16 July 2012

'He Put No Difference Between Us'—Ss Peter & Paul in Radner & St Maximus

Last Thursday, 29 June on the Church’s calendar, we celebrated the memory of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul. I had thought about doing an old-school Logismoi post for the Apostles, but unfortunately things were much too busy for the full treatment and I let it pass. A perusal of a borrowed book the other day, however, convinced me that I should at least do a post connecting back to their feastday, even if it wasn’t one of my traditional Saints’ posts. 

I have more than once, I am sure, mentioned my enthusiasm for John O’Keefe’s and R.R. Reno’s Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible. Well, my tremendous esteem for the merits of the authors’ arguments and conclusions led me to reread with careful attention the preface to the volume, wherein they acknowledge the various influences and intellectual debts that contributed to the book. One passage that caught my attention was this: ‘The work of Ephrem Radner defies epitome, but the fabric of his many publications is woven with figural patterns of biblical interpretation. He is a rare contemporary practitioner of an ancient art.’ [1] 

I don’t quite remember how it happened, but somehow or another I shortly afterward discovered the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, edited by Reno, which ‘advances upon the assumption that the Nicene tradition, in all its diversity and controversy, provides the proper basis for the interpretation of the Bible as Christian Scripture’, and could be seen in some ways as a commentary attempting to carry out what O’Keefe and Reno present in Sanctified Vision. [2] I recalled having seen the series at our local evangelical megastore (which I was distressed to find no longer carries it, although the Christian romance section has certainly expanded), but I had never carefully examined it to discover its approach. Fortunately, my boss, the headmaster of our school, has what I take to be the entire series to date in his office, and I was surprised and excited to discover that the volume on Leviticus—surely a unique text for demonstrating the rich exegetical possibilities of the ‘Nicene tradition’—was written by that ‘rare contemporary practitioner of an ancient art’, Ephraim Radner. 

I realise I’m taking the long route to get back to Ss Peter and Paul. What does Ephraim Radner’s commentary on Leviticus have to do with the two chiefs of the Apostles? It so happens that interpreting Leviticus as Christian Scripture provides a direct connection: St Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9-16, which presupposes the distinction between clean and unclean animals in Leviticus 11: 

For I am the Lord who brought you up [ἀναγαγὼν ὑμᾶς] out of the land of Egypt to be your God; and ye shall be holy, for I the Lord am holy. This is the law concerning beasts and birds and every living creature [πάσης ψυχῆς] moving in the water, and every living creature creeping on the earth; to distinguish between the unclean and the clean [διαστεῖλαι ἀνὰ μέσον τῶν ἀκαθάρτων καὶ ἀνὰ μέσον τῶν καθαρῶν]; and between those that bring forth alive, such as should be eaten, and those that bring forth alive, such as should not be eaten. (Lev. 11:45-7, LXX) 

Compare then, the vision of the Apostle Peter in Acts: 

On the morrow, as they went on their journey, and drew nigh unto the city, Peter went upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: and he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, and saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: where in were all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, ‘Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.’ And the voice spake unto him again the second time, ‘What God hath cleansed that call not thou common.’ This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven. (Authorised Version) 

Clearly, St Peter is professing his fidelity to the distinction outlined in Leviticus 11. Just as clearly, the same God who gave to the Israelites the category of ‘unclean’ in Leviticus, is telling St Peter that He Himself has ‘cleansed’ all things. The exhortation to ‘be holy’ is not negated, however, and indeed, St Peter himself quotes it in I Peter 1:16, but it is no longer tied to the observance of dietary laws. 

In his commentary on this chapter of Leviticus, Radner draws on the mediaeval Benedictine writer, Rupert of Deutz (c. 1075-1129), whom Jean Leclercq notes as an exemplar of the use of ‘Old Testament texts...for expressing the loftiest realities of the New Testament,’ in whom ‘we sense the shadow of the whole archaic Eastern [patristic] background’. [3] I shall quote Radner at length: 

For Rupert of Deutz (Patrologia latina 167.796-801), the pentecostal focus in Lev. 10 [he connects the fire that devours the sons of the Prophet Aaron in Lev. 10:2 with the tongues of fire of Pentecost] explicates the framework of Lev. 11 in terms of the mission to the Gentiles entrusted the church by God. That is, the outline of distinction that Aaron (and Moses) provide the people—in terms of animal life, food, and even the touching of carcasses—properly embraces the distinctions of the peoples and their place within the providential calling of God. From the perspective of the New Testament, this coordination of elements is almost natural. It is, after all, Peter himself, in the course of his calling by God to turn to the Gentiles with the church’s first deliberate Christian evangelistic effort in their direction, who is presented with a threefold divine vision treating specifically the question of clean and unclean foods (Acts 10:9-16)....Rather than seeing Peter’s vision as a simple nullification of the Levitical laws of distinction, Rupert of Deutz understands these laws as the reflection of this single providential goal, by which the whole of the world will be brought into right relationship with God, gathered into the heavenly sheet. The vision sets in motion Peter’s visit to the Gentile centurion Cornelius in Caesarea, who is baptized despite his fundamental nonadherence to the breadth of the Levitical laws. Hence the Levitical laws pertain to—they advance toward and present—this goal of Gentile baptism, both in terms of reference and object; they do not contradict it. [4] 

Thus, the taking up of the animals without distinction into the four-cornered sheet is a symbolic revelation of the taking up of the peoples of the earth without distinction into the Church, where ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galations 3:28). In the words of St Irenaeus of Lyons, ‘For the God who had distinguished through the law the pure food from the impure, that same God had cleansed the nations through the blood of his Son, and that is the God whom Cornelius worshiped.’ [5] 

I have not been reading Radner’s commentary through, and so it was a look at the index for Greek Fathers, particularly for St Maximus the Confessor, that led me to the chapter on Leviticus 11. Unfortunately, the great 7th-c. Father is only cited once by Radner—when the latter writes: 

The allegorical reading—both Jewish and Christian—by which the sacrificial animals of Leviticus refer to those beastly, irrational, or wild (Maximus the Confessor [in Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware 1979-95: 2.273]) aspects of the self that require subjugation is in fact congruent with and perhaps even founded upon the presuppositions of this reality of distinction and offering. [6] 

A look at the text from the Philokalia which Radner cites is interesting. It is a Maximian anthology known as ‘Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, & Virtue & Vice’. The part in question is numbered as the ‘Fifth Century’ of such texts in the English Philokalia, whereas it is the ‘Seventh Century’ in the Greek. The greater part of this century, including all of the chapters I will excerpt below, is taken from the treatise To Thalassios: On Various Questions relating to Holy Scripture. It is there that St Maximus dwells at length on what he calls ‘the spiritual contemplation [ἡ πνευματικὴ θεωρία] of...the written law’. [7] The simple statement—in chapter 50—of the allegorical reading of the animals as passions to which Radner is referring is believed to be the work of a 10th-c. scholiast. [8] St Maximus’s own comments in chapter 51, which the scholiast is presumably explaining, takes for granted the ‘passion’ reading: 

By spiritual sacrifices is meant not only the putting to death of the passions, slaughtered by ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’ (Eph. 6:17), and the deliberate emptying out of all life in the flesh, as if it were blood; the term also signifies the offering up of the moral state we have gained through the practice of the virtues, together with all our natural powers, which we dedicate and offer [προσαγωγὴν ἀφιερουμένων] to God as whole burnt sacrifices, to be consumed by the fire of grace in the Spirit, so that they are filled with divine power. [9] 

The ‘fire of grace in the Spirit’, an obvious allusion to Pentecost, is only the second tie into Rupert’s connection of Leviticus with Pentecost. In chapter 49, the Confessor writes: 

The mystery of Pentecost is the direct union with providence of those things that are in its care. It is the union of nature with its principle, the Logos, under the guidance of providence; and in this union there is not the slightest trace of time or generation. Again, the Logos is our trumpet (cf. Lev. 23:24), summoning us with divine and hidden knowledge. He is our propitiation (cf. Lev. 25:9), since He expiates our offences in His own person by becoming like us, and divinizes our sinful nature by the gift of grace through the Spirit. He is our booth or tabernacle (cf. Lev. 23:42), since He is the realization of that immutability with which our inner being, conformed to God, is concentrated on the divine, and also the securing bond of our transformation into an immortal state. [10] 

Indeed, it is a shame that Radner does not make more use of St Maximus in his commentary. The Confessor comments specifically on St Peter’s vision itself in Questions & Doubts 116, where he responds to the question of what is signified by the sheet and the beasts that were on it: 

Since, according to the vision by the prophet Ezekiel, ‘their work was like a wheel within a wheel’, and through these a perceptible as well as an intelligible world are depicted as existing within one another—for the intelligible world is in the perceptible world by types, and the perceptible world is in the intelligible world by its logos—therefore, all of the perceptible world was shown to the Apostle. For the letting down by its four corners’ signifies the world composed of four elements, existing as clean in the intelligible world according to the logos that exists inherently in these things. And he heard, ‘rise up, kill, and eat,’ that is, ‘by (your) nous raise yourself up from that which is according sense, and “kill and eat”, which means by the distinction of reason divides sense perception, [11] and taking up these things spiritually make them your own.’ 

Or, it also signifies the church that is supported by the four foundations of the gospels or, again, by the four cardinal virtues. And the beasts and reptiles depict the different human customs which, from the Gentiles, are going to (change over to) the faith in Christ. And the ‘kill and eat’ shows ‘first, by the word of teaching, “kill” the evil in them and then “eat”, making their salvation your own just as the Lord also made it food for himself.’ [12] 

Of course, this post has been mostly taken up with St Peter, and for reasons of length I do not intend to devote equal space here to St Paul. But I will point out that St Peter’s experience of the vision, and his subsequent baptism of Cornelius, ‘Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ’ (Gal. 2:16), connect him directly with the great Apostle of the Gentiles. ‘And’, in the words of Didymus the Blind, ‘through the figure shown by the linen cloth and through the granting of the grace of the Holy Spirit in like manner to the nations according to faith [cf. Acts 10:44-8], he [St Peter] made the case that in Christ there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile.’ [13] 

St Paul of course makes himself a compliment to St Peter, ‘For He that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles’ (Gal. 2:8). But the baptism of Cornelius makes clear that the division in their duties is not a strict one, and St Peter at the Council of Jerusalem says to the apostles and elders: 

‘Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the Gospel, and believe. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as He did unto us; and put no difference between us and them [διέκρινε μεταξὺ ἡμῶν τε καὶ αὐτῶν], purifying their hearts by faith.’ (Acts 15:7-9) 

Once again, we see here that the erasure of difference between Jew and Gentile is signified by the erasure of difference between clean and unclean animals (the words of Acts 15:9 and Lev. 11:47 are not the same, but the phrases nevertheless echo one another). But if the separation of Jew and Gentile is abolished within the Church, how much more so that between these two holy Apostles? St Paul tells us ‘when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face’ (Gal. 2:11), but in the words of St John Chrysostom, ‘there was here a deep though hidden understanding between Paul and Peter’: 

Paul does not now say this to condemn Peter, but in the same spirit as when he said those who are ‘reputed to be something’ [in other words, St Paul does not in 2:9 deny that St Peter really is a ‘pillar’], he now says this too....And so Paul rebukes and Peter voluntarily gives way. It is like the master who when upbraided keeps silent, so that his disciples might more easily change their ways. [14] 

Thus, the witness of the Church to the spiritual unity of these two Apostles, testified to by their co-commemoration and the liturgical texts which praise them as ‘separated in body, united in the Spirit’, [15] is also expressed in the exegetical consensus of the Fathers. 

 [1] John J. O’Keefe & R.R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2005), p. x. 

[2] R.R. Reno, ‘Series Preface’, Leviticus, by Ephraim Radner, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos-Baker, 2008), p. 11. 

[3] Jean Leclercq, OSB, The Love of Learning & the Desire for God: A Study in Monastic Culture, tr. Catharine Misrahi (NY: Fordham, 1961), pp. 102-16. 

[4] Radner, p. 107. 

[5] Francis Martin, ed., with Evan Smith, Acts, NT Vol. V in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), p. 128. 

[6] Ibid., p. 110. 

[7] The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 2, tr. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1990), p. 267. 

[8] See ibid., p. 395. 

[9] Ibid., p. 273. 

[10] Ibid., pp. 272-3. 

[11] I’m not sure I understand the grammar of Prassas’s translation at this point. 

[12] St Maximus the Confessor, Questions & Doubts, tr. Despina D. Prassas (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois U, 2010), p. 103. 

[13] Martin, p. 125. 

[14] Mark J. Edwards, ed., Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, NT Vol. VIII in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1999), p. 26. 

[15] First sticheron at Lord I have cried, Tone 2, by St Andrew of Crete, from Great Vespers for the Feast; from the translation of Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash), here.

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