Monday, November 27, 2006

All men are liars

Decided to take a little side track from the series to address a a relevant side issue that I came across regarding the exegesis of Psalm 112:6, which says that David in his ecstasy learned that "all men are liars." There are two distinct patristic approaches to this passage. The earlier version appears to be that of Didymus the Blind. This version interprets the passage in terms of deification, concluding that the term "men" here is to be contrasted with the term "gods" as applied to the deified Christian who has received the Word of God. St. Augustine follows this approach in his exegesis, and it is indicative of a generally Platonic trend of the soul mounting up to divinity from humanity, transcending creaturely limits. The passage is therefore viewed in an ontological, moral, and noetic sense, so that men being liars is taken as a limitation on humanity attaining to the truth that is the Word of God.

Gregory Nyssen takes a different approach. He views this passage as dealing with an inherent limitation of language, so that it does not deal with an ontological limitation on human nature, but with the ability of human concepts to fully express that to which they refer. This passage therefore supports the classic Cappadocian version of apophaticism. It is notable that this conception does express anything pejorative about this limitation, unlike the version propounded by Didymus, which expresses a sense of failure. This difference cannot be pressed too far, since both Didymus and Augustine viewed the soul itself as being akin to a piece of divinity, so that no man is ever entirely lacking illumination. Rather, the notion of "men" is placed in the context of progress, teaching, and increasing illumination, much like the account that Clement of Alexandria gives. Thus, neither approach expresses a disdain for matter or any suggestion of a "fall into matter" from which the soul must recover.

I think it is safe to say that the Augustinian version DOES view the progression through matter as a stage of progress, a limitation that will eventually be transcended in favor of a new and more perfect mode of knowledge and communication that will render what we experience a "lie" by comparison. But this is not said with the connotation of sin or evil, simply incompleteness, much as an infant is not any less human despite not having reached the age of reason. There is some sense of privation associated with not having attained to the later stages, which is probably what Augustine has in mind by original sin. Had Augustine been entirely consistent on the point, he probably would not have gone so far as to say that infants could be condemned for this condition. But as I have pointed out on Sacramentum Vitae, he did not have access to the medieval Power Distinction, so he lacked the analytical basis to distinguish what might be absolutely possible from what was possible as ordained in God's justice. We cannot anachronistically expect Augustine to have seen all of that through. It suffices to say that Augustine's view, though different from Gregory Nyssen's, has its own traditional support and its own unique theological applications.

Helpful references:
Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition
Scot Douglass, Theology Of The Gap: Cappadocian Language Theory And The Trinitarian Controversy