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.

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

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.

Becoming God: Gregory Of Nazianzus and Theosis

Gregory’s poetry is inseparable from theosis.  If you can’t quite remember what that is, or don’t know, theosis is the Eastern Christian doctrine that the ultimate goal of humanity is to become God.  If your heresy alarm is going off, don’t worry.  Nobody is becoming a lightning-bolt flinging god in and of themselves.  It’s more nuanced than that.

A lot of the nuance comes down to understanding essence and energy.  Humanity is supposed to become a part of God’s energy (his action in the world), but is incapable of becoming a part of his essence (his core being). Consider the classic example of the sun.  Can you see the sun?  No, actually.  You can’t see it at all. You can see the sun’s rays.  The sun is that burning ball of gas that sends off the rays of light that we see.  All the same, when we look up at the sky, we don’t say that we see the sun’s rays of light.  We say that we see the sun!  The essence of the sun would be that burning ball of gas, while the rays would be the energy of the sun.  Both are considered “the sun,” but one is the sun proper, while the other is actually the product of the sun’s action that is tied to it’s identity.

Consider God to be like the sun.  God’s essence is that is so holy and beyond our understanding that we can’t look at him directly (Exodus 33:20).  We can’t be this all-powerful, all-holy, pure being! That is for God and God alone. But sometimes we might say, “I saw God today in that person’s actions!”  We didn’t see the burning, mind-blowing essence of God; we saw his energy, or the action of God throughout the world.  Through theosis we become God, but we don’t become his essence.  As creations, we participate in God’s energy, and thus become him since his action in the world is a part of who he is.

As cheesy as it is, we are not the Son.  We are the Son’s rays of light (which are a part of the Son).

It’s a very participatory understanding of God, and one that’s thoroughly ancient.  For example, Athanasius (the guy who usually gets credit for establishing that Jesus is actually God) coined the popular phrase: “God became man so that man might become God.” (54:3, On the Incarnation). 

Gregory’s writing is absolutely soaked in the same logic.  For example, who could read this line from On the Son without hearing the logic of Athanasius?

through Christ’s sufferings, you may become God hereafter (48-49, On the Son)

Similarly, his poetry on the Father and the Holy Spirit both include references to humanity’s ultimate theosis:

Oh Spirit of God, may you waken my mind and tongue
As a loud-shouting clarion of truth, so that all
may rejoice who are united to the entire Godhead. (23-25, On the Father)

God’s gift [is] his own divinity. (On the Holy Spirit, 54)

To properly understand the Triune God, he expects people to understand how they’re being asked to become a part of it. You can’t know God without knowing how he’s inviting you to join the divine life.

The theme of theosis isn’t limited to those God-centric poems either. In considering the world and humanity’s ultimate journey towards heaven, he writes:

Of these worlds, the first-born was that other heaven,
The region of those who bear the divine, perceptible to minds only,
All-luminous; To it the man of God wends his way from here
Later, once he’s perfected as god, purified in mind and flesh. (95-96, Concerning the World)

Again and again, waves of theosis crash over the reader.  We are expected to become one with God. 

Why is it so hard to imagine someone saying this in a Western church today?

I’ve seen a few writers attempt to answer that question by blaming the way Westerners think about knowledge.  Western knowledge is often understood to be knowledge about something.  This type of knowledge is a dispassionate, supposedly objective, factual sort of understanding. Science textbooks are full of this kind of knowledge.  For example, if I look up knowledge about an apple, I might learn where it best grows, what it’s Latin name is, and how many of them were sold commercially last year.  All of this is technically true, but removed from the more intimate knowledge that comes from a genuine, firsthand experience with an apple. People who have knowledge of an apple know what it tastes like, they know the tension of an apple’s skin beneath their teeth, and they remember the shine that reflects off an apple as it’s held up to a light.  You can’t find that on Wikipedia!  That’s a different kind of knowledge; knowledge that is usually relegated to poets and artists. It might even sound more like feelings than art, but both are valid ways of gaining knowledge about something. Westerners just favor knowledge about over knowledge of.

If the apple feels to far removed from relational knowledge that you need to consider in Christianity for a being such as God, just think about how you could know a friend in the same ways: “my friend has brown hair,” (knowledge about) or “my friend is delightful,” (knowledge of).

In any case, the claim that has been made that Westerners are so concerned with knowledge about (represented by scholastic theology) that they have little interest in direct knowledge of God (as reflected by mystics and monks). Since theosis is an experiential, intimate knowledge of God, it wouldn’t really appeal to the Western mind as a worthwhile, valid source of theology.

I think that claim is completely wrong. I would even go a step further and claim that it’s biased enough that it was probably written by an Easterner that was explaining the importance of their traditions without full knowledge of vibrant Western Christian traditions.  We have no shortage of influential mystics (Julian of Norwich, Bernard of Clairvaux, St. John of the Cross, etc.) and I’ve met people that passionately seek God without any scholastic bent.  There are whole traditions that (sadly) actively deride an academic approach to faith!  And even if there were some hint of truth to the claim, I do believe that knowledge about God in the scholastic sense is important.  We need both types of knowledge to really thrive as Christians. Pitting one against the other isn’t helpful. To use the example of an apple again, if I only had personal knowledge about apples, I probably wouldn’t be able to grow apple trees.  I wouldn’t know the proper climate, anything about how they’re fertilized, or the best variety to grow for my region.  If I’m really desperately passionate about apples, both kinds of knowledge are crucially important.  The same is true with knowledge about people.  I know what it’s like to spend an evening with my wife.  If, however, I forget her birthday because I don’t value knowledge about her, then I’m going to guess our relationship will suffer for it.

No, the “Westerners don’t appreciate personal knowledge” explanation both derides some very good sources of knowledge and doesn’t speak to the vibrant Western sources of spirituality that actively exist.

My guess is that a large amount of it comes down to language and culture.  The essence/energy distinction sounds very platonic (something derived from the works of the Greek philosopher Plato) and understandings about theosis flourished in places that had close contact and influence from Greek culture and writings (Russia, Greece, etc.). Could it be that an idea with roots in Greek thought made more sense to places influenced accordingly?

The West wrote and spoke in Latin.  The essence/energy distinction was not only unexplored; mindsets shaped by Greek words and philosophies were less common.  Things simply were what they were!  God was God, and not-God was not-God.  Essence defined identity; energy translated as something like “action,” and it was not linked with identity.  The creature-creator distinction ended up being considerably sharper as a result.

Of course, the energy-essence distinction wasn’t officially given as a teaching until the 12th century, but words usually bubble up out of pre-existing logics that require definitive explanations.  And here we see Gregory talking about theosis readily, and he’s all the way back in the fourth century! The Greek language and mindset made theosis reasonable.  The Latin language and mindset made it sound heretical.

In any case, it’s a teaching that inspires me.  It’s intimate.  It’s close beyond close.  To imagine that I might not just achieve a certain level of goodness, but might reflect the actions of God so well that he and I are inseparable?  It captures the idea of being transformed by the Holy Spirit so perfectly. The fact that the guy who helped establish Jesus’s divinity (Athanasius) and one of the fighters for the Godhood of the Holy Spirit (our dear Gregory) are both onboard makes it seem like a crucial truth that we’ve forgotten. Were we made to become divine?

What would it take to make full use of the doctrine of theosis in Western churches?  And is that something we should be aiming for?  It’s a doctrine that is complicated for the Western mind, but one that illustrates the closeness of God and the importance of our transformation so well.  At minimum, I love that Gregory’s forcing me to consider a divine destiny for humanity, and, even with my little explanation, I keep pondering why it’s so hard for us to imagine.

The Patristic Poet: Gregory of Nazianzus

It feels a little odd to kick things off with Gregory of Nazianzus.  He doesn’t have the star power of Augustine, Calvin, Luther, or the other big-name denominational theologians.  My theology nerd friends haven’t really read him, and truth be told, I only ended up reading his poetry by mistake.  I confused him with Gregory of Nyssa when I was ordering books (strangely enough, the two Gregory of N’s were dear friends in life, so I wasn’t far off).  I’m glad I made that mistake!  Gregory is the poet theologian that I didn’t know I needed.  Here’s why:

1. He’s succinct.

There are plenty of massive theology tomes out there that will take you months to properly understand (if not years).  And most people don’t read them for a simple reason: who has the time for all that? Gregory’s poems are something you do have time for. In his explanatory poem On His Own Verses, he writes”

By working for others, I wished
to subdue my own unmeasuredness;
indeed, though I write, I don’t write much
when toiling on meter. (35-37)

“Measuredness” was something of a theme in Gregory’s life.  As the archbishop of Constantinople, Gregory was used to talking a lot.  He railed against heresies! He pontificated about good theology!  He led the Church where it needed to be! But after he retired, his life took a different, quieter tone.  Starting in 375, he spent 3 years among monks.  During Lent of the year 382, he took a vow of silence, only communicating through sign language.  His poetry is one more post-retirement attempt to tame his tongue. Consequently, you don’t need years to get read them them.  You can knock out a couple during your lunch break.

2. He has a ridiculous amount of personality.

Gregory’s poetry is just fun. Even though he’s this serious, saintly theologian, his writing is always delightfully human. For example, when he addressed people that thought his poetry was bad, I assumed he would tell them something generically saintly.  Something like, “If you don’t like these poems, then I beg your forgiveness.  My words are a poor tool to represent a being as great as God.  You may doubt my eloquence, but don’t doubt him.”  Nope:

If these things are petty, do grander ones yourself
You revile meter?  No wonder, when you’re meterless,
An iamb-manufacturer, scribbling abortions.  (On His Own Verses
, 67-70)

Or how about when he’s addressing Christians that refuse to acknowledge the equality of the Father and the Son:

if, rendering offerings to the great Father’s Godhead
worthlessly, and gravening in your heart a hollow fear
you’d deny this thing, and would hurl Christ out amongst creatures,
you insult, O nitwit, the divinity of them both!
(On the Son, 40-44)

Not a dull moment here!

It’s not all hotheadedness either.  For a significant portion of his poetry, Gregory is wrestling with a profound sadness.  There’s no better example than the poem that he wrote when his best friend died: Epitaph to St. Basil:

I had thought that a body could as well
Live without a soul
As me without you.
Basil, beloved servant of Christ;
But you’re gone and I remain.
What’ll become of us?
Will you not set me, when I arise,
There with you in the choir of the blessed?
No, don’t leave me: I swear by my grave

I won’t leave yours, not willingly.
You have Gregory’s word.

It brings tears to my eyes each time.  I’m not saying every poem is going to do that, but I can promise that Gregory never holds back.  This isn’t dry, dusty theological poetry. It’s vibrant and human! Which leads to a third reason I love his poetry:

3. His beliefs are beautiful.

They really are. Not everyone sees that at first. There aren’t exactly a ton of Amazon reviews on Gregory’s poetry (the copy I’m using, anyway), but a handful of those few complain that Gregory’s poems are too didactic.  They say that they’re tools to express his theology, not genuine pieces of art.  I think they’re dead wrong.

Admittedly, they don’t rhyme, and their meter isn’t consistent, but these are ancient translated poems.  Can we hold them to the same standards as Shakespeare?  Besides, there’s plenty of poems out there that don’t rhyme or have consistent meter.  If anything, those tend to be seen as more avant garde.  We have to look for the beauty of these ancient poems on their own terms.  If anything, his poetry beautifies and elevates the disciple of doctrine.  Take a snippet of his description of God:

There is one God, without beginning or cause, not limited
By anything existing before, or afterwards to be,
Encompassing the aeons, and infinite. (On the Father, 25-27)

Or the description of his own humanity:

I am soul and body: the one, an efflux of divinity,
Of infinite light: the other was formed for you
From a murky root.  (Concerning the World, 32-34)

Sure, it’s directed, doctrinal theology, but the way he spins beautiful words around ideas is beautiful. It’s not just doctrine; it’s art.

With his brevity, his raw humanity, and his beautiful articulation, Gregory has crafted something for the ages. It all makes me wonder, why is so much of modern doctrine dull? We hammer out what we believe in terms that are definitely precise, but if doctrine is the truth of God, shouldn’t it be the culmination of every discipline? Not only philosophy and science, but poetry, art, and music? Why shouldn’t the truth of the most high God be worthy of an art museum? And by no means do I mean that it ought to always please us, as so many inspirational Christian wall hangings strive to do. A lot of art isn’t easy for humanity to swallow, but it’s beautiful all the same. Dostoyevsky famously wrote, “Beauty will save the world.” If God is true beauty (and a fervent Christian like Dostoyevsky knew that he was), I have to imagine that he’s right. We need more theological poets like Gregory in the world. We need people to help articulate beautiful beliefs, not only for evangelization and inspiration, but to write things worthy of God.