Thursday, June 30, 2016

The λόγος is at the basis of everything

The opening words of the Gospel according to John are rightly very famous:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being (John 1:1-3).
The human face of the Logos
At the beginning of absolutely everything is the Word, the Logos (λόγος), which carries very many connotations. I understand it as follows. The world owes its creation to the activity of God -- that much is certain. "In the beginning," as Genesis reads, God created the heaven and the earth. But the creation was not merely the unpredictable, unintelligible activity of bare will; the world does not owe its existence to caprice, or to malice, or to a senseless act of play, as some Indian philosophers have tried to argue. Rather, this same God who created the world is also one in being with the Logos, with the Word. The world owes its existence to a rational and thinking act, to one which is supremely rational and reasoned and intelligible.

All things came into being through the Word; that is what John says. Because of that, it seems to me fair to deduce that this world is intelligible and reasonable, even if it might seem otherwise to us. This is a hard thing to say, especially these days.

Many people, when they are confronted by tremendous suffering or grave evils or personal loss, refuse to admit any kind of rhyme or reason to what happened. They may have the feeling that if there were some reason for why it happened, it would take away from the evil of the situation, and thus they would lose their right to protest and to be angry. For this reason, they say that God had nothing to do with the event in question, even though this raises very difficult and problematic philosophical and theological questions regarding the nature of God's providence. They prefer instead to leave it an impenetrable mystery and to shake their fists at a dark, thick cloud of unintelligibility.

I have my doubts about this position, and I question whether or not it is really to be preferred to the alternative. When I read that all things came into being through him, it seems to me proper to conclude that there is no aspect of history or the life of any person which is not under the providential control of the Logos. This doesn't mean that God himself has predestined everything to occur as it does, in the sense that God's will is the logically prior condition of everything whatsoever. Rather, I believe that some things owe ultimately to the free choice of the human person, not to God's will, but that God knows these things and incorporates them into his providence. In any case, however, it is certainly true -- and must be true, if this text from John's Gospel is to be believed -- that all things owe their existence to God, who either determines them to occur or else permits them to occur for some reason he knows.

Why is this view preferable? Because it is (to my mind, anyway) clearly preferable to believe that evil is a force within the ultimate control of God, who is good and loves me and wants my salvation, than to think that evil is utterly outside of God's control and apparently capable of catching him by surprise at times. If evil is ultimately permitted by God knowingly, then at the least I know that there is some rhyme and reason to it, even if I cannot figure it out. And I can know that all things work together for good for those who love God (Rom 8:28), because God himself guides them to a good end. But if God has nothing to do whatsoever with the evil that occurs in the world, if it apparently has its existence and activity utterly independently of him, then there's no reason to think that the verse from Romans is true. Why should all things work together for my good, if they do not come from God? Can all things which come from Satan work for my good, if they are not a part of the plan and purpose of God?

There is nothing easy about this, of course. Who can comfort themselves with the thought that the loss of a loved one or mass killings or anything else of the sort have their place in God's plan for the world, though we clearly cannot see the reason why they should be allowed? It is hardly obvious or intuitive that things should be so. But better that God have a plan, than that these things should have happened randomly and unexpectedly and without any greater purpose than our own destruction. And I think it would be better for us to give up our "right" to cry and to protest and be angry ad infinitum at the things that happen to us, than to disparage God's providence and his wisdom in ordering the world. All this protest and anger may be a way of taking our attention off of our own blame and sin, and finding someone else to blame, so as to ease our conscience...

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Some reflections on scripture and tradition

So those who welcomed [Peter's] message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:41-2).
Before a word of the New Testament was written, the earliest converts to Christianity devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles as recognizable authorities and sources of knowledge as regards the good news about Jesus of Nazareth. From this verse and many others in the Acts of the Apostles, it is evident that Christianity did not spread randomly and anonymously through word of mouth by unimportant persons. Even if this might have happened, the apostles had a clearly recognized and exercised authority over the teaching of the Christian churches, because they had been Jesus' inner circle and knew his teaching better than anyone else.

There is a further important consequence of this text. It demonstrates a certain priority of the apostolic tradition to the scriptures. As I said earlier, before anything had been written in the New Testament, the teaching of the apostles and their collective interpretation of the events surrounding Jesus of Nazareth were taken as the definitive and authoritative understanding of the Christian gospel. Once the New Testament would be written, it would clearly have to be interpreted in such a manner as to cohere with the received apostolic traditions and teachings. Any interpretation of one of Paul's letters, for example, which contradicted his own teaching, or the teaching of Peter or James or of any other apostle, would have to be ruled out in principle.

It is also clear that, given the occasional nature of the New Testament documents themselves, there is no reason to think that they contain anything like a complete summary of all the apostolic teaching on every important matter. Peter and John and James and Paul and the rest might well have taught much more detailed and sophisticated things than have been written down in the New Testament, though clearly they could not have taught anything contrary to its writings. Paul himself recognizes this distinction between written and oral tradition in this passage:
So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter (2 Thess 2:15).
The authority of the apostles translated into the authority of their teachings, regardless of the manner in which these were handed over. An apostolic oral tradition is equally authoritative to a written document, because it traces to an apostle, to one who had seen and learned from Jesus Christ himself. And it is clear, also, that the oral tradition of the apostles preceded and informed the composition and later interpretation of the New Testament.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

From his fullness we all have received, grace upon grace

John 1:16 says: From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

This is a point I have made before in commenting upon various verses from John the Theologian's biblical works. His theology is very much a kind of "platonic" one, in which God and the Logos (since these are consubstantial) represent the fullness of being and goodness and everything else. God has grace and truth and life of himself, whereas we only have these things to the extent that God shares them with us. For example, the Logos is life, and this life is the light of all people; to the extent that we share in this life, which really amounts to living in the light of the Logos, then we have by participation and by grace what the Logos has by nature.

John's theology, in other words, is one of theosis. Those qualities which God has by his nature, he wishes to share with human creatures. In this way, they become participants in the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4), obviously while remaining creatures and not assuming a substantial union with the Creator, which is impossible. God wants to share his life with human creatures, so that they can enjoy the bliss and joy which he has in himself, through a union with and likeness to him.

This "fullness" about which John here writes really starts from the fullness of existence. God exists necessarily, having existence of himself, or rather (to follow Thomas Aquinas) he exists necessarily because he just is subsistent being itself (ipsum esse subsistens). Everything else exists only in a derivative and borrowed fashion, because God imparts existence upon everything whatsoever. Just as food is only hot because of the fire which heats it, whereas the fire has heat of itself, so also everything else exists only in a contingent matter because it is given existence by God who has it of himself.

There is also another fullness, however, which is shared with those who believe in Jesus Christ, who is the Logos of God. Christ says: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). As I've commented in previous posts, there is a sort of life which is only possible for those who accept the teaching of the Logos and who are committed to it. This is the fullness of life, that powerful experience of joy at one's circumstances, which knows that one has been forgiven by God of one's sins and that one is living life in keeping with the truth. That sort of fullness is in principle impossible to have if a person doesn't believe in the Logos.

John says it like this earlier in the Prologue to his Gospel: But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God (1:12). Whereas the Logos is the Son by nature, and thus John calls him the only-begotten Son (v. 14), those who accept the Logos's teaching in faith receive the power to become children of God by grace. What the Logos has by nature, we can have by grace and by participation, because he is willing to share it with us.

Therefore John says that what we have received from him is grace upon grace. All these wonderful things which the Creator has of himself -- existence, life, light, etc. -- are shared with us, even though we are opposed to him, even though we hate him, even though we live in wickedness. Who can claim to have earned the Creator's offer of sonship? Nothing in principle could have merited the invitation to adoption into God's family, because our prior state is a sinful one in which atonement has to be made. But God, out of his goodness -- or better said, out of his grace -- is willing to do everything that is necessary for us to  be saved and to enjoy the good things he wishes to share with us.

In times of difficulty, of stress, of pain, of hurtfulness, we would do well to reflect on the truth that we have all received from his fullness. If things in our circumstances hurt us, we turn to God and find a kindly face, willing to give us grace upon grace, if only we will accept it in faith.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Origen on three ways of interpreting scripture

I figured it would be important for me to get some reading done during this vacation of mine in Romania, so I stopped by the Humanitas book store in the center of Cluj and bought the Philokalia of Origen, of course in a Romanian translation. I've been reading through the first chapter and came across the following interesting lines of Origen, which are translated in English as follows (from here):
11. The right way, then, to read the Scriptures and extract their meaning, so far as we have been able to discover from examining the oracles themselves, appears to be as follows:----Solomon in the Proverbs gives a rule respecting the Divine doctrines of Scripture to this effect: "Do thou thrice record them with counsel and knowledge that thou mayest answer with words of truth to those who try thee with hard questions." A man ought then in three ways to record in his own soul the purposes of the Holy Scriptures; that the simple may be edified by, as it were, the flesh of Scripture (for thus we designate the primary sense), the more advanced by its soul, and the perfect by the spiritual law, which has a shadow of the good things to come. For the perfect man resembles those of whom the Apostle speaks: "Howbeit we speak wisdom among the perfect; yet a wisdom not of this world, nor of the rulers of this world, which are coming to nought: but we speak God's wisdom in a mystery, even the wisdom that hath been hidden, which God foreordained before the worlds unto our glory, from the spiritual law which hath a shadow of the good things to come. As man consists of body, soul, and spirit, so too does Scripture which has been granted by God for the salvation of men. And thus we explain that passage in The Shepherd,----a book which some treat with contempt, ----in which Hermas is commanded to write two books, and then read to the elders of the Church what he has learned from the Spirit. "Thou shalt write two books, and give one to Clement and one to Grapte. And Grapte shall admonish the widows and orphans, Clement shall send to the cities abroad, and thou shalt read to the elders of the Church." Grapte, who admonishes the widows and orphans, is the bare letter of Scripture; it admonishes those readers whose souls are in the stage of childhood, and who cannot yet call God their Father, and are therefore styled "orphans"; it moreover admonishes souls, no longer consorting with the unlawful bridegroom, but remaining in a widowed state because not yet worthy of the true Bridegroom. Clement, the reader who has got beyond the letter, is said to send what is said to the cities abroad, that is to say, the souls which have escaped from the bodily desires and lower aims. And next the writing is forsaken, and the disciple himself of the Spirit is bidden "read" to the wise and hoary-headed elders of the whole Church of God with the living voice (Philokalia of Origen, I, 11).
It is fascinating to me that Origen distinguishes between three levels of readers of the scriptures. The first level concerns me here: it is represented by Grapte's admonitions to the widows and orphans, and contains those who are yet spiritually immature in various ways. Their relationship with God is not yet at the conscious level of Father-child, because they "cannot yet call God their Father." This may be because of spiritual immaturity and a certain distance between them and the God in whom they believe, even if imperfectly and incompletely. These persons likewise are not yet worthy of the true Bridegroom, namely Christ, and thus are considered widows as well. Such persons are limited only to a literal reading of the scriptures; they cannot go beyond the bare letter of what is on the page.

I notice myself a category between persons who are only capable of thinking about the scriptures and about God according to the strict words of the scriptural pages. They only accept precisely that language which the scriptures about some subject or another, and cannot admit any other meaning to some crucial theological term than what is explicitly said. On the other hand, there are some who are capable of a deeper understanding of the greater theological truths in the scripture which are not explicitly affirmed in the letter of the text. These persons can see beyond the letter to a more profound and systematic understanding. Conversations between such persons are often difficult.

Consider the following example, which I draw from my personal experience. In the Romanian Pentecostal tradition in which I grew up, there is a certain dedicated and extreme iconoclasm which vehemently condemns the veneration of icons (the practice of the Romanian Orthodox) as idol worship. "No graven images!" is the battle cry of these iconoclasts. For them, the biblical text is absolutely clear and impossible to get around:
Since you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure (Deut 4:15-16).
On the other hand, the Orthodox argument in defense of the veneration of icons is that Moses here provides an explicit reason for which they were not to create idols for themselves: they saw no form when the Lord spoke to them. Because they did not see what God looks like, consequently they were not to create some image of him from their own imagination, drawing from the things they saw on earth around them -- whether animals or humans or whatever. They were not to create images, in other words, because they lacked knowledge of what God is really like, and thus any representation was bound to be a misrepresentation. Consider by analogy that Christ, in the gospel of Mark, regularly tells people not to tell others that he is the Christ, though he really is, and this for the reason that prior to his crucifixion and resurrection, they would not have properly understood what it meant for him to be Christ. But clearly after these events, they are now enjoined to tell all people that he is the Christ.

But things change -- so the Orthodox argument goes -- after the Incarnation. At this point, the previously invisible God assumes an image which is now visible for all to see in Jesus Christ (Col 1:15). Now the representation of God is possible because God has made himself capable of representation through the assumption of human nature. Through the human nature of Christ, which is clearly capable of being depicted in an icon, God himself has become visible and made himself seen to people, since after all the person of Christ is the same person as the Logos of God. In such a case, there is no longer an obvious reason why such a depiction of God through the depiction of Christ should not be permitted, especially if it can serve an important religious service: namely, that of giving people a concrete image and representation of what God is like, and of the person whom they are worshiping, and of exciting religious sentiments.

The iconoclastic argument -- at least as I encounter it in the Romanian Pentecostal community -- is a fairly literalistic one which refuses to go beyond the letter of the scripture. The Orthodox argument, however, presupposes a general sense of the greater theological story of Christianity and the significance of certain key doctrines such as the Incarnation, the incomprehensibility and invisibility of God, etc. According to Origen's taxonomy, the iconoclastic argument might be considered an immature one, an argument which comes from a position of relative spiritual immaturity, whereas the Orthodox argument perhaps reveals a greater awareness of the mysteries of the Scriptures.

This is not to say, of course, that Romanian Pentecostals per se are spiritually immature and Orthodox per se are spiritually advanced. In many cases, in my experience anyway, quite the opposite is true: I know not a few but really very many Romanian Pentecostals who are far beyond me in terms of spiritual maturity and in closeness of fellowship with God, and on the other hands, vast swaths of Romanian Orthodox don't rise above the level of nominal Christians. But in this particular respect, specifically regarding icons, it seems to me the iconoclastic argument is an immature one whereas the iconodulist argument is a more mature and profound view of things.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Preparing the way of the Lord

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. (John 1:6-8)
One of the fascinating aspects of Christian theology -- one which is often misunderstood in contemporary discourse on religion -- is the doctrine that God makes use of secondary causes to accomplish his purposes. God is not merely one more thing in the universe like you and me, in competition with every other being for some space in causal arena. Rather, God is beyond this universe entirely, and does not operate on the same level at all. It is not as if either God prepares the way or else John does; rather, God can prepare the way for the advent of Christ into the world through John the Baptist.

God makes use of means, in other words, to accomplish the things he want. This is significant because we often assume that an event or phenomenon either was caused by God, or else it is entirely a result of natural causation. For that reason, so many people these days say something like the following: you shouldn't thank God for the food on your table; you should thank the farmers who worked to produce it. This is a false dichotomy, because it isn't as if either the farmers or God made the food, but not both. Rather, all things whatsoever come from God, and all things happen naturally and in an orderly manner (e.g., the rains, the growth of crops, etc.) thanks to God's preserving the world and its laws in existence.

In the same way, God makes use of John to prepare the way for the advent of Christ. He doesn't simply arrive on the scene at random, but rather sends John to alert people to the imminent arrival of Christ. Why should he do this? It must be because people needed to be reminded, yet again, of the coming of the messiah. Once more, the terrain had to be prepared, so that the Christ could come and people could be brought to the place in which they were to make a choice -- whether to believe in him or not. People needed to know that Christ was coming, so that they could make an informed choice whether or not to accept him.

In an interesting way, John the Baptist's arrival in Judea is an allegory for the activity of the Holy Spirit, preparing a place for Christ in the heart of the person who would become a Christian.

I considered in an earlier post that people, because of their sinfulness, did not recognize the Logos who created them when he came into the world. Because of the deeply ingrained sinful ways of thinking and acting in them, they were not capable of seeing the truth when it was presented to them. Yet every man, at the same time, is called to believe in the gospel. And nobody can believe in anything unless he recognizes at least a glimmer of the truth in that which is brought to his consideration. So man is simultaneously required and incapable of to recognize at least the glimmer of the truth in the gospel and to believe. How can this problem be resolved?

The answer, of course, is that the Holy Spirit enables a person to believe in the gospel. Through a mysterious saving activity, such that only God in principle could do such a thing, the Holy Spirit convicts the world, as Jesus says later on in the Gospel, so that they might believe. And in this way, too, John the Baptist comes as an external representation of that interior work of the Holy Spirit. John comes and preaches repentance to the Judeans, so that all might believe through him. And in the same way, by various mysterious means, so also the Holy Spirit reaches out to all people through their circumstances, through other people, and through whatever other medium he might choose, so that they might believe and be saved.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

He was in the world

The first part of John 1:10 says, speaking of the Logos: He was in the world.

These short words, only four of them in the original Greek, express the fundamentally real and concrete nature of Christian faith. In other words, belief in the Christian message is belief about something in the real world of history, about something that actually took place. The Logos, the very same Logos which created the world in the beginning and which is God, came into this world and lived among human beings. He was in the world, really, the same way John and Paul and Peter and the rest of them were in the world. He walked about Palestine, during a specific identifiable period of history.

In this way Christian faith is to be distinguished sharply from ancient mythologies which tell stories about "events" that took place in some nondescript no-time. The Bible in general doesn't read in this way, and it is typically people who have never read the Bible before in any detail who think of it as stories and myths, or else people who are intent not believe in what the Church has traditionally taught. On the contrary, the Bible attempts to speak about reality, about existence, about what is really there in everything that it says. Christian faith is not mythological or a belief in "parables," like Fox Mulder from The X-Files so often describes it.

An important consequence of this is that Christian faith is not primarily about sentiments or feelings or the "interior" world of the subjective mind. So many people -- especially here in Romanian culture -- think of the Christian religion and its practices in these interior terms. Going to the liturgy is worthwhile because the experience is so profound, because it gives an inner peace, because it calms your spirit, and so on. All of that is not bad in itself, but neither is it the whole story. It does us little good to feel fine on the inside but actually to be in danger. Imagine a person who is soundly sleeping or else enjoying himself on a ship that, unbeknownst to him, is slowly sinking. His state is hardly a good one just because he feels fine about himself and about his estate; on the contrary, his state is that much more miserable because he's not aware of just how much danger he is in!

The more important factor, according to the Christian religion, is to be in the truth, regardless of how you feel. This is because He was in the world; because Christian belief is primarily about the truth, and not about custom or feeling or sentiment or anything else of the sort. It is better to be in the truth, really to be reconciled to God and in his grace, than to feel good about yourself despite really being separated from God's favor because of unforgiven sin.

These, then, are some remarks on the significance of that verse: He was in the world. The important thing to remember is that Christianity is primarily a religion of the truth, of reality, and not of mythology or of empty religious sentiment without any greater reference to the actual state of things.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Not recognizing the Logos

Speaking of the Logos, the prologue to the Gospel according to John says:

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. (John 1:10-11)

This is the bitterest of all ironies, that the very creator of the universe could have come and presented himself before those creatures uniquely capable of knowing him -- namely human beings -- and to pass unrecognized for what he is. Yet this is precisely what happened, says John.

Just as a piece of music in some way represents and reflects the character of the person who composed it, in the same way, all of the created order is in some way a reflection of and participation in the being of the Logos. Maximos the Confessor speaks about the distinction between the Logos and the logoi, the latter being the particular ideas or natures of the various created things which preexisted in the mind of the Logos. There is a logos of the human being, of angels, and so on, and each object is created by the Logos according to its particular logos. And each logos, moreover, is in some way a reflection of or participation in the character and being of the Logos.

What can it mean, then, to say that the created order did not recognize its Creator? What else can it mean except that the created order -- and here I am speaking especially of human beings -- has in some way forgotten itself, its true nature, its true character and calling? If the logoi are reflections of the Logos, and the logoi did not recognize the Logos for who he was, then neither do they recognize themselves for what they truly are.

This is what I see to have happened in the twenty-first century in the West. Human beings, thanks to unprecedented technological advancements and very much bad philosophy to go alongside with it, have simply forgotten what it means to be human. They overwork themselves; they live isolated in cities; they pursue enjoyment and fulfillment apart from the tight-knit communities by which humans survived for so many thousands of years; they try to cure their various ailments with sophisticated medications rather than living simpler, healthier lifestyles. Worse than this, we find persons forgetting even basic facts of biology, and instead of thinking of themselves as essentially embodied -- as one would assume to be normal -- they now take their bodies to be just one more object in the world which can be known scientifically and therefore manipulated to serve the ends of some apparently disembodied "I." Therefore you read about people who refuse the basic lessons of biology and seek sex which is in principle incapable of being procreative, using their bodies as means of enjoying themselves, rather than respecting the intrinsic principles of the body which clearly connect sexual activity with procreation. And there are various other examples that could be brought forth in this respect, as well.

For John, then, the human predicament is a sad one, because we have forgotten who we really are, and we don't understand our origins in the Creator Logos. This makes the incarnation of God in Christ and his subsequent rejection to be really a sad scene. Imagine a child who had been abandoned at a young age, and had spent his entire conscious life at an orphanage. Such a person could pass by his natural father on the street and would never be capable of recognizing him. He might even see him everywhere -- at the store, at the market, at the gas stations, at the restaurant, wherever he might go -- and fail to realize that this man, who he seems to see everywhere yet does not recognize, is really his father.

Such a scene is sad, but our situation is even worse. It is not that our Father has abandoned us long ago and left us to figure things out for ourselves. That is deism, not Christianity. On the contrary, John knows that the reason why the world did not recognize the Logos is because we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way (Isa 53:6). Humankind has abandoned the truth of God and exchanged it for a lie, rather than having been abandoned unjustly by God some long, long time ago. More than that, we have been living a lie for so long that we've become accustomed to it. That is why we don't recognize the Logos: we're used to the lies and the falsehoods that we've adopted to make our lives more comfortable and our sinful pursuits more meaningful, so that the message of the true Logos seems nonsense to us.

The Logos came into the world, then -- the very same world which he had created, all of which is a reflection of him in some way or another -- and came to show himself to his children. But they rejected him. They rejected him because they did not recognize him as their Creator; they could not discern the voice of the Creator of All in the words of Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Logos incarnate. But worse than that, they killed him, as well. Imagine that the orphan of our story is approached by his real father, that his real father tells him of his true identity and wishes to take him to live in a different house, not in the orphanage. Imagine, further, that he is quite persistent in doing so, because he is speaking the truth and not a lie: he wants to come for his child and to bring him to a life which he deserves. Suppose, then, that our child not only does not recognize this man as his father, but even promises violence (and eventually delivers) if he will not leave the child alone to live as he likes. He murders his own father in cold blood, because he would rather live his orphan life than to accept life under the fatherhood of another.

Such is the miserable sinfulness of the human race, that it killed the Creator when this one had come to it in love and in forgiveness. Despite the fact that the human race had abandoned God, and not the other way around, the Logos had come in grace and mercy to do good. But he was rejected and murdered, being hung on a cross. Yet such is the majestic wisdom of the Logos that he knows how to turn this evil for our own good, and the same murder which represents the hanging of the Creator on a cross is also the sacrifice for the atonement of the sins of the whole world.

This same Creator, whom so many did not recognize as such, makes use of their evil and turns it to their good. He absorbs into his own being the evil which they do, for the sake of doing them a tremendous good out of it, so that they can be saved and restored to him out of the immeasurable depth of the ocean of his goodness.

And if we are the creatures of this Creator, and if the logoi reflect the Logos, then we ought to find something of ourselves in this tremendous act of grace. Mind you, we don't find a picture of ourselves as we are, but as we should be: this same outrageous goodness and boundless benevolence of God, demonstrated in the willing self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ, ought likewise to represent our own actions and attitudes and disposition in everything we do. If Christ is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15), then we humans who are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-7) ought to look to Christ to find ourselves once more. By looking to Christ and to his example, we will see a living and perfect example of the way we ought to live.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The hospitality of God at Pentecost

I'm in Romania for the next couple months, which means I'm celebrating Pentecost this weekend for the second time this year. (Romania follows the Orthodox calendar.) To that end, I figured I would post some reflections on what I find most impressive about the giving of the Holy Spirit to the disciples.

I want especially to focus on the words of Peter's sermon:
"You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know—this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power." ... 
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, "Brothers, what should we do?" Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him." (Acts 2:22-4, 37-39).
What immediately sticks out to me is the repeated use of the personal pronoun: you Israelites; a man attested to you; you yourselves know; handed over to you; you crucified and killed; be baptized every one of you; the promise is for you. Peter is emphasizing in a very pointed manner the fact that his audience were in every implicated in what happened to Jesus of Nazareth -- his rejection, his crucifixion, etc.At the same time, however, these very same persons are also the recipients of some tremendous promises, namely the promise of the Holy Spirit!

This is what is so impressive to me: that the very persons who killed the Son of God are also the intended inheritors of the promised Holy Spirit. That is the mind-boggling majesty of the grace of God, that those who victimize him are the same persons he wishes to bless and to restore to him. He doesn't oppose them, he doesn't want them to be destroyed, but rather he wishes to do them good. More than that, because it is through the death of Christ that we are reconciled to God, a death in which they played an integral part, God evidently wishes to use their very evil to do them the greatest possible favor -- restoring them to their Creator for their salvation! 

Imagine you love some person, but this person hates you. Not only does he hate you, but if you were to attempt to strike up a friendship with this person, he will certainly harm you. Would you risk your life in order to accomplish friendship with a person who hates you, who wants nothing to do with you as things stand now? Yet God not only wishes to strike up friendship with his enemies, but he is willing to do so at extreme cost to himself, and willing to use his own victimization as the means by which this friendship is sealed and made possible. 

I think this scene is even more impressive if we think about what it is exactly the descent of the Holy Spirit accomplishes in us. To this end, let us look at this verse from Paul's letter to the Romans:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him (Rom 8:14-17).
Notice what the Spirit does. Through the Spirit, we are made children of God. Though Christ is the only-begotten Son of God, we become united to him and are in this way adopted by God, through the activity of the Holy Spirit. And this same Spirit convinces us that we occupy by grace the same position that Christ does by nature -- that of children of God. Through the Spirit, we are made children of God alongside Christ, and together with Christ, in the Spirit, we worship the Father and dedicate our whole lives to him.

We can see from this, then, that in a sense, the Spirit of God makes us a part of the family of God. Pentecost therefore represents the extreme hospitality of God: his willingness to welcome into his own family the very persons who harmed his Son.

Imagine that you have a daughter who loves a certain boy very much, but this boy is very bad and only ever makes fun of her. One day, when she approaches him and makes her love for him known and plainly stated, he responds by harming her: he pushes her into the mud, spits on her, and walks off laughing with his friends. What would your opinion be of the boy? Would you wish that boy to marry your daughter? If later in his life, he changed his mind and decided that he liked her, would you even entertain the thought of receiving him into your house? Or would you sooner tell your daughter, "Remember what he did to you! You deserve much better than him; I won't allow it"?

We are not very hospitable. We hold grudges and don't forget what others did to us, or to the ones we love. But God is not like that. At Pentecost, through the sermon of Peter, God shows that the very persons who rejected his Son are the ones he wishes to bring into his family, through baptism and the Holy Spirit. God's hospitality is extreme: he will not give up until we are made willing and worthy guests of his household, and he will meet us at every step of the way to see that we are not without the necessary help to accomplish this. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, God wishes to adopt and to welcome into his family the very persons who previously hated him and wished his Son only evil. That is how generous God is!

Who can remain in servile fear of a God such as this? Who can keep from loving the very God which welcomes into his family persons who otherwise wanted to do him harm? They show that they hated God because they hated his Son who makes him known. Yet in spite of this, God's tremendous power and omnipotence is his ability to turn his enemies into friends, and strangers and aliens and orphans into sons. That is what we learn at Pentecost: the great power of the generosity of God to give the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The light shines in the darkness

The prologue to John's gospel has the following line, which perhaps may be understood as a kind of summary of the effects of Christ's advent into the world:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:5).

There are a few interesting things to note here. In the first place, consider the radically asymmetric difference between light and darkness. Light is the more substantial being, we might say, whereas darkness is purely privation and absence: darkness is just the absence of light in some place, whereas light is the true being with a substance of its own. Throughout the ages, Christian theologians have understood the relation between good and evil, righteousness and sin, etc. in similar terms: the good is substantial; evil is just a privation of good in some way or other. For this reason, too, God is not understood to be the cause of evil, because he is the cause of what exists and evil strictly speaking lacks existence of its own. It is parasitic on the good, rather than having substantial existence on its own terms.

The asymmetry in the relation between good and evil, light and darkness, means that one of the two is specially privileged and powerful over the other. Because evil is merely a privation of the good, therefore good is always superior and more powerful to evil. Likewise, because darkness is merely a privation of light, so also a lamp in a dark room overcomes the darkness effortlessly (even if not completely, depending on the strength of the light). This is why John says that the darkness has not overcome the light: because of the sort of thing darkness is, in principle the light always remains substantial, and darkness always a privation; a privation cannot cause anything, but only substantial being, and so the darkness cannot overcome the light. It would be absurd to think that a candle goes out because the darkness around it suppresses it! On the contrary, only if it runs out of oxygen or whatever else it needs to stay lit will it go out.

John is therefore saying that Christ, who is the Logos and the true light of all men (cf. v. 4), was not overcome by all the darkness which is in the world. In principle he could not be, since darkness cannot overcome light. Even though he was killed and crucified unjustly, he was still not conquered by the world but on the contrary, he says that he has overcome the world -- and that because he did not compromise the truth. This is a radical thought: true victory is not staying alive at any cost, but remaining faithful to the testimony of the truth even if others should kill you for it!

Of course, darkness by itself cannot make a candle blow out. But other things can -- the wind, a lack of fuel, etc. Our candles don't burn by their own power, we might say. Christ was not overcome by the darkness in the world, however, because he is that Light from which all else light derives. He has the power of life and light within himself, and if anyone else has light or life, it ultimately derives from the activity of Christ the Logos. If we do not wish to be overcome, then, we have to stay close to the Logos, in communion and fellowship with him, to draw from his life and his light in the darkness of this world:

I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5).

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Light and life

I recently completed a nine-month-long study of 1 John for my apprenticeship for seminary. After all that study of 1 John, I now want to turn to the Gospel according to John, where I suspect there is an even more profound and deeper development of many of the same themes as the epistle.

The prologue to John's gospel is one of the most theologically sophisticated and impressive portions of the scripture. (There's a reason why they call him John the Theologian!) I specifically want to reflect on the fourth verse, speaking about the Logos:

In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

"Life" and "light" are two very important metaphors in John's theology, and this verse affirms a central connection between the two of them. This same Logos, who is with God, and is God, and through whom absolutely everything was created, has life within himself. This life, at the same time, is also the light of all human persons (to phos tou anthropon). What is the significance of these metaphors, and what is the significance of their close connection, according to this verse?

On the one hand, it seems to me that life is fundamentally connected with experience. The difference between something that is living and something which isn't living is the fact that the one can experience the world to a certain extent, whereas the other cannot. This also speaks to the quality of experience, however, for we commonly distinguish between biological life and life lived in its fullest sense. Plenty of people are biologically alive -- they have a pulse, their brain is functioning, they are conscious, and so on -- but are lacking life in the fullest sense. Their experience, in other words, is lacking energy, lacking vitality, lacking joy, lacking that which the person can appreciate and value and feel joy over. To my mind, then, life is a kind of full experience of the world (and of God, and of other people, etc.) of which a person is conscious and can appreciate.

On the other hand, light has to do with the intellect and with action. What is the difference between a room that is dark and one in which there is light? In the dark room, you cannot see where you are going; you will run into obstacles, and you cannot find the object for which you seek, since your eyes lack light. But once the light is turned on, then your agency is newly enabled: you know what you are looking for, and you know how to get it, because you can see where everything is. You are newly aware of the natures of the things around you. Light, then, is a kind of vision or knowledge that makes you capable of seeking your goals with efficiency.

With these comments in mind, the connection between life and light should be obvious enough. A person who remains in darkness -- who cannot see the truth, who doesn't know how to go about his life, who is unable effectively to seek happiness because she doesn't know what is true and what is false  -- cannot truly have life. No such person can have the fullness of experience which requires that we be able to discern between truth and falsity, between real and non-real, between good and bad. That is why so many people are biologically alive and yet lack the fullness of life which I talked about earlier: because they don't know how to act, they don't know what to do, they don't know what is right and what is wrong for them. But because nobody can "sit still," so to speak, because we are inevitably always searching for that which will give us the fullness of life, such a person ends up "looking for love in all the wrong places." They think that uninhibited sex or drugs or power or money or fame or whatever will make them happy, will give them the fullness of life. But they end up empty in the end, because they lack light to see that all such pursuits are idolatrous: it is a seeking in the creature of that which only the Creator can provide.

John's claim, then, that the Logos has life within himself, and that his life is the light of all people, can be understood like this. The Logos, which was incarnate in Christ, has life within himself. Whereas we lack life within ourselves -- we always seek it from whatever is outside us -- the Logos on the other hand is that source and fountain of all life, which grounds the possibility of the existence of imperfect, contingent living beings such as ourselves, whose life is clearly corruptible and derived. And the life of the Logos is not unrelated to his light, because we need the light to see the Logos for what he is. We can have life from the Logos only because he gives us light, so that we can see the truth about ourselves, about God, and about the way we ought to behave ourselves.

There is no separating life from light. The fullness of life, that profound experience of joy and happiness at one's state in the world, can only come about in contact with the Logos, who is incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Yet at the same time, this fullness of life doesn't come about without the mediation of the light, especially of the light of the gospel. We need to know who Jesus is, and to accept his teaching, so that we can have access to the fullness of life which is in him.

This verse, as abstruse and esoteric as it may sound, really is quite practical in the end, as all proper theology ought to be. Do you feel a certain emptiness which is properly described as a lack of life? Are you lacking in that vital experience of fullness, of joy, of happiness and satisfaction at your circumstances which makes life worth living? Everyone who feels this way ought to know that we lack life only because we are not in communion with the Logos, who is Jesus of Nazareth. Only in communion with him, and in acceptance of him and obedience to his commandments, can we have the fullness of life which we all seek -- only if we accept his light, as well.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Graduated from seminary

Today I graduated with my Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, from the Arizona campus. For two and a half years, I took three courses a quarter and studied as much as I could, trying to make the most of the tremendous opportunity before me. My general strategy when it came to my higher education was to get a degree in whatever I would have wanted to study anyway; this worked out well for me in my time at Arizona State studying philosophy, and it worked out tremendously for me during my time here at Fuller. Theology and philosophy are my passions, so naturally I want to continue and get a PhD too.

The graduation ceremony was really like a worship service: some songs, scripture readings, a sermon, communion, etc. It was quite nice. One thing stuck out to me especially as I was singing along with everyone else: all of us are a family. What do I have in common with so many people of so many different backgrounds, of different experience, of different races and ethnicities, of different interests? What could I possibly have in common with them all? Only the most important thing of all: we are all one, a part of the same body of the same Christ, Jesus who is the Savior of the World (1 John 4:14). The feeling that I had of our greater unity in spite of our difference was powerful and moving.

Some of my classmates had a far more difficult time during seminary than I did. One woman was completing her MDiv after five years of study, three of which years she spent battling cancer and various illnesses. But she conquered all that through the power of Jesus, and now she was ready to go and pursue work as a hospital chaplain -- to provide comfort to those suffering just as she was. The father of another friend of mine had recently died, and I noticed that he was crying during the communion. My belief is that his father, even if not present in body, was present and aware in some other way, and was certainly proud of his son (who is now a young father).

I took my mother around to introduce her to my various professors. I know they were only going to say nice things about me, but I also wanted to say something nice about her: namely, that if I ever said anything wise in class, it came from her. I don't know if that's quite always true, but there is certainly no denying the influence that my mother has had on me as regards my spiritual life. She is like a Monica to my Augustine, if you will permit me absurdly comparing myself to him. Of course, I never lived a life of licentiousness and sin like Augustine did, but my mother always prays for me and always bids me: be reconciled to God in everything! This matters more than anything else.

That was the topic of the sermon: be reconciled to God. This is how I understand the whole of the Christian life: a process of being reconciled to God, of being made aware and sure of his kindness towards us, of trusting him more and more, of embracing him and allowing ourselves to be embraced. In a word, being a Christian is going through the process of becoming God's friend. That's what I want for my life; that's what I want people to be able to say about me -- that I was a friend of God.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The easy obsession with justice

I am reading through various works of Origen, and I came across this line in his treatment of Marcionism in De Principiis, book II, chapter IV:
And further, the fact that when urging his disciples to the exercise of kindness, the Savior says, "Be ye perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect, who bids his sun to rise on the just and on the unjust," (Mt 5:48, 45) suggests even to a man of the smallest intelligence this most obvious meaning, that he is putting before his disciples as a pattern for imitation no other God than the maker of heaven and the giver of rain (§1). 
I don't want to comment on Marcionism, but rather on the apparent absurdity of being told to imitate the example of the Creator in the natural order. Typically, people complain about the apparent injustice of the natural world: the wicked get away with all sorts of evil at the expense of the innocent. Why should God's apparent laissez-faire attitude be worth copying? Most people think the fact that there aren't more frequent interventions for the sake of justice in the natural world is an evidence that there is no God.

Of course, the biblical answer to these questions is that God's kindness now is intended to prompt repentance, because there is a judgment coming when each person will get what she deserves. But there is something deeper at play in these kind of accusatory questions addresses to God. It seems to me that this desire for justice and fairness, for a clear moral order, while being good in itself and considered abstractly, is dangerous and even devilish if coupled with a sense of self-righteousness.

It's easy to desire justice in the case of others. But the biblical claim is that every person is so deeply affected by the poison of sin, in such grave danger of damnation, that it took the death of the Son of God to make atonement and win salvation for them. The person who complains about God's apparent lack of justice, then, ought to be aware of the fact that she deserves damnation, according to that justice. If a person doesn't wish her own damnation for justice's sake, neither should be quick to wish for justice in the case of others.

For this reason, I am skeptical of persons whose lives and words are consumed with an obsession for justice. Too much time spent thinking about the injustice and iniquity of others can give a person the false sense that's she's alright, that others are the problem. According to Jesus, we ought instead to be kind and wish the good for the wicked and for those who do us evil, whereas we ought to pray: Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Understanding God's goodness

One of the principal objections to predestinarian theology is that it is difficult to square with the notion of God's goodness. We cannot imagine a good person being disposed to do that which some theologians suppose God has done -- or so the argument goes -- and so certainly God cannot be worse than our notions of what a good person is like.

There is a response to this, one which appeals to the transcendence of God. Certainly God, if he is utterly unlike anything in the created order just as the classical theologians tell us, to some extent will be beyond our intuitive notions of what goodness entails. How can a person claim to know a priori what God would or wouldn't do? This is also implicit in the "skeptical theist" response to the problem of evil: the mere fact that we cannot see that God would have some reason to do X by itself does not entail that there couldn't be any such reason; perhaps the reason is not the sort of thing we could figure out on our own. 

The problem with this line of response, by my reckoning, is that it stretches the meaning of "goodness" beyond what I can accept as reasonable. If God allows various evils for the sake of our good, i.e. for the sake of promoting my welfare, even though I can't see the reason for which he might permit these specific ones or any evil in general to that end, that is all well and good. It is another thing altogether to call it "goodness" when God acts out of something resembling malice -- viz., knowingly predestining a person to sin and consequently to perdition. As I claim in my JAT article, God's goodness is his disposition to act for the benefit of the other person, especially when the latter is undeserving. When the object of the action is not the promotion of another's well being, then it is no longer good. I support this by appeal to various theologians as well as to a number of passages from the Bible:
Ps 23.6 connects God’s goodness with his mercy: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” At Ps 25.7, the psalmist begs God: “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord.” This supplication is meaningless if God’s goodness does not dispose him to go beyond obligation and to treat the sinner with mercy; otherwise it would be perfectly compatible with God’s goodness if he were to remember the psalmist’s sins of his youth and his transgressions. So the following verse affirms: “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way” (v. 8), so that they might not suffer deserved punishment for their wickedness. At Ps 69.16, we find the following prayer: “Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.” At Ps 86.5, we find a further connection between God’s goodness and forgiveness: “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.” Ps 106 opens with the refrain: “Praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.” Goodness is paralleled with grace at Ps 135.3: “Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good; sing to his name, for he is gracious.” As Wesley appreciated (Walls 1992, 84), Ps 145.8-9 connects God’s goodness with his grace, mercy, slowness to anger, abundant steadfast love, and universal compassion. And a final, obvious example can be drawn from the New Testament: Paul writes to Titus that “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us” (Tit 3.4-5). (pp. 68-9).
In all those examples, then, I argue that it is clear what God's goodness means: it means his disposition to act for the benefit of the other person, especially when this is undeserved. This is demonstrated also through its close connection with mercy and grace and salvation. But I also want to consider the following example from the Gospel according to Luke:
"Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Luke 11.11-13)
Notice that the persons who will receive the Holy Spirit are "you who are evil." Though these persons are evil, they nevertheless understand what goodness towards children means.They have some understanding of what it means to be a good parent. And at the same time, God will give these persons the Holy Spirit, despite the fact that they are evil, if they ask him. Once more, it seems to me that there is an implicit attribution of "goodness" to God in this context, and here goodness evidently means the disposition and willingness to do what benefits the other person, especially when she is undeserving. 

Importantly, too, this is supposed to be something that Jesus' audience already knows. It's supposed to be something they already understand about God: that if they, being evil, are already disposed to give good gifts to their children, how much more is God supposed to be willing to give the Spirit to those who ask him? There is an implicit recognition that our understanding of what goodness means can apply in some way to God, although he certainly exceeds it in a good direction.

For that reason, when someone reasons that God could not predestine a person to sin and then damnation because not even a good person would do that, the reasoning is legitimate. God might well use other means for pursuing our welfare than we might have done -- e.g., permitting calamities to befall us so that we turn our attention to the Lord and away from the things of this world, as Catherine of Siena argues -- but as soon as he no longer is concerned for our salvation, then he is no longer acting out of goodness. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

Why no Augustine or John Calvin?

On my "about me" page, I have a list of theologians by whom I have been most influenced, and whom I like the most. I also have this line: "Notice, no Augustine or John Calvin."A friend of mine asked me to comment on that matter. Why don't I like these theologians?

The simple answer is that, given their greater theological systems, they cannot affirm that God loves all people and that he works for their salvation above everything else. Their theology is deterministic, by which I mean that the divine will is logically prior to human will in everything. God doesn't merely foreknow what people might do in the future; he effectively decides what they will do in the future. God's relation to the world is like the relation between an author and his book: he knows his characters' history because he decides it, not because he reads about it or learns about it from someone else. And of course, they believe that some persons are going to be damned forever. Thus the damnation of some persons is ultimately traceable to an inscrutable decision of God from all eternity that it was better (or at least good enough) for things to turn out that way.

Perhaps God decided this because he wanted to demonstrate his justice in the natural order through their punishment, as Thomas Aquinas suggested. Maybe he simply decided that it would be good for things to happen like this, for some reason which is certainly good but which we cannot know or comprehend. In any case, it is clear that on their system, the salvation of the human person as such is not God's foremost goal or end. Something else is -- his glory, perhaps.

This is why I don't count them among my theological influences. For me, this sort of theology is a step too far. It is very difficult to conceive of a good antecedent reason for which God would determine to create some persons only to damn them in the end. On the contrary, the very idea of it sooner suggests malice or plain nastiness beyond what is conceivably good.

Isaac the Syrian would point to the patience which God has with sinners on this earth as an evidence that, as far as the divinity is concerned, the goal of everything is their salvation. God wants nothing else than that people be saved, all of them. But there is a counterargument to this: he is patient with the reprobate (those foreknown to damnation) here only so that it will serve to exacerbate their guilt after death. Isaac's response is this:
If someone says that He has put up with them here (on earth) in order that His patience may be known -- with the idea that He would punish them there mercilessly, such a person thinks in a unspeakably blasphemous way about God, due to his infantile way of thinking: he is removing from God His kindness, goodness and compassion, all the things because of which He truly bears with sinners and wicked men. Such a person is attributing to God enslavement to passion, supposing that He has not consented to their being chastised here, seeing that He has prepared them for a much greater misfortune, in exchange for a short-lived patience. Not only does such a person fail to attribute something praiseworthy to God, but he also calumniates Him (Second Part 39, §2).
 And elsewhere, rejecting the notion that God has any concern for retribution, he writes:
That we should imagine that anger, wrath, jealousy or the such like have anything to do with the divine Nature is something utterly abhorrent for us: no one in their right mind, no one who has any understanding at all can possibly come to such madness as to think anything of the sort about God. Nor again can we possibly say that he acts thus out of retribution, even though the Scriptures may on the outer surface posit this. Even to think this of God and to suppose that retribution for evil acts is to be found with Him is abominable. By implying that He makes use of such a great and difficult thing out of retribution we are attributing a weakness to the divine Nature. We cannot even believe such a thing can be found in those human beings who live a virtuous and upright life and whose thoughts are entirely in accord with the divine will -- let alone believe it of God (ibid.).
Isaac appeals to what we can plausibly think true of a person we would call good. Given your understanding of what a good and godly person is like, can you conceive of a godly person knowingly and intentionally determining another person to commit crimes which ultimately will lead to the latter's death and demise? Does that make any sense at all, given your understanding of "goodness"?

In my article "Christian apokatastasis: Two Paradigmatic Objections", I make the point that goodness is not properly defined as obedience to obligations or duty or anything of the sort. On the contrary, goodness is a kind of disposition to act for the benefit of the other person, especially when she is undeserving. A good person is one who is disposed to act for the benefit of another. Once this point is appreciated, it becomes glaringly obvious that God, if he is genuinely and essentially good, could never predestine anyone to damnation. Damnation can only come through the free agency of the human creature, rather than from the side of God.

Isaac's got a different idea about God's character:
Among all His actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of His dealings with us (39, §22).
That's why I don't like Augustine and Calvin: because on this issue, which is really an important and central one, we have such radically different conceptions of what God is like. There also other issues, too, but this is the biggest one.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The certainty of the Spirit

I have been reading Origen's Contra Celsum, because I want to dig deep into the works and writings of this impressive theologian. I find it very entertaining. It is like reading a third century version of Alvin Plantinga's review of Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. Celsus comes off as a bit of a village atheist (he was an Epicurean, after all) and not exactly charitable in his treatment of Christian claims. I'm only into the first book of the whole Contra Celsum, but there are already very many golden one- and many-liners here and there worth quoting and treating at length.

I was particularly surprised with some of Origen's comments in his preface, however. It begins, as it seems Origen always does, with some very impressive remarks about Christ's silence before the accusations of outsiders:

Our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ was silent when false witnesses spoke against him, and answered nothing when he was accused; he was convinced that all his life and actions among the Jews were better than any speech in refutation of the false witness and superior to any words that he might say in reply to the accusations... 
Now Jesus is always being falsely accused, and there is never a time when he is not being accused so long as there is evil among men. He is still silent in face of this and does not answer with his voice; but he makes his defence in the lives of his genuine disciples, for their lives cry out the real facts and defeat all false charges, refuting and overthrowing the slanders and accusations (Contra Celsum, preface §§1-2)

The best defense of Christianity, it would seem, is in Origen's judgment the difference of the life of Christians themselves. Those who say that Christians are stupid, that they are hypocrites, that they blindly believe in something that has no reality or substance, etc. -- these persons are best refuted by the contrary evidence of Christian lives of virtue, honor, and wisdom. Just as Christ was silent before his accusers, his own life and ways serving as better evidence for the truth of his claims about himself than any syllogism could, so also he is silent when his people are slandered. He doesn't come down from heaven to defend himself; he doesn't strike boorish and moronic village atheists like Jerry Coyne or PZ Myers. The genuine lives of wisdom and virtue of the average Christian on the street can refute all such arguments and properly defend the honor of the Lord.

That, in any case, is what Origen says. But because he was asked to write a refutation of Celsus, he set out to compose his polemical response to Celsus's doctrine, somewhat arrogantly titled The True Doctrine. This latter document seeks to refute the claims of Christianity and to tell the true story about its origins, etc. Origen, however, doesn't find any of the arguments compelling, nor can he see how they would compel anyone who has the Spirit of God:

Nevertheless, that we may not appear to shirk the task which you have set us, we have tried our best to reply to each particular point in Celsus' book and to refute it as it seemed fitting to us, although his arguments cannot shake the faith of any true Christian. God forbid that there should be found anyone who, after receiving such love of God as that which is in Christ Jesus, has been shaken in his purpose by the words of Celsus or one of his sort... 
Accordingly I have no sympathy with anyone who had faith in Christ such that it could be shaken by Celsus (who is no longer living the common life among men but has already been dead a long time), or by any plausibility of argument. I do not know in what category I ought to reckon one who needs written arguments in books to restore and confirm him in his faith after it has been shaken by the accusations brought by Celsus against the Christians. But nevertheless, since among the multitude of people supposed to believe some people of this kind might be found, who may be shaken and disturbed by the writings of Celsus, and who may be restored by the reply to them if what is said is of a character that is destructive of Celsus arguments and clarifies the truth, we decided to yield to your demand and to compose a treatise in reply to that which you sent us... 
Yet better is the man who, even if he meets with Celsus' book, has no need of any answer to it at all, but pays no attention to anything in his book, which is despised with good reason even by the ordinary believer in Christ on account of the Spirit which is in him (§§3-4, 6).

Origen here talks like the Romanian Pentecostals I grew up around: a person with the Spirit of God, with a genuine experience of God in Jesus Christ, has no need of arguments to solidify his faith against the sophistic and crude attacks of the Celsuses of his age, whether it's Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or whoever else. The testimony of the Spirit within the believer, which bears witness to our spirits that we are children of God (Rom 8:16), is sufficient evidence to secure the faith of a Christian. On the other hand, a person who is "tossed around by every wind of doctrine" (Eph 4:14) is lacking in a genuine experience and awareness of God. That person, perhaps Origen might say, if he is anything like the Romanian Pentecostals, ought to seek a genuine experience of God in prayer. Then she'll be stable and secure in her identity, and her faith will be firm.

What should we think about the reality that very many Christians out there have the weak kind of faith by which Origen here is dumbfounded? He says that he doesn't know how to classify such a person. The implicit explanation in all of this is that these people lack the Holy Spirit. There is nothing within them that testifies to the reality of what they allegedly believe; there is no experiential component to anchor them in their intellectual commitment to the belief in Jesus. People like these are tossed about by every argument and lack stability.

There is an interesting ecclesiological problem to consider in this respect, if this explanation is true. What sense can be made of the apparent reality that countless Christians in America, for example, actually lack the Holy Spirit? What has to be done to address this problem, devastating if ever there were one? Or is the alternative to reject this proposed diagnosis and merely to count them up as all being weak in faith?

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The pain you leave behind

I came across this image on my Facebook news feed yesterday, and I experienced a poignant and startling reminder of the fact of  our deep, persistent sinfulness -- more than that, of the seemingly infinite tentacles that reach out from us because of our sins and entangle other people in our messes. The bad choices we have made leave behind miserable consequences which are inextricably connected to us: the ways we've mistreated others; the wrong things we've said or done and the effects these have had on others; and so on. How long could a process of reparation and healing possibly take? And how much pain and forgiveness and hurt would be involved in such a thing?

I was taken back to a reflection on Christian sinfulness in Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, in which Ratzinger quotes a few very impressive paragraphs from a homily of Origen's on Leviticus. Origen notes that, though the priests and such were permitted to touch alcohol during their outside lives, yet when they go to make atonement, they are not to touch any alcohol whatsoever. He compares Jesus' words, uttered at the last supper just before he was about to go and make atonement for the world, where he said that he will no drink the fruit of the vine until he drinks it together with his disciples in the Kingdom of God. Here are Origen's words:
If someone there is among you who draws near with purified hearing, let him understand an unspeakable mystery. What does it mean when he says, 'I will not drink...?'. My Saviour grieves even now about my sins. My Savior cannot rejoice as long as I remain in perversion. Why cannot he do this? Because he himself is 'an intercessor for our sins with the Father'... How can he, who is an intercessor for my sins, drink the 'wine' of joy, when I grieve him with my sins? How can he, who 'approaches the altar' in order to atone for me a sinner, be joyful when the sadness of sin rises up to him ceaselessly? 'With you', he says, 'I will drink in the Kingdom of my Father'. As long as we do not act in such a way that we can mount up to the Kingdom, he cannot drink alone that wine which he promised to drink with us. ... He who 'took our wounds upon himself' and suffered for our sakes as a healer of souls and bodies: should he regard no longer the festering wounds? Thus it is that he waits until we should be converted, in order that we may follow in his footsteps and he rejoices 'with us' and 'drink wine with us in the Kingdom of his Father'. ... We are the ones who delay his joy by our negligence toward our own lives. ...
But let us not ignore the fact that it is said not only of Aaron that 'he drink no wine', but also of his sons when they approach the sanctuary. For the apostles too have not yet received their joy: they likewise are waiting for me to participate in their joy. So it is that the saints who depart from here do not immediately receive the full reward of their merits, but wait for us, even if we delay, even if we remain sluggish. They cannot know perfect joy as long as they grieve over our transgressions and weep for our sins. Perhaps you will not believe me on this point ... but I will bring a witness whom you cannot doubt, the 'teacher of the nations' ..., the apostle Paul. In writing to the Hebrews, after enumerating all of the holy fathers who were justified by faith, he adds, 'These, all of whom received the testimony of faith, did not attain the promise, because God had promised something before for us, so that they should not be made perfect without us'. Do you see, then? Abraham is still waiting to attain perfection. Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets are waiting for us in order to attain the perfect blessedness together with us. This is the reason why judgment is kept a secret, being postponed until the last Day. It is 'one body' which is waiting for justification, 'one body' which rises for judgment. 'Though there are many members, yet there is only one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, I do not need you.' Even if the eye is sound and fit for seeing, if the other members were lacking, what would the joy of the eye be?
You will have joy when you depart from this life if you are a saint. But your joy will be complete only when no member of your body is lacking to you. For you too will wait, just as you are awaited. But if you, who are a member, do not have perfect joy as long as a member is missing, how much more must our Lord and Saviour, who is the head and origin of this body, consider it an incomplete joy if he is still lacking certain of his members? ... Thus he does not want to receive his perfect glory without you: that means, not without his people which is 'his body' and 'his members'... (In Leviticum homiliae, VII, 1-2, quoted in Ratzinger, Eschatology, pp. 185-6).
Origen's point is that the body of Christ is intimately connected in such a way that the sinfulness of one member impedes the perfect joy of all the others, especially that joy of the head, Jesus Christ. This is out of love and out of a concern for others: because Christ loves us so much, and suffered and died for our sins, he cannot be happy and enjoy himself fully so long as we wallow in the mire and swamp of our perversions and evils. My sin holds back the joy of the Lord and of all the apostles and of all those who care for my salvation.

Ratzinger goes on to comment on the inextricable ties by which all of us are bound together, and the consequences of our sins in light of this:
The guilt which goes on because of me is a part of me. Reaching as it does deep into me, it is a part of my permanent abandonment to time, whereby human beings really do continue to suffer on my account and which, therefore, still affects me (p. 187).
My guilt keeps Christ and all the saints from perfect joy -- not because I am dragging their attention away from that joy, but because they love me and look upon me with compassion and want to see me free from the things which hold me back in the swamp I find myself in. In my case, guilt keeps me form joy, but in their case it is love:
It is not only the guilt we leave behind on earth that prevents our definitive reclining at the table for the eschatological banquet, in joy unalloyed. The love that overcomes guilt has the same effect. Whereas guilt is bondage to time, the freedom of love, conversely, is openness for time. The nature of love is always to be "for" someone. Love cannot, then, close itself against others or be without them so long as time, and with it suffering, is real. No one has formulated this insight more finely than Therese of Lisieux with her idea of heaving as the showering down of love towards all. But even in ordinary human terms we can say, How could a mother be completely and unreservedly happy so long as one of her children is suffering? And here we can point once again to Buddhism, with its idea of the Bodhisattva, who refuses to enter Nirvana so long as one human being remains in hell. By such waiting, he empties hell, accepting the salvation which is his due only when hell has become uninhabited. Behind this impressive notion of Asian religiosity, the Christian sees the true Bodhisattva, Christ, in whom Asia's dream became true. The dream is fulfilled in the God who descended from heaven into hell, because a heaven above an earth which is hell would be no heaven at all (p. 188).
A sensitive conscience sees itself as deeply, profoundly sinful, yet this conscience, if it belongs to a Christian, also understands itself as an object of the most perfect love which exists -- the love of God in Jesus Christ, which is shared by all his saints and his people insofar as they belong to him. It remains in this stance of realizing its own poverty, its own brokenness, its own hopeless (if left to its own strength), and looks upward to God, pleading mercy and strength to get up and go about things differently from now on.

But what about the bad decisions I've made, and the persons I've hurt, and those who've suffered because of my sinfulness? Who knows how far the consequences reach -- to me they are unimaginable. Who can fix all of that? And how long will it take? And what is my role in all of that? It can't simply be made to disappear with the wave of a divine hand; that refuses to take seriously my role in all of it and my own responsibility to make things right. Will this take more than one night, like the voice told Charlie Brown?

Friday, June 3, 2016

The ἐξουσία to become children of God

There is a verse in the Prologue to the Gospel according to John which suffers from a peculiar ambiguity. Specifically I am referring to John 1:12, which reads as follows:
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave ἐξουσία to become children of God.
The Greek word ἐξουσία (exousia) can be interpreted in at least two ways, either as authority or power. Of course, though these concepts are very closely related, in many ways they come apart. Authority is something extrinsic and relational: a person's authority is just the way she relates to other people, the rights she has and the expectations she can have of others. On the other hand, power is something intrinsic to a person, something which is in an important sense "within her."

Consider the following example to see the difference between the two. Suppose I lift very heavy weights for a long time, and thus have it within it my power to move parked vehicles out of their spots. It doesn't follow from my having this power that therefore I have the authority to make room for my own car in this manner! Or suppose, on the other hand, that I am a professor at the university, and have temporarily lost my voice. This means that I have the authority to lecture my students on some topic or other, but I don't have the power to do so. In these ways, then, it is clear that power and authority come apart.

Now the question arises: how should we translate ἐξουσία as it appears in this verse of the Gospel? The translation we choose will undoubtedly say much about how we understand the nature of salvation through Christ. Does Christ give us authority to become children of God? If this is the way we choose, then we will largely conceive of salvation in external, legal terms: salvation will have more to do with the relations we stand in relative to God, rather than what's happening on the inside of us, in our being. On the other hand, if we choose to translate ἐξουσία as power, then salvation will largely be understood in terms of a transformation of our being in a certain direction. Becoming "children of God", on this view of things, is not merely a change of relation to God, but rather becoming different sorts of persons.

Of course, these two understandings are not mutually exclusive. All Reformed Protestants, for example, who in my judgment will tend towards understanding ἐξουσία as authority, will accept that our relational change vis-a-vis God will also be followed by a change within us, by virtue of which we will be conformed to the image of his Son. Likewise, all Catholics and Orthodox, who might be likelier to understand ἐξουσία as power, will agree that there are important relational changes involved in the process of salvation, as well. Yet they will differ on the understanding of what it means, primarily, to be a "child of God."

The Reformed, who understand ἐξουσία as authority, will emphasize that being a child of God is primarily a relational stance. Human sinners, even granting all their sins which may be grave, are nevertheless children of God because they stand in a certain relation to God through Christ. They are not less children of God because of their sins, because this relational stance is mediated through Christ's perfect righteousness which is imputed to them. But for the Catholics and Orthodox, understanding ἐξουσία as power, being a child of God is primarily about being a certain way: loving God and obeying his commandments. This relation can be broken if a person commits a mortal sin, after which time the relation of this person to God must be repaired through the sacrament of reconciliation. Salvation will be first and foremost a matter of receiving the power to be a child of God through loving God and living in obedience to his commandments.

So there are very deep and important theological issues involved in the interpretation of this one verse. The NRSV interprets ἐξουσία as power, whereas the ESV, NIV, and NASB interpet ἐξουσία as right. Which is the right way to go?

Thursday, June 2, 2016

We are in the True, in His Son

One of the reasons why I like 1 John so much is because it is so richly theological. Some verses are so densely packed with such theological profundity that I could spend (and have spent) hours talking all about just a single verse. 

In this respect, I am especially fond of 1 John 5:20, which I translate below:
οἴδαμεν δὲ ὅτι ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ ἥκει, καὶ δέδωκεν ἡμῖν διάνοιαν ἵνα γινώσκωμεν τὸν ἀληθινόν· καὶ ἐσμὲν ἐν τῷ ἀληθινῷ, ἐν τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ. οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἀληθινὸς θεὸς καὶ ζωὴ αἰώνιος. 
We know that the Son of God came, and has given us understanding so that we might know the True; and we are in the True, in His Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
 It would be well to start at the beginning and perhaps go phrase by phrase.

John begins with the word "we know." This is shocking because he thus describes Christian belief as a kind of knowledge. It is not a totally baseless faith with no grounding in reality at all, nor is it said to be a kind of committed hope which makes no claim to know one way or the other. On the contrary, Christian belief is rightly defined as a kind of knowledge on John's view. Of course, it depends on who are the implicit "we" of this verse. Does it refer to John and the greater apostolic community, standing in the background of this whole epistle (cf. 1 John 1.1-4)? Or rather is it all Christians, both the apostles and those to whom he is writing? The apostolic claim to knowledge is grounded in personal experience, as the opening verses of the epistle demonstrate:
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
But if the apostles know the truth of what they tell other people, then Christians who believe the apostles at their word likewise can be said to know on the basis of their testimony. This is something we already grant for many people: students who've never set foot near a volcano can know all about the processes of one through the testimony of scientists, recorded in their school textbooks. So also, Christian faith is a kind of knowledge -- not simply a 'secret' knowledge apprehended through a sort of spiritual intuition, but one that is really empirical: it is based on the testimony of the apostles, who knew Jesus, ate with him, learned from him, and saw him risen from the dead.

What is this exact item of knowledge? What is it that Christians know? They know that the Son of God has come -- referring to Jesus of Nazareth. This is what distinguishes Christians from members of other religions, namely what they know about this person Jesus. When John says that Jesus has come, he means to refer to a real life arrival of the Son of God. Not a mythology, not a nice idea, not a religious ideal, but a concrete person who is the Son of God. This is because, as I've already covered, the basis of this knowledge is not some kind of spiritual insight but flesh-and-blood experience in the real world: what he's seen, touched, heard, etc. Whoever says that the New Testament document is all myths, that Jesus never existed, and so on is full of shit, and probably hasn't read much of it. John's claim here is a concrete one about Jesus of Nazareth: he claims to know that this real life person from a specific city in Palestine is the Son of God.

The advent of the Son of God had a specific purpose: to give us understanding so that we might know the True. Some manuscripts here read the true God, but in any case, it is evident that the reference is to God. Jesus comes to us, in other words, in order to teach us what God is like. This clearly assumes that God is otherwise unknowable to us, since there would be no point in coming if we could know what God is like apart from Jesus telling us. And this indeed what Jesus himself says elsewhere in the gospels:
All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him (Matt 11:27). 
We can know, of course, that God exists, and we can know various things about the way he is related to the world: for instance, that he is immutable and impassible and omnipotent and so on. But the revelation of Jesus tells us something further -- namely, it tells us how this God relates to us, and what he wants and expects of us, and what he has planned for us. If you know that God is immutable and impassible and the rest, you don't yet know what God's relation is to you, or what is the specific way in which God is disposed towards you. Jesus teaches us precisely this.

Of course, the substance of the revelation of the Father in Christ is what John said in the previous chapter:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:7-10). 
The Son of God teaches us about the True in this way: by showing us how much it is, exactly, that he loves us. He loves us so much that he sends the Son into the world so that the dead can live. He loves us so much that he sends his Son to be the sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the whole world. Nothing is uglier than a dead body, except perhaps the dead body of a wretched sinner -- and yet, despite the fact that we are those dead and wretched sinners, God loved us so much that he sent his Son to save us from this state. This proves that not only is God loving, but that he is love. Love is the very essence of God.

So loving is this God, in fact, that he invites us to become a part of him in a sense. We become a part of him through our participation and adoption into the life of the Trinity. We are "in the True" because we are in His Son, as John says. Through our union with Christ, who is the only-begotten Son of God, we too become children of God. One with the Son of God, we lift up praises and thanksgivings to the Father through the Holy Spirit, and in this way we are filled with God. We are in the True because the True makes room for us within himself, through Jesus Christ his Son, to whom we can be united.

This Jesus is not to be thought of as of a different kind than the Father. On the contrary, John says he is the true God. This word "he" most naturally refers to "Jesus Christ," since this is the name which most immediately precedes it. So John is making it clear that the Son is not of a different sort than the Father, but rather is consubstantial with him: the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit) share a divine nature, so that there is one God who subsists in three persons. 

Finally, Jesus Christ is also called eternal life. John said earlier that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son (1 John 5:11). I understand this as follows: Christ, who is the Son of God incarnate, is the one to whom we must go if we are to find eternal life. If we go to him in faith and repentance, then we will receive eternal life from him. But if we stay far off, we cannot have eternal life left only to our own resources. Yet in some sense, this eternal life is already given to everyone in Christ: the offer of life is given to absolutely everyone, since Christ died to make atonement for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2); what remains is only that this eternal life be voluntarily and personally appropriated. This means that Christ, in himself, is eternal life. Ratzinger says that
Christ inflicts pure perdition on no one. In himself he is sheer salvation (Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, p. 205).
Christ will not be the cause or the principle of any person's damnation. Rather, a person is effectively the cause of her own damnation because she refuses the offer of grace in Christ. Christ in himself is only salvation, only goodness, and has nothing to offer anyone except a share in his same mercy and goodness and forgiveness which reaches out to everyone.

Much more can be said, but these reflections serve as the briefest and most incomplete of outlines of a theologically rich exegesis of this tremendous passage from 1 John.