Reflections on St Isaac the Syrian, Part I

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Recently His Grace, Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev) of the Moscow Patriarchate delivered a paper at the World Congress on Divine Mercy, that meet at Lateran Basilica, Rome, 4 April 2008. While the paper, “St Isaac the Syrian, a theologian of love and mercy,” received a good response in the media, as I mentioned to a Roman Catholic friend who emailed me, the report was less than accurate in its summary of His Grace’s argument. Contrary to what the report suggests, neither Bishop Hilarion, much less the Orthodox Church as a whole holds to a universalist view of salvation.

This is not to say, I hasten to add, that we ought not to hope that all will be saved. We should devotedly hope that such is the case.

Nor do I mean it to deny that there is certainly a tendency among Orthodox Christians that lends itself to a universalist view (for example, the writings of St Isaac the Syrian that formed the substance of Bishop Hilarion’s remarks). But to say this is our hope and even this our tendency, is very different from saying this we believe.

I thought that I would reflect on some of what I see as the more interesting points of Bishop Hilarion’s talk. These reflections, like my blog as a whole, reflect my own admittedly eccentric interests and ought not to be taken as the dogma of the Church.

So, let us begin.

His Grace begins his talk by saying that he is presenting “the teaching of St Isaac the Syrian, one of the greatest theologians of the Orthodox tradition, on love and mercy.” After a brief biographical sketch of this 7th century hermit, Bishop Hilarion (hereafter BH), summarizes the major points of St Isaac’s teaching on love and mercy. Specifically BH address the St Isaac’s teaching on the created and eschatological manifestation of love and mercy. Both of these are ground is Isaac’s understanding of God.

Regarding the first, he writes that “first of all immeasurable and boundless love. The idea of God as love is central and dominant in Isaac’s thought: it is the main source of his theological opinions, ascetical recommendations and mystical insights. His theological system cannot be comprehended apart from this fundamental idea.” BH continues with an explication on creation as a manifestation of God’s “immeasurable and boundless love.”

On the one hand, “Divine love is beyond human understanding and above all description in words.” Nevertheless, and at “the same time it is reflected in God’s actions with respect to the created world and humankind: ‘Among all His actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of His dealings with us’ (II/39,22). (Here and below the figure ‘II’ refers to Part II of Isaac’s writings: Isaac of Nineveh, ‘The Second Part’, chapters IV-XLI, translated by Sebastian Brock, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 555, Scriptores syri 225, Louvain, 1995). Both the creation of the world and God’s coming on earth in flesh had the only aim, ‘to reveal His boundless love to the world’ (Chapters on Knowledge IV,79).”

For St Isaac, and the main thrust of the Christian tradition East and West with him, creation (and this includes the human person, body, soul and spirit; you, me and everybody) is not morally neutral. Nor is it “good” in a narrow moral or ontological sense. No for Isaac creation is fundamentally sacramental, it makes manifest and tangible divine love. BH quotes St Isaac to the effect that it is in and through the creation of the world that “divine love revealed itself in all its fullness.” And so, in the words of St Isaac:

What that invisible Being is like, who is without any beginning in His nature, unique in Himself, who is by nature beyond the knowledge, intellect and feel of created beings, who is beyond time and space, being the Creator of these, who… made a beginning of time, bringing the worlds and created beings into existence. Let us consider then, how rich in its wealth is the ocean of His creative act, and how many created things belong to God, and how in His compassion He carries everything, acting providentially as He guides creation, and how with a love that cannot be measured He arrived at the establishment of the world and the beginning of creation; and how compassionate God is, and how patient; and how He loves creation, and how He carries it, gently enduring its importunity, the various sins and wickednesses, the terrible blasphemies of demons and evil men (II/10,18-19).

To be continued…

In Christ our True God, the Physician of our souls and body, the One heals our every disease and Who forgives us our every sin,

+Fr Gregory

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