Sebastian Brock on St Isaac the Syrian and his Understanding of Universal Salvation

I wish to thank the internationally respected scholar of Syrian Christianity, Dr Sebastian Brock, for giving me permission to share with the readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy this previously unpublished lecture on the eschatology of St Isaac the Syrian. Enjoy!

If you have enjoyed reading this article, you may find of interest my blog series on St Isaac, beginning with this article: “Preaching the Astonishing Love of God.”

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28 Responses to Sebastian Brock on St Isaac the Syrian and his Understanding of Universal Salvation

  1. Dallas Wolf says:

    I’m glad that “hoping” for the apokatastasis is not a heresy!

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I was just told a few days ago over at Facebook by an one of the self-appointed dogma police that I am a heretic and need to leave the Orthodox Church precisely because of my affirmation of the universalist hope. YMMV.

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  2. tsoigitli says:

    Unrelated question for you, Fr. Kimel: given that St. Isaac was not actually in communion with the Orthodox at the time, what does his canonization mean for Orthodox ecclesiology?

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  3. Father Gregory says:

    I have always rather enjoyed the eclesiological implications St. Isaac’s canonization in Churches not in communion with one another has … Not sure what they are but the horizon looks good and it may be the Church is a bigger tent than many of us are willing to acknowledge. Bigger. Not limitless though.

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    • tsoigitli says:

      Fr. Gregory, I think we’d be good friends, as a 19 year old soon to be catechumen who loves Orthodoxy but disdains tribalism.

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    • Michael Bauman says:

      Isn’t the question “Where do the limits lie, and how firm are those limits?” Biologically a body cannot exist without a relatively firm outer limit of some kind and minds can be so open that everything runs out into a puddle. Engines with too much tolerance in their design are destroyed by the excess vibration as the run. Arrows that are too flexible are quite difficult to shoot accurately.

      A secondary question, “Who gets to decide the limits?”

      If I am not mistaken, Bulgakov was never condemned as a heretic, only certain elements of his theology, right?

      Historically, Biblically and perhaps ontologically there are significant problems with some types of universalism that should not be ignored. Simply put by my priest recently in a sermon: “There will be a judgment. Some won’t make it.” Perhaps this is viewed as being judgmental. I don’t find it that way.

      The choice of who won’t make it is not up to me just as the choice of who is a heretic and who is not is not up to me. I can, by God’s grace, discern ideas, beliefs and actions that seem to partake of the heretical. The only thing that really makes any difference, frankly, is if I am growing closer to God, in greater communion with Him. Part of that is learning to really pray for the salvation of everyone. If the hope for their salvation keeps me praying and striving for greater communion–it is a good thing. If it does not, it then diverges from the target. That is what heresy does, directs (subtly and not so subtly) away from the truth; away from life; away from salvation.

      I have seen the corrosive effect on people’s souls and lives that heresy creates, it can lead not only to spiritual death, but physical death as well. It creates a great deal of suffering and confusion, hardening the heart to truth in the process. It is a deadly cancer and should we should all guard our hearts against it. That does not mean we assault others for that, too, partakes of heresy. Rather we must seek always to purify our own hearts so that we can see more clearly and love more fully.

      I must say it can be quite easy to focus too much on such topics as universalism, free will, determinism, even sin and loose the reality of our life of prayer in the process. Heresy does that to people especially with the bait of partial truths and the heady euphoria of speculation. Hope is hope in God’s great mercy. We do it violence when we attempt to turn a specific hope into narrow dogma or really believe we have penetrated the mystery of hope to any great extent.

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      • brian says:

        Of course, people of different views will always see the other fellow as the one with the narrow dogma and the presumption upon mystery. For instance, it seems to me presumptuous to claim one knows some won’t make it.

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        • Michael Bauman says:

          Well, brian that presumption seems to be pretty well founded in Scripture.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Michael, I would think that if one is going to claim that not all are saved, then the only spiritually safe way to do so is to declare, “All will be saved except me”:

            Once the blessed Anthony was praying in his cell. A voice came to him, saying: “Anthony! You have not yet attained the measure of the tanner who lives in Alexandria.” On hearing this, the elder got up early in the morning and hastened to Alexandria. When he came to the tanner, the latter was extremely surprised to see him. The elder said to him: “Tell me of your feats, because it is for this that I have come all the way from the desert.” The tanner answered: “I don’t remember the least good that I could have done at any time; that is why, when I get up early from my bed, before starting with my work, I tell myself: ‘All the inhabitants of this city, from the small to the great, will enter the Kingdom for their virtues, and I alone will go to eternal fire for my sins.’ I repeat the same words in my heart before I go to sleep.” Hearing this, the blessed Anthony replied: “Indeed, my son, you, as a skilled artisan, sitting in your home, have acquired the Kingdom; while I, although I’m spending all my life in the desert, have not gathered the spiritual wisdom, nor reached the state of mind that you have shown with your words.”

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          • brian says:

            Michael,

            I don’t want to get into a battle of scriptural exegesis with you. Certainly folks like Bulgakov, Balthasar, and George MacDonald could read the Bible. The manner of interpretation differs. I agree with the spirit of Father Kimel’s anecdote about Anthony.

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  4. danaames says:

    Fr Aidan,
    Again I cannot see what is embedded. Would you kindly send me a link by email so that I can listen to it after I return from my son’s wedding? Thank you.

    Dana

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  5. Edward De Vita says:

    A

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  6. Edward De Vita says:

    Pardon the last non-comment. I accidentally hit “Post Comment” before actually commenting. I wanted to say something about the present separation of the Apostolic churches. It is so very odd to think that whole groups of Christians who have been worshipping according to their own liturgical traditions since the time of the apostles should somehow come to be considered schismatic or heretical simply because they held on to the traditions they had received from their Fathers. The Copts are considered Monophysite, though they merely continue to express the teaching of St. Cyril of Alexandria. The Assyrian Church of the East is considered to be Nestorian, though they deny it. Indeed, the major reason that the western churches are not in communion with the church of the east is that this church was not part of the Roman Empire and could not easily take part in western councils without appearing disloyal to their Persian rulers.
    Another obstacle to union with the Assyrian church is that they consider individuals such as Theodore of Mopsuestia to be saints and doctors of their church while the west considers them to be heretics (though Theodore was considered to be perfectly orthodox during his lifetime and, indeed, was a good friend of St. John Chrysostom’s.). Frankly, the whole thing is a mess. It is my opinion that all of the apostolic churches are really united but are very much subject to schismatic temptations.

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  7. Michael Bauman says:

    Well, I did not intend to make anyone defensive. Let me elucidate futher:

    Father, actually I can easily see where most of the people I know would be saved and I would not. The closer I am to a person, the easier it is for me to see their greater virtue over me. None of that is the point really. There are three dangers I must avoid: the presumption that I know of my own will that all will be saved; the presumption that I will be saved no matter what I do or don’t do; the presumption that I can tell the state of someone else’s soul. I am neither qualified nor empowered to hurl such anathemas or blessings.

    However, just because I don’t accept carte blanche universalism does not mean that I won’t be saved either (which you seem to be suggesting). As to the preaching of my priest, well if you want to take that up with him he can be reached at St. George Orthodox Christian Cathedral in Wichita, KS and since his grace Bishop Basil has repeatedly said that the priest in question is one of the finest homilists he knows and was there for the sermon in question, you might want to take it up with him too.

    The fact that St. Isaac and others have a mystical apprehension of what may be does not make it so certainly not as a dogmatic proposition. Nor does having such hope, in and of itself, make one a heretic. Perhaps all will eventually find the narrow road and pass through the eye of the needle; stranger things have happened and the logic of the Incarnation does create the possibility. But, perhaps not. You are right, if there are those who don’t make it, I am quite likely to be among them as I am a prideful, arrogant and passionate man. That does not alter the truth nor my understanding of it (was it supposed to?).

    As with all things the temptation is to form competing dichotomies both sides of which are false. We are free to hope all things, but there are those who are weak who could easily be lead astray, taking it for dogma. Now, I grant you that it would take an extraordinarily narcissistic, hard and brutal heart to forever reject the love of Christ and the awakening of one’s own conscience. I grant that St Paul in 1 Corinthians 3 and other places certainly seems to suggest that even the smallest particle of love is sufficient but I dare not be complacent because of that.

    “We do pray for mercy and that same prayer teaches us to render the deeds of mercy” Among those deeds is the generosity of spirit that shuts no one out of the Kingdom. And it is that mercy that opens the doors of paradise. The Zeusian hurlers of lightening bolts seem to miss that point. Yet, it may be that some refuse to enter or like the dwarves in Narnia remain in the darkened stable on the outskirts. That possibility, too, must be allowed for. Yet I pray that we all may meet one day in “a place of brightness, a place of verdure, a place of repose where all sickness, sorrow and sighing are fled away. . .” and we may see each other as we are. “It is a consummation devoutly to be wished.”

    And brian, just mentioning the evidence of the Scripture does not mean that I want to descend into proof texting. It just seems to me that until lately, the overwhelming interpretation by the Church has been that some won’t make it. That has to be taken into consideration does it not? After all we Orthodox pray every Divine Liturgy that “we have a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ.” And the penitential prayers of the Orthodox Church especially during Lent are full of the imagery of those who are shut out of the Kingdom despite God’s mercy.

    I am suspicious of the relatively recent emphasis on the actual rather than possible salvation of all simply because I am suspicious of the modern mind and the evil that motivates it.

    Please pray for me, a sinner.

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    • brian says:

      MIchael,

      Not sure I am fully understanding what you are saying. I don’t see anything Father wrote, for instance, that would suggest that someone who does not hold out a universalist hope is somehow in danger of not being saved.

      You are no doubt correct that the majority opinion is counter to the universalist hope. I subscribe to the minority opinion. There was a time when the Church concentrated on various elements of the Faith. Perhaps now is a time for more eschatological reflection.

      I did not think you wanted to “proof text.” I was just stating that those who have a universalist hope are deep, reflective readers of the Bible. So, naturally, they are aware of those statements that plainly talk about hell. They are not ignoring them, they just have a “global” interpretation that relativizes the meaning, so to speak.

      I am largely an anti-modern myself, though it is a mistake to simply dismiss modernity or think that it could not have its own insights that need to be attended to and incorporated into the tradition.

      I’m not Orthodox, btw, so you’ll have to factor that in as well.

      God bless.

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  8. Edward De Vita says:

    Michael,
    It might surprise you to know that universalists such as St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac also believed that we must face the “dread judgment seat of Christ.” They also believed that some would be excluded from the kingdom. They simply did not believe that this exclusion would last forever.
    Having said that, I have to say that I understand your concern about this. I, myself, find the universalism of St. Gregory appealing on so many levels. It enables one to reconcile the love of God with HIs justice and “wrath.” It provides a very intellecutally satisfying theodicy. It makes sense of so many passages of Scripture which speak of God’s purpose to save all. And yet, it remains a fact that the Church has not accepted this teaching and has generally taught the eternity of hell, at least as a possibility. Hence, I can only muster up a hope for the salvation of all, not a certainty. Perhaps I’m wrong even in this. I don’t know. All I know is that I feel called to pray for the salvation of all. If I can so pray, can I not also hope with confidence that God will answer my prayer?

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    • Michael Bauman says:

      Edward, you understand my concern. The type of progress to salvation described by Fr. Kimel as a result of the writings and perceptions of St. Gregory and St. Isaac and Bulgakov should not, IMO, be called universalism, at least in the current cultural milieu. A better description for it needs to be found to reduce confusion. What it seems to be leading toward is a purgatorial explanation which could be a way of helping to unite us with the Roman Catholics.

      Plus within the discussion is a very linear understanding of time that is simply not applicable to salvation. God is not subject to time as we are and He calls us out of time to commune with Him. What does ‘forever’ and ‘eternal’ mean outside of time where the Kingdom is? What are we to make of “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”?

      Life is not linear, although we tend to experience it that way. Salvation is certainly not linear. Salvation is incarnational, sacramental and even a liturgical partaking of the visible and the invisible the created and the uncreated, yet all linked and in good order. Just a non-linear order

      I can only recognize that I need mercy and because of my great need for mercy, I must extend that same mercy to others. However, mercy requires a standard that is unmet. True universalism as commonly understood erases any standard and neither mercy nor repentance is necessary.

      That mercy clearly extends beyond what many people think. Just in my own life I have experienced that mercy in uncommon and unwarranted ways more times than I can count. It is why I am still alive.

      One of the specific reasons I was originally attracted to the Orthodox Church was because she abides by the Pauline teaching that there is a standard of behavior and belief that should never be violated or one’s salvation is in peril BUT when that one cannot live up to that standard “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” Heb 4:16

      I found no other tradition that embodies both. We live in the BUT and the AND, we live in what often seem a paradoxical uniting of what, in a linear world, appear as opposites, not the least of which is that Our Lord Jesus Christ is “fully God and fully man” .

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      • Edward De Vita says:

        Michael,
        Just so you know, I am not Orthodox (though I have great respect for Orthodoxy). I am a Catholic.

        Ed

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Michael, if you were to survey the important non-Orthodox writers, such as Thomas Talbott, Robin Parry, and Eric Reitan, you would find that their universalism is very close to what St Isaac and Sergius Bulgakov have written on the topic. They all insist on the need for absolute repentance. They all speak of judgment and hell. What they contest is the dogmatic claim that some human beings will be “eternally” damned forever.

        You rightly wonder what “eternally” means in this context. Clearly God’s eternity is different from creaturely eternity. Bulgakov spends several pages on this. Paul Evokimov also touches on the question in his book Orthodoxy:

        “The general view of eternal torment is only a textbook opinion, simplistic theology (of the penitential sort) which neglects the depth of texts such as John 3.17 and 12.47. Can we really believe that, alongside the eternity of the Kingdom of God, God has provided another eternity of hell? Surely, this would amount to a failure in the divine plan, even a partial victory of evil? Now, St Paul, in 1 Cor. 15.55, states quite the opposite. St Augustine did indeed oppose the more generous interpretations of the tender mercies of God, but that was out of a concern to avoid libertinism and sentimentality; besides, fear would not only be useless in pedagogical argument today, but would make Christianity dangerously like Islam. A healthy trembling before holy things keeps the world from becoming bland, but real fear is drive out by perfect love (1 John 4.18).

        “Perhaps we should say that hell is neither in eternity, nor in objectively measured time, but in subjective isolation, and is consequently ghostly and unreal, a form of subjective inexistence.

        “The Fifth Ecumenical Council did not occupy itself with the duration of the torments of hell. The Emperor Justinian (who for a while resembled Jonah, who was righteously angry because the wicked escaped punishment presented his personal teaching to the Patriarch Menas in 543. The Patriarch used it to elaborate some arguments against neo-Origenism. Pope Vigilius confirmed them. By mistake, they have been attributed to the Fifth Ecumenical Council itself, but the teaching was only a personal opinion, and the contradictory teaching of St Gregory of Nyssa has never been condemned. The question remains open, the answer depending perhaps on human charity. St Anthony’s explanation is one of the most profound: apocatastasis, the salvation of all, is not a doctrine, but a prayer for the salvation of all except me, for whom alone hell exists” (p. 338).

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  9. Mina says:

    I have a gnawing question. What would St. Athanasius say? I heard he says very little, if any at all on this issue. Nevertheless, there is a hint, but it can be argued it’s not much of a hint. In his “On the Incarnation”, he writes:

    The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting. It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do?

    I find one can go either way. After the Incarnation, would it still be monstrous to let all rational creatures who would share in the nature of the Word perish forever in the fires of hell? Or is it reasonable now rather than monstrous given that God had the most compassion to take flesh in order to save them? This tiny little hint from St. Athanasius always gnawed at me, but I think this is also an indication that we should not be dogmatic either about one view or the other, but we continue to see it as it truly is, a mystery that “neither eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor heart can contemplate”.

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  10. Karen says:

    Dear Father,

    This issue is made all the more piercing for me inasmuch as I learned earlier this week that my cousin’s grandson (who must have been only in his late teens or 20 at most) committed suicide last weekend in the same way that my cousin, his grandfather, did just a few years ago. I can’t fathom the grief of my cousin’s daughter who is mother of this young man. If there is no happy ending here as St. Isaac teaches (to hark back to one of your posts on Bulgakov about bad endings ruining good stories), then I can’t see how this life can be anything but a bad story (a nightmare really) that ends badly for most. I read in an article by Fr. George Morelli on the web site of the Antiochian Archdiocese that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10-25. How in the world can anyone believe God will get glory from that if it can result in nothing more than endless torment in eternity? St. Isaac pray for all of us!

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  11. Michael Bauman says:

    Having suffered for years with suicidal ideation before coming to the Church it is a temptation that is a constant demonic whisper once one begins to allow the noon day demon in.

    It comes in many variations on the theme that everything will be better if you kill yourself. The demon sounds so reasonable: do this, and pain goes away. It is a lie from the depths of hell but it does not sound like it. The voice sounds so much like one’s own inner voice.

    By God’s grace I never quite believed it. I always found the strength and just enough hope to say no. For those who succumb the voice gets louder and more incessant pushing even the hope for hope away.

    May God forgive us for creating a culture where our young are hopeless. My prayers are always with the victims of this demon–living and dead.

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