Prophets and Crisis
Secure in their safe and quiet studies, generations of reverend gentlemen have viewed the lives and pondered the words of the prophets in what they fondly supposed was a mood of broad and tolerant humanity, reinforced by that wider intellectual background and scientific detachment which the prophets themselves were never in a position to enjoy. This comfortable and complacent mood is by no means the exclusive product of nineteenth-century smugness. Peace, security, dignity, repose, calm detachment, undisturbed contemplation—such words are constantly on the lips of the Fathers from the third century on. Every Christian would, if he possibly could, spend every moment of his time in the study of philosophy, writes Origen, who regards the distractions of domestic and economic life as an unmixed evil.1 The argument that is constantly put forth for celibacy from the end of the fourth century on is that family life is an evil since it takes a man's mind away from the single, exclusive, uninterrupted contemplation of God. Ataraxia, the state of being undisturbed, became the supreme goal in the life of every philospher in late antiquity, and the search for the Vita Beata as the quiet life, the unattached life, the life free of all financial and social obligations, devoted to long afternoons in peaceful garden walks, and endless, ambling conversations with like-minded friends on the search for God and the meaning of life—the ideal of the nil admirari and the fuga mundi, the flight from the noisy, nasty, everyday world—this pagan ideal became the model of a Christian life, as we see so clearly in the case of St. Augustine.
We cannot blame men for wanting peace and security; but such, as the prophets are always pointing out, cannot be gained by shutting one's eyes to the facts of life. Men insist on treating this world as a permanent, going concern; they would like to think that as it is, so it always was, and so it always will be. That would be nice if we could have it that way here and now, and we do look forward to such security in the world to come; but to make such an assumption the foundation of our thought and action here is to build upon the sand. Consider only the rapid, almost bedizening tempo of our lives, individually and collectively. History moves today, and as far as we can determine, has always moved at a terrible pace: the 1950's are a world removed from the 1940's, but it is so with any two decades you may select in our history. With almost indecent haste we are hustled and bustled into and out of the world through our childhood, youth, maturity, and age into immediate graves. Plainly, we were not meant to stay here for long; we live in the midst of a constant combustion—literally—a ceaseless and remorseless process of oxidation that surely, inevitably, and not slowly reduces all earthly things to ashes. Here we have no abiding kingdom.
Unlike prophets, churchmen are the product of institutions. In the safety and permanence of institutions they put their trust. They resolutely oppose the prophets, whom they accuse of disturbing their repose and rocking the boat; and they cultivate in opposition a peculiar "spiritual" type of religion, detached, and unworldly, but not in the sense that the primitive Christians were spiritual, detached, and unworldly. You will recall that the earliest critics of the ancient Christians describe them as noisy, unwashed, seditious, uncooperative, overactive, unabashed in their behavior, and crass, coarse, physical, and literal in their doctrines of heaven and their expectations of blessedness.
Conventional Christian piety is the other kind. The poets and philosophers of the pagans were all for denouncing the pomps and vanities of the world. They talked endlessly about the fuga mundi and the blessedness of pure contemplation, and just as the later church took its philosophy from them, so also it took its morality. The result is that the conventional Christian teachings are a fragile and unconvincing sort of thing, a hothouse product, a bouquet of exotic words that wither at a touch. The rich and artificial vocabulary of Christian theology has often been charged by Christian thinkers with being a thing of unreality and an instrument of confusion. The modern liberal Christian has broken loose from the jargon of Scholasticism, indeed, but only to introduce another and equally unconvincing jargon in its place—the copy-desk clichés that call ceaselessly for a "vital, vivid, dynamic, vibrant" religion, as if the endless mechanical repetition of these words would accomplish the thing.
But there is an interesting phenomenon that appears from time to time throughout the whole course of church history. It is the abrupt abandonment of the calm, urbane, academic, and scholastic mood of the clergy whenever the calm and even flow of life itself is rudely interrupted by the facts of history. When sudden reverses of fortune abolish the thought of security in this life, Basil, Chrysostom, Jerome, Hilary, and the Fathers of the Middle Ages all suddenly forget that they are philosophers and turn to conning Revelation and Daniel for the most literal signs of the times. The same churchmen who gloried in the irresistible forward march of their invincible church suddenly remembered, when that church suffered collapse and dissolution before their eyes, that the real church of Christ was not to be a triumphant world church at all; they remember what they had forgotten: that Christ's church is only to be victorious at the end of the world. "The Apocalyptic element of Chiliasm," Harnack wrote, "it is true, lay dormant for long periods, but at critical moments constantly emerged."2 Not just a few overwrought crackpots in time of world crisis have had a rude awakening to the reality of prophetic utterance: time and again the whole Christian world has gone back to the scripture.
To take an eminent example from the East, it would be hard to imagine more brashly boastful declarations than those with which John Chrysostom announced the complete and smashing victory of his church over all the world. The terms in which he hails the universal triumph of the church are not only naive, they are positively shocking. But it is interesting to see how political and natural calamities sober the man. After a great earthquake at Antioch he asks, "What is this world? A foul nest stuck together of scraps and mud. The greatest houses are no better than swallows' nests: come winter and they promptly collapse. . . . Well, I say this is winter now. God is going to purge the world with great destructions." Then John remembers that "Christ said that when the gospel had been preached to all nations, then the end would come; and since the gospel has been preached to almost all the inhabited world, there is nothing for it but that the end is at the door. Let us fear and tremble, beloved, for the end is very near."3 And so on. This is an almost comical reversal from John's former confidence in worldly progress.
Left to themselves, the fathers of the fourth century joyfully look forward to long careers of success for themselves and prosperity for the church, and only remember old, outmoded prophecies when calamity comes upon them. Jerome is as good an example for the West as Chrysostom is for the East. He too had gloried in the final establishment of the kingdom of heaven on earth with the ultimate victory of the church over all her rivals. And then overnight everything changes. "Who would have believed it?" he cries in astounded incredulity. "Rome fighting on her home base not for glory but for survival! Not even fighting, in fact, but rather trying to buy off her life with gold and goods. . . . As for the church, our house upon this earth as well as our home in heaven will be lost to us if we are lazy and slow to good works; and the whole structure which was designed to elevate to the peak of heaven shall collapse to earth, bringing ruin to its inhabitants. When our hands weaken, the storms overcome us, and this is as true of the Church as it is of private individuals: that through the neglect of the leaders the whole structure collapses." 4 Gone is all the old buoyant confidence; Jerome will not allow even the favorite consolation—that though individuals might go astray, the church never could be lost. Christ will not destroy his church, Jerome says, but he will uproot it and remove it from the earth to another place. "Christ disestablishes his church because of daily increasing unrighteousness."5
Such enforced recognition of truth was always a reluctant one, it is true, and the first opportunity was always taken to return to business as usual. A very early Christian writing describes how at the crucifixion, all the earth was thrown into terrible turmoil, "but the next day after it was all over, the sun came out and shined again, and men went about their everyday business as if nothing at all had happened."6 That is the normal course of things. But which is the reality—the everyday business, or the eternity that waits to receive us all? Religion should teach that it is the latter, yet conventional Christian doctrine is a denial of that. It is the apotheosis of institutions and routines, of old established ways, a solid and imposing dike to keep out the sea—to shut off the sight and even the memory of the sea which the Christian soul should be exploring. Throughout its long history, the church has been the steady enemy of the old Christian eschatology which, as Harnack says, emerges only at critical moments. When, as has happened in every century, groups and individuals within the church have sought the old literalism in normal times, they have been held to display exceedingly bad taste, and vigorously suppressed. "The Church is constantly hastening after the saints, . . ." says Powicke, "so it may . . . control them."7 Harnack holds this to be the leitmotif of the whole history of the Christian church: the constant antipathy between the established churches and those who insist on taking the scriptures too literally. In the end, however, no amount of official control of the scripture had availed to make men forget the true nature of prophecy. The abstractions of the schools have never satisfied men. A remarkable illustration of this, quite unfamiliar to most people, is the strange phenomenon of "letters from heaven."
At least as early as the sixth century A.D. reports started circulating in the Christian world of letters that had fallen from heaven. A great sensation was caused by a letter that was supposed to have fallen about 583 in Iviza, the smallest of the Balearic Islands. When the Bishop of Cartegena examined the letter, he declared it to be a silly thing, inelegant in language and unorthodox in doctrine; he rebuked Vincent, the Bishop of Iviza (who was later banished) for accepting the letter as genuine, expressing his amazement that anyone could accept "new scripture even after the prophecies of the prophets, the Gospels of Christ, and the letters of his apostles."8 Nevertheless the letter started something. Immediately reports of other letters fallen from heaven, usually upon the altars of churches, and usually in some remote and inaccessible part of the world, began to turn up everywhere. Always, the letters were the same: they began with a solemn attestation that the letter was not written by any man but was a direct missive from the hand of Christ or from the heavenly Father. Then followed a surprisingly commonplace discourse on the importance of not working on Sunday, a denunciation of vice and wickedness in the church, and a promise of impending disaster unless the people mended their ways. It was a pedestrian sermon, but it was not that which electrified the world—it was the introduction: "I swear," to quote one of the later letters, ". . . that this letter is not from the hand of a man . . . but from the Heavenly Father, who alone is invisible. Cursed be the man who resists me, and says, that this letter is not from Heaven!" 9 This was the tremendous news that the heavens were again open, against which the church fought in vain. In every century these letters continued to circulate and meet with the wildest enthusiasm and general belief. As late as 1846 such a letter caused an immense sensation in Bohemia, and not only the uneducated multitudes but also the gravest churchmen took them seriously.10 Few stories from the Middle Ages are more moving than that of the reception of such a letter in Rome. It was, we are told, in the temple of Paul at Rome when all the people were assembled that Theodoton, the assistant of the Roman patriarch, saw the epistle first, hanging in the air over the heads of the people and written on a tablet of ice. The multitude of 47,000 people were overwhelmed with weeping, the day was turned to night; in the presence of this missive the people all put on white garments and purified their hearts. Finally the letter descended upon the mantle of the patriarch himself, who was so overcome that he could not speak.11
In many instances it is reported that when such a letter is produced, those who behold it are blinded with tears. From all the extensive studies of the letters from heaven, two facts stand out: (1) that they all contain the same commonplace, unoriginal, little message which displays not the slightest spark of inspiration and shows them, in the opinion of all scholars, to be palpable forgeries; and (2) that what gave them their overwhelming popularity through fourteen centuries was not their content, but simply the fact that they were supposed to be a direct communication from God to men. This shows that the abstractions of the schoolmen did not at all satisfy the yearnings of the Christian soul. In spite of all creeds and councils to the contrary, men have persisted through the centuries in taking the scripture at its word, and holding the belief in concrete and literal things which the doctors have discarded since the days of the Alexandrian school.
To come down to the present, it is our privilege to live in another period of world crisis. Again the old ashes are stirred up, and literalism flares up anew. Here is the British scholar and clergyman F. A. M. Spencer, once a leading exponent of what he himself describes as the "liberal, ameliorist, socialgospel," announcing the discovery that by accepting the literal return of Christ we remove the strain "of having to contort his message, ignoring a considerable portion of it and making unwarranted deductions from other parts, to suit our preconceptions. It gives a sense of relief, of illumination, of enlargement. We begin to see now. The world has not reformed itself or allowed itself to be reformed by God in love. But then Christ did not say that it would."12 Spencer notes that the world is desperate; Christ must in some way make himself known to men if anything is to be saved at all, and in the face of grim new reality, this man now recognizes that all the old sentimental phrases about the "Gentle Galilean" count for nothing. "Yet in what way," he asks, "could God most adequately reveal himself to humanity? Surely through a human person. . . . Are we to hope that increasing evangelistic ardour and ecclesiastical efficiency will produce in the near future what preachers and prophets and pastors have not succeeded in accomplishing during all the centuries since Christ appeared on earth?" 13
Very recently, Austin Birch, a distinguished Anglican, pointed out that every religion has a central doctrine; if that doctrine seems fantastic, one is not obliged to adhere to it, but he reminds the liberal Christians of a thing they have forgotten—that if they do not choose to subscribe to the quaint old central doctrines of the Christian church, they are perfectly welcome to go elsewhere, but they have no right to rewrite those doctrines to suit themselves.14 It is just such well-meaning rewriting of history and doctrine that has produced modern-day Christianity. Since the last war, we have seen what Pauck calls "the re-discovery of the church," and the sudden general admission that Christ really founded a church.15 T. W. Manson even reports in 1950 that "there are signs that the doctrine of Apostolic Succession is in process of restatement in terms of the idea of a continuing body whose nucleus is the original Apostles, a body to which new members can be, as it were, co-opted."16 In other words, two thousand years too late, Christians are discovering that if the church were to continue, the ancient quorum of Twelve Apostles should also have continued, and now at this late date they are attempting to lock the barn door. In his dispute with J. B. S. Haldane, the noted Anglo-Catholic, Arnold Lunn, wrote in 1930: "St. Jerome . . . cites as an illustration of such nonsense the fact that some Christians are foolish enough to believe that . . . God really sits [on a throne in heaven] 'as if he were a commander or judge,' and that the angels stand around to obey his commands. . . . Literalism," Lunn boastfully declares, "is a Protestant, not a Catholic failing."17 Yet in 1950 the world saw the publication of the Bull Munificentissimus Deus, the forty-fourth article of which declares as "revealed dogma" that Virgin Mary ascended to glory "in body and spirit."18 Here is a literalness of revelation and a concreteness of heavenly things which would seem to indicate that in spite of Mr. Lunn, literalism may yet turn out to be a Catholic failing.
Now, literalism better than any other one word sums up the charges against the restored Church since the first message of its first prophet in these latter days, over a century ago. And just as the periodic return to literalism in times of crisis in the past have vindicated the prophets of old and kept the import of their message from ever being lost, so the present-day return to literalism in the face of world crisis is a clear vindication, after a hundred years of fierce denunciation, of the Latter-day Saint point of view. Time has vindicated the prophets.
1. Origen, Contra Celsum I, 9—10, in PG 11:672—75.
2. Adolf Harnack, Monasticism, Its Ideals and History, and the Confessions of St. Augustine (London: Williams & Norgate, 1901), 69.
3. John Chrysostom, On the Epistle to the Colossians 2, 4, in PG 62:314; On the Epistle to the Hebrews 21, 3, in PG 63:152; see also Homily After the Earthquake, in PG 50:713—14; On Saint Bassus the Martyr (dubia), in PG 50:723—24; On the Epistle to the Hebrews 32, 3, in PG 63:222.
4. Jerome, Epistles 60 and 123, in PL 22:600—602, 1058; Commentary on Ecclesiastes 10, in PL 23:1154.
5. Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah 7, in PL 24:275.
6. Clementine Recognitions I, 42, in PG 1:1231.
7. Frederick Powicke, "The Christian Life," in The Legacy of the Middle Ages, Charles Crump ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1951), 39.
8. Robert Priebsch, Letter from Heaven on the Observance of the Lord's Day (Oxford: Blackwell, 1936), 1—2. Translated by the author.
9. Maximilian Bittner, Der vom Himmel gefallene Brief Christi in seinen morgenländischen Versionen und Rezensionen, in Denksehriften der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften: Philosophisch-Historische Klasse 51 (Vienna: Hölder, 1906): 71.
10. H. Delehaye, "Un exemplaire de la lettre tombée du ciel," Recherches de science religieuse 18 (1928): 168. Cf. Frank Branky, "Himmelsbriefe," Archiv für Religionswissenschaft 5 (1902): 149—53. All writers here cited give general surveys of the whole subject.
11. Bittner, 107ff.
12. Frederick Spencer, "The Second Advent According to the Gospel," Church Quarterly Review 126 (1938): 18.
13. Spencer, "The Imminence of the Parousia," Church Quarterly Review 148 (1949): 241—42.
14. Austin Birch, "The Creeds: How Shall We Take Them?" The Hibbert Journal 51 (1953): 176—80.
15. Wilhelm Pauck, "The Idea of the Church in Christian History," Church History 21 (1952): 192.
16. T. W. Manson, "The New Testament Basis of the Doctrine of the Church," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 1 (1950): 11.
17. Arnold Lunn and John Haldane, Science and the Supernatural (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935), 52—53.
18. Josef Ternus, "Theologische Erwägungen zur Bulle 'Munificentissimus Deus,'" Scholastik 26 (1951): 11-35.