The Epistle to Diognetus Part 8

“As long then as the former time [prior to the coming of Christ] endured, He permitted us to be carried along by unruly impulses, being drawn away by the desire of pleasure and various lusts. This was not that He at all delighted in our sins, but that He simply endured them; nor that He approved the time of working iniquity which then was, but that He sought to form a mind conscious of righteousness, so that being convinced in that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it should now, through the kindness of God, be gifted to us; and having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able. But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities (Cf. Isaiah 53.5), He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors! Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Saviour who is able to save even those things which it was [formerly] impossible to save, by both these facts He desired to lead us to trust in His kindness, to esteem Him our Nourisher, Father, Teacher, Counsellor, Healer, our Wisdom, Light, Honour, Glory, Power, and Life, so that we should not be anxious concerning clothing and food (Cf. Matt 6.25).” The Epistle to Diognetus, Chapter 8.

Due to the longer and much more dense nature of this chapter, we will cover it in two parts.

Here our anonymous author has answered what he perceived might be a question asked of those encountering the Christian faith. It seems that he imagined one might very well ask, “If your God is the true God, why did He wait so long prior to coming?” In the response of Mathetes we have a beautiful exposition regarding the human state but also of God’s saving plan for His humanity. Let us see what Mathetes is telling us about ourselves.

In the first place our author discusses that this was all necessary that we might learn of ourselves as we truly are. Since the story of Adam and Eve, humanity has been bewildered by the thought that we might procure life in and of ourselves. Our goal has been that we might own life and become masters over it. In our modern day there are those that hope that life will come to us by the medical advances we have made and continue to make. In ages gone past, life was sought in idols, gods, sacrifices to appease these gods and the like. The ancient were perhaps more honest in not attributing absolute life to themselves and knowing that they could not attain to life through their own means. Therefore they sought it in many and various gods. The characteristic of all of these gods was simply that by sacrificing to the gods or finding the strongest gods, they would atleast extend their lives or be afforded the next victory in battle. The other side to this perilous coin is that, in every age (ancient and modern), we have perhaps sought our life or our purpose in the sense pleasures around us. Having been held in bondage through fear of death (Hebrews 2.15) we have sought life in ourselves and in our pleasures. We have made ends and goals out of that which has been given, or rather gifted, to us by God. Unfortunately, being aware of our fleeting life has made us try to hold onto these things all the more firmly. This is said very elegantly by the extra-canonical text of the second book of Baruch (albeit perhaps read by the Syriac Orthodox as it is found in some manuscripts of the Syriac Peshitta);

“Adam is therefore not the cause, except only of his own soul, But each of us has been the Adam of his own soul. 2 Baruch 54.19.

Each of us has become Adam of his/her own soul. The one who has been become Adam of his own soul is the one who, like Adam, has claimed total and utter independence of his own soul. God is life and without Him there is no life. Adam and Eve are tempted by the very notion that they will be as gods (cf. Gen 3.6). As gods claiming an independence over and against God and simply as not standing in need of God. As though they live outside of The One Who is the giver of life, Adam and Eve eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. At this point, it becomes apparent to them what they are. The Genesis story states that their eyes were thereafter opened and they saw they were naked. St. Cyril of Alexandria teaches us,

“For since our forefather Adam being turned aside by deceit into disobedience and sin, did not preserve the grace of the Spirit.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John Book 5, Chapter 2.

St. Ephrem the Syrian plays on the imagery of the garments of skin speaking of the robe of glory humanity had originally been covered with,

“And then [Moses] said, Their eyes were opened inasmuch as they were stripped of their garment of glory, and they remained naked… And when they transgressed the commandment the garment of glory, which had been like a veil for their nakedness, was removed and taken away from them and they [then] knew and understood whence they had fallen. Now see their calamity; they were not at all gods as the serpent had said, but they were naked.” St. Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Genesis, Chapter 2. Translation from: Mathews Jr, Edward G. The Armenian commentary on the Book of Genesis attributed to Ephrem the Syrian: an edition of the Armenian text with introduction, English translation and commentary. Diss. Columbia University, 1996.

Thus we are presented with Adam and Eve naked and bereft of the Spirit (their garment of glory) when they have chosen their own fate away from and divorced of God. Many of the fathers are adamant that the fall does not come from a particular tree or some fruit lightly plucked from a tree. Rather the true calamity that comes upon humanity is from everything else to do with it; the severed relationship, the desire for an autonomous life, the selfish life chosen. In this same way we become the Adam of our own souls when we seek to attain to life through our various measures and means and securities which we pile up. Hoping that one of these will afford us some permanence or perhaps even some power during the little time we have, we trust in these things. Be it pleasure, power, wealth, security, etc, we lay our hopes in these things as though they will afford us the true life.

Our writer says that God suffered this to be the case formerly, not to torture humans nor because He hated them for their wicked deeds. Rather God bears this so that we might thereby learn of our need for Him. Having convinced us of our inability to attain to life and that we ourselves could not enter the Kingdom of our own merits, God is able to save a humanity now desirous of salvation. This idea will recur in St. Irenaeus of Lyons where he states,

“From the beginning, did God bear man to be swallowed up by the great whale [as in Jonah], who was the author of transgression, not that he should perish altogether when so engulfed; but, arranging and preparing the plan of salvation, which was accomplished by the Word, through the sign of Jonah… [This was done] that man, receiving an unhoped-for salvation from God, might rise from the dead, and glorify God, and repeat that word which was uttered in prophecy by Jonah: “I cried by reason of mine affliction to the Lord my God, and He heard me out of the belly of hell; (Jonah 2.2)” and that he might always continue glorifying God, and giving thanks without ceasing, for that salvation which he has derived from Him, “that no flesh should glory in the Lord’s presence; (1 Cor 1.29)” and that man should never adopt an opposite opinion with regard to God, supposing that the incorruptibility which belongs to him is his own naturally, and by thus not holding the truth, should boast with empty arrogance, as if he were naturally like to God. For he (Satan) thus rendered him (man) more ungrateful towards his Creator, obscured the love which God had towards man, and blinded his mind not to perceive what is worthy of God, comparing himself with, and judging himself equal to, God.” St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 20, Tract 1.

God bears this that the human being might come to a true knowledge of themselves. We do not have life in ourselves nor are we the sources of it. In the modern age we are tempted to think we have advanced beyond the ancients and can take solace in our modern plumbing, computer technologies, clean water, and perhaps most of all our medicine, by which we might procure and preserve our lives. In this first post on the eighth chapter of this letter we are confronted with a harsh reality. Many of the activities we spend our time on are seemingly motivated by a desire to preserve ourselves as though we were the source of our life to begin with. Today we may not sacrifice animals on the altars of gods dedicated to various facets of our life as the ancient did. However, we do offer up sacrifices on the altar of our lives repeatedly hoping that the next job, the next pleasure we partake of, the next stock market investment (the list goes on) will prove us superior to the ultimate reality of our own mortality and corruptibility. Confronting us with this fact, our author then directs his reader to look to Christ because of whom we can declare, death is dead. To this we will turn in the next post.

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