Tawḥīd Trīnitās

Introduction

I will propose a new formulation of the traditional Catholic/Orthodox Trinitarian theology, firstly, as expressed in the venerable dogmatic definitions of the first seven councils; secondly, as anciently interpreted by St. Augustine and the Cappodocian fathers; and thirdly, with reference to the fresh and contemporary expositions of Trinitarianism in the literary corpus of Dr. David Bentley Hart. The proposal is made in precise terminology which carefully expresses the doctrine of divinity found in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, as well as coining some more precise terminology so as to carefully make the proposal in such a way that certain Islamic criticisms of ‘Trinitarianism’ (considered broadly) do not pose any problem to it. Importantly, the proposal will elucidate the actual doctrine of the Trinity: ie. the doctrine of the Trinity as it has continuously developed in the Catholic/Orthodox tradition from the time of Christ all the way up to the present.1

A Dogmatic Requirement of Islam

In Āyah 4:1712 the angel Gabriel commands the Prophet Muhammad to proclaim a prophetical rebuke to the Christian world:

O People of the Bible! Do not exceed the limits of your religion; Do not say anything about God except the Truth; that the Messiah, Jesus, was the son of Mary; that He was a Prophet of God; that He was the Word of God; that He was born of the holy and immaculate virgin mother; and that His spirit proceeds from God. So believe in God and his prophets, and never say “Three” – Cease from such blasphemy for your own benefit, because God is One. Glory be to God that he should have a son, to whom belongs all that is in heaven and all that is in the earth. And behold: He is entirely worthy of our faith.3

While admittedly here the Āyah has been ripped out of its context in Surah An-Nisa, when taken in isolation there is arguably nothing in it which actually conflicts with Orthodox Christian belief. The angel Gabriel is not here admonishing Christians to abandon Christianity and become Muslims, but rather to stay within the limits of Christianity. He then lists these limits in the form of a simple creed which would be acceptable to Muslims and Christians alike. So rather than Christians interpreting this Āyah as an attack on their faith (as they usually do), I propose that it would be better if they instead humbly accepted it as a prophetic gift from the Ummah, which can then serve as a help to keep the community of the Church steadfast in the truth and purity of Monotheism. When read in this way, it just so happens that for Christians the most relevant part of the Āyah today is the prohibition against saying ‘three;’ The Āyah does not deny the divinity of the Father, of the Son, or of the Spirit, and in fact is perfectly consistent with a “high Trinitariantheology.4 It would seem that the single thing forbidden is the attribution of the number “three” to God.

If Christians are to take this Āyah to heart, they must cease from saying things such as “One God in Three Persons,” and indeed refrain from talking about “One ουσία in three ὑποστάσεσῐν,and even stop speaking of “One substantia in three persōnīs.” According to Gabriel – however else Christians might talk about God, “threeness” should never be attributed to him (Incidentally, this renders the Athanasian creed unspeakable on account of it containing a single unfortunate clause which explicitly mentions “three persons”).5

As it turns out, this is all something of a felix condicio; none of these stringent limitations on the boundaries of Christian speech pose any actual problem for traditional Trinitarian thinking, nor does anything in Āyah 4:171 require Christians to modify their doctrine of God in any way. Rather, the Āyah is itself a concise statement of various key moments in the Christian narrative and a perspicuous affirmation of divine oneness. In essence, it merely requires that Christians be more scrupulous with the phraseology they employ to explain the occultus opes hidden within the mysterium fidei sui. While it is true that many Christian theologians have employed the number three to construct analogical imagery for the purpose of helping the faithful to develop an intuition for the divine; and while it may be conceded that certain theologians – the vast majority necessarily being schizmatic, if not always heretical6 have explicitly imported ontological triplicity into their doctrine of divinity; nevertheless the traditional Christian explanations and dogmas concerning God do indeed refrain from attributing “threeness” to God in any real or ontological sense,7 thus obeying Gabriel’s imperative in the Āyah.8

Christians are not forbidden by Āyah 4:171 to confess that Jesus is fully divine, nor are they prevented from claiming the Son and the Spirit to be ὁμοούσιον and co-eternal with the Father. But they are commanded – on pain of the sin of blasphemyto refrain from developing such a confession into any ‘tripling’ description of God. As such, the ubiquitous “three divine persons,” a speculative “three beings,” the tenured language of “three substances,” and ancient formulas of “three hypostases” are forbidden. According to Āyah 4:171, the only number that can ever be applied to God is “One.”9 Taking this seriously requires Christians to think very carefully about what the word “person” really means, because the implication is that while the Father, Son and Spirit are equally divine, equally personal, and truly different from each other, there can only be one person in God.10 This will be explained below, whereupon it will be made completely clear that I am not merely proposing a nouvelle résurrection of the venerable and charming heresies of Sabbelius, nor a plein d’entrain répétition of the modalism embraced by St. Tertullian’s beloved simplicēs.

Aesthetic Epistemology: Divine Truth as Infinite Beauty

Hart systematically sings the glories of the Triune God in his published PhD thesis – The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth – which is a profound and stimulating distillation of the entire Orthodox/Catholic tradition concerning the Trinitarian nature of God, and a bringing into dialogue of this tradition with the promiscuously multiple and nefariously protean existentialisms, absurdisms and nihilisms of modernity. Importantly for the purpose of this paper, during his confrontations with the heathen philosophers he manages to pull off a lucid explanation of the Christian God without ever insinuating – neither explicitly nor implicitly – that divinity encompasses any sort of ontological triplicity.11

It is hard to summarise all of the surprising reflections that Hart communicates to us in his magnum opus, however for the purposes of this essay the essential theological point I will extract from his delightful prose and attempt to rephrase in my own inadequate words is the following: To be a Person – whether Human or Divine – necessarily implies the ontological relationship of this Person with an “Other”a Different Person – who shares his or her nature, by way of communion with a “Yet Another” a further Distinct Person – who also shares his or her nature.12 In other words, the key to understanding the Trinity according to Hart is to first straighten out our Anthropology: The prevalent modern notion of a Person as a self-sufficient, self-defining, isolated single subject is unmasked by Hart as nothing but unequivocal heresy, and he then explains how Christianity reveals the true nature of Personhood: Persons cannot be Persons apart from multiple other Persons. Rather, Persons are only truly Persons when they are in the intimacy of loving community, each with the other. When this relationship of loving community is rejected by a human individual, that individual is rejecting their essential – and personal – nature; they are depersonalising and even dehumanising themselves.13

To put it another way, rather than speaking of God as “three persons,” Hart instead speaks of God as one single personality which – in a way necessary to the nature of personality just is the strictly essential yet entirely uncoerced embrace of both univocal identity (or sameness – the Father) and equivocal dissimilarity (or otherness – the Son) in the peaceful traversal of the infinite analogical interval between them (the communion – the Spirit).

A Proposal of a Refined Creedal Formula

In light of all that has been said thus far, I now propose a new and precise dogmatic formula which concisely sounds all the essential notes of the Immanent Trinity without in the process falling into any of the theological discord which is firmly forbidden by Āyah 4:171 insofar as it is understood to prohibit any language which implies an ontological attribution of “threeness” to the divine. To wit, rather than speaking about God as “three persons,” I should instead say that The One God is One Divine Person in relationship to himself in The One Divine Other through The One Divine Yet-Another. Or, to moot it as a precise Latin dogmatic formula, solus dīvīnus simplicitas in ūnō dīvīnō persōnā patris ad sēsē in ūno dīvīnō alterapersōnā fīliī per sēsē in ūno dīvīnō redalterapersōnā sānctī spīritūs Deus est.14

The first thing to observe – and in light of the analysis of Āyah 4:171 above, the most important – is that the formula does not “say three;” rather, all of the words in the formula are grammatically singular (ie, none of them are semantically or morphologically plural), and the adjective ūnus is pointedly and reiteratively affirmed of all the nouns in the formula. The formula also carefully avoids deploying the word persona thrice;15 rather, the father is identified as the divine person, while the son is named as the divine other-person and the Spirit is referred to as the divine yet-another-person; this linguistic tactic makes clear the important fact that God is only one person, while simultaneously affirming that the personality of the Father necessarily requires an essential and ontological relationship of divine communion with the Son and the Spirit, which therefore implies that the Son and Spirit are truly and fully personal as well, yet their personalities subsist as precisely distinct modes of relation and thus are truly different ways of being and analogically related moments in divine personhood. Secondly, this formula captures the orthodox notion of the monarchy of the father,16 in that ūnus dīvīnus simplicitas in ūnō dīvīnō persōnā patris is syntactically the sole predicate of Deus est. However it also captures the consubstantiality of the Son and the Spirit with the Father by applying the adjective dīvīnus to them.

Thirdly, it is necessary that dīvīnus be understood to imply strict divine simplicity, hence the clarifying inclusion of ūnus dīvīnus simplicitas immediately at the beginning of the formula. If simplicity were not explicitly stated, it would be possible to read the formula as a straightforward confession of Subordinationism or Arianism. Simplicity ensures that the alterperson of the Son and the realterperson of the Spirit are fully divine in all the same ways that the person of the Father is divine, sine exceptione (aka, the Father, Son and Spirit are consubstantial), while yet remaining personally distinct from each other and from the Father. To wit, saying that the Father is “The Unbegotten God who is not Begotten” and that the Son is “The Begotten God who is not Unbegotten” is simply to say that – on account of divine simplicity – the alterpersona of the Son is fully divine and fully personal in all the same ways as the persona of the Father; but it is also simultaneously to say that the divine person of the Father is analogically distinct from the divine alterperson of the Son while always remaining ontologically equivalent to him.17

Applying this formula rigorously leads to further clarifying limitations on Christian theological language. For one, just as in scripture and the Nicene Creed Jesus is never called “God” and – when he and the Father are referred to in the same breath – is instead always called “Lord,” so too it is inappropriate to refer to the Son as “a person” except when talking about the Λόγος in isolation. When referring to both the Father and the Son in the same sentence, the person must always be the Father while the alterperson must always be the Son. On the other hand, there are also times in scripture when the Son is referred to without any immediate referential connection to the Father, and in these situations the Son is quite often called “God.” Therefore in a similar fashion, if a Muslim were to interrogate us with “Do you say that Jesus is the Divine Person of God?” we are still permitted by Christian orthodoxy (and even Āyah 4:171) to joyfully respond with a confession of unconditional affirmation. However if the interrogation were to flow on from this sublime μᾰρτῠρῐ́ᾱ to a querying of how, if both the person of Jesus and the person of his Father are equally God, this does not imply a form of polytheism, we would respond by disputing the very terms in which the question has been phrased: If the Father is the divine person, then Jesus – while always remaining fully personal is nevertheless not the divine person; rather, Jesus in relation to the Father is the divine alterperson. And this way of speaking theological truth lines up directly with how Jesus must be referred to by the title “Lord” whenever the Father has already been spoken of as “God.”

Another implication is that it becomes permissible to call Jesus “The Father” by analogy, in much the same way Christians call Jesus “God;” a title which – strictly speaking – belongs to the Father Alone. To devout Trinitarians who find this unnerving, I draw attention to the famous scriptural precedent of Isaiah 9:6:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”18

One more implication of the formula is that it can be reformulated into the style of the Athanasian creed (in order to redeem said creed from its sins against Āyah 4:171) and substituted over the offending section like so:

So God is one Person, not three Persons; one Other, not three Others; one Yet-Another, not three Yet-Anothers. And in this communion none is before, and none is after; none is greater, and none is lesser. But the Person, his Other and his Yet-Another are coeternal, consubstantial, and coequal.

Conclusion

If – against all expectation – Christians were to unanimously agree to cease using the word “trinity,” perhaps a more orthodox replacement which better conveys the underlying theology – and might perhaps be more satisfactory for Muslims – would be “community.” David Bentley Hart demonstrates in The Beauty of the Infinite that it is possible to construct a robust trinitarian theology, without ever “saying three.” This is a great boon for interfaith dialogue with Muslims, and can help Christians to more precisely refine their theological language. God is indeed Father, Son and Spirit, but we need never attribute ontological threeness to God in order to hold on to traditional Christian theology and Doctrine.

Bibliography

Hart, David B. The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. Grand Rapids Michigan: Eerdmans, 2003.

Pavao, Paul. Decoding Nicaea. Selmer Tennesse: Greatest Stories Ever Told, 2014.

Br Reginald Mary Chua OP, Masters Thesis (Unpublished).

1As opposed to modern and contemporary innovative accounts of Trinitarianism which tend to either completely jettison the traditional understanding or merely pay lip-service to it without actual comprehension.

2لنِّسَاء – Surah An-Nisa – “The Woman”

3Intentionally interpreted here to line up with Christian doctrine as closely as I believe is permissible by the underlying al-ʻArabīyah al-Fuṣḥā: يَا أَهْلَ الْكِتَابِ لَا تَغْلُوا فِي دِينِكُمْ وَلَا تَقُولُوا عَلَى اللَّهِ إِلَّا الْحَقَّ ۚ إِنَّمَا الْمَسِيحُ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ وَكَلِمَتُهُ أَلْقَاهَا إِلَىٰ مَرْيَمَ وَرُوحٌ مِّنْهُ ۖ فَآمِنُوا بِاللَّهِ وَرُسُلِهِ ۖ وَلَا تَقُولُوا ثَلَاثَةٌ ۚ انتَهُوا خَيْرًا لَّكُمْ ۚ إِنَّمَا اللَّهُ إِلَٰهٌ وَاحِدٌ ۖ سُبْحَانَهُ أَن يَكُونَ لَهُ وَلَدٌ ۘ لَّهُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ ۗ وَكَفَىٰ بِاللَّهِ وَكِيلًا – 4:171

4ie, divine consubstantiality. While Āyah 4:171 is the most relevant to Trinitarianism, this paper is not an exhaustive survey of the Quranic canon, and so there are almost certainly other Āyat which require exegesis if one aims to show that the entire Qu’ran is consistent with Catholic tradition.

5Sed totae tres personae coaeternae sibi sunt et coaequales. However the creed can arguably be salvaged with some creative contextual hermeneutics, by proposing that the personae being described in this clause with the adjective tres are something recursively located on the purely syntactic/lexical level (ie, as a reference to the words “Father, Son and Spirit” as they have been used prior to this clause in the creed), rather than importing any semantic onto-triplicity into the underlying res referred to by the signum ‘God.’ This would therefore allow us to understand the clause to be saying something roughly similar to, for example, “The seven theological categories of essence, fatherhood, nature, filiation, being, spirit and existence are coeternal and coequal with each other in God (while yet remaining analogically distinct in their perichoretic simplicity);” thus, it can be seen how on the lexical level God is just as much “seven” as he is “three.” Orthodox Sunnī Muslims would be unfair to make a controversy out of this interpretive move, considering that in their expositions of the doctrine of Tawḥīd (according to both Al-ʾAšāʿirah and Al-Maturidiyya schools), they are entirely content to attribute a numerical plurality of equivocal attributes to Allah. In any case, divine personality must be ontologically consistent with the demands of Tawḥīd, and therefore the phrase tres personae cannot in any real sense attribute “threeness” to God’s unique essence, simple nature, one reality and singular being.

6They are most often protestant, evangelical or analytical philosophers, fond of ‘explaining’ the Trinity with simplistic aphorisms such as “God is one ‘what’ and three ‘who’s.” This is unacceptable and it would be more accurate to say something along the lines of “God is one ‘I,’ one ‘thou,’ and one ‘him.’ (and for that matter, one ‘我們 (Wǒmen – exclusive 1ps, pl),’ one ‘咱們 (Zánmen – inclusive 1ps, pl)’ too)” Describing God as “three ‘who’s” is unrefined and – according to Āyah 4:171 – a heretical way of speaking.

7As mentioned above, in theological discourse, numerical adjectives can only be used in descriptive analyses of sentences concerning God, but they cannot be used in descriptions of God per se. So while it is valid to note the “threeness” in, for example, the baptismal formula, it would not be valid to infer from this lexical triplicity in the liturgical language to any sort of ontological triplicity in the divine per se.

8Whenever a classically-leaning theologian in the course of their theologizing happens to “slip up” or “throw in the towel” by “saying three,” this is always in the context of an analogical illustration, and to their scandalously tantric trinitarian imagery will invariably and immediately be appended extensive apologies, repentant obeisances and precise qualifications to explain how the theologian is in no way claiming to deny the oneness, singularity, uniqueness, simplicity and unity of divinity. A skilful theologian such as Hart – who is deeply read in both classical Trinitarian literature and Islamic writings on Tawḥīd – is able to explain the Trinity in a completely orthodox manner without even once falling into the trap of “saying three.”

9As well as according to Islamic Tawḥīd more broadly, which holds that God is One (الْأَحَد – Al-ʾAḥad) and Single (الْوَاحِد‎ – Al-Wāḥid), and therefore neither Three nor Triple. Whether Āyah 4:171 permits Christians to speak of God as Triune or a Tri-unity is an unresolved question, seeing as these terms both include the morpheme “tri-” which semantically involves a loose concept of “threeness.” Whether or not “saying three” on the morphological level of language is considered to fail the injunction of Āyah 4:171 is something to be explored via further interfaith dialogue, but in this author’s opinion it will be a hurdle extremely tough to clear: Requiring Christians to refrain from saying “three” is reasonable enough, but asking them to renounce their natively developed terminological heritage of “Trinity/Triune/Tri-unity” will invariably continue to be an exceedingly tough sell (And further, Āyah 4:171 in the Abdul Haleem interpretation aggravatingly adds more polemical fuel to the theological fire by directly translating ثَلَاثَةٌ ۚ as “Trinity”).

10It is important to clarify here that I am not arguing for the position that traditional Christian theology of the Trinity which uses ‘tripling’ language is inherently contradictory or incoherent. For example Aquinas presents an extremely orthodox, compelling, consistent and coherent doctrine of divinity which permits him to – for example – describe God as “one being” and as “three beings” simultaneously. I’m simply proposing a manner of accurately articulating the traditional Christian doctrine of divinity which conforms to the restrictions on theological language mandated by Āyah 4:171. The challenge a theologian confronts in attempting to accurately explain the Trinity according to the requirements of Christian orthodoxy while also refusing to “say three,” is analogously akin to the challenge which a vegan embraces when she searches for creative ways to maintain her health and vitality while refusing to ever eat meat or drink milk; both are incredibly difficult, yet both are also entirely possible.

11I make this claim on the basis of my impressions immediately after having read through the entire tremendous tome in one sitting. I concede that a more rigorous, slow and scientific reading may perhaps reveal this judgement to be technically inaccurate.

12Successfully grasping this point elegantly leads one’s intellect to a beatific theoria in which it logically comprehends the notion that – while the definition of personhood is univocal between Humans and God – the fact that personhood requires relationship “within” persons of a mutually shared nature leads to there being a single person in God – on account of his simple nature – and a plurality of persons in Humanity – on account of our non-simple nature.

13All of which is to say they are rejecting God and experiencing damnation.

14Literally “God is the singular divine simplicity, in the one divine person of the Father, towards himself in the one divine other of the Son, through himself in the one divine yet-another of the Holy Spirit.” While this formulation and the Latin terms alterapersōna and redalterapersōna are terms of my own coinage, I believe they accurately capture the theology expressed by Hart in his minor dogmatics.

15This safeguards against any subtle leaning towards an intuition that there is some sort of triplicity or tritheism in God, which inevitably happens when the father, son, and spirit are spoken of as “three persons” rather than “one person in relation to himself-in-the-other by means of yet-another”

16This being important so as to keep the formula in accord with scriptural and creedal language: All of Paul’s letters open with some variation on the first lines of the Nicene creed: One God: The Father; and One Lord: his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.”

17This can be understood in more or less exactly the same way that Catholics claim the divine justice to be analogically distinct from the divine mercy while also understanding both to be ontologically equivalent to each other and equivalent to divinity per se. A soteriological aside: All of this means that just as it is appropriate to say that in God the Father has complete precedence over the Son, so too it is possible to say – following St. Isaac of Nineveh – that in God, restorative mercy has total priority over retributive justice, and that therefore God’s graceful willing towards ἀποκατάστασις entirely trumps the massa damnata merited via the total depravity (cf. Romans 1-3) of mankind.

18Is 9:6 (RSV:CE)

Beautiful Heresy 101 – Unpopular opinions: Polygamy, Premarital Sex, Women’s Ordination and Wife-Beating

Polygamy

1433335105153.cached1[1].jpgI believe that certain problems that we face today could be solved if the church re-allowed sacramental marriage between a man and many wives, and between a woman and many husbands.

I should immediately clarify that I do not think that polygamy should be encouraged by the Church, I merely think it should be permitted. The evidence – both biblical and extra-biblical – shows that monogamy is the superior form of marriage: the partners are able to give themselves to each other more fully and lovingly and dedicate themselves to the raising of a genetically tight family. However there is a precedent in the tradition for polygamy in Christianity and Judaism, and to a certain degree it survives today in the form of remarriage after the death of a spouse. I propose that this practice be permitted once again.

According to the Eastern Orthodox view of marriage, marriage is an eternal sacrament which has a permanence which survives death. In other words if you are married while you’re alive you’re still married once you’re dead. Marriage imparts an indelible mark on the souls of the partners similar to the marks received at baptism, confirmation and holy ordination. What’s more the sacrament of marriage has a retrocausal dimension, which is to say that the partners are married in the eyes of God even before they exchange vows in a temporal sense (Although logically and formally the exchange of vows is still necessary for the marriage to take place)

With this permanence of the sacrament in mind it would seem that the church already allows for a limited form of polygamy in that if someone’s spouse dies, they are free to marry again. However if marriage is something that survives death as claimed by the east, then remarriage after the death of a spouse would imply that a person has technically entered into multiple simultaneous marriages at once.

So what is my motivation for proposing a return to permitting polygamy across the board? There are a couple of reasons. The first is that allowing for sacramental polygamy would make it much much easier for people who come from polygamous cultures to convert. I vaguely recall a tale about a Native American who greatly desired to convert to Christianity, but was unable to do so because he was unable to choose only one of his wives to be his sacramental wife. It would have been most charitable, emphatic and understanding if the Church simply tolerated polygamy in special circumstances such as these and allowed for multiple simultaneous sacramental marriages. This is not an isolated incident either: there are many cultures where polygamy is the norm, such as parts of Africa and China, and the entire Islamic world. It would be much easier for families from these cultures to convert if they were given a special dispensation to continue with sacramental polygamy. Of course polygamy should be strongly discouraged, if not forbidden in general (with special exceptions, as outlined below) for future generations.

The second situation where polygamy should be permitted is when a marriage has broken down and the partners are estranged and living apart, and one or both of the partners have civilly remarried. This is obviously a terrible situation, however it does no good to deny the sacraments to the civilly remarried person and simultaneously deny them the means to rectify the situation via a new sacramental marriage. The current controversy surrounding Pope Francis document Amoris Laetita concerns this issue: some bishops are interpreting the document to mean that couples who are living together without being sacramentally married are nevertheless permitted to receive the Eucharist and other sacraments despite technically committing the mortal sin of adultery. As outlined above marriage leaves a permanent mark on the soul and therefore divorce is impossible, however in the situation described it really is nonsensical to forbid the civilly remarried couple from seeking sacramental marriage. I propose that in this situation it would be pastorally much more wise to simply allow technical polygamy which ends up working out as functional monogamy: The remarried couple are essentially living monogamous lives with each other, even though one of the partners is technically married to two people. This is a similar situation to allowing remarriage after the death of a spouse: Technically the surviving partner is married to two people; the deceased partner and the living partner; however functionally they are still living a monogamous life.

Obviously the constant prayer in this second situation should be that the original partners will find some way to come back together, even despite the new marriages. However in many relationship breakdowns this is completely infeasible and simply does not happen.

In conclusion, I think that monogamy should be strongly encouraged by the church, however I think that polygamy should be permitted in certain special circumstances, for example when someone from a polygamous culture wants to convert to Christianity, or when a marriage breaks down and the partners remarry. Polygamy, if it is introduced should be closely guarded and require special dispensations which are not handed out easily. Polygamy should not be encouraged, but it should be tolerated. It is unwise but not impossible.

Note: It has come to my attention that the council of Trent produced an anathema against polygamy. This of course needs to be interpreted in context to work out if it rules out polygamy as it is described above (Does it take into account marriage as an eternal sacrament and remarriage after the death of a spouse?), however it appears to be a fairly damning dogma.

Premarital Sex

evangelical-sex-sessions-teaser_gsnmrm.jpgFollowing on from the idea that marriage is eternal and retrocausal, it would seem that a couple is technically already married even before they exchange vows. In this way if they engage in sexual intercourse prior to the marriage ceremony, they have not actually commit the mortal sins of fornication and adultery. Of course, it would be quite unwise to engage in sexual intercourse prior to the wedding ceremony because there is no guarantee that they will indeed end up getting married at that point, in which case it would indeed be fornication and adultery.

Perhaps in this context, sex before marriage should be seen as something which propels the couple towards the marriage ceremony and commits them to it. Again, this is unwise but not impossible.

Women’s Ordination

Women-Ordination-01[1]I believe that certain ecumenical problems the church faces today could be resolved if we recognised women’s ordinations in special circumstances. To be clear, I am not proposing that any of the churches in the Catholic communion change their practice of restricting ordination to men. I simply think that there should be special dispensations allowed for women to be ordained in certain extremely limited circumstances.

The main advantage is entirely ecumenical. The Anglicans and Lutherans and certain other denominations and churches already have female bishops, priests and pastors. If we are to come into communion with them we must find some way of accommodating this development. Technically most of these female bishops and priests lack apostolic succession and valid holy orders, as they come from communions which broke this succession at the time of the reformation. However it should be possible to receive them into communion by giving them a fresh and valid ordination, just as is done with priests who enter the Anglican Ordinariate. An ecumenical dispensation is granted to Anglican priests who are married so that they can continue their priestly ministry in the Catholic church, in a similar way an ecumenical dispensation could be granted to female priests and bishops so that they can continue their sacramental ministry.

I’m speaking on the assumption that woman can be ordained in the first place. I have not heard a single strong argument against the possibility of women’s ordination. There is the argument from tradition, which states that because it has never been done, it never can be done. This is obviously fallacious. There is the argument that priests have to be men because Jesus was a man. This can also be demonstrated to be fallacious: If all priests have to be men because Jesus was a man, then why not also make it a requirement that all priests have to be Jewish because Jesus was a Jew? Or why not make it a requirement that all priests have to be born of a virgin, because Jesus was born of a virgin? There is a similar argument that priests have to be men because all of the apostles chosen by Jesus were men. This line of argument suffers from the same limitations as the previous one: all the apostles were Jewish, does this mean that all priests have to be Jewish? All the apostles lived in the first century, does this mean that all priests have to have lived in the first century?

I see no fundamental reason why a woman cannot be a priest and perform all the sacramental functions of a priest. Christ was human; women are human: surely this is the essential point. Women share a humanity with Christ, and therefore women have it within themselves to share in his priestly service, offering the sacrifice of the mass, hearing confessions, effecting the transubstantiation of the bread and the wine. Nevertheless I am speaking of possibility here, not prudence. While I believe that it is possible for women to be priests, I don’t think it is wise. The New Testament speaks in strong terms about men being the leaders and women being submissive followers. It also forbids women from speaking in Church and generally talks them out of taking on leadership roles. If we are to take the New Testament seriously as our Christian constitution and guide, we can only conclude that female pastors are a bad idea. They may not be impossible, but they are definitely unwise. So if they are to be allowed in the Catholic church they should only be allowed ecumenically, that is, in such a way that only the communities which already allow female pastors are allowed to retain them, while communities which at the present time forbid them should continue forbidding them.

Physical Discipline of Wives

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(Disclaimer: I am merely thinking out loud. I do not necessarily hold to the opinions expressed below. I do not approve of violence)

The last controversial opinion to put forward is that I think there should be no legal consequences for a man who beats his wife with good cause. Straight up I want to make clear that I am not in favour of domestic violence and I take a dim view of a man who brutally beats up his wife. However I do believe that men should have the option to physically discipline their wives.

I would like to draw an analogy with nuclear weapons: No one would say that the detonation of a nuclear bomb against an enemy is a good thing. Similarly, no one would say that the use of physical violence by a man against his wife is ever a good thing. However, the mere possibility that a country could launch a nuclear attack serves as a deterrent against provoking that country into a war. Similarly the mere possibility that a husband could physically discipline his wife should serve as a deterrent against the wife attempting to usurp his male authority and husbandly headship. If a man is to effectively be the head of his household – as he is called to be in the bible – he needs to be in charge and an effective leader. He needs to have his wife and children in submission. If physical discipline is permitted in order to keep children well behaved, it should be permitted towards wives too.

Obviously the best husband would be one who manages to keep his household in order without resorting to violence of any sort. However the mere possibility that a husband could physically retaliate should serve as a deterrent to the wife, and thus make it easier to keep the household in proper order. I am not in favour of normalising domestic violence. If husbands are brutally and violently abusing their wives without sufficient cause this is completely unacceptable. Ironically, we could look to the Islamic world in order to learn more about the acceptable limits of physical discipline towards wives. Muslims have been pondering this question for centuries and trying to work out a theology of the most “loving” and “charitable” way to physically discipline wives. Muslims have examined the issue from many angles and come to all sorts of conclusions about the various nuances involved. Christians, and western society in general could learn something from them.

Part of the decline of western society stems from feminism and the usurpation of the husband as the head of the family. Women have attempted to dethrone men as the leaders and this has lead to utter chaos: rampant abortions, divorces, failed marriages, sexual promiscuity. Unfortunately the laws of the west have been infected with this feminist nonsense and they favour women to the point that men are effectively unable to govern their families as the head of the household. Men are the ones living in fear that their wives might have an affair, divorce them, and then take off with half their wealth and all the children. If a man attempts to physically assert his authority he is faced with legal repercussions. The ability of a western man to govern his household is completely neutered by the situation in western society. If a western man has a disobedient wife, he is unable to discipline her. A good Christian man can only pray for a good submissive Christian wife, but such women are incredibly rare in western society.

I propose that the solution to this problem is to re-approach the possibility of husbands physically disciplining their wives without legal repercussions. We can look to the Islamic world for guidance on how to do this fairly and responsibly

(Disclaimer: On this last issue I am not committed to anything that I have said and am entirely willing to have my opinion changed. I am merely thinking out loud. Don’t come away from this post thinking that I am advocating for beating up women: I’m not)

Catholicism and Catechesis – A fresh look at the Sacrament of Confirmation

confused[1]For the longest time I was mystified by the sacrament of confirmation: I was never sure what essential function it fulfilled. Catechisms tend to describe it as a giving of some sort of ill-defined “power”. According to the common teaching confirmation is the sacrament that gives us strength to preach the gospel, but I am skeptical: it seems obvious to me that it is possible to preach the gospel without ever having been confirmed, and a lot of people who are confirmed don’t have the slightest clue how to preach the gospel. When push comes to shove I do not deny this common teaching, however I think that there is actually a more profound and inspiring way to understand this sacrament.

The Sacrament of Confirmation is the Sacrament of Promise

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The sacrament of confirmation is often spoken of with reference to Pentecost. One of the most important things about Pentecost was the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and disciples. Pentecost was the moment in time when the Holy Spirit entered the hearts of mankind and empowered mere sinful humans to preach the saving word of the Gospel to a fallen world. The book of acts reveals that the apostles were filled with power to preach the good news effectively in many different languages, and that their preaching was accompanied by signs and wonders. The sacrament of confirmation is often tied together with these events of Pentecost; the sacrament is said to fill us with the same power that filled the apostles all those years ago, and so we should be able to preach the gospel with power just as they did. So far this all agrees with the traditional understanding of confirmation, however I want to focus in on one particular aspect of the narrative: Pentecost was primarily about the sending and receiving of the Holy Spirit, and so it is also with the sacrament of confirmation.

The sacrament of confirmation is the sacrament in which the Christian logically and formally receives the Holy Spirit into his/her heart. This is not to say that the Christian did not have the Spirit within them temporally prior to receiving the sacrament – in a temporal sense, the spirit may very well have always been in their heart – however in a logical and formal sense, the moment at which the spirit entered into their heart was the moment that they were confirmed. This concept is called retrocausality and it deserves further discussion, but it is a deep topic for another day.

The question of the significance of the sacrament of confirmation is now intimately tied to the question of the significance of the indwelling Holy Spirit. For the answer to this question, let us examine some key scriptural quotes:

Ephesians 1:13-14 RSVCE

13 In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

2 Corinthians 1:18-22 RSVCE

18 As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. 19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silva′nus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. 20 For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God. 21 But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has commissioned us; 22 he has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.

It would seem that having the holy spirit in our heart serves as a “guarantee of our inheritance”. It is fair to understand a guarantee as a promise, and our inheritance in this context is salvation and heavenly beatitude, therefore another way of paraphrasing/translating the Ephesians quote is “You have been sealed with the Holy Spirit, who is a promise of our salvation until we acquire possession of it”

Finally! Something profound! If you have the Holy Spirit in your heart, this is a promise from God that you will succeed in your mission to get to Heaven. God himself guarantees your success. There are only two responses that can be made to this promise: trust or outrage. If you trust this amazing promise, imagine the possibilities that open up for Christian joy! We know that God is trustworthy and desires to keep his promises; we know that God is almighty and therefore has the power to keep his promises; we know that God is unchanging and therefore will not change or revoke his promise. If we therefore trust in God and his promise, what can we do but rejoice, praising and glorifying God, for God is unconditionally promising us Heaven! This is wonderful news! This is true Gospel! The one hitch is, how do you know if you have the spirit?

This is where the sacrament of confirmation comes in. A sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace. In the case of confirmation the invisible grace is the fact of the indwelling Holy Spirit with the associated promise of God that we will arrive safely and successfully in Heaven. In this way, someone who has been confirmed can derive deep and profound reassurance from the sacrament: Whenever times get tough and they are feeling morally discouraged – perhaps because they are mired in terrible and degrading habitual sins – they can think back to their confirmation and say to themselves “I have the Holy Spirit: I have a promise from God that I am going to get through this and come out the other side as a glorified saint. No matter how bad things look, I have a confident hope that things are going to get better, and one day they will be completely glorious as I enter heaven”

The Sacrament of Confirmation is the Sacrament of Predestination

sufi-comics-freewill-or-predestination[1].jpgI suspect that this idea of the Holy Spirit being the guarantee of our inheritance is the essence of predestination. Therefore another way of thinking about the sacrament of confirmation is that it is a visible sign of the invisible grace of someone having been predestined to beatitude.

Predestination should not be understood as predetermination. Predetermination is a form of theological determinism which nullifies free will: it would have our every thought and action scripted out by the sovereign God such that we are mere puppets following his every whimsy. Predestination is different: It is where the destination is fixed, but the path to that destination is up to us to decide. In this case, the destination is heaven. Predestination should be understood as a sort of promise that God makes to us and it should be preached as such: God promises us that we are going to eventually get to heaven and he does this by sending us the Holy Spirit, who serves as a guarantee of our inheritance. However we still have total freedom: we can reject the suggestions of the Spirit, reject Christ and enter into a life of sin and total depravity if we so choose. If we do this, there is a terrible, infinitely painful purgative fire waiting for us in the afterlife which we will have to pass through before we can arrive in Heaven. What’s more, if we never repent of our sinful ways, we will remain in that horrible fire indefinitely! However what must be kept in mind is that we have a promise from God – in the form of the indwelling Holy Spirit – that we are going to eventually come out the other side of that fire.

God promises that he will never leave us: he is going to get us into Heaven by hook or by crook, even if we are stuck in eschatological hellfire. He who has the Holy Spirit has been predestined to eternal life and there is nothing this person can do to screw it up: They can resist the Holy Spirit for as long as they want, but the Holy Spirit will not abandon them. I hesitate to call this “irresistible grace” because the grace can indeed be resisted and indefinitely too, however perhaps it could be called “inescapable grace”, because ultimately the destination of Heaven is fixed and God has the power and wiles to eventually elicit everyone’s free submission.

Pure Theology – The Doctrine of God: Apophaticism and Transcendence

Hello Father, I hope this email finds you well.

I’ve been thinking about apophatic approaches to God a lot over the past few years, and I’ve arrived at some interesting conclusions. I know from reading your blog that you are a fan of apophatic mystery and so I thought I’d run it all by you and see what you think. Only respond if you have time of course.

Silence

636055187297825102916759234_silence-1[1].jpgFor a bit of context, I went on a mission trip to China back when I was an evangelical (2014) and during my time in China I got talking with the local Christians about Chinese bible translations. I was fascinated to learn that when Catholic missionaries came to China and started to translate the bible, they chose the word Chinese word “Tao” to translate the Greek word “Logos”. As such, the first chapter of John reads “In the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with God and the Tao was God…. and the Tao became flesh and dwelt among us”. This excited me to no end. The concept of “Tao” is central to the native Chinese philosophical religion of Daoism. This choice of translation by the missionaries seemed to me to be an absolutely ultimate example of inculturation. By choosing this word “Tao” the translators were intentionally importing all sorts of Daoist preconceptions into the biblical text. When a Daoist reads the book of John, they will receive it very strongly, as they read that the important and historic Chinese philosophical concept of “the Tao” – with all that it implies – has apparently “taken on flesh!”

In any case, upon learning about this move of the translators my interest in learning more about Daoism immediately peaked. On the way back from China, I bought a copy of the DaoDeJing with a parallel English translation and I read through the whole thing on the plane ride home. The very first line of the very first chapter resonates with me strongly to this day:

    “The Tao that can be talked about is not the eternal Tao”

To me this comes across as the ultimate apophatic statement. I interpret it as saying that it is simply impossible to talk about God. Or in other words, you can talk about God, but what you’re talking about is not actually God. The moment you start putting words on God, you have gone wrong. To call God a “Trinity” and attempt to think of him as such, is to get God wrong. To call God a “Unity” is to get God wrong. To say that “God is love” is to get God wrong. And so on.

Following this train of thought, I’ve arrived at my first conclusion. Apophatically speaking the only completely accurate descriptions of God are silence and a blank page. God is a complete and utter mystery and we simply can’t say anything about him. Of course the idea of revelation changes things a lot, as God reveals himself to us in a way that we can relate to. This is why I love to pair the DaoDeJing with the Chinese translation of John: The Tao that cannot be talked about took on flesh and now we can behold it. The unknowable God becomes knowable through Christ. But nevertheless in pure apophatic terms, we literally cannot say anything about God: The most accurate way in which we can speak of God is to remain silent.

I’m wondering what you think about this idea?

God does not exist

quote-god-does-not-exist-he-is-being-itself-beyond-essence-and-existence-therefore-to-argue-paul-tillich-68-97-35[1]Another thing I’ve been musing about, is that if God transcends all language, classification, conception and categorisation, then doesn’t this mean he transcends the categories of “existence” and “non existence”? To put it bluntly, is it not fair to say that “God does not exist”? Or perhaps we could say “there is no such thing as God”. I suspect that we can apophatically assert these statements as being completely true. To elaborate, God does not exist because “existing” is something that “things” do and God is not a thing and so it is not correct to say “God exists”. Of course the flip side is true too: it is not accurate to say “God is non-existent” because God transcends that category too. God transcends all categories.

My question to you at this point, is what do the church fathers have to say about this as far as you know? Does what I’m saying make sense to you? I know that Aquinas liked to talk about God as if he was pure existence, but I feel like this compromises pure apophaticism. If you are going to be dogmatically apophatic, surely we cannot even speak of God as existing; surely God transcends the notion of existence as well.

Another question I have for you regarding this point: If it is true, does this not mean that Atheism is correct to a degree? Atheists say “God does not exist”: shouldn’t apophatically-minded Christians be able to respond to this with agreement? Or perhaps are they making a different category mistake by reducing God to a “thing” and then putting him in the category of “things that do not exist”?

Incarnation

van_hornthorst_adoration_children_800x583[1].jpgFollowing on from these thoughts about God not existing. Tonight I had a rather interesting thought about how this all relates to the incarnation. If we can be allowed to say that “God does not exist” in his Divine nature, then it would seem that we have to say that God only began to exist at the point of the incarnation. The incarnation was not only when God took on flesh, it was also when he began to exist! Logically prior to the incarnation, there is simply no meaningful sense in which you can talk about God “existing”, because as I laid out in the last paragraph, apophatically speaking (and prior to the incarnation this is the only way we can speak about God) it is inaccurate to say that God exists. So to summarise in a sentence: The incarnation was not merely God becoming a man, it was God actually coming into existence. Prior to the incarnation God transcended both existence and non-existence – it is only because of the incarnation that we can speak of God as “existing” – God exists in his human nature, but not his divine nature.

What do you think about this notion?

Annihilation

quasar_space_blackhole_bright_light_duying-SEXr[1].jpgFollowing on from this idea that God only took on existence at the incarnation. My personal theology of Holy Saturday includes both the traditional “Harrowing of Hades” but also a more Calvinist/Von Balthasarian view that Jesus descended to the “Hell of the damned”. As a Catholic I affirm both Purgatory, and the Hell of the damned. I view Purgatory as basically being “the traditional Hell” except that it is purifying and not everlasting (think “Gehenna”), whereas I view Hell as “total separation from God”. Of course, “total separation from God” implies ceasing to exist, because the only way to be completely separate from God is for him to withdraw his creative energies from you. To put it simply, I believe that Hell consists of total metaphysical annihilation. Now, I believe that Jesus descended to this Hell in order to fully balance the scales of justice/pay the price for our mortal sins. Which is to say I believe that Jesus was annihilated. Which is to say that I believe that Jesus ceased to exist. Which is to say that I believe that God ceased to exist.

I was watching a debate between a Muslim and a Christian tonight about the Trinity, and the Muslim raised the following point “If Jesus was God, and he died on the cross, then who was sustaining the universe while he was dead?” I think that if this Muslim read what I just wrote at the end of the last paragraph, he might be even more baffled! How can God possibly cease to exist?

Well, I think I’ve found an answer to that: God ceasing to exist really doesn’t pose any problem, because “existence” is not one of his essential properties. “Existence” is instead something that he took on during the incarnation. Prior to the incarnation, we are constrained by apophaticism and according to apophaticism, God does not exist (as I outlined a few paragraphs back). If God is able to sustain creation without being “alive” and without “existing”, then surely he is able to continue to sustain creation during death and annihilation on Holy Saturday.

I’m wondering what you think of this train of thought?

(I should also note here that you have successfully converted me to universalism, so I believe that the only person to go to Hell and suffer annihilation is Jesus, pretty much everyone else goes to purgatory. Also interesting to note is that in my view Jesus was not merely resurrected from death to life, but also from non-existence to existence!)

Nothingness

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My final apophatic musing concerns the nature of God. I read somewhere that the Jewish theologian Mamonides came to an ultimate apophatic insight about God: “God has no attributes”. I absolutely love this statement. There is only one other concept that I can think of which has no attributes: “nothingness” or “nothing”. I find that I can substitute the word “nothing” for the word “God” in many apophatic statements and they still make complete sense. For example

  • “God has no attributes” <-> “Nothing has no attributes”
  • “It is impossible to imagine God” <-> “It is impossible to imagine nothing”
  • “It is impossible to talk about God” <-> “It is impossible to talk about nothing”
  • “God is outside of space and time” <-> “Nothing is outside of space and time”
  • “God does not exist” <-> “Nothing does not exist”
  • “God is ineffable” <-> “Nothing is ineffable”

Also interesting to note is that there are two ways of interpreting the “nothing” statements. You can take the word “nothing” to mean “no thing” as in “there is no thing which is red”. Or you can take the word “nothing” to mean the concept of “nothingness”, as in “Nothingness is ineffable”. No matter which definition you use you still come up with a true and (to my mind) profound statement. This leads me to the most profound statement of all:

  • “God is nothing” <-> “Nothing is God”

What do you think about this? Is it apophatically accurate to say that “God is nothing”? as if the ideas of “God” and “Nothing” are literally equivalent concepts? You end up with some more interesting sentences:

  • “God is omnipotent” <-> “Nothing is omnipotent”
  • “God is omniscient” <-> “Nothing is omniscient”

etc. I find this idea about God to be fascinating because it would seem to extend an ecumenical bridge to the Buddhists: They strive to empty themselves in contemplative meditation and achieve nirvana, which I understand to be a state of “nothingness”. But if God is nothing, then aren’t the Buddhists essentially doing exactly the same things as the contemplative monks and nuns of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity? With this “Nothingness/God equivalence” in mind, the Christian contemplative tradition could be said to be aiming at “Union with nothingness”, which sounds a lot like Buddhism, and the Buddhist contemplative tradition could be said to be aiming at “Union with God”, which sounds a lot like theosis.

Another point which lends support to this idea is that I have come across many anecdotes from people who have practised contemplative prayer where they talk about an “emptying of the mind” and when they encounter God they describe this encounter as a terrifying encounter with some sort of void. In fact there is lots of supremely apophatic talk from people in the contemplative tradition and a lot of it seems to point to this idea of “God as nothingness”

What do you think about all this? Perhaps “nothingness” is just yet another category which God transcends, however I find it interesting how similar the ideas of “nothing” and “God” are at an apophatic conceptual level.

Apologies for a long and rambling email. I hope you find some time to chew on what I’ve written and respond. Hopefully some of it is stimulating. I hope none of it is offensive. Perhaps you have encountered these trains of thought somewhere before. In any case I hope you and you family are well. I will be praying for your good health!

God Bless

Beautiful Heresy 101 – Lutheranism and the Sola Fide: Catholics should embrace “Simul Iustus Et Peccator”

Stamp[1].gifA classic formula of Luther is simul iustus et peccator – simultaneously justified and a sinner. This formula concisely sums up the reformation view of justification. Traditionally, the Catholic Church has taken issue with this formula, however I argue that it really doesn’t need to; it doesn’t take much effort to interpret the formula such that it becomes a concise summary of the contemporary Catholic understanding of justification.

The difference in interpretation is a simple reversal: Protestants understand the formula as meaning that we are extrinsically righteous and intrinsically sinful. Whereas Catholics can understand the formula as expressing the fact that we are intrinsically righteous and extrinsically sinful.

Extrinsically Righteous, Intrinsically Sinful

lawsuit[1].jpgThe protestant understanding of Justification is forensic. Protestants like to define Justification as “to be declared righteous”. So if someone is justified, this is meant to imply that God has decreed that the person in question is righteous, regardless of the reality of the situation. In fact, this declaration is made contrary to the reality of the situation. The Justified man is still a totally depraved sinner, incapable of doing anything good on his own; he is completely and entirely evil to the core. In the protestant view of things, the sinner is so far gone that it is impossible for God to heal them. However in order to get around this situation God performs a magic trick called double imputation. This is where the sin of the sinner is wrapped up and exchanged with the righteousness of Christ. The sin of the sinner is imputed to Christ and the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the sinner. Protestants often talk about being “clothed in the righteousness of Christ”. Sometimes they say “Jesus’ righteousness is credited to our account and our sins are credited to his account”.

The key thing to note about all of this is that it is entirely forensic: justification consists of a simple legal decree where God says to the sinner “you are righteous” and he says to Christ “you are sinful”, despite the fact that both of these declarations in no way correspond with the reality of the situation: Jesus is still inherently sinless and the sinner is still inherently totally depraved.

In this way, Protestants understand that those who are justified are intrinsically sinful, as they are still vile, totally depraved sinners, and yet they are externally righteous, because they are clothed with the righteousness of Christ, and this is what the Heavenly Father sees when he looks at them.

Intrinsically Righteous, Extrinsically Sinful

tumblr_mzt2ys1GdH1t5lrm6o1_400[1].gifCompare this with the Catholic understanding. In contrast to the forensic understanding of Justification in Protestantism, Catholics understand Justification to mean “to be made righteous”. That is, Justification means that the person in question has really and truly become righteous. However it is important to note that this righteousness is the righteousness of Christ. Rather than being “clothed” externally in Christ’s righteousness, Catholics believe that his righteousness is directly infused into the soul of the justified. A dual-ownership of the righteousness occurs in that both Christ, and the Justified person can point to the righteousness and say “that is mine”.

However despite being intrinsically righteous, the Justified person is still living in a fallen creation and as such they are subject to concupiscence and temptation from the flesh, the world, and the Devil. So even though they are intrinsically righteous, they are not impeccable: they are still able to sin. And sin they do. This sin does not detract from their intrinsic righteousness, however it does lead to their soul being damaged and mangled. Their sins externally cling to their soul, and must be burnt off (or “purified”) in purgatory before they are able to ascend to heaven. It is important for protestants to note that someone who is in purgatory is already justified, it is not a second chance at salvation and it is not salvation by works: it is simply the burning away of extrinsic sin that clings to a persons soul.

So Catholics understand that we are intrinsically righteous as the righteousness of Christ is poured into our souls, however we are also extrinsically sinful as the effect of our sins is to damage our soul as they cling to it.

In this way both Catholics and Protestants can affirm “Simul Iustus Et Peccator”, despite having fundamentally different ways of approaching the formula.

Further differences

rewarded-saint[1].jpgThe protestant understanding of Justification is black and white: Either you have been declared righteous or you haven’t. In comparison the Catholic understanding is more fluid: Someone can be “made righteous” to a higher degree than someone else. In the Catholic account, the righteousness of Christ is progressively poured into a soul more and more over that persons lifetime. However when they die the opportunity to grow in righteousness ceases. When the soul ascends to heaven, it receives a reward that is directly proportional to how much righteousness it had accrued during life. In this way there are different levels of reward in heaven, with Mary and Jesus receiving a maximal reward and people like Hitler (assuming he was saved) getting an extremely low reward.

In comparison, Protestants tend to get squeamish when talking about there being different levels of reward in heaven. The general sentiment among protestants is that we will all be infinitely happy and satisfied in heaven, and therefore talk of different rewards is useless.

Protestants sometimes complain that the Catholic account of justification is just salvation by works. This is of course a total misunderstanding. Catholics are saved completely and entirely by Grace (Ephesians 2:8-9), however our level of reward in heaven is determined by our level of righteousness during life, and this is in turn closely tied to the amount of good and loving works we performed while on earth. Works justify us in the sense that works increase our righteousness (James 2:24), and in that faith justifies us and faith and works are inseparable. However the fact that we are saved at all is entirely a matter of Grace, and according to the doctrine of synergism even our works are born of Grace (Ephesians 2:10).

There is a helpful axiom which can be employed to understand the Catholic view: “Every bad thing you do will be punished, and every good thing you do will be rewarded”. In other words: your level of justification leads to a corresponding level of reward in heaven, and the intensity of your “sinful dirtiness” will lead to a correspondingly intense purification in purgatory.

(Go to “Justification as Declaration”)

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.

Catholic versus Protestant Funerals – Aeviternal Apokatastasis: “Where can we find Assurance of Salvation for those whom we have loved and lost?”

Catholic and Protestant Funerals

russian-orthodox-funeral[1]

The Catholic funeral is very sober and sombre. Much ritual is directed towards petitioning God to allow the departed soul a peaceful journey to heaven. The threat of temporal punishment for unrepented sin looms menacingly over the proceedings. Everyone follows the priest as he leads the gathered mourners in ever-hopeful, but never presumptuous prayer. The eulogy given will surely attempt to be optimistic, however it will be firmly grounded in the life of the deceased; the level of hope that is spoken of will be proportioned more or less to how loving, kind and gentle the deceased had been to God and neighbour during their time on earth. The unspoken assumption hovering at the back of everyone’s minds is that the dearly departed had not been perfected in love at the moment when they died, but neither were they totally depraved and in a state of stubborn rebellion against God’s grace, and therefore it’s a pretty safe bet that they are in neither Heaven nor Hell: They are in Purgatory. Their journey is not complete; it has only just begun. Their suffering did not end with their last breath; they have stepped out of the frying pan and into the fire. They need all the help they can get, and so prayers and petitions for swift deliverance from their future fiery trials are offered up to God.

The Protestant funeral, at a superficial level, is also serious and subdued. However unlike the Catholic funeral, there is a distinct undercurrent of Christian Joy running beneath the sadness. There will be no struggle to stay optimistic in the eulogy this time; it is guaranteed to be a happy, victorious, comforting, evangelical, assuring proclamation of God’s abundant and overflowing mercy towards those who trust in him and his promise of salvation. The deceased was well known by friends and family to have had a strong faith in Christ, and this simple fact will overshadow any sins, character faults and spiritual imperfections that they may have carried with them to the grave. Everybody present knows that none of this believer’s sins could possibly thwart God’s relentless, irresistible Grace. This particular soul has certainly ascended straight into Heaven, where they are enjoying a full and wholesome relationship with each person of the Trinity. Mingled with the grief at the loss of this friend and family member will be prayers of praise and thanksgiving, as the gathered mourners reflect on the wonderful gift of salvation. Sentiments along the lines of “She’s gone to a better place” will be shared, and not at all superficially. If these protestants happen to believe in the communion of the saints, they may even find it appropriate to ask the recently deceased to make use of their newfound close proximity to God to pray and intercede for those left behind.

Notice the conflict: At the Catholic funeral, it is not certain at all where exactly the soul of the recently deceased has departed to. The presumption is that they have ended up in Purgatory, where they will undergo fiery torments and torturous purifications. As such, we should pray for them, and hope that God may have mercy on the poor soul on account of our prayers. Whereas at the Protestant funeral, everyone is extremely confident that the dearly departed is in blissful repose somewhere up in Heaven and is watching over the funeral proceedings with great interest at this very moment. In this case it is not appropriate that we should be praying for them: instead we should be asking them to pray for us!

Temporal and Eternal

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Our experience of life is a Temporal one: we experience time. We are able to point backwards to the past and look forwards to the future, but most importantly we experience single moments in sequence, and we can point to this constantly changing single moment as the present. The present moment is the only moment – or slice of time – that we have direct access to and in which we are able to affect reality.

Compare this to God’s Eternal experience: God is omniscient (that is, he possesses all possible and impossible knowledge), and so he experiences all moments in time – past, present, future – simultaneously. In fact for him, there is no such thing as past, present or future, there is simply an “eternal now” that encompasses all possible moments. All these moments are always immediately and directly present to him: he does not have to remember them, or imagine them, or retrieve them from storage and place them on the workbench. Incidentally, this also applies to all of God’s knowledge: God cannot learn or forget – he is immutable (that is, incapable of change) – and so all of God’s knowledge is ever present to him. This idea of a single moment which perfectly and simultaneously encompasses moments is called Eternity. There is no time – past, present or future – in Eternity, to be eternal is to be immutable.

A person can experience one of two broad states: Life and Afterlife. Life is a temporal existence. But what about Afterlife? It is commonly accepted that time pertains to life, and that there is no time after death. However the existence of Purgatory indicates that despite a lack of time change is still possible in the afterlife. This “not quite temporal, not quite eternal” existence is called Aeviternity. To get a grasp on the idea, it is helpful to examine the tradition of the church with regards to indulgences.

Indulgences and Aeviternity

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Historically indulgences would be quantified by some amount of time. For example saying a certain pious prayer might reduce your time in Purgatory by “40 days”, or completing a certain pilgrimage might reduce your time in Purgatory by “10 years”.  Some of the indulgences became quite extravagant, with time reductions stretching up into the hundreds and thousands of years. Since Vatican II, the church has refrained from putting hard numbers on indulgences and instead offer Plenary and Partial indulgences. A Partial indulgence reduces the time a soul must spend in Purgatory, while a Plenary indulgence completely removes the need for a soul to experience Purgatory at all.

It is interesting to compare the pre and post Vatican II practices. Both of them are valid approaches to indulgences: despite how ridiculous it might seem to some, an indulgence which reduces your time in Purgatory by “5000 years” is entirely valid and in an important sense does exactly what it says. Subjectively Aeviternity is experienced as something analogous to time but which seems to be everlasting, which is to say it is experienced as an “infinite” stretch of time. Considering this, an indulgence which takes fifty thousand years off an infinite stretch of time isn’t even a drop in the ocean, nevertheless it is still worth fighting for because escaping Purgatory involves engaging your will by actively repenting until you are perfectly clean of sin; it is always better to strive towards this goal than not, as it is in no way an unachievable goal. The gift of a Plenary indulgence suddenly becomes clear too: you aren’t reducing your time in purgatory by a set number of days, months or years; you are wiping away the entire punishment!

So there is something akin to time and temporality in Purgatory: This is what happens when we try to map our temporal existence onto an experience of Aeviternity. There is something analogous to time in Purgatory, because there is change and progress. However the important thing to note is that whatever this time analog may be, it is not actually time. Aeviternity is just as timeless as is Eternity proper. So just as it is possible to experience Eternity as an “Eternal now”, with all moments directly and simultaneously accessible, so it is also possible with Aeviternity.

So how are we – as temporal creatures – supposed to approach those in the afterlife, who are experiencing an Aeviternal existence? How are we supposed to map our temporal experience to the Aeviternal reality of the beyond?

The link between Temporality and Aeviternity

The fact that we are temporal creatures during life in no way changes the fact that the afterlife is always and everywhere Aeviternal. In other words, the afterlife is always spiritually accessible as an “Eternal now” to us who still walk the earth: in our prayers we have access to every single moment in that one Aeviternal moment simultaneously. One second we can pray as if someone was halfway through their purgatorial journey, asking God to give them strength and resilience and help them to repent of whatever sins are still clinging to their soul; The next second we can pray and praise God as if that same person had just completed their purification and been admitted into heaven; And the second right after that we can pray as if that very same person had only just died and arrived on the doorstep of Purgatory, with a long and arduous mission of repentance ahead of them, involving much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

All of these moments are directly accessible to us temporal creatures: all of them are always and everywhere simultaneously connected to the present moment in which we live. In this way, it is paradoxically appropriate to praise God that someone is in Heaven while simultaneously petitioning him to help them on their way while they are in Purgatory. To us here on earth the fact that someone is in Heaven and that same someone is in Purgatory are simultaneous realities, because they are both Aeviternal moments

Understanding this, suddenly both the Protestant and the Catholic funerals make perfect sense: The Protestants are focusing on the “final” moment in the Aeviternity in which the soul has completed it’s purification in Purgatory and is being admitted into Heaven and immutable eternity proper, which is a wonderful, glorious, joyful event. On the other hand the Catholics are focusing on the “first” moment in the Aeviternity, which is very solemn and serious as the soul has just entered Purgatory and will have to undergo severe, painful, and what may even be experienced as everlasting purifications. Both these first and final moments in the “eternal now” of Aeviternity are completely valid moments to focus on at a funeral. Even more interestingly, this means that it is both appropriate to pray for a soul in purgatory, but also to simultaneously ask that soul to pray for you on the assumption that they are a Saint in Heaven.

What does Scripture say?

1 Corinthians 15:51-52

51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

2 Peter 3:8

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.

Protestants often refer to the 1 Corinthians passage to justify their disbelief in purgatory. They make a big fuss of the phrase “we will all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye“. They will say that this passage proves that afterlife sanctification is instantaneous and does not require the purgatorial process that Catholics insist upon. If we must take this passage as a reference to post-death sanctification rather than the parousia and resurrection, it in no way conflicts with the idea of Purgatory. It is simply honing in on the “eternal now” aspect of Aeviternity. It is true that Aeviternity is a process of change, however this process of change occurs “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye” from our perspective here on earth. From our temporal perspective, the process of Purgatory is only just starting, but it is simultaneously already complete. It is the “eternal now”: everything present “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye”

The 2 Peter passage is also good for illustrating what an “eternal now” is like. Time expands and contracts in the strangest ways: a day lasts for eternity but at the same time a thousand years can be over faster than you have time to blink. This helps to shed some light on what it’s like to experience “time” in Purgatory: Aeviternity is simultaneously “everlasting” and “instantaneous”. It is correct to think that our purification will be complete in the twinkling of an eye, but it is also simultaneously correct to think that it will involve a long long process of afterlife repentance and suffering

Funerals Revisited

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Consider again the Catholic funeral. This time the poor soul in question was a suicide. Moreover he had a terrible record of sinful indulgence. He was a rapist, a murderer, a terrorist. He died with blasphemies on his lips. It’s a great wonder that he has even been granted a Catholic funeral at all. The people gathered at this funeral – if there are any – would be fighting hard to muster dredges of hope for this dead maniac. They hope for purgatory at best, but really; all signs point to Hell. There is a mood of doom and gloom left behind in the wake of the deceased. People hesitate to pray for him, because it is almost a foregone conclusion that he has descended to Hell – from which there is no escape – and so prayers would be pointless. There is minimal hope that he has made it to the Aevum, most are resigned to the idea that he is suffering unspeakable, everlasting, eternal tortures in Hell. Some of his victims may even take some comfort in believing that this is the case.

Consider again the Protestant funeral. This time it is the apostate son of the local Pastor. Died during a drug overdose. He grew up knowing the truth, and then rejected it. Read this crushing word from Hebrews 6:

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

“It is impossible” for him, haven fallen away “to be brought back to repentance”. Everyone at the funeral knows full well that this boy has abandoned the faith, to the perpetual disappointment and shame of his faithful and ministering mother and father. This is a prodigal son who never returned home; one who died in his sins, in a state of rebellion and spiritual poverty. The people gathered to mourn his passing may grasp at straws for some sort of hope. Some of them might be of the “Once saved always saved” persuasion. But undoubtedly everyone will be disheartened and discouraged by his being completely devoid of any evidence of saving faith, implicit or explicit at the point of his death. Deep down, everyone knows that he’s in Hell. Sure, during the eulogy his father may throw out some platitudes about God’s will being mysterious and how we can only trust in his mercy, but he’s had too good of a Calvinist theological training to honestly believe what he’s saying.

In both the funerals, despair is sovereign. There is no confident, hopeful assurance of salvation in either case. But why should this be so? Doesn’t it seem that the people are focusing on the sinners individual actions and life far more than on God’s Grace and mercy? They are making salvation depend on the response of the sinner. But the scriptures are emphatic that salvation is by Grace: God saves us, we don’t save ourselves. Surely these despairing responses reflect a failure to trust in God’s promise to save us? We forget that where sin abounds, Grace abounds all the more. These people’s sins should not cause us to consider them “eternally lost” and consign them to Hell. We should be ever rejoicing in the unconditional gift of salvation. God will leave the 99 sheep to find the 1 who is lost and bring it back to the flock. We should be able to stand at anyone’s funeral and confidently proclaim their entrance into Heaven, regardless of how they lived or died. We should also be able to attend anyone’s funeral and offer up prayers of petition that they be helped on their journey through the tortures of Purgatory towards Heaven. We should be able to go to any funeral and pray as if they have entered into Aeviternity. Never be distracted by the life and works of the sinner who stands under judgement. Heaven should always be assumed, never Hell. Strong hope and abundant Joy should always be experienced at every funeral, not despair and crippling depression. Always focus on the victory of Christ, the promise of the Spirit, and the Grace, Mercy and Love of the Father.

Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?

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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

A Christian Speaks In Defence of Hinduism

I was googling for a definition of “Kenotic theology” when I stumbled across this blog maintained by a Southern Baptist Pastor called James Attebury. As I browsed his articles, I landed on this one titled “Why I am not a Hindu”. It was interesting, and I can’t resist posting a response. I should be straight up and say that while I identify as both Christian and Hindu and regularly attend my local temple, I am a neophyte and not an expert in Hindu theology. However I know enough about Advaita Vedanta and other schools of Indian thought that I feel equipped to make a response.

Response to the Objections

1. Hinduism is scientifically impossible because it teaches that the universe never had a beginning because it is divine.

The Upanishads teach that God is the whole world (pantheism):

“Brahman, indeed, is this immortal. Brahman before, Brahman behind, to right and left. Stretched forth below and above, Brahman, indeed, is this whole world” (Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.11).

“Thou art the dark-blue bird and the green parrot with red eyes, Thou hast the lightning as thy child. Thou art the seasons and the seas. Having no beginning, thou dost abide with all-pervadingness, wherefrom all beings are born” (Svetasvatara Upanishad 4.2.4).

Since “Brahman, indeed, is this whole world” and he has “no beginning,” therefore, the world must have no beginning.

But this goes against everything that we know about the universe from science. While many atheists try to defend an eternal universe because they don’t want to believe in God, their arguments have insurmountable problems.

A couple of things come to mind. Firstly, citing “science” as an authority comes across as incredibly simple-minded and vague. Whenever someone says “Science says xyz” it comes across to me in exactly the same way as when fundamentalist evangelicals say “The bible says xyz” or fundamentalist Catholics claim “The Church teaches xyz”. Usually in these cases, science does not say xyz, and neither does the bible or the church.

Secondly, if we take “Science” to mean “empirical investigation of reality” and “theories grounded in consistent results derived from repeated experiments”, then science suffers from the problem of induction. For those who are unfamiliar with this problem, here is an illustration: We tend to observe, day after day, the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening. This consistent pattern gives us the confidence to be sure that the sun will continue to behave in this way. We try to predict the future behaviour of things by examining how they have behaved in the past. However there’s one catch: we do not have absolute certainty that just because something behaved a certain way in the past, it will continue to behave that way in the future. It is entirely conceivable that one day the sun will simply stop rising and setting.

Hopefully this sheds light on why James’ objection is unfounded. Just because today “science” teaches that all things begun at the big bang, does not mean that it will continue to teach this tomorrow. In any case, there is nothing in the quotes he provides from the Upanishads that actually contradicts the current scientific consensus. He is just insisting on interpreting it with a hermeneutic of disagreement, rather than a hermeneutic of charity and openness. He seems to be seizing on certain words in the translation and using these to justify his rejection of something which he doesn’t truly understand.

2. Hinduism teaches that the universe is an illusion or maya:

“This whole world the illusion maker projects out of this [Brahman]. And in it by illusion the other is confined. Now, one should know that Nature is illusion, and that the Mighty Lord is the illusion maker” (Svetasvatara Upanishad 4.9-10).

But if this world is an illusion, then that would make scientific inquiry impossible. We would be unable to trust our own senses or believe anything at all. Yet Hindus use science all the time and act as if their senses are trustworthy. In this sense, Hinduism suffers from many of the same problems as Christian Science which teaches that death is just an illusion.

The notion that maya makes scientific enquiry impossible is a false implication. As James himself states, “Hindus use science all the time and act as if their senses are trustworthy”; surely this would clue him in to the fact that he’s missing something and doesn’t properly understand that which he is criticising.

Furthermore, he’s got the maya doctrine all wrong. Maya claims that the descriptions of events in the Hindu Scriptures are “more real” than the mundane reality we perceive day to day. The colour and beauty described in the Indian Scriptures is not often seen and manifested in day to day life. The doctrine of Maya claims that these poetic descriptions are “more real” than the reality we currently inhabit. The doctrine of Maya does not claim that everything is just an illusion. Our reality is still real, just less so than the “true” reality which is hiding behind all things.

3. Hinduism offers no means for atonement in this life or assurance of salvation.

There is no forgiveness in Hinduism, only reincarnation into a lower caste of people to pay off the sins from our previous life. The caste system is inherently racist and forbids marriage between the castes. It condemns people to a life of poverty and is cruel to the poor. It justifies the attitude that poor people are getting what they deserve so there is no incentive to help those who are poor and suffering.

This criticism of Hinduism is inaccurate, and flows from a culturally imperialistic attitude towards other faiths and cultures. Unlike Christianity, Hinduism does not see the world primarily in terms of sin, guilt, forgiveness and retribution. These categories are relevant to Hinduism, but Hindus and Buddhists see the world through the lens of samsara: the cycle of birth and rebirth that carries on for all eternity. The primary problem to be solved according to Hinduism is not guilt and sin, but instead eternal suffering. Salvation is called moksha and is conceived of as an escape from this eternal cycle of suffering into a state of permanent and everlasting bliss. According to certain schools of Hinduism, there is indeed an assurance of achieving Moksha. According to other schools there is no such assurance. This is similar to the divide between Catholic and Protestant Christianity on the issue of assurance. (Perhaps James is the sort of person who would not acknowledge that Catholics are also fellow believers worthy of the title “Christian”. He’ll have to let us know in the comments)

I am however happy for now to agree with his criticism of the caste system. But my agreement is provisional, as I don’t actually know enough about it to accurately pass judgement.

4. Hinduism is filled with pagan religious practices which demonstrate its human origin.

I remember a great illustration from my Biblical Counseling class with Paul David Tripp where he told a story about how he visited India once and entered into a Hindu temple where the people were bowing down before statues of male and female private parts. He was so revolted by what he saw that he ran out of the temple as quickly as he could. Then he realized the disgust he felt is how God sees his sin.

Hindus still do this today as you can see from this sad video. Some Hindus even worship rats and other animals as Paul warned against in Romans 1:22-23. Historically, Hindus practiced sati where widows were burned alive with the bodies of their husbands. It was only because of the work of Christians in India who raised awareness about this evil practice that resulted in it being banned.

The attitude that “Pagan = bad. Bible = good” really irks me. Non-Christian philosophies, theologians, religions and traditions have so much to offer us; so much beauty and richness of thought. Rather than having a knee jerk reaction to practices such as those performed by the Hindus, we should seek to understand why they do what they do, and then try and replicate that in our own traditions. We should strive for unity and ecumenism with those who are different from us, rather than further division, schism and disunity. It is important to acknowledge our differences, but rather than allowing those differences to serve as a wall that divides us, we should treat them as the beautiful manifestations of God that they are, and then come together in love, charity, dialogue and understanding.

I think James’ analysis of what the Hindus are actually up to is not 100% accurate. Hindus don’t worship rats, they worship Brahman; the supreme godhead. However just as Christians worship God through Christ, (and Catholics through the Eucharist), so too Hindus worship God through many and various mundane intermediary objects. It might look like idolatry, but it’s not.

5. Hinduism is not a faith grounded in real historical events.

There is no corroborating evidence for Hinduism outside of its sacred texts. In contrast, Christianity is rooted in the historical events of the Bible, a book grounded in history. And there are good answers for those who object to the historical reliability of the Bible.

I personally know many Hindus who would dispute this point. I have no dog in the fight either way, but I would tend towards agreeing with my Hindu mates rather than James here. The bible is a beautiful mixture of mythology and history, and sometimes it’s hard to separate the factual core of the stories from the surrounding poetic embellishment (The Genesis creation stories are notorious for this. I’d be curious to see if James holds to a strictly literal interpretation). It is exactly the same with Hinduism. There is definitely a historical core to many of the Hindu tales, but it’s tricky to work out what is fact and what is embellishment.

6. The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus from the Bible, fulfilled prophecy, and history is overwhelming.

I have already written about the evidence for the resurrection of Christ in this article.

7. The Bible is filled with incredible prophecies which confirm its truthfulness.

While there are many prophecies in the Bible about the kingdoms of this world and the coming of Jesus, the most incredible one is the messianic prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27 which gives us the exact date when the Messiah would die.

I don’t actually disagree with these two points at all. The evidence for the resurrection is vast and astonishing. However it is somewhat odd that James includes this in a blog post aimed at criticising Hinduism. Isn’t it completely irrelevant to the argument? I imagine his thought process is something along the lines of “If Christianity is true, then everything else must be wrong”, but of course, that simply does not follow in any way. Both Christianity and Hinduism can be 100% true and compatible, but the only way we are going to see that is if we approach each of them in a spirit of charity and ecumenism, with a willingness to listen and entertain foreign ideas and world-views.

I will register one small reservation about point 7. Just because a book accurately predicts future events, does not automatically prove that every single other thing that it reports is correct and truthful. I don’t mean this as an attack on the bible, as I myself am happy to affirm that it is 100% true (with qualifications). I simply mean to point out that it is fallacious to claim that a couple of prophecies that were fulfilled in a book prove the entire book 100% inerrant and infallible. The biblical prophecies also tend to be incredibly vague and open to interpretation; it is rather telling that James is willing to entertain these non-specific prophecies whilst nonchalantly rejecting anything that the Hindu scriptures have to say without giving them any further thought.

Conclusion

I don’t mean this post as an attack on James. I’m sure he’s a lovely guy and his congregation is blessed to have him as a pastor. But I think his rejection of Hinduism is incredibly rash and ill-informed, if the reasons he reports in his post are to be believed. Hinduism is a beautiful and colourful family of traditions, and Christians would do well to seek out and meet Hindus, and perform interfaith exchanges with them. We have so much to share with each other and teach each other, so let us come together and edify each other, rather than bashing each other over the head with holy books and demanding that we renounce one faith for another. As the classic meme goes: “Why can’t we have both?”

 

 

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.