Introducing Late Antiquity on YouTube

My latest YouTube video is a response to someone recently stating that the Later Roman Empire was a decaying civilization into which no one bought. I disagree. So I started a foray into Late Antique history which may last several videos (if not the rest of my life!). It’s not yet strictly ecclesiastical history/the history of Christianity, but the series of videos will get there.

If you find yourself interested in more Late Antiquity and simply cannot wait, I have written a series of posts under the heading “Discover Late Antiquity” over at my other blog.

Watch “King Arthur, Symbol, and the Christian Embrace of Narrative Fiction” on YouTube

My latest offering on YouTube is about Arthurian literature and how it represents an embrace of narrative fiction by Christians, with a discussion of symbol and a sacramental worldview that includes a digression about The Lord of the Rings.

Watch my latest video, “Maybe there is a literal meaning” on YouTube!

In this video, I try to nuance the concept of the “literal” meaning of Scripture in response to Jonathan Pageau. I bring Augustine’s theory of signs and things as well as Maximus the Confessor on the Bible, closing with my own literal-symbolic reading of the Ascension narrative from Acts 1.

God is not a thing — but is he a res?

St Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne.

A few weeks ago I had the delightful opportunity of teaching my excellent group of students at Davenant Hall De Doctrina Christiana by St Augustine, or On Christian Teaching. In De Doctrina, St Augustine deals with the important question of language (for how can we read and interpret Scripture without thinking about what it actually is?). His basic approach to language is that it is part of the wider universe of signs, or signa, all of which point to things, or res. Some signa are natural, like smoke being the signum for the res that is a fire. Others are human conventions, such as language. All signa are res, but not all res are signa. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Language is made up of oral signa that disappear as soon as they come into existence. To represent these oral signa, we have invented writing, itself a further system of signa that represent the res that are the signa of spoken words.

Augustine then goes into a discussion of how all res can either be enjoyed (frui) or used (uti). Ultimately, in Augustine’s view, God is the only res that we are to enjoy. All other res exist for the purpose of being used to help us enjoy God more. At a certain level, all res may even be seen as signa that point us to God, depending on how you look at it.

And the ultimate signum that shows us the way to God is the incarnate God Himself, the perfect signum for the res that God is.

But wait —

Is God a thing?

One of my students expressed his surprise at Augustine having included God amongst the res. This student even has a copy of a book called God Is No Thing, after all. As people who think that Thomas Aquinas is the height of theological awesomeness like to point out, God is not even a being. God is being itself (FYI: St Augustine agrees, see De Trin 5) — ipsum esse.

Not being deep into scholasticism, I won’t judge the accuracy of that.

God is not a thing inasmuch as God is not a being among beings. God is not an object among objects. God, then, is not a thing among things.

However, for St Augustine’s argument about signa and how they work, God is a res — he is the signified of a signifier. Or is the signified of a signifier actually our own false mental image of God, and Godinhimself is something more distant?

Augustine feels this, and we’ll leave this post here confronting the vast mystery of the divine:

Have I spoken of God, or uttered His praise, in any worthy way?  Nay, I feel that I have done nothing more than desire to speak; and if I have said anything, it is not what I desired to say.  How do I know this, except from the fact that God is unspeakable?  But what I have said, if it had been unspeakable, could not have been spoken.  And so God is not even to be called “unspeakable,” because to say even this is to speak of Him.  Thus there arises a curious contradiction of words, because if the unspeakable is what cannot be spoken of, it is not unspeakable if it can be called unspeakable.  And this opposition of words is rather to be avoided by silence than to be explained away by speech.  And yet God, although nothing worthy of His greatness can be said of Him, has condescended to accept the worship of men’s mouths, and has desired us through the medium of our own words to rejoice in His praise.  For on this principle it is that He is called Deus (God).  For the sound of those two syllables in itself conveys no true knowledge of His nature; but yet all who know the Latin tongue are led, when that sound reaches their ears, to think of a nature supreme in excellence and eternal in existence.

De Doctrina 1.6, NPNF2, vol. 2, p. 524

Reflections on John 15:9-17

Here are my reflections on yesterday’s Gospel reading, prepared for my worshipping community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey.

This week, we have another encounter with that word abide – I translated it last week with the simple definition of remain. My old Greek prof from undergrad reviewed my reflection and the passage, and tossed out a few more of these simple translations, saying that this verb also has the sense of persisting and standing fast. Hold tight; don’t let go, that sort of thing. Allow me to break all the rules of defining words and translation practice and bundle all of these together. Here, then, is John 15:9:

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you;

abide in

persist in

stand fast in

remain in

hold tight to

don’t let go of

my love.

How are we to abide in Jesus’ love? He tells us in John 15:10 – keep his commandments. This doesn’t sound particularly … gushy? gooey? lovey? Indeed, it even sounds harsh to our ears, living in an age of democracy, of questioning everything, of failed authorities at every turn. Show our love to Jesus by keeping his commandments? The dictionary game won’t get us out this time – indeed, injunctions and orders sound almost worse. Let’s look at how Jesus considers our keeping of his commandments — If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

In English (and Greek), that’s a very straightforward future more vivid construction. It’s not saying anything about how much he loves us or about earning his love or whatever, but simply cause and effect. “If x, then y.” – “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” These two things are mutually feeding off each other. Christians are disciples of Jesus the Christ. We are his apprentices; he is our master. He has given us, through the apostles and apostolic writings, commands – “turn the other cheek”; “love your neighbour as yourself”; “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”; “give to everyone who asks”; “pray like this”.

If we consciously choose not to follow his commandments, not to do those things that please him or that we know he knows are best for us, to what extent can we be said to be abiding, persisting, standing fast, remaining in his love? When we are wilfully disobedient to the teachings of our master, are we really holding tight to his love? Or have we let it go?

Here, we can easily start lengthy moralising. I will save us from such (although all of us need to hear some moralising sometimes—and recall that Jesus’ commandments are not burdensome, as we read today in 1 John 5:3). I want to circle back to the love being discussed here, that love we are abiding in. Let’s put both verses 9 and 10 together:

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

First of all, in verse 9, Jesus compares his love for us to the love the Father has for him. And then, in verse 10, he inverts it and speaks of his keeping of the Father’s commandments and abiding in the Father’s love. God is love; that was in last week’s reading from 1 John 4:8, in fact. I have spent a significant portion of 2021 teaching the Trinitarian theology of the ancient church—names like Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine (you’ve met them in these reflections!). Absolutely foundational for us to understand the Trinity is the fact that God is love. Love requires three elements, according to St Augustine:

  1. The lover.
  2. The beloved.
  3. The love that exists between the two.

If God is love, there has never been a time when he did not exist as Trinity—love requires a beloved. God the Father is eternally begetting the Son outside of time through the fullness of His love, and the love of the Father and the Son together is made perfect as the Holy Spirit in that timeless eternity proceeds from the Father. God, moreover, is perfect, spotless, sinless, stainless. He is unfailing in his love.

Jesus says that he loves us in the same way that God the Father loves him. A perfect, unfailing, spotless, unwavering, steadfast, superabundant, unfathomable love. And consider what he chose to do for us out of this love: he left his eternal throne in glorious perfection and endless beauty with the Father, took on flesh, was hungry, tired, sore, pooped, was spat upon, abandoned, slandered, beaten, stripped naked, hung upon a cross. And then God died. This is how much God the Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, love us!

This is Good News!

And the moral exhortation part of this reflection is simply this: Go and do likewise. Keep Jesus’ commandments out of love for him, as a means of abiding in his love. And how do we keep his commandments? Let’s just consider John 15:12-13:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

Let us love one another. To the death.

Prayer-Book Augustinianism

I had the blessed opportunity to attend a lecture by Sarah Coakley at the Vancouver School of Theology back in 2018 about Trinitarian theology and mysticism. During the Q & A, somehow liturgy comes up (amongst Anglicans, not very surprising), and Coakley said something that has lurked within me ever since — setting aside the BCP would be a great loss, in part because of the rich Augustinian theology of the collects.

This struck me this week in particular because the Prayer Book collect is this:

ALMIGHTY God, who through thine only begotten Son Jesus Christ hast overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life: We humbly beseech thee, that as by thy special grace thou dost put into our minds good desires, so by thy continual help we may bring the same to good effect; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Canadian BCP 1959/62

The opening to this prayer is taken from the Use of Sarum, with origins at least as early as the Gelasian Sacramentary (7th-c):

O God, by Your only-begotten Son you have overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life; grant us, we ask you, that we who celebrate the solemnities of our Lord’s resurrection, may by the renewing of Your Spirit arise from the death of the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

My modernised version for congregational use.

I have to confess that I prefer the medieval version, but perhaps I am too cautious of moralism.

I did not ask Professor Coakley to elaborate with examples, of course, but I wonder if this collect, or collects of this sort, are what she means by “Augustinian”. According to Barbee and Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, the very opening of this prayer is anti-Pelagian, for the -ism associated with the name of Pelagius argues that we can by our own merit live good enough lives to reach heaven, thus rendering null and void the mystery of the cross.*

Cranmer then writes his own petition for the collect. In his version, we actually have an interesting little phrase that was excised in 1959/62, “as by thy special grace, preventing us, thou dost…” Preventing us in contemporary English sounds like God’s grace is stopping us from doing something. In fact, though, it is a thoroughly Augustinian concept that has been hijacked in modern theology — prevenient grace.

Prevenient grace in the context of 1549 when Thomas Cranmer wrote the prayer (thus eleven years before Arminius was even born) is the idea that the grace of God goes before us (pre-vent, go before, praevenio) and thereby empowers us to choose the good. The term has been adopted by Arminian side of the Arminian-Calvinist debate, it would seem, but here in Cranmer’s collect, it rides closer to Augustine and Luther than Jacobus Arminius.

How does it do so? Well, Cranmer is using the phrase “preventing us” to describe God’s “special grace” in its activity in our lives. And, by that preventing grace, God does “put in our minds good desires”. The question if the resistability or otherwise of God’s grace does not arise, but what we do see is that our good desires are a direct result of the action of God’s grace in our minds.

The petition proper is also itself of the school of Augustine — “so by thy continual help we may bring the same [ie. good desires] to good effect”.

I think that the phrase “preventing us” renders this prayer solidly with Augustine — but does it exclude other perspectives? No, it does not. The nineteenth-century Russian St Theophan the Recluse continually haunts my thoughts on grace and prayer:

It is most important to realize that prayer is always God-given: otherwise we may confuse the gift of grace with some achievement of our own.

In The Art of Prayer, ed. Igumen Chariton of Valamo, trans. Kadloubovsky and Palmer, p. 98

This is not the only time he says something like this. He repeats it in similar words throughout the book. The fifth-century Greek writer, St Mark the Monk (who made it into the Philokalia) says similar things about grace. I think this is worth considering because when we think about “grace” and how we need God’s help to think and do good, we think we are being particularly Augustinian and/or Reformed. And this collect, I would argue, is certainly part of that tradition, expressing these ideas in an Augustinian fashion, so Professor Coakley is assuredly correct in this characterisation.

Yet the wider tradition also sees a necessity for grace in our lives. And I think Prof. Coakley would emphatically agree, particularly that we have a tendency to drive a wedge between “East” and “West” that does not really exist when we look at the deeper agreements of our theological traditions.

*I have not read Pelagius, Caelestius, or Julian of Aeclanum myself, so I set aside judgement as to whether this is a fair statement of what they believe, simply noting that it is what the -ism associated with Pelagius is understood to be.

St Augustine on the Scriptures

I turned to Augustine, Ep. 137 to Volusianus for Christology, and found this first:

For such is the depth of the Christian Scriptures, that even if I were attempting to study them and nothing else from early boyhood to decrepit old age, with the utmost leisure, the most unwearied zeal, and talents greater than I have, I would be still daily making progress in discovering their treasures; not that there is so great difficulty in coming through them to know the things necessary to salvation, but when any one has accepted these truths with the faith that is indispensable as the foundation of a life of piety and uprightness, so many things which are veiled under manifold shadows of mystery remain to be inquired into by those who are advancing in the study, and so great is the depth of wisdom not only in the words in which these have been expressed, but also in the things themselves, that the experience of the oldest, the ablest, and the most zealous students of Scripture illustrates what Scripture itself has said: “When a man hath done, then he beginneth.” (Ecclus. 18:6)

If I live long enough, I think somewhere in the list of books I want to write is one on the doctrine of Scripture according to the Fathers.

Incarnation and Creation

Ebstorf Map, Jesus encompassing the world

This Advent, my mind has been drawn to the doctrine of creation and the place of the Incarnation in the great drama of the cosmos. I am not entirely sure why this is so. Certainly last week I noted Oliver O’Donovan’s statement in On the Thirty-Nine Articles: Conversations with Tudor Christianity that much Reformation theology was weak on the doctrine of creation, and this has had an effect upon the sciences and theology, etc. He wonders what different roads we may have taken if the doctrine of creation had been one of the parts of St Thomas Aquinas we had kept.

Anyway, if we think theologically about Christmas, I imagine our thinking is typically something along these lines: Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity; He took on the form of a slave for our salvation; He became a baby so that He could die for us as a Man.

Yet today at church, the sermon closed with some beautiful words of Madeleine L’Engle, pointing towards the pre-Incarnate reality of the Second Person of the Trinity, bringing home the force of what it means that God became man as Jesus. If we do that, we need to realise that something as well as salvation from sin, death, damnation, devil, is going on.

Why?

The eternal life of God is an extra-temporal reality. God is. God is reality. Or maybe not — maybe God is beyond reality. God has no being because being relies entirely on God. A robust doctrine of God should make the dramatic event of the Incarnation that much more potent.

And a robust doctrine of God makes for a robust doctrine of creation — God made everything very good. As the Fathers, including St Augustine, were ever keen to note, all of creation is good by nature. It was created good, even if now it is fallen and tending towards entropy. Creation was made because God willed it. Creation was made to glorify God.

God entered into that creation. The timeless creator joined the creation in time.

Why?

Not simply to save us and make us what Adam was, but to make us what Adam was meant to be.

To make us god.

This is the emphasis of St Athanasius, On the Incarnation, as well as of Robert Grosseteste’s work (which is to say, it is not the sole preserve of the Eastern Church). It is a consideration of salvation history primarily as Creation – Incarnation – Paradise, whereas we tend to think in terms of Fall – Crucifixion – Redemption. Both are true, but the former we usually neglect.

We usually think of the biblical drama as an arc from Genesis 3 with the Fall to Revelation 21 with the lake of fire.

This Christmastide, let’s meditate on the restored creation, on that arc from Genesis 1 with creation to Revelation 22 with the crystal river and lamb upon the throne.

Sometimes theological controversy is … theological

Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil
Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil

I often find myself in situations where I feel a bit awkward, or naive, or as though I had missed something in my own readings as a historian of ancient Christianity. Wisdom tells me to keep quiet; or, hey, write an anonymous blog post so no one will know it was me, right?

For example, I recently heard a scholar state the fact that the problem in the Pelagian Controversy was that wealthy laypeople were doing their own ascetic thing in their homes separate from the authority of the bishops.

I admit to not having reviewed all of the evidence of the Pelagian Controversy, and not having thought much about it for a few years. Nonetheless, it strikes me that a controversy that starts in Rome but has its fiercest opponents in North Africa can’t simply be about power. And if Pelagius and his supporters are seen as threats to the local bishop, why does Pope Innocent I at one point actually exonerate them from heresy?

Regardless of which side you support in this debate, it is also clear that there are substantive theological differences between St Augustine of Hippo and the Pelagians, especially Julian of Eclanum. To reduce it to power politics requires a certain kind of extreme cynicism that I cannot accept.

Now, I don’t imagine that the bishops of Late Antiquity were always grand heroes seeking the true good and spiritual health of the world. Nor do I imagine that, when they were seeking the spiritual good of others, their methods were those of which I would approve.

The coercion of Donatists as approved by St Augustine, for example, is a bad idea. Similarly the legal restrictions against heretics, pagans, and Jews, largely supported by the bishops, are not the way a free and just society lives. By the grace of God, Christianity has largely rejected such coercive methods, and need never have used them. But ideology and power make for a dangerous combination.

Nevertheless, to imagine that Augustine vs Donatism (or vs Pelagianism or vs Manichaeism) is simply about him trying to get more power in the hands of North African ‘catholic’ clergy is reductionist to the extreme. It goes hand in hand with the sort of unintellectual anti-clericalism that must be espoused by people who have never actually spent quality time with clergy. I have met both on the same day, sometimes in the same person.

If we want to create a properly nuanced view of the history of Christianity in the Late Roman and Early Medieval worlds, we need to be open to sincerity as well as politicking. St Cyril of Alexandria, for example, is notorious as one of those ‘bad people’ who went to war against his fellow bishops to try and keep his own episcopal see in a position of power and prominence. He did. It’s true.

Yet on what grounds did Cyril attack Nestorius? On Christological grounds that, if you read Cyril’s pre-Nestorius writings, you will realise he already believed. And if you read his theology, you’ll realise that his is a brilliant mind to be neglected at our loss. We need not agree with how he went about things, and we may acknowledge that part of the animus against Nestorius was due to shifting balances in geo-ecclesiology — but, based upon his theological writings and biblical commentaries, Cyril was honestly opposed to the theology of Nestorius.

Or take St Caesarius of Arles and his attempts to root out practices in the countryside that he consider ‘pagan’ or ‘superstition’. It is perfectly likely that the local people did not think these practices were incompatible with their Christian faith. They may have seen some things as non-religious and others even as part of Christianity as they understood it. However, we need not move immediately to, ‘Caesarius opposed these practices and religious expressions because he wanted a monopoly on religious power.’ Is not as easy to say, ‘Caesarius opposed these practices because he believed they were spiritually dangerous to his flock‘? I can assure you, when I witnessed a young M.A. student suggest this to senior scholars, he got patronising shakes of the head and blank stares before they moved the discussion elsewhere.

When I mention such ideas, people query my ability to judge sincerity.

What about their ability to judge insincerity?

Why straight to cynicism? Why the reductionism of all theological and pastoral activities in Late Antiquity to ecclesiastical power politics, of bishops trying to consolidate all power in themselves?

Consider the fact that many Christians in Late Antiquity — bishops, monks, educated laypeople — believed that heresy spelled eternal damnation, right alongside paganism and Judaism, and maybe we’ll have a different view of their activities. Again, we can disagree with their measures without having to disagree with their goals and without assuming them to be ‘bad people’ or ‘bastards’ or simply out to gain power.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes theological controversy is actually theological.

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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