‘We ought to understand Jesus within context first’ – some thoughts on doing theology

A friend of mine likes to occasionally post religious questions on Facebook to inspire conversation. Today, I saw:

Before his Resurrection, did Jesus know that the Earth orbits the Sun?

My short answer, ‘Yes.’ I don’t actually know if it’s right, mind you.

One other answer troubles me not by its conclusion (‘No.’) but by the premisses the commenter alluded to:

I would say that he didn’t know. To provide an adequate rationale to my postulation will take me far too long. I think a start is to unpack how much western thought about God and systematics we have unappropriately projected onto Jesus while he was on earth. (Not that I am against western thought or systematics but we ought to understand Jesus within context first)

I am not entirely sure where this author is going, frankly. But it hints at things that concern me. Somehow, this person believes that understanding Jesus within context will cause us to reject an understanding of Jesus that would allow him to maintain divine knowledge whilst incarnate on earth.

First, I imagine (perhaps falsely) this person holds a dichotomous position between ‘Hebraic’ and ‘Greek’ thought. This is the sort of position that sometimes leads people to reject theological concepts about God such as His eternity (as classically understood), His Trinitarian ousia, his omniscience (as classically understood), impassibility as well as the creatio ex nihilo.

These ideas and others are often thought to be ‘Hellenistic’ importations, falsely grafted onto the pure ‘Hebraic’ gospel. This is not true. They are, in fact, Christian doctrines developed through prayerful reading of Scripture and resistance to ‘Hellenistic’ philosophy. For example, it is in resisting Plato in their reading of Scripture that Christians posit creatio ex nihilo and divine eternity as classically understood.

Let’s talk, then, about the hypostatic union, since that’s really what’s in question.

The hypostatic union is the theologically incomprehensible complete union of the divine and human in the single person (hypostasis) of Jesus Christ such that he is 100% God and 100% human. He has the properties of divinity and of humanity. But he is not two persons. He is one person. Some of us articulate this as Jesus existing in two natures, some think that divides him too far and makes him into a pantomime horse.

This immediately grabs you as a fine piece of Hellenistic philosophy, doesn’t it?

Except, of course, that no one knows how it works, and most people who try to explain it realise they can’t and choose, instead, to stand in awe before the mystery of God.

And, really, what resemblence does this owe to Jesus ‘within context’?

First, what is Jesus’ context? Hellenistic Judaism in the Greco-Roman world? The apostles composed their works in Greek and cited a Hellenistic Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. St Paul even quoted a Greek poet. John’s Gospel begins with its beautiful prologue on the divine Word.

Furthermore, throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus performs many miracles with no divine aid, no magic spells, and no invocation of any god. This sets him apart his contemporary miracle men, the Hebrew prophets, and the Apostles. He also rises from the dead in an unprecedented manner — no prophet or holy man is used as God’s instrument in the Resurrection, unlike when the prophets and Apostles do it. Jesus also seems to think he can forgive people’s sins. And when his earthly ministry is over, he ascends into heaven.

And that’s just from the Gospels, without turning to the earlier Christian writings of St Paul, who says some pretty heavy stuff about Jesus that points to him being God.

Jesus is God. He is also fully man.

How it works, of course, we cannot fully say. Hypostatic union.

But if we realise that Jesus is, in fact, fully man and fully God, how we determine divine knowledge during the incarnation is not merely some sort of question of Greek vs Hebrew, which is a false dichotomy.

But, frankly, no one reads or even tries to comprehend the Fathers anymore. If we understood them in their context, besides Jesus in his, we might find out that they are speaking the same theological language.

One Parthian shot. If ‘western’ is the problem, I present you with Ephrem the Syrian, one of the last exponents of Semitic, Syriac Christianity before it was ‘hellenised’. From his Hymns on the Incarnation:

From Hymn 8

Blessed is the Messenger who came bearing
a great peace.  By the mercy of His Father,
He lowered Himself to us.  Our own debts
He did not take up to Him.  He reconciled
[His] Lordship with His chattels.

Refrain: Glory to Your Dawn, divine and human.

Glorious is the Wise One Who allied and joined
Divinity with humanity,
one from the height and the other from the depth.
He mingled the natures like pigments
and an image came into being: the God-man.
O Zealous One who saw Adam
who became dust and the accursed serpent
eating him.  Reality dwelt
in what had lost its flavor.  He made him salt
by which the cursed serpent would be blinded.
Blessed is the Compassionate One Who saw, next to paradise,
the lance that barred the way
to the Tree of Life.  He came to take up
the body that would be struck so that by the opening in His side
He might break through the way into paradise.

From Hymn 12

Who indeed has seen the Babe Who is more ancient
than His bearer?  The Ancient One entered
and became young in her.  He emerged an infant
and grew by her milk.  He entered and became small in her;
He emerged and grew through her—a great wonder!

Typology As a Way Forward in Bible Reading

I have previously posted about the fourfold sense of Scripture here and here. Among the spiritual senses, we find typology. Typology, as you may recall, is when we see events, items, and persons in the Old Testament as prefigurations of New Testament theology. It is distinguished from allegory as allegory is when we see parallels in events in the Old Testament not only of the New Testament but also of our own spiritual journey. Thus, an allegorical reading of Genesis 3, while not denying the real Fall of humanity, will say that this is the story of Everyman.

Typology, on other hand, sees a moment as a single flash of the greatness of the fulfillment of the promises in Christ and the Church — Melchizedek is a type of Christ; the flashing sword in Eden is a type of Mary; the crossing of the Red Sea is a type of Baptism, Jerusalem is a type of the heavenly city, and so forth. I have already posted on Noah’s Ark as a type of Mary.

This approach to Scripture is never meant to entirely supplant the literal or historical meaning, something even its most famous proponent, Origen, acknowledges. Yet it seeks to see with spiritual eyes a new, different layer of meaning. Since the purpose of Scripture is to reveal to us the things of God and empower us to lead godly lives, I see no difficulty in this way of reading Scripture.

Indeed, many see this way of reading the Bible as a way forward for western biblical interpretation. Sebastian Brock writes:

the typological approach to the Bible as found in the Syriac (and of course other) Fathers is essentially a fluid one, refusing to be contained by dogmatic statements on the one hand, or considerations of modern biblical scholarship and its findings on the other. Indeed, one wonders whether this approach does not offer the openings of a via tertia for twentieth-century western Christianity in its dilemma when faced with the liberal critical approach to the Bible that to many seems purely destructive, on the one side, and a distastefully fundamentalist approach on the other. (p. 188)*

Now, one may argue that there already exists middle ground between liberal criticism and fundamentalism, but the idea of typology as being part of that middle ground is not a bad idea. With typology, we are able to say, “Indeed, the points of the liberal’s modernist critique may be valid, and the doctrinal concerns of the fundamentalist are also worthy of consideration, and with typology I am able to honour both.”

Suddenly, Scripture is not limited to a single, literal meaning at every turn of the page. Through prayerful consideration and the reading of other spiritual books, the Holy Spirit can guide us to spiritual truths about ourselves and the Gospels that perhaps we would never have thought of if shackled to the liberal/fundamentalist approach.

Typology can be beautiful and can stir the thoughts of the reader, as we see in Brock on Ephrem the Syrian:

Ephrem’s highly allusive poetry, shifting almost relentlessly from one set of symbols to another, makes considerable demands on the reader who, above all, if he is to appreciate Ephrem to the full, must know his Bible as well as Ephrem did. Much of this typological exegesis will appear to modern readers as forced, or it may even be described as ‘wrong’, but I think it is misleading to speak of this kind of exegesis in absolute terms of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’. The very fact that quite often one finds side by side two pieces of typological exegesis which are logically incompatible when taken together, seems to be an indication that what is being offered was never meant to be the ‘correct exegesis’, such as modern biblical scholarship likes to impose, but possible models which are held up, and whose purpose is to make meaningful, and give insight into, some aspects of a mystery that cannot be fully explained. (185-186)

If we remind ourselves that our doctrine of the Trinity is smaller than the Trinity, that our Christology is a feeble attempt to encapsulate in words the wonders of God Incarnate, if we keep in mind the smallness of ourselves and our doctrines about God in the Face of God Himself, then typology and its difficulties make a certain sense — God is ultimately incomprehensible and a great mystery. Ought not His self-revelation to the world to be filled with wonder and beauty?

Now, most of us probably aren’t reading to do our own typologies, for it is a way of thinking that is foreign to us. Here are some places to begin:

Typology in Action

The Orthodox Study Bible. The NT of this study Bible has been out for a long time, and a couple of years ago they released the entire Bible, Septuagint and NT. Its footnotes provide us with a primarily typological reading of the OT, so it can stand alongside most Protestant study Bibles that give us the literal account and thus bring us deeper into the spiritual world of the Word.

The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. This series of commentaries gathers together selections from the Fathers on the entirety of Scripture. A great many, though not all, patristic passages herein provide a typological understanding of the Scriptural passage at hand.

Ephrem the Syrian, referenced by Brock in the second passage above, has a number of works translated at the CCEL; there is also a volume in the Classics of Western Spirituality Series from Paulist Press and another of the Hymns on Paradise in the Popular Patristics Series from SVS Press. His hymns on the incarnation are especially beautiful, as I’ve noted on this blog before; he takes your mind in worship to places it has likely never gone before.

Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, mentioned here before, is worth a read, combining both the allegorical and typological readings of Scripture after giving the straight historical reading of the text. The same translation exists in the Classics of Western Spirituality series as well as in the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics; the latter has a less extensive introduction but is also cheaper.

Origen of Alexandria is the most famous of the exegetes who apply “spiritual” methods to Scripture. His Commentary on the Gospel of John provides an introduction to his method of reading Scripture. I’m still working on Origen, myself, so I do not know what else of his to recommend.

About Typology

Hall, Christopher A. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. This book deals with the Four Doctors of the Western and the Four Doctors of the Eastern Church and how they read Scripture, including space devoted to Origen and Diodore of Tarsus. Space is thus given to the more spiritual readings of Scripture that lead us to typological understandings. This is a popular level book, geared towards pastors and students.

de Lubac, Henri. Medieval Exegesis: The Fourfold Sense of Scripture. This monumental work, a product of the Ressourcement that began in the 1950s (not ’20s, sorry), taking up three volumes in English, will give you all you want to know about Patristic and western Mediaeval approaches to the reading and interpretation of Scripture. This is a work of scholarship, but the rewards are no doubt hefty for those who persevere to the end (I have yet to do so).

*S. Brock, “Mary in the Syriac Tradition,” in Mary’s Place in Christian Dialogue, ed. Alberic Stacpoole. Pp. 182-191.

Saint of the Week: Shenoute

Not only is today the day Canadians remember Queen Victoria signing the BNA Act and making Confederation and the Dominion of Canada reality, it is also the Feast Day of St. Shenoute (348-466).

Now, if you’ve not been around my blog before, or only dip in once in a while, you’re probably saying, “St. Whosit?”

Indeed.

Shenoute’s section in William Harmless’ book Desert Christians has the title “Monasticism Overlooked: Shenoute of Atripe.” This is because Shenoute has, frankly, been largely overlooked. Even Derwas J Chitty’s masterful introduction to Desert monasticism, The Desert a City, passes him by, because Shenoute is beyond the purview of a book concerned only with the Chalcedonian tradition.

That’s possibly a better reason than most have for not knowing about Shenoute: He was a Copt who wrote in Coptic and left no remains in Greek or Latin. Shenoute’s obscurity, in my opinion, is entirely because he is part of the Coptic tradition. Perhaps if the Coptic and Graeco-Latin traditions of Christianity had not become estranged, more of us would know about Shenoute. However, given that we also have a hard time making Syriac saints beyond Ephrem and Aphrahat popular, I doubt it.

It is high time Shenoute, for all his faults and oddities (see my earlier post about him), had his day in the sun.

Shenoute became a monk at a young age, moving into the large coenobitic complex of his uncle, Pjol, near Atripe in Upper Egypt. If you read The Life of Shenoute by his disciple Besa, you will learn about the miracles and feats of asceticism Shenoute was capable of even as a young man.

Eventually, Abba Pjol died. Foolishly, the administration of the coenobium was left to someone else. Anyone who knows the Life of Pachomius should know that the new abbot should be popular, precocious young man, not that other guy. But I guess Abba Pjol didn’t know about the Life of Pachomius. Or Besa did. Either way, things went badly, until Shenoute took over as archimandrite of the monastery, just as Theodore eventually succeeded to being abbot of the Pachomian foundations at Tabennesi.

The monastic complex over which Shenoute was archimandrite is called the White Monastery by modern archaeologists, given the white colour of the stones from which it was built. It is to be distinguished from the Red Monastery which is nearby and was led during Shenoute’s life by the revered Abba Pshoi. Antony and Savvas are said to have made the desert a city of monks — Shenoute certainly did, for the White Monastery was more of a monastic city than a simple coenobium or monastery.

There were several monastic houses attached to one another within the walls of the White Monastery — Egyptian coenobia tend to come with walls to keep out wild beasts, thieves, and the Devil. At a certain distance were the houses of women associated with the monastery. Also connected to the White Monastery were some anchorites. Eventually, Shenoute went out to the desert to be an anchorite himself, dealing with the monks of his establishments through letters.

These monastic settlements succeeded in drawing between 10 and 15,000 monastics within their life and walls. Impressive.

What drew these people to Shenoute and the White Monastery? Salvation. The hope of glory. The fear of Hell.

Some would say, “Financial and economic security,” imagining poor Copts to be easily-ruled people who are concerned largely with their bellies. I do not know if this is true; it sounds too much like Hellenic propaganda about barbarians to me. Research should look into it and tell us.

Shenoute offered people more than food in their bellies and a structured work day. He offered them salvation, and he regulated that salvation down to the minutest detail — what you wore, when you prayed, what you ate, what you prayed, how you worked, how you prayed, where you worked, how you were beaten, by whom you were beaten — that sort of thing. A highly detailed roadmap to heaven was made available to Shenoute.

Who wouldn’t want that?

Shenoute also cast his monks as brethren. They were a family. And they were all equal, which is why they were brethren, not brethren and sistren.  Salvation was found in a tightly-knit group of people with whom you could rejoice when one rejoiced and mourn when one mourned. All were bound together in this vision of salvation.

This is not to say that it was all basket-weaving and linen harvesting. No, indeed. The monks and nuns of the White Monastery occasionally got fed up with Shenoute’s heavy hand. A couple of times they rebelled. Sometimes the women, who never actually saw Shenoute, would take the running of their community into their own hands; they would also frequently receive spiritual instruction from Pshoi, abbot of the aforementioned Red Monastery.

These occasional disturbances are why Shenoute moved into the desert and communicated not only with the women but also with the men via epistolary.

He was a man who was committed to the orthodoxy of the Patriarch of Alexandria, and accompanied St. Cyril to the First Council of Ephesus in 431. Our records of his Christology are largely to the extent that he an anti-Nestorian Nicene, and although he lived until 466, his own thought does not seem to show a great facility with the issues surrounding Christ’s nature that were setting Alexandria to the North aflame.

Some say that his Christology is of a Christ-less Christianity. Jesus was God, certainly, and he died for our sins. But there is little of grace in Shenoute, sadly. His Jesus, while a close chum of Shenoute’s (Besa records several instances people running into Shenoute having a chat with Jesus), is a stern Jesus, a Jesus of the baking sun and blowing wind of the Desert. This Jesus puts heavy burdens on humanity so that humanity can grasp salvation.

Nonetheless, Shenoute was one of the first great Coptic writers, and his dialect, Sahidic, was the literary form of Coptic for centuries until Bohairic eclipsed it in the Middle Ages. He left behind a collection of letters — sadly scattered and tattered by now — and sermons in Sahidic Coptic. He helped Coptic move beyond its status as a language whose literary remains were largely translation into a language with a spiritual literature all its own, standing alongside Latin, Greek, and Syriac as one of the great languages of ancient, patristic Christianity.

For more on Shenoute:

Primary Sources

Besa. The Life of Shenoute. Trans. David N. Bell. Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1983. Our main source for Shenoute’s life.

If you read Coptic, check out Shenoute’s Literary Corpus that has gathered together all the scattered bits.

Secondary Sources

Harmless, William. Desert Christians. Oxford, 2004. pp. 445-447 deal with Shenoute.

Krawiec, Rebecca. Shenoute and the Women of the White Monastery. Oxford, 2002. This book, while it seems to be a women’s studies approach to Shenoute given the subject matter and title, is a very good introduction to life in the White Monastery and what drew people to Shenoute’s rule.

Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns on the Incarnation

Ephrem the Syrian (recommended reading from John Wesley, of all people; d. 373) wrote the following hymns on the Incarnation:

From Hymn 8

Blessed is the Messenger who came bearing
a great peace.  By the mercy of His Father,
He lowered Himself to us.  Our own debts
He did not take up to Him.  He reconciled
[His] Lordship with His chattels.

Refrain: Glory to Your Dawn, divine and human.

Glorious is the Wise One Who allied and joined
Divinity with humanity,
one from the height and the other from the depth.
He mingled the natures like pigments
and an image came into being: the God-man.
O Zealous One who saw Adam
who became dust and the accursed serpent
eating him.  Reality dwelt
in what had lost its flavor.  He made him salt
by which the cursed serpent would be blinded.
Blessed is the Compassionate One Who saw, next to paradise,
the lance that barred the way
to the Tree of Life.  He came to take up
the body that would be struck so that by the opening in His side
He might break through the way into paradise.

From Hymn 12

Who indeed has seen the Babe Who is more ancient
than His bearer?  The Ancient One entered
and became young in her.  He emerged an infant
and grew by her milk.  He entered and became small in her;
He emerged and grew through her—a great wonder!