Introduction to the Early Church Fathers

An introduction to eight of the Early Church Fathers: Clement, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria. Important witnesses to the Christian faith in its earliest days who everyone should know about.


With this episode I’d like to give a brief introduction to eight of the Early Church Fathers. This is a subject that interests me immensely and one that occupies much of my personal study. I’m fascinated by the lives and writings of these men. But I don’t find that they are especially well known. So I’d like to introduce them here. It’s an introduction in two ways. First, I won’t be going into much depth this time around. And second, I’m just focusing on some the earliest of the Church Fathers from the second century. Maybe later I’ll go into more depth on these eight and also introduce later Church Fathers. 

One of the things I focus on in my study of these men is how they faithfully transmitted and carried on the teachings that had been handed down to them by Jesus and his Apostles. They were immersed in the scriptures: the Hebrew Bible, the epistles of the Apostles, and the Gospels. They maintained continuity of the faith. And their writings were fresh and vibrant. They didn’t always have the systematic rigor of later Church Fathers, but they were steeped in the life of the faith and you can see it in their lives and in their writings.

The eight Church Fathers who I want to introduce today are: 

Clement of Rome (c. 35 – c. 99)
Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 – c. 110)
Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 69 – c. 155)
Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165)
Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130 – c. 202)
Tertullian of Carthage (c. 155 – c. 222)
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215)
Origen of Alexandria (c. 185 – c. 254)

All or most of their dates are “circa” or approximate.

First, let’s situate them in the history and timeline of early Christianity. Jesus’s ministry was in the 30s. And our earliest Christian writings are Paul’s letters; to the Galatians, Thessalonians, Corinthians, Romans, Philippians, etc. These date around the 50s and 60s. The four Gospels were written in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. At that point we start to transition and overlap with the period of these Early Church Fathers of the next generation.

Those of the generation immediately following the Apostles are known as the “Apostolic Fathers” because of their contact with the Apostles of Jesus. These include Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna. According to tradition, Clement was consecrated by Peter and Ignatius and Polycarp were disciples of John. These three left important epistles to the churches of their day and were active at the end of the first century and beginning of the second century.

The generations just after these Apostolic Fathers included Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian of Carthage, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria. These men were active in the later second century. And their writings tend to be works of apologetics, reasoned defenses of the Christian faith.

Clement of Rome (c. 35 – c. 99)

The Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians is the earliest of the writings we have from one of the Church Fathers. Clement is also known as Pope Clement I since he was bishop of Rome from 88 to 99 AD. His most important contribution to Church history is his Epistle to the Corinthians, sometimes called 1 Clement. It was probably written sometime in the 90s.

Funny enough, the situation that called for the letter to be written was quite similar to the situations that called for Paul to write 1st and 2nd Corinthians: community strife. In the case of 1 Clement the specific issue was that members of the Corinthian congregation were trying to depose their bishop. The letter is quite long and before even addressing the issue of the attempted deposition of these Corinthian bishops Clement recounts a history of Israel in which he creatively highlights examples of humility and envy, attributes he later uses as examples for the case he is addressing.

“Our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. As for these, then, who were appointed by them, or who were afterwards appointed by other illustrious men with the consent of the whole Church, and who have ministered to the flock of Christ without blame, humbly, peaceably and with dignity, and who have for many years received the commendations of all, we consider it unjust that they be removed from the ministry.” (1 Clement 44:1-3)

Clement traces the authority to appoint bishops back to the Apostles and to Jesus. It’s not a matter of popularity or something that can be arbitrarily changed. These offices are managed through the church hierarchy established with Jesus and the Apostles.

In addition to that specific issue, the letter is also valuable for its doctrine and Gospel teaching. A few highlights:

“Let us fix our gaze on the blood of Christ and know how precious it is to His Father, because it was poured out for our salvation and brought the grace of repentance to the whole world. Let us look back over all the generations, and let us learn that in generation after generation the Master has given a place of repentance to all those who have the will to turn to Him.” (1 Clement 7:4-5)

“Let us consider, beloved, how the Master is continually proving to us that there will be a future resurrection, of which He has made the Lord Jesus Christ the firstling, by raising Him from the dead. Let us look, beloved, at the resurrection which is taking place seasonally. Day and night make known the resurrection to us. The night sleeps, the day arises. Consider the plants that grow. How and in what manner does the sowing take place? The sower went forth and cast each of the seeds onto the ground; and they fall to the ground, parched and bare, where they decay. Then from their decay the greatness of the Master’s providence raises them up, and from the one grain more grow, and bring forth fruit.” (1 Clement 24:1-5)

“We, therefore, who have been called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, neither by our wisdom or understanding or piety, nor by the works we have wrought in holiness of heart, but by the faith by which almighty God has justified all men from the beginning: To whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.  What, then, shall we do, brethren? Shall we cease from good works, and shall we put an end to love? May the Master forbid that such should ever happen among us; rather, let us be eager to perform every good work earnestly and willingly.” (1 Clement 32:4 – 33:1)

Good stuff. Good Christian teaching. And definitely worth reading.

Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 – c. 110)

Ignatius is a personal hero of mine and an inspiration, as he was to the Christians of his day. Ignatius was so prominent because died. He died a martyr’s death and he knew he was going to be martyred when he wrote the letters that we have from him. We have seven of these letters:

The Epistle to the Ephesians
The Epistle to the Magnesians
The Epistle to the Trallians
The Epistle to the Romans
The Epistle to the Philadelphians
The Epistle to the Smyrnaeans
The Epistle to Polycarp, a bishop of Smyrna

Ignatius addressed many issues with the communities he wrote to. And again, because he wrote these letters while traveling, being taken with his full knowledge, to Rome to be fed to the wild beasts, his counsels and teachings carried a lot of weight. They still do as I see it.

One of the issues he addressed was, like Clement, dissension and opposition to church leaders. It’s important to note that in these days being a church leader was not a cushy job. And Ignatius was the perfect example of this. As a bishop he was on the front lines during persecution and a prime target for execution. Church leaders sacrificed for their faith in Christ, often with their very lives.

His Epistle to the Romans is famous for his anticipation of his death by wild beasts. It seems quite morbid and I suppose it is. But nonetheless remarkable and heroic.

“I write to the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless you hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep, I may be no trouble to any one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body.” (Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 4)

“From Syria even unto Rome I fight with beasts, both by land and sea, both by night and day, being bound to ten leopards, I mean a band of soldiers, who, even when they receive benefits, show themselves all the worse. But I am the more instructed by their injuries [to act as a disciple of Christ]; yet am I not thereby justified. 1 Corinthians 4:4 May I enjoy the wild beasts that are prepared for me; and I pray they may be found eager to rush upon me, which also I will entice to devour me speedily, and not deal with me as with some, whom, out of fear, they have not touched. But if they be unwilling to assail me, I will compel them to do so. Pardon me [in this]: I know what is for my benefit. Now I begin to be a disciple. And let no one, of things visible or invisible, envy me that I should attain to Jesus Christ. Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.” (Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 5)

He considered this martyrdom the ultimate witness of his life for Christ.

In addition to his counsel to submit to the authority of the bishop and his anticipated martyrdom, Ignatius taught important doctrines regarding the nature and person of Jesus Christ. Some examples:

“There is one Physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and not born, who is God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first able to suffer and then unable to suffer, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Letter to the Ephesians 7:2)

“He underwent all these sufferings for us, so that we might be saved; and He truly suffered, just as He truly raised Himself, not as some unbelievers contend, when they say that His passion was merely in appearance. It is they who exist only in appearance; and as their notion, so shall it happen to them: they will be bodiless and ghost-like shapes. I know and believe that He was in the flesh even after the resurrection. And when He came to those with Peter He said to them: ‘Here, now, touch Me, and see that I am not a bodiless ghost.’ Immediately they touched Him and, because of the merging of His flesh and spirit, they believed. For the same reason they despised death and in fact were proven superior to death. After His resurrection He ate and drank with them as a being of flesh, although He was united in spirit to the Father.” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 2:1-3)

Here Ignatius is speaking against the heresy of docetism, which was the teaching that Christ’s body was not human but either a phantasm or of real but celestial substance, and that therefore his sufferings were only apparent.

One more I’ll share from the Epistle to Polycarp:

“Become more diligent than you are. Observe well the times. Look for Him that is above seasons, timeless; invisible, yet, for our sakes, becoming visible; who cannot be touched; who cannot suffer, yet, for our sakes, accepted suffering, and who on our account endured everything.” (Letter to Polycarp 3:2)

Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 69 – c. 155)

Polycarp was also a great martyr for the Church. We have some of his writing in his Epistle to the Philippians. And he is also known through a document about his death called the Martyrdom of Polycarp. The account is quite miraculous and dramatic. I’ll share part of it:

“And he, placing his hands behind him, and being bound like a distinguished ram [taken] out of a great flock for sacrifice, and prepared to be an acceptable burnt-offering unto God, looked up to heaven, and said,”

“‘O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of You, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before you, I give You thanks that You have counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Your martyrs, in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as You, the ever-truthful God, have foreordained, have revealed beforehand to me, and now have fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise You for all things, I bless You, I glorify You, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, with whom, to You, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.’”

“When he had pronounced this amen, and so finished his prayer, those who were appointed for the purpose kindled the fire. And as the flame blazed forth in great fury, we, to whom it was given to witness it, beheld a great miracle, and have been preserved that we might report to others what then took place. For the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet odour [coming from the pile], as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there.”

“At length, when those wicked men perceived that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they commanded an executioner to go near and pierce him through with a dagger. And on his doing this, there came forth a dove, and a great quantity of blood, so that the fire was extinguished; and all the people wondered that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect, of whom this most admirable Polycarp was one, having in our own times been an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and bishop of the Catholic Church which is in Smyrna. For every word that went out of his mouth either has been or shall yet be accomplished.”

Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165)

Justin Martyr is one of this next generation of Church Fathers with whom we see a great focus on apologetics. Two of his most significant works are First Apology and Dialogue with Trypho. Both are works of apologetics.

Justin was trained as a philosopher prior to his conversion to Christianity and he brought a philosopher’s way of thinking to Christian apologetics. For example, he bridged the philosophical concept of logos, reason and intelligibility, with the Christian doctrine of Logos as the person of Jesus Christ. For example, he said in his First Apology:

“We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them” (Apol. I, 46)

The Apology also has some interesting and important information about the Eucharist and moral standards of the Christians of the second century. One highlight:

“We who formerly delighted in fornication now cleave only to chastity. We who exercised the magic arts now consecrate ourselves to the good and unbegotten God. We who valued above all else the acquisition of wealth and property now direct all that we have to a common fund, which is shared with every needy person. We who hated and killed one another, and who, because of differing customs, would not share a fireside with those of another race, now, after the appearance of Christ, live together with them. We pray for our enemies, and try to persuade those who unjustly hate us that, if they live according to the excellent precepts of Christ, they will have a good hope of receiving the same reward as ourselves, from the God who governs all.” (Apol. I, 14)

Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho is a dialogue, through the persons of Justin and Trypho, between Christianity and Judaism. The Dialogue includes in its first few chapters an account of Justin’s early philosophical education and his conversion to Christianity. He had searched for truth among Stoics, Peripatetics, Pythagoreans, Platonists. His conversion came with a chance meeting on the sea-shore with an elderly man, a Christian, who told him that the truth he sought could be obtained only by divine revelation. Here’s a part of the Dialogue:

“Old Man: There existed, long before this time, certain men more ancient than all those who are esteemed philosophers, both righteous and beloved by God, who spoke by the Divine Spirit, and foretold events which would take place, and which are now taking place. They are called prophets. These alone both saw and announced the truth to men, neither reverencing nor fearing any man, not influenced by a desire for glory, but speaking those things alone which they saw and which they heard, being filled with the Holy Spirit. Their writings are still extant, and he who has read them is very much helped in his knowledge of the beginning and end of things, and of those matters which the philosopher ought to know, provided he has believed them. For they did not use demonstration in their treatises, seeing that they were witnesses to the truth above all demonstration, and worthy of belief; and those events which have happened, and those which are happening, compel you to assent to the utterances made by them, although, indeed, they were entitled to credit on account of the miracles which they performed, since they both glorified the Creator, the God and Father of all things, and proclaimed His Son, the Christ [sent] by Him: which, indeed, the false prophets, who are filled with the lying unclean spirit, neither have done nor do, but venture to work certain wonderful deeds for the purpose of astonishing men, and glorify the spirits and demons of error. But pray that, above all things, the gates of light may be opened to you; for these things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom God and His Christ have imparted wisdom.”

“Justin: When he had spoken these and many other things, which there is no time for mentioning at present, he went away, bidding me attend to them; and I have not seen him since. But straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and while revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher. Moreover, I would wish that all, making a resolution similar to my own, do not keep themselves away from the words of the Saviour. For they possess a terrible power in themselves, and are sufficient to inspire those who turn aside from the path of rectitude with awe; while the sweetest rest is afforded those who make a diligent practice of them. If, then, you have any concern for yourself, and if you are eagerly looking for salvation, and if you believe in God, you may— since you are not indifferent to the matter — become acquainted with the Christ of God, and, after being initiated, live a happy life.” (Dialogue with Trypho, 7-8)

I love Justin’s account and find in him a kindred spirit. He is a philosopher because he is a seeker. And I admire his humility in recognizing that a person cannot obtain knowledge independently, without it being imparted by God. And I very much relate to that experience when he says, “But straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me.” Yes. That fire of Spirit being kindled in the soul. That’s where it’s at.

Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130 – c. 202)

Irenaeus has actually been in the news recently because Pope Francis just this year officially made him a Doctor of the Church. On January 21, 2022. I think everyone had assumed he already was one before that. But now it’s official. Irenaeus was also a kind of apologist but more specifically against Christian heresies. In particular he wrote against Gnostic Christian heresies. His great work was Against Heresies.

What stands out to me about Irenaeus is his continuity with the other Church Fathers, the Apostles, and the earliest Christian texts that we now have in the New Testament. There’s a narrative about early Christianity that what we now call “orthodox” Christian doctrine should, in the context of the first and second centuries, only be called “proto-orthodox”, because it was one of several competing Christianities. This is the view of New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. I have nothing but high regard for Ehrman’s scholarship and I’ve learned a lot from reading his work on the New Testament. But I don’t find that particular idea very convincing. For one thing, as a believing Christian I have an understanding of orthodoxy as something objectively true, regardless of whatever competing views may have been around. But even beyond that, I think Irenaeus himself made a good case that the Gnostics were the ones coming out of left field, whereas the teachers of orthodoxy had a continuous line of authority and tradition going back to Jesus and his Apostles. The oldest documents by the people closest to Jesus are orthodox in their doctrine. All the Gnostic documents come later. And this, I think, is Irenaeus’s strongest point:

“For all these [heretics] are of much later date than are the bishops to whom the Apostles handed over the Churches; and this fact I pointed out most carefully in the third book. It is of necessity, then, that these aforementioned heretics, because they are blind to the truth, walk in various and devious paths; and on this account the vestiges of their doctrine are scattered about without agreement or connection. The path of those, however, who belong to the Church, goes around the whole world; for it has the firm tradition of the Apostles, enabling us to see that the faith of all is one and the same.” (Against Heresies, 5,20,1)

Gnosticism was highly varied and Irenaeus documented much of that diversity. The 20th century discoveries of the Nag Hammadi documents, which included Gnostics texts, corroborated many of Irenaeus’s accounts of Gnostic ideas which, though he disagreed with them, he actually portrayed fairly and accurately. Some common Gnostic ideas include that the material world was created by an incompetent deity, who was lower in status than the higher deities. Gnosticism disparaged Judaism and the God of the Hebrew Bible. They understood Jesus to be one who imparted secret knowledge, gnosis, that would enable the elect to escape from materiality. Irenaeus would have none of this.

“It is possible, then, for everyone in every Church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the Apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the Apostles, and their successors to our own times: men who neither knew nor taught anything like these heretics rave about. For if the Apostles had known hidden mysteries which they taught to the elite secretly and apart from the rest, they would have handed them down especially to those very ones to whom they were committing the self-same Churches. For surely they wished all those and their successors to be perfect and without reproach, to whom they handed on their authority.” (Against Heresies, 3,1,1)

“The true gnosis is the doctrine of the Apostles, and the ancient organization of the Church throughout the whole world, and the manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of bishops, by which successions the bishops have handed down the Church which is found everywhere; and the very complete tradition of the Scriptures, which have come down to us by being guarded against falsification, and which are received without addition or deletion; and reading without falsification, and a legitimate and diligent exposition according to the Scriptures, without danger and without blasphemy; and the pre-eminent gift of love, which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and more honored than all the other charismatic gifts.” (Against Heresies, 4,33,8)

One of the ideas I especially like from Irenaeus is that the Christian Gospel is not elitist. There is not a superior, secret version that is taught only to the most intelligent and superior people. It is taught openly. It’s not about trying to get some secret knowledge. Along with Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, Irenaeus affirms that “the pre-eminent gift of love” is a “more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) “more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and more honored than all the other charismatic gifts”.

Tertullian of Carthage (c. 155 – c. 222)

I wondered whether I should include Tertullian in this introduction because in one respect he was the complete opposite of Irenaeus: by the end of his life Tertullian was a heretic. But I include him for two reasons. The first is that his contributions to Christian theology when he was orthodox were substantial and significant. The second is that the way he became a heretic is quite interesting and instructive.

Tertullian was highly intelligent, prolific, eloquent, and feisty. He was the kind of person you’d want on your side in a debate. His Latin style was superb. And he was highly adept in Roman legal styles of argumentation. Some of his major works include: The Apology, Ad Nationes, On Prayer, On Patience, On Repentance, and On Baptism. His writing is often entertaining but also very edifying. Some famous passages from The Apology:

“If the Tiber rises to the city walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the weather continues without change, if there is an earthquake, if famine, if pestilence, immediately, “Christians to the lion!” So many for one beast?” (The Apology 40,1)

“Crucify us, torture us, condemn us, destroy us! Your wickedness is the proof of our innocence, for which reason does God suffer us to suffer this.. Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, accomplish anything: rather, it is an enticement to our religion. The more we are hewn down by you, the more numerous do we become. The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians!” (The Apology, 50,12)

Some of Tertullian’s feisty side. There’s also this passage on Christian character, which is quite moving:

“Now I myself will explain the practices of the Christian society.…We are a body joined together by religious conviction, unity of discipline, and by hope. We assemble in a meeting and comprise a congregation, so that we might surround God with our prayers, as if by force of arms. Such violence is pleasing to God. We pray even for the emperors, for their ministers and those in power, for the condition of the world, that peace may prevail, and that the end may be stayed. We assemble to recall the divine Scriptures, if any condition of the present times makes it needful to be forewarned or to reflect. And in any case, with holy words we nourish our faith, uplift our hope, strengthen our trust, and confirm the discipline by the inculcating of precepts. In the same place there are exhortations, corrections and divine censure. Judgment is passed with the greatest of gravity, as among men who are certain of the presence of God; and it is the greatest foretaste of the future judgment, when anyone has sinned so grievously that he is cut off from communication in prayer and assembly and from every holy transaction. Certain approved elders preside, who have received that honor not for a price but by the witness of character; for nothing that pertains to God is to be had for a price. Even if there is some kind of a treasury, it is not made up of huge grants, as if they were the price of religion. Each one puts in a small amount on the monthly day, or when he wishes, accordingly as he wishes and is able. No one is compelled, and it is given freely. These are, as it were, the deposits of piety. For they are not expended therefrom on feasts and drinking parties and in thankless houses of gluttony, but for the support and burial of the poor, for boys and girls without parents and destitute of means, for the aged quietly confined to their homes, for the shipwrecked; and if there are any in the mines or in the islands or in the prisons, if it be for the reason that they are worshippers of God, then they become the foster-sons of their confession. But it is mainly the practice of such a love which leads some to put a brand upon us. ‘See,’ they say, ‘how they love one another’; for they themselves hate each other. ‘And how ready they are to die for one another,’ they themselves being more inclined to kill each other. (The Apology, 38,1-7)

Some comments on Tertullian’s heresy. He eventually followed a movement known as the Montanists, named after its charismatic founder Montanus. Won’t get into the details of Montanism at the moment but what’s interesting about Tertullian’s trajectory is that you can track his slide into heresy by the increasing rigor and extremism of his ideas. Scholars divide his work into three periods:

Catholic period (197 – 206)
Semi-Montanist period (206 – 212)
Montanist period (213 – 220)

William Jurgens describes his Semi-Montanist period as one “marked by rigorist tendencies and a developing attitude of anticlericalism” and the Montanist period in which “his rigorism has become extreme, his anti-clericalism has reached the point of invective”. (The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1, pp. 111-112) Works from his full Montanist period include On Monogamy, in which he condemned re-marriage even after the death of a spouse, Flight in Time of Persecution, in which he condemns those who flee persecution, and On Modesty, in which he declared that there is no forgiveness for the gravest sins. It’s interesting to me that Tertullian’s heresy was marked by increasing rigor and extremism. These days we usually think of heresy as compromising and softening of the hard doctrines. And it can certainly take that form and often does. But extremism and ratcheting rigor is an especially dangerous path to heresy because it can seem like ever-increasing enlightenment and religiosity, even as it is actually leading away from God.

All that being said, the earlier Tertullian was a remarkable man and a devoted Christian whose writings are inspiring, instructive, and edifying. Well worth reading.

Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215)

Clement is regarded as one of the most intellectual of the Early Church Fathers. He was well educated in and knowledgeable of the philosophy of his day. Residing in Alexandria, he confronted numerous heresies that were rampant in that city. But he also had to confront an overreaction among orthodox Christians under his influence who, wary of philosophically-influenced heresies, had retreated into anti-intellectualism. Critics of Christianity were already accusing Christians of being simplistic and anti-intellectual. So it was up to Clement to confront heresy but also defend the use of the intellect and philosophy to Christians. He was adept at this. But what I also admire about Clement is that for all his familiarity with contemporary philosophy he was still grounded primarily in the scriptures. In his four major extant works he quotes the New Testament 3000 times and the Hebrew Bible 1500 times. Historian Robert Louis Wilken, in his book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought commented on this heavy use of scripture among the Church Fathers generally:

“I have tried to give a sense of how fresh, even astonishing, the Bible appeared to thinkers schooled in ancient literature. The Scriptures disclosed a world unlike anything they had known before, and reading and expounding the Bible left a lasting imprint on their vocabulary and altered their patterns of thought.”

“As intellectuals formed by the classical tradition, the first Christian thinkers belonged to a learned and contented club, secure in the confidence they knew whatever was useful to know… Yet when they took the Bible in hand they were overwhelmed. It came upon them like a torrent leaping down the side of a mountain. Once they got beyond its plain style they sensed they had entered a new and mysterious world more alluring than anything they had known before.”

For Wilken this was especially true of Clement:

“How fresh the water of the Bible seeped drop by drop into the mind of the early church can be observed best in the writings of Clement of Alexandria… In Clement’s writings the Bible emerges for the first time as the foundation of a Christian culture. His writings are suffused with its language, its forms of expressions, its images and metaphors, its stories.”

“Clement cites Greek literature to illustrate a point, to give flourish to an argument, to delight and amuse his readers. When he cites the Scriptures there is a sense of discovery, that something extraordinary is to be learned in its pages, that it is not one book among many.”

William Jurgens summarized the thrust of Clement’s thought as a deep concern with “the educative function of the Logos, the Divine Word, throughout the history of mankind”. In this he was very similar to Justin Martyr. A few characteristic quotes:

“The Word, then, the Christ, is the cause both of our ancient beginning—for He was in God—and of our well-being. And now this same Word has appeared as man. He alone is both God and man, and the source of all our good things. It is by Him that we are taught to live well and then are sent along to life eternal.… He is the New Song, the manifestation which has now been made among us, of the Word which existed in the beginning and before the beginning. The Savior, who existed before, has only lately appeared. He that has appeared is in Him that is; for the Word that was with God, the Word by whom all things were made, has appeared as our Teacher; and He, who bestowed life upon us in the beginning, when, as our Creator, He formed us, now that He has appeared as our Teacher, has taught us to live well so that, afterwards, as God, He might furnish us abundantly with eternal life.” (Exhortation to the Greeks, 1,7,1-3)

“When the loving and benevolent Father had rained down the Word, that Word then became the spiritual nourishment of those who have good sense. O mystic wonder! The Father of all is indeed one, one also is the universal Word, and the Holy Spirit is one and the same everywhere.…  The Word is everything to a child: both Father and Mother, both Instructor and Nurse. ‘Eat My Flesh,’ He says, ‘and drink My Blood.’ The Lord supplies us with these intimate nutriments. He delivers over His Flesh, and pours out His Blood; and nothing is lacking for the growth of His children. O incredible mystery!” (The Instructor of Children, 1,6,41,3)

“But that man in whom reason (λόγος) dwells is not shifty, not pretentious, but has the form dictated by reason (λόγος) and is like God. He is beautiful, and does not feign beauty. That which is true is beautiful; for it, too, is God. Such a man becomes God because God wills it. [2, 1] Rightly, indeed, did Heraclitus say: ‘Men are gods, and gods are men; for the same reason (λόγος) is in both.’ That this is a mystery is clear: God is in a man, and a man is God, the Mediator fulfilling the will of the Father. The Mediator is the Word (Λόγος) who is common to both, being the Son of God and the Savior of men.” (The Instructor of Children, 3,1,1,5)

And then a couple more quotes just to get a feel for his writing and thought:

“For into all men in general, and indeed, most particularly into those who are engaged in intellectual pursuits, a certain divine emanation has been instilled, by reason of which they confess, if somewhat reluctantly, that God is one, indestructible and unbegotten, and that somewhere above in the heavenly regions, in His proper and familiar vantage point, He truly and eternally exists.” (Exhortation to the Greeks, 6,68,2-3)

“When we are baptized, we are enlightened. Being enlightened, we are adopted as sons. Adopted as sons, we are made perfect. Made perfect, we are become immortal. ‘I say,’ he declares, ‘you are gods and sons all of the Most High.’ This work is variously called grace, illumination, perfection, and washing. It is a washing by which we are cleansed of sins; a gift of grace by which the punishments due our sins are remitted; an illumination by which we behold that holy light of salvation—that is, by which we see God clearly; and we call that perfection which leaves nothing lacking. Indeed, if a man know God, what more does he need? Certainly it were out of place to call that which is not complete a true gift of God’s grace. Because God is perfect, the gifts He bestows are perfect.” (The Instructor of Children, 1,6,21,1-2)

Origen of Alexandria (c. 185 – c. 254)

Origen is the last of the Church Fathers for this introduction. Origen was also a diligent scholar and extremely prolific. His largest work, the Hexapla, is no longer extant in its entirety but we know what it was and it must have been massive. The Hexapla was a critical edition of the Hebrew Bible with six versions of the text lined up in columns. The six versions were:

1. the Hebrew consonantal text
2. the Hebrew text transliterated into Greek
3. the translation of Aquila of Sinope into Greek (2nd century)
4. the translation of Symmachus the Ebionite into Greek (late 2nd century)
5. a critical edition of the Greek Septuagint showing differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew text
6. the translation of Theodotion into Greek (mid 2nd century)

Clearly, this was a massive scholarly undertaking. Especially considering that this would all have been done by hand.

Two other important works by Origen that we do have are Against Celsus and On the First Principles.

Against Celsus was a work of apologetics responding to criticism from the philosopher Celsus. Celsus’s criticisms were challenging and, to many, intimidating. As a man of learning and eloquence Celsus’s challenge that no self-respecting philosopher of the Platonic tradition would ever be so stupid as to become a Christian required a response from someone of Origen’s intellectual stature. And Origen proved himself up to the challenge and well in the same league as Christianity’s sophisticated critics. After Origen it was no longer possible to so easily dismiss Christian thought.

On the First Principles was arguably the most comprehensive work of systematic theology written up to that time. It’s a marvelous text and one that, even in our day of digital texts – ebooks and pdfs – I have selected to have in print on my bookshelf.

Some selections. First, here’s an example of Origen’s overview of the basic Christian teachings:

“The specific points which are clearly handed down through the apostolic preaching are these: First, that there is one God who created and arranged all things, and who, when nothing existed, called all things into existence; … and that in the final period this God, just as He had promised beforehand through the Prophets, sent the Lord Jesus Christ.… Secondly, that Jesus Christ Himself, who came, was born of the Father before all creatures; and after He had ministered to the Father in the creation of all things,—for through Him were all things made,—in the final period he emptied Himself and was made man. Although He was God, He took flesh; and having been made man, He remained what He was, God. He took a body like our body, differing only in this, that it was born of a Virgin and the Holy Spirit. Moreover, this Jesus Christ was truly born and truly suffered; and He endured this ordinary death, not in mere appearance, but did truly die; for He truly rose again from the dead, and after His resurrection He conversed with His disciples, and was taken up. Third, they handed it down that the Holy Spirit is associated in honor and dignity with the Father and the Son.” (On the First Principles, 1, Preface, 4)

In his systematic theology he touched on many significant philosophical points. For example, free will and choice:

“After these points, it is taught also that the soul, having a substance and life proper to itself, shall, after its departure from this world, be rewarded according to its merits. It is destined to obtain either an inheritance of eternal life and blessedness, if its deeds shall have procured this for it, or to be delivered up to eternal fire and punishments, if the guilt of its crimes shall have brought it down to this. And it is also taught that there will be a time for the resurrection of the dead, when this body which is now sown in corruption will rise in incorruption, and that which is sown in dishonor will rise in glory. This also is clearly defined in ecclesiastical teaching, that every rational soul has free will and choice; also, that it has a struggle against the devil and his angels and opposing powers, in which they strive to burden it with sins, while we, if we live rightly and properly, should endeavor to shake ourselves free of any such disgrace. Whence it follows also that we do not understand ourselves as being subject to necessity, so as to be entirely compelled, even against our will, to do either evil or good. For while we make our own decisions, some powers may perhaps impel us to sin, and others help us to salvation. We are not, however, forced by necessity to act either rightly or wrongly, as is maintained by those who say that the course and movement of the stars is the cause of human actions, and not only of those events which take place apart from the freedom of choice, but of those also which are placed within our power.” (On the First Principles, 1, Preface, 5)

He also developed ideas and explanations of the nature of God:

“Since our mind is in itself unable to behold God Himself as He is, it knows the Father of the universe from the beauty of His works and from the elegance of His creatures. God, therefore, is not to be thought of as being either a body or as existing in a body, but as a simple intellectual Being, admitting within Himself no addition of any kind. Thus, He cannot be believed to have within Himself something greater and something lesser. Rather, He is in every part μονἀς [alone] and, so to speak, ἑνάς [the One]. He is the mind and source from which every intellectual being or mind takes its beginning.” (On the First Principles, 1,1,6)

“John says in the Gospel, ‘No one has at any time seen God,’ clearly declaring to all who are able to understand, that there is no nature to which God is visible: not as if He were indeed visible by nature, and merely escaped or baffled the view of a frailer creature, but because He is by nature impossible to be seen. And if you should ask of me what I think even of the Only-begotten Himself, whether I could say that the nature of God, which is naturally invisible, is not visible even to Him, let not such a question seem to you to be at once either impious or absurd: for we will give you a logical answer. For it is just as unsuitable to say that the Son is able to see the Father, as it is unbecoming to suppose that the Holy Spirit is able to see the Son. It is one thing to see, another to know. To see and to be seen belongs to bodies. To know and to be known belongs to an intellectual being. That, therefore, which is proper to bodies, is not to be attributed to either the Father or to the Son; but that which pertains to deity is common to the Father and the Son. Finally, even He Himself did not say in the Gospel that no one has seen the Father except the Son, nor anyone the Son except the Father. But He did say, ‘No one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son.’ By this it is clearly indicated that whatever among corporal natures is called seeing and being seen, is termed, between the Father and the Son, knowing and being known—by means of the power of knowledge, and not by the frail sense of sight. Inasmuch, then, as neither seeing nor being seen can be properly predicated of an incorporeal and invisible being, neither is the Father, in the Gospel, said to be seen by the Son, nor the Son by the Father; rather, They are said to be known.” (One the First Principles, 1,1,8)

Origin, unlike Tertullian, never fell into heresy and was always in communion and good standing with the Church. Some of his ideas were later deemed unorthodox but they had not been so determined during his lifetime. After his death there were groups of people called “Origenists” who persisted in holding to unorthodox ideas not upheld by the Church. But this was not something that Origen himself ever did. He always strove to follow and teach correct doctrine and be in conformity with the Church.


When it comes to ancient history we never have as much documentation and information as we would like. But with early Church history we are actually quite fortunate to have a fair amount. It certainly helped that the documents were treasured and revered with literally religious devotion by people who preserved, copied, and distributed these documents throughout the Christian world. So we know a fair amount. There’s plenty there for any one person to devote an entire lifetime of study toward and never exhaust. Even after reading a text that’s merely the beginning of a process of digging into its profundities.

I think these ancient texts can be as instructive or even more instructive than many modern ideas. It’s interesting to me how the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s combined both aggiornamento, “updating”, with ressourcement, a return to the sources in scripture and these Church Fathers. Theology develops but, paradoxically, inspiration for the future often comes from the past. In the case of the Church Fathers their ability to inspire and guide us is rich indeed. 

The Image of the Invisible God

In scripture Christ is called “the image of the invisible God”. As such Christ is supremely important to our access to and understanding of God. As God made his goodness pass over Moses and declared his graciousness and compassion, Christ shows us the Father in his words and in his works. Three important philosopher-theologians: Origen of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas developed theories to explain the process of coming to see and know God in a form of “intellectual vision”.

One of the challenges of religious belief in modern times is that many of the things we are supposed to believe in and refer to in our religious practices are not things that we see or sense with our physical senses. God, for example. We might ask, as many have asked, “Why doesn’t God just show himself to everyone?” Wouldn’t that clear up a lot? Why does God have to be so seemingly “hidden” and why is faith, whatever its purported virtue, even necessary? Some of the explanations for this may sometimes seem kind of forced and unsatisfactory. I think this is something that has to be addressed. And I actually think it’s quite an interesting subject. Not just in terms of apologetics, justifying belief in God or any number of other things we don’t sense with the physical senses. But also interesting just as a way of thinking about the nature of reality and the kinds of things that make it up and undergird it. It gets into some very interesting theological and philosophical issues.

In studying this question my main sources for insight have been the scriptures and a set of important Christian philosopher-theologians. Three in particular:

1. Origen of Alexandria (184 – 253)
2. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430)
3. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274)

What’s interesting to me in looking at these three is their continuity and consistency. We might be tempted to think sometimes that people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago must have been less intelligent, educated, or sophisticated than we are in modern times. A few minutes of reading Aristotle can very quickly dispel that notion. And the same goes for these three. In most points I find that their ideas about God, and most things, are the most well-reasoned of any you could find from anyone, ancient or modern. Very few people today, believers or not, have thought about God as rigorously or deeply as they did. And when we look at God as found in scripture and explained systematically by these philosopher-theologians it makes more sense why the world is the way it is and why we stand in relation to God in the way that we do.

Let’s look first at some scriptures. There are many scriptures that talk about seeing or not seeing God. Some examples:

John 1:18 – “No one has seen God at any time.”

Matthew 5:8 – “Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God.”

Exodus 33:11 – “So the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”

Exodus 33:20 – “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.”

Isaiah 6:1,5 – “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple… So I said: Woe is me, for I am undone! …For my eyes have seen the King, The Lord of hosts.”

Many passages about seeing God but apparently not all consistent. What to make of that? It could be that the passages are simply inconsistent. A consequence of the texts being authored and compiled by different authors and redactors. It’s certainly the case that it was compiled by different authors and redactors. So that’s one possible explanation. But I think there are more theologically interesting explanations. Apparent contradictions often have a lot of potential to provoke interesting philosophical insight. Whether or not that moves us closer to or further from truth is another question. It can do either. But I think in what follows it moves us closer to truth as well as philosophical insight.

The first of our philosopher-theologians, Origen of Alexandria, in his book On the First Principles (Περὶ Ἀρχῶν), makes an important distinction between things that are (1) not seen and (2) invisible:

“For the same thing is not to be understood by the expressions, ‘those things which are not seen,’ and ‘those things which are invisible.’ For those things which are invisible are not only not seen, but do not even possess the property of visibility, being what the Greeks call asomata, i.e., incorporeal; whereas those of which Paul says, ‘They are not seen,’ possess indeed the property of being seen, but, as he explains, are not yet beheld by those to whom they are promised.”

I think this is a very useful distinction that helps address some of the bafflement over why God would purposely conceal things from us. With this distinction we can see that in at least some cases it may not be that God is purposely concealing things that we would otherwise be capable of seeing, but rather that some things are just not visible by nature. Origen says of John 1:18.

“Moreover, John, in his Gospel, when asserting that ‘no one hath seen God at any time,’ manifestly declares to all who are capable of understanding, that there is no nature to which God is visible: not as if, He were a being who was visible by nature, and merely escaped or baffled the view of a frailer creature, but because by the nature of His being it is impossible for Him to be seen.”

This pertains specifically to physical sight and the physical senses. No one sees God with physical sight. But the same verse says that “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” The only begotten Son declares God to us. So we do have access to God but it is through other means than physical sight and senses.

Now, there are cases where deliberate concealment serves some instrumental purpose. Jesus apparently spoke almost entirely in parables, to the point that when he did speak directly it was very unusual. For example, in John 16:29 his apostles say: “See, now You are speaking plainly, and using no figure of speech!” But that was more the exception. Jesus deliberately made his teachings a challenge for his disciples. “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matthew 13:11-13) There are many potential reasons for this form of teaching. One is just the benefit of Socratic “midwifery”. Students sometimes learn things better when they have to work harder for them. So there is that. But I don’t think deliberate concealment is applicable everywhere. There are things unseen. But there are also things that are intrinsically invisible.

So there’s that distinction; between the merely unseen and the intrinsically invisible. But what kinds of things are intrinsically invisible? Would this commit one to belief in supernatural things? In a certain sense I’d say, “yes”, which might be off-putting if you lean more secular or have more secular commitments. But I’d also say that most people tacitly assume or take for granted certain intrinsically invisible things anyway; things that are beyond just those things that subsist in the natural world. Even if we don’t realize it.

One example is abstractions. We make use of abstractions all the time. Some examples are: quantity, quality, relation, causality, possibility. We use these kinds of abstractions to make raw sense data intelligible. For example, we project causation onto events. When one billiard ball moves toward another, comes into contact with the second, and then the second billiard ball starts moving, we say that the first billiard ball caused the second billiard ball to move (by collision and transfer of momentum). That makes sense but we don’t actually see that causation. We see events and those events are only intelligible to us in terms of causation. But we don’t physically see the causation itself. We only “see” it in the intellect. The sciences are essentially projects of characterizing non-physical structures, laws of nature, to explain the data of empirical observations and experiments. We don’t want just isolated data points. We want to be able to describe relations and make predictions.

This way of thinking about the world is by no means obvious. Augustine of Hippo described in his autobiography, Confessions, how he had a very hard time understanding non-material entities. He “could not imagine any substance, but such as is wont to be seen with [the] eyes.” This made it difficult for him to think about God.

“But what else to conceive of Thee I knew not… I was constrained to conceive of Thee… as being in space, whether infused into the world, or diffused infinitely without it. Because whatsoever I conceived, deprived of this space, seemed to me nothing, yea altogether nothing, not even a void, as if a body were taken out of its place, and the place should remain empty of any body at all, of earth and water, air and heaven, yet would it remain a void place, as it were a spacious nothing.”

This is a very natural way to see the world. And I think it’s the way most people think of the world today and even the way we are educated to think. The modern outlook is very materialist or physicalist. Materialism and physicalism are defensible positions. But they’re not the only defensible positions. And I don’t think they hold up very well to extensive philosophical scrutiny. And it’s that kind of philosophical scrutiny that ultimately led Augustine to think past his materialism. He encountered this in the work of the Platonists:

“Thou [God] procuredst for me… certain books of the Platonists.”

“But having read then those books of the Platonists, and thence been taught to search for incorporeal truth, I saw Thy invisible things, understood by those things which are made.”

This is the essence of the process of the natural sciences that we go through even if without thinking about it. We come to understand incorporeal truths “by those things which are made”. We infer causation from the observation of events. We develop theories about laws of nature from empirical data. In Platonist thought this is movement along Plato’s “divided line”, an analogy he introduced in the Republic, moving from visible things to intelligible things.

In Plato’s thought this process of intellectual ascent has a single ending point, which he calls “the Form of the Good” [ἡ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἰδέα (he tou agathou idea)]. Plotinus (205 – 270) called this ultimate principle “the One” [το ἕν (to hen)]. Augustine of course, being Christian, just called this God. The intellectual ascent ultimately leads to the Christian beatific vision, The immediate knowledge of God which the angelic spirits and the souls of the just enjoy in Heaven.

Both Origen and Augustine have theories of a certain form of vision that is distinct from physical vision. For Augustine this is his notion of “intellectual vision”. Origen describes it as a kind of seeing as knowing. In On the First Principles Origen says:

“It is one thing to see, and another to know: to see and to be seen is a property of bodies; to know and to be known, an attribute of intellectual being… [the Son] did not say that no one has seen the Father, save the Son, nor any one the Son, save the Father; but His words are: ‘No one knoweth [ἐπιγινώσκω (epiginosko)] the Son, save the Father; nor any one the Father, save the Son.’ (Matthew 11:27) By which it is clearly shown, that whatever among bodily natures is called seeing and being seen, is termed, between the Father and the Son, a knowing and being known, by means of the power of knowledge, not by the frailness of the sense of sight. Because, then, neither seeing nor being seen can be properly applied to an incorporeal and invisible nature, neither is the Father, in the Gospel, said to be seen by the Son, nor the Son by the Father, but the one is said to be known by the other.”

Augustine develops a similar idea, what he calls “intellectual vision”. In his book On the Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram) Augustine distinguished between three sorts of vision.

1. Corporeal Vision
2. Imaginative Vision
3. Intellectual Vision

Quoting from Augustine:

“These are the three kinds of visions… The first, therefore, let us call Corporeal, due to the fact that it is perceived by the body and revealed by the body’s senses. The second, let us call Imaginative; whatever is not truly of the body, and yet however is to some extent, it is said imagination correctly already: and in any case it is not material, it may be however similar to the body, is in the image of the absent body, nor is the gaze distinguished from itself for that purpose. The third is called Intellectual, from intellect, due to the fact that it is mental, of the mind.” (On the Literal Meaning of Genesis 12.7.16)

Augustine demonstrates the use of these three kinds of vision by giving an example of three levels at which a person can understand the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) He says:

“Here in the reading of this one command, ‘love thy neighbor as yourself’ (Matthew. 22, 39), occur three types of vision: one is of his eyes, which appears in the writing itself; another is of the human imagination in which one’s neighbor is thought of in his absence; and third of these, which is love as such, as seen by the intellect.”

This is a very simple example from which Augustine demonstrates multiple layers of understanding. And this is similar to the levels of ascent in Plato’s divided line with likenesses of visible things, visible things, and the ideas abstracted from them, visible to the intellect. In reading a text there is the physical visual sensation in which we see the ink imprinted on a page. But while reading that we also think about what things the ink refers to, which is a more sophisticated level of understanding. And finally we can gather general principles from the particular thoughts generated by the text. In the case of this example: from ink, to the thought of one’s neighbor, one eventually thinks about the general principle of love itself. And love as such has no visible image. It is understood thoroughly by the intellect, no doubt accompanied by corresponding sentiments. Augustine says of the things seen in intellectual vision that they “have no images resembling them. The objects of intellectual vision are perceived proprie (“in their own nature”), not imaginaliter (“through a representation”).

Virtues like love are important objects of intellectual vision. And intellectual vision of the virtues is closely tied to the intellectual vision of God. Augustine says:

“This spiritual nature, therefore, in which not the bodies, but similarities to bodies are expressed, having visions of an inferior variety, as that of the mind, even the light of intelligence… they do not have any similar material forms; even as the mind itself and all good dispositions of spirit to which they are opposed in their vices, which are correctly condemned and are even condemned in men. To what end is the intellect to be understood, except truly in some other way? And thus love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control, and so forth, of such by which he is drawn near to God (Galatians 5:22-23) and God himself, from whom all things, through whom all things, in whom all things (Romans 11:36).” (On the Literal Meaning of Genesis 12.24.50)

The idea here being that the mind being able, through intellectual vision, to understand important moral abstractions like the virtues is also able, in a similar way, to eventually understand God, from whom these moral virtues emanate. There’s an interesting example of this kind of vision in Exodus.

In Exodus 33 it says that, “The Lord spoke to Moses face to face.” Not only that but, “as a man speaks to his friend.” They were in close proximity, both in space (of some kind) and in their regard for one another. It is repeated, several times in this chapter, that Moses had found “favor”, חֵן (chen), in the eyes of the Lord. And this favor is repeatedly mentioned as the reason that the Lord grants Moses’s entreaties.

Whatever had happened in verses 11 Moses requests even more. In verse 18 he says: “Please, show me Your glory.” Your כָּבוֹד (kabod). God’s response is interesting. He says: “I will make all My goodness [טוּב (tub)] pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (verse 19) Moses asks to see God’s glory (kabod) and God responds that he will see his goodness (tub). God also declares his capacity to be gracious [חָנַן (chanan)] and to be merciful [רָחַם (racham)].

We see more of this in the next chapter, Exodus 34, in which God proclaims the name of YHWH, saying: “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful [רַחוּם (rachum)] and gracious [חַנּוּן (chanun)], longsuffering, and abounding in goodness [חֵסֵד (chesed)] and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7) Traditionally this act of self-revelation is known as the Thirteen Attributes. This prayer, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, is recited in times of crisis to beseech God to show mercy. It contains thirteen Names and descriptions of God, all of them referring to God’s compassion in various situations. In this remarkable theophany, self-revelation of God, to Moses what we have recorded is a revelation of attributes.

Isn’t that interesting? In what way would Moses, or any other person, perceive these kinds of attributes? Mercy, graciousness, longsuffering, goodness, truth, forgiveness, justice? I think Augustine’s theories make sense here. We could think about them at the three levels of vision: corporeal, imaginative, and intellectual. There are the words for these attributes, taking physical form as ink on a page, pixels on a screen, or sound waves in the air. Then we can imagine, or maybe remember, particular examples of these attributes in individuals, maybe people we know, or people in the scriptures, like especially Jesus Christ. And then we can perceive in the intellect the attributes as such: mercy, graciousness, longsuffering, goodness, truth, forgiveness, justice. And when we do this we are closer to perceiving God himself.

Full perception of God would seem to be beyond our possibility in mortality. The third of our philosopher-theologians, Thomas Aquinas, talks about this in his Summa Theologiae. This comes up in Question 12, Article 11: “Whether anyone in this life can see the essence of God”. Aquinas concludes:

“God cannot be seen in His essence by a mere human being, except he be separated from this mortal life. The reason is because, as was said above, the mode of knowledge follows the mode of the nature of the knower. But our soul, as long as we live in this life, has its being in corporeal matter; hence naturally it knows only what has a form in matter, or what can be known by such a form. Now it is evident that the Divine essence cannot be known through the nature of material things… This can be seen in the fact that the more our soul is abstracted from corporeal things, the more it is capable of receiving abstract intelligible things. Hence in dreams and alienations of the bodily senses divine revelations and foresight of future events are perceived the more clearly.”

This is consistent with the statement by God in Exodus that:

“You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.”

What followed after this is (maybe) an intriguing illustration of the partial but necessarily incomplete vision of God that a human may have in mortality. God says:

“Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”’ (Exodus 33:20-23)

God says that Moses will see his back [אָחוֹר (achor)] but not his face [פָנִים (panim)].

What’s going on here? It would seem that Moses’s experience of seeing God must be limited. We might ask, as we asked at the beginning of this episode, is this limitation due to God deliberately withholding the complete vision? Or is it just an intrinsic limitation of the nature of the thing being revealed? To use Origen’s distinction, is the face, panim, of God merely “unseen” or is it actually “invisible”, not capable of being seen physically?

Rabbi Sforno (1470 – 1550) commented on this verse saying (in God’s words): “Your inability to see what you would like to see is not due to My depriving you, personally, of such an experience, but is rooted in man’s inability to see such things unless you had died first, as an eye of flesh and blood cannot see such things. You would be fatally blinded before understanding anything you would see.”

Both Aquinas and Sforno hold that no human can see the essence of God on this side of death. Sforno says “an eye of flesh and blood cannot see such things”. And Aquinas says that “Divine essence cannot be known through the nature of material things.” Knowledge of the divine essence can be approximated, as Aquinas says, “the more our soul is abstracted from corporeal things”. But full knowledge and intellectual vision of God can only be received after physical death, which is why, like Moses, no mortal person can see God and live.

The issue of God and images is prominent throughout the Torah. Making images to worship, even images of the Lord God interestingly enough, are strictly forbidden. The golden calf may have been an attempt to make an image of the Lord God himself. But that didn’t make it any less egregious. The Israelites are given the commandment:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image [פֶסֶל (pesel)]—any likeness [תִּמוּנָה (temunah)] of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” (Exodus 20:4-5)

We find an expansion on this commandment in Deuteronomy:

“Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form [תִּמוּנָה (temunah)] when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth. And take heed, lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them, which the Lord your God has given to all the peoples under the whole heaven as a heritage.” (Deuteronomy 4:15-19)

The text here is primarily concerned with the ethical issue of how the Israelites are to conduct themselves, what they should and should not do. But there’s an interesting hint here to a metaphysical matter as well that underlies the ethical. “For you saw no form [תִּמוּנָה (temunah)] when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire.” It’s not just the case that the Israelites shouldn’t make carved images of the Lord; based off of some image that was present but forbidden for them to copy. There wasn’t even an image there. It wouldn’t even be possible in principle for them to make an image of the Lord because there was no temunah.

This is interesting to compare with a couple verses in the first chapter of the Bible:

“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image [צֶלֶם (tzelem)], according to Our likeness [דְּמוּת (demuth)]; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image [צֶלֶם (tzelem)]; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

Human beings are made in the image of God. Notably by God. The Hebrew words used here are not the same, but I think the concept is similar enough. In what way are humans created in the “image of God”, in the [צֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים (tzelem elohim)]? One interesting thing about this tzelem is that it has both male and female manifestations. A lot of possibilities here but one thing I’ll observe is that attributes like humanness, maleness, femaleness, along with virtuous attributes like mercy, graciousness, longsuffering, goodness, truth, forgiveness, justice are abstract concepts that in the philosophies of Augustine and Aquinas are understood most fully by the intellect, rather than through physical form or the image of physical form.

Aquinas developed his theory of knowing and seeing God extensively in his Question 12 of the Summa, Prima Pars: “How God is Known By Us”. First, Aquinas affirmed that it is indeed possible for a created intellect to see the essence of God:

“Since everything is knowable according as it is actual, God, Who is pure act without any admixture of potentiality, is in Himself supremely knowable. But what is supremely knowable in itself, may not be knowable to a particular intellect, on account of the excess of the intelligible object above the intellect.”

Aquinas says that God is not only knowable but “supremely knowable”. God is “pure act”. Here he’s making use of the Aristotelian concepts of potentiality and actuality. Aristotle understood God to be supremely and recursively intellectual, as “a thinking of thinking” [νοήσεως νόησις (noeseos noesis)]:

Quoting from the his Metaphysics:

“Hence it is actuality rather than potentiality that is held to be the divine possession of rational thought, and its active contemplation is that which is most pleasant and best. If, then, the happiness which God always enjoys is as great as that which we enjoy sometimes, it is marvellous; and if it is greater, this is still more marvellous. Nevertheless it is so. Moreover, life belongs to God. For the actuality of thought [νοῦ ἐνέργεια (nou energeia)] is life, and God is that actuality; and the essential actuality of God is life most good and eternal. We hold, then, that God is a living being, eternal, most good; and therefore life and a continuous eternal existence belong to God; for that is what God is.” (Metaphysics 12.1072b)

“The actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality.” But what is the subject of that thought? Aristotle says: “Mind thinks itself, if it is that which is best; and its thinking is a thinking of thinking (noeseos noesis)”. (Metaphysics 12.1074b)

This being the case, God is supremely intelligible by the intellect. Whatever limitations human beings have to seeing the essence of God in their intellect is due to limitations in the capacities of their intellects, rather than in the intrinsic intelligibility of God. Aquinas says:

“But what is supremely knowable in itself, may not be knowable to a particular intellect, on account of the excess of the intelligible object above the intellect; as, for example, the sun, which is supremely visible, cannot be seen by the bat by reason of its excess of light.”

Not only bats for that matter. Even we humans cannot see the sun directly. But that’s not because it’s not invisible, but rather because it’s too visible. It produces more light than we can handle. That’s a physical analogy. In the case of God the analogy is to intellectual visibility, or intelligibility. If we can’t see God with our intellectual vision it’s not because God is intrinsically unintelligible but rather because God is too intelligible, of greater intelligibility than we are able to understand. Nevertheless, Aquinas does think it is possible for created intellect to see God’s essence. It just needs the aid of divine grace.

In Question 12, Article 4 Aquinas responds to the question of “Whether any created intellect by its natural powers can see the divine essence”. Aquinas concludes that:

“It is impossible for any created intellect to see the essence of God by its own natural power… To know self-subsistent being is natural to the divine intellect alone; and this is beyond the natural power of any created intellect; for no creature is its own existence, forasmuch as its existence is participated. Therefore the created intellect cannot see the essence of God, unless God by His grace unites Himself to the created intellect, as an object made intelligible to it.”

Aquinas is appealing to the fundamental ontological difference between created things and their creator. He says, “To know self-subsistent being is natural to the divine intellect alone.” God is the only self-subsistent being, whose existence is not derived from any other thing. For created beings it’s not natural to know this kind of self-subsistent being. But this kind of knowledge can be given by grace.

So Aquinas is quite optimistic about the possibility of a created intellect seeing the essence of God, with the aid of divine grace. What is the nature of that seeing? Is it with physical sight? Here Aquinas is consistent with both Origen and Augustine. Consistent with Origen’s concept of God’s physical invisibility.

In Question 12, Article 3 Aquinas addresses the question of “Whether the essence of God can be seen with the bodily eye?” He says:

“It is impossible for God to be seen by the sense of sight, or by any other sense, or faculty of the sensitive power. For every such kind of power is the act of a corporeal organ.”

Aquinas makes the case that the kind of sight in which the created intellect may see the essence of God is a sight of some other kind, other than physical sight. He uses the example of Ephesians 1:17-18.

“Likewise the words, ‘Now my eye seeth Thee,’ are to be understood of the mind’s eye, as the Apostle says: ‘May He give unto you the spirit of wisdom… in the knowledge of Him, that the eyes of your heart’ may be ‘enlightened’”.

Wisdom [σοφία (sophia]) and knowledge [ἐπίγνωσις (epignosis)] may enlighten the “eyes of the heart” [τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς τῆς καρδίας (tous ophthalmous tes kardias)]. In talking about “eyes of the heart” we’re clearly speaking of something other than physical vision. It’s seeing in another way.

Speaking further of this “intellectual vision” Aquinas says:

“The sense of sight, as being altogether material, cannot be raised up to immateriality. But our intellect, or the angelic intellect, inasmuch as it is elevated above matter in its own nature, can be raised up above its own nature to a higher level by grace.”

“We have a more perfect knowledge of God by grace than by natural reason. Which is proved thus. The knowledge which we have by natural reason contains two things: images derived from the sensible objects; and the natural intelligible light, enabling us to abstract from them intelligible conceptions.”

Bringing this is all to conclusion I’d like to look at examples from scripture in which we are able to see God through His self-revelation in Christ. Paul says that Christ is “the image of the invisible God [εἰκὼν τοῦ Θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου (eikon tou theou tou aoratou)]” (Colossians 1:15). That seems almost like an oxymoron. How can there be an image of something that’s invisible? I think that here again, as in many instances before, we have to think about the possible different meanings of the words so that they can make sense. Two important terms here are image [εἰκών (eikon)] and invisible [ἀόρατος (aoratos)]. Starting with the invisible, we could say that there are aspects of Christ that are physically visible and others that are physically invisible. Christ’s body is certainly visible. But since Christ is God he also has divine attributes that are invisible, just like those of the father. The senses in which Christ is an image are quite rich. Certainly he is a physical image in his body. Paul says that in Christ “dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” [σωματικῶς (somatikos)] (Colossians 1:9). Jesus himself also says:

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6)


“He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works. Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves.” (John 14:9-11)

This can certainly pertain to Christ’s body. But Jesus also points to his words [ῥήματα, (rhemata)] and to his works [ἔργα (erga)]. Not only Christ’s body, which most of his do not physically see, but also his entire way of life, his words and his works, as recorded in the scriptures, show us the Father. And those certainly are available to us.

In Matthew Jesus says:

“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:29)

In inviting us to learn from Him Christ points to His attributes, that he is “gentle and lowly in heart”. Recall how God revealed Himself to Moses when Moses had asked to show him his glory. God made his goodness pass before him and proclaimed his graciousness, compassion, longsuffering, truth, forgiveness, and justice.

Augustine proposed that we could move up through levels of vision from the corporeal to the imaginative to the intellectual. If there’s something to that I’d propose that the most fruitful way to do this is through Jesus Christ. In my Christo-centric theology Christ is always the Way [ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos)].

So let’s return to the question at the start of this episode. Why doesn’t God just show himself to everyone? Wouldn’t that clear up a lot? Why does God have to be seemingly “hidden” and why is faith, whatever its purported virtue, even necessary?

We see that the understanding of traditional Christianity, both in the scriptures and in the history of theology, is that seeing God is necessarily a different kind of seeing than that of physical sight. This is a consequence of God’s intrinsically invisible nature. As Origen said, it’s not that God could be seen physically and simply decides to hide Himself from us. Rather seeing God is a process of intellectual vision, with what Paul calls the “eyes of the heart” [τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς τῆς καρδίας (tous ophthalmous tes kardias)]. So how is this done? At the end of the day it comes down to basic Christian practice. Reading of scripture, prayer, Christian fellowship in the Church, and all the sacraments. All this theoretical background isn’t necessary to engage in the process. But if the question over why God doesn’t reveal Himself to everyone physically has bothered you it could be helpful. I find it helpful and think others may find it helpful, even though it’s quite demanding. We have the scriptures and we can read about Jesus Christ, his life, words, and teachings. As we read these words and think about them and put them into practice they will expand our understanding, so that we can grasp the fullness of these attributes in our intellect. This is the Way to the Father, always through Christ, eventually to be able to see, with the eyes of the heart, the very essence of God.

The Tikal-Calakmul Wars

One of the great things about Mesoamerican history is that we know so much about it. Names of places like Tikal, Calakmul, and Copán might inspire images of stone temples with a mysterious, long-lost history. This may have been true one hundred years ago. But today we know a great deal about their history because we can read their writing. We know the names of their rulers. We know important things that they did. In fact, they put a lot of effort into making sure their histories were preserved for posterity. Thanks to these records we have some very exciting and interesting history.

One of the great things about Mesoamerican history is that we know so much about it. Names of places like Tikal, Calakmul, and Copán might inspire images of stone temples with a mysterious, long-lost history. This may have been true one hundred years ago. But today we know a great deal about their history because we can read their writing. We know the names of their rulers. We know important things that they did. In fact, they put a lot of effort into making sure their histories were preserved for posterity. Thanks to these records we have some very exciting and interesting history.

One of the most important things to understand about Mayan politics in the Classic Period was the rivalry between Tikal and Calakmul. The clashes between these two states dominated the region. These are often called the Tikal-Calakmul Wars and they took place between 537 to 744. These two states forged complicated networks of alliances with other states as they competed for dominance. It’s great history, full of violence and intrigue. Other key players in the great wars included Dos Pilas, Copán, Quiriguá, Naranjo, and Caracol. This period of warefare can be divided into three warring periods: The First Tikal-Calakmul War (537–572), The Second Tikal-Calakmul War (650–695), and the Third Tikal-Calakmul War (720–744).

In what follows I will give a historical narrative of events in the Tikal-Calakmul Wars without referring to all the archeological evidence and glyphs that were used to construct it. This kind of detailed background is available in Robert Sharer and Loa Traxler’s excellent book The Ancient Maya.


Before the ascendancy of Calakmul, Tikal had been the dominant power in the region. One of the most important events in the history of Tikal occurred in 378 when it’s ruler, Chak Tok Ich’aak I (Great Jaguar Paw), was killed by foreign invaders. Chak Tok Ich’aak was defeated by one Siyaj K’ak’ (Fireborn) ostensibly under the auspices of Teotichuacan. Siyaj K’ak’ was serving under Spearthrower Owl, possibly the ruler of Teotichuacan. The first ruler of the new dynasty was Yax Nuun Ayiin I. The new dynasty installed in Tikal was thereafter influenced by Teotihuacan culture mixed with Mayan culture. Tikal exercised significant influence over states in the region in ways that would set the stage for the alliances in the Tikal-Calakmul wars. In 426, Tikal installed K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ as the first ruler of Copán. Copán in turn founded the vassal state of Quiriguá in 426. Calakmul was a less important power in the region until the onset of the First Tikal-Calakmul War in 537.

The First Tikal-Calakmul War (537-572)

Calakmul began to wield more influence in the region after Yaxchilan captured the rulers of Bonampak, Lakamtuun, and Calakmul in 537. After its defeat by Yaxchilan, Calakmul retaliated and conquered Yaxchilan. Calakmul then began to show more ambition, conquering other states. In 546 Calakmul defeated Naranjo and installed Aj Wosal as ruler. This gave Calakmul hegemony over Naranjo and extended its sphere of influence. Meanwhile, in Tikal, Wak Chan K’awill oversaw the inauguration of Yajaw Te’ K’inich II in Caracol. Wak Chan K’awill may have been reacting to Calakmul’s growing power by strengthening an alliance with Caracol. In any event a Tikal-Caracol alliance was not to last.

Tikal and Caracol broke whatever alliance they had and the two states went to war with each other in 556. But things were going to get worse for Tikal. In 561, a new ruler named Sky Witness came to power in Calakmul. One year later, in 562, Wak Chan K’awill was captured by Caracol, which had switched alliances and joined Calakmul. Under this new Calakmul-Caracol alliance Wak Chan K’awill was offered as sacrifice and Tikal suffered significant loss of prestige and influence. Tikal did win some less significant battles in the years following, such as a victory over Caracol in 564. But by 572 Tikal was thoroughly defeated and the First Tikal-Calakmul more came to a close. That same year Sky Witness died.

After the First Tikal-Calakmul War, Tikal entered a period of hiatus. During this time Calakmul strengthened its hegemony. In 579 Scroll Serpent came to power in Calakmul. In 611 Scroll Serpent launched a major campaign against Palenque. The reason for this campaign is not known for certain but Palenque may have been a Tikal ally and this may have been part of the larger conflict between the two states. This attack on Palenque was an impressive logistical achievement and a fine demonstration of Calakmul’s power and ambition. It was a long-distance campaign. Palenque lies nearly 300 km from Calakmul and the army needed to cross several rivers, including the Usumacinta, to get there. As an aside, it was during this time that the future king of Palenque, K’inich Janaab Pakal I, was a young boy. K’inich Janaab Pakal I (603-683), or Pacal the Great, would later become one of the most famous rulers in Mesoamerican history. Pacal’s tomb is also one of the most impressive tombs to have been discovered in the Americas.

There was also trouble within the Calakmul alliance. Caracol and Naranjo were both allies of Calakmul but they were also longtime enemies of each other. In 626 Caracol launched two attacks on Naranjo. Caracol’s king, Tajoom Uk’ab’ K’ak’ was dead shortly after in 630, possibly from conflict with Naranjo. In 631 it seems that Calakmul’s ruler, Yuknoom Head, dealt with these inter-alliance conflicts by conquering Naranjo and torturing its ruler.

Meanwhile in Tikal, Ajaw K’inich Muwaan Jol II founded the vassal state of Dos Pilas in 629, installing his own son, B’alaj Chan K’awiil, as its ruler. B’alaj Chan K’awiil was going to have an important part to play in the upcoming resurgence of conflict with Calakmul. Tikal’s influence was beginning to resurface and become a threat to Calakmul, which was now becoming accustomed to its preeminent position.

The Second Tikal-Calakmul War (650–695)

In 636 one of the most important rulers in Maya history came to power in Calakmul. His name was Yuknoom Ch’een II, also known as Yuknoom the Great. He was to reign for 50 years from 636 to 686. In 650 Yuknoom the Great launched an attack on Dos Pilas, Tikal’s recently formed vassal state. This began the Second Tikal-Calakmul War. The ruler of Dos Pilas, B’alaj Chan K’awiil, was the son of the late Tikal ruler Ajaw K’inich Muwaan Jol II. B’alaj Chan K’awiil was forced to flee from Dos Pilas to Aguateca.

In 657 Yuknoom the Great attacked Tikal itself, which was now under the rule of Nuun Ujol Chaak. If Nuun Ujol Chaak was the son of previous ruler, Ajaw K’inich Muwaan Jol II, he would have been the brother of the exiled Dos Pilas ruler B’alaj Chan K’awiil. If these two were indeed brothers they were about to be engaged in a fracticidal conflict of shifting alliances. In any event, Nuun Ujol Chaak was forced to flee Tikal. That same year B’alaj Chan K’awiil accepted Yuknoom the Great as his overlord and Dos Pilas, the vassal state Tikal had founded, moved into the Calakmul alliance.

After submitting to Calakmul, B’alaj Chan K’awiil was able to return to Dos Pilas but 15 years later, in 672, he was forced to flee again. That year Nuun Ujol Chaak attacked Dos Pilas and B’alaj Chan K’awiil fled to Chaak Naah. Seemingly in relentless pursuit, Nuun Ujol Chaak burned down Chaak Naah, forcing B’alaj Chan K’awiil to flee yet again, this time to Hix Witz. In 677 Calakmul defeated Nuun Ujol Chaak at Pulil and B’alaj Chan K’awiil was once again able to return to Dos Pilas.

The conflict between Tikal, Dos Pilas, and Calakmul came to a head in 679, when Dos Pilas and Calakmul finally defeated and killed Nuun Ujol Chaak. The battle was apparently very bloody and celebrated for this fact. In 682 B’alaj Chan K’awiil commissioned inscriptions to commemorate his struggles and ultimate, glorious victory over Tikal. Famously, the inscriptions speak of “pools of blood” and “piles of heads” in the great battle. B’alaj Chan K’awiil spent a lot of effort to assure his legacy, quite successfully it seems. B’alaj Chan K’awiil also strenghtened his position through marriage alliances. He produced his heir, Itzamnaaj Balam, through a wife from the nobility of Itzan. Through his second wife came a daughter, named Lady Six Sky.

Meanwhile, Caracol’s influence began to decline after a defeat at the hands of its old rival, Naranjo, in 680. Caracol’s deposed king, K’ak’ Ujol K’inich II, fled. In 682 the daughter of Dos Pilas ruler B’alaj Chan K’awiil, Lady Six Sky, was chosen as ruler of Naranjo. She proved to be an exceptional leader and appears on several monuments. She was never formally ruler herself but carried out royal functions and seems to have been the de facto ruler. In 688 K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Chaak become official ruler of Naranjo but he was only 5 years old at the time. He was probably Lady Six Sky’s son and she almost certainly acted as regent for quite some time. Lady Six Sky seems to have lead Naranjo in 8 military campaigns in the first 5 years of K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Chaak’s reign, including a victory against Tikal in 695.

Meanwhile, in Tikal a sleeping giant was growing. In 682 Jasaw Chan K’awill I came to power and launched an ambitious cultural revitalization program. This program included the construction of temples and tombs that pointed back to Tikal’s glorious past, before it lost it’s preeminence to Calakmul. It was clear that Jasaw Chan K’awill I’s revitalization not only pointed to a glorious past but looked forward to a similarly glorious future. This was an ominous sign for Calakmul.

In 695 the Second Tikal-Calakmul War came to a climax. Tikal recorded that it successfully confronted Calakmul, “bringing down the flint and shield” of its ruler, Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ak’. In an important symbolic move, in a world rich in symbolism, Tikal captured a huge effigy of one of Calakmul’s patron deities. Jasaw Chan K’awill I celebrated his victory with ceremony and inscriptions. Ever one to connect Tikal’s glory to the past, he chose to hold his victory celebration on the anniversary of the death of Spearthrower Owl, father of the Yax Nuun Ayiin I, who had replaced Chak Tok Ich’aak I as ruler back in 379.

The Third Tikal-Calakmul War (720-744)

The great victory of Tikal over Calakmul in 695 changed the course history in the region. It went a long way to restore Tikal’s prestige and dominance. But there were still some important events in the region following this great battle. The Third Tikal-Calakmul War involved two very key players: Copán and Quiriguá. Recall that before the wars, Tikal had founded Copán in 426, installing as its ruler K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. Copán in turn founded its own vassal state of Quiriguá in 426. This system of relations was critical to what would follow.

In 725 the ruler of Copán, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil (18-Rabbit), installed K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat as a subordinate ruler in Quiriguá. But by 734 K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat had declared Quiriguá independent from Copán. Things got even more complicated a couple years later. As a subordinate state to Copán, Quiriguá had been, by extension, subject to Tikal. Quiriguá had been part of a network of alliances tied to Tikal. But in 736 Calakmul’s ruler, Wamaw K’awiil, met with K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat and forged an alliance. Quiriguá had switched sides.

Quiriguá was a smaller state than Copán and presumably less powerful on its own. But with a superpower like Calakmul backing it, Quiriguá was able to challenge and actually defeat Copán. In 738 K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat captured his former overlord, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, and beheaded him. It was a dramatic reversal.

However, Calakmul was ultimately not able to permanently thwart Tikal’s regained dominance. In 743 Tikal conquered El Peru. In 744 also defeated Naranjo and then Calakmul itself ending the Third Tikal-Calakmul War.


The history of both kingdoms was much less glorious following the events of the great battle of 695 and the battles between Copán and Quiriguá. In fact, the entire region seems to have entered into a decline, at least as far as organizational complexity is concerned. The reasons for the decline of the Classic Maya civilization are heavily debated. One theory is that the Tikal-Calakmul Wars took such a toll on the inhabitants of Mesoamerica that it led to a collapse. Other theories include drought, climate change, overpopulation, and mismanagement of natural resources. Popular theories like drought focus on external forces that we can measure and quantify archeologically. But it is also possible that various cultural trends contributed to a change in the structure of the civilization. But a simultaneous decrease in the amount records being kept at this time makes cultural causes difficult to corroborate. Eventually new powers like Uxmal and Chichen Itza came to dominate in Terminal Classic and Postclassic.

Additional Reading

Sharer, Robert J., and Loa P. Traxler. The Ancient Maya. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2006.

Edwin Barnhart. Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2015.

Simon Martin, and Nikolai Grube. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 2008.