Volume 4: Number 8

September 17, 2013

Wonder Volume 4: Number 8

“Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations”

Reflections on Church History

In this month’s edition of Wonder four authors examine various aspects of what we commonly refer to as “Church History” – a curious, and surprisingly difficult intersection of faith, memory, and logical accounting of historical information. From topics such as “The Historical Jesus,” to a review of questions posed over a half-century ago by Fr Georges Florovsky, and the challenges faced by any Christian who reflects on Church history, to some incisive critiques on our personal handling of history, a substantial bit of ground has been covered. As is often our goal with such topics, our authors have posed perhaps as many questions as they have answered, and we hope that their words will lead you to a critical, faithful reflection on a topic that we so often accept as simplistic or at least straightforward: Church History.

A God of our Own Contrivance

September 17, 2013


Fr John Cox


Pick any online news source and randomly select an article about Christianity. Now, skip to the comments section. If you’ve done this before you know to expect some variation on the following:*

Sincere Granny: What a wonderful article. I’ve been a Christian for 50 years and I can tell you the author is telling the truth!

Snarky Girl: Thankfully, it’s mostly old people who still believe in angry invisible people living in the sky. It’s a new day, granny!

Zealot Boy: @snarkygirl: You’ll believe too when you’re on your face before God at the Great White Throne judgement! Accept Jesus as your savior or face eternity in hell! #turnorburn

Condescending Man: LMAO! Hey ZB, can you even prove Jesus existed?

*Punctuation and grammar results may vary

What Zealot Boy will often do next is try to answer that challenge; to prove that Jesus did exist. What he almost never does is challenge the question. But he should. The search for the “historical Jesus” was all the fashion in 20th century theology. Scholars enamored of the German theologian Adolf Harnack set out to “rediscover” Christianity using historical-critical methodologies in all the relevant disciplines. Other scholars of a more “traditional” mind set out to defend old-fashioned Christianity using the same disciplines. The result was a lot of tenured faculty and an endless debate over the interpretation of data. This is a warning in itself but the real mistake among the defenders of old-fashioned Christianity was in accepting the terms of the debate in the first place. Proving the historical Jesus for the sake of a skeptical audience is a lose-lose endeavor for the Christian for two reasons.

1. You are probably going to lose even if you win. Why? Because most of the time the motives of the questioner aren’t honest. The movie, To Kill A Mockingbird, evokes this truth quite nicely. Throughout the film we hope that Atticus Finch will be successful in convincing a white, Alabama jury of his black client’s innocence. He does his job convincingly but the jury finds Tom Robinson guilty anyway. The men on the jury weren’t interested in the truth. They had already decided how this was going to end.

In this there is an echo of an older, sadder story:[Then] Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face… Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”… So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him. (John 11:43-49, 12:9-11)

This story serves as an example of unfortunate truth we all have to come to terms with eventually: people tend to believe what they want to believe. When truth, integrity, or any other virtue collides with desire, desire is almost always going to win. So when someone demands you prove Jesus existed you can be pretty sure they’re not going to change their mind even if you are successful. But what if they do?


2. If you are successful in persuading someone that Jesus did exist, what have you persuaded them of? You have convinced them that in ancient Palestine there lived a Galilean Jew named Jesus who had a brief career as an itinerant teacher, who claimed to be the son of the Jewish God, and was unceremoniously executed for this audacity by the local Roman government at the behest of the Jewish religious leaders. You have convinced them of Jesus the man – Jesus as a historical fact among the facts of the world. What you have not convinced them of is that Jesus is also the Son of God. Why not? Because it is logically impossible. To demonstrate a fact is to identify some subset of the world which itself can be defined as the totality of facts.[1] The Christian God revealed in Jesus the God-man is not only present within the world, and thereby a fact of it, but also the Creator of the world, and therefore other than it as a potter is other than the cup he makes. In the anaphora prayer we say our God is “ineffable” – not able to be exhaustively described by human language – and “inconceivable” – beyond our comprehension. These assertions render any successful demonstration of the historic Jesus a pyrrhic victory. Any God that can be demonstrated, that fits inside the definition of the world is not the Christian God but a god of our own contrivance. It is not worth getting out of bed on Sunday for such a god.

So the next time someone asks you to prove your God, challenge the question. What good is a factual god bound within this prosaic finitude? The only God worth believing is one who is within and without; a divine alchemist who knows what it is like to be lead but can also change lead into gold.

[1]  “The world is all that is the case. The world is the totality of facts and not of things.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Proposition 1.

A Few Thoughts on the Subject of Church History

September 17, 2013

Simeon A Morbey

Church history is an odd subject. It can be a controversial subject. It is definitely a confusing subject. I don’t write this piece to offer any solutions or radical theories. I write to offer some thoughts on church history. I came upon these thoughts while walking along a beach, and, doubtless, they could stand some polishing.


Why is Church History so uniquely controversial?

In my opinion, the source of the oddity, controversy and confusion mentioned above can be seen in the very phrase “church history”.  It is a funny phrase, blending two different things together: the term “church” and the term “history”. History is one sort of thing while church is another. On the one hand, history is an academic discipline with all the various theories and professionalisms that such disciplines have. It requires calm reflection on past events so that we might understand them better. On the other hand, the Church is the bride of Christ. She requires us to focus on Christ so that we might attain salvation through Him.  These are different in kind. Furthermore, understanding past events and the attainment of salvation have two very different operating principles, for lack of a better term. To ensure the best understanding of past events, the historian needs to be allowed to freely inquire into those events. I don’t think that many Christians would describe free inquiry as a necessary part of attaining salvation. Faith and good works are much more important. Thus, the church historian finds herself grappling with salvation and free inquiry. Will her work tend toward the best understanding of events or toward salvation? Or can she do both? Are salvation and free inquiry mutually exclusive? Or even antagonistic? How uncomfortable would that be?


Is there a way past the tension between ‘Church’ and ‘history’?

The differences between history and church discussed above remind me of the argument about the tension between Jerusalem and Athens, between faith and philosophy.  Proponents of this famous argument say that faith and philosophy are heterogeneous elements, ultimately incompatible with each other. They say that both the Bible and philosophy assert that there is one thing needful for human beings but disagree on what that thing is. According to the Bible, the one needful thing is obedient the love of God.  According to philosophy, the one thing needful is free inquiry. On this theory, the church historian is in an awkward position. Her theme is the church and her medium is free inquiry. The incompatibility of salvation and free inquiry necessarily means that her work will favor one or the other. I suspect that this favoring of free inquiry or salvation explains the spectrum of church histories: books on the historical Jesus at one end to biography at the other. In my experience, books on the historical Jesus or incorrect translations of canonical texts do not carry much weight when it comes to the validity of religious beliefs.  It’s not that books on the historical Jesus or translations are not interesting; it’s just that they often feel beside the point. The type of historical books that do more to help my religious belief is biography. Perhaps the latest example of such a book is the Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov’s Everyday Saints.[1] What does this differentiation mean, if it exists at all? Perhaps it points to the importance what the historian intends her project to do. Does she intend her historical project to a work of philosophy or a work of faith? What is the point of church history?


What challenges facing the post-modern Church historian?

One major problem facing the church historian is the contemporary, post-modern understanding of history itself. Post-modern relativism places everything an historian writes into a meta-narrative. It is this meta-narrative that truly counts. It drives the content of the historian’s writing. Moreover, an historian’s meta-narrative is uniquely hers. Thus, history unhappily, unhelpfully collapses into autobiography.  History itself has become a problem. With this in mind, one can be forgiven for asking, “what is the point? And, really, that is the important question for the church historian. What is the point of church history? My opinion is that church history should function first and foremost as the biography of the church. As Orthodox Christians we are part of a large, far-flung family whose origins go back to Christ.  The main goal of the church historian should be to tell the story of that family and it’s relations with God. A good church historian will use this story to help us to better understand ourselves and our relationship to God. On this account, church history appears to be more like an exercise of faith than of free inquiry. Perhaps deciding that church history is a theological discipline rather than a philosophical one might be a way to start clearing up the oddity, controversy, and confusion over church history. Wait, is that radical?

[1] Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunev, Everyday Saints and Other Stories. Julian Henry Lowenfeld, transl. (Dallas: Pokrov Publications, 2012).

Our History

September 17, 2013

Andrew Boyd

Many would agree with me that one of our Church’s greatest assets is its history. We are members of true faith, the one, continuous and complete expression of the Church laid down by Christ and the Apostles. We celebrate our history daily in our liturgical cycles, remembering saints and events in our hymns and readings. We’re rightly proud of where our Church has been and what it has gathered up along the way. Observing a normal Divine Liturgy in a typical OCA parish you’ll see signs of ancient Alexandria, Syria, and Constantinople, Medieval Byzantium, the Russian Empire, and Native Alaska.  As rich as our history is, in this sinful world, like anything, it can become distorted and an idol that distracts from God.

People often are drawn to our faith precisely because it is ancient, timeless, other-wordly. Groups of scholars study our history, the uninitiated admire our icons and architecture, students learn of our mighty triumphs and spectacular defeats. In the midst of this richness, it is all too easy to lose God, Christ, and the Good News proclaimed by him.

"our history is our department store"

Our history is our department store, allowing us to pick out which identity fits and looks best. Today I will be a Paleologian Byzantine, shouting in the marketplace against the coming Muslims and the impious emperor. Tomorrow, I will see if being an 19th century Russian fits, protesting the impending freedom of the serfs and deriding the heretics and the Catholics.


Our history is our museum. Why have a Church, living and active, that challenges me to repentance and love for God and neighbor when I can have a museum? Museums are dusty and quiet and the exhibits don’t often change. Nothing will threaten me there. I can control a museum. A museum won’t make me change anything about myself.

Our history is a safe deposit box, a storage space for precious jewels. They grow more and more valuable in our minds as we keep them hidden away from the public, from perceived thieves who would apparently tarnish their value with their unworthy hands. We become like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, warped by solitary greed, keeping our faith locked up in its own history, just for the worthy.

Our history is a library, full of quotes taken out of context that can prove my opinions, win fights on facebook, and shame people I disagree with. I can bury myself in a book instead of meeting Christ in a person. I can retreat from the world into the Church, instead of following the One who gave himself “for the life of the World and its salvation.”

"I can retreat from the world into the church"

But such a retreat is only an illusion, because our history is the history of our salvation. Our history is the Gospel, if looked at through the lens of faith in Christ, and not through the lens of our own fears and insecurities. Our history is the proof of God’s constant, loving presence in the World, the proof that an active God loves and forgives us, and that his followers are capable both of sinful behavior, and of imaging Him to the world through heroic acts of mercy, compassion, and witness.

Our history is our strength, when it is used to preach the Gospel of the coming Kingdom of the Crucified Christ, when all history will end, and not when it is used to justify the status quo. Our history is not static, because our God is not static. It is the beautiful, dynamic, responsive, preaching of the incredible dispensation of Jesus Christ our Lord, the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Christ reaching out to Adam and Eve in Hades

The Predicament of the Church Historian, Reconsidered

September 17, 2013


Harrison Russin

I happened across some high school friends this summer at a concert in my home town. Knowing I had recently “mastered divinity,” they embarked on a lightning round of theological questions, questions dribbling inside believers and non-believers alike. “So, I’ve been wondering: is there any actual proof for the existence of Jesus from his lifetime?” Though I could sense their regardless insouciance to my answer, I offered an honest “no, there isn’t.” As several Orthodox preachers point out, we only know one thing written about Jesus during his lifetime: the sign above the cross, declaiming “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (John 19:19).P46mss

My friends were naturally surprised. Christians usually fight, tooth and nail, to uphold the historicity of Jesus. How could I so easily betray a critical element of Christian faith? I wasn’t conceding anything.  Rather, I’m alluding to a more fundamental problem of Christian belief: how do we know anything has happened historically? Fr Georges Florovsky wrote about this historiographical issue on several occasions, perhaps most notably in his essay “The Predicament of the Christian Historian.” He gives us the problematic rather bluntly: “The knowledge of the past is necessarily indirect and inferential. It is always an interpretation.

florovsky at harvardFlorovsky isn’t negating historical importance, or subjectivizing the Christ of History. He is rather reorienting our historical frame of reference and goal away from knowledge and toward salvation. For Christians, that interpretation is always Christ, in his most public and obvious (positive) form—crucified, dead; but that interpretation is also in the least public and obvious (negative) form—“He is not here; He is risen.” (Luke 24:6) That interpretation is always the Christ who leads us to salvation, to at-one-ment, to the grace of the Holy Spirit. Christian history engenders paradox. For Christians, or at least for Orthodox, the paradox is that Christ is both the revealer of the gospel, and the content of it; He is both our guide and our goal The earliest Christian writings show this paradox starkly. As Fr John Breck so forcefully argues in his article reprinted in the August 2013 Wonder, Paul’s gospel is the gospel, albeit in a different form and genre. Chronologically speaking, the four “canonical” gospels appear only after Paul had “interpreted” Jesus as the crucified Messiah. Whenever we hear the gospel read in church, to this day, the introduction is always that we may hear the gospel, according to St John (or one of the other evangelists); that is, we are acknowledging the interpretation of that particular fact, the fact of the Crucified and Risen Messiah. The moment we claim that, we are already engaging in interpretation. The canonical gospels are our starting point, but we are constantly expanding outward, preaching the gospel and teaching all nations (Mat 28:19-20). This spinning-out resembles the Jewish tradition of midrash: a text at the center, surrounded by layers and layers of commentary. In our case, the “text” is Jesus, the Son of God, crucified and risen. Around that revolves every aspect of Christian history. But the purpose of any Christian historical fact is to bring us to God, to lead us toward repentance (a natural outgrowth of our awareness of God’s holiness). Any Christian history intends to lead us to God (cf. John 20:30-31: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”).

This cycle, our “midrash,” never ends (cf. John 21:25: “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”). Canonically speaking, the Church has capped our textual expression with the four gospels (a shape most scholars argue was cogent as early as the end of the first century). But we’ve never stopped there. Our own biographies begin to take the shape of the life of Christ. There are so many great, classical examples from which to choose. St Athanasius’ Life of Anthony the Great, in which Anthony travels to the desert in order to make war with the demons is one example. St Augustine’s Confessions, in which he realizes the extent to which God had always been acting in his life, is another. Christian art in general; music in church is an interpretation of the gospel. And iconography in particular is perhaps the most notable example. We’ve even dared to change that one thing written about Jesus during his lifetime, and interpret it in terms of the gospel. Most Byzantine-style icons will not say “King of the Jews” over the cross. Rather, we read “The King of Glory.” We are hardly denying the historical facticity of Christ by changing these words. Instead we are bringing them to us, interpreting in one further step the meaning and relevance of Jesus’ self-emptying (cf. Philippians 2:7-11: “He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”)

The whole reason for our creation is to reach God. The purpose of historical truth leads us to a wider awareness that God therefore gives us everything we need in order to reach Him; and indeed, everything is at our disposal. Basil the Great makes this point clearly in the Hexaemeron sermons. The earth, he says, was invisible because “man, the spectator of creation, did not yet exist” (Sermon II). In other words, the earth is nothing without people to see it; and the historical facticity of Jesus means nothing without Christians to interpret it, to live it, to worship it.

Volume 4: Number 8 Authors and Contributors

September 17, 2013

Priest John Cox is Priest-in-Charge at Dormition of the Theotokos Orthodox Church (OCA) in Norfolk, VA. He is originally from Knoxville, TN where he was brought into Orthodoxy at St. George Greek Orthodox Church.  Fr John is a 2011 graduate of Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, a husband, and father of four. 

Mr Simeon A Morbey is from Minneapolis, MN where he is a partner in the law firm of Morbey & Olsen, PLLP. He attends St Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral in northeast Minneapolis.

Mr Andrew Boyd is the Director of Youth, Young Adult, and Campus Ministry for the Orthodox Church in America. He is a graduate of the University of Connecticut’s School of Business and the Master’s of Divinity program at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary. He works in corporate communications in New York City.

Mr Harrison Russin is from the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania, and is a recent graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary,holding a Master of Divinity.  Harrison is currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Duke University in Durham, NC.