St Symeon the New Theologian and the Quest of the Historical Jesus

by John Stamps

You might ask yourself, what possibly could an 11th century Byzantine monk (949-1022) have to say that is the least bit relevant to the Quest of the Historical Jesus?

In a nutshell, the Quest of the Historical Jesus repeatedly tried to disentangle the 1st century Jesus of History from the Christ of Faith. Starting with the British Deists in the late 1600’s—John Toland, Matthew Tindal, William Wollaston, Anthony Collins, and Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury, yes, George Herbert’s agnostic brother—the Questers up to the present day all wanted to remove the encrusted layers of dogma and tradition that the Church had “dishonestly” applied to the earthly Jesus and hopefully recover the “real” Jesus. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) famously documented this Quest as a great historical feat of German intellectual history that Herman Samuel Reimarus had inaugurated—Schweitzer conveniently ignored the British Deists because, well, they weren’t German. And according to Schweitzer, the great culmination of the Quest ended with William Wrede and himself (but mostly with himself).

Without sounding too snarky, each Quest attempt was a failure—100% of them. Of course some of the failures were more colossal than others. But none were successful. No, not one. Not the First Quest (epitomized by Albert Schweitzer), not the Second Quest (epitomized by Günther Bornkamm and Ernst Käsemann), and not the Third Quest (epitomized by John Dominic Crossan, among other notable failures).

And barring a new source of information—for example, Indiana Jones finds the long-lost, elusive “Q” source buried in Israel somewhere or better yet, The Life and Letters of Yeshua Bar-Yosef in three volumes with photographs per C.S. Lewis—the Questers still must content themselves with slicing-and-dicing the canonical Gospels for those precious and few nuggets of assured historical data they can squeeze through their plausibility filters and then publish for a gullible public.

Now let me introduce St Symeon the “New” Theologian. St Symeon is an Orthodox theologian in excellent standing. His prominence is exceeded only by St Gregory Palamas, Dionysius the Areopagite, or the Cappadocian trio of St Basil the Great, St Gregory Nazianzus, and St Gregory of Nyssa. But his reputation wasn’t always so sterling. When you value following the traditional old paths as much as Eastern Orthodoxy does, to label someone a “new” theologian is a calculated Byzantine insult. But Orthodoxy, to her credit, flipped the cheap shot upside-down in the best Christian tradition of turning insults to her own advantage.

You can easily caricature Eastern Orthodoxy as an archaic theology that is “conservative” and “Byzantine” in the absolute worst sense of the words—content to parrot old theological formulas but utterly removed from the life and power of the Holy Spirit. Now nobody wants to do theology in a museum. But if you think that way about Eastern Orthodoxy, don’t blame St Symeon. St Symeon absolutely did not think Eastern Orthodoxy was barren traditionalism—what Jaroslav Pelikan quipped as “the dead faith of the living.” He argued repeatedly that the absolute dead-center goal of Orthodox theology was experiencing the living God in the power of the Holy Spirit. But for all his troubles, St Symeon was exiled by his many opponents and eventually died of dysentery on March 12, 1022. But since history is filled with irony, it’s the Abbot of the St Mammas monastery we remember as a “saint,” not any of his enemies (for example, Metropolitan Stephen of Nicomedia).

I’m going to focus mainly on his electrifying Discourse 29 where St Symeon deals with the basic issues that confront anyone who is haunted by the Quest of the Historical Jesus, as I am. The first time I read St Symeon, Discourse 29 jolted me. I felt a kindred spirit where I had least expected it. I was incredulous that hoary St Symeon responded to the strongest complaints people make today about why they aren’t faithful Christians.

He starts with the problem of historical distance—we aren’t eyewitnesses of Jesus or His apostles. You cannot really blame us for our lack of faith. We’re the victims of bad timing. If only I had seen Jesus of Nazareth walking down the dusty roads of Galilee just one time or if only I had heard Him speak just one sermon, I would believe! We intuitively feel like our faith suffers a major disadvantage because Jesus is no longer bodily present with us today. We’re stuck with faith, while 1st century believers had access to eyewitnesses. Here’s how St Symeon expresses the problem:

There are many who say every day, and we, too, hear them as they say it: “Were we living in the days of the apostles, and like them had been found worthy of seeing Him, we too would have become holy like them.” They do not know that He is the same who speaks to the whole world both then and now. For if He is not the same who was of old and is now, who is God in every respect and in every way and in the same way, whether in His operations or in the sacred rites, how was it that the Father appears in the Son, and the Son in the Father through the Spirit, as He tells us in these words: “My Father is working still, and I am working.” (Catechetical Discourse 29, in Symeon the New Theologian, p. 308)

This perennial temptation to feel sorry for yourself because you didn’t live in the 1st century is trans-generational, as pervasive in the 11th century as it is in the 18th or 21st century. Gotthold Lessing, the famous Enlightenment philosopher and literary critic (1729-1781), crisply articulated the problem as well as anyone in his “On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power.” Lessing’s title riffs ironically on St Paul (1 Corinthians 2:4). First-century Christians experienced the power of the Holy Spirit at first-hand; we only hear second-hand testimonies of Spirit and power, many centuries after the fact, which are hardly the same thing.

Miracles, which I see with my own eyes, and which I have opportunity to verify for myself, are one thing; miracles, of which I know only from history that others say they have seen them and verified them, are another. … If I had lived at the time of Christ, then of course the prophecies fulfilled in his person would have made me pay great attention to him. If I had actually seen him perform miracles, if I had no cause to doubt that true miracles existed, then in a worker of miracles who had been marked out so long before, I would have gained so much confidence that I would willingly have submitted my intellect to his, and I would have believed him in all things in which equally indisputable experience did not tell against him.

Lessing goes on to argue that there’s no conceptual way to get from accidental and contingent historical claims, no matter how certain historians might claim they are, to metaphysical and moral truths. Forcing modern people to believe in miracles is intellectual tyranny.

That, then, is the ugly, broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap. If anyone can help me over it, let him do it, I beg him, I adjure him. He will deserve a divine reward from me.

Gotthold Lessing argued present-day believers cannot simply leap across the “ugly, broad ditch” that separates then from now. This ditch might not be infinitely vast, like the chasm separating Lazarus in Paradise and the rich man tormented in the flames of Hades (Luke 16:19ff). But the gap between past historical evidence and present-day theological claims remains immense indeed.

St Symeon seems to agree with Lessing, up to a point.

But perhaps someone will say, “It is not the same thing to have seen Him physically then, and now merely to hear His words and be taught concerning Him in His kingdom.” I too will tell you what is now and what was then are not exactly the same thing. Rather, what is here and now is greater, and leads us more readily to faith and assurance than if we had seen and heard Him then. At that time he appeared as an insignificant man to the ignorant Jews, but now He is proclaimed to us as true God. (Discourse 29, pp. 308-309)

St Symeon makes a startling concession here to anyone immersed in the quest for the historical Jesus. If you lived in the 1st century, you wouldn’t have found what you were looking for. Jesus of Nazareth was simply a Galilean Jew firmly embedded in the Second Temple Judaism of His day. If you could miraculously time travel 2000 years into the past and actually see Jesus of Nazareth, what would you witness? Symeon says you’d only see an “insignificant” 1st century Jew and nothing more. The Lord Jesus we worship and confess didn’t appear in majesty and splendor.

In fact, we probably wouldn’t even have recognized Jesus. He is not God striding across the face of the earth like Zeus or Hercules (pace Ernst Käsemann). Do you remember the famous scene in the movie Cocoon where Walter (wonderfully played by Brian Dennehy) pulls down his eyelid and freaks out Jack Bonner (adequately played by Steve Gutenberg)? A beam of light shoots out from Walter’s eye and reveals that he is a space alien. Certainly by that criterion, Jesus of Nazareth isn’t a space alien like Walter. With one notable exception (the Transfiguration on Mt Hermon), Jesus doesn’t step out of character and reveal Himself as anything other than as an insignificant 1st century Jewish rabbi. Like Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith, Jesus is solid through-and-through. There is no crack through which the infinite peeps out. St. Symeon uses the traditional formula from Chalcedon to emphasize the very real humanity of Jesus:

Then He was thought to be corruptible and mortal like any other man. It was a great thing that God the formless and invisible should, without suffering change or alteration, have taken form and be seen wholly visible altogether as a man, without differing from other men to our senses. For He ate and drank and slept, perspired and was weary, doing everything that pertains to man except sin. It would have been difficult to recognize and believe that he was God, who created the very Heaven and Earth and all things in them. (p. 309)

Jesus doesn’t stride across the earth like a god. Instead He plods steadily and decisively through Galilee to Jerusalem. He only goes wherever He is led by the Spirit. At one time, the Spirit drives Him into the wilderness to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the Devil. At another time, He plants His face like flint to journey to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51), to confront the Cross where He will suffer a shameful death at the hands of evil men. But even in His Transfiguration, where “the appearance of His countenance was altered and His raiment became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29), Jesus is no “ethereal non-Jewish Christ who descends briefly from heaven into the world to reveal himself and then ascends again to a state of blessed detachment from the world.” No, only by screening out how deeply Jesus of Nazareth is enmeshed in Second Temple Judaism and not paying attention to the manifold echoes and allusions to Israel’s Scriptures would you ever imagine that He is anything other than a 1st century Jew.

Yet even more startling is how St Symeon flips Lessing’s argument on its head. Not only do contemporary believers not suffer a disadvantage; in fact, our spiritual position is superior: “What is here and now is greater, and leads us more readily to faith and assurance than if we had seen and heard Him then.” St Symeon here sounds eerily reminiscent of Soren Kierkegaard in his Philosophical Fragments, only eight centuries earlier. Later generations—those Christians Kierkegaard aptly calls “disciples at second hand”—do not suffer any spiritual disadvantage because we aren’t eyewitnesses. Two thousand years after the earthly Jesus, we neither experience an advantage or a disadvantage—the two basic responses possible to the Jesus event then are the exact same possible responses now—faith or scandal. “Blessed is He who takes no offense at Me” (Matt 11:6).

What faith affirms about Jesus is not directly perceptible, either then or now. Historical distance makes no difference at all. None of us can escape the scandal of the crucified Jesus. Mere passage of time neither mitigates nor increases the possibility of offense.

Thus, he who now hears Him daily calling and proclaiming the will of His blessed Father through the holy Gospels, but does not obey him with fear and trembling nor observe the things He commands, would not then, being present to see Him in person and hear His teaching, in any way have been willing to believe Him. There’s even the possibility that in his unbelief he would have thought Him an enemy of God rather than the true God, and would have blasphemed him! (p. 309)

Contemporary faith provides a startling 20/20 hindsight simply unavailable in 1st century Galilee or Jerusalem. If you do not believe now in Jesus as Lord, you would not have believed Him then.

But there lurks yet one more objection, more pernicious, more blasphemous than all the others. Hundreds of years before the Enlightenment, St Symeon puts his finger on this biggest problem to any person pondering the broad, ugly ditch between then and now.

But the man of whom I speak and whom I call heretics are those who say that there’s no one in our times and in our midst who is able to keep the Gospel commandments and become like the holy fathers. … Now those who say that this is impossible have not fallen into one particular heresy, but rather into all of them, if I may say so, so this one surpasses and covers them all in impiety and abundance of blasphemy. He who make this claim subverts all the divine Scriptures. … These opponents of God or, rather antichrists say, “It is impossible, impossible!” (p. 312)

If faith is impossible now, it was also impossible then. St Symeon repeats this theme again and again in Discourse 29. Has God changed in any way?

Tell me, why is it impossible? By what other means have the saints shone on the earth and become lights in the world? If it were impossible, not even they would have been able to succeed in this. … But if you refuse to suffer and be distressed, at least do not say that the thing is impossible. (p. 313)

Vast incredulity separated St Symeon and his 11th century critics. The amount of disbelief certainly hasnít diminished since then. The retort St Symeon puts into the mouths of the skeptical and the incredulous, “It is impossible, impossible!” certainly rings true to me.

Again, Lessing crisply and decisively states the problem for us—“I live in the eighteenth century, in which miracles no longer happen.” He argued that reports of 1st century miracles have no evidential value in the 18th century. None whatsoever:

Origen was quite right in saying that in this proof of the spirit and of power the Christian religion was able to provide a proof of its own more divine than all Greek dialectic. For in his time there was still “the power to do miraculous things which still continued” among those who lived after Christ’s precept; and if he had undoubted examples of this, then if he was not to deny his own senses he had of necessity to recognize that proof of the spirit and of power.

But I am no longer in Origen’s position; I live in the eighteenth century, in which miracles no longer happen. If I even now hesitate to believe anything on the proof of the spirit and of power, which I can believe on other arguments more appropriate to my age: what is the problem?

The problem is that this proof of the spirit and of power no longer has any spirit or power, but has sunk to the level of human testimonies of spirit and power.

But his Enlightenment rhetoric is mere bombast and bluster. The claim that miracles no longer happened in the 18th century is curious, at best. Surely Lessing has read his Blaise Pascal or, better yet, his David Hume. Maybe no miracles occurred in Wolfenbüttel, Germany in the stacks of the Herzog August Library sponsored by the Duke of Brunswick. But 878 km (or 545 miles) to the southwest, Lessing surely could have visited Paris, France where not even the King of France could prevent the miracles of the Jansenists from roiling the French populace and authorities. God had stopped working miracles everywhere in Europe except in Paris of all places, the epicenter of the European Enlightenment.

At first, we miracle-mongers might be tempted to trot out a sociological argument—OK, maybe God does not work miracles in Palo Alto or Berkeley, but He could in East Palo Alto or Oakland. But here God is working miracles under the nose of the King of France, in Paris, “attested by a sufficient number of men and women of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning” (to flip David Hume’s argument on its head).

The St Médard miracles and its convulsionnaires associated with the Jansenist movement were not just famous throughout Europe, they were infamous. The miracles even transfixed the famous philosopher François-Marie Arouet (aka Voltaire), if only as a cudgel to whack and discredit the Roman Catholic Church.

If you don’t recall the Jansenist movement (or Jansenius, the bishop the movement was named for), Jansenius’ massive work Augustinus was condemned not once but at least three times by various popes (Urban VIII in 1642, Innocent X in 1653, and finally Alexander X in 1665). Jansenius was condemned for the best reasons of sheer political expedience. The 18th century French church wasn’t ready for a St Augustine who sounded more like John Calvin and his Huguenot followers than St Thomas Aquinas. The most famous Jansenist of all was Blaise Pascal. Contemporary readers of Pascal’s defense of the Christian faith, his Pensées, might be perplexed at his repeated and stunning insistence on how important miracles are to faith. (Here the Augustinian Jansenists were very different than the Augustinian Calvinists, who typically denied miracles took place in the 18th century.) They shouldn’t be. He became a full-fledged Jansenist when his 10-year old niece Marguerite was miraculously healed of her lacrimal fistula, a hideous stinking tumor that had afflicted her eye. In 1656, the abbess at the Port Royal monastery had pricked Marguerite’s eye with a sacred thorn from Jesus’ crown of thorns. Days later, the relic has completely healed her eye. All of Paris was astounded. But not Pascal. He became a believer.

But the second-most famous Jansenist is François de Pâris. He is, in many ways, even more fascinating than Pascal. François de Pâris was a Jansenist deacon and rigorist ascetic, who died in May 1, 1727 after a life of holy poverty. His tomb in the parish cemetery of Saint-Médard became a hot spot for pilgrims seeking healing for all manner of ailments physical (paralysis, cancer, and blindness, among others) and spiritual. In 1731, at least 70 documented miracles took place there. Due to massive social and political upheaval—the Jesuits hated the Jansenists and the Jansenists hated the Jesuits—King Louis XV finally shut down the cemetery in 1733 and locked the gates. One prankster with a wicked sense of humor placed the following sign on the cemetery gates:

De par le Roi, défense à Dieu de faire miracle en ce lieu.

By order of the King, it is forbidden to the Divinity to perform any more miracles in this vicinity.

Eventually the St Médard miracles and convulsionnaires burned themselves out, much like the Kentucky Cain Ridge revival in the 19th century and the Jesus Movement in the 20th century. But Lessing could hardly claim that no miracles occurred in Europe in the 18th century.

Now I readily concede that we Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, charismatics, Pentecostals, and other types of intellectually disreputable Christian believers have placed ourselves in a precarious position. None of us perform signs and wonders at will, except maybe at a Benny Hinn revival. Yet we are all Christian believers who affirm that God continues to work both wholesale (i.e. general providence) and retail (i.e. miracles) in the 21st century. We are not 19th century Princeton cessationists like B.B. Warfield who argued God stopped working retail at the end of the 1st century and He now works only wholesale, which ironically now sounds more Deistic than it was intended to be at the time. We might even reply, if grouchy St Augustine could change his mind about miracles, then so can we. Book XXII in The City of God is nothing short of astounding.

Even so, we’re all reminded of Jesus’ rebuke to His contemporaries, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign” (Matt 16:4) We’re adulterous if we claim we are married to Christ yet we diddle the Zeitgeist on the side. A faithful generation sticks with Jesus Christ in good times and bad, through thick and thin, as in any good marriage. Whether you’re scribes and Pharisees (Matt 12:39), Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:1), a desperate father seeking healing (John 4:48), or multitudes seeking bread (John 6), Jesus offered no sign as a knock-down, indubitable proof to anyone. His signs pointed to God’s in-breaking Kingdom. They were never intended to offer assurances to prop up anyone’s belief system. Even so, St Symeon grasps this historical nettle with both hands and yanks it as hard as he can.

Has [St Gregory Nazianzus] then in this matter distinguished and separated some persons from others, and told us that it was possible for some, and impossible for others? … Let no one neglect such activity; but if anyone despairs of his own salvation and lies down on the bed of laxity, at least let him not say that this is impossible for those who are zealous. … But if these things follow on those who do not mourn in accordance with the Lord’s commandments, tell me, how is this heresy not the worst of all heresies? It was in vain, according to your view, that the condescension of God and His ascension took place!

What’s rather remarkable here, however, is St Symeon is not berating German rationalist theologians like David Friedrich Strauss. He is not haranguing liberal Episcopalian bishops who trot out their unbelief every Christmas and Easter. Nor is he attacking evangelical cessationists who think that miracles stopped the second that the ink dried on St John’s Gospel. No, he’s scolding his fellow Orthodox Christians, who should have known better but didn’t. St Symeon doesn’t argue that his fellow monks and clergy should start conjuring up miracles. He wants to start with something yet more basic—have a little faith. Or if not faith, at least weep tears of repentance over your lack of faith.

St Symeon counsels us not to let the Spirit of the Age (even at its most positivist) to determine how we view God’s power. If miracles are impossible now, then miracles were impossible then. He wanted them (and presumably us) to at least be open to the possibility that God can work in the 11th century—or the 21st century—in the same way that He worked in the 1st century. God sends us signs every so often as messy and awkward reminders that the Kingdom of God is still yet to come in all its fullness.

But there’s yet a more existential question at stake—“Why would I even want God to show me a miraculous sign? I’m perfectly happy and content if God works no miracles in my life!” None of us want our tidy worldviews breached with something as inconvenient as a sign from God. If God shows us a sign, then we’re held accountable for it. How do we live from then on? You might not want a sign from God, especially if your day-to-day view of reality is what G.K. Chesterton calls “what is experienced by a slightly drowsy businessman after a three-course lunch (JS: and two martinis), and that no other reality is conceivable” (Peter Berger’s paraphrase). Like the King of France, we erect our own placard outside the walls of our life: By my orders, God is strictly forbidden to work miracles in this place. But admit it—any talk about God working signs and wonders in the 21st century is uncomfortable if not absolutely preposterous. That’s why we need to heed St Symeon’s warnings all the more.

In short, St Symeon would not be impressed by the Quest of the Historical Jesus. Not for a second would he think you would find the “real” Jesus somewhere lurking in the past. You would not find what you were looking for then—we can only find the real Jesus now.

At that time He had visible converse with publicans and sinners and ate with them; now He is seated at the right hand of God the Father, from whom He was never separated in any way. We believe that He gives nourishment to all the world, and we say that nothing takes place apart from Him—if, at least, we believe. Then even the lowest spoke contemptuously of Him and said, “Is this not the son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter?” But now He is worshipped by kings and rulers as the Son of the true God and as true God. He has glorified, and still glorifies, those who “worship Him in Spirit and in truth.” (p. 309)

St Symeon the New Theologian would counsel us to begin the hard work of repentance. We must not despair of our spiritual adultery with the Zeitgeist but participate in the mysteries of the church, where God grants joy, goodness, and hope. We must meet the real Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, and eat His flesh and drink His blood. We must keep our eyes on the living Jesus, not an ossified historical fact sitting on a shelf in the Herzog August Library, but the crucified and risen Lord.

If we eschew the distractions of a theoretical pursuit of a historical Jesus, we’d see faith in the living Lord was never a matter of poring over learned tomes in a divinity school library. Whether in 1st century Corinth, 11th century Byzantium, 18th century Germany, or 21st century San Jose, we always encounter the living Jesus in very specific ways—catechesis, prayer, Eucharist, almsgiving, proclamation, obedience, Bible study, the experience of active love, just to name a few.

If Eastern Orthodoxy tells us anything worthwhile about Jesus of Nazareth, the living tradition didn’t evaporate into thin air when the last words of the last canonical Gospel were written down by St John. The living tradition wasn’t replaced but enriched by the written Gospels (and vice versa). The early church fathers—Papias, Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Cyril of Jerusalem—all show us that the written Gospels didn’t replace careful catechesis into the mystery of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. The canonical Gospels become the gold standard for knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth handed down to future generations, but the living tradition continues to be the mechanism by which faith in Him is transmitted to future generations.

* * *

John Stamps is currently Lead Information Developer at BMC Software in Santa Clara, California. He holds a BA in Greek from Abilene Christian University, an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and did work towards an STM in philosophy of religion at Yale University. He is married to Shelly Houston Stamps and attends St. Stephen Orthodox Church in Campbell, California.


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St Thomas Aquinas: Poet & Contemplative

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Notes on Thomistic Concepts on the Structure of Reality

I thought I’d reblog this glossary of key scholastic terms for easy access as I continue to read up on the metaphysics of Aquinas. And perhaps readers may find it helpful, too.

Luminous Darkness

St. Thomas Aquinas from  by Carlo CrivelliThis is a summary of some key concepts for the understanding of the Thomistic theological constructs for the structure of reality and being.


In Aristotle, there are two senses of substance: the “first substance” is a whole, concrete entity – this horse, this man. The second sense, or “second substance” refers to quiddity – horse, man.

First substance refers to a being or an entity subsisting or existing in itself, not in another being like an accident. This is a metaphysical category; e.g., God, angels, human beings.—not physical, chemical substance. It is the basic ontological unit, a complete, individual whole, a determinate, particular subject of existing and acting, e.g., this tree, this human being, Tom, Mary, etc. It is the proper subject of existence, “that which exists [quod est],” not “that by which something exists [quo est]”

This is the first “category” of Aristotle’s ten categories or predicaments, the…

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Jesus Prayer

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The Judgement that Blesses and Curses

When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matt 25:31-46)

Last Judgment—given Sergius Bulgakov’s apocatastatic conviction that it will be a glorifying and converting event, reconciling every human to God through Jesus Christ, how does he interpret the Matthean warning of our Lord that the righteous and wicked will be eternally separated at the end of the ages? Surely this parable refutes the universalist hope. Bulgakov rejoins: we must interpret the parable theologically within the entirety of divine revelation and attend to the symbolic nature of apocalyptic language. But most importantly, we must remember that the One who told the parable is the Savior of humanity, for whose sins he “tasted the agony of Gethsemane and the death on Golgotha” (Bride of the Lamb, p. 485). Our exegesis of Scripture, in other words, must be guided by the gospel of divine love and mercy, revealed in the death and resurrection of the incarnate Son of God and the intercessory ministry of the exalted Theotokos. “God-Love judges with love the sins against love,” the Russian priest declares (p. 459).

Three verses from the Gospel of John are particularly important for Bulgakov’s interpretation of the judgment passages:

For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)

The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son. (John 5:22)

If any one hears my sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. (John 12:47)

The Son of Man desires the salvation of the world, not its condemnation. When all of humanity is transfigured in the glorified humanity of Christ, he himself becomes each person’s immanent judgment; divine judgment becomes self-judgment:

The figures that are used to describe the last separation, or judgment, and that are borrowed from the language of human jurisprudence should not lead us into error concerning the inner, immanent character of this judgment. … The proper self-determination of every human being in his creaturely freedom presents itself here as a certain self-evident reality, and not only as an external judgment upon him. This means that the Father left the judgment to His Son, who Himself is the Son of man, and, in His humanity, every human being finds himself and the judgment upon himself. This judgment is therefore not transcendent but immanent. In every human being, his own unreality or nakedness, his failure to wear a wedding garment at the wedding feast, is clearly distinguished from Christ’s reality.

Just as the Holy Spirit manifests Christ in glory, so it reveals Christ’s presence in every human being. … God’s image will be revealed to every human being by the Holy Spirit as inner justice and judgment for creaturely life. This judgment of Christ is also every human being’s own judgment upon himself. It consists in each person seeing himself in the light of his own justice, in the light of his proto-image, which he perceives in his resurrection under illumination by the Holy Spirit. The Judgment is the judgment of every human being in his true image upon himself in his “likeness.” (p. 458)

The judgment of the Lamb upon the throne becomes the self-judgment of the one who is judged.  Christ embodies the truth in which each will see himself and by which he will judge himself.  “The judgment and the verdict constitute an inner, immanent, personal act accomplished by each human being upon himself in the light of Christ’s justice” (p. 460).

And it will be an antinomic judgment, perhaps to everyone’s surprise. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” declares Jesus (Matt 10:34).  On first reading of the parable of the sheep and the goats, one might deduce that human beings will be irrevocably divided into two classes, the sinless and the sinful. “But no one is perfectly sinless except the ‘Sole Sinless One’ and the Most Pure Mother of God,” objects Bulgakov, “just as no human beings are so utterly sinful that no trace of good can be found in them” (p. 462). Pure evil does not exist in man. Every person is a sinner, a mixture of good and evil. The difference between human beings, between the greatest saint and the most cruel murderer, is relative, not absolute. Every human being needs the saving Blood of the Crucified.

Pure evil for the sake of evil, satanical evil, is something not proper to man, who bears the principle of good. In individual cases, evil can decidedly predominate, but, in the final separation, evil itself is known only in conjunction with, even if in conflict with, good. In this sense, hell is a function of heaven, and evil is the shadow of good, not only in the world in general but also in every human being in particular. It follows that the separation into sheep and goats is accomplished (of course to different degrees) within every individual, and his right and left sides are bared in this separation. To a certain extent all are condemned and all are justified. … Thus, the judgment and its sentence introduce into the life of every person an antinomic separation that consists in participating in glory and incorruptibility and, at the same time, in burning in the fire of divine rejection. The difference between the two states can here be only a quantitative one.

The judgment condemns in every person that which deserves condemnation, that which is incompatible with glory. The judgment is inwardly executed by every person’s sophianicity [think “image of God”], which is the ontological norm of his being. His sophianicity judges his proper creaturely self-determination, convinces him that it does not correspond to this norm. His sophianic image in incorruptibility and glory is his true reality, which is recognized by him as such. On the contrary, that which seemed to him real in his earthly life is condemned as unreal, as illusory: “He himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire” (1 Cor. 3:15); we desire to be clothed, so that “we shall not be found naked” (2 Cor. 5:3). (pp. 462-463)

The parable of the sheep and goats is addressed antinomically to every human being. Each person will discover that he is simultaneously sheep and goat—simul iustus et peccator; each will discover that he compounds the incorruptible Imago Dei and the undying worm and inextinguishable fire. “The spiritual sword cuts a human being asunder to his very depth,” Bulgakov declares (p. 463). The goat-self must be destroyed in the flames of God’s holy love.

Death, perdition, destruction, annihilation—these pitiless words of Scripture are to be symbolically interpreted as referring to the painful separation the Spirit accomplishes within each sinner. “Every person,” Bulgakov memorably writes, “bears within himself the principle of gehennic burning, which is ignited by the parousia of Christ in glory” (p. 484). Every person must freely endure the purifying torments of hell. All malice, hatred, greed, envy, lust, bitterness must be named and expunged. Everything that does not conform to the image of the Second Adam, the Primal Image, must be severed from the person and cast into the lake of fire. “Clearly, condemnation to death, perdition, and annihilation should not be understood literally here, for that would contradict resurrection in incorruptibility and immortality,” he explains. “They indicate only the special character of the sufferings of sinners in the state of glory” (p. 473). The eschatological judgment mysteriously combines “calling and rejection, blessing and damnation, which can refer to one and the same person but in different aspects of his being” (p. 475).

Bulgakov, therefore, reads the parable of the sheep and the goats as ultimately referring not to the division of humanity into two classes but to the division that must and will occur within the soul of every person. The Last Judgment is a horizontal division that “passes through all humankind, not a vertical one which would separate it into two mutually impenetrable parts. For the righteous, that which is ‘damned’ is absorbed and made powerless by that which is ‘blessed.’ But in the darkness of damnation, sinners see reflections of blessedness cast into the night” (p. 515).

Let no one think that Bulgakov’s reading of the parable in any way diminishes its power—or terror. The judgment of Messias and his Spirit is a judgment of love but it remains judgment nonetheless:

Love is the Holy Spirit, who sets the heart afire with this love. But this love, this blazing up of the Spirit, is also the judgment of the individual upon himself, in conflict with himself, that is, outside Christ and far from Christ. And the measure and knowledge of this separation are determined by Love, that is, by the Holy Spirit. The same fire, the same love gladdens and burns, torments and gives joy. The judgment of love is the most terrible judgment, more terrible than that of justice and wrath, than that of the law, for it includes all this but also transcends it. (p. 459)

All will be judged. All will be condemned. All will be made righteous unto eternal life.

(Originally published on 24 July 2014; mildly edited)

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St Thomas Aquinas and the Contuition of Divinity

I begin with confession: I do not know if the five ways of St Thomas Aquinas succeed as proofs for the existence of God. I lack the competence (and can confidently say, will always lack the competence) to offer an opinion. I have read a fair bit about them. On some days one or more of them persuade; on other days they do not. But more importantly, philosophers who do have the necessary competence disagree among themselves about both their validity and soundness. My interest, however, lies not with the particulars of each proof but with their overall intent—the identification of, in Frederick Bauerschmidt’s phrase, “the self-insufficiency of the world” (Thomas Aquinas, p. 95). Thomas believes that if we attend to the beings of the world we will apprehend their radical contingency and will therefore know that there is a self-existent Creator. His proofs invite us to contemplate the world under five aspects—motion, change, perishability, perfection, and teleological movement. Thomas is convinced that when we do so we will see what he sees, namely, a world that cannot account for its existence. Etienne Gilson puts it this way:

 To say that an existing thing requires an extrinsic cause of its existence is to say that it does not contain it in itself. From this point of view, the proofs of the existence of God consist in constructing a chain of causes which binds all beings which are by another to the one being who is by itself. Beings by another, which have not in themselves the wherewithal to exist, are those same things whose essence … is distinct from their existence, as opposed to being by itself whose very essence is to exist. We can say, therefore, that all the Thomistic proofs for the existence of God amount, in the last analysis, to a search beyond existences which are not self-sufficient, for an existence which is self-sufficient and which, because it is so, can be the first cause of all others. (The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, pp. 80-81)

What is this ontological insufficiency of which Bauerschmidt and Gilson speak? The material entities of the universe, considered both individually and as a totality, might not and need not have been: they do not contain within themselves the metaphysical necessity of their existence. They are, in this precise sense, contingent. Rocks, snails, antelopes, mosquitos, meteors, quarks and quasars—we may describe their natures, but of each we are forced to distinguish between their essence and their existence. Existence is not included in their definition. Regarding none of them do we find ourselves declaring, “In every possible world they had to be.” Human beings are “rational animals,” Aristotle tells us; he does not then go on to say, “and they must also exist.” Contingent beings are incapable of providing a metaphysical explanation for their actuality, for the fact that they exist instead of not existing.

At the end of all our scientific investigation and analysis, we may still ask of the world, why? In the five ways, explains Bauerschmidt, Aquinas “wishes to demonstrate that what we know about the world still leaves us with the question ‘Why is there anything at all?’ and that the answer to that question is what people commonly call ‘God.’ This is, in a sense, a fairly modest project. Thomas is simply trying to demonstrate that the question ‘Why?’ is legitimate not simply in reference to this or that thing, but in reference to everything; and it is legitimate because it is a question that has an answer (in the way that a question like ‘Is the sofa sad?’ does not)” (Holy Teaching, p. 50, n. 25). Why?—is there any question more human, more universal? Have you not stood outside late at night and looked up at the stars in wonder? And if at that moment you did not know with certainty that there was a God, did you not at least hear the universe posing the question, Why is there anything, why not nothing? But how do we know that there is an answer? and if we do not know the answer through syllogistic reasoning, then how?

In his classic works He Who Is and Existence and Analogy, Eric Lionel Mascall advances what I find to be a satisfying Thomistic position. He agrees with Gilson and Bauerschmidt that the purpose of the five ways is to illumine for us the radical contingency of the universe:

As I see it, the ultimate function of the Five Ways is to make it plain, by calling attention to five outstanding features of finite being, what the fundamental characteristic of finite being is. And that fundamental characteristic is a radical inability to account for its own existence. In other words, finite being is being in which essence and existence are really distinct; in which, therefore, existence is not self-maintained but is received from without and, in the last resort, is received from a being whose existence is not received but is self-inherent. The Five Ways are therefore not so much five different demonstrations of the existence of God as five different methods of manifesting the radical dependence of finite being upon God, of declaring, in Dom [Mark] Pontifex’s phrase, that the very essence of finite being is to be effect-implying cause. (Existence and Analogy, p. 71)

Thomas presents each of his five ways in the form of demonstratio quia—an argument that moves from a perceived effect to an unperceived cause. Where there’s smoke, there’s … if not fire, then some other something causing the smoke. An effect implies a cause. To know the world truly, therefore, is to know it as an “effect-implying cause.” But Mascall is not convinced that the five ways succeed as arguments. Consider the following syllogism (modus ponendo ponens):

Major premise:  If there is a contingent being, there is a necessary being;
Minor premise:  But there is a contingent being;
Conclusion:         Therefore there is a necessary being.

The argument is valid, says Mascall, but also misleading: “For it is only through perceiving contingent being that we can be brought to affirm the major premiss; and the minor premiss having thus been given, the conclusion is given too” (The Openness of Being, pp. 111-112). Everything hinges, therefore, on our apprehension of beings in their radical contingency: “If we perceive finite beings as they actually are, we shall perceive them as the creatures of God. And if we do so perceive them sub ratione creaturarum, we shall in perceiving them recognize the existence of the God whom we cannot perceive” (He Who Is, p. 74). The reality of God is given in the recognition of beings as creatures, or as Mascall elsewhere expresses it, in the “contuition of God-and-the-world-in-the-cosmological-relation” (The Openness of Being, p. 111). We grasp Creator and creature in one cognitive act, or we do not grasp them at all. Ultimately, we must speak not of logic but of sight. If the five ways of Aquinas work, it is only because they have helped us to apprehend reality as it truly is:

We can, of course, put the argument from finite to infinite in a syllogistic form, but when we do so we are not so much describing the process by which we have passed from the recognition of the finite to the affirmation of the infinite as convincing ourselves that the transition was not in fact unreasonable. The transition itself was made in the recognition that being whose essence is really distinct from its existence declares by its very existence the creative activity of God. In other words the primary requirement if we are to pass from the recognition of the finite to the affirmation of the infinite is not that we shall be skilled in the manipulation of Aristotelian logic but that we shall grasp in its ontological reality the act by which finite existents exist. And then we shall affirm God by recognizing him. We shall affirm him not, as ontologists affirm, in his naked reality, but as the primary agent of the act by which finite beings exist; in Dr. [Austin] Farrer’s phrase, we apprehend him in the cosmological relation and not in abstraction from it. There is one act of intellection in which we recognize both the real distinction of essence and existence in the finite existent and also its dependence upon the being in which essence and existence are identical. (Existence and Analogy, pp. 78-79)

Is Mascall’s proposal of a contuition of God in the cosmological relation a plausible reading of Thomas Aquinas? Philosopher Peter Geach thinks not. “I cannot make any sense of this metaphysical vision,” he comments; “neither, I suspect could Aquinas” (God and the Soul, p. 77). He also argues that the Neo-Thomist understanding of necessity and contingency is alien to the thought of the great scholastic. According to Aquinas, contends Geach, “contingent beings are beings liable to corrupt, break up, or the like, and necessary beings are beings with no such inner seeds of their own destruction” (p. 77). By these definitions, tomato plants and human beings are obviously contingent; angels and souls, necessary. Perhaps Geach is correct about Thomas, yet Mascall’s proposal of metaphysical contuition makes sense both of Thomas’s rational certainty in the existence of God and of that experience of wonder intrinsic to our humanity. “It is not how the world is that is mystical,” states Wittgenstein, “but rather that it is (Tractatus 6.44).

The contuition of the Infinite in the why of the world—have we here reached that point where metaphysics and theology meet in mirthful union?


(Return to first article)

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“Two feet are needed to run along this highway; they are humility and charity”

When the Lord tells us in the Gospel that anyone who wants to be his follower must renounce himself, the injunction seems harsh; we think he is imposing a burden on us. But an order is no burden when it is given by one who helps in carrying it out.

To what place are we to follow Christ if not where he has already gone? We know that he has risen and ascended into heaven: there, then, we must follow him.

There is no cause for despair—by ourselves we can do nothing, but we have Christ’s promise.

Heaven was beyond our reach before our Head ascended there, but now, if we are his members, why should we despair of arriving there ourselves? Is there any reason? True, many fears and afflictions confront us in this world; but if we follow Christ, we shall reach a place of perfect happiness, perfect peace, and everlasting freedom from fear.

Yet let me warn anyone bent on following Christ to listen to Saint Paul: “One who claims to abide in Christ ought to walk as he walked.”

Would you follow Christ? Then be humble as he was humble; do not scorn his lowliness if you want to reach his exaltation.

Human sin made the road rough but Christ’s resurrection leveled it; by passing over it himself he transformed the narrowest of tracks into a royal highway.

Two feet are needed to run along this highway; they are humility and charity. Everyone wants to get to the top—well, the first step to take is humility. Why take strides that are too big for you—do you want to fall instead of going up? Begin with the first step, humility, and you will already be climbing.

As well as telling us to renounce ourselves, our Lord and Savior said that we must take up our cross and follow him. What does it mean to take up one’s cross? Bearing every annoyance patiently. That is following Christ.

When someone begins to follow his way of life and his commandments, that person will meet resistance on every side. He or she will be opposed, mocked, even persecuted, and this not only by unbelievers but also by people who to all appearances belong to the body of Christ, though they are really excluded from it by their wickedness; people who, being Christians only in name, never stop persecuting true Christians.

If you want to follow Christ, then, take up his cross without delay. Endure injuries, do not be overcome by them. If we would fulfill the Lord’s command: “If anyone wants to be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me,” we must strive with God’s help to do as the Apostle says: “As long as we have food and clothing, let this content us.” Otherwise, if we seek more material goods than we need and desire to become rich, we may fall prey to temptation. The devil may trick us into wanting the many useless and harmful things that plunge people into ruin and destruction.

May we be free from this temptation through the protection of our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.

St Caesarius of Arles

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