You are here

The Context of the Metaphor in Patristic and Medieval Theology


The Patristic and Medieval Metaphor of the Book of Nature. Implications for Fundamental Theology, a Ph.D. Thesis discussed at the PUSC School of Theology

To understand [the metaphor of the Book], it is necessary to grasp two broad background themes: the doctrine of the created logoi and the doctrine of contemplation. I will argue that these are the key foundational elements of the patristic and medieval book of nature, and without them the metaphor breaks down or at least becomes difficult to comprehend theologically. These two themes correspond to two great questions concerning the metaphor: first, how or in what sense can we say that there are words or meanings hidden in nature or creation; second, how can those words be read. Let us briefly examine these doctrines. 


The Logos and the Logoi

The idea of the logoi of creation (the plural of logos) is the result of a complex conceptual evolution over several centuries. The Greek word logos cannot be translated with any one word in modern languages. Already by the 5thcentury BC, logos had become one of the commonest words in Greek, meaning among other things (a) anything said or written; (b) esteem, reputation and fame; (c) thought, opinion; (d) cause, reason, argument; (e) the truth of the matter; (f) measure; (g) correspondence, relation, proportion; (h) a general principle or rule; (i) the faculty of reason; (j) a proper definition or formula. The conceptual evolution that concerns the present question goes back at least to Heraclitus (c. 550–480 BC), who used the word to denote a universal reason or law that governs the cosmic processes as their most profound explanation. This cosmic sense of logos was less important to Plato and Aristotle, who used the word in the logical-grammatical sense, denoting the underlying criterion of logic or simply the sense of a predicative statement.

Stoic philosophy continued both traditions: on the one hand, the logical-grammatical usage was continued, but with conceptual innovations, such as the distinction between lógos endiáthetos (thought in the mind) and lógos prophorikós (thought expressed in language as a proposition); on the other hand, the thinkers of the Stoa proposed a radical physical-cosmological interpretation of the Heracletan logos, expressing the universal cosmic law, a rationality that penetrates all being. In this context, they also came up with the notion of logoi spermatikoi, seminal reasons or causes (translated in Latin as rationes seminales): these are exemplary forms of all things contained in the creative logos yet always existing immanently in the material beings. This is a central intuition behind the patristic notion of the logoi of creation. 

However, logoi of creation are not a mere continuation of Stoic philosophy. They are rather the result of a creative interplay between Greek philosophy and the religion of Israel. In the latter, the central biblical concept that expresses what present-day fundamental theology means by revelation is the word, a notion that gradually develops and expands until it reaches its peak in the Johannine Logos. In the earlier Hebrew Scriptures, divine revelation is practically identical with the dâbâr Yahwéh. This is commonly translated as the word of the Lord,but it encompasses both a noetic and a dynamic aspect, because it does not merely communicate or inform, it is also a creative and efficacious word that causes and brings about what it says.This expression is used repeatedly in the Old Testament, in contexts ranging from the creation of the world, divine promises and the announcement of the law (the dĕbârim, i.e. Decalogue or “the ten words”) to wondrous events of liberation and prophetic warnings and interpretations of history. 

When the Scriptures of Israel were translated into Greek, the Semitic dabarwas usually interpreted as logos (sometimes as rhema). The Septuagint became a standard reference point for patristic theology, so that this translation marked the identification of the Greek logos with the biblical, revelatory category of dabar Yahweh. This identification was further forged by at least two factors. One was the work of Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BC – c. 50 AD), who interpreted the biblical doctrine of creation in terms of the Stoic logos as well as Plato’s creationist ideas in Timaeus.In Philo, the Greek logos becomes an explicitly religious and biblical notion that has three principal meanings: (a) Logoswith God, or divine Intellect; (b) Logosmediator, the exemplary and efficient cause of the world; and (c) the immanent Logos of the sensible universe, a kind of unifying force of the cosmos.

The other key factor was, of course, the John’s Prologue (1:1–18), in which the Christian transformation of the Greek logos was most explicit.A crucial feature of this transformation is the fact that now, the divine Logos is not a mere philosophical category or an impersonal force. The divine Logoshas become “flesh” (sarx) and has “made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14); he has been “seen” and “touched” by the eyes and hands of his disciples (1John 1:1). The Johannine Logosis at once divine and transcendent yet fully personal and accessible to us. This may be one of the many reasons why Philo’s thought found so little echo in subsequent Jewish tradition, whereas he gained unexpected popularity among Christians, beginning with the Alexandrian scholars Clement (c. 150–215) and Origen (184/185–253/254).[1] John’s identification of the dabar Yahweh of the Scriptures with the divineLogos might be called a scriptural authorizationin favour of the integration and transformation of the Greek philosophical category into, and by, Christian thought. 

The consequences of this transformation were momentous. The modern reader, especially one influenced by biblical language and the conventional translation of the biblical Logos as the Latin Verbumor similar vernacular expressions, will find it hard to notice that this was not the ordinary meaning of the logos of the ancient Greeks (if that ever was its meaning to them). The Greek logos might refer to a statement or a proposition in the logical-grammatical sense; in contrast, the metaphysical-cosmological logos was essentially ratio, that is, rationality, proportion, cause and so on. It is hard to say when exactly logosbecomes clearly identified with the Latin verbum, but the radical and definitive step was already taken in John. It is here that the philosophical logos was identified with the biblical dabar Yahweh, and this identification already signifies an irreversible transformation in which the impersonal notion is transferred into the context of divine communication. This is essential for a correct understanding of the patristic notion of the logoi of creation, a notion that would be used frequently in connection with the metaphor of the book of nature. It was developed gradually by such thinkers as Justin (100–165), Clement of Alexandria and Origen, and it reached its speculative heights in the cosmology of Maximus the Confessor (c. 580–662).

Philologically, the logoi of creation inherit the semantic depth and flexibility of the Greek notion of logos, cutting across a range of meanings including reasonpurposecauseprinciple and even word. A distinction is made between the singular, transcendent Logosand the plural logoi of creation. However, the infinite transcendence of the divine Logos does not imply a distancewith respect to the created logoi. Rather, as Blowers puts it (summarizing the thought of Maximus): “it is most specifically the incarnate Logos […] who ‘contains’ or inheres in the logoi, upholding at once their unity and diversity in God’s revelatory and salvific economy.”[2] This is expressed synthetically in Maximus’ celebrated statement that “the Logos of God (who is God) wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of his embodiment.”[3] This vision has profound fundamental-theological implications, because it implies that, not only are the logoi of creation located in the transcendent Logos, but the divine Logos also is somehow present inhis logoi, communicating his presence to them. We might speak of another kind of “incarnation” of the Logos, analogous to the “incarnations” of the Logos in the logoi (words) of the Scriptures.At the same time, these incarnations are only partial and imperfect: through the history of the world, the divine Logos guides them towards their original and ultimate purpose, which is the union of the entire creation with the Trinity, so that the logoi of creatures point simultaneously to their creatural origin and their eschatological destiny. 

It may be argued that the integration of this logoi-in-the-Logos scheme into biblical and Christian categories is what ultimately enables a philosophically rigorous discourse that discovers divine words or speech in the works of creation. This is the logical consequence of, first, the transformation of the Greek logos in terms of the historical-scriptural word of the Lord, and second, going back to reinterpret the logoi of creation not as mere impersonal causes, but as words of, and in, the Word—words that do not merely contain a certain logic or information but also are potentially relational and salvific.


The Contemplation of Nature

There is another common background theme in the patristic and medieval metaphors of the book of nature, namely the doctrine of contemplation and especially the contemplation of nature. By this I am referring to a set of suppositions and practices that were formulated in the early Christian centuries following a creative synthesis of elements of Greek philosophy and certain biblical texts. The Latin word contemplatio was used to translate the Greek theoria, which had already acquired an important speculative and almost religious meaning in pagan philosophy. It was initially associated with art and aesthetics, but it was extended first towards the idea of philosophical activity or intellectual contemplation and then further to religious or supernatural contemplation. In Plato, contemplation refers to the ascent of the mind or the spirit from sense-experience to higher realities, from the finite towards the infinite. Contemplation is not only the cognitive act of grasping an intelligible truth, it is also a process and a way of life, the very essence and outcome of philosophical activity. In Aristotle, the connotations of the notion are less religious, but he concurs that contemplative life (bios theoretikós) is the most noble and elevated form of living accessible to man, a kind of imitation of God whose proper activity is self-contemplation; however, contemplation must be combined with some form of active life (bios praktikós), which is the context of the moral virtues. 

When the Fathers appropriated this concept, they did not limit its usage to what today might be called spirituality. The patristic understanding of contemplation is a theological category parallel to the obedience of faith, which is the human response to the hearingof the word (a notion applied by analogy from oral communication). Contemplation, in turn, is derived from the human act of seeing. This intimate relationship between faith and vision has been recently highlighted by Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter Lumen Fidei (2013). The idea is profoundly scriptural. Already in the Old Testament, the hearing of the word of the Lord gives rise to a desire to see the face of the Lord. However, this desire cannot be fully satisfied yet, as we read in the passage of Exodus 33:18–23 in which Moses cannot see the face of the Lord but is given the opportunity to see his back, a reflection of his glory. In the New Testament, the categories of vision and contemplation acquire greater prominence due to the Incarnation of the Word. In Colossians 1:15, Christ is “the image  of the invisible God”. In Hebrews 1:3, he is described as the “refulgence” of God’s glory, “the very imprint of his being”. Similarly, according to 2 Corinthians 4:6, God “has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Christ.” 

This vision will only reach its fullness in heaven, but it has already begun in the Incarnation of the Son, who has rendered the Father visible, as we read in John 1:14: “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory.” This is a constant theme in John, where we read Jesus’ words, “whoever sees me sees the one who sent me” (12:45) and “whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9).  This seeing is obviously not the physical act of seeing with one’s eyes, but beholding, contemplating, with an attitude of faith, aided by the Spirit; after all, there were many who saw Jesus in the flesh, yet did not see him in this way. In Christ, the glory of God has been rendered visible under the appearance of ‘flesh’, that is, in a manner of weakness that at once reveals and veils. In Johannine terminology, faith (hearing) and vision (seeing) go together, because to believe in Jesus is to know him, and to contemplate him is the goal and maturity of the faith. 

Again, the patristic synthesis of the foregoing philosophical and biblical ideas was mediated by Philo, who for the first time argued in Greek terms that the end and purpose of Israel’s faith is the contemplation of God. Philo contended that there are two types of knowledge of God: one philosophical and indirect, derived from sense-perception and contemplation of the material world; the other, the direct knowledge by way of prophecy or vision. Importantly, he claimed that seeing God is not incompatible with God’s ineffability. For Philo, the greatest philosophers are no longer Plato and Aristotle but the patriarchs and the prophets of Israel. The contemplation of God is not a product of mere human effort, it is a divine gift and implies a transformation of man. 

Following in Philo’s footsteps, Clement and Origen of Alexandria developed a Christian interpretation of contemplation. Clement seems to be the first Christian author to apply the word theoria to the contemplation of God. Origen, in turn, is the first to describe Christian perfection in terms of a union of love generated by the contemplation of God, which leads to the deification of the creature. From these great Alexandrians, the idea spread throughout patristic theology. There are, of course, distinct emphases in different thinkers. Basil the Great, for example, highlights the universality of the call to contemplation: it is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who has been given to all the baptized. More precisely, this knowledge of God (theognosia) is not merely a gift of the Spirit, but a gift in the Spirit, which means that it always has a trinitarian imprint and dynamic. 

In the writings of Gregory of Nyssa, the notion of theoria becomes central to all human thought, not reducible to mysticism or the hidden meaning of Scripture. Generally, theoria is used to indicate (in Daniélou’s words) “the activity of the spirit that knows the intelligible reality of things without stopping at their sensible appearance.” [4] But Gregory employs the notion in a three-fold manner, encompassing the activities of the scientific study of the cosmos (the search for the laws of material reality), the exegetical scrutiny of the Scriptures (including both the literal sense and typology or allegory), and spiritual contemplation. Overall, we may argue that in the Fathers, contemplation refers to a type of knowledge that is not so much about information as about transformation. Here, the performative dimension of the divine Logos is the transformation of the receiver. This is a frequent biblical theme: “All of us, gazing [or contemplating as in a mirror] with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2Corinthians 3:18). 

With these preliminaries, we can grasp the patristic notion of the contemplation of nature or natural contemplation (physike theoria). According to Lemaitre, the principal object of physike theoria in the Greek Fathers is none other than the logoi of created things. Natural contemplation is concerned not with aesthetics in the modern sense, but with the underlying noeticdimension of being. The intrinsic connection between the created logoi and the divine Logos, moreover, is the reason why the Fathers see the contemplation of nature as forming part of a path of spiritual progress and sanctification as well as of the knowledge of God. Basil, who held that all the Christians are called to divine contemplation, also exhorted the listeners of his influential Genesis homilies to advance in contemplation, not only through prayer and the meditation on the Scriptures, but also through the works of creation. He argued that Moses during his exile from Egypt (Exodus 2:15) lived in Ethiopia, passing forty years “in the contemplation of creation” ; this was a preparation for the special gift whereby at eighty years of age he “saw God as far as it is possible for man to see Him”, receiving a face-to-face vision of God like the angels.[5] Basil’s broader thesis is that, having been created by the divine Logos, the visible realities are a school and a college for rational (“logical”) souls and a path to “the contemplation of invisible things.” [6] The educational metaphors of school and college, probably influenced by Clement, capture the idea that the contemplation of nature is not the highest level attainable, yet it is an important aid for those who are beginning their path in their knowledge and contemplation of God.

A further development is the patristic vision of the path of perfection, systematized by Evagrius Ponticus in three parts: praxis (moral virtues, acting in accordance with the natural law), theoria physike (contemplation of the logoi of created beings) and theologia (contemplation of the Trinity). Evagrius’ tripartite scheme and his doctrine of natural contemplation were widely shared throughout the patristic era and well into the Middle Ages, obviously with varying degrees of reinterpretation. In this framework, nature or creation is not limited to the discursive discovery of the existence of God from his works; it becomes an inexhaustible source of wonder, of unlimited possibilities of discovery, just as the divine Logos is unlimited and cannot be contained by his works. 

[1] John Rist, “Il Logos Nella Tarda Antichità,” Acta Philosophica 23 (2014), 48.

[2] Blowers, Paul M., Drama of the Divine Economy: Creator and Creation in Early Christian Theology and Piety. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, 333.

[3]Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, ed. and trans. Nicholas Constas, vol. 1, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 28 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 107.

[4] Daniélou, L’être et le temps chez Grégoire de Nysse, Leiden: Brill, 1970, 1.

[5] Homiliae in Hexaemeron 1, 1 (GCS NF 2, 2–3). English citations according to Basil of Caesarea, Exegetic Homilies, trans. Agnes Clare Way, Fathers of the Church 46 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1963), 4.

[6] Homiliae in Hexaemeron 1, 6 (GCS NF 2, 11).

O. Juurikkala, The Patristic and Medieval Metaphor of the Book of Nature: Implications for Fundamental Theology, Ph.D. Thesis, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome 2020, pp. 32-47. The footnotes of the original text have been adapted for the finality of this excerpt.