Monday, September 4, 2017

Against Theological Minimalism

Modern Christians like to clearly distinguish between "nonessential" and "salvation" issues. Certainly this dichotomy does exist. Divisions in the Church grieve our Lord (John 17:11). Still, the tendency of minimizing the importance of some issues can be described as "theological minimalism." Maybe some issues aren't essential but they are important.

There are great Christians who are Calvinists and great Christians who are Arminians. There are great Christians who practice paedobaptism and great Christians who practice credobaptism. Yet these are mutually exclusive positions that cannot be simultaneously correct. Theological minimalism is the inclination to paper over these discussions as "nonessential" issues. The question then becomes which is our priority: unity or truth? The answer has to be truth because without it, we only risk "unifying" around falsity.

All truth flows out of God. As a result, one of the main goals for Christians is to pursue that truth with all of our hearts, souls, and minds. Theological minimalism dilutes our theology by creating a hierarchy of "important issues" versus "non important issues," ignoring the fact that all theology is interconnected. For example, one would be hard pressed to divorce their ecclesiology and sacramentology. All these issues reflect fundamental convictions about the nature of reality.

So in the end, we shouldn't be so eager for unity that we downplay the vitality of truth. More than that even, we should oppose any sort of theological minimalism that tells us these are unimportant discussions.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

"Making Nothing Into Words": Perelandra's Anticipation of Progressive Theology and the Loss of Meaning

C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was recently used to defend Eugene Peterson's recent public discussion of openness to performing LGBT weddings (which has subsequently been retracted). As a giant of the faith, C.S. Lewis is claimed by both liberal and conservative Christians as a champion of their ideals, much like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Pope Francis.

This raises an interesting question: would Lewis' underlying philosophy and theology allow him to travel the same road as former conservatives who become leaders of Christian progressivism like Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans, Peter Enns, etc.?

Anyone familiar with Lewis' grounded classical worldview would, in fact, see him as mutually exclusive with the progressive mentality in general though there are certainly some issues where he could most likely find some common ground. However, in Perelandra, the second installment of his Space Trilogy, he provides an explicit warning against progressive thinking in the character of Weston.

According to apologist Alisa Childers, there are five symptoms of progressivism in theology: a lowered view of the Bible, emphasizing feelings over facts, essential Christian doctrines are open to renegotiation, historic terms are redefined, and there is a paradigm shift from sin and repentance to social justice.
All of these markers appear in Weston's character in Perelandra which is the second installment of The Space Trilogy. In it, the main character, Ransom, is taken to the newly inhabited edenic world of Perelandra (what we call Venus). He is tasked with preventing Weston, the returning nemesis from the first book Out of the Silent Planet, from perverting this new world by causing a "fall."

In Out of the Silent Planet, Weston espouses a kind of vulgar and transparently bombastic modernity that is intent on exploiting Malacandra for the progress and preservation of humanity, ignoring its hnau, sentient and conscious lifeforms that, while not human are persons:  
"To you I may seem a vulgar robber, but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race. Your tribal life with its stone-age weapons and bee-hive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our civilization—with our science,     medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time. Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower."
He exemplifies the utilitarian secular scientific progressivism so prevalent before the violence of the 20th century. 

However, there is a switch in Weston’s ideology between the first book of the Space Trilogy and the second. See how Weston explains his new-fangled philosophy to Ransom:
“all my life I had been making a wholly unscientific dichotomy or antithesis between And and Nature—had conceived myself fighting for Man against his non-human environment…I had been content to regard Life as a subject outside my scope. The conflicting views of those who drew a sharp line between the organic and the inorganic and those who held that what we call Life was inherent in matter from the very beginning had not interested me. Now it did. I saw almost at once that I could admit no break, no discontinuity in the unfolding of the cosmic process. I became a convinced believer in emergent evolution. All is one. The stuff of mind, the unconsciously purposive dynamism, is present from the very beginning…The majestic spectacle of this blind, inarticulate purposiveness thrusting its way upward and ever upward in an endless unity of differential achievements towards an ever-increasing complexity of organization, towards spontaneity and spirituality, swept away all my old conception of a duty to Man as such. Man in himself is nothing. The forward movement of Life—the growing spirituality—is everything. I say to you quite freely, Ransom, that I should have been wrong in liquidating the Malacandrians. It was a mere prejudice that made me prefer our own race to theirs. To spread spirituality, not to spread the human race, is henceforth my mission. This sets the coping-stone on my career. I worked first for myself, then for science; then for humanity; but now at last for Spirit itself—I might say, borrowing language which will be more familiar to you, the Holy Spirit…I mean that nothing now divides you and me except a few outworn theological technicalities with which organized religion has unhappily allowed itself to get incrusted. But I have penetrated that crust. The Meaning beneath it is as true and living as ever. If you will excuse me for putting it that way, the essential truth of the religious view of life finds a remarkable witness in the fact that it enabled you, on Malacandra, to grasp, in your own mythical and imaginative fashion, a truth which was hidden from me…I have no doubt that my phraseology will seem strange to you, and perhaps even shocking. Early and revered associations may have put it out of your power to recognize in this new form the very same truths which religion has so long preserved and which science is now at last re-discovering. But whether you can see it or not, believe me, we are talking about exactly the same thing.” 

Also, when Ransom brings up the difference between God and the Devil, Weston simultaneously decries and redefines dichotomous thinking: 

“Now your mentioning the Devil is very interesting. It is a most interesting thing in popular religion, this tendency to fissiparate, to breed pairs of opposites: heaven and hell, God and Devil. I need hardly say that in my view no real dualism in the universe is admissible; and on that ground I should have been disposed, even a few weeks ago ,to reject these paris of doublets as pure mythology. it would have been a profound error. The cause of this universal religious tendency is to be sought much deeper. The doublets are really portraits Spirit, of cosmic energy—self-portraits, indeed, for it is the Life-Force itself which has deposited them in our brains…Your Devil and your God are both pictures of the same Force. your heaven is a picture of the perfect spirituality ahead; your hell a picture of the urge which is driving us on to it from behind. Hence the static peace of the one and the fire and darkness of the other.  The next stage of emergent evolution, becoming us forward, is God; the transcended stage behind, ejecting us, is the Devil.”

So what parallels exist between Weston’s thinking and the definition of progressive theology? All five standards are present but some are more prevalent than others. One can certainly see a lowering of the Bible in Weston’s train of thought even though he never explicitly claims it. However, if you really read what it is he’s arguing for, there’s no way to reconcile it with the Scriptures unless you begin to play fast and loose with them. He doesn’t discuss feelings and facts though his argument is more contingent on a kind of sophistry that has to twist Reason to be effective. There’s no discussion of social justice per se either. The strongest parallels between Weston and progressives lies in the fact that essential Christian doctrines are open to renegotiation and historic terms are redefined. 

For example, take Weston’s definition of the Holy Spirit juxtaposed against an orthodox understanding of him. To Weston, the Spirit is, "The forward movement of Life—the growing spirituality—is everything.” There’s no real creature/creator distinction. Everything is the Spirit and the Spirit is everything. It’s the forward movement of Life, the catalyst for progress and progress itself. Of course, this is just a misappropriation of the classical Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity who is, according to the Nicene Creed, “The Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceeded from the Father [and the Son]; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spake by the Prophets.” There’s also a redefinition of heaven and hell. Heaven is a vision of progress. Hell is the driving force. God and Satan being to look scarily alike

The point is this: orthodox theology recognizes the objectivity of Truth. It sees Truth as engrained into the very fabric of reality. It comes from God and points us back to God. In Progressive theology, there is a redefinition of these truths. It becomes nominalist. Those words laden with meaning for the historic Church become placeholders for trendy fads and ideas. Theology is not a way to relate to God so much as a way to individually and culturally construct the world. When the very core of our beliefs become subject to constant revisionism, there is a serious loss of meaning. Ransom diagnoses the problem with Weston (and with progressive theology in general, one might add): “You had nothing to say about it and yet made the nothing up into words.” 

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Double Bind for Determinists: Escaping Piper's Theodicy

There are some tough passages in the Old Testament. A good example is Joshua 8:16-25 (NRSV):
So all the people who were in the city were called together to pursue them, and as they pursued Joshua they were drawn away from the city. There was not a man left in Ai or Bethel who did not go out after Israel; they left the city open, and pursued Israel.
Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Stretch out the sword that is in your hand toward Ai; for I will give it into your hand.” And Joshua stretched out the sword that was in his hand toward the city. As soon as he stretched out his hand, the troops in ambush rose quickly out of their place and rushed forward. They entered the city, took it, and at once set the city on fire. So when the men of Ai looked back, the smoke of the city was rising to the sky. They had no power to flee this way or that, for the people who fled to the wilderness turned back against the pursuers. When Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city and that the smoke of the city was rising, then they turned back and struck down the men of Ai. And the others came out from the city against them; so they were surrounded by Israelites, some on one side, and some on the other; and Israel struck them down until no one was left who survived or escaped. But the king of Ai was taken alive and brought to Joshua.
When Israel had finished slaughtering all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and when all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai, and attacked it with the edge of the sword. The total of those who fell that day, both men and women, was twelve thousand—all the people of Ai.
 Christians have been wrestling with these passages and the tension they create with some of Jesus' teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount. Some Christians, like Peter Enns, have straight up denied the historicity of these conquest accounts and made claims that Israel was merely projecting these commands onto God. Others, like Greg Boyd, have taken a "missionary God" approach paired with a "cruciform" hermeneutic that subverts violent imagery in the Old Testament through the cross (sort of a Barthian reading on steroids).

While both those attempts are severely lacking, deterministic theologian John Piper has an interesting way to handle this issue that may fail harder than the other two: 
It's right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.
God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God's hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.
So God is God! He rules and governs everything. And everything he does is just and right and good. God owes us nothing.
To a determinist, whatever happens occurs because God willed it to be so. The problem is that there is no real stable basis for the categories "good" and "bad" (a critique I have made elsewhere).  On that basis alone, Piper's theology is problematic. However, this specific issue creates a double bind in which this lack of coherence in the nature of God is only one of the potential failures of his system.

In order to understand the problems, first, let's take a look at some of the surrounding facts of the conquest narratives:
  • God sends signs and plagues ahead of Israel to drive the pagans out of the land (Exodus 23). 
  • The rhetoric in most of the promises pertaining to the conquest seems more concerned with driving the other nations out of the land rather than extermination.
  • Rahab clearly responds to the revelation of God through his actions (Josh 2:11). 
True to his nature, God communicates to the pagan nations and gives them plenty of time to turn from their wicked ways. Of course, if you keep reading into the book of Joshua, it becomes evident that the people in the land did not listen to God and experienced his judgment as a result.

So here's the double bind. First, if Piper is right and God's eternal will before the foundation of the world was to "slaughter" the occupants of the land, he risks failing the Euthyphro dilemma because God willing mass killing is arbitrary. To reconcile this, one has to create an extra-biblical "hidden will" of God which can contradict his revealed will.

Second, if one avoids the arbitrariness argument, then it raises some issues for a doctrine like irresistible grace. God communicates to the people of the land through a series of warnings, expressing his desire that they need not be killed. The people fail to respond, however, creating serious cognitive dissonance.

If you're interested in getting a good answer to many of the problematic passages in the Old Testament, a good place to start might be Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan's book Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God. There's lots of good Christian responses to these issues. Don't fall into the Piper (or Enns or Boyd) trap.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Prevenient Grace According to Leo the Great

I have been discussing the concept of prevenient grace some on this blog. As a reminder, prevenient grace in non-Calvinistic soteriological systems is how God initiates relationship with humans. He enables them to accept his gift of salvation. One of the arguments levied against those who advocate prevenient grace is that it is unbiblical and a late invention. While the biblical debate is an important one, it is also important to establish a catholic foundation for prevenient grace through the writings of the Church Fathers. Today, we will look at an example of prevenient grace in a sermon by Leo the Great.

St. Leo the Great (400-461) was the Bishop of Rome. One of his major accomplishments was dissuading Atilla the Hun from invading Italy. He is also considered by Roman Catholics to be a Doctor of the Church and was an important rhetorical combatant against a number of heretics.

In his Sermon 22.5, he discusses the benefits of the Incarnation and Atonement for the Christian. Here is what he says (emphasis added):
Whoever you are, if you devoutly and faithfully boast in the name of Christian, value this atonement rightly. You were a castaway, banished from the realms of paradise, dying of your weary exile, reduced to dust and ashes, with no more hope of living. But by the incarnation of the Word, you were given power to return from far away to your Maker, to recognize your parentage, to be free when you had been a slave, to be promoted from an outcast to a son. Now you, who were born of the flesh, may be reborn by the Spirit of God. You may gain by grace what you did not have by nature, and--if you acknowledge yourself as the child of God by the spirit of adoption--you may dare to call God Father.
Leo sees that Christ's Incarnation and death provides the means for God to make the first move towards us. Yet, according to Leo, this is a possibility, not an inevitable reality. One may not accept the gift but God gives us the ability to.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Bite Size Aquinas: Question 1-The Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine; Article 6

Article 6: Whether This Doctrine is the Same as Wisdom?

So to the sixth question it proceeds. It is evident that this Doctrine is not Wisdom. Truly, no doctrine which adds to its principles from another science is worthy of the name Wisdom, "he who is wise directs, and is not directed" (I, Metaphysics). But this doctrine adds to its principles. Therefore, this doctrine is not Wisdom.

In addition to that, Wisdom extends to test the principles of other sciences whence it is spoken of as the head of sciences, as is clear in Ethics VI. But this Doctrine is not tested by the principles of other sciences. Therefore, it is not Wisdom. Moreover, this Doctrine is acquired through study, however Wisdom is to be had through infusion. It is counted as a gift of the Holy Spirit, as is clear in Isaiah 11. Therefore, this doctrine is not Wisdom.

But on the contrary, it is said in Deuteronomy 4:6, the original law, "This is your wisdom and understanding publicly for the nations."

I respond saying that this Doctrine is chiefly Wisdom above all human wisdom, indeed not in any type only, but simply. Truly, the Wise person is to order and to judge, however, inferior matters should be judged through a higher principle; anyone is said to be Wise who considers the highest principle in that order. Just as in building, he who arranges the shape of the house is called Wise and architect as opposed to the inferior builders who plane the wood and arrange the stones, whence it is said in 1 Corinthians 3:10, "as the wise builder I have laid the foundation." And again, in the order of all human life, the prudent man is said to be wise in as much as he orders his actions to a fitting end, whence is it said in Proverbs 10:23, "Wisdom is prudence to a man." Therefore, He who considers Himself the highest cause in the whole universe, that is God, is the most Wise. Whence Wisdom is said to be knowledge of the divine, just as Augustine makes clear in de Trinitate XII. However, Sacred Doctrine particularly treats of God that He is the highest cause, not only so far as He can be recognizable through creatures as philosophers recognized Him, "That which is known of God is manifest in them" (Rom 1:19), but truly as much as He is know to Himself solely and through the revelation communicated to others. Whence Sacred Doctrine is the most Wise science.

To the second objection it is said that either the principles of other sciences are noted by themselves and are not able to be tested or they are tested by natural reason through the means of some other sciences. However, the knowledge owned by this science is known by the means of revelation, not, however, by means of natural reason. Therefore, it does not extent to prove those principles of other sciences but only to judge them. Truly, whatever is found is found in other sciences contrary to the truth of this science is condemned as wholly false, whence it is said in 2 Corinthians 10:4-5, "Destroying plans and all heights that exalts itself against the knowledge of God."

To the third objection it is said that since judgment extends to Wisdom, the twofold mode of judges creates a twofold Wisdom. Truly, anyone may judge by one mode through the means of inclination, just as whoever has the habit of virtue judges those things which concern virtue. Hence, it is the virtuous man, as it is said in Ethics X, that is the measure and rule of human acts. In another mode, by means of knowledge, just as whoever has been taught in moral science may be able to judge concerning moral actions even though he does not have virtue. Consequently, the first mode of judgment concerning divine things extends to Wisdom which is given by the Holy Spirit, according to 1 Corinthians 2:15, "The spiritual man judges all things." And Dionysius says in Div. Nom. II, "Hierotheus ["sanctification by God] is taught not by mere learning, but by experience of divine things." However, the second mode of judging extends to this doctrine which is acquired by study though its principles are had by revelation.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Bite Size Aquinas: Question 1-The Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine; Article 5

Article 5: Whether Sacred Doctrine is Nobler than Other Sciences? 

So to the fifth question it proceeds. It is evident that Sacred Doctrine is not more worthy than other sciences. For certainty extends to the more worthy sciences. But the other sciences of which the principles are not able to be doubted are evidently more certain than Sacred Doctrine, whose principles are naturally articles of faith which receive doubt. Therefore, it is evident that other sciences are more worthy.

Moreover, the inferior sciences are received from the superior ones, just as music from arithmetic. But Sacred Doctrine is accepted somewhat from the philosophical disciplines, for Jerome says in his letter to the great orator of the city of Rome, "The doctors of antiquity so enriched their books with philosophical doctrines and ideas, that you don't know that which to admire in them, their profane erudition or their scriptural learning." Therefore, Sacred Doctrine is inferior to other sciences.

On the contrary, other sciences are declared to be handmaids to this Sacred Doctrine, "Wisdom sent her handmaids to beckon to the tower."
I respond saying that with this science, which is somewhat speculative and somewhat practical, it transcends all other sciences, speculative and practical. For one speculative science is said to be more worthy than another because of certainty or because of the dignity of the subject-matter. In both respects this science surpasses other speculative sciences. Indeed, the certainty held by other sciences comes out of the light of human reason which is able to wander, however the certainty this science has comes out of the light of divine knowledge which cannot be deceived. Truly, of the two, the more appropriate subject-matter is that knowledge which itself chiefly transcends the height of reason. Truly, other sciences are concerned with only that which can be subdued by reason.Truly of the practical sciences, that which is more noble is ordained to a further end, just as political science is nobler than military science; for the good of the military is ordered to the good of the State. However, the end of this doctrine, in as much as it is practical, is eternal bliss, to which is the ultimate end to which all other practical sciences are ordered. Whence it is apparent from all modes, it is nobler than the others.

Therefore, to the first objection it is to be said that nothing is preserved because what si more certain is, to us, less certain on account of the weakness of our intellects, "which itself is dazzled by the most apparent qualities of nature just as the eyes of an owl are dazzled by the light of the sun," as is stated in Metaphysics II. Whence doubt which descends on someone concerning the articles of the faith is uncertain not on account of the matter but on account of the weakness of the human intellect. And nevertheless, the smallest knowledge that is able to be had of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge which had of the lowest things, as is stated in de Animalibus XI.
To the second objection it is to be said that the knowledge received is something for the philosophical disciplines, not out of necessity that it is lacking, but to make more apparent that which is handed down in this science. It is not accepted that its origin is from other sciences but immediately from God by way of revelation. And therefore it is not depednent on other sciences as the higher, but is employed of them as of the inferior, and as handmaids; just as master sciences use sciences that supply their materials, as politics of military science. And so that it uses them is not on account of its weakness or its insufficiencies but on account of the defects of our intellects which is more easily led by what is known through natural reason (out of which proceeds the other sciences) to that which is above reason, such as this science receives.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Sacraments Aren't Valid Because of Me...And that's the Most Comforting Thing Ever

As a newly ordained priest, I'm still getting used to the whole concept of alter Christus. Priests stand in the breach between the congregation and God, as Moses stood in the breach between Israel and God (Ps 106:23; NRSV):
Therefore, he said he would destroy them--
had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach before him,
to turn away his wrath from destroying them.
Not only that, but the minster represents Christ in the liturgy. He prepares the feast of the Lord's Supper and invites the people to participate.

This raises some interesting theological questions. Christ is perfect. Priests are very imperfect. Does this invalidate the Sacrament? What if a priest secretly doubts the Gospel or is in some serious, unconfessed sin? Can they still administer the Sacraments or is the congregation "duped" into receiving something invalid?

One of the reasons relationships often fail is because of unrealistic expectations. Friendships, marriages, and many other relationships fall apart because one of the participants in the relationship expects perfection from the other allowing no room to be human. Assuming that the priest "makes or breaks" the validity of the Sacrament is just another unrealistic expectation. The priest is not the reason a Sacrament is effectual, Christ is.

One of the most relieving parts of the 39 Articles of Religion is in "Article XXVI: Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments":
Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.
Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally, being found guilty, by just judgment be deposed.
 Did you catch that? God has chosen to work through the Sacraments to bestow upon his people grace. He uses the common to convey the sacred. This is true of his ministers too! The imperfect is used as a vehicle for the perfect. During the Mass, the sinful, broken, wounded priest can be used by a holy God. What a picture of grace!

This isn't an excuse for priests to be immoral or lack doctrinal commitments required of orthodox Christians. This is, however a powerful reminder that God's grace prevails. Thank God it's not contingent on me and that the parishioners at our church don't have to wring their hands and hope I live a worthy life.

Even for priests...especially for priests, Luther's words ring true: simul justus et peccator. I am simultaneously righteous and a sinner. It is comforting to know the objective reality of grace in the sacraments. It's objective not because of any effort on my part but because Christ is so loving that he has bound himself to pour out grace through the Sacraments, even if the priest isn't perfect.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Bite Size Aquinas: Question 1-The Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine; Article 4

Article 4: Whether Sacred Doctrine is a Practical Science?

Objection 1: It is evident that Sacred Doctrine is a practical science. For the end of a practical science is an activity, according to the Philosopher in II Metaphysics. Sacred Doctrine is ordered to activity. Secondly, James 1:22 states, "Be doers of the word and not hearers only." Therefore, Sacred Doctrine is a practical science.

Objection 2: Moreover, Sacred Doctrine is divided into Old and New Law. The Law, however, belongs to the science of morality, which is a practical science. Therefore, Sacred Doctrine is a practical science.

But on the contrary, all practical science is concerned with human operations; just as morality is concerned with human acts and architecture with buildings. However, Sacred Doctrine is principally concerned with God, whose best work is mankind. Therefore, it is not a practical science but more speculative.

I respond that Sacred Doctrine, being one, extends to those things which belong to different philosophical sciences, because it considers in each the same formal aspect, that is to say they are divinely illuminated. Hence, it is permitted in the philosophical sciences that some are speculative and others are practical. However, Sacred Doctrine is itself comprehended under both; as God, by the same science, knows Himself and His works. Nevertheless, it is more speculative than practical because it is more concerned with divine things than human actions; though it does treat even of these inasmuch as man is ordained by them to the perfect knowledge of God in which consists eternal bliss. This is a sufficient answer to the objections.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Bite Size Aquinas: Question 1-The Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine; Article 3

Article 3: Whether Sacred Doctrine is One Science?

Objection 1: It is evident that Sacred Doctrine is not one science. According to the Philosopher in Poster., 1, "Science is one which is of a singular type of subject." However, the Creator and creation, concerning that which is discussed in Sacred Doctrine, are not connected under one type of subject. Therefore, Sacred Doctrine is not one science.

Objection 2: Besides, Sacred Doctrine discusses Angels, bodily creatures, and human laws. However, these belong to different philosophical sciences. Therefore, Sacred Doctrine is not a singular science.

But on the contrary is that Sacred Scripture, concerning this, says it is one science, as Wisdom 10:10 states, "he gave this sacred knowledge."

I respond that Sacred Doctrine is to be considered a singular science. Truly, the singularity of an ability or habit is considered by its object, not in fact, its materiality, but as regards the exact formality under which it is an object, for example, man, ass, and stone assemble in a single formality of being colored, because color is the object of sight. Therefore, because Sacred Scripture is considered something following divine revelation those words, all that are divinely revealed, communicate in one manner the formal object of this knowledge. And therefore it is comprehended under Sacred Doctrine as under one science.

To the first objection, therefore, it is to be said that Sacred Doctrine is not determined about God and creation out of equality but about God principals and about creation secondly because it was made known by God as the beginning and the end. Hence, the unity of knowledge is not impeded.

To the second objection, it is said that nothing prohibits inferior faculties from being differentiated by something which falls under a higher faculty or habit as well because the higher faculty or habit regards the object in its more universal formality. Just as the object of common sense is whatever affects the senses that is comprehended under that which is seen and heard, whence common sense with its one faculty is extended itself to all objects which are perceived through the senses. And similarly, those objects discussed in different philosophical sciences can be considered under this one Sacred Doctrine under one aspect insofar as they are divinely revealed so that this Sacred Doctrine bears the impression of divine science which is one and simple, yet extends to all.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Prevenient Grace in St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation

In order to understand the concept of prevenient grace, one must first be aware of the history behind the doctrinal debates surrounding it. Pelagius (360-418) was an advocate of a radical theology of human freedom. To Pelagius, humans were inherently able to choose to do good. His view came with a rejection of the catholic idea of Original Sin. Pelagius was opposed by St. Augustine (354-430) who, in reaction to Pelagius, stressed the fallen nature of humanity and God's initiative in salvation. In the writings, of Augustine and the Council of Carthage, the doctrine of Total Depravity began to be codified. The Council of Carthage (418) affirmed nine beliefs in response to Pelagianism:
1. Death came from sin, not man's physical nature.
2. Infants must be baptized to be cleansed from original sin.
3. Justifying grace covers past sins and helps avoid future sins.
4. The grace of Christ imparts strength and will to act out God's commandments.
5. No good works can come without God's grace.
6. We confess we are sinners because it is true, not from humility.
7. The saints ask for forgiveness for their own sins.
8. The saints also confess to be sinners because they are.
9. Children dying without baptism are excluded from both the kingdom of heaven and eternal life.*
The doctrine of Total Depravity became the first point in the Calvinistic soteriological system of TULIP (Total Depravity/Unconditional Election/Limited Atonement/Irresistible Grace/Perseverance of the Saints). The Calvinist takes Total Depravity, that man's natural orientation is away from God and is unable to turn to him, and builds a soteriology that becomes inherently deterministic: man is unable to come to God so God, through his sovereign grace, has predestined some to receive grace. This Elect group is who Christ died for, not the whole world.

Wesleyan-Arminian theology opposes the determinism of Calvinistic soteriology but it does accept the doctrine the idea of Total Depravity. As humans, it acknowledges, we are unable to turn to God of our own accord. We are all born into original sin. Romans 3:10-12 (NRSV) points this out, "There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one."

But how do Wesleyan-Arminians acknowledge Total Depravity and claim people have free will? Answer: the doctrine of Prevenient Grace. According to the Roman Catholic Catechism (§2670), "No one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit. Every time we begin to pray to Jesus, it is the Holy Spirit who draws us on the way of prayer by his prevenient grace."

Prevenient Grace is distinct from saving grace and sanctifying grace. According to the United Methodist Church:
"[John] Wesley understood grace as God's active presence in our lives. This presence is not dependent on human actions or human response. It is a gift--a gift that is always available, but that can be refused. God's grace stirs up within us a desire to know God and empowers us to respond to God's invitation to be in relationship with God. God's grace enables us to discern differences between good and evil and makes it possible for us to choose good...God takes the initiative in relating to humanity. We do not have to beg and plead for God's love and grace. God actively seeks us!" 
The result of Prevenient Grace, according to John Wesley (Sermon 85) is, "the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning His will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against Him." 

Some deny the reality of Prevenient Grace because they claim it lacks biblical foundation (that's a post for another day) or because it's a new doctrinal development. However, we can see the concepts of Total Depravity and Prevenient Grace in the writings of St. Athanasius (296-373), though since he preceded Pelagius and Augustine, his categories on this topic were not as developed (heresy was the mother of invention to the Church Fathers).

Athanasius clearly acknowledge a proto-Total Depravity (On the Incarnation, I.4):

But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion...when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing.
Athanasius claims that humans are helplessly losing their essential identity as humans. He believes that God, then was placed in a "Divine Dilemma": he could either let humanity continue on its trajectory to non-existence (which he could not do on account of his love for humanity) or he could forgive humanity's sin without any kind of sacrifice (which would violate his justice). Neither alternative being doable, God sent his Son to take on flesh and take our punishment from us, "He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us" (On the Incarnation, II.8). Through this act of revelation, God has made himself knowable, providing what would later be described as Prevenient Grace (VII.43):
The Lord did come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men...for Him...the way was not merely to dwell here, but to put  Himself at the disposal of those who needed Him, and to be manifested according as they could bear it, not vitiating the value of the Divine appearing by exceeding their capacity to receive could not recognise Him as ordering and ruling creation as a whole. So He takes to Himself for instrument a part of the whole, namely a human body, and enters into that. Thus He ensured that men should recognise Him in the part who could not do so in the whole, and that those who could not lift their eyes to His unseen power might recognise and behold Him in the likeness of themselves.
God makes the first move. Through the Incarnation and by grace, he has made himself intelligible to us.

Tradition is important and a vital tool which helps us understand God's Word. Here, Athanasius articulates a soteriology that has much more in common with Wesleyan-Arminianism than competing soteriological systems. Prevenient Grace is not novel. It fits much better with a catholic soteriology.

*Point 9 from the Council of Carthage is included to complete the list. It has little bearing on the discussion at hand.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Bite Size Aquinas: Question 1-The Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine; Article 2

In Article 1 of his Summa, St. Thomas asked whether, besides philosophy, any further doctrine is required. He answered that it was necessary for there to be other forms of knowledge outside of pure philosophy, namely divine revelation which exceeds mere human reason. In today's post, he is pondering the question of whether Sacred Doctrine can be considered a science.

As a reminder, Thomas always poses the side he disagrees with first in the form of "objections" to the question posed by the article.


Article 2: Whether Sacred Doctrine is a Science?

Objection 1: It seems that sacred doctrine is not a science, for all knowledge proceeds out of principles known through themselves. But Sacred Doctrine proceeds out of articles of faith, which are not known through themselves because they are not conceded by all, "Truly all do not have faith" (II Thess 3:2). Therefore sacred doctrine is not a science.

Objection 2: Besides, science is not of a singular subject. But Sacred Doctrine is discussed as a singular subject, for instance the deeds of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and such like. Therefore, Sacred Doctrine is not a science.

But on the contrary, it is that which Augustine says (On the Trinity, 14), "This knowledge is associated with only that healthiest faith which is begotten, nourished, defended, and strengthened." This, however, pertains to no knowledge except to Sacred Doctrine. Therefore, Sacred Doctrine is a science.

I respond that Sacred Doctrine is to be called a science. But it must be remembered that the family of science is twofold. For some proceed out of known principles from the enlightened intellect, just as math, geometry, and the like. Some specifically proceed out of known principles enlightened by superior sciences, just as perspective springs out of principles from geometry and music out of principles from math. And this Sacred Doctrine is a science which springs from known principles enlightened by a superior science, which is the science of God and blessed things. Hence, the musician believes the principles delivered to himself by math, so Sacred Doctrine is believed by the principles revealed by God.

To the first objection, therefore, the principles of science is that either they are known by themselves or are subjugated to a known superior science.

To the second objection, it is to be stated that singular facts are transmitted in Sacred Doctrine, not because it is concerned with them principally but they are introduced as examples for lives, just as the science of ethics; furthermore to declare the authority of men through whom divine revelation appeared to us, from which Sacred Scripture and serious doctrine are poured out.

Christians typically draw a distinction between general revelation and special revelation. General revelation is God revealing himself through the created order. When one looks at a beautiful sunrise and they begin to ponder the miracle of the sun consistently rising and setting, they begin to wonder where the laws which cause these natural events to occur came from. When they appreciate its beauty, they begin to wonder where their sense of awe came from. The answer: God.

Special revelation, on the other hand, is direct communication from God to people. The Burning Bush is an example of Special Revelation. So is Sacred Scripture. Special revelation climaxed with Christ on the Cross, the ultimate message of love from God to us.

Some Christians, especially those from the Reformed school of thought elevate special revelation above natural revelation. While this is not inherently problematic, sometimes it concurs with an almost exaggerated degradation of natural revelation.

Thomas certainly elevates special revelation. God has spoken directly to us so that he might establish relationship with us! But what he also believes that all Truth in the world is united in Christ. So math, as an intellectual discipline, may be a form of general revelation but it flows out of the very nature of God and, through its Truths, points us back to him.

At the end of the day, Aquinas argues that yes, Sacred Doctrine is a science in the same sense music is (to Medieval thinkers, music was a part of the Quadrivium and therefore a science; it is a consequence of Modernist thought that we would fragment the idea of "science" and "art" the way we do today). It is not a "higher science" like math which is self-evident. It is a "lower science" (though in no way less dignified" because it is enlightened by God and his divine revelation--a "higher science" that is self-evident.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Tomb as Tabernacle

If there is indeed a God, it seems the next logical question would be whether that God is knowable to us. If he is knowable, does he care about us? The Christian tradition provides us with answers to these questions. He is knowable. He does care about us. This care is not a distant kind of caring in the sense that I may “care” about whether my sports team wins their game or not. It is an intimate care that stands in solidarity with his Creation. A care that takes on real, human flesh. A care that bears our sins to make us right with our Creator.

If all this is true, we should expect to see evidence of it throughout Scripture. Over and over, God takes residence among his people. One unexpected instance of this dwelling, or tabernacle-ing, is Christ’s tomb. 

Jesus’ Birth: The Tabernacle  
At different points in the Old Testament the Ark, the Tabernacle, and the Temple are all vital to the Jewish faith because they contain the Divine, they are the locus where Heaven and Earth intersect. God was sacramentally present with his Covenantal People through those channels.

The New Testament opens with another important instance of God taking up a dwelling among his people: the Blessed Mother. According to Catholic Thomas Howard, “she alone had been chosen for a cooperation with the Most High that went far beyond bearing witness to the Word, as had been the office of the patriarchs, the law-giver Moses, and the Prophets. She was to bear the Word.”[1] Nevertheless, Mary’s womb continues the biblical pattern of God taking up residence among His people. Mary’s womb anticipates what is to come: the Incarnation.

In Matthew’s birth account, the author relays the angel’s words to Joseph, “[Mary] will bear a Son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save the people from their sins” (Matt 1:21; NRSV). He then offers this analysis, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us’” (Matt 1:22-23). In St. John’s Gospel, he adds a profoundly simple statement to this Incarnation event, “And the Word became flesh and lived [“tabernacled”] among us” (John 1:14). The Divine taking on human flesh is the ultimate act of solidarity and the epitome of love. Jesus’ last words in Matthew’s Gospel remind us that the Incarnation is a perpetual, history-altering reality, “I am with you always to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). 

Death and Resurrection

In the Gospels, Jesus’ birth and burial are treated as literary parallels. At Jesus’ birth, he is wrapped in linen bands (Luke 2:7). At his death, he is wrapped again in linen bands (Matt 27:59; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53). At his birth, they “laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7). At his burial, they took his body and “laid it in a tomb” (Matt 27:60; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53). In Luke’s nativity narrative, an angel makes an announcement of Jesus’ birth to a group of shepherds who make a pilgrimage to Jesus’ birthplace (Luke 2:8-20). An angel also announces the resurrection to a group of women visitors at the tomb (Matt 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-10). John’s description of the two angels standing by the tomb resembles the Ark of the Covenant as well (20:11-12). If Jesus’ birth story and Incarnation alludes to the idea of “tabernacle,” could his death and burial story too?

Interestingly, Jesus was laid in a tomb that looked somewhat like a cave. Elsewhere in literature, caves are closely associated with wombs. Odysseus in a cave with the Cyclops claims he is “no-man” (Gk: oudeis). After bursting forth from the cave, he has a name (Odysseus). It is a picture of birth and clever wordplay (note how similar oudeis and Odysseus sound).

From a pre-resurrection perspective, the tomb of Christ was not a womb but an end. Some Jewish factions in Jesus’ day believed in a resurrection in the distant future (Pharisees and Martha in John 11:24). Other Jews (the Sadducees) rejected it outright. Gentiles also rejected the concept of resurrection. In Greco-Roman mythology, N.T. Wright points out, there is only story, Orpheus and Eurydice, dealing with even the possibility of resurrection and it ends on a pessimistic note.[2] The disciples themselves are pessimistic too. The two Jesus encounters on the road to Emmaus appear none too hopeful, resignedly admitting, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21a).

However, from a post-resurrection perspective, the tomb is very much like a womb. An incubator. It is, to the Christian, the last tabernacle, the last container of divinity. It is a place of waiting and, at the right moment, Christ burst forth from the grave. Rebirth is a vindication, a proclamation that He accomplished the Father’s will and destroyed death entirely (1 Cor 15). Like other tabernacles that came before it, the grave is not sufficient for holding the Divine, something the Church picked up almost immediately, as Stephen proclaimed, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (Acts 7:48). The tomb, death’s womb, was the final barrier preventing humanity from access to the Divine.

God With Us

God cannot be contained in statues or images, they are dumb and mute and crafted by human hands (Pss 115:4-8; 135:15-18; Isa 2:8; Hos 13:2). Furthermore, God cannot be contained in any building made by human hands. The Tabernacle and the Temple are obsolete, the curtain rend asunder (Matt 27:51). Not only that, but God cannot be bound to only a particular ethnicity. The Gospel has been taken to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and all the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8) and now, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Ultimately, God cannot be contained by any of these things and even more, the grave. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55).

Only one thing can “limit” God. God is only constrained by love, not as an external boundary but an essential part of his nature (1 John 4:8). He cannot be what he is not. Because of his aseity, he will never cease to be love and because he is love, he will never cease to be “with us.” As Paul confidently states, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, 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” (Rom 8:38-39). The whole world is, in a sense, a tabernacle. He is with us always. By reflecting on the former tabernacles, we are reminded of the universal truth that God is with us, even in the grave and that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19).

[1] Thomas Howard, On Being Catholic (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 186.
[2] N.T. Wright, “The Surprise of Resurrection,” in Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened, ed. Troy A. Miller (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 77.