Trinitarian Thought: Tertullian

Overview

While the exact date and place of Tertullian’s birth and death are unknown, he lived roughly from the middle of the second century through to the middle of the third century, and he grew up and spent most of his life in Carthage, North Africa. He is therefore an ante-Nicene church father.

Tradition holds that he was a lawyer and a priest, but the scholarly consensus today leans towards this being mere legend, proposing that there was perhaps a contemporary figure who practised law that was also named Tertullian, who came to be fused with Tertullian the church father in the historical record.

Tertullian was a highly influential church father, who planted some crucial theological seeds that would eventually sprout and continue growing into the Roman Catholic tradition. The main theological and ecclesial opponents he had to confront were Gnostics and Modalists, while simultaneously coping with physical persecution from the secular authorities. In the course of these confrontations, he laid down the foundational technical terminology that came to be used to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity in the Latin tradition, and also kick-started the theology itself. Terms such as persona, substantia, esse, ratio, sermo, and trinitas were first deployed and coordinated by Tertullian.

Tertullian was never canonised due to a variety of factors. The common explanation given for this is that he left the Catholic faith and died in communion with an extra-ecclesial heretical movement called “Montanism,” but the actual story is more nuanced. Firstly, Montanism was a movement within the Catholic church of the day; it was not an external phenomenon in the way that Gnosticism was. Secondly, Tertullian’s adherence to Montanism was inseparable from his Trinitarianism. Thirdly, Tertullian had a bad reputation among the orthodox believers of the day not because he was a heretic, but arguably because he was ahead of his time in his doctrine and asceticism, and the simplices in the pews simply couldn’t keep up with him. As a result, despite being quite orthodox and an influential father in the Latin tradition, he died while being suspected of heresy, and his name has never really been cleared since.1

Tertullian produced a lot of writings, and many of them survive to this day. Some of the most recognisable quotes in Christian history were penned by Tertullian. For example:

The more you mow us down, the more we multiply. The blood of Christians is the seed of the church.2

This is the violence God delights in . . . It is chiefly the quality of our love in action that brands a distinguishing mark upon us in some people’s eyes. ‘See how they love one another’, they say – for they themselves hate one another. ‘See how ready they are to die for each other’– for they are more ready to kill each other . . .3

The two most important texts expressing his Trinitarian theology are “Against Praxeas” and the “Apology.” In the “Apology” Tertullian’s Trinitarianism is not fully explicit, and often he appears to be more Binitarian, by sometimes conflating the spirit with the father, other times conflating the spirit with the Son. This was because Modalism was a rampant heresy in Carthage among the Catholics, so Tertullian had to spend most of his energy defending the distinct identities of Father and Son, and the Spirit was seen as a separate issue. He did not ignore the Spirit however, and in “Against Praxeas” there are early hints of the theology of the filioque:

For the Spirit is a third from God and the Son, just as the fruit is a third from the root out of the new growth, and the canal is a third from the spring out of the river, and the point of light is a third from the sun out of the beam: nothing, however, is cut off from the source from which it derives its properties.4

The one God has also a Son . . . who … sent from the Father the Holy Spirit … as the sanctifier … of those who believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.5

In Tertullian’s thought, the Spirit guaranteed the infallibility of the “New Prophets”, analogously to what later developed into the theology dogmatised at Vatican I concerning the Spirit’s guarantee of Papal infallibility.6 In Tertullian’s understanding the Spirit also guaranteed the transmission and interpretation of the rule of faith (ie, the liturgy and scripture), while simultaneously being a key part of that rule of faith. In this way Tertullian simultaneously sowed the seeds of what would later develop into magisterial Catholicism (in that he strongly affirmed the traditions of the church), and anti-magisterial Protestantism (in that he emphasised the necessity of an individual possessing and being led by the Spirit if they are to comprehend the faith correctly).

While Tertullian did not explicitly coin the phrase, his theology was very much an elucidation of the principle of lex orandi lex credendi: he intimately ties disciplina and doctrina together and points to the Spirit as the power lying behind both. In terms of theological method, his Montanism was crucial: He understood the witness of the Holy Spirit to be key for learning, properly comprehending, interpreting, understanding and living out the rule of faith. Tertullian was adamant that simply participating in the liturgy and learning doctrine are not enough, and that theology cannot be properly done without the guidance and influence of the Paraclete.

Tertullian’s place in history means that he was doing theology without the magisterial resources that Catholics would draw on to today, such as the Catechism, Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Dogma, the Enchiridion, the Pope and council of bishops. Tertullian instead worked with a minimalist rule of faith and a primitive liturgy which hadn’t had as much time to evolve as the liturgies of today. However as long as Tertullian had the witness of the Paraclete, he was confident that his theological conclusions were orthodox. Unlike his contemporaries in the Eastern Christian world, he was resistant to allegorical hermeneutics.

Specific Contributions to Trinitarianism

Tertullian was an ante-Nicene Christian which meant that he was not dogmatically obliged to affirm that the Father, Son and Spirit were consubstantial (“homoousios”). His theology is therefore a fascinating glimpse into the fluidity of Trinitarian theology between the actual historical event of Christ and the later concilliar dogmatic definitions. Tertullian represents an expression of the transitional period between “Christian Platonism” and “Nicene Orthodoxy”. He wasn’t explicitly concerned with whether or not the three persons were consubstantial and as such, his writings could be interpreted in support of both Subordinationism and Consubstantiality.

In Tertullian’s context, it was actually the “heretics” (ie, the Montanists) that were the ones most firmly insisting on the divinity of the Spirit, because their understanding of “the New prophecy” depended on it. Whereas the “Orthodox” of the day were not so firm on the divinity of the Holy spirit and often opted for either simple Modalism, Subordinationism, or some fusion of the two. Tertullian and the Montanists were presenting their Trinitarian theology together with extreme ascetical demands as a complete package, and so the lay rejection of these ascetical demands coincided with a rejection of Trinitarianism that went with it.

Tertullian is the first father known to have identified the Angelic doxology of “Holy holy holy” as a Trinitarian prayer; he points out that the triple repetition of the word corresponds to the Triune nature of God.

Tertullian arguably lays the foundation for a equivocal understanding of the relationship between the immanent and economic Trinities, and by the same stroke expresses what could be taken as a “Latin Nestorianism.” This is shown in that he affirms the eternal pre-existence of the Logos, but not of an eternal pre-existence of the Son. Tertullian understands that the logos becomes the Son when Jesus becomes Son.7 This could perhaps be read as nothing more than an orthodox account of the logos asarkos, but there is definitely room for it to be taken in heretical directions too.

Bibliography

McGowan, Andrew and Joan F. W. Munro. “Tertullian and the “Heretical” Origins of the “Orthodox” Trinity.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 14, no. 4 (Winter, 2006): 437-457. http://ipacez.nd.edu.au/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ipacez.nd.edu.au/docview/215200946?accountid=41561.

McGowan, Andrew B., Daley, Brian E., and Gaden, Timothy J., eds. God in Early Christian Thought : Essays in Memory of Lloyd G. Patterson. Leiden: BRILL, 2009. Accessed August 16, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

1Origen was the Greek contemporary of Tertullian in the Eastern church, and he makes for a close analogy in terms of both his substantial impact on later Greek theology, and a tarnished reputation which ultimately prevented canonisation.

2Apology 50:13

3Apology 39:2,7,11

4Contra Praxeas 8:4

5Contra Praxeas 2:1

6Despite the surface level similarities, a direct link between the doctrine of Papal infallibility and Tertullian’s understanding of Prophetic infallibility has not (to my knowledge) been demonstrated.

7It isn’t clear to me whether Tertullian locates the event of the logos becoming the Son at Christmas, or at the baptism of Christ, or at some other point.

Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?

christ-the-conqueror-of-hell1[1]

In view of the quite numerous threatening texts in the New Testament, which spiritually deepen the truly horrible threats against a rebellious Israel (Lev 26:14-43; Deut 28:15-68) because they extend the perspectives of punishment into the hereafter, the question arises-ultimately unanswerable for us-of whether these threats by God, who “reconciles himself in Christ with the world”, will be actually realized in the way stated. Jonah’s disappointment at the fact that God did not carry out his categorical prophecies of ruin for Nineveh occupied the Scholastics to no end. Is the transition from the threat to the knowledge that it will be carried out necessary? It seems all the more logical if we are convinced that God, with his redemptive grace, does not wish to force anyone to be saved, that man alone and not God is to blame if he refuses God’s love and thus is damned (on this, see the statements by the Council of Quiercy in DS 621ff.).

But what, then, becomes of the statements of the second series, in which God’s redemptive work for the sinful world as undertaken by Christ is represented as a complete triumph over all things contrary to God? Here one cannot get by without making distinctions that, while retaining the notion of God’s benevolent will, nevertheless allow it to be frustrated by man’s wickedness. “God … desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a random for all” (1 Tim 2:4-6). Permit us, Lord, to make a small distinction in your will: “God wills in advance [voluntate antecedente] that all men achieve salvation, but subsequently [consequenter] he wills that certain men be damned in accordance with the requirements of his justice” (S. Th. 1, 19:6 ad 1; De Ver. 23:2). One can also speak of God’s having an “absolute” and a “conditional” will (I Sent. 46:1, 1 ad 2). Further, Christ is referred to as “the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim 4:10): Can we not see a qualification in this formulation? But what about Jesus’ triumphant words when he looks forward to the effect of his Passion: “Now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (Jn 12:31-32)? Oh, he will perhaps attempt to draw them all but will not succeed in holding them all. “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). Unfortunately, only half of it, despite your efforts, Lord. “The grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men” (Tit 2:11)-let us say, more precisely, to offer salvation, since how many will accept it is questionable. God does not wish “that any should perish, but that all should read repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). He may well wish it, but unfortunately he will not achieve it. “Christ” was “offered once to take away the sins of all” (Heb 9:28). That might be true, but the real question is whether all will allow their sins to be taken away. “God has consigned all men [Jews, Gentiles and Christians] to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:32). That he has mercy upon all may well be true, but does this mean that all will have mercy on this mercy, that is, will allow it to be bestowed upon them? And if we are assured, in this connection, that one day “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26), then this sweeping assertion need not, of course, include every particular individual. The prison letters appear to speak in this sweeping manner, too, when they say that God was pleased, through Christ, “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col 1:20), or that he purposes “to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10); hymnlike and “doxological” talk of this kind need not be taken literally. The same applies, of course, to the Philippians hymn in which, at the end, before the victoriously exalted Christ, “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11). And if Jesus prays to the Father: “You have given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him” (Jn 17:2), would it not be better to distinguish the first “all”, which can be universal, from the second “all”, which refers only to a certain number of the chosen? But can the overpowering passage in 2 Corinthians 5:20 be in any way interpreted as restrictive: “For our sake” God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”? And is it not all but embarrassing when the same Paul, in Romans 5, hammers home to us that in Adam (the principle of natural man) “all died”, “but God’s gift of grace, thanks to the one man Jesus Christ, abounded for all in much greater measure”? That is stressed seven times in a row, with the culmination being that “through the trespass of all” (for all share the responsibility for Christ’s condemnation) “justification and life came for all“. The repeatedly stressed words “much more” and “abounding” cannot be ignored (Rom 5:15-21). All just pious exaggeration?

Many passages could be added here, I do not at all deny that their force is weakened by the series of threatening ones; I only dispute that the series of threats invalidates the cited universalist statements. And I claim nothing more than this: that these statements give us a right to have hope for all men, which simultaneously implies that I see no need to take the step from the threats to the positing of a hell occupied by our brothers and sisters, through which our hopes would come to naught.

Hans Urs Von Balthasar

Pluralism is the Gospel – Saint Paul and Evangelism

RSV-CE 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law—though not being myself under the law—that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

The Swedenborg Heresy – Notes on the Canon

I was reading the blog of the lovely Lee Woofenden, where he describes the incredibly offensive and extremely heretical beliefs of Emanuel Swedenborg; an ex-Lutheran apostate who is currently roasting in Hell at this very moment. Lee is destined for the very same hellfire on account of his prideful rejection of the Gospel promise. I look forward to watching them both roast. Jokes aside, I took some notes while reading his latest post and figured I’d neaten them up and wack them on the blog.

Response

Lee opens with the following:

Most Christians don’t think too much about where the Bible came from. They just hold a book in their hands, maybe read it, and believe that this book was given by God.

It’s very interesting that he raises this question of where the bible came from. This was one of the key things that drove me back to Catholicism in 2014. The Catholic church had an actual answer as to why the bible has authority and inspiration, whereas the protestants did not.

Lee goes on to claim that the Orthodox biblical canon includes 79 books. This is news to me. I was under the impression that the Orthodox bible had 76 books. I wonder what books Lee is referring to here, and where he got this statistic.

Lee says the following:

You see, there was no pronouncement from God as to which books should be in the Bible.

This point is absolutely key. Under Protestant schemas, it is completely true. This is why Protestants sometimes talk about “A fallible collection of infallible books”, which I personally find to be epistemologically laughable, but I am open to hearing more; the fact that I disagree with it probably just means that I don’t understand it.

In any case, under the Catholic understanding, God actually did tell us which books belong in the bible. He did this through the dogmas and canons of the Catholic church (in this particular case, the divine and infallible magisterial pronouncements of the Council of Trent).

And the church councils of the different branches of Christianity didn’t agree with one another about which books should be included in the Bible.

This is also true. There has never been a single universally agreed upon scriptural canon. This scandalised me during my early days as a Christian. As an evangelical my community was telling me to base my entire life and all of my beliefs on what “the bible” says. But what even is “the bible”? There were a thousand different translations and canons to chose from. For such an important question, evangelicals don’t tend to be forthcoming with robust answers and apologetics. They often say things like “It’s the message that matters, not the actual words”, but then they staunchly deny that the books of the deuterocanon have any authority or inspiration, even when they are saying the same thing as the other canonical books. The irrationality of it all bugged me to no end.

Lee continues to discuss Swedenborg’s interesting and fanciful canon of scripture (Which reduces the New Testament to simply the four gospels and the book of the apocalypse). He then makes the following interesting statement:

Protestants commonly believe that Paul’s writings are all about establishing faith alone as the key doctrine of Christianity. But the simple fact of the matter is Paul never even used the term “faith alone,” let alone taught it.

I find this amusing. Lee is himself a staunch protestant, even though he firmly denies this obvious fact. But considering that he does not identify as a protestant, it is amusing for him to make such a sweeping statement as “Protestants commonly believe …”. What would he know? He’s supposedly not a protestant, so he doesn’t have the authority to speak on their behalf.

In any case, while it is true that Paul never said “Faith alone”, the original Lutheran “Sola Fide” doctrine is nevertheless definitely embedded in all of his letters. I don’t think Lee actually understands what “Faith alone” implies. Then again this is entirely forgivable as most evangelicals don’t understand it either. Most evangelicals take “Faith alone” to mean “All I have to do to be saved is believe and I don’t have to do any good works”, which is a Satanic perversion of the original doctrine. Lee has unquestioningly adopted this understanding of the doctrine. The original Sola Fide is Gospel, good news. It says that we don’t need to do anything in order to be saved; we don’t even need to believe! Yet despite that, when you are living your life under faith, you can’t help but overflow with love and good works. Hear these beautiful words from Luther:

Faith is a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God (John 1). It kills the old Adam and makes altogether different people, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and it brings with it the Holy Spirit.

Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. And so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises, it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them. He who does not these works is a faithless man. He gropes and looks about after faith and good works and knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, though he talks and talks, with many words about faith and good works.

Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all His creatures. And this is the work of the Holy Spirit in faith. Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace. And thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate burning and shining from fire. Beware, therefore, of your own false notions and of the idle talkers, who would be wise enough to make decisions about faith and good works, and yet are the greatest fools.

Therefore, pray to God to work faith in you. Else you will remain forever without faith, whatever you think or do. (Preface to Commentary on Romans; cf. “On the Freedom of the Christian“)

Whereas Lee seems to be saying on his blog that we earn our salvation by good works. I don’t mean to put words in his mouth, but this is honestly the vibe that I get when I read his writings.

Now we can finally begin to rehabilitate the letters of Paul. Now we can rescue them from the hands of those “Christian” theologians who have twisted and distorted them for so long. Now we can begin to understand that Paul’s main argument when he was asserting that we are saved or justified by faith without the works of the Law was that Christians no longer need to be observant Jews in order to be saved by their faithfulness to Jesus Christ.

In my reading, Paul’s thrust doesn’t seem to be merely that gentile believers don’t have to convert to Judaism (although this is definitely true). The key point of Paul seems to be that we don’t have to “do” anything in order to be saved. Paul is powerfully preaching a message of Sola Gratia, grace alone. He is preaching a message of antinomianism. As Luther mentioned in the earlier quote, this doesn’t make good works unnecessary or superfluous, but instead is the way in which we receive the strength and power to perform the works.

Conclusion

It’s interesting to read through Lee’s blog and learn more about Swedenborgian Christianity. I look forward to reading some of Swedenborg’s writings in the future. It still seems clear to me that Lee has entirely missed the point of the Gospel, however I look forward to reading more of his “spiritual insights” in future.

Salve Regina – A Translation from Latin to English by Bishop Roberts (OP, SJ)

I strove to be as literal as I possibly could while translating. I’m not sure if I succeeded. Despite the fact that the original is song and poetry, I still wanted to produce as wooden a translation as I could, so as to test my knowledge of grammar, vocabulary and syntax.

Please comment on my translation! I am trying to improve my Latin skills and would appreciate any and all feedback. Thank you!

English Translation

Be well, o queen, mother of mercy,
our life, sweetness, and hope, be well.
To you we cry, exiled children of eve,
To you we sigh, lamenting and weeping
in this valley of tears.
Come now, therefore, our advocate, those your
merciful eyes – turn back to us.
And show Jesus – blessed fruit of thy womb –
after this our exile.
O gentle, O pious, O sweet Virgin Mary

Original Latin Text

Salve, Regina, Mater misericordiæ,
vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve.
Ad te clamamus exsules filii Hevæ,
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes
in hac lacrimarum valle.
Eia, ergo, advocata nostra, illos tuos
misericordes oculos ad nos converte;
Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui,
nobis post hoc exsilium ostende.
O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria.

The True Anathemas of Catholicism: Those Who Will be Damned When I’m Pope…

Note 15/11/2017: I have since come to an understanding of why protestants say “sola fide” and what Luther originally meant by it, and as such these condemnations are out of date and inaccurate (Thank God that I was not actually Pope when I drafted them!). I leave them here unedited as a historical curiosity, but let it be known that I no longer hold to many of these opinions.

cathedra+w+saint+peter[1].JPG

Concerning Grace and Salvation

  • If anyone claims that man is saved by faith let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that man is saved by works let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that man is saved by Grace alone let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that it is necessary for a man to freely cooperate with Grace in order to be saved let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that Grace is irresistible let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that Grace can be resisted forever let them be anathema

Concerning faith, works and Justification

  • If anyone denies that man is justified by works let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that man is justified by faith let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that man is justified by faith alone let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that man is justified by works alone let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that faith and works are inseparable let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that every good work is a demonstration of implicit justifying faith in Christ, regardless of whether or not the person performing the good work is Christian, let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that the good works of non-Christians do not demonstrate implicit justifying faith in Christ, and do not increase justification, let them be anathema
  • If anyone says they are saved or justified “by faith alone, but faith is never alone” let them be anathema

Concerning the law

  • If anyone claims that the moral component of the law has been abrogated, and need no longer be followed, let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that man is justified by following the law, whether the moral component alone, or the entire mosaic law, let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that breaking the moral law leads to a damaged soul and merits temporal punishment, let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that it is only necessary to follow the letter of the law, and not the spirit of the law, let them be anathema

Concerning non-Christian religions

  • If anyone claims that Muslims, Jews and Christians worship different Gods, let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that Muslims, Jews and Christians all worship the same, one true God, let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that Muslims or Jews have an exhaustive and inerrant understanding of the one true God, let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that Calvinism is a form of Satanism, let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that Calvinists attempt to worship God, but unintentionally worship Satan instead, let them be anathema

Concerning Christology

  • If anyone claims that Christ was merely human and not divine let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that Christ was merely divine and not human let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that Christ was partly human and partly divine let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that Christ was fully divine let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that Christ was fully human let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that Christ had a single nature that was both fully human and fully divine let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that Christ had both a divine nature and a human nature let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that Christ had only a single nature let him be anathema
  • If anyone denies that Christ had two natures let him be anathema
  • If anyone denies that Christ had only a single nature, yet simultaneously had exactly two natures let him be anathema

Concerning Mariology

  • I solemnly and dogmatically declare that both Mary and Christ possess infinite Justification
  • I solemnly and dogmatically declare that Mary is “Intercessor of all Graces”: every single Grace that God sends is united to a prayer of Mary, she prays in perfect accordance with the will of God, down to the smallest detail.
  • I solemnly and dogmatically declare that Mary is “Co-Redemptrix”: salvation depends on her freely given consent to God’s will that she be the mother of Christ; the gateway through which God enters creation.
  • I solemnly and dogmatically declare that both Mary and Christ are perfect icons of the invisible Holy Spirit, as both Mary and Christ perfectly display the fruits of the spirit
  • I solemnly and dogmatically declare that Mary possesses perfect and infinite theosis: She is fully human by nature, and fully divine by participation in Christ’s divine nature.

The Song of the Eschaton Incarnate

RSV-CE John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the λογος, and the λογος was with God, and the λογος was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.

The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the λογος became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (John bore witness to him, and cried, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.’”) And from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.

The Great Apostasy – When Exactly did it Happen?

Only One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church?

I have been meeting with Later Day Saint (LDS) Mormon missionaries on and off since December 2017. As I learn more and more about their faith and beliefs, I find myself affirming much of what they tell me. It has actually got to the point where I feel comfortable officially converting via re-baptism, and I am planning to do this after the exam period (I won’t say too much about my motivations, except that 1. I sincerely believe in most/all LDS doctrines, and 2. I am following Saint Paul’s example in becoming all things to all people, so as to save all people. Mormons need to hear the Gospel promise too!) Of course because I have a strong classical theistic grounding, and have been shaped by the liturgical life of Apostolic Catholic Christianity, as well as the theologies and philosophies of the east (Hinduism, Buddhism); So I interpret Latter Day Saint doctrines through a very unique and eclectic lens.

In any case, one thing that has always bugged me is this doctrine of “The Great Apostasy”. On one level, I completely affirm that all churches, religions, institutions and organisations have been commandeered by Satan and no longer clearly preach the Gospel. However on another level, I understand the Catholic and Orthodox argument that the apostolic succession of Bishops has never been broken, and it is possible to trace a line all the way back to Jesus through the Sacramental laying on of hands. According to this understanding, the church that Jesus founded has been around since day one, and the divine authority of Christ never left the earth.

Now, I intend at some point to blog about the doctrine of emergency. The short version is that in an emergency, anyone can perform any of the sacraments. I argue that this is exactly what happened in the case of the visions of Joseph Smith (And I likewise argue that the very same thing has happened to me). I might get the details a little wrong here, but supposedly the story goes that Joseph Smith retreated into the forest to pray to God and ask for guidance as to which church he should join. As he was praying, he was told by God that all of the churches have apostatised, and he should restore the true church himself. In a subsequent vision, Jesus, Peter, Paul and John descended from heaven and directly ordained Joseph Smith as a Prophet and Apostle.

According to the doctrine of emergency, I have no issues with this story. Joseph Smith was not ordained in the standard line of apostolic succession, but that’s fine – he was ordained directly by Christ in a vision. This gives credibility to the line of apostolic succession that exists in the churches that can trace their origins to Joseph Smith (primarily the Fundamentalist church (FLDS), the Restored Church (RLDS), and the mainstream LDS church, but there are also other groups).

So this would imply that the traditional Apostolic churches and the new restored churches are in actual fact the same church. There is only one true church, and it is both Mormon and Catholic. This represents my current understanding.

The Great Apostasy

However the missionaries who I speak to naturally understand the great apostasy to imply that at some point, the traditional apostolic succession was broken. My question has always been, “When?” – because the historical record is really working against the LDS account of events on this score. Today my question was answered in the form of the following lecture by Hyrum Smith:

In this video, Hyrum Smith proposes a timeline of events which state exactly when the apostolic succession was broken, and exactly when it was restored. He starts by verbalising the following relevant questions: “Why was the church restored when it was? If a restoration was necessary, why did God wait till 1820 to do it?” (I was thinking to myself, mainstream Christians face a similar problem. Why did God wait to send Jesus when he did? Why couldn’t Jesus have just come and sorted everything out straight away, rather than leaving us to suffer the pains and sufferings of history?) Hyrum then declares that he’s going to tell us exactly why 1820 was the only time that the church could have been restored. He then whips up a long timeline that goes like this:

  • 0AD – A saviour is born – Jesus of Nazareth
  • 30AD – Jesus is all grown up and begins his ministry
  • 33AD – Jesus establishes his church, is rejected by the world and crucified.
  • 42AD – Peter goes to Rome and establishes a church there. He ordains a bloke called Linus as a bishop.
  • 43AD – Paul goes to Rome, susses out the scene and discovers that the entire church had apostatised. Paul establishes a new leader – Deacon Linus.

Let’s pause here for a moment. Allegedly the apostasy that Paul discovered upon visiting Rome is recorded in Romans chapter 1, but I’m not sure which part of this chapter Hyrum is referring to. For one thing, the letter to the Romans strongly implies that Paul had not actually visited the Roman Christians at the time the letter was written. It is also somewhat convenient and confusing that the deacon that Paul ordains has the same name as the existing bishop of Rome. I’m wondering what the sources are for this claim, as it’s the first that I’ve heard of it. I suspect that it allows LDS apologists to read the historical record in their favour, by splitting references to Pope Linus into “Good Linus” and “Bad Linus”. But I’m open to further information and inquiry.

The timeline continues:

  • 64AD – The emperor Nero kills Linus the deacon. And the authorised church completely disappears from Rome
  • 70AD – The Roman army destroys Jerusalem. From this point until 1948, Jews have no homeland to call their own.
  • 78AD approximately – Bishop Linus, the Pope of Rome receives a letter from a mate. This letter claims that the Roman church is incredibly universal. Pope Linus is like “Heck yeah, let’s call ourselves the universal (Catholic) church.” The Roman Catholic Church is born.

So apparently the moment Linus the deacon was killed, the “true” church disappeared from Rome, and the one that was left behind was apostate. This is also a rather creative retelling of the origins of the Roman Catholic church, but I’m guessing there is a hint of truth to it. Only a hint though.

  • 96AD – All of the other apostles have been murdered except for the Apostle John. John is banished to the island of Patmos.
  • 101AD – The Apostle John passes away and the great apostasy is complete. There was no longer anyone on earth with the authority to say “Thus sayeth the Lord”

So according to this understanding of events, the apostolic succession of Rome is invalid because the “real” leader was murdered, and presumably failed to ordain a successor. Mysteriously, the other apostles didn’t ordain anyone either. As such, once the apostle John died, no one was left to carry on the torch.

I find this incredibly problematic and implausible. For one thing, even if the apostolic succession in the church of Rome was invalid, that doesn’t deal with the apostolic successions in the churches of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and the rest of the world. When and how did those successions die?

Hyrum continues with a sweeping survey of mainstream church history:

  • 320AD – The Early Christians – despite technically being apostates – had a very rough time. Emperor Constantine calls the Council of Nicaea with the purpose of establishing an ecumenical understanding of God. The Nicene creed is produced and the Roman Catholic church becomes formal church of the state. The “Reign of the Popes” begins
  • 785AD – The Empress Irene is in charge. She calls another council of Nicaea. Saints become canonised. Idol worship begins in the Catholic church.
  • 900AD approximately – We have a female pope! Pope Joanna. The Catholic church denies this fact but the Lutheran church supposedly has detailed documentation.
  • 1100AD – There are three popes simultaneously. They all excommunicate each other and go to war.
  • 1200AD – The printing press is invented. Pope innocent the Third is fighting a lot of wars and runs out of money. He invents “the sale of indulgences.” Apparently this meant “you could pay to have your sins remitted”. And you could even pre-pay for your future sins.
  • 1300AD – There is an intellectual revolution in Europe: The Renaissance.
  • 1492AD – Columbus discovers the new world.
  • 1515AD – Martin Luther emerges. With his access to ancient documents he begins to have a problem with indulgences. “Jesus didn’t say anything about it.”
  • 1523AD – Luther is excommunicated. The Church declares that to kill Luther would not be murder. Luther goes into hiding. German princes shelter him and he becomes head of the Lutheran church.
  • 1534AD – Henry VIII has problems with the wife. He wants a divorce. The Pope refuses to agree and grant him one. The Anglican church is born.
  • 1540AD – John Calvin starts up the Huegenots.
  • 1560AD – John Knox founds the Puritan movement.
  • 1575AD – Bartholemew day. The Catholics in Paris round up and slaughter all of the Protestants.
  • 1620AD – The Puritans migrate to America, because they are fed up with the lack of freedom in the continent. The nation of America has its formal beginnings.
  • 1776AD – America gets sick of King George and his bullshit; they tell him to fuck off and that they aren’t gonna pay taxes to him any more. Independence is declared. War begins. There is no way that this war could have been won apart from the direct intervention of God.
  • 1787AD – The constitution is established. For the first time in history, a nation has freedom of religion firmly baked in to it’s most fundamental laws and principles of governance.
  • 1805AD – God raises up a leader: Joseph smith is born in upstate New York
  • 1812AD – The war of 1812. Britain is defeated. USA establishes its’ own navy.
  • 1817AD – Satan also raises up a leader: Karl Marx is born. There are 700,000,000 communists today, so there’s still lots of work to do to save the world.
  • 1820AD – Joseph Smith wants to know what church to join. He goes into the forest to pray. Jesus Christ appears to him and the Restoration begins.
  • 1830AD – The Church is formally re-established on earth. More progress is made in this year than in all 5000 years past.
  • 1860AD – “Family trouble.” – The Civil War

During his presentation Hyrum makes the point that 1820 is the only time the church could have been re-established and survived, because religious freedom was necessary and it was only at that time in America that religious freedom had been established. This is an interesting point.

Conclusion

In the end I find the account of the great apostasy proposed by Hyrum Smith to be wanting. There are simply too many holes in it. Instead I’m happy to affirm that 1. All churches are apostate, including the Catholic church and LDS church, and 2. Both the LDS church and Catholic church have valid apostolic successions.

I look forward to learning more about the LDS faith, but I am as yet unconvinced of the great apostasy narrative as they understand it.

 

 

Gospel Conversations: Hope and Hell Conference Sydney 2019

Robin Parry is coming to Sydney to talk on all things Universalism. If you are living in Sydney and even half interested in Christianity and the Gospel, you should buy a ticket. I will be there!

https://www.gospelconversations.com/hope-and-hell

Do we need to rethink the traditional ‘eternal torment’ concept of hell? Rev Dr Robin Parry is prominent among a growing number of theologians around the world who are convinced the answer is ‘Yes’—and who claim furthermore that far from being heretical, this move will only lead us to a more coherent orthodoxy. This is not a new idea. Many significant Christian leaders in the early church embraced the belief in a final, universal restoration (an apokatastasis), believing it to be the teaching of the Bible. Robin argues that there are good reasons to agree with them.

At Gospel Conversations we believe that we need to get this hot topic of the ‘heresy’ list and back onto the discussion table. There is arguably no part of the modern Christian gospel that provides as great a stumbling block to faith as the ‘eternal torment’ version of ‘hell’. No Christian really likes this doctrine, yet we often feel compelled to believe it as an article of faith. But should we?

Robin asked himself this question as an evangelical some years ago and began to uncover a vast stream of evidence—in the biblical narrative, the writings of the early church fathers, and the very logic of Christian doctrine—that strongly suggests that all humanity will be saved. Robin wrote a considered argument supporting the possibility of universal salvation in his book The Evangelical Universalist (originally published in 2006 under the pseudonym Gregory McDonald). He subsequently researched the more recent history of the idea for his book A Larger Hope? Universal Salvation from the Reformation to the Nineteenth Century (2019).

Robin argues that what we think about hell and the expanse of salvation has implications for how we think about God, creation, sin, justice, love, providence, freedom, atonement, church, and the value and future of the non-human creation, for the biblical vision of ultimate restoration is truly cosmic, revealing a far wider and richer picture of the massive endgame that God has in mind. So no matter what a person comes to finally believe about this topic, studying it will enlarge our souls and our faith.

Robin will speak to us over two Saturdays. The first Saturday he will lay out a biblical case for universal salvation and explain how it widens our picture of the great project of the Lord God. On the second Saturday, he and others will look ahead and address the important ‘so what?’ question. How does apokatastasis affect the way Christians interact with the world—their message, their stance, their contribution to public life. We will conclude with a panel discussion to respond to questions and thoughts.

Ramblings Concerning Eschatology, Sin, Salvation and Everlasting Damnation, Aquinas and the Saints Rejoicing at the Sufferings of the Damned

Eternal and Temporal Punishments

hellfire-1000x480[1].jpgIn Catholic theology there is the idea that sin has a “double consequence”: committing a sin will lead to one or both of an eternal punishment, as well as a temporal punishment. Traditionally a distinction is made between mortal and venial sin: mortal sin is sin that is serious enough to result in both eternal and temporal punishment, whereas venial sin is not so bad and only leads to a temporal punishment. This eternal/temporal punishment distinction is commonly presented in a very simplistic way: the eternal and temporal punishments are considered to be pretty much the same, but the eternal punishment lasts forever while the temporal punishment does not. While not entirely wrong, this is a very naive view of the situation and the temporal/eternal and mortal/venial distinctions are worth exploring further.

First it helps to establish the actual nature of the punishments involved. Straight away it should be emphasised that eternal and temporal punishment are entirely different in nature. It’s not that both of them have you swimming in the flames of Hell, being physically and spiritually brutalized, but the temporal punishment comes to an end while the eternal punishment continues on into eternity. Not at all. The two punishments are completely different. So what are they? A concise summary of the punishments is that the eternal punishment consists of separation from God while the temporal punishment involves physical and spiritual punishment. Lets elaborate on these.

Eternal punishment is separation from God. Of course, it is metaphysically impossible to truly be separate from God. No matter where you go, God will be there. Even if it feels like God is distant, in reality he is right there with you, closer to you than you are to yourself. In order to remain in existence God has to constantly sustain you with his creative energies. Even if you disappear into the outer darkness or descend to the depths of hades, God will still be there with you, holding you in existence by his loving, creative power. If God were to withdraw his creative energies from you, you would simply cease to exist: You would in fact be annihilated. This is precisely what happens with the eternal punishment. The eternal consequence for sin consists of God withdrawing his love from the condemned sinner, which results in non-existence and annihilation. As such it is not actually possible to “experience” the eternal punishment for sin. Annihilation is not something that is experienced, because once the annihilation has occurred there is no longer any subject there to do the experiencing. There is no pain involved in the eternal punishment, but neither is there pleasure. And neither is there neutrality. There is no joy, no despair. There is just nothingness. This is impossible to describe or visualise, because it is impossible to truly imagine or visualise nothingness. It is as ineffable and mysterious as God himself.

The temporal consequence of sin however, consists of physical and spiritual punishment. This is pretty much the stereotypical “fire and brimstone” image of Hell that we have all come across many times during our lives. Unlike the eternal punishment – which is timeless and everlasting – the temporal punishment is something continuous and progressive. The image of people being tortured by demons in a red hellscape with lots of fire, smoke and brimstone turns out to be a quite helpful metaphor for visualising the temporal punishment. Sinners are marched from one punishment to the next, and these punishments are not abstract things, but concrete horrors, such as being tossed into a cauldron of boiling lava, or forced to swim through a lake of urine. At this point it would be prudent to point out that these punishments are not purely retributive. They have a purgative purpose as well. The punishments are designed such that once the punishment is complete, there will also be a genuine repentance present in the sinners heart for the particular sin that was being punished. Free will is involved at every step of the way: the punishment will continue for as long as the sinner refuses to repent of that particular sin. In theological discourse Catholics generally refer to this as “Hell” when they want to emphasise the punishment, and “Purgatory” when they want to emphasise it’s purifying purpose, however they are the same reality. Usually when a Catholic tries to describe the eternal punishment they end up describing the temporal punishment for sin instead. They try to describe Hell and end up describing purgatory. This is because as discussed earlier, it is impossible to describe the eternal punishment. The temporal punishment is often referred to as “the flames of Hell”. These flames are purifying flames and are in actual fact none other than the love of God. In this way the temporal punishment demonstrates both God’s love and his justice simultaneously: justice in that everyone is punished in the flames for their sins, and love in that everyone is purified in the flames from those same sins.

So eternal punishment consists of a withdrawal of God’s love from the sinner, which leads to annihilation or in other words, separation from God. Whereas temporal punishment consists of spiritual and physical tortures, which engage the sinners free will and elicit their repentance, leading to purification, purgation and a cleansing of the soul from sin.

The Catholic Universalist Gospel states that Jesus Christ died on the cross and descended into Hell, and while affirming the traditional interpretation that this means Jesus took a trip to the limbo of the fathers and broke them out of the prison, it also interprets this as meaning that Jesus Christ descended into eternal punishment. In other words, God himself was annihilated. However it was impossible for Jesus to be held back by this annihilation, and so by the power of the Holy Spirit he was resurrected from non-existence back to existence, and from death to life, with a new, perfect, glorified human nature. All of humanity is mystically united to Christ, and so all of humanity participates in this death and resurrection. As a result, all of humanity moves from “Condemned” to “Justified” as we are united to Christ, whose old and wounded human nature has been annihilated and replaced with a new and glorified human nature. It is important to note in this account of the Gospel that by his cross and resurrection Jesus saved humanity from the eternal consequence of sin – separation from God – but he has not saved humanity from the temporal consequence of sin, which consists of suffering, punishment, purification and purgation. This is why we continue to experience suffering in our lives.

Moving on now to the Mortal/Venial sin distinction. There is essentially only a single mortal sin: wilful rejection of God. However this sin takes many forms and there are some conditions that must be fulfilled: The particular sin must be grave matter, the sinner must be fully aware that the sin is grave matter, and the sinner must give full consent to the sin with their will. If a mortal sin is committed it constitutes an explicit rejection of a relationship with God, and so it merits the eternal punishment of separation from God. On the other hand venial sins are small imperfections, which do not constitute a willing and informed decision to walk away from God. Venial sins merit an increase in a soul’s temporal punishment, as they represent imperfections which need to be cleansed.

Sacraments and Soteriology

o-FORGIVENESS-facebook[1].jpgThe question is asked: how do we escape the eternal punishment, once a mortal sin has been committed? At this point we encounter a difference between the standard Catholic account of soteriology and the Universalist Catholic account. From the eternal perspective, all mortal sins were forgiven by the cross and Christ’s descent into Hell, and so strictly speaking nothing more is absolutely necessary in order for a person to be Justified. However sacramentally and temporally, baptism is necessary in order for a soul to participate in Christ’s death, resurrection and state of Justification. Baptism with water is not absolutely necessary, however it is temporally necessary  given our existence as temporal creatures. Contempt and disregard for baptism is a form of the mortal sin and so will also merit both the eternal punishment and a significant increase in temporal punishment. Baptism can only occur once, but the mortal sin may be committed many times. This necessitates another method for forgiving the mortal sin, and this is known as perfect contrition. Perfect contrition is a form of inner repentance where a soul feels sorrow for their sins because they love God, as opposed to other reasons like fear of Hell and punishment. Perfect contrition throws a soul back upon the eternal reality of their baptism and reapplies it to their life temporally. Perfect contrition is encapsulated in the sacrament of Confession.

It is important to note that Perfect contrition is absolutely essential for the mortal sin to be forgiven and the eternal punishment to be revoked. If there is no perfect contrition, there is no forgiveness. However the following principle must be stated: God’s mercy is such that he forgives us in anticipation of our future perfect contrition. In other words, so long as we have perfect contrition at some point in the future, God foresees this via his omniscience and so he forgives us now even if we are not presently perfectly contrite. In this way, the Catholic does not need to be filled with terror and dread at the prospect of eternal punishment when he commits a mortal sin, because God will forgive him immediately, so long as at some point in the future he has perfect contrition and gets to the sacrament of confession. Furthermore, the Christian who commits a mortal sin has a guarantee from God that they will indeed experience this necessary perfect contrition at some point in the future. This guarantee takes the form of the indwelling Holy Spirit, whom God gave to the Christian as a promise that he would one day be holy and perfect. Finally, in the Universalist account there is no time limit for attaining perfect contrition. If we die and we have not been perfectly contrite we will go to purgatory. It is predestined that at some point while we are there we will experience the necessary perfection contrition. Again, God foresees that we will be perfectly contrite in purgatory and so forgives us immediately on account of it.

In this way a Christian can be confident that he is always and everywhere forgiven of his mortal sin. He can have a hopeful assurance of salvation, resting in the knowledge that God is merciful, and has promised to work in the Christians soul to enable him to fulfil whatever conditions are necessary for salvation, whether during life or after death.

The Suffering of Sinners is the Pleasure of Saints

Carracci-Purgatory[1].jpgThere is a common opinion that is found across many theological traditions that the saints will take pleasure in the suffering of the damned. The logic is fairly straightforward: 1. The saints are in heaven. 2. Heaven is perfect and nothing can detract from it’s joy. 3. Nothing can detract from the joy of the saints, so they either don’t care about the suffering in Hell, or they take pleasure in it. Intuitively, this view is quite disgusting. However I don’t think it’s entirely inaccurate.

The saints do not experience a sadistic pleasure when they view the sufferings of the damned, but instead experience a salvific pleasure. The saints, being deified in heaven, can be said to share in God’s omniscience: They are intimately acquainted with the details of God’s will in a way that the sinners on earth and in Hell are not. In this way, the saints perfectly understand the exact way in which the sufferings of the damned are all part of God’s salvific plan. When they witness a sinner being tortured in Hell, they rejoice, not because they take pleasure in the sinners pain, but rather because God has granted them a clear understanding of exactly why that pain is necessary in order for the sinner to be saved. The people on earth and in Hell can only look on with horror at the intolerable pain that the sinners in Hell are made to experience, however the saints in heaven have a superior perspective and are able to see right through the pain to the final outcome, which is entirely glorious, mingled with love, wisdom and compassion. It all makes perfect sense to the saints, and so they praise and glorify God for the tortures, comprehending the exact way and precise details of how God will use the suffering for a greater good.

(Note, following many of the Church fathers, I use the term “Hell” loosely here to refer to the place of temporal punishment and purification, more commonly referred to as Purgatory)