But for the searching of the Scriptures and true knowledge of them, an honourable life is needed, and a pure soul, and that virtue which is according to Christ; so that the intellect guiding its path by it, may be able to attain what it desires, and to comprehend it, in so far as it is accessible to human nature to learn concerning the Word of God. For without a pure mind and a modelling of the life after the saints, a man could not possibly comprehend the words of the saints. For just as, if a man wished to see the light of the sun, he would at any rate wipe and brighten his eye, purifying himself in some sort like what he desires, so that the eye, thus becoming light, may see the light of the sun; or as, if a man would see a city or country, he at any rate comes to the place to see it;—thus he that would comprehend the mind of those who speak of God must needs begin by washing and cleansing his soul, by his manner of living, and approach the saints themselves by imitating their works; so that, associated with them in the conduct of a common life, he may understand also what has been revealed to them by God, and thenceforth, as closely knit to them, may escape the peril of the sinners and their fire at the day of judgment, and receive what is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven, which “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man,” whatsoever things are prepared for them that live a virtuous life, and love the God and Father, in Christ Jesus our Lord: through Whom and with Whom be to the Father Himself, with the Son Himself, in the Holy Spirit, honour and might and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Saint Athanasius, The Incarnation of the Word, 57.

Some time ago a couple of blogs that I read (including Peter Gilbert and Father Gregory Jensen– there may have been another that I’ve forgotten) quoted the words of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus “Not to everyone, friends, does it belong to philosophize about God, not to everyone; the subject is not so cheap and low. And, I will add, not before every audience, nor at all times, nor on all points; but on certain occasions, and before certain persons, and within certain limits.” It is an appropriate enough quote for anyone discussing theology on the internet or elsewhere, and one which I had previously also quoted elsewhere. Speech about God is not to be taken lightly. 

But – and I thought of noting this at the time but somehow never got to it – Saint Gregory also continues to discuss the conditions necessary for theological speech:

Not to all men, because it is permitted only to those who have been examined, and are passed masters in meditation, and who have been previously purified in soul and body, or at the very least are being purified…

Now this is also rather daunting, especially for someone who is nowhere near to having been purified in soul and body. But I take comfort in his words “or at the very least are being purified”. This seems to me to be a crucial point and one that emerged strongly in my reading of Father Louth’s work. And so I could not but be struck by this last paragraph of Saint Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word which I re-read this week. For here too we see the necessary link between a dynamic process of purification and theological understanding.

I was going to title this post “Ascetical theology” but then I realised that that is precisely what I don’t mean. Ascetical theology referred – at least in the Catholic parlance of the last few centuries – to the application of theology to the life of faith and prayer. What I hear the Fathers addressing here is something more fundamental, namely, the necessity of asceticism for all theology.

This raises important questions for us today. In what ways are the passions operating in theological discourse, not only in the blogosphere, but also in academic theology and the Church? How do polarised positions feed on them? How can we unmask them and come to self-knowledge? And are we really committed to being purified so as to be able to see the light?