Tawḥīd Trīnitās

Introduction

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

A Dogmatic Requirement of Islam

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aesthetic Epistemology: Divine Truth as Infinite Beauty

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

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

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

A Proposal of a Refined Creedal Formula

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18Is 9:6 (RSV:CE)

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

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

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

Extrinsically Righteous, Intrinsically Sinful

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

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

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

Intrinsically Righteous, Extrinsically Sinful

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

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

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

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

Further differences

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

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

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

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

(Go to “Justification as Declaration”)

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

Catholic and Protestant Funerals

russian-orthodox-funeral[1]

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

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

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

Temporal and Eternal

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

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

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

Indulgences and Aeviternity

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

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

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

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

The link between Temporality and Aeviternity

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

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

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

What does Scripture say?

1 Corinthians 15:51-52

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

2 Peter 3:8

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

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

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

Funerals Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?

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

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

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

Hans Urs Von Balthasar

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.

 

 

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)

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.

 

The Joyful Mystery of the Annunciation

Text: Luke 1:26-381

The original Greek according to the SBL critical text:

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

English translation of the Greek:

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

Exegesis

Canonical Context

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

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

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

Characters

  • The Angel Gabriel

  • Joseph, husband of Mary

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

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

  • David, Famous King of Israel.

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

  • Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity.

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

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

Text and Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structural Issues

The pericope is structured according to the following divisions:

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

Literary Forms

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

Historical Content

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

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

Traditional Interpretations

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Ambrose has the following provocative reflection:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Origen has this to say about the greeting:

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

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

Saint Chrysostom relates the following startling reflection:

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

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

Saint Ambrose again offer some cryptic reflections:

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Gregory Nyssa offers the following reflection:

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

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

Saint Gregory of Nyssa again offers some reflections:

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

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

Saint Basil offers the following reflection:

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

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

Literal Sense

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

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

Application

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: The Immaculate Conception

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2Luke 1:26-38 (SBLGNT)

3Luke 1:26-38 (DBHNT)

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

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

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

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

8Luke 1:46-55

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi 110

20Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus.

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

Doctrinal Definition

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

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

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

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

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

Scriptural Support

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patristic Support

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dogmatic Standing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3Rom 3:10-12 (RSVCE)

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

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

6Rom 9:1-5 (RSVCE)

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

8Rom 9:22-23 (RSVCE)

9Rom 11:32 (RSVCE)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

18Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

19Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

20Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

21Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

22Rom 11:32-36 (RSVCE)