Monday, December 5, 2011

James White's (mis)use of Melito of Sardis as an early witness to the incarnation of God (the Son)

I have been listening to the recent debate, "Can God Become a Man?" (10-17-11), between James White and Abdullah Kunde (full audio of the debate available HERE).

At approximately the 9:00 minute mark forward, James cites Melito of Sardis' Peri Pascha (or, Homily on the Passion) as one of "two early writers" (the other being Ignatius of Antioch), "who are both telling the same story...that the Christian consistent belief was that Jesus Christ had become incarnate".

Now before getting to the misuse of Melito by James, a little background information on the text he cites needs to be provided. This is not the first time that James invokes Melitio; I am aware of at least two other instances wherein he does so: first, in his 1998 book, The Forgotten Trinity (pp. 184, 185) ; and then shortly after, in the Christian Research Journal (21.4 - 1999) article, "Loving the Trinity" (online PDF version).

In both of the above instances, James gives his readers the same English version of sections 95-96, 104-105, from Melito's Peri Pascha; he gives no references to the text at all in the book version, and in the CRJ, he merely states in footnote #11 that what he has quoted is a "Personal translation." He gives no indication that there is a major break between sections 95-96 and 104-105, and provides no published source of the Greek text that he used for his "Personal translation." (Two editions of the Greek text, with English translation, have been published: Campbell Bonner's The Homily on the Passion by Melito Bishop of Sardis; with Some Fragments of the Apocryphal Ezekiel (1940), and Stuart G. Hall's Melito of Sardis On Pascha and Fragments (1979) - I own a copy of the latter.)

[Alternate English translations available in Richard A. Norris Jr.'s, The Christological Controversy, pp. 33-47 (1980); Gerald F. Hawthorne's in Kerux: A Journal of Biblical-Theological Preaching, 4.1 (May 1989), which was originally published, "a festschrift for Merrill C. Tenney entitled Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation (1975)"; and most recently, Alistari Steward-Sykes' in On Pascha.]

Moving on to why the use of the Melito quote by James in all three of the above contexts constitutes a misuse: Melito of Sardis was a modalist. Note the following from Hall's introduction:

Doctrine of God and Christ. Bonner characterized Melito's teaching by Harnack's phrase 'naïve modalism"; i.e. Christ is equated with God with no serious consideration of the implications. Bonner refers especially to the use of the title Father in speaking of Christ, and the epigram 'God is murdered'. Attempts are made to modify this estimate, by interpreting Father as a reference to Christ's regenerating action, or emphasizing expressions which imply Christ's distinct personal pre-existence. Others defend Melito from the imputation of formal heresy. Nevertheless, Melito does attribute to Christ all the acts of God without exception; he rarely uses expressions which clearly imply a personal distinction of the Son from the Father; where the term Logos is used of Christ there is no suggestion of the Middle Platonist ideas which led Justin to think in terms of a second God; and Melito addresses his doxologies to Christ rather than distinctly to the Father. If not exactly a modalist, Melito shares the Christocentric monotheism of the Acts of John; Christ alone is God. On the doctrine of incarnation, similarly, Melito's orthodoxy has been exaggerated...The divine Lord identifies himself with suffering mankind, putting on like a garment flesh which is the subject of man's defeat by sinful passion and death. In the flesh he dies, but his dying merely releases the divine Spirit, which destroys death and raises him to life again, and with him humanity (ὁ ἄνθρωπος). (Pages xliii-xliv.)

From Melito himself we read:

8 For as a Son born,
and as a lamb led,
and as a sheep slain,
and as a man buried,
he rose from the dead as God, being by nature God and Man.

9 For he is all things:
inasmuch as he judges, Law;
inasmuch as he teaches, Word;
inasmuch as he save, Grace;
inasmuch as he as begets, Father;
inasmuch as he is begotten, Son;
inasmuch as he suffers, Sheep;
inasmuch as he is buried, Man;
inasmuch as he is raised, God.

10 This is Jesus the Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (Hall, pp. 5, 7.)

The esteemed patristic scholar, Johannes Quasten, concurs with the assessments of Bonner and Hall. The following quote from volume 1 of his famous Patrology (3 volumes in all), provides Bonner's translation of the above passage, along with some of his own reflections.

The title 'Father' for Christ is unusual. It occurs in an important passage describing the various functions of Christ:

For born as a son, and led forth as a lamb, sacrificed as a sheep, buried as a man, he rose from the dead as God, being by nature God and man. Who is all things : in that he judges, Law, in that he teaches, Word in that he saves, Grace, in that he begets, Father, in that he is begotten, Son, in that he suffers, the sacrificial sheep, in that he is buried, Man, in that he arises, God. This is Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory to the ages of ages (8-10 Bonner).

This complete identification of Christ with the Godhead itself could be interpreted in favor of the monarchian modalism of a later period. If that were the case it would explain the neglect and eventual loss of Melito's works. (Johannes Quasten, Patrology - Volume 1, 1986 reprint, p. 244.)

If it is 'fair game' to cite modalists as representatives of "Christian consistent belief", why not adoptionists, or subordinationists, or Arians, or ...


Grace and peace,

David




10 comments:

Ken said...

Lots of believers speak that way, mixing the Father and Son up while maintaining the Deity of Christ and the Trinity. I probably got things mixed up in prayer and in simple faith statements before I went to seminary and learned about the doctrine of the Trinity.

I hear true believers all the time - simple laypeople - mix up "Father" and "Jesus" and "thank you Father, for dying on the cross for us" in prayer - but they are not deliberately trying to speak heresy.

What is clear is that Melito believed in the Deity of Christ; and that "God was crucified" / "God was murdered".

That Melito didn't have a fully worked out theology of the 2 natures of Christ and the three hypostasis of the Trinity; well . . . many true believers don't have that worked out in a way that they can articulate it correctly according to orthodox doctrine.

If he was a modalist, he still seems to believe that the "Father became flesh" or "God became flesh" and that would still quality for an understanding of affirmative of the debate, "Can God become man?"

The guy on trial in Iran right now, who may be executed, Youcef Nadarkhani, is a modalist, an anti-Trinitarian; but it may be because he has not had good teaching. But he clearly believes in the Deity of Christ.

I think you are being too harsh on Dr. White, calling that a "mis-use" of Melito, especially since all we have of him are fragments. Furthermore, Isaiah 9:6 does call Jesus "the father of eternity" ( ? whatever that means ? ) I think we can use him, just as we can use Origen and Tertullian when they get things right.

Don't get me wrong, obstinate modalism, after having the Trinity and 3 persons and one nature of God; and 2 natures of Christ explained, is wrong; but it may that he is expressing prayer and praise and faith without the advantage of years of theological reflection and access to all 27 books of the NT. ( ? I don't know)

Ken said...

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10166b.htm

Also, the online Catholic Encyclopedia calls Melito a Saint and makes no mention of his "modalism".

Even the quote you gave, shows that they didn't seem to think he was formally a heretic. ( Just simple and non-reflective in expression.)

You seem to go out of your way against Reformed, Protestant Orthodoxy; but are more gracious towards Islam and Bahaism and Mormonism and other non-Trinitarian views of God in the early church. ( Your Pre-Nicean view or Monarchy - Subordinationist view.)

David Waltz said...

Hi Ken,

Sincerely appreciate your taking the time to respond; you posted:

== http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10166b.htm

Also, the online Catholic Encyclopedia calls Melito a Saint and makes no mention of his "modalism".==

Me: Bonner and Hall commented on inflexibility of traditionalists when it comes to the actual theology of Melito. IMHO, Bonner, Hall, and Quasten (all patristic experts) are much more objective here than the author of the CE article.

==Even the quote you gave, shows that they didn't seem to think he was formally a heretic. ( Just simple and non-reflective in expression.)==

Me: Melito cannot be charged as a 'formal heretic' because he did not deny any formal creeds/decrees (they didn't exist yet!).

==You seem to go out of your way against Reformed, Protestant Orthodoxy==

Me: Melito was anything but Reformed, so I don't understand your charge.


Grace and peace,

David

Ken said...

==You seem to go out of your way against Reformed, Protestant Orthodoxy==

Me: Melito was anything but Reformed, so I don't understand your charge.


I was talking about your charge against Dr. White and you saying that he mis-used Melito.

You didn't deal with the other points I made.

David Waltz said...

Hello yet once again Ken,

You posted:

==I was talking about your charge against Dr. White and you saying that he mis-used Melito.==

Me: James' misuse of Melito has NOTHING to do with his being Reformed (more accurately, semi-Reformed). If anything, he is acting more like a conservative Roman Catholic here, rather than one who holds to the "ever reforming" principle. Modern patristic scholarship has revealed the modalism that is embedded in the theology of Melito; your attempts to deflect this scholarship is unconvincing, and I suspect that if James White was anything but Reformed, your stance would be different.

[FYI: Melito's feast is observed on 1 April in the RCC. I find it very interesting that two bishops/popes of Rome, Zephyrinus and Callistus, who wrote shortly after Melito, have also been charged with modalistic tendencies.]


You also wrote:

==You didn't deal with the other points I made.==

Me: With all due respect, "the other points" seemed highly subjective; but here goes:

==What is clear is that Melito believed in the Deity of Christ; and that "God was crucified" / "God was murdered".==

Me: Such attributions are termed by patristic scholars as falling under the communicatio idiomatum of human aspects to deity. Many Reformed folk, following Nestorius, have been wary of such attributions—especially Theotokos—Nestorious specifically adds his objective to the popular communicatio idiomatum "deus passus". [BTW, modalists embraced the principle of communicatio idiomatum; one could argue that it was foundational to their theology.]

==That Melito didn't have a fully worked out theology of the 2 natures of Christ and the three hypostasis of the Trinity; well . . . many true believers don't have that worked out in a way that they can articulate it correctly according to orthodox doctrine.

If he was a modalist, he still seems to believe that the "Father became flesh" or "God became flesh" and that would still quality for an understanding of affirmative of the debate, "Can God become man?"==

Me: This is clearly is an endorsement of, 'the enemy of my enemy is mine friend' principle—I have always believed that this type of apologetic is flawed.

==The guy on trial in Iran right now, who may be executed, Youcef Nadarkhani, is a modalist, an anti-Trinitarian; but it may be because he has not had good teaching. But he clearly believes in the Deity of Christ.==

Me: If you embraced modalists as fellow Christians, breaking bread with them (i.e. allowing them to partake of the Eucharist/Lord's Supper), I would then take your comments much more seriously.


Grace and peace,

David

Ken said...

If he was a modalist, he still seems to believe that the "Father became flesh" or "God became flesh" and that would still quality for an understanding of affirmative of the debate, "Can God become man?"==

Me: This is clearly is an endorsement of, 'the enemy of my enemy is mine friend' principle—I have always believed that this type of apologetic is flawed.

Not really, because Melito clearly believed in the Deity of Christ and that Christ died. In the context of your criticism of Dr. White, Dr. White is debating against an orthodox Muslim (Abdullah Kunde) who rejects the Deity of Christ and the Death of Christ.
Since Melito clearly affirms those 2 truths, it was a valid use; just as using something Origen or Tertullian wrote is legitimate.

I have seen former Muslims start with
1. being convinced that Christ is the Son of God
2. then that He died on the cross and rose from the dead

3. then that Jesus is God in the flesh
4. then That God is Father, Son, and Spirit.
5. Then the 3 persons of the Trinity.

over a process of time. (several months or up to 2-3 years)

That is why I don't think it is so clear that Melito was a conscious modalist.

Ken said...

Me: If you embraced modalists as fellow Christians, breaking bread with them (i.e. allowing them to partake of the Eucharist/Lord's Supper), I would then take your comments much more seriously.

in the reality of evangelism, discipleship, church planting and discipleship and the process of Muslims hearing the gospel and spending time with them; this is not always clear for a time; but certainly, if after a time we have explained things to them and taught them over 2-3 years; and they reject and are obstinate, and actively against the Trinity, then we would reject them from fellowship.

There is a big difference between looking at someone's few statements from history who lived around 180 AD (Melito)
and
also others over the reports on the internet without personal interaction and the blessings of one on one church discipleship, etc.;

Drake Shelton said...

David, I saw your blog on Jnorm's blog listed as a REformed blog. I thought you were E-orthodox. What are you anyway?

David Waltz said...

Hi Drake,

And the end of 2009, I made the decision to cease attending Mass and the RCC. In THIS THREAD, I gave my reasons for doing so. Since then, I have remained non-denominational. One of my daily prayers is that God will lead me to the church that He would have to attend. Sincerely hope you will add me to your prayer list.


Grace and peace,

David

Drake Shelton said...

David,

Thanks for the response. I commend your commitment to truth. Not to impute any of my character flaws to you, but we are very similar man. Its scary. Glad to have met you. I feel like we are on very similar ground. Let me know what your plans are if you ever make an ecclesiastical move. Your opinion is important to me.

Drake