While poking around some different articles on the treatment of women in Leviticus, I stumbled across some wacky interpretations of what Jesus wrote in the sand in John 8:1-11. Let me refresh your memory on that passage (with a verse from chapter 7 to make sure we don’t start in the middle of a sentence):
7 53 Then they all went home,
8 1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them.3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women.Now what do you say?”6 They were using this question as a trap,in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stoneat her.”8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,”Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
What did Jesus write? It’s important enough that it’s referenced twice at crucial story moments, but apparently not important enough to tell us anything about it. I’ve heard people say he was writing a passage from Leviticus 20 indicating that BOTH people were supposed to be stoned, revealing that they would be breaking the law if they stoned her because they failed to produce both parties. Others have said that he was writing the names of every accuser along with the sins that they had recently committed. I’ve even heard that he drew a line in the sand for people to cross if they felt they were worthy. There are a lot of takes out there, but most of them aren’t really founded on much apart from one person’s random guesswork. What have the major theologians of the Christian tradition said about the writing in the sand?
Naturally, I started with Augustine (because you can never go too far wrong with Augustine). Luckily for me, he preached a series of sermons about the book of John and his take was customarily good. He suggested the trap the Pharisees laid was in making Jesus choose between gentleness and justice. If Jesus approved of the women’s death, he’d be the guy that condemned peasant women and his popularity would suffer. If he didn’t approve of her death, he was speaking against God’s justice and was officially a transgressor of the law! Jesus navigates the dilemma with his typical craftiness by taking neither option. But what about the finger writing?
You have heard, O Jews, you have heard, O Pharisees, you have heard, O teachers of the law, the guardian of the law, but have not yet understood Him as the Lawgiver. What else does He signify to you when He writes with His finger on the ground? For the law was written with the finger of God; but written on stone because of the hard-hearted. The Lord now wrote on the ground, because He was seeking fruit. You have heard then, Let the law be fulfilled, let the adulteress be stoned. But is it by punishing her that the law is to be fulfilled by those that ought to be punished? Let each of you consider himself, let him enter into himself, ascend the judgment-seat of his own mind, place himself at the bar of his own conscience, oblige himself to confess… Each looking carefully into himself, finds himself a sinner. Yes, indeed. Hence, either let this woman go, or together with her receive ye the penalty of the law… [H]aving struck them through with that dart of justice, [Jesus] deigned not to heed their fall, but, turning away His look from them, “again He wrote with His finger on the ground.”
Augustine, Sermon on John Chapter VII. 40–53; VIII. 1–11
Brilliant! Rather than focus on non-existent content, he’s looking at the symbolism of the act itself. Why would Jesus write on the ground? Because God wrote the law on stone the first time, and now he’s writing on the ground. This is the same dust that people were created from. Were they fertile enough to bear fruit after all these years? Or were their hearts still hard as the rocks that the commandments were once written on? He even returns to his idea of gentleness by indicating that Jesus didn’t stare them down after the incident, shaming them for their sin. He just keeps writing. Really nice work here.
Other patristic authors are less worthy of sharing. John Chrysostom has a sermon series on John that deliberately skips over this particular story and a lot of ancient theologians (especially in the East) follow suit, leading some to believe that they had copies of John that didn’t contain these verses. In Against the Pelagians, Book 2, Jerome suggests Jesus was writing out the names of the accusers to to fulfill Jeremiah 17:13 “Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust,” (a passage which seems to have been intended to be more poetic than literal). By and large, Augustine’s logic seems to have been attractive. Thomas Aquinas carries it forward to the Middle Ages in his mega-commentary Catena Aurea and includes support from Venerable Bede and Alcuin of York to back him up.
In the Reformation, John Calvin comes out swinging against Augustine and approaches the story without interest in allegory:
By this attitude he intended to show that he despised them. Those who conjecture that he wrote this or the other thing, in my opinion, do not understand his meaning. Nor do I approve of the ingenuity of Augustine, who thinks that in this manner the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is pointed out, because Christ did not write on tables of stone, (Exodus 31:18,) but on man, who is dust and earth. For Christ rather intended, by doing nothing, to show how unworthy they were of being heard; just as if any person, while another was speaking to him, were to draw lines on the wall, or to turn his back, or to show, by any other sign, that he was not attending to what was said. Thus in the present day, when Satan attempts, by various methods, to draw us aside from the right way of teaching, we ought disdainfully to pass by many things which he holds out to us.
John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on John 13:1-11
Gone is the speculative symbolism! Instead, we have a Jesus that’s just not listening. Pharisees are coming around, asking questions that they already know the answer to, and Jesus just starts doodling in the sand. That’s how little he cares what they have to say. When he says “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone,” Calvin reads that as a deliberate reference to their own sinfulness. They know they aren’t being sincere. They’re scheming, conniving, wretched men trying to kill someone to prove their own point. It’s not that the law isn’t legitimate; it’s that they aren’t being legitimate, and they know it. Again, Calvin is sticking to the Scripture pretty thoroughly and avoiding wild speculation about the writing. Well done.
The Reformation seems to be a bit of a hinge in historical interpretation. After the Reformation, commentaries that I can find seem to take a more practical approach to the matter. The symbolic dimension is swallowed up by the practical. Some lean more heavily on WHY he wrote (to avoid meddling in politics, to calm people down, etc.) while others focus on WHAT he wrote (names, sins, passages of the law, etc.). John Wesley is one of the better big-name interpreters to marry the practical and the symbolic, but his notes are still ruthlessly pragmatic:
God wrote once in the Old Testament; Christ once in the New: perhaps the words which he afterward spoke, when they continued asking him. By this silent action, he,
1. fixed their wandering, hurrying thoughts, in order to awaken their consciences: and, 2. signified that he was not then come to condemn but to save the world.
John Wesley, Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, John 8:1-11
Obviously there are oodles of others well worth reading, but these were the ones that I thought were worthy of lifting up. They’re all respected enough for their words to carry weight, and each seems to represent the general stream of mainstream interpretation within their era.
Ultimately, I’m really pleased with what I found. I expected to find some really wacky stuff, but a shocking majority of commentators avoided wild speculation about the specifics of the writing and interpreted in light of the information that they had, rather than what they didn’t have. Frankly, that was my bias from the outset. If the Bible doesn’t say what Jesus wrote, it couldn’t have been all that important to the story (sorry Jerome). But really, it was phenomenal to see all the directions people went with it. I have a soft spot for that symbolic dimension. It emphasized the weight of each action within the passage in a way that was far beyond the mundane. So what did he write? Beats me. As much as I like Augustine, I’ll side with Calvin for the sheer delightful possibility of Jesus rolling his eyes and playing tic tac toe against himself in the dirt while they were trying to talk to him.
While I was doing a little more digging on Polycarp, I ran across an account of him in Jerome’s De Viris Illustribus (aka On Illustrious Men). According to Jerome, Polycarp was a student of the Apostle John, which delighted me to no end. What a neat little detail! The Biblical era is so often made it’s own little self-contained thing, so when you see those moments where apostles interacted with the generations that followed, it just makes their work seem infinitely more real. They weren’t just storybook characters; they actually lived, met people, taught them, and made leaders in the early Church. Of course, it’s not undisputed. As with all ancient history, some people think it’s true, and some people think it’s false. This particular claim has some heavy hitters weighing in behind it (Tertullian, Irenaeus, Eusebius, and Jerome) and the timelines totally line up, but ancient history is always a little sketchy. There just aren’t those ironclad sources that you have today. This meme sums it up nicely:
The sources we have in this case are a little stronger than a cousin’s friend’s dream, but you get the picture. Modernity favors exactitude, whereas ancient history is full of legends. Me? I think it’s reasonable to say that Polycarp and John met. Polycarp was a notable bishop in modern Turkey that lived through the first and second centuries. John the Apostle would have been alive and in modern Greece. It makes sense that they would have interacted. Between the timeline, the geography, and the sources, it works.
But that wasn’t the only treat in De Viris Illustribus. It had a few other treasures that are worth sharing, one which is Jerome trying to determine the authorship of various Biblical books. De Viris Illustribus is basically a who’s who of people who wrote noteworthy books for the Church. Naturally, Jerome starts with the New Testament writers, which quickly leads to conversations about who wrote what. After all, how can you bring up Paul and his writings without saying what he wrote? So did Paul actually write Hebrews? Did Peter write 2 Peter? Jerome doesn’t seem to buy either. Which is kind of nice, actually. Even though Jerome isn’t 100% sure about the authorship, he still considers the books canonical and crucial for Christians. In the modern era, questions about authorship often feels like a litmus test to see if you’re really a real Christian. It’s nice to see that things aren’t always as black and white as we think. Great saints have asked questions that we might reject offhand today. Maybe we can afford to be a little gentler when such matters come up.
I also just appreciated the nature of the book itself. Like I said, it’s a list from a big-shot theologian saying who wrote things worth your attention in the Church world. That’s something that’s shockingly rare in the modern era! If you don’t go to seminary, you may not know who is worth reading and who isn’t. I remember being a new Christian and just kind of buying Christian books at random, hoping that they were legit. A lot of what I got wasn’t worth reading. People need to know who is worth engaging with! And Jerome doesn’t pull any punches either. This isn’t a little list of authors who are comfortable and safe. There are heretics on this list! There are non-Christians! Mind you, he tells his readers why each source is worth reading and warns them about what they are, but the point stands that he’s not just filling people up with his own ideas. He’s preparing them for a greater conversation in the world at large.
Finally, I think it’s just nice to have a list of heroes. Some of the details in here are a blast! For example, he says that James the Just prayed so often that his knees “had the hardness of camel’s knees,” (Ch. 2). He says that Ignatius of Antioch’s last words before he was martyred in the arena were “I am the grain of Christ. I am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts that I may be found the bread of the world,” (Ch. 16). Polycarp is said to have met one of the first big heretics of the Church (Marcion) while they were both trying to prosthelytize in Rome and their meeting sounds like something straight out of a movie. Marcion walks up to him and asks, “Do you know us?” Polycarp responds “I know the firstborn of the devil,” (Ch. 17). Not only are these great Christians and great thinkers, but they ooze personality. Jerome even adds himself to the list as the final person of note, which is hilarious. I’d call him out for being cocky, but since his writings have survived since the fourth century, I have to admit that he wasn’t wrong.
In any case, it was a joy finding this old list of heroes worth reading. Feel free to check it out here if you demand more, or make your own list. Share it with your fellow Christians at church! Who knows how it might help someone? But a word to the wise: probably don’t add yourself as the last person on the list.
I’ve been reading a fair few cultural critiques lately (C.S. Lewis, Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, Andrew Root, and Rod Dreher). Each of these authors is trying to articulate what makes faith in the modern world challenging and the cultural forces that make conversion so unlikely for the average Westerner. And honestly? It’s been kind of a bummer. To be clear, I think there’s immense value for Christians in each of these writers. To share the gospel effectively, we have to understand the people around us. What do they long for? What do they expect? What do they think is reasonable? What parts of the faith will they find to be a challenge? Given the massive cultural shift over the past 50 years, churches need to realize that the mission field has changed and they have to adapt to be effective ministers of the gospel. At the same time, reading these books repeatedly can breed a sense of desperation. It’s clear the Church no longer has the privileged status it once had.
Certain eras just had a tremendous energy around faith. For example, if you’ve ever read the diaries of old Methodist preachers from the earliest days of America, you know that their experiences are totally incomprehensible for a modern Christian. “I preached the gospel in a field today. Five-hundred were converted through the grace of God. Huzzah!” Seriously? How on Earth did you pull that off? To be fair, the diary entries tend to end in mass conversions or the preacher having tomatoes hucked at them, but still! There’s that sense that things are MOVING! Today, there’s not that same movement. Cultural critiques can help us put our finger on some of the factors that have made things harder, but they can’t make them go away. A truth that once seemed so obvious that people might convert on the spot is now so challenging for people to accept that there are active, identifiable cultural barriers preventing people from hearing that good news. It can all start to feel a little hopeless. When you put all those thinkers together, you end up with one massive decline narrative about Christianity in the West.
It’s not just reading philosophy that can lead you to feel hopeless. A lot of churches have pretty strong decline narratives themselves. Mind you, not all. There are some big churches that are doing very well for themselves! But converts to those churches are often drawn from smaller churches, rather than from the ranks of non-Christians. The shrunken churches that are left behind end up with a distinct decline narrative. “There used to be so many more people here.” “Those are the classrooms we don’t use anymore.” “What gets young people to go to church? Why aren’t they coming?” Again, some of this is good. Congregations need to look at the tough realities of their situation! But a lot of it feels hopeless. Looking at the bad is only helpful insofar as it can direct us to the good.
So where’s the hope for Christians in a post-Christian era? How can we stay excited when it feels like things are going downhill?
It can help to remember that the challenges we face aren’t anything near the persecutions that other believers have experienced. There are countries where you can get killed for being Christian. There are places where evangelizing is illegal. What we’re facing? It’s nothing compared to that. And so many of them didn’t face their harsh realities with hopelessness. They were joyful to suffer for the one they loved.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp is a beautiful second-century story of someone was joyful in the face of wild adversity. The culture that second-century Roman Christians were living in was openly hostile. If you couldn’t tell from the title, they killed Christians. In this particular account, they’re going to kill Polycarp (a Christian bishop) if he doesn’t deny his faith make a sacrifice to the emperor (spoiler: he doesn’t). Here’s a community that has EVERY REASON to be frustrated by the philosophy of their day and is facing challenges to ministry that we can’t even fathom— but they don’t express any hopelessness in the story. Just look at this excerpt:
All the martyrdoms, then, were blessed and noble which took place according to the will of God. For it becomes us who profess greater piety than others, to ascribe the authority over all things to God. And truly, who can fail to admire their nobleness of mind, and their patience, with that love towards their Lord which they displayed?— who, when they were so torn with scourges, that the frame of their bodies, even to the very inward veins and arteries, was laid open, still patiently endured, while even those that stood by pitied and bewailed them. But they reached such a pitch of magnanimity, that not one of them let a sigh or a groan escape them; thus proving to us all that those holy martyrs of Christ, at the very time when they suffered such torments, were absent from the body, or rather, that the Lord then stood by them, and communed with them.
Martyrdom of Polycarp, Ch. 2
They saw their bishop get stabbed to death by the authorities, and they’re praising God! Because God is in control. Even if circumstances are horrendous, they trust him. If he wants them to endure, they’ll do it with a smile. There’s not even a hint of fear. All of this is coming to pass because of God, and it will all turn out right because of God.
I’ll skip the bulk of the middle, but feel free to read it over at New Advent here if you’re curious.
After the story of Polycarp’s death, the final chapter ends with this:
We wish you, brethren, all happiness, while you walk according to the doctrine of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; with whom be glory to God the Father and the Holy Spirit, for the salvation of His holy elect, after whose example the blessed Polycarp suffered, following in whose steps may we too be found in the kingdom of Jesus Christ!
Martyrdom of Polycarp, Ch. 22
They wish their readers happiness. Not worldly happiness, but the kind of happiness that Polycarp had. The kind of happiness is the kind Paul felt when he wrote, “Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain,” (Phil 1:20-21). Real happiness isn’t rooted in culture or circumstance; it’s rooted in God.
The world is different. Converting to Christianity isn’t the obvious choice. Going to church isn’t as common. We won’t likely won’t enjoy the cultural clout and full buildings that we used to, but the happiness that we’re aiming for was never in full buildings or philosophical ease. It’s in loving Jesus and trusting him no matter what.
My wife and I went to the Cleveland Museum of Art a few weeks ago. As a theology nerd, I went straight to the Christian art section hoping to have a little bit of a mini-retreat there in the gallery. Unfortunately for me, a MASSIVE portion of the art focused on Mary:
And this one that really took the cake…
It was hard to have a spiritual response when everything was so Mary-centric! When I looked up, Mary’s gaze was the first thing I encountered. Jesus wasn’t even looking at me most of the time! If he wasn’t looking off in the distance, he was looking up at Mary, drawing even more attention to her. Naturally, that led to the question, “when did Christians start venerating Mary and why did Protestants stop doing it?” Some Protestants might agree that Mary is uniquely worthy of admiration, but even the most intense Protestant admiration is a far cry from the veneration that she enjoys in Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. So what happened? Did we ditch something that was passed down from the beginning, or did we actually manage to strip away a medieval innovation that had little to do with the Christianity of the apostles?
The uncomfortable truth about Mary veneration is that the historical evidence is a lot less black or white than most parties would like it to be. The veneration of Mary started waaaaay earlier than your average Protestant would hope, but it also happened waaaay later than your average Catholic assumes. First and second century Christians would have found any prayers to Mary a totally alien practice, but in the midst of the raging battles against heresy in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries, it started to develop as a way of preserving the same orthodoxy that Protestants and Catholics share today. In the centuries that followed, it continued to grow and intensify, leading to eventual skepticism from Protestants that wanted to go back to the basics. Even though our tradition ceased the practice of Marian veneration (and had a reasonable claim on recovering early orthodoxy in doing so), a study of how the practice came to be can help us appreciate how that veneration helped our theological ancestors cling to orthodoxy at a time when the nature of Jesus was under fire.
Let’s start our journey with the first century. Easy enough, since there’s no evidence for Marian veneration in this era at all. If we take the Scriptures as the clearest evidence of first-century Christian thought and practice, there’s just not much there. The gospels bring up Mary sparingly, usually during the birth narrative, and the epistles only reference her a handful of times, usually indirectly (for example, Galatians 4:4 reads “God sent forth his Son born of a woman“). If you’re going Sola Scriptura, Mary is a relatively minor Bible character that exists within the narrative as Jesus’s mom. You can definitely find some commentaries out there that try to push the mystical importance of certain passages. For example, some Catholic commentators make much about John 19:26-27: “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ You can read that to mean that Jesus is mystically speaking to every disciple today, encouraging them to accept Jesus as their own mother… or you can conclude that Jesus was worried about his mom and sent her off with John. The latter seems a great deal more likely than the former. Emphasizing the small passages that Mary does appear in doesn’t solve the big problem: nobody in the Scriptures is venerating Mary or explicitly telling others to do it.
There aren’t a ton of indisputably first-Century Christian documents readily available outside of the Scriptures. We could look at documents likethe Didiche (also known as The Teachings of the Apostles) and the Epistle of Barnabas (both of which tend to be considered first-century) and note that neither of them mention Mary at all. First-century Christians just don’t seem particularly concerned with the place of Mary within the order of Christianity. She was Jesus’ mom and that’s about it.
So, onwards to the second century… in which evidence is still pretty scant, all things considered. The Catacomb of Priscilla has the first recorded painting of Mary and Jesus:
There’s a few other paintings from the second century as well, all of which depict Mary as the mother of Jesus. Nothing really new here, but they do speak to the broader concern regarding Mary in this era: was Mary actually Jesus’ mom? The big heresy in the second century was docetism; the belief that Jesus wasn’t really human, so much as he was a spiritual being that looked human. Was he born? Not really. Spiritual beings can’t be born. There wasn’t a consensus among the docetists as to where Jesus did come from. Some claimed that Jesus only appeared to live among us while others suggested that Jesus was just an average man that was born by Mary and the spirit of the Christ descended upon him at his baptism. One famous heretic by the name of Marcion went so far as to totally remove all birth stories from the Scriptures, solving the problem of Jesus’ birth by just having him show up on the scene as a fully-grown man. Regardless of the specifics, the basic message of docetism was the same: Jesus Christ wasn’t really a man, but he was really God. Mary starts to garner more interest from orthodox Christians because she establishes both the human-ness and the divinity of Jesus.
The big theologians in this era reference Mary while they’re making arguments against the docetists. For example, take this passage from Tertullian’s On the Flesh of Christ:
Why is Christ man and the Son of man, if he has nothing of man, and nothing from man? Unless it be either that man is anything else than flesh, or man’s flesh comes from any other source than man, or Mary is anything else than a human being?
One popular technique used to emphasize the crucial role of Mary is recapitulation (retelling the story of humanity but with all of the bad things from the fall being fixed by similar events during salvation). For example, here’s Tertullian again: “As Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel,” (On the Flesh of Christ, Ch.17). And here’s a longer example from the famous second-century apologist, Justin Martyr::
[Jesus] became man by the Virgin, in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God; and she replied, ‘Be it unto me according to your word,’ (Luke 1:38).
Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch 100
Recapitulation holds to that same anti-docetist thought pattern: if Eve sinned and humanity was doomed through the error a woman, how can humanity saved without the faithfulness of a woman? We need a Mary that genuinely participated in the story of salvation to reverse the damage that was done during the fall. Similar ideas float around in the works of other theologians in this era (Irenaeus, for example) and even start to pop up in some of the apocryphal writings. The Gospel of James, for example, is a retelling of the story of Christ’s birth which explicitly includes a (really uncomfortable) section in which a midwife inspects Mary’s hymen after the birth to make sure that she was genuinely a virgin. Jesus isn’t just a regular baby; he’s a miracle baby! He’s a man that’s also God! She’s genuinely his mother, but the birth is miraculous and mysterious.
Onward to the third century! Mary continues to increase in stature. The teacher of teachers, Origen of Alexandria is supposedly the very first person to write the word “theotokos” (mother of God) down as a title for Mary. Not only would this be remarkable because of the level of authority a title like that naturally bestows upon the listener (it’s a fair bit more impressive sounding than “disciple” or “deacon”), but because this is the exact title that will start to normalize Mary veneration in the 5th century. Tying this title to such an ancient and dignified teacher would lend an incredible amount of legitimacy to the practice! But in all of his recorded writings, Origen never used the word “theotokos.” Not even once. A 5th century author, Socrates of Constantinople, made that claim while he was attempting to dismiss the objections of someone named “Nestorius”:
Origen also, in the third volume of his Commentaries on the Apostolic Epistle to the Romans, gives an ample exposition of the sense in which the term Theotokos is used. It is therefore obvious that Nestorius had very little acquaintance with the old theologians[.]
Ecclesiastical History 7.32.17
Unfortunately for Socrates of Constantinople, we have a copy of Origen’s commentary on Romans and can clearly see that no such passage exists. Not only does it not exist, but Origen never uses the same language of high veneration that later authors will use. Despite some poor claims that continue forward into modernity, Origen’s writings don’t have any real jumping off point that naturally leads to the veneration of Mary.
I bring up this false claim because it indicates that things are really starting to get moving. The water is starting to get muddied. Even though the claims don’t have much legitimacy, the fact that someone made such a claim specifically targeting this era reflects that Mary’s status within the faith is growing. Origen may not use that particular power-phrase, but he does focus on Mary even more than most previous theologians. We start to see Mary stuff start to pop up more and more in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. Somewhere in this timeframe (depending on which person is doing the dating), we even see see the Sub tuum praesidium hymn pop up for the first time:
Beneath your compassion,We take refuge, O Theotokos [God-bearer]:do not despise our petitions in time of trouble:but rescue us from dangers, only pure, only blessed one.
Sub tuum praes., earliest manuscript of which is from a Coptic fragment known as John Rylands papyrus 470
We still regularly see theologians say that Mary was sinful and there are very few clear recommendations of praying to her from leading Christian figures, but language about perpetual virginity that started popping up in the second century is carrying forward. She is not only a mother, but she is a mother that remained ever-virgin. And again, we have the odd scraps of evidence (like the Sub tuum papyrus) that seem to suggest that some communities are starting to pray to Mary and hold her in particularly high esteem. As we get more thoroughly into the fourth century, big-name theologians like Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus start using the phrase “theotokos.” The mother of God has officially arrived.
We could spend ages looking at the slow evolution of the practice of Marian veneration, but I think I’ve already established the trend— Marian veneration slowly developed as a way of battling heresies that claimed that Jesus was not both all-man and all-God. She established both realities; her miraculous birth established Christ’s divinity, while her humanity established Christ’s humanity. But the fifth century offers one more large leap in the history of Mary veneration: the Council of Ephesus and their official endorsement of the title “theotokos.”
A fifth-century archbishop by the name of Nestorius didn’t approve of the title “theotokos” that some Christians had started using (yes, this is the same Nestorius that Socrates of Constantinople made up a fake quote to argue against). Mary couldn’t have given birth to God. God is eternal! God has neither beginning nor end! So he recommended the title “Christotokos” (mother of Christ) as a more accurate title for Mary. She gave birth to the human aspect of Jesus, but was not truly the mother of the divine trinity. The ancestors of orthodox Christianity noted that this effectively split Jesus into two parts: the human and the divine. The human part was born, but the divine part wasn’t. Mary was the mother of half of Jesus, but the other half descended after the fact. If Jesus’ divinity and humanity could be isolated and held responsible for different events, did Jesus work miracles, or was that just his divine half? Did Jesus die on the cross, or was that just his human half? A split Christ was no Christ at all. They insisted that Jesus had to be both God and man, not two separate aspects that could be split for the sake of certain events. Cyril of Alexandria, acting in accordance with both the Pope and a synod of Egyptian bishops, wrote the famous Twelve Anathemas Against Nestorius, the first of which openly affirmed the language of the theotokos:
If anyone will not confess that the Emmanuel is very God, and that therefore the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God, inasmuch as in the flesh she bore the Word of God made flesh [as it is written, The Word was made flesh] let him be anathema.
The First of Cyril’s Twelve Anathemas Against Nestorius
When Nestorius didn’t relent, the Council of Ephesus officially followed through on Cyril’s anathemas. There’s a lot of politics and lofty theological argumentation behind all of that, but note the true focus of the argument: the nature of Christ. While Mary’s title is the most obvious sticking point, in all of the official documentation surrounding this controversy, almost all of it is primarily concerned with the nature of Christ. Only the first of the twelve anathemas mentions Mary, and none of the canon judgements of the Council of Ephesus mention her at all. What we’re seeing here is that same tendency to use Mary to establish Christ’s divine and human nature, but elevated to the highest point thus far. Now Mary has been given an obligatory title, and one that carries a fair amount of prestige at that.
Now, you might say, “Wait, that just establishes that it’s legitimate to call Mary the mother of God. What about the veneration? That’s what we’re here for!” It continues to ramp up over time after this decision. We’re still a long way off from our Salve Reginas, Hail Marys, and the title “the Queen of Heaven,” all of which start popping up between the 11th and 13th century, but the Council of Ephesus really does kick off a period of renewed emphasis on Mary and the first really decisive evidence of large-scale veneration. After this event, churches started being named in honor of Mary and influential theologians like Augustine of Hippo started focusing even more time and attention on doctrines elevating the position of Mary. What was born out of a conflict regarding establishing Christ’s nature resulted in new titles, new theological lines in the sand, and new heresies defined around Mary. In the following centuries, the veneration of Mary would continue to increase. Devotional practices would be oriented towards Mary. Theologians would continue to make even bolder claims about Mary’s importance. Monasteries especially would introduce worship practices to appeal to Mary. What we’ve observed here in the fifth century is the first bud that would eventually bloom into full high Marian veneration during the Middle Ages.
Now onto the big question: why did Protestants reject Mary veneration? If it was built up over centuries specifically to avoid certain heresies, why get rid of it? Perhaps the simplest reason is that they were trying to reform the faith in the pattern of early Christianity. They thought the medieval church had strayed too far from the pattern set out by early Christianity, and so they turned to the Scriptures and tried to get back to the basics, but now they weren’t asking the same questions they were 500 years before. There was no doubt that Jesus was both God and man. Nobody wondered if he was some kind of purely spiritual being or a really nice guy who was acting in cooperation with a divine spirit. Conversations about Mary were no longer necessary to battle active heresies about Christ’s nature, and with the new radical emphasis on Scripture, a suspicion of tradition, and an emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, many of the core tenants of Mariology were completely removed. Why should anyone pray to Mary? It’s not modeled in the Scriptures or in the writings of the early church fathers. Besides that, what would make her more important than anyone else? In Luther’s words:
Your prayers, O Christian, are as dear to me as hers. And why? Because if you believe that Christ lives in you as much as in her, then you can help me as much as she.
Luther’s 1522 sermon on the Feast of our Lady’s Nativity; Unfortunately, there’s no good English translation readily available, but excellent details are available through Grisar’s work on Luther: “Werke,” Weim. ed., 10, 3,p. 321 f. 499. as Cited in Hartmann Grisar, Luther, trans. E. M. Lamond (Project Gutenberg, 2015) p. 503.
There was a radical equality being emphasized in Protestantism, and the elevation of Mary did not fit. The hundreds of years of debate that crafted this practice seemed more like years of embedded pagan influence and error than compelling doctrinal formulation.
As I poured over articles to gather all of this info, I found more than a few cries from within Protestantism that Mary needs to be returned to a prominent role (if not her rightful historic role) within our theology. Perhaps… and perhaps not. There can be little doubt that there’s no harm in emphasizing the role of Jesus’ mom within the Scriptures. It is doubtless that she was a person of outstanding faith and moral character on top of being a person intimately involved in God’s work of salvation. At the same time, I don’t know that I’m eager to return to praying special prayers to the “high queen of heaven.” The major Protestant creeds all keep Christ enshrined as both 100% God and 100% man. While I readily concede that there are plenty of self-proclaimed Christians today that disagree with that basic point of orthodoxy, they’re certainly not uniquely Protestant. The early Protestants set out to turn away from medieval innovations and return to the basics Christianity while preserving Christian orthodoxy, and I think they did a reasonably good job of it in the case of Mary veneration. I think it’s lovely that the first few centuries of Christians share our view of Mary and could pray alongside us without any qualms. At the same time, I like to think we can appreciate where some of the emphasis on Mary came from in the case of our Catholic and Eastern Orthodox siblings. Their practices were born out of a defense of the same orthodoxy that we hold dear. Even if we don’t agree with their specific expression of piety, I think we can at least appreciate where those practices came from and how they’re trying to preserve orthodox Christianity in their own way.
Mind you, I’m still probably not about to have a spiritual experience at the Cleveland Art Museum.
I won’t pretend that I knew who Jean-Jacques Rousseau was before this past week. Makes sense. Enlightenment-era philosophy and Christian theology tend not to have much in common. He’s probably best known as the guy with that memorable quote, “Man is born free but everywhere is in chains.” I’ve started digging into his stuff after running across him in Carl Trueman’s latest book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (a brilliant attempt to trace the history of thought that led the modern Western mind). Apparently this Rousseau guy went toe-to-toe with Augustine! Not only did he write his own Confessions, but he even included a section about stealing produce and what it meant for his soul!
For those that aren’t aware, Augustine (father of Western Christian orthodoxy) has a really famous moment in his Confessions where he steals some pears. He’s with a bunch of his rowdy teenage friends when they see this big, beautiful tree of pears. They steal as many as they can, and then they throw them to the pigs. The act is pure sin. There’s nothing to be gained. There’s nothing logical about it. Augustine even has better pears at home! The point isn’t to gain something; the point is to destroy something:
It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error–not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.
Augustine; Henry Chadwick. The Confessions p. 29
It’s a vivid illustration of man’s innate drive towards sinfulness. Who among us hasn’t done something stupid in their youth? Something that was destructive for the sake of being destructive? For me, I think about the cafeteria at undergrad. When you were done eating, the popular thing to do in my friend group was to grab an extra apple or banana on your way out and just throw it as far across campus as you could. And why? Because destroying was fun! Cleaning staff be darned! Let the fruit smash commence! Augustine is saying, “let’s not let ourselves off the hook for the destruction that we wrought as teens. We did it for a reason: humanity innately longs to sin. Don’t let the fact that you were younger and more overt prevent you from seeing your fundamental nature in those stupid acts of destruction.”
Meanwhile, in HIS confessions, Rousseau ALSO tells the story of stealing produce! This time, it’s asparagus. His boss, Verrat, has a mother that’s been growing a little garden, and he’s decided that young Rousseau is the perfect man to steal asparagus from it and sell them on his behalf. Rousseau steals asparagus for relatively benign reasons at first: “seeking only to please my employer,” he claims. But what began as a little way to help his boss get some extra luxuries starts to warp him. He starts skimming a little off the top. After all, he’s the one that is taking on the risk, and nobody would believe him if he said that his boss put him up to it! So to make things fair, he takes a little. Then he starts stealing other little things that he finds: apples, tools, trinkets he finds laying around the house. More than that, he feels utterly justified in doing all that he does:
A continual repetition of ill treatment rendered me callous; it seemed a kind of composition for my crimes, which authorized me to continue them, and, instead of looking back at the punishment, I looked forward to revenge. Being beat like a slave, I judged I had a right to all the vices of one.
Rousseau, Confessions, Bk 1, Gutenberg Edition
Note the change in culprit! Augustine saw his crimes as proof of a deep-seated inclination to sin within his soul. Rousseau looks outward to find the culprit. Verrat convinced him to start stealing to feed his need for luxury. The sin was reinforced by unjust risk, the beatings that he suffered, and the way he was treated after his crimes. If Augustine’s pear-thieving was proof of an inward problem, Rousseau’s asparagus theft is a testament to the power that society has to warp an individual towards evil.
This brings us to one of Rousseau’s major ideas: society is the primary force responsible for corrupting the average human. If left alone, people are basically good! They don’t know how to lie, deceive, compare themselves to someone else, or take advantage of people. They’re unique, gifted, and ready to live in a way that suits them. But when they’re introduced to society… well… they learn to lie:
As long as men remained satisfied with their rustic cabins… they lived free, healthy, honest and happy, as much as their nature would admit, and continued to enjoy with each other all the pleasures of an independent intercourse; but from the moment one man began to stand in need of another’s assistance; from the moment it appeared an advantage for one man to possess the quantity of provisions requisite for two, all equality vanished; property started up; labour became necessary; and boundless forests became smiling fields, which it was found necessary to water with human sweat, and in which slavery and misery were soon seen to sprout out and grow with the fruits of the earth.
Rousseau, Second Discourse, Gutenberg Edition
People’s lies help them get along with others. They help them accumulate wealth and power. They help them appear better than they are. All of humanity ends up living a lie and drawing each new person they meet deeper into that lie. The people who are best at lying benefit tremendously, regardless of who is actually moral:
While government and laws take care of the security and the well being of men in groups, the sciences, letters, and the arts, less despotic and perhaps more powerful, spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains which weigh men down, snuffing out in them the feeling of that original liberty for which they appear to have been born, and make them love their slavery by turning them into what are called civilized people. Need has raised thrones; the sciences and the arts have strengthened them. You earthly powers, cherish talents and protect those who nurture them. Civilized people, cultivate them. Happy slaves, to them you owe that refined and delicate taste you take pride in, that softness of character and that urbanity of habits which make dealings among you so sociable and easy, in a word, the appearance of all the virtues without the possession of any.
Rousseau, First Discourse, Gutenberg Edition
Trueman suggests that philosophers like Rousseau set the stage for modern thinking about morality. There’s a presiding sense in the West that the greatest thing humanity can do is stop oppressing one another and redesign our systems of governance to minimize societal injustice. Political debates are increasingly built around terminology like social justice, systemic oppression, and intolerance. Rousseau would be proud of our willingness to tackle society head-on! But what have Christians lost by adopting so much of his thinking? We’re taking on the thought processes of someone who directly contradicted one of our greatest thinkers! We have to stop and ask, what will we be left with when we strip away all the chains we’ve heaped on one another? Will the final product be capable of glorifying God? Or was Augustine right? Is there a force beyond societal injustice that causes us to stray? Is sin much more embedded in the human soul than we’d like to imagine?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.