Cyril of Alexandria’s “Canon within the Canon” – What is yours?

Cyril of Alexandria was the church father who argued tirelessly for an orthodox Christology which could genuinely call Mary the Theotokos. He struggled against Nestorius, who allegedly attempted to inappropriately distinguish between the actions and experiences of the divine Son of God and the human Jesus. Against this teaching, Cyril fought to the death to preserve the unity of the divine and human in the Incarnation. For Cyril, the perfect union of God and Man in the Incarnation was the heart of soteriology – the truth of how God has saved humanity.

When one reads Cyril they find that he has a collection of “pet texts” that he references often in order to explain key passages of Scripture or to defend certain doctrines. For Cyril, his “go-to” texts consisted of John 1:14, Philippians 2:5-11, Hebrews 2:14-17, and (as I argued in my thesis) Romans 5:14. It’s not hard to see why – all of these verses emphasize the Incarnation of the eternal Word of God and its salvific implications. Thus, no matter what text or doctrine Cyril is dealing with, a quick and steady reference to these texts helps put the issue in his overall theological context. As an example, see my post on Cyril’s theological reading of Luke 10:23-24.  

I wonder if this practice, of developing a “canon within the canon” of sorts, is a helpful example for Christians wishing to faithfully interpret Scripture and understand key doctrines. In fact, I would suggest that most Christians already (perhaps subconsciously) interpret Scripture and various theologies in this fashion.

I know that I have a few “go-to texts” that I immediately think of when pondering exegetical or theological issues: John 1:14-18, Hebrews 1:1-4, Galatians 1:3-4, and Philippians 3:20-21. Those who know me can easily see why/how these texts work in my thinking: I consistently emphasize Jesus as the clearest and fullest picture of God (John 1:14-18 and Hebrews 1:1-4), I also have a fairly apocalyptic eschatology (Galatians 1:3-4), and I think Christians should focus more on the future resurrection of the dead (Philippians 3:20-21). Thus, one of my first questions when thinking through an exegetical or theological issue is often: “How does this fit with an understanding of the life and teachings of Jesus as the perfect revelation of God’s character and will?”

I’m interested in whether you have some “pet texts,” what they say about your theology, and whether you think that this practice is ultimately helpful or harmful. So:

 Do you have “key texts” which function for you as a “canon-within-a-canon”? 
What do you they say about your theology?
What dangers are there to employing such an approach to exegesis/theology?

Theosis in the Sermon on the Plain? An Intertextual Exploration

Is it possible that Jesus’ statement in Luke 6:35 is an “intertextual echo” of Psalm 82:6?*

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Plain, says that those who live cruciform lives will be “sons of the Most High.” The wording recorded by Luke directly parallels the language spoken by God in Psalm 82:6 as He indicts the “gods (elohim), sons of the Most High” for participating in unjust actions. Is the Lukan Jesus alluding to this Psalm, and if so, what sort of reading would this create?

There are a few reasons that might lead one to see an intertextual echo here. First, “Most High” is a relatively rare epitaph for God in the New Testament, found 9 times (7 of which are in Luke-Acts: Luke 1:32, 35, 76; 6:35; 8:28; Acts 7:48 and 16:17) and only here on the lips of Jesus. Thus, one might be allowed to wonder whether its usage is intentional and not simply standard language. Second (and here we enter into questions of the historicity of the synoptics and John), John’s gospel presents Jesus as not only familiar with Psalm 82:6, but also as directly quoting it as a key text to defend his identity and ministry (see John 10:34). This could again be seen as evidence that Psalm 82:6 was not only available, but extremely important in the minds of Jesus and the gospel writers.

Ultimately, while Jesus’ statement in Luke 6:35 is fully coherent without the intertextual echo of Psalm 82:6, hearing this allusion adds layers of depth to the text. An imaginative canonical and theological reading would find a richness in “discovering” the presence of Psalm 82:6 in Luke 6:35. This is even more true considering the importance which Psalm 82:6 played in patristic exegesis and theology – primarily in the development of the doctrine of theosis.

The Church Fathers regularly referenced Psalm 82:6 as the crowning verse displaying the hope of theosis, or deification: participation in the divine nature of the Triune God. This classically Eastern view of salvation paints redemption as less of a legal act of forgiveness and more of a relational and transformative union. God’s people are given the gift of sharing in the filial relationship that Jesus has with the Father through the Spirit and are thus transformed, taking on divine characteristics (such as holiness, incorruptibility, etc).

If we read Luke 6:35 in conversation with Psalm 82:6 and in light of the theology of the Fathers, our reading takes on a new shape. Namely, one can read Jesus’ statement as a revelation of theosis: a transformative experience whereby disciples share in the enemy-loving nature of the Father.  Psalm 86:2 speaks of the moral (injustice) and ontological (enslaved to death, corruptible) deficit which reveals the need for deification. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, speaks of the moral shape which will characterize those who are united with the Father just as the Son is united to Him. Indeed, Luke’s gospel presents Jesus as the penultimate “son of the Most High” (Luke 8:28 – from the speech of a demon). In the Sermon on the Plain, the disciples are promised nothing less than the same title which Jesus eternally holds. The axiom of theosis might then be reframed in this way: the Son of the Most High came so that we might become Sons & Daughters of the Most High.

It is worth noting that the moral standard of sacrificial enemy-love is emphasized here as the center of this sharing in the filial relationship between Jesus and the Father. Jesus, revealing both the nature of the Father and the essence of relating to the father as a Son of the Most High, is the archetypical enemy-lover. His disciples, as they participate in the divine nature and receive their status as children of the Most High, follow Jesus’ path of cruciform love.

What do you think?
Does Luke 6:35 echo Psalm 82:6?
Do you find it edifying to read Luke 6:35 in light of
Psalm 82:6 and the Patristic doctrine of theosis?

* Psalm 82:6 – “I said, “You are like gods, sons of the Most High, all of you.”

* Luke 6:35 – “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”

Teaching Theosis and Communion within the Trinity

“If He (the Holy Spirit) is not from the beginning, He is in the same rank with myself, even though a little before me; for we are both parted from the Godhead by time.  If He is in the same rank with myself, how can he make me God, or join me with the Godhead.” Gregory of Naziansus, On the Holy Spirit

I have been teaching on the trinity in class for the past week and a half.  It has probably been one of the most frustrating things I have ever had to teach.  The main problem I am facing is that the majority of Evangelical Christians hardly ever talk about the trinity.  As soon as I mention one being, three persons or one person, two natures I can see my student’s eyes glazing over.  I am using vocabulary that they have never been exposed to.  And one of the problems with teaching the trinity is that I can’t use any other language.  This language was painstakingly hammered out by our church fathers and we receive their language as a gift (at least those who tend to think that tradition is a good thing).  The danger that the church fathers were trying to avoid was making the trinity too simple, too intelligible.  That’s what the heretics did.  As soon as you leave the language for analogy or anecdote you’re in trouble.

It was much more important for the church fathers to not so much understand the trinity, but to be drawn into it.  Here again is territory that Evangelicals rarely wander into willingly.  I asked my students what they thought it meant to be drawn into the community of the trinity.  I might as well have been asking what does yellow smell like?  The problem lies with their view of salvation.  To them, salvation is only a legal action that takes away your guilt.  The relational aspect only focuses on Jesus, since he is in this view pictured as our only ally.  The God who is judge only tolerates us because of Jesus, more specifically his voluntary bloodshed.  In this scenario, there is not much fellowship going on between Father and Son and there is not even a mention of the Holy Spirit.  (To be fair I am sure there are better characterizations of this view, but I am trying to explain the majority view of my students, which are largely drawn from the churches they attend.)

So, for what its worth, here has been my approach with my own students and it consists of two emphases or shifts in perspective.

1. First I attempt to change my student’s perspective on salvation by telling them that salvation begins at the incarnation, not the cross.  The mystery of the incarnation is that divinity has united with humanity, and there can be no salvation if these two natures are not joined.  And the only one who can join them together is God himself by taking on humanity.  I pull in the narrative of Genesis 1-2 in order to show that God’s good creation is a sign post of what is to come.  The true image of God will be his own Son and through him God will be with his creation in a way that we never thought possible.  Salvation then becomes about participating in the life of the Son, who participates in the life of the Father, who gives us the Spirit.

2. If salvation is viewed as participating in the divine life (i.e. theosis or divinization), then all of a sudden we need the Holy Spirit to be involved.  This is perhaps the biggest change that occurs in their thinking.  I conduct a poll on the first day of the unit by asking what each person of the trinity does.  Every student can tell me what the Father and Son do, but when we get to the Spirit the only response (and I literally have not gotten another one) is that the Holy Spirit guides.  The Spirit is the paradigmatic Jiminy Cricket living inside us, nudging us not to tell a lie.  But what if the role of the Spirit is less about moral guidance and more about a person’s ontological transformation into a holy temple?  (This is after all what Paul seems to argue that Christians have become in 1 Corinthians 6:19.)

So what is the pay off and why in the world would I try to spend any time communicating this to my students?

Most of my students tend to view the point of Christianity as ending up at the right place and avoiding the wrong place.  Theosis is a way to talk about the Christian life as one of continually figuring out what it means to participate in the Trinity’s way of life.  It helps to emphasize that the point of salvation is to know God, which means eternal life is a present as well as a future reality.  Perhaps if this idea catches on in our churches and Christian schools, then we would see less Christians in name only and more Christians who understand that the goal of their life is to be changed into a little Christ through the Spirit.

Human Nature, As Victorious In Him, Wins The Crown

From Cyril of Alexandria’s commentary on Luke 4:1-2,

Come therefore and let us praise the Lord, and sing psalms unto God our Saviour: let us trample Satan under foot; let us raise the shout of victory over him now he is thrown and fallen: let us exult over the crafty reptile, caught in an inextricable snare: let us too say of him in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “How is the hammer of all the earth broken and beaten small! Thou art found and hast been taken, because thou stoodest against the Lord.” For of old, that is before the time of the advent of Christ the Saviour of all, the universal enemy had somewhat grand and terrible notions about himself: for he boastfully exulted over the infirmity of the inhabitants of the earth, saying, “I will hold the world in my hand as a nest, and as eggs that are left I will take it up: and no one shall escape from me or speak against me.” And in very truth there was no one of those upon earth who could rise up against his power; but the Son rose up against him, and contended with him, having been made like unto us. And therefore, as I said, human nature, as victorious in Him, wins the crown. And this in old time the Son Himself proclaimed, where by one of the holy prophets He thus addresses Satan; “Behold, I am against thee, O corrupting mountain, that corruptest the whole earth.”