Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Holy Spirit is Sacrament: Augustinian Shamanism and the Ecclesiological Error of the Donatist Controversy

St. Symeon, titled the New Theologian* by the Eastern churches, opens a window on, perhaps, mistakes that loom around Western ecclesiology. In fact, I think it represents a corrective to the Donatist Controversy that became the norming norm in Western Christianity. Now, for those who know the story Symeon, this might not be quite clear, but let me off some thoughts.

First, the story of St. Symeon. He was a monk who came into conflict with the archbishop of Nicomedia, Stephen. Symeon argued spiritual authority came from experience with God, it came from the discipline of pursuit. Stephen, on the other hand, believe ecclesiastical office was the grounds of authority. Both sides presupposed the authoritative role of Scripture as infallible divine revelation, but it was rather a question of spiritual authority. We must all handle the Scripture, and as St. Phillip revealed in his discussion with the Ethiopian Eunuch, knowing Christ Jesus is the key (c.f. Jn 5:39).

The Donatist controversy truly began with a controversy earlier with Cyprian. In this, the churches of Africa were split over the question of Christians, particularly ordained leaders, who apostatized during persecution. They offered incense to Caesar and, after the persecution ended, were in an ambiguous place in relation to the church. What compounded this further was that a number of would-be martyrs offered spiritual blessing and council to those apostates who, for reasons of greed or cowardice, could not stay the course. The men who became martyrs forgave these men for their sins. One faction formed that said the martyrs had the authority to discern the hearts of these men and give comfort, recognizing these men could return to the church. Another faction said there should be no mercy, these men should not only be stripped of office, if they had it, but removed from the church indefinitely. Cyprian cut a median position, effectively kicking the problem off, by coming up with a convoluted scheme that welcomed some back in, but in a penitential state. This was a half-way house state for a newly minted second-class Christian apparatus, who were locked out of the church, but still were allowed to attend in a limited state.

The controversy reared its head among the Donatists. Another outbreak of persecution led to a panic over sacramental status. The problem was, if these ordained leaders apostatized (as some did) under persecution, did this make their performance of the sacrament worthless? This led to a split, where a presbyter, Donatus, led a number of churches into a new arrangement where they'd more forcefully police the boundaries of the ordained. This involved rebaptizing those who were baptized by apostate presbyters. Augustine, the might intellect and powerhouse ecclesiastic, swept away the Donatists through a new position that became default. This was the insistence that the sacrament was not performed through the merit of the presiding minister, but due to the presence of Christ in the act. Thus, even if a minister was evil, it does not change the efficacy of the baptism. This became the doctrine of ex opere operato, giving the sacramental act an in se potency.

This became the default position for the Western church. Now, this has been articulated in many forms. There is the crude form that became the default of the Medieval period that bordered on the magical. However, this is not aberrant, but actually the secret to the Augustinian formula. It must be understood with Augustine's notion of charism, which also became the norming norm of Western ecclesiology. This is fundamentally expressed in Augustine's notion of apostolic succession, which occurred through the ex opere operato of the laying on of hands. Thus, authority translated through succession was actual, and regardless of whether the giver or receiver was worthy. Christ was active in both instances.

Why is this a problem? Because it depends on a thoroughly Hellenized metaphysics with a Christian gloss. The Augustinian Problematic is that dialectics becomes the heart-and-soul of Creation, which ultimately destroys everything. As I've mentioned elsewhere, the problem with ex opere operato is that it creates a void of non-distinction: the agent celebrating the sacrament is none other than Christ, not the minister, but Christ is not present unless the minister in fact acts. He acts without acting, and only if he acts can he not act in the non-acting act of the Divine Other. This is a dialectical knot that destroys both, turning God into a machine of justification for all that is done. Monergism, thus articulated, becomes the very tool of atheistic-pantheism. God is only God in as much as Man is Man, and thus God becomes an incantation the presbyter-turned-shaman brings about over elements of bread and wine.

This is not to say that the Donatists were right, but they were trapped in the hysteria of their own ignorance. The politique solution of Cyprian created a trap for which the sensitive conscience of Donatus and his fellows became snared within. Augustine used this occasion not only to annihilate his enemies (literally, through their political suppression), but to create a new paradigm which became adopted throughout the Roman Empire, East and West. While at times Augustine was confused or trapped in his own infatuation with Hellenistic philosophy, this controversy is rather a revelation of Augustine's ruthlessness and his political mind at its most sinister.

A repercussion of this is even the category of "sacrament", which has become a norm. There is nothing in the Bible to remotely make us think that Baptism and the Lord's Supper possess some categorical effectual umbrella relation, but we're conditioned to think as such. Hence, there's been a bizarre drive to define "sacrament" and to categorize what is in and what is not in. Rome says there's seven, Luther said three, the Reformed said two. The ambiguity of counting in the East, and their calling them "mysteries", represents a kind of confused state, suspicious and accommodating.

This has to do with a collapse of the Spirit into His gifts. This is clear in the Augustinian Doctrine of God where the Spirit is, simultaneously, above-God and under-God in a confused dialectic between Father and Son. The Father begets the Son into a relational of subject-object, lover-beloved, which, immediately, spawns a Third as the Bond. However, this Bond belongs to each, and surrounds the whole. To put it in another way, the Father loves the Son, and the Love of God is the Holy Spirit. This almost seems to de-hypostasize the Spirit as a byproduct of the otherwise binitarian relationship (which is, according to Augustine, a self-relationship). But the Father loves and the Son loves (as the Father is holy and spirit, as the Son is holy and spirit), which makes the Holy Spirit the completion of the Three, almost as a definition of the whole (God is love; God is holy spirit). Hence, Augustine can stop on three (rather than four, five, or six), but the logic is bursting. The Holy Spirit fills all and fills nothing, is above and beneath the Father and Son, as the whole and as the gap. The Holy Spirit is and is-not God.

However, this confusion spills into the life of men when the Spirit is addressed.  The secret is that the Holy Spirit is the Sacrament, the two become intertwined in the confusion of the acting non-act of the priest and the non-acting act of the Spirit. This is, at its heart, a form of Paganism that has crept in through the guise of Christianity. It is the thaumaturgy of the Neo-Platonists. It is a highly sophisticated form of Shamanism. 

However, Protestantism has not escaped this, because this confusion in doctrine of God and the sacraments spills into ecclesiology as long as the Donatist controversy is normative. Again, the solution is not to follow the Donatists in a reactionary move, which has marked numerous separatist movements spawning from the Reformation on. It is to reunderstand the relation between church, baptism, and the Spirit. The crucial link is the collapse of latter two into each other and make it the domain of the former. This must be utterly rejected.

This is new terrain for reconceptualization, but thank God, the truth is present in the battle Symeon won. The Holy Spirit is not something that is participated in, but a shrouded known unknown that passes over, shadows, and blows over the People of God. The Holy Spirit is intentionally ambiguous in the Scripture, because being "in the Spirit" is not a phenomenon able to be captured. Rather, He appears to support and uplift those who are in Christ, following after Him and bearing His likeness.

Baptism must not be seen to impart a commodified substance called 'grace'. It is clear from Christian history that Baptism does not create, equal, or become conversion or spiritual awakening.  However, it does relate to a real translation between darkness and light, a real move into the Body of Christ. It is a Baptism for the remission of sins. This involves ordained officers who are to walk uprightly, but this is not a monopolization of the Spirit. Baptism is not a conduit link giving ordained officers a monopoly of the Spirit. Holy Symeon rejected this when his adversary Stephen claimed it. Maturity and spirit are not made known only in the ordained office, it is not a quality passed on through the laying on of hands.

This idea deserves wider and deeper treatment, and the solution for churches here is mostly about what not to do. However, churches of Christ extend beyond the mere presence of ordained officers. Of course, many do not know how to think outside of this and have, in reaction, rejected all offices. They despise St. Paul's admonition for order with the installment of deacons, presbyters and bishops, but I can't blame them. They are trying to escape from the ecclesiastical nightmare of Augustinian shamanism. But we must not follow them into their error. I hope to continue this topic more at another time.

*For the Eastern churches, a theologian is one who is able to write about his or her experience with God as a teacher. This is a weighty title and a weighty claim. This is not an academic discipline, nor a claim for proficiency in Scripture (though Scripture is normative for articulating such). However, this is not merely being in the Spirit, or knowing God, but the ability to describe it in edifying ways. The Eastern churches recognize Symeon, along with Gregory Nazianzus and the holy apostle John, as "theologians", though this not to say there are others. As a contrast, St. Paul does not speak about his experiences and thus is not a "theologian" in this sense, even if he, as an apostle, speaks authoritatively, wrote inspired and infallible scripture, and was guided by the Spirit through his missions.

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