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)

The Eternal Son: Review

Summary and Commentary

Weinandy opens his discussion of the second person of the Trinity with an analysis of some relevant moments in the Nicene creed. He draws particular attention to the innovative theological term made famous at the council: “homoousion.” This word is meant to convey that both the Father Almighty and his Son our Lord Jesus Christ are fully divine, each individually being “the one God,” while also remaining distinct from each other. This is a fundamental doctrine and mystery of Christianity, there are no easy explanations for it and it is difficult to gain an intuition for it’s coherence and logical consistency.

Weinandy points out that the names “Father” and “Son” are the correct and superior way of referring to the two persons, rather than, say, “Creator” and “Redeemer.” He notes that the creed says “for us men and for our salvation Christ came down and became incarnate,” and he thus draws attention to the fact that there is an intimate link between christology and soteriology.

Weinandy mentions that the Father is only the Father in relation to the Son and that the Son is only the Son in relation to the Father. I sympathise with the thrust of this argument, but I think that when considered at face value this particular way of articulating the theology leads to a sort of Binitarianism” because the Spirit is not mentioned and it is therefore fair to conclude that the Spirit is either subordinate to the Son and Father, or completely irrelevant. I suspect it would be more accurate to articulate the point with reference to the Spirit included, for example “The Father is only the Father in relation to the Son and the Spirit.” In the following discussion Weinandy does however bring in the spirit in as an essential factor in his outline of Trinitarian theology.

Weinandy introduces a curious theological term as a sort of complement to the filioque: Spirituque. He doesn’t develop the idea very deeply, but I think it holds promise and potential. The idea seems to be that just as the Spirit is said to proceed from the Father and the Son, perhaps it is also accurate to say that the Son proceeds from the Father and the Spirit. This would be an interesting area for further research, and no doubt would take into account the different senses of “procession,” especially with reference to the underlying Greek and Latin technical terminology.1

Weinandy touches on the Augustinian idea of the Spirit as the “bond of love” between Father and Son. The idea is that the Father is the subject, the Spirit is the (ditransitive) verb, and the Son is the object. Or to put it in a formula The Father loves/begets the Son and the Spirit is the act of loving/begetting. The Son also returns the love to the Father, which makes the “grammar” of the Trinity more interesting, but Weinandy does not touch deeply on this linguistic dimension in his article.

Weinandy heavily underlines the idea that the Son is referred to as “Word” because he exhaustively expresses the full truth about who the Father is. The Son is perfect the image of the Father, while individual humans are images of the Son.

Weinandy then draws attention to Aquinas’ opinion that the image of God in man is restricted to the human intellect. Weinandy disagrees: To be created in the image and likeness of God is to be created in the image and likeness of the Son. It is not merely the human intellect and soul that images God, but rather “the whole human being.” Weinandy notes how Aquinas argues that any of the three divine persons could have potentially incarnated, but that it was most fitting and “right and proper” for only the Son to incarnate. My comment on this theme would be as follows: The question of “Could the Father possibly have incarnated” is deeper than we might at first think. In one sense, God is completely unconstrained, totally and fully free from any necessity or coercion, and he can therefore do anything and nothing can prevent him from doing what he desires.2 But from another angle, God is who he is. God is pure actuality and has no potency, therefore who he actually is in this reality exhausts all possibilities and does not allow for alternatives: there are no other possibilities or potentials for who and how God is: God simply is as he is and he couldn’t be otherwise. When approaching the question of “could the Father have incarnated” from this angle, it is clear that in fact only the Son actually incarnated, and therefore it is more or less meaningless to speak of the other divine persons incarnating, actually or potentially. The fact that only the Son is incarnate is simply how it is and because God has no potential then it couldn’t be otherwise.3

When Weinandy meditates on these themes, his essential conviction seems to be that it had to be the Son who became man, because the entire Christian ordo salutis depends on it being this way. The explanation he offers is that the Son is the image of the father, and we are saved as humans by being brought into conformity with that image.

Weinandy moves on to consider the mechanisms and inner workings of the salvific work of Christ: Jesus interacts with us and saves us as man but the entire time he does this he remains as the second – divine – person of the trinity; Jesus is always the divine Son of the Father.4 So it was and is the divine person of the Son of God who offered and continues to offer the sacrifice which infallibly and efficaciously achieves universal salvation, but the divine Son does this as man. Weinandy sums up this obedience and recapitulation theology succinctly: “The Son humanly achieved humankind’s salvation.

Weinandy finishes by talking about how human beings appropriate the saving work of Jesus and become recreated in his divine image. Curiously, he doesn’t outline any ordo salutis or propose an answer to the question “what must man do to be saved?” Rather, Weinandy outlines a very christo-centric narrative account of what Christ, the Spirit and the Father have already achieved on our behalf, as well as how the Trinity incorporates us into the divine life.

Concluding comment

Most of my comments are mingled in with the summary, but I would just like to take this opportunity to raise an objection to one particular claim of Weinandy. He suggests that Christ assumed a fallen human nature. I just want to flag that my reading of St. Maximus the Confessor’s Neo-Chalcedonean Christology would seem to indicate that this is inaccurate. In brief, according to Maximus there is no ontological difference between a fallen and unfallen human nature: Both are simply one and the same human nature, however existing in different states. The difference is that a fallen nature is one that is enslaved to passions, sin, ignorance and so on, whereas an unfallen nature is exactly the same, but without suffering these negative and evil limitations. Finally, there is a divinized human nature, which is a human nature for which there is indeed an ontological distinction in that it enjoys a “communication of idioms/attributes” with the divine nature. My understanding of Maximus’s Christology is that Christ was born with an unfallen human nature, and then by his recapitulatory life of perfect sinless obedience, he managed to undergo theosis and divinize the human nature. I offer all of this without references and the disclaimer that I may be wrong in my understanding of Maximus, but look forward to investigating further in the future.

1I am here thinking particularly of “ekpouresis” and “poeinei”

2Therefore universal salvation is true. QED.

3The key thing to remember is that this is in no way a limitation on God. It is simply how God has chosen to be, and because God is pure actuality, it doesn’t make sense to speculate about God being “some other way” than he is.

4While the common sense claim “Jesus is/was a human person” is obviously orthodox, Weinandy’s reflections here point to the deeper reality that Jesus is first and foremost (and always) a divine person. He saves us through his humanity, and it is fair to say that Jesus is a human person, but he is essentially (and according to some, “only”) a divine person, not a human one.

The Joyful Mystery of the Annunciation

Text: Luke 1:26-381

The original Greek according to the SBL critical text:

Ἐν δὲ τῷ μηνὶ τῷ ἕκτῳ ἀπεστάλη ὁ ἄγγελος Γαβριὴλ ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ εἰς πόλιν τῆς Γαλιλαίας ᾗ ὄνομα Ναζαρὲθ πρὸς παρθένον ἐμνηστευμένην ἀνδρὶ ᾧ ὄνομα Ἰωσὴφ ἐξ οἴκου Δαυὶδ, καὶ τὸ ὄνομα τῆς παρθένου Μαριάμ. καὶ εἰσελθὼν πρὸς αὐτὴν εἶπεν· Χαῖρε, κεχαριτωμένη, ὁ κύριος μετὰ σοῦ. ἡ δὲ ἐπὶ τῷ λόγῳ διεταράχθη καὶ διελογίζετο ποταπὸς εἴη ὁ ἀσπασμὸς οὗτος. καὶ εἶπεν ὁ ἄγγελος αὐτῇ· Μὴ φοβοῦ, Μαριάμ, εὗρες γὰρ χάριν παρὰ τῷ θεῷ· καὶ ἰδοὺ συλλήμψῃ ἐν γαστρὶ καὶ τέξῃ υἱόν, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν. οὗτος ἔσται μέγας καὶ υἱὸς Ὑψίστου κληθήσεται, καὶ δώσει αὐτῷ κύριος ὁ θεὸς τὸν θρόνον Δαυὶδ τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτοῦ, καὶ βασιλεύσει ἐπὶ τὸν οἶκον Ἰακὼβ εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας, καὶ τῆς βασιλείας αὐτοῦ οὐκ ἔσται τέλος. εἶπεν δὲ Μαριὰμ πρὸς τὸν ἄγγελον· Πῶς ἔσται τοῦτο, ἐπεὶ ἄνδρα οὐ γινώσκω; καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ ἄγγελος εἶπεν αὐτῇ· Πνεῦμα ἅγιον ἐπελεύσεται ἐπὶ σέ, καὶ δύναμις Ὑψίστου ἐπισκιάσει σοι· διὸ καὶ τὸ γεννώμενον ἅγιον κληθήσεται, υἱὸς θεοῦ· καὶ ἰδοὺ Ἐλισάβετ ἡ συγγενίς σου καὶ αὐτὴ συνείληφεν υἱὸν ἐν γήρει αὐτῆς, καὶ οὗτος μὴν ἕκτος ἐστὶν αὐτῇ τῇ καλουμένῃ στείρᾳ· ὅτι οὐκ ἀδυνατήσει παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ πᾶν ῥῆμα. εἶπεν δὲ Μαριάμ· Ἰδοὺ ἡ δούλη κυρίου· γένοιτό μοι κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμά σου. καὶ ἀπῆλθεν ἀπ’ αὐτῆς ὁ ἄγγελος.2

English translation of the Greek:

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee whose name was Nazareth, To a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And going in to her he said, “Hail, favoured one, the Lord is with you.” And she was greatly distressed at his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And see: You will conceive in your womb and will bear a son, and you shall declare his name to be Jesus. This man will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, And he will reign over the house of Jacob throughout the ages, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, as I have intimacy with no man?” And in reply the angel told her, “A Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; hence the offspring will be called holy also, a Son of God. And look at your kinswoman Elizabeth: She also conceived a son, in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who had been called barren; Because nothing, of all the things I have said, is impossible with God.” And Mary said, “See: the slave of the Lord; may it happen to me as you have said.” And the angel departed from her.3

Exegesis

Canonical Context

The Annunciation episode chronologically is the second “annunciation” in Luke’s Gospel. Occurring immediately prior (1:5-25) is an account of the angel Gabriel announcing the birth of John the Baptist to John’s father Zechariah. The fact that there are two annunciations one right after the other is important. In the first episode, Zechariah responds to the annunciation with disbelief, doubt, scepticism and incredulity,4 and the consequences are negative.5 This contrasts directly with Mary’s response to her annunciation, where she expresses confusion,6 yet total fidelity.7The parallelism is thus a narrative contrast between a correct response (trust) and an incorrect response (scepticism) to God’s promises.

The Annunciation episode is followed by Mary’s famous Magnificat,8 which is a crucial text in the liturgical life of the church, recited in the Divine Office every time Vespers is prayed.

There is a shorter account of the annunciation to be found in Matthews Gospel (1:18-23). In this version the angel is not identified by name (and so may or may not be Gabriel), and delivers the message to Joseph rather than Mary. The content of the message is similar in this version (ie, Mary has conceived by the Holy Spirit and is therefore still a virgin), however it occurs in the context of Joseph preparing to quietly back out of his betrothal on the assumption that Mary has been unfaithful; The annunciation in Matthew therefore has the purpose of reassuring Joseph and encouraging him to stay committed to Mary.

Characters

  • The Angel Gabriel

  • Joseph, husband of Mary

  • Mary, “highly favoured one.” The Holy Virgin and Mother of God.

  • Jesus, “The son of the most high”, “The Son of God”

  • David, Famous King of Israel.

  • Jacob: The Patriarch of Israel. Israel is sometimes called “The house of Jacob”

  • Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity.

  • Elizabeth, friend of Mary, Mother of John the Baptist.

  • God the Father, sends Gabriel to announce Jesus’ conception. Sends the Holy Spirit to actually do the conceiving.

Text and Images

There is not much “imagery” in this passage, but there is lots of interesting terminology. For example:

A Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.

In this phrase, David Bentley Hart translates “Πνεῦμα ἅγιον” literally as it appears in the underlying Greek, ie, without an article. This is controversial as it goes against Christian Tradition which identifies this spirit as The Holy Spirit, not some other, indeterminate holy spirit. Hart is consistent with his omissions of articles and follows the Greek text scrupulously (and controversially). Another important example is:

The offspring will be called holy also, a Son of God

See how Hart renders “υἱὸς θεοῦ” as A Son of God, rather than The Son of God, as in almost every other translation; purely on a grammatical level this is correct, but more traditionally minded Christians will most likely take issue with such a translation.

Much theological controversy revolves around the word “κεχαριτωμένη.” In Catholic translations (such as the RSVCE) this is translated as it is found in Catholic Liturgy and Popular piety: “Full of Grace.” This is more in line with the Latin Vulgate biblical textual tradition, which renders the Angel’s greeting as “Ave gratia plena.” In more evangelically-leaning translations (as well as Hart’s translation) the word is rendered in line with the Greek as “Highly Favoured one.” Theological arguments have sometimes been made for and against Mary’s sinlessness and perpetual virginity purely on the basis of this single word.

Towards the end of this passage is Mary’s famous Fiat: “Ἰδοὺ ἡ δούλη κυρίου· γένοιτό μοι κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμά σου.” The RSVCE translates this according to the popular English tradition: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Compare with the Latin: “Ecce ancilla Domini: fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.”9

Structural Issues

The pericope is structured according to the following divisions:

v. 26,27Establishes context; Mary, Joseph and the Angel introduced as main characters. Joseph’s royal lineage (house of David) is noted, and Mary is pointedly and repeatedly referred to as “the virgin.” Angel speaks to Mary.
v. 28, 29 Gabriel greets Mary and calls her “κεχαριτωμένη,” Mary is confused by this form of address
v. 30Gabriel reassures Mary and explains the greeting
v. 31-33Gabriel announces that Mary will miraculously conceive a son and tells her what to name him (Jesus). Gabriel prophesies that Jesus will be a king and rule over an everlasting kingdom.
v. 34Mary expresses confusion to Gabriel about how this miracle could be possible (it seems that having children is not something Mary was expecting; the exact reason for this is debated amongst theologians)
v. 35Gabriel gives a (somewhat cryptic) explanation for how Mary will come to conceive (“The Holy Spirit will come upon you”), and then (arguably) prophesies that Jesus will be divine (“the Son of God”).
v. 36, 37Gabriel also prophesies the birth of John the Baptist, and delivers the important theological dogma “With God, nothing is impossible.”
v. 38Mary delivers her famous fiat, where she faithfully consents to these prophesies of Gabriel, and then Gabriel departs.

Literary Forms

All of the gospels – including Luke – are in the “Religious biography” genre, similar to the Hadith in Islam, and the sayings of and stories about the Buddha in the Pali canon. This particular pericope is part of the infancy narrative sub-genre.10 The main purpose of this genre is to simply to relay stories about Jesus during his youth, however there is often profound theological depth to be extracted from the straightforward surface of the tales and this pericope is no exception. In this particular passage the subject matter is Christ’s conception.

Historical Content

The pericope takes place in “a city of Galilee named Nazareth.” At this point, Palestine had been in shambles for quite some time, being successively conquered and ruled over by various foreign powers, the most current (at the time) being the Romans. Levitical temple sacrifices were once again taking place after a long period of interruption, and the Jewish community was doing its’ best to stay true to its heritage, mission and tradition. However the situation was very tenuous, with many different factions competing for influence, power and control. Importantly, there was much anticipation among Jews of the day that the many Messianic prophecies of the old testament were soon to come true. As it turns out, some of the most important of these prophecies are fulfilled in this very pericope: The annunciation that Mary will miraculously conceive a child just is the annunciation that the Messiah is imminently about to arrive. Understanding this historical context is important for understanding the significance and impact of the pericope: this is not merely a tale about an angel telling a woman that she is going to miraculously conceive a child; instead, it is an account of the very moment when God announces through Gabriel that all of Israel’s Messianic yearnings are about to come true in the baby Jesus. What begun as a private revelation to Mary is here immortalised in scripture as a message to all of Israel that their Messiah has arrived.

The fact that Mary is confused and startled by the announcement that she will have a child hints at an important fact concerning her social situation. Mary was betrothed to Joseph: Under normal circumstances, a betrothal would conclude in a wedding, a marriage, children and family life. Therefore Gabriel’s announcement that Mary is going to conceive should not have caused Mary so much confusion. The fact that it did indicates that Mary was not expecting to have children. There is debate as to exactly why this might be,11 but the standard (and compelling) Catholic apologetic is that Mary had taken a vow of perpetual virginity and so her marriage to Joseph was not planned to include sexual intercourse and children.12

Traditional Interpretations

There are so many profound reflections of the fathers on this pericope, and it is impossible to discuss all of their insights here (on account of the word count for this assignment). However, look what Augustine has to say:

[Gabriel was sent to announce] to a virgin, for Christ could be born from virginity alone, seeing He could not have an equal in His birth. It was necessary for our Head by this mighty miracle to be born according to the flesh of a virgin’ that He might signify that his members were to be born in the spirit of a virgin Church.

To fully understand Augustine here requires a deep, familiar, and intimate knowledge of his theology of anthropology, virginity and sexuality. In any case, the fact that Christ was born of a virgin holds extreme theological significance for Augustine:13 See how he describes the virgin birth as “necessary.” It is informative to pair this with some commentary from Saint Jerome:

And rightly an angel is sent to the virgin, because the virgin state is ever akin to that of angels. Surely in the flesh to live beyond the flesh is not a life on earth but in heaven.

Jerome seems to indicate that Mary was living in a heavenly or eschatological manner, and it was fitting that Christ be born by means of someone living this sort of “perfect,” or “beyond the flesh” life.

Saint Ambrose has the following provocative reflection:

But what could be imputed to the Jews, or to Herod, if they should seen to have persecuted an adulterous offspring?

Ambrose seems to indicate that if Mary had not been a virgin, and had instead engaged in unethical, unlawful, unloving intercourse and conceived thereby; in this case the Jews and Herod would be justified in persecuting Christ. There is deep anthropology and theology of the body at play here.

Saint Jerome has the following to say about vs 28-29:

And it is well said, Full of grace, for to others, grace comes in part; into Mary at once the fullness of grace wholly infused itself. She truly is full of grace through whom has been poured forth upon every creature the abundant rain of the Holy Spirit.

This is a fascinating reflection, relevant to the notion of Mary as “Mediatrix of all graces.” Jerome here indicates that Mary possesses the “fullness” of grace infused into her, and “through” her grace is poured fourth upon “every creature.” Jerome immediately follows this with:

But already He was with the Virgin Who sent the angel to the Virgin. The Lord preceded His messenger, for He could not be confined by place Who dwells in all places. Whence it follows, The Lord is with you.

This is an interesting reflection. It’s not that God came to Mary and filled her with grace at the moment of the annunciation. It’s that she was always full of grace and God was always with her.

Origen has this to say about the greeting:

For if Mary had known that similar words had been addressed to others, such a salutation would never have appeared to her so strange and alarming.

A question that comes to mind here for me is whether or not similar words have indeed been addressed to others. Clearly the salutation is unique and strange and uncommon, but perhaps there have been many husbands who have made similar declarations of love and devotion to their wives throughout history? Perhaps such husbands insist on seeing their wives as perfect and full of grace, just as Mary was perfect, even in the face of contradictory evidence? Perhaps “full of grace” is in fact how all men should perceive their wives? Perhaps such a startling address is the recipe for a happy marriage?

Saint Chrysostom relates the following startling reflection:

By the word behold, he denotes rapidity and actual presence, implying that with the utterance of the word the conception is accomplished.

This is interesting as Chrysostom indicates here that the very annunciation itself is the very moment that Christ is conceived in Mary’s immaculate womb. There is much space for theological reflection here on how the utterance of the word effects that which it announces; is it not similar with the kerygmatic gospel proclamation? When Jesus – by means of the preacher or a minister of a sacrament – declares the sinner to be elect, predestined, saved and righteous – does not such a proclamation effect that which it proclaims, especially when the one to whom such a glorious promise is spoken places their trust (faith) in the message conveyed?

Saint Ambrose again offer some cryptic reflections:

But all are not as Mary, that when they conceive the word of the Holy Spirit, they bring forth; for some put forth the word prematurely, others have Christ in the womb, but not yet formed.

I would like to examine the Greek text of this patristic quote, but in the absence of time am unable to do so. But simply reflecting on this English rendition, it is curious how Ambrose seems to indicate that other women conceive of the Holy spirit too, but “prematurely.” I suspect there are some theological reflections to be made here concerning the phenomenon of “Josephite Marriage”14 in Christian history. Perhaps having total self control over your humanity and sexuality, and yet nevertheless getting married is a good way to emulate the Holy family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Perhaps having control over your sexuality in a way akin to Mary and Joseph has flow-on effects for the personalities and holiness of the resulting children? “Others have Christ in the womb, but not yet formed” says Ambrose; perhaps a Josephite marriage is the way to conceive holy, godly and saintly children?

Commenting on vs 34 and 35, Ambrose offers the following reflection:

She avows herself willing to do that which she doubts not will be done, but how, she is anxious to know. Mary had read, Behold, she shall conceive and bear a son. She believed therefore that it should be but how it was to take place she had never read, for even to so great a prophet this had not been revealed. So great a mystery was not to be divulged by the mouth of man, but of an Angel.

Ambrose understands this passage to convey that Mary did not doubt the fact that she would conceive, but rather was just baffled as to how this was to take place. Presumably Mary had taken a vow of perpetual virginity and so the possibilities that came to mind would have included 1. rape and 2. renouncing her vow. As it turns out, Mary was to conceive apart from sexual intercourse, which is an incredibly surprising miracle.

Saint Gregory Nyssa offers the following reflection:

Hear the chaste words of the Virgin. The Angel tells her she shall bear a son, but she rests upon her virginity, deeming her inviolability a more precious thing than the Angel’s declaration. Hence she says, Seeing that I know not a man.

It’s interesting here how Saint Gegory Nyssa juxtaposes Mary’s virginity with Gabriel’s declaration. He understands that Mary is fully committed to her virginity, such that even if Gabriel announces that she is to conceive Mary does not doubt her own sinless commitment to her virginal vow. Perhaps to a lesser woman, such an announcement would produce feelings of guilt and despair, as she thinks to herself that she will fail to keep her promises. Or perhaps a lesser woman would be (sinfully) relieved, thinking that she is free to break her vows with impunity in order to fulfil a fateful prophecy. Whereas Mary does neither of these things, and instead has faith in both herself and God.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa again offers some reflections:

Do you say, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? Nay rather, shall it happen to you for this very reason, that you have never known a husband. For if you had, you would not have been thought worthy of the mystery, not that marriage is unholy, but virginity more excellent.

Gregory draws attention to the irony here: the cause of Mary’s confusion about how she could possibly conceive is simultaneously the very reason and justification for why she does indeed conceive. This is a profound paradox: by pursuing the perfect self-control of virginity and holiness, Mary proves herself worthy of conceiving the child so utterly perfect that he is in fact God himself. There is a profound lesson to be learned here for every day men and women: self-control and selflessness in the sexual sphere is a very good thing: By loving each other in a selfless way, and by a husband and wife mutually refraining from gratifying the flesh; when they do decide to have a child it will be very intentional and drenched in divine love and compassion (as opposed to an unplanned “accident”). The resulting children will more or less be predestined to saint-hood. The bottom line is that self-control and loving abstinence are beneficial even in marriage.

Saint Basil offers the following reflection:

Hence also, St. Paul says, God sent forth his Son, born not (by a woman) but of a woman. For the words by a woman might convey only a mere passing expression of birth, but when it is said, of a woman, there is openly declared a communion of nature between the son and the parent.

This lends support to the formula of Chalcedon, or at least the theological judgement that Christ was both fully human and fully man. Christ receives his human nature from Mary.

Literal Sense

Luke is here simply trying to tell the story of the annunciation, and hit the key notes: firstly, Mary was, is, and was intending to be a virgin. Secondly, she was informed that she was about to conceive Jesus by an angel. Thirdly, Mary was confused by this announcement while remaining faithful and consenting to the will of God.

Luke doesn’t seem to have much of an agenda himself in relating this episode (beyond relaying the facts), but the later church has found incredible theological and practical significance in that which he here records.

Application

The classic way of approaching the “application” of a passage is to look at it from four perspectives: the moral sense, the anagogical sense, the allegorical sense and the typological sense. In terms of the moral sense, this essay has already touched upon this, but I think it is fair to draw out of this pericope that Josephite marriage is the ideal form of marriage. Firstly, sexual intercourse between a married couple is lawful, beautiful, wonderful and holy; and yet there is a current in the tradition which holds sexuality to always and everywhere be infected with evil and sin. There is often also a “vocational dilemma” in young Catholics attempting to discern God’s will for their lives, in that the Church proposes celibacy and marriage as two mutually exclusive possibilities and then requires individuals to choose/discern between them. I would like to here tentatively speculate that Mary’s virginal marriage to Joseph represents the solution to this dilemma, in an incredibly profound way. Recall Christ’s words that “whoever loses his life will find it, and whoever holds onto his life will lose it.” I suspect that this can be applied to the human sex drive (which is arguably the most fundamental human “need,” going beyond the human needs for food, drink and sleep). Perhaps the one who is able to more fully “detach” themselves from their fundamental human need for physical sexual expression is the one who is more “holy” in general. In this sense, Josephite marriage (where the couple attempt to abstain from physical expression of their love) is not something “weird,” but rather a valuable spiritual disciple. Now, assuming that this is true, perhaps a couple who is better able to live out a Josephite marriage will be happier and enjoy a better relationship with both each other and God. Granting this, it raises a couple of questions: firstly, when do they have sexual intercourse, assuming that sexual intercourse and marriage are intimately related?15 Secondly, what is to be said about the Children resulting from the union of a couple committed to a Josephite marriage? Finally, if Joseph and Mary are the perfect expression of marriage, what implications does this have for the fruit and offspring of their marriage (ie, Jesus)?

For some tentative and speculative answers to the questions: Firstly, I propose that Mary and Joseph do actually engage in a physical consummation of their marriage and therefore they actually do have physical sexual intercourse, however this consummation of sexual intercourse is something that occurs in the eschaton rather than during their earthly lives, and furthermore that the biblical book of the Song of Songs is a description of what this “divine consummation” is like.16 I tentatively propose that during their earthly lives, Mary and Joseph never consummated their marriage, and yet in a timeless, spiritual, heavenly and eschatological sense they do indeed consummate their marriage – and conceive Christ – in the eschaton.17

The bottom line of all this in terms of moral application to our lives is something like the following: even the virgins, celibate, priests, monks and nuns have a soul mate waiting for them, and their commitment to celibacy is (somewhat paradoxically) the very way by which they sanctify their heavenly marriages yet to come. For those who are already married, Mary and Joseph’s marriage is an ideal: it’s appropriate to feel love and longing for you partner, but the longer you and your partner are able to mutually and charitably agree to postpone the physical consummation of your love, the deeper your love will become and the more holy and saintly will be the resulting children.

Finally, I tentatively propose that Mary’s perpetual virginity was necessary for Christ’s sinlessness. If celibate Josephite marriages are the ideal and lead to better children, then the ultimate and perfect Josephite marriage – that of Mary and Joseph themselves – lead to the ultimate and perfect offspring; Jesus the sinless son of God. In other words, the practical implications of this pericope for day to day christian living is that practising self-control, restraint, and moderation in the sexual sphere is actually a recipe for having better, holier children!18

Conclusion: The Immaculate Conception

Theologians have typically understood the word “κεχαριτωμένη” – traditionally translated as “[you who are] full of grace” – to be subtle and implicit scriptural support for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. In minimal form, this doctrine simply states that Mary was born without original sin. More maximally, the doctrine teaches that Mary remained free of any and all sin for the entire duration of her life. The linguistic arguments surrounding κεχαριτωμένη are dense and detailed, but suffice it to say that it is an unusual word and hard to translate directly to English. The word is rich and deep enough in meaning to fuel entire Mariologies. However, rather than here getting bogged down in linguistic arguments, I will survey the doctrine itself by means of some choice magisterial quotes.

Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi discusses Mary in the following terms:

Venerable Brethren, may the Virgin Mother of God hear the prayers of Our paternal heart – which are yours also – and obtain for all a true love of the Church – she whose sinless soul was filled with the divine spirit of Jesus Christ above all other created souls, who “in the name of the whole human race” gave her consent “for a spiritual marriage between the Son of God and human nature.”

It was she, the second Eve, who, free from all sin, original or personal, and always more intimately united with her Son, offered Him on Golgotha to the Eternal Father for all the children of Adam, sin-stained by his unhappy fall, and her mother’s rights and her mother’s love were included in the holocaust.19

Notice how the holy father explicitly attributes “sinless” and “free from all sin, original or personal” to Mary. This is reflective of the sensus fidelium surrounding Mary at the time the encyclical was written, in the mid-20th century.

Pope Pius IX dogmatically defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in his encyclical Ineffabilis Deus like so:

We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.20

This definition only concerns Mary being free from original sin, and does not explicitly affirm Mary’s personal sinlessness throughout her life, but it would be hard to interpret the entire encyclical in such a way as to conclude that Mary sinned. The thrust and atmosphere of Catholic writings – magisterial, mystical and popular – leans only towards the idea that Mary was completely sinless in every way.

1In producing this exegesis, I tried to follow the formatting of the example provided on blackboard (“An Analysis of Luke 8:4-15 – The Parable of the Sower”). I include this note because I am a little uncomfortable with the quantity of dot points used in this assignment, but I am doing so on the assumption that following the style of the example exegesis is valid (as well as being the easiest way for me to complete this assignment!) I pray that this doesn’t cost me any marks.

2Luke 1:26-38 (SBLGNT)

3Luke 1:26-38 (DBHNT)

4“How can I believe what you say? For I am an old man, and my wife is past the age of child-bearing.” – Luke 1:18

5“Behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” – Luke 1:20

6“How can this be since I am a virgin?” – Luke 1:34

7 The Fiat: “Let it be done to me according to thy word” – Luke 1:38

8Luke 1:46-55

9Literally “Behold the helper of the Lord; Let it be to me according to your word”

10This is a sub-genre peculiar to Christian tradition, but there are analogues in Hindu literature and there is even an Islamic account of Christ’s early years in Surahs Maryam (19) and al-Imran (3) of the Qu’ran. There are also other apocryphal Christian infancy gospels which did not make it into the canon of scripture. The early chapters of Luke are the “official” account received by the church.

11Protestants are generally hostile to the idea that Mary was a perpetual virgin, and tend to oppose the Catholic teaching with a polemical stance that Mary and Joseph did indeed engage in sexual intercourse after Jesus was born.

12The scriptural references which seem to indicate that Christ had siblings are tentatively explained by Catholics in a variety of ways. Perhaps they were cousins of Jesus, or potentially they could have been children of Joseph from a previous marriage.

13I would like to do further research on this theme.

14Josephite marriage is the phenomenon of a man and woman being married – and truly loving each other as husband and wife – but (almost paradoxically) totally abstaining from sexual relations.

15Cf Saint John Paul II’s theology of the body.

16There are many profound and beautiful patristic commentaries on the Song of Songs which could be marshalled to elaborate on this.

17Further speculative implications of such a view would include the fact that Joseph was indeed Christ’s biological father, even when granting that Mary maintained perpetual virginity for her entire earthly life (which is to say that DNA testing would reveal a genetic link from Joseph to Jesus as from a (human) Father to a (human) Son).

18Which makes one wonder at the holiness yet to be revealed in the children of the many monks and nuns who have successfully lived lives of perfect celibacy for the sake of the church and the kingdom!

19Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi 110

20Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus.

αποκαταστασις: ευαγγελιον! Universal Salvation: Good news! The Forgotten Essence of the Gospel

Doctrinal Definition

Literally, the word apokatastasis means “restitution” or “restoration”. There are many different construals of the doctrine of apokatastasis, some being closer to the orthodoxy that we recognise today (eg, St Gregory of Nyssa) and some being much more alien and exotic (eg, the fantastical theology of St Origen1). This paper cannot hope to comprehensively cover all the different varieties and nuances of Apokatastasis that are extant in the tradition.

Merriam-Webster provides the following minimal working definition of Apokatastasis:

The doctrine of the final restoration of all sinful beings to God and to the state of blessedness2

A more fleshed out definition – to which I will be adhering for the purpose of this paper – would be:

That by his incarnation, sinless life, passion, crucifixion and resurrection, Christ achieved complete and entire victory over Hell, Death, Sin, Evil, Satan and Suffering, such that they no longer have any power to enslave or damn anyone, and therefore all souls will be saved.

Scriptural Support

The idea of apokatastasis permeates throughout scripture and can be discovered at the level of both systematic analysis and low-level proof texting. A plenitude of scriptures could be cited, but I will limit myself to Paul’s letters, particularly Romans, 1 Corinthians and Phillipians.

In Romans 1-8, the broad argument of Paul is that all of mankind exists in a state of total depravity, as the result of original sin. This is most clearly expressed in chapter three which reads as follows:

None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands, no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong;
no one does good, not even one.”3

In chapter five, Paul balances this picture of total depravity with a Christocentric universal salvation. He claims that just as in Adam all die and suffer damnation, so too in Christ all are made alive, justified and saved.

Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned— sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of that one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience the many will be justified. Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.4

Note that the RSVCE (and many other English translations) renders “the many” without the definite article, thus slightly taking the edge off of the universalising thrust of Paul’s argument as written in the original Koine. I have slightly modified the translation to include articles where they are usually dropped, so as to better bring out Paul’s universalism.

In Chapter eight, Paul talks about the certain and infallible assurance of salvation that comes with faith in Christ’s apokatastasis:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.5

In Chapter 9, Paul raises the question “If Christ has saved everyone, then why are the Jews rejecting him?”

I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race. They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed for ever. Amen.6

After three chapters of painful reflections, Paul reaffirms the theology which he had already sketched out in chapter 5: All of the Jews will indeed be saved, but every individual gentile must be saved first in order to make Israel jealous:

Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full totality; every individual Gentile has come in, and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written7

During the painful reflections of chapters 9-11, Paul poses an important, relevant and disturbing hypothetical: “Do we worship the sort of God who creates some people for salvation and other people for damnation?”:

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory?8

Many people don’t notice that Paul is asking a question here, and wrongly believe that he is providing an actual description of the character and temperament of God. However by the time we get to chapter 11, Paul has answered his hypothetical question in the negative, by reaffirming the foundational universalist theology he had already sketched out in chapter 5. All are simultaneously vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy:

For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all.9

Paul’s doctrine of apokatastasis also crops up in 1 Corinthians 15, in the letters conclusion wherein Paul is aiming to concisely summarise the entire gospel. He claims that the whole creation and everything in it will eventually be ruled over by Christ, and finally God will permeate everything:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. “For God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection under him,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be all in all.10

In Phillipians 2, Paul again outlines his vision of apokatastasis:

Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should freely bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue lovingly confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.11

The word Paul uses for “confess” is ἐξομολογήσηται, which has the connotation of a confession which is made “freely” and “lovingly”. There’s no sense of anyone being forced or coerced to confess that Christ is Lord in this passage. Christ is not being portrayed as a violent and tyrannical king who forces his subjects to bow down to him. The people who are bowing their knees and confessing Christ as lord are doing it freely and lovingly here. Paul is once again outlining a vision of the Apokatastasis.

Patristic Support

Throughout the 2000 years of Catholic and Orthodox tradition, there have always been three competing eschatological traditions: Universalist, Infernalist, and Annihilationist. Russian Orthodox priest Fr Sergius Bulgakov – a dogmatic theologian, patristics scholar, and a firm believer in apokatastasis – offers the following reflection:

The Church has not yet established a single universally obligatory dogmatic definition in the domain of eschatology, if we do not count the brief testimony of the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed concerning the second coming (“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end”), as well as concerning the resurrection of the dead and the life of the future age. These dogmas of the faith, attested to by the Creed and based on the express promises of the Lord, have not, all the same, been developed by theology. They are considered to be self-evident for the dogmatic consciousness, although that is not, in reality, the case. All the rest, referring to various aspects of eschatology, has not been defined dogmatically; it is an object of dogmatic doctrine that has yet to undergo free theological investigation.

If it is maintained that the absence of an ecclesial definition is compensated by the existence of a firm ecclesial tradition, patristic and other, one must call such an assertion inaccurate or even completely erroneous. Aside from the fact that this tradition is insufficient and disparate, the most important thing here is the absence of a single tradition. Instead, we have at least two completely different variants: on the one hand, a doctrine originating in Origen and stabilized in the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa and his tacit and open followers; and, on the other hand, a widespread doctrine that has had many adherents but none equal in power of theological thought to those mentioned above. (Perhaps in this group we can put Augustine, the greatest teacher of the Western Church, but the originality of his worldview sets him apart in general, especially for Eastern theology.) As regards both particular patristic doctrines and the systematization of biblical texts, an inquiry that would precede dogmatization has yet to be carried out.

Given such a situation, it would be erroneous to maintain that the dogmatic doctrine expounded in the scholastic manuals represents the authoritative and obligatory dogmas of the Church, and to demand subordination to them as such. In response to such a demand it is necessary to established decisively and definitively that this is an exaggeration and a misunderstanding. The doctrine expounded in the manuals can by no means be accepted without inquiry and verification. It only expresses the opinion of the majority, corresponding to the current status of theological thought on this subject, not more. Characteristic of a specific period of the past, this doctrine is losing its authority more and more at the present time and at the very least requires revision. There is insufficient justification to accept theological opinions as the dogmatic definitions of the Church, especially when these opinions are proper to only one type of thought. Eschatological theology remains open to inquiry even at the present time.12

Eastern Orthodox author and theologian Brad Jersak – another firm adherent to the Gospel of apokatastasis – has this to say:

Our obsessive attempts to harmonize the Scriptures into artificially coherent, stackable propositions—as if they required us to contend for their reliability or authority—actually do violence to their richness.13

Eclectic Eastern Orthodox priest Fr Alvin Kimel adds the following comment:

One finds within the Bible specific texts that may be reasonably interpreted to support each of the three major construals of eschatological destiny—infernalist, annihilationist, and universalist. Perhaps we need to hear all three voices.14

Catholic patristics scholar Ilaria Rameli offers the following outline of church fathers who were favourable towards the doctrine of apokatastasis:

The main Patristic supporters of the apokatastasis theory, such as Bardaisan, Clement, Origin, Didymus, St. Anthony, St. Pamphilus Martyr, Methodius, St. Macrina, St. Gregory of Nyssa (and probably the two other Cappadocians), St. Evagrius Ponticus, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, St. John of Jerusalem, Rufinus, St. Jerome and St. Augustine (at least initially) … Cassian, St. Issac of Nineveh, St. John of Dalyatha, Ps. Dionysius the Areopagite, probably St. Maximus the Confessor, up to John the Scot Eriugena, and many others, grounded their Christian doctrine of apokatastasis first of all in the Bible. 15

Dogmatic Standing

There is a common misconception among Catholic and Orthodox Christians that Apokatastasis has been dogmatically condemned by the church. This misunderstanding is encountered at all levels of the hierarchy: there are those who deny the doctrine on the basis of ecclesial authority among priests, bishops, laypeople and theologians.

When first presented with the universalist hope, many Orthodox and Roman Catholics immediately invoke the authority of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (A.D. 553), citing the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas: “Apokatastasis has been dogmatically defined by the Church as heresy—see canon 1 … case closed.”16

Father Kimel of Eclectic Orthodoxy outlines why this is a mistaken assumption. In summary, the scholarly consensus is that the anathemas against Origenism and apokatastasis were not actually promulgated by the council17, which raises questions as to their dogmatic status. Do they still carry full dogmatic weight if they were not really approved by the bishops of the council? Are they magisterially authoritative purely on the basis that later tradition received them as if the canons had really been promulgated? Fr Kimel calls this the as if approach to fundamental theology:

The following passage from the life of St Sabbas was read to the assembly by Cosmas: “At the fifth holy General Council held at Constantinople, Origen and Theodore of Mopsuestia, together with the speculations of Evagrius and Didymus concerning the pre-existence and restitution of all things, were all subjected to one common and Catholic anathema all the four Patriarchs being present and consistent thereto.” Hence it is clear that by A.D. 787 the wider Church had accepted the attribution of the fifteen anathemas to the Second Council of Constantinople.

Perhaps we might call this the “as if” theory of dogmatic reception: the Church has received the anti-Origienist anathemas as if they had been officially promulgated by an ecumenical council and as if they condemned the universalist views of Origen, St Gregory Nyssen, and St Isaac the Syrian. Rejection of apokatastasis, after all, has been the standard teaching of Latin and Eastern Christianity for almost a millennium and a half. Doesn’t that qualify as ecumenical dogma, even if initially based upon a historical blunder? If we believe hard and long enough that an ecumenical council has dogmatically condemned all forms of universal salvation, then surely it must have. “Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong,” as the saying goes.18

This mindset is quite common among Catholic and Orthodox Christians: “We all believe that apokatastasis is heresy because we have always believed it to have been condemned, regardless of whether or not it actually was”. Father Kimel questions this attitude and firmly rebukes it:

How and when does a doctrinal teaching achieve irreformable dogmatic status? Does it need to be formally defined by an ecumenical council? How long does it take for a doctrine to be properly received, and what are the criteria for reception? May the Church revisit either a dogmatic definition or a long-standing doctrine for compelling theological, historical, and pastoral reasons? Ask Orthodox theologians these and other related questions and one will received multiple, and often contradictory, answers. Hence we should not be surprised when internet apologists, parish priests, and even respected theologians who should know better dismiss the hope of universal salvation with the mere wave of a dogmatic hand. “The Fifth Ecumenical Council settled that long ago,” some tell us. “The Synodikon has infallibly anathematized the universalist hope,” others pontificate. But dogma is too important to be so superficially treated. And the universalist hope is too important to be so cavalierly and hastily dismissed. Substantive and important arguments have been raised against the traditional doctrine of everlasting damnation. They can only be addressed head-on, not dismissed by lazy appeals to authority. And if these arguments should prove compelling, then the question of apokatastasis must also be reopened, for nothing less than the gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake. 19

However, someone may hear all of this and be emotionally committed to the idea that the council really did condemn apokatastasis. They would dismiss all of this historical criticism of the tradition as disrespectful and blasphemous sophistry. “We believe what we have received, and we have received the anathemas of this council. These anathemas cannot be questioned by historical criticism. Science cannot trump tradition”. Fr Kimel responds:

Catholic Christendom came to believe that the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas had been promulgated by the Fifth Ecumenical Council (for a brief summary of the evidence, see Green, pp. 42-46).

Let us therefore assume that the council did officially publish them. There still remains—and this is the crucial issue—the challenge of interpretation and application. Not all universalisms are the same. Just as there are both heretical and orthodox construals of, say, the atonement or the Incarnation, so there are heretical and orthodox construals of the larger hope. The apokatastasis advanced by St Gregory of Nyssa, for example, differs in decisive ways from the sixth-century theories against which the anathemas were directed. The latter appear to have belonged to an esoteric metaphysical system cut loose from the Scriptures, as even a cursory reading reveals. The chasm between the two is enormous.20

Even if the council did condemn apokatastasis, this does not give one the authority and power to silence those who remain in favour of the idea.

We simply cannot take a dogmatic definition or conciliar anathema and make it apply to whatever views we disapprove. We must interpret it within its historical, cultural, and theological context. Not to do so would be a kind of conciliar fundamentalism, akin to someone who rips a commandment from the book of Leviticus and then insists that it remains obligatory upon Gentile Christians today.21

Hermeneutics is unavoidable, and everyone has an individual responsibility to engage with it, especially theologians. While we must respect the authority of the magisterium and the tradition, we nevertheless have a responsibility to engage in interpretation of the deposit of faith independently. We cannot offload our responsibility for wrestling with the truth to the church or the bible: the church can guide us, but ultimately we also have the responsibility to do it for ourselves.

Conclusion

Apokatastasis is a beautiful and life-giving doctrine, and once all is said and done, the gospel can’t really be said to be “good news” without it. While a certain construal of Apokatastasis may have been condemned at the fifth ecumenical council, the doctrine of Apokatastasis per se remains a legitimate expression of Orthodox and Catholic faith. Let us respond to apokatastasis as St Paul responds; with rapture and doxology:

For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all. O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen.22

Bibliography

Bulgakov, Sergius. The Bride of the Lamb. Grand Rapids, MI, United States: William B Eerdmans, 2001

Hart, David B. “Saint Origen,” First Things, October 2015. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/10/saint-origen

Jersak, Bradley. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hell, Hope, and the New Jerusalem. Eugene, United States: Wipf & Stock, 2005

Kimel, Alvin F. “Readings in Universalism” Eclectic Orthodoxy (blog). WordPress.com, May 15, 2015 https://afkimel.wordpress.com/essential-readings-on-universalism/

Kimel, Alvin F. “Apocatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was” Eclectic Orthodoxy (blog). WordPress.com, October 29, 2019. https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2019/10/29/apocatastasis-the-heresy-that-maybe-never-was/

Rameli, Ilaria. The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis : A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena. Leiden, Netherlands: BRILL, 2013

1David B. Hart, “Saint Origen,” First Things, October 2015. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/10/saint-origen, While not being officially recognised as a saint by either the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches, Saint Origen was infallibly and dogmatically canonised on the heavenly and magisterial authority of the glorious and omniscient theologian, Dr David Bentley Hart, in the October 2015 edition of First Things.

2Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “apocatastasis,” accessed May 19, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/apocatastasis.

3Rom 3:10-12 (RSVCE)

4Rom 5:12-21 (RSVCE, slightly altered)

5Rom 8:35,38-39 (RSVCE)

6Rom 9:1-5 (RSVCE)

7Rom 11:25-26 (RSVCE, slightly altered)

8Rom 9:22-23 (RSVCE)

9Rom 11:32 (RSVCE)

101 Cor 15:20-28 (RSVCE, slightly altered)

11Phil 2:5-11 (RSVCE, slightly altered)

12Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (Grand Rapids, MI, United States: William B Eerdmans, 2001), 379-380

13Bradley Jersak. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut (Eugene, United States: Wipf & Stock, 2005)

14Alvin F. Kimel. “Readings in Universalism” Eclectic Orthodoxy (blog). WordPress.com, May 15, 2015. https://afkimel.wordpress.com/essential-readings-on-universalism/

15Ilaria Rameli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (Leiden, Netherlands: BRILL, 2013),

This is not an exhaustive list; there are a multitude of other church fathers who can be cited in favour of the doctrine. Refer to the book for a comprehensive survey of the entire patristic tradition

16Alvin F. Kimel. “Apocatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was” Eclectic Orthodoxy (blog). WordPress.com, October 29, 2019. https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2019/10/29/apocatastasis-the-heresy-that-maybe-never-was/

17Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

18Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

19Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

20Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

21Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

22Rom 11:32-36 (RSVCE)

Saint Origen of Alexandria

Biography1

Origen2 was born in the mid 180s in Alexandria, Egypt. His father was an upper class professor of literature and a committed Christian, who raised Origen in the faith and taught him to memorise scripture passages every day.

When Origen was in his late teens, there was a violent persecution throughout the Roman empire put in motion by the Emperor Severus. During this time Origen’s father was imprisoned and eventually executed via beheading. Origen was zealous for martyrdom and desired to turn himself in to the persecuting authorities, but his mother prevented him from doing so by hiding all of his clothes at the crucial moment, thus preventing him from leaving his house and turning himself in.

At the age of 18, Origen found work as a catechist at the Alexandrian Catechetical school. This was a means by which he could support his family, who were in need of a new breadwinner seeing as his father had been executed. Origen’s routine at this time consisted of spending the daylight hours teaching, and then staying up late into the night writing theological works. At this period of his life he refused to drink alcohol and refused to eat meat.3

Around this time Origen managed to convert a wealthy man named Ambrose to the faith. Ambrose showed his gratitude to Origen by supplying him with funding and all the material resources required to live out his academic vocation.

Apart from teaching, Origen was also a student and it is reported by Eusebius that he studied under another renowned church father, Clement of Alexandria. Origen also studied at the various other philosophical schools in Alexandria, giving him both wide and deep exposure to the broader tradition of Hellenistic thought.

Tradition holds that Origen castrated himself sometime during this youthful Alexandrian period. This was on account of his holding to a literal interpretation of Matthew 19:12. There is an ongoing dispute among historians as to whether this actually happened, and one alternative theory is that the story was concocted by his enemies as a false rumour in order to tarnish his reputation and get him into trouble with the Roman authorities.

In his 20s, Origen travelled around Asia Minor and the Mediterranean, including visits to Rome and Arabia. During this time he had a tense relationship with Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, who had jurisdiction over him. At a certain point on his travels, Origen was illicitly ordained a priest by one of the bishops at Caesarea, which worsened the tension between Origen and Demetrius. Origen opted to remain in Caesarea rather than return to Alexandria. Meanwhile Demetrius started to actively oppose Origen by spreading rumours and generating scandal and outrage towards Origen’s more speculative ideas (such as apokatastasis). However ultimately the attempt to tarnish Origen’s name was unsuccessful, and during his stay in Caesarea, he acquired a reputation as the premier Christian theologian of the day.

Origen continued teaching up until 250, when the Decian persecution occurred. Origen was captured and his captors brutally tormented him in an attempt to force him to renounce his faith. Origen endured the torture for two years without succumbing to the temptation to apostatise. He lived out the short remainder of his life severely crippled, finally dying at the age of 69.

Major Works and Key Themes

According to Epiphanius, Origen wrote around 6000 treatises and other works, while St Jerome gives a more modest estimate which puts the number around 2000.4 Unfortunately the majority of his literary corpus has been lost, but nevertheless what remains extant is substantial. He wrote commentaries on all of the scriptural books, as well as numerous homilies and letters dealing with theological themes. Arguably the most important of his writings that we still possess today is Περι Αρχων (On First Principles)5, which is a (relatively) short systematic theology touching upon every important theological point, including protology, christology, anthropology, pure theology, eschatology, soteriology and so on.

Origen’s teachings constitute a single systematic theology which can only be understood as a unified whole; while he did cover the whole territory and have something to say about all the different areas of Christian theology, attempting to divide his theology into separate and isolated domains risks misrepresenting him. However, there are three key themes which today stand out as unique in his thinking and writings: Pre-existence, Samsara and Apokatastasis, and these three are intimately intertwined with each other.

Samsara is a sanskrit word which names the foundational philosophical concept underlying all Indian and eastern philosophy, theology, and religion. In terms of importance and centrality to Indian thought, it occupies a place and prestige akin to that which Tawhid6 holds in Islam and to which the Trinity holds in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Samsara also features in the wings of the western tradition, with some of the Greek philosophers holding to it, and it also featured for a time in the Christian tradition via Origen and those whom he influenced.

Common to all conceptions of samsara is the idea that nature, reality, existence and history are essentially cyclical.7 However beyond this broad definition, different schools differ significantly on the details. As a point of comparison, the Indian (and ancient Greek) schools8 broadly teach that a human may live through their life, and then on the basis of the karma9 they have accrued at their point of death, the human person may be reborn as one of either: another human, an animal, a plant, an inanimate object such as a rock a god10 or even an angel or demon.11 Generally this rebirth is understood to occur at some subsequent point on the same historical timeline as the previous life12. In this way a soul (or “empty being” in the case of Buddhism) may live many distinct and loosely connected lives one after another, sometimes living as a human, sometimes as an animal, sometimes as a plant. During one life the soul may reside within the body of a beautiful Chinese woman, the next life it may make its home in the body of an evil African dictator.13 The only thing linking different lives together is that the actions undertaken in a previous life will at some point produce an (positive or negative) effect in one or another of the subsequent lives.

In contrast, Origen’s account of samsara firmly denies the transmigration of souls as just described.14 Origen’s version of samsara is more analogous to the movie “Groundhog Day.”15 Rather than being reborn “as some other person”, Origen maintained that a person is resurrected as the same person they were in their previous life, with the same body, same parents, same cultural and historical context and so on. The Stoic school of Greek philosophy also affirmed this, however where the Stoics believed in an infinitely repeating cycle which plays out exactly the same in every detail every time,16 Origen firmly held to a doctrine of free will,17 which implies that every cycle will be different as it is affected by the choices that persons make during their many lifetimes. Just as in Groundhog day, the purpose of living the same life over and over again is in order to be spiritually educated and one day “get it right”, thus breaking out of the cycle of death and rebirth, and finally arriving permanently in the heavenly eschaton.18

In Indian thought samsara is without beginning or end; the cycle of life, death and rebirth has been going on for all eternity and it will continue to go on forever. Whereas in Origen’s account of samsara the history of the cosmos has a beginning and an end; the cycle of life, death and rebirth began with the fall of mankind at the beginning (αρχη) of history19, and it will come to an end (τελος) once all persons have achieved salvation and arrived safely in the eschaton20. Origen’s claim is that the beginning is the same as the end: Just as all persons existed in happiness and harmony in the beginning, so too all persons will exist in happiness and harmony in the end.21 So whereas in Indian construals of the doctrine, samsara is unbounded and infinite, in Origen’s understanding samsara is bounded by the fall as the beginning of the cycle and the restoration at the end of the cycle.22

This brings us to Origen’s teaching of pre-existence. This is the most misunderstood23 and controversial aspect of his teaching, and was historically a major cause of his condemnation at the fifth ecumenical council24 and his subsequent loss of reputation and standing in the church – a reputation which he has only recently begun to recapitulate.25

Origen is commonly criticised as teaching that souls pre-exist their bodies26, which is nonsensical according to Aristotelian and Thomistic construals of the soul as “the form of the body”. However when analysed closely, one discovers that Origen actually teaches the pre-existence of whole persons, including both soul and body27. Following St Paul, Origen teaches that there is both a samsaric physical body and a resurrected spiritual body.

Οὕτως καὶ ἡ ἀνάστασις τῶν νεκρῶν. σπείρεται ἐν φθορᾷ, ἐγείρεται ἐν ἀφθαρσίᾳ· σπείρεται ἐν ἀτιμίᾳ, ἐγείρεται ἐν δόξῃ· σπείρεται ἐν ἀσθενείᾳ, ἐγείρεται ἐν δυνάμει· σπείρεται σῶμα ψυχικόν, ἐγείρεται σῶμα πνευματικόν. Εἰ ἔστιν σῶμα ψυχικόν, ἔστιν καὶ πνευματικόν. οὕτως καὶ γέγραπται· Ἐγένετο ὁ πρῶτος ἄνθρωπος Ἀδὰμ εἰς ψυχὴν ζῶσαν· ὁ ἔσχατος Ἀδὰμ εἰς πνεῦμα ζῳοποιοῦν. ἀλλ’ οὐ πρῶτον τὸ πνευματικὸν ἀλλὰ τὸ ψυχικόν, ἔπειτα τὸ πνευματικόν. ὁ πρῶτος ἄνθρωπος ἐκ γῆς χοϊκός, ὁ δεύτερος ἄνθρωπος ἐξ οὐρανοῦ. οἷος ὁ χοϊκός, τοιοῦτοι καὶ οἱ χοϊκοί, καὶ οἷος ὁ ἐπουράνιος, τοιοῦτοι καὶ οἱ ἐπουράνιοι· καὶ καθὼς ἐφορέσαμεν τὴν εἰκόνα τοῦ χοϊκοῦ, φορέσομεν καὶ τὴν εἰκόνα τοῦ ἐπουρανίου. Τοῦτο δέ φημι, ἀδελφοί, ὅτι σὰρξ καὶ αἷμα βασιλείαν θεοῦ κληρονομῆσαι οὐ δύναται, οὐδὲ ἡ φθορὰ τὴν ἀφθαρσίαν κληρονομεῖ.28

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.29

However Origen is more explicit than St Paul in that he teaches that the resurrected, spiritual body and soul which are raised up at the end of samsara are literally the same body and soul which existed in the garden of Eden at the beginning of samsara30. Origen teaches that there is continuity of identity between our physical bodies and souls and our spiritual body and soul31, however our physical bodies only exist during our pilgrimage through samsara, so in the resurrection to eternal life at the end of samsara we will have no more need of these physical bodies and will exist with only our spiritual bodies.

Origen explains that the fundamental difference between the spiritual body/soul and the physical body/soul is that the physical body/soul exists temporally and therefore undergoes change, whereas the spiritual body/soul represents the sum of all of a persons’ physical bodies, but existing as an eternal, immutable and immortal unity. St Gregory of Nyssa later developed this theme to its’ logical conclusion: it is not just a single body that experiences resurrection, but a whole stream of bodies32 (embryo, baby, toddler, child, adult, old man and everything in between).33 Furthermore, because the resurrected spiritual body and soul are eternal, they must necessarily be without beginning or end, and this logically implies that they pre-exist the physical body and soul.

Origen understood samsara to be divisible into discrete ages or worlds.34 Every cycle of samsara ends with Christ returning as judge, weighing up everyone’s sins and virtues, and then annihilating the cosmos and starting the whole cycle again from the beginning. However in the next age/world, the sins and virtues of people during their life in the previous age “come back” to them in a way superficially similar to Indian construals of karma. Those who abused their freedom and were lazy and sinful in the last age are punished in the next, while those who were virtuous are rewarded.35

As previously mentioned, Origen believed that samsara would come to an end. After a long succession of ages, eventually we will arrive at “the age of the ages”, or “the final age”.36 This refers to the apokatastasic eschaton, which is the eternal age standing at the backward and forward horizons of samsara. Immediately prior to the inauguration of this final age, there will be the final judgement. However the outcome of this final judgement is known in advance: all will pass the judgement because by this point, after many (perhaps uncountable) ages, all will have been freely refined in the samsaric fire of death and rebirth to the point where no sin remains to weigh people down and keep them trapped in the cycle.37 At this point there is no more need for further ages, because all people will have freely been baptised, accepted Christ, chosen God, trusted in the Gospel and so on, and therefore all people without exception or distinction will be admitted back to everlasting bliss in the heavenly eschaton where the whole story started in the first place.

Influence on Later Doctrinal Developments

Origen’s impact on both Catholicism specifically and Christianity more broadly has been incredibly vast and multifaceted. It is not possible to exhaustively survey his influence in a paper as short as this. However, one key theme in his thinking that has been vitally influential in development of doctrine in the church is that of the Trinity.

Origen’s Trinitarian theology was neatly integrated into his systematic theology as a whole, however it was sufficiently generic that it was able to be cited in favour of the positions put forward by all parties in the Christological debates that rocked the church in subsequent years. Just as everyone was seemingly able to deploy the New Testament in defence of their own positions, so too Arians and Monarchists, Trinitarians and Subordinationists all equally found support for their views in Origen’s writings.

As they forged what came to be accepted as the central Trinitarian dogma, both Athanasius and the Cappadocian fathers (Gregory Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil of Caesarea) all heavily relied on the doctrinal foundations and theological path which Origen had already blazed ahead of them. Similarly, Arius and various other heretics leaned on Origen as they constructed their unorthodox theological frameworks.

The fact that Origen contributed so intimately to the cause of the heretics came to overshadow the fact that he had equally well contributed to the foundations of orthodoxy, and by the time of the fifth ecumenical council he was considered by the authorities of the church to be a heretic himself. He was posthumously condemned, as well as his teachings, however by this point the doctrine of the Trinity had been so thoroughly developed and was so deeply integrated into the liturgy and consciousness of the church that it (thankfully) was not to be stomped out. Unfortunately this did not hold for many of his other beautiful teachings, (such as apokatastasis) and it remains an ongoing task today to recover these forgotten aspects of Origen’s thinking in a manner that is compatible with and palatable to the orthodoxy of the present day.

Bibliography

Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. G. A. Williamson, Camberwell: Penguin Books Australia, 1989. Amazon

Hart, David B. “Saint Origen,” First Things, October 2015. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/10/saint-origen

Kimel, Alvin F. “Apocatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was” Eclectic Orthodoxy (blog). WordPress.com, October 29, 2019. https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2019/10/29/apocatastasis-the-heresy-that-maybe-never-was/

Lapidge, Michael. “Stoic Cosmology.” In The Stoics, edited by John M. Rish, 180-184. Cambridge University Press, 1978.

McGuckin, John Anthony. “The Westminster Handbook to Origen”. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004

“Mountains and Waters Discourse by Eihei Dogen”, https://terebess.hu/zen/dogen/KS-Tanahashi.html#sansuia

Ramelli, Ilaria L.E. “’Preexistence of Souls’? The αρχη and τελος of Rational Creatures in Origen and Some Origenians,” Studia Patristica, no. 56 (2013): 167-226

Swami, Jayadvaita. “Vanity Karma: Ecclesiastes, the Bhagavad-gita, and the meaning of life”, United States: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2015

Appendix

The difference between more mainstream/common accounts of samsara and the account of samsara as articulated in the theology of Origen and his theological successors can be illustrated with a mathematical analogy. The Indian account of samsara is analogous to an irregular sign wave stretching backwards and forwards infinitely in both directions on the x-axis, representing time. The amplitude of the wave represents the sum total of the souls karma at any given point in time. Sometimes the karma is negative, sometimes it is positive, and this corresponds to the degree of suffering and pleasure the soul experiences as it moves through its’ many lives. There is no limit to how high the wave can go and no limit to how low it can go, which illustrates that infinite punishments and rewards are possible. There are certain points along the curve which are marked out at roughly (but not exactly) regular intervals. These points represent the transition from one life to another life. The fact that these points never overlap with each other illustrates the fact that there is fundamentally no continuity of identity between rebirths (ie, a soul can be a dog in one life, a flower in the next, a demigod in the following life, a human after that, and so on). The fact that the curve is continuous, indicates that the continuity between births is nothing more than that the reward and punishment which flows from karma picks up in the next life exactly where the last life left off.

The Origenistic account of samsara is better illustrated by a path traced by a conical pendulum around the origin of a Cartesian plane. As in the Indian analogy, the x-axis represents time. When the pendulum is moving above the x-axis this represents time spent alive and while it is below the x-axis this represents time spent dead. The higher the pendulum goes on the y-axis, the more perfect and virtuous the soul is and the longer is the life that it leads. The fact that the pendulum eventually reaches a maximum height on the y-axis and begins to swing back towards the x-axis represents the effect of sin as a dampener on our lives, and how sin drags us back down to death. When the pendulum crosses the x-axis, this represents the death of the soul (and thus the end of the age). The pendulum will then continue to curve around and move “backwards in time” towards where it started. As it moves below the x-axis, this corresponds to time spent in the “intermediate state” (heaven, hell, purgatory, limbo, sheol or what have you). Eventually it crosses the x-axis again, very close to where it begun the circuit last time, corresponding to the recreation of the age and the “resurrection” of the same person in a very similar state and condition to that which it experienced in the last cycle/age. In this model, it is possible for the pendulum to swing such that it traces out a circle with an infinite radius. This would work out to be a line which just keeps travelling vertically, which would correspond to a sinless existence and “eternal life”, effectively breaking the cycle by transforming the path of the pendulum into one that is linear. In a similar way it is also possible for the pendulum to swing such that it traces a horizontal line below the x-axis. This would correspond to traditional notions of “everlasting damnation”.

1My primary source while writing this section was Eusebius, “The History of the Church”

2David B. Hart, “Saint Origen,” First Things, October 2015. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/10/saint-origen, While not being officially recognised as a saint by either the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches, Saint Origen was infallibly and dogmatically canonised on the heavenly and magisterial authority of the glorious and omniscient theologian, Dr David Bentley Hart, in the October 2015 edition of First Things.

3Area for future research: Does the fact that he was a teetotaller in any way reflect on the liturgy of the time? This is especially curious considering that – with very few known exceptions throughout history – the Eucharist has involved alcoholic wine being consumed by a celebrant (at minimum), with the congregation often participating too.

4John Anthony McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Origen, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 26

5But alas, we only have a “complete” version in the form of a dubious Latin translation by one of his later admirers, Rufinus

6The absolute oneness and unity of God

7A Jewish Hare Krishna devotee has written a wonderful commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes in which he powerfully makes the case that the cyclical nature of reality is a core teaching of the book. See Jayadvaita Swami, Vanity Karma: Ecclesiastes, the Bhagavad-gita, and the meaning of life (United States: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2015)

8These broadly being Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism

9A loose working definition of karma being “the running total of your good (virtuous/meritorious) and evil (sinful) works”

10“god” here with a lowercase G to indicate the idea of anthropomorphic “gods” as are encountered in the various and colourful mythologies of world religions throughout history, as opposed to the more philosophical/theological idea of the one true God which sophisticated theologians across all religious traditions love to speculate on.

11Curiously, according to certain schools of Buddhism, it’s even possible to be reborn as a mountain, an ocean or an entire forest. See “Mountains and Waters Discourse by Eihei Dogen”, https://terebess.hu/zen/dogen/KS-Tanahashi.html#sansuia

12Some thinkers speculate on the idea of being reborn “backwards” in time, or even into alternate or fictional realities. In this way one might be reborn as Hitler, Jesus, the Buddha, Zeus, Thor. The more mainstream understanding limits the rebirth phenomenon such that it occurs “in step” with the movement of time and excludes the possibility of being reborn in fictional worlds.

13This phenomenon of a soul jumping from one physical body to another completely unrelated body is refereed to as “transmigration” (μετεμψυχωσις).

14Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, “’Preexistence of Souls’? The αρχη and τελος of Rational Creatures in Origen and Some Origenians,”, Studia Patristica, no. 56 (2013): 168

15For those unfamiliar with the film, the premise is that a cynical bastard of a man (played by Bill Murray) finds himself trapped in a time loop, where he is forced to live the same day over and over again until he “gets it right” by becoming a better person to such an extent that he is able to live a perfect day and thus earn the right to exit the cycle.

16Michael Lapidge, “Stoic Cosmology,” in The Stoics, ed. John M. Rish (Cambridge University Press, 1978), 180-184

17Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 181

18Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 192

19As described in Genesis 1-3

20Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 192. This is the “final restoration”: αποκαταστασις

21Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 192

22The difference between the Indian and Origenistic accounts of samsara can be illustrated with a locus analagy. Indian samsara is cyclical in a similar sense to the way in which a sign wave is cyclical: the soul oscillates between local minima and maxima (representing good and bad rebirths), and the locus point is forever moving forward along the axis (which represents time) towards infinity and never going backwards. In comparison, Origenistic samsara is cyclical in a similar fashion to the way in which a conical pendulum exhibits cyclical behaviour: a projection onto a plane of the path traced by the pendulum will reveal it to approximate a circle: the pendulum is always returning to pass close by to the point where it began (representing the transition between the end of one age and the beginning of the next). For the benefit of those rare, blessed, holy and worthy souls to whom God has sovereignly elected to bestow the ultimate gift, the highest grace and the most supreme virtue of a mathematical mind, an appendix has been appended to the end of this paper wherein these magnificent and illustrious readers – if they are interested in seeing how far the analogy can be pushed – are welcome to explore further. Those who take up the offer are most certainly predestined to beatitude, for there is no surer guarantee of salvation than the ability to understand this author’s eclectic mathematical analogies deployed in the attempt to illustrate obscure theological heresies.

23Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 167-226

24More accurately, his pseudo-condemnation. For a comprehensive discussion and analysis of the controversy, see Alvin F. Kimel. “Apocatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was” Eclectic Orthodoxy (blog). WordPress.com, October 29, 2019. https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2019/10/29/apocatastasis-the-heresy-that-maybe-never-was/

25Hart, “Saint Origen”

26Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 168

27Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 170

281 Cor 15:42-50 (SBLGNT)

291 Cor 15:42-50 (RSVCE, mildly edited to conform with Australian English spelling standards)

30Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 172

31Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 178

32Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 200

33Incidentally, this may relate to why the glorified Christ still had holes in his hands after his resurrection: It may be argued that the resurrected Christ chose to return to earth in a body that retained the marks of his passion, presumably so that the disciples would recognise him and appreciate the cosmic weight of what had just occurred. However seeing as Christs entire stream of bodies from infancy to adult-hood was resurrected, he could have appeared to the disciples as a young man, as a baby, as a wise old man who had lived 1000 years, or potentially even as a glorified Jesus who hadn’t even ever been crucified in the first place. Entertaining this last possibility may indicate a solution to the mystery of why the disciples sometimes did not immediately recognise their risen Lord; namely, in those particular appearances where he was not instantly recognised he was appearing without his wounds, while in other resurrection appearances, he chose to retain them.

34αεον” in Greek, “saecula” in Latin.

35All of this lines up straightforwardly with scriptural talk of “reward and punishment in the next life”. To cite just one scriptural example, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25.

36In Latin the phrase used is “in saecula saeculorum”; in English, “world without end”.

37Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 192

Article Review: Senses of Scripture in the Second Century

Summary of Article

In his paper, Bingham argues against the traditional understanding of the development of the New Testament scriptural canon.1 Specifically, he argues against the view that certain books (such as The Shepherd of Hermas) were considered by Christians to be inspired and authoritative early in the history of the faith, only to lose this standing (to be “decanonized”) later on. Bingham’s method involves a close examination of the way in which St Irenaeus refers to different scriptural texts (both those which were later received as canonical and those which were not) in his writings.2

Bingham discovers a pattern in Irenaeus in which the saint tends to identify his scriptural quotations as being either prophet, apostle, lord, or a more generic scripture.3 He argues that while a quotation identified under the name of prophet, apostle or lord always refers to a text Irenaeus considered to be canonical, a quotation identified as scripture (γραφη) sometimes refers to texts which Irenaeus considered to be inspired and authoritative and other times does not.4 Bingham then constructs elaborate and detailed arguments in an attempt to demonstrate that despite the fact St Irenaeus appears to quote extracanonical texts as if they are equal in authority to canonical ones, he actually more or less accepted exactly the same New Testament canon that Christians accept today.5

Academic Comment

Bingham correctly identifies that there are different sub categories of “scripture”, but his mistake is to assume that these different sub-categories can ultimately be sorted into the two broad categories of “canonical” and “non-canonical”. It seems far more reasonable to assume that for Irenaeus (and other church fathers of the time), all the scriptures that they quote were considered by them to be authoritative and canonical. This can be easily and simply demonstrated by the mere fact that Iranaeus deploys these quotes to illustrate and prove the points that he is trying to make. What would be the point of quoting from a text which is non-authoritative in order to prove an argument? Clearly either Irenaeus or his audience (most likely both) considered all of the texts that he was quoting to hold authority, otherwise he would not have bothered to reference them at all.

Bingham’s argument suffers from an ideological (specifically an Evangelical Protestant) commitment to the idea that there has always been one single canon of authoritative and inspired scriptures, even if the church did not fully recognise it until later on in history. He attempts to read this presupposition back into history and is forced to employ labyrinth and convoluted arguments in an attempt to shoehorn Irenaeus to fit this narrative.

Bingham attempts to argue that the texts later received by the church as canonical are the exact same texts that Irenaeus received as canonical in his day; he attempts to argue that the texts later rejected by the church were likewise never considered to have canonical authority by Irenaeus. His argument is unconvincing because it is overly complex. But even assuming that he were correct, a big problem with his argument is that it is constructed entirely on the basis of a single church father. Bingham tries to draw sweeping conclusions about the doctrine and beliefs of the early church purely based on his analysis of Irenaeus.

This is problematic because Christianity has never been one uniform faith. From the beginning up to the present day, there are many and various scriptural canons in use throughout the Christian world. There has never at any point in history been one single scriptural canon which all Christians everywhere agree on. Furthermore, certain quarters of Christianity have more rigidly defined their canons than others. Catholicism dogmatically defined its scriptural canon at the council of Trent, whereas Irenaeus in his day was merely working with the scriptures that he had received. This being the case, it seems far more simple and reasonable to assume that Irenaeus understood all of the scriptures he was quoting to be inspired and authoritative at minimum, while the question of whether or not he understood them to be “canonical” is something of an anachronism as the idea of “canonicity” had not really been fleshed out in his day.

Counter Thesis

Bingham’s argument depends heavily on the definition and bounds of the word “γραφη”. To get a better understanding of the scope this word as it was used during apostolic and new testament times, it’s helpful to analyse the New Testament itself.

In discussions of inspiration, authority and scriptural canonicity, Protestants and Catholics alike often refer to 2 Timothy 3:14-17:

σὺ δὲ μένε ἐν οἷς ἔμαθες καὶ ἐπιστώθης, εἰδὼς παρὰ τίνων ἔμαθες, καὶ ὅτι ἀπὸ βρέφους ἱερὰ γράμματα οἶδας, τὰ δυνάμενά σε σοφίσαι εἰς σωτηρίαν διὰ πίστεως τῆς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ· πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος καὶ ὠφέλιμος πρὸς διδασκαλίαν, πρὸς ἐλεγμόν, πρὸς ἐπανόρθωσιν, πρὸς παιδείαν τὴν ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ, ἵνα ἄρτιος ᾖ ὁ τοῦ θεοῦ ἄνθρωπος, πρὸς πᾶν ἔργον ἀγαθὸν ἐξηρτισμένος.6

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.7

When asked to prove that the bible is inspired, the average Evangelical will flip to this passage and quote it as a proof text while saying something along the lines of “See? ‘All scripture is God-breathed’; The bible claims itself to be inspired”.8 This argument is problematic on so many levels. Firstly, it is blatantly circular reasoning.9 Secondly, strictly speaking, this passage does not say “the 66 books of the protestant canon are inspired”, neither does it say “the old testament is inspired” (as many will try to argue when the previous objections are pointed out to them). Literally, it says all scripture is inspired.

Now, the common move at this point is to argue about the definition and bounds of the word “scripture” (γραφη). Apologists and theologians will attempt via various interesting means to argue that “scripture” is a word which here refers to their canon of inspired texts, and not to some other competing scriptural canon. This may be a valid eisegesis, but it is worlds away from being a valid exegesis.

Let us attempt a brief exegesis to try and extract the true limits and bounds of the word γραφη as used in this passage (and by extension also gain some insight into how St Irenaeus understands the word). Three important premises must be established:

  1. According to tradition, the author of the letter was Saint Paul10

  2. In verse 15, Paul describes Timothy as being acquainted with “sacred writings” “from childhood”

  3. Timothy was a gentile, not a Jew.

It follows from these observations that when Paul refers to the “holy scriptures” (γραφη) which Timothy grew up with, he is not referring to the bible, or even to the old testament. As a gentile, Timothy would have grown up immersed in pagan culture and literature. It is therefore far more probably that the scriptures which Timothy was exposed to growing up included things such as Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, perhaps even Ovid’s metamorphoses or Virgil’s Aenid. While it is certainly possible to make an argument that Timothy grew up reading the Torah, it is implausible, and the more plausible proposition is that the writings Timothy grew up reading were pagan in origin.

This theory becomes even more compelling when St Paul is accepted as the author of the letter. In the book of Acts, when Paul travels to Athens and preaches to the Greeks, he quotes the Greek poets and philosophers while making his arguments, and he pointedly does not quote the Jewish scriptures.11 If anything, this shows that Paul acknowledges some degree of authority and usefulness in the pagan Greek sources which he employs to bolster his arguments and preaching.

Paul clarifies his evangelistic approach in the letter of 1 Corinthians:

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law—though not being myself under the law—that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.12

This indicates that when preaching, Paul would adopt the dogmatic framework and canonical scriptures of whichever people he was preaching to. When he was preaching the Gospel to Jews, he would quote the Torah, Psalms and Prophets. When he was preaching to pagans, he would utilise the scriptural and traditional authorities which those pagans respected.

Presumably if Paul was around and evangelising today in a cosmopolitan city like Sydney, he would quote the Qu’ran and Hadith to any Muslims he encountered; he would reference the Vedas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata to any Hindus he came across; he would cite the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants while preaching to Mormon Christians; and he would make reference to the Catechism and the many Papal encyclicals when disputing with Catholics.

In light of Paul’s own description of his evangelistic method, 2 Timothy 3:14-17 makes much more sense. When Paul says “all scripture” is inspired, he literally means all scripture. He’s not trying to make some statement about the inspiration of a limited canon of scriptural books as received by Jews, Catholics or Protestants today; he is instead affirming the value and usefulness of all scripture. To spell it out bluntly, when Paul says all scripture, he is thinking not only of the Old Testament, but also of all of the pagan literature which Timothy was exposed to growing up, as well as the sacred texts of every culture, tradition and religion throughout the entire world. Not only the Bible, but also the Bhagavad Gita, the Qu’ran and the Dao De Jing are “inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” and such texts “are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.“

Thus, Paul is not here making an apologetic argument for the inspiration of the Protestant or Catholic biblical canon, but he is instead affirming the supreme and abiding value of all scripture in the fullest and most inclusive sense.

Conclusion

Given that the word “scripture” (γραφη) as employed by St Paul was so wide as to include the cultural texts (both sacred and mundane) of every culture the entire world over, this should help us understand how St Irenaeus approached the issues of scripture, canon and authority. St Irenaeus evidently respected and employed a wide variety of scriptural texts to make his theological points. There is no reason to assume that he understood the texts he was quoting to be anything other than inspired and authoritative. Binghams’ argument is driven by modern evangelical ideological commitments which he then reads back into the historical record. The result is an extremely convoluted and involved argument which is hard to follow. A simpler solution is just to assume that when Paul says “all scripture” he literally means all scripture. And so when St Irenaeus refers to “scripture” (γραφη) he is most likely using the word in a similarly loose and inclusive way.

Bibliography

Catholic Answers. “According to Scripture. Why the ‘Bible Alone’ is an unworkable rule of faith.” Accessed June 9, 2020. https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/according-to-scripture

Compelling Truth. “Is the Bible really the Word of God? Accessed June 9, 2020, https://www.compellingtruth.org/Bible-Word-of-God.html.

D. Jeffrey Bingham, “Senses of Scripture in the Second Century: Irenaeus, Scripture, and Noncanonical Christian Texts,” The Journal of Religion Vol. 97 (2017): 26-55

Genesis Park. “Evidence that the Bible is God’s Word.” Accessed June 9, 2020, https://www.genesispark.com/essays/gods-word/

Got Questions. “Is the Bible truly God’s Word?”, accessed June 9, 2020, https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-God-Word.html.

1D. Jeffrey Bingham, “Senses of Scripture in the Second Century: Irenaeus, Scripture, and Noncanonical Christian Texts,” The Journal of Religion Vol. 97 (2017): 26.

2Bingham, “Senses of Scripture”, 27

3Bingham, “Senses of Scripture”, 31

4Bingham, “Senses of Scripture”, 32

5Bingham, “Senses of Scripture”, 33-52

61 Tim 3:14-17 (SBLGNT)

71 Tim 3:14-17 (RSVCE, mildly edited)

8Three examples of this phenomenon were discovered within 60 seconds of a google search with the terms “prove that the bible is gods word”: “Is the Bible truly God’s Word?”, Got Questions, accessed June 9, 2020, https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-God-Word.html. “Is the Bible really the Word of God?, Compelling Truth, accessed June 9, 2020, https://www.compellingtruth.org/Bible-Word-of-God.html. “Evidence that the Bible is God’s Word”, Genesis Park, accessed June 9, 2020, https://www.genesispark.com/essays/gods-word/

9“According to Scripture. Why the ‘Bible Alone’ is an unworkable rule of faith”, Catholic Answers, accessed June 9, 2020. https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/according-to-scripture

10Critical scholarship sometimes disputes Pauline authorship, but there is no academic consensus that the traditional attribution of 2 Timothy to Paul is spurious.

11Cf Acts 17:16-34

121 Cor 9:19-23 (RSVCE)

 

Ethics and the Image of God: Review

Summary

In his article, Pinckaers briefly surveys the idea of the Image of God in Christian theology, with particular focus on what St. Thomas Aquinas had to say on the issue. The crucial point that Pinckaers makes is that in more traditional theology (as exemplified by St. Thomas), the idea of the Image of God is intimately wrapped up with a classical notion of Free Will. Pinckaers briefly touches on the fact that the modern, voluntarist notion of freedom which many have adopted today is fundamentally opposed to this classical understanding which is rooted in the idea that man is the image of God.

Academic Comment

In the classical understanding of the relationship between intellect and will, man is fundamentally oriented towards God in the core of his being. St. Maximus the Confessor calls this fundamental orientation the natural will, and it is this natural will of man with which the image of God is identified. The natural will is permanently fixed on God as it’s object and cannot be moved from its’ orientation towards the good. To put it loosely, the natural will always chooses the best possible option, namely, God.

However the fall wounded mankind by plunging us into a state of ignorance and introducing another will into our being which often comes into conflict with our natural orientation towards God; a will which, due to human ignorance, fluctuates and deliberates between options, assessing which options are better than others, and selecting certain options to the exclusion of others. St. Maximus refers to this will as the gnomic will, or deliberative will, because it is the human faculty whereby we deliberate between alternative courses of action and choose to follow one rather than another. This will can (and often does) make mistakes, by choosing a lesser good rather than the highest good, and this is the essence of sin.

So according to St. Maximus, fallen man has two wills; his natural will, with which he always yearns for God in everything that he does, and his deliberative will, with which he weighs up alternatives and makes a probabilistic decision in an attempt to satisfy his natural will.

Now, both popular Catholic theology and the voluntarist understanding of free will differ from this account in fundamental ways. Firstly, the voluntarist understanding of freedom simply denies that man has a natural will, and reduces the will solely to the gnomic will. In this understanding, man has to decide for himself what the best course of action is, and God merely steers his choices by imposing external commandments and laws upon him, complete with consequences of punishment for failing to observe those laws. Freedom here reduces to what Pinckaers calls freedom of indifference. Freedom is understood essentially to be a will with no external constrains imposed on it, and with such an understanding of freedom, Atheism follows.

On the other hand, while Catholic theology more or less accepts the idea of the natural and gnomic wills (while using the categories of Western scholasticism rather than Eastern theological language to express them), it differs from the classical understanding of freedom because it introduces the idea that a person will not always obey the conclusions of their gnomic will with respect to what the highest good in any given situation is. When this happens, it is called mortal sin.

According to St. Maximus, human beings are created by God in such a way that a person will always follow the best course of action that is presented to her by the deliberations of her gnomic will. The gnomic will may be mistaken in it’s conclusion as to what the best course of action is, and so when the person follows through with this mistaken judgement they would have sinned in doing so. However crucially for St. Maximus, they would not be culpable for this sin, because they were simply doing what they thought was best.

In contrast to this, Latin theology claims that it is possible for a person to ignore the promptings of both their gnomic will and their natural will and so choose a lesser good (ie, sin) with full knowledge that they are doing so. In other words, they have fully assessed the situation, know exactly and totally what the best course of action is, and then nevertheless wilfully refuse to follow that course of action. Catholic theology refers to this as mortal sin.

Eastern Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart argues in his recent book “That All Shall Be Saved” that this understanding of mortal sin is contradictory, in that if someone has “full knowledge” in a situation, they are essentially rendered totally non potest peccare (ie. totally unable to sin). He argues (in line with St Maximus) that all sin proceeds from ignorance, and to be free from ignorance (ie to possess full knowledge) would make it inevitable that a person would choose the highest good. All of this is according to exactly the same logic by which Catholic Christianity explains that the glorified saints in heaven are unable to sin.

According to this classical understanding (as articulated by Hart and St. Maximus), the essence of freedom is to be liberated from all ignorance, delusion and insanity which act as malign influences over a persons will. A person is only free when God has opened their eyes to see the truth clearly, and once this person can see the truth freely, they are irresistibly drawn to it and are rendered incapable of sin. In other words, true freedom excludes the possibility of sin, and so long as it remains possible for a person to sin, that person is not free in the classical sense.

This classical understanding would appear to contradict with popular Catholicism at a surface reading, in that modern Catholic apologetics makes heavy use of the “free will defence” when attempting to explain that Hell consists of unending and inescapable torment. According to this apologetic, the possibility of Hell is explained by the power of a human will to make the choice to freely reject God. Hart and St. Maximus would say that this is fundamentally incoherent and contradictory, because if a person chooses to dwell in Hell, it would not be a free choice; it would indeed be a choice that the person has truly made via their own agency, but it would be a choice that is enslaved to either insanity or ignorance, and is therefore not free. Either the person does not have full knowledge, in which case their choice of Hell is born of ignorance, or the person does have full knowledge, in which case their choice of Hell is an act of sheer insanity (and most likely influenced by demonic powers); In either case, the choice of Hell is not a free choice.

To conclude on a soteriological and eschatological note: according to the classical understanding of freedom, God is in the business of liberating us from the limitations of our gnomic will, such that we are rendered incapable of sin, and this is the essence of both true freedom and salvation itself. Throughout a lifetime, God slowly annihilates our gnomic will by illuminating our intellects and thereby abolishing our ignorance. In this way our choices and actions become more and more perfectly in line with our natural will, and we are rendered incapable of sin, which is in fact the highest freedom, indeed, the divine freedom of Christ himself.1 It is at this point that the image of God is fully restored to the soul and with it, a truly free will. However so long as we remain under the alien influence of the deliberations of the gnomic will, and the possibility of choosing to sin remains, we are not free. Contrary to popular opinion, the classical understanding of freedom precludes the possibility of sin and so long as sin remains a possibility for a person, that person is enslaved rather than free. Freedom is when the soul is unable to sin, and so long as the soul can sin, it is not free.

Bibliography

Servais Pinckaers, “Ethics and the Image of God,” in The Pinckaers Reader (Catholic University of America Press, 2005): 130-143.

Hart, David Bentley. That All Shall Be Saved. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2019.

1Crucial to the Christology of St. Maximus is the idea that Christ, being fully human, did not possess a gnomic will (otherwise it would have been possible for him to sin, but this is incoherent)

Sola Fide and the Eucharist

Introduction

The popular understanding of “sola fide” among both Catholics and Evangelicals is that it is the dogmatic and definitive Protestant answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?” According to Catholics, this question has quite a complicated answer, involving faith, love, works of charity, the sacramental life and final perseverance (ie, dying in the state of grace). In comparison, Evangelicals boil down the entire Catholic list of requirements for salvation to one: Faith alone.

“Just believe in Jesus and your place in heaven will be secured” exhorts the Evangelical minister. Ironically, this is a complete and utter misreading of the original Lutheran doctrine of sola fide, and both Catholics and Evangelicals together have failed to understand both the doctrine itself and its driving motivation. The original doctrine was not intended to be an answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?” rather, it was intended to be an answer to the question “How should we proclaim the Gospel?” The original sola fide was intended to be a guiding principle for preaching homilies and understanding the sacraments and it was never intended to be an alternative ordo salutis in rivalry with the traditional Catholic ordo. In this paper I will first properly articulate and explain the sola fide doctrine and suggest that – when correctly understood – it need not pose any threat to traditional Catholic doctrine. I will then show how the original sola fide is an incredibly sacramental doctrine, and thus has particular relevance for teasing out a robust and profound interpretation of the Eucharistic liturgy.

The Grammar of Homiletics

Understanding the distinction between “preaching law” and “preaching gospel” is crucial to come to a correct understanding of the original sola fide doctrine, and the distinction is as close to a dogma as you will find in the Lutheran denominations. In short, the distinction is between any form of preaching which generates works, efforts or striving in the listeners – which is preaching law – and any form of preaching which generates either faith or outrage in the listeners – and this is preaching gospel. It is important here to comprehensively explain the distinction.

Preaching Law

Consider the following statements:1

If you get straight HDs this semester, I’ll buy you the latest iPhone.

If you avoid missing your rent for three years straight, your credit rating will improve.

If you make five sales this week, I will promote you.

These statements reflect the standard, everyday, contractual language of secular life. A condition is stated, and something is promised as a reward for fulfilling the conditions. Someone hearing these statements will either disregard the promises because they don’t particularly care about the reward, or they will work and strive to fulfil the conditions because they want to obtain the reward. Notice that all of the statements are framed in terms of condition and reward. It is common to find contractual promises posed in the negative mode of transgression and punishment:

If you get caught speeding, you will be fined $200.

If you do not manage to make a sale this week, you will be fired.

If you do not take this pill and kill yourself, I will murder your daughter.

In these cases, it is fear of the negative consequence which drives the listener to work and strive to avoid the conditions. Notice that just as in the previous set of statements, the language is conditional and contractual, and tends to generate either effort or apathy.

This contractual and conditional style of preaching occurs in Christian contexts all the time. Lets look at some examples:

If you repent and believe in Jesus, you will be saved and go to heaven after you die.

Notice that the reward promised for fulfilling the conditions is highly desirable; under most definitions of the word “heaven,” the reward here is something that anyone should definitely be willing to chase after. But a question is raised: will it be easy or hard for me to repent and believe in Jesus? Most confessing evangelicals today would probably claim to find it fairly easy, because they have already been convinced by the various apologetics they have heard in favour of Christianity. Furthermore, someone might hear this promise and think to themselves “I’m not such a bad person; I don’t steal, murder or take drugs. I just need to watch my language and change the music I listen to.” However what might seem simple and straightforward to one might be completely soul crushing and impossible for another. What about the struggling Christian who really wants to believe but is racked with doubts? Suddenly “Just believing in Jesus” doesn’t seem so easy. What about an addict who is utterly enslaved to her vice? Telling her to “repent” will come across as an impossible demand, and generate despair. After looking at the issue closer, it turns out that when “faith” is understood with its full theological and scriptural weight, this statement presents us with a contractual reward which seems more and more impossible to attain the more you chase after it.

If you donate all of your wealth to the poor, sell all of your possessions, renounce marriage and become a missionary in China, you will be blessed with eternal life.

Someone hearing such a statement might respond like so: “Things are getting more serious. Do I really have to do all of that in order to please God and go to heaven? I want to get married and have kids, and my IT career is currently on fire; does God really need me to give all of that up ‘for the sake of the kingdom?’ I suppose it is possible to fulfil these conditions, but it sounds incredibly difficult.”

If you do not obey the moral law perfectly, Almighty God will condemn you to everlasting perdition.

Someone hearing this promise might respond like so: “Oh no. This is the most terrible thing anyone has ever told me. I complain about Pope Francis regularly. I can’t stand praying the rosary. I spend too much money on whiskey and don’t give enough to the homeless people at the bus stop (what is enough?). I smoke too much. I am a slave to vice. I’m definitely going to Hell.

Variations of these statements are regularly preached from the pulpit in both Catholic and Protestant circles. Catholics tend towards moral exhortations to works of charity, while Protestants tend towards exhortations to “believe harder!” The key thing uniting all these statements is that they have an “If … then …” conditional grammatical structure, and all of them – when spoken – generate either apathy, despair, or works in the listeners. This is the essence of what it means to preach law.

Preaching Gospel

Now consider the following statements:

Because you have scored straight HDs at Uni this year, I’m giving you a month-long holiday to Europe!

Because I love you, I am going to wine and dine you at Opera Bar tonight.

Because you are struggling with your Latin so much, I’m going to spend an hour with you every night for the next month to help you pass your tests.

Notice how differently these statements hit home: In these cases, the burden for fulfilling the condition falls on the speaker rather than the listener. The person to whom these promises are spoken has only two possible responses: Trust the promise or not give a damn. But the crucial point is that the burden for fulfilling the promise falls on the speaker; the listener has no real say in the matter: “I love you and I’m going to spoil you” depends on the person saying it for fulfilment, rather than the person hearing it. Such language thus generates either faith alone, or apathy. This contrasts with the law-flavoured examples from earlier all of which generate effort and works.

Now consider the following “Christian” flavoured unconditional promises:2

Because God is unconditional love, therefore all of your sins are completely and forever forgiven. You may therefore let go all of your guilt and self-condemnation.

Because God is unconditional love, therefore you can stop trying to earn your way into God’s good graces. You are already accepted by him.

Because God is unconditional love, therefore you are assured a place in the kingdom. His love will triumph over your disbelief and sin.

This style of Christian proclamation is kerygmatic, in that when proclaimed from the pulpit, it will infallibly generate either faith or apathy in the people in the pews. No other alternative responses are open to a listener; either they will simply trust the promise (have faith), or their curiosity will be aroused towards such trust with relevant questions, or they will become angry, outraged and disbelieving: “How dare you contradict my freedom like that” a Catholic might object: “Who are you to say whether or not I’m elect” a Calvinist might fume.

The Sola Fide doctrine is simply a claim that all kerygmatic preaching must follow the “Because … therefore … ” grammatical structure in order to be effective. Any conditional preaching will always generate works and striving as a response, while unconditional preaching of this sort simply cannot generate striving/works/efforts, but rather must always generate either faith alone, or a living damnation of disbelief and outrage. Such preaching is thus understood to be an unleashing of the final judgement into the present moment: will you trust God in this moment as he declares his unconditional love for you and your certainly assured salvation? Or will you instead find some reason to object and disbelieve in anger and outrage?

There is much that could be written on this theme, but hopefully these examples are sufficient to demonstrate the law/gospel dichotomy when it comes to proclaiming the gospel and preaching homilies. The Lutheran conviction is that Christ is the kerygmatic word incarnate, and whenever one believer unconditionally promises salvation to someone in the name of Christ, Christ himself is there in the words that are spoken and the moment becomes a final judgement unleashed into the here and now for that person: If they trust the spoken word of unconditionally promised salvation, they experience the joy of the kingdom right here and right now. If they object to the promise and find reasons to deny it, they plunge into a experience of Hell and damnation right here and now.

A final note on this theme: The unconditional gospel promise must always be personalised to individual situations in order to be effective. Here are some more specific and practical examples of such kerygmatic “faith alone” preaching:3

Because Jesus has promised that your life is and will be fulfilled in his coming kingdom, you may give generously toward the feeding and sheltering of the poor.

Because Jesus was faithful to you unto death and beyond death, you may be faithful to your marital vows.

Because the cross of Jesus is the way of peace and life, you may stop abusing your spouse.

Because Jesus will provide for both you and your baby, no matter what hardship you may have to endure, you may unequivocally renounce the killing of your unborn child.

Because Christ is your food unto everlasting life, you may fast and embrace the ascetical disciplines

To conclude this section, I would like to draw attention to the fact that nothing said here is meant as an ordo salutis. The question sola fide answers is not “How do I get saved?” but rather “How do I preach the Gospel?” and therefore all of this is compatible with the Catholic sacramental economy. Luther himself understood this, which is why he strongly insisted on the importance of confession, baptism and the Eucharist. I will discuss how it is relevant to the Eucharist next.

Exegesis and analysis of the Roman Canon

Sola fide is not only a rule for preaching, but also a way of understanding what happens during the sacraments. In the seven sacraments, the unconditional kerygmatic promise is being spoken in shorthand via the sacramental words and at various other moments in the relevant sacramental liturgies. It is possible to analyse all of the sacraments – and even minor sacramentals and indulgences – under a sola fide lens to great result; Luther himself had wonderful things to say on this theme with respect to the sacraments of Confession, Baptism and Eucharist. Here I will restrict my analysis to the Eucharist. I have chosen to analyse the mass according to the 1962 missal, as this is more representative of deeper Catholic tradition and more closely reflects the liturgy as it would have been around the time of the reformation.

During the Confiteor, the priest and the servers alternate in a short liturgy of confession and absolution which runs like so:

Priest: Confiteor Deo omnipotenti, beatae Mariae semper Virgini, beato Michaeli Archangelo, beato Joanni Baptistae, sanctis Apostolis Petro et Paulo, omnibus Sanctis, et tibi Pater: quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo, et opere: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Ideo precor beatam Mariam semper Virginem, beatum Michaelem Archangelum, beatum Joannem Baptistam, sanctos Apostolos Petrum et Paulum, omnes Sanctos, et te Pater, orare pro me ad Dominum Deum nostrum.

Server: Misereatur vestri omnipotens Deus, et dimissis peccatis vestris, perducat vos ad vitam aeternam.

Priest: I confess to almighty God, to the blessed Mary ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints, and to you, Father, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore I beseech the blessed Mary, ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, all the Saints, and you, Father, to pray to the Lord our God for me.

Server: May almighty God be merciful unto you, and forgiving you your sins, bring you to everlasting life.

This section of the liturgy is interesting and relevant for an analysis according to the grammar of sola fide. Here we have the priest and the server each confessing their sinfulness, and each absolving each other of sin. This hints at the “Gospel of unconditional forgiveness” as mentioned in the previous section. It could be argued however that it doesn’t quite hold up because the absolution is done with a subjunctive verb, rather than an indicative/declarative one. Rather than proclaiming forgiveness to each other as a given fact, the priest and server absolve each other by means of a petition to God. I propose that this early exchange sets the scene for what is about to take place during the course of the liturgy. The priest and the server confess their sins and together pray for forgiveness, and then together they embark on the work of the liturgy, by the end of which their prayers will be answered.

One other curious thing to note before moving on is the following concluding prayer for absolution that the priest offers:

Indulgentiam, absolutionem, et remissionem peccatorum nostrorum, tribuat nobis omnipotens et misericors Dominus.

May the almighty and merciful Lord grant us pardon, absolution, and remission of our sins.

The interesting thing here is that the priest is “speaking the gospel to himself.” Although again, the fact that it is a subjunctive clause rather than an indicative one weakens the point.

The next point in the liturgy to stop and dwell is the prayers at the consecration, particularly the oblation of the Victim to God (the Hanc Igitur):

Hanc igitur oblationem servitutis nostrae, sed et cunctae familiae tuae, quaesumus Domine, ut placatus accipias: diesque nostros in tua pace disponas, atque ab aeterna damnatione nos eripi, et in electorum tuorum jubeas grege numerari: Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

We therefore, beseech Thee, O Lord, to be appeased and accept this oblation of our service, as also of Thy whole family; and to dispose our days in Thy peace, preserve us from eternal damnation, and rank us in the number of Thine Elect. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

There is a presumption that these prayers are efficacious in the context of the mass, and that they therefore state the agenda for what the priest and congregation are aiming to achieve by their liturgy. With this in mind, it’s important to take note of the fact that the priest prays that all who are present would be “ranked in the number of the elect.” This is highly relevant to the gospel promise of unconditional predestination, election and final perseverance. All of the prayers being racked up during the buildup to the consummation at the climax of the mass are a description of what Christs sacrifice efficaciously achieves, and therefore the entire mass could be understood simply a long and elaborate description of what Christ’s sacrifice has achieved. Here, we see that it has achieved the election of the congregation; the faithful attending mass are being promised by means of the mass that they are elect.4 As we will see shortly, this long list of prayers and petitions are transformed into promises at the climax of the liturgy, when all that the alter-christus has prayed for is secured and guaranteed by the consummation.

We arrive at the words of institution:

Hoc est enim Corpus meum. Hic est enim Calix Sanguinis mei, novi et aeterni Testamenti: Mysterium fidei: qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum.

For this is My Body. For this is the Chalice of My Blood of the new and eternal Testament, the Mystery of Faith; which shall be shed for you and for the many unto the remission of sins.

Luther located the core of the gospel as “promise” in these words, and saw them as the basis and guarantee of the real, substantial presence of Christ in the host. Specifically, when the priest says “This is my body,” these are Christs own words being repeated again in his name and person. The same promise of sacramental presence spoken by Christ himself on Holy Thursday is repeated by him again at this moment of the mass. To have faith in these words is to have faith in the unconditional gospel. Crucially, the words are unconditional. They are – for example – not “If you believe, then this is my body” or “If you are in the state of grace, then this is my body.” Rather, the words are plain, simple and unconditional. Christ is claiming identity with what appears to us as bread and wine, and this is simply the fact and reality of the matter regardless of how we think or feel about it. The correct response is to trust the words and believe in the real presence. Incorrect responses include over-theologizing about it or flatly denying it. One last thing to note about these words is the latin pro vobis et pro multis. Many people twist this part of the sacramental words in order to argue against universalism, claiming that “many” is a different word to “all” and therefore universalism is false. A whole paper could be written showing how stupid and short-sighted this argument is, however I’ll just quickly note two points of refutation. Firstly, Latin is a language which lacks articles, and in Greek – the original language of the mass – the words would be rendered with a definite article and would therefore translate as “the many” which is in actual fact an idiom for “everyone.” Secondly, the context of the mass should be enough to understand the statement. Christ is saying “this is the cup of my blood which is shed for your (ie, everyone present during this particularly liturgy, the saved, the elect) salvation, and also for their salvation (ie, those who are not present during this particular liturgy, aka the damned, the reprobates).” The vobis is a promise addressed to those believers present in the pews, and the multis is that same promise addressed to the souls wandering in the darkness outside the portal of the church where this mass is taking place. These words therefore have a missionary connotation: Christ speaks his promise of salvation to all who are present at his sacrifice (who as we have established, are the elect), but he also desires to speak that same promise to those who remain wandering in the darkness of the κοσμος (ie, the multis; the damned, the lost). In the Novus Ordo, this point is driven home by the dismissal “[You have been saved just now, so] Go and announce the Gospel of the lord [to the damned outside the church who need to hear it (Aka, invite all your friends to mass next Sunday)]” The work of Christ isn’t complete until the final eschatological liturgy where all of the multis have been brought in and become addressed as vobis. At this point, when literally everyone is gathered before the altar and addressed as vobis, universal salvation will finally be a reality, rather than a mere heresy. Until then, masses and missionary activity to the damned must continue.

Moving on to the final part of the mass. The promise has been spoken, but when will the promise be fulfilled? In one sense, only at the end of an eternity. But in the context of the mass, the promises are fulfilled shortly after being spoken, when the priest and the faithful consume the host. At this point, the priest makes what is perhaps the most explicit proclamation of the promise so far:

Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen.

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve thy soul unto life everlasting. Amen.

Here, the verb is neither subjunctive nor indicative, it is imperative. The theological linguistics here are incredibly dense and profound. This statement is simultaneously a prayer, a promise and a command. Salvation becomes personal and efficacious at this point, and immediately after the “amen” the communicant receives their salvation – the divine Christ himself – onto their tongue. To someone without the eyes of faith, it is just a moment where you have to chew on a tasteless wafer. But for those with the eyes of faith, this moment is loaded with eschatological significance, as it is the moment when all of the many prayers and petitions and promises that have been rumbled thus far during the liturgy are sealed, achieved, guaranteed and brought to final fulfilment. At the point where the teeth and tongue consume Christ, the communicant is receiving the fullness of their heavenly inheritance and knows (or at least, should know!) that they are elect and predestined to heaven. All fear and doubt melts away and all that remains is love, joy and blissful blessedness.

Conclusion

It might seem anticlimactic that we don’t just find ourselves whisked away to heaven, the beatific vision and the resurrection at the moment we receive our host.5 But Christ clearly has other plans for us. Just as he descends to Hell to save the damned on Holy Saturday, the end of the mass is also a new beginning for us, and arguably this is the significance of the fact that the final prayer is the prologue of John’s gospel, which is a description of the very beginning of the entire story. As the mass ends we are sent back into the darkness outside the church doors to announce the Gospel to those who haven’t heard it, and entice them to “come and see” Christ for themselves, and hear his promise for themselves. The mass ends and we leave the church to return to the darkness of the κοσμος because there are still a multitude of lost souls out there who need to hear the unconditional kerygma, and we are the ones who have to tell them. The vobis have already heard the kerygmatic gospel promise, but the multis are yet to hear and trust it. But as Saint Origen always knew, the ending is in the beginning, and so we finish the mass with the following words of victorious and salvific promise:

In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc erat in principio apud Deum. Omnia per ipsum facta sunt: et sine ipso facum est nihil quod factum est: in ipso vita erat, et vita erat lux hominum: et lux in tenebris lucet, et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was made nothing that was made: in Him was life, and the life was the Light of men; and the Light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness can never conquer it.

1These and the other statements I will use were heavily inspired by Fr. Al. Kimel’s writings on similar themes. However I believe I have refashioned and repurposed them sufficiently that fine-grained citations are not essential.

2These examples have been taken verbatim from Fr Al. Kimel.

3These examples also have been taken from Fr Al. Kimel.

4One might want to dispute this analysis, but to do so would be tantamount to claiming that the sacrament of the Eucharist and the prayers of the mass are not efficacious, as if the things which Jesus tells us to pray for during mass will ultimately not be granted by the Father. It seems more reasonable to me to have faith that everything we pray for during the liturgy will be (indeed, has been) granted, including election and the grace of final perseverance.

5But then again, perhaps we do?

Babette’s Feast: Reflection

There are two Christ-figures in this movie: Firstly, the Pietist minister who is also the father of Martine and Phillippa, and secondly, Babette herself.

Christ Figure: The Minister

In the early scenes of the movie – set during Martine and Phillippa’s youth – all seems to be well in the Jutland village, as their father the respected minister holds together the community. This idyllic atmosphere juxtaposes dissonantly with the scenes set chronologically later, when the minister has been dead for quite some time and the community has become old and bitter, with the townsfolk holding deep grudges against each other and constantly quarrelling, despite the efforts of Martine and Phillippa to maintain peace and faith. This juxtaposition evokes a similar situation in the history of the Church: While Christ was present, there was an explosion of faith and unity among the apostles and disciples, however ever since Christ ascended to heaven time has marched on, and over the subsequent two millennia the history of Christianity has been a slow and vicious descent into toxic schisms and brutal antagonisms between all of the various Christian communions and denominations. So the minister is similar to Christ in the sense that he was a tangible focal point of unity for his community, and in his absence things slowly fall apart.

Another way in which the minister comes across as “Christlike” is when – during the feast itself – one of the ladies remembers and shares a story with the dinner guests about a time when the minister “walked on water,” evoking the biblical episode where Jesus does the same in Matthew 14. Admittedly, in this case the miracle is different: the minister promises to walk on water, and then right on schedule there is a flash storm and the water freezes, making the feat possible. In this case the miracle is the conveniently timed freezing of the water, rather than the “walking” itself, however the analogy between the minister and Christ is still pointed.

During the feast itself, the villagers remember and share many more stories about the minister. One gets the impression they haven’t engaged in such remembering and sharing for quite some time, and this act of “remembering” has the obvious effect of injecting some joy and mirth into the feast, as well as healing the sin and brokenness that has come to divide the villagers. There is an analogy here with the eucharist; just as the villagers remember their departed master and this breathes life into their community, so too the mass is a memorial where the faithful recall the person and miraculous exploits of Jesus.1

John Paul II in his encyclical “Ecclesia De Eucharistia” says the following:

19. The eschatological tension kindled by the Eucharist expresses and reinforces our communion with the Church in heaven.

This can be applied to the feast, because during the feast the minister who had long been departed was made present again. It is similar to how during the mass all of the angels and saints are truly present in a spiritual sense even if physically absent.

Christ Figure: Babette

The obvious parallel between Christ and Babette is their respective “total gifts of self;” Christ lays down his life and suffers on behalf of the entire world, for the sake of winning salvation for humanity and the cosmos; and Babette spends literally all of her material wealth on preparing a lavish feast to give thanks to the villagers who have received her into their community and the sisters who have received her into their home.

John Paul II in his encyclical “Ecclesia De Eucharistia” says the following:

47. Reading the account of the institution of the Eucharist in the Synoptic Gospels, we are struck by the simplicity and the “solemnity” with which Jesus, on the evening of the Last Supper, instituted this great sacrament. There is an episode which in some way serves as its prelude: the anointing at Bethany. A woman, whom John identifies as Mary the sister of Lazarus, pours a flask of costly ointment over Jesus’ head, which provokes from the disciples – and from Judas in particular (cf. Mt 26:8; Mk 14:4; Jn 12:4) – an indignant response, as if this act, in light of the needs of the poor, represented an intolerable “waste”. But Jesus’ own reaction is completely different. While in no way detracting from the duty of charity towards the needy, for whom the disciples must always show special care – “the poor you will always have with you” (Mt 26, 11; Mk 14:7; cf. Jn 12:8) – he looks towards his imminent death and burial, and sees this act of anointing as an anticipation of the honour which his body will continue to merit even after his death, indissolubly bound as it is to the mystery of his person.

There is a parallel to be drawn between the episode of Christ being lavished with perfume and oil, and the fact that Babette spends literally all of her money on the sisters. The sisters are shocked and worry that Babette has spent all of her wealth of them in an extravagant waste. However just as Jesus praises Mary for her devoted spoiling of the king of the universe, Babette explains to Phillippa and Martina that “An artist is never poor,” and that she finds more joy in bringing happiness to the village with her money, rather than spending it on herself.

There are however further – less obvious – parallels. For example, Babette does not only bless the villagers through her special feast, but in other ways too. At one point Martine exclaims “Since Babette came, we have more money than before!” There is an analogy here with Christ’s many miracles, particularly the miraculous catch of fish2 and also his many miracles of healing: such miracles are tangible blessings which Christ brought to those around him during his time on earth, and there is an analogy with how Babette’s presence in the community brings material blessings to the sisters.

There are also interesting parallels between Babette and Christ in terms of kenosis. Babette does not broadcast her past achievements and status to the villagers, and they are unaware that they have the most prestigious and famous chef in Europe living amongst them. Similarly, Christ is the king of the universe and God in the flesh, but during his earthly life he was very careful in how he revealed this fact, and many understood him to be nothing more than “the carpenters son.” Babette’s kenosis is made particularly obvious in the scene with the ale bread, where the sisters teach Babette how to cook the local cuisine (which is particularly penitential and unappetising – basically bread dipped in some sort of edible sludge). The sisters are clearly completely unaware who they are talking to. This is similar to the kenosis of Christ: Christ is the omniscient God himself, but he humbled himself such that he lived the stages of human life from newborn to toddler to child to adolescent to adult. Christ had to study the Torah just like everyone else, even though -unknown to his teachers – Jesus was literally the author of the very same scriptures he was being made to study. There is a moment where Babette herself eats the village gruel, which is a humiliation analogous to the humiliation Christ had to endure in his passion, or even in the fact that he lived a human life like everyone else, complete with tiredness and trips to the toilet. The kenosis of Babette concludes with her final revelation of her true identity at the end of the film, which is a particularly powerful moment. There are analogies with Christ, for example the revelation of his identity in Mark 8, or his resurrection appearances.

At one point during the dinner, Lorenz reminisces about the time he dined at the Cafe Anglais: This head chef, this woman, had the ability to turn a dinner into a kind of love affair. A love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite,” which is a good segue to the feast itself.

The Feast

At one point in the movie Phillippa and Martine are trying to lead the villagers in song, but during the singing the villagers keep quarrelling and squabbling with each other, to the dismay of the sisters. Curiously, during the feast, there is a moment where two of the male villagers repeat their prior angry exchange with each other more or less verbatim, but this time with smiles and laughter rather than angst and condemnation: the strife which had been a point of contention earlier has become a joke to laugh about. There is an analogy here with the healing grace of God: God can change our minds3 such that we see things in a different and more positive light. Babette’s feast and the remembering of the minister is a means for such a change of perspective, just as the Eucharist and the memorial liturgy are means by which God’s grace can touch our hearts and imbue us with a more loving disposition towards each other.

It is interesting to note that all of the village folk choose to wear black to the feast. This could be interpreted as symbolic of their being in a state of spiritual death; entirely lacking love for each other. This in turn hints at the “resurrection” that is to come during the feast. After Phillippa has a nightmare about the sinfulness of the feast to come, the village folk agree that they will all refuse to enjoy the feast; merely eating it but refusing to taste it and take pleasure in it. There is an analogy here with damnation, where a soul wilfully rejects God’s delightful gift of grace. But as it turns out, the food Babette prepares is so amazing and tasty that the villagers will to resist is overpowered. This is clearly a commentary on the irresistible nature of Grace: God forces no one to love him, but he is so infinitely beautiful and so entirely desirable that ultimately his grace shatters all the defences we dare to throw up against him: we can’t help but love the Christ revealed in us, and we can’t help but love ourselves revealed in Christ.

One interesting analogy between the meal and the mass is that they both are able to unite all sorts of people from all quarters of society around the same table. Babette’s dinner brings someone with the royal dignity of General Lorenz, and sits him among the common folk of the village, where they all share in the same wonderful meal. There is an analogy here with how the Eucharist unites kings, presidents and prime ministers with the poor and the middle class; with all standing as equals before the sacrificial altar of Christ.4

John Paul II in his encyclical “Ecclesia De Eucharistia” says the following:

43. In considering the Eucharist as the sacrament of ecclesial communion, there is one subject which, due to its importance, must not be overlooked: I am referring to the relationship of the Eucharist to ecumenical activity. We should all give thanks to the Blessed Trinity for the many members of the faithful throughout the world who in recent decades have felt an ardent desire for unity among all Christians. The Second Vatican Council, at the beginning of its Decree on Ecumenism, sees this as a special gift of God. It was an efficacious grace which inspired us, the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church and our brothers and sisters from other Churches and Ecclesial Communities, to set forth on the path of ecumenism.

There are fundamental links here with the ecumenism of Babette’s feast. Firstly, despite being about a Protestant community, it is the Catholic Pope Francis’ favourite film. Secondly, Babette herself is assumed to be Catholic, but she is the servant of the protestant village community. Finally, Achille Papin explicitly identifies himself as Catholic to the – protestant – minister, however the minister charitably welcomes him despite the difference of cult. The movie therefore has subtle but important ecumenical themes.

Lorenz

General Lorenz makes many soliloquies and speeches throughout the story which provides most of the theological substance of the film. There is a pointed juxtaposition between the conclusion of young Lorenz’ stay in the village early in the film, with the conclusion of his visit for the feast. The first time, Lorenz delivers the following pessimistic speech:

I am going away forever and I shall never never see you again. For I have learned here that life is hard and cruel and that in this world there are things that are … impossible. I will forget what happened on the Jutland coast. From now I shall look forward not backward. I will think of nothing but my career, and some day… I will cut a brilliant figure in the world of prestige.

Immediately prior to the feast, we are introduced to a much older Lorenz who has succeeded in his mission to chase worldly fame and fortune. He is depressed and spiritually empty, imagining his younger, more idealistic self sitting in a chair before him, and saying the following:

Vanity. Vanity. All… is vanity. I have found everything you dreamed of and satisfied your ambition. But to what purpose? Tonight we two shall settle our scores. You must prove to me that the choice I made was the right one.

After the feast concludes and he is departing the village, the old Lorenz has finally “seen the light,” and delivers a speech to Phillippa more or less exactly opposite to the one he delivered earlier in the film:

I have been with you every day of my life. Tell me you know that. Yes, I know it. You must also know that I shall be with you every day that is granted to me from now on. Every evening I shall sit down to dine with you. Not with my body which is of no importance, but with my soul. Because this evening I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.

Lorenz could be taken as a reflection of the rich young man who approaches Jesus asking how to be saved. Lorenz renounces the simple joys of love and romance with a soulmate in order to pursue secular success and material wealth. He comes to learn that he made the wrong choice, but nevertheless leaves the feast feeling restored and happy.5

1This occurs most particularly during the gospel reading, but also in a sense during the other readings and the entire liturgy.

2Luke 5:1-11

3The literal meaning of “repentance.”

4Depending on your theological temperament, you might even admit that “both sinners and saints stand equal before the altar”

5Perhaps there is a point to be made here about how the free-will defence of Hell is utter nonsense: God does not – with negligent abandon – “respect” our self-destructive choices to reject him. Instead, God’s grace is able to overcome our refusal to love and lift us up into salvation regardless of what choices we make in life. The theological moral of the story is the classic evangelical principle that salvation depends on God, not on us (or our choices). The general chased riches rather than love, and it is explicitly pointed out many times that he “made the wrong choice,” yet by the end of the movie he had been saved by the feast regardless.

The Immigration Policy of Paradise: How and why Heaven should secure its border with Hell

Thought Experiment

You go to Heaven but your family goes to Hell. How do you feel?

  1. The traditional option: Nothing can subtract from the joy of heaven, and everything you experience can only increase that joy. Furthermore, you participate in God’s omniscience and have a direct and intimate knowledge of your family being tormented across the southern border. For these reasons, you experience sublime delight and sadistic pleasure as you witness your family burn. You rejoice at God’s justice and glory, crying tears of ecstatic joy as you watch your loved ones brutally torn asunder before your eyes for all eternity: Dignum et Iustum est. You consider it strictly essential to build and maintain an unbridgeable chasm between heaven and hell,1 and in the upcoming 2021 divine election you will only vote for an angelic candidate who runs his campaign on the promise that he will force the damned to pay for said chasm.

  2. The heroin addiction option: You are so entirely overwhelmed by God’s glorious presence that you cease to be aware of anything else. Your family ceases to matter to you: You simply do not care about them any more. God’s love is just so enticing and addictive that you no longer care about anything other than your own pleasure and bliss. Nothing can be allowed to subtract from your hard-earned heavenly reward, and therefore you happily consent to undergo a spiritual lobotomy so as to remain completely unaware of those who were not so fortunate. Ignorance is bliss; bliss is heaven. No need to for you to worry about the fate of your family, let alone all those other riff-raff clamouring at the border for St. Peter to allow them through the gates of paradise.

  3. The loving and charitable option: You love your family so much that you are aghast and horrified as you witness them burn. The joy of heaven cannot be complete unless they too are saved. With this in mind, you organise a mission to Hell, descending into the darkness to minister to the lost souls who are trapped there and doing everything you can to help them repent and escape their terrible fate.

Which response sounds the most Christian to you?

Introduction

Options 1, 2 and 3 correspond to popular positions on the issue in Catholicism, Evangelicalism and Mormonism2 respectively. Option 1 in particular was famously formulated by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica:3

It is written: “The just shall rejoice when he shall see the revenge.” Further, it is written: “They shall satiate the sight of all flesh.” Now satiety denotes refreshment of the mind. Therefore the blessed will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked.

A thing may be a matter of rejoicing in two ways. First directly, when one rejoices in a thing as such: and thus the saints will not rejoice in the punishment of the wicked. Secondly, indirectly, by reason namely of something annexed to it: and in this way the saints will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked, by considering therein the order of Divine justice and their own deliverance, which will fill them with joy. And thus the Divine justice and their own deliverance will be the direct cause of the joy of the blessed: and the punishment of the damned will cause their joy indirectly.4

Due to the high prestige enjoyed by Aquinas and the quasi-magisterial status which contemporary Catholics tend to bestow on his writings, this stance on the diplomatic relations between Heaven and Hell has garnered significant support among theologically astute lay people, clerics and theologians.

The second option is a common position taken by evangelicals, considered broadly, however some Calvinists also tend towards the first alternative. I will not dwell on this option in this paper.

The third option has a precedent in the Orthodox and Catholic tradition in the form of Christ’s harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday – and I will meditate on this further below – however it has received its most full and robust expression in the official theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

In this paper I will examine the Latter Day Saint doctrine of “Afterlife ministry” and argue that – despite its seeming novelty to non-Mormons – it is the logical offspring of two mainline Christian doctrines: The Harrowing of Hell and Salvation as Theosis.

The Latter Day Saint Doctrine of Afterlife Ministry

The core scriptural basis in the LDS canon for the doctrine of afterlife ministry is to be found in the Doctrine and Covenants, section 138. There have also been many other LDS magisterial writings and pronouncements on the topic, however for this paper I will restrict my survey to the LDS standard works.

The 6th President of the LDS Church – Joseph F. Smith5 – recalls how he was reflecting on Holy Saturday (specifically the minimal account as described in the second Petrine Epistle), and wondering how Christ could have possibly preached to all the spirits in prison:

And I wondered at the words of Peter—wherein he said that the Son of God preached unto the spirits in prison, who sometime were disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah—and how it was possible for him to preach to those spirits and perform the necessary labor among them in so short a time. And as I wondered, my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them; But behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to fall the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead.6

As can be seen in verse 30, Joseph Smith recounts how his “eyes were opened” and he “perceived” that Christ sent missionaries to the damned. Smith here records an understanding that Christ was not alone in his mission to “the spirits in prison.” Rather, Christ “organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority … to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness.” Smith goes on to elaborate:

And the chosen messengers went forth to declare the acceptable day of the Lord and proclaim liberty to the captives who were bound, even unto all who would repent of their sins and receive the gospel. Thus was the gospel preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets. These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, And all other principles of the gospel that were necessary for them to know in order to qualify themselves that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.7

Smith here fleshes out the details of what exactly the missionary activity to the damned involves. It apparently involves – among other things – a robust education in correct doctrine.

And so it was made known among the dead, both small and great, the unrighteous as well as the faithful, that redemption had been wrought through the sacrifice of the Son of God upon the cross. Thus was it made known that our Redeemer spent his time during his sojourn in the world of spirits, instructing and preparing the faithful spirits of the prophets who had testified of him in the flesh; That they might carry the message of redemption unto all the dead, unto whom he could not go personally, because of their rebellion and transgression, that they through the ministration of his servants might also hear his words.8

Smith continues to describe how – as a result of this afterlife ministry – all people (both righteous and unrighteous) are provided with all that they need to know in order to make an informed choice for or against Christ.

The dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God, And after they have paid the penalty of their transgressions, and are washed clean, shall receive a reward according to their works, for they are heirs of salvation. Thus was the vision of the redemption of the dead revealed to me, and I bear record, and I know that this record is true, through the blessing of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, even so. Amen.9

Finally, Smith makes it clear that just as salvation requires obedience during this life, so too salvation requires obedience in the afterlife. This is important for Latter Day Saints due to their strong emphasis on the doctrine of free agency. Mormons and Catholics alike are united in the conviction that God can not and will not force anyone to be saved, and that salvation is an offer that must be freely accepted.

So in summary, the LDS doctrine is that in the afterlife the righteous saints who successfully made it to heaven will be organised by Christ into missionary squads, after which they will descend into Hell/Purgatory and proclaim the gospel to both those who are invincibly ignorant (ie, those who never received a theological education sufficient to make an informed decision for or against Christ) as well as those who have rejected Christ. In this way, the gospel is preached to all, and all receive another chance after death – even the damned are ministered to.10

The doctrine might sound strange to Catholic ears, but arguably it is compatible with the more mainstream and traditional expressions of Christian doctrine, such as found in Catholicism. To pursue that lead, we turn to a meditation on Theosis.

Theosis

Salvation in the eastern churches is conceptualised in terms of theosis. In the western churches this concept is often referred to by the term “divinization,” but it is not a commonly known doctrine in the west, and it is eastern Christendom which has most fully developed the idea. Theosis is neatly summed up by a couplet attributed to various of the church fathers: “God became man so that man might become God.” There is a sense in which salvation consists of becoming God. However theologians are careful to emphasise that we become God by participation in the life of the Trinity; we do not become God by alteration of our nature. In an analogous way to how Christ had a totally divine nature and a totally human nature, it can be argued that we too will have both divine and human natures once we are saved.11

There are different levels of theosis, just as there are different levels of participation in the life of the Trinity. What does it mean to share in the life of the Trinity? I propose that this is simply to experience a finite share in the infinite attributes of God. A saint shares in God’s power, knowledge, presence, benevolence and so on, but to a finite degree.

However, more importantly for this paper, theosis is arguably a participation in and reflection of Christ himself. To be like God is to be like Christ, and in the Gospels Christ invites us to follow him, and outlines his method in order for us to do so. Famously, Christ tells us to “take up our cross,” just as he takes up his cross. To die a Christlike death is therefore arguably one tangible expression of theosis. In Catholic theology, Christ is often spoken of as “Prophet, Priest and King,” and it is emphasised that every Christian participates in these three offices. Just as Christ is a prophet, Christians are called to be prophets; just as Christ is a priest, Christians are called to be a kingdom of priests; and just as Christ is a king, every Christian is called to participate in his reign. The exact details of how individual Christians manifest their participation in these offices are different from case to case.

I would now like to propose that Christians are called to participate in all aspects of Christ’s life and ministry, and that therefore, Christians are called to participate in Holy Saturday, aka The Harrowing of Hades. But first, what exactly is this doctrine?

Harrowing of Hell

The contemporary Catholic position on the doctrine of Christ’s descent to Hell is discussed in the Catechism paragraphs 631 to 637:

Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.12

As can be clearly seen in this paragraph, the Catholic church explicitly13 teaches that Christ’s descent to Hell was not a rescue mission directed towards the damned, and Christ supposedly only descended to Hell in order to rescue only the righteous who lived prior to Christ; those “Holy souls, who await their saviour in Abraham’s bosom.” So in a dramatic twist the Catholic church appears to be teaching the exact opposite of what Christ himself claims in Luke 5:31-32.14 Further, in this basic understanding of the descent, Holy Saturday was nothing more than a one time event – Christ descended just to tie up some loose ends – and under this understanding the doctrine of the decensus ad infernum does not appear to have much – if any – relevance for Catholics today.

The Catechism also outlines the other popular interpretation of the doctrine; namely, Christ’s salvific work was already complete by the time of the descent and therefore the only possible purpose of the descent would be for Christ to announce his victory to the dead:

The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.15

So the standard Catholic teaching is more or less that Christ descended to the dead only once, for the purpose of rescuing righteous pagans and the holy fathers and patriarchs of Israel that lived before Christ. Beyond this, the doctrine has no real significance for a Christian today.16

As it turns out, the earliest fathers (particularly in the east) had a more profound take on the doctrine of the descensus. For example, examine the following extract from St. John Chrysostom’s famous Easter homily – which has been officially incorporated into the Byzantine Divine Liturgy:

Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free: he that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into hell, he made hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of his flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, cried: “Hell was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.” It was embittered, for it was abolished.

It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory?

Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.

For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.17

Notice the highlighted sections of the homily. Chrysostom (and any Christian attending a church which prays the Byzantine Liturgy) quite clearly and powerfully proclaims here that Hell was completely abolished by Christ’s descent. This text clearly states that not one dead remains in the grave. It is usual for Catholics that are committed to a final distinction between saved and damned to push back against this with an attempt to water down the rhetoric; they will claim that the text is only referring to the universal resurrection, and Christ is not spoken of here as saving the damned. This is however extremely unlikely in light of the completely and utterly triumphant tone of the homily; it would be quite strange for the preacher to be proclaiming the universal resurrection in such a victorious tone if in actual fact some/most/many of the souls rescued from the grave are simplybeing resurrected to a fate worse than death.

It seems far more reasonable to take the homily at face value: Christ descended to Hell for the purpose of saving everyone; he descended to the grave so as to completely empty it of both saints and sinners. The descent was indeed the proclamation of Christ’s victory, but this proclamation is kerygmatic and therefore able to save those who hear it. The descent was not Christ gloating at sinners by proclaiming to them a salvation which they will never access; rather the descent was a rescue mission. Furthermore, there is reason to believe that the descent was not a one time event, but rather has a timeless dimension to it. Arguably all who die – whether before Christ or after – are affected by Holy Saturday; Arguably this is exactly why St. Chrysostom’s homily is read every Easter in the Byzantine churches; Holy Saturday is a reality right here and now, and rather than being restricted to a handful of righteous pagans and Jews who lived before Christ, the descent has relevance for all people; both sinners and saints, both the living and the dead.

Conclusion

Lets now tie all of this together. If the doctrine of theosis implies both that saints experience a finite participation in the divine attributes, and also that they participate directly in Christ himself by reflecting and continuing his mission, then surely this implies that all Christian saints participate in Holy Saturday, and therefore all Christian saints are called to participate in the descent to Hell. If Christians are called to die as Christ died and live as Christ lived; and if Christians are called by Jesus to “take up your cross and follow me;”18 might not this divine calling to become Christ-like also encompass a personal descent to Hell for each Christian? Further, if Christ’s descent to Hell was indeed a rescue mission to save both the righteous and the damned, surely each individual Christian saint is obliged by their salvific theosis to participate in that same rescue mission.

Look at this famous “Catholic” passage from scripture:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of Hell shall not prevail against it.19

In usual discussion of this verse, it is assumed that the “Church” is a fortress and the powers of Hell are laying siege to it. However a more literal translation brings out the original nuances:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will gather my assembly, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.20

In this rendition, it is clear that things are the other way around: Hell is the prison fortress, and the church is an assembly: an army. When Christ says he is going to build his church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it, the image is more accurately that of Christ the king, Peter the general, and a vast and growing army of saints, all of them together orchestrating a holy war against the forces of Hell and laying siege to the front gates of the infernal prison.

This more direct interpretation lines up quite nicely with the doctrine of Holy Saturday, and the Mormon doctrine of afterlife ministry. Christ has built – and is still building – an army of saints. This army of saints is waging warfare against Hell, and attempting to orchestrate a cosmic prison break. The damned souls who are stuck behind the gates of Hell can do nothing to save themselves, and can only prayerfully wait for Christ and his army of saints to break down the gates of their hellish prison and rescue them. But there is good news: Christ proclaims that the gates of hell will not prevail, and this is cause for great hope.

It can therefore be seen how the Mormon doctrine of afterlife ministry is not so far-fetched after all. Christ is building his army of saints, and both he and his army are on a rescue mission to break into Hell and rescue everyone from the clutches of the demonic prison masters. But the gates of Hell will not prevail, and in fact there is a powerful sense in which the universal rescue mission is guaranteed to be a success. As Chrysostom preached:

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in Hell.

Bibliography

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1911-1925.

Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1997.

1Luke 16:19-31

2Officially “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints”

3Admittedly St. Thomas’ formulation is more technical and less emotive than the version I outlined earlier, which apparently quite successfully takes the edge off its inherent ugliness in the eyes of many Catholics

4Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1911-1925), IIIa Suppl. q. 94, arts 3.

5As opposed to the Prophet Joseph Smith who started the Latter Day Saint movement as a whole

6D&C 138:28-30

7D&C 138:31-34

8D&C 138:35-37

9D&C 138:58-60

10As an aside, there are strong parallels with the bodhisattva vow made by some Mahayana Buddhists. Such Buddhists promise to descend back into saṃsāra to rescue all who are trapped in the clutches of worldly passion, vice and suffering. These spiritual warriors vow to refrain from dissolving into the bliss of mahāparinirvāṇa until universal salvation has been achieved. They promise to continue to descend back into the world again and again to teach divine love and compassion to those in darkness, until all have finally been saved.

11Important to note that Christ is essentially divine and only secondarily human, whereas we would be essentially human and only secondarily divine. The common ablative tossed around is that we will be divine by participation.

12Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1997), 633.

13Although arguably not dogmatically

14“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to save the righteous, but sinners.

15Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1997), 632.

16It should also be mentioned that there is a minority report among Catholics – influenced by Reformed thinkers – which claims that Christ’s descent to Hell was a suffering descent, wherein Christ actually suffered the full penalty for all sins ever committed. In the Catholic camp this position is primarily associated with Hans Urs Von Balthasar. It is a theologumenon with much merit, and any serious theologian who wants to construct a contemporary dogmatics of Holy Saturday should wrestle with Von Balthasar’s thought.

17St. John Chrysostom, Paschal Homily.

18Matt 16:24

19Matt 16:18

20Matt 16:18