Saturday, September 26, 2009

Spiritual Warfare in the Catholic Epistles

Icon of the Holy Archangels

The authors of the Catholic Epistles all agree with St. Paul that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). They teach us that there is a great spiritual battle going on constantly, a battle that takes place both in heaven and on earth. In heaven, there exists a hierarchy of forces both on the side of darkness and the side of light. In heaven, God commands the angelic powers, who are joined by the departed in Christ, who participate in the battle through their prayers. The forces of good are opposed by Satan and the demons. But God does not fight Satan or the demons directly, for this would not be an equal fight. Instead, the archangels and angels battle the demonic forces. Interestingly, as Bray points out, “At the level of belief…there is complete agreement in the spiritual world, where the demons know God and fear him just as the angels do. The struggle is therefore not one of faith but one of works, because in spite of what they know to be true about God, the demons are still in revolt against him” (xxiv).

In the spiritual realm, the division between good and evil is well-defined. Not so on earth. At first appearance, it would seem that humans can be divided into those who belong to God and those who do not (indeed, in some Christian traditions, people are indeed neatly classified in this way). But the situation is not so simple, for two reasons. First, many people’s final destiny still has not been determined. Some who will be saved have not yet joined the ranks of the people of God, while others who have will fall away. Second, as Bray writes, “the devil is a deceiver and has infiltrated the ranks of the [Church] with his own servants. These people look as if they have been saved, but in reality they are still in the devil’s power and are doing their best to fool the elect into turning away from the new light and life they have received in Christ” (xxiv). Of course, as Orthodox Christians we would understand the terms “saved” and “elect” differently than would Dr. Bray, but as long as we use our own understanding of the terms, we would totally agree with this statement. What is unmistakable is that we cannot determine anyone’s future salvation simply by observing them today.

Bray makes another astute comment: “To complicate matters still further, a number of people belong to the company of the elect [i.e. the Church], but have not yet fully understood the implications of this. These are people to who the authors of the Catholic Epistles are primarily writing. They have been born again into God’s family, but they still have a lot of growing up to do. Very often they have not seen the practical implications of their new faith and so do not live up to its demands. Sometimes they have not fully absorbed the right teaching, which makes them prone to fall back into idolatry and other pagan ways…believers who have allowed such things to happen must not imagine that they will escape God’s judgment on their behavior” (xxiv).

If we keep this framework in mind, then we can understand pretty much everything in the Catholic Epistles. For the entire content of these epistles is grounded in the cosmic struggle between darkness and light, good and evil, the servants of God and those of the Devil. As Bray states, “This struggle takes different forms at different times, and its modern representatives may be as superficially different from the heretics of the first-century church as they were from people like Korah and Balaam. But underneath it is only one battle, which will be fought by God’s people until the end of time, when Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. Their end is never far away but grows nearer with every passing day. In this sense the message become even more urgent, because the battle is reaching its climax and ultimate victory is in sight. This is the hope for which we live and the faith which we practice in that love which is God’s unique blessing to those whom he has chosen, for it is nothing less than his own presence dwelling in every believer” (xxv).

Next time, we’ll begin looking at the background of the Epistle of St. James.


charlene said...

Father James,
I think this series will be something to look forward to, if the firt posts are examples of what is to come. As always Fathr , thank you for helping us grow spiritually through this blog.

Isabel said...

what Charlene said!