Sunday, July 21, 2013

Lesser Known Fathers III: St. Isidore of Seville and the Names of God

First, I apologize for the image of the statue above, but the Rad Trad doubted his discerning and tasteful readers would want to see that painting—seemingly the only one of the Saint—of St. Isidore in a Roman mitre and reading a large tome yet again. So, we went for diversity today with questionable results.

Today's saint is the seventh century doctor of the Church, Isidore of Seville. Isidore is interesting and worthy of both faithful and secular study. Like Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Isidore lived in a time between ages: the curtain had fallen on the last act of antiquity and the Western Roman Empire, yet the Middle Ages as we think the them are not entirely underway until the age of Pepin and Charlemagne. Isidore lived in a reflective time, an era when one might look back to previous days and culture and something more and more distinct from the present day, yet without much eye for the future. One trait we find of this age of intellectual reminiscence and pessimism concerning the future is an attempt to codify and preserve knowledge, either for the scholar's own achievement or for posterity. The Saint of Seville wrote a work in harmony with this trait called Etymologiae, a purported summary of extant knowledge which relies heavily on etymology and word meanings. It is his chapter on God, His Son, and the Angels and Saints which rouses our attention.

The Book VII of his Etymologiae, which we shall focus on today, is remarkably apophatic for a Latin Church writer, although we should not think his writing and thought to be obscure or without precision. He deals with the names of God, of the Son of God, of the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, of the Angels, the Prophets, Apostles, and other servants of God in the Scriptures.
First, let us think about the Hebrew names of "God" in a quick list format:
  1. El: according to St. Jerome it means the "strong" one, as we hear on Good Friday, or every day, in the Trisagion. God has never had infirmity or weakness in the innate, natural way we have. He is, by His very nature, strong and without defect.
  2. Eloi: name of God used by Our Lord from the Cross.
  3. Eloe: as with "Eloi," Eloe is a plain word meaning "God." The Saint points out that Theos, the Greek word for "God" which gave us Deus in Latin, means "fear" and was probably not initially a word for a deity.
  4. God of Sabaoth: literally God of "hosts" (7). We often lose sight of what a radical idea a singular and omnipotent God was to all non-Jews of antiquity. Their gods were laughably stupid and animalistic figures with irreparable foibles. Hence why God is the "King of glory" (psalm 23).
  5. Elion: "in the highest" or "aloft" or "above the heavens" (9).
  6. Eie: "He Who is." In Exodus 3:14, the Lord reveals Himself to Moses as "I am Who I am." The implication at first eludes us and at further consideration overwhelms us. We are beings, God is being. We can be something (a husband, a doctor, a person wearing a shoe etc), while God is the only One Who simply is. Not a transitive verb. God just is. God does not know "was" nor does He know "will be" (12-13). This does not include intellectual knowledge of these concepts, but He does not experience them. In his Civitate Dei St. Augustine postulates Einstein's theory of relativity fifteen centuries early in suggesting talk of predestination that undermines free will is somewhat pointless because it relies on a linear understanding of time, which is measured by motion between objects over a given period. God is simply outside this phenomenon and hence unbound by time. St. Isidore may have been reading from the Bishop of Hippo when he had this insight.
  7. Adonai: literally "Master." He rules the world. Liturgically oriented readers will recall this from the antiphon on the Magnificat at Vespers on December 18: "O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti, veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extent."
  8. Ia/Yah: again, just means "God." Last part of "Alleluia," meaning "Glory to you, oh God."
  9. The Tetragrammaton: a compilation of four Hebrew characters. The emphasis is that God is ineffable.
  10. Shaddai: meaning omnipotent.

In section 16 the Saint considers other names attributed to God in the Christian texts, such as "immortal" in 1 Timothy 6:16: "Who only has immortality." He is immortal, immutable, and incorruptible because He alone cannot change, change being the essence of mortality, mutation, and corruption. Isidore also spends some time explaining that the Trinity is hidden, not Something we have ever seen in His fullness (23). The reason is that the Trinity exists in faces, but not in the anthropomorphic way we understand a "face." Even in John 1:18 Christ tells us "No man has seen God at any time." He means that none have seen God in His essence. The Trinity, Isidore continues in later sections, is "immeasurable," "singular," and "perfect." None of these really needs explaining, but the idea of God's "face" is worth more time.

God sees and hears all things, but He does not have eyes and ears. The purpose of applying ears and eyes to God is to make Him more comprehensible to us (36-7). The same is true of God's "face," which does not mean corporal continence, but a Divine "recognition." When the psalmist writes in number 74 "Show us Thy face" he means "Grant us Thy recognition."

Section II of Book VII is dedicated to Our Lord Jesus Christ and His names and titles in the New Testament. The most obvious title of Christ is "Christ," from the Greek chrisma, meaning "anointed." Messiah means the same thing (6-7). What interests Isidore is that while many have been called anointed in the past, Jesus retains the denomination in His very name, illuminating His own actual name and His being for us.

Many of us know the name Jesus, that holiest of names, comes from the Hebrew Yeshua—Joshua in English—yet few of us, realize that the name itself means "Savior" (7-10). The name Jesus Christ hence means "anointed Savior" or "Savior king," a new concept we today will have to grasp again. He is the only Begotten of the Father, but He is begotten twice: first in eternity before all time and second on earth of the Virgin. As the psalmist writes: Thou art my beloved Son, this day I have begotten Thee. The Saint then proceeds through other titles of the Lord: the Beginning, the Light, the Hand of God, Alpha and Omega (28).

The in section III St. Isidore comes to the Holy Ghost, the "Paraclete" which means "advocate" or "helper," although this title is also used for the Second Person of the Trinity. Here is an apercu insight into the Bishop of Seville's Trinitarian theology. We speak of the Father and the Holy Spirit as Wisdom, although Christ is Wisdom, the Word Incarnate. Similarly, the Father than Son have Charity, but the Holy Spirit is Charity (20). The essence of God is common to the three persons of the Trinity, but the expression and action differs.

There is also a bit of Sacramental theology in all of this. The Father and the Son can be understood as far as God wants, since human fathers and son are reflections of the Divine Fatherhood and Sonship. The Paraclete has no such temporal analogue, so God has seen fit to tell us about His Third Person by what He does, hence names like "fire" and "water" (23, 27). It is precisely because the Holy Spirit is not immediately comprehensible by what He does, the bestowal of grace, that we are given Sacraments, outward signs of grace whereby the actual grace is given: "The water of the Sacrament of Baptism is one thing, and the water that signifies the Spirit of God is another, for the water of the Sacrament is visible, the water of the Spirit is invisible" (28). This water, for example, is the water Jesus explains in John 7:37: "If any man thirsts, let him come to me...."

The last part spent on the names of God is devoted to the concept of the Holy Trinity, which Isidore traces to tres, the Latin word for three, and unitas, the Latin word for unity. Trinity is Triunitas. The Father, Son, and Spirit are three persons in one, subsisting in one another, hence united but with some distinction. I can understand why the Orthodox do not recognize St. Isidore's sanctity in section IV, on the Trinity. The Saint writes that while the Son is Begotten of the Father and the Father of no one, the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son" (4), a statement he makes without the clarifications that allow Augustine narrowly to escape Byzantium's wrath. There is little else Isidore says concerning the Holy Trinity that one cannot find in the Greek Fathers. A few short comments are devoted to the rationale of the Trinity that we can acquire through consideration of the relationships within the Trinity: Father implies Son etc. This is better developed in the writings of Ss. Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian.

The rest of Book VII covers the angels ("angel" meaning "messenger") and their names (ex. Gabriel means "God's strength") as well as other figures. The names of the angels and the names of types of angels (thrones, cherubim, seraphim etc) signify their unique ministries in heaven and on earth. Raphael, whose named has a medical meaning, is always sent to heal. Fittingly the Rad Trad was once taken to a St. Raphael Hospital on the Fourth of July.

More compelling are the names of persons Isidore unfolds before us in section VI of Book VII. Adam, for instance, means "man." The immediate meaning is quite plain, but consider that Christ called Himself Son of Man on earth. We call ourselves "sons of Adam" owing to our sinful tendencies, but did Christ not do the same thing with redemption of man in mind? As we sing in the Evlogitaria of the Resurrection "The orders of Angels were amazed when they beheld You, Oh Savior, among the dead destroying the power of death and raising up Adam with you, and releasing all from Hades." Our Saint of the day then goes into less interesting material, like Esau meaning the color red, but returns to form when discussing some of the Old Testament prophets. Our confidence in Christ's fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures should sore when we learn in section VIII that "Elijah" is a conjunction of "Eloi"—meaning Lord—and "Ia"—meaning God (6). Hence, the "Lord God" is He Whose coming was predicted, not a temporal prince. Some prophetic names are even amusing. Micah, for instance, means "Who is it?"

The section following on the names of the Holy Apostles illuminates both the Old and New Testament in the original name of St. Paul, Saul, meaning "temptation" (7). Saul was the first temptation of the Church after Pentecost, but Saul was also the fallen king of Israel who preceded David. "Paul," on the other hand, means "little." Therefore in Ephesians he calls himself the "least of all the saints," the littlest of them before God.

Lastly, the Rad Trad would like to point out that, according to St. Isidore, the name Mary can very well be translated as "She who illuminates" or as "star of the sea," the latter of which immediately calls to mind the hymn constantly used for our Lady at Vespers: Ave maris Stella, Dei Mater alma, Atque semper virgo, felix caeli porta."

Apologies for the dry nature of today's post, but it goes with the encyclopedic material. I hope readers found something interesting in it. Next week's post will be a bit more exciting.

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