Clinging to Externals: Weak Faith and the Power of the Sacraments

by Phillip Cary, Ph.D.

Behind the debates about the objectivity of Christ’s presence in the Reformed view of the supper are crucial pastoral questions about the nature of faith, and I think it will bring clarity to the debate if we can state those questions clearly. I have suggested elsewhere (“Why Luther is not Quite Protestant” in Pro Ecclesia, Fall 2005) that the crucial issue for Protestants is whether faith must be reflective—i.e., whether we must first know we have faith before we are permitted to believe that God is gracious to us as he promised. In connection with the sacrament, the question is: must I first know I believe (i.e. must I have reflective faith) before taking the sacrament, or can the sacrament itself be a means of giving me a faith I am not confident I really have? In short, can the sacrament strengthen weak faith, or does it demand faith? Although it is logically possible for the sacrament to do both, in pastoral practice the latter typically excludes the former. Requiring people to believe is not a good way to strengthen weak faith. For—to use the classic Protestant distinction—to require something of people is to preach Law rather than Gospel. God gives his gifts by the promise of Christ, which is the Gospel, not by the commandments of the Law—not even the command to believe.

A good way to get at this issue is in terms of the Augustinian theory of signs that Catholics, Lutherans and Reformed share. The sacrament is a sign (signum) says Augustine, and the thing (res) it signifies is a spiritual gift of grace. What all parties to the 16th-century debate agree on is that unbelief separates the signum from the res. This means that to receive the sacrament without faith does a person no good, because that way one receives a sign of grace without the grace it signifies. The crucial difference between the Reformed on one side and the Lutherans and Catholics on the other, I suggested in my previous essay, is that the Reformed identify the body and blood of Christ as the res in the sacrament, whereas the Lutherans and Catholics identify them as belonging to the signum as well. So for the Lutherans and Catholics, those who receive the sign of the sacrament without the thing it signifies still receive the body and blood of Christ, but do so to their own harm.

What all agree about, again, is that those who receive the sacrament without faith receive it to their harm. That point, I suggest, is what raises the crucial pastoral question. The question is: since faith is required for the sacrament to do me good, must I know—or at least believe—that I believe (i.e. must I have reflective faith) before I approach the sacrament? If so, then the sacrament is not likely to strengthen those who have weak faith.

These pastoral questions have played a large role in the history of the Reformed churches, especially among the Puritans. Early in the history of New England Puritanism, for instance, communicant church membership was restricted to those who could give a profession of saving faith. (For the history here, see the classic study by Edmund Morgan, Visible Saints.) This institutionalized the requirement of reflective faith: anyone who could not sincerely profess that they had saving faith was excluded from the sacrament and from church membership. And it is important to emphasize here that we are talking about a distinctively Protestant view of saving faith. In contrast to requirements of church membership among earlier Puritans, it was not sufficient simply to confess the creed or to believe and understand Christian teaching. Much less was it sufficient to be baptized. The profession of faith (which made you, in the technical language or the time, a “professor of religion”) meant that you could confidently show that you had a saving interest in the blood of Christ, which typically meant you must be able to narrate the occasion on which you made regenerate by the Holy Spirit through conversion to saving faith.

The concept of saving faith here is distinctively Reformed, and it underlies the requirement of reflective faith. The crucial distinction is articulated by Calvin himself, who contrasts the faith by which we are saved with a temporary faith, by which we experience the goodness of God for a time but do not persevere in true faith until the end. For like Augustine, Calvin teaches that in order to save us God gives not only the intitial gift of faith but also the gift of persevering in the faith until the end. But unlike Augustine, he sees these as one and the same gift: when God gives true saving faith, he necessarily gives us persevering faith, for a faith that does not persevere to the end does not save.

This is a radical departure from Augustine, and it has enormous consequences. For Augustine and the whole Christian tradition prior to Calvin, it is perfectly possible to have a genuine faith and then lose it. Apostates, in other words, have apostasized from the true faith. For Calvin, on the contrary, there is a kind of faith I can have now which I am sure not to lose, because it comes with the gift of perseverance. What is more, I can know that I have such faith rather than the temporary kind. For the whole point of the distinction between saving and temporary faith is that I can know that I am eternally saved, and that means I must know I have saving rather than temporary faith. Again, this is a profound departure from Augustine, who explicitly teaches that we are not yet saved (nondum salvos, in City of God 19:4). In a typical formulation, Augustine insists that we are saved in hope but not yet in reality (in spe, not in re).

Calvin’s departure from Augustine here results in the requirement of reflective faith. In order to believe that you are eternally saved, you must believe that you have saving faith. From this follows what is genuinely distinctive about Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, which is not (as Calvin rightly argues) the doctrine of double predestination, but rather the epistemic thesis that we can know we are among the elect, those chosen by God and predestined for salvation. For anyone who adds to an Augustinian doctrine of predestination the notion that we can know we are saved for eternity will necessarily believe that we can know we are predestined to be saved. For if Augustine is right about predestination, it is logically impossible to know you are saved for eternity without knowing that you are predestined for such salvation. That is precisely why Augustine denies you can know you are predestined for salvation.

So the reflective faith of the Reformed tradition is strong stuff. It assures you not just that God is gracious to you today (like Lutheran faith) but also that you are saved for eternity, which means you can be assured of this much about God’s hidden decree of predestination: that it includes you among the elect. To require such a faith before admission to the sacrament is to require a great deal. It is, I think, to make faith into a work—and quite a substantial work indeed, which many anguished souls could never accomplish. The Puritan churches of New England included many baptized persons who believed that the creed was true but who did not believe they had experienced a conversion to saving faith, and therefore were excluded from the sacrament. In their case, the sacrament could not serve to build up the weak in faith.

Strikingly, there were attempts to reverse this. Solomon Stoddard, Jonathan Edward’s grandfather, allowed baptized churchgoers who could not profess saving faith to come to the sacrament, which Stoddard said could function as a “converting ordinance.” This is an important moment in the history of the Reformed tradition because it displays the possibilities available within Reformed theology. But the fact that Edwards and his followers, who called themselves “consistent Calvinists,” rejected this compomise, suggests that the weight of the Reformed tradition tends to be against it.

Why? Samuel Hopkins, a student of Edwards and a leader of the consistent Calvinists, gives an explanation that parallels the Augustinian point about how unbelief separates signum from res. The means of grace, Hopkins argues, do no good except to the regenerate, and when the unregenerate (i.e. those who do not have saving faith) make use of the sacraments, they succeed only in offending God by their inexcusable unbelief and misuse of his holy ordinances. Note that all the objectivity in the sacraments thus only makes this offense worse: if Christ is truly presented and offered in the sacrament, as Calvin insists, then all the more inexcusable is the unbelief of those who partake of the sacrament unworthily.

How might the Reformed resist such reasoning? I do not see how they can do so consistently without abandoning the requirement of reflective faith, and I do not see how they can do that without abandoning the fundamental Calvinist conviction that we can know we are eternally saved. It is that radical new conviction that creates the characteristic tensions and pastoral problems of the Calvinist tradition. This is not to say that other traditions do not have tensions and problems of their own. The point is that they take a different form than in the Reformed tradition. Catholics, for instance, do not worry about whether they have true saving faith. You will never find a hint of any such worry anywhere in Augustine, for instance, despite all his introspective power. For the idea that I have to have a special kind of faith which I know in advance will persevere to the end is an idea that simply never occurred to him.

Different worries generate different pastoral practices. Catholics don’t worry about whether they have saving faith but whether they are in a state of mortal sin—so they go to confession. Reformed Protestants don’t worry about mortal sin but about whether they have true saving faith—so they seek conversion. The pastoral problem this generates is that either it turns faith into a work, a decision of faith one is required to make, or it leaves a poor sinner nowhere to go to find the grace of God, since all means of grace only work harm to the unregenerate.

Let me suggest a Lutheran diagnosis (and then identify the pastoral problems that result from this Lutheran view). Reformed and Lutheran will heartily agree that the sacramental means of grace can only do me good only because of the Word that gives them their form and power. There is no sacrament of Christ’s body without the Word of institution: “This is my body, given for you.” The question is, if I am weak in faith, how can I trust that this sacrament and its Word will do me good? Luther points here to the words “for you,” and insists that they include me. When faith takes hold of the Gospel of Christ, it especially takes hold of these words, “for you,” and rejoices that Christ did indeed died for me.

In this way the Gospel and its sacraments are signs that effectively give us the gift of faith. I do not have to ask whether I truly believe; I need merely ask whether it is true, just as the Word says, that Christ’s body is given for me. And if the answer is yes, then my faith is strengthened—without “making a decision of faith,” without the necessity of a conversion experience, and without even the effort to obey a command to believe. In Luther’s view, I have not chosen to believe—as if this were something that could be achieved by my own free will, a notion that Luther fiercely rejects—but have instead received faith as a gift. For what the sacramental word tells me is not: “You must believe” (a command we must choose to obey) but “Christ died for you” (good news that causes us to believe). Thus both Word and sacrament do not demand faith but strengthen it, functioning not as Law but as Gospel.

In my judgment, the requirement of reflective faith is a disaster because it means that I have no right to believe that the sacramental words, “for you,” include me unless I first know or at least believe that I have true saving faith. To make this judgment is to say that the characteristic pastoral problems of the Reformed tradition are not so much problems to be solved as theological mistakes to escape. But to be fair, let me say what pastoral problems my Lutheran view entails.

It entails rejecting the view that we can know we are eternally saved. In Luther’s view, we can be assured we have grace, but we cannot be assured of eternal salvation. For the promise of God gives us Christ—in both word and sacrament—but it does not promise that we shall persevere in the faith of Christ until the end. This is a crucial fact about the biblical Word that no amount of theologizing can get over: the Word of Christ can give me faith and thereby give me Christ himself, but it does not promise to give me perseverance in the faith and therefore does not give me assurance of eternal salvation. If you want that kind of assurance, you have to go the road of reflective faith, believing not just in the Word but in your own belief in it, being somehow assured that the faith you have is true saving faith. To put it succinctly, what you give up by rejecting the requirement of reflective faith is the assurance of salvation.

The pastoral problems this produces have a label, which Luther himself gives them. He calls them anfechtungen, the assaults of the devil, who loves to taunt us with the fear that maybe we are not among those predestined for salvation. This is why Luther insists on turning away from the Deus absconditus, the God of the hidden decree of predestination, and clinging to the Deus revelatus, the God who reveals himself in the Gospel. It is sufficient to know that Christ’s body is given for me. If I cling to that in faith, all will go well with me. And whenever the devil suggests otherwise, I keep returning to that sacramental Word, and also to the Word of my baptism, and to the “for us” in the creed (“for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven” and “he was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate”), where the “us” includes me. Thus precisely the kind of faith that is insufficient to get me admitted to the Puritan sacraments—which is to say, mere belief in the truth of the creed and trust in my baptism—is all the faith I have. If Luther is right, it is all the faith I can ever have, and all the faith I need.

In this way the sacraments do help me when I face the typical pastoral problems generated by Lutheran theology. By contrast, the Reformed tradition generates pastoral problems that cannot be helped by the sacrament, because neither word nor sacrament can assure me that I have true saving faith. The logic of the matter, it seems to me, makes it impossible to split the difference between these two positions and get the best of both. On the one hand, if you want a concept of saving faith and the assurance of eternal salvation, then the sacraments cannot help you in the way that matters most. For—on the other hand—if you cling to the sacraments to strengthen your faith, then the faith you get is not what the Reformed tradition calls saving faith. Therefore I do not think one can consistently hold both a strong view of the power of the sacraments and the Reformed view of the nature of faith.

(Originally published on my old Pontifications blog on 4 March 2008)

Dr Phillip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University. He is the author of several books, including Good News for Anxious Christians.

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Calvin and Luther: Is Jesus REALLY Present in the Supper?

by Phillip Cary, Ph.D.

Is Christ’s body objectively present in the sacrament, according to John Calvin? Unfortunately, that depends on what you mean by “objective,” which is a slippery and ambiguous word with no exact equivalent in the 16th-century discussion. (The word did not begin to acquire its current range of meanings until the writings of Immanuel Kant in the late 18th century.) Still, we can always try defining our terms explicitly. And if we do that, we can identify one important sense of the phrase “objectively present,” in which Christ’s body is objectively present in the sacrament in the Lutheran and Roman Catholic views but not in Calvin’s.

For suppose we define “objectively present” as meaning “present independent of anyone’s state of mind,” where “state of mind” includes things like belief. Then Christ’s body is not objectively present in the sacrament in Calvin’s view but is objectively present in the Lutheran and Roman Catholic views. Let me illustrate.

I may believe there is no bread present in the house, but be mistaken: my wife has bought bread and put it in the breadbox where it is objectively present despite my belief to the contrary. Likewise, I can even have bread objectively present in my mouth without believing it: suppose for instance I inattentively pop a piece of bread in my mouth thinking it’s a bit of rice cake. The bread is present in my mouth even though I don’t believe it. In precisely this sense, according to both Lutheran and Roman Catholic views, Christ’s body is objectively present in the mouth of all who partake in the sacrament, whether they believe it or not.

This is a form of Eucharistic presence that Calvin explicitly and repeatedly denies, and he quite astutely identifies it as the key point on which he differs from the Lutherans. The point even has a technical name: manducatio indignorum, or the eating of the unworthy. In the Lutheran view, even unbelievers and anyone else who unworthily partake of the supper have not only bread but Christ’s body in their mouths, whether they believe it or not. Calvin insists, on the contrary, that we do not partake of Christ’s body without faith.

In what sense, then, can a Calvinist say that Christ’s body is objectively present in the sacrament? I would suggest that according to Calvin’s view Christ’s body can rightly be said to be “objectively presented” to us. This seems to me a good description of the intention of Calvin’s characteristic language of Christ’s body being truly offered, exhibited, presented and even given to us.

Since that last verb can be misleading, let me clarify: when Calvin says the body of Christ is given to unbelievers in the supper, he means it is offered but not received, like a gift given but refused. People who partake of the sacrament without faith of course do not refuse the bread—they take it right into their mouths—but they do refuse Christ and his body. And their refusal is effective. Again, the Lutherans affirm the contrary: precisely in putting the bread in their mouths, all who partake of the sacrament put Christ’s body in their mouths, whether they believe it or not. Roman Catholics agree, except that they teach that the Eucharistic host is wholly Christ’s body under the appearance of bread. Those who partake of the sacrament, worthily or not, have no bread in their mouths at all, but only Christ’s body.

Calvin’s view that Christ’s body is objectively presented rather than objectively present–—as he would say, “truly presented to us” but not “enclosed in the bread” or “chewed with the teeth”—gives his teaching a distinctive place on the spectrum of Eucharistic doctrine. This is distinct not only from the Lutheran and Calvinist views but also from the low Protestant view usually attributed (I do not know how fairly) to Zwingli. In this low Protestant view the supper is merely a memorial, which means that the only link to Christ’s body is our state of mind, our faith. On the contrary, when Calvin insists that Christ’s body is truly presented, offered, and given to us, he is talking not about our state of mind but about the action of God, and perhaps the most important thing to pay attention to is the adverb truly, for what is at stake here is the truth of God’s word. Does God do as he says when he offers us Christ’s body? Calvin’s answer is an emphatic yes.

With this in view, we can see why Calvinist theologians insist on the objectivity of the sacrament. And we could explain the fact that the unworthy do not partake of Christ’s body using this terminology: the offer is objectively made—quite independent of whether we believe it—but subjectively refused. As Calvin puts it, in one of his most helpful discussions of the manducatio indignorum, “it is one thing to be offered, another to be received” (Institutes 4:17.33). What is not objective is whether we actually partake of Christ’s body, for that requires precisely our subjective appropriation of the truth of God’s word, which is to say, our faith.

All this can be explained without using the technical terminology of signum and res (sign and thing signified) which goes back to Augustine. But if we turn to that terminology, I think we will see the fundamental conceptual difference at stake here. There are a number of key conceptual points, going back to Augustine, on which all parties to this dispute agree. Reformed, Lutheran and Roman Catholic all think of the sacrament as a sign that signifies spiritual gifts. What is more—and this is not often noticed—all agree that certain kinds of unworthiness, especially unbelief, separate the sign from the thing it signifies, so that the unworthy receive the signum or sacramentum but not the res. So for instance all agree that those who receive the sacrament in unbelief receive an outward sign but not the inner grace it signifies.

Given these agreements, the crucial question is whether Christ’s body is signum or res, the sacramental sign or thing it signifies. Calvin’s answer is clearly the latter. To see this, those of us who read Calvin in English need to be reminded that when he says Christ’s body is the “substance” or “matter” of the sacrament, which he does quite often, the Latin term he uses is res. Thus, in the shared Augustinian vocabulary of 16th-century theology, he identifies Christ’s body as belonging to the res sacramenti, the thing signified by the sacrament. That means it is precisely the sort of thing that is not received by unbelievers.

It can be properly be said of unbelievers that they receive a mere empty sign—which for Calvin means, the bread of the supper without the body of Christ that it signifies. Or to put it in medieval terms, those who partake of the sacrament without faith receive “the sacrament alone” (sacramentum tantum, which means sacramentum without res). This is just another way of saying “the sign alone,” since by medieval definition the sacrament is always a sign, so that sacramentum and res are related precisely as signum and res. And the key point is that those who partake of the sacrament unworthily do partake of the sign, quite independently of what they believe, because to partake of this sacrament is to precisely to take the sacramental sign into your mouth.

The difference between Martin Luther and Calvin on this point is that Luther thinks of the body of Christ as the sacramental sign, not just the thing signified (see for instance his Babylonian Captivity, in Luther’s Works 36:44). Thus in Luther’s reckoning when unbelievers receive the sacrament but not the thing it signifies, this means that they receive no grace or spiritual benefit in the sacrament, but they do receive Christ’s body. For unbelief separates signum from res, but it cannot prevent the sacrament from being the sign that it is. So long as the sacrament is present, the sign is present, which includes Christ’s body. Thus even in receiving a “mere sign” the unworthy eat Christ’s body, whether they believe it or not. They are partaking of the body to their own harm. (There is no paradox in this, for Christ’s bodily presence has always been an occasion not just of blessing and grace but of scandal and unbelief. It was, after all, quite possible to receive Christ’s body and nail it to a tree.)

When Luther thinks of the body of Christ as both sign and thing signified, he is following a standard medieval view. Peter Lombard, followed by many other medieval theologians, not only distinguished sacramentum and res, but added a third, hybrid category, sacramentum et res (“sacrament and thing”), to which Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist belonged. Calvin rejects this threefold classification in Institutes 4:17.33 (the same passage cited above rejecting the manducatio indignorum) and specifically denies that Christ’s body can be classified as sacramentum. He clearly recognizes the implication: if Christ’s body is sacramentum as well as res, sign as well as thing signified, then every valid sacrament will contain not only bread but Christ’s body, present in the outward sign whether you believe it or not. And that is precisely what he means to deny.

(Originally published on my old Pontifications blog on 31 October 2006)

Dr Phillip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University. He is the author of several books on St Augustine, including Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self, Inner Grace, and Outward Signs, as well as Good News for Anxious Christians.

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The Woman, the Hour, and the Garden

by Fr Addison Hodges Hart


Shamelessly using a term that was already overused a decade ago, I will note here at the very outset that the Gospel of John employs “coded” language and images in its recounting of the mission of Jesus. The Fathers and medieval Doctors, Eastern and Western, always read John as a “spiritual gospel”, meaning that its deepest and most important message was something carefully veiled, requiring proper unveiling and interpretation within the assembly of believers. To that end, there are words that John repeats throughout his writings, and an earnest study of these words provides keys to unlocking his half-hidden themes again and again. I would like, then, in this short analysis to look at how John uses the word and image of “the Woman” in his Gospel. It is, I believe, a more central feature of his message than one might at first suppose. As I will suggest, it points us towards the Christian community itself and how, in particular, John’s church understood its (indeed, her) own identity.

I begin near the end of the Gospel, at the foot of Christ’s cross. Looking at select verses from John 19:25-42 below (as rendered in the RSV translation), the reader will see that I have put three words in bold type. These are “Woman”, “hour”, and “garden”.

[19:25] … But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. [26] When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” [27] Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. [28] After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the scripture), “I thirst.” … [40] They took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. [41] Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid. [42] So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.

An astute reader of John will already know that the words “woman” (gyne) and “hour” (hora) show up in the Gospel at significant places in the text, sometimes in proximity to one another. Let us look at the passages in which one or the other appears, or both appear together. Bear in mind that the word “woman” in John obviously doesn’t always have special significance; but whenever Jesus addresses someone as “Woman” in John, which he does three times (his mother, the woman of Samaria, and Mary Magdalene), it apparently does. (The single exception to this usual usage is John 8:10. Jesus addresses the woman taken in adultery in that verse as “Woman”. However, the entire passage in which it appears, 7:53-8:11, is a later addition to the Gospel. So, it falls outside our consideration here.) The word “hour” likewise does not always convey a special meaning, but whenever John, for instance, refers to “the hour” which is “coming”, or Jesus refers to “my hour”, it most certainly does.

Here, then, are the three instances when Jesus addresses specific women as “woman”.

(1) Jesus addresses his mother:

[2:2] Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples. [3] When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” [4] And Jesus said to her, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”

(2) Jesus addresses the Samaritan woman:

[4:21] Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. [22] You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. [23] But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.

(3) Two angels and Jesus address Mary Magdalene outside the garden tomb, following Jesus’ resurrection:

[20:11] But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; [12] and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. [13] They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” [14] Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. [15] Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?”

The first two instances above refer to Jesus’ “hour”. Other texts in John also refer to it: 5:25-30; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23-28; 13:1; 16:32; and 17:1. Jesus also uses the word “time” (kairos) in a way that seems synonymous with “hour” in 7:6-8.

But, most crucially, we have Jesus’ enigmatic words to his disciples in 16:21, which tie together the various references above, as we shall see. Here I will give my literal rendering of this text as it appears in the Greek:

When the woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a man [anthropos] is born into the world.

Two things should immediately strike us: First, the word “woman” has a definite article – literally it is “the woman”. And, second, the “hour” mentioned is “her hour” – that is to say, the hour referred to in this verse is the hour when the woman gives birth.

Keep those two points in mind, because we will come back to them.

The hour of Jesus’ glorification in John is the time of his crucifixion, when his mission in the world is “accomplished” (19:30). It includes also the time when he departs from the world and his followers are scattered. The “hour” of the crucifixion-resurrection-ascension is the source and spring of new life for humankind. It is the hour of our resurrection spiritually (cf. 5:25-26). The paradox is that the hour of the cross is also the hope of our own resurrection and new birth (cf. 3:3-8).

But the enigmatic saying of Jesus in 16:21, I believe, presents us with this curious question: Is the woman’s “hour” the same as Jesus’ “hour”? The answer, I suggest, is yes. “The woman” and Jesus share “the hour” of the cross, and in that hour “the woman” gives birth to a new “man” (anthropos = “human being”; not, as some translations render it, a “child”). Going a step further, does the word “woman”, when addressed to those three women above (Jesus’ mother, the Samaritan woman, and Mary Magdalene), refer, in a spiritual sense, to a single image or archetype? Is there an archetypal “Woman” in relation to whom these three specific women stand as types? Are these three women also “the Woman” of 16:21, and, if so, what significance does that have for John, his community, and for us?

Undoubtedly the three women are to be understood as unique persons. John is not prone to flat allegorizing. He is far more subtle and poetic. All three women are individuals, delicately described with psychological insight. But I would also suggest that John has, with implicit intent, put the word “woman” on Jesus’ lips in his retelling of events, precisely in order to signify a specific something else we are meant to understand, something else which can be glimpsed shining through each of these distinct persons like refracted light. So, what might the importance of “woman” be as an address?

It has bothered any number of pious exegetes, for example, that Jesus addresses his mother in John 2 in this seemingly discourteous way. After all, this is his mother. Surely, we say to ourselves, we wouldn’t address our own mothers in this fashion; and if we are Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, or Christians of any other tradition in which Mary holds an exalted place, we cannot imagine Jesus speaking to the Blessed Virgin so disrespectfully. But all those considerations are to miss John’s likely intent. This Gospel, we must recall, never even divulges the name of Jesus’ mother. Something else is going on here, although it clearly has an embryonic relationship to later piety surrounding Christ’s mother.

There are, then, just three possible ways to understand Jesus’ designation of his mother as “Woman”: Either (1) it was indeed a distancing or even rude address, or (2) it was some sort of endearment or respectful term for her, or (3) the term has a symbolic purpose.

We can dismiss the first two possibilities. First, although the statement does indeed distance Jesus from his mother (literally, he says, “Woman, what is there between me and you?”), there is no justification for thinking the address was meant to be rude. That he addresses her again in exactly the same fashion, while he is on the cross, seeing to her comfort and care after his departure (19:26), should make it sufficiently evident that his use of “Woman” for her in Chapter Two isn’t meant as a belittlement of her either. If its use isn’t disrespectful in 19:26, then it’s extremely unlikely that its use should be disrespectful back in 2:4.

But, on the other hand, could he possibly mean the address to be understood as the exact opposite of belittlement, as rather a sort of endearment? One plainly silly translation has in fact rendered it “dear lady”; and the Revised Standard Version, which I have used above, renders it politely as “O woman”. But there is no “O” in the original Greek verse, nor “dear”, nor even the word “lady”; just “Woman”. Quite simply, he is not using the term as an endearment.

So, we are left with just the third possible purpose for using this odd address: the Gospel means to infer something symbolic. And, if this is so for Jesus’ mother, it seems probable that the same is true for both the Samaritan woman and Mary Magdalene as well.

So, then, how might these three women, when addressed as “Woman”, be related in John’s thinking to “the Woman” of 16:21? And what is it that she represents?

If we look at the immediate context of John 16:21, at verses 20 and 22 which precede and follow it, we note that Jesus is directly speaking to the disciples about the “sorrow” that they will undergo at his departure, and of the later joy they will feel when they see him again: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy … So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” To speak to the feelings of sorrow the disciples will experience, Jesus offers this image: “When the woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come.” The first thing to note, then, is that “the sorrow” and “joy” of “the woman” are symbolic of the sorrow and joy that the disciples will experience. The second thing to note is that the woman’s travail is that of childbirth. She is bringing a new life into the world. It is the birth of “a man” (anthropos). To put it succinctly, “her hour” is the hour when she gives birth to a new man.

Who, then, is “the Woman”? If we take into account the context of the saying, we see that the woman (with her child) is directly identified with Christ’s disciples. There is, in fact, every good reason to believe that “the Woman” and her child together comprise a single image of Jesus’ (and John’s) community of followers, what would come to be called the “assembly” or “church”.

Do we have anything else in the writings of John to suggest that the whole community of Jesus’ followers was conceived of as “feminine” and symbolized as a “woman” with offspring (i.e., individual baptized members)? Well, in point of fact, we do. In the Second Letter of John we read the following:

The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth, and not only I but also all who know the truth, because of the truth which abides in us and will be with us for ever: Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love. I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children following the truth, just as we have been commanded by the Father. And now I beg you, lady, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning, that we love one another. (2 John 1-5)

And the same Letter concludes with these words: “The children of your elect sister greet you” (2 Jn. 13; emphasis mine).

The word translated “lady” in these verses is an honorific term, kyria. It is the feminine equivalent of “Lord” – kyrios. There seems little doubt that the “elect lady” and her “children” represent the community to whom “the elder” is writing in 2 John, and “the children of your elect sister” is a reference to the individual members of the local community from which he writes: two ladies who are, in essence, really one lady sharing a single archetype, surrounded by the children to whom they have given birth. The “icon” or image of the community, it seems, was that of a woman, a “lady” with her children gathered about her. In addition, it appears that each community was seen as a “sister” among “sisters”, each with her own children gathered about her. Each community was dignified as a “lady” and regarded as a “sister” of equal dignity with all the rest. It’s conceivable that the reason for the high title, kyria, was due to the spiritual union each community shared with its Kyrios. The “children” of the “elect lady” and her “elect sister”, one can safely assume, were those who were baptized and reborn disciples.

That the Christian community was often symbolized as a virgin bride and mother, and continued to be through the millennia, is well known. One is reminded of Paul’s words to the Christian community in Corinth, in 2 Corinthians 11:2, in which the word “you” is plural: “I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you as a pure bride [literally, ‘virgin’] to her one husband.” We find it, for instance, in other very early Christian writings. For example, The Shepherd of Hermas, which was written in Rome in the second century, depicts the church as an ancient lady who grows ever younger throughout a series of visions. Nor can one truly appreciate Patristic and Medieval devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary without understanding that she – the Virgin and Mother who gave birth to the historical “body of Christ” – was viewed from the earliest centuries as the foremost icon of the church. The church was viewed as both “virginal” (that is, holy in essence) and as the “mother” of the baptized – the so-called “mystical body of Christ” (just as Mary had been the mother of the physical body of her Son). Numerous texts of the Fathers and later writers, East and West, amply illustrate this. It should not be difficult for us to recognize that “the Woman” in travail is an image of Jesus’ first community of followers.


I want to press still further in my conjectures. When Jesus uses the word “Woman” (gyne) as an address in John, it is not too much of a leap to assume that it alludes to the first and archetypal Woman of Genesis: “And Adam said, ‘this now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman [gyne], because she was taken out of her husband.” (Gen. 2:23; LXX) Following the fall account in Genesis 3, God speaks first to the serpent, then to the woman, and finally to Adam in response to what has occurred earlier in the same chapter.

It is God’s words to the woman that are most relevant to us here: “I will greatly multiply your pains and your groaning; in pain you shall bring forth children.” (Gen. 3:17) John 16:21 appears to echo the words of Genesis: “When the woman is in travail she has sorrow.” A few verses later in Genesis 3, we read in the Greek version (which we can, with some confidence, guess to have been the version that John and his community would have likely known): “And Adam called the name of his wife ‘Life’ [Zoe], because she was the mother of all the living [zonton, meaning those possessing zoe].” (Gen. 3:21) Take special notice here of the Greek name given to the woman we know as “Eve” – “Zoe” (“Life”) – and of the designation of her children – “zonton” (“living”).

With that Greek name, “Zoe”, we in fact have the very word that John uses to indicate eternal life. John uses the other two Greek words in his writings that mean “life” (psyche and bios), but, whenever he (and other New Testament writers) writes specifically of “eternal life”, the word is zoe. It is possible we are coming closer here to a deeper understanding of the significance of “Woman” in John as an address and also of “the Woman” referred to in 16:21. Might we suppose, then, that any time the word zoe – “eternal life” – was read in the context of John’s communities, the hearers would also have heard and recalled the name given to the first woman by Adam? It seems unlikely that they wouldn’t have done so. The name of the first woman and birth-giver would almost certainly have come to mind each time the word zoe came up in the text, as it does over and over.

Here I need to be clear once again. I am not saying that the women in John (Christ’s mother, the Samaritan Woman, and Mary Magdalene) are mere symbols for an abstraction, in this case “eternal life”. That would mean foisting a sort of ersatz, “systematic” logic onto an idea that is multivalent, subtle, and poetic in nature. Whatever else the Gospel of John is, it is not a systematic treatise, and its logic is the “logic” of metaphor, suggestion, and poetry. What I am saying is that “Woman” in these specific texts is meant to conjure up a multivalent image, one which is, all at once and intertwined, the archetypal first woman as “mother” and giver of “life” (zoe-life, that is), the community of Christ’s followers, and the restoration of God’s life to human beings which comes through Christ and through the baptismal community that is “wed” to him. John is not a systematic theologian, but he is poetically consistent and mystically coherent.

So, in one place the mother of Jesus can be “the Woman”, in another it is the Samaritan woman who reflects this image, and in another Mary Magdalene. There is, however, only one archetypal “Woman” towards whom this form of address always points, who stands above and behind them all, but there are three individual flesh-and-blood women who are thus addressed. In each instance, what Jesus says to these women determines the significance of the allusion, and the context of each statement is also relevant.

Let me illustrate what I mean.

The first, and arguably the most important, person Jesus calls “Woman” is his mother in John 2:1-12. We know the story. Jesus and his disciples attend a wedding at Cana. The wine runs out, and his mother draws his attention to the fact: “They have no wine.” His response, literally rendered, is this: “What is between me and you, woman? My hour has not yet come”(2:4). Apparently she is not put off by Jesus’ words to her, and this is best explained by the logic of poetic reasoning and metaphor. Undeterred, then, she responds by addressing the servants: “Whatever he tells you, do” (2:5). If she represents here, as I have indicated above, the Christian community, this would be an apt response – it is the sort of thing the church would say to her “children”. We know what comes next. Jesus changes a superabundance of water into a superabundance of wine, which is his first “sign”, “and his disciples believed in him” (2:11). We wish only to note here the enigmatic statement of Jesus to his mother: “What is there between me and you, woman?” and his designation of the hour that hasn’t yet arrived as “my hour”.

Bearing this in mind, we recall next that in 16:21 “the Woman” in travail rejoices when she brings an anthropos into the world. In that verse, we are told that the time of giving birth is “her hour”.

So, in 2:4 we have two notable emphases: “my hour”, and the question, “What is between me and you?” – in other words, “What do we share in common?” In 16:21, we hear of “the Woman” who gives birth at “her hour”.

So, lastly, we look at 19:26-27. Jesus hangs on the cross (near a garden – verse 41), and the following transpires: “When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.” Again, we have the address “Woman”, and again mention of an hour, but this time it is “that hour”.

So: in 2:4, it is “my hour”; in 16:21, the hour of birth is “her hour”; and now, in 19:27, the hour in which “the disciple whom [Jesus] loved” took Jesus’ mother – now the disciple’s mother too – into his home is “that hour”. It is, as I have already proposed, the same hour which is referred to in all three instances; and what is “between” Jesus and his mother – “the woman” – is precisely the “hour” which is both Jesus’ “hour” and “her hour”. That is to say, it is the hour when the mother gives birth to the new anthropos, who in turn is represented by the beloved disciple (the “founder” of the Johannine community, and the exemplary disciple in the Gospel); and this beloved disciple is the first of many “children” who will be gathered about “the lady”. And this shared hour is indeed, as 16:21 said, an hour of sorrow and travail. The “mother of Jesus” is both the community and the “mother of all the [eternally] living”, the true Zoe.

And that brings us back to the garden. That all this happens at the cross, where a garden is located, is significant. As Christians from the earliest centuries recognized in this scene, the crucified Christ is there revealed as the true Tree of Life, and the two standing by that Tree replicate the first human beings in the Garden of Eden. Genesis 3 is thus recapitulated, but this time the pair is given access to the Tree of Life.

Perhaps we may find the idea that the mother of Jesus is also the mother of Jesus’ disciples difficult to grasp. If she represents, in the spiritual reading of the text, the community of Jesus’ disciples (the church, the bride of the bridegroom as indicated in Jn. 3:29), how can she also be his “mother”? Wouldn’t it be more likely that she represent Israel, the Old Testament church, and not the New Testament church? But that is not only to miss the fluidity of metaphor, but also to draw too sharp a distinction between the Old Testament church and the New Testament church – something first century Christians did not do. For them, the “church” had its origin in the very beginning, with the first pair in Eden. It was reconstituted, after failure upon failure, with the calling of Abraham (Gen. 12). From the perspective of the New Testament – and of John – a disjuncture between the Old Testament community and the community of Christ is not clear or obvious. The book of Revelation, for example, describes the vision of “a woman clothed with the sun” who is “with child” and “cried out in pangs of birth” (Gen. 3:17 and Jn. 16:21!). Her child is Christ, who will rule all nations and who is “caught up to God and to his throne”. The woman then flees into the wilderness to escape the dragon (who is Satan, the “ancient serpent” of Eden; 12:9). Lastly, we are told, “the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus” (Rev. 12:1-2, 5-6, 9, 13, 17; emphasis mine). Here, in a single symbolic woman, we have both the “mother” of Jesus and the “mother” of other offspring – those who are, in fact, Jesus’ disciples. In the mind of the writer of the book of Revelation, no clear distinction exists between Israel (the mother of Jesus) and the church (the mother of Jesus’ disciples). They are, spiritually, one and the same “Woman”.

Turning briefly, then, to the other two women whom Jesus addresses as “Woman” in John’s Gospel, we note first his words to the Woman of Samaria: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” He goes on to say that the hour is coming “when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (cf. Jn. 4:21-24). That is to say, “true worshipers” will gather from all places, Jews and Gentiles both, and share in “spirit and truth” together as one community. There will be no division between Jews, Samaritans, Greeks (12:20-22), and those of other nations. To this seemingly lowly Samaritan woman, with whom he has discussed such high matters, Jesus reveals himself to be the Messiah (4:25-26). She promptly goes and proclaims to her countrymen, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (4:29) The Samaritans then come and listen to Jesus’ word. “They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world’” (4:42). The Samaritan woman, then, resembles “the lady” of 2 John, with her “children following the truth” (2 Jn. 4). Although she is a Samaritan and outside the people of the Jews, she is nevertheless an apt type of that “church” which transcends “in spirit and truth” all such racial and national distinctions, and has its origins in Zoe, “the mother of all the living”, the first mother of all human beings and peoples.

Turning finally to the scene in John 20 with Mary Magdalene, we have an even more striking reminder of Eden. Jesus’ crucifixion and tomb are situated in a garden: “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid” (19:41). The cross is the true Tree of Life. From it comes zoe-life, symbolized by Jesus’ spirit (breath), blood and water (19:30, 34). When Jesus rises from the dead, he does so in the garden – and it is there that Mary encounters him and mistakes him for the gardener. “Woman,” says Jesus to her, “why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” (20:15) With these words we have a reversal of Genesis 3:9: “And [Adam and his wife] heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the afternoon; and both Adam and his wife hid themselves from the face of the Lord God in the midst of the trees of the garden” (LXX). Instead of the Lord God seeking for Adam and his wife, we have Mary Magdalene seeking for the supposedly mislaid or stolen body of Jesus. When she tries to hold him, Jesus says to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (20:17). Up until this point in John’s Gospel, Jesus had referred to the Father as his Father, not “our Father”. With this statement to Mary, he opens wide the door to fully restored union with God – his disciples can now share in his relationship with his God and Father. He is “my Father and your Father too, my God and your God too”.

The expulsion from the Garden in Genesis 3 is undone in this garden, and the message is conveyed through “the woman” to his community of disciples. We are then told that Mary, just as the Samaritan woman had gone to her countrymen, “went and said to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’” (20:18). Once again, we have “the lady” who gathers together the “children”, this time emerging from the garden in which she was first seeking and then walking with the Lord.

* * *

Let me sum up all that we have seen above as simply as I can:

(1) “The Woman” in travail in John 16:21 is intended to remind us of: (a) the first woman, called Zoe in the Greek version of the Old Testament, who is the “mother of all the living”, and thus the mother of all peoples and the church; and (b) an “icon” of the community of Jesus (the church), and the same as “the lady” with her “children” in 2 John.

(2) When Jesus calls his mother, the Samaritan Woman, and Mary Magdalene “Woman”, he is associating them with “the Woman” of 16:21 and all that she symbolizes.

John’s “code” is about the identity of Jesus, but also about the identity of the Christian community. His vision of that identity is that the disciples of Jesus constitute a true and awakened humanity. They are “the living”, rescued from the threat of “perishing” (3:16-17). In his Gospel he symbolically takes his readers back to the Garden and – there – directly to the cross and empty tomb of Christ. He wants them to see themselves as partakers of the fruit of the Tree of Life (Christ) and enjoying the union with God that was once forfeited.

Dividing his community from the fallen aspects of the world – from darkness and death – he intends that they should be joined to Jesus and the life he gives. It means knowing him, knowing the Father, seeing God’s glory paradoxically on the cross, and new life emerging from an empty tomb. It means knowing oneself to be among those “children” of God, like the beloved disciple himself; gathered into an everlasting community, which existed from the beginning, which is also their spiritual “mother”, wed to the Lord and therefore a “lady”, and a “sister” among many “sisters”.

John’s Gospel, unlike the other three, has little to offer in the way of moral instruction. Unlike Matthew, it has nothing to say about communal organization. Unlike Luke in the book of Acts, it has no tale to tell of the practical history and growth of the church. It does, however, give a deep and poetic interpretation of the mystical dimensions of Jesus’ identity and ours in relation to him. John’s “code” is for our contemplation and edification.

Fr Addison Hart is a retired Roman Catholic priest and university chaplain. He is the author of five books, including Strangers and Pilgrims Once More and The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd.

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The God of Regret versus the God of the Bible

A quick note. I just read Greg Boyd’s blog piece “God’s Regrets and Divine Foreknowledge.” Does God ever regret his decisions? Of course he does, Boyd avers. The Bible tells us so. The most famous story of divine regret is found in the sixth chapter of Genesis: “And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.'” Thanks to the recent movie, we all know what happens next.

In response to the objection that the attribution of genuine regret to God compromises the perfection of divine wisdom, Boyd replies:

If God says he regretted a decision, and if Scripture elsewhere tells us that God is perfectly wise, then we should simply conclude that one can be perfectly wise and still regret a decision. Even if this is a mystery to us, it is better to allow the mystery to stand than to assume that we know what God’s wisdom is like and conclude on this basis that God can’t mean what he clearly says.

In other words, if the Bible says that God regrets some of his decisions and actions, then he does. But the sentence I just wrote doesn’t quite say what Boyd says, does it? What Boyd says is “If God says he regretted a decision …” I’m not sure if there’s a difference here, but I just want to acknowledge the possible difference, just in case.

My question is this: Does the God of the Bible in fact regret decisions he has made? I immediately concede that in some of the biblical stories, the story of Noah being the most notable, the narrated God most certainly does second-guess himself. “I sure blundered making man. Time to reboot.” But do these stories authorize us to infer that the God of the Bible actually regrets decisions he has made? If we interpret these stories along such literalistic lines, how are we any different from the ancient pagans who told their stories of Zeus, Athena, and Ares? Are we not reducing God to a god?

Those of us who cut our theological eye-teeth on narrative theology (think Robert Jenson, Jürgen Moltmann, George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, Ronald Thiemann—just to name those who influenced the younger me) will immediately insist that the narrated God is the God of the Christian gospel. How could he not be? Don’t the stories about God precede all subsequent philosophical reflection? Isn’t the economic Trinity identical to the immanent Trinity? Let’s not confuse the Scriptural rendering of the living God with the static deity of Greek philosophy! Underlying all of this is the grand modern narrative that the Church Fathers corrupted the biblical understanding of divinity. Instead of the God of Greek philosophy getting Christianized, the God of the Bible got Hellenized.

But what if this grand narrative is wrong or at least in need of drastic qualification? The great Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan certainly thought it was. And what if the Church Fathers in fact Christianized not only Hellenistic divinity but also the naïve anthropomorphic understanding of the narrated God? Have we completely forgotten the anthropomorphite controversy of the late fourth century? Take a look at St John Cassian’s discussion of this controversy in his Conferences (also see Mark DelCogliano’s fascinating discussion in his essay “Situating Sarapion’s Sorrow“).

What is so often forgotten in all of this is that the same Church Fathers who are popularly accused of Hellenizing the gospel are also the same Church Fathers who taught us how to read the Bible as Scripture and not just as ancient text. And these Church Fathers certainly did not think that the Bible taught a God who blunders and then regrets his decisions. They would have deemed it anthropomorphic foolishness. As St Ephrem the Syrian declares, “Although in His true Being there is no wrath or regret, yet He put on these names because of our weakness” (On Faith 31.1).

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Christian Marriage in Byzantium

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Synod of the Family and Debating Difficult Questions

Social media exploded upon the release of the interim relatio of the Synod of the Family. Progressives are exulting in the return of the spirit of Vatican II; traditionalists are upset and demanding an immediate halt to debate and unambiguous reaffirmation of the irreformable moral teaching of the Church. Looking at the matter from the outside, however, it seems to me that the exultation and hand-wringing are way premature. It’s just an interim report. It’s not formal, authoritative teaching. The one man who seems to be keeping his head about all of this is Fr Robert Barron.

I wish to compliment the RC bishops for honestly addressing these difficult and complex moral and pastoral questions. They deserve study, reflection, and vigorous debate. Even though parts of the report worry me–it sometimes sounds too much like the inclusive ideology that destroyed the Episcopal Church–the simple fact remains that the pastoral issues will simply not go away.

Of particular interest to me is the how the bishops will deal with the proposal to readmit divorced and remarried Catholics to the Eucharist, after an appropriate period of penance. From my perspective as an Orthodox Christian, this is a no-brainer. Divorce and remarriage is not the unforgivable sin; but that is exactly what permanent exclusion from the Body and Blood of the Lord implies. Nor is a legalistic annulment process the appropriate way to deal with the problem. Not only does it give the appearance that one can buy eucharistic admission, but it is too mired in subjectivity. The RC Church has locked itself into a legalistic understanding of the matrimonial bond, from which it is now struggling to escape without the appearance of a substantive change of doctrine. On this matter, the Latin Church really needs to look to the Eastern Church for guidance.

My prayers are with the Synod bishops. The decisions they make affect all of us.

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Will the “Real” St Isaac of Nineveh Please Stand Up

by Eric Jobe

In a series of seven posts on his blog Mystagogy, John Sanidopoulos has published an essay by the Protopresbyter John Photopoulos regarding some of the more controversial theology found in the so-called Second Part of the corpus of writings attributed to St. Isaac of Nineveh. What follows in this post is not a defense of those theological positions, which I urge the reader to study carefully from both sides of the issues in order to make an informed decision. Rather, I offer a critique of the essay itself, its critical methodology, and most importantly its rhetorical tone.

In the modern world, along with the many advances in art, science, and technology, there has developed a refined mode of discourse in the public sphere for all matters dealing with academic subjects such as history, theology, philology, and literary criticism. This mode of discourse includes the following protocols:

• Absence of rhetorical figuration
• Avoidance of logical fallacies
• General respect for opposing views and interlocutors
• Neutral tone that avoids characterization, ad-hominem attacks, and polemical
• Delineation of presuppositions with evidence why such presuppositions are warranted
• Thorough presentation of evidence with citation from multiple sources covering all

It is unfortunate that, in many circles of Eastern Orthodoxy, this modern form of discourse has yet to be adopted, and in its place is an older mode of discourse found among ancient and medieval authors, which features a highly polemical tone, the use of rhetorical figuration, and selective presentation of evidence often without citation. This form of discourse is no longer a respectable form of argumentation in our contemporary age, even though we afford the proper respect for the authors of ancient times and their respective views.

The essay authored by Protopresbyter John Photopoulos unfortunately does not engage in the properly respectable form of modern discourse, rather it makes frequent use of rhetorical name-calling and mischaracterization, the selective presentation of evidence, and many unexplained presuppositions.

At first glance, the biting rhetoric of this essay is immediately apparent. It shocks the senses and obscures any attempt to follow a coherent argument. The force of the article comes from rhetorical bullying rather than dispassionate presentation of a thesis and evidence. The author begins his essay with a shockingly generalized statement: “The complete and utter lack of uncreated Grace in the West and the consequent rationalization of theologians has created for it a mess, a confusion for all ‘Christians’ in the West.” From the outset, the author has presumed that God has utterly abandoned the West (which he does not define) to gracelessness and utter confusion due to “rationalization” (again, which he does not define). This statement alone should inform the reader that what follows should be taken as polemic rather than reasoned argumentation. The author, though denying grace to Western Christianity, has strangely enough affirmed the presence of grace within St. Isaac himself, a bishop of the Church of the East. One wonders, then, if grace is to be entirely denied to the Chalcedonian West, how is it that grace can be found among the Church of the East, which was torn from the Orthodox-Catholic Church after the Third Ecumenical Council?

He continues by stating that “the book by the Russian bishop of Vienna, Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, serves this purpose,” i.e. the rationalization and confusion found in “the West.” He begins by taking issue with Bishop Hilarion’s acceptance of the East Syriac biography of St. Isaac included in the Book of Chastity. Strangely, Fr. Photopoulos prefers the Byzantine tradition over the saint’s own, native Syriac tradition. No scholarship is examined here; rather, the East Syriac source is rejected simply because it is not Orthodox. The underlying assumption here is that no true knowledge can be had anywhere outside of Chalcedonian Orthodoxy, and furthermore, that Orthodox hagiographic sources are incapable of being mistaken about biographical details or otherwise less precise than native sources. This position creates certain epistemological problems that cannot stand up to any rational, philosophical inquiry. One of the hallmarks of pseudo-scholarship and fundamentalist religion is the rejection of knowledge outside of one’s own circle of insiders. In other words, what Fr. Photopoulos has adopted is a dangerous gnosticism that itself is foreign to Orthodox Christianity.

Strangely, Fr. Photopoulos claims that the Isaac of the East Syriac sources is another Isaac than the “Orthodox” Isaac, yet he provides no real evidence for such being the case. The attempt to co-opt St. Isaac as “Orthodox,” i.e., a part of the organizational Chalcedonian Church, is without merit. Analysis of the Syriac text of the Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac by the celebrated Syriac scholar Sebastian Brock reveals an author thoroughly at home within an East Syriac context familiar with Eastern and Western Syriac works and East Syriac phraseology. However, even if we acknowledge, as scholars unanimously do, that St. Isaac was the Eastern bishop of Nineveh, this does not necessitate that he had a thoroughly Nestorian Christology. Some scholars, such as A. Sidorov, have even argued that there was a pro-Chalcedonian movement within the Church of the East, and St. Isaac could very well have been a proponent of a more Chalcedonian Christology than the label “Nestorian” may allow while being a bishop of the Church of the East.

He mentions, as I have just done above, “A certain Dr. Sebastian Brock,” who discovered a Syriac manuscript in 1983 of the so-called Second Part of the corpus of St. Isaac of Syria, which Fr. Photopoulos rejects as not being an authentic work of St. Isaac. Yet, Fr. Photopoulos neglects to mention that Brock is the most celebrated and respected Syriac scholar in the world, a reader (high ranking professor) in Syriac language and literature at Oxford University, and a fellow of the British Academy. Brock has published countless books and articles in Syriac studies and is regarded world-wide as the foremost authority in the discipline. The above-mentioned manuscript discovery was published in two 1995 monographs in the series Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalum, vols. 554 (Syriac edition) and 555 (English translation). In these monographs, particularly in the introduction to the English translation, Brock presents ample evidence to conclude that the content of the Second Part bears “striking correspondences in phraseology between Part I and Part II,” after which follows a long list of Syriac phrases which illustrate his point (Brock XXXVIII).*

Fr. Photopoulos claims that, because the writings of Part II are referenced “nowhere among Orthodox writings,” one cannot regard as certain the evaluation that they are authentic writings of St. Isaac. A few things to note here, firstly, that Part II was not unknown among Chalcedonian Orthodoxy, for it did exist among Arabic and Syriac speaking “Rum” Orthodox Christians as testified by recent manuscript finds. Furthermore, we find again the gnostic assumption that if a text did not enter into the mainstream of Greek speaking Orthodoxy, that it cannot be an authentic text! Such claims strain logic beyond all reasoning. We only have to look to the Didache, an ancient text composed about the same time as St. John’s Revelation, which was subsequently lost sometime after the 3rd century not to be discovered again until 1873. Even though this text was not within the main stream of Orthodox theological literature for the majority of its existence, no one questions its ancient provenance or its Orthodox content.

The writings of St. Isaac are assumed to be “unjustly accused” from the outset, and the bifurcation of the real St. Isaac and the “heterodox, Nestorian” Isaac is made without any attempt to supply a methodology of how such distinction can be made. The only attempt at doing so is to show that the heretical Isaac articulates Nestorian Christology while the “real” St. Isaac is only assumed not to do so. Yet the evidence that he supplied appears to be grasping at straws. In his first example, he quotes St. Isaac as saying, “I give praise to your holy Nature, Lord, for you have made my nature a sanctuary of your hiddenness and a tabernacle for your mysteries, a place where you can dwell, and a holy temple for your Divinity, namely, for him who holds the scepter of your kingdom, who governs all you have brought into being, the glorious Tabernacle of your eternal Being … Jesus Christ.”

To call this “Nestorian” is a stretch, for St. Isaac is using biblical language to describe the being of Christ, of whom St. John the Evangelist states, “And the Logos became flesh and dwelt (eskēnōsen, lit. “tabernacled”) among us” (John 1:14). If this quote here articulates Nestorian Christology, then we ought also lay this charge to St. John. Furthermore since St. Isaac was a bishop of the Church of the East, it is likely, even if his own Christology were Orthodox, that the expression of it might be cast in the phraseology of the Church of the East and in idioms proper to the Syriac language.

Charges of inauthenticity cannot be made on the assumption that a particular writer simply would not articulate this or that idea. Inauthenticity should be demonstrated on grounds of anachronism (e.g. Pseudo-Dionisius) or through a difference in style. For example, I have read several pieces of Syriac poetry attributed to St. Isaac, even though there is no known poetic corpus that belongs to him, and the style of the poetry is more akin to later periods and different locations. In order to prove the inauthenticity of Part II, one would have to demonstrate that its style or language differs remarkably from Part I or one would have to demonstrate anachronistic elements that would place its composition elsewhere. The author of this essay has done neither, and, in fact, the opposite has been demonstrated by numerous scholars who have evaluated its language.

Aside from the insurmountable epistemological issues that this essay presents, it is perhaps the persistent labeling of opponents that is most troubling. Those who accept the authenticity of Part II are labeled “thieves and robbers of our salvation.” Doctrines are labeled “cacodox” or “origenist” before they are even explored or defined. The tone is one of bullying, ad hominem rhetoric, which is disrespectful, slanderous, and contrary to Christian principles. Without the presentation of proper evidence to support his claims, such labeling merely obscures reasoned argumentation.

Perhaps the most egregious error in this essay is the manner in which Fr. Photopoulos uses the word “tradition.” For example, he states in a header, “Because according to Orthodox tradition, these texts do not belong to Saint Isaac.” What exactly is this “tradition?” Which canon, which council, which Father, has declared such a thing, and when was it affirmed by the universal Church? One cannot simply brandish the term “tradition” without providing some evidence that such is indeed a part of the Orthodox Holy Tradition. Such statements of inauthenticity do not exist as a part of any identifiable source of our Tradition. All the while, Fr. Photopoulos ignores the actual documentary evidence that Parts II and III of St. Isaac’s corpus were known among “Rum” Orthodox Christians, therefore making their inclusion within the broader Orthodox intellectual and spiritual heritage a matter of fact.

Finally, it should be noted that such treatments of St. Isaac and the question of the authenticity of works attributed to him ought to be dealt with by people who are competent in the Syriac language and literature. Those who are have universally affirmed the authenticity of Part II and have spoken with the authority of their expertise. It is not proper for someone who is unskilled in these areas to speak as Fr. Photopoulos has without the slightest reference to Syriac experts.

Readers of Fr. Photopoulos’ essay do well to judge the composition of properly reasoned arguments with the awareness that they must include the presentation of documented evidence and the avoidance of inflamed rhetoric. We must learn to accept information from qualified sources who have been trained in the relevant disciplines in question. Always consult experts and seek information from respected sources that provide actual, documented evidence. Knowledge cannot be had from mere rhetoric alone, but from the careful examination and presentation of evidence. Only then can we begin to examine the theology of St. Isaac from a standpoint of methodological stability and not by opinions alone.

*Sebastian Brock ed., Isaac of Nineveh (Isaac The Syrian) ‘The Second Part’, Chapters IV-XLI, in Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalum, Vols. 554-555, ed. Bernard Coulie (Louvain: Peeters) 1995.

Click Here
for a short essay by Metropolitan Hilarion on the authenticity of these writings.

Eric Jobe is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He specializes in Hebrew poetry, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Second Temple Judaism. He is an instructor of Bible and biblical languages for the Orthodox Church in America, Diocese of the Midwest, Diaconal Vocations Program. Eric blogs at Departing Horeb.

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