Why Christianity should not change with the times
By St. Theophan the Recluse
It has reached my ears that you, it seems, consider my sermons very strict and suppose that nowadays no one should think like that, no one should live like that and, therefore, no one should teach like that. Times have changed!
How I rejoiced, having heard this. It means that you listen attentively to what I say — and not only listen, but are prepared to fulfill it. What more could be desired for us who preach as we were commanded, and what we were commanded?
Despite all this, I can in no way agree with your judgment, and I consider it my duty to comment on it and correct it. For it proceeds — though perhaps in spite of your desire and conviction — from an evil source, as though Christianity could be changeable in its dogmas, rules and sanctifying rites in response to the spirit of the times, and that, conforming to the changing tastes of the sons of this age, it could add something or take something away. This is not so. Christianity should remain eternally unchanging, not in the least dependent on or governed by the spirit of the times. On the contrary, Christianity itself is appointed to govern or to rule over the spirit of the age in everyone who submits himself to its guidance. To convince you of this, I will offer you a few thoughts for your consideration.
It is said that my teaching is strict. My teaching is not mine own, nor should it be. From this hallowed place no one should or may preach his own doctrine. And if I or someone else should ever dare to do so, cast us out. We preach the doctrine of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, of His holy Apostles, and of the holy Church guided by the Holy Spirit. And we take care in every possible way that this doctrine be preserved whole and inviolate in your minds and hearts. We present every thought and use every word with caution, so as in no way to cast a shadow over this bright divine teaching. One cannot act in any other way.
Such a law, that one’s preaching in the Church must be from God, was established at the beginning of the world and must be in force until the end thereof. The holy Prophet Moses, having set forth commandments from God Himself for the Israelite people, concluded,
“Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye take from it; keep the commandments of the Lord our God, all that I command you this day” (Deut. 4:2).
This law of immutability is so unalterable that our Lord and Savior Himself, while teaching the people on the mount, said,
“Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the Prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For, Amen, I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matt. 5:17-18).
Then He gave the same authority to His own teaching, when, before interpreting the commandments in the spirit of the Gospel, He added,
“Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 5:19).
That is, whoever falsely interprets them and diminishes their authority will be an outcast in the life to come. So, said He at the beginning of His preaching. The same He testified to Saint John the Theologian, beholder of mysteries, in Revelation, where, having depicted the final fate of the world and of the Church, He says,
“For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book, and if anyone shall take away from the words of this book of this prophecy, God shall take away his portion out of the book of life and out of the holy city” (Rev. 22:18-19).
For the whole of time from His first appearance to the world until His second coming, He gave the holy Apostles and their successors this law:
“Go ye therefore and teach all nations … teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you…”
— teach, that is, not what someone else might think, but what I have commanded, and that til the end of the world —
“… and lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the world” (Matt. 28:19-20).
The Apostles received this law and laid down their lives to fulfill it, responding to those who would have wished to compel them by fear of punishment and death not to preach the way they did:
“Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).
This very law was handed down by the Apostles to their successors and received by them and is forever in effect in the Church of God. And it is because of this that the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth. Behold what inviolate steadfastness! Who will be so bold after this to willfully touch or to shake anything in Christian doctrine and law?
Now listen to what was said to the Prophet Ezekiel: “Seven days” he was in prayerful rapture “and at the end of seven days” he heard the word of the Lord: “Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel, and thou shalt hear the word of My mouth,” (Ezekiel 3:17) and proclaim it to the people. And here is the law for you! If you see a wicked man who does wickedness and you do not tell him: leave your wickedness and turn from your way, “that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at thine hand” (Ezekiel 3:18).
However, if you proclaim to the wicked man that he should turn from his wicked way and does not turn, then that wicked man will die in his iniquity, but you will deliver your soul.
In like manner, if you see a righteous man who is beginning to waver in his righteousness and you do not support him and do not take care to bring him to his senses with your words, then that righteous man, having sinned, will die in his sins, but his soul I will require at your hand. But if you warn the righteous man that he should not sin and he does not sin, then the righteous man will live and you will deliver your soul (cf. Ezekiel 3:19-21).
What a strict law! But it is heard in the consciences of all shepherds at their election and ordination, when a heavy yoke is laid upon them — to shepherd the flock of Christ entrusted to them, big or small, and not only to shepherd it, but also to preserve it. How could one be so bold as to distort anything in the law of Christ, when it would mean destruction for both us and you!
If the saving power of this doctrine depended on our opinion of it and your consent thereto, then it would make sense for someone to take it into his head to reconstruct Christianity, making allowance for human weaknesses or the pretensions of the age, and to conform it to the lusts of his evil heart. But the saving power of the Christian dispensation depends not at all on us, but on the will of God, on the fact that God Himself established precisely this very way of salvation. Besides, there is no other way, nor could there be. It follows that to teach in any other way is to deviate from the true way and to destroy oneself and you. What sense is there in that?
Behold at how severe a judgment was uttered, when something similar happened in the nation of Israel, in the troubled times of its captivity. Some Prophets, out of pity for the troubled and the suffering, spoke to the people not as the Lord ordered, but as their hearts inspired them. This is what the Lord commanded Ezekiel concerning them:
“Son of man, set thy face against those which prophesy out of their own heart; and prophesy thou against them. And say, Thus saith the Lord God, Woe to those that sew magic charms on your sleaves and make kerchiefs for the heads of people of all ages, so as to ensnare their souls! As a result the hearts of my people have been perverted, and will ye save your own souls?” (Ezekiel 13:17-18).
Woe, that is to those who prescribe every kind of preferential treatment and propose such a soft regimen that no one should feel the slightest unpleasantness, neither from above nor from below, disregarding whether this is unto salvation or destruction, pleasing to God or repugnant to Him. Woe to such as these, for “thus saith the Lord . . . , your pillows and kerchiefs,” that is, your smooth-tongued, comfort-laden teaching, “wherewith ye confound souls” I will tear from your arms, and I will set at liberty the souls perverted by this teaching and I will destroy you, seducers (cf. Ezekiel 13: 20-21). Such is the benefit of preferential treatment and indulgences, the kind you wish to hear from us preachers! Taking this to heart, you ought not to wish that we, out of a false desire to please you, make any concessions in Christian doctrine. On the contrary, you should insistently demand that we adhere to it as strictly and unwaveringly as possible.
Have you ever heard of the Pope of Rome’s indulgences? That’s what they are — preferential treatment and indulgences, which he gives in defiance of the law of Christ. And what is the result? From these all the West is corrupted in faith and in way of life. And now it is perishing in unbelief and unrestrained living with its indulgences.
The Pope changed many dogmas, despoiled all the Mysteries, weakened the canons regarding the ordering of the Church and amendment of morals. And everything began to go contrary to the Lord’s purpose — and became worse and worse. Then Luther appeared — an intelligent man, but self-willed. The Pope, he said, changed everything the way he wanted — why shouldn’t I? And he began to construct and reconstruct everything in his own way, and founded in this manner the new Lutheran faith, little resembling the one which the Lord commanded and the holy Apostles handed down to us. After Luther, philosophers appeared. So, said they, Luther established for himself a new faith — supposedly based on the Gospel, but actually to his own way of thinking. So why shouldn’t we compose doctrines based only on our own way of thinking, disregarding the Gospel altogether? And they began to reason and conjecture, about God, about the world, and about men, each in his own way, and churned out so many doctrines that one’s head spins just from enumerating them. And now it’s like this with them: Believe as you think best, live as you like, take pleasure in whatever delights your soul. They will not recognize any laws or constraints and they will not submit themselves to the Logos of God. Their way is broad — all barriers have been swept away. But this broad way leads to destruction, as the Lord has said! That is where slackness in doctrine has led!
Deliver us, O Lord, from this broadening! Rather, let us love every narrowness which the Lord has prescribed for us unto our salvation. Let us love Christian dogmas and constrain our mind by them, having commanded it to reason in no other way. Let us love Christian mores and constrain our will by them, having compelled it to carry this good yoke humbly and patiently. Let us love all guiding, amending and sanctifying Christian rites and services and constrain our heart by them, having impelled it to transfer its tastes from the earthly and the perishable to the Heavenly and imperishable. Let us imprison ourselves, as if in some cage. Or let us drag ourselves, as though through some narrow passage. Let it be narrow, so that one cannot deviate, neither to the right or to the left. But in return, we will, by this narrow way, undoubtedly enter the Heavenly Kingdom. For this Kingdom, you see, is the Lord’s Kingdom. And the Lord prescribed this narrow way and said, go precisely by this way and you will achieve the Kingdom. How then could one doubt that the traveler will reach his goal? And what sort of mind would one have to have in order to begin to wish for any kind of countermand, when thereby he would immediately lose his way and perish?
Being confirmed in this understanding, do not grieve if something in our doctrine seems strict; wish only to make certain whether it is of the Lord. And once you have made certain that it is of the Lord, receive it with all your soul, however strict or constraining it may be. Not only do not desire preferential treatment and indulgences in doctrine and mores, but flee from them, as from the fire of Gehenna, from which there is no escape for all who concoct such things, and by them entice the weak of soul to follow after them. Amen.
29 December 1863
Sunday After the Nativity of our Savior
Translated by lakov Tseitlin and Maria Goetz
St. Petersburg, Russia
Originally from: St. George (periodical) 1995, vol. 20.