Hermeneutics 101 – Catholicism and the Council of Trent: An Anathema Against Assurance

“If any one saith, that he will for certain, of an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance unto the end,-unless he have learned this by special revelation; let him be anathema.”

Thus reads the sixteenth canon of the sixth session of the Council of Trent. To my knowledge, this is the only anathema in the entire Catholic tradition which touches on the issue of assurance. If any readers are aware of another dogma which concerns assurance, I would be most indebted and grateful if you could inform me and direct me to the statement.

AnathemaIt is my conviction that misinterpretation of this anathema has solidified much misery and despair among the Catholic sensus fidelium for the past 500 years. Catholics simply are not happy; nearly every single Catholic that I meet is either apathetic towards salvation, or utterly terrified that they are going to slip up, commit a mortal sin, get run over by a bus on the way to confession, and then get dragged down to the deepest circle of Hell, reserved for those totally depraved sinners who masturbate, smoke weed and lie on their tax return. Catholics simply do not have assurance. Meanwhile – during that same 500 years – Evangelicals have been moving forward in leaps and bounds, overflowing with assurance and gospel joy at the promise that there is a place in heaven and the new creation reserved especially for them.

Catholics have been taught that they can have no assurance that they are “saved”; they can have no assurance that they will persevere to the end; they can have no assurance that they will go to heaven; if they have gone to confession, they nevertheless can have no assurance that they are in a state of grace; if they have commit a mortal sin and privately confessed it to God, they nevertheless can have no assurance that they have done so in a state of perfect contrition. Uncertainty, Uncertainty, Uncertainty. To believe that you are surely saved is regarded as the mortal sin of presumption.

It is my conviction that all of this uncertainty is a toxic parasite on Catholicism which has been sapping the joy from our congregations for over a thousand years. It has been around for far too long and needs to be done away with once and for all. It is my conviction that things really needn’t be this way: Catholics are well within their dogmatic and ecclesiastical rights to have the same assurance of salvation that the Protestants are currently enjoying. Lets pull apart this anathema from Trent to see why.

An Exploration of Certainty

189289836[1].pngWhat exactly does “certainty” mean? Is it actually possible to be certain of anything? It seems to be valid to doubt anything and everything. It is possible even to doubt your own existence! Even from a young age, I understood that it is impossible to have an epistemological certainty of anything. There is always the possibility that whatever you are believing is false. There is always the possibility that reality is not how it seems.

The film “The Matrix” is a wonderful cinematic exploration of this principle: In the film, the computer hacker Thomas Anderson (who adopts the hacker moniker of “Neo”) goes about daily life; he goes to work, has breakfast, sleeps, browses the internet late at night. But he feels like something is “off”. He suspects that reality is not quite what it seems to be. Eventually he is contacted by a mysterious group of people who claim to be able to show him the truth. Thomas meets with these people and they make him an offer: take the blue pill and leave the mystery unsolved, returning to real life and going about the daily grind, or take the red pill and have his eyes opened to true reality for the first time ever.

Thomas takes the red pill, and his whole world shatters. It turns out that almost everything that he took for granted was a lie. He was living in a computer simulation the entire time. Stuff that he thought he could depend on with certainty was pulled right out from underneath him.

We are all in exactly the same position as Neo: There may very well be an objective Truth out there (this is in fact an article of faith in Catholicism), however we can never be certain that we have really grasped it: it is always possible for someone to swoop in, offer us the red pill, and shatter our entire view of reality, showing us that everything we believe is wrong.

Assurance: Are You Saved?

AssuranceThis principle of uncertainty applies to literally everything: You cannot be certain of the colour of your own eyes, you cannot be certain of your own age, and most importantly, you cannot be certain of your salvation.

It is a classic tactic of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists to walk up to Catholics and ask “Are you saved?” Anything less than a devout “Amen brother!” from the Catholic will result in a free and unrequested sermon on assurance and knowing that because of what Jesus did on the cross, you’re going to make it to Heaven (and of course they will typically water down this wonderful message by attaching conditions to it, such as “faith” or “accepting Christ”). Most Catholics when asked this question will say “I don’t know if I’m saved. I’ll find out when I die”, causing the Evangelical asking the question to shake his head in pity and disapproval.

In an epistemological sense, this typically Catholic, non-committal response is completely correct. The Catholic simply cannot know whether they are saved or not. The Catholic has no sure idea what’s going to happen to them after they die. Furthermore, the Evangelical is completely fooling himself if he honestly thinks that he can be certain of his salvation. This is what I would like to call epistemological presumption. To be certain of anything constitutes epistemological presumption.

Assurance: Two Kinds of Certainty

And yet… perhaps there are things which we can be certain of. This is best illustrated by example:

Right now I am typing up this blog post. Now, do I know with objective certainty that I am currently typing up this blog post? No, of course not: this could be entirely illusory: I’m not certain that my computer exists; I’m not certain that my fingers and keyboard exist; I’m not certain that this blog even exists. All of it could be a lie.

ordinateur-de-bureau-pc-1456070535WEH[1].jpgBut here’s the twist: there is in actual fact exactly one thing that I can be certain of in this situation. I can doubt that I exist; I can doubt that this post exists; I can doubt that my computer exists; however I cannot doubt that I am currently experiencing the act of typing up a blog post on my computer. While I can doubt the content of my experience, I cannot doubt the experience in and of itself. This experience is real, even though the content of this experience may all be a lie.

I call this subjective certainty: it is the only form of certainty that it is valid to possess. The certainty of the fact that experience itself is true, even if the content of that experience is false. In this way there is a certain objectivity to our subjectivity. Arguably this is because subjective experience is in actual fact a form of objective divine revelation direct from God.

To review: I am not certain that I exist, but I am certain that I experience existence. I am not certain that I am hungry, but I am certain that I experience hunger. I am not certain that I love my family, but I am certain that I experience love for my family. And finally, I am not certain that I am saved, but I am certain that I experience salvation.

When Protestants talk about being “certain” that they are saved, this is what they are talking about (although many of them don’t realise it). Protestants examine their experience of life, and they are able to detect something within their experience of life which corresponds to the idea of “Salvation”, namely, an invincible joy which proceeds from the fact that they trust the unconditional grace of God to get them to heaven.

This is why, if you ask a Protestant if they are saved, many of them will respond with “Of course!” – It just seems so obvious to them: they are living and breathing salvation; they are walking in the light; Jesus is their best friend and they regularly converse with each other; they are overflowing with gospel joy at the prospect that God has them in his hands and will never let go. Protestants have a subjective certainty that they are saved: they simply know it because they daily experience it.

Anathema: What is actually being condemned?

The question is, does such a subjective certainty fall under the condemnation of the anathema of Trent quoted at the beginning of this post? Are protestants to be held as heretics on this point? Has such an overwhelming experience of gospel joy been dogmatically ruled out?

It seems fairly obvious to me that no, such an experience of joy has not been condemned by this anathema. Consider: The anathema talks about future salvation or perseverance. It claims that it is impossible to be certain that you will persevere all the way to the end and arrive safely at heaven. However the evangelical joy comes from experiencing and believing in present salvation. The evangelical joy proceeds from living a life of salvation right now. The evangelical joy does not necessarily have anything to say about perseverance to the end: it is instead all about living in the present moment and finding salvation in your day to day experience.

AssuranceFurthermore, you have to ask what kind of certainty is actually being condemned by this anathema. Is it condemning subjective certainty, or objective, epistemological certainty? Subjective certainty is more of a “confidence”, whereas objective certainty – as discussed previously – is simply an impossibility. Admittedly the anathema is ambiguous on this point; it simply is not clear what kind of certainty it is condemning. However if I had to take a guess, I would estimate that when the anathema says “absolute and infallible certainty” it is referring to epistemological, objective certainty, rather than subjective certainty. In other words, I suspect that according to this dogma it is entirely valid to have a full and robust, 100% confident faith and hope that you will persevere unto heaven and the fullness of salvation.

In short, if I had to interpret exactly what this anathema is actually condemning, I think it is fair to say that it is not condemning a subjective experience of certainty that you are saved. Next time the cheeky Protestant asks if you are saved, you really should feel comfortable saying “absolutely! Praise God!” What it is actually condemning, is an objective, epistemological certainty that you are and will be saved.

Anathema: Two Kinds of Presumption

An objection is raised: What about presumption? Isn’t it standard Catholic doctrine that being certain of your salvation is the mortal sin of presumption?

Firstly, as far as I am aware this doctrine is not infallible dogma and it is therefore safe for a theologian to disregard. Secondly, I think it depends how you want to define “Presumption”. My understanding of presumption is not so much “being certain that you’re saved” as it is “living your life as if sin has no consequences” or in other words “taking God’s mercy for granted while simultaneously ignoring his justice”.

This is exactly why Catholics have a doctrine of purgatory: You may indeed be guaranteed your salvation, however your sins still have consequences: if you are not repentant you will burn in the hellfire until you repent.

AnathemaThis is why a Catholic who has the gospel joy is generally better off than a protestant. Protestants are very firm on their rejection of purgatory, which means that their assurance of salvation is mixed up with an unhealthy antinomianism: Protestants are convinced that no matter how much they sin, they have been covered over by Jesus’ blood and therefore they will go straight to heaven when they die. This is vile and evil doctrine of the most presumptuous kind, and thankfully Catholics do not suffer from it.

I would like to call this form of presumption soteriological presumption. Contrast this with epistemological presumption. I am convinced that both of these are mortal sins, but they are quite different in character: Soteriological presumption is the conviction that your sins will not be punished, whereas epistemological presumption is where you claim to know things that you simply do not know.

Assurance: We Should be Certain of Our Salvation

So is it ok to have faith that you will persevere? Yes! Without such a faith you cannot enter into salvation here and now! There is no dogma which condemns such a faith. We should believe that we are predestined to heaven, even if we cannot objectively know that this is the case.

Is it ok to have faith that you are saved right now? Yes! This is the essence of the Christian life! Without having this firm assurance that you are walking in the light right now, you will be constantly in doubt about your salvation and have an active fear of Hell. God did not want us to live in fear; as he says in 1 John:

1 John 4:18 RSV-CE

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.

In the same letter through the pen of John, God exhorts us to have certainty!

1 John 5:13 RSV-CE

I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.

If you believe in the name of the Son of God, you can know that you are saved!

One of the most radical promises that God makes to us is that in the eschaton, we will finally have objective certainty:

1 Corinthians 13:12 RSV-CE

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.

assuranceNow we see God in a dark mirror, however in the end times we will be able to see him face to face. Looking God in the eyes is akin to staring at Objective Truth directly and beholding it in all of it’s glory. In other words, while we are pilgrims here on earth we cannot have objective certainty; we can only have faith and hope. However when we finally arrive in heaven and are staring at God face to face, we will finally have the objective, epistemological certainty which we crave. Direct knowledge and perception of God and Truth is something reserved for heaven: we eagerly await it and rejoice at the prospect of its advent.

So rejoice, dear Christian; God loves you and wants to save you. He is God; you are but a man. Do not be so presumptuous as to think you can outsmart the lord of the universe: he wants you to be saved, and he will have the victory. When we pray “Thy will be done” it is a prophecy, not a request. God gets what God wants, and he wants you. Now have faith, step into the light, and sing doxologies to our glorious saviour Jesus Christ, until he comes again, amen.

Hermeneutics 101 – Sola Scriptura Protestantism: Private Interpretation and the Scope of Catholic Theology

One of the complaints that Catholics commonly throw at Protestants is that their doctrine of “Private Interpretation” leads to doctrinal anarchy: When you’re doing theology with a mindset of “The Bible, the Holy Spirit and Me” it’s inevitably going to lead to massively inflated egos, widespread doctrinal disagreements and an intensely burning pride.

What I recently realised is that Catholics are almost in the same boat as Protestants. The fact that Catholics have a magisterium doesn’t necessarily change anything: in the end Catholic theology boils down to “private interpretation”. The question needs to be asked however; private interpretation of what? I will answer this question shortly.

Sheep and Shepherds

Private InterpretationIt seems apparent to me that there are basically two ways to “do religion”. The first involves just accepting and familiarising yourself with whatever the church officially teaches, without questioning or disagreeing with anything. If you are being a Catholic in this way, you don’t necessarily “switch off your brain”, as you may very well try to wrestle with the doctrines presented to you and try to make sense of them, but you do go with the flow and just subscribe to official teaching without question. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is particularly important to someone doing Catholicism in this way, as it clearly spells out exactly what the church teaches on pretty much every issue. Often when arguing with someone who “does Catholicism” in this way, they will throw quotes from the Catechism at you as if doing so definitively settles the issue and totally closes the argument: “no more discussion necessary, the church has spoken, case closed”.

People who follow this first path are actually are to be commended. This way of approaching Catholicism is actually entirely appropriate for the majority of Christians. It is simply a brute fact of life that not everyone has the time, inclination and calling to wrestle with 2000 years of church tradition, scripture, biblical languages, theology and philosophy. Not everyone is called to be a theologian or an exegete. Not everyone is called to study the bible. However everyone is called to submit to Christ, and to the church which he founded. We are the sheep and they are the shepherds. The sheep’s duty is simple: follow the shepherd wherever the shepherd may lead. In this way, it is entirely appropriate to fall back on the official interpretations of the church, which have been distilled and refined over 2000 years and represent the sensus fidelium at the current point in time. It is a brute fact of life that most people don’t have the time to engage in theology; their time is largely occupied by the hard work and more pressing issue of being a good programmer, plumber, carpenter, student, doctor etc. For such people, it is a blessing to have an official interpretation which they can depend on for their faith, whilst being active and occupied in the “real world”. Such people don’t have time for private interpretation.

Private Interpretation as Discerning the Light

Private InterpretationThere is however a second way of “doing Catholicism”, this way is the path of the theologian. The theologian recognises that the official interpretation of the church is not infallible. The theologian understands that the sensus fidelium is not infallible. The theologian knows that the Pope is not infallible. The theologian always keeps in mind that the Catechism is just one fallible voice among many.

Rather than simply following whatever the church says, the theologian has decided to embark on a much more difficult journey: the journey of private interpretation. This is a journey which involves the theologian familiarising himself with 2000 years of church documents, writings of the church fathers, scripture translations and editions, biblical and liturgical languages, philosophy, theology and so on.

When doing private interpretation, the theologian is entirely justified in disagreeing with the official teaching of the church. The theologian is more acutely aware of the limits and bounds of infallibility. If there is something suspect in the official teaching of the church, he will call it out.

If you are following this second path, you have already entered into the realm of “private interpretation”: what you end up believing will probably be completely different to what everyone else believes. And yet despite this the problem of “doctrinal anarchy” which plagues Protestantism will not be a problem for you. The reason why is that Catholicism is a dogmatic system which has something akin to continuing revelation which I refer to as Divine Clarification. Despite the fact that the deposit of faith was “once for all delivered to the saints”, it is not a static thing: it is something which grows and develops with time.

Private Interpretation of The Deposit of Faith

Private InterpretationIt is helpful to first establish what a historical-critical Protestant believes to be the Deposit of Faith. Such a Protestant believes that the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts of the 66 books of the reformation bible are the entire deposit of faith. Case closed. If you are a protestant theologian this is all you need to work with. Learn Hebrew, Learn Greek and get down to the hard work of exegeting and privately interpreting scripture. Translations are helpful but they hold a lesser authority to the original languages and can therefore be safely discarded when doing private interpretation and serious theology.

I would like to register a reservation with this perspective before moving on. Firstly, we no longer have access to the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. We only have critical editions and copies of copies, all of which differ with each other. Protestants often respond to this by saying that the differences are “insignificant”. I personally am unimpressed with this line of argument, as it would imply that parts of sacred scripture can be safely discarded, which is surely a blasphemous conclusion. While we can have confidence that our critical editions are close to the originals, we have no actual infallible guarantee that this is the case, and there is therefore a cloud of uncertainty constantly hovering over such versions of scripture.

In any case, this is the protestant version of the deposit of faith: the 66 book canon, read in the original languages.

Private InterpretationCompare this with the Catholic deposit of faith. The Catholic deposit of faith is a massive behemoth to behold. A Catholic does not merely have to concern himself with the scriptures in their original languages; he also has to take into account all translations of the scripture which have been implicitly received by an apostolic tradition or explicitly approved by the magisterium of the church. In this way, a Catholic does not have to work with a single bible or a single translation; he instead has to take into account a massive plethora of translations and editions. The Vulgate has authority, but the Septuagint with Greek New Testament holds equal authority. The Peshitta has authority, but the RSV-CE holds equal authority. Approved Spanish editions of Scripture are just as inspired and authoritative as approved French editions. The more languages a Catholic theologian knows, the more of the deposit of faith he is able to familiarise himself with and therefore the more effectively he is able to do theology.

But the Catholic deposit of faith doesn’t end there. The only reason that scripture is inspired, is that it is read in the context of the Divine Liturgy. The received apostolic liturgies of the church are inspired by the Holy Spirit: God speaks through the liturgy well before he speaks through scripture. But this only makes the Catholic theologian’s job even harder: not only does he have to concern himself with all the approved editions of scripture, he also has to be familiar with all the different apostolic and approved liturgies that are to be found throughout the world and within the church! And of course, a liturgy is not something that can be experienced by reading a book; it is not something which you can understand just by watching it on Youtube or reading about it on Wikipedia; a liturgy has to be lived and breathed. You must participate in the liturgy and pray through it. You must be physically present. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city like Sydney, many of these liturgies can be found within a 50km radius. However if you’re living out in the country side, you’ll be lucky to get a single Latin Mass.

But wait, there’s more! The Catholic deposit of faith has another component: the dogmatic tradition. The dogmatic tradition is the Divine Clarification which I mentioned earlier. This dogmatic tradition consists of all the infallible statements produced by ecumenical councils and all ex cathedra statements pronounced by Popes. A Catholic theologian has to take this entire tradition into account and do justice to it during his private interpretation.

To review: Both the Catholic and the Protestant theologian are engaging in private interpretation. The only difference is the scope of the “raw data” that the respective theologians have to deal with. A Protestant theologian only has to deal with 66 Greek and Hebrew books, whereas a Catholic theologian has to deal with a multitude of scriptural translations, a plethora of divine liturgies and 2000 years of dogmatic pronouncements during his attempts at private interpretation.

The Strength of Catholicism

After reading the previous section, you might think that the Protestant is better off: he doesn’t have to deal with so much raw material during his theological inquiries. However there’s one important difference between these two conceptions of the deposit of faith: The Protestant version is entirely static, whereas the Catholic version is dynamic.

As the collective Catholic understanding of the deposit of faith grows, this understanding is codified and added back in to the deposit of faith itself in the form of a fresh dogma. After this happens, future theologians are forced to take the new dogma into account during their theological adventures. The dogma is set in stone, it can never be revoked (although perhaps it may be “annulled” if there is doubt surrounding whether or not it was ever officially promulgated). This keeps the Catholic church moving forward in it’s understanding: as the church encounters controversies and issues, it deliberates and investigates and comes to a conclusion; this conclusion is then codified in a dogma and inserted into the dogmatic tradition, where it will remain forever. This is how doctrinal development occurs.

Consider for a moment what would happen if everyone were following the “first way” of doing Catholicism described above. There would never be any development! Everyone would just accept the churches current interpretation of the deposit of faith and not try to push the envelope to any degree. This is why – ironically – private interpretation is actually a crucial component of Catholic theological development. Individual people who are following the “theologian” path all come together, raise issues, argue with each other, start up passionate debates. This sometimes leads to massive controversies in the church, at which point the magisterium steps in and declares a dogma, definitively deciding between the two parties.

Private InterpretationThis process of dogmatic Divine Clarification also forces theologians to stay largely on the same page and avoid the doctrinal anarchy which so plagues Protestantism. Even though theologians may disagree on important issues, they are forced to work within the same dynamic deposit of faith, and this keeps them in agreement on issues that the magisterium has already dogmatically pronounced on. They may disagree on the interpretation of the deposit of faith, however they cannot deny the deposit of faith itself.

Compare all of this with the static Protestant system: The Protestant system is entirely unable to respond to change and is prevented from developing. The protestants have a battle cry – “Semper Reformanda” – which is supposed to be taken as a call for the church to be “always reforming”. In theory this is supposed to imply a rejection of all dogma, however in practice most if not all Protestants have their own “pet doctrines” which they cling to dogmatically and will not budge from even when shown contradictory evidence.

In any case, the Protestant deposit of faith is entirely static: it cannot respond to fresh questions that are posed of it. They have no magisterium which can introduce new and authoritative clarifying dogmas into the religion. They are stuck in the past. They are forced to depend entirely upon the fallible historical-critical method for all of their exegetical attempts. They deny the inspired voice of the church in the present age. All of this results in a church community which is constantly going around in circles and reinventing the wheel. Where Catholics have dogmatically defined the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, the Protestants are constantly having to rediscover these ideas afresh in the pages of scripture. Unfortunately, due to their over-reliance on the entirely fallible historical-critical method, many Protestants have begun to jettison many of these crucial Christian ideas. Many Christians have become Unitarians, or modern day Arians, denying the divinity of Christ. Unlike Catholicism, there is no “dogmatic spine” holding up the Protestant theological body. Protestants agree on the same deposit of faith, but beyond that they are free to disagree with each other at the level of private interpretation and they are doomed to disagree with each other until Jesus comes back. Again, compare to the Catholic system: Catholic theologians may disagree with each other over their respective private interpretations for a time, but as the ages march on and the magisterium declares more and more dogmas, the theologian’s many and varied opinions will coalesce into a single infallible interpretation.

Conclusion: Private Interpretation is Necessary for Catholicism to Function

To summarise: The Catholic deposit of faith is large and multifaceted, encompassing all received and approved bible translations, all apostolic liturgies and all infallible statements within the dogmatic tradition. When a Catholic theologian is doing theology, he has to take this entire deposit of faith into account. The end result is a form of Private Interpretation that is restricted and guided by the dogmatic tradition. However rather than being destructive and dangerous for the church, this limited private interpretation is a crucial component of doctrinal development and serves to drive the church forward towards theological perfection.

The Paschal Homily of Saint John Chrysostom: “O Death, Where is Your Sting? O Hell, Where is Your Victory?”

The-Harrowing-of-Hell-by-jimforest-1[1].pngIf any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast.
If any man be a wise servant, let him enter rejoicing into the joy of his Lord.
If any have laboured long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense.
If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward.
If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast.
If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings, because he shall in no wise be deprived.
If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing.
If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him also be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honour, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has worked from the first hour.

And He shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts.
And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honours the acts and praises the offering.

Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord, and receive your reward, both the first and likewise the second.

You rich and poor together, hold high festival.
You sober and you heedless, honour the day.

Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast.
The table is fully laden; feast sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy the feast of faith; receive all the riches of loving-kindness.

Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shone forth from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free: he that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it.

By descending into hell, he made hell captive.
He embittered it when it tasted of his flesh.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, cried: “Hell was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.”

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

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

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

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

St. John Chrysostom

Orthodoxy 101 – Catholicism and Sola Fide: Understanding Indulgences

IndulgencesIndulgences—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

IndulgencesAn 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

13729201_1197343756962644_642610664857631023_n.jpgWe 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. 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

Extreme_Unction_LACMA_AC1994.171.5-56a1083c3df78cafdaa83428[1]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.

“Earning” Indulgences?

IndulgencesSimilarly 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

220px-Hieronymus_Bosch_013[1].jpgThe 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

IndulgencesSomeone 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.

Beautiful Promises

christus-victor[1].jpgTo 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?

(Return to first article)

“Are You Saved?” – The Essence of the Gospel

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:

  1. Are you saved?
  2. Am I saved?
  3. Are Hitler/Satan/Judas/members of ISIS saved?
  4. 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:

  1. Yes! Amen! Praise God!
  2. I’m not sure.
  3. Probably not.
  4. 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?

  1. I dunno (but probably not)
  2. I dunno (but probably not)
  3. I dunno (but probably not)
  4. 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:

  1. Yes!
  2. It depends who’s asking
  3. Probably not
  4. 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:

  1. Yes, of course!
  2. Yes, of course!
  3. Yes, of course!
  4. 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.

What are your answers to the questions?

Tawḥīd Trīnitās

Introduction

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

A Dogmatic Requirement of Islam

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aesthetic Epistemology: Divine Truth as Infinite Beauty

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

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

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

A Proposal of a Refined Creedal Formula

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18Is 9:6 (RSV:CE)

Orthodoxy 101 – Christianity and The Glorious Gospel

What is the Gospel?

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What is the Gospel? This is a tougher question than most people seem to realise. As Christians we are called to “Proclaim the Gospel”. It is our core mission to the world. And yet the definition of what exactly it is that we are supposed to be proclaiming is quite elusive.

It is helpful to look at the literal meaning of the word “Gospel”. It is an old-English word which means “Good news”. So what is the good news? Traditionally, the good news has been summarised as “Jesus is risen!”. So far all Christians are in agreement. However why exactly is that “Good news”? What difference does it make to my life? It is in answering this derivative question that most, if not all denominations and expressions of Christianity go astray.

The good news as it pertains to me and my life, takes the form of an unconditional promise. This promise has two aspects: present and future. In the present, the promise says “You are righteous and you are saved, right here and now, and there’s nothing you have to do to make it so.” In the future, the promise says “You will not suffer everlasting damnation and you are going to go to heaven, and ultimately there’s nothing you can do to prevent this from happening“.

Once this promise has been spoken, the listener will have one of two responses: Faith/Trust/Belief in the promise, or Apathy/Disbelief/Outrage. If they have the positive response of Faith, this faith will inevitably lead to joy, and this joy is itself a direct subjective experience of salvation in the here and now: This joy is an experience of heaven on earth.

It is important to note that the promise is unconditional. This means that even if the listener does not believe in it, they are still saved because God keeps his promises. An important aspect of the fact that this is an unconditional promise is that it depends entirely on God: We do not have to do anything to “earn” it, and there is nothing we can do to mess it up. God keeps his promises and he will have the victory, even if we resist him.

This then, is the “Good news” of the Gospel as it pertains to my life. It is an unconditional promise from God which says “You are saved right now and there’s nothing you have to do to earn it, and you will be saved in the future, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do which will prevent it from happening.”

The Gospel Promise of Love

Forever-and-ever-alice-and-jasper-fanfics-13158494-240-320[1].jpgSomeone could have this wonderful promise spoken to them and be completely baffled as to the details. “Why am I saved right now?” they might ask. “Why will I certainly go to heaven?” At this point it helps to elaborate on aspects of the actual Christian narrative.

The reason that we are all saved right now, is because Jesus loved the world so much, that he paid for the sins of all humanity by willingly dying on the cross and descending to Hell and suffering all of it’s torments. Jesus took the full punishment for our sins, so that we don’t have to. He took a bullet for us. He didn’t just pay for the sins of a couple of people, he paid for the sins of the entire world. In Christ all sins have already been punished. Now no punishment remains. Furthermore all humanity has been “justified”, which is to say every single human being is united to the resurrected Christ, and has had the perfect righteousness of Christ poured into their souls, such that they transition from being sinners to being intrinsically holy and righteous. In this way, the whole world has been saved from condemnation and damnation, and furthermore the whole world is united to Christ and lives in him. Because Jesus defeated death by his resurrection, every individual without exception has also defeated death through Christ, and therefore every individual without exception is “saved”: Not only do we not need to fear Hell thanks to Christ’s atoning sacrifice of love, we can also joyfully experience becoming new creations thanks to Christ resurrection!

Note that this story is universal and entirely by Grace: you don’t have to do anything, whether it be “believing” or “loving” or “works” or “obedience”. You don’t have to do anything. The story applies to everyone: Muslims, Atheists, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Hitler, Walt Disney, Muhammad, Me, You, My family, Your family etc etc. The entire world has been objectively saved by Christ’s death, descent to Hell and resurrection. This is why an evangelist can simply tell the story to an unbeliever with no “ifs, ands or buts”. All that needs to be done is to say to someone “You are saved!” and then pray that the Holy Spirit will cause that person to respond to the promise with faith. But again, the promise does not depend on that person having faith: even if they disbelieve the promise, they are still objectively saved by Christ. The only difference is that they have no “experience” of this salvation and therefore they could be said to be still “walking in darkness”: Objectively they are saved, but Subjectively they are still experiencing the old state of affairs: damnation and alienation from God. This is why we must evangelise. We need people to become aware of the promise that God speaks to them so that it may become activated and alive in their experience of life.

Moving on to the future aspect of the promise. The reason that we will all eventually get to Heaven, is that the Holy Spirit has been poured into our hearts. According to scripture, the Holy Spirit serves as a “Guarantee of our inheritance”, which is to say “a promise that we will arrive in Heaven”. Someone who has the Holy Spirit therefore is predestined to heaven. Of course, God gives us freedom to resist him. We are able to resist him such that we get stuck in a state of afterlife purification indefinitely. However the promise of the Holy Spirit is that this simply is not going to happen: If you have the Holy Spirit, you WILL walk the path of salvation all the way to the end. God guarantees it. This is the doctrine of predestination. Predestination does not mean that all of our actions have been predetermined by God, predestination simply means that God promises never to give up on us. He will never leave us or abandon us. He will stick by us in the form of the Holy Spirit until we arrive at the fullness of salvation.

Again, this story is universal. Whoever has the Holy Spirit has received this promise of predestination. Arguably we all have the Holy Spirit, and so we are all predestined! And again, this narrative is entirely by Grace: God guarantees us a positive outcome and even though we may resist him, ultimately we will not rebel against him forever. Again, when evangelising all that needs to be done is to speak this promise: “You will not be damned forever. You are going to get to Heaven”. This aspect of the promise generates a strong Hope and assurance. When times are tough, and someone is drowning in sin which they feel unable to defeat, they can throw themselves upon this promise from God and say “No matter how bad things get, they are going to get better; No matter how much I fall into sin, eventually God will deliver me”. This promise therefore serves as a guard against despair in the life of the Christian.

Note that at no point in the discussion have any conditions been stated. The promise is well and truly unconditional! We do not have to do anything in order to be saved right now and have our place in heaven secured: God has done it all and God will do it all. Salvation is completely and entirely by Grace… and yet in that act of Grace we remain completely and entirely free. This leads to a more sobering aspect of the Gospel promise.

The Gospel Promise of Justice

E047_Purgatory[1].jpgOne aspect of the Gospel promise is that Justice will be done. Everything good we do will be rewarded, and everything bad we do will be punished. Hitler will be made to experience all the misery that he caused during his time on earth. Fathers who beat their children will have the situation reversed and they will experience the fear and terror that they have caused their children directly. Rapists will have their souls crushed proportionally to the harm they caused their victims. Murderers will experience the pain that they bestowed on others.

To some people, this aspect of the promise is comforting. Someone whose mother was raped and murdered by rampaging Muslim Jihadis will inevitably be crying out to heaven for justice. God promises that this justice will be done: those Jihadis will be made to pay. To most people, this aspect of the promise is incredibly sobering: Just because Jesus paid for all my sins, does not mean that I can just indulge in sin with no consequence. There will be punishment for every moral mistake that we make. This punishment will be terrifying, infinite, and experienced as everlasting. This punishment is Hell.

How does this “Justice” aspect of the promise mesh with the “Grace” aspect of the promise? For one thing, heavenly rewards do not decay. Every good thing we do will be rewarded in heaven and those rewards will last forever. On the other hand, our sins can be burned away and we can be left spotless as if we had never sinned at all. This is what happens in Hell. The horrible punishment of Hell will lead to wilful repentance, and this repentance will lead to the sins being purified and burned away. Eventually, once we have repented of all of our sins, the punishment will cease (even if it subjectively feels like it lasts forever).

The second, future aspect of the Gospel promise applies here. Another way of wording it is “Even if you go to Hell, you still have the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is a promise that God will rescue you from damnation. You will not be stuck in Hell forever. Eventually God will get you out”

This promise could be exploited for laziness and laxness, in which case the scary side of the promise needs to be emphasised: “If you do not repent, you will go to Hell, and you don’t want to go to Hell because it is the worst possible experience you can have and what’s more, it feels like it is everlasting!”

Note that this promise is not unconditional: It depends on our free response. If we do good, we are rewarded. If we do bad, we are punished.

Where people get the Gospel wrong

worksalvation[1].pngPretty much everyone who gets the gospel wrong, does so because they either restrict the universality of the message in some way, or they change the promise from an unconditional one to a conditional one.

Arminians, Catholics and Orthodox

Catholics commonly screw up the message by saying that God “offers” us salvation. Modern Catholics will wax poetic about God’s grace, how God loves everyone and wants to save everyone and how we don’t have to do anything to earn our salvation, but then at the last second they will turn around and say “But God gives us free will, and we need to use our free will to accept God’s offer of salvation, otherwise we will be damned”. What a terrible Gospel! No longer does God promise me salvation; instead he merely offers me salvation. In the final analysis whether or not I am saved depends entirely on me and my efforts to accept salvation. This leads to perpetual spiritual angst, despair, depression as I am constantly asking myself “Have I accepted God’s offer?”. And God help you if you commit mortal sins! “Oh God, I’ve screwed up. I just had sex with my girlfriend again. I’m going to Hell if I don’t get to confession ASAP”. All of a sudden you have a terrible fear of death because if you were to die in the state of sin this would send you off to Hell forever and ever.

Calvinists

Calvinists get the Gospel wrong by altering both the unconditionality and the universality of the message. Calvinists claim that faith is a condition for salvation: if you do not have faith, you are not saved and will go to Hell. This leads to spiritual angst of another kind, as people are constantly asking themselves “do I have true faith?” What’s more, Calvinists restrict God’s love only to a select few people. God does not desire the salvation of everyone, he only desires the salvation of a couple of people who he chose for no particular reason before creation. He desires that everyone else suffer everlasting, brutal, horrible torture in Hell. In this way Calvinists are worshipping a purely evil God. Calvinism cannot even rightly be called Christianity. Calvinism is Satanism and all Calvinists are Satanists. All Calvinists without exception will be brutally punished in Hell and the Saints in Heaven will rejoice and praise God for his glorious and righteous justice as they enjoy the spectacle. Lucky for these horrible Calvinists the one true God does not deal in “everlasting” punishments, and so even disgusting, depraved individuals such as Calvinists will eventually repent of their heresies and blasphemies and achieve salvation.

Evangelicals

Evangelicals in general mess up the Gospel by adding conditions to it, which in turn serve to limit it’s universality. They say that you must “accept Christ” if you want to be saved. They say that you must “have faith”. You must “believe in God” or “trust in Jesus”. Decision theology is popular in this camp: you need to actively make a choice for God in order to be saved. If you do not do these things, then you are damned forever. Again, the same sort of spiritual angst comes into play as with the Calvinists. “How do I know that I have true faith?”, “How do I know I have chosen God?”

Of course certain Evangelicals are not troubled by such questions in the slightest. They have fully convinced themselves that they have enough faith and have chosen God adequately. They believe that they have fulfilled the conditions for salvation. These people are Pharisees. Every single one of them without exception is depending on their own efforts in order to be saved. As such they are puffed up with pride and superiority. They look at their unbelieving neighbours and think to themselves “Gee, I’m glad I’m not that guy. Thank God that I’m saved!”

If the Evangelical in question has a Christian family, he is less likely to care about the salvation and damnation of others. As far as he cares, everyone he knows and cares about is going to heaven. Too bad about those other poor souls who are going to be damned forever. “I’ll just be happy that God chose me and my friends and family. Too bad about those other suckers who didn’t believe in God before they died!”

However if the Evangelical in question is a convert from a non-Christian family, this Gospel is absolutely soul crushing: “Ok, God saved me, but what about my brothers and sisters? What about my mother and father? What about all my unbelieving friends”. The only answer that this gospel gives is that “their salvation depends on YOU”. All of a sudden, the weight of the salvation of this person’s entire family falls squarely onto that person. The person will feel like it’s up to him to save his family. If they are damned, it is his fault. If they die before showing any signs of faith, this person will feel utterly crushed and defeated. No longer is the Gospel good news to this person. Now the gospel becomes a terrible message of complete destruction and eternal torment for the people who that person loves most. A lot of people have a crisis of faith at this time. They are simply unable to continue singing songs of praise and worship to a God who would allow this to happen. Some people abandon the faith. Some people suffer intense mental anguish and go through intellectual contortions until they “accept that God is sovereign” and then they continue to bow down and worship him despite the overwhelming evidence that he is a total uncaring monster.

The Gospel Promise of Grace

chinese-717356_640[1].jpgThe Gospel as it was outlined at the beginning of this post is the only true Gospel. It is a completely unconditional promise which is universal in scope. This promise can be spoken to anyone with conviction. An evangelist can walk up to anyone and say “You are saved and you will go to Heaven!”. If the hearer of this promise responds with interest, the evangelist can continue to tell the story of Jesus. As the story is told, the faith of the listener may grow, and blossom into an experience of salvation right here and now. That person will transition from walking in darkness to walking in light, as they place their trust in the promise and absorb the salvation which it promises. And the amazing thing about this promise is that it still applies; it still will come to pass, even if the listener rejects it or has doubts. For this is the nature of an unconditional promise: it does not depend on the response of the listener. God will bring it about. This is the essence of Grace.

Now, God implicitly speaks this promise to everyone without exception. Even those people who lived before Christ. No one is excluded from his salvific love and salvific will. However it is helpful to have God’s promises spoken to us personally as individuals. This is why we have the sacraments.

Baptism

Baptism is the sacrament in which God says to the sinner “You are righteous and all your sins are forgiven, even those which you haven’t yet commit”. This provides an extremely tangible promise for a Christian to place their trust in. Whenever they sin, or feel despair at the state of their soul, they can think back to their baptism and remember the promise of God that was spoken to them personally at that time.

Confirmation

Confirmation is the sacrament in which we receive the Holy Spirit. As such, it is a sacrament in which God makes the promise of future salvation. In Confirmation, God says “I will never leave you. I will never abandon you. I am going to get you to Heaven”. In this way, whenever a Christian is finding themselves in a stage of life where they are bogged down in sin and utterly failing to repent, they can think back to their confirmation and have hope, thinking to themselves “God is going to get me through this. This is not going to last forever”. As such this sacrament is a great guard against despair.

Confession

Confession is a sacrament which repeats the promise that was spoken during baptism. As such it is not strictly necessary, although it is mandated by church law in the case of mortal sin. In confession, the promise of baptism is repeated: “You are forgiven, you are righteous”. This is helpful because as time goes by, our baptism becomes less vivid in our memories, and the promise that was spoken to us fades into the past. In this way it becomes helpful to sacramentally renew the promise so that it is fresh in our minds. This is also appropriate for the reason that as time goes by and the promise of baptism fades in our memory, the promise is less active in our mind, and so when we commit mortal sins we experience subjective guilt. This guilt is unwarranted seeing as we have already been objectively forgiven of all of our sins, past, present and future. In this way having confession available helps us to remove any unwarranted guilt, by speaking the promise of Baptism to us afresh and giving us a word to place our trust in which is closer to the present time. Someone who has a strong faith obviously does not need to go to confession, however it is always helpful to hear God’s promise spoken, and so it is wise to go to confession whenever someone commits a mortal sin.

Universalism is the only Gospel worthy of the name

6506502553_006c1eb79b_b-700x450[1]The true and glorious Gospel, is that God loves everyone, he has saved everyone, and he will save everyone. No one will be excluded from his love and salvific will. The future will be wonderful, truly something to look forward to.

This is a promise that can be spoken to anyone with utter conviction. It is unconditional and doesn’t depend on us in any way. People who hear it and believe it will have a strong experience of salvation right now. This is what evangelism is about: Objectively we are all saved and we are all going to heaven. However subjectively not everyone realises this. God uses us to preach his promise of salvation and so bring people by faith from the darkness into the light. Part of the promise is that eventually everyone will move from darkness to light. We participate in the fulfilment of that promise by our preaching and evangelism, however it does not depend on us in any way. God will fulfil his promise to save someone regardless of whether they hear us preaching. It’s just that they might spend a longer time wandering in the darkness.

Of course, we do not know with infallible certainty that this promise will come to pass. This is why we must pray continuously for the salvation of ourselves and all other people. We must have faith and hope. But surely we will overflow with faith and hope when we consider who it is we are placing our faith and hope in: Jesus Christ; God made man, who loved us so much that we was willing to die and suffer Hell in our place, who was resurrected from death to life and ascended into Heaven; who sent the Holy Spirit as a promise that we would be saved. When you fully appreciate this, it’s not that hard to love him back, is it?

(Go to “Understanding Indulgences”)

Orthodoxy 101 – Lutheranism and the Sola Fide: Objective and Subjective Salvation

e84bdc3bd3ff8b006ebdbfea4473-is-protestantism-better-than-catholicism[1].jpgI think it is helpful when approaching the Catholic/Protestant debate concerning salvation and justification, to draw a distinction between objective salvation and justification, and subjective salvation and justification. This is another application of absurdity: the seeming conflict between God’s eternal perspective and our individual subjective perspectives. In this case God’s perspective is the objective salvation/justification, and our perspective is the subjective salvation/justification.

Objective Salvation

Salvation[1].jpgIn Catholicism, there is a distinction drawn between initial justification and justification. “Initial justification” is the brute fact of whether or not we are justified, whereas “justification” is the degree to which we are justified. To translate into Protestant terminology, “initial justification” becomes simply “justification”, and “justification” becomes “sanctification”.

Romans 5:18 ESV

18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.

Now, initial justification is universal: all men without exception are objectively justified by the cross, descent to Hell, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The atonement was unlimited: it was an infinite, over-abundant payment for all the sins of humanity. Christ suffered Hell so that we don’t have to. All men have life and justification due to Christ’s act of righteousness. Objectively, everyone is already saved and justified. In Christ, all of our sins have been forgiven. All of this is entirely by Grace, as it depends entirely on God and in no way depends on us.

To what degree do individuals have objective justification? This is determined by the quantity and quality of loving works which Christ performs through them. Every good and loving work performed by a soul leads to the heavenly reward of an increase in objective justification. This is the “laying up of treasures in heaven” Jesus speaks about. These treasures “never decay”, which is to say that we can never lose them: Our degree of justification can only ever increase, it can never decrease.

Furthermore, all individuals have the Holy Spirit, and therefore all individuals are predestined to persevere to the end and not ultimately fall away from the salvation that Christ has won for them.

Subjective Salvation

irrational-fears[1].jpgHowever from our perspective, things are different. Subjectively, we are walking in darkness: despite the fact that we are objectively justified, we do not by default have a strong experience of this salvation. We wander about in guilt and despair, looking for something to place our hope in and finding nothing. Despite the fact that we have objectively been saved, we are subjectively experiencing damnation.

This situation changes when someone shares the Gospel with us. The Gospel essentially is the proclamation of Christ’s death, descent to Hell, and resurrection, along with the objective justification that this implies for the hearer of the message. The Gospel is therefore an unconditional promise of both present and future salvation: The Gospel says “You are righteous, right now, because Christ lives within you” and also “You will eventually arrive in Heaven, where you will enjoy a perfect relationship with God, Creation and all other souls”. These promises are unconditional: no matter what, they are going to come to pass and there is nothing we can do about it. As such the only possible responses are either to have faith in the promise, or reject the promise through disbelief and outrage.

If you have faith in the promise, this faith inevitably leads to joy and love, and the joy and love are in and of themselves a direct subjective experience of the objective salvation/justification which Christ has won. In this way, Subjective justification can be said to come through faith alone, just as all the reformers insisted. It is important to note that we do not “earn” our justification by our faith (faith is not a work), and faith is not merely “evidence” of justification: instead faith in the unconditional promise directly leads to love and joy which is in itself a direct experience of justification. Also important to note is that it is impossible for works of any sort to lead to initial justification in a subjective sense, because you simply cannot do anything to earn an unconditional promise. An unconditional promise depends entirely on God, not on us. Whether or not we believe the promise, the promise still stands and will come to pass.

Sacraments of promise

sacraments-stained-glass.jpgIn a general, generic sense, God’s promise of salvation is spoken to all humanity universally in the tradition of the church and the pages of scripture. However it is extremely useful to our personal experience of salvation to have this general promise made directly and specifically to each of us as individuals. In order for us to put our faith in it, it helps to have the promise spoken to us specifically and personally. This is where the sacraments come in.

In baptism, God sacramentally speaks the promise of present salvation to us individually. In baptism, God declares “Your sins have been washed away; All of your sins, past, present, and future, have been forgiven; You are united to Christ; You are righteous; You are justified.” This declaration – or promise – is a statement of objective fact. When the individual places their faith in this promise, all of a sudden they transition from walking in darkness to walking in light; they are experiencing salvation here and now in their subjective experience of life. They believe and trust that Christ has justified them, and this belief and trust immediately leads to a subjective experience of justification.

In confirmation, God sacramentally speaks the promise of future salvation to each individual. In confirmation God says “I have sealed you with my Holy Spirit; I will never leave you; I will never abandon you; I guarantee your inheritance in heaven; you will not suffer everlasting damnation; you will be perfect”. Confirmation is thus the sacrament of predestination and perseverance. Again, this promise is unconditional and therefore can only be subjectively received by faith. The effect of trusting this promise is to bring the promised future eschaton into the present experience of the believer. The person who trusts in the promise of confirmation is thus living in the end times even before the end times have arrived.

Mortal Sin and ConfessionFeaturedMortalSin[1].png

Romans 8:31-39 RSVCE

31 What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; 34 who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?[f] 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For thy sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Objectively, there is nothing that can separate us from the justification that Christ has won for us. There is nothing we can do, no sin which we could commit, which would remove our initial justification or decrease our level of justification. Our salvation and justification is a brute fact. As St Paul says; neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

However subjectively it is possible for someone to fall from a state of walking in the light back into a state of walking in darkness. This is a subjective movement from the state of grace, back into the state of sin. A person ceases to experience the justification that Christ has won for them. This occurs through Mortal Sin.

Faith in the promises of God has two effects: it leads to joy and love, but it also leads to guilt and sorrow. Faith in the promise of God both delights and tortures, as a soul becomes aware of how it has sinned against love and this leads to extreme agony. In this way, sin leads to a damaging of subjective justification via the introduction of subjective guilt. When we commit mortal sins, this constitutes a rejection of God and thus generates guilt in us. Of course, if we have been baptised we have already received the promise of God that all of our sins have been forgiven and that we are therefore objectively “not guilty”. However in our day to day experience of life, this promise made at our baptism becomes foggy and less vivid in our memory as time goes by. As such, guilt creeps up on us when we commit mortal sins and causes us to despair. Again, this despair is unfounded, because we have assurance that we are justified. Nevertheless the despair and guilt creep up on us and reduce our subjective experience of justification and salvation. In the case of apostasy or unbelief, our subjective justification is almost entirely lost.

In confession, God sacramentally reiterates the promise that he made to us at baptism: “You are forgiven; you are justified”. In this way, the sacrament of confession serves as a way to anchor ourselves in the promise that was spoken to us a long time ago. It gives us a sacramental object of faith which is close to the present and fresh in our memory, rather than distant in the past where we can’t remember it. This is particularly important for people who were baptised when they were infants and therefore can’t recall their baptism at all! For people who struggle to recall their baptism, it is incredibly helpful to have the sacrament of confession at their disposal, so that they can hear the promise of God sacramentally reiterated to them again and again as much as is needed. The promise spoken during confession and absolution is the same promise that was spoken during baptism, and so again, it is an unconditional promise that can only be received and activated in the soul by faith alone.

Someone who has a strong faith in the promise of God does not strictly need to go to confession, although it is always helpful to do so and it is therefore mandated by current Church discipline. If they experience perfect contrition due to their strong faith their subjective justification will never take a hit because they will never experience the guilt and despair which destroys faith and damages justification.

Subjective and Objective Beatitude

tumblr_m91n4lKUVZ1qgodnzo1_1280-827x1024[1]Objectively, every single good work Christ performs through us leads to an increase in objective justification. There is nothing we can do which will decrease this justification. However due to our imperfect memories and imperfect understanding of the effects of our actions, we do not subjectively experience this ever-increasing justification. When we do a good, loving work, we temporarily experience the heavenly bliss which it won for us. But then time marches on and the experience fades into the dark recesses of our memory. We only ever experience the present moment, and the present moment contains only some memories of the past, not all of them at once, therefore we only subjectively experience a small portion of the justification and salvation that has been won for us. In this way, Justification is something that can ebb and flow in a subjective sense, while it is something invincible that can only grow and not shrink in an objective sense. As mentioned, guilt may creep in and damage our justification despite the fact that we have been declared “not guilty” by God at baptism. This is why we have confession; to bring the promise forward into the present so that we can place our faith in it again.

At the particular judgement, when all is laid bare before us and our perspective is no longer constrained by our limited memories, everything we have ever done will be laid out before us and we will experience all the justification that has been won by our loving actions simultaneously. This will be beatitude: we will experience vision of, and union with, God, in proportion to our amount of justification.

Sacraments necessary for salvation

sacraments[1].gifThe Catholic church has dogmatised the necessity of the sacraments for salvation. But the question needs to be asked, “are sacraments necessary for objective or subjective salvation?”

The sacraments are only necessary for salvation in a subjective sense. Baptism is necessary in order to have the promise of God personalised and spoken to you as an individual. However the church also recognises “baptism of desire” and “baptism of blood”. This hints that it is really the faith in the promise spoken through the sacrament that is more important, rather than the sacrament itself. Likewise with confession: Confession is said to be necessary, but it is possible to receive justification and forgiveness via perfect contrition apart from the sacrament.

Objectively the sacraments are superfluous. Christ’s promises will come to pass regardless of if they are spoken to us sacramentally. We are objectively justified and predestined to heaven. Someone can place their faith in Christ’s promises without those promises being spoken to them personally in the sacraments. However this is hard. God gives us the sacraments to help us and reassure us and make his promises tangible. In this way it is faith in the promises alone which leads to subjective justification.

Anonymous Christians and implicit faith

how-to-volunteer-with-buddhist-monks-3-1461922112[1].pngIt is a maxim in Catholicism that works and faith are inseparable: faith always leads to works, and works are always a demonstration of faith. This idea leads to the concept of anonymous Christians. An anonymous Christian is someone who demonstrates implicit faith in God and his promises via their loving actions, despite the fact that they do not have explicit faith in the promises of God. These people are laying up treasures in heaven without realising it: they are objectively justified by Christ, and they are increasing their objective level of justification by their loving works, however subjectively they are still largely walking in darkness as they do not have an explicit knowledge of the promise of the Gospel. These people need to be evangelised and told the good news. In this way their objective justification will become subjectively activated and these people will transition from being anonymous Christians walking in darkness into explicit Christians who are walking in the light, overflowing with joy.

Summary

sola-fide1[1].jpgThe Lutheran doctrine of sola fide, when correctly understood, does not contradict Catholic dogma but rather complements it nicely. Subjective justification is by faith alone: the strength of an individuals faith in Gods promises determines the quality of their experience of salvation. However objective justification is by Grace alone: Christ died in our place and forever paid for our sins, furthermore he works through us and these works are rewarded with an increase in our level of justification.

(Go to “The Glorious Gospel”)

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

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

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

Extrinsically Righteous, Intrinsically Sinful

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

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

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

Intrinsically Righteous, Extrinsically Sinful

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

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

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

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

Further differences

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

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

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

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

(Go to “Justification as Declaration”)

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

Catholic and Protestant Funerals

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

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

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

Temporal and Eternal

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

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

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

Indulgences and Aeviternity

Johann-Tetzel-Selling-Indulgences[1]

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

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

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

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

The link between Temporality and Aeviternity

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

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

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

What does Scripture say?

1 Corinthians 15:51-52

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

2 Peter 3:8

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

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

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

Funerals Revisited

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

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

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

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

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