Volpe on Sin, Hope and Desire for God

However else we may want to describe sin, it signals a failure of hope. (p.233)

This is a beautiful line from toward the end of Medi Ann Volpe’s Rethinking Christian Identity: Doctrine and Discipleship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). In discussing Gregory of Nyssa’s theology of desire for God, she notes that the fundamental nature of sin–‘ontological sin,’ to use the technical term–is desiring created things rather than God (as, too, for Augustine). To desire what God has made over and above God himself is a turning away from God to lesser things; it is, in other words, to give up hope on what is greatest and to settle for ultimately unsatisfying realities. God wills to be had: he gives himself to us in Christ by his Spirit. Yet our sinfulness consists precisely in failing to hope that such infinite goodness could be ours.

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John Chrysostom on 1 Corinthians 1:21

To round off my set of posts on the history of exegesis of this verse, let’s look at John Chrysostom (c.347-407), an important Greek theologian at the height of the patristic era. His comments are, well, beautiful:

In what appears in his works: it is through these that God wanted to be known. For this reason God made these impressive creatures, in order that by drawing connections from what is visible, him who made them would be admired. The heavens are great, and the earth–how boundless! So admire the one who has made them. For even this great reality not only came into existence by him, but even with ease, and this boundless earth also was led into being as if nothing. For this reason, it says concerning this, “The heavens are the works of your fingers” (Ps. 8:3), and about the earth, “He made the earth as nothing” (Isaiah 40:23).  Since, therefore, the world did not want to come to know God through this wisdom, through what they considered to be the foolishness of the message, God was pleased to save the world, not through reasoning, but through faith. So it is that where there is the wisdom of God, there is no more need of human wisdom. (PG61: 32)

John Chrysostom begins in the same way as most commentators, by talking of the wisdom God wrote into the visible creation, the things he made. Through these, he says, we could come to know God “by drawing connections” (ἀναλόγως) from creatures to the Creator. However, we did not in fact make the proper connections–we did not, John argues, “want” to get to know God this way. Instead, we fell into ignorance and idolatry, worshipping creatures as if they were the Creator. So God decided to bring the saving knowledge of himself to the world another way, not by arguments from the nature of creation, but through the faith that comes by the preaching of the Word. Thus, human wisdom is rendered null and void, needless.

(You might also be interested in comparing these reflections with those of Sedulius ScotusTheophylact of Ohrid, Thomas AquinasNicholas of Lyra, or Heinrich Bullinger.)

Origen on 1 Corinthians

As part of my thesis, I’m looking at Origen’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 1-2. Unfortunately, the commentary only survives to us in fragments. Since no complete English translation has yet been published (there are bits and pieces translated in this book and this book), I’ve translated the section I’m using: fragments 1.5 – 11, on 1 Cor. 1:14 – 2:15. If you’re interested, you can take a look at it here (.pdf).

Here’s a snippet:

Therefore, “God chose the foolish things of the world, in order that he may shame the wise” (1:27)—not those who are wise full-stop, but those who are so in the world’s estimation. He says, “God choose the foolish things of the world, in order that he may shame the wise” of the world. For the wise of the world are truly shamed when they pray to idols, and “the unlettered and simple” (Acts 4:13) would die so as to not worship these idols. (fr. 1.8)

Maximus the Confessor on “the Grace of Theology”

When the intellect practices the virtues correctly, it advances in moral understanding. When it practices contemplation, it advances in spiritual knowledge… Finally, the intellect is granted the grace of theology when, carried on wings of love beyond these two former stages, it is taken up into God and with the help of the Holy Spirit discerns—as far as this is possible for the human intellect—the qualities of God.

If you are about to enter the realm of theology, do not seek to descry God’s inmost nature, for neither the human intellect nor that of any other being under God can experience this; but try to discern, as far as possible, the qualities that appertain to His nature—qualities of eternity, infinity, indeterminateness, goodness, wisdom, and the power of creating, preserving and judging creatures, and so on. For he who discovers these qualities, to however small an extent, is a great theologian.

— Maximus the Confessor, Four Centuries on Love 2.25-26, in The Philokalia, vol. 2, 69.

Augustine on the Resurrection

The earthly material, then, from which mortal flesh is created does not die for God; but in whatever dust or ash it is scattered, in whichever vapour and wind it is dispersed, into whatever other substantial body or the elements themselves it is changed, into whatever animal and also human food it may pass and flesh it may be changed, to this human soul it returns, in an instant of time, as that which it was originally, in order that the person may come forth living, being revived. (Enchiridion 23.88)

Non autem perit Deo terrena materies de qua mortalium creatur caro; sed in quemlibet pulverem cineremve solvatur, in quoslibet halitus aurasque diffugiat, in quamcumque aliorum corporum substantiam vel in ipsa elementa vertatur, in quorumcumque animalium etiam hominum cibum cedat carnemque mutetur, illi animae humanae puncto temporis redit quae illam primitus, ut homo fieret cresceret viveret, animavit.

Pseudo-Epiphanius, “Second Homily on the Resurrection”

I’ve been wanting to translate something from the Fathers, so I picked this short homily. It’s unclear who actually wrote it, because although ascribed to a “Saint Epiphanius, bishop,” it was composed a century or two after the life of Epiphanius of Salamis (d.403). But it has some classic marks of a patristic work: the love of paradox–“They hung him who hung the earth” (4)–and a strong doctrine of the descent into hell (9). For how short it is, it’s actually quite interesting. It’s not a perfect translation, but feel free to give it a read here. Oh, also I’m pretty sure this has never appeared in English before, which makes me feel special. (Though that’s probably called pride.)

St. Athanasius on Victory over Death

I’m quickly coming to love St. Athanasius’ theology. This is from his On the Incarnation of the Word–I’ll highlight my favourite bits:

A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead. Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection. But that devil who of old wickedly exulted in death, now that the pains of death are loosed, he alone it is who remains truly dead. There is proof of this too; for men who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, once they are converted despise it so completely that they go eagerly to meet it, and themselves become witnesses of the Savior’s resurrection from it. Even children hasten thus to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing robbed of all its strength. Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot the passers-by sneer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, “O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?” (On the Incarnation, ch.5, §27)