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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Theosis in early Syriac theology

I'm going to add this to the rejoinder I was doing on Morey's book. This adds another dimension to the project. Morey's focus is mostly all about Egypt, and greek philosophy in general, but Eastern Orthodoxy is more complex than that. It's going to take some time, but I plan on showing (wherever possible) the influence of early Syriac the area of both Theosis, the Divine Liturgy and Icons. In doing so Morey's main premise in the book should be refuted again, but this time from a different angle.

"LOVE, Knowledge and Theosis.

In the Syriac language, there is a useful distinction between love characterized as a spiritual force, as the fruit of the grace which grows within us through keeping the divine commandments, and love that is the result of affection for God. This perfection is known among the Greek Fathers as gnostiki, the level of mystical contemplation in which the ideal of holiness is expressed. At this stage, the person becomes a friend ofGod and a mirror of divine perfection.

When perfected, love of God naturally leads to an illuminating knowledge (Gr., gnosis γνωσις) of God, which knowledge is usually characterized in Syriac literature as "hidden" in the unknowable/apophatic "darkness" of God. Syriac writings are filled with explanations of the function the inner "eye" of the soul in perceiving such spiritual realities, and how spiritual knowledge elevates the person into the heavenly realms. This ascent to the heavenly realms must be steady and continuous, for "desisting from the ascent," says St. Isaac of Nineveh, "is the torment of Gehenna."
There is a close relationship between the Semitic approach to spirituality as revealed in Scripture and the Orthodox doctrine of theosis (θεωσις, "deification") as it is expressed in unhellenized Syriac spirituality. It may come as a shock to some to learn that the idea of "theosis" is not strictly Hellenistic, and is frequently found in early Syriac Christian literature, though expressed in language more metaphorical than philosophical: "the robe of glory", "the robe of light", "divinity in humanity," and like expressions. Moreover, those whose primary understanding of theosis has been formed by the writtings of St. Gregory Palamas, and the study of his controversy with Barlaam about the uncreated light, will no doubt be further amazed to learn that the Palamite controversy was prceded by a similar controversy in the Syriac tradition. In fact, the parallelism between this controversy and the hesychastic controversy of the fourteenth century is most instructive.
In the seventh century, there was a division between two competing Syriac schools of spirituality. One school believed in the possibility of "seeing God spiritually," while the other denied this possibility. The latter point of view was accepted by the Nestorians, motivating Nestorian Patriarch Timothy I to convene a synod in the seventh century to condemn the possibilty of seeng God. Nestorian theology so stressed the transcendence of God that it rejected any notion of a fusion of divinity with humanity, leading it to reject the hypostatic union of divinity and humanity in Christ. And of course, what is rejected in Christ must also be rejected in relation to the saints. Therefore, to the Nestorians, created humanity, even the deified humanity of Christ, cannot see God's glory."
[1] pages 95-96

The Protestant Scholar Daniel B. Clendenin pretty much says the samething:

"The hymnology of the fourth-century Christian poet Ephrem the Syrian adds its choruses to the testimony of the liturgy. Since Ephrem wrote in Syriac and was probably ignorant of Greek, his hymns are significant refutations of the common charge that the Orthodox doctrine of theosis is only apale imitation of Hellenistic philosophy. According to Ephrem, if Adam and Eve had not trandgressed the divine command, "they would have acquired divinity in humity" (Commentary on Genesis). In a Nisi-bene hymn he writes:

  • The most High Knew that Adam wanted to become a god, so He sent His Son, who put him on in order to grant him his desire.

In Ephrem's hymn "On Virginity" we read:

  • Divinity flew down and descended to raise and draw up humanity. The Son has made beautiful the servant's deformity, and he has become a god, just as he desire.

And while Athanasius is typically credited with the definitive epigram of theosis, Ephrem is no less aphoristic. In his hymn "On Faith" he puts the whole matter succinctly:

  • He gave us divinity, We gave Him humanity.
" [2]


[1] pages 95-96 from the book "Antioch: Incarnational Theology & Ministry" edited by Joseph Allen & Michel Najim @ 2006

[2] page 129 from the book "Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective" 2nd edition by Daniel B. Clendenin


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