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Cyril of Alexandria on Palm Sunday

A sermon that will not be included in our series of readings from St Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria 412-444.

SERMON CXXX.

THIS EXPOSITION IS FIT TO BE READ ON THE HOLY DAY OF HOSANNAS. 6

On Luke 19:28-40.

THE disciples praise Christ the Saviour of all, calling Him King and Lord, and the peace of heaven and earth: and let us also praise Him, taking, so to speak, the Psalmist’s harp, and saying; “How great are your works, O Lord: in wisdom have You made them.” For there is nothing whatsoever of the works wrought by Him but is in wisdom; for He guides all useful things each in its proper manner, and assigns to his acts that season which suiteth them. As long then as it was fitting that He should traverse the country of the Jews, endeavouring to win by lessons and admonitions superior to the law many to the grace that is by faith, He ceased not so to do: but inasmuch as the time was now at length calling Him to that Passion which was for the salvation of the whole world, to free the inhabitants of the earth from the tyranny of the enemy, and abolish death, and destroy the sin of the world, He goes up to Jerusalem, pointing out first to the Israelites by a plain fact, that a new people from among the heathen shall be subject to Him, while themselves are rejected as the murderers of the Lord.

What then was the sign? He sat upon a colt, as we have just heard the blessed Evangelist clearly telling us. And yet perchance some one will say, ‘that when He traversed the whole of Judaea;—-for He taught in their synagogues, adding also to His words the working of miracles;—-He had not asked for an animal to ride upon. For when He might have purchased one, He would not, though wearied often by His long journeys by the way. For when traversing Samaria, He was “wearied with His journey,” as it is written. Who therefore can make us believe, that when He was going from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem, places separated from one another by so short an interval, that He would require a colt? And why, when the colt was accompanied by its dam, did He not rather take the mother, instead of choosing the colt? For that the ass also, that bore the colt, was brought to Him, we learn from the words of Matthew, who says, “that He sent the disciples to a village over against them; and said to them, that you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her: loose and bring them to Me. And they brought, it says, the ass, and the colt with her.”‘ We must consider therefore what is the explanation, and what the benefit which we derive from this occurrence, and how we make Christ’s riding upon the colt a type of the calling of the Gentiles.

The God of all then created man upon the earth with a mind capable of wisdom, and possessed of powers of understanding. But Satan deceived him, though made in the image of God, and led him astray even until he had no knowledge of the Creator and Artificer of all. He humbled the dwellers upon earth down to the lowest stage of irrationality and ignorance. And the blessed prophet David knowing this, and even, so to speak, weeping bitterly for it, says, “Man being in honour understood it not: he is to be compared to the beast without understanding, and has become like one.” It is probable therefore that that older ass contains the type of the synagogue of the Jews, which, so to speak, had become brutish, because it had paid but small heed to the law given by Moses, and had despised the holy prophets, and had added thereto disobedience to Christ, Who was calling it to faith, and the opening of its eyes. For He said, “I am the light of the world; he that believes in Me shall not walk in darkness, but possesses the light of life.” But the darkness which He speaks of is undoubtedly that of the mind, even ignorance and blindness, and the malady of extreme irrationality.

But the colt, which as yet had not been broken in, represents the new people, called from among the heathen. For it also was by nature destitute of reason, having wandered into error. But Christ became its wisdom, “for in Him are all the treasures of wisdom, and the secret things of knowledge.”

The colt therefore is brought, two disciples having been sent by Christ for this purpose. And what does this signify? It means that Christ calls the heathen, by causing the light of truth to shine upon them: and there minister to him for this purpose two orders of His subjects, the prophets, namely, and the apostles. For the heathen are won to the faith by means of the preachings of the apostles; and they always add to their words proofs derived from the law and the prophets. For one of them even said to those who have been called by faith to the acknowledgment of the glory of Christ, “And we have the more sure prophetic word, to which you do well to look, as to a torch that shines in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the light-star arise in your hearts.” For before the coming of the Saviour, the predictions of the law and the prophets concerning Christ, were as some torch in a dark place. For the mind of the Jews was always gross, and, so to speak, full of thick darkness. For they understood not in the least what was said concerning Christ. But when the day dawned, when the light that is of truth arose, henceforth the prophetic word is no small torch, but resembles rather the bright rays of the morning star.

And next the colt is brought from a village, in order that He may by this means also point out the uncivilized state of mind of the heathen, who, so to speak, had not been educated in the city, nor in lawful habits, but, on the contrary, lived boorishly and rudely. For constantly those who dwell in villages live in this way. But they did not continue in this uncivilized state of mind, but, on the contrary, were changed to peacefulness and wisdom. For they became subject to Christ, Who teaches these things.

The ass then was rejected, for Christ rode not thereon, although it had been broken in already, and practised to submit itself to its riders: but He took the colt, although it was untrained and unproved in carrying a rider, and in yielding to the reins. For, as I said, He rejected the synagogue of the Jews, although it had once borne a rider in the law, nor was obedience a thing to which it was untrained: still He refused it as aged, and spoiled, and as having gone astray already into wilful disobedience to God over all: but He accepted the colt, a people, that is, taken from among the Gentiles.

And this is the meaning of the praise rendered by the voice of the Psalmist to Christ the Saviour of all, where he says of those that were in error, “With bridle and bit shall You restrain the jaws of them that draw not close to You.” And it is easy to see from sacred Scripture, that the multitude of the Gentiles was also summoned to repentance and obedience by the holy prophets. For God thus spoke in a certain place, “Be assembled and come: take counsel together, you who are saved from among the Gentiles.”

Christ therefore sits upon the colt: and as He had now come to the descent of the mount of Olives, close, that is, to Jerusalem, the disciples went before Him, praising Him. For they were called to bear witness of the wonderful works which He had wrought, and of His godlike glory and sovereignty. And in like manner we also ought always to praise Him, considering Who and how great He is Who is praised by us.

But another of the holy Evangelists has mentioned, that children also, holding aloft branches of palm trees, ran before Him, and, together with the rest of the disciples, celebrated His glory; so that by their means also we see the new people, gathered from among the heathen, represented as in a painting. For it is written, that “the people that shall be created shall praise the Lord.”

And the Pharisees indeed murmured because Christ was praised; and drew near and said, “Rebuke your disciples.” But what wrong action have they done, O Pharisee? What charge do you bring against the disciples, or how would you have them rebuked? For they have not in any way sinned, but have rather done that which is praiseworthy. For they extol, as King and Lord, Him Whom the law had before pointed out by many figures and types; and Whom the company of the holy prophets had preached of old: but you have despised Him, and grieve Him by your numberless envyings.  Your duty rather it was to join the rest in their praises: your duty it was to withdraw far from your innate wickedness, and to change your manner for the better: your duty it was to follow, the sacred Scriptures, and to thirst after the knowledge of the truth. But this you did not do, but transferring your words to the very contrary, you desired that the heralds of the truth might be rebuked. What therefore does Christ answer to these things? “I tell you, that if these be silent, the stones will cry out.”

For it is impossible for God not to be glorified, even though those of the race of Israel refuse so to do. For the worshippers of idols were once as stones, and, so to speak, hardened; but they have been delivered from their former error, and rescued from the hand of the enemy. They have escaped from demoniacal darkness; they have been called to the light of truth: they have awakened as from drunkenness: they have acknowledged the Creator. They praise |606 Him not secretly, and in concealment; not in a hidden manner, and, so to speak, silently, but with freedom of speech, and loud voice; diligently, as it were, calling out to one another, and saying, “Come, let us praise the Lord, and sing psalms to God our Saviour.” For they have acknowledged, as I said, Christ the Saviour of all; by Whom and with Whom, to God the Father, be praise and dominion, with the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.

Peter of Alexandria (and Balsamon and Zonaras)

Peter of Alexandria

We are now on our second of three days reading Peter of Alexandria. Peter of Alexandria was was Bishop of Alexandria from 300 to 311; his episcopate thus covered the Diocletianic Persecution, also called the Great Persecution — that last, great persecution of Christians by the Roman imperial powers that would leave an indelible mark upon the church’s identity and self-image ever after.

Eusebius, in Book 8.10 of the Ecclesiastical History, gives a description of the persecution in Alexandria from an eyewitness named Phileas:

And the spectacle of the outrages was varied and exhibited great malignity. For some, with their hands bound behind them, were suspended on the stocks, and every member stretched by certain machines. Then the torturers, as commanded, lacerated with instruments2542 their entire bodies; not only their sides, as in the case of murderers, but also their stomachs and knees and cheeks. Others were raised aloft, suspended from the porch by one hand, and endured the most terrible suffering of all, through the distension of their joints and limbs. Others were bound face to face to pillars, not resting on their feet, but with the weight of their bodies bearing on their bonds and drawing them tightly.

6. And they endured this, not merely as long as the governor talked with them or was at leisure, but through almost the entire day. For when he passed on to others, he left officers under his authority to watch the first, and observe if any of them, overcome by the tortures, appeared to yield. And he commanded to cast them into chains without mercy, and afterwards when they were at the last gasp to throw them to the ground and drag them away.

7. For he said that they were not to have the least concern for us, but were to think and act as if we no longer existed, our enemies having invented this second mode of torture in addition to the stripes.

8. “Some, also, after these outrages, were placed on the stocks, and had both their feet stretched over the four2543 holes, so that they were compelled to lie on their backs on the stocks, being unable to keep themselves up on account of the fresh wounds with which their entire bodies were covered as a result of the scourging. Others were thrown on the ground and lay there under the accumulated infliction of tortures, exhibiting to the spectators a more terrible manifestation of severity, as they bore on their bodies the marks of the various and diverse punishments which had been invented.

9. As this went on, some died under the tortures, shaming the adversary by their constancy. Others half dead were shut up in prison, and suffering with their agonies, they died in a few days; but the rest, recovering under the care which they received, gained confidence by time and their long detention in prison.

10. When therefore they were ordered to choose whether they would be released from molestation by touching the polluted sacrifice, and would receive from them the accursed freedom, or refusing to sacrifice, should be condemned to death, they did not hesitate, but went to death cheerfully. For they knew what had been declared before by the Sacred Scriptures. For it is said,2544 ‘He that sacrificeth to other gods shall be utterly destroyed,’2545 and, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me.’

However, as we see in the readings from Peter, not everyone withstood persecution so well. These people are the lapsed, much discussed several decades earlier in St Cyprian of Carthage’s works. Peter’s discipline for the lapsed in his Canons represents the standard line of what would be the mainstream tradition, that different offenders or kinds of lapse require different severities or lengths of penance and excommunication before restoration to fellowship, and clerics who lapse are to be cut off from ministry ever after.

Theodore Balsamon

Along with the canons of Peter, we find commentary by Balsamon and Zonaras. Theodore Balsamon (c. 1130 to after 1195) was Patriarch of Antioch (although he stayed in Constantinople), hegoumenos of Blachernai and the monastery called to Zipon, and a major canonist; that is, he compiled documents pertinent to canon law and commented on them, particularly those of the Nomokanon in Fourteen Titles which is the main source of Byzantine canon law, including many texts otherwise now lost and seeking to revise statements that were contradictory or obsolete. Interestingly, this is the same period as Gratian in the West and some of the major Latin canonists, as well.

Zonaras

Zonaras (d. after 1159) was a historian, theologian, canonist, and court official under Emperor Alexius I (1048-1118). After the death of Alexius, Zonaras left the civil service and became a monk at the monastery of St Glykeria. Besides writing commentaries on a number of sources for canon law, he also wrote an Epitome Historion, running from creation to death of Alexius in 1118. His perspective on running the empire was based on the Roman ideal of bureaucracy and officialdom, thus of meritocracy, over against the more feudal or “seigneurial” style of Alexius.

It’s never too late to join (and now’s a good time)

An icon of the first Council of Nicaea

After an unexpected hiatus, due largely to me moving across Ontario and starting a new job, Read the Fathers is back! We are picking up where we should be in the round of readings. I will continue striving to keep the Daily Readings posts current, and another volunteer is working at getting the calendar out as well.

This is a good starting point for a few reasons:

First, the next several days are short readings from texts that take only one or two days to read. We’re not re-starting in the middle of Lactantius’ Divine Institutes or something like that.

Second, the texts we’re about to encounter are of major significance for the unfolding of ancient ecclesiastical history and the history of dogma to this day — on Thursday, February 25, we read the first of the letters of Alexander of Alexandria about Arius. We are on the way to Nicaea (the title of a book by Fr John Behr probably worth reading just now!).

Third, before we hit Alexander, we also encounter matters to do with the lapsi in the work of one of his predecessors, Peter. The lapsi were the lapsed, those who gave in during persecution, and how exactly to treat them was already tearing the church asunder in the third century; things would only get worse in the fourth.

Fourth, it’s the First Sunday of Lent today by the western liturgical calendar. It seems that Reading the Fathers is an appropriate Lenten discipline! Unfortunately, East and West are pretty far apart for Easter this year, so Orthodox Lent does not begin until March 15. Still, if you’re Orthodox, it’s always a good time to read the Fathers!

Let’s get this rolling again!

Melito of Sardis, On Pascha

Today is Orthodox Easter. Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen!

To commemorate, I am posting a passage from Melito of Sardis’ On Pascha, the oldest surviving Easter Sermon (c. 160-170), and one not included in ANF due to being unknown to the English-speaking world until 1940. The whole sermon is here, as well as available in a translation by Alistair Stewart-Sykes from SVS Press. The image provided is not Patristic, but it is the traditional icon of the Resurrection for Orthodox Christians.

100. But he arose from the dead and mounted up to the heights of heaven. When the Lord had clothed himself with humanity, and had suffered for the sake of the sufferer, and had been bound for the sake of the imprisoned, and had been judged for the sake of the condemned, and buried for the sake of the one who was buried,

101. he rose up from the dead, and cried aloud with this voice: Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned man free; I gave the dead man life; I raised up the one who had been entombed.

102. Who is my opponent? I, he says, am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven, I, he says, am the Christ.

103. Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins. I am your forgiveness, I am the passover of your salvation, I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you, I am your ransom, I am your light, I am your saviour, I am your resurrection, I am your king, I am leading you up to the heights of heaven, I will show you the eternal Father, I will raise you up by my right hand.

104. This is the one who made the heavens and the earth, and who in the beginning created man, who was proclaimed through the law and prophets, who became human via the virgin, who was hanged upon a tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from the dead, and who ascended to the heights of heaven, who sits at the right hand of the Father, who has authority to judge and to save everything, through whom the Father created everything from the beginning of the world to the end of the age.

105. This is the alpha and the omega. This is the beginning and the end–an indescribable beginning and an incomprehensible end. This is the Christ. This is the king. This is Jesus. This is the general. This is the Lord. This is the one who rose up from the dead. This is the one who sits at the right hand of the Father. He bears the Father and is borne by the Father, to whom be the glory and the power forever. Amen.

Great and Holy Thursday

Orthodox Easter is only a week after Western Easter this year, so today is Great and Holy Thursday for the Orthodox Church. First, a patristic-era image of the Last Supper, a sixth-century mosaic from the basilica of San Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna.

Next, a passage from Mar Jacob of Serugh, something not in Read the Fathers (from Roger Pearse), a few decades after the mosaic in the Near East:

The bread and wine our Lord made Body and Blood; which (thing) Melchizedek also thus depicted mystically. The high priest who was more excellent than Abraham sacrificed bread and wine to God, and nothing besides; and he taught the earth that the bread and wine is the Body and Blood which the Son of God gave to the world to be pardoned withal; and on the eve of the passion the Mystery shone forth from 16 our Saviour, who broke His Body and gave to His Apostles, as we have said.

Here let the soul of him who is to speak clothe itself in awe-; for save with awe the Son of God may not be spoken of. Let our mind glow with the fire of love that eats up stumblings and doubts, and then let it look upon the Son of God. With Faith, that leaps over pits and gulfs, our discourse shall run, and thus it shall not have fallen among the disputers.

His Body with His hands our Lord divided upon the table; and who is he that will dare to say now that it was not the Body? He said “This is My Body”; and who will not affirm it? For if he affirm it |286 not he is no disciple of the apostleship. The Apostles assented to Him; and while He was alive and reclining with them they ate Him; and dead whilst living they knew Him (to be), without doubting. If He were not dead, then His bread was not His Body; (p. 485) and if He were not alive He would not have broken His Body and given to His Apostles.

He brake the bread, and made it the Body, and gave to His Apostles; and the taste of the Body, wherein was life, was in their mouths. From when He took it and called it Body it was not bread 17, but 18 His Body, and it (or “Him”) they were eating whilst they marvelled. They eat His Body, and He is reclining with them at the table; and they drink His Blood, and they hear the voice of His teaching. They affirm that He is slain, whilst they look upon Him alive and speaking; and He is mingled with them whilst they eat Him, without doubt. And faith is bright and stands manfully, and doubts not either that He is alive or that He is slain. And He reclines slain at the table, and is not investigated; and they drink His Blood and affirm that it is Blood, while He is alive. And there are not there, neither pryers nor disputers, (p. 486) nor investigators, nor yet scribes of wise (opinions). They were not questioning, when there was place to ask: “Dost Thou indeed call it Body, Lord, when lo, it is bread? ” Faith stoops not to questionings: she knows to affirm; to investigate she has never learned. The Apostles were anxious to assent to the Son, not to investigate or question as daring (men).19 The bread that He brake and called His Body, Body they knew it (to be); and thus they thought, that yea, in truth His Blood was dropping 20 (there). Who would have been able to sacrifice the Son before His Sire, unless He had sacrificed Himself by His own hands before He suffered? He, our Lord, is the High Priest of the perfect Sacrifice; and therefore He sacrificed Himself before His Father. He is the Dead who when dead was alive, and was not investigated, Priest and Burnt Offering, whom to examine is too high for the disputers. He brake and divided His Body with His hands to His twelve, who, if they had not seen how He brake, would not have broken. He stood as Priest and performed the priest’s function upon Himself among His disciples, that He might depict a type to the priesthood for it to |287 imitate. He taught them how to break His holy Body and distribute it to the sons of the household of the faith, (p. 487) He made known to them how they should drink the cup of His Blood, and give the nations and worlds and regions to drink of it. With His Blood He sealed the new Covenant, which He made that it might be for remission of debts for ever. Simon He taught, and to John He gave an example, that as He did they should be doing when He was taken up.

Christ is Risen!

He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Today is western Easter. To celebrate, I give you a passage from the Gelasian Sacramentary (seventh-century — very late patristic…) and an early image of Christ in glory, from Santa Costanza (4th-century) in Rome:

The time has come that we have longed for; what greater or better work can be found than to proclaim the might of our Risen Lord? Bursting open the doors of the grave, He has displayed to us the glorious banner of His Resurrection. Through Him the sons of light are born to life eternal; the courts of the kingdom of heaven are opened to believers; and by the law of a blessed intercourse, earthly and heavenly things are interchanged. For by the Cross of Christ we have all been redeemed from death, and by His Resurrection the life of us all has risen again. While He has assumed our mortal nature, we acknowledge Him as the God of majesty; and in the glory of the Godhead we confess Him God and Man: Who by dying destroyed our death, and by rising again restored our life — even Jesus Christ our Lord. –Gelasian Sacramentary, from two Easter Prefaces, from Ancient Collects and Other Prayers, Selected from Various Rituals by W. Bright, p. 54 (https://archive.org/details/ancientcollects00collgoog/page/n72/mode/2up)

Christ, from Santa Costanza, Rome (4th-c)

Wishing you a blessed Good Friday

For Good Friday, I felt that rather than Patristic words I would provide a Patristic image. There are, however, relatively few images of the crucifixion from the ancient church (and the more Reformed readers say, “Hear, hear!”). I give you photos of the earliest known surviving image of the crucifixion, from the doors of the church of Santa Sabina in Rome, dating to the episcopate of Pope Celestine I (427-432). These are from Wikipedia, my own images being blurry:

5th-c crucifixion, Santa Sabina, Rome

A sermon by Gregory Thaumaturgus on the Blessed Virgin Mary

Annunciation, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome

Happy Feast of the Annunciation, when we celebrate the announcement by the Angel Gabriel to Mary, the Mother of Our Lord, that the power of the Most High would overshadow her, and she would give birth to a son and name him Jesus! Here is a patristic text that we will not encounter as part of Read the Fathers, by St Gregory Thaumaturgus (‘the Wonder-worker’, 213-270), a student of Origen’s from the generation following Clement, in fact. The translation is that of F.C. Conybeare from 1895, taken from Roger Pearse’s site of church fathers not in ANF or NPNF.

The Homily of St. Gregory the Wonder-worker, concerning the Holy Mother of God, ever-virgin

1. When I remember the disobedience of Eve, I weep. But when I view the fruit of Mary, I am again renewed. Deathless by descent, invisible through beauty, before the ages light of light; of God the Father wast Thou begotten; being Word and Son of God, Thou didst take on flesh from Mary Virgin, in order that Thou mightest renew afresh Adam fashioned by Thy holy hand.

2. Holy, deathless, eternal, inaccessible, without change, without turn, True Son of God art Thou before the ages; yet wast pleased to be conceived and formed in the womb of the Holy Virgin, in order that Thou mightest make alive once more man first fashioned by Thy holy hand, but dead through sin.

3. By the good pleasure Thou didst issue forth, by the good pleasure and will of the invisible Father. Wherefore we all invoke Thee, calling Thee King. Be Thou our succour; Thou that wast born of the Virgin and wrapt in swaddling clothes and laid in the manger, and wast suckled by Mary; to the end that Thou mightest make alive once more the first-created Adam that was dead through sin.

4. Feasted with knowledge from the Divine knowledge, let us emit like a fountain the sweetly sounding hymns of praise; let us glorify the sweet powers of the Divine Word. With sweetly sounding doctrine let us send forth praise worthy of the Divine grace; forasmuch as earth, and sea, and all created things, visible and invisible, bless and |163 glorify God’s love for man; for that His majesty was among [us]. For being God He appeared in the flesh, and taking on Himself extreme humility, was born of the Holy Virgin, to the end that He might renew afresh him that was dead through disobedience.

5. Turn ye, O congregations, and come. Let us all praise Him that is born of the Virgin. For that being the glory and image before the ages of the Godhead, He yet became a fellow-sufferer with us of poverty. Being the exceeding magnifical power [and] image of God, He took on the form of a slave. He that putteth on the light as a garment, consorted with men as one that is vile. He that is hymned by cherubim and by myriad angels, as a citizen on earth doth He live.2 He that being before (all) maketh all creation alive, was born of the Holy Virgin, in order that He might make alive once more the first created.

6. Christ our God took on [Himself] to begin life as man (lit. the beginning of humanity), being yet a sharer of the [life] without beginning of God the Father; in order to lift up unto the beginningless beginning of the Godhead man that was fallen.

7. And He took the form of a slave from the Holy Virgin, in order to call us up to the glorified dominical image. He put on the outward shape made of clay, that He might make [us] sharers of the heavenly form. He sat in the lap of the Holy Virgin, that He might place us on the right hand in the intimacy of His Father. In a vile body was He; and by means of the same He was laid in a tomb, that He might manifest us heirs of eternal life. In the womb of the Holy Virgin was He, the incomprehensible (or inaccessible) one, confined; in order that He might renew the Adam destroyed through sin.

8. Power of the Father and living font, Christ our God, [He] is the life-fraught mystery, in whom even through |164 [His] living voice we believed; life without end He freely bestows on those who hope in Him, and with the Spirit of grace He illumines the races of men. From this fountain, living and ever-flowing and of sweet taste, whosoever in faith are athirst are filled and sated.

9. Wherefore even with one voice [let us sing the praises] of God the Word, that according to the worthiness of each is cause and promoter of salvation, unto young men and old, and unto children and women. For from Mary, the divine fountain of the ineffable Godhead, gushes forth grace and free gift of the Holy Spirit. From a single Holy Virgin the Pearl of much price proceeded, in order to make alive once more the first-created man that was dead through sin.

10. He is the Sun of Righteousness, dawning upon earth; and in the fashion of a man He deigned to come unto our race. Having hidden in the coarse matter of humanity the effulgent splendour of His Godhead, and having filled [us] with the Divine Spirit, He hath also made us worthy to sing unto Him the angelic hymn of praise.

11. Let us twine, as with a wreath, the souls (or selves) [of them that love the festival and love to hearken] 3 with golden blossoms, fain to be crowned with wreaths from the unfading gardens; and offering in our hands the fair-fruited flowers of Christ, let us gather [them]. For the God-like temple of the Holy Virgin is meet to be glorified with such a crown; because the illumining Pearl cometh forth, to the end that it may raise up again into the ever-streaming light them that were gone down into darkness and the shadow of death.

12. Regaled with the medicine (lit. poison) of the Divine words of Christ unto the grace of the same, let us send up unto Him some worthy hymn. Let us hasten to gather up |165 the fruits of the mystery of immortality. Let us hasten to inhale the perfume of the God-clad symmetry (or harmony). In [our] language let us luxuriate in the Divine grace, and let us hasten to drive away from us the foul odour of sin. Let us rather clothe us in the sweet savour of the works of righteousness. Having put on ourselves the breastplate of faith, and the garb of a virtuous life, and the holy and spotless raiment of purity, let us fast (or? keep guard). For He is excellence, and hath His dwelling with peace, and is yoke-fellow of love and consorteth [therewith]; a blossom smelling of hope. And the lambs which in faith browse upon this shoot forth the light-like rod of the Trinity. But we, O my friends, resorting to the garden of the Saviour, let us praise the Holy Virgin; saying along with the angels in the language of Divine grace, “Rejoice thou and be glad.” For from her first shone forth the eternally radiant light, that lighteth us with its goodness.

13. The Holy Virgin is herself both an honourable temple of God and a shrine made pure, and a golden altar of whole burnt offerings. By reason of her surpassing purity [she is] the Divine incense of oblation ( = προθέσεως), and oil of the holy grace, and a precious vase bearing in itself the true nard; [yea and] the priestly diadem revealing the good pleasure of God, whom she alone approacheth holy in body and soul. [She is] the door which looks eastward, and by the comings in and goings forth the whole earth is illuminated. The fertile olive from which the Holy Spirit took the fleshly slip (or twig) of the Lord, and saved the suffering race of men. She is the boast of virgins, and the joy of mothers; the declaration of archangels, even as it was spoken: “Be thou glad and rejoice, the Lord with thee”; and again, “from thee”; in order that He may make new once more the dead through sin. |166

14. Thou didst allow her to remain a virgin, and wast pleased, O Lord, to lie in the Virgin’s womb, sending in advance the archangel to announce it [to her]. But he from above, from the ineffable hosts, came unto Mary, and first heralded to her the tidings: “Be thou glad and rejoice.” And he also added, “The Lord with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” But she was in tumult, and pondered in her mind what sort of tidings was this. But then in seemly fashion, I ween, the grace chose out the Holy Virgin; for she was wise in all ways, nor was there her like among women of all nations.

15. Not as the first virgin did she, being alone in the garden, with loose and effeminate thought accept the advice of the serpent and destroy the thought of her heart; through whom came all the toil and sorrow of the saint. But such was the Holy Virgin that by her the former’s transgressions also were rectified. Nor, like Sarah, when she had good tidings that she would bear a son, did she rashly laugh; nor like Rebekah, who, with the temper of a deserter, accepted the ornaments, and willingly gave water to drink unto the camels of her betrothed. And unlike all other women, she did not accept the grace of greeting indiscreetly (or without testing it), but only through thought bright and clear (or through glittering thought).

16. Whence then dost thou bring with thee to us such a blessing? and [out] of what treasure-houses has been sent to us the Pearl of the Word? I would fain know what is the gift, and who is bearer of the Word, or indeed who is the sender thereof. From heaven thou earnest, the form of man thou displayest, and dost radiate forth a blaze (or torch) of light.

17. These things in herself the Holy Virgin asked in doubt. But the angel with such words as these solved her |167 doubts: “The Holy Spirit shall come unto thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee. Wherefore thou shalt conceive and shalt bear a Son, and shalt call His name Jesus, unto the end that He save the race of men from the death of sin.”

18. The Virgin spake in turn unto the angel: My mind swims in thy words as in a sea. How shall this be unto me? for I desire not to know an earthly man, because I have devoted myself to the heavenly Bridegroom. I desire to remain a virgin. I wish not to betray the honour of my virginity.

19. Again in such words as these the angel confirmed the holy Virgin: Fear not, Mary. For ’tis not to frighten thee I came, but to dispel all thought of fear. Fear not, Mary; for thou hast found grace at God’s hands. Scan not too narrowly the grace, since it deigns not to give way to the laws of nature. The Holy Spirit shall come unto thee; wherefore that which is born of thee is holy and Son of God, sharer of the form and sharer of the substance, and sharer of the eternity of the Father; in whom the Father, having acquired all manifestations, hath the adumbration (? of Himself) face to face,4 and by means of the light the glory gleameth forth.

20. Great is the mystery. Thou hast learned, O Mary, that which till now was hidden from angels. Thou hast known that which deaf prophets and patriarchs heard not; and thou hast heard that which the choirs of the God-clad were not ever held worthy to hear. David and Isaiah, and all the prophets foretold in their preaching about the Lord’s becoming man. But do thou alone, O Holy Virgin, receive the mystery unknown by them, and learn and be not perplexed as to how this shall be unto thee. For He that fashioned man out of virgin soil, the Selfsame shall even now do as. He will for the salvation of His creature. |168

21. New radiance now of eternal light gleams forth for us in the inspired fitness (or harmony) of these words. Now is it meet and fitting for me to wonder after the manner of the Holy Virgin, to whom in seemly wise before all things the angel gave salutation thus: “Be thou glad and rejoice”; because with her are quickened and live, all the treasures of grace. Among all nations she alone was both virgin and mother and without knowledge of man, holy in body and soul. Among all nations she alone was made worthy to bring forth God; alone she carried in her Him 5 who carries along all by His word.

22. And not only is it meet to marvel at the beauty of the Holy Mother of God, but also at the excellence of her spirit. Wherefore were addressed to her the words: “The Lord with thee”; and again also, “The Lord from thee.” As if this: ” He will save him that is in His image as being pitiful.” As purse of the Divine mystery the Holy Virgin made herself ready, in which the Pearl of Life was enveloped in flesh and sealed; and she also became the receptacle of supramundane and Divine salvation.

23. Therefore let us also come, O my friends, and discharge our debt according to our ability; and following the voice of the archangel, let us cry aloud: “Be thou glad and rejoice; the Lord with thee.” Nor any heavenly bridegroom He, but the very Lord Himself, the Father of purity and the guardian of virginity, and the Lord of holiness, the creator of inviolability, and the giver of freedom, overseer of salvation, and ordainer of true wisdom and bestower thereof—-the Lord Himself with thee; for as much as even in thee the Divine grace reposed [and] upon thee, in order to make alive the race of men like a compassionate Lord.

24. Not any more doth Adam fear the crafty serpent; |169 because our Lord is come and hath dispersed the host of the enemy. Not any more doth the race of men fear the craftiness and mad deceit of the serpent, because the Lord hath bruised the head of the dragon in the water of baptism. Not any more do I fear to hear the words: Dust thou wast, and unto dust shalt thou be turned. For the Lord in baptism hath washed away the stain of sin. Not any more do I weep, nor ever lament, nor ever reckon it again to wretchedness, when the thorns wound me. For our Lord hath plucked out by the roots the sins which are our thorns,6 and hath crowned His head withal. Loosed is the first curse in which He said: Thorns and thistles shall earth bring forth to thee, for the thorn is plucked out by the roots, and the thistle withered up; and from the Holy Virgin hath shot up the tree of life and grace. No more doth Eva fear the reproach of the pangs of childbirth; for by the Holy Virgin her transgressions are blotted out and effaced; forasmuch as in her was God born, to the end that He might make alive him whom He made in His image.

25. A bulwark of imperishable life hath the Holy Virgin become unto us, and a fountain of light to those who have faith in Christ; a sunrise of the reasonable light 7 is she found to be. Be thou glad and rejoice. The Lord with thee and from thee, who in His Godhead and His manhood is perfect, in whom dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead: “Be glad and rejoice, the Lord with thee and from thee” —-with His handmaid the Lord of glory; with her that is unspotted, He that halloweth all; with the beautiful, He who is wonderful in beauty above all the sons of men, to the end that He may make alive him whom He made in His image.

26. In the Divine words of the Teacher we believe and |170 rejoice; for with roses and lilies and fragrant wreaths Christ, our imperishable Spring, hath come unto us, and hath filled the fair garden of the churches, even the seed-plots of our hearts, from the paradise of God. So then with holy heart let us draw nigh, and find the golden faith gleaming wide and the fruits of immortality smelling sweet therein. For in the desert of Mary the fair-fruited tree hath shot up, that like one holy and pitiful, He may make alive His creature.

27. Holy and wise in all things was the all-blessed Virgin; in all ways peerless among all nations, and unrivalled among women. Not as the first virgin Eva, who being alone in the garden, was in her weak mind led astray by the serpent; and so took his advice and brought death into the world; and because of that hath been all the suffering of saints. But in her alone, in this Holy Virgin Mary, the Stem of Life hath shot up for us. For she alone was spotless in soul and body.

28. With intrepid mind she spake to the angel: Whence is this salutation, and how shall this be unto me? Dost thou desire to learn how the exceeding magnifical power becomes a fellow-sufferer with us of our poverty? How He that hath power over the hosts assumes the image of our baseness; and how He who is God before the ages is about to become a child and be made flesh, He that putteth on light as a garment and giveth life unto His creature. Grant me, said the Holy Virgin, to learn such an impenetrable mystery, and I become the vessel that receives the Divine mystery (or thought), being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, and [I am] to receive the truth of His flesh in my flesh, unto the building by Wisdom of her abode.

29. The Word becometh flesh and dwelleth in us, that is, in the same flesh, which it took from us; and by the spirit of its native self (or soul) it spiritualises [itself]. And the unchangeable God accepts the form of a slave, to the end |171 that He be regarded by the faithful as man; but that He may be manifested as God to the unfaithful, in order to renew the first-created.

30. The element of flesh doth the Son of God take from the Holy Virgin, for before the ages He is God. He hath deigned to be born, and to be called Son of man, and to become visible, He the invisible; and for our sake to be poor, who is all riches; and to suffer as man, He the impassible and deathless. For with (or in) the flesh in truth He was united, but He was not changed in spirit. In a mortal body the Invisible One was enveloped, that He might make it also deathless, making it sharer of His deathlessness through His Godhead; to the end that He might renew him that was fashioned by His holy hands.

31. Glory and light are come into the world, Christ our God. He glorifies and illumines with His ever-streaming light, to whom the voice of the unseen Father bore witness: “Yonder is My Son and Word, who is before the ages.”

32. But Mary was fortified by the word of the angel; but pondered in herself the birth of the Lord, confronted with the disparity of human thought. Now she lifted herself up to the lofty plane of the Divine, now again her mind was occupied with the lowliness of humanity. And thus as in the scale of reflection she balances the one and the other; even in that moment she becometh truly worthy of the design (or mind, or? entrance) of God. For she (or He) that preserved the treasure of her virginity pure and untarnished, she (or He) also made the boundaries of her heart inviolate. And the creature is saved which He made in His image.

33. Christ, Son of God, who was born of the Holy Virgin Mary, hath come as grace into the world; because by means of grace He hath made us alive, He that fashioned all things. Now that Christ is born into the world, doth all creation dance. He giveth in exchange His temptation, |172 the coin of long-suffering, that He may claim (for us) the mansions of the kingdom. The Holy Virgin was filled with joy because He took from her His flesh, to the end that He might raise again him that was fallen under sin.

34. Evil thoughts are turned from us, when we sing psalms to Thee, O heavenly and holy Father; beholding the great light which Thou hast given to us, Jesus Christ, who was born of the Holy Virgin and wrought by means of His Godhead wonders; but for our sake accepted sufferings by means of His flesh. We then 8 also still being in the flesh will hasten in body and soul to make the Deity propitious to us with angelic hymns, touching with our hands in figurative wise the divine [element] of the dogma (?), and will sow in our minds (or in our mysteries) the truth of faith. For the mystery (or thought) is inaccessible, invisible, unchangeable, not to be circumscribed, worshipped in its fulness and marvelled at in [our] mind. For even the Holy Virgin herself had marvelled at the manner of the mystery (or thought). How could the splendour of light become the offspring of a woman? She embraced in herself the treasure of life, and pondered in her mind the salutation of the archangel; until in the completion (of time) she bore the fruit of salvation, that it might save (or make alive) man.

35. Therefore, O ye fair-fruited and comely branches of Christ’s teaching, ye shall in this place bring to us the |173 fruits of blessing (= εὐλογίας). Here, where is all purity and fragrance, let us offer to God with holy conscience the incense of prayer. Here, where virginity and temperance dance together, bearing for fruit the life-giving cluster of grapes. Here, where they . . . unto us the . . . of victorious power and the treasure of love.9 Here, where the mystery of the Holy Trinity was revealed by the archangel to the Holy Virgin according to the gospel: “The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. For Holy is that which is born of thee, Son of God.” To whom be glory and honour for ever and ever.

Trans. F. C. CONYBEARE, 1895.


1. 1 The use of the epithet Θεότοκος is not inconsistent with this description; for Dionysius of Alexandria, Gregory’s contemporary, already used it.

2. 1 πολιτεύεται.

3. 1 These words are added in brackets in the Armenian text.

4. 1 The Armenian is obscure, but this seems to be the sense.

5. 1 Or suffered Him who carries. The verb krem, like θἐρω is here used first in one sense, and then in the other.

6. 1  Lit., of our thorns.

7. 2   i.e. νοητοῦ φωτός.

8. 1 The entire sentence from “we then” to “truth of faith” is obscure and ungrammatical in the Armenian, and I have only conjectured its meaning. In Latin it would = “Ergo et nos anima et corpore, etiam nunc esse in corpore, divinum illud angelicis hymnis propitium esse nobis solliciti erimus facere, manu tangentes per figuram divinum illud doctrinae veritatem fidei in cogitationibus nostris seremus.”

Of the words rendered doctrina; and propitium I am not sure. The word baremnatzo, which I render propitium, is unknown, but should mean “well-remaining.” I take it to be a misrendering of εὐμενήςThe word rendered by cogitatio may also mean “mystery” or “sacrament”; and possibly the entire passage refers to the continued existence in the sacrament of the body of Christ.

9. 1 The Armenian MS. is mutilated here.

Clement of Alexandria

Tomorrow, March 6, we begin reading Clement of Alexandria. I present Dan’s introduction from 2013, with slight modifications in 2020 [in square brackets] and an updated list with translations beyond English.

Icon of Clement

The life and career of Titus Flavius Clemens (Clement in English) mark the ascendancy of Alexandrian theology. Whereas Clement’s contemporary, the sarcastic Latin lawyer Tertullian (whom we read next) famously asked, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” the Alexandrians answered that pagan philosophy had a vital role to play in bringing the world to Christian faith. For better or worse, Clement had an almost reckless confidence that pagan philosophy was the underpinning of Christian truth, so that Christ fulfilled not only the law of Moses but also the myriad attempts of pagan thought to discern the immutable nature of all things true, good, and beautiful.

Biography

Clement was born to wealthy pagans in Athens sometime in the middle of the second century. Given the breadth of learning displayed in his writings, he was undoubtedly well traveled. We learn from an autobiographical brief in Stromateis 1.2 that his education under a variety of teachers took him from Greece to Sicily [to Syria-Palestine] to Egypt, where his career as a student of Christian philosophy seems to have begun upon meeting Pantaenus (c. 180), the master of the catechetical school in Alexandria at that time. (Clement’s intellectual pilgrimage is reminiscent of that of Justin  Martyr). The learned circles of Alexandria at the time melded Hellenistic and Judaic religious sensibility, which is evident in Clement’s thought. Clement became the master of the Alexandrian school around 190. According to tradition, Clement suffered martyrdom during the persecution under Septimius Severus sometime after 203.

[Between 203 and 215, Clement joined his friend Bishop Alexander in Cappadocia. By 216, Clement is dead. There is no contemporary record of him having been martyred.]

Clement was [possibly] the teacher of Origen (whom we will read later), the third-century Egyptian prodigy who popularized the Alexandrian approach to theology, in particular its exegesis. Clement failed to attain to universal acclaim in later Christendom. His [possible] pupil Origen  suffered posthumous condemnation at the [time of the] second council of Constantinople in 553 [that this is not an official part of the council, see Aidan Kimel, Apocatastasis: The Heresy that Never Was, besides the translation of the Acts of Constantinople], and the eclecticism of Clement’s theological works led Photius of Constantinople to criticize them sharply in the ninth century, [particulary his Christology]. [Photius read Clement and his use of terminology through a ninth-century lens, thus falsely colouring his orthodox meaning.] Clement all but disappeared from western calendars by the seventeenth century, having achieved little recognition except among the non-Chalcedonian churches of the east, such as the Coptic church.

Clement thus stands as a threshold figure, representing a passage from the era of the apostolic charism of theological intuition and the vigor of the apologists to an age of intellectual acuity and precise theological definition. In Clement, we begin to see Christianity more fully “plunder the Egyptians,” taking pagan philosophy captive and turning it to its own purposes, which culminated in the first three general councils and the formulae of Nicea ratified at Constantinople.

Works

Clement is best known for three principle works: the Protrepticus (“Exhortation to the Greeks”), the Pedagogus (“The Instructor”), and the Stromateis (“Miscellanies”). In addition, “Who is the Rich Man who Shall be Saved?” is a surviving work of Clement’s, written to exhort some of his wealthier Christian students not to despair over their salvation, and to maintain a disposition toward riches in keeping with that taught in the gospel. There are numerous “lost” works by Clement, the one worth mentioning being the Hypotyposes, or “Outlines,” which, according to Photius, was an “impious” work of esoteric speculation about the heavenly hierarchies.

The Exhortation to the Greeks is a polemic against pagan thought. Clement here strives to demonstrate the utter undesirability of pagan religion and theology, and to encourage his Greek audience to abandon the ignorant worship of malignant and misanthropic deities  in favor of the worship of the true God of Christianity. The Instructor is a reflection of somewhat less consequence, which focuses on the practical elements of Christian discipleship. Here we see Clement not as a polemicist but as a tutor, schooling his audience in the basics of  the moral life and Christian piety. [The heavy hand of the 2020 admin: Matthew thinks that The Instructor is very important for the development of Christian asceticism and should not be passed over so lightly.]

The Miscellanies is a work of tremendous scope and varied interests; it seems to be more a sketchbook of thoughts than a theological treatise with a unified intention. Nevertheless, it is from this work that we encounter Clement’s overall theological perspective.  The work is an attempt to develop a Christian gnosticism. The Miscellanies, therefore, brings Clement more fully into view as a metaphysician and speculative theologian.

Theology

Clement of Alexandria, engraving from Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres grecz by Andre Thevet (1584)

The most noteworthy element of Clement’s theology is his belief that philosophy is as divine a preparation for the gospel as the law and the prophets of the Old Testament (cf. Strom. 1.5, 20; similar to Justin Martyr). Whereas many of Christendom’s most prolific writers, such as Tertullian and Hippolytus, had been trying to pin heresy on the influence of Greek philosophy among Christians, Clement sees in philosophy the prospect of a “preliminary cleansing” which prepares students to receive the faith. So we see that Clement’s eclecticism did have a conservative purpose: not to sow pagan tares in the midst of Christian wheat, as it were, but rather to till the soil of paganism such till it was capable of finding its fulfillment in Christ. Hence, Clement proposes a version of “gnosticism” that is quite Christian: theology is the culmination of a course of study which ascends the heights of mystical truth by way of the pedagogy of pagan thought. We must note that for Clement, the successful student will outgrow the pedagogue: therefore, Clement’s eclecticism is best understood not as an affirmation of the efficacy of paganism to convey the truth, but rather as an affirmation of the gospel to make better sense of paganism than paganism can make of itself.

In speculating about apokatastasis, or “restoration,” Clement is the first known Christian writer to refer to the fire of hell as a purifying fire, a “wise fire that penetrates the soul” (Strom. 7.6). So it is that the wrath of God is understood by Clement as remedial, even therapeutic: “God does not take vengeance, which is the requital of evil for evil, but he chastises for the benefit of the chastised” (Strom. 7.16). The chastisement of divine wrath is intended as an aid in the divine therapy of man’s deification, the end toward which knowledge (gnosis) is most expedient. For knowledge of God presupposes conformity to God’s very self, and conformity to God is the sum of salvation. According to Clement, it seems that all rational beings, by virtue of their rationality, when they encounter the divine substance in the form of a consuming fire, will invariably somehow be brought to genuine gnosis, to conformity to divine truth, in the end. While the universalist implications of this teaching would be condemned in 553, we will see the idea of apokatastasis recur in the writings of several other eastern church fathers, particularly Gregory of Nyssa.

Finally, Clement may be credited as an early proponent of the fourfold interpretation of Scripture (cf. Strom. 1.27)It is not necessary to develop this point very much, as Origen is the Alexandrian exegete most notable for his allegorical interpretations. Let it suffice to say that Clement’s use of Scripture is influenced by his bent towards metaphysics, yet, as is most common with early Christian allegory, his conservative method results in very little overt mishandling of the biblical texts. [Furthermore, Christian allegoresis always has the exaltation of Christ as its goal.]

Alternate Translations 

English

There has been a re-publication of the ANF translation in an affordable volume edited by Paul A. Boer.

The Loeb Classical Library has published a critical edition, both in Greek and in English, of the “Exhortation to the Greeks,” “The Rich Man’s Salvation,” and a fragment titled “To the Newly Baptized” (trans. G. W. Butterworth).

The Instructor has been translated as Christ the Educator by Simon P. Wood in the Fathers of the Church series.

Miscellanies, Books 1-3, has been translated as Stromateis, Books One to Three, by John Ferguson in the Fathers of the Church series.

Miscellanies Book 7 was translated by E. J. A. Hort and J. B. Mayor in 1902.

Substantial excerpts and helpful commentary can also be found in the Library of Christian Classics volume Alexandrian Christianity (ed. Henry Chadwick) and in Henry Bettenson’s The Early Christian Fathers.

French

Le Protreptique, Sources chrétiennes 2, pp. 52-94, C. Mondésert et A. Plassart.

Le Pédagogue, les Stromates, Discours aux Gentils, Quel riche peut-être sauvé ?

Le Pédagogue, Sources chrétiennes, vols. 70, 108, 158, vois aussi la traduction de B. Troo, Paris, 1991.

Les Stromates, Sources chrétiennes, vols. 30 [Stromate I], 38 [Stromate II], 463 [Stromate IV], 278 [Stromate V], 279 [Stromate V], 446 [Stromate VI], 428 [Stromate VII]

Quel riche sera sauvé? Sources chrétiennes, vol. 537.

German

Protrepticus, O. Staehlin und U. Treu, Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller, Band 12: Clements Alexandrinus I. 1972, pp. 1-86.

Paedagogus. O. Staehlin, BKV II (Bibliothek der Kirchenvaeter, Zweite Reihe. Munich, 1932-1938): 7 (1934), 204-297 [Buch I], BKV II 8 (1934), 7-233 [Buch II-III].

Stromata. O. Staehlin, BKV II 17 (1936), 11-324 (Buecher I-III), 19 (1937), 11-355 [Buecher VI-VI], 20 (1938), 9-114 [Buch VII].

Klemens von Alexandrien: Die Teppiche (Stromateis), J. Overbeck. Basel 1936.

Further Studies

Eric Osborn has published a study of Clement’s synthesis of the apostolic faith and classical philosophy in Clement of Alexandria (Cambridge, 2008), and the series of Oxford Early Christian Studies has published an interesting Orthodox take on Clement’s apophatic mystical theology, Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Apophaticism. Also, for an enjoyable apologia for the Alexandrian allegorical method as well for the eclecticism of Alexandrian fathers such as Clement and Origin, see John Henry Newman’s The Arians of the Fourth Century, a dated yet pertinent work regarding Alexandrian dominance at the creative edge of Christian theology.

[Of interest to those wary of Clement: P. Ashwin-Siejkowski, Clement of Alexandria on Trial: The Evidence of ‘Heresy’ from Photius’ Bibliotheca, Brill 2010.

See also the chapter on Clement in H. Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition. Oxford, 1984.]

Irenaeus and the mighty God

Stained glass window of St Irenaeus in the Church of St-Irénée, Lyon, France, by Lucien Bégule (1848-1935)

I’m sorry it’s taken a little bit to post a post-Irenaeus post…

When a person has heard a bit about Irenaeus and sits down to read Against the Heresies, there is an expectation that he or she will read a lot about what Gnostics believe, encounter the idea of Apostolic Succession, read a few early ‘credal’ statements, and engage with his doctrine of Recapitulation. These are certainly all things that happen in Irenaeus, and you can read about Irenaeus and the Development of the Creeds in a post by Possidius from the last round of Read the Fathers in 2013 as well as my quick note on Recapitulation from this round.

What struck me this time, however, was the transcendence of God.

Irenaeus is not original, new, or unusual in believing in a transcendent God. Indeed, he expects that his “Gnostic” opponents also believe in a transcendent God. Belief in some sort of divine being beyond our known experience was common to ancient Mediterranean religions by the time of Irenaeus, whether Christian, Jewish, or many of the varieties of religious experience and expression we might call “pagan”.

Nevertheless, Irenaeus continually pushes for the God of the Bible, of both the Jewish Scriptures and the Christian New Testament (itself an inchoate collection at this time), as being absolutely transcendent. For some people, radical transcendence poses a problem — if God is utterly incomprehensible as to his essence (I fear I may intruding post-Nicene language, but I cannot discuss these ideas otherwise, and I’m reading a book about Basil of Caesarea just now), how are we supposed to know Him?

And do the Christian Scriptures not say that we can?

When I read his descriptions of the groups we call “Gnostic”, it seems that their solution to this “problem” is a series of gradations of being. However, if the distinction between Creator and Creation remains absolute, then no number of intermediaries will be able to bridge the gap. Moreover, if intermediaries can bridge the gap between human creation and the divinity, then the divinity is no longer truly transcendent.

In fact, it seems to me that their beliefs as described by Irenaeus continually fall into this second trap. In seeking to bridge that gap, something else is always leading to another thing, with the result that any of the various beings in the various hierarchies that might be posited to be the God ends up being limited in some way.

Even the Neo-Platonists ran into essentially the same problem, whether through gradations of being in a similar mode, or through Plato’s Timaeus, where the stuff of creation is co-eternal with the divinity who creates.

Such a divinity is not absolute, in Irenaeus’ worldview

How, then, can the gulf between creatures and their Creator ever be bridged? The answer is for the divinity to come down in his own person — well, almost. To say that would be to fully close the gap between Irenaeus and post-Nicene orthodoxy. He comes as close as he can — his very own Word becomes a human person in Jesus Christ, the only mediator between God and humans. Here is how Irenaeus puts it:

But God being all Mind, and all Logos, both speaks exactly what He thinks, and thinks exactly what He speaks. For His thought is Logos, and Logos is Mind, and Mind comprehending all things is the Father Himself. He, therefore, who speaks of the mind of God, and ascribes to it a special origin of its own, declares Him a compound Being, as if God were one thing, and the original Mind another. So, again, with respect to Logos, when one attributes to him the third place of production from the Father; on which supposition he is ignorant of His greatness; and thus Logos has been far separated from God. As for the prophet, he declares respecting Him, “Who shall describe His generation?” –Against the Heresies 2.28.5

This insistence of the God of the Bible being the true Creator of everything and of His Word becoming truly incarnate as Saviour produces some statements that are worth meditating on regardless of their relationship to the so-called “Gnostics.” Here are two:

Now, that the preaching of the apostles, the authoritative teaching of the Lord, the announcements of the prophets, the dictated utterances of the apostles, and the ministration of the law — all of which praise one and the same Being, the God and Father of all, and not many diverse beings, nor one deriving his substance from different gods or powers, but [declare] that all things [were formed] by one and the same Father (who nevertheless adapts [His works] to the natures and tendencies of the materials dealt with), things visible and invisible, and, in short, all things that have been made [were created] neither by angels, nor by any other power, but by God alone, the Father — are all in harmony with our statements, has, I think, been sufficiently proved, while by these weighty arguments it has been shown that there is but one God, the Maker of all things. –Against the Heresies 2.35.4

But He Himself in Himself, after a fashion which we can neither describe nor conceive, predestinating all things, formed them as He pleased, bestowing harmony on all things, and assigning them their own place, and the beginning of their creation. In this way He conferred on spiritual things a spiritual and invisible nature, on super-celestial things a celestial, on angels an angelical, on animals an animal, on beings that swim a nature suited to the water, and on those that live on the land one fitted for the land—on all, in short, a nature suitable to the character of the life assigned them—while He formed all things that were made by His Word that never wearies. -Against the Heresies 2.2.4

Allow me to break my rule about being dispassionate on Read the Fathers for a moment. There are some of us who believe that a failure to preach or believe in a transcendent God is part of the sickness now besetting the church in the West. Perhaps Irenaeus and the Fathers can be part of our cure.

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