Didymus the Blind

Young

Among the great church fathers stands Didymus, who was born in Alexandria around 313 AD.  When he was just four years old he lost his sight.  Although his eyes didn’t work, his mind sure did: he taught himself to read by way of feeling carved letters.  He also had a photographic memory and was brilliant in all areas of education, from music to poetry to arithmetic to rhetoric.  Theologically, Didymus was of Nicene orthodoxy and probably associated with Athanasius.  He wrote many biblical commentaries, tracts, treatises, and letters and even in his own day he was viewed as a great Christian leader and teacher.  Some of his works include On the Trinity, On the Holy Spirit, and Against the Manichees.

One patristic scholar says that as far as teaching goes, Didymus was in the “mimetic” tradition: the teacher would live like the student should live.  But he was also in the “scholastic” tradition, which means learning, reasoning, and thinking about the truths of Christianity.

Here’s how Frances Young summarizes Didymus the Blind’s thinking and contribution to ththe church.

“Didymus was a scholar and a teacher; but for all his academic attainments, he was essentially a pious monk and a conservative churchman.  His scholarship was entirely devoted to the elucidation of scripture and the doctrines of the Church.  In these areas of specialty, he displayed little originality, though he undoubtedly contributed to the consolidation of the orthodox position.  His main source-book, his real inspiration, was the Bible, and in the long-term, it was as an exegete that he had some abiding influence.”

Didymus is one of the many gifted teachers in the history of Christianity – one for whom we can be thankful.  I agree with St. Jerome, who called him Didymus the Seeing rather than Didymus the Blind. 

The above information and quote can be found in Frances Young, From Nicaea to Chalcedon, pages 91-101. (This blog post was originally published in May 2011.)

Shane Lems

The Psalter Knows Christ (Athanasius)

Some of our readers may remember how Luther and Calvin loved the Psalms and spoke of them often.  Luther said that the Psalms were a mini Bible.  Calvin said that all the emotions of the soul are found in the Psalter.  In saying these things, neither Luther nor Calvin were being novel or cutting edge.  Others in Christian history said similar things before them.  Specifically, I’m thinking of Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria in the 4th century.  In a letter to Marcellinus bishop Athanasius gave an excellent interpretive discourse on the Psalter.

One thing he wrote was that the Psalms contain truths about creation, the patriarchs, the wilderness years, the kingdom years, the exile, and so forth.  Athanasius also said that the Psalter “knew” Jesus as the Coming Savior and Lord.  Basically, long before Luther, Athanasius said that he loved the Psalter because it was a mini Bible – or garden rather:

“Yet the Book of Psalms is like a garden containing things of all these kinds [Bible stories and doctrines], and it sets them to music, but also exhibits things of its own that it gives in song along with them.”

After taking some time pointing out how the Psalms teach the main stories and truths of Scripture – with Christ at the center – Athanasius even wrote how the Psalms contain “even the emotions of each soul.”  This means that the Christian can read the Psalms “as if he is speaking about himself.”  We can learn how to live and pray as we read the Psalter:

“And it seems to me that these words become like a mirror to the person singing them, so that he might perceive himself and the emotions of his soul, and thus affected, he might recite them.”

There are many other excellent observations about the Psalms in Athanasius’ letter.  I don’t have time or space to note them all here and now.  But let me commend this letter to you.  Although I have it in e-book form (thanks, Logos!), you might be able to find it online or just get it from Amazon.  It’s not overly long but it is quite profound and edifying.  Find it, read it, then turn to the Psalms, where we find a treasure box containing Bible stories/truths, guidance for Christian living, and Jesus himself!

The above quotes are found in Athanasius of Alexandria, Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, ed. Richard J. Payne, trans. Robert C. Gregg, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Doctrinal Hair-Splitting and the Early Church (Young)

Product DetailsI’ve mentioned this helpful patristics resource here before: From Nicaea to Chalcedon by Frances Young. It’s a great study on some of the church fathers and their teaching (e.g. Athanasius, Basil, Cyril, and so forth). One early church leader Young discusses is Gregory Nazianzen, who is called “Gregory the Theologian.”  Gregory was a defender of the bibilical doctrine of the Trinity, but he also was concerned with positive affirmations of the Christian way of life.  Here’s a paragraph from the introduction to Gregory.

“A study of the doctrinal controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries may leave one with a sense of frustration.  Were the debates really significant?  Were the contenders not hair-splitting in a matter that is beyond human knowledge?  Standing back from the debates, we may be tempted to wonder how so much passion could have been expended on relatively technical issues.  It is when we sense the religious significance of the issues that we begin to appreciate why emotions were roused.”

“Athanasius, as we have seen, was driven by the urgency of his sense of salvation in Christ: Arian simplification just could not contain the depths of that reality.  Gregory was likewise driven by the pressures of his religious consciousness.  For him, the cold technicality of logical argumentation detracted from his sense of the mystery in the divine.  The Arians, he felt, were too rational by half.  An adequate theology had to do justice to his experience of awe and mystery in the universe, in ascetic contemplation, in the liturgy and in scripture.  Gregory knew that human beings can know nothing of God, except what God has chosen to reveal in limited human terms.  So he is often hesitant and plainly aware of the complexity of the problems he is discussing.  He exhorts his congregations to cling to the essentials, and particularly the sure foundation of the cross of Christ.”

Frances Young, From Nicaea to Chalcedon, p. 163.

Shane Lems

A Distinction Between God and Matter (Athenagoras)

The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols.   -              Edited By: Alexander Roberts      I’ve mentioned the 2nd century church father Athenagoras on this blog several times before (on theology here, on violence and abortion here, and on homosexuality here).  One helpful section of his treatise called “A Plea for the Christians” is where Athenagoras defends the fact that Christians do not worship matter, but God, who is separate from matter and the Creator of it.  In today’s language, we’d say that Athenagoras was making a distinction between the Creator and the creature.

Athenagoras put it this way:

“[We] distinguish God from matter, and teach that matter is one thing and God another, and that they are separated by a wide interval.”

Many in the Roman Empire accused Christians of impiety and godlessness because they did not worship images of the gods.  Here is part of Athenagoras’ answer to the charge of impiety:

“…The the multitude [of people], who cannot distinguish between matter and God, or see how great is the interval which lies between them, pray to idols made of matter, are we therefore [[we who do distinguish and separate the uncreated and the created, that which is and that which is not, that which is apprehended by the understanding and that which is perceived by the senses, and who give the fitting name to each of them]] are we to come and worship images?

If, indeed, matter and God are the same, two names for one thing, then certainly, in not regarding stocks and stones, gold and silver, as gods, we [Christians] are guilty of impiety. But if they are at the greatest possible remove [distance] from one another – as far asunder as the artist and the materials of his art – why are we called to account [of impiety]?

For as is the potter and the clay (matter being the clay, and the artist the potter), so is God, the Framer of the world, and matter, which is subservient to Him for the purposes of His art.  But as the clay cannot become vessels of itself without art, so neither did matter, which is capable of taking all forms, receive, apart from God the Framer, distinction and shape and order. And as we do not hold the pottery of more worth than him who made it, nor the vessels or glass and gold than him who wrought them; but if there is anything about them elegant in art we praise the artificer, and it is he who reaps the glory of the vessels: even so with matter and God – the glory and honor of the orderly arrangement of the world belongs of right not to matter, but to God, the Framer of matter.

So that, if we were to regard the various forms of matter as gods, we should seem to be without any sense of the true God, because we should be putting the things which are dissoluble and perishable on a level with that which is eternal.”

This is obviously part of a larger apologetic argument, but I think it makes sense without the larger context.  I appreciate it because Athenagoras is defending the Christian faith by explaining the distinction between the Creator and the creature.  Many religions today are pantheistic, so Athenagoras’ defense of Christian truth still speaks today.

Athenagoras, “A Plea for the Christians,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. B. P. Pratten, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 135.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Effectual Calling and Regeneration in the 2nd Century

Apostolic Fathers, The, 3rd ed.: Greek Texts and English Translations (This is a repost from February, 2013)

2 Clement is an early sermon or “word of exhortation” that was written around 100 AD (or possible around 130 AD).  It was probably not written by Clement, but by an anonymous presbyter.  Michael Holmes calls it “the oldest surviving complete Christian sermon outside the New Testament.”

The sermon opens with an exhortation to “think of Jesus Christ as we do of God.”  The preacher then states that since Christ has suffered so greatly for us to save us, we owe him our praise.  Here’s how he explains this salvation (in 1:7-8).

“Our minds were blinded, and we worshiped stones and wood and gold and silver and brass, things made by humans; indeed, our whole life was nothing but death.  So while we were thus wrapped in darkness and our vision was filled with this thick mist we recovered our sight, by his will laying aside the cloud wrapped around us.”

“For he had mercy upon us and in his compassion he saved us when we had no hope of salvation except that which comes from him, even though he had seen in us much deception and destruction.  For he called us when we did not exist, and out of nothing willed us into being.”

These are great phrases that describe God’s sovereign grace in effectual calling and regeneration.  The Apostle put it this way: God…gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist (Rom 4.17).  Even when we were dead in our trespasses [he] made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved (Eph 2:5).  We can’t be 100% sure, but it does seem like the author of 2 Clement was thinking about Romans 4:17 when he wrote these words.

This passage from 2 Clement is a great reminder that the Protestant Reformers didn’t make up the doctrines of grace; they stood in line with the historic Christian church, and on the shoulders of the Apostle Paul.

The above quote from 2 Clement can be found in The Apostolic Fathers, 3rd edition, edited and translated by Michael W. Holmes.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

An Ancient Prayer for Government

Apostolic Fathers, The, 3rd ed.: Greek Texts and English Translations The Bible clearly calls Christians to honor, obey, and pray for those in authority over us, such as our civil government (Jer. 29:7, Rom. 13, 1 Pet. 2:13-17, Titus 3:1, etc.).  Although it’s not always easy to do, God’s people have been doing it for a long, long time!  One ancient example is found in 1 Clement, a letter written to Christians in Rome somewhere between 80 and 100 AD.  Here’s the excerpt of a prayer for civil government, found in 1 Clement 60:4-61:3:

“…[Lord], give harmony and peace to us and to all who dwell on the earth, just as you did to our ancestors when they reverently called upon you in faith and truth, that we may be saved, while we render obedience to your almighty and most excellent name, and to our rulers and governors on earth.”

“You, Master, have given them the power of sovereignty through your majestic and inexpressible might, so that we, acknowledging the glory and honor that you have given them, may be subject to them, resisting your will in nothing.  Grant to them, Lord, health, peace, harmony, and stability, so that they may blamelessly administer the government that you have given them.”

“For you, heavenly Master, King of the ages, give to human beings glory and honor and authority over the creatures upon the earth.  Lord, direct their plans according to what is good and pleasing in your sight, so that by devoutly administering in peace and gentleness the authority that you have given them may experience your mercy.  You, who alone are able to do these and even greater good things for us, we praise through the high priest and benefactor of our souls, Jesus Christ, through whom be the glory and the majesty to you both now and all generations and for ever and ever.  Amen.”

This section of 1 Clement was taken from The Apostolic Fathers, ed. by Michael Holmes.

shane lems

A Deliberate Confrontation With Paganism (Augustine)

Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, Revised Edition with a New Epilogue These are great paragraphs about a great book (Augustine’s City of God) found in a great biography (Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown):

“…We should not forget, that together with the ‘Confessions,’ the theme of the title suddenly crystallized into Augustine’s mind; and, once formed, it is written into every line of the book.”

“The ‘City of God’ cannot be explained in terms of its immediate origins.  It is particularly superficial to regard it as a book about the sack of Rome.  Augustine may well have written a book, ‘On the City of God’ without such an event.  What this sack effected was to provide Augustine with a specific, challenging audience at Carthage; and in this way the sack of Rome ensued that a book which might have been a work of pure exegesis for fellow Christian scholars (somewhat like the great commentary on Genesis, in which the idea of a book on the ‘Two Cities’ is raised), became a deliberate confrontation with paganism.  The ‘City of God,’ itself, is not a ‘tract for the times;’ it is the careful and premeditated working out, by an old man, of a mounting obsession.”

“In a sermon which Augustine preached at Carthage in the same year that he sat down to write the ‘City of God,’ we can sense, better than anywhere else, the force and the true direction of the momentum that would lead him to pile up this ‘great and arduous work’ for future generations to puzzle over.  ‘When, therefore, death shall be swallowed up in victory, these things will not be there; and there shall be peace – peace full and eternal.  We shall be in a kind of city.  Brethren, when I speak of that City, and especially when scandals grow great here, I just cannot bring myself to stop….”

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2000, p. 311.

shane lems