John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God Sermon 2

In sermon 2 Chrysostom does not leave any doubt about his feelings toward the Anomoeans. In the previous sermon they were seen as guilty of madness, obstinacy, and folly.  In the very first sentence of the second address they are described as “unbelieving and infidel.” Chrysostom goes on to say they are guilty of dishonoring the faith and disgracing themselves (1)[1]. Yet even with such harsh words, Chrysostom insists he is acting gently. He encourages his hearers to treat the Anomoeans “as you would treat people who have suffered a mental illness and lost their wits” (51). Indeed, the claim to be able to comprehend God is one of insanity.

The preacher rightly identifies one of the consequences of this false belief: the elimination of faith (6). If God can be known completely; known for who he is in his essence; what room is there for faith? For mystery? For wonder? As mentioned in yesterday’s post, one of the underlying questions in the debate about the knowability of God is, “What kind of God is God?” Again, if God can be comprehended, is he that much of a god?

Unlike the first sermon, Chrysostom does not base this address on a single passage of Scripture. Rather, he uses multiple Scriptures to prove his point. In his first sermon, the preacher demonstrated the incomprehensibility of God by focusing on the Scriptural teachings of his attributes. The Bible consistently says that even God’s individual attributes are incomprehensible, so how much more sure is it that God himself is incomprehensible? In this sermon Chrysostom turns from the attributes of God to his actions. If what God does cannot be understood, how can God himself be understood? He will also turn attention to the nature of man. How can the finite grasp the infinite?

Chrysostom’s first example is the angelic announcement of John’s conception to his father Zechariah (9-16). While the preacher makes a few historically inaccurate statements[2], his treatment of the substance of the Scripture is sound and supportive of his thesis. Zechariah was judged by God because he was not content to take God at his word and wanted to know how God was going to accomplish the sign spoken of. The Anomoeans display the same lack of faith and sense. Not content to trust the word of God, the press on to find out the unknowable.

Before treating even more Scripture, Chrysostom mentions the summary of the Anomoeans’ error (17). He describes it as a destructive force and root of all their evils. The claim of the Anomoeans is: “I know God as God himself knows himself.” It is hard to disagree with the preacher’s statement that the mere repetition of this belief demonstrates its folly (18). If such an affirmation were indeed true, the Anomoeans are rightly called godless. Since it is clearly untrue, they are certainly guilty of “unpardonable madness, a new kind of impiety and godlessness.”

Chrysostom then changes track and concentrates on the nature of man (19-22). The preacher ransacks Scripture to describe man as “dust and ashes, flesh and blood, grass and the flower of grass, a shadow and smoke and vanity…” And just in case anything is left out “…and whatever is weaker and more worthless than these.” These attributes are shown in stark contrast to the nature of God who simply looks at the earth and it trembles.

This leads the preacher into a lengthy meditation on the smallness of man in nature (23-31; 49-50). The heavens have stood gloriously for 5,000 years.[3] The mountains and seas of earth dwarf man. Yet all these are accounted as nothing before their Maker: no wider than his hand; dust on the scales; drops in the palms. Man does not even know his home, but has the audacity to claim full knowledge of its Maker?

Following this, there is argument from the book of Romans (32-39). Chrysostom reminds his hearers that they are but clay in the potter’s hand. As such, they have no foundation from which to question the work of God. In Paul’s hypothetical dialogue, the question was not over God’s nature, but his decisions of judgment and mercy. If man has no way of knowing the mysteries of God’s sovereign decrees, what hope has he of knowing the essence of God himself?

 When Paul did not permit the Romans to meddle in these matters, what about you Anomoeans? Do you not think that you deserve to be seared with ten thousand thunderbolts? You are being meddlesome and pretending to know that blesses essence which manages all the universe. Is this not a mark of ultimate madness?[4]

Chrysostom spends the rest of the sermon bringing up other Pauline statements of ignorance. Devoting most of the discussion to Philippians 3:13, “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended…” and the surrounding context. If the apostle Paul could only claim informed ignorance, who can dare say he knows God as God knows himself?

As in the first sermon, Chrysostom concludes by exhorting his hearers to be gentle but direct when dealing with those “blasphemers” (55). Yet their interaction must be guarded. Weaker believers in the truth should flee the heretics and have nothing to do with them. Indeed, all the faithful should “avoid any association with them” but instead

 …only pray for them and beseech the loving-kindness of God, who wishes all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, to free them from this deceit and snare of the devil, and to lead them back to the light of knowledge, that is, to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in union with the all holy Spirit, the giver of life, to whom be glory and power now and forever, world without end. Amen.[5]

[1] All parenthetical references refer to chapter divisions in Paul W. Harkins, St John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984).

[2] i.e. that Zechariah was high priest and was in the holy of holies.

[3] An indication that John Chrysostom understood Genesis 1-11 literally.

[4] §39 pg. 86

[5] §55 pg. 93-94.

The Trinity in Scripture: Luke 2

Just as in the sequel to his gospel, the book of Acts, Luke densely populates the beginning of his first work with references to the Trinity. Chapter 2 contains the fourth Trinitarian passage of the book (cf. 1:35; 1:41-45; 1:67-75).

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:25-32)

Just as in the first three mentions of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is seen as the powerful mover and communicator of the Trinity. Simeon is introduced as a man whom the Holy Spirit was “upon” (2:25). This is a significant description. While the Holy Spirit “filled” Elizabeth (1:41) and Zechariah (1:67), he was “upon” Simeon. This certainly seems to be something more than the momentary filling the parents of John the Baptizer received; yet it is not quite synonymous with the indwelling of the Spirit that New Covenant believers partake of. Commentator Darrell Bock is certainly correct in writing that Simeon was “a righteous man of rare spiritual quality and gift.” Such a statement is in some ways both the least and the most we can say about the work of the Holy Spirit in Simeon.

The work of the Holy Spirit “upon” Simeon meant at least two things: he had received a revelation that he would see the promised Messiah (2:26) and he was led to the right place at the right time to see that Messiah (2:27). But the work of the Spirit continued to manifest itself in ways similar to what we have seen already in Luke.

Just as in the first three references to the Trinity, the Holy Spirit moves a person to praise the Father for sending his Son to accomplish the work of man’s deliverance. God is sending his Son to be the light and glory to Israel and the nations (2:32), the work of the Spirit causes man to praise God for this great goodness.

Secondly, while the Holy Spirit fills and empowers people to recognize God’s work and praise him for it, their praise is always connected to previous revelation. The revelation they receive is added and based upon the revelation they already had. It might be said that in each case, the Spirit gives newer revelation but not new revelation. This is not revelation ex nihilo.

The Trinitarian comfort offered to Mary in 1:35 is in fulfillment of the promise of God to David (1:33 cf. 2 Sam. 7:8-16 noting the use of the key terms throne, house, and kingdom). The Trinitarian praise of Elizabeth is based upon the “fulfillment of what was spoken to [Mary] from the Lord” (1:45). The Trinitarian praise of Zechariah is based upon the Lord’s faithfulness to accomplish all that “he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets of old” (1:70). Such mercy promised to the fathers stretched all the way back to “the oath that he swore to…Abraham” (1:72-73). Similarly, Simeon’s praise for God’s salvation draws from the vocabulary of OT passages such as Psalm 98:2-3; Isaiah 9:2; 42:6-7; 60:1-3. Even as he breathes out new words from God, the Holy Spirit continues to move recipients of new revelation in the sea of the revelation already given.

Finally, we see from the very beginning of the life of Jesus his life was meant to impact “all peoples” (2:31). Just as he did in Acts (cf. 8:26-40; 10:44-48; 11:15-18), Luke demonstrates that the work of redemption accomplished by the Trinity is intended for all nations. Granted, Luke wrote this book as the gospel was going or had gone into the entire world; and he was writing to Gentile, Theophilus. But he was not a revisionist. Simeon drew upon numerous OT texts pointing to the salvation of people from all nations. Zechariah and Mary both mentioned the promise God made to Abraham: that promise that all nations would be blessed.

God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is God of all nations. To all nations his blessings flow.

The Trinity in Scripture: Luke 1 (Part 2)

Luke continues to present the work of the Trinity in preparation of the incarnation:

And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:67-79

Everything that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, says is the result of the work of the Holy Spirit within him moving him to prophesy. In this proclamation of praise the Holy Spirit moves Zechariah to exult the work of the Father and the Son.

The Father is identified as the Lord God of Israel (1:68). Interestingly, the Zechariah declares that the Father spoke by the mouth of the prophets. This is certainly congruent with typical Old Testament thought. It is only later in the history of redemption that the role of the Holy Spirit in inspiration is made explicit. The Father, as he was in Luke’s first reference to the Trinity (1:32, 35), is again called “the Most High.” This is a title that Luke seems particularly fond of. It is found 9 times in the New Testament, with 7 of the uses by Luke (Mark 5:7; Luke 1:32,35,76; 6:35; 8:28; Acts 7:48; 16:17; Hebrews 7:1).

The Son is identified picturesquely as the “horn of salvation” (1:69) and “the sunrise from on high” (1:78), and more traditionally as “Lord” (1:76). What does Zechariah know and believe of this Lord? What does he comprehend of his relationship to the Most High God? These are curiosities that we are left to wonder at. What we do see is that already among God’s people, there is an expectation for God to act on their behalf in the person whose body was still being prepared in the Virgin’s womb.

In the first chapters of Luke’s gospel Zechariah’s speech functions as a natural progression from the Trinity at Jesus’ conception to the Trinity at Jesus’ manifestation in chapter 2: which we will see in the next post in this series.