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Synonyms of the New Testament :: Richard C. Trench

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xlii. ταπεινοφροσύνη, πραότης.

The work for which Christ’s Gospel came into the world was no less than to put down the mighty from their seat, and to exalt the humble and meek. It was then only in accordance with this its mission that it should dethrone the heathen virtue μεγαλοψυχία, and set up the despised Christian grace ταπεινοφροσύνη in its room, stripping that of the honour it had unjustly assumed, delivering this from the dishonour which as unjustly had clung to it hitherto; and in this direction advancing so far that a Christian writer has called this last not merely a grace, but the casket or treasure house in which all other graces are contained (γαζοφυλάκιον ἀρετῶν, Basil, Const. Mon. 16). And indeed not the grace only, but the very word ταπεινοφροσύνη is itself a fruit of the Gospel; no Greek writer employed it before the Christian aera, nor, apart from the influence of Christian writers, after. In the Septuagint ταπεινόφρων occurs once (Prov. 29:23) and ταπεινοφρονεῖν as often (Ps. 130:2); both words being used in honour. Plutarch too has advanced as far as ταπεινόφρων (De Alex. Virt. ii. 4), but employs it in an ill sense; and the use by heathen writers of ταπεινός, ταπεινότης, and other words of this family, shows plainly how they would have employed ταπεινοφροσύνη, had they thought good to allow it. The instances are few and exceptional in which ταπεινός signifies anything for them which is not grovelling, slavish, and mean-spirited. It keeps company with ἀνελεύθερος (Plato, Legg. iv. 774 c); with ἀνδραποδώδης (Eth. Eudem. iii. 3); with ἀγεννής (Lucian, De Calum. 24); with κατηφής (Plutarch, Fab. Max. 18); with ἄδοξος (De Vit. Pud. 14); with δουλικός, δουλοπρεπής (Philo, Quod Omn. Prob. Lib. 4); with χαμαίζηλος (De Leg. Spec. 1), and the like: just as the German ‘Demuth,’ born as it was in the heathen period of the language, is properly and originally ‘servilis animus, ’—‘deo’ (== servus) constituting the first syllable of it (Grimm, Wörterbuch, s. v.)—and only under the influences of Christianity attained to its present position of honour.Etym. Note. 23

Still those exceptional cases are more numerous than some will allow. Thus Plato in a very memorable passage (Legg. iv. 716 a) links ταπεινός with κεκοσμημένος, as in Demosthenes we have λόγοι μέτριοι καὶ ταπεινοί: while Xenophon more than once sets the ταπεινός over against the ὑπερήφανος (Ages. ii. 11; cf. aeschyhs, Prom. Vinct. 328; Luke 1:51, 52): and see for its worthier use a noble passage in Plutarch, De Prof. in Virt. 10; and another, De Serâ Num. Vind. 3, where the purpose of the divine punishments is set forth as being that the soul may become σύννους καὶ ταπεινὴ, καὶ κατάφοβος πρὸς τὸν Θεόν. Combined with these prophetic intimations of the honour which should one day be rendered even to the very words expressive of humility, it is very interesting to note that Aristotle himself has a vindication, and it only needs to receive its due extension to be a complete one, of the Christian ταπεινοφροσύνη (Ethic. Nic. iv. 3. 3; cf. Brandis, Aristoteles, p. 1408; and Nägelsbach, Homer. Theologie, p. 336). Having confessed how hard it is for a man τῇ ἀληθείᾳ μεγαλόψυχον εἶναι—for he will allow no μεγαλοψυχία, or great- souledness, which does not rest on corresponding realities of goodness and moral greatness, and his μεγαλόψυχος is one μεγάλων αὑτὸν ἀξιῶν, ἄ ξιος ὤν—he goes on to observe, though merely by the way and little conscious how far his words reached, that to think humbly of oneself, where that humble estimate is the true one, cannot be imputed to any as a culpable meanness of spirit; it is rather the true σωφροσύνη (ὁ γὰρ μικρῶν ἄξιος, καὶ τούτων ἀξιῶν ἑαυτόν, σώφρων). But if this be so (and who will deny it?), then, seeing that for every man the humble estimate of himself is the true one, Aristotle has herein unconsciously vindicated ταπεινοφροσύνη as a grace in which every man ought to abound; for that which he, even according to the standard which he set up, confessed to be a χαλεπόν, namely τῇ ἀληθείᾳ μεγαλόψυχον εἶναι, the Christian, convinced by the Spirit of God, and having in his Lord a standard of perfect righteousness before his eyes, knows to be not merely a χαλεπόν, but an ἀδύνατον. Such is the Christian ταπεινοφροσύνη, no mere modesty or absence of pretension, which is all that the heathen would at the very best have found in it; nor yet a self-made grace; and Chrysostom is in fact bringing in pride again under the disguise of humility, when he characterizes it as a making of ourselves small, when we are great (ταπεινοφροσύνη τοῦτό ἐστιν, ὅταν τις μέγας ὤν, ἑαυτὸν ταπεινοῖ: and he repeats this often; see Suicer, Thes. s. v.). Far truer and deeper is St. Bernard’s definition: ‘Est virtus quâ quis ex verissimâ sui cognitione sibi ipsi vilescit;’ the esteeming of ourselves small, inasmuch as we are so; the thinking truly, and because truly, therefore lowlily, of ourselves.

But it may be objected, how does this account of Christian ταπεινοφροσύνη, as springing out of and resting on the sense of unworthiness, agree with the fact that the sinless Lord laid claim to this grace, and said, “I am meek and lowly in heart” (ταπεινὸς τῇ καρδίᾳ, Matt. 11:29)? The answer is, that for the sinner ταπεινοφροσύνη, involves the confession of sin, inasmuch as it involves the confession of his true condition; while yet for the unfallen creature the grace itself as truly exists, involving for such the acknowledgment not of sinfulness, which would be untrue, but of creatureliness, of absolute dependence, of having nothing, but receiving all things of God. And thus the grace of humility belongs to the highest angel before the throne, being as he is a creature, yea, even to the Lord of Glory Himself. In his human nature He must be the pattern of all humility, of all creaturely dependence; and it is only as a man that Christ thus claims to be ταπεινός: his human life was a constant living on the fulness of his Father’s love; He evermore, as man, took the place which beseemed the creature in the presence of its Creator.

The Gospel of Christ did not rehabilitate πραότης so entirely as it had done ταπεινοφροσύνη, but this, because the word did not need rehabilitation to the same extent. Πραότης did not require to be transformed from a bad sense to a good, but only to be lifted up from a lower level of good to a higher. This indeed it did need; for no one can read Aristotle’s portraiture of the πρᾶος and of πραότης (Ethic. Nic. iv. 5), mentally comparing the heathen virtue with the Christian grace, and not feel that Revelation has given to these words a depth, a richness, a fulness of significance which they were very far from possessing before. The great moralist of Greece set πραότης as the μεσότης περὶ ὀργῆς, between the two extremes, ὀργιλότης and ἀοργησία, with, however, so much leaning to the latter that it might very easily run into this defect; and he finds it worthy of praise, more because by it a man retains his own equanimity and composure (the word is associated by Plutarch with μετριοπάθεια, De Frat. Am. 18; with ἀχολία, Cons. ad Uxor. 2; with ἀνεξικακία, De Cap. ex In. Util. 9; with μεγαλοπάθεια, De Ser. Num. Vind. 5; with εὐπείθεια, Comp. Num. et Lyc. 3; with εὐκολία, De Virt. et Vit. 1), than for any nobler reason. Neither does Plutarch’s own graceful little essay, Περὶ ἀοργησίας, rise anywhere to a loftier pitch than this, though we might have looked for something higher from him. Πραότης is opposed by Plato to ἀγριότης (Symp. 197 d); by Aristotle to χαλεπότης (Hist. Anim. ix. 1; cf. Plato, Rep. vi. 472 f); by Plutarch or some other under his name, to ἀποτομία (De Lib. Ed. 18); all indications of a somewhat superficial meaning by them attached to the word.

Those modern expositors who will not allow for the new forces at work in sacred Greek, who would fain restrict, for instance, the πραότης of the N. T. to that sense which the word, as employed by the best classical writers, would have borne, deprive themselves and as many as accept their interpretation of much of the deeper teaching in Scripture:1 on which subject, and with reference to this very word, there are some excellent observations by F. Spanheim, Dubia Evangelica, vol. iii. p. 398; by Rambach, Inst. Herm. Sac. p. 169;2 cf. also, passim, the lecture or little treatise by Zezschwitz, Profangräcität und Biblischer Sprachgeist, from which I have already given (p. 1) an interesting extract; and the article, Hellenistisches Idiom, by Reuss in Herzog’s Real-Encyclopädie. The Scriptural πραότης is not in a man’s outward behaviour only; nor yet in his relations to his fellow-men; as little in his mere natural disposition. Rather is it an inwrought grace of the soul; and the exercises of it are first and chiefly towards God (Matt. 11:29; Jam. 1:21). It is that temper of spirit in which we accept his dealings with us as good, and therefore without disputing or resisting; and it is closely linked with the ταπεινοφροσύνη, and follows directly upon it (Ephes. 4:2; Col. 3:12; cf. Zeph. 3:12); because it is only the humble heart which is also the meek; and which, as such, does not fight against God, and more or less struggle and contend with Him.

This meekness, however, being first of all a meekness before God, is also such in the face of men, even of evil men, out of a sense that these, with the insults and injuries which they may inflict, are remitted and employed by Him for the chastening and purifying of his elect. This was the root of David’s πραότης, when Shimei cursed and flung stones at him—the consideration, namely, that the Lord had bidden him (2 Sam. 16:11), that it was just for him to suffer these things, however unjustly the other might inflict them; and out of like convictions all true Christian πραότης must spring. He that is meek indeed will know himself a sinner among sinners;—or, if there was One who could not know Himself such, yet He too bore a sinner’s doom, and endured therefore the contradiction of sinners (Luke 9:35, 36; John 18:22, 23);—and this knowledge of his own sin will teach him endure meekly the provocations with which they may provoke him, and not to withdraw himself from the burdens which their sin may impose upon him (Gal. 6:1; 2 Tim. 2:25; Tit. 3:2).

Πραότης, then, or meekness, if more than mere gentleness of manner, if indeed the Christian grace of meekness of spirit, must rest on deeper foundations than its own, on those namely which ταπεινοφροσύνη has laid for it, and can only subsist while it continues to rest on these. It is a grace in advance of ταπεινοφροσύνη, not as more precious than it, but as presupposing it, and as being unable to exist without it.


1 They will do this, even though they stop short of lengths to which Fritzsche, a very learned but unconsecrated modern expositor of the Romans, has reached; who, on Rom. 1:7, writes: ‘Deinde considerandum est formulâ χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη in N. T. nihil aliud dici nisi quod Graeci illo suo χαίρεις s. εὖ πράττειν enuntiare consueverint, h. e. ut aliquis fortunatus sit, sive, ut cum Horatio loquar, Ep. 1:8. 1, ut gaudeat et bene rem gerat.’

2 He concludes, ‘Unde dignus esset reprehensione qui graciles illas et exiles notiones quas pagani de virtutibus habuerunt Christianarum virtutum nominibus subjiceret.’

[The following Strong's numbers apply to this section:G4236,G5012.]

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