In the fascinating debate between Calvinists and Arminians, the issue of “Freedom” is key. For Arminians, nothing could be more obvious than the reality of free will, and they find evidence to back up this intuition in the pages of scripture; while for Calvinists, nothing could be more obvious than the bondage and enslavery of our wills to sin and evil, and the bible clearly backs up this conviction.
I recently came to an understanding of both sides of the issue, and I suspect that the two parties are simply talking past each other: When they use the word “Freedom”, they are talking about two different things. When Arminians assert that we are free, they mean to say that we are “free agents”, who have the power of self-determination, control over our own actions, and the power to choose between alternatives. Whereas when Calvinists assert that we are not free, they do not necessarily mean to deny that we have free agency and self-determination; what they mean to say is that our wills are enslaved to sin and evil, such that – if it weren’t for the liberating grace of God – we would always perform evil actions and make sinful choices.
Arminians – Freedom as the Power of Contrary Choice
The Arminian (and Catholic and Orthodox) conviction that we possess libertarian freedom rests on the idea that in order to truly love, we must not be coerced into doing so in any way or on any metaphysical level. If we love, it is because we freely choose to do so, and not because God forces us to do so.
This conviction flows on into more philosophical territory. Arminians wish to assert that we have free/libertarian “agency”: that is to say, God’s sovereignty does not determine our actions and choices. Neither are our actions and choices determined by prior causes as per the philosophy of hard determinism. Instead, the principle which determines our actions and choices rests entirely within ourselves as individuals.
An example to illustrate the idea: A person is offered a variety of fruits at lunch time and informed that they can only choose one. The person deliberates and then chooses between one of the alternatives on offer, for example, a banana. This choice is neither random nor determined by outside forces – it is solely the person himself who brings about the choice of fruit – a banana rather than an apple or orange.
Some Calvinists take an extreme view of God’s sovereignty and blow the maxim “God is in control” way out of proportion. Such Calvinists would disagree with the Arminian analysis of the prior example and would instead claim that it is God who determines the choice of fruit, not the individual person. This would indeed amount to a flat denial of self-determination, free agency and the power of contrary choice. However not all Calvinists share this extreme view of God’s sovereignty.
Calvinists: “We have no Freedom” – The Bondage of the Will
Most Calvinists, when pressed, would probably agree that humans possess free agency as defined above. However they would also emphasise their firm conviction that we do not possess free will. Instead of our will being free, our will is enslaved to sin, evil and the powers of darkness. The shorthand term “total depravity” is apt to summarise the situation. If it were not for God continually sending grace to us, we would always freely choose to sin rather than to love and do good. The more we sin, the more we become enslaved to that sin. And so if it were not for the action of God, we would simply descend further and further into evil and spiritual deformity.
Luther argued powerfully that our free agency, unassisted by grace, is unable to do good. Our free agency, left to it’s own devices, will always tend towards doing evil. Catholics dogmatically agree with this concept in the doctrine of concupiscence. Our wills are enslaved to sin. Our wills are in bondage to evil. The more we sin, the tighter the chains bind us.
In this way, humanity does not possess free will. We may very well have a free agency as the Arminians insist, in that our actions are not determined by God and our choices arise from within ourselves rather than being determined via divine sovereignty. Nevertheless our will is in a state of bondage. One component of the good news of the gospel is that God promises to liberate us from this slavery, and is in fact in the process of doing so. In the eschaton, our wills will be free again! In the end-times, our wills will be liberated from their slavery to Satan and the powers of darkness. However right now we are in the middle of the struggle, and this is why we sometimes sin and sometimes do good. The conviction here is that we are not free when we sin; instead, sin is a demonstration of our being in bondage to evil. On the other hand, when we love and do good, this is indeed a demonstration of a free will, or perhaps what is more accurately described as a liberated will.
Talking Past Each Other
When sacred scripture talks about freedom, it talks about it in these terms – bondage, slavery, liberation. It does not talk about it in philosophical categories of agency and determinism, regardless of whether or not those categories are true and useful. According to revelation, we are free when we do good and enslaved when we do bad.
Arminians often take their doctrine of freedom too far and end up insisting that humans have such a supreme and unassailable dignity to the point where absolutely nothing can have any influence on our choices, including the biblical concept of slavery to sin. The truth of the matter is that being enslaved to sin and suffering from total depravity does not nullify the fact that we are self-determining creatures who have the power to make distinct choices. All that it means is that the pool of choices that present themselves to us are always evil and sinful in nature, and this is the essence of the bondage of the will.
Whereas Calvinists sometimes push their doctrine of an enslaved will too far and end up denying that mankind has any free agency whatsoever. Such Calvinists put all their eggs in the “God is sovereign” basket and end up claiming that any experience of free agency is entirely illusory, because God himself is the one who is calling all the shots – including my “free” choices. Such Calvinists don’t understand that divine sovereignty does not necessarily contradict libertarian freedom. God is indeed in control, and he will succeed at bringing about the promised eschaton; nevertheless, he gives us true freedom and true agency, so that we can truly love him. He is not a divine puppet master pulling our strings.
A Middle Way
A middle path between the two extremes of Arminian “inviolable freedom” and Calvinist “Deterministic hyper-sovereignty” is helpful to examine. In this view of things, mankind does indeed possess the power of self-determination and free agency, as the Arminians insist, however our wills are also indeed enslaved to sin, as the Calvinists insist. All that this means is that we have free agency to choose between alternatives, however all of the alternatives that present themselves to us are sinful. In more traditional language, this is called “concupiscence” and “total depravity”.
Now, obviously the picture thus described does not accord with our experience of life and reality. The clear objection that presents itself is “I do not always sin, some times I love, sometimes I do good. I am clearly not totally depraved.” – This is quite true, and so some qualifications need to be introduced. Firstly, it is true that we do not always sin, however this reflects more on God than it does on us. The only reason we do not descend into a complete and entire depravity, is because our God is a God who delights in rescuing captives and freeing slaves. As such, God is always and everywhere sending us the sufficient grace we need in order to climb out of the pit of our sinto climb out of the pit of our sin and throw off the shackles that bind us to evil. The further we descend into depravity and evil, the greater the quantity of grace that God sends us. He is always giving us the opportunity and the means to turn from our sinful ways and repent, and all we need to do is give our consent.
What happens when we turn from sin and instead strive to do good? We become liberated. We finally possess the promised free will. God himself takes hold of us and shatters the chains that tie our wills to darkness and evil. Until God does this, our will is not free. The more and more that we consent to this liberation, and the more and more we cooperate with God’s grace, the more and more free we become. This freedom and liberation from sin could almost be seen as a slavery of another sort – instead of being slaves to sin, darkness, death, evil and the devil; we become slaves of love, righteousness, goodness, light and God himself. The theological traditions generally agree that in the end, we will be so enraptured by love that we will be impeccable – incapable of sinning. This is a paradoxical slavery opposed to the one in which we started, and interestingly, we call it the highest, most supreme form of freedom.
The Promise of Freedom
All of this considered, “free will” actually is just another eschatological promise that God makes to us. God promises us “freedom” as in “liberation”. Due to the fall, humanity would naturally be enslaved to sin. But God has always been fighting against this tendency, and he has always been attempting to liberate us from this slavery to sin. Insofar as we sin, we demonstrate slavery to sin, but insofar as we love, we demonstrate freedom to love. The promise of God is that one day we will be perfected in freedom; in other words, one day we will possess such a total liberation from slavery to sin that we will be impeccable. To the extent that we have faith in this promise, the promise actualises in our experience of life right here and now.
Of course, we still sin now, and this is evidence that God’s plans have not yet come to completion: Our God is a God who delights in rescuing captives from slavery, and he is in the process of doing this, and yet the fact that we still sin is evidence that God has not yet completed this process of liberation. The question is raised: can God fail to save us? Can God fail to deliver us from slavery? Can God fail to give us the freedom that he promises us?
The answer that the Catholic Universalist gives is a firm and resounding NO! God’s promises cannot be thwarted. If God promises us true freedom and impeccability in the eschaton, then that is damn well what is going to happen. We are all of us in the midst of a battle at the present time; a battle between Satan and Christ; a battle in which we are all partially enslaved to sin and partially liberated for love. Sometimes we are made more or less enslaved. Sometimes we are made more or less liberated. But the promise of God is that in the end-times he will be victorious: No one will be enslaved to sin; everyone will be completely and entirely liberated for love. Israel will exit Egypt and find it’s way to the promised land, even if it takes 40 years of wandering in the desert to get there. So too, we will all have our freedom from bondage to sin, no matter how long it takes and even at the greatest cost to God – If Christ was willing to endure a crucifixion and descent into Hell for the sake of the world, how could he leave any one of us behind? All without exception will be liberated from slavery to sin. All without exception will be made righteous. All without exception will be cleaned from spiritual dirtiness. All without exception will walk out of the darkness and into the light. All without exception will see the gates of heaven and enter, singing joyous hymns and doxologies to our good and glorious God.
God gives us freedom so that we can love him, he did not give us freedom so that we could damn ourselves. Freedom is good news. Freedom is salvation. Freedom is Gospel. Let us pray for the salvation of all and praise God for his beautiful promises of liberation. Amen.
I remember being surprised, baffled and deeply intrigued when I discovered that there were different canons of scripture out in the world. As time went on, I began to wonder what the implications were for ecumenism. I began to wonder what the implications were for faith: If a community of confirmed, faithful Christians firmly believe that God is speaking to them through a book which has not been approved by the infallible magisterium of the Holy Catholic Church, what does it mean?
I would like to propose a brief solution. The idea is that there are inspired scriptures which are catholic, which is to say “universal”. Such scriptures are addressed by God to every individual who has ever lived. These scriptures must be received and respected by anyone who is attempting to engage in theology. They cannot be discarded or dismissed. The canon of the universal scriptures was dogmatically promulgated by the council of Trent, and canonically promulgated many times prior to that at local councils.
However, there are also inspired scriptures which are not catholic. That is to say, they are local, private, or specific to a specific time, place or group of people. A classic example would be the Ethiopian Orthodox canon of scripture. The Ethiopian tradition includes many books which are not to be found outside of that specific church. Are we to simply dismiss this as a theological error by the Ethiopians? How can we do this, when their bishops are all validly ordained, and therefore their received liturgies are just as inspired as the approved Catholic liturgies? In this situation, whatever scripture they have read and received in their liturgy would logically also be inspired. The solution to this problem is to say that these texts are indeed inspired, however they are only addressed to the Ethiopian church: people who are outside of this church need not pay any attention to these texts. It is similar to the doctrine of “private revelation” in the Catholic church. These revelations are private, addressed to discrete groups of people rather than the whole of humanity.
Another example concerns the Eastern Orthodox canon. The Eastern Orthodox include three extra books and one extra psalm in their canon. These additions could be ecumenically received as local inspired texts, rather than catholic inspired texts. As such, they are relevant to churches in the eastern tradition, because they have been received within that tradition, however people who are not immersed in that tradition and do not have any connection to it do not need to heed these books.
The principle could be applied and extended out wide in order to encompass other religions and cults. For example the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have their own tradition within which certain scriptures have been received (for example, the Book of Mormon). If they were to one day come back into communion with the Holy Catholic Church, they could be permitted to retain their unique scriptures provided that they are understood to be local revelation rather than catholic revelation. Of course, it is to be assumed that their received scriptures are interpreted in a way that is consistent with the rest of the deposit of faith. In this particular case it would probably call for a purely allegorical interpretation of the Book of Mormon.
Potentially we could re-approach the Jews with this principle in mind. We could allow them to take the Hebrew old testament and apply it as they wish. Even though we know that the law is not binding on Christians, Jewish Christians may choose to follow the law regardless, as it is part of their tradition and heritage.
The Islamic traditions are also fair game. Potentially one day there will be an “Islamic Ordinariate” or a Sui Iuris church which traces it’s heritage to the Islamic world. Such a church would have a heavily Islamised liturgy, wherein the faithful pray the Salat towards the Eucharist set in a monstrance during adoration (for example). It would potentially by acceptable for them to retain the Qu’ran as a local inspired text within this tradition, provided that the Qu’ran is understood and interpreted in a way that is consistent with the deposit of faith. Potentially an edited, “Christian” edition of the Qu’ran could be produced which edits and deals with troublesome passages, however this would not be optimal.
The same principle could be used to inculturate all cultures and religious traditions: Let the people retain as much of what they already have as is possible, including their scriptures. Just be careful to make it clear that any scripture they bring to the table is local revelation rather than catholic revelation: It’s authoritative for people within that specific community, but not binding on anyone else.
This principle is helpful in evangelism, as it accords well with Paul’s admonition to “be all things to all people”. Paul wants us to be a Jew to Jews, a Muslim to Muslims, a Buddhist to Buddhists and a Hindu to Hindus. As missionaries we should strive to be as thorough in this task as we can, adopting as much of the local religion as we can in good conscience and without compromising our principles, so as to win the people over to Christ.
“When you’re getting raped in prison, I promise that I will never visit you”
– Kim Melanie Yao (Nee Herlihy, Nee Roberts). Self-titled “World’s greatest Mother.”
Quote repeated on multiple occasions, usually while I am visibly distressed and in the middle of an emotional crisis, seeking some sort of relief, explanation, apology, and/or just some modicum of release from the mounting pain and confusion. june 2019, july 2019, june 2020, december 2020, october 2021, november 2021
25 Now great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
Matthew 10:37-38 RSV-CE:
37 He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
These are harsh words from our lord and saviour. What could he possibly mean? We have to hate our families in order to follow Jesus to heaven? Doesn’t this contradict his commands (found elsewhere) to love our neighbour?
I have encountered certain bible commentaries in my time which have attempted to take the edge off of these passages. The Greek word translated “hate”, they say, really shouldn’t be understood as meaning “hate”; it should instead be understood as preferring one thing over another. So we shouldn’t actually hate our families; we should simply prefer God over them. Maybe there’s some truth to this exegesis, but honestly just taking the English at face value: “hate” is far different in nature to a simple preference of one thing over another.
We will return to these passages later, but for now I want to propose that rather than being too strong a choice of words, the word “hate” is in actual fact not strong enough to convey what Jesus was actually saying. We should not merely hate our families; we should be willing to see them cast headlong into everlasting damnation if that is what God wills. We should be willing to lovingly and devotedly follow Gods commands wherever they may lead, even if those commands make us uncomfortable and apparently contradict the love that God has poured into our hearts.
The Dark Night of the Soul – Salvation in Darkness
St John of the Cross is a western saint and mystic who is probably most remembered as the man who formulated the theology that has since been referred to by the shorthand “Dark night of the soul”. I will briefly outline the essence of this unique idea.
God is a good, kind, and loving God who enjoys lavishing good gifts upon us. He does this to everyone: young and old, believer and non-believer, Christians, Atheists, Muslims; everyone. Such gifts include good, tasty food and drink, good health, success in study, sport and romance, a bed to sleep in each night, clean water, breathable air, rain and sun to grow crops, familial love, friendship and so on. The Calvinists like to call this aspect of God’s loving disposition “Common Grace”, because these are gifts that are lavished upon all people without exception or distinction. Even a starving African child can detect such gifts from God in their life.
Now, when someone initially comes to faith in God, these gifts will seem to multiply exponentially: All of a sudden the soul is full of supreme and invincible joy as it contemplates the salvation that has been won for it in Christ through the cross. The soul seems to overflow with a pleasurable love for God and neighbour. The soul will seem so completely happy and content. Life will suddenly be full of purpose and meaning. The world seems far more colourful than it ever did before. Smiles and laughter will surround this soul.
But in a short time, the trials and tests will arrive thick and fast. The Christian is warned to expect persecution and suffering; how will they respond when it actually arrives? This is where the Dark night of the soul begins: some people are plunged deep into the dark night; most only experience a taste of it, presumably because God in his wisdom has decided that they are not strong enough to handle further trials.
What happens at this point, is that God progressively withdraws his gifts. Where before the soul was overflowing with joy and enjoying the wonderful gifts that God was bestowing on them, now the soul is receiving fewer and fewer gifts. The soul is being plunged into a darkness of sorts: most particularly, the soul experiences an “absence of God”. With the eyes of faith, the soul may know that God is indeed still there, but nevertheless he is unable to “feel” this presence. The words of the psalmist become apt to describe the experience:
Psalm 13:1-2 RSV-CE:
1 How long, O Lord? Wilt thou forget me for ever? How long wilt thou hide thy face from me? 2 How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Why does God withdraw his gifts? It is to test us. God is peering into the depths of our heart and asking: “Do you truly love me? Or do you only love my gifts? If I withdraw my gifts, will you still love me?” So God progressively withdraws more and more of his gifts, and the Darkest night possible is when he withdraws all of his gifts: Your family hates you, your friends have abandoned you, you are starving, you are sick, you are dying and the question God is asking is, “Despite all this hardship, do you still love me?”
The good news is that this testing does come to an end. The end of the dark night of the soul is the bright dawn of salvation. Once the dark and fiery trials have concluded, God lavishes his gifts upon the soul to an even greater degree than before the dark night had begun. And in the case of a ascetic mystic who has walked the path of darkness to the very end, the ultimate and final gift of God is bestowed: The fullness of salvation: Theosis. The soul becomes perfectly united with God, such that it is hard to distinguish between them.
The Binding of Isaac – Abraham the Father of Faith
One biblical figure who experienced this dark night of the soul is the father of faith: Abraham. The Dark night of the Soul is clearly manifest in the story of the Binding of Isaac.
To establish some context: Abraham and Sarah have been praying and hoping for a child for most of their adult life. Even when they arrive at old age and still have not yet had a baby, they continue to hope and await the fulfilment of God’s promises to them that they will have a child. The day finally arrives, and despite Sarah’s old age and barrenness, Isaac is miraculously born. In Abraham’s time, children were considered one of the highest blessings and most wonderful gifts of God, and a son (rather than a daughter) was an even more special reason to rejoice. So Isaac would be considered one of the most precious, if not the most precious gift that God had given to Abraham. Now with this in mind, consider the following passage:
Genesis 22:1-19 RSV-CE
22 After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Mori′ah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.” 6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. 7 And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
9 When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. 10 Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place The Lord will provide; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18 and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” 19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba.
After many years of painful waiting, God finally bestows Abraham with his heart’s deepest desire: a son to carry on the family legacy. Abraham and Sarah would have rejoiced and been full to exploding point with happiness when Isaac finally arrived, praising God and thanking him for his overwhelming goodness.
But behold; Abrahams personal dark night arrives. God says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him as a burnt offering”. God is commanding Abraham to renounce his greatest wordly attachment: his love for his son. God is testing Abraham, just like he tests everyone who goes through the dark night of the soul. God is asking Abraham “Do you really love me? Or do you only love my gifts? Would you still love me if those gifts were taken away? Are you willing to sacrifice that which you hold dear? Are you willing to kill your son if I command you to?” And amazingly, Abraham essentially responds with “Thy will be done lord. If you command me to kill my son, this will I do. I love you above all else. I trust you. My faith is unwavering.”
The scene is tense, Abraham practically has the knife against Isaacs throat. Imagine what is going through his mind and his heart. Sometimes I think we imagine saints and biblical figures as being superhuman, not feeling emotions the same way that we do, but this is inaccurate: Abraham was most likely suffering the full force of a particularly violent dark night; he was probably wiping away tears of agony and anguish as he approached the alter; he was willing to follow Gods commands whatever they may be, but he would have been crying out in anger, confusion and despair. He is thinking that he is about to lose his son forever, his most treasured relationship on earth, the son he had waited for for all of his life, moreover he has already accepted this fact and is already dealing with life in those terms: Isaac is already dead to him. Abraham is already mourning the death.
And right as he is about to perform the fatal blow, a messenger from God swoops in and says “Stop!!! You have proved your faith: God does not ask any more of you than this, you are willing to sacrifice your son, and for this reason you do not have to.” This is followed up with one of the most important promises in all of scripture:
“I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”
This narrative contains all the elements of an intense dark night of the soul: the initial gifts (The birth of Isaac), the purification in the darkness (The sacrifice of Isaac) and the final gift (The rescue of Isaac and an eshatological salvific promise)
The Agonising Trial of Job
Another biblical figure who suffered a particular profound dark night of the soul is Job. The prologue to the book of Job reveals that God had lavished many gifts upon him. Job was practically swimming in Common Grace. He had it all: A large, devoted family, health, wealth, property, servants, land etc. Furthermore Job responds to this love with love: he is a purely righteous soul who never sins and always does what is right.
Job 1:1-5 RSV-CE:
1 There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil. 2 There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. 3 He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she-asses, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. 4 His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each on his day; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. 5 And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” Thus Job did continually.
But God decides to test Job. Scripture reveals that Satan makes a wager with God that he is able to tempt Job towards sin if God would only plunge Job into a dark night. God permits Satan to drag Job into the darkness and see whether or not he cracks under the pressure:
Job 1:6-19 RSV-CE
6 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 7 The Lord said to Satan, “Whence have you come?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 8 And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” 9 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nought? 10 Hast thou not put a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But put forth thy hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse thee to thy face.” 12 And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand.” So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord.
13 Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; 14 and there came a messenger to Job, and said, “The oxen were ploughing and the asses feeding beside them; 15 and the Sabe′ans fell upon them and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16 While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17 While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “The Chalde′ans formed three companies, and made a raid upon the camels and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18 While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; 19 and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness, and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you.”
But despite being plunged head first into a dark night, and having all his good gifts taken away from him; Job remains faithful and does not crack:
Job 1:20-22 RSV-CE
20 Then Job arose, and rent his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshipped. 21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.
Satan returns to the heavenly assembly and God quizzes him, saying “See? Despite withdrawing all my gifts from Job, he still loves me.” Satan responds with “That is because you have not harmed his body. So long as he has his good health, he will continue to love you, but take away this, and he will hate and despise you. He will renounce you.”
Job 2:1-8 RSV-CE
1 Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. 2 And the Lord said to Satan, “Whence have you come?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 3 And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.” 4 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. 5 But put forth thy hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.” 6 And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.”
7 So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord, and afflicted Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8 And he took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.
Jobs wife comes up to him and expresses her astonishment that Job continues to love and worship a God who is so clearly callous and evil. But Job remains steadfast in his faith and refuses to renounce his good lord:
Job 2:9-10 RSV-CE
9 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
The rest of the book is brilliant poetry, in which Job and his three friends dialogue on matters of sin, justice, punishment, salvation, mystery, goodness. Job wonders out loud why God has allowed this misfortune to befall him: he is particularly confused because he knows in his heart that he has not sinned in any way. He wonders why it is that the righteous suffer and the unrighteous are able to get away with iniquity unpunished. The truth of the matter is that God has plunged Job into a particularly dark night of the soul in order to purify him into a shining, glorious saint. God has taken away all of these gifts so as to test Job’s love. Amazingly, Job remains steadfast in his faith through the entire ordeal: he questions God, and cries out for God to provide some sort of explanation for the suffering he has had to endure, but at no point does he curse God or renounce his love for his creator.
And just as in any dark night of the soul, when Job emerges out the other side God bestows even more gifts and grace upon him than he had in the first place!
Job 42:10-17 RSV-CE
10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11 Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house; and they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold. 12 And the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she-asses. 13 He had also seven sons and three daughters. 14 And he called the name of the first Jemi′mah; and the name of the second Kezi′ah; and the name of the third Ker′en-hap′puch. 15 And in all the land there were no women so fair as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them inheritance among their brothers. 16 And after this Job lived a hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, four generations. 17 And Job died, an old man, and full of days.
So once again we have a classic case of a dark night of the soul: The initial gifts (Job’s great wealth, health and love), the plunging into darkness (The testing by Satan and loss of Job’s entire fortune), and the emergence from the darkness as a purified, tested, victorious saint (Job’s restoration of health, wealth and love as well as his long life and happy death)
Caritas Ex Nihilo
Lets put all of this together. Each of us is called to enter the dark night at some point of our lives. God is going to test every single one of us, just as he tested Job and Abraham. He is going to refine us with suffering until we are able to love him even in the absence of his gifts. But lets consider just how difficult this is going to be and what this is going to involve. Consider again the words of Christ, quoted at the beginning of this post:
“If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”
When Jesus says “Hate”, he really does mean hate. If we desire to love him, we must be willing to trust him and follow his commands even when they contradict the love for our families that God has already gifted us with. Just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, we too must be willing to see our families sacrificed if that is what God commands. We have to be willing to truly hate our families and desire their eternal, everlasting torture in the endless ocean of fire that is Hell if this is what God asks of us. God does not ask us to enjoy this prospect, he does not ask us to be happy about doing this, he does not ask us to take sadistic pleasure in the torture of our families, however he does ask us to have a rock solid faith in him and a perfect obedience to his commandments. Just as Abraham was crying as he ascended the mountain to the altar and pressed his knife against his sons throat, so too we are permitted to grieve at the eternal loss of our families, but nevertheless; we must be willing to accept this loss, all for the sake of the love of God. As Jesus says: Whoever loses his life will save it. We must renounce ALL worldly attachments and cast them into the dark flame, and this includes our closest relationships: Husband, Wife, Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, Son, Daughter. We must be willing to see everyone in our life damned, all for the sake of loving God.
The darkest night of the soul is pitch black: bleak like the trial of Job. All of Gods gifts are removed and he demands that we sacrifice everything for his sake. If this was the end of the story, it would be incredibly depressing and entirely bittersweet: we gain God, but at what cost?
Thankfully this is not the grand finalé to the tale. Recall how the narrative of the dark night of the soul always plays out. First of all there are the abundant gifts of God – in this particular case the amazing unconditional love that is found within a family. Second, there is the removal of these gifts, as a testing of darkness and a refining of fire – in this case, this consists of a renouncing of familial love in order to pursue the greater love of God. It consists of hating your family to the point where you are willing to see them damned if that is what God decrees. But there is always a happy ending. Finally, the dark night of the soul always ends in joy: the gifts are returned a thousandfold more than they were in the beginning. In this case, our families are not actually damned for God desires all people to be saved. Just as it was revealed to Abraham that he didn’t really have to kill Isaac, and just as Job had all of his wealth, health and loving relationships returned to him, so too we will see those whom we love come to salvation: we never really had to be sad at the prospect that God would damn them, because this is not on his heart. The good news of the Gospel is that God desires the salvation of all and he has the power to bring this about.
John Piper and the horror of Calvinism
John Piper is a famous Calvinist teacher and preacher, living today. I find his views and theology to be shocking and disgusting for the most part. He believes that God desires the damnation of multitudes and that this somehow gives God “Glory”. He is happy to worship a God who would damn members of his family. For the longest time I found this to be completely weird and skewed, but after the reflections I have set down in this post concerning the dark night of the soul, I suppose I have uncovered a window into how people like him think.
In the end it is true that John Piper has an amazing, invincible faith and trust in God, just like Abraham did: He is willing to see his sons burn in Hell for eternity if that is what God commands. He does not revel at the thought; he does not take pleasure in the prospect, but nevertheless he has come to an acceptance that “if this is what God wants, this is what I will do”. The following quote is representative of his thinking:
“I have three sons. Every night after they are asleep I turn on the hall light, open their bedroom door, and walk from bed to bed, laying my hands on them and praying. Often I am moved to tears of joy and longing. I pray that Karsten Luke become a great physician of the soul, that Benjamin John become the beloved son of my right hand in the gospel, and that Abraham Christian give glory to God as he grows strong in his faith.
But I am not ignorant that God may not have chosen my sons for his sons. And, though I think I would give my life for their salvation, if they should be lost to me, I would not rail against the Almighty. He is God. I am but a man. The potter has absolute rights over the clay. Mine is to bow before his unimpeachable character and believe that the Judge of all the earth has ever and always will do right.”
I used to read this and be completely appalled. How could he be so unloving towards his sons? And yet… now I see where he is coming from. He is just like Abraham, standing on the mountain with the knife raised above his head; ready to bring it down and plunge it into Isaac’s heart if only God would give the order. He is not happy about this. He does not take some sort of sadistic pleasure in the sacrifice of his sons. Nevertheless he is willing to follow God anywhere. It is a sobering faith, but it is nevertheless a strong and true faith.
What John Piper does not seem to realise, however, is that the Gospel is “Good news” and as such there is always a happy ending to the tale. While he is to be commended on his strong and invincible faith in the face of the prospect of God sending his children to damnation, he does not have to fear this as if it were a live possibility. God always wants the best for everyone, John Pipers children included. It is admirable to be willing to sacrifice your sons, but it is even more admirable to rest in the confident Gospel Hope that you will never have to do this, for the dark night of the soul always concludes with happiness and joy, and not a bitter-sweet victory of tears, sighing and sadness.
“The night is darkest before the dawn, but the dawn is entirely glorious”
In summary, we have to be willing to see our closest loved ones eternally damned for the sake of the love of God, however we do not have to fear that God will ever truly demand this of us. We know that there is always a happy ending: no matter how tense it gets; no matter how dark things seem; there will always be an angel swooping in at the last minute to stop us from slitting our sons throats, just as it was with Abraham. God’s demands are intense and exhausting, but Christ’s yoke is easy and his burden is light: we can always trust that God has our best interests at heart, as well of those of everyone we love; our friends; our families; and even our enemies! God loves everyone without distinction and without exception. This is what we have to keep in mind at all times, for this is the faith that will carry us through the dark night of the soul. When everything seems dark and Satan is tempting us to give up Hope and wallow in despair: remember the unlimited, unconditional salvific will of God and remain steadfast in faith. The reward at the other end of the tunnel is theosis: supreme Joy, the fullness of salvation and eternal satisfaction. Press on for this prize. We have to be prepared to pass through Hell on the way to Heaven; pray that God would give us strength, faith and resolve for the journey. All praise be to Christ the victorious redeemer, who has saved the world, is saving the world, and promises to save the world to come. Amen
The results of the Australian postal plebiscite on same sex marriage were released today. To my surprise and disappointment (although with a healthy degree of amusement), the “Yes vote” won by 61%. The traditional media has run rampant with celebratory nonsense while social media has been flooded with victorious sentiment from the lefties. In light of this current atmosphere, now seems as good a time as any to set down my stance on the issues surrounding homosexuality in the modern day.
Homosexual acts, are, always were, and always will be totally depraved and sinful. There is simply no escaping the biblical, magisterial, and divine testimony from Jesus himself, that homosexual acts are wrong and inherently evil. This is something that the Church is rightly insisting upon as crucial to the issue, and it is also something which the “yes vote” campaigners consistently (and conveniently) ignore.
Sacramental marriage will always be between a man and a woman, and can never be between two members of the same sex. Sacramental marriage is the context in which sexual intercourse is supposed to occur, and therefore the context in which children happen. Sacramental marriage between a man and a woman is the essence of the family and the foundation of society.
Same-gender sexual attraction is a disorder with it’s roots in the fall. It is unnatural and a sinful disposition. Nevertheless, no actual sin is committed unless a person who suffers from this disposition wilfully entertains lustful thoughts or wilfully engages in homosexual activity. Someone who has been born with same-sex attraction or has developed it later in life, nevertheless does not sin unless they indulge in their disorder and treat it as if it were just another normal impulse.
Same-gender attraction which is non-sexual in nature is not sinful. There is nothing sinful about one man admiring another man’s body, or one woman acknowledging the beauty of another woman’s body. If someone is physically attractive, often this attraction exerts influence over people who share their gender: This is not sinful; this is not unnatural; this is merely human nature. Obviously there are problems if the body is being displayed immodestly or pornographically, as this encourages lust and tempts us away from mere attraction and towards sexual attraction.
Love between two people of the same sex is not a sin, and is in fact encouraged by Christ, the bible and the Church. This is something that tends to go over the “No vote” party’s heads. When the “Yes vote” crowd are chanting “Love is love”, there is actually quite a lot of truth to what they are saying. Some times a same-sex relationship is close, intimate and loving to such a degree that it is more than a friendship. We need to acknowledge these relationships both as a church and as a society. Society needs to afford these relationships appropriate legal recognition, and Churches need to be willing to provide their blessings to these relationships. New liturgical rites need to be invented in order to publicly endorse and bless these profound, loving relationships between two men or two women.
We also need to find some sort of term to describe the reality of this new situation. Personally I think the term “marriage” is inappropriate, as it carries over 3000 years of traditional, sacramental baggage. Perhaps something like “Consecrated partnership” would be appropriate: the two partners are religiously consecrated to each other and to God through their vows. These vows would look remarkably similar to marriage vows, or vows that monks and nuns take upon joining a religious order (importantly; there would be a vow of celibacy and chastity!). Nevertheless, the situation is not a sacramental marriage, and therefore something akin to a “divorce” would be a live possibility: Similar to when a nun is given a dispensation to return to normal life, or a priest requests to be laicized; and similarly to these cases, such a “divorce” would be strongly discouraged.
Religious freedom needs to be upheld. If a business owner does not feel that they can provide goods and services to a gay wedding in good conscience, they should not be forced to do so. It is discrimination to refuse to serve someone because they are gay, but it is not discrimination to refuse to publicly contribute to a cause that you do not agree with: a Gay marriage today can easily be understood as a public statement in support of normalising homosexual behaviour; if as a business owner you do not agree with this public statement, you should not be forced to contribute to it.
Priests, Pastors and Ministers can not and should not be forced to perform same-sex marriages. As per points 5 and 6, I think the church needs to make room for recognition of platonic same-sex partnerships which go above and beyond friendship. I think the church should give liturgical and official blessings to such relationships and canonically recognise them as a new form of consecrated life. However the church can never recognise same-sex relationships as being a valid form of sacramental marriage, because there can be no natural sexual relations between two members of the same sex, and therefore there can be no children (which is the primary purpose of a sacramental marriage).
Assuming that some form of religiously consecrated same-sex relationship becomes recognised and endorsed by the church, perhaps one of the vows could be “to adopt and care for those who have lost their natural mother and father”. It is true that children have a right to be raised by their biological mother and father, however we find ourselves in a fallen world in which this simply does not always happen. Making one of the primary purposes of this new same-sex consecrated relationship to be the care and upbringing of abandoned children would actually be incredibly helpful for society, and could even serve as a live alternative for those who are seeking abortions.
Finally, I want to reiterate that homosexual acts are always sinful, and therefore even if the Church is so understanding as to recognise same-sex relationships as a valid form of consecrated life, the church can never endorse homosexual acts in the contexts of these relationships: Same-sex couples are prohibited by divine law from engaging in unnatural sexual intercourse and if they do so they must have recourse to the sacrament of penance with a firm purpose of amendment. Furthermore while the church can (and indeed, should) recognise same-sex relationships as a new form of consecrated life, it can never raise these relationships to the same status as a sacramental marriage between a man and a woman.
In essence the church needs to recognise love as love and sin as sin, and send a clear message on both these fronts: “You’re a guy who loves another guy? That’s fine and good and you have our blessing, just make sure you don’t have sex with each other!”
Dear Prabhupada, thank you so much for bringing the grace and bhakti of Krishna and Caitanya to the outer darkness of the western world. While the light of all other spiritual masters and incarnations dwindles and flickers, you renounced everything to descend to the darkest corner of samsara and reignite the flame of divine love. Thank you for teaching us all the joy of chanting the holy names, and thank you for all the friends and devotees that come to us through the ecstasy of kirtan. We look forward to dancing forever and ever, in ever newer and newer ways, with you and Bhagavan and all your beloved Jivas in the sacred eleventh chapter. Hare Krishna!
In Catholic, Orthodox and Arminian circles, “Freedom” often seems to be pushed as the central dogma of the faith. More important than the divinity of Christ; More important than the victory of the cross; More important than the all powerful, completely loving, salvation-intending will of God; Human “Freedom” reigns supreme. If we are not free to reject salvation, how can we truly love God? If we are not free to reject God’s loving, salvific overtures, where is our dignity as human beings? If we are not free to choose Hell, anathema sit.
My conviction and contention is that this popular view of “supreme libertarian freedom” essentially constitutes an idolatry of freedom and a perversion of Catholic dogma. I hate to see myself admitting it, but I suspect the Augustinian/Calvinist tradition actually has it mostly right when it comes to this matter of freedom.
In my own reading, I have encountered many authors who invite us to imagine freedom as a “scale”: One side of the scale represents a choice to perform some loving work, while the other side of the scale represents a choice to perform a perverse and sinful action. This image is incredibly useful for illustrating a variety of views on freedom.
In the popular Catholic mind, humans possess a supreme and unassailable dignity in that we are free. When presented with a choice between good and evil, it is entirely up to the freedom of human subject to determine which alternative will be chosen. The human is completely impartial; his choice is completely uninfluenced; whatever choice is chosen will be determined by that persons freedom, and nothing else. The image is that of the scale previously described, in which one side of the scale is equally as appealing as the other side of the scale, and therefore the choice that is eventually chosen is determined purely by the whimsy of the human will.
This is libertarian freedom. When someone makes a choice, this choice is not determined by outside influences; it is determined purely by the agent who makes the choice. The interesting thing is that this libertarian view would appear to contradict Catholic dogma at a cursory reading.
Augustinian / Calvinist – The biased scale of Freedom
It is a Catholic dogma that the fall lead to something called concupiscence in every human being who has ever lived. Concupiscence is essentially a tendency towards sin. Despite the fact that we are free, our human natures have been wounded such that we tend towards sin in everything that we do. It is an important philosophical point to establish that this tendency towards sin is not an external influence upon us; it instead arises from within ourselves, and proceeds from our very nature as human beings, and therefore it is not something that could be said to nullify freedom. As the Calvinists say: we are free to behave according to our natures, and if our natures are wounded and tend towards sin, then we are free to behave according to that nature and accordingly, we will almost certainly sin.
The image is that of the scale of freedom, as before, however that scale is now biased. Given any choice between good and evil we do indeed have the power and freedom to choose the good, however because of our wounded nature, the scale is biased such that we will in most cases tend towards choosing evil. The scale has a weight underneath the cup that represents the choice for evil; so while it is indeed possible for us to defeat this bias and do good, this is incredibly difficult to achieve due to the opposition we face via the bias given to the evil choice.
So in a sense we retain our libertarian freedom, because no outside influence is able to determine the choices we make. However that libertarian freedom is not “neutral”: it is instead biased towards sin from within due to our wounded human natures. This bias towards sin is called concupiscence within the Catholic tradition.
Arminian Grace – Equalising the Scale of Freedom
The Arminian account of the plan of salvation (as I understand it) is thus: Human beings were originally created with complete libertarian freedom, which is to say we were able to choose to sin or not to sin and this choice was not determined by any force outside of ourselves. However our first parents chose to sin by eating the forbidden fruit. One of the effects of eating the fruit was that we lost our libertarian freedom: now instead of being able to choose between sin and love, we always choose sin. Arminians (and Calvinists) call this “total depravity“. Our scales of freedom are biased towards sin. However the good news of the Gospel is that God has sent us his Holy Spirit, and this Holy Spirit is able to act as a counterweight on the scale of freedom, equalising the scale such that we regain our libertarian freedom. Now we are once again in our pre-lapsarian condition: we are able to exercise our freedom and choose between good and evil, unimpeded by any bias towards one choice or another. So the essential good news of the Gospel is not that God has saved us, it is that he has restored our freedom and therefore restored the opportunity for salvation.
Step back for a moment and consider the situation: It could easily be described as schizophrenic. The image is that of the demon and the angel sitting on each of the human’s shoulders, whispering into his ears and trying to influence him. The Holy Spirit acts as an equal counterweight to concupiscence. Yes, we have neutral libertarian freedom again, but only as a result of two competing vectors of equal magnitude pulling in opposite directions and equalising to a null vector. The human subject finds himself pulled in every direction at once, and as a result ends up going nowhere, with the final destination being determined purely by his will.
The end result is that both salvation and damnation appear equally appealing: The human subject has no compulsion to choose either way. As such, his choice is apparently “free”, although I would prefer to say that the choice is random, and randomness does not constitute freedom.
Calvinist / Augustinian Grace – Biasing the Scale Towards Good
Compare this with the Augustinian/Calvinist understanding of the Gospel. In this account of events, the fall lead to a wounding of our human nature such that we tend towards sin. In other words, our scales of freedom are biased towards sin rather than good. However the good news of the gospel is that God has sent his Holy Spirit – not to equalise the scales of freedom, but instead to change the bias. So now instead of being biased towards evil, we are biased towards good! Technically we retain our libertarian freedom, because no outside influences are able to determine the choices we make, however the Holy Spirit has healed our nature, and not only healed it, but glorified it, such that rather than tending towards evil, we tend towards good.
The image is close to that of the Arminian account: There is an angel and a demon sitting on each shoulder of the human subject, whispering into his ear. However the angel is ultimately more persuasive, and tends to defeat the demon in debate. As such, the human person tends towards doing good rather than evil. Calvinists have historically referred to this as irresistible grace.
Universalism – A more nuanced view
A common charge against universalism is that it nullifies freedom. I contend that universalism implies no such thing. I draw on the Calvinist/Augustinian understanding to explain my case.
We are free to behave according to our natures. If our natures are sinful, we will tend towards sin, but if our natures are glorified we will tend towards love and good works. The good news of the Gospel is that God is in the process of healing our natures, and not just healing, but glorifying them. That is to say, God is attempting to make us impeccable – incapable of sin. This is not to say that God is trying to take away our freedom to sin, instead he is simply removing any impulse within us which would tend towards sin. In other words we will retain our freedom, however we will never abuse our freedom.
The Universalist eschatalogical vision is that in the end times God will have successfully defeated sin whilst safeguarding freedom. This is to say, we will all retain our freedom, however we will never abuse our freedom. As such, we will only ever do good. However in the present time a battle is still raging – the Arminian vision of a devil on one shoulder and an angel on another is apt to represent the situation. We are in the midst of a battle between good and evil. Evil is powerful and will put up a fight, however we have a promise from God that God will have the victory.
The end result is that yes, in the present time we have neutral libertarian freedom: The spirit is battling with sin/concupiscence and it seems that they are equally matched. However the eschatalogical vision is that God will win the fight. Eventually we all will choose him, freely. Moreover, at that point, our natures will be completely healed and glorified – which is to say we will be impeccable; even though we are free to sin, we simply wont do it, and will instead always choose the good.
This vision is entirely glorious. God will not force us to choose him, but nevertheless we will choose him. Our freedom is safeguarded, our salvation is safeguarded. No one will be damned. Confronted with such a vision of the future, what can we do but explode in faith and hope, praising God and petitioning him to bring it all about? Let us love God and love his plans, praying for them and working towards them in love. God really is that wonderful; Salvation really is that beautiful. Thanks be to Christ for the total victory which he wrought at the cross. Amen
Indulgences—speak the word and Protestants will immediately shake their heads in disapproval. Here we have a doctrine that definitively undermines the good news of God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. The Anglican Articles of Religion describe indulgences as “repugnant to the Word of God.” The Westminster Confession describes them as a “cunningly devised fable, invented by designing men to impose upon the credulous, and to fill their own treasures.” In the Smalcald Articles, Martin Luther states that “purgatory, and every solemnity, rite, and commerce connected with it, is to be regarded as nothing but a specter of the devil.”
It is plain to be seen that indulgences have acquired a terrible reputation. However they need not be so quickly rejected. The problem with indulgences is that they are almost entirely misunderstood. And not just by their opponents! Even many Catholic proponents of the doctrine often get indulgences wrong and end up pronouncing theology which does indeed serve to nullify the good news of the Gospel. I propose that the best way to interpret indulgences, is to look at them through the lens of reformation theology, specifically the doctrine of Sola Fide, and so interpret indulgences as merely another expression or aspect of God’s unconditional, salvific promise.
A Shift in Paradigm
An Indulgences is defined in the Catholic Catechism as “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions“. This definition betrays a very medieval understanding of theology, in that is talks about temporal “punishment”. The focus is very much on God’s justice here: sin leads to punishment but this punishment can be waived. It’s all very “legalistic” and the scene of a courtroom is apt to represent the situation.
In recent years, the doctrine of purgatory has shifted from a “satisfaction” model to a “sanctification” model in the popular mind. This shift is reflective of a more broad movement in Catholic theology away from the retributive paradigm of “Sin as a crime which deserves punishment” to a more remedial paradigm of “Sin as a sickness which requires healing”. In short, no longer are we thought to “pay for our sins” in purgatory; instead we are thought to be “purified of the spiritual dirtiness which has clung to our soul as a result of sin”. This is a welcome change, as it is more in accord with the image of God as a loving father who desires the best for his children, rather than the image of God as a wrathful and angry judge who demands justice in the form of brutal punishment for sin.
However this shift in the understanding of purgatory demands a corresponding shift in the understanding of indulgences. It simply does not make sense to say that “My soul is drenched in sin, however I have gained an indulgence, which means I don’t have to go through the hassle of purification and cleansing. My ‘temporal punishment’ has been remitted: God accepts me just as I am, warts and all”. This is nonsensical and contradicts the clear biblical principle that “nothing unclean will enter heaven”. The solution to this problem lies in the doctrine of the communion of the saints.
The doctrine of the communion of the saints states that we are all mystically joined to Christ and each other. This union is much closer than we realise in our day to day experience. The union is in actual fact so close, that the purifying effects of my penances flow between all the members of the church, such that they do not purify my soul alone, but instead serve to purify all of humanity. Likewise, the infinite penances of Christ, Mary, and the saints flow around the entire church. In this way, my soul can be cleansed by the penances of other people. I do not have to personally make temporal atonement for my sins; I do not have to clean myself; instead, Christ has the ability to clean me directly apart from any penances which I may attempt, by simply applying the infinite penances of the communion of saints to my soul. All that I need to do to allow this to happen is to willingly consent to the cleansing through faith.
With this in mind, Indulgences can be reinterpreted as “A soul being cleansed of it’s sinful dirtiness directly by Christ, through the superabundant penances of the communion of the saints, apart from any penance directly undertaken by that soul”
Indulgences as Promise
We have already seen in this series that God makes a variety of unconditional promises to humanity (or one single promise with many aspects). A summary:
God promises us that we are Righteous (Justified), right here and now, because Christ lives within us. And therefore we need not fret and feel spiritual angst about being a bad person.
God promises that all of our sins are forgiven, both past sins and future sins. Therefore we do not need to feel guilty about any of our moral failings
God promises that we are predestined to heaven. Therefore we do not need to fear being stuck in a state of alienation from God forever. We do not need to despair at the prospect of walking in darkness for eternity. We can have an invincible Hope that we will eventually achieve beatitude.
Now, it seems to me that indulgences are just another unconditional promise that God makes to us. This promise states “You are clean, because Christ has cleaned you; You are perfect, because Christ has purified you; No temporal punishment for sin remains”. In biblical language, we have been washed in Christ’s blood, which is to say that the superabundant sufferings of Christ function as a penance which are applied to all souls in order to cleanse them from all stain of sin. Mary and the saints are able to add their penances to Christ’s sufferings and in this way participate in his passion, however this is not strictly necessary because Christ’s blood is sufficient to clean the souls of the entire world, nevertheless it is a great honour to be united to Christ in such a way that we participate in his salvific work and mission.
It is important to note, that just like the other three promises, the promise of indulgence is Universal and Unconditional. That is to say, God implicitly speaks the promise to every individual who has ever lived, even if they do not explicitly hear the promise spoken to them during life. Again, like the other promises, it is helpful to have this Universal promise personalised and spoken directly to someone. This is where the idea of “Indulgences as promise” intersects with the traditional doctrine.
Indulgences and Sacraments
Sacramentally, the promise of a plenary indulgence is spoken during Baptism and Last Rites. When we are baptised, we are “washed completely clean”. This is an indulgence by another name. Just as with the other promises of God, this promise of indulgence is received “by faith alone”. The degree to which the promise takes effect in my subjective experience of life, is determined by the degree to which I respond to this promise in faith. God says “You are clean”, and I believe, and therefore I experience cleanliness. On the other hand God says “You are clean” and I doubt, and therefore I experience dirtiness.
This experiential situation carries on into the afterlife and takes the name “purgatory”. If you have a perfect faith in the promise of Indulgence, then when you die you will not experience purification, because the promise of God is that there is nothing left to purify: he has already purified you. In this way you “escape the punishment of Hell”. If however you die with an imperfect faith in the promise of Indulgence, then you will enter into the Hellish torments of Purgatory. The degree to which you doubt the promise is the degree to which you are tormented. As all the sins of your life are laid out before you during the particular judgement, you behold your past crimes and perceive them as staining your soul. You are tormented by your sins. All that needs to be done to escape this situation is to hear the promise of Indulgence and throw yourself upon it completely in faith. You must repent by turning away from these sins and trusting the promise of Christ that “you are already clean”. Once you realise that you are already clean, the torments will cease and be revealed to have been completely illusory the entire time.
Similarly to how it is useful as life goes on to have the promise of Justification which was spoken in Baptism reiterated in the Sacrament of Confession, so as to more easily place our faith in it; so too it is useful to have the promise of Indulgence reiterated many times throughout our life, so that we can more easily place our faith in it. This is where the traditional system of “Indulgences attached to works and prayers” comes into play.
To recap: a perpetual plenary indulgence is granted to everyone at all times and in all places. This indulgence takes the form of the scriptural promise that “we have been washed and sanctified by the blood of the lamb. We are completely clean, right now”. However it is useful to have this promise spoken to us personally, so as to allow us to receive it in faith. This is why there are many prayers and actions which are attached to the idea of indulgences.
The most important of these actions are the sacraments of Baptism and Last Rites. However there are many minor prayers, actions and pilgrimages which have indulgences attached. These need to be understood not as “doing a work so as to earn an indulgence”, instead they need to be understood as “demonstrating faith in the promise of Indulgence by concrete actions”. An example: someone who goes on a spiritual retreat for three full days is granted a Plenary indulgence. This does not mean that this person has “earned” the indulgence, instead it means that this person has demonstrated faith in the promise of Indulgence by his actions. At the end of the retreat, the promise of Indulgence is explicitly spoken. It was always implicitly spoken, however it is useful to have this promise explicitly reiterated, so that we may more easily anchor our faith in it. In this way indulgences are similar in purpose to the sacraments.
To summarise, the Promise of Indulgence is unconditional, universal, and perpetual. The works attached to indulgences do not “earn” indulgences, they are simply concrete ways in which faith in this promise is demonstrated. If you do a work or say a prayer with a “partial indulgence” attached, this simply means that you have demonstrated a “partial faith” in the promise. If you do a work or say a prayer with a “plenary indulgence” attached, this simply means that you have demonstrated a total faith in the promise.
The Final Assault of Satan
The main purpose of Last Rites, or Extreme Unction, is to sacramentally speak the promise of Plenary Indulgence to a soul right when they need to hear that promise most. The soul is about to go through the process of dying. As we pray in the Hail Mary, “Pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death“. It is a common theological opinion that Satan will make a final assault on a soul who is dying, in the last moments of their life, while they are at their weakest. He will try to drag the soul down into doubt and despair concerning the promises of God. The Devil will do his best to tempt the soul into a state of subjective damnation by attacking their faith. Meanwhile Mary, Christ and all the angels and saints are praying and interceding and doing intense battle with the Devil and his demons. Spiritual warfare is waged over the dying soul.
The sacrament of Last Rites prepares us for this final battle by reiterating the promise of Indulgence to us so that it is fresh in our memory. The last thing that we hear before slipping away into this terrifying process of dying is the promise of God that we are clean. This is essential. Because the Devil is going to swoop in in those last moments and taunt us by saying “You are dirty. You are Guilty. Look at all of your sins. You are going to be damned for sure”. In the face of these taunts, we need to be able to throw ourselves upon the promises of God which instead say “You are clean. You are perfect. You are righteous. Christ lives within you. You are predestined to Heaven”: it is much easier to do this if we have the promises fresh in our memory.
In this way the sacrament of last rites gives us strength to face the process of dying, by reiterating the unconditional promise of God right when we need to hear it most.
Penance is Supererogatory
Someone who depends on penance on order to be clean is simply doing it wrong. This is another manifestation of the “salvation by works” mindset. Objectively, their works of penance do indeed contribute to the cleansing of themselves as well as the other members of the church via the mystical union in the communion of the saints. However, if they do not have faith in the promise of Indulgence that they “are clean, right now, and have been completely washed by the blood of Christ”, then subjectively they are going to experience dirtiness, damnation and condemnation. In this way it is once again a case of “salvation by faith alone”. The way in which the promise becomes active in their subjective experience of life is through faith in that promise. People do not experience cleanliness by doing works of penance, people experience cleanliness by completely trusting in the promise of Indulgence.
An important consequence of these reflections on Indulgences, is that they make penance completely supererogatory (An action is supererogatory if it is good to do but unnecessary). When someone goes to the sacrament of confession and receives absolution, the priest will also specify some penance that needs to be performed. Strictly speaking, this penance is unnecessary and all that is really required in order for the soul to be clean is for that person to place their trust in Christ’s perpetual promise of Indulgence. However the church in her wisdom has decided that penance is spiritually beneficial. In this way, even though penance is a supererogatory act, the church mandates that we do some penance after confession of our sins.
Interestingly, all penance is supererogatory, because Christ’s passion was enough to secure a cleansing of the entire human race. Nevertheless it is a beneficial spiritual exercise to engage in acts of penance. The harm comes when people think that they must perform acts of penance in order to be saved. This will lead to spiritual angst and there are many testimonies of ex-priests and ex-monks who experienced exactly this spiritual angst and it drove them to abandon the faith. Instead we must understand all penance as being supererogatory: Our salvation and escape from the fires of Hell/Purgatory does not depend on the amount of penance we do. Instead it depends entirely on Christ and is subjectively apprehended by faith in Christ’s promise of Indulgence. Faith is the key to a subjective experience of salvation in every respect.
To summarise, an Indulgence is not something which you earn by works and prayers. Indulgence is instead the promise of God that “you are totally clean, right now”. This promise is apprehended by faith alone, and that faith is demonstrated by the works and prayers which have indulgences “attached” to them. In this way, you do not need to work your way out of Hell or Purgatory by many and varied acts of penance: Christ has already done that for you and all you need to do is trust him.
God makes a variety of wonderful promises. “You are clean, you are righteous, you are Justified, you are forgiven, you are predestined, you will persevere”. He speaks these promises to us personally in the sacraments. We apprehend these promises by faith alone and by faith these promises invade our life and enrich it, leading to an experience of heaven on earth; salvation here and now. These promises are unconditional, which is to say they depend on God rather than us for their fulfilment. And God, being omnipotent and omniscient, is able to actualise these promises despite any resistance we might throw at him. In this way we can have invincible faith, confident hope, overflowing joy and untameable love: we can experience salvation right now. All praise be to Christ the king, who was victorious over Hell, abolished death, defeated the Devil, conquered sin. We have an amazing future to look forward to, hope for and pray for. God promises it and God guarantees it. What else can we do but have faith and rejoice?
I was reading Eclectic Orthodoxy today and the latest post was a sermon by Met Kallistos Ware. He relates how he has been asked “Are you saved?” many times, and sets down his response to the question, which turns out to be quite long and involved.
“Are you saved?”: This extremely loaded question is commonly deployed by evangelicals when they are out and about evangelising, or if they encounter a Christian who attends a church or denomination different from their own. It is basically the most efficient litmus test for working out whether someone is a fellow believer or not.
However I think there is a better way of phrasing this question, which is able to elicit a fuller picture of what the person you are talking to believes. It basically boils down to 4 questions:
Are you saved?
Am I saved?
Are Hitler/Satan/Judas/members of ISIS saved?
For each of the above, Why or why not?
The Evangelical Answer
Now, the common evangelical answer to the above questions goes something like the following:
Yes! Amen! Praise God!
I’m not sure.
I am saved because I believe in Jesus. But I’m not sure if you believe in Jesus so I don’t know whether you are saved, and it doesn’t seem to me that Hitler and the rest of those people had faith so they’re all probably gonna roast in Hell for eternity.
Now, I find this response incredibly problematic, because it seems to be reducing salvation to works, law and legalism: “If you believe in Jesus, you will be saved. If you don’t believe in Jesus, you will be damned.” This attitude is a flagrant contradiction of the Gospel, which is that salvation comes entirely by grace, and not by law. It also just adds fuel to the fire of tribalism: The believers are “in” and the unbelievers are “out”. It just leads to a very “us and them” approach to Christianity, which is another thing strongly condemned in the pages of the New Testament (cf. Paul insisting that there are no relevant distinctions between Jews and Gentiles)
The Catholic Answer
How would a Catholic respond to the above questions?
I dunno (but probably not)
I dunno (but probably not)
I dunno (but probably not)
We simply can’t be sure about the salvation of anyone and are forced to remain agnostic and “hopeful”. This is because we have “freedom” and so it is therefore up to us to decide whether we are going to heaven or not, but we don’t know what decision we are going to make, and all signs point to the fact that we are dirty sinners destined for Hell.
The Catholic answer is tragic. I can’t tell whether it is better than the evangelical response or not. At least it doesn’t devolve into tribalism: God still loves everyone and wants to save everyone. But unfortunately all of us are “free” and tend to make the wrong choices again and again and again. So while we are called to “Hope” for salvation, we must necessarily end up being totally pessimistic about the whole enterprise. Pretty much everyone is gonna end up in Hell. There is a narrow gate that leads to life and a wide gate that leads to destruction. Most people pick the wide gate.
The Correct Answer
There is in actual fact a correct answer to the four questions. But before we get to that, we have to nuance the language being used: When someone asks “are you saved?” do they mean to ask “are you going to heaven in the future?” or do they mean to ask “are you in heaven right now?” because there’s a relevant difference of meaning there.
So, if “saved” is taken to mean “being in heaven right damn now”, then for a believer in the Gospel the correct answer to the questions would be:
It depends who’s asking
I am saved because I live and breath salvation in my day to day experience of life. I’m not sure if you’re saved because I can only know the content of my own experience, but I can make an informed guess by listening to how you talk and the way that you behave. And Hitler et al are probably not saved because they were clearly evil to the core and pitiful lost souls.
This answer is honest and true. There’s nothing to dispute here. But the question becomes much more interesting if we take the first definition of “Saved”, which is to say “Elect” and “Chosen” and “Predestined”.
If we take “saved” to mean “Your spot in heaven is secure”, then the answer to the four questions would be:
Yes, of course!
Yes, of course!
Yes, of course!
All people are saved, including you and me and Hitler (and even Satan!) because God is sovereign and God is loving: God intends the salvation of all people and his intentions cannot be thwarted by anything or anyone. God will save whom God wants to save, and he wants to save everyone.
This is the essence of the Gospel. God loves everyone and everything and has chosen all of us for his children, regardless of whether we are good or bad. This is cause for rejoicing and praising God. His Grace and Mercy are powerful and sovereign, and cannot fail to save the world that he has created and everything in it. God loves all and all will love God.
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
ADogmatic 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 ofChristianity. 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 insteadhumbly acceptedit as aprophetic giftfrom the Ummah,which can thenserve as a help tokeep the community of the Churchsteadfast in the truthand purity ofMonotheism. When read in this way, it just so happens that for Christians the most relevant part of the Āyah todayis the prohibition against saying ‘three;’ TheĀyah does not deny the divinity of the Father, of the Son, or of the Spirit, and in fact is perfectly consistent with a “high Trinitarian” theology.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 evenstop 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, itmerely requires that Christians be more scrupulous with the phraseology they employ to explaintheoccultus opes hidden withinthe 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 majoritynecessarilybeing 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,7thus obeying Gabriel’simperative 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 blasphemy – to refrain from developingsuch a confession into any ‘tripling’ description of God. Assuch, the ubiquitous“three divine persons,” a speculative “three beings,” the tenured languageof “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 completelyclear that I am not merely proposing a nouvelle résurrection of the venerable and charming heresies of Sabbelius, nor a plein d’entrain répétitionof 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 proteanexistentialisms, 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 – thatdivinity 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 inadequatewords is the following: To be a Person– whether Human or Divine – necessarily implies the ontological relationship of this Person with an “Other” – aDifferent 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.12In 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 – andpersonal – 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 essentialyet entirely uncoercedembrace ofboth 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 Proposalof a Refined Creedal Formula
In light of all that has been said thus far, I nowpropose a new and precise dogmaticformula which concisely soundsall the essential notes of the Immanent Trinity without in the process falling into any of the theological discord which is firmly forbidden by Āyah 4:171insofar as itis understood to prohibitanylanguage which implies an ontologicalattribution of “threeness” to the divine.To wit, rather than speaking about God as “three persons,” I should insteadsaythat The OneGod is One Divine Person in relationship to himself in The One Divine Other throughThe 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 aresemantically 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;15rather, the father is identified as the divine person, while the son is named as the divine other-person and the Spiritis 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 Fathernecessarily 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 personalitiessubsist asprecisely distinct modesof relationand thus aretruly different ways of being and analogically relatedmomentsin divinepersonhood. Secondly, this formula captures the orthodox notion of the monarchy of the father,16in 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 ofunconditional 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 neverthelessnot 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.
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.
Hart, David B. The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. Grand Rapids Michigan: Eerdmans, 2003.
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.
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 4:171is 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 semanticallyinvolvesa 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 developedterminological 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.