As part of an ongoing series of lectures at my church here in Cleveland, I was asked to give a talk this past Sunday; I chose to do so on the topic of Creation and Evolution. Aside from certain initial problems connecting my laptop computer to the projector, the presentation went fairly well. I used the following outline as a basis for the talk, although it should be said that, because of time constraints, not everything in the outline was actually touched upon during the lecture.

Creation and Evolution: Some thoughts on Earth history and its significance for Orthodox Christianity (16 December 2012)

  1. Introduction
    1. Who am I, and why am I talking about evolution?
      1. Peter Gilbert. I teach these days at a private Catholic school in South Euclid; I also taught for seven years at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM, and, for three and a half years, I taught at the Orthodox seminary in Durrës, Albania.
      2. I am not a biologist. In matters of biology, I am what might be called an educated layman. My doctorate is in church history, from the Catholic University of America. However, last year at the Lyceum School I was asked to teach a biology class, amongst a number of other subjects.… I also taught biology from time to time at a college in New Mexico, St. John’s College (although the approach to the subject there differed from what you would find at most colleges; it does not presuppose biological expertise on the part of the instructor).
      3. Another personal note. Some twenty years ago, I taught in Albania at the Orthodox Seminary of the Resurrection in Durrës. Albania had recently emerged from forty years of Communism, of the most virulent kind; the persecution of religion in Albania was about as bad as it gets. And one result of the communist indoctrination that my students had been through is that almost all of them took it for granted that, if one accepts evolution as a fact, then one is an atheist; if one is a believer, then one rejects evolution. Because Fr. Luke Veronis knew that that was not my view, he asked me, at one point, to speak about this subject at a student forum at the University of Tirana. I did so. It wasn’t a very good lecture; it showed me, in fact, how little I really knew about this subject. But it did increase my interest in the question. The present forum is, in a way, an opportunity for me to revise the thoughts that I first tried to formulate then.
      4. One other thing. When I was four years old, I visited the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Queens, NY. It helped to produce an interest in dinosaurs that was probably my first scientific interest. That interest never entirely disappeared, although it was eclipsed by other things over time, and I did not, in the end, become a paleontologist.
    2. The importance of the question.
      1. Evolution is not merely a scientific issue, but is also a political one, particularly in the United States. It has been debated in American courts since the Scopes’ trial in the 1920s.
  2. The Earth History time chart

    1. A good synoptic presentation of the current scientific consensus view of geological chronology. Has the advantage that, unlike most such charts, it is to scale. It takes the form of a clock; thus, one can get a better sense of how short a time humanity has been upon the earth.
    2. Radiometric dating, based on a knowledge of the “half lives” of unstable elements, is one source of this chart. But, in fact, it brings together findings from numerous sources.
  3. The Tree of Life (include a slide of this as part of your presentation).
    1. Note that, when you were young, living things were divided into “Plants” and “Animals.” The biological consensus nowadays is that things are much more complicated than this. You might have to explain what the words “Prokaryote” and “Eukaryote” mean. (κάρυον = “nut”)

  4. Two meanings of the word “evolution”
    1. The two meanings are often confused, and this is one reason why much of the debate over whether evolution is or is not a “theory” is so pointless.
    2. On the one hand, the word refers to the claim that species have come into being and gone out of existence over the earth’s long history, and that new species in some way derive from earlier ones. This claim deserves to be called, not a theory, but a fact, testified to by all the evidence of geology and paleontology.
    3. On the other hand, a theory meant to account for the factual evidence. Usually refers to what Charles Darwin called “natural selection,” or, Descent with Modification. A theory first presented in 1859, jointly by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.
      1. This view claims that new species appear because certain individuals are better fitted to their environment, more able to survive, than others are and, thus, are better able to pass on their peculiar characteristics to their offspring. The claim is made that, over a series of generations, such peculiarities in the offspring can accumulate to the point where one must speak, not merely of a variant breed within the species, but of a different species.
      2. This is a theory, but it is a theory accepted by the vast majority of biologists as being consistent with observable facts: e.g., with the fossil record, with mutations seen in rapidly multiplying populations (like microorganisms), and with the evidence of genetics. It is a theory much in the same way that, say, quantum theory is a “theory”: there are still questions surrounding it, but virtually every working scientist accepts this hypothesis as basically correct and as accounting for the evidence. (People who say “only a theory” when talking about evolution do not know what science is.)
      3. There have been other theories of evolution besides the darwinian one. Notably, the view of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) was that characteristics acquired during a creature’s lifetime were passed down to its offspring. Others in the eighteenth century (Lord Monboddo; Erasmus Darwin) also held various evolutionary views.
    4. Darwin’s theory of natural selection received substantial support in the mid-20th century with the growth of the study of genetics, in particular with the deciphering of the molecular structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) by Watson and Crick in the 1950’s. The union of darwinian theory with genetics constitutes what is usually called the modern evolutionary synthesis.
  5. Four theological attitudes towards evolution:
    1. Rejection (1): Young Earth Creationism
      1. Takes the biblical chronology literally (Archbp. James Ussher).
      2. Sees the earth to have been created in 4004 B.C.; takes the six days of Genesis ch. 1 as 24-hour days.
      3. Worth noting that some of the fathers of the Church, e.g., St. Augustine, already rejected this position, without the benefit of Geology.
    2. Rejection (2): “Intelligent Design”
      1. Might be called “Old Earth Creationism”: at least, most of those who hold this position are willing to concede the geological evidence that the earth is very old.
      2. Holds that natural causes cannot fully account for the complexity observed in life forms, and that an Intelligent Designer has to be posited, even on scientific grounds. (I.e., it posits the inadequacy of natural science, and naturalistic explanation, in the presence of the facts of biology.)
      3. Its favorite expression is “irreducible complexity.” One favorite example of this, an argument advanced by Michael Behe: the flagellum of a particular species of bacteria is described as a kind of perfect molecular machine, any of whose parts would be useless except as working in concert with the whole.
        1. I have read a response to this position by a biologist who is also a practicing Catholic, who points out that some of the parts of this machine have been observed in other organisms, serving entirely different functions, which undercuts the whole intelligent design argument. (Rather like the way the carpal bones, which in primates serve as fingers, function in bats as a support for wings.)
      4. Much of the activity of the advocates of Intelligent Design is meant (designed) to affect the science curriculum at public schools in the United States. Such attempts at influencing school curricula have generally been rejected in the courts, e.g. in the case Kitzmiller et al. vs. Dover (December 20, 2005), which ruled that the school board’s biology curriculum, which included Intelligent Design as an alternative to the darwinian account, “violates the Establishment Clause” of the Constitution.
    3. Acceptance (1): Theistic Evolution
      1. Sees evolution as compatible with Christian belief (or Jewish or Muslim). Evolution, on this view, is God’s way of creating new species, just as natural geological processes may be held responsible for the present physical shape of the earth.
        1. For this reason, this view is sometimes called “evolutionary creationism.”
      2. Implies that certain passages of scripture must be read allegorically, a position which, it may be said, is nothing new; Origen, in the third century, said the same thing.
      3. The current pope and his immediate predecessor both expressed support for theistic evolution. So did Cardinal Newman in the 19th century; he thought Darwin’s theory could be accommodated within the doctrine of divine providence.
    4. Acceptance (2): Atheistic Evolution
      1. Sometimes called “radical Darwinism” or “Neo-Darwinism.”
      2. Examples: Richard Dawkins; Stephen Jay Gould
      3. Take the view that evolution is necessarily atheistic, that it rules out any divine action in the origination of species. Evolution, these authors stress, is a mechanical process, and depends on certain changes happening randomly and automatically, without design. Such authors love to point to apparently improvidential features in natural history, as a way of arguing that divinity had no hand in bringing about the forms of life we see.
        1. My own view is that, when biologists start making theological claims about what God can or cannot do, they usually show their theological incompetence. They make God out to be one observable cause among many. The presumption is that God can only act miraculously, outside of the normal order of things, and cannot act through this order, cannot, in fact, have set it up.
  6. Attitudes towards evolution taken by Orthodox theologians
    1. Against
      1. Fr. Seraphim Rose (wrote Genesis, Creation, and Early Man)
      2. One of the founders of the Discovery Institute (an Intelligent Design think tank) is an Orthodox Christian. (See if you can find out his name before the lecture.) [William Dembski]
      3. The late Patriarch of Moscow, Alexei II.
      4. Under Protestant influence, a creationist institute was established in Russia not long ago. Titled “Shestodnev” (Creatio), it was blessed in May 2000 by Patriarch Alexei II. It “conducts conferences, arranges disputes, publishes books, and is actively involved in Internet projects. It places itself as an orthodox society for the defense, study, and revealing the essence of [the] Holy Fathers’ doctrine about the Creation of the World.” As in the United States, attempts have been made in Russia in recent years to include “creation science” as part of the science curriculum in the public schools; one famous case involved a Maria Schreiber, who “refused to study biology in school, saying her world outlook is in contradiction to the one Darwin’s theory of evolution is based on.” The case was brought to court; on February 21, 2007, the Russian court rejected the girl’s case; it has been labeled the “Russian monkey trial.”
    2. For
      1. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. Metropolitan John Zizioulas. Most likely, the present Patriarch of Constantinople (the “Green” Patriarch).
        1. Metropolitan Kallistos:
        3. “Religion and science are working on different levels and are following different methods, and using different kinds of evidence. And, indeed, what each is saying is relevant for the other, but we mustn’t confuse these two levels of discourse. The scientist is working from the evidence of our senses, the theologian, the religious thinker, is using the data of revelation, scripture. So here are two different forms of evidence, and two different ways of arguing. As I see it, there need not be any conflict between religion and science, if each is properly understood, because they are answering different kinds of question. The scientist is telling us what there is in the universe, and he is also saying, as far as we can discover, how the universe came to exist in the form which it now has, by what stages it developed. In the religious sphere, we are asking why was the world created, and what is the purpose of our life on earth. Now, in my view, those are not strictly scientific questions, and the scientist does not claim to answer them, though what he tells us about how the world is and how it came to be the way it is may help us to answer these religious questions. Some scientists would say that the question Why is there a universe, where did it come from, what existed before the Big Bang, some scientists would say that these are simply non-questions, which shouldn’t be asked. But in fact these are questions which as human beings we want to ask and need to ask. But I don’t think the scientist, simply on the basis of his scientific discipline, can answer them.


        1. What about the theory of evolution? Very many Orthodox reject this; some of them uphold a form of intelligent design; I don’t care very much for the theory of intelligent design, because I believe it is mixing the levels of science and religion in an unhelpful way. For myself as an Orthodox, I have no difficulty in accepting the evolutionary picture of the universe that is presented by modern science. And I think we shouldn’t say that evolution is merely a theory or speculation; the evidence is very powerful. I don’t find a problem here for my faith as an Orthodox Christian. It is possible for God to work through evolution. He did not have to create everything as it is now in the beginning; he could work through the evolutionary process. But of course, in saying that, we’re moving outside the realm of science, which is not going to make statements of that kind. Again, from the religious point of view, we wish to affirm that human beings have a unique status in the universe, because they are made in the image and likeness of God. The human being is not merely a superior ape. But again, using a phrase like ‘the image and likeness of God’ we are saying something about human beings that science can neither confirm nor deny. We are moving outside the scientific area. So, I believe that a correct understanding of science and the way it works can indeed help our task as religious thinkers, but we need to keep a proper distinction; and if the distinction is kept, I do not think we need see science as a threat. Thank you.”
      1. the late Theodosius Dobzhansky, geneticist and Russian Orthodox Christian (“nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”)
      2. Dr. George Theokritoff, geologist (a friend of mine who lives in New Jersey)
      3. Alexander Kalomiros.
      4. Fr. George Nicozisin.
      5. “The Eastern Fathers, generally speaking, did not take a fundamentalist viewpoint of creation. For example, Vladimir Lossky, a great Orthodox theologian of the past century, says in his famous book, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, ‘The Church always freely makes use of philosophy and the sciences for apologetic (explanatory) purposes, but she never has any cause to defend these relative and changing truths as she defends the unchangeable truth of her doctrines.’”
      6. Sees the only possible conflict between the scientific account and Christian doctrine in connection with the understanding of Adam.
      7. Yours truly
    1. Some describe this difference as that between “dualism” and “compatibilism” — on the one hand, the view that view that science and faith are philosophically incompatible, that science rests upon a philosophical naturalism that denies faith necessarily; and, on the other hand, the view that both scripture and the physical world are divine revelation, and testify to the same God.
      1. The compatibilist position might be summed up by a statement of the late Pope John Paul II, who said (in connection with the question of evolution) that “truth cannot contradict truth.”
    2. My guess is that, at most Orthodox seminaries (certainly in America), the prevalent view accepts evolution as a scientific fact.
  1. Theological problems that evolution raises for Christian belief
    1. How to interpret the Genesis account(s) of creation. In particular:
      1. What is meant by the “days of creation”? (As mentioned, that already received an allegorizing response from the fathers of the church in the fourth and fifth centuries.)
      2. If human beings are descended from earlier forms of life, and if man is genetically related to all other known life forms, then how are we to understand the fundamental scriptural claim, that man is created “in the image and likeness of God”?
        1. Genetic inheritance does not preclude essential difference.
    2. Who was Adam?
    3. How to understand the doctrine of the fall of man.
      1. If the whole story of evolution presupposes death, how is one to understand the claim, that the sin of Adam and Eve brought death into the world?
    4. The official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is that, while one may accept evolution as an explanation for Adam’s body, one must hold that Adam’s soul was independently created, by a special act of God, and is not merely the result of natural evolution. Some Orthodox priests I have spoken to hold essentially the same position. Pope Pius XII also declared that one must hold Adam to have been a real individual person.
      1. This does raise the question, though, of the status of earlier hominids. For example, it is now known that Neanderthal DNA is present in both European and Asian human beings, constituting about 2% of their genome. Similarly, Australian aborigines have been found to possess DNA deriving from Denisovan man. Is one to include the Neanderthals and Denisovan man amongst the children of Adam?
      2. Some years ago, on the basis of a comparative study of mitochondrial DNA, it was announced that all current human beings could be traced back to a single mother.
  2. Final reflections.
    1. Why this question is important.
      1. At once a religious, a scientific, and a political question.
      2. If, like the present Patriarch of Constantinople, one is an environmentalist, one cannot ignore evolution. To understand how the world is in the present, one has to understand how it has been in the past.
      3. One’s attitude towards this question has a number of practical consequences. If one thinks that the earth is 6,000 years old, one will not be terribly concerned about, say, the inherent limitations in the earth’s supply of fossil fuels. If one is a new earth creationist, everything in the past is, in some sense, miraculous; the apparent necessity for hundreds of millions of years of geological processes for petroleum to be naturally produced is, on this reading, merely an illusion. Nor will one take much thought about global warming, or the idea that there have been, in the earth’s history, major extinction events, most of them having to do with changes in the earth’s climate.
    2. The debate concerns fundamental matters of faith, how one understands the world and God’s activity as “Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things, visible and invisible.” The issue is not going to go away.


A passage at the end of Book II of Pope Gregory the Great’s Dialogues on the Life and Miracles of the Italian Fathers reads as follows (PL 66, 204B and 203B):

Cum enim constet quia Paracletus Spiritus a Patre semper procedat et Filio, cur se Filius recessurum dicit, ut ille veniat, qui a Filio nunquam recedit?

Φανερὸν οὖν ὑπάρχει, ὅτι τὸ παράκλητον πνεῦμα ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς προέρχεται, καὶ ἐν τῷ Υἱῷ διαμένει. Τίνος οὖν χάριν ἑαυτὸν ὁ υἱὸς πορευθῆναι λέγει, ἵνα ἐκεῖνος ἔλθῃ ὅστις οὐδέποτε ἀπ’ αὐτοῦ ἐχωρίσθη;

The Latin text may be translated as follows:
“For since it is certain that the Spirit, the Paraclete, always proceeds from the Father and the Son, why does the Son say that he is going to go away, so that that one (the Paraclete) may come, who is never absent from the Son?”

The Greek translation presents a significantly different meaning:

“It therefore stands as clear that the Spirit, the Paraclete, comes forth from the Father, and rests in the Son. For what reason, therefore, does the Son say that he himself is going away so that that one (the Paraclete) may come, who is never separated from him?”
A note on this is found in Migne, loc. cit.:

Hoc loco animadvertat lector, verba illa, Φανερὸν οὖν ὑπάρχει, ὅτι τὸ παράκλητον πνεῦμα ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς προέρχεται, καὶ ἐν τῷ Υἱῷ διαμένει, id est, Aperte igitur patet, quod Paracletus Spiritus a Patre procedit, et in Filio permanet, longe aliter legi apud Gregorium Latine, nempe : Cum enim constet, quia Paracletus Spiritus a Patre semper procedat et Filio. Ex quo manifeste apparet, a Græcis postea Zachariæ papæ versionem fuisse depravatam, ut bene notavit Joannes diaconus lib. IV de Vita ejusdem B. Gregorii, cap. 75, de Dialogis loquens, his verbis : Quos libros Zacharias, sanctæ Ecclesiæ Romanæ episcopus, Græco Latinoque sermone doctissimus, temporibus Constantini imperatoris, post annos ferme 175, in Græcam linguam convertens, Orientalibus Ecclesiis divulgavit : quamvis astuta Græcorum perversitas in commemoratione Spiritus sancti a Patre procedentis, nomen Filii radens, abstulerit. Hæc Joannes diaconus. Hanc censuram attexere curarunt Romani sub Sixto V editores, et alii deinceps. Vide quæ de hoc argumento in præfatione jam præmisimus num. 26. At this juncture let the reader note that these words, Φανερὸν οὖν ὑπάρχει, ὅτι τὸ παράκλητον πνεῦμα ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς προέρχεται, καὶ ἐν τῷ Υἱῷ διαμένει, that is, It therefore stands as clear that the Spirit, the Paraclete, comes forth from the Father, and rests in the Son, are read in a far different way in Gregory’s Latin text, namely: Cum enim constet, quia Paracletus Spiritus a Patre semper procedat et Filio (“For since it is certain that the Spirit, the Paraclete, always proceeds from the Father and the Son…”). From this it clearly appears that Pope Zacharias’s translation was afterwards corrupted by the Greeks, as John the Deacon properly notes in Book IV of his Life of the same Blessed Gregory, ch. 75, where, speaking about the Dialogues, he says: “Zacharias, the bishop of the Holy Church of Rome, a man most learned in both Greek and Latin, during the time of the Emperor Constantine, about 175 years afterwards, turned these books into Greek and published them in the Eastern Churches; nevertheless, the crafty perversity of the Greeks, erasing a word, caused the Son’s name to be taken out when mention was made of the Spirit’s proceeding from the Father.” Thus John the Deacon. The Roman editors under Sixtus V, and others afterwards, took care to add this censure in a footnote. See what we have already said upon this subject in the preface, par. 26.

It should be noted that Martin Jugie disagreed with this assessment about a corruption of the text of Pope Zacharias’ translation. In his work De processione Spiritus Sancti (Rome 1936), pp. 222-227, Jugie argues that the text we have is what Pope Zacharias wrote. However, he thinks that Zacharias’s interpretation means essentially the same thing as what Pope Gregory wrote: that is, he sees “rests in the Son” as implying a proceeding from both. Here is Jugie:

Ergo ad hanc devenimus conclusionem, quae nobis videtur omnino certa, scilicet quod ipse Zacharias proprio motu formulam latinam Gregorii ita graece reddendam iudicavit. Nec de hoc triumphum agere habent Photius eiusque sequaces. Formula enim graeca a Zacharia usurpata apud plures Patres graecos occurrit, quos ut disertos doctrinae catholicae testes supra laudavimus, v. g., apud Athanasium, Didymum, Cyrillum Alexandrinum, Ioannem Damascenum. Et revera haec quoad sensum formulae latinae: A Patre Filioque procedit respondet, quamvis aliqua obscuritate involvatur. Significat enim Spiritum Sanctum ex Patre quidem tanquam ex fonte originali, ex principio primordiali oriri; at vero per Filium quasi transire ut ad existentiam prodeat, nec ultra vel extra illum progredi, sed in ipso et quasi in eius sinu permanere ac requiescere, sicut ipse Filius in Patris sinu quiescit. Est alius modus exprimendi conceptum Graecorum eorumque diagramma trinitarium. lmmerito ergo ad auctoritatem Gregorii et Zachariae Photius provocavit, ut suam sententiam haereticam de processione Spiritus Sancti a Patre solo firmaret. “Therefore we are led to this conclusion, which appears to us entirely certain, namely, that Zacharias himself, on his own initiative, deemed that Gregory’s Latin expression ought to be rendered in Greek in this way. Nor on this account do Photius and his followers have the right to celebrate. For the Greek formula borrowed by Zacharias occurs in numerous Greek fathers, whom we earlier praised as express witnesses to the Catholic doctrine, e.g., in Athanasius, Didymus, Cyril of Alexandria, John of Damascus. And, in fact, it corresponds to the Latin formula A Patre Filioque procedit so far as its sense goes, even though enveloped in a certain obscurity. For it indicates that the Holy Spirit arises from the Father as from an original fount, as from a primordial principle; but also, that he, as it were, goes forth through the Son so that he may come forth into existence, nor does he go forward any further or beyond him, but he remains and rests in him, as it were in his bosom, just as the Son rests in the bosom of the Father. This is another way of expressing the concept of the Greeks and their trinitarian diagram. Without justification, therefore, did Photius appeal to the authority of Gregory and of Zacharias, so that he might establish his heretical proposition concerning a procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father alone.” Op. cit., pp. 225 f.

What, one might ask, does Pope Zacharias’s translation imply for the Filioque debate?

One possible reading of it, perhaps the simplest reading, is that Zacharias, knowing that controversy had already arisen over this issue and that an accurate translation of the passage was likely to offend many Greek readers of Pope Gregory’s Dialogues, chose to tone down Gregory’s language; that is, he substituted a theologically milder statement for a theologically more forceful one, not with the intention of denying Pope Gregory’s original claim, but simply because he knew that that original claim would be poorly received. If that is in fact what happened, then the differences between the Greek translation and the Latin original are not, theologically, very significant, because the translator, while not denying the truth of the original text, simply chose to say something else. The translator, in this case, would have made a prudential judgment; or, to put it differently, he purposely fudged the text to avoid stirring up a controversy.

On another reading, Pope Zacharias would have translated Pope Gregory’s language in this way because he believed he was accurately representing his predecessor’s meaning and intention. That is, he would have understood St. Gregory the Great to have been speaking only about a temporal going-forth of the Spirit when he wrote that the Paraclete “always proceeds from the Father and the Son.” One may note that the Greek translation not only replaces the “from the Father and the Son” language, but it also drops the semper: it suppresses the implication that what is being spoken about is an eternal coming forth. (One may further note that nothing in the manuscript tradition, aside from Pope Zacharias’s translation, gives any grounds for thinking that Pope Gregory did not write semper.) This is the reading that Photius favored. Perhaps there is some merit to it; if I say that I always drive on the right-hand side of the road, it doesn’t imply that I eternally drive on the right-hand side of the road; “always” here must be understood within a certain frame of reference (during my lifetime, when I am driving, when I am not in England or Japan…). On the other hand, one would not normally restrict the meaning of “always” to a temporal frame of reference when this term is applied to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, since they are, in fact, eternal, divine persons. It thus seems to me very unlikely that, when Pope Zacharias translated Pope Gregory’s text in this way, dropping the word “always” as well as modifying the language about the Spirit’s being from the Father and the Son, he did not know that he was subtly changing what his predecessor had said. He doubtless did not think he was saying something opposed and contradictory to what his predecessor had said. But, in his concern for ecclesiastical peace, he was willing to lay the more controversial language aside, at least for the purposes of his translation.

One other thought suggests itself. If Pope Zacharias is not simply fudging his translation to avoid a controversy, but if he actually wishes to make a doctrinal point, and is saying that, when the Latins say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, they mean precisely what the Greeks do when they say that the Holy Spirit comes forth from the Father and rests in the Son, then it would seem that, dogmatically, the Filioque amounts to the claim that the Son is logically implied when the Holy Spirit proceeds; the Son must already be present, as a recipient, if the Holy Spirit is to rest upon him. This would be like pointing out that, because the one from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds is called “Father,” the relationship to the Son is already presupposed. The likelihood of this interpretation satisfying both sides in the centuries-old debate may be doubted; but it is, at any rate, worth noting that this interpretation seems to have some measure of papal authority behind it.

From John Kyparissiotes, Decades, PG 152, 771 B – 772 C.

Chapter Eight. That even the most eminent among theologians theologize on the basis of the creatures; and, as for the “back parts” of God, they are the creatures themselves, and their corresponding reasons.

Gregory the Theologian, in his Second Oration on Theology, says:

“I was disposed to lay hold on God, and thus I went up into the mount, and passed through the cloud.”

And a little after this:

“And when I looked a little closer, I saw, not* the first and unmingled nature, known to itself — to the Trinity, I mean; not that which abides within the first veil, and is hidden by the cherubim; but only that nature which at last even reaches to us. And that is, as far as I can learn, the majesty, or as holy David calls it, the glory which is manifested among the creatures, which it has produced and governs. For these are the back parts of God (Exod 33:23), which he leaves behind him, as tokens of himself, like the shadows and reflection of the sun in the water, which show the sun to our weak eyes, because we cannot look at the sun itself, for by its unmixed light it is too strong for our power of perception. In this way then you shall discourse of God; even if you were a Moses and a god to Pharaoh; even if you were caught up like Paul to the third heaven, and had heard unspeakable words; even if you were raised above them both, and exalted to angelic or archangelic place and dignity. For though a thing be all heavenly, or above heaven, and far higher in nature and nearer to God than we, yet it is farther distant from God, and from the complete comprehension of his nature, than it is lifted above our complex and lowly and earthward sinking composition.”

[2.8.1] Gregory of Nazianzus, or. 28.3; PG 36, 29 A-B.

* Kyparissiotes actually has εἰς here, meaning "to" or "towards," rather than οὐ, "not." Torres, the Latin translator, takes this as a scribe's error, and I adopt his reading, since it is hard to make sense of the sentence otherwise.

And the great Athanasius says, as though inquiring:

“Given that God is bodiless and without shape, what were those ‘back parts’ which Moses saw?”

Then, resolving this, he says:

“We believe that the whole God is alone uncreated, [existing] before the ages and before all creatures. Whence it is apparent that the ‘back parts’ of God are the creatures and their reasons, which [God] looked to when setting [the creatures] forth. This is [what is meant by] the text, ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

[2.8.2] Ps.-Athanasius, Quaestiones ad Antiochum ducem, PG 28, 633 A-B.

And the divine Gregory of Nyssa, in his work On the Life of Moses, says:

“But the uncreated glory, that is to say, the divine nature, is, by itself, entirely ineffable and incomprehensible and invisible. Not one thing which that thing is in itself comes in its pure nakedness to the comprehension or the vision of bodily eyes in any way whatsoever, since it is uncreated, and what is uncreated is ungraspable by bodily eyes, even if a Moses or a Paul who ascends to the third heaven or an angel should be the one who catches hold of the divine vision. For that which is really real and existent is the true Life, and this, to angelic or human knowledge, is unattainable.”

[2.8.3] Not found. See below.

From these things it becomes clear that even the most eminent of theologians do not go beyond the creation in those things in which they see God, but what they have in view is this very thing — the creation — and the reasons proper to it. But if even men such as these theologize in this manner, it follows of necessity that apophatic theology is by far more valuable and more contemplative than the kataphatic kind.

Note on citation 2.8.3

As mentioned above, I was unable to trace this quotation back to St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, or to any other known work. A general Thesaurus Linguae Graecae search failed to produce any results. Here are some possible explanations for this:

  • The passage actually is there in the present text of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, and I simply need to look harder. (TLG searches are notoriously temperamental.)
  • Kyparissiotes’s text of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s De vita Moysis differs significantly from the current text.
  • Kyparissiotes is quoting from a third source which attributes the passage to St. Gregory of Nyssa’s De vita Moysis, but attributes it to this work mistakenly; Kyparissiotes failed to check his quotation against the original source.
  • Kyparissiotes is quoting from memory, and attributes to Gregory of Nyssa a passage that he has in fact read elsewhere.
  • Kyparissiotes has made up the quotation.

I think the last possibility is unlikely. Kyparissiotes wrote his book for a Byzantine audience, to whom the works of the fathers were well known and readily available; surely he would not have wanted to compromise his argument by knowingly introducing corrupted texts.

Bear in mind the circumstances under which Kyparissiotes wrote this book: in his Introduction, he states that he wrote it while in exile, using books that he had brought with him for other reasons:

“Perhaps, with God’s help, if we should come across copies of the requisite books, we shall treat also of these matters. For now, however, since we have been driven from our home, and are the object of universal vilification, we lack the resources and leisure to treat of these things and to look into making this a better book. As for these texts which we now present to the public, it is with great labor that we have collected them, since we brought the books with us for other uses and other occasions. Because of these things, we have been deprived of many aids that would have brought this work to a more perfect state; but, in the meantime, we have not strayed from stating those things which were of the greatest necessity.”

Given that he was unable to consult a proper library, it seems quite possible that, in the case of citation 2.8.3, Kyparissiotes is either quoting from memory, or, more likely, quoting from a third source that attributes the text to St. Gregory of Nyssa’s De vita Moysis, and he lacks the means to check up on the citation.

Here follows the Greek of the passage, from the manuscript Ottobon. gr. 99, fol. 126v:

Καὶ ὁ θεῖος Γρηγόριος Νύσσης ἐν τῷ εἰς τὸν βίον Μωσέως φησιν· ἡ δὲ ἄκτιστος δόξα ἤγουν ἡ θεία φύσις παντελῶς ἐστι καθ’ ἑαυτὴν ἄρρητος καὶ ἀκατάληπτος καὶ ἀόρατος. οὐδὲν ὅπερ ἐστιν αὐτὸ τοῦτο, καθ’ ἑαυτὸ γυμνὸν καθαρῶς εἰς κατάληψιν ἢ ὅρασιν ἔρχεται σωματικῶν ὀφθαλμῶν ὁπωσδήποτε, ἄκτιστον γάρ· τὸ δὲ ἄκτιστον σωματικοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς ἄληπτον, κἂν Μωσῆς κἂν Παῦλος ὁ εἰς τρίτον οὐρανὸν ἀνελθὼν κἂν ἄγγελος ἦ ὁ τῆς θείας θεωρίας ἁπτόμενος. τὸ γὰρ ὄντως ὄν, ἡ ἀληθής ἐστι ζωή, τοῦτο δὲ εἰς γνῶσιν ἀγγελικὴν ἢ ἀνθρωπίνην ἀνέφικτον.

From John Kyparissiotes, Decades, PG 152, 769 B – 771 B.

Chapter Seven. Upon what basis, then, must we theologize, and out of what things?

Dionysius the Great, in chapter 7 of his On the Divine Names, says:

“In addition, we must examine how we know God, who is an object neither of intellectual nor of sensible perception, nor is absolutely any one of the things that are. We must examine, then, whether it is not true to say that we know God, not from his own nature (for that is unknown, and surpasses all reason and mind); but, from his ordering of all things that are, as being projected from himself, and as containing certain images and similitudes of his divine exemplars, we ascend to that which is beyond all, as far as lies in our power, by a way and by order, namely, by way of abstracting all things, and by his pre-eminence over all things, and by his being the cause of all things.”

[2.7.1] Ps.-Dionysius, De divinis nominibus VII.3; PG 3, 869 C - 872 A.

And Gregory the Theologian, in his Second Theological Oration, says:

“Thus reason that is from God, that is implanted in everything from the beginning and is the first law in us, and is bound up in all, leads us up to God through visible things.”

[2.7.2] Gregory of Nazianzus, or. 28.16; PG 26, 48 B.

And again, the same author says that what is divine is

“only adumbrated by the mind, and that very dimly and scantily, not out of those things he is in himself, but out of those things that are around him, one image being got from one source and another from another, and combined into some sort of presentation of the truth.”

[2.7.3] Gregory of Nazianzus, or. 38.7; PG 36, 317 B-C = or. 45.3; PG 36, 625 C.

And those who, after him, expound this passage say that

“God is not understood from those things which he is in himself, that is, from his substance, but from the things which are around him, that is, from the creatures.”

[2.7.4] Not found; but cf. Meletius Medicus, De natura hominis, ed. J. A. Cramer, Anecdota Graeca e codd. manuscriptis bibliothecarum Oxoniensium, vol. 3 (Oxford 1836; repr. Amsterdam 1963), p. 143: "Since 'No one has seen God at any time,' that is to say, according to his substance -- not from those things which he is in himself, but from those things which are around him. But the person who says that he has not seen God's substance does not confess that he does not know God; but he knows him out of his activities (or, energies, ἐνεργειῶν): as, that he is all-powerful," etc. And a little further down: "But, as for us, we confess that God exists, and we say that we recognize him out of his works; but, as for approaching his substance, we do not make it our business to do this."

And St. Maximus, in his Centuries on Theology, says that:

“[God] can in no way whatsoever be comprehended by anything that is; rather, he can only be known by faith; and this [is a knowledge] that he is, from the things that have been made; it is not a knowledge of him in respect of what he is.”

[2.7.5] Not yet found.

And again, the same father, in Century Three:

“That which exists, in an absolute sense, is known from that which exists in a non-absolute sense. It is not by the relation [it has] towards them that it is known that it exists — for how shall anyone in any way ever bring together what exists absolutely with things which do not exist absolutely? — but, in its incomparable superiority in respect of cause, it is known in an unknown way, since we can in no other way [know] what is beyond substance than by the obscure claim about it — that is, the mere claim that it exists — being demonstrated out of the things that are.”

[2.7.6] Not yet found.

And again, the same author, in the second century of his sayings on Love, in chapter 27:

“When you intend to speak about divinity, you should not seek for reasons according to [what it is] in itself, for no human mind can ever find this, nor can the mind of any other being that comes after God; but look carefully, so far as you are able, to those things that are around him: such as, the reasons concerning eternity and infinity and indefinability, and concerning goodness and power and wisdom, and concerning his abilities in creating and providing for and judging beings. For it is the person who finds out the reasons for these things, even if only to a limited extent, who is a great theologian among men.”

[2.7.7] Not yet found.

And again, the same author, in chapter 71 in his fourth Century:

“From the things that are, we know the cause of the things that are. And, from the diversity of the things that are, we are taught the enhypostatic Wisdom of He Who Is. And, from the natural motion of the things that are, we learn the enhypostatic Life of He Who Is, the life-creating power of the things that are, the Holy Spirit.”

[2.7.8] Not yet found.

From these things it becomes clear that God is known only from those things which are around him, which are the creatures, and that it is from this source also that he is theologized. Or, in other words, from images and likenesses of his divine exemplars, and those things which earlier were described as mirrors and enigmas. And so that no one may be at a loss to know how things which have the nature of images and likenesses and of things lacking in the real truth of being are fully suitable [bases] for theologizing of God, and lest anyone should go looking for greater things: it is necessary also, in the present investigation, to demonstrate that even those theologians who are most eminent do not go beyond that theology which is based upon the creation.

As many readers of this blog may already have heard, tomorrow, according to Family Radio (an Evangelical Christian radio network based in Oakland, California), is the end of the world. Or, more precisely, tomorrow, May 21, 2011, is predicted to be the date of Jesus’ Second Coming and the Rapture; the end of the world is not supposed to occur until October. These predictions, by 89-year-old Harold Camping, founder and president of Family Radio, have been broadcast repeatedly over Family Radio’s many stations, in this country and elsewhere, for many months now, and apparently the message is having an effect upon some people; one hears of anticipatory gatherings taking place in New York subway stations…. For myself, I intend to spend the day doing nothing extraordinary; I will be driving out to Long Island later today and, God willing, will celebrate my 52nd birthday on Sunday. I have heard enough of Mr. Camping to know that, on many points of theology and exegesis, he is simply wrong (e.g., his frequent claim that the Greek verb βαπτίζω means “sprinkle”); moreover, in the early 1990’s, he predicted that the end of the world would occur in the year 1994, which clearly did not happen. One might have thought that, after that, Camping’s followers would have inferred that he is a false prophet, and that his end-of-the-world predictions are not to be trusted; but, apparently, ownership of the means of mass communication is a great help for getting one’s opinions across.

What chiefly troubles me about these matters is that, for many people in America, Harold Camping is Christianity’s public voice; in the New York metropolitan area, Family Radio is one of the few radio stations broadcasting Christian content, and the same thing holds true throughout much of the urban Northeast. This, in spite of the fact that Camping now has no formal church affiliation — or, perhaps, that lack of church affiliation facilitates the spreading of his message: his radio station is his church. The likely effect of the likely non-occurrence of tomorrow’s predicted Rapture is a further discrediting of Christianity in the public eye. But perhaps it will cause some Christians to look elsewhere than Family Radio for a true understanding of the Gospel; one can only hope so.

From John Kyparissiotes, Decades, PG 152, 767 A – 769 B.

Chapter Six. That God is neither discerned from a natural representation, nor is he one of those things that think or are thought, such that one might theologize of him out of those things which he is in himself.

The divine Maximus, in chapter one of his Centuries on Theology, says:

“There is one God, without beginning, incomprehensible, possessing absolutely the power of existing, who utterly excludes all notion of existing ‘when’ and ‘how,’ in such a way that none of the things that are has discerned him from a natural representation.”

[2.6.1] Maximus, Centuria I.1; PG 90, 1084 A.

And again, the same author:

“Just as every thought has its basis entirely in substance, as a quality, so also it possesses its motion as something that has been produced around substance. For it is impossible for something completely independent and simple, existing in itself, to admit of thought, since thought is not independent and simple. But God, who exists in both respects as entirely simple, both as a substance without anything in subject, and as thought possessing nothing at all as its object, is not one of the things that think or are thought, since, in fact, he exists above substance and thinking.”

[2.6.2] Maximus, Centuria II.3; PG 90, 1125 D.

And, yet again, the same author, in the eleventh chapter of his first Century:

“All beings are said to be objects of thought, possessing the demonstrable principles whereby they may be known. But God is not named as an object of thought, but it is out of those things which are objects of thought that he is believed to be; for which reason, none of the objects of thought may in any way be compared with him.”

[2.6.3] Maximus, Centuria I.8; PG 90, 1085 C.

And, once more, the same author in the second chapter of his second Century:

“Every thought involves things which think and things which are thought of. But God is not one of those things that think; for that which, qua thinking, is in need of a relationship with the object of thought, is circumscribed; or else, being thought of, it naturally falls subject to the one who thinks, given the terms of that relationship. It therefore follows that God neither thinks nor is thought. For thinking and being thought of naturally pertain to the things which come after him.”

[2.6.4] Maximus, Centuria II.2; PG 90, 1125 C.

And the most theological Dionysius says:

“For, as things intelligible cannot be comprehended and contemplated by things of sense, and things uncompounded and unformed [cannot be comprehended] by things compounded and formed, and the intangible and unshaped formlessness of bodiless things [cannot be comprehended] by things formed according to the shapes of bodies: according to the same analogy of the truth, the supersubstantial indefiniteness stands above substances, and the unity above mind is above minds; and the One above minds is unthinkable to all powers of thought; and the Good above word is unutterable by word — that Henad which makes every henad one, and supersubstantial Substance, and mindless Mind, and unspeakable Word, that irrationality and mindlessness and namelessness, which exists after the manner of no existent thing, and is cause of being to all, but itself is not, as being beyond all substance.”

[2.6.5] Ps.-Dionysius, De divinis nominibus, I.1; PG 3, 588 B.

From these things it becomes clear that no one who has ever been or will be may discern God out of a natural representation. For, in every way, he eludes any notion of being “when” or “how”; nor is God one of the things which think or are thought, for he is substance without anything standing to it as subject, and thinking never once having anything for an object. Upon what then might knowledge be based of that thing which in no way admits of an objective ground for being known? Therefore he is also, fittingly, a “supersubstantial indefiniteness,” and mind not thought by any thinking; or rather, he is “mindless Mind, and unspeakable Word,” being called “irrationality” and “mindlessness” on account of the excess of essence and cognition; just as, similarly, extreme light produces darkness, and extreme sound deafens.

Kyparissiotes: Decade 2.5

April 27, 2011

From John Kyparissiotes, Decades, PG 152, 765 B – 767 A.

Chapter Five. That neither can we attain, or theologize with, a complete mental picture of God in this present age, nor can we do so with any other of those things which take shape in us by way of abstraction from images.

Gregory the Theologian, in his Second Theological Oration, says:

“Abraham, great patriarch though he was, was justified by faith, and offered a strange victim, the type of the great sacrifice. Yet he saw not God as God, but gave him food as a man. He was approved because he worshiped as far as he comprehended.”

[2.5.1] Gregory of Nazianzus, or. 28.18; PG 36, 49 A-B.

And, in the same place, when speaking about Jacob, he says:

“And he wrestled with God as though with a man — whatever this wrestling of God with man may mean: possibly it refers to a comparison of human with divine virtue.”

[2.5.2] Gregory of Nazianzus, or. 28.18; PG 36, 49 B.

Again, in the same place:

“And are you not amazed at Manoah the judge of yore, and at Peter the disciple in later days? Of these, the one was unable to endure the sight even of one in whom was a representation of God; and, for this reason, he said: ‘We are undone, O wife: we have seen God!’ — as though a divine apparition should not be visible to human beings, lest the nature should be [visible] as well. And the other [thought that] Christ, in his boat, should not be approached, and therefore bade him depart.”

[2.5.3] Gregory of Nazianzus, or. 28.19; PG 36, 49 D (Kyparissiotes' text differs slightly from the text in Migne).

And again:

“Nor is there an accurate comprehension even of the creation. For even of this I would have you to know that you possess only a shadow when you hear the words, ‘I will consider the heavens, the works of thy fingers, the moon and the stars’ (Ps 8:3), and the rationality therein; as for this rationality, one sees it not now, but there will be [a time] when one will see it; and, even so, it is sketched out in shadows to the mind alone, and this in a very murky and qualified way.”

[2.5.4] Gregory of Nazianzus, or. 28.5; PG 36, 32 B.

And Gregory of Nyssa says:

“How may that be discovered which is indicated by not one of the things that are known, not shape, not quantity, not quality, not place, not conjecture, not comparison, not analogy, but which is always found to lie outside every avenue leading to comprehension?”

[2.5.5] Gregory of Nyssa, In Canticum canticorum, sermo xii; GNO vol. 6, p. 357, lines 10 ff.; PG 44, 1028 B.

And again, the same author:

“For this is its most specific identifying mark, that its nature is above any identifying mark that might characterize it.”

[2.5.6] Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium, book 1, ch. 1, sec. 373, lines 6 ff.; PG 45 368 B.

And the most theological Dionysius:

“Therefore, it is not permitted to any of those who are lovers of the Truth above all Truth to hymn the primordially divine superessentiality (whatever may be the subsisting reality of its supergoodness) as word or power, or, again, as mind or essence or life; it is preeminently separated from every condition, movement, life, imagination, opinion, name, word, thought, conception, essence, position, stability, union, boundary, infinitude, all things whatever.”

[2.5.7] Ps.-Dionysius, De divinis nominibus, cap. 1, §5; PG 3, 593 C.

From these things it becomes clear that God is not comprehended or theologized by us according to a complete mental picture or by any abstraction from images [ἐπίνοια], but that he stands outside all such things. For every mental image is made use of in one or another of three ways. One way is as a depicter of perceptions: the image reproduces in the memory whatsoever things have been taken in by the senses; it, so to speak, articulates such percepts according to their several kinds in an orderly way; and they say that this mental image is also a “healthy offspring of a great nature.” In another way, a mental image serves to express certain vague resonances of things [αἰπηχημάτων], and in no way allows any abiding stability of the things that are imagined; but there is a mingling and a confusion of images, and, one after another, shifting images are put forth and, before they hardly appear before the mind, they fall away from the imagined objects, and are of no benefit towards imagining them; of this kind is the imagination that characterizes nightmares in one’s sleep, and aimless, irrational wanderings of daydream phantasies. A third kind of image is the imagined approbation that occurs in practical matters, which issues forth without a correct process of reasoning, and which, by phantasy, phantasizes that what is not actually is, and is pleased by things that are not pleasant, and, again, is grieved where it ought to be pleased. And, if it is convinced, it is convinced by what ought never to convince it, but it loves and accepts things conjured up by the imagination as though they were some sort of divinely inscribed laws. And it argues contentiously, turning others towards its own error, as though this error were something most plain and obvious, something before one’s very eyes; those who have fallen into this state suffer an incurable condition. And, if they belong to those in power, matters are set for the destruction of states; if they are among the less powerful, they will not desist until they have destroyed it so far as they are able. These two kinds of images, therefore, should not even be brought to mind among ideas about God that are acceptable; but even the praiseworthy kind of image lies incomparably behind those things that ought to be considered about God.

Christ is risen!

April 24, 2011

Christ is risen from the dead:
This is the primal faith
that overcomes a fallen world
immersed in ways of death.

This is the song the angels sang
when, standing at the tomb,
they saw an uncreated light
pierce through the heavy gloom.

This is what the apostles sang
when through the world they sped
attesting to the one they knew:
Christ risen from the dead.

This song is what the martyrs sang
when, hauled before the thrones
of princes, sultans, emperors,
they risked their lives and bones.

And, through all generations,
the Church has sung this hymn,
proclaiming Christ the king of kings
and triumphing in him.

Christ is risen! and the hosts
of demons quake with fear
to see within their gloomy realm
the lord of life appear.

Christ is risen, and has given
death a deadly blow,
and life and light have come to those
who languished deep below.

Christ is risen! sin and death
have lost their sovereignty,
for Christ the everlasting lord
has won the victory.

Christ is risen! grace and truth
to us are freely given,
for Christ has made a way for all
into the realm of heaven.

Christ is risen! let not fear
oppress us any more,
for Christ destroyed sin’s ancient curse
and settled that old score.

Christ is risen! may our tongues
with joy proclaim his name,
and may the countless hosts of heaven
echo with the same.

For Christ has risen from the dead
and trampled death by death,
and all who slumber in the tombs
shall waken at his breath.

Presented below is a chapter from an unpublished book, titled Light from the East, by the late Brother Robert Smith, FSC (1914-2006), longtime tutor at St. John’s College, Annapolis. It was a book he was working on during the last few years of his long life; when he left his house at Annapolis a few months before his death, he asked me to save the files of it onto my computer. I have cleaned up spelling and punctuation as best I can, but, as far as possible, have left Brother Robert’s wording intact; occasionally, what is presented here is a hypothetical reconstruction of the meaning of an unclear original passage.

The essay will give the reader, I hope, some idea of what sort of a man Brother Robert Smith was, and what sort of a God he worshiped. And it is also, I think, a most insightful reading of St. Andrew’s Canon, and an excellent lenten meditation.


This poem, beloved by the Eastern Church, lets us overhear a conversation between Christ and an old man, who knows he will soon die and then face judgment on all the deeds of his life.

Andrew asks renewed forgiveness for his known sins and light to uncover any hidden leanings still within him that, if uttered, would show how unfit he was to talk openly with his Lord.

Christ in words found in Scripture reminds Andrew of how all-inclusive the two commandments of love are, and how eager he is to greet prodigals when they return.

To many the mere thought of anyone having to face judgment will be terrifying.

Imagine: an all-knowing God coming to question us, weak from age, about things we did in youth, middle age, and later years!

When, however, we hear this poem read in Church, it will strike us as indeed grave, but still consoling because it shows Christ’s never-failing desire for us to become one in mind with himself. He wants to talk familiarly with us in the way God did with Adam in the coolness of the afternoon.

Andrew has a vivid sense of his own failings, but, despite this, the conversation between him and Christ is between people who love one another. Andrew is talking to his soon-to-arrive judge, but he knows him to be presently anxious to help him put on the wedding garment guests need to wear.

The old man grieves over his past wrongdoing, but expressions of this concern are interspersed with memories of his master trying to find lost sheep or search for lost coins that have the king’s image stamped on them. Even more to the point, Christ condemns our failings because he wants us to be better.

In listening to Andrew, Christ hears an old man who has spent his life seeking to find what his Master wants. Now, in these last days, that old man is striving to know whether there are unknown commands he has not heeded, or failings he has neither recognized nor confessed. From the bottom of his heart he is begging his Lord to help him become a good disciple; he fears being disowned by someone he loves and whom he knows wants him not to fail.

There is no better way for any of us to learn what God wants of us than meditating on the stories of good and bad men spoken of in Scripture. Andrew has been pondering on them during all the years of his monastic life. Now, in old age, he is going over in his mind texts grown dear to him and peering into them in hope of discovering lessons he has missed.

He does not, like some scholar, speak in an orderly way of all parts of Scripture simply because they are there to be read dispassionately. Instead Andrew will be listening for messages God set down for us to heed. In the light of those stories there is one more chance to find out how he falls short of thinking and feeling as God does.

Memories of past blindness renew his worry about wrong desires that may still be lurking in some corner of his mind. Therefore he keeps asking both forgiveness for failings he knows about and help for him to uncover still hidden ugliness.

The Great Canon shows us thoughts of someone who reads the Scriptures in an affective way. He knows stories about God’s interaction with outstanding men and women from the past, and, as he thinks about them, he uncovers their bearing on him.

So his approaching meeting with Christ is not something unlooked-for; on the contrary it is a culmination of many years spent talking with his Master about his actions and how to make them better.

The Church invites us to listen to this poem during Lent (1) because we too will have to face judgment and (2) Lent is a time for readying ourselves to rise into the newness of life made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection.

Read the rest of this entry »

From John Kyparissiotes, Decades, PG 152, 764 A – 765 B.

Chapter Four. That it is impossible for those in the body to theologize apart from bodily things.

Gregory the Theologian, in his Second Theological Oration, says:

“Just as it is impossible for a man to step over his own shadow, however fast he may move (for the shadow will always move on as fast as it is being overtaken) or … for a fish to glide about outside of the waters; so it is quite impracticable for those who are in the body to be conversant with objects of pure thought apart altogether from bodily objects. For something in our own environment is ever creeping in, even when the mind has most fully detached itself from the visible, and collected itself, and is attempting to apply itself to those invisible things which are akin to itself.”

[2.4.1] Gregory of Nazianzus, or. 28.12; PG 36, 41 B.

Again, the same father, in the same oration, says:

“Shall we pause here, after discussing nothing further than matter and visible things? Or, since the Word knows the tabernacle of Moses to be a figure of the whole creation — I mean the entire system of things visible and invisible — shall we pass the first veil, and stepping beyond the realm of sense, shall we look into the holy place, the intellectual and celestial creation? But not even this can we see in an incorporeal way, though it is incorporeal, since it is called — or is — fire and spirit.”

[2.4.2] Gregory of Nazianzus, or. 28.31; PG 36, 69 D - 72 A.

And a little before this:

“Are not spirit, and fire, and light names of the divine nature? What then? Can you conceive of spirit apart from motion and diffusion; or of fire without its fuel and its upward motion, and its proper color and form? Or of light unmingled with air, and loosed from that which is as it were its father and source?”

[2.4.3] Gregory of Nazianzus, or. 28.13; PG 36, 41 C.

And again, a little further on, he says:

“Or are we rather to leave all these things, and to look at the deity absolutely, as best we can, collecting a fragmentary perception of it from its images?”

[2.4.4] Gregory of Nazianzus, or. 28.13; PG 36, 44 A.

St. Maximus:

“All knowledge belonging to this world, even that which is exceedingly high and lofty, when compared to that knowledge which belongs to the world to come, is fragmentary (στοιχειώδης) and as it were an image of a living character, something which will no longer be when the true life and knowledge shall appear. For, he says, ‘knowledges shall cease, and prophecies shall be done away with’ (1 Cor 13:8).”

[2.4.5] Maximus the Confessor, Capitum quinquies centenorum centuria II, 47; PG 90, 1237 B. (The wording of Kyparissiotes' text differs towards the end from the text in Migne.)

Rightly, therefore, also Basil the Great has theologized:

“Even if you know something of those things that are beyond [the ages], they come below the Spirit.”

[2.4.6] Paraphrase of Basil, De Spiritu Sancto 19.49; PG 32, 156 D - 157 A. Thanks to Will Huysman for supplying this reference.

And the most theological Dionysius says:

“Since it is impossible for our mind to be drawn up to that immaterial imitation and contemplation of the celestial hierarchies unless it makes use of the material form of guidance which is proper to its own nature.”

[2.4.7] Ps.-Dionysius, De caelesti hierarchia 1.3; PG 3, 121 C-D.

And again, the same author:

“So long as we are in the body, it is not possible for the divine, primordial ray to shine upon us in any other way than anagogically [that is, by our engaging in a process of spiritual ascent], shrouded about by the variety of the sacred coverings — this ray which, by the Father’s providence, has been natively and properly adapted to those things that befit our nature.”

[2.4.8] Ps.-Dionysius, De caelesti hierarchia 1.2; PG 3, 121 B-C.

In commenting on this, the divine Maximus says:

“While we are in the body, it is impossible for us to gaze upon bodiless and immaterial things apart from types and symbols.”

[2.4.9] Maximus the Confessor, in librum De caelesti hierarchia, PG 4, 32 C.

From these things, then, it becomes clear that, given that our mind is unable, on its own, to feel its way forward and stretch towards the imitation and contemplation of angels, unless it makes use of the material and perceptible guidance which is adapted to its own nature — how then shall it encounter a contemplation of God that is free from matter and body? For this reason, moreover, it is impossible for those who are in the body to ascend to the contemplation of God apart from bodily things. And if, walking upon emptiness towards realities, whatever one supposes they are, that are above this temporal world (τὰ ὑπὲρ αἰῶνα), we should inquire what existed even before these things, neither in this case would we be standing apart from bodily things and from those things that are of the same order as the soul and which, as though by an utterly infinite measure, fall short of the supersubstantial Spirit.