Ecclesiology – The Great Schism: Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism Standing United

“What is the church?” It’s a simple question with a by-no-means simple answer. Protestant ecclesiology is fairly simple: “The church is wherever there are two or three believers gathered in the name of Christ” or “The church is all true believers around the world”. In the Protestant account of things, the church is entirely invisible: it is not associated with any particular group or institution. In comparison to this simple and straightforward understanding, Catholic ecclesiology is a fascinating, complex topic. In this post we will consider all the historic schisms that have affected the Christian faith.

The One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church

Great SchismThe four marks of the church enumerated by the Nicene creed are “One”, “Holy”, “Catholic” and “Apostolic”. This is a helpful starting point. In my understanding, the two most important marks are “One” and “Apostolic”.

To say that the church is “One” is a statement of numerical oneness: there are not two churches; there are not three churches; there is only one church. However to say that the church is “One” is not necessarily a statement of internal unity. I will return to this point later, but for now it suffices to say that not everyone who is in communion with the church fully agrees with and understands everything that the church teaches.

To say that the church is “Apostolic” is to say that the leadership of the church are able to trace a straight line of succession back through history via the laying on of hands all the way down to the Apostles and Jesus himself. A church must be led by a bishop, and this bishop must be able to trace his authority back through previous bishops all the way to the Apostles.

To say that the church is “Catholic” is to say that the church is universal: That is, the church is not tied down to any particular language or culture or ethnicity; everyone is welcome. It also implies that the church is the rightful owner of all truth, wherever it may be stumbled upon. Anything true and beautiful is universal, Catholic truth, even if such truth and beauty is found in non-Christian philosophies or other, totally different religions.

Additional Marks

Now, there are some other “lesser” marks of the church which were not included in the Nicene creed, but are nevertheless considered important in Catholic ecclesiology: In addition to the four marks, the Church is also “Visible”, “Eucharistic” and “Monarchical”.

To say that the church is “Visible” is to say that it is possible to identify the church in a tangible, physical sense. How this plays out in the Catholic understanding is that any given diocese IS the one true church, provided that the bishop who governs that diocese has valid apostolic succession. There is only one single church in the entire world, however that one single church manifests all over the world in the form of the many and various dioceses. Now, there are many dioceses, but there are not many churches, there is only one. In any case, each and every diocese, headed by a bishop who has been validly ordained, represents a concrete manifestation in a particular place of the one true church.

Monstrance-Cut-Out[1].jpgTo say that the Church is “Eucharistic” is merely an implication of the fact that the church is “Visible” and “Apostolic”: A bishop who has valid holy orders has the power and authority to consecrate bread and wine and transubstantiate them into the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. This Eucharist is God himself coming to us under a visible form. Christians gather around this visible, physically tangible presence of God. The Eucharist is a focal point of church unity; those who share in the lord’s supper together enjoy a profound spiritual communion with God and with each other; they become “one body of Christ, in Christ”. The Eucharist transforms the church from merely being an impersonal organisation and an impassionate institution, into being a lively community of faithful human individuals, united together in a profound love.

The final mark of the church is the mark of Monarchy, and this is the most contentious mark of all, representing a stumbling block to many, both Christian and non-Christian. To say that the church is “Monarchical” is to say that the church has a single, supreme leader. As before mentioned, at the level of a diocese, the supreme leader is the bishop or archbishop. However at the level of the entire, mystical body of Christ spread throughout the world, the supreme leader is the successor of Peter: the Catholic Pope.

Two Kinds of Schism

jIvJLxy[1].jpgI mentioned before that the church being “One” does not imply strict unity. Within the church there are disagreements and dissensions. These disagreements and dissensions wound and damage the unity of the church, without totally destroying that unity. In recent years, the Catholic church has come to call this situation “partial communion”: within the church there has been a split between two parties, however this split does not represent a total destruction of unity between those two parties; they are still united, but imperfectly. This is indeed a schism, but it is a schism within the church: the two parties involved have not actually separated themselves from the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.

There is, however, another sort of schism. This would be a schism of separation. Such a schism would be one in which the two parties involved disagree at such a fundamental level that one of the parties has actually separated itself from communion with the church entirely.

What would lead to these schisms coming about? In the case of the first kind of schism – that of a schism within the church – all that would be required is for the church in full communion with the Pope to declare an ecumenical dogma, and for the remainder of the church to refuse to assent to that dogma. Such a refusal to assent does not necessarily constitute an explicit, dogmatic rejection of the dogma in question, and therefore does not lead to a total cutting off from the one, true church. However such a refusal to assent does represent a division within the church, because there are people within the church who are not “on the same page” as the rest of the church. Such a schism can therefore be referred to as a schism of non-assent, and it represents a situation of “partial communion” between two parties: the communion has not been destroyed, but it has been wounded.

beware-dogma[1]On the other hand, if the party not in full communion with the Pope were to come together and formulate their own dogmatic statements which flatly contradict the dogmas of the church in full communion with the Pope, the communion between the two parties would be entirely severed. This would not merely be an implicit or tentative rejection of Catholic dogma, it would instead represent a final and definitive rejection of the truth. Such a schism would lead to the actual separation of the dissenting party from the one true church. This would no longer be a schism within the church; it would be an actual separation of one church into two churches, one valid and one invalid. I call this a schism of dissent.

An Abolition of Authority

Remember that one of the marks of the church is that it is monarchical: It has a supreme leader, the successor of Peter, and you must be in at least partial communion with him in order to be said to be a member of the one true church. If you damage your communion with him, it’s not the end of the world, as this is a schism of non-assent and therefore does not exclude you from communion. But what happens if you completely destroy your communion?

I suspect that a community which were to fully and completely destroy its communion with the one true church – in such a way that there is not any communion remaining – would lose it’s authority to perform the sacraments. I suspect that such a community’s Eucharist would become invalid, and their holy orders would be nullified. The reason why is that they have completely cut themselves off from the head of the church. All sacramental power flows from Christ to the Pope to the bishops. To completely cut yourself off from the Pope is to completely cut yourself off from Christ.

The Great Schisms

Now lets apply all these reflections to the actual history of the church.

MA_East_west_schism[1].jpgThe first major schism was with the Church of the East, sometimes known as “The Nestorian church”. Was this schism a schism of non-assent, or was it a schism of dissent? From my reading of history, it seems to me that it was merely a schism of non-assent, because the church of the east never produced a counter dogma, and therefore at the institutional level the Church of the East never definitively denied any Catholic dogmas. And so the Church of the East did not therefore cut itself off entirely from the Pope. In this way, their sacraments remained valid, and their dioceses continued to represent visible manifestations of the one true church. This was a schism within the church.

The next big schism was with the group of churches who in the modern era are referred to as the “Oriental Orthodox” churches. From my reading of history, this too was a schism of non-assent. The Oriental Orthodox could not bring themselves to assent to the Christological statements of Chalcedon. Despite the fact that they disagreed with the dogmas, this disagreement was never expressed in final, dogmatic terms of their own. In this way, their sacraments remained valid, and their dioceses continued to represent visible manifestations of the one true church. This too was a schism within the church.

img_1215[1]Next was the most famous schism of all: the East-West schism, sometimes referred to as “The Great Schism”. This was between the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Catholics. It’s actually hard to pin down exactly when and how this schism occurred; many dates are given, sometimes as early as 400AD, sometimes as late as 1800AD, the most common date given is 1058 but there is not unanimous agreement on this. The fact that it is so ambiguous when this schism actually occurred is quite a significant hint that this too was not a schism which lead to a total separation of communion. At no point did the east ever produce a counter dogma which contradicted the dogmas of the Western ecumenical councils, so this schism, if it ever actually happened, was also a schism of non-assent. The eastern sacraments remained valid, and their dioceses continued to represent visible manifestations of the one true church.

Things were different with the protestant reformation. During the protestant reformation, both apostolic succession and the Eucharist were abandoned. These are essential aspects of the one true church, and without them, unity is entirely severed. The protestants cannot even be said to be in partial communion. Their communion has been entirely abolished. There is still a sense in which we have communion with them, but it is a virtual communion based on a limited degree of shared belief, rather than the robust communion enjoyed by members of the one true church. Such a virtual communion is also shared with atheists and members of other religions. Everyone is connected to the church to a greater or lesser extent, but it is only those communities which possess the 7 marks of the church which can be said to enjoy a real communion.

ID_episode64_MH_3[1].jpgFurther solidifying the point is that the reformation schism was a schism of dissent: many of the reformation churches produced their own statements of faith, which explicitly and dogmatically bound members of those communities to a rejection of Catholic dogma. The situation is complicated by the fact that reformation churches do not even officially believe in in the concept of dogma, and so it is hard to say whether or not their rejection of Catholic dogmas constitutes a final, irreformable and irreconcilable rejection. It is therefore ambiguous whether or not these churches are in a schism of dissent or merely schism of non-assent. However their rejection of apostolic succession and the Eucharist is sufficient to entirely break down communion. Protestants are not members of the one true church.

Final Words

In conclusion, The Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Church of the East together represent one single church. All of the dioceses of these institutions represent manifestations of the one true church in a particular place and for a particular culture. All of these institutions have valid sacraments, and gather around a valid Eucharist. These institutions are in a state of schism with each other, but this is a schism within the church, and does not represent a real split of one church into many churches. The schism is merely one of non-assent, and therefore does not represent a total break in communion. The communion has been wounded, and this is not an ideal situation, however the communion has not been wounded beyond a point where ecumenical repair is possible.

21414maininfocusimage[1].jpgI want to re-emphasise the importance of being in at least partial communion with the successor of Peter: Without maintaining a level of communion with the successor of Peter, apostolic succession is nullified and the Eucharist is therefore invalidated. The Orthodox churches are all in partial communion with the Pope, and this is enough to ensure that their sacraments are valid, however if they were to finally, definitively and entirely break from communion they would lose this privilege. Exactly this has happened with the protestants, and it makes the task of reunification infinitely harder. Pray for unity!

 

The Divine Liturgy in the Book of Hebrews – The Sacrifice of the Mass and the Cross

Hebrews 10:1-18 RSV-CE

10 For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered? If the worshipers had once been cleansed, they would no longer have any consciousness of sin. But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,

“Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired,
but a body hast thou prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God,’
as it is written of me in the roll of the book.”

When he said above, “Thou hast neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Lo, I have come to do thy will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. 10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,

16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts,
and write them on their minds,”

17 then he adds,

“I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more.”

18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

When attacking Catholicism, Protestants will often rush to this passage of Hebrews to assert that Christ’s sacrifice occurred exactly once, and that the repeated sacrifice of the mass is therefore redundant and blasphemous. I personally have found it hard to respond to this attack. For the longest time I have had an intuitive understanding of the Catholic doctrine surrounding the sacrifice of the mass, but I have always struggled to articulate it in an apologetic context. When I try to explain how the mass is equivalent to the sacrifice of the cross, and yet not a repetition of that sacrifice I simply get tongue tied. I will set down some reflections in this post that may help shed some light on the issue.

The Heavenly Liturgy

A relevant question to ask: what exactly is Jesus doing up there in heaven? What does it mean that he is our great high priest? Hebrews 8 is informative:

Hebrews 8:1-7 RSV-CE

Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary; for when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.” But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second.

Sacrifice of the MassSo Jesus is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, he is a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent. What is he doing? He is perpetually, eternally and timelessly offering to the father his “once for all” sacrifice of Calvary. Basically, Jesus is currently up in heaven, eternally saying the sacrifice of the mass. But it is not a sacrifice of the mass like anything you’ve ever seen before: our masses and divine liturgies here on earth take many different forms and expressions, and none of them perfectly reflect the divine liturgy that is currently taking place up in heaven. The liturgy up in heaven is performed in a liturgical language that we do not understand, the movements and rituals involved are beyond our comprehension. Angels are serving and ministering at the heavenly altar. The entire church is the congregation, surrounding the altar and perfectly united to the sacrifice being eternally offered upon it.

Our sacrifices of the mass and divine liturgies here on earth manifest this one, single heavenly liturgy such that we here on earth are able to spiritually unite ourself to the hidden, heavenly reality.

The book of Hebrews is pretty insistent that there is now no longer any need for priests and sacrifices, because Christ performs all the necessary duties as our great high priest up in heaven. So how are we to understand the existence of Catholic and Orthodox priests? The answer: Catholic and Orthodox priests have the honour of sharing or “participating” in Christ’s Melchizedek priesthood. The Catholic priest is an “Alter Christus” – another Christ.

So when a priest says the sacrifice of the mass here on earth, what is actually happening is that he is manifesting the one, divine, heavenly liturgy in a certain way here on earth. This manifestation may take many different forms: the Byzantine liturgy, the Coptic liturgy, the Latin mass, etc. All these manifestations are different and unique, and yet they are intimately connected by the fact that all of them are manifesting the one, eternal, heavenly liturgy that is currently taking place up in heaven. Within this earthly manifestation of the heavenly liturgy, the priest represents Christ – he is an “Alter Christus”. In reality the only priest is Christ, but our ordained ministers have the honour of being his earthly hands in the offering of the Eucharist.

Sacrifice of the MassWhen the heavenly liturgy manifests on earth, the priest takes the place of Christ. A sacrifice of the mass or Divine Liturgy is like a sacramental, liturgical window into the heavenly liturgy: we are able to perceive hidden, heavenly realities with our senses. The liturgical language used during the sacrifice of the mass represents the divine, ineffable, incomprehensible liturgical language employed by Christ up in heaven (Which is one reason why it is appropriate to use Latin, or some other language which not many people understand during the liturgy – this more faithfully reflects the ineffable essence of the heavenly liturgy). The incense, bells, chant, movements, bread and wine engage all the senses and draw us into the hidden realities of the heavenly liturgy where Christ presides as our one high priest.

The Once For All Sacrifice

The earthly liturgy manifests the heavenly liturgy in such a perfect way, that the earthly liturgy can truly be said to be a sacrifice. It is important to keep in mind that the sacrifice itself happens only once: it was performed around 2000 years ago by Christ on the cross. However a Catholic sacrifice of the mass manifests this single sacrifice such that we are able to be liturgically drawn into it and unite ourselves to it more closely. Similarly, the earthly liturgy manifests the offering of the sacrifice which is eternally happening up in heaven, with Christ as both victim and high priest. This offering happens only once, as per the book of Hebrews, however it is manifested many times throughout history.

So how should we deal with the Protestant objection that the sacrifice of the mass is “re-sacrificing Christ”? This is a misunderstanding. Christ is sacrificed only once, and he is offered up only once; however this sacrifice and offering is manifested here on earth many times. The sacrifice occurred on the cross, and the offering up of that sacrifice occurs up in heaven during the heavenly liturgy, with Christ as the priest. However during the sacrifice of the mass, this heavenly liturgy is made manifest in a sacramental, liturgical, tangible way, so that we who are still alive here on earth are able to be drawn into the action. During the sacrifice of the mass, we truly witness both the sacrifice, and the offering of the sacrifice, however in reality it is an eternal event and it is inaccurate to say that it is happening “again”.

1458917927[1].jpgAn imperfect analogy is prudent: If you record a soccer game, and then replay it later, the game is manifested for you in a much more real and tangible way than if you had depended merely on your memory to recall the events of the game. When you record a soccer game, you can “replay” the game and witness the exact events all over again with perfect accuracy. However you would have to be out of your mind to say that the game is literally “happening again” when you press play on your recording. Similarly with the sacrifice of the mass: the sacrifice of the mass is like the ultimate “recording” of the heavenly liturgy: it manifests the original event so perfectly that it is as if we are actually present. However it is inaccurate to say that the sacrifice is “happening again”. It is instead a “memorial”, but it is a memorial which is so completely perfect that it is as if we are literally present at the original event. In the sacrifice of the mass we are liturgically remembering Christ’s sacrifice, and the offering of that sacrifice, however this memorial is so perfect that we may as well be witnessing the sacrifice itself.

Summary

Sacrifice of the MassChrist is not sacrificed many times – he was sacrificed only once. And this sacrifice is not offered many times – it is offered only once. This offering of the sacrifice occurs eternally up in heaven in the form of the heavenly liturgy, with Christ as the high priest and the entire church as the congregation. However our earthly liturgies manifest this heavenly liturgy. Our earthly liturgies serve as a perfect memorial of the single act of sacrifice and offering, and they so perfectly manifest the sacrifice and the offering that it is as if we are truly present and witnessing the event first hand.

So the sacrifice of Christ happened once and the offering happens once in the heavenly liturgy, and the manifestation of this heavenly liturgy occurs many times in the form of our many and varied divine liturgies.

Orthodoxy 101 – Catholicism and Sola Fide: Understanding Indulgences

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

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

A Shift in Paradigm

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

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

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

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

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

Indulgences as Promise

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

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

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

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

Indulgences and Sacraments

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

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

“Earning” Indulgences?

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

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

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

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

The Final Assault of Satan

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

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

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

Penance is Supererogatory

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

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

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

Beautiful Promises

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

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

(Return to first article)

Orthodoxy 101 – Christianity and The Glorious Gospel

What is the Gospel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel Promise of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel Promise of Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where people get the Gospel wrong

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

Arminians, Catholics and Orthodox

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

Calvinists

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

Evangelicals

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

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

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

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

The Gospel Promise of Grace

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

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

Baptism

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

Confirmation

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

Confession

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

Universalism is the only Gospel worthy of the name

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

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

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

(Go to “Understanding Indulgences”)

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

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

Objective Salvation

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

Romans 5:18 ESV

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

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

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

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

Subjective Salvation

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

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

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

Sacraments of promise

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

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

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

Mortal Sin and ConfessionFeaturedMortalSin[1].png

Romans 8:31-39 RSVCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subjective and Objective Beatitude

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

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

Sacraments necessary for salvation

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

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

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

Anonymous Christians and implicit faith

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

Summary

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

(Go to “The Glorious Gospel”)

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

Polygamy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Premarital Sex

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

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

Women’s Ordination

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

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

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

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

Physical Discipline of Wives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sacrament of Confirmation is the Sacrament of Promise

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

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

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

Ephesians 1:13-14 RSVCE

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

2 Corinthians 1:18-22 RSVCE

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

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

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

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

The Sacrament of Confirmation is the Sacrament of Predestination

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

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

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

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

Eternal and Temporal Punishments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacraments and Soteriology

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

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

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

The Suffering of Sinners is the Pleasure of Saints

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

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

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

Father Roberts (OP, SJ) Homily for Tuesday of the 6th week of Eastertide

Tuesday of the 6th week of Eastertide

Daily Readings

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Entrance Antiphon – Revelation 19: 7, 6

Let us rejoice and be glad and give glory to God, for the Lord our God the Almighty reigns, alleluia.

Collect

Grant, almighty and merciful God, that we may in truth receive a share in the Resurrection of Christ your Son. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

First reading – Acts 16:22-34

The crowd joined in and showed their hostility to Paul and Silas, so the magistrates had them stripped and ordered them to be flogged. They were given many lashes and then thrown into prison, and the gaoler was told to keep a close watch on them. So, following his instructions, he threw them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.

Late that night Paul and Silas were praying and singing God’s praises, while the other prisoners listened. Suddenly there was an earthquake that shook the prison to its foundations. All the doors flew open and the chains fell from all the prisoners. When the gaoler woke and saw the doors wide open he drew his sword and was about to commit suicide, presuming that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted at the top of his voice, ‘Don’t do yourself any harm; we are all here.’ The gaoler called for lights, then rushed in, threw himself trembling at the feet of Paul and Silas, and escorted them out, saying, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They told him, ‘Become a believer in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, and your household too.’ Then they preached the word of the Lord to him and to all his family. Late as it was, he took them to wash their wounds, and was baptised then and there with all his household. Afterwards he took them home and gave them a meal, and the whole family celebrated their conversion to belief in God.

Responsorial Psalm – Psalm 137(138):1-3,7-8

Your right hand has saved me, O Lord.

I thank you, Lord, with all my heart: you have heard the words of my mouth. In the presence of the angels I will bless you. I will adore before your holy temple.

I thank you for your faithfulness and love, which excel all we ever knew of you. On the day I called, you answered; you increased the strength of my soul.

You stretch out your hand and save me, your hand will do all things for me. Your love, O Lord, is eternal, discard not the work of your hands.

Alleluia.

Gospel Acclamation – John 16:7,13

Alleluia, alleluia!

I will send you the Spirit of truth, says the Lord; he will lead you to the whole truth.

Alleluia!

Gospel – John 16:5-11

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Now I am going to the one who sent me. Not one of you has asked, “Where are you going?” Yet you are sad at heart because I have told you this. Still, I must tell you the truth: it is for your own good that I am going because unless I go, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I do go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will show the world how wrong it was, about sin, and about who was in the right, and about judgement: about sin: proved by their refusal to believe in me; about who was in the right: proved by my going to the Father and your seeing me no more; about judgement: proved by the prince of this world being already condemned.’

Prayer over the Offerings

Grant, we pray, O Lord, that we may always find delight in these paschal mysteries, so that the renewal constantly at work within us may be the cause of our unending joy. Through Christ our Lord.

Communion Antiphon – Luke 24: 46, 26

The Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead, and so enter into his glory, alleluia.

Prayer after Communion

Hear, O Lord, our prayers, that this most holy exchange, by which you have redeemed us, may bring your help in this present life and ensure for us eternal gladness. Through Christ our Lord.

Homily

We see in today’s reading from the book of Acts the pain and torture that were suffered by the Apostle Paul during his missionary travels. I tell you now, all who trust the Gospel should expect the same persecution. Whether it comes in the form of flogging and physical torture or psychological torment is besides the point: at the end of the day we who believe the promise of the salvation of the cosmos and all who wander within it must expect to suffer intense pain for our faith.

But just as Christ on the cross experienced brutal torments without suffering, so too we will experience pain while laughing for joy. For witness what the biblical author reports Paul and his companion Silas doing immediately after they suffered such unspeakable tortures and were tossed into prison: They prayed and sung Gods praises! See how no torture could rob these men of their joy? Why is it not the same with you? When pain and persecutions come your way do you doubt God, or do you revel in the chance to be a martyr for Christ? When someone slanders you for your faith do you fall silent and stare at your feet? Or do you stand tall and confidently proclaim the certain victory of the eschaton? When someone asks you “Are you saved?”, do you retreat into agnosticism and stammer out some half baked excuse about free will and uncertainty, or do you joyfully sing “Amen”?

Behold the divine madness and holy insanity that Paul displays in this tale: A miraculous earthquake frees him and the other prisoners from their cells and shackles, but Paul is so full of the divine love that he refuses to seize the opportunity to escape, and instead remains in the cell for the sake of the gaoler, who would most certainly be tortured and executed for allowing his prisoners to abscond. This action flowed from a holy insanity, but it was such a bold demonstration that even the gaoler could not fight being overcome with faith in the promise of salvation. Presumably he had heard all the songs that Paul, Silas and the other prisoners were all singing. Presumably all the other prisoners came to believe in the Gospel promise too.

Perhaps Paul and Silas were singing today’s Psalm? It seems like a particularly joyous and exuberant song. Paul thanks the Lord with all his heart: for God heard the words of his mouth. In the presence of the angels Paul will blesses him. Paul thanks God for his faithfulness and love. God increases the strength of Paul’s soul.

Today’s Gospel continues the theme of yesterday’s Gospel: The coming of the Spirit. As mentioned yesterday, the Spirit gives us the power to proclaim the resurrection in such a way that it efficaciously converts all who hear the promise. Those who are unable to convert crowds by their preaching are devoid of the charisms of the Spirit. Today the Resurrected Christ speaks to us, letting us know that the Spirit will guide us into all truth.

How do we know that we have the spirit? Because of our baptism and confirmation! But how do we know if the spirit is active in our lives? This is harder to determine. You must examine yourself for the fruits of the spirit. If you believe that you are right and others are wrong, your heart is hard and the spirit does not dwell in you. If you believe that other Christians are heretics who are destined for the eternal hellfire, then you have not understood the Gospel promise. If you think that Muslims are deceived and are worshipping some other God, you are still walking in the darkness. If you think that it is your faith that saves you, or your baptism, or your confession; you have missed the point of the message.

If you confidently affirm the universal salvation of all souls and the entire cosmos, you have done well. Christ will call you a good and faithful servant on the last day. If you affirm the fundamental truth, goodness and equality before God of all religions, traditions, philosophies and theologies; you will be rewarded highly on the last day.

Anyone who denies the salvation of all people already stands condemned, and the spirit has not penetrated their heart. If that is you, then read the scriptures closely and pray like your life depends on it, for to die without believing the promise is the worst possible fate – worse than anything any of us could imagine.

God’s word achieves what it sets out to achieve, and God’s promise secures the salvation that it promises. So none of us need fear for either ourselves or our neighbour: All will infallibly be saved. Whatever needs to be done, God will see to it that it be done. Nothing can stand between us and the love of Christ. Do not attempt to exclude people from his love, for this is the height of foolishness.

But God’s love will hunt you down and save you, I guarantee it. God guarantees it. Who are you, O man, to run away from God? He is the sovereign lord of the universe, and he desires to save you: are you really so presumptuous that you believe you have the power and “freedom” to escape his romantic overtures? God is the perfect gentleman: he will not force himself on us, but it is guaranteed that we will eventually fall for him and his overwhelming beauty. No one will fail to achieve salvation. This is what Christ represents. Christ is salvation incarnate. Find yourself in his face, and you will pass beyond the final judgement, even while you remain here on earth.

Praise God for his glorious grace, and the joys of the eschaton to come.

Father Alex Roberts (OP, SJ)

The First Epistle to Dominican Brother Reginald OP (Order of Preachers)

52984124_117642846042761_8701216142372372480_n[1]I’m totes mega-devs that you’re about to be whisked away back to Melbourne within the next two months or so. You’re the first Dominican that I’ve really gelled with and there’s a special place for you in my heart. Previously my only exposure was Father Manes, and his accusations of heresy came across as being drenched in anger and dripping with poison. Whereas you and me are able to just have a laugh about it all, as is charitable and loving to do. I hope we will be able to stay in touch once you disappear back down south. You’ll definitely be in my prayers. If I get rich again with both time and money, I will try to visit Melbourne regularly to catch up with you! You strike me as someone with a soft heart who is willing to listen, and so I find myself spontaneously writing this message and exhortation to you.

As your friend I want to do whatever I can to help you be a good and faithful Dominican, Catholic and Christian. But I also want to help you to understand and trust the Gospel promise, which transcends all religious categorisations and labellings. Because nothing else matters. Catholic law and tradition is true and good and beautiful, and both you and I should do our best to follow it, praying the divine office, saying the rosary, serving mass, getting baptised, going to confession and all the rest of it. But without trusting that divine promise this is all just dead works and empty piety; without faith in the gospel we end up just burning rubber at 300kph and not actually moving anywhere.

The promise is that salvation is well and truly unconditional; you literally don’t have to do anything whatsoever and God just gives heaven to you for nothing; Trust that promise and enter into heavenly joy right damn now, skipping death and purgatory. And once you realise that you don’t have to be Dominican, Catholic, and Christian, all of a sudden these three things come alive with colour and symphony and you do them purely out of love and without a trace of fearful obedience. You also become freed to become all things to all people, knowing that nothing can snatch your salvation away from you.

For there is only one mortal sin, which is to fail to trust the gospel promise that I am now speaking to you. Not because failing to trust it will send you to Hell, but because in failing to have faith you are already there; lost and wandering in the outer darkness, and burning in the lake of fire. The Catholic moral law is merely commentary on this fact: there is only one “sin that leads to death”, and it is the failure to understand and trust my promise. This is not a retributive punishment, it is merely a sad brute fact of reality. But God is sovereign, and his promise cannot fail, even though he refuses to force it on us. God’s word achieves what it sets out to achieve, and he promises that his love will hunt you down wherever you may run to, and woo you until you can’t help but say “I love you” back to him.

So I have total and absolute certainty that one day you will be saved (“anathema! anathema!” scream the Fathers of Trent), but why wait? Why not just do it right now? Now is the only moment that matters: We shouldn’t be concerned with trying to “get to heaven” and “avoid Hell” in the future; for these two things are present realities and so we should strive to enter Heaven right now. The eschaton is infinitely distant into the future, and we will never get there, as the eastern church fathers confess; but the eschaton can also explode in our hearts today, at this very hour, if only we would trust that good news and promise. By faith in the promise, our souls cross the uncrossable chasm from Hell to Heaven, and the infinite distance between now and that final victory which lies at the end of the age.

When you truly trust the promise, you realise that not only are you already in heaven, but everyone else is too, and yet they do not realise it. And so evangelism becomes painfully easy for the missionary; all they need do is articulate the promise and proclaim it to the people around them, trusting that God is sovereign, and his promise is effective, and that the Holy Spirit is sowing seeds in the heart of the listener that will infallibly blossom into faith and love at some point in the future. There is no need to thrust 2000 years of Catholic tradition onto the poor neophyte; that comes later. Start with the simple Gospel promise, finish with the sacraments. To do it in reverse is utterly disastrous, as the billions of scrupulous and indifferent Catholics attest.

And lest there be some confusion about the content of this promise, here it is: “I, Alex, in the name of the resurrected Christ, Love you with the divine love, and we promise you that God is with you, even as you wander in Hell. We promise you that God will rescue you from the darkness, and he will use us as his instruments in this battle. We promise you that if you should somehow find yourself trapped in the eschatalogical, everlasting, eternal Hell-fire that lies beyond death, not even this will stop us from saving you. God is eternally more eternal than eternity, and infinitely more infinite than infinity. and so not even the everlasting Hell can prevent us from rescuing you. Christ and the church – the army of God – are with me as I proclaim this promise to you: We are prepared to make the charge against the fortress of Hell. And as Christ promised; the gates of Hell shall not prevail against us. We will rescue you, and no rebellion, death, sin, “freedom”, demons nor devils can ultimately separate you from our love.” This promise will not fail: trust it! And if you doubt the promise, do not ignore your questions and objections; instead confront them and crush them with prayer and meditation. You will not truly appreciate the power of God until you see him face to face, but we do not have to wait till we die to do that. Do it right now, by faith in the Gospel.

Forgive my long and presumptuous ramblings. I tend to get doxological and theological after my morning coffee. And in any case I myself am constantly enthralled by the beautiful Gospel promise in every hour of my existence; whether sleeping or waking. I can’t help but gush about it to you, as the divine love and Joy can’t help but bubble up and overflow out of my heart and attempt to penetrate yours. I want nothing more than to share this love with you. It is a love that explodes all theological and philosophical language, transcending all of our precious dogmas and anathemas. For it is God himself, and both I and he want nothing more than to explode out of my soul and save the world.

But even after all of this has been said, in truth we are trying to pursue a holy silence. I cannot speak this silence to you, but I can direct you to it. And when you trust the promise, we will both be dwelling in that divine silence, where words become unnecessary and impossible, communion is complete, the bliss never ends, and the joy can never again be snatched from us. And so the bottom line is truly as simple as this, I love you, and on the basis of the resurrection, I promise to save you. Please, trust me!

Through, with and in the divine love of Christ,

Alex

(Go to The Second Epistle to Brother Reginald)