Sunday, June 15, 2014

Gregory Nazianzen against child preachers

In Oratio 39.14, Gregory draws the following lessons from the baptism of Jesus at his old age:

What are we to learn and to be taught by this? To purify ourselves first; to be lowly minded; and to preach only in maturity both of spiritual and bodily stature.

(It is very possible I exclude myself here, but then again, maybe I do not.)

Child preachers are perhaps the most embarrassing and cringe-inducing phenomena encountered in some well-meaning but horribly mistaken Christian circles. It is a lot of play acting, a lot of imitation, a lot of nonsense, and not a lot of actual reverence and piety. Try to watch all three minutes of the following video; first time around I couldn't make it:


Gregory thinks that Jesus' baptism in his older age teaches us that there is a proper time for everything. There is a proper time for a person to begin teaching and preaching the word of God, and I imagine that three or four years old is not that proper time. He says:

The third is for those who are confident in their youth, and think that any time is the right one to teach or to preside. . . . and at thirty years of age [Jesus is baptized], and dost thou before thy beard has grown presume to teach the aged, or believe that thou teachest them, though thou be not reverend on account of thine age, or even perhaps for thy character? 

Gregory comes down hard here against those who would presume to preach in their young age. Though their beards haven't come in yet, they presume to teach the old and the bearded! The principle, of course, is not that you must be the oldest person in your congregation in order to have the right to preach. Still there is a proper time and order to things, and there is something wrong about a young person with little or no life experience, and certainly very little experience in the Christian life, preaching to others who have been around the block a few times.

But what about examples of the young preaching and performing various functions in scripture? Gregory is not ignorant of them:

But here it may be said, Daniel, and this or that other, were judges in their youth, and examples are on your tongues; for every wrongdoer is prepared to defend himself. But I reply that that which is rare is not the law of the Church. For one swallow does not make a summer, nor one line a geometrician, nor one voyage a sailor.

(You gotta love these analogies!) Gregory's response is an obvious one: exceptional cases can't be set up as concessions for all cases whatsoever. If anything there must be a kind of testing process, a testing of the waters to see if what is going on is from God or not. Most of the time it might not be, but rather just misplaced and exaggerated zeal.

Take a look, if you can bear it, at the Kanon the Preacher video linked above. He hardly says anything coherent and edifying in his sermon, and certainly he just flips through the pages of his colorful bible without being able to read anything. This seems to me to be misplaced zeal. Perhaps -- God forbid it -- Kanon will grow up to become an angry atheist, like some other child preachers do, too. Children ought to occupy the proper place, and allow the serious task of teaching the scriptures and feeding the flock to adults who are mature in the Lord. Jesus' own baptism in old age can teach us this, insists Gregory.