The Tenth Book Discusses the Unattainable and Incomprehensible
character of the enquiry into entities. And herein he strikingly sets forth the points concerning the nature and formation of the ant, and the passage in the Gospel, "I am the door" and "the way," and also discusses the attribution and interpretation of the Divine names, and the episode of the children of Benjamin.

Let us, however, keep to our subject. A little further on he contends against those who acknowledge that human nature is too weak to conceive what cannot be grasped, and with lofty boasts enlarges on this topic on this wise, making light of our belief on the matter in these words: -- "For it by no means follows that, if some one's mind, blinded by malignity, and for that reason unable to see anything in front or above its head, is but moderately competent for the apprehension of truth, we ought on that ground to think that the discovery of reality is unattainable by the rest of mankind." But I should say to him that he who declares that the discovery of reality is attainable, has of course advanced his own intellect by some method and logical process through the knowledge of existent things, and after having been trained in matters that are comparatively small and easily grasped by way of apprehension, has, when thus prepared, flung his apprehensive fancy upon those objects which transcend all conception. Let, then, the man who boasts that he has attained the knowledge of real existence, interpret to us the real nature of the most trivial object that is before our eyes, that by what is knowable he may warrant our belief touching what is secret: let him explain by reason what is the nature of the ant, whether its life is held together by breath and respiration, whether it is regulated by vital organs like other animals, whether its body has a framework of bones, whether the hollows of the bones are filled with marrow, whether its joints are united by the tension of sinews and ligaments, whether the position of the sinews is maintained by enclosures of muscles and glands, whether the marrow extends along the vertebræ from the sinciput to the tail, whether it imparts to the limbs that are moved the power of motion by means of the enclosure of sinewy membrane; whether the creature has a liver, and in connection with the liver a gall-bladder; whether it has kidneys and heart, arteries and veins, membranes and diaphragm; whether it is externally smooth or covered with hair; whether it is distinguished by the division into male and female; in what part of its body is located the power of sight and hearing; whether it enjoys the sense of smell; whether its feet are undivided or articulated; how long it lives; what is the method in which they derive generation one from another, and what is the period of gestation; how it is that all ants do not crawl, nor are all winged, but some belong to the creatures that move along the ground, while others are borne aloft in the air. Let him, then, who boasts that he has grasped the knowledge of real existence, disclose to us awhile the nature of the ant, and then, and not till then, let him discourse on the nature of the power that surpasses all understanding. But if he has not yet ascertained by his knowledge the nature of the tiny ant, how comes he to vaunt that by the apprehension of reason he has grasped Him Who in Himself controls all creation, and to say that those who own in themselves the weakness of human nature, have the perceptions of their souls darkened, and can neither reach anything in front of them, nor anything above their head?

But now let us see what understanding he who has the knowledge of existent things possesses beyond the rest of the world. Let us listen to his arrogant utterance: -- "Surely it would have been idle for the Lord to call Himself the door,' if there were none to pass through to the understanding and contemplation of the Father, and it would have been idle for Him to call Himself the way,' if He gave no facility to those who wish to come to the Father. And how could He be a light, without lightening men, without illuminating the eye of their soul to understand both Himself and the transcendent Light?" Well, if he were here enumerating some arguments from his own head, that evade the understanding of the hearers by their subtlety, there would perhaps be a possibility of being deceived by the ingenuity of the argument, as his underlying thought frequently escapes the reader's notice. But since he alleges the Divine words, of course no one blames those who believe that their inspired teaching is the common property of all. "Since then," he says, "the Lord was named a door,' it follows from hence that the essence of God may be comprehended by man." But the Gospel does not admit of this meaning. Let us hear the Divine utterance itself. "I am the door," Christ says; "by Me if any man enter in he shall be saved, and shall go in and out and find pasture [926] ." Which then of these is the knowledge of the essence? For as several things are here said, and each of them has its own special meaning, it is impossible to refer them all to the idea of the essence, lest the Deity should be thought to be compounded of different elements; and yet it is not easy to find which of the phrases just quoted can most properly be applied to that subject. The Lord is "the door," "By Me," He says, "if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out and shall find pasture." Are we to say [927] "entrance" of which he speaks in place of the essence of God, or "salvation" of those that enter in, or "going out," or "pasture," or "finding"? -- for each of these is peculiar in its significance, and does not agree in meaning with the rest. For to get within appears obviously contrary to "going out," and so with the other phrases. For "pasture," in its proper meaning, is one thing, and "finding" another thing distinct from it. Which, then, of these is the essence of the Father supposed to be? For assuredly one cannot, by uttering all these phrases that disagree one with another in signification, intend to indicate by incompatible terms that Essence which is simple and uncompounded. And how can the word hold good, "No man hath seen God at any time [928] " and, "Whom no man hath seen nor can see [929] " and, "There shall no man see the face of the Lord and live [930] " if to be inside the door, or outside, or the finding pasture, denote the essence of the Father? For truly He is at the same time a "door of encompassing [931] " and a "house of defence [932] " as David calls Him, and through Himself He receives them that enter, and in Himself He saves those who have come within, and again by Himself He leads them forth to the pasture of virtues, and becomes all things to them that are in the way of salvation, that so He may make Himself that which the needs of each demand, -- both way, and guide, and "door of encompassing," and "house of defence," and "water of comfort [933] " and "green pasture [934] " which in the Gospel He calls "pasture": but our new divine says that the Lord has been called "the door" because of the knowledge of the essence of the Father. Why then does he not force into the same significance the titles, "Rock," and "Stone," and "Fountain," and "Tree," and the rest, that so he might obtain evidence for his own theory by the multitude of strange testimonies, as he is well able to apply to each of these the same account which he has given of the Way, the Door, and the Light? But, as I am so taught by the inspired Scripture, I boldly affirm that He Who is above every name has for us many names, receiving them in accordance with the variety of His gracious dealings with us [935] , being called the Light when He disperses the gloom of ignorance, and the Life when He grants the boon of immortality, and the Way when He guides us from error to the truth; so also He is termed a "tower of strength [936] ," and a "city of encompassing [937] ," and a fountain, and a rock, and a vine, and a physician, and resurrection, and all the like, with reference to us, imparting Himself under various aspects by virtue of His benefits to us-ward. But those who are keen-sighted beyond human power, who see the incomprehensible, but overlook what may be comprehended, when they use such titles to expound the essences, are positive that they not only see, but measure Him Whom no man hath seen nor can see, but do not with the eye of their soul discern the Faith, which is the only thing within the compass of our observation, valuing before this the knowledge which they obtain from ratiocination. Just so I have heard the sacred record laying blame upon the sons of Benjamin who did not regard the law, but could shoot within a hair's breadth [938] , wherein, methinks, the word exhibited their eager pursuit of an idle object, that they were far-darting and dexterous aimers at things that were useless and unsubstantial, but ignorant and regardless of what was manifestly for their benefit. For after what I have quoted, the history goes on to relate what befel them, how, when they had run madly after the iniquity of Sodom, and the people of Israel had taken up arms against them in full force, they were utterly destroyed. And it seems to me to be a kindly thought to warn young archers not to wish to shoot within a hair's-breadth, while they have no eyes for the door of the faith, but rather to drop their idle labour about the incomprehensible, and not to lose the gain that is ready to their hand, which is found by faith alone.


[926] S. John 10:9

[927] Reading eipomen, for which Oehler's text substitutes eipomen

[928] S. John 1:18

[929] 1 Timothy 6:16.

[930] Cf. Exodus 33:20.

[931] Psalm 141:3 (LXX.).

[932] Psalm 31:3.

[933] Psalm 23:2.

[934] Psalm 23:2.

[935] This point has been already discussed by S. Gregory in the second and third books. See above. pp. 119, 149. It is also dealt with in the short treatise "On the Faith," addressed to Simplicius, which will be found in this volume.

[936] Psalm 61:3.

[937] Psalm 31:21 (LXX.).

[938] Cf. Judges 20:16.

section 4 then having shown
Top of Page
Top of Page