The Articulation of the Cosmos: the road to Romans chapter 9.

I first read Philip Sherrard about 20 years ago when doing some reading on Orthodoxy and the Papacy. There was nothing memorable about what he said, but this lead me to look at other things he had done, most notably his work on the Philokalia and his translations of modern Greek poets. Born in England, he spent the last part of his life on Euboea at an abandoned mine that he had converted into his own retreat. There he spent his time translating and writing. Never ordained, he has had as great an impact on modern Orthodox thought as almost any other layman, with I would argue the very real exception of Vladimir Lossky. A good bit of his writing, when I first encountered it, was quite bracing. I remember picking up his Christianity, lineaments of a sacred tradition ten years ago and being completely at a loss for how to take much of what he said. In recommending him recently to a friend I have again picked him up, and find that while less bracing, I still find myself at odds with a number of things he has said, but also marvel at how much more like him I now think. One of the matters most telling was his take on ecology, not all of which I have absorbed, but which has been formative for me nonetheless. He moves from his description of the ecological problems of the world to make a diagnosis as to the cause of the abuses of our planet, in a short chapter on creatio ex nihilo. He quickly cuts to the chase: a dilemma arises whether we see God too closely tied to the creation, in which we come to pantheism; or we so separate God from the creation that it loses any quality of the sacred, or any reflection of God. He sees this second coming out of a too stark doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, which he asserts, has led to our modern ecological problems: if the world has no inherent connection to God, and is but an arbitrary result of the divine fiat, then we should not wonder why people pillage natural resources. (My purpose here is not to argue how and why to use natural resources – – another post.)

Sherrard’s option is what he eventually calls panentheism, that the creation is nothing other than God thinking about Himself, that it is the temporal side of the Absolute, and that “God’s act and self-knowledge are ultimately one (Lineaments p. 246).” When I first read this, and then again reading it of late, my first reaction is bewilderment at why someone who was part of a project that translated large selections from Sts. Maximus the Confessor and Gregory Palamas should be so seeming innocent about their theology, and how he could now so closely map onto Thomistic thought as to be materially at one: the above quote is easily voiced by those whose theological maxim is the absolute divine simplicity of actus purus.

St. Maximus, in his well-known and oft-quoted phrase, the One Word is the many words, and the many words are the One Word, sets out the real link between creation and God. Within each of us is our own personal logos of existence, our manner or mode of being. The Divine mode of Being is tripersonnal, but even this is beyond quantification, for the Persons are apophatically ordered: the Person of the Father is not the Son, is not the Spirit, etc. This is to say, that even the Divine inner life is known only through revelation, and is also ineffable and incomprehensible. And so our own personal mode of being, our logos or ratio, cannot ever be fully fathomed either by us or by others, and can only be its most full self in union with others, and only then when I and those others are in union with Christ, the One Word who gives definition to the many words. St. Maximus has said nothing than what we find in both St. Athanasius and St. Irenaeus about Christ being both principle and telos of the creation. And so we see that the divine can never be separated from Creation, and to efface creation carelessly and arbitrarily is to affront God.

Sherrard addresses this abuse by noting that man as priest of the creation brings creation to God, but then also creation mediates God to us, for we need water, and bread and wine to mediate the divine to us. But this also misreads the saints. Creation was made for us (“Therefore the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath,” and “God has given us all good things to enjoy”), and was itself the original bread of life, another aspect of the many words of the one Word. The bread and wine of the Eucharist and the water of baptism come not merely as creation mediating the divine, but instead the eschatologically realized life to come, now present through the Spirit, whose presence “makes all things new.” All of creation, like Adam and Eve, were not created apart from the fullness of the revelation of God in Christ Incarnate such that even the lower creation awaited the Incarnation for its own particular mode of existence to be fully realized. Thus it is not mere bread and wine, mere water that mediate the divine to us, but transfigured bread and wine, and blessed and sanctified water: there is a material difference in the mode of these two sacraments, who draw their efficacy and potency from the One Sacrament, the Sacrament of the Father, our Lord Jesus Christ.

One of the criticisms that many Thomists have of the late Jesuit Henri cardinal de Lubac is that he made grace no longer gratuitous. If we are created from the beginning for a supernatural end, and if we do not have as “natural creatures” the need of the divine even from creation (that we are in want always of God’s super-added gifts), and that there is no “pure nature,” but that the desire for God arises naturally from within us, what need do we have of grace to correct our lives? Do we not have this ability in us already to move to God, as He is already present to us. Sherrard’s take actually goes one better, in that not only are we naturally disposed to God, but it makes God naturally disposed to us, a view akin to that of Peter Auriole, who taught that when we act according to God’s standard of righteousness, God must reward us with His love. What we see instead in St. Maximus is that the Word of the Father, by Whom all things were made, the Light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world, with the Father and the Spirit share between them that which is divine, but which is not essential. St. Maximus terms these “middle things,” and “those things around (or concerning) God.” They are middle, in that from them are derived the forms which order the world and correspond to the Platonic forms, though obviously are quite different. But there is something else here. Sherrard posits that our thoughts and God’s are identical. He uses the language of the monastic writers about those who are illumined having a knowledge of the inner essence of created things. While such language can be found with the monastics, and is replete in the Philokalia, how Sherrard uses it betrays a severe oversight about the Greek Patristic and Byzantine mind. The Greek word pragmata and the Latin word res have no equivalent in our language. We generally translate them as “thing,” but this is a poor word that is really post Abelardian in its meaning. Since at least Abelard, if not Anselm, “thing” carries the notion of something extrinsically distinct to the knower and the knower’s soul. For the Greeks and Latins, pragmata and res respectively had no such connotation. But for the ancients, whether Plato or Aristotle, Origen or Irenaeus, Athanasius or Augustine, Boethius or Plutarch, the images imprinted on the soul from the outside were known in that they already resided in the soul. The exterior world was simply the extensive self. When St. Augustine argued about the existence of the Trinity within human psychology, he did not then have to make an argument that what is true in the mind must have a greater existence externally, for if it resided truly in the mind, it truly existed. Compare this to St. Anselm’s argument about the existence of God in his response to Gaunilo.

When Christ prayed that we would have the glory which He had with the Father prior to the creation, and that we would partake of the Love that the Father had for the Son, He was praying that we might partake, by grace, in the divine life. Life, love, and glory are all integral parts of the divine life, but they are not predicable neither of the divine essence nor the divine Persons, of which and whom nothing can be said or predicated. When we read that God is Love and that God is Life we are not seeing the divine equivalents of an algebraic formula: A = B, B = C, C = A such that Life and Love and God are identical, but rather statements that only in God alone is real Life, only within Him is real Love.

Further, what we also see is that Life, Love, and Glory are eternally present in and with the Divine Triad, and it is through these, along with an infinite number of God’s other energies or words, that God orders and patterns the world. The world is not ordered or patterned on God in se, at least not directly, but ordered and patterned after the divine Life, Love, and Glory, et cetera around and about God, and that these divine intentions are the form, pattern and destiny of the world. We were created for life in God, even though, as St. Athanasius wrote, since we were created individually according to the divine pattern, to the divine Image, but yet called to being out of non-existence, when we are not joined to the divine life by contemplating the True Image of God, we tend back to non-existence, back to our “natural state” of non-life. Thus life dwells within us both naturally and unnaturally. Our telos, our appointed end, is life, or better, Life. But we as creatures, even though patterned after the divine Life, had no existence within that divine Life apart from an action of the will of God. The distinction between the divine will, and the object of the divine will (one maintained doggedly by the Fathers), is absolutely crucial in thinking then about that thorny question, at least among Western Christians since the time of St. Augustine, of predestination.

Next up: Romans 9.


About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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3 Responses to The Articulation of the Cosmos: the road to Romans chapter 9.

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  2. John C. says:

    “Within each of us is our own personal logos of existence, our manner or mode of being.”

    This confuses a distinction that Maximus himself goes to great lengths to make: the distinction between the logos of nature (logos phuseos) and the mode of existence (tropos huparxeos – and pardon my transliterations). The logos is the fixed, constant ground or principle of the creature. The logos of a creature is akin to its nature in that it is shared among all the particulars of a species or genus. The mode of being has to do with its particularity, its hypostasis or (in the case of rational creatures) its personhood. The mode is flexible. Maximus applies the concept to miracles: in a miracle such as the crossing of the Red Sea, the logos of the water remains the same while the mode is changed.

    I think you will get a clearer understanding of the relation between God and creation from reading Fr Florovsky’s essays on creation (“St Athanasius’ Concept of Creation”; “Creation and Creaturehood”; and “The Idea of Creation in Christian Philosophy”) than from Sherrard. Florovsky, following Athanasius, makes the crucial distinction between the generation of the Son from God’s essence/nature and the creation of the world from God’s will. Creation is contingent and there is no necessity or imperative in its existence, contra Sherrard (and Bulgakov). It exists only as the result of God’s decisive act. It is a product of his will. This same distinction is clarified and expanded in the thought of St Gregory Palamas. Contra Sherrard, this does not make creation arbitrary because God is not arbitrary. Contingency is not the same as arbitrariness. Contingency expresses the full mystery of creation as a gratuitous and love-filled act of God.

    I don’t see how a full appreciation of the Orthodox position will lead to a denigration of creation. The Maximian notion of the logoi (and the Palamite energies) fill the chasm between God and creation because they clarify the fact that God’s uncreated energy is always present to creation without being mixed with it. Creation is not the energy but manifests the energy.

    I’d also recommend Fr Staniloae’s writings on creation, which are extensive. See esp. the second volume of his Dogmatics.

  3. Cyril says:

    John, thanks. I was not at all siding with Sherrard against Florovsky (let alone St. Maximus), but simply calling attention to Sherrard in light of a recent recommendation. I actually have something on this in today’s post on prayer.

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