De Praeultramontanissimo – Assessing the Threat of Papal Totalitarianism

Introduction

From the ten questions proposed for the subject of this essay I have decided to answer the following: “The Petrine Office is more like a constitutional monarchy than an absolute monarchy. Discuss.” In short, my response is that the Petrine Office should be more like a constitutional monarchy than an absolute monarchy, but – according to the current state of Catholic Dogma – it is not. It is true that recent Popes (roughly from the 1900s on) have acted as if the Petrine Office is a constitutional monarchy – with Pope Francis in particular administering his office in a very collegial manner – but in this paper I will propose that there is nothing in current Catholic dogma and canon law which would prevent a rogue Pope from governing the church in the way of a totalitarian dictator or despot, at least in the realm of doctrinal and dogmatic pronouncements. There appear to be loopholes in existing canon law and dogma which – while no Pope has yet exploited them – make room for a megalomaniacal Pope to define doctrine according to his whim and fancy. I argue that these loopholes are one of the key stumbling blocks (although there are undoubtedly others) that are preventing a grand ecumenical reunification between the Catholic church and the various other ancient Christian communions, in particular the Eastern Orthodox Church. Finally, I propose some steps that could be taken to secure the loophole.

The Problem of Papal Infallibility

The fourth chapter of the Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Pastor aeternus) makes the following dogmatic definition:

We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable.

So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.1

Note that there is nothing in this dogmatic definition which explicitly requires the Pope to consult the bishops first, even if that is what tends to happen and many Catholics believe that it is necessary. Rather, the dogma here even goes so far as to explicitly state that an infallible definition of the Pope is irreformable “of itself” and that the “consent of the church” is irrelevant. Slightly earlier in pastor aeternus there can be found this section:

For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might make known new doctrine, but that by His assistance they might inviolably keep and faithfully expound the Revelation, the Deposit of Faith, delivered through the Apostles.

This paragraph of the document is often cited and understood as a sort of “safeguard” against the possibility of Papal Infallibility being abused by an ambitious and nefarious Pope, however it seems clear to me that it does nothing of the sort. Firstly, the paragraph is very vague and subjective: How exactly in this context are we supposed to understand “new doctrine,” “the Revelation” and “the Deposit of Faith?” For example a Pope could feasibly define any doctrine and then defend it as being a crucial part of the Holy Tradition, so long as he is able to anchor his definition loosely in something that some church father or church doctor said long ago. Theologians may argue and dispute the definition and its theological foundations, but this would be paradoxical because Papal definitions are supposed to end debate over an issue rather than fan the flames.

Secondly, there is nothing in this supposed safeguard paragraph which clearly and precisely puts limits and boundaries on the exercise of infallibility. Catholics tend to assume that the Pope must first consult the college of bishops before promulgating a definition (and this has in fact been the historical precedent), however there is nothing in this safeguard passage, the actual dogmatic definition, or anywhere else in the encyclical which reveals this to be the case. As it stands, so long as the Pope claims that his new definition is in line with the tradition – no doubt marshalling some proof texts from scripture and the fathers in the process – there are no hard and fast checks and balances to stop him. If a Pope were to go ahead and define something really controversial – for example the doctrine of ἀποκατάστασις – he would be well within his dogmatic and canonical rights to do so, and the inevitable result would be massive schisms, furious theological debates, and relentless proliferation of anti-popes and sedevacantist splinter groups.

In short there is nothing in the dogma as stated in pastor aeternus which requires the Pope to consult the bishops before exercising his infallibility, contrary to the common understanding among Catholics. This is a big loophole in the Catholic system which I advise would be wise to plug sooner rather than later.2

There is also a problem of hermeneutics. Protestants often convert to Catholicism in order to escape the doctrinal chaos of Protestantism,3 where everyone agrees that the scriptures are the highest authority but no one is able to agree on the correct interpretation of those same scriptures. Catholicism often is presented as an attractive solution to the conundrum, in that the magisterium is a living authority which is able to provide definitive interpretation of the scriptures and traditions of the church. Some (but not all) of these Protestant converts eventually go on to discover that the problem of interpretation has not actually been solved by their conversion, and has in fact been pushed back a step; rather than debating the meaning of scriptural verses, now theologians have to debate the meaning of Papal pronouncements and canons of councils. If anything, their life has been made more difficult: Where before the Christian only had to confront a 66 book bible, now she has to wrangle with two millennia of Church documents, liturgies, councils and papal pronouncements, and all the while there still is no official hermeneutical key available by which all theologians are able to come to agreement. In practice the solution adopted by many Catholics is simply to obey and submit to whatever the leaders of the church are saying, which is why it is important that the Catholic system is able to effectively maintain consensus, consistency and cohesion among those leaders. An official hermeneutic which is simple enough for anyone to apply would arguably solve the problem – more on this below.

All of these concerns apply particularly to the papal pronouncements made under the conditions of infallibility; even once the pronouncement has been made, there is no official hermeneutic specified for interpreting the statement; as such, the statement is open to many various interpretations and these may even change, multiply or fade away as time goes by. A contemporary example of this phenomenon would be the hermeneutical controversy and chaos in the church over the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia: Some Catholic authorities have interpreted the document as if it permits communion to be given to divorced and remarried couples, while other Catholic authorities have interpreted it in such a way that they arrive at the opposite conclusion. This shows how even when a Pope promulgates a teaching, the problem of hermeneutics is not automatically solved and the Pope’s statements can always be interpreted in a variety of ways, with some of these ways being mutually exclusive. I suggest that it might be helpful to take action to clamp down on these hermeneutical ambiguities.

A Proposed Solution

I propose four action points to solve the problem:

  1. The infallibility of both Papal pronouncements and the canons of ecumenical councils should be re-framed as divine clarification: an open canon of inspired statements serving as an interpretive complement to the closed canon of scripture.

  2. The role of the papacy should be canonically and dogmatically reshaped such that it does indeed look more like a constitutional monarchy, rather than an absolute one. Specifically, the Church should officially ratify the common Catholic understanding that the Pope must consult his bishops (via ecumenical council) prior to promulgating a dogma.

  3. An official fundamental theology should be established and adopted, along with a simple and elegant hermeneutic for interpreting it.

  4. A new ecumenical council should promptly be held in order to canonically ratify and dogmatically implement points 1, 2 and 3.

Divine Clarification

In one sense this point is something of a “branding” issue. I would argue that the Catholic church already has a system of divine clarification in place, but without explicitly referring to it as such. I suggest that recognising this element of the Catholic doctrinal and dogmatic framework for what it is will gift Catholics with a more definite and perspicuous faith.

As it stands, the canon of divine clarification is open – which is desirable – but it is also fuzzy and ill-defined, which is problematic and – I argue – leads to an economic problem: the misuse of theological human resources. By this I mean that much time, effort and energy is spent among lay Catholics disputing what is and what is not the official church stance on various doctrinal and practical issues, and – more worrying still – this same debate is raging in the higher theological echelons of the Catholic church, with bishops and theologians disputing amongst each other over which church statements are and are not infallible. To take one example, some theologians consider the question of female ordination to be closed once and for all by what they take to be an infallible definition in the writings of Pope Saint John Paul II, and yet other theologians dispute this and so the debate and politics over the matter continues to this day.

Divine clarification in this context of interpretive chaos and confusion could be analogously understood as a form of continuing revelation. I propose that it would be helpful to collate and identify another official inspired text to which statements can be added as time goes by and from which no statement can be abrogated once included. The text would essentially be an infallible collection of infallible dogmas. It would be similar to Denzinger’s “Enchiridion symbolorum, definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum,” but less messy and haphazard (The Enchiridion strikes one as a dumping ground of clippings and creeds from various church documents that have been composed during the course of Christian history, rather than a clear and concise dictionary of infallible doctrines). Likewise, it would be similar to Ludwig Ott’s Fundamental Theology – which includes simple, precise dogmatic formulas – but stripped of all commentary. The purpose of the text would simply be to concisely and perspicuously present a list of infallible and inspired dogmatic statements, which would be a hermeneutical key that any Catholic can use to interpret the deposit of faith, and can themselves also be interpreted by the faithful.

If this recommendation were followed, it would provide an agreed focal point for theological discussion and debate amongst Catholics, whether they be lay, clerical or academic. Rather than having to sift through 2000 years of church documents and argue for or against the dogmatic status of various statements; Catholics would instead focus their attention on this single canonical text of divine clarification which presents a complete and up to date compilation of all statements thus far considered to be infallible, inspired and of the highest (De Fide) authority.

I have dwelt on this matter of fundamental theology and dogmatics because below I will be frequently referring to this proposed canon of divine clarification. I will suggest a framework for governing the relationship between the Pope, the college of bishops, and this proposed new and inspired canonical text.

Comparison with Mormonism

It is relevant to quickly note a comparison between this proposal and the way the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints operates. The Mormons have an open canon of scripture and revelation which includes the King James Bible, the Book of Mormon, and a book very similar to the one I have proposed here called “The Doctrine and Covenants.” Unlike the Bible and the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants is an open canon of “sections,” with new sections added to the book slowly over time. Unlike the inspired text I have proposed here, the majority of sections of the Doctrine and Covenants read like private mystical experiences as recounted by saints; in comparison the text I am proposing would be a concise and perspicuous collection of dogmatic statements, more akin to Ludwig Ott’s text of Fundamental theology, but stripped of all commentary.

Papal Monarchy and Ecumenical Collegiality

The role of the papacy should be canonically and dogmatically reshaped such that it does indeed look more like a constitutional monarchy, rather than an absolute one. Taking the Australian political system as a model, the role of the Catholic Pope would be akin to the role of the Australian Governor General: His doctrinal infallibility would be restricted to either approving or denying the dogmatic canons of ecumenical councils. This would officially ratify the common Catholic understanding that the Pope must consult his bishops prior to promulgating a dogma, and make it explicit in canon law and church dogma what most Catholics seem to think is already the case: that the pope can only exercise his infallibility after consulting his bishops. This would hopefully be a big gesture towards the Eastern Orthodox, who would presumably appreciate some official bounds and limits being applied to the Papacy.

To be more precise, I propose that papal infallibility should be somehow limited such that the Pope’s only role in the dogmatic system is to ratify a council as being ecumenical. When a Pope identifies a council as being ecumenical, all of the dogmatic canons of that council are then inserted into the previously discussed canonical text of divine clarification. To state the point more clearly: the Pope would not be able pick and choose statements from councils to ratify; he must instead accept all of them at once. In this way, the bishops together in council would deliberate and decide on the dogmas, while the Pope would merely approve the decisions of the bishops as to what statements should be added to the canon of divine clarification. The Pope would also not be able to just construct infallible statements and promulgate them at his whim and pleasure: he would instead have to call a council and have the bishops of the council approve the statement first.

An important aside: Justice would be done to the first Vatican councils insistence that the Pope has universal jurisdiction, in that the Pope can anywhere and at any time exercise his infallibility as I have just defined it. In other words, the Pope could point to any council of bishops throughout Christian history and declare it to be an ecumenical council. The Pope could also call a new council at any time and propose statements to the bishops for approval. This would open up room for the Pope to accept Eastern Orthodox councils as ecumenical, or retroactively convey ecumenical status on a regional council that happened long ago. I should note that there is still the problem of working out which canons of a council should be added to the canon of divine clarification, even after that council has been identified by the Pope as ecumenical. I will comment on this further below.

Comparison with the Australian System of Government

There are parallels between the system I have described and the way that the Australian Government operates. The Pope would be akin to the governor general of Australia. A new law is not officially ratified in the Australian system until it has been approved by the governor general, and the governor general cannot just invent and implement laws out of the blue. One difference is that the Pope would be able to at least propose new dogmas to the college of bishops, which is something not often seen in the Australian system.

Perhaps there would also be a similarity to the Australian interplay between the upper and lower houses of parliament. Bills often pass back and forth between the upper and lower houses of parliament, accruing revisions along the way before being finally passed or rejected. In a similar fashion, both the Pope and the bishops could veto each other’s statements and argue for changes and revisions to any proposed dogmatic statements before they are finally ratified into the canon of divine clarification. The Pope would have the final say on what dogmatic statements are in and out, but the bishops would have crucial input and possess a degree of collegial veto power.

An Official Fundamental Theology

Under my proposals, the discipline of fundamental theology would still be required, but its importance would be much less than it is today. This is because the canon of divine clarification would no longer be fuzzy and ill-defined. The inspired text containing the canon of divine clarification would be a focal point that Catholics could refer to. Fundamental theology would still be a relevant discipline because there would still be two millennia of church documents and creeds to analyse, but there would no longer be ambiguity about which statements are inspired, infallible and possess the highest authority, because all such statements would be easily accessible in the new canonical text of divine clarification.

There are however certain questions that need to be answered. Firstly, if a Pope decides to identify a council from long ago as ecumenical, which statements of that council are to be included in the inspired canon of divine clarification and which are not? This is a question which needs to be rigorously worked out and definitively answered, and it is beyond my competence at this time to propose a concrete solution. However as a tentative example of the form a solution might take, if a canonical statement from a council is concluded with the phrase “anathema sit,” perhaps this would be taken as an indication that the fathers of that council meant to proclaim a dogma. Another simple solution to the problem would be to revisit old councils under the new system: the canons and anathemas of previous councils could be submitted to the bishops of today in a modern council for revision and discussion, before being finally ratified into the canon of divine clarification.

A second question is the more direct issue of hermeneutics and language. Do translations of the canon of divine clarification possess equal authority to the original text? This question is again outside my area of competency at this time, but my proposal would be that statements should only be considered authoritative in the original language that they were promulgated. However, it would be possible for the bishops in council to also promulgate official translations, and these translations would be considered equal in inspiration and authority to the originals. In this way, dogmatic statements may be promulgated in any language, or even multiple languages simultaneously, and each version of the statement would be understood to stand on its own and possess equal authority and inspiration.

Case Study: Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus

Even after taking all of this into account, the fundamental hermeneutic problem remains: Once a statement has been included in the canonical text of divine clarification, how is it to be understood? A hermeneutic needs to be specified. It needs to be a hermeneutic which does full justice to the original intent of the canons, but is also flexible enough to avoid “shackling the spirit:” The Holy Spirit can say many different things to many different people through a single statement of scripture, and this would also apply to the statements of the canon of divine clarification.

To take one example, when it was originally promulgated the doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla sallus (“outside the church there is no salvation”) arguably meant that anyone who dies without converting to Catholicism is certainly damned. However since the time of the second Vatican council this dogmatic formula has been creatively reinterpreted to give a more inclusive meaning. This phenomenon of reinterpretation may be desirable or undesirable, and so it would be helpful if the Church could officially decide on a hermeneutic which either removes or enables these ambiguities.

Vatican III: A New Council

My final proposal is that another ecumenical council should promptly be called, purely for the purpose of implementing the previous suggestions. At this council the bishops would sift through the history of councils gone before and select any creeds and canons which they would like to add to the canon of divine clarification. This would explicitly and definitively clarify which parts of the Christian tradition are infallible and inspired, and would put an end to speculations and arguments about whether or not a statement from a pope or council is infallible. During this new ecumenical council, all the many statements that fundamental theologians tend to argue over can be considered and a firm decision finally made, with a new canon perhaps being produced in response.

When sifting through the list of councils, the Catholic bishops would also examine councils that took place in eastern Christendom after the great schism. There are some councils which are considered to be ecumenical in the east, at least at a popular level. Any such councils which are generally held by the Eastern Orthodox to be ecumenical could be adopted by Catholics at their new ecumenical council. This notion might sound strange to Catholic ears, and a faithful Catholic might respond with confusion: “How could we adopt a council as ecumenical if there wasn’t a single Catholic bishop present!” But it is important to consider the matter charitably: this sentiment is exactly how many Eastern Orthodox Christians feel towards the purely “Latin” councils of Catholicism. Eastern Orthodox Christians may be more likely to accept Catholic ecumenical councils as ecumenical if Catholics are willing to at least consider Orthodox ecumenical councils in return.

In adopting the councils of the Eastern Orthodox, there will of course be some theological tension. To take just one example, many Eastern Orthodox councils have in the past been heavily influenced by the Eastern theological and mystical traditions of Palamism and Hesychasm, whereas western councils have tended to lean strongly towards Thomistic theology. I suggest that the council fathers of the proposed new council should be fearless in adopting canons from both East and West, even if they appear contradictory at first glance. This will force future theologians to respect both theological camps and construct a robust theological synthesis, rather than prejudicing only one side of the argument.

Conclusion

When examining the historical record, one could be forgiven for assuming that the Papacy is a constitutional monarchy: Popes have thus far governed the church with much assistance from the college of bishops. However canonically and dogmatically speaking, there does not seem to be any official safeguards built into the Catholic system to prevent a Pope from becoming an absolute dictator in the realm of doctrine, dogma, faith and morals. I have argued that this threat is real and serious, and if left unchecked it could quite easily lead to chaos and schism in the church. I have proposed four points of action which – if implemented – might help to prevent any such crisis from ever occurring.

Bibliography

Madrid, Patrick. Surprised by Truth. Manchester, New Hampshire. Sophia Institute Press, 1994

Madrid, Patrick. Surprised by Truth 2. Manchester, New Hampshire. Sophia Institute Press, 2000

Madrid, Patrick. Surprised by Truth 3. Manchester, New Hampshire. Sophia Institute Press, 2002

1Vatican Council, Sess. IV, Const. de Ecclesiâ Christi, Chapter iv

2Due to time constraints on this assignment, I was not able to do an exhaustive survey of canon law and tradition so as to discover if there are any other checks and balances available to the Catholic system. I have based this paper purely on the dogmatic definition in pastor aeternus. This would be an interesting area for further research.

3There are many testimonies of people converting to Catholicism for this reason in the Surprised by Truth and Coming Home series of books.

The COVID Sessions – Online Interfaith Exchange #1

A Hindu, a Buddhist and a Christian discuss politics, coronavirus, and comparative theology.

The Grammar of the Trinity and the East/West Divide

In Christian theology, there are two fundamental perspectives from which one can analyse the trinity: the immanent (or ontological) trinity and the economic trinity. The immanent trinity is concerned with the essence of God as he is in himself, apart from creation, whereas the economic trinity is all about describing the trinity as it relates to creation. Catholic theologian Karl Rahner codified what has come to be called “Rahner’s Rule”, namely, “The immanent trinity is the economic trinity”. We don’t have two distinct trinities here: they are simply different perspectives on the same divine reality.

When approaching the trinity in Christian theology, there are also – broadly speaking – two broad perspectives that appear to contradict each other. The eastern church holds to one while the western church holds to the other. The eastern perspective tends more towards monarchism of the father and subordinationism of the son and spirit, whereas the western perspective is saturated with commitment to a strict divine simplicity which dissolves almost all distinctions between the divine persons.

This post aims to argue that both positions are true, and the key to understanding how they are compatible is to take the eastern view as a description of the economic trinity and the western view as a description of the immanent trinity.

The Western/Immanent Trinity

The immanent trinity is a transcendent and abstract thing to think about, and it is best described using the rules of grammar and linguistics. Our starting point is the statement in the first epistle of John that “God is love”.

Love is a verb – a transitive one – and as such it stands in need of a subject and an object. How is it possible that God can be love? Is he the person doing the loving? Is he the one being loved? Is he the love itself?

The mysterious answer is actually “all three”. If God is love, then God must be simultaneously Subject, Verb and Object. However, in order for this love to truly be love, the Subject and the Object must be distinct from each other, otherwise it would not really be love, and would instead reduce to masturbatory narcissism.

So we have three hypostases: The lover (who is the subject), The one being loved (who is the object), and the love itself (who is the verb). We can use all of this to go ahead and lay down a Trinitarian formula:

  1. The Lover is Divine
  2. The Loved is Divine
  3. The Love is Divine
  4. The Divine Lover is not the Divine Loved
  5. The Divine Loved is not the Divine Love
  6. The Divine Love is not the Divine Lover
  7. There is only one Divinity

However, these three hypostases sound quite different from to the “Father”, “Son” and “Spirit” of traditional Christian theology. What is the relationship? The answer is that “Father”, “Son” and “Spirit” are the three persons of God, whereas “Lover”, “Loved”, and “Love” are the three hypostases of God. There is a difference between a hypostases and a persona, and if this difference has not been explicitly recognised by the tradition up to now, it is definitely implicit in the writings of the fathers.

The most fitting way to map the above formula onto the traditional scriptural and theological terminology is to assign the Father to the Lover, the Son to the Loved, and the Spirit to the Love. However with respect to the immanent trinity, due to divine simplicity and perichoresis the three hypostases are completely interchangeable. So it becomes possible, for example, to assign the Father to the Love, the Son to the Lover, and the Spirit to the Loved. In other words it doesn’t particularly matter which particular divine person occupies the role of which particular divine hypostasis: due to simplicity and perichoresis all of the divine persons can and do occupy all of the divine hypostases simultaneously.

There is some nuance however: When we speak of the person of the Son occupying the “Lover” hypostasis and the person of the Spirit occupying the “Loved” hypostasis, it necessarily follows that we must speak of the person of the Father occupying the “Love” hypostasis. This is necessary because while it is true that, for example, the person of the Father is simultaneously all three of the Lover, the Love, and the Loved hypostases; whenever we speak of him occupying one hypostasis it can only be in relationship to the other two. In this way, when speaking of the person of the Father as the Lover hypostasis, we must necessarily speak of the person of the Son as either the Loved hypostasis or the Love hypostasis. We must follow this grammatical rule when speaking about any of the divine persons.

A Higher Abstraction

It is possible to go deeper. The trinity when analysed in terms of hypostases is – in it’s most pure and abstract sense – fundamentally and simply a pure “Subject, Object, Verb” relationship. The verb need not necessarily be “love”, for we do not only speak of God as a lover, but also as a creator, a redeemer, a sanctifier, and so on. The trinity is – to borrow terms beloved by computer scientists – polymorphic and generic. With this in mind, the Trinitarian formula can be abstracted to the following:

  1. The Subject is Divine
  2. The Object is Divine
  3. The Verb is Divine
  4. The Divine Subject is not the Divine Object
  5. The Divine Object is not the Divine Verb
  6. The Divine Verb is not the Divine Subject
  7. There is only one Divinity

We need only supply one of many relevant divine verbs, and we will have a formula which provides a deep insight into the immanent trinity. For example, God is a creator, a lover, a saviour, a sanctifier, a judge and so on. In such a way, all of the following ways of understanding the trinity are valid:

  1. The Uncreated (Subject or Father), Begets/Creates (Verb or Spirit) the Word/λογος (Object or Son).
  2. The Essence (Subject or Father), Emanates (Verb or Spirit) the Energies (Object or Son).
  3. The Saviour (Subject or Father), Saves (Verb or Spirit), the Lost (Object or Son)

There is rich theology in these formulas: For example according to this analysis the Son is the damned reprobate who suffers death, Hell and the full punishment for sin, and the Father is the one who saves him from Hell, death and damnation.

Furthermore, an implication of divine simplicity is that all of these different verbs and ways of understanding God are in actual fact univocally equivalent. In this way, God’s act of creation just is his act of love and both of these just are his act of salvation. When God begets the son, he simultaneously judges him, saves him, loves him, sanctifies him and so on.

The general rule is that the Father is the Subject, the Son is the Object, and the Spirit is the Verb, but this rule only becomes strictly enforced when we move to the economic trinity, as we will see shortly. When speaking of the immanent trinity, it makes just as much sense to call the Spirit the Saviour of the Father and the Son the act of Salvation itself. As mentioned, any of the divine persons can occupy any of the divine hypostases when it comes to the immanent trinity. The relationship between person and hypostasis only becomes locked down when we move to the economic trinity.

The Eastern/Economic Trinity

In the East, the theologians are adamant that the Father enjoys a monarchy which the son and spirit simply do not share. This is encapsulated in their firm rejection of the western Filioque clause added to the creed of the Latin church. According to this view of the trinity, the three divine persons cannot just bounce back and forth between the three divine hypostases willy nilly: instead they each have their rightful place and position in relationship to each other.

This is all quite intuitive. For example consider the following: Would it make sense for the Son – who is begotten – to beget the father – who is uncreated? Things start to sound contradictory and silly very quickly at this point.

In the western analysis, It makes sense that the spirit proceeds from both the father and the son because any of the divine persons can occupy any of the divine hypostases. There is 1. the one who sends, 2. the act of procession, and 3. the one who proceeds. The father could be any of those three hypostases, the son could be any of those three hypostases, and the spirit could be any of those three hypostases. According to the divine simplicity and perichoresis of the immanent trinity, it would be just as true to claim that the father proceeds from the spirit, or the son proceeds from the father. Any of the persons could proceed from any of the other persons, as the three persons are interchangeable in the immanent trinity.

But this is not so in the eastern analysis. Once we start pondering the economic trinity, perichoresis and simplicity no longer apply with the same force. When it comes to the economic trinity, the trinity is still a Subject, Verb, Object relationship, however in the eastern analysis the Father is always the Subject, the Spirit is always the Verb, and the Son is always the Object. In the economic trinity, there isn’t any distinction between a divine hypostasis and a divine person.

The reason this is important is because the economic trinity is the point where the creation comes into play, and if these strict distinctions are not observed, the Trinitarian grammar devolves to the point where one encounters crazy and triggering statements such as “The creation created the creator”.

Christ and Creation

Now, in order to proceed further and demonstrate how the economic trinity links up with the immanent trinity we need to introduce a little Christology.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; 16 for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

According to Paul, there is an intimate relationship between Christ and Creation. Christ is not merely one man, Jesus of Nazareth, but seems to have much more cosmic significance. In fact, Christ seems to be the summary of the entire cosmos. There appears to be some sort of equivalence between Christ and the creation. In this post I don’t aim to tease out all of the nuances of this passage, but for the sake of continuing the argument lets assume a very strict correspondence between the second person of the trinity and the creation.

In this way, saying that the Father begets the Son is basically the same as saying that God created the cosmos, and so the cosmos becomes one way of thinking about or referring to the second person of the trinity.

It is a fundamental principle that there is a distinction between creator and creation, so if all this is true, then it makes sense that the Father alone should be referred to as God, and not the Son or the Spirit. If you examine the early creeds, the writings of the earliest church fathers, and the letters of Paul; you will see this theology reflected in the way that they never straight up refer to Jesus as “God”. Instead, they always say “One God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ”.

The surprising (and contentious) conclusion here is that only the Father is God in the economic trinity, and not the Son and the Spirit. It is helpful to deploy some metaphysical categories to tease out exactly what is going on here. Many of the church fathers speak of “the three persons/hypostases and the one being/essence”. One detail of the discussion that tends to be forgotten these days is that the first hypostasis just is the being and essence of God. The Father is the being of God, while the Spirit is the nature of God – where a nature is simply a summary of the attributes and associated actions of a being – and the Son is the effect of God. Now, in the immanent trinity, obviously both the Father and the Son are divine, because the effect of God (the Word) shares in the being of God (the Father) by divine simplicity and perichoresis. However in the economic trinity, the being of God (the Father) is completely distinct from the effect of God which in this case is the creation (cosmos).

We end up with a situation where the Father is the one God, and the son is the creation, and there is a strict distinction between them. The Spirit is the nature of God, and a summary of all the attributes of the Father. The actions of God are mediated through this nature and the effect is the cosmos and everything in it. There is a pious Islamic theological opinion that God has infinite attributes: this makes sense under the preceding analysis, because every observable effect in the creation must correspond to a unique attribute-with-action in the nature of God (the Spirit). Infinite effects implies infinite actions implies infinite attributes.

So in the economic trinity, you have one God (the Father) and his nature (the Spirit) and the creation (the Son). The persons are not free to roam from hypostasis to hypostasis in the economic trinity. Furthermore the grammar requires us to speak of the Father alone as God, and refrain from attributing that label to the creation (the Son) or the divine attributes and actions (the Spirit).

Conclusion

And yet Rahner’s Rule states that the economic trinity and the immanent trinity are the same trinity. The implication is that the perichoresis and simplicity of the immanent trinity “bleed in” to the economic trinity, and that the entire creation is therefore  permeated with the divinity of God, at which point “theology of creation”
becomes Christology, and we have to analyse the relationship between λογος and κοσμος in the same way that theologians analyse the relationship between God and Jesus of Nazareth. The cosmos is simultaneously created and divine, and this needs to be construed in the theological language of dyophysis and miaphysis, just as in the Christological debates of centuries past.

I will hazard a stab at a formula to summarise the situation in closing: The creation is the λογος in complexity, and the λογος is the creation in it’s simplicity, and both of them may be referred to as the Son of God, or the second person of the trinity.

Notes on a Mitch Pacwa Debate Concerning Justification

Initial Thoughts

I’m uncomfortable with the way he frames the catholic position. The way he talks, it sounds as if God does 99% of the work of our salvation and then leaves the final 1% up to us. He says something like “we have to say ‘yes’ to God”, as if the saying yes is spontaneously produced by an individual and God just steps back and has nothing to do with it. This can’t be right. The understanding that I’ve inherited over the years is articulated by British Orthodox Metropolitan Bishop Kalistos Ware as “The work of our salvation is completely and entirely an act of Grace, but in that act of grace we remain completely and entirely free”.

This would probably sit will with Aquinas, who had a strong and robust doctrine of efficacious grace. A summary of my understanding of efficacious grace is “God can guarantee that a sinner will be saved without in anyway violating that sinners freedom”. Compare this with the current popular catholic understanding of “sufficient” grace, which I understand to be something more like “God gives us everything we need to be saved, but then steps back and leaves it up to us”. In my opinion this popular understanding has fatal implications for Christian Hope, Faith and Joy; it turns the work of salvation back on the sinners own efforts, which of course will never be enough. This leads to despair and angst of the sort that Luther experienced.

What makes most sense to me is that all of the following propositions are true, even if at face value they may appear to some to be irreconcilable:

Salvation is an offer that we may or may not accept: We have free will and no one can coerce us to do anything – not even God. (The standard Catholic understanding)
Salvation is also an unconditional promise: God is able to guarantee that we will be saved (ie, that we will at some point accept his offer), without in any way violating our freedom (The Catholic doctrine of predestination and election and the Thomistic doctrine of efficacious grace)

The idea of unconditional promise is interesting, because it raises the question “To whom is the promise spoken and how/when/where?” According to Lutheran sacramental theology, the promise is primarily spoken via the seven sacraments, with particular emphasis on Baptism and Confession. At the moment when you are baptised, God has sacramentally spoken his promise of salvation to you and you are counted among the elect; you have passed from death to life and there is no possibility of going back. The sacrament of Confession and words of absolution are simply a reminder of this new reality and basically are a shorthand way of saying “Remember that you have been baptised and are not guilty, so stop feeling like it and stop acting like it!”

This is incidentally where the idea of “Sola Fide” actually makes sense. It’s not possible to respond to an unconditional promise with works, but only with either trust or apathy. If salvation is an unconditional promise, you either trust that promise or you don’t, but regardless of whether you trust it or not it’s going to come true because God is the one making the promise and God’s promises do not fail. However if you do trust the promise, life comes alive in ways that you never thought possible before, and the lyrics of the popular protestant hymn “Amazing Grace” cease to seem so heretical. “I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see”.

Most Catholics in my experience tend to disagree with this whole understanding by completely denying that salvation is a promise and doubling down on it’s nature as an offer instead, thus rendering the “unconditional” dimension of salvation null. Such people tend to be hyper-attached to a particular understanding of libertarian human free will and get triggered by anything that even slightly appears to contradict it. The fact that we humans have the power and right to deny God becomes the most crucial issue of our day and if anyone dares to question this they are dismissed and ignored as a heretic. And so “Freedom” becomes the central and decisive dogma of the faith, rather than the love of Christ for sinners and his glorious and total defeat of sin, suffering, Hell and death. I don’t find the supposed fact that I have the ‘freedom’ to damn myself inspires much faith, hope and love in my life; instead it tends to just produce scrupulosity and a judgemental pharisee/tribal attitude in which I’m trying super hard to save myself but it’s never enough and I look down on others who aren’t trying as hard as me. Whereas the idea that Christ has already saved me and everyone who I love, and that I need not fear being ultimately lost, is incredibly inspiring. Rather than being crippled with fear of hell and focusing on saving myself, I’m empowered to carry the light of christ out into the world and focus on saving everyone else.

This is arguably why Justification is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. A church that sees salvation as a mere offer, to be responded to primarily with effort, is going to be completely crippled as it’s members turn inwards and focus on trying to save themselves. Whereas a church that sees salvation as the unconditional promise which can only be responded to with faith (which is exactly what it is), has been liberated to get out there and announce to the world its own salvation, which is the original meaning of evangelism: to announce the good news of Christ’s victory over all the pains and problems that confront us in our lives.

Around the 10 Minute Mark

Pacwa gives a great and passionate description of the catholic position on assurance and perseverance. He seems to be saying that you can be sure that you are in the state of grace in any given moment, but you cannot be sure that you will persevere in this state of grace all the way until the end of your life.

I think it really depends whether you take “state of Grace” and “justification” in a subjective or objective sense (which is another popular Lutheran distinction). In an objective sense, the entire world was justified by the cross and resurrection. The job is done; The entire world is objectively saved and in the state of grace and will be forever. However subjectively speaking not all of us experience this salvation that has been won for us. In a subjective sense, many of us remain in our sins and feel guilty and scrupulous. So in the subjective sense, Pacwa is completely correct to follow Trent and say that no one can know that they will persevere to the end of their life in the (subjective) state of grace. However in an objective sense (which is what most protestants are more concerned with), you can definitely be assured of your ultimate salvation: this is the essence of the gospel and exactly what makes it “good news” for me, for you, and for all of our relatives who are currently dying from coronavirus. “Christ died for you: You have been saved” is the kerygma that we must announce. Mitch Pacwa and the council of Trent didn’t get any of it’s theology wrong, but it simply is missing the evangelical point of the whole affair.

“Declaration of Righteousness” and “Reality of Righteousness”.

Justification is indeed a declaration, as per Luther, but this does not make it a “legal fiction”, as Catholics commonly caricature the protestant understanding.

Consider: If I look at a desk and see a book, but Jesus looks at the same desk and doesn’t see the book, Then is the book really there? Are you delusional or is Jesus delusional? Who’s perspective has epistemological primacy in this situation? Who should you trust?

In case the answer isn’t obvious: God’s perspective always trumps the sinners perspective.

With this in mind, consider what it means for God to “declare” that a certain state of affairs holds. If God declares that I am righteous, then despite all evidence to the contrary I am righteous. Because if that is how God sees me then that is how it is, even if I can’t understand how this may be.

The idea is somewhat platonic. God has a perspective of reality “with all the lights on” as it were, whereas we are wandering through reality as a child wanders in the dark. In other words, we are not omniscient and don’t have access to all the data, whereas God is omniscient and therefore his perspective is fully informed in a way that ours isn’t. The implication of this is that when God declares you to be righteous, you are really righteous, even despite all evidence to the contrary.

This is again where faith comes in. Do you trust your own perspective, under which you are condemned as a dirty filthy sinner? Or do you trust God’s perspective, which he reveals to you via his unconditional promise and declaration that in the reality which he is perceiving, you are ok and he accepts you? It’s a question of where you place your faith: in yourself or in God? In your own perspective, or in the divine perspective of God which he reveals to you through the announcing of the gospel and the proclamation of the promise in word and sacrament?

Faith and Works

The inevitable faith versus works debate pops up in the video towards the end. The conflict isn’t so hard to resolve in my view. The protestant fella is insistent that the fact of our election (which he refers to as “salvation”) does not depend in any way on the works and efforts that we perform, and he is completely correct to insist on this. Whereas Pacwa is insisting that works of love and a purified, perfected soul are necessary components of salvation, not optional, and he is also correct to dig his heels in and insist on this.

The resolution comes by recognising that salvation is both an event and a journey: The entire cosmos and everyone and everything in it was justified/elected/saved/predestined at the cross and resurrection. For this reason we as Christians should sing praises and rejoice. However there’s also a journey involved: we still remain here in this life, and our mission is to be little Christs and announce the Gospel to the world, as well as stamp out any sins and imperfections that appear to remain in the world. We’re all on this journey together and until we are all fully saved and made perfect, none of us are.

In this way you do justice to the Catholic insistence that works of love are essential to the process towards and state of salvation, but you also do justice to the deep protestant conviction that there is literally nothing we can do to secure our election.

A helpful thing to remember is that when a protestant says “I am saved”, often what they really mean (even if they don’t realise it) is “I am elect and chosen”. They are fully confident that in the end, they are going to make it, because they know that Jesus died for their sins and rose again for their salvation.

In this way, works are an essential part of salvation, but they have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with predestination or election.

A helpful point to drive this home is the fact that under both a lutheran and calvinist analysis, not even faith contributes anything to our election. We are chosen because God loves us, not because we have faith or try really hard to fulfill the commandment to love; not even if we succeed at fufilling the commandment to love (but who does?). The reason for this is that this simply turns faith into a work. If election depends on our faith, then no one can be saved, because no one has perfect faith, no matter how hard they try. Whereas if election depends on God’s love and what he did for us on the cross, then it doesn’t depend on us at all, not even on our faith, and therefore we can have peace and assurance knowing that everything is going to be ok, which frees our wills and liberates us to go and do the good works that are necessary to make the journey to heaven. But without this faith and assurance, we will be utterly paralyzed,

In summary, the cross unconditionally secured election for the whole world and everyone in it, but our love and good works are how we “make the journey” to heaven both individually and as a church community.

Pacwa also raises the issue of mortal sin, and how it is possible to lose justification. Again, understanding the difference between election/predestination and salvation/justification is helpful. Of course it is possible to lose your salvation and justification by apostasy and mortal sin, however your election is still secure and there is nothing you can do to escape your election; ultimately no matter how far the lost sheep runs into the outer darkness, Christ the good shepherd will leave his Church, descend to Hell and rescue that sinner.

In other words, not even Hell and everlasting damnation can or will prevent Christ from saving us, which is incidentally what the whole point of Holy Saturday and the harrowing of Hades is about.

So yes, you can compromise your current salvation by mortal sin, but there is nothing you can do to jeopardize your election

Beautiful Heresy 101 – Religious Pluralism: “A Deductive Proof of the Incarnation”

Proof

0. A. Only God is uncreated and everything that is not God is created by God (Assumption)
0. B. God is not logic (Assumption)

1. A. God created logic and determines how it operates (Implication of 0A and 0B)
1. B. God is prior to logic and not bound by it (Implication of 1A)
1. C. God is not required to conform to the law of non contradiction (Implication of 1B)
1. D. God is able to actualise contradictions and impossibilities (Implication of 1C)

2. Anything which is subject to logic must necessarily have a nature which consists of created attributes. (Assumption)

Many theologians (especially Muslims of the Ash’ari school) insist that: 3. A. God is bound by logic (Assumption)
3. B. God has actualised his nature in such a way that it includes created attributes (Implication of 1D, 2 and 3A. Proof of incarnation complete. Note that as our Muslim friends never tire of telling us, this point is a contradiction)

4. A. God is subject to logic and in particular the law of non contradiction (Implication of 3A or 3B)
4. B. Everything God has done must in actual fact not be contradictory (Implication of 4A)

5. A. God is the source of all things, whether contradictory or non-contradictory (Assumption)
5. B. But God does not actualise contradictions even if he is able to (Implication of 4B)
5. C. We have established that God has actualised at least one contradiction (restatement of 3B)

6. A. All actual contradictions are merely apparent and not real (Implication of 5A and 5B)
6. B. all contradictions are logically reconcilable via semantic distinction and elaboration (Implication of 6A)
6. C. There are no actual contradictions between religious traditions, only apparent ones. (Implication of 6B)

7. A. The incarnation is only an apparent contradiction, not a real one (Implication of 6A and 5C)
7. B. All religions are Simultaneously True (Implication of 6C. Proof of Pluralism Complete)

Tl;dr:

1. If God is subject to logic, then he necessarily has a human (created) nature alongside (or in a perichoretic miaphysis with) his divine nature.
2. When you jettison the law of non contradiction, everything follows, including the law of non contradiction! also religious pluralism.

Support a Missionary Studying Patristic Greek and Latin

tl;dr Summary:

I am trying to rustle up some money so that I can attend the 2020 Macquarie Ancient Language School intensive summer week. I intend to study biblical and patristic Greek for the duration of the week. I am also trying to gather funding to attend the Sydney Latin Summer School. Both of these weeks are taught in an intensive mode, which I personally find very effective and valuable.

I need $500 in total. $160 will pay for the tuition for the Greek week, and the extra $20 will cover the cost of the food catering for the week. The remainder ($320) covers the total cost of the Latin summer week including food and materials.

I do not have a very large or stable income. Which is why I’m asking for donations. The vast majority of my money goes into rent, and the rest of it goes into groceries. If you were willing to help out with supporting me in my academic and religious missions, it would mean the world to me.

To donate, click here

Elaboration:

I’m a second year arts student, studying ancient languages at the University of Sydney.

So far I have studied

  • Classical Latin (one year)
  • Attic Greek (one year)
  • Koine Greek (one semester)
  • Levantine and Modern Standard Arabic (one semester)
  • Mandarin Chinese (one semester)
  • Biblical Hebrew (one semester)
  • Sanskrit (one semester)

I am intending to continue with all of these languages over the next 5 or so years and strive to achieve mastery in them all at least in terms of reading fluency.

My motivation for this is that I am intending to go into academia and missionary work here in Sydney. There are many diverse religious communities in this city, each with a very important history, culture and deep tradition. The languages I am studying are highly relevant to the literature that has historically defined these communities.

In terms of the academic side of things, I’m intending to do comparative studies of Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, Jewish and Daoist philosophy/theology. I want to get deep into all of these traditions at once and study them via the original languages and primary texts.

In terms of the more practical missionary side of things, I spend much of my week visiting mosques, temples and churches in order to engage with members of these various traditions at both a lay and academic level. Learning these languages enables me to connect on a very deep level with all these people, as I’m able to articulate the theology which defines their faith lives in their own prestige language.

As a missionary, I don’t actually seek to convert anyone to anything. I merely aim to be a bridge between communities that tend to regard each other with suspicion and animosity (for example, evangelicals and Catholics, or Muslims and Christians). In other words, my goal is to teach Muslims about true Christianity and teach Christians about true Islam, and that sort of thing. There are many myths and lies on both sides of the divide and my mission is merely to shine a light and reveal the lies for what they are, and hopefully in the process get people talking and engaging with each other in a more friendly way.

A breakdown of which of the languages I am studying correspond to which religions:

  • Arabic – Middle and far Eastern Christianity, Islam of all varieties
  • Latin – Western European Christianity, the Vulgate, the eastern church fathers, the liturgy
  • Greek – Eastern European Christianity, the new testament, the Septuagint, the eastern church fathers, the liturgy
  • Syriac – The language of Jesus, the liturgy, the far eastern church fathers, the Peshitta
  • Hebrew – Judaism and all it’s related literature. The Torah, Mishnah and Talmud
  • Chinese – Chinese religion and philosophy
  • Pali and Tibetan – Buddhism
  • Sanskrit – Buddhism and Hinduism

To donate, click here