"Love for Love": Conceptual Unity and Idiomatic Difference in the Johannine Tradition

The purpose of this essay is to discuss the theme of Johannine love as it occurs in three writers: the proto-Reformer, Gabriel Biel (1445-1495); the Cappadocian theologian, Gregory of Nyssa (335-395); and the anonymous Syrian monk known to scholarship as Pseudo-Dionysius ("The Aereopagite": d. ca. 500). It is maintained that Biel, whose works were influential especially among the Lutheran reformers, was the last great representative of a tradition that wove together biblical and patristic teaching on the theme of divine love and its relation to grace. Following a survey of Biel's teaching, the theme is explored in the earlier writers and contrasted with the Neoplatonic (philosophical) and Gnostic (theological) treatments.

It is argued that while the proto-reformer's idiom is considerably different from the patristic development, his approach to the theme represents a consistent idiomatic interpretation of the Johannine motif of the love of God, one that can be traced through patristic authorities as diverse as Clement of Alexandria and Augustine and later writers ranging from Duns Scotus to Peter Lombard. It is also maintained that this view of love differs from alternative, especially Gnostic treatments in adhering to a relational rather than distantial view of the God and the world.

I. Introduction

Despite the relative disuse of the church fathers by the sixteenth century Reformers and their reasons for it, a neglect which endured in some circles until the Oxford Movement redeemed the study of patristics, [1] it is reasonably clear that the church fathers were as much attached to the Bible as to philosophy. [2] When Calvin writes in condescension of Catholic tradition, that the scripture "has its authority from God and not the Church" [3] and that the Romanists have "buried the clear sense of scripture under the weight of human opinion" [4] he finds it necessary to take on a central premise of the patristic era--in Augustine's famous formula, "I would not believe the gospel if the authority of the church did not compel me to do so." [5] Yet in tackling the premise as he does, he also shows a clear knowledge and regard for Augustine's views of the Christian doctrines of the trinity, faith, the nature of the church, and the origins of sin. [6] Other reformers, even in defense of protestant positions, would hold the teachings of the early writers in even higher esteem. [7]

I mention this mindset at the beginning of a discourse about a particular theme in patristic studies, because the ambivalent view of the fathers which we have inherited from the Reformation is as distant from our postmodern apprehension of the provisionality of all texts and judgements as the so-called regula fidei-the rule of faith invoked by the fathers against the heretics-was provisional and distant to the Reformers themselves. None of the magisterial reformers was ignorant of the early writers; [8] if anything, they read them more assiduously and imaginatively than did their Latin opponents, because in so doing they might find ancient stores of rhetorical ammunition to fight modern battles. [9]

We also know that the reformers, especially the Lutheran masters like Melanchthon, entered into lengthy correspondence with eastern prelates, such as the letters from the Tuebingen theologians to the Orthodox Patriarch Jeremias II, at a time when dialogue between Rome and the eastern eparchies was icy silence. The tone of these exchanges, as a number of scholars have documented, was friendly, personal, and polite. In the beginning the correspondence was both sincere and open-minded. [10] It is interesting for example, that the Greek version of the Augsburg Confession which accompanied the initial Lutheran letters was itself a very unusual document - no mere translation but a significant re-working of the Confession, with extensive additions in the Byzantine liturgical language and references to those eastern fathers with whom the Orthodox East would be most familiar. [11]

Georges Florovsky once pointed out that the early Reformers had no intention of "innovating" in doctrine. [12] They struggled to purify the Church of all those innovations and additions which, in their opinion, had been accumulated in the course of ages, particularly in the West. The eastern fathers as the faithful guardians of an unmined and, from Rome's standpoint, largely optional line of tradition could assist the Reformers in their campaign for a restitutio christianismi - something Calvin recurs to when he challenges Rome in this way: "I ask them, why do you not mention Egypt, Africa and all Asia-Why do you not mention Greece...where the succession of bishops has never been interrupted. The [Romanists] make the Greeks schismatic-but with what right?" [13]

One of the themes that dominates in this interchange, precious to both protestants in the west and Christians in the east at a time when the destiny and autonomy of the eastern church was marked by uncertainty, was the theme of "grace" (charis) often (if unnecessarily) associated with the Lutheran reformers. In fact, the theme became important to the reformers primarily because it had already become important in late medieval theology. [14] The earliest Catholic proto-reformers, used the biblical, patristic and classical traditions without footnotes and without much regard for mixing and melding ideas. Only later, following Luther, does the patristic position lose rhetorical stature steadily in favor of the biblical idiom, or "plainspoken" gospel-teaching among the Anabaptists and "radical" reformers.

For that reason we need to take one step behind Luther to the reign in Germany of the proto-reformers who advocated reform of the church in head and members, but who thought the ancient synthesis of philosophy and scripture, as mediated by the church fathers was still possible. I have in view one such writer: a 15th century precursor of Luther, the Tübingen nominalist theologian Gabriel Biel. [15] In his 1460 work, "On the Circumcision of the Lord," Biel mixes together in one lecture passages from the Gospel of Matthew, anti-Jewish polemic, quotations from Aristotle, a short tribute to Peter Lombard, a long passage from Duns Scotus and an epilogue on certain problems with Augustine's doctrine of grace and free will. I begin with that epilogue as a way into a discussion of the theme of divine love and grace in the writings of the eastern fathers, with special reference to two: Gregory of Nyssa and the Syrian monk known to later generations as the Pseudo-Dionysius.

II. Gabriel Biel on God's Love: The Nexus between Scholastic Synthesis and Reform

In the discussing theme of divine charis, Biel writes as follows:

Grace prompts us to love God above all things and in all things and to prefer the ultimate good, God, ahead of one's self and everything else. Therefore all those things which are not directed consciously or unconsciously towards God do not come from the prompting of grace and therefore are not worthy of eternal life.... According to some of the fathers... man can love God above everything else with his natural powers alone [that is without grace]...but man can never love God as perfectly and easily as with grace. Moreover it is absolutely impossible for him to love God meritoriously. [16]

There are a number of influences competing for attention in this little passage on "meritorious love." First, of course, is Paul's idea that since "sufficiency is from God," no act that is not prompted by grace can be meritorious (that is adequate)-not even love. Implicit as well is Augustine's view that the value of love must always be estimated in terms of its object, so that a true love of God will always follow, and never exist without, a conversion from the negative way of sin to the positive life that grace makes available. [17] Second is a more tortured discussion of the Lombard's, that meritorious acts-that is, an act which is conducive to salvation-depends on two factors: the will being free and grace being given: there is no "merit" in a love that does not operate freely. Grace does not determine the will, it "disposes" it or "prompts" it to do acts for the sake of God. A third source, used argumentatively, is Augustine's famous image of the relation between grace and will being akin to the relationship between a footservant to his lady: "The will accompanies but does not precede grace." [18] Or it is like the relation of a rider to his horse: As the rider guides the horse and chooses the direction; so grace "steers" the will in the direction of God. For Biel however, the Augustinian discussions of grace, upon which so much of the later protestant traditions will depend, are problematical: they are heavily biased in favour of the directive power of grace, which is not voluntary, but far from clear about how this additum actually works in relation to the will. In the first analogy, grace tells its servant the will what it needs; in the second, analogy, grace sits astride and will becomes a conveyance to be driven in the right direction. Without denying the power of grace, which he sees clearly attested in Paul, the Cappadocians, his scholastic mentors and Augustine, Biel finds their implications uncertain.

Thus he moves outside his stable of authorities to say something, in the context, almost radical and certainly original: "It is clear," he writes, "that grace is nothing but infused love, because the same effects are attributed to both. For love is that which prompts us to love God above everything else, [and that] which makes us beloved to God. Now this is exactly what grace does; therefore both holy scripture and the fathers identify love with grace." Love and grace, he suggests "are exactly the same thing." [19] This is an extremely provocative suggestion-but also one that many of his fellow scholastics would have condemned. And do the fathers say this explicitly? [20] In short, where does the idea come from?

* * *

From the fathers, Biel derives the idea that grace (charis) and love (agape) are inseparable both conceptually and practically: It is impossible to love God without grace, and impossible for grace to express itself in any form but love. The reformer in Biel causes him to say that this doctrine does not come only from the fathers but also from "reason based on scripture." It comes, therefore, with the dyadic authority of scripture and patristic opinion. He acknowledges a countervailing opinion, associated with Duns Scotus, that one should, or could, make a rational distinction between grace and love: grace referring to God as the loving subject, and charity being used when God is the object of love, or one acts towards others in the spirit of love.

So far we see in Biel's use of a pallette of ancient writers and later teachers a desire to bring scripture together with reason, and the fathers into their original conjunction with scripture. This is no small project considering that it is just this conjunction that the most radically biblicist of the reformers would soon challenge. When it comes to distinguishing Christian love from other forms of love-the love of God through which, by a prevenient love called grace, we come to be "friends of God"- Biel resorts not to the western tradition but to the eastern fathers. He leaves Augustine to one side, particularly Augustine's idea that one receives faith before grace ("How," he wonders, "would we have received this grace? We cannot walk in faith without being in grace." [21]): So while acknowledging that the love of God as subject might be configured as Platonic love of the Good, Biel rejects the implications of this teaching. He also rejects the idea that the assistance of grace might be represented simply as acquired habit: He quotes Aristotle to this effect when he writes, "Experience teaches us that all the acts of virtue leave behind a capacity which allows us to do these acts with greater care, readiness, pleasure and correctness." [22] But the Aristotelian pattern only works analogously: The "habit of grace" (or of loving) is not acquired but infused; grace "accomplishes in the soul something similar to the effects of an acquired habit but in a far more perfect fashion than an acquired habit." [23]

But Biel is deeply immersed in the fathers, and from them he has accepted that the way in which God is loved is somehow connected with the Christian experience of God, an experience which he regards as essentially trinitarian. It would remain so for the later reformers, though many would lose, or deemphasize, both the patristic connections, and none quite manages to achieve the "co-referential" style of Biel's discussion in their defense of salvation through grace as an essentially unmerited gift imparted to the sinner by a merciful (rather than a loving) God. [24] Indeed the common direction of reformist theology after Biel has its source in the lacuna between the concept of grace as a freely given and unmerited gift and the concept of love as a rationale for grace. God might give grace to what is unworthy, as one might pardon a criminal; but this form of grace would not need love as a motive. What for Biel, on the basis of patristic sources, is reciprocally active, that is, "grace" as predisposing love, directed towards God and returned by God, becomes unilateral-God's action on behalf of sinners-when the nuances of patristic exegesis are omitted from the discussion. This point is stressed in a famous passage from Melanchthon's 1531 apologia for the Augsburg Confession (art. iv) to illustrate the general idiom following the removal of the patristic authorities: "As long as man's mind... does not feel God's wrath and judgement he can imagine that he wants to love God and that he wants to do good for God's sake. In this way the scholastics teach men to merit the forgiveness of sins by doing what is within them, that is, if reason in its sorrow over sin elicits an act of love to God or does good for God's sake. ... [And they teach that] to support and increase trust in such works, God grants grace to those who do this." [25]

In contrast, here is what Biel has to say: "Love is the gift by which we are made good....Not only is this gift more glorious than the others, it is so great that it is never given unless the holy trinity gives itself with it. The trinity never gives itself without this gift, nor the gift without itself." [26]

III. The Johannine Pattern: "Love for Love"

Can we sort out the multiple influences that are moving through this enormously rich but interwoven work of late scholasticism which Luther is said to have read repeatedly and assiduously? First of all, Biel is "Johannine," as most of fathers, particularly in the eastern Church had been, in conceptualizing divine love. This includes a certain program to which much of eastern theology would find itself committed for five hundred years, at least to the time of John of Damascus (d. 749). [27] It involves a peculiar understanding of the way in which love (agape) works within the human community: Given the syncretism of much contemporary Christian theology, we may be tempted to see this as a Pauline leitmotif (cf. 1 Cor 13.8), but the Johannine form of koinonia, which is often seen as cultic rather than ecclesial, is much more explicitly related to a trinitarian model of unity in multiplicity than Paul's view of the community as being "saved"-at a social level--through the charis of love. [28] The program is explicitly stated in 1 John 4.7-10, an ancient Christian hymn dating from about 60CE and quoted by the author of the epistle:

"Beloved (agapaetoi) let us love one another,
for love is from God. (agape ek tou theou estin)
Everyone who loves is born of God, and knows God.
He who does not love does not know God.
For God is love.
In one way has the love of God has been shown to us:
God sent his first, his only son into the world
so that we may live through him.
In this is the love: not that we have loved God,
but that he had first loved."

In this pattern, love is manifested in a particular evocative act, not merely in a teaching. Love is prophorikos-expressed. The community in some sense-not quite Gnostic slumber-is incapable of knowing God except through this act, something concrete and expressive. As in the Fourth Gospel, their minds are clouded, hardened, predisposed to rejection of love (Jn 1.10). They are also incapable of loving except in the knowledge that they are somehow the objects of love. In crass last-century terms, they need affirmation and unconditional love as a prerequisite to loving. The prevenient act of grace - the disposing, assisting power--is this first act of love. So why (asks Biel) not call "grace" love?

The Johannine program is more radical in many respects than anything that comes after it because of its flat identification of God, in process terms, as loving being: hoti ho theos agape estin. As divine subject, using the rational distinction Duns Scotus advocates, God gives himself in the act of loving. As "object" however, he does not demand the kind of contemplative love we associate, for example, with the neoplatonic and gnostic traditions, where gnosis itself becomes, effectively, a form of agape. In the Johannine pattern, God is known in loving (1 Jn 4.7-8); whilst the God of Gnosticism is unknowable, "unloving" at a relational level, and hence unlovable. Where radical Platonism and its religious equivalent, Gnosticism, requires love of knowledge of the good, the johannine program requires "love for love": "If God has so loved us, so we ought to love one another." We love, says the author because God has loved first, or has taken the risk of not being loved. "If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. [29] In this we know that we abide in him and he in us because he has given us his Spirit. And we have seen and known that the father has sent his son." Biel's trinitarianism is certainly of a more developed sort, but the basic perception, which he claims to derive "from scripture and the fathers" is fairly clear: the kind of love that is expressed in Christianity is Trinitarian. It depends on the co-inherence of a loving subject, an expression of that love, the Son, and the effects of love in the form of the donum, the spirit of grace and truth. Love becomes the shorthand to express the economy of salvation. Love draws the soul to God.

IV. The Development of the Johannine Pattern: Gnostics, Gregory of Nyssa and the Pseudo-Dionysius With the passage of time, two different interpretations of the Johannine program emerged. One of those is the Gnostic program, which we associate especially with Syria and upper Egypt from the second to the fourth century-though elements lingered in Armenia until the 9th. The other is the tradition of the fathers in a succession reaching from Clement in late 2nd century Alexandria to John of Damascus in the 8th. The gnostic pattern seems to show clear traces of a convulsive form of neoplatonic thought possessed by a rhetorical complexity largely absent in the orthodox sources-even though at a certain level of theosophical speculation it is sometimes difficult to separate platonically informed eastern Christian mysticism from scripturally influenced platonic theology. It is also probable that there are historical intersections between the Gnostic pattern and the Johannine pattern of development, so that what emerges in eastern theology will be both constructive and corrective-an attempt to preserve the high theology of the pattern whilst discouraging the most extreme forms of platonic mythopoesis.

It has been known since the time of the Cappadocians that one of the transmogrified sources of Gnostic religion is Plotinus, or Plotinus as mediated by Porphyry. The two key passages are to be found in book two of the Fifth Ennead, where Porphyry discusses the so-called "procession of beings": "When incorporeal hypostatic substances descend, they split up and multiply, their power weakening, as they apply themselves to the individual. When on the contrary they rise, they simplify, unite and their power intensifies." [30] This process of "diremption," or splitting apart into weakness, has its resolution in the process of "redemption," through which the many are restored to the All. In this scheme, the first principle and the source of all that exists is the One; in Gnosticism, it is variously the Pleroma, the All-Begetter, or simply the Father. In both the Neoplatonic and Gnostic schools (as later in Tillich's philosophy) this One can only be experienced as mystery, since it is ontologically prior to what comes from it and hence beyond being. In the Christian-gnostic form, the neoplatonic vision becomes the rupture of the All which produces creation: the error of multiplicity arises, and with it this world and being in this world. Salvation, as we find it expressed classically in such tracts from Upper Egypt as the Gospel of Philip or the Hypostasis of the Archons, is to do with the reversal of the process through which multiplicity or error comes into existence; in a sentence, salvation and redemption in the Gnostic religion is the All's metaphorised love of itself and its need to restore unity from the multiplicity that resulted from the primal dispersion.

Christian sources, such as the Fourth Gospel and Ephesians 6, might have been useful in providing images for this belief, but Christian theology in general seems to have recoiled from its implications, which are unmitigated in tracts such as the Gospel of Truth, "The Father uncovers his bosom....; his bosom is the holy spirit and reveals his secret-his secret is his son, so that out of the father's bowels the Entirety might learn to know him and the aeons might no longer be weary from searching for the Father." [31] In gnostic thought, this ingathering of the dispersed elements of the One can be imagined using a variety of myths, ranging from Sophia to Pandora, to Adam and Christ. The point to be made is that the mythological overlay is simply the verbal attire applied by Gnostic teachers to a fundamentally world-negating theology in which the disappearance of the material world is the fundamental doctrine. [32] The complexity, or what Irenaeus sees as the weed-like profusion of Gnostic beliefs, often makes the original Neoplatonic pathway difficult to detect.

What concerned the church fathers, however, was not that they saw contortions of the Parmenides or Porphyry in Gnostic writings, but rather the radical metaphysical split which would have to be enforced if gnosticism became a way of thinking about God: Since it transcends being or even negates being altogether, the One or the All-Father is prior to thought and language and cannot be expressed by them. [33] The Gnostic idiom was contrived to make this explicit. [34] The One can only be perceived in mystical glimpses, and then only by the true Gnostics, the teletoi, who have reached a point that puts them at the summit of being, the "noetic self" as distinct from the "hylic" or earthbound man. When the Gnostic descends again to the human plane, he finds it impossible to express the absolute truth. For the "orthodox" Christian in the age of the fathers, this system is the radical negation of a God who wills, creates, loves (and invites love), from a world in which he has some interest. If theodicy, radical revision (or rejection) of the mystagogical elements of Plato's teaching were the price one had to pay for preserving the marriage of faith and reason in defense of biblical revelation, it was a price most of the orthodox eastern writers were willing to pay.

Gregory and the East: Differentiation from Gnosticism: The eastern fathers were far more comfortable than western teachers, at least until we get to Augustine, with the implications of Neoplatonism. When the Cappadocians begin their work, the most persistent Gnostic schools were already on the retreat, and with them the theological commitment to the idea that God's love is available to the created world only in a mitigated or metaphorical sense. [35] No-one is more comfortable with neoplatonism than Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) who had read his Porphyry and debated with the future (and last) of the pagan emperors, Julian the Apostate, when they were at school together in Constantinople. His treatise "On the Soul and the Resurrection" displays a remarkable ability to travel between philosophy and scripture and from didacticism to mysticism.

For Gregory, love is the energy of the soul: it propels it towards its object-the Good-as like to like, the divine returning to the divine. The soul copies or iconizes the life which is above, the divine life, and this means that its good is above all particular goods. If the language we find in Gregory exploits neoplatonism, it does not devolve into deliberate nonsense or what the Gnostics called "approximation": "The Divine nature is beyond any particular good and to the Good the good is an object of love. It follows that when it looks within itself, it wishes for what it contains and contains that which it wishes and admits nothing external. Indeed there is nothing external to it except evil, which (strange to say) possesses an existence in not existing at all." [36] For Gregory, the soul moves naturally toward the good (the familiar theme is that of ascent), cleansed in its path of all that is foreign to it-"things and emotions incident to its nature."

Here too, the theme might well be Gnostic-the redemption of Sophia, for example, or the retrieval of the pearl in the famous hymn enclosed in the Acts of Thomas or the Coptic treatise called "On the Resurrection." But there is this exception: for Gregory there is one thing left in the soul which is not "incidental" to its nature and so is different from memory, emotion, and hope, its temporal acoutrements: [37]

None of its habits are left to it except love, which clings by natural affinity to the Beautiful. For this is what love is, the inherent affection towards a chosen object. When then the soul having become simple and single in form and so perfectly godlike, finds that perfectly simple and immaterial good which is really worth enthusiasm and love, it attaches itself to it and blends with it by means of the activity and movement of love, fashioning itself according to that which it is continually finding and grasping. [38]

The authority for this idea, however, is not Plotinus but Paul: Paul has announced, Gregory says, that faith and hope endure alongside love for a little while, but that love "the foremost of all excellent achievements" will endure forever. Love therefore belongs particularly to the soul in a way that other virtues do not. It is eternal, as hope cannot be, and as faith need not be. In fact, it is the individuating feature of the soul which permits it to be transformed (or remade) into the essential godlike thing it is by nature. But the perception rests on the Johannine idea, the mysterion, that "God is love." Love therefore explains relation and likeness, where Gnosticism emphasizes unrelatedness and remoteness-the "distantial." [39] Gregory expresses it this way: "The life of the supreme being is love, seeing that the beautiful is necessarily lovable to those who recognize it, and God does recognize it, so this recognition becomes love, which he recognizes being essentially beautiful." [40] The life of God has its activity in love; the soul conforms itself to this life through love.

Dionysius, The Aereopagite: Divine Love. Passing over contributions to the discussion made, in the context of the Christological controversies by the Syrian fathers such as Thedoret and the Alexandrians, especially Cyril, we come upon the most famous-if alas anonymous-explicator of the Johannine tradition, Dionysius the Areopagite. Whoever the author may have been, the fact that his letters are addressed to various first century Christians including Timothy and the apostle John suggests that his goal was to infuse fourth century orthodox Trinitarian ideas into the first age of Christian teaching. History has forgiven him this indiscretion. Dionysius presents another example of how Neoplatonism might be pressed into the service of Christian doctrine without devolving linguistically and conceptually into the turgid language of Gnosticism or the developed forms of the hesychast tradition represented much later (14th century) by Gregory Palamas. Dionysius' basic premise, like Gregory's, is Johannine: God is love and all love is from God-to use his liturgically charged expression, love is "from him, through him, and to him." [41] When he deals with the classical platonic problem of unity and multiplicity, he does so in a way which makes love the energy which overcomes separations and divisions: "Because of the divine love, the unities of the world are mightier than the divisions." That is, God is not divided and dispersed, or opposed to the world, but operates through the energeia of love to provide coherence in the world. As a matter of theological emphasis, the writer has transformed the Gnostic emphasis on the primordial error as the source of diremption and separation into the theme of divine love as the correction which makes all things one in God. If the conceptual matrix is similar to the softer forms of (for example) Valentinian speculation, the theological emphasis on love as a principia efficians is rooted in the Gospel tradition and not in Syrian dualism.

Certain aspects of this explication of the Johannine pattern however are worked out uniquely by Dionysius: the dominant theme, of course, is the familiar one of union with God-the end of love. This leads to his most famous discussion and one which will become in varying degrees programmatic for eastern theology: divinization or theosis. This is not merely life with God but godlike life: [42] Salvation means a form of deification, if by that term we understand the fullest possible likeness to God and participation in the divine life. Even this is less Gnostic, depending on one's view of the Fourth Gospel, than Johannine. [43] But this deification is not enfigured, in Gnostic language, as an ingathering of the dispersed into the One: In his treatise "On the Divine Names," which has had perhaps the greatest influence on near eastern theology both within and beyond Christianity, Gregory argues that the approach to God is "through a pure heart and a spirit prepared for oneness."

The love of God is expressed in prayer through which "he seems to come to us," when "we really go to him." The imagery he uses to pursue his idea is memorable: It is "as if climbing hand over hand by a chain let down from heaven we appear to be drawing the sky downward instead of ourselves upward." [44] For Dionysius, not only the path to salvation but theology itself (the contemplation of God) begins with prayer: But beyond this first approach, there are three paths; the linear (by which we move from a knowledge of external things to a knowledge of causes); the spiral, by which we approach God through dialectic and reasoning); and the circular, in which we turn away from external things, abandon the mode of formal reasoning, and "enter into the mystical oneness." This last way of course, continues the thread of neo-Platonism, especially Porphyry's, that begins with Clement of Alexandria [45] and extends to John of Damascus and beyond: that is, God is utterly "unlike", incomprehensible, and "apart."46 The Johannine theme that "No one has seen God," is radicalized here, such that even the biblical stories of appearances of God cannot be taken prima facie: they are allegories of human encounter with the divine or the angelic, thus prefigurative or moral rather than literal. This sense of "god beyond being" can result in some disturbing language: God is "without imagination, opinion, reason and intelligence; ...without number, or order, or greatness or littleness, ...; it is not being nor eternity nor time; it is not perceived by the mind; it is neither knowledge nor truth...; it is not spirit as we know it nor sonship nor fatherhood...nor can it be in any way affirmed or denied." [47] This is one of the closest approaches in Christian theology after the time of the Alexandrians to the Gnostic use of approximation as a theological idiom, but in its controlled form it is what later writers, including scholastics such as Biel, would consistently employ as the via negativa. Notness is not naughtness: the positive value of human experience is not denied, but shown in its inadequacy as language struggles to reduce the incomprehensible to comprehension.

What, we wonder, is the role of revelation in this theology? Scripture expresses in an inadequate way (indeed, he says a "mean and contemptible way") the purposes and activities of God. It describes God only in terms of relations and acts and never with ontological precision. [48] Biblical revelation "symbolizes" the reality of God as "goodness, knowledge, wisdom, life, light, and beauty," as both the comprehension and source of these. But the expression of these things comes through his primary activity, love, which is active toward the world whilst knowledge is (and need only be) active in relation to Himself. [49]

In the treatise "The Celestial Hierarchies," Dionysius invents (or rather borrows from the Neoplatonist Proclus) a chain of three triads that extend, as it were, in a train of love from God to the world. The point of this hierarchy is not to duplicate the archontic system of the Gnostics, giving it a Christian twist, but to suggest how a synergy between the God who reveals and the world that receives might be imagined: the hierarchy exists to make God known through a process of imitation. Thus, the triads, or angelic beings, are incited according to capacity to be like God. This pattern of imitation is positively connected to the world, where Gnosticism is pessimistically world-negating (distantial). [50] Beneath the level of the divine triads, exist earthly hierarchies. The ecclesiastical hierarchy for Dionysius is an earthly replica of the divine. It includes what he calls the visible and tangible signs of love, which equip us to rise above the things of earth and share in the divine life. This path, it must be stressed is not knowledge-because knowledge does not operate in relation to the incomprehensible God. [51] This is a correction, if anything, of a Gnostic neoplationism which sees knowledge as the means of spiritual perfection and reunion with God.

Thus, "Revelation" for Dionysius means that the "Unknown and Unseen God" has provided a way of salvation based on the initiative of grace or love: The symbols of this grace are the sacraments, which Dionysius artificially correlates with the soul's ascent to god: baptism (purification); eucharist (illumination); and unction or confirmation (perfection). The ecclesiastical hierarchy has little to do with sacred persons [52]: he scarcely mentions the church. Nor is there anything here which is not already known to the Christian sacramental and liturgical practice of the second century. What Dionysius provides is the chain of love that links earthly semblances to heavenly reality. In short, like Gregory, his fundamental axiom is the relatedness of the soul to God, its capacity for response, almost with vibrational intensity, once its inclinations are aroused, and not the cosmic tragedy of separation and dispersion. Love is the activity which makes the divine real in the world and draws the soul towards God.

V. Conclusion: Love Patristic, Medieval and Reformed?

To tie these reflections on Christian love together in reverse order: If the Johannine tradition is a starting point for eastern speculation on love, it has two implications: that the love of God involves a divine-human reciprocity which is initiated by an expression of God's being, and a second theme: that God is only known through such expressions. The Johannine community may or may not have been consciously involved in remodelling certain Gnostic themes, but key among those challenged by emergent orthodoxy is the theme that love is merely the divine being's self-apprehension, that creation is an expression of primal error (diremption) and that redemption is simply the restoration of the One. But there is little of any perdurant significance in Gnostic literature to equate to the social-cultic discussions of (e.gg.) John 15.11-17 or 1 John 4.7-10, with their stress on the efficacy of love and the obligations congruent with those effects.

In Dionysius the attempt is made to interpret the Johannine tradition in mystical terms. Scripture is a mystery beneath which the reality of God is hidden, just as Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Dionysius gives us a world of figures, images and names, none of which tell us what God really is. Our recourse, therefore is to love God, and this is expressed through prayer and sacramental life. In Gregory, we feel we are on more solid ground, at least with respect to the doctrine of love; but in fact Gregory's mysticism is real and profound. Where Dionysius emphasizes the triadologically arranged chain that links the human to the divine, Gregory deals with the soul's ascent as motion or motivation: it is the soul described by Porphyry in the Isagoge. [53] This soul is drawn to God by the power of the one energy left to it after imperfections have been sloughed away, namely the dynamic power of loving (here understood essentially as attraction, since emotion has been eliminated) which it receives from God. The soul is formed, shaped, and modified in the image of God.

And finally our late medieval and scholastic friend, who stands at the crossroads of a reformation and the end of an era. We began with Gabriel Biel as a recipient of a long tradition of patristic opinion and scriptural interpretation. But when we approach him from this end he is hard to locate as the successor of patristic thought. Triads, the noetic self and the mystagogic names of God are as far removed from him as he is from the theology of an Elisabeth A. Johnson or Dorothee Soelle. It is true that Biel's idiom sounds more like fifteenth century Germany than fourth century Constantinople or Alexandria, and thus more like Luther than the fathers whose authority he appeals to in defining grace, justification, and faith. But the medium in this instance is not the message: Biel's use of the fathers is really the last great non-conciliar-that is non-dogmatic-use of their ideas prior to the Reformation itself. By the time of Trent, as already in the East, they had become the Holy Fathers, the source of orthodoxy and tradition, [54] whose authority was either assumed or rejected depending what side of the divide one was on. Biel sees things simply; Grace is another name for the love infused into the soul which makes us "good": he would never revert to a term like "theosis"-divinisation--to express this, but the process he imagines is equatable to the eastern patristic and orthodox view of the earlier period. As a philosopher, he was well versed in the scholastic approaches to Plato, but he dislikes expressing the abstract in regressively abstract ways; so the Platonic imagery which Dionysius tries to validate in a Christian idiom becomes earthbound and homespun for Biel, whose idiom foreshadows Luther's: He finds it possible to talk about friendhip, Freundschaft with God: how could we remain in friendship without love? How could we be restored to friendship without love? The journey of the soul to God, part to wholeness, is now envisioned as the reunion of two lost friends : "God might, he says, "have made us his friends without the gift of love. But how could we have remained in friendship without the assistance of love?" This restoration of the Johannine leitmotif is accomplished not only outside the boundaries of the "radical" Platonic idiom with which Biel's eastern progenitors felt comfortable, but through a deplatonizing of the more extreme forms of the diom. It is a restoration of theme, as well, because it evokes the straighforwardness of the biblical idiom encountered in 1 John, and the simplicity of the "Socratic" Plato in The Symposium: Thus asked what the "power" of love is, Diotima replies, "[Love] interprets between God and men, conveying and taking across to God the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of God; he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, and therefore in [Love] all is bound together, and through him the arts of the prophet and the priest, their sacrifices and mysteries [203a] and charms, and all prophecy and incantation, find their way. For God mingles not with man; but through Love all the intercourse and converse of God with man, whether awake or asleep, is carried on." [55]


[1] On the general subject of the agenda of the Movement, see S. L. Ollard, A Short History of the Oxford Movement (London: Mowbray, 1996), 150th Anniversary Edition.

[2] Instructive and programmatic are Justin Martyr's words concerning his "conversion" from philosophy to Christianity in The Dialogue with Trypho, the Jew, 3 and Tertullian's more famous assertions in The Apology.

[3] Calvin, Institutes,4. 57.7. in J. T. McNeill, ed. And F. L. Battles, translator, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955).

[4] Institutes 4.63.1.

[5] Cited by Calvin, Institutes, 4.57.7.

[6] Institutes 4. 57.7: "It never occurs [to Augustine] to teach that the authority which we ascribe to scripture depends on the definition or decree of men."

[7] Cranmer, whose consistent references to patristic sources sometimes goes unmarked: see for example, the liberal references to the Fathers in Cranmers's 1540 Preface to the Great Bible, especially his use of Gregory Nazianzus, in G. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), pp. 234-43.

[8] As a rule, the English reformers and "explicators" were more prone than their Lutheran counterparts to invoke the Fathers as authority: see for example Cranmer's impressive array of citations from Hilary, Basil, Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom and Photius in support of his view of justification in his 1547 "A Sermon of the Salvation o9f Mankind." In Gerald Bray, Documents of the English Reformation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994, pp, 315-317.

[9] It can be noted that ecclesiastical history, as a distinct theological discipline had been first introduced in the University curriculum in the West, first by the Protestants, and precisely for polemical purposes against Rome. So the crux of the heated political and religious debates between Rome and the Reformers was whether or not Rome had been loyal to the ancient tradition, or was guilty of innovations and unwarranted accretions. Cf. Georges Florovsky, "The Orthodox Churches and the Ecumenical Movement Prior to 1910" in A History of the Ecumenical Movement 1517-1948 ed., R. Rouse and S.C. Neill (London, 1954) reprinted., Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol 2, Christianity and Culture (Belmont, MA: Norland Publishing, 1974), pp. 169-170

[10] See generally on these dialogues, Constantine N. Tsirpanlis "Jeremias II and the Lutherans" from The Historical and Ecumenical Significance of Jeremias II's Correspondence With the Lutherans (1573-1581) Volume One. (Kingston, New York: American Institute For Patristic and Byzantine Studies, 1982), p. 14; John Travis, "Orthodox-Lutheran Relations: Their Historical Beginnings" in Greek Orthodox Theological Review. 29 (1984), p. 311; and Steven Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity: A study of the Patriarchate of Constantinople from the eve of the Turkish conquest to the Greek War of Independence (London: Cambridge University Press, 1968) p. 165, 168.

[11] Strohl, Jane E. "Lutheran-Orthodox Dialogue: A Sixteenth-Century Encounter. Dialog Vol. 32, No. 2. Spring 1993.

[12] See Ch. 7 of The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. I, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View (Vaduz, Europa: Buechervertriebsanstalt, 1987), pp. 105-120.

[13] Calvin, Institutes, 4.63.2. It should be pointed out that Calvin's remarks come in his general asservations against the pretense of "apostolic succession," rather than as a vote in favour of the eastern against the western versions of the doctrine.

[14] Evidence in Heiko Oberman, Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966).

[15] As a matter of fact, Biel acknowledged the primacy and supreme power of the Roman Pontiff, but, in common with many other theologians of his time, maintained the superiority of general councils, at least to the extent that they could compel the pope's resignation. And he displayed no more theological freedom than has been claimed and exercised by some of the strictest theologians. Among the opinions defended by Biel concerning matters controverted in his day, the following are worthy of mention: (a) That all ecclesiastical jurisdiction, even that of bishops, is derived either immediately or mediately from the pope. In this connection his defence of the episcopal claims of Diether von Ysenburg won him thanks of Pius II; (b) That the power of absolving is inherent in sacerdotal orders, and that only the matter, i.e. the persons to be absolved, can be conceded or withheld by the ordinary; (c) That the minister of baptism need have no more specific intention than that of doing what the faithful, that is, the Church, intends. (d) That the State may not compel Jews, or "heathens," or their children to receive baptism. (e) And that the Contractus Trinus is morally lawful. All of these opinions have since become prevailing theological doctrine. 16 Gabriel Biel, "On the Circumcision of the Lord," text in Heiko Oberman, Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1966) , p. 167.

[17] See, for example, among many passages, On Grace and Free Will (De gratia et libero arbitrio), xxx-xxxiii.

[18] Augustine argues however that love is a good will that comes from God and not from ourselves; love can thus be described as a capacity that comes from God. See De gratia Christi et de peccato originali [On the Grace of Christ and Original Sin], II.30. Ch.22 in St. Augustin's Anti-Pelagian Works, trans. P. Holmes and R. E Wallis, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, series 1 (Peabody: MA: Hendrikson, 1999 reprint of the 1887 Edinburgh edition), p, 224a; further on the same topic, De gratia et libero arbitrio [Of Grace and Free Will], chapters xxxiv-xxxix.

[19] Biel, "Circumcision," 167-168.

[20] Augustine identifies love with the good will in his exegesis of 1 John 3.1, but he distinguishes love and grace, as in De spiritu et littera [On the Spirit and Letter], xxxiii-xxxiv, in Holmes, p. 110 a,b.

[21] Biel, "Circumcision," p. 167.

[22] Generally, Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II.iv.

[23] Biel, "Circumcision," p. 169.

[24] There are significant exceptions: the Anabaptist Hans Denck's 1527 Treatise, "Concerning True Love," is a lyrical and almost passionate defense of love as a "grace," on the model of Bernard of Clairvaux and the Devotio Moderna. "Love is a spiritual power. The lover desires to be united with the beloved. Where love is fulfilled, the lover does not objectify the beloved. The lover forgets himself, as if he were no more, and without shame he yearns for his beloved..." In D. Liechty, ed. Early Anabaptist Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1994), p. 112.

[25] Melanchthon, "Apologia of the Augsburg Confession" [1531].Article IV (Justification), in T. Tappert, ed. The Book of Concord (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 107, 108.

[26] Biel, "Circumcision," p. 168.. This is not unlike John of Damascus' view, when he says that "without the Spirit there is no impulsion within God" (OF 196/ PG 148 B). The Spirit's personal character is to be dynamic. He personifies the "one surge and the one movement of the three Persons" (OF 202/PG 152 B) that is God's very life. On John's dynamic-relational view of the trinity, see Michael Torre, "St John of Damascus and St Thomas Aquinas on the Eternal procession of the Holy Spirit," paper delivered at the 27th International Medieval Studies Congress, Kalamazoo, Michigan (1992), pp. 2-4. The Eastern fathers tended to be more precise about the modes and operations within the trinity as a result of their theology developing against a heresiological background. The scholastic idiom by Biel's day tended to emphasize the three-in-oneness, God giving himself as an entirety. A mediating western view is Aquinas, who despite his defense of the filioque teaches that the Father is the only unoriginate principle and that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. He further accepts that the Spirit abides in the Son, "as the lover rests in the beloved" (ST 36, 2 ad 4). For this reason, he says that "the Holy Spirit is said to proceed from the Father to the Son" (QDP 10, 4 ad 10). He here follows Richard of St. Victor, regarding the Father's love for the Son as the supreme love, a personal love for another (QDP 9, 9 ad contra).

[27] As an "honorary" precursor of medieval developments in western theology, see discussion in F. Chase, ed., The Writings of St John of Damascus (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 1958), 5-9.

[28] The gift of love described in the long digression of 1 Corinthians 13 has theoloigical implications, but is best seen against the backdrop of particular social issues-rich vs. poor, the "gifted" vs. the "ungifted"-rather than as a meditation on divine love as such.

[29] en toutw teteleiwtai h agaph meth hmwn.

[30] V Ennead 2.26; in Guthrie (trans.), Launching Points to the Realms of Mind (Grand Rapids: Phanes, 1988), p. 45. The higher purifying virtues, needed to help the soul become like God by removing from it as much as possible of that which is of the senses; and the still higher deifying or enlightening virtues, through the exercise of which man may attain to the fulfillment of his true nature. But unification with the highest, with God, is not possible through thought. It is attained only when the soul, in an ecstatic state, loses the restraint of the body and has for a time an immediate knowledge of God.

[31] GT IV.23.33, trans. B. Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures (London: SCM, 1987), p. 254.

[32] "When unity makes the ways complete, it is in unity that all will gather themselves, and it is by acquaintance that all will purify themselves ouit of multiplicity into unity, consuming matter within themselves as fire, and darkness by light, and death by life. So since these things have happened to each of us, it is fitting for us to meditate upon the entirety so that this house might be holy, and quietly intent on unity." Gospel of Truth, IV.23.7,8, 19-22; in Layton, p. 257. Cf 2 Cor. 5.4.

[33] GT 17.36; Layton, 254.

[34] As one of many examples, the Barbelo Gnosticism of the Nag Hammadi treatise, "First Thought in Three Forms," (Trimorphic Protennoia) dating from about the year 350.

[35] Marcion, as I have argued elsewhere, can be distinguished from the Gnostic teachers primarily in terms of the most widely attested of his views, namely, his emphasis on the love expressed by the "supreme" God as the feature differentiating him from the God of the Jews, whose love is deficient and consists only in a raw sense of justice. Cf. Tertullian, Adv. Marc., 1.23-24.

[36] Gregory of Nyssa, "On the Soul and Resurrection," in Select Writings and Letters of Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, trans. W. Moore and H.A. Wilson, Nicene and Post-Nicene Father, vol 5 (Peabody, MA, 1999; rpt. of Edinburgh 1892 edition), p.450 a, b.

[37] A theme developed by Augustine as well in the treatise (De perfectione justiciae hominis) "On Righteousness," viii.19

[38] Gregory, "On the Soul," 450; further (p. 451): "Such I think is the plight of the soul as well. When the divine force, for God's very love for man, drags that which belongs to him from the ruins of the irrational and material. Not in hatred or revenge for a wicked life, to my thinking, does God bring upon sinners those painful dispensations (of hell); he is only claiming and drawing to himself whatever to please himn came into existence."

[39] In many respects the work by Hans Jonas, now dated, remains the best conceptual treatment of Gnostic themes and emphases; see The Gnostic Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979).

[40] "On the Soul," p. 450b.

[41] On the liturgical uses of Dionysius by his redactors in the Syrian (Jacobite) Church, see "The Liturgy of St Dionysius," trans. J. Parker, in Liturgiarum Orientalis, collectio E. Renaudoti, t. 2, p. 201. In the same work, Dionysius also shows his distance from Gnosticism in his conventional emphasis on the transforming powers of grace, the unworthiness of man (the subject), and the role of the sacraments as vehicles of grace and forgiveness:

"Who callest the poor from the dust,
And raisest the beggar from the dunghill;
And hast called us, lost, rejected and infirm,
To the liberty and household dignity of Thy sons,
Through Thy beloved Son, grant to us,
That we may appear in Thy sight, holy sons,
And not unworthy of the name..."

[42] Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, 1.3

[43] John 1.12, with its reference to the power to become children of God already contains the elements of "theosis," which is not to be equated with apophatic mysticism at this stage of development.

[44] "Divine Names," 3.1

[45] Cement, Stromateis 5.11

[46] On the theme of unlikeness and incomprehensibility, among the pseudonymous letters see Letter I, To Gaius Therapeutes.

[47] Mystical theology V. The use of collusio oppositorum is also a feature of Gnostic thought; cf. "The Thunder" or "Perfect Mind," in Layton, Gnostic Scriptures, pp. 77-78.

[48] "Divine Names," I.1f.

[49] "Divine Names," III.2

[50] Especially in Chapter 2, where Dionysius argues that it is appropriate to reveal the mysteries of God and of heaven with symbols without resemblance. Here it is explained that the many images and symbols in sacred scripture are not meant to be read literally. As man is incapable of contemplating Divine Truth directly, our divinely inspired ancestors have left us symbols adapted to our capacity of understanding which help us to raise our consciousness to the understanding and contemplation of the divine truths; the second function of the symbol is that it also serves as a veil to these sacred truths for those who it would be imprudent to reveal these things to. The value of the symbol therefore depends on the person's capacity to penetrate its secrets.

[51] Mystical Theology, 3.1

[52] He speaks of three "orders" of clergy; the hierarch (bishop) the priest (hereus), and the deacon or Liturgist. Likewise, the laity are divided into catechumens, baptized laymen, and monks.

[53] " Being incorporeal, she unites with the body...According to her own life she modifies that to which she is united but she is not modified thereby." Ammonius Saccas, from Nemesius in K. Guthrie, trans., Porphyry's Launching Points to the Realm of Mind (Grand Rapids, Phanes Presss), p 83.

[54] Thus Florovsky, although a revisionist in terms of his sense of the use of the Fathers and the Councils in ecclesiastical writing, writes as follows: "'Following THE HOLY FATHERS" . . . It was usual in the Ancient Church to introduce doctrinal statements by phrases like this. The Decree of Chalcedon opens precisely with these very words. The Seventh Ecumenical Council introduces its decision concerning the Holy Icons in a more elaborate way: "Following the Divinely inspired teaching of the Holy Fathers and the Tradition of the Catholic Church." The didaskalia of the Fathers is the formal and normative term of reference." See Bible, Church, Tradition (Vaduz, 1987), p. 105.

[55] Plato, Symposium, 202e-203a (Jowett's translation).

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