Tag Archives: Patristics

When God Spoke Greek — Book Blog Tour

When I was approached about participating in the Book Blog Tour for Timothy Michael Law’s new book, When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible, I was beyond excited. I have, in the past, lamented how in all my years of theological training I have never once had a class on the Septuagint. I can count on one hand the number of times the Septuagint was mentioned in New Testament classes (usually in relation to how the NT author quoted the Old Testament), and I don’t think the Septuagint was ever brought up in an Old Testament class. Given this gap, I was hoping that this new book would help fill the gap. I can say with confidence, that this book definitely begins to fill said gap. Timothy Michael Law notes in his introduction that he was wanting to make the Septuagint more accessible. And he does.

 

Now, it’s important to note that I’m coming at this book as a seminary student, an aspiring theologian, and a person involved in church ministry. As such, the questions that I bring to this book include:

 

  • Would this book work as a textbook for college students? Would this book work as a textbook for seminary students?
  • Would this book have helped my studies as a student?
  • What are the theological implications of the NT authors quoting the Septuagint, especially when it differs from the Hebrew text?
  • Would this book be helpful for teaching lay people in the church about the history of Scripture?

Now onto my look at chapters 11 and 12!

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In chapter eleven, TML begins by talking about the Septuagint influenced the transmission of Scripture into other languages. For example, the Latin Scripture were produced, not from the Hebrew text, but from the Greek. It is also from the Septuagint that the earliest Coptic, Armenian, Gothic and Arabic translations were produced. TML goes so far as to say, “Had there been no Septuagint, and had early Jewish converts remained in a Semitic world, the church may never have moved outside of its Palestinian birthplace.” (129)

He then looks at Philo and Josephus’ use and explanations of the origins of the Septuagint. For Philo, it was important to justify the text and he set out to demonstrate how it was divinely inspired. Josephus, on the other hand, is not so interested in justifying the divine inspiration of the Septuagint, so much as just reporting how the Hebrew Scriptures came to be translated into Greek.

By the 4th century, we find Eusebius arguing that “God providentially guided a translation into Greek so that when the Savior of the world did appear the nations would recognize him. This was the time when God spoke Greek.” (131) TML writes that by the 4th century, “the idea that the Septuagint was the inspired word of God was already so deeply rooted in the church that it allowed these writers to speak of it as the preparation for the gospel and as the superior, indeed, the only, word of God for the church.” (132)

TML then asks one of the questions that I myself was bringing to the text: “In what ways did [the Septuagint] contribute to the theological and exegetical formation of the early centuries of Christianity?” (132) He notes that the Latin and Greek Fathers were not concerned with how accurately the Greek translated the Hebrew, and that “presumably most Christians would have viewed the Hebrew Bible as strictly Jewish scripture, but the Septuagint was the treasure of the church.” (133) He explores examples of typological exegesis that were common because the Septuagint’s translations of key words like “Lord,” and “Anointed” made it easy for readers to see foreshadowing references to Christ.

As well, the Septuagint became extremely important theologically as the early church struggled against heresies. Over and over, it was the Septuagint and not the Hebrew texts that the Church Fathers would return to over and over again to craft a coherent defense of the faith.

TML concludes the chapter by noting that it wasn’t just theology that was profoundly influenced by the Greek text. Indeed, the Septuagint played a role in also developing preaching, liturgy and Christian piety (aka spiritual formation). Ultimately, “Most Christians would have heard the Septuagint taught and would have been shaped by it without knowing anything about its relationship to the Hebrew.” (139)

In chapter twelve, TML looks at Origen and his influence on biblical scholarship in the early church. He argues that Origen’s “textual scholarship inadvertently hastened the end of the Septuagint’s prominence in the church.” (141) Origen’s study of Scripture was extensive. He was continually learning about exegetical methods, not only from Christian scholars in Alexandria, but also from Jewish and Greek (secular) scholars. It was this deep passion for exegesis that led Origen to compile the Hexapla: “a six-columned Bible in which he placed six different biblical texts in parallel columns.” (143) This project made the differences between the Hebrew and Greek texts stand how. But how would Origen explain the differences? “When the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint were at odds with one another, there were two possible explanations: copyists introduced genuine errors in the transmission of the manuscripts, or Providence introduced the divergences for the church’s edification.” (144) TML is quick to note that Origen had great respect for the Septuagint and that “Origen’s aim was never to dislodge the Septuagint from the lecterns of the churches in favor of the Hebrew Bible.” (145)

So how did this massive exegetical work by Origen hasten the demise of the Septuagint’s prominence in the church? By accident!

“If Origen included the Hebrew Bible in the first column of his Hexapla, didn’t that imply it was worth studying? The fifth column, in which he had created a hybrid text composed of the church’s Septuagint with additional readings from other Greek Jewish versions, may have begun as a scholarly tool for exegesis, apologetics, and textual analysis. But the new fifth column text was soon copied with the signs [that noted divergences from the Hebrew] removed and was dispersed widely. It moved out from a scholarly and professional realm, where caveats could have helped to prevent its misuse, and into the church. Unintentionally, Origen’s work contaminated the stream of biblical transmission: from the fourth century almost all Septuagint manuscripts had been influenced by the so-called Origenic, or Hexaplaric, version.” (145)

And this contamination was not gradual. Instead “it exploded on to the map and changed the course of the Septuagint’s history thereafter.” TML concludes the chapter by noting: “A new spirit was unleashed, and if scholars had not noticed before the divergent nature of the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible they would soon find it impossible to ignore. The final days of the Septuagint in the West had begun.” (150)

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So would I recommend this book? Absolutely! Reading this book has begun to fill in some of the gaps of my theological education. If I was teaching a course, how would I use this book? If I was teaching a class on the Patristic Fathers, either at the college or seminary level, this would definitely be on the syllabus as a required reading. If I was teaching a survey NT or OT class, I wouldn’t necessarily assign this book, but would instead create a lecture or two on the Septuagint based on the material in this book. At a church level, I think it would be fantastic to do a small group study on the history of Scripture and use this book as one of the materials to be read over the course of a season (with 13 chapters plus a postscript, this book is ideally laid out for a fall (Sept-Dec) or spring (Jan-Apr) weekly study group).

My only real complaint is that once again a publisher has decided that a book aimed at a general audience needs endnotes. Publishers, please stop doing this! A general audience will not be put off by a few footnotes, and footnotes actually make the book easier to read.

 

You can follow the rest of the Book Blog Tour on When God Spoke Greek here.

 

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Perfection of the Virtuous Life — Perfection As Change


Over the next several days, I am doing a series on Gregory of Nyssa and his doctrine of perfection as found in two of his writings: The Life of Moses, and On Perfection. The previous posts can be found here here, here, and here.

One of Gregory’s greatest theological contributions is his reworking of the Platonic understanding of perfection. In Platonic thought, perfection is a stable constant, and once it has been attained it cannot change. Any change is inherently bad, for change is the falling away from the perfect state.[1] Gregory, on the other hand, argues that change does not always necessarily move from the perfect to the imperfect, and in fact there can be movement from the imperfect to the perfect. For Gregory, change is inherent to humanity and is not a result of evil or the fallen state of humanity.[2] Humans are always in movement, they are always changing.

Thus, perfection is progress, and it cannot be “a state of complete immobility in restored innocence.”[3] The perfected life is one in which the Christian grows in virtue and through this growth is transformed “from glory to glory.”[4] Because all humans are in the process of change, the Christian who journeys on the path of perfection cannot simply stop journeying. In one form or another, the Christian is participating in a race. If a Christian stops pursuing the race of virtue, she does not simply cease journeying, but instead begins a new race: the race of evil.[5] If God is absolute Virtue, then a refusal to pursue virtue means the refusal to pursue God himself, thus the only other option is to pursue that which is not God, and that pursuit is evil. The two cannot be pursued at the same time “for when we lay hold of evil, virtue slips from our grasp.”[6] The tension between the two races becomes a training opportunity for the Christian, much like an athlete who competes against an opponent, so the Christian who pursues the race of virtue competes against the race of evil.  This competition strengthens the Christian and gives him endurance to continue on the race of virtue.[7] There is a competition, or more specifically, a war between virtue and evil and they cannot both be the victor. Ultimately, only virtue can be victorious because virtue is “brought to life by the enemy’s death.”[8]

St. Gregory of Nyssa (eastern ortodox icon)
St. Gregory of Nyssa (eastern ortodox icon) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because Gregory has redefined perfection, it also means that the limits of perfection are redefined. Through his citation of Philippians 3:13-14, Gregory opens his treatise on The Life of Moses with the observation that “in the case of virtue we have learned from the Apostle that its one limit of perfection is the fact that it has no limit.”[9] Indeed, the more that virtue is pursued, the greater the capacity of virtue. There is an infinite possibility in participating in God. The further along the ascent to God, the wider the possibilities of growing in holiness become. It is both available now, and yet never truly finitely completed. It is an infinite progress. Just as God is infinite, so to the pursuit of virtue is infinite. The process of participating in God leads to an expansion of the soul. With this expansion of the soul, there will never be a final point of satisfaction or a completion of perfection, wherein the Christian arrives at a place of no longer desiring or needing to seek after God because there is “no limit to the Good.”[10] But at the same time, this infinite progress of perfection does not mean that the Christian will grow frustrated by the lack of satisfaction. Gregory distinguishes between physical satisfaction and spiritual satisfaction. The spirit of the Christian will thirst for even more precisely because she is being filled to capacity[11] and this filling increases the capacity infinitely. Physical satisfaction, on the other hand, is fleeting, for once the body has been satisfied by food or drink, it is not long before the satisfaction disappears and must be reacquired.[12] Physical satisfaction is like the motion without progress, repeated over and over again. Spiritual satisfaction is the second type of motion, the motion of progress that is ever-increasing. There is a tension, though, because the Christian does in fact find fulfillment in the unlimited perfection because there is fulfillment in participating with God, and at the same time this participation leads to higher and deeper levels of participation.[13]

While Gregory greatly modifies Platonism to develop his theology of perfection, he also incorporates Aristotle’s philosophy of virtue, with a direct appropriation of Aristotle’s Golden Mean. Gregory renames it “The Royal Way” but the principle is the same: evil is found in the lack or excess of virtue. Thus, the virtue of courage is sandwiched between the vices of cowardice and rashness.[14] The road to perfection is the “narrow way” (Matthew 7:14), the Royal Way which has been “hardened and smoothed by virtue”[15] which appears to be a reference to Aristotle’s discussion of the habits of doing good.

Gregory’s emphasis on the inherent movement and progress found in perfection should not obscure the fact that he also acknowledges that perfection also has an element of stability. The pursuit of perfection is a journey, but it also includes a standing still. The stability comes from remaining steadfast in the Good.[16] Thus, Moses, while he was ascending Mount Sinai to meet with God, was also standing on a solid rock, the mountain, which is allegorically interpreted as Christ who is the cornerstone of faith.[17]

 


[1] Daniélou, From Glory to Glory: Texts From Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, 47.

 

[2] Jean Daniélou, “Le Problème Du Changement Chez Grégoire De Nysse,” Archives De Philosophie 29 (1966): 334–335.

 

[3] Daniélou, From Glory to Glory: Texts From Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, 52.

 

[4] OP J.214.

 

[5] LoM I, 6.

 

[6] OP M.260.

 

[7] OP J.213.

 

[8] OP J.181.

 

[9] LoM I,5.

 

[10] LoM II, 239.

 

[11] LoM II, 230.

 

[12] LoM II, 59-61.

 

[13] Daniélou, From Glory to Glory: Texts From Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, 62.

 

[14] LoM II, 288; compare to Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book III, chapter 10.

 

 

[15] LoM II, 290.

 

[16] LoM II, 243.

 

[17] LoM II, 248.

 

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Perfection of the Virtuous Life — On Perfection

Over the next several days, I am doing a series on Gregory of Nyssa and his doctrine of perfection as found in two of his writings: The Life of Moses, and On Perfection. The previous posts can be found here here, and here.

St. Gregory of Nyssa (eastern ortodox icon)
St. Gregory of Nyssa (eastern ortodox icon) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On Perfection uses the names of Christ found in the New Testament Epistles as a template to explore the life of Christian virtue. This path of virtue is the realization that the Christian life “must be conformed and shaped according to virtue through the manifestation of [Christ’s] names.”[1] If one is going to be called Christian, it is an admission that Jesus is the teacher and guide from whom we learn “through the determination of our lives how we should act.”[2] This is because, if we are going to take the name Christian for ourselves, we have to understand that with that name comes responsibility and the expectation that Christians will be conformed into the image of the name that they take.[3]

Thus, the Christian does two things: she imitates the characteristics of Christ that she can imitate, and she venerates those characteristics of Christ that she cannot imitate.[4] In doing so, the Christian demonstrates the power of the names of Christ and more importantly the power of Christ himself to redeem, reconcile and restore humanity to their proper place as image-bearers of God. Gregory of Nyssa explores thirteen names of Christ, and offers ways in which Christians can imitate those names, or worship those names that cannot be imitated. For example, Christ is the image of the invisible God. The Christian, then, in imitating Christ and being conformed to Christ’s image, also “becomes the invisible God’s image.”[5] By pursuing a life of virtue that imitates the absolute Virtue, the Christian will be transformed in thought, word and deed[6] and each of these are being perfected so that “the holiness praised by Paul may be constantly kept in the entire body, mind and spirit with no mixture of evil.”[7]



[1] OP M.260.

 

[2] OP J.175.

 

[3] OP J.178.

 

[4] OP J.178.

 

[5] OP J.195.

 

[6] OP M.284.

 

[7]OP J.213.

 

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Perfection of the Virtuous Life — The Life of Moses

Over the next several days, I am doing a series on Gregory of Nyssa and his doctrine of perfection as found in two of his writings: The Life of Moses, and On Perfection. The introductory post can be found here, and part two here.

St. Gregory of Nyssa (eastern ortodox icon)
St. Gregory of Nyssa (eastern ortodox icon) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Life of Moses, as the title suggests, is an allegorical interpretation of the life of Moses to demonstrate the Christian journey. Following and interpreting the events of Moses’ life gives Christians a framework for understanding the call to follow God.[1] Even though Gregory is focused on the life of Moses, he introduces and frames his analysis of Moses through the lens of Philippians 3:13:14 wherein, “that divine Apostle [Paul]…ever running the course of virtue, never ceased straining toward those things that are still to come.”[2] Moses’ life is an example of this continuous race of virtue as he walks with God and ascends to meet God on Mount Sinai. Indeed, in Gregory’s interpretation, Moses never stopped in his climb up Sinai to meet God, because “once having set foot on the ladder which God set up, he continually climbed to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because he always found a step higher than the one he had attained.”[3]

Jean Daniélou suggests that in Gregory’s writings there are three ways or paths of the Christian life.[4] While Daniélou focuses primarily on the Commentary on the Canticle of Canticles, the same pattern can be seen in The Life of Moses, so I will use his categories as I interact with this text. Moses saw God in three different ways, the first being when God revealed himself in the Burning Bush (Exodus 3). This is the “way of light” and is the way for beginners or those who have not yet encountered God. This way is marked by purification, where Moses has to take off his sandals, (“divests himself of the earthly covering”) in response to seeing “the true light and the truth itself.” This purification means that Moses (and those who encounter this first “way of light”) will be “able to help others to salvation, to destroy the tyranny which holds power wickedly, and to deliver to freedom everyone held in evil servitude.”[5]

The second way is the “way of grace.” Where the “way of light” is revelation of the knowledge of God, the “way of grace” is “an experience of His presence.”[6] In The Life of Moses this is represented by God’s guiding Moses and the people of Israel through a pillar of cloud (Exodus 13:21). God is present with Israel in their exodus and He does not abandon them.  Gregory interprets this cloud as “the grace of the Holy Spirit who guides toward the Good those who are worthy.”[7]

The third way is the “way of darkness.” This is the realization that there are limits to knowing God, and that God, though He has revealed Himself, is still incomprehensible and unknowable. This darkness, while negative, is at the same time authentic, for it “is a positive reality that helps us to know God.”[8] This “way of darkness” occurs when Moses ascends Sinai, approaching the mountain that is covered in smoke and darkness (Exodus 20:18-21). Gregory understands that it seems to be counterintuitive that God can be seen in the darkness[9] but concludes that it is in meeting God in the darkness that Moses is invited into the very presence of God, and sees the “tabernacle not made with hands”[10] which will become the template for the tabernacle that Israel is commanded to build (Exodus 25:40).



 

[1]Gregory’s use of the life of Moses as a template for understanding the spiritual life is not unique in the Patristic Period. Philo and Clement of Alexandria, for example, also used  the life of Moses as a template for their exploration and explanation of the nature of the spiritual life.

[2] LoM I, 6.

[3] LoM II, 227.

[4] Jean Daniélou, From Glory to Glory: Texts From Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, trans. Herbert Musurillo (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961), 23–32.

[5] LoM II, 26.

[6] Daniélou, From Glory to Glory: Texts From Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, 25.

[7] LoM II, 121.

[8] Daniélou, From Glory to Glory: Texts From Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, 32.

[9] LoM II, 162.

[10] LoM II, 167.

 

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Perfection of The Virtuous Life — Part Two

Over the next several days, I am doing a series on Gregory of Nyssa and his doctrine of perfection as found in two of his writings: The Life of Moses, and On Perfection. The introductory post can be found here.

St. Gregory of Nyssa (eastern ortodox icon)
St. Gregory of Nyssa (eastern ortodox icon) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Part of the difficulty when looking at Gregory of Nyssa’s doctrine of perfection is determining what contemporary theological words should be used to describe his doctrine. Is he talking about sanctification, or theosis, or both? Some current Eastern Orthodox theologians make a strong distinction between sanctification and theosis, suggesting that the terms cannot be used synonymously.[1] On the other hand, Brother Casimir chooses to use the term sanctification, rather than theosis to describe the theology in On Perfection.[2] Michael Gorman’s definition of theosis sounds like a solid definition of sanctification: “Theosis is transformative participation in the kenotic, cruciform character of God through Spirit-enabled conformity to the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected/glorified Christ.”[3] Ivan Popov suggests that perfection (or sanctification) is the moral element of theosis.[4]

I would suggest that, given that Gregory is working without developed theological systems, and, as will be seen, is the pioneer in the idea of perfection being found in change and not in stability, that Gregory’s doctrine of perfection encompasses both sanctification and glorification (theosis), and not necessarily in a progressive (sanctification leads to theosis) order. This is because, even though Gregory follows the events of Moses’ life, for example, in a chronological order, he does not absolutize this order into a “schematized progression of spiritual experience.”[5] As will be seen, because Gregory advocates for a perpetual growth that has no end, I would suggest that the term ‘perfection’ encompasses both sanctification and theosis; it is both a process that happens now and at the same time it is never-ending. For the sake of uniformity, I will endeavour to use the term “perfection” rather than sanctification or theosis.



 

[1] Vladimir Kharlamov, “Introduction” in Stephen Finlan and Vladimir Kharlamov, eds., Theosis: Deification in Christian Theology (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2006), 5.

 

[2] Brother Casimir, “Saint Gregory of Nyssa: ΠΕΡΙ ΤΕΛΕΙΟΤΗΤΟΣ – On Perfection,” 349. References to the actual text of  “On Perfection” will be cited as OP section (e.g., OP J.213)

 

[3] Michael Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Grand: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009), 7.

 

[4] Ivan Popov, “The Idea of Deification in the Early Eastern Church,” in Theosis: Deification in Christian Theology, ed. Vladimir Kharlamov, vol. 2 (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 64.

 

[5] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, 13. References to the actual text of The Life of Moses will be cited as LoM book, section (e.g., LoM II, 118).

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Perfection of the Virtuous Life — Introduction

Over the next several days, I am doing a series on Gregory of Nyssa and his doctrine of perfection as found in two of his writings: The Life of Moses, and On Perfection.

St. Gregory of Nyssa (eastern ortodox icon)
St. Gregory of Nyssa (eastern ortodox icon) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gregory of Nyssa was a 4th century bishop, and known as one of the Cappodocian Fathers (along with his brother Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nazianzus).

Broadly speaking, Gregory of Nyssa’s writings can be divided into four types: Orations (e.g., De Oratione Dominica), apologetic writings (e.g., Against Eunomius), mystical writings, and ascetical treatises. His doctrine of perfection is most clearly seen in his mystical writings and ascetical treatises. For the purpose of this blog series, we will look at one mystical writing (The Life of Moses) and one ascetical treatise (On Perfection).

This is done for several reasons. First, I could have chosen either The Life of Moses or his Commentary on the Canticle of Canticles as representative of the mystical writings, but since Canticle of Canticles also explores the life of Moses, I felt it was more beneficial to examine Gregory’s The Life of Moses.  Second, little work has been done on On Perfection, partly because a solid, complete English translation was not available until Brother Casimir’s translation in 1984, and so it has received little attention. Likewise, On Virginity could have been chosen to represent his ascetical treatises, but because it was most probably his first writing,[1] his theology of perfection is not quite as developed as it is in On Perfection.[2] Third, despite the ascetical and mystical writings having different emphases and structures, Gregory’s doctrine of perfection is similar in both The Life of Moses and On Perfection. The way in which each of these writings approach the doctrine of perfection complements each other, and answers complementary pastoral questions: “what is the perfect life?”[3] and, “how is the perfect life attained?”[4]

It is important to emphasize that these two writings are indeed pastoral in nature. Though they incorporate and interact with the philosophical thoughts of Plato and Aristotle, they are not primarily philosophical treatises, but are instead pastoral treatises. The answer to these two pastoral questions is the sum of Gregory’s doctrine of perfection. Simply put, a perfect life is one in which Christians pursue virtue and practice virtue because God is absolute Virtue. This practice of virtue is in response to what Christ has done, and Christians are transformed and reflect the virtue of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. This process is a journey, an ascent to God, a race that must never cease. It should be noted that, in Gregory’s exploration of the nature of the perfect life, he does not address the specific disciplines through which perfection can be attained. He does not write about how or when to pray, read Scripture, or how various other disciplines could or should be employed in the pursuit of perfection. Instead, Gregory’s treatises focus on the “moral qualities” of someone who follows God.[5]



 

[1] Brother Casimir, “Saint Gregory of Nyssa: ΠΕΡΙ ΤΕΛΕΙΟΤΗΤΟΣ – On Perfection,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 29 (1984): 350.

 

[2] The exact chronology of Gregory’s writings is unknown, but it appears that after the Council of Constantinople in 381, Gregory had more time to write, largely because he was now “freed from administrative burdens and the heat of theological controversy.” Daniélou, Glory to Glory, 9.

 

 

[3] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978),I, 2.

 

[4] Brother Casimir, “Saint Gregory of Nyssa: ΠΕΡΙ ΤΕΛΕΙΟΤΗΤΟΣ – On Perfection,” J.173.

 

[5] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 11.

 

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Sunday Meditation


Let every faithful man and woman, when they have risen from sleep in the morning, before they touch any work at all, wash their hands and pray to God, and so go to their work. But if instruction in the word of God is given, each one should choose to go to that place, reckoning in his heart that it is God whom he hears in the instructor.

For he who prays in the church will be able to pass by the wickedness of the day. He who is pious should think it a great evil if he does not go to the place where instruction is given, and especially if he can read, or if a teacher comes. Let none of you be late in the church, the place where teaching is given.

Then it shall be given to the speaker to say that is useful to each one; you will hear things which you do not think of, and profit from things which the Holy Spirit will give you through the instructor. In this way your faith will be strengthened about the things you have heard. You will also be told in that place what you ought to do at home. Therefore let each one be diligent in coming to the church, the place where the holy Spirit flourishes. ~ Hippolytus, ‘Of the Time When One Ought To Pray’

The Never-Ending Race of Virtue

In the Life of Moses, Gregory writes in response to the question: What is the perfect life?

Even though he will explore the question by using Moses as a template for the pursuit of a virtuous life, he actually starts his treatise with a reflection on Philippians 3:13-14 because “that divine Apostle, great and lofty in understanding, ever running the course of virtue, never ceased straining toward those things that are still to come.” (I, 5)

For Gregory, perfection comes in the process, which is quite different from the neoplatonism of his day, that understood perfection as fixed and unchanging. And because the process is what is important, Gregory argues that the pursuit of virtue can never cease in this lifetime. It is an infinite process without end in this life. For each time a new level of virtue is reached, the Christian looks on the horizon and sees that she hasn’t reached the end, but that there is indeed more to pursue.

Not only that, if a Christian stops pursuing virtue it does not mean that she has merely stopped, but, in fact, she has traded one race for another:

“Just as the end of life is the beginning of death, so also stopping in the race of virtue marks the beginning of the race of evil.” (I, 6)

This is because God is himself absolute virtue (I, 7), and so the pursuit of virtue is participation in God. To abandon this pursuit is to abandon God.

Sunday Meditation

Therefore, he who has assumed Christ’s name—who is wisdom and power—and shares this name by reason of power, fights valiantly against sin and will manifest wisdom in himself by choosing the good. When wisdom and power are manifested in us by choosing the good and by strengthening its perception, the perfection of life is achieved as composed by these two elements. By thus understanding Christ as peace, we will manifest the true name of Christian if we show Christ in our life by his peace: he destroyed the enemy, as the Apostle says (Eph 2.14). Therefore, let none of us give life to this enemy in ourselves, but let us show his death in our lives.

Gregory of Nyssa, On Perfection.

#mutuality2012 Evidence For Ordained Women in the Patristic Period

Rachel Held Evans is hosting a week of mutuality on her blog. As part of this synchroblog event, I will be doing two things: One, I will be highlighting posts that I have written on the subject; and two, Leslie Keeney over at The Ruthless Monk and I will be posting about encouraging women to attend this year’s ETS annual conference that is coming up in the fall. We want to write about this now so that people have plenty of time to prepare and plan to come.

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A phenomenal book that should be on the shelf of every one who studies the role of women in the church is Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History by Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek. This book looks at all the available documentation in the first six hundred years of the church and finds references to female deacons and presbyters in both the church in the East and West.

Madigan and Osiek argue that though the vast majority of ordained women were ordained to the office of deacon or deaconess, there is evidence of female presbyters in the early church. Indeed, “what can be said with certainty is that the claim that women never functioned as presbyters in the “orthodox” church is simply untrue.” (9). Prior to outlining all of the references to ordained women, Madigan and Osiek ask the question, what did the early Church say about these NT texts that suggest that women were in leadership roles in the NT church? So, in regards to the Romans 16 passage that mentions Phoebe the deacon, the authors compile commentary on this passage from Origen, John Chrysostom, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Ambrosiaster and Pelagius.

And once we get into the Patristic writings, the conclusion is that, just like today, it’s complicated. While evidence for female presbyters is rare, it is not non-existent, and in some cases not enough evidence has survived to tell us exactly how or to what extent women participated in leadership roles.

Some interesting tidbits:

* Tertullian speaks out against women performing baptisms, suggesting that some communities were allowing women to preside over baptismal rites. Likewise, the Apostolic Constitutions (early 3rd century) specifically condemns women performing baptism, arguing that for a woman to preside over the rite is “perilous, rather uncustomary, and irreverent.” (AC 3.9.1) But at the same time, deaconesses were called to participate in the baptism of women “for the sake of decency” (AC 8.28.6) This is probably required because there is evidence that, in the early church, catechumens were baptized naked!

* For some reason, ordained female deacons are found almost solely in East and not in the West until the 5th century, and when the office of female deacons in the West does begin to appear it is usually in relationship to monastic orders.

* In 441 the Council of Orange decreed that women were no longer to be ordained as deacons: “if there are any who have already been ordained, let them submit their heads to the benediction that is granted to the laity.” The Second Council of Orleans in 533 reiterates this ban on female ordination: “It has been decided that, from now on, no women may be given the diaconal benediction on account of the fragility of their sex.” This seems to suggest that the edict forbidding female ordination was ignored, and that churches were continuing to ordain women.

* The Testamentum Domini (4th or 5th century) offers some clues as to the roles of female presbyters: “For the female presbyters we pray…” (TD 1.35) “Let the female presbyters remain with the bishop until the dawn, praying and resting.” (TD 2.19) Madigan and Osiek make this observation about female presbyters in the TD: “In a context such as this, presbyterae could simply be translated ‘elderly women’ but their special role alongside the bishop suggests a special status and role…they are found in prayer, their primary responsibility.” (pg. 158)

* Several funeral inscriptions denote specific women as presbyters. “The term for presbyter could mean simply older women, but this is unlikely in a tomb commemoration, where functional and honorary titles are used.” (170)

* In a letter written to Ambrose, Atto, Bishop of Vercelli in the early 10th century assumes or has knowledge of women having been leaders in church in the 4th century: Citing Romans 16, “Here it is understood that not only men but also women presided over the churches because of their great usefulness…We believe women were enjoined to the office of baptizing so that the bodies of other women might be handled by them without any deeply felt sense of shame just as those who were called female presbyters assumed the office of preaching, leading and teaching, so female deacons had taken up the office of ministry and of baptizing, a custom that no longer is expedient.”