The Doors of Repentance

February 26, 2009

“Open to me the Doors of Repentance.” These words give hope in times of bleak disconsolation. They are heard about this time of year, every year, in the Orthodox Church, during the three Sundays immediately preceding the start of Lent, in a Matins hymn sung after the reading of the Gospel; like buds upon the branches of dormant trees, they are a sign and promise of renewed life, a sure token of approaching spring even in the dead of winter. They are an echo, heard from afar, of the promised Resurrection. “Open to me the Doors of Repentance, O Giver of Life; for my soul rises early to pray toward your holy Temple, bearing the temple of my body all defiled.” How is it that the prayers that speak to us most directly are, almost always, prayers that have been prayed from time immemorial? Is it that human nature really hasn’t changed all that much — that sin, sickness, poverty, suffering and death have always cast their heavy shadows across the paths of human life, and each of us has had to learn anew the meaning of these terms? The human experience begins with being shut outside of doors — the gates of Paradise were closed upon Adam and Eve, and an angel was set to guard the way to the Tree of Life. Great Lent begins by recalling this primal fact of human experience. We begin Lent by acknowledging our poverty and estrangement from God, and by seeking forgiveness from those around us whom we have injured, and who are also involved in this common human predicament.

The text of the hymn is as follows:

Τῆς μετανοίας ἄνοιξόν μοι πύλας Ζωοδότα· ὀρθρίζει γὰρ τὸ πνεῦμά μου, πρὸς ναὸν τὸν ἅγιόν σου, ναὸν φέρον τοῦ σώματος ὅλον ἐσπιλωμένον· ἀλλ᾽ ὡς οἰκτίρμων κάθαρον, εὐσπλάγχνῳ σου ἐλέει.

The translation of this generally in use in the Orthodox Church in America goes something like this:

“Open to me the doors of repentance, O Giver of Life; for my soul rises early to pray toward your holy Temple, bearing the temple of my body all defiled. But in your compassion, purify me by the lovingkindness of your mercy.”

A more precise translation of πύλας would be “gates.” Thus, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s translation of the hymn reads as follows:

“Open unto me, O Giver of Life, the gates of repentance: for early in the morning my spirit seeks Thy holy temple, bearing a temple of the body all defiled. But in Thy compassion cleanse it by Thy loving-kindness and Thy mercy.”
From: Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, trs., The Lenten Triodion (London 1978), p. 101.

A question that has puzzled me is, where does this expression, “the doors” or “gates of repentance,” come from? It does not occur in scripture. Probably the closest thing to it in the Bible is at Psalm 118:19 f.:

Open to me the gates of righteousness (שערי ־צדק, shaarei tzedek; LXX πύλας δικαιοσύνης): I will go into them, and I will praise the LORD:
This [is the] gate of the LORD, into which the righteous shall enter.[1]

It does, however, occur in rabbinic literature. There was a certain Yonah of Gerona, a thirteenth-century rabbi, who wrote a work with precisely this title, “The Gates of Repentance” (שערי תשובה, shaarei teshubah). I used to own an English translation of this work, and somehow lost it; it still may be purchased, e.g., at As I recall, it made much of the point that the genuineness of repentance is measured by the extent to which, when presented again with the same temptation, one successfully resists it (by this measure, most of my own spiritual efforts must be judged to fall miserably short). But it also seems clear that, in titling his book in this way, Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona was in fact alluding to some earlier, known phrase from rabbinic literature; apparently it occurs in a talmudic work, the Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, specifically, at Pesiḳ., ed. Buber, xxv. 157a. About this work I know nothing more than can be gathered from the linked Wikipedia article; it is not clear to me that there exists an English translation of it, nor do I know in what context the phrase in question occurs or how it is used. All that seems clear is that the Peskita, homilies on the appointed scripture readings for Sabbaths and feast-days, evidently derives from Palestine from the period of the fifth to seventh centuries A.D., although material in it may be older.

According to Metropolitan Kallistos’s Introduction to his translation of the Triodion, the hymn “Open to me the doors of repentance” was added to the structure of lenten liturgical prayers fairly late in its development:

”Surprisingly, some of the best loved elements in the Triodion are also the most recent in date. The three troparia sung at Sunday Mattins after the Gospel reading, ‘Open unto me, O Giver of Life, the gates of repentance…’, ‘Guide me in the paths of salvation…’, and ‘As I ponder in my wretchedness…’, do not appear in this position before the fourteenth century, although the texts themselves are probably more ancient.” Op. cit., p. 42.

This does not rule out entirely the possibility that the Jewish use of the phrase may have been influenced by the Christian one, but it seems, on the whole, more plausible that the historical dependency goes the other way around.

That being said, what does the phrase “Gates of Repentance” mean?

This coming Sunday is called, in the Orthodox Church, “Sunday of Forgiveness.” In certain parishes, it has become common to observe the monastic practice, at the end of Forgiveness Vespers, of asking forgiveness of each member of the community. It is also the Sunday on which we commemorate the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. One of the hymns from Saturday night Vespers goes like this:

”O precious Paradise, unsurpassed in beauty, tabernacle built by God, unending gladness and delight, glory of the righteous, joy of the prophets, and dwelling of the saints, with the sound of thy leaves pray to the Maker of all: may He open unto me the gates which I closed by my transgression, and may He count me worthy to partake of the Tree of Life and of the joy which was mine when I dwelt in thee before.” Tr. in Ware, op. cit., p. 169.

Surely, the “Gates of Repentance” and the Gates of Paradise have something to do with each other. Surely, there is no other way back to Paradise, into the kingdom of heaven, the eternal Temple where God dwells, than through repentance, although many try to get in by other means:

”Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (Mt 7: 13-14; cf. Lk 13: 24-30)

Surely also, when Jesus calls himself both the Door (John 10: 7, 9), by which the sheep enter in and go out and find pasture, and the Good Shepherd (John 10: 11), who leads the sheep in and out, he is not saying that the Gate of Repentance, the narrow gate which leads to life, is a different gate and door than himself. He specifically excludes that idea: “He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber” (John 10: 1). Perhaps one might paraphrase what he is saying in some such way as this: any repentance to God which is not repentance through faith and abiding in the Son of God is missing the point. “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14: 6).

Accordingly, repentance, although it is a human act, an act of the sinner returning to God, is, in the first place, an act of God opening the mind and heart of the sinner to an awareness of the wretchedness into which sin has plunged him and awakening in him a desire for forgiveness and reconciliation (Lk 15:17-19); it is also God who moves the mind and heart of the sinner to recognize and seek out the means of reconciliation which God has put forward, the sacrifice by which atonement for sin has been made. It seems pretty clear that St. Augustine is right, that the sinner can in no way move back to God on his own power, without God’s drawing him to himself (John 6: 37, 44); it also seems quite clear that this divine action absolves no one from the necessity of making an effort (cf. James 4: 8-10).

In any case, by asking God, “Open to me the Doors of Repentance,” we acknowledge that repentance is not a door we are able to open merely on our own strength, any more than the buds on the trees are able to open into leaves without the warmth and light of the sun. Nor are the buds on the trees able to receive sap and moisture merely by virtue of their own separate, individual nature; they have it only by abiding in the tree. “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15: 4-5).

Great and Holy Lent is that period of the year in which we, the branches, seek the help of the vinedresser, the Father, a time in which we allow ourselves to be purged by him so that we may bear more fruit, and so that we may not be taken away because of our fruitlessness (John 15: 1-3). It is a time in which we seek to become more firmly rooted in the vine, lest, in being severed from it, we be gathered up as dead sticks and burned (John 15: 6). That vine is the God-Man, Jesus Christ. Through his Passion, he heals us of our passions; by his death upon the tree of the Cross, he has brought life and resurrection into the world. He is the New Jerusalem, whose gates are always open, but into which no vile thing, or that which makes a lie, shall ever enter (Rev 21: 25, 27). To him be everlasting glory!

[1] One may note that this psalm was probably sung by Jesus and his disciples after the Last Supper, on their way to Gethsemane (Mt 26:30; Mk 14:26); it was part of the “Hallel” or “praise,” Psalms 113-118, traditionally sung at certain major Jewish feasts.

Translated from Jean Miguel Garrigues, L’Esprit qui dit «Père!» (Paris 1981), pp. 65-75.

But it was necessary to wait until the fourth century for these intuitions of early Latin theology to attain their full development. It is interesting to note that this Latin pneumatology took shape independently of the Arian and Macedonian quarrel; we will find it in fact among theologians prior to the Arian crisis as well as those who were unaffected by it. We will then be able to observe what effect the Arian crisis had upon the Latin theology of the procession of the Holy Spirit.

With Zeno of Verona, a bishop of the second half of the fourth century but whose theology had hardly been affected by anti-Arian developments, we can see the Holy Spirit appearing explicitly as the consubstantial plenitude of the Father and the Son:

“The Father, remaining intact in his condition, gave all of himself reciprocally to the Son, without diminishing anything that was his own. Therefore each exults in the other, preserving a single, original coeternity, together with the plenitude of the Holy Spirit.”
[P.L. 11, 392: “Pater qui, suo manente integro statu, totum se reciprocavit in Filium, ne quid sibimet derogaret. Denique alter in altero exsultat, cum Spiritus Sancti plenitudine una originali coaeternitate retinens.”]

In an unknown author of the same era (who passed into tradition under the name of Virgil of Thapsus) one already finds an exposition of the role of reciprocal conjunction that the Spirit plays in manifesting, by his very procession as Third Person, the consubstantial plenitude of the trinitarian order. It is from the consubstantial communion of the Father and of the Son, from their reciprocity whose source is the Father, that the divinity extends itself in the Spirit, in whom the Trinity’s divine plenitude is thus manifested.

“Just as, if one places two pieces of wood together in a furnace of fire, from these two pieces of wood there proceeds an undivided flame, so from the power of the Father and of the Son proceeds the Holy Spirit who has in himself the very power of the Godhead.”

[Corpus Christianorum, Brépols, vol. IX, pp. 116-117: “Quomodo si duo ligna conjuncta missa in fornacem ignis et de duobus lignis procedat flamma inseparabilis, sic de Partis et Fillii virtute procedit Spiritus Sanctus ipsam virtutem deitatis habens.”]

The procession of the Holy Spirit appears, in this way, as the ultimate condition of the consubstantial reciprocity of the Trinity, whose completion and seal it therefore constitutes. One will observe here, one more time since Tertullian, that processio is always understood as a derivation from consubstantiality in the eternal manifestation of the trinitarian order. It is thus the very theme and sense of the trinitarian processio that necessarily led the Latin tradition, well before the speculative syntheses of Marius Victorinus and St. Augustine, to consider the processio Spiritus Sancti as being ab utroque.

The Arian crisis and the reaction of the orthodox fathers would not fundamentally change the Latin theology of the procession. In the East, Arianism, in its radical version with Eunomius, in fact quickly situated its denial of trinitarian consubstantiality on the metaphysical level of the Godhead; marked by Neoplatonic theories of hierarchical participation, Eunomius postulated that any multiplicity of divine persons could only be possible under the form of subordinated participation. That obliged the Cappadocian fathers to confess in God one principle of personal multiplicity, irreducible to any order of essence: the hypostasis. In the East, the natural theology of Eunomius obliged the Cappadocian fathers to profess, in all its irreducibility, an authentic theologia of the Living and Threefold God distinguished from all order of essence, even from that of the economy. But at the same moment the Latin fathers were running up against a more unpolished, less metaphysical Arianism, which was content to deny the divinity of Jesus and of the Spirit in considering them concretely in their economic mission upon the earth. For the Latin fathers, therefore, it was not an issue of defending the possibility of a plurality of persons within a unique divine essence, but of showing that the consubstantial procession of the Son and of the Spirit was prolonged even at the point where they “left the Father” in order to come on their mission into the world. Not needing to confront Eunomius’s philosophical Arianism, the Latin fathers were able to continue their deepening trinitarian reflection in continuity with the economic theology of their third century predecessors. For them, it was a matter of showing that the mission of the Son and of the Spirit “outside the Father” is rooted in the order of their consubstantial procession from him, an order which is revealed in the economy. In this task, they were aided by an assimilation of vocabulary between the verbs proerkhomai (Jn 8:42) and ekporeusthai (Jn 15:26) — the most ancient translations of the Gospels and, following them, St. Jerome’s Vulgate translate these two different Greek verbs by a single Latin verb: procedere.

It is in this doctrinal context that one can comprehend the sense of the formula Spiritus procedit a Patre et Filio such as one finds it, for the first time explicitly, in St. Ambrose of Milan (340-397):

“The Holy Spirit is not sent as though from a place, just as the Son himself is not when he says, ‘I have come forth (procedi) from the Father and am come into the world’ (Jn 8:42). … Neither does the Son, when he comes forth from the Father, distance himself from a place or separate himself in the way one body is separated from another, nor, when he is with the Father, is he contained by him as one body is inside of another. Likewise the Holy Spirit, when he proceeds from the Father and the Son, does not separate himself from the Father, does not separate himself from the Son” (PL 16, 732-733A).

This text is a good illustration of how the Latin fathers synoptically contemplate, in the economic missions of the Son and the Spirit, the manifestation upon the eternal order of their consubstantial processions, in virtue of which they can leave God without substantially separating themselves from him. One sees how the trinitarian theology of the first Latin fathers, by their precocious discovery, with Tertullian, of the theme of the persons’ consubstantial procession, was able to be preserved without major alteration by the Latin fathers of the fourth century in their fight against Arianism. As against the East, which, with Eunomius, was more menaced by hierarchical Neoplatonism, in the West the theme of a trinitarian order in consubstantiality did not place the equality of essence among the persons in dispute, since it was expressed (beginning from the rather Stoic philosophical context of Tertullian) in terms of derivation and not in terms of a subordinated participation. That allowed the Latin fathers to consider more synthetically the link between theology and economy within this trinitarian order according to which the three persons communicate the unique divine substance and thence render it participable to man through the economy which has as a goal man’s divinization. In the Holy Spirit, as gift of divine life poured out upon men, they would see the manifestation of the Spirit’s eternal procession in which is brought about the consubstantial communion of the Trinity in the plenitude of the one divinity. Thus, for instance, St. Eusebius, bishop of Vercelli between 340 and 371, sees in the procession of the Holy Spirit the manifestation of the common name of the Father and the Son, since it brings the trinitarian communion in consubstantiality to completion.

“He who is neither the Father nor the Son is nevertheless unambiguously from the one sole divine nature. That is why the Spirit is the common name for the Father and the Son in the single divinity, as the Son testifies in the Gospel: ‘he will receive of that which is mine’” (De Trinitate, I, 51-52).

This synthetic doctrine does not as such imply a confusion between the person of the Holy Spirit and the common essence of the divinity. St. Eusebius in fact formally distinguishes between the irreducible person of the Holy Spirit and his status in the order of the consubstantial processions, according to which, as Third, he manifests the divine plenitude of the triune communion:

“Indescribable is this plenitude of substance in the undivided Trinity, as God, the Son of God, says: ‘I am in the Father and the Father is in me.’ But the Holy Spirit, too, abides within the Father and the Son reciprocally and in himself, as John the Evangelist testifies so absolutely in his epistle, ‘And these three are one’” (De Trinitate, V, 46-47).

For St. Hilary of Poitiers (bishop from 350 to 367), as for St. Eusebius of Vercelli, the Holy Spirit manifests the consubstantiality of the trinitarian processions:

“The Father and the Son are one by nature, honor, and power: and the same nature cannot wish to be diverse. Let us hear the Son testify to his unity of nature with the Father: ‘When the Paraclete comes, whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth who proceeds from the Father’” (De Trinitate, VIII, 19: PL 10, 250 AB).

St. Hilary, nevertheless, influenced by the Eastern notion of ekporeusis (he wrote book VIII of De Trinitate in exile in the East) presents a distinction between the procession of the Spirit from the Father (Jn 15:26) and his reception of divinity in the Son who holds this from the Father (Jn 16:14-15). Evidently reserving the verb procedere (in the sense of ekporeusthai) to signify the relation of the Holy Spirit with the Father alone, he nevertheless sees the Holy Spirit as a manifestation of the full trinitarian consubstantiality which he receives from the Father and the Son:

“‘All that the Father has is mine; that is why I told you, “The Spirit will receive from what is mine and will announce it to you” (Jn 16:15). He receives, then, from the Son, he who is sent by him and who proceeds from the Father. And I ask if it is the same thing to receive from the Son and to proceed from the Father. If one thinks there is a difference between receiving from the Son and proceeding from the Father, it is certain, contrariwise, that it is one and the same thing to receive from the Son and to receive from the Father…” (De Trinitate, VIII, 20; PL 10, 251A).

Leaving open the possibility of a specific sense of the procession of the Holy Spirit as ekporeusis from the unique personal principle of the Father, St. Hilary directs his attention above all to the Spirit’s reception of divinity from the Father and the Son. Under this more scriptural term of “reception,” he takes up again, as his own, all the teaching of early Latin tradition concerning the Holy Spirit’s consubstantial procession as seal of the divine plenitude.

“The Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father, and the Holy Spirit receives from both of them (accipiat ab utroque), given the fact that the Spirit expresses the inviolable unity of this Holy Trinity” (PL 10, 656B).

Unfortunately, St. Hilary’s distinction between procession and reception was too hesitant to have had a decisive influence upon a Latin tradition which, for more than a century, had already fixed the sense of processio as derivation of the triune consubstantiality from the paternal source. It was seen above that St. Ambrose of Milan took up again St. Hilary’s accepit ab utroque (receives from both) in formulating this as a Patre et Filio procedit (proceeds from the Father and the Son).

As for St. Augustine (354-430), who is often presented as the inventor of the Filioque, one can say that, in this matter, he hardly did the work of an innovator. Above all, he synthesized the diverse elements which he found in earlier Latin tradition concerning the procession of the Holy Spirit. From his earliest works, he explicitly takes up and makes his own the teaching of the Latin fathers who see in the procession of the Holy Spirit the manifestation of the Trinity’s consubstantial plenitude.

“Certain people have been so bold as to believe that the very communion of the Father and the Son, that is to say, so to speak, the deity which the Greeks call theoteta, is the Holy Spirit; in such wise that, since the Father is God, and the Son is God, the very deity by which they are united (the one in generating the Son and the other in adhering to the Father) should be equal to that which generates. This deity, therefore, whom they would also understand as the reciprocal love and charity of the two, they say is called Holy Spirit” (De Fide et Symbolo, IX, 19).

The Father is here contemplated by St. Augustine, following other Latin fathers, above all as the source of deity, since, he says, “the deity itself ought to be equal with him who generates.” In this context procession appears, as we have noted since Tertullian, as the derivation of divinity from the Father according to the order of the consubstantial processions of the Son and of the Spirit. While retaining in the word procession this sense which Latin tradition had given it, St. Augustine was not embarrassed to speak along with it of a “procession of the Word,” since this term, as opposed to the Greek ekporeusis, does not signify specifically the hypostatic origin of the Spirit in the incommunicable paternal principle, but the order of consubstantial communication within the Trinity beginning from its source of communion in the Father. Moreover, he is influenced by Latin translations of St. John’s Gospel which, as we have seen, translated from the beginning the term proerkhomai of Jn 8:42 by procedere: A Deo processi et veni. But this passage, which Tertullian was able to interpret as keeping both economy and theology synthetically in view, required to be interpreted, after Arianism, in such a way that procedere would signify the eternal generation of the Word:

“To speak of the Word having proceeded from God implies an eternal procession; he knows no time, he by whom time was created…. Therefore he proceeded from God as God, as equal, as only Son, as the Word of the Father” (Tractatus in Ioannem, XLII, 8).

In seeing in procession the derivation of consubstantiality according to the trinitarian order, the communication of divinity as well to the Son as to the Spirit, St. Augustine comes up against the difficulty of understanding the term processio, in the sense of the ekporeusis of Jn 15:26, as expressing specifically the mode of origin of the Spirit in the Father in relation to the mystery of the generation of the Son. This obscurity, which constitutes the very depths of the trinitarian mystery, becomes, owing to the Latin displacement of the sense of processio, an impenetrable difficulty. The weakness of Latin pneumatology will always, at bottom, remain its incapacity to hold, explicitly, as far as it is possible to do this in the comprehension and language of faith, to the unfathomable antinomy between generation and ekporeusis.

“Because the Spirit is in no manner the Son of the Father and of the Son, he is not born from the two. He is therefore the Spirit of the two in proceeding from the two. Who can explain that which separates being born from proceeding when this concerns this supreme nature? Not all that proceeds is born, even though all that is born proceeds; just as not every biped is a man, though every man is a biped. This I know; but as for distinguishing between this generation and this procession, in this matter I know nothing, for this I haven’t the ability or the force” (Contra Maximinum, liber II, 14, 1).

But it would be ridiculous to make a value judgment upon this theology. Our own task is clearly to note the space in which it is silent and in the interior of which it attempts to take up the confession of the mystery of the Trinity. To do that, it is necessary to show also its inherent limits, beyond which it acknowledges its powerlessness, even in the very mouth of its most eminent interpreter, St. Augustine. This point has long been taken into consideration by the most classic Catholic theologians — for example, Fr. Dondaine, O.P., one of the great specialists on St. Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on the Trinity. “We should recognize,” he says, “the distance between the two words, the Latin procedere and the Greek ekporeuomai. If, in the end, this latter word was restricted to the personal relation of the Holy Spirit to the Father, in faithfulness to the formulation of St. John, the Latin procedere, already in St. Augustine, covers indistinctly proienai and ekporeuesthai. Processio can signify indifferently, as a general term, the origin both of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; thus we speak in the plural of the ‘Processions ad intra.’ It is also possible to designate by the special term ekporeusis the relation of the Holy Spirit to the Father; the Latin expression procedit ab utroque remains outside this precision since it regards the Father and the Son in their community as spirating principle, instead of which the Greek term regards the Father qua source, arche, pege tes theotetos.” ["La théologie latine de la procession du Saint-Esprit" in Russie et Chrétienté, 3-4 (1954), p. 213.]

But we must now show in a positive manner the specific line Latin theology takes in its deeper understanding of the trinitarian mystery. It always regards the processions as consubstantial communications from the Father, source of divinity. In this, too, St. Augustine merely takes up again, in all fidelity, the earlier tradition:

“He (the Father) from whom the Son receives being God — he is in fact God from God — has therefore given it to him that the Holy Spirit should proceed from him also: and this is why the Spirit receives from the Father himself that he should proceed from the Son, as he proceeds from the Father” (Trac. in Johannem, XCIX, 8).

As the Father appears here before all else as the source of divinity, his monarchy is primarily understood as the principle of trinitarian consubstantiality. The Latin tradition, which St. Augustine recapitulates, considers the hypostatic origination of the Persons in terms of the derivation of Godhead in them, according to the trinitarian order of their consubstantial communion. Not having had to confront the metaphysical subordinationism of a Eunomius, not having had as a point of reference the Neoplatonic metaphysics of participation, the Latin tradition did not feel it necessary to distinguish antinomically between essence and hypostases in God. It thus remained in continuity with the synthetic vision of the Trinity which was that of the fathers before Nicaea, all the more easily since, in the West, Tertullian had firmly established the doctrine of consubstantiality from the start of the third century.

In this perspective, in which the origin of the hypostases and the order of their consubstantial communion within the divine essence are viewed synoptically, monarchy, in the sense of the hypostatic, incommunicable principle of the Person of the Father, can only be signified indirectly. St. Augustine, like Tertullian before him, can signify it only in an adverbial way: the Holy Spirit proceeds principaliter from the Father.

“As the Father has it in himself that the Holy Spirit should proceed from him, so has he given it to the Son that the same Holy Spirit should proceed from him, without reference to time in the two cases. And it is said that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, in such a way that it may be understood that, if he proceeds also from the Son, this is something the Son possesses from the Father. In fact, whatever the Son has, he has from the Father; he has from the Father that the Holy Spirit proceed from him…. The Son is born of the Father; and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father principally (principaliter) and, by the intemporal gift of this to the Son, from the Father and the Son, in communion (communiter) (De Trinitate, liber XV, cap. 25.47, PL 42, 1094-1095).

In indicating here, not specifically the origin of the hypostases in the Father according to their incommunicable characteristics of generation and ekporeusis, but the order of consubstantial communication, St. Augustine is obliged to have recourse to two adverbs, principaliter and communiter, to distinguish two aspects of trinitarian theology which St. Hilary was able to distinguish, not adverbially, but verbally, by procedere (in the sense of the Greek ekporeusis) and accipere (to receive). But this distinction, which was hardly used even by St. Hilary, did not make an impact upon Latin tradition. In fact no heresy of the Eunomian variety obliged it to differentiate antinomically the source of essential unity from the principle of hypostatic diversity and incommunicability.

It fell to the Cappadocian fathers to confess this antinomic mystery of the Father, faced with the metaphysical heresy of Eunomius, and thus to give the Church the deepest expression of trinitarian theology. But the discovery of the paradoxical mystery of the paternal source of the Trinity seems not to have prevented the Cappadocians from considering it also as being, by virtue of its very causality, the principle of trinitarian order. This is true above all for St. Gregory of Nyssa who, since he was younger than St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nazianzus, had experienced the Apollinarian crisis and balanced the antinomies directed against Eunomius with a clarification of the order of trinitarian consubstantiality which manifests itself in the economy:

“The difference between being cause and being caused is the only thing that distinguishes the divine persons from one another, while faith teaches us that there is a Principle and there is that which is from the Principle. And besides, in that which is from the Principle we recognize another distinction, namely, between being immediately from the Principle and being by him who is immediately from the Principle. In this manner, the name of the Only Son remains without ambiguity the Son’s and nevertheless, without question, the Spirit has his ekporeusis from the Father, the mediation of the Son preserving for him his property of being Only Son and not depriving the Spirit from his natural relation with the Father.”’ (PG 45, 133)

As for St. Augustine, faithful to the synthetic vision of his tradition, he understands the monarchy in its dimension as source of the consubstantial communion. It appears, not so much as the incommunicable principle proper to the very person of the Father, but as a source of divine life which, from the Father, is communicated to the Son in order to spring forth, from him, in the Holy Spirit.

“The Father is the principle without principle, the Son is the principle who has issued from the principle; the two of them together are not two principles, but one single principle, in the same way that the Father and the Son are God, without being two gods but a single God. The Holy Spirit, who proceeds from these two, is, I will not deny, also a principle, but all three of them together, just as they are but one God, are, likewise, a single principle.” (Contra Maximinum, lib. II, cap. 17.4; PL 40, 784-885 [?]).

Here one sees the extreme development of the Latin tradition concerning the procession of the Holy Spirit and the deepest point of its penetration in trinitarian theology. While the Cappadocian fathers would make manifest the monarchy, as origin, in the Father, of the irreducible hypostatic diversity of the Son and of the Spirit, the Latin fathers placed in light the manner in which the persons are, for one another, conditions in the consubstantial communion in the unique Godhead. The divine essence is, in fact, communicated from the Father, according to the order of consubstantial processions of the Son and of the Spirit. Between generation and ekporeusis there is no order, because the hypostatic diversity of the Son and the Spirit, coming forth from the Father, is an immeasurable abyss. But, in the eternal manifestation of the consubstantial communion of the Trinity, there appears an order of processions which allows one to speak, with the entire Tradition, of the First, the Second, and the Third Person. In thus speaking, one does not number the hypostases, which radically transcend numerical sequence, neither does one assign degrees to the one, indivisible divinity, but one manifests the manner (tropos) in which each of the hypostases enhypostasizes, in relationship with the others, the same divine essence. In their incommunicable, hypostatic name, the Son and the Spirit are in relationship only with the Father who is, so to speak, the origin of their personal originality. But, to the extent that the hypostasis manifests itself in a mode of existence (tropos tês uparxeôs) according to which it enhypostasizes the essence (the Latins and Alexandrians say: according to which it proceeds in the essence), the divine Persons manifest an order according to which they are, for each other, the conditions of their consubstantial communion.

Garrigues on the Father

February 21, 2009

The following text is translated from J.-M. Garrigues, L’Esprit qui dit «Père!»: l’Esprit-Saint dans la vie trinitaire et le problème du Filioque (Paris, 1981), pp. 31-35. I give it here, in part because Garrigues is an important writer on trinitarian matters; it has been argued (by the Orthodox writer, Jean-Claude Larchet) that the 1995 Vatican “Clarification” on the Filioque is largely a summarizing of his ideas. Also, a reader of this blog wrote to me today concerning St. Gregory the Theologian’s trinitarian theology; I thought I would give this translation, as providing a different perspective. Having read this passage, I have to say that I find things in it that I don’t agree with; there are places where Garrigues seems to me to have mistranslated St. Gregory, and, on the whole, I think he gives only one side of the picture: if it is true that the essence-hypostasis distinction is irreducible, it is also true that St. Gregory does identify, in some sense, the persons with the essence or nature. That is, I think St. Gregory looks at divine unity from a two-fold perspective: he is able to attribute unity both to the one Father and to the one nature or essence, although he makes these attributions in different ways: the Father is the unity in the sense that he is source to the other persons of what they are and of that they are; but the essence is also the unity, in the sense that each person, viewed in himself, possesses that one, identical essence, the full and undiminished nature of Godhead, and, indeed, not only possesses that essence, but is it. As Gregory says, “For the Godhead is one in three, and the three are one, in whom the Godhead is, or to speak more accurately, who are the Godhead” (or. 39.11).

The Father ἀρχὴ-ἄναρχος through the irreducibility of the “essence-hypostasis” distinction

The Eunomian crisis was a terrible shaking of the faith of the Eastern Church. Carrying Arianism to its furthest consequences, it constituted a deadly menace for faith in the God of revelation. It is on account of this that the fathers of the fourth-century Church wrote against Eunomius, and one need only count the number of treatises which the Cappadocian fathers and St. John Chrysostom dedicated to combatting him in order to understand the seriousness of the threat. This was a struggle that would continue over time; one finds echoes it in the works of Cyril of Alexandria, well into the fifth century. In fact, it is the very faith of the Church that would react through the mouth of these fathers and that would find, within Revelation, this rule of life and thought, this apophaticism which would forever mark the Eastern Church, especially through the liturgy which took shape exactly at the moment of the anti-Eunomian reaction: Σὺ γὰρ εἶ ὁ θεὸς ἀνέκφραστος, ἀπερινόητος, ἀόρατος, ἀκατάληπτος ["For thou art God, ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible"]: so says the preface to the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, while, again, that of St. Basil says ἄναρχε, ἀόρατε, ἀκατάληπτε, ἀπερίγραπτε, ἀναλλοίωτε, ὁ Πατὴρ τοῦ Κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ["without beginning, invisible, incomprehensible, uncircumscribable, unchangeable, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ"], thus tying together the inaccessibility of the paternal archê-anarchos to his manifestation in his Son, the one who became Christ for us.

During this Eunomian turmoil, the Spirit raised up within the Church authentic “theologians” to render glory to God, theologians, that is, in the Eastern sense of Theologia which, since Origen, possessed a thoroughly concrete sense: it is the trinitarian reality itself, the λόγος πρὸς τὸν θεόν, and our participation in this divine life of the Logos made Man. It was for having revived this Theologia at the very heart of the faith of the Church that Gregory of Nazianzus received the supreme title of “Theologian,” a title which, till then, only the disciple of the Logos, John the Evangelist, had received.

Gregory the Theologian begins by rediscovering the New Testamental, Ante-Nicene perspective which refuses to make a separation between the Father as archê of creation and of the economy, on the one hand, and the Father as personal archê of the Trinity, on the other: “For he would have been the Principle (archê) merely of things petty and unworthy, worse, he would himself have been Principle merely in a petty, unworthy way, if he had not been the Principle of the Godhead and the goodness that are worshipped in the Son and the Holy Spirit: in the one as Son and Word, in the other as Spirit proceeding without separation” (Or. Theol. II, PG 35, 445). Gregory, by an instinct of faith, locates here the specifically non-Christian point of Eunomius’s position: to be the immutable and sovereign archê because of one’s being the principle only of inferior beings, such is not the true greatness of the Christian God; his greatness does not reside in a superiority of degree of being within an order of deficient participation (“a petty, unworthy way of being archê“) but in the possibility of being archê of the communication of Godhead to two other, equal persons within the order of the communion of love. Gregory understood that the manifestation of the invisible God, accomplished perfectly and freely by his Son upon the cross, brings us in contact with an unheard-of manner of being God, a manner that has little in common with that of a simple and supreme substance, as Eunomius too humanly conceives of it: “We will never have the audacity to speak of an ‘overflow of goodness,’ as one of the Greek philosophers dared to do, as if it were a bowl overflowing…. We will never accept a forced generation, a kind of natural, hardly-constrainable production, which can in no way fit with our notion of Deity” (Or. Theol. III.2). Faith understands a freedom above all necessity in the divine generation: the ἄναρχος Father can be at the same time ἀρχὴ τῆς θεότητος because he is a mystery of the gift of agape, and because his anarchia is a superessentially free source which has no need of protecting itself by jealously preserving for itself its own superiority. The Christian Godhead is “a Godhead without a superior degree which elevates or an inferior degree which abases” (Or. XLI, PG 36, 417 B). For the archê-anarchos of the Father, as source of the total gift, is a cause which in no way diminishes that to which it gives origin: “It is no less great to come from such a cause than it is to be without cause; for it is to participate in the glory that comes from him of being without principle (anarchos), and to that is added generation, so high a dignity, if one is able to understand it, and meriting so much veneration” (Or. Theol. IV, 7). One should take note at this point how it is in deepening the mystery of the irreducible archê-anarchos of the Father that Gregory of Nazianzus is led to the equality of essence between the Father and those to whom he gives himself totally, the Son and the Spirit.

Gregory is thus led to the heart of the mystery of the Father; he is, at one and the same time, greater and equal, anarchos and archê of the Godhead. He is not identical with his divine essence, since he is God in being Father, that is to say, in communicating that essence totally to the Son and to the Spirit. This is what Eunomius was unable to comprehend; he made the Father’s anarchos an essential property (in every sense of the word) of the Father, failing to see that the Father is inseparably anarchos and archê because he does not identify himself with his essence, being God, not by property, but by paternity: “When we say that the Father is greater than the Son qua cause, they add the conclusion ‘he is cause by nature’ and they deduce therefrom that he is greater by nature” (Or. Theol. III, 15). And Gregory expounds, in a precise way, how the unique paternal archê is God, not by an exclusive identification with the divine essence, but by a mysterious “movement” which comes and goes between Unity and Trinity: “But we, on the contrary, honor a single principle (μοναρχία); and this unity is not that which is constituted by the common dignity of nature, the agreement of will, the identity of movement and the return to unity of that which comes from unity — all these being things impossible to the created nature — in such a way that, if there is a numeric difference, there is, nevertheless, not a division of essence. This is why the Monad, having set itself in motion from the Principle (ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς) towards the Dyad, completes itself in a Triad” (Or. Theol. III, 2). [1] But if the Father ought not to be conceived of as identifying himself, in an exclusive manner, with the divine essence, the “movement” of communication which comes from him not only passes beyond the exclusive identity of his person with the divine essence, but even the dyad, relation conceived of as bipolar opposition, which is proper to the ontology of the created (matter-form, relation, etc.), to blossom into the Triad which is the other face of the paternal monarchy: “The Monad is put into motion on account of its richness; the Dyad is overcome, because the Godhead is above matter and form; it limits itself by the perfect of the Triad, which is the first to overcome the composition of the Dyad; in such a way that the Godhead does not remain in narrowness (Eunomius) nor spreads itself out to infinity (polytheism)” (Or. XXIII, 8, PG 35, 1160 C). “Triad: this word unites things united by nature and does not at all allow inseparable things to be dispersed by a number which separates them” (Or. XXIII, 10, PG 35, 1161 C); for this reason the Triad is the manifestation of the most profound mystery of the Father and can be considered as the name of the Living God of revelation (Or. XLV, PG 36, 628 C). We thus again discover, completely purified of all subordinationism, the traditional relation between the manifestation of the invisible God and his Revelation as Trinity.

It is thus through a meditation upon the mystery of the Father, the irreducible archê-anarchos, that the whole Trinity shows itself to be gathered up in his monarchy, according to Gregory of Nazianzus. It is in the Father that the antinomy of essence and hypostasis originates, an antinomy of which the “personal relations” are only a derived manifestation. For this reason, relations of opposition within the divine essence are not the foundation of the hypostases; these relations only permit a negative approach of the hypostases, preventing one from confusing them: “The Father has not become Father, since he has not had a beginning (archê). He is truly the Father because he is not the Son, just as the Son is truly the Son because he is not the Father. One cannot say the same concerning us, who are simultaneously fathers and sons, without being the one instead of the other” (Or. Theol. III, 5). This text illustrates well the superseding, in the Trinity, of a notion of relation, conceived of as relative, dyadic opposition, and thus proper to a created ontology. The Father is source of an absolute hypostatic diversity, even as he guarantees absolute communion in essential equality. This is how Gregory the Theologian presents him to us in a celebrated text: “For us, there is a single God, because there is a single Godhead, and because those who proceed refer back to One (ἕν) from which they proceed, even in being three according to the faith, for one of them is not more God and another less God…. Thus, when we consider the Godhead, the first cause, the monarchy, it is the One which appears to us, and when we consider those in whom is the Godhead, those who come from the first cause without interval of time and with equality of glory, there are three whom we worship” (Or. Theol. V, 14). It will be noted that Godhead (essence) is considered straightaway within the mystery of the Father who, not identifying himself with it, is by the same token the cause of its communication and its being imparted to other persons. It is the irreducibility of essence and hypostasis in the mystery of the Father, the archê-anarchos, which constitutes him as the source of the Trinity. It is this mystery of the Father which Gregory seeks finally to draw near to by way of symbols: that of the source, the fountain and the stream for the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, or, better, that of the vibrating reflection of sunlight upon water which produces splashes of light, unifying themselves and diversifying themselves unceasingly (Or. Theol. V, 32).

[1] Garrigues mistranslates here: “… et cette unité n’est pas celle que constituent la commune dignité de nature, l’accord de la volunté, etc. ….” Compare the tr. in NPNF ii.7, p. 301: “It is, however, a Monarchy that is not limited to one person, for it is possible for Unity if at variance with itself to come into a condition of plurality; but one which is made of an equality of Nature and a Union of mind, and an identity of motion, and a convergence of its elements to unity — a thing which is impossible to the created nature — so that though numerically distinct there is no severance of Essence.” Garrigues completely drops the important clause “it is, however, a Monarchy that is not limited to one person” (μοναρχία δέ, οὐχ ἣν ἓν περιγράφει πρόσωπον), as well as the explanatory clause that follows it; it seems as though he has skipped down a couple of lines, and has applied the οὐχ from this clause to the second half of the sentence. In any case, his translation is wrong. He appears to see Gregory as denying that unity, in God, in any way involves an ontological coincidence of person and essence. The tacit point of this denial seems to be to criticize certain (Western) ways of speaking about divine unity (attributing it to the nature), and to assert certain (Eastern) ways of speaking about divine unity (attributing it to the Father). I think Gregory, rather, intends to include both ways in his perspective.

Still, there is much in Garrigues’ reading of St. Gregory the Theologian that I would wholehearedly agree with — particularly his point, that, for Gregory, the Father’s greatness “does not reside in a superiority of degree of being within an order of deficient participation … but in the possibility of being archê of the communication of Godhead to two other, equal persons within the order of the communion of love.

Lincoln’s God

February 11, 2009

Tomorrow, February 12th, the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln will be celebrated. Lincoln is nearly everywhere understood to be the greatest man ever to have filled the office of President of the United States, and he served at the time of greatest upheaval to the society, during a war in which more Americans died than in most of our other wars put together. It is hard to overestimate the importance of the Civil War in shaping America’s political and social history, and it is hard to overestimate Lincoln’s own effect upon America’s self-understanding. We have few genuine icons in this land, although we have plenty of idols (and whole industries devoted to their production); Lincoln the martyr, the man who looks at us across time, not only from the $5 bill, but from countless pictures that people still put up on their walls, with the deep, melancholic, shrewd humanity of his face, is a real icon, a reminder of something we are always in danger of losing, a moral truth we seldom bring to realization.

When I was five years old, I was asked, in kindergarten, to draw a picture in honor of Lincoln’s Birthday. (Or perhaps what I was actually asked to draw was a picture for Valentine’s Day, but I threw in a portrait of Lincoln for good measure.) It turned out well; in fact, it was probably the first picture I had ever drawn that actually looked like the person it was supposed to represent.

In 2005, when I left my job in New Mexico and returned to New York/New Jersey, I made a point of stopping at Springfield, Illinois and visiting Lincoln’s grave. His body lies entombed under a white stone obelisk in a park at the north end of the town; the obelisk sits atop a large, colonnaded base of the same material, adorned with bronze statues representing scenes from the Civil War; visitors are allowed to enter, a few at a time, into that base to pay their respects to the late president. His tomb is of pink marble; on it, the words


On the wall behind, the words “NOW HE BELONGS TO THE AGES.” I was struck, when I went to pray there, by the complete absence of any Christian symbolism. Only civil and military flags and insignia. Of course, none of us have a great deal of choice in what people choose to put over us when we die. But I confess that the overall effect was a rather cold one. It felt like what was before me was the anti-Lincoln, the absence of the rational soul; as though the weight of madness and shallowness that had always surrounded him had finally engulfed him, taking physical, marble shape, and exulting in victory over his poor, lobotomized corpse.

I shuddered at that thought, and prayed for him and his family, that he would rest in peace.

Lincoln seems never to have been a member of any church, although occasionally, it seems, he did attend a Presbyterian church in Washington, D.C. He describes his own religious views in a bulletin addressed “To the Voters of the Seventh Congressional District” in 1846, in answer to a charge of irreligion laid against him by his opponent in the Congressional elections, Mr. Peter Cartwright (1):

July 31, 1846

A charge having got into circulation in some of the neighborhoods of this District, in substance that I am an open scoffer at Christianity, I have by the advice of some friends concluded to notice the subject in this form. That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures, and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular. It is true that in early life I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the “Doctrine of Necessity” — that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control; and I have sometimes (with one, two or three, but never publicly) tried to maintain this opinion in argument. The habit of arguing thus however, I have, entirely left off for more than five years. And I add here, I have always understood this same opinion to be held by several of the Christian denominations. The foregoing, is the whole truth, briefly stated, in relation to myself, upon this subject.

I do not think I could myself, be brought to support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion. Leaving the higher matter of eternal consequences, between him and his Maker, I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live. If, then, I was guilty of such conduct, I should blame no man who should condemn me for it; but I do blame those, whoever they may be, who falsely put such a charge in circulation against me.

A. Lincoln

That Lincoln was, in some very general sense of the word, a Christian, and that he considered himself to be so, seems hard to deny, although it also seems hard to deny that he had little in the way of dogmatic, theological convictions in the usual sense. From the evidence of the foregoing letter, it would seem as though Lincoln’s specifically religious belief, at various times in his life at least, consisted of a view of divine providence that came close to fatalism or Stoic necessitarianism. Perhaps a kind of Calvinism, stripped to its barest philosophical essentials. Certainly nothing sacramental, trinitarian, or incarnational per se. But a very strong notion of the goodness and justice of God, and the ethical responsibilities incumbent upon men.

From an Orthodox or Catholic point of view, Lincoln’s religion seems a kind of throwback to the patriarchs. His favorite term for God is “the Almighty.” He worships El Shaddai, the mysterious, inscrutable, terrifying, righteous God who judges among the nations and directs the ways of men.

Perhaps what is most characteristic of Lincoln, as a thinker, is a combination of logic and piety, a piety of a very specific kind. The first thing that strikes one when one reads him is his clarity of thought. As, in Euclid’s Geometry, there is a clarity of reasoning, made possible by the clear enunciation of definitions, postulates, and common notions, so, in Lincoln’s Politics, there is a clarity which, analogously, rests upon explicit, postulated grounds. The postulates of Lincoln’s political thinking, the rational foundations of his political creed, were stated in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Lincoln saw the institution of slavery in the United States as an internal contradiction, a denial of the principle of universal human dignity upon which the moral truth of the American political experiment lay. He understood that that contradiction had a natural tendency to resolve itself, and that, if resolved in the wrong way, it would destroy political liberty in this country. In arguing for this, he quotes Jesus (Matthew 12:25), who provides him with a political common notion:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.

I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

It will become all one thing, or all the other.

Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as newNorth as well as South.

From: Speech Accepting the Republican Senatorial Nomination, June 16, 1858

Since he saw with such clarity that the situation of the country — half slave, half free — was unstable and untenable in the long run, and he was convinced that slavery was opposed to the original moral vision of the founders of the republic, he spent most of his political career seeking to prevent the extension of slavery to new territories, in the hope that, in this way, the institution would wither away gradually and die a peaceful, natural death. He was in no sense a radical abolitionist. Probably the man he chiefly looked up to, as a model for political action, was Henry Clay, “the Great Compromiser.” Lincoln was the last man in the world to wish to ignite a civil war, and he made that clear in his First Inaugural Address.

The piety of Lincoln is, in the first place, a political piety. The “fathers” are, for him, the Founding Fathers of the American Republic. As to the Fathers of the Church, he knows little about them. (He probably did not know that some early Church Fathers, like Gregory of Nyssa, agreed with him as to the fundamental evil of slavery.) But his attitude towards the former, the political fathers, is very much like what an Orthodox Christian might feel towards the latter. He sees these founding fathers as setting the ancient landmarks for political reasoning; he sees it as impiety to move them. He also, it must be said, is very skillful in investing his political convictions with the imagery and language of biblical faith. There was nothing false or contrived about this: Lincoln clearly did not think about these things in two separate boxes. He thought the moral truth of biblical faith had a living embodiment in the American political experiment, and he thought that the duty to protect that experiment was sacred.

Of course, the leaders of the South also read the Declaration of Independence, and they laid particular stress upon the following clause: “That, when any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation upon such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” The view of the ruling classes of the South was that “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” were closely bound up, for them, with the chief economic support to their traditional way of life. Slaves were property (Jefferson’s phrase, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” is a clear echo of John Locke’s “Life, Liberty, and Property”), and those who threatened the institution of slave-holding threatened their property, their way of life, and their economic freedom. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, as slavery as an institution again became economically profitable and the question about extending slavery to newly-opened territories provoked repeated political crises, the chief political voice of the South was the senator from South Carolina, John Calhoun, who presented a constitutional theory of radical state-sovereignty. The constitution, in his view, sets up a confederation of sovereign states, which implicitly retain the right to withdraw from the union if their interests so dictate. The issue of the extension of slavery to the territories was seen as vital to the South’s interests, and increasingly the claim was made that it was an issue over which southern States had a legitimate right to secede. And, just as Lincoln habitually expressed his political convictions in biblical terms, so too the leaders of the South made a religious case in defense of the righteousness of their way of life. Is not slavery found in the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testaments? Doesn’t St. Paul tell servants to obey their masters?

Lincoln was fully aware of the competing religious arguments, and he saw this as one of the most tragic aspects of the war, the fact that both sides sought a divine justification.

Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come, but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, till all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

From: Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865 (2)

A lot has happened in America in the 144 years since Lincoln’s death. One might in some ways wonder if we are still the same people and the same country. I hesitate to think what sort of man Lincoln might have become if, instead of being raised on a log cabin in Kentucky, he had been brought into this world in one of our suburban homes, and had his mind dulled early on by exposure to television and the rest of our aggressively crass culture. But it does seem to me that the civil war, like most wars, never really ended; it metamorphosed, and took various new, ideological forms. Could it be that the grandfather of radical economic libertarianism, the doctrine that government, in itself, is the problem, and that the solution to all our social ills is to get the federal government off the taxpayers’ backs, is John Calhoun? I confess that I sometimes see a certain spiritual affinity between John Calhoun and Photius of Constantinople. Perhaps the recent profusion of Orthodox monasteries in Texas, Arizona, and such places is not coincidental. A deeply-rooted sense that Union is a bad thing.

Let me close this very sketchy post with a line from Lincoln’s speech at the Cooper Union, February 27, 1860, words which deserve to be remembered, and which state, as good as any credo, what Lincoln’s faith was:

“Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”


(1) Text of this letter in Richard N. Current, ed., The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln (Indianapolis 1967), pp. 40 f.

(2) Op. cit., pp. 315 f.


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