A Brief History of Sanctification

When reading Berkhof’s Systematic theology one comes away with the notion that justification and sanctification were inseparably conflated and that works based theology reigned until the Reformation, (Berkhof, 529-30). While it is true that the Reformers were the first to articulate the doctrine of justification by faith alone and to draw out the distinction between justification and sanctification, it is not true to say that the church was uninterested in the process of sanctification until the Reformation.

Sanctification is, as the word suggests, the process by which a person is made holy. The distinction has historically been made between definitive sanctification, a setting apart by God at one’s regeneration and baptism, and progressive sanctification, the lifelong process by which a believer, by grace, is enabled to more and more die unto sin and live unto righteousness, to paraphrase Westminster. To say that the church never rested in the “apartness” of baptized believers or that the church never sought to become more conformed to God’s law would be incorrect. Furthermore, after Augustine, everyone in the West taught and believed that everything in a believer’s life was totally and completely of and by grace.

Since though we do not see traditional reformed systematic theological categories in the first fifteen centuries of the church, what do we see? I propose that we see different models of sanctification throughout the life of the church. These models are more or less chronological. They are:

  1. Martyrdom (1st-4th) – the intense early phase of the church. The passion of standing for one’s faith in the face of torture and death and the contagious fervor that this threat posed served to sanctify the early church.
  2. Orthodoxy (4th-6th) – Right belief in the era of the Creeds and Councils. Sanctification through right belief.
  3. Mystical Theosis – Eastern contemplative. Becoming God-like through spiritual disciplines and contemplation. Related to orthodox belief.
  4. Sacramental Divinization (5th-7th) – Augustine’s Western counterpart to Theosis. Being made God-like through grace by hearing the word, participation in the liturgy, sacraments, and prayer.
  5. Communal Regulative formation (5th – 11th) – Benedict of Nursia. Sanctification through faithful (full of faith) and evangelical (belief and adherence to the gospel) submission to a rule of life in the community of believers. Still assumed the Augustinian notion of sanctification by grace.
  6. Corporate Sacramental Participation – Carolingian period (8th-10th c). A form of Augustine’s notion, but more emphasizing the entire body being sanctified corporately instead of individual believers.
  7. Curative Pastoral Application – Innocent III (13th-14th) Emphasis on individual participation and involvement in pastoral care to bring sanctification.
  8. Mystical Contemplation (13th-15th) – Mystics like St. Francis and Bonaventure building on the tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius in the mystical contemplation of the Trinity. There is some of this in Augustine too.
  9. Imitation of Christ (15-17th) – Thomas à Kempis and the other devotio moderna adherents. Contemplation and imitation of Christ. There is some of this in Francis as well.

A Word on Reading the Scholastics

Here are a few points that will help us enter into the wonderful world of scholastic theology.

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to spend thousands of hours reading and studying the writings and theology of the scholastic period through the course of my PhD, my teaching, and especially through working on this: a translation of one of the more important works of scholastic theology by St. Bonaventure. Since the writings of the scholastics can be a bit difficult to enter into, I thought I would write a primer on scholastic theology as an entry point for interested readers.

Scholasticism broadly defined is the theological and intellectual movement surrounding the schools of Paris in the 13th and 14th centuries. It is marked by an adherence to the theological tradition, grounded in the teachings of the Bible and the theological exposition of St. Augustine. The basic tenant of Scholasticism was Augustine’s mantra Credo ut intelligam (I believe so that I may understand), or to put it more simply, faith seeking understanding. There are two things that made Scholasticism different from previous intellectual movements: the sic et non method, and the use of Aristotle (This one, not this one).  These two (the method and the philosophy) combined to form a theological movement that posited and explored the thesis that everything could be understood and explained through faith and reason. Therefore, if we do not either understand how the sic et non method works or know a bit about the Bible, Augustine, and Aristotle, we cannot read, understand, or explain the scholastics in an intelligent way. Here are a few points that will help us enter into the wonderful world of scholastic theology.

 1. The fallacy of historical anachronism
The first thing we must note when undertaking to read writings from the past is that we should avoid the fallacy of historical anachronism. What’s that? It’s when we impose later developments onto earlier ones and either criticize the earlier for not having exhibited evidence of the latter, or assume that something in a latter development is also an integral aspect of the earlier ones. An example of this would be in criticizing medieval authors because they do not articulate their soteriology in the exact language of the canons of the Council of Dort. We could however hold medieval writers to the canons of the Council of Orange since it preceded the Middle Ages. The basic idea here is that if something didn’t exist yet, we can’t expect someone to know about it. It would be like expecting Abraham Lincoln to know the intricacies of the whip and nae nae, for example.

 2. The sic et non method
The sic et non method was the way scholastic theology was done, thus it is often called eponymously the scholastic method. The sic et non method was introduced by Peter Abelard in the 12th century. Abelard was a rock star in the classroom, mesmerizing his audiences with his lectures. In them he would posit a question, for example, “Must human faith be completed by reason, or not?” Then he would present the arguments for answering “yes” (Latin, sic) followed by the arguments for answering “no” (Latin, non). Abelard would argue passionately and vigorously for each side of the position, but would never give his answer. He would just leave the audience hanging! While this method lead to his fame, it would not develop into anything more than a show prop for about 100 years.

Meanwhile, around the same time, the theological standard for orthodoxy was being developed by another Peter, this one named Lombard. His Four Books of the Sentences was the standard exposition and articulation of Western (Augustinian) theology for 500 years. This book, not Thomas Aquinas, was the theological textbook of the Middle Ages, and has left such an imprint on the Western theological landscape that we can even see it in the arrangement of books and subjects in Calvin’s Institutes.

In the 13th century, the teachers of Paris, lead by Alexander of Hales, synthesized Abelard’s lecture method and Lombard’s theological textbook to form the scholastic method. It began as an academic exercise. Alexander had his students (one of which was the famous scholastic theologian and contemporary of Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure) write a commentary on the sentences of Peter Lombard, using a modified form of the sic et non method. Alexander and his students added to Abelard’s method of presenting the yes and no a statement of the correct answer (in the opinion of the student) and then answers to the objections.

Thus when reading any of these scholastic texts, one must understand that the first statements one finds at the beginning of each section are not the opinions of the author! They are simply popular arguments for and against that the author is presenting for the sake of the method. If the reader wishes to understand what the author is actually teaching on the subject, he must skip down to the respondeo, which begins with the words “I respond.” There you will find the opinion and rationale of the author on the question. Following the response then are the responses to the objections that did not agree with the opinion that the author took.

This academic exercise was undertaken by students of theology studying for a doctorate in the late Middle Ages. Jan Hus, the famous Czech reformer, wrote one of these commentaries as a part of his magisterial studies in Prague, and in it he exhibits the same method developed by Alexander and his students.

The Summa theologica by Thomas Aquinas, though not a commentary on the sentences (he did produce one) employs the sic et non method. Thus readers of the Summa need to understand how the method works.

 3. Augustine and Philosophy – He loved Philosophy!
St. Augustine laid the theological and intellectual framework for Western civilization. His mature synthesis of Christian society can be found in his capstone work The City of God, which was written in 426, four years before his death. In the City of God Augustine argues that the philosophical basis for Christian thought should be what we now call Neo-Platonism, and he even states that Plotinus, the chief expositor of Neo-Platonism in his nine-volume work The Enneads, was the closest of the pagan philosophers to come to a true understanding of God (See Book X in The City of God). In The City of God and other writings Augustine synthesized the Christian faith and Neo-Platonic philosophy to lay the intellectual foundations for the Christian west.

 4. The Scholastics and Augustine
As was already stated above, the theology of the Western church in the Middle Ages was thoroughly Augustinian. This is so in almost every aspect of every subject of theology. For example, medieval theologians were Augustinian in their thoughts on sacraments, sin, grace, anthropology, theology proper, ecclesiology, eschatology, and every other “ology” you can think of. Augustine was the teacher par excellence of the medieval church.

Specifically, on the topic of salvation and grace, medieval theologians consistently maintained their adherence to the Augustinian doctrines of grace. These doctrines are articulated in his treatises against the Pelagians, and also made canonical by the declarations of the Council of Orange. This theology posited the existence of Original Sin, handed down from parent to child all the way back to our first parents, and that original sin destroys the ability in any human being to love God or achieve salvation or do any good work outside the divine aid of God. Augustine also taught that believers must have an act of God performed on them to even make them dispositive for grace. He taught that believers were chosen by God (predestined) to receive this grace a part from any merit in themselves. He also taught that this grace was conferred to believers by a free gift of God through sacraments. No orthodox western theologian (medieval, Reformational, or otherwise) ever strayed from this opinion until the modern period.

A poignant example of this can be found in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, a medieval theologian often pilloried by some Protestant polemicists. In Question 109 of his Summa theologica, Thomas posits ten questions on the necessity of grace in human salvation. You are welcome to read this section, minding the use of the sic et non method I outlined above:

It is notable that Thomas’s answer to all ten of these questions is unequivocal: divine help is absolutely necessary for any good thing to come out of a fallen person. Here are the ten questions:

  1. Without grace, can man know anything? Answer: No
  2. Without God’s grace, can man do or wish any good? Answer: No
  3. Without grace, can man love God above all things? Answer: No
  4. Without grace, can man keep the commandments of the Law? Answer: No
  5. Without grace, can he merit eternal life? Answer: No
  6. Without grace, can man prepare himself for grace? Answer: No
  7. Without grace, can he rise from sin? Answer: No
  8. Without grace, can man avoid sin? Answer: No
  9. Having received grace, can man do good and avoid sin without any further Divine help? Answer: No
  10. Can he of himself persevere in good? Answer: No

Now, admittedly I have done a bit of contextualization to bring his terminology into our modern theological idiom. Thomas is a very precise thinker. So if you take my challenge and read the section, you will find that at times he will say that an extra work of grace is not needed. Nevertheless, none of these things can be done without divine aid. That is what we would call grace. Here are some examples:

Response to question 1: Hence we must say that for the knowledge of any truth whatsoever man needs Divine help, that the intellect may be moved by God to its act. But he does not need a new light added to his natural light, in order to know the truth in all things, but only in some that surpass his natural knowledge. And yet at times God miraculously instructs some by His grace in things that can be known by natural reason, even as He sometimes brings about miraculously what nature can do.

Response to question 2: And thus in the state of perfect nature man needs a gratuitous strength superadded to natural strength for one reason, viz. in order to do and wish supernatural good; but for two reasons, in the state of corrupt nature, viz. in order to be healed, and furthermore in order to carry out works of supernatural virtue, which are meritorious. Beyond this, in both states man needs the Divine help, that he may be moved to act well.

Response to question 3: But in the state of corrupt nature man falls short of this in the appetite of his rational will, which, unless it is cured by God’s grace, follows its private good, on account of the corruption of nature. And hence we must say that in the state of perfect nature man did not need the gift of grace added to his natural endowments, in order to love God above all things naturally, although he needed God’s help to move him to it; but in the state of corrupt nature man needs, even for this, the help of grace to heal his nature.

In these we can see that Thomas is making the distinction between what we would call saving grace and what we would call either common grace or simply, grace, i. e. the grace we need to continue to live the Christian life.

 5. The Scholastic theology of the will
One last thing should be said when thinking about how some scholastics, specifically theologians like Thomas and John Duns Scotus, discuss things like the will, the intellect, the mind, reason, and so on. When they do this they are operating on a whole host of assumptions, set by St. Augustine, on the philosophical foundation for nature and being. Augustine, for example, taught that there is in every human a higher soul and a lower soul (see De Trinitate, Book XII). Augustine also taught, as we have already established, that the human person was fallen and unable to do good or choose God outside of divine help. Scholastic theologians like Thomas and Scotus took this teaching to a particular place when they posited that it was fundamentally the human will that was fallen and thus made the human person unable to do any good thing or to love God or choose to serve him or have faith in him. This theology of the will served as the basis for much of Luther’s thought on the human person, salvation, and the will and is the underlying basis for his doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone.

The reason why Thomas and Scotus taught that there was a part of the human intellect that was untouched by sin has to do with where they placed the image of God in the human person, again following, you guessed it, Augustine. Since they all placed the image of God in the upper or rational soul, that part of the human person could not be touched by the fall, otherwise a person would cease to be rational, cease to be an image bearer, cease to be a person. Yet, these teachers protected the Augustinian teachings on grace in unequivocally stating that despite this, the human person could know nothing or do nothing outside of God’s divine help (as is shown above). Thus I think that anyone labeling these thinkers as semi-Pellagian is straying out of their lane.

Conclusion: Why this matters
Why does this matter? Simply, because there is a resurgent interest in the scholastic period and in thinkers like Thomas, Scotus, Ockham, and Bonaventure. I would add that theologians like Hugh of St. Victor (and the other Victorines), Lombard, Hales, and Anselm are also worthy of study. Thus if we are going to study and read these medieval thinkers, it is always good to read them correctly, contextually, and on their own terms. To put it even more simply, it matters because we want to tell the truth about what these folks actually said.

Why else does it matter? I think another good reason why reading these writers accurately matters is that when we do not tell a true or accurate story about medieval theologians (or patristic writers like Augustine), and then someone is presented with a more nuanced and accurate take on them which better accounts for their writings and their context, it discredits those who propounded the unfortunately false view and those who surround him or her. How many young Protestants have converted to Roman Catholicism (or seriously considered it) because they have heard truncated or even false takes on ancient and medieval writers only to hear a truer take from Roman Catholic authors and apologists? We as Reformed and otherwise Protestant are better served by engaging these ancient and medieval authors correctly, articulating where we differ, celebrating where we find commonality, and enriching on our own traditions where we find anew sources for growing and building upon our own little piece of the great Catholic Church.

Fully Human

A friend reminded me today of this important aspect of theology. Fourth century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus said, “What has not been assumed is not healed.”

Christ has a human mind, a human body, and a human will. He is like us in every respect, except without sin. If this is not true, if he does not have a human body, then our bodies are not saved; if he does not have a human mind, then our minds are still fallen, if he does not have a human will, then our wills are left without hope of deliverance. In other words, if Christ is not fully human, in every way like us, then we are still in our sins.

Something to remember.

(HT Tomás O’Sullivan)

Ecce homo: a Good Friday Homily

The Passion of Christ has long been a subject for artists. The material has depth of story  and emotion like nothing other. Some of the most beautiful art that has ever been produced has used the subject of Christ’s suffering and death as inspiration. In the world  of music there is the genre of the Passion chorale, in drama, the Passion play, and in art the standard canon of scenes from Jesus’ suffering and death as depicted in the Gospels.

One of those standard scenes in the passion canon is the Ecce homo. This scene gets its name from the famous words of Pontius Pilate as he introduces Jesus to the crowds after his flogging and humiliation. When he presents Jesus to the crowds, Pilate says, “Behold the man,” which in Latin is, “Ecce homo.”

Behold the man. Ecce homo.

This scene began to be a popular artistic subject in the late middle ages and into the Renaissance. Most of these depictions are shown in the third person, with you, the viewer back at an angle watching the entire scene unfold. The angry crowds are shown. The crowds who will call for Jesus’ death. The soldiers are shown, the torturer, the surrounding architecture and city are shown, and of course, Pilate and Jesus. Most of these paintings give the viewer a birds eye view of the entire scene to let you appreciate
the full gravity of this moment in all its awful enormity.

But there is one painting that is different, and it happens to be one of the most famous of this genre. In Caravaggio’s rendition, there are no crowds, no surrounding city, no buildings or architecture, there is nothing at all, but the torturer, Jesus, Pilate, and you.

Yes, Caravaggio’s brilliance is in placing we, the viewer, into the artistic moment. The painting is astounding in its simplicity. Christ is looking down, passively suffering, like a lamb before the slaughter. The torturer is almost gently placing a purple robe on the
shoulders of the suffering Christ. And Pilate, on whom the most attention is given, is standing in the foreground with his hands, palms upward, gesturing toward Christ, his body pointing neither at Christ or us, but his head turned and looking us squarely in the eyes. In Caravaggio’s work Pilate is taking a neutral stance. He is not for or against Jesus. He is almost indifferent. And he looks to us almost as if to say, “What do you
want me to do with him? It is up to you. Behold the man.”

Now, this was revolutionary because the depictions of Ecce homo that preceded  Caravaggio serve to make you empathize with the suffering Christ and to be angry with those who caused his suffering. The torturer is shown with an insane look in his eyes. The soldiers are blood thirsty. The crowds are enraged. You are supposed to be angry at  them. But in Caravaggio’s painting, the torturer almost doesn’t even want to be there, Pilate seems indifferent and annoyed, and the only person to blame for the horrible state of Christ’s suffering and humiliation is the only other person left in the artistic moment: me.

I think Caravaggio gets it right. You see, Pilate is not saying Ecce homo to the scribes, the Pharisees, the chief priests and rulers of Israel. Pilate is saying Ecce homo to you, to me. He is saying to us, “behold the man.” Pilate is asking us what we will do with this Christ, this King of the Jews. He is saying to us, “Behold the man.” Behold him. Behold this Christ.

There is something about considering Christ in this specific moment, almost as if we had hit pause on our TV remote. Here is Christ. Before he dies on the cross, yet in the midst of his suffering and rejection. This is a part of Christ’s passion, you see. This is a part of his atonement. He had to experience this moment. Behold the man.

Behold him as he is scourged. There are two Greek words used in the gospels that
describe the scourging of Jesus. One word emphasizes the many pronged whip that was used, with bones and metal tied to the tips of the leather thongs. These thongs sliced through his flesh. The other word used in the gospels is the word that we get our word for “to chew” and emphasizes how the whip tore and chewed through his flesh. This scourging was for the purposes of torture, and the Romans were very good at it. Its goal was to inflict excruciating pain but still leave the subject alive so that he could be crucified. If this scourging itself would not have been limited, that act itself would have killed him. Behold the man.

Behold him as the Roman soldiers take thorns and twist them and make them into a crown of mockery. Behold him as they cruelly force the thorny crown onto his brow. Behold the blood as it begins to pour. Behold the man.

Behold him as the soldiers mock him and strike him. Behold him as they take a purple robe and place it on him, mocking his supposed kingship. Behold him as he is mocked and beaten by the very ones whom he carefully and wonderfully knitted together in their mothers’ wombs. Behold the man.

Behold him now as he is brought out again before you. Behold him as Pilate presents him to you again. Behold him stricken, smitten, and afflicted. Behold the sacred head now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down. Behold him despised and rejected. Behold him acquainted with grief. Behold the man.

You want to look away, don’t you. We can’t bear to look, can we? It is too awful, too gruesome. But ultimately, we are too ashamed. We cannot look because we know that
it is our sin that put him there. We cannot look because it is our penalty that he is suffering to pay. We cannot look because it is we who have condemned him. Yes, when Pilate looks at us and says, “Behold the man,” we would like to think that we would grant him reprieve. We would like to think that we would take Barabbas instead. But no one has ever taken Barabbas. We have all taken Jesus. We have all condemned him to die.

When did we do this? Every time we sin. Every time we reject goodness of the creator for our own selfish ways. Every time we follow the wicked ways of this world instead of the ways of God we are asking for Barabbas and rejecting Jesus. Every time we harden our hearts and do what we know is wrong, we are saying, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him! Crucify him!” Behold the man.

Tonight, we are all faced with a choice. Pilate looks at us and asks us a question, “What will you do with this Christ?” The beauty of the gospel is that you can make this choice anew tonight. All past wrongs can be forgiven if you will choose Christ again. Be sorry for your sins! Repent and turn away from them. Choose Christ and send away your own sinful flesh. He suffered and died to make this way for you. He paid the debt that you
owe. He suffered the wrath that you deserve for your sins. Choose Christ and nothing else! Run to Christ and receive his grace! Bask in his mercy that he bought with his
own blood. Be healed with the stripes of his back. Be renewed with the blood of his brow.

What will you do? What will you choose? This the most important decision you will ever make. Will you choose Christ, or will you choose to continue to wallow in your sin and misery? Will you choose Christ or will you choose death? There is no need for you to die because Christ has died so that you all might live. Choose life. Choose Christ.

What will you choose?

Behold the man.

Was Jesus Crucified on the Mount of Olives?

View from the Mount of Olives looking west onto the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock now stands

In a 1996 article in Biblical Horizons, James Jordan makes several observations about the Mount of Olives and it’s significance both in Jesus’ ministry and in biblical theology in general. Now there are several fascinating observations in that article, but one of them particularly stood out to me. There Jordan argues that Jesus was likely crucified on the Mount of Olives. Read the essay here:

I must admit, this suggestion makes a lot of sense and resonates with me. The Mount of Olives figures largely in all the gospels and it’s theological symbolism can easily be articulated due to the significance of olives in the Bible. Many of our modern day designations for places of Jesus’ life are admittedly guesses by scholars, so this suggestion by Jordan is not treading on anything sacrosanct. I must say that given the geography and symbolism it makes a lot of sense. What think ye?

On the Origins of Lent

This is part one of a series. Part two can be read here. Part three, here.

As I sit down to write this post, it is Tuesday, February 19, 2013, otherwise known as the seventh day of Lent. Every year around this time several blog posts are trotted out for or against observing Lent and arguing for or against various Lenten practices. I believe these kinds of discussions are good and helpful, especially within the neighborhood of Christendom where I reside: the broader Reformed and post-Evangelical world. The reason is that we, if I may lump us together, have been recently rediscovering many of the older practices of the church. Along with that we are also trying to keep our Protestant and Reformed bona fides by discussing which ancient practices of the Church ought to be retained and the way in which we ought to retain them.

This post is a part of that ongoing discussion. In it I want to put forth a certain argument for the practice of Lent by way of exploring its history. As I am a credentialed historical theologian, this is both my specialty and my passion. Therefore in this post I would like to explore the content of one meta-question: What are the historical origins of Lent – how far back does the observance of Lent go, and what, if anything, can we say about ancient Lenten practices?

This question is important, because the common perception is that Lent is some kind of medieval catholic practice. Now, as a medievalist myself, if it were a medieval development that would not necessarily disqualify it in my book. Yet as we look at the primary sources what we find is that the season of Lent has very ancient origins in the Christian church, almost as ancient as the origins of the church itself and her New Testament scriptures.

While this may seem like a fantastic claim, I am confident it can be substantiated. Let me begin with one prominent example. St. Athanasius (c. 297-373 AD) is an early church father who is held in high regard by all Christians, including Protestants. There are two main reasons for this respect. First of all, Athanasius is considered to be the champion of Nicene orthodoxy against the early heresy of Arianism, which taught that Jesus was not God but the highest of all created beings. Athanasius was present at the Council of Nicaea (from which we have been bequeathed the ancient and venerable Nicene Creed), and he continued to fight for the orthodox view of the Trinity and the deity of Christ throughout his life, suffering much on account of the faith including two separate exiles from his pastoral see.

The second reason Protestants revere Athanasius is because of his famous 39th Festal Letter written to his parishioners in Alexandria in the year 367. Now, this letter is precious to Protestants, and especially ones of Reformed persuasion, because in this letter is the first articulation of the entire New Testament canon that we now possess. For this reason, Athanasius is known to some as the Father of the Biblical Canon.

Now, what may interest you, dear reader, is that in his 2nd Festal Letter some 37 years before, in the year 330 AD, Athanasius wrote this to his flock:

We begin the fast of forty days on the 13th of the month Phamenoth (Mar. 9). After we have given ourselves to fasting in continued succession, let us begin the holy Paschal week on the 18th of the month Pharmuthi (April 13). Then resting on the 23rd of the same month Pharmuthi (April 18), and keeping the feast afterwards on the first of the week, on the 24th (April 19), let us add to these the seven weeks of the great Pentecost, wholly rejoicing and exulting in Christ Jesus our Lord, through Whom to the Father be glory and dominion in the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever.

Given this evidence, if one was so inclined one might make the argument that the observance of Lent was older than the biblical canon. While I personally would not go so far as to make this particular argument, I would point out that those who lay claim to Athanasius and his Festal letter as proof for the biblical canon might also take a look at an earlier letter of his that shows his support for keeping the 40 day fast of Lent.

I would also make a similar observation to those who hold Athanasius in such high regard due to his championing of Nicene Orthodoxy. We may note that the Council of Nicaea met in the year 325 and that this letter followed only five years later. Again, one could make the argument that the observance of Lent is just as old as Nicene Orthodoxy, but, well, I think you get my point.

While this quotation is a significant piece of historical evidence, we have to be careful not to overstate its reach. Though this quote reveals to us Athanasius’ desire for a 40 day fast preceding Easter we also find from later letters that this was a change of practice in Alexandria that he was attempting to introduce there. Yet from other sources, including his letter to Bishop Serapion, we find that at least by 340 AD the practice was more widespread and that Athanasius likely received it from Rome. So it seems that it is safe to say that the by the early to mid 4th century, the practice of observing a 40 day fast in preparation for Easter was becoming the norm.

Furthermore, I would like to point out that while the Council of Nicaea did not declare a 40 day fast for Lent, it did acknowledge the existence of a 40 day preparatory liturgical season preceding Easter when it declared that local synods should meet twice a year, “One before Lent (Greek: tessarakosta; Latin: quadragesima; literally: 40 days), so that all pettiness being set aside, the gift offered to God may be unblemished,” (Canon 5). This piece of evidence seems significant, because it confirms that Athanasius’ practice was not isolated in 330AD. If the Nicene Fathers referred to Lent in their deliberations, it must have been a pretty widely accepted practice.

While we can trace the observance of a 40 day lent to the mid 4th century, the setting aside of some time of preparation in advance of Easter is still at least one century more ancient. In several sources, including the Didascalia Apostolorum, The Apostolic Tradition, and a Festal Letter by Dionysius of Alexandria, we find that there was a one, two, or six day preparatory fast leading up to Easter, depending on the time and location. This, according to scholar Thomas J. Talley, places the practice of preparatory fasting as early as the first half of the third century (200-250 AD). It seems that this six day preparatory fast has become our modern Holy Week, and that by the 4th century this period was extended to 40 days to symbolize the fasts of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.

In conclusion, what are we to take away from this historical evidence? I argue that we should take from it that Lent is a very ancient and universal practice of the Christian Church. Evidence for it is as ancient as evidence for the biblical canon and our most important statement of Trinitarian orthodoxy. Nevertheless, I am not arguing that keeping Lent is as important as the canon of the New Testament or the belief in the Trinity, and neither am I arguing that Lent is as old as these things. This is because Athanasius’ 39th Festal letter is not the origin of the biblical canon. This concept existed far before the year 367 and was held, evidently, by the first Christian disciples of the 1st century. Likewise, neither was the Trinity invented at the council of Nicaea. Trinitarian belief was a part of the Christian faith from it’s earliest days after the resurrection of Jesus.

Therefore, while the observance of Lent is not as ancient and venerable as two of the pillars of our faith, the biblical canon and the Nicene Creed, it is regardless a very ancient and very respectable practice, as old as one of the earliest major proponents of these two pillars, Athanasius of Alexandria. 

If you hold St. Athanasius in high regard due to his articulation of the canon and his fight for orthodoxy, consider also hearing his adjuration to keep a Holy Lent:

But I have further deemed it highly necessary and very urgent to make known to you that you should proclaim the fast of forty days to the brethren, and persuade them to fast; to the end that, while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should not become a laughing-stock, as the only people who do not fast, but take our pleasure in those days… But, O, our beloved, whether in this way or any other, exhort and teach them to fast forty days. For it is even a disgrace that when all the world does this, those alone who are in Egypt, instead of fasting, should find their pleasure.

This is part one of a series. Part two can be read here. Part three, here.


Sources: The Origins of the Liturgical Year, by Thomas J. Talley; The Second Festal Letter of Athanasius, accessed here; The 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius, accessed here; Athanasius’ April 340 letter to Serapion found in Les lettres festales de saint Athanase, edited by L. Lefort, pp 654-656; The Canons of the Council of Nicaea, in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils by Norman P. Tanner.

The Athanasian Creed

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This Sunday at Christ Our King we will be confessing the Athanasian Creed. It is a very long creed, and because of its length the modern church does not confess it much any more. Yet it seems like a good practice to confess this creed at least once a year, on Trinity Sunday. The reason is that the Athanasian Creed is a more detailed, robust, and instructive statement of both the deity and humanity of Christ and the mystery of the Trinity than the Nicene Creed is. It will be good to stretch our theological muscles in this way.

The Athanasian Creed is named for St. Athanasius, a 4th century theologian and churchman who dillgently defended the orthodox faith concerning the Trinity and the deity of Christ against the rising tide of Arianism. At times it seemed to Athanasius as if he was completely alone in defending the truth. Because of this the slogan, Athanasius contra mundum (Athanasius against the world) became to be associated with him.

Athanasius is also important because his Easter Letter of 367 is the first written witness to the entire New Testament Canon.

But Athanasius did not write the Athanasian Creed.

It was attributed to him and was thought to have been written by him up unto the time of the Reformation. Yet we still refer to the creed as Athanasian because it expresses the ideas that the bishop fought for during his life. The author of this creed is still unknown. It is a Western Creed that has been confessed in the churches going back until at least the sixth century.

We will confess it this Sunday, on the Day of the Holy Trinity, because it contains a robust confession of the doctrine of the Trinity as we profess it in catholic churches. The creed is also very instructive, as it lays out many of the nuances of Trinitarian doctrine. Though it is a very long creed, it will be helpful to at least once a year stretch ourselves to profess the doctrine of the Trinity in this way.

The Athanasian Creed

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith unless any person keeps whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither combining the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Spirit unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Spirit Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Spirit Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by Christian truth; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.

Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Essence of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Essence of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood by God. One altogether; not by confusion of Essence; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sits on the right hand of the God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.