Friday, June 21, 2019

Unscriptural Traditions?: Thoughts on Basil and Rule of Faith

I was reading St. Basil's letter to Amphilochius (also known as his treaty "On the Holy Spirit"), and I found the (in)famous passage where Basil draws upon the agraphos, the unwritten or possibly "unscriptural" (as Stephen Hildebrand translates it; not anti-scriptural, but not derived from scripture), to argue for the divinity of the Holy Spirit. I want to look at this passage and ask some questions. Basil begins thusly:
Of the dogmas and proclamations that are guarded in the Church, we hold some from the teaching of the Scriptures, and others we have received in mystery as the teachings of the tradition of the apostles. Both hold the same power with respect to true religion. No one would deny these points, at least no one who has even a little experience of ecclesiastical institutions. For if we attempt to reject non-scriptural [agraphos] customs as insignificant, we would, unaware, lose the very vital parts of the Gospel, and even more, we would establish the proclamation merely in name. (section 27)
So far that seems clear enough. Basil is arguing for a unwritten, or at least non-scriptural, tradition from the apostles to validate the faith. And I think Hildebrand is onto something by translating agraphos as non-scriptural because Basil is not referring to an oral tradition, but what is practiced in the churches. He's not documenting an oral tradition, though he does emphasize silence. We'll come back to that point more, but he is contrasting Scriptures as such with an Apostolic tradition. Basil then goes on to list a variety of practices that fall under this "non-scriptural" tradition (e.g. sign of the cross, triple immersion in baptism, epiclesis, praying eastwards, etc.). However, at one point, Basil goes on to explain more specifically about the reason for this tradition:
This is the reason for non-scriptural traditions, that knowledge of dogmas not be neglected or despised by the many because of familiarity. For doctrine is one thing, and proclamation is another. One is kept in silence, but proclamations are made public. Now, obscurity is a form of silence used in Scripture, which makes the meaning of dogmas difficult to see for the benefit of the readers. Because of this we all look to the East for prayers, but few of us know that our ancient fatherland, the paradise that God planted in Eden, was in the East. We say our prayers standing on the first day of the week, but not all know the reason why. By standing for prayer we remind ourselves of the grace given to us on the day of the resurrection, as if we are rising to stand with Christ and being bound to seek what is above.
Basil goes on to explain additional significance to worshiping on Sunday, and why standing is a necessary tradition. Finally, summing up his points to his would-be interlocutors, who reject the Holy Spirit's divinity due to an appeal to scripture. Basil says:
by what Scriptures do we hold the very confession of faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? If from the tradition of baptism we make a confession similar to baptism (according to the logic of piety, as we baptize, so we ought to believe), then let them grant to us from this same logic to give glory in a way similar to our confession. But if we reject this way of giving glory as non-scriptural, let them give to us the scriptural proof of the confession of faith and the other points that we listed.
What's interesting here and above is how Basil makes his argument. He's not saying, like Irenaeus' Valentinian opponents, that he has access to a secret, esoteric, tradition from the apostles in contrast to what has been written. It's possible to see that in how Basil mentions silence, but that's not feasible if one takes the whole section in view. Basil's argument seems to revolve on a distinction between clarity from scripture and a set of practices (presumably derived from the apostles) that then informs one about a broader significance in scripture. In other words, the non-scriptural tradition is what is not explicitly stated in scripture, not simply things not included within it. The scriptures provide clear things and unclear things. The former are accessible enough, and make up the content of what is preached (presumably something like "believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved"). The latter are cloaked in mystery and silence, not for its own sake but to drive the worshiper to realize one is participating in God's work, to not treat it as a trifle. But these mysteries are not things alien to scripture, but rooted in it, only visible and explicated on account of the Apostles.

In a lot of ways, this account draws to mind Irenaeus and Tertullian's discussion of the rule of faith. There's an extra-scriptural witness, found in something like a baptismal formula, which is the faith, even if that formula is not itself something in scripture. Hence Basil's comment that without the tradition, the faith becomes nominal. It's not simply enough to find the passage of scripture that says to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (or baptizing in the name of Jesus) because it's not clear what that exactly means. Of course, one would naturally explicate a thicker description, elaborating the content of faith. But that seems to be Basil's point about apostolic tradition. It's not enough to cite words (Basil argues in previous sections about people who logic-chop, making the use of 'in' or 'with' as signifying ontological status of Christ). It's what those words mean, and the meaning of these words are derived from the practices of the churches, given to them by the Apostles. After citing various fathers who taught divinity of Holy Spirit, he cites Origen who did not "have perfectly sound notions in all respects about the Spirit", yet still recognized the divinity of the Spirit. Basil concludes, "Thus, I think, the strength of tradition often leads men to contradict their own teachings." Origen was a good enough churchman to be "constrained by the force of custom and put forth orthodox words about the Spirit."

The takeaway, I think, is rather difficult. His use of tradition appeals most explicitly to the Apostles to justify things like standing during worship on Sundays, renunciation of Satan in baptism, triple immersion, the sign of the cross, etc. All of these things can be derived from a context of truth given in scripture, though they are not explicitly stated. That's the distinction, I think, between scripture and unscriptural tradition. And he's of course correct that it's not enough to baldly quote words of scripture, give simple philological dictationary accounts of this word or that phrase, and then build a doctrinal edifice upon it. There's a clear history of this sort of thing found in the annals of English Protestantism, driving things like the the rise of Deism, with Toland's Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), or the Bangorian Controversy (1717). In today's ecclesiastical controversies, it's this "simply scripture" approach that has fueled revisionist attempts to justify monogamous homosexual partnerships, as well as subordinationism within certain Reformed complementarians. Basil scoffs at these people, these logic-choppers: "we say that the freedom of the Spirit is in noway enslaved to the trivialities of the Pagans. Rather, it changes its expressions to suit its needs for the moment." The context here is an emphasis on the phrase "from whom", which for Aetius (a neo-Arian) meant Christ was not God. The truth of faith was not in bondage to little twists and turns of words.

This might wrinkle some noses, who might point to St. Paul's very precise notation that Abraham didn't have "seeds" but "seed", pointing to the Christ. But it's also clear, from cross-referencing, that the Apostles were not drawing from a single source of scripture. A lot of citations come from the Septuagint, but not all. This might mean that they were quoting from some other Greek translation, or translating it themselves from one in Aramaic or Hebrew. But if that's so (and that's a highly tendentious speculation), it's been lost to us. But Basil's approach eschews this search because his understanding of scripture, accessible to the churches, is grounded in the very life of the churches as they worship, day-in and day-out. The church has the deposit of the Apostles, and it continues, despite the misunderstanding or idiosyncrasies of particular geniuses (Basil was an admirer of Origen's work). Basil claims a continuity that then is accessible, even if its meaning isn't always clearly available. The faith remains the same, even if we are given the freedom to adjust our words to more properly articulate it. But we should be careful, and prefer silence, lest we lead others into error or throw the churches into schism.

In someways, I don't know how Basil's conclusions aren't inevitable. One must draw upon creedal symbols (derived from within the life of the Church, not invented in the academy) and practices to ground one's theology. Tradition seems a safeguard to prevent sliding into foolish debates and speculations about the law, endless genealogies, and myths (c.f. 1 Tim, 2 Tim, Titus). But then, of course, it's not clear what Basil is actually talking about. Is his Cappadocian church simply the handed-down reality of the Apostles, or did things change? How much freedom with words is possible? I'm sure Basil would've found the splits in Orthodoxy between the Old and New Calendarists, and the number of fingers used in crossing oneself that split the Russian church in the 18th century to be obscene. But where do you draw the line? How does one know which practices are apostolic and which are not? How much change makes it something else altogether? Basil was not unaware about the use of art in churches, though he seems to have tolerated it, rather than endorse it. But when does that become something else? The use of icons is not simply a means to draw one's mind to heavenly things, but marks out ontological claims.

And then what does one do if changes are introduced? I think it's a sound conclusion that Basil would've found the whole papal church on the eve of the Reformation as totally alien to him, and would've scoffed at claims of unchanged non-scriptural apostolic tradition. But what hope does that leave the Latin West? I know some Orthodox would say none, and they should return to the true churches. But as per my point about icons above, does anyone actually fit Basil's criterion? Now, someone might take up his point, and introduce all the things he says, but that's missing the point. And yet Basil does not simply allow churches the freedom to pillage the scripture and construct a variety of practices, all under the auspices that they are from scripture, even if not explicitly stated. Basil sees clearly that there's an apostolic faith handed down from the apostles, found in a set of practices. The end result is madness, loss of faith, or self-deception.

And yet there's hope. Writing to the bishop of Rome, amid a controversy about the date of Easter, Irenaeus councils peaceableness. Some worship on 14 of Nissan, whatever day that may fall on the Julian calendar, others link it to Sunday worship, and others don't count the day, either celebrating Easter every Sunday or never (it's not clear what Irenaeus means). Some practice Easter with a 24 hour fast, some with a three day fast, and others with a 40 hour fast. All of these practices are linked to notions of worship and an interpretation of scripture. Irenaeus, not a stranger to controversy and debate, argues that none of these should splinter the church. For, as he argues, it is their differences that confirm them all in the same faith. The focus was that all worshiped the same risen Lord, celebrating His passion and glorious triumph over death. The differences of practices confirmed this single fact.

I think the conclusion from this ought to run with Basil's point about freedom of words. There's an apostolic tradition rooted in, but distinct from, an explicit scriptural testimony. But this tradition is possessed of a seeming pluriform nature, than ought to confirm a unity-in-difference through a shared faith. Irenaeus' counter-attack upon the gnostics was a counter against those who claimed some extra-scriptural revelation, something outside of the apostles. Perhaps it's this point that excludes Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, perhaps even certain ultramontane charismatic Romanists who see the Pope as capable of ex cathedra new revelations viz. dogmatic pronouncements. I don't know. But it does shift the burden onto scripture, and an attention to a history of reception, though understood broadly and charitably.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Suffered in the Flesh: A Further Thought on Heresy and Truth

If you've been following along over the pass month or so, it should be clear I've been doing quite a bit of thinking and reflecting on Christology. It's frustrating and tenuous because it constantly depends on appreciating nuanced terms. At some level, this is an absolutely necessary process, because merely regurgitating grammar or conclusions can totally misunderstand what's being said. And it's also trying to be faithful to a tradition, for these issues were handed down to me, and I don't have to reinvent the wheel to understand. But it is odd to constantly find myself stumbling through a thicket of complexity, only to find myself where I started. It's frustrating because I think, "why did I have to go and do that?", but it's also enlightening as I know the paths a little better this time around.

However, the frustration can sometimes give me a headache. Part of this is when you discover certain pieties acting as a cryptograph to displace historical ambiguities. In other words, I find myself spun around because I don't see through certain confusions. But then I also find myself spun around because I burst through these confusions, only to get myself turned around.

So let me tell you what I'm talking about.

In a prior post, I was a little stunned to discover, through an excruciatingly detailed account of the lead up to Ephesus (431), the council itself, and the struggle that climaxed (perhaps anticlimactically) in Eutyches' trial, the robber-synod of Ephesus II (449), and then Chalcedon (451). It was interesting to discover that Eutyches was not a Eutychean, the robber-synod reflecting a counter-attack on growing Antiochene forces, and Chalcedon was a counter-blow due (primarily) to a change in the imperial office. The politique Theodosius II died suddenly, after a set of attempts to balance the various factions, giving way to his sister (Pulcheria) and her new-husband/emperor Marcian, who decisively sided for dyophysitism. And while Theodosius was being a politician, trying to balance the various forces in the empire, he was also trying to ascertain a norming norm for the Romans.

Of course, this led me to consider that perhaps that the miaphysites were not so bad. I even confused (per the title) the distinction between what would become the monothelite term "one theandric energy" with the subtly different "new theandric energy". This might not seem like much, but let me press on, and you can decide for yourself. As I discovered in a brief foray into Ethiopian miaphysite Christology, they too, not unlike Nestorius(!) and Theodore of Mopsuestia(!), define the equivalent hypostasis into being a concrete instance of a nature. Thus, dog is a nature, but this dog on walking down the street is a hypostasis of that nature. For miaphysites, these two hypostaseis meld together in the incarnation, with two instances becoming one. As I noted elsewhere, this issue sounds like a debate over the extra Calvinisticum, but here's where this issue may actually be somewhat important. Certainly, it resolves a question of what it means for "in Christ the fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily", but it also raises a kind of bizarre question of whether that means the Word is now simply the Man Jesus. Was the concretization, the howness (tropos) of the what, of Jesus mean "something" happened to the otherwise omnipresent Logos? Of course, this issue is ridiculous if you think the "nature" of God is material, or something.

But that's precisely the point! If one says that one can't distinguish between the natures (or the hypostaseis) after the Incarnation, then one must think the nature of God is something that takes up some kind of space (even if it's a very "thin" material; which had a pedigree, ranging from Tertullian to Hobbes) or there's been a category error. In another post, I'll address how understanding metaphysics as ancient science, and then introducing some commonsense scientific features of our current epoch, makes miaphysitism ridiculous. But suffice it to say, if the Word's "location" changed after the Incarnation, that we can't distinguish them, then it really is a tertium quid. But nobody said that. And thus there's been some confusion on behalf of those on the miaphysite spectrum. Of course, that doesn't make Eutyches' trial anything other than a show-trial to rein in the increasingly belligerent Cyrillian faction. But I digress.

Part of the problem is, as Demetrios Bathrellos explained in his monograpy of Maximus and dyothelitism, the double-meaning of hypostasis that the Cappadocians used. It means both an instance of a universal, but it also reflects a subjecthood. To be clear, I say subjecthood rather than subjectivity because it's referring to an ontological claim (an existent "I") not a psychological one. That's something I pleasantly saw Bathrellos state clear and upfront. It's a lesson that Leontius of Jerusalem was very clear to state. But here's where I start feeling like a nut.

Bathrellos states, in one section, that yes, Cyril clearly used miaphysite language ("one nature after the union") and even claimed, though ambiguous in total range of thought, monenergitism (one energy).But when discussing Cyril's miaphysitism, Bathrellos says, in so many words, well yeah, he said that, but he did so in controversy; we shouldn't blame him for emphasizing one side of the equation to the seeming expense of the other. What?! That's precisely a common definition of heresy, given how much research has discovered that none of the heretics held onto the form of heresy that they were, in general, later condemned for. I'm not saying Cyril was wrong to emphasize the single subjecthood of Christ against what seemed to threaten it. But that his miaphysitism ought to be covered over as well under the pretense that it was a heated battle, and lots of things get said? But that's not even the most frustrating part.

Later, Bathrellos rightly disaggregates Maximus' use of hypostasis. He will talk about the two-sides of the term, and say different things depending on which distinction he's talking about. Thus, if we're talking about a concrete instance, then Christ really is two, united and inseparable, hypostaseis, since if the two become confused, it opens the Pandora's box of divine materialism above. In contrast, if we're talking about hypostasis as subjecthood, as an ontologically grounded "I", then there's a single one since the flesh of Christ never subsisted on its own without the Logos who took it up. In otherwords, the zygote Jesus was the Word; the very beginning of Jesus was the same identity as the Word. And then I wanted to slap myself up the head because it's precisely this attempt at term slicing that got the "nestorians" in trouble in the first place! They distinguished between prosopon and hypostasis, which I think is fair to be rejected as inviting in confusion. It can seem to suggest a fictive person created through a union of the will. But still, Bathrellos' charity led him to detect that Maximus was a consistent, and not confused and compromised, thinker. Why no charity for the Nestorians? Why an infinite patience for the embattled Cyril? Because the creeds demand it.

I'm not saying that Cyril is some bad-guy; he should be honored for his heavy emphasis on single subjecthood for Christ. But so should Nestorius (or at least John of Antioch) for being so adamant about the continued distinction between the two natures. the shameful mistreatment of Nestorius, even if he was not some innocent lamb sacrificed by the Pharaoh (as the Church of the East made it out to be), should be looked down upon. In moral terms, both Nestorius and Cyril were ruthless, unscrupulous, and were always "conveniently" unable to rein in their underlings who spoke far more aggressively. They both used their powers and entourage to bully and berate their way into power, drawing on their political position and connections to try and force their way. But none of that is relevant towards assessing their ideas. In an odd way, both Cyril and Nestorius were correct on different points, but the sum total required something else (something that was rather clearer among the Cappadocians).

The title of the post is something that Cyril was clear to say: Christ suffered in the flesh. It just seems that Cyril, and the fundamentalism about his formulae and works that he produced, wasn't clear to state this emphatically enough. We have Maximus, among others, to thank for clearing this point up more proficiently.

Anyway, that's enough for now.

Addendum Edit (6/17/19): After some reflection, perhaps the greatest functional error of the miaphysites is an inability to see the passion as the hinge for the incarnation. Gregory of Nyssa notes that it was in the resurrection that the drop of wine (human nature) fell into the ocean (divinity) and was fully suffused. As an editor of Nyssen pointed out: it's likely Nyssa's language of mixture was taken from Stoic use, not Aristotelian, meaning it's not about forms/substances, but an exchange of properties. Nyssen sees the humanity of Christ as now exuding the fullness of the divine properties. Thus, in a strange way, Nyssen can (in a few passages of his anti-Apollonarian tracts) sound like a Nestorian before the atonement, but a miaphysite after it. I'm being anachronistic, but it showcases a different controlling mechanism for Nyssen then for others who came later.

The cash-out, I think, is that the big problem for the miaphysites is not only the inability to distinguish natural properties, but that these get confused when the Word takes flesh. Hence, there's a logic to the emergence of a Julian of Halicarnassus to plague Severus, which seems to iron out a particular inconsistency. The problem has become such a metaphysically high-strung one that it ignores the thrust of scripture, where Christ ascends to His glory. Anyway, atonement needs to be reckoned in this discussion.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Three Hypostaseis or Three Persons?: Cashing Out Traditional Language

I've been doing some exploration of various non-Chalcedonian Christologies to make sense of what they are saying and what it means. One interesting thing was how, in a weird way, some miaphysites and some "nestorians" agree on terms. As described on a site dedicated to the Church of the East, the Syriac term qnoma (translated for hypostasis) refers to a concrete instance of a nature. Thus dog is a nature, but fido, rex, and snowball are three qnoma of the nature dog. Thus, if one wants to prevent a confusion between the divine nature of the Word of God, and the human flesh of Jesus, one must speak of two qnoma (I forget the plural). However, they would emphatically argue that Christ has one prosopon (person, "face"; I forget the Syriac term, but its a transliteration of the Greek). Therefore, they deny anything like Two-Sons.

Strangely, the Ethiopian Tewahedo (meaning "unity", like the Cyrillian term henosis) church has a similar use of terms. They two use a term for a kind of ethereal, form like, nature (baharey), with its concrete instantiation (akal). Thus, Ethiopian miaphysites would argue that before the union there were two natures and two hypostasesi (!), but after the union, the two have become so united and fused together (though, not mixed) that it is only proper to speak of one "baharey" and one "akal". But the proximity and unity take pride of place over the "nestorian" emphasis on difference. Of course, Ethiopians aren't saying the two are utterly confused either. And it's unclear to me how "akal" does not mean prosopon, but there's still claimed a single prosopic identity in Christ, though the term is missing (at least as far as I understand Ethiopian priest and author Mebratu Kiros Gebru).

At one level, one can see that the same thing is basically being grappled with. The only distinguishable difference basically comes down to what may be anachronistically termed the extra Calvinisticum. That is to say, between the Church of the East and the miaphysites is a division over whether the Word of God is completely in Jesus or not. It's an sort of an odd question, and raises a whole lot of metaphysical questions. The problem is not whether or not Jesus is fully God, or more precisely fully the Word of God, but whether the Word of God is anywhere else after He takes on flesh. But I don't really want to get into this point.

The interesting thing here, for me, is the fact that both acknowledge a definition of hypostasis that refers to a concrete instance of a nature, but distinguishing it from prosopon. And yet, to add confusion, it is precisely this distinction that the Latin terms erase. A more fitting term for hypostasis in Latin would be substantia, but the word used is rather persona, which originally referred to a mask an actor wore in a performance. What's going on here? My thought is that when hypostasis became a technical term, it doubled its significance, rolling subsistence and identity into one, though the language does not necessarily require that. Hence there was much confusion, and thus some of the bitter fighting over the legacy of Theodore of Mopsuestia and his students (e.g. Nestorius, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Ibas of Edessa).

The problem with uncoupling (or not coupling) hypostasis and prosopon is that the latter can be a fictional identity. A mask in a play identifies the actor to the audience as character X, but of course that doesn't mean in reality actor A is character X. However, when watching a play, one suspends disbelief in order to enter the fabricated world of the story. Thus, the suspicion about Theodore was that his one prosopon suggested that perhaps the single identity of Christ was a fiction, perhaps fitting the economy (or, in Reformed terms, redemptive-history), but a fiction nonetheless. The accusation of Nestorianisn referred to the union of Christ being a moral union, a shared occupancy of a character, between the Word of God and the man Jesus. Therefore, one can distinguish between Jesus and the Word, which may lead to confusion. And that's the problem with the term theotokos, because one might not realize the shared properties are just nominal exchanges from a shared role. In addition, theotokos could mean something more like mother, in the literal sense, than "bearer", and it sounds as if Mary created God, whether the hypostasis or the physis. Either instance would be anathema, sounding gnostic and mythological, if not downright Arian since for such to be the case, Christ's divinity could not qualify as the Father's.

But the emphasis on hypostasis both meaning a concrete subsistence and an externally visible subjecthood or identity keeps the fictional element from intruding. For Jesus is the Word of God, not through a legal fiction of moral union. In other words, they are not occupying the same role because their wills are united to do and be the same thing. To deny Jesus a human hypostasis is to say that the identity of Jesus is the same as the divine Word who appeared to the patriarchs and prophets. It's a claim of continuity in identity. And this identity is not merely a nominal and fictive role. By fictive I don't mean something trivial like make-pretend, but in the sense of legal fictions. Corporations are not people, but can be treated as such in a court of law (being the subject of legal cases). It's the concept of representation applied. By rolling together the two meanings of hypostasis, there's a rejection of any disaggregation between Jesus' identity and how He is what He is. In Orthodox (Chalcedonian) Christology, the Word (who is divine) took flesh and dwelt among men. He (a subsistent identity) assumed a new set of faculties (from a body to a mind and soul), without confusing what He was before the union. Personally, I think metaphysics is basically ancient science, and the dyophysite position is clearly true (a human form/nature is, basically, DNA code and genetics). But I digress.

All of this is to say that Jesus is not a separate, and separable, Human agent who then bonded with the Word of God. Rather, the Word of God took upon a fully human constitution. The emphasis in the phrase is not that the man became the Word, but that the Word became man. And yet we might notice the upwards drift at the end of the gospels, where the Word became flesh, after the passion and resurrection, entered into the glory that befitted Him. In the resurrection, human flesh can bear the divine glory and radiate it in majesty and honor. Yet for Jesus it's something befitting Him, because this glory was not alien to Him, but belonged to Him by nature, i.e. He was God and is God.

This use of hypostasis was not a capitulation to Hellenism (whatever that means), but it was trying to explain the phenomenon of scripture from the vocabulary at hand. Perhaps there would've been a bit more clarity focusing on the more strictly biblical Temple christology that is apparent in John and elsewhere. And that's precisely how some Christians explained this phenomenon, and did so beautifully (e.g. Ephrem the Syrian's poetry). It is trying to anchor down a way to say that the identity of Jesus is God, and that identity was based in a reality, not a fictive (legal, covenantal, or otherwise) arrangement. Truly, Jesus was not just the rabbi from Nazareth, but was the Angel who wrestled with Jacob and the pillar of cloud and fire that followed Israel about in the wilderness. I don't think we ought to necessarily make this grammar sacrosanct, but I've not seen a better alternative that simultaneously preserves the single identity of Christ in/as God and biblical monotheism.

Anyway, food for thought.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Father of the Fathers: Nyssen and the Radical Challenge of Christian Theology

The above appellation, "father of fathers", comes from Nicaea II (787) in reference to Gregory of Nyssa. I don't know why they said that, but I have to offer a fundamental agreement, but in very specific terms. In a previous post, I mentioned Gregory's brother (Basil) and his friend (Nazianzen) and praised them for their careful and constructive efforts to figure out a way forward amidst the Christological controversies raging. But in a way, the Christological challenges masked a more fundamental question of knowledge: what does it mean to know God? Of course, Christology is the very key, the means and ends, to this question, but it's still not the answer. Or, in other words, we may respond, to the question of what is it to know God, and say Christ, but what does that mean? There were a lot of answers, some explicit and some implicit, but Eunomius is the one who clearly drew the line in the sand. A hyper-Arian following Aetius, Eunomius grasped the fundamental issue. Basil was the first to respond, but died. His younger brother Gregory took up the mantle and won the contest.

The problem Eunomius was grappling with was not only who Christ is, but what is God and can we know? Eunomius' solution was to cut the knot in a decisive way. Christ was not only not like the Father (thus rejecting Arius, Eusebius, and much of the Origenist tradition), but was one of God's works, namely a contracted divine being who created the world. In a way, Eunomius recapitulates the gnostic schema of an ever expanding divine pleroma down a chain of being of increasingly inferior entities. Yet unlike the gnostics there was no stark duality, between the unknown One and his many emanations. For Eunomius, one could know what God was, compacted in the term "unbegotten/ingenerate", which is the essence of God. In other words, the revelation manifest gives us access to God through our mind by simply knowing what He is. Everything else, including Christ and the Holy Spirit, was a product outwards.

Now this view might seem extreme, and easily refuted, but the real problem came to the question of knowledge. All agreed with some basic semblance of divine simplicity, namely that God was perfect and couldn't be chopped up into bits. But what this meant usually was simplicity-as-identity; this meant that to know God was to know a singularity, since all things, if they are God, are synonyms for the same thing, which is simply God. And the essence was the Ingenerate. The alternative, or so it seemed, was to embrace apophaticism, that we can't actually know God except as a darkness, a circumlocution through ever-fleeting terms and words.

Following his brother, Gregory chopped the knot in rejecting a concept of knowledge that required comprehensive grasping. Concepts were the mind's attempt to make sense of something real, not simply fabrications of an Unknown (per apophaticism) or false-steps from a real possible concept of the thing itself (Eunomius and simplicity-as-identity). One could have real knowledge of God because God made Himself known through attributes proper to What He was, even if these attributes were not themselves What He was. Additionally, these attributes were not identical to each other, though they coinhered. Thus, justice is not mercy, goodness is not providence, wisdom is not peace, but true goodness could not exist without wisdom, mercy, providence, peace, and so on. Palamas would develop this point into the essence-energies distinction, but that's not fully present in Nyssa. Instead, there's a strong sense that we can know God, knowing the true God from the false gods, through the coinherence of all these attributes, these goods or virtues, in the incarnation of Christ. And since the Word (and the Spirit) shared this same power, this same distinct-not-different set of propria, there was a consubstantial equality. The Father, the Word and the Spirit shared the same power and thus were of the same nature. Of course, Gregory states emphatically that we don't and can't know what that is.

This, in a nut shell, is what the divide between the Cappadocians and the Eunomians.

But why does any of this matter? Isn't this a bizarre philosophizing of scripture? Yes and no, because the whole debate revolves around the intelligibility of scripture. For Eunomius, the words of scripture give a direct revelation, but really in as much as they state "ingenerate", and everything else simply flows from that. What Nyssa does, in contrast, is to allow the plurality of scripture to give true knowledge. Now most, except the most hardened rationalist, will reject Eunomius' scheme, but it's not quite that easy. Some may embrace a kind of openly radical apophaticism, which results in a kind of agnosticism, but many try to have both. In a way, the Latin-speaking church's embrace of the Beatific Vision represents a kind of neo-Eunomian embrace, but with hedging and qualifiers. The doctrine of divine simplicity requires that all of God's attributes be either co-equivalent, though fragmented through a created horizon (i.e. justice is mercy is goodness is wisdom, but we think they're different because our minds can't comprehend), or created. If created, then one can't explain how we actually know anything. And even this begs the question of what exactly creation is if the attributes of God are coequivalent. God can't be present or do anything in creation without it meaning the complete destruction and absorption of things. Hence why theologians have gravitated to the neoplatonic schema of exitus/reditus, where the emanated creation is rolled back into God.

The basic point Nyssen grapples with, and the thing which should concern us, is the radical attack upon the epistemology of scripture. While Nyssa wouldn't have put it this way, the concern is this: how can we take the various revelations, words, visions, etc. of scripture as actual knowledge of God? How is this not simply metaphors or, for Eunomius, a divine pleroma of various things? The problem with Eunomius is not just that he vitiated the triad, but he makes nonsense of scripture. For there are various passages which blend and blur the presence of God, where there's clearly a plurality in the one or where the fullness or presence of God is in a synecdochic statement. For Eunomius, the power of God, or the wisdom of God (let alone any of the anthropomorphisms), were other things, created things down the ladder. Shredding the Bible came as a speed-bump on the way to a logically rigorous, and consistent, theology. In the end, God could do nothing, but spawn emanated creatures which could act on His behalf. The end result of Eunomius was an ancient, and perhaps cosmologically rich, deism. In contrast, one finds a glorified gnosticism which leads one to a kind of postmodern spiral of Derrida-like chase, jumping from one metaphor to another without arrival.

Nyssa both preserves God's utter unlikeness in scripture, and yet also makes scripture the very source of what we actually know of God. Human language has an actual place in the divine redemptive-history, but it's a humble one. Basil and Nyssa successfully ground the Christian faith in the scripture it receives, in and through its traditional exposition through liturgy, prayer and devotion.

Now Gregory is not the greatest biblical theologian, and he is someone deeply entrenched in the philosophical grammar of the 4th century. But he won the challenge, allowing us to take the victory and go forth. In a way, Ephrem of Edessa (a contemporary of Gregory) did a better job, though was not involved in the challenge. For him, the various symbols of scriptures revealed God, but they were not simply synonyms for God, which we could not know, as we were creatures before the Creator. The words we use to talk of God, describing His virtues, possessed a realism, since they were given through God. They were contingent, but providentially so, and they possess a canonical authority. They are the clothes Christ wears, the forms He comes to us in, revealing the Father in the Spirit*, visible across the pages of scripture, where the New unlocks the true of the Old.

This might not seem like a big deal. But given the push for "Classical Theism" among some evangelicals, contrasted by a biblical theology movement which, at times, stumbles over itself into falsities (the subordinationist crisis a few years ago), Nyssa's problem solving is still needed. Again, the basic point is that the Bible actually says something real and true, in a way that bests the philosophical critics. Maybe it's not necessary, but it stills the tongues of the philosophes.

Anyway, it's for these reasons we ought to rank Gregory of Nyssa a father of fathers.

*I've struggled to appreciate the trinitarian understanding of the Cappadocians; it always seems rather underwhelming. Of course, they're the first to really pioneer the "one essence, three hypostaseis" but that's empty semantics when it's not filled in. I've recoiled from Nazianzen's account of trinity as three suns overlapping and eclipsing eachother in their shared light. I think, "ok, so why only 3? why not 4? 12?" I think this language is fine, but it lacks the far less sophisticated coinherence of the trinity found in the NT, where the Father, Son/Word, and Spirit are identified with one another. But they're not three entities linked together through some shared will, or sharing some same power-source, which seems to imply a 4th something behind the triad. All of these elaborations seem to eclipse that the NT Christians were still obviously and clearly monotheists and monolators; there was only 1 God and only He should be worshiped.

One obvious solution is to follow Athanasius in how he hypostatizes an attribute as being Christ. Thus, the mind of God, the wisdom of God, the power of God, these are synonymous titles for Christ. This is grounded in the essential term for God being Father, thus implying the Son, where the two are consubstantially linked. I think solution is somewhat right, but it's still lacking a properly triadic focus, since the Spirit seems to simply drop out. But it's basically right, and seen in someone like Irenaeus. Of course, we might want to apply a strictly triadic logic in how we frame it. So, for example, God is eternally with His Image/Idea and the Image/Idea's Glory. Of course, at a basic level, this construction depends upon the NT revelation and its logic. It's perhaps an abstract statement, but it's not more than repeating the various pseudo-dyadic/triadic statements all throughout. Referring to this as three hypostaseis is to simply to say God with Word and Spirit is how the Creator is. There's no God behind this; this is simply God.

It's perhaps wisest to stick as close as possible to the NT's claims, and keep it intentionally underdeveloped.

Monday, June 10, 2019

But we see Jesus: On the need and danger of providence

The title come from a verse in the Letter to the Hebrews which announces the lordly reign of Christ, but simultaneously aware of current imperfection. Praising Christ as king of the angels, above and beyond all spiritual glory in the heavenlies, the author acknowledges the Son of Man's divine rule above all created things. And yet that's clearly not the case for the actual Jesus when seen through His historical progress. But it's precisely this lowliness and abasement that is the means for His accomplishment. For by being made man, lower than the angels but bearing a glorious purpose, Jesus gains glory and honor through His suffering and death, "tasting death for everyone". For this purpose was Jesus, above all angels, appear as a wretched man: to bring many sons to glory and becoming the captain of their holy salvation, not only its beginning but its full process unto completion. For as the children were slaves to death, so too did the radiant Word become like them to free them from the power of the devil, who wielded death and its crippling fear to rule as the god of this age. Sins expiated, paradise opened, and eternal life beckoning, Jesus' very lowliness was the means and pattern of what reveals Him to be the divine Son.

Thus far, Hebrews 1 and 2, something not unfamiliar to many Christians. But it does suggest a particular pattern that has, it seems, escaped many Christian authors of providence.

The key element here is not that this pattern reflects the extrinsic plot of redemptive history. It's not merely something we look back on with wonder and amazement. It's also the current stage, the current meaning, to history. Whereas the author claims triumphantly that all things were subject to this bearer of the ever-new eternal covenant, it is matched with the very human life of Jesus. The King of Glory reigns, but we see Jesus. The two exist in the tension that marks our twilight existence, caught between nightfall and dawn. It is not simply the providential plan then, but constitutive of now. For the Christian, suffering is part of the redemptive plan, and as the author later argues, it is part of being sanctified, disciplined as children to be made worthy to receive the glorious inheritance. How do we know it's waiting for us? Because the one who freed us is not only simply the forebearer, the savior, but the very pattern of what to expect. He was made as us so we would made be as Him.

And while providence is key to Christianity (classically atheism was termed for those who didn't believe in providence, not the existence of divine beings), its content is what matters most. Without understanding the will of God, and the recapitulatory potential in Christ for individuals as well as churches, things are bound to go awry.

I've been recently reading about the Byzantine historian Procopius, (in)famous author of the Secret History and court-historian to Justinian I. A recent revisionist account of the man sees in him a brilliant student and expositor of the classical tradition. He was someone well-versed in Plato, rhetoric, play-writing, and history, especially Herodotus and Thucydides. According to this account, Procopius was not only not a conventional Christian, but he wasn't even really a benign deist sort. Rather than an optimism in the power and goodness of a generic god who created all and rules all, Procopius' pieties are inverted through accounts of senseless horrors that just as often empower and honor the vile and wicked as they do the just. History, rather, is a product of human decisions under the blind hand of Tyche, chance. The cause and effect of things are mostly invisible, but in what mankind can understand through visible things. Procopius despises Justinian's many political innovations, but in Buildings Procopius looks down upon those who would scorn inventions for the past. Of course, he's clear to say "I am not talking about intelligible or invisible things, but about rivers and lands." Procopius sees man's ability as limited, and hence why he's horrified at Justinian's incessant persecutions and his theological approach to everything (i.e. Justinian quotes scripture to justify price controls for vegetables).

Procopius' hysterical and vicious account of Justinian, reporting accusations of his being a demon and bearer of horrifying portends (e.g. walking about without a head, his face appearing as a pile of shapeless flesh), is not simply superstition or mere hyperbole. Procopius is inverting the rhetoric of the godly king, the image of Christ among men, who stands as "master" over a court, army, and nation of slaves. Procopius is sure to account that one of these claims comes from a monk of holy living and good repute. Rather than a face-value account of things, Procopius inverts Justinian as the lord of flies whose vile reign brings plague to his empire (even though he contracts the disease and survives, only to inflict greater terrors). One historian has likened Justinian, viz. Procopius' account, to an ancient Stalin. Lacking liberality of mind, the emperor combined dogmatism and bureaucratic ruthlessness to forge a theocratic totalitarian mood. And worst yet, Justinian is not merely a crude psychopath, a Caligula like monster. Rather, he's shrewd and calculating. He believes in the cult, but also believes in his intellect and vast capacity to rule and to manipulate to achieve it. Thus Justinian and Theodora publicly end up on either side of the miaphysite question, but contemporaries noted that this facade was a means to force both together through carrot-and-stick measures. It was part of a planned effort to force both sides before the feet of the emperor and empress, who ruled jointly as master and mistress over a slave nation. Procopius is keen to mention that this is blasphemy by Christian standards, but still the heavenlies appear silent. God and Tyche are one, and the world is left to its own aimless and chaotic devices to forge something approximating justice.

Of course this elite agnosticism can be paired with regimes that do not so explicitly endorse the quasi-Stalinist theocracy. Proudhon blasted the liberal Catholics who supported the July Monarchy for their deistic theology. For Proudhon, theology was nothing else but politics by ideology. The old Catholic position was to shore up the divine-rights of early modern monarchy and absolutism. The new Catholics pivoted to adopt the liberal arguments of eighteenth century philosophes, claiming God had designed a perfect and intricate machine called nature (including markets) which ran itself. Proudhon howled at this blasphemy, for it now gave a blessing to a new political economy which equally exploited the poor. Now it was not simply God's fiat, but God's creation of a self-regulating system, an iron-clad cage that men only foolishly interrupted. Proudhon's atheism, if it can be called that, was a political-theology of destruction. The God the liberals worshiped was none other than the Devil, and man had the duty to wage war against his false reign. In someways, Proudhon sounds very much like a Marcionite gnostic, believing a higher God called man from slumber to resist the nature he was imprisoned in. But Proudhon was not such a dualist, seeing "nature" or "humanity" as the true divine under bondage from false priests who claimed an otherworldly authority (or, in the liberal case, a this worldly authority derived from "reason").

Procopius and Proudhon (surely an odd-couple) do not represent better paths forward for Christians. If Procopius is, in fact, mocking a deistic account by paralleling claims of God rule with actual events of unmitigated horror, both men attack a Christian providentialism that has become linked with the concerns of empire. Justinian believed that holy living, especially from monks at prayer, guaranteed success for the armies and prosperity for the City (Constantinople). From the bankruptcy of the various wars to the plague, nothing of the sort was the case. Of course one could (and did) raise the alarm of blasphemy in the empire. Heretics still existed, secret vices were still tolerated, and corruption was not fully routed. Justinian used the plague (likely as a true believer) to ramp up his plans. Others, both Chalcedonian and Miaphysite, did the same to put the pressure on their adversaries and call upon the court to back them. Procopius found these debates to be stupid, for none could understand the nature of the divine. Proudhon, in contrast, saw these accounts as clearly disguising efforts at regime building a liberal French monarchy.

My first instinct, when reading, is to recoil from providence. Perhaps this world is an interlinked puzzle where the meaning of things is opaque, if not non-existent. Various causes do not rely in the mystical realm of metaphysics, but emerge from powerful men who pull the levers and rule in the name of God (or Markets, or Progress, or Nature, etc.) to hide their true intents. Thus causality is not a mystery, even as it's mystified, while the purpose, directedness, and meaning are things beyond, which men claim to understand. And yet the level of disgust I have with providential readings is the sympathy I feel for the products of broken hearts. It's not because it's morally repulsive that providentialism is considered revolting, it's the falsity of it. If Justinian's edicts were true, it would be something else. But because they're not true, and yet pursued with a blind drive that accelerats over so many empirical evidences, making corpses of them, the claims are so horrible.

Historicism, or the dependence on empirical data alone, is nonsense, a self-refuting tautology. But that doesn't mean data, evidence, and empirical accounts and experiences count for nothing. Rather they're the basis for everything. Even Paul was quite clear to his accusers that this thing, the work of Christ on the cross, was not done in a corner. Of course, Paul was also clear that acceptance of the word of God was an act of God, the creation of faith, the softening of the Human heart. But it's this opening of the eyes that allows one to see the evidence, not the closing of distracted eyes to turn away from the flux of the phenomenal.

If there's an antidote to the very reasonable and tragic anti-providentialism of Procopius and Proudhon, it's Pascal. The Jansenist was quite clear-sighted when it came to the ridiculous claims of his Jesuit opponents. He found their arguments to be built on straw, self-serving, and a license for the worst kinds of corruption, tyranny, and vice. These were no different than common-men who, because of circumstance, developed high opinions of who they are, what they do, and where they came from. A Turk loves Muhammad and a carpenter loves construction, while a German may laugh at the former as a heretic and a soldier may snicker at the latter as a peon. And viceversa, the Turk will look down upon the pagan and the carpenter recoil from the murderous thug.

And yet Pascal did not reject providence. Instead, it reflected the stark reality of a world mired in sin. Everything, Pascal argued, reflect man's corruption and potentiality of his salvation. Man's nature revealed both his glory and his degeneracy; man was both destined for greatness, but trapped in weakness; he died like a beast, but could heroically contemplate his demise with the intellect of an angel. The world itself revealed glimmers of God, but as one Who hides. Pascal's Jansenism involved a harshness that paralleled Calvinism, but unlike the latter it lacked the expectant triumphalism of the ruling saints on earth. Instead it saw the crucified Christ, not a millenarian or postmillenial vision of coming victory. It's possible to read this as a medievalism, hyper-fixated on the Passion as an emotionally stirring event, almost forgetting the resurrection as anything but an afterthought. But Pascal saw in the cross as a distinct revelation of God's rule over the world.

It's starkly different to the kind of confused pessimism of many English Protestants in the midst of the civil wars and revolution. Presbyterians saw the reign of the godly slip from their fingers, only to be followed by millenarian republicans who saw Cromwell slinking further and further from their expectations. The apocalyptic fervor of defeating the Roman anti-christ (whether in Ireland or Spanish Jamaica), as well as crushing apostate materialists like the Dutch (which fueled enthusiasm for the first Anglo-Dutch war), sustained itself on fumes as these wars and rumors of wars did nothing. Not alone, many of these Protestants either turned towards more universally applicable providential schemes, creating the proto-liberalism that would further develop in the eighteenth century, or turned inwards to God's sole revelation in man's heart. For the latter, public life was a distraction that God didn't care much about, except in as much as leading people out of it, or at least its penultimate importance. Presbyterians and Quakers would struggle to straddle this line as they became key merchants and manufacturers in the British empire, even as they were rapidly attentive for events in these industries as reflecting on creeping vices. In the case of some, the tension snapped and either an embrace of naturalist deism became the norm, or an embrace of zealous Christian living in the public life became a crusade (see the early Evangelicals). And yet this latter point only returns to the original problem, which was norm for the vast majority of Magisterial "Calvinists" in England and elsewhere during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

For me, we must find ourselves in the peculiar logic of the cross, where the author of the Hebrews sees glory through entering into depredations. It's not dialectical, having to bounce between light and dark to find their synthesis. Rather, it's God's provocation, that makes known our blindness or confirms us in our delusions of vision. If we see that we can't see, there will be restoration; if we can't see that we can't see, then the darkness will become our light. Justinian's black halo, like so many other regimes, is a reminder of what we are and what we could become, as well as an even starker warning to priests, who worship prostrate, palms open, before lord of flies, thinking they see God.

Providence is crucial (in both sense of the word). Without it, we die parched in the desert of the real. And yet, for those like Procopius and Proudhon, providential thinking is not only drinking sand at a mirage oasis, but commanding others to do the same under pain of deprivation or death. But we see Jesus, who may anchor our souls behind the veil. amen

Friday, June 7, 2019

The Virtue of Moderation: Cappadocians and Christological Crisis

While reading through John Meyendorff's Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions, which is a pretty handy overview of the 4th through 7th centuries, I found the following passage, which stirred some thoughts. The context is the aftermath of Chalcedon (451) and the rise of an anti-Chalcedonian, miaphysite, party:
The [post-Chalcedonian] situation required great minds, capable of solving problems in the manner in which the great Cappadocian fathers-St Basil, St Gregory of Nazianzus-had in the late fourth century solved the dilemma between the strict adepts of the Nicaean theology of Athanasius, and the bona fide critics of the homoousios, for whom the term implied modalism. The council of Chalcedon had attempted precisely a similar clarifying settlement, by using a language which would allay fears of Apollinarism and Eutychianism, existing in some minds, as well as fears of Nestorianism existing in others. But the success of this orthodox settlement needed pastoral tolerance, intellectual honesty and authentic desire for unity in truth. Instead, there was, on one side [pro-Chalcedon], christological ambiguity and imperial power-politics, and on the other [anti-Chalcedon miaphysites], blind conservatism, brutal demagoguery and, later, the defense of ethnic particularism against imperial centralization. (pg. 193)
The interesting thing in this quote is not Meyendorff's liberal disposition (a product of being son of a Russian noble, grown up in exile community of Paris, and becoming a dean of St. Vladimir's Seminary in New York). This is not to say a liberality of sentiment is necessarily a bad thing. But the interesting point here is how a particular form of moderation would have (in Meyendorff's view) help fend off the rupture post-451.

Now, I think Meyendorff uncritically reads the transcripts of Chalcedon, and finds it a moderate and deliberative process more than it actually was. But even if it is more moderate (and Meyendorff doesn't downplay the caesaropapist format it had), Chalcedon is not the issue. It was the handling of the issues that was key. I think it's fair to say that the miaphysite rupture (and then schism) reflected a Cyrillian fundamentalism, doubling down on the terms laid down. And yet, in response, Meyendorff is correct to say that Chalcedonians did themselves no favor in not clearly accepting the single subject of Christ, saying that the Word of God's flesh suffered. Miaphysites countered, drawing on Cyril's Twelve Anathemas, that the Word of God suffered in the flesh. The problem was that no one quite understood what the issues were. No one was willing to get at the bottom of the problem, which was the differentiation between who and what when it came to talking about Christ. And as the east Roman empire had become more and more invested in the use of the church as a bulwark of the state, of the commonwealth, deciding orthodoxy (or trying to paste over differences) became all the more paramount. So, in a way, it's not simply that the 5th century lacked a Basil or a Gregory. It's that these men would have had no place in this world. They barely managed in the 4th century, where conciliar fundamentalism, or the dogmatism of a single teacher, was still not clear.

But what did Gregory and Basil do? Each, in their own way, contributed something unique. Gregory of Nazianzus was an especially gifted mind. He had the highest level of educated, being trained at the school of Athens, which permanently marked his mind with a classicism that he shared even with the neo-pagan emperor Julian. And yet he would also disown the Hellenism of this education, bending his education for new purposes. Being a keen intellect, Nazianzen could clearly grasp the issues of the day. Following Christopher Beeley's work on him, Gregory was a subtle theologian. He learned much from Origen, but purged it of the unhelpful elements. He firmly grasped the growing rift in theology that had started in 3rd century of Antioch. There Paul of Samosata was condemned for his two-sons doctrine, but the Antiochene orthodox countered with the divinity of Jesus' soul. This conjugated into Apollonaris' claim that Jesus had a divine nous (something meaning 'mind', but more than the intellectual connotations of the English word implies). According to Beeley, Gregory hammered this view, but so hard as he hammered the christology of Theodore of Mopsuestia.

While not quite the same, Theodore represented a return to the Samosatene. The problem was how best to understand the strict monotheism and monolatry of Christian theology (i.e. there was only one Creator God, and He alone deserved worship), while also making sense of the liturgical prayers to Christ prevalent in the Church. An accusation of man-worship hung about in the air (especially from non-Christian Jewish rivals). One solution, propounded by Paul, was that there was a radical distinction between the man Jesus and the Word of God that overlapped. In someways, this is somewhat similar to the Nicaean position of Marcellus of Ancyra (at least as far as I understand). The counter-point from Paul's opponents was that Jesus was not simply a man with a divine cursor hover over him and clicking commands for him to follow. Jesus is divine, is God, and yet He was also clearly a man. Thus these Syrian Christians designated the soul of Christ as the divine locus. Of course, this designation, when combined with speculative philosophical concerns about the nature of God, could also lead to the Arian position. Thus, when Arius broke out on the scene, and Nicaea condemned him, many bishops were wary. Why? Because the grammar of Nicaea, speaking of homoousious, a term not found in scripture, seemed to imply a similar theology that would lead back to the Samosatene. Apollonaris was one way forward, redoubling a tradition of how to properly speak of Jesus' divinity, without quite losing His humanity (though losing His mind!), as well as properly distinguishing that there was some sort of plurality in the Godhead. Strict monotheism didn't imply a collapse into the face-changing modalism of Marcellus.

Now, I think, Gregory understood these issues, having been patient with them. However, he was not the most courageous figure, and thus his criticism of Theodore's rising star at Constantinople was subdued. However this quiet for Gregory was probably fearful (one scholar of Gregory referred to him as a hot-house flower, wilting easily under pressure, which was mounting as he chaired the council of Constantinople).

Yet for Basil it was something else. Basil was a bridge-builder. Also educated in Athens, where he became life-long friends with Gregory, Basil applied himself to the actual ecclesiastical troubles at hand. He was not so ready to die on the hill of homoousious as Athanasius was, and he was also not so willing to make reckless alliances (as Athanasius was with Marcellus). Basil took the fear of the homoian bishops seriously. They had a point. He was even conciliatory with the pneumatimachoi, those who rejected the fully Godhead of the Holy Spirit, because they too had a point. Both groups were concerned about being bound under unbiblical language. They were worried about the implications of what might be a return to Paul of Samosata, an embrace of Sabellian modalism, or denying the full humanity of Christ. In addition, there were also ecclesiastical problems afoot, particularly in Antioch where three claimants to the bishopric eventually appeared. Basil waded these waters, being strictly pro-Nicaean, without giving up his patience with those who still straddled the fence. He had no time with arrogance fools like Euonomius, who thought he could bottle God in his head through metaphysical education. But he seemed to stress a pastoral sensitivity and compassion for those bishops who were searching scripture, immersed in tradition, and trying to understand the issues.

And that's the point here. Moderation for its own sake is not a virtue. In fact, in its best sense it's a stopgap for worse things; in its worse, it's simply cowardice and self-preservation. There's nothing true about the method of looking for the mean. At its best, that's simply rhetoric; at its worse, it's muddled thinking and lies. But the kind of moderation Meyendorff recognizes in the Cappadocians is the kind that is, ultimately, patient and understanding for the purposes of unity in the faith. Gregory was more of the intellect, and Basil the forbearing pastor. But each in their own way successfully contributed to combating error, while also grabbing hold of the truth in its multiform. Nazianzen deftly understood problems at work, and could piece a solution together. Basil could understand the fears, concerns, and confusion, and worked hard to build an alliance.

Of course, Meyendorff's assessment is not exactly true. What Gregory and Basil accomplished was not complete, and it didn't actually solve anything. The problems rolled into the 5th century, marking out the chaos, lies, and schism of the 5th century. As I noted in the previous posts that I addressed these issues, there are ways in which the dyophysites and miaphysites have valid concerns and legitimate greivances. But trying to force unity, whether through compromised mediocrity or exclusionary zeal, only resulted in breakdown and violence. In the end, Meyendorff is right to commend Basil and Gregory. And we should commend them as well.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Counting the Ages: Tyconius, Hermeneutics, and the End

In past posts, I valued Tyconius as a corrective to Augustine, especially in how evaluation of the times. Unlike Augustine, who the eccentric Donatist taught some of his biblical hermeneutics, I argued Tyconius taught a more tangible sense of ecclesiastical separation. Rather than simply a reality that we awaited in the Last Judgement, Tyconius argued that God would bring about separation in this age, and thus it tempered Augustine's laxer imperial church with a stronger sense of discipline. But the meaning of this separation depends upon what Tyconius means by the Lord's work of separation.

Well, perhaps I was wrong about Tyconius. In a recent work, The Donatist Church in an Apocalyptic Age (by Jesse Hoover), this account of Tyconius (which had been the predominant reading) is twisted. Hoover argues that Tyconius did not precede Augustine's symbolic-spiritual hermeneutics of the millennial reign. Rather, Tyconinus believed that the rupture between the Catholic/Caecillianist party and the Donatists portended what was to happen to other Roman churches. Tyconius was still very much a Donatist in his apocalyptic exegesis. The problem was that he was not willing to see the Donatists as simply the remnant, but a remnant beset with internal corruptions and false brethren. This caveat did not mean Tyconius equivocated between the two factions; he was still adamantly in the Donatist camp as the true church. But that didn't mean he was willing to see Africa as the providential center. Tyconius differed from his brethren, not in his spiritualization of apocalyptic texts, but in how he understood the events of the nearing End. As Hoover argues, Tyconius saw what was happening in Africa as a "dress rehearsal" for what was to happen elsewhere. He was not willing to condemn other churches across the Mediterranean for their support of the Caecillianists, but that these churches too were about to undergo a schism. In a word, Tyconius was a bit more universal in applying his Donatist hermeneutic. He didn't restrict the remnant, and the Lord's work, to Africa.

Hoover represents an anti-revisionist turn from Tyconius as the not quite Catholic to Tyconius the clear Donatist. Augustine couldn't understand why Tyconius didn't become a Catholic, believing him to be inconsistent with his principles. According to Hoover, this statement doesn't emerge from Augustine's anti-premillennialism. Rather, Augustine is quoted as being tolerant of premillennials to a point: their error was in misreading symbols, and their spiritual referents, as material goods. Augustine recoiled from those who imagined Paradise as a literal banquet full of literal gluttony. Take that as you will, but it does mean Augustine's divergence with Tyconius here (who was not materialist in these regards) does not necessitate a shared spiritualization of Revelation's varied symbols. Tyconius saw no contradiction between his symbolism (clear in The Book of Rules) and his expectant millennial end. Augustine disagreed, but would welcome,Tyconius' premillennial, Donatist derived, eschatology.

If Hoover's argument is true (and it might be), it means that I would revise my claims about Tyconius. But it does push forward an interesting, more nuanced argument.

For one thing, it means that Augustine's hermeneutics represent a positive move. Contrary to some presentations, the Donatists were not anti-Constantinian and were actually a lot more normal in their context. Their radicalization of millennarian beliefs only came from state pressure, but they did not reject the state as such. It's quite possible that with pro-Donatist prefects, they would've turned the tables and crushed the Catholics. Certainly some rabid Donatists channeled traditions of African (the province) violence into martyr-like acts of violence (c.f. Circumcellions). But this was unlikely due to the increasingly parochial nature of the Donatist position in the wider church. Since Constantine had sided on behalf of the Caecillianists, most churches saw this side as the brethren. Hoover argues that Tyconius, though perhaps idiosyncratic, represented a more traditional Donatist eschatology, which his rivals had radicalized under pressure. Africa was not merely a fore taste of an apocalyptic series of events elsewhere, leading to the end, but was the process of the end. Africa became sacralized for the Donatist, the geographic homeland of the righteous remnant.

Augustine thus learned Tyconius' attention to scriptural symbols, but instead applied a more spiritual reading. In other words, Augustine was not ready to anchor down in specific times. Rather unique for his age (according to Hoover), Augustine did not think the world yet evangelized, and thus the End could not come. Thus, as many commentators had pointed out, Augustine was neither pro-Africa like the Donatists, but neither was he pro-Roman as many of his contemporaries were. Augustine was unwilling to see the times as about to be fulfilled, even if there was a temporal correspondence to these symbols without, then, investing time with its conclusive meaning.

But, as some have pointed out, Augustine was a very Hellenistic exegete. He had drunk deep from the wells of neo-Platonism, and this philosophical schema helped Augustine read. This hermeneutical difference was probably what set Augustine at variance with many of his African fellows. But were their views any better? I would say, against my earlier posts, that they were not.

Much of African theology was influenced by the works of Tertullian and Cyprian. While Augustine represented a neo-Platonic hermeneutic, the contrast was not a biblical one at home in its mode of symbolism. In contrast, both Tertullian and Cyprian also used a Greco-Roman hermeneutic. In terms of knowing the times, it's very clear from both Africans that they thought in terms of the degrading ages. One form of Hellenic age-keeping saw time move in epochal cycles. First the gold, then the silver, than the bronze, and then the iron, with an age of heroes sometimes wedged between bronze and iron. The ages became sequentially worse, until barbarism reclaimed the land and plunged it into darkness. Latin Christians, educated in these classics, Christianized this hermeneutic, seeing a sequential move towards decay and destruction. They could easily map these views onto Jesus' statements about the nearing End and the horrors yet to come. It could develop into a peculiar premillennial belief in the coming End, even if the ages were now to be calculated through biblical symbols. The coming time-times-and-a-half of Daniel's prophecy was read over Christ's Passion, invoking a nearing 350 year coming doomsday. Other calculations were then deployed to adjust when that date (somewhere in the 380s) came and passed.

There's an ironic lesson in all of this, I think. It means that while Augustine's hermeneutic was faulty, even though he at least understood symbolism, he actually got something right. The world was yet to be evangelized, and he did not think speculating about how many years until the Great Apostasy was fruitful. Of course, this point does not validate his methodology. Augustine didn't understand the biblical notion of Ages better than his Donatist opponents. But that doesn't mean he can't draw a right conclusion. He at least understood why Jesus told His disciples that His return was unknown. Many Christians (then and now) ignore these warnings foolishly.

In conclusion, I don't think Tyconius had an impressive biblical theology worth seriously engaging. Augustine was (by accident!) better. But it does require us to keep searching and understanding. Tyconius, and the Donatist theology he represents, show us how effortless eliding our own milieu into the biblical text is.  Tyconius is not the worst, and there are interesting and valuable things to learn from him. Take what's good, and leave the rest.