For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

By the word liturgy people normally mean a ritual act done with the aim of serving and worshipping God, including both the bodily ritual itself and the words accompanying it. This needn't be rich or elaborate, and in fact I would include in this definition the kind of order of Sunday service with which I grew up, in an Irish Presbyterian tradition of worship. Even though the prayers were ex tempore, there was still a recognisable pattern; and even though Holy Communion might have had a very minimal rite attached, it was a formal rite nonetheless. I mention this because sometimes the word liturgy, derived from the Greek λειτουργός or service, has a kind of "High" association, and I want to point out that it isn't about the aesthetics of worship, or even a written as opposed to an improvised ritual. I would say that even Quakers, in this sense, have a liturgy. It is about a direction and an offering: what is it, when we gather as Church that we offer, body and soul, to God?

There is a Latin maxim, lex orandi, lex credendi: what and how you pray - liturgy - is the content and nature of your belief. Drawing on this notion, I wonder if the lex orandi, liturgy, is a key to the relation of Scripture and Tradition via the Incarnation of Christ. At least, that is where I am going with this post. My starting point, as mentioned towards the end of the Scripture and Tradition post, is the first century Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament, and our Lord's appropriation of that same tradition in His consciousness of Himself as the Son of God, the sufferer of the Psalms, and the Holy One of Israel.

But to get to the starting point, I have to take a step back to discuss Scriptural interpretation. There are two main strands of biblical interpretation that separate and divide in the first and second century AD. These are firstly the Jewish strand, which increasingly codified and interpreted the Torah as a personal and communitarian legal and moral code; and secondly the Christian strand, which as it became predominantly Gentile, began to allegorise the Old Testament as a figure or shadow of, and as a preparaton for, the New. This is a rough characterisation: one of the most allegorising of all interpreters, Philo of Alexandria, was a pre-Christian Jew. But it isn't allegory (a stream that entered into both later Jewish and Christian hermeneutic) that is the kind of interpretation that I believe to be most significant. But now I see that a detour is required, into the four senses of Scripture, a hermeneutic of the layers of meaning within the text that was developed by Christian theologians in the Patristic era. It can look specious when applied (as it often was) to each and every text; but some passages are more congenial to the method.

The four senses or layers of meaning in Scripture, a schema more or less fixed by the time of Augustine, are:
(1) the literal or historical sense - the obvious "surface" meaning of the text.
(2) the moral sense i.e. the text as a "lesson for life" - although this sometimes looks allegorical, because e.g. Jerusalem is a type of the soul in its ascent to God, and therefore texts about Jerusalem can have a moral sense because they apply to the soul's moral purification.
(3) allegorical or typological - here the interpreters sometimes ran two distinct things under one heading (allegory is placing the concrete for the abstract: Esau is a type of the vice of incontinence, for example, because he sold his birthright to satisfy his hunger; typology on the other hand is where one concrete thing images another, such as when the undeserved suffering of the patriarch Joseph in Egypt is said to be a type of Christ's suffering for His brethren). Allegory was an established interpretative method, as noted above, with the Alexandrian Platonists and in Homeric interpretation, before it became first Jewish and then Christian property.
(4) anagogical - from the Greek ἀνάγω, to bring upwards, meaning a kind of interpretation that leads one upwards to the heavenly kingdom.

The fourth type of interpretation, the anagogical, is the puzzling one. When I first came across it I didn't really get the point, or see the need for it. But, for reasons given below, I shall argue that it is the most specifically Christian of all the three spiritual or non-literal senses, and together with the literal it forms the frame into which the other interpretations should fit. While I say it is the Christian sense of the three spiritual senses, it is also - and here is the salient point - it is also the paradigm of Jewish Old Testament reception at the time of Christ.

The Jewish anagogical interpretation presupposes a theology about the future kingdom of God, when the nations and tribes of the world are ruled by God and His Messiah. This theology relies heavily on the prophets, Isaiah in particular, for its images of the kingdom: the people of God flowing to Mount Zion with everlasting joy upon their heads; the lion lying down with the lamb, and the little child playing fearlessly with deadly serpents; the Temple of God erected above all nations; heaven and earth made anew. It supposes a kingdom and a rule that is spiritual, but (and this is of vital importance to appreciate) nevertheless not immaterial. That is, there is no suggestion of Platonism in the strict sense, i.e. that spiritual implies the exclusion of matter and the body. Here are two examples that will illustrate the theology as applied to the Old Testament.

(1) The manna, the bread given to the Israelites in the wilderness, was understood to have been created at the beginning of the world, on the eve of the first Sabbath upon which God rested. It was bread from heaven, the "bread of angels", which Michael the Archangel offered in the worship of the heavenly Temple upon which the Jerusalem Temple was patterned. The manna, having ceased to fall from heaven on the day when Israel's tribes entered Canaan, was nonetheless still present in heaven. The doors of heaven would open and the treasury of manna come down again when the new Moses, the Messiah, appeared: because (according to the Jewish apocalypse of 2 Baruch) those who eat of it have arrived at the consummation of time, at the coming of the heavenly kingdom. You will not find the manna again in this age, said one rabbinic commentary, but in the Age to Come. The thread of thought here is a complex one: the Temple ritual is a pattern of the heavenly liturgy; in heaven the manna is made by the angels for this liturgy; the manna was rained upon the tribes of Israel in the wilderness and they were able to consume it physically, and although a heavenly reality it was therefore also a corporal reality; it will rain down again in the Age to Come when the Messiah will appear, who will lead the people of God in a fresh exodus, into the new heaven and earth prepared for them. I will return to Jesus' use of this theology in a moment.

(2) Shortly after receiving the Ten Commandments, Moses seals the covenant with sacrificial blood, and then takes the seventy elders to Mount Sinai, where they "beheld God, and ate and drank". A brief remark, but one upon which great stress was laid by the Jewish rabbinic tradition. Moses and the elders, they believed, went up not only into the mount, but into heaven itself, where the covenant was completed by a heavenly banquet. Some rabbis saw the covenant banquet as a feasting upon the presence of God Himself: the eating and drinking of the seventy elders was a feasting upon Him, an image of Age to Come when God will be the food and drink of His people. Again, as in the example of the manna, we have a sudden and startling union of the physical - the seventy elders, food and drink, a mountain in Arabia - and the heavenly. They feast with God Himself; they banquet in heaven.

How then, is this theology and tradition taken up by Jesus and in the New Testament in general? It is all there in the synoptic gospels. Take the Transfiguration, when Jesus too goes up the mountain, and is changed in appearance, taken up, and surrounded by the divine presence. And afterward he speaks of the exodus that he must shortly perform. Take Jesus' talk of His body as the Temple which will be destroyed and rebuilt in three days. Take Jesus' bread of heaven discourse, where He makes explicit mention of the manna in the very context mentioned above. I have no doubt that we are seeing hints of a current of thought and understanding of the meaning of the Old Testament not only propagated by Jesus Himself, but appropriated by Jesus to Himself as Messiah, and as herald of the Age to Come. And all of the features of the contemporaneous Jewish anagogical interpretation are present, thrown into even starker relief by the context in which they are applied. Jesus is, He makes very clear, the manna which came down from heaven: at once a spiritual and corporal reality, we will receive His flesh and blood both spiritually and corporally in the kingdom of God. He is the heavenly Temple, the place of celestial sacrifice and of God's dwelling presence, the presentation on earth of the divine pattern. He is the new Moses who will lead His people in an exodus from this present into the Age to Come. Point for point (and they could be multiplied), Jesus takes the anagogical theology and interpretation of Old Testament symbols and puts them very firmly in their place. He says it is I of which these speak.

I have strayed rather far from liturgy, which was what I was meant to write about. But now the background work has been done, and the threads can be taken up again. Research on the liturgy in the last hundred years has uncovered the correspondence between the liturgy of the Jewish synagogue and the early Christian liturgy. Unsurprisingly, one might say, as early Christian cells were a Jewish synagogue run by the "Jesus sect". The readings from the Law and Prophets were eventually replaced by the Epistle and Gospel; the Psalms were kept but were re-interpreted as Messianic prophecies about Jesus specifically; the annual cycle of Jewish feasts gave way to the Christian year, revolving originally around Easter and Pentecost. What has been a little lost, however, is that the Christian liturgy took over a function of the Temple liturgy. Typically (say the scholars) in addition to the Jewish synagogue's liturgy of the Word, was added the Christian Eucharist. They also think that this was very often followed by a third element, the practice of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. But the point here is that the Eucharist took over and united to the synagogue's liturgy a symbolic Temple liturgy, the sacrifice of the Lamb. One can see hints of this in the book of the Revelation (another tremendously significant anagogical piece of work) where the heavenly liturgy is very likely a stylised presentation of the early Christian celebration made to look a bit like a Temple rite. The elders sit around the throne of God and the Lamb, incense and prayers are offered, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world is upon the altar, and the newly washed and white-robed saints sing a new song. What if what one has here is the New Testament and Christian version of the Temple liturgy? Here heaven is joined to earth, the kingdoms of the world have become the kingdom of God and of His Christ, and the heavenly banquet, the Eucharist, both corporal and celestial, has begun.

I wish to pause and point out three things.

Firstly, the early Church didn't have a get together and have a kind of spontaneous worship session. All the evidence points to something more formal; and all the evidence is that the existing synagogue worship was colonised and adapted by this new "sect". Thus I don't find the argument that Holy Communion was just like a meal, with everyone sitting around a table, to be particularly compelling. There might have been a communal feast such as that mentioned in St Paul's letter to the Corinthians, but the Eucharist - from what we can glean - was a liturgy proper.

Secondly, if this is the case, taking the hints gleaned from the Acts of the Apostles and St Paul to build up a systematic picture of what an early Christian gathering was like is a highly questionable procedure. What one has in the Acts is a brief history; in St Paul is very often an ad hoc letter with some theology thrown in. I don't mean that they aren't divinely inspired books: but I mean that they aren't meant to be liturgical manuals or histories of liturgical development. What we take to be an informal term e.g. "breaking of bread" might have been a term for the Eucharist with all kinds of formal connotations. From the text, we don't know. That isn't what these books are about.

Thirdly, liturgical rites tend to have a remarkable permanence. They might be added to, but are rarely (except in iconoclastic movements) drastically pared down. This - and the considerable body of very early documentary evidence - gives a very sound science of liturgical history. What one hears today in an Orthodox liturgy is not far in wording and ritual from a third century liturgy, and may not be terribly far off the liturgy of one or two generations after the Apostles.

Now for the conclusion of this post, after I give a brief summary. Jesus' use of the Old Testament is anagogical, a mode of interpretation common to the rabbis of his day, but He changes the reference so that He becomes the term and meaning of the Old Testament. The anagogical mode supposes a theology which was congenial to what He wished to say, and to His person as the Incarnate Son of God, because it contains a notion of spiritual which does not exclude the corporal. What one has in the early Christian liturgies is a union of the Jewish synagogue liturgy with a Eucharist which is a modified Temple ritual, with certain aspects of the Temple ritual united in one image (both the burnt sacrifice and the shewbread, for example, are united in the offering of the Eucharistic bread). This comes out in more visual form in the more traditional and oriental Orthodox liturgy than in the Latin rite, and by the time one gets to some modern Latin rite liturgical celebrations, well... But I wish to suggest more than that the Christian liturgy is a kind of symbolic harking back to the Temple, with bits of the synagogue ritual added on.

What I wish to do finally, is to say simply that Christian liturgy itself is anagogical in its theology, and in its reality, because in it we are taken up to heaven. In it Christ speaks, acts through the Holy Spirit, and we are given to eat the spiritual food and drink of the body and blood of our most blessed Saviour.

In it Christ speaks, because He is the meaning of the words of the Old Testament, and by His Spirit speaks through His Apostles and in His Gospel. Some people seem to think that the readings at the celebration of the Eucharist are less important. But without the words, the ritual and its elements would not have the significance that they do. Without the Word of Christ, spoken and heard, there would be no Eucharist at all. The Scripture is the voice of Christ and His body the Church, speaking by the Holy Spirit the words that the Father gives to the Son. And thus our utterance of and obedience to these words is a share in the life of the Trinity.

In the Eucharist Christ feeds us at the heavenly altar, in the divine Temple which is His body. My reason for being so utterly persuaded of this are the words of Christ Himself in the Gospel of John, where He speaks clearly of Himself as the bread from heaven. Understood anagogically, and I believe they make sense in no other way, we are to understand something that points us to the Age to Come, whose full reality is not yet revealed but in which we nevertheless partake by faith; the reality of what we partake is enacted in heaven in all its fulness, but yet the physical event we undertake is a part of that divine reality. With the uttered Word, the bread becomes the Eucharist of Christ's body, constituted through the Spirit, and offered up to the Father. And our partaking of the Eucharist is a joint-partaking in the offering of Christ, our incorporation into His body.

I hope that gives some idea of why I don't think that liturgy is extraneous or can be altered without a clear knowledge of what it is; and why I don't think that a doctrine of the Real Presence is dependent on Aristotle's doctrine of substance. One simply needs to become a first century Jew to grasp the theology. Further, one could continue to extend the same principles of anagogical interpretation to baptism etc. but I think this piece is becoming overlong. There are a couple of other things I would like to mention, however.

A good deal of the thought in this section was prompted by Brant Pitre's Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, which while written at a very popular level is a good portal into the first century Jewish theological atmosphere, with a good list of sources at the back.

I have begun to wonder: why do the synoptics give a "natural" account of the Last Supper, but John not? Is it because the large section of John, from the beginning of the Last Supper to its end, is a commentary on the Eucharist itself? It would make perfect sense if so. The themes of His discourse are very much of organic unity (by abiding in Christ the Vine), of the coming of the Spirit because Christ will ascend (another Eucharistic motif - unless He leaves, He cannot be present in this manner with His Church), and of the preparation of a place for us (here again is the anagogical image of the Eucharist: Christ is using an image of the heavenly habitation, the Temple, which is being prepared for us to dwell in, and it turns out to be Himself, the Way, Truth and Life, of which He speaks). If anyone reading this knows of a book that gives more meat to this notion of this Johannine discourse as a Eucharistic commentary, I would be very glad to be pointed in the right direction.

My (very) final footnote is to go back to the lex orandi, lex credendi comment at the very beginning of the piece. If Christ is the meaning and in fact the being of the Scriptures in the anagogical sense, and if the Eucharist is the action of Christ as I believe it to be, then Christian liturgy is the union of the Scripture and Tradition in a very profound sense. The tradition, mediated through the Old Testament, that framed the Jewish consciousness at the time of Christ was taken up and re-applied by Him. This reoriented tradition, established by Christ and His Apostles, was then the impetus and framework for the emergence within the Jewish of the early Christian liturgy, in which the activity of Christ is carried out through His body. This activity is primarily an act of worship and sacrifice to God, and Scripture is the Word of God, is Christ, supremely when it is uttered in the liturgy, when it constitutes us and the very matter of the world as the Body of Christ. God lives in the liturgy. Said the Psalmist David: "Thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel".


  1. Hi there, just wanted to say, I loved this article. It was
    helpful. Keep on posting!

    extenseur pénien


Full, Supreme and Universal