John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God: Sermon 3 Angels do not know God, if man cannot bear the presence of angels how can be bear the presence of God?

Sermon 3 in Chrysostom’s series On the Incomprehensible Nature of God is considerably shorter than the first two. Additionally in the final third of the sermon Chrysostom departs from the theme to exhort the congregation to faithful attendance to all aspects of the church’s worship.[1] Though brief, there are several things worthy of attention.

Chrysostom begins doxologically: half praying half sermonizing. There is a reminder of the aseity of God.

 For no one can do God harm by dishonoring him nor can anyone increase God’s glory by blessing him. God always abides in his own glory; to bless him does not increase it, to curse him does not make it less. Men who glorify God as he deserves or, rather—since no man can give him such glory—those who glorify him to the best of their ability reap the profit of the praise they give him. But those who curse and disparage him compromise their own salvation. (3)[2]

Shortly thereafter, the preacher successively states his overriding thesis and introduces the argument he is about to advance:

 Let us call upon him, then, as the ineffable God who is beyond our intelligence, invisible, incomprehensible, who transcends the power of mortal words. Let us call on him as the God who is inscrutable to the angels, unseen by the Seraphim, inconceivable to the Cherubim, invisible to the principalities, to the powers, and to the virtues, in fact, to all creatures without qualification, because he is known only by the Son and the Spirit. (5)

Chrysostom introduced the idea that God is inconceivable to the angels in his first sermon, but now he intends to develop that idea. From a logical position, if this idea can be proved it would powerfully support the preacher’s overriding thesis. After all, if angels who have existed ages longer than individual man; who have no sin; who dwell in heaven; if angels cannot know God perfectly, what is man to claim that he can?

 

Chrysostom begins the sermon by surgically examining the passage of Scripture: “he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.”[3] In his brief exposition Chrysostom offers something of an exegetical tour de force.

God “dwells in unapproachable light.” The fact that God’s dwelling is unapproachable demands that “much more so is the God who dwells in it” (11). If his dwelling is unapproachable how can it then be comprehensible?

A thing is said to be incomprehensible when those who seek after it fail to comprehend it, even after they have searched and sought to understand it. A thing is unapproachable which, from the start, cannot be investigated nor can anyone come near to it. We call the sea incomprehensible because, even when diver lower themselves into it waters and go down to a great depth, they cannot find the bottom, We call that thing unapproachable which, from the very start, cannot be searched out or investigated. (12)

But one wonders if Chrysostom does not overplay his hand in answer to the objection that he himself foresees: the text says that no man can approach to God, but says nothing about angels. The preacher replies, “Paul did not add this qualification nor did he say: ‘Who dwells in a light unapproachable to men but which the angels can approach’”(13). When he is basing his argument on what Scripture says, Chrysostom stands on firm ground. When he starts arguing from what Scripture does not say, things start going awry.

Nevertheless, Chrysostom does seek more sound exegetical support for the proposition that angels cannot know God perfectly. His first line of defense are the two theophanies recorded  in Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1 in which the Seraphim veil their faces (Is. 6:2) and the Cherubim covered their body (Ezek. 1:23) when in the presence of God (15,26). As far as his treatments of the texts are concerned, Chrysostom’s exegesis is sound. What is lacking, however, is consideration of texts that seem to contradict his thesis that angels cannot approach to God. Particularly damaging would seem to be Job 1 and 2 when the “sons of God” including “the Adversary” appeared before God. While not addressing this, the preacher does seem to provide a way out by asserting that “God condescends whenever he is not seen as he is, but in the way of one incapable of beholding him is able to look upon him. In this way God reveals himself by accommodating what he revels to the weakness of vision of those who behold him.” But I would find it hard to disagree with those who might consider this special pleading.

But in between discussing those two passages Chrysostom returns to firmer argument. The preacher spends time examining Daniel’s interaction with the anger recorded in Daniel 10 (18-23). If Daniel, one of the few men that Scripture offers no negative accounts of, could not bear the presence of an angel, how could any man claim to be able to penetrate into the mysteries of the Lord of angels?

 But these Anomoeans, who are so far removed from the virtue of that just man, profess to know with all exactness the highest and first of essences, the very essence of God, who has created myriads of these angels. And yet Daniel did not even have the strength to look upon a single one of them. (23)

Though he had more to say on the subject, Chrysostom proclaims his inability to proceed and cuts his meditation short (30). The third sermon is something of a mixed bag. Chrysostom certainly does not do enough to prove the proposition of the individual sermon, i.e. that not even angels can approach God. Yet his treatment of 1 Tim. 6:15-16 and Daniel 10 are extremely persuasive in regards to his overall thesis, i.e. that God is incomprehensible. Anyone who claims the capacity to know God completely must deal with Chrysostom’s exposition of Paul’s statement that God dwells in unapproachable light. Anyone who claims the ability to traipse boldly into God’s presence to contemplate God’s essence must wonder why men in Scripture cannot bear the presence of angels, but they are allowed into the Divine mystery. Sermon three offers Chrysostom’s strongest and weakest arguments.


[1] It is interesting to note that the people were gathering in large numbers to hear the “service of the Word” and then, apparently, departing before the “service of the Table.”

[2] All parenthetical references are paragraph numbers in Paul W. Harkins, St John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984).

[3] 1 Tim. 6:15-16

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