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

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

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

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

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

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

An Exploration of Certainty

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

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

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

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

Assurance: Are You Saved?

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

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

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

Assurance: Two Kinds of Certainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anathema: What is actually being condemned?

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

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

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

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

Anathema: Two Kinds of Presumption

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

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

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

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

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

Assurance: We Should be Certain of Our Salvation

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

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

1 John 4:18 RSV-CE

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

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

1 John 5:13 RSV-CE

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

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

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

1 Corinthians 13:12 RSV-CE

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

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

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

Theodicy and The Problem of Evil – Speculations Concerning Origin and Destiny: “Why Did Satan Fall?”

The Problem of Evil

Problem of EvilThe Problem of Evil is probably the single most compelling objection that an Atheist can raise when confronted with an advocate for classical theism. If you believe in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God, the problem of evil has already locked on to you and loaded up an array of philosophical cruise missiles. Be prepared for an atomic blast; the problem of evil is one objection that has no easy answers.

The problem of evil is simply stated thus: How is it possible that there could be evil and suffering in a world where there is an all powerful, all knowing, totally loving God? Surely such a God would have the capacity to prevent such suffering and evil, as well as the wiles and power to do so.

In this post I propose to explore the problem of evil whilst drawing upon a variety of spiritual and philosophical traditions. Lets see where we end up.

The Origin of Evil

The usual Judeo-ChristianProblem of Evil explanation for the origins of evil is to be found in the early chapters of the book of Genesis. In summary, the claim is that humanity was originally created in a state of original innocence and bliss. However the serpent, representing the fallen angel Satan, tempted our first parents to disobey God. Adam and Eve succumbed to the temptation, and as a result were immediately infected with sin and evil to the core. As a result, all humans since then have been stained by sin and tend towards evil.

This account is unsatisfactory on many levels. It raises more questions than it answers. For example it is completely unable to account for natural evils such as earthquakes and tsunamis – are we supposed to believe that such natural disasters are caused by human rebellion? Furthermore, this story merely postpones the initial question: Sure, this was the point when evil was introduced to humanity, but how on earth did Satan become corrupted in the first place? If Satan had not been evil, then he would not have tempted our first parents, and presumably all would have been well in paradise forever.

Christians have speculated on this question of the fall of Satan and come up with some interesting theories: There is the extra-biblical narrative of the war in heaven, during which a third of the angels fell from grace and became demons, following Satan. An account of this war and events surrounding it can be found in John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. All of this is quite fascinating of course, however it still completely fails to solve the problem: Why was it that Satan was even able to fall and rebel against God in the first place? Didn’t God create everything in a state of perfection? If this is the case, how is it possible for anyone to turn against God?

Things start to sound even more suspicious and incoherent when you ponder the standard Christian eschatological views: allegedly we will be impeccable once we arrive in the perfection of heaven – if this is the case, then why were we not impeccable during our pre-fall perfect existence? What is different about perfection in the past and perfection in the future? If we could rebel in the beginning, then why can we not rebel in the end?

Why is it that Satan, a perfect angel, created with supreme knowledge of God, was able to make the irrational choice of evil? Where did that evil come from? How was he able to muster up such a bizarre choice? Why was evil even an option at all?

Ante Creatio Ex Nihilo

GoodEvil1[1].jpgWhere does evil come from? Why is it even an option at all? The Christian Tradition has not been forthcoming with answers to these questions about evil.

However there is a poignant teaching in the early church fathers that is relevant to the discussion: The idea is that evil has no existence or substance in and of itself. Instead all evil is merely the privation of good. Only good has true existence. At this point it is helpful to step back and draw on the Eastern Traditions of Philosophy, specifically, Taoism.

The second chapter of the Tao Te Ching is particularly illuminating:

When all the world recognises beauty as beauty, this in itself is ugliness.
When all the world recognises good as good, this in itself is evil.

Indeed, the hidden and the manifest give birth to each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short exhibit each other.
High and low set measure to each other.
Voice and sound harmonize each other.
Back and front follow each other.

Therefore, the Sage manages his affairs without ado,
And spreads his teaching without talking.
He denies nothing to the teeming things.
He rears them, but lays no claim to them.
He does his work, but sets no store by it.
He accomplishes his task, but does not dwell upon it.

And yet it is just because he does not dwell on it
That nobody can ever take it away from him.

The idea is that of the yin and yang. Good cannot be defined except as in opposition to evil. Existence cannot be defined except as in opposition to Nothingness. Big cannot be defined except as in opposition to small. Opposites depend on each other.

I argue, that this principle was in effect prior to creation. Before God had decided to create “out of nothing”, this principle of yin and yang was in effect. Call God the yin, so what was the yang?

Let’s list out some of the attributes of God. God – the yin  is:

  • Omnipresent
  • Omnibenevolent
  • Omnipotent
  • Omniscient
  • Self-Existent
  • Personal
  • Relational
  • Love
  • Simple
  • Impassable
  • Essential
  • Immutable

Now, lets negate all these attributes and see what happens. The yang is:

  • Nowhere
  • Omnimalevolent
  • Impotent
  • Ignorant
  • Non-Existent
  • Impersonal
  • Desolate
  • Hate
  • Complex
  • Passable
  • Nothingness
  • Mutable

The Taoist argument is that it is impossible for the attributes of God to exist, without there also being some sort of reality to the negations of those attributes. In this way, the perfections of God stand in opposition to the imperfections produced by their negation.

The classical Christian view, is that God created the universe “ex nihilo” – which is to say – “out of nothing”. Now I would like to ask; what was this “nothing”? It would seem that before the beginning of time, there was God, and there was “Nothing”. Does this not sound strikingly similar to the yin and yang dichotomy? After all, one of the attributes in that last list is “nothingness”. It sounds to me as though before the beginning God existed, but alongside his existence there was the “non-existence” of nothing. And it is only for this reason that God was able to create. He needed raw material to work with, and nothing is what he found.

So lets tweak the classical Christian narrative with this yin yang distinction in mind: Before the beginning, there was God, and there was nothing: yin and yang. God is loving, and powerful and all knowing, whereas the nothing is evil and powerless and non-existent. The story of creation is that in which God works on this “evil” nothingness. God naturally overflows with creative love, and the love flows over and pours into the “evil” void that has no existence in and of itself. God creates space in the void, and fills that space with light and love and other aspects of his self.

According to this narrative, evil has always “existed” alongside God, as a negation of his perfections. I put “existed” in inverted commas, because of course evil does not have any true existence in and of itself, seeing as it is a negation of God’s perfections, and God’s perfections alone have true existence. So evil was always a “reality”, even before creation, because God could not be perfectly good without that perfect goodness being identified in opposition to total evil.

What is evil?

According to the Taoist narrative, evil is simply the opposition to good which necessarily has a reality, even if it has no existence in and of itself. Combine this with the Christian narrative that in the beginning there was God and nothing – this can easily be rephrased as “in the beginning there was good and evil”. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth “out of nothing” – bring the Taoist distinction to play and this sounds like “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth out of evil”.

In other words Evil/Nothingness is the raw material from which God has brought about creation. Evil did not come into being at some point in the history of creation: Evil has always been around. Evil pre-exists creation (again, insofar as something “non-existent” can be said to “exist”).

Now, the Christian narrative goes further. The Christian claim is that God has not yet finished creating: we are currently in the midst of his creative act. The creation will only come to completion in the eschaton, the end times. Right now, we are in the thick of the action. This provides – in my view – a compelling explanation as to the source and origin of evil, as well as a partial solution to the philosophical problem of evil.

johndemoAn analogy is prudent: Imagine creation as a canvas, and imagine God as a master painter. In the beginning, the creation was blank, void, formless, non-existent, and according to the Taoist insights developed above, it was evil. This state is represented by a blank canvas. However God begins to fill in the canvas with paint and life and colour. This represents his creative acts. Wherever he paints, life and love follow. As time goes by, the canvas begins to fill in, however there are still many blank spots on the canvas, which have not been touched by the master’s paint brush. These blank spots are the remains of the original “nothingness” from which God initially begun to paint. As such, these blank spots represent evil. What do these blank spots correspond to in creation? They correspond to evil actions, sins, natural disasters, pain, suffering.

In other words, my theory is that evil, suffering and sin simply represents a part of creation in which God has simply “not filled in the blank area” yet. Evil has always been present, but it is slowly receding as God continues to work out the story of creation.

The amazing eschatological promise that is so dear to universalism, is that eventually God will fill in ALL parts of the canvas. In other words, evil will be completely done away with. There will only be God, and his beautiful, glorious creation which has filled the nothingness and done away with the evil void.

A New Cosmic Christian narrative

The narrative looks something like this: Pre-creation, history, eschaton. Pre-creation and eschaton are eternal states, and history is a temporal process that moves from the first state to the final state. History can also be thought of as a “curtain” which separates the first eternal state from the last eternal state.

In the Pre-creation, there was God and there was Nothing. God was perfectly good and nothing was perfectly evil. At the beginning of History, God created a reflection of himself in the nothingness and out of the nothingness, transforming it into a “created something” which derives it’s existence from God himself. As history progresses, God continues to fill in the creation, slowly chipping away at the evil which he finds continuing to permeate it. This is where we find ourselves today: We are in the midst of history, experiencing the full battle between good and evil, between God and sin. Sometimes we experience wonderful, ecstatic, heavenly bliss and goodness and pleasure – all of which are gifts from God. Sometimes we experience depression, desolation, evil and sin, all of which are the remains of the nothingness which God is currently in the process of wiping out through his act of creation.

Eventually, at the end of history, we will arrive at the eschaton. The eschaton is a state in which not a hint of nothingness remains: God’s creation is exhaustive and supreme. There is only Joy, and happiness, just as within God himself. No more natural disasters, no more evil, no more pain, no more suffering, only bountiful and overflowing love, joy and happiness.

Problem of EvilIn this way, the entire history of creation is simply a move from the state of evil pre-creation to the state of glorified eschaton. The Zoroastrian image of an eternal struggle between good and evil is apt to represent the situation, however the Christian twist is that good is predestined to victory over evil! In the end times, God will be victorious over the powers of darkness. At the present time we find ourselves in the midst of the battle between good and evil, however in the eschaton the war will have come to it’s conclusion, and the forces of good will be victorious, as God’s creation will have arrived at it’s final glorified state. The master painter will have filled in all the gaps in his canvas. The problem of evil suddenly doesn’t seem so hard to solve.

The Problem of Evil Again

Let’s return to the original objection raised by our hypothetical Atheist: If God is all powerful and all-loving, why does he allow suffering and evil?

The answer to the question, in light of all the considerations above is: he doesn’t!

God does not allow suffering and evil. In fact, God is in the process of wiping them out. If it weren’t for God, suffering and evil would be all that we ever experience, all the time. God is in the process of moving the creation from a state of nothingness, suffering and evil, into a state of glorified perfection in which not a trace of evil remains. The problem for us is that we are currently experiencing this creation from the perspective of the middle of history, rather than enjoying the final product. The final product will indeed be free of evil, but from where we are right now, evil is all around us, as a remnant of the origins/the initial state. The abolition of evil is therefore an eschatological promise that we eagerly anticipate. Rather than experiencing the final state, we are experiencing the intermediate states through which creation must pass in order to arrive at the glorious eschaton.

Problem of EvilA question still remains: How was it that Satan was able to fall into sin in the first place? Based on the speculations in this post, it would seem that evil was always an option. God created angels and humans with free agency – the power to choose between alternatives. And yet God mysteriously created us in the midst of history rather than in the perfected eschaton. As such, as rational agents we are able to choose to do evil acts as well as good acts. Satan must have flirted with the darkness, the nothingness, the evil, and absorbed it’s omnimalevolence into his soul. This was always an option. But God is in the process of defeating this evil once and for all. In the eschaton all evil will have been dealt with. God and his goodness will permeate the creation and not a single speck of evil will remain. Hell will be abolished, as it would have served it’s purpose. The problem of evil is finally solved.

What of the Taoist requirement that perfections be defined in opposition to imperfections? Personally, I suspect that this situation was necessary in the beginning, prior to creation. However I do not expect it is necessary in the eschaton. In the eschaton there is no need for opposition. There will be no nothingness, no evil, no despair, no desolation, no hate, no death. There will only be love, rejoicing, grace, glory, life. The story of history – the story of creation – is a story of movement from evil and nothingness to good and glory. We eagerly await the final days, free of suffering and filled with goodness. Thanks be to our wonderful God and saviour. Praise his beautiful promises and the plans he employs to bring them about.

Orthodoxy 101 – The Calvinist and Arminian Debate: Meditations on Freedom of the Will

In the fascinating debate between Calvinists and Arminians, the issue of “Freedom” is key. For Arminians, nothing could be more obvious than the reality of free will, and they find evidence to back up this intuition in the pages of scripture; while for Calvinists, nothing could be more obvious than the bondage and enslavery of our wills to sin and evil, and the bible clearly backs up this conviction.

I recently came to an understanding of both sides of the issue, and I suspect that the two parties are simply talking past each other: When they use the word “Freedom”, they are talking about two different things. When Arminians assert that we are free, they mean to say that we are “free agents”, who have the power of self-determination, control over our own actions, and the power to choose between alternatives. Whereas when Calvinists assert that we are not free, they do not necessarily mean to deny that we have free agency and self-determination; what they mean to say is that our wills are enslaved to sin and evil, such that – if it weren’t for the liberating grace of God – we would always perform evil actions and make sinful choices.

Arminians – Freedom as the Power of Contrary Choice

Fruits3[1].jpgThe Arminian (and Catholic and Orthodox) conviction that we possess libertarian freedom rests on the idea that in order to truly love, we must not be coerced into doing so in any way or on any metaphysical level. If we love, it is because we freely choose to do so, and not because God forces us to do so.

This conviction flows on into more philosophical territory. Arminians wish to assert that we have free/libertarian “agency”: that is to say, God’s sovereignty does not determine our actions and choices. Neither are our actions and choices determined by prior causes as per the philosophy of hard determinism. Instead, the principle which determines our actions and choices rests entirely within ourselves as individuals.

An example to illustrate the idea: A person is offered a variety of fruits at lunch time and informed that they can only choose one. The person deliberates and then chooses between one of the alternatives on offer, for example, a banana. This choice is neither random nor determined by outside forces – it is solely the person himself who brings about the choice of fruit – a banana rather than an apple or orange.

Some Calvinists take an extreme view of God’s sovereignty and blow the maxim “God is in control” way out of proportion. Such Calvinists would disagree with the Arminian analysis of the prior example and would instead claim that it is God who determines the choice of fruit, not the individual person. This would indeed amount to a flat denial of self-determination, free agency and the power of contrary choice. However not all Calvinists share this extreme view of God’s sovereignty.

Calvinists: “We have no Freedom” – The Bondage of the Will

Slavery-and-Sin-300x225[1]Most Calvinists, when pressed, would probably agree that humans possess free agency as defined above. However they would also emphasise their firm conviction that we do not possess free will. Instead of our will being free, our will is enslaved to sin, evil and the powers of darkness. The shorthand term “total depravity” is apt to summarise the situation. If it were not for God continually sending grace to us, we would always freely choose to sin rather than to love and do good. The more we sin, the more we become enslaved to that sin. And so if it were not for the action of God, we would simply descend further and further into evil and spiritual deformity.

Luther argued powerfully that our free agency, unassisted by grace, is unable to do good. Our free agency, left to it’s own devices, will always tend towards doing evil. Catholics dogmatically agree with this concept in the doctrine of concupiscence. Our wills are enslaved to sin. Our wills are in bondage to evil. The more we sin, the tighter the chains bind us.

In this way, humanity does not possess free will. We may very well have a free agency as the Arminians insist, in that our actions are not determined by God and our choices arise from within ourselves rather than being determined via divine sovereignty. Nevertheless our will is in a state of bondage. One component of the good news of the gospel is that God promises to liberate us from this slavery, and is in fact in the process of doing so. In the eschaton, our wills will be free again! In the end-times, our wills will be liberated from their slavery to Satan and the powers of darkness. However right now we are in the middle of the struggle, and this is why we sometimes sin and sometimes do good. The conviction here is that we are not free when we sin; instead, sin is a demonstration of our being in bondage to evil. On the other hand, when we love and do good, this is indeed a demonstration of a free will, or perhaps what is more accurately described as a liberated will.

Talking Past Each Other

p02yy74b[1].jpgWhen sacred scripture talks about freedom, it talks about it in these terms – bondage, slavery, liberation. It does not talk about it in philosophical categories of agency and determinism, regardless of whether or not those categories are true and useful. According to revelation, we are free when we do good and enslaved when we do bad.

Arminians often take their doctrine of freedom too far and end up insisting that humans have such a supreme and unassailable dignity to the point where absolutely nothing can have any influence on our choices, including the biblical concept of slavery to sin. The truth of the matter is that being enslaved to sin and suffering from total depravity does not nullify the fact that we are self-determining creatures who have the power to make distinct choices. All that it means is that the pool of choices that present themselves to us are always evil and sinful in nature, and this is the essence of the bondage of the will.

Whereas Calvinists sometimes push their doctrine of an enslaved will too far and end up denying that mankind has any free agency whatsoever. Such Calvinists put all their eggs in the “God is sovereign” basket and end up claiming that any experience of free agency is entirely illusory, because God himself is the one who is calling all the shots – including my “free” choices. Such Calvinists don’t understand that divine sovereignty does not necessarily contradict libertarian freedom. God is indeed in control, and he will succeed at bringing about the promised eschaton; nevertheless, he gives us true freedom and true agency, so that we can truly love him. He is not a divine puppet master pulling our strings.

A Middle Way

A middle path between the two extremes of Arminian “inviolable freedom” and Calvinist “Deterministic hyper-sovereignty” is helpful to examine. In this view of things, mankind does indeed possess the power of self-determination and free agency, as the Arminians insist, however our wills are also indeed enslaved to sin, as the Calvinists insist. All that this means is that we have free agency to choose between alternatives, however all of the alternatives that present themselves to us are sinful. In more traditional language, this is called “concupiscence” and “total depravity”.

FreedomNow, obviously the picture thus described does not accord with our experience of life and reality. The clear objection that presents itself is “I do not always sin, some times I love, sometimes I do good. I am clearly not totally depraved.” – This is quite true, and so some qualifications need to be introduced. Firstly, it is true that we do not always sin, however this reflects more on God than it does on us. The only reason we do not descend into a complete and entire depravity, is because our God is a God who delights in rescuing captives and freeing slaves. As such, God is always and everywhere sending us the sufficient grace we need in order to climb out of the pit of our sinto climb out of the pit of our sin and throw off the shackles that bind us to evil. The further we descend into depravity and evil, the greater the quantity of grace that God sends us. He is always giving us the opportunity and the means to turn from our sinful ways and repent, and all we need to do is give our consent.

What happens when we turn from sin and instead strive to do good? We become liberated. We finally possess the promised free will. God himself takes hold of us and shatters the chains that tie our wills to darkness and evil. Until God does this, our will is not free. The more and more that we consent to this liberation, and the more and more we cooperate with God’s grace, the more and more free we become. This freedom and liberation from sin could almost be seen as a slavery of another sort – instead of being slaves to sin, darkness, death, evil and the devil; we become slaves of love, righteousness, goodness, light and God himself. The theological traditions generally agree that in the end, we will be so enraptured by love that we will be impeccable – incapable of sinning. This is a paradoxical slavery opposed to the one in which we started, and interestingly, we call it the highest, most supreme form of freedom.

The Promise of Freedom

All of this considered, “free will” actually is just another eschatological promise that God makes to us. God promises us “freedom” as in “liberation”. Due to the fall, humanity would naturally be enslaved to sin. But God has always been fighting against this tendency, and he has always been attempting to liberate us from this slavery to sin. Insofar as we sin, we demonstrate slavery to sin, but insofar as we love, we demonstrate freedom to love. The promise of God is that one day we will be perfected in freedom; in other words, one day we will possess such a total liberation from slavery to sin that we will be impeccable. To the extent that we have faith in this promise, the promise actualises in our experience of life right here and now.

Of course, we still sin now, and this is evidence that God’s plans have not yet come to completion: Our God is a God who delights in rescuing captives from slavery, and he is in the process of doing this, and yet the fact that we still sin is evidence that God has not yet completed this process of liberation. The question is raised: can God fail to save us? Can God fail to deliver us from slavery? Can God fail to give us the freedom that he promises us?

FreedomThe answer that the Catholic Universalist gives is a firm and resounding NO! God’s promises cannot be thwarted. If God promises us true freedom and impeccability in the eschaton, then that is damn well what is going to happen. We are all of us in the midst of a battle at the present time; a battle between Satan and Christ; a battle in which we are all partially enslaved to sin and partially liberated for love. Sometimes we are made more or less enslaved. Sometimes we are made more or less liberated. But the promise of God is that in the end-times he will be victorious: No one will be enslaved to sin; everyone will be completely and entirely liberated for love. Israel will exit Egypt and find it’s way to the promised land, even if it takes 40 years of wandering in the desert to get there. So too, we will all have our freedom from bondage to sin, no matter how long it takes and even at the greatest cost to God – If Christ was willing to endure a crucifixion and descent into Hell for the sake of the world, how could he leave any one of us behind? All without exception will be liberated from slavery to sin. All without exception will be made righteous. All without exception will be cleaned from spiritual dirtiness. All without exception will walk out of the darkness and into the light. All without exception will see the gates of heaven and enter, singing joyous hymns and doxologies to our good and glorious God.

God gives us freedom so that we can love him, he did not give us freedom so that we could damn ourselves. Freedom is good news. Freedom is salvation. Freedom is Gospel. Let us pray for the salvation of all and praise God for his beautiful promises of liberation. Amen.

(Return to first article)

Catholic Moral Law and Theology – Sin and Same-Sex Marriage: It’s Okay to be Gay

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The results of the Australian postal plebiscite on same sex marriage were released today. To my surprise and disappointment (although with a healthy degree of amusement), the “Yes vote” won by 61%. The traditional media has run rampant with celebratory nonsense while social media has been flooded with victorious sentiment from the lefties. In light of this current atmosphere, now seems as good a time as any to set down my stance on the issues surrounding homosexuality in the modern day.

  1. Homosexual acts, are, always were, and always will be totally depraved and sinful. There is simply no escaping the biblical, magisterial, and divine testimony from Jesus himself, that homosexual acts are wrong and inherently evil. This is something that the Church is rightly insisting upon as crucial to the issue, and it is also something which the “yes vote” campaigners consistently (and conveniently) ignore.
  2. Sacramental marriage will always be between a man and a woman, and can never be between two members of the same sex. Sacramental marriage is the context in which sexual intercourse is supposed to occur, and therefore the context in which children happen. Sacramental marriage between a man and a woman is the essence of the family and the foundation of society.
  3. Same-gender sexual attraction is a disorder with it’s roots in the fall. It is unnatural and a sinful disposition. Nevertheless, no actual sin is committed unless a person who suffers from this disposition wilfully entertains lustful thoughts or wilfully engages in homosexual activity. Someone who has been born with same-sex attraction or has developed it later in life, nevertheless does not sin unless they indulge in their disorder and treat it as if it were just another normal impulse.
  4. Same-gender attraction which is non-sexual in nature is not sinful. There is nothing sinful about one man admiring another man’s body, or one woman acknowledging the beauty of another woman’s body. If someone is physically attractive, often this attraction exerts influence over people who share their gender: This is not sinful; this is not unnatural; this is merely human nature. Obviously there are problems if the body is being displayed immodestly or pornographically, as this encourages lust and tempts us away from mere attraction and towards sexual attraction.
  5. Love between two people of the same sex is not a sin, and is in fact encouraged by Christ, the bible and the Church. This is something that tends to go over the “No vote” party’s heads. When the “Yes vote” crowd are chanting “Love is love”, there is actually quite a lot of truth to what they are saying. Some times a same-sex relationship is close, intimate and loving to such a degree that it is more than a friendship. We need to acknowledge these relationships both as a church and as a society. Society needs to afford these relationships appropriate legal recognition, and Churches need to be willing to provide their blessings to these relationships. New liturgical rites need to be invented in order to publicly endorse and bless these profound, loving relationships between two men or two women.
  6. We also need to find some sort of term to describe the reality of this new situation. Personally I think the term “marriage” is inappropriate, as it carries over 3000 years of traditional, sacramental baggage. Perhaps something like “Consecrated partnership” would be appropriate: the two partners are religiously consecrated to each other and to God through their vows. These vows would look remarkably similar to marriage vows, or vows that monks and nuns take upon joining a religious order (importantly; there would be a vow of celibacy and chastity!). Nevertheless, the situation is not a sacramental marriage, and therefore something akin to a “divorce” would be a live possibility: Similar to when a nun is given a dispensation to return to normal life, or a priest requests to be laicized; and similarly to these cases, such a “divorce” would be strongly discouraged.
  7. Religious freedom needs to be upheld. If a business owner does not feel that they can provide goods and services to a gay wedding in good conscience, they should not be forced to do so. It is discrimination to refuse to serve someone because they are gay, but it is not discrimination to refuse to publicly contribute to a cause that you do not agree with: a Gay marriage today can easily be understood as a public statement in support of normalising homosexual behaviour; if as a business owner you do not agree with this public statement, you should not be forced to contribute to it.
  8. Priests, Pastors and Ministers can not and should not be forced to perform same-sex marriages. As per points 5 and 6, I think the church needs to make room for recognition of platonic same-sex partnerships which go above and beyond friendship. I think the church should give liturgical and official blessings to such relationships and canonically recognise them as a new form of consecrated life. However the church can never recognise same-sex relationships as being a valid form of sacramental marriage, because there can be no natural sexual relations between two members of the same sex, and therefore there can be no children (which is the primary purpose of a sacramental marriage).
  9. Assuming that some form of religiously consecrated same-sex relationship becomes recognised and endorsed by the church, perhaps one of the vows could be “to adopt and care for those who have lost their natural mother and father”. It is true that children have a right to be raised by their biological mother and father, however we find ourselves in a fallen world in which this simply does not always happen. Making one of the primary purposes of this new same-sex consecrated relationship to be the care and upbringing of abandoned children would actually be incredibly helpful for society, and could even serve as a live alternative for those who are seeking abortions.

Finally, I want to reiterate that homosexual acts are always sinful, and therefore even if the Church is so understanding as to recognise same-sex relationships as a valid form of consecrated life, the church can never endorse homosexual acts in the contexts of these relationships: Same-sex couples are prohibited by divine law from engaging in unnatural sexual intercourse and if they do so they must have recourse to the sacrament of penance with a firm purpose of amendment. Furthermore while the church can (and indeed, should) recognise same-sex relationships as a new form of consecrated life, it can never raise these relationships to the same status as a sacramental marriage between a man and a woman.

In essence the church needs to recognise love as love and sin as sin, and send a clear message on both these fronts: “You’re a guy who loves another guy? That’s fine and good and you have our blessing, just make sure you don’t have sex with each other!”

Orthodoxy 101 – The Calvinist and Arminian Debate: Idolatry of the Freedom of the Will

In Catholic, Orthodox and Arminian circles, “Freedom” often seems to be pushed as the central dogma of the faith. More important than the divinity of Christ; More important than the victory of the cross; More important than the all powerful, completely loving, salvation-intending will of God; Human “Freedom” reigns supreme. If we are not free to reject salvation, how can we truly love God? If we are not free to reject God’s loving, salvific overtures, where is our dignity as human beings? If we are not free to choose Hell, anathema sit.

My conviction and contention is that this popular view of “supreme libertarian freedom” essentially constitutes an idolatry of freedom and a perversion of Catholic dogma. I hate to see myself admitting it, but I suspect the Augustinian/Calvinist tradition actually has it mostly right when it comes to this matter of freedom.

In my own reading, I have encountered many authors who invite us to imagine freedom as a “scale”: One side of the scale represents a choice to perform some loving work, while the other side of the scale represents a choice to perform a perverse and sinful action. This image is incredibly useful for illustrating a variety of views on freedom.

Arminian / Catholic / Orthodox – Unimpeded Libertarian Freedom

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In the popular Catholic mind, humans possess a supreme and unassailable dignity in that we are free. When presented with a choice between good and evil, it is entirely up to the freedom of human subject to determine which alternative will be chosen. The human is completely impartial; his choice is completely uninfluenced; whatever choice is chosen will be determined by that persons freedom, and nothing else. The image is that of the scale previously described, in which one side of the scale is equally as appealing as the other side of the scale, and therefore the choice that is eventually chosen is determined purely by the whimsy of the human will.

This is libertarian freedom. When someone makes a choice, this choice is not determined by outside influences; it is determined purely by the agent who makes the choice. The interesting thing is that this libertarian view would appear to contradict Catholic dogma at a cursory reading.

Augustinian / Calvinist – The biased scale of Freedom

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It is a Catholic dogma that the fall lead to something called concupiscence in every human being who has ever lived. Concupiscence is essentially a tendency towards sin. Despite the fact that we are free, our human natures have been wounded such that we tend towards sin in everything that we do. It is an important philosophical point to establish that this tendency towards sin is not an external influence upon us; it instead arises from within ourselves, and proceeds from our very nature as human beings, and therefore it is not something that could be said to nullify freedom. As the Calvinists say: we are free to behave according to our natures, and if our natures are wounded and tend towards sin, then we are free to behave according to that nature and accordingly, we will almost certainly sin.

The image is that of the scale of freedom, as before, however that scale is now biased. Given any choice between good and evil we do indeed have the power and freedom to choose the good, however because of our wounded nature, the scale is biased such that we will in most cases tend towards choosing evil. The scale has a weight underneath the cup that represents the choice for evil; so while it is indeed possible for us to defeat this bias and do good, this is incredibly difficult to achieve due to the opposition we face via the bias given to the evil choice.

So in a sense we retain our libertarian freedom, because no outside influence is able to determine the choices we make. However that libertarian freedom is not “neutral”: it is instead biased towards sin from within due to our wounded human natures. This bias towards sin is called concupiscence within the Catholic tradition.

Arminian Grace – Equalising the Scale of Freedom

Kronk-listening-to-his-shoulder-devil.jpgThe Arminian account of the plan of salvation (as I understand it) is thus: Human beings were originally created with complete libertarian freedom, which is to say we were able to choose to sin or not to sin and this choice was not determined by any force outside of ourselves. However our first parents chose to sin by eating the forbidden fruit. One of the effects of eating the fruit was that we lost our libertarian freedom: now instead of being able to choose between sin and love, we always choose sin. Arminians (and Calvinists) call this “total depravity“. Our scales of freedom are biased towards sin. However the good news of the Gospel is that God has sent us his Holy Spirit, and this Holy Spirit is able to act as a counterweight on the scale of freedom, equalising the scale such that we regain our libertarian freedom. Now we are once again in our pre-lapsarian condition: we are able to exercise our freedom and choose between good and evil, unimpeded by any bias towards one choice or another. So the essential good news of the Gospel is not that God has saved us, it is that he has restored our freedom and therefore restored the opportunity for salvation.

Step back for a moment and consider the situation: It could easily be described as schizophrenic. The image is that of the demon and the angel sitting on each of the human’s shoulders, whispering into his ears and trying to influence him. The Holy Spirit acts as an equal counterweight to concupiscence. Yes, we have neutral libertarian freedom again, but only as a result of two competing vectors of equal magnitude pulling in opposite directions and equalising to a null vector. The human subject finds himself pulled in every direction at once, and as a result ends up going nowhere, with the final destination being determined purely by his will.

The end result is that both salvation and damnation appear equally appealing: The human subject has no compulsion to choose either way. As such, his choice is apparently “free”, although I would prefer to say that the choice is random, and randomness does not constitute freedom.

Calvinist / Augustinian Grace – Biasing the Scale Towards Good

saint-michael.jpgCompare this with the Augustinian/Calvinist understanding of the Gospel. In this account of events, the fall lead to a wounding of our human nature such that we tend towards sin. In other words, our scales of freedom are biased towards sin rather than good. However the good news of the gospel is that God has sent his Holy Spirit – not to equalise the scales of freedom, but instead to change the bias. So now instead of being biased towards evil, we are biased towards good! Technically we retain our libertarian freedom, because no outside influences are able to determine the choices we make, however the Holy Spirit has healed our nature, and not only healed it, but glorified it, such that rather than tending towards evil, we tend towards good.

The image is close to that of the Arminian account: There is an angel and a demon sitting on each shoulder of the human subject, whispering into his ear. However the angel is ultimately more persuasive, and tends to defeat the demon in debate. As such, the human person tends towards doing good rather than evil. Calvinists have historically referred to this as irresistible grace.

Universalism – A more nuanced view

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A common charge against universalism is that it nullifies freedom. I contend that universalism implies no such thing. I draw on the Calvinist/Augustinian understanding to explain my case.

We are free to behave according to our natures. If our natures are sinful, we will tend towards sin, but if our natures are glorified we will tend towards love and good works. The good news of the Gospel is that God is in the process of healing our natures, and not just healing, but glorifying them. That is to say, God is attempting to make us impeccable – incapable of sin. This is not to say that God is trying to take away our freedom to sin, instead he is simply removing any impulse within us which would tend towards sin. In other words we will retain our freedom, however we will never abuse our freedom.

The Universalist eschatalogical vision is that in the end times God will have successfully defeated sin whilst safeguarding freedom. This is to say, we will all retain our freedom, however we will never abuse our freedom. As such, we will only ever do good. However in the present time a battle is still raging – the Arminian vision of a devil on one shoulder and an angel on another is apt to represent the situation. We are in the midst of a battle between good and evil. Evil is powerful and will put up a fight, however we have a promise from God that God will have the victory.

The end result is that yes, in the present time we have neutral libertarian freedom: The spirit is battling with sin/concupiscence and it seems that they are equally matched. However the eschatalogical vision is that God will win the fight. Eventually we all will choose him, freely. Moreover, at that point, our natures will be completely healed and glorified – which is to say we will be impeccable; even though we are free to sin, we simply wont do it, and will instead always choose the good.

This vision is entirely glorious. God will not force us to choose him, but nevertheless we will choose him. Our freedom is safeguarded, our salvation is safeguarded. No one will be damned. Confronted with such a vision of the future, what can we do but explode in faith and hope, praising God and petitioning him to bring it all about? Let us love God and love his plans, praying for them and working towards them in love. God really is that wonderful; Salvation really is that beautiful. Thanks be to Christ for the total victory which he wrought at the cross. Amen

(Go to “Meditations on Freedom”)

Orthodoxy 101 – Catholicism and Sola Fide: Understanding Indulgences

IndulgencesIndulgences—speak the word and Protestants will immediately shake their heads in disapproval. Here we have a doctrine that definitively undermines the good news of God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. The Anglican Articles of Religion describe indulgences as “repugnant to the Word of God.” The Westminster Confession describes them as a “cunningly devised fable, invented by designing men to impose upon the credulous, and to fill their own treasures.” In the Smalcald Articles, Martin Luther states that “purgatory, and every solemnity, rite, and commerce connected with it, is to be regarded as nothing but a specter of the devil.”

It is plain to be seen that indulgences have acquired a terrible reputation. However they need not be so quickly rejected. The problem with indulgences is that they are almost entirely misunderstood. And not just by their opponents! Even many Catholic proponents of the doctrine often get indulgences wrong and end up pronouncing theology which does indeed serve to nullify the good news of the Gospel. I propose that the best way to interpret indulgences, is to look at them through the lens of reformation theology, specifically the doctrine of Sola Fide, and so interpret indulgences as merely another expression or aspect of God’s unconditional, salvific promise.

A Shift in Paradigm

IndulgencesAn Indulgences is defined in the Catholic Catechism as “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions“. This definition betrays a very medieval understanding of theology, in that is talks about temporal “punishment”. The focus is very much on God’s justice here: sin leads to punishment but this punishment can be waived. It’s all very “legalistic” and the scene of a courtroom is apt to represent the situation.

In recent years, the doctrine of purgatory has shifted from a “satisfaction” model to a “sanctification” model in the popular mind. This shift is reflective of a more broad movement in Catholic theology away from the retributive paradigm of “Sin as a crime which deserves punishment” to a more remedial paradigm of “Sin as a sickness which requires healing”. In short, no longer are we thought to “pay for our sins” in purgatory; instead we are thought to be “purified of the spiritual dirtiness which has clung to our soul as a result of sin”. This is a welcome change, as it is more in accord with the image of God as a loving father who desires the best for his children, rather than the image of God as a wrathful and angry judge who demands justice in the form of brutal punishment for sin.

However this shift in the understanding of purgatory demands a corresponding shift in the understanding of indulgences. It simply does not make sense to say that “My soul is drenched in sin, however I have gained an indulgence, which means I don’t have to go through the hassle of purification and cleansing. My ‘temporal punishment’ has been remitted: God accepts me just as I am, warts and all”. This is nonsensical and contradicts the clear biblical principle that “nothing unclean will enter heaven”. The solution to this problem lies in the doctrine of the communion of the saints.

The doctrine of the communion of the saints states that we are all mystically joined to Christ and each other. This union is much closer than we realise in our day to day experience. The union is in actual fact so close, that the purifying effects of my penances flow between all the members of the church, such that they do not purify my soul alone, but instead serve to purify all of humanity. Likewise, the infinite penances of Christ, Mary, and the saints flow around the entire church. In this way, my soul can be cleansed by the penances of other people. I do not have to personally make temporal atonement for my sins; I do not have to clean myself; instead, Christ has the ability to clean me directly apart from any penances which I may attempt, by simply applying the infinite penances of the communion of saints to my soul. All that I need to do to allow this to happen is to willingly consent to the cleansing through faith.

With this in mind, Indulgences can be reinterpreted as “A soul being cleansed of it’s sinful dirtiness directly by Christ, through the superabundant penances of the communion of the saints, apart from any penance directly undertaken by that soul”

Indulgences as Promise

13729201_1197343756962644_642610664857631023_n.jpgWe have already seen in this series that God makes a variety of unconditional promises to humanity (or one single promise with many aspects). A summary:

  1. God promises us that we are Righteous (Justified), right here and now, because Christ lives within us. And therefore we need not fret and feel spiritual angst about being a bad person.
  2. God promises that all of our sins are forgiven, both past sins and future sins. Therefore we do not need to feel guilty about any of our moral failings
  3. God promises that we are predestined to heaven. Therefore we do not need to fear being stuck in a state of alienation from God forever. We do not need to despair at the prospect of walking in darkness for eternity. We can have an invincible Hope that we will eventually achieve beatitude.

Now, it seems to me that indulgences are just another unconditional promise that God makes to us. This promise states “You are clean, because Christ has cleaned you; You are perfect, because Christ has purified you; No temporal punishment for sin remains”. In biblical language, we have been washed in Christ’s blood, which is to say that the superabundant sufferings of Christ function as a penance which are applied to all souls in order to cleanse them from all stain of sin. Mary and the saints are able to add their penances to Christ’s sufferings and in this way participate in his passion, however this is not strictly necessary because Christ’s blood is sufficient to clean the souls of the entire world, nevertheless it is a great honour to be united to Christ in such a way that we participate in his salvific work and mission.

It is important to note, that just like the other three promises, the promise of indulgence is Universal and Unconditional. That is to say, God implicitly speaks the promise to every individual who has ever lived, even if they do not explicitly hear the promise spoken to them during life. Again, like the other promises, it is helpful to have this Universal promise personalised and spoken directly to someone. This is where the idea of “Indulgences as promise” intersects with the traditional doctrine.

Indulgences and Sacraments

Extreme_Unction_LACMA_AC1994.171.5-56a1083c3df78cafdaa83428[1]Sacramentally, the promise of a plenary indulgence is spoken during Baptism and Last Rites. When we are baptised, we are “washed completely clean”. This is an indulgence by another name. Just as with the other promises of God, this promise of indulgence is received “by faith alone”. The degree to which the promise takes effect in my subjective experience of life, is determined by the degree to which I respond to this promise in faith. God says “You are clean”, and I believe, and therefore I experience cleanliness. On the other hand God says “You are clean” and I doubt, and therefore I experience dirtiness.

This experiential situation carries on into the afterlife and takes the name “purgatory”. If you have a perfect faith in the promise of Indulgence, then when you die you will not experience purification, because the promise of God is that there is nothing left to purify: he has already purified you. In this way you “escape the punishment of Hell”. If however you die with an imperfect faith in the promise of Indulgence, then you will enter into the Hellish torments of Purgatory. The degree to which you doubt the promise is the degree to which you are tormented. As all the sins of your life are laid out before you during the particular judgement, you behold your past crimes and perceive them as staining your soul. You are tormented by your sins. All that needs to be done to escape this situation is to hear the promise of Indulgence and throw yourself upon it completely in faith. You must repent by turning away from these sins and trusting the promise of Christ that “you are already clean”. Once you realise that you are already clean, the torments will cease and be revealed to have been completely illusory the entire time.

“Earning” Indulgences?

IndulgencesSimilarly to how it is useful as life goes on to have the promise of Justification which was spoken in Baptism reiterated in the Sacrament of Confession, so as to more easily place our faith in it; so too it is useful to have the promise of Indulgence reiterated many times throughout our life, so that we can more easily place our faith in it. This is where the traditional system of “Indulgences attached to works and prayers” comes into play.

To recap: a perpetual plenary indulgence is granted to everyone at all times and in all places. This indulgence takes the form of the scriptural promise that “we have been washed and sanctified by the blood of the lamb. We are completely clean, right now”. However it is useful to have this promise spoken to us personally, so as to allow us to receive it in faith. This is why there are many prayers and actions which are attached to the idea of indulgences.

The most important of these actions are the sacraments of Baptism and Last Rites. However there are many minor prayers, actions and pilgrimages which have indulgences attached. These need to be understood not as “doing a work so as to earn an indulgence”, instead they need to be understood as “demonstrating faith in the promise of Indulgence by concrete actions”. An example: someone who goes on a spiritual retreat for three full days is granted a Plenary indulgence. This does not mean that this person has “earned” the indulgence, instead it means that this person has demonstrated faith in the promise of Indulgence by his actions. At the end of the retreat, the promise of Indulgence is explicitly spoken. It was always implicitly spoken, however it is useful to have this promise explicitly reiterated, so that we may more easily anchor our faith in it. In this way indulgences are similar in purpose to the sacraments.

To summarise, the Promise of Indulgence is unconditional, universal, and perpetual. The works attached to indulgences do not “earn” indulgences, they are simply concrete ways in which faith in this promise is demonstrated. If you do a work or say a prayer with a “partial indulgence” attached, this simply means that you have demonstrated a “partial faith” in the promise. If you do a work or say a prayer with a “plenary indulgence” attached, this simply means that you have demonstrated a total faith in the promise.

The Final Assault of Satan

220px-Hieronymus_Bosch_013[1].jpgThe main purpose of Last Rites, or Extreme Unction, is to sacramentally speak the promise of Plenary Indulgence to a soul right when they need to hear that promise most. The soul is about to go through the process of dying. As we pray in the Hail Mary, “Pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death“. It is a common theological opinion that Satan will make a final assault on a soul who is dying, in the last moments of their life, while they are at their weakest. He will try to drag the soul down into doubt and despair concerning the promises of God. The Devil will do his best to tempt the soul into a state of subjective damnation by attacking their faith. Meanwhile Mary, Christ and all the angels and saints are praying and interceding and doing intense battle with the Devil and his demons. Spiritual warfare is waged over the dying soul.

The sacrament of Last Rites prepares us for this final battle by reiterating the promise of Indulgence to us so that it is fresh in our memory. The last thing that we hear before slipping away into this terrifying process of dying is the promise of God that we are clean. This is essential. Because the Devil is going to swoop in in those last moments and taunt us by saying “You are dirty. You are Guilty. Look at all of your sins. You are going to be damned for sure”. In the face of these taunts, we need to be able to throw ourselves upon the promises of God which instead say “You are clean. You are perfect. You are righteous. Christ lives within you. You are predestined to Heaven”: it is much easier to do this if we have the promises fresh in our memory.

In this way the sacrament of last rites gives us strength to face the process of dying, by reiterating the unconditional promise of God right when we need to hear it most.

Penance is Supererogatory

IndulgencesSomeone who depends on penance on order to be clean is simply doing it wrong. This is another manifestation of the “salvation by works” mindset. Objectively, their works of penance do indeed contribute to the cleansing of themselves as well as the other members of the church via the mystical union in the communion of the saints. However, if they do not have faith in the promise of Indulgence that they “are clean, right now, and have been completely washed by the blood of Christ”, then subjectively they are going to experience dirtiness, damnation and condemnation. In this way it is once again a case of “salvation by faith alone”. The way in which the promise becomes active in their subjective experience of life is through faith in that promise. People do not experience cleanliness by doing works of penance, people experience cleanliness by completely trusting in the promise of Indulgence.

An important consequence of these reflections on Indulgences, is that they make penance completely supererogatory (An action is supererogatory if it is good to do but unnecessary). When someone goes to the sacrament of confession and receives absolution, the priest will also specify some penance that needs to be performed. Strictly speaking, this penance is unnecessary and all that is really required in order for the soul to be clean is for that person to place their trust in Christ’s perpetual promise of Indulgence. However the church in her wisdom has decided that penance is spiritually beneficial. In this way, even though penance is a supererogatory act, the church mandates that we do some penance after confession of our sins.

Interestingly, all penance is supererogatory, because Christ’s passion was enough to secure a cleansing of the entire human race. Nevertheless it is a beneficial spiritual exercise to engage in acts of penance. The harm comes when people think that they must perform acts of penance in order to be saved. This will lead to spiritual angst and there are many testimonies of ex-priests and ex-monks who experienced exactly this spiritual angst and it drove them to abandon the faith. Instead we must understand all penance as being supererogatory: Our salvation and escape from the fires of Hell/Purgatory does not depend on the amount of penance we do. Instead it depends entirely on Christ and is subjectively apprehended by faith in Christ’s promise of Indulgence. Faith is the key to a subjective experience of salvation in every respect.

Beautiful Promises

christus-victor[1].jpgTo summarise, an Indulgence is not something which you earn by works and prayers. Indulgence is instead the promise of God that “you are totally clean, right now”. This promise is apprehended by faith alone, and that faith is demonstrated by the works and prayers which have indulgences “attached” to them. In this way, you do not need to work your way out of Hell or Purgatory by many and varied acts of penance: Christ has already done that for you and all you need to do is trust him.

God makes a variety of wonderful promises. “You are clean, you are righteous, you are Justified, you are forgiven, you are predestined, you will persevere”. He speaks these promises to us personally in the sacraments. We apprehend these promises by faith alone and by faith these promises invade our life and enrich it, leading to an experience of heaven on earth; salvation here and now. These promises are unconditional, which is to say they depend on God rather than us for their fulfilment. And God, being omnipotent and omniscient, is able to actualise these promises despite any resistance we might throw at him. In this way we can have invincible faith, confident hope, overflowing joy and untameable love: we can experience salvation right now. All praise be to Christ the king, who was victorious over Hell, abolished death, defeated the Devil, conquered sin. We have an amazing future to look forward to, hope for and pray for. God promises it and God guarantees it. What else can we do but have faith and rejoice?

(Return to first article)

Orthodoxy 101 – Christianity and The Glorious Gospel

What is the Gospel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel Promise of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel Promise of Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where people get the Gospel wrong

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

Arminians, Catholics and Orthodox

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

Calvinists

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

Evangelicals

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

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

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

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

The Gospel Promise of Grace

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

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

Baptism

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

Confirmation

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

Confession

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

Universalism is the only Gospel worthy of the name

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

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

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

(Go to “Understanding Indulgences”)

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

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

Objective Salvation

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

Romans 5:18 ESV

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

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

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

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

Subjective Salvation

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

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

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

Sacraments of promise

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

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

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

Mortal Sin and ConfessionFeaturedMortalSin[1].png

Romans 8:31-39 RSVCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subjective and Objective Beatitude

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

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

Sacraments necessary for salvation

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

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

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

Anonymous Christians and implicit faith

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

Summary

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

(Go to “The Glorious Gospel”)

Ramblings Concerning Eschatology, Sin, Salvation and Everlasting Damnation, Aquinas and the Saints Rejoicing at the Sufferings of the Damned

Eternal and Temporal Punishments

hellfire-1000x480[1].jpgIn Catholic theology there is the idea that sin has a “double consequence”: committing a sin will lead to one or both of an eternal punishment, as well as a temporal punishment. Traditionally a distinction is made between mortal and venial sin: mortal sin is sin that is serious enough to result in both eternal and temporal punishment, whereas venial sin is not so bad and only leads to a temporal punishment. This eternal/temporal punishment distinction is commonly presented in a very simplistic way: the eternal and temporal punishments are considered to be pretty much the same, but the eternal punishment lasts forever while the temporal punishment does not. While not entirely wrong, this is a very naive view of the situation and the temporal/eternal and mortal/venial distinctions are worth exploring further.

First it helps to establish the actual nature of the punishments involved. Straight away it should be emphasised that eternal and temporal punishment are entirely different in nature. It’s not that both of them have you swimming in the flames of Hell, being physically and spiritually brutalized, but the temporal punishment comes to an end while the eternal punishment continues on into eternity. Not at all. The two punishments are completely different. So what are they? A concise summary of the punishments is that the eternal punishment consists of separation from God while the temporal punishment involves physical and spiritual punishment. Lets elaborate on these.

Eternal punishment is separation from God. Of course, it is metaphysically impossible to truly be separate from God. No matter where you go, God will be there. Even if it feels like God is distant, in reality he is right there with you, closer to you than you are to yourself. In order to remain in existence God has to constantly sustain you with his creative energies. Even if you disappear into the outer darkness or descend to the depths of hades, God will still be there with you, holding you in existence by his loving, creative power. If God were to withdraw his creative energies from you, you would simply cease to exist: You would in fact be annihilated. This is precisely what happens with the eternal punishment. The eternal consequence for sin consists of God withdrawing his love from the condemned sinner, which results in non-existence and annihilation. As such it is not actually possible to “experience” the eternal punishment for sin. Annihilation is not something that is experienced, because once the annihilation has occurred there is no longer any subject there to do the experiencing. There is no pain involved in the eternal punishment, but neither is there pleasure. And neither is there neutrality. There is no joy, no despair. There is just nothingness. This is impossible to describe or visualise, because it is impossible to truly imagine or visualise nothingness. It is as ineffable and mysterious as God himself.

The temporal consequence of sin however, consists of physical and spiritual punishment. This is pretty much the stereotypical “fire and brimstone” image of Hell that we have all come across many times during our lives. Unlike the eternal punishment – which is timeless and everlasting – the temporal punishment is something continuous and progressive. The image of people being tortured by demons in a red hellscape with lots of fire, smoke and brimstone turns out to be a quite helpful metaphor for visualising the temporal punishment. Sinners are marched from one punishment to the next, and these punishments are not abstract things, but concrete horrors, such as being tossed into a cauldron of boiling lava, or forced to swim through a lake of urine. At this point it would be prudent to point out that these punishments are not purely retributive. They have a purgative purpose as well. The punishments are designed such that once the punishment is complete, there will also be a genuine repentance present in the sinners heart for the particular sin that was being punished. Free will is involved at every step of the way: the punishment will continue for as long as the sinner refuses to repent of that particular sin. In theological discourse Catholics generally refer to this as “Hell” when they want to emphasise the punishment, and “Purgatory” when they want to emphasise it’s purifying purpose, however they are the same reality. Usually when a Catholic tries to describe the eternal punishment they end up describing the temporal punishment for sin instead. They try to describe Hell and end up describing purgatory. This is because as discussed earlier, it is impossible to describe the eternal punishment. The temporal punishment is often referred to as “the flames of Hell”. These flames are purifying flames and are in actual fact none other than the love of God. In this way the temporal punishment demonstrates both God’s love and his justice simultaneously: justice in that everyone is punished in the flames for their sins, and love in that everyone is purified in the flames from those same sins.

So eternal punishment consists of a withdrawal of God’s love from the sinner, which leads to annihilation or in other words, separation from God. Whereas temporal punishment consists of spiritual and physical tortures, which engage the sinners free will and elicit their repentance, leading to purification, purgation and a cleansing of the soul from sin.

The Catholic Universalist Gospel states that Jesus Christ died on the cross and descended into Hell, and while affirming the traditional interpretation that this means Jesus took a trip to the limbo of the fathers and broke them out of the prison, it also interprets this as meaning that Jesus Christ descended into eternal punishment. In other words, God himself was annihilated. However it was impossible for Jesus to be held back by this annihilation, and so by the power of the Holy Spirit he was resurrected from non-existence back to existence, and from death to life, with a new, perfect, glorified human nature. All of humanity is mystically united to Christ, and so all of humanity participates in this death and resurrection. As a result, all of humanity moves from “Condemned” to “Justified” as we are united to Christ, whose old and wounded human nature has been annihilated and replaced with a new and glorified human nature. It is important to note in this account of the Gospel that by his cross and resurrection Jesus saved humanity from the eternal consequence of sin – separation from God – but he has not saved humanity from the temporal consequence of sin, which consists of suffering, punishment, purification and purgation. This is why we continue to experience suffering in our lives.

Moving on now to the Mortal/Venial sin distinction. There is essentially only a single mortal sin: wilful rejection of God. However this sin takes many forms and there are some conditions that must be fulfilled: The particular sin must be grave matter, the sinner must be fully aware that the sin is grave matter, and the sinner must give full consent to the sin with their will. If a mortal sin is committed it constitutes an explicit rejection of a relationship with God, and so it merits the eternal punishment of separation from God. On the other hand venial sins are small imperfections, which do not constitute a willing and informed decision to walk away from God. Venial sins merit an increase in a soul’s temporal punishment, as they represent imperfections which need to be cleansed.

Sacraments and Soteriology

o-FORGIVENESS-facebook[1].jpgThe question is asked: how do we escape the eternal punishment, once a mortal sin has been committed? At this point we encounter a difference between the standard Catholic account of soteriology and the Universalist Catholic account. From the eternal perspective, all mortal sins were forgiven by the cross and Christ’s descent into Hell, and so strictly speaking nothing more is absolutely necessary in order for a person to be Justified. However sacramentally and temporally, baptism is necessary in order for a soul to participate in Christ’s death, resurrection and state of Justification. Baptism with water is not absolutely necessary, however it is temporally necessary  given our existence as temporal creatures. Contempt and disregard for baptism is a form of the mortal sin and so will also merit both the eternal punishment and a significant increase in temporal punishment. Baptism can only occur once, but the mortal sin may be committed many times. This necessitates another method for forgiving the mortal sin, and this is known as perfect contrition. Perfect contrition is a form of inner repentance where a soul feels sorrow for their sins because they love God, as opposed to other reasons like fear of Hell and punishment. Perfect contrition throws a soul back upon the eternal reality of their baptism and reapplies it to their life temporally. Perfect contrition is encapsulated in the sacrament of Confession.

It is important to note that Perfect contrition is absolutely essential for the mortal sin to be forgiven and the eternal punishment to be revoked. If there is no perfect contrition, there is no forgiveness. However the following principle must be stated: God’s mercy is such that he forgives us in anticipation of our future perfect contrition. In other words, so long as we have perfect contrition at some point in the future, God foresees this via his omniscience and so he forgives us now even if we are not presently perfectly contrite. In this way, the Catholic does not need to be filled with terror and dread at the prospect of eternal punishment when he commits a mortal sin, because God will forgive him immediately, so long as at some point in the future he has perfect contrition and gets to the sacrament of confession. Furthermore, the Christian who commits a mortal sin has a guarantee from God that they will indeed experience this necessary perfect contrition at some point in the future. This guarantee takes the form of the indwelling Holy Spirit, whom God gave to the Christian as a promise that he would one day be holy and perfect. Finally, in the Universalist account there is no time limit for attaining perfect contrition. If we die and we have not been perfectly contrite we will go to purgatory. It is predestined that at some point while we are there we will experience the necessary perfection contrition. Again, God foresees that we will be perfectly contrite in purgatory and so forgives us immediately on account of it.

In this way a Christian can be confident that he is always and everywhere forgiven of his mortal sin. He can have a hopeful assurance of salvation, resting in the knowledge that God is merciful, and has promised to work in the Christians soul to enable him to fulfil whatever conditions are necessary for salvation, whether during life or after death.

The Suffering of Sinners is the Pleasure of Saints

Carracci-Purgatory[1].jpgThere is a common opinion that is found across many theological traditions that the saints will take pleasure in the suffering of the damned. The logic is fairly straightforward: 1. The saints are in heaven. 2. Heaven is perfect and nothing can detract from it’s joy. 3. Nothing can detract from the joy of the saints, so they either don’t care about the suffering in Hell, or they take pleasure in it. Intuitively, this view is quite disgusting. However I don’t think it’s entirely inaccurate.

The saints do not experience a sadistic pleasure when they view the sufferings of the damned, but instead experience a salvific pleasure. The saints, being deified in heaven, can be said to share in God’s omniscience: They are intimately acquainted with the details of God’s will in a way that the sinners on earth and in Hell are not. In this way, the saints perfectly understand the exact way in which the sufferings of the damned are all part of God’s salvific plan. When they witness a sinner being tortured in Hell, they rejoice, not because they take pleasure in the sinners pain, but rather because God has granted them a clear understanding of exactly why that pain is necessary in order for the sinner to be saved. The people on earth and in Hell can only look on with horror at the intolerable pain that the sinners in Hell are made to experience, however the saints in heaven have a superior perspective and are able to see right through the pain to the final outcome, which is entirely glorious, mingled with love, wisdom and compassion. It all makes perfect sense to the saints, and so they praise and glorify God for the tortures, comprehending the exact way and precise details of how God will use the suffering for a greater good.

(Note, following many of the Church fathers, I use the term “Hell” loosely here to refer to the place of temporal punishment and purification, more commonly referred to as Purgatory)