Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Price of Puritanism

Today is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee (Gospel reading: Luke 18:10-14), the first in a series of Sundays that serves to prepare us for Great Lent. St Cyril of Alexandria, in his 120th homily on the Gospel of St Luke, comments on this parable in these words:
Let us therefore, "pray without ceasing," according to the expression of the blessed Paul [I Thess. 5:17]; but let us be careful to do so aright. The love of self is displeasing to God, and He rejects empty haughtiness and a proud look, puffed up often on account of that which is by no means excellent. And even if a man be good and sober, let him not on this account suffer himself to fall away into shameful pride; but rather let him remember Christ, who says to the holy apostles, "When ye have done all those things, those namely which have been commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants, we have done that which was our duty to do" [Luke 17:10]. For we owe unto God over all, as from the yoke of necessity, the service of slaves, and ready obedience in all things. Yea, though thou leadest an excellent and elect life, exact not wages of the Lord; but rather ask of Him a gift. As being good, He will promise it thee: as a loving Father, He will add thee. Restrain not thyself then from saying, "God be merciful to me the sinner." Remember Him Who says by the voice of Esaias, "Declare thou thy sins first, that thou mayest be justified" [Esaias 43:26]; remember too that He rebukes those who will not do so, and says, "Behold, I have a judgment against thee, because thou sayest I have not sinned" [Jer. 2:35]. Examine the words of the saints: for one saith, "The righteous is the accuser of himself in the beginning of his words" [Prov. 18:17]. And another again, "I said, I will confess against myself my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my heart" [Ps. 31:5].

What answer then will those who embrace the new tenets of Novatus make to this, and say of themselves that they are pure? Whose prayers do they praise? That of the Pharisee, who acquitted himself, or that of the Publican, who accused himself? If they say that of the Pharisee, they resist the divine sentence; for he was condemned as being boastful; but if that of the Publican, why do they refuse to acknowledge their own impurity? Certainly God justifies those who know well their transgressions, and are willing to confess them: but these men will have the portion of the Pharisee.

We then say, that in many things we "all of us offend" [James 3:2], and that no man is pure from uncleanness, even though his life upon earth be but one day. Let us ask then of God mercy; which if we do, Christ will justify us, by Whom and with Whom, to God the Father, be praise and dominion, with the Holy Spirit, unto ages of ages. Amen.
The Novatus (or Novation) mentioned by St Cyril was a Roman presbyter who founded what may have been the first Puritan sect, one very much opposed by St Cyprian of Carthage. Novatus taught not only that those who had committed idolatry could not be reconciled to the Church but, more significantly (and heretically), that the Church is not able to grant absolution of every sin (a prerogative he granted to God alone). As St Cyril implies, such Puritanism comes at the price of pride. The Puritan faces a conundrum: if he emulates the Publican, he must admit of his own sin; but if he emulates the Pharisee, he stands under God's explicit judgment. The Puritan, moreover, makes himself judge, refusing to allow the Church to reconcile sinners to itself. This sin is one about which we today must be especially careful. After nearly a century of the open persecution of Christians by godless regimes, the Church has at long last become able to function freely. It is easy for us, who have lived in comfort and safety, to stand in judgment of the compromises made by many in the Church; but to do so without recognizing our own sins is to take the part of the Pharisee. So, too, is the refusal to acknowledge that the Church can reconcile and absolve those who have sinned. The result of such exaltation of self – I thank Thee, O Lord, that I have not compromised with the powers of this world, unlike them – will be, as the Lord promised, abasement.

Text taken from this edition, sadly out of print, though sermons 1 to 65 (through Luke 10:21) can be found online here. The above icon depicts the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.

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