Jesus the Great Jubilee


Sometimes when the New Testament authors speak about Jesus’ work of salvation they speak of it as being an act of redemption (Gal. 3:13, 1 Pet. 1:8, Heb. 9:12). Likewise St. Paul speaks about the human condition in Adam as being “sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14). This language of redemption, as well of those who are sold, echoes Leviticus 25 and how it speaks about the Year of Remission (or the Jubilee). Here we see the text say that, “if your brother with you becomes poor and has sold some of his possession, and his closest relative comes, then he may redeem what his brother sold” (Lev. 25:25). Humanity itself had become poor when it sold itself as a slave to sin so the Word of God became flesh so that He might become our brother – our closest relative – as the book of Hebrews states, “for both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren” (Heb. 2:11).

According to Leviticus 25 the Year of Remission begins on the fiftieth year; specifically on the Day of Atonement. The rites of the Day of Atonement are described in Leviticus 16. On the Day of Atonement the high priest, dressed in a linen tunic, enters into the Holy of Holies, sprinkling the blood of a bull on the mercy seat, and he makes atonement for the sins of all the children of Israel. Again the book of Hebrews sees this fulfilled in Jesus, “but Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:11-12).

By His death, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement at the right hand of the Father Jesus redeemed us who were sold under sin. The Gospel of John presents the burial of Jesus as the vesting of the High Priest, and laying Him in the tomb is His entrance into the Holy of Holies. Levitucus 16 says that before the high priest can enter into the Holy of Holies he, “shall put the holy linen tunic and the linen trousers on his body; he shall be girded with a linen sash, and with the linen turban he shall be attired. These are holy garments,” (Lev. 16:4) and the Gospel of John relates that when Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea prepare the body of Jesus for burial that, “they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in stripes of linen” (Jn. 19:40). After the sending out of the scapegoat the high priest is instructed to return into the tabernacle and, “take off the linen garments he put on when he went into the holy place; and he shall leave them there” (Lev. 16:23). After Jesus’ resurrection when Peter runs into the tomb, “he saw the linen cloths lying there” (Jn. 20:6). Jesus’ sacrifice upon the cross fulfills the sacrificial offering of animals in the levitical system and by His blood He makes atonement. His entrance into the tomb and resurrection fulfill the levitical rite of the Day of Atonement and by this redeems Israel – and all of humanity and the cosmos – from sin.

The Year of Remission was not only connected with the ritual purification of the Day of Atonement but also signaled the return of everyone to their homeland, “you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim remission throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall signal the Year of Remission for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his homeland” (Lev. 25:10). Paradise is the true homeland of humanity since when God created man He placed him in the garden where man walked and communed with God. After the rebellion against God in the Garden man lived as an outcast; unable to return to his edenic homeland. When Jesus ascends into heaven – returning to His own homeland from where He came – he returns all of mankind with Him through His humanity into the throne room of God, the heavenly Jerusalem, seating us with Himself.

When Jesus ascended the cross He offered Himself as an atoning sacrifice for the remission of humanity’s sins. His burial reveals Him to be the vested High Priest who enters into the Holy of Holies. Through His resurrection and ascension He redeems all those who were sold under sin since He is our brother who shared in our flesh and blood. This begins the great Year of Remission where by the proclamation of the Church and the response of faith men, women, and children of Israel and all the nations were baptized (and continue to be) for the remission of their sins and are raised up to their heavenly home with Christ by the Spirit to the glory of God the Father.


Mary’s Virginity and its Perpetuity in Biblical Typology.



One of primary hermeneutical methods of the Orthodox Church when she reads the Old Testament is that of typology. The typological method of interpretation affirms the unified witness of both the Old and the New Testaments and that the two Testaments are inter-illuminating, as noted by Fr. John Breck, “the relation between the two Testaments is a ‘typological’ relationship, in which God’s promises of salvation, expressed by events in Israel’s history as well as by oracles of the prophets, will be fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ and in the life of the Church.”i By interpreting the Old Testament in this way the Orthodox Church is in hermeneutical continuity with the early Church; as witnessed by the way the New Testament texts make use of the Old Testament. The New Testament authors read the Old Testament ‘retrospectively’, a process described by G. K. Beale that happened, “after Christ’s resurrection and under the direction of the Spirit [where] the apostolic writers understood certain OT historical narratives about persons, events, or institutions to be indirect prophecies about Christ or the church.”ii As noted by both Breck and Beale the primary way the New Testament authors read the Old Testament, according to the typological method, was Christocentrically. Three ways that Jesus is seen to be the fulfillment of an Old Testament type are through direct associations, patterns, and echoes. An example of a direct association is found in Matthew 12:40-41 where Jesus proclaims, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Here Jesus is indicating that Jonah’s experience of being inside a great fish for three days was a foreshadowing – or a type – of His own death; which lasted three days. Likewise when He says in vs. 41 that, “indeed a greater than Jonah is here,” He identifies Himself as a new Jonah-like figure. Through the patterns of events and the echoes of language Jesus is likewise portrayed as a new Moses in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 2:13-14 it says, “now when they had departed, behold an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.’ When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed to Egypt. This event follows a similar pattern in Exodus 2:15 where Pharaoh seeks the life of Moses – just as Herod sought the life of Jesus – and therefore had to flee his home and go into a foreign land – just as Jesus had to flee from Israel and go into the foreign land of Egypt. This association of Jesus with Moses is further emphasized by the echo of Exodus 4:19 in Matthew 2:19-20. In Matthew’s text it says, “Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, ‘Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” The angel’s words, and commission to return home, directly echo the words of the Lord to Moses in Exodus 4:19, “Now in those days, after some time, the king of Egypt died. So the Lord said to Moses in Midian, ‘Go, return to Egypt; for all the men who sought your life are dead.’” Since the New Testamen authors read the Old Testament Christologically they not only found types of Jesus in the Old Testament but also, as both Breck and Beale likewise affirmed, about the Church and other figures related to the Church. This can be seen clearly in the way that the Synoptic Gospels apply Isaiah 40:3-5 to John the Baptist and see him as the one who prepares the way of the Lord. Alongside this recognition of prophecy fulfillment in John the Gospel writers likewise portray John as an anti-type of both Ishmaeliii, Elijahiv, and Samuelv. The prophecy fulfillment of Isiah 40:3-5 by John was due to his relationship to Jesus – Who was, and is, the Lord Himself – so it was only natural that the Virgin Mary was also found within the pages of the Old Testament due to her relationship to Jesus. Just as John was found to be the fulfillment of a prophecy so the Virgin Mary was seen as the fulfillment to the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, “behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel;” thus the prophecy is quoted in Matthew 1:23 and is applied to the virgin birth of Jesus by Mary. The pages of the Gospel not only present Mary as the fulfillment of prophecy but they also portray her as an anti-typical figure, being a new Hagarvi, Hannahvii, and Jaelviii. Seeing in the Virgin Mary the fulfillment of different Old Testament types within the pages of the New Testament allows us to approach the Old Testament with a Mariological lense to shed further light on her identity. When we approach the Scriptures with this Mariological lense we discover that the virgin birth was not only the subject of prophecy but had also been typified within the Old Testament; and not only her virgin birth but her perpetual virginity as well. Normally when the subject of the perpetual virginity of Mary is debated the discussion revolves around two issues from the Gospels, as the modern Orthodox writer Seraphim Hamilton explains, “There are two principal objections to the perpetual virginity of Mary. First, Jesus’ brothers and sisters are cited…The second objection to the perpetual virginity of Mary is that Matthew 1:25 says that “Joseph knew her not, until she had given birth to a son”, ostensibly implying that he did have conjugal relations with her afterwards.”ix While the discussions regarding these issues are importantx the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary is more strongly established when rooted in a typological reading of the Old Testament. By examining texts from the early Church Fathers, the Orthodox lectionary, hymonography, as well as from the way the New Testament makes associations between Mary and other objects, we can see a fuller vision of Mary’s virginity and it’s perpetuity.

The Virgin Birth:

The apostolic work of interpreting the Old Testament typologically, and discovering Marian types, was continued by the early Church Fathers. One of the earliest, and most important, Church Fathers who presents Marian typology in his works is St. Irenaeus of Lyons. St. Irenaeus makes a connection between the virgin birth of Jesus and the creation of Adam from the untilled earth, “But whence, then, was the substance of the first formed? From the will and wisdom of God and from virgin earth – ‘for God had not caused it to rain’, says Scripture, before man was made, ‘and there was no man to till the ground’. So from this earth, while it was still virgin, God ‘took mud from the earth and fashioned man’ (Gen 2:7), the beginning of humankind. Thus the Lord, recapitulating this man, received the same arrangement of embodiment as this one, being born from the Virgin by the will and wisdom of God, that he might also demonstrate the likeness of embodiment to Adam, and might become the man, written in the beginning, ‘according to the image and likeness of God’ (cf. Gen 1:26).”xi Following the connection made by St. Paul between Adam and Jesus (who he calls in 1 Corinthians 15:45 the ‘Last Adam’) St. Irenaeus likewise sees Adam as a type of Jesus. He develops this Adamic typology even deeper by noting that he was created from ground which was untilled and upon which no rain had fallen. Adam is therefore born of God from out of the virgin womb of earth, typifying the birth of Jesus by the Spirit from the virgin womb of Mary.

A second type of the virgin birth is found in the prophecy of Daniel 2:44-45 (LXX), “And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will establish a kingdom that will not be destroyed forever, and his kingdom will not be left to another people. And it will pulverize and scatter all the kingdoms, and it will stand up forever; as you saw, a stone was cut from a mountain, not by hands, and it pulverized the earthenware, the iron, the bronze, the silver, the gold. The great God had made known to the king what must happen after this, and the dream is true, and its interpretation trustworthy.” This is the sixth scriptural lesson of the Great Vespers for the Nativity and Fr. Eugen J. Pentiuc notes how it has been interpreted through a Mariological lens by patristic authors as well as in the hymnography of the Church, “Theodore of Cyrus interprets ‘not cut by hands’ as an indication of the virgin birth: ‘Therefore we are taught by both the Old and the New Testament that our Lord Jesus Christ has been designated by the stone. For he was cut out of the mountain without hands, being born of a virgin apart from any nuptial intercourse, and the divine Scriptures had always been accustomed to name him as having had his origin contrary to nature, the cutting out of a stone (Commentary on the Visions of the Prophet Daniel 2.34-35)…In the following herimos the emphasis falls on the ‘mountain of the Virgin’ bringing the Word forth: ‘For as a young babe from the mountain of the Virgin did the Word come forth to refashion the peoples’ (The Nativity, Matins, Ode Four, heirmos).”xii Just as in Irenaeus’ interpretation, which turned Mariological from his Christological approach, so Theodore and the hymnographer began with the New Testament motif of Jesus as the ‘stone’xiii and move onto seeing the mountain that the stone comes from as a Marian type. In both instances the connection made between the type and the Virgin Mary comes from the description of the type being untouched; whether Adam from untilled ground or the stone cut from the mountain without hands.

The Perpetual Virginity:

While the doctrine of the virgin birth is less controversial among Christiansxiv the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary has been a point of contention between the Orthodoxxv and many modern Christians for the last few centuriesxvi. While the texts of the New Testament themselves contain no explicit affirmation of the perpetual virginity of Mary nonetheless when applying a typological hermeneutic to the Old Testament the perpetual virginity shows up in numerous places.

The Church herself provides an example of Mariological typology in the dogmaticon of Friday Vespers in Tone 5, “in the Red Sea of old a type of the Virgin Bride was prefigured. There Moses divided the waters; here Gabriel assisted in the miracle. There Israel crossed the sea without getting wet; here the Virgin gave birth to Christ without seed. After Israel’s passage, the sea remained impassable; after Emmanuel’s birth, the Virgin remained a virgin. O ever-existing God who appeared as man, O Lord, have mercy on us!”xvii The hymn compares the birth of Jesus from the womb of Mary with the exodus of Israel out of Egypt. In Exodus 4:22 God refers to Israel as His “firstborn son” and in multiple places in the New Testament Jesus is referred to as the “firstborn”xviii. The image of Israel crossing the Red Sea is in fact an image of a new birth from out of the womb of Egypt, as noted by Alastair Roberts, “In the morning, the Israelites passed through the bloodied doors and left Egypt. At this point, God establishes a new law, setting apart all of the firstborn of their animals and every son that opens the womb. The doors of the house are associated with childbirth elsewhere in Scripture (Genesis 18:10; 1 Samuel 1:9; 2 Kings 4:15; 1 Kings 14:6-17); their opening is the occurrence of a new birth. As God brings his firstborn son to birth, he dedicates all of Israel’s firstborn sons to himself, and the firstborn sons of all who seek to destroy them die. Traveling out from Egypt, God brings the Israelites to the Reed Sea. The waters break and, through a narrow passage, the Israelites emerge blinking into the dawn of a new world of freedom, drawn out from the womb of Egypt. The waters then close over the sons of the Egyptians. As with the birth of Samuel and the news of Jesus’s birth, this event is greeted with rejoicing and song (1 Samuel 2:1-10; Luke 1:46-55).”xix The hymn makes the connection between Jesus and Israel as the firstborn and then moves on to see the opening of the Red Sea as a type of the opening of Mary’s womb. Since only Israel was able to pass through the opened sea, with it closing in after their crossing, it serves as a proper type of the perpetual virginity of Mary; since it was only Jesus Who passed through the womb of Mary.

One of the Old Testament readings prescribed for the Vespers of both the Nativity of the Theotokos and the Dormition is Ezekiel 43:27-44:4. At the beginning of the forty fourth chapter the text says, “and he turned me by the way of the outer gate of the holies that looks to the east and it was shut. And the Lord said to me: ‘This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall go through it, because the Lord, the God of Israel, shall enter through it, and it shall be shut.” That this text is read on the eve of Marian feasts reveals the recognition of a Marian type by the Church. Here the temple is seen as a type of the Virgin Mary and the gate which only the God of Israel shall go through is a type of the Virgin’s womb. Just as the gate of the temple shall be shut once the God of Israel has entered through it so the Virgin’s womb was closed after Jesus passes through it. Commenting on this text Walther Zimmerli states, “with regard to men a clear ruling has been given: no human foot shall cross the threshold over which Yahweh passed to His sanctuary.”xx By virtue of the indwelling of the Word of God within the womb of Mary she becomes a new sanctuary; and since the Lord has passed through the threshold of His sanctuary, the Holy Theotokos, no human foot shall pass through and the gate of her womb shall be shut.

The Gospel of Matthew is full of typological connections between Jesus and the figures of Israel. Matthew 1:20-21 the angel of the Lord says to Joseph, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…she will bear you a son and you will call his name Jesus.” This echoes the language of Genesis 17:19 where God says to Abraham, “Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you will call his name Isaac.” Here we see Matthew presenting Jesus as a new Issac, a connection made elsewhere in the New Testament as wellxxi, which in turn presents Mary as a new Sarah, and as Leroy Huizenga notes, “Sarah, after all, had one and only one son.”xxii While the typological connection between Sarah and Mary is imperfect – since Sarah was elderly, barren, and her conception of Isaac is natural – it’s unnecessary for every detail in a type and the anti-type to be identical. In this case the connection is between two details, the son of the promise and him being the only son of his mother. In the Gospel when Jesus speaks about His coming death and resurrection as being the sign of Jonah it doesn’t imply that all the details of Jonah’s life correspond with His own but rather He declares that someone greater than Jonah is herexxiii. Likewise is the connection between Sarah and Mary it would be appropriate to style Mary as one greater than Sarah.

In Luke 1:35 when the angel of God announces to Mary that she will conceive the Son of God he says to her, “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you.” The language of being overshadowed echoes Exodus 40:29 where the glory of God overshadows the tabernacle, “but Moses was not able to enter the tabernacle of testimony because the cloud overshadowed it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” Within the tabernacle the glory of God rested between the two golden cherubim on top of the ark, as Exodus 25:22 relates, “there I will make Myself known to you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of testimony, about everything I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel.” The image of the glory of God overshadowing the ark of the covenant presents Mary as a new ark – an ark of the new covenant – with the Holy Spirit overshadowing her. Mary can likewise be seen as an ark of the new covenant when examining the items that were placed inside the arkxxiv as well as comparing the stories of David retrieving the ark from the Philistines and Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth.xxv The significance of the ark typology for the perpetual virginity of Mary is the fact that once the glory of God had overshadowed the ark no man was permitted to touch the ark. Just as no man was to touch the ark of the covenant, for the Lord Himself was enthroned upon the ark, so because the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Virgin Mary and the Word of God was enthroned within her womb so should no man touch the sanctified womb of the Holy Theotokos.

The typological connection between the tabernacle and Mary is not only limited to the ark of the covenant but Mary can be seen to be a fulfillment of the tabernacle itself. In an oration on the Nativity of the Holy Theotokos St. John of Damascus speaks about the tabernacle as being a type of the Virgin Mary, “let the tabernacle that was entirely covered with gold recognize that it cannot compare with her, along with a golden jar which contained manna, a lampstand, a table, and all the other objects from long ago. For they have been honored as her types, as shadows of a true archetype.”xxvi A further connection can be made specifically between the holy of holies and the Virgin Mary, as is identified by St. Germanos of Constantinople, “Today, she who is about to be welcomed by the sanctity of the Spirit into the holy of holies; she, who was raised in a most marvelous way beyond even the glory of the cherubim, is stored up in a most holy way and gloriously in the holy of holies, for a greater sanctity, at an innocent and impressionable age.”xxvii The sanctity of the holy of holies was due to the indwelling of the glory of God and therefore the Virgin Mary possessed a greater sanctity by virtue of the conception of the Word of God within her womb. The Gospel of John likewise makes a connection between Mary’s virginal womb, Jesus’ tomb (which no man had been laid in before), and the holy of holies.xxviii The importance of recognizing Mary as a new holy of holies is that only the high priest was allowed the enter the holy of holies; and only on the day of atonement to make purification for the sins of Israel. The book of Hebrews describes Jesus as the Great High Priest and since the womb of the Virgin Mary is a new holy of holies it is fitting that only Jesus, as the Great High Priest, enters into her womb.


The doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary cannot only be based upon the arguments made about the exact meaning of certain Greek words. While the literal meaning of the text is necessary in upholding a biblical understanding of the Virgin Mary it is of the up-most necessity then that this is supported by a typological view of the Virgin Mary; following the approach of the apostolic authors and the early Church Fathers themselves. When examining the Virgin Mary through typological eyes we can see the perpetual virginity of Mary with a clarified vision who’s womb is the impassable sea through which only the firstborn Son of God passes through, the east gate through which only the God of Israel enters in, the new Sarah who’s only child is the Son of the promise, the ark of the new covenant which no man can touch, and the new holy of holies where only the Great High Priest has access.




iJohn Breck, Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001, p. 22.

iiG. K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012, p. 14.

iiiCompare Genesis 21:20, “Thus God was with the lad; and he grew and dwelt in the desert, and became an archer,” (speaking about Ishmael) with Luke 1:20, “So the child grew and became strong in the spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel.”

ivIn 1 Kings 21 the King Ahab takes a vineyard that belongs to someone else and is confronted by the prophet Elijah. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark it is noted that the King Herod took his brother’s wife as his own and is confronted by John the Baptist. Likewise a comparison of 2 Kings 1:8, “he wore a garment of haircloth, and a girdle of leather around his loins, “ (speaking of Elijah) with Matthew 3:4, “Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist,” (speaking of John the Baptist) shows another connection between John and Elijah.

vIn 1 Samuel 16 the prophet Samuel anoints David as the new King of Israel and the Spirit of God comes upon David. In the Synoptic Gospels John the Baptist baptizes Jesus and the Spirit of God comes upon Jesus (for further parallels between Samuel and John simply compare the infancy narratives of both – 1 Samuel 1-2:10 and Luke 1:2-25, 57-80).

viCompare the story of Genesis 16:11-12 where an angel of the Lord announces to Hagar the birth of her son Ishmael with Luke 1:26-38 where an angel of the Lord announces to Mary the birth of her Son Jesus.

viiCompare Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 with the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55.

viii The Angel’s words in Luke 1:28, “blessed are you among women,” echo Judges 5:24, “Jael is blessed among women, the wife of Heber the Kenite; Blessed is she from among the women in the tents.”

xAnd in the author’s opinion the evidence weighs more strongly on the perpetual virginity of Mary when further reasearch is done on these two issues.

xiIrenaeus, Epid. 32(SC 406: 128).

xiiEugen J. Pentiuc, The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 245-246.

xiii Such as in Mark 12:10-11, Matthew 12:42, and Luke 20:17.

xivThough there are many within liberal scholarship who denounce the virgin birth as a fabrication (see for example Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: the First Three Thousand Years, London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2009, p. 78-82).

xvAs well as Roman Catholics and some traditional Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists (among others).

xviThough from the time that the doctrine has been discussed – beginning in the second century with the Proto-Evangelium of James – the perpetual virginity had been an accepted doctrine; being advocated by such luminary figures such as St. Athanasius of Alexandria, St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose of Milan, and St. Jerome (among others) – with only a minor number of detractors (for a discussion of the fourth century debate over the perpetual virginity of Mary see Stephen J. Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016, p. 170-172.

xvii Quoted in John Breck, Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church, p.65.

xviii See for example Colossions 1:15, Hebrews 1:6, and Romans 8:29.

xxQuoted in Eugen J. Pentiuc, The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, p. 229.

xxiSt. Paul sees Jesus to be the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham and his seed; Galatians 3:16, 29.

xxiii Matthew 12:41.

xxiv A Jar of Manna, Aaron’s budded staff, and the tablets of the Law (all of which are types of Jesus: the Bread from Heaven, the Great High Priest, and the Word of God Himself.

xxvi Oration found in: Mary B. Cunningham, Wider than Heaven: Eighth-century Homilies on the Mother of God, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2008, p. 62.

xxvii Mary B. Cunningham, Wider than Heaven: Eighth-century Homilies on the Mother of God, p. 147.

xxviii The tomb of Jesus in the Gospel of John after His resurrection is presented in symbolism that brings the holy of holies to mind: the two angels on either side of the tomb recall the golden cherubim on the sides of the ark of the covenant, the linen grave clothes left behind recalls the linen clothes of the high priest that he took off and left behind in the holy place. The connection between this tomb and the virgin womb is precisely in the language of John 19:41 where it describes the tomb as being, “new in which no one had yet been laid.” Likewise St. Ephrem the Syrian sees a connection between the sealed womb of Mary and the sealed tomb of Jesus (see John Behr, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006, p. 134-135).

Becoming God-Bearers: Annunciation, Apocalypse, and Eucharist.

The use of the word ‘apocalypse’ in many modern contexts oftentimes invokes cataclysmic imagery involving cosmic judgement and destruction. When one thinks about the apocalyptic genre of literature it’s fairly common for the mind to turn towards the final book of the biblical canon with all it’s language, images, and symbols that present the struggle between the forces of God and the forces of His adversaries that result cosmic destruction through plagues, heavenly warfare, and the ultimate end of this age through the judgement of God. In fact, if we look at the Greek word behind the title of the Bible’s closing book we find that it’s the root for our modern word ‘apocalypse’ (Gr. apokalypsis). However, the reason for this title isn’t derived from the cataclysmic content of the book but rather it’s stylized as an apocalypse due to the revelatory nature of the content. This is because the meaning of the Greek word apokalypsis is to ‘uncover’ or to ‘unveil’ (this explains why the common English translation for the book is ‘Revelation’ even though the Greek can also be directly translated as ‘apocalypse;’ the words are synonymous). Thus an apocalypse is an unveiling, or a revealing, of something previously covered, or unknown.

Immediately preceding the distribution of the Eucharist to the faithful, in many Orthodox parishes, is the rolling away of the curtain and the opening of the Royal Doors; revealing to them the altar and the outward processing clergy with the Eucharistic gifts. These liturgical movements are apocalyptic acts. Previously the Eucharistic gifts have been covered. Even when they are processed during the Great Entrance, and the faithful see the chalice and the patin in the hands of the clergy, they are covered up. Only at the moment when the faithful are to receive the Eucharistic gifts are they unveiled; revelation issuing in reception.

Likewise the pattern of revelation issuing in reception is found in the Gospel narrative of the Annunciation. The archangel Gabriel announces (or reveals) to the Virgin Mary that she will conceive the Son of God in her womb through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. Mary responds to the archangel’s message by saying, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38). In the narrative we see a revelation by the archangel, the descent of the Holy Spirit, the response of the Virgin, and the conception of the Son of God (making Mary into a ‘God-bearer’).

The Eucharistic distribution is a new annunciation; formerly revealed to the Virgin Mother of the Son of God, now revealed to a new Virgin Mother – the Church. The apocalyptic opening of the Royal Doors and the deacon’s exhortation to the faithful, “With fear of God, and with faith and love, draw near,” is the new heavenly announcement to Virgin Mother Church that she’ll become the God-bearer. Just as the Holy Spirit descent upon the Virgin Mary and the Son of God was conceived in her womb so during the consecration of the Eucharistic gifts the priest says that God would, “Send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here offered.” Through the mystery of the operation of the Holy Spirit the Eucharistic gifts of bread and wine become to Body and Blood of Christ. Mary responded to the archangel’s promise that the Spirit would descend and she would bear God in her womb as the faithful respond to the deacon’s summoning to receive the Son of God through Eucharistic gifts changed by the Holy Spirit. The revelation of the archangel that elicited the Virgin’s response resulted in the conception of the Son of God and the transformation of the Virgin into a God-bearer; so now the faithful draw near to the chalice in response to angelic summons of the deacon to receive the Body and Blood of Christ and thus become the new God-bearers through the operation of the Holy Spirit.

Discerning Spirits: St. Athanasius’ Rule on Distinguishing Between the Uncreated and Created spirits in the Scriptures.


One of facets of St. Athanasius’ theology that is often overlooked is his pneumatology; that is, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Normally when one thinks of St. Athanasius what comes to mind is his fervent insistence in the full divinity of the Son in such works as his classic On the Incarnation or in his Orations Against the Arians. However, between 359 and 361, while St. Athanasius in living in the lower Theibad of the Egyptian Deserts during his third exile (which lasted from 356-352), he wrote a number of letters to Serapion, the bishop of Thmuis in lower Egypt, regarding the divinity of the Holy Spirit. His Letters to Serapion were composed in response to a letter that Serapion sent to St. Athanasius requesting him to write a refutation of those who, while affirming the divinity of the Son, rejected the divinity of the Spirit. Those who rejected the divinity of the Spirit were styled as the “Tropikoi” since, in St. Athanasius’ opinion, they misinterpreted the Scriptures.

The majority of St. Athanasius’ first letter deals with the passages the Tropikoi rely upon for their rejection of the divinity of the Spirit; Amos. 4:13 and 1. Tim. 5:1. While examining the Tropikoi’s interpretation of Amos. 4:13 St. Athanasius charges them with failing to understand the different ways in which the Scriptures employ the word “spirit.” St. Athanasius concludes that Amos. 4:13 is, in fact, not speaking about the Holy Spirit at all and says to the Tropikoi that, “out of sheer audacity you have invented your own mode of exegesis and claim that the ‘spirit’ said to be created is nothing other than the Holy Spirit. Yet from scholars you could have learned about the difference among spirits.”i In response to the misinterpretation of the Tropokoi and their failure to differentiate between the various spirits in the Scriptures St. Athanasius puts forward an exegetical rule in order to do that which the Tropikoi failed to do:

1.) If the spirit is unpredicated or unqualified then the text is referring to a created spirit.

2.) Among the unpredicated uses of the word spirit it can be referring to a variety of created things: the human spiritii, the windiii, and the deeper meaning of the Scriptures themselvesiv.

3.) If the spirit is predicated or qualifed (such as the Spirit ‘of God’ or ‘of Christ’) then the passage is to be understood to be referring to the Holy Spirit.

4.) Alongside this general rule St. Athanasius gives a qualification that there are two ways in which the Holy Spirit is being spoken without being predicated or qualified in the New Testament, “those which mention recipients of the Holy Spirit that have already been mentionedv, and those in which it is clear from the context that the reference is to the Holy Spirit.”vi

St. Athanasius’ exegetical key proves to be a helpful corrective to the methods of the Tropikoi since when their work on Amos 4:13 leads them to the conclusion that the Holy Spirit is a creature St. Athanasius is able to apply his rule to the passage to demonstrate that Amos 4:13 is in fact speaking about a created spirit rather than the Holy Spiritvii.

iEp. Serap. 1.7.2.

iiEp. Serap. 1.7.3-4. St. Athanasius brings Ps. 76:7, Bar. 3:1, Dan. 3:86, Rom. 8:16-17, 1 Cor. 2:11, and 1 Thess. 5:23 as scriptural support.

iiiEp. Serap. 1.7.5-6. Here he bring forward Gen. 8:1, Jon. 1:4, Ps. 106:25, Ps. 148:7-8, and Ezek 27:25-26.

ivEp. Serap. 1.8.1-3. Finally he refers to 2 Cor. 3:6, Rom. 7:14, Rom. 7:6, Rom. 7:25-8:2, and he also brings examples of Philip (Acts. 8:30) and Caleb (Num. 14:24) as men who had a heart of understanding that were able to comprehend the spirit of God’s words.

vSt. Athanasius points to Gal. 3:2 and 1 Thess. 5:19.

viSt. Athanasius points to Lk. 4:1, Mt. 4:1, and Lk. 3:21-22. Mark DelCogliano, Andrew Radde-Galwitz, and Lewis Ayres, Works on the Spirit, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011, p. 58 (footnote n. 12).

viiSee Ep. Serap. 1.8.4-1.9.10.

The Natures of Christ and the Economy of the Son and the Spirit: Reconfiguring St. Augustine’s doctrine of the Filioque in De Trinitate.


A common misconception of St. Augustine’s doctrine of the filioque is that, due to neo-platonic influences, he arrives at the doctrine by approaching the doctrine of the Trinity at the starting point of the unity of the divine essence. Since the Son is of the same essence as the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father, therefore the Spirit must likewise proceed from the Son. While this sort of theological musing isn’t entirely absent from St. Augustine’s thought it doesn’t stand to be the central argument for his proposition of the filioque. The doctrine of the filioque shows up periodically throughout his work The Trinity and what we can find is that St. Augustine arrives at the doctrine of the filioque through the implementation a number of hermenuetical principles.

The first principle is St. Augustine’s application of either the divine nature or the human nature of Christ as a hermenuetical lens. This is related to his doctrine of the filioque because in The Trinityi he applies this tactic to Christ’s declaration in Jn. 7:16 that, “My doctrine is not mine,” to refer to Christ’s human nature while at the same time St. Augustine affirms that Christ’s doctrine is His own according to His divine nature. Elsewhereii St. Augustine interprets Jn. 15:26 in the same manner, even using his interpretation of Jn. 7:16 as an aid,

So if the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, why did the Son say he proceeds from the Father (Jn. 15:26)? Why indeed, do you suppose, unless it was the way he was accustomed to refer even what was his very own to him from whom he had his very self? – for example, that other thing he said, My teaching is not mine but him who sent me (Jn. 7:16). If in this case we can accept that it is his teaching, which he says however is not his but the Father’s, how much more should we accept in our other case that the Holy Spirit also proceeds from him, seeing that he said, he proceeds from the Father, without also saying ‘he does not proceed from me’?”iii

Another way St. Augustine arrives at the doctrine of the filioque is through his doctrine of the mission of the Son and the Spirit. In Books 2-3 of The Trinity he analyzes the Old Testament theophanies and concludes that in every case God manifested Himself through a created means of mediation (in these cases the mediators were angels). In Book 4 he argues that in the case of the Incarnation God reveals Himself through the created human flesh of Christ and that at Pentecost the Spirit reveals Himself through the created tongues of fire. He then works backwards to see the economic missions of the Son and the Spirit to reflect their eternal begetting and procession. Since the Father is unoriginate He has no mission while the Son and the Spirit come from the Father therefore they are the ones who are sent economically. Through his doctrine of the mission of the Son and the Spirit St. Augustine notes how Christ says that He will send the Spirit and how He breathes the Spirit onto His disciples and likewise works backwards that since the Son sends the Spirit economically from the Father there the Spirit must also proceed from the Son with the Father.

More examples could be given from a careful reading of The Trinity to show that St. Augustine’s doctrine of the filioque has a greater bases upon his interpretation of scripture than it does in neo-platonic philosophy. While it may be possible to dispute St. Augustine’s conclusions, or at the very least to ask him what we should say regarding the eternal begetting of the Son if He was economically begotten by the Spirit according to the ways he has applied his hermenuetical lenses, we should at the very least discuss his doctrine of the filioque on his own terms rather than to dismiss it as merely being the result of a neo-platonic approach to the Trinity rather than to recognize the biblical reasons he provides for his doctrine.

iTrin. 1.12.27.

iiTrin. 15.27.48.

iiiTrin. 15.27.48.

God and Man: The Christological Exegesis in St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Third and Fourth Theological Orations.


In the third and the fourth theological orations St. Gregory of Nazianzus addresses various philosophical, logical, and scriptural issues regarding the Person of the Son. Occasionally his oration takes the form of a dialogue with a rhetorical interlocutor where he presents a possible argument by his opponent against his own position. One example of this can be found in the eighteenth point of the third theological oration. Immediately preceding is St. Gregory’s declaration that he has learned to believe in, and teach, the deity of the Son and proceeds to demonstrate through a host of scriptural passages the deity of the Son. After this demonstration he brings forward the argument of his rhetorical opponent that the scriptures attribute many things which are unseemly to deity; such as the Son being a servant, obedient, subjected, ignorant, etc. In response St. Gregory lays down his hermenuetical lens by which he will read a host of passages in the fourth oration, “What is lofty you are to apply to the Godhead, and to that nature which is in him superior to sufferings and incorporeal; but all that is lowly to the composite condition of him who for your sakes made himself of no reputation and was incarnate – yes, for it is no worse thing to say – was made man, and afterwards was also exalted.”1  St.Gregory’s conclusion is that everything which is exalted is to be attributed to the divine nature of the Son while everything that is lowly is to be attributed to the human nature that He assumed in His Incarnation.

In the fourth theological oration St. Gregory applies his Christological exegesis to a variety of passages which have been used to argue against the divinity of the Son (though other arguments are made as well aside from this method). These passages include, but are not limited to, Jn. 6:38; 14:28; 20:17, and Mk. 13:32. An example of this application can be found in the beginning of the fourth theological oration where he examines Proverbs 8:22; a favorite of those theologians who denied the divinity of the Son. St. Gregory notices how the passages speaks both about being “created” as well as how in verse twenty five the language of “begetting is used.” The begetting of Wisdom in then attributed to the timeless begetting of the Son by the Father while that which is created is referred to the human nature which the Son assumes to be the beginning of God’s work of redemption. St. Gregory maintains throughout his arguments that there is a distinction between the divine and human natures in Christ though they are unified and that there is a single “person” who is the divine Word of God; in making this distinction between a single person and the dual natures St. Gregory anticipates the Chalcedonian Christological settlement.

St. Gregory provides a hermenuetical lens which upholds Nicene Christology and by it is able to hold in tension the scriptural language which both exalts Christ and attributes lowliness to Him which anticipates future Christological pronouncements that distinguish the divine and human natures.

1Third Theological Oration, pt. 18.

Christ the Giver of the Spirit: Sts. Athansius and Cyril of Alexandria on the Virgin Birth and the Baptism of Christ.


One of the events portrayed in the Gospels that proved to be controversial within the first few centuries of the Church is the baptism of Jesus. The descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus led some early Christian writers to the conclusion that event represents the adoption of the man Jesus Christ to a divine status. This view came to be known as adoptionism and was promoted by figures in the second and third century such as Theodotus of Byzantium and Paul of Samosata. A synod in Antioch in 269 AD condemned Paul and his views while the 19th canon of the first Council of Nicaea in 325 AD declared that Paulinists must be re-baptized upon their reception into the Church. The adoptionist Christology was condemned and deemed heretical by the Church; and thus the adoptionist interpretation of the baptism of Christ was likewise rejected. What is then the significance of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ at His baptism if it doesn’t represent a divine adoption?

One of the answers put forward can be found in the writings of two great Alexandrian Patriarchs, Sts. Athanasius and Cyril. St. Athanasius was Patriarch of Alexandria from 328 AD – 373 AD while St. Cyril was the Patriarch of Alexandria from 412 AD – 444 AD. St. Athanasius addresses the question of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ in his Four Discourses Against the Arians. For St. Athanasius it was necessary for Christ to receive the Holy Spirit not because He was a mere human who needed a divine adoption but rather the event shows the distinction between the divine and human natures in Christ and the reception of the Holy Spirit according to His humanity (since Christ, as the Word of God, in His divine nature has always been with the Spirit) is for the sake of humanity, “and therefore have we securely received it [the Holy Spirit], He being said to be anointed in the flesh; for the flesh being first sanctified in Him [Jesus Christ], and He being said as man, to have received for its sake, we have the sequel of the Spirit’s grace.”i All that Christ does is for the sake of the redemption and salvation of man. Since Christ is the giver of the Spirit He must also be the receiver of the Spirit in His humanity so that the whole of humanity may be able to receive the Spirit through Him; as Khaled Anatolios notes, “the fact that it is the same one who is the giver of the Spirit in his divinity and the perfect receiver of it in his humanity is what makes our sanctification and salvation ultimately secure, inasmuch as we become co-recipients of the Spirit, through Christ’s humanity.”ii

While St. Athanasius dealt with the anointing of Christ by the Spirit during the Arian controversies of the fourth century, to demonstrate the divinity of Christ in being the giver of the Spirit, St. Cyril deals with the subject during the Nestorian controversy of the fifth century to demonstrate that the eternal Word of God truly became human. In his work On the Unity of Christ St. Cyril, rhetorically, asks the question, “why did the Word, who is God, make a virgin the mother of his flesh with a conception straight from the Holy Spirit?”iii The doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ was also disputed by some groups in the early life of the Church just as the doctrine of adoptionism. The group known as the Ebionites rejected the virgin birth of Christ and considered him to be a mere man. While St. Cyril is not addressing the Ebionites in his address there are some similarities between the Ebinonite Christology and the Christology of Nestorius; as St. Cyril presents, and argues against, it. The Nestorian Christology denies a real unity between the divine and human natures of Christ; differentiating between the Son of God and the Son of David. Since the divinity of the Son of David is an adoption by grace from the indwelling Son of God it makes the humanity of Christ to be merely human rather than the flesh of the incarnate God. St. Cyril addresses the question of the virgin birth by the Spirit to maintain that the Word of God truly took on a human body of His own, rejecting any position that the body of Christ is that of a mere man. The reason for the virgin birth is that because the Word of God was born by the Spirit according to the flesh humanity might be reborn spiritually by the Holy Spirit, “he himself became the first one to be born of the Holy Spirit (I mean of course after the flesh) so that he could trace a path of grace to come to us…this is how he transmits the grace of sonship even to us so that we too can become children of the Spirit, insofar as human nature had first achieved this possibility in him.”iv Human nature becomes born of the Spirit in the Incarnation of Christ so that through Christ it can be possible for humanity to become recipients of a spiritual birth by the Holy Spirit.

In the theologies of Sts. Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria both the events of the Incarnation and the anointing of Christ by the Spirit at His baptism are soteriological; Christ is born in the flesh of the Spirit so that mankind may be born of the Spirit and Christ receives the Spirit in His humanity so that mankind may receive the Holy Spirit through Him. In both events its absolutely necessary that Jesus Christ both be fully God (as in St. Athanasius’ arguments against the Arians) and fully human; though not merely human (as in St. Cyril’s arguments against Nestorius). The salvation of man, his deification, is brought about only through his reception of the Holy Spirit and he can only receive the Holy Spirit through Christ; thus Christ becomes the giver of the Spirit according to His divinity and the receiver of the Spirit according to His humanity to bestow the gift of the Holy Spirit upon human nature in both the events of His Incarnation and His baptism.

iC. Ar 1.50.

iiKhaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea: the Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine, Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2011, p. 125.

iiiSt. Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995, p. 62.

ivIbid., p. 62-63.

St. Cyril of Alexandria’s Soteriological Objection to the Christology of Nestorius.


Following the Arian controversies of the fourth century the next major Christological controversy that surfaced within the Church was centered around the preaching of the Archbishop of Constantinople Nestorius. In 428 Nestorius was elevated to the position of Archbishop of Constantinople and, according to Fr. John McGuckin, “set to work…attempting to bring his episcopal city to a common religious view and practice.”i Not long after his elevation and theological dispute was brought before him by a group of Constantinopolitan monks regarding the veneration of the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God (or Theotokos in Greek). The Constantinopolitan monks had clashed with another group who insisted upon regarding Mary as the Mother of the Man (Anthropotokos). Nestorius’ conclusion was that both terms were insufficient and settled that Mary should be addressed as the Mother of Christ (Christotokos). In 429 Nestorius initiated a series of public lectures in his cathedral on the proper faith in Christ. The opening address was given by Nestorius’ chaplain Anastasius which began with the rejection of the title of Theotokos for the Virgin Mary, “Let no man call Mary Mother of God for she was but a woman, and it is impossible for God to be born of a woman.”ii The Christology implied by the rejection of the Marian title of Theotokos, as interpreted by Nestorius’ opponents, was that there was a division between the Pre-existent Logos and the man Jesus Christ. While the central term during the controversy was based upon a Marian title the content of the controversy was Christological in nature.

One of the main, and most fierce, opponents of Nestorius’ Christology was the Patriarch of Alexandria, St. Cyril. One of the works composed by St. Cyril to address the issue of Nestorius’ Christology was the treatise On the Unity of Christ. While there are many facets to St. Cyril’s objections to Nestorius’ Christology one of the dimensions is the soteriological implications of the perceived Christology of Nestorius. In the beginning of his polemic against Nestorius in On the Unity of Christ St. Cyril characterizes the position of Nestorius as being akin to the Arian Christology, which had been condemned at the first Council of Nicaea in 325 AD; and reaffirmed at the first Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. St. Cyril’s reasoning for associating Nestorius’ Christology with that of Arius can be seen precisely within the soteriological dimension. In the theology of Arius the Word of God is the first created being by the Father. The Word doesn’t possess the divine nature as the Father does, due to his being created, but a divine sonship is granted to the Word by Grace. Since the Word is a created being it logically follows that he must possess freedom of will and that the divinity granted to the Word was based upon the anticipation of the future merits of the Word.iii This scheme was confronted by the great St. Athanasius of Alexandria. For St. Athanasius the Son must possess divinity by nature in order to bestow salvation. St. Athansius’ soteriological framework of deification necessitates the real union between God and man in the person of Jesus Christ so that through the union of the divine and human natures in Christ mankind can be rooted in Christ and receive the Spirit through Christ and thus participate in divine life and be transformed into ‘gods.’ If the Son is not the Son by nature and is only a created being Himself then how is it possible to unite humanity to God in himself? How can he bestows a sonship by grace upon humanity if he himself possesses only a sonship by grace? The Son must possess the divine nature in it’s fullness to be able to confer a sonship of grace on humanity.

The issue of whether Jesus Christ is the Son of God by nature or by grace also comes up within the Nestorian controversy. In St. Cyril’s appropriation of Nestorius’ Christology he comes to the conclusion that Nestorius presents a doctrine on two Sons: the Son of God and the Son of David, “they say that the Word of God the Father, who is Son by nature, is one; but that the man who is assumed is by nature the Son of David, and is the Son of God insofar as he is assumed by God the Word. They say that he has come to such dignity and has the sonship by grace, because God the Words dwells within him.”iv To make such a distinction between the Son of God and the Son of David in the person of Jesus Christ is unacceptable to St. Cyril. If there is not a true union between divine and human natures of Christ then He is at the same level as the rest of humanity. If the Word of God simply dwells within the man Jesus Christ how is He any different than any of the Christians who the Word dwells within? St. Cyril sees in Nestorius’ scheme that since there is such a distinction between the two Sons (though Nestorius and his theological inheritors wouldn’t say that there are two Sons; which St. Cyril himself acknowledges throughout the treatise) that the Word of God didn’t truly become man, since the humanity assumed in the Incarnation is not truly His own, and that by virtue of the indwelling Word the humanity of Christ is glorified and raised to a level of sonship. The soteriological implications of this theology are disastrous in the estimation of St. Cyril, “if he has the sonship by grace and has come to be what he is by winning this extra dignity will he be led to grant to others the riches it cost him so much to gain himself?”v St. Cyril likewise comes to the conclusion that if the sonship of the man Jesus Christ is by grace and not by nature (by virtue of being assumed by the Word of God) then He is unable to bestow the gift of sonship upon others. Just as in the Arian scheme the Word of God is unable to bestow sonship upon mankind due to his being a creature devoid of union with God so in the Nestorian doctrine due to the lack of union between the divine and the human in Christ so likewise Christ is unable to grant sonship to others, “how can we be sons by adoption in reference to him who is truly the Son, if even he stands alongside us in the number of those who have the sonship by grace?”vi

What can be seen in St. Cyril’s strong opposition to Nestorius’ doctrine of Christ is that the objective and focus of Patristic Christology wasn’t about abstract theological formulas. For St. Cyril, as it was for St. Athanasius, one’s doctrine on Christ defines their doctrine of salvation. For both Sts. Athanasius and Cyril their soteriological model of deification necessitates both the full divinity of the Son of God and His true assumption of, and union with, human nature. Only then can He impart the divine life to humanity and deify mankind; and on the other hand a faulty Christology implies a false soteriology. Therefore the necessity of affirming a Christology that affirms both the full divinity and the full humanity of Christ united in the single person of the Pre-existent Word of God is based upon the necessity to affirm that the salvation of man is found in the God-man Jesus Christ.

iJohn McGuckin, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004, p. 23.

iiIbid., p. 29.

iiiSee Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011, p. 42-52.

ivSt. Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995, p. 80.

vIbid., p. 81.

viIbid., p. 81.

The Baptism of God: Christian Appropriation of Philosophical Theology during the “Arian” Controversy.

holy fathers


Since the time of the 19th century one of the prevailing narratives of Church history presents the development of doctrine as a Hellenization of Christianity. This view was held strongly by the 19th century Protestant theologian Adolf Von Harnack and due to his influence this narrative has been popular within various circles of scholarship. Since the time of Harnack there have been notable theologians and historians who have challenged his reading of Church history, such as Jaroslav Pelikan and Robert Wilken, and have seen the Christian interaction with “Hellenism” as necessary and providential1. The appropriation of Greek philosophy by the early Christians was not a matter of uncritical interpolation of Plato or Aristotle into the message of the Scriptures; no one simply mapped the language of the scriptures onto a Greek philosophical system. Rather they incorporated elements of Greek philosophy which they saw to be consistent with scriptural narrative; as the Orthodox theologian Fr. John Meyendorff wrote, “The Greek Fathers…adopted everything in Greek philosophy which was compatible with Christian Revelation”2 The proposition that I wish to make is that during the course of the, so-called, “Arian” controversy that every side of the controversy implemented philosophical theology3 within their position; whether they were pro or anti-Nicene in their theology. While no one was guilty of simply imposing every single point of philosophical theology into their own theology (Arius was not simply a neo-platonist) I wish to suggest that the theologians who history, and the Church, would deem as heretical had a greater disposition towards incorporating philosophical theology without a redefinition, or as much of a redefinition, of these inherited doctrines than those theologians who would be deemed to be orthodox in their theology. As we will see that while figures such as Arius and Eunomius denied the doctrine of the full divinity of the Son and the Spirit based upon their implementation of philosophical theology figures such as Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa reconfigured, without discarding, philosophical theology in light of their reading of the biblical texts which revealed the doctrine of the full divinity of the Son and the Spirit with the Father.

The Christian Inheritance of Philosophical Theology and the Christian Attitude Towards Pagan Philosophy.

What I deem as “philosophical theology” has been labeled by others as “classical theism.” This notion of God holds that He is incorporeal, simple, united, eternal, immutable, impassible, omniscient, omnipotent, and good (among other attributes).4 These divine attributes could be found in the teachings of various Greek philosophers; such as Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus. The evidence of the Christian inheritance of these attributes can be found, for example though not limited, within various statements made by Origen in his work On First Principles. In the first chapters of Book 1 Origen attributes to God incorporeality, oneness, simplicity, immutability, omnipotence, eternity, and goodness for example.5

The early Christian attitude towards hellenic philosophy in general was one of both suspicion at times and critical acceptance at others. Figures such as Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria viewed the hellenic philosophers as containing elements of truth and were for the Greeks what Moses was for the Israelites. On the other side was the early third century Latin writer Tertullian who rhetorically wrote, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”6 It’s common to see the early Christian writers criticize the hellenic philosophers while nonetheless adapting those elements of the philosophical theology that they find useful. For instance we can find Gregory of Nazianzus saying, “Attack the silence of Pythagoras, and the Orphic beans, and the novel brag about ‘The Master said.’ Attack the ideas of Plato, and the transmigrations and courses of our souls, and the reminiscences, and the unlovely loves of the soul for lovely bodies. Attack the atheism of Epicurus, and his atoms, and his unphilosophic pleasure; or Aristotle’s petty Providence, and his artificial system, and his discourses about the mortality of the soul, and the humanitarianism of his doctrine,”7 while elsewhere in the same oration he says, “Let us not think so nor yet, like hot-tempered and hard-mouthed horses, throwing off our rider Reason, and casting away Reverence, that keeps us within due limits, run far away from the turning point,”8 which contains an allusion to the two-horsed chariot of Plato in his work Phaedrus.

What can be established is that the early Christian writers were well acquainted with the dominant philosophies of their times. On a whole the philosophies were, at best, incomplete guides towards the true philosophy of Christianity and at the worst demonic corruptions. Nevertheless even those who were the most disparaging in their writings towards the philosophers accepted and incorporated a certain degree of their doctrines (varying from one writer to the next). What’s important to note is that no one accepted the entirety of the hellenic philosophies and that none of the early Christian writers were merely espousing philosophy in Christian dress.

The Arian Controversy.

In the fourth century a major controversy broke out regarding the divinity of the Son. The debate originated in Alexandria between the bishop Alexander and one of his presbyters Arius. Arius responded against the preaching of his bishop that the Son was eternally with the Father with the declaration that there was a time when the Son was not. What started as a local dispute between a bishop and his presbyter spread across the Roman empire and resulted in the Emperor Constantine convoking a council at Nicaea in 325 AD to deal with this issue. While the council at Nicaea upheld the doctrine of Alexander over Arius nevertheless there continued to be various theologies similar to Arius’ in the denial of the unity of being of the Son with the Father well into the 7th century. Throughout the theological debates it can be seen that all sides implement philosophical theology. Everyone takes for granted, for example. the simplicity of the divine nature and that it is unchangeable. What can be suggested is that the heretical writers possessed a theology that bore a greater resemblance to the philosophical theology of the hellenes than did the orthodox writers.

Eusebius and Athanasius: The Trinity.

The Trinitarian theology of Eusebius of Ceasarea is one of subordination. In his system the Father possesses an absolute divine primacy over the Son. The Father alone is God proper and the Son is excluded from possessing divine equality with the Father by nature of his being begotten of the Father. The Son is the first product of the Father’s will before all creation with the Spirit being the first creature to come into existence through the Son. In Eusebius’ triadology we can see a hierarchy of the Father, Who alone is God, creating the Son, who possesses a different nature than the Father, and the created Son who creates the Holy Spirit. This subordinationist triadology bears some resemblance to the trinitarian concept found within the third century philosopher Plotinus. In Plotinus’ system there is first and foremost the ‘One’ who is self existing and leans on no other in it’s existence. Through some sort of inactive emanation there is produced the ‘Divine Mind’ which is later than the One and leans upon the One. As an act and utterance of the Divine Mind there emanates the ‘All Soul’ that looks to the Divine Mind. While differing from each other by account of the Son and the Spirit being products of will in Eusebius’ theology while in Plotinus the Divine Mind and the All Soul emanate apart from any act of willing we can see the hierarchy of origin and existence between Eusebius and Plotinus. In contrast to Eusebius’ triadology of subordination we can see in Athanasius of Alexandria a triadology of equality. Athanasius approaches the doctrine of the Trinity and his conclusion that the Son and the Holy Spirit are co-equal with the Father through his interpretation of the scriptures. He establishes the divinity of the Son through reading all of the exalted titles of Christ (the epinoiai or paradeigmata) found in scripture together. He finds that no created being within the scriptures possess such a plethora of exalted titles as does Christ and thus concludes that Christ possesses a preeminence over creation which places Him on the level of divinity, co-equal with the Father. In the case of the Holy Spirit Athanasius sees that the work of the Father and the Son is actualized in human beings by the Holy Spirit in the scriptures; the Spirit makes men sons of God in Christ, the Spirit enlightens, Christ is the Radiance, the Father is the Light, etc. Since the work of the Holy Spirit is tied together with the Father and the Son it is necessary that the Spirit is equally divine as the Father and the Son.

Arius and Gregory of Nazianzus: Unbegotteness.

In the theology of Arius we can see a strong emphasis on the attribute of being ‘unbegotten’ belonging to the Father alone. The unbegotteness of the Father asserts the absolute primacy of the Father above all other things since He alone has no origin. To suggest that anything else is unbegotten alongside the unbegotten Father is a logical contradiction in the theology of Arius since this would suggest two first principles. Since the Son is begotten He has no share in the unbegotten nature of the Father therefore the Son must consist of a different, created, nature than the Father. This bears a strong resemblance to the theological constructs of the Neo-platonists, such as Plotinus and Porphyry. Rowan Williams notes that in the case of the Neo-platonists there is the self-sufficient first principle from which real subsistents proceed from but that which comes from the first principle is a lower reality. In the case of the lower reality, “[it] is constituted or formed in this or that respect by the active life of the higher, but does not reproduce the essence of the higher.”9 While it would be an oversimplification to simply identify Arius as a Neo-platonist nevertheless the resemblance between his theological construction of the Unbegotten Father Who alone is God by nature and begets His Son by an act of will, giving the Son true existence other than the Father’s with the self-sufficient first principle from whom lower realities of a different nature proceed. The theology of Arius places the Son within the realm of created beings since having His origin in the Father there must have been a time when the Son was not and therefore the Son is not eternal. Eternity belongs only to that which has no origin. In contrast to the position of Arius we find Gregory of Nazianzus declaring that both the Son and the Spirit are also ‘unoriginate’; though in a certain qualified sense. The Son and the Spirit are originate in regards to having their origin in the Father but they are unoriginate in respect to time. Even with respects to the Son and the Spirit having their origin from the Father this does not necessitate that they aren’t eternal in their existence for Gregory since, “that which is eternal is not necessarily unoriginate.”10 In his argument against those who say that the Son is of another essence than the Father since He is begotten of the Father Gregory asks whether or not a human son which is born from a human father possesses a different essence. Likewise the first human Adam does not possess human nature alone but all humans that have come after him also possess the same human nature. Gregory’s argument is to show that if in the case of created beings that which is begotten possesses the same nature as the begetter than in the case of the Father that which is begotten of Him possesses the same nature. While Gregory’s argument here is a logical argument underlining it is his conviction of the equality of the Son with the Father based upon scriptural evidence. Near the end of his third theological oration he quotes a litany of scriptural passages which, for him, demonstrate the deity of the Son.11 Thus in the theological vision of Gregory of Nazianzus it is possible to say that not only is the Father unoriginate but so is the Son and the Holy Spirit – though unoriginate in a qualified sense – and that even though the Son and the Spirit come from the Father they are equals in deity rather than lower realities or of a different nature.

Eunomius and Gregory of Nyssa: Divine Transcendence.

One of the marks of Eunomius’ theology is his insistence on the absolute transcendence of the divine essence of the Unbegotten which is prior to and independent to all activity. The God of Eunomius is a self-sufficient monad who is impervious to all process of causality and activity in his essence. All forms of activity are external from the essence of the Unbegotten in a manner which has no implication of the divine essence. In it’s existence the divine essence is inactive and disinvolved in respects to everything outside of, and other than, the divine essence; ie: all created beings. There is much that Eunomius’ theology of an inactive transcendence shares in common with the One of Plotinus. Plotinus describes the One as, “self-gathered, tranquilly remote above all else,” and that we can ascribe no motion to the One but rather we must confess, “immobility in the Supreme.”12 Likewise he ascribes an absolute unity to the One while it is that which comes after the One, the Divine Mind, which comes into contact with diversity. In contrast to the immobile and inactive definitions of divine transcendence of Plotinus and Eunomius is the vision of Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory redefines divine transcendence according to his doctrine of divine goodness. Gregory sees the attribute of goodness as belonging to the divine essence which can admit no variance of degree; only in the realm of creation, due to it’s participation in goodness, can variances of goodness be found. Gregory’s reading of the scriptures, such as Luke 18:19, lead him to conclude that both the Son and the Spirit alongside the Father possess perfect and essential goodness. Since the Son possesses the fullness of divine goodness in Himself Gregory sees the self-humbling of the Son in His incarnation and crucifixion to be the manifestation of divine goodness. This divine goodness manifested by the Son is defined as the power to accomplish the good by Gregory. To be good is to possess the power to accomplish the good and since God is good by His own essence He possesses the power to accomplish everything that is good. Since the scriptures designate perfect goodness to both the Son and the Spirit, and since divine goodness cannot be divided, it is the Holy Trinity which is perfectly good; which means that the Trinity has the power to accomplish the good. This is what divine transcendence looks like in the theology of Gregory; to possess the power to accomplish the good. Rather than associating inactivity to the doctrine of divine transcendence Gregory does the complete opposite by uniting power to his doctrine of divine transcendence which implies activity.


While all of the early Christians employed philosophical language and concepts some of them redefined these concepts according to their reading of the scriptures. The examples given in this paper are selective and therefore do not qualify as having sufficiently proved the thesis this paper set out to suggest. Rather the objective has been to begin the cross analyzing process of the various theologies of the early Christian writers with the philosophies of the ancient Greeks. While much work has been done in the studying of the ancient philosophers as well as the studying of their influence on the early Christians much more work needs to be done in studying how the scriptural interpretations of the early Christian writers effected their reception and interpretations of philosophical concepts. A more comprehensive study is needed to move beyond the category of suggestion into the category of demonstration. While a comprehensive analysis of every early Christian writer might be too daunting a task – even if we limit ourselves to the first eight centuries – perhaps a number of major thinkers who helped shape the major points of Christian doctrine can be analyzed. Perhaps we can study in depth the theology of figures such as, but not limited to, Arius, Eusebius, and Eunomius in light of their reception of philosophical concepts along with Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus rather than simply pointing to a single example from each as has been done in this paper. What also needs to be noted is when figures such as Athanasius or Gregory of Nyssa incorporate philosophical concepts without scriptural redefinition. It cannot be the case that the early Fathers always redefined philosophical concepts without exception while those deemed as heretics always allowed pagan philosophies to determine their theology. Such a conclusion would prove to be an oversimplification and an inaccuracy; and all oversimplifications for the sake of argument only serve to complicate the matter further. Nonetheless with the few examples given in this paper it does not seem improbable that the suggestion of a greater scriptural redefinition of philosophical concepts by the Fathers over against the heretics is inaccurate. If this suggestion can be shown to be accurate then the argument of the Hellenization of early Christianity will be shown to be itself an oversimplification of the matter.

1See for example the Introduction and pt. 3 in

2John Meyendorff, Byzantine theology: historical trends and doctrinal themes (Fordham University Press, 1974), pg. 23.

3What I mean by “philosophical theology” is doctrines about God which are found in the ancient philosophers.

4See the list of divine attributes here

5See for example Book 1, Ch. 1, pts. 5, 6, Ch. 2, pts. 10, 11, and 13.

6On the Prescription of Heretics, Ch. 7.

7First Theological Oration, Ch. 8.

8Ibid. Ch. 5

9Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Eerdmans Press, 2001), pg. 220.

10Third Theological Oration, Ch. 3.

11Ibid. Ch. 17.

12The Fifth Ennead, First Tractate, Section 6.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus: Apophatic Theology, Cosmic Iconography and the Knowledge of God.


“The divine nature cannot be apprehended by human reason” (St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Second Theological Oration, pt. 11)

Introduction: Context.

When discussing the issue as to whether or not God can be comprehended St. Gregory of Nazianzus maintains that, “it is impossible to express him, and yet more impossible to conceive him” (STO, pt. 4). St. Gregory is compelled to address this question due to the theological controversy revolving around the doctrines of Eunomius. Eunomius taught that mankind could comprehend the essence of God by means of the title ‘unbegotten.’ For Eunomius, “the divine name [is] something as an emanation of the divine essence. Human beings simply receive this emanation, whose material expression is the word ‘unbegotten,’ and confess the reality with they passively receive” (Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, pg. 167). The term ‘unbegotten’ delineates the divine essence and grants men a knowledge of the divine essence through it. For St. Gregory there is nothing which is able to contain the entirety of the divine nature; when discussing the concept of the nature of God being incorporeal he says, “but this term ‘incorporeal,’ though granted, does not yet set before us – or contain within itself –  his essence, any more than ‘unbegotten,’ or ‘unoriginate,’ or ‘unchanging,’ or ‘incorruptible,’ or any other predicate which is used concerning God or in reference to him” (STO, pt. 9). It is in response to this doctrine of the know-ability of the essence of God that St. Gregory wrote his second theological oration.

Apophatic Theology.

St. Gregory’s own approach to the subject of the knowledge of the essence of God is fundamentally apophatic; ie: to describe God by negation. As he begins his oration he describes his contemplation of God using imagery of ascending Mount Sinai into the dark cloud containing the presence of God while being sheltered by the Rock striving to behold the nature of God (invoking to his hearers Ex. 24:18, 33:17-23), “and when I looked a little closer I saw, not the first and unmingled nature, known to itself – to the Trinity I mean; not that which abides within the first veil, and is hidden by the cherubim; but only that nature , which at last reaches even us” (STO, pt. 3). In the description of his spiritual contemplation St. Gregory reveals a distinction between two different natures within God; one which is incomprehensible, being known by the members of the Trinity alone, and one which reaches down to created beings. Since the time of St. Gregory Palamas (14th) Eastern theology has defined these two natures of God as being the ‘essence’ and the ‘energies’ of God; the notable 20th century Russian-emigre theologian Vladimir Lossky says that the, “distinction is that between the essence of God, or His nature, properly co-called, which is inaccessible, unknowable and incommunicable; and the energies or divine operations, forces proper to and inseparable from God’s essence, in which He goes forth from Himself, communicates, and gives Himself” (The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, ch. 4, pg. 70). St. Gregory of Nazianzus affirms that we know God not through (to use his language) His ‘first nature’ but through the ‘nature which reaches us’ which he describes as, “the back parts of God, which he leaves behind him, as tokens of himself, like the shadows and reflection of the sun in the water, which show the sun to our weak eyes, because we cannot look at the sun himself, for by his unmixed light he is too strong for our power of perception” (STO, pt. 3). Elsewhere when he speaks about the nature of God he speaks in apophatic terms such as ‘incomprehensible,’ ‘illimitable,’ ‘infinite,’ ‘intangible, ‘invisible,’ among other negative terms. He shouldn’t be thought of being exclusively apophatic however; he states that it is necessary to, “go beyond [saying] what he is not, and say what he is” (STO, pt. 9).

The Cosmos as Icon.

Having laid down his apophatic context in the approach the knowledge of the essence of God St. Gregory begins to rhetorically ask his opponents, the Eunomians, what it is that they conceive God to be. St. Gregory had already asserted that not only is the nature of God incomprehensible but even in respect to an accurate knowledge of creation  we comprehend only in a very small degree (see STO, pt. 5). Since it is that which is created, ie: material, that we have some degree of comprehension he asks his opponents if God is a body. Through a series of arguments he establishes, like Origen before him in the 3rd century, that God is incorporeal, immutable, and everywhere present (see STO, pts. 7-9) as well as uncircumscribed (see STO, pt. 10). Since the nature of God transcends all  corporeal categories it is impossible to conceive of him since we are corporeal. Due to our dense carnal nature, “it is quite impossible for those who are in the body to be conversant with object of pure thought apart altogether from bodily objects,” (STO, pt. 12) and thus, “our mind faints to transcend corporeal things, and to consort with the incorporeal, stripped of all clothing of corporeal ideas, as long as it has to look with its inherent weakness at things above its strength” (STO, pt. 13). Due to this many have decided to simply look at visible things and make gods out of them or, “through the beauty and order of visible things to attain to that which is above sight” (STO, pt. 13). The proper way to come towards to knowledge of God for St. Gregory is to contemplate the beauty and order and creation and to allow it to lead the mind beyond towards it’s creator, “now our very eyes and the law of nature teach us that God exists and that he is the efficient and maintaining cause of all things” (STO, pt. 6). St. Gregory not only advocates a form of ‘natural theology’ here but by looking at the order and beauty of creation develops cosmological arguments for it’s origins, “how could this universe have come into being or been put together unless God had called it into existence, and held it together?” (STO, pt. 6). While the nature of God is left to the realm of silence and incomprehension nonetheless we are able to go beyond saying what He is not to make some positive statements about Him through the order and beauty of creation; creation points beyond itself as an icon towards it’s Fashioner and Maintainer.

The Ascent to the Knowledge of God.

The climax of St. Gregory’s oration comes in the final points where he ascends from the knowledge of man towards the knowledge of God (see STO, pts. 22-31). The order of this passage moves forward in a reversal of the creation narrative; starting where the Genesis narrative ends; with man. He begins the passage stating that the subject of God is more difficult than any other so turns instead towards the constitution of man and nature. Moving beyond man he muses next on the animals that walk the earth then on the fish, the birds, and the insects. He moves on to the trees and the plants, the rivers, the mountains, and the surface of the earth itself. Next he moves upwards to the skies, clouds, thunder, and rains until he reaches the very space itself, filled with the sun, the moon, and the stars. Leaving the material realm behind he moves on to the realm of the incorporeal and the angels. Throughout his treatment of the material creation St. Gregory displays an impressive amount of scientific knowledge regarding all of the subjects that he treats. As he moves on to the incorporeal he says very little before rhetorically asking, “do you see how we get dizzy over this subject, and cannot advance to any point, unless it be as far as this” (STO, pt. 31). As he approaches the very knowledge of God he ends his oration with these words, “this is what we were laboring to show, that even the secondary natures surpass the power of our intellect; much more then the first and (for I fear to say merely that which is above all) the only nature” (STO, pt. 31). The final passages of the oration display clearly the points St. Gregory had mad earlier in his oration regarding the knowledge of creation and man. He maintains that we hold only a small degree of knowledge concerning creation and thus as he speaks on the various elements of creation he displays and degree of knowledge concerning his subjects yet he treats them in the manner of asking a question (for example,”how is it that the earth stands solid and unswerving?” STO, pt. 26). When he reaches finally the knowledge of God, to which he maintains is beyond human comprehension, he remains silent.