Monday, June 30, 2014

God as the final cause of everything

Recently I read a passage from John Duns Scotus's argument for the existence of God in Philosophical Writings, tr. Allen Wolter, O.F.M. (Hackett, 1987) wherein Scotus argues that God as the ultimate efficient cause of everything else is also the ultimate final cause. That is, whereas God brings everything else besides himself into existence, he is also that for the sake of which everything else exists, and after which everything seeks, and in which everything finds its completion and wholeness.

Every per se efficient cause acts for the sake of an end, and a prior cause acts for a prior end; therefore, the first cause acts for the sake of the ultimate end. Now the first efficient cause does not act primarily or ultimately for the sake of anything distinct from itself; hence, it must act for itself as an end; therefore the first efficient cause is the ultimate end. If it were to act per se for the sake of any other end than itself, then something would be more noble than the first efficient cause, for i the end were anything apart from the agent intending the end, it would be more noble than the agent (p. 49).

There is a lot of Scholastic philosophical jargon in this passage, and it is liable to be misunderstood by the average reader without much experience in this domain. For this reason, it may be worth providing a little commentary.

In the first place there is the basic Scholastic assertion that every per se efficient cause acts for the sake of an end. Now an efficient cause is that which causes something to have being, just as the efficient cause of a model car is the person who puts it together. For something to be a per se efficient cause is obviously for it to act as an efficient cause per se, by itself, out of its own nature. To say that every per se efficient cause acts for the sake of an end is not -- I repeat, not -- to affirm that every per se efficient cause acts consciously and intentionally; after all, trees and inanimate substances may still count as per se efficient causes on the Scholastic view of things. The idea is rather that per se efficient causality is intrinsically teleological; the per se efficient cause is intrinsically disposed towards producing the specific effects it does, just as the stomach is intrinsically disposed to digest, a tree to draw nutrients and water from the soil through its roots, etc.

Now by this point in Scotus's extended argument, it has already been proven that God exists as the ultimate efficient cause of everything else. At this point he argues that God is also the end towards which everything strives, the final cause of everything that exists. His argument is that if God acted for the sake of anything else, that other thing would be more noble than God; in some way it would outrank God in value. Now it is important to know that in the Scholastic view of things, being and value are not two separate domains: it is not one thing to be real, another thing to be good, but rather they are somehow simultaneous aspects of the same thing. Since God is the ultimate efficient cause, he exists of himself and brings everything else into existence; in a way, to follow Aquinas, God simply is subsistent existence itself, or ipsum esse subsistens. Consequently God is also the paradigm of all value and goodness. If that is true, there could not be anything more noble than God, anything better than God, some good beyond God which God seeks in creating. Therefore God does not act for the sake of anything else outside of himself, as if he had a need.

This implies, of course, that everything exists for the sake of God. The Bible agrees, too, when it speaks of God, for whom and through whom everything exists (Heb 2.10), and the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live (1 Cor 8.6). There is at least one important consequence of this: everything finds its fulfillment in God; nothing else can fulfill and perfect a being except that for the sake of which it exists.

This doesn't mean that God is some object to be found somewhere in the world and consumed like food. Rather, I take it that the idea is something like this: true fulfillment comes through an appropriation of God in a way fitting for us given our nature. How do we do this? We become like him through the keeping of his commandments, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the bearing of its fruit (Gal 5.22-3), and by acting in the wisdom of God (Jas 3.17); we pray to him and worship him and thank him for the good things that he gives us; we are trained in love so that we may love others and be unconditionally benevolently disposed towards them, just as he is (cf. Mt 5.43-8); etc. These are the ways to be fulfilled and to enjoy life as God intends it. And if everything exists for the sake of God, these are the things to which God is drawing everything; these are his purposes for everything that exists.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Don't be taken captive by philosophy

Paul tells the Colossians: See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit (Col 3.8).

Philosophy in the ancient world was as much an ethical enterprise as anything else; for the ancients, philosophy was a way of becoming a better person and living a better life, morally and spiritually and otherwise. Of course, each philosophical school differed on its conception of the good life: the Epicureans taught that the good life was one of pleasure, which was best achieved through a life of simplicity and contentment in austere living; the Stoics thought that the good life was one lived in conformity with virtue, even if it may also be painful or pleasant; the Platonists thought a good life meant adhering to the values of the soul (moral development, knowledge and thought, etc.) and paying only as much attention to the body as is necessary for the proper and easy functioning of the soul. What was constant and shared among the schools, however, was a recognition of the necessity of intense personal effort to better oneself. You had to admit your initial state was a bad one, and that nothing but yourself was going to lift you up out of the mire. See the Plotinus quote at the head of this page: Never stop sculpting your own statue (Enn. I.6, 9).

Paul, on the other hand, is convinced that philosophy on its own will not save you. He does not deny that there is anything of value at all in philosophy, but he doesn't think that it will issue in saving transformation. Paul's preferred method of transformation is a christocentric one, a method which takes the focus of the human person from herself and puts it on Christ and what he has accomplished for her.

Paul affirms that in [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily (v. 9), so that Christ is not just some mere teacher or man. He is not even like the "divine Plato," who was divine only by participation and some great wisdom. Rather Christ is God himself, the Good Itself come down to us for our salvation. Consequently he is above all teaches, above all masters; he is the head of every ruler and authority (v. 10) and to him all must bow the knee.

Moreover he says that you have come to fullness in him (v. 10). This is the first of Paul's critical uses of the phrase in him. For Paul Christ has come and taken the whole totality of the created order in himself (see 1.19; πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα) and reconciled it to God (v. 20). This all occurs in the person of Christ himself, but it is a reality for all, and it is something from which all can and must benefit. In an important way, this is Paul's gospel: what humanity was unable to do, God himself accomplished in Christ's person, so that the fellowship between humanity and God may be restored to that which God had intended from the beginning. We benefit from this and experience that fellowship when we come and unite ourselves to Christ, who has already done everything for us.

The argument against philosophy implicit in all this is relatively obvious. Whereas the philosophical schools insisted that each man work out his own salvation in fear and trembling, Paul affirms that God has already accomplished our salvation for us. The Good does not remain infinitely far off, attained only through extreme ascetic living and a rupture from all that is human and earthly, as in the case of Plotinus. No, the Good has come to us, has become a human Itself, and has sanctified humanity for us.

Paul's point, moreover, is that the Christian's mind ought to be focused on what Christ has accomplished, and on what is hers in Christ, rather than on herself. There is a difference of mental orientation. Whereas the philosophers said to Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can (Seneca, Epistolae morales ad Lucilium I, 7), Paul says, Turn and see what is already yours in Christ!

The Platonists spoke of disregarding the body. Socrates, somewhere in the Phaedo, speaks of the pleasures of the body as rivets that keep the soul in bondage in its prison, when it would rather fly free in its more natural state. Porphyry said of Plotinus that he was like one who was ashamed to be in a body. Paul is not ignorant of the miserable condition of the body and the spiritual obstacle it can be, of course, but his solution is not asceticism -- it is the resurrection of Christ. I take it that the reference is to the resurrection and reconstitution of Christ's body when he says, In [Christ] also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting of the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ (v. 11). Christ was resurrected from the dead, and his new body is no longer subject to sin (cf. Rom 6.10). When we unite ourselves with him in baptism, we benefit from this and live a new life, even if in the old body: when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead (Col 3.12; cf. Rom 6.5-11).

Whereas the ancient philosophers put the burden of salvation squarely upon the individual, who had to bring himself to life upon the realization of his miserable state, Paul insists that God accomplished salvation for us even when we were dead: And when you were dead in the trespasses and uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him (Col 3.13). Christ's resurrection meant your resurrection already before you believed; it occurred while we were still sinners (Rom 5.8).

There is yet a further thing. I don't know what the ancient philosophical schools would have said about the forgiveness of sins. There are passages describing judgment in Plato, but there is hardly ever mention of the forgiveness of the gods of our sins. Very possibly they did not think that this was an actual problem. But arguably there is something deep within the psychology of humanity, a kind of deep-seated guilt for wrongs done, and we know that God's forgiveness alone can resolve the problem of the eternity of our guilt, to use a Nietzschean notion. The gospel of Christ is therefore superior to philosophy in this respect, because it affirms that God forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands (Col 3.13-4).

I like philosophy. I think it is very useful to know, especially as regards metaphysics. I enjoy medieval philosophy, I enjoy Platonic philosophy, I enjoy the arguments for the existence of God, and I enjoy the moral exhortation. I have an undergraduate degree in philosophy, and I don't regret getting it one bit. But there is a difference between philosophy and Christianity, especially as regards salvation. Philosophy, Paul insists, will not save anyone; only God can save, and he has done this in Christ. Therefore, if we want to be delivered, we need to unite ourselves to Christ, who has already accomplished all that is necessary for us.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Living worthily

Paul says: Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ (Phil 1.27). What does this mean?

Some persons have the impression that the good news of Jesus Christ is merely that Christ has died for your sins in the sense that he has borne the punishment due to you; consequently God does not condemn you any longer and you are not under any obligation to impress God through works of the law or anything of the sort. If this is your conception of the good news of Jesus Christ, it may be difficult to see what "worthy" living might be. Isn't the whole point that I am not worthy, but Christ is for me? Why the attention to myself now?

I think the problem here is obviously with this understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ, rather than with Paul's injunction. We can hardly suppose to know better than the apostle himself what his gospel entails and means.

Paul's gospel is certainly a message about what Christ has accomplished for me which I was unable to do myself. That much is certain. But it also contains a critical premise: that now, in virtue of what Christ has accomplished for me, my identity has changed, my place in the world is far different, and that now I am called to live into this new identity.

He says to the Colossians (my translation):

For it pleased God that the totality of things should dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to Godself all things, making peace through the blood of the cross, both things on earth and in heaven. And you, though you were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds -- now he has reconciled you in his physical body through death, to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before God (1.19-22).

Notice that Paul speaks here of a changed reality for the Colossians which is localized in Christ's person: in Christ's body dwelt the whole totality of things created by Christ (πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα; see v. 16), and all these things were reconciled to God through Christ's obedience unto death. This gospel naturally motivates the call to put aside one's false identity as sinner (see Col 3.9-10; Eph 4.22-4) and to adopt a new identity in Christ.

It is in this light that we ought to interpret "living worthily." If the good news is that Christ has reconciled me with God, and that in Christ I am in fellowship with God, then living worthily means living in a way that embodies this truth. If through Christ I have peace with God, then living worthily means living in peace with God -- not sinning, not opposing him, not hating him, not ascribing to him malevolence when things don't go as I'd hoped, living in obedience as Christ did, etc.

This is what it means to live worthily of the gospel. In a real way, living worthily gospel really means believing it, and showing that you believe it. If you believe that you are reconciled to God in Christ, why do you continue in sin? If you believe that in Christ you are the righteousness of God (cf. 2 Cor 5.21), why can't I tell a difference between you and the unbeliever in terms of your lifestyle?

Friday, June 27, 2014

Sharing the compassion of Christ Jesus

Paul writes to the Philippians: God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus (Phil 1.8). Here we see a fine example of that ancient summary of the story of salvation, one given by Irenaeus and Athanasius and many others: God became a man, so that man might become like God; he became as we are, so that we might become as he is.

This same Paul, who some few short years ago approved the murder of Stephen (Acts 8.1) and was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord (9.1), now feels compassion for the Christians. He doesn't seem to have been a particularly compassionate person in his former life; he was zealous, a hard-ass, a no-nonsense Pharisee, high-ranking within the strictest of the Jewish religious groups. But his hardened heart of stone was demolished and replaced with a softer, kinder heart of flesh when he met Jesus Christ.


But all this happens when he receives the Holy Spirit (Acts 9.17). As Paul writes elsewhere, it is through the presence of the Holy Spirit that we are united with Christ and made to be like him. When he writes in his letter to the Galatians that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5.22-3), he is doing nothing else than describing the character of Jesus Christ himself. Christ is the good shepherd who out of love comes down and finds the lost sheep.

When he comes to know this Christ, then, Paul too is changed. He begins to embody the personality and interests of Jesus Christ. Just as he says to the Galatians that it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me (Gal 2.20), so also here he says to the Philippians that he longs for them with the compassion of Jesus Christ. Paul is being transformed into the person of Christ, and begins to long for the Philippians the same way Christ does.

This is how we ought to be as well. We ought to be able to say that we long and care for one another with the compassion of Christ Jesus. It is only if we do this that we will be able to say, like Paul, Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you (Phil 4.9). And if we are to have this kind of confidence and transformation, just as Paul, we need to seek to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Judge not

James says:

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor? (Jas 4.11-12)

It is interesting here to consider the argument that James gives against judging another person. In the first place, he says that to judge a person or speak evil against her is to do to the same things to the law. To my mind he may be referring to the injunction of Christ in the sermon on the mount against judging (Mt 7.1-5). If that is true, then it is fitting that he call the sermon "law," since it was offered with obvious analogy to Moses' reading the Law from the mountain in Exodus.

Now in that law of Christ, we are told not to judge another person. Therefore James infers that if a person judges another, she is simultaneously assuming a position of superiority to the law given by Christ. It is as if by judging another person, you say: Christ, I know better than what you've told me; this person is clearly in the wrong, and I am clearly right to think and speak the way I do. When we refuse to do what Christ tell us and we insist that we are right in doing so, what else are we doing except asserting our own superiority to Christ? affirming that we know better and that Christ's advice is foolish?

Such a person is obviously in competition with Christ, however, who is the only lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy (v. 12). But this Christ with whom we compete whenever we judge is the only one who has risen from the dead, and who has conquered the forces of evil and darkness. He's the only one who was declared Christ, Lord, Son of God in power. If you compete with him, you are destined to lose. That is why James doesn't even bother to follow the chain of inferences much further than this -- viz., to the point that judging another is competition with Christ -- because he has already said enough. If we are Christians, we cannot compete with Christ but must rather submit to him.

The final question is a good one: So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor? Unless you think you have taken on the role of Christ, the only judge of the living of the dead, the only giver of the law that gives life, you have no place judging other persons. It is not your job.

Some Christians like hearing this, others don't. Some Christians like to hear that we are not to judge, and other Christians can't stand hearing it. But the command not to judge ought to be taken wisely. The refusal to judge obviously cannot entail that you say nothing in the face of evil, which would be monstrous. But neither can we incessantly call others to give responses for their actions, even the minutia we find sinful. There must be room for moral rebuke done in love, without an extreme legalism that fails to recognize the distinction between great faults and minor peccadillos, and without a complete refusal to name anything at all as wrong.

Certainly the refusal to judge entails the refusal to name the final destiny of any person. Christ alone determines that; if we as Christians have anything to say about the final destiny, it is that in Christ we have salvation, and we are to call everyone to that salvation. Apart from the call to Christ, we make no further statements.

My friend Bill recently wrote about this here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Eternal punishment and eternal life

In yesterday's post I argued that the phrase "eternal punishment" in Mt 25.46 should be interpreted along the lines of "the punishment of the world to come/the age to come," which is a reference to its location in time and its quality, rather than its quantity or duration.

Some persons argue against this interpretation on the grounds that, if the punishment is not eternal, then neither is the life. Ilaria Ramelli quotes such an argument in her The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (Brill, 2013) as it is used in a work ascribed to Basil the Great:

. . . for a deception of the devil, many people, as though they forgot these and similar statements of the Lord, adhere to the conception of the end of punishment, out of an audacity that is even superior to their sin. For, if at a certain moment there is an end to αἰώνιος punishment, αἰώνιος life will certainly have an end as well (Regulae 267).

(Ramelli argues convincingly that this passage is probably an interpolation and a misattribution to Basil, who highly respected Origen, a universalist, and whose sister Macrina and brother Gregory were universalists. It is unlikely that he would have considered them under the deception of the devil.) Augustine, if I am not mistaken, makes use of a similar argument.

This argument is actually a very poor one, however, as I will try to show.

In the first place, we may argue that we already know from other passages that the life will be eternal. Paul emphasizes in 1 Cor 15, for instance, that The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable (v. 42). Elsewhere he speaks of the resurrected Christ as no longer subject to death: since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him (Rom 6.9). Consequently the eternity of the life cannot be undermined by the interpretation proffered for Mt 25.46, since it is already well established elsewhere in the scriptures.

But more importantly, we understand the eternity of life is grounded in the salvific purposes of God. Jesus Christ said that he has come to give life in abundance (John 10.10), and that he gives his body for the life of the world (6.51). God's purposes are good, and he wants us to have life, and everything he does is for the sake of accomplishing this end. Likewise Paul says that God's goal is to be all in all (1 Cor 15.28), which cannot occur if we do not live forever. Even within Mt 25.46, we understand that the life and the punishment are not on a par, even though the same adjective us used of both. The punishment is not retribution (τιμωρία) but correction (κόλασις), and obviously a correction is aimed at life.

Interestingly, the ancient universalists such as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa would have agreed that the eternal life -- that is, the life of the coming age -- will have an end as well. But the end is not annihilation or an annulment of salvation! The end is the ultimate apokatastasis in which God is all in all (1 Cor 15.28), something which is not αἰώνιος because it is not within any age at all; it is something beyond the ages. Origen has a passage wherein he speaks of life after the aeons, when the universal restoration will occur. Then all things will be in God and God will be in all things, and so after the age to come, we will be brought into something that transcends history. We won't be annihilated; rather, it is only then that we will truly have reached our goal of union with God.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"Eternal punishment" and universalism: two comments

One of the texts commonly thought to disprove the doctrine of universal salvation is the following:

καὶ ἀπελεύσονται οὗτοι εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον, οἱ δὲ δίκαιοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (NIV)

Two points can be made about a universalist interpretation of this text. The first is that αἰώνιος, here translated "eternal," does not typically mean that except in reference to God; otherwise it describes the quality of belonging to the age to come (in contradistinction to this present age). Thus the idea is that Jesus is here describing the punishment/life of the age to come, and not making a quantitative statement with the adjective αἰώνιος. The second point is that κόλασις, here translated as "punishment," is not retributive in nature but rather administered for the sake of instruction. Κόλασις is aimed at the good of the person receiving it, and so in principle it could not be eternal.

In support of both points, I here cite Ilaria Ramelli's tremendous (and impressive) work, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (Brill, 2013), which covers the development of the doctrine of universal salvation from New Testament times to the early middle ages in about 900 (!) or so pages.

Ramelli notes in an extended discussion, beginning at pp. 25ff., that αἰώνιος does not mean "eternal" unless used in reference to God. Just as αἰών does not refer to eternity but to a period of time, so also αἰώνιος does not mean "eternal" but rather "pertaining to an age." For instance, Rom 16.25 affirms that a mystery was hidden "from time immemorial" (χρόνοις αἰωνίοις), not "eternal times." And 16.27 affirms that God has glory through Jesus Christ "through the ages" (εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας), not "through the eternities." As it is being used in this discussion, there could not be multiple eternities, since an eternity is in principle supposed to be endless. A word which does mean "eternal" is ἀι΅διος, but which the NT does not use to describe the punishment.

In evidence of this point we appeal to Origen who affirms that one may pass from ζωὴ αἰώνιος, from "the life of the aeon," from "eternal life," into an existence beyond the ages. As Ramelli notes, For "αἰώνιος life" will always be the life in the next aeon, in Christ, but even that aeon will finish and therefore after "life αἰώνιος" there will come the eventual apokatastasis, in which all will be in the Father, or better in the Holy Trinity, and God will be "all and all" (Ramelli 2013, p. 160). Origen, as a native speaker of the Greek language with philosophical and literary erudition, interprets the phrase ζωὴ αἰώνιος as referring to life within an age, not endless or interminable life.

In support of the distinction of κόλασις from retributive punishment, we may here cite two sources. The first is Aristotle, who distinguishes between κόλασις and τιμωρία: the former "is inflicted in the interest of the sufferer," but the latter "in the interest of him who inflicts it, that he may obtain satisfaction" (Rhet. 1359b13, qtd. in Ramelli 2013, p. 32). The same point is likewise made by Plato in Gorg. 476A-477A, who writes that κόλασις is good for the person suffering it, since it makes him better (ibid.). Ramelli also emphasizes that the New Testament never uses τιμωρία to describe the αἰώνιος punishment.

This same distinction carried over until the time of the New Testament, for Clement of Alexandria observes the same distinction. He writes: God does not punish [τιμωρεῖται] -- since punishment is the retribution of evil with further evil [that is, suffering or loss] --, but corrects [κολάζει] for the sake of those who are corrected, both in general and singularly (Strom. 7,16,102,1-3, qtd. in Ramelli 2013, p. 127).

What we have in these cases, then, are intelligent native speakers of Greek -- which honor no contemporary scholars or translaters can claim for themselves -- who understand and elucidate the distinction between these two terms, which the New Testament uses. The wise thing to do, to my mind, is to follow after them and appreciate the point the universalist makes about κόλασις and αἰώνιος.

Monday, June 23, 2014

God's goodness to the pagan

In Acts 14 Paul and Barnabas go to Lystra, which I'm sure will go down in history as one of their most "interesting" evangelistic experiences. They speak to a large crowd about Jesus Christ, and when a man who'd been crippled from birth was healed, the persons gathered thought they were Hermes and Zeus incarnated. So the priest of the temple to Zeus brings oxen and garlands for the sacrifices, and Paul and Barnabas work to stop it; Paul says to them:

Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good -- giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy (14.15-17).

What is wonderful here is the reference to God's filling the hearts of these worthless, godless pagans with joy. Though they've turn away from the worship of the true god, though they live in deep sin and idolatry, though they engage in all manner of immorality and have long departed from the intention of God for humanity, yet God is good to them. He gives them joy in their hearts, and he rejoices to see the human person with a smile on his face.

It's too easy to fall into the trap of thinking God is full of nothing but ire and wrath for the human person outside of the fellowship of his covenant community. We may judge that we are being pious and biblical in thinking this way, since we might think so on the basis of a strong doctrine of the sinfulness of humanity. But we ought to accept what the Bible says without always trying to fit it into our theological systems, or compromising it by reference to another text elsewhere. Paul says that God is the one who fills the heart of the godless pagan with joy, and gives him food to eat out of his own goodness!

The emphasis here is on the goodness of God, and this ought to be properly expressed in our evangelistic endeavors, as well. In his De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, Athanasius hardly ever if at all mentions God's wrath or anger at sin. Again and again his point is to refer to mankind's apostasy, on the one hand, and the benevolent, merciful response of God, on the other. Indeed goodness seems to be the guiding principle of all of God's actions for Athanasius, as in DI 6 he says that it would have been beneath the goodness of God merely to allow his creation to become destroyed under the incurred curse of death, even if deservedly

Now if God is good to the pagan and the godless, we must ask the question: how much more good will he do to the one that is his own? Recently I posted on the faithlessness of the people of Israel in the desert. After God had saved them from bondage in Egypt, they face a tiny bit of adversity and automatically turn on God, ascribing to him malevolence and evil desire, claiming that he must hate them and that he's brought them into the desert to be killed. Far be it from us to think this way! God is good and only good: he will do you good and only good, if you put yourself at his disposal and trust in him, no matter how things may seem. Don't allow that your vision narrow and lose all perspective merely because a few things seem not to be right.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Jonah, Nahum, and God's attitude towards the wicked

Both Jonah and Nahum address Nineveh, an ancient and violent enemy of the Hebrew people. They embody surprisingly different theological and ethical stances towards their enemies.

For instance, Nahum opens up with a powerful declaration of divine wrath: A jealous and avenging God is the LORD, the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies. The LORD is slow to anger but great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty (Nah 1.2-3). Later on he says, Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken into pieces . . . no adversary will rise up twice (vv. 6, 9).

This anger is directed at the hated enemy of Nineveh, the Hebrews' violent neighbors to the north. God has finally come out in judgment against them, and has declared to them, Your name shall be perpetuated no longer; from the house of your gods I will cut off the carved image and the cast image. I will make your grace, for you are worthless (v. 14). This act of catastrophic judgment against an oppressive force brings rejoicing among the victims: There is no assuaging your hurt, your wound is mortal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty? (3.19)

Clapping over the news of the death of Nineveh -- that sounds like something Jonah would have done, had things gone the way he'd wished. We know his story: he was sent to preach to the Ninevites that God would destroy them in forty days; but hearing the message, they repented and God took pity on them. Jonah protests: O LORD! Is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing (Jon 4.2). In the universe of Jonah, it's not so much God's wrath as his forgiveness and mercy that are to be feared; God may end up forgiving your enemies, whose deaths you may desire with great fervor.

Both Nahum and Jonah make reference to the self-description formula from Exod 34.6: The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children, and the children's children, to the third and fourth generation. But they make use of opposite ends thereof: Jonah cites the gracious end, and Nahum makes use of the end dealing with the punishment of the guilty.

This raises the question: is there a perfect symmetry in the self-description here? Is either side as true to God's nature and desires and will as the other? Is it all the same to God to be merciful to a repentant sinner, or to destroy the unrepentant sinner? Does he have any preference at all?

Some persons think and theologize in such a manner as to suppose an equality between the two extremes. Augustinians, for instance, who argue that God creates some persons for the sake of displaying his mercy to them, whereas he creates others for the sake of showing his just hatred of sin in them, presuppose an equality in the divine nature between these two extremes. God is a paradoxical mix of both worlds, an unfathomably generous God who is willing to undergo death himself for the sake of his chosen ones, but also profoundly strict, imposing an unending punishment of torment upon sinners. That one and the same being could equally embody both extremes seems to me problematic, however. If God is capable of damning sinners in hell forever, and it is all the same to him to save a person or to damn him, then what confidence can you have that you are chosen? What confidence can you have that really, God loves you? Barth's argument in CD II/2 about the two-fold darkness in the traditional position on predestination is a good one.

For other persons, however, there is an important asymmetry between the two ways God is manifested. Though he punishes, though he can be strict and even severe, yet deeper, underneath the surface of any apparent display of malevolence is actually a mysterious love, a commitment to every creature whatsoever. Why think such a thing? There may not be any reason to do so, except for the fact of God's self-revelation in Christ, the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2.2). In Jesus Christ the Creator dies for the creature, setting aside wrath and justice and judgment in favor of mercy. This suggests to us that God is love (1 John 4.8), a much more succinct definition of God than we find in Exodus, and the necessary filter by which to interpret the latter. We find and meet this love in many different ways, some of them pleasant and others of them not so pleasant, but at the end of the day, it is love behind all appearances. Thus it is not all the same for God to save a person or to damn him: Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live? (Ezek 18.23) Likewise Jeremiah writes: For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone (Lam 3.31-3).

But we shouldn't for this reason try to downplay the reality of divine wrath, such as Nahum appreciates. It is perfectly natural and understandable that the victims of violence and oppression and abuse, such as the Hebrews were, should rejoice when all of that is put to an end. It is perfectly appropriate and required at times that God respond to sin with anger, demanding an immediate end to the hurt of his creatures. Yet we must always remember that God is not like us to give up on the depraved. The destruction of Nineveh was not his final dealing with those people. He is love, and we are not; even in moments of wrath and fury, we must remember love as well.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The image of the invisible God, firstborn of all creation

Paul says at Col 1.15 that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. You might think, initially, that this kind of language ascribes mere creaturely status to Jesus, as if he weren't also the Logos of God incarnate. Thinking thus you would be mistaken, however.

The fourth century Nicene theologians had a helpful rule about understanding language such as this: whatever ascribes creaturely qualities to Jesus is to be understood in reference to his humanity. Athanasius says in Expositio fidei 4: Each text then which refers to the creature is written with reference to Jesus in a bodily sense, that is, as referring to Jesus' assumed humanity. Likewise Gregory of Nazianzus says, Whatever we find joined with a cause we are to refer to the Manhood, but all that is absolute and unoriginate we are to reckon to the account of His Godhead (Or. 30.2).

Applying this principle to the text cited from Colossians, therefore, we find that Paul is making an affirmation about Christ incarnate: he is the image (εἰκών) of God, as mankind was called to be in Genesis (cf. Gen 1.26-7 LXX). In other words, the idea is that whereas Adam failed to embody the character and nature of God as a kind of living icon in the garden by embodying that selfless and disinterested love from which God created, Jesus on the other hand did do this, precisely by dying for the sins of the whole creation to reconcile it to God (vv. 19ff.). By doing so he restored the image of God in mankind.

And we read that Christ is the firstborn of all creation, not because he was the first thing created, as the Arians would have understood. Rather this is a reference to the exalted stature of Christ's human nature: truly it has taken dominion over the entire world, through its resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God. Once again, Genesis affirms that God had created humankind to embody the rule of God over the world, but humanity had failed in this respect. But Christ says after his resurrection that, All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me (Mt 28.18). And Paul says elsewhere that, And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name (Phil 2.8-9).

Now how could Christ have accomplished these things if he were not God? How could he have divinized and deified and sanctified his human nature, and restored to it the image and likeness of God, if he weren't himself the divine Logos by which all things had been created? The starting point for ordinary human persons is not one of moral neutrality and infinite potential in either direction, either towards godliness or godlessness. Rather the starting point for humanity is death in sin and trespass (cf. Eph 2.1ff.). Because Christ was able to do all these things, consequently he is not merely man but also God himself. As the Nicene fathers stressed again and again, only God can save.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Forgiveness, reconciliation, atonement, and punishment

I recently posted on the unconditionality of forgiveness. This prompted a brief exchange on Facebook, and so I now want to expound at a bit greater length on the topic.

In the first place I must answer the question, How do I understand forgiveness? I spent about a year studying the topic while I was doing my undergraduate degree at Arizona State, and the conclusion I came to was something like this. After having analyzed the proposal of Eve Garrard and David McNaughton, "In Defence of Unconditional Forgiveness," which paper you may read here, I came to something like the following definition of forgiveness. To my mind, forgiveness means committing an favorable and benevolent disposition towards the person who has done you wrong. This disposition is something within the neighborhood of what kind of goodwill or pro attitude (as opposed to contra attitude) you might have had for the wrongdoer had she never done the thing in question. Forgiveness therefore means committing to act towards that person in such a way as would be motivated by that benevolent disposition.

Note that this doesn't mean you ignore the thing the person did to you. Forgiveness is not ignoring or refusing to address the wrong. Rather forgiveness concerns the mode in which you address the wrong. If you forgive, you don't act out of hatred, you generally don't seek revenge, you don't seek to get even, you don't call down fire from heaven upon the person, etc. If you do address the person who did you wrong -- and you might not always -- you do so out of goodness and benevolence, while not necessarily passing over the evil deed as if it never happened. You address her with kindness, making your objection to her action known, etc., but out of a good heart.

Now, as I said, forgiveness doesn't always entail you address the person who did you wrong. Suppose Peter hurts Paul and makes it known to Paul that he will try to do it again if he gets the chance. Paul may forgive Peter here without approaching or seeking reconciliation with Peter right away. Forgiveness doesn't mean leaving yourself open to being stepped all over or abused. It means responding with goodness to evil, and that doesn't entail approaching someone in a position in which you are vulnerable to serious harm.

This means that forgiveness is separable from reconciliation. Reconciliation, for it to be genuine at least, requires goodwill on the part of both persons involved. Both parties have to be willing to let the wrong behind them and work towards a repaired relationship. If one party is unwilling, then reconciliation cannot take place. But the other person can still be benevolently disposed towards the unwilling party, in which case forgiveness would be enacted without reconciliation. Likewise forgiveness does not entail reconciling with someone who only appears willing but will probably hurt you again. You can be good to that person and refuse to reconcile on the grounds that she does not take seriously the need to change her ways. But forgiveness, to my mind, does entail being willing to reconcile with a person who has seriously changed her ways, regrets the wrong she did, and wants to restore the relationship in good faith.

I argued in that previous post that forgiveness is unconditional. How, then, do we understand atonement and punishment in the Bible?

I think atonement flows from forgiveness. Paul says in 2 Cor 5.19 that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting people's sins against them. Notice the order here: God previously did not hold the sins of the world against them, and then sought reconciliation with them. Elsewhere he says that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5.8).

We can see how forgiveness motivates atonement in this way. If forgive the person who did me wrong, and therefore I adopt an attitude of benevolence towards her, and want what is good for her. This includes that she see that what she did is wrong, and that she change her ways and not live in evil any longer. Therefore if I forgive you, I may make the attempt to show you that you are not doing what is right, and try to get you to agree with me in my judgment. I may suggest to you that you do something concrete which shows your goodwill towards me so that we may restore our friendship, something that evidences a change of heart.

God knows that sin is bad for us. Therefore it is precisely because he is antecedently benevolent towards us when we sin, precisely because he forgives us when we sin, that he performs atonement for us, and seeks our repentance. He performs atonement for us because otherwise our sin would kill us (cf. Rom 6.23), and therefore his atonement comes from his forgiveness, rather than the other way around. Moreover he calls us to repent and admit fault, to confess our sins, etc., because in this way he can get us to flee from sin, to distance ourselves from it and no longer to love it, so that we may have life with him.

Importantly, I think punishment is compatible with forgiveness. In the case of some persons, God may insist on punishing them so that they learn the gravity of their sins, and so that they may be motivated to repent of them when they see they cannot go on in sin indefinitely but begin to suffer. In this way he corrects us like a parent would correct his child. Likewise, suppose someone commits a grave crime against me. It is compatible with my attitude of goodwill towards her that I still insist she be punished, so that she may learn that what she has done is wrong.

What isn't compatible with forgiveness is to punish or to insist on punishment without any concern for the good of the punished person at all. If you want to punish another person merely for the sake of punishment, merely because in this way it would satisfy you to see her get her comeuppance, all this seems to me incompatible with forgiveness. Remember that I defined forgiveness as a commitment to act out of benevolence and goodwill towards the person who has done you wrong. If this is so, then you cannot forgive and simultaneously refuse to think of the good of the person you are punishing.

The essential unconditionality of forgiveness

There is a lot of debate in Christian circles on the question of whether forgiveness, as a Christian responsibility, ought to be conditional or unconditional: should it be conditioned on apology and repentance (for instance) on the part of the wrongdoer, or not?

I am of the opinion that forgiveness is essentially an unconditional act, it is unconditioned on the performance of expiatory acts of atonement on the part of the wrongdoer (e.g., apology, etc.), and here is one argument to that conclusion.

I draw from a passage in Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (Routledge, 2001):

Imagine, then, that I forgive on the condition that the guilty one repents, mends his ways, asks forgiveness, and thus would be changed by a new obligation, and that from then on he would no longer be exactly the same as the one who was found to be culpable. In this case, can one still speak of forgiveness? That would be too simple on both sides: one forgives someone other than the guilty one. In order for there to be forgiveness, must one not on the contrary forgive both the fault and the guilty as such, where the one and the other remain as irreversible as the evil, as evil itself, and being capable of repeating itself, unforgivably, without transformation, without amelioration, without repentance or promise? Must one not maintain that an act of forgiveness worthy of its name, if there ever is such a thing, must forgive the unforgivable, and without condition? (pp. 38-9).

The idea Derrida is here proposing is the following. It is essential to an act of forgiveness that we direct our attention to the person to be forgiven as guilty, that is, as standing before us with some kind of an invisible debt to be paid for her transgression. If we do not approach the other person as guilty then we are not engaging in forgiveness: for instance, if we come up with excuses for her action, or if we are merely ignoring it, we are not forgiving. This is standard stuff as far as the philosophical literature on forgiveness is concerned. The basic principle at work is that forgiveness presupposes outstanding guilt; if there is no guilt, there is nothing to forgive. Therefore if we forgive, we must approach the other person as guilty, holding her guilt before our mind.

But now if we insist on placing conditions on forgiveness, conditions by which the wrongdoer's character is changed and transformed, and her disposition towards us is visibly and perceptibly different from when she wronged us, how are we still approaching the guilty as guilty? In a real sense, it is an entirely different person standing before us. Now we are approached by someone who repudiates the past action, who vows to prevent its future occurrence, someone who is fundamentally on our side. This not the same person that wronged us. This person is not guilty of anything, and consequently there is nothing to forgive.

Now if you insist that I am confusing qualitative and numeric identity in all of this, you would be raising an irrelevant point, since our guide and standard in the moral evaluation of our peers is their qualitative appearance to us in the social context. I don't have immediate access to you as a substance when I talk to you or interact with you. What I have is access to the way in which you appear to me, your various perceived traits and beliefs and predispositions, etc., by which I construct a conception of yourself. It is this conception that I project on to you and which I address with moral rebuke, praise, or whatever. This is why if I change enough of my habits, beliefs, attitudes, etc. perceptibly, people will say that I've changed, that I'm a different person now. In a sense I am a different person, within the moral plane in which conditions of identity are different than on the strictly metaphysical plane.

If all this is correct, then in imposing a condition of atonement on the wrongdoer before we are to forgive, effectively we are doing what Derrida says: we are forgiving someone else other than the one who did us wrong. This is tantamount to a refusal to forgive, a refusal to approach your wrongdoer and to look upon her with kind eyes; it's a refusal to love your enemy. Or consider the same point from a more economic angle. If wrongdoing incurs a kind of invisible debt, then atonement is a way of repaying that debt. Apologies, repentance, etc., are ways of repaying the debt: "You owe me an apology," we might say. But if we condition forgiveness on the repayment of the debt, we are effectively making forgiveness impossible. What's to forgive if the debt has been paid? Therefore forgiveness is essentially unconditional.

But suppose you want to insist on the continuity of identity between a person who wronged and the person who performed atonement. In that case, it is not obvious that forgiveness should be conditioned on the performance of atonement: there is no changing the fact that this person here who stands before you, apologies and all, did you some wrong, and there can be no changing that fact, ever. The fact of the wrongdoing has been inscribed on the immutability of the past. Why should you forgive, even if atonement has been performed? What kind of payment can make up for the eternally remanent malefaction committed against your person?

But in any case insisting on identity of person is misguided, to my mind. For these reasons, then, I argue that forgiveness is an essentially unconditional phenomenon.

Now we all know that unconditional forgiveness of this sort is an incredibly difficult thing to do. In fact it seems rare is the soul who can muster up the kind of strength of will and magnanimity to forgive a person who has done her wrong without conditions or stipulations. But what follows from this? Christians ought to seek to train themselves in forgiveness until they can do that. If they have difficulty forgiving, then they ought to pray to God to help them in this respect. This can only be done through the power of the Holy Spirit; see the case of Stephen (Acts 6.5, 7.60).

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The LORD must hate us

There is a fascinating passage in the first chapter of Deuteronomy. After the Israelites had been rescued from slavery in Egypt, after numerous miracles and signs had been performed by which God's benevolence towards them might have been established, they send some spies into Canaan to do some reconnaissance work. They come back speaking of peoples inhabiting the land much stronger than they, and the people of Israel despair at the report:

But you were unwilling to go up. You rebelled against the command of the LORD your God; you grumbled in your tents and said, "It is because the LORD hates us that he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us. . ." (Deut 4.26-7)

It is fascinating to me that after all the miracles, after all the signs and wonders, the vision of the Israelites narrows enormously in the face of some adversity, and the first thing they go to is: God hates us. Why this? Why do they presume in adversity that God hates them? Why suppose that the LORD wants to destroy them, have them murdered in the wilderness? Why don't they trust the numerous signs and displays of good will?

We might say that the Israelites posited a god behind the back of God, so to speak, as if his behavior towards them wasn't exactly straightforward. Of course it is logically compatible with all of the displays of God's goodness that actually he wanted to do them evil; in the same way the Calvinist may suppose that it is logically compatible with Jesus' outreach and call to repentance for all people that he doesn't actually intend that all people be saved. But this is eminently problematic insofar as it makes God less than honest, less than straightforward, less than candid. It makes him tricky and slippery, like the snake in the garden. If we can't trust God's acts of wondrous mercy and power in the favor of the Israelites as evidence that he desires their salvation and their good, then neither can you, whoever you may be, trust anything in your life as conclusive evidence that you are elect as well. As Barth insists in CD II/2, you are plunged by your exclusivist predestinarian theology into a dual darkness: neither do you know who is elect, nor do you know who this electing God is, who is always seemingly just behind his actions and public manifestations.

The lesson to learn here, I think, is we do God evil, we sin and calumniate him, when we insist that he must have malevolent motives for what he does. Jeremiah in Lamentations 3, after having described the horrific consequences of God's judgment upon Israel (e.g., women eating their children, 2.20), yet he goes on to say: For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict anyone (3.31-3). God is good and he does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked person (Ezek 18.23). Therefore let us not paint a blackened picture of our LORD when he shows himself to be good.

Still, however, we might pose the question: why do the Israelites, and we do we, ascribe hatred and malevolence to God? Why do we immediately think, when things aren't going as we'd like, that God has abandoned us, has forgotten about us, doesn't care about us anymore, that he hates us, that he listens to everyone's prayers but our own? One possible answer is that human persons have some kind of deep guilt, a recognition of our own unworthiness before God. Rather than recognize it and seek mercy, however, we try to hide it, to cover it up by projecting our own ill will onto God, making him into an unreasonable misanthrope, bent on murdering us coldly and irresistibly.

Hence the good news that Jesus Christ has taken the burden of our guilt upon himself and has done away with it, in his vicarious obedience and atonement. He died for all, and all are considered to have died in him (2 Cor 5.14) -- therefore we have peace with God being delivered by Christ's faithfulness (Rom 5.1)! Thank God that he has shown himself willing to go even to death for our salvation while we still hated him (Rom 5.6-8), guaranteeing our immortality and delivering us from death (1 Cor 15.22). Let us have no worries, then, about God's goodwill towards us: Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the entire world (1 John 2.2); let the whole world approach the peaceful God in confidence and peace!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Peace and the shoot from the stump of Jesse

Isaiah in chapter 11 speaks of a shoot . . . come out from the stump of Jesse (Is 11.1), which of course is a reference to Christ was was born from the line of David. It describes the qualities this Christ will have, since the anointing of the Spirit of the Lord will be on him:

His delight will be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked (vv. 3-4).

The result of his coming will be a deep and enduring peace, one which will affect even the animal kingdom. In that most famous line, Isaiah affirms that the wolf shall live with the lamb (v. 6), undoubtedly a symbol of peace among peoples who've been reconciled through the messiah's wisdom, but perhaps even an evidence of cosmic transformation even including the animal kingdom.

Perhaps, moreover, implicit in the image of the peace between wolf and lamb is the notion that reconciliation will take place between victimized and victimizers. Lambs are peaceful animals generally, or at least such is my understanding. In any case, the later mentioned calves and little children (vv. 6-8) are certainly paradigms of peaceful creatures. Lions, wolves, asps, and leopards, on the other hand, are not. If we understand the image of peace among the animals as a symbol of reconciliation among human parties, we are intended to draw the inference that the wicked and violence-driven will be reconciled to their innocent victims.

But now if there is a reconciliation between parties, how can Isaiah speak of a slaying of the wicked? How does he say that when Christ comes, with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked (v. 4)? Certainly we never observe that to happen in the course of the gospel narratives; Christ, rather, is the one whom the wicked slay, and who nevertheless gives the Spirit to those who murder him (see Acts 2.36ff.).

I suggest we understand the "slaying" here along the same lines as we understand Paul's language about the death of the old self in Rom 6, Eph 4, Col 3, etc. The wicked will be slain by his words because they will change, they will repent in sack cloth and ashes and thus the wicked persons they once were will die away forever. If we interpret things this way, we do not lose the message of reconciliation implied in vv. 6-9. Other interpretations which propose a real slaying of the wicked lose this suggestion of repaired relations among human parties, however, to their disadvantage.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Incarnation and the restoration of creation in the early church

It is interesting that many authors in the early church motivate the incarnation by appeal to the impropriety that God's creation should have been undone and destroyed. This implies a great many things about the Christian conception of creation, of divine-human relations, of God's values and character, etc.

Take for instance this passage:

But since it was to come to pass that some also should fall away from life, and bring death upon themselves by their declension -- for death is nothing more than a departure from life -- and as it was not to follow that those beings which had once been created by God for the enjoyment of life should utterly perish, it was necessary that, before death, there should be in existence such a power as would destroy the coming death, and that there should be a resurrection, the type of which was in our Lord and Savior, and that this resurrection should have its ground in the word and life of God (Origen, De principiis II.4).

Here Origen says that those creatures which had fallen were created by God for the enjoyment of life. I've repeated this point in past posts, but it is worth repeating again and again: the Bible teaches that God created the world for its own sake, so that it may flourish and enjoy fellowship with him. The Augustinian notion that God creates some creatures for his own ends, whether to show his mercy or else to damn them for their sins and show his justice, is foreign to the biblical story. It is closer to the Babylonian Atrahasis myth, where the gods create humanity to do hard labor for them when they get tired of it. Genesis, on the other hand, portrays God as fundamentally interested in the world for its own sake. This picture Origen passes along as well, when he says that God created those who'd fallen and all things for the enjoyment of life.

Interestingly, too, for Origen there was also the problem of God's sovereignty and its compromise by the fall. He doesn't use this language explicitly, but it is arguably implicit in what he writes. He says that it was not to follow that what God created for one fate should suffer another. Why shouldn't it follow? Why the strong language? Because it is a compromise of the sovereignty and rule of God. That is why, when what he intends does not come about, he does not merely adjust to the new reality or accept it weakly, but takes control of things and works towards its realization. God's sovereignty must be affirmed even in the face of the free disagreement and apostasy of his creatures, but of course not by violence to their wills.

A similar sentiment is affirmed by Athanasius:

It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. . . . Surely it would have been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and perish; and, besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never created men at all. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself (Athanasius, De Incarnatione 6).

Here Athanasius stresses God's quality as a good creator. Precisely because he is a good creator he does not allow that what he has created come undone and be destroyed. To do so would have been beneath God, unfitting and unworthy of Himself. Interestingly Athanasius stresses that this is true even if the downfall of a creature should be deserved, its own fault. Even in such a case as this, to fail to act to save and restore the creature would betray indifference.

Athanasius speaks contrary to the likes of Oliver Crisp, who argues in "Is universalism a problem for particularists?" Scottish Journal of Theology 63, no. 01 (2010): 1-23, that it would be no mark against the goodness of God not to save anyone at all, since salvation is a matter of grace. The confusion here is between justice and goodness: that salvation is a matter of grace speaks against the demand for salvation by justice, by merit or desert; but goodness is the disposition to do good to others, irrespective of merit, and Athanasius sees that it would be contrary to God's goodness to allow his creation to be destroyed. Here, too, we find a sentiment utterly opposite of the Augustinian spirit of Crisp's article: God's goodness as creator is at stake, and therefore his salvific intentions and acts are aimed at the whole of creation.

Gregory of Nazianzus shares this sentiment too, affirming that it would not be consistent with God's nature to allow mankind to be separated from God:

But to despise man, when by the envy of the Devil and the bitter taste of sin he was pitiably severed from God his Maker — this was not in the Nature of God. What then was done, and what is the great Mystery that concerns us? An innovation is made upon nature, and God is made Man. “He that rideth upon the Heaven of Heavens in the East” of His own glory and Majesty, is glorified in the West of our meanness and lowliness (Oratio 39.13).

It is important to note, of course, that this principle, if taken seriously, issues a universalist conclusion. If the destruction of the creation is beneath God and unworthy of him, to use Athanasius' language, and contrary to God's intentions and (consequently) his sovereignty, to use Origen's, and incompatible with his nature, to use Gregory's, then what else must God do except save the creation? Anything less than this would be a failure and a black mark on God's white robe: a failure to save would speak either weakness or else malevolence or indifference.

Someone may respond that, because of man's freedom, God cannot guarantee this result. But in response I will argue in the language of these titanic teachers of theology, and condemn such a response as blasphemous and irreligious on the grounds that it ascribes weakness to God. Certainly man is free and acts independently of God, but we don't infer from this that therefore the Lord is too weak to get what he wants in his own world, or that he has no means of accomplishing what he wills with the cooperation of the will of man.

Suppose you press the point and ask: How, then, will they be saved? I don't have to tell you; and unless you are a heretic, there a million theological questions you can't answer, either, such as the nature of the Trinity, how the two natures are united in Christ, and so on. What is one more mystery?

Monday, June 16, 2014

Gregory Nazianzen against the legalists

In his Oratio 39, an oration on the Festival of Holy Lights, Gregory of Nazianzus writes about various different sorts of baptisms. There is, of course, the baptism in water, and in the Holy Spirit, and so on. The fourth baptism is a baptism of blood and martyrdom, one whose whose purity can't be undone since it is final in a critical way: this one is far more august than all the others, he says, inasmuch as it cannot be defiled by after-stains (39.17). Once you've suffered martyrdom, that's it, no more defilement.

He also names a fifth baptism, which we might call a baptism of penitential tears:

Yes, and I know of a Fifth also, which is that of tears, and is much more laborious, received by him who washes his bed every night and his couch with tears; whose bruises stink through his wickedness; and who goeth mourning and of a sad countenance; who imitates the repentance of Manasseh and the humiliation of the Ninevites upon which God had mercy; who utters the words of the Publican in the Temple, and is justified rather than the stiff-necked Pharisee; who like the Canaanite woman bends down and asks for mercy and crumbs, the food of a dog that is very hungry (39.17).

This baptism is an immersion into tears of compunction, tears of repentance and guilt and sorrow over sins committed. This fifth baptism is a sort of monkish intense penitence over the wrongs done over a life time.

Gregory writes that because he is a man, precisely because he is a fallen human being, he gladly accepts this fifth baptism as a gift from Christ. More importantly, he shares this gift with others because mercy given is mercy received:

I, however, for I confess myself to be a man, — that is to say, an animal shifty and of a changeable nature, — both eagerly receive this Baptism, and worship Him Who has given it me, and impart it to others; and by shewing mercy make provision for mercy. For I know that I too am compassed with infirmity, and that with what measure I mete it shall be measured to me again (39.18).

Here he is referencing Christ's words at Mt 5.7 and elsewhere in the sermon on the mount as well: Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Gregory therefore is eager to accept this mercy from Christ, but not without extending the same mercy to others. Even those who sin gravely are offered a chance to repent, because Gregory knows himself to be a sinner in need of grace, too. As James says, mercy triumphs over judgment (Jas 2.13).

The legitimacy of this baptism was important to Gregory, because there were these extremists at that time who did not allow repentance, who insisted on a strict perfectionism. They followed after one Novatus. This kind of extremism is implausible to Gregory, who considers it pride:

But what sayest thou, O new Pharisee pure in title but not in intention, who dischargest upon us the sentiments of Novatus, though thou sharest the same infirmities? Wilt thou not give any place to weeping? Wilt thou shed no tear? Mayest thou not meet with a Judge like thyself? (39.18)

The worst thing in the world would be to have no mercy upon others during your life time, and yet expect mercy from God; to such persons God will show himself similarly merciless, and then they will understand the folly of their extremism. Gregory contrasts this kind of extreme legalism with the mercy shown by Christ and God in the Bible to numerous characters, whether David or Peter. He asks the powerful question, Art thou not ashamed by the mercy of Jesus, Who took our infirmities and bare our sicknesses; Who came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; Who will have mercy rather than sacrifice; who forgiveth sins till seventy times seven (ibid.). Instead he considers that the Novatians are just prideful.

This is the downfall of all legalism: the legalists are in need of mercy as much as anyone else, and perhaps more so because of their strictness; precisely because they don't show it, they won't receive it at all. Here, too, maybe lies a danger for those who want to argue that Christians have no obligation to forgive unconditionally. If repentance or even atonement is a condition of forgiveness, Lord forbid that the Lord should fail to judge you for your unrepentant sins! Who has repented of all his sins among men? No one that I know, that much is sure. May God not hold any of our sins against us; therefore let us not hold any against others, either.

In brief, then, we have to allow room for forgiveness and repentance. We cannot demand of others what we cannot perform ourselves. Let's allow for this baptism of tears, and let's participate in it ourselves, too, while we are at it.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Gregory Nazianzen against child preachers

In Oratio 39.14, Gregory draws the following lessons from the baptism of Jesus at his old age:

What are we to learn and to be taught by this? To purify ourselves first; to be lowly minded; and to preach only in maturity both of spiritual and bodily stature.

(It is very possible I exclude myself here, but then again, maybe I do not.)

Child preachers are perhaps the most embarrassing and cringe-inducing phenomena encountered in some well-meaning but horribly mistaken Christian circles. It is a lot of play acting, a lot of imitation, a lot of nonsense, and not a lot of actual reverence and piety. Try to watch all three minutes of the following video; first time around I couldn't make it:


Gregory thinks that Jesus' baptism in his older age teaches us that there is a proper time for everything. There is a proper time for a person to begin teaching and preaching the word of God, and I imagine that three or four years old is not that proper time. He says:

The third is for those who are confident in their youth, and think that any time is the right one to teach or to preside. . . . and at thirty years of age [Jesus is baptized], and dost thou before thy beard has grown presume to teach the aged, or believe that thou teachest them, though thou be not reverend on account of thine age, or even perhaps for thy character? 

Gregory comes down hard here against those who would presume to preach in their young age. Though their beards haven't come in yet, they presume to teach the old and the bearded! The principle, of course, is not that you must be the oldest person in your congregation in order to have the right to preach. Still there is a proper time and order to things, and there is something wrong about a young person with little or no life experience, and certainly very little experience in the Christian life, preaching to others who have been around the block a few times.

But what about examples of the young preaching and performing various functions in scripture? Gregory is not ignorant of them:

But here it may be said, Daniel, and this or that other, were judges in their youth, and examples are on your tongues; for every wrongdoer is prepared to defend himself. But I reply that that which is rare is not the law of the Church. For one swallow does not make a summer, nor one line a geometrician, nor one voyage a sailor.

(You gotta love these analogies!) Gregory's response is an obvious one: exceptional cases can't be set up as concessions for all cases whatsoever. If anything there must be a kind of testing process, a testing of the waters to see if what is going on is from God or not. Most of the time it might not be, but rather just misplaced and exaggerated zeal.

Take a look, if you can bear it, at the Kanon the Preacher video linked above. He hardly says anything coherent and edifying in his sermon, and certainly he just flips through the pages of his colorful bible without being able to read anything. This seems to me to be misplaced zeal. Perhaps -- God forbid it -- Kanon will grow up to become an angry atheist, like some other child preachers do, too. Children ought to occupy the proper place, and allow the serious task of teaching the scriptures and feeding the flock to adults who are mature in the Lord. Jesus' own baptism in old age can teach us this, insists Gregory.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Notes on divine simplicity

My friend Bill is going to be revising his entry on Divine Simplicity at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and he recently posted a bleg asking for sources of the most recent discussion. At his request and with his agreement, here are a few of my own thoughts on the matter. Perhaps they may assist in him in the organization of the revised version of the entry. I will provide a couple notes on the topic of the doctrine of divine simplicity. This is a very long post, so I will split it.

1. Why divine simplicity?

Why should anyone believe as esoteric an exhibit of theological-philosophical arcana as the doctrine of divine simplicity? There are a number of ways to go about proving the point. They are all related to the notion that God is a metaphysical Absolute whose mode of being is utterly unique. Whereas all other beings are relative, dependent, contingent, caused, God must be absolute, independent, necessary, and uncaused. Why should that be so? At the end of the day, the argument is that anything whose existence is characterized by the former set of attributes is a kind of existential anomaly: nothing within it explains the fact of its existence, and its existence is most definitely a phenomenon which needs some kind of explaining, if the universe is going to have a semblance of intelligibility; ultimately there must therefore be something which is not characterized in any of those ways, something the existence of which is entirely from itself, in a way. Now if this thing were a composite of parts, its existence would be explained by the unity of its parts, and it would need something outside of it to cause its existence; therefore the absolute cannot composite in any way, since this is a generally valid principle of all forms of composite being: compositions need composers.

That is one way to go about motivating the doctrine. There is a lot which may sound controversial to the contemporary analytic philosopher who has not been trained in the classical metaphysical tradition, that kind of Platonism and Aristotelianism and everything in between that characterized the thought of such luminaries as Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Aquinas, etc. None of what I have said is controversial within that tradition, and that tradition is the one in which the doctrine of divine simplicity must be understood. I don't take objections to the coherence of the doctrine of divine simplicity very seriously, because they inevitably arise from a failure to appreciate the specific metaphysic which motivates the doctrine in the first place. In this way, objections to the coherence of divine simplicity are an exercise in begging the question.

Here's the way I argue for and understand divine simplicity. (Before I begin, get all such notions of properties as abstract, causally inert universals in Plato's heaven out of your head, as well as the notion that individual concrete existents are ontologically structureless "blobs" -- an impossibility, anyway.)

In the first place, I start from a critical presupposition of the intelligibility of the world. If the world is intelligible, if we may know it, then the structures of understanding in our mind must "map on" to actual ontological structure in the world. That means that the structures of substance-accident, subject-predicate, essence-existence, etc., by which alone we may understand a thing at all and have any kind of knowledge of it -- these structures must be real, they must have real correlates in the thing itself.  If there is no such structure in the thing, then we don't know the thing by imposing that structure on it or by attempting to understand it through the terms and logic of that structure.

Now we find that these various categories of understanding (which also have correlated categories or modes of being) are such that they do not need to be unified in the order we find them. For instance, we find that there is nothing about the substance 'apple' and the accident 'red' that necessitates that an apple is red; some apples are not red, and some red things are not apples. More interestingly, we find that there is a distinction between essence and existence: our concept of 'cat' is one thing on its own, and my concept of Alley Cat, my pet cat, is another thing; Alley Cat is an individualized existent instance of the concept cat.

From this contingency I infer a real contingency. To the extent that I have knowledge of cats, apples, red, etc., I can see that there is nothing about my cat that requires that she exist. Previously she didn't exist; one day she too will pass (though I should hope it's a long while till then). In fact the contingency of the unity of my concepts is precisely grounded in the contingency of the real world: at times an apple is green, then later it becomes red, then later it goes out of existence; this tells me that its accidents (at least some of them) are contingently had, and that ultimately its existence is contingently had as well.

Now take some concrete existent thing, such as my cat. The unity of the components of my concept of my cat is a contingent one; it is a unity only because I unite these concepts myself, as an agent with unifying power exterior to the concept, and if I didn't do this, the individual components of the concept themselves would never be unified into a concept of an existing thing. In the same way, the ontological components which form my cat are contingently united to one another, so that she exists. It must be by something outside of her. Now unless we are not going to explain anything at all and be set off on a vicious regress, there must be some ultimate cause of the existence of all such beings which is itself not composite in the relevant ways. Since it was ontological composition that necessitated the positing of a cause, that cause (in order for it to do its prescribed explanatory and metaphysical work) cannot be of the same sort as its effects, such as to require for itself an explanation.

Therefore the cause of the existence of all intelligible (and therefore composite) reality must itself not be composite in any way. It also follows from this that it is not intelligible; it is not knowable. We can't understand it through the structures of form-matter or substance-accident or anything of the sort, since it is not a being of sort. It is something altogether otherwise from intelligible reality. If anything it is super-intelligible, it is beyond understanding. It obviously is not nothing, since it is the cause of everything else, but in a critical way it is beyond something; it is a sort of overabundant infinite existence. Quod omnes dicunt deum.

2. Theological language and revelation

Obviously this implies a certain view of theological language and revelation. Perhaps we could consider three approaches to theological language:

a. The kataphatic univocal view. On this view, we must describe divine simplicity as the doctrine that "God is identical to his properties," "God is his goodness and his justice," etc. Thus we import certain concepts (such as 'property') into our language of God and speak of him as if we are actually describing his being. We are speaking κατὰ φύσιν, according to his real nature. This view is hopeless, to my mind, since the statements we might attempt to describe God with are clearly (e.g., "goodness", "power" not synonymous and oftentimes just lead to contradiction. Not only that, if God is unintelligible per the above argumentation, and if God is never an object of ordinary experience to which we apply the standard categories of thought/being (as he can't be, per the above argumentation), we have no reason to suppose that those terms are adequate to the task. Why should we describe God in those terms? Why should God be just, and good, and powerful, etc., if we take these to be descriptions of his intrinsic being?

b. The kataphatic analogical view. On this view, we make affirmations about God's intrinsic being, but they are of an analogical sort. God is something like what we mean by goodness, though the term may not match up entirely; it may not be entirely adequate in describing God's goodness.

c. The apophatic view. On this view we do not make actual statements about God's intrinsic being. We may make negative statements (e.g., God is not a substance-accident composite), and we may make statements about the relation between things and God as their cause (e.g., God is just because he realizes just states of affairs in response to evils or injustices). But we do not say anything or know anything about God's intrinsic being.

I prefer to avoid the problems of the coherence of the doctrine of divine simplicity by taking the apophatic view of theological language. But then how can we engage in the act of theology, if we do not make statements about God's intrinsic being? In fact, how can we even relate to this God, how can we come into contact with him?

I understand theology to be intimately connected with revelation. The Christian tradition affirms that the texts of the Bible (and perhaps also the tradition of the church established after the apostles) are inspired, that they provide for us a way of approaching and thinking about God and speaking about him that is approved by him in a way. To my mind theology is more about the training and development of the religious mind than about accurate description of God; it is more about giving you a way of approach him and thinking about him. So theology teaches us to pray, for instance, as a way in which we can seek to come into contact with God. Likewise Jesus teaches us to pray to God as Father, because this orients our relationship to him in a way that insisting on a title like Lord or Deity might not.

There is more to be said, but this is a start.

Cyril of Jerusalem on "forgive us our trespasses"

One of the most powerful effects Christianity has had on Western culture is it has imposed an appreciation of forgiveness as a kind of pinnacle of morality. (Derrida has a line on this in his On forgiveness (Routledge, 2001) if I am not mistaken, something to the effect that the appreciation of forgiveness was the result of the Christianization of the West.) It is Christianity that teaches, For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Mt 6.14-5).

Forgiveness, however, is a difficult thing, as anyone knows who has been in a position to forgive before. Cyril of Jerusalem motivates us to forgive by bringing to our minds the disproportion between our sins against God and the sins of others against us:

The offenses committed against us are slight and trivial, and easily settled; but those which we have committed against God are great, and need such mercy as His only is. Take heed therefore, lest for the slight and trivial sins against thee thou shut out for thyself forgiveness from God for thy very grievous sins (Lecture XXIII, 16).

When we think about the actual damage done to us by other persons, we find it to be quite minimal: an insult here, a poorly toned response there, etc. Of course sometimes the evils done us are great as well. But what can compare, like Abelard says somewhere, to that sin which put Christ on the cross? How can anything we do compare to the murder of the Son of God himself? And yet for that same murder we are all responsible, since Christ died for all (2 Cor 5.14) -- and yet to this very "you" who crucified Christ (Acts 2.22-3), the Holy Spirit is promised (vv. 36-9). If Christ can forgive us this, then what are we allowed not to forgive?

Now there is debate whether or not forgiveness is unconditional, and whether Christians are expected to forgive unconditionally. Some persons point to the alleged fact that God forgives conditionally as evidence that Christians are not expected to go beyond this, but I don't agree with the premise. I think God forgives first, and because he forgives us he saves us and atones for us. Thus Paul says that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them (2 Cor 5.19). The forgiveness is first and then the reconciliation on the basis of the former. More than that, unconditional forgiveness is ostensibly the attitude of the person who is full of the Holy Spirit, who receives that merciful heart of which St. Isaac the Syrian spoke. Consider Stephen at Acts 7.60, who prays to God that he not hold the sin of his murderers against them: he doesn't wait for their repentance but prays for them while they are in the act of sinning! He does this because he is full of the Holy Spirit (Acts 6.5).

Forgiveness, therefore, is a quality which Christians must seek to embody day by day, hour by hour. We have to be transformed and changed into the likeness of God who is quick to forgive, and we can only accomplish this through the presence of the Holy Spirit within us. When we are full of love, forgiveness flows naturally and easily.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Gregory Nazianzen on theological language

ὁ ἅγιος Γριγόριος ὁ θεολόγος
Lately I have been reading through Gregory Nazianzen's fifth theological oration on the Holy Spirit in Christology of the Later Fathers, ed. Edward R. Hardy (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006). I've especially enjoyed his brief comments here and there on the nature and inadequacy of theological language to describe the being of God. It's very similar, I would think, to my own stance on the issue.

Gregory emphasizes at various points that language doesn't stand up to the true nature of God; for this reason seeking to understand the Trinity by appeal to natural examples is an endeavor destined for failure:

But since God is one and the supreme nature is one, how can I present to you the likeness? Or will you seek it again in lower regions and in your own surroundings? It is very shameful, and not only shameful but very foolish, to take from things below a guess at things above, and from a fluctuating nature at the things that are unchanging, and, as Isaiah says to seek the living among the dead (10, p. 199).

Because God's nature is unique, because the supreme nature is one, therefore it is impossible to come up with adequate analogies and examples for it from the created order. In theologizing, in discussing God's very being, we are approaching a subject which is totally unlike anything in the realm of the familiar. This automatically puts us at a disadvantage in terms of describing the deity: how are we to describe that which we've never known in the way we know other things, which act as the material for our language to use?

It is important to note, at this juncture, that Gregory's stance about the inadequacy of theological language is motivated by a certain philosophical conception of deity. That is to say, a particular metaphysical vision is what motivates Gregory's skepticism about theological language. Because philosophy teaches us that God is a certain way, therefore we reject literal interpretation even of some of scripture's language:

According to scripture, God sleeps and is awake, is angry, walks, has the cherubim for his throne. And yet when did he become liable to passion, and have you ever heard that God has a body? This, then, is, though not really a fact, a figure of speech. For we have given names according to our own comprehension from our own attributes to those of God. His remaining silent apart from us, and as it were not caring for us, for reasons known to himself, is what we call his sleeping; for our own sleep is such a state of inactivity. And again, his sudden turning to do us good is the waking up; or waking is the dissolution of sleep, as visitation is of turning away. And when he punishes, we say he is angry; for so it is with us -- punishment is the result of anger (22, p. 207).

Here he posits a particular vision of the way theological language is devised: it is born from our experiences of God as a kind of agent. We familiarize God and describe him in anthropomorphic terms, ascribing sleep and rousing and anger (!) to him when in fact there is none. We talk in this way about God because we form analogies between what we understand God to be doing relative to us, on the one hand, and our own similar ways of being and acting, on the other. Theological language is metaphorical description of God's causal effects on the world and on us at various points.

We don't take this kind of language literally, however, because we know by philosophy that God does not actually have a body, is not actually subject to its limitations, does not actually respond emotionally to things that take place in the world (i.e., he is impassible), and so on. It is certainly philosophy that acts as a limit and guide on theological language for Gregory, because otherwise he would have no reason to decide ahead of time that this kind of language can't be literal.

Obviously this kind of approach to theological language leaves a lot of room for mystery. The vision of Christian worship that it inspires is a less literal one: we come into contact with this God, whom we cannot describe or comprehend, in this mysterious way through the means passed down to us by the tradition and ultimately by Jesus Christ himself.

Interestingly, too, for Gregory heresy and error creep up precisely when we try to make sense of the mystery. He speaks at one point of the subversion of faith and emptying of the mystery (23, p. 208). The parallelism here is significant. It is precisely an attempt to empty the mystery of the Holy Trinity, for instance, that leads us into various forms of heresy, whether Sabellianism or Arianism or whatever. The Orthodox route is to affirm the three in one and to revel in its mystery, to accept that we are speaking of a reality far beyond what we can comprehend.

This invites a particular understanding of the metaphysics of Christian life. It appears to me, and I think Gregory would agree, that the Christian is approaching a reality which is far beyond him, and yet it transforms him and saves him if he approaches it correctly. It is as if we are approaching some great tremendous darkness, or to use a better analogy, some extremely powerful light: it is far too bright for us to see, and we have to squint and barely get a glimpse of it with our eyes hardly opened, but if we don't turn away we find ourselves healed and strengthened and transformed by it. The Church, its tradition, and the scriptures give us language and a way of thinking about this light that has the authorization of the light itself, though we recognize that at the end of the day, the language is accommodated to us and may at times better describe ourselves than it.

This may not satisfy the philosopher, who wants to understand everything and to bring within the gaze of his mind the universe and all of space and time -- however that line from the Republic goes. But then again, the Christian is not necessarily a philosopher.