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Preliminary Remarks on the Analysis of Internal Evidence in Basil Letter 8 for Evagrian Authorship and Dating, with reference to the Theological Orations of St Gregory the Theologian


Let us look more carefully at the use by Evagrius of epinoia.[1]

In his introduction to his critical edition of Scholia on Proverbs, M. Paul Géhin discusses Evagrius’ use of epinoia.[2] In brief, M. Géhin states that the epinoiai[3] are the titles of the Christ in the various aspects of the economy (dispensation) of salvation. In this, says M. Géhin, Evagrius is closely following Origen, who introduced this sense of the term, especially collecting the various such titles of Christ in the beginning of his commentaries on the Gospel of John. However, it should be noted that M. Gallay, the editor of the Theological Orations, remarks that there was a very old tradition in the Church of collections of the names or titles of Christ.[4] Hence, without diminishing the role of Origen in the present case, it is not merely a matter of Origen’s personal approach.

A good example of this approach can, we think, be found in the Kephalaia Gnostica:

KG VI, 20 Before the Movement, God [sc. the Father] was good, powerful, wise, Creator of incorporeals, Father of the logikoi, and omnipotent; after the Movement, he became Creator of bodies, Judge, Governor, Doctor, Pastor, Merciful and Long-Suffering, and even Door, Way, Lamb, High Priest, along with the other names which are said by modes. And he is Father and Principle even before the genesis of incorporeals: Father of Christ and Principle of the Holy Spirit.[5]

Some remarks here: First, in this passage of the Kephalaia Gnostica, it is God the Father, and not the Christ, who is the subject of the epinoiai: after the Movement, God the Father acts through the Christ, yes, but it is God the Father who is acting. Of course, in the Kephalaia Gnostica, before the Movement, God the Father acts by himself in creating the rational beings.

Next, what comes through even in M. Géhin’s analysis[6] is that for Evagrius the epinoiai are modes of relationship to the rational beings, or in general to the Creation, by the Christ (or God the Father through the Christ). While we did not have this discussion in mind when we originally translated KG VI, 20, we think that this is the significance of the phrase we translated ‘which are said by modes’. In the Kephalaia Gnostica, the word which has come down to us in English translation as ‘mode’ seems to denote a contingent relationship of God with his creature.[7] So, to summarize, here we see that the epinoiai are contingent modes of relationship of God the Father with his creature, in particular his rational creature, perhaps through the Christ.

Let us now look at all the actual instances of epinoia in the work of Evagrius.

Let us first take ‘names’ in KG VI, 20 as a presumptive translation of the Greek epinoiai, although it might be thought that the underlying Greek word would have been onoma (name). We have already discussed this passage above.

Let us now take scholium 210 on Proverb 20, 9a:

Christ is able notionally (kat’ epinoian) to be both father and mother: on the one hand, father of those who have a spirit of adoption; on the other hand, mother of those who need milk and not solid food. For also the Christ who spoke in Paul became a father of the Ephesians, revealing to them mysteries of wisdom, but a mother of the Corinthians, giving them milk to drink.[8]

We can see two things here: First of all, the use of the bare noun epinoia has given way to an adverbial construction kat’ epinoian. Second, the meaning of epinoia in the passage continues to be a contingent relationship of the Christ[9] to the rational creature. Here, the Christ (acting through Paul) contingently becomes a father or mother depending on the spiritual condition of the Christian.

Let us now take scholium 9 on Psalm 106, 20:

He sent his Word and healed them. The Word healed them according to the notion (kata ten epinoian) of doctor.[10]

This is the same usage as in the previous example, except that here the Christ acts directly.

Let us now take scholium 13 on Psalm 138, 28:

Try me, O God, and know my heart, etc. If God is a consuming fire, manifestly he tries the souls of men by means of the notion (dia tes epinoias) of fire.[11]

We now have an instrumental construction using epinoia: dia tes epinoias. This has largely the same sense as what we have already seen: a contingent relationship of God with his creature,[12] but here as something by means of which God relates to his rational creature.

There is a sense here in which the rational creature experiences God as fire: epinoia here has a sense similar to Evagrius’ use of noema (mental representation) in his discussions of contemplation.[13] In Evagrian contemplation, the noema is not merely a subjective concept, state or feeling that the contemplator experiences, but an ontological reality: the noema bears into the contemplator’s mind the spiritual knowledge (gnosis) granted by the contemplation. This spiritual knowledge (gnosis) borne into the mind by the noema has an objective character, albeit partial:[14] it is only the false spiritual knowledge conferred by the demons that is illusory and not objectively real. Hence, by analogy, we here see a relationship of God to his rational creature where contingently but in an ultimately objective way the rational creature experiences God as fire. Moreover, given the construction that Evagrius uses, he here seems to be implying that God elects to have the rational creature experience God as fire. By God’s choice, the rational creature experiences God as fire in an objective sense, yes, but also in a subjective sense: the rational creature feels himself to be in the midst of fire, just as Shakespeare has Lear say:

You do me wrong to take me out o' the grave:
Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound

Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears

Do scald like moulten lead.

From the Evagrian point of view, the experience of God as fire is much more than a metaphor for personal anguish: God presents himself to the rational soul by means of the objective, experiential concept of fire. This is a modal relation of God to his rational creature.

It is much the same with the following: we can pray to be increased in the fear of God and God might hear our prayer, so much so that we begin to experience an unbearable fear and have to ask God to take away an experience that we cannot bear. This is much more than mere suggestibility and gullibility: God has heard our prayer and ‘projected’ himself to us in such a way that we experience an overwhelming fear. Evagrius, it seems, would have called this the epinoia of fear, or, more precisely, the epinoia of the fearfulness of God. Is not God called ‘Fear’ in the Old Testament? It is in this sense that Evagrius uses epinoia here.

Whatever Shakespeare himself might have thought about Lear’s experience of fire—whether he would view it as we would today, as something subjective and ‘psychological’; or whether he would view it as a modal way of God’s relating to Lear’s spirit—, from an Evagrian point of view these things are much more than mere metaphors for subjective psychological conditions: in the example of fear just given, God is presenting himself contingently to his rational creature in a personal relationship in such a way that his rational creature experiences an overwhelming fear.

In regard to the connection between epinoia and noema, it should be realized that the basic meaning of epinoia is ‘notion’ or ‘conception’.[16] Hence, clearly, epinoia is etymologically related to noema. That is why we have translated kat’ epinoian as ‘notionally’ and ‘dia tes epinoias’ as ‘by means of the notion’. Epinoia is a notion that has both a subjective and an objective character. This is quite different from modern ontologies. Epinoia is an objective, experiential notion or conception that God uses contingently in relating to his creature—in the cases studied, his rational creature.

Let us now take scholium 4 on Psalm 135, 23:

For he has remembered us in our lowliness, etc. On the one hand, when the Lord remembers us at a time when we are impure, he remembers us according to the notion (kata ten epinoian) of righteousness; when, on the other hand, he remembers us when we are pure, he remembers us according to the notion (kata ten epinoian) of wisdom; except that this must be known, just that these notions (epinoiai) are categorized according to the contemplation of things which have come to be [i.e. natural contemplation], which presents the Christ as creator.[17]

We now see that the contingent relationship of God with the rational creature expressed not through personal titles of the Christ, or even through concrete nouns such as ‘fire’, but through abstract nouns such as ‘justice’ and ‘wisdom’. Moreover, Evagrius here gives us some indication how he understands these epinoiai: they are modes of relationship of God to the rational creature through the Christ according to the spiritual state of the rational creature. We see that the mode of relationship can vary from personal titles of Christ to abstract nouns. Evagrius is saying that to the sinner God presents himself through the Christ as justice, but to the pure he presents himself through the Christ as wisdom. Evagrius goes on to integrate this understanding of epinoia into his doctrine of the stages of mystical ascent: both the epinoia of justice and the epinoia of wisdom correspond to Christ as creator, which, it is clear from the Kephalaia Gnostica, is the realm of natural contemplation, though here Evagrius also includes praktiki.

We can see this same thing in the next passage, scholium 3 on Psalm 105, 5:

To be praised with your inheritance. He is praiseworthy who inherits the nature of God. ‘In the Lord will my soul be praised,’ that is to say, in justice and in wisdom and in knowledge (gnosis) and in spiritual love (agape): these things are named according to our (emon kat’ ).[18]

Let us now turn to the text that we are considering, Basil Letter 8. Let us first take the one use of epinoia in the Letter which is not in Passage A:

Again, through the wise Solomon in Proverbs he is created. For he says: ‘The Lord created me.’ And the beginning of evangelical ways he is named, those ways which lead us towards the Kingdom of the Heavens, not a creation according to substance but having become a way according to the economy [of salvation]. For the ‘to have become’ and ‘to have been created’ declare the same thing. For as he has become ‘way’ [he has] also [become] ‘door’ and ‘shepherd’ and ‘messenger (aggelos)’, and ‘sheep’, and again ‘High Priest’ and ‘Apostle’; other things according to the other notions (kat’ allen epinoian) of the names laid down.[19]

This brings us back to KG VI, 20 and to Origen. We have wanted to treat this passage of Basil Letter 8 as a return to Layer 2 in the Letter, as a return to a straightforward scriptural exegesis. But here we see that the author is using a concept that Evagrius uses in his maturity, a concept taken from Origen. The question then arises—did the author, Evagrius, learn this from St Gregory in Constantinople, or even from St Basil in Cappadocia? Or have we erred in assigning this passage to Layer 2? Or is there here an interpolation in the return to Layer 2?

One issue here, given that Evagrius’ initial exposure to Origen would have been through St Basil the Great and St Gregory the Theologian, is whether he would have learned from them this Origenist concept of the epinoiai of Christ before he left Constantinople for Egypt, perhaps even in Cappadocia before he even came to Constantinople. Making a judgement about this would require research into the Philokalia, the anthology of Origen’s texts that Basil and Gregory compiled, together with a thorough familiarity with their Christological writings, so as to determine whether they themselves use the concept or anthologize it anywhere.

However, as a beginning, we can reflect on the use of epinoia in the Theological Orations.

We have found at least three instances of epinoia in the Theological Orations. Two instances are quite pedestrian uses of its basic meaning, ‘notion’ or ‘conception’. However, the third instance is really quite useful here:

8 He might be called ‘God’ not of the Word but of that which is seen. For how could he be ‘God’ of what is properly God? Just as also ‘Father’ is not of that which is seen, but of the Word. For he [sc. Jesus Christ] was also double, so that the one thing is said properly of both, the other improperly—the opposite of that which occurs with us. For God is properly our God, improperly [our] Father. And this is what produces the delusion of the heretics: the joining of the names (onomata), the names (onomata) being changed on account of the mixture. A sign, then: Whenever the natures stand apart in the conceptions (epinoiai), the names (onomata) are also divided. Listen while Paul speaks: ‘So that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory.’ The God of Christ but the Father of Glory. For if both together are one,[20] yet they are not so in nature but in their conjunction. What could be clearer?[21]

Epinoia does seem to make sense here as meaning ‘title’, although it would be just as reasonable to restrict the word’s meaning here to ‘conception’, as the French translator does and as we ourselves have rendered the word above. In this passage, St Gregory distinguishes epinoia from onoma (name). The onomata involved are ‘God’ and ‘Father’ and the epinoiai seem to be the conceptual clusters in the quotation from St Paul which contain these onomata.

As we have concluded, St Gregory spoke the Orations a year after Basil Letter 8 would have been written by Evagrius. Even if we are wrong, still the dates of composition would be close. It seems clear to us that Evagrius and St Gregory might very well have used the word epinoia in their discussions and that they each use the term in much the same way. So we can conclude that there is nothing extraordinary about the use of the term in the passage of Letter 8 here under discussion.

Let us now look at the usages of epinoia in Passage A, the remaining 4 usages in the Evagrian corpus.

The holy disciples of our Saviour, coming beyond contemplation as it is possible to men, and having been purified by the word, seek the end, and desire to know the final blessedness, of which very thing our Lord declared both the angels and himself to be ignorant. On the one hand, he called ‘day’ the exact apprehension of the conceptions (epinoiai) of God; on the other hand, ‘hour’ the contemplation of the Monad and Unity, the notification of which things he granted only to the Father.[22]

Here we see a completely different use of epinoiai. Here epinoiai seems to have the sense of the reasons or essences (logoi) which God has implanted in Creation as the essences of created objects. We have come to this conclusion about the meaning of epinoiai in this passage on account of the analogy between the exact apprehension of the epinoiai of God, and natural contemplation, which is defined by Evagrius precisely as the contemplation of the reasons or essences (logoi) of created things, just as Passage A itself develops a little further on. This analogy is so strong that we wonder if there is perhaps not a copyist’s error here. To suggest that what the author means here is that the preliminary stage of contemplation is the exact apprehension of the conceptions of God in his contingent relationships with his creatures both rational and otherwise is to advance an interpretation that is not, as far we are aware of, to be found elsewhere in the works of Evagrius. Neither is it to be found in the Theological Orations.

Let us take the next use:

If, therefore, whatever God is, is said to be known by God of himself and that which he is not, not to be known—then our Lord, according to the notion (kata ten … epinoian) of the Incarnation and the grosser teaching, is not the final object of desire; and therefore our Saviour did not know the end and the final blessedness.[23]

Here, it is clear that we cannot impose on epinoia the model of the ‘title’ of Christ or God; or the mode of relationship of God with his rational creature perhaps through Christ or through a concrete or abstract concept. Here, the proper interpretation of epinoia is the basic meaning given in Liddell-Scott: ‘notion’. What the author here seems to mean is that ‘from the point of view’ of the ‘Incarnation and the grosser teaching’, our Saviour—i.e. the Christ as understood by the author—is not the final object of desire.

Before we continue, let us introduce the corresponding passage, a little further on in Passage A:

For they say that the Kingdom of Christ is all the knowledge (gnosis) that is implicated in material [objects] and that the Kingdom of the God and Father is the immaterial contemplation, and, as one might say, the contemplation of the very Divinity. [23] Our Lord, however, is himself the end and final blessedness according to the notion (kata ten epinoian) of the Word.[24]

First of all, here we see the analogous passage which led us to interpret ‘the exact apprehension of the conceptions (epinoiai) of God’ as natural contemplation: this is ‘all the knowledge (gnosis) implicated in material objects’, the Kingdom of Christ.

To continue with the matter at hand, we see that just as the author has earlier written ‘according to the notion of the Incarnation and the grosser teaching’, here he has written ‘according to the notion of the Word’. What he seems to be saying is this: When the Christ is considered from the point of view of the Incarnation and the ‘grosser teaching’, then he is not the final object of desire. When, however, the Christ is considered from the point of view of the Word, then he is the final object of desire.

Let us take the next passage:

it understands the operations (energeies) of the Creator, and in the beginning it understands these from the results (apotelesmata), so that, thus having increased little by little, it might have the strength at some time to advance even to the naked Divinity itself. [24] I think that the following has been said according to this conception (kata tauten … ten epinoian): ‘My Father is greater than I’, and ‘It is not mine to give but to those for whom it is prepared by the Father.’[25]

The author is here saying something like this: ‘The Kingdom of Christ is natural contemplation. The Kingdom of God is the contemplation of God. In the sense that natural contemplation is less than the contemplation of God, the Christ says: “My Father is greater than I.”’

It is clear that the author is here using epinoia in its classical sense of ‘notion’.

We can see that in Passage A, the author does not use epinoia in the sense that we started with, the sense taken from Origen: the titles of Christ in the economy of salvation. Although he does use epinoia to refer to the Christ as seen from the point of view of the Incarnation and the grosser teaching, and from the point of view of the Word, there is a subtle difference in these uses of epinoia. Moreover, the author of Passage A does not use the word in any of Evagrius’ other late senses, of the modes of relation of God to his creature. But immediately after Passage A, the author does use the word in a clearly Origenist sense used by the late Evagrius.

What are we to make of this—given that five of the 12 uses of the word epinoia in the works ascribed to Evagrius are to be found in Basil Letter 8?

The first remark is that M. Géhin’s analysis of the Evagrian meaning of epinoia is incomplete.

Next, epinoia is used five times in Basil Letter 8. By contrast, St Gregory uses the word three times in the much longer Theological Orations.

Next, epinoia is not used again by Evagrius until two very late works, his Scholia on Proverbs and Scholia on Psalms. This gives a very unusual distribution of the word in his works, even with some allowance being given for those works for which we do not have all of the original Greek.

While we have not been able to come up with unequivocal conclusions concerning what the uses of epinoia demonstrate concerning the Evagrian provenance of Basil Letter 8, it is clear that there are possible some questions about the stylistic consistency of the Letter with other known works of Evagrius.

[1] We are indebted to Dr Andrew Faulkner of Austin, Texas for his assistance in analyzing the meaning of epinoia.

[2] SC 340 p. 51 – 52.

[3] Plural of epinoia.

[4] SC 250 p. 212 – 13, fn. 1.

[5] Our translation from the French of Guillaumont. See Constantine KG VIa.

[6] Loc. cit.

[7] Of course, we also see in KG VI, 20 a reference to God the Father as ‘Father of Christ and Principle of the Holy Spirit’ and we would not want to suggest on the basis of Evagrius’ use of ‘mode’ here that he is advocating a modalistic Trinitarian theology. We do not think that his Trinitarian theology is modalistic, whatever other problems it might or might not have.

[8] SC 340 p. 306. Δύναται ατς Χριστς κατ’ πίνοιαν κα πατρ ιναι κα μήτηρ· πατρ μν τν πνεμα χόντων υοθεθεσίας, μήτηρ δ τν δεομένων γάλακτος κα ο στερες τροφς. Κα γρ ν Παύλ λαλν Χριστς πατρ μν τών φεσίων γίνετο, σοφίας ατος ποκαλύπτων μυστήρια, μήτηρ δ Κορινθίων, γάλα ποτίζων ατούς.

[9] And, implicitly, God the Father acting through the Christ.

[10] Pitra Analecta Sacra Vol. 3, scholium 9 on Psalm 106, 20.

[11] Migne 12 Col. 1664 A. ‘Origen’ Selecta in Psalmos Psalm 138, verse 28. Δοκίμασόν με, Θεός, κα γνθι τν καρδίαν μου, κ. τ. . Ε Θεός πρ καταναλίσκον στ, δι τς πίνοιας δηλονότι το πυρς δοκιμάζει τς ψυχς τν ανθρώπων.

[12] Not necessarily the sinner as M. Géhin seems to imply in his discussion: even the just man is tried by fire.

[13] See Peri Logismon.

[14] Consider Gnostic 40: Take care to the fact that, for each created thing, there is not just one reason, but a great number, and according to the measure of each person. The holy powers alone attain to the true reasons of objects, but not the first, that which is known only by the Christ.

[15] Shakespeare, King Lear, Act IV, Scene VII.

[16] See Liddell-Scott.

[17] Migne 12 ‘Origen’ Selecta in Psalmos Col. 1657A-B. Psalm 135, verse 23: τι ν τ ταπεινώσει μν μνήσθη μν, κ. τ. . ταν μν ς καθάρτων μν μνημονεύει μν Κύριος κατά την πίνοιαν τς δικαιοσύνης μν μνημονεύει· ταν δ πάλιν ς καθαρν, κατ τν πίνοιαν τς σοφίας· πλν, τοτο στέον, τιπερ αται α πίνοιαι κατ τς τν γεγονότων θεωρίας κατηγορονται, τις ς δημουργν παρίστησι τν Χριστόν.

[18] Pitra Analecta Sacra Vol. 3, scholium 3 on Psalm 105, 5. Note that Géhin has evidently emended Pitra’s kat’ epainon to kat’ epinoian.

[19] Col. 260C (¶ 8, l. 4). Πάλιν δι το σοφο Σολομντος έν Παροιμίαις κτισται. Κύριος γρ φησν κτισέ με. Κα ρχ δν εαγγελικν νομάζεται, γουσν μς πρς τν βασιλείαν τν ορανν, ο κατ’ οσίαν κτίσις λλ κατ τν οκονομίαν δός γεγονώς. Τ γρ γεγονέναι κα τ κτίσθαι, ταυτόν δηλο. ς γρ δός γέγονε κα θύρα κα ποιμήν κα γγελος, κα πρόβατον, κα πάλιν ρχιερες κα πόστολος· λλων κατ’ λλην πίνοιαν τν νομάτων κειμένων.

[20] I.e. the divinity and humanity of Christ.

[21] SC 250 Oration 30 (= Theological Oration 4), 8 pp. 240 – 42.

[22] Migne 32 col. 256C (Letter 8, ¶ 7, l. 7). Οί γιοι μαθητα το Σωτρος μν πένεικα θεωρίας, ς νι νθρώπους, λθόντες, κα καθαρθέντες π το λόγου, τ τέλος πιζητοσι, κα τν σχτην μακαριότητα γνναι ποθοσιν, περ γνοεν κα τος γγέλους ατο κα ατόν Κύριος μν πεφήνατο· μέραν μν λέγων πσαν τν κριβ κατάληψιν τν πινοιν το Θεο· ραν δ τν νάδος κα μονάδος θεωρίαν, ν τν εδησιν μόν προσένεμε τ Πατρί.

[23] Migne 32 col. 256C Col. 257A (¶ 7, l. 16). Ε τοίνυν κενο λέγεται περ αυτο εδέναι Θεός περ στί, κκενο μ ιδέναι περ οκ στιν, οκ στι δ Κύριος μν κατ τν τς νανθρωπήσεως πίνοιαν, κα παχυτέραν διδασκαλίαν, τ σχατον ρεκτόν· οκ ρα οδεν Σωτρ μν τ τέλος κα τν σχάτην μακάριοτητα.

[24] Migne 32 col. 256C Col. 257B (¶ 7, l. 30). Χριστο γρ βασιλείαν φασν εναι πσαν τν νυλον γνσιν· το δ Θεο και Πατρός τν ϋλον, κα ς ν εποι τίς, ατς τς θεότητος θεωρίαν. στι δ κα Κύριος μν κα ατός τ τέλος, κα σχάτη μακαριότης, κατ τν το Λόγου πίνοιαν.

[25] Migne 32 Col. 257C (¶ 7, l. 44). …τς νεργείες το κτίστου κατανοε, κα τατα κ τν αποτελεσμάτων τέως πιγινώσκει, ν’ οτω κατ μικρν αξηθες σχύσ ποτ κα ατ γυμν προσελθεν τ θεότητι. Κατ ταύτην δ ομαι τν πίνοιαν ερσθαι κα τ Πατήρ μου μείζων μου στί, κα τ υκ στιν μν δοναι λλ’ ος τοίμασται π το Πατρός.