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Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 11

October 24, 2013

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 11 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here.

It is well known that for every person who is famously influential in history, there are many more who are influential without being well known at all. Nowhere is this truth more important than in the history of the Christian church, a history that is full of little-known stories of faithful believers who lived hidden lives that were of immense value to the progress of the Kingdom. One impressive example of such an unknown influencer is Macrina, a nun who lived in Cappadocia (central Turkey today) in the fourth century. I sometimes refer to Macrina as “the most influential Christian you’ve never heard of.”

Macrina was the oldest of 10 children born to wealthy, devoutly-Christian parents, Basil (a professor and attorney) and Emmelia. Her father betrothed Macrina at age 12 to a famed orator, but he died very suddenly before they were married. Macrina called the betrothal a marriage and resolved to spend the rest of her life alone and celibate, rather than marry someone else. In order to secure this resolution, she persuaded her mother (who was widowed by this time) to join her in establishing a nunnery that later became the pattern for all of female monasticism in the Greek Church. Macrina also founded a hospital and an organization to care for the poor, funding them with money inherited from her parents. She was so thorough in giving her wealth to the service of others that when she died at age 52, she owned nothing except the tattered garment she was wearing.

As impressive as Macrina’s life was, we might never have known about it except for one other detail. She also possessed an extraordinary combination of immense education and desire to use her knowledge for God’s glory. She dedicated herself to the education of her nine younger brothers and sisters, and two of those excelled so much under her tutelage that they were later sent abroad to obtain first-rate philosophical educations. But Macrina did not simply give her brothers their start. She also popped the bubble of pride that sprang up within them as their education progressed, and she convinced both of them to use their learning for the service of Christ.

Those two brothers are known to history as Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. Together with their best friend, Gregory the Theologian, they are styled “the great Cappadocians,” and the three were the Greek Church’s most brilliant Trinitarian theologians in the period after the death of Athanasius. They took the mantle of leadership during the tumultuous years at the end of the Trinitarian Controversy, and they were the most influential figures on the Council of Constantinople in 381, at which what we call the Nicene Creed was ratified.

Gregory of Nyssa wrote a moving biography of his sister, in which he described her life-long ambition to be the bride of Christ, to long for him, and to serve his people. Gregory’s account means that Macrina’s life is known to us, and the story reminds us of how important and influential a single life can be. At the same time, we are reminded that there are countless more lives of faithful, ordinary Christians of which recorded history has no trace, lives that are equally valuable in their obscurity, equally worthy of celebration by God’s people. We are also reminded that we never know what the Lord is going to do with our own (usually obscure) ministries. We never know whether that person we disciple will be a new Basil the Great. Perhaps this reminder can encourage us to continue to pursue our callings faithfully, just as Macrina did.

 

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.

 

 

 

Tags: Author: Donald Fairbairn , current students , faculty blogger , future students , thoughtfully evangelical

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Thank you for writing on the life of Macrina. I shared about her life last year at a youth camp in Germany at a workshop I gave. I was blessed to "get to know her" at a History of Christianity course with Professors Justo Gonzalez and his wife Ms Gonsalus. Leaders are said to be influencers, and Macrina certainly was one of them. It was also important for me to see how Christians in all phases of their history have found ways out of the status quo to be able to express their love toward God and their neighbor. Though previously I had looked down on monasteries, I learned that this was a way in which Macrina could fulfill her calling. Like the apostle Paul, celibacy and a life of service were complimentary. Thank you and God bless you.
Jude Enxuto 12:57PM 11/07/13

Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 10

October 01, 2013

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 10 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here.

One of the things about the early church that troubles evangelicals the most is that the fathers seemed to advocate what we would call “works righteousness.” Why, we ask, did no one in the early church understand justification by faith correctly? One of the ways of answering this question is to say that they did understand justification by faith, or at least some of them did, but they did not express it the same way we do. Recently I’ve been studying the way the fifth-century Egyptian church father Cyril of Alexandria’s understood justification, and his way of articulating that great truth may have a lot to teach us today.

Justification is an ever-present theme in Cyril’s biblical commentaries (regardless of what book of the Bible he is commenting on), and there are two major differences between the way he describes justification and the way we often describe it in evangelicalism today. First, Cyril treats justification not in a forensic or legal framework, but in a participatory one. Think about how often we use either courtroom imagery or the idea of “exchanges” to describe justification. We imagine a situation in which a sinner is declared guilty but someone else—Christ—pays the penalty owed for the sin, or we talk about Christ taking our sin upon himself so that his righteousness could be given to us (“imputed,” we say, using the language of Romans 4) in exchange. And of course, these images are perfectly appropriate. But what Cyril focuses on that we often miss is the participatory framework that undergirds the legal imagery. Christ is the only one who is truly righteous, the only one who is righteous in and of himself. When we are united to him, then in him we receive his own righteousness. It is not just that God credits Christ’s righteousness to us, although that is also true. Even more fundamentally, Christ’s righteousness becomes our precisely because we are in him, we are united to him through the Holy Spirit.

The second way in which Cyril’s understanding of justification differs from ours is that he makes basically no distinction between justification and sanctification. We often argue that sanctification is the outworking of justification—once a believer has been declared righteous (justification), he or she becomes progressively more and more actually righteous and holy (sanctification). By distinguishing between these, we seek to combat the perceived mistake of Medieval Roman Catholicism by which it allegedly collapsed justification into sanctification. It may seem to us that Cyril is doing the same thing we think Medieval Roman Catholicism was doing, but he isn’t. Rather, the reason he makes no distinction between justification and sanctification is that he sees both of these as taking place at the beginning of faith and as being directly tied to the righteousness of Christ. Just as Christ is the only righteous one, so he is the only one who is holy in and of himself. When we are united to him, then in him we are holy (that is, sanctified), just as we are righteous in him.

It should be clear that Cyril’s understanding of justification is similar to ours, albeit expressed rather differently. More important, it should be apparent that his way of stating this central truth places even more emphasis on Christ than the way we express the truth of justification. The crucial point is not that faith alone justifies, as if any kind of faith in anyone or anything could justify a person. Rather, it is that Christ justifies us when we trust in him. Because he alone is righteous and holy, the only way we can be credited with righteousness is to be in him, to be united to him by the Holy Spirit.

We live in an age which places all of its emphasis on us, and in religion, that emphasis translates into the idea that if a person believes in something—in anything—then that person is “saved” or “fulfilled” or whatever. Our culture believes that the act of believing is what is important, not the content of what one believes. Christianity teaches otherwise: what ultimately matters is not so much whether one believes, but in whom one trusts. Perhaps Cyril’s way of describing justification can be useful to us as we try to explain this great truth of our faith to a society that thinks everything is about us. It isn’t. It’s all about Christ, the Son of God, the only holy and righteous one. Only in him can we become righteous before his Father.

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.

 

 

 

Tags: Author: Donald Fairbairn , current students , faculty blogger , future students , thoughtfully evangelical

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Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 9

March 21, 2013

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 5 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here.

Sometime around the beginning of the fifth century, a nun named Egeria from the Latin Christian world took a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She re-traced the route of the Exodus, visited Mount Sinai, spent three years in Jerusalem, journeyed east to Edessa to see Thomas’s tomb, and then worked her way through Asia Minor to Constantinople. The story of her travels, written in Latin and called Diary of a Pilgrimage in English, contains a wealth of cultural and geographic information and a number of stories interesting to a general reader, stories that vary from the impressive to the extraordinary to the bizarre. I’ll mention one example of each, all taking place in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

It is impressive that the clergy of the church took such great pains to make sure everyone (including pilgrims from all over the Christian world) could understand the services. The Scripture readings and the liturgy were conducted in Greek, but there was a continuous line-by-line translation of everything into Syriac as the services were conducted. There were also various people present who could explain what was happening to Western visitors in Latin, although they did not translate the whole service. Not only is this a great example of cultural and linguistic sensitivity on the part of the clergy, but it is also a reminder to us that early Christianity was not exclusively Greek and Latin. Indeed, in predominantly Greek-speaking Jerusalem, Syriac speakers far outnumbered Latin speakers.

Egeria’s recounting of the instruction given to those preparing for baptism in Jerusalem is extraordinary. In those days, new Christians were baptized on Easter, and they received instruction in the Christian faith during a period of preparation prior to Easter. (Several examples of such “catechetical lectures” given to instruct the candidates for baptism survive.) Egeria tells us that in Jerusalem this instruction included three hours a day of Scripture reading and sermons, for seven weeks leading up to Holy Week just prior to Easter. During those seven weeks, the candidates would hear the entire Bible read to them and explained. All of us who organize new members’ classes in churches today should be ashamed!

The most bizarre thing Egeria describes is a service on Good Friday. A gold-plated casket was brought out containing wood that was allegedly from Christ’s cross and from the inscription above the cross, and people came forward to touch the wood with their foreheads and to kiss it. But this is not the bizarre part—some readers will know that such practices are routine among many groups of Christians, even today. The bizarre part is that Egeria describes deacons as standing near the holy wood, guarding it. She writes, “It is said that someone (I do not know when) took a bite and stole a piece of the wood of the holy cross. Therefore, it is now guarded by the deacons standing around, lest there be anyone who would dare come and do that again.”

To us, it may seem impossible to reconcile the idea of pilgrim-sensitive, trilingual worship services and extensive instruction of new believers with the idea that someone might think he/she had something to gain by running off with a bite of the cross. Christianity in fifth-century Jerusalem must have been quite a contradictory mix of the profound and the superstitious, we think. But how much different is our version of Christianity? Do not the deep and the superficial, the amazing and the kitschy, sit uneasily side-by-side in most expressions of our faith? Maybe seeing the bizarre in an earlier expression of Christianity will give us incentive to look more carefully at our own, asking whether some of our practices are equally bizarre, but our familiarity with them has hidden that fact from us.

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.

 

 

 

Tags: Author: Donald Fairbairn , current students , faculty blogger , future students , thoughtfully evangelical

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