11 July 2008

Patristic Quote of the Day

For "he did not know her" - it says - "until she gave birth to a Son, her firstborn." But this could make one suppose that Mary, after having offered in all her purity her own service in giving birth to the Lord, by virtue of the Holy Spirit, did not subsequently refrain from normal conjugal relations. That would not have affected the teaching of our religion at all, because Mary's virginity was necessary until the service of the Incarnation, and what happened afterward need not be investigated in order to affect the doctrine of the mystery. But since the lovers of Christ [that is, the faithful] do not allow themselves to hear that the Mother of God ceased at a given moment to be a virgin, we consider their testimony sufficient. -- St. Basil the Great, Homily [PG 31, 1468]

29 comments:

Fr. Timothy D. May, S.S.P. said...

In accepting "their testimony" St. Basil hints at humility congruent with "the doctrine of the mystery." Not unlike the Blessed Virgin's own humility in receiving the word that was given her. Need we investigate that which may have always been (semper).

Or like Basil says here the "semper virgo" "would not have affected the teaching of our religion at all." Rather than a scandal it is a gracious and wonderful mystery.

Susan said...

It sounds like St Basil is saying:
Based on what Matthew tells us, one would suppose that Mary and Joseph had normal marital relations. But because the faithful can't bear to think that Jesus' mom "did that," we're just gonna go ahead and say she didn't.
Is that what that quote just said???

William Weedon said...

Fr. Timothy, amen!

Susan, rather St. Basil is saying that it is possible that some might understand Matthew to allow the possibility of conjugal relations post partum, and that even if such did happen our faith is not thereby compromised, but that he's sticking with the crowd of the faith who have held that she remained Virgin. The term that is used by Matthew, "not eos" means that the past is denied with the future however undetermined.

Chris said...

Humility is the keyword in all of this. The testimony of the Holy Fathers with regards to not only this facet of the faith (the semper virgo) but to others should be sufficient as to theologoumena. Parsing the grammar or being incredulous that someone (even the Mother of God) would EVER abstain from sex willingly are not sufficient means to the acceptance of this doctrine.

It goes to show that most Lutherans today (e.g. Susan) are not humble to the testimony of the fathers or the BoC but only to their own minds.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

I don't think that it is a matter of being incredulous that a person would "EVER" abstain from sexual relationships - there are examples of this even to this day.

What concerns me more in the discussion of whether or not Mary remained perpetually a virgin is that it seems to diminish or downplay the blessing of sex and it's right, God pleasing usage in the bounds of wedlock. Would Mary not withholding herself from her husband somehow diminish her? If she and Joseph were to be fruitful and multiply, would that somehow be non-pleasing to God?

What I see in the course of Church History is that by the 2nd Century there has developed an anti-sex movement within the Church - trying to ascribe that as a more holy life. Basil writes this around 330 years after the writing of the Gospels - so I don't simply trust the thoughts of the faithful throng.

As an example why - the majority of folks in the US now think that the Constitution allows a right to an abortion - and we're only 220 years removed from that. Popular desire can run amuck.

Basically, I see no reason for the Semper Virgo. If one wishes to cite an example of chastity, why point to a married woman? And one can certainly demonstrate Mary's humility without bringing this up as a question at all.

Fr. Timothy D. May, S.S.P. said...

Rev. Brown, it does not seem that this quote is addressing Puritanism in North America. Nor does it seem that St. Basil is trying to highlight the goodness of sex, whatever his views on this subject.

It appears that he sees this teaching as an opportunity to highlight receiving "their testimony" in "humility" and that it does not ["affect"] [hurt, harm?] our religion if Mary never ceased being a virgin.

I confess to not knowing much about this sainted Father of the Church. However, I cannot help but appreciate his respect and adherence to "the doctrine of they mystery." (ie, humility in the face of their testimony)

William Weedon said...

I must confess that I was delighted to find the quote. Gerhard references it in Loci I:359 (387.8). A friend had given me a book about Mary in the fathers of the Church, and on a whim yesterday I pulled it out and voila! It was there under St. Basil. Gerhard's citation is ALMOST word for word.

What the whole matter likely touches on is the manner in which one is to receive the tradition of the Church. Turning to Krauth for help again, he noted two trends among the churches of the Reformation:

"In the former, Scripture is regarded more exclusively as sole source; in the latter, more as the norm of a doctrine which is evolved from the analogy of faith, and to which consequently the pure exegetical and confessional tradition of the Church possesses more value." (Conservative Reformation, 123)

The way that Webber puts how this shakes out is quite helpful. I'm paraphrasing him (so don't yell at me, Jay, if I get this not word for word right!). For Lutherans, there is:

1) that which must believed for it is taught in the Scriptures;
2) there is that which must not believed for it contradicts what is taught in the Scriptures;
3) there is that which may be believed, for it does not contradict what is the Scriptures, is in harmony with the analogy of faith, and has been received in the Church for a long time.

I'd add the corollary that what may be believed may also be taught. That's what we find in the Lutheran fathers on this particular question. They taught it, assumed it, and used it to glorify Christ (the miracle of the in partu virginity), but if you pushed their back against the wall on it, they'd mark it as category 3, not 1. Getting back to Krauth, you can have a category 3 is you approach the tradition with the Scripture in mind as norm.

Paul McCain said...

I think it is a bit naughty to be talking so much about the Mother of God's sex life, or lack thereof.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

I agree with the three tiered approach that Weber has. I'm just not sure how rightly the Semper Virgo fits in with the analogy of faith. Just because something has been long held to does not mean that it is properly part of the faith.

That being said - it matters not either way. As long as folks who look at history and tradition somewhat critically are not skewered with the charge of a lack of humility.

William Weedon said...

Or as long as those who look at the history and tradition somewhat critically do not despise and look down on those who approach it differently than they do - that was, actually, the burden of Pieper's concern in his dogmatics.

Chris said...

Rev. Brown,

Your lack of humility in the face of the holy fathers is not surprising but it is nonetheless shocking.

On another point, Basil's comment has nothing to do with the Christian culture of the 2nd century. The radical ascetic movement that you refer to was part of the African church advocated by such fathers as Tertullian, whose influence was, on the whole, rather insignifcant especially when compared to the Cappadocian Fathers (St. Basil, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Gregory of Nyss and St. John Chrysostom). It had not permeated into other parts of the Church until the time of St. Jerome.

You are also saying that the Lutheran symbols then are wrong. So much for a quia subscription which I believe you are supposed to make at your ordination. Or have you and Rev. McCain simply decided to elevate your "wisdom" over such illuminaries of the Church? Perhaps you watched the movie, "Dogma" too many times.

The semper virgo is the doctrine of the Church. It has always been and shall always be.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Chris,

1 - Basil founded many monasteries and had a rather large Ascetic streak. I don't think that can be denied - as he is regarded as famous for it.

2 - In mentioning the 2nd century I was pointing to a point at which such practices start appearing and being more common. Basil follows in that popular stream of Christian thought.

3 - The fact that Basil is to address the Semper Virgo as a question that is open and not vital to the faith shows that it neither has always been observed in all places as part of the faith nor is considered vital, even by Basil, to the faith.

4 - As for the confessions, subscription to titles is not considered part of one's own confession.

5 - I would submit that a member of the clergy who is under orders and charged with the instruction of the Holy Scriptures having a disagreement with another one about that is not necessarily a lack of humility.

Moreover - other than disagreeing with what Basil himself refers to as non-vital to the doctrine, how have I shown a lack of humility? There are theologians who have opposed the Semper Virgo - do you show a lack of humility towards them by your position? Or is it proper to not treat them with humility because you disagree with them?

But, I will close by saying that when Basil agrees that whether she remains semper virgo or whether she fulfills the normal God-ordained duties of a wife, the teaching of our religion is not changed - nor is any such discussion required, and is best left undone if it will lead some to offense and scandal.

Chris said...

Rev. Brown,

I am fully aware that St. Basil founded monasteries and that his rule is still in effect for many of the ones today especially on Mt. Athos. However, the radical form of asceiticism that arose in the 2nd century was combatted by Basil who thought it was too entrenched with legal tendencies.

I would dare say that the subscription to the confessions also would require titles that express the doctrine. Will you not call Mary Theotokos?

I am humble towards the holy fathers. I don't know which theologians you refer to who dispute the semper virgo. If they are modern day theologians, (especially non-Orthodox) then they are outside the Church and I will not consider their positions which are baseless. Your dismissal indicates nothing more than a lack of humility.

You may reacall St. Vincent of Lerins who said that the faith is based upon catholicity, that which has been held for all time in all places. The semper virgo was held for all times and all places, even if it wasn't written down (why that is the sole criterion for matters of faith, I will never understand).

Believe what you want or believe only what is modern seem to be the mantras for modern Lutheranism. I'm overjoyed I left.

William Weedon said...

Better, Christopher, to grieve over what we've become.

I do not believe that the titles in the Confessions are somehow exempt from confessional subscription, but I know enough of my brother in Office, Pr. Brown, to assure you that he is not unilaterally dismissing the Christian Book of Concord on this question and certainly teaches that the Blessed Virgin is true Theotokos.

He's demonstrated over the time I've read his writing a true grasp of the doctrines of our Church. He's simply wishing not to commit himself to the confessors words on Mary that are honorifics (Theotokos is not that) - but I bet he will in time. I've seen it before! The more one looks into it, the more one comes to agree with the Church's lingo on the subject as utterly faithful to the Scriptural witness and our lived experience in the communion of saints.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Actually, if I had the opportunity to help establish a congregation, I would love to see it named either "Incarnate Word" or "Mary, Mother of God" Lutheran Church. I think both are fantastic theological terms, although I would wish to translate Theotokos into English.

I also have no qualms whatsoever with anyone who holds to the perpetual virginity of Mary, or even any problems should they teach it - although I do not find the arguments for it to be convincing. With Basil I will agree, perpetual or not, our faith remains the same.

I remain unconvinced of the catholicity of the doctrine itself as I don't see it stated explicitly until after other strange practices regarding chastity are introduced into the Christian community. Also, the very way in which Basil addresses it as a matter which does not directly impact the faith shows that it may lack catholicity, unless there are things that are Catholic but not integral parts of the faith.

Also, I find that the saints are useful as teaching examples. If Mary is Semper Virgo, she no long is a model upon which all women, and especially spouses can view as a model, but rather moves beyond what any wife would be expected to strive to this day.

Thus I am skeptical of the historicity of the doctrine and I don't see a practical benefit to it.

I know, skeptical of church tradition - how horrid. Eh, part and parcel of life in the West.

Teach it if you will - just do not treat with contempt those who do not hold it - and follow St. Basil's example in that.

(As a note - I do whole heartedly approve of the term "The Blessed Virgin" - for that is built both off the Magnificat and the Virgin Birth. Indeed, it gets used often come December.)

Susan said...

Pr Brown wrote -- "If Mary is Semper Virgo, she no long is a model upon which all women, and especially spouses can view as a model, but rather moves beyond what any wife would be expected to strive to this day."

Not just "moves beyond what any wife would be expected to strive to." But such a model would actually be CONTRARY to what God's word says to wives.

Fr. Timothy D. May, S.S.P. said...

"But, I will close by saying that when Basil agrees that whether she remains semper virgo or whether she fulfills the normal God-ordained duties of a wife, the teaching of our religion is not changed - nor is any such discussion required, and is best left undone if it will lead some to offense and scandal."

Rev. Brown, this is well-stated. Even the teaching and belief of the semper virgo does not negate, or even undermine, the God-given roles of wives and children.

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

I'm not sure who translated what you have before you, but I think it errs on a crucial point--the sentence beginning "That would not have affected the teaching of our religion at all." The Greek sentence begins "Hemeis de, *ei kai meden* to tes eusebias paralumainetai logo" (Latin "Nos autem, *etiamsi* hoc pietatis doctrinam nihil laedat...").

It should be rendered, "But we--even if this did not harm the teaching of religion at all (because Mary's virginity was necessary until the service of the Incarnation, and what happened afterward need not be investigated in order to affect the doctrine of the mystery), yet since Christ-lovers would not allow themselves to hear that the Theotokos ceased to be a virgin, we consider their testimony sufficient."

(I'm trying to stick as closely as possible to the translation you offer here.)

The point is, St. Basil is not saying that the denial of the perpetual virginity would not affect (Gk 'harm') the teaching of our religion; he's saying that even if it didn't, we wouldn't accept it. A subtle distinction, perhaps, but one of great weight, and one which leads to the general observation: we should be careful about cutting and pasting citations without checking original sources.

William Weedon said...

I should have given the citation of the citation - my bad. It came from Thomas Buffer's translation of Luigi Gambero's *Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought.* It's on page 146.

Having Migne available over the net is a blessing indeed, isn't it? Thanks for the suggested correction. I don't think anyone could miss the point, though, that Basil was not arguing against the PV, but he grounds it not in some theological necessity but in the consensus of the lovers of Christ.

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Correction--it's a simple conditional, ei + indicative, so it should say, "Even if this does not harm the teaching of religion at all..." When I made it a contrary-to-fact, I was wrong.

The point to be made is more subtle still than my initial one. Basil's attitude toward biblical testimony is different from the "If the Bible doesn't explicitly say it, I don't have to believe it" attitude we see so much of today. The Orthodox believer does not say, "What do I have to believe," and then run to the Bible alone (this is, as we have seen in other discussions of the semper Virgo, the source of great mischief and wrangling); the Orthodox believer says, "What has the Church taught about this?" and then clings to it, in its fullness.

It should be noted that in the context immediately following the quote, St. Basil does the standard exegesis of words like "until" and "firstborn" seen elsewhere in the holy fathers.

The unworthy priest,

Fr. Gregory Hogg

Eric Phillips said...

Chris,

> Your lack of humility in the
> face of the holy fathers is not
> surprising but it is nonetheless
> shocking.

When did it become a necessary part of humility to agree uncritically with everything the Fathers believed? That's ridiculous.

And from the initial quotation:

> since the lovers of Christ
> [that is, the faithful] do
> not allow themselves to hear
> that the Mother of God ceased
> at a given moment to be a
> virgin...

I know plenty lovers of Christ who allow themselves to hear that. And even to believe it, and to say it. So this argument doesn't have any force. It's merely testimony to the prevailing mindset of another time, when virginity was accorded far too much significance.

William Weedon said...

And it sounds odd to us who live in a day when virginity is accorded far too little significance.

Fr. Timothy D. May, S.S.P. said...

". . . to the prevailing mindset of another time, when virginity was accorded far too much significance."

In contrast to today's "prevailing mindset" I guess (that is where we find the basis for our theology and practice isn't it?).

Yet Scripture leaves open the possibility and even praises the virtue of virginity. So the Tradition is in line with Scripture even though, to us, we might merely be tempted to look at it disdainfully as the "good old days." The freedom lies in both virginity for the virgin and marriage for the married and not in disdain for virginity and idolization of marriage, no matter where the prevailing winds of "today" are blowing.

Eric Phillips said...

In contrast to today's prevailing mindset, yes. And also in contrast to the teachings of the Bible, which are right about in the middle. The Tradition is not in line with Scripture on this point.

Fr. Timothy D. May, S.S.P. said...

It is not clear to me as to the existence of forced virginity within the historic Churches nor within any denominations or groups but then again we are certainly not aware of what is going in all of these places at all times. My understanding of the practice within the Tradition, whether East or West, is that those making such vows make them consciously and voluntarily just as we hope that those entering marriage do so consciously and voluntarily.

William Weedon said...

Dr. P,

I agree to an extent, but there are things even in the Sacred Scripture that the child of the modern age knows not what to do with. For example, Revelation 14:4!

Eric Phillips said...

Fr. May,

Sure, they chose virginity voluntarily, but why did they?

Pr. Weedon,

Yeah, I've puzzled over that verse a bit.

William Weedon said...

Dr. P.,

I think they chose virginity to LIVE the life of the Kingdom as it would come, when they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels of God. It wasn't originally to EARN the kingdom.

Eric Phillips said...

> It wasn't originally to EARN the
> kingdom.

No, but it was often out of a negative view of sex and the related pragmata of mundane life.