The God of measure

October 2, 2007

ἡμεῖς δὲ οὐχὶ εἰς τὰ ἄμετρα καυχησόμεθα ἀλλὰ κατὰ τὸ μέτρον τοῦ κανόνος οὗ ἐμέρισεν ἡμῖν ὁ θεὸς μέτρου, ἐφικέσθαι ἄχρι καὶ ὑμῶν.
(2 Cor 10: 13)

Last month I was reading this text in Greek, and it stood out for me as saying something I’d not heard before. St. Paul, rhetorically playing on different forms of the word μέτρον, seemed to be saying something, not only about his relations with the Corinthian church, but about “the God of measure.” I wrote down, “this verse must have been a favorite of St. Gregory the Theologian. Does anyone preach these days on this phrase, ὁ θεὸς μέτρου, the God of measure, or of moderation?”

Later I saw why no one preaches on “the God of measure”: because that is not how the verse is translated in all the standard translations.

Vulgate: “Nos autem non in immensum gloriabimur, sed secundum mensuram regulae, qua mensus est nobis Deus, mensuram pertingendi usque ad vos.” (Note that Jerome’s text probably reads ἐμέτρισεν, not ἐμέρισεν.)

AV (KJV): “But we will not boast of things without our measure, but according to the measure of the rule which God hath distributed to us, a measure to reach even unto you.”

RSV: “But we will not boast beyond limit, but will keep to the limits God has apportioned us, to reach even to you.”

To put it as simply as I can, I took μέτρου (measure) as modifying θεὸς (God), not as referring back to the relative pronoun οὗ and to the noun κανόνος, the “rule” which, St. Paul says, “God has apportioned us.” I am aware that this relative pronoun and this noun are in the same case, number, and gender as μέτρου, and that this grammatical identification could imply a semantic identification as well, which is how Jerome and the King James translators read the verse (with the RSV it is not clear, the word μέτρου seems to drop out entirely). But, while that semantic identification is possible, the sentence is structured in such a way as to make it unnecessary and, I think, not entirely likely.

For one thing, the standard translation takes μέτρου as the grammatical subject of the infinitive ἐφικέσθαι in the clause that follows it. In Greek, the subject of an infinitive is generally in the accusative case; μέτρου is genitive.

For another thing, if one takes μέτρου as standing in apposition to the word κανόνος which appears earlier in the sentence, one should bear in mind that κανόνος already modifies the word μέτρον. So, if the standard translation is correct, St. Paul is speaking here about the measure of a measure, a lexical involution which serves no visible purpose.

Thirdly, the standard translation is not necessitated by the requirements of grammar. It is not the case that, if one takes μέτρου as modifying θεὸς, the infinitive in the next clause is left without a subject. The infinitive ἐφικέσθαι can be read as completing the thought of the finite verb ἐμέρισεν; that is, indeed, how the RSV seems to read it.

Fourthly, the translation I am proposing interprets Paul’s rhetorical elaboration on the word μέτρον in this sentence as serving a theologically significant purpose, one which agrees with his thought elsewhere (cf. 1 Cor 14:33, “For God is not a God of confusion, but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints”); the standard translation, by contrast, sees Paul as expending all this rhetorical energy merely to defend his rights as a fundraiser.

If St. Paul is in fact speaking here of “the God of measure,” what does he mean by this phrase?

One of William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell says: “Bring out number, weight and measure in a year of dearth.” My sense is that William Blake is a good interpreter of hell, but a bad interpreter of the mind of St. Paul.

For Paul, the God who “laid the foundations of the earth,” who “laid the measures thereof” and “stretched the line upon it” (Job 38: 4f.), has also laid the foundations and measures of the Church and of human society. Paul is enough of a Greek to take to heart the old proverb, πᾶν μέτρον ἄριστον, not easily translatable, but essentially meaning that, in all things, measure, or moderation, is what is best, and consequently that lack of measure, or immoderation, is bad and leads to destruction. Paul is not saying that God can be measured (cf. Rom 11:13); he is saying that God measures us, and that it is good for us to accept the measure God gives us and not to waste our time measuring ourselves against each other: “For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Cor 10:12). There are those in Corinth who, on the basis of their self-comparisons, think that Paul’s apostolic authority does not extend to them; Paul is warning them that they are wrong, and perhaps hinting that there is writing for them on the wall; like Belshazzar at his feast, they are weighed in the balances, and found wanting (Dan 5:25-28).

A common modern reading of St. Paul sees him as the preacher of absolute subjectivity; it takes the Pauline radicality of faith to imply the autonomy of the individual relative to any community and its responsibilities. I think this is a serious misreading of St. Paul. When Paul calls God a God of measure, when he says that God is not a God of confusion, but of peace, he is pointing out to his readers that faith does not transport the believer somehow miraculously into a transcendent state where other people do not matter. The believer’s freedom in Jesus Christ is a freedom for others, not (as so often it is interpreted) a freedom from others. The believer is free to serve, following in this Christ himself, “who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men” (Phil 2: 6f.). Paul does radically insist upon the believers’ freedom from others when what others teach goes against the truth of the gospel, as in the case of those who would make circumcision a condition of membership in Christ. But it is simply a mistake to conclude from this that Paul’s theological vision is individualistic: he is radically communitarian.

I think one sees something of this same communitarian vision in the man whom the Eastern Church names, among the fathers, the “Theologian” par excellence, St. Gregory of Nazianzus. St. Gregory is not simply a propounder of mystical flights. Over and over again he preaches on the right order of the Christian community, and the ever-present need for Christians to submit to one another in love; “On Peace” is the title of three of his orations (numbers 6, 22, and 23), and his oration 32, “On Moderation in Theological Discussions,” could equally bear this title. His resignation during the Council of Constantinople of 381 in response to the objections of Western and Alexandrian delegates, who claimed that he could not serve as bishop of Constantinople since he had already been consecrated bishop of Sasima, shows that this concern for the good of the community was not something he merely preached; it was also what he practiced, to his own hurt (see esp. oration 42, his “Last Farewell” to the assembled bishops at Constantinople, and his poem 2.1.11, On his own life).

One of the best books available on St. Gregory was written in French a little over a half a century ago: Jean Plagnieux, Saint Grégoire de Nazianze, Théologien (Paris 1951). Plagnieux devotes a long and interesting chapter (pp. 213-260) to “the sense of measure” in Gregory’s works. The chapter is divided into three sections: (1) “La modération, sauvegarde de la communauté”; (2) “Le juste milieu de la vérité”; (3) “L’expression harmonieuse de la vérité.” Here are some of the things Plagnieux says:

(p. 214) “The sense of measure (μετριότης) is, without doubt, the characteristic feature of St. Gregory’s thought; it is the very spirit of his theology. St. Gregory keeps returning to it indefatigably. It is his glory to have succeeded in giving so high a profile to a virtue which appears not to lend itself to such a thing.”

(p. 215) “Thus, μετριότης, the quality of measuredness, is fundamental to Gregory’s temperament; it is, with him, a virtue of the heart no less than of the mind; and, in a word, it is like the subtle grace, the melody we might say, that remains with the artist in all of his theological creations.”

(p. 225) “The activity deployed by Gregory at the service of peace has unity in faith directly in view. As opposed to Basil, the man of government, and Gregory of Nyssa, the mystic and metaphysician, Gregory, in all his apostolate, remains essentially a theologian, that is to say, preoccupied with doctrine and with unity. Administration, even of the ecclesiastical kind, hardly interests him; by contrast, he is attracted to contemplation; but, when it comes to fixing him in a decision either to take on everything or to renounce everything, it is enough that there be a danger against the integrity of the faith or a chance to restore concord among believers.”

(ibid.) “One cannot overemphasize the point that moderation, itself, pertains to a theological order. It is not constituted of dextrous handlings and expedients and, in a word, of mediocrity; rather, it is inspired by a very elevated view of human possibilities and divine co-workings: it depends upon intelligence.

“Gregory’s doctrinal μετριότης appears to us, at first, in his effort not to go beyond the measure of what is human. He means in this way to respect the laws of the universe. This is not opportunism or resignation. He takes as his model the divine ‘economy’: he knows that every step of progress for the human being requires liberty and demands that time be allotted….”

(pp. 226 f.) “Gregory does not resign himself to being separated from the human race: he is the enemy of sects, and of private chapels, too. In contrast to so many ancient and modern heresies, he refuses to make Christianity into a religion of the pure and of a small number: he does not refuse the company of sinners, for whom the universal Church remains forever, in his eyes, Mother and Teacher.”

(p. 227) “But considerations about man cannot be a determining element in matters of doctrine: the theologian is inspired essentially by the thought of God, and it is from that that Gregory acquires his sense of measure and of reserve.”

(p. 228) “Heresy thinks it can measure the Infinite, i.e., measure itself alongside God. Before being an error, this is an impiety, arising from arrogance (ἀσέβεια — θρασύτης).”

(ibid.) “Doctrinal in its origins, Gregory’s moderation is no less doctrinal in the end which it pursues: peace, the sum of Gregory’s aspirations, must be understood in the strong sense, the theological sense; it is unity in the truth. In working for its victory, Gregory spares no combat and brooks no compromise on a single article of the Creed.

“It remains that ‘irenicism’ is the keynote of his theological apostolate, the positive form of his moderation: peace is the sacred dream of this man’s life. It is for him that which Lady Poverty was for St. Francis of Assisi. Gregory dedicated to it three of his most moving orations. In certain passages, one might think one was hearing strophes of a hymn to peace: order, beauty, harmony, love are its vesture; it is a reflection of the Trinity.”

And so on. Plagnieux has, I think, laid his finger here upon a truth which no one who claims fidelity to the fathers (let alone, to Christ) ought to forget. I fear that many students of the fathers, past and present, have in fact forgotten it.

While I am not a theologian, I have to say that John Bekkos, whatever one thinks about his specific interpretations of this or that text of the fathers, has understood something about St. Gregory the Theologian — and, arguably, something about Christ and his Church — that his opponents have not. Bekkos loves peace, and he reads the fathers as men who love peace and who are aware of the infinite capacity of the human intellect to delude itself and to destroy its own peace upon barren and flimsy pretexts. Bekkos supposes that St. Gregory, who taught that the Father is sole cause, and St. Augustine, who taught that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, actually agree with each other. That is to say that, after having examined a considerable body of patristic evidence, he concludes that the Latin Christian tradition is orthodox, and expresses what the Greek tradition does although using other words. Some may think that these opinions of his are heterodox and immoderate and against the right measure of theology. For my own part, I don’t see it. For my own part, it seems to me that the Christian God, the consubstantial Trinity, is a God of measure; I think Bekkos worships him; I wish others would, too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: