Theology in Reconstruction pp. 30-40

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Theology in Reconstruction: The Logic and Analogic of Biblical and Theological Statements in the Greek Fathers

An examination of the theological writings of the Greek Fathers from Irenaeus to the great Alexandrines or Cappadocians reveals three basic insights running throughout their thinking whenever they interpret biblical statements of formulate theological statements of their own:

(i) The unapproachableness of God which calls forth from us the attitude of worship and reverence. God’s nature and glory are ineffable and His Name, as the Hebrews taught, is unutterable. This means that our understanding of Him, particularly in the forming of conceptions and the formulating of prepositions, we must break off our activity and let it remain incomplete, for the ineffable and the unutterable is to be honoured, as St Basil says, by silence (De Spiritu Sancto 18.44). (ii) Only by God is God known—that was an insight that Irenaeus early injected into patristic theology, recalling the biblical statements that only God can finally bear witness to Himself.  This was taken up later by Athanasius and Basil in their doctrine of the Spirit, for as it is only the Spirit of God who knows the things of God, it is only in the Spirit and by his power that we may really know God and apprehend his Truth. The revelation of the unknowable is the peculiar function of the Spirit. But even in revelation what is revealed remains mystery for it is not the kind of reality that can be brought under our human controlling or dividing and compounding—it transcends us and remains exalted far above us even in being revealed and apprehended. (iii) The application of our ordinary language to speech about God involves a fundamental shift in its meaning. We cannot but use language taken from our common experience in this world when we make theological statements, but even so it is the subject that must be allowed to determine the meaning. It would be inherently wrong to use expressions like ‘right hand’ or ‘bosom’ or even ‘father’ and ‘son’ as if they meant when applied to God the same thing they mean when used of creatures. It is thus one of the most important elements of theological activity to discern the basic change in meaning which our ordinary speech undergoes, lest we should speak in merely human terms of God or speak in unwarranted ways of creatures. This was one of the major issues in the Arian controversy, for the Arians fell into error by refusing to admit the limitations of creaturely images and notions, and by pressing them improperly into use beyond their creaturely reference, and so they distorted the knowledge of God through the misapplication of human and earthly analogies.

The Catholic Church took its stand on the biblical teaching that God is beyond comparison (as Athanasius expressed it θεὸς μὲν ἀσύγκριτόν ἐστιν πρᾶγμα, C. Arianos 1.57), and rejected the epistemological principle of the Arians that what men cannot understand cannot be true (see Athanasius, Ad Serapionem, 1.17; 2.1). Catholic theology is bound to recognise there is a measure of impropriety in all human language of God, and therefore must ever be ready to call a halt in its speaking of him, in humble acknowledgment of the fact that our human thought cannot travel beyond a certain point, and be ready at the same time to let human speech used by the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures point it far beyond itself to the sheer reality and glory of God who alone can bear witness of himself and create in us, beyond our capacity of our own to achieve it, genuine knowledge of God.

This does not mean that for Athanasius or any of the Greek Fathers rational, that is logical and coherent, thinking has no place. On the contrary, it means that our minds are not to be engrossed like the Arians with themselves, but are directed away toward their proper object (skopos) in God to be governed by his Word (logos). Consistent thinking in that way involves thoroughly rational procedure which is reflected in the disciplined mode of theological articulation. It does mean, however, that the primary reference of theological statements is to the Reality of God infinitely beyond and above us, and that, though secondary, the reference of some of our statements to one another on logical sequence (akolouthia) cannot be neglected. Hence, in arguments with the Arians the Alexandrines and Cappadocians demolish their errors by exposing their intrinsic illogicality and by showing that they are the result of human devising, and without objective foundation in the Reality of God himself. Correspondence to objective reality and internal coherence in thought and statement are thus the criteria employed in theological argument.

The twofold reference of religious language must be kept clearly in view in the interpretation of biblical statements. If we let Athanasius be our guide again here, we may speak of biblical statements as ostensive for they employ expressions and relations taken from this world to point beyond to God, and as sequential for they function within the coherent pattern of discourse determined by its specific subject-matter. Thus expressions like ‘fountain’, ‘light’, or ‘begetting’ are used in the divine Scripture, by way of relieving the impossibility of explaining and apprehending these matters in words, as paradeigmata to point us to the Truth of God and give us something for our minds to lay hold of in order that we may think legitimately of God (C. Arianos, 1.20; 2.30; 3.3, 10De decretis 12Ad Serapionem 1.19f. etc). Apart from this divine act that lays hold of some of our expressions, images etc. changing them and making them sufficient and suitable for God’s self-revelation, even biblical statements would be empty of objective content or without reference to any given reality. On the other hand, because these statements and the words and images they employ are made to point beyond to a given reality, they manifest among themselves a coherent pattern of reference determined by their common point of reference (skopos). Thus the sequence or coherence (akolouthia) they have between them one another as human statements is not just a grammatical or formal-logic sequence, but one that is imposed upon them by the subject-matter itself. Hence in interpreting the Scriptures the fathers use skopos in two different but allied senses. On the one hand skopos refers to the object to which biblical statements are directed, but that creates a context or a perspective which all biblical statements share and which can be described as their general intention or tenor. Athanasius can speak of Christ himself as the scope of the Scriptures, that is, the primary object of their witness even in the Old Testament, but he can also speak of the scope of the Scriptures as the fundamental slant given to the Scriptures their essential theme, as the perspective within which alone their statements are meaningful and understandable.

The way of regarding and interpreting biblical statements holds good for all the fathers in the East, not merely for the Alexandrines such as Athanasius and Cyril but also for the Antiochene expositors such as Chrysostom, who constantly appeals to the skopos and akolouthia of biblical statements in order to make clear their meaning. If we put to them the question as to the logic and the analogic of biblical statements, they contantly say that they have to be interpreted kat’ eusebeian or kat’ sunetheian. That is to say, the language of the Scriptures is to be understood in accordance with the habitual mode of scriptural usage, in which common speech is directed away from ordinary experience and made to serve the self-revelation of God—the logic of that, however, derives from the reference of these words and statements back or upward (ana) to God, and it is only when we get inside the God-ward and godly relationship that we may properly discern their reference or meaning. It is thus in the context of worship and godliness alone, which means within the communion of the Church, indeed within the mind of the Church (to ekklessiastikon phronema), that the Scriptures are rightly interpreted in accordance with their inner and real meaning.

Theological statements, that is reflective statements as to the message and content of biblical statements, are made, however, no just by stringing together biblical citations, but rather by hard exegetical activity in which we interpret biblical statements in the light of the Truth to which they direct all sides. In this activity we compare different biblical paradeigmata, gathering together from what they have to say, and summarising them in exact and disciplined propositions by which we point to the basic pattern of truth in the objective reality and at the same time allow that objective reality to impose its own rationality upon our thinking and articulation of it. The supreme example Athanasius gives of that exegetical theological activity, is the homoousion formulated by the fathers of Nicaea (Ad Afros 6, etc.). The homousion is, then, the basic logical economy or logical simplicity which is exposed to our scientific enquiry and which we then allow to govern the pattern of our doctrinal formulations, assured that, in this way, our theological statements about God will be made in accordance with the pattern which his own self-communication to us as actually taken in the Incarnation. The homoousion is thus an exceedingly dense or compressed statement, a fundamental dogma, which once it comes to view becomes normative for all faithful theological statement, for it enables it to be made true correspondence with its proper object and in consistent relations with other faithful statements.

We referred to the patristic use of kat’ eusebeian as expressing the God-ward and godly relationship within which we may properly discern the meaning of biblical statements and go on to make theological statements.  But kat’ eusebeian has a deeper meaning. It refers to the mystery of godliness, God manifest in the flesh (1Tim. 3.16), a passage to which the fathers referred again and again in their controversy with the Sabellians and Arians alike. The basic logic with which we are concerned is not just some sort of church piety but the logic of God’s grace in the Incarnation of the Son. Theological statements can be made truly when they repose upon that foundation and when they manifest in themselves a logic that corresponds with the actual way which the Word of God has taken in becoming flesh amongst us, and so raises us up to communion with the eternal God. That is the basic logic that the Fathers of Nicaea sought to express in their formulation of the homoousion.

In order to grasp the epistemological significance of the homoousion and its continuing importance for theological statement, we must examine more carefully two lines of thought which we have in the fathers—and here I am thinking particularly of Athanasius and Basil, although one could follow through the thought of others at this point in the same way, such as that of Hilary of Poitiers.

The epistemological significance of the homoousion becomes clear when we see it against the background of the radical disjunction between the radical disjunction between the kosmos aisthetos and the kosmos noetos whihc in different ways lay behind Origenism and Gnosticism, and gave rise to the problem of mythology. Once this disjunction is posited, as it was quite axiomatically in the secular world of the second and third centuries, the following questions must be asked. How are we to understand the biblical statements about the acts of the eternal God within the history of Israel, that is, within the kosmos aisthetos? Then in answer to the first question, it would have to be said that biblical statements about the acts of God himself within space and time can only be interpreted  as mythological ways of speaking of somethings that is eternal and timeless. This is a world of change and decay, of shadow and unreality, but it is the other world, that of the noumenal, that is real and changeless. How can God, who is impassible and changeless be thought of as entering into our changing world, and live within contingent and temporal existence? It is unthinkable. Yet, if we remember, so the Greeks tended to think, that this world partakes of reality in so far as it is a passing reflection of the eternal, then we may interpret the biblical doctrine of the Incarnation or of the crucifixion of the Son of God as a passing image of some timeless truth of God.

Then, too, in answer to the second question, it would have to be said that the Logos belongs to the creaturely side of the disjunction—even if he be regarded as an angelic being and the highest of all angelic or spiritual powers, he is nevertheless a created power. In his own being he belongs to this side of the radical disjunction (chorismos), to the world of changing, contingent actuality. The Logos is thus to be regarded as detached from the being of God (diaretos, choristos), and as changeable (alloioumenos, treptos). But if we remember, so the Greeks tended to think, that there is a mimetic relation between true thought and speech and the eternal forms of the real world, then we would have to interpret the Logos of the Son as some how imaging, albeit in a passing and changeable way, the nature of the eternal Deity. But since (on this assumption) he belongs ultimately to the side of the Creator, he could only provide us with one of many logoi or eikones (images) of God—there must in fact be myriads of them, as Arius affirmed. Thus in the last resort Jesus Christ cannot be regarded as the eternal Logos inherent in the Being of God become Man, and providing us with the one and only and exclusive Image of God, who is at the same time his Reality, but only as a form of man’s imaging of God, one of the conceptions he forms in his own mind as he tries to think of God.

Two things may be said in reply to these answers, and here we are still following the great Athanasius. First, this Arian or semi-Arian way of thinking converts statements that derive from God into statements of human concern; that is, convert statements that derive from God and really refer to him for they have God himself as their object, into statements that have only this-wordly reference, and so in the last analysis have only human or earthly meaning. As Such they could be give some kind of religious meaning if they are treated as mythological speculations about god or made to yield ‘spiritual meaning’ by allegorical interpretation. Secondly, this way of thinking is an objectifying way of thinking, not an objective way of thinking, to use modern terminology; but to use the old patristic terminology, it is a way of thinking kat’ epinioan in which our thoughts and statements related to God only thesei, by convention, and not a way of thinking kata dianoian in which our thoughts and statements are related to God kata physin and alethos. What happens here is that we obtrude ourselves into the place of God and never rise above ourselves. This way of thinking has an element of madness (mania) about it, for it means that we are so engrossed with ourselves that we are unable to distinguish objective realities from our own subjective states, or to distinguish God from ourselves.

However, the proper line to take in answer to this whole way of thinking is to call in question the initial assumption of a radical dichotomy between the kosmos noetos and the kosmos aisthetos. It is significant that although Athanasius was brought up within the Alexandrine tradition he rejected from the very start this assumption although it was held so strongly by both Clement and Origen who contributed so much to the tradition. This did not mean that the distinction between God and creature was abolished,  far from it, but that it was regarded, as it is in the biblical witness, as a distinction between the Creator and the creature to whom the Creator gives reality in relation to himself. This reality of the creaturely world was affirmed by the Incarnation and further established in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Thus while maintaining the distance between the Creator and creature, the Christian faith taught that God in his own divine Being, God the Word, God the Son, became flesh, and entered into creaturely being for our sakes, without ceasing to be God. The doctrine of the Incarnation thus both maintained the distinction between God the Creator and the creature, and taught that God is yet active within our creaturely existence in space and time in Jesus Christ, revealing himself to us, and reconciling us to himself.

That is the fundamental essence of the Christian Gospel to which the fathers penetrated in their exegetical and theological activity at Nicaea when they formulated the homoousion, the doctrine of the consubstantiality of the Incarnate Word and the Son of God. The epistemological significance of that lies in the rejection of the Valentinian and Arian dichotomy that made the Logos in the last resort a creature of God and so recast theological statements with only this-worldly reference, and lies in the insistence that in Jesus Christ we have a Logos that is not of man’s divising but One who goes back into the eternal Being of God for he proceeded from the eternal Being of God. The Incarnation means that God has really given Himself and communicated himself in his eternal Word to man. It is out of that Word and in accordance with the way which that Word has taken in the Incarnation that genuine theological statements are made. They are genuine statements in so far as they derive from that Word and refer back to it.: that is their essential ana-logic. Theological thinking is thinking of and on the ground of a given Reality, hard objective thinking kata dianoian, thinking that must be rigorously tested along the line of the twofold reference which we have already discussed. What God is to us in Jesus Christ he really is antecedently and eternally in himself—that is the ana-logical reference. But if in Jesus Christ and only in Jesus Christ do we have one Logos of God, his one self-revelation, so that Jesus Christ is the Way and The Truth and the Life, without there being any other way to the Father, then all true theological statements will be consistent with one another in so far as they have this Logos as their centre of reference, and through this Logos speak of all God’s acts in creation and redemption, in recreation and sanctification, and therefore not only in the Son but in the Spirit.

The importance of this can has been seen in the rise of the doctrine of the Spirit and in the way it arose. As Athanasius insisted (and the Cappadocians no less than he), it is from our knowledge of the Son that we must take our knowledge of the Spirit (Ad Serapionem 3.1-3). If the Incarnation of the Son is the one point where the Logos of God has come through to us, then it is at that point too that we establish true knowledge of the Holy Spirit. Hence Athanasius built upon this doctrine of the Spirit from the foundation laid in the doctrine of the relation between the Father and the Son and the Son and the Father. The Holy Spirit is not independently cognoscible—he is very God in all the unapproachable majesty and glory, and is only known on the ground of the Incarnation of the Logos, but then really known, and known in himself, although of course inseparably from knowledge of the Son and of the Father. Thus from the homoousion of the Son the Greek fathers went on to affirm the homoousion of the Spirit, and because they rejected the radical chorismos of the Valentinians, Origenists and Arians, they rejected also the impious doctrine that the Spirit is a creature and affirmed the doctrine of the Spirit as homotimos, he who is to be worshipped equally with the Father and Son as himself very God.

(b) The other line of thought regarding the homoousion we must know examine is that which inquires into the actual way that the grace of God took in incarnating his Word for us in Jesus Christ, and in raising us up to knowledge and communion with himself through Jesus Christ—this is a line of thought we find in Irenaeus and Hippolytus before Athanasius, but we shall follow the form it takes in the De Spiritu Sancto of Basil the Great, in which he relates together the economic condescension of the Son of God to be one with us and his growth and advance in our human nature whereby he provides for us in himself a way up to God (8.18f).

In himself God is incomprehensible to us, and unapproachable in thought, but he has condescended to come down to our weakness to reveal himself to us and to redeem us in and through the humble ministry of Christ. This is the patristic doctrine of the economy (oikonomia) which refers to the self-humbling of God the Son in becoming man and being made a servant for our sakes. It is important to note that the Greek fathers understood this realistically. Later on the term ‘economical’ came to be used in a different sense, as when an act of God was spoken of as ‘only economical’—iokonomia then has the sense of reserve, on the part of God, for he is not be taken as being in himself quite what he appears to be in the economic act in question; and so reserve also, on the part of man’s understanding it strictly the way it appears. Unfortunately this later notion is very often read into earlier patristic teaching (e.g. J. H. Newman), but that amounts to a serious falsification of their thought. In Irenaeus, for example, economy is understood strictly in the Pauline sense of Ephesians, and in Athanasius kat’ oikonomian may be used as the equivalent for alethos and even sometimes for kata physin. It is in that sense that we are to take it here in St Basil’s account of the action of God which he speaks of as ‘the economy through the Son.’ In his economic condescension God really imparts to us knowledge of himself as he is, for he is antecedently and eternally in his own Being what he reveals of himself in his Incarnation and humiliation in Christ. The economic condescension means, then, that the Eternal Logos, without ceasing to be Logos has adapted himself to us in our weakness and lack of ability in order to effect real communication with us.

But this economic condescension has its counterpart in a movement of prokope. The fathers have in mind here the Lukan account of the obedience and development of the child Jesus who ‘cut his way forward’ (prokopte) as he grew in wisdom and favour with God and with man (Luke 2.52). In other words Jesus’ growth in wisdom was regarded as opening up a way for man to rise to true knowledge of the Father. Jesus Christ is not only Truth who has accommodated himself to us in order to reveal himself, not only the Word become flesh, apprehending that Truth throughout his life on earth, so that he provides for us in his own obedient sonship within our human nature the Way whereby we are carried up to knowledge of God the Father. ‘We understand the Way that prokope to perfection which is made stage by stage, and in regular order, through the works of righteousness and illumination of knowledge, ever longing after what is before, and reaching forth unto those things which remain, until we shall have reached the blessed end, the knowledge of God, which the Lord through himself bestows on them that have trusted him. For our Lord is an essentially good Way, where erring and straying are unknown, to that which is essentially good, to the Father, for no one, he says, comes to the Father but through me. Such is our way up to God through the Son’ (De Spiritu Sancto 8.18).

Along with this Basil combines another line of thought. Christ became incarnate through the operation of the Holy Spirit, and it was through the power of the Spirit that he made the advance or prokope, as it was through the power of the Spirit he wrought miracles, and was raised from the dead. This he speaks of as ‘the economy of the Spirit’, for every operation of God in the economy of our salvation was wrought with the co-operation of the Spirit (De Spiritu Sancto 16.39).

Now we are able to see what the nature of theological activity, as the fathers engage in it, really is, In theological activity we do not only engage in exegesis, interpreting biblical statements, but we penetrate behind the biblical statements themselves (ta grammena) to the actions (ta genomena) of God, and in the light of what they are, we articulate our understanding and formulate our statements of the Truth of God as it is in Jesus Christ. Theological activity is one in which, by the power and communion of the Spirit, we know God through conformity to the economic condescension of his Word and through following the Incarnate Word in his advance up to the Father. In this way theology not only operates with a divinely given Truth, but apprehends it in accordance with its own mode of activity in condescension and ascension, and articulates it in accordance with its own interior and active logic, the movement of grace to glory. The hinge of that movement, and therefore the actual hinge of meaning and apprehension, is the Incarnation and in the Incarnation the identity between the Being of Christ and the Being of God—that is, the homoousion there is no real and objective connection between our human knowing and speaking of God, and God himself in his own reality and nature. Hence in formulating the homoousion the fathers were penetrating down into the depth of the divine logic of grace, and tracing its reference or ana-logic  back to its source in the eternal Logos in the Being of God.