March 3, 2009
Interpreting Paul with Ambrosiaster
Several years ago I gave a paper on 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. I argued that a favored modern (and evangelical) reading of 1:9, “separation from the presence of God,” was faulty and we should understand the text to be saying that “eternal destruction” will proceed from the presence of God. In other words, our modern translations have filled a perceived gap in the Greek that, in my reading of the text, isn’t there. (The Greek is hoitines dikēn tisousin olethron aiōnion apo prosōpou tou kyriou kai apo tēs doxēs tēs ischyos autou; literally, “they will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction from [the] face/presence of the Lord and from the glory of his strength”)
Well, we will soon begin to release volumes in our Ancient Christian Texts (ACT), a series of translations of full patristic commentaries either that have not previously been published in English or whose English translations are seriously inadequate. The ACT is an outgrowth of our Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture project (now almost complete!). My colleague Jim Hoover is working on getting the first two volumes prepared for release: Ambrosiaster’s commentaries on Romans and 1-2 Corinthians and on Galatians-Philemon. Ambrosiaster, by the way, is the name assigned to a commentator of the late fourth century whose identity has been forgotten.
A few days ago it occurred to me to take a look at what Ambrosiaster has to say about 2 Thessalonians 1:9. And I was delighted to discover that I’m on the side of this great exegete of the early church. He comments as follows: “In the presence of the Lord and the glory of his majesty, fire will burn them all up, and they will pay the due penalty of eternal death.”
If Ambrosiaster’s interpretation is not identical with my own (he doesn’t point out that this fire blazes out from the presence of the Lord), it is nevertheless clear that he is on the same page. While I bring other points to bear on my interpretation of this text (including the Old Testament motif of the divine warrior), clearly Ambrosiaster does not see this passage to be saying that the eschatological punishment can be equated with an eternal separation from the presence of God. Second Thessalonians 1:9 is, by the way, the primary New Testament text that is marshaled in support of this (modern?) understanding of eternal punishment.
The text in fact offers reason to speculate that Paul’s view might be more along the lines of annihilation. Interestingly enough, Ambrosiaster seems to point in this direction, for he goes on to say: “They will always be conscious and not completely unaware, for in some way the penalty itself will keep them in being until it too is consumed.”
In other words, Ambrosiaster seems to be saying that “hell” is not an eternal state but is itself “consumed.”
Of course, it appears (so say patristic scholars) that Ambrosiaster was working with a Latin text of Paul’s epistles (one that predated the Vulgate) and did not know the Greek. (For reference, the Vulgate reads: qui poenas dabunt in interitu aeternas a facie Domini, et a gloria virtutis eius)
In my paper I argued that we would do much better translating this verse along the lines of the KJV: “Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.” Inelegant perhaps, but it’s closer to the original and allows readers to assume a reasonable burden of interpretation rather than having such a crucial determination made for them.
I could go on about this text, but I’ve said enough already. The real point of my comments is not to stir up debate but to point out the value of these ancient commentaries in weighing and testing our own exegetical results. Personally, I’m excited that we are publishing the ACT series. Watch for the first volume of Ambrosiaster in May and the second in September.