Perfection is infinite

When I was in undergrad, there was a friend of some friends who was interested in Christianity, but who believed that God/Christ being ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever’ and being perfect would mean that God could not act. Sameness, he argued, implied stasis; God cannot be a dynamic being if He is the same, but, rather, a static one. So God can’t do things, because doing things implies changing.

However, God is perfect, so He is perfectum, which means he is complete and lacks nothing. If we consider this idea in terms of fulfilling your our purpose or (since God is self-sufficient) being eminently what you are by nature or essence (ontologically), then we see that God can act and still be perfect; indeed, perhaps if God did not act, he would be imperfect. If perfection implies being what you are at its fullest, and God is love, then perfection would logically mean that God acts, but that none of his acts are imperfect. He loves perfectly.

He also, as I’ve argued here before, loves infinitely.

From this question, let us ask another. How can we fulfil Jesus’ command to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect? (Mt. 5:48) Or how do we understand Hebrews 10:14, where it is said, ‘by one sacrifice he [Christ] has made perfect forever those who are being made holy’? What does it mean when we think on heaven/paradise, where there seems to be an expectation that there will no longer be sin? Does this mean we sit around doing nothing?

By no means! In fact, it doesn’t even mean that we will have no room for growth and development. St Gregory of Sinai (c. 1260-1346) says:

It is said that in the life to come the angels and saints ever increase in gifts of grace and never abate their longing for further blessings. No lapse or veering from virtue to vice takes place in that life. –Philokalia, volume 4, p 222

The idea here is one that goes back at least to St Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) who discussed in The Life of Moses that since God is infinitely good, then we finite beings will never stop progressing in goodness. It is an interesting idea. Perfection for the finite means progress (true progress) in holiness, in becoming more like God (that is, theosis).

As far as this life is concerned, we must realise that we can always be holier, even if we are less sinful than we used to be. Our finite state of goodness is not simply marred by sin but limited by its own nature. St Athanasius (296-373) expresses the idea that Adam and Eve would have progressed in knowledge and maturity and holiness of a divine sort even if they hadn’t disobeyed in the Garden (see On the Incarnation).

Even the angels progress in grace.

This is what a better understanding of infinity and finitude can do for us. Ever upwards!

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Development of ‘Fathers’ of the Church 1: The Catena

A Gathering of the Holy Fathers

One of the developments in Christian thought we see in the fifth and sixth centuries is the concept of  ‘Church Father’. This development is one reason why D H Williams draws his ‘suspicious Protestants’ to the patristic period as it existed specifically before AD 500 — these are the writers who are considered by later writers (the later Fathers themselves!) as Fathers of the Church.

The Council of Chalcedon provides us with one of our early examples of this growing concept when it drafts its Definitio Fidei, which it introduces with the words, ‘Following the holy fathers,’ ie. of Nicaea, Constantinople I, and Ephesus I. These men themselves shall be calledSancti Patres in due course.

Other evidence for this growing perception of Fathers of the Church in the fifth century is found in the appearance of testimonia in writings in the disputes of the day. Testimonia are passages from previous writers one gathers together in a series (either a catena — lit. a chain — or a florilegium — lit. a gathering of flowers) appended to the end of a work or sometimes as the whole work itself. They are gathered together to add weight to one’s own position. An example of this is Theodoret of Cyrrhus, who appended testimonia to one of his letters.

Another early example is Leo the Great who appended Testimonia to his so-called ‘Second’ Tome, Ep. 165, to Emperor Leo I, seeking to demonstrate the validity of his two-nature christology. Leo includes passages from Hilary of Poitiers, Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Theophilus of Alexandria (via Jerome), Cyril of Alexandria, and Gregory of Nazianzus in his patristic testimonia. The inclusion of these testimonia is, no doubt, part of Leo’s own growing awareness that his own authority and argumentation were not ending the crisis he’d hoped to resolve at Chalcedon. He turned to his forebears in the faith, to authoritative authors to bolster his position.

Testimonia patrum as either florilegia appended to ‘original’ works or as catenae that comprised the entirety of a work really got rolling in the sixth century. An example of theology that was entirely rooted in patristic catenae is found in Leontius of Byzantium, who wrote his own discourses on Christology principally through the lens of previous writers.

The process really got moving, however, as biblical commentaries. Both East and West in the sixth century began an original endeavour of creative editing that produced an endless variety of comments and combinations on the text of Holy Scripture. Each editor, using either earlier catenae or his own extensive reading, would produce a commentary on the Bible full of short snapshots from the Fathers on the passage at hand (kind of like IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture).

These were not merely editorial technique, however. One can quote only what one chooses. One can purposefully misquote. One can accidentally misquote. One can splice two quotations together. Furthermore, the successors of one such anthologiser can simply add more quotations without doing damage to the text (it happens thus with Leo, Ep. 165 that some manuscripts have more passages than others).

What a patristic catena on a passage of Scripture can provide its creator is a comprehensive view that pretends to take into account all of the data. When done well, as in Bede, it can provide us with a single theological vision. It also creates for its readers the illusion of a consensus Patrum. ‘This,’ thinks the reader of a catena on Gen 6, ‘is what the Fathers thought!’

As the same Fathers are resorted to time and again in these anthologies, the thought of the Byzantine and medieval worlds is not always as divided as some would have you believe. As well, these people keep turning up again and again. They hold pride of place as the medieval and Byzantine Christians seek to interpret their Bibles in a faithful way that is true to their tradition and heritage.

In the East, this reading and rereading of the same Fathers means that by the age of Justinian, it not earlier, the Mono/Miaphysites and the Greek/Syriac Chalcedonians have almost the same way of thinking, just different words. They have read and reread Athanasius, Cyril, the Cappadocians, et al., time and time again as they seek to uncover the truth about the nature(s) of Jesus, and both sides have constructed catenae of testimonia from the Fathers to prove the other side wrong.

I believe that the patristic catena is one of the main reasons that East and West; Latin, Greek, Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian; Chalcedonian, Anti-Chalcedonian, and ‘Nestorian’; monks and bishops, all have a fairly similar grouping of Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and pre-Chalcedonian Fathers. For 1000 years they were reading quotations from these same people, all strung together, as they sought to interpret Scripture and theology.  These people are the common patrimony of all Christians, everywhere. They are the Fathers.