St Maximus the Confessor and Apokatastasis

St Maximus the confessor draws a distinction between the “wanting” of God and the “willing” of God. Importantly, this maps directly onto the “wanting” of the soul and the “willing” of the soul. This is very important for understanding how universal Salvation is compatible with the popular understanding of free will.

The Willing and Wanting of God

God wants to save everyone: According to Catholics this is indisputable and fundamental. Because God is love, how could he ever want to damn someone? However, just because God wants something doesn’t mean he wills it. Wanting is a desire, whereas willing is an active manifestation of an intention, aimed at the satisfaction of a desire.

So on the one hand, God loves us all and wants to save us all. However, we abuse our freedom, and therefore God wills to punish us. The analogy of the father and the child helps to make sense of this.

A good father never wants to punish his child. So too, God never wants to punish us. However, the father sometimes feels compelled to punish his child, so as to “teach the child a lesson”. This should be both a corrective and a retributive punishment – which is to say, the punishment should be fitting and in proportion to the crime, but the punishment should also be aimed at educating and correcting the child and encouraging him to return to the right path.

Now, all of us have sinned, and therefore even though God wants to save us all, his will is compelled by his perfection of justice to condemn all mankind to damnation in Hell (Samsara). So there’s two things happening here: there is the Apokatastasis (Universal Salvation), in which both God’s willing and God’s wanting are in perfect harmony, and then there is the Massa Damnata, in which God’s willing is out of sync with God’s wanting: In the Apokatastasis, God both wants and wills all to be saved, and so all are saved. Whereas in the Massa Damnata, God wants to save everyone, and he does not want to punish anyone, but his will is compelled by his perfect justice to punish us all.

The summary with respect to God is that God always wants to save us all, however because all of us sin, he wills to damn us all.

The Willing and Wanting of The Soul

The analysis of willing and wanting with respect to God maps directly onto the willing and wanting of the Soul.

Every soul wants and desires God, and every action that a soul undertakes is aimed at trying to move that soul towards God. However due to our limited perspective, we often make mistakes, due to lack of prayer and mindfulness of what is right and wrong in any given situation. With our will we make choices which we think will satisfy our wanting, but often we are mistaken and our choice has the opposite effect.

In this way, with our wanting, we always seek after God, but with our willing we often fall short of God and find ourselves deeper in the darkness.

Synergism and Predestination

Now, the doctrine of synergism states that there is a perfect harmony between the wanting of the soul and the wanting of God, as well as – startlingly – perfect accord between the willing of the soul and the willing of God. That is to say, the soul always wants God, and God always wants the soul.

However when the willing of the soul is not directed towards that which will truly satisfy it’s wanting, then so too the willing of God will not be in accord with that which truly satisfies his wanting. Both God and the soul always want the soul to move towards God, but sometimes the soul wills to move away from God, and whenever it does this, God accordingly wills to move away from the soul.

In this way when someone sins they have failed to act correctly and have chosen wrongly. The result is an explosion of justice from God in the form of an increase of retributive punishment. And so when we reject God, we are punished, but the key thing is that this is not the punishment of a king towards a slave; it is instead the punishment of a father towards a son.

As such, God’s justice is a merciful justice: it aims at the salvation of the sinner. But God’s justice is also a retributive justice: his punishment always fits the crime.

Lets take things to the extremes: When the soul definitively rejects God (and St Maximus firmly maintains – along with popular catholic tradition – that this is possible), God’s justice responds with definitive rejection of the soul.

According to Paul in his letter to the Romans, all of us have definitively rejected God and we all continue and persist in this rejection. And so all of us have tasted Hell. In a sense, St Augustine was right about the massa damnata: all of us will be damned forever.

But there’s a rubber band effect in play here. It is just because all of us are damned, that all of us will be saved; the punishment of Hell (Samsara) is the very means by which God educates us to be able to make the right choices. Sometimes it takes total damnation of a soul; it requires a soul to hit rock bottom, in order for that soul to finally realise the truth of his situation and repent.

So even if a soul ends up in Hell by means of it’s own mistaken willing, that soul still desires to be in heaven by it’s infallible wanting. Everlasting damnation is the educative means by which God will bring that soul back to heaven.

If a soul ends up in Hell, that soul’s wanting and willing are out of sync. They are willing the wrong things in an attempt to satisfy their wanting. Similarly with God; when a soul ends up in Hell, God does not want the soul to be in hell, but he does will that the soul be in Hell.

In summary, the willing of the soul is directed towards the satisfaction of the wanting of the soul. So too, the willing of God is directed towards the satisfaction of the wanting of God.

The implication of this is that everything God wills, ultimately has the purpose of satisfying his wanting. So if God wills that someone be everlastingly and eternally damned forever and ever, then in a most mysterious way this act of will has the purpose of satisfying God’s want to save that soul. In other words, everlasting and eternal damnation is sometimes exactly what it takes in order for the soul to ultimately get what it wants, and also for God to ultimately get what he wants.

Conclusion – God or Hell: Which is More Eternal?

St Gregory of Nyssa – who was a firm universalist – pondered these ideas, and speculated that for most souls the stay in Hell would be a temporary one, but for some souls (for example perhaps Satan and/or Judas) their damnation will be so complete that their purification will “extend into infinity”.

But he also remembered that “God is infinitely more infinite than infinity and eternally more eternal than eternity”, and so he had the wisdom to ask “What happens after forever?” and his answer was αποκαταστασις; the final and universal rest of all souls in paradise . Those who find themselves stuck in Hell forever will finally begin to repent after a forever has elapsed. For the forever of Hell cannot compare to the forever of God. Hell may very well feel like forever to a soul who is stuck there, but to God, the punishments of Hell do not last even as long as the blink of an eye.

In this way, we have both the massa damnata and the Universal Salvation shown to be compatible with each other. Everyone will be damned for all eternity, and everyone will be saved for all eternity, and the key to understanding how this can be, is St Maximus’ distinction between willing and wanting.

Footnote

Just as the Catholics are correct to insist that “God loves everyone and desires to save all without exception”, so too, the Calvinists are correct to insist that “God is just and actively wills to send sinners to Hell”: When a soul finds itself stuck in the torments of Hell, this is because God wills it, but not because he wants it.

The COVID Sessions – Online Interfaith Exchange #1

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

Notes on a Mitch Pacwa Debate Concerning Justification

Initial Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Around the 10 Minute Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith and Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful Heresy 101 – Catholic Idolatry: “Venerate by your Hands; Worship in your Heart”

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Idolatry

Catholics cop a lot of crap from fundamentalists for having statues in their churches. According to these fundamentalists, Catholics are committing the grave sin of idolatry by doing this. Even more damnable in the eyes of these heathen Protestants is the fact that Catholics bow down to the statues and some Catholics even go so far as kissing them. This seems like clear and undeniable evidence that Catholics disregard and stand in contradiction to the scriptures; our good God’s infallible words:

Exodus 20:1-6 RSV-CE

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.“You shall have no other gods before me.You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

The basic moral principle that both Catholics and Protestants (and Jews and Muslims) agree on is that it is inappropriate to worship anyone but God alone. To worship something that is not God as God is the grave sin of Idolatry.

So, why do Catholics do this? Why do Catholics bow down to statues? There are lots of things to consider.

Veneration versus Worship: Which one is related to Idolatry?

A very helpful distinction to keep in mind is that between veneration and worship. Simply stated, veneration is a physical action that someone performs with their body towards some other physical object, whereas worship is an attitude in the heart of a person towards an object that may or may not be physical. In this way, it becomes possible to venerate an object without worshipping it, as well as to worship something without venerating it, and finally to both venerate and worship an object simultaneously. To worship anything other than God is Idolatry, however it is permissible to venerate almost anything without any Idolatry being committed.

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Idolatry

Some examples may be helpful. If you were ever to meet someone of royalty, for example a Saudi Arabian prince or the Queen of England, etiquette would require that you make some sign of deep respect towards the monarch, for example by genuflecting or kissing a ring. Now, some fundamentalist Muslims and Christians would get uncomfortable about this and their overclocked idolatry detectors would be pinging deep in the red end of the scale. However the vast majority of both Protestants and Catholics would consider this to be a socially acceptable expression of respect towards the Monarch. Reasonable people would not consider these actions of veneration to be idolatrous, because it is understood that we are not worshipping the monarch, we are merely venerating them.

It is the same with Catholics and their statues. When Catholics kiss, genuflect before and bow down to statues of Saints, Mary or Jesus, they are simply Venerating the depicted figures, but they are definitely not Worshipping them. There is therefore no idolatry occuring.

Another example may help. When a mystic sits completely still for an extended period and focuses his mind on union with God, his heart may very easily slip into a state of extremely intense and ecstatic worship of the good God on high. In this case, he is sitting completely still and so is not demonstrating any evidence of veneration, however within himself there is occurring extremely strong and delightful waves of love and worship towards God. It is appropriate that there be no act of veneration in this case because acts of veneration always have to be directed towards some physical object or location, however God does not have a physical location; he is simultaneously omnipresent and located nowhere. For this reason even if the mystic wanted to venerate God, he wouldn’t be able to. Instead he must direct his worship towards God in an abstract sense. So in this case, there is worship without veneration.

An interesting example for Muslims is the fact that during their five daily prayers they prostrate towards the Kaabaah in Mecca. Prostration is an extremely profound movement of veneration, so it is rather telling that Muslims pray towards a physical location, despite their intense aversion to idolatry. The explanation in this case is that their action of veneration – the Salat prostrations – are directed towards Mecca, however their attitude of worship is directed towards God alone, who has no physical location.

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Idolatry

A final example is appropriate. When Catholics engage in adoration of the Eucharist, this is an example of a simultaneous veneration and worship, because the Catholic belief is that the bread they are staring at has literally been transubstantiated into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ himself. The Catholics believe they are literally staring at God, and so they may bow down towards the Eucharist as an act of veneration whilst simultaneously confessing the divinity of that towards which they bow in their hearts as an attitude of worship. In this case, there is both veneration and worship. Whether you believe that this is idolatry depends on your view of the Eucharist.

The crucial point is that veneration and worship are distinct. It is permissible to venerate pretty much anything, but it is only appropriate to worship God. In summary, veneration is an action of the hands, whereas worship is an attitude of the heart. Idolatry is the worship of anything other than God, but veneration of pretty much anything is always permissible.

Dulia, Hyperdulia and Latria

The doctrine of theosis declares that God became man so that man might become God. According to theosis, the saints all participate in divinity to different degrees, and therefore it is appropriate to “worship” the saint to the exact degree that they participate in divinity. Of course, Mary participates in Divinity to the maximal possible extent, so it is appropriate to direct maximal worship towards her. However, it is an established principle that worship is to be directed to God alone, and while Mary and all the saints have been truly “divinized”, when push comes to shove they are fundamentally human and not divine. The water is muddied: should we or should we not worship these saints who have attained to a combination of created and divine natures?

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Idolatry

It is helpful to introduce a helpful historical distinction at this point. There are three different kinds of worship: Dulia, Hyperdulia and Latria.

Dulia is worship reserved for a divinized saint. To the extent that the saint is united to God and has divinity permeating his soul, it is appropriate to worship the saint. The reason why is that you are not actually worshipping the saint as a created being, but are instead worshipping the divinity that is united to that saint. To the extent that the saint is divine, we worship them, to the extent that the saint is created, we do not worship. The technical term for this mixture of worship and non-worship is the word Dulia.

Now, Mary has achieved maximum theosis. She is as closely united to God as it is possible to be. As such, it becomes appropriate to direct maximal worship towards her. However, the fact remains that Mary is essentially human before she is divine, and therefore it would be inappropriate to give her the fullness of worship reserved for God himself. In this way, the worship we give to Mary is also the worship of Dulia, just as with all the other saints. However on account of the fact that Mary has achieved maximum theosis, she also receives maximum Dulia. Theologians invented a new term for this maximal level of worship: Hyperdulia. In essence, it is still just the worship of Dulia, however due to it’s maximal nature, it is called hyperdulia.

Finally, there is the worship reserved for God himself. This is the worship of Latria. To give Latria to anything but God would be the deepest idolatry, for this is the form of worship reserved for him and him alone. Catholics direct their Latria towards the Eucharist during adoration, or towards God in the abstract during deep prayer. To direct Latria towards Mary or a Saint would be gravely sinful, because regardless of how deep their experience of divinity, they are fundamentally human before they are God. Whereas God himself is Divine before he is human, and it is therefore appropriate to give him the infinitely elevated worship of Latria, rather than the lower and lesser worship of Dulia.

In summary, it is appropriate to worship anything that is divine just to the extent that it is divine, however it is important to pay attention to the essential nature of the object you are worshipping: If the object is fundamentally created before it is divine, then we should only give it the worship of Dulia, whereas if the object if fundamentally divine before it is created (ie, God himself) then we should give it the worship of Latria.

But what about the commandments against statues, images and idolatry?

Someone might be reading this and think “That’s all well and good, but in scripture doesn’t God explicitly say that it is not permissible to make statues and bow down to them? All the arguments in the world can’t change that brute fact.”

This is true, so it is helpful to examine the status of the law in Christianity. The idea is that there is the Moral law and the Mosaic law. Jesus abolished the Mosaic law when he died and resurrected, however the Moral law is still in force. It can sometimes be hard to tell which commandment belongs to which law. However in this case the church has identified the commandment concerning statues as belonging to the Mosaic law, and as therefore having been abrogated by Christ along with the laws concerning ritual cleanliness, clean and unclean foods, sacrificial rituals and so on. Whereas the moral law against idolatry remains in force in the sense that it is inappropriate for Christians to worship anything that is not divine, and it is inappropriate to give the worship of Latria to anything but God himself.

Idolatry

Idolatry

It is interesting to revisit the arguments that were put forward at the seventh ecumenical council, which was primarily concerned with this very debate. The fathers of the council claimed that God abrogated the commandment against images when he became incarnate: When God took on the form and image of the man Jesus, he for all time made it permissible to make use of created images as an aid to worship. God represented himself with flesh, and in doing so made it lawful for Christians to represent the divine via other created images. If the commandment against representing God with images were still in effect, it would imply that God had broken his own commandment by becoming incarnate! This is clearly an impossibility, and the only possible conclusion is that God has abrogated the commandment in question by his incarnation.

One final consideration from the seventh ecumenical council is worthwhile touching upon. When a Christian venerates a statue and directs his worship of Dulia towards the depicted saint, they are not actually worshipping the statue; they are instead worshipping the saint whom the statue depicts. In the language of the council fathers, the worship directed towards a statue or image travels through the image to the “prototype”. In this way it is not the statue being worshipped, but the saint that the statue depicts.

Conclusion

An easy to remember way of expressing the principles outlined in this post is the following: Veneration is an action of the hands; Worship is an attitude of the heart. Also, we only worship an object to the extent that it is divine; Saints receive Dulia, Mary receives Hyperdulia, and only God himself receives Latria.

Beautiful Heresy 101 – Ecumenism: “The Complete and Entire Doctrine of God”

God

I recently came to a syncretic and synthetic understanding of how all the various disparate religious doctrines concerning God can be reconciled. With the aid of two diagrams lets walk through them.

Heresy: To the Nestorian controversy

Nestorianism is correct
All of us (including Jesus) are distinct from the divine logos by identity.
Orthodoxy is correct
However Jesus IS the logos “via incarnation” and all of us BECOME the logos via sacramental theosis.

Heresy: To the Christological controversy

Dyophysitism is correct
The created attributes (nature) of the logos are distinct from it’s divine attributes (nature) by identity.
Miaphysitism is correct
However the created attributes/nature of the logos are inseparable from the divine attributes/nature by hypostatic union.
Monophysitism is correct
Furthermore the negative/evil/imperfect created attributes are swallowed up by the positive/good/perfect attributes by substitutionary atonement.

Heresy: To the Arian crisis

Arianism is correct
Formally prior to being generated by the essence, the logos has the attribute of “non existence”, but formally subsequent to generation it has the attribute of “existence”. Therefore “There was a time when the word was not” on account of the distinctions of formal priority.
Catholicism is correct
However the logos transcends existence and non-existence, and in it’s unity with the ineffable essence it is both and neither simultaneously by divine simplicity.

Heresy: To the Filioque

Orthodoxy is correct
The spirit proceeds from the father alone according to the strict distinctions between the hypostases.
Catholicism is correct
However the spirit also proceeds from all of the hypostases simultaneously as God begets God and God proceeds from God according to divine simplicity.

Heresy: To the essence-energies/created Grace controversy

Orthodoxy is correct
The essence is distinct from the energies according to the strict distinctions between the hypostases.
Catholicism is correct
However the essence and energies are also identical by divine simplicity and perichoresis.

Heresy: To the Controversy over the identity of the one God

Islam and Judaism are correct
Jesus is the one “Lord” and the Father is the one “God”. The son is not the father, therefore the the Lord is not God, therefore Jesus is not God and only the father can be referred to as the one God by strict identity.
Christianity is correct
However Jesus can also be correctly referred to as God due to the divine simplicity and miaphysis

Heresy: To the Muʿtazila and Ash’ari dispute over the essence and attributes of Allah

Ash’ari is correct
The Essence of God is distinct from the attributes of God according to strict distinction.
Muʿtazila is correct
However the essence of God is also identical with the attributes of God and the attributes are identical to each other by the Tawhid of divine simplicity.

Heresy: To the Bhaktic and Vedantic divide over the relationship between Atman and Brahman

Bhakti is correct
The Atman is distinct from Brahman according to strict distinction.
Vedanta is correct
However the Atman is identical with Brahman by divine simplicity.
God2

The Grammar of the Trinity and the East/West Divide

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

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

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

The Western/Immanent Trinity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Higher Abstraction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Eastern/Economic Trinity

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

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

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

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

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

Christ and Creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

The Epistle to Elder Ritchie

Hi Elder Ritchie,

There’s a lot to say and it’s hard to know where to start, so I’ll just start with a definition of the Gospel.

“Gospel” is a loaded word which gets thrown around by Christians of every variety all the time, but it’s rare for people to actually slow down and ask “what exactly is the Gospel anyway?” There are many different gospels on offer (Including the LDS “restored Gospel”), and all of them are true, but some are more true than others. When evangelising, you need to be clear exactly which of these gospels you are trying to convey and impart, because how you convey a gospel depends on which gospel it actually is. It is important to remember that “Gospel” literally just means “Good news” or “Glad tidings”, and keeping this in mind can help you to spot whether someone’s gospel is not quite right, because invariably it won’t actually be “good news” if you analyse it closely.

You are already familiar with the LDS restored gospel (more familiar with it than I am). I’ll attempt to roughly summarise it (forgive me for butchering the nuances here):

Mankind was created good and innocent in the beginning, but our first parents rebelled against God and were condemned to death. Jesus came and atoned for our sins in the garden of Gethsemane. He founded a church which was meant to carry salvation to the world. Unfortunately that church apostatised and the true faith was lost until the 1800s when the church was restored by Joseph Smith. The good news (gospel) is that now it is possible to be saved by joining this restored church. All you need to do is be baptised, live a good life, be sealed in the temple, experience the endowment ordinance, follow the word of wisdom and so on. Failure to meet these conditions is akin to rejecting the offer of salvation, and may either reduce your heavenly glory to one of the lower kingdoms, or perhaps even condemn you to the outer darkness for all eternity with the sons of perdition.

You may have also encountered the “evangelical protestant gospel” in your time as a missionary. This gospel goes roughly something like the following:

Mankind was created good and innocent in the beginning, but our first parents rebelled against God and were condemned to death (or everlasting torture in Hell, depending on the temperament of the evangelical in question). However the good news (gospel) God sent Jesus to take the punishment in our place on the cross. Now, all you need to do to be saved is believe in Jesus! It doesn’t even matter whether you are a good person any more! However failure to believe in Jesus will result in the original punishment remaining over you and so if you don’t believe in Jesus before you die you will have to suffer death (or everlasting torture).

There are other gospels too. The catholic one is quite similar to the LDS one, just that the ordinances are a bit different.

Whereas the most true gospel that I’ve encountered goes something more like this:

We all experience evil, suffering and death. Sometimes it gets so bad that the word “Hell” is appropriate. This is the fundamental problem that needs to be solved, and WE have to solve it, because no one else will. However paradoxically, we are totally unable to solve it. The good news (gospel), is that there is a happy ending to the story: no matter how bad things get, we can have faith and hope in the promise that everything is moving towards God himself, and in God there is only light and no darkness, no evil, no suffering. God himself guarantees a happy ending for all of us. The gospel is basically this promise, with some qualifying attributes:

  1. Antinomianism: there’s nothing we really have to “do” in order to secure this happy ending, because God himself has already secured it on our behalf, and he promises it to us unconditionally. We don’t have to follow the word of wisdom, or sharia law, or Jewish law, or secular law, or any law.
  2. Universalism: God loves the entire creation and everyone and everything in it. His promise applies to everyone, regardless of whether they are a saint or a sinner, a Mormon or a Muslim, a Catholic or Protestant. God promises to save and glorify every single soul.
  3. Pluralism: All truth is God’s truth, and all religions and philosophies and world-views are 100% true in their domain. Islam is the one true faith, but so is Catholicism, Calvinism, Atheism, Islam and Mormonism. All religions are 100% true. Every aspect of every religion also contains the gospel promise embedded in it, and it is the evangelists job to extract it.

There are also some caveats, to balance out those three happy attributes

  1. Expensive Grace: God doesn’t just carry us to heaven while we are sleeping. He requires us to work extremely hard to bring it about. In order to walk the path to the promised happy ending, all of us have to be made perfect, and perfectly follow the divine law of love (i.e., Love God, Love neighbour, Love self). This is something we must do with our own free agency, however the good news (gospel) is that God guarantees that we will succeed, even though the task seems impossible. He promises that he will never leave us, no matter how dark it seems or how hard it gets or even if we end up in Hell or the outer darkness: God will stand by our side and never abandon us, giving us the strength to keep fighting even when all is eternally lost. The law of love is not written in books or church traditions or moral philosophy: it is written directly on our heart, and speaks to us through our conscience. If you listen to your conscience, God will speak and guide your actions from moment to moment. In this way you will know when you have done right and when you have done wrong and you won’t need any priest, pastor or bible to tell you it.
  2. Evangelism is essential: God is going to save the world, but he uses believers to do it. His promise needs to be spread to the ends of the earth, and all people need to hear it and trust it and become full of joy and love. “But how can they believe if they have not heard? and how can they hear if they have not been told? and how can they be told if no one is sent to them?” If we believe the gospel and are saved, but then don’t overflow with love and compassion for those who are still wandering in the darkness, this is the height of selfishness. If we are truly perfect in love, we need to spread that love to the world, starting with our own families, friends and community, and then all the way to the other side of the world.
  3. Great Apostasy: All religions and philosophies are 100% true, however every single one of them is missing the point. None of them teach the true gospel, because all of them are institutions, and the lifeblood of institutions is money, and money is the root of all evil. Imagine me standing out the front of the congregation and preaching this stuff. Many people would have hard hearts and be offended. “You don’t have to pay your tithe. You don’t actually have to follow the word of wisdom” etc. This message is the message that saves, but it is not in the interest of institutions. Furthermore, at the top of every institution is a demon (Paul talks about this in his letters). Fallen angels are the ones calling the shots right now. Every government, religion, and organisation is guided by a demon behind the scenes. We must respect the truths of all religions, while also remembering that not a single one of them clearly proclaims God’s divine promise unadulterated.

Based on all of this, here are some practical principles for living the gospel and spreading the gospel:

  1. Every law is good. Despite the fact that we don’t have to follow any law but the divine law of love, religious laws are still good and helpful, and if you follow them, you will receive unique blessings and graces. For example, the word of wisdom is good. If you refrain from tea and coffee, your life will be blessed, I guarantee it. Similarly, Sharia law requires you to abstain from pork, and this is a good thing to do, even if it isn’t obvious why at first. If you want to understand why refraining from pork is a blessing, you have to try it. It’s the same with abstaining from drugs, alcohol, tea, coffee. People who don’t do it don’t understand the amazing blessings and graces. The only way to understand is to take the plunge and dive into it. Basically you can take any list of “Do and do not” laws from any religion or governing authority, and there will be legitimate blessings from following those rules. However it is important to remember that our salvation in no way depends on following these rules, and they are therefore fundamentally optional.
  2. Become all things to all people. When spreading the gospel, you are not trying to “convert them to your religion”. You are simply proclaiming the divine promise, on behalf of God (and sometimes in the name of Jesus, if you are talking to a Christian). If they fail to trust the promise, then they remain in the darkness. However if they fail to trust the promise, it’s not their fault: it’s your fault, because you were unable to proclaim it to them in a way that penetrated to their heart and soul. The solution is to get into the other persons shoes as much as possible: If you want to save a catholic, you need to become a catholic. if you want to save a Muslim, you need to become a Muslim, and i mean that as literally as possible: you need to follow sharia law, pray five times a day, say the Shahada, honestly believe that Muhammad (pbuh) is the final prophet of God, etc.You need to pray the same way they pray, believe the same things they believe, do the same things they do, talk the way they talk. Because once you have done this, you are “one of them” and they will listen to you when you speak the promise. If you fail to do these things, the encounter will always be a combative one, because you are the Christian and they are the Buddhist, and there is no common ground between you, and then your proclamation of the promise will fall flat. The strategy i describe is exactly the strategy that Saint Paul used on his missionary journeys. He “became a Greek to the Greeks, so as to save the Greeks, and a Jew to the Jews, so as to save the Jews”. He also “put himself under the subjection of every law, so as to save those who are under those laws, even though he himself is not bound by any law but the divine law of God”. Remember when he was in Athens converting the Greeks? He didn’t quote bible verses at them; he quoted their own scriptures, poets and philosophers. In the same way, to proclaim the gospel to a Muslim, you have to quote the Quran, not the book of Mormon. But remember the gospel promise is pluralistic: It can be found everywhere once you have eyes to see it, and once you see it in Islam, you can lead Muslims to it using their own faith. Once you see it in Buddhism, you can lead Buddhists to it using their own faith. Besides, people are more likely to become Mormons if you are willing to convert to their religion first.
  3. Handling contradictions: Whenever you encounter a philosophy or world-view that appears to fundamentally contradict your own, follow the following rule: Seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish. You should never, ever think in your heart “you are wrong” towards someone. You should instead always think “I don’t understand what you mean” and keep asking honest questions. Usually they are on to something and if you keep digging, you’ll be rewarded with wisdom and it always fits with what you already believe. This is also a practical implication of “become all things to all people”: how can you do that if you insist on disagreeing with someone? Basically, there is almost never any good reasons to disagree in a discussion. Instead you should always seek deeper understanding and keep asking questions until the link between your view and theirs becomes clear.

I have said a lot already, so in closing I’ll just ramble on a bit about the gospel promise a bit more.

The resurrected Christ IS the gospel promise and the gospel promise IS God. There is a strict equivalence. So whenever you proclaim the promise to someone, you are actually verbally giving God (Christ) to them. This is quite profound. Because if they truly trust the promise when you proclaim it, this just is faith in God. And consider what it would look like if you trusted such a promise: Infinite happiness, joy and bliss forever and ever, for you and all your loved ones. If you actually believe this, it changes how you see the world right now. It’s almost as if the lights come on throughout the whole creation. “I was blind but now I see”. When you trust the promise (i.e., believe in God) You taste the joy of the happy ending right now. You overflow with joy and become a light in the dark. Proclaiming the promise looks different in every case however, because every person is different. This is why we must become all things to all people. If i need to proclaim the promise to a Buddhist, it is essential that I am able to proclaim it in Buddhist language. If i am to proclaim it to a catholic, i need to be able to proclaim it in catholic terminology. And for this very reason, real evangelism occurs in the context of friendship. It’s not often possible to proclaim the promise correctly and save someone in a 5 minute conversation. You need to walk with them for a long time, together meditating on the promise and addressing each other’s doubts and concerns, learning from each other. We can do the best we can out on the street with random passers by, but the real deep conversions happen in long conversations between friends, over many years. Friendship is very important.

Anyway, i have to run off to class! Sorry for sending such a long email, but despite the pure beautiful simplicity of the gospel, it is always hard to put into words. But always a joy. Stay in touch!

Roman Catholic Novus Ordo Latin Rite Sunday Mass at Saint Fiacre’s Leichhardt – “Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice”

As a Roman Catholic, I have the obligation to attend mass on Sundays, and the privilege of attending mass every day of the week if I so choose. Every day all around the world, Latin Catholic parishes offer the sacrifice of the mass. My local parish of St Fiacre’s Leichhardt is no exception.

The sacrifice of the mass is as mysterious to outsiders today as it was 2000 years ago. Rumours of Catholics engaging in cannibalism have proliferated down through history to the present day, as tales of the faithful “eating flesh” and “drinking blood” on Sundays are whispered among those who are not on the inside of this the worlds biggest cult.

But what actually happens behind the doors of a Catholic church during mass?

The Divine Liturgy

Catholics have a very high view of liturgy. Liturgy is basically whatever a group of people does when they come together. Buddhists have liturgy, Muslims have liturgy, Christians have liturgy. However unlike their evangelical brethren – whose liturgy might simply consist of singing a couple of songs, passing around the collection plate and listening to a painfully long sermon – Catholics consider their liturgy to be inspired and literally the Word of God. Catholics believe that God the Holy Spirit is active during the liturgy and divinely reveals himself through the prayers and movements.

IMG_1074.JPGWhen asked why we should believe that the bible is inspired and that God speaks through it, evangelical Christians never have a good response. They are generally brought up to believe in the inspiration of scripture as axiomatic, something not to be questioned or doubted. When pushed on this point, some evangelicals end up apostatising as they realise that “their house is built on sand”, which is to say that their faith has absolutely no rational, reasonable, logical grounding, instead resting entirely on blind faith.

Not so with the Catholic! When a Catholic is asked why the bible is inspired, he can confidently respond with “Because we read it during the liturgy, and if the liturgy is inspired then the bible is too.” Why is the liturgy inspired? That’s a question for another time, but let it be said that the answer is closely related to the holy tradition of the apostolic succession of bishops that stretches back in time all the way to the apostles and the Godman, Jesus Christ himself.

So what is the liturgy, often referred to as “the mass” all about? What actually happens?

The first thing to be grappled with when entering into a mass is the liturgical calendar. The liturgical calendar determines which prayers are to be said on any given day, which portions of scripture are to be read, which psalms are to be recited, as well as the liturgical colours that the priest must wear and the church must be decorated with. Every little detail of the mass is scripted out according to the particular day and liturgical season.

Today just so happens to be the first Sunday of the season of Advent, according to the Novus Ordo Latin Liturgical Calendar. As such the priest wore purple vestments, and certain parts of the church were decorated in purple.

Leichhardt parish is run by the Capuchin Friars. The Capuchins are a group of monks in the Franciscan “mendicant friar” tradition. Mendicant friars are essentially monks who live in the towns and cities, ministering to the average citizens and the poor. In comparison to this there are the “Cloistered monks”, who are monks that isolate themselves from the world, living either in solitude as hermits or in community with each other in monasteries, where they pray all day long.

IMG_1076St Fiacre’s Leichhardt does not have a choir or organ, and musical accompaniment to the mass is provided by members of the Neo-Catechumenal way with guitars and singing (The Neo-cats are another recently formed subgroup within Catholicism who have adopted a somewhat more Charismatic approach to the faith).

Catholics who adhere to “traditionalist” strands of Catholicism often object to the presence of guitars during the liturgy, claiming that it detracts from the reverence and sacredness appropriate to such an important event. There is a cultural battle being waged within the church between the Charismatic and Traditionalist parties for control of the mass, with many Catholic publications labelling the situation as a “crisis”. The traditionalists want to see more Latin, more Gregorian chant, a return of the organ. The Charismatics want to see more English, more modern music, drums and guitars, less scripted movements and more spontaneous prayers.

Aside from the presence of guitars, and a distinct lack of Latin during the liturgy, St Fiacre’s strikes me as a more conservative, traditional parish.

The Liturgy Begins

The Introduction

As the clock strikes 9:30am, some small hand held bells are shaken as a signal that the mass has begun. Everyone stands up as the priest walks up to the altar, and the entire church recites what is called the “Entrance Antiphon”; a short extract from the psalms. Today this was from Psalm 24:1-5:

To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.

In you, I have trusted; let me not be put to shame.

Nor let my enemies exult over me;

and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

After this, once the priest has taken his position before the altar, he recites the Trinitarian formula “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” and makes the sign of the cross with his hand. The congregation follows his motions and at the conclusion of the gesture respond with “Amen”.

The priest continues:

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

To which the people simultaneously and cheerfully respond:

And with your spirit!

The priest goes on:

Brothers and sisters, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.

This is followed by 15 seconds of silence, during which it is expected that everyone attempts to bring to mind their failings and imperfections over the past week, so as to bring them to God and ask for forgiveness.

Eventually the silence is broken as the priest intones the first words of an ancient prayer, the confiteor. The congregation joins in and together everyone recites:

I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,

at this point everyone strikes their chest three times in coordination with the words that follow:

through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.

After this, the priest delivers what is called a “general absolution” as he says

May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.

And the congregation responds with “Amen”.

IMG_1072After this, the most ancient part of the liturgy is recited, the Kyrie. The priest chants “Lord, have mercy” and the congregation mirrors his words. He then chants “Christ have mercy” and once again the congregation repeats the invocation. Finally he again chants “Lord, have mercy” and once again the congregation returns the same phrase back to him.

The introduction of the liturgy is concluded with what is called a “collect”. The priest says “Let us pray.” and then follows this with a prayer which is unique to that day of the liturgical year. On this particular day, the first Sunday of Advent, the prayer read as follows:

Grant your faithful, we pray; almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Immediately the congregation says “Amen” and everyone returns to a sitting posture.

The Liturgy of the Word

At this point what is known as the Liturgy of the Word begins. This is the part of the mass where sections of scripture are read, psalms are prayed and the homily is delivered. This is the part of the mass which imparts inspiration to scripture. If not for this part of the mass, the bible would just be another book. But instead, by virtue of the fact that scripture is read during this section of the liturgy, all of scripture is considered to be inspired.

On a Sunday, there is one Old Testament reading, one New Testament reading, a psalm, and a section from one of the four Gospels. The readings today were Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 24:4-14,  1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2 and finally some sections from Luke 21.

After each reading, the reader (sometimes called a “lector”) pronounces “The word of the Lord” to which the congregation responds “Thanks be to God”. After the Gospel reading, the congregation instead responds with “Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ”

The congregation sits during the readings, but stands for the Gospel reading, and prior to commencing the reading everyone makes what is known as the “Solemn sign of the cross”. This is a threefold cross motion where you first cross your forehead with your thumb, then cross your lips, then cross your heart. It is a more intense version of the usual sign of the cross.

For the Psalm today, the guitarist set the psalm to music by strumming a Spanish tune and singing the words. The congregation entered into the “Call and response”, reciting the response line at the appropriate intervals.

IMG_1077After all of these readings and liturgical songs, everyone takes their seat as the priest mounts the pulpit to deliver a short homily.

Catholic Sunday homilies typically only last for 15 minutes, which is a stark contrast to the 40-60 minute sermons that are heard in evangelical communities. Today’s homily was about the true meaning of Christmas, and how the modern secular world has completely distorted the ancient holiday into an excuse to engage in an orgy of materialistic spending.

Once the homily had concluded, the priest resumed his throne behind the altar and silently sat, allowing the congregation to spend some time praying and processing what had been said.

After a short time, the priest rose from his seat and launched into the Apostles creed, with the congregation following along:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.

After this, a member of the congregation ascended the pulpit and started reciting prayerful petitions, asking God’s favour for the parish, the church, the poor and suffering and the world. As she concluded, the liturgy of the word was brought to an end.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist

At this point we arrived at the heart of the liturgy. It has attracted many names throughout history, including “The Lord’s supper” and “The heavenly banquet”. This is the core of the mass. It is supposedly exactly equivalent to the moment where Christ offers himself to the father for the sins of the world, thus securing the salvation of the entire cosmos. If you go to church and witness the Liturgy of the Eucharist, it is helpful to understand the significance of what you are looking at: you are beholding the salvation of the cosmos, before your very eyes you are seeing it happen and the drama is unfolding in front of you on the altar.

The priest whispers some quiet prayers (which are otherwise spoken audibly if you attend a weekday mass) and then addresses the congregation:

Pray; brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.

To which the congregation in perfect unison responds:

May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.

The priest continues:

Accept, we pray; O Lord, these offerings we make, gathered from among your gifts to us, and may what you grant us to celebrate devoutly here below gain for us the prize of eternal redemption. Through Christ our Lord.

And the people all say “Amen”.

At this point the mass enters into the Eucharistic prayer; the most ancient part of the liturgy, stretching all the way back to St Peter himself.

The Lord be with you.

And with your spirit.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right and just.

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.

For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh, and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago, and opened for us the way to eternal salvation, that, when he comes again in glory and majesty and all is at last made manifest, we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise in which now we dare to hope.

And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts. heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

At this point the entire congregation kneels, as the priest enters into the Canon of the mass, the most important prayer of the entire proceedings, which is believed to have the power to change the essence of the bread and wine on the altar into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.

To you, therefore, most merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord: that you accept and bless these gifts, these offerings, these holy and unblemished sacrifices, which we offer you firstly for your holy catholic Church. Be pleased to grant her peace, to guard, unite and govern her throughout the whole world, together with your servant Francis our Pope and Anthony our Bishop, and all those who, holding to the truth, hand on the catholic and apostolic faith.

Remember, Lord, your servants and all gathered here, whose faith and devotion are known to you. For them, we offer you this sacrifice of praise or they offer it for themselves and all who are dear to them: for the redemption of their souls, in hope of health and well-being, and paying their homage to you, the eternal God, living and true.

In communion with those whose memory we venerate, especially the glorious ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ, and blessed Joseph, her Spouse, your blessed Apostles and Martyrs, Peter and Paul, Andrew, and all your Saints; we ask that through their merits and prayers, in all things we may be defended by your protecting help.

Therefore, Lord, we pray: graciously accept this oblation of our service, that of your whole family; order our days in your peace, and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.

Be pleased, O God, we pray, to bless, acknowledge, and approve this offering in every respect; make it spiritual and acceptable, so that it may become for us the Body and Blood of your most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

On the day before he was to suffer, he took bread in his holy and venerable hands, and with eyes raised to heaven to you, O God, his almighty Father, giving you thanks, he said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying:

TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU, AND EAT OF IT, FOR THIS IS MY BODY, WHICH WILL BE GIVEN UP FOR YOU.

IMG_1073After invoking these words, the priest picks up the wafer and holds it above his head for the congregation to worship and adore, because it is believed that with these words, the bread is no longer bread: it has become the very body of Jesus himself. God in the flesh, dwelling among us.

The priest then drops the Eucharist back onto the altar and falls down in worship. The congregation follows suit.

When the priest rises, he continues the long and lofty prayer:

In a similar way, when supper was ended, he took this precious chalice in his holy and venerable hands, and once more giving you thanks, he said the blessing and gave the chalice to his disciples, saying:

TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU, AND DRINK FROM IT, FOR THIS IS THE CHALICE OF MY BLOOD, THE BLOOD OF THE NEW AND ETERNAL COVENANT, WHICH WILL BE POURED OUT FOR YOU AND FOR MANY FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS. DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME.

Once again the priest holds up the chalice that earlier contained wine, now believed to have literally become the blood of Jesus. The entire congregation silently adores and worships for a short time, before the priest returns the chalice to the altar and prostrates, with the congregation following in the motion.

When the priest rises, he intones the words “The mystery of faith” and the congregation responds with

Save us, Saviour of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free.

The priest returns to the long canon prayer:

Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial of the blessed Passion, the Resurrection from the dead, and the glorious Ascension in o heaven of Christ, your Son, our Lord, we, your servants and your holy people, offer to your glorious majesty from the gifts that you have given us, this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim, the holy Bread of eternal life and the Chalice of everlasting salvation.

Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as once you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim. In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.

To us, also, your servants, who, though sinners, hope in your abundant mercies, graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs: with John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, and all your Saints; admit us, we beseech you, into their company, not weighing our merits, but granting us your pardon, through Christ our Lord. Through whom you continue to make all these good things, O Lord; you sanctify them, fill them with life, bless them, and bestow them upon us.

IMG_1075The priest then picks up both the chalice and the Eucharist and holds one above the other as he recites:

Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, for ever and ever.

This is followed by what is called the great amen. The entire congregation does a long, loud, triumphant, drawn out “Amen”.

The priest returns the Eucharist and the chalice to the altar and invites the congregation to recite the lords prayer.

Once this is completed, the priest commands the congregation to give each other the sign of peace. At this point everyone turns to their neighbour and shakes their hand or performs some other friendly gesture, while saying “Peace be with you”.

Soon after this, the priest launches into the agnus dei, another ancient prayer, and the congregation joins in:

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Everyone kneels once again, as the priest breaks the large Eucharistic host in half and holds it up for all to see, saying:

Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.

To which the congregation responds by beating their chests and reciting the prayer of the centurion:

Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

At this point the priest consumes the Eucharist, confirming that the sacrifice has been accomplished.

Music is performed as everyone lines up to receive their own portion of the Eucharist. It is a very serious and reverent moment, as the devout congregation believes that they are truly and legitimately eating God.

Once everyone has returned to their seats, the priest enters into the concluding rites:

Let us pray:

May these mysteries, O Lord, in which we have participated, profit us, we pray, for even now, as we walk amid passing things, you teach us by them to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures. Through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

The Lord be with you.

And with your spirit.

May almighty God bless you, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen

Go forth, the Mass is ended.

Thanks be to God.

And with these words, the Divine liturgy comes to a close and the parishioners slowly pack up and filter out, ready to get on with the rest of their Sunday.

Conclusion

IMG_1079So what actually happened? In essence, the perfect sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was offered up to God the Father by God the Son, and the entire congregation was drawn into this movement by the work of God the Holy Spirit. The Priest served as Christ’s physical hands during the liturgy, and returned to being just another bloke once the liturgy had concluded. Blood was drunk, flesh was eaten, under the form of Bread and Wine. Salvation was sought, salvation was given. The entire cosmos was redeemed and saved.

All things come together during the mass. It is the pinnacle and turning point of history, where before we were falling head first into Hell, now we are flying at full speed towards Heaven. How great it is to witness the securing of salvation before you eyes. What a beautiful blessing. It’s a wonderful experience if you appreciate it, and I highly recommend it to everyone.

Eschatology and Soteriology – A Universalist Catholic Account Of The Last Things

I affirm the dogmatic, three-fold, Catholic eschatological division of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. However I understand these three realities in ways that are different to the standard presentation, and I also propose a fourth realm which I’m not sure what to call, but will tentatively refer to as Eschaton. Finally, there is also a state called Limbo which overlaps with both Heaven and Purgatory, but it is important to note that my understanding of Limbo is quite different to the traditional understanding.

Hell

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In my understanding, and following the current Catechism, Hell consists of “Total separation from God”. I take this at face value and interpret it as meaning that Hell consists of “Ceasing to Exist”, because this is the only way to truly be “totally separate” from God. As it says in the psalms “If I make my bed in Hell, you are there with me”

I also believe that Hell is empty, which is to say that no one will actually experience this fate. I allow room for the idea that Jesus himself descended to this Hell and suffered the punishment of annihilation on our behalf on Holy Saturday. However I am not dogmatically committed to the idea.

People might wonder what the point of this Hell is if no one goes there. This is easily answered: Without everlasting damnation there can be no salvation. God needed to save us from something, and this is what it was. In this way, the purpose of Hell is to remind us how bad it could have been, which in turn serves to emphasise just how much God loves us, and just how great his Grace is.

Purgatory

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In my understanding, Purgatory is both a punishment and a purification. Both the punishment and the purification are directly proportional in intensity to the amount of sins a person commit during life.

Purgatory is also what I take all the biblical references to “Gehenna” to be referring to. As such, I believe that Purgatory is experienced as “Eternal Conscious Torment” (as long as the word “eternal” is understood to mean “timeless”). I take biblical references to the worm that dies not, eternal punishment, eternal fire, the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and eternal destruction as references to the experience of purgatory. Purgatory really, really sucks and you don’t want to go there.

I also believe that people who do not have explicit faith in Christ prior to death go to purgatory. I believe that it is impossible for someone who has not been evangelised and who has not come to faith in the unconditional promises of God to enter salvation. Salvation requires a full purification, but also explicit faith in the gospel message. Without these two things, it is impossible to experience heaven.

Heaven

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In my understanding, Heaven is the place where someone goes when they have perfect, explicit faith in the unconditional promise of salvation, and when their soul has been fully purified of all stain of sin. Implicit faith is not enough. A loving heart is not enough. The soul must be perfect and their faith must be explicit.

The degree of reward received in heaven is directly proportional to the good works that the person performed during life. It is an abstract, spiritual sort of pleasure that consists of the direct apprehension of God and his pure beauty, truth, goodness, love, mercy, justice and so forth.

Where my view of heaven starts to differ from the standard account, is that I believe that it is impossible for the people in heaven to actually enjoy the fullness of heavenly bliss while their friends and family remain suffering in Gehenna. I believe that the people in Heaven can see the suffering in Gehenna, and they are horrified by it. As such, so long as there is a single soul remaining in the dark torments of Gehenna, this will cause a chain reaction of compassionate empathy that effectively nullifies the supreme joy and bliss of everyone in heaven.

I believe that because of this, the people in heaven will organise missionary trips to purgatory. They will descend from Heaven and minister to the poor souls who are trapped in Gehenna, preaching the Gospel to them, reasoning with them, loving them, and generally doing everything they can in order to bring these poor souls to perfect faith and repentance so that they may escape the darkness. This missionary activity will continue so long as there is a single soul remaining trapped in Gehenna.

Limbo

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Limbo is not really “another state”, and is instead just a dramatically reduced experience of Purgatory and Heaven. People who did not do many or any good deeds during life, but who also did not commit many or any sins during life, therefore do not merit much or any punishment and reward in the afterlife. Therefore regardless of whether these people end up in Heaven or Purgatory, the experience will be much the same: very blank and devoid of any content. This “nothing” state receives the name “Limbo” in my theology. Notice that it is different to “The limbo of the infants” and “The limbo of the fathers” from traditional Catholic scholasticism, although aborted babies and young infants do indeed experience my version of Limbo, on account of the fact that they haven’t sinned or loved at all during life.

Eschaton

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Where the previous states were disembodied spiritual realities which the soul experiences alone, this state has to do with the resurrection and new creation.

The eschaton is the final state, the end of history, the teleos of creation. In this final state, there will be no more tears, no more pain, no more suffering, no more sickness, no more death. The lion will lie down with the lamb. Every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Christ is lord. All the gentiles will be saved, all of Israel will be saved. Even all of the fallen Angels will have been saved.

The eschaton will not arrive until the missionary activity from heaven has succeeded and therefore every soul who is stuck in Gehenna has escaped. The joy of salvation cannot be complete until everyone has been fully saved. The eschaton represents the state of affairs when this has finally occurred. It is the most glorious state of all: No longer is there any impediment to the saved enjoying their salvation, because all of their friends and families have been saved too!

Furthermore, this is simultaneous with the resurrection, the Parousia, the final (general) judgement and the new creation. All the disembodied souls will be reunited with their glorified bodies, in a renewed and glorified physical reality that encompasses all of history and includes everything that has ever lived or existed. This is the true and final end to the story. So long as people fail to achieve heaven, heaven can’t really be heaven. But in the eschaton, everyone will have finally achieved salvation and therefore the joy of salvation will be complete. Finally we will all be able to enjoy God to the full, experiencing unadulterated, uninterrupted heavenly bliss, as well as perfect love for all people, all things, all creation and God himself.

Conclusion

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Heaven is not what we should be aiming for, and purgatory is not what we should be settling for. The eschaton is what we are working towards, and the good news of the gospel is that we can’t fail! Salvation is guaranteed, but it is not automatic: we still have to walk the path. But the good news is that we will walk the path. God guarantees and promises us that in the end, we will fight the good fight, we will run the race, we will win the prize. There is a crown waiting for each of us, and in the eschaton we will all be victorious, to the praise and glory of God.

Beautiful Heresy 101 – Revisiting Sola Scriptura: “Scripture Alone”

sola scripturaLast night I had dinner with Jaison Jacob – a Calvinist friend living and studying at Moore Theological College. The discussion turned to matters surrounding the bible – something that I was hoping to avoid because we always go in circles on this issue and never get anywhere. However to my surprise, Jaison was able to prove the inspiration of scripture and a doctrine of sola scriptura with a short, concise sequence of logical steps and without any reference to the Catholic Magisterium. I was amazed and wondered why he had never been able to do this in the many previous theological discussions and debates that we had had together over the past few years.

I will here attempt to reproduce and analyse his argument (Although as should become immediately apparent from reading the first sentence, I do not claim to do so in a way which he himself would agree with). If it manages to hold up, this would be extremely significant because it would deal with some of the most burning questions that drove me to Catholicism back in 2014.

A Common Foundation

sola scripturaBoth the Catholic chain of reasoning and the Protestant chain of reasoning that Jaison outlined to me last night share a common logical foundation, so I will start by outlining that:

  1. Reason and Experience have primacy and supreme authority. God gave me a brain before he gave me a bible.
  2. On the basis of Reason and Experience, it is possible to conclude that Jesus is God. (In my personal case, it is direct mystical experience which confirms this fact, rather than reading the gospels, however for other people, their faith in this proposition might derive more from their study of scripture)
  3. On the basis of Reason and experience (In the form of Historical enquiry and method), it is possible to verify that the text of the New Testament has been accurately transmitted from the days when it was first written all the way up to the present.
  4. On the basis of Reason and Experience (Historical method again), we conclude that the accounts of Christ’s words and life given in the Gospels are accurate enough to trust, without necessarily being inerrant.
  5. From 2, 3 and 4, we conclude that the “red letters” of the gospel (Words spoken by Jesus) are literally words coming from the mouth of God verbatim, and are therefore inspired.

So we have primary authority vested in Reason and Experience, along with all the manifestations they may take such as science, history, philosophy, theology etc. We also have established that Jesus is God and that his recorded words are inspired, without necessarily being 100% inerrant.

The Protestant Argument: Sola Scriptura

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The protestant argument continues:

  1. Some of the inspired red-letters state that Jesus promises his apostles that they will be able to recall the gospel message, and that it will be preserved in their memories and accurately conveyed in their teaching in such a way that they too speak with inspiration. (eg, Luke 10:16 “Whoever hears you hears me” and John 14:25-26 These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”)
  2. From 1, we conclude that any document which is written by apostles or contains apostolic teaching is inspired, and this definition is broad enough to encompass the entire New Testament.
  3. In the New Testament, Jesus refers to the law, the prophets and the psalms as if they are inspired, which covers a sizable chunk of the OT. Furthermore In 2 Timothy, Paul makes a vague reference to “the scriptures” and directly claims that whatever they are, they are inspired
  4. Conclusion: We can be fully confident that the entire New Testament is inspired, we can be fully confident that the Torah, the prophets and the psalms are inspired, and we can be fully confident that whatever Paul meant by “the scriptures” in 2 Timothy, they too are inspired. Therefore sola scriptura is true and valid.

Analysis

sola scripturaThis chain of reasoning is powerful enough to conclusively prove the inspiration of the New Testament, but it depends on tradition at several key points. For one thing, we are unable to work out who actually authored many of the epistles and gospels. We draw our confidence as to the authorship of these documents from tradition. I have no problem with drawing on tradition, but this is problematic for an adherent of Sola Scriptura because the bible is supposed to have supreme authority in opposition to tradition. Having the case for the bible rest on tradition undermines the whole philosophy.

This chain of reasoning also does not fully prove Sola Scriptura (here defined as “Scripture alone has the highest authority”), because reason and experience remain as the foundational authorities upon which everything else rests. In this chain of reasoning we start with reason, not with the bible, and use reason to conclude that Jesus is God and that scripture is inspired. It is only after depending on reason that you end up with a collection of inspired scriptures, and therefore it is reasonable to assume that these scriptures should be interpreted in light of reason and experience rather than having reason and experience interpreted in light of scripture, as the Sola Scripturist would have it. Scripture may very well have authority, but this authority is not higher than reason and experience.

This chain of reasoning also remains problematic for this idea that we are supposed to base our entire lives on the scriptures, because the scriptural canon is loosely defined and potentially mutable: New apostolic writings could be discovered and old apostolic writings could be revealed to be fraudulent. If this were to happen it would be a very confusing situation: many Christians throughout the centuries would have based their lives on books that were later revealed to be forgeries, and many Christians who were reading the bible under the impression that it included everything they need to know were in reality missing some books that they were supposed to acknowledge but didn’t. (Incidentally, this was a reality for the first 700 years of Christianity. In the far east, the Syriac Peshitta omitted many New Testament Books. And around the wider Christian world, there were many books that were once considered inspired but were later discovered not to be, for example the Shepherd of Hermes)

This chain of reasoning also ends on a cliff-hanger, because it does not clearly define a canon of scripture. Something more is required to work out what Paul means when he says “the scriptures”. As it stands, the wisdom literature, historical books and deuterocanon are up in the air: are they inspired? We simply don’t know.

There is also still the problem of false teaching and the project of identifying the true church. There are important contradictions between denominations, who are all reading the same set of scriptures but teaching mutually contradictory things. The attitude, common to many protestants that “I am right because I have the holy spirit and they are wrong because they don’t” is just arrogant and foolish. The problem of interpretation is inescapable. You may argue that the bible is “clear”, but it is obviously not clear enough to cut through our sin and effectively convey the truth, in which case it may as well not be clear at all.

The Catholic Argument: Tradition and Magisterium

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For comparison, I will outline the Catholic argument for the inspiration of an entire, well-defined canon.

  1. Some of the inspired red-letters reveal that Jesus established an authoritative, institutional church by duplicating his divine authority into the apostles (eg, Luke 10:16 “Whoever hears you hears me, whoever rejects you rejects me” and Matthew 18:18 “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”)
  2. Other of the inspired red-letters reveal that Jesus singled out and appointed Peter as a supreme leader of this church. (Matthew 16:18-19 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”)
  3. Reason and Experience (In the form of Historical enquiry) reveal that prior to dying, the apostles appointed successors. By drawing on the divine authority vested in them by Christ, the apostles were able to similarly transmit their divine authority into these successors, making them essentially equal in authority to the apostles.
  4. Reason and Experience (In the form of Historical enquiry) reveal that this process of appointing successors and vesting them with divine authority has continued uninterrupted to the present day.
  5. From 4, it becomes possible to identify a one, true church, existing in the present day. Simply look for bishops who can trace their authority back through history to the Apostles and Christ. This church also should have a single supreme leader who can trace himself back to Peter.
  6. The only church that fits the description in 5 is the Catholic church.
  7. The Catholic church has the power to teach with inspiration/divine authority, as its’ leadership are all in the apostolic succession.
  8. The Catholic church has authoritatively, infallibly and dogmatically identified a canon of scripture, the books of which are all inspired.
  9. Conclusion: The bible according to the canon of Trent is inspired and infallible.

Analysis

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The Catholic argument is superior because it solves almost all of the problems I outlined in the analysis of the protestant argument.

Catholics have no problem with tradition and fully embrace it, believing that Jesus established a church with an inspired tradition, identified by apostolic succession. He did not write a book.

Catholics also have no problem with according reason and experience their rightful pride of place. Reason and experience hold supreme authority, and it is on the basis of these that we conclude that the church can sometimes teach infallibly and that the bible is inspired. Because reason is the supreme authority, the church teaching needs to be understood and interpreted in light of reason and so too the scriptures.

The idea that we are supposed to base our entire lives on scripture simply does not arise, because Catholics instead have a broad and multifaceted tradition (of which the bible is one small part) in which they are supposed to live out their lives.

The canon of scripture is also well-defined and reasoned out in the Catholic account. There is no ambiguity. Further evidence could not cast doubt on the canonicity of an existing book or introduce new books. The deuterocanon is included, along with the entire Hebrew Old Testament and New Testament. The canon is clearly established.

Finally, identifying the true church and the true teachers is easy: just look for people who are in communion with the bishops.

Conclusion? Sola Scriptura is Still Bunk.

sola scripturaThe Protestant chain of reasoning is powerful, but the Catholic one remains more reasonable and less problematic. Protestants are able to prove the inspiration of the New Testament and large portions of the Old Testament, however the exact canonical boundaries are very fuzzy. They are unable to fully prove the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Whereas Catholics are able to provide an authoritative church and clearly defined canon of inspired scripture.

Despite mounting an intriguing and compelling argument, Jaison has failed to convince me of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura and the Catholic account remains superior.