What saith the Scripture?
St. Andrew is the first saint of the Church year, the Advent saint, really, since his feast day almost invariably falls within or near the season of Advent. The readings for The Feast of St. Andrew complement the advent theme of the coming of God towards us in Word and, ultimately, in the Word made flesh. The theme of revelation is a critical aspect of Advent. Scripture is the crucial vehicle of the revelation of God towards us as Paul’s vibrant passage from Romans makes so abundantly clear.
What do the Scriptures say? The question is in part rhetorical. Paul has in mind the grand pageant of the Torah, the Jewish Scriptures, at once in their limited sense and in a more expanded sense. In other words, the Torah refers both to the first five books of Moses, the Pentateuch or five scrolls, but extends as well to the whole of the Hebrew writings, just as the word Gospel refers immediately to the writings of the four evangelists but extends its range of meaning to the New Testament and even to the whole of the Bible which for Christians means the Old and the New Testament, not to mention a host of other writings in between, as it were. But Paul’s question is more pertinent. What do the Scriptures say?
They reveal God to us and in turn they reveal things about the truth and untruth of our humanity. The concept of revelation especially in and through the witness of the things written about God and Jesus Christ is the critical theme and idea. It is altogether about what comes from God to us and not about the imaginations of our hearts. Revelation is mediation. God’s reveals his word and truth through human agency, of course, but the point of revelation is that the content is divine. We are made only too aware of concepts which require our thinking but which are not of our own making. That is the challenge to faith and to anti-faith; in short, to atheism in almost equal regard. The very idea of revelation is about what is mediated to us and this challenges our thinking and our living. Things long ago and far away and in vastly different contexts and circumstances somehow speak to our present; our experiences and those who have gone before us are gathered up into the eternity of God. We are bidden to attend to what is universal however much it is made known through what is particular and limited.
Such is the power and the nature of revelation which is set before us in such splendid ways in the beauty of the Advent season. The reading from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans on The Feast of St. Andrew is complemented wonderfully with the passage from St. Matthew about Jesus calling Simon Peter and Andrew to follow him and to become fishers of men. Who are they following? This picks up on the great advent question from The First Sunday in Advent, “Who is this?” who comes the multitude ask in Jerusalem about the coming of Christ. He comes in joy and wonder but there follows the scene of his rebuke and anger at the misuse of the things of the holy. The light of Christ illumines the various forms of human darkness through our betrayal of God’s word and truth. Thus Advent is about a casting off in order to put on, “casting off the works of darkness and putting on the armour of light”, even more it is about “putting on Jesus Christ”.
For our Advent series of meditations, I would like to focus on the problems of Gnosticism in the form of two ‘heresies’ which challenge the Christian doctrine of Revelation in their respective ways particularly in relation to the coming of Christ. The two earliest heresies of the emerging Christian Church and Faith are Docetism and Marcionism both of which involve a rejection of some of the most distinct features of Advent and the idea of Revelation. Both are influenced and/or are expressions of Gnosticism which, in some sense, is the underlying ideology which denies and contradicts the essential insights of Judaism and Christianity not to mention aspects of Hellenistic philosophy as well with respect to the doctrines of creation and redemption. To speak in general terms, Gnosticism in its many and varied forms sees the material world as something evil in itself and holds to a dualistic view of reality. Spirit and matter are absolutely opposed, the latter the product of an evil principle in which spirit, the product of a good principle is trapped. Redemption in a gnostic approach means the liberation of spirit from matter, of good from what remains evil, a kind of release from entrapment.
What does this mean for the Advent of Christ? Simply this. The idea of Christ’s incarnation, of God actually becoming man, the idea of the Word made flesh, is utterly impossible. How then to explain Christ’s coming, his birth and his death on Calvary? It is all a kind of seeming, an appearance but not reality. God doesn’t and can’t really enter into the material and physical world. A divine illusion if you will. A kind of heavenly play-acting but nothing real. Docetism is the earliest heresy from a Christian perspective. It entails a complete denial of Christ’s humanity, of his being in the flesh. All of the Gospels, but especially St. John and also his Epistles, stress the actual and real humanity of Jesus Christ and refuses to allow that the material world is evil for that would mean a denial of the doctrine of creation. The doctrine of Creation is emphatically clear that the physical world is good in the ordering of its parts and very good as a whole.
For Gnosticism the complete and utter separation of the material and spiritual worlds is absolute. There is no redemption of the material and the sensible. The elect are those who already know themselves to be among the elect and therefore free without any movement of grace or any movement of repentance and change in themselves. In fact, the whole idea lacks any kind of dynamic movement. It is all static. And if you are not one of the self-appointed spiritual elect then you are hopelessly condemned to being in the physical world which is by definition evil. Any proclamation of the word of God is equally meaningless. You are hopelessly unable to hear and grasp its meaning. It is an incredibly static or deterministic way of looking at human life and stands in complete contrast to the teachings of Christ, to the very idea of faith coming by hearing, to the very idea of the proclamation of the Word.
While it entails a repudiation of the Judeo-Christian doctrine of creation, it also means a completely different view of redemption. Redemption is a kind of rescue mission of spiritual things from their material prison and not about the kind of metanoia, the change in one’s mind and soul that belongs to the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions. Instead, the whole problem is with the material world. Thus, from the perspective of Docetism, there can be no redemption of the material world, no redemption of the body, no redemption of the flesh, for that all belongs to the evil of the material world. In this situation, redemption is not about our wills being set free from the tyranny of sin which is precisely what it is in the Christian understanding of things. Docetism by virtue of its denial of creation is a denial of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and a denial of the doctrine of redemption as well.
The ancient ‘heresy’ of Docetism with its underlying Gnostic ideology has its contemporary expression in such things as the questions about the ‘transgendered’ and the ‘transabled’. If you are what you are simply in your mind completely separate from your body which may or may not be technologically altered to fit your mental image of your ‘gendered’ identity, then you are in a gnostic realm, in a kind of alienation of mind and body. There is in this a complete inversion of sex and gender; the one, sex, has generally been understood as something given biologically; the other, gender, has to do with the forms of social and political expression given to the distinction between male and female. This has been completely turned around such that it is hard to ignore the complete divorce between soul and body and the consequent concern as to whether there is any nature, any creation, any biology, at all. More disturbingly, perhaps, is the matter of the ‘transabled’ who self-identify with those who are amputees and as such seek to have perfectly healthy limbs removed in order for their physical reality to conform to their mental image. It is interesting to see that this has already received its literary treatment or at least mention in Robert Galbraith’s (aka J.K.Rowling) “Career of Evil”, her third “Cormorant Strike” private eye novels. He is an Afghanistan veteran who lost part of his leg in the war.
In contrast to these confusions and uncertainties of identity stand the lessons of Scripture, not as condemnation and denial but as providing a way to consider the questions of our age. The readings for The Feast of St. Andrew and his witness provide a strong counter to the ideology of Gnosticism which underlies Docetism. It is precisely from the Scripture that we get the possibilities of a strong doctrine of creation and the possibilities of redemption.
What saith the Scripture?
Fr. David Curry
Eve of the Feast of St. Andrew
Advent Meditation, 2016