On the Mount of Transfiguration

Today for Morning Prayer (Wednesday after Septuagesima), the Canadian 1959/62 BCP had as the Second Lesson the Transfiguration from Matthew 17. First this:

Manuscript image from the Theological Works of John VI Kantakouzenos. Byzantine, Constantinople, 1370-1375

Since I’m in the midst of teaching a course on the Nicene Controversy, I look at the Transfiguration and all the things I’ve been reading in St Athanasius, St Ephrem, St Basil, and their modern interpreters comes flooding into my heart. Indeed, this icon even reflects the Nicene Creed:

God from God, light from light, very God from very God.

As Edith M. Humphrey puts it,

It is in the shining face of Jesus, and in the glory seen most profoundly on the cross, that we catch a vision of the likeness of God.

Ecstasy and Intimacy, p. 91

And St Gregory of Nazianzus (the Theologian):

He was bright as the lightning on the mountain and became more luminous than the sun, initiating us into the mystery of the future.

Oration 3.19, “On the Son”, quoted in Edith M. Humphrey, Ecstasy and Intimacy, p. 98

As at all times, the appropriate response to Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration is to worship.

What is meant by “Cloud of Unknowing”

Yesterday, my son — two years and ten months old — looked at my copy of The Cloud of Unknowing and asked, “What’s that purple thing, Daddy?”

“That’s a cloud,” I said,

“Why, Daddy?” he asked. (I think that if he persevered and I had the stamina, we could someday reach, “Because God created the universe.”)

“Do you remember the story about Moses, how he went up the mountain to meet with God, and God gave him the Ten Commandments? Well, when Moses met with God in the mountain, God came to him in a cloud…”

At this point, he slipped down out of my lap and exited the conversation.

My own slow progress in The Cloud of Unknowing is mostly talking about how we need to clear our minds of all thoughts but God Himself — even good ones — in order to beat at the cloud of unknowing and encounter God. However, the use of this image is as old as Exodus — and, in theological literature, at least as old as St Gregory of Nazianzus and his best friend’s little brother, St Gregory of Nyssa. Alas, my copy of St Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses is locked away with most of my books. His approach is much the same as that of the elder St Gregory.

St Gregory of Nazianzus writes, in the Second Theological Oration (Oration 28):

What is this that has happened to me, O friends, and initiates, and fellow-lovers of the truth? I was running to lay hold on God, and thus I went up into the Mount, and drew aside the curtain of the Cloud, and entered away from matter and material things, and as far as I could I withdrew within myself. And then when I looked up, I scarce saw the back parts of God; (Exodus 33:23) although I was sheltered by the Rock, the Word that was made flesh for us. And when I looked a little closer, I saw, not the First and unmingled Nature, known to Itself — to the Trinity, I mean; not That which abides within the first veil, and is hidden by the Cherubim; but only that Nature, which at last even reaches to us. And that is, as far as I can learn, the Majesty, or as holy David calls it, the Glory which is manifested among the creatures, which It has produced and governs. For these are the Back Parts of God, which He leaves behind Him, as tokens of Himself like the shadows and reflection of the sun in the water, which show the sun to our weak eyes, because we cannot look at the sun himself, for by his unmixed light he is too strong for our power of perception. In this way then shall you discourse of God; even were thou a Moses and a god to Pharaoh; (Exodus 4:2) even were thou caught up like Paul to the Third Heaven, (2 Corinthians 12:2) and had heard unspeakable words; even were thou raised above them both, and exalted to Angelic or Archangelic place and dignity. For though a thing be all heavenly, or above heaven, and far higher in nature and nearer to God than we, yet it is farther distant from God, and from the complete comprehension of His Nature, than it is lifted above our complex and lowly and earthward sinking composition.

St Gregory of Nazianzus goes on to discuss the incomprehensibility of God which is the spiritual meaning of Moses ascending into the Cloud on Mount Sinai and encountering God there. Interestingly, this essentially “mystical” foundation of St Gregory’s theological enterprise is what allows him to lay out his more philosophical and systematic discussions of theology — it sets out the boundaries of the playing field. There is only so much we can know. And our formulations about God are not God Himself, who is unknowable as to His nature itself.

The saintly bishop from Nazianzus also maintains, in the chapter before this one, that only people who have attained a certain level of perfection are able to enter the Cloud and engage in contemplation and meet with God. He does not cite it, giving instead a spiritual understanding of the various persons and animals and their relationship to Mount Sinai in Exodus, but the Scriptural foundation for such thinking would be Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The Cloud of Unknowing would concur.

Some may think that this sort of approach is elitist. It certainly can be. It may also, however, be humble. Who is truly pure in heart? What makes us think that, apart from an inner transformation effected by God in His unmerited favour towards us, we are able to theologise clearly? The Gregories’ contemporaries in the Desert say that the monk must become all eye, and their elder brother from Syria, St Ephrem, speaks of the luminous eye and the need to have our sight purified.

I think that theology, mission, and asceticism all go hand in hand. Perhaps the failures of contemporary western Christianity stem from how so many of us compartmentalise them or focus on only one — evangelism without theology, book smarts without holiness, pure living without telling others about Jesus. The ideal, if not the lived reality, of the ancient church was a holistic embodiment of all three.

Can we do that today?

Ancient Theology Blows My Mind

Some of you may recall my first encounter with paleo-orthodoxy in 2007, when, to quote my other blog, “My mind was blessedly cracked open and happily split by Robert W. Jenson.”  Well, as I read Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (see post), Hall’s chapter “Christ the Son, Begotten and not Made,” which deals with St. Athanasius contra Arius, a similar event occurred.

To describe such a brain-cracking is hard.  It seems silly when I review the chapter.  It seems like, “Well, yes, this is Nicene theology, Matthew.  This is the mindset you were reared on.”  My Father is a big fan of St. Athanasius.  Nevertheless, the Truth comes bounding into my life and mind sometimes, and the shock of it is explosive.  Suddenly, my brain-pain is split wide open.  I gape in wonder at the beautiful simplicity of orthodoxy and proclaim, “Yea, verily!”  or “Sweet deal!”  So, at the risk of sounding like a pedestrian, small-brained kid from rural Alberta . . .

St. Athanasius primarily blew my mind by pointing out that when we talk of the Divine, we are talking about a categorically different Being than when we talk about anything else in the universe.

Thus, begetting with God is not the same at all as begetting with men.  How can it be?  Men are bound by time, and thus beget in time.  God is not; God is eternal and exists outside of time.  Thus, He would not necessarily beget in time.  In fact, since like begets like—were I to have a son, he would be consubstantial with me by nature—God cannot but beget anything other than God.  Therefore, whatever God begets is like God.

As Hall puts it, “whatever is predicated of the Father must be predicated of the Son . . . .  That is, if the Father is sovereign as an attribute of deity, the Son possesses that same attribute.  If the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord.  If the Father is Light, the Son is Light.  [Quoting St. Athanasius], ‘Thus, since they are one, and the godhead itself is one, the same things are predicated of the Son as of the Father, except the title of ‘Father.’” (p. 44).  I was also especially fond of St. Athanasius’ analogy of the Sun and its radiance; you cannot separate the two.  Thus it is between the Father & the Son.  Clearly this analogy, like all analogies (especially those used of the Godhead) could break down, but it is firm enough to do the job.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus sort of blew my mind also.  In Hall’s recounting of his Theological Orations, St. Gregory never goes beyond the bounds of Scripture yet uses logic to demonstrate certain truths of the Holy Trinity.  First of all, we see an element of Patristic methodological thinking that is absent today.  Hall, paraphrasing St. Gregory, writes, “Theology, while employing the mind, also involves the heart.  A pure heart, one grounded in the worship of the church and a life of prayer, will produce clear and fruitful theological reflection.  A murky heart and a dark mind, on the other hand, will produce a sick, thorny theology; it will offer no nourishment, only harm.” (p. 56)[1]

I once took a correspondence course from a prominent Protestant college in Australia.  This course was an introduction to the Bible, and its goal was to get us students acquainted with Scripture and the main foci and themes running throughout the divine narrative.  According to the authors of this work, using the interpretive method laid out by the book, anyone—Christian or pagan—would be able to correctly interpret Scripture and see what its plain sense was. St. Gregory and others would likely raise an eyebrow at this.  Really?  If we Christians see as through a mirror darkly, what about those who do not have the grace of the Holy Spirit to enlighten their hearts and minds?  This modernist approach also fails to take into account the human heart, something that St. Gregory of Nazianzus does first off—theology is both of the mind and the heart.  If we want to be true theologians, we should seek to be pure of heart.  How many academic theologians operate that way today?

However, these foundational challenges were not what blew my mind as I read about St. Gregory.  What blew my mind was the simple statement in a cool, logical fashion of the truth:

For indeed, it is not some deficiency in the Son which prevents his being Father (for Sonship is not a deficiency), and yet he is not Father. . . . For the Father is not Son, and yet this is not due to either deficiency or subjection of essence; but the very fact of being unbegotten or begotten, or proceeding, has given the name of Father to the first, of the son to the second, and to the third . . . of the Holy Ghost, that the distinction of the three persons may be preserved in the one nature and dignity of the godhead.  (71)

He blew my mind elsewhere, but I can’t find the reference just now.

May the Lord God Almighty blow all our minds by the stark reality of His Truth now and again.


[1] This sentiment is echoed in John Cassian’s Eighth Conference when Abba Serenus says that the pure of heart alone can properly interpret the high points of Scripture, and that a holy life is necessary for anyone who wishes to discern the true meaning of the Bible.

Good Books Point to Others

The second great thing about Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (see original post) was the fact that it made me want to read more of the Fathers.  I think this is what most good books about Patristics should do.  Just as a book about the Bible should point us back to the Bible, a book about Homer to Homer, or a book about Tolkien to The Lord of the Rings, so books about the Church Fathers should make us ache, thirst, long, cry out for more.  This book does that.

Chiefly, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers makes me want to read in full a number of the cited texts.  Chief amongst these texts are St. Athanasius’ Orationes contra Arianos, St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Theological Orations (on Sts. Athanasius and Gregory blowing my mind, read this), St. Augustine’s On the Trinity, St. Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ (I was destined to read this, anyway, given my interest in the Council of Chalcedon), St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church.  Not enough of us read enough of the Fathers, so anything that explains their teaching and whets the appetite for more is worth reading, in my opinion.

If you find yourself wishing to go forth, here are some thoughts:

Online Resources

-The Fathers of the Church at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, including the Ante-Nicene Fathers and both sets of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.  A very valuable resource.

Monachos.net — Orthodoxy through Patristic and monastic study.  This website has many interesting resources from the Eastern perspective.

The Fathers of the Church at New Advent.  Another collection of writings.

-There is a Patristics Bog Carnival roaming around out there, usually at hyperekperissou; this past month it was at The Church of Jesus Christ.

Primary Sources

-It’s probably a good idea, if you’ve read this book, to wrestle through some of the works that feature prominently herein and which you found yourself drawn to.  Thus, for me, I think I should especially read St. Gregory’s Theological Orations, St. Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ, and St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church.

-St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God.  This book is short and readable.  It presents some very compelling arguments for the incarnate Word (Jesus) being God, as well as giving the reasons why God chose to become a man.

-St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit.  This is a wonderful book about the work and person of the Holy Spirit.  St. Basil demonstrates that the Spirit is, indeed, God, using both Scripture and tradition, and then he discusses the Holy Spirit’s role in the Christian life.

-Pope St. Leo the Great, Tome to Flavian.  This short work sets forth the doctrine of two-natures Christology, which is the accepted orthodoxy of all Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox.

-The Apostolic Fathers.  These works are individually short.  I have read First Clement, St. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians, and the First Epistle of Barnabas.  They give us insight into the mind of the first generation of Christian thinkers after the Apostles, something to be valued greatly.

-Other Patristic writings worth starting off with that are not “theological” in the modern, Western sense, but in the sense that holiness can only be embodied and practised:

-St. Athanasius, The Life of St. Antony.

-St. Augustine, The Confessions.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Secondary Sources

-Drobner, Hubertus.  The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction. Hendrickson, 2007.  This book is a “patrology.”  As an entire book, it is not an introduction to reading the Fathers.  However, it does provide concise introductions to most fathers and periods of early theological thought.

-Oden, Thomas C.  The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity. HarperOne, 2002.  In this book, Oden presents his vision of postmodern Christianity that is rooted in the premodern world of the first five centuries of consensual Christian thought, something he calls “paleo-orthodoxy.”  He believes that a rootedness in the Fathers will root us within the tradition and the Scriptures and reinvigorate the life of the Church.

-Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. Baker Academic, 1999.  This is the first volume of Webber’s “Ancient-Future” series.* Webber makes a similar basic argument as Oden about revitalising the Church for the future through the wisdom of the ancients, but his audience is evangelical whereas Oden’s is mainline.  He begins the task of constructing a Christian worldview and life structured through the wisdom of the Fathers in response to the questions and new perspectives of the postmodern era.

*The others are Ancient-Future Evangelism, Ancient-Future Worship, and Ancient-Future Time.  Lots of people recommend Ancient-Future Worship; I’ve never read it, myself.