Reflection on a Saying of a Desert Christian: Abba Serapion and Abba Isaak and an anonymous

A pious Orthodox scholar of modern times constantly stressed that worldly knowledge is of no consequence to the spiritual man. But equally strongly he resisted ignorance and those who teach that man need not use his intellect. “The intellect,” he said, “must serve the spiritual. The correct and humble use of our minds in spiritual pursuits is commended by the Fathers.”

He often related that some of the desert Fathers had come to believe that God, man having been created in His image, was like a human being: “Even Abba Serapion, an old and deeply pious ascetic, we read in the ‘Conferences’ of Saint John Cassian, believed in an anthropomorphic vision of God. Only when a learned monk from Cappadocia convinced him that both Scripture and the Orthodox Church support the view that God is ‘immeasurable’ and ‘incomprehensible,’ and ‘cannot be limited by a human frame or likeness,’ did Serapion repent of his misbelief.

“When the great desert holy man, Abba Isaak, was asked how such a pious ascetic as Serapion could have been seduced by demons to believe wrongly, he answered: ‘This error is not, as you think, a modern delusion from the demons, but an inheritance from the ignorance of the ancient heathens.’ We learn here that piety and simplicity do not excuse ignorance or prevent its erroneous consequences. We must all begin our spiritual lives knowing properly with our intellects what the Church teaches of God. Otherwise, we might all cry with the repentant Serapion: ‘Woe is me! They have taken my God from me and I have none to grasp.’ If we know of God first with our minds and then with our hearts, He can never be taken away. Knowledge and humility, not ignorance, are our goals.”

Wowza, is there ever a lot that could be said about this Saying. You are welcome to add your comments because I am not going to attempt to cover everything.

The heart of this Saying is, I believe, “We learn here that piety and simplicity do not excuse ignorance or prevent its erroneous consequences. We must all begin our spiritual lives knowing properly with our intellects what the Church teaches of God. “

The issue is orthodox Christian belief.  I know people are moaning and groaning and saying “Gloriamarie, Christians can’t agree on anything, how can you assert such a ridiculous notion of an orthodox Christian belief?”

Well, I do assert it. I think it can be expressed in a few sentences.

(1) The Two Great Commandments to love God with every fiber of one’s being and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. Also known as doing to others what you want them to do to or for you.

(2) The Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds. Yes, I am well aware that there are those groups of Christians who do not use credal statements and consider them too Popish, which is in their use is definitely not a compliment.  At the same time, while they may not use credal formulations, they teach as basic Christian truth the tenets of the creeds.

Christians also read our Bibles and that is another place where we must use our God-given intellect.  One way to do that is to always remember that the books of the Bible were written with a context of a culture, a society, a language, and a history that is not the twenty-first century. 

Not all of us are called to be historians, theologians, readers of Greek but fortunately, we have translations with excellent notes.  I can recommend two: The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha and The Catholic Study Bible, third edition.

Another resource we have are commentaries. I like the Tyndale Commentaries as a beginner’s commentary because they contextualize the texts.  They write about what is actually said and do not use allegorical interpretations.  For example, the commentary on the Song of Solomen writes about the beauty of human love and doesn’t claim that it represents the relationship between Jesus and the Church.

Something else I find useful is a really exhaustive Concordance.  I only know of two.  Strong’s, which is based on the King James’ version and the NIV Exhaustive Concordance.  While I really want an exhaustive concordance for the NRSV, I make use of the NIV Concordance.

God did not give us intellects only to know right Christian belief and how to read the Bible.  He also gifted us with intellectual capacity to know right from wrong, to use judgement in daily life.  I think this is critical because from what I can observe, critical thinking skills are an endangered species.


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