Musings on Methodius of Olympus

All citations taken from Schaff’s Ante-Nicene Fathers volume 6

Pros of Methodius

  1. His prose often exquisite and always lyrical.  He occasionally approaches the talent of Gregory Nazianzus, the Christian Pindar.
  2. While he often gets off track of his topic, his “wanderings” are very interesting and usually more sound than his main point.

Cons

  1. I do not believe Methodius lost the gospel.  I do think he came within a razor’s edge of losing it.
  2. His use of excessive allegory is subject to the critiques of that position.  If allegory is true, it is impossible to falsify since there is no permanent standard to say “X is wrong.”

Banquet of the Ten Virgins

Like many ancient Christians, Methodius held perpetual virginity to be the summum bonum.  Unlike other ancient Christians, his defense of it, while suffering in terms of exegesis and argument, is the best-written defense (Augustine’s is confused and he knows it; Tertullian’s ranks as the worst treatise in the history of written thought).

  • “Virginity mediates between heaven and earth” (312-313).
  • Methodius bases much of his argument on legal analogies from Old Testament shadows: 327-329; 344.  Even though this is a form of the Galatian heresy, even here he is not consistent, for he knows that people can bring up another OT text: Genesis 1:27ff about procreating (and even worse, maybe enjoying it). Indeed, he calls such men “incontinent and uncontrolled in sensuality” (320).
  • “The likeness of God is the avoidance of corruption.”  A problematic statement, but not too bad.  It gets worse when he adds another premise:  virgins have this likeness (313).  This brings up a troubling conclusion:  can married people have the likeness of God?
  • Indeed, if you are married you need to work towards the goal of never having sex again.  Methodius writes, “Until it removed entirely the inclination for sexual intercourse engendered by habit” (312).  It gets worse:  if married people enjoy sex, “how shall they celebrate the feast” (347)?  What does Methodius mean by feast?  Probably not the liturgy in this section (though of course he would draw that same application); it could be either “the kingdom of God” or the “proper Christian life.”  The narrative isn’t clear.
  • He knows the prohibition against marriage is a demonic doctrine, so he hedges his bets: marriage is to produce martyrs (314).
  • He has a fascinating discussion on numerology (339) and his commentary on the Apocalypse, while wild and fanciful, is no less arbitrary than any other “spiritual” interpretation of it

Evaluation

It is not accidental that Methodius used OT legal shadows to buttress his argument.  He picked and chose from God’s law and supplemented it with the doctrines of man.   Gone is the freedom of the Christian life.  Indeed, the Gospel has become a New Law (348-349).

Concerning Free Will

This is an important text because it summarizes ancient thought on freedom and necessity.  What is the origin of a human action (357).  Methodius wants to make sure that God is not the author of evil, but without the categories of “ultimate and proximate causality,” it’s not clear he can avoid giving evil a semi-independent existence.

His larger point is worth considering, though.  The form of necessatarianism he fights is some mixture of astrology and fatalism.  Methodius wants to free God from the charge of evil by noting he is separate from matter.  (Nota bene:  in ancient thought matter and necessity were linked.  It makes sense if you think of it.  If the above two are connected, and the will is immaterial, then the will is free).

Evaluation

As a full treatise on freedom it is inadequate, but his suggestions on matter and freedom are quite interesting.

Oration Concerning Simeon and Anna

“and preserved his mother’s purity uncorrupt and uninjured” (385).  the last two words suggest Jesus was born miraculously without damaging Mary’s ‘lady parts.”  He “opened the virgin’s womb  and yet did not burst the barriers of virginity.”  While this sounds absurd, it is consistent. The evil for men, per Methodius and ancient Christians, is corruption.   The tearing of the vaginal canal, for example (forgive the rough illustration), is corruption.  Therefore, the Logos, the Incorrupt One, could not have caused it.

The only way to really combat this idea is to attack the original premise.

Minor Works and Fragments

Many of these are corrupted mss and/or lyrical panegyrics on deceased saints.  Not much of history except we see early Marian devotion.  While this is perhaps uncharitable towards Methodius, one wonders if the point of Jesus in our lives is so we can praise Mary.

Evaluation and Conclusion

Methodius is a good witness to Eastern Christianity before the Nicene Council.  He has some interesting suggestions on free will and determinism.  Unfortunately, he exalts man-made ideas of perpetual celibacy to the first-order level of the gospel.  It is instructive that we see why:  sex–assuming it to be married sex–is messy and smelly and arouses extreme passions between man and wife.  This is low on the scale of being and it does not become the one who wants to transcend finitude to the realms of the passionless.

This is very good Hellenistic philosophy, but is an open attack on an earthy Hebraic Christianity.   Methodius himself suggests as much (see page 344).

He is worth reading for the occasional insight, but even where he is right (e.g., the Trinity) he has been surpassed by other luminaries.  Where is wrong, he is fatally wrong.

 

Advertisements