Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?

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

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

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

Hans Urs Von Balthasar

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

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

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Concerning Grace and Salvation

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

Concerning faith, works and Justification

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

Concerning the law

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

Concerning non-Christian religions

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

Concerning Christology

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

Concerning Mariology

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

The Great Apostasy – When Exactly did it Happen?

Only One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church?

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Apostasy

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

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

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

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

The timeline continues:

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

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

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

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

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

Hyrum continues with a sweeping survey of mainstream church history:

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

 

 

Prophecy Fragment #12 – Divine Ordination

On the 28th day of the 5th month of the 2019th year since the birth of the Lord Jesus, God spoke to me in a vision:

I was lifted up into the third heaven, where I beheld a man glowing with invisible light. His features were more real and distinct than those of everyone I had ever seen before, and seemed so completely familiar, and yet I could not fully recognise him.

With a powerful voice, he identified himself: “I am the Christ; The λογος made flesh; The eschaton incarnate; the Tao 道 that can’t be told; I am your innermost core identity and soul, and the supreme God of all things”

Suddenly it was as if a veil was violently stripped from my eyes, and I saw the truth in all the fullness of it’s glory. I finally recognised the figure for who he really was, and his name is a name beyond words, written on a blank page in the divine language of silence. I cannot therefore here utter the ineffable divine name. But I knew that it was God.

The divine figure commanded me to kneel. I did so. At this point the God laid his hands on my head, and spoke the following:  “My son, are you resolved by the grace of my Holy Spirit to discharge to the end of your life the office of the apostles, which I now pass on to you by the laying on of hands?”

And I responded: “I am.”

He continued: “Are you resolved to be faithful and constant in proclaiming my Holy Gospel of the Salvation of the cosmos and all who wander within it?”

And I responded: “I am.”

He continued: “Are you resolved to maintain the deposits of faith of all the religions of the entire world, complete and incorrupt, as handed down by the fathers and professed by all people everywhere and at all times?”

And I responded: “I am.”

He continued: “Are you resolved to build up the Church as the body of Christ and to remain united to it, acknowledging every authority that I have instituted for the governance of the world?”

And I responded: “I am.”

He continued: “Are you resolved to be faithful in your obedience to me, the Lord your God, your true and innermost self?”

And I responded: “I am.”

He continued: “Are you resolved as a devoted father to sustain the people of God and to guide them on the way of salvation in cooperation with the faithful believers in the promise who share your ministry and mission?”

And I responded: “I am.”

He continued: “Are you resolved to show kindness and compassion in the name of the Lord to the poor and to strangers and to all who are in need?”

And I responded: “I am.”

He continued: “Are you resolved as a good shepherd to seek out the sheep who stray and to gather them into the fold of the Lord?”

And I responded: “I am.”

He continued: “Are you resolved to pray for the people of God without ceasing, and to carry out the duties of one who has the fullness of the priesthood so as to afford no grounds for reproach?”

And I responded: “I am, with your help, o God.”

He continued: “It is I, the Lord your God who has begun the good work in you, and I promise that I will bring it to fulfilment. For I am the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, Father of mercies and God of all consolation. My dwelling is in heaven, and I look with compassion upon all that is humble. I knew all things before they came to be; and by my gracious word I have established the plan of my Church.

From the beginning I chose the descendants of Abraham to be my holy nation. I established rulers and priests, and did not leave my sanctuary without ministers to serve me. From the creation of the world I have been pleased to be glorified by those whom I have chosen.

So now I pour out upon you, o chosen one, the divine power that flows from my essence; the governing Spirit whom I gave to my beloved Son, Jesus of Nazareth; the same Spirit given by Jesus to his holy apostles, who founded the Church in every place to be my temple for the unceasing glory and praise of my name.

I know all hearts. I have chosen you my servant for the office of Bishop, Priest, Apostle, and Prophet. May you be a shepherd to my holy flock, and a high priest blameless in my sight, ministering to me night and day; may you always gain the blessing of my favour and offer the gifts of my holy Church. Through my Holy Spirit who gives the grace of high priesthood I grant you the power to forgive sins as I have commanded, to assign ministries as I have decreed, and to loose every bond by the authority which I gave to my apostles. May you be pleasing to me by your gentleness and purity of heart, presenting a fragrant offering to me, through the Christ, my Son, through whom glory and power and honour are mine with the Holy Spirit in my holy Church, now and for ever.”

And I felt the power of God flood my spirit. I knew that my very being had ontologically changed. As I descended from the cloud of Glory and revelation I knew that I had been ordained an Apostle, commissioned to spread the message of the certain hope of the eschaton.

 

Saint Origen of Alexandria

Biography1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Major Works and Key Themes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Influence on Later Doctrinal Developments

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appendix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6The absolute oneness and unity of God

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

8These broadly being Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 181

18Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 192

19As described in Genesis 1-3

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

21Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 192

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

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

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

25Hart, “Saint Origen”

26Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 168

27Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 170

281 Cor 15:42-50 (SBLGNT)

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

30Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 172

31Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 178

32Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 200

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

34αεον” in Greek, “saecula” in Latin.

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

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

37Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 192

Ethics and the Image of God: Review

Summary

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

Academic Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

Father Roberts (OP, SJ) Homily for Wednesday of the 6th week of Eastertide

Wednesday of the 6th week of Eastertide – Feast of Saint Paul VI, Pope

Daily Readings

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Entrance Antiphon – Psalm 17: 50; 21: 23

I will praise you, Lord, among the nations; I will tell of your name to my kin, alleluia.

Collect

Grant, we pray, O Lord, that, as we celebrate in mystery the solemnities of your Son’s Resurrection, so, too, we may be worthy to rejoice at his coming with all the Saints. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

First reading – Acts 17:15,22-18:1

Paul’s escort took him as far as Athens, and went back with instructions for Silas and Timothy to rejoin Paul as soon as they could.

So Paul stood before the whole Council of the Areopagus and made this speech:

‘Men of Athens, I have seen for myself how extremely scrupulous you are in all religious matters, because I noticed, as I strolled round admiring your sacred monuments, that you had an altar inscribed: To An Unknown God. Well, the God whom I proclaim is in fact the one whom you already worship without knowing it.

‘Since the God who made the world and everything in it is himself Lord of heaven and earth, he does not make his home in shrines made by human hands. Nor is he dependent on anything that human hands can do for him, since he can never be in need of anything; on the contrary, it is he who gives everything – including life and breath – to everyone. From one single stock he not only created the whole human race so that they could occupy the entire earth, but he decreed how long each nation should flourish and what the boundaries of its territory should be. And he did this so that all nations might seek the deity and, by feeling their way towards him, succeed in finding him. Yet in fact he is not far from any of us, since it is in him that we live, and move, and exist, as indeed some of your own writers have said:

“We are all his children.”

‘Since we are the children of God, we have no excuse for thinking that the deity looks like anything in gold, silver or stone that has been carved and designed by a man.

‘God overlooked that sort of thing when men were ignorant, but now he is telling everyone everywhere that they must repent, because he has fixed a day when the whole world will be judged, and judged in righteousness, and he has appointed a man to be the judge. And God has publicly proved this by raising this man from the dead.’

At this mention of rising from the dead, some of them burst out laughing; others said, ‘We would like to hear you talk about this again.’ After that Paul left them, but there were some who attached themselves to him and became believers, among them Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman called Damaris, and others besides.

After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.

Responsorial Psalm – Psalm 148:1-2,11-14

Heaven and earth are filled with your glory.

Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise him in the heights. Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his host.

All earth’s kings and peoples, earth’s princes and rulers, young men and maidens, old men together with children.

Let them praise the name of the Lord for he alone is exalted. The splendour of his name reaches beyond heaven and earth.

He exalts the strength of his people. He is the praise of all his saints, of the sons of Israel, of the people to whom he comes close.

Alleluia.

Gospel Acclamation – John 14:16

Alleluia, alleluia!

The Father will send you the Holy Spirit, says the Lord, to be with you for ever.

Alleluia!

Gospel – John 16:12-15

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘I still have many things to say to you but they would be too much for you now. But when the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth, since he will not be speaking as from himself but will say only what he has learnt; and he will tell you of the things to come. He will glorify me, since all he tells you will be taken from what is mine. Everything the Father has is mine; that is why I said: All he tells you will be taken from what is mine.’

Prayer over the Offerings

O God, who by the wonderful exchange effected in this sacrifice have made us partakers of the one supreme Godhead, grant, we pray, that, as we have come to know your truth, we may make it ours by a worthy way of life. Through Christ our Lord.

Communion Antiphon – John 15: 16, 19

I have chosen you from the world, says the Lord, and have appointed you to go out and bear fruit, fruit that will last, alleluia.

Prayer after Communion

Graciously be present to your people, we pray, O Lord, and lead those you have imbued with heavenly mysteries to pass from former ways to newness of life. Through Christ our Lord.

Homily

We have in our first reading today a classic example of evangelism, interfaith dialogue, ecumenism and inculturation. See how Paul even praises the idols, temples and monuments of the Greeks to whom he speaks! Many Christians would find such behaviour shocking. See how he does this, immediately before he goes on to describe the one true God, who is formless, and who therefore cannot be captured by any image.

Paul points to the Gospel, as it is found in the local paganism of the Greeks when he points out the following: “as indeed some of your own writers have said: ‘We are all his children.'”

Note that Paul does not quote the bible at his audience. He does not try to convert these people to some other culture or religion. Instead he endeavours to show them how their local religion actually points to something bigger. Paul is not attempting to convert them away from their local faith and culture, instead, he is giving them a wonderful gift: the gift of God’s grace. And that Grace will refine, and perfect the culture that it encounters. As Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, he “became all things to all people”. I have in fact adopted this phrase as my personal motto: “Fi omnia omnibus”. Paul is not trying to rob the Athenians of their culture, instead he is trying to show how their primitive religion contains within itself the truth of the Gospel.

“We are all God’s children” is a very very important aspect of that Gospel. Salvation is inclusive. Salvation does not fall upon tribal lines. It is not as if the Catholics are saved while the Muslims are damned, or the believers are saved while the unbelievers are damned, or those who do good works are saved while those who do evil are damned. No, instead, we are all God’s children! No one will be abandoned by God, just as no good and loving father would ever abandon his children. And God is the most good and loving father possible, so how much more will we all be saved by him. Jew and Gentile; Catholic and Orthodox; Sunni and Shia; Hindu and Buddhist; Believer and Unbeliever; Righteous and Wicked; there is no distinction. All without exception and distinction are lavished with God’s inflamed and jealous love, for we are all God’s children, and so he loves all of us and will not abandon a single one of us to the hellfire.

Witness the confidence with which Paul proclaims that his listeners are children of God. He does not seek to determine which of the people in the crowd are elect and which are reprobate. He does not withhold the glorious Gospel promise out of fear that they will respond in outrage rather than faith. No, he proclaims the promise from the mountain top indiscriminately to the entire congregation. Today’s preachers could learn an important lesson from this. In the history of Christianity the promise has been forgotten. The homily should be a sacramental event where salvation is bestowed upon the congregation ex opere operato. Just like Paul, we should be fearless and stand before our flocks and confidently proclaim: “You are saved; You are loved by God; You will eventually arrive in heaven. I promise you this, and I stake my own salvation on that promise.”

There is no need for agnosticism about who will and won’t be saved. For the Gospel message is that all men without exception are reprobate in Christ, and all men without exception are elect in Christ, for as Paul says in today’s readings: “In him we live and move and have our being”. In reality there is only a single man – the resurrected Christ – and we are all made in his image. But we are mere shadowy images, whereas he is the fullness and perfection of a dyophysis encompassing both humanity and divinity, united in a divine simplicity and miaphysis. That one man, Christ, was reprobate; he descended into Hell and suffered the fullness of it’s infinite torments. And we are members of his mystical body, so we too descend into Hell and suffer the tortures that lie in wait there. But that one man also ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father, and all of us ascended with him. Christ was reprobate and Christ was elect, therefore all of us are also reprobate and elect on account of our spiritually dwelling within him.

But something too much of this theology. The key point is that it is utterly crucial to the Gospel promise that all men without exception are children of God . Salvation is meant for everyone without exception, and it will infallibly occur for all.

Notice that Paul also proclaims the final judgement to his listeners. This is to ensure that no one be deceived: just because Heaven is guaranteed for all does not mean that there is no Hell and no consequences for sin. But it is important to note that Heaven and Hell and the final judgement are present realities. They are not some place “over there” or something that happens to us “some time after we die”. They are here, with us, right now. Experienced as intense pain, guilt, depression, self-hatred, striving and failing. We are already being judged by Christ, but I will tell you a secret that is not often proclaimed: some people are already on the other side of the judgement and resting in paradise at this very moment.

As Paul says, one man has been appointed as the judge. The twist that I now reveal to you is that this one man is you. To say that we will be judged by the resurrected Christ is to say that we will be judged by our innermost self, for Christ lies within us, as the core identity of our souls. When we encounter ourselves in Christ, we cannot fail to love and adore. But that love is itself the judgement, and we are doomed to fail this judgement, because we see all the ways that we have failed to love; failed to live up to our own true standard; the standard of perfection; the standard of Christ. As we behold all of our failings and compare them to the glorious perfection of the Christ, the judgement occurs. The verdict? Guilty.

But there is good news. God promises you that he accepts you. He promises you that when he looks at you, he sees Christ. He promises you that you are not guilty. I exhort you this day: trust that promise! Now, regardless of whether you trust it or not, it is completely true and will infallibly come to pass, but o how wonderful life is when you trust the promise. Because you are encountering the final judgement right now and by faith alone you pass the test! But he who has no faith remains in the darkness of Hell, and God’s condemnation rests on him.

When you become all things to all people, you manifest Christ to those who you encounter. And that manifestation is itself the judgement; as they see themselves in you, they realise their own failures and guilt. It is at that exact moment that you may proclaim the Gospel, and it is at that exact moment that God’s love will finally conquer their heart and drive them to blind, desperate, heroic faith and repentance. To Love is to judge, just as in God love is judgement.

But back to Paul. Luke reports that the harvest of souls that day was slight. Even though Paul proclaimed the Gospel promise to the entire council, only a few of the Athenians believed, and only a few of these believing souls are identified by name in today’s scripture. Most curious is the mention of Dionysius the Aeropagite: this biblical figure was the namesake of an anonymous theologian in later centuries. Just as Paul did not reap massive success, we who believe in the Gospel should expect the same. But as the scripture says, when even a single soul comes to faith, all the angels in heaven sing and rejoice.

Speaking of singing and rejoicing, today’s Psalm fits the season particularly well. Easter is a time of joy and victory, a time to praise, thank and worship the good God on high for all that he has given us and all that he promises to give us. The imperative voice is employed, as the psalmist commands all of us; kings, queens, princes, rulers, children, adults, maidens, men, elders – even the angels – to Praise the lord.

The psalmist elaborates on Saint Paul’s discourse concerning the uniqueness of the one true God: God alone is exalted. This is not to say that other things cannot also be exalted, but it is to emphasise the primacy and supreme reality of God. If God is exalted; then we are not. If we are exalted; then God is not. The utterly unbridgeable difference between us and God is infinite. His transcendence is so supreme that it does not even make sense to speak of a difference. The glory of God is, as the psalmist sings, beyond heaven and earth.

Today’s Psalm finishes on a note of both synergism and monergism. God gives us strength, and all the saints praise him and love him. Those to whom he draws close, infallibly move towards him, not away from him.

The Gospel reading continues the discourse from yesterday and Monday. The resurrected Christ tells us about the Holy Spirit that resides within us all. Jesus calls the spirit, “The spirit of truth”. The spirit is also the spirit of unity, for truth and unity go hand in hand: wherever there is disagreement and dissent, the truth is not fully manifest. In this way, every anathema is a schism, every condemnation a split in the body of Christ. But the spirit is not like this; the spirit is the spirit of ecumenism and respect, the spirit of listening before speaking, the spirit of affirmation. Satan is the spirit of dissent, denial, and disagreement. But the spirit of God is the loving force that drives all people, all theologies and all religions to the zenith of Divine truth and simplicity. All men have this spirit, and all religions are guided by this spirit. Our differences are something to celebrate, and as we meet each other and learn to speak each other’s language, the spirit of love will gather us all together into a single flock: a single human family where love reigns supreme.

Finally, witness the communion antiphon. To whom does the Lord speak this beautiful promise? I tell you solemnly and with utter conviction, assurance, and certainty; he has chosen you. And when you fully appreciate this fact, and make the ineffable leap of faith from the devastation of hell into the peace and joy of heaven; only then will you go out into the world and bear fruit for Christ, just as he has promised.

Have faith, repent, and take hold of the salvation that is freely offered to you. I promise you that you are saved. But it is not I who make this promise; it is the very same spirit of truth that the resurrected Christ claimed he would send us speaking through me. So do you trust me? Do you trust God? Do you trust the Spirit? He is promising you salvation, and there is nothing you need do to grasp it. But do you grasp it? Examine yourself. Discern God within your soul. Let us love with the divine love, and ascend to the eschaton, the perfect rest that God prepared for us all from the beginning of time.

Father Alex Roberts (OP, SJ)

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

Doctrinal Definition

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

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

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

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

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

Scriptural Support

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patristic Support

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dogmatic Standing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3Rom 3:10-12 (RSVCE)

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

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

6Rom 9:1-5 (RSVCE)

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

8Rom 9:22-23 (RSVCE)

9Rom 11:32 (RSVCE)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

18Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

19Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

20Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

21Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

22Rom 11:32-36 (RSVCE)

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

Thought Experiment

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

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

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

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

Which response sounds the most Christian to you?

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Latter Day Saint Doctrine of Afterlife Ministry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theosis

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

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

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

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

Harrowing of Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Look at this famous “Catholic” passage from scripture:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

1Luke 16:19-31

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

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

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

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

6D&C 138:28-30

7D&C 138:31-34

8D&C 138:35-37

9D&C 138:58-60

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

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

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

13Although arguably not dogmatically

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

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

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

17St. John Chrysostom, Paschal Homily.

18Matt 16:24

19Matt 16:18

20Matt 16:18

The Joyful Mystery of the Annunciation

Text: Luke 1:26-381

The original Greek according to the SBL critical text:

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

English translation of the Greek:

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

Exegesis

Canonical Context

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

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

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

Characters

  • The Angel Gabriel

  • Joseph, husband of Mary

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

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

  • David, Famous King of Israel.

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

  • Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity.

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

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

Text and Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structural Issues

The pericope is structured according to the following divisions:

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

Literary Forms

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

Historical Content

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

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

Traditional Interpretations

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Ambrose has the following provocative reflection:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Origen has this to say about the greeting:

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

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

Saint Chrysostom relates the following startling reflection:

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

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

Saint Ambrose again offer some cryptic reflections:

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Gregory Nyssa offers the following reflection:

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

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

Saint Gregory of Nyssa again offers some reflections:

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

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

Saint Basil offers the following reflection:

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

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

Literal Sense

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

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

Application

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: The Immaculate Conception

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2Luke 1:26-38 (SBLGNT)

3Luke 1:26-38 (DBHNT)

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

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

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

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

8Luke 1:46-55

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi 110

20Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus.