9 Ephrem the Syrian person of prayer Ephrem has justly been described as the greatest poet of the Early Church. He wrote in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus), and for most of his life served as a deacon in Nisibis on the eastern border of the Roman Empire. Ten years before his death in 373 he became a refugee when his town was transferred to the Persian Empire. He ended up in Edessa (modern Sanliurfa in SE Turkey), where he is recorded as having organised food for the poor during a famine shortly before he died. A considerable number of his poems survive, along with a few prose works, which include Commentaries on Genesis and on a Harmony of the four Gospels. Most of the poems are stanzaic and were intended to be sung; a later poet, Jacob of Serugh, has a delightful poem describing how Ephrem introduced the practice of having choirs of women (some of his poems are in fact written in the voice of women). These poems survive in a number collections of varying sizes, ranging from 4 to 87 poems; the collections have general titles, but only rarely (as in the case of the collection ‘On Paradise’) do these correspond to all the poems in them. Thus the large collection ‘On Faith’ ends with a small group of five poems ‘on the Pearl’ and its symbolism. Two of his narrative poems were translated into Greek (and thence into other languages): one is on Jonah and the Repentance of Nineveh, while the other is on the Sinful Woman who anointed Jesus (based on Luke 7), where Ephrem introduces into the narrative the Seller of Unguents; a motif picked up in many subsequent literary treatments of the episode.
Besides being a highly accomplished and original poet who uses some fifty different metres with great skill, Ephrem was also a profound theologian, who found poetry a much more satisfactory vehicle than prose for conveying his theological vision of the relationship between the material and spiritual world, and the elaborate spider’s web of multi-dimensional interconnections that a person the interior eye of whose heart is pure and luminous has the possibility of discovering in both Nature and Scripture.
Although Ephrem’s fame as a poet soon spread to the Greek- and Latin-speaking world (in a work of 392 Jerome mentions him), it was only in the sixth century that a biographical account of his life was written. Since the author wished to present Ephrem to a sixth-century audience he presents him as it were in modern dress: thus instead of a deacon he has become a monk, and he is credited with visiting both St Basil (in Cappadocia) and St Bishoi (in Egypt). Though without any historically basis, these episodes can be said to be symbolically true, in that Ephrem’s spirituality has much in common with that of the Cappadocian and Egyptian Fathers.
Dr Sebastian Brock(Retired Reader in Syriac Studes, Wolfson College, Oxford University) For further reading:
The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of St Ephrem the Syrian, Introduction and translation by S.P. Brock (3rd edition, Cambridge [UK]: Aquila, 2013).
St Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns on Paradise, Introduction and translation by S.P. Brock (Crestwood NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990).
Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns, Introduced and translated by K.E. McVey (Classic of Western Spirituality; New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1989).
S.P. Brock, The Luminous Eye. The Spiritual World Vision of St Ephrem (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1992).
10 Albrecht Ritschl & Adolf von Harnack Christian thinkers
Albrecht Ritschl (1822 – 1889) German Lutheran theologian.
Trained at Bonn and Halle; lectured at Bonn, Göttingen and Tübingen.
Major work: The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation (in 3 volumes; 1870-1874)
Ritschl was one of the founders of what came to be called Liberal theology. He also anticipated John Robinson, Bishop Spong and other radical theologians of the 20th century. Ritschl became important in the middle to the late nineteenth century as he turned away from the influences of Schleiermacher and Hegel. Underlying his work is the European Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant and his three volumes of Critical Philosophy. Ritschl thought that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason proved conclusively that we cannot know things in themselves but only how they are to us. This makes impossible the promise of any mystical experience of God and any account of knowledge based upon that, especially Schleiermacher’s idea of “the feeling of absolute dependence”. In the same way Ritschl saw that Kant’s account of experience undercut most of the common accounts of Christianity based upon religious experience where “experience” was understood objectively.
Ritschl’s fame does not lie only in his courage in facing the challenges raised by the Enlightenment or in his acceptance of the unknowability of things in themselves. He turned away from the Critique of Pure Reason to Kant’s writings on Practical Reason or morality, and to his later works on religion, the imagination and political philosophy. From these works Ritschl came to the view that morality was the proper domain for understanding Christianity and for Christian life. We must understand, however, that Ritschl did not understand morality as essentially private. Ethical life, he understood, was realised and accomplished in community. He also came to understand that Luther’s translation of the Greek dike as righteousness was misleading and that the underlying theme of justice required a more social and political understanding of “justification”, and that, in turn, led to reconciliation with God and in our social life. However, Ritschl understood that religion requires a rational account of transcendence. He believed that Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “ Act only on the maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”, provided a sufficient account of transcendence.
From his exploration of Kant, Ritschl also opened the way to an understanding of the importance of history, though an account of history that did not assume either decline or progress, and an account of history free from Hegel’s metaphysics. For Ritschl the discipline of history should lead Christians to understand the contexts in which Christian doctrine and theology had always taken place and would continue always to take place. Ritschl also understood that history should be the appropriate method for understanding the Bible. Every part of the Bible, its ideas and languages, was the product of specific historical circumstances which must control interpretation.
In these three dimensions Ritschl began Liberal Christian theology. This was a theology in which the Sermon on the Mount came to have a new importance; a theology in which ethics and community opened the way for Christians to share in and respond to a diversity of Christian views; and set the scene for Weimar liberalism and the American Social Gospel movement of Walter Rauschenenbusch which lasted until the start of World War II and beyond.
11 Barnabas apostle Devoted Prophet, Carer, Encourager and Teacher
Joseph was nick-named “Barnabas” by the apostles, the translation of this name given as “son of encouragement”. We first hear of him in Acts 4:36-37 where he generously sells a field, bringing the proceeds to the early church for the needy.
He was a Jew (tribe of Levi) and a native of Cyprus.
In Acts 11 we hear that the early believers had been scattered because of the persecutions which had happened after Stephen’s stoning. Some had spread from Judea as far as Antioch. The church in Jerusalem heard the stories of the gospel message spreading and so Barnabas was sent from Jerusalem.
Seeing the “grace of God” working, Acts 11:23 says that he exhorted the people there to remain faithful to “the Lord with steadfast devotion;” Acts then glowingly describes him as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith”.
An encourager by nature, he finds Saul in Tarsus (after Saul’s transformative encounter with the risen Jesus on the way to Damascus). Even though many believers had been afraid of Saul, now Barnabas brings him back to Antioch where they both encouraged and taught the people in the ways of Jesus (Acts 11:26). That Barnabas is listed first in the list of prophets and teachers in Acts 13:1 suggests he could have had a primary role in these ministries even ahead of Saul at this stage. Apparently times were tough for the church back in Judea and so Barnabas and Saul brought aid from Antioch.
After spending a year ministering in Antioch with Paul they are set aside for further sharing about Jesus abroad. Here they travelled to Barnabas’s home island of Cyprus and on to Asia Minor, following the lead of the Holy Spirit in their evangelical outreach before returning to Antioch. Eventually they report to the church in Jerusalem about the signs and wonders which had accompanied their mission, predominantly among the Gentiles.
A second journey is anticipated, however Paul and Barnabas have a falling out regarding whether they should take John Mark with them. We then read of Barnabas going back to Cyprus with John Mark. This is the last we hear of him in Acts. He most likely continued to evangelise widely as Paul speaks of him as being known to the Galatians (Gal 2:1, 2:13), the Corinthian church (1 Cor 9:6 – where Paul speaks favourably of him) and to the Colossians (Col 4:10).
Paul will describe Barnabas as an apostle (1 Cor 9:6) and was very much surprised that even Barnabas could be influenced by false teachers when Paul wrote Gal 2:11-14.
Later legendary stories attribute the writing of the Book of Hebrews to Barnabas. Other traditions suggest that John Mark wrote The Acts of Barnabas which describes Barnabas’s execution in Cyprus. (This work was probably written much later in the 5th century.) Tradition also says he was the founder of the church in Milan, being its first bishop, and that he was martyred in 61CE.
Barnabas was faithful alongside of Paul in sharing the good news of Jesus in the early days of the church. A powerful encourager and a Spirit-filled vessel he was committed to this great news of life in Jesus which he shared tirelessly.
15 Evelyn Underhill person of prayer Evelyn Underhill was born in England in 1875 and was the only daughter of Sir Arthur and Lady Alice Underhill. Her father was a well known barrister in London, and Evelyn was brought up in a household steeped in the law. She did not go to school, but was educated at home. After completing her secondary schooling, she attended King’s College, London. During vacations, she travelled abroad, and was greatly attracted to Catholicism, and would have become a Catholic, but was put off by the Catholic Church’s antagonistic attitude to the Modernist trend in theology at the end of the 19th century.
In 1907, she became a member of the Anglican Church, aligning herself with the High Church of England tradition. In the same year, she married Hubert Moore, a barrister. They had no children.
Prior to becoming a member of the church, she had read the writings of the famous Christian mystics - people like Teresa of Avila, Augustine of Hippo, John of the Cross, Francis of Assissi, Walter hilton, Julian of Norwich and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. She became absorbed with Christian spirituality and Christian mysticism, and felt that the average Christian knew little about this side of Christianity. She had always liked writing, so she began to write about Christian spirituality and published a guide to Christian mysticism in 1911. Other books were to follow - books on prayer and worship, and new translations of the writings of Christian mystics for the ordinary person.
Her writings attracted a great deal of interest, and she was soon in demand as a speaker and spiritual guide. She began to conduct retreats and conferences and later gave radio talks. She was very conscious of the need to to keep a balance between the spiritual and physical elements of life - the necessary combination of Mary and Martha, she put it. As a result, she spent her mornings writing, and her afternoons visiting the sick and the poor.
Her writings are refreshing. Although she writes about deep spiritual matters, she uses unaffected illustrations which are easy to identify with. She had a gift for relating what she had to say to the lives of ordinary men and women. On one occasion, she drew a parallel between a Christian’s life and a two-story house. In this house, the upstairs rooms are the spiritual rooms - decorative and beautiful; the downstairs rooms are the practical, well-used rooms representing the physical side of our natures. The house is incomplete without both sorts of rooms. We cannot retreat to the upstairs rooms and ignore the fact that the kitchen downstairs is overrun with beetles and contains a stove that doesn’t work properly.
From all accounts, Evelyn Underhill was a lively person. She loved the outdoors and was passionate about yachting. She had a fondness for pets and indulged in bookbinding for a hobby. She was greatly mourned when she died in 1941.
God of the still small voice,
we remember before you
the life and inner strength of Evelyn Underhill.
For her devotional writing,
for her prayerfulness,
for her discernment and spiritual understanding,
we thank you.
God our God, grant us the grace to follow her example. by Rev Ross Mackinnon 24 John the Baptist witness to Jesus
Prior to Christ’s ministry we meet John, called the Baptist. John, whose name means “God has shown favour”, is found in all four Gospels. He is described as being from God, sent to bear witness to the light, the Messiah, who is on his way. He is not the light but rather is to prepare the way for the light. Matthew and Luke start their Gospels with an introduction before introducing John and starting their account of the ministry of the Messiah who was to come. Mark starts his Gospel with the Baptist and John’s gospel weaves the Baptist into the coming of the light into the world.
It was customary to begin historical narratives by dating them according to the years of rulers and officials. Luke, the historian, therefore shows that John began preaching somewhere during ad 27 or ad 28. This therefore is when Jesus started his ministry also.
In the Christian Calendar he is remembered during Advent. He exemplifies the Advent message when we look back to what has gone before and look forward to what is to come.
John’s father, Zechariah, was a priest at the Temple, but John did not continue the family calling. He grew up in the desert and was said to have lived on locusts and wild honey.
He dressed in a camelhair coat with a leather belt. This was the clothes of a prophet in the OT. The word of God came to John – the words used throughout the OT to denote a prophet.
As prophesied in the Old Testament, John is the one who is crying in the wilderness.
John had a new message to tell and a new rite to introduce. He preached a baptism of radical repentance for the forgiveness of sin. Repentance in the Judaism of the time meant a total change in direction. A person was not saved by outward reformation, changing only what other people could see.
What was needed was an inner transformation. His baptism was new in that he was asking the Jews themselves to be baptized as a sign of repentance.
The message that John gives is ‘By God’s grace, remove every obstacle that is stopping the Lord’s entrance into your hearts and lives.’ He taught that God could turn stones into children of Abraham, what was required was repentance. It was not being one of the elect or being born an ethnic Jew that mattered.
For baptism, John needed water, so he remained in the region around the Jordan River.
John’s message was not about looking back but forward to the new age. God’s doing a new thing here. Part of his message is that the end has started. Someone was coming – John was getting the people ready. It is not clear if John understood who was coming but what John did with water, the coming one would do with the Holy Spirit.
We are told that Herod Antipas had John arrested and put to death due to John preaching about Herod’s sexual immorality.
Rev Peter Welsh 28 Irenaeus Christian thinker
Irenaeus of Lyons (Lugdunum) in Roman Gaul, one of the foremost apologists of the early church, came from Smyrna on the coast of Asia Minor where, as a boy, he heard his lifelong hero, the great Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Given that Polycarp died a martyr in 155 CE it is assumed that Irenaeus was born c. 140. As a relatively young man he went to Lugdunum, apparently as a missionary to the Celts. Lugdunum, founded in 43 BCE near the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers, was the capital city of the Roman province of Gallia Lugdunensis and one of the most important cities, after Rome, in the Western part of the Empire. It included a thriving community of traders from Asia Minor and, indeed, the martyr lists from the 177 persecution reflect many Greek and some Latin names but no Celtic. Following the martyr’s death of Pothinus, bishop or at least senior presbyter of Lyon and the nearby town of Vienne, Irenaeus became himself bishop or at least senior presbyter. He certainly styled himself as bishop and that is how he is now recognised. He first came to prominence beyond Gaul when he went to Rome early in his episcopate and developed a reputation as a mediator in a number of disputes, the best known perhaps that between the Roman church and the churches of the east over the dating of Easter. His very name reflected his reputation in the early church.
His extant apologetic writings, for which he is most widely known and appreciated, are the five books of the On the Detection and Refutation of Knowledge Falsely So-Called (better known as Against Heresies) – which survives only in a Latin translation from the 3rd or 4th century – and Epideixis or Proof of the Apostolic Preaching – which exists only in an Armenian translation of unknown date. The former is directed against the so-called Gnostics of his time, particularly those belonging to the school of Valentinus. The Valentinians are regarded now – and were possibly so regarded by Irenaeus himself and this is perhaps why he regarded them as particularly dangerous – as the closest to ‘orthodoxy’ on the orthodox-heterodox scale. The first book outlines the beliefs of the Valentinians and their predecessors while the second offers rational proofs against these. The third offers proofs from the Apostles (the canonical Gospels) and the fourth those from the sayings of Jesus, particularly the parables. The fifth offers proofs to be used against the claims of the Gnostics drawn from others sayings of Jesus and the writings of the Apostle and includes some eschatological reflections. Irenaeus was himself a convinced millenarian. It is in the fourth book that Irenaeus offers some of his most important theological writing on the unity of the Old and New Covenants (Testaments) and of the necessary and critical relationship between Creation and Redemption, between God as Creator and as Redeemer. The Epideixis, a much shorter book and only discovered in 1903, was written for converts and offers a simple summary of the Rule of Faith with supporting biblical texts. Irenaeus also wrote on the biblical canon, on the succession of bishops as a guarantee of orthodoxy – he was a doctrinal conservative and literalist biblical commentator whose motto was semper eadem – and on apostolic authority. While not always given his due perhaps as an important apologist and theologian in his day, the preservation of his major work in Latin indicates that he was appreciated not only in the East but also in the West. His feast day is celebrated in the East on 26 August and in the West on 28 June.
– by Rev Dr David Mackay-Rankin 29 Peter & Paulapostles The commemoration of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul in Rome brings together in death two figures who were sometimes at odds with each other in life. Paul recognised Peter as one of Jesus’ original disciples and a witness to the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3–5), but also claimed that his own encounter with the risen Christ qualified him to join the ‘apostles’ (1 Corinthians 15:8–10). The relationship between these two leading figures in the early years of the Christian movement was marked by a degree of conflict. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, speaks of a confrontation with Peter in Antioch. By stepping back from an earlier willingness to share table-fellowship with Gentiles, under pressure from colleagues in the Jerusalem church, Peter, in Paul’s eyes, acts hypocritically and in a way that is ‘not consistent with the truth of the gospel’ (see Galatians 2:11–14). As the context makes clear, it was this confrontation that led Paul to first formulate his understanding of justification that is based solely on Christ’s saving work (‘the faithfulness of Christ’) and that is received through faith (see Galatians 2:15–21). In Corinth, there also seem to have been tensions between Paul and sections of the church there that aligned themselves with the leaders of the Jerusalem church, including Peter (see 1 Corinthians 1:11–13).
This conflict, while central to the development of Paul’s theology, does not tell the whole story, however. Paul also indicates that, three years after his call to be the apostle to the Gentiles, he spent a fortnight with Peter, whom Paul regularly calls ‘Cephas’ (Galatians 1:18–20). A later visit to Jerusalem is also marked by co-operation and agreement (Galatians 2:1–10) as Peter and other Jerusalem leaders affirm Paul’s gospel and ministry. The ‘right hand of fellowship’ offered by Peter to Paul, stands as a fundamental gesture of their relationship. This more eirenic account of the relationship then becomes the basis for subsequent Christian accounts, notably that of Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, who strives to bring the two apostles into theological and historical alignment. A letter attributed to Peter commends the study of Paul’s letters, while recognising that ‘there are some things in them that are hard to understand’ (2 Peter 3:15–16).
In this way, Peter and Paul became regarded as the joint founders of the church in Rome. The New Testament gives us no information about their respective deaths. Luke ends his narrative with Paul in Rome under house arrest (Acts 28:30–31), but it is later tradition that describes his martyrdom, along with that of Peter, in the period of the so-called ‘Neronian persecution’. Graffiti in the catacombs of Rome from the 3rd and 4th centuries appeal to both apostles from the context of suffering: ‘Paul and Peter, pray for us all’.
Peter and Paul bear witness to both the unity and diversity of the Christian community in the earliest period. But the subsequent commemoration of their joint witness also points us to the things that bound them together. In the words of St Augustine, we remember ‘their faith, their lives, their labours, their sufferings, their confession of faith, their preaching’ (Augustine, Sermon 295).
Written by Rev Dr Sean Winter
July 3 Thomas apostle
5 Willem Visser ’t Hooft (1900-1985) reformer of the Church
Visser ’t Hooft — “Wim” to friends and colleagues—was the founding general secretary of the World Council of Churches. More than any other individual, he gave enduring shape to the modern ecumenical movement.
After studying theology, including a doctorate at Leiden, he became secretary for international youth work of the World YMCA (1924–32), then general secretary of the World Student Christian Federation. With the decision (1938) to form a world council of churches, the promising young Dutchman was seen as the obvious person to lead it. War intervened. He found himself at a lonely desk in Geneva, just a few kilometres from occupied France, responsible for an embryonic “WCC in process of formation” and struggling to maintain communications with church leaders divided and isolated by the conflict.
With the end of hostilities, Visser ’t Hooft set about planning the WCC’s inaugural assembly (Amsterdam, 1948). The years that followed involved more than finding staff and setting up an organization. He had to get to know a rapidly growing constituency, come to grips with the dilemmas of churches living under communism, find a path through Cold War tensions, address issues from the emerging so-called Third World and deal with the ecumenical impact of the Second Vatican Council. Above all he had to establish a style of work for the new World Council—an entity for which, as he said, there were no precedents.
After retiring in 1966 he was elected the WCC’s honorary president, which meant continuing involvement in the Council’s decision-making. With a permanent office in the Ecumenical Centre, he kept in contact with staff and visitors until shortly before his death, from emphysema, at the age of 85.
He was a brilliant man, a deft policy-maker and an effective communicator. A workaholic, he exuded energy. He had clear vision, a sharp mind, imagination, statesmanship, outstanding diplomatic skills and fluency in four languages. It is hard to imagine how the WCC without that rare combination of gifts would ever have seen daylight.
Wim was loved and admired. But he was not easy to work with. Some found him brusque and authoritarian – “more general than secretary”, went one comment. He did not suffer fools gladly, and into that category most of his colleagues found that, sooner or later, they fell. Mellowing in his later years, though, he always showed a special interest in younger staff—with a special tolerance for their gaffes!
Theologically, Visser ’t Hooft owed much to his friend the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Yet he was no doctrinaire Barthian. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism informed his approach to social ethics and international affairs. He drew insights from a range of theologians, church leaders and, he alwaysstressed, lay people too. For himself, Wim resisted the label theologian, preferring to describe his many writings and addresses as “interpretations across confessional and linguistic frontiers of thoughts which I have picked up from the theological pathfinders”.
He was a first-class example of that rare creature, a truly prophetic church policy-maker and administrator. Robert Bilheimer, a WCC associate general secretary for many years, identified what drove his old boss like some 20th century Amos to challenge the ecclesiastical status quo:
The prophetic quality lay in his capacity to discern and his fearlessness in laying out what he discerned . . . . Even his insistence on tying the ecumenical movement to the churches, frequently questioned, was prophetic. He understood clearly that the churches were the carriers of the Body of Christ; and an ecumenical movement that was not tied to the churches had no relevance to anything. Given that, Visser ’t Hooft could then turn the whole around, bringing “church” to bear on churches in withering analyses. Because he loved the church, he loved the churches.
And because he loved Christ, he loved the church. The gospel was the heart of it all, Christian unity mattered because reconciliation was a gospel imperative, Christ was summoning his scattered people to a renewed obedience, and the pressure of that common calling meant the churches just had to change.
Churchly change, however, comes slowly. In 1974, commenting on the impatience of many, young people especially, Visser ’t Hooft wrote:
Those of us who have worked for a long time for the World Council are painfully aware of how frequently opportunities are missed because of visible or concealed brakes. We need the impatient people who call for boldness, imagination and forward-looking hope in action. But there is an impatience which gives up and an impatience which builds up.
Willem Visser ’t Hooft had impatience aplenty. But his was the kind that produced a master builder for the ecumenical movement.