The Concept of the Gnomic Will in St Maximus the Confessor – A Brief Investigation

In this paper I will address St Maximus the Confessor’s concept of the gnomic will, including (1) what he means by the term; (2) how does it differ from natural will; (3) the historical development of his usage of the term; (4) whether Christ has a gnomic will; and (5) what are its implications to deification. 

Gnomic Will – Definition and Distinction from Natural Will

According to St Maximus, especially in his later writings, there is an important distinction between natural will and “gnomic” will, distinction which has come to play an important role in Orthodox Christology. The distinction is that there is a natural will, rooted in nature, and a gnomic will, rooted in the personal exercise of the natural will.

There are two natural wills in Christ, as He unites two natures; he has two natural wills (pertaining respectively to his human and divine natures), since natural will is a property of nature. On the other hand, the gnomic will it is a mode (tropos, a manner, or way) of willing apropos to fallen humanity, in that it involves deliberation, either based on ignorance or sinful inclination.

Because it is a tropos, it is associated with the individual, or hypostasis; as opposed to logos, a definition or part of nature. The Person of Christ is not a human hypostasis, but a divine hypostasis. Therefore, human hypostases after the Fall have a gnomic will along with their natural will. The nature of the distinction is that between a natural and a deliberative will.[1] One may start by asking, what is natural will according to St Maximus? He argues that it is the power that longs for what is natural to the nature. He says,

For [the divine Fathers] think that [the natural will] is the natural appetency of the flesh endowed with a rational soul, and not the longing of the mind of a particular man moved by an opinion, that possesses the natural power of the desire for being, and is naturally moved and shaped by the Word towards the fulfilment of the economy. And this they wisely call the will, without which the human nature cannot be. For the natural will is ‘the power that longs for what is natural’ and contains all the properties that are essentially attached to the nature. In accordance with this to be disposed by nature to will is always rooted in the willing nature.[2]

With this definition of natural will, St Maximus then makes a further distinction between the will rooted in the nature, and the exercise of that will, which is rooted in the person, the ὑπόστασις. The will rooted in nature is the capacity, whereas the exercise is a hypostatic function. The natural will is the “movement of longing” which “best characterizes a nature as rational;” it is the “movement of desire constituted as the most proper and primary property of every rational nature.”[3] Without Christ’s natural will, He would not have been fully human, in the sense that the Logos would not have united a true, complete human nature to himself. If Christ did not have a natural will, he would not fulfil the hypostatic union with flesh, endowed by nature with a rational soul and intellect.

In Christ, the natural will is rooted in his concrete human nature, not an abstract human nature (as some modern philosophers of religion, who reject dyothelitism, haver argued).[4] It can be illustrated, e.g., by the nature’s capacity to speak, whereas the exercise of speaking, and how to speak, belongs to the hypostasis, the person who wishes. In the unique case of Christ, therefore, the will is rooted in this human nature, whereas the personal exercise of the will belongs to the Divine Person. St Maximus says,

For to be disposed by nature to will and to will are not the same thing, as it is not the same thing to be disposed by nature to speak and to speak. . . .  So being able to speak always belongs to the nature, but how you speak belongs to the hypostasis. So it is with being disposed by nature to will and willing. If then to be disposed by nature to will and to will are not the same (for the one, I said, belongs to the essence, while the other exists at the wish of the one who wills), then the Incarnate Word possesses as a human being the natural disposition to will, and this is moved and shaped by his divine will.[5]

Therefore, the relation between gnomic and natural will entails that as the nature wills, so the person chooses, accepting or rejecting that which the nature wills; and this freedom of choice is a result of imperfection and limitation of our true freedom. A perfect nature has no need of choice, for it knows naturally what is good. Human nature (other than Christ’s), on the other hand, as a result of the Fall, is wounded and human persons need to make choices between options as they deliberate between what they might consider the good. Our deliberation indicates the imperfection of fallen human nature and the loss of the divine likeness.[6]

The gnomic will then is a mode of the employment of the natural will, a process involving several psychological elements – involving doubt, uncertainty, hesitation, and deliberation. The gnomic will is in this way related to human sin as the means by which sin comes about.[7]  As Maximus says, “the mode of willing, . . . in other words, to will to walk or to will not to walk . . . or the contemplation of concupiscence or of the rational principles in beings – is a mode of the use of the will . . .  and as such it exists only in the person using it.”[8]

Maximus’ Progressive Usage of the Term

According to Polycarp Sherwood’s account of Maximus’ historical use of γνώμη, there was a progression in how he used the term.[9] His first use is on the Ep. 6 on the soul, in which Maximus uses it in the sense of disposition, διάθεσις. In the Centuries on Love, the term is used both as a synonym for opinion (δόξα), in the sense of disagreement, as well as the will to be conformed to God; as an example of the latter, he says that “God alone is good by nature, only the imitator of God is good through conformity of the will (γνώμη). As Sherwood writes, “in this sentence the whole of the spiritual life is placed in the imitation of God and the means for doing it are likewise indicated, conformity of our γνώμη with God.”[10]

In the limited sense of the process of willing, and the accompanying deliberations, Maximus did use he terms προαίρεσις and γνώμη with reference to Jesus (e.g., in his Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer he had openly ascribed to Christ the possession of a gnomic will perfectly fixed on the Good) [11] as he even equates “prohairetic”(προαιρετικόν) and “gnomic” (γνωμικόν) will;[12] but when he more clearly described such process in fallen human beings, γνώμη acquired a stricter sense that could not be used of Christ.[13] Sherwood argues that as late as 642 Maximus said (in the Letter to Marinus the Deacon) that in Christ there is no opposition, even between the γνώμη and the natural will; and that it is only after 643 that γνώμη came to signify sinful mutability and rebellion against nature – and thereby its existence to be denied in Christ. In the Ambigua, the concept is used to indicate a self-determination which needs to be surpassed in order to attain the imitation of God in His fixity in the good.

By then, γνώμη came to be understood as a certain willing (θέλησις) by which one adheres to a perceived good, a disposition on the appetitive deliberation. It is an election (προαίρεσις), a judgment between options that implies uncertainty about the good; it includes ignorance of the thing sought and an uncertainty as to the results of the things chosen.[14] When Maximus learned that some Monothelites were willing to concede two natural wills in Christ as long as they were united and controlled in one single will which they called ‘gnomic’ (γνωμικόν), he strictly denied that Christ has a gnomic will.

Maximus now defines gnomic willing as the deliberative inclining of the will beset by ignorance and doubt, an unnaturally-functioning will, which is pulled in opposite directions: “the gnomic wills of fallen human beings, being unable to choose the good freely, are tossed about by the choices that present themselves, under the sway of sin and the passions;” Only the incarnate Lord, whose human existence is liberated and divinized by the hypostatic presence of his divine being, is free of the oppressive distortion that Maximus now calls γνώμη.[15] He says, “the holy fathers who spoke of the free choice proper to the humanity of Christ were referring to the appetitive power proper to nature by essence, in other words, our natural faculty of will or free choice, which exists in the Incarnate God by [His] appropriation [of human nature].”[16]

St Maximus then argued that gnomic willing cannot exist in Christ in any way, for “the process of formulating an intention (γνώμη) as a necessary stage in coming to a decision and acting on it, is not part of the ‘mode of existence’ of a divine Person at all”[17] because gnomic willing depends upon the loss of the knowledge of the Good, which is not possible in the divine Persons.

In this way, Jesus “does not deliberate in ignorance, doubt, and inner conflict about the good” like we do, but he makes righteous choices, and experiences hunger, thirst, and the fear of death, naturally and with perfect freedom, naturally and always choosing good over evil. Thus the “newly redefined γνώμη becomes a fixed term in later Greek Christian tradition for the sort of enslaved willing that Christ became human in order to liberate and divinize.”[18]

As a result of  Maximus’ later precise definitions, and his influence, this concept was eventually canonized:

 The Dogmatic Statement of the Sixth Ecumenical Council distinguishes between “gnomic” and “natural will” and teaches that in Christ, there is the natural human will and not the gnomic one . . . as there are in Christ two natural energies and two natural wills of the two natures, united without division, or separation, or confusion, or change . . . the Council condemns as heresy the idea that there is in Christ a gnomic will, inasmuch as Christ as Logos was never forced to evaluate between two possible energies and to exercise his opinion and judgment as if he were not certain about the truth or his action . . . Having the essence of God as the theosis of his human nature, and God’s natural and eternal glory as natural glory of his human nature, which became, on account of the exchange of properties (communicatio idiomatum), i.e. the hypostatic union, source of the natural energies of God, he had a natural, created will as all human beings, but not a gnomic one.[19]

Therefore, the general usage of the term and the concept became more exact after the Sixth Council; St. Maximus had been more ambiguous in his earlier writings, as he was developing new, technical vocabulary, and struggling to find adequate terms for that part of the will which concerns the person exclusively. Some have argued that he never achieved a final, unambiguous meaning for the terms.[20]

Gnomic Will and the Trinity

Maximus rejected both a gnomic will attributed to Christ’s human nature, capable of choosing between opposite courses of action (gnomic will is never a part of nature, even in fallen human beings, because it is not a faculty but a mode. If it were a faculty, then the principle “what is not assumed is not healed” would come into play, and Maximus’ Christology would have to admit such in Christ); and also a gnomic will in Christ as hypostatic, for “if free choice is a of the hypostasis of Christ [as the heterodox argued], then by virtue of this will, they cut Him off from the Father and Holy Spirit, making Him different [from them] in will and thought.”[21]

Following the Chalcedonian definition, Maximus required a certain asymmetry in the hypostatic union in Christ, since the divine hypostasis of the Son divinized the enhypostized human nature, and so a “natural” human will could be deified, not a gnomic will prone to vacillation.

The distinction between natural will and the hypostatic usage of will become important for Trinitarian theology. In his Disputation with Pyrrho, when Maximus argues that if Christ has two natures, then he must also have two natural wills and operations (energies), Pyrrhus objects, arguing that this would entail two willing subjects (two θέλοντας).  Maximus then denies that there must be a one-to-one correspondence between natural wills and willing agents, since there are three Persons but only one will in the Trinity.[22] Hypostases always exercise natural wills; and yet, having two natures in Christ does not entail that there are two persons; if a will introduced a person and each person had his own will, then there would be either one person in the Trinity, because of the one will, or three wills because of the three persons. If these wills were natural, we would have three Gods, whereas if they were ‘gnomic’, there would be an internal opposition in the Trinity.[23]

The denial of the gnomic will to the three divine Hypostases, like the denial that the natural will is hypostatic, is seen in that “three hypostatic wills, or more accurately, three gnomic wills, would mean that there were three Gods.”[24]

Modes of Willing and the Fall

Maximus denies that Christ has a gnomic will because, although being a function of the person, it is a will that deliberates and disagrees: The gnomic will operates in us because our wills are not entirely submissive and in conformity to the divine will. As such, it acts with reference to sin, and therefore Christ does not and could not have gnomic wills:

The Fathers . . . openly confessed the difference between two natural, but not gnomic, wills in Christ. They did not however say that there was any difference of gnomic wills in Christ, lest they proclaim him double minded and double-willed, and fighting against himself, so to speak, in the discord of his thoughts, and therefore double-personed. For they knew that it was only this difference of gnomic wills that introduced into our lives sin and our separation from God. For evil consists in nothing else than this difference of our gnomic will from the divine will, which occurs by the introduction of an opposing quantity, thus making them numerically different, and shows the opposition of our gnomic will to God.[25]

For Maximus, what is distinctive about being human is self-determination (autexousios kinesis), the “unhindered willing of a rational soul towards whatever it wishes,”[26] as that is an expression of the image of God; as such, in the natural (unfallen) state, this self-determination is ordered toward God as nature finds its fulfillment in turning to Him as the source of their being. However, after the Fall, and the corruption of human nature, human beings no longer know what they want, and seek fulfillment in things other than God, being no longer aware of their true good. Other apparent goods now attract them and as a result, they need to deliberate and consider.

With respect to the relation between the natural disposition or appetite and the perceived goods, a parallel between Aristotle and Maximus becomes apparent. In his work On the Soul (III:10) Aristotle says, “the object of appetite always produces movement, but this may be either the real or the apparent to some real or assumed good;” and Maximus says, “So then gnome is nothing else than an act of willing in a particular way, in relation good.”[27] Maximus calls this willing in accordance with an “opinion, or intention, or inclination . . .  Such gnomic willing is our way or mode of willing, it is the only way in which we can express our natural will, but it is a frustrating and confusing business.”[28] The gnomic will is the inclination away from the purpose of God for his creation, and therefore it can become radically separated from the natural will.[29]

It is important to emphasize that Maximus did not deny gnomic will in Christ because he considered gnomic will to be inherent in the human hypostasis. On the contrary, the gnomic will (more exactly in his later writings) is a result of the Fall, and Christ came to heal our whole beings, including our fallen gnomic wills, so we may be oriented to will in conformity to God.

The Process of Willing and Deification

Maximus argues that the saint wills the good as a human hypostasis purified and divinized by Christ.[31] In Christ, the will is rooted in nature, which is the natural disposition of the will, is deified by the divine will, and thus always in accord with it:

What deifies and what is deified are certainly two . . . What deifies and what is deified are then related, and if they are related, they are certainly brought together . . . The Saviour therefore possesses as a human being a natural will, which is shaped, but not opposed, by his divine will. For nothing that is natural can be opposed to God in any way, not even in inclination, for a personal division would appear, if it were natural, and the Creator would be to blame, for having made something that was at odds with itself by nature.[32]

In the process of willing,  Maximus outlines four distinctions: The willing subject, ὁ θέλων; the will itself (τὸ θέλημα, ἡ θέλησις, τὸ θέλειν) as a faculty, capacity, or activity that belongs to nature; the manner in which one wills (τὸ πῶς θέλειν), particularly in the moral sense; and the aim or object of one’s willing (τὸ θελητόν).[33] The manner in which one wills (τὸ πῶς θέλειν) in righteousness or sinfulness does not belong to the willing subject by nature alone, but to the particular way (τρόπος) in which each individual (ὑπόστασις) exercises it.[34]

The ways in which we each make our choices and motivations, a process that starts with desire and is fulfilled in the deliberative process, can differ considerably, even though all humans share the same natural capacity of willing, and “whatever is rational by nature has rational desire as a natural capacity, which is called the ‘will’ of the noetic soul . . . when we will, we search and consider and deliberate and judge and are inclined toward and make a choice and move toward and use [things].”

It is our process of willing which Christ heals in the process of deification given to us by our mystical union with Him. He heals our nature (and our natural will, e.g. freeing it from fear of death), and thereby frees us to heal our process of willing, with His grace. St Maximus uses the concept of gnome to refer to universal fragmentation in creation which does not remain at the level of the individual. As a concept, “gnome is the principle which divides the one humanity. In general, gnome is associated with free will, opinion, deliberation, inclination, individual attitude, and so on. In its negative role, we could name it ‘the individualistic will’.”[35] St Maximus gives this example,

Should anyone, who is wealthy enough to do so, ignore those in need, he clearly proves to have cast them away from himself and cast himself from God, since he has ignored the nature on account of his gnome, or rather, since he has ruined the good things which belong to his nature. This applies to those who deliberately (γνωμικώς) have preferred cruelty to charity and who have judged their kin and compatriot to be of less value than money and who yearning after gold have blocked the way from God to enter themselves.[36]

Acting according to one’s gnome is unnatural and reveals the distortion and severance of one’s nature; as Maximus says: “evil by nature is scattering, unsteady, multiform and dividing. For since good unifies and holds together what has been divided, clearly then evil divides and corrupts what is united.”[37] The human natural will is distinct from the divine, but does not oppose it; it is the gnomic will which opposes the divine will when it moves against the logos of nature, and which conforms to the divine will when we cooperate with God’s grace. The gnomic will is a form of actualization of the human natural will that is marked by sinfulness. Sin, not nature, is the cause of our rebellion against God, but Christ was free from both sin and rebellion against God; the natural human will of Christ did not oppose the divine will because it was fully deified from the moment of the Incarnation and because it was moved and modelled by the divinity of the Logos. [38]

Quoting the philosopher Iris Murdoch in her work of moral philosophy (who asks, “are there any techniques for the purification and reorientation of an energy which is naturally selfish, in such a way that when moments of choice arrive, we shall be sure of acting rightly?”)[39] Andrew Louth concludes that “this is a good way of formulating the approach of Byzantine ascetic theology, not least the approach of Maximus. And Maximus’ ascetic theology is . . . closely bound up with his dogmatic theology.”[40] The communion with Christ in the ascetic life is the remedy to cure the gnome, “the sharp cutting edge which cuts whatever it touches . . . Only if we rise above our ‘individualistic wills’, can we hope to achieve restoration and unification of humanity both at the personal and the universal level.”[41]

The power of the will can determine our union or separation from God, as St Maximus says, “Just as evil is the privation of good and ignorance that of knowledge, so is nonbeing the privation of being . . .  Privations of the former depend on the will of creatures; privation of the latter depends on the will of the Creator;” and, “Whether the rational and intelligent being has eternal being or nonbeing lies in the will of the one who created all good things. Whether it be good or bad by choice lies in the will of the creatures.”[42] St Maximus believed that the affirmation of a human will in Christ was soteriologically vital since anything less would compromise the full humanity of the Word made flesh and thus render the incarnation a delusion unable to dissolve the divisions introduced by the transgression of Adam and restore human nature to its proper place in the cosmos.

The healing of the gnomic will is a fundamental aspect of Maximus’ understanding of the ascetic Christian life: “the purpose is to bring it back home, to unite it with nature. Uniting the gnome with nature brings about also the unification of humanity as a whole: it means giving up one’s individual desires for the benefit of one’s neighbour, in other words, loving them as oneself.”[43] The sacraments also convey the grace of God to assist the ascetic life. Baptism, for example, implants a grace that will continue to unfold itself in the penitent and fruit-bearing life of the believer:

Baptism, he indicates, actually entails two dimensions, two births in one. On the one hand it implants, through the believer’s faith, the fully potential grace of adoption in the Spirit; on the other hand, it begins the actualization of that grace which must grow and continue through the believer’s active assimilation to God. The latter, he observes, involves the conversion of free choice (προαίρεσις) and of the gnomic will (γνώμη) as well as the acquisition of a knowledge based on and enriched by our spiritual experience (πείρα). Clearly for Maximus, the baptismal vocation reveals a synergy of the Holy Spirit and the will of the graced Christian, yet he strongly emphasizes the burden on the believer to discipline the will, to stabilize personal inclination, since the Spirit does not compel an unwilling gnome nor baptism nullify its freedom.[44]

Uniting the gnomic will with the natural will, reaching the likeness of God and ultimately deification, are different aspects of one and the same reality.

For this reason anyone who by chaste thinking and noble sagacity has been able to put an end to this deviation from nature has shown mercy above all to himself, because he has rendered his gnome to be in one accord with nature and because he by gnome has advanced to God for the sake of nature.[45]

Christ could thus be truly the savior of humanity because in Him there could never be any contradiction between natural will and gnomic will. Through the hypostatic union, His human will, precisely because it always conforms itself to the divine, also performs the “natural movement” of human nature. The doctrine of “deification” in Maximus is based upon the fundamental patristic presupposition that communion with God does not diminish or destroy humanity but makes it fully human.[46]

The exercise of our exousia, our self-determination, makes a fundamental difference in our union with God. The Theotokos, as a paradigm, had freedom of will either to turn towards or away from God; she was not merely a passive receptacle of God’s favor, but at the Annunciation she is given a choice between two goods (remaining chaste or becoming a mother): and she chose both. Exercising her free will which is capable of turning away as well as of accepting God’s decision, the Virgin responds, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be unto me according to your word.” [47] God’s work in the deification of human nature, by making us partakers of the divine nature, and our personal, hypostatic cooperation in choosing to redirect ourselves to God through his grace, work together (albeit synergistically, since we respond to God’s grace) for the healing of our will.

We have an active appropriation of freedom, which, though stunted by the Fall, has been renewed through baptism and comes to fruition in virtuous choices. We willingly surrender to the conforming of our inclinations and choices, by grace, to the “natural will” that is already predisposed toward God. The very purpose of the incarnation, says Maximus, is to draw us to Christ and his deifying love, so that the ultimate, transfigured state of the cosmos would be characterized by no “gnomic” variance within the universe of individual created beings.[48]

Works Cited

Bathrellos, Demetrios. Person, Nature, and Will in the Christology of Saint Maximus the Confessor. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Beeley, Christopher A. “Natural and Gnomic Willing in Maximus Confessor’s Disputation with Pyrrhus.” Papers Presented at the Seventeenth International Conference on Patristic Studies Held in Oxford 2015, 2017, pp. 167–179.

Blowers, Paul. “Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus on Gnomic Will (γνώμη) in Christ: Clarity and Ambiguity.”

Crisp, Oliver D. Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered. Cambridge Univ Pr, 2007.

Cunningham, Mary B. “‘All-Holy Infant’: Byzantine and Western Views on the Conception of the Virgin Mary.” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 1–2, 2006, pp. 127–148.

Farrell, Joseph P., Free Choice in Maximus the Confessor. St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press South Canan, Pennsylvania 1989.

Lossky, Vladimir, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (New York: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1976)

Louth, Andrew. Greek East and Latin West: The Church AD 681-1071. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007

Louth, Andrew. St. John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Louth, Andrew. Maximus the Confessor. Routledge, 1996.

St Maximus the Confessor, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ. Trans. Paul Blowers and Robert Wilken (New York: SVS Press, 2003).

St Maximus the Confessor, Selected Writings. Classics of Christian Spirituality (New Jersey: George Berthold, 1985).

Meyendorff, John. “Christology in the Fifth Century,” Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (New York: SVS Press, 1987)

Meyendorff, John. Byzantine Theology. Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (New York: Fordham University Press, 1979)

Murdoch, Iris. The Sovereignty of Good. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970

Romanides, John. An Outline of Orthodox Patristic Dogmatics. University of Thessaloniki, 2004.

Sherwood, Polycarp. St Maximus the Confessor. Longmans, 1956

Törönen, Melchisedec. Union and Distinction in the Thought of St Maximus the Confessor. Oxford Univ Pr, 2007.


[1] Louth, Maximus the Confessor, 191.

[2] Ibid., 192

[3] Ibid., 193-196.

[4] Crisp, Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered p.48. “Some recent philosophical theologians, believing that possession of two wills implies two persons rather than two natures in one person, argue that an abstract-nature view of Christ’ human nature is preferable to a concrete-nature view, despite the fact that it seems Monothelite . . . for instance, William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, ch. 30.”

[5] Louth, 192; emphasis mine.

[6] Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 125.

[7] Farrell, Free Choice in Maximus the Confessor, 123.

[8] St Maximus, Disputations with Pyrrhus, PG91:292D-293A.

[9] Sherwood, St Maximus the Confessor, 58-63.

[10] Ibid., 59.

[11] Maximus, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 36.

[12] Blowers, “Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus on Gnomic Will (γνώμη) in Christ: Clarity and Ambiguity,” 46.

[13] Beeley, “Natural and Gnomic Willing in Maximus Confessor’s Disputation with Pyrrhus,” 8.

[14] Ibid., 61.

[15] Beeley, 9.

[16] TheoPol l, PG 91:29B-C.

[17] Louth, 59

[18] Beeley, 10.

[19] Romanides, An Outline of Orthodox Patristic Dogmatics, 71.

[20] Farrell, Free Choice in Maximus the Confessor. 121-122.

[21] TheoPol l, PG 91:29B-C.

[22] Beeley, 4, citing Disputatio cum Pyrrho, PG 91.288-353.

[23] Bathrellos, Person, Nature, and Will in the Christology of Saint Maximus the Confessor, 84

[24] Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 144-145.

[25] Ibid.,196

[26] St Maximus, Opusc. 26:277C

[27] Farrell, 102.

[28] Louth, 59.

[29] Törönen, Union and Distinction in the Thought of St Maximus the Confessor, 113.

[31] Beeley, 12.

[32] Louth,193

[33] This is also followed by St John of Damascus in his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, II.22.

[34] Beeley 5-6.

[35] Törönen, 181.

[36] Ep. 3 (PG 91), 409B.

[37] Qu. Thal. 16: 47–52 (CCSG 7), 107.

[38] Bathrellos, 85

[39] Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, 54.

[40] Louth, 60.

[41] Törönen, 181.

[42] St Maximus, Four Hundred Chapters on Love, III. 29; IV. 13.

[43] Törönen, 182

[44] Maximus, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 40-41.

[45] Törönen, 182

[46] Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology, 38-39.

[47] Cunningham, Mary B. “‘All-Holy Infant’: Byzantine and Western Views on the Conception of the Virgin Mary.” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 1–2, 2006, p. 147.

[48] Blowers 46, citing Ad Thal. 6, Amb. 7 and Ep. 2.

Georges Florovsky on the Death and Resurrection of Christ: our Nature and our Will.

Death is the “last enemy” (1 Cor 15:26), a catastrophe for man. In what way, then, can it be considered good?

The mystery of the Christian faith is life through death. In the Incarnation, the Christ assumes human nature and human life, and by his death assumes human death and heals it. By the voluntary act of his will, he bears the sin of the world, taking it up, and by his death he fulfills the purpose of the Incarnation.

The Cross is the symbol of Love Divine, the abolition of sin altogether, the deliverance from sin and death. The death of our Lord was the victory over death and mortality. In our death, human nature becomes unstable in the separation of body and its vital power, the soul; it is only saved from this corruption by the power of the indwelling Word. Our deep tragedy, our catastrophe, is turned into an eucatastrophe (I am using here a C. S. Lewis term, not Florovsky), a means of healing, that we may be refashioned again through resurrection, sound, free from passions, pure and without and admixture of evil – a healing of soul and body.

In this way, death is not an evil, but a benefit, a healing process, a medicine, a fiery tempering, as the resurrection of Christ accomplishes our resurrection, to be fulfilled in the general quickening when the last enemy shall be abolished, death. It will be a restoration of the union of man with God. Death is vanquished not by the Incarnation, but by the voluntary death of the Incarnate Life. He passed through death and quickened death itself, abolished its power; the grave now becomes a life-giving source of our resurrection, a bed of hope for believers.

Redemption is not just the forgiveness of sins, it is not just man’s reconciliation with God. Redemption is the abolition of sin altogether, the deliverance from sin and death. And the ultimate victory is wrought, not by sufferings or endurance, but by death and resurrection. We enter here into the ontological depth of human existence.

The death of Our Lord was the victory over death and mortality, not just the remission of sins, nor merely a justification of man, nor again a satisfaction of an abstract justice.”


If Christ’s death on the Cross saves us, then how do we understand the role of human will in our salvation?

The Resurrection is accomplished by Christ in order to redeem and resurrect human nature, not only His but of all human beings. In His death and resurrection our nature is healed, but we must make a distinction between the healing of the nature and the healing of the will.

Nature is healed with a certain compulsion because of the objective and final act of Christ in his omnipotent and invincible grace; but the will of mankind can only by healed in its free conversion, by a free and spontaneous response of love and adoration. The will of man can only be healed in freedom, in obedience of love, in self-consecration and self-dedication.

The Kingdom of Heaven and union with Christ are given to those who desire, who love and long for them. The Resurrection is common to all, but blessedness will be given only to some, who are in the path of renunciation, of mortification, of self-sacrifice and self-oblation: one has to die in order to live in Christ, personally and freely associating himself with Him. In faith and love, one takes up his cross and follows him in love.

This is the ontological law of spiritual existence; repentance is required, and only to the faithful believer the general resurrection is the resurrection unto life. To others, it will be a resurrection to judgment, a tragedy of human freedom, because by the obstinate will hardened against God, the fire of God’s love will become a burning fire of judgment.

All beings will be restored to the integrity of their nature, but the apprehension of the Good will belong to those whose will is determined towards God. The work of Christ raises our nature, but the work of the Spirit does not produce an undesired resolve, but transforms a chosen purpose, through synergy an cooperation, into theosis. This is also supported by the baptismal grace, transforming the will (which is the seat of sin), which is also strengthened by the medicine of immortality of the Body and Blood of Christ.

– Georges Florovsky, Redemption

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.

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.

Luminous Darkness? Dazzling Darkness!

St.-Gregory-PalamasSt Gregory Palamas, in attempting to explain the vision of the divine light, the divine energies, makes several points worthy of note:

First, it is not a mere negation, a mere expression of the apophatic way. Rather, it goes beyond negation; when one sees the divine light, one sees something, one does not see the void.

However, secondly, one does not see by mere positive apprehension of discursive or intellectual knowledge either. It is something that is apprehended directly, and beyond both the knowing of reason and the unknowing. It is beyond words, and yet analogous words are used to describe it. But only direct experience can give knowledge of it, as St Paul saw the divine light and was changed.

Third, it is a divinizing union of the pure heart with the very being of God, in his energies. And this is through grace, not intellectual effort.

Fourth, and therefore, it is something that is not seen either with the senses – it is not seen with the eye – or with the discursive intellect. (Thus, it is not a symbolic theophany given to the senses, as. e.g., Augustine had argued in De Trinitate).

Fifth, it is a participation in God, a mystical union, a deification, the call and destiny of Christians.

It is a Luminous Darkness, as St Gregory of Nyssa had put it (see the about section of the blog), or, as St Gregory Palamas (citing the Areopagite) puts it here, a Dazzling Darkness.

So, when the saints contemplate this divine light within themselves, seeing it by the divinising communion of the Spirit, through the mysterious visitation of perfecting illuminations—then they behold the garment of their deification, their mind being glorified and filled by the grace of the Word, beautiful beyond measure in His splendour; just as the divinity of the Word on the mountain glorified with divine light the body conjoined to it.

For “the glory which the Father gave Him”, He Himself has given to those obedient to Him, as the Gospel says, and “He willed that they should be with Him and contemplate His glory” . . .

No one has ever seen the fullness of this divine Beauty, and this is why, according to Gregory of Nyssa, no eye has seen it, even if it gaze forever: in fact, it does not see the totality such as it is, but only in the measure in which it is rendered receptive to the power of the Holy Spirit.

But in addition to this incomprehensibility, what is most divine and extraordinary is that the very comprehension a man may have, he possesses incomprehensibly. Those who see, in fact, do not know the one who enables them to see, hear and be initiated into knowledge of the future, or experience of eternal things, for the Spirit by whom they see is incomprehensible.

As the great Denys says, “Such a union of those divinised with the light that comes from on high takes place by virtue of a cessation of all intellectual activity.” It is not the product of a cause or a relationship, for these are dependent upon the activity of the intellect, but it comes to be by abstraction, without itself being that abstraction.

If it were simply abstraction, it would depend on us, and this is the Messalian doctrine, “to mount as far as one wills into the ineffable mysteries of God”, as St. Isaac says of these heretics.

Contemplation, then, is not simply abstraction and negation; it is a union and a divinisation which occurs mystically and ineffably by the grace of God, after the stripping away of everything from here below which imprints itself on the mind, or rather after the cessation of all intellectual activity; it is something which goes beyond abstraction (which is only the outward mark of the cessation).

This is why every believer has to separate off God from all His creatures, for the cessation of all intellectual activity and the resulting union with the light from on high is an experience and a divinising end, granted solely to those who have purified their hearts and received grace.

And what am I to say of this union, when the brief vision itself is manifested only to chosen disciples, disengaged by ecstasy from all perception of the senses or intellect, admitted to the true vision because they have ceased to see, and endowed with supernatural senses by their submission to unknowing? But we intend to show later on, by God’s aid, that though they have indeed seen, yet their organ of vision was, properly speaking, neither the senses nor the intellect.

Do you now understand that in place of the intellect, the eyes and ears, they acquire the incomprehensible Spirit and by Him hear, see and comprehend? For if all their intellectual activity has stopped, how could the angels and angelic men see God except by the power of the Spirit?

This is why their vision is not a sensation, since they do not receive it through the senses; nor is it intellection, since they do not find it through thought or the knowledge that comes thereby, but after the cessation of all mental activity.

It is not, therefore, the product of either imagination or reason; it is neither an opinion nor a conclusion reached by syllogistic argument. On the other hand, the mind does not acquire it simply by elevating itself through negation. . . .

Similarly, beyond the stripping away of beings, or rather after the cessation [of our perceiving or thinking of them] accomplished not only in words, but in reality, there remains an unknowing which is beyond knowledge; though indeed a darkness, it is yet beyond radiance, and, as the great Denys says, it is in this dazzling darkness that the divine things are given to the saints.

Thus the perfect contemplation of God and divine things is not simply an abstraction; but beyond this abstraction, there is a participation in divine things, a gift and a possession rather than just a process of negation.

But these possessions and gifts are ineffable: If one speaks of them, one must have recourse to images and analogies—not because that is the way in which these things are seen, but because one cannot adumbrate what one has seen in any other way.

Those, therefore, who do not listen in a reverent spirit to what is said about these ineffable things, which are necessarily expressed through images, regard the knowledge that is beyond wisdom as foolishness. . . .

– St. Gregory Palamas, Triads, pp. 33-36 . (emphases mine)

St John Chrysostom on The Birth of the Church on the Cross

crucifixion-iconThe gospel records that when Christ was dead, but still hung on the cross, a soldier came and pierced his side with a lance and immediately there poured out water and blood. Now the water was a symbol of baptism and the blood, of the holy Eucharist.

The soldier pierced the Lord’s side, he breached the wall of the sacred temple, and I have found the treasure and made it my own. So also with the lamb: the Jews sacrificed the victim and I have been saved by it.

“There flowed from his side water and blood”. Beloved, do not pass over this mystery without thought; it has yet another hidden meaning, which I will explain to you.

I said that water and blood symbolized baptism and the holy Eucharist. From these two sacraments the Church is born: from baptism, “the cleansing water that gives rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit”, and from the holy Eucharist.

Since the symbols of baptism and the Eucharist flowed from his side, it was from his side that Christ fashioned the Church, as he had fashioned Eve from the side of Adam. Moses gives a hint of this when he tells the story of the first man and makes him exclaim: “Bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh!”

As God then took a rib from Adam’s side to fashion a woman, so Christ has given us blood and water from his side to fashion the Church. God took the rib when Adam was in a deep sleep, and in the same way Christ gave us the blood and the water after his own death.

Do you understand, then, how Christ has united his bride to himself and what food he gives us all to eat? By one and the same food we are both brought into being and nourished.

As a woman nourishes her child with her own blood and milk, so does Christ unceasingly nourish with his own blood those to whom he himself has given life.

– St. John Chrysostom (Cat. 3, 13-19; SC 50, 174-177)

The Road to Emmaus – Their Eyes were Opened in the Breaking of the Bread

eucharistIn the time between the joy of Easter and the anticipation of Pentecost, it is good for us to reflect on the life that has been given us by the resurrection of Christ. Christ is risen from the dead, having conquered death, sin, and suffering, but instead of immediately returning to the glory of the Father, he comes to heal and strengthen his disciples, for he has not abandoned them.

On the contrary, it is as the risen Lord that he will disclose himself to them more fully, radically change their lives as never before, and eventually empower them to turn the world upside down by the message of the gospel.

In Luke 24 we look at the first disclosure of our Lord to his disciples, which took place on the road to Emmaus, a city just a few miles from Jerusalem. Only one of the disciples is named here, by the name of Cleopas. Church tradition has it that he was one of the 70 disciples, and that he was the brother of Joseph, the husband of Mary; and that the other disciple was his own son Simeon, who became the second bishop of Jerusalem after AD 70.

We can’t know for sure who these disciples were, and at any rate Luke is not terribly concerned with that. What is important is that Jesus, on the very day of his resurrection, comes to meet his disciples who had left Jerusalem out of despair, and he comes to heal and restore them by bringing them to life in communion with the risen Lord.

 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened.

The disciples were leaving Jerusalem, as one leaves the place of his or her pain and disappointment. Later on, the disciples were to leave Jerusalem to proclaim life, to tell the world of the Lord who had died and rose again for the salvation of mankind.

Now, however, the disciples were walking sorrow and despair, because in their hearts they think they have nothing to proclaim but death and failure.

They walk together and talk, maybe trying to make sense of their desperation. Even in their pain they are in communion, seeking mutual comfort and help; but the one who could ultimate heal their hearts was the one they had not encountered yet.

Their 7 mile walk was a walk in the desert of Adam, in the darkness of death, in a land where hope had been abandoned. That is the condition of humankind unable to find hope when they have not encountered the risen Christ. But the risen Christ loves them, and he is coming to them to bring them to himself.

While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

Jesus draws near to them as they were in the darkness of despair. He draws near and he walks with them. He keeps them from recognizing him, but he walks with them. They couldn’t recognize him because they still struggled with the confusion and unbelief that could only be dispelled by the resurrection.

Throughout the gospels, the disciples are often unable to understand Jesus’ words concerning his coming death and resurrection. They were compared to the blind man that was healed, but at first could see only men as trees.

Their vision was being restored unto seeing the glory of God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit – but that had to be a gradual process that would only be achieved in the resurrection. So here, too, the disciples were unable to recognize the resurrection and the life.

But they were unable to recognize him, most importantly, because Jesus keeps them from recognizing him. He does so because he wants to teach them, as they would realize later, that his presence is always with them, and yet it is fully disclosed only in the Eucharist.

Earthly Hopes

“Friends, why are you so sad?” Open your hearts, for the healer of your souls is close to you even whey you can’t recognize him through the mist of your tears. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened!”

Life is full of contradictions, perplexities, pain, and lack of answers. Evil often seems to be gratuitous. Suffering comes to the just and the unjust. There is unimaginable darkness in this world, and we often have to be face to face with despair, disappointment, and anger.

The death of Jesus on the cross was the epitome of all the contradictions and evil upon humankind, for if there would be any way out of the despair of the human condition, it would be that God would intervene in the world through his anointed to liberate his people.

But as far as the disciples are concerned, he is dead. If that Jesus of Nazareth is dead, then there is no hope. There is no meaning. There is no truth, no beauty, and no goodness. All is pointless.

We had hoped. Job had said, “where now is my hope? Who will see my hope? Will it go down to the bars of Sheol? Shall we descend together into the dust?” The disciples had hoped, and if hope in Jesus of Nazareth failed, no other hope could ever survive. They had hoped that we would redeem Israel.

But their idea of redemption was still clouded by their earthly vision. Christ was triumphing over sin, death, and the devil on the cross, but all they could see was just the opposite. It’s hard to blame them; Jesus didn’t look very victorious on the cross. But the cross was the victory of Christ, and he was about to open the eyes of his people to see eternity beyond their immediate earthly cares.

The Way Up is Down

And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Jesus rebukes them, but only because he has compassion on them. He had compassion to meet them in their doubt and despair, and to walk the dark road with them. And he had compassion to begin turning them around from their blindness and unbelief by redirecting them to his promises. He was compassionate to rebuke them for their earthly hopes, when a much greater and higher hope had been already accomplished.

It was necessary that Christ should suffer these things and then enter into his glory. The eternal Son of God, the eternal Logos who was in the beginning, the one who was with God and who was God, always had all the glory there is to have.

And yet, he took upon himself full humanity to redeem humanity and bring humanity to God. It was as a man that he had to achieve glory, but in his compassion for fallen humankind, he could only achieve glory as a man after facing the cross.

The bright Sunday morning could only come after the darkness of Friday and Saturday.

That is our road too. We can only inherit the kingdom of God if we pick up our crosses daily and follow him. In Jesus’ words, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

In baptism we are buried with Christ, and that baptism has to be actualized every day. The devil incites man to achieve glory, and by doing so brings them to ruin and destruction.

Christ invites us to join him on the cross, to wear his crown of thorns, to suffer, to be despised by men, to die and be buried; and through that he brings us to his eternal glory. In God’s economy, the way up is down.

All of the Old Testament is All About Christ

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets (the only Scriptures they had), he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. Jesus gives us here the hermeneutical rule to understand the Old Testament: it’s all about Christ.

If one would interpret the Old Testament as accurately as a scholarly Rabbi, that one would not have understood it at all. Unfortunately this is a mistake many modern day evangelicals make. It’s a complete confusion of categories.

The only Christian interpretation – and thus the only legitimate interpretation, since Christ is risen – is one that finds Christ in every page of the Old Testament. It is there that all the promises of God are given and prefigured, whether explicitly or implicitly, for their fulfillment in Christ.

For example, in their immediate contexts, passages like Isaiah 53 refer explicitly and exclusively to the ancient nation of Israel (certainly not the modern secular state of Israel). This is what Isaiah meant. Jewish rabbis correctly point that out.

And yet, God in his providence was supervising the writings that would ultimately be fulfilled explicitly and exclusively in Christ. Non-Christian Jewish rabbis cannot receive this because they reject Christ, and thus they miss the meaning of Scripture as God fashioned and fulfills it.

One example of apostolic interpretation of Scripture comes from St Paul. In reading the Exodus, he sees Baptism and the Lord’s supper: “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us.”

The entire fabric of the Scriptures, including the Old Testament, is Christological and Christocentric – every thread and every theme leads to, and centers on the crucified and risen Christ. Looking at the Scriptures without seeing Christ is like looking at a man from Nazareth named Jesus without seeing the Son of God.

Jesus walks with them, and their hearts are burning because the one who is the Incarnate Word is disclosing himself to them. He is catechizing them, so that they are being prepared to find him fully. They have now become like the burning bush, which burns with the uncreated fire of God’s presence and is not consumed, but is vivified and sanctified by the One who is, and the One who speaks.

Their Eyes Were Opened by the Eucharist

So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them.

emmausThis language should be very familiar to us. At the table, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. Luke had just used it a couple of chapters ago. There, we read,

And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:17-20)

Now, the kingdom of God has come. Now, heaven comes to earth, because the broken Lord is the risen Lord, and the risen Lord is broken in the bread and wine for us. Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, gives it to them,

And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.

The one who came and walked with them, the one who talked with them and disclosed himself to them – preparing them to encounter him as their Risen Lord – is the one who now opens their eyes to see him in the breaking of the bread.

It is in the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ that he gives himself fully to them. It is in the communion of this broken Body, which is now risen and given for their eternal life, that they can truly meet Christ.

The opening of the Scriptures was necessary, but it was not sufficient.

Christ redeems the mind and the heart, but he does not meet us just in the mind and the heart. The mind and the heart have to be renewed by the spoken Word so that we can then encounter the Incarnate Word, the one who redeems soul and body, the whole person, the whole creation.

We find him fully in the full communion with him in the meal of the kingdom, the source of our life, the bread of life, the manna from heaven, the wine of the blood of forgiveness, the meal of the nourishment unto new and eternal life.

It is not a mere cannibalistic eating of the flesh and blood of a dead corpse, the flesh and blood of mortal, fallen creatures. It is the Body and Blood of the risen Christ – the deified Body and Blood which can vanish before your eyes, and even go through locked doors, and yet it can be touched. It is the risen, deified Body and Blood which enters Heaven itself, the place no mortal flesh and blood can inherit (1 Cor. 15:50).

As the Church Fathers have said, the Lord’s Supper is the “medicine of immortality.” By faith we eat and drink Christ so that eternal life is given to us, flows through us, and our eyes are opened because we join Christ in the table of the kingdom. We eat him, and we eat with him, and we are gathered to him and to one another, so that we might be one.

This communion will be finally fulfilled in the last day, when all things are consummated, when all sin and death will have vanished; and yet this encounter, this seeing, this communion, this healing, already happens here and now, when we meet with Christ at the table, when the kingdom comes from heaven to us and we are taken up to it.

It is here that we find comfort and renewal from the despair of death, darkness, apparent failure, and hopelessness – because in the Divine Liturgy we are taken to heaven and heaven is brought to us. Heaven and earth meet together in the very Body and Blood of the Incarnate and Risen God-Man. We find light, life, victory in the brokenness, and the sure hope of our resurrection, because we commune and partake of the Risen Christ.

In the Eucharist, Christ is with us in the fullest way in this life. Is there that we meet God and thus our eyes are opened. It is there that we recognize him.

Of course he is always with us. He was with the disciples before he walked with them in that road, for Christ is everywhere. He drew closer, however, when he walked with them, talked with them, drew them to himself, and disclosed the Word to them.

But he was fully present with them in the breaking of the bread. And this is true for us. Christ has ascended to heaven, but in the breaking of the bread he is present with us in a unique way that transcends his omnipresence.

They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem.

Jesus himself had told them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy . . .  So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

The disciples run back to Jerusalem to help the downcast. The joy of encountering the Risen Christ can only be translated into love, compassion, and zeal to heal others, and to proclaim from the rooftops, he is risen he is risen indeed.

They retrace their steps on the road that had been of a road of darkness and despair, but now their feet are the beautiful feet of one who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns” (Isa. 52:7; Rom. 10:15).

St Augustine in one of his sermons had this to say about this passage:

Ah yes, brothers and sisters, but where did the Lord wish to be recognized? In the breaking of bread. We’re all right, nothing to worry about – we break bread, and we recognize the Lord. It was for our sake that he didn’t want to be recognized anywhere but there, because we weren’t going to see him in the flesh, and yet we were going to eat his flesh. So if you’re a believer, any of you, if you’re not called a Christian for nothing, if you don’t come to Church pointlessly, if you listen to the Word of God in fear and hope, you may take comfort in the breaking of bread. The Lord’s absence is not an absence. Have faith, and the one you cannot see is with you. (Sermon 235. 2-3)

The risen Lord is with us always, and he brings us to himself especially in the eating of his Body and his Blood. As he said,

 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. (John 6:53-56)

There, the gives himself to us fully, and takes us fully to himself, body and soul. There, our sins are forgiven, our wounds are healed, our eyes are opened, our souls are strengthened, and the promise is renewed.

There, death and life come together, because the broken Body is the risen Body which gives us life. At the table of the Lord the kingdom comes to us and we are taken up to it, until that day, when we will see him in all of his glory.

Born Again, Born from Above

tth__ikonen_baptism_of_christ_12330697895799The Gospel of John presents a series of signs and discourses to show that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that we may have life in his name by believing in him. The first of these signs is the miracle of the water turned into wine in the wedding at Cana. Jesus was beginning his public ministry, and he was manifesting his glory by the signs he was performing.

John the Baptist had announced his coming, preaching a baptism of repentance; now the promised Messiah, the Lamb of God, had come to baptize in fire and in the Holy Spirit – bringing judgment as well as salvation to the world.

The first discourse of this Gospel will address one of the central questions of the book: how can a person be saved?

Double Entendre

It is very important for us to keep in mind that apostle John has a particular literary style and particular interests, which are evident in the topics he chooses as well as how he expresses the truths he conveys. One of the features of his style is the occasional use of double entendre. John often states things that have double meanings – sometimes for irony to make a point, and sometimes because both meanings are true, and therefore should be taken together. In this passage, this literary device is used a few times, as we will see.

The first discourse takes place at night, when Nicodemus, one of the religious leaders of Israel, comes to meet Jesus. He is described by St John as being a ”ruler of the Jews” (ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων) which is a reference to the Sanhedrin, the council composed of the chief priests, the elders of the people and scribes. The Sanhedrin was a governing body that tried various cases and disputes, oversaw Jewish religious life, and was presided by the High Priest of Israel. Members of the Sanhedrin were the most influential people of the Jewish society, and were strict adherents of the Law of Moses.

Nicodemus was not only a member of the Sanhedrin, but he also belonged to the sect the Pharisees, the strictest group in relation to keeping external regulations of the Law.

This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

The fact that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night is the first of the several elements of this passage that suggest a double meaning. Nicodemus came at night, when it was dark, because he hoped to get an interview with Jesus when the crowds were not around to disturb, or, most likely, because he did not want to commit himself publicly to Jesus just yet. He had heard of his miracles, and was intrigued by what they could mean, and what sort of authority Jesus had; but he did not yet know enough about Jesus, and perhaps he sensed that his miracles could be a threat to the Jewish establishment of which he was a part.

Yet, there is another, more subtle sense intended by John. The Gospel of John is full of references to the contrast between light and darkness. John shows us Jesus as the light of the world.

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Not Able Unless

Nicodemus addresses Jesus in a polite way, calling him Rabbi and recognizing that the miracles of Jesus were an indication that God was authorizing his ministry. Then he brings out two concepts which become the two most important ideas of this entire passage: the question of ability and the question of exception. Here, Nicodemus says that no one is able to perform such miracles except God is with them. Jesus’ response will use the same concepts, but in a way that shifts the conversation to directly address the heart of the matter.

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Jesus saw beyond Nicodemus’ words of respectful greeting to the very state of his soul. It is true that no one is able to do the miracles Jesus was doing, except by the power of God – but, most importantly, no one is able to enter the kingdom of God except he is born of God. The language Jesus uses here is very emphatic in the original – there is only one way in which one can see the kingdom of God – by being born again. There is no other way.

Nicodemus: οὐδεὶς γὰρ δύναται ταῦτα τὰ σημεῖα ποιεῖν ἃ σὺ ποιεῖς, ἐὰν μὴ ᾖ ὁ θεὸς μετ᾽ αὐτοῦ.

Jesus: Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ.

This statement was a powerful confrontation. Nicodemus was, after all, one of the rulers and teachers of Israel, a member of the Sanhedrin and of the strict sect of the Pharisees, who prided themselves in keeping the Law of Moses. Jesus cuts to the chase, as if he was saying: “Nicodemus, your power, your social status – and what’s more, your idea of the observance of the Jewish Law – are absolutely inadequate to qualify you for the kingdom of God.”

Again/From Above

Here we see another element in the narrative to which John deliberately gives a double meaning. The word translated as “again” in “born again” can also mean “above.” The expression “born again” could also be translated “born from above.” In fact, John uses this same word (ἄνωθεν) in other passages always with the meaning of “above” (3:31, 19:11, 19:23).

Here, he apparently intends a double meaning, because both meanings are true, and because Nicodemus understood it as meaning “again.” One needs to be born again in order to be able to enter the kingdom of heaven, and that birth is a birth from above; it is a birth effected by God.

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

Jesus now connects being born from above with being born of the water and of the Spirit. But just what does he mean by “born of water”? Once again, John is presenting the narrative with elements that are deliberately meant to convey more than one meaning.

The Spirit and the Water

And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:2)

As a teacher of Israel, Nicodemus understood that the Scriptures had often connected the work of the Spirit with the cleansing of water. Now, Jesus brings the fulfillment of God’s promises by being the One who dispenses his Spirit to his people as he unites them to himself through repentance and baptism. The New Testament brings the Old Testament connection between water and spiritual cleansing to its fulfillment. This is, for example, exactly what the apostle Peter does in the first sermon preached in the book of Acts, in connection with the work of the Spirit in Pentecost:

This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. . . Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:32-38)

During Pentecost, the devout people who were coming to Jerusalem for the feast also needed to be born from above through repentance and baptism; here, in the Gospel of John, Jesus was confronting one of the leading men of Israel and showing him that his respectability was not enough; Nicodemus needed to be cleansed and be born from above, from the Spirit of God. As Jesus himself came from heaven, those who enter his kingdom must receive life from God who is in heaven.

That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

At this point, Jesus makes evident that his statement is a universal truth, because when he restates here that “You must be born again,” he uses the plural. It is not only Nicodemus, but we must be born again in order to see the kingdom of God. We must be born from above as we trust Jesus. There was no other way for one of the most pious Jews of his time, and there certainly is no other way for us.

Natural man is born of the flesh even while being God’s creation. The first Adam was created by God out of the dust of the ground before God breathed the Spirit of life in his nostrils. As descendants of the first Adam, we are born of Adam and Eve, but as those who are recreated in the image of the heavenly man, we become descendants of the second Adam, Jesus Christ.

In this way, we are also born not just of Adam and Eve, but we are born again, born of God and his Church. We are born not only of the earthly man from the dust, but also of the heavenly man, who gives us the same Spirit who hovered over the waters in Genesis.

The Spirit who brought life to creation as he hovered over the waters is also the Spirit that Christ sends to his Church, the Spirit who uses the waters of baptism as the means through which he promises and gives the washing of regeneration. As the apostle Paul tells Titus,

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)

Born of the Spirit

We are born again and we are born from above as God gives us the Spirit through the new birth in the waters of regeneration and resurrection:

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:4-5).

As baptism unites us to Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection, as Paul teaches us, so we are raised to a new life in the Spirit through the means of grace. Baptism is a promise and a means; it is the entrance into the kingdom and the engrafting into the body of Christ by our mystical union with him.

theophanyThe first Adam was created to till and cultivate the garden of God, until the time when, after obediently carrying out God’s purposes, he would have been glorified forever; he failed, and we inherit the consequences of that failure. But in Christ, the second Adam, the Man from above who is already glorified and who dispenses to us the Spirit without measure, we are re-created in his image so we can live in the new garden, the New Heavens and the New Earth, where the living waters are freely given.

We are born again and from above so that we become like newborn babes, for, as Christ tells us, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” As newborn babes, we are children who need to be nourished by their mother. When we are born of the flesh, we are nourished in the bosom of our mothers, and when we are born of the Spirit we are nourished by our heavenly Mother, the Church, through the washing of the Word and the grace of the Sacraments.

The same Spirit who blew life into the earthly man Adam, and who brought to life a valley of dead bones in Ezekiel, also gives us life as He unites us to Christ through baptism and begins to deify us. This is nothing less that a re-creation, a refashioning, transfiguration and restoration of human beings into the image of the true man Jesus Christ. We are born again unto newness of life, a newness that begins even here in this life. St. Athanasius, in his book On the Incarnation, puts it this way:

You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so it was with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind make after Himself, and seek out His lost sheep, even as he says in the Gospel: “I came to seek and to save that which was lost.” This also explains His saying to the Jews, “Except a man be born again [he cannot see the kingdom of God].” He was not referring to man’s natural birth from his mother, as thought, but to the re-birth and re-creation of the soul in the image of God.

Through repentance, faith, and baptism we have received the washing of regeneration and we have been born of the water and of the Spirit. We have been born again and born from above. The flesh is subject to death, but the Spirit is incorruptible, so that the new life we have received through God’s promises and work in the Spirit is a life that is everlasting, incorruptible, sustained by the last Adam who has defeated sin, death, and the devil.

Baptism is not only the cleansing washing of regeneration according to the promises of God, but also a public statement that we have been transferred from this world to the womb of the Church, to the kingdom of God. Even Nicodemus, the respected Pharisee and teacher of Israel, would have to publicly undergo baptism and live in newness of life even if that meant shame and scorn from those who would refuse to unite themselves to Jesus, his cross, and his resurrection.

Nicodemus came at night and he was not sure how to think of Jesus. Only through the new life given by the Spirit could he pass from death to life, from darkness to light, and from seeing things from a fleshly perspective – Jesus as an interesting miracle worker and rabbi – to seeing things in the heavenly perspective, i.e., Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the Man from heaven who unites us to himself through the Spirit and gives us eternal life.