Reviews of

Krastu Banev, “The Idea of the Numinous in the 4th Century: Abraham, John Chrysostom, and Rudolf Otto in Dialogue”

In Abraham, Durham, Early Christianity, Justin A. Mihoc, Krastu BANEV, Numinous, Patristics, SEMINAR REPORTS on November 25, 2011 at 5:07 pm

This is a report on a paper presented by Dr Krastu Banev, Lecturer in Greek Patristics and Byzantine Studies in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, at the Patristics Research Seminar at the Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University, 24th of November 2011.

The list of forthcoming papers in the Patristics Research Seminars at Durham University can be found here. You can follow RBECS on Facebook, here.

In this very inspiring paper, Dr Banev intended to show the similarities and differences between the idea of religious experience and the numinous employed by John Chrysostom (c. 347–407) and Rudolf Otto (1869–1937).

There is a gap in the scholarly record with regard to the treatment of the idea of ‘numinous dread’ (or the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, as Otto calls it).

After writing a PhD thesis on Luther’s views on the Holy Spirit, the German philosopher and theologian Rudolf Otto tackled this subject in his main book, The Idea of the Holy (German title: Das Heilige, 1917).

Otto’s book has skipped the Patristic period, a gap which he later attempted to fill in by publishing a separate essay on the numinous in John Chrysostom’s Homilies on the Incomprehensible Nature of God, and a shorter one on the same theme in Augustine. However, as Dr Banev observes, Otto’s work is very scarcely cited in Patristic scholarship, and when he is, it is always in a positive way.

He was clearly an evolutionist who tried to explain the origins and evolution of religious experience. There are four elements identified by Otto in his theory of the holy: genuine religious feeling, numinous, non-rational, and rational. He explains the experience of dread in the face of the divine, which, in his view, is a non-rational feeling.
Otto argues that religion is best understood as the powerful manifestation of emotional energy, and that experience precedes language. Otto spoke of the divine presence as a ‘numinous’ experience (derived from the Latin nūmen, meaning divine power), being by definition non-rational, surpassing beyond the limits of human reason. In his Foreword to the English edition of Das Heilige he describes the investigation of the holiness as ‘a feeling which remains where the concept fails’, so, in his thought, the experience precedes language, but also outlives it. Otto was an ex professo Christian theologian. In John Chrysostom Otto found further support for his idea of the holy and the dreadful fear in the face of God.

Points of Similarity

John Chrysostom argued against the claims advanced by the fourth-century Anomoeans that the Logos is completely unlike the Father in terms of essence and that it is possible to attain full knowledge of God’s essence through the concept of ‘unbegottenness’. In this respect, both Chrysostom and Otto speak against the self sufficiency of rational enquiry in theology. Chrysostom argues that an exclusively rational quest is a mistaken path to the knowledge of God (Homilies on the Incomprehensibility of God, Treatise on the Providence of God). Otto found an ally in Chrysostom not only in the dismissal of the rational encounter of God, but also in the theological interpretation of Scripture and he praises Chrysostom for his profoundly spiritual exegesis. Although many theological similarities between the two can be found, Dr Banev showed that Otto misinterpreted Chrysostom’s ideas. When interpreting the episode of the visit of the Three Persons at the oak of Mambre (Genesis 18), Abraham had a numinous experience (numen presens), in front of which, Otto argues, he experienced a creature-feeling (or creature-consciousness). Otto is here showing a dependence on the romanticism and Schleiermacher. Chrysostom makes use of the same passage in his Homily on the incomprehensible nature of God, interpreting it as a rejection of the rational enquiry, yet does not reject the possibility of knowing God through worship and doxology. The Spirit has a key role in experiencing the divine and protecting the one experiencing it from the danger. Prayer is not only a matter of devotion, and Chrysostom discerns sequences of prayer (prayer recorded in Scripture and the liturgical prayer of the assembly). Otto also states that religion and religious feeling cannot be reduced either to ethics or to a non-rational feeling, an idea for which he finds confirmation in Chrysostom’s writings. There are other levels on similarities between the two authors, such as a common agenda of dismissing the knowledge of the divine in essentially rational terms, God being wholly unreachable through rational investigation.

Points of difference

In Chrysostom’s writings a polemical feature can be found, and the rhetorical amplifications in his homilies should be properly understood. His interpretation of the Bible is also influenced by this tendency or rhetorical technique. Otto’s creature-feeling loses its distinctive character when understood as an instinctive feeling of the dangerous sides of reality. On the contrary, Abraham is for Chrysostom an example of the dignity of humanity; he received a great power through the gift of speech in front of the divine. This is the opposite to Otto’s idea of the creature-feeling. Abraham had the confidence to speak to God with moderation, but only after he had met the divine (numinous) and received the gift. Again, the idea of the Spirit’s assistance is central in order to understand this. In the context of the intersession for the Sodomites he is in a state of humility. We did not see an Abraham exulting in pride, but one who gives a response of humility. This is what the Eunomians did not understand, the pride being the chief reason for which Chrysostom so forcefully rejected them. For Chrysostom, but not for Otto, Abraham was not exempt from the danger of pride; he shows a great spiritual maturity and does not act on the basis of a mere instinct. The story of Abraham is the story of one for whom the spiritual maturity enabled him to pray for his fellows, the Sodomites. Similarly, Chrysostom encourages his community to pray for the Eunomians, so that they rise from their heretical state. Abraham is the loving and humble father in Chrysostom’s thought.

At the Transfiguration, the numinous experience recorded in the Gospels included Elijah and Moses (Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36). In Chrysostom’s interpretation they were present there as teachers of intercessory prayers. Otto does not discuss the Transfiguration, but was only interested in the possibility of knowing God through Scripture and its interpretation.

In Chrysostom, the Bible is understood in the way of a teaching classroom setting, it provides us with lessons. Otto quotes Gregory of Nyssa who, in his words, had the same idea of the numinous as him. Yet, in Gregory’s view, in the vision from Acts 7 Stephen saw and was taught how to be merciful with his persecutors. In Evagrius, Abraham, again, teaches the lesson of mercy to the rich man in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The main elements here are the state of humility and prayer for the other, a prayer which can actually win the mercy. This is how Chrysostom interprets Scripture passages, without the Ottonian idea of danger in the presence of the divine.

In his treatise, On the priesthood, Chrysostom deals a lot with the theme of danger, but not in the context of the numinous. It is the danger of the vane glory, and he subsequently gives a list of dangers which does not discuss at any significant length Otto’s numinous as ‘dread-full’ or ‘awe-full’ in itself. Interpreting the story of the Magi, Chrysostom sees a host of dangers following the Magi on their way to see the divine child; in the presence of the baby Jesus, however, they experience peace for the first time and all dangers disappear.

In conclusion, despite the apparent similarities, the differences arise at a closer look at Otto’s and Chrysostom’s ideas. Otto is mainly interested in the idea of the numinous feeling, while Chrysostom looks for ways in which the Biblical stories can be used as teachings. It can be securely said that Chrysostom did not exercise any discernable influence on Otto’s ideas. The major difference between the two lays in their interpretation of Scripture. The Bible does not state anywhere that God is danger. Similarly, in the ascetical texts we see that the desert monks did not experience the danger of the divine presence in the way Otto is talking about the numinous experiences.

(I would like to thank Dr Banev for reading and revising an earlier draft of the present report.)

Justin A. Mihoc,
Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University

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