31 May 2011

Guardian Angels

A guardian angel is an angel assigned to protect and guide a particular person or group. Belief in guardian angels can be traced throughout all antiquity. The concept of tutelary angels and their hierarchy was extensively described in Early Christianity  by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.

Belief in both the East and the West is that guardian angels serve to protect whichever person God assigns them to, and present prayer to God on that person's behalf.

The belief that God sends a spirit to watch every individual was common in Ancient Greek philosophy, and was alluded to by Plato in Phaedo, 108. This Platonic belief is in line (just as is the Platonic doctrine of "ideas") with standard Zoroastrianism. The idea appears to have first been mentioned in the Old Testament.

In Judaism, "The people have a heavenly representative, a guardian angel." The belief that angels can be guides and intercessors for men can be found in Job 33:23-6, and in the Book of Daniel (specifically Daniel 10:13) angels seem to be assigned to certain countries. In this latter case the "prince of the Persian kingdom" was referring to one of the fallen angels also known to many as a demon. The same verse mentions "Michael, one of the chief princes," and Michael is one of the few angels named in the Bible. In the New Testament Book of Jude Michael is described as an archangel. The Book of Enoch, part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church's canon of scripture, says that God will "set a guard of holy angels over all the righteous" (1 En 100:5) to guard them during the end of time, while the wicked are being destroyed.

In Matthew 18:10, Jesus says of children: "See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven". This is often understood to mean that children are protected by guardian angels, and appears to be corroborated by Hebrews 1:14 when speaking of angels, "Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?"

In Acts 12:12-15 there is another allusion to the belief that a specific angel is assigned to protect each individual. After Peter had been escorted out of prison by an angel, he went to the home of 'Mary the mother of John, also called Mark'. The servant girl, Rhoda, recognized his voice and ran back to tell the group that Peter was there. However the group replied, "It must be his angel"' (12:15). With this scriptural sanction, Peter's angel was the most commonly depicted guardian angel in art, and was normally shown in images of the subject, most famously Raphael's fresco of the Deliverance of Saint Peter in the Vatican.

According to St. Jerome the concept is in the "mind of the Church" and he stated that: "how great the dignity of the soul, since each one has from his birth an angel commissioned to guard it."

The guardian angel concept is clearly present in the Old Testament, and is well marked. The Old Testament conceived of God's angels as his ministers who carried out his behests, and who were at times given special commissions, regarding men and mundane affairs.

In Genesis 28-29, angels not only act as the executors of God's wrath against the cities of the plain, but they deliver Lot from danger; in Exodus 32:34, God says to Moses: "my angel shall go before thee." At a much later period we have the story of Tobias, which might serve for a commentary on the words of Psalm 91:11: "For he hath given his angels charge over thee; to keep thee in all thy ways." (Cf. Psalm 33:8 and 34:5) Lastly, in Daniel 10 angels are entrusted with the care of particular districts; one is called "prince of the kingdom of the Persians", and Michael is termed "one of the chief princes"; cf. Deuteronomy 32:8 (Septuagint); and Ecclesiasticus 17:17 (Septuagint).

In the New Testament the concept of guardian angel may be noted with greater precision. Angels are everywhere the intermediaries between God and man; and Christ set a seal upon the Old Testament teaching: "See that you despise not one of these little ones: for I say to you, that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 18:10). A twofold aspect of the doctrine is here put forth: even little children have guardian angels, and these same angels lose not the vision of God by the fact that they have a mission to fulfil on earth.

Other key examples in the New Testament are the angel who succoured Christ in the garden, and the angel who delivered St. Peter from prison. Hebrews 1:14 puts the doctrine in its clearest light: "Are they not all ministering spirits, sent to minister for them, who shall receive the inheritance of salvation?" In this view, the function of the guardian angel is to lead men to the Kingdom of Heaven.

An Eastern Orthodox prayer to the Guardian Angel:
O Angel of Christ, my holy Guardian and Protector of my soul and body, forgive me all my sins of today. Deliver me from all the wiles of the enemy, that I may not anger my God by any sin. Pray for me, sinful and unworthy servant, that thou mayest present me worthy of the kindness and mercy of the All-holy Trinity and the Mother of my Lord Jesus Christ, and of all the Saints. Amen.
There is a similar Islamic belief in the Kirama Katibin, two angels residing on either shoulder of humans which record their good and bad deeds. However, these angels do not have influence over the choices one makes, and only record one's deeds.

Also known as Arda Fravaš ('Holy Guardian Angels'). Each person is accompanied by a guardian angel, which acts as a guide throughout life. They originally patrolled the boundaries of the ramparts of heaven, but volunteer to descend to earth to stand by individuals to the end of their days.

J-List has thousands of rare products from Japan - click now

28 May 2011

The Ascension of Jesus Christ

The Ascension of Jesus is the Christian teaching found in the New Testament when the resurrected Jesus was taken up to heaven in his resurrected body,[Acts 1:9-11] in the presence of eleven of his Apostles, occurring 40 days after the resurrection. Jesus ascended to his Father and his heavenly throne, and now sits at the right hand of God the Father in heaven. An angel told the watching disciples that Jesus' second coming would take place in the same manner as his ascension, that is, He would descend in bodily form. This is also described in other Biblical passages.

The Ascension of Jesus is professed in the Nicene Creed, which is spoken in the Christian liturgy, and in the West, by the Apostles' Creed. The Ascension implies Jesus' humanity being taken into heaven. The Feast of the Ascension, celebrated 40 days after Easter, is one of the chief feasts of the Christian year. The feast dates back to well before the 3rd century, as is widely attested.

The place of the Ascension is not distinctly mentioned in the Gospel of Mark. Luke 24:50 states that the event took place in Bethany while it appears from Acts that it took place on the Mount Olivet (the "Mount of Olives"). After the Ascension the apostles are described as returning to Jerusalem from the mount that is called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, within a Sabbath day's journey. Tradition has consecrated this site as the Mount of Ascension.

Before the conversion of Constantine in 312 A.D., early Christians honored the Ascension of Christ in a cave on the Mount of Olives. By 384, the place of the Ascension was venerated on the present open site, uphill from the cave.

The Chapel of the Ascension in Jerusalem today is a Christian and Muslim holy site now believed to mark the place where Jesus ascended into heaven. In the small round church/mosque is a stone imprinted with what some claim to be the very footprints of Jesus.

St. Helena erected over the site a basilica called "Eleona Basilica" (elaion in Greek means "olive garden", from elaia "olive tree," and has an oft-mentioned similarity to eleos meaning "mercy") in 392, which was destroyed by the Sassanid Persians in 614. It was rebuilt in the 8th century, destroyed again, but rebuilt a second time by the Crusaders. This final church was also destroyed by Muslims, leaving only the octagonal structure (called a martyrium—"memorial"—or "Edicule") which remains to this day.

The site was ultimately acquired by two emissaries of Saladin in the year 1198 and has remained in the possession of the Islamic Waqf of Jerusalem ever since. The martyrium, though now only bare stone, enshrines the rock said to bear the imprint of the right foot of Christ as he ascended, and is venerated by Catholic Christians as the last point on earth touched by the incarnate Christ. The Crusader building was converted to a mosque but was never used by Muslims since the overwhelming majority of visitors were Christian. As a gesture of compromise and goodwill, Saladin ordered the construction of a second mosque and mihrab two years later next door to the chapel for Muslim worship while Christians continued to visit the main chapel. Though still under the control of the Muslims, this Chapel of the Ascension is currently opened to visitors for a nominal fee.

The Russian Orthodox Church also maintains a Convent of the Ascension on the top of the Mount of Olives.

In Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox theology, the Ascension is interpreted as the culmination of the Mystery of the Incarnation, in that it not only marked the completion of Jesus' physical presence among his apostles, but consummated the union of God and man when Jesus ascended in his glorified human body to sit at the right hand of God the Father. The Ascension and the Transfiguration both figure prominently in the Orthodox doctrine of theosis. The bodily Ascension into heaven is also understood as the final token of Christ's two natures: divine and human.

The Orthodox doctrine of salvation points to the Ascension to indicate that the state of redeemed man is higher than the state of man in Paradise before the fall.

Orthodox Christians understand Christ's physical presence to continue in the Church, which is the "Body of Christ".[1 Cor 12:12-27] Jesus' promise that he will be "with you always" is understood not only in terms of his active, divine grace, but also in the divine institution of the church (human sinfulness notwithstanding).

Christ's Ascension into heaven is understood as a necessary prerequisite for the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost,[Jn 14:15-20] [14:25-28] [15:26] and especially [16:7] The biblical texts regarding the Ascension also prophesy the Second Coming of Christ, stating that Jesus will return not only in the same glorious manner, but in the same place. In other words, the Second Coming and Last Judgment will take place on the Mount of Olives, with the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna) below and to the left.

The Feast of the Ascension is one of the great feasts in the Christian liturgical calendar, and commemorates the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven. Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, the fortieth day from Easter day. However, some Roman Catholic provinces have moved the observance to the following Sunday. The feast is one of the ecumenical feasts (i.e., universally celebrated), ranking with the feasts of the Passion, of Easter and Pentecost.

The Eastern Orthodox portrayal of the Ascension is a major metaphor for the mystical nature of the Church. In many Eastern icons the Virgin Mary is placed at the center of the scene in the earthly part of the depiction, with her hands raised towards Heaven, often accompanied by various Apostles. The upwards looking depiction of the earthly group matches the Eastern liturgy on the Feast of the Ascension: "Come, let us rise and turn our eyes and thoughts high..."

J-List has thousands of rare products from Japan - click now

27 May 2011

Meso-Pentecost or Mid-Pentecost

Mid-Pentecost or Midfeast, also Meso-Pentecost (from Greek: Μεσοπεντηκοστή); Russian: Преполове́ние Пятидеся́тницы is a feast day which occurs during the Paschal season in the Eastern Orthodox Church and those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite.

Mid-Pentecost celebrates the midpoint between the Feasts of Pascha (Easter) and Pentecost. Specifically, it falls on the 25th day of Pascha. At the feast of Mid-Pentecost, a Small Blessing of the Waters is traditionally performed after the liturgy of the feast.

Mid-Pentecost is a one-week feast which begins on the 4th Wednesday of Pascha, and continues until the following Wednesday. That is to say, it has an Afterfeast of seven days. Throughout these eight days (including the day of the feast) hymns of Mid-Pentecost are joined to those of the Paschal season. Many of the hymns from the first day of the feast are repeated on the Apodosis (leave-taking of the feast). Although it is ranked as a Feast of the Lord and has an Afterfeast, Mid-Pentecost itself is not considered to be one of the Great Feasts of the church year.

The liturgical texts for the feast are found in the Pentecostarion (the liturgical book containing propers for the period from Pascha to Pentecost). There are three Old Testament readings appointed for Vespers; but, uniquely, no Matins Gospel. In some places an All-Night Vigil is celebrated for this feast, though a Vigil is not called for in the Typicon (book of rubrics). At the Divine Liturgy, the reading from the Apostle is Acts 14:6-18.

The theme of the feast is Christ as Teacher, based upon the words from the Gospel of the day (John 7:14-30): "Now about the midst of the feast Jesus went up into the temple, and taught...Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself."

While the Gospel refers to the Feast of Sukkot (Greek: Σκηνοπηγία), the icon of the feast depicts the young Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem speaking with the Elders (Luke 2:46-47), the first biblical example of Jesus as teacher (Rabbi). In traditional Orthodox icons of this subject, the figure of Jesus is depicted larger than those of the Elders, showing his superior spiritual status.

The Troparion of the Feast hints at the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan Woman, which will be celebrated on the following Sunday:
In the middle of the Feast, O Savior, fill my thirsting soul with the waters of godliness, as Thou didst cry to all: 'If anyone thirst, let him come to Me and drink' (John 7:37). O Christ God, Fountain of our life, glory be to Thee!
The scripture verse from John 7, quoted by the Troparion, will be read on the day of Pentecost.

One of the propers of the Vespers of this feast (and also used at the Great Vespers for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman) speaks of the gift of the Spirit washing away the guilt of those who murdered Christ, a profoundly insightful interplay of themes (e.g., blood as both bloodguilt and as the principle of life and redemption), with a freshingly implicit universalism (i.e., if the Spirit washes away the bloodguilt of those who killed Christ, then all who receive the Spirit must also be culpable in some way for the death of Christ), which contrasts with the fault of the Jews who rejected God the Son which is also mentioned by  many of the Byzantine liturgical texts.

Mid-Pentecost, has historically been the Altar Feast of the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (Istanbul).

J-List has thousands of rare products from Japan - click now

26 May 2011

The Sisters Festival

Festival represents a nation's culture. In China, each of 56 ethnic communities boasts their own festivals which record and carry forward traditions, cultures and ethnic folklore.

The Sister Festival is one of the Miao people's most active festivals. It is held on the 15th day of the third lunar month, and the Miao celebrate it with numerous traditional activities and customs.

Sister Festival, held in Shidong, Taijiang County, Guizhou Province, is the Miao people's busiest time of the year, and it is an opportunity for Miao youth living along the middle reaches of the Qingjiang River to choose their dates. During the festival, Miao people eat "Sister Rice," dress up, dance, watch bullfights, compete in a canoeing contest and sing.

No one knows when this ancient festival originated, but the 500 years of history in Shidong implies that the festival dates back to the remote past.

There was once a family with seven daughters. The girls were very beautiful when they grew up, and they wanted to marry good men. Their parents promised to help make their wishes come true. At their parents' urging, the seven girls went to the mountain to gather leaves, flowers and herbs.

They then cooked pots of colorful rice. The family invited young men from the village and neighboring communities to eat the rice, sing folk songs during the daytime and dance away the night. The non-stop singing and dancing allowed the girls to test and observe the men. After three days and nights of singing and dancing, the girls chose from about 100 men their dream husbands. They presented the men colored rice and told them to choose a time to return for the wedding ceremonies. By cooking colorful rice and inviting men from miles around for food, singing and dancing, the sisters became the first of the Miao people to marry for love. That helped the group's culture to evolve.

Sister Rice originally had seven colors - one for each sister. Nowadays, there are more colors of the rice, symbolizing there are more than seven beautiful Miao girls. These days, the guests receive, after the singing, rice from the Miao girls. The men quickly learn if the women like them. A woman places a hot pepper in the man's rice if she does not wish to befriend him. She places a hook made from bamboo in the rice if she likes him.

In honor of the seven sisters, and to promote healthy reproduction, the Sister Festival has been passed down through the generations.

Today, besides dating lovers, Sister Festival also provides a good opportunity for local Miao people to show their charms and communicate with one another. The most popular event during the festival is playing drum dance which is a collective dance with drum beats. Women wear magnificent apparels and gather together to play the dance. The most formally dressed are unmarried young girls and newly wed brides. They wear sophisticated and splendid silver apparels which weigh 10 to 15 kilograms. The silver apparel is the top-level festive apparel for Miao women. They wear them only at weddings or when they go back to their own parents' homes.

Mothers take pride in their daughters, who look beautiful in their traditional costumes. Women, in fact, begin preparing the traditional, embroidered holiday clothes soon after their daughters are born.

When Miao girls turn 16, their mothers dress them up and take them to the Sister Festival. Even if they are not ready to let their daughters get married, the women want to show off their beautiful girls - in their splendid clothes. Female costumes of Miao women in Shidong fall into four categories according to degrees of sophistication.
  1. The top-class apparel consists of 70 to 80 silver wares and sophisticated costume patterns. Usually, it takes 420 days to finish one set.
  2. The second-class apparel is less sophisticated, costing 330 days. Girls usually wear these two kinds of apparels when visiting relatives or attending big events.
  3. The first-class casual costume is simplified but delicately made, costing 40 days to make.
  4. In contrast with the Han people, who traditionally are more interested in boys, the common costume is very simple, only costing 4 days.
Miao people take pride in their daughters because their girls are world-renowned for their beauty. Sister Festival's popularity grows each year. As more people flock to Shidong in search of beautiful girls, the village will become more charming.

J-List has thousands of rare products from Japan - click now

20 May 2011

Feeling Left Behind? What is "The Rapture"?

Don’t feel left out or left behind. The Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant Churches all reject this new popular myth. You might be surprised to know that the idea of rapture didn't even exist until about 170 years ago. No Christian believed in this term for the first 1,800 years of Christianity.

Lets start by discussing about what in the world people are talking about. Rapture is a popular term among some Protestant sects for the raising of the faithful from the dead. This part we can all agree on, but there’s more to it than that.

The belief in rapture tends to be what is called “pre-tribulation”. Believers of pre-tribulation rapture teach that this raising up will be prior to or after a period of immense trouble or “tribulation” (that’s why its pre, meaning before). After the 7 years of tribulation they then believe that there will be 1000 years of piece followed by the day of final judgment.

Orthodoxy rejects these teachings/innovations as being heretical in nature. There is also potential for great harm in mass dissemination of the notion of rapture.

Where Did the Term Rapture Come From?

All Christians up until the 1830’s believed in basically the same things about the second coming of Christ. During the 1830’s Margaret Macdonald, a Scottish member of a sect known as the Irvingites, made the first claim that there would be a trance (or rapture) and the faithful would be gathered to Christ before the period of persecution. The Protestant leader John Nelson Darby picked up this view. Cyrus Ingerson Scofield picked up Darby’s views and placed them in the footnotes of his Schofield Reference Bible. This Bible was widely used in England and America and many who read it readily accepted the idea of rapture.

Since that time other views on rapture have started, but all are still based on the notion of the rapture itself.

What is the “Orthodox View?”

As Orthodox Christians, we believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ, the ensuing judgment of our sins and the resulting eternal life (in Heaven or Hell). Everything that the Bible says about a time of tribulation and suffering is accepted, but that the faithful will be present for all of it.

Christ himself tells us that all will suffer and that no one knows when he will return for judgment day.
Matthew 24:9 Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake.
Why Don’t We Believe Rapture?

First of all we have to be suspicious something that no Church taught for 1,800 years suddenly emerges. That’s not enough of a reason to simply reject it, but it does mean that it should be viewed carefully.

Without getting into complex interpretations of Scripture, here are some basic Orthodox considerations:
  • Tradition: The Orthodox teachings about the end of the world reflect 2000 years of tradition originating with Christ’s Apostles. Believe it or not, the Church Fathers and their successors weren't ignorant of scripture. We follow the teachings of the Church to avoid shortsighted interpretations of Scripture. This has helped the Orthodox Church avoid the spread of heretical teachings.
  • Shaky Scriptural Basis: Through all the wonderful, intelligent teachers Christianity has had over time (Orthodox & non-Orthodox), the idea of rapture didn't come about until it was envisioned by a 15 year old girl in Scotland in the year 1830. The modern arguments in favor or rapture can be called into question through an even handed examination of the passages commonly used when arguing in favor of it. Even among Protestant denominations who believe in a totally literal reading of scripture the rapture is not universally accepted.
Is It Dangerous to Believe “Left Behind”?

Yes, it may well be. Many of the arguments used in favor of rapture are taken from the Book of Revelation. Chapter 22:18-19 warn that anyone who adds to or takes away from the words in Revelation will meet with punishment from God. The interpretation of Revelation is therefore a very sticky issue. Revelation is the only New Testament book that the Orthodox Church doesn’t read in Liturgy. Saint Peter also warns us that no prophecy is to be of private interpretation (2 Peter 1:20), yet many insist of reading into the book of Revelation and in applying creative interpretations to it.

Focus on the True Issue

Rather than argue over what the end will look like, we should keep in mind one unavoidable fact; we will all face judgment. Christ will examine each of us and as a result some will gain eternal life, while others will be sent to a hell of eternal torment. (John 5:29) Everything beyond preparing for Christ’s second coming (and judgment) is nothing more than a distraction. You have to ask who would benefit the most by causing us to be distracted?

J-List has thousands of rare products from Japan - click now

18 May 2011

Apophatic Theology

Apophatic theology (from Greek ἀπόφασις from ἀπόφημι - apophēmi, "to deny")—also known as Negative theology or Via Negativa (Latin for "Negative Way")—is a theology that attempts to describe God, the Divine Good, by negation, to speak only in terms of what may not be said about the perfect goodness that is God. It stands in contrast with Cataphatic theology.

In brief, negative theology is an attempt to achieve unity with the Divine Good through discernment, gaining knowledge of what God is not (apophasis), rather than by describing what God is. The apophatic tradition is often, though not always, allied with the approach of mysticism, which focuses on a spontaneous or cultivated individual experience of the divine reality beyond the realm of ordinary perception, an experience often unmediated by the structures of traditional organized religion or the conditioned role playing and learned defensive behavior of the outer man.

In negative theology, it is accepted that the Divine is ineffable, an abstract experience that can only be recognized or remembered—that is, human beings cannot describe in words the essence of the perfect good that is unique to the individual, nor can they define the Divine, in its immense complexity, related to the entire field of reality, and therefore all descriptions if attempted will be ultimately false and conceptualization should be avoided; in effect, it eludes definition by definition:

Neither existence nor nonexistence as we understand it in the physical realm, applies to God; i.e., the Divine is abstract to the individual, beyond existing or not existing, and beyond conceptualization regarding the whole (one cannot say that God exists in the usual sense of the term; nor can we say that God is nonexistent).
  • God is divinely simple (one should not claim that God is any type of being.)
  • God is not ignorant (one should not say that God is wise since that word arrogantly implies we know what "wisdom" means on a divine scale, whereas we only know what wisdom is believed to mean in a confined cultural context).
  • Likewise, God is not evil (to say that God can be described by the word 'good' limits God to what good behavior means to human beings individually and en masse).
  • God is not a creation (but beyond that we cannot define how God exists or operates in relation to the whole of humanity).
  • God is not conceptually defined in terms of space and location.
  • God is not conceptually confined to assumptions based on time.
Even though the via negativa essentially rejects theological understanding as a path to God, some have sought to make it into an intellectual exercise, by describing God only in terms of what God is not. One problem noted with this approach, is that there seems to be no fixed basis on deciding what God is not, unless the Divine is understood as an abstract experience of full aliveness unique to each individual consciousness, and universally, the perfect goodness applicable to the whole field of reality. It should be noted that this is also a kind of definition, namely that the Divine is an experience, which - because of the very defintion of apophatic theology - the then Divine cannot be.

The ancient Greek poet Hesiod has in his account of the birth of the gods and creation of the world (i.e., in his Theogony) that Chaos begot the Protogenoi: Eros, Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus, who begot Erebus (Darkness) and Nyx (Night), and Plato echoes this genealogy in the Timaeus 40e, 41e where the familiar Titan and Olympian gods are sired by Heaven and Earth. Nevertheless, Plato is far from advocating a negative theology. His Form of the Good (identified by various commentators with the Form of Unity) is not unknowable, but rather the highest object of knowledge (The Republic 508d-e, 511b, 516b).

Plotinus advocated negative theology in his strand of Neoplatonism (although he may have had precursors in Neopythagoreanism and Middle Platonism). In his writings he identifies the Good of the Republic (as the cause of the other Forms) with the One of the first hypothesis of the second part of the Parmenides (137c-142a), there concluded to be neither the object of knowledge, opinion or perception. In the Enneads Plotinus writes: "Our thought cannot grasp the One as long as any other image remains active in the soul…To this end, you must set free your soul from all outward things and turn wholly within yourself, with no more leaning to what lies outside, and lay your mind bare of ideal forms, as before of the objects of sense, and forget even yourself, and so come within sight of that One."

The Arabic term for "Negative theology" is Lahoot salbi, which is a "System of theology" or Nizaam al lahoot in Arabic. Different traditions/doctrine schools in Islam called Kalam schools use different theological approaches or Nizaam al lahoot in approaching God or the ultimate reality. The Lahoot salbi or "Negative theology" involves the use of ta'til, which means "negation," and the followers of the Mu'tazili school of Kalam, founded by Imam Wasil ibn Ata, are often called the Mu'attili, because they are frequent users of the ta'til methodology.

Shia Islam is another sect that adopted "Negative theology". Most Salafi/Athari adherents reject this methodology because they believe that the Attributes of God, as depicted in Islamic scriptures is to be literal. But most Sunnis, who are Ash'ari and Maturidi by Kalam use ta'til to some extent, if not completely. The Sufis greatly depend on the use of ta'til in their spirituality, though they often also use Cataphatic theology.

Perhaps the most widespread use of Negative theology occurs in the Hindu scriptures, mainly the Upanishads, where Vedantic theologians speak of the nature of Brahman - Supreme Cosmic Spirit as beyond human comprehension. “Whenever we deny something unreal, it is in reference to something real.” [Br. Sutra III.2.22].

The Taittiriya hymn speak of Brahman as 'one where the mind does not reach'. Yet the scriptures themselves speak of Brahman's positive aspect also such as, "Brahman is Bliss". The idea of using these contradictory descriptions is to show that the attributes of Brahman is "similar" to one experienced by mortals but not exactly the "same" in quality or quantity.

Negative theology figures in the Buddhist and Hindu polemics. The arguments go something like this - Is Brahman an object of experience? If so, how do you convey this experience to others who have not had a similar experience? The only way possible is to relate this "unique" experience to common experiences but explicitly negating their sameness.

The most famous expression of Negative theology in Upanishads is found in the chant, neti neti, meaning "not this, not this", or "neither this, nor that". In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Yajnavalkya is questioned by his students on the nature of God. He states, "It is not this and it is not that" (neti, neti). Thus, God is not real as we are real, nor is He unreal. He is not living in the sense humans live, nor is he dead. He is not compassionate (as we use the term), nor is he uncompassionate. And so on. We can never truly define the Divine in words. In this sense, neti-neti is not a denial. Rather, it is an assertion that whatever the Divine may be, universally or personally, when we attempt to conceptualize or describe it, we limit our transcendent experience of "it."

Buddhism deals with questions which may or may not be described as theological. Nevertheless, an apophatic approach is evident in much of Buddhist philosophy.

According to early Buddhist scripture, the Buddha refused to answer certain questions regarding metaphysical propositions, known as the fourteen unanswerable questions (the Pali Canon only gives ten). These concern topics such as the existence of atta (self/soul), the origin of the universe, and life after death. The Buddha explains that he does not answer certain questions because they have no bearing on the pursuit of nibanna, and he even goes so far as to say: "A 'position', Vaccha, is something that a tathagatha [i.e., a buddha] has done away with." On another occasion, he outlines four types of appropriate answers to questions: yes or no, analysis, a counter-question, and putting the question aside.

In his book The Silence of God: the Answer of the Buddha, Raimundo Panikkar analyzes the fourteen unanswerable questions in the context of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, and comes to the conclusion that the Buddha's position can best be described as "transcendental apophaticism," i.e., a position in which the transcendent (in this case, nirvana), is defined through negation.

In Mahayana Buddhism, Nagarjuna, the founder of Madhyamaka, is regarded by Prasangika interpreters as negating all of his opponents' assertions without making any assertions of his own.

Many other East Asian traditions present something very similar to the apophatic approach: for example, the Tao Te Ching, the source book of the Chinese Taoist tradition, asserts in its first statement: the Tao ("way" or "truth") that can be described is not the constant/true Tao.

Both Judaism and Christianity are revelation-based models. God has certain attributes positively ascribed to Himself. The text is said to be inspired. Another way to say this is God represents Himself through the text. For example: Christianity teaches that the Logos (the Second Person of the Trinity) became incarnate. This type of reasoning is known as cataphatic theology.

Examples of apophatic theology are: God's appearance to Moses in the Burning Bush, and the ineffable Name of God (יהוה). Also the theophany to Elijah, where God reveals Himself in a "still, small voice" (1 Kings 19:11-13). And St. Paul's reference to the "Unknown God" in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 17:23) is sometimes pointed to as an apophatic statement.

Tertullian says, “That which is infinite is known only to itself. This it is which gives some notion of God, while yet beyond all our conceptions—our very incapacity of fully grasping Him affords us the idea of what He really is. He is presented to our minds in His transcendent greatness, as at once known and unknown.”

Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Catechetical Homilies says: "For we explain not what God is but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning Him. For in what concerns God to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge."

The Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th century said that they believed in God, but they did not believe that God exists in the same sense that everything else exists. That is to say, everything else that exists was created, but the Creator transcends even existence. The essence of God is completely unknowable; mankind can only know God through His energies.

Apophatic theology found its most influential expression in works such as those of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor (Pseudo-Dionysius is quoted by Thomas Aquinas 1,760 times in his Summa Theologica).

In contrast, making positive statements about the nature of God, which occurs in most Western forms of Christian theology, is sometimes called cataphatic theology. Eastern Christianity makes use of both apophatic and cataphatic theology. Adherents of the apophatic tradition in Christianity hold that, outside of directly-revealed knowledge through Scripture and Sacred Tradition (such as the Trinitarian nature of God), God in His essence is beyond the limits of what human beings (or even angels) can understand; He is transcendent in essence (ousia). Further knowledge must be sought in a direct experience of God or His indestructible energies through theoria (vision of God). In Eastern Christianity, God is immanent in his hypostasis or existences.

Negative theology played an important role early in the history of Christianity, for example, in the works of Clement of Alexandria. Three more theologians who emphasized the importance of negative theology to an orthodox understanding of God were Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, and Basil the Great. John of Damascus employed it when he wrote that positive statements about God reveal "not the nature, but the things around the nature." It continues to be prominent in Eastern Christianity (Gregory Palamas). Apophatic statements are crucial to much modern theologians in Orthodox Christianity (Vladimir Lossky, John Meyendorff, John S. Romanides and Georges Florovsky).

In Orthodox theology, apophatic theology is taught as superior to cataphatic theology. While Aquinas felt positive and negative theology should be seen as dialetical correctives to each other, like thesis and antithesis producing a synthesis, Lossky argues, based on his reading of Dionysius and Maximus Confessor, that positive theology is always inferior to negative theology, a step along the way to the superior knowledge attained by negation. This is expressed in the idea that mysticism is the expression of dogmatic theology par excellence.

Negative theology has a place in the Western Christian tradition as well, although it is definitely much more of a counter-current to the prevailing positive or cataphatic traditions central to Western Christianity. For example, theologians like Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross (Juan de la Cruz), mentioned above, exemplify some aspects of or tendencies towards the apophatic tradition in the West. The medieval work, The Cloud of Unknowing and St. John's Dark Night of the Soul are particularly well-known in the West.
Mother Teresa's own spiritual struggles have correspondences in the apophatic tradition.

C. S. Lewis, in his book Miracles, advocates the use of negative theology when first thinking about God, in order to cleanse our minds of misconceptions. He goes on to say we must then refill our minds with the truth about God, untainted by mythology, bad analogies or false mind-pictures.

Karen Armstrong, in her book The Case for God (2009), notices a recovery of apophatic theology in postmodern theology.

Ivan Illich, the historian and social critic, can be read as an apophatic theologian, according to a longtime collaborator, Lee Hoinacki, in a paper presented in memory of Illich, called "Why Philia?"

While negative theology is used in Christianity as a means of dispelling misconceptions about God, and of approaching Him beyond the limits of human reasoning, most commonly Christian doctrine is taken to involve positive claims:  that God exists and has certain positive attributes, even if those attributes are only partially comprehensible to us.

In Jewish belief, God is defined as the Creator of the universe: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" (Genesis 1:1); similarly, "I am God, I make all things" (Isaiah 44:24). God, as Creator, is by definition separate from the physical universe and thus exists outside of space and time. God is therefore absolutely different from anything else, and, as above, is in consequence held to be totally unknowable. It is for this reason that we cannot make any direct statements about God. Tzimtzum (צמצום): the notion that God "contracted" his infinite and indescribable essence in order to allow for a "conceptual space" in which a finite, independent world could exist.)

Bahya ibn Paquda shows that our inability to describe God is similarly related to the fact of His absolute unity. God, as the entity which is "truly One" (האחד האמת), must be free of properties and is thus unlike anything else and indescribable; see Divine simplicity. This idea is developed fully in later Jewish philosophy, especially in the thought of the medieval rationalists such as Maimonides and Samuel ibn Tibbon.

It is understood that although we cannot describe God directly (מצד עצמו) it is possible to describe Him indirectly via His attributes (תארים). The “negative attributes” (תארים שוללים) relate to God Himself, and specify what He is not. The “attributes of action” (תארים מצד פעולותיו), on the other hand, do not describe God directly, rather His interaction with creation [2]. Maimonides was perhaps the first Jewish Thinker to explicitly articulate this doctrine (see also Tanya Shaar Hayichud Vehaemunah Ch. 8):
“ God's existence is absolute and it includes no composition and we comprehend only the fact that He exists, not His essence. Consequently it is a false assumption to hold that He has any positive attribute... still less has He accidents (מקרה), which could be described by an attribute. Hence it is clear that He has no positive attribute whatever. The negative attributes are necessary to direct the mind to the truths which we must believe... When we say of this being, that it exists, we mean that its non-existence is impossible; it is living — it is not dead; ...it is the first — its existence is not due to any cause; it has power, wisdom, and will — it is not feeble or ignorant; He is One — there are not more Gods than one… Every attribute predicated of God denotes either the quality of an action, or, when the attribute is intended to convey some idea of the Divine Being itself — and not of His actions — the negation of the opposite. (The Guide for the Perplexed, 1:58) ”
In line with this formulation, attributes commonly used in describing God in rabbinic literature, in fact refer to the "negative attributes" — omniscience, for example, refers to non-ignorance; omnipotence to non-impotence; unity to non-plurality, eternity to non-temporality. Examples of the “attributes of action” are God as Creator, Revealer, Redeemer, Mighty and Merciful . Similarly, God’s perfection is generally considered an attribute of action. Joseph Albo (Ikkarim 2:24) points out that there are a number of attributes that fall under both categories simultaneously. Note that the various Names of God in Judaism, generally, correspond to the “attributes of action” — in that they represent God as he is known. The exceptions are the Tetragrammaton (Y-H-W-H) and the closely related "I Am the One Who Am" (אהיה אשר אהיה — Exodus 3:13-14), both of which refer to God in his "negative attributes", as absolutely independent and uncreated.

Since two approaches are used to speak of God, there are times when these may conflict, giving rise to paradoxes in Jewish philosophy. In these cases, two descriptions of the same phenomenon appear contradictory, whereas, in fact, the difference is merely one of perspective: one description takes the viewpoint of the "attributes of action" and the other, of the "negative attributes".

In Gnosticism, the supreme being is thought of as lacking specific gender, qualities, or desire.

J-List has thousands of rare products from Japan - click now

17 May 2011

Which Came First: The Church or the New Testament?

As a Jewish convert to Christ via evangelical Protestantism, I naturally wanted to know God better through the reading of the Scriptures. In fact, it had been through reading the Gospels in the "forbidden book" called the New Testament, at age sixteen, that I had come to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and our promised Messiah. In my early years as a Christian, much of my religious education came from private Bible reading. By the time I entered college, I had a pocket-sized version of the whole Bible that was my constant companion. I would commit favorite passages from the Scriptures to memory, and often quote them to myself in times of temptation-or to others as I sought to convince them of Christ. The Bible became for me-as it is to this day-the most important book in print. I can say from my heart with Saint Paul the Apostle, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16).

That’s the good news!

The bad news is that often I would decide for myself what the Scriptures meant. For example, I became so enthusiastic about knowing Jesus as my close and personal friend that I thought my own awareness of Him was all I needed. So I would mark verses about Jesus with my yellow highlighter, but pass over passages concerning God the Father, or the Church, or baptism. I saw the Bible as a heavenly instruction manual. I didn’t think I needed the Church, except as a good place to make friends or to leans more about the Bible so I could be a better do-it-yourself Christian. I came to think that I could build my life, and the Church, by the Book. I mean, I took sola scriptura ("only the Bible") seriously! Salvation history was clear to me: God sent His Son, together they sent the Holy Spirit, then came the New Testament to explain salvation, and finally the Church developed.

Close, maybe, but not close enough.

Let me hasten to say that the Bible is all God intends it to be. No problem with the Bible. The problem lay in the way I individualized it, subjecting it to my own personal interpretations-some not so bad, others not so good.


It was not long after my conversion to Christianity that I found myself getting swept up in the tide of religious sectarianism, in which Christians would part ways over one issue after another. It seemed, for instance, that there were as many opinions on the Second Coming as there were people in the discussion. So we’d all appeal to the Scriptures. "I believe in the Bible. If it’s not in the Bible I don’t believe it," became my war cry. What I did not realize was that everyone else was saying the same thing! It was not the Bible, but each one’s private interpretation of it, that became our ultimate authority. In an age which highly exalts independence of thought and self-reliance, I was becoming my own pope! The guidelines I used in interpreting Scripture seemed simple enough: When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense. I believed that those who were truly faithful and honest in following this principle would achieve Christian unity. To my surprise, this "common sense" approach led not to increased Christian clarity and unity, but rather to a spiritual free-for-all! Those who most strongly adhered to believing "only the Bible" tended to become the, most factious, divisive, and combative of Christians-perhaps unintentionally. In fact, it seemed to me that the more one held to the Bible as the only source of spiritual authority, the more factious and sectarian one became. We would even argue heatedly over verses on love! Within my circle of Bible-believing friends, I witnessed a mini-explosion of sects and schismatic movements, each claiming to be "true to the Bible" and each in bitter conflict with the others. Serious conflict arose over every issue imaginable: charismatic gifts, interpretation of prophecy, the proper way to worship, communion, Church government, discipleship, discipline in the Church, morality, accountability, evangelism, social action, the relationship of faith and works, the role of women, and ecumenism. The list is endless. In fact any issue at all could-and often did-cause Christians to part ways. The fruit of this sectarian spirit has been the creation of literally thousands of independent churches and denominations. As I myself became increasingly sectarian, my radicalism intensified, and I came to believe that all churches were unbiblical: to become a member of any church was to compromise the Faith. For me, "church" meant "the Bible, God, and me." This hostility towards the churches fit in well with my Jewish background. I naturally distrusted all churches because I felt they had betrayed the teachings of Christ by having participated in or passively ignored the persecution of the Jews throughout history. But the more sectarian I became-to the point of being obnoxious and antisocial-the more I began to realize that something was seriously wrong with my approach to Christianity. My spiritual life wasn’t working. Clearly, my privately held beliefs in the Bible and what it taught were leading me away from love and community with my fellow Christians, and therefore away from Christ. As Saint John the Evangelist wrote, "He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?" (1 John 4:20). This division and hostility were not what had drawn me to Christ. And I knew the answer was not to deny the Faith or reject the Scriptures. Something had to change. Maybe it was me. I turned to a study of the history of the Church and the New Testament, hoping to shed some light on what my attitude toward the Church and the Bible should be. The results were not at all what I expected.


My initial attitude was that whatever was good enough for the Apostles would be good enough for me. This is where I got my first surprise. As I mentioned previously, I knew that the Apostle Paul regarded Scripture as being inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16). But I had always assumed that the "Scripture" spoken of in this passage was the whole Bible-both the Old and New Testaments. In reality, there was no "New Testament" when this statement was made. Even the Old Testament was still in the process of formulation, for the Jews did not decide upon a definitive list or canon of Old Testament books until after the rise of Christianity. As I studied further, I discovered that the early Christians used a Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. This translation, which was begun in Alexandria, Egypt, in the third century B.C., contained an expanded canon which included a number of the so-called "deuterocanonical" (or "apocryphal") books. Although there was some initial debate over these books, they were eventually received by Christians into the Old Testament canon. In reaction to the rise of Christianity, the Jews narrowed their canons and eventually excluded the deuterocanonical books-although they still regarded them as sacred. The modern Jewish canon was not rigidly fixed until the third century A.D. Interestingly, it is this later version of the Jewish canon of the Old Testament, rather than the canon of early Christianity, that is followed by most modern Protestants today. When the Apostles lived and wrote, there was no New Testament and no finalized Old Testament. The concept of "Scripture" was much less well-defined than I had envisioned.


The second big surprise came when I realized that the first complete listing of New Testament books as we have them today did not appear until over 300 years after the death and resurrection of Christ. (The first complete listing was given by St. Athanasius in his Paschal Letter in A.D. 367.) Imagine it! If the writing of the New Testament had been begun at the same time as the U.S. Constitution, we wouldn’t see a final product until the year 2076! The four Gospels were written from thirty to sixty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. In the interim, the Church relied on oral tradition-the accounts of eyewitnesses-as well as scattered pre-gospel documents (such as those quoted in 1 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Timothy 2:11-13) and written tradition. Most churches only had parts of what was to become the New Testament. As the eyewitnesses of Christ’s life and teachings began to die, the Apostles wrote as they were guided by the Holy Spirit, in order to preserve and solidify the scattered written and oral tradition. Because the Apostles expected Christ to return soon, it seems they did not have in mind that these gospel accounts and apostolic letters would in time be collected into a new Bible. During the first four centuries A.D. there was substantial disagreement over which books should be included in the canon of Scripture. The first person on record who tried to establish a New Testament canon was the second-century heretic, Marcion. He wanted the Church to reject its Jewish heritage, and therefore he dispensed with the Old Testament entirely. Marcion’s canon included only one gospel, which he himself edited, and ten of Paul’s epistles. Sad but true, the first attempted New Testament was heretical. Many scholars believe that it was partly in reaction to this distorted canon of Marcion that the early Church determined to create a clearly defined canon of its own. The destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the breakup of the Jewish-Christian community there, and the threatened loss of continuity in the oral tradition probably also contributed to the sense of the urgent need for the Church to standardize the list of books Christians could rely on. During this period of the canon’s evolution, as previously noted, most churches had only a few, if any, of the apostolic writings available to them. The books of the Bible had to be painstakingly copied by hand, at great expense of time and effort. Also, because most people were illiterate, they could only be read by a privileged few. The exposure of most Christians to the Scriptures was confined to what they heard in the churches-the Law and Prophets, the Psalms, and some of the Apostles’ memoirs. The persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire and the existence of many documents of non-apostolic origin further complicated the matter. This was my third surprise. Somehow I had naively envisioned every home and parish having a complete Old and New Testament from the very inception of the Church! It was difficult for me to imagine a church surviving and prospering without a complete New Testament. Yet unquestionably they did. This may have been my first clue that there was more to the total life of the Church than just the written Word.


Next, I was surprised to discover that many "gospels" besides those of the New Testament canon were circulating in the first and second centuries. These included the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospel according to the Egyptians, and the Gospel according to Peter, to name just a few. The New Testament itself speaks of the existence of such accounts. Saint Luke’s Gospel begins by saying, "Inasmuch as many  have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us … it seemed good to me also … to write to you an orderly account" (Luke 1:1, 3). At the time Luke wrote, Matthew and Mark were the only two canonical Gospels that had been written. In time, all but four Gospels were excluded from the New Testament canon. Yet in the early years of Christianity there was even a controversy over which of these four Gospels to use. Most of the Christians of Asia Minor used the Gospel of John rather than the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Based upon the Passion account contained in John, most Christians in Asia Minor celebrated Easter on a different day from those in Rome. Roman Christians resisted the Gospel of John and instead used the other Gospels. The Western Church for a time hesitated to use the Gospel of John because the Gnostic heretics made use of it along with their own "secret gospels." Another debate arose over the issue of whether there should be separate gospels or one single composite gospel account. In the second century, Tatian, who was Justin Martyr’s student, published a single composite "harmonized" gospel called the Diatessaron. The Syrian Church used this composite gospel in the second, third, and fourth centuries; they did not accept all four Gospels until the fifth century. They also ignored for a time the Epistles of John, 2 Peter, and the Book of Revelation. To further complicate matters, the Church of Egypt, as reflected in the second-century New Testament canon of Clement of Alexandria, included the "gospels" of the Hebrews, the Egyptians, and Mattathias. In addition they held to be of apostolic origin the First Epistle of Clement (Bishop of Rome), the Epistle of Barnabas, the Preaching of Peter, the Revelation of Peter, the Didache, the Protevangelium of James, the Acts of John, the Acts of Paul, and The Shepherd of Hermas (which they held to be especially inspired). Irenaeus (second century), martyred Bishop of Lyons in Gaul, included the Revelation of Peter in his canon.


My favorite New Testament book, the Epistle to the Hebrews, was clearly excluded in the Western Church in a number of listings from the second, third, and fourth centuries. Primarily due to the influence of Augustine upon certain North African councils, the Epistle to the Hebrews was finally accepted in the West by the end of the fourth century. On the other hand, the Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse, written by the Apostle John, was not accepted in the Eastern Church for several centuries. Among Eastern authorities who rejected this book were Dionysius of Alexandria (third century), Eusebius (third century), Cyril of Jerusalem (fourth century), the Council of Laodicea (fourth century), John Chrysostom (fourth century), Theodore of Mopsuesta (fourth century), and Theodoret (fifth century). In addition, the original Syriac and Armenian versions of the New Testament omitted this book. Many Greek New Testament manuscripts written before the ninth century do not contain the Apocalypse, and it is not used liturgically in the Eastern Church to this day. Athanasius supported the inclusion of the Apocalypse, and it is due primarily to his influence that it was eventually received into the New Testament canon in the East. The early Church actually seems to have made an internal compromise on the Apocalypse and Hebrews. The East would have excluded the Apocalypse from the canon, while the West would have done without Hebrews. Simply put, each side agreed to accept the disputed book of the other. Interestingly, the sixteenth-century father of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, held that the New Testament books should be "graded" and that some were more inspired than others (that there is a canon within the canon). Luther gave secondary rank to Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation, placing them at the end of his translation of the New Testament. Imagine-the man who gave us sola scriptura assumed the authority to edit the written Word of God!


I was particularly interested in finding the oldest legitimate list of New Testament books. Some believe that the Muratorian Canon is the oldest, dating from the late second century. This canon excludes Hebrews, James, and the two Epistles of Peter, but includes the Apocalypse of Peter and the Wisdom of Solomon. It is not until A.D. 200-about 170 years after the death and resurrection of Christ-that we first see the term "New Testament" used, by Tertullian. Origen, who lived in the third century, is often considered to be the first systematic theologian (though he was often systematically wrong). He questioned the authenticity of 2 Peter and 2 John. He also tells us, based on his extensive travels, that there were churches which refused to use 2 Timothy because the epistle speaks of a "secret" writing-the Book of Jannes and Jambres, derived from Jewish oral tradition (see 2 Timothy 3:8). The Book of Jude was also considered suspect by some because it includes a quotation from the apocryphal book, The Assumption of Moses, also derived from Jewish oral tradition (see Jude 9). Moving into the fourth century, I discovered that Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea and the "Father of Church History," lists as disputed books James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John. The Revelation of John he totally rejects. Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete New Testament manuscript we have today, was discovered in the Orthodox Christian monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai. It is dated as being from the fourth century and it contains all of the books we have in the modern New Testament, but also includes Barnabas and The Shepherd of Hermas. During the fourth century, Emperor Constantine was frustrated by the controversy between Christians and Arians concerning the divinity of Christ. Because the New Testament had not yet been clearly defined, he pressed for a clearer defining and closing of the New Testament canon, in order to help resolve the conflict and bring religious unity to his divided Empire. However, as late as the fifth century the Codex Alexandrinus included 1 and 2 Clement, indicating that the disputes over the canon were still not everywhere firmly resolved.


With the passage of time the Church discerned which writings were truly apostolic and which were not. It was a prolonged struggle, taking place over several centuries. As part of the process of discernment, the Church met together several times in council. These various Church councils confronted a variety of issues, among which was the canon of Scripture. It is important to note that the purpose of these councils was to discern and confirm what was already generally accepted within the Church at large. The councils did not legislate the canon so much as set forth what had become self-evident truth and practice within the churches of God. The councils sought to proclaim the common mind of the Church and to reflect the unanimity of faith, practice, and tradition as it already existed in the local churches represented. The councils provide us with specific records in which the Church spoke clearly and in unison as to what constitutes Scripture. Among the many councils that met during the first four centuries, two are particularly important in this context:

  1. The Council of Laodicea met in Asia Minor about A.D. 363. This is the first council which clearly listed the canonical books of the present Old and New Testaments, with the exception of the Apocalypse of Saint John. The Laodicean council stated that only the canonical books it listed should be read in church. Its decisions were widely accepted in the Eastern Church.
  2. The third Council of Carthage met in North Africa about A.D. 397. This council, attended by Augustine, provided a full list of the canonical books of both the Old and New Testaments. The twenty-seven books of the present-day New Testament were accepted as canonical. The council also held that these books should be read in the church as Divine Scripture to the exclusion of all others. This Council was widely accepted as authoritative in the West.


As I delved deeper into my study of the history of the New Testament, I saw my previous misconceptions being demolished one by one. I understood now what should have been obvious all along: that the New Testament consisted of twenty-seven separate documents which, while certainly inspired by God nothing could shake me in that conviction-had been written and compiled by human beings. It was also clear that this work had not been accomplished by individuals working in isolation, but by the collective effort of all Christians everywhere-the Body of Christ, the Church. This realization forced me to deal with two more issues that my earlier prejudices had led me to avoid:

  1. the propriety and necessity of human involvement in the writing of Scripture; and 
  2. the authority of the Church.


Deeply committed, like many evangelicals, to belief in the inspiration of Scripture, I had understood the New Testament to be God’s Word only, and not man’s. I supposed the Apostles were told by God exactly what to write, much as a secretary takes down what is being dictated, without providing any personal contribution. Ultimately, my understanding of the inspiration of Scripture was clarified by the teaching of the Church regarding the Person of Christ. The Incarnate Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, is not only God but also man. Christ is a single Person with two natures-divine and human. To de-emphasize Christ’s humanity leads to heresy. The ancient Church taught that the Incarnate Word was fully human-in fact, as human as it is possible to be-and yet without sin. In His humanity, the Incarnate Word was born, grew, and matured into manhood. I came to realize that this view of the Incarnate Word of God, the Logos, Jesus Christ, paralleled the early Christian view of the written Word of God, the Bible. The written Word of God reflects not only the divine thought, but a human contribution as well. The Word of God conveys truth to us as written by men, conveying the thoughts, personalities, and even limitations and weaknesses of the writers-inspired by God, to be sure. This means that the human element in the Bible is not overwhelmed so as to be lost in the ocean of the divine. It became clearer to me that as Christ Himself was born, grew, and matured, so also did the written Word of God, the Bible. It did not come down whole-plop-from heaven, but was of human origin as well as divine. The Apostles did not merely inscribe the Scriptures as would a robot or a zombie, but freely cooperated with the will of God through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.


The second issue I had to grapple with was even more difficult for me-the issue of Church authority. It was clear from my study that the Church had, in fact, determined which books composed the Scriptures; but still I wrestled mightily with the thought that the Church had been given this authority. Ultimately, it came down to a single issue. I already believed with all my heart that God spoke authoritatively through His written Word. The written Word of God is concrete and tangible. I can touch the Bible and read it. But for some strange reason, I was reluctant to believe the same things about the Body of Christ, the Church-that she was visible and tangible, located physically on earth in history. The Church to me was essentially "mystical" and intangible, not identifiable with any specific earthly assembly. This view permitted me to see each Christian as being a church unto himself. How convenient this is, especially when doctrinal or personal problems arise! Yet this view did not agree with the reality of what the Church was understood to be in the apostolic era. The New Testament is about real churches, not ethereal ones. Could I now accept the fact that God spoke authoritatively, not only through the Bible, but through His Church as well-the very Church which had produced, protected, and actively preserved the Scriptures I held so dear?


In the view of the earliest Christians, God spoke His Word not only to but through His Body, the Church. It was within His Body, the Church, that the Word was confirmed and established. Without question, the Scriptures were looked upon by early Christians as God’s active revelation of Himself to the world. At the same time, the Church was understood as the household of God, "having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord" (Ephesians 2:20, 21). God has His Word, but He also has His Body. The New Testament says:

  1. "Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually" (1 Corinthians 12:27; compare Romans 12:5)
  2. "He [Christ] is the head of the body, the church" (Colossians 1:18)
  3. "And He [the Father] put all things under His [the Son's] feet, and gave Him to be head overall things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all" (Ephesians 1:22, 23)

In early times there was no organic separation between Bible and Church, as we so often find today. The Body without the Word is without message, but the Word without the Body is without foundation. As Paul writes, the Body is "the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15). The Church is the Living Body of the Incarnate Lord. The Apostle does not say that the New Testament is the pillar and ground of the truth. The Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth because the New Testament was built upon her life in God. In short, she wrote it! She is an integral part of the gospel message, and it is within the Church that the New Testament was written and preserved.


The Apostle Paul exhorts us, "Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle" (2 Thessalonians 2:15). This verse was one that I had not highlighted because it used two phrases I didn’t like: "hold the traditions" and "by word [of mouth]." These two phrases conflicted with my understanding of biblical authority. But then I began to understand: the same God who speaks to us through His written Word, the Bible, spoke also through the Apostles of Christ as they taught and preached in person. The Scriptures themselves teach in this passage (and others) that this oral tradition is what we are to keep! Written and oral tradition are not in conflict, but are parts of one whole. This explains why the Fathers teach that he who does not have the Church as his Mother does not have God as his Father. In coming to this realization, I concluded that I had grossly overreacted in rejecting oral Holy Tradition. In my hostility toward Jewish oral tradition, which rejected Christ, I had rejected Christian oral Holy Tradition, which expresses the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church. And I had rejected the idea that this Tradition enables us properly and fully to understand the Bible. Let me illustrate this point with an experience I had recently. I decided to build a shed behind my house. In preparation, I studied a book on carpentry that has "everything" in it. It’s full of pictures and diagrams, enough so that "even a kid could follow its instructions." It explains itself, I was told. But, simple as it claimed to be, the more I read it, the more questions I had and the more confused I became. Disgusted at not being able to understand something that seemed so simple, I came to the conclusion that the book needed interpretation. Without help, I just couldn’t put it into practice. What I needed was someone with expertise who could explain the manual to me. Fortunately, I had a friend who was able to show me how the project should be completed. He knows because of oral tradition. An experienced carpenter taught him, and he in turn taught me. Written and oral tradition together got the job done.


What confronted me at this point was the bottom line question: Which came first, the Church or the New Testament? I knew that the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ, had called the Apostles, who in turn formed the nucleus of the Christian Church. I knew that the Eternal Word of God therefore preceded the Church and gave birth to the Church. When the Church heard the Incarnate Word of God and committed His Word to writing, she thereby participated with God in giving birth to the written Word, the New Testament. Thus it was the Church which gave birth to and preceded the New Testament. To the question, "Which came first, the Church or the New Testament?" the answer, both biblically and historically, is crystal clear. Someone might protest, "Does it really make any difference which came first? After all, the Bible contains everything that we need for salvation." The Bible is adequate for salvation in the sense that it contains the foundational material needed to establish us on the correct path. On the other hand, it is wrong to consider the Bible as being self-sufficient and self-interpreting. The Bible is meant to be read and understood by the illumination of God’s Holy Spirit within the life of the Church. Did not the Lord Himself tell His disciples, just prior to His crucifixion, "When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come" (John 16:13)? He also said, "I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18). Our Lord did not leave us with only a book to guide us. He left us with His Church. The Holy Spirit within the Church teaches us, and His teaching complements Scripture. How foolish to believe that God’s full illumination ceased after the New Testament books were written and did not resume until the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, or-to take this argument to its logical conclusion-until the very moment when 1, myself, started reading the Bible. Either the Holy Spirit was in the Church throughout the centuries following the New Testament period, leading, teaching, and illuminating her in her understanding of the gospel message, or the Church has been left a spiritual orphan, with individual Christians independently interpreting-and often "authoritatively" teaching the same Scripture in radically different ways. Such chaos cannot be the will of God, "for God is not the author of confusion but of peace" (1 Corinthians 14:33).


At this point in my studies, I felt I had to make a decision. If the Church was not just a tangent or a sidelight to the Scripture, but rather an active participant in its development and preservation, then it was time to reconcile my differences with her and abandon my prejudices. Rather than trying to judge the Church according to my modern preconceptions about what the Bible was saying, I needed to humble myself and come into union with the Church that produced the New Testament, and let her guide me into a proper understanding of Holy Scripture. After carefully exploring various church bodies, I finally realized that, contrary to the beliefs of many modern Christians, the Church which produced the Bible is not dead. The Orthodox Church today has direct and clear historical continuity with the Church of the Apostles, and it preserves intact both the Scriptures and the Holy Tradition which enables us to interpret them properly. Once I understood this, I converted to Orthodoxy and began to experience the fullness of Christianity in a way I never had before. Though he may have coined the slogan, the fact is that Luther himself did not practice sola scriptura. If he had, he’d have tossed out the Creeds and spent less time writing commentaries. The phrase came about as a result of the reformers’ struggles against the added human traditions of Romanism. Understandably, they wanted to be sure their faith was accurate according to New Testament standards. But to isolate the Scriptures from the Church, to deny 1500 years of history, is something the slogan sola scriptura and the Protestant Reformers-Luther, Calvin, and later Wesley-never intended to do. To those who try to stand dogmatically on sola scriptura, in the process rejecting the Church which not only produced the New Testament, but also, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, identified those books which compose the New Testament, I would say this: Study the history of the early Church and the development of the New Testament canon. Use source documents where possible. (It is amazing how some of the most "conservative" Bible scholars of the evangelical community turn into cynical and rationalistic liberals when discussing early Church history!) Examine for yourself what happened to God’s people after the twenty-eighth chapter of the Book of Acts. You will find a list of helpful sources at the end of this booklet. If you examine the data and look with objectivity at what occurred in those early days, I think you will discover what I discovered. The life and work of God’s Church did not grind to a halt after the first century and start up again in the sixteenth. If it had, we would not possess the New Testament books which are so dear to every Christian believer. The separation of Church and Bible which is so prevalent in much of today’s Christian world is a modern phenomenon. Early Christians made no such artificial distinctions. Once you have examined the data, I would encourage you to find out more about the historic Church which produced the New Testament, preserved it, and selected those books which would be part of its canon. Every Christian owes it to himself or herself to discover the Orthodox Christian Church and to understand its vital role in proclaiming God’s Word to our own generation.


  • Bruce, F.F., The Canon of Scripture, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1988.
  • Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1990.
  • Farmer, William R. & Farkasfalvy, Denis, The Formation of the New Testament Canon: An Ecumenical Approach, New York: Paulist Press, 1983.
  • Gamble, Harry Y., The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.
  • Kesich, Veselin, The Gospel Image of Christ, Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992.
  • Metzger, Bruce Manning, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Meyendorff, John, Living Tradition, Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978.

J-List has thousands of rare products from Japan - click now

16 May 2011

Taiwanese Orthodox Missionary's Letter to the Greek People

I am Chinese, born in Taiwan and my Christian name is Pelagia. I was a Protestant Christian, and it took me five years to become Orthodox. I love to read the Holy Bible and have all of its publications in the Chinese language.

I have visited Greece and discovered that it is a truly unique country. While travelling in your country, even before I arrived, on the plane I saw how different in temperament Greek people were, how cheerfully they conversed with each other, how they laughed and how they applauded the pilot after the landing, something unheard of for us Asians, who are more conservative and do not easily display emotion. I learnt after this experience that the expression of freedom requires passion and liveliness.

In Greece, I visited many churches, I participated in the Divine Liturgy and when I received Holy Communion, it reduced me to tears even though I did not understand the Greek language, because the Orthodox faith is the same, no matter what the language.

I would have liked to be born Greek, to have been born Orthodox, to have received Holy Communion and venerated holy icons from my years of infanthood right up until my death.

I cry for me, and my compatriots, because instead of Holy Communion, we eat and drink food sacrificed to idols.

I would have liked to be born Greek, so my ears may be filled with holy hymns.

I cry for me, and my compatriots, whose ears are filled with the noise of sutras and the screeches of those who worship the idols.

I would have liked to be born Greek, so that I may smell the sweet aroma of incense.

I cry for me, and my compatriots, who are constantly assaulted by the pungent smell of the smoke rising up from the sacrifices offered up to the idols.

I would have liked to be born Greek, so that my hands could touch the holy icons, the holy relics of the Saints and be filled with the love of Christ.

I cry for me, and my compatriots, whose hands touch the idols and the things sacrificed to them, but who in reality are holding on to nothing.

I would have liked to be born Greek, so that I may light candles to Christ – not like here, where we burn money as an offering to the spirits.

I was searching for the Truth, using more than 30 different publications of the Holy Bible, which unfortunately, were all full of errors (translated by non-Orthodox).

I would have liked to be born Greek, so that I may read the Holy Bible in its original form!

I cry for me, and my compatriots, because, although we have eyes, we are blind.

I would have liked to be born Greek, so that I may be able to see the grace of God all around me.

I cry for me, and my compatriots, who are surrounded by temples dedicated to false gods.

Yes, I am Orthodox, but living in Taiwan, I have very limited opportunities to experience the Orthodox Christian way of life.

I cry for me, because I do not have the ability to show my compatriots the greatness of our faith… The people here want to see signs and miracles…

I cry for me, and my compatriots, because we do not have the gift of hearing of and seeing so many miracles, so many holy words that you have seen and heard over 2000 years in Greece, and which you still see…Taiwan is not an Orthodox country, our feast days and holy days do not look at all like yours.

I am disappointed that in Greece, although you have so many beautiful mountains, you do not look after them, you burn them down. However, I am amazed that practically every mountain in Greece has at least one monastery. We have mountains filled with Buddhist temples and monasteries.

I would have liked to be born Greek, so that I may go and pray at an Orthodox monastery easily.

I cry for me, and my compatriots. For the first time, I visited an Orthodox monastery, dedicated to St John the Forerunner in Pelion. I travelled to Greece from Taiwan- 16 hours on the plane, a few hours on the train to Larisa and another hour with the monastery car, that was driven by one of the nuns…

I saw the ancient ruins of the Holy Monastery, I saw so many other places in Greece that have been abandoned and my heart bled. In Taiwan, we do not have such a wealth of archaeological artefacts, holy and beautiful places, but you do not appreciate them.

I cry that we do not have beautiful icons. I cry because I feel like Christ is weak and naked here.

Greeks, you think you are poor due to the economic crisis you are going through, but you do not know how truly rich you are.

Taiwan is a country with a huge amount of material development and progress, and yet it remains in the darkness of Satan and our spiritual life is empty.

I would have liked to be born Greek, so that I may go and pray at an Orthodox monastery easily.

I cry for me, and my compatriots. For the first time, I visited an Orthodox monastery, dedicated to St John the Forerunner in Pelion. I travelled to Greece from Taiwan- 16 hours on the plane, a few hours on the train to Larisa and another hour with the monastery car, that was driven by one of the nuns…

I saw the ancient ruins of the Holy Monastery, I saw so many other places in Greece that have been abandoned and my heart bled. In Taiwan, we do not have such a wealth of archaeological artefacts, holy and beautiful places, but you do not appreciate them.

I cry that we do not have beautiful icons. I cry because I feel like Christ is weak and naked here.

Greeks, you think you are poor due to the economic crisis you are going through, but you do not know how truly rich you are.

Taiwan is a country with a huge amount of material development and progress, and yet it remains in the darkness of Satan and our spiritual life is empty.

I do not ask for help to build an Orthodox church building here. It would cost millions. Please help us to buy a bigger place in the city centre, which we will convert into a church, for the sake of our nation, our brothers and sisters, who have never had the opportunity to hear about and know our Christ. We are a country of 23 million people! And yet we have need of your help…

My brothers and sisters in Christ, if the need arises, I will do whatever is in my power to repay a little of your love, I will do whatever is needed with all my heart and for the duration of my life.

I thank you. Forgive me.

Pelagia Yu.

Translated by P.S.Z. This article was originally published in Greek in the Periodicαl “Agios Kosmas o Aitolos” (Issue 84-First quarter 2011) and online at http://www.iersyn.gr/pelagias_letter.php (Tuesday 22nd February 2011, 18:30).

Taiwan is a country of various religious beliefs. There are currently fourteen registered religions on the island practiced by nearly half the residents of Taiwan. These religions include Eastern Orthodoxy, Buddhism (the most popular), Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hsuan-yuan Chiao, Islam, Li-ism, Tenrikyo, Baha’i, T’ienti Teachings, Tien Te Chiao, I-Kuan Tao, and Mahikarikyo.

The Eastern Orthodoxy tradition of Christianity is present as a minor denomination in Taiwan. The Orthodox church was first established in 2003 when it registered with the government. The bishop of the church is Presbyter Liang. The establishment of the Orthodox Church was supported by sister churches in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia.

Buddhism is the most prevalent institutionalized religion in Taiwan, and is practiced by almost 4.9 million individuals. Originating from India, Buddhism was introduced to Taiwan in the late 16th Century. The more significant type of Buddhism today is the Mahayana (Great Wheel). Devotees of this religion chant mantras and sutras, and practice meditation in the many temples available on the island.

Taoism is the second most popular religion in Taiwan, followed by 4.5 million people of Taiwan. This religion evolved from the philosophy of Lao Tzu, who lived during the 6th Century BC. The central idea of the religion is the fulfillment of divinity. Taoists use incense for prayer and worship.

Roughly 304,000 individuals are believers of Catholicism. Christianity came to Taiwan in 1626 through the Spanish occupation. A Catholic priest, Father Martinez, together with four Dominican priests from the Philippines started this mission to introduce the Catholic faith to the people.

Georgius Candidus of the Reformed Church of Holland was the first successful missionary to introduce Protestantism to this island. In 1997, there were at least 65 Protestant sects, 2,700 Protestant churches, and 2,550 ministers in Taiwan.

Hsuan-yuan Chiao was established by an old legislator named Wang Han-sheng in 1957 in Taiwan. ‘Hsuan-yuan’ is the name of Huangti, the Yellow Emperor who unified China, while ‘Chiao’ means teachings or religion in Chinese. This religion was conceived because of Wang’s anguish over the dispossession of the Chinese mainland to the Chinese communists. Each lunar year, a large-scale ceremony is held to honor Huangti on the ninth of the first month. Other smaller ceremonies are held on specific days of other months to celebrate Huangti’s birthday and his ascent to heaven. The largest Hsuan-yuan temple is situated in Tamsui.

Islam was introduced to China during the reign of Tai Tsung (627-649 AD). A massive migration of Muslims into China brought about the augmentation of Muslim arts and sciences, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and military science. In 1949, 20,000 Muslims accompanied by the Republic of China (ROC) government came to Taiwan, and Islam was thus established as a religion. Muslims in Taiwan today, however, have difficulties conforming to orthodox Islamic customs. The hectic city lifestyles and the restraints of a non-Muslim environment contribute to the many problems faced by the Muslims. There are currently three new mosques, which have been constructed in Kaohsiung, Taichung, and Lungkang, together with two other mosques in Taipei.

Li-ism was founded by Yang Lai-ju in the 17th Century. The meaning of Li-ism is ‘the doctrine of order’. Li-ism accentuates traditional Chinese morals and ethics. It is an amalgamation of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism while accentuating also on the worshipping of Kuanyin (Goddess of Mercy). Customs and practices of Li-ism are similar to that of Buddhism in terms of worship and ‘dos and don’ts’.

Tenrikyo, as the name suggests, is a Japanese religion founded in 1838 by Miki Nakayam, who was a daughter of a peasant family. It teaches people how to abide by God’s will by gaining control of their destiny so they can lead a life of joy. This religion was introduced in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation. Due to its similarity to Buddhism, it was accepted and developed in Taiwan. The Tenrikyo headquarters is located in the Yuanshuan area of Taipei.

The Baha’i faith was founded in Iran in 1844 by ‘Bab’. Baha’is have few beliefs. They believe that the family is the foundation of human society, and God has sent messengers like Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed to fulfill his purpose. In 1954, an Iranian missionary couple came and constituted Taiwan’s first Baha’i center in Tainan. Now, the local headquarters is located in Taipei.

Tienti teachings were founded by Lee Yu-Chieh in the mid-1980s. Tienti teachings focuses on some of China’s oldest religious traditions and honors the Lord of Heaven (T’ienti), ruler of the universe. The religion stresses the co-existence between the spiritual and material worlds. However, the absolute goal of Tienti teachings is a world of universal love regardless of race or belief.

Tien Te Chiao is a combination of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. The religion was brought into existence in mainland China in 1923. Its founder, Hsiao Chang-Ming was gifted with the gift of healing, which attracted much attention. He inducted many principles in which followers were to adhere throughout their lives. Wang Ti-ching, a disciple of Hsiao in Kaohsiung, spread Tien Te Chiao.

I-Kuan Tao is a new faith and also the third most popular religion in Taiwan. It strives to distinguish common principles underlying Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism. Worshippers believe that by unveiling the universal truths, the world can achieve peace and harmony.

Mahikarikyo, another Japanese religion, was founded by Yosikazu Okada in 1959. Mahikarikyo believes that anyone can attain healing powers by taking a three-day seminar on the Spiritual Art of Divine Light. Devotees believe that their teachings of the righteous law will bring all people happiness in the coming Holy Twenty-First Century. Mahikarikyo was introduced to Taiwan in 1983, but was only registered with the Ministry in 1996. Now, the religion has vastly developed with shrines available around the island.

J-List has thousands of rare products from Japan - click now
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...