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So I'm finally posting my first thoughts in response to Schmemann. This is more of a meta-response and meta-analysis, without dealing in depth with the specifics of his book just yet. And that will have to wait a bit, as my colleague Bradley will be using him to write a paper on just this subject. You should probably watch Tippecanoe and Tyler Too! for interesting discussion of these matters.

As I mentioned in my first post on this, I encountered this whole discussion of holiness in reading Alexander Schmemann’s Introduction to Liturgical Theology. He too drew a pretty sharp distinction between the two conceptions, proving that I hadn’t been imagining the distinction or blowing it out of proportion. He called them two different forms of “liturgical piety” and referred to the one (corresponding to domus ecclesiae understanding), which he saw as the practice of the early Church as “eschatological” (which has a somewhat idiosyncratic meaning in his usage), and the other, beginning in the post-Constantinian church, as “mysteriological.” Curiously, he never actually states explicitly which he thinks is right and which he thinks is wrong, though he appears to establish his preference with that most popular of chronological fallacies—the one that came first must be better.

It would be odd indeed if, after his description of the two forms of liturgical piety, he wishes to side with the eschatological, because his description of it and contrast between it and the mysteriological sounds downright Protestant (and unfortunately, I don’t mean that as a compliment)—“here was the pure, open, free worship of the early centuries, before it was corrupted by rites, ceremonies, superstitions, and clericalism.” And this seems impossible to square with his Eastern Orthodoxy, to which, in his other books, he seems thoroughly loyal. The Orthodox have always had a consecrationist view toward the sacraments, and a strong tendency toward the objectification of holiness (in icons, for example), and in his dichotomy, such localized holiness is categorized as part of the mysteriological piety. Aside from this concern, I am also rather skeptical about the historical dichotomy. Although he early on critiques facile dichotomies between pre-Constantinian and post-Constantinian, he ends up making a pretty dramatic dichotomy himself—before Constantine, Christian spirituality and worship looked like this…and then afterward, it all turned totally different. Such constructions are prima facie dubious in my mind. But I have two more significant objections, not to his conclusion per se, but to the shape of his argument.

First, as mentioned, there appears to a weighty unspoken premise in his argument: earlier=better, later=worse. Perhaps he isn’t saying that—perhaps he’s just pointing out that there was a shift from eschatological earlier to mysteriological later, and that’s just fine, since he doesn’t really say explicitly that one is good and the other is bad. But it certainly doesn’t seem so. It seems that he thinks that in saying that one came earlier and the other came later, he has clearly shown which is better and which is worse, so there is no need to spell it out. This genetic fallacy is ubiquitous in historical theology, and it drives me crazy! Unless you take a tragic pagan view of history, where all is a decline from an original golden age, then what is earlier in the Church is not necessarily better…in fact, it might be well be worse. If you believe that the Holy Spirit resides in the Church and guides her into all truth, then it is quite likely that later developments may be improvements. Of course, because the Church is full of men, and men are prone to sin and error, it is also likely that the opposite may be true. Usually, it’s some of both—usually, the new development contains something valuable that is also mixed with and prone to fall into error, and after a long period of wheat-and-tares growth, the new development and the older form need to be synthesized together so that what is true and valuable in both can be preserved. That sounds a little too Hegelian, I admit, but hey, Hegel was on to something. If there really are these two diverse forms of piety—eschatological and mysteriological, then it is most likely not that either is good and the other bad, but that both are valuable but incomplete, and we need to work through them and figure out how we can bring them together.

Second, there is another weighty unspoken premise: pagan=bad. Now, this obviously has a bit more to commend it, but is still far too simplistic. Very often, historical theologians think that if they can show that some development in the Church was influenced by paganism or borrowed something from paganism (e.g., all the critiques of Hellenistic philosophy influencing Trinitarian theology), then that development is automatically bad. But this is only so if we assume that Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism only, and is simply the negation of all of paganism. I have read too much Lewis and Chesterton to accept anything of that sort. To be sure, Christianity stands in a much more positive relation to Judaism than it does to paganism, and to a great deal of paganism, it must say, “No, that is simply wrong, and must be abandoned.” But it is still true that Christianity is the fulfillment of what paganism at its best was blindly striving toward, that in their worship of the unknown God they were worshipping a God that was real. Christianity, then, is able to say, “This thing that you pagans are doing, you’re completely missing the point, and you’re doing most of it wrong. But, here’s what you are doing right, and here’s how we can take this into the service of the true God. It’s called plundering the Egyptians, and Christian theology did it to a great extent with Greek philosophy—often harmfully, but often helpfully. Why cannot the same happen with liturgics. If the pagans wear grand robes to minister in the house of their gods, are Christians being pagan if, after careful consideration, they do the same thing. Not necessarily. We must tread carefully here, but we must be able to say “sic et non,” rather than an automatic “non.”

Let these two points then be, in my mind, fundamental principles of historical theology—earlier doesn’t always mean better, and pagan doesn’t always mean bad.
Let me now suggest a third principle, which also tells against Schmemann’s apparent argument.

The movement of church history is one of maturation from glory to greater glory. This follows the pattern of the Old Covenant, where the people were brought out of Egypt, and then given a glorious tabernacle to travel with them. But then it was not until they had conquered the land, had been given rest from their enemies on every side, that God granted them to build the temple, a truly glorious house. Later, after greater triumph, an even more glorious temple is promised. What is the point I am making with this? Well, often people imply, as Schmemann does, that there is something very suspicious about the move from plain, simple worship and houses of worship before Constantine to the post-Constantinian basilicas, which seem to borrow so much from imperial and pagan pomp and splendor—big fancy crosses and vestments and ornate buildings and the rest. Writers make snide remarks about this change, as if it was a corruption of the original meaning of Christian worship; after all, they say, before Constantine, Christians proclaimed the kingship of Christ and believed in it but knew that as an eschatological kingship—they didn’t need to clothe Christ in all the earthly trappings of kingship in order to know that He was King. Well, maybe. But doesn’t this make more sense: Christ was already King in the early centuries of the Church, but he was a hidden king, he was like David in the caves, waiting for the Lord to remove the evil king. Once the king comes out of hiding, once God gives his people rest from his enemies on every side, then he bestows glory on them, then they build a glorious house for his name. While we must not fall into the Eusebian trap of thinking that the Kingdom had completely come through Constantine’s conversion, it is undeniable that this was a triumph for the Church, and a major step forward in her mission of transforming the world into Christ’s kingdom. After such a victory, after she has been given rest, it is only right and proper that King Jesus be honored with visible glory.
Again, such pomp and splendor is a temptation to corruption, but it is not itself corruption.


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