Prayer Book of the Early Christians : a review

Prayer is part of the sacred heartbeat of the Christian faith. Prayer is learned by praying, alone or with others. Prayer, for many, is also one of the most challenging aspects of the Christian life. As Scot McKnight wrote earlier today:

Prayer is not only hard for most Christians, it is discouraging to be reminded of the importance of prayer. Sometimes it is a scolding preacher and other times nothing more than the word of someone who seems so good at prayer. A few years ago I became convinced that one of the major reasons prayer is hard is because we rely too much upon ourselves.

In light of what is a discouraging experience for many of us, how are we to enrich our lives of prayer? Throughout the history of the Church, she has turned primarily to two sources for prayer–Scripture itself (primary the Psalter) and prayer books. While the latter is unfamiliar to many Evangelicals, prayer books have a long history throughout Eastern and Western Church traditions. The Prayer Book of the Early Christians by John McGuckin is a new prayer book influenced heavily by Eastern (i.e., Russian and Greek) Orthodoxy. As such, it offers a treasure trove of ancient but most likely unknown material to those of us in the West.

The structure of the daily office (i.e., Morning, Midday, and Evening prayers for those unfamiliar with the term) will not be unfamiliar for Roman Catholics or others in liturgical traditions, though the prayers–aside from the Psalms used–will no doubt be new. In addition to these daily prayers, there is a section of about fifty prayers and shorter liturgies ranging from prayers before meals, to prayers for the sick, to a blessing for a home. The depth and richness of the prayer included, many of which date back to the time of the Church Fathers, is a welcome antidote for much of the shallow platitudes that tend to make up many of our prayers today. While Evangelical Protestants will no doubt avoid the included petitions to the saints and to the Virgin Mary, there is no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater and conclude that there is nothing profitable in this work. On the contrary, Prayer Book of the Early Christians, is one of the most easy to follow, historically rich, and approachable prayer books I have come across in a long time.

After using this book almost daily for several months, I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to grow in their prayer life and delve into the amazing tradition of prayer the Christian church has built over nearly two thousand years.

Prayer Book of the Early Christians is available from Paraclete Press, Amazon, and other bookstores (not affiliate links).

My thanks to Sr. Madeleine at Paraclete for providing me a copy to review!

St Basil’s cathedral in Moscow

Храм Василия Блаженного

 

It occurred to me that I needed some color around here…all the recent photos I’ve used have been black and white.

photo credit: courtesy of Serge 585 | copyright / all rights reserved

on approaches to bible translation

Prayer A Powerful Weapon

Last week, I posted a survey on languages and bible preference, which is still open by the way.  (If you haven’t spent the 30 seconds necessary to complete its four questions, I would greatly appreciate it.)  Soon after, I came across these thoughts on bible translation in the preface to a commentary on Romans by Fr. Lawrence Farley, a priest in the Orthodox Church in America serving at St. Herman’s Church in Surrey, British Columbia.  After briefly describing the two principle approaches to translation–formal and dynamic equivalence–he writes:

The English translator is faced, it would seem, with a choice: either he can make the translation something of a rough paraphrase of the original and render it into flowing sonorous English  or he can attempt to make a fairly literal, word-for-word translation from the original with the resultant English being stilted, wooden, and clumsy.

These two basic and different approaches to translation correspond to two basic and different activities in the Church. The Church needs a translation of the Scriptures for use in worship.  This should be in good, grammatical, and flowing English, as elegant as possible and suited to its function in the majestic function of the Liturgy.  The Church also needs a translation of the Scriptures for private study and for group Bible study.  Here the elegance of its English is of lesser concern.  What is of greater concern here is the bring out of all the nuances found in the original.  Thus this approach will tend to sacrifice elegance for literality and, wherever possible, seek a work-for-work correspondence with the Greek.  Also, because the student will want to see how the biblical authors use a particular word (especially St. Paul, who has many works included in the canon), a consistence of translation will be sought and the same Greek word will be translated, whenever possible, by the same English word or its cognate.

So, what do you think about Fr. Farley’s observations concerning the place of different translations in the life of the Church?  Do you agree that we would do well to utilize a more flowing, dynamic translation for public reading and liturgy as part of worship while resorting to a more literal translation for study?  It seems the desire of many (most?) of us is to find that one bible translation that is perfect (or at least suitable) for both worship and study.  In the ever-changing landscape of English bible translation, this quest is as elusive as it is ultimately frustrating.

What do you think of Fr. Farley’s advice?

photo credit: Creative Commons | abcdz2000

the ‘problem’ with theology

Coffee Shop Study

I have been a student of Christian theology my entire adult life.  I have tested the waters or swum in many diverse Christian traditions from Orthodoxy, Presbyterianism/Congregationalism, Lutheranism, and Methodism/Wesleyanism.  I have well-worn, dog-eared, note-filled theology books from all those great traditions on my bookshelves.  Here’s the thing none of the most staunch devotees will typically admit:

In an effort to create ‘systems’ that are logical and comprehensible to man, all of these systems have nearly insurmountable problems.

So, do we throw our hands up and walk away, cynical of any systematic approaches to Christianity?  Do we take upon ourselves the impossible position of “no creed but the bible” or something similar?  No and no.

Here is what we must do…

Above all, we must recognize the difficulty in studying our infinite and wonderful God and approach our studies and those of others with the utmost humility.  We must be aware the difficulties in our own theological paradigms and be charitable in our discussions with those who hold differing views.  We must realize (to paraphrase Roger Olsen) that we ultimate decide on a theological system (consciously or not) because we can more easily live with its problems than we can with those of another system.  Finally, we must be aware the r considerable common ground with share with other orthodox Christians and admit that that which unites us is far greater than that which divides us.

photo credt: Creative Commons | Mark Grapengater

The Cross, Our Focus

The very fact that in my mind it goes without saying is probably reason to say it: as Christians, the Cross of Christ is our focus…our focus for doctrine, praxis, theology, liturgy, life in general, etc.

Over at ‘Glory to God for All Things,’ Fr. Stephen has compiled and reposted a lengthy post on the Cross as the foundation of (Orthodox) ecclesiology. It has taken me several days to read, re-read, and digest it all, but as usual, he makes some wonderful points that we would all do well to ponder. I found the following two points exceptionally helpful:

1. Theology cannot be compartmentalized.

As much as we rationalistic Americans (who are highly influenced by the Enlightenment) like to create nice, discreet ways of packaging, organizing, and presenting just about everything, we must resist this practice with respect to our theology and thinking about our salvation. Unfortunately, the most popular classes and topics of discussion at my seminary were Systematic Theology, which by its very definition compartmentalizes our thoughts of God into nice, tidy, discreet areas. I say unfortunately because, while this approach is well-suited for discussion, Scripture simply does not allow us to break God’s acts (or our thinking about them) into such perfect categories. Much to my discredit, as a young, budding Reformed theologian, I was over zealous to jump right into Systematics, prior to spending enough time on studying Scripture…the right approach would be to study Scripture first, then perhaps Biblical theology, and finally Systematic theology. Many years later, I am still trying to ‘get over it’ and give the testimony of Scripture the precedence it deserves over the proof-texting tendencies of Systematics.

As Fr. Stephen writes:

There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.

Rightly, Fr. Stephen reminds us that all our salvation ‘is encompassed in the saving work of Christ.’ In other words, the cross must be the very center of our doctrine and practice. Even more, the cross must be the lens by which we understand the whole of Scripture. Because it may cause confusion, I may not use the exact words he does when he says, ‘All of our faith, is one,’ but I think I read him rightly and would agree with his understanding that, ‘Our salvation is one whole…encompassed in the saving work of Christ.’ It is difficult for us to think like this, as Fr. Stephen points out, but it is essential if we are to keep our mooring in the right place…the cross.

2. Theology (doctrine and praxis) must necessarily be cruciform (i.e., cross-centered).

Fr. Stephen uses four points to flesh this out more precisely, but we can profitably look only at the first here. (I encourage those who are interested to spend some time reading his entire post). He writes, “The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.”

One could spend an entire life thinking on this one point! At first we may be inclined to simply nod and assent to this first point. “Of course the cross is integral to understanding the work of Christ,” we say, giving our best Sunday School answer. There is so much more, however, that meets the eye here even in something as familiar as the cross. Perhaps our over-familiarity (if I may be so bold) with the cross, especially in Evangelical circles has made us unintentionally blind to the true depths of wonder going on at Calvary. Think with me for just a minute about all of the amazingly difficult tensions and truths of the cross:

  • The cross is the ultimate sacrifice for sin, a ransom (life for life) to pay a penalty and redeem those under a curse…we like to think we have a pretty good handle on this concept, but there is nothing even remotely close in our contemporary world (except perhaps capital punishment) as a blood sacrifice for sin
  • God the Father, in his wrath, requires payment of the infinite penalty of sin…a payment that cannot be waived in his justice
  • God the Son, in his love and mercy, voluntarily becomes the necessary sacrifice as the only one capable (as God and man) of offering an infinite ransom for an infinite penalty
  • At the cross, in a moment in time, an transaction of infinite worth (in its punishment and merit) took place in a finite point in time
  • Do I need to go on? I haven’t even touched the mystery of the incarnation, asked how the Trinity can be one in purpose yet seems to be divided here, etc.

The cross is the intersection of Law and Gospel…perfectly demonstrating both the infinite wrath of God against sin and the infinite mercy of God in providing a substitutionary sacrifice for sin. At the cross, these two seemingly mutually exclusive realities crash together in the world-changing event of all time! Our rationalistic tendencies are to discount the event altogether (atheism), try to explain away the difficulties for our own placation (liberalism), compartmentalize these events to ease explanation, etc. Alas, we cannot do any of these things! We are forced to stand (or better, to prostrate ourselves) in awe of the wonderful majesty of our Triune God.

In his famous sermon on the merits of meditating on the sufferings of Christ on the cross (a sermon found here), Luther speaks to those comfortable in their sins (at times each of us), reminds us of the terrible wrath of God against sin and sinners that necessitated the crucifixion, and points out that one proper response to thinking on the cross ought to be complete terror. At the same time, to those overwhelmed by their sins and despairing of hope (at times each of us), Luther reminds us of the great love of God in Christ who provided the total sacrifice for sin and points out the other proper response to thinking on the cross, complete comfort.

Surely all of these wonderful thoughts, and more, should guide our every thought, word and deed as we sojourn in this world. It must affect all aspects of:

  • our theology…as we focus not on the latest vapid fad (Left Behind, Prayer of Jabez, etc.) but on Christ alone
  • our ecclesiology, as Fr. Stephen points out…as we strive to imitate Christ (even) in our interactions with one another instead of how we sometimes shamefully treat one another in church
  • our worship…as we focus not on amusement and ‘relevance’ but the centrality of the cross and true gospel
  • our hope…which in all things can be found truly and only in Christ, nowhere else

Theology…Knowing God

Yesterday at Glory to God for All Things, Fr. Stephen posted marvelous words about placing emphasis in our lives on those things that are important to God.  In his post, he discussed both the necessity and the aim of theology…to know God:

And this is theology – to know God. If I have a commitment in theology, it is to insist that we never forget that it is to know God. Many of the arguments (unending) and debates (interminable) are not about what we know, but about what we think.

Thinking is not bad, nor is it wrong, but thinking is not the same thing as theology. It is, of course, possible to think about theology, but this is not to be confused with theology itself.

Knowing God is not in itself an intellectual activity for God is not an idea, nor a thought. God may be known because He is person. Indeed, He is only made known to us as person (we do not know His essence). We cannot know God objectively – that is He is not the object of our knowledge. He is known as we know a person. This is always a free gift, given to us in love. Thus knowledge of God is always a revelation, always a matter of grace, never a matter of achievement or attainment.

It matters that we know God because knowledge of God is life itself. “This is eternal life,” Jesus said, “to know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.”

These words ring especially true coming from a Reformed background and having attended a staunchly Calvinistic seminary.  Especially among the students in seminary, all too often our theological ‘studies’ tended to become little more than cataloging of facts about God rather than an effort to truly know him.  Whether formal students of theology or not, we are all guilty at times of the same offense.  We forget that God is not an object of study to be observed and researched–the depth of his will is not a divine ‘problem’ to be solved, the wonder of the incarnation not a mundane occurrence that is easily explained, the mystery of grace and sacraments not ‘parlor tricks’ to be explained away.

As analytical and logic-driven as our minds might be, and as Westerners we deceive ourselves if we claim not to be bound tenaciously by reason and logic, we must focus not on our speculations about theology but on truly knowing our Triune God through his gracious revelation to us–centering, of course, on the incarnation and revelation in Christ Jesus. We must be reminded of Jesus’ words, as Fr. Stephen as done beautifully, that to know God is life eternal.

Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for you timely yet gentle words.