Ongoing intellectual life in the late 4th and 5th centuries

Taking a brief break from reading about Roman law in under the Theodosians to write this. During an earlier break, I lurked a bit at Amazon, peering at reviews of AD 381. In the comments to one of the reviews, the author writes:

The main problem I have with this era of late Antiquity is that it is so difficult to find evidence for the continuance of creative intellectual activity and lots of evidence that it was ‘closed down’.

Assuming Freeman means life after 381, I am surprised!

Immediately upon reading that statement, I turned to my left and beheld City of God by St Augustine, famously written after the year 410. If ever Late Antiquity produced a creative intellectual endeavour, it is City of God. Not, mind you, that Augustine is the only creative, clever thinker out there in the period.

Down the shelf from Augustine I have volumes by St Gregory of Nazianzus, or ‘the Theologian’, who wrote subtle works of theology and profound works of poetry. Next to him I have his friend, St Basil of Caesarea, an equally creative thinker. The third of the Cappadocian triad, Basil’s brother St Gregory of Nyssa, should not go without mention — a man whose creative force and dynamic intellect are quite popular at present. Indeed, I would argue that one of the things that makes the Cappadocians special is their status as disciples of Origen who produce a vibrant — rather than rote, sterile, dead — interpretation of Nicene orthodoxy.

Perhaps the practicioners and champions of orthodoxy are not creative enough. Well, then, we need look no further than Evagrius of Pontus, another Origenist with Cappadocian connections who settled amongst the Egyptian monks and wrote daring, dangerous treatises on asceticism, prayer, and mystical theology that would get him into posthumous trouble.

In a book I read about Carolingians, the argument was put forward that an increase in heresy trials is evidence of greater intellectual activity — the more people experiment with philosophy and theology, the more likely they are to get into trouble with the church. The fifth century, therefore, supplies us with an ample supply of creative thinking as various people attempt to work through the philosophical and theological issues surrounding the accepted Nicene orthodoxy of the person of Christ — Theodore of Mopsuestia, who was in some ways a successor to Diodore of Tarsus (d. 390) and Theodoret of Cyrrhus stand out among those who got into trouble with official orthodoxy, while Cyril of Alexandria, for all his forceful personality and rigorous orthodoxy, was not uncreative himself. It has been argued, as well, that Leo the Great was a creative personality in his synthesis of the western tradition into what became Chalcedonian orthodoxy.

Avitus of Vienne was still writing respectable poetry, as was Sedulius. I’m even going to go out on a limb and say that Sidonius was not entirely lacking in his own creative impulse as a poet. I think the composition of panegyric poetry is a bold, daring thing that requires a certain amount of creative genius to remain true to one’s own voice as a poet while praising the imperial recipient of the text.

The lay writer Prosper of Aquitaine produces a lot of creative output, not only in his theological support of Augustine, but also in his epitome and continuation of Jerome’s translation of Eusebius’s chronicle and his verse composition.

Indeed, it strikes me that the fourth and fifth centuries are an epoch of ongoing literary and philosophical/theological production in the Roman Empire, and while pagan thought may decline after 381 due to increasing restrictions on polytheist practice, to argue that orthodox Christians are unoriginal is quite silly, to say the least — for would not many a polytheist philosopher, regardless of how creative he really was, maintain that he was simply reiterating or building upon the ancient traditions of Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes, Zeno?

Perhaps what makes later fourth- and fifth-century Christian writing seem uncreative to us is that much of what survives was revered as centrally orthodox in years to come and has been oft-repeated by the intellectually uncreative. Sitting at this end of Christendom, Christianity seems traditional and hidebound. But what if, at the other end, it was ancient polytheism that did?

And, no doubt, I’ve misunderstood Freeman entirely. In which case, this was simply an engaging little mental exercise for me. Back to Roman law.

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The Conciliar Theology of Christmas Carols

For the past month, everywhere you go you will have heard Christmas and winter songs, ranging from ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear’ to ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside.’ Some of these are actual carols, unlike ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’, following my good friend the OED (with whom my wife agrees), sense 3:

a. A song or hymn of religious joy.

b.esp. A song or hymn of joy sung at Christmas in celebration of the Nativity. Rarely applied to hymns on certain other festal occasions.

A vast number recast the events of the Nativity. But some of these carols have obviously ‘conciliar’ verses and phrases — conciliar being the adjective used for that which is related to and derived from the theology of the seven ecumenical councils. The most obvious example is in ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’:

God of God,
Light of Light,
Lo! he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God,
Begotten, not created

This is pulled almost word-for-word from the ‘Nicene’ Creed (my translation here). Many other carols, such as ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘Love Came Down at Christmas’, assert the divinity of Christ, no doubt intending a Nicene sense. One hymn that undoubtedly intends a Nicene sense is ‘Of the Father’s Love Begotten’*, which reads:

Of the Father’s love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending he,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore.

But to cite J M Neale’s translation of Prudentius (348-after 405) as evidence for how conciliar theology has impacted our Christmas carols is perhaps too easy. Yet the fact that people still sing this carol demonstrates that we are not all allergic to Nicaea yet.

One of the carols that actually provoked this post was Charles Wesley’s ‘Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.’ Several modern ‘revisions’ (including the CyberHymnal!) of the hymn have changed the second-last line of verse two to, ‘Pleased with us in flesh to dwell’, although the original was ‘Pleased as Man with man to dwell.’ This line comes in the most theological of the carol’s verses:

Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail, the Incarnate Deity,
Pleased as Man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel!

This change was inevitably made to remove Wesley’s ‘sexist’ language. However, unlike some such modifications (e.g. ‘Good Christians All Rejoice’) this has changed the sense of the line. What the original line is stating is that Jesus became a human being, just like us in every respect. The revision makes the line repeat the fact that his flesh is real — thus opposing the Docetists, I suppose.

‘Pleased as Man with man to dwell’, however, takes aim not at Docetists but first at Apollinarians, who denied the full humanity of Christ by claiming he had no human soul. It also has in its sights, I imagine, Eutychianism, in which the human nature of Christ is swallowed up by the divinity — the heresy often confused with the ‘Mono/Miaphysitism’ of the Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches (see my post ‘Wait — Monophysites?‘).

I imagine that this line as composed by Charles Wesley could have had Chalcedon in mind; the Wesley brothers were knowledgeable in patristics. But to say, ‘This line makes “Hark!” Chalcedonian!’ is to miss the debates about Chalcedon that ensued in the following decades and centuries. It is as much ‘Chalcedonian’ as it is ‘Miaphysite’ — asserting the complete and utter humanity of the Incarnate Word. Nonetheless, that Christ was a perfect Man in the midst of men (archaic usage meaning ‘human persons regardless of gender) is the point being made here as well as in the ecumenical councils from Ephesus 1 (431) to Nicaea 2 (787).

The revisers will tell me that the problem of the sexist language persists. I would like to take this opportunity to remind the world that, although I think a contemporary writer should avoid using the words ‘man’ and ‘men’ to refer to human persons generally, this is its etymological definition, and one it maintained parallel to its being taken over by the other sense ‘male human being’ for many, many years. Therefore, why change the wording of something from the 1700s that was meant to include the whole human race? This hearkens back to my post about the scandal of the incarnation’s particularity — Jesus was a man in both senses, and feminists just have to deal with it. (Read also my post of a few years ago, ‘Leave My Hymns Alone!‘)

Anyway, hopefully this will help us sing our carols with gusto and meaning, perceiving the deeper truths that lie behind the poetry.

*Fouled by the Anglican Church of Canada hymn book Common Praise as ‘Of Eternal Love Begotten’.