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

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.

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. 

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.

How African is Christian Orthodoxy?

Home to the Church fathers? Victim of Christian colonization? Both?

Back in seminary, I remember one of my friends getting frustrated about the syllabus of our theology class.  It focused on 3 theologians: Augustine, Aquinas, and Kathryn Tanner.  She pulled me aside and vented, “How dare they present this as theology? It’s an ethnocentric, biased, racist presentation of what ‘theology’ is.” Being a little more moderate (and excited to delve into Augustine), I responded, “Well, you’ve got more diversity there than you think. You’ve got an Italian guy from the middle ages, an American woman from today, and Augustine is ancient and from… what… like modern Algeria or something? That’s 2 genders, 3 continents, and 3 eras.” Her response was simple: “Augustine has been co-opted by white people for generations. He’s effectively white at this point. You can’t count him as a diverse voice.”

I don’t want to argue about whether the class was biased. Of course it was! There is no unbiased presentation of information. In choosing which voices to include, you always create a bias. If anything, I think the voices from that class have a more Catholic bias than anything else! But that’s neither here nor there. I’m more interested in her response: Augustine is effectively white.  For those unfamiliar with him, Augustine is the father of Western Christian orthodoxy (Protestant and Catholic) and was born in Algeria when it was under Roman rule.  Admittedly, I don’t know that I’ve heard a lot of people discuss him as a non-white, non-Western source. He usually makes his way into discussions as a primarily Latin-speaking, Roman source (a factor that I assume made her consider him “effectively white”).

There are reasons for that! The Roman Empire stretched across continents and encompassed multiple nationalities. Ideas about who is “white” wouldn’t have been relevant in that era.  Racial stereotypes still existed, but not in the form that they take today.  When we say things like, “Augustine was not white,” it’s an anachronistic statement.  But still, we view the past with the lenses that we wear today.  Why is it that the ancient fathers of the Church born in Africa are often seen as basically European?

Thomas Oden took a solid stab at this question in his book, “How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.”  It’s relatively readable, but he is pretty bad about name-dropping.  Any given chapter includes the name of 10 or more ancient theologians, most of which the average person will not recognize. I’m just going to pick three theologians that he named that are worth talking about: Augustine, Athanasius, and Anthony of Egypt.  Auggie is the father of traditional Western Christianity, Athanasius is a bishop from Egypt that helped officially establish that Jesus was equally God with the Father (some people at the time were saying he was a lower-tier assistant to God, rather than the real deal), and Anthony is the father of monasticism who I’ve written about previously here.  Each one of these men is African, but rarely has that aspect of their identity acknowledged.

Oden takes a solid stab at uncovering Augustine’s legitimate, non-white ethnicity:

It is likely that Augustine had a mother with Berber background from a family that converted to Christianity at least a generation before his birth in 354. Monica would not have become any less ethnically African just because she married a military officer with a Roman-sounding name. Augustine was born and raised in a remote inland Numidian town (Thagaste) with mixed racial stock. The rock carvings from Neolithic times in Numidia show occupation dating back ten thousand years. Among Augustine’s known family and friends were people who had Berber, Punic, Numidian, Roman and even Libyan names.

How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, Kindle Locations 528-532

Someone with a family rooted in Northern Africa is logically probably not “white” as we would think about it.  Even with a strong roman name like “Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis” (his full non-Anglicized name), he wasn’t ethnically Italian. Latinized names were gradually adopted by native populations during their time in the Roman Empire, so they certainly aren’t proof of ethnicity.  A man that was born in Africa, worshiped in Africa, spoke to Africans, and died in Africa ought to be considered genuinely African.  When Christians built their logic on Augustine’s theology, they were following the foremost thinker of Africa, not Europe.

Then we have Athanasius of Alexandria.  Again, we have a similar situation regarding name. Athanasius’s Greek-sounding name that would have been popular in the region after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, but Greeks would have been a minority population in Egypt.  The average person, even in metropolitan areas like Alexandria, was Egyptian.  Greece left the imprint of their language and their philosophers, but those ideas were taken up and developed by the people who did the majority of the eating, breathing, living, and thinking across that landmass.  As a bishop, Athanasius worked regularly with churches that stretched deep into modern Egypt, almost bordering modern day Sudan.  This population wouldn’t have known Greek!  They’d have spoken a language like the native Egyptian Nilotic.  He was someone who spoke to, cared for, and related to the people of Egypt.  Even some of the metaphors that he uses reflect a mind that is distinctively Egyptian!  When people like Athanasius talked about eternal life or spiritual ascent, those terms were packed with meaning that were inherited from ancient Pharaonic religion. They spoke to him and the people he knew because of their cultural heritage.

And then there’s Anthony.  Favorite saint of mine, Anthony.  Anthony helped popularize Christian monasticism and is often considered the first Christian monk.  Not only was he Egyptian, but the ultramajority of people that followed him out to the desert would have been Egyptian peasants.  The academics among them may have written in Greek to make their ideas accessible, but they would have regularly spoken Egyptian Nilotic. As people throughout Europe started monasteries, they were taking on a pattern of life that was developed by Africans.

With these three examples alone, I think it’s clear that the achievements of Africans in Christian theology have been unjustly ignored.  Orthodoxy flowed from the South to the North for centuries!  Europeans don’t get to lay claim to these men simply because they enjoyed their work.  And it’s equally unjust to say that their theological work didn’t find lasting roots in African communities.  There are churches in these regions that have been active for about 2000 years.  If anything, those regions have a better claim to the title “traditionally Christian” than most places in Italy, England, or France.  So why is there a bias in favor of Europe when it comes to claiming ownership over Christian thought?

That bias didn’t always exist.  A popular story in medieval Europe was the legend of Prester John.  He was this grand king from beyond the Islamic lands that controlled an ancient and powerful Christian kingdom.  There were a lot of journeys to try to find him and ask for help!  Mind you, he didn’t actually exist.  Maybe they meant the King of Ethiopia, who fits the bill reasonably well?  Apparently when Europeans made contact with Ethiopia, they insisted on calling the King “Prester John” (much to his confusion).  Whether or not the myth had any grounding in reality, Europeans were aware that there were Christians elsewhere in the world.  They were wise, they were important, and they were very much alive.   Christianity wasn’t understood to be a European phenomenon.

Today, the cultural legacy of colonialism lives on in how we view theology:

We can hardly find these prejudices against Africa voiced anywhere in Christian history until we get to the nineteenth century, especially to the writings of the French Enlightenment, German idealism and British empiricism. It was not until [then] that these prejudices became so standardized that they were accepted without question by educated Westerners-and by Western educated Africans.

Ibid., Loc. 555-557

In an era where Europe was casting off the vestiges of tradition and claiming an unbiased, “scientific” worldview, real Christianity became an intellectual property of Europe.  Good ideas were emphasized as primarily European.  Augustine became a Latin theologian.  Athanasius and Anthony were assumed to be working from their Greek intellectual inheritance.  Anything good that they wrote was supposed to have come from their Western sensibilities; anything that was obscure or odd was a product of unenlightened, superstitious nonsense that Europeans were fighting against.

Orthodoxy was redefined and reframed to fit the presiding worldview, and some of the diverse voices of the early Christians were whitewashed.

There’s something to be gained by seeing the famous theologians of the past for the diverse people that they were.  That doesn’t necessarily mean we need to completely redefine the way we read them!  If we try to wrap their faith around their ethnicity, we could end up creating the same kind of ethnocentric faith that the enlightenment brought us. We might be tempted to think about Augustine in terms of how African he was, or to have conversations about Anthony as primarily an Egyptian thinker.  That’s all well and good, but both men would much rather be weighed by a more important measure: in terms of the truth that they were a witness to.  Oden put it well:

Orthodox Christians do not admit skin color as a criterion for judging Christian truth. Never have. Never will. African Christianity is not primarily a racial story but a confessional story of martyrs and lives lived by faith active in love.

Ibid., Loc. 545-548

The benefit to recovering the full story of these saints is seeing just how vast the workings of God have been.  Europe isn’t the alpha and the omega of historic Christian faith. Christianity belongs to the whole world, and it always has.