Pure Theology – The Doctrine of God as Trinity in Unity: Divine Freedom and Necessity; Contradictions, Square Circles and Rocks that Can’t be lifted

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I have been reading a brilliant series by Father Aiden Kimel over on his “Eclectic Orthodoxy” blog about psuedo-Dionysius and his deep, profound reflections on divinity. I had to pause to worship and set my thoughts down. As I paced around my room churning it all over in my mind I felt as if I had a series of breakthroughs and insights. Here is my attempt to set them down. Such exciting theological discoveries are typically hard to capture with human language, but here is my attempt regardless.

Did God Have to Create? Is Creation Necessary?

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  • Yes, in the sense that God would not be God if he did otherwise than what he does. God needs a creation in order to be a creator.
  • No, in the sense that God’s act of creation is completely uncoerced, unforced. It is a completely free, gratuitous and voluntary act. There is no necessitating principle which requires him to create in order for him to be who he is, or if there is such a principle, it is absorbed into the divine simplicity along with everything else, such that God IS both the principle and that which it demands.

So,

Is God forced to create?
Is God forced to love?
Is God forced to save?
Is God forced to be omnipotent?

No. For this would imply some sort of superior principle determining God’s nature and actions. God is completely free of all such restraint.

But,

Could God have not created?
Could God have not loved?
Could God have not saved?
Could God have not been omnipotent?

No. For if he were not creator, lover, saviour and omnipotent, he would not be God.

The Internal Life of the Trinity

Call-to-Love-Learning-Journey[1].jpgThere is no necessity within God, imposing upon his nature that it must be such and such a way, for example loving, or omnipotent, or just. Instead, there is an invitation extended from God to God: the invitation to be loving, the invitation to be merciful, the invitation to be omnipresent, the invitation to be omnipotent, the invitation to be creator, the invitation to be saviour. God always fully and freely accepts this invitation which in his infinity is made from God to God as from one to another. Due to divine simplicity, God is both the one making the invitation and the one accepting the invitation, God is what the invitation offers, he is the act of inviting itself, and he is the act of accepting the invitation.

Whereas if there were necessity within God, this would imply a sort of dissonant violence within divinity: God commands God to be loving by necessity, and there is tension as God obeys this inevitable command, perhaps against his will. God commands God to be saviour, and there is rebellion and struggle as God begrudgingly accepts the pain that is involved. God commands God to be omnipotent, and God throws this infinite power back in God’s face by creating square circles and rocks that can’t be lifted.

Anthropomorphism at Fault Again

high-resolution-2048x2048-abstract-yin-yang-hd-arena[1].jpgThe problem comes from imagining freedom in a creaturely way. In our every day experience, we commonly deliberate between multiple distinct and contrary options, and we locate our freedom in the selection of one of these options. Whereas for God this cannot be the case. There is no deliberation between options in God and – more starkly still – there is no “choice” in God. God does not “choose” to create; he simply creates. God does not choose to love; he simply loves. But the crucial thing here is that whenever we attach a verb to God, the adverb “freely” is always implied, and the adverb “freely” itself implies an action that is completely uncoerced, completely unforced, and entirely gratuitous. So God does not simply love; he freely loves. God does not simply create; he freely creates. God is not simply who he is; he freely is who he is. God is not omnipotent out of some necessity that he be omnipotent in order to be who he is, instead, God freely embraces omnipotence. The definition of God as omnipotent flows from his free act to embrace omnipotence, rather than his act of being omnipotent flowing from some predetermined, and necessary definition which is superior to God.

Of course, as I have elaborated on elsewhere on this blog, it is possible to embrace dualism and anthropomorphism and conceive of God as choosing between two polar opposite alternatives: Good and Evil, Being and nothingness. The choice to love, to save, to create, to be omnipotent, omnipresent, infinite, to be free; in short, to be God – this represents the choice for good. The choice to hate, to damn, to destroy, to be powerless, to be illogical, to be nowhere, nothing, non-existent, enslaved; this represents the choice for evil. But really, when put in such stark terms, how could we imagine God choosing anything but the first option? If he didn’t, he would not be God.

Can God Actualise Irrational Potentials?

large-boulder[1]These considerations also directly bear on the age old problem of rocks that can’t be lifted and the possibility of square circles. Could God have actualised these strange and irrational potentials? No, because if he were to do that, he would not be God – he would be either greater than he currently is, in which case the God we worship is not truly God; or he would be less than he currently is, in which case he would not be worthy of the title “God”.

At this point the principle of non-contradiction comes into the spotlight and is sometimes invoked as a superior principle which even God is bound to follow. However it is important to remember that God is not bound by this principle as something over and above him, but he freely chooses to embrace order over disorder, structure over chaos, logic over irrationality. The principle of non-contradiction lies at the heart of logic, reason and rationality, and therefore God freely embraces this principle as part of his nature, just as he embraces omnipotence, omniscience, love, justice, mercy etc. Could he have done otherwise? Yes he could, but then he would be some other God, and some other God is no God at all, which in the end is just another way of saying no he could not have. This implies that there is a certain divinity inherent in the principle of non-contradiction; it is one of very few clear windows into the character of the mysterious and ineffable God whom we worship.

So, is there any external principle which prevents God from creating rocks that can’t be lifted or square circles? Again, no. God’s choice not to create these things is completely free and gratuitous, just as free and gratuitous as his act of creating the world, or being omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipresent.

But could he create them? Yes, but then he would not really be God, which is just another way of saying no. This does not represent some external principle, regulating and restricting his freedom and limiting his power. It simply represents the fact that God freely is who he is, and if he were otherwise he would not be God.

Calvinism, Sovereignty and Freedom

solar-system-11188_1280-e1505503768960[1].jpgGod freely embraces love, he freely embraces omnipotence, he freely embraces justice. But due to divine simplicity, he freely embraces everything else about himself too: he freely embraces transcendence, he freely embraces simplicity, he freely embraces infinitude, he freely embraces both unity and plurality. Most bafflingly of all, he even freely embraces freedom itself!

This sheds a little bit of light on the Calvinist obsession with the attribute of Sovereignty: God’s infinite freedom means that he freely embraces love, justice, mercy, grace, power. Where the Calvinists tend to go wrong is when they conceive of this freedom in anthropomorphic terms; as the choice between two options, either of which God could deign to choose. In this way the Calvinists tend to imagine a God who is free to save or to damn, to create or not to create, to love us or to hate us, to save us or damn us. But this is going about it all wrong, for the God who does not choose to love, to create and to save is not the true and eternal God. God is who he is and he is what he does and if he did any different he would not truly be God. Divine freedom and sovereignty is not a choice between two options; it is the infinite, free, overflowing bubbling fountain of love and salvation that is God himself. God is not forced to create us, love us, or save us; but he could not do otherwise and remain God.

Final Thoughts

Hakim_Art%20(1)[1].jpgAnd so finally we come to the most pressing question of all:

Must God save everyone?

No, for nothing can compel God to do anything.

But will God save everyone?

Of course! For if God did not save everyone, he would not be the true God, he would be some other god, and “some other god” is no God at all.

To he who resides in the impenetrably immanent depths of infinitude, bliss, being, love; to he who transcendently loves the cosmos into existence; to he who enters into the divine silence of the most holy inner sanctuary and freely offers himself to himself as one to another; to he who died for our sins and rose again for our salvation; to him be all praise, glory, honour, worship, devotion and love, in saecula saeculorum, αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων

Amen.

(Go to “Divine Plurality for Non-Trinitarians”)

Pure Theology – The Doctrine of God as Trinity in Unity: “God is Perfectly and Entirely Free, and yet he can not Do Other than what he Does: Create us, Love us, Save us.”

Hi Father,

I’ve finally got around to reading the Dionysian ponderings series on your blog. I’ve been saving it for some months until I could find a time to properly settle into the armchair by the fireplace with the pipe and cheese and appreciate it. It was well worth the wait.

I’m currently up to the part about whether or not God was forced to create the world (or whether he could have not created the world). I want to try and summarise my understanding of what you’ve written in a few sentences and send it off to you for marking:

  1. God had to create necessarily, in the sense that if he did not create he would not be “creator” and therefore would be some other God. However the notion of “some other God” is incoherent because there is only one true God, which is the God revealed to us in this reality and therefore “some other God” is really no God at all.
  2. Despite the fact that God had to create, this necessity of creation is not necessity in the sense that God is “compelled” or “forced” to create. Instead, God made an 100% libertarian uncompelled “free” choice to create. In this way, creation remains 100% contingent upon Gods free choice and in that sense, creation “need not have been”
  3. Divine simplicity helps to frame the issue: God is what God does. Therefore God is both the one who creates and the free choice (to create) itself. If the choice had been different, we would be dealing with a different God. But as already mentioned, this is incoherent.
  4. Divine freedom should not be construed in the same way that we conceive of creaturely freedom, ie, as a deliberation and selection between multiple alternatives. Instead we should think of divine freedom as a movement of will which is completely uncoerced, uncompelled, unconstrained, unforced etc. in this way, there was only ever “one” possible “alternative” for God to “select”, but the crucial point is that his “selection” of this “choice” is completely and entirely free; completely and entirely uncoerced.
  5. So Could God have decided not to create? No. Does this mean that there is some necessity imposed on his will? Also no. The only necessity that it is reasonable to speak of here is the necessity that God be as God is, and this necessity encapsulates a perfect and infinite divine freedom; the total transcendence of all restrictions and constraints. God is perfectly and entirely free, and yet he can not do other than what he does: create us, love us, save us.
  6. Side point, often with creaturely freedom our choices are entirely compelled and coerced, even when there are multiple options on offer: for example when presented with a large variety of icecream flavours, I will always choose the mint choc; I simply don’t have the “free will power” to branch out and sample the other flavours on offer. Whereas God has only a single option: to create. And the crucial point is that his “selection” of this “option” is the most free movement of will conceivable

Thank you as always for your wonderful writings. Such a joy and source of edification in my life over the past four years. While I never pray as much as I should, I do try to keep you and your family in mind as you’ve been such a large influence in my spiritual journey despite the fact that we’ve never properly met.

Stay strong in Christ, with infinite joy and invincible hope,

Alex Herlihy

Beautiful Heresy 101 – Original Sin, Mortal Sin, and the Murder of God: “The Cross Was The Fall”

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The fall didn’t happen when Adam ate from the tree; the fall happened when humanity nailed God himself to the cross. Original sin was not something that happened “way back then” in the murky mythologies of before the beginning of history; The original sin was when God offered us life and we chose death; he offered us friendship and we chose brutal murder.

So it simply will not do to appeal to our “freedom” to explain how we end up in hell or heaven. We had the freedom to choose God, but no longer. We freely, wholeheartedly and definitively rejected God when he came to us with peace and love and we executed him. This was the unforgivable sin; there is no freedom after this, no repentance, no turning back. Every one of us has already made our final choice: non accipio.

And yet God can forgive even the unforgivable sin: and this he did by his resurrection. He does not “respect” our freedom. If he respected our freedom he would have just stayed dead. No, he conquers our freedom. We always and everywhere choose death: but from this death he draws out life. We constantly choose evil; and from this evil he brings about good. We respond to his friendship with hatred: yet from this hatred he works irresistible love.

He could have “respected” our freedom by staying dead and withdrawing his love. But instead, he insists on continuing to love us and by his victorious resurrection he has revealed that he will never stop loving us until every single one of us loves him back. We will not die: we will rise again. We will not be damned: We have already been saved.

History is the story of us choosing death and God giving us life in spite of that choice. History is the story of Grace: it is not the story of a God who “respects our freedom”. We all without exception have chosen Hell, and so God bestows his mercy on us all.

Orthodoxy 101 – Scripture Clearly Says that All will be Saved: The One True God and his One True Gospel

If even a single soul fell through Gods fingers into Hell – regardless of the reason – this would demonstrate that he is neither omnipotent nor omniscient. It would prove him to be a weak and pathetic failure and completely nullify the Gospel.

Join the winning team: become a universalist. Come and worship the God who desires to save everyone, is able to save everyone, and will save everyone. Come and worship the God who is loving, powerful and sovereign. Come and worship the God who is more true to the tradition and more consistent with the scriptures.

“By one man’s act of disobedience all men without exception were made sinners, but by one man’s act of righteousness all men without exception were justified and made alive” (Romans 5 – the scope of salvation is equal to the scope of sin: both are universal)

“God consigned everyone to disobedience, so that he might have mercy upon everyone.” (Romans 11 – we are all simultaneously vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy)

“Every knee shall lovingly bow, and every tongue will freely confess that Christ is Lord” (Phillipians – all men will come to freely and lovingly accept Christ in the eschaton)

“The full totality of the gentiles will be saved, and then the full totality of Israel will be saved too” (Romans 11 – need I say more? Everyone is going to be saved, even though some may be saved “through fire”)

Beautiful Heresy 101 – The Gospel Creed

Nicaea_icon[1].jpgI believe in the gospel: the promise of the salvation of the entire cosmos, and of everything in it.

I believe in freedom: that all who repent, repent freely; that all who are damned embrace damnation with full knowledge and full consent; that no one is forced to be saved.

I believe in the universal scope of sin, total depravity and the massa damnata: that all souls with neither exception nor distinction are predestined to everlasting tortures, in the depths of the lowest hell, where the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever.

I believe in the perfect man, the Lord Jesus, and the perfect woman, the Holy Virgin Mother Mary. I confess that together they are one Christ, and as Christ they descended to the lowest and most infinitesimal circle of Hell, where they experienced the full force of damnation forever and ever and ever, unto the ages of ages, τον αιδιος και τον αιονιων, in saecula saeculorum. I confess that in doing so, they experienced the full chastisement for the sins of the world, and no punishment remains. I confess that they were resurrected immediately to the highest possible height of heaven, where they sit exalted at the right hand of God the father. I confess that they have come again, are coming again, and will come again, for the sake of the salvation of all souls.

I believe in the election of the damned and of all sinners; the predestination of Hitler* and of Satan and all of his demons.

I believe in epektasis: that Heaven is an everlasting struggle, in which we feel infinite pain as we become perfected in love and compassion towards the damned who wander in Hell.

I believe in the eschaton: the final moment – an eternity and a forever distant into the future – where all that ever was will be once again, and all who have ever lived will be raised to new life, resurrected into the fullness of perfection and glory. I confess that there will be no more sickness, tears, suffering, sadness, war, death, crime, murder, rape, sin, rebellion, Hell, or any other evil thing whatsoever.

I believe in the life of the final age; infinite joy, infinite satisfaction, divine bliss, immutability, impassibility, ineffability, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, omnibenevolence.

I confess that we may enter into this final age right now, through sincere faith in the good news and this promise. I confess that we will become one with the eschaton through love, and that ultimately not a single soul will fail in the struggle.

I affirm that after all the ages have passed – after we all have experienced an infinity of heavens and an infinity of hells – all things will come to the final, peaceful rest of nibbana. All things will return to the nothingness of God from whence they originally sprung forth; all sin will be extinguished and all virtue will be laid to rest; karma will cease and the cycle of samsara will come to it’s final conclusion.

I affirm that God is the Alpha and the Omega, and that therefore the end is but a new beginning, and after the final conclusion and timeless rest of nibbana, the cycle of samsara will start anew, all to the everlasting glory of God.

To the one who calls out to us from everlasting to everlasting, and whose burning heart relentlessly pursues us unto the ages of ages;

To him who embraces us as we burn forever and ever in this lake of fire, and who loves us without limit as we wander the edge of this outer darkness;

To the perfect lover in whom all of us live and move and have our being, and who will not cease sending grace until the last of us submits to sorrow and repentance;

To he who is eternally more eternal than eternity and infinitely more infinite than infinity; To the sovereign king who makes all things new and guarantees that all will be well with the world;

All praise, glory, honour, dominion and victory be yours, Until all sinners are restored to perfection, And the evil one himself has confessed you as lord, And the entire cosmos shines bright with your glorious love.

Amen

* Substitute the name of whoever is considered to be the most evil and hated figure of the day in your culture and community. Or if reciting this creed privately, substitute the name of the person you have the most trouble loving.

(Edited 27/7/2019)

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

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

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

Arminians – Freedom as the Power of Contrary Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking Past Each Other

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

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

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

A Middle Way

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

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

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

The Promise of Freedom

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

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

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

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

(Return to first article)

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

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

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

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

Arminian / Catholic / Orthodox – Unimpeded Libertarian Freedom

scales-of-justice-hi.png

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

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

Augustinian / Calvinist – The biased scale of Freedom

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

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

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

Arminian Grace – Equalising the Scale of Freedom

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

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

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

Calvinist / Augustinian Grace – Biasing the Scale Towards Good

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

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

Universalism – A more nuanced view

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

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

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

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

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

(Go to “Meditations on Freedom”)

Orthodoxy 101 – Christianity and The Glorious Gospel

What is the Gospel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel Promise of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel Promise of Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where people get the Gospel wrong

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

Arminians, Catholics and Orthodox

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

Calvinists

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

Evangelicals

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

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

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

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

The Gospel Promise of Grace

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

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

Baptism

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

Confirmation

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

Confession

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

Universalism is the only Gospel worthy of the name

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

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

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

(Go to “Understanding Indulgences”)

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

Absurdity

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

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

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

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

Predetermined according to freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sovereign will and Permissive will

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

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

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

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

Hope in the promise of Apokatastasis

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

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

(Go to “Objective and Subjective Salvation”)

Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?

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

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

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

Hans Urs Von Balthasar