The Doctrine of Participation
The Joining Together of Heaven and Earth
If you’re a regular reader of The Narnian, you’ve probably noticed by now that I write about “participation” a lot. It has become my custom to say something like “this thing participates in that” or “this thing is ritual participation in that thing.” Indeed, you probably noticed this kind of thing in some of my latest Christmas essays like Remembering Saint Nicholas and The Meaning of the Christmas Tree.
Given the current abundance of discussions surrounding the doctrine of participation, I believe it would be beneficial to delve deeper into the topic and provide a more comprehensive understanding of what is meant when others and I refer to this idea.
Form, Matter, and Participation
In order to understand the doctrine of participation (metechein), we must first understand Plato’s concept of form (eidos) and matter (hyle, hypodoche). These two things are a conceptual couple. The best way to understand the relationship between form and matter is in this way:
Form is pattern and matter is that which is patterned by form. Form is actuality and matter is the potentiality to receive the actuality of the form. Form is essence and matter is that which is inessential subsisting within an essence. Form is the goal and matter is that which is organized toward the forms goal. As Plato said, matter is “a receptacle of all becoming — it’s wetnurse.”
In Christian terms, one can liken form and matter to heaven and earth. Drawing a parallel with Genesis 1, where God created the heavens and the earth, one finds the earth initially formless and void, covered by waters. Through His Word, God then spoke, initiating the process of patterning and organizing the earth. Heaven is depicted as the realm of pattern and immateriality, while earth is the realm of matter being shaped by heaven. Plato's concept of form and matter, though revolutionary to the Greeks, finds its Hebraic counterparts in the Bible's longstanding portrayal of heaven and earth long before Plato articulated his ideas.
Now that we have an understanding of form and matter or heaven and earth, we need to understand their relationship towards one another. This relationship can be understood as participation (metechein). For matter to participate in form is for it to become patterned by it, to become actualized by it, to receive its essence, to be activated by it, and to be organized by it. The participation of matter in form results in a body (hypostasis) — the presence of form in matter.
A classic example of this is the horse. What makes a horse a horse? In this view, the thing that makes a horse a horse is that the form of horse has become present in matter. The matter has received the essence of horse, is organized towards it as a goal, and performs its activities. The horse is a hypostasis or body of the form of horse.
So far, so good. This isn’t that hard to understand.
Now that we have laid the groundwork and acquired an understanding of form, matter, and their intricate relationship through the lens of participation, let's transition our exploration to a profound application of these metaphysical concepts—Christology. The same metaphysic that informs our understanding of common things, such as animals, also underpins traditional, creedal Christology. As we venture into the Definition of Chalcedon, framed by the early church, we'll see how this metaphysical framework becomes a powerful language to articulate the incarnation and the hypostatic union of Christ, unraveling the mystery of his dual nature – fully divine and fully human.
The Definition of Chalcedon formulates the Bible’s Christology this way:
As regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence (hypostasis), not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.
For those who don’t understand what Chalcedon is saying here, let’s take it from the top.
What the Definition is saying is that Jesus Christ, who is consubstantial with the Father, took on a human body. His human body, made of matter, received the essence of the Godhead (hypostasis). The person of Jesus Christ is the union of divine and human natures without confusion or change in either nature. He is the hypostasis of the Godhead. Indeed, this reality is found not only in the Definition of Chalcedon, but also in Holy Scripture. In his Epistle to the Colossians, Saint Paul under the inspiration of the Spirit of God wrote:
“For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power.” — Colossians 2:9-10 KJV
In other words, the person of Jesus Christ is God descending into matter. He is the union of heaven and earth. He is the hypostasis of the Godhead, and the distinction of natures are no way annulled by this hypostatic union. He is both fully God and fully man; the fullness of the heavenly Godhead joined to an earthly, material body.
The doctrine of participation carries significant implications across various domains. As we've explored, it extends its influence to commonplace things such as animals and even Christology. However, its impact isn't confined to these realms alone; it also holds sacramental implications.
When delving into the Scriptures, the Greek term employed to convey the idea of participation is metechein. This term is not only prevalent in biblical contexts but is also utilized in Plato's writings. A pivotal biblical passage that touches on the sacramental dimension of participation is found in 1 Corinthians 10:21. There, Saint Paul writes:
“Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers (metechein) of the Lord's table, and of the table of devils.” — 1 Corinthians 10:21 KJV
Examining this verse in conjunction with Saint Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:23-30, we discern that the Table of the Lord is a ritual participation in the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, while living as the Corinthians did is participation in the table of devils. It’s likely that the Corinthians were also participating in ritualistic practices such as temple prostitution at the Temple of Aphrodite in the City of Corinth (1 Cor. 6:15-17). In this temple, not only were there ritualistic sexual practices, but there would have also been ritual meals as well.
Baptism also is ritual participation in Christ as well. Saint Paul tells us that in baptism, we are buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4-5). Later in Romans, Saint Paul also says that we are joint heirs with Christ and will share in His glory, if we also share in His sufferings (Rom. 8:17).
This thought isn’t a theological innovation by me. John Calvin, the Protestant Reformer also wrote of sacramental participation stating that in the spiritual banquet of communion and in the waters of baptism, Christ is truly present. He explicitly wrote that our souls feast upon his flesh and blood and in baptism we are engrafted into the body of Christ. He writes:
“He has, through the hand of his only-begotten Son, given to his church another sacrament, that is, a spiritual banquet, wherein Christ attests himself to be the life-giving bread, upon which our souls feed unto true and blessed immortality … Bread and wine … represent for us the invisible food that we receive from the flesh and blood of Christ. For as in baptism, God, regenerating us, engrafts us into the society of his church and makes us his own by adoption, so we have said, that he discharges the function of a provident householder in continually supplying to us the food to sustain and preserve us in that life into which he has begotten us by his Word. Now Christ is the only food of our soul, and therefore our Heavenly Father invites us to Christ, that, refreshed by partaking of him, we may repeatedly gather strength until we shall have reached heavenly immortality.” — John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.17.1.
In these ritualistic acts, the Christian is participating in the God of the Forms. God descends and comes to us in water, wine, and bread. The Pagan, however, should not be understood as participating in the God of the Forms, but rather in distorted versions of the Forms, becoming a hypostasis for devils.
Angels, Demons, and The Forms
The doctrine of participation also has implications for how we view spiritual beings, as my last paragraph alludes to. For those who have never considered the relationship between the Platonic Forms and Christian angelology and demonology, it is not novel to associate the two. Aquinas noted himself in his Summa that angels are “self-subsisting forms” (Summa, I Q50, A5).
Now, in the same way that one may participate in the Form of Virtue one may also participate in the Form of Vice, which is a negation and distortion of what a form is supposed to be. Participation in vice allows one to become a hypostasis for the Archons. This is a thought that is present all throughout the Christian Tradition. Saint Anthony the Great wrote of this saying:
“You will note find their [the demons] sins and iniquities revealed bodily, for they are not visible bodily. You should know that we are their bodies, and that our soul receives their wickedness, and when it has received them, then it reveals them through the body in which we dwell.” — Saint Anthony the Great, Letter 6, vv. 50-51
Evagrius the Solitary argued that there is a demon “entrusted with” or “set over” each passion. The goal of a demon is to distract and impair the intellect so that it will not know God. Thus, the demon pursues this goal by inflaming the passions by presenting thoughts, images, memories, or possible courses of sinful action to the intellect. He writes:
“The demon of anger . . . suggests images of our parents, friends, or kinsmen being gratuitously insulted . . . making us say or do something vicious . . . The demon of avarice . . . suggests that we should attach ourselves to wealthy women.” — Evagrius the Solitary, The Philokalia
As Saint Thomas said, angels and demons are immaterial, and do not have “bodies naturally united to them" (Summa, I Q51, A1). In order for them to have a hypostasis in the world, we must be united to them through participation — which is ultimately was demonic possession is. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, figures such as Andrew Stephen Damick and Stephen DeYoung refer to this phenomenon as demonosis. This term encapsulates the concept of being united to demons through participation, contrasting with theosis, where one experiences union with God through participation.
In conclusion, our exploration of the doctrine of participation has unveiled a rich tapestry of implications that stretch across diverse domains, from the ordinary to the sublime. Through the lens of participation, we traversed the realms of common creatures like animals, delved into the intricate mysteries of Chalcedonian Christology, contemplated the sacramental dimensions of rituals such as the Eucharist and baptism, and even touched on the profound subjects of angelology and demonology.
The interconnectedness of form and matter, drawing parallels between Plato's philosophy and Christian cosmology found in Genesis 1, served as a foundational thread weaving through these discussions. I trust this essay has shed more light on the doctrine of participation, offering readers various aspects to ponder in the context of this thought-provoking exploration.