Friday, December 8

A Response by Father John...

My wife, Emma, has asked me to respond to some of the questions she has received on her blog. First, let me say that as an Orthodox Christian priest I highly esteem theological discussion and inquiry as one of the ways we have been given to acquire the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16), who is the head of the Church (Eph. 4:15). As with anything in the spiritual life, growth is always preceded by humility, and a genuine acknowledgment that we do not yet have perfect knowledge in that we have not yet perfectly acquired the mind of Christ, the mind of the Church.

It would be impossible to adequately answer each and every question raised in a response on this blog, however, I will try to provide a brief answer to the following questions: 1) Was the Mother of God a life-long virgin? 2) Is sex an obstacle to holiness of life? 3) Where can I read more on the Orthodox Church's teaching and how it differs from both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism? 4) What is the relationship between Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition in the Orthodox Church?

1) Yes, according to the teaching of the ancient church, the Mother of God was a life-long virgin. St. Joseph was a widower who had four sons and two daughters from his previous marriage; in the Scriptures these children are called the brothers and sisters of Jesus, though there was no blood relation since Joseph was not the father of Jesus. Besides his irreproachable, trustworthy, and honorable life, the elder Joseph's great age made him a suitable guardian for the young virgin girl who had vowed to live in perpetual virginity. When the Virgin Mary was found to be with child the elderly Joseph feared to take her as wife, not because people would think that he fathered the child because he was too old for this, but because people would think that she had fallen into sin with another man; this is why St. Joseph thought to put her away privately (Matt. 1:19).

Saint Joseph reposed at the age of about 100. The last reference to him in Holy Scripture is in Chapter 2 of St. Luke's Gospel, when he, together with the Virgin Mary, brought the 12-year-old Christ to the Temple in Jerusalem. That the brothers and sisters of the Lord were not the children of Mary is clearly evident from the fact that the Lord entrusted His Mother before His death to His beloved disciple John. Why should He do this if she had other children besides Him? They themselves would have taken care of her. The sons of Joseph, did not consider themselves obliged to take care of one they regarded as their stepmother, or at least did not have for her such love as blood children have for parents, and such as the adopted John had for her.

In answer to the question, if Mary was a life long virgin then why does Scripture say that Joseph "knew her not until she brought forth her first-born son, Jesus" (Matt. 1:25): The word "until" does not signify that Mary remained a virgin only until a certain time. The word "until" and words similar to it often signify eternity. In the Sacred Scriptures it is said of Christ: "In His days shall shine forth righteousness and an abundance of peace, until the moon be taken away" (Psalm 71:7), but this does not mean that when there shall no longer be a moon at the end of the world, God's righteousness shall no longer be; precisely then, rather, will it triumph. And what does it mean when it says: "For He must reign, until He hath put all enemies under His feet?" (1 Cor. 15:25). Is the Lord to reign only for a time until His enemies shall be under His feet?! The Savior in the Gospel says to the Apostles (Matt: 28:20): "Lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the world." Are we to believe that the Lord will no longer be with the disciples in the age to come? While there are plenty more such examples of the use of the word until, the above are sufficient to prove that Matt 1:25 does not argue against the life-long virginity of the Mother of God.

2) In the Orthodox Church, the life-long virginity of the Mother of God is in no way tied to the false belief that sex is dirty, bad, or inappropriate for those living a life of holiness. The gift of sexual union is from God Himself and is sanctified through Christian marriage. The vow of virginity should not be seen as fleeing from something evil, but as offering something good (one's deepest desire) to the Lord. It should not be surprising that the one and only woman who was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and who gave birth to the Son of God, would desire to continue to offer her virginity to the Lord. The Mother of God was an ordinary woman, flesh and blood like the rest of us, yet as the Word of God teaches, she lived an extraordinary life and for this "all generations call her blessed" (Luke 1:48).

3) For the first 1,000 years of Christianity the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church shared a common faith. After the Great Schism of 1054, the Roman Catholic Church introduced new teachings which led to and continue to spur on the Protestant Reformation: the universal jurisdiction and infallibility of the Pope of Rome, indulgences, purgatory, an incorrect doctrine of original sin, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption of Mary, and other erroneous teachings, which many Roman Catholics themselves have come to reject or at least step back from. While the Orthodox Church never accepted these teachings, She did not "throw out the baby with the bath water", but kept intact the faith of the Apostles, which was shared by Eastern and Western Christendom for the first millennium.

The theological arguments between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism have led Western Christianity into extremes which were never found in the Orthodox Church. And in a sense Catholicism and Protestantism can even been seen as two sides of the same coin, while Orthodoxy is a coin unfamiliar to many today but easily recognizable by the Apostles and Church Fathers. For more information of the Orthodox Christian Faith, please see: http://orthodoxyinamerica.org or http://oca.org

4) In the Orthodox Church there is no contradiction between the teaching of the Sacred Scriptures and Church Tradition. This is because the Sacred Scriptures themselves arose from within the Tradition of the Church. The New Testament was written by the Apostles. The list of Books which make up the New Testament were decided upon by the bishops of the church. It was the bishops of the Church who decided what Books were canonical and what books were apocryphal and what books were spurious or heretical. In fact, the list of New Testament Books as we have them today did not appear until 387 AD in the Paschal (Easter) Letter of St. Athanasius the Great, Bishop of Alexandria.

Since the Bible is itself the teaching or proclamation of the Church (the people of God, both before and after Christ, both the Old and New Testaments) there is no contradiction or conflict between Sacred Scripture and the teachings or tradition of the Church. This is why if something doesn't appear in the Bible, we first turn to the rest of the teaching of the Church before we trust in our own opinion. In all things we advance by humility and the desire to acquire the mind of Christ, which is nothing other than the mind of the Church.

8 comments:

Courtney said...

Thanks for posting this. Although I don't agree with everything, I think you answered Questions 1 and 2 very well!

Love,
Courtney

Kathy said...

Thank you for this explanation. I had read the previous post on the Nativity Story and tried to leave a comment (unsuccessfully). I had never heard about a lot of what you wrote but I'll have to read more about the Orthodox Church - I'm sure your sermons are really interesting.

Anonymous said...

Who are the authorities who make up the "teachings and traditions of the Church"? Does this not have us look to another man's opinion other than the words of the Bible? You leave much room for error here.

Dana said...

Thank you, Father John. My husband and I are seriously looking into the Orthodox church and we value explanations such as this, which is consistent with what we have heard from other Orthodox clergy and people. We've been growing in our knowledge of the life and teaching of the historic church for several years but circumstances have recently put us in a position of accelerated decision-making about where we should belong, and we're finding it astonishingly difficult to discern.

LeanNot said...

I would want to stay far from "teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" as mentioned in Matthew 15:9.

It does sound interesting and helpful to read the opinions of people who were there when the Bible was written, but God inspired His Word to be sufficient on its own. The Bible and the Holy Spirit are more than enough for me.

Just the same, thank you for taking the time to write that. It is also neat to meet Emma's husband. We all really appreciate your wife. :)

Sarah (Mrs Blythe) said...

Thank you Father John for this post. I found it very interesting, especially where you explain some of the differences in doctrine between the Orthodox church and the Roman Catholic church. I knew that there were differences but I didn't know of what nature they were.

As a member of a non-denominational church (but one which has a protestant basis) we only use the scriptures as written in the Old and New Testaments for guidance (along with the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our day-to-day lives). So I have no knowledge of these 'church teachings' you speak of, but it was interesting none-the-less. I did have a brief perusal of the websites you recommended and this enlightened me more.

Thanks.

Jenny said...

Thank you Father John and Emma for this interesting and thought-provoking post. Although I am Presbyterian, I thoroughly enjoyed it and benefitted from it as well. The Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church have always interested me. Thanks again!

pfg blogmatron said...

I'm glad for your sharing for our understanding of what beliefs are held though a comment should have been made by me when the posting was first read. In Matthew 1:25 where it mentions the first-born son, it is the same word used in Romans 8:29 where Jesus is the firstborn among many brethren. To these eyes, Romans speaks that others follow just as in Matthew and other verses throughout the Bible where the original wording is translated as firstborn. Otherwise, the distinction "only born son" would thought to be utilized as God distinguished with His "only begotten Son". Thought it worth sharing a different perspective, regardless of timing.

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