Faith and History, Miracle and Mysticism: Critical Notes on Eastern Orthodoxy

Faith and History, Miracle and Mysticism: Critical Notes on Eastern Orthodoxy September 27, 2016
(Apparently) Symeon the New Theologian. Source: WikiMedia Commons

(Or, more specifically, A Response to John Stamps’ “St Symeon the New Theologian and the Quest of the Historical Jesus”)


John Stamps has written a provocative piece (“St Symeon the New Theologian and the Quest of the Historical Jesus“) over at Eclectic Orthodoxy—one of the absolute best, consistently historically-rich and just all-around cerebral blogs on Christianity from the Eastern Orthodox tradition; or really, for that matter, from any tradition.

As his title suggests, the central figure in Stamps’ post is Symeon the New Theologian, a late 10th/early 11th century Byzantine monk and saint, of importance especially to the Orthodox contemplative and mystical tradition. (From what I understand, Symeon’s honorific title “Theologian” was actually bestowed on him for much the same reason that it was given to John of Patmos, the author of the enigmatic book of Revelation in the New Testament: that is, because of his close association with personal religious/visionary experience.)

As Stamps describes Symeon, quite in contrast to a caricature of Orthodoxy not entirely uncommon today—or, perhaps more importantly, much in contrast to Symeon’s theological adversaries in his own time—he “argued repeatedly that the absolute dead-center goal of Orthodox theology was experiencing the living God in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

How then does this come together with the Quest for the Historical Jesus, as Stamps’ title intimates?

For those unfamiliar with the quest(s) for the historical Jesus, Stamps’ post might not suffice as the friendliest of introductions. In short though, “quests” here—scholars in fact speak of three quests—are meant to denote the sort of fundamental approaches that were taken in various eras in terms of academic/critical study of the historical Jesus, each with their own defining features, methodologies and assumptions.

So, just as history itself is often divided into different eras—i.e. the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age, or early antiquity, late antiquity and modernity—you can think of the various quests for the historical Jesus like markers or sub-divisions for the history of history, as have been delineated in order to conveniently describe how the historical Jesus was studied within a given period; the sort of “quest” that scholars were on the time.

But the defining characteristics of each quest are less relevant here than is a certain aim that can be said to have been shared by all of the quests, underlying them as it were. As Stamps puts it, they all “tried to disentangle the 1st century Jesus of History from the Christ of Faith.”

The idea here couldn’t be simpler: that the Jesus that’s written about in the New Testament may not have matched up with how Jesus actually was in history, in terms of the sayings and deeds ascribed to him, etc.—despite that the latter are believed as a matter of faith.

Of course, this might sound like standard fare to most of my readers; though Stamps himself has a pretty pessimistic view of the fruits of the quests and their fundamental failures.

But again, while not getting into all the details here, many of the typical conclusions of the quest(s) for historical Jesus do fundamentally point toward a disconnect or dissonance between past and present here. When sat next to the pillars of faith, these suggest that while the authors of the New Testament could have “gotten away with” with claiming the things that they did about Jesus—at least in the sense that the portrait of Jesus they present is genuinely believed to be true by several billion faithful around the world—not all of these claims fare so well under our own modern critical microscopes.

Needless to say, then, this all is a major site of contention when it comes to the truth of Christianity itself, and how to assess this. If these traditional teachings and deeds ascribed to Jesus can be doubted, how much can be believed? (Can any of it?) Or is the main question here in effect unanswerable, now lost to history in the absence of truly reliable evidence whether one way or another—with ourselves being doomed to agnosticism (or perhaps excused for it)?

It’s here where Stamps brings Symeon into the conversation.

Stamps describes how in his 29th Discourse, Symeon “deals with the basic issues that confront anyone who is haunted by the Quest of the Historical Jesus”:

He starts with the problem of historical distance—we aren’t eyewitnesses of Jesus or His apostles. You cannot really blame us for our lack of faith. We’re the victims of bad timing. If only I had seen Jesus of Nazareth walking down the dusty roads of Galilee just one time or if only I had heard Him speak just one sermon, I would believe!

Stamps then brings another (later) figure into the conversation here: the infamous German critic Gotthold Lessing, who in the 18th century did perhaps more than anyone else in terms of refining or perhaps exacerbating this problem for the modern world.

For Lessing, the uncertainty and skepticism here was an “ugly, broad ditch” between past and present; and Stamps quotes Lessing to this effect particularly on the issue of miracles—a topic which in many ways sets the tone for the rest of Stamps’ post to come:

Miracles, which I see with my own eyes, and which I have opportunity to verify for myself, are one thing; miracles, of which I know only from history that others say they have seen them and verified them, are another. … If I had lived at the time of Christ, then of course the prophecies fulfilled in his person would have made me pay great attention to him. If I had actually seen him perform miracles, if I had no cause to doubt that true miracles existed, then in a worker of miracles who had been marked out so long before, I would have gained so much confidence that I would willingly have submitted my intellect to his, and I would have believed him in all things in which equally indisputable experience did not tell against him.

Yet as Stamps has it, Symeon had already in the 11th century offered a response to what Lessing would say some seven centuries later—one that seems to challenge the very assumption that Lessing was relying on in regard to how Jesus was originally presented in the first century: “At that time He appeared as an insignificant man to the ignorant Jews, but now He is proclaimed to us as true God.”

Stamps elaborates on what he takes to be Symeon’s point, in his own words:

If you lived in the 1st century, you wouldn’t have found what you were looking for. Jesus of Nazareth was simply a Galilean Jew firmly embedded in the Second Temple Judaism of His day.

. . .

In fact, we probably wouldn’t even have recognized Jesus. He is not God striding across the face of the earth like Zeus or Hercules (pace Ernst Käsemann). . . . With one notable exception (the Transfiguration on Mt Hermon), Jesus doesn’t step out of character and reveal Himself as anything other than as an insignificant 1st century Jewish rabbi.

Yet here, I can’t help but feel that Stamps is making some crucial omissions—almost even to the point of insincerity.

In fact, from the first chapter of the earliest New Testament gospel (that of Mark) and continuing throughout, Jesus is portrayed as a consummate wonderworker, healing and performing exorcisms. To be sure, in regard to being “firmly embedded in the Second Temple Judaism of His day,” there were other wonderworkers known throughout the Jewish world—and the Greco-Roman one too, for that matter.

But even from the beginning of the gospel of Mark, Jesus is portrayed in terms of possessing the unique power of God.

Now, there are plenty of things to debate about what exactly it meant for the New Testament authors for Jesus to possess the power or nature of God. But just to note a few hints in this direction: merely 11 verses into Mark, at Jesus’ baptism by John, God parts the heavens in order to announce (presumably to all within earshot) that Jesus is his own “son.” Further, after Jesus performs his first exorcism at the end of this chapter, in Mark 2 Jesus pronounces a paralyzed man’s sins forgiven shortly before healing him—prompting the perhaps tantalizing ironic response from onlookers, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

Jesus’ miraculous mission in fact dominates the gospel of Mark, culminating in his crucifixion, in which “darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon” (Mark 15:33); and then after his death “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (15:38). The gospel of Matthew appears to embellish this account to the point of incredulity:

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After [Jesus’] resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. (Matthew 27:51-53)

Surely, if this were true, this would have been considered the most significant event in Jerusalem, and almost certainly the entire world; and it’s certainly not an event to be expected upon the death of a mortal.

In any case, following the death of Jesus and his resurrection, the Acts of the Apostles recounts how the earliest disciples continued to spread the word about Jesus; and their own missions were also full of miracles—performed “in the name of Jesus,” in the same way that Elijah and others before performed them “in the name of God/YHWH.” For example, in the second chapter here, they’re all gathered on Pentecost when all of a sudden “divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them”; and due to this—in a detail that seems to signify a reversal of the primeval confusion of tongues after the Tower of Babel in Genesis—they assume the ability to be heard in the differing native languages of what must be a massive crowd:

“Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2:9-11)

(It’s reported after this, in Acts 2:41, that 3,000 people in total were converted and baptized on this single day.)

Although it would still be another few centuries until full orthodox Trinitarianism was worked out, the raw ingredients for the notion of Jesus’ “full divinity” (and his humanity, too) are found in New Testament gospels themselves—even in the words of Jesus himself to his contemporaries, Jewish and otherwise. For example, as reported in the gospel of John, we find Jesus proclaiming “I and the Father are one” (10:30) and that “before Abraham was born, I AM” (“I am” here being a shortened form of the true name of God himself, as was originally revealed to Moses in Exodus 3), etc.

In any case: on one hand, Stamps, as a clearly well-read Christian, surely knows these things. On the other though, it’s hard to imagine how, knowing this, he could in good faith say—even in spite of his caveat about the Transfiguration—anything like “Jesus doesn’t step out of character and reveal Himself as anything other than as an insignificant 1st century Jewish rabbi.”

After this, as I already suggested, in conjunction with the purposed disconnect between the past and present, Stamps’ discussion now turns to focus specifically on miracles. And on the subject of Gotthold Lessing’s skepticism, he writes that Lessing

Again . . . crisply and decisively states the problem for us—“I live in the eighteenth century, in which miracles no longer happen.”

Yet dismissing Lessing’s skepticism here and in another extended quotation as “mere bombast and bluster,” Stamps writes that

Maybe no miracles occurred in Wolfenbüttel, Germany in the stacks of the Herzog August Library . . . But 878 km (or 545 miles) to the southwest, Lessing surely could have visited Paris, France where not even the King of France could prevent the miracles of the Jansenists from roiling the French populace and authorities. God had stopped working miracles everywhere in Europe except in Paris of all places, the epicenter of the European Enlightenment.

This then prompts Stamps to discuss several claimed miracles relating to the Jansenist movement. Now, like the quests for the historical Jesus, the theological contours of Jansenism are largely irrelevant here (though not completely); and again the Wiki article on it will suffice just fine for anyone who wants to know more on this.

The salient point here, however, is how Stamps recounts the conversion of the famed mathematician Blaise Pascal to this movement:

became a full-fledged Jansenist when his 10-year old niece Marguerite was miraculously healed of her lacrimal fistula, a hideous stinking tumor that had afflicted her eye. In 1656, the abbess at the Port Royal monastery had pricked Marguerite’s eye with a sacred thorn from Jesus’ crown of thorns. Days later, the relic has completely healed her eye. All of Paris was astounded. But not Pascal. He became a believer.

Although Stamps doesn’t spend a great deal of time defending the legitimacy of miracles, I hope no one will mind if I go into a bit more detail in response to this. (Besides, Stamps does seem to accept these miracles and make rhetorical/argumentative use of them.)

At the outset, the concept that anyone possessed “a sacred thorn from Jesus’ crown of thorns”—much less that they did so in the 17th century, more than a millennia and a half after Jesus’ crucifixion—is prima facie unlikely if not absurd, knowing what we know about the dubious origins of supposed relics from the first century and the general era. For that matter, skepticism along the same lines extends to many relics cults, and certainly outside just Christianity as well.

Of course, as for this crown of thorns, if it was simply a pious replica that bore no relationship to the actual historical crown of thorns (as it undoubtedly didn’t), this doesn’t necessarily mean that this miracle didn’t still happen. Yet I can’t but think that, if it were simply a replica, this might undermines the particular supernatural/religious associations that are made here—including, of course, that for Pascal this legitimized his turn toward Jansenism.

And even more broadly: really, considering the form of the practice, it’s hard to differentiate this from “secular” magic. For example—in an example clearly not irrelevant to the subject of relics from the crucifixion of Jesus— in ancient Roman magical practice, crucifixion nails were prized for both their potentially malicious magical properties as well as their apotropaic and healing properties (which led magicians to rob the graves of the crucified). Further, the blackthorn—of which Jesus’ crown of thorns was, in various European traditions, commonly though erroneously believed to have been made out of—was associated with magical practice; and more specifically, being pricked by its thorns was associated with a type of Satanic magic.

After this, however, Stamps goes on to talk about the miracles associated with the Jansenist François de Pâris, and the Convulsionnaires movement around him.

Whatever else might be said here though, right off the bat it’s hard to avoid the idea that the validity of whatever supernatural things are claimed for the Convulsionnaires is somewhat tainted by some dubious aspects and associations haunting this group, as it were. That is, although Stamps mentions the Convulsionnaires, he doesn’t spend any time describing this distinctive movement—only mentioning, re: their devotion to the tomb of François de Pâris at Saint-Médard, that “In 1731, at least 70 documented miracles took place there.”

In fact though, I’ve previously written on the Convulsionnaires in conjunction with demonic possession: specifically that one of the catalyzing events for the practices of the group—precisely at the cemetery at Saint-Médard in 1731—displays all the signs that typify a serious medical/psychotic episode; and it’s this episode that the followers of the movements largely sought to imitate, leading to their notoriety and in fact serving as the basis for the epithet Convulsionnaires itself. (Though perhaps even more damning in terms of dubious associations here, another typifying characteristic of the movement was their rampant apocalypticism—apocalypticism itself being, of course, an ideology that as far as we know has a 100% failure rate.)

And it’s perhaps ironic that Pascal himself once suggested, in connection with all this, that “one must judge doctrine by miracles, and one must judge miracles by doctrine” (Il faut juger de la doctrine par les miracles, il faut juger des miracles par la doctrine). That is—and provided we can get beyond the impasse of the circularity of this—if we go by Pascal’s latter principle here, then we might say that the claims of miraculous surrounding the Jansenists are indeed to be judged in the negative, in light of the their failed apocalypticism and in fact their eventual demise and disappearance. (We might also compare the apocalypticism of modern Marian cults here—a topic that a forthcoming post of my develops at length.)

Of course, this is all a somewhat oversimplified critique; but I don’t want to spend any more space on it in this current post.

Near the end of his post, Stamps writes

Now I readily concede that we Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, charismatics, Pentecostals, and other types of intellectually disreputable Christian believers have placed ourselves in a precarious position. None of us perform signs and wonders at will, except maybe at a Benny Hinn revival. Yet we are all Christian believers who affirm that God continues to work both wholesale (i.e. general providence) and retail (i.e. miracles) in the 21st century. We are not 19th century Princeton cessationists like B.B. Warfield who argued God stopped working retail at the end of the 1st century and He now works only wholesale, which ironically now sounds more Deistic than it was intended to be at the time.

Nonetheless, if there’s an apparent absence of readily-available miracles, Stamps again connects this in a way with the situation in first-century Galilee:

A faithful generation sticks with Jesus Christ in good times and bad, through thick and thin, as in any good marriage. Whether you’re scribes and Pharisees (Matt 12:39), Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:1), a desperate father seeking healing (John 4:48), or multitudes seeking bread (John 6), Jesus offered no sign as a knock-down, indubitable proof to anyone. His signs pointed to God’s in-breaking Kingdom. They were never intended to offer assurances to prop up anyone’s belief system.

Yet on this note, I feel that the dichotomy Stamps sets up is questionable. Surely there’s a sense in which both co-existed: that the miracles of Jesus were (in the mind of the New Testament authors if not the original figures themselves) intended to signal the validity of Jesus’ message and authority, and that they were a sign of the inbreaking of the kingdom. And we obviously shouldn’t underestimate the crucial role ascribed to Jesus here in inaugurating this kingdom, too.

In terms of the warrant for firm and impassioned Christian belief itself (or, more in context, actual religious experience here), and the skepticism as to easily it could be achieved, Stamps follows this with a quote by Symeon in which he isn’t attacking secular critics but rather

scolding his fellow Orthodox Christians, who should have known better but didn’t. St Symeon doesn’t argue that his fellow monks and clergy should start conjuring up miracles. He wants to start with something yet more basic—have a little faith. Or if not faith, at least weep tears of repentance over your lack of faith.

Finally, Stamps ends his post by suggesting that

In short, St Symeon would not be impressed by the Quest of the Historical Jesus. Not for a second would he think you would find the “real” Jesus somewhere lurking in the past. You would not find what you were looking for then—we can only find the real Jesus now.

To be honest, I think some of the connections Stamps made here between research on the historical Jesus and the thought of Symeon and miracles, etc., are loose and tenuous. To be sure, although most critical scholars believe that the historical Jesus was in his lifetime thought of as—and thought of himself as—a wonderworker, nevertheless, if anything, some of the more incredible elements associated with his life and ministry (again, like Matthew 27:51-53) are often thought of as later accretions with little historical basis.

But I think it’s fair to say that in many ways, one of the main points being driven at by Stamps here is actually a(n ultimately false?) dichotomy between miracles and personal experience.

As he seems to have it, if miracles “dry up,” as it were, this certainly shouldn’t be taken to be the end of the story. As Stamps suggests, “A faithful generation sticks with Jesus Christ in good times and bad, through thick and thin, as in any good marriage. ” Indeed, if tangible miracles are seemingly absent, then for him and others, it’s time to turn toward the latter, as Symeon suggests to those skeptical “that they may be both great contemplatives and see God, by the illumination and reception of the Holy Spirit, through whom the Son is perceived together with the Father”; and, again, as Stamps suggests, in that “we can only find the real Jesus now” (in which the historical Jesus appears to be gone, but that the spirit can still be accessed through “catechesis, prayer, Eucharist, almsgiving, proclamation, obedience, Bible study, the experience of active love,” etc.).

I mentioned earlier in this post, in conjunction with Stamps’ argument that Jesus was “firmly embedded in the Second Temple Judaism of His day,” that Jesus was one among several contemporary wonderworkers. And if (in Stamps’ conception) Jesus’ wonderworking was part of his being embedded in this context, one wonders if one of the real main subtexts here is that not even miracles are sufficient for believing in Christ.

If this is true in this regard, I think Stamps missed a good opportunity for an extension of an analogy that he only briefly hinted at. Again, in talking about the German critic Gotthold Lessing, Stamps had compared Lessing’s “ugly ditch” between past and present—again, one in terms of his uncertainty whether the Bible could be trusted in its portrait of the historical Jesus, etc.—to the unbridgeable chasm separating Lazarus from the rich man, as found in the parable from the 16th chapter of the gospel of Luke (as was perhaps originally in Lessing’s mind, too).

As it goes in this in Luke’s parable, during their earthly lives the rich man ignored the suffering of poor Lazarus, who lay at the rich man’s gates; yet their fates are reversed in the afterlife. In his torment, the rich man cries out to Abraham for relief—and perhaps implicitly for understanding, too. Abraham, of course, reiterates that their fates are sealed; and yet the rich man asks Abraham if Lazarus could at least be temporarily resurrected and sent to his five brothers to warn them, “so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”

Yet as we go on to read,

Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ [The rich man] said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ [Abraham] said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ (16:29-31)

Here we have a complicating factor in terms of the analogy that Abraham makes, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

With Stamps and others, most of us obviously might be missing out on any miracles of resurrections from the dead (unlike in Abraham’s hypothetical here—though clearly this presaged Jesus’ own resurrection). But why would exactly should we believe “Moses and the prophets”? For that matter, what exactly is it suggesting to believe about them?

“Moses” here is obviously a metonym for the Torah, with its origin stories and tales of the patriarchs and its laws; and in both this and in the prophetic literature, we find tales of miraculous events and fulfillment of prophecies. But to the extent that we might fairly take the envisioned persuasion here to be one that comes from an encounter with the “undeniable” miraculous therein, how exactly can we be convinced of this if we’re otherwise skeptical of these accounts in the first place?

Stamps utilizes Symeon to emphasize the living tradition of Orthodoxy, where Christ is truly “encountered” in the present. Of course, though, the truth of these living traditions itself rests on the truth of the phenomena that Biblical texts themselves claim: the bodily resurrection of Jesus, etc.

In the end, then—and again if, in some sense, we’re kind of setting supernatural miracles aside for the sake of argument here—I don’t see any other option than that Stamps ultimately has to adopt a position much like that of Gotthold Lessing himself: one in which the fundamental claims of Christianity are validated by their confirmation via some subjective “inner truth.”¹

But it’s hard to avoid that the assessment that this is just one step forward and two steps back. What exactly does this inner truth look like or feel like? More importantly, why is it superior to the personal experiences that seem to give truth to the claims of any other religion, as they do for countless other adherents thereof?

The philosophical issues underlying if and when religious truth can be affirmed via attesting miracles are themselves highly complicated; mostly by the fact that virtually all religions call their own miraculous traditions forward as witnesses to their truth. But if miracles can’t be relied on, why exactly is personal experience any better—especially when we’re confronted by the circularity inherent in the fact that it’s precisely subjective experience/affirmation that’s hoped to give truth to the (otherwise unverifiable) supernatural claims underlying religious truth in the first place?



[1] Toshimasa Yasukata has discussed Lessing’s views here at some length.

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