Tree of Faith Letters

by the Late Archbishop Michael M. Wright

PREFACE

In the Letters which follow, the secular 'historical' interpretation of the Holy Scriptures has no place. This 'historical' way of approaching the Scriptures has long been acceptable to 'liberal' Protestant 'theologians', indeed it is regarded by such as the only intellectually acceptable way of understanding and interpreting the Bible text. A famous Oxford scholar of the Nineteenth Century, Benjamin Jowett, insisted on his right to read the Bible as no more than an ancient document. This implied that the Bible was to be regarded as a history of religious ideas, not as a source of divine revelation. The outcome of such an attitude is entirely predictable; at the outset it imposes a philosophical embargo on anything and everything that does not come within its limited field of vision. If it is to be understood properly, the Bible must be treated for what it claims to be, a revelation granted to mankind, but often passing beyond man’s limited intellect and experience. The ultimate authority of Holy Scripture (God’s Word written) rests not with the text, venerable and outstandingly well-preserved as it is, but with Him whose gift it is and who alone, as the Word made Flesh, provides its true interpretation.

The Tree of Faith Letters - Part I

Letter 1:Knowing God, Letter 2: From Uncreated, Letter 3: The Holy Trinity, Letter 4: Logos& Purposefulness, Letter 5: MAN - Composite Unity, Letter 6:Spirit of Disobedience, Letter 7:Pathway of Obedience, Letter 8:Vision of Salvation, Letter 9:Suffering an Option,Letter 10:Virginity a Barrier, Letter 11:The Incarnation of the Word, Letter 12:Incarnation:One from Two, Letter 13:Obedience, Letter 14:Power and Awareness, Letter 15:Blindness of Evil

Introduction

In the Autumn of 2003 Father Teklehaimanot Tekeste asked me to provide a more detailed course of instruction for his fellow students in Johannesburg. It soon became clear that the best way to do this was to provide a series of Letters written, where possible, at weekly intervals. The writing of these letters provided an opportunity to demonstrate the way in which the Faith revealed in the Holy Scriptures has been clarified by the Fathers in the face of false interpretations and the intrusion of alien teachings.

It seems that there is no brief and easily available presentation of this kind. Much helpful material is to be found, but only in scholarly books and articles. It was also necessary to demonstrate the need to think deeply about the Faith. Many believers assume that they can get by with just a superficial grasp of the Faith, but St. Paul insists "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds." (Romans 12:3). To know, understand, and to communicate the Faith is a duty laid on all believers. The otherwise overwhelming challenge of the times in which we live demands that we cease to be slack in this matter. For this reason the Letters demand serious thought; we are required to take leave of worldly attitudes and standards.

Some important Greek terms, used and refined by the Fathers, have been introduced, explained, and are then used over again, printed in bold type. Quotations come from a variety of sources and the passages from the Scriptures have been compared with the original texts and modified where the sense of the original seemed to require it. Since we read the Fathers mostly from translations, the subtleties and linkages which are evident in the originals are passed over; I hope, however, that the fundamental force and purpose of such quotations stands clear.

At the conclusion of the twenty-fourth and final letter I have written: "It is my hope that these letters provide a sufficient guide so that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments begin to come alive in the way the Fathers experienced them." This is an invitation to a fresh discovery of the spiritual riches of the Catholic Church.
(The title of these Letters is taken from Father Haimanot's own surname. It is the name of a famous Ethiopian Saint and means 'The Tree of Faith.')

  • LETTER ONE: KNOWING GOD - The Holy Sriptures and Beyond.
  • 1. Some eighty years ago there lived in India a famous Christian preacher, Sahdu Sundar Singh. Sundar was converted to Christ at the age of fifteen and became a wandering 'holy man' or Sahdu. Many years later Sundar's father sought to become a Christian too and asked his son for guidance. Sundar's reply was "If you want to know about Jesus, read the Bible, if you want to know Jesus you must pray to him." In this very simple way Sundar Singh summed up the first steps in knowing God.

    2. First of all, it is a matter of wanting to know God. In the Letter to the Hebrews we read : "... for whoever would approach God must believe that he exists and that He rewards those who seek him" (Hebrews 11:6b).
    People from many different cultures have an awareness of some kind of Supreme Being. Sundar's father would already be such person, but his son's way of life convinced him that he needed to know more. To know more the father had to want to know more.

    3. Next, Sundar points out that there are two further steps to knowing God: knowing about Him and knowing Him personally. These two steps in knowing can be understood easily from our everyday experience. A friend tells me about an acquaintance of his. When I ask to meet him, the friend arranges such a meeting. Hearing about the person strengthens my belief that he exists, meeting him personally confirms that belief. But meeting is only a part of knowing; if meeting develops into friendship I can begin to say that I know the person. Commitment is the gateway to greater knowledge.

    4. The Bible contains, among many other things, a record of men and women who committed their lives to God: Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, Paul, and, supremely, the Virgin Mary. Others failed to follow up their initial commitment, men such as King Saul and Judas Iscariot. To know God truly and effectively, information about Him must be turned into commitment to Him. This is the message of Sundar Singh.

    5. The decision to read the Bible can be understood as already a form of commitment, a commitment to seek God. We turn to the Bible because it claims to be the Word of God - meaning that it is a self-revelation initiated by God himself. This claim is confirmed by going beyond the written words of Scripture to the divine Word who is their source. This is why Sundar urged his father to do more than just read the Bible, he must pray to the Author of the Bible. The meaning of the term 'divine Word' is one which we must hold over until later in this series of letters.

    6. So far we have dealt with the subject of knowing God in a very simple way. The Bible itself often conceals the profundity of its message under quite simple stories and accounts. In other places we need to work hard to understand what is being written. This is where wanting to know God becomes so important; we need the courage to press on and not be discouraged when the pathway of knowledge becomes steep.

    7. One mistake above all others needs to be avoided - to rest satisfied with whatever level of knowledge of God we have already attained. To give some indication of the steepness of the path ahead I will quote a short passage from one of the greatest of the Fathers, St. Maximus the Confessor: "The scriptural Word knows of two kinds of knowledge of divine things. On the one hand, there is relative knowledge, rooted only in reason and ideas, and lacking in the kind of experiential perception of what one knows through active engagement; such relative knowledge is what we use to order our affairs in our present life. On the other hand, there is that truly authentic knowledge, gained only by actual experience, apart from reason and ideas, which provides a total perception of the known object through a participation by grace. By this latter knowledge, we attain, in the future state, the supernatural deification that remains unceasingly in effect." (Ad Thalassium 60)

  • LETTER TWO: FROM UNCREATED TO CREATED.
  • 1. To gain a true knowledge concerning God we begin with 'reason and ideas', recognizing, as St Maximus the Confessor reminds us, that these functions of our minds are in the realm of knowing about God and must not be mistaken for the fullness of what God intends us to know. However, such knowledge has its place and, since it is impossible to know God truly by our own unaided efforts, He has provided 'reason and ideas' as a necessary preliminary to His self-revelation in Scripture.

    2. First of all we need to concentrate upon the very first verse of the Bible: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." (Genesis 1:1) The 'beginning' here is that of the heavens and the earth, meaning the universe in its totality. Note that there is built into these words a sense of purpose on the part of the Creator. This is the only 'beginning' there is because God has no 'beginning'. As mentioned in Letter One, the Bible often refers in a very simple way to the profoundest of thoughts and here we have an example.

    3. Many people at some time in their lives ask themselves 'where does it all begin?' referring to everything they see around them and, indeed, to their own place in this world. This question was one which the ancient Greek philosophers tried to answer - they were aware that an answer was needed to provide a purpose for our existence and a guide to the way we should behave. The religions of the world also attempt to answer the same question. One of the greatest problems facing the present 'Western' culture is that it has abandoned this quest, or rather, has replaced it with a 'scientific' exploration of the universe; it is locked up in 'reason and ideas' with no way of escape.

    4. The Bible, therefore, provides a challenging starting point; our beginning has its source in a Creator to whom we give the name God. Because He is the Creator, God is not part of His creation. Because He is creation's Source, His is the purpose behind everything He has created. To know God truly is to know the purpose for which we and the universe around us exist. This is the foundation for what we might call the 'Christian philosophy'.

    5. The Christian Fathers, especially those with a background of classical Greek education, were able to draw out and clarify the philosophical principles embedded in the scriptural revelation. This was a necessary task because the Christian Faith was under constant attack from well-educated pagans who even went as far as using the Bible to promote an anti-Christian system of belief. The use of Greek came naturally to the Fathers. The Greek language was used widely throughout the world of the Roman Empire: Greek was the language of the New Testament and there was already a venerable Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (often known by the Latin numeral LXX) available. It was easy, therefore to discuss doctrine and philosophy using Greek terminology.

    6. The Fathers distinguished between two forms of existence, uncreated and created. God has neither beginning nor end, He is from 'everlasting to everlasting' (Psalm 90:2b), he is also the Creator. As the Creator He is not governed by the conditions of created existence. Time, space, and matter are the familiar conditions which govern us and our universe but they do not apply to the Creator. We have no means of explaining what God is. His ousiâ, the Greek word the Fathers used to indicate being or existence, which we translate as essence (or substance), is beyond our capacity to know. St. Basil summed the matter up in a few words: " ... we say that we know our God through His activities, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His activities come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach." (Letter 234)
    However, the Bible, as the divine self-revelation, does provided us with a 'working knowledge' of the Creator. We can form a notion by contrast with ourselves when we say that God is eternal, limitless, and immaterial.

    7. We can also make use of moral qualities, as did Our Lord: "A certain ruler asked Him, “good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him,"Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." (Luke 18:18.)
    From this the Fathers draw the necessary implication. To be truly good is to be consistently and perpetually good, good without lapse. If God is good he is unchangeably good. Here we come to another important distinction between ourselves and our Creator. God is unchangeable (cf. Malachi 3:6), He never changes, nor has He ever changed. Time is His creation; creatures, ourselves included, exist within time and are subject to change, but the Creator himself is not.

    8. Bearing in mind that God, according to the biblical revelation, is the source of all else that exists, He alone truly exists, is true being, so that all other beings derive from Him and depend on him for their continuing existence. The totality of the universe (and here we include the 'invisible' world of heaven and the angelic beings) exists because God, the Uncreated, wills it to be so. Our continuing existence depends totally on our relationship to God and if that relationship is disrupted we sink back into non-being.

    9. Further on in this series of letters we will be discussing the 'Fall' of Man, but St. Athanasius, when dealing with this subject, makes a clear statement on the dependence, or contingency, of mankind as created being - he is discussing here the consequences of the disobedience of Adam and Eve: "... if, out of a former normal state of non-existence, they were called into being by the presence and loving-kindness of the Word, it followed naturally that when men were bereft of the knowledge of God and were turned back to what is not (for what is evil is not, but what is good is), they should, since they derive their being from God who IS, be everlastingly bereft even of being; in other words, that they should be disintegrated and abide in death and corruption." (On the Incarnation 4.5)

    10. We can picture this as a flow of sustained and sustaining existence from the Creator, the only true being and source of existence, to His creation. While that flow is maintained creation is sustained in existence, once it is repudiated created existence relapses toward a state of non-being, 'of corruption and death' as St. Athanasius puts it. In the next Letter we look at what also is revealed by Scripture about the Creator himself.

  • LETTER THREE: THE HOLY TRINITY- UNCREATED MOTION.
  • 1. We begin this letter by returning to the first few verses of the book of Genesis. Remembering also the principle set out by St. Basil: " ... we know our God through His activities, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His activities come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach.", we can rely upon the Holy Scriptures as pre-eminent among those activities. Through the Scriptures we are enabled to form reliable notions about the Creator even though His essence is always hidden from us. The Fathers were aware that a superficial reading of the Scriptures was not enough, only a truly attentive study of the Bible would suffice. Added to this the Fathers regarded the Old Testament not so much as a record of the Jewish faith as the basic and initial source of Christian revelation.

    2. Here, then, are the first three verses of the Book of Genesis. We have already considered the first verse and it is time not only to add the second and third verses, but also to quote the opening verses of St. John's Gospel: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said "Let there be light and there was light."(Genesis 1:1-3.) "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 through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." (John 1:1-5.)

    3. In the passage from Genesis we are introduced not only to God as Creator, but to the Spirit of God and to His Word ("and God said"). It is St. John who develops this last point and we note the distinction made between God and His Word. This distinction occurs many times over in the Old Testament. In the prophecy of Isaiah we read: "For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my Word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it." (Isaiah 55:10,11) Also, in Psalm 33, we find the following significant passage: "By the Word of the Lord the heavens were made and all their host by the Breath of His mouth." (Psalm 33:6)

    4. Others might see such passages as no more than poetic expressions, but not so St. John, his fellow Apostles and Evangelists, nor the Fathers of the Church. For them the door to the mysteries of the Scriptures had already been unlocked, they not only 'knew about', they 'knew'. They knew the 'Word made flesh' and the 'outpouring of the Spirit'(Joel 2:28). They understood the deeper meaning of the Holy Scriptures and that the very first verses of the Bible introduce a Creator who is not a solitary divine being but a Unity of Three - the Holy Trinity.

    5. The term 'Word', logos in Greek, is rich in meaning. Logos carries the notion of an idea being expressed through speech. Logos, therefore, includes communication, rational self-expression, purposefulness and a range of similar concepts. 'Spirit', pneuma in Greek, is likewise rich in content. Pneuma, basically the concept of air in motion, means wind or breath. Breath in turn is linked with life because we need to breathe to survive. The meaning extends further to the spirit which gives life to our bodies or even to indicate disembodied spirits, including angels, good and evil. In Scripture the context usually shows when both Logos and Pneuma refer to the divine Word and to the divine Spirit.

    6. There is a simple model which is helpful although inadequate. It is the model of the human being who uses speech to communicate and who, at the same time, uses breath to carry the speech. The model is useful because it points to the revelatory role of the divine Logos in creating, sustaining, and ultimately redeeming the whole universe, and also the cooperative role of the divine Pneuma in these undertakings. The model is, nevertheless, also inadequate because speech and voice are functions of a single being whereas believers, from the Apostles onward, recognise that the Word and the Spirit must be distinguished from one another and from the Father, while maintaining that God is One.

    7. The fact that God is both One and Three was never a difficulty for St. Paul, St. John, or anyone else who has arrived at a true belief, because this belief is arrived at by means of relationship - knowing God personally. The human mind, however, works initially through sense perception and so reaches only to knowing about God. By commitment and worship we arrive at a living relationship with God, and it is then that the full meaning of Scripture is unlocked. If we allow the limitations of the human mind to dictate the rules, knowing about God blocks the way to knowing God personally.

    8. Historically, the intellectual difficulty in reconciling the notion that God is both one and three led to false teaching. If God is one, how does he relate to the Word and the Spirit? Is there only One God, with the Word and the Spirit subordinate to Him - as in the human model above? Does the One God operate through different modes, sometimes as Creator and Father, sometimes as the Word and Son, sometimes as the Spirit? These are examples of false solutions, heresies, created by men who knew about God but did not know Him personally.

    9. Arianism was a heresy of the first type, denying the true divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit; it was a pagan philosophy posing as Christianity. The Arians were skilful at using the Scriptures to disguise their teaching, skilful enough to deceive devout believers who were not prepared to think the Faith through. For this reason Arianism became for many years a serious threat to the true Faith. Arianism attracted those who wanted a 'religious' outlook on life but one based ultimately on the non-Christian culture of the time. At the First Council of Nicaea the assembled bishops were horrified by the Arian teaching, but many remained unhappy and hesitant about the use of the term homoousios. This term, meaning 'of one essence', countered Arianism by insisting that the Son shared the same essence as the Father. The word found a place in the Nicene Creed, the Council's official doctrinal statement. Homoousios, however, was a word which did not appear in Scripture and had been used already by heretical groups. Hesitation over the term gave the Arians a chance to recover and spread their teaching. There was a need to explain and clarify terms.

    10. To St. Basil of Caesarea, his brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and his friend, also St. Gregory, of Nazianzus, (known as the Cappadocian Fathers) fell the task of clarifying terms. First of all it was necessary to make a distinction between the two terms, ousiâ and hypostasis. Up to that time ousiâ and hypostasis were virtually interchangeable in meaning. From now on ousiâ was used to indicate the kind of existence (essence) shared by a class of individuals, or even represented by just one individual. Hypostasis now indicated the actual being partaking of that ousiâ. St. Basil, writing to his brother, Gregory, explains the difference: "My statement then is this. That which is spoken of in a special and particular manner is indicated by the name of the hypostasis." and later: "This then is the hypostasis or "subsistence;" not the indefinite conception of the essence (ousiâ), which, because what is signified is general, finds no standing (a play on the derivation of the word hypostasis) but the conception which by means of the expressed particularities gives "standing" and limitation to the general and unlimited." (Letter 38)

    11. Although these two terms can be distinguished in thought, they cannot be separated in reality. As St. Basil says, ousia has no standing except when limited by hypostasis, while an hypostasis loses its identity when separated from its ousia. Both terms appear only infrequently in Scripture and then with differing shades of meaning. Nevertheless the Cappadocians provided the means to grasp the notion of Trinity. God is one because His Essence (ousia) is one. God is three because there are three divine Persons (hypostases). If we leave matters there, however, we have little more than a scheme; more needs to be said. Peter, James, and John all share the same human essence and are three individual men (i.e. three hypostases with the same ousia). If the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share the same divine essence how can they avoid being three Gods?

    12. The solution to this question leads us to a yet more profound level of understanding. Although we use the same terms for both, divine uncreated existence is radically different from created existence. In uncreated existence the essence is undivided; in created existence the essence is divided. For us, therefore, essence, being divided, is a set of characteristics and qualities which allow us to place individuals in particular groups - plants, animals, humans, angels. For uncreated or divine existence, the essence, being undivided, is the total communion and eternal interchange of divine life.

    13. The words of our Lord, as quoted by St. John in the fifth chapter of his Gospel, introduce us to this notion of communion in the divine life. The whole section from verse 17 to verse 33 carries this message and can be summed up thus: "For as the Father has life in Himself, so he has given the Son also to have life in Himself ... " (John 5:26). St. Gregory of Nazianzus in his five 'Theological Orations' picks up the quality of dynamism in the scriptural texts and presents the same teaching in terms of motion: "Therefore Unity having from all eternity arrived at Duality, found its rest in Trinity. This is what we mean by Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father is the 'Begetter' and 'Emitter'; without passion of course and without reference to time, and not in a bodily manner. The Son is the 'Begotten' and the Holy Spirit the 'Emission'; for I do not know how this could be expressed in terms altogether excluding visible things." (Oration 29:2)

    14. St. Gregory struggles with the limitation not just of language but with the difficulty of expressing the uncreated in terms of the created. The terms that he does use are based on St. John's Gospel where the Son is called 'The Only-begotten God ' (John 1:18)* and the Holy Spirit is said to 'proceed' from the Father (John 15:26). So, although St. Gregory is using terms which suggest movement, this is motion which has no connection with created time or space. This movement is that of total self-giving. The Father bestows the totality of His being, His essence, upon the Son and upon the Holy Spirit. The Son and the Holy Spirit, in turn, claim no existence of their own but that which they receive truly, completely, and freely from the Father. The Son is totally and freely obedient to the will of the Father and the Spirit is totally and freely co-operative; thus both render back to the Father and to each other the totality of being which the Father has bestowed upon them. This is the total, infinite interchange or communion of divine life (perichoresis in Greek), and when St. John says, "God is love" (I John 4:16b), he is referring to the way each Person of the Holy Trinity establishes the others through a complete self-giving of personal existence. (It is to be noted that this self-giving is entirely free and voluntary, it is not constrained or brought about by any other factor.) Our Lord himself defines the greatest love, on the human level, as the laying down of a man's life for his friends (John 15:13). Jesus was to demonstrate this upon the Cross and it is of one piece with the character of the divine life. God is one because He is love; God is three because He is love; God has never been anything else but Trinity because He is love. This is what is meant by uncreated motion.
    Note: In the uncreated life of the Holy Trinity, freedom is true freedom, total and unforced because it is love. Within the creation, bounded by the conditions of time, space, and matter, freedom is understood as the ability to choose one thing in preference to another.
    A further note: St. Augustine of Hippo, the great Western Father, also attempted to counter Arianism in his writing 'On the Holy Trinity'. The attempt was not particularly successful. Augustine argued that the titles ‘unbegotten’ as applied to the Father and 'begotten' as applied to the Son indicated not a difference of essence, as the Arians maintained, but an abiding and unchanging set of relationships within the divine essence. Augustine's argument, although clever, tended to over-emphasis a static concept of relationships at the expense of the dynamic personal perichoresis of John, Chapter 5. As a result Augustine has to identify the Holy Spirit as the spirit of 'love'; hence the Father is the 'loving one', The Son is the 'beloved', the Spirit is the 'love' between the Father and the Son. This is a lop-sided and artificial scheme, but has been widely influential in Western Christendom.
    * Most translations of this phrase render it as “The Only-begotten Son”, but the translation above is most likely the original.

  • LETTER FOUR: LOGOS AND PURPOSEFULNESS - CREATED MOTION - THE LOGOI
  • 1. Towards the end of Letter 3:14 the following was said about the mutual self-giving by the Persons of the Holy Trinity: "It is to be noted that this self-giving is entirely free and voluntary, it is not constrained or brought about by any other factor." The notion of freedom will be important as we move on to consider created existence which we have already described as the totality of the universe (and here we include the ‘invisible world of heaven and the angelic beings), (Letter 2:8). This universe does not exist because of some need on the part of the Holy Trinity; God did not have to make the world, nor is the world some kind of emanation of the divine essence. The universe is something entirely new, the product of God’s free and unforced love. Moreover, as we have already noted, the universe, which has come into being out of nothing, is, for that very reason, distinct from its Creator, the eternal source of all being. At this point we pick up some matters which have been mentioned earlier but need further explanation.

    2. Guided by the heading of this letter, we return to the term 'The Word' or Logos. In Letter 3:5 we have already looked at this term and St. John, in the opening verses of his Gospel, leaves us in no doubt that this term refers to the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, through whom: "all things came into being and without Him not one thing that exists came into being." (John 1:3) We also saw that the Greek term Logos is rich in meanings such as speech, communication, rational self-expression, and purposefulness. Because all things came into being through the divine Logos, the universe has a purpose. It has a beginning, being made out of nothing, and as long as it follows the purpose assigned to it by God the creation will continue to exist; moreover, by continuing, it will progress towards its divinely appointed fulfilment. If, for some reason, the creation fails in its purpose it will relapse into non-being. Here we recall the word of St Athansius quoted in Letter 2:9:
    "... if, out of a former normal state of non-existence, they were called into being by the Presence and loving-kindness of the Word, it followed naturally that when men were bereft of the knowledge of God and were turned back to what is not (for what is evil is not, but what is good is), they should, since they derive their being from God who IS, be everlastingly bereft even of being; in other words. that they should be disintegrated and abide in death and corruption."

    3. Motion in the created order of things is different from what we described as motion in the divine life. In the created order motion means movement from one point to another, from one time to another, or from one state of being to another. These kinds of motion do not apply to the Holy Trinity who abides the same eternally. Following St. Gregory of Nazianzus, I have taken up the notion of movement to indicate the abiding love, the perpetual self-giving in love, the perichoresis (Letter 3:14), which characterizes the Holy Trinity.

    4. By contrast, the created order is bounded by space, time, and matter so that, as noted above, motion means movement from one place to another, from one time to another, or from one state to another. The first instance of created motion is that from non-being to being and there is a further movement from chaos to ordered existence. This is not just an idea from pagan Greek philosophy intruding into the biblical revelation, it is there in those opening verses of Genesis quoted in Letter 3:2: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said "Let there be light and there was light.". The words translated by 'without form and void' (tohu wa bohu in Hebrew) imply emptiness and chaos; the word tohu is used by Isaiah in the following: "For thus says the Lord, God Himself, who created the heavens, Who formed the earth and made it. He established it: he did not create a chaos (tohu), He formed it to be inhabited: “I am the Lord, and there is no other, I did not speak in secret, in the land of darkness: I did not say to the offspring of Jacob'seek me in chaos (tohu).' I, the Lord, speak the truth, I declare what is right." (Isaiah 45;18,19)

    5. From these two quotations we see purposeful progress, motion from chaos to order. This is the divine ordering of the creation and the rest of the first chapter of Genesis describes the further stages by which creation is established, culminating in the creation of man made in the image and likeness of God.

    6. The Greek Fathers provided a useful clarification here: Since the universe is created by the divine Logos the purposefulness built into creation can be described as the divine plans, the logoi, for all existing things. We might think of the logoi as the 'blueprints', the specifications to which every creature, whether animate or inanimate, whether material (embodied) or immaterial (bodiless), must conform if it is to follow and fulfil its divinely appointed purpose.

    7. In the next letter the particular logos of man will be considered. (Here logos is printed in italic indicating the divine plan for mankind) It remains, therefore, to stress that the logoi are not portions of God’s essence embedded in created matter. As St. Basil, quoted earlier, said: " ... we say that we know our God through His activities, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His activities come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach."

    8. The Fathers, and here St. Basil in particular, recognise that two modes of being, internal and external, so to speak, are involved in God’s being. The first is the divine essence, ousiâ, which is beyond everything our created minds can ever know. The second is the divine energy, energeia, a term from the New Testament. The model for this energeia is quite simple; the acts, appearance, and speech of a man (the means by which we recognise and relate to him) are as much that man as his internal make-up, it is the same man in two different modes.

    9. Although we can distinguish the different roles of the Persons of the Holy Trinity as they affect us, the divine energy (energeia), expressed in the divine activities and purpose, is common to all three Persons, its is the mode of the divine being as it is directed toward the created order. This distinction will help us to understand, when we arrive at that point, the words of St. Peter when he writes in his Second Letter that we 'become partakers of the divine nature'. (I Peter 1:2)

  • LETTER FIVE: MAN - COMPOSITE UNITY.
  • 1. This letter begins with a quotation from the first chapter of the Book of Genesis: " Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it ..." (Genesis 1:26-28a).

    2. In the following chapter there is a further account of the creation of man: " ... the Lord God formed man of the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being." (Genesis 2:7)
    This quotation gives us an important insight into the nature of man. For the Fathers the term 'nature' (physis in Greek) presented difficulties at times. For the moment we can leave this problem to be dealt with in the appropriate Letter. The advantage of talking about 'nature' is that it allows us to treat two differing elements as a unity when describing an individual or class of beings: a man is an example of human nature or manhood composed of soul and body.

    3. The two quotations above provide what we may describe as the divine view of human kind. The first indicates God's purpose in creating man, the second gives a further explanation of that purpose by describing the make-up of human nature. Taking the second quotation, we see that man is a combination of the material, 'the dust of the earth', and the immaterial, 'the breath of life', in other words, man shares both the material and visible existence of the animals and the immaterial and invisible existence of the angels. When we read that God ‘breathed into his nostrils the breath of life’ God is bestowing the gift of life upon otherwise inanimate dust, He is not sharing His unknowable essence with man. This life is presented in Scripture as the soul of man, but both the material and the immaterial elements in man are the gifts of God.

    4. Hebrew, Greek, and for that matter English also, have two terms meaning 'soul' and 'spirit'. In all three languages the two terms are often used to mean the same thing - the human soul is the same as the human spirit - but note that the 'Spirit of God' is not the 'soul of God'! For the 'soul' the word nephesh is used in Hebrew while ruach means wind or spirit. Similarly in Greek psfchL and pneuma have the same meanings and use. In the Bible the Greek psfchL is never applied to God and the same is true of the Hebrew nephesh (except once - in Isaiah 1:14, where it is used as a figure of speech). There is also another far less common Hebrew word, neshama, which is used for the 'breath of life' given by God and received by man (Genesis 2:7).

    5. Two further points should be made here. There is no suggestion in Scripture that the human soul moves from one body to another upon the death of the first. Likewise there is no notion that the soul alone matters and that the body is only a temporary habitation for the soul. These are teachings which have their source in paganism and the Fathers repudiated them firmly. (The great Christian scholar, Origen, seems to have taught that the soul existed before the body - a teaching condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council). On the other hand it has always been understood that the soul of man survives the death of the body - which comes about by the separation of the soul from the body. This Scriptural teaching is confirmed by the death and resurrection of Christ Himself. The soul preserves the continuity and identity of any particular human being in life, in death, and in resurrection.

    6. The human soul, therefore, can be distinguished from the body, but it remains always the soul of that particular human being. By comparison with the body, the soul is immortal in that it survives the death of the body. This immortality, however, is not the immortality of God, its continuing existence depends entirely on the soul’s Creator; its immortality is dependent upon its relationship to the Holy Trinity.

    7. The first quotation contains the words,“ Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness ..". It then adds, " and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” The meaning of this second part of the quotation is taken up in Psalm 8, quoted in turn in the Epistle to the Hebrews: "What is man that Thou art mindful of him, or the son of man that Thou carest for him? Thou didst make him for a little while lower than the angels, Thou has crowned him with glory and honour, putting everything in subjection under his feet".
    In Hebrews this statement is applied to the Risen Lord Christ in his capacity as the one who, on behalf of us all, fulfills the destiny assigned to mankind; this is to be understood as the fulfilment and completion of man's logos, by which completion the whole creation will ultimately arrive at union with the Holy Trinity.

    8. The Fathers, reading the Scriptures with close attention perceived that the creation of man is described differently from the origin of the rest of creation. With everything else God decrees, "Let there be ..." but when it comes to man God deliberates "Let us make ...". So man is singled out to bear the image and likeness of God and commanded to rule over the rest of creation. The composite character of man's nature, both material and immaterial, is provided so that man may fulfil this role since creation has both material and immaterial dimensions.

    9. Because man bears the image of God, there is something added to the soul of man which raises him above the level of all other creatures. The Fathers see this image expressed in several ways: in man's ability to reason (intellect), in his freedom of choice (the natural will) and his immortality of soul. Many of the Fathers also distinguish between the 'image' and the 'likeness'. The 'image' corresponds to the nature of the soul (as above), the 'likeness' refers to the moral perfecting of man. This perfecting is designed to bring us to the point where we are 'filled with all the fullness of God'. (Ephesians 3:19). This is the perfecting not just of man but, along with him, the whole creation of which he is the crown. This is that ultimate offering of glory to God from his creation and the participation in His eternity and all embracing love.

  • LETTER SIX: THE SPIRIT OF DISOBEDIENCE AND THE CORRUPTED WILL.
  • 1. The third chapter of Genesis draws our attention to the matter of freedom of choice. The choice is either to obey or to disobey God. Willing obedience is the true fulfilment of created freedom because through it man sustains his life-giving relationship with the Holy Trinity. Wilful disobedience is self-condemnation to the perpetual condition of death, the deliberate turning away from the life-sustaining love of God.

    2. The Scriptures, being inspired, open for us doors into the spiritual realities which lie behind the written words. These are the unseen realities which shape our everyday lives and experiences. The Fathers understood this characteristic of the 'God-inspired' Scriptures and looked always for a deeper meaning and significance than appears on the surface of biblical accounts. This is the way in which we may understand, in the second and third chapters of the Book of Genesis, the challenge represented by the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Man may eat of the Tree of Life because eternal life is the divine purpose (logos) of his existence. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is forbidden. True knowledge comes through communion with the Holy Trinity - knowing God personally. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is the temptation to gain knowledge for oneself and become equal to God. This is the fruit which supplies death-dealing information because it is fruit eaten in a spirit of defiance and self-assertion: it is a knowing about God which has no intention of developing into a true personal knowledge of God.

    3. The Holy Trinity abides eternally as a communion of Persons and, on the level of created being, communion with God is necessary for continuing existence. Man is created for communion with God, a communion (koinonia in Greek) which will lead eventually to his being 'filled with all the fullness of God'. (Ephesians 3:19). For this fulfilment of his nature and purpose (logos) man must choose freely to obey God - to be fruitful and multiply and to till and keep the garden (Eden) in which he is placed. Man is now “lower than the angels” but is designed to bring the whole of creation to perfection through himself. Man is therefore placed in a situation, the Garden of Eden, in which fellowship with God is natural - God walks in the Garden in the cool of the day. (It should be noted at this point that the Fathers have no doubt that it is by the Word of God, the Logos, that this fellowship (koinôniâ) with the Holy Trinity is brought about. Even before the Incarnation it is the Word and Son who communicates with man through the Holy Spirit.)

    4. The serpent's identity is revealed in stages throughout the Scriptures, finally appearing as: "The great dragon .... that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world." (Revelation 12:9).
    The Scriptures provide a 'profile' of Satan: he is an angelic being, created immaterial and, being an angel, possessing free-will. Satan has used that free-will to rebel against God 'from the beginning' and desires to draw mankind into that rebellion, even though he knows the end is eternal death. We come across a paradox here. Because Satan receives his being from the Divine Word, his being remains good, since it comes from God. On the other hand Satan has made himself the source of evil in creation, he has used his free-will to assert himself against the Holy Trinity. Cast out of heaven, the Devil seeks to make himself lord of the material creation. For this reason man has been his particular target.

    5. Satan tempts man, Adam and Eve, in a subtle way - presenting a choice between two seemingly good things, together with the suggestion that God is not to be fully trusted and that it is better to rely on one's self: "Now the serpent ... said to the woman, "Did God say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?"And the woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, 'You shall not eat of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'" But the serpent said, "You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband and he did eat." (Genesis 3:1-6)

    6. Adam and Eve, tempted by Satan, turn away from God in an act of freely-willed disobedience. This is sin and the consequence is death, the return to non-being: but the sentence is not carried out immediately, it is inevitable, but there is hope of redemption. Man, and, along with man, the whole material creation has become enslaved; Satan is now the lord of the material creation.

    7. Note also that what should have been occasions for joy are now mixed with suffering, childbirth will involve pain, work becomes hard toil. Man is driven from Eden, losing constant communion with the Holy Trinity - the source of all his true pleasure - and exists from now on in a land cursed as a result of his sin. Man's nature remains God-given, as before, but his circumstances and his own attitude are so changed that he has lost the capacity to experience true pleasure. What pleasure mankind now experiences is self-gratification, communicating to and repeating in all Adam's descendants the sin committed in Eden. Even so, in spite of the servitude to sin and death which has engulfed the creation, it remains possible for man to respond to God's call. Man cannot deliver himself out of his slavery but he can repent and, putting his trust in God, achieve a measure of righteousness such as will forward God's plan of eventual deliverance for the whole creation.

    8. The third chapter of Genesis is expounded to great effect by St. Paul in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Romans; this repays careful reading. The narrative set out in Genesis, Chapter 3 is a straightforward account, but beneath this simplicity there lie profound realities. This chapter of Genesis describes the breakdown of the relationship between God and man and, through man, with the whole creation. Man succumbs voluntarily to temptation and is responsible for the breakdown of the relationship and his own plunge into the continuing state of death and non-being.

  • LETTER SEVEN: THE PATHWAY OF OBEDIENCE.
  • 1. This Letter is introduced by an extensive quotation from Letter 6:7: "Man's nature remains God-given as before, but his circumstances and his own attitude are so changed that he has lost the capacity to experience true pleasure. What pleasure mankind now experiences is self-gratification, communicating to and repeating in all Adam's descendants the sin committed in Eden. Even so, in spite of the servitude to sin and death which has engulfed the creation, it remains possible for man to respond to God's call. Man cannot deliver himself out of his slavery but he can repent and, putting his trust in God, achieve a measure of righteousness such as will forward God's plan of eventual deliverance for the whole creation."

    2. Man's act of deliberate disobedience, as recounted in Genesis, Chapter 3, is known as the Fall. Man's 'natural will' (thelLsis in Greek), his ability to make free choices, being a divinely created endowment of man's nature (his logos), remains unchanged by the Fall. There is in the human logos another inbuilt element, pathos - the capacity for being moved by God towards the fulfilment of man's logos, his participation by grace in the divine life. This capacity to experience true pleasure, always subject to man's true though limited freedom, can be directed toward unworthy objectives. The Fall came about when man, exercising his ability to make a free choice, chose to look to creation, not to his Creator, for fulfilment.

    3. Man has chosen to seek pleasure and fulfilment in and through created things. For other creatures such an attitude is natural, that is, in accordance with their logoi, but their existence is derivative, they are not in themselves the source of life. Man's logos can only be fulfilled in koinonia with the Holy Trinity; this is his only true source of life, and, ultimately, through him, the fulfilment of all creation. By making this false choice man has degraded himself to the level of the animals, brought death upon mankind and condemned the rest of creation to frustration (see Romans 8:19-21). Man's will (thelLsis) is likewise redirected by the false choice he has made; it is created things which are now the dominant source of the pleasure he seeks and experiences. The Fathers use the term gnomL to indicate this impairment and misdirection of the 'natural will' thelLsis. This seeking of pleasure through created things which have no life in themselves, ensures that the joy man seeks is always mixed with suffering (pathLma in Greek). It is worth repeating here what was written in Letter 6:7.
    "... what should have been occasions for joy are now mixed with suffering, childbirth will involve pain, work becomes hard toil. Man is driven from Eden, losing constant communion with the Holy Trinity - the source of all his true pleasure - and exists from now on in a land cursed as a result of his sin."
    This is a punishment, a consequence of man's deliberate choice, but it also provides a stimulus for repentance, for seeking God afresh, and for opening up a new path to salvation.

    4. St. Paul asserts, in Romans Chapter 5, that all men have sinned and have received an unavoidable inheritance. His descendants do not inherit the personal guilt of Adam, but they do inherit an impaired and misdirected will (gnomLgnom which ensures that every human being commits sin. The Fathers clarify the manner in which this inheritance is transmitted from generation to generation through a very careful following of the scriptural record. It is important to understand this clarification as it has a bearing on the Incarnation, as we shall see in a future Letter. The origin of mankind falls into two categories. Adam and Eve form the first category because neither were born of parents - Adam was made from the earth and Eve was taken from the side of Adam. It is only after the Fall that the the human race is perpetuated, as with other creatures, through procreation - this is the second category. St Maximus the Confessor sets out the matter with great clarity, pointing out that this is the way in which what we call 'original sin' should be understood:
    "The first man received his existence from God and came into being at the very origin of his existence and was free from corruption and sin - for God did not create either of these. When, however, he sinned by breaking God's commandment, he was condemned to birth based on sexual passion and sin. Sin henceforth constrained his true and natural origin within the liability to passions that had accompanied the first sin as though placing it under a law. Accordingly, there is no human being who is sinless, since everyone is naturally subject to the law of sexual procreation that was introduced after man's true creaturely origin in consequence of sin." (Ad Thalassium 21)

    5. To the first of these two categories, true and natural existence, the Fathers apply the term genesis (origin), for the second category, existence by procreation, the confusingly similar word, gennLsis (birth), is used. Although the use of these two words is confusing at first sight, they mark out two distinct sources and forms of human existence. In order for man to be rescued from the power of Satan, sin and death, a new kind of birth is necessary, a birth which undoes the effect of gennLsis and restores mankind to his true natural existence, or genesis. Since this true natural existence was lost by disobedience, the pathway to restoration will be that of obedience - a positive response to the will and purpose of God.

    6. Mankind, existing under the 'law' of genesis, and, destined for death and the return to non-being, can only travel a little way along the path of obedience. The obedient man is pleasing to God, but he cannot undo what has been done. There is need of a Second Adam to bring mankind again on the way to final fulfilment.

    7. To be obedient to God man must have faith in Him; it is only thus that man can know the will of God sufficiently to respond in obedience. The Old Testament, therefore records the cumulative effect of such faith. This will be the subject of the next Letter.
    Note: The term gennLsis is applied in a different sense to the Second Person of the Trinity. In the Nicene Creed He is described as gennLthenta, begotten, in order to distinguish Him from the other two Persons of the Trinity - the Only-begotten Son of the Father. This use is derived from the term Only-begotten (monogenLs) used in the first chapter of St John's Gospel.
    A further note: Western Christendom has been deeply influenced by the teaching of St. Augustine of Hippo on 'original sin', the sin transmitted down the generations from Adam. As we saw above, the Fathers link this 'original sin' with the gnomL, the corruption of the God-given thelLsis in man, transferred to each generation in turn by procreation. St. Augustine saw 'original sin' as the involvement of the entire human race in the personal sin, guilt, condemnation, and corrupted nature of fallen Adam. This is an interpretation which is not sustained by the scriptural record and has introduced a misleadingly 'forensic' element into 'Western' Christianity. St. Augustine read an incorrect translation of Romans 5:12 as support for his view, which was also much coloured by his personal background and spiritual pilgrimage.

  • LETTER EIGHT: A far vision of salvation - the partial unveiling.
  • 1. The Fathers, following faithfully the Apostolic witness, perceived that the Scriptures could not be understood unless the final self-revelation of God as the Holy Trinity was taken into account. The Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Logos, gives meaning and direction to the whole of Scripture. In Letter 6:3 I wrote the following: "It should be noted at this point that the Fathers have no doubt that it is by the Word of God, the Logos, that this fellowship with the Holy Trinity is brought about. Even before the Incarnation it is the Word and Son who communicates with man through the Holy Spirit.”
    The Fathers recognised that the Holy Trinity is active throughout the Old Testament in ways appropriate to the Three Persons. Christianity is the fulfilment, not merely the successor, of Judaism. God communicates with the Old Testament Saints in a manner which guides them towards the fullness of the Truth in Christ. The prophetic ministry typifies the period before the Incarnation, the apostolic commission characterises the period after the Incarnation. What we have in the Old Testament is a far vision of salvation, a partial unveiling of the saving purposes of the Holy Trinity. Nevertheless, there is one necessary and constant element which is present in both the Old and New Testaments - the personal character of the relationship with the Holy Trinity.

    2. The Old Testament culture is a culture of personal relations and this remains fundamental also for the New Testament. The Fathers were keenly aware that the Gospel could be subverted by the intrusion of pagan philosophical and religious ideas. To counter this danger the Fathers were led, as has been noted already, to recast the Greek language, especially as it was used by the philosophers, to make it capable of bearing a Christian significance. Another less obvious form of subversion arose from presenting the Faith in a legalistic manner, a characteristic more typical of both Jewish and Latin culture. In order to maintain sound doctrine it was necessary to return time and again to the Holy Scriptures in order to vindicate the personal character of mankind’s saving relationship with the Holy Trinity - it was always necessary to know God personally as well as to know about Him.

    3. Within the Holy Scriptures we have a well-known and much loved passage which illuminates the ministries of the Old Testament Saints in relation to the future Incarnation. This is the great statement on faith set out in the Epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 11. In Letter 1:2 I quote some words from the Epistle to the Hebrews, words which summarise its message: "... for whoever would approach God must believe that he exists and that He rewards those who seek him" (Heb 11:6b).
    This present Letter 8 needs to be read in conjunction with Hebrews, Chapter 11. At the end of the chapter we are reminded that the ministry of the Old Testament Saints is insufficient in itself. Nevertheless, although it is preparatory and incomplete, this Old Testament ministry is firmly based on two elements which are pleasing to God - faith and obedience.

    4. The two elements of faith and obedience are closely linked because they are based on a personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. It is understood clearly throughout the whole of Scripture that in spite of his 'fallen' state, man can achieve a positive relationship with God such that God regards him as 'righteous'. What Hebrews, Chapter 11 also tells us is that such human righteousness is the basis on which God carries forward the work of redemption. In another example we find that in St. Luke's Gospel the parents of John the Baptist are described as "... righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless." (Luke 1:6)
    In its context this means that Zachariah and Elizabeth expressed their faith and obedience through a devout observance of the Law given by God to Moses. This clearly is more than mere legalism; the rest of the chapter shows this righteous couple living out a very positive spirit of cooperation with the will of God.

    5. The picture we are given is of righteousness as an active obedience and response to the Holy Trinity, even where the fullness of the Truth has not yet been revealed. It is this quality which is at the heart of true sinlessness before God. Mankind still needs a deliverance which can only come from God. Nevertheless, God will not save men and women from their universal and abiding condition of eternal death unless they exercise their free-will, that is, the 'natural will' (thelLsis): ThelLsis remains a central element in man as created in the divine image - in spite of the corrupting effect of the gnômL. God will not override human free-will, for by such an action man’s nature and purpose, his logos, is totally thwarted.
    In the next Letter it will be necessary to take up the role of suffering in the redemption of mankind.

  • LETTER NINE: SUFFERING AN OPTION ON SALVATION.
  • 1. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews is summed up in the opening verses of the following chapter which reads as follows: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily surrounds us, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who in place of (this is the more meaningful translation of the Greek) the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken His seat at the right hand of God.” (Hebrews 12: 1 & 2).
    The previous chapter of Hebrews has recorded both the triumphs won through faith and the suffering involved in faith; these are consequences which the incarnate Logos has taken upon Himself, choosing in His love for His creation to be a man among mankind in preference to the joy of heaven. He has done so in a manner which is redemptive in its effect.

    2. In Letter 7 the link between suffering and the Fall of man was described. Man, seeking pleasure in and through created things, became liable to the experience of pain and suffering. To counter the pain, the consequence of his self-willed disobedience, man has continued to seek a remedy in the same created source of pleasure which led to his fall. In his present condition man cannot escape suffering, and his efforts to avoid suffering only serve to reinforce the very error which has brought him to the tyranny of Satan and sin, and to the inevitable descent into non-being. Man is already dead and cannot remedy the situation through his own power.

    3. This situation is clearly described by St. Paul and it is worth setting out his words at some length. St. Paul is explaining that the Law given to Moses serves to clarify man’s situation as one of spiritual slavery. The Law is good but it only increases man’s awareness of his slavery to sin and death, it cannot save him. Although the Apostle uses the first person singular, the passage is best understood (along with the majority of the Fathers) as referring to the universal experience of mankind:
    "For we know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions, for I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the Law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells in me.
    So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law, at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!
    So then, with my mind I am slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin." (Romans 7:14-25). In the terminology of the Fathers, man’s thelLsis, directed towards the ‘law of God’, is enslaved, through the gnômL, to the law of sin.

    4. The Scriptures provide a model for the predicament of mankind, and its solution, in the account of the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt and their deliverance by God through the ministry of Moses. The events of the Exodus, including the deliverance at the Red Sea and the journey into the Promised Land, foreshadow the ultimate saving work of Christ. The Fathers seized upon all aspects of this journey of deliverance as providing relevant spiritual parallels - as, indeed did St. Paul:
    "I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.” (I Corinthians 10:1-5)
    St. Paul goes on to describe how those who failed on the journey did so because they turned back in desire to created pleasures, to the fleshpots and slavery of Egypt, instead of travelling on in obedience and faith. Here also we begin to be made aware that the gnômL, although it is the thelLsis wilfully misdirected, can be used to open up a pathway to salvation from the side of mankind.

    5. In Letter 7 we came across the term pathos, the capacity in man’s nature for being moved by God towards the fulfilment of man’s logos, his participation by grace in the divine life. We saw that pathos could also be redirected toward false objectives and pleasures. This new kind of pathos is no part of the original logos of man, it is the product of man’s misuse, through the thelLsis, of his divinely gifted thelLsis. The redirection, as already noted, brings with it corresponding pain and suffering, a punishment consequent upon man’s deliberate act of disobedience. At the same time such suffering provides a stimulus towards repentance - for seeking God afresh. Sufferings (pathLmata) are an abiding aspect of the fallen condition of mankind and must be so as they have a remedial purpose. As with the desire to return to slavery in Egypt, such sufferings encourage fallen man to plunge further into false pleasures - known traditionally as the seven cardinal sins. Nevertheless, it remains possible for the sufferings themselves to provide the gnômL with the desire to seek God afresh.

    6. The redirecting of the gnômL towards God is achieved by the exercise of faith and obedience towards Him. Suffering here becomes an opening toward God. The spiritual quest signified by the Exodus under Moses is prophetic but also limited. The fundamental problem of man’s fallen nature remains unresolved. Man needs not just redirection toward God but re-creation and it is to this issue that we turn in the next letter.

  • LETTER TEN: VIRGINITY- A Barrier Against Evil.
  • 1. Man, although enslaved to sin and death, can respond to God through faith and obedience but he cannot deliver himself out of that slavery. What we too easily regard as the ‘natural’ man is man made ‘unnatural’ by the Fall. Adam’s failure with its consequences for all mankind has to be reversed. There needs to be a new Adam, a truly natural man, who is able to restore to man his truly natural existence. In his truly natural state man has free-will, but, as noted earlier, this is not the absolute freedom of the Holy Trinity because man is part of the created order. In Letter 6:1 the kind of freedom which man has received as the bearer of the image of the Holy Trinity was described :
    "The third chapter of Genesis draws our attention to the matter of freedom of choice. The choice is either to obey or to disobey God. Willing obedience is the true fulfilment of freedom because through it man sustains his life-giving relationship with the Holy Trinity. Wilful disobedience is self-condemnation to the perpetual condition of death, the deliberate turning away from the life-sustaining love of God.”

    2. Just as all mankind has a unity with Adam in Adam’s disobedience and its consequences, so mankind can find a new unity in the New Adam. The problem is how to erect a barrier against the evil which permeates all mankind when all men, from the very moment of their conception and as a consequence of the manner of their conception, are born into slavery.

    3. At this point it is helpful to remind ourselves of the words of St. Maximus the Confessor which have been quoted already in Letter Seven: "The first man received his existence from God and came into being at the very origin of his existence and was free from corruption and sin - for God did not create either of these. When, however, he sinned by breaking God’s commandment, he was condemned to birth based on sexual passion and sin. Sin henceforth constrained his true and natural origin within the liability to passions that had accompanied the first sin as though placing it under a law. Accordingly, there is no human being who is sinless, since everyone is naturally subject to the law of sexual procreation that was introduced after man’s true creaturely origin in consequence of sin.” (Ad Thalassium 21)

    4. In Letter Seven also we saw that St. Maximus the Confessor was referring to two distinct categories of human existence: true and natural existence, to which the Fathers apply the term genesis (origin), and existence by procreation, described by the confusingly similar word gennLsis (birth). The two terms mark out the two distinct sources and forms of human existence. In order for man to be rescued from the power of Satan, sin and death a new kind of birth is necessary, a birth which undoes the effect of gennLsis and restores mankind to his true natural existence, or genesis.

    5. As usual, the Fathers are here clarifying the teaching of Scripture with particular reference to the birth of Our Lord from the Blessed Virgin Mary. What the Fathers perceived as crucially important was that the New Adam must be the offspring of both categories of existence. To restore the true nature of man, His existence must proceed from genesis but, to be one with us in our present condition of slavery, He must also be born through gennLsis. What Mary offered at this point was her total faith in God and obedience to His plan of redemption. Only a birth through the womb of a spotless virgin could fulfil the necessary requirements for initiating the final completion of the plan which had been prepared through the Saints of old. For this reason the Fathers, following the example of St. Matthew, have always perceived that the true significance of the prophecy of Isaiah: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel.' which means, 'God is with us'" (Isaiah 7;14),
    resides, not the historical situation in which the prophecy was spoken (which requires 'a virgin' or young woman and not the definite 'the virgin' of the actual text), but in the future fulfilment of a greater deliverance.

    6. The Fathers do not miss the true significance of the 'Virgin Birth' as the necessary condition for raising the only effective barrier against evil and for restoring man to true natural existence in the New Adam. This is why the Lord insists to Nicodemus that he must be ‘born again’ (John 3:3ff.) and why Baptism, our genesis which cancels the effect of our gennLsis, is the Sacrament of New Birth in Christ.

    7. St. Ignatius of Antioch speaks, in a rather dramatic way, of the Incarnation as a secret hidden from Satan and leading to the overturn and destruction of sin and death itself: "For our God Jesus Christ was, according to the dispensation of God, conceived by Mary, of the seed of David, but of the Holy Ghost; He was born and baptized, that through His passion, He might purify water ‘to the washing away of sin.’ Now the virginity of Mary, and He who was born of her, were kept in secret from the prince of this world; as was also the death of our Lord: three of the mysteries the most spoken of throughout the world, yet done in secret by God. How then was our Saviour manifested to the ages? A star shone in heaven beyond all the other stars, and its light was inexpressible, and its novelty caused amazement. All the rest of the stars, together with the sun and moon, were the chorus to this star; but that sent out light exceedingly above them all. And there was confusion to think whence this new star came, so unlike to the others. Hence all the power of magic became dissolved and every bond of wickedness was destroyed; ignorance was taken away, and the old kingdom abolished, God appearing in the form of a man, for the renewal of eternal life. From thence began what God had prepared; from thenceforth things were disturbed; forasmuch as He designed to abolish death.”(Ignatius, Ephesians 18 and 19).
    What has been said above prepares the way for a consideration of the crucial issue of the nature of the Incarnate Word.

  • LETTER ELEVEN: THE INCARNATION OF THE WORD.
  • 1. I can do no better, as I enter upon this subject, than to quote the words of St. Athanasius: "For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and self-revealing to us. He saw the reasonable race (in Letter 5:9 we noted this as an aspect of the divine image in man), the race of men that, like Himself, expressed the Father’s mind, wasting out of existence, and death reigning over all in corruption. He saw that corruption held us all the closer because it was the penalty of transgression; He saw, too, how unthinkable it would be for the law (i.e the law condemning sin), to be repealed before it was fulfilled. He saw how unseemly it was that the very things of which He was the Artificer should be disappearing. He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death. All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us come to nought, He took to Himself a body even as our own." (On the Incarnation 8).

    2. St. Athanasius makes it clear that this is a true and abiding incarnation, not just a temporary embodiment in a human form. This is a true union deliberately planned and chosen by the Word and Son of the Father: "Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear: had that been so He could have revealed His majesty in some other and better way, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father - a pure body untainted by intercourse with man. He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of us all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt, Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, when He had fulfilled in His body that for which it (i.e .death) was appointed, it was therefore voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire." (On the Incarnation 8 - continuing on from the previous quotation).

    3. You will see from this passage that St. Athanasius (4th Century) understands the role of Mary the Virgin Mother of God in the same way as St. Ignatius (1st Century) before him and St. Maximus the Confessor (7th Century) after him. This illustrates the way in which the Holy Tradition is both transmitted and expressed down the ages, clarifying and confirming what has already been manifested in Scripture against the deforming pressures of other times and cultures. St. Athanasius wrote 'On the Incarnation' while still a very young man, a few years before one of the most threatening deformations of the Faith, the Arian heresy, (see also Letter 3:9) had appeared.

    4. The heresy took its name from the Egyptian priest, Arius, who put forward a reinterpretation of Christianity along the lines of the pagan philosophical/religious concepts of his time. The basic pattern of such concepts starts with the 'One', totally immaterial and supremely Good. Between the 'One' and this material and evil world there descends a hierarchy of beings like rungs on a ladder, each progressively more material and more remote from the'One'. This is not creation in the Christian understanding of the term. but a descent from the immaterial into the material. This was a widespread and common view and Arianism was a christianised form of it. The Father represents the 'One', the Word is the 'demiurge', emanating from the 'One', who, as the primary agent and source of creation, produces, in turn, the Spirit as a secondary and subordinate agent. In this way a descending hierarchy of beings is established; only the 'One', the Father, is truly God.

    5. Arianism was, therefore, a clever and attractively paganising reinterpretation of the Scriptures. The danger it posed created the need for an unprecedented Council of the representatives of the Church throughout the Roman Empire (by now the dominant position of Christianity within that empire made the Church's unity a matter of grave political importance). This First Ecumenical Council authorised the Creed in which the term homoousios (see Letter 3:9) was officially adopted. As noted in Letter 3:9 this term undercut totally the Arian doctrine, but because it was a source of concern to many (because of its non-scriptural and possibly heretical origin) there ensued many years of ideological struggle as the Arians attempted to have this Creed withdrawn.

    6. Athanasius became the great champion of the Nicene Creed and suffered exile after exile by decree of emperors sympathetic to the Arian cause. Ultimately, however, the orthodox Faith prevailed and the Nicene Creed, receiving its final form at the Second Ecumenical Council (Constantinople I), was confirmed as the universal creed summarising the true Faith. It was the struggle against Arianism which brought home the urgent need re-define Greek philosophical terms and concepts to fit Christian usage. We have already seen something of the work of the Cappadocian Fathers in this respect.

    7. The battle against Arianism has secured for all time the true Christian understanding of Jesus Christ as God from God. It was equally necessary to secure the understanding that Jesus was also at the same time truly man. This second necessity was never far from the minds of St. Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers. As the Scriptures witnessed, this had always been the belief of the Catholic Church, but unless it was made as clear as possible that Jesus embodied the perfect union of the divine and human in one person, the Holy Tradition was liable to the same deformation that Arianism had attempted. The Fourth Christian century saw the overcoming of the one danger, the following century found itself facing the second.

  • LETTER TWELVE: THE INCARNATION - One From Two.
  • 1. Although the battle against Arianism had clarified and confirmed the Catholic doctrine that Jesus Christ is both truly God and truly man, and also truly one, the Church had then to deal with two false attempts to clarify the way in which, being God and man, Christ is, nevertheless, one. This was a question of the relationship between Christ's divine nature or Godhead, and his human nature or manhood. In attempting to affirm both His Godhead and His manhood, the union between the divine and the human could be so emphasised that reality of one or the other might be compromised. On the other hand it was possible to place the one alongside the other with no satisfactory account of their union. This is where the concept of 'nature'(physis), began to create problems. As we saw in Letter 5:2, physis is a useful (if somewhat imprecise) term for describing a class of beings, especially where any such being is composed of different elements. We can say that human nature is created and composite, we can also say that the created nature of the human soul (the psfchL and/or pneuma) is distinct from the created nature of the human body (the sôma or sarx). At this time, however, it was a question of the way in which two entirely different natures, uncreated and created, could be united in a single human individual (prosopon in Greek).

    2. By way of illustrating the first error, there is the unfortunate example of Apollinaris, Bishop of Laodicea, originally a great supporter of St. Athanasius against the Arians. Apollinaris taught that there were two distinct aspects, psfchL and pneuma, to the immaterial dimension of man - see Letter 5:4. This is a widespread and acceptable distinction with support in Scripture itself. Rodney Hume has expressed this well in describing psfchL as the animal life force, the 'breath of life'; with pneuma as the spiritual core of a human being - see Hebrews 4:12 for an example of this distinction. Apollinaris's mistake was to assert that, at the Incarnation, the Logos Himself had taken the place of the human pneuma, removing an essential ingredient in the make-up of Christ’s manhood. Apollinaris achieved a unity of a sort but, in doing so, destroyed one of the two elements to be united. (Apollinaris tended to use the Greek term nous (mind) in place of pneuma because it emphasised the intellectual and deliberative aspect of the human soul which he considered irredeemably corrupted by the Fall. - hence the need to replace it by the divine Logos)

    3. The second error derived from the teaching of a number of men connected with the great eastern City of Antioch. Theodore, Bishop of Mopsuestia, was of particular prominence and influence among this group. For Theodore the integrity of a physis could not be compromised in any way. Theodore had no problem in asserting the total integrity of both the Godhead and manhood of Christ; the problem for him was how to unite two such different natures. In his writing 'On the Incarnation' Theodore sets out his objections to union based on ousiâ or energeia and chooses the far weaker term 'good pleasure' (eudokiâ). Theodore wrote of the divine indwelling in Christ: "It is an indwelling in which He united the one who was being assumed wholly to Himself and prepared him to share all the honour which He, the Indweller, who is a Son by nature, shares. Thereby He has constituted a single person (prosôpon) by union with him and has made him a partner in all His authority. So everything He does he does in him, even to the ultimate testing and judgement through him and through his coming." (Theodore, On the Incarnation 8.)

    4. This quotation illustrates very clearly the tendency to keep the divine and uncreated dimension in an entirely different compartment from the human and created dimension - a tendency which still persists amongst many Christians in a variety of often subtle ways. The term for person used here, prosôpon, was perfectly acceptable but could be understood as affirming Christ's human existence and outward appearance of unity, while concealing an inner separation of natures. As a term it required clarification and strengthening by joining with it the term with which we are already familiar, hypostasis.

    5. The inadequate views of Theodore were promoted by one of his followers, Nestorius, when he became Bishop of Constantinople. Nestorius promoted Theodore's teaching aggressively, repudiating the title 'Theotokos' (Mother of God) long given to St. Mary the Virgin. Nestorius did this in the mistaken belief that he was repelling Apollinarianism. It fell to that great successor of St. Athanasius, St. Cyril of Alexandria, to defend the true Catholic doctrine of the Incarnation. The conflict that followed was resolved by the Third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus) where Nestorius and his teaching were condemned and St. Cyril's exposition of the Catholic Faith was upheld.

    6. Some years later a teaching, linked with the name of Abbot Eutyches, was condemned at the Fourth Ecumenical Council (Chalcedon). Eutyches seems to have believed that in Christ the divine nature so dominated the union that the human nature ceased to have any meaningful existence. This was an error similar to that of Apollinaris. The Council of Chalcedon also produced a Definition which has remained a standard of orthodox Catholic belief concerning the Incarnation. Unfortunately the Council of Chalcedon failed to win acceptance from a large section of the Church, especially in Egypt and Syria. The Council was accused of leaning too much in the direction of Nestorianism while its accusers were falsely branded as 'monophysites', followers of Eutyches and Apollinaris. The conflict which followed was greatly aggravated by the influence of the secular politics of the Roman Empire. The Definition of Chalcedon had itself to be clarified further by the next two Ecumenical Councils.

    7. St. Cyril's starting point was the divine hypostasis of the Son. The Person, the hypostasis, of the Father is the hypostatic source of the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the hypostasis of the Son is the basis of Jesus's personal identity. This is what St Cyril meant when he spoke of the 'hypostatic union'. In this hypostatic union the Son retains unchanged and undiminished the Godhead He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit, but He takes from the Virgin Mary a full and complete manhood. This is not a manhood added to the Godhead in the Nestorian fashion, but the complete manhood which is that of the divine Logos in virtue of His incarnation. St Cyril, like the great Fathers before him, never loses sight of the purpose behind the Incarnation - the salvation of mankind through the restoration of man to his original state, purpose, and destiny. Christ is the New Adam. St. Cyril often used the unity of the human person, composed of two different elements, as an illustration of the unity of the divine and human in the person of Christ. St. Cyril accepted that the 'mechanics', so to speak, of hypostatic union are beyond our understanding. The errors of both Apollinaris and Theodore sprang from their reliance on Greek philosophical concepts in attempting to explain the 'mechanics' of the Incarnation. St. Cyril understood that the love of the Holy Trinity, purposing the redemption of mankind and all creation, made possible what was impossible according to secular Greek philosophy.

    8. Mutual accusations of heresy by both Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian believers have, until the quite recent past, hindered any meaningful attempt to reach a genuine level of mutual understanding and agreement. The dialogue which continues to take place has removed many of the misunderstandings of the past and it also confirms the underlying unity of the Holy Tradition as maintained by both sides. St. Cyril defended the Tradition vigorously, but recognised that same essential doctrines can be expressed adequately in differing word patterns and expressions. This genuine flexibility on the part of Cyril explains why he was able to make peace between the Churches of Alexandria and Antioch - a peace which less able and more bigoted men threw away.

  • LETTER THIRTEEN: OBEDIENCE - Baptism and Cana.
  • 1. With the incarnation of the Word and Son of God there appears again within the creation the true humanity, that is, the humanity of the unfallen Adam, man according to his true logos - what Adam was designed to be. Jesus Christ, however, is not just a single individual bearing this restored humanity, He is the source of the renewal of all mankind - all can be made new in Him.

    2. Just as disobedience led to the fall of man, so obedience is the pathway to restoration. In Christ the journey along the path of obedience is completed. The Scriptures link this obedience with suffering; the Epistle to the Hebrews gives great prominence to this aspect of Christ's ministry: "In the days of His flesh (Jesus) offered up prayers and supplications to the One who was able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His reverent submission. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience through what He suffered and having been made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him ..." (Hebrews 5:7-9)
    We need also to keep in mind a further passage from Hebrews which occurs earlier in the Letter: "For it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying 'I will proclaim your name to my brothers, in the midst of the congregation I will praise You.’ And again, 'I will put my trust in Him.' And again, 'Here am I and the children God has given me.' Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free all those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:10-15).

    3. In these passages the themes of obedience, identification, suffering, death, redemption, and sanctification come together. These are themes which we have come across in earlier Letters in this series and we find the same themes present in the Baptism of Jesus. The obvious question which confronts us is why the manhood of Jesus, perfect and sinless, required baptism. In the rather technical language introduced in Letter 7, Jesus possessed a perfect human will, thelLsis, but not in its corrupted and unnatural form, gnômL. This question is answered in the accounts of Christ’s baptism given by the Evangelists. St. Matthew records that St. John Baptist asked a very similar question: "Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John would have prevented Him, saying 'I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?' But Jesus answered him 'Let it be so now; for it is proper in this way to fulfill all righteousness' Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as He came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to Him and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Him. And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.'" Matthew 3:13-17)

    4. St. John tells us that the Baptist also experienced this vision of the descent of the Holy Spirit and the whole incident is, of course, a manifestation of the Holy Trinity. This manifestation makes the question yet more urgent. As the Only Begotten Son, Jesus has had from all eternity a total relationship with the Spirit, why then this further descent? The answer is contained in the words recorded by St Matthew: "... it is proper in this way to fulfill all righteousness'. A modern translation picks up the significance of what is being said by translating this as 'fulfilling all that God requires'; human righteousness consists in being totally obedient to the will of God.

    5. St. Athanasius clarifies the matter by indicating from Scripture that the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ is for the sanctification of all mankind: "If then for our sake He sanctifies himself (referring to John 17:19) and does this when he has become man, it is very plain that the Spirit's descent on Him in Jordan was a descent upon us, because of his bearing our body.” (Discourse against the Arians I, 12:47).
    We may further expand this to point out that Our Lord takes upon Himself not only our renewed nature, but also the consequences of the Fall (except for sin) as St. Paul says: "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross." (Phil.2:5-8)
    There is therefore a total identification with mankind in its present condition of living death - except for sin - because it is sin which separates, whereas Jesus unites us to Himself. There is a further identification of ourselves with Christ - like Him we must be ‘born of the Spirit’. This teaching comes directly from the Lord Himself in what is clearly a reference to Baptism: "Truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you ‘You must be born from above’” (John 3:5-7)

    6. Again we are reminded of the distinction noted in Letter Seven. Being ‘born of the flesh’ is biological procreation, gennLsis, characteristic of fallen mankind. Being born of the Spirit is the source of true natural existence, genesis. This is the true natural existence as a human being which Jesus received through His virginal birth from Mary and not through an act of procreation. The man or woman who is 'in Christ' is a 'a new creation' as St. Paul says: "From now on we regard no one 'according to the flesh', even though we once knew Christ 'according to the flesh', we know Him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, everything old has passed away: see, everything has become new!” (II Corinthians 5:16,17)

    7. Between the Baptism of Jesus, as recorded by St. John, and the meeting with Nicodemus, quoted in the paragraph but one above, there is the description of the Wedding at Cana, the occasion when Jesus performed his first public miracle. The account includes the conversation between Jesus and His Mother: "When the wine gave out, the Mother of Jesus said to Him, 'They have no wine' Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come.' His mother said to the servants. ‘Do whatever He tells you.’” (John 2:3)
    This is a conversation within the Kingdom of heaven, it will be meaningless to those outside. It is necessary, therefore, to explore further the role of miracles within the ministry of Jesus.

  • LETTER FOURTEEN: POWER AND AWARENESS - MIRACLES.
  • 1. The previous letter ended with the account given by St. John of the Wedding at Cana and, in particular, the record of the conversation between Our Lord and His Mother. The comment was, “This is a conversation within the Kingdom of heaven, it will be meaningless to those outside”. The miracle of the turning of water into wine follows, but the man in charge of the arrangements for the feast assumes that this is no more than a fresh supply of even better wine laid on by the bridegroom. The man does not know that a miracle has taken place but the servants do. St. John, in particular, reminds us, on more than one occasion, that those surrounding Jesus understood Him on differing levels of faith and perception. At the beginning of this incident it is only Mary who has this deeper understanding but, we are told, after this first of His miracles Jesus’ disciple believed in Him too. Their level of understanding and commitment had been enriched by the miracle.

    2. This miracle, and the many that followed, are signs that, with the coming of Jesus, a transformed situation, the Kingdom of God, is now present and is marked out by power. This power is of two kinds. The first is the power of authority, exousiâ in Greek This is the power by which Our Lord exercises control over the demonic forces which afflict both mankind and creation; the events surrounding the restoration of the man called Legion (see Mark 5:1-20) are an example. The second is the power of ability, dynamis in Greek, This second kind of power is referred to in the same Chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel (verse 30), where Jesus is aware that power has gone from him to heal the woman who touches His clothes.

    3. We find both the kinds of power being bestowed upon the Apostles, exousiâ in the evening of the Day of the Resurrection and dynamis on the Day of Pentecost. In both cases it is the exousiâ and dynamis of the Holy Spirit - the promise of the Father. It is impossible to escape the trinitarian character of these accounts. We see that throughout His ministry Jesus is not exercising a power which is special to Himself alone, this is the energeia of the Holy Trinity.

    4. It is worth noting this other word for power, energeia. In Letter 4:8, 9 the term was mentioned and it is useful to bring to mind what was then said: " The Fathers, and here St. Basil in particular, recognise two modes, internal and external, involved in God's being in relation to the created order. The first is the divine essence ousiâ which is beyond everything our created minds can ever know. The second is the divine energy, energeia, a term from the New Testament. The model for this energeia is quite simple; the acts, appearance, and speech of a man (the means by which we recognise and relate to him) are as much that man as his internal make-up, it is the same man in two different modes.
    Although we can distinguish the different roles of the Persons of the Holy Trinity as they affect us, the divine energy, expressed in the divine activities and purpose is common to all three Persons, it is the mode of the divine being as it is directed toward the created order. This distinction will help us to understand, when we arrive at that point, the words of St. Peter when he writes in his Second Letter that we ‘become partakers of the divine nature’.”

    5. We are justified in saying that the miracles of Jesus, both in their great variety and whether they spring from exousiâ or from dynamis, are instances where the divine energeia of the Holy Trinity breaks into the corrupted state of creation and begins to exercise its work of restoration - far beyond the normal expectations of fallen mankind. This will be true also of the Incarnation itself and also the Resurrection (so that the Scriptures can say both that The Father raised Jesus from the dead or that Jesus rose from the dead, without any contradiction). Our Lord’s words as reported by St Matthew carry the same message: "But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has come to you."(Matthew 12:28)

    6. Energeia is a term and a concept which needs to be kept in mind. Although its appearance in the Scriptures is infrequent, it is much used by the Fathers to describe the means by which mankind is renewed and transformed. Another term with a similar significance is ‘grace’, charis in Greek. The Arians, seeking to demote the divine status of the Son, and even more so of the Holy Spirit, claimed that the Son’s ousiâ was a creation of the energeia of the Father, while, in turn, the ousiâ of the Holy Spirit was created by the energeia of the Son. Here the Arians assumed that energeia, differing from the divine ousiâ itself, goes on to create a subordinate form of ousiâ. The reply by the Cappadocians was, as we have seen above, that divine ousiâ and energeia are common to all three Persons of the Holy Trinity without diminution of any kind.

    7. While we can distinguish between different categories of miracles (which the Scriptures also call both 'works' and 'signs'): miracles which are prophetic signs (as with the cursing of the fruitless fig-tree), miracles of authority over spiritual forces (as indicated in the restoration of the man called Legion), miracles over the powers of nature (the stilling of the storm), miracles of provision (the loaves and the fishes), and miracles of healing, all point to the same message. The message is that the truly natural man, the New Adam, exists in an entirely different dimension from the unnatural man, mankind fallen in Adam. The restrictions which imprison fallen mankind do not apply ultimately to mankind as restored in Christ. It is therefore entirely in keeping with this fact that Our Lord promises that those who believe in him will do the same works as he does: "Truly, I tell you the one who believes in Me will also do the works that I do and will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father." (John 14:12)

    8. Although Jesus Christ is the New Adam endowed with the powers of the Kingdom of God, yet His ministry is directed toward a fallen creation and he, both voluntarily and in reality, takes upon himself the consequences of mankind’s fallen state. In the incident of the Transfiguration Peter, James, and John are granted a glimpse of Christ as the New Adam but, immediately, the Lord makes reference to His resurrection following upon suffering and death. In the words which He himself used at Cana, His hour is about to come.

  • LETTER FIFTEEN: The Blindness of Evil.
  • 1. At this point it is important to remind ourselves of the existence of demonic evil summed up in Satan and his angels. Here we have the perpetual enemies of God who have enslaved mankind. Beyond the human drama of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Our Lord, His own words draw our attention to the unseen spiritual battle taking place. Jesus says to those who come to arrest Him: When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on Me. But this is your hour and the power of darkness." (Luke 22:53) A short while earlier, at the Supper in the Upper Room, Jesus says to his apostles: "I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has nothing in Me (i.e. has no hold whatsoever on Christ); but I do as the Father has commanded Me, so that the world may know that I love the Father." (John 14: 30, 31)

    2. Comparing these two statements we see that Satan has power of exousiâ over the men involved in the arrest and condemnation of Jesus, they are his slaves, even if willingly so. By contrast Satan can work externally, as it were, upon the Incarnate Son but cannot hold Him in his power.

    3. In Letter 6:4 the identity of Satan was set out as follows: "The serpent’s identity is revealed in stages throughout the Scriptures, finally appearing as 'The great dragon .... that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.’ (Rev. 12:9). The Scriptures provide a 'profile' of Satan: he is an angelic being, created immaterial and, being an angel, possessing free-will. Satan has used that free-will to rebel against God ‘from the beginning’ and desires to draw mankind into that rebellion, even though he knows the end is eternal death. We come across a paradox here. Because Satan receives his being from the Divine Word, his being remains good, since it comes from God. On the other hand Satan has made himself the source of evil in creation, he has used his free-will to assert himself against the Holy Trinity. Cast out of heaven, the Devil seeks to make himself lord of the material creation. For this reason man has been his particular target."

    4. Satan is himself the epitome of idolatry, he worships the god he has made - which is himself. Satan has tempted man to do the same thing, and Adam follows Satan's example, making his desire to be like God, knowing good and evil, to be his priority. Man’s very knowledge can be a source of idolatry. Those who crucified Jesus had persuaded themselves that they were right to do so; their own idea of what was right took priority over what the Holy Spirit was telling them, if only they would listen - their ‘knowledge’ had become an idol. For this reason St. Paul is careful to correct himself when writing to the Galatians: "Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are no gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?" (Galatians 4:8,9)
    The Galatians had been spiritually enslaved by idolatry, had been freed by the Gospel of Christ; now they were in danger of turning the observation of their new Faith into another form of idolatry. Conscious of this, St. Paul is concerned that the idea that the Galatians possess a new saving knowledge of God may itself become a source of idolatry, so he reminds them that their acquiring this knowledge is, in fact the result of the divine initiative.

    5. It is the false use of knowledge which creates spiritual blindness. St Paul calls this the'wisdom of this age' which he contrasts with the divine wisdom understood by those who are being made 'perfect" in Christ: "Yet among the perfect we do speak wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers (archontes) of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God's wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." (I Cor. 2:6-8).
    By using the term archontes St Paul had in mind both earthly rulers such as Herod, Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas and also, as in the quotations from Our Lord's own words given at the beginning of this Letter and below, the spiritual rulers of the world, Satan and his demonic host.

    6. The scriptural record leaves us in no doubt whatever that Satan was aware of and recognized the true identity of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God. In St. Matthew’s account of the temptations in the desert Satan comes to Our Lord with the words “If you are the Son of God ..." (Matthew 4:3) This is said, not as if in doubt, but by way of a challenge to some action which would betray Jesus’ identity and ministry. So, likewise, St. Matthew reports the sequel to Peter’s confession "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.", when Peter attempts to deny Jesus' words that He will suffer and be killed. Jesus rebukes Peter calling him ‘Satan’ because he is still blind to the true purpose of the Incarnation.

    7. To put it rather bluntly, Satan's intention is the removal of a thoroughly unwelcome intruder from what he regards as his own territory. The dangers and temptations which threatened Jesus from His earliest years were all designed by Satan with this end in mind. The crucifixion was the culmination of Satan’s strategy. St. John records two similar sayings of Jesus during this period. The first occurs soon after the triumphant entry into Jerusalem when Jesus renews his commitment to go forward to his crucifixion (which is, at the same time, the culmination of his glorification) "Now is the judgement of this world, now will the ruler of this world be driven out.” (John 12:31). The second occasion is at the Last Supper itself when Jesus says that His departure will be the occasion when He will send the Holy Spirit to his disciples: " And when He comes he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement; about sin because they do not believe in Me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been judged." (John 16:8-11).

    8. The Fathers were keenly aware of this ‘cosmic’ dimension of the Death and Resurrection of Christ. It was not Christ's identity which was hidden from Satan, but the purpose to which that identity would be put. The Crucifixion is the glorification of the Son because he has fulfilled the purpose which He, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, had willed. Satan was blind to the plan of the Holy Trinity whereby the Son does as the Father has commanded Him, so that the world may know that He loves the Father. Satan knows nothing of this love; he knows and recognizes only self-love.

    Tree of Faith Letters Part - II by Bishop Michael M Wright Contd.