Monday, March 26, 2012

John Cassian's Interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4, first reading.


Cassian’s treatment of the seed of Seth occurs in The Conferences VIII, On the Principalities. The literary setting of the eighth conference begins with Cassian and his companion Germanus receiving instruction from the elder Serenus. Cassian’s eighth conference addresses the question “where such a variety and diversity of powers opposed to man come from?”[1] Two concerns underlie this question. The first is the demonology of the desert monastic tradition. In Athanasius’ Life of Antony, for example, we find the legendary monk in battle with various demonic forces and entities in the desert. Evagrius of Pontius treats the various intellectual and emotional maladies troubling the desert monk as demonic. Cassian’s earlier work on the Institutes describes the struggle between vice and virtue as one predominately between grace and demonic influence. In the Conferences, Cassian treats the subject of demonic influences through the myth of the fallen angels,

            “The Germanus said: “Where we want to know, have such a variety and diversity of powers opposed to mane come from, which the blessed Apostle enumerates as follows? ‘Our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spirits of evil in heavenly places”[2]


            The image of spiritual warfare in Ephesians supplies Cassian with a divine explanation for the struggles afflicting the monk in the desert. The struggle between vice and virtue is the concrete manifestation of an invisible battle between the human being and malevolent spiritual entities. The afflictions of the monk in the desert, then, are forewarned in Scripture and the monk in turn lives out the true Christian conflict. This still leaves, however, the crux of the question beginning the eighth conference, “Where, then, has so malicious and adversary, who is opposed to us, come from?”[3] This question constrains Cassian to address the question of whether or not demons were created by God.[4] Cassian, however, immediately distinguishes the nature of his inquiry from his more famous contemporary, “Should it be believed that these powers were created by the Lord for the purpose of warring against human beings in grades and ranks?”[5] Cassian’s inquiry concerns the ascetic struggle, the battle taking place in the desert.
            Cassian begins the response to the origin of demonic beings with a discussion of the nature of Scripture itself,

“The authority of Holy Scripture has said some things so lucidly and clearly for our instruction, even to those of limited intelligence, that not only are they not veiled in the obscurity of a hidden meaning but they do not even need to be explained, and they offer intelligibility and meaning at first glance. Some others, however, are so covered over and obscured by mystery that in examining and understanding them there lies open before us an immense field of toil and concern.”[6]


Some things contained in Scripture are readily understandable, while other passages are obscure and defy immediate understanding. Cassian continues,

“It is clear that God has arranged matters thus for several reasons: first, lest if the divine sacraments had no veil of spiritual understanding covering them, they would be equally intelligible and comprehensible to everyone, to both the faithful and the profane, and thus there would be no distinction between the lazy and the zealous as regards virtue and prudence; then, so that even among those of the household of the faith the slothfulness of the lazy might be reproached and the ardor and effort of the zealous might be proved.”[7]


The distinction between the readily comprehensible and the obscure passages of Scripture separates the believer from the non-believer, and, still more, the lazy believer from the zealous believer. With echoes of Paul’s notion of food in due season, Cassian sees that obscure passages of Scripture are not open to anyone who inquires into them. The spiritual fervor on the part of the individual affects what access he or she has to Scripture; however, there are additional qualifications. Comparing Scripture to the produce harvested from a field, some passages are readily digestible in their raw (literal) form.[8] Other produce needs heating by the fire of allegorical interpretation and a “probing spiritual fire.”[9] These passages are appropriate only for the “inner man” and, as a consequence, they must be read and interpreted in a more spiritual way less “in eating them there would be more harm than good.”[10]
All of the above serves as a forewarning by Cassian to the reader with regards to the question beginning the eighth conference. There are mysteries contained in the pages of Scripture that are not open to everyone, even everyone in the Church. The access one may have to these obscure passages in Scripture is mitigated by two additional criteria: applying the correct interpretative method, (literal, allegorical or spiritual) and one’s personal spiritual state. The method of interpretation and one’s spiritual state effect the reception of the text; text better suited for the “inner man” ought to be received by the “inner man,” the aspect of the human person most capable of processing Scriptural material that appears illogical or obscure when read at a literal level. Cassian illustrates his distinctions by alluding to his previous conference on discernment when recollecting the literal interpretation of “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me”,

“Some of the strictest monks, having indeed “zeal for God, but not according to knowledge,” understood this literally. They made themselves wooden crosses and carried them constantly on their shoulders, evoking not edification but rather derision in all who saw them.”[11]


Cassian alludes to his previous conference on discernment. The “inner man” works in an individual when he or she engages in discernment. Discernment of Scripture, Cassian argues, plays a crucial role if one wishes to answer the question posed at the beginning of the eighth conference. In order to answer the question at the heart of the eighth conference, one must know how to read and interpret scripture. The existence of malevolent spiritual entities, entities that come alive in the experience of the desert monk, could potentially impinge upon one’s interpretation or belief in the being of God.[12]


“Far be it from us, then, to confess that God created anything that is substantially bad. As Scripture says: ‘everything that God made was very good.’ For if we said that these beings had been created such by God and had been made so that they would occupy these grades of wickedness and always be ready to deceive and destroy human beings, we would, contrary to the teaching of the aforementioned Scripture, be faulting God by calling him the creator and author of evil. That is, we would be saying that he himself brought evil wills and natures into being, creating them such that they would always persevere in wickedness and never be able to pass over the disposition of a good will.”[13]

Cassian locates the creation of what will become demonic forces outside of the temporal creation and outside of the chronology of Genesis,


“Before, I say, that temporal beginning of Genesis there is no doubt that God created all those heavenly powers and forces. The Apostle enumerates them according to rank and sets them out thus: ‘In Christ were created all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether angels archangels or thrones or dominations or principalities or powers.”[14]


Cassian next cites the text of Revelation,


“Yet Scripture does not recall only those who fell from that pinnacle of blessedness; it speaks of the dragon that pulled down a third of the stars along with him. One of the apostles says more clearly, ‘the angels who did not submit to his rule but who left their dwelling he has kept in eternal chains, in darkness, until the judgment of the great day.’”[15]



The Problem: the Comingling of Natures



The tradition of the fall of the angels is an ancient one in Christianity. By the fourth century, the philosophical currents in Christianity come into conflict with a long standing tradition in the Church. The problem, attested to in Cassian, stemmed from the notion that human women and angels could engage in sexual activity and create a hybrid offspring. Cassian must wrestle with an apparently literal understanding of the comingling of human and angelic natures in Scripture itself. Cassian, in the person of Germanus, states the problem in these terms,


“Since by God’s design a reading from Genesis was produced a little while ago which made such a significant impression on us that now we can pursue properly what we have always wanted to learn, we also wish to know what should be thought about those apostate angels that are said to have had intercourse with the daughters of men. Understood literally, would this be possible for a spiritual nature?”[16]


Cassian’s first response to the problem posed by Genesis six challenges the historical veracity of the narrative if accepted literally,


“By no means should it be believed that spiritual natures can have carnal relations with women. But if this could ever have happened in a literal sense, why does it not occur now, at least occasionally, and why do we not see some people born of women without sexual intercourse, having been conceived by demons?”[17]


In Cassian’s analysis of the narrative contained in Genesis 6:1-4, a literal interpretation cannot be supported based upon the absence of evidence pointing to the possibility of such a comingling of natures taking place. While dismissing the possibility of a literal interpretation, Cassian seems to entertain the possibility of human actors.[18] Cassian utilizes the motif of the seed of Seth as the means of solving the problem of human-angel mixture of natures. Cassian begins with the origin of Seth himself. Seth is conceived by Adam and Eve as a replacement for Abel. Cassian sees this as necessary or else all of humanity would descend from the stalk of a fratricide.[19] Cassian interprets Seth as succeeding Abel’s righteousness and goodness.[20] This righteousness was passed on to Seth’s seed, in comparison to the inherited irreligiousness passed on through Cain’s progeny. So long as Seth’s seed never comingled with Cain’s line, Seth’s line would be protected from the inherent deficiency of Cain.[21] Cassian appeals to the separate genealogies of Seth and Cain to demonstrate that the two lines were kept apart and there was no mingling of either line’s inherited tendencies with the other. Due to the preservation of innate sanctity, the line of Seth was called angels of God or sons of God. Meanwhile, due to innate depravity, the line of Cain was called sons of men. This division of humanity between the innately holy and innately wicked continued, Cassian argues, until the time of the events described in Genesis six,

“Although this beneficial and holy division between them existed up until that time, when afterward the sons of Seth – who were sons of God – saw the daughters of those who were born of the offspring of Cain, they were inflamed by desire for their beauty and took wives from them for themselves. They imparted their parents’ wickedness to their husbands and from the very first turned them away from their inborn holiness and ancestral simplicity.”[22]


Cassian’s interpretation advocates a myth of a once pure seed among humanity existing simultaneously with a corrupted seed. Furthermore, this interpretation explicitly divides ancient humanity, on genealogical grounds, into a race innately connected to God and one predisposed to exclusion on account of innate depravity.
Cassian interprets the seed of Seth as having an inborn knowledge of divine wisdom. Cassian understands this inborn knowledge to be passed on through all the generations of Seth’s progeny. However, Cassian appears uncertain as to how the transference of divine wisdom among the seed of Seth actually occurs. In Conference VIII. XXI.6, Cassian attributes the knowledge of divine wisdom initially to the propagation of an ancestral tradition based primarily upon worship of the true God and the common good. In this sense, the divine wisdom inherent in the seed of Seth is located in the pedagogy practiced amongst the community. In the next sentence, Cassian continues to espouse a pedagogical understanding of the transference of divine wisdom through a comparative interpretation of the traditions of the seed of Cain,


“But when it intermingled with the wicked generation it fell into profane and harmful deeds that it had dutifully learned at the instigation of demons, and thereupon it boldly instituted the strange arts of wizards, sleights and magic tricks, teaching its descendents that they should abandon the sacred cult of the Divinity and worship and adore the elements of fire and the demons of the air.”[23]

In the above citation, Cassian re-interprets two long standing traditions in Judeo-Christian history. The first tradition concerns the notion, long held in Gnostic circles, of a predestined or genealogical distinction among humanity. In the Hypostasis of the Archons, humanity’s division into three separate classes based upon the persons of Cain Abel and Seth are immutable – one is born into one’s class and by one’s nature alone one attains divine wisdom, gnosis. As clearly as Cassian portrayed the divine wisdom of Seth’s seed as being the result of pedagogy among Seth’s descendents, so too the wickedness/irreligiousness among Cain’s descendents results from teaching as opposed to the nature of a segment of humanity. Cain’s descendents are not entirely responsible for the content of the teaching passed on among themselves and eventually to the descendents of Seth and Cain. Seth’s seed had taught the worship of the true God and maintained a functional society concerned with the welfare of the whole. Through intermarrying with Cain’s descendants, Seth’s seed adopted their teaching and praxis.
The implication running through Cassian’s treatment of the seed of Seth at this point is that the separation between the descendents of Seth and Cain, and the presumed sanctity of Seth’s seed was not the result of theo sperma, but rather the mastery of will and the practice of virtue among Seth’s seed until they were presented with a temptation they could not resist. The reason for the intermarriage between Seth and Cain stemmed from, in Cassian’s words, wanton desire.[24] That Seth’s seed can succumb to vice and receive punitive action from God indicates Cassian’s rejection of the seed of Seth’s immutability and perennial gnosis.



[1] Conl. VIII.II
[2] Conl. VIII.II
[3] ibid
[4] ibid
[5] ibid
[6] Conl. VIII. III. 1
[7] Conl. VIII. III. 2
[8] Conl. VIII. III. 3
[9] Conl. VIII. III. 4
[10] Conl. VIII. III. 4
[11] John Cassian. The Conferences. VIII. III. 5
[12] For a literal description of demonic entities attacking ascetics in the desert, see Life of Antony.  Origen’s treatment of the role of principalities and powers seems to influence Cassian’s description of Germanus’s question. See De Principiis IV.1
[13] Once again, Origen phrases essentially the same question earlier in De Principiis IV.3
[14] Conl. VIII.VII.3-4
[15] Conl. VIII.VIII.3
[16] John Cassian. The Conferences. VIII. XX.
[17] John Cassian. The Conferences. VIII. XXI. 1
[18] John Cassian. The Conferences. VIII. XXI. 1
[19] John Cassian. The Conferences. VIII. XXI. 2
[20] John Cassian. The Conferences. VIII. XXI. 2
[21] John Cassian. The Conferences. VIII. XXI. 2,3
[22] John Cassian. The Conferences. VIII. XXI. 4
[23] John Cassian. The Conferences. VIII. XXI. 6
[24] John Cassian. The Conferences. VIII. XXI. 7
copyright: the author
English translation from Boniface Ramsey's edition in the Ancient Christian Writers Series by Paulist Press