I have found, drifting around the Internet, that sometimes an opposition can appear between something called ‘theology’ and something called ‘mysticism’ or ‘contemplation’. This opposition is a false dichotomy, for, as Andrew Louth notes in The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, theology and mysticism and inescapably bound together. I think we need both approaches to the Holy if we are to be healthy.
That is, this is a modern take on Evagrius in the Chapters on Prayer — If you truly pray, you are a theologian. If you are a theologian, you truly pray.
His concept of theologos is not ours, but the idea has merit even today.
Let us take theology as the attempt of the rational mind to articulate in some logical manner the truths about God and the world in relation to God that have been apprehended through revelation, reason, and experience. Seems a safe definition.
Let us take mysticism as the attempt of the human soul to sit in silence and quiet and thereby encounter God. Or, even better, to encounter Him even when not in silence and quiet but, rather, live an existence shot through with an awareness of Him. This usually involves time set aside for silence and quiet.
These need each other. (They also need community.)
The first without the second can easily become dry intellectualism, or being rigidly doctrinaire, or mere pedantry. The danger of doing theology is that you will mistake your doctrine of God for God Himselves.
The second without the first can easily become emotive experientialism, or, as Thomas Merton calls it, illuminism, questing after special experiences or imagining that whatever you feel or imagine or find evocative is a true window into the divine. The danger of doing mysticism is that you will mistake your experiences about God for God Themself.
These two worlds are, in fact, not dichotomies, as I like to point out. A recent reminder of this (besides St Anselm) was Sarah Coakley’s lecture at the Vancouver School of Theology this Autumn, where St Gregory of Nyssa was one of the great mystical theologians driven by the Holy Spirit. He is also, as it turns out, what, in technical terms, one might call a dogmatic or systematic theologian. His encounter with the Holy Spirit in prayer and Scripture helps inform his reasoning, but his catechetical works are still theology as I defined it above.
When we find ourselves in the mood to pooh-pooh those ‘airy-fairy’ charismatics and contemplatives (as I sometimes do) or to reject theology as ‘dry and rigid’, let us find humility and seek the Giver of both types of gift.
This book is a fine piece of introduction and analysis of what may, rather then ‘mystical’, more precisely be considered the contemplative strand of Christianity as it took on and then adapted (or at times rejected) the Platonic inheritance. The 2006 edition is definitely to be preferred, for in this edition Louth closes with a very challenging Afterword wherein he confronts the very concept of mysticism. We all think we know what the word means, but probably we don’t.
After chapters on Plato, Philo, and Plotinus, Louth discusses Origen; ‘Nicene Orthodoxy’ which includes Athanasius (who raises an anti-‘mystical’ challenge to Platonism) and Gregory of Nyssa; ‘The Monastic Contribution’ which considers Evagrius of Pontus (the rich but problematic Origenist/Platonist), the Macarian Homilies, and Diadochus of Photiki who brings out strands in both of the other two in this chapter; Augustine of Hippo’s contribution; then Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (whom he refers to as ‘Denys’).
Living in a post-Carmelite age whose understanding of Christian ‘mysticism’ is indelibly marked by the late medieval and early modern inheritance, Chapter 9 is an important discussion of St John of the Cross and the patristic inheritance. Louth argues that there is, indeed, some difference, but more often of style and perspective than content. The final chapter is ‘The Mystical Life and the Mystical Body’. This final chapter reminds us of a chief difference between ancient Christian ‘mysticism’ and the philosophers, for the ancient Christians always thought in terms of the Christian community, the liturgy, and the communion of saints, rather than Plotinus flight of the alone to the Alone.
In each of the ancient philosophers or patristic authors analysed, Louth gives us a run-through of what we may consider his ‘mystical’ teaching, looking both at their reception and at their challenge of Platonist ideas. It is a helpful book in many ways, although one is reminded that most of the praktike of the contemplative tradition in Christianity is the pursuit of moral virtue and askesis rather than the delineation of particular psychological practices as taught by the baptised Buddhism of Anthony de Mello, S.J., in Sadhana. I would have liked to have seen more on Diadochus and the Jesus Prayer, since the Jesus Prayer is the heart of so much of what we may consider Eastern Orthodox ‘mysticism’ today.
In the end, I recommend this book. At times it is challenging to read. At times, since it is introductory, it feels not quite deep enough. But overall, it gives you some idea of the landscape of these authors and this strand, as well as questions to take with you on your own journey into the broad literature of Christian spirituality.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Metrophanes (on the far right) was old and frail at the time of the gathering at Nikaia. He had retired from being overseer of Byzantion eleven years before the gathering at Nikaia, although some say otherwise. We learn from a fresco painter on the island of Kypros that he was present at Nikaia. The scholars are mostly silent.
Despite the conflicting reports of tradition, internet encyclopaediae, fresco-painters, and scholars centuries in the future, Metrophanes of Byzantion stood quietly in the market of Nikaia, examining a pomegranate.
“It is funny,” he noted to Antonios the fruit-seller, “my family is from the upper classes, you see. My grandparents worshipped the old gods; my father was the first to follow Jesus. And, well, the old stories are still a part of who I am.”
“The old stories are part of us all. It’s no shame, old man,”  replied the fruit-seller.
“I have a friend,” explained Metrophanes, “who looks at pomegranates, and you know what she thinks of?”
“Solomon’s Temple! Pomegranates were one of the chief decorations of the splendour of that place. Imagine. I, on the other hand, think immediately of Persephone, the story of how she was abducted by Hades. Whilst in the Underworld, she eats pomegranate seeds, thus sealing her doom to spend a portion of every year in the Underworld.”
“I know the story well,” said the fruit merchant. “Thus comes the season of winter, say the old stories. It is no shame that a pomegranate reminds you of the stories of the ancients. These stories are part of who we are, whether we be Khristianos, Platonistos, Stoikos, Manichaios, Gnostikos, or worshipper of the Unconquered Sun; we all are Romans.”
An older woman standing nearby held up a pomegranate. “Indeed,” she said, “let us not forget the teachings and stories of the ancients, even if we do not believe in them all; thus can we spoil the Egyptians, like the Israelites did.”
“This is good wisdom,” noted Metrophanes. “I am not acquainted with you, dear lady. My name is Metrophanes.”
“I am Makrina,” she replied. “If we think more deeply on the pomegranate, my brothers, we will find in it a spiritual lesson. For the skin of this fruit is very thick and tough. This is like the beginning of the spiritual life. We find the discipline hard, odious even. We do not wish to pray or fast or get out of bed on the Sun’s Day for the Lord’s Supper. Every act of charity, even for a poor widow or an orphan, feels like an unwanted burden. It does not taste sweet.
“But if we endure past this hard exterior and persevere, within the pomegranate we find these gems, jewels of sweetness,” Makrina tore open the pomegranate, plucked out a seed and began to eat it. “So it is with the spiritual life. Over time, we find that it is sweet to our souls, that the prayers are like the water of life to us, that we cannot even live without the Lord’s Supper. On that note, good sir, I would like to buy three.”
“Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us, Makrina,” noted Metrophanes. “Are you from these parts, or did you travel to Nikaia?”
“I come from Kappadokia,” she replied. “I came here to see what the overseers would decide regarding the faith.”
“You are not Makrina the Confessor, are you? We have heard of your bravery under Diokletianos in Byzantion!”
“Many were brave in those days, Metrophanes of Byzantion,” Makrina said with a smile (was it sly or sad?). “I see a new kind of bravery need now, though, mark me. Rumour has it Byzantion is going to become the New Roma.”
“Well . . . I . . .”
“That’s what I hear, too,” Antonios noted, receiving the coins from Makrina. “Have they not already begun building houses of the Lord there and tearing down the old temples?”
“Indeed, they have,” noted Metrophanes.
“It is to be a city dedicated to the one and only God,” said Makrina. “No pagan ceremony will ever be performed in it, no pagan temple shall stand, no monument to any god but the one, true God.”
“Ah,” snorted a customer leaving with some lemons, “I hear there’ll be a statue of Konstantinos arrayed like the Unconquered Son. Which one, true god does anyone mean these days?” He trooped off.
“The heart of Konstantinos is good,” said Metrophanes. “He is still somewhat young in the faith. We must give him time and see where things go.”
“Indeed, let us hope his thoughts about God do not remain as naive as what we’ve seen in the council,” noted Makrina.
“His thoughts on architecture, on the other hand,” said Antonios, making change for a customer, “are not to be missed! You spoke, madam, of spoiling the Egyptians. Well, Konstantinos has been doing just that for the past year. He is stripping the monuments to the old gods and old emperors to furnish this new city! There shall be fora filled with art from all over the Empire.”
“Yes, my friends, Konstantinos is remaking Byzantion in a new image. The old is going, and the new is on its way. This is his thankoffering to the Most High for his defeat of Likinios and the maintenance of true religion, the triumph of the Anointed’s Assembly,” Metrophanes looked at the two of them.
“However,” Makrina noted, “is it not dangerous, this union of City and Assembly? Ought we not to always be looking to the City of God? Yet Konstantinos plans to give us a City of Earth.”
“He’s a politican,” Antonios replied, “Earth is his domain, not the heavens.”
“You have touched on a key aspect of it all, Makrina,” responded Metrophanes. “This is what the overseer, Alexandros, and many of the others in the city are concerned about. We have all, of course, been anxious to see what will come of this gathering here, about Arios’ fate. But we have another issue at hand in Byzantion — keeping the heavenly kingdom free from compromise as Konstantinos comes with his grand plan of reforming Roma’s dominion. It is a very difficult calling, and markedly contrasted with yours, dear lady. No longer will our faith be tried and tested with the sword, the wheel, the stocks, the rack, burning coals — instead, Satan, the False Accuser, will come after us with mammon, with power, wealth, earthly glory, a share in the course of the events of the empire, status, prestige, comfort, food. Rather than scare us into submission, he will try to buy our souls. It will be the hard task of future generations not to sell them to Hades and its denizens.”
“Well said, Metrophanes. God’s good blessings,” she walked off into the market.
“Well, old man, will you buy the pomegranate or not?” Antonios asked.
 J B Bury, Later Roman Empire; Averil Cameron, The Later Roman Empire; Henry Chadwick, The Early Church; W H C Frend, The Early Church (all we know from him is that he counts Alexander as bishop of Byzantium at the time of Nicaea); A H M Jones, Constantine and the Conversion of Europe (the content surrounding the discussion of Constantinople comes from here, pp. 190-193, but all opinions and conjectures are my own or the characters’); Ware, Timothy, The Orthodox Church. Also silent: The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, The Catholic Encyclopedia
 In ancient Greek culture, calling someone “old man (geron)” was not rude but respectful.
 St. Macrina the Elder was probably not at Nicaea, thus rendering this entire an unlikely fiction. Also, the analogy she is about to make was one that her grandson, St. Gregory of Nyssa, was to make in his Life of Moses. Since this venerable lady exercised an influence over the education of her grandchildren, who is to say that St. Gregory’s idea did not come from her?
Thanks to Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, universalism is big news these days. Everyone and their dog is chiming in on universalism and Rob Bell. Including, it would seem, me.
Many of us seem to think that universalism is some sort of nineteenth-century liberal idea. In some of its manifestations it is, of course. In others, it is older, while in others it is newer. But the idea that everyone, somehow, gets saved in the end is old, and antiquity is no guarantee for whether an idea is mainstream or orthodox, as Kevin DeYoung points out in his review of Love Wins:
Universalism has been around a long time. But so has every other heresy. Arius rejected the full deity of Christ and many people followed him. This hardly makes Arianism part of the wide, diverse stream of Christian orthodoxy. Every point of Christian doctrine has been contested, but some have been deemed heterodox. Universalism, traditionally, was considered one of those points. True, many recent liberal theologians have argued for versions of universalism—and this is where Bell stands, not in the center of the historic Christian tradition.
My thoughts on the subject are primarily concerned with Origen at present.* Origen’s doctrine of ‘universalism’ is called apocatastasis. This is the belief that at the end of all things, all souls will be reunited with God. Origen does not rule out the possibility that among these souls we may find the Devil. No one is beyond the long arm of God’s great, saving grace for Origen.
David at Pious Fabrications points out that others whom we deem quite orthodox — Met. Kallistos and St. Gregory of Nyssa,** to take two big examples — believe in apocatastasis. It is not, then, this belief alone that gets one into a lot of hot, heretical water. In the blog post, David argues that the big difference between Origen and these others is the firmness of his belief on this point. Everyone is saved. Period. Kallistos et al, on the other hand, leave it open. Everyone is saved? It’s a question, a hope, but not stated as a dogma for all to believe. Thus, while the Church may condemn Gregory of Nyssa’s belief in apocatastasis, she will not condemn him.
I think there’s also the fact that Origen is one of the great Neoplatonists of the third century to consider. His system involves a type of salvation that the revelation does not present unto us — we are all restored to union with God as disembodied souls that do nothing but contemplate Him and have no distinctive individuality. Origen, then, is more than a case of damnation by punctuation. Origen has an entire system of cosmology, large portions of which are incompatible with Scripture. This is the ultimate cause of his anathematisation at the separate sessions led by Justinian and the bishops at the Second Council of Constantinople (Fifth Ecumenical) in 553.
Ultimately, the Church cannot affirm apocatastasis and other forms of universalism because either they run counter to Scripture and are pieces of speculation or they involve bad hermeneutics. As DeYoung’s excessively long review, cited above, shows us, Love Wins involves bad hermeneutics.
Still, ought we not at least to hope for apocatastasis? Maybe, in the end, God will redeem everyone. No, it’s not in Scripture. What we find in Scripture regarding those who die outside of the Faith is varied and largely unpleasant. Nevertheless, to hope for the salvation of all is not an un-Christian hope, even if one finds the possibility unlikely, even if one thinks that it ought not to be preached loudly from pulpits or ensconced as dogma.
*George MacDonald will hopefully be the subject of a later post, if all goes according to plan.
**He lists all three Cappadocian Fathers, but I haven’t heard elsewhere of Sts. Basil and Gregory the Theologian believing this. Until I have corroborated it, I can’t print it.
While working on my post for St. Gregory Palamas (which was for a class), I was (and still am) working on a paper about St. Gregory of Nazianzus (aka “the Theologian”). And I realised that there are just TOO MANY GREGORIES!
Besides those two, there is Greg Naz’s younger Cappadocian contemporary St. Gregory of Nyssa. He’s very popular in western circles these days.
Also, there’s St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (lit “Wonderworker”) a student of Origen’s who evangelised Cappadocia.
Then there’s St. Gregory the Great, liturgist and pope of the sixth century who sent missionaries out to pagan lands.
Finally (to complete my list of Gregories, though there are more out there!), St. Gregory of Sinai, an older contemporary of St. Gregory Palamas who was involved in Athonite hesychasm.