First thoughts upon finishing Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy

I recently finished the Celestial Hierarchy of (Pseudo-)Dionysius the Areopagite. This is the first work of the Dionysian corpus I’ve spent any time with, although I’ve read about him before (e.g. Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition). A few thoughts.

First things first, for readers of this blog: Ps-Dionysius is the author of a corpus of mystical-theological works, pretending to by the Dionysius of the Areopagus converted by St Paul in Acts 17:34. Despite the attempts of the translator of the version I read (Rev. John Parker), Dionysius did not write any of these. St Ignatius does not quote him — he quotes St Ignatius. And most of the other internal evidence is precisely what you’d do if you were writing a forgery. Anyway, that’s largely neither here nor there for my purposes; it’s just worth noting.

These treatises of spiritual theology appeared around the year 500 and were instantly successful in the eastern Church, on both (all three?) sides of the Chalcedonian divide. I am unsure, but I do not know of any Latin translation until Eriugena in the 800s. Enough introduction.

First and foremost, before discussing the idea of hierarchy itself, Dionysius is a good place to go to get embroiled in the philosophy of God and apophatic theology. Apophatic theology is discussing God by negation — God is infinite, immortal, invisible, etc. He is encountered in the cloud of Mt Sinai (Ex 24:18).

Writes the Areopagite:

And so Divine things are honoured by negations which teach the truth, and by comparisons with the lowest things which are diverse from their proper representation. For the reasons assigned, there is nothing absurd if they depict even the celestial Beings under dissimilar similitudes with misrepresent them. (ch. 2, p. 21 in Parker)

I really, really like the idea of ‘dissimilar similitudes’. God is the final cause of all that is. He is the unmoved mover. He is the Being that is ultimately beyond Being. Anything we can say about God we say through analogy, and all of our analogies break down — thus, dissimilar similitudes.

Later, when discussing what the Seraphim taught Isaiah, Dionysius writes:

The Theologian [Isaiah] then learned, from the things seen, that as compared with every superessential pre-eminence, the Divine was seated above every visible and invisible power, and that He is exalted above all, as Absolute — not even comparable to the first of created Beings. Further also, that He is the very Being of all, and Cause of all cause, and unalterable centre of the undissolved continuance of all, from Whom is both the being and the well-being of the most exalted Powers themselves. (ch. 13, p. 41 in Parker)

I imagine some people’s minds may be aching. Some may be crying out with Abba Serapion, when forbidden to imagine God anthropomorphically, ‘They have taken away my God, and I do not know where to find him!’ (A story from Cassian.) But I hope you will give the philosophy of God and Being and causation some thought.

Here is a reason, if you need one. I was once attempting to explain to a friend that not only do I find God as Final Cause a logical necessity, I also, nevertheless, believe that God can be considered personal, or, at least, not less than the personal. Now, most people who are unacquainted with the theology of personhood of, say, Met. John Zizioulas (Being As Communion) can only imagine person = humanoid. My friend thus proclaimed that by calling God ‘person’, it is the same as pigeons imagining a god who is simply just a big superpigeon.

I had to leave, but not having read Zizioulas, let alone any other philosophy of God, at that point, I am not sure how I would have answered him back then.

Apophatic theology and dissimilar similitude assert that God is beyond being, but that He is somehow like Being as we think of it. God is personal, but (to cite a chapter title of C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity) beyond personality.

Briefly on hierarchy. Andrew Louth tells me that this is the first instance of the word. And it is not what we mean. We see hierarchy as a chain of command, of those with authority commanding and controlling those underneath them, from the Field Marshal to the Private.

For Dionysius — and here we get a bit Neoplatonist — the hierarchy is about communicating knowledge of and grace from God from those higher to those lower. Each order of celestial beings has its own place in the hierarchy, and each position has its own capacity to know God and role to play in the economy of God’s universe. The celestial hierarchy is the means by which God manifests Himself to His creation in the way most perfect and most suited to each rank of the celestial beings.

This is not hierarchy as we know it, and we should think on that when we consider our role in the institutional hierarchies we inhabit. How are we helping those below us fulfil their own role? How do we relate to those above us? What is our role? Maybe a more grace-filled, Dionysian approach to our work and life would be beneficial.

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What do you mean, “God is love”? (Part two, the Trinity and Jane Williams)

Trinity KnotOn Saturday, we established that historically and biblically, the word love in “God is love” from 1 John 4 translates agape/caritas/dilectio, which are terms used in the historical and philosophical tradition of Christianity — drawing much from 1 Corinthians 13, no doubt — to express the highest form of love. Formerly, this term was charity in English — as C S Lewis discusses it in The Four Loves, charity is that love that loves the unloveable; it is not provoked by anything outstanding or desireable in the beloved. It is truly selfless in its treatment of the recipient of love. To get a picture of what God’s love looks like, I direct you to Fr Aidan Kimel’s discussion of St Isaac the Syrian on the astonishing love of God.

This, however, does not fully plumb the depths of “God is love”. In fact, it doesn’t really skim the surface.

The failure of this semantic discussion to grasp at what it means for God to be charity was driven home to me a couple of weeks ago when participating in the Church of England’s ‘Pilgrim Course’. The current module of the course is on the Creeds. One of the soundbites played as part of the course — and helpfully transcribed in the course booklet — is from Jane Williams (wife of Rowan), discussing how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus draw us into believing in the Trinity, and notes:

The very terms ‘Father’, ‘Son’ and ‘Holy Spirit’ are not proper names or descriptions of functions but terms that describe relationships. The persons of the Trinity are not interchangeable but nor do they ‘do’ different things …

This, of course, does not hit at the question of ‘What do you mean, “God is love”?’ That question is addressed in her final paragraph:

It is only because we know that God is Trinity that we can say that God is love. It would, otherwise, be possible to surmise that God is loving, or acts lovingly, but to say that God is love is only possible for this reason: because within the very being of God is the relationship between three persons and the self-giving that characterizes love. (Pilgrim Course, The Creeds, p. 25)

Love (or ‘luv’), as dc Talk once said, is a verb. It is actually both a noun and a verb in English, and in more highly inflected languages like Greek and Latin, we have both verbal and nominal forms of the words (I’ve grown too frustrated by my Greek polytonic keyboard to try using the alphabet; forgive me!). Greek: agapao, agapeeroserotaophileo, philia. Latin: diligo, dilectio; amo, amor. Caritas, however, comes from carus, not from any car- verb of which I know — which no doubt governed Augustine’s choice of dilectio to refer to this highest kind of love, thus enabling him to switch between nominal verbal uses of love.

The point of this little philological tangent is to say: Love the noun requires love the verb.

For God to literally be agape, the logic of language and the logic, indeed, of love, requires Him to have somebody to love.

According to Christian theology, God is self-existent and non-contingent. He is pure ousia/essence. Therefore, for agape/charity to be Who God is in His essence, God must, by definition, somehow be more than One (yet without transgressing the Unity).

The logic of Trinity in Unity, then, is the logic of self-giving, overflowing love. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit exist as a Communion of Persons (see Zizioulas, Being As Communion), being an integral Unity free from division (see Aquinas, saint of the week here). The love of the Father for the Begotten spills over to the Spirit. And He/They choose to express this superabundant agape in creation.

This is what it means that God is love. A love so deep, profound, and literally infinite, we can never plumb its depths nor come within hearing distance of the greatness of its superabundance. To close, then, some Thomas Merton:

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Christ and submission

Annunciation by Antoniazzo da Romano, in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome
Annunciation by Antoniazzo da Romano, in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome

An interesting little piece recently appeared called ‘No More Lying About Mary’. It’s not bad, although it treads too closely to assumptions re the virginal conception (that is, I suspect [but may be wrong] the author denies it and thinks it is a story that tells Bad Things About Women and Sex, whereas it is a truth that tells us Good Things About Jesus) and verges on blasphemy on thinking that God would be pedophilic in choosing a teenage Mary to be the Mother of Our Lord.

Very little in the piece is new. The author rightly tries to take away the idea that Mary embodies a modern form of submissiveness, which is certainly not the case. Indeed, we see the Blessed Virgin carefully scrutinising the Angel Gabriel about his person and his news before she says, ‘Let it be unto me according to your will.’ And, as I like to observe, she is pretty much the only receiver of an angelic messenger in the Bible who, having heard all that was to be said, says yes without making excuses. None of the ‘great men of the Bible’ were so in tune with God that they were ready to embrace His will once they knew it.

So we need to praise St Mary, as the article encourages us.

Nonetheless, the author is keen to attack something called ‘submissiveness’.

‘Submissiveness’ seems to be something horrific imposed upon Mary by the patriarchy and used to subjugate women throughout history.

I don’t think it’s something I’m interested in.

And, given the long line of biblical and saintly women such as the warrioress Deborah, or Judith cutting of Holofernes’ head, or the BVM, or Sts Hildegard, Hilda, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Ávila, and Lady Julian of Norwich, I don’t think that traditional Christianity is actually interested in some form of submissiveness, and certainly not the subjugation of women.

Now, certain men throughout the history of the Church have clearly done their best to misuse Scripture and Tradition to that end, but that’s not the same thing. Just as we are to take neighbourliness, love, non-coercive preaching, and freedom to worship in synagogues from St Gregory the Great as the Christian approach to our Jewish neighbours, so we should look to the right thinkers in how Christian men and women love women (Christian and otherwise).

In the comments section, the author says, ‘Christ is never about submission, is always about raising us up and setting us free.’

Unfortunately, this isn’t true.

Christ is certainly about raising us up and setting us free.

But He is not never about submission.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m slowly working my way through St Augustine of Hippo, On the Trinity. It’s a good time. One of the issues that any reading of Scripture in relation to the Trinity and Christology must work through is what to do with statements such as, ‘The Father is greater than I.’ (Jn 14:28) (A more readable, modern discussion of such statements is Browne’s Exposition of the 39 Articles.) In his Incarnate state, as St Augustine shows, Jesus the Christ is clearly submissive to the Father.

Here are some of the passages where Christ, Who is God the Word Incarnate, mentions this submission to the Father (all NRSV):

for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. (Jn 12:49)

Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. (Jn 5:19)

Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. (Jn 4:34)

I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. (Jn 6:38)

Jesus Himself practised submission. What is remarkable is that these statements all come from the Gospel of John, which is notorious for having the highest Christology of the Gospels. John 1:1 says, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,’ making it clear further on that Jesus is the Word. In this Gospel, Jesus says, ‘Before Abraham was, I am!’, and, ‘I and the Father are one,’ and, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father’, and various other similar things not at the top of my head.

Once we acknowledge that the Bible teaches us that Jesus Himself was submissive to the will of the Father, we have a couple of options. We can explain it away or maybe reject these parts of the Bible. Or we can read the Bible holistically and see what this submission to the Father tells us both about Christ and about submission. In so doing, I believe we will shatter the false dichotomy between submission and freedom.

My approach to the Bible, unlike (I imagine — I could be wrong) that of the author of the Patheos blog who, elsewhere in the comments section, embraces John Dominic Crossan as the foremost NT scholar of our age, is necessarily triadic and deeply Trinitarian. I blame John Zizioulas, St Gregory of Nazianzus, the Athanasian Creed, and my Dad’s confirmation classes.

The Holy Trinity is three Persons in one God. They are consubstantial. But there is only one God. There are three hypostaseis but only one ousia. For a biblical defense of the Trinity, I again refer the reader to chapter one of Browne. In the modern Greek reading of the Cappadocian Fathers offered us by Zizioulas in Being As Communion, the Persons of the Trinity are a communion, and this communion is the foundation of all being. It’s beautiful and profound; don’t forget my bit on why the Trinity matters.

By the logic of the Trinity, God the Word has always existed, being with the Father from all eternity. He, the Father, and the Holy Spirit exist in a union that can perhaps best be described as ecstatic, self-emptying love. If we can redeem the concept of eros, they are filled with a universe-creating desire for one another. They choose out of their love to make stuff — the universe we inhabit — so that there can be more stuff to love. Not because they have to. Creation is contingent on the Most Holy Trinity; not the other way around.

This mutual giving and receiving pervades the whole of their Creation.

And then, out reasons directly related to the overflowing love of the Trinity for the Creation, One of the Persons of the Trinity chooses to be incarnate as a Man.

But He is also sent. Sent by the Father. He comes to earth to do the will of the One Who sent Him. There is no clearer message of submission than that.

However, Christ our God and God the Father exist in a perfect love relationship. Each is perfect and holy. Each loves perfectly and holily (not a word, sorry).

Therefore, when Incarnation is on the table, One of Them submits gladly out of love, and the Other Two gladly send Him to us.

Biblical submission is not about submission to clerics or to forces of power or to men or to anything else. It is about perfect submission in perfect love to the one who loves you perfectly.

And this is why we, too, submit. We submit to the Holy Trinity not because He/They tell us to or because He/They is powerful or He/They is lording it over us, but because He/They love us perfectly and know us perfectly and know what’s best for us, so we, in a love relationship of trust, submit to Them and Their perfect relationship of perfect love and holy trust.

We are called elsewhere in Scripture to submit to one another, bearing each other’s burdens in love (Eph 5:21). St Paul doesn’t do so well in feminist circles today, but once again, the Scriptural virtue of submission is not the same as submissiveness. It is about willfully choosing to abandon self-love and self-will and self-fulfillment and self-importance to help others, choosing the obscure and uncomfortable path of service and love. It is about giving up myself and loving other people because Christ tells us that in others we will find Him. It is treating others better than ourselves, whether they are male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile, Greek or Scythian — and whether we are any of these things ourselves.

As Christ says, those who lose their lives for His sake will find them (Mt 16:25).

When we come against the perceived ‘traditional’ view of something, especially when it has been misused, we need to seek the true tradition and the biblical use of that word. Perhaps submission is unpopular today. But perhaps it is where freedom lies. Perhaps meekness is unpopular today — and that’s a shame, since the meek will inherit the earth! (Mt 5:5)

Origen and the Development of Orthodoxy

I have been reading Origen’s On First Principles recently, and a thought came to me which had come to me before (you can thank me for being suitably vague later). This newly-recurring thought is that Origen and “Origenism” are the formative source and root for Christian controversy and Orthodoxy.

Now, you’re probably going to tell me that it’s actually biblical interpretation, such as the interrelation of Proverbs 8:22 with John 1. And you’d be right. But whose biblical interpretation do you think everyone was arguing about?

Origen’s.

Case One: Arianism. Origen’s Christology, as represented both in On First Principles and his Commentary on John is subordinationist, and, although he does not believe, “There was when he was not,” he at times calls Christ “created” and could be read through an Arian viewpoint, especially given the lack of homoousios theology. However, in On First Principles, Origen is also fond of the image of the Son being like the rays of light from the sun — this is an image favoured by Athanasius, the great opponent of Arianism. Hm…

Case Two: Pneumatomachianism (aka Macedonianism, literally “Spirit-fighter-ism“). Origen’s theology of the Holy Spirit is relatively undeveloped, in my opinion. When, in On First Principles, he comes to discussing the Spirit, he gets himself sidetracked with a discussion about spirit more broadly. He once again has a subordinationist view, saying that the Father’s being overflows into the Son who overflows into the Spirit.  The Spirit at times feels more like a personification of spirit, not necessarily a self-subsisting person or hypostasis.

This ambiguity of the treatment of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity ended up with Origenists such as the Pneumatomachians arguing against the Spirit’s divinity and other Origenists such as Didymus the Blind in On the Holy Spirit arguing for the Spirit’s divinity.

Case Three: The First Origenist Controversy. This controversy was specifically about Origen and some of his less … mainline … teachings and his approach to Sacred Scripture; some people (Epiphanius of Salamis, Jerome) were certain that he was an out-and-out heretic and deserved condemnation, and that his allegorical interpretations went too far. Others (John Chrysostom, John Cassian, Rufinus of Aquileia) argued that Origen was largely orthodox. In the heat of it all, Chrysostom ended up dead, Rufinus and Jerome ruined their friendship, and the golden age of Egyptian monasticism was gone forever.

His defenders found precisely where he was worth fighting for, and his opponents found the places where he was worth attacking. What constitutes orthodoxy was, as a result, more clearly defined, but, thanks, in the West at least, largely to Rufinus’ translations of Origen and John Cassian’s work in Gaul, allegorical readings of Scripture were never fully lost.

Case Four: The Cappadocian Fathers. Gregory Thaumaturgus was a student of Origen, and the Cappadocians (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) were students of Thaumaturgus. They were also involved in the later stages of both the Arian and Pneumatomachian Controversies. Gregory of Nyssa was able to produce theological writings after the triumph of Nicene Orthodoxy in 381.

Within the bounds of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan understanding of the Trinity, these three Orthodox Fathers par excellence produced Trinitarian theology that follows the trajectory set out by Origen. Origen, unlike his Platonist predecessors, rooted the being of God (His ontology) in being a Father, not in being a Creator. This meant that there never was a time when the Father lacked the Son. It also meant that the Godhead is a distinct being from creation who depends not at all upon the created order. It also means that the very root and source of the universe is rooted in communion (see John Zizioulas, Being As Communion to have your mind blown on this count). These were points taken up by Athanasius, but their nuances were really explored and set forth for us by the Cappadocians.

Case Five: The Second Origenist Controversy. This was a controversy about a number of Origen’s cosmological statements that were being espoused by a group of “fanatical” Palestinian monks. In 553, in meetings before the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II), Justinian and the Fathers determined that certain Origenist statements were outside the bounds of orthodoxy, and in the Acts of the Council itself, Origen and Evagrius are condemned outright as heretics.

This meant that such teachings as celestial bodies having souls or apocatastasis (seriously, get into Patristics for the awesome terminology) which teaches that at the end of all things God will reconcile all rational beings to Himself (presumably the Devil as well — Evagrius certainly thinks so) — such teachings are officially outside of orthodoxy. It also means that very few of Origen’s writings survive, and far fewer of Evagrius Ponticus’ — although one of his writings survived under St. Basil the Great’s name, another under Nilus. People will circulate what they wish, no matter how many books you burn.

In the end, so many of the big controversies of the early centuries of Christianity revolved around Origen, his understanding of Scripture and of God, and the Church’s understanding of Origen. He’s not exactly one of the early Christian theologians for one to start with, but he’s definitely worth reading, and certainly important.

Tomorrow: John Calvin on the Holy Trinity

Somehow, poor John Calvin has his name associated with a certain breed of hardheaded, argumentative, internet-addicted, theological-nitpicking jerk.  This is really too bad because John Calvin (though I personally would not go so far as to say that he completed the Reformation that Martin Luther started) was a brilliant man who wrote insightful Bible commentaries and sound, orthodox theology.  Besides that, lots of people of the Reformed/Calvinist position aren’t jerks and are open to thoughtful discussion of their beliefs, including things besides predestination again.

I’m not saying I agree with everything John Calvin ever wrote, especially regarding icons, and I’m not overly committed to the mechanics of predestination, but he is worth reading.  And worth reading for more than predestination.

So if all you think of when you hear, “John Calvin,” are those hardheaded jerks and endless arguments about predestination, please read his words on the Holy Trinity here (for those with their own print copies of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, it’s Book I, Chapter 13).

There you will find defense of the word “person” as well as a very brief history of it and its use (nothing as mind-crushing as Zizioulas’ in Being As Communion), a defense of the divinity of both the Son and the Holy Spirit, and a discussion of how the Unity in Trinity runs down the middle course between Arianism on the one hand (only the Father is God) and Sabellianism on the other (all three are different “modes” of God’s being).

For those who are thinking, “You say The Shack isn’t really theology, but where do I turn?”  Turn here!  It is briefer than Augustine’s On the Trinity, more modern than Boethius.  Here you will find the true, orthodox doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity expounded.  It is honey and sweetness to your ears, balm to your soul!  Read it and praise the Father, praise the Son, praise the Spirit — Three in One!

Saint of the Week: St. Athanasius

A few weeks ago, I had the “opportunity” to stand in a doorway and discuss the Bible and Christology with a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses as the floodgates of Heaven opened outside.  What stood out to me as we talked was how truly Arian their Christology is.  They encouraged me to read Proverbs 8:22-31 (“The LORD possessed me [Wisdom] at the beginning of his way …”) and tried convincing me that when the Word of John 1 is called “god” this doesn’t mean the same thing as the God with whom the Word is.

I did my best to pull out some St. Athanasius — Jesus is the only-begotten Son of the Father.  If like begets like (“Do you have a son? Is he of the same nature as you?”), and the Father is God, then God begets God, so the Son must be God.  I also used the analogy of the sun and its rays being different but the same and one being incomplete without the other.  That analogy breaks down — as well it should, for God is the Creator and entirely different from His creation.  St. Athanasius was an appropriate choice to use in debate with the Jehovah’s Witnesses because he spent most of his ecclesiastical career arguing against the heresy of Arianism.

St. Athanasius (c.296-373) is one of the Four Doctors of the Eastern Church.  He was born of Christian parents of Egyptian, not Greek, descent, and educated in the Greek Christian catechetical school in Alexandria.  He was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325 as a deacon and witnessed firsthand the debates about the divinity and eternity of Christ (Arius’ famous one-liner: “There was when he was not.”).  This is the Council that gave us that famous Creed that forms the basis of what we recite in churches around the world today (my translation here).  St. Athanasius was to spend the rest of his life combatting the teachings of the Arians and the Semi-Arians (or “homoiousians“), especially following his consecration as Bishop of Alexandria in 328.

He did his best to be a pastoral bishop, but constantly found himself running into heretical Arians or schismatic Meletians who were out to get him.  These run-ins, such as the Council of Tyre, had a tendency to end up with him in exile.  He was in exile in Trier (335-7), Rome (339-46), and the countryside around Alexandria (356-61, 362-3, 365-6).  While in exile within Egypt itself, he had occasion to take refuge with the nascent monastic movement that was flourishing at this time (ie. The Desert Fathers), encountering St. Antony about whom he would write one of the most influential works of hagiography (available in Carolinne D. White, Early Christian Lives).

His time spent in the West meant that the links between East and West were strengthened.  The Bishops of Rome during his episcopate (St. Sylvester I, St. Marcus, St. Julius I, Liberius, and St. Damasus I) were supportive of his teachings and polemic against Arianism.  Much of St. Athanasius’ work was translated into Latin, and he is one of the better-known Eastern Fathers in the West as a result of his time there and papal connections.

His theological works are focussed largely on the Person of God the Son, as seen in De Incarnatione Verbi Domini (On the Incarnation) and in his famous Contra Arianos.  One result of St. Athanasius’ reasoning about the Person of God was the statement that the Bible names God as Father.  This means that ontologically (ie. at the very root of Who God Is) God is Father.  Since God is eternal and unchanging, He will always have been Father.  One cannot be a father without offspring; God, therefore, begets the Son in eternity; God the Son is therefore eternal.  The implications for understanding Who God Is and what personhood is are far-reaching (see J.D. Zizioulas, Being As Communion, chh. 1-2).

St. Athanasius, like most of the Fathers, was not just a theologian, not just a pastor, not just a preacher.  He was also a believer in the life of holiness.  This was the root of his support of the monastic movement, for it is with the monks that we see the enduring persistence of costly grace (see D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, ch. 1).  We are reminded that orthodoxy and orthopraxy are not to be divorced.  We are to think holy thoughts and live holy lives, worthy of the calling to which we are called.

St. Athanasius fell asleep on May 2, 373.  May we be half as vigorous in our defence of Truth as he.

Further Reading: Christopher A. Hall’s two books Reading Scripture With The Church Fathers and Learning Theology With The Church Fathers both deal with St. Athanasius.  I also recommend reading On the Incarnation as an entrance both to Athanasius and Patristic theology.