Theodore Of Mopsuestia – School of Antioch “Word-man” Christology and its confusion.

Theodore Of Mopsuestia (350, Antioch — 428/429, Mopsuestia, Cilicia [now part of Turkey]), a pupil of Diodore of Tarsus (condemned by a local synod in Constantinople in 499 as a Nestorian) was at one point considered the greatest biblical interpreter of his time and the spiritual head of the exegetical School of Antioch.

Theodore, a theologian in the Antiochian “Word-man” Christological tradition (whose biblical exegesis and theological reflections became the standard in the churches in Persia after the 5th century), speaks in contradictory ways about Christ’s person and nature. When he asserts that “by nature God the Logos is one thing and that which is assumed is another” one might think he is speaking imprecisely about the distinction between the divine nature and the human nature. However, it becomes clear that he is speaking of the Logos who associates with the man Jesus, “in” him and “with” him – and in this way Theodore uses both adoptionist and Nestorian categories.

In earlier section of his “On the Incarnation” he sets the context by saying that God indwells in all creation, but in his chosen ones, by his ευδοκία, his good will, he indwells in a special way. He later makes clear that this is the way the Logos indwells in Jesus.

He often states that the Son is “one person.” But just as often he goes on to contradict such statements by saying that this Lord at a “later stage” had “the Logos of God working within him.” This is classical adoptionist language. The “Lord” was “urged on by the Logos” and had a “union with the Logos” – which he attained by showing himself worthy to receive God’s ευδοκία by his moral achievements, by his “cooperation with God the Logos.” (Book VII).

Theodore says that Jesus and the Logos are not two persons, but one, and there is no mixture in the natures, for they are distinct; he says that the personal union is not destroyed by the distinction of natures, as the person is complete and the nature of man is complete (Book VIII), which is correct. However, this is contradicted by his other statements.

Theodore clearly speaks of the Logos and Jesus as two distinct “ones,” the former uniting the latter to Himself. “God the Logos . . .  united Jesus with himself” and this Jesus was “counted worthy of higher gifts that the rest of humanity” (Book VII). Again using adoptionist language, he is arguing that the man Jesus is virtuous and the Logos indwells him. When he considers whether Mary is the Θεοτόκος, he argues that She is man’s mother by the nature, and God’s mother by the relation (neither of which is true; She is not the mother of a nature, but of a Person with two natures, and that person is God the Son).

 His views were eventually condemned in the 5th Ecumenical Council in 553.

Fr. Maximos Constas on the Feast of the Lord’s Presentation

Seven days after his birth, Jesus was taken to the Temple to be circumcised (1 January). Thirty-two days later (2 February), he was brought back to the Temple to be presented there. Tomorrow thus marks the fortieth day since his birth, when we will reach the end of the great Nativity cycle that began on 15 November, which brought us to the cave in Bethlehem, the banks of the Jordan, and, tomorrow, into the very Temple of God.

The name of the feast, ὑπαπαντή, means “meeting” or “encounter,” which refers largely to the figure of Symeon, who had been told by God that he would not die until he saw the Christ. 

There is a pious tradition that Symeon was one of the Septuagint translators, and thus would have been something like three hundred years old when he met Christ. When he was a much younger man, he was given the book of Isaiah to translate, but doubted the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14: “The Lord himself will give you a sign (σημείον); Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and you will call his name Emmanuel.”

Because Symeon was unable to believe this, he was not permitted to depart from this world until he saw the prophecy’s fulfillment, which took place when the Mother of God brought Christ into the Temple and placed him in Symeon’s arms.

Embracing the child, Symeon proclaimed that the child is a sign – a σημείον – to be spoken against; that the child will create divisions; that ultimate choices will have to be made for or against Him. He declared the child to the “light of the Gentiles,” which further points to the struggle between light and darkness. And there is darkness in our world because there is darkness in our hearts – yet the child comes to us at a time of year when the days are lengthening, “because the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5).

In early icons of the Presentation, the Mother of God holds the child in her arms. In later icons, we see the child being held by Symeon. Images of Christ in the arms of his mother are like excerpts or details, like a close-up, taken from the iconography of the Presentation.

This means that when we look at icons of the Mother of God we are seeing her entering the Temple holding the child. This also means that we are seeing her from the perspective of Symeon, as if we were standing in the place of Symeon, and that she is offering the child to us.

The icon is not a picture to be looked at from a safe distance, but is rather something that beckons to us, reaches out to us, and seeks to engage us in an encounter with Christ. And when Symeon receives the child, it signals his death, because to receive Christ means to die, to die the death of your false self, with all its sins and passions.

Forty days have passed since Christmas. What is different about us? What is different about our lives? How do we enter the temple? Do we look to the Mother of God, who brings us the light? Are we waiting for Christ? Do we open the arms of our hearts and minds to him? Are we ready to receive him?

Who are you in this story?

V. Rev. Arch. Maximos Constas

Interim Dean Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology

Melito of Sardis (d. 180AD) – the Passover and Christ in the Old Testament

Melito was the Bishop of Sardis near Smyrna in Asia Minor, a very early expositor and herald of Christianity (he died c. 180AD).

Melito of Sardis, d. 180AD

In his Paschal homily, an exposition of the Paschal event in connection to Christ, he prefigues much of later Biblical theology which has been established in the Church for two millenia. With a high Christology, he based his exegesis on a framework of type/antitype, shadow/substance, promise/fulfillment, images/realities.

In the original account of Exodus, the paschal Lamb is sacrificed and its blood is poured on the doorposts of the covenant people who are to be delivered from the Angel who brings death to the unbelieving and unrepentant Egyptians, represented and embodied in their king, Pharaoh, himself a type of the god of this world.

In this way, the model given in Exodus present in type all that is later accomplished in substance in Christ. The images prefigure the reality of the death, passion, and resurrection of the Son of God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, for the redemption of His people delivering them from ultimate death.

In this way the principles of the Gospel are proclaimed beforehand, as a sketch, in the Law; and the Gospel is the Law’s explanation and fullness. In the Law, particularly in the account of Exodus, there is the sheep, the blood of the sheep, the lamb, the Jerusalem below and the narrow inheritance of the Promised Land, later known as Palestine. These prefigure the Lamb of God, the Great and Good Shepherd, the true Israel, and the One who bestows on His people not a plot of land, but the renewed cosmos.
Christ is God and human being. He is everything.

The Passover is old and new; it is old in the Law, a figure in time; it is new in the Word, eternal in grace. The sheep are corruptible, mortal; the Lord is incorruptible, immortal in his Resurrection. The Law is old, the Word is new. Christ, as human being, contains all crated things. As God, he creates all things. The shadowy account of Exodus gives the commandment and prefigures the grace to come; the figure eventually gives place to the reality. The Law judges, the Logos brings grace; Christ begets and is begotten, he is God and man, the sheep and the Lamb and Shepherd.

In the Passover, the lamb was slaughtered and eaten; the firstborn of those who were not consecrated was taken by the Angel of death. The sheep were sacrificed for Israel’s salvation, the death of the lambs brought life to the people. This was a prefiguration of the Lord, who died and was raised for the redemption of his people. Melito takes an etymological liberty with the word Pascha (originally a Hebrew term, Pesach, meaning passing over, skipping) correlating it with παθειν, to suffer.

As Abel suffered and was murdered, so was Christ; Isaac was bound to be offered as a sacrifice, Jacob was exiled, Joseph was sold in slavery, Moses was exposed, David and the prophets (Jeremiah, Isaiah) were persecuted and dishonored, the sheep were sacrificed. These all prefigured Christ, the One who was murdered, bound, sacrificed, exiled, betrayed, persecuted, dishonored, and raised for our sakes; the One who was killed and yet who smote Egypt.

Has made flesh in a Virgin, He was hanged on wood, entombed in the earth, raised from the dead, lifted up to heaven; He was the speechless Lamb, the One who suffered unjustly, God’s Firstborn who created all things. He was the Old Testament’s pillar of fire, the cloud, the manna that rained on God’s people as heavenly food, the Rock who gushed out drink to quench the ultimate thirst, the One who gave the Law, the One who gave Israel the prefigured inheritance, the One who sent the prophets, the one who raised the kings, and the One who came as the Prophet, Priest and King, to save and refashion all humanity.  

In summary, Melito sees Christ as

(1) Typologically prefigured in the events and persons of the OT,

(2) The fulfillment of prophecy, and

(3) Personally present in the Theophanies, and even as Creator

A Very Brief Synopsis of the Letter to the Hebrews

The Epistle to the Hebrews has no epistolary introduction (greetings come at the end of the letter), but it begins with the soaring rhetoric about the identity of Jesus and the significance of his work. God spoke in times past to our fathers, but now He speaks to us; he spoke before through the prophets, but how He speaks by His Son.  This gives the blueprint for the message of the letter, i.e., the superiority of Jesus in its manifold ways as compared to all that pertained to the shadows (the Old Covenant) that prefigured the realities which have now come (the New Covenant).

Jesus is superior to angels, to Moses, to the Law, to the Aaronic priesthood, and to the entire Old Covenant with its sacrifices. He is so because he is the Son of God, God’s final Word, holding the eternal and superior priesthood of Melchizedek; he has finished the true and ultimate sacrifice as Priest and offering, and has entered the true temple in heaven, of which the earthly temple was just a type and shadow.

In 1:4-2:18 the author shows that Jesus is superior over the angels, through whom the Law was given; he is the Son, the One to whom the inspired David says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,” and so “let all angels worship him.” He was made a “little lower than the angels,” i.e., he took human nature, but in that humanity he destroyed him who had the power over death (the devil) and was crowned with a glory the angels do not have.

In 3:1-4:13 Jesus is shown to be superior over Moses, as a Son is superior to a tutor and steward with respect to the inheritance and ownership of the house. He is a Son over his house (his people), and has entered the rest of God (the eschatological presence), opening the way for us. Moses was faithful as a servant, but Christ is faithful as a Son – and the Son is superior to the servant.

In 4:14-7:28 we see the superiority of Jesus’ priesthood over the Levitical priesthood; as the tribe of Levi came from Jacob, and Jacob was the grandson of Abraham, the father of faith, so Abraham is reckoned superior to Levi; and yet Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek (the superior receiving tithes from the inferior), who appears without genealogy, without beginning or end of days, and, as a priest, blesses Abraham with bread and wine. Jesus’s priesthood is eternal because he is risen and immortal, having the “power of an endless life;” so the Psalmist has said that God sworn that He is “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek,” the surety of a superior covenant, an unchangeable priesthood, once and for all offering up Himself.

In 8:1-10:18 the author speaks of the superiority of that offering up himself, which is Jesus’ sacrifice. The high priest of the old covenant could enter the Holy of Holies only once a year, to offer up sacrifices for himself and for the people, year after year. But now, in a trinitarian fashion, the blood of Christ through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God once and for all to remove all sin; and he did so as he entered not the earthly shadow of the temple, but entering heaven itself, in the presence of God, sitting at His right hand.

In 10:19-12:29 the author applies all the forgoing to how Christians avail themselves of  His priestly work, exhorting them to profit from Jesus’ sacrifice (10:19-39), and follows with the greatest examples of faith from the Old Testament (Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the judges, the Prophets, 11:1-40). They all died in faith, not receiving the promise, which has come now in the Son.

Discern the Things that Matter – St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians

In the letter to the Philippians, given the circumstance of St Paul’s imprisonment and the persecution at Philippi, St Paul wants to encourage the congregation to learn how to find joy, which can only be done when one “discerns the things that [really] matter.”

He writes to them, it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may discern the things that matter (Καί τοῦτο προσεύχομαι ἵνα ἡ ἀγάπη ὑμῶν ἔτι μᾶλλον καί μᾶλλον περισσεύῃ ἐν ἐπιγνώσει καί πάσῃ αἰσθήσει εἰς τὸ δοκιμάζειν ὑμᾶς τά διαφέροντα (Phil. 1:9-10a).

Αἰσθήσει has the sense of perception, discernment; δοκιμάζω has the sense of test, to examine, to approve, and τὰ διαφέροντα are the things that make a difference, that surpass – as opposed to indifferent things, the αδιάφορα.

In Stoic philosophy, as an approach to moral and practical matters, there were categories using the verb διαφέρω as to levels of importance. One would ask, τι διαφέρει, what does it matter? The response would indicate either τα αδιάφορα, things that do not matter, or το διάφορον, things that are important, excellent, things that matter.

For St Paul, in his teaching the Philippians to find joy in the midst of adversity and discouragement, the only way that joy can overcome grief is when one focuses on the things that matter, the things that are not transitory. As he said elsewhere, we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (μή σκοπούντων ἡμῶν τά βλεπόμενα ἀλλά τά μή βλεπόμενα τά γάρ βλεπόμενα πρόσκαιρα τά δέ μή βλεπόμενα αἰώνια (2 Cor. 4:18)).

A central concept in the letter to the Philippians is that of hope in the midst of suffering, particularly as St Paul was writing from prison (it is not clear where; he refers to the Praetorium but that can mean any provincial governor’s residence). Paul had received a gift from Philippi while opponents of the Church there were persecuting the Christians of the region (“do not be frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear omen to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,” 1:28-29). The Philippian Christians are, generally, discouraged from such persecution, and afraid that they might not see Paul again.

In response, Paul tells them that his imprisonment, in the good providence of God, has actually furthered the gospel, as his captors have heard it and others were encouraged to preach the gospel as well (1:12-18); consistent with his emphasis on the διαφέροντα, he tells them that to die is gain, since to depart and be with Christ is better than all things; and yet, that he is confident that he will still remain to complete his work, which includes serving them (1:19-26)

In this way, Paul writes them a letter in a known ancient format of “consolation.” This included the elements of

(1) a comparison between the αδιάφορα and the διαφέροντα;

(2) the advance of the things that matter;

(3) the emphasis that hardship enhances one’s reputation;

(4) the idea that bearing misfortune well makes one an example to others; and

(5) that joy comes to the one who is properly trained.

In this way, Paul is using a rhetorical technique used by the pagan Stoics, while reframing it and filling it with the content of the gospel.

As with 1 Thessalonians, Paul’s encouragement to them was that they ought to have confidence, for “He who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”

Paul was teaching them to suffer in a “philosophical way;” but with the content of the gospel, he can say, rejoice in the Lord (ἀδελφοί μου χαίρετε ἐν Κυρίῳ, 3:1, χαίρετε ἐν Κυρίῳ πάντοτε πάλιν ἐρῶ χαίρετε, 4:4); since, whatever may befall him and them, ultimately, does not matter in comparison with what really matters: “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. . . .  that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (3:7-11).

St. John Damascene (676-749AD) on the Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ:

If then the Word of God is quick and energizing and the Lord did all that He willed; if He said, Let there be light and there was light, let there be a firmament and there was a firmament; if the heavens were established by the Word of the Lord and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth; if the heaven and the earth, water and fire and air and the whole glory of these, and, in sooth, this most noble creature, man, were perfected by the Word of the Lord; if God the Word of His own will became man and the pure and undefiled blood of the holy and ever-virginal One made His flesh without the aid of seed, can He not then make the bread His body and the wine and water His blood? . . .

St John of Damascus

God said, This is My body, and This is My blood, and this do ye in remembrance of Me. And so it is at His omnipotent command until He come: for it was in this sense that He said until He come: and the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit becomes through the invocation the rain to this new tillage. For just as God made all that He made by the energy of the Holy Spirit, so also now the energy of the Spirit performs those things that are supernatural and which it is not possible to comprehend unless by faith alone.

How shall this be, said the holy Virgin, seeing I know not a man? And the archangel Gabriel answered her: The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee. And now you ask, how the bread became Christ’s body and the wine and water Christ’s blood. And I say unto thee, “The Holy Spirit is present and does those things which surpass reason and thought.”

Further, bread and wine are employed: for God knoweth man’s infirmity . . . and just as, in the case of baptism, since it is man’s custom to wash himself with water and anoint himself with oil, He connected the grace of the Spirit with the oil and the water and made it the water of regeneration, in like manner since it is man’s custom to eat and to drink water and wine, He connected His divinity with these and made them His body and blood in order that we may rise to what is supernatural through what is familiar and natural.

The body which is born of the holy Virgin is in truth body united with divinity, not that the body which was received up into the heavens descends, but that the bread itself and the wine are changed into God’s body and blood.

But if you enquire how this happens, it is enough for you to learn that it was through the Holy Spirit, just as the Lord took on Himself flesh that subsisted in Him and was born of the holy Mother of God through the Spirit.

And we know nothing further save that the Word of God is true and energizes and is omnipotent, but the manner of this cannot be searched out . . . the bread of the table and the wine and water are supernaturally changed by the invocation and presence of the Holy Spirit into the body and blood of Christ, and are not two but one and the same.

The bread and the wine are not merely figures of the body and blood of Christ (God forbid!) but0 for the Lord has said, “This is My body,” not, this is a figure of My body: and “My blood,” not, a figure of My blood.

And on a previous occasion He had said to the Jews, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, ye have no life in you. For My flesh is meat indeed and My blood is drink indeed. And again, He that eateth Me, shall live . . . through it we have communion with Christ and share in His flesh and His divinity

An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 4.13

St Gregory the Theologian and the Call to the Priesthood

St Gregory the Theologian – Second Oration (In Defense of His Flight to Pontus)

St Gregory of Nazianzus, known by the Orthodox Church as St. Gregory the Theologian (329 – 390 AD), was the son of the Bishop of Nazianzus (Cappadocia).

Introduction

St Gregory the Theologian (St Gregory Nazianzus) 329-390AD

               In this short article I will address the arguments and content of his St Gregory the Theologian’s Second Theological Oration, also known as his treatise on the priesthood. I will start, first, with the context of his life leading to his ordination as a priest; second, with the content of his writing concerning priesthood; third, with a summary of his main arguments related to the daunting tasks associated with the priesthood – namely, his two main arguments concerning the need virtue and knowledge; finally, I will assess the resolution of his arguments concerning the fear failure and the fear of disobedience, and the tensions inherent in his argument, both in light of his own context, as well as how it might be applied to those considering the call to priesthood in our own modern context.

Gregory was born at about 330 in south-western Cappadocia, in the neighborhood of Nazianzus, where his father Gregory was a bishop. Through the influence and example of his wife Nonna, Bishop Gregory converted to Christianity in 325, and his son Gregory was consecrated by his mother even before birth. He was sent to school of rhetoric at an early age in Caesarea and later studied in Palestine, Alexandria, and eventually Athens, after which he received baptism in Cappadocia at about 358. At that time he lived for a period in monastic retirement with St Basil in Pontus. St Gregory followed a classical course of studies and has been called “a humanist among the theologians of the fourth century, insofar as he preferred quiet contemplation and the union of ascetic piety and literary culture to the splendor of an active life and ecclesiastical position.” [1]

Gregory would have chosen this life of contemplation had not his father decided to consecrate him to the priesthood in 362, against Gregory’s will. Displeased and fearful with his sudden ordination, Gregory fled to Pontus for several months before eventually returning to his diocese in Nazianzus, when he wrote the oration known as the Second Oration, or the Apologeticus de Fuga. He was aware that “his behavior was tantamount to a canonical rejection of ordination within the very week of receiving it.” In this way, “He had not only weakened his claim to the office but had caused animosity . . . his sudden flight would have offended [his supporters] as much as his father, for he had clearly preferred the community of Basil to that of his . . . brethren at home.”[2]  Gregory eventually succeeded his father as the Bishop of Nazianzus in 374, but a year later he withdrew to Seleucia to lead a life of retirement and contemplation. This did not last long, as five years later the small Nicene minority in Constantinople called for his aid against the Arians after the death of Emperor Valens.[3]

It was in Constantinople that he preached his Five Orations on the Divinity of the Logos, when Theodosius became emperor, called for the Second Ecumenical Council in 381, and appointed Gregory as the Bishop of the capital.  When the Macedonians and Alexandrians opposed his nomination, in frustration, Gregory delivered a farewell sermon and retired back to Nazianzus; after a successor was appointed to that see, he retired to his estate in Arianzum to pursue the life of solitude and contemplation he always desired, until his death in 389 or 390.[4] He left an immensely influential literary body, yet one composed not of dogmatic treatises, but solely of orations, poetry, and letters.

Gregory’s Second Oration is an apology for his flight from ordination and for his eventual acceptance of it; ultimately, it is also an articulation of the ideal of the priesthood. The text we possess might not have been written for delivery, or, at least, it is almost certainly a later revision of his speech.[5] He starts his defense by arguing that his flight was neither from inexperience or ignorance, nor from contempt for divine laws and ordinances; it was as a result, as he saw it, of his inadequacy for the pastoral ministry, which requires that the pastor surpasses the majority of the people in virtue and nearness to God (paragraph §3).[6]

Virtue and Knowledge

St. Gregory arguments focus on two main aspects: the need for virtue and discernment, and the need for knowledge of Scripture as the medicine to heal sous. First, he argues that priests should be, at minimum, those who surpass others in virtue, and  says that he is ashamed of those who “intrude” into the sacred offices without being “better than ordinary people; ” those who, “before becoming worthy to approach the temples, lay claim to the sanctuary,” i.e., whose practice in virtue and knowledge is average at best, so that they barely can be considered worthy to enter the Church, let alone minister in the sanctuary where are the Gifts and the priests (§8). St. Gregory did not consider himself qualified to rule a flock and to have authority over men, especially since, for priests, this entails a proportionate measure of dignity and risk – and failure can be disastrous because it would involve damage to the souls of many.

He argues that one cannot undertake the task to heal others while one is still not healed; one ought to be eminent in good.  “He should know no limits in goodness of spiritual progress” and ought not think “it a great gain to excel ordinary people” (§14). A priest must excel others in virtue especially because his rule is by influence of persuasion, so as to draw people at least to ordinary virtue by one’s evident extraordinary virtue (not by mere command). For St. Gregory, “the scope of our art is to provide the soul with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God, . . . in short, to deify, and bestow heavenly bliss upon one who belongs to the heavenly host” (§22).

A physician of souls, like a Shepherd, must walk in the “King’s Highway” in perfect balance, incurring a great risk as one who is changed with the “illumination of others” – “and who is sufficient for these things?” (cf. 2 Cor. 2). Leading the flock in virtue might be the most difficult work of all, since it requires that the leader and teacher has submitted himself to God in love and obedience, so that he will be able to lead others to the same conformity. In one of his most memorable quotes, he says,

A man must himself be cleansed, before cleansing others: himself become wise, that he may make others wise; become light, and then give light: draw near to God, and so bring others near; be hallowed, then hallow them; be possessed of hands to lead others by the hand, of wisdom to give advice.” (§71).

A priest must also excel in knowledge, since the guiding of man, which relates to the soul and its eternal destiny, is the “science of sciences.” St. Gregory shifts the emphasis to “the first of our duties,” the knowledge and the instruction of the Word (§35); and yet, “we are at once wise teachers, of high estimation in Divine things, the first of scribes and lawyers; we ordain ourselves men of heaven and seek to be called Rabbi by men” (§49).

After mentioning the representatives of the Law and the Prophets (Moses, Aaron, Elijah, Samuel, David, the other prophets, etc.) as well as the apostles and their successors, St Gregory focuses on St Paul as a paradigm: “I set forth Paul as the witness to my assertions . . .  his labors, his watchings, his sufferings in hunger and thirst, . . .  With these thoughts I am occupied night and day: they waste my marrow, and feed upon my flesh, and will not allow me to be confident or to look up. (§52-71).

Reasons for the Flight

St. Gregory brings these considerations on virtue and knowledge, on ascetic practice and contemplation, and the seemingly insurmountable requirements, challenges, tasks, expectations, and dangers related to the priesthood, as a justification for his unwillingness to immediately accept his charge and for his flight. And yet at this point he cites his personal history – having been reared as a Christian, the son of godly parents, baptized, consecrated to God, highly educated, and trained in philosophical (theological) ascetical practice and contemplation:

I had been invited from my youth, if I may speak of what most men know not, and had been cast upon Him from the womb, and presented by the promise of my mother, afterwards confirmed in the hour of danger: . . . I gave as an offering my all to Him Who had won me and saved me, my property, my fame, my health, my very words . . . and the words of God were made sweet as honeycombs to me, and I cried after knowledge and lifted up my voice for wisdom. There was moreover the moderation of anger, the curbing of the tongue, the restraint of the eyes, the discipline of the belly, and the trampling under foot of the glory which clings to the earth. I speak foolishly, but it shall be said, in these pursuits I was perhaps not inferior to many. (§77)

These statements might raise the question of whether St Gregory was, in reality, trained in virtue and knowledge precisely in the way needful for the task of the priesthood, as he saw it. As he argued, one is required (a) not only to be cleansed of sin, but greatly surpass the average person in virtue; (b) to have the wisdom and discernment and to apply these in the diagnosis and healing of individuals and groups; (c) to surpass greatly others in the spiritual knowledge and application of Scripture; and (d) to have the wisdom and discernment in the instruction of others.

               It is arguable that St Gregory fulfills all these requirements. He was “invited from [his] youth . . . cast upon Him from the womb;” he was raised in the Faith, baptized after an oath of consecration after danger in the sea, as he traveled to study in Athens and cried out God when he thought the ship would sink.[7]  He was highly trained in virtue and knowledge, both in secular training (including the best available training in in the world at the time) and in the Church; he left all for a life of contemplation with St Basil. He was trained in the Scriptures in a way that greatly surpassed the average Christian; he practiced virtue in monastic ascetic practices, and he says, in a way reminiscent of St Paul (cf. Gal. 1:14), that he surpassed most men both in virtue and knowledge, – “I was perhaps not inferior to many.”

               By laying out, clearly and extensively, the seemingly impossible requirements for the office of the priesthood, and then, in a small paragraph, indicating that he might have actually fulfilled those requirements, St Gregory is not being self-contradictory. He is both stressing the great holiness of the office as well as modeling humility as a form of behavior. St Gregory lays out with wisdom, precision, and rhetorical beauty, all that one who would embody Christ as the Shepherd should be to his flock, especially considering the abuses and lowered standards he had observed. Becoming a priest is not for the average person, i.e., one who is average in virtue, knowledge, wisdom, discernment, ascetic practice, and ability to discern the complexities of governing and healing others. These are qualities and abilities which can be acquired through effort, contemplation, study, and time; but they need to be embodied to the greatest possible degree, according to one’s ability, in a priest. They are things that, in one’s personal level, should “waste my marrow, and feed upon my flesh, and will not allow me to be confident or to look up.”

               St Gregory upholds both the impossible task and the possibility of the accomplishing task through God – while emphasizing that such work of grace can only be possible to those who understand that they are called to climb a mountain into the very cloud of the presence of God. He laments that “there is not any distinction between the state of the people and that of the priesthood: but it seems to me to be a simple fulfilment of the ancient curse, ‘As with the people so with the priest’” (§80-82). In this way, the oration is already a sobering call, a medicine to those who are sick and need healing from vice and blindness – and that includes readers of all times and ages. As he says, “before a man has, as far as possible, gained this superiority, and sufficiently purified his mind, and far surpassed his fellows in nearness to God, I do not think it safe for him to be entrusted with the rule over souls (§91-95).

Conclusion – Fear of Inadequacy vs. Fear of God

St Gregory introduces two reasons for his reconsideration and return: the fear of disobeying his parents and the fear of disobeying God. He reaffirms that “that we are far too low to perform the priest’s office before God,” yet, “someone else may perhaps refuse to acquit us on the charge of disobedience” (§111). There are then two fears that appear in his Oration: first, the fear of failure because of his unworthiness; this was the fear that held him back. Then the fear of disobedience (to his parents, and to God). This was the fear that brought him back. This becomes an instruction for the readers who would aspire to the work of ordained ministry, desire which is a good thing (εἴ τις ἐπισκοπῆς ὀρέγεται καλοῦ ἔργου ἐπιθυμεῖ, 1 Tim. 3). The realization of such a daunting task should not be a source of despair, but of awe and commitment in the face of the immensity of the challenge and task.

Given the content of this oration, it would be important to emphasize that the internal, subjective calling of God in one’s life for the priesthood is only confirmed by the external call – in the case of St Gregory, the call to ordination by his father – and that is what caused Gregory to ultimately consider. To disobey the objective, tangible, historical, practical calling of his bishop was to disobey God. In other words, subjective states of desiring the priesthood are necessary but not sufficient (or, in the case of St Gregory, were not even present), but the external call of God through the bishop caused him to consider his duty and the attending responsibilities in virtue, wisdom, and discernment. As he puts it in closing, “I fell down and humbled myself under the mighty hand of God, and asked pardon for my former idleness and disobedience . . . now I am commissioned to exalt Him in the congregation of the people, and praise Him in the seat of the elders. (§111)

Select Bibliography

Constas, Maximos. Roads to Damascus – Crisis, Conversion, and Community in the Lives of the Three Hierarchs (unpublished paper)

Greer, Rowan. Reflections on Priestly Authority. St. Luke’s Journal of Theology. March 1991, Volume XXXIV, Number 2.

McGunkin, John. St Gregory of Nazianzus – An Intellectual Biography.

Nazianzen, St Gregory, Select Orations, trans. Charles Gordon Brown and James Edward Swallow.

Quasten, Johannes, Patrology. Volume: II The Ante-Nicene Literature after Irenaeus, (Vol. 39, No. 4), p. 236

.


[1] Johannes Quasten, Patrology. Volume: II The Ante-Nicene Literature after Irenaeus, (Vol. 39, No. 4), p. 236

[2] John McGunkin, St Gregory of Nazianzus – An Intellectual Biography, p. 110.

[3] Quasten., 237.

[4] Ibid., 238.

[5] Rowan Greer, “Reflections on Priestly Authority.” St. Luke’s Journal of Theology (March 1991, Volume XXXIV, Number 2), p. 103.

[6] St Gregory Nazianzen, “Select Orations” trans. Charles Gordon Brown and James Edward Swallow.

[7] Maximos Constas, Roads to Damascus – Crisis, Conversion, and Community in the Lives of the Three Hierarchs, p. 5-6.

The Sermon on the Mount and the Progress of Eternity

The Sermon on the Mount is challenging not only because of its ethical demands, but also for the demands it places on the reader as to how to apply a hermeneutical framework that is both faithful to the text and applicable in everyday life even in its paradoxical elements.

In his book The Sermon on the Mount, Dale C. Allison (Princeton Theological Seminary’s Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament) begins by listing three main hermeneutical approaches which, while contributing some perspective, ultimately fail:

First, the “monastic approach” that reads the text as a set of injunctions to a moral elite. Second, a Lutheran Law/Gospel approach in which the Sermon is meant, as Law, to show what we cannot do, in order to receive the Gospel; i.e., what Christ has done for us; and third, a modern approach that reduces the demands of the Sermon to mere internal dispositions, not necessarily concrete actions.

However, considering that the Sermon applies not to a few, but to disciples made of all nations, taught to keep all Jesus taught; that the Sermon does not hint that believers are not expected to live it; and that the sermon does not separate inward from outward; then a better approach is needed.

Allison presents some “exegetical guidelines” for a better approach.

First, the recognition that Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon finds parallels in other times and places because it is not completely novel and unique. Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfill.

Therefore, secondly, the Law and the Prophets not only are still in force, but they are a hermeneutical key.

Third, the larger context of the Sermon shows that it is a call for Israel to repent, and presents Jesus as “a gracious religious presence whose demand is accompanied by a helping presence (18:20; 28:20).”

Fourth, the Sermon is a poetic text, which, while meant to be taken seriously, is given with dramatic and pictorial elements.

Lastly, it has an eschatological orientation. As a result,

The Sermon is not as a mere set of rules, but something that instills “a moral vision;” it is not concerned with what is merely practical, but with the perfect will of God on earth as it is in heaven – a growth in love that can be ever perfected, the ultimate goal of the eschatological kingdom, in which we live and to which we journey.

He cites St John of the Ladder speaking of love as “the progress of eternity,” i.e., a journey that can never come to completion.  He also mentions St Gregory of Nyssa, and the following includes Allison’s citation as well as a few additional passages:

Every quantitative measurement presupposes its own proper limits. Anyone who considers, for example, the cubit, or the number ten, will see that their perfection consists in their having a beginning and an end. But with regard to virtue we know from the Apostle that the one determination of perfection is its not having any limit.[1]

Later St Gregory states,

But though my argument has shown that we cannot attain our goal, we must not, for all that, neglect the divine command, Be you perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Math. 5.48). For though it may not be possible completely to attain the ultimate and sovereign good, it is most desirable for those who are wise to have at least a share in it . . . rather let us change in such a way that we may constantly evolve towards what is better, being transformed form glory to glory, and thus always improving and ever becoming more perfect by daily growth, and never arriving at any limit of perfection. For that perfection consists in our never stopping in our growth in good, never circumscribing our perfection by any limitation.[2]

In this way, Allison argues, the Sermon is a “ladder to be climbed rung by rung,” a “pressing on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

It is a call akin to the lives of the Saints, as example and inspiration, or of the teaching of a father to his children, urging them on to move beyond their present abilities. The Sermon is indeed partly a summary of the Speaker’s deeds; He lives as He speaks and He speaks as He lives.

This is what encourages to the imitation of Christ – which, as Allison argues, cannot be reduced as a purely human effort that cannot be achieved; but rather, “in the first Gospel, Jesus is an ever abiding, helpful presence.”


[1] St Gregory of Nyssa, The Meaning of Perfection (The Life of Moses, PG 44.300)

[2] Ibid.

The Lost Scriptural Mind

Fr Georges Florovsky

In 1951, Fr. Georges Florovsky (a priest, theologian, Dean of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, and professor of Church History at Harvard University) wrote a short article entitled “The Lost Scriptural Mind.” He said,

The first task of the contemporary preacher is the “reconstruction of belief.” It is by no means an intellectual endeavor. Belief is just the map of the true world, and should not be mistaken for reality. Modern man has been too much concerned with his own ideas and convictions, his own attitudes and reactions.

The modern crisis precipitated by humanism (an undeniable fact) has been brought about by the rediscovery of the real world, in which we do believe. The rediscovery of the church is the most decisive aspect of this new spiritual realism. Reality is no more screened from us by the wall of our own ideas. It is again accessible. It is again realized that the church is not just a company of believers, but the “Body of Christ.”

This is a rediscovery of a new dimension, a rediscovery of the continuing presence of the divine Redeemer in the midst of his faithful flock. This discovery throws a new flood of light on the misery of our disintegrated existence in a world thoroughly secularized. It is already recognized by many that the true solution of all social problems lies somehow in the reconstruction of the church.

“In a time such as this” one has to preach the “whole Christ,” Christ and the church — totus Christus, caput et corpus, to use the famous phrase of St. Augustine. Possibly this preaching is still unusual, but it seems to be the only way to preach the Word of God efficiently in a period of doom and despair like ours.

In an “age of intellectual chaos and disintegration” – Florovsky already presents, 70 years ago, a criticism of his society’s approach to religion, to the Bible, to preaching, and the relation the modern word to Christianity.

For him, the loss of the of the “scriptural mind” is the relegation of the language of Scripture and Tradition to a realm of irrelevance, as if it is unable to address modern problems unless it is fundamentally altered to fit certain modern expectations.

As he puts it, “Most of us have lost the integrity of the scriptural mind, even if some bits of biblical phraseology are retained. The modern man often complains that the truth of God is offered to him in an ‘archaic idiom’” and should therefore be “demythologized.”

 The problem, as he sees it, is that reinterpreting the language and categories of Scripture would entail changing its contents precisely because of the current loss of the scriptural mind, a forgetfulness of the original language, in the first place.

Therefore, what needs to be changed is not Scripture or the traditional preaching, but the modern mind itself through the Scriptural preching; for “no man can receive the gospel unless he repents — ‘changes his mind.’”

Chalcedonian Preaching

For Florovsky then the solution is to use Scripture and the uninterrupted Tradition of the Church in their own language and purpose, to preach the “doctrines of the creed.”

It is to recover, for the modern mind, the implications of a Chalcedonian Christology – i.e., the One who entered history and addresses us in our poor human condition, in all circumstances and at all times, is the Divine Person of the Logos. In other words, it is God the Son who is Incarnate and takes on human nature to unite it to God; if God enters history in the Incarnation, then this fact, and this message, have “perennial adequacy and relevance to all ages and to all situations, including ‘a time such as this.’”

 The “reconversion” of the world to Christianity is what we ought to preach, he argues, because of the enormous impact that it had, and will always continue to have. The union of God with humanity as witnessed in Chalcedonian declaration entails that there is a union of the divine providence with kenosis, for the transformation of man into a new man, of the world into an new world.

“The mystery of the Incarnation was a mystery of the love divine, of the divine identification with lost man. And the climax of Incarnation was the cross. It is the turning point of human destiny . . . the Crucified was in very truth “the Son of the living God.’” And so it was the “end of death and the inauguration of life everlasting for man.” This is the gospel that always regenerates, at all times and in all circumstances.

Hell – An Orthodox Perspecive

As we prepare to enter the time of Great Lent, the Church reminds us that our lives belong in a greater context than the mundane and immediate things of everyday life. In the Sunday of the Last Judgment, the Church reminds us that we trust in Christ’s love and mercy, and yet we must not forget His righteous judgment when He comes again in glory. Fasting and praying are ways to prepare our hearts towards true works of love.

Recently our Bible study group was discussing how hell is not a “place” because it is outside time and space, and it is a subjective (and real) state. It is not a specific location where God sends people in order to torture them there. This would be a view that imagines God as the great torturer, who will have his blood, either from Christ on your stead in a legal fiction, or from you (a view common in Protestantism).

Rather, to experience the disembodied state, beyond physical death, as we discussed, is the experience of the unveiled presence of God who is a consuming fire – for those who love God, that fire is the uncreated light of the unending day that warms, purifies, deifies, and fills with joy and love.

gollumFor those who have rejected the love of God, his unveiled presence is not experienced as the fire of his love, but a fire that burns. Hell is not the absence of God (which is impossible); it is the presence of his fiery love. A fire that is not desired, but rejected, alien.

Burning bushIt is not experienced as the burning bush, filled with the glowing fire of God but never consumed; but as the fire that burned Sinai.

This has been the common view of the Church since the beginning, as seen in many of he Fathers.

It occurred to me that CS Lewis, in the Great Divorce (my favorite book by him, and I haven’t read it since college) paints a picture that is not entirely different. The people leave the beautiful land of heaven because they can’t stand the grass, which hurts them. So they return to the Grey Town.

eternityIn Lewis’ allegory, he sees everything in heaven (grass, rocks, trees, water, etc.) as “much solider than things in our country” in contrast to the people coming from earth who are transparent and ghostly. They have thought of their world as the “real” one, the one with substance, while thinking of heaven as the less substantial spirit world. If they are not changed, Heaven will have no appeal to them. They cannot live there, and neither will they want to live there.

Conversely, a small taste of hell is already experienced here, even if temporarily, by those who love God and by those who don’t. God uses suffering in this world to refine and purify his people. As St Paul said, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

From Old Testament times, the prophet Malachi had already said,

“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.” (Malachi 3:1-4)