Patristics


This post continues to present the opening chapter of Father Georges Florovsky’s Bible, Church, Tradition* entitled “The Lost Scriptural Mind,” which I began here. In the following post, I plan to discuss some of the issues that this chapter raises…

Having argued that one should preach “the doctrines of the creed,” Father Florovsky continues to consider why this is problematic for “modern man” and argues that this is because it is seen in metaphysical terms that “is for him nothing more than a piece of poetry, if anything at all.” (12) However, Chalcedon was never intended to be seen in these terms; rather, it is a statement of faith and “cannot be understood when taken out of the total experience of the church. In fact, it is an ‘existential statement.’” (12-13)

Chalcedon’s formula is, as it were, an intellectual contour of the mystery which is apprehended by faith. Our Redeemer is not a man, but God himself. Here lies the existential emphasis of the statement. Our Redeemer is one who “came down” and who, by “being made man,” identified himself with men in the fellowship of a truly human life and nature.

… this mystery was a revelation; the true character of God had been disclosed in the Incarnation. God was so much and so intimately connected with the mystery of man (and precisely in the destiny of every one of “the little ones”) as to intervene in person in the chaos and misery of the lost life. The divine providence therefore is not merely an omnipotent ruling of the universe from an august distance by the divine majesty, but a kenosis, a “self-humiliation” of the God of glory. There is a personal relationship between God and man. (13)

This means that the whole of human tragedy appears in a new light, for the Incarnation is the mystery of the divine identification with lost humanity, which culminates in the cross of Christ, the turning point of human history. However, this “awful mystery” can only be comprehended within the wider perspective of an integral Christology in which we believe that “the Crucified was in very truth ‘the Son of the living God.’” (13) There is

an amazing coherence in the body of the traditional doctrine. But it can be apprehended and understood only in the context of faith, by which I mean in a personal communion with the personal God. Faith alone makes formulas convincing; faith alone makes formulas live. (14)

Father Florovsky goes on to argue that, while it may seem ridiculous to preach Chalcedon “in such a time as this,” it is only the reality to which this doctrine bears witness that can bring true spiritual freedom. Moreover, the ancient Christological controversies are far from irrelevant.

It is an illusion that the Christological disputes of the past are irrelevant to the contemporary situation. In fact, they are continued and repeated in the controversies of our own age. Modern man, deliberately or subconsciously, is tempted by the Nestorian extreme. That is to say, he does not believe in the Incarnation in earnest. He does not dare to believe that Christ is a divine person. He wants to have a human redeemer, only assisted by God. …

On the other extreme we have in our days a revival of “monophysite” tendencies in theology and religion, when man is reduced to complete passivity and is allowed only to listen and to hope. The present tension between “liberalism” and “neo-orthodoxy” is in fact a re-enactment of the old Christological struggle, on a new existential level and in a new spiritual key. The conflict will never be settled or solved in the field of theology, unless a wider vision is acquired. (14-15)

Father Florovsky then proceeds to bemoan the neglect of theology in modern times. While preaching in the early church was decidedly theological, and was not “vain speculation,” the modern neglect of theology has led to both the decay of personal religion and “that sense of frustration which dominates the modern mind.” (15) Yet both clergy and laity are hungry for theology and, moreover,

… because no theology is usually preached, they adopt some “strange ideologies” and combine them with fragments of traditional beliefs. The whole appeal of the “rival gospels” of our days is that they offer some sort of pseudo theology, a system of pseudo dogmas. They are gladly accepted by those who cannot find any theology in the reduced Christianity of “modern” style. (15)

Within this context, the first task of the contemporary preacher is the “reconstruction of belief.” Florovsky refers to belief here as “the map of the true world.” (15) The modern crisis has been brought about by the rediscovery of the real world, which is “no more screened from us by the wall of our own ideas.” (15-16) Moreover, the rediscovery of the church is also key here:

It is again realized that the church is not just a company of believers, but the “Body of Christ.” This is a rediscovery of a new dimension, a rediscovery of the continuing presence of the divine Redeemer in the midst of his faithful flock. This discovery throws a new flood of light on the misery of our disintegrated existence in a world thoroughly secularized… (16)

In contrast to those who see them as outdated and out of touch with our realities, Father Florovsky argues that this is the time to return to the Fathers of the Church.

I have often a strange feeling. When I read the ancient classics of Christian theology, the fathers of the church, I find them more relevant to the troubles and problems of my own time than the production of modern theologians. The fathers were wrestling with existential problems, with those revelations of the eternal issues which were described and recorded in Holy Scripture. I would risk a suggestion that St. Athanasius and St. Augustine are much more up to date than many of our theological contemporaries. The reason is very simple: they were dealing with things and not with maps, they were concerned not so much with what man can believe as with what God has done for man. We have, “in such a time as this,” to enlarge our perspective, to acknowledge the masters of old, and to attempt for our own age an existential synthesis of Christian experience. (16)

* This post is part of a series in which I hope to blog my way through Father Florovsky’s Collected Works, of which this book forms the first volume. Like the other volumes, it is out of print and only available at exorbitant prices on Amazon. However, there are PDFs floating around on the Internet, which I would encourage interested readers to track down.

I said previously that I hoped to post some things from Father John Behr’s introductory chapters in The Way to Nicaea, but have been putting off doing so because they are rather dense and touch on many issues. However, I have also been aware, particularly recently when in conversation with evangelical Christians, that questions around authority, hermeneutics and the sources of revealed truth are often unaddressed but nevertheless constitute a serious stumbling block to real communication. All too often evangelical colleagues will tell me what “the Bible says” and assume that that settles things. And given that I am not very good at responding with chapter and verse proof texts, and that the context usually precludes a serious discussion of hermeneutics and their underlying presuppositions, this can be rather frustrating and I usually just end up pointing out that that is their interpretation of what the Bible says and leave it at that!

But I have also been aware – and reading Father Behr highlights this – that the popular Orthodox (and Catholic) response to such a challenge, while not entirely untrue, is both simplistic and not without its own dangers. Such a response is of course to point out that the Bible is the Church’s book, that it was the Church that decided on the canon of Scripture, and that Scripture can only be properly interpreted within the Church. But the danger with that is that it can objectify the Scriptures and can appear to view the Church as being above the Scriptures. In an extreme form one ends up with “Scripture” and “Tradition” as two separate sources of authority as the (Roman Catholic) Council of Trent taught. Such developments would appear to fit better in a scholastic mode of theologising than in a patristic one.

As Father Behr notes, the early Christian struggle for truth – and the establishment of a normative Orthodox understanding of the Gospel – was inseparable from the engagement with a particular set of texts and with the correct interpretation of these texts. The two key challenges that the early Christians encountered regarding these came from Marcion and from Valentinus.

Marcion wanted to discard the Jewish (and some of the Christian) Scriptures and to emphasise the discontinuity between the vengeful and malicious God of the Old Testament, and the gospel of Jesus. Thus he establishes an opposition between the Law and the Gospel and attempts to sever the Gospel from the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets – an attempt, incidentally, that von Harnack thought Protestantism should have followed.

If Marcion wanted to fix a (reduced) body of authoritative writings, then the Gnostic Valentinus saw no need to do this, but sought rather to creatively reuse texts and images from Scripture in a way that resonates with people’s hearts but without any relationship to an objective authority. There is thus no distinction between Scripture and commentary, or between source and interpretation. As Frances Young notes, “Gnostic doctrine is revelatory, rather than traditional, textual or rational.” (21) Or, as Ireneaus notes, such a reading produces the reader’s own fabrication rather than the handiwork of God. However, the use that they make of Scripture, can give the impression that they are really being “biblical”.

Such usages of Scripture were rejected by the Church and the Orthodox position on the correct understanding of the Scriptures became established through the work of people like Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Saint Justin Martyr and Saint Irenaeus of Lyon in the first two centuries of the Church’s life. Father Behr writes:

In their own ways, these all maintained a text-interpretive framework for revelation, the point that Christ was preached by the apostles as having been crucified and risen “according to the Scriptures.” So, what sense does it make to say that Christ is proclaimed “according to the Scriptures”? What is the relationship between Christ, the Gospel, and the Scriptures? (23)

To be continued.

Photo courtesy of Jim Forest. More photos here

 

As I hinted at in the previous post, if earlier readers of this blog are still around they will appreciate that the coming of Father Andrew Louth to Amsterdam is a worthy occasion to resume blogging. (And if there are readers who don’t know why I should be interested in that they can click here). The reason for this was the launching of the Amsterdam Centre for Eastern Orthodox Theology at which Father Louth is going to be a guest professor and at which he was the guest speaker yesterday. This is a new institute located in the theology faculty of the Vrije Universiteit van Amsterdam which will be more formally launched in October when Metropolitan Kallistos Ware will be guest speaker. Father Louth gave a lecture on “The Nature of Eastern Orthodox Theology.” I tried to take reasonably extensive notes, but couldn’t keep up with everything. However, I hope that the following is not too inaccurate an overview of his paper.

Father Louth began by noting that many people had first discovered Orthodox theology through Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Why Lossky used the term “mystical theology” in the title is not clear, for, having done a doctorate on Eckhart, he was acquainted with what the West considers mysticism, and yet the contents of Lossky’s book simply look like traditional Christian theology. However, in the introduction to the book, Lossky explains the complementarity between mysticism and theology, a complementarity that has been lost in the West:

The eastern tradition has never made a sharp distinction between mysticism and theology, between personal experience of the divine mysteries and the dogma affirmed by the Church… To put it another way, we must live the dogma expressing a revealed truth, which appears to us as an unfathomable mystery, in such a fashion that instead of assimilating the mystery to our mode of understanding, we should, on the contrary, look for a profound change, an inner transformation of spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically…

Lossky does not begin with the experience of God, but rather with participation in the divine mysteries, which refers both to the sacraments and to the truths of faith. These are truths that we experience and celebrate in the divine mysteries and within the Church. Experience cannot be detached from dogma, nor detached from the Church; it is not something individualistic but is rooted in the experience of the Eucharistic community.

Father Louth then proceeded to explore some of the features of this Orthodox theology by offering some reflections on the Fathers of the Church, specifically Saint Athanasius, Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, Saint Maximus the Confessor and Saint Gregory Palamas.

(more…)

The question of Nicene orthodoxy is especially important today. Through the controversies of the fourth century, the Council of Nicaea became a standard reference point and remained so thereafter. The world of Nicene Christianity embraces not only matters pertaining to dogmatic theology (the use of the term “consubstantial”), but also spirituality (liturgy, prayer, piety) and also includes both a history (marked by particular events) and a geography (with its own sacred centers) – all the things which make up a “world.” But over the last couple of centuries, the foundations of this world have been steadily eroded, and a new world has been constructed, with a new geography and, especially important, a new sense of history. Christianity today, in all its various forms, clearly finds itself torn between these two worlds: the world in which it developed into its classical form and the world in which even Christians now live.

John Behr. The Nicene Faith. Part One, True God of True God. Crestwood, N.Y.:  St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004. 8-9.

I am afraid that if the first couple of chapters are anything to go by, this book is going to require a really close reading but one that will be immensely rewarding. More detailed posting will have to wait until after our move, but the above passage is enough to explain my interest.

The question of the proper starting point, the “first principles” of theology is one to which those engaged in its discipline must continually return; however, their continual temptation is to do otherwise. Without being firmly grounded on its proper foundation, the vast body of reflection developed in theology risks collapsing into dust. It is not simply that the first principles are elementary stages, to be transcended by higher realms of more elevated reflection, but that they provide the necessary perspective within which the more abstract discussion takes place and is to be understood. The proper order, the taxis, of theology must be maintained if it is to retain its proper coherence. … Christian theology developed first and foremost as faith in the lordship and divinity of the crucified and exalted Christ, as proclaimed by the apostles according to the Scriptures. The Passion of Christ stands as the definitive moment in the revelation of God, the eschatological apocalypse which unlocks the Scriptures, and so enables Christians, retrospectively, to view the work of God from the beginning and, prospectively, by the continued contemplation of the exalted Christ who is still the coming one, to participate in this work, embodying or incarnating the presence of God in this world through their own witness or martyria. …

The way to Nicaea is not plotted retrospectively from Nicaea, as if it were itself the starting point, but with reference to the revelation of God in Christ, the subject of the Christian confession from the beginning; if Nicaea is a definitive moment in Christian identity, it is because it preserves the truth of the definitive moment. If we overlook this basic fact, then we risk both misunderstanding the landmarks that we think we already know and, more seriously, substituting other principles, taking something other than Christ and his Cross as constitutive of the identity of Christianity.

John Behr. The Nicene Faith. Part One, True God of True God. Crestwood, N.Y.:  St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004. 1-2.

What can we learn from the Fathers, seen this time as fellow participants in times of radical change? Norman Baines, the renowned Byzantinist from earlier on in the last century, once remarked that what struck him as a historian about the early Christian movement was a stark asceticism and a staggering confidence, a stark asceticism and a staggering confidence. It seems to me that these two go together and that together they explained how the Fathers lived through periods of dramatic change without being discouraged or dispirited, indeed rather the contrary, for the Fathers became spokesmen for what was being created and refined in the crucible of the times through which they lived.

The confidence was founded on God. But not just on a confidence in His guiding providence in general terms. The Fathers believed that God, who had created and governs the world through His Word, had made Himself part of that world by assuming humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In the Incarnation, God had lived and died as a human being and by death had conquered death and in the Resurrection given life to humankind. This was the core of their faith as it is the core of our faith, as we sing constantly during the period of Easter, “Christ is risen from the dead, by death He has trampled on death and to those in the graves given life.”

And that gift of life, they, the Fathers, took very seriously. This gift of life was the gift of the life of the Triune Godhead, the life that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit share in their consubstantial communion with each other. So, as God had become human in Christ, so in Christ we humans are called to become God, to be deified. And that confidence demanded asceticism, a stark asceticism answering to a staggering confidence. For the life that we live in this fallen world is far from the divine life promised in Christ. It’s even far from the truly human life that Adam and Eve were to have lived in paradise. It is, as the women of Canterbury constantly bewail and lament in T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral, “living and partly living.”

If we are to grasp and experience the divine life of the godhead, then we have to destroy death in our own lives, the death that makes our own living no more than partly living. And that demands a lifetime of ascesis, training, or perhaps better what the root of that Greek word suggests, to work in raw materials as an artist does, to create and fashion something beautiful out of the raw materials of human living and human loving, of hoping and fearing, of longing and experiencing. Asceticism is often understood in a negative way, as a matter of denial. But that denial is only demanded by the presence of the negative in our fallen human life, a negative that needs to be excised, cut out, so as to make evident the beauty of God’s original creation and beyond that the beauty of the divine life that is offered us through the Incarnation. To be able to distance ourselves from the negativity of the corruption and death that cast their shadow over human lives lived apart from God is to find freedom, that freedom that is the fruit of the Fathers’ stark asceticism and manifest in their staggering confidence, a freedom that enabled them to keep their eyes on the vision of God’s transfiguring glory while living in a society bewildered and often defeatist, with its ancient certainties eroded and crumbling. It is that freedom that we need to grasp and experience and the Fathers offer themselves as our guides to the confidence in God and this corresponding practice of asceticism that is its basis.

Father Andrew Louth, lecture on “The relevance of the Church Fathers Today”

For those who haven’t seen it yet (here or here), a commenter on The Way of the Fathers has kindly tracked down some lost lectures by Father Andrew Louth and made them available in MP3 format.

As anyone who has been reading this blog for more than a couple of months knows, Father Louth is eminently worth reading. Now it turns out that he is also worth listening to!

The tension between the two visions, Hellenic and Biblical, was sharp and obvious. Greeks and Christians were dwelling, as it was, in two different worlds. Accordingly, the categories of Greek philosophy were inadequate for the description of the world of Christian faith. The main emphasis of Christian faith was precisely on the radical contingency of the cosmos, on its contingency precisely in the order of existence. Indeed, the very existence of the world pointed, for Christians, to the Other, as its Lord and Creator. On the other hand, the creation of the world was conceived as a sovereign and “free” act of God, and not as something, which was “necessarily” implied or inherent in God’s own Being. Thus, there was actually a double contingency: on the side of the cosmos —, which might not have existed at all; and on the side of the Creator — who could not have created anything at all. God would be God whether he created or not. The very existence of the world was regarded by the Christians as a mystery and as a miracle of Divine Freedom.

Christian thought matured gradually and slowly, by a way of trial and retraction. The early Christian writers would often describe their new vision of faith in the terms of old and current philosophy. They were not always aware of, and certainly did not always guard against, the ambiguity, which was involved in such an enterprise. By using Greek categories Christian writers were forcing upon themselves, without being consciously aware of it, a world, which was radically different from that in which they lived by faith. They were therefore often caught between the vision of their faith and the inadequacy of the language they were using. This predicament must be taken very seriously. Etienne Gilson once suggested that “la pensee chretienne apportait du vin nouveau, mais les vieilles outres etaient encore bonnes” [“Christian thought brought the new wine but the old skins were still good enough.”]. It is an elegant phrase but is it not rather an optimistic overstatement? Indeed, the skins did not burst at once, but was it really to the benefit of nascent Christian thought? The skins were badly tainted with an old smell, and in those skins the wine acquired an alien flavour. In fact, the new vision required new terms and categories for its adequate and fair expression. This problem is apparent in the earliest Christian literature — if the Apologists are understood from within the mind of the Church, it is clear about, which they are speaking. But as soon as one attempts to understand the Apologists “from without,” from categories other than the apostolic deposit, one can read into their thought many things, which they would have rejected. It was an urgent task for Christians “to coin new names, as St. Gregory of Nazianzus was to point out — το καίοτομεϊν τα ονόματα.

Fr. Georges Florovsky, The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century, chapter nine.

This isn’t new of course and echoes themes that I have encountered in Zizioulas’ Being as Communion (which I have not abandoned, despite all appearances to the contrary) on the relationship between Greek thought and the biblical witness. But it also raises the question for me of the extent to which our current thought processes and cultural and philosophical assumptions enable or hinder the expression of faith.

Perhaps I noticed this particularly because I recently came across the website of a theological college that I once had contact with. Reading its mission statement, I was struck not just by the emphasis on contextuality in theological education, but that this involves allowing the tradition to be transformed by the context. Now there was a time when I was involved such academic circles – and I remain committed to some of their concerns – but it now strikes me as being insufficiently critical of the factors operating in the contemporary context, and of the extent to which they form us and condition our responses.

If we look for the ‘mystical’ in the Dionysian corpus, what we find is something deeply traditional: mystikos and related words are indeed favourites with Dionysius, but they fit perfectly into the context we have already outlined. And that is a context of biblical and liturgical symblism … the ‘mystical’ meaning is what these biblical and liturgical symbols refer to. … Dionysius is concerned with the cosmic order disclosed by the biblical revelation and celebrated in the Christian liturgy.

But whatever Dionysius meant in the sixth century, and continued to mean for the Byzantine world, he suffered a strange alteration when he came to be known in the Latin West.

Andrew Louth, “Afterword” to the new edition of his The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford, 2007) 206-207.

Father Louth notes the re-evaluation of Dionysius work in recent years in which the depiction of him as a pagan Neoplatonist is giving way to the recognition of him as someone who used the framework of late Neoplatonism to express fundamentally Christian ideas that are dependent on Scripture and the liturgy.

While Dionysius’ reception in the West is a complex story that is not yet fully understood, the new linguistic, cultural and ecclesial context meant that his works, and particularly his understanding of the mystical, came to acquire rather different shades of meaning leading to a distinction, perhaps even a divorce, between the sacramental and the mystical. Louth writes:

… in translation – and in a Latin culture increasingly removed from the East Byzantine world to which Dionysius himself belonged – Dionysius assumed a different aspect. Again we can keep to the word mystikos, the history of which we are tracing. We have seen that in the Greek of the Fathers it means ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’, and is etymologically linked to the word mysterion, which refers both to the Gospel of the Incarnate Word, and to the sacraments. The biblical and the sacramental fit together. But in Latin things start to come apart: mysterion is either translated sacramentum, especially when it refers to sacraments or sacramental actions (there was no notion of seven sacraments until the twelve century), or transliterated as mysterium. It is often remarked – right through the Middle Ages – that mysterium means sacramentum, but what was obvious in Greek comes to be inferred in Latin. Mystikos is invariably translated mysticus, but its association with the sacramental is obscured. So a collection of associations evident in Greek becomes something that is at best inferred in Latin, and sometimes lost altogether. Mysterium and mysticus begin to develop a life of their own. (207)

This shift in meaning is also influenced by two further factors.

Firstly, the liturgical focus of Dionysius’ work is less immediately obvious in a Western context as the liturgical world that he explores had become increasingly foreign to Western Christians as the Eastern and Western liturgical traditions had gone their separate ways. As a result

whereas in the traditional understanding of Dionysius, which is still found in the West as late as the twelfth century, the two works on the hierarchies – the Celestial Hierarchy and the Ecclesial Hierarchy – form the centre of gravity, to which Dionysius’ other works relate, by the thirteenth century, the two works on the hierarchies fade into the background, and the centre of gravity becomes either the Divine Names, interpreted as a logical treatise about divine predication – so the Scholastics – or the Mystical Theology – as with the growing, largely vernacular ‘mystical’ movement. (208)

Secondly, Dionysius was now read against a very different cultural and theological background, coloured by the rediscovery of Augustine in the twelfth century. Augustine’s vision focused more on the drama of the individual soul than on the structures of a liturgical society and the cosmic dimension of Dionysius’ thought receded into the background and was forgotten.

These two factors allow the ‘mystical’ to lose its anchoring in the biblical and liturgical, as with Dionysius and the Fathers, and offer it another context: that of the individual. (208)

In the next post, I shall report on Father Louth’s discussion of the shifts that occurred in the understanding of the Body of Christ in the Medieval West.

***

For anyone interested in more on this:

  • Father Louth has written a book on Dionysius the Areopagite, which I am sure is worth reading, but which I unfortunately won’t get to for quite a while.
  • Felix Culpa of Ora et Labora had a series of posts (I, II, III, IV & V) earlier this year in which discussed twentieth century Orthodox readings of Dionysius.
  • Father Louth has an essay on “The body in Western Catholic Christianity” in Religion and the Body (edited by Sarah Coakley) in which he discusses the influence of Augustine’s shift to interiority in more detail. I read it about a year ago and don’t have access to it at the moment, but intend writing more on it when I get hold of it again.

If the ‘mysticism’ of the Fathers is what these various uses of mystikos refer to, then it is very different from what we call mysticism nowadays: it does not refer to some elite group, or elite practice, within Christianity, it simply refers to the lived reality of Christianity itself. It is not something separate from the institutions of Christianity: it is the meaning that these institutions enshrine. It is not something distinct from the dogmas of Christianity, for the ‘mystical’ meaning of Scripture, in this sense, is often enough precisely such dogmas, which are the hidden meaning of the Scriptures. ‘Mystical’ and ‘sacramental’, from this perspective, are interchangeable: which is hardly surprising, as sacramentum is the Latin word used to translate mysterion.

Andrew Louth, “Afterword” to the new edition of his The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford, 2007) 205.

In discussing his own earlier use of the terms “mysticism” and “mystical tradition” in relation to the Church Fathers, Father Louth points to the revival of patristic learning – both Orthodox and Catholic – before the Second World War, in which scholars found themselves drawn to the Fathers “because with them dogma and spirituality (another freighted word!) seemed to belong together, and the term ‘mystical theology’ was used to designate this point of convergence.” (203) However, this led to questions of what the word “mysticism” really meant in relation to the Fathers. Moreover, while the term “mysticism” is not found in the Fathers, the adjective mystikos from which it is derived is common. This has led to the danger

of reading back into the early centuries ideas that have no place there. And that is, I think, what has happened. But if it is the case – and it is not difficult to show that it is – that the comparatively modern word ‘mysticism’ has a past that includes the use of the adjective mystikos, then it might be worth tracing that past, to see what light it sheds on the development of the term ‘mysticism’, and, in particular, what hidden agendas are concealed by the use of that term. (204)

Louth proceeds to discuss an essay by Père Louis Bouyer on the history of the word “mysticism” in which he distinguished three ways in which the word mystikos was used in patristic Greek. The first and most common usage was its to designate the mystical meaning of Scripture. The second usage, which became increasingly frequent from the fourth century, was to designate the liturgical texts and ceremonies. The third and least common use was to refer to the Christian life. The word itself originates with the Hellenistic mystery religions and its root has to do with a secret kept, and its various forms relate to initiation into this secret. However, Bouyer argued that the similarity between the language of the Fathers and that of the mystery religions was superficial, for the real context of its patristic use was quite different. Louth continues:

At its heart is the understanding of Christ as the divine mysterion: an idea central to the epistles of the Apostle Paul. This secret is a secret that has been told; but despite that it remains a secret, because what has been declared cannot be simply grasped , since it is God’s secret, and God is beyond any human comprehension. The secret of the Gospel is the hidden meaning of the Scriptures: for Christians the whole of what they call the ‘Old Testament’ finds its true meaning in Christ. God’s plan for humankind to which the Scriptures bear witness is made plain in the Incarnation. And this is the most common context, as we have seen, for the use of the word mystikos: it refers therefore to the hidden meaning of the Scriptures, the true meaning that is revealed in Christ, a meaning that remains mysterious, for it is no simple message, but the life in Christ that is endless in its implications. Christians, however, share in the life of Christ pre-eminently through the sacraments – mysteria in Greek – and the word mystikos is used therefore in relation to the sacraments as a way of designating the hidden reality, encountered and shared through the sacraments. The final use of the word mystikos refers to the hidden reality of the life of baptized Christians: a reality which is, as St Paul put it, ‘hid with Christ in God’ (Col. 3: 3). (205)

In the next post I shall present Father Louth’s discussion of Dionysius the Areopagite and the shifts that occurred with the transmission of his thought into the medieval West.

I’m a bit late mentioning this, and still have to find time to read at least some of the posts mentioned, but for anyone interested who hasn’t yet seen it, this month’s Patristics carnival has been put together by Tim Troutman at The God Fearin’ Forum. He has done a great job bringing together a wealth of patristic related reading matter.

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