THE NEPHILIM! A Word Study and History of Interpretation

Be there giants?

2 Timothy 3:16 famously says that all scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.  Unfortunately, not all of it is easy to understand.  So let’s pick out a really weird verse and see what God has to say in it!  We’ll take a good look at the verse itself, explore the history of its interpretation, and see what we can make of it.

Genesis 6:1-8

6 When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”

4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.

5 The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.”8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

What on earth is happening in this passage?  For me, the pinnacle of weirdness is in verse 4: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” What the heck?

To make heads or tails of this passage, we have to be able to identify 3 different groups: the sons of God, the daughters of man, and the Nephilim.  Unfortunately, it’s incredibly hard to translate the Hebrew here with any level of certainty.  Not only are the words and phrases vague enough that they leave several interpretive possibilities on the table, but exact phrases like these are used so rarely in the Bible that we don’t have a lot of clues to help us out.

First, we have the sons of God or “bene haelohim”.  The phrase appears two other times in the Bible (Job 1:6 and Job 2:1) and in each instance it clearly means “angels.”  That being said, Genesis and Job weren’t written at the same time, and there are several other translations that would be well within the bounds of reason.  It could mean something like “men who follow God” or “men who are like God,” (aka godly men).  To add even more confusion to the matter, the word “elohim” can mean “God” or it can be used to refer to any being that’s particularly impressive.  It could mean “king.”  It could mean “angel.”  You get the picture.  Bene haelohim could easily mean “sons of kings” or “sons of warlords.”

Clearly the “daughters of humans” (a phrase uncommon in Scripture and more clearly rendered “daughters of man” in Hebrew) are intended to be the opposite of whatever the sons of God are.  If we say that the sons of God are angels, then thinking of them as human women makes the most sense.  If the sons of God are godly men, the daughters of man are intended to be worldly women.  If we say that the sons of God are the sons of kings or warlords, then they are intended to be peasant women.

Finally, we have the Nephilim.  You know a word is bad when Bible translators don’t even touch the thing.  There’s a few options here as well.  The literal translation from the Hebrew is “the fallen ones,”  It appears in two other places in the Bible: once in Numbers when the Hebrew spies look over at Canaan to see if it is safe to inhabit and they see nephilim (usually rendered “giants” in English) and again in Ezekiel 32 to describe warriors that have fallen on the battlefield.  In a battlefield context, the word could also be used to talk about strong attackers, or those who “fall upon” their opponents with attack after attack.  The giants idea might seem out of left field, given the English translation, but an ancient Greek manuscript grants us a little insight.  The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament from the 3rd century BC) has Nephilim translated as “gigantes” or giants, so there’s some kind of cultural or linguistic link there, even if it’s not immediately apparent.

Where does that leave us?  Well, we have three story options starting to emerge.  This could be a story about angels coming to earth, having children with humans, and giants being born as a result of that union.  It could be a story about righteous men of God having children with worldly women, leading to a slow compromise of faith over the generations.  Then there’s the option that it could be about the sons of rich merchants mistreating peasant women and raising a generation of fierce warriors.  Each of these seems viable.

So what now?  Well, time to look at tradition.

The oldest interpretation I could find was from the Book of Enoch.  This little apocryphal book (book that didn’t make it into the Bible) was probably written between 200 and 300 BC.  And obviously Enoch didn’t write it.  Enoch is the guy who was famously “taken away” by God in Genesis 5:24 (and there’s much speculation about what THAT means, but that’s a story for another time), so someone else must have written it and popped his name on it.  The book is basically an attempt to retell the story of Genesis more thoroughly, filling in all the plot holes that the original has.  In the retelling of this story, the sons of God are DEFINITELY angels that come to Earth to have children with human women:

And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied, in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: ‘Come, let us choose wives from among the children of men and beget us children.’

1 Enoch 6:1-2

Not only do they have children with human women; they give humans science and technology!  Unfortunately for them, God is not best pleased with this development:

Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into darkness: and make an opening in the desert, which is in Dudael, and cast him therein. And place upon him rough and jagged rocks, and cover him with darkness, and let him abide there for ever, and cover his face that he may not see light. And on the great day of judgment he shall be cast into the fire.

1 Enoch 10:4-6

Bad times for Azazel.

Does the story sound familiar to you?  It sounds suspiciously like the Greek myth of Prometheus to me!  A lesser divine being comes to Earth, hands out some tech, and gets banished to torment in a barren wasteland for their sin against the divine being/beings in charge.  I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this book starts showing up around 200-300 BC considering that Alexander the Great did his grand crusade of the world between 356 BC and 323 BC.  Would it be so crazy if an Israelite that heard the Greek myth was looking for greater clarity in their Scriptures and took a little inspiration from the Greeks?  I don’t think so.  Mind you, that’s a disputed point, but the dates and the narratives are too similar for me to dismiss.

In any case, we’ve got the angels and giants theory on the table.  How does mainstream Judaism react in the coming years?  They don’t seem to care for it much.  Not only is the Book of Enoch never canonized, but a majority of rabbinic writings that emerge tend to favor readings that cast the sons of God as tyrants and the Nephilim as powerful warriors.  These readings gain more and more momentum over time.  Nonetheless, the apocryphal books have their supporters.  There are certainly people, especially at the fringes, that strongly support a supernatural reading.

When Christians start popping up, they’re a little more interested in the whole angels and giants thing.  After all, a lot of early Christians were on the fringes of Judaism.  Apocalyptic Judaism was a fringe movement that focused heavily on the coming of the messiah, and the Book of Enoch was very popular with them.  If mainstream groups didn’t like the Book of Enoch, it was because they were scared of its prophecies concerning the messiah!  And so early Christians inherited the angels/giants theory from some of their earliest supporters.

Mind you, its momentum didn’t last long.  After about the year 300, the angel/giant theory seems to take a nosedive in popularity within the Christian community.  Not only did they slowly accept 1 Enoch as “not legit,” but they started asking questions.  What is an angel?  What can an angel do?  Are angels all male?  When did angels fall?  Why does the term say “angels” when clearly disobedient angels are devils?  Jesus said specifically in Mark 12 that Angels have no interest in procreation.  Why did the angels do that?  What happened to them? And what happened to the giants, because if you render that word “giants” to resolve their appearance in Numbers, you need them to survive a world-ending flood that the Bible deliberately says they would not have survived.  The whole interpretation is just incredibly bizarre and doesn’t make logical or narrative sense. So theologians started speaking out against it.  You have heavy hitters like Clement and Augustine weighing in against it.  Chrysostom goes so far as to call the theory “blasphemous.” 

To read the passage well, Christians looked back at what happened previously in Genesis and tried to think about how this puzzle piece fit.  Genesis 5 is highly interested in genealogies.  Seth is born to Adam “in his image and likeness.”  Genesis 1:26 previously established that Adam was made in God’s image and likeness.  To some interpreters, this was a symbolic passing of the torch.  Seth inherited his godliness from his father, and his people would continue to strive for godliness in the coming generations.  There became two types of people on the Earth: the children of Seth, and the children of Cain.  These two branches seem to be symbolic, more than biological.  The devout and the worldly both lived on the earth, though living in very different ways.  This, then, is a story in which people of faith decide to compromise their beliefs to intermingle with the attractive people of the Earth.  As Eve tempted Adam, so now the daughters of man tempt the children of God.  The resulting offspring are fallen; they do not know God, even though they know the ways of the world quite well.  The only truly devout man left is Noah.  You know how the story goes from there.

By the time the reformation rolls around, there seems to be broad consensus that this view is correct.  Martin Luther presents it as the obvious meaning.  John Calvin only brings up the angels and giants thing only to ponder why ancient thinkers would possibly have thought something so odd:

That ancient figment, concerning the intercourse of angels with women, is abundantly refuted by its own absurdity; and it is surprising that learned men should formerly have been fascinated by ravings so gross and prodigious.

Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis 6:2

The matter seems settled.  But lo and behold, the angels and giants make their way back into popular Christian thought around the 18th century.  At this point, modernists (a group that considered their Bibles to likely contain large amounts of mythology) started re-investigating the issue.  If the Bible is full of myths that aren’t literally true, why can’t this be a story about angels and giants?  Ironically, some fundamentalists reached the same conclusion, but through very different methodology.  If the Bible is always true and you don’t need tradition to understand it, then why shouldn’t you be willing to believe a fantastical story about angels and giants?  It’s one of those weird points in history where really conservative people go one way and really liberal people go another, and somehow they end up making a giant loop and meeting up at the same point.

But now we’ve looked at all the interpretive options and poked around all the major strands of tradition.  What do I believe?  Well, you ought to know that I’d rather be wrong with the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin than right with anybody else.  Not only is their interpretation the most well-represented in Christian tradition, but it just makes sense.  It’s logical.  It fits the Biblical narrative leading from genealogy to flood, and it addresses a constant theme in the Bible: don’t compromise your faith to fit into this world more comfortably (Deut 7:3, 2 Corinth. 6:14, Deut 16:21, etc).  To be a true disciple of Christ, you can’t afford to compromise any part of the truth.  You have to live your whole life in constant worship and obedience.  Not only do I think this is a good interpretation, but I think it’s something that’s an important reminder as we try to live out our faith today.  We live in a world that’s increasingly secular.  Our culture is more than happy to accommodate Christians that are willing to compromise on the things that they believe.  If you’re willing to make a few concessions, you’ll fit in easier.  You’ll be the “right kind” of Christian. Your life will be significantly attractive on the outside.  If you don’t?  Well, things might get difficult. 

As people made in the image and likeness of God, we can’t afford to compromise truth for temporary gain.  After all, we know truth itself in the person of Jesus Christ. The only way for us to live well is to hold fast to truth and to continually honor God, rather than ourselves.

That’s my take!  But rather than end on a dramatic note, I’ll end with some humility.  It’s a tough passage!  If you think I missed something or want to dig around on your own, check out some of the resources below!  See what you think!   Either way, wrestle with those tough verses when you find them.  If all Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, sometimes we have to do a little bit of wrestling to see what God is saying.

Great articles if you want to know more:
https://www.biblicalcyclopedia.com/B/bene-elohim.html
https://biblehub.com/interlinear/genesis/6.htm
https://lutheranreformation.org/get-involved/bible-study-luther-genesis-61-8/
https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/01-genesis/text/articles-books/newman-gen6-gtj-1984.htm

Apologetics Battle: Simon Magus vs Peter the Apostle

Apologetics (the art of defending the faith) hasn’t changed nearly as much as you’d expect over the past 2000-ish years. Well… parts of it have certainly changed. After all, if you had a question about Christianity today, I assume you’d look for a pretty official looking book with basic questions and good answers in response. Makes sense. But in the third century, a perfectly legitimate option was picking up a dramatization of a fantasy debate in which the apostle Peter and the sorcerer Simon Magus wage an epic war of words about the big questions in Christianity (as based on the story in Acts 8:9-24). And it’s every bit as awesome as you could imagine.

Ok, a public debate might not sound all that exciting to everyone, but trust me, if those two legendary figures going head-to-head doesn’t get your blood pumping, the details will. Simon Magus rolls into town and becomes the leader of a local cult by explaining to them that he’s God. When the current cult leader (who also claims to be God) objects and tries to beat him with his stick, the stick magically goes through Simon’s body, which leads to the cult leader immediately stepping down from leadership and handing his position over to Simon. Simon also claims to be able to do all kinds of wacky things. He can fly! He can make children grow beards! At one point, he claims to have created a boy out of thin air and then turned him back into air again. Not only did he do this magnificent feat (supposedly), but he claims it as proof that he’s more powerful than the God of the Old Testament. That guy only created humans out of earth and everyone knows that’s way easier than making people out of air.

See? It’s the details that really bring this epic story to life.

The verbal smackdown is just as fun to read. Our debate begins with Peter offering peace to his opponent. Simon’s response?

Do not invoke peace, but rather battle, which is the mother of peace; and if you can, exterminate errors. And do not seek for friendship obtained by unfair admissions; for this I would have you know, above all, that when two fight with each other, then there will be peace when one has been defeated and has fallen. And therefore fight as best you can, and do not expect peace without war, which is impossible; or if it can be attained, show us how.

The Recognitions of Clement, 234

Simon has no chill at all.

All of this is from The Recognitions of Clement, a part of the larger body of work known as the Clementia. Basically, it’s an ancient historical fiction. The author wanted to talk about doctrine, but they spiced things up by using Bible characters. The resulting narrative is surprisingly fun. And effective! I couldn’t help but be a little moved by Peter’s response when one of his assistants asked how God could blame anyone for leaving him if the devil offered them more power:

If your son, whom you have trained and nourished with all care, and brought to man’s estate, should be ungrateful to you, and should leave you and go to another, whom perhaps he may have seen to be richer, and should show to him the honour which he owed to you, and, through hope of greater profit, should deny his birth, and refuse you your paternal rights, would this seem to you right or wicked?”

The Recognitions of Clement, 229

All of the grand spectacle aside, it’s shocking just how relevant most of the the questions that Simon Magus asks Peter are for people today. If Jesus is so great, why does he contradict himself in the Gospels? If God is so good, why did he create evil stuff? Why did God give humans free will? How could the being written about in the Old Testament truly be called a good God? I don’t want to pretend like all of the answers that Peter gives would be totally satisfying to modern ears, but they hold up pretty well on the whole.

In pop culture, there’s this strong sense that we’re so far advanced from the primitive thinkers of the past. The progress that we’ve made over the past 2000 years puts us lightyears ahead of our foolish, backwards ancestors, but when you crack open their books, you can see how ridiculous a statement like that is. We may have some new tools and some new insights into the way the world works, but we’re still fundamentally the same beings working out the same questions. Our ancestors’ thoughts on religion, philosophy, mathematics, and any one of a million other disciplines are often far more advanced than we give them credit for.

As Christians, we have so much to gain from looking back at ancient apologetics. Not only are the historic responses insightful, but reading these documents reminds us that we haven’t entered into a new age in which all of our collective wisdom is outdated. We’re more equipped than we know, and the questions that people are asking aren’t as groundbreaking as we think. There’s truly nothing new under the sun.

Source: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/s/schaff/anf08/cache/anf08.pdf

Fake Quotes from Famous Saints

The other day, I got an e-mail from a higher up in the Methodist church that ended with this quote:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

-John Wesley

I closed out of that message in a tizzy because John Wesley never said that!  Honestly, John Wesley never said most of his famous quotes.  Kevin Watson did a phenomenal series about quotes that Wesley never said here.  Just about every Wesley quote that makes its way onto a key chain, wall hanging, or church bulletin isn’t actually his.  The fact that a reputable higher up in the church was misquoting him was a bummer.  Did he not care about the integrity of the quote?

But as comfortable as it is to slip into self-justifying outrage, there are a TON of quotes that famous saints “said” that they didn’t actually say, and… they’re not bad!  They’re pithy.  They’re clever.   People love them!  They get referenced in reasonably educated circles and they’re popular in churches. So what do we do with all these fake quotes?

Francis of Assisi supposedly said “Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary.”  Not only is it not in his writings, but it’s not even a quote that suits him.  He’s known for his preaching, and preaching was one of the core tenants of the Franciscan monks that followed in his footsteps.  Why would someone that values preaching so much speak so flippantly about it?

Theresa of Avila supposedly wrote this famous poem:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on the world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

But she didn’t.  Not only is it found nowhere in her works, but this blogger did a great deep dive on the origin of this poem and theorized that it was originally created by Methodist Minister Mark Guy Pearse, who said the second half in a sermon that he gave in 1888, and Quaker medical missionary Sarah Elizabeth Rowntree, who added the first half of the poem after acknowledging she took the second half from him. From there, other people started adapting the poem, and it gained a life of its own. I can’t personally guarantee that they’re right, but it seems like a really decent stab at locating the history of one of those mythical quotes. It still does leave a big question: how on Earth did it get attributed to Theresa?

None of these quotes have an oral history that dates back to the time of the figure in question.  Beyond a shadow of a doubt, they’re fake.  Are they malicious forgeries?  Who can say.  I’m going to guess no.  It’s hard to prove that sort of thing, so it mostly boils down to a guess.  I’m willing to give the parties involved the benefit of the doubt and say it was a mistake or some sort of misunderstanding.

That being said, it’d be silly to pretend that the quotes don’t benefit from their connection to famous historical figures.  It makes you sound way smarter if you say “As St. Francis of Assisi once said…” rather than, “I saw this on a keychain once…”  The quotes gain a certain amount of gravitas from their attachment to big-name historical figures.  Some very significant religious organizations have these quotes plastered on their websites, and they almost certainly wouldn’t if they were anonymous.  There’s no shortage of blog entries and news articles pointing out that these quotes are not legitimate, but there’s not enough church history nerds out there to keep them from getting through the cracks! 

So… what do we do?

I’ve seen some books take the position of claiming the quote is “attributed to” the saint in question, but probably wasn’t actually written by them.  I don’t know how much good that does, if only because it still creates a really fun backstory for the quote and then picks at it without adding a positive alternative.  We could always take the position of saying that they’re anonymous.  That would certainly detach the quote from it’s fake history, but nobody wants to engage with a quote by “anonymous,” so at that point, you may as well not use it anymore.

How much does the integrity of the quote matter?

It reminds me of a little story from The Decameron (basically the 14th c. Italian version of the Canterbury Tales).    There’s this guy named Ciappelletto, and he’s garbage.  He launders money, writes fake documents, lies, gambles, etc.  You get the picture.  One day, he gets really sick. His friends are afraid he’s going to die, but the Church won’t bury him unless he confesses his sins to a clergyman, and his sins are so horrible that no clergyman would absolve him. His friends will end up stuck with his corpse, and it’ll be a whole awkward thing. But Ciappelletto has an idea. They get this friar to come in and take his confession, and Ciappelletto just gets crazy with it.  He makes up lie after lie after lie about what a saintly life he’s led.  Sure enough, the friar absolves him and even buries Ciappelletto in his own convent later that day… but things don’t stop there. The friar is so moved by what he heard that he preaches about the virtuous life of Ciappelletto to everyone who will listen.  Before you know it, people are using items that Ciappelletto owned as relics and going on pilgrimages to his grave.   They claim that miracles are worked in his name!  Lots of people live holier, more Christlike lives because of the (fake) legend of Ciappelletto.  In the end, our narrator points to the whole affair as, “a manifest token of the superabundance of the goodness of God to us, inasmuch as He regards not our error but the sincerity of our faith,” (First Day, 090).

Does it matter that Ciappelletto was a rogue if his legend helped others grow in Christ?

Does it matter that Wesley, Francis, and Theresa never said those things if it helps people know God better?

…YES!  Faith is about truth!  The elements of our faith should be able to get by a simple Google search without being clearly and inarguably fake.  Better to build a house on the rock of truth than the sand of convenience. Fight the misquotes, dear friends. Say they’re anonymous! Say they’re misattributed! Ignore them if you want! Just don’t say they’re true.

The Decameron can be read here.

Hymns with History

In the ever-raging battle between contemporary and traditional music, traditional music usually gets credit for having ties to historic Christianity. These are traditional songs! They were passed down by generations before us! They’re the classics of worship music!

But how old is your average hymn?

In the United Methodist Hymnal (which is the one in my office), the overwhelming majority of hymns were written between 1850 and 1989. I’ll pop the book open right now and prove it! Starting at hymn 365 (the random page I opened to) and moving forward, the year of composition is 1911, 1963, 1834, 1873, 1939, 1905, and 1749. Ok, we ended on one that broke the norm a little bit, but you can see where I’m going with this. Where is a hymn from year 300? 1423? 1555? Why is the genre we call “traditional” so lacking in tradition beyond the 1800s?

The simple answer is that the first American hymnal was printed in 1831. Of course most hymns are from that year or later; that’s when their distribution really took off. Before that, hymnals were collections of lyrics that you’d put to music on your own. But just because people didn’t have hymnals didn’t mean they weren’t singing hymns. Hymns go waaaay back. Take, for example, this hymn by 4th century bishop Ambrose of Milan:

Come, Holy Ghost, who ever One
Art with the Father and the Son;
Come Holy Ghost, our souls possess
With Thy full flood of holiness.

In will and deed, by heart and tongue,
With all our powers, Thy praise be sung;
And love light up our mortal frame,
Till others catch the living flame.

Almighty Father, hear our cry
Through Jesus Christ our Lord most high,
Who with the Holy Ghost and Thee
Doth live and reign eternally.

How cool is that? Yes, this edition of it is a little older and could use some paraphrasing to modernize it, but the language is so evocative! Lots of trinitarian references, and a gorgeous example of participation in God’s action there in that middle verse. We sang this every day at Mepkin Abbey when I was staying there a few summers back. The Rule of Benedict (their monastic rule) requires you to sing Ambrosian hymns, and so we did. We protestants may not be required to sing old hymns, but are we missing out by skipping stuff like this?

Here’s another genuine oldie, this one by the 7th century Greek theologian Andrew of Crete:

Whence shall my tears begin?
What first-fruits shall I bear
Of earnest sorrow for my sin?
Or how my woes declare?
O Thou! The merciful and gracious One.
Forgive the foul transgressions I have done.

With Adam I have vied,
Yea, passed him, in my fall;
And I am naked now, by pride
And lust made bare of all;
Of Thee, O God, and that celestial band,
And all the glory of the promised land.

No earthly Eve beguiled
My body into sin:
A spiritual temptress smiled,
Concupiscence within:
Unbridled passion grasped the unhallowed sweet:
Most bitter— ever bitter— was the meat.

If Adam’s righteous doom,
Because he dared transgress
Thy one decree, lost Eden’s bloom
And Eden’s loveliness:
What recompense, O Lord, must I expect,
Who all my life Thy quickening laws neglect?

By mine own act, like Cain,
A murderer I was made:
By mine own act my soul was slain,
When Thou wast disobeyed:
And lusts each day are quickened, warring still
Against Thy grace with many a deed of ill.

This one is a little harder to imagine singing in worship, even if you modernized the language a bit. People tend not to sing about lust in churches these days. Go figure. Still, there’s a lot to love here! The story of Adam’s first sin is opened up and applied to the singer. You are like Adam. You are like Cain. You are the sinner. Genesis isn’t just the story of someone else in some other time; it’s your story. How many songs today help you live out the reality of Scripture this well?

If you’re someone looking to get a fix of some old hymns, check out the cyber hymnal. Nothing there is copyrighted! It’s prime for singing! Browse by person to find older stuff easier (spoiler: anybody named Someone of Somewhere is probably old). You can always tweak the language to make it a little more modern. Whether you want a rock guitar up front or an organ, there’s some real gems in the Christian tradition. “Traditional” hymnals be darned; this is real traditional music!

Augustine and Sex

I just finished taking a class where the professor warned us about writing about Augustine and sex on blogs. Apparently it tends to attract people who have STRONG OPINIONS! But telling me not to do something is practically encouraging me to do it, so here we go. And since opinions in the modern era regarding bodies and sex are hot-button issues, give this one a sympathetic read, assuming that there’s no secret agenda. It’s just an adventure in one fifth-century theologian’s thought processes.

The look on his face says it all.

It’s easy to point out that Augustine has VERY different opinions on sex than the average modern person. And I don’t just mean that he’s a little conservative for modern taste; he’s way out there in uncharted territory. He’s pretty negative about sex, regardless of the context. I mean, one of the subchapters in City of God is literally titled, “the sense of shame in sexual intercourse.” I don’t know that anyone today really thinks, “Yeah, it’s normal to be a little ashamed during sex. Nothing weird there”. But rather than take the opportunity to discuss how his thoughts are bad (which I’m sure has been done a million times before), I want to look at the insights that he can give a modern reader. Augustine’s odd insights can remind us that our bodies are not as purely neutral or good as we moderns often imagine them to be. Bodies are tainted by sin in this life, just like everything else, and they won’t fully align with our saintly ambitions until the end of time.

In the circles I study in, it’s safe to say that bodies are normally thought of as highly positive elements of our being. People emphasize the line in the Apostle’s Creed “the resurrection of the dead,” they talk about the body’s role in our current and future being, and carefully choose language intended to destigmatize bodily aspects of existence like sex and disability. And, of course, none of that is bad. Nobody that I know wants to live in a society where the disabled are stigmatized and sex feels like a sin. But the methodology that’s used tends to make the core assumption that bodies are de-facto good. They’re extensions of our own being, complete with natural and good inclinations that we ought to listen to if we want to be happy. If our body is not as we would like it to be (regarding appearance, food intake, sex, ability, or any other number of factors) we need to accept it as differently good, rather than problematic.

The problems begin when we have Jesus saying things like “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28). Lust is one of those bodily emotions that we just sort of… feel. We don’t choose to lust; it just happens. What do we do about that? On one hand, we have groups that have normalized sexual expression whenever a person feels lustful. It’s almost viewed as a form of hunger. If you’re hungry, you eat. If you’re lustful, you have sex. Many of the wellness systems that I’ve seen encouraged in colleges list sexual expression as a basic need for wellness. Lust is portrayed as one more positive emotion that helps us regulate our bodily well being. This, of course, simply assumes that Jesus was wrong. Another common understanding is that there is a big difference between thought and action. To think a lustful thought isn’t ideal, but it’s not as bad as actually acting on it. True though this may be, it’s not the high bar that Jesus presented. He didn’t say that a few lustful thoughts were well within the boundaries of reason. He said to knock it off completely.

This is where we can start to understand Augustine’s perspective. What makes sex so troublesome to him? It’s attached to these bodily emotions that are almost impossible to control. It’s not the only activity capable of arousing these sorts of passions, but it’s certainly one of the most prominent.  Despite our most careful attempts to cultivate virtue, we’re always subject to bodily lust. In City of God he writes:

There are lusts for many things, and yet when lust is mentioned without the specification of its object the only thing that normally occurs to the mind is the lust that excites the indecent parts of the body. This lust assumes power not only over the whole body, and not only from the outside, but also internally; it disturbs the whole man, when the mental emotion combines and mingles with the physical craving, resulting in a pleasure surpassing all physical delights. So intense is the pleasure that when it reaches its climax there is an almost total extinction of mental alertness; the intellectual sentries, as it were, are overwhelmed.

City of God, Book XIV, 16

Here, we see lust portrayed as this sin that’s rooted in our body, capable of completely drowning out our own free will.  It can stop us from being the saints that we want to be and drag us towards sins that our minds would never choose for us.  This isn’t a battle that can be corrected either.  Until we receive new bodies/restored bodies in the resurrection, we’re stuck fighting our own lust. Our bodies are affected by the fallenness of the world, and lust is a sin that’s etched into them for the duration of our time on Earth. The gift of sexuality that God gave us is always muddied by the unavoidable, uncontrollable presence of lust.

But the fullness of Augustine’s concerns with sex are a little deeper than that.  The ancient era was dominated by the thoughts of Plato, who warned people not to focus on things in this world, but to focus on the things beyond this world.  For Christian Platonists, the world below was something that should draw our attention to our God above.  If we get bogged down in focusing on earthly things because of their own beauty, we’ll miss the greater beauty that they’re pointing to. The Bible has passages that these ancient, Plato-influenced readers would have focused on to a far greater degree than we do, such as Colossians 3:2, “Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things.”  That’s why we have bishops like Augustine creating whole theological systems that encourage people to put their whole heart and mind on God, regardless of what they’re doing. He says that things in this world are here for us to use, while the God beyond this world is there to be enjoyed:

To enjoy a thing is to rest with satisfaction in it for its own sake. To use, on the other hand, is to employ whatever means are at one’s disposal to obtain what one desires, if it is a proper object of desire; for an unlawful use ought rather to be called an abuse.

De Doctrina, Ch 4

A good Christian only uses the things in this world. We use our tools. We use our modes of transportation. We use our friends. We use everything to seek God, in whom we rest. And yes, “use” is a word that hasn’t aged well to talk about people, but hopefully you can see what he’s trying to do here. He’s not suggesting we use them in a way that is disrespectful or abusive. He’s suggesting that they’re here to help us seek God and enjoy him. That’s why all of us are here: to point to God.

You can see why all of that would make lust extra concerning.  Someone experiencing lust is probably not thinking much about God.  Their faculties are overwhelmed with the pleasure of an earthly thing, and they’re not giving much thought to heavenly things.  In that light, lust is something that is continually pulling us away from heaven, down into the dust from which we were made.  It’s a way to enjoy something for its own sake, rather than to enjoy God through it.

To Augustine, not only is lust something that’s bodily and uncontrollable, but it’s pulling our minds away from God and down towards things that can never fulfill us. That’s why it’s so worthy of concern.

 In an era where assumptions about bodies and sex have changed so vastly, what do we have to gain from reading Augustine’s thoughts about sex?  A reminder that our bodies are not purely reliable entities.  They’re tainted by sin, just like everything else.  Rather than always differing to the wants of our bodies (sexual or otherwise), we can remember that there’s something beyond all of this that demands our loyalty.  That’s where real enjoyment is.

Gregory of Nazianzus: An Unhappy Faith

In the Western church, there’s a prevailing sense that a right faith is a happy one. A lot of today’s bestselling Christian pastors/authors have founded their churches on the idea that God wants you to be happy. But is that the faith that has been handed down to us by Christian tradition? Or is it something else? In an age in which the average person is a functional materialist (only believes in what they can see), have we ceased to believe that we can find fulfillment by following the plans of a transcendent being? Is the shallow feeling of happiness so enviable in our age because it’s the closest thing our culture can get to a sense of spiritual fulfillment?

I don’t know. Clearly those pointed questions say how I feel, but rather than circle back around to conversations about secularism, I want to investigate a bigger problem with the Cult of Happiness: it’s built on straw. Life stinks sometimes. People get sick. Your friends die. You step in a puddle and get wet socks. Life just ain’t always great. Rather than try to pretend we can get through it without being sad, why not just acknowledge unhappy feelings and grow in spite of them? Not only do we see that repeatedly in Scripture (see the Psalms and Jesus for some prime examples), but we see that in the writings of one of the greatest saints of all times: Gregory of Nazianzus.

Those of you that have followed me for a while may remember my previous entries on Gregory of Nazianzus. His poetry is just magnetic to me. Beyond it’s beauty and theological content, he’s not afraid to express himself. Gregory is downright miserable at times. Translator Peter Gilbert goes so far as to suggest he might be diagnosed as clinically depressed if he were alive today (On God and Man, 2). This is the faith of one of the saints that helped us understand the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and it wasn’t a particularly happy one.

Just look at this heartrending selection from On Human Nature:

…I keep an unchanging bent, while we rush
upon the sword in suicidal madness, like the swine.
What’s in fact the good of life? God’s light? But then
hateful and jealous darkness keeps me from it.
Nothing’s of any use to me. And what is there of no use to the wicked?
If only they were equally endowed,with troubles especially!
I lie helpless. Divine terror has bowed me…

93-99

YIKES!

The full poem is long, so I’ll give a little context to that excerpt: the poem opens with Gregory racked with anxiety, asking himself the big question: who am I (line 25). On one hand, Christ died to mingle his essence with the divine and lead him on towards holiness. He knows that! But on the other hand, he doesn’t feel particularly blessed. He describes himself as “a nothing… pommeled down by ills like a thing compacted” (line 43). In old age, his body is betraying him. It’s an “enemy that never lets up warring” (59-60), and he feels like he’s “carrying a corpse… locked in the hateful chains of life”(65). Where is this joy that was promised? Will it come? Was there a point to any of this?

Those of us hoping for a happy ending don’t exactly get one. He concludes his quest: “now’s a fog, but afterwards the Word, and you’ll know all, whether by seeing God or eaten up by fire… I headed home, laughing at my self-estrangement… heart in anguish smoldering,” (127-128, 130-133). This is not a happy man, but it’s still a faithful man. He ends this poem specifically because he knows he needs to trust God, even in his misery:

Stop. Everything is secondary to God. Give in to reason.
He did not create me in vain. I am turning
my back upon this song.

123-126

God didn’t create him for nothing. He moves forward in hope, even if he doesn’t feel particularly happy in the given moment.

This poetry is grim, and yet, I find it strangely compelling. It’s honest. I’ve felt these feelings. I’d go so far as to say that existential crises, self doubt, and unfathomable pain are near-universal experiences in this life. When I think about the preachers that are chasing happiness, I can’t even fathom them validating these kinds of emotions as legitimate. “God doesn’t want that for you! Seek joy!” But that advice denies the pain that we all know is real. Anyone who has lived knows that it’s painful sometimes. A saintly faith isn’t one that ignores the deep pains of the world. It’s one that sees the pain and weeps without giving up faith in God. Gregory knew pain. The psalmists felt pain. Jesus felt pain. The faith that’s been passed down all these thousands of years is a hard one sometimes. That’s ok. It’s part of the journey. To quote Rainer Rilke,

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Go to the Limits of Your Longing

We seek fulfillment in our eternal God, not a dopamine rush that might get us through another work week. When things are bad, it’s okay to be sad. It’s not a lack of faith; it’s honesty. We have to remember that God didn’t create us in vain and keep trudging on our way, trusting that in the end, God knows what he’s doing.

Exaggerated Exegesis (Part Two on Wacky Patristic Interpretations)

In my last post, I chatted a little about some of the wackier interpretations of Scripture that I’ve come across from the patristic era. I ended on a pretty positive note regarding it’s legitimacy: “Maybe the Holy Spirit has some crazy things to show us in our Bibles if we keep our minds open.” Despite me wrapping things up with a happy ending, it was still an open question in my head. Are these interpretations legitimate? Or are they wrong?

I remember one friend telling me, “Well, they don’t violate any of the creeds. Why can’t the Holy Spirit speak in creative, unexpected ways in the Scriptures? I think churches today have a lot to learn about exegesis from the Church Fathers!” Now, by no means do I want to “roast” his answer. In a lot of ways, I don’t think it’s far from what I suggested last week. Nonetheless, it struck me as troublesome when I heard someone else say it. There are a lot of things that the creeds don’t address at all. Should wacky Bible readings get a pass just because they don’t violate a creed? And it sounds really neat to say that we have a lot to learn from the creative interpretations of the Church Fathers, and on some level it’s certainly true, but if something they did looks a little weird, why not question it? Nobody is above critique! We aren’t obligated to repeat patristic mistakes out of a sense of duty to tradition. That’s coming from someone who identifies as a “tradition guy.” The name of the blog is “Classic Christianity,” for crying out loud! But I can’t shake the nagging feeling that we’re giving the Church Fathers a pass on some stuff that we would absolutely reject if someone tried to do today.

Imagine me going into a church and saying this during a sermon on Sunday morning:

“Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing. Each has its twin; not one of them are alone.” (Song 4:2)

Does the hearer learn anything more than when he listens to the same thought expressed in the plainest language, without the help of this figure? And yet, I don’t know why, I feel greater pleasure in contemplating holy men, when I view them as the teeth of the Church, tearing men away from their errors, and bringing them into the Church’s body, with all their harshness softened down, just as if they had been torn off and masticated by the teeth. It is with the greatest pleasure, too, that I recognize them under the figure of sheep that have been shorn, laying down the burdens of the world like fleeces, and coming up from the washing, i.e., from baptism, and all bearing twins, i.e., the twin commandments of love of God and neighbor, and none among them barren in that holy fruit.

Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Trans. J.F. Shaw

I legitimately don’t think I could get away with that. People in the pews would squint their eyes and say, “What? That’s not what it says at all. What’s wrong with Pastor Vincent this week? He’s going off the rails!” If I try to do that or anything like it without name dropping the quote’s originator, it looks like total nonsense. Meanwhile, if I name drop the author, “As the great Saint Augustine said…” I might get a pass based on his name value alone. If an interpretation is totally reliant on it’s famous originator to sound reasonable, is it really reasonable at all?

On some level, I guess my protestant expectation of plain sense readings is shining through. I have the voice of Luther in my ear, “Each passage has one clear, definite, and true sense of its own. All others are but doubtful and uncertain opinions.” Not that I hate allegory as much as he claims he did, but I do expect an attempt to interpret Scripture to seem… well… reasonable. If Scripture says that a woman had nice teeth, it seems distinctly unreasonable to say that it clearly and definitely means that the church ought to have sinless saints. But if I’m rejecting that, then I have to say what I think IS a reasonable reading of that passage. What does it mean that this man’s beloved had nice teeth? What religious truth is being conveyed by God in these words? How does that edify my soul? Apparently, Martin Luther, famed allegory hater, said that the whole of Song of Songs was actually an allegory about politics (an interpretation that doesn’t seem to have caught on). I can’t find what he said about the teeth specifically without paying a lot of money for a book that I’ll only use once for this express purpose, but I get the sense that white teeth probably had an equally weird meaning in his mind. Go figure.

NO ALLEGORY! Well… maybe just a bit….

There’s some passages that are incredibly hard to interpret. Since I’ve been doing a sermon series at church about Song of Songs, those are the ones that have been nagging at me lately, but there’s lots of similar passages throughout the Bible. Sometimes, literal readings of these passages seem so shallow that we have to turn to allegory. The Church Fathers gave us a wealth of allegorical readings to consider, but I think it’s fair to be a little critical of them. The interpretive moves that they made are often wild by our modern standards. Last time, I was enamored by their creativity. After some thinking, I still respect their writings. I’m just a little more cautious about borrowing from them without a nice, critical look at the primary text itself.

Imaginative Interpretation with the Church Patriarchs

I’m consistently shocked by the way ancient interpreters read Scripture.  They draw some pretty wacky conclusions sometimes.  Not bad conclusions, mind you.  They’re great Christian advice most of the time!  But the way they reach those conclusions feels totally removed from our modern ways of Bible reading.  For example, Venerable Bede (a big name scholar born in 673 who actually helped popularize the term “AD” for measuring years) wrote this about that awkward passage in Song of Songs, “Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead,” (Song 4:1).

For if goats and the hair or skins of goats always signified the foulness of sinners and never the humility of penitents, that animal would by no means have been reckoned among the clean [animals], nor would it have been said in praise of the bride: “Your hair is like a flock of goats.”

Bede, On the Tabernacle 2.3

I’ve only heard that particular passage get brought up for two reasons: to point out that standards of beauty vary from one culture to another, or to laugh about how Song of Songs has some language that is not romantic by today’s standards (har har).  I don’t know that Bede has done anything that seems all that legitimate by modern exegetical standards, but tying the goat to an attitude of penance actually adds a dimension of spiritual edification to this passage. Is he right? I don’t know. But is it kinda cool? Yeah.

To stick to the theme of Song of Songs, here’s a bit that Origen of Alexandria (a super-influential early Christian theologian born in 183) interpreted the line “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” (Song 1:1) as follows:

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth”—that is to say, may pour the words of His mouth into mine, that I may hear Him speak Himself, and see Him teaching. The kisses are Christ’s, which He bestowed on His Church when at His coming, being present in the flesh, He in His own person spoke to her the words of faith and love and peace, according to the promise of Isaias who, when sent beforehand to the Bride, had said: Not a messenger, nor an angel, but the Lord Himself shall save us.

Origen’s Commentary on Song of Songs, 1:1

What?  How did he get to that point?  He jumped from a statement that almost entirely registers as a straightforward statement of passion to a longing prophecy about the incarnation of Christ!  It’s utterly baffling!  I don’t know if I could get away with making a claim like that from the pulpit… but isn’t it a little more edifying his way?  Sure, it’s creative and maybe even wrong, but it’s intriguing.

Even the great Augustine, the church patriarch of church patriarchs, the theologian of theologians, has his fair share of wacky interpretations.  Here’s one about Genesis 2 (which is apparently one of his many interpretations on Genesis, because he really liked that book).  To give you some background, he’s already stated that the Genesis story uses Adam to represent higher reasoning (the soul’s deep wisdom), Eve to represent lower reason (the ability to make rational decisions and manage Earthly resources appropriately), and the snake to represent appetite.  Now he moves on to his grand conclusion:

Now with that evident couple of the two human beings who were first created, the serpent did not eat from the forbidden tree, but only incited to eat, and the woman did not eat alone but gave some to her husband and they ate together, although she alone spoke to the serpent and she alone was led astray by it. So too… even in one man, the carnal (or if I may so put it the sensual) motion of the soul which is channeled into the senses of the body and which is common to us and the beasts, is shut off from the reasoning of wisdom. With bodily sensation, after all, bodily things are sensed; but eternal, unchangeable, and spiritual things are understood with the reasoning of wisdom. But the appetite is very close to the reasoning of knowledge, seeing that it is the function of this knowledge to reason about the bodily things that are perceived by bodily sensation.

Augustine, The Trinity, Trans Edmund Hill, Kindle Loc 9213

What a bizarre, psychological exploration of human nature, wrapped up in a Bible story!  It reminds me of Freud or William Blake’s prophesies!  In his hands, Genesis isn’t just a story about two people long ago; it’s about every person in every era, and the psychological resources that are so easily corrupted by appetite. And it’s history and a million other things. It speaks and it speaks and it has so much to offer.

I have no problem with the  “plain sense” reading of Scripture (the assumption that most of the Bible can be read in a relatively straightforward fashion and be interpreted with a good bit of common sense).  Yes, I know there is no self-interpreting book and that a knowledge of the Christian tradition is necessary to interpret well, but I do think that a story can have a meaning and the meaning is often not far from what was written on the page.  Nonetheless, Auggie, Origen, and Bede are doing some really creative, cool stuff with their Bible readings, and I can’t help but stop with a mix of awe and confusion and say, “Woah.”  Sure, maybe they’re just wrong, but maybe there’s more to Scripture than we see.  Maybe the Holy Spirit has some crazy things to show us in our Bibles if we keep our minds open. 

Creeds: Underrated, Under-loved, and Surprisingly Helpful

Sometimes, I forget the value of the creeds.  Not that I’m not a creedal guy.  The creeds are instrumental in giving us the basics of the faith!  But sometimes, I see pastors emphasizing the creeds as the sole definition of orthodoxy because they happen to have an unorthodox theological stance that the creeds don’t address. These pastors use creeds as a sort of legalistic way to sneak un-historic theology into the church, rather than as seeing them as a guiding light toward historic Christianity,  I guess that’s made me a little wary of over-relying on the creeds in recent years.

In hindsight, that kind of skepticism was probably unfounded.  As with all good things, there are people who abuse them and use them incorrectly, but the creeds possess a powerful capacity to give people the foundational pieces of Christianity.  I remember a story  about a woman who was talking about faith with her Christian friends when someone asked, “What do you believe?”  All of her friends answered the question in weird little bits and pieces, unable to systematically give an account of their beliefs, but she just spouted off the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe in God the Father, creator of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord, who…”  What a powerful way to memorize and express the basics!  The Apostle’s Creed gives us that quick, succinct explanation for ourselves and for others!

The Nicene Creed is one that’s a little rarer, but excellent to add to your creedal arsenal.  Back when I was working on a sermon series about the Apostle’s Creed, I remember finding out that Eastern Orthodox churches don’t use it!  In their words, it was never approved at an ecumenical council, so why bother using a creed that wasn’t approved when there’s one that was?  While I don’t think we need to abandon the Apostle’s Creed, which is still a tremendous piece of Western Christian heritage, I think they make a valid point.  The Nicene Creed has enough historic relevance that it’s well worth our time, and it adds little details to the core framework of the Apostle’s Creed that make Christianity even clearer.  For example, what if someone says, “Well I don’t know that early Christians thought Jesus was God!  The Apostle’s Creed only says, ‘Jesus Christ, his Son, our Lord,’ so it seems like even they weren’t sure about it!”  Then you can hit ‘em with that good Nicene clarification:

…We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father…

-The Nicene Creed

Sure, you have to take the time to understand what “begotten” means as opposed to “made” (basically, God the Son is from the generative power of God the Father and is actually, genuinely his son, but there was never a time when he didn’t exist and he is just as fully God as God the Father.  It’s a way to avoid people saying that Jesus is somehow less than God because he was created by God, so he’s different and secondary), but that’s a level of difficulty that actually explains things out even further.  Our ancestors in the faith didn’t clarify these things so that we could tuck the creeds away in the back pages of hymn books!  They’re ways they wanted to pass on the core of the faith and help us avoid errors!

Finally, I’ll give some love to the Athanasian Creed.  This one, the Nicene Creed, and the Apostle’s Creed make up the Ecumenical Creeds.  Basically, if you’re a Christian in the West, your church came from these creeds.  These are the basic foundations that your beliefs came from! The Athanasian Creed doesn’t get read much in public worship (mostly because it’s scary) but it’s got some valuable points to it. For example, is it really crucial to a person’s salvation to believe in the Holy Spirit? Well, the Athanasian Creed says yes in its signature, super-intense way:

Whoever desires to be saved should above all hold to the catholic faith.

Anyone who does not keep it whole and unbroken will doubtless perish eternally.

Now this is the catholic faith:

That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity,
neither belnding their persons
Nor dividing their essence.
For the person of the Father is a distinct person,
the person of the Son is another,
and that of the Holy Spirit still another.
But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one,
their glory equal, their majesty coeternal…

-The Athanasian Creed

You can see why people don’t read this one as often, but it has something to say: these things matter. The trinitarian nature of God isn’t a side-truth we can add to our beliefs if we’re feeling comfortable; it’s a core piece of the faith that has been passed down through the church for generations. These creeds are what the saints of the past established as the borders of their school of thought. If we don’t fall within the borders, we’re carrying a faith that they would consider fundamentally different from their own.

I want to have the faith of the saints. I want to understand it, explore it, and know it well. I delight in knowing that great Christians of the past spoke the same creeds that I do, and that they left them for me so that we could share faith in the same God in every generation.

Metaphysical Wonder: Plato and Patristics

The more I learn about Plato, the more I realize that patristic theologians relied heavily on his work to talk about God. I’m reading through Confessions right now, and it’s absolutely littered with echoes and quotations from Plotinus, a prominent Platonist philosopher. For example, here’s his classic definition of sin (the decision to act for yourself, rather than in accordance with God’s will) side by side with Plotinus’s definition:

I directed my mind to understand what I was being told, namely that the free choice of the will is the reason why we do wrong and suffer your just judgement.

Augustine, The Confessions, p. 113, Trans. Chadwick

What is it, then, which has made the souls forget their father, God, and be ignorant of them- selves and him, even though they are parts which come from his higher world and altogether belong to it? The beginning of evil for them was audacity and coming to birth and the first otherness and the wishing to belong to themselves.

Plotinus, Enneads, 5.1.1

Obviously not a one-to-one copy, but Auggie’s understanding is incredibly compatible with the leading Platonist voice. If you were a Christian, you’d be able to use Platonic logic to back up your points without too much trouble. Similarly, if you were a Platonist that wasn’t a Christian, you’d have some common ground with the Christian tradition if you were looking to convert.

Here’s another example. In this passage, Augustine is trying to describe how he thought about God interacting with creation.

I visualized you, Lord, surrounding [creation] on all sides and permeating it, but infinite in all directions, as if there were a sea everywhere and stretching through immense distances, a single sea which had within it a large but finite sponge; and the sponge was in every part filled from the immense sea. This is the kind of way in which I supposed your finite creation to be full of you, infinite as you are, and said: ‘Here is God and see what God has created. God is good and is most mightily and incomparably superior to these things.

Confessions, p. 115, Trans. Chadwick

The universe lies in soul which bears it up, and nothing is without a share of soul. It is as if a net immersed in the waters was alive, but unable to make its own that in which it is. The sea is already spread out and the net spreads with it, as far as it can; for no one of its parts can be anywhere else than where it lies. And soul’s nature is so great, just because it has no size, as to contain the whole of body in one and the same grasp; wherever body extends, there soul is. If body did not exist, it would make no difference to soul as regards size; for it is what it is.

Plotinus, Enneads 4.3.9.38

Whether we’re sponges or a net, there’s a massive entity in each example (God/soul) that exists as the water that extends in all directions and contains us. When Augustine wanted to talk about God, he used Platonic ideas that had been spread around the Mediterranean for hundreds of years to get the job done.

It’s beyond obvious that these aren’t complete rip-offs. Augustine didn’t pop open Plotinus and start copying bits word for word. Nor are all Platonic ideas are even compatible with Christianity. The guy believed in reincarnation, for crying out loud. To be Christian, you had to admit that Plato got some of it wrong. But clearly Plato and his gang were often seen as people that got most of it right; they just needed a bit of tweaking to fully get there. Augustine credits the Platonists with giving him the logic that prepared him for the Gospel:

You brought under my eye some books of the Platonists, translated from Greek into Latin. There I read, not of course in these words, but with entirely the same sense and supported by numerous and varied reasons, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him, and without him nothing was made.’

The Confessions, p. 121, Trans. Chadwick

In other words, thank God for Plato’s books, which prepared me for the Bible.

Before going too much further, I do feel obligated to discuss the possibility that patrstic authors like Augustine were too influenced by philosophers like Plato and weren’t really looking at the Bible on it’s own merits. Totally untrue. Patristic sources quote the Bible constantly. Confessions is littered with Bible quotes. These were people that swam in the Scriptures; the assumptions they approached reality with were just very different than our own.

Plato’s work gave early saints the metaphysical concepts and language they needed to talk about God. Platonism had it’s own version of the trinity (the One, the spirit, and the soul). It explained how when we do good, we participate in God’s good actions, rather than act independently of our own ability. It gave the Eastern churches the framework for the doctrines of theosis (becoming like God through constant participation in his actions) and apocatastasis (all things eventually returning to God, really only common in Eastern Orthodoxy). Even the ways that classical Christian orthodoxy frames God as the timeless, spaceless, source of all being are built partially on the assumptions that Plato built. That philosopher gave ideas and language to Christian theologians that were desperately trying to find words to describe their God. In the words of Anglican theologian Dean Inge, “Platonism is part of the vital structure of Christianity, with which no other philosophy, I venture to say, can work without friction.” More aggressively, he wrote that there is an “utter impossibility of excising Platonism from Christianity without tearing Christianity to pieces,” (History of Western Philosophy, 285).

Maybe Paul’s disciplemaking trip to Athens in Acts 17 served a greater purpose than we knew! Maybe spreading the Gospel to Greek minds was God’s way of preparing the ancient Church for the metaphysical work ahead. Ok, technically Plato was known by academics throughout the Mediterranean region, and Plotinus (an Egyptian) specifically wasn’t even born until over a hundred years after Paul’s death. The quotes from above aren’t direct results of Paul’s venture to Athens, but I still think Acts 17 is a brilliant symbol to represent the early Church’s theological growth. The Gospel made it’s way to Greece and was spoken to and by a new people, gaining new expression in the process.

Obviously, the average person today doesn’t know a lot about Plato. I wonder if that’s why so many classical ideas about God’s nature are under attack. It’s fairly common (at least, in my circles) to hear someone say that God is subject to change (not timeless), that God is capable of making mistakes (not good), and that God chooses to let us make whatever choices we want to make without interfering (no participation). If we’re reading the Scriptures with today’s prevailing philosophies in mind (probably some brand of rationalism and materialism), God might seem remarkably human. He bargains with a merciful Abraham about the minimum number of righteous people left in Sodom and Gomorrah before he’ll destroy it (Gen 18). He regrets making humanity (Gen 6:6). He changes his mind about disasters that he’ll send (Amos 7). You get the idea. God is personified relatively often, and those personifications are commonly read by modern thinkers in unflattering, very mortal ways. In the patristic era, it was common for theologians to say, “Well, those stories are just symbols to communicate God’s immense, unfathomable ways to a limited, sinful, mortal people,” but that’s not a common response that I hear anymore. With the loss of a language to describe the things we can’t see, it’s hard for most modern people to imagine a God beyond our mode of being. If God exists, he must be like us, which leaves us why he’s worth worshiping at all.

We need a cure for our loss of metaphysical wonder. I don’t know that everyone ought to go read Plato. There’s a lot of stuff in there that the Church Fathers rejected in long, drawn-out, messy theology battles. We don’t need to start those up again! But we do owe it to ourselves to listen to Christian voices that had a common philosophical vision so different from ours. Their writings have gifts that we won’t find anywhere else, and they point us to a God that’s so delightfully other from our cultural imagination that we can’t help but stand back in awe.