statement of the truth.

The Lord speaks to Peter:

‘I say to you,’ He says, ‘you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven.’ (Matthew 16:18,19)

Upon him, being one, He builds His Church, and although after His resurrection He bestows equal power upon all the Apostles, and says: ‘As the Father has sent me, I also send you. Receive the Holy Spirit: if you forgive the sins of anyone, they will be forgiven him; if you retain the sins of anyone, they will be retained,’ (John 20:21-23) yet that He might display unity, He established by His authority the origin of the same unity as beginning from one.

Surely the rest of the Apostles also were that which Peter was, endowed with an equal partnership of office and of power, but the beginning proceeds from unity, that the Church of Christ may be shown to be one.

This one Church, also, the Holy Spirit in the Canticle of Canticles designates in the person of the Lord and says: ‘One is my dove, my perfect one is but one, she is the only one of her mother, the chosen one of her that bore her.’ (Canticles 6:8)

Does he who does not hold this unity think that he holds the faith? Does he who strives against the Church and resists her think that he is in the Church, when too the blessed Apostle Paul teaches this same thing and sets forth the sacrament of unity saying: ‘One body and one Spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God’? (Cf. Eph: 4:4-6)

This unity we ought to hold firmly and defend, especially we bishops who watch over the Church, that we may prove that also the episcopate itself is one and undivided. Let no one deceive the brotherhood by lying; let no one corrupt the faith by a perfidious prevarication of the truth.

The episcopate is one, the parts of which are held together by the individual bishops. The Church is one which with increasing fecundity extend far and wide into the multitude, just as the rays of the sun are many but the light is one, and the branches of the tree are many but the strength is one founded in its tenacious root, and, when many streams flow from one source, although a multiplicity of waters seems to have been diffused from the abundance of the overflowing supply nevertheless unity is preserved in their origin. Take away a ray of light from the body of the sun, its unity does not take on any division of its light; break a branch from a tree, the branch thus broken will not be able to bud; cut off a stream from its source, the stream thus cut off dries up.

Thus too the Church bathed in the light of the Lord projects its rays over the whole world, yet there is one light which is diffused everywhere, and the unity of the body is not separated. She extends her branches over the whole earth in fruitful abundance; she extends her richly flowing streams far and wide; yet her head is one, and her source is one, and she is the one mother copious in the results of her fruitfulness. By her womb we are born; by her milk we are nourished; by her spirit we are animated. [Chapters 4 and 5 of The Unity of the Church by St. Cyprian of Carthage.  Text here.]

According to St. Cyprian, the unity of the Church is seen in Christ’s promise to St. Peter. He says: “Upon him [Peter], being one, He builds His Church.” St. Cyprian then points out the other Apostles received equal power:  “after His resurrection He bestows equal power upon all the Apostles.” Still, even though “the rest of the Apostles also were that which Peter was, endowed with an equal partnership of office and of power,” the first promise was to St. Peter. St. Cyprian explains this means “the beginning proceeds from unity, that the Church of Christ may be shown to be one.”

What is this principle of unity, seen in Christ’s promise to St. Peter, according to St. Cyprian? How does it relate to the “equal power” given to the other Apostles? Re-read his words from above where he gives his explanation:

This unity we ought to hold firmly and defend, especially we bishops who watch over the Church, that we may prove that also the episcopate itself is one and undivided. Let no one deceive the brotherhood by lying; let no one corrupt the faith by a perfidious prevarication of the truth.

The episcopate is one, the parts of which are held together by the individual bishops. The Church is one which with increasing fecundity extend far and wide into the multitude, just as the rays of the sun are many but the light is one…

Thus, according to St. Cyprian, the unity of the Church is expressed by a single episcopate (the collective body of all Bishops of the Church, represented by St. Peter) even though there are many Bishops (heirs of the Apostles) in different locations.

For a brief commentary on this passage, see His Broken Body by Fr. Laurent Cleenewerck, pp 81-83. This post greatly expands on a similar posting from earlier.


Fr. John Behr: The Shocking Truth About Christian Orthodoxy

April 8, 2012

We’re constantly hearing about reconstructions of the life of Christ or of early Christianity — where we are told “the real truth” about Jesus and the early Church. Fr. John Behr, dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary delivers an incisive critique of these views in a lecture given at Augustine College last month:


St John Damascene on What Can Be Known About God

January 7, 2011

Now, one who would speak or hear about God should
know beyond any doubt that in what concerns theology
and the Dispensation [the term commonly used for the
Incarnation by the Greek Fathers] not all things are inexpressible and
not all are capable of expression, and neither are all things
unknowable nor are they all knowable. That which can
be known is one thing, whereas that which can be said is
another, just as it is one thing to speak and another to know.
Furthermore, many of those things about God which are not
clearly perceived cannot be fittingly described, so that we
are obliged to express in human terms things which transcend
the human order. Thus, for example, in speaking about God
we attribute to Him sleep, anger, indifference, hands and
feet, and the alike.

Now, we both know and confess that God is without
beginning and without end, everlasting and eternal, uncreated,
unchangeable, inalterable, simple, uncompounded, incorpo-
real, invisible, impalpable, uncircumscribed, unlimited, incom-
prehensible, uncontained, unfathomable, good, just, the maker
of all created things, all-powerful, all-ruling, all-seeing, the
provider, the sovereign, and the judge of all. We furthermore
know and confess that God is one, that is to say, one sub-
stance, and that He is both understood to be and is in three
Persons I mean the Father and the Son and the Holy
Spirit and that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit
are one in all things save in the being unbegotten, the being
begotten, and the procession. We also know and confess
that for our salvation the Word of God through the bowels
of His mercy, by the good pleasure of the Father and with
the co-operation of the All-Holy Spirit, was conceived with-
out seed and chastely begotten of the holy Virgin and
Mother of God, Mary, by the Holy Spirit and of her became
perfect man; and that He is perfect God and at the same
time perfect man, being of two natures, the divinity and
the humanity, and in two intellectual natures endowed
with will and operation and liberty or, to put it simply,
perfect in accordance with the definition and principle
befitting each, the divinity, I mean, and the humanity, but
with one compound hypostasis. And we know and confess
that He hungered and thirsted and was weary, and that He
was crucified, and that for three days He suffered death
and the tomb, and that He returned into heaven whence
He had come to us and whence He will come back to us at
a later time. To all this holy Scripture and all the company
of the saints bear witness.

But what the substance of God is, or how it is in all things,
or how the only-begotten Son, who was God, emptied Him-
self out and became man from a virgin’s blood, being formed
by another law that transcended nature, or how He walked
dry-shod upon the waters, we neither understand nor can
say. And so it is impossible either to say or fully to under-
stand anything about God beyond what has been divinely
proclaimed to us, whether told or revealed, by the sacred
declarations of the Old and New Testaments.

St. John Damascene, Chapter 2 of  An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith


The Nativity of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ

December 2, 2010

Selections from the writings of the Church Fathers and from the liturgical hymns on the Nativity of Christ.

The quotes from the Church Fathers are from (see full quotations below):
Hymn 1 on the Nativity of our Lord in the Flesh by St. Ephraim of Syria
Homily XXI of St. Leo the Great
Homily on Christmas Morning by St. John Chrysostom

In this night of reconcilement let no man be wroth or gloomy! in this night that stills all, none that threatens or disturbs!  This night belongs to the sweet One; bitter or harsh be in it none!  In this night that is the meek One’s, high or haughty be in it none!  In this day of pardoning let us not exact trespasses!  In this day of gladnesses let us not spread sadnesses!  In this day so sweet, let us not be harsh!  In this day of peaceful rest, let us not be wrathful in it!  In this day when God came to sinners, let not the righteous be in his mind uplifted over sinner!  In this day in which there came the Lord of all unto the servants, let masters too condescend to their servants lovingly!  In this day in which the Rich became poor for our sakes, let the rich man make the poor man share with him at his table.  On this day to us came forth the Gift, although we asked it not!  Let us therefore bestow alms on them that cry and beg of us.  This is the day that opened for us a gate on high to our prayers.  Let us open also gates to supplicants that have transgressed, and of us have asked [forgiveness.]  To-day the Lord of nature was against His nature changed; let it not to us be irksome to turn our evil wills.  Fixed in nature is the body; great or less it cannot become:  but the will has such dominion, it can grow to any measure.  To-day Godhead sealed itself upon Manhood, that so with the Godhead’s stamp Manhood might be adorned. – St. Ephraim of Syria, Hymn 1 on the Nativity   [Source]

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Therefore the Word of God, Himself God, the Son of God who in the beginning was with God, through whom all things were made and without whom was nothing made” (John 1.1-3), with the purpose of delivering man from eternal death, became man: so bending Himself to take on Him our humility without decrease in His own majesty, that remaining what He was and assuming what He was not, He might unite the true form of a slave to that form in which He is equal to God the Father, and join both natures together by such a compact that the lower should not be swallowed up in its exaltation nor the higher impaired by its new associate. Without detriment therefore to the properties of either substance which then came together in one person, majesty took on humility, strength weakness, eternity mortality: and for the paying off of the debt, belonging to our condition, inviolable nature was united with possible nature, and true God and true man were combined to form one Lord, so that, as suited the needs of our case, one and the same Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, could both die with the one and rise again with the other.

Rightly therefore did the birth of our Salvation impart no corruption to the Virgin’s purity, because the bearing of the Truth was the keeping of honour. Such then beloved was the nativity which became the Power of God and the Wisdom of God even Christ, whereby He might be one with us in manhood and surpass us in Godhead. For unless He were true God, He would not bring us a remedy, unless He were true Man, He would not give us an example. Therefore the exulting angel’s song when the Lord was born is this, Glory to God in the Highest, and their message, peace on earth to men of good will (Luke 2.14). For they see that the heavenly Jerusalem is being built up out of all the nations of the world: and over that indescribable work of the Divine love how ought the humbleness of men to rejoice, when the joy of the lofty angels is so great? – St. Leo the Great, Homily 21, section 2   [Source]

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Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been ‘in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things arc nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star….

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost, we offer all praise, now and for ever. Amen. – St. John Chrysostom, “Homily on Christmas Morning”  [Source pages 115, 117]

H/T: Pious Fabrications. Many thanks to David Withun for providing the quotations from the Church Fathers.