The uniquely graced Man

It has been a while since I wrote concerning Grace and Christology. It is about time I picked it up.


Salvation as Elevation

We have seen in my previous post that Fairbairn detects two ideas about salvation which have a direct impact on christology. It is here that Nestorius of Constantinople and Theodore of Mopsuestia appear to be birds of a feather.

Both men espouse what  I call a two-act salvation scheme: they see humanity’s natural condition as one of mortality and imperfection and view salvation as an advance to a higher, perfect state. Furthermore they see salvation not so much as an elevation to divine life but rather as  progress towards perfect human life, and this allows them to adopt a christology that distinguishes sharply between the Logos and the assumed man. What binds this two-act salvation scheme and a divisive christology together is Theodore’s and Nestorius’ concept of grace, and idea driven by the belief that God gives people those gifts (power, aid, and cooperation) that they will need in order to advance from the age of mortality to that of perfection. The relation between the assumed man and the Logos is a special case of the grace by which God interacts with people in general: God the Logos gives that man the power and co-operation he needs to be our pioneer in the march to the perfect age.

Donald Fairbairn, Grace and Christology, p. 28.

The idea that grace consists merely of help, or aid, from above allows a sharp distinction between “the assumed man” an the “Logos” because there is no necessary union between God and creature. If salvation consists first and foremost of the unification or at-one-ment a sharp distinction becomes impossible. After all, unification and division are opposites! Unifaction – or deification – does not exclude divine aid or help from above, but it begins the idea of salvation from a very different starting point with very different results. In other words the deified creature can (and does) receive help and aid from God but this help and aid do not form the essence of what salvation is. Salvation is not an elevation from a lower to a higher state – from the First to the Second Katastasis.


The two Katastases

Theodore’s theology begins by postulating two ages or katastases. The First Age is one of mutability, corruption, sin, and death. The Second Age is characterized by immutability, incorruption, perfection, and life). Salvation consists in moving from the first to the second Age. For Theodore the “new creature” – strictly speaking – belongs to the second Age and cannot exist in the first. This seems to be the point he makes in Hom. Cat. 10. 17 “It is this Church [of “new creatures”] that he [Paul] calls the body of Christ; it receives communion with him symbolically in this world [First Age] through the regeneration of baptism, but in the world to come [Second Age], that communion will be present truly and effectively.” The two ages are sharply distinguished. Baptism begins the journey to a reality not yet given. Baptism does not a new creature make! Baptism is merely the starting point for a mutable, corruptible creature which will only achieve immutability and incorruptibility – the new creation – at some point in the future.

This may seem close to how we commonly conceive of Baptism. But the appearance is deceptive. A Catholic and Orthodox theology requires that the believer who is baptized is from Baptism onward already a new creation. There is no sharp distinction between present and future. What is given truly and effectively in this age in Baptism will be concluded in the age to come. This means that the foundation of Theodoran theology (two sharply distinguished ages) conflicts with a sacramental and (therefore) Christian worldview.

The First Age and the Fall

Only in the first Age is sin a possibility. Sin requires mutability and since the second Age is characterized by immutability there can also be no sin. But can we speak of a “fall into sin” in Theodore’s scheme of the two katastases?

Sin had first to be removed, since it was the cause of death, and then death had to be nullified along with it. But if sin were not removed, we would necessarily remain in mortality, and we would sin because of our mutability; and if we sinned we would again be under punishment, and the power of death would consequently continue.

Theodore of Mopsuestia, Hom. Cat. 5. 10. 

The above sounds like Theodore is saying that humanity fell from an original condition where sin is absent, to the present state and that the future age will return us to a state of sinlesness. Such a conception of salvation seems to imply a three-fold structure of salvation and would conflict fundamentally with the two katastases scheme we have seen in Theodore above. Or does it?

In this way the body would be free from death and corruption. Now this could happen if Christ first made the soul immutable and delivered it from the impulses of sin, so that by acquiring immutability we became free from sin. Indeed, the abolition of sin would effect the abolition of death, our bodies could continue indissoluble and incorruptible.

Theodore of Mopsuestia, Hom. Cat. 5. 11. 

Sin and mutability, as Theodore sees it, are not so much the result of turning away from God, rather, sin is the result of an innate (natural) mutability. In other words the creature does not fall from a state of perfection to a state of mutability and sin, but is created mutable and consequently sins. This means that sin is a natural part of the creature in the First Age. Christ saves the soul from sin not by returning it to the state from which it had fallen, but by making the soul immutable. Mutability is characteristic of he First Age, and therefore, so is sin. To put it clearly: mutability and sin are a natural result of creation. Such an idea, as should be obvious, is very different from the Catholic and Orthodox view of creation, fall and salvation. Theodore’s theology can fittingly be described as a two-act salvation scheme.

Richard A. Norris and God’s Foreknowledge

An attempt has been made to reconcile the conflict we arrived at above. R. A. Norris (and if memory serves, Archpriest John Behr from Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary) tells us that mortality is chronologically prior to sin, but that theologically sin is necessarily prior to mortality. God foreknew mankind would sin and created them accordingly. This means that mortality is both an inheritance from Adam as well as a consequence of  “the sin of Adam” which each earns for himself because each commits it for himself. Whether or not this presentation of things hold any theological water does not matter in our consideration of Theodore all that much. To Theodore, as we have seen, the Second Age is a higher condition and precisely not a restoration to a previous state. So even if – as seems probable to me – Norris’ suggestion concerning foreknowledge has considerable merit, it does not salvage Theodoran thought for Christianity.

To be continued.

Grace and Christology in the Early Church

It is fitting that a blog called “On First Principles” should deal with such principles. This blog has been in existence for almost a decade and I have never figured out what to do with it. But today will perhaps bring some much needed clarity. The first principle of Christian life is JESUS CHRIST. Over the past 10 years I have moved away from some of the basics my old professor at Seminary (Archpriest John Behr) taught me. One thing, however, remains. Maybe even two things.

Christian theology is an answer to the question posed by our Lord “He [Jesus] saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?” (Matthew 16, 15) The answer is to be found in the Scriptures which testify of Him (the Bible). Three creeds can be found which enshrine “The Rule of Faith” of the earliest Church that gave us the Scriptures and taught us how to read them. They are the Apostles Creed (recited multiple times per day), the Nicene Creed (recited at least weekly at the Sunday Mass), and the Athanasian Creed recited monthly in the Book of Common Prayer, but almost daily in St. John Mason Neale’s Breviary Offices).


Christological and Anthropological Grace

In a tightly argued and well researched book Donald Fairbairn has investigated the answer to our Lord’s question above. He does not so much answer the question, as investigate the answer given to it by the early Church. He does so by focusing his attention on three main figures of Church history: 1. Theodore of Mopsuestia, 2. Cyril of Alexandria, and 3. John Cassian. The result of this research is this 288 page tour de force of Christology.

In the first of seven chapters Fairbairn sets the stage for his topic. He first needs to look at grace a bit differently than we are used to. We are introduced to two kinds of grace: anhtropological and christological:nativity

By christological grace, I mean the issue of what (or whom) God gives people through the incarnation and atoning work of Christ. By anthropological grace, I mean the issue of how God leads us to receive and to retain this gift.

~ Donald Fairbairn, Grace and Christology in the Early Church, p. 13.

Anthroplogical grace, as Fairbairn says, has to do with the gift of freedom bestowed upon human beings at their creation and how this relates to the gifts of faith and perseverance that God gives in salvation. Here we enter the debates between – for example – Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants concerning synergism and monergism. In this book this aspect of grace is left to one side in order to focus on what we have called christological grace. The latter is concerned with what or whom Jesus Christ actually gives the Christian what we call salvation.

Thus there was a question of whether grace consisted of Christ’s giving the Christian power, aid, and assistance in reaching that perfect human condition, or whether God gave the believer participation in his own immortality and incorruption.

~ Fairbairn, Grace and Christology, 14.

As we shall see in a moment these two ways of looking at (christological) grace are related to what Fairbairn calls “the structure of salvation” as well as to who or what a particular author thinks Jesus Christ really is.


Cyril, Cassian, & Theodore

It is not hard to see why Fairbairn has chosen Cyril for a study on the Christology of the early Church. If you do have difficulties seeing it perhaps you ought to stop reading here and brush up on your knowledge concerning the “Nestorian Controversy.” Without a basic grasp of this conflict in the early Church much of what this book will argue is going Johncassianto go way over your head.

St. Cyril of Alexandria has been the subject of a great many studies and his importance in the christological debates of the early Church is indisputable. Whether one finds him an attractive character or whether one agrees with him or not is another matter. For Cyril’s thought on the matter of christological grace – even if he did not know the term – Fairbairn asserts that it can be argued that for Cyril “Christ is grace (p. 15).” It is also a fact that Cyril’s teaching on the person and nanture(s) of Jesus Christ are the touchstone of orthodox and catholic theology East and West. He is a doctor of the Church in both traditions primarily for his christological teaching. It is quite fitting therefore that the first axis of the book is St. Cyril of Alexandria.

The second axis of the book is St. John Cassian and Fairbairn admits this may be a bit more difficult to justify. It would seem that the great teachers of the Church in the West to turn to would be St. Augustine and perhaps especially St. Leo the Great whose Tome was read and accepted at Chalcedon as conveying Cyril’s doctrine. So, why Cassian? For three reasons: 1. Cassian is the only one in the West to have contributed a work against Nestorius during the Nestorian Controversy. He was asked to do so by St. Leo the Great. Though it would, perhaps, have been a more evident course of action for Leo to have commissioned such a polemics from St. Augustine since the much respected Bishop and doctor was still alive at the time. 2. Cassian is not an Augustine, lacking the Augustinian orginality and thus more lilely to represent what “the choir was singing rather than the soloist (p. 16).” Bringing Augustine into this study may overwhelm other voices. 3. There has been no serious engagement of Cassian’s christological work in the twentieth century and is therefore long overdue.

The third character to play a major role in this study is Theodore of Mopsuestua. Again some justification may be necessary since, after all, we are chiefly dealing with what has been called “the Nestorian Controversy” and not the “Theodoran Controversy.” Nestorius is famous for having denied that the Blessed Virgin Mary is Theotokos (Mother of God). The logic behind such denial is that God cannot be born from His creature. Nestorius is also known to have written a lengthy – if repetitive – tome in defense of himself and his doctrine. It is also against Nestorius that Cyril and Cassian address their polemic.  It would seem that Nestorius is a much more natural place to look for the christology opposed by both Cyril and Cassian.

All of this can be granted readily. Yet Nestorius is mostly repeating the doctrine taught to him by Theodore without really explaining the depth of it. That is to say Nestorius writes a lot about prosopic union but remarkably little about how this relates to grace (though he does presuppose it). To understand how Nestorian christology relates to grace in its christlogical sense one needs to consult the writings of his teacher: Theodore of Mopsuestia. The purpose of Fairbairn’s study is after all to study christological grace.


Two Structures of Salvation

The final major theme mentioned by Fairbairn in the first chapter concerns salvation. Salvation can be construed in two basic ways: 1. as an act of restoration, or 2. as an act of elevation. The first way of thinking about salvation presupposes – as it were – salvation to be a play consisting of three acts. The first act is that of the creation of humanity in a “state of grace.” The second act in this play is the fall from grace into sin and its consequences. The third act, salvation as such, is the restoration of fallen humanity into its original condition. Fairbairn summarizes:

This way of understanding salvation, then, sees the key acts or movements as creation, fall, and restoration.

Fairbairn, Grace and Christology, p. 18.

The second way to conceive of salvation is as a play consisting of two acts. The original condition of humanity is not so much perfection (state of grace) as it is a condition of imperfection demanding development and completion. Or as Fairbairn says “opportunity.” Humanity is created to attain a state of perfection – state of grace – and it will do so under the guidance of God. There is growth from imperfection to perfection so as to almost exclude any notion of a fall and restoration. Again in the words of Fairbairn:

This scheme sees the key acts as creation and elevation.

Fairbairn, Grace and Christology, p. 18.

The contrast between these two views of salvation has now become clear. These views have a direct impact on how its adherents view Jesus Christ. In other words the way a patristic era author conceives of salvation is directly related to his christology. As the study proceeds it will become clear that those authors tending toward the three act scheme of salvation tend to have a Cyrillian christology, and those who conceive of salvation as a two act play tend toward a Nestorian christology. Once the study begins to treat Cassian it will become clear that – in spite of appearances – Cassian’s soteriology is very much a three act play impacting his christology so as to be basically Cyrillian. Grace and Christology are closely related.

Fr. Gregory Wassen

Praktike & Commandments

CHRISTIANITY is the teaching of our Savior Christ consisting of [:]

  1. ascetical practice,
  2. the [contemplation of] nature,
  3. and theology.

Ascetical practice or praktike  entails “the fulfillment of the commandents” (Praktikos 81, KG 1.10 in Ilaria Ramelli’s translation). The first thing about Christianity is to do what God tells you to do. This is not much different from what St. Benedict recommends from the very beginning of his monastic rule: “listen” which means not simply hearing but obediently perform what one is told. The Holy Rule is contained in between two words: “listen” and “arrive” and in between these words stands the “fulfilling of God’s commandments.” All three stages or elements involve knowledge. For Evagrius the concept of knowledge is central. He connects it to salvation. As Ramelli comments: “Knowledge helps virtue, and virtue helps knowledge. This is why Evagrius states that knowledge leads to salvation, and this is also why demons oppose this process (Kephalaia Gnosica, transl. by Ilaria Ramelli, p. 13 Kindle edition).”

And thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest: * for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;

To give knowledge of salvation unto his people, * for the remission of their sins.

Office of Lauds, Canticle (Lk. 1 9-10), Monastic Diurnal, p. 42.

The practical guidance provided in the Rule of Benedict is an example of what form the “commandments” can take. Now it is not merely knowing what these commandments are and performing hem though. As Evagrius warns the demons fiercely oppose the performance of these commandments. This, however, is where we meet another aspect of what praktike is for and what sort of salvific knowledge the practitioner gains.

As the demons oppose the fulfilling of the commandments they try to find a foothold within us. The myriad of footholds are all subsumed under the eight logismoi (which in St. Gregory the Great’s hands will become the 7 deadly sins) or eight “tempting thoughts.” These are the passions, or weaknesses within us that the demons can exploit in their attempt to lure us away from the commandments into sin. But in this strugle we can become aware of our weaknesses, we can diagnose them, and they can be exposed and cured! This deeper insight or knowledge of where the demons and the weakness of out nature intersect is salvific if we use this knowledge to apply God’s medicine of saving grace. We can crucify our flesh, nailing our passions to the Cross, and see our lives transformed by the power of the Cross. That is is the real work of praktike to be crucified with Jesus Christ so that we may also rise with Him.

As we continue our journey with Evagrius by means of The Praktikos we will meet this idea again and again. We will have many more opportunities to delve deeper into these teachings and how we can live them.

Fr. Gregory Wasen

The Conceptual Content of Satisfaction

Cur Deus Homo in short

To find out where the Rule and Cur Deus Homo meet we will need to look at the concept of satisfaction again. In the Cur Deus Homo we have seen that:

  1. Sin consists in not rendering to God what is due him (Cur Deus Homo, I, 11).
  2. Nothing can be added or subtracted from God’s honor in-itself (Cur Deus Homo, I, 15).
  3. This disturbance is repaired either by satisfaction or punishment (Cur Deus Homo, I, 15).
  4. It is repaired by punishment when God exacts a penalty upon the unwilling/unrepentant sinner (Cur Deus Homo, I, 14 & I, 15).
  5. It is repaired by satisfaction when the sinner willingly repays (Cur Deus Homo, I, 16).
  6. The satisfaction offered must be supereregatory (Cur Deus Homo, I, 11).

This quick refresher in Anselmian thought should enable us to recognize where the Holy Rule and the Cur Deus Homo meet and here the one fertilizes the other.

The Holy Rule in short

It should be noted that the Holy Rule is not a theological treatise. It is a monastic rule of life. We should not expect Benedict to theologize as elaborately as Anselm in Cur Deus Homo. Still we have seen that satisfaction entails the following:

  1. Satisfacere concerns the monk at fault (RB, 11, 13; 43, 12; 44, 8-9; 46, 3; 71, 8 for example).
  2. Satisfaction in one way or another occurs 17 times in the Rule (see Mansini).
  3. Offence can be given to God or fellow monastics (RB, 9, 7; 11, 3; 11, 13; 16, 2; 18, 24
  4. Satisfaction takes place in the sphere of personal relationships and must be fitting (RB 24, 1-3; 44; 43; 45; 71 etc).
  5. Satisfaction is distinct from punishment (RB 5, 19).
  6. Satisfaction must be supereregatory (the satisfaction requires more than simply resuming to do what should have been done in the first place; prostration comes to mind).

There seem to be certain points of overlap and a deeper reading into the Holy Rule and Cur Deus Homo will make its Benedictine provenance even more evident (Obedience, Honor, and Order can also be shown to derive from The Rule rather than presumed feudalism).

Four Points where Cur Deus Homo & the Holy Rule meet

There are four points where satisfaction in the Holy Rule and Cur Deus Homo actually meet:

  1. Satisfaction concerns the personal relational sphere.
  2. Satisfaction must be fitting.
  3. Satisfaction is willingly given because punishment is reserved for the unwilling. Iow satisfaction is distinct from punishment.
  4. Satisfaction must be supereregatory.

This is not to say that Anselm was immune to the society in which he lived. Far from it. But since it was a decidedly Benedictine society the feudal link is far from the only possible, and certainly not the least problematic one. Recent scholarship has called into question the very existence of “feudalism” whereas other research which does believe some form of feudalism existed places it long after Anselm’s death. The easiest way to understand Anselm’s theory of satisfaction is to approach it from the very source that Anselm himself drank from very deeply: the Holy Rule of St. Benedict.

Fr. Gregory Wassen

Satisfaction in “Cur Deus Homo?”

Bad Anselm

The very name Anselm of Canterbury leaves a bad taste in many peoples mouths today. This is because Anselm has been associated with what has been called “the satisfaction theory of the atonement. So what is this satisfaction theory? A short description from the Theopedia defines it as follows:

The Satisfaction (or Commercial) theory of the atonement was formulated by the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) in his book, Cur Deus Homo (lit. ‘Why the God Man’). In his view, God’s offended honor and dignity could only be satisfied by the sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ.

Anslem believed that humans could not render to God more than what was due to him. The satisfaction due to God was greater than what all created beings are capable of doing, since they can only do what is already required of them. Therefore, God had to make satisfaction for himself. Yet if this satisfaction was going to avail for humans, it had to be made by a human. Therefore only a being that was both God and man could satisfy God and give him the honor that is due him.

The classic Anselmian formulation of the Satisfaction View needs to be distinguished from Penal Substitution. Penal Substitution states that Christ bore the penalty for sin, in place of those sinners united to him by faith. Anselm, by contrast, regarded human sin as defrauding God of the honour he is due. Christ’s death, the ultimate act of obedience, gives God great honour. As it was beyond the call of duty for Christ, it is more honour than he was obliged to give. Christ’s surplus can therefore repay our deficit. Hence Christ’s death is substitutionary in this sense: he pays the honour instead of us. But that substitution is not penal; his death pays our honour not our penalty.

The Protestant reformers shifted the focus of this satisfaction theory to concentrate not merely on divine offense but on divine justice. God’s righteousness demands punishment for human sin. God in his grace both exacts punishment and supplies the one to bear it.

This is an important difference. For Anselm, Christ obeyed where we should have obeyed; for John Calvin, he was punished where we should have been punished.


This is a good place to begin understanding, and appreciating, Anselm’s soteriology. The attentive reader will already have picked up on the similarities between satisfaction as described above and that of St. Benedict’s Rule. The distinction made above between punishment (penal substitution theory) and satisfaction theory (Anselm, but also the Rule of St. Benedict) is very important. I think it would be true to say that in Anselmian thought we are not saved from God but we are saved by the God-man: Jesus Christ. In penal substitution we are saved by God but also from God. But still satisfaction theory makes the atonement a transaction of divine financing and Anselm is responsible for this misconstruction of the atonement.

Bad Anselm!

Rectitude, essence, and reference to God

Anselm is a Platonist. To provide some context to the argument in Cur Deus Homo we need to take this into account. In Platonism things are what they are because of their “essence” or “form.” A circle is a circle because it participates in the form (essence) of “circle-ness. A human being is a human being because he participates in human-ness, etc. Ever since St. Augustine of Hippo these “essences” or “forms” have been considered to exist in the “mind of God.” All things to be what they are must therefore be oriented toward God. That is to be a circle the circle must participate in circleness which exists in the mind of God. The same is true for human beings. The proper participation and orientation Anselm calls “rectitude.” To be rectitudinous is therefore simply to be what one “ought to be.”

Now human beings, unlike circles, are able to make choice and to (in a sense) lessen their participation in human-ness and thereby and to that extent turn away from God. This is what sin is. By sin we fail to be rectitudinous. Sin results in a distortion of the created order and therefore in a lack of rectitude. This disrupts the relationship of the created world with its Creator and needs to be addressed.

Satisfaction and salvation

According to Anselm sin “consists in not rendering to God what is due him” (G. Mansini, “St. Anselm, Satisfactio, and the Rule of St. Benedict,” p. 103). Anselm explains this to Boso in Cur Deus Homo? Bk. I chapter 11 (scroll down). Sin results in the disruption of the order and beauty of the universe. This order and beauty is God’s honor and it is “external to God” because:

… it is evident that no one can honor or dishonor God as he is in himself; but someone seems to do so, to the extent that he can, when he subjects his will to the will of God or withdraws it from the will of God.

Cur Deus Homo, Bk. I, Chapter 15 (Jasper Hopkins translation).

This an important point. Previously Anselm had said that it is God’s honor which is offended and that requires either punishment or satisfaction. Here, upon being asked, Anselm further refines what this offended honor is. It appears that it is not so much that God had his divine toes stepped on and is now furious with the offender. Rather it seems to be the case that the divine order and beauty of creation has been disrupted. That the orientation toward God has been knocked out of whack and has become dis-oriented. It is this which prevents God and sinful creatures to relate as they ought. The problem is not that God has flown into a fit of murderous rage to be cooled in murdering his innocent Son on the Cross. That idea is the result of simply failing to read what Anselm is actually saying. In fact, it seems to me, most people repeating this horrible narrative have simply failed to pay close enough attention to Anselm’s argument (if they have read him at all ! ).

The disrupted order must be restored. Anselm believes that this restoration takes the form of human beings (that are saved) taking the place left open by the angels who had fallen (following Satan’s rebellion). How is this restoration to take place? Either by punishment (Curd Deus Homo?, Bk. I chapter 14) or by satisfaction (Cur Deus Homo?, Bk I, chapter 16 & 19). But simply offering God what is due to him is not enough. Satisfaction must be supereregatory: satisfaction must consist in giving back more than what is already owed. In other words: it is not enough to simply say sorry. After all, “sorry,” does nothing to restore or repair. Restoration requires “undoing” the evil that was done. This undoing is not in the power of a human being to perform and necessitates the God-man. Since man owns the problem God cannot (externally) do away with the problem (it violates God’s nature to do so). God must become  man and from the inside out and clean up the mess we had made.

Next we will take a look at the conceptual content of Anselmian “satisfaction” and how it corresponds to the concept of “satisfaction” in the Rule of Benedict.

[to be continued]

Fr. Gregory Wassen


Praktikos 1-3


The Praktikos is perhaps one of the most famous and popular works of Evagrius of Pontus. There are good reasons for this. Evagrius writes in such a way that engagement with his books can sustain steady spiritual growth over a very long time. To really “read” one of Evagrius’ works is to receive spiritual guidance from one of the Church’s most accomplished spiritual masters of all time. The failure to receive guidance from Evagrius is not usually on his part but on ours. To receive spiritual guidance for spiritual growth one needs to learn to “listen” and it is precisely this listening that is so fundamental to the Father of Western Monasticism: Benedict of Nursia. Let us, whether monastics or not, listen to Evagrius.

Praktikos 1 – 3

The online translation of Evagrius’ Praktikos by Fr. Luke Dysinger Osb translates the first three “chapters” or “sentences” as follows:

  1. CHRISTIANITY is the teaching of our Savior Christ consisting of [:] ascetical practice, the [contemplation of] nature, and theology.

  2. THE Kingdom of Heaven is apatheia (dispassion) of the soul together with true knowledge of beings.

  3. THE Kingdom of God is knowledge of the Holy Trinity, coextensive with the capacity of the nous (mind/intellect) but surpassing it in incorruptibility.

The first thing to notice is that even though Evagrius begins this book with three definitions he does not offer a definition of praktike. In other words he declines to define the primary subject – after which the book is named – of the book. This is an interesting move and should not go unnoticed. In writing a book on spiritual issues it would have made sense to allow your readers to gain some grasp of your point of view by defining how your book will treat and look at the subject. It would make sense to establish clear limits so your readers have a well defined frame of reference within which they can begin to understand the message your book is trying to get across.

Evagrius is doing the opposite. He begins his book with a definition not of praktike but of Christianity. His second chapter is also not a definition of pratike, but rather of physike followed by the third definition of theologike. Pratike will not be defined until much, much later in the book (Praktikos, 78). From the beginning Evagrius lays down that whatever praktike is, it is not a monastic spirituality. Evagrius is not merely addressing ascetic professionals or monks, Evagrius is writing for Christians. Praktike, whatever it may be, is christian spirituality pure and simple. The spiritual growth to which praktike leads: physike and theologike are also not reserved for monks only. The path to physike and theologike are open to all Christians.

Physike & Theologike

If praktike can be said to be the path to physike and theologike, then, what are they? Physike – to put it simply – is mediated knowledge of God. That is we begin to grow intimate with our Creator by means of His creation: God speaks to us in the Bible, in events in our lives, through things in our environment. We begin to perceive creation as a “letter” written by God to us who are far away from Him. God reveals Himself by thigs he has created: thus mediated knowledge of God.

Theologike is different. It too is built on the soul that has been established in praktike, but it is unmediated knowledge of God. No longer does God limit Himself to revealing Himself indirectly, either through nature, events, or even the Bible. All these are presumed, but a new thing emerges: God reveals Himself to us without using “go-betweens.” This is what in Western theology is “the beautific vision” or in Evagrian language: “essential knowledge.”

Praktike is then the way to physike and theologike. Praktike is not defined and – as we shall see – physike and theologike are not exhaustively defined either. Rather what has happened in the first three chapters is that we have been presented with a path we should travel. We have not been given precise definitions of anything, but we have been given some parameters which will enable our journey – a journey back to God with whom we have lost contact.

[to be continued]

Fr. Gregory Wassen

Protology and Eschatology in Evagrius Ponticus

In my Praktikos blog (which has since then undergone radical change) I had written a few words (no longer available in that form) about Evagrian protology and eschatology. In doing so I quoted Evagrius at some length from his Epistula ad Melaniam which has recently been translated and renamed The Great Letter by Dr. Augustine Casiday:

Now it will happen that the names and numbers of ‘body,’ ’soul’ and ‘mind’ will pass away since they will be raised to the order of the mind ( as in, ‘Grant them to be one in us, as you and I are one); likewise, it will happen that the names and numbers of ‘Father,’ ‘his Son,’ ‘his Spirit’ and ‘his rational creation’ – that is, ‘his body’ – will pass away ( as in, ‘God will be all in all’).

But when it is said that names and numbers of rational creation and its Creator will pass away, that does not mean that the hypostases and names of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit will be expunged. The mind’s nature will be united to the nature of the Father in that it is his body; likewise the names ’soul’ and ‘body’ will be absorbed into the hypostases of the Son and Spirit and the one nature, three persons of God and his image will endlessly remain, as it was before the Incarnation and will be after the Incarnation, because of the concord of wills (The Great Letter, 22-23).

In order to understand what is going on in this passage it may be helpfull to read a little further in this letter:

As we said of the mind it is one in nature, person, and rank. Falling at some point from its former rank through its free will, it was called a soul. And it descended again and it was named a body. But at some point there will be a time when the body, soul, and mind – because of differences of their wills – will become this. Since their differences of will and movement will at some point pass away, it will rise to its former creation: its nature and person and name will be one, which God knows. The thing that rises in its nature is alone amongst all beings in that neither its place nor its name is known; and again the naked mind alone can say what its nature is(The Great Letter 26).

And it may also help to hear Evagrius speak a few words on what we would call ‘original sin’:

As for us, because we willingly corrupted our own nature, we arrived at this conception and birth that is enclosed by the curse. As for him, while being what he is, in his grace he received at his birth everything that follows from birth to death. Now these things are not only unnatural to him, but I would even say that they are unnatural to us, too. Because of the transgression we committed we have willingly fallen in to them – from which we are freed. But he willingly took them upon himself without transgression, since on our own we are unable to rise from them. We fell into them because we committed a transgression, but he not only did not dwell among them, but even raised us up because (as we have said) in his own love he descended into them without transgression (The Great Letter, 58).

Now let us unpack these passages a little. It is clear that Evagrius perceives our present condition as fragmented by sin “we willingly corrupted our own nature” so that our manner of conception and birth is characterized by “the curse.” We have fallen from a former, better, state to the one we are currently in by our own freely chosen actions. This former state is characterized by oneness “the mind it is one in nature, person, and rank” and it will one day be characterized by oneness again and will be a “naked mind” rather than a mind clothed in a soul and body subjected to the “curse.”  The soul and the body will be “raised to the order of the mind” which in the Kephalaia Gnostica is referred to as “the destruction of bodies” which does not indicate the dis-incarnation of the body (and the soul) but rather its unification with the (Holy) Spirit. Just as there is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the eschaton so will there be mind, soul, and body. But just as the three Persons of the Trinity do not constitute three gods but one God, in like manner do mind, soul, and body not constitute three fragmented and self-contained realities but one reality (in the order of the mind). This is what a “naked mind” (nous) is.

The return of the fragmented mind to its “former creation” is the re-unification of mind, soul, and body with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Because of this return of which Evagrius speaks (“it will rise to its former creation”) we know that the eschatological state is the same as the protological state (which he also indicates by saying things are the same before and after the Incarnation). Iow the standard interpretation of Evagrius’ doctrine which assumes that “naked” means dis-incarnate is mistaken. The fall of the mind into soul, and into body indicates the disintegration of the “naked mind” into three opposing realities not the incarnation of the mind into a soul, and then also a body. The human being is an incarnate mind from the get go: “The embodied (ἐνσώματος) mind is the spectator of all the ages (αἰώνων) (Skemmata, 35).

If we are to speak of Origenism in Evagrius we must keep in mind that his reception of Origen is mediated by two distinctly Orthodox traditions: that of the Cappadocians and later that of St. Anthony the Great the father of monks. Given this context, and given recent work on Origen (which suggest the “fall from pre-existence” was not part of his doctrine) it could shed a whole different light on Evagrius’ own doctrine.

It seems to me Evagrius is interpreting the story of Genesis as follows: God creates “naked minds” where embodied minds are one in name, and rank so that its soul and body are of the “order of the mind” in unison with the Son and the Spirit. These embodied beings freely come to sin against God and establish separation between themselves and God, each other, and even establish this fragmentation within themselves. A creative intervention of God prevents us from being lost alltogether and we are “clothed in garments of skin” the latter being a coarsening of our embodied state to adapt to our new mode of existence characterized by sin. To shed these “garments of skin” – their destruction – makes the mind naked once more (but not disincarnate).

Those are my thoughts on the subject. They are not (yet) final but are more of a “working hypothesis” as I continue to be immersed in Evagrius’ writings.

Dn. Gregory