Over-honoring Mary?

Starting a new category on mariology.  I hope people don’t take this the wrong away.  I am not saying that honoring Mary is wrong.  I am not even saying that Anchoretism’s special honoring of Mary is wrong, but I am pointing out how these unguarded statements will usually be interpreted by the less-educated.

In the very words of Cabasilas, ‘Mary’s blood became God’s blood,’ by the ineffable communicatio idiomatum and by her personal effort to raise fallen humanity to its original purity and perfection. Even more so, she recreated earth and heaven and united them—angels and men–by showing to them, more directly and more clearly than ever before, the ‘enhypostasized wisdom and love of God,’ the very God and their Savior Himself. She is, therefore, the very first and last created human being who represents microcosmic and macrocosmic perfection, having fulfilled God’s purpose of creation: the original and ideal humanity perfectly united with His love and will.

Basically, everything Protestants have said of Jesus, Cabasilas is saying of Mary.  This is the most basic textbook definition of idolatry.

because our Lady is the first ‘divinized’ human creature, making all men able to rise to deification by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

I have no problem with theosis.  I have no problem with saying the Holy spirit divinizes us into the image of Christ.  That’s classic Reformed teaching on sanctification + glorification.   I Have a problem with making Mary the active agent.

That is why Gregory Palamas calls the Mother of God ‘the boundary between the created and the uncreated,’

When I translated Genesis 1 from Hebrew, one of the more powerful repetitions was raquiyy, boundary or division.  I don’t think God was thinking about Mary when he said that.

(Constantine N. Tsirpanlis, _The Mariology of Nicholas Cabasilas_)


Did Mary Sin?

When I was looking sympathetically into Eastern Orthodoxy, statements like this bothered me.  It could have been because I was an evil Western logical Protestant, but still.  Logic and Augustino-Paul aside, something just seems off with this:

The ‘middle wall and barrier of enmity’ were of no account to her; indeed, everything that divided the human race from God was abolished as far as she was concerned. Even before the common reconciliation, she alone had made peace with God; or rather, she was never in any need of reconciliation, since from the very beginning, she was never in any need of reconciliation, since from the very beginning she stood foremost in the choir of the friends of God.” –

St. Nicholas Cabasilas (Homily on the Annunciation)

O victorious leader of triumphant hosts! We your servants, delivered from evil, sing our grateful thanks to you, O Theotokos! As you possess invincible might,(that kind of language is usually used about divinity; yikes) set us free from every calamity so that we may sing: Rejoice, O unwedded Bride!

-from the Akathist to the Mother of God, although not part of the original. This First Kontakion was added after the siege of Constantinople.   The language of unwedded bride is simply bad.  She was wed.  With Joseph.  The Bible intimates she had sex with Joseph.  God’s law said one could divorce the other if one refused sex.  Hebrews would have wanted to have married sex.  Unless they were influenced by Greek Alexandria. 

The Life-Giving Font”


“O most favored by God, you confer on me the healing of your grace from your inexhaustible Spring. Therefore, since you gave birth incomprehensibly to the Word, I implore you to refresh me with the dew of your grace that I might cry to you: Hail, O Water of salvation.”

What does the hymn mean by “inexhaustible spring?”  Anchorites are quick to say that even though they invoke Mary for salvation, it’s really Jesus that saves.  Even if that distinction holds, this line weakens it. I’ll assume that inexhaustible Spring means Jesus, and what’s really at stake is that Mary was the economia of bringing salvation into the world.  That interpretation could work, but if that’s true then why isn’t it in the past tense?  Economia is historical language.  Why are they invoking it now?  Secondly, it seems to place Mary in a hierarchical scheme between us and Jesus.  This validates Tillich’s charge that the saints replaced the Forms in ancient thought.

Notes on Ricoeur

I am not going to do a chapter by chapter analysis of Figuring the Sacred.  Not every chapter was equally good.   Some of his musings on Heidegger and Kant were interesting but not germane to narrative theology.

“Philosophy and Religious Language”

Understanding a text is always something more than the summation of partial meanings; the text as a whole has to be considered as a hierarchy of topics” (Ricoeur 38).

This makes me think of chiasms.  The structure of a chiasm reinforces meaning.  Meaning unfolds from narrative.

“Not just any theology whatsoever can be tied to narrative form, but only a theology that proclaims Yahweh to be the grand actor of a history of deliverance.  Without a doubt it is this point that forms the greatest contrast between the God of Israel and the God of Greek Philosophy” (40).

I’ve long expected the above paragraph to anger Anchorites.  I was surprised when it started angering Reformed folk.

Manifestation and Proclamation

This is the most important essay in the book and the one that causes much offense.   Ricoeur opposes a philosophy of manifestation (ontotheology) with a philosophy of proclamation (Yahweh speaks).


The “numinous” element of the sacred has nothing to do with language (49).  Another key element is theophany–not moments in the biblical narrative, but anything by which the sacred shows itself (icons, relics, holy places).   This means that reality is something other than itself while remaining itself.

There is a correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm (54).  This brings to mind the Luciferian “as above, so below” dictum.  In short, ontologies of manifestation always focus on “reality/grace/etc” emanating from the thing or the place.


There is a rupture–violent in the case of the prophets’ war against Baalism–between manifestation and proclamation.  The word outweighs the numinous (56).  Israel’s whole theology–and identity–was formed around discourses.

Per idols and icons:  “We may say that within the Hebraic domain they (hierophanies) withdraw to the extent that instruction through Torah overcomes any manifestation through an image.  A Theology of the Name is opposed to any hierophany of an idol…Hearing the word has taken the place of vision of signs” (56).  God’s pesel is the Ten Words. It is the only pesel he commanded.

Communal Readings

In “The ‘Sacred’ Text and the Community” Ricoeur gives a neat deconstruction of the concept “sacred,” especially when applied with a book.

For us, manifestation is not be necessity linked to language.  The word ‘sacred’ belongs to the side of manifestation, not to the side of proclamation, because many things may be sacred without being a text (71)

Ricoeur the Hermeneut

His reading of Genesis 1:1-2:4a is interesting, but more for the method than the conclusions. His essay on the Imagination is quite valuable in showing what “goes on” in a narrative.   Many narratives in the Bible, particularly Jesus’s parables, employ intertextuality which always forces an expansion of meaning from the text. In other words, it is “an object with surplus value” (152).  Assuming that the Holy Spirit didn’t write chaotically and randomly, isolated texts are now seen in a pattern and signify something else, something more (161).

Ricoeur then moves to a section on biblical time, which is useful for meditation.  He summarizes von Rad, Cullman, and others.  I won’t belabor the point.

His essay “Interpretive Narrative” offers his famous distinction between “idem” identity (the god of sameness, the god of Greek metaphysics) and ipse identity (the God who is constant to the Covenant).  He expands this motif in “Naming God.”  God’s identity is seen in his historic acts.


While magnificent, it is in many ways a difficult read.  He assumes a familiarity with Continental Philosophy (itself a daunting task) and even then some essays don’t seem to have a point.  But when he unloads on narrative he truly delivers.

Liturgy Trap: Veneration

The Second Commandment

There is no problem with the actual act of bowing.  The problem is “to what do we people in the context of worship and liturgy?”  The second commandment is very clear that we are never to bow in giving veneration toward man-made objects (24).

The second commandment isn’t saying there should be no pictures of God (a point for another day), but that no image of anything can be set up as an avenue of worship to God and the court of heaven (24).

Only one pesel

Pesel is the Hebrew word for “carving.”  Jordan neatly takes the argument a step forward by pointing out that “there is another pesel in the Book of Exodus:  The Ten Words, which God carved with his own finger” (26).  “The opposition is between God’s content-filled graven Words and man’s silent graven images.”

God’s pesel is how he relates to us.  The relationship is verbal.  It is personal.  “It is God-initiated.”  Jordan comments, “When men set up a pesel it is always man-initiated” (27).  “The ‘veneration’ of man’s pesel is not a conversation with God, but prostration before a man-made object.”  This is the one objection even the most articulate anchorite cannot answer: is conversation–words–possible?

Anchorites love to counter that “Well, God commanded Israel to make various carvings.”  So he did. We say, however, “what is prohibited is the creation of a contact-point with God in the likeness of other creatures” (28).

Jordan makes an interesting observation:  nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures do we see God’s people condemned for making a picture of God.  Rather, they make up images of God and use them as mediators (29).


“God initiates the mediation between himself and us, and He controls it” (29).  “God’s mediation is verbal…God’s mediation is his pesel, the Word.  Manmade mediators are images.”

Jordan concludes the chapter with a reflection on God’s 4th generation curse on image-worshipers.

Christ in Eastern Thought: Icons (9)

Byzantine piety was rooted in a geographical tradition where the idea of “image” had a cultic priority (173).    Meyendorff locates the iconoclastic imperial motives against icons in looking for a non-Muslim alternative to Greek Christianity.

Neo-Platonic Background

“It forced them to take the defence of material images, while their metaphysics considered matter as an essentially inferior state of existence.  Hence came their relative conception of the image, as a means of access to the divine prototype” (173).

Meyendorff even admits “From the moment paganism ceased to represetnt a real danger for the Christian Church, numerous references to images appeared in Christian literature” (175).

Iconodules reasoned that it wasn’t idolatry as long as the image wasn’t identified with the prototype.  Further, much of their argument rested on the claim that Christ assumed “all of human nature” and was “man in general” (185).


Neither side does a particularly good job of arguing.   The iconoclasts were wrong to say that “God” (whatever you want to mean by that term) cannot be circumscribed, for that would call the incarnation into question.  On the other hand, just because The Word took flesh, does not mean all images of the Word are warranted.   The iconodules make a huge logical jump on that point.


Jesus, Firmament, and Prayers to Saints

Jesus = Firmament.   This is so because he is the only mediator between heaven and earth.

Earth (us)  ———————- Firmament (Jesus-Mediator) ————————— (heaven) departed saints.

You can’t talk to dead saints because Jesus is in the way.

The firmament, and this needs some fleshing out from the Hebrew, is the boundary between heaven and earth (understanding, of course, that the Bible uses heaven in a multiplex sense).  Jesus becomes the New Firmament. The Firmament in Genesis 1 is not simply the boundary between earth and sky, or earth and waters, but also the boundary between the waters above (which is the sea before God’s throne) and the waters below (which have yet to be gathered into seas).    The Firmament in this sense is “above” us.

While speculative, this makes infinitely more sense of the hilasterion passages of the NT.    Liberals and Eastern Orthodox hate the word propitiation because it suggests God gets mad.   Conservatives are on stronger lexical ground.   I think propitiation is a good translation of Romans 3:25.   It becomes problematic, though, when we move to 1 John 2, where it says Jesus is the propitiation for the whole world.   This comes very close to universal atonement.

Most good commentaries will say that hilasterion is (correctly) referring to the Mercy Seat above the ark.   If so, then Jesus is the new mercy seat who takes to himself God’s great fireball to destroy evil.   He is the Protective Covering between heaven and earth.   This way hilasterion means nothing about universal atonement.

John Barach has an interesting take on this.

(2) Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters (Gen. 1:6) & You shall not make for yourself a carved image … you shall not bow down to them nor serve them (Ex. 20:4-6).

The firmament is between the waters above and the waters below.  The firmament includes everything we call “outer space,” since the sun, moon, and stars will be placed in the firmament on Day 4.  The waters above the firmament reappear later in Scripture as the sea below God’s throne (e.g., Rev. 4:6).  Thus the firmament is the barrier and the mediator between heaven and earth.  It’s a veil, corresponding to the veil in the tabernacle.  The tearing of that veil represents the rending of the mediator (Heb. 10:20).

The second commandment has to do with bowing to images in order to worship Yahweh through them.  The images are false mediators.  So both the second word in Genesis 1 and the second word in Exodus 20 have to do with mediation.


They burned incense to the Queen of Heaven: A story

(I used to write short stories a long time ago)

Year:  587 B.C.
Place:  Judah

Yakov was inspecting his vineyard one day when Halachi came by.  “Yakov ,” Halachi said, “Do you care to join me for worship this week?”
“I have regular worship meetings in my family and village. You know that,” replied Yakov .
“Yes, but you aren’t worshiping according to the traditions,” Countered Halachi.
“What traditions?”  Why?  We have Moses’ writings.”
Halachi was ready for this response.   “True, but Moses’ writings have to be interpreted properly.  How do you know you are reading them correctly?”  The truth was, Yakov didn’t know.   He admitted there were some hard passages in Torah.  “I’ll tell you what,”  Halachi offered, “Just come and see.  I’ll answer any questions you have”
“Okay,” Yakov agreed.

(Later that evening)

Yakov was met by clouds of strange incense and different orders of worship.  Then he paled noticeably.  “Halachi,” asked Yakov in a heated voice, “Why are your friends worshiping that cow?”  Yakov pointed to a bronze cow in the corner.
“Yakov ,”  replied Halachi condescendingly, “They aren’t worshiping that cow.  Don’t be silly.  They are worshiping God.”
“So God looks like a cow?”
“No.  They are worshiping God through that cow.”
“I don’t understand the difference,” said Yakov .
“Okay.  Basics.  Is creation good?” asked Halachi.
“So God wants us to honor his good creation,” pressed Halachi.
“I suppose so,” conceded Yakov .
“Yakov , I know Torah as well as any.   Worshipping metal images is wrong.   But we aren’t doing that.  We are worshiping God through the image.”

One year later

“Yakov , what news from the front?” yelled Shaul, a leader in the Jerusalem militia.

“Nebuchadnezzar has not yet advanced.  I guess he is waiting for us to weaken a little more he throws everything at a final assault,” mused Yakov .   It wasn’t a bad plan, he admitted.  It was one he would have done.   Jerusalem couldn’t last much longer.   Yakov ‘s plan changed from a simple resistance and hoping Nebuchadnezzar got distracted, or Pharaoh got involved, or something.  Now, instead of winning Yakov could only think of getting out of here alive.    Both options seemed dim.

“How long do you give us?”  Yakov noticed that Shaul asked that question out of earshot of the others.

“Maybe a week.  No longer than a fortnight, certainly.”

“How did we get here, Yakov ?   Why did Jehovah-Baal forsake us?   Weren’t we faithful to the traditions of our fathers?”

Yakov had trouble focusing on Shaul’s question through the thick incense.   “Must we have all this incense going,” he asked?

“Come now, Yakov.   All sides agree that incense is proper in worship.”

“But this incense seems different.”

“Yes, it is the incense of extreme prayer and hope.  This incense is to the Queen of Heaven.  She will deliver this city.”

Yakov wasn’t sure anymore.  Halachi’s arguments seemed good at the time.   The crops were better than usual and it made sense of the chaos in Yakov’s life.  Something still felt off with the worship, though.  If God was spiritual and created heaven and earth, then it seemed odd that he would be so constricted to a metal cow.   What did a cow have to do with God anyway?

Yakov didn’t get to find the answer to that question, as the wall beneath him shook.

“I guess that week turned into today” shouted Shaul.   Yakov couldn’t shout back as the wall rumbled again.


“The Garden-Gate has been breached!” Someone shouted. Yakov looked up to see Babylonian troops spilling in through the breach.   Shaul died in a hail of arrows.   The soldiers advanced upon Yakov.   Given the narrow alley, Yakov could fight them one at a time.  Their numbers would make the difference.   And then the first line fell to unseen arrows.


“Quick lad.  We have a few minutes.  Come this way.”

“Who are you?

“My name is Willie-Rechab.   I can get you out if we leave now.”

“But what about the city, my men–

“They are dead men, and you will be, too.”

“But why do you care about me?”

“I noticed you didna burn incense to the Queen of Heaven.   But don’t think it is cause ya deserve rescue.  You don’t, but ne’ertheless, here is an out if ya will tak it.

Metal cow-gods be damned, Yakov thought, here is life.