Serapion

October 8, 2007 | 10 comments
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If you listened to conference, you heard his words. He is the fourth-century monk, referenced by Elder Holland. (His name is sometimes spelled Sarapion).

Stephen Robinson discusses the quote used by Elder Holland:

In 399, when a letter from Theophilus, the bishop of Alexandria, insisted that the biblical description of God was only allegorical and that the monks must not attribute to God any anthropomorphic characteristics, one Sarapion, an elderly monk of great reputation, found himself unable to pray to the new God, this God of the philosophers, at all. Falling on the ground he groaned: “Woe is me! They have taken my God away from me, and I have none to grasp, and I know not whom to adore or to address.”

Further discussion of that event is found in David Paulsen’s article on Divine Embodiment in BYU Studies 35:4 (1996), on p77. It is available in PDF at the BYU Studies website. (Thanks, Ben H., for the tip). [warning: Really big file].

Paulsen notes:

Cassian chronicled the particular struggles of one monk, Serapion, in accepting the view that God is not embodied. According to Cassian, Serapion had long lived a life of austerity and monastic
discipline that coupled with his age had brought him into the front ranks of the monks. Despite the persistent efforts of Paphnutis to dissuade him, Serapion had held fast to his belief that God
is embodied.

The concept [of a nonembodied God] seemed newfangled to him. It was something unknown to his predecessors and not taught by them.

By chance a deacon named Photinous came along. He was a very well versed man . . . [I]n order to add strength to the doctrine, contained in the bishops letter he brought Photinous into a gathering of all the brethren. He asked him how the Catholic churches of the East interpreted the words in Genesis, “Let us make man in our own image and likeness.” (Gn. 1.26).

Photinous explained how all the leaders of the churches were unanimous in teaching that the image and likeness of God should be understood not in an earthly literal sense but spiritually. He himself demonstrated the truth of this in a lengthy discourse and with abundant scriptural evidence . . .

At last the old man was moved by the many very powerful arguments of this extremely learned man. We stood up to bless the Lord and to pour out our prayers of thanks to Him. And then
amid these prayers the old man became confused, for he sensed that the human image of God which he used to draw before him as he prayed was now gone from his heart. Suddenly he gave way to the bitterest, most abundant tears and sobs. He threw himself on the ground and cried out, “Ah, the misfortune! They’ve taken my God away from me! I have no one to hold on to and I don’t know whom to adore or to address.”

(Quoting Colm Lubheid, trans., _John Cassian: Conferences_ (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 125-6.)

Interestingly, Wikipedia points to a Serapion from that same time period as bishop of Thmuis, a somewhat important player in the Arianism/Athanasianism conflict, and author of an important book of prayers. I’m not sure if it’s the same Serapion. (Does anyone know? Lynnette? One of the FPRers?)

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10 Responses to Serapion

  1. Steve Evans on October 8, 2007 at 4:57 pm

    A good question is whether Elder Holland was using Stephen Robinson as his source. It seems unlikely to me that he found Serapion on his own, although Elder Holland is pretty darned brilliant.

  2. Kaimi Wenger on October 8, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    Good question, Steve.

    It might come from the Paulsen, too. Elder Holland may well read BYU Studies. Presumably, it’s from one of the two. (Though perhaps this been discussed in another LDS context — a book from Deseret, maybe?)

  3. Ben H on October 8, 2007 at 5:52 pm

    I would think it would be a matter of course for Elder Holland to refer to a few scholarly sources on this in the course of putting together his remarks. Robinson and Paulsen would be natural choices. He might also have looked at some of Dan Peterson’s work on this topic. I hope he didn’t look at mine, though! (my Element article) because if so, he’s saying I’m wrong . . .

  4. Adam Greenwood on October 8, 2007 at 5:54 pm

    I hope he didn’t look at mine, though! (my Element article) because if so, he’s saying I’m wrong . . .

    Elaborate?

  5. Ben H on October 8, 2007 at 6:53 pm

    Well, in that article I offer an interpretation of “substance” according to which it would be appropriate for us to say the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one substance. This is not a notion of substance that shows up much in “traditional” Christian circles today or in the past several centuries. However, it is a notion of substance based on Aristotle and one that fits naturally with a social conception of the Trinity (which quite a few non-Mormons today embrace, as do Mormons David Paulsen and Blake Ostler). This conception of substance is not based on Aristotle’s physical and logical writings; rather, on his writings on ethics and friendship. Aristotle thinks people are defined by their actions (reminds of by their fruits shall ye know them? I am the true vine . . .). On this view, if the Three are one in action, they are one in being or substance. Elder Holland said Mormons reject the idea that the Three are one substance. But maybe with my unconventional notion of “substance”, he would let me squeak through : )

  6. Ben H on October 8, 2007 at 6:57 pm

    I put up a related post a while back.

  7. Jim F. on October 8, 2007 at 7:17 pm

    Ben, I’m not much of a metaphysician, but hasn’t Aristotle’s substance theory fared poorly in metaphysics? I understand that your argument is that a substance theory for human action is different than a substance theory for entities, but did Aristotle think them separable? Since substance theory seems to me the problem behind our arguments over the Nicean Creed, your approach is a very valuable one–assuming that you can make it fly. (J-L Marion has tried to do something like you do to rescue the doctrine of transubstantiation from Aristotelian physical substance theory, though he looks to Augustine rather than to Aristotle’s ethical theory–in God without Being.)

  8. Ben Huff on October 8, 2007 at 9:08 pm

    Jim, the hylomorphic theory from the Physics is the one people usually associate with Aristotle. I don’t think it has a lot of currency with contemporary metaphysicians, though I don’t know how much that tells us about whether it’s any good. Certainly something like Aristotle’s hylomorphism has influenced many discussions of transubstantiation and the Trinity to this day, but this is part of the problem Elder Holland is responding to: it’s not clear any more what it means to talk about essence and accidents in relation to transubstantiation or the divine persons.

    The view of substance I’m recommending is very different from this hylomorphism as it is usually understood. I think of it as a totally different view of substances, developed to account for the unique features of humans and other living things. Maybe the two are compatible, but the discussion of substance in Nicomachean Ethics and De Anima sounds completely different from the stuff in the Physics, and I treat them as two separate, different theories.

  9. Kevin Barney on October 8, 2007 at 9:14 pm

    When the text comes out, see whether Elder Holland used the word “elderly” or “old man” in introducing the quote. I recall that he said something like that. The former would point to Robinson as a likely secondary source, and the latter to Paulsen.

  10. Jonathan Green on October 9, 2007 at 3:21 am

    Here’s a link to another article from Paulsen on a similar topic that also appears to mention Serapion: David L. Paulsen, “Early Christian Belief in a Corporeal Deity: Origen and Augustine as Reluctant Witnesses,” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 83, No. 2 (Apr., 1990), pp. 105-116. Institutional access required.

    Cassian’s Conferences are available online (courtesy of the Benedictines). The relevant sections are 10.3 and 10.4. I would guess that the Serapion mentioned by Cassian is probably not identical to Serapion of Thmuis or any other famous Serapion. In the Conferences, he’s described as an old man of “ignorance and rustic simplicity” who had led a strict ascetic life. According to the 1911 Britannica cited by Wikipedia, Serapion of Thmuis was a bishop so known for his learning that he had the cognomen Scholasticus.

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