Notes on St Irenaeus

To see God is to know God, and to know God is to enter into the salvation that is the life of God:

Now this is His Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, who in the last times was made a man among men, that He might join the end to the beginning, that is, man to God. Wherefore the prophets, receiving the prophetic gift from the same Word, announced His advent according to the flesh, by which the blending and communion of God and man took place according to the good pleasure of the Father, the Word of God foretelling from the beginning that God should be seen by men, and hold converse with them upon earth, should confer with them, and should be present with His own creation, saving it, and becoming capable of being perceived by it, and freeing us from the hands of all that hate us, that is, from every spirit of wickedness; and causing us to serve Him in holiness and righteousness all our days, in order that man, having embraced the Spirit of God, might pass into the glory of the Father. …

The prophets, then, indicated beforehand that God should be seen by men; as the Lord also says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” But in respect to His greatness, and His wonderful glory, “no man shall see God and live,” for the Father is incomprehensible; but in regard to His love, and kindness, and as to His infinite power, even this He grants to those who love Him, that is, to see God, which thing the prophets did also predict. “For those things that are impossible with men, are possible with God.”

For man does not see God by his own powers; but when He pleases He is seen by men, by whom He wills, and when He wills, and as He wills. For God is powerful in all things, having been seen at that time indeed, prophetically through the Spirit, and seen, too, adoptively through the Son; and He shall also be seen paternally in the kingdom of heaven, the Spirit truly preparing man in the Son of God, and the Son leading him to the Father, while the Father, too, confers [upon him] incorruption for eternal life, which comes to every one from the fact of his seeing God. For as those who see the light are within the light, and partake of its brilliancy; even so, those who see God are in God, and receive of His splendor. But [His] splendor vivifies them; those, therefore, who see God, do receive life. And for this reason, He, [although] beyond comprehension, and boundless and invisible, rendered Himself visible, and comprehensible, and within the capacity of those who believe, that He might vivify those who receive and behold Him through faith. For as His greatness is past finding out, so also His goodness is beyond expression; by which having been seen, He bestows life upon those who see Him. It is not possible to live apart from life, and the means of life is found in fellowship with God; but fellowship with God is to know God, and to enjoy His goodness. (AH 4.20.4-5)

No man can see God and live—for God is beyond our finite comprehension—yet in Jesus Christ mankind has been given to see God and be saved in his life. An Eastern Orthodox believer might be excused for wondering whether we encounter here an early expression of the Palamite distinction between the divine essence and energies. In his greatness God transcends all of our measurements and cannot be comprehended; but his love, perhaps we might say, God in his self-communication, can be be known and participated. This indeed was the point of the Incarnation—to make it possible for finite humanity to see God in the flesh and thus to share in his light and life.

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Notes on St Irenaeus

Apparently Christians in the second century debated whether Adam had been saved by the death and resurrection of Christ. Read through this passage:

Wherefore also He drove him out of Paradise, and removed him far from the tree of life, not because He envied him the tree of life, as some venture to assert, but because He pitied him, [and did not desire] that he should continue a sinner for ever, nor that the sin which surrounded him should be immortal, and evil interminable and irremediable. But He set a bound to his [state of] sin, by interposing death, and thus causing sin to cease, putting an end to it by the dissolution of the flesh, which should take place in the earth, so that man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God.

For this end did He put enmity between the serpent and the woman and her seed, they keeping it up mutually: He, the sole of whose foot should be bitten, having power also to tread upon the enemy’s head; but the other biting, killing, and impeding the steps of man, until the seed did come appointed to tread down his head, — which was born of Mary, of whom the prophet speaks: “Thou shalt tread upon the asp and the basilisk; thou shalt trample down the lion and the dragon;” — indicating that sin, which was set up and spread out against man, and which rendered him subject to death, should be deprived of its power, along with death, which rules [over men]; and that the lion, that is, antichrist, rampant against mankind in the latter days, should be trampled down by Him; and that He should bind “the dragon, that old serpent” and subject him to the power of man, who had been conquered so that all his might should be trodden down. Now Adam had been conquered, all life having been taken away from him: wherefore, when the foe was conquered in his turn, Adam received new life; and the last enemy, death, is destroyed, which at the first had taken possession of man. Therefore, when man has been liberated, “what is written shall come to pass, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” This could not be said with justice, if that man, over whom death did first obtain dominion, were not set free. For his salvation is death’s destruction. When therefore the Lord vivifies man, that is, Adam, death is at the same time destroyed.

All therefore speak falsely who disallow his (Adam’s) salvation, shutting themselves out from life for ever, in that they do not believe that the sheep which had perished has been found. For if it has not been found, the whole human race is still held in a state of perdition. False, therefore, is that man who first started this idea, or rather, this ignorance and blindness — Tatian. As I have already indicated, this man entangled himself with all the heretics. This dogma, however, has been invented by himself, in order that, by introducing something new, independently of the rest, and by speaking vanity he might acquire for himself hearers void of faith, affecting to be esteemed a teacher, and endeavoring from time to time to employ sayings of this kind often [made use of] by Paul: “In Adam we all die;” ignorant, however, that “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” Since this, then, has been clearly shown, let all his disciples be put to shame, and let them wrangle about Adam, as if some great gain were to accrue to them if he be not saved; when they profit nothing more [by that], even as the serpent also did not profit when persuading man [to sin], except to this effect, that he proved him a transgressor, obtaining man as the first- fruits of his own apostasy. But he did not know God’s power. Thus also do those who disallow Adam’s salvation gain nothing, except this, that they render themselves heretics and apostates from the truth, and show themselves patrons of the serpent and of death. (AH 3.23.6-8)

Clearly Irenaeus thought the salvation of Adam was of paramount import but why? Might it be that for Irenaeus Adam was not just an individual human being but was, is, humanity itself? Hence to deny Adam’s salvation would be to deny our salvation.  If this guess is on the mark, then I wonder about its universalist implications, even though Irenaeus does not appear to have espoused the greater hope.

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Notes on St Irenaeus

In Irenaeus we find a clear affirmation of the freedom of the human being, so characteristic of the Eastern tradition. Clearly he is responding to gnostic teachings that he believes compromise or deny this God-given freedom, but I long ago forgot whatever I once knew about 2nd century gnosticism:

This expression [of our Lord], “How often would I have gathered thy children together, and thou wouldest not,” set forth the ancient law of human liberty, because God made man a free [agent] from the beginning, possessing his own power, even as he does his own soul, to obey the behests (ad utendum sententia) of God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God. For there is no coercion with God, but a good will [towards us] is present with Him continually. And therefore does He give good counsel to all. And in man, as well as in angels, He has placed the power of choice (for angels are rational beings), so that those who had yielded obedience might justly possess what is good, given indeed by God, but preserved by themselves. On the other hand, they who have not obeyed shall, with justice, be not found in possession of the good, and shall receive condign punishment: for God did kindly bestow on them what was good; but they themselves did not diligently keep it, nor deem it something precious, but poured contempt upon His super-eminent goodness. Rejecting therefore the good, and as it were spuing it out, they shall all deservedly incur the just judgment of God, which also the Apostle Paul testifies in his Epistle to the Romans, where he says, “But dost thou despise the riches of His goodness, and patience, and long-suffering, being ignorant that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? But according to thy hardness and impenitent heart, thou treasurest to thyself wrath against the day of wrath, and the revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” “But glory and honor,” he says, “to every one that doeth good.” God therefore has given that which is good, as the apostle tells us in this Epistle, and they who work it shall receive glory and honor, because they have done that which is good when they had it in their power not to do it; but those who do it not shall receive the just judgment of God, because they did not work good when they had it in their power so to do.

But if some had been made by nature bad, and others good, these latter would not be deserving of praise for being good, for such were they created; nor would the former be reprehensible, for thus they were made [originally]. But since all men are of the same nature, able both to hold fast and to do what is good; and, on the other hand, having also the power to cast it from them and not to do it, — some do justly receive praise even among men who are under the control of good laws (and much more from God), and obtain deserved testimony of their choice of good in general, and of persevering therein; but the others are blamed, and receive a just condemnation, because of their rejection of what is fair and good. And therefore the prophets used to exhort men to what was good, to act justly and to work righteousness, as I have so largely demonstrated, because it is in our power so to do, and because by excessive negligence we might become forgetful, and thus stand in need of that good counsel which the good God has given us to know by means of the prophets. (AH 4.37.1-2)

Personal freedom is implied in God’s commandments to do good and to avoid evil. God would be unjust if he were to punish us for disobeying his commandments when we lacked the power to obey.  An Augustinian Irenaeus was not.

Question: How did Irenaeus understand divine punishment? He appears to be advocating a retributive position: if we disobey the will of God, we deserve the divine infliction of suffering and pain.

I also note the following important claim: “For there is no coercion with God, but a good will [towards us] is present with Him continually.” This theme seems to be quite popular on the internet at the moment. But what does Irenaeus mean by coercion? How might the transcendent Creator exercise coercion within the world that he envelops and contains? Does he mean that God never violently punishes his people in history? Surely the Bible testifies to multiple occasions of such punishment. How does Irenaeus interpret those passages?

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Notes on St Irenaeus

In my reading of St Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, I have noticed that he likes the metaphor of containment to describe the relationship between Creator and creature:

As regards His greatness, therefore, it is not possible to know God, for it is impossible that the Father can be measured; but as regards His love (for this it is which leads us to God by His Word), when we obey Him, we do always learn that there is so great a God, and that it is He who by Himself has established, and selected, and adorned, and contains all things; and among the all things, both ourselves and this our world. We also then were made, along with those things which are contained by Him. (AH 4.20.1)

Truly, then, the Scripture declared, which says, “First of all believe that there is one God, who has established all things, and completed them, and having caused that from what had no being, all things should come into existence:” He who contains all things, and is Himself contained by no one. Rightly also has Malachi said among the prophets: “Is it not one God who hath established us? Have we not all one Father?” (AH 4.20.2)

But as He who worketh all things in all is God, [as to the points] of what nature and how great He is, [God] is invisible and indescribable to all things which have been made by Him, but He is by no means unknown: for all things learn through His Word that there is one God the Father, who contains all things, and who grants existence to all, as is written in the Gospel: “No man hath seen God at any time, except the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father; He has declared [Him.]” (AH 4.20.6)

And just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season, or as a corn of wheat falling into the earth and becoming decomposed, rises with manifold increase by the Spirit of God, who contains all things, and then, through the wisdom of God, serves for the use of men, and having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ. (AH 5.2.3)

For the Creator of the world is truly the Word of God: and this is our Lord, who in the last times was made man, existing in this world, and who in an invisible manner contains all things created, and is inherent in the entire creation, since the Word of God governs and arranges all things; and therefore He came to His own in a visible manner, and was made flesh, and hung upon the tree, that He might sum up all things in Himself. (AH 5.18.3)

God contains all things within himself. I like this metaphor of containment.  I am reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul, as reported by St Luke: “Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being'” (Acts 17-27-28). The image of God containing the universe might sound a tad pantheistic (though not to my ears) but Irenaeus immediately qualifies the metaphor: no being contains the divine Creator. But perhaps there’s an exception:

And in all these things, and by them all, the same God the Father is manifested, who fashioned man, and gave promise of the inheritance of the earth to the fathers, who brought it (the creature) forth [from bondage] at the resurrection of the just, and fulfills the promises for the kingdom of His Son; subsequently bestowing in a paternal manner those things which neither the eye has seen, nor the ear has heard, nor has [thought concerning them] arisen within the heart of man, For there is the one Son, who accomplished His Father’s will; and one human race also in which the mysteries of God are wrought, “which the angels desire to look into;” and they are not able to search out the wisdom of God, by means of which His handiwork, confirmed and incorporated with His Son, is brought to perfection; that His offspring, the First- begotten Word, should descend to the creature (facturam), that is, to what had been molded (plasma), and that it should be contained by Him; and, on the other hand, the creature should contain the Word, and ascend to Him, passing beyond the angels, and be made after the image and likeness of God. (AH 5.36.3)

A couple of interpretive possibilities of the last two sentences come to mind, but I thought I’d throw it out to my readers.

Also, please note that the image of creative containment is extended to both the Word and the Spirit in the above citations.

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Notes on St Irenaeus

This paragraph contains a famous Irenaean reference:

As regards His greatness, therefore, it is not possible to know God, for it is impossible that the Father can be measured; but as regards His love (for this it is which leads us to God by His Word), when we obey Him, we do always learn that there is so great a God, and that it is He who by Himself has established, and selected, and adorned, and contains all things; and among the all things, both ourselves and this our world. We also then were made, along with those things which are contained by Him. And this is He of whom the Scripture says, “And God formed man, taking clay of the earth, and breathed into his face the breath of life.” It was not angels, therefore, who made us, nor who formed us, neither had angels power to make an image of God, nor any one else, except the Word of the Lord, nor any Power remotely distant from the Father of all things. For God did not stand in need of these [beings], in order to the accomplishing of what He had Himself determined with Himself beforehand should be done, as if He did not possess His own hands. For with Him were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom, freely and spontaneously, He made all things, to whom also He speaks, saying, “Let Us make man after Our image and likeness;” He taking from Himself the substance of the creatures [formed], and the pattern of things made, and the type of all the adornments in the world. (AH 4.20.1)

Did you recognize it? Irenaeus speaks of the Word and Wisdom, i.e., the Son and Spirit, as the hands by which he brought the universe into being. He did not need angelic mediaries to create the universe. He created it directly and immediately by his Word and Wisdom, who have always been with him. The implication here, I think, is that Irenaeus does not consider the Son and Spirit to be created beings. If they were, they would be no different than the angelic powers that, he says, God did not need to create the universe. There was never a time when the Father was without his only begotten Son and his Holy Spirit.

I note also the concern for human being as the image of God. Only the Word of the Lord, who presumably enjoys a relationship of personal and ontological intimacy with the Father, is capable of creating humanity in the image of God. Angels could not create an true image of God. Are angels considered to be created in the image of God? If not, why not? Presumably they too were created by the Father through the Son and Spirit.

Scholars, I’m sure, would tell us not to import later Nicene ontological categories into the second century, but St Irenaeus would appear to be laying the foundation upon which St Athanasius and the Cappadocians would later build. Arius would force the question: who and what are these hands?

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Perelandra and the Mystery of Male and Female

by Edith M. Humphrey, Ph.D.

(This reflection comes largely from the last chapter of my forthcoming book on C. S. Lewis, Further Up and Further In: Orthodox Conversations with C. S. Lewis on Scripture and Theology, St. Vladimir’s Press. It is the most speculative of the chapters, and I hope that it will both whet the appetite of the reader for the rest of the book, but also initiate what I think is an important discussion that we need to have at this time in the Church concerning the nature of male and female.)

In his books of fantasy, Lewis creates a compelling cosmos where his characters, both seen and unseen beings, live. These strange new worlds fascinate the reader who enters into them; however, Lewis also means to show us the world in which we live. Many have seen the obvious connections between his novel Perelandra (also known as Voyage to Venus) and the story of the temptation and fall in Genesis 3. As we come to the climax of Lewis’s story, we are delighted to discover that the “first lady” of this pristine realm does not yield to seduction, but triumphs, so that she and her husband enter into glory as the rulers of that world. By means of her encounter with evil, her temptation, her reasoning, and her final victory, we learn inverse stories about our own situation here in a fallen world.

However, there is another more basic phenomenon that we encounter by means of the Lord and Lady of Perelandra, and those with whom they are in communion. We discern in this new planet a pattern of reality that Lewis insists holds true for our world as well as this imagined strange one: the Higher descends to be with the lower. Those beings whom we might call “high” show their ability to indwell those things or beings which are lower; in response, the lesser things demonstrate what we could call a “sacramental potency,” that is, an inbuilt ability to show forth that greatness which has come to visit and indwell them. The very idea of “high” and “low” might be annoying to a twenty-first century reader, but it is part and parcel of a Christian view of the cosmos in which the Incarnation takes place. Part of the beauty of the created order is that it is designed to point to its Creator, and does this in regular and sometimes astonishing ways. As Lewis explains in his extended essay Miracles, “We might … find that it was the very nature of Nature to suffer Miracles.” Where the supernatural has visited our world, where the traces of God—or even of His angels—remain, the created order “tells the glory of God.” Indeed, the whole of reality is like a grand dance, or “ball,” with its intricate rhythms, beauties and relations. Some of these interconnections are visible to human eyes, and others are not normally seen. But those mysteries that we can perceive are connected with the unseen realms in deep ways that we can only glimpse.

The hero of this story, Ransom, catches a glimpse of such wonders, almost as soon as he sets foot on this lush and serene planet. In earlier travels he has encountered different kinds of creatures who are similar in their limitations to human beings, as well as eldila, angelic-like creatures surrounded by light, with their head Oyarsa (an archangel?) Ransom’s insight into these marvelous beings is amplified in Perelandra, where he hears a description, and puts before our mind’s eye, the cosmic dance of the bright ones. He even converses with the eldila, whose speech is “like parts of a music into which [they] had entered as instruments or like a wind blowing through … trees that stand together on a hilltop.” Their conversation with Ransom and the first parents of Venus takes on the quality of a litany or song of praise, punctuated with the refrain “Blessed be He!” Ransom (with the reader!) is drawn into praise by this hymn about the Three-in-One for whom each thing was made, Who is at the center of all things and Who is with each one of us. For Him and from Him and through Him is this great dance. The participation of the dancers is not a matter of equality, but proceeds by “giving place … receiving it, the small things by their smallness and the great by their greatness, and all the patterns linked and looped together by the unions of a kneeling with a sceptred love.” As they chant in joy, we hear about mutuality, the exchange of positions, the importance of each dancer, willing submission, and utter insignificance next to the true Center. Headship and mutuality come together in an unspeakable manner, with the give and take, the structure and flexibility, of a courtly dance. Even the beings of light demonstrate their acceptance of what we could call “inequality,” their place in the grand scheme of things.

Ransom, then, hears the ineffable song of the eldila. But he is also is illumined (and instructs the reader) concerning the great mystery of physical male and female. The physical male and female persons, he comes to see, live as a beautiful echo or reflection of spiritual realities that we could call “Masculine” and “Feminine.” In the presence of the perfect King and Queen of Perelandra, he grasps that he has lived his whole life “among shadows and broken images” with an understanding of the male and female that is terribly skewed. He is overwhelmed with the beauty and apt harmony of these two in the flesh. Surprisingly, though these two are themselves echoes of spiritual beings “higher” in one sense than they, they also command deep respect from these more powerful eldila, since they bear the image of a greater One. Ransom describes the wonder of encountering the Lord and Lady coming into their reign:

All was pure daylight … For as the light reached its perfection and settled itself … like a lord upon his throne or like wine in a bow … the holy thing, Paradise itself in its two persons, Paradise walking hand in hand, its two bodies shining in the light like emeralds yet not themselves too bright to look at, came in sight … And the gods kneeled and bowed their huge bodies before the small forms of that young King and Queen.

The King and Queen are male and female, both in body and in spirit. Their great glory has its origin in the fact that they are reflecting God’s image. But it also comes from their perfect echoing, each and together, of Masculinity and Femininity—a unified wonder not normally seen by the fallen human eye.

By means of Ransom’s enraptured observations, Lewis describes bodily and psychic gender as a reflection of something greater. He argues against the idea that the principles of Masculinity and Femininity are simply a projection of our physically gendered state. In his view, it is the opposite. Beyond the human gendered condition, there is something even more solid to which our sexual natures point, and in which we participate—realities of which we can hardly conceive. In this unseen relation of Masculine and Feminine, there is one who is dominant, while the other reflexive and responsive; yet there is also a matching, or a mutuality. We glimpse at Lewis’s meaning as we look beyond the Lord and Lady of Perelandra, to the head eldila (Oyéru). Perelandra (for whom the planet is named), shows forth the Feminine, and Malacandra (the Head of another planet) the Masculine:

Malacandra was like rhythm and Perelandra like melody … [T]he first held in his hand something like a spear, but the hands of the other were open, with the palms towards him. ‘Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex … Female sex is simply one of the things that have feminine gender; there are many others, and Masculine and Feminine meet us on planes of reality where male and female would simply be meaningless … [T]he male and female of organic creatures are … faint and blurred reflections of masculine and feminine.

It is hard to grasp Lewis’s meaning and important to realize that he is also writing a story, in which main his character Ransom is reflecting on these mysteries, but not carefully elucidating a philosophy. What we can say is that he does not have in view vague Platonic ideals. Rather, he is using the capitalized adjectives (Masculine and Feminine) to gesture at unseen angelic wonders. More than that, Lewis is hinting at a Christian mystery unveiled by the apostle in Ephesians 5:32, where Christian marriage is said to be linked to Christ’s love for the Church. In a 1948 article (“Priestesses in the Church?“), Lewis explained it this way:

One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church … With the Church, we are farther in: for there we are dealing with male and female not merely as facts of nature but as the live and awful shadows of realities utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our direct knowledge.

I am a great lover of Lewis, but I do not think that he is right in every respect. Some have worried deeply about the very matters that we are considering here, and have thought that especially Lewis’s earlier writings show an unchristian chauvinism against women. We need to be careful not to flatten out Lewis’s thought here, however. Notice how, in describing the Lord and Lady of Venus, he attempts to preserve the mysterious tension of hierarchy-with-mutuality. There is certainly an asymmetry in their relationship, just as we might say, looking at the Holy Trinity, that the Father is not the Son, and that the Son is begotten by the Father, not the other way around; at the same time, each possesses equal dignity. Also, this tension is found, in this and his other early novels, where we see surprising reversals of the norm: the Perelandran Lady fights the major battle; in the subsequent novel, the mystical Jane aids in the protection of her husband Mark, rather than vice-versa. I would argue that what saved Lewis from what we may call hierarchalism was his creedal Trinitarian faith. For example, in his essay “Christianity and Literature,” he speaks, with astonishment, of the way in which 1 Corinthians 11 forges an “apparent equivalence of the woman-man relations with the relation between … the First and Second Persons of the Trinity.” Here Lewis is pointing to St. Paul’s analogy in 1 Corinthians 11, that woman is to man as Son is to Father (at least in terms of headship). These two factors—a fully orthodox grasp of the Holy Trinity, and the recognition that the male-female communion is (at least in part) a reflection of this—served him well. Eventually, this combination issued in a nuanced and careful understanding of the relation between husband and wife, especially in his later novels.

Lewis, from the beginning to the end, insisted that “equality” does not mean “interchange­ability:” the Father is not the Son, and male is not female. But he was able to create strong women in his many of his novels, beginning with his awe-struck representation of the Perelandran Lady. Though he became more careful in the articulation, he retained, right until the end of his life, his view of Masculine and Feminine mysteries in which the human gendered condition participates. For this reason, he insisted that the progressivist (whom he calls the “innovator”) should not tamper with these human images: the living metaphors reflect something given, something real, something hidden from human eyes.

I am only just now giving fuller attention to what it is that Lewis might be suggesting by this conviction about unseen mystery, and the way in which our gendered condition points to it. Certainly St. Paul himself gestures to a similar wonder in Ephesians 5, where he says that the relationship of husband and wife indicates, in some sacramental way, the communion between Christ and the Church. That the New Testament itself hints at such connections means that we should not dismiss Lewis’s notions as merely fanciful. Perhaps, in fact, we should take the caution that he offers concerning tampering with these things, as utterly timely in our age of transgenderism and sexual questioning. What if the gender-inclusive “innovators” among us are meddling with things that we do not understand? What if Masculinity and Femininity are not concepts constructed by the human imagination or by society? The pervasiveness of such symbolism in Scriptures and the Christian tradition is instructive. To a generation brought up on children’s books like The Paper-Bag Princess, where the heroine does the rescuing of the prince, Lewis poses this question: “Suppose …that the mystical marriage were reversed, that the Church were the Bridegroom and Christ the Bride?” Well, if we suppose that, Lewis cautions, we may well have formed a different religion, and not kept the Christian faith.

Is metaphor window dressing for an ineffable concept? Or are some metaphors real, living things that partake of the reality? The one who has a sacramental view of the universe would say, yes, they do. Not all metaphors are artistic fancy. For Lewis to take seriously male and female in humanity is similar to insisting that wine and bread become the presence of the Lord in the Eucharist. The creatures are part and parcel of a bigger picture of reality, and may be caught up explicitly into this real world. Paul Evdokimov, in Woman and the Salvation of the World, is one of the few contemporary theologians who has tried to go beyond the frontier in exploring the deeper meaning of male and female. He types woman as the stronger spiritual being in the pair, and suggests a special connection between woman and the Holy Spirit, while man mirrors the Word, or the Son. But both stand in relation to the Father. Going further, because the Father is Himself the ultimate mystery, he insists that “a man does not possess the paternal instinct in the same way as a woman possesses the maternal instinct.” His understanding is that the female charism is prophetic, while the male charism is priestly—and both are to give glory to God together. Their life together is also redemptive: “As the Glory of man … woman is, in her luminous purity, like a mirror that reflects the man’s countenance, reveals it to himself, and thereby corrects it … The prophetic function of woman that is directed toward his being changes him.” In reasoning thus, he points to the icon screen at the front of the Eastern tabernacle, where Mary appears on Christ’s right and John the Baptist on Christ’s left. And he reminds us that female and male are meant to show forth Christ’s love for the Church. Thus, human sexuality has multiple functions beyond the biological. Some may raise eyebrows at how Evdokimov construes the mystery. However, he is salutary in reminding us, with Lewis, that Masculinity and Femininity are not insignificant features of our human persons: they partake of greater realities than we can hardly imagine.

All this is very different to the way that many are teaching and have been taught in the contemporary church. Lewis and Evdokimov may not have everything right. These two speculative thinkers may sometimes confuse cultural observations with theology, and mix in human imagination with Holy Tradition. But I think they are worth hearing. For they stand against the flat rendering of gender today, and are at least thinking about the mystery of who we are. Moreover, who we are, and how we talk about it, are related to our understanding and talk about God Himself.

As Christian people, we claim that something new has happened in the human understand­ing of God. We have been told, and believe, that God himself came to dwell among us, and taught us truly if not exhaustively about his own nature, and about how He should be named. Our knowledge about the Father comes not simply from what we know of human fathers, by our own understanding, but by God himself taking up our human language and teaching us the best way to use it. As the Reformers said, “God ‘lisps’ his word to us like the parent to an infant.” And so, God gives us back our own words about him, showing the name that is best suited to his nature, and filling in what that name means. It is very instructive that one of the entries in the revised Canadian Anglican hymnbook neutralizes the idea that Jesus has revealed something essential about God in the way that he calls God “Father.” Hymn 283, in its optional verse for St. Joseph’s day in the Western Church is alarming:

All praise, O God, for Joseph, the guardian of your Son.
Who saved him from King Herod, when safety there was none.
He taught the trade of builder, when they to Nazareth came,
And Joseph’s love made ‘Father’ to be, for Christ, God’s name.

This is, it seems, a nice, domestic picture of Jesus and his father. Yet, look at the assumptions here: Jesus could only understand about God being like a father, because he had a positive experience of father at home. It was his human experience of father, and that alone, that opened the door to this way of picturing God. What audacity is here! First, there is no indication in Scripture or the Tradition about Jesus’ theological development, and how he owed it to his human parents. It is of course most probably true that Jesus’ human environment played some part in his thinking: but the self-consciousness of the One who was truly human, but also the Word of God and truly divine, is a mystery far beyond our compre­hension. Who are we to assume that Jesus’ name for God was born of his own, human, particular, limited understanding, and that we can do better, or use richer terminol­ogy? When Jesus taught us boldly to say, without condemnation, “Our Father,” was this the simple fruit of his environment and upbringing, or was he revealing to us, in fact, opening to us, as his redeemed brothers and sisters, a new way, a true way, of addressing God? Was St. Paul simply incorrect when he continued in this tradition, telling us to bow our knee to the Father, because he is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?

But role-model theology, made popular by authors such as Sallie McFague, in her influential Metaphorical Theology (1984) and Models of God (1987), puts a large question mark beside the “Abba” (“my father”) language of our Lord. A whole generation of priests and pastors has been brought up intent to repudiate any talk of hierarchy and patriarchy. They have been taught, and pass on by means of sermon and contemporary hymnody, that our talk about God is simply made up of human images. Thus, we are at liberty to change the symbols. Today, our picture of God should avoid gender terms like Father, or use both equally (Father and “Mother”). What Lewis envisaged as a ridiculous extreme in his early essay on priestesses has come to pass, because metaphor is now understood simply as our way of seeking to name the unnameable, mysterious God. As with the subjectivist menace, so with this teaching: it is all about how we feel. The first threat leads to the abolition of man; the second leads to the abolition of the Christian God—or, at least in our memories. In all this talk about gendered language, we reach back behind a squabble about names to root issues. Metaphorical, or role-model, theology urges us to “try out new pictures.” If we do not, these innovators exclaim, we are not putting forward descriptions of God most suited for our own day. The language of God as Father may devolve into idolatry, they caution, because we are mistaking the language for the mystery: when we use language to speak about God, it also communicates what we think about people.

It is indeed true that language about God is connected with our language about people. And there are many titles, biblical and traditional, that help us to fill out the picture of our ineffable God, who will always be greater than we can describe Him. But we also must remember the grand story of the Incarnation, in which God moves into our arena, assuming human language with human nature and showing us about Himself, as well as about our true human nature. It is primarily a movement down into our midst, not a human grasping up as we try to imagine God by mustering as many images as we can find.

How, anyway, does the Bible treat this? We have imagery in the Bible which speaks of God’s Wisdom as feminine, and God’s Word as masculine. But never does the New Testament call the Holy Spirit “She,” and the Christ is always called “He.” There is a normative pattern, such as Lewis has discerned, in the Great Tradition of the Church, beginning with the Bible. It is within this symbolic universe that the mystery of marriage (as we see in Ephesians 5) plays its part. Yet, from time to time there are surprising reversals. It is helpful to consider the “virtue” (literally, the “manliness,” from the Latin, vir) of the mother of the Maccabean martyrs, so celebrated in Scripture and in consequent hymns. It is helpful to remember that the asymmetrical picture of husband (to love) and wife (to respect) is headed in Ephesians 5:21 by a call to mutual submission. Lewis was well aware of this when he spoke of absolute submission as due only to God Himself. Our human headships are nothing in comparison to our common service, our “bowing of the head and subjection of the neck” to Christ, our God. In the end, St. Paul’s balancing words prove to be a rudder that helps us to sail straight in uncharted territory: “In the Lord, woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God” (1 Cor 11:12.) It is not, after all, mainly about us and our positions, but about God, who calls each one of us and who is Himself the center. He it is who gives each of us our significance.

Further than this I dare not go. I have no full answers. Indeed, I am not sure about the answers suggested by Evdokimov, though I do find it intriguing to consider whether woman, in her femininity, shows forth the Holy Spirit, and man shows forth God the Word in his masculinity. If this be so, then I hasten to add that the Holy Spirit is not, in essence, Feminine—at least, not in terms of the grammar suggested by Lewis or the Scriptures. That would be to subordinate the third person of the Trinity, and to import actual gender into God. But certainly the energies of the Spirit, the way in which the Spirit works, are frequently described in terms that we consider to be feminine—bringing to birth, indwelling, comforting, and the like. Moreover, if the male specifically shows forth Christ, so too does the female, by virtue of her baptism and chrismation. This is a complex state of affairs, with common, distinct, and overlapping iconic functions of male, female, male and female together, and the particular person. We are interconnected with God and the unseen world in multiple personal and corporate ways, much as an interval takes its various places in a musical piece, showing different aspects of the melody or the harmony by its placement.

It is not a good idea, I think, to plead “mystery!” too quickly, as a means of halting a discussion. Sandals must be removed when we are on holy Ground, but God does play host to us, and sometimes invites us to come closer. Because of the current crisis in understand­ing human identity, more dispassionate thought on gender and our common humanity is required. We must not allow political and social pressures to control our forays into this mystery, but they may be an important catalyst. Consider how much more clarity the Church acquired when it was forced to think about the nature of the God-Man because of the heresies of the past. My hope is that we will similarly come to more clarity about this wonderful mystery of human nature because of the challenges of feminist and sociological gender-studies.

Contemporary catholics like Dorothy Sayers, and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, who in all other respects cleave to the Tradition, have said that they see no theological reasons for retaining the tradition of ordaining males only to the priesthood. This may be true, if we take “theological” in the very narrow definition as “talk about God.” But why is it that the Bible, while it sometimes uses the feminine imagery for a God who transcends human sexuality, never addresses God in feminine terms? (God is compared to a mother bear, a mother eagle, a nursing mother, a midwife helping a woman in childbirth, but is never actually called these. He is called “Father.”) And does this clue lead us to wonder if there are reasons for the Tradition that we can glean from theological anthropology—a careful study of who we are as human beings?

What if there is reason to think, as do Lewis and Evdokimov, that the asymmetry of male-female relations is not simply a cultural matter, but something given? What if Jesus’ appearance as a male who gave up prerogative is the human echo of something far more profound about God? After all, human beings, male and female, together and singly speak of or show forth God simply by who they are. This is the challenge that Lewis poses to us, independently of specific roles or actions that women and men may or may not live lawfully live out. My own impression is that it is not a particular understanding of male priesthood, but lay apathy and the clericalism of the Church that has done damage to women (and lay men). And it is not simply a matter of clergy seeking power, but of laypeople happily relegating so large a domain (beyond service at the altar) to the already overburdened clergy. Women and lay men, too, are called to ministry, and given numerous gifts for that purpose. The current restriction of service in many quarters can be remedied without a new theology of ordination that would admit women to serve at the altar as “priests.” Even if this delegation of tasks were to happen, however, the questions being asked by our feminist friends compel us to think more deeply. Is the tradition concerning ordination arbitrary, or has Lewis, however roughly, sketched something of ultimate importance that concerns each of us, and all of us together, when he speaks about the use of gendered language?

As we embark on this discussion, it may be helpful to erect some boundaries to guide the quest concerning human sexuality and gender that it seems we must pursue together in the twenty-first century Church. I offer these to mark off the danger points:

  • We cannot say that all symbols are merely human expressions, and that language and action are detachable from the reality to which they point.
  • We cannot say that gendered language is expendable in talking about God or humanity.
  • We cannot say that there is an absolutely confined role for each gender—reversals are part of our story.
  • We cannot say that the relations of Father, Son and Spirit are symmetrical, nor can we say that they are not mutual and equal.
  • We cannot say that the relations of husband and wife are totally symmetrical, nor ought we say that there is no mutuality or equality.
  • We cannot say that there are no “higher” gifts and no “lesser” gifts—but all are necessary, and the higher need the lower, so that sometimes it is impossible to discern which is more important.
  • In God-talk, we cannot forbid the use of feminine imagery, for the Bible uses it.
  • In God-talk, we cannot ignore the usual or normative use of masculine language, even if it is uncomfortable to us.

These, I think, give us some parameters, both guarding us from danger and recognizing the mystery. I believe that, though Lewis sometimes irritates, we are indebted to him for venturing into this quagmire. He recasts the contemporary debate concerning gender and spirituality by his astonishing use of symbol, and does not let us rest with easy answers. If we follow him, we will not think mistakenly that gendered symbols are arbitrary and infinitely malleable. Instead, Lewis opens up the metaphorical world of the Scriptures for us, showing how they may be inextricably intertwined with reality. These mysteries we must guard, but also probe, for we want both to remain in Christ, and to learn more and more of Him.

* * *

Dr Edith M. Humphrey is the William F. Orr Professor of New Testament at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She is the author of many books, including Scripture and TraditionGrand Entrance, and Ecstasy and Intimacy.

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Notes on St Irenaeus

That humanity is saved by grace all Christians agree, yet once having said that, St Irenaeus believes that we need to say something more:

It was necessary, therefore, that the Lord, coming to the lost sheep, and making recapitulation of so comprehensive a dispensation, and seeking after His own handiwork, should save that very man who had been created after His image and likeness, that is, Adam, filling up the times of His condemnation, which had been incurred through disobedience, — [times] “which the Father had placed in His own power.” [This was necessary,] too, inasmuch as the whole economy of salvation regarding man came to pass according to the good pleasure of the Father, in order that God might not be conquered, nor His wisdom lessened, [in the estimation of His creatures.] For if man, who had been created by God that he might live, after losing life, through being injured by the serpent that had corrupted him, should not any more return to life, but should be utterly [and for ever] abandoned to death, God would [in that case] have been conquered, and the wickedness of the serpent would have prevailed over the will of God. But inasmuch as God is invincible and long-suffering, He did indeed show Himself to be long-suffering in the matter of the correction of man and the probation of all, as I have already observed; and by means of the second man did He bind the strong man, and spoiled his goods, and abolished death, vivifying that man who had been in a state of death. For at the first Adam became a vessel in his (Satan’s) possession, whom he did also hold under his power, that is, by bringing sin on him iniquitously, and under color of immortality entailing death upon him. For, while promising that they should be as gods, which was in no way possible for him to be, he wrought death in them: wherefore he who had led man captive, was justly captured in his turn by God; but man, who had been led captive, was loosed from the bonds of condemnation. (AH 3.23.1)

“It was necessary …” What is the sense of this “necessary”? I wonder what the Latin word is and whether knowing that might help. Irenaeus is surely not suggesting any constraint upon God. I wonder if his meaning might be closer to the sense of fittingness. Once we in Christ that God is love, then it would be unfitting for God to abandon Adam and to not fulfill the purposes of creation. Satan must not be allowed to have the last word. Love brings its own constraints. This is not a matter of mere speculation. Our reflection is grounded upon the knowledge of the Son’s death and resurrection. We begin with the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Irenaeus then compares the sins of Adam and his son Cain:

[These act] as Cain [did, who], when he was counseled by God to keep quiet, because he had not made an equitable division of that share to which his brother was entitled, but with envy and malice thought that he could domineer over him, not only did not acquiesce, but even added sin to sin, indicating his state of mind by his action. For what he had planned, that did he also put in practice: he tyrannized over and slew him; God subjecting the just to the unjust, that the former might be proved as the just one by the things which he suffered, and the latter detected as the unjust by those which he perpetrated. And he was not softened even by this, nor did he stop short with that evil deed; but being asked where his brother was, he said, “I know not; am I my brother’s keeper?” extending and aggravating [his] wickedness by his answer. For if it is wicked to slay a brother, much worse is it thus insolently and irreverently to reply to the omniscient God as if he could battle Him. And for this he did himself bear a curse about with him, because he gratuitously brought an offering of sin, having had no reverence for God, nor being put to confusion by the act of fratricide.

The case of Adam, however, had no analogy with this, but was altogether different. For, having been beguiled by another under the pretext of immortality, he is immediately seized with terror, and hides himself; not as if he were able to escape from God; but, in a state of confusion at having transgressed His command, he feels unworthy to appear before and to hold converse with God. Now, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;” the sense of sin leads to repentance, and God bestows His compassion upon those who are penitent. For [Adam] showed his repentance by his conduct, through means of the girdle [which he used], covering himself with fig-leaves, while there were many other leaves, which would have irritated his body in a less degree. He, however, adopted a dress conformable to his disobedience, being awed by the fear of God; and resisting the erring, the lustful propensity of his flesh (since he had lost his natural disposition and child-like mind, and had come to the knowledge of evil things), he girded a bridle of continence upon himself and his wife, fearing God, and waiting for His coming, and indicating, as it were, some such thing [as follows]: Inasmuch as, he says, I have by disobedience lost that robe of sanctity which I had from the Spirit, I do now also acknowledge that I am deserving of a covering of this nature, which affords no gratification, but which gnaws and frets the body. And he would no doubt have retained this clothing for ever, thus humbling himself, if God, who is merciful, had not clothed them with tunics of skins instead of fig-leaves. For this purpose, too, He interrogates them, that the blame might light upon the woman; and again, He interrogates her, that she might convey the blame to the serpent. For she related what had occurred. “The serpent,” says she, “beguiled me, and I did eat.” But He put no question to the serpent; for He knew that he had been the prime mover in the guilty deed; but He pronounced the curse upon him in the first instance, that it might fall upon man with a mitigated rebuke. For God detested him who had led man astray, but by degrees, and little by little, He showed compassion to him who had been beguiled. (AH 3.24-5)

Irenaeus judges Cain’s sin more severely than Adam’s. Cain slays Abel in full awareness of what he is doing, but Adam is tricked and deceived by Satan. This is a consideration that would be important in a court of law, but how important is it when we are talking about humanity’s expulsion from Eden? Is Cain’s sin less forgivable than Adam’s?

(Go to next note)

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