Early Christianity outside the Roman Empire/The Creed of Aphraates

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To appreciate the significance of the Homilies of Aphraates we must first consider their date and the personality of the writer. About the date there is fortunately no doubt. Of the twenty-two Homilies the first ten were composed a.d. 337, and the remaining twelve a.d. 344: the additional Homily On the Cluster is dated a.d. 345. Thus they appeared in the stormy years between the death of Constantine and the second return of S. Athanasius from exile. The author, Aphraates (or more accurately Afrahaṭ), obtained from his countrymen the name of the Persian Sage. He was a monk, and must also have been a bishop. Dr William Wright conjectures that he was bishop of the Convent of S. Matthew near Mosul[1]. It is certain that he had a seat in a Synod, held a.d. 344 in the diocese of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, and that he was selected to draw up the encyclical letter of the Synod. This letter he subsequently published as No. 14 of the Homilies.

Thus Aphraates was one of the foremost leaders of the orthodox Syriac-speaking Church in the second quarter of the 4th century. Some of his fellow-bishops had been to Nicaea, and he himself is writing in the very middle of the great Arian controversy. His words, therefore, cannot fail to shew the temper of his time. Moreover, the plan of his great work is admirably fitted to give us the information we are seeking. We speak of the 'Homilies' of Aphraates, but the volume of discourses which goes by that name is not a collection of occasional sermons. On the contrary, it is a complete and ordered exposition of the Christian Faith in answer to a request for information from an inquirer. The twenty-two Homilies correspond to the twenty-two letters of the Semitic Alphabet, and the first word of each Homily begins with the corresponding letter of the Alphabet in order, the first with Alaph, the second with Beth, and so right through. This is not a mere fanciful quip, but a serious plan to enable the true order of the discourses to be ascertained and, if needful, restored. It is difficult to interpolate or mutilate an acrostic without immediate discovery[2]. And as if the acrostic arrangement were not enough, Aphraates enumerates the series in order at the end of the twenty-second Homily.

Once more I must remind you of the state of Ecclesiastical affairs at the date of the publication of Aphraates' works. The Council of Nicaea has been held not half a generation ago, the Emperor Constantine has just died, and Athanasius is in exile. The flames of the Arian controversy are consuming the vitals of the Empire. Christianity is divided up into rival camps, each anathematising the other, while according to one authority the public posting system is quite thrown out of gear by the troops of eager bishops hastening from synod to synod[3]. What then has Aphraates to say about the crisis in the Church?

The astonishing answer is—absolutely nothing. Neither Athanasius nor Arius is even mentioned. We hear nothing of Homoousians or Homœousians, Semiarians or Sabellians. Incidentally Aphraates names 'Marcion, who doth not acknowledge our Creator to be good'; he speaks of 'Valentinus, who preacheth that his Creators are many, and that God in His perfection hath not been uttered by the mouth, neither hath the understanding searched Him out'; and he devotes a sentence of contemptuous reprobation to the Babylonian arts of the Manichees[4]. But upon the controversies of his own day he is silent. This does not come from enmity to the Greeks, for in Homily V (Of the Wars) he expresses at length his firm conviction, based upon the visions of Daniel, of the ultimate failure of the Persian attack upon the Empire[5]. Nor does it come from want of interest in theological discussion, as we may see from the very title of Homily XVII 'Of the Messiah, that He is the Son of God.' To this Homily we shall return presently, but we shall best do justice to Aphraates by starting in the order he has so carefully indicated. Instead of picking out the most definite or startling doctrinal passages, let us begin with Homily I On Faith[6]. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh: in a doctrinal treatise that which is put first must in the eyes of the author be fundamental.

Faith, then, according to Aphraates, is like a building made of various materials of various colours. But the foundation of our faith is Jesus Christ, the Rock upon which the whole is built, as said the prophets (§2). First a man believes, then loves, then hopes, then is justified and perfected, and he becomes a Temple for the Messiah to dwell in, as Jeremiah said: The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord—ye are the Temple of the Lord, if ye will make fair your ways and your works[7], and as said our Lord Himself Ye are in Me, and I am in you (§3). The man who has Faith will study to make himself worthy of being a dwelling-place of the Spirit of the Messiah. There must be Fasting, Prayer, Love, Alms, Humility, Virginity, Continence, Wisdom, Hospitality, Simplicity, Patience, Gentleness, Sadness[8], Purity: Faith asks for all these ornaments (§4). Christ is both the foundation and the inhabitant of the House of Faith: Jeremiah says men are the Temples of God and the Apostle said The Spirit of Christ dwelleth in you. This comes to the same thing, for the Lord said: I and My Father are one (§5). The Messiah is spoken of by the prophets as a Stone or Rock (§§6—9), and as a Light (§§10, 11). He is the only foundation that can stand the fire (§12, 13). Such Faith the Saints of old time had (§14—16), and those also who were benefited by our Lord on earth (§17). Faith carries us up to heaven, saves us from the Deluge, looses the prisoners, quenches the fire, feeds the hungry, brings back from the grave, stops the mouths of lions, humbles the proud, and exalts the meek (§18).

Perhaps you may find this vague and rhetorical. But Aphraates does not leave us here. After the praise of Faith he goes on to tell us exactly in what it consists, and this Creed of his is so remarkable a document that I give it in full.

"For this," he says (§19), "is Faith:—

When a man shall believe in God, the Lord of all,
That made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all that in them is.
Who made Adam in His image,
Who gave the Law to Moses,
Who sent of His Spirit in the Prophets,
Who sent moreover His Messiah into the world.
And that a man should believe in the coming to life of the dead,
And believe also in the mystery of Baptism:
This is the Faith of the Church of God.
And that a man should separate himself
from observing hours and sabbaths and months and seasons,
and enchantments and divinations and Chaldaism and magic,
and from fornication and from revelling and from vain doctrines, the weapons of the Evil One, and from the blandishment of honeyed words, and from blasphemy and from adultery,
And that no man should bear false witness,
and that none should speak with double tongues:
'These are the works of the Faith that is laid on the true Rock,
which is the Messiah,
upon Whom all the building doth rise."

You will recognise at once the spirit of this Creed. It is familiar to us all; it has been familiar to us for nearly twenty years, for it is the spirit which pervades the Didache. To Aphraates Christianity was the revelation of a Divine Spirit dwelling in man and fighting against moral evil, not first and foremost a tissue of philosophical speculation about the nature of the Divinity in itself. But this is wholly alien to the temper of Greek and Latin Christianity, as it manifests itself from the fourth century onward. According to the Creeds which to this day we recite, the inter-relation of the Trinity and the events of the Passion constitute the faith of the Church. Nor is this view confined to formal ecclesiastical documents.

"Firmly I believe and truly
God is Three, and God is One;
And I next acknowledge duly
Manhood taken by the Son."

So runs the beginning of Gerontius' dying confession in J. H. Newman's poem, and it only expresses in modern verse what the Church of the Empire would have us confess as the essence of the Christian Religion[9].

Not that Aphraates did not acknowledge the Trinity, or was anything like a modern Unitarian. The Syriac-speaking Church, in common with the rest of Christendom, baptized in the Triple Name, as is commanded in Matt xxviii 19. "The Head of the man," says Aphraates (xxiii 63 = Wright 500), "is the Messiah. O thou that swearest by thy head and that falsely, if thou dost truly hold the three great and glorious Names that were invoked upon thy head, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, when thou didst receive the Seal of thy life,—do not swear by thy head!" Or again (xxiii 60 = Wright 496): "Above the heavens, what is there—who doth suffice to tell? Beneath the earth, what is laid?—there is none to say! The firmament—upon what is it stretched out, or the heavens—upon what are they hung? The earth—on what is it pillowed, or the deep—in what is it fixed? We are of Adam, and here with our senses we perceive little. Only this we know: that God is one, and His Messiah one, and one the Spirit, and one the Faith, and one Baptism. More than thus far it doth not help us to speak; and if we say more we fall short, and if we investigate we are helpless." After revolving round the theological circle, we are surprised to find that Gibbon ends where Aphraates had begun; "the incomprehensible mystery which excites our adoration eludes our enquiry[10]." It would have been well for the peace of the Christian world if it had always imitated the modesty of the Persian Sage.

One more point remains to be noticed in connexion with Aphraates' doctrine of the Trinity. In Semitic languages there is no neuter, and Rûḥ, the word for wind or spirit, is feminine; in the older Syriac literature, therefore, before the influence of Greek theology made itself felt, the Holy Spirit also is feminine. Thus in the Old Syriac version of Joh xiv 26 we actually read The Spirit, the Paraclete, she shall teach you everything[11]. And so it is only in accordance with the earliest usage that in a doxology (xxiii 63 = Wright 498) Aphraates ascribes, "glory and honour to the Father and to His Son and to His Spirit, the living and holy," where living and holy are feminine adjectives in the better ms. But he goes further: it is not a question of mere grammatical niceties. In the treatise, On Virginity against the Jews (xviii 10 = Wright 354), he says: "We have heard from the law that a man will leave his father and his mother and will cleave to his wife, and they will be one flesh; and truly a prophecy great and excellent is this. What father and mother doth he forsake that taketh a wife? This is the meaning: that when a man not yet hath taken a wife, he loveth and honoureth God his Father, and the Holy Spirit his Mother, and he hath no other love. But when a man taketh a wife he forsaketh his Father and his Mother, those namely that are signified above, and his mind is united with this world; and his mind and his heart and his thought is dragged away from God into the midst of the world, and he loveth and cherisheth it, as a man loveth the wife of his youth, and the love of her is different from that of his Father and of his Mother."

We shall find still more startling developments of this doctrine of the Spirit when we come to the Bardesanian Acts of Thomas. Here I would only remind you that there is very early Christian authority for it. In the ancient Gospel according to the Hebrews, as quoted by Origen and S. Jerome, our Lord Himself speaks of His Mother the Holy Spirit[12]. And before we condemn the doctrine altogether, let us remember that the age which followed its final disappearance polluted the Christian vocabulary with the word Θεοτόκος.

I should like also to point out that just as Aphraates' doctrine of the Spirit, strange as it appears to us, is only a survival of one of the most primitive Christian beliefs, so too Homily XVII Of the Messiah that He is the Son of God is an echo of one of the most remarkable sayings recorded in S. John's Gospel[13]. The Homily, like so many that Aphraates wrote, is directed against the Jews, who complained that Christians worshipped a man whom they called Son of God, in defiance of God's own word I am God, and there is none beside me[14] (§1). Aphraates sets himself the task of defending the Christian practice, even if he should concede to the Jews that Jesus whom the Christians call God was only a man. "Though," he continues, "we truly hold that Jesus our Lord is God the Son of God, and the King the Son of the King, Light from Light, Son[15] and Counsellor and Guide and Way and Saviour and Shepherd and Gatherer and Door and Pearl and Lamp; and by many Names is He called. But now we will shew that He is the Son of God and that He is God who from God hath come" (§2). For the name of divinity has been given to just men, as for instance to Moses, who was made a God not to Pharaoh only but also to Aaron[16] (§3), and though the Jews say God has no son, yet He called Israel His First-born[17], and Solomon His son[18]. David also says of them: I have said, Ye are Gods and sons of the Highest all of you[19] (§4). God gives the most exalted titles to whom He will: He called impious Nebuchadnezzar King of Kings. For man was formed by Him in His own image to be a Temple for Him to dwell in, and therefore He gives to man honours which He denies to the Sun and the Moon and the host of Heaven[20] (§§5, 6). Man of all creatures was first conceived in God's mind[21], though he was not placed in the world till it was ready for him (§7). Why should not we worship Jesus, through whom we know God, Jesus who turned away our mind from vain superstitions and taught us to adore the One God, our Father and Maker, and to serve Him? Is it not better to do this than to worship the kings and emperors of this world, who not only are apostates themselves but drive others also to apostasy? (§8). Our Messiah has been spoken of in the prophets even to the details of the Crucifixion[22] (§§9, 10). We therefore will continue to worship before the Majesty of His Father, who has turned our worship unto Him. We call Him God, like Moses; First-born and Son, like Israel; Jesus, like Joshua the son of Nun; Priest, like Aaron; King, like David; the great Prophet, like all the prophets; Shepherd, like the shepherds who tended and ruled Israel. And us, adds Aphraates, has he called Sons and made us His Brothers, and we have become His Friends (§§11, 12).

Nothing less than the full abstract here given does justice to Aphraates' style and method. It is surely most surprising and instructive to meet with work animated by this spirit in the middle of the 4th century. For my own part, I feel it follows too closely the lines of our Lord's answer to the Jews for me to venture to brand it as unorthodox.

In the following chapter we shall glance at the teaching of Aphraates upon Baptism, Marriage, and Asceticism: this will lead us on to the Gnostic doctrines found in the Acts of Thomas. But before leaving this part of the work let me once more call attention to the absence of the Greek influence in Aphraates. The Persian Sage lived outside the Roman Empire and was educated in a culture but little touched by Greek philosophy. He did not feel that necessity for logical subordination, for the due relation of the parts to the whole, which the Greeks were the first of mankind to strive after.

And dare we say that he and his Church were altogether to be pitied? It is unlikely that the human intellect can form a logical system of the Universe: a logical Creed or 'Weltanschauung' by its very nature betrays its human parentage and temporary value. With a most imperfect knowledge of the constitution of the world we live in, by an uncritical use of Scripture, at a time when every art and every science was decaying, the Greeks attempted in a form of words to define the Indefinable. They succeeded for a while in obtaining the allegiance of the Oriental Church, the time of their victory being approximately the reigns of the heathen Julian and the Arian Valens. Under stress of persecution the Christians closed their ranks and unified their public confession of Faith[23]. But what I have brought before you to-day from the works of Aphraates shews clearly that there was no inner unity between East and West. In the East the theology of S. Athanasius and S. Basil was a foreign graft, not a genuine natural growth: it is therefore not surprising that the Syriac-speaking Church broke away hardly a single generation after an orthodox Emperor was seated on the throne. The mass of the Orientals, especially those more distant from Constantinople and Antioch, became Nestorian; and those who remained soon found that their position also was untenable. It was impossible for the barbarians to remain at peace with the Greeks: the Church was divided, and the way paved for the triumph of Islam.

  1. Wright's Syriac Literature, p. 33, following a statement in a late ms. (B. M. Orient. 1017). A full discussion of the rank and status of Aphraates is to be found on pp. 157, 158 of Dr Gwynn's Introduction to the translations of select works of Aphraates and Ephraim in vol. xiii of the Select Library of Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers.
  2. The acrostic arrangement has actually enabled Wright to dispose at once of N. Antonelli's argument about the 14th Homily (Wright's Aphraates, p. 9 note).
  3. Ammianus Marcellinus xxi 16, quoted by Gibbon ii 359.
  4. Aphr. iii 9.
  5. Aphr. v 6, 19, 24.
  6. This Homily is translated in full by Dr Gwynn, pp. 345—352. It has also been translated by Dr Budge in his edition of Philoxenus, vol. ii, pp. clxxv—clxxxvii.
  7. Jer vii 4, 5 (Pesh).
  8. The technical term for the monastic life.
  9. For a contrast to Aphraates in Syriac literature see Philoxenus, Discourse ii 32 (Budge's Eng. Tr., p. 29). There are, it should be noticed, traces of a (baptismal) Symbol in Aphraates, e.g. "He is the First-born Son, the offspring of Mary … He suffered, lived again, ascended into the height … He is the Judge of dead and living, who shall sit on the Throne" (xiv 39).
  10. Gibbon ii 347.
  11. In the Peshitta she (or it) is changed to he. Another instance where the feminine usage seemed too heterodox to stand is Lk xii 12. But in many passages the feminine is retained even in the Peshitta, e.g. Lk iv i, Joh vii 39.
  12. The authorities for this well-known saying are to be found e.g. in Westcott's Introduction to the Study of the Gospels, App. D. Origen (in Joann. ii 13) explains it away by saying that the Holy Spirit does the will of the Father and therefore may rightly be described as the Mother of Christ, in accordance with Matt xii 50.
    In Ephraim Syrus the Holy Spirit is still grammatically feminine, but no specially feminine functions are ascribed to Her. "The Father nods and the Son knows; The works by the Spirit are performed." Beyond such generalities Ephraim does not go.
    "Confess that the Father is; Do not confess that He can be defined.
    Believe that the Son hath been; Do not believe that He can be searched out.
    Affirm that the Holy Spirit is; Do not affirm that She can be examined.
    That they are One believe and affirm; And that They are Three do not doubt.
    Believe that the Father is first; Affirm that the Son is second;
    That the Holy Spirit also is— Do not doubt She is the third."

    (Ephr. Opp. Syr. iii 194: the change of tense in the second line may be due to the exigencies of metre). The chief point insisted on by Ephraim appears to be the impalpability of the Spirit (e.g. iii 161).

  13. Joh x 33—36. This Homily is translated in full by Dr Gwynn, pp. 387—392.
  14. Cf. Deut xxxii 39.
  15. Sic: cf. Isaiah ix 6 and also §9.
  16. Exod vi 1, vii 1.
  17. Exod iv 22, 23.
  18. 2 Sam vii 14; cf. Heb i 5.
  19. Ps lxxxii (lxxxi) 6.
  20. Deut iv 17.
  21. Ps xc (lxxxix) i, 2.
  22. Among other more ordinary Testimonia Aphraates quotes Zech xiv 6 (In that day there shall be cold and frost) as a prophecy of the cold day when Peter had to warm himself by the fire (Joh xviii 18).
  23. See Hort's Two Dissertations, pp. 128—133.