“Do all the things that are ordered by Christ, be ready for slaughter and daily death”

And, behold, one came and said to Him, Good Master, by doing what, shall I inherit eternal life?

If he had come unto Him tempting, he would not have departed sorrowing for what he heard. This was not at any rate ever the feeling of any of the Pharisees, but they grew fierce when their mouths were stopped. But not so this man; but he goes away cast down, which is no little sign that not with an evil will he had come unto Him, but with one too feeble, and that he did indeed desire life, but was held in subjection by another and most grievous feeling.

Therefore when Christ said, “If you will enter into life, keep the commandments,” he says, “Which?” Not tempting, far from it, but supposing there were some others besides those of the law that should procure him life, which was like one who was very desirous. Then since Jesus mentioned those out of the law, he says, “All these things have I kept from my youth up.” And neither at this did he stop, but again asks, “What lack I yet?” which itself again was a sign of his very earnest desire.

What then says Christ? Since He was going to enjoin something great, He sets forth the recompenses, and says, “If you will be perfect, go and sell that you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in Heaven: and come, and follow me.”

Do you see how many prizes, how many crowns, He appoints for this race? If he had been tempting, He would not have told him these things. But now He both says it, and in order to draw him on, He also shows him the reward to be great, and leaves it all to his own will, by all means throwing into the shade that which seemed to be grievous in His advice. Wherefore even before mentioning the conflicts and the toil, He shows him the prize, saying “If you will be perfect,” and then says, “Sell that you have, and give to the poor,” and straightway again the rewards, “You shall have treasure in Heaven; and come, and follow me.” For indeed to follow Him is a great recompense. “And you shall have treasure in Heaven.”

For since his discourse was of money, even of all did He advise him to strip himself, showing that he loses not what he has, but adds to his possessions, He gave him more than He required him to give up; and not only more, but also as much greater as Heaven is greater than earth, and yet more so.

But He called it a treasure, showing the plenteousness of the recompense, its permanency, its security, so far as it was possible by human similitudes to intimate it to the hearer. It is not then enough to despise wealth, but we must also maintain poor men, and above all things follow Christ; that is, do all the things that are ordered by Him, be ready for slaughter and daily death. “For if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” So that to cast away one’s money is a much less thing than this last commandment, to shed even one’s very blood; yet not a little does our being freed from wealth contribute towards this.

“But when the young man heard it, he went away sorrowful.” After this the evangelist, as it were to show that he has not felt anything it was unlikely he should feel, says, “For he had great possessions.” For they that have little are not equally held in subjection, as they that are overflowed with great affluence, for then the love of it becomes more tyrannical. Which thing I cease not always saying, that the increase of acquisitions kindles the flame more, and renders the getters poorer, inasmuch as it puts them in greater desire, and makes them have more feeling of their want.

See, for example, even here what strength did this passion exhibit. Him that had come to Him with joy and forwardness, when Christ commanded him to cast away his riches, it so overwhelmed and weighed down, as not to allow him so much as to answer touching these things, but silenced and become dejected and sullen to go away.

What then says Christ? “How hardly shall the rich enter into the kingdom of Heaven!” blaming not riches but them that are held in subjection by them. But if the rich man hardly, much more the covetous man. For if not to give one’s own be an hindrance to entering the kingdom, even to take of other men’s goods, think how much fire it heaps up.

Why can it have been, however, that He said to His disciples, that hardly shall a rich man enter in, they being poor men, and having no possessions? Instructing them not to be ashamed of their poverty, and, as it were, excusing Himself to them for suffering them to have nothing.

But having said it was hard; as He proceeds, He shows that it is even impossible, and not merely impossible, but even in the highest degree impossible; and this He showed by the comparison concerning the camel and the needle.

“It is easier,” says He, “for a camel to enter in by the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of Heaven.” Whence it is shown, that there is no ordinary reward for them that are rich, and are able to practise self-command. Wherefore also He affirmed it to be a work of God, that He might show that great grace is needed for him who is to achieve this. At least, when the disciples were troubled, He said, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.

And wherefore are the disciples troubled, being poor, yea, exceedingly poor? Wherefore then are they confounded? Being in pain about the salvation of the rest, and having a great affection for all, and having already taken upon themselves the tender bowels of teachers. They were at least in such trembling and fear for the whole world from this declaration, as to need much comfort.

Therefore, having first beheld them, He said to them, “The things which are impossible with men, are possible with God.” For with a mild and meek look, having soothed their shuddering mind, and having put an end to their distress (for this the evangelist signified by saying, He beheld them), then by His words also He relieves them, bringing before them God’s power, and so making them feel confidence.

But if you will learn the manner of it likewise, and how what is impossible may become possible, hear. Born either for this end did He say, “The things which are impossible with men, are possible with God,” that you should give it up, and abstain, as from things impossible; but that having considered the greatness of the good work, you should hasten to it readily, and having besought God to assist you in these noble contests, should attain unto life.

3. How then should this become possible? If you cast away what you have, if you empty yourself of your wealth, if you refrain from the wicked desire. For in proof that He does not refer it to God alone, but that to this end He said it, that you should know the vastness of the good work, hear what follows. For when Peter had said, “Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed You,” and had asked, “What shall we have therefore?” having appointed the reward for them; He added, “And every one who has forsaken houses, or lands, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, shall receive an hundred fold, and shall inherit eternal life.” Thus that which is impossible becomes possible. But how may this very thing be done, one may say, to forsake these? How is it possible for him that is once sunk in such lust of wealth, to recover himself? If he begin to empty himself of his possessions, and cut off what are superfluous. For so shall he both advance further, and shall run on his course more easily afterwards.

Do not then seek all at once, but gently, and little by little, ascend this ladder, that leads you up to Heaven.

St John Chrysostom

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“But now the Mother of God has her dwelling in Heaven whither she was today translated, for this is meet, Heaven being a suitable place for her.”

Both love and duty today fashion my homily for your charity. It is not only that I wish, because of my love for you, and because I am obliged by the sacred canons, to bring to your God-loving ears a saving word and thus to nourish your souls, but if there be any among those things that bind by obligation and love and can be narrated with praise for the Church, it is the great deed of the Ever-Virgin Mother of God. The desire is double, not single, since it induces me, entreats and persuades me, whereas the inexorable duty constrains me, though speech cannot attain to what surpasses it, just as the eye is unable to look fixedly upon the sun. One cannot utter things which surpass speech, yet it is within our power by the love for mankind of those hymned, to compose a song of praise and all at once both to leave untouched intangible things, to satisfy the debt with words and to offer up the first fruits of our love for the Mother of God in hymns composed according to our abilities.

If, then, “death of the righteous man is honorable” (cf. Ps. 115:6) and the “memory of the just man is celebrated with songs of praise” (Prov. 10:7), how much more ought we to honor with great praises the memory of the holiest of the saints, she by whom all holiness is afforded to the saints, I mean the Ever-Virgin. Mother of God! Even so we celebrate today her holy dormition or translation to another life, whereby, while being “a little lower than angels” (Ps. 8:6), by her proximity to the God of all, and in the wondrous deeds which from the beginning of time were written down and accomplished with respect to her, she has ascended incomparably higher than the angels and the archangels and all the super-celestial hosts that are found beyond them. For her sake the God-possessed prophets pronounce prophecies, miracles are wrought to foreshow that future Marvel of the whole world, the Ever-Virgin Mother of God. The flow of generations and circumstances journeys to the destination of that new mystery wrought in her; the statutes of the Spirit provide beforehand types of the future truth. The end, or rather the beginning and root, of those divine wonders and deeds is the annunciation to the supremely virtuous Joachim and Anna of what was to be accomplished: namely, that they who were barren from youth would beget in deep old age her that would bring forth without seed Him that was timelessly begotten of God the Father before the ages. A vow was given by those who marvelously begot her to return her that was given to the Giver; so accordingly the Mother of God strangely changed her dwelling from the house of her father to the house of God while still an infant . She passed not a few years in the Holy of Holies itself, wherein under the care of an angel she enjoyed ineffable nourishment such as even Adam did not succeed in tasting; for indeed if he had, like this immaculate one, he would not have fallen away from life, even though it was because of Adam and so that she might prove to be his daughter, that she yielded a little to nature, as did her Son, Who has now ascended from earth into heaven.

But after that unutterable nourishment, a most mystical economy of courtship came to pass as regards the Virgin, a strange greeting surpassing speech which the Archangel, descended from above, addressed to her, and disclosures and salutations from God which overturn the condemnation of Eve and Adam and remedy the curse laid on them, transforming it into a blessing. The King of all “hath desired a mystic beauty” of the Ever-Virgin, as David foretold (Ps. 44:11) and, “He bowed the heavens and came down” (Ps. 17:9) and overshadowed her, or rather, the enhypostatic Power of the Most High dwelt in her. Not through darkness and fire, as with Moses the God-seer, nor through tempest and cloud, as with Elias the prophet, did He manifest His presence, but without mediation, without a veil, the Power of the Most High overshadowed the sublimely chaste and virginal womb, separated by nothing, neither air nor aether nor anything sensible, nor anything supra-sensible: this was not an overshadowing but a complete union. Since what overshadows is always wont to produce its own form and figure in whatever is overshadowed, there came to pass in the womb not a union only, but further, a formation, and that thing formed from the Power of the Most High and the all-holy virginal womb was the incarnate Word of God. Thus the Word of God took up His dwelling in the Theotokos in an inexpressible manner and proceeded from her, bearing flesh . He appeared upon the earth and lived among men, deifying our nature and granting us, after the words of the divine Apostle, “things which angels desire to look into” (1 Pet. 1:12). This is the encomium which transcends nature and the surpassingly glorious glory of the Ever-Virgin, glory for which all mind and word suffice not, though they be angelic. But who can relate those things which came to pass after His ineffable birth? For, as she co-operated and suffered with that exalting condescension (kenosis) of the Word of God, she was also rightly glorified and exalted together with Him, ever adding thereto the supernatural increase of mighty deeds. And after the ascent into the heavens of Him that was incarnate of her, she rivaled, as it were, those great works, surpassing mind and speech, which through Him were her own, with a most valiant and diverse asceticism, and with her prayers and care for the entire world, her precepts and encouragements which she gave to God’s heralds sent throughout the whole world; thus she was herself both a support and a comfort while she was both heard and seen, and while she labored with the rest in every way for the preaching of the Gospel. In such wise she led a most strenuous manner of life proclaimed in mind and speech.

Therefore, the death of the Theotokos was also life-bearing, translating her into a celestial and immortal life and its commemoration is a joyful event and festivity for the entire world. It not merely renews the memory of the wondrous deeds of the Mother of God, but also adds thereto the strange gathering at her all-sacred burial of all the sacred apostles conveyed from every nation, the God-revealing hymns of these God-possessed ones, and the solicitous presence of the angels, and their choir, and liturgy round about her, going on before, following after, assisting, opposing, defending, being defended. They labored and chanted together to their uttermost with those who venerated that life-originating and God-receiving body, the saving balsam for our race and the boast of all creation; but they strove against and opposed with a secret hand the Jews who rose up against and attacked that body with hand and will set upon theomachy. All the while the Lord Sabaoth Himself, the Son of the Ever-Virgin, was present, into Whose hands she rendered her divinely-minded spirit, through which and with which its companion, her body, was translated into the domain of celestial and endless life, even as was and is fitting. In truth, many have been allotted divine favor and glory and power, as David says, “But to me exceedingly honorable are Thy friends, O Lord, their principalities are made exceeding strong. I will count them and they shall be multiplied more than the sand” (Ps. 138:17). And according to Solomon, “many daughters have attained wealth, many have wrought valiantly; but she doth exceed, she hath surpassed all, both men and women” (cf. Prov. 31:29). For while she alone stood between God and the whole human race, God became the Son of Man and made men sons of God; she made earth heavenly, she deified the human race, and she alone of all women was shown forth to be a mother by nature and the Mother of God transcending every law of nature, and by her ineffable childbirth-the Queen of all creation, both terrestrial and celestial. Thus she exalted those under her through herself, and, showing while on earth an obedience to things heavenly rather than things earthly, she partook of more excellent deserts and of superior power, and from the ordination which she received from heaven by the Divine Spirit, she became the most sublime of the sublime and the supremely blest Queen of a blessed race.

But now the Mother of God has her dwelling in Heaven whither she was today translated, for this is meet, Heaven being a suitable place for her. She “stands at the right of the King of all clothed in a vesture wrought with gold and arrayed with divers colors” (cf. Ps. 44:9), as the psalmic prophecy says concerning her. By “vesture wrought with gold” understand her divinely radiant body arrayed with divers colors of every virtue. She alone in her body, glorified by God, now enjoys the celestial realm together with her Son. For, earth and grave and death did not hold forever her life-originating and God-receiving body—the dwelling more favored than Heaven and the Heaven of heavens. If, therefore, her soul, which was an abode of God’s grace, ascended into Heaven when bereaved of things here below, a thing which is abundantly evident, how could it be that the body which not only received in itself the pre-eternal and only-begotten Son of God, the ever-flowing Wellspring of grace, but also manifested His Body by way of birth, should not have also been taken up into Heaven? Or, if while yet three years of age and not yet possessing that super-celestial indwelling, she seemed not to bear our flesh as she abode in the Holy of Holies, and after she became supremely perfect even as regards her body by such great marvels, how indeed could that body suffer corruption and turn to earth? How could such a thing be conceivable for anyone who thinks reasonably’? Hence, the body which gave birth is glorified together with what was born of it with God-befitting glory, and the “ark of holiness” (Ps. 131:8) is resurrected, after the prophetic ode, together with Christ Who formerly arose from the dead on the third day. The strips of linen and the burial clothes afford the apostles a demonstration of the Theotokos’ resurrection from the dead, since they remained alone in the tomb and at the apostles’ scrutiny they were found there, even as it had been with the Master. There was no necessity for her body to delay yet a little while in the earth, as was the case with her Son and God, and so it was taken up straightway from the tomb to a super-celestial realm, from whence she flashes forth most brilliant and divine illuminations and graces, irradiating earth’s region; thus she is worshipped and marvelled at and hymned by all the faithful . Willing to set up an image of all goodness and beauty and to make clearly manifest His own therein to both angels and men, God fashioned a being supremely good and beautiful, uniting in her all good, seen and unseen, which when He made the world He distributed to each thing and thereby adorned all; or rather one might say, He showed her forth as a universal mixing bowl of all divine, angelic and human things good and beautiful and the supreme beauty which embellished both worlds. By her ascension now from the tomb, she is taken from the earth and attains to Heaven and this also she surpasses, uniting those on high with those below, and encompassing all with the wondrous deed wrought in her. In this manner she was in the beginning “a little lower than the angels” (Ps. 8:6), as it is said, referring to her mortality, yet this only served to magnify her pre-eminence as regards all creatures. Thus all things today fittingly gather and commune for the festival.

It was meet that she who contained Him that fills all things and who surpasses all should outstrip all and become by her virtue superior to them in the eminence of her dignity. Those things which sufficed the most excellent among men that have lived throughout the ages in order to reach such excellency, and that which all those graced of God have separately, both angels and men, she combines, and these she alone brings to fulfillment and surpasses. And this she now has beyond all: That she has become immortal after death and alone dwells together with her Son and God in her body. For this reason she pours forth from thence abundant grace upon those who honor her-for she is a receptacle of great graces-and she grants us even our ability to look towards her. Because of her goodness she lavishes sublime gifts upon us and never ceases to provide a profitable and abundant tribute in our behalf. If a man looks towards this concurrence and dispensing of every good, he will say that the Virgin is for virtue and those who live virtuously, what the sun is for perceptible light and those who live in it. But if he raises the eye of his mind to the Sun which rose for men from this Virgin in a wondrous manner, the Sun which by nature possesses all those qualities which were added to her nature by grace, he shall straightaway call the Virgin a heaven. The excellent inheritance of every good which she has been allotted so much exceeds in holiness the portion of those who are divinely graced both under and above heaven as the heaven is greater than the sun and the sun is more radiant than heaven.

Who can describe in words thy divinely resplendent beauty, O Virgin Mother of God? Thoughts and words are inadequate to define thine attributes, since they surpass mind and speech. Yet it is meet to chant hymns of praise to thee, for thou art a vessel containing every grace, the fulness of all things good and beautiful, the tablet and living icon of every good and all uprightness, since thou alone hast been deemed worthy to receive the fulness of every gift of the Spirit. Thou alone didst bear in thy womb Him in Whom are found the treasuries of all these gifts and didst become a wondrous tabernacle for Him; hence thou didst depart by way of death to immortality and art translated from earth to Heaven, as is proper, so that thou mightest dwell with Him eternally in a super-celestial abode. From thence thou ever carest diligently for thine inheritance and by thine unsleeping intercessions with Him, thou showest mercy to all.

To the degree that she is closer to God than all those who have drawn nigh unto Him, by so much has the Theotokos been deemed worthy of greater audience. I do not speak of rnen alone, but also of the angelic hierarchies themselves. Isaiah writes with regard to the supreme commanders of the heavenly hosts: “And the seraphim stood round about Him” (Isaiah 6:2); but David says concerning her, “at Thy right hand stood the queen” (Ps. 44:8). Do you see the difference in position? From this comprehend also the difference in the dignity of their station. The seraphim are round about God, but the only Queen of all is near beside Him. She is both wondered at and praised by God Himself, proclaiming her, as it were, by the mighty deeds enacted with respect to Him, and saying, as it is recorded in the Song of Songs, “How fair is my companion” (cf. Song of Songs 6:4), she is more radiant than light, more arrayed with flowers than the divine gardens, more adorned than the whole world, visible and invisible. She is not merely a companion but she also stands at Cod’s right hand, for where Christ sat in the heavens, that is, at the “right hand of majesty” (Heb. 1:3), there too she also takes her stand, having ascended now from earth into the heavens. Not merely does she love and is loved in return more than every other, according to the very laws of nature, but she is truly His Throne, and wherever the King sits, there His Throne is set also. And Isaiah beheld this throne amidst the choir of cherubim and called it “high” and “exalted” (Isaiah 6:1), wishing to make explicit how the station of the Mother of God far trancer is that of the celestial hosts.

For this reason the Prophet introduces the angels themselves as glorifying the God come from her, saying, “Blessed be the glory of the L,ord from His Place” (Ezek. 3:12). Jacob the patriarch, beholding this throne by way of types (enigmata), said, “How dreadful is this Place! This is none other than the House of God, and this is the Gate of Heaven” (Gen. 28:17). But David, joining himself to the multitude of the saved, who are like the strings of a musical instrument or like differing voices from different generations made harmonious in one faith through the Ever-Virgin, sounds a most melodic strain in praise of her, saying: “I shall commemorate thy name in every generation and generation. Therefore shall peoples give praise unto thee for ever, and unto the ages of ages.” Do you see how the entire creation praises the Virgin Mother, and not only in times past, but “for ever, and unto the ages of ages”? Thus it is evident that throughout the whole course of the ages, she shall never cease from benefacting all creation, and I mean not only created nature seen round about us, but also the very supreme commanders of the heavenly hosts, whose nature is immaterial and transcendent. Isaiah shows us clearly that it is only through her that they together with us both partake of and touch God, that Nature which defies touch, for he did not see the seraphim take the coal from the altar without mediation, but with tongs, by means of which the coal touched the prophetic lips and purified them (cf. Isaiah 6:6-7). Moses beheld the tongs of that great vision of Isaiah when he saw the bush aflame with fire, yet unconsumed. And who does not know that the Virgin Mother is that very bush and those very tongs, she who herself (though an archangel also assisted at the conception) conceived the Divine Fire without being consumed, Him that taketh away the sins of the world, Who through her touched mankind and by that ineffable touch and union cleansed us entirely. Therefore, she only is the frontier between created and uncreated nature, and there is no man that shall come to God except he be truly illumined through her, that Lamp truly radiant with divinity, even as the Prophet says, “God is in the midst of her, she shall not be shaken'(Ps. 45:5).

If recompense is bestowed according to the measure of love for God, and if the man who loves the Son is loved of Him and of His Father and becomes the dwelling place of Both, and They mystically abide and walk in him, as it is recorded in the Master’s Gospel, who, then, will love Him more than His Mother? For, He was her only-begotten Son, and moreover she alone among women gave birth knowing no spouse, so that the love of Him that had partaken of her flesh might be shared with her twofold. And who will the only-begotten Son love more than His Mother, He that came forth from Her ineffably without a father in this last age even as He came forth from the Father without a mother before the ages’? How indeed could He that descended to fulfill the Law not multiply that honor due to His Mother over and above the ordinances of the Law?

Hence, as it was through the Theotokos alone that the Lord came to us, appeared upon earth and lived among men, being invisible to all before this time, so likewise in the endless age to come, without her mediation, every emanation of illuminating divine light, every revelation of the mysteries of the Godhead, every form of spiritual gift, will exceed the capacity of every created being. She alone has received the all-pervading fulness of Him that filleth all things, and through her all may now contain it, for she dispenses it according to the power of each, in proportion and to the degree of the purity of each. Hence she is the treasury and overseer of the riches of the Godhead. For it is an everlasting ordinance in the heavens that the inferior partake of what lies beyond being, by the mediation of the superior, and the Virgin Mother is incomparably superior to all. It is through her that as many as partake of God do partake, and as many as know God understand her to be the enclosure of the Uncontainable One, and as many as hymn God praise her together with Him. She is the cause of what came before her, the champion of what came after her and the agent of things eternal. She is the substance of the prophets, the principle of the apostles, the firm foundation of the martyrs and the premise of the teachers of the Church . She is the glory of those upon earth, the joy of celestial beings, the adornment of all creation. She is the beginning and the source and root of unutterable good things; she is the summit and consummation of everything holy.

O divine, and now heavenly, Virgin, how can I express all things which pertain to thee? How can I glorify the treasury of all glory? Merely thy memory sanctifies whoever keeps it, and a mere movement towards thee makes the mind more translucent, and thou dost exalt it straightway to the Divine. The eye of the intellect is through thee made limpid, and through thee the spirit of a man is illumined by the sojourning of the Spirit of God, since thou hast become the steward of the treasury of divine gifts and their vault, and this, not in order to keep them for thyself, but so that thou mightest make created nature replete with grace. Indeed, the steward of those inexhaustible treasuries watches over them so that the riches may be dispensed; and what could confine that wealth which wanes not? Richly, therefore, bestow thy mercy and thy graces upon all thy people, this thine inheritance, O Lady! Dispel the perils which menace us. See how greatly we are expended by our own and by aliens, by those without and by those within. Uplift all by thy might: mollify our fellow citizens one with another and scatter those who assault us from without-like savage beasts. Measure out thy succor and healing in proportion to our passions, apportioning abundant grace to our souls and bodies, sufficient for every necessity. And although we may prove incapable of containing thy bounties, augment our capacity and in this manner bestow them upon us, so that being both saved and fortified by thy grace, we may glorify the pre-eternal Word Who was incarnate of thee for our sakes, together with His unoriginate Father and the life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto the endless ages. Amen.

St Gregory Palamas

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Reading Scripture as non-Scripture: Sola Scriptura and the Hermeneutics of Historical Artifact


“By what right do you claim the Bible for your church and exclude mine?”

Let me come clean right from the start. I believe that the Holy Orthodox Church is the Church founded by Jesus Christ and his Apostles. I do not assert this in a polemical or triumphalist way and have no intention in engaging in the “my church is the true church, yours ain’t” debates that internet apologists love. In my experience the ecclesiological claim can be dangerous, both spiritually and theologically. It too quickly falls prey to ideology. Nor does it resolve important disputes as easily as one might think. But if the Orthodox claim is true, then the Scriptures are ultimately given to her, and she is their steward and authoritative interpreter. My argument, however, does not depend on you, the reader, accepting this conviction. It merely asserts that an indivisible relationship exists between the sacred writings and the historic community that incorporated them into its life as Holy Scripture, however that community is identified in the present.

The canonization of specific writings as Scripture is an ecclesial act. The early Christians inherited the Bible of Judaism and then proceeded to add to it the writings we now call “New Testament.” This canonical process of discernment and judgment lasted centuries. There is no need to rehearse the history of the process, which is beyond my competence in any case. The crucial point seems clear: the ecclesial acknowledgement of a given text as the written Word of God, and therefore as worthy of being read and preached in the eucharistic assembly, is an authoritative act of the community of believers.

But once a text has been acknowledged by the Church as Scripture, how does one interpret it? Here is the problem for all who confess sola Scriptura.

The Bible is composed of individual units—units of poetry, narratives, parables, prophesies, letters, sayings, and so forth. Each unit can be examined independently of the rest of the Bible, precisely as historical artifact. This is the playfield of the members of the Society of Biblical Literature and their historical-critical methodologies, as scholars attempt to understand a text within its original cultural and societal context. Let’s call this level of interpretation the historical meaning: what did the text originally mean? One does not need to be a Christian believer in order to determine the historical meaning of individual units of the Bible. This is a game that anyone can play.

The game becomes more complicated as units are brought together into a larger unit, say when the various stories and traditions of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and its wanderings in the wilderness are brought together into one book, Exodus. When this happens a change in literary context occurs. Each individual unit must now also be interpreted in light of its relationship with the other units of the book. Change in literary context necessarily entails change in meaning. Consider the challenge of interpreting Gen 1 in relationship to Gen 2. And the same thing happens when different books are incorporated into a collection of books. Exodus must now be read in relationship to Deuteronomy, the gospel of Mark in relationship to the gospel of John, Romans in relationship to James, etc. As Richard Swinburne explains:

The insertion into a larger whole gives the sentences of the unit a different literary context, a different social context (the author is now the author of the larger whole, and the work is addressed to a different audience), and a different cultural context (the culture is now that of the new author and his audience) … Changing the context of units and sewing them together into a literary work has different effects in different places. One interesting example concerns the psalms. Many of them originally had a social context (in the rituals of the first Temple) which was lost when they came to form a collection of hymns for private or synagogic use. The compiler of the Book of Psalms must have supposed many of the psalms to have meanings (e.g., as expressions of personal devotion) other than their original meaning. (Revelation, pp. 168-169)

The Bible didn’t fall out of heaven as a single book. What we call the Bible is a patchwork of texts that have been redacted and edited over centuries and then brought together, first as the Scripture of Israel and then of the Church of Jesus Christ. Change in literary context necessarily entails change in meaning.

What happens to historical meaning when a given book is acknowledged as Holy Scripture?


(6 November 2013; mildly edited)


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Dionysian Ponderings: Out with the Gods, in with the Names

St Dionysius is a Neoplatonist, which means that he teaches a metaphysics of participation. In general terms, David Schindler explains, “to speak of metaphysical participation is to say that one thing has what it is with and indeed after and in pursuit of, another: it has its reality, in other words, by virtue of something other than itself.” For Dionysius in particular, participation refers to the divine causal determination in things: created beings participate in God and thus receive their reality, yet God does not participate in finite beings and therefore remains unchanged. Divinity is “unparticipatedly participated” (DN II. 5)—between Creator and created there exists a relationship of asymmetrical dependence.

Dionysius is also a Christian, which means that he rejects subordinate metaphysical principles and divinities—hence the challenge of the Dionysian project. Missing from his writings are the Plotinian hypostases of Intellect and Soul. Missing also are the henads of Proclus, intermediate divinities that mediate between absolute unity and the multiplicities of the cosmos. To invoke the immortal words of the Highlander, there can be only One—one source, one cause, one transcendent ground. Dionysius decisively separates himself from polytheistic henology:

In a letter to me you once asked what I meant by being itself, life itself, and wisdom itself. You said you failed to understand why I sometimes call God “life itself” and sometimes “subsistence of life itself.” Therefore, sacred man of God, I have thought it necessary to solve your problem.

To repeat something frequently asserted already, to call God “life itself’ and “power itself” and then “subsistence of life itself,” “subsistence of peace itself,” “subsistence of power itself,” involves no contradiction. The former names are derived from beings, especially the primary beings, and they are given to God because he is the cause of all beings. The latter names are put up because he is transcendentally superior to everything, including the primary beings. “But,” you may say, “what is meant when we talk of being itself, life itself, and all those other things to which we ascribe an absolute and primary existence derived ultimately from God?” My answer is this. This is not something oblique, but is in fact quite straightforward, and there is a simple explanation for it. The absolute being underlying individual manifestations of being as their cause is not a divine or an angelic being, for only transcendent being itself can be the source, the being, and the cause of the being of beings. Nor have we to do with some other life-producing divinity distinct from that supra-divine life which is the originating Cause of all living beings and of life itself. Nor, in summary, is God to be thought of as identical with those originating and creative beings and substances which men stupidly describe as certain gods or creators of the world. Such men, and their fathers before them, had no genuine or proper knowledge of beings of this kind. Indeed, there are no such beings. What I am trying to express is something quite different. “Being itself,” “life itself,” “divinity itself,” are names signifying source, divinity, and cause, and these are applied to the one transcendent cause and source beyond source of all things. But we use the same terms in a derivative fashion and we apply them to the provident acts of power which come forth from that God in whom nothing at all participates. I am talking here of being itself, of life itself, of divinity itself which shapes things in a way that each creature, according to capacity, has his share of these. From the fact of such sharing come the qualities and the names “existing,” “living,” “possessed by divinity,” and suchlike. (DN XI.6; emphasis mine)

Out with the gods and in with the divine names—or more specifically, in with the intelligible divine names. The names denote Deity in its active determination of created beings. They are not, as Timothy Knepper remarks, “arbitrary signifiers that arbitrarily denote some arbitrary signified” (Negating Negation, p. 1). They are given in Scripture and the metaphysical structure of reality; they apply primarily to God as transcendent cause and secondarily to creatures. God is being for he creates being and beings; God is life for he bestows life on specific classes of beings; God is power for he gives the capacity to act; and so on. Denys contrasts the intelligible names (goodness, being, life, wisdom, power, unity) with perceptible symbols (fire, rock, water, oil). The former are divine causes; the latter divinely-caused effects, figuratively interpreted for the work of hierurgy and deification. Again Knepper: “They are divine processions that source and sustain the basic properties of the cosmos … Thus it is only because divine names are firstly and primarily causes of properties that those properties can be attributed to or denied of those beings that do or do not participate in them” (p. 1; also “Three Misuses of Dionysius“).

We know from earlier articles that Denys considers God as transcending all being and therefore all differentiated identification. He is called the Nameless One because he is not a kind of thing that can be named (see “Beyond the Beyond“). But from this we may not infer that the Areopagite therefore believes God to be an empty nothing. The properties which the intelligible names source (to use the language of Knepper) are precontained within God in his inexpressible simplicity:

And so it is that as Cause of all and as transcending all, he is rightly nameless and yet has the names of everything that is. Truly, he has dominion over all and all things revolve around him, for he is their cause, their source, and their destiny. He is “all in all” [1 Cor 15:28], as scripture affirms, and certainly he is to be praised a being for all things the creator and originator, the One who brings them to completion, their preserver, their protector, and their home, the power which returns them to itself, and all this in the one single, irrepressible, and supreme act. For the unnamed goodness is not just the cause of cohesion or life or perfection so that it is from this or that providential gesture that it earns a name, but it actually contains everything beforehand within itself—and this in an uncomplicated and boundless manner—and it thus by virtue of the unlimited goodness or its single all-creative Providence. Hence the songs of praise and the names for it are fittingly derived from the sum total of creation. (DN I.7)

If the divine names must be denied of God subsequent to affirmation, this is because they exist within him by way ineffable excess and concentration. Properties are only properly attributed to finite beings. The transcendent Deity exists beyond finitude, beyond goods and perfections, and therefore beyond intelligibility and nomination. He is named only by his self-communication in divine creation.

Knepper asserts that the divine names of Dionysius are functionally equivalent to the unifying henads of Proclus. He advances three arguments:

1) “Henads—literally, ones or units—pluralize the One (just as minds pluralize Mind and souls pluralize Soul); so too do divine names, which are processions from God that not only are unified and divine but also precede the further procession of God into the realm of mind (angels) and soul (humans)” (p. 27).

2) “Divine names are structured similarly to henads, both individually and collectively. As causes, Procline henads exist in three different respects: according to causation (kat aitan), subsistence (kath hyparxin), and participation (kata methexin); so too do Dionysian divine names, which, as hyper-prefixed, are precontained in and caused from out of God; as auto-prefixed, subsist from out of God; and as ōsis-suffixed, make themselves available to participating beings” (p. 28).

3) “Since Dionysian divine names not only process directly from the unparticipated first principle but also just are the first principle in a pluralized and participated form, they are spoken of as divine unities” (p. 28).

I admittedly know next to nothing about Proclus, but am happy to concede the similarities between the divine names of the Areopagite and the henads of Proclus. Dionysius clearly shares the Neoplatonic concern to ground the muliplicities of the cosmos in the unity of divinity. Who else but a philosopher is going to list greatness and smallness, sameness and difference, similarity and dissimilarity, rest, motion, equality among the appellations of the Creator. Denys may insist that he is simply drawing them from Scripture, but clearly his choices are driven by his metaphysical concerns. Yet Knepper’s thesis goes too far. He too quickly skips over an obvious difference between the henads and the divine names. For Proclus, as Edward Butler explains, the henads are “unique individuals and the real agents of the causality attributed to the One” (“The Gods and Being in Proclus,” p. 94; also see Butler, “Polytheism and Individuality in the Henadic Manifold” and “The Intelligible Gods“). Yet in my reading of the Dionysian writings, I have never received the impression that the pseudonymous author considers the divine names as anything akin to real causal agents subsisting as subordinate entities. They are powers but powers of the One; processions and activities but always of the One.

For the truth is that everything divine and even everything revealed to us is known only by way of whatever share of them is granted. Their actual nature, what they are ultimately in their own source and ground, is beyond all intellect and all being and all knowledge. When, for instance, we give the name of “God” to that transcendent hiddenness, when we call it “life” or “being” or “light” or “Word,” what our minds lay hold of is in fact nothing other than certain activities apparent to us, activities which deify, cause being, bear life, and give wisdom. (DN II.7)

In The Divine Names the Areopagite is attempting nothing less than the Christianizing of Neoplatonic metaphysics (cf. Panagiotis Pavlos, “Plotinus and Dionysius the Areopagite on the Participation in the Good“). The divine names stand, as it were, at the interface between the uncreated and created. They name the metaphysical principles that inform the cosmos yet preexist in the triadic Deity who is “beyond be-ing beyond-beingly before all” (DN V.8). We probably should think of the intelligible names as verbs rather than nouns. In their own way they direct us to the infinite Creator who transcends the world and yet is nondualistically present in its depths.

My interpretation of Dionysius, though, may be skewed. I am reading him in translation and not in the original Greek (a huge handicap!) and attempting (and no doubt failing) to read him simultaneously as a metaphysician and as a monk steeped in the Eastern Fathers who faithfully prayed the Divine Liturgy and monastic offices.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, I believe, offers a more accurate (or at least more congenial) reading of the intent of the Areopagite:

The act by which God allows creation to share in his being, through which the world comes into being and in which it consists, is God himself, in whom each creature participates, as does each radius in the centre of the circle, or each mark of a seal in the original. But as a radius only subsists because of the centre and the mark only because of the seal, and yet the centre is not a radius, nor the seal a mark, we must speak of ‘participation, while not participating’: God’s primordial reasons are ‘participated in for all that they cannot be shared (mamethektos metechomena) [DN II.5]. The multiplication and differentiation of the participants is primarily a matter of ‘closeness’ and ‘distance’—that is admittedly a picture that reminds one of both Origen and Plotinus and yet is understood in the sense of neither—it is, always allowing the necessary deficiency of all being that is not divine, but also a matter of the determination and positioning of beings by God, who allots to each its being and essence ‘analogously’. The deliberate turning of God towards the creature is equally that in which it participates (the communicated God) and the truth of the creature; the ideas or paradigms are equally the predestinations [DN V.8] … One must simply guard against hypostatizing the metocha (the participated) as any sort of ‘gods’ or ‘world demiurges’ or ‘angelic essences’ (as did Proclus and the Gnostics)—in Denys’ theology they have therefore nothing to do with the angelic hierarchies—nor are they simply the archetypal ‘thoughts’ of God (as Augustine interpreted the Platonic ideas); rather, they are the genuine reality of the world itself, in so far as it consists of principles which share their reality with the individual essences that participate (metochonta), of which principles Denys indeed says that among themselves they stand in a relationship of participation, because Life Itself participates in Being Itself, and Wisdom Itself participates in both. (The Glory of the Lord, II: 186-187; emphasis mine)

Or as Alexander Golitzin succinctly states: “The intelligible names are not things, no longer have reference to objectively and independently existing entities, but are instead windows opening onto the sense—and reality—of God present in his powers or energies” (Mystagogy, p. 100).

But I am way out of my depths …

(Return to first article)

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“I do not know whether we can even sleep without falling into debt”

The Lord puts the parable of the unforgiving debtor before us that we may learn from it. He has no desire for us to die, so he warns us: “This is how your heavenly Father will deal with you if you, any of you, fail to forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Take notice now, for clearly this is no idle warning. The fulfillment of this command calls for the most vigorous obedience. We are all in debt to God, just as other people are in debt to us. Is there anyone who is not God’s debtor? Only a person in whom no sin can be found. And is there anyone who has no brother or sister in his debt? Only if there be someone who has never suffered any wrong. Do you think anyone can be found in the entire human race who has not in turn wronged another in some way, incurring a debt to that person? No, all are debtors, and have others in debt to them. Accordingly, God who is just has told you how to treat your debtor, because he means to treat his in the same way.

There are two works of mercy which will set us free. They are briefly set down in the gospel in the Lord’s own words: “Forgive and you will be forgiven,” and “Give and you will receive.” The former concerns pardon, the latter generosity.

And so, every day we pray; every day we beat upon God’s ears with our pleas. As regards pardon he says: “Just as you want to be forgiven, so someone is in need of your forgiveness.” Again, as regards generosity, consider when a beggar asks you for something that you are a beggar too in relation to God. When we pray we are all beggars before God. We are standing at the door of a great householder, or rather, lying prostrate, and begging with tears. We are longing to receive a gift—the gift of God himself.

What does a beggar ask of you? Bread. And you, what do you ask of God, if not Christ who said: “I am the living bread that has come down from heaven”? Do you want to be pardoned? Then pardon others. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Do you want to receive? Give and you will receive.

If we think of our sins, reckoning up those we have committed by sight, hearing, thought, and countless disorderly emotions, I do not know whether we can even sleep without falling into debt.

And so, every day we pray; every day we beat upon God’s ears with our pleas; every day we prostrate ourselves before him saying: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we also forgive those who trespass against us.”

Which of our trespasses, all of them or only some? All, you will answer.

Do likewise, therefore, with those who have offended you.

This is the rule you have laid down for yourself, the condition you have stipulated. When you pray according to this pact and covenant you remember to say: “Forgive us, as we also forgive our debtors.”

St Augustine of Hippo

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“Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you!”

Do not hate the sinner. For we are all laden with guilt. If for the sake of God you are moved to oppose him, weep over him. Why do you hate him? Hate his sins and pray for him, that you may imitate Christ who was not wroth with sinners, but interceded for them. Do you not see how He wept over Jerusalem? We are mocked by the devil in many instances, so why should we hate the man who is mocked by him who mocks us also? Why, O man, do you hate the sinner? Could it be because he is not so righteous as you? But where is your righteousness when you have no love? Why do you not shed tears over him? But you persecute him. In ignorance some are moved with anger, presuming themselves to be discerners of the works of sinners.

Be a herald of God’s goodness, for God rules over you, unworthy though you are; for although your debt to Him is so great, yet He is not seen exacting payment from you, and from the small works you do, He bestows great rewards upon you. Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good,’ He says, ‘to the evil and to the impious’ (Luke 6:35). How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong: I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is thine eye evil because I am good?’ (Matt. 20:12-15).

How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? (Luke 15:11-32). None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it; and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for whilst we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change.

Far be it that we should ever think such an iniquity that God could become unmerciful! For the property of Divinity does not change as do mortals. God does not acquire something which He does not have, nor lose what He has, nor supplement what He does have, as do created beings. But what God has from the beginning, He will have and has until the end, as the blest Cyril wrote in his commentary on Genesis. Fear God, he says, out of love for Him, and not for the austere name that He has been given. Love Him as you ought to love Him; not for what He will give you in the future, but for what we have received, and for this world alone which He has created for us. Who is the man that can repay Him? Where is His repayment to be found in our works? Who persuaded Him in the beginning to bring us into being Who intercedes for us before Him, when we shall possess no memory, as though we never existed? Who will awake this our body for that life? Again, whence descends the notion of knowledge into dust?

O the wondrous mercy of God! O the astonishment at the bounty of our God and Creator! O might for which all is possible! O the immeasurable goodness that brings our nature again, sinners though we be, to His regeneration and rest! Who is sufficient to glorify Him? He raises up the transgressor and blasphemer, he renews dust unendowed with reason, making it rational and comprehending and the scattered and insensible dust and the scattered senses He makes a rational nature worthy of thought. The sinner is unable to comprehend the grace of His resurrection. Where is gehenna, that can afflict us? Where is perdition, that terrifies us in many ways and quenches the joy of His love? And what is gehenna as compared with the grace of His resurrection, when He will raise us from Hades and cause our corruptible nature to be clad in incorruption, and raise up in glory him that has fallen into Hades?

Come, men of discernment, and be filled with wonder! Whose mind is sufficiently wise and marvelous to wonder worthily at the bounty of our Creator? His recompense of sinners is, that instead of a just recompense, He rewards them with resurrection, and instead of those bodies with which they trampled upon His law, He enrobes them with perfect glory and incorruption. That grace whereby we are resurrected after we have sinned is greater than the grace which brought us into being when we were not.

Glory be to Thine immeasurable grace, O Lord! Behold, Lord, the waves of Thy grace close my mouth with silence, and there is not a thought left in me before the face of Thy thanksgiving. What mouths can confess Thy praise, O good King, Thou who lovest our life? Glory be to Thee for the two worlds which Thou hast created for our growth and delight, leading us by all things which Thou didst fashion to the knowledge of Thy glory, from now and unto the ages. Amen.

St Isaac the Syrian

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The Human Person as Icon of God

The Almighty God, Holy Scripture teaches us, created humanity in his Image; but precisely what this means is unclear. Theologians have offered various interpretations of the Imago Dei over the centuries, typically identifying a property or attribute mutually shared by divinity and mankind: the human being images God because he possesses the faculty of reason … or because he he has an immortal soul … or because ____. Staying within the framework of his personalist philosophy, Christos Yannaras locates the divine image in hypostatic identity: each human being sums up in himself human nature, but each also transcends (or at least has the potential to transcend) human nature “because his mode of existence is freedom and distinctiveness” (The Freedom of Morality, p. 19):

This mode of existence which is personal distinctiveness forms the image of God in man, making man a partaker in being. It is not as nature that man constitutes an image of God: it is not because he has natural attributes in common with God, or analogous to His. Man constitutes an image of God as an ontological hypostasis free from space, time and natural necessity.

The reason for this is that human existence derives its ontological substance from the fact of divine love, the only love which gives substance to being. The creation of man is an act of God’s love: not of His “kindly disposition,” but of His love which constitutes being as an existential event of personal communion and relationship. Man was created to become a partaker in the personal mode of existence which is the life of God—to become a partaker in the freedom of love which is true life. (p. 19)

This passage raises an immediate question. Is it true that to be a person means freedom from “space, time and natural necessities”?  The Christian confession of bodily resurrection might suggest otherwise. What ever glorified corporeality means—and we cannot know until we have been raised into our new existence—it would seem to entail some manner of spatio-temporal existence, however inconceivable such may seem to us now. Yannaras discusses the bodily resurrection of Jesus in his Elements of Faith. Perhaps the following passage assuages any misgivings:

By his obedience to the Father’s will even to the point of death, Christ leads his human nature to the perfect renunciation of every demand for existential self-sufficiency, transposing the existence of nature into the relationship of love and freedom of obedience to God. And this nature which draws its existence from the relationship with God does not die because, even though created, it exists now in the manner of the uncreated, not in the manner of the created. Christ’s raised body is a material body, a created nature. But it differs from the bodies of other raised people because it exists now in the mode of the uncreated, the mode of freedom from every natural necessity. And so, while it is sensible and tangible, with flesh and bones (Lk 24.30), while it can take nourishment like all other bodies (and the risen Christ eats honey and fish before the eyes of his disciples [Lk 24.42]) and while the marks of the wounds which he received are obvious on him, still this same body enters the upper room “with the doors locked” (Jn 20.1) and vanishes at Emmaus after the breaking of the bread (Lk 24.31) and finally is received into heaven (Mk 16.19; Lk 24.51) enthroning the human “clay” in the glory of the divine life … The body of the risen Christ is the human nature free from every limitation and every need. It is a human body with flesh and bones, but which does not draw life from its biological functions, but is hypostasized in a real existence thanks to the personal relationship with God which alone constitutes it and gives it life. (pp. 115-116)

Returning to the Imago Dei

I am with Yannaras when he states that “human nature of itself cannot form a hypostasis of life” (Morality, p. 20). If we insist on life on natural terms, then we will only know death and nothingness. Only Divinity can bestow an existence that transcends the corruption and mortality of human nature. This is precisely what God has accomplished in the Incarnation and Resurrection. The eternal Son assumed, redeemed, transfigured, and glorified human nature. This is a traditional way of speaking. Would Yannaras be satisfied? Perhaps … yet I have a sneaking suspicion that he may be suggesting something different. If salvation means absolute liberation from nature, then  how does this not signify transubstantiation into pure subjectivity. (Angels are persons, too, right?) Philosophy meets theology meets science fiction.

All creatures, Yannaras states, derive their reality from the will and energy of God and are dynamic manifestations of the “creative principle of divine love. Man, however, derives his ontological hypostasis not simply from the will and energy of God, but from the manner in which God gives substance to being. This manner is personal existence, the existential potentiality for loving communion and relationship—the potentiality for true life” (p. 20). The human being fulfills his iconic destiny and becomes truly human only when he kenotically surrenders himself to God and neighbor, thereby realizing an eternal mode of love within the Holy Trinity.

(1 January 2015; mildly edited)

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