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.

 

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More on the so-called Hellenic divide

I’ve never said that the Hebrew language is ontically different from the Greek language, and hence superior. Apostle Paul delivered the most devastating criticisms of Greek philosophy in the Greek language.

Rather, I am thinking in more of–hmm, I don’t want to use the term “worldview.” That is a bit overused and I suggest even “Greeky.” For some reason the phrase “social knowing” is coming to mind (I think it is the title of Pinkard’s book on Hegel). It’s not perfect and I can think of a few flaws, but it is okay enough. Keep in mind that Descartes said to get to truth he had to isolate himself in his apartment.

Below I want to offer some observations.

1. The Hebrew word for “knowing” can also be used of sexual intercourse (yada). Is knowing communal and interpersonal? Rossenstock-Huessy thought so. Jewish thinkers like Buber and Heschel picked up this as well.

1a. If knowing is communal in general, then is proper knowing also covenantal? Michael Horton suggests that the proper response to the Speaking Covenant Lord is “Here I am.” (The Christian Faith, 86-87, 95)

Excursus: Did Vos really say there was a difference between Hebrew and Greek thought? Not really. Vos simply quoted Plato and compared it with the prophets. He writes,

According to the former, “to know” means to mirror the reality of a thing in one’s consciousness. The Shemitic and biblical idea is to have the reality of something practically interwoven (Biblical Theology, 8).

Abraham Heschel writes,

Plato lets Socrates ask: What is Good? But Moses’s question was: what does God require of thee? (God in Search of Man, 98).

Hegel is hiding within you

Yesterday I finished Martin Heidegger’s Hegel’s Concept of Experience. Leaving aside both the author and the topic, this was a helpful book.  It is Heidegger’s running commentary on key passages in the Phenomenology of Spirit.   It illuminates Hegel and provides a entry point to Heidegger’s larger work.

In this post I will briefly give an overview of the book and then show how Hegel (and Heidegger) are fully within the Greek, Hellenic position and those who hate Hegel yet prize the Greeks–especially Christians today–are inconsistent.

Heidegger reads Hegel as arguing that being is being-present.  It is the manifestation of a thing. Being is always being Par-Ousia–manifestation.  From there we see an interplay between Being as the real and the Absolute as the real.   If the Absolute is the real, and our knowledge is not yet at the absolute, it is then relative to the absolute.

Knowledge is relative to a thing.

Like a good Greek Hegel/Heidegger privileges sight over hearing as sees knowledge as manifestation (Heidegger 57).  The ultimate goal, though Heidegger never clearly states it as such, is unmediated knowledge–the Absolute which has fully come into being [arrival?] as Absolute.

The book contains some useful observations on reflection and the subject-object distinction.   What I found helpful is how the book easily lends itself as a foil to Revelational thought.  Revelational thought (what I have elsewhere called Hebraic Christianity) is verbal.  Reality is verbal.  God speaks and a thing is.  For onto-theo-logy, reality is manifestation and appearance.  It seeks to transcend mediation.

Perhaps this sheds knew-if unintended meaning–on the phrase “absolute truth.”  All of a sudden the term “absolute truth” sounds worryingly Hegelian.  It seems like–and after Hegel and Heidegger you really can’t argue otherwise–it is truth detached from the historical narrative, the particulars, the narratival idiomata.

I am not a relativist.

**For a useful introduction to Heidegger and modern Continental Philosophy, see Gayatri Spivak’s preface to Derrida’s of Grammatology.

On why I am opposed to magic ontologies

You might expect me to say, “Because God condemns sorcery.”  That is true.  Or you might expect me to say, “Burning incense to the Queen of Heaven is a sin.”  That is true.  But that is not what I am talking about.  I was in some fascinating Facebook discussions about Greek thought.  Here is a summary of my points:

I do not think there is a dichotomy between Hebrew and non-Hebrew languages. In that sense I agree with Barr’s critique. However, Greek though, influenced by Egyptian magic (Plato studied in Egypt), does have differences with the structures behind the “Hebrew way of life.”

We will say it another way–and this is where Augustine is very helpful, if very wrong: when I ascend up the chain of being, do I gain more being inversely with corporeality?

But if you read Ps. Dionysius and others, one knows God by beginning with abstract concepts of Deity and then rises up the chain of being by negating those concepts. Plotinus, Nyssa, Origen, Evagrius and others are very clear on this. Jesus, on the other hand, descends to us and takes flesh and knowing him we know God.

Footnote: in the eschaton are we going to drink wine on Yahweh’s mountain or achieve hyperousia and contemplate the Empyrean Forms?

when I say thought patterns I mean the way the human brain forms ideas. They most certainly saw the world differently, which might be why God called for war against Hellenism in Zechariah 9.

John Henry Cardinal Newman summarizing the anchoretic life (which is Hellenism applied). 
“Surely the idea of an apostle, ummarried, pure in fast and nakedness, and at length a martyr, is a higher idea tha
n that of one of the old Israelites, sitting under his vine and fig-tree, full of temporal goods, surrounded by his sons and grandsons” (Newman, Loss and Gain).

This is chain-of-being ethics in all of its terrible purity. There is a line in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time where wolves will stop what they are doing, even sacrifice the whole pack, to kill a Myrdraal (think goblin bad guy). That’s sort of how I feel about chain of being ontology.

And it is by no means a Greek thing. I have long maintained that the Greeks–Plato–borrowed from Egyptian magic religion. ANd you can find similar horrors in other Eastern religions.

Once you accept chain-of-being as the normative paradigm for getting our thoughts about God, and we see this same paradigm in other religions (and hermetic traditions), then it doens’ tmake any sense to say, “Well, our’s is different.”

I realize it looks like I am equating neo-Platonic magic with all of Hellenism. Allow me to clarify. I see a continuity between neo-Platonism and earlier Hellenisms. Almost all (all?) hold to an ontology of overcoming estrangement. Secondly, neo-Platonism is simply the apex and most beautiful finale of Hellenistic thought. (When the last Magus, Iamblichus, died, NeoPlatonism and Hermeticism (basically the same thing) went underground until the Templars. This lines up with Justinian’s closing the academies and Damasius’s getting back at him by pretending to be Dionysius the Aeropogatie. I pick on NeoPlatonism because most ancient Christian thinkers drew upon some variety of it.

And by the way: I have read DEEPLY into the ancient hermetic, magical, and neo-platonic traditions from a historical standpoint. You can line up Origen and Trismegestus on ontology and it is basically the same thing. I want to consider myself in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets (no, I don’t predict the future). As a result I violently hate all forms of magic. PM me if you want more details. I don’t want to go into it in public.

Review Pannenberg Part 3

What does the Bible call God?

When Paul calls God pneuma does he mean it in the sense of Middle Platonism’s understanding of God as nous?

But what is ruach?  “Ruach is decribed as a mysteriously invisible natural force which declares itself in the movement of the wind” (373). “The breath of Yahweh is a creative life force.”  Very seldom does this relate to what we call “spirit,” the thinking consciousness. Ties it in with Psalm 139:7 as the field of God’s activity.

Capitalizes on these insights into Trinitarianism.  There was always the difficulty of seeing the divine essence–Spirit–as a subject alongside the three persons.  WP, while not going into great detail, suggests his models gets beyond this impasse (386).

Hebrew view of truth:  not merely self-identity and correspondence, but that process of events at their end in which the essence of things is revealed:  the end-time event invovles also the judgment of the world, the disclosure and true character of things (387).

WP does say that the three persons are the one subject of divine action (388).  This means he  cannot be accused, pace Letham, of Social Trinitarianism.  I think it is easier to follow Jenson’s reading of the Cappadocians via the essence as the divine life.

The future of the world is the mode of time that stands closest to God’s eternity…The goal of the world and its history is nearer to God than its commencement (390).

The Bible Commands War Against Hellenism

For I have bent Judah as my bow;
    I have made Ephraim its arrow.
I will stir up your sons, O Zion,
    against your sons, O Greece,
    and wield you like a warrior’s sword.

Zechariah 9:13

Ironically, the Biblical Horizons guys could have scored huge points against Calvinist International if they would have quoted these verses.

Is there Greek and Hebrew thinking?

Another observation on today’s Federal Vision is the parting of ways among some of their thinkers.   Most notably is Calvinist International’s rejection of Jim Jordan’s model of “Hebrew Thinking.”  I don’t come down on either side of the discussion, but I will make some observations.  Unlike both parties, I don’t hold to Van Til’s system.    They write,

In his lecture, “Exorcising the Saints of the Great Hangovers,” we were named as a dangerous influence because we stand with the Reformers, the mainstream Reformed tradition, and C S Lewis regarding the natural law and natural theology.

I follow the above guys only so far as it keeps me out of trouble.   Their use of categories was wise and shouldn’t be likely discarded.   I think natural law can work if we see that equity is an inescapable concept.    At the end of the day, though, I will go with Torah over natural law.  Much of CI’s response is a justification of natural law.   I won’t interact with that since I presuppose (irony?) a form of natural law at the most basic level.

This positions him to be the herald of a new age, who speaks with the authority of a new age; previous ages are thus imperfect not simply as all ages are, but rather, are deeply tainted with paganism which only he and a few predecessors have been able to see and correct.

Yes and no.  That much of Western Civilization held on to remnants of paganism is beyond doubt.  The question is whether these specific remnants can fall under common grace (and so be retained) or are they truly pagan and should be rejected.

The idea that past doctrines might actually have the same meaning as some of his own formulations seems ruled out for him by his historicistic principle; the past must be inferior simply because it is past, and truth is new.

Can I say two things:  this is a true proposition as regards Jordan but much of the “Hellenic” thinking is bad and that affirming the latter clause does not entail the former?

Only the Bible stands above this, but not the Bible as read consensually over time; but rather, the Bible as read now, by him.

This is a legitimate criticism of Jordan.  Many times I would have no problem with his conclusions if he would take the time to work out the sixteen steps he used to get there instead of being so dogmatic about it.

Is There a Greek Mind?

The next section of the essay explores who is the true Van Tillian.  Since I am not one I won’t come to a conclusion.  Ironically, I think I will agree with Van Til on his use of the Greeks.  I think the guys at CI do a good job in showing how Jordan borrows from various streams of antiquity while claiming to reject antiquity.

However, I think Jordan does score some points on the effects of Hellenic thinking and I realize that much esotericism is Jewish in origin.  Here is what neither CI nor Jordan have said:   ancient Greek thinking is by no means Western.  It is Eastern.  Many Greeks borrowed from Egyptian and Babylonian magic religions.   So when Greek Orthodox Christians engage in pagan practices like monasticism and extreme ascetism, they are not shucking their Greek heritage for some bastardized Judaism.  They are simply drawing upon the Eastern strain of Hellenic thinking.

And the sad fact remains:  read the earthy sexuality of Song of Solomon and then read Tertullian, Basil, and Augustine on married sexuality.   There is a huge difference between Hebrew and Hellenic thinking.

As to Jordan’s historiography of the Reformation on this point, the CI guys are correct.   Calvin did not simply recover the Hebrew worldview.  Calvin held to Plato’s view on the soul.  Bucer quoted False Dionysius with approval.  I disagree with both gentlemen.

But the antithetical polarity continues in Mr. Jordan’s lecture, with him at one point sounding like an odd combination of Adolf von Harnack and Dr. Bronner:

I can’t shake Harnack’s thesis.  Sure, it’s a bit crude but there is something to it.  When I read the ancient fathers and the Greeks, I see “hyperousia,” the termination of motion, and a serene god.  When I read Zephaniah I see Yahweh fighting like a drunken Samson!

The CI guys then give a list of scholars who have supposedly rebutted the Greek vs Hebrew thesis.  All I can say is, maybe.  I don’t think there is such a view that the Greek brain functions differently than the Hebrew brain.  That is silly.  But the philosophical concepts behind the Old Testament and the ancient Greeks are worlds apart.  Hesiod (and Virgil, too-cf Aeneid Book VIII) saw each successive age as worse than the last one.  Hebraic Christianity on the other hand sees a progression from Older Glory to Newer Glory (2 Corinthians 3.  It’s in the text, Barr notwithstanding).

The CI guys then point to “Hellenism” in the New Testament.   I don’t deny Greek influences, but I do stand by my thesis that pagan Greek philosophers would find certain categories in the OT as incompatible with their own.  The rest of the paper is a spiel on natural law.  I’ll leave it at that.