by Archbishop Stylianos of Australia


In describing the “chronic illness” which tormented his whole life — and which scholars have been unable to characterise with certainty — St Paul gives a name which is not only composite, but also highly problematic. He has characterised his illness as an “angel of satan”. However, since the fall of Lucifer, the words “angel” and “satan” reveal more than just an antithesis. They signify two entire worlds, which totally refute one another. For, what is angelic completely rejects what is satanic, and vice versa. For this precise reason, our first reaction is one of surprise, before the strange “alchemy” of the name chosen by St Paul.

We know that the Apostle of the Nations had an unrivalled education, both in Jewish literature — the Law and the Prophets — and in the broader secular wisdom of the Hellenistic period. Having had the vision on the road to Damascus, St Paul was certainly in a better position than anyone else to know and appreciate the absolute antithesis expressed by the names “angel” and “satan”.

It is both the depth of his education and his extraordinarily tested spirit, which therefore make imperative a more thorough search for the meaning of this curious term.

If we read carefully the paragraph where St Paul speaks about the “affliction” of his life (2 Cor. 12:7-12), we will see that his teaching, which develops here in a climate of deep gratitude and compunction, has nothing to do with rhetorical “oxymorons”, in order to impress. At any rate, the confessional tone of his speech, especially in this case, seeks to edify and strengthen the person of faith undergoing trials. It achieves this by directly consoling, and without seeking to instruct in the long-term on a theoretical level.

To correctly approach the curious “bi-polarity” of the mixed name that the St Paul employed, it would help to remember that the interpreters of the excerpt have presented us with two differing opinions. They are uncertain as to whether the word “satan” should be understood in the nominative or genitive case. For if it is in the nominative, then the two words (angel and satan) are equally interdefinitive. However, if we are dealing with the genitive, then “angel” is considered an instrument or operation “of satan”. It seems that most interpreters prefer the second option, since this has been preserved in the principle codices as the most authentic.

If we accept that “satan” is in the nominative case — meaning that the two words remain on the same level as determinative of one another — this would lend itself to the idea that St. Paul was trying to teach endurance in the face of suffering. This means that the name “angel” is equivalent to “satan” or to put it more correctly, Satan “becomes”, under certain conditions, an “angel”.

This is an appropriate point to recall a fundamental truth regarding ‘rational beings’ in general, namely human beings and angels. These rational creatures of God have been endowed with the highest gift of freedom (‘free will’), such that they are in a position either to abide by or violate the divine will. It follows therefore that they do not possess an ‘unchanging’ nature. In other words, it is not their nature but rather their will, and their function in accordance with this within the entire plan of the divine Economy, which renders them in the end either to be ‘angelic’ (ie. evangelical and beneficial) or ‘satanic’ beings. This explains how Lucifer, one of the first among angels, could become Satan, as well as how Satan on certain occasions can possibly ‘serve’ the plan of salvation (in a pedagogical way, as in the plagues of Pharaoh).

If on the other hand we accept that ‘satan’ is in the genitive case, thereby expressing an angelic messenger directed by Satan, then of course the whole soteriological fate of the human person would be placed within the absolute dependence upon the Devil. This would put in question the omnipotence of God, or we would at least have to accept a kind of Manichean dualism. Yet the Church has rejected, and even condemned this, as a great heresy. Therefore, the term ‘satan’ must be interpreted in the nominative case.

Having made the above fundamental clarifications, let us now turn to what St. Paul means when he names his otherwise unspecified illness an “angel of satan”.

It is beyond doubt that this illness had exceedingly tormented the vulnerable body of the Apostle to the Nations. This is precisely why he does not hide the fact that he had repeatedly entreated God to relieve him of the torment. Consequently, the Apostle was justified initially in thinking that this painful adventure throughout his life was the work of Satan. However, even though the illness tormented him as “satan”, it is characteristic that he did not curse it, and he did not protest to God. He simply prayed. He had asked about this often in his prayer, nothing more.

From the answer that the Lord gave him, one can clearly see that this sickness was not a punishment. In other words it was not a penalty. Rather it was again a “privileged treatment” of Paul, by God.

However, the statement “my grace is sufficient for you”, which was the first part of his answer, would not have been sufficient to show the richness of God’s love for humanity for his faithful Apostle. The phrase “it is sufficient for you” could simply mean that “you are not in need of any other grace, you have received enough”.

However, following this is the significant “for my strength is made perfect in weakness” which gives entirely other dimensions to the words of the first section. But curiously, the codices of the manuscripts have retained two texts. Some write “teleitai”, and others “teleioutai”. However a careful analysis of the verbs shows that there is not an essential difference. And the reason for this is because, whether “teleitai”, (that is, the grace of God contributes, is made active) or “teleioutai” (that is, is fulfilled) is used, it is plainly about the fullness and immediate action of divine Love, which does not permit fractures or compromises. It is clear that just as each of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, even if they constitute “another mode of existence” of the one God, are not “a part” of the Godhead, but the whole God, so it is that the Love which expresses the “richness of His goodness” (Rom. 2:4), is not made less by the various ways that it is bestowed.

From the answer of our Lord to his plea, Paul recognises and confesses that only on account of the highest honour given through the multitude of revelations (“the abundance of Revelations”) which God entrusted to him, he had to carry the permanent “trauma”, as a “bridle” which would continually remind him of his human limits: “so that I may not become proud”. However, the danger of something like that was apparently intense, which is why Paul was forced to say twice in the same sentence, “so that I may not become proud”.

And this great martyr of the Gospel does not display false humility here. On the contrary, in gratitude he confesses that God entrusted him with unheard of and ineffable revelations, for which he could boast, without being “foolish”, but does not do it. And he does not do it, because he would not want others to see him as something more than what they see, or hear him say. The only thing that the Apostle considers that he is justified in boasting about is his ailments: “beyond me I cannot boast except for my ailments”.

This shattering humility, which crowns the confession of St Paul, becomes indeed “the key” for us to perceive the endurance of the faithful person, for whatever trials he may meet in this present life. At the same time it becomes also “the key” for the type of pride that faithful people are entitled to have, as both a hope and a comfort (it is called “expectation” among the people of Crete!), without becoming “foolish” for what God has judged them worthy to endure and to suffer. The value of “the lesson” from “suffering”, about which the Ancients also spoke, is, it seems, indispensable, since the “beatings” (ie. the slaps in the face), from whatever trials, are perceived pedagogically — another form of “the guardian angel”, as St Paul experienced it, as one of the many unprecedented revelations.

In conclusion, let us say that it is for all of us particularly instructive and comforting to look ahead with such spiritual armour at the unknowable contingencies and events which await us, as we have entered this new year and the beginning of the third Christian millennium.

from “Voice of Orthodoxy”, 2001, vol 23 no 1, p. 1-3
official publication of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia