Saint Isaac of Nineveh and Syriac Christian Thought
Rev. David A. Fisher
“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” - 1 Corinthians 1:18
“To discover the literature of the Syrian Fathers is to discover a lost treasure.” - Dom Cuthbert Brogan, OSB
The English speaking world is indebted to Dr. Sebastian P. Brock, the now retired Professor of Syriac Studies at Oxford University in England, for exposing the works of Syriac Christianity in English translation. His interest in Syriac began as a young scholar of the Septuagint (the Ancient Greek Version of the Old Testament), where he began to discover its intersections with the Syriac language. This blossomed into his prolific career of becoming one of the leading experts on the literature and theology of Syriac Christianity. One very important Syriac writer he has studied extensively is Isaac of Nineveh.
Born around 613A.D. in Beth Qatraye of Eastern Arabia and passing on to eternal life in 700A.D. at the Monastery of Rabban Shabur; he is often called Abba Isaac, Isaac Syrus, Isaac of Qatar, and St. Isaac the Syrian.* He was made the bishop of Nineveh (modern Mosul, Iraq), but soon resigned his position to live the life of a hermit in the mountains of Northern Persia (Iran). Although a member of the Church of the East, sometimes called the Nestorian Church (the predominant Christian Church in modern Iran), Isaac’s thought does not center upon the Christological teachings that caused its condemnation and subsequent schism at the Council of Ephesus. Rather, his thought is grounded in the fruits of ascetical monastic prayer and practices, devotion to the Holy Cross, and the theology of the Holy Spirit (Pneumatology). He is numbered among the saints by the Catholic Church, the Church of the East, the Ancient Oriental Orthodox Churches (Copts and Ethiopians), and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Devotion to the Holy Cross
Isaac of Nineveh was a great defender of the outward, bodily actions that should accompany prayer. He had taken on the Messalians (Syriac msalyane, ‘those who pray’) “who appeared in the fourth century and spread over the entire Christian Orient, for they rejected the Church’s sacraments and asceticism” (Hilarion Alfeyev, Prayer in St. Isaac of Nineveh). In response to them and their sole desire for ecstatic mystical experiences, Isaac argued that it was the tradition of the ancient fathers that bodily reverence for God should go along with the inner prayer of the heart, together creating true piety in the one who prays. This stance of Isaac is seen clearly in his devotion to the Holy Cross, a central symbol in the prayer, art, and theological thought of ancient Syriac Christianity.
“In many places Isaac mentions prayer and prostrations before the Cross, kissing the Cross, and other signs of special reverence which must be shown by a Christian to the Cross” (Hilarion Alfeyev, Prayer in St. Isaac of Nineveh). For him the Cross is foreshadowed in the Ark of the Covenant, where Moses and the people of Israel acknowledged the presence of God by prostration before the Ark. Now the presence of God is perfectly manifested in the Cross of Christ, and in reverence to that presence we adore Christ through prayer and prostration before the Cross. The Cross therefore is the bridge between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and is the eschatological (end-of-time) bridge to the Kingdom of God. The Holy Cross stands out in the theology of Isaac as the symbol above all others of the whole sweep of salvation history. It was to be venerated with prostrations, kissing the image of the Cross, kneeling, laying in front of its image for long periods of time, and putting one’s head to the floor numerous times.
“A handful of sand, thrown into the sea, is what sinning is, when compared to God’s Providence and mercy. Just like an abundant source of water is not impeded by a handful of dust, so is the Creator’s mercy not defeated by the sins of His creations” (Sebastion P. Brock, The Wisdom of Saint Isaac the Syrian). This quote from Isaac shows the strong belief he held in the mercy of God. So fervently did he hold this as a personal tenet of faith, that he can be counted among the minority of Church Fathers who argued for Universal Reconciliation; the theological position that all will be saved.
Among the Fathers of the Church: Origen, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, and Isaac of Nineveh, especially stand out as defenders of universal salvation. Each in their own way offers a theological reflection in which the eternal mercy and plan of God is for them made manifest. Origen held the view known as “apocatastasis”, meaning the ultimate restoration of all things and all persons with God. St. Gregory of Nyssa, (also called Gregory the Theologian) abandoned the idea of pre-existent souls which Origen had attached to his doctrine, and affirms that within the mystery of the Divine Incarnation is held the ultimate restoration and reconciliation of all with God. Isaac of Nineveh took the position that hell is a scourging of love, where those in hell have chosen through their lives on earth to be separated from God; but in his thought the doors of hell are locked from the inside. This makes the possibility of repentance and forgiveness being offered to those in hell.
“The entire purpose of our Lord’s death was not to redeem us from sins, or for anyother reason, but solely in order that the world might become aware of the lovewhich God has for creation” (Sebastion P. Brock, The Wisdom of Saint Isaac the Syrian). This quote reflects the foundation of Isaac’s program of thought and prayer, that God made us to be transformed by his love. Through prayer and repentance our hearts will be transformed to be hearts of love, so that we will truly be the image and likeness of God, as was intended in Creation and reached its eternal stature in the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection of Christ.
* The term Syrian refers to those who spoke and wrote in the Syriac-Aramaic Language and is not intended to designate the modern nation-state of Syria.