Early Church Fathers
John XII. 37-43.
1. When our Lord Christ, foretelling His own passion, and the fruitfulness of His death in being lifted up on the cross, said that He would draw all [things] after Him; and when the Jews, understanding that He spake of His death, put to Him the question how He could speak of death as awaiting Him, when they heard out of the law that Christ abideth for ever; He exhorted them, while still they had in them the little light, which had so taught them that Christ was eternal, to walk, to make themselves acquainted with the whole subject, lest they should be overtaken with darkness. And, when He hadsaid this, He hid Himself from them. With these points you have been made acquainted in former Lord's day lessons and discourses.
2. The evangelist thereafter brings forward what has formed the brief subject of to-day's reading, and says, "But though He had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on Him: that the saying of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spake, Lord, who hath believed our report and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed?" Where he makes it sufficiently plain that the Son of God is Himself the arm of the Lord; not that the person of God the Father is determined by the shape of human flesh, and that the Son is attached to Him as a member of His body; but because all things were made by Him, and therefore He is designated the arm of the Lord. For as it is with thine arm that thou workest, so the Word of God is styled His arm; because by the Word He elaborated the world. For why does a man, in order to do some work, stretch forth his arm, but because the doing of it does not straightway follow his word? And if he was endowed with such pre-eminent power that what he said was done without any movement of his body, then would his word be his arm. But the Lord Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God the Father, as He is no mere member of the Father's body, so is He no mere thinkable, and audible, and transitory word; for, as all things were made by Him, He was the word of God.
3. When, therefore, we hear that the Son of God is the arm of God the Father, let no carnal custom raise its distracting din in our ears; but as far as His grace enables us, let us think of that power and wisdom of God by which all things were made. Surely such an arm as that is neither held out by stretching, nor drawn in by contracting it. For He is not one and the same with the Father, but He and the Father are one; and as equal with the Father, He is in all respects complete, as well as the Father: so that no room is left open for the abominable error of those who assert that the Father alone exists, but according to the difference of causes is Himself sometimes called the Son, sometimes the Holy Spirit; and so also from these words may venture to say, See you perceive that the Father alone exists, if the Son is His arm: for a man and his arm are not two persons, but one. Not understanding nor considering how words are transferred from one thing to another, on account of some mutual likeness, even in our daily forms of speech about things the most familiar and visible; and how much the more must it be so, in order that things ineffable may find some sort of expression in our speech, things which, as they really exist, cannot be expressed in words at all? For even one man styles another his arm, by whom he is accustomed to transact his business: and if he is deprived of him, he says in his grief, I have lost my arm; and to him who has taken him away, he says, You have deprived me of my arm. Let them understand, then, the sense in which the Son is termed the arm of the Father, as that by which the Father hath executed all His works; that they may not, by failing to understand this, and continuing in the darkness of their error, resemble those Jews of whom it was said, "And to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed?"
4. And here we meet with the second question, to treat of which, indeed, in any adequate manner, to investigate all its mysterious windings, and throw them open to the light in a befitting way, I think within the scope neither of my own powers, nor of the shortness of the time, nor of your capacity. Yet, as we cannot allow ourselves so far to disappoint your expectations as to pass on to other topics without saying something on this, take what we shall be able to offer you: and wherein we fail to satisfy your expectations, ask the increase of Him who appointed us to plant and to water; for, as the apostle saith, "Neither is he that planteth anything, nor he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase."1 There are some, then, who mutter among themselves, and sometimes speak out when they can, and even break forth into turbulent debate, saying: What did the Jews do, or what fault was it of theirs, if it was a necessity "that the saying of Isaiah the prophet should be fulfilled, which he spake, Lord, who hath believedour report and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed?" To whom our answer is, that the Lord, in His foreknowledge of the future, foretold by the prophet the unbelief of the Jews; He foretold it, but did not cause it. For God does not compel any one to sin simply because He knows already the future sins of men. For He foreknew sins that were theirs, not His own; sins that were referable to no one else, but to their own selves. Accordingly, if what He foreknew as theirs is not really theirs, then had He no true foreknowledge: but as His foreknowledge is infallible, it is doubtless no one else, but they themselves, whose sinfulness God foreknew, that are the sinners. The Jews, therefore, committed sin, with no compulsion to do so on His part, to whom sin is an object of displeasure; but He foretold their committing of it, because nothing is concealed from His knowledge And accordingly, had they wished to do good instead of evil, they would not have been hindered; but in this which they were to do they were foreseen of Him who knows what every man will do, and what He is yet to render unto such an one according to his work.
5. But the words of the Gospel also, that follow, are still more pressing, and start aquestion of more profound import: for He goes on to say, "Therefore they could not believe, because that Isaiah said again, Hehath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them." For it is said to as: If they could not believe, what sin is it in man not to do what he cannot do and if they sinned in not believing, then they had the power to believe, and did not use it. If, then, they had the power, how says the Gospel, "Therefore they could not believe, because that Isaiah said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart;" so that (which is of grave import) to God Himself is referred the cause of their not believing, inasmuch as it is He who "hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart"? For what is thus testified to in the prophetical Scriptures, is at least not spoken of the devil, but of God. For were we to suppose it said of the devil, that he "hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart;" we have to undertake the task of being able to show what blame was theirs in not believing, of whom it is said, "they could not believe." And then, what reply shall we give touching another testimony of this very prophet, which the Apostle Paul has adopted, when he says: "Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded, according as it is written, God hath given them the spirit of remorse, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear, unto this day"?2
6. Such, as you have just heard, brethren, is the question that comes before us, and you can perceive how profound it is; but we shall give what answer we can. "They could not believe," because that Isaiah the prophet foretold it; and the prophet foretold it because God foreknew that such would be the case. But if I am asked why they could not, I reply at once, because they would not; for certainly their depraved will was foreseen by God, and foretold through the prophet by Him from whom nothing that is future can be hid. But the prophet, sayest thou, assigns another cause than that of their will. What cause does the prophet assign? That "God hath given them the spirit of remorse, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear; and hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart." This also, I reply, their will deserved. For God thus blinds and hardens, simply by letting alone and withdrawing His aid: and God can do this by a judgment that is hidden, although not by one that is unrighteous. This is a doctrine which the piety of the God-fearing ought to preserve unshaken and inviolable in all its integrity: even as the apostle, when treating of the same intricate question, says, "What shall we say then? is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid."3 If, then, we must be far from thinking that there is unrighteousness with God, this only can it be,that, when He giveth His aid, He acteth mercifully; and, when He withholdeth it, He acteth righteously: for in all He doeth, He acteth not rashly, but in accordance with judgment. And still further, if the judgments of the saints are righteous, how much more those of the sanctifying and justifying God? They are therefore righteous, although hidden. Accordingly, when questions of this sort come before us, why one is dealt with in such a way, and another in such another way; why this one is blinded by being forsaken of God, and that one is enlightened by the divine aid vouchsafed to him: let us not take upon ourselves to pass judgment on the judgment of so mighty a judge, but tremblingly exclaim with the apostle, "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!"4 As it is also said in the psalm, "Thy judgments are as a great deep."5
7. Let not then, brethren, the expectations of your Charity drive me to attempt the task of penetrating into such a deep, of sounding such an abyss, of searching into what is unsearchable. I own my own little measure of ability, and I think I have some perception of yours also, as equally small. This is too high for my stature, and too strong for my strength; and for yours also, I think. Let us, therefore, listen together to the admonition and to the words of Scripture: "Seek not out the things that are too high for thee, neither search the things that are above thy strength."6 Not that such things are forbidden us, since the divine Master saith, "There is nothing hid that shall not be revealed:"7 but if we walk up to the measure of our present attainments, then, as the apostle tells us, not only what we know not and ought to know, but also if we are minded to know anything else, God will reveal even this unto us.8 But if we have reached the pathway of faith, let us keep to it with all constancy: let it be our guide to the chamber of the King, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.9 For it was in no spirit of grudging that the Lord Jesus Christ Himself acted towards those great and specially chosen disciples of His, when He said, "I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now."10 We must be walking, making progress, and growing, that our hearts may become fit to receive the things which we cannot receive at present. And if the last day shall find us sufficiently advanced, we shall then learn what here we were unable to know.
8. If, however, any one considers himself able, and has confidence enough, to give a clearer and better exposition of the question before us, God forbid that I should not be still more ready to learn than to teach. Only let no one dare to defend the freedom of the will in any such way as to attempt depriving us of the prayer that says, "Lead us not into temptation;" and, on the other hand, let no one deny the freedom of the will, and so venture to find an excuse for sin. But let us give heed to the Lord, both in commanding and in offering His aid; in both telling us our duty, and assisting us to discharge it. For some He hath let be lifted up to pride through an overweening trust in their own wills, while others He hath let fall into carelessness through a contrary excess of distrust. The former say: Why do we ask God not to let us be overcome by temptation, when it is all in our own power? The latter say: Why should we try to live well, when the power to do so is in the hands of God? O Lord, O Father, who art in heaven, lead us not into any of these temptations; but "deliver us from evil!"11 Listen to the Lord, when He says, "I have prayed for thee, Peter, that thy faith fail not;"12 that we may never think of our faith as so lying in our free will that it has no need of the divine assistance. Let us listen also to the evangelist, when he says, "He hath given them power to become the sons of God;"13 that we may not imagine it as altogether beyond our own power that we believe: but in both let us acknowledge His beneficent acting. For, on the one side, we have to give Him thanks that the power is bestowed; and on the other, to pray that our own little strength may not utterly fail. It is this very faith that worketh by love,14 according to the measure thereof that the Lord hath given to every man;15 that he that glorieth may glory, not in himself, but in the Lord.16
9. It is no wonder, then, that they could not believe, when such was their pride of will, that, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, they wished to establish their own: as the apostle says of them, "They have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God."17 For it was not by faith, but as it were by works, that they were puffed up; and blinded by this very self-elation, they stumbled against the stone of stumbling. And so it is said, "they could not," by which we are to understand that they would not; in the same way as it was said of the Lord our God, "If we believe not, yet He abideth faithful, He cannot deny Himself."18 It is said of the Omnipotent, "He cannot." And so, just as it is a commendation of the divine will that the Lord "cannot deny Himself," that they "could not believe" is a fault chargeable on the will of man.
10. And, look you! so also say I, that those who have such lofty ideas of themselves as to suppose that so much must be attributed to the powers of their own will, that they deny their need of the divine assistance in order to a righteous life, cannot believe on Christ. For the mere syllables of Christ's name, and the Christian sacraments, are of no profit, where faith in Christ is itself resisted. For faith in Christ is to believe in Him that justifieth the ungodly;19 to believe in the Mediator, without whose interposition we cannot be reconciled unto God; to believe in the Saviour, who came to seek and to save that which was lost;20 to believe in Him who said, "Without me ye can do nothing."21 Because, then, being ignorant of that righteousness of God that justifieth the ungodly, he wishes to set up his own to satisfy the minds of the proud, such a man cannot believe on Christ. And so, those Jews "could not believe:" not that men cannot be changed for the better; but so long as their ideas run in such a direction, they cannot believe. Hence they are blinded and hardened; for, denying the need of divine assistance, they are not assisted. God foreknew this regarding these Jews who were blinded and hardened, and the prophet by His Spirit foretold it.
11. But when he added, "And they should be converted, and I should heal them," is there a "not" to be understood, that is, they should not be converted, connecting it with the clause before, where it is said, "that they should not see with their eyes and understand with their heart;" for here also it is certainly meant, "and should not understand "? For conversion itself is likewise a gift of His grace, as when it is said to Him, "Turn us, O God of Hosts."22 Or may it be that we are to understand this also as actually taking place through the merciful experience of the divine method of healing, [namely this,] that, being of proud and perverse wills, and wishing to establish their own righteousness, they were left alone for the very purpose of being blinded; and thus blinded in order that they might stumble on the stone of stumbling, and have their faces filled with shame; and so, being thus humbled, might seek the name of the Lord, and no longer a righteousness of their own, that inflated their pride, but the righteousness of God, that justifieth the ungodly? For this very way turned out to the good of many of them, who were afterwards filled with remorse for wickedness, and believed on Christ; and on whose behalf He Himself had put up the prayer, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."23 And it is of that ignorance of theirs also that the apostle says, "I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge:" for he then goes on also to add, "For they, being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God."24
12. "These things said Isaiah, when he saw His glory, and spake of Him." What Isaiah saw, and how it refers to Christ the Lord, are to be read and learned in his book. For he saw Him, not as He is, but in some symbolical way to suit the form that the vision of the prophet had itself to assume. For Moses likewise saw Him, and yet we find him saying to Him whom he saw, "If I have found grace in Thy sight, show me now Thyself, that I may clearly see Thee;"25 for he saw Him not as He is. But the time when this shall yet be our experience, that same Saint John the Evangelist tells us in his Epistle: "Dearly beloved, [now] are we the sons of God; and it hath not yet become manifest what we shall be: because we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is."26 He might have said "for we shall see Him," without adding "as He is;" but because he knew that He was seen of some of the fathers and prophets, but not as He is, therefore after saying "we shall see Him," he added "as He is." And be not deceived, brethren, by any of those who assert that the Father is invisible, and the Son visible. This assertion is made by those who think that the latter is a creature, and whose understanding runs not in harmony with the words, "I and my Father one."27 Accordingly, as respects the form of God wherein He is equal with the Father, the Son also is invisible: but, in order to be seen of men, He assumed the form of a servant, and being made in the likeness of men,28 became visible to man. He showed Himself, therefore, even before His incarnation, to the eyes of men, as it pleased Him, in the creature-form at His command, but not as He is. Let us be purifying our hearts by faith, that we may be prepared for that ineffable and, so to speak, invisible vision. For "blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God."29
13. "Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on Him; but, because of the Pharisees, they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: for they loved the glory of men more than the glory of God." See how the evangelist marked and disapproved of some, who yet, he said, believed on Him: who, if ever they did advance though this gateway of faith, would thereby also overcome that love of human glory which had been overcome by the apostle, when he said, "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world."30 For to this end also did the Lord Himself, when derided by the madness of human pride and impiety, fix His cross on the foreheads of those who believed on Him, on that which is in a manner the abode of modesty, that faith may learn not to blush at His name, and love the glory of God more than the glory of men.