Sunday, January 24, 2010

Abdallah ibn al-Fadl's Kitab Bahjat al-Mu'min

Although almost none of his works have been edited and even fewer have been translated into English, the deacon Abdallah ibn al-Fadl al-Antaki is one of the most important Orthodox intellectual figures of the 11th century and was considered a saint by the 17th century Patriarch of Antioch Macarios ibn al-Za’im. Here is the introduction to him and an excerpt of one of his works, taken from Melkites by Fr. Ignatius Dick.

A deacon of the Church of Antioch in the eleventh century, versed in philosophy and patrology, Abdallah ibn al-Fadl left a considerable literary work. He translated into Arabic a substantial part of the works of the Greek Fathers (John Chrysostom, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximos the Confessor, Sophronios, John Damascene) and provided the Melkite Church with the scriptural versions used in the Liturgy. This translation became the basis of our modern editions. He also composed in Arabic personal works filled with the ideas of the Fathers and ancient philosophers. These works are mostly compilations and theological dissertations on specific questions. One of his principle works is Kitab Bahjat al-Mu’men, (Book of the Joy of the Faithful), dated by the author himself in 1052. It contains four parts divided in 365 questions and answers according to the days of the year, allowing the faithful to read one question a day. There are 100 questions on fundamental notions of philosophy and theology. 100 questions and answers are taken from a work attributed to Caesarios of Nazianzos, brother of Gregory of Nazianzos. One hundred deal with theological and exegetical subjects (82-91 on the Liturgy). The last sixty-five questions and responses handle exegesis of the Old and New Testaments. Here we give the translation of some passages of this unpublished work, according to manuscript 37 of the Greek Catholic Metropolis of Aleppo.

If someone says: How do we prove the oneness of God, may He be praised? Answer: Say that this is the unanimous agreement on this subject from all the nations, despite the variety of their confessions and the variety of their tendencies. The inhabitants of the world are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Manichaeans, philosophers, and idolaters. Without previous encounters or consultation, they unanimously assent to the unity of the substance of God. The Zoroastrians, Manichaeans, Bardesanites, and similar others admit two eternal principles, testifying that one is God and the other Satan. Despite their error and the aberration of their belief in the eternity the cursed one who is created, they believe in one God because they do not name another God, but Satan.
The philosophers maintain the oneness of God. In fact, Plato asserts that the form of all things was in the mind of the Giver like chiseled shapes in a seal, thus, referencing oneness. After speaking about the four elements in his book On the Sky and the World, Aristotle says, “We have to speak about the One who is the cause of all that is, for it is not fit, after having spoken about these things, to neglect to speak about the One who is the cause.” And shortly after that he says, “He is God the creator, good, organizer and savior of all, and the celestial bodies draw their power from him.” And in another one of his books titled On Generation and Corruption, after having said that the sun and the stars move and see all things, he asserts that over them, “There is another who leads them and is not at all influenced by another. He is always immutable and unchangeable and one in number.” He proves in speech 8 of The Natural Recital that he is immaterial. Pythagoras says that the principle of all numbers is unity; this is the indication that God, the most high, is one from all times. And he says, “As unity is indivisible, not formed of parts, and not preceded by another number but the number coming after it, similarly, it is with God the Creator.”
When it comes to idolaters, although they name their idols “gods,” they assert over them that there is an ancient god that has no one above him. Certain theologians said that one could not conceive two without the existence of one. And one cannot conceive one without the existence of two. The same way, if you have a servant, you can have two, and if you have two, there must be one, and one is previous and the two are composed from him. This shows that the Creator is one and is eternal. This is a sufficient response for those that are intelligent, grace be to God. And blessed John Damascene, the doctor, priest and Chrysorroas says, “It is completely impossible that two principles without beginning exist because by nature one is the principle of all duality.” (Part one, question four.)

If someone asks: What the word gospel means, why do you call the book that speaks about Jesus Christ, “gospel”? Answer: Say that the word gospel is a Greek word that in Arabic means bishara or good news, for it announces to us the birth of Jesus Christ from the Virgin Mary, the salvation that we obtained by faith in Him, and the end of unbelief and idolatry. It announces to us the deliverance from slavery of Satan and of enslavement to original sin, meaning the sin of Adam, the first ancestor. It also announces to us the entrance into the Kingdom if we follow the faith with good deeds. This is why it is called gospel, that is, good news. (Part three, question one.)

If someone says: What does the Gospel mean to us? Answer: Say that it means for us the presence of the Word of God who appeared in it. He did not talk to us in the cloud and the trumpet as He spoke to Moses in the cloud, the lightening, and the sounds of the trumpets with uproar, obscurity, and fire on the mountain, or as He spoke to the prophets on future subjects in their dreams. Rather He appeared in the clarity of a true man. (Part three, question two.)

To one who says, does it make sense that Christians say, God the Most High is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and believe in three gods? Answer: Say, the Christians do not believe in three gods. But, they believe that God the Most High, is one in His essence and triune in his attributes. His essence does not resemble the other essences and His attributes do not resemble the other attributes. And they say that he is reasonable and possesses a Word. And the Word is the Son. They also say that He is living and His life is the Holy Spirit. And they believe that these three attributes are one nature, one substance, one Lord, and one indivisible Creator in His essence and not split in His entity. He is three, undivided hypostases in their nature and their substance. The Father is qualified as reasonably living and the incarnate Son is the substantial word of God and the Holy Spirit is His eternal life. And they say that the Father is the principle of the Son and the Holy Spirit and that the Son and the Holy Spirit are His principles and that the three of them are one, eternal, and immortal God. (Part three, question four.)

If someone says: How could the incarnation of God the Word Happen in accordance with sound reason? Answer: Say: one of the basic principles asserts that the most generous donor is the one who gives the best realities. The other thesis says that the creator, praised and extolled, is the best and most generous donor. The deduction from these two theses is that God, may He be praised, gives us the best realities. If we add to this conclusion another basic principle, namely that the essence of the blessed Creator is the best reality, by association of the two theses, it follows that God who gives the best reality consequently gives his own essence. And this is convincing to show the necessity of the incarnation. (Part three, question six.)


Pintradex said...

Thank you for your efforts, Samn.

Collator said...

Not to put a damper on the fine work of Abdallah Ibn al-Fadl, but some of his formulations seem strange. For example, the characterization of the three hypostases of the Trinity as three "attributes." From my limited reading on Arabic Christian theology, I know that Christian apologists often tried to take advantage of Muslim debates about the "attributes" of God to argue for the reality of the Trinity. But based on earlier Greek patristic usage, this analogy is limited, even misleading. I seem to remember that some scholars have lamented a kind of scholasticism that developed in the Christian East because of a certain captivity to Arabic forms of language and thought formed by an alien religion. What do you think of this argument?

Samn! said...

There's some truth to that assessment, at least. The formulation of hypostases = attributes is a problematic one, certainly, though there are statements by some patristic writers, St. John of Damascus in particular, that may have led the Arabs in this direction. In Ibn al-Fadl's actually much stranger later thought (Sasha and I are about to submit an article about this for publication), it doesn't actually play a big role, and it's only presented as one apologetic option among many-- his main Trinitarian position is that the relationship of hypostasis to substance is exactly the relationship of a primary to a secondary substance.

The history of how the hypostasis = attribute line of thinking came about among Christians hasn't really been worked out. About fifty years ago Harry Wolfson wrote a couple articles where he argued that Asharism got the idea for divine attributes from this Christian formulation. That needs to be re-assesed, I think, but the more I look into it the more complicated it gets. For someone like ibn al-Fadl, who wasn't really writing all that much with Muslims in mind, I think, the greater danger was letting Aristotle define his terms.....

As for the broader question of scholasticism in Arab Christian thought, well, yeah, I mean, it's arguably the major mode of Christian theological writing in Arabic, for all sects. But then, we again can see that tendency already happening among many Palestinian writers before things transitioned into Arabic-- if we look at St. John of Damascus, and especially his Dialectica, we can see where the roots of this tendency, at least among the Orthodox, may have come from. If we look even earlier, to someone like Leontius, I don't really think it's fair to say that he's any less 'scholastic' than the Arabs. The problem is, there's been virtually no sustained analysis of Arab Christian dogmatic literature from a theological perspective. We're really only beginning to work how how to do that properly, I think..... I would say that with the exception of a very few writers, such as Paul of Antioch, the preferred method of trying to find a language comprehensible to Muslims was to take on the vocabulary of falsafa (rather than kalam) wholesale...

Unknown said...

مرسی ساموئل
خیلی خیلی زیبا و مفید بود

Collator said...

Certainly the earlier Fathers used the philosophers heavily (too heavily, according to most Protestant theologians). But they were very wary of over-using them. St. John of Damascus actually accuses the Monophysites of making Aristotle the 13th Apostle, since they used his terms without regard for how the earlier Fathers (especially the Cappadocians) had modified them. He points particularly to their use of the idea of "particular substances", something that he says Severus uses to justify his Christology. I don't know details on the background to this -- I just remember reading it, either in John directly or in a commentary on the modern-day Chalcedonian/non-Chalcedonian dialogue.