15 August 2010

Point 1. God is He Who Is.

I will address here the first of the four points of RC-EO disagreement related to the teachings of EO St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), which is, in its EO version:

O1. "God is being and not being." (EO St Gregory Palamas)

The biblical passage that is most relevant regarding this issue is precisely the fundamental revelation for both the Old and the New Covenants: the revelation of the divine name to Moses in the theophany of the burning bush:

God said to Moses, "I Am Who I Am." And He said, "Say this to the people of Israel, 'I Am has sent me to you.'" (Ex 3:14)

The expressions in bold above, which in the original Hebrew text are:

"Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh" = "I Am Who I Am"
"Ehyeh" = "I Am"

were translated in the Septuagint as:

"Ego Eimi Ho On" = "I Am The One Who Is" / "I Am He Who Is"
"Ho On" = "The One Who Is" / "He Who Is".

The fact that the Septuagint translators chose this rendering instead of the (counterfactual) literal translation "Ego Eimi Ho Ego Eimi" is not seen as a fluke by Roman Catholics (RCs) and Eastern Orthodox (EOs) but as a providential design, intended to enable the synthesis between ontology and biblical faith. To note, the Christian certainty that the Septuagint rendering conveys the correct sense of the original Hebrew text does not arise only, or even primarily, from linguistic or philosophical reasons, but from two facts:

a. It is confirmed by a key teaching in one of the two Old Testament books originally written in Greek, the Wisdom of Solomon, a teaching which clearly echoes in Rom 1:19-21:

For all men were by nature foolish who were in ignorance of God, and who from the good things seen did not succeed in knowing Him Who Is, (Wis 13:1)

The coincidence is even clearer in the NETS Septuagint translation at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/, where both Exodus' "He Who Is" and Wisdom's "Him Who Is" are rendered as "The One Who Is".

b. It is in agreement with the centuries-old patristic tradition, as attested by the following two quotes:

St Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300 – c. 368). On the Trinity - Book 12 [1]:

"For according to the words spoken to Moses, He Who Is has sent me unto you, we obtain the unambiguous conception that absolute being belongs to God;"

St Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329 – 389 or 390). Fourth Theological Oration [2]:

"As far then as we can reach, He Who Is, and God, are the special names of His Essence; and of these especially He Who Is, not only because when He spake to Moses in the mount, and Moses asked what His Name was, this was what He called Himself, bidding him say to the people “I Am has sent me”, but also because we find that this Name is the more strictly appropriate. For the Name theos (God), ... would still be one of the Relative Names, and not an Absolute one; ... But we are enquiring into a Nature Whose Being is absolute and not into Being bound up with something else. But Being is in its proper sense peculiar to God, and belongs to Him entirely,"

To note, it is only in the context of the revelation of the divine name at the burning bush that we are able to understand these three assertions of his divinity by Jesus in John's Gospel:

"For if you do not believe that I Am, you will die in your sins." (Jn 8:24)

"When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I Am" (Jn 8:28)

"From now on I am telling you before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe that I Am." (Jn 13:19)

And if any doubts remained that in the above three instances Jesus is claiming to be the same and only "I Am" of Exodus 3:14, they would be cleared by his statement: "The Father and I are one." (Jn 10:30), which clearly echoes the Shema: YHWH Echad, YHWH is one. (Dt 6:4)

Additionally, there is a well-known RC private revelation that provides a strong confirmation of this sense of Ex 3:14 and of its importance. In his Life of Catherine of Siena, RC Bl Raymond of Capua records what RC St Catherine (1347-1380) had often told him Christ taught her when He first began appearing to her:

"Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you have beatitude in your grasp. You are that who is not; I Am He Who Is. Let your soul but become penetrated with this truth, and the Enemy can never lead you astray; you will never be caught in any snare of his, nor ever transgress any commandment of mine; you will have set your feet on the royal road which leads to the fulness of grace, and truth, and light." (Life, no. 92. Original: "Tu sei colei che non è; Io sono Colui che è.")

(BTW, this is a clear example that Church-recognized private revelations, while they certainly do not "improve" or "complete" Christ's definitive Revelation, can confirm the correctness of a certain interpretation of the Revelation. This is also the exact case of St Mary's words to RC St Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes in 1858: "I am the Immaculate Conception", four years after the dogma of the Immaculate Conception had been defined by Pope Pius IX.)

Catholic magisterium has always taught this sense of Ex 3:14, lately through John Paul II in two audiences (Jul 31 and Aug 7, 1985, available from http://catechesisofthepopes.wikispaces.com/The+Father? ), from which I quote (with a few touches to render the translation more faithful to the Italian original and some rephrasing in the first sentence of the second paragraph):

According to the tradition of Israel, the name expresses the essence. The Sacred Scriptures give different names of God ... But the name which Moses heard from the midst of the burning bush is as it were the root of all the others. He who is expresses the very essence of God, which is Being from itself (original: Essere per se stesso), subsistent Being, as the theologians and philosophers say.

A creature does not possess in itself the source, the reason of its existence, but receives it "from another." This is synthetically expressed in the Latin phrase "ens ab alio". He who creates - the Creator - possesses existence in himself and from himself ("ens a se").

To be pertains to his substance: his essence is to be. He is subsisting Being ("Esse subsistens"). Precisely for this reason he cannot not be, he is "necessary" being. Differing from God, who is "necessary being", the things which receive existence from him, that is, creatures, are able not to be. Being does not constitute their essence; they are "contingent" beings.

These considerations regarding the revealed truth about the creation of the world help us to understand God as "Being." They help also to link this Being with the reply received by Moses to the question about the name of God: "I am who I am." In the light of these reflections the solemn words heard by St. Catherine of Siena acquire full clarity: "You are that who is not; I Am He Who Is". This is the Essence of God, the name of God, read in depth in the faith inspired by his self-revelation, confirmed in the light of the radical truth contained in the concept of creation. It would be fitting, when we refer to God, to write that "I Am" and that "He Is" in capitals, reserving the lower case for creatures. This would also signify a correct way of reflecting on God according to the categories of "being."

Inasmuch as he is "ipsum Esse Subsistens" - that is the absolute fullness of Being and therefore of every perfection - God is completely transcendent in regard to the world. By his essence, by his divinity, he "goes beyond" and infinitely "surpasses" everything created - both every single creature, however perfect, and the ensemble of creation, the visible and invisible beings.

It is clear then that the God of our faith, he who is, is the God of infinite majesty. This majesty is the glory of the divine Being, the glory of the name of God, many times celebrated in Sacred Scripture.
And if it were objected that the self-definition of God as "I Am", "He Who Is" is not incompatible with Palamas' statement "God is being and not being", there is yet one more self-definition of God to consider: "God is spirit," (Jn 4:24) which is clearly incompatible with the notion that "God is ... not being". Thus it is clearly seen that, while the RC doctrine is in complete accordance with the biblical texts, the statement by EO St Gregory Palamas is not.

Moreover, this is clearly confirmed by St. Hilary of Poitiers in precisely the sentences following that quoted above, where the extended quote reads [1]:

"For according to the words spoken to Moses, He Who Is has sent me unto you, we obtain the unambiguous conception that absolute being belongs to God; since that which is, cannot be thought of or spoken of as not being. For being and not being are contraries, nor can these mutually exclusive descriptions be simultaneously true of one and the same object: for while the one is present, the other must be absent. Therefore, where anything is, neither conception nor language will admit of its not being."

And this is a key point because it is sometimes stated that the Filioque disagreement causes RC’s and EO’s to worship a different God. Here there is clearly an even deeper issue. Because for us RC’s, God is Being from itself, subsistent Being, absolute fullness of Being that is infinitely "above" the received, contingent, limited being of creatures, and definitely not “not being”. So we RCs do not worship a God which is “not being”. Our God is He Who Is, YHWH (blessed be his name). And He Who Is is our God:

Shema Yisrael YHWH Eloheinu YHWH Echad.
Hear O Israel: YHWH is our God, YHWH is one. (Dt 6:4)


[1] http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/330212.htm

[2] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf207.iii.xvi.html

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