Thursday, July 24, 2014

Isaac the Syrian on deification

My parents recently returned from a vacation in Romania, and they brought me a number of theological works in Romanian. Among them are parts II and III of Isaac the Syrian's Ascetical Homilies, which had only recently (in 1983, if I am not mistaken) been discovered. They are fantastic, and will undoubtedly provide plenty of material for future postings.

It would not be unfitting to title Isaac the Theologian of God's Love, for that is the topic about which he gets the most energized. Many times, after he will have described an action or event which is an expression of God's love, he will break out into impassioned doxology. For instance, in III/5 he addresses the question of God's love for the creation and its proof through his work of salvation and deification.

He says, Even if there was a time when the creation didn't yet exist, there never was a time in which God did not love it; since even if it didn't yet exist, yet there never was a time in which God did not know his own creation. And even if he hadn't made himself known to it, insofar as it did not yet exist, nevertheless God knew it from all eternity in all its various parts and natures. For God created it to exist when it seemed to him a good thing (III/5, 1).  His emphasis here is that God always and at all times loves his creation. This is true as much when it didn't yet exist and was just an idea in the divine mind, as when it had been created by him; now, too, when he continues to sustain it in existence! God is always loving towards his creation!

But for Isaac, yet there is a certain and impressive proof of the divine love for the world. What really proves God's love for the world is the fact that he is deified, a thing which it never could have asked for itself. Through this deification, he made it a unique thing:

The true love of God for the creation is known by the fact that, after he had completed its creation in its various parts, he assembled it entirely into a unique entity: he assembled the sensible and the intelligible into a unique bond; he united it with his divinity; he made it climb high above all the heavens; he made it to sit upon an eternal throne and he made it god over all (5, 2). Here he is undoubtedly referring to the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, evidently something which has had a divinizing effect on the entire creation, or at the very least upon all humanity. This is the true evidence of God's love: not only did he create the world, but he gave it a gift of union with him, a gift which won it a state it never could have expected.

For Isaac, nothing else could have convinced a person of God's love more effectively than this: What request did the creation make in order to receive this? When did such a thought ever arise in its heart? What behavior did it offer in exchange to become divine? (5, 4).

The meditation upon this topic is for Isaac the most important thing. Indeed, elsewhere he says: The fact that we don't rightly do what we ought to do is less grave than the fact that we don't meditate on that which we have received, so that we might known it and consequently to confess this thing as much as we can (6, 1). Sin is undoubtedly grave, but what is worse than sin is to fail to meditate upon the gift of God's grace, the divinization of the creation in Christ Jesus.

Therefore he says: How comes it that we lose ourselves in our thoughts before insignificant, mortal things and we don't draw near to that great treasure which we have received and which we don't sense? (5, 4). When we could be thinking about God's gift of deification, we lose ourselves thinking over mortal and transient nothings!

Let me spend now a little bit of time on that phrasing; which we have received and which we don't sense. As I've said, Isaac here envisions deification as something which has extended to the entire creation through its union with God in Jesus Christ. But evidently for Isaac this deification is something which might not be immediately sensed. If anything it is a reality into which we have to grow. It is as God's incarnation planted a seed that remains to grow in every creature until its fulfillment.

On this view of things, faith is not a prior condition to be fulfilled in order to deification to be granted, or for union with God to be effected. There is no contract here, as Douglas Campbell insists in The Deliverance of God. Rather, there is a reality which is objectively present in every creature; faith is the awareness of this reality as something already present, but of which we are not conscious.

Certainly there is language like this in the scriptures, when categorical statements about Christ's reconciliation of the world with God are specified as having occurred in his body. For instance, Paul says that through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Col 1.20). Peace was made with all things -- objectively -- by the blood of Christ's cross. Likewise he insists that Colossians were reconciled in his fleshly body (v. 22), once more speaking of the present reality of reconciliation as having in some mysterious way already occurred in Christ's own person. Again, Paul tells the Romans that they died to the law through the body of Christ (Rom 7.4), referring to Christ's death on the cross. When Christ died to the law at his death, they died too because they were already present in him. Likewise he speaks of Christ uniting Gentiles and Jews, reconciling both to each other and to God in his body through the cross (Eph 2.11-6). Elsewhere he says that one died for all, therefore all have died (2 Cor 5.14), speaking of the death of all persons as an already accomplished reality in Christ.

On this view of things, as I've said, faith is not a previous condition to be completed in a contract of salvation. Rather faith is the recognition of an antecedent reality, one realized mysteriously in Christ and then appropriated or birthed in one's own person upon believing the truth. It was already true that I was reconciled to God in Christ; now I've come to know it.