Orthodoxy 101 – Catholicism and Sola Fide: Understanding Indulgences

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

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

A Shift in Paradigm

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

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

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

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

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

Indulgences as Promise

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

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

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

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

Indulgences and Sacraments

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

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

“Earning” Indulgences?

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

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

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

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

The Final Assault of Satan

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

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

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

Penance is Supererogatory

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

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

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

Beautiful Promises

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

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

(Return to first article)

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

I was reading Eclectic Orthodoxy today and the latest post was a sermon by Met Kallistos Ware. He relates how he has been asked “Are you saved?” many times, and sets down his response to the question, which turns out to be quite long and involved.

“Are you saved?”: This extremely loaded question is commonly deployed by evangelicals when they are out and about evangelising, or if they encounter a Christian who attends a church or denomination different from their own. It is basically the most efficient litmus test for working out whether someone is a fellow believer or not.

However I think there is a better way of phrasing this question, which is able to elicit a fuller picture of what the person you are talking to believes. It basically boils down to 4 questions:

  1. Are you saved?
  2. Am I saved?
  3. Are Hitler/Satan/Judas/members of ISIS saved?
  4. For each of the above, Why or why not?

The Evangelical Answer

Now, the common evangelical answer to the above questions goes something like the following:

  1. Yes! Amen! Praise God!
  2. I’m not sure.
  3. Probably not.
  4. I am saved because I believe in Jesus. But I’m not sure if you believe in Jesus so I don’t know whether you are saved, and it doesn’t seem to me that Hitler and the rest of those people had faith so they’re all probably gonna roast in Hell for eternity.

Now, I find this response incredibly problematic, because it seems to be reducing salvation to works, law and legalism: “If you believe in Jesus, you will be saved. If you don’t believe in Jesus, you will be damned.” This attitude is a flagrant contradiction of the Gospel, which is that salvation comes entirely by grace, and not by law. It also just adds fuel to the fire of tribalism: The believers are “in” and the unbelievers are “out”. It just leads to a very “us and them” approach to Christianity, which is another thing strongly condemned in the pages of the New Testament (cf. Paul insisting that there are no relevant distinctions between Jews and Gentiles)

The Catholic Answer

How would a Catholic respond to the above questions?

  1. I dunno (but probably not)
  2. I dunno (but probably not)
  3. I dunno (but probably not)
  4. We simply can’t be sure about the salvation of anyone and are forced to remain agnostic and “hopeful”. This is because we have “freedom” and so it is therefore up to us to decide whether we are going to heaven or not, but we don’t know what decision we are going to make, and all signs point to the fact that we are dirty sinners destined for Hell.

The Catholic answer is tragic. I can’t tell whether it is better than the evangelical response or not. At least it doesn’t devolve into tribalism: God still loves everyone and wants to save everyone. But unfortunately all of us are “free” and tend to make the wrong choices again and again and again. So while we are called to “Hope” for salvation, we must necessarily end up being totally pessimistic about the whole enterprise. Pretty much everyone is gonna end up in Hell. There is a narrow gate that leads to life and a wide gate that leads to destruction. Most people pick the wide gate.

The Correct Answer

There is in actual fact a correct answer to the four questions. But before we get to that, we have to nuance the language being used: When someone asks “are you saved?” do they mean to ask “are you going to heaven in the future?” or do they mean to ask “are you in heaven right now?” because there’s a relevant difference of meaning there.

So, if “saved” is taken to mean “being in heaven right damn now”, then for a believer in the Gospel the correct answer to the questions would be:

  1. Yes!
  2. It depends who’s asking
  3. Probably not
  4. I am saved because I live and breath salvation in my day to day experience of life. I’m not sure if you’re saved because I can only know the content of my own experience, but I can make an informed guess by listening to how you talk and the way that you behave. And Hitler et al are probably not saved because they were clearly evil to the core and pitiful lost souls.

This answer is honest and true. There’s nothing to dispute here. But the question becomes much more interesting if we take the first definition of “Saved”, which is to say “Elect” and “Chosen” and “Predestined”.

If we take “saved” to mean “Your spot in heaven is secure”, then the answer to the four questions would be:

  1. Yes, of course!
  2. Yes, of course!
  3. Yes, of course!
  4. All people are saved, including you and me and Hitler (and even Satan!) because God is sovereign and God is loving: God intends the salvation of all people and his intentions cannot be thwarted by anything or anyone. God will save whom God wants to save, and he wants to save everyone.

This is the essence of the Gospel. God loves everyone and everything and has chosen all of us for his children, regardless of whether we are good or bad. This is cause for rejoicing and praising God. His Grace and Mercy are powerful and sovereign, and cannot fail to save the world that he has created and everything in it. God loves all and all will love God.

What are your answers to the questions?

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”)

Hare Krishna Mahamantra

Most Saturday nights I trek to Wynyard and sit in on the Hare Krishna mantra meditation. It never fails to put me in a trance. I decided to record the sesh last weekend. Here it is for your pleasure:

Part 1

Part 2

Orthodoxy 101 – The Calvinism and Arminian Debate: Free will and Apokatastasis

Absurdity

1466066445_762285_1466066581_noticia_normal[1]The French philosophy of Absurdity, as I understand it, can be summarised thus: All major philosophical issues are defined by a tension between two perspectives. The first perspective is the perspective of God, known as sub specie aeternitatis, Latin for “Beneath the gaze of eternity”. The second perspective is our own, individual, human, subjective perspective. These two perspectives are often found to be clashing in seemingly irreconcilable ways on deep and major issues.

To give one example, subjectively it seems completely obvious that we have free will. We live it and breath it. We have strong experiences of choosing between different alternatives. Freedom is something hard to pin down, and when you try to look directly at it it tends to run to our peripheral vision, but it’s definitely there; freedom is an experience we can all relate to.

However objectively, when you zoom out and try to adopt Gods perspective, free will seems to disappear. We simply cannot locate it anywhere in objective reality. Everything seems either totally random or deterministically caused. When you zoom out and behold the entire history of creation, everything seems to follow from prior causes and free will is nowhere to be found.

So with the issue of Free will, there is a tension between our perspective and Gods perspective. From our perspective it seems plainly obvious that we are free; from Gods perspective we look like little machines operating according to predefined laws.

Predetermined according to freedom

past-present-future[1]

This tension can be resolved theologically. The primary action of God is to give existence to creation. God’s primary role is creator. One of the things that God creates is time; past, present and future. However God himself is outside of time and beholds all of history as a single eternal moment: all moments in creation, from the beginning to the end, are present to him simultaneously. In this way, we can speak of God creating in both the present continuous and past perfect.

In the past perfect, God has once and for all created all of history; everything that is going to happen in the future is predetermined and set in stone, and everything that has happened in the past is set in stone. From God’s eternal perspective creation is immutable, complete, finished. God has already created the end of history and beholds it immediately, even though to us it seems to have not yet come to pass. This is why God is able to speak to us about the end of time in scripture; he is able to promise us the eschaton and make it manifest in our present experience of life.

In the present continuous, God can be said to still be creating each individual moment that we experience, and everything contained within that moment. In this way God becomes the perpetual creator of everything: the sun, the stars, our emotions, our pleasure, our pain, and most importantly; our freedom.

We know from our subjective experience of the present moment that God has created freedom in us. When we experience freedom it is a direct window into the creative action of God. So why can’t we locate this freedom when we zoom out to God’s perspective? God performs a single, all-encompassing act of creation which stretches from the beginning of time to the end of time. As such, from God’s perspective, creation is immutable. However questions about this creation can be asked: In what way did God create? What are the details of this creation? According to what laws and patterns did God let it unfold?

When we step outside ourselves and examine creation, we are looking at the ways in which God has created. When we discover “laws of nature”, these are not laws of nature so much as habits of God. We discover that God constructs  his creation so that it unfolds according to these laws. A miracle is simply when God does something different and doesn’t follow his usual habits, and therefore the laws of nature are “broken”.

This is where freedom is to be found. Our freedom was taken into account when God created history. You can imagine the situation as God asking us “ok guys, what happens next?” and then consulting our freedom to work out how he is going to create the next moment. He repeats this for every moment in creation, until all of history has been worked out and set in stone. In this way, we all become co-authors with God of the story of creation.

And so this is why things seem predetermined and free will is nowhere to be found when we zoom out to God’s perspective: it is because everything is predetermined. However it is not God who predetermines: it is us! Through our freedom, we have predetermined the path that history will unfold. If you imagine God unfolding creation according to one big mathematical formula, our freedom was just another variable he incorporated into the equation.

The important point to remember is that this is true freedom: we are really and truly free, and this can be verified by our subjective experience of freedom in the present moment. However when God sums up all of our choices and incorporates them into the entirety of creation history, everything becomes predetermined. The paradox is that our actions are determined and predetermined according to our freedom.

Sovereign will and Permissive will

moses-breaking-the-tablets-of-the-law[1].jpgIt is possible to talk about God’s will in two ways. There is his sovereign will and his permissive will. God’s sovereign will can be loosely summed up as “What God wants to happen and what he is working towards”. God’s permissive will is essentially “whatever actually happens”.

An example of God’s sovereign will is his desire that all men be saved. This is something that God wants and is something that he is actively seeking. Another example of God’s sovereign will is all of his commandments that we must follow: for example that we love him and love our neighbour; that we do not murder and steal. These are things that God desires that we do and he is actively working towards helping us do them.

Examples of God’s permissive will can be easily found by consulting history: Nothing happens which God does not permit to happen. When the Jews were hunted down and slaughtered by Hitler, God allowed this to happen. When the printing press was invented, God allowed it to happen. When I was born, God allowed it to happen.

A prime example of God’s permissive will is our freedom. Every single action I take, whether good or evil, is permitted by God, but not determined by him. God creates my action, my freedom, and the results of my action, however the entire time he creates according to my freedom and permits what I choose to come to pass. This is the origin of sin and suffering in the world. God does not desire sin or suffering, however due to our freedom we choose it, and he ratifies our choice.

Hope in the promise of Apokatastasis

f8dbddff350460aa96df9d8e3606b01d--arch-angels-archangel-gabriel[1].jpgThe Gospel message of Hope is that God’s Sovereign will will eventually come to pass at the end of time, the end of creation, the eschaton. We hope and believe that God has a hidden and mysterious plan. He is like the perfect chess-master who is able to construct creation such that he can outmanoeuvre every single choice that we make, and eventually win the game. We cannot go on thwarting his sovereign will forever. In short, God gets what God wants. Every event in history is important to God’s plan. The entire reason we have a past, present and future is so that God can give us freedom and make us perfect in time, until we arrive at the eschaton in which all of God’s sovereign purposes have been achieved. The message of hope is that God incorporates all events, including our free choices, into his plan, and that once this plan comes to pass there will be no more tears, no more death, no more sin, no more guilt and despair, no more abuse of freedom. Instead there will only be boundless overflowing love, given freely, there will be glory and worship, every knee shall bow and declare that God is good. Hell will be empty, all of creation will be saved, singing and rejoicing. We will all look back and laugh. Slaves will forgive their masters. Rapists and their victims will embrace. Hitler and the Jews will be reconciled. No one will be left behind. All men will be saved. Even the Devil and his demons will be brought back to the light.

This grand vision of the eschaton is not something that we know with certainty. The future is still foggy for us where we stand right now. However we have promises from God written down in the holy scriptures that this future will come to pass. We trust that God can see this final future and we trust that he does not lie. We trust that he has the power to bring his promises about. Our freedom cannot thwart God’s plans: no matter what we do, he is able to outsmart us and eventually see us saved. How wonderful it is to hope and trust in this vision of the future.

(Go to “Objective and Subjective Salvation”)

Beautiful Heresy 101 – Unpopular opinions: Polygamy, Premarital Sex, Women’s Ordination and Wife-Beating

Polygamy

1433335105153.cached1[1].jpgI believe that certain problems that we face today could be solved if the church re-allowed sacramental marriage between a man and many wives, and between a woman and many husbands.

I should immediately clarify that I do not think that polygamy should be encouraged by the Church, I merely think it should be permitted. The evidence – both biblical and extra-biblical – shows that monogamy is the superior form of marriage: the partners are able to give themselves to each other more fully and lovingly and dedicate themselves to the raising of a genetically tight family. However there is a precedent in the tradition for polygamy in Christianity and Judaism, and to a certain degree it survives today in the form of remarriage after the death of a spouse. I propose that this practice be permitted once again.

According to the Eastern Orthodox view of marriage, marriage is an eternal sacrament which has a permanence which survives death. In other words if you are married while you’re alive you’re still married once you’re dead. Marriage imparts an indelible mark on the souls of the partners similar to the marks received at baptism, confirmation and holy ordination. What’s more the sacrament of marriage has a retrocausal dimension, which is to say that the partners are married in the eyes of God even before they exchange vows in a temporal sense (Although logically and formally the exchange of vows is still necessary for the marriage to take place)

With this permanence of the sacrament in mind it would seem that the church already allows for a limited form of polygamy in that if someone’s spouse dies, they are free to marry again. However if marriage is something that survives death as claimed by the east, then remarriage after the death of a spouse would imply that a person has technically entered into multiple simultaneous marriages at once.

So what is my motivation for proposing a return to permitting polygamy across the board? There are a couple of reasons. The first is that allowing for sacramental polygamy would make it much much easier for people who come from polygamous cultures to convert. I vaguely recall a tale about a Native American who greatly desired to convert to Christianity, but was unable to do so because he was unable to choose only one of his wives to be his sacramental wife. It would have been most charitable, emphatic and understanding if the Church simply tolerated polygamy in special circumstances such as these and allowed for multiple simultaneous sacramental marriages. This is not an isolated incident either: there are many cultures where polygamy is the norm, such as parts of Africa and China, and the entire Islamic world. It would be much easier for families from these cultures to convert if they were given a special dispensation to continue with sacramental polygamy. Of course polygamy should be strongly discouraged, if not forbidden in general (with special exceptions, as outlined below) for future generations.

The second situation where polygamy should be permitted is when a marriage has broken down and the partners are estranged and living apart, and one or both of the partners have civilly remarried. This is obviously a terrible situation, however it does no good to deny the sacraments to the civilly remarried person and simultaneously deny them the means to rectify the situation via a new sacramental marriage. The current controversy surrounding Pope Francis document Amoris Laetita concerns this issue: some bishops are interpreting the document to mean that couples who are living together without being sacramentally married are nevertheless permitted to receive the Eucharist and other sacraments despite technically committing the mortal sin of adultery. As outlined above marriage leaves a permanent mark on the soul and therefore divorce is impossible, however in the situation described it really is nonsensical to forbid the civilly remarried couple from seeking sacramental marriage. I propose that in this situation it would be pastorally much more wise to simply allow technical polygamy which ends up working out as functional monogamy: The remarried couple are essentially living monogamous lives with each other, even though one of the partners is technically married to two people. This is a similar situation to allowing remarriage after the death of a spouse: Technically the surviving partner is married to two people; the deceased partner and the living partner; however functionally they are still living a monogamous life.

Obviously the constant prayer in this second situation should be that the original partners will find some way to come back together, even despite the new marriages. However in many relationship breakdowns this is completely infeasible and simply does not happen.

In conclusion, I think that monogamy should be strongly encouraged by the church, however I think that polygamy should be permitted in certain special circumstances, for example when someone from a polygamous culture wants to convert to Christianity, or when a marriage breaks down and the partners remarry. Polygamy, if it is introduced should be closely guarded and require special dispensations which are not handed out easily. Polygamy should not be encouraged, but it should be tolerated. It is unwise but not impossible.

Note: It has come to my attention that the council of Trent produced an anathema against polygamy. This of course needs to be interpreted in context to work out if it rules out polygamy as it is described above (Does it take into account marriage as an eternal sacrament and remarriage after the death of a spouse?), however it appears to be a fairly damning dogma.

Premarital Sex

evangelical-sex-sessions-teaser_gsnmrm.jpgFollowing on from the idea that marriage is eternal and retrocausal, it would seem that a couple is technically already married even before they exchange vows. In this way if they engage in sexual intercourse prior to the marriage ceremony, they have not actually commit the mortal sins of fornication and adultery. Of course, it would be quite unwise to engage in sexual intercourse prior to the wedding ceremony because there is no guarantee that they will indeed end up getting married at that point, in which case it would indeed be fornication and adultery.

Perhaps in this context, sex before marriage should be seen as something which propels the couple towards the marriage ceremony and commits them to it. Again, this is unwise but not impossible.

Women’s Ordination

Women-Ordination-01[1]I believe that certain ecumenical problems the church faces today could be resolved if we recognised women’s ordinations in special circumstances. To be clear, I am not proposing that any of the churches in the Catholic communion change their practice of restricting ordination to men. I simply think that there should be special dispensations allowed for women to be ordained in certain extremely limited circumstances.

The main advantage is entirely ecumenical. The Anglicans and Lutherans and certain other denominations and churches already have female bishops, priests and pastors. If we are to come into communion with them we must find some way of accommodating this development. Technically most of these female bishops and priests lack apostolic succession and valid holy orders, as they come from communions which broke this succession at the time of the reformation. However it should be possible to receive them into communion by giving them a fresh and valid ordination, just as is done with priests who enter the Anglican Ordinariate. An ecumenical dispensation is granted to Anglican priests who are married so that they can continue their priestly ministry in the Catholic church, in a similar way an ecumenical dispensation could be granted to female priests and bishops so that they can continue their sacramental ministry.

I’m speaking on the assumption that woman can be ordained in the first place. I have not heard a single strong argument against the possibility of women’s ordination. There is the argument from tradition, which states that because it has never been done, it never can be done. This is obviously fallacious. There is the argument that priests have to be men because Jesus was a man. This can also be demonstrated to be fallacious: If all priests have to be men because Jesus was a man, then why not also make it a requirement that all priests have to be Jewish because Jesus was a Jew? Or why not make it a requirement that all priests have to be born of a virgin, because Jesus was born of a virgin? There is a similar argument that priests have to be men because all of the apostles chosen by Jesus were men. This line of argument suffers from the same limitations as the previous one: all the apostles were Jewish, does this mean that all priests have to be Jewish? All the apostles lived in the first century, does this mean that all priests have to have lived in the first century?

I see no fundamental reason why a woman cannot be a priest and perform all the sacramental functions of a priest. Christ was human; women are human: surely this is the essential point. Women share a humanity with Christ, and therefore women have it within themselves to share in his priestly service, offering the sacrifice of the mass, hearing confessions, effecting the transubstantiation of the bread and the wine. Nevertheless I am speaking of possibility here, not prudence. While I believe that it is possible for women to be priests, I don’t think it is wise. The New Testament speaks in strong terms about men being the leaders and women being submissive followers. It also forbids women from speaking in Church and generally talks them out of taking on leadership roles. If we are to take the New Testament seriously as our Christian constitution and guide, we can only conclude that female pastors are a bad idea. They may not be impossible, but they are definitely unwise. So if they are to be allowed in the Catholic church they should only be allowed ecumenically, that is, in such a way that only the communities which already allow female pastors are allowed to retain them, while communities which at the present time forbid them should continue forbidding them.

Physical Discipline of Wives

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(Disclaimer: I am merely thinking out loud. I do not necessarily hold to the opinions expressed below. I do not approve of violence)

The last controversial opinion to put forward is that I think there should be no legal consequences for a man who beats his wife with good cause. Straight up I want to make clear that I am not in favour of domestic violence and I take a dim view of a man who brutally beats up his wife. However I do believe that men should have the option to physically discipline their wives.

I would like to draw an analogy with nuclear weapons: No one would say that the detonation of a nuclear bomb against an enemy is a good thing. Similarly, no one would say that the use of physical violence by a man against his wife is ever a good thing. However, the mere possibility that a country could launch a nuclear attack serves as a deterrent against provoking that country into a war. Similarly the mere possibility that a husband could physically discipline his wife should serve as a deterrent against the wife attempting to usurp his male authority and husbandly headship. If a man is to effectively be the head of his household – as he is called to be in the bible – he needs to be in charge and an effective leader. He needs to have his wife and children in submission. If physical discipline is permitted in order to keep children well behaved, it should be permitted towards wives too.

Obviously the best husband would be one who manages to keep his household in order without resorting to violence of any sort. However the mere possibility that a husband could physically retaliate should serve as a deterrent to the wife, and thus make it easier to keep the household in proper order. I am not in favour of normalising domestic violence. If husbands are brutally and violently abusing their wives without sufficient cause this is completely unacceptable. Ironically, we could look to the Islamic world in order to learn more about the acceptable limits of physical discipline towards wives. Muslims have been pondering this question for centuries and trying to work out a theology of the most “loving” and “charitable” way to physically discipline wives. Muslims have examined the issue from many angles and come to all sorts of conclusions about the various nuances involved. Christians, and western society in general could learn something from them.

Part of the decline of western society stems from feminism and the usurpation of the husband as the head of the family. Women have attempted to dethrone men as the leaders and this has lead to utter chaos: rampant abortions, divorces, failed marriages, sexual promiscuity. Unfortunately the laws of the west have been infected with this feminist nonsense and they favour women to the point that men are effectively unable to govern their families as the head of the household. Men are the ones living in fear that their wives might have an affair, divorce them, and then take off with half their wealth and all the children. If a man attempts to physically assert his authority he is faced with legal repercussions. The ability of a western man to govern his household is completely neutered by the situation in western society. If a western man has a disobedient wife, he is unable to discipline her. A good Christian man can only pray for a good submissive Christian wife, but such women are incredibly rare in western society.

I propose that the solution to this problem is to re-approach the possibility of husbands physically disciplining their wives without legal repercussions. We can look to the Islamic world for guidance on how to do this fairly and responsibly

(Disclaimer: On this last issue I am not committed to anything that I have said and am entirely willing to have my opinion changed. I am merely thinking out loud. Don’t come away from this post thinking that I am advocating for beating up women: I’m not)

Catholicism and Catechesis – A fresh look at the Sacrament of Confirmation

confused[1]For the longest time I was mystified by the sacrament of confirmation: I was never sure what essential function it fulfilled. Catechisms tend to describe it as a giving of some sort of ill-defined “power”. According to the common teaching confirmation is the sacrament that gives us strength to preach the gospel, but I am skeptical: it seems obvious to me that it is possible to preach the gospel without ever having been confirmed, and a lot of people who are confirmed don’t have the slightest clue how to preach the gospel. When push comes to shove I do not deny this common teaching, however I think that there is actually a more profound and inspiring way to understand this sacrament.

The Sacrament of Confirmation is the Sacrament of Promise

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The sacrament of confirmation is often spoken of with reference to Pentecost. One of the most important things about Pentecost was the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and disciples. Pentecost was the moment in time when the Holy Spirit entered the hearts of mankind and empowered mere sinful humans to preach the saving word of the Gospel to a fallen world. The book of acts reveals that the apostles were filled with power to preach the good news effectively in many different languages, and that their preaching was accompanied by signs and wonders. The sacrament of confirmation is often tied together with these events of Pentecost; the sacrament is said to fill us with the same power that filled the apostles all those years ago, and so we should be able to preach the gospel with power just as they did. So far this all agrees with the traditional understanding of confirmation, however I want to focus in on one particular aspect of the narrative: Pentecost was primarily about the sending and receiving of the Holy Spirit, and so it is also with the sacrament of confirmation.

The sacrament of confirmation is the sacrament in which the Christian logically and formally receives the Holy Spirit into his/her heart. This is not to say that the Christian did not have the Spirit within them temporally prior to receiving the sacrament – in a temporal sense, the spirit may very well have always been in their heart – however in a logical and formal sense, the moment at which the spirit entered into their heart was the moment that they were confirmed. This concept is called retrocausality and it deserves further discussion, but it is a deep topic for another day.

The question of the significance of the sacrament of confirmation is now intimately tied to the question of the significance of the indwelling Holy Spirit. For the answer to this question, let us examine some key scriptural quotes:

Ephesians 1:13-14 RSVCE

13 In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

2 Corinthians 1:18-22 RSVCE

18 As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. 19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silva′nus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. 20 For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God. 21 But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has commissioned us; 22 he has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.

It would seem that having the holy spirit in our heart serves as a “guarantee of our inheritance”. It is fair to understand a guarantee as a promise, and our inheritance in this context is salvation and heavenly beatitude, therefore another way of paraphrasing/translating the Ephesians quote is “You have been sealed with the Holy Spirit, who is a promise of our salvation until we acquire possession of it”

Finally! Something profound! If you have the Holy Spirit in your heart, this is a promise from God that you will succeed in your mission to get to Heaven. God himself guarantees your success. There are only two responses that can be made to this promise: trust or outrage. If you trust this amazing promise, imagine the possibilities that open up for Christian joy! We know that God is trustworthy and desires to keep his promises; we know that God is almighty and therefore has the power to keep his promises; we know that God is unchanging and therefore will not change or revoke his promise. If we therefore trust in God and his promise, what can we do but rejoice, praising and glorifying God, for God is unconditionally promising us Heaven! This is wonderful news! This is true Gospel! The one hitch is, how do you know if you have the spirit?

This is where the sacrament of confirmation comes in. A sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace. In the case of confirmation the invisible grace is the fact of the indwelling Holy Spirit with the associated promise of God that we will arrive safely and successfully in Heaven. In this way, someone who has been confirmed can derive deep and profound reassurance from the sacrament: Whenever times get tough and they are feeling morally discouraged – perhaps because they are mired in terrible and degrading habitual sins – they can think back to their confirmation and say to themselves “I have the Holy Spirit: I have a promise from God that I am going to get through this and come out the other side as a glorified saint. No matter how bad things look, I have a confident hope that things are going to get better, and one day they will be completely glorious as I enter heaven”

The Sacrament of Confirmation is the Sacrament of Predestination

sufi-comics-freewill-or-predestination[1].jpgI suspect that this idea of the Holy Spirit being the guarantee of our inheritance is the essence of predestination. Therefore another way of thinking about the sacrament of confirmation is that it is a visible sign of the invisible grace of someone having been predestined to beatitude.

Predestination should not be understood as predetermination. Predetermination is a form of theological determinism which nullifies free will: it would have our every thought and action scripted out by the sovereign God such that we are mere puppets following his every whimsy. Predestination is different: It is where the destination is fixed, but the path to that destination is up to us to decide. In this case, the destination is heaven. Predestination should be understood as a sort of promise that God makes to us and it should be preached as such: God promises us that we are going to eventually get to heaven and he does this by sending us the Holy Spirit, who serves as a guarantee of our inheritance. However we still have total freedom: we can reject the suggestions of the Spirit, reject Christ and enter into a life of sin and total depravity if we so choose. If we do this, there is a terrible, infinitely painful purgative fire waiting for us in the afterlife which we will have to pass through before we can arrive in Heaven. What’s more, if we never repent of our sinful ways, we will remain in that horrible fire indefinitely! However what must be kept in mind is that we have a promise from God – in the form of the indwelling Holy Spirit – that we are going to eventually come out the other side of that fire.

God promises that he will never leave us: he is going to get us into Heaven by hook or by crook, even if we are stuck in eschatological hellfire. He who has the Holy Spirit has been predestined to eternal life and there is nothing this person can do to screw it up: They can resist the Holy Spirit for as long as they want, but the Holy Spirit will not abandon them. I hesitate to call this “irresistible grace” because the grace can indeed be resisted and indefinitely too, however perhaps it could be called “inescapable grace”, because ultimately the destination of Heaven is fixed and God has the power and wiles to eventually elicit everyone’s free submission.

Pure Theology – The Doctrine of God: Apophaticism and Transcendence

Hello Father, I hope this email finds you well.

I’ve been thinking about apophatic approaches to God a lot over the past few years, and I’ve arrived at some interesting conclusions. I know from reading your blog that you are a fan of apophatic mystery and so I thought I’d run it all by you and see what you think. Only respond if you have time of course.

Silence

636055187297825102916759234_silence-1[1].jpgFor a bit of context, I went on a mission trip to China back when I was an evangelical (2014) and during my time in China I got talking with the local Christians about Chinese bible translations. I was fascinated to learn that when Catholic missionaries came to China and started to translate the bible, they chose the word Chinese word “Tao” to translate the Greek word “Logos”. As such, the first chapter of John reads “In the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with God and the Tao was God…. and the Tao became flesh and dwelt among us”. This excited me to no end. The concept of “Tao” is central to the native Chinese philosophical religion of Daoism. This choice of translation by the missionaries seemed to me to be an absolutely ultimate example of inculturation. By choosing this word “Tao” the translators were intentionally importing all sorts of Daoist preconceptions into the biblical text. When a Daoist reads the book of John, they will receive it very strongly, as they read that the important and historic Chinese philosophical concept of “the Tao” – with all that it implies – has apparently “taken on flesh!”

In any case, upon learning about this move of the translators my interest in learning more about Daoism immediately peaked. On the way back from China, I bought a copy of the DaoDeJing with a parallel English translation and I read through the whole thing on the plane ride home. The very first line of the very first chapter resonates with me strongly to this day:

    “The Tao that can be talked about is not the eternal Tao”

To me this comes across as the ultimate apophatic statement. I interpret it as saying that it is simply impossible to talk about God. Or in other words, you can talk about God, but what you’re talking about is not actually God. The moment you start putting words on God, you have gone wrong. To call God a “Trinity” and attempt to think of him as such, is to get God wrong. To call God a “Unity” is to get God wrong. To say that “God is love” is to get God wrong. And so on.

Following this train of thought, I’ve arrived at my first conclusion. Apophatically speaking the only completely accurate descriptions of God are silence and a blank page. God is a complete and utter mystery and we simply can’t say anything about him. Of course the idea of revelation changes things a lot, as God reveals himself to us in a way that we can relate to. This is why I love to pair the DaoDeJing with the Chinese translation of John: The Tao that cannot be talked about took on flesh and now we can behold it. The unknowable God becomes knowable through Christ. But nevertheless in pure apophatic terms, we literally cannot say anything about God: The most accurate way in which we can speak of God is to remain silent.

I’m wondering what you think about this idea?

God does not exist

quote-god-does-not-exist-he-is-being-itself-beyond-essence-and-existence-therefore-to-argue-paul-tillich-68-97-35[1]Another thing I’ve been musing about, is that if God transcends all language, classification, conception and categorisation, then doesn’t this mean he transcends the categories of “existence” and “non existence”? To put it bluntly, is it not fair to say that “God does not exist”? Or perhaps we could say “there is no such thing as God”. I suspect that we can apophatically assert these statements as being completely true. To elaborate, God does not exist because “existing” is something that “things” do and God is not a thing and so it is not correct to say “God exists”. Of course the flip side is true too: it is not accurate to say “God is non-existent” because God transcends that category too. God transcends all categories.

My question to you at this point, is what do the church fathers have to say about this as far as you know? Does what I’m saying make sense to you? I know that Aquinas liked to talk about God as if he was pure existence, but I feel like this compromises pure apophaticism. If you are going to be dogmatically apophatic, surely we cannot even speak of God as existing; surely God transcends the notion of existence as well.

Another question I have for you regarding this point: If it is true, does this not mean that Atheism is correct to a degree? Atheists say “God does not exist”: shouldn’t apophatically-minded Christians be able to respond to this with agreement? Or perhaps are they making a different category mistake by reducing God to a “thing” and then putting him in the category of “things that do not exist”?

Incarnation

van_hornthorst_adoration_children_800x583[1].jpgFollowing on from these thoughts about God not existing. Tonight I had a rather interesting thought about how this all relates to the incarnation. If we can be allowed to say that “God does not exist” in his Divine nature, then it would seem that we have to say that God only began to exist at the point of the incarnation. The incarnation was not only when God took on flesh, it was also when he began to exist! Logically prior to the incarnation, there is simply no meaningful sense in which you can talk about God “existing”, because as I laid out in the last paragraph, apophatically speaking (and prior to the incarnation this is the only way we can speak about God) it is inaccurate to say that God exists. So to summarise in a sentence: The incarnation was not merely God becoming a man, it was God actually coming into existence. Prior to the incarnation God transcended both existence and non-existence – it is only because of the incarnation that we can speak of God as “existing” – God exists in his human nature, but not his divine nature.

What do you think about this notion?

Annihilation

quasar_space_blackhole_bright_light_duying-SEXr[1].jpgFollowing on from this idea that God only took on existence at the incarnation. My personal theology of Holy Saturday includes both the traditional “Harrowing of Hades” but also a more Calvinist/Von Balthasarian view that Jesus descended to the “Hell of the damned”. As a Catholic I affirm both Purgatory, and the Hell of the damned. I view Purgatory as basically being “the traditional Hell” except that it is purifying and not everlasting (think “Gehenna”), whereas I view Hell as “total separation from God”. Of course, “total separation from God” implies ceasing to exist, because the only way to be completely separate from God is for him to withdraw his creative energies from you. To put it simply, I believe that Hell consists of total metaphysical annihilation. Now, I believe that Jesus descended to this Hell in order to fully balance the scales of justice/pay the price for our mortal sins. Which is to say I believe that Jesus was annihilated. Which is to say that I believe that Jesus ceased to exist. Which is to say that I believe that God ceased to exist.

I was watching a debate between a Muslim and a Christian tonight about the Trinity, and the Muslim raised the following point “If Jesus was God, and he died on the cross, then who was sustaining the universe while he was dead?” I think that if this Muslim read what I just wrote at the end of the last paragraph, he might be even more baffled! How can God possibly cease to exist?

Well, I think I’ve found an answer to that: God ceasing to exist really doesn’t pose any problem, because “existence” is not one of his essential properties. “Existence” is instead something that he took on during the incarnation. Prior to the incarnation, we are constrained by apophaticism and according to apophaticism, God does not exist (as I outlined a few paragraphs back). If God is able to sustain creation without being “alive” and without “existing”, then surely he is able to continue to sustain creation during death and annihilation on Holy Saturday.

I’m wondering what you think of this train of thought?

(I should also note here that you have successfully converted me to universalism, so I believe that the only person to go to Hell and suffer annihilation is Jesus, pretty much everyone else goes to purgatory. Also interesting to note is that in my view Jesus was not merely resurrected from death to life, but also from non-existence to existence!)

Nothingness

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My final apophatic musing concerns the nature of God. I read somewhere that the Jewish theologian Mamonides came to an ultimate apophatic insight about God: “God has no attributes”. I absolutely love this statement. There is only one other concept that I can think of which has no attributes: “nothingness” or “nothing”. I find that I can substitute the word “nothing” for the word “God” in many apophatic statements and they still make complete sense. For example

  • “God has no attributes” <-> “Nothing has no attributes”
  • “It is impossible to imagine God” <-> “It is impossible to imagine nothing”
  • “It is impossible to talk about God” <-> “It is impossible to talk about nothing”
  • “God is outside of space and time” <-> “Nothing is outside of space and time”
  • “God does not exist” <-> “Nothing does not exist”
  • “God is ineffable” <-> “Nothing is ineffable”

Also interesting to note is that there are two ways of interpreting the “nothing” statements. You can take the word “nothing” to mean “no thing” as in “there is no thing which is red”. Or you can take the word “nothing” to mean the concept of “nothingness”, as in “Nothingness is ineffable”. No matter which definition you use you still come up with a true and (to my mind) profound statement. This leads me to the most profound statement of all:

  • “God is nothing” <-> “Nothing is God”

What do you think about this? Is it apophatically accurate to say that “God is nothing”? as if the ideas of “God” and “Nothing” are literally equivalent concepts? You end up with some more interesting sentences:

  • “God is omnipotent” <-> “Nothing is omnipotent”
  • “God is omniscient” <-> “Nothing is omniscient”

etc. I find this idea about God to be fascinating because it would seem to extend an ecumenical bridge to the Buddhists: They strive to empty themselves in contemplative meditation and achieve nirvana, which I understand to be a state of “nothingness”. But if God is nothing, then aren’t the Buddhists essentially doing exactly the same things as the contemplative monks and nuns of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity? With this “Nothingness/God equivalence” in mind, the Christian contemplative tradition could be said to be aiming at “Union with nothingness”, which sounds a lot like Buddhism, and the Buddhist contemplative tradition could be said to be aiming at “Union with God”, which sounds a lot like theosis.

Another point which lends support to this idea is that I have come across many anecdotes from people who have practised contemplative prayer where they talk about an “emptying of the mind” and when they encounter God they describe this encounter as a terrifying encounter with some sort of void. In fact there is lots of supremely apophatic talk from people in the contemplative tradition and a lot of it seems to point to this idea of “God as nothingness”

What do you think about all this? Perhaps “nothingness” is just yet another category which God transcends, however I find it interesting how similar the ideas of “nothing” and “God” are at an apophatic conceptual level.

Apologies for a long and rambling email. I hope you find some time to chew on what I’ve written and respond. Hopefully some of it is stimulating. I hope none of it is offensive. Perhaps you have encountered these trains of thought somewhere before. In any case I hope you and you family are well. I will be praying for your good health!

God Bless

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

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

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

Extrinsically Righteous, Intrinsically Sinful

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

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

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

Intrinsically Righteous, Extrinsically Sinful

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

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

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

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

Further differences

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

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

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

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

(Go to “Justification as Declaration”)