Mary Prokathartheisa: A Patristic Antecedent to the Immaculate Conception


In his monograph Immaculate Conception, Fr Christiaan Kappes advances a controversial thesis: invoking prokathartheisa (prepurified) as a title for the Theotokos, “the Greek Fathers—in the line of the Nazianzen until the introduction of Byzantine Thomism in the 14th century—never vacillated about the all-immaculate status of the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her existence until her glorious assumption into heaven” (pp. 196-197).

Now I confess I had never heard of Mary’s prepurification. When I read through the Festal Orations of St Gregory the Theologian a couple of years ago, I passed right over the refer­ences to her prepurification:

And in every way He became a man, save sin; for He has been conceived from a virgin, after she had been prepurified (prokathartheisa) with respect to soul and body through the Holy Spirit (for it was necessary that His birth be honored, and virginity be honored prior to that); and every way He was born a man, save sin. (Or. 38.13; trans. Kappes)

Here is the passage as translated by Sr Nonna Harrison. I’ll start two lines earlier:

He approaches his own image and bears flesh because of my flesh and mingles himself with a rational soul because of my soul, purifying like by like. And in all things he becomes a human being, except sin. He was conceived by the Virgin, who was purified beforehand in both soul and flesh by the Spirit, for it was necessary that procreation be honored and that virginity be honored more. (p. 71)

Kappes notes that when Rufinus translated the Nativity oration into Latin in the late 4th century, he rendered the Greek word prokathartheisa by the Latin word immaculata.

To what event or process does this prepurification by the Spirit refer? Gregory does not specify, as Kappes acknowledges. My immediate thought is that Gregory must be referring to the events of Mary’s childhood, as described in the 2nd century document the Proto­evan­gelium of James—or as Frederica Mathewes-Green names it, the Gospel of Mary. Was not Mary miraculously conceived in the barren womb of Anna in response to prayer? Was she not blessed by the priests when she was one-year old and taken to the Temple when she was three, where God poured grace upon her as she danced in his presence? And did she not dwell in the Temple for nine years and receive food from the hand of an angel? When one reads the Protoevangelium, one cannot but be impressed by the young maiden’s purity and holiness of spirit. It thus seems reasonable to understand the totality of her pre-Annuncia­tion existence as a sanctifying preparation for her virginal conception of Jesus. Jeremiah and John the Baptist both received the prophetic Spirit while in the womb. Is not the Theotokos greater than they? Such, I think, is the logic driving Kappes’s analysis.

Gregory also speaks of the Blessed Virgin’s prepurification in one of his dogmatic poems:

Nor was a moral man fashioned by the flow of a mortal seed: yet, thus, He’s from flesh. That non-bride faithful Mother, the Spirit purified prior, As man, a confined mortal, He came: but He was purified. (Carmina IX; trans. Kappes)

Here is Peter Gilbert’s translation (On God and Man). Again I include some extra lines:

Emptying himself of his glory as the immortal God the Father’s motherless Son, he appeared for me himself, without a father, a strange son; yet no stranger, since from my own kind came this immortal, being made man by a virgin mother, so that the whole of him might save the whole of me. For it was, again, the total Adam who fell, through that illicit taste. Therefore, humanly, and not after human custom, in the hallowed womb of a maid inviolate he took flesh. …

Neither by man’s seed did he become man, but it was from that flesh which the Spirit had hallowed before hand, of an unwedded, cherished mother that he came, a self-made man: and he was purified for my sake. (pp. 68-69)

But an objection immediately arises: Does not purification suggest purification from something, specifically, from ritual pollution or moral fault? But Fr Kappes has a ready reply. Consider how Gregory speaks of the baptism of Christ:

So then, a little later, you will see too Jesus purified (in place of my purifi­cation) in the Jordan; but better, He was making holy the waters by purifi­cation (for indeed He was in no need of purification, since He is the one taking away the sin of the world). (Or. 38.16; trans. Kappes)

So shortly you will also see the purification of Jesus in the Jordan for my purification; or rather he is cleansed for the purification of the waters, for he indeed did not need purification, who takes away the sin of the world. (Or. 38.16; trans. Harrison)

fig-21_zpse78d01f8.jpg~original.jpegJesus, too, undergoes a purification, though Gregory immediately goes on to qualify this statement. The incarnate Son does not, of course, need purification and cleansing; but he submits to the purification of John vicar­iously on our behalf. If he who was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary can undergo purification in the Jordan and be baptized in the Spirit, thus demon­strating that “purifi­ca­tion” need not be understood as a cleansing from pollution or sin, perhaps the same extended meaning might be applied to Mary. “We find ourselves constrained,” argues Kappes, “… to admit that only the following meanings of ‘purification’ are possible in the overall context” (p. 26):

  • It is an exterior sign pointing to an outpouring of a grace on a person
  • It is an event which bespeaks a “special preparation” for personal merit

I do not yet feel constrained. I will not say that Fr Kappes’s proposal is exegetically implau­sible; but it needs to be tested against the Nazianzen’s understanding of Incarnation and atonement. Is it compatible, for example, with the famous Gregorian maxim “What has not been assumed has not been healed” (Ep. 101)? Some scholars, notably Thomas F. Torrance, argue that in the Incarnation the eternal Son assumed fallen human nature. Torrance cites the following passage from St Gregory of Nyssa:

Although Christ took our filth upon himself, nevertheless he is not himself defiled by the pollution, but in his own self he cleanses the filth, for it says, the light shone in the darkness, but the darkness did not overpower it. (Adv. Apol. 26; quoted in The Trinitarian Faith, p. 162)

God the Word saves and deifies us, asserts Torrance, by penetrating to the depths of the human condition, uniting our disordered human nature to himself and thus healing it within himself. He believes this is the teaching of St Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers. Is Torrance right, and if so, how does it harmonize with the sanctification of human nature in the person of the Virgin Mary?

In his book Mary and the Fathers of the Church, Fr Luigi Gambero comments on the text cited above from Oration 38: “From this doctrine of Mary’s purification before the concep­tion of Christ emerges an intuition of that truth which, in 1854, the Church would define as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception” (p. 163). But it is a long road from 4th century Cappadocia to 19th century Rome.

(10 December 2015; rev.)

(Go to “St Mark Eugenicus”)

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St John the Wonderworker and the Heresy of the Immaculate Conception

A7F386CF-955F-4A4A-B334-CE3041127524The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, solemnly defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854, is regularly cited by Orthodox theologians and apologists as an insuper­able barrier to the reunion of the Orthodox and Cath­olic Churches. According to St John of Shanghai and San Francisco, the doctrine represents a heretical depar­ture from the faith received by the Church: “None of the anci­ent Holy Fat­hers say that God in mira­culous fashion puri­fied the Vir­gin Mary while yet in the womb; and many directly indi­cate that the Vir­gin Mary, just as all men, endu­red a battle with sin­ful­ness, but was victo­rious over temp­ta­tions and was saved by Her Divine Son.” In contrast, he quotes these words of a 19th century Catholic bishop, Jean-Baptiste Balou of Bruges: “In three respects—as Daughter, as Mother, and as Spouse of God—the Holy Virgin is exalted to a certain equality with the Father, to a certain superi­ority over the Son, to a certain nearness to the Holy Spirit.” The Roman Church, he believes, has so exalted the Blessed Virgin that she has virtually become a fourth member of the Trinity: “Thus the Roman church, in its stri­vings to exalt the Most Holy Vir­gin, is going on the path of com­plete dei­fi­ca­tion of Her.”

John advances five objections to the Latin dogma:

  1.  “The teaching of the complete sinlessness of the Mother of God does not correspond to Sacred Scripture, where there is repeatedly mentioned the sinlessness of the One Mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ (I Tim. 2:5); and in Him is no sin (John 3:5); Who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth (I Peter 2:22); One that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15); Him Who knew no sin, He made to be sin on our behalf (II Cor. 5:21).”
  2. “This teaching contradicts also Sacred Tradition, which is contained in numerous Patristic writings, where there is mentioned the exalted sanctity of the Virgin Mary from Her very birth, as well as Her cleansing by the Spirit at Her conception of Christ, but not at Her own conception by Anna.”
  3. “The teaching that the Mother of God was purified before Her birth, so that from Her might be born the Pure Christ, is meaningless; because if the Pure Christ could be born only if the Virgin might be born pure, it would be necessary that Her parents also should be pure of original sin, and they again would have to be born of purified parents, and going further in this way, one would have to come to the conclusion that Christ could not have become incarnate unless all His ancestors in the flesh, right up to Adam inclusive, had been purified beforehand of original sin. But then there would not have been any need for the very Incarnation of Christ, since Christ came down to earth in order to annihilate sin.”
  4. “The teaching that the Mother of God was preserved from original sin, as likewise the teaching that She was preserved by God’s grace from personal sins, makes God unmerciful and unjust; because if God could preserve Mary from sin and purify Her before Her birth, then why does He not purify other men before their birth, but rather leaves them in sin?”
  5. “This teaching, which seemingly has the aim of exalting the Mother of God, in reality completely denies all Her virtues. After all, if Mary, even in the womb of Her mother, when She could not even desire anything either good or evil, was preserved by God’s grace from every impurity, and then by that grace was preserved from sin even after Her birth, then in what does Her merit consist? If She could have been placed in the state of being unable to sin, and did not sin, then for what did God glorify Her? If She, without any effort, and without having any kind of impulses to sin, remained pure, then why is She crowned more than everyone else. There is no victory without an adversary.”

In one form or another, the above objections to the Immaculate Conception doctrine are now commonplace in Orthodox apologetics. Roman Catholic theologians might question whether John has accurately stated the Latin doctrine, and they no doubt have answers at hand to the above objections—but that is by the by. What is important is modern Ortho­doxy’s almost unanimous rejection of the Immaculate Conception. Reunion with Rome is thus impossible, until it repents of its heresy.

Yet as we saw with Fr Lev Gillet’s article, in the first-half of the second millennium many Byzantine theologians and preachers not only spoke of the prenatal sanctification of the Theotokos in ways that seemingly approximate the Immaculate Conception; but they exalted her so highly as would make many modern Orthodox squirm in their pews (if they have them). In his article St John ironically invokes Western sources (Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas) to support his condemnation of the Immaculate Conception, yet he does not cite Eastern authorities, much less formal denunciations, from the same period. Why is that? It was not because Byzantium was unacquainted with the Latin proposal.

And so we ask: Must the Eastern Church condemn the Latin doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as heretical? Might it enshrine a truth that the Eastern Church must affirm, once it is detached from the Latin teaching on original sin? Perhaps, just perhaps, an Orthodox construal of the doctrine is possible.

(6 September 2015; rev.)

(Go to “Mary Prokathartheisa”)

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Book Review: ‘Beneath the Silent Heavens’

by Jess Lederman

Beneath the Silent Heavens, Brian Christopher Moore’s enchanting, beautifully written, and thought-provoking retelling of the story of Noe (Noah) and the Flood, is subtitled A Fantasy. There’s a long history of Christian-themed fantasies (arguably including portions of the Bible itself!), with C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s tales of Middle Earth looming large in most readers’ minds. For me, however, Moore’s novel has the darkly mysterious mood and intriguing ambiguities of a different Inkling, Charles Williams, and of the grandfather of modern fantasy, George MacDonald (Phantastes and Lilith in particular).

The antediluvian world that Moore evokes is desperately fallen, yet still retains traces of Edenic glory. Animals can talk; Noe’s family knows the location of the Garden, though only great-grandfather Enoch ever sought it (and was never heard from again); the pelts given to Adam and Eve when they were banished—”the prime bloody coverings for the First Ones”—are close at hand, locked away in a cedar chest.

It’s a world even stranger than that of Scripture, painted at times in the sepia tones of the late Victorian era: cameras have recently been invented; an actor wears a “paisley waist­coat;” and Noe’s mother serves tea and biscuits. The zeitgeist is creepily similar to our own. Intellectuals regard tales of the Ancient of Days with snide skepticism; a visiting professor remarks to Methuselah, “It’s a wonder to me … that in these enlightened days anyone can seriously entertain such fairy tales.” At one point a demonic law firm named Womble & Doubt threatens to sue Noe on the grounds that “the ark was a crime of hate speech … an illicit intrusion of private morality into the public realm.”

Moore takes full advantage of fantasy to create some very funny scenes. This ranges from wordplay—for example, describing a giant panda as “nibbling on a large shoot of bamboo which happened to contain the first volume of The Rise and Fall of the Gibbon Empire“—to passages reminiscent of Monty Python, as when a heron lectures a tiger “on the fine points of etiquette. He spent five minutes explaining the proper way to tie a Windsor knot and another ten on the best way of putting a foreign ambassador at ease. (Not, apparently, bringing in a local choir to sing some popular native tunes, but simply to be kind, yet frank, and free with the food).”

I don’t want to give the impression, however, that this is merely a work of amusing weird­ness; Beneath the Silent Heavens is deeply moving, intensely lyrical, and intriguingly complex, rewarding me every time I dive back into its pages.

The story opens with banter between two vixen, Henrietta and Daphne Fox, and it’s a good example of the bittersweet poignancy even in seemingly whimsical scenes. Their conversa­tion is overheard by young Noe, apparently the only human who can still understand and talk to animals, and Henrietta shyly exchanges a few words with him:

A strange sensation she could hardly explain had come over her. She felt a sort of surge of joy and couldn’t help smiling. “What’s your name, if you don’t mind my asking? The Two Legs usually don’t understand us, you see.” “Yes, I’ve noticed [Noe replied]. Somehow I think we are supposed to.”

This and other passages put me in mind of C.S. Lewis. Hints of Paradise come upon us at times, surprising us with joy, and we know that things are not the way they are supposed to be.

In Genesis, Noe’s wife is a cipher, but in Moore’s imagining she is the lovely Priyanka, daughter of Iradon, “a trader from afar” (the Indian subcontinent, evidently). As a young man, Noe observes Iradon’s unexpected arrival and is startled by the sight of “giant crea­tures unlike anything he had ever seen.” The author’s exquisite descriptive language is one of the consistent delights of this novel:

They were thick, paunchy beasts with leathery skin the color of storm sky. Ivory tusks ploughed the air before them, their enormous wide ears and long, impossible snouts flapping as they marched. Most surprising, men sat upon them, dark-skinned and turbaned; some saddled in small tents.

The steadily deepening love between Noe and Priyanka—over centuries!—while not at the center of the story, provides romantic warmth, as in this passage, describing the couple’s regular horseback rides:

Once a week, they promised themselves this time. Their ardor for one another, its intense need for space, to stretch and speak and be silent, forget­ful of duties and cares was made more precious by the feeling that each idyll of the horses might be their last…. Afterwards, Priyanka lay flat, peering without thinking into the soft sky. Noe reclined upon his side, watching the rise and fall of her bosom, breathing in the light scent of jasmine that drifted from her lambent skin.

Searching for Salvation

Most fantasies involve a quest, and this one is no exception. There are several quests within Beneath the Silent Heavens, but for this reader the overarching quest is the search for the God of our salvation.

At the beginning of the story, when Noe sees the trees swaying and hears the heavy footfalls of Iradon’s elephants as they approach, he asks whether this might be the Ancient of Days. Methuselah doubts that He would announce Himself in this matter, and adds, “It has been many years since any have heard Him.”

For most of us, for most of our lives, the heavens are indeed silent. All too often, that silence only becomes an issue in times of distress; then we look for God, and perhaps tremble, seeking to understand His heart, wondering how a good God could possibly allow the pain and evil that afflicts His creation. As Priyanka asks Noe in one of their earliest conversations, “Why does your Ancient of Days look on while men suffer? How can he be good and let men die in agony?” Much later, a satanic voice asks, “Why, if your Ancient of Days is so all-powerful, so benevolent, why did this superior being choose to make just this world? Couldn’t he have thought up a better one?… when he saw all that was going to happen …didn’t he have the decency to just say ‘no’?”

David Bentley Hart has pointed out that this “problem of pain” is nowhere better articulated than by Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, in which Ivan Karamazov “will not acknowledge that there is any justice, any glory, any truth that is worth the suffering of a child.” I was reminded of this early in the novel when the gamboling of Moore’s talking otters and weasels takes a savagely serious turn. They have the misfortune to cross paths with Oglath, which in the tongue of beasts means “The Evil,” a monstrous creature with “scowling eyes the color of marsh gas.” Noe joins the animals to search for the otter mother’s missing children, only to find her pups “strung up and skinned, their skulls shining in the night air.”

The young Noe becomes a legend among the animals by leading them in a bloody quest to destroy the monster. In Noe lives what once was true, but was lost in the Fall, and this passage both looks backward, and, unknown to Noe, though evident to the reader, forward as well:

He knew then that to be a true king was not to be served, but to serve. He remembered the old amities, the story of the Adam who named them all. The secret of that intimate knowledge had been forgotten. Naming had somehow become a mere convention, a tool for utility. Only some of the poets and artists said this was wrong, but few had time for them. A trace of the gifted splendor lived in Noe. It was because of this that the beasts had heeded the call.

The slaying of the monster does not, of course, address the Problem of Pain—but Moore’s tale has just begun.

Long after the defeat of Oglath, a Bengal tiger named Rhumirrah who is “impossibly curious about the Two Legs” sets out on a quest to find Noe, hoping that he is not merely a “story for children.” Her search gains urgency when she hears the prophecy of Orianna the owl:

Doom is coming! Doom! The skies are full of wrath…. The dark waters will crash upon the land. The seas under the earth will break their bounds. Tears will wash the earth and the Heavens will be silent!”

Alarmed, Rhumirrah resolves to warn the animals, but Orianna voices her skepticism in this passage, which is good example of Moore’s wise, sardonic humor:

“They won’t listen, dear.” The tiger snarled her determination. “I will make them,” she said. “That’s just it. You can’t. They aren’t able to tell the difference between a prophet and a lunatic.” “How do you tell?” Orianna assumed the expression of a mild, slightly exasperated governess. “The prophet turns out to be right, of course.” That’s helpful, thought the tiger. Fat lot of good when it’s always after the fact.

Rhumirrah ultimately finds Noe who is, of course, busily building the ark. The tiger and a noble, stalwart bull by the name of Manwise go together to address a vast assembly of the animals and try to convince them to come aboard the ark. The bull’s simple, honest speech is no match for the sophistic eloquence of the Adversary, a satanic serpent, and it seems their quest has been in vain. On their way back to Noe, the tiger is gravely wounded, and Manwise must struggle to bear her body back to Noe, not even knowing if she is still alive. When they finally arrive, the ark-builder brings Rhumirrah back to health, and tales of the “bravery of Manwise and the healing act of Noe” are what sway the beasts and persuade them to come aboard the ark. It’s a touching story that illustrates how the most powerful evangelizing has more to do with Christ-like example than with rational discourse.

The book builds toward a climax aboard the ark with an incident that recalls the missing otter pups who suffered such a savage fate at the hands of The Evil. A cat’s kittens have gone missing, and Noe finds himself looking not only for them but for newborn rabbits and a baby goat who have vanished as well. His quest to find them is one of the novel’s most richly evocative, powerfully profound, and moving episodes. While he begins by searching the ark, he soon finds himself mysteriously transported in both space and time. When Noe explains that he is “looking for the babies,” he’s answered by a Dr. Thorenson, who’s running a nightmarish pediatric clinic:

All the children suffered from some sort of severe malady. There were babies confined to cribs, their heads swollen to the size of large watermelons. “Hydroencephalitis,” informed the doctor in a cool, clinical tone. The nurses had most of the children strapped down in beds or in strollers where their heads lolled to one side like abject ragdolls.

Moore has set the problem of pain right back before us, and the doctor, a cold-blooded, modern-day materialist, demonstrates how a rationalist could improve on God’s handiwork:

“Nature is profligate, but she makes mistakes,” said Dr. Thorenson, stopping before a girl with a cleft palate. “Think of all the unmerited pain,” he uttered almost in a moan of anguish. “With genetic screening and therapeutic selectivity, none of these children need ever have suffered.”

We turn in horror from the suggestion of eugenics, but the horror of “natural evil” remains, and Noe wonders, “should these children never have been born?”

At this point, he meets a new character, Father Peguy, whom the clinic staff regard as a sort of harmless fool. Though at first he appears a babbling “exile from the geriatric floor,” the priest turns out to be an otherworldly, loving figure, one of the novel’s great voices of wisdom. Referring to one of the ugly, afflicted children whom the clinic has given up on, Father Peguy says “I called to him, and when he came, I saw such brightness in his eyes.” The priest gets to the nut of the matter with these words:

“You know what has happened?… We have stopped loving life. We no longer believe it is a good thing. That is why the men in the city scold their loins and mothers apologize to their children for having borne them into such a place. And my children! We have no use for them. What a word—’use’—as if a man’s worth was in what he can do and not in the great and mighty mystery that he exists at all…. We have grown monstrously tired. Even our children are born old and leering, enticed by the serpent.”

This reprises a theme Moore introduces earlier in the story. When Noe first began to build the ark, children came from near and far

… to ask if they might ride in his great machine…. But now those children were grown, busy people. They no longer came to Noe with their joy and wonder … [and] the children of those children were weaned on sour milk…. Before they had a chance to live in innocence, to entertain marvelous dreams, their pure eyes were darkened.

Surely being “reborn from above” implies rediscovering our child-nature! Men and women have lost their delight in the fantastic, lost the child-heart they must regain to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 18:3)—to see, in fact, that the Kingdom is already all about us, however much we live in the not yet. Contrast the obedient child-nature with the secular ethos that Moore portrays in describing the Kai, a people of Noe’s time who are all about us in the world today:

The precise nature of the Kai was deliberately ambiguous so there was no distinct belief to anchor the rites of the people…. True freedom cannot be had in obedience. How can the spirit not grieve and prick against the goad?

Each Kai thought that rights must be respected, that freedom and self-determination were the essence of morality…. Every trace of individuality and nobility had been drained from their visages.

To be reborn as a child of the Kingdom is also to discover who we are meant to be, the life we are meant to lead, indescribably better than anything we could invent for ourselves. The words below, which Father Peguy speaks to Noe, remind me of George MacDonald’s medi­tation on the white rock of Rev. 2:17 (“The New Name,” from Unspoken Sermons) and C.S. Lewis’ musings in The Weight of Glory:

Into each of us is spoken a name. I don’t mean the name your parents gave you!… The name I intend is buried deep in our hearts…. We confuse our true identity with what we think of as our individuality…. Every man lies to himself. You have to cut away the fake, but to do that you must desire joy—and we are too weak for that. We confuse the gift with our chosen pleasures.”

Before Noe and Father Peguy part, the priest relates the following about one of the afflicted children:

“‘Aren’t you longing for your Lord?’ I asked, and he shook his head as if he really understood. There was such a look of excitement in his eyes and I said to him, ‘You are a child waiting for the snow.’ It came to me like a glimpse of his true name…. So, I brought him the Sacrament.” Father Peguy smiled. “And I have gone on doing so. All the children, I have been feeding.”

Noe, of course, knows nothing of Christ. And yet, the Lord is the true object of Noe’s quest, just as He is the object of all our longings, whether we understand that or not. (Near the beginning of Moore’s saga, Priyanka, while yet a pagan, relates a dream in which an imaginary grandfather with a “long, white beard” whispers “Fear not, dear one. The Deliverer will come,” and her heart leaps at the news.)

Immediately after this scene, the missing kittens and rabbits and kid goat are found; the promise of the future Kingdom comes into the present as a moment of deliverance and joy. Noe sees a radiant vision which promises “rest that was also adventure, plenitude rich in desire without the anguish of lack.” Surely that is what awaits us in Paradise!

A bit later on, the baffled Noe, time-travelling once again, encounters the Magi who have followed the star to Bethlehem, one of whom asks him

“[W]hat is it you seek?” “I seek the Deliverer,” spoke Noe in candor.

He then enters the stable and looks in wonder at figures that are clearly Joseph and Mary and the infant Jesus. So too is the afflicted child from the clinic, and countless more:

… children peeked out from every nook and corner. The young of every creature filled the hollows of the spaces, invested with innocence and a lush and elemental joy that seemed to flourish just here, in her presence…. Noe seemed to see himself and Priyank as they had been in the dawn of their love.”

Though Moore doesn’t make it explicit, this reader could not help but imagine that the otter pups slain by The Evil are there, too. In Christ all things are made new! Philosophers struggle to fashion convincing theodicies; I think they’re best crafted through poetry, instead. For my money, this is as good as it gets.

In an interview about his brief but brilliant meditation on the Problem of Pain, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami, David Bentley Hart mentions a photo of a little girl living in “unimaginable squalor,” and comments:

To me that was a heartbreaking picture, of course, but it was also an image of something amazing and glorious: the sheer ecstasy of innocence, the happiness of a child who can dance amid despair and desolation because her joy came with her into the world and prompts her to dance as if she were in the midst of paradise. She became for me the perfect image of the deep indwelling truth of creation, the divine Wisdom or Sophia who resides in the very heart of the world, the stainless image of God, the unfallen.

Perhaps Moore is tipping his hat to the Eastern Orthodox philosopher when, close to the end, he has one of Noe’s sons (speaking with the full knowledge of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection) reflect that

Sometimes, you will see a child dancing amidst indescribable poverty. Sometimes, in a little broken down rural shanty, there will be a radiance of existence denied to the pleasure palaces of the rich…. The transcendence of the God is the mystery of divine nearness. Some people say that God cannot be moved and isn’t this monstrous of him? They do not reckon the astonishing innocence of the God that endures every betrayal, for love that alters in the heart is not love.

Concluding Thoughts

Charles Dodgson read the draft of Alice in Wonderland to George MacDonald’s small army of children, who pronounced it a great success. I suspect that their father would find Moore’s fantasy similarly delightful. Its characters plunge into numerous rabbit holes, and readers with any curiosity will be tempted to take intriguing side excursions as well. The author presents an engraved invitation to one such journey by giving the priest whom Noe encounters the unusual name, “Peguy.” A little googling will lead you to the wonderful writings of the French philosopher-poet, Charles Peguy, who died on the front lines of the First World War. Encountering his poetry, even in translation, is a revelation.

In a review of Hart’s latest opus, That All Shall be Saved, Moore wrote: “to participate in Christ is to be given an eternal revelatory task, to unlock divine treasures for the joy of all that only you are summoned to release.” I’ll turn those words back onto their author, for this reader experienced great delight from the treasures Moore unlocked in Beneath the Silent Heavens. Is it a perfect book? Well, it’s certainly not for everyone. Those who prefer straight­forward storylines may feel that Moore can be idiosyncratic to the point of self-indulgence. There are sections where the narrative seems to explode into fragments; but the fact is, reality sometimes comes at us in shards, and the transcendent is glimpsed as through a kaleidoscope.

For me, it all worked.

* * *

Jess Lederman is author of the novel Hearts Set Free and founder of a website dedicated to George MacDonald: The Works of George MacDonald. He blogs now and then on

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“Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending”

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“When he came in obscurity, it was to be judged; when he comes openly it will be to judge”

“Our God will come openly; our God will come and will not keep silent.” The first coming of Christ the Lord, God’s Son and our God, was in obscurity; the second will be in sight of the whole world.

When he came in obscurity no one recognized him but his own servants; when he comes openly he will be known by both good people and bad. When he came in obscurity, it was to be judged; when he comes openly it will be to judge. He was silent at his trial, as the prophet foretold: “He was like a sheep led to the slaughter, like a lamb before his shearers. He did not open his mouth.” But, “Our God will come openly; our God will come and will not keep silence.” Silent when accused, he will not be silent as judge. And he is not silent now. By no means; when people of today recognize his voice and despise him, Scripture assures us that he will not be silent, he will not hold his hand.

Nowadays when the divine commands are spoken of, some people begin to jeer. They are not at present shown what God promises, they do not see what he threatens—so they laugh at his commands. After all, good people and bad enjoy this world’s so-called happiness; good people and bad suffer from what are deemed this world’s misfortunes. Those whose lives are geared to the present rather than the future are impressed by the fact that this world’s blessings and sufferings fall to the lot of good and bad without distinction. If wealth is their ambition, they see it being enjoyed not only by decent folk, but also by people of the worst kind. If they are in dread of poverty and all the other miseries of this world, they also see that the good and the bad both suffer from them. Therefore they say to themselves, “God does not care about human affairs, he exercises no control over them. On the contrary; he has sent us into the abyss of this world, and simply abandoned us to its sufferings. He shows no sign of his providence.” Consequently, seeing no evidence of anyone being called to account, such people hold God’s commands in derision.

Nevertheless, each person would do well to take thought even now, because when he wills to do so, God looks, and he judges; he will not tolerate an hour’s delay. When he wills to do so, he waits.

Why does he do this?

Surely if he never passed judgment in this present life, some people would think he does not exist. But if he always gave sentence here and now, there would be nothing reserved for the Day of Judgment. That is why much is kept for that day; but in order to put the fear of God into those whose cases are deferred, and so convert them, some judgments are made here and now. For it is clear that God takes no pleasure in condemning. His desire is to save, and he bears patiently with evil people in order to make them good. Yet we have the Apostle’s warning: “The wrath of God will be revealed from heaven against all ungodliness, and God will reward each one according to his deeds.”

The Apostle takes scoffers to task by asking them: “Do you think lightly of God’s abundant goodness and his forbearance?” Do you despise him and think his judgment a matter of no account because he is good to you, because he is long-suffering and bears with you patiently, because he delays the day of reckoning and does not destroy you out of hand?

“Do you not know that the patience of God is meant to lead you to repentance? By the hardness of your heart you are storing up wrath against yourself on that Day of Retribution,” when the righteous judgment of God will be revealed and he will give every one the reward his or her deeds deserve.

St Augustine of Hippo

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A Thanksgiving

I Thank Thee, boundless Giver,
That the thoughts Thou givest flow
In sounds that like a river
All through the darkness go.
And though few should swell the pleasure,
By sharing this my wine,
My heart will clasp its treasure,
This secret gift of Thine.

My heart the joy inherits,
And will oft be sung to rest;
And some wandering hoping spirits
May listen and be blest.
For the sound may break the hours
In a dark and gloomy mood,
As the wind breaks up the bowers
Of the brooding sunless wood.

For every sound of gladness
Is a prophet-wind that tells
Of a summer without sadness,
And a love without farewells;
And a heart that hath no ailing,
And an eye that is not dim,
And a faith that without failing
Shall be complete in Him.

And when my heart is mourning,
The songs it lately gave,
Back to their fount returning,
Make sweet the bitter wave;
And forth a new stream floweth,
In sunshine winding fair;
And through the dark wood goeth
Glad laughter on the air.

For the heart of man that waketh,
Yet hath not ceased to dream,
Is the only fount that maketh
The sweet and bitter stream.
But the sweet will still be flowing
When the bitter stream is dry,
And glad music only going
On the breezes of the sky.

I thank Thee, boundless Giver,
That the thoughts Thou givest flow
In sounds that like a river
All through the darkness go.
And though few should swell the pleasure
By sharing this my wine,
My heart will clasp its treasure,
This secret gift of Thine.

George MacDonald

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New Covenant and the Restoration of Zion

The LORD concludes the allegory of Jerusalem with the announcement of a new covenant. Despite his beloved’s infidelities, despite the severity of his judgments, he replights himself to her—definitively, irrevocably, everlastingly.

Yea, thus says the LORD GOD: I will deal with you as you have done, who have despised the oath in breaking the covenant, 60 yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish with you an everlasting covenant. 61 Then you will remember your ways, and be ashamed when I take your sisters, both your elder and your younger, and give them to you as daughters, but not on account of the covenant with you. 62 I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the LORD, 63 that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I forgive you all that you have done, says the LORD GOD.” (Ezek 16:59-63)

During my time in seminary (late 70s), one book that made a distinct impression upon me was Covenant and Promise by John Bright. I think it was one of the first books assigned to us by our Old Testament professor, Fr Joseph Hunt. If I recall correctly (unfortunately I no longer own the title to confirm my memory), Bright asserts two forms of covenant (berith): unilateral and unconditional (pure promise), unilateral but conditional (provisory prom­ise). The former is exemplified in the LORD‘s covenants with Abraham and David; the latter with Moses and the tribes of Israel. Bright claims that these two understandings of covenant came into conflict during the time of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s contem­poraries believed that God would never annul his covenant with David and therefore invariably pro­tect Zion from catastrophic defeat (Jer 7). To everyone’s consternation, however, Jeremiah declared that Israel had in fact broken the unbreakable covenant, thereby bringing upon her the wrath of the LORD:

There is revolt among the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 10 They have turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers, who refused to hear my words; they have gone after other gods to serve them; the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant which I made with their fathers. 11 Therefore, thus says the LORD, Behold, I am bringing evil upon them which they cannot escape; though they cry to me, I will not listen to them. 12 Then the cities of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods to whom they burn incense, but they cannot save them in the time of their trouble. 13 For your gods have become as many as your cities, O Judah; and as many as the streets of Jerusalem are the altars you have set up to shame, altars to burn incense to Ba′al. (Jer 11:9-13)

The prophesies given to Ezekiel also presuppose the conditionality of the Davidic covenant, evidenced by prophesied catastrophic punishments, including the departure of the LORD‘s glory from the temple, and the cutting of a future covenant.

We immediately note the new covenant’s unilateral character. The LORD is its sole agent and guarantor. It is not a transaction or contract, not a mutual agreement. As Robert Jenson observes: “A berith is one person’s unilateral self-commit­ment to another” (Ezekiel, p. 135). “Of course,” he goes on to say, “a covenant can, depending on maker and content, enable particular corresponding actions by the recipient or even obligate to them; thus it is that Israel can break—or try to break—the Lord’s covenant with her” (p. 135). Yet no conditions are stipulated for the new testament, though Israel’s obedience is no doubt presumed (Ezek 36:24-28). God will forgive her past iniquities and restore her to himself in a redeemed historical order—but now with Sodom and Samaria as her daughters. He will be faithful to his wife, will never abandon her, never divorce her:

The Lord has dealt and will deal with Jerusalem according to her faithless­ness. Nevertheless, although she has rebelled against the marriage cove­nant he made with her—as the original allegory described it—he will “remember” her. That is, he will be bound by it, so that he cannot perma­nently cast her off. Indeed, a phrase suddenly appears that we would surely not have expected in this context: the Lord’s restoration of Jerusalem will establish an “everlasting covenant,” a berith olam (ברית עולם), with her. (p. 134)

The new covenant (or perhaps we should think of the renewal of the old) will be ever­lasting, thereby bespeaking YHWH’s absolute faithfulness to his people through history.

The Lord’s new-old covenant with Jerusalem will be “everlasting” (olam). We must be careful not to import into the word olam doctrines of abstract eter­nity that are alien to the Old Testament. The model “everlasting covenant” is the one that God makes with Abraham (Gen. 17:5–7); it is everlasting simply in that God’s self-commitment to Abraham’s offspring covers all future gen­erations and contingencies. That is to say, the eternity of the covenant resides solely in the Lord’s unshakable faithfulness through his history with his people. Since in our allegory the covenant appears as the Lord’s marriage covenant with Jerusalem, the covenant’s being made eternal means simply that divorce is henceforth impossible: no matter how Jerusalem strays, the Lord will—and indeed must!—regard her as his wife. (p. 135)

Note the key promise: “I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the LORD” (Ezek 16:62). Jenson comments: “To know who is God, or that the God who addresses us is indeed יהוה and not another, is in itself salvation” (p. 136).

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