Symeon the New Theologian’s Account of Regeneration Agreeable to Reformed Theology?

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The Byzantine monk Symeon the New Theologian, in Discourse 24.3, says that what unlocks the treasure enclosed and sealed up in the word of God, ‘eternal life together with the unutterable and eternal blessings which it contains’ (24.2), is God the Son himself, who has said, ‘He who loves me will keep my commandments, and my Father will love him, and I will reveal myself to him.’ The only way for the chest of knowledge to be opened, Symeon says expressly, that we may enjoy, partake of, and contemplate its good things, is for God to ‘[live] in us and [move] among us’, and perceptibly to reveal himself to us; thereupon we consciously contemplate the divine mysteries hidden in Scripture. These mysteries, says Symeon, consist in perfect love toward God and neighbour, contempt of visible things, mortification of the flesh. And it is in seeing immortality, incorruption, the kingdom of heaven, adoption as sons through the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, that we indeed become sons by adoption and grace, and are called heirs of God and fellow-heirs of Christ.

But it is not clear to me whether Symeon sees this work of God himself – for he says no one but God can do it, since it is ultimately God and not the fulfilment of the commandments and the practice of the virtues that opens the door of knowledge – as being given all at once or over a protracted length of time, and how it is related to those works of ours. He does say it is by means of our fulfilling the commandments and practising the virtues (both given by God, as the commandments and the virtues) that God opens the door of knowledge to us, but he does not say explicitly how God uses these things to open the door. Instead, he contrasts those who enjoy the blessings and those who ‘lack the knowledge and experience of any of the things of which we have spoken’, who ‘have no taste of their sweetness, of the immortal life derived from them, since they lean on the mere study of the Scriptures’; for the latter ‘wish to commend themselves as though they were to be saved apart from the exact observance of Christ’s commandments, and so they altogether deny the power of the Holy Scriptures’. Nevertheless, by denying that our own fulfilment of the commandments and practice of the virtues is itself the power that opens the chest of treasure, Symeon seems to disclaim any notion of God’s respecting these things as meritorious works: they are instruments in some way, but God is the one who unlocks all these gifts to us when we cease to commend ourselves (trusting in our own meagre merits?) apart from the exact observance of Christ’s commandments, which is the true power of the Holy Scriptures!

To a Protestant, the expression here is unfamiliar, but the substance seems very much related to what Protestant divines held about regeneration in the broader sense. This intuition leads me to wonder how a Reformed scholastic such as John Davenant, Bishop of Salisbury, might have interacted with the thought of Symeon the New Theologian on the topic of regeneration. In a letter to Samuel Ward, Master of Sydney Sussex College, Davenant does treat carefully and sometimes subtly of regeneration in relation to infant baptism and perseverance of the saints. In that letter, Davenant’s purpose is different, but his categories might fruitfully be brought to bear on Symeon’s somewhat mysterious account here of the way in which God enlightens the soul and thus unlocks the treasure borne by Scripture, a treasure that none can reach by commending themselves, but that God himself must unlock.

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