Saturday, December 5, 2020

Proverbs 8:22 and Pope Dionysius of Rome

Back on December 30, 2015 I published a post that delved into the interpretation of Proverbs 8:22 by a number of Church Fathers (LINK). I opened the post with the following:

In the 4th century, one Old Testament text, Proverbs 8:22, became a heated point of contention during the Arian controversy. Interestingly enough, two of the factions involved in the debate—the pro-Arians and the pro-Nicene Church Fathers—introduced interpretations of the text that went against an almost universal understanding by the pre-Nicene Church Fathers who cited it. Though all three parties applied the passage to Jesus Christ, each did so differently. The pro-Arians believed the passage taught that the pre-existent Jesus was created ex nihilo (out of nothing) by God the Father. Some of the pro-Nicene Fathers believed that the passage was a reference to Jesus' human nature only, and had nothing to do with his pre-existence (for an early example of this interpretation see Athanasius', Expostio Fidei, circa 328 A.D. - NPNF - Second Series 4.85). Both of these interpretations ran contrary to the pre-Nicene Fathers who taught that the passage did in fact refer to Jesus' pre-existent causation by God the Father (to date, I have found only one explicit exception), while clearly rejecting the pro-Arian novelty that this causation was ex nihilo.

A bit later, I cited nine pre-Nicene Church Fathers’ understanding(s) of Proverbs 8:22. All but one of those CFs applied the passage to the pre-existent Jesus Christ. I would now like to provide one more CF who sided with the eight who constituted the majority—Dionysius of Rome. Athanasius, in his Defence of the Nicene Definition, provided the following from Dionysius:

“Next, I may reasonably turn to those who divide and cut to pieces and destroy that most sacred doctrine of the Church of God, the Divine Monarchy, making it as it were three powers and partitive subsistences and godheads three. I am told that some among you who are catechists and teachers of the Divine Word, take the lead in this tenet, who are diametrically opposed, so to speak, to Sabellius's opinions ; for he blasphemously says that the Son is the Father, and the Father the Son, but they in some sort preach three Gods, as dividing the sacred Monad into three subsistences foreign to each other and utterly separate. For it must needs be that with the God of the Universe, the Divine Word is united, and the Holy Ghost must repose and habitate in God ; thus in one as in a summit, I mean the God of the Universe, must the Divine Triad be gathered up and brought together, For it is the doctrine of the presumptuous Marcion, to sever and divide the Divine Monarchy into three origins,—a devil's teaching, not that of Christ's true disciples and lovers of the Saviour's lessons. For they know well that a Triad is preached by divine Scripture, but that neither Old Testament nor New preaches three Gods. Equally must one censure those who hold the Son to be a work, and consider that the Lord has come into being, as one of things which really came to be; whereas the divine oracles witness to a generation suitable to Him and becoming, but not to any fashioning or making. A blasphemy then is it, not ordinary, but even the highest, to say that the Lord is in any sort a handiwork. For if He came to be Son, once He was not ; but He was always, if (that is) He be in the Father, as He says Himself, and if the Christ be Word and Wisdom and Power (which, as ye know, divine Scripture says), and these attributes be powers of God. If then the Son came into being, once these attributes were not ; consequently there was a time, when God was without them ; which is most absurd. And why say more on these points to you, men full of the Spirit and well aware of the absurdities which come to view from saying that the Son is a work? Not attending, as I consider, to this circumstance, the authors of this opinion have entirely missed the truth, in explaining, contrary to the sense of divine and prophetic Scripture in the passage, the words, 'The Lord created me a beginning of His ways unto His works.'

For the sense of 'He created,' as ye know, is not one, for we must understand 'He created' in this place, as 'He set over the works made by Him,' that is, ‘made by the Son Himself,’ And 'He created' here must not be taken for 'made,' for creating differs from making. 'Is not He thy Father that hath bought thee? hath He not made thee and created thee?' says Moses in his great song in Deuteronomy. And one may say to them, O reckless men, is He a work, who is 'the First-born of every creature, who is born from the womb before the morning star,' who said, as Wisdom, 'Before all the hills He begets me?' And in many passages of the divine oracles is the Son said to have been generated, but nowhere to have come into being ; which manifestly convicts those of misconception about the Lord's generation, who presume to call His divine and ineffable generation a making'. Neither then may we divide into three Godheads the wonderful and divine Monad ; nor disparage with the name of 'work' the dignity and exceeding majesty of the Lord ; but we must believe in God the Father Almighty, and in Christ Jesus His Son, and in the Holy Ghost, and hold that to the God of the universe the Word is I united. For 'I,' says He, 'and the Father are one ;' and, 'I in the Father and the Father in Me.' For thus both the Divine Triad, and the holy preaching of the Monarchy, will be preserved." (NPNF - Second Series - 4.167, 168, bold emphasis mine – link to PDF; Migne's Greek text HERE.)

I found Dionysius’ statement that, "'He created' here must not be taken for 'made,' for creating differs from making” to be quite interesting…

Grace and peace,



leeseykay said...

Hello David.

I am not sure if I can be of any assistance with regards to the literal distinction between "created" versus "made". I believe that the biblical authors, under inspiration of the Holy Ghost expressed themselves according to God's will, in ways that are subject to many plausible interpretations. I hold that the Scripture alone is insufficient for resolving doctrinal controversy.

Therefore, I would be uncomfortable with insisting on the idea that there is a precise and uniform usage of the words "created" and "made" in Holy Scripture. It has seemed to me that the Holy Ghost sometimes utters the truth with words that are not theologically precise.

This is no difficulty, and probably even deliberate. The inability of anyone to prove their truth claims from Scripture alone should lead everyone to the conclusion that the Scriptures are not subject to private interpretation, but to the true church.

My next intended post will offer what I consider to be a plausible interpretation of Prov. 8:22, that none of the earliest Fathers seem to have considered. Not that this interpretation will be contradictory to many of the Fathers. But I think it will serve as an illustration of how through time the Catholic Church is always progressing in light and understanding of the Apostolic deposit, and has reached a richer understanding and more fully developed understanding of the passage.


leeseykay said...

In addition to Dom Gueranger, in his Liturgical Year, I found a citation from the highly respected Dominican, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, in his The Mother of the Saviour and Our Interior Life, which affirms the teaching of the Catholic Church in her liturgical use of Proverbs 8:22 and following:

The predestination of Mary now appears in all its sublimity. We can understand why the Church extends to her the words of the Book of Proverbs, viii, 22-35

---book and author cited aboved, p. 28, TAN Books and Publishers (1993)

It is important to note that he says that "the Church extends" Mary's inclusion is being described in Prov 8, along with her Son and even more obviously, the very gift of wisdom to men itself. (As a side note the gift of wisdom can only be thought of as "She" in the same way as we might refer to the Blessed Trinity as "Him", when the Trinity is more precisely, a thing, as is the gift of wisdom. Men have always appropriately attribute personhood to impersonal things that are highly valued and reverenced such as one's homeland, or even an idea like justice.)

So the Catholic Church extends to Mary, without excluding Her Son, or the gift of wisdom this and similar passages of the Old Testament. One of these occasions is on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, recently celebrated on Dec. 8. The explanation that Dom Gueranger gives for this is understandably concise. It is a subject for a treatise, but the following is a thumbnail sketch of the reasoning which leads to suggesting that the Holy Ghost, in the words of Proverbs 8:22ff, is speaking of the Blessed Virgin Mary:

"The Apostle teaches us that Jesus, our Emmanuel, is the first born of every creature.[1] These mysterious words signify not only that he is, as God, eternally begotten of the Father ; but also that the Divine Word is, as Man, anterior to all created beings. Yet, how is this ? the world had been created, and the human race had dwelt on this earth full four thousand years, before the Son of God took to himself the nature of man. We answer, that it is not in the order of time, but in the eternal intention of God, that the Man-God preceded every creature..."

In the same sense as the created nature of Christ, the Man-God, is first among all creatures, we have another example from Scripture where we read in the Apocalypse 13:8 about "...the Lamb, which was slain from the beginning of the world." How is this? God, who is beyond time, is revealing to us who are in time, the significant importance of the order of His eternal decrees, which do not necessarily occur in history in chronological order. We should try to learn from this that the mystery of the eternal plan of God, is more firmly real than the actual historical event in time.

---to be continued

leeseykay said...

Continuing with the citation immediate above from Dom Gueranger:

The Eternal Father decreed first to give to his Eternal Son a created nature, namely, the nature of man, and, in consequence of this decree, to create all beings, whether spiritual or material, as a kingdom for this Man-God. This explains to us how it is, that the divine Wisdom, the Son of God, in the passage of the sacred Scripture which forms the Epistle of this Feast, proclaims his having existed before all the creatures of the universe. As God, he was begotten from all eternity in the bosom of the Father ; as Man, he was, in the mind of God, the type of all creatures, before those creatures were made.

We see here where the Church certainly affirms that Christ is one of the subjects of Prov. 8:22 and it explains why in a manner that seems appropriate and helpful to the Catholic position.

What follows attempts to answer the question of whether the Church is correct in extending to the Blessed Virgin Mary, a part in being one of the subjects of Proverbs 8:22. Put another way, it asks the question as to whether it would be correct to exclude the Mother of God, the Second Eve according to the Fathers, from having existed in the mind of God eternally in a similar manner. Was the choice of Mary in some way random? The following is for think a Plausible argument for why the Catholic Church learned to insist that it would be a mistake to separate the Mother of God from her Son, in the eternal mind of God. This concept would be the foundation for the long but inevitable development of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. A feast celebrating Mary's conception has been celebrated in the Eastern churches since at the latest the sixth century and by the eighth in the West. The definition of the Immaculate Conception took until 1854, but the idea was latent in the Apostolic deposit, and well developed already for over a thousand years.

"But the Son of God could not be of our race, as the divine will decreed he should be, unless he were born in time, and born of a Mother as other men ; and therefore She that was to be his Mother was eternally present to the thought of God, as the means whereby the Word would assume the human nature. The Son and the Mother are therefore united in the plan of the Incarnation : Mary, therefore, existed, as did Jesus, in the divine decree, before creation began."

---to be continued, as time allows, welcoming any questions, critiques, or comments before I can hopefully finish my side of the discussion no later next weekend.

Thanks, Rory

---All quotations of Dom Gueranger are from a pdf of The Liturgical Year – Advent, Very Rev. Dom Prosper Guéranger - Translated from the French, Rev. Dom Laurence Shepherd – Second Edition, 1870, p. 417, 418

David Waltz said...

Hi Rory,

Thanks much for the posts. I was not aware of the application of Proverbs 8:22ff. to Mary—by some Catholic theologians—until you pointed it out me in a phone conversation we had last weekend.

I have been looking through a number of works for Catholic writers who have applied Proverbs 8:22ff. to Mary. In addition to Garrigou-Lagrange and Dom Prosper Guéranger, I discovered that Matthias Scheeben has done so in his 2 volume contribution, Mariology (see vol. 1, pp. 3off.; the entire chapter, MARY IN THE OLD TESTAMENT, is an interesting read – PDF copy HERE.)

I am thinking of creating a new post that will focus on the application of the OT Wisdom passages to Mary. If you know of other Catholic writers and/or Church Fathers who have done so, please let me know. Looking forward to the completion of your “side of the discussion”.

Grace and peace,