Preaching the Astonishing Love of God with St Isaac the Syrian

MarIsaac_zpsac10bda7.jpg~original.jpegWho among the Eastern Fathers has written more eloquently, more profoundly about the astonishing love of God Almighty than St Isaac the Syrian? “In Isaac’s understanding,” states Met Hilarion Alfeyev, “God is above all immeasurable love. The conviction that God is love dominates Isaac’s thought: it is the source of his theological opinions, ascetical recom­mendations and mystical thought.”1 Sadly this great doctor of the divine love remains relatively un­known in English-speaking Christendom. Only in recent decades have his discourses become available in translation. Yet despite Isaac’s relative obscurity, I believe that his writings are necessary reading for all Orthodox and Catholic preachers, pastors, and con­fessors. Why do I say this? Because having heard my fair share of Orthodox and Catholic sermons over the past eight years, I am convinced that most Orthodox and Catholic preachers simply do not understand what it means to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. They do not under­stand that preaching is, first and foremost, the declaration of the God who is absolute love and mercy. The large majority of homilies I have heard may be characterized as exhortation:

  • exhortations to good behavior;
  • exhortations to imitate Christ in his care for the poor;
  • exhortations to repentance and the acquisition of the virtues;
  • exhortations to prayer and ascetical discipline;
  • exhortations to adhere to the dogmas and traditions of the Church.

But rarely, oh so rarely, have I heard the kerygmatic announcement of the surprising and unmerited mercy of God. Rarely have I heard the proclamation of the resurrection of Christ and the eschatological existence now freely given to us in the Church by the Spirit. Rarely have I heard of the God who leaves his flock in search for one lost sheep and upon finding it lays it on his shoulders and rejoicing takes it back to the flock. Rarely have I heard that God’s good will for us will triumph, come what may. Orthodox and Catholic preachers prefer to exhort, urge, counsel, warn, admonish their congregations. They do not understand that by itself this kind of preaching cannot save. Exhortation alone either drives away sinners away in despair or makes them into Pharisees frantically trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The prophet Amos declaimed: “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord God, ‘when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD'” (Amos 8:11). In the Church today we are experienc­ing a famine of the gospel. We are exhorted to act better, to pray better, to live better, to be better; but we are not given the only Word that can actually transform us and make us new. Only the proclamation of love effectively communicates the abundant life that Christ came to bring us. St Isaac the Syrian is a salutary antidote to the crisis of preaching in the Church.

Isaac’s reflections on the divine love are scattered throughout his discourses (First Part and Second Part). I cannot point to a single homily or two in which Isaac expounds on the love of God at great length, though Homily 38 in the Second Part is a good place to begin. Fortunately Alfeyev has written a fine introduction to Isaac’s mystical thought, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, and it is readily available from Orthodox bookstores and internet booksellers. Every preacher should read and inwardly digest this book. I wish I had been acquainted with the discourses of St Isaac during my years of active ministry. Perhaps I would have been a better preacher. I know I would have been a better disciple of Jesus Christ.

For Isaac the world is a gift of the divine love. It begins in love and will be consummated in love. This love is unconquerable and irresistible, not because it coerces—God forbid!—but because it woos us into the Trinitarian life through its intrinsic beauty, truth, and good­ness:

What profundity of richness, what mind and exalted wisdom is God’s! What compassionate kindness and abundant goodness belongs to the Creator! With what purpose and with what love did He create this world and bring it into existence! What a mystery does the coming into being of this creation look towards! To what a state is our common nature invited! What love served to initiate the creation of the world! This same love which initiated the act of creation prepared beforehand by another dispensation the things appropriate to adorn the world’s majesty which sprung forth as a result of the might of His love.

In love did He bring the world into existence; in love does He guide it during this its temporal existence; in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised. And since in the New World the Creator’s love rules over all rational nature, the wonder at His mysteries that will be revealed then will captivate to itself the intellect of all rational beings whom He has created so that they might have delight in Him, whether they be evil or whether they be just. (II.38.1-2)

What a magnificent passage! God has created the world in love and for love. Angels and human beings alike have been brought into existence to delight in the divine mercy and to enjoy eternal communion with the God who is love. Everything that God has done, every­thing that he does in the present and will do in the future, is an expression of love. “Among all his actions,” Isaac declares, “there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love, and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of his dealings with us” (II. 39.22). Here is the purpose of creation and the Incarnation, “to reveal his boundless love to the world.”2

The love of God is indiscriminate, promiscuous, prodigal. It intends every rational creature. As Jesus teaches, the Father who is in heaven “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:45). There is no one “who is to the front of or to the back of God’s love. Rather, He has a single equal love which covers the whole extent of rational creation, all things whether visible or invisible: there is no first or last place with Him in this love for any single one of them” (II.38.2). There is no before or after, no greater or lesser. The divine love addresses and upholds all equally. St Isaac firmly rejects the Calvinist thesis that God has predestined some human beings for damnation. Such a thesis is unthinkable, indeed blasphemous. Every being created by God is loved by God. Our disobedience does not change the character of the Father; our sin does not diminish his love for us. “There is no hatred or resentment in His nature,” Isaac explains, “no greater or lesser place in His love, no before or after in His knowledge” (II.38.5). No matter how much disorder we cause in the world, no matter how grievous our sin, no matter how horrific the evil we commit, God’s salvific will for us does not change. He eternally wills our good, and in his wise providence he will accomplish this good. “There exists with Him a single love and compassion which is spread out over all creation, a love which is without alteration, timeless, and everlasting” (II.40.1).

The providence of love encompasses all material and spiritual dimensions:

Let us consider then how rich in its wealth is the ocean of His creative act, and how many created things belong to God, and how in His compassion He carries everything, acting providentially as He guides creation; and how with a love that cannot be measured He arrived at the establishment of the world and the beginning of creation; and how compassionate God is, and how patient; and how He loves creation, and how He carries it, gently enduring its importunity, the various sins and wickednesses, the terrible blasphemies of demons and evil men. Then, once someone has stood amazed, and filled his intellect with the majesty of God, amazed at all these things He has done and is doing, then he wonders in astonishment at His mercifulness, how, after all these things, God has prepared for them another world that has no end, whose glory is not even revealed to the angels, even though they are involved in His activities insofar as is possible in the life of the spirit, in accordance with the gift with which their nature has been endowed. That person wonders too at how excelling is that glory, and how exalted is the manner of existence at that time; and how insig­ni­ficant is the present life compared to what is reserved for creation in the New Life; and how, in order that the soul’s life will not be deprived of that blessed state because of misusing the freewill it has received, He has devised in His mercifulness a second gift, which is repentance, so that by it the soul’s life might acquire renewal every day and thereby every time be put aright. (II.10.19)

The merciful God has provided a way for sinful creatures to avail themselves of the mercy of God—repentance. Nor is repentance something beyond our capabilities, says Isaac. God understands our weaknesses and limits. Repentance involves the whole person, mind, will, conscience, heart, “so that it might be easy for everyone to acquire benefit from it, both quickly and at any time” (II.10.19).

The infinite love of the Creator is dramatically displayed in the Incarnation of the Son. Why did God become man? Why did Jesus die on the cross? Certainly not to propitiate an angry deity. If God’s sole purpose were to achieve the remission of sins, he could have accom­plished this end by another means. The cross is the perfect and compelling revelation of the divine mercy. Isaac understood that sinners would not and could not believe in the possi­bil­ity of their reconciliation with their Maker without a revelation embodied in the terrible suffering and bloody death of God himself:

If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe himself in the body, using gentleness and humility in order to bring the world back to his Father? And why was he stretched out on the cross for the sake of sinners, handing over his sacred body to suffering on behalf of the world? I myself say that God did all this for no other reason than to make known to the world the love that he has, his aim being that we, as a result of our greater love arising from an awareness of this, might be captivated by his love when he provided the occasion of this manifes­ta­tion of the kingdom of heaven’s mighty power—which consists in love—by means of the death of his Son.3

God must die on the cross. Only thus can human hearts be pierced and turned away from self and sin; only thus can mankind apprehend the true identity and nature of their Creator and be converted to the path of salvation. It is the divine love, manifested in the humility and death of the Son, that transfigures sinners and brings them into everlasting life. The divine charity is cruciform.

But the sum of all is that God the Lord surrendered His own Son to death on the Cross for the fervent love of creation…. This was not, however, because He could not have redeemed us in another way, but so that His surpassing love, manifested hereby, might be a teacher unto us. And by the death of His only-begotten Son He made us near to Himself. Yeah, if He had had any­thing more precious, He would have given it to us, so that by it our race might be His own. (I.71)

St Isaac quotes the famous verse from the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16).

Why do we not hear this message of the astonishing love of God every Sunday, Sunday after Sunday, in our Churches? This is the gospel. There is no other gospel worth preaching, no other gospel worth hearing. In a world filled with wickedness, suffering, despair, and death, we desperately need to hear the proclamation of the omnipotent power of God’s love and mercy. We need to know that he treasures us, that he has a plan for us, that his saving will for us and the world will triumph. Only thus does it become possible for us to cooperate with him in prayer and good works. In the words of the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar:

Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed. This is the achievement, the ‘work’ of faith: to recognize this absolute prius, which nothing else can surpass; to believe that there is such a thing as love, absolute love, and that there is nothing higher or greater than it; to believe against all the evidence of experience (‘credere contra fidem‘ like ‘spere contra spem‘), against every ‘rational’ concept of God, which thinks of him in terms of impassibility or, at best, totally pure goodness, but not in terms of this inconceivable and senseless act of love.4

Without the preaching of the boundless love of God enfleshed in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, the Church has no reason to exist; indeed it cannot exist, for it is the Word of love that creates the new life that is the Church. Without love, there is no theosis, no repentance, no sanctification, only Pharisaic zeal and deadly dogmatism.

(16 March 2013; rev.)

Footnotes

[1] Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, pp. 35-36.

[2] Quoted in Alfeyev, p. 36.

[3] Quoted in Alfeyev, p. 52.

[4] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible, pp. 101-102.

(Go to “Scandalous Injustice of Grace”)

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11 Responses to Preaching the Astonishing Love of God with St Isaac the Syrian

  1. Counter-Rebel says:

    OP: “This love is unconquerable and irresistible, not because it coerces—God forbid!—but because it woos us into the Trinitarian life through its intrinsic beauty, truth, and good­ness.”
    Alan Watts: “The only way to change human behavior is to woo. Instead of preach. To make love, instead of threatening disaster. To point out how glorious something could be. And in some way to live it.”
    There shall be a universalist revolution, or the church will continue to shrink.

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  2. “For Isaac the world is a gift of the divine love. It begins in love and will be consummated in love. This love is unconquerable and irresistible, not because it coerces—God forbid!—but because it woos us into the Trinitarian life through its intrinsic beauty, truth, and good­ness:”

    Amen! And how overwhelmingly beautiful is the passage that follows!

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  3. Andrew says:

    As much as I revere St Isaac, as much as I am firmly convinced of his beliefs regarding Gehenna, the love of God, etc. I can’t escape the impression that Isaac wasn’t speaking to us. He was speaking to a very specific, very exclusive group- monks of the Nestorian/Church of the East who were committed to the most extreme forms of self denial. It doesn’t matter, I know. By some miracle St Isaac is revered by the whole world and I am most grateful. God wants us to know about him you might say. But how do we interpret him? Isaac’s writings are filled to the brim with exhortations to not just good works but advanced forms of asceticism. I have always personally found it a challenge, to say the least, to separate his vision of God’s love from his vision of asceticism and I am inclined to think they cannot be separated, that they have to be interpreted together. His writings on justification from Part III only partly clear up the situation. I don’t experience the grace of unmerited salvation when I read Isaac, for that I have turn to the scriptures. When I read St Isaac I experience the end of terror before God, complete relief and the hope of God’s mercy for the entire world.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Andrew, I often feel the same way whenever I read any of the great Orthodox ascetics. They live in a different world than I do, and there simply is no way I can practice the kind of life that they commend. I am an ascetic failure. I can only hope that Christ can and will find a way to save failures like myself.

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  4. What do you think we should make of the fact that the gospel is rarely if ever preached properly “out in the field?” You have mentioned previously your disappointment with your experience being in the pews during sermons and homilies, and this matches up with my own experience thus far. The unconditional gospel promise simply never seems to be proclaimed. I’m just not sure how to emotionally and rationally process this: What does it mean for ecclesiology for example? The catholic and orthodox churches maintain sacraments and apostolic succession, but the faithful never hear the saving word articulated to them personally outside the confessional. It’s a confusing and disturbing situation. I tend to find myself more edified by reading your blog and following up your references to other thinkers, whereas attending services and liturgies tends to leave me with a heavy sense of disappointment on account of the preaching, regardless of how beautiful and charismatic the liturgy might otherwise be.
    In short, I yearn for all the ministers, priests and bishops that preach to me to proclaim that unconditional gospel proclamation, but it never happens, and im not sure what to make of it. Its a weird age when the gospel is articulated more clearly on a blog than it is from actual pulpit hahaha

    Perhaps the secret is that such a powerful communication of the gospel only ever happens in secret these days, person to person, All the great Jenson and Forde-ian theories about preaching actually describe something happening between soldiers in the trenches, rather than actual congregational homiletics

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    • TJF says:

      “Only ever” is probably your experience, but not mine. I’d say it’s a mix and it honestly leans more to unconditional in my parish. Every now and again a caveat is thrown in or we are instructed to help the poor, which I think is good anyways. And besides the main reason for attending liturgy isn’t the sermon. In fact, I prefer when there isn’t one. I now attend an Antiochian Orthodox one, but used to attend a ROCOR parish and there they never preached, liturgy only. I thought that was nice. Many of the traditional orthodox hymns convey unconditional promise.

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      • I would agree with you that the kerygma is captured with much more “solidity” in liturgical prayers, but it isnt always as “clear” or “personal” as it could be, at least in my experience with roman rites. Perhaps eastern liturgy proclaims it better. In any case, that’s great that youre experience is different 🙂

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