Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 1

Posted: July 24th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 1

1.  First the intellect marvels when it reflects on the absolute infinity of God, that boundless sea for which it longs so much. Then it is amazed at how God has brought things into existence out of nothing. But just as ‘His magnificence is without limit’ (Ps. 145:3. LXX), so ‘there is no penetrating His purposes’ (Isa. 40:28).

I want to note something in this text that’s somewhat tangential. I’ve often encountered a modern idea that the ancient “Greek” fathers twisted the Christian tradition they received into something else through the influence of  Greek philosophy. (I’ll note that St. Ephraim, St. Isaac, and many others weren’t actually Greek at all. They are called “Greek” fathers, I believe, because they wrote in Greek.) Yet above we see St. Maximos referring to the ex nihilo act of creation by God. That stands in sharp contrast to pagan Greek philosophy. Yes, they used the terms available to them in the language of their time. We do the same today. The words we have are our available tools. But they used that language to fight against Greek philosophy and Christian heresies in those areas where they did not conform to the faith that had been handed down to them. If you actually read the fathers, you can’t help but see that truth. It permeates their writings.

Reflecting on St. Maximos’ text for today, all I can say is go read Colossians. If your mind doesn’t marvel and your heart (nous) isn’t at least momentarily stilled in wonder, I’m not sure you’ve allowed yourself to truly understand what it says.


Speaking of God – Trinity

Posted: April 4th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Speaking of God – Trinity

In Speaking Carefully About God and continuing in How to Speak of God I explored some of the things I try to keep in mind about God whenever I speak or write. In this final post, I want to explore what it means that the uniquely Christian God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God. We cannot speak of the God made fully known in Jesus of Nazareth except in a fully Trinitarian manner.

But what does it mean to speak in a Trinitarian manner? How does one do that? There are many directions the answer to those questions could take. It’s a deep subject and there’s no way I can do more than address a very few aspects of the answer in this post. So this is not a comprehensive treatise, just a few things I try to keep in mind when I think of God.

First, there are three distinct Persons in the Trinity. That’s critically important. It’s not God presenting different faces to creation in different situations, but three Persons acting in concert. However, it’s three Persons so unified in love and will and action that they can said to be of one essence — one God. And that is the mystery. It’s out of the overflow from that deep and utterly self-sufficient uncreated communion of love that all creation subsists.

But that reality constrains our language. One way I have heard it presented that makes a great deal of sense to me goes something like this. Absolutely everything we can possibly say about God applies either to all three persons of the Trinity or uniquely to one — never to two and not the other. So the Father is uniquely Father. The Father is the font or source. The Son is the only begotten of the Father (begotten not made). The Son is the unique logos of God, the Debar Yahweh, the Word and strong right arm of God. The Holy Spirit, the  Ruach Yahweh, the breath or wind of God proceeds eternally from the Father. Those are some of the things we can say uniquely about each Person. These are some of the things that make them unique Persons.

But almost everything else we can possibly say about God applies to all three Persons. We say that God is love. By that we mean the Father is love, the Son is love, and the Spirit is love. And there is no break, division, or separation in their love. They are all the same love. One way to think of it is that the Father always acts in and through his Word and Spirit. And his Word and his Spirit never act apart from the Father and each other. Perfect union. Perfect harmony.

And this brings up a common problem today. In an attempt to find gender neutral references to the Persons of the Trinity, some people today try instead to reference the Persons by different activities of God. A commenter on Sarah Moon’s post, Our Mother who art in heaven, mentions referring to the Persons of the Godhead as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer rather than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There are other “activities as names” I’ve heard over the years, but the ones above are a good illustration and every such attempt shares the same flaw.

When we name the Persons of the Trinity by an activity of God, we necessarily ascribe that activity to that one Person and not to all three. The above implies that it’s the Father who creates, the Son who redeems, and the Spirit who sustains. A hermeneutical move like that effectively reduces the Trinity to three separate Gods (as some of the Christian critics have long asserted) acting independently from each other. And it also fails to accurately describe the God revealed to us.

The Father is not the Creator. No, it’s better to say that creation flows from the Father spoken by his Word and nurtured by his Spirit. We see that pretty clearly even in Genesis, but explicitly in places like the prologue to John and Colossians.

The Son is not separately the Redeemer. Rather the Son acts together with the Father and the Spirit as the agent of redemption — as one would expect of the Word or Arm of God. But it’s the Son acting in concert with the Father empowered by the Spirit redeeming creation. We could as easily say the Spirit redeems or the Father redeems.

Similarly, the Spirit alone is never the Sustainer. Colossians tells us that all creation subsists or is sustained each moment by the Son. Jesus tells us he is with us always, even to the end of the ages. The Father, as the font of life, also sustains all that is.

Virtually every action of God is an action of the Trinity, not of a single Person of the Trinity. It’s in that sense we have one God. So if we want to speak about the activity of God and we do not see how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all involved in that activity, we should be exceedingly cautious indeed.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, Amen.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 3 – Unraveling the Caricature

Posted: June 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 3 – Unraveling the Caricature

There are many threads one can use to begin unraveling the somewhat common modern caricature of the Christian perspective on reality I described in the last post. I want to start with the affirmation of the very basic Christian belief that God is not somewhere else. The Christian God is everywhere present and filling all things. As Paul said to the Areopagus of Athens, “in him we live and move and have our being.” Again, as the Seraphim sing in Isaiah 6, “The whole earth is full of his glory.” And as Paul writes about Jesus in Colossians, “He is before all things, and in him all things consist.”

God is not off in some “place” called heaven that is separate or distinct from the earth. I often hear people assert that heaven is an actual place and heaven is thus “real”. It may be that they are trying to push back against the various forms of materialism with that statement. It’s actually unclear to me what their purpose or goal is, but the assertion does seem to be a response “against” something. However, by making heaven into a place that is separate from earth, they actually enable and express a secular perspective of reality.

Heaven and earth are instead overlapping and interlocking dimensions of our one, unified reality. They are not separate “places” in any sense that we understand “place”. Heaven and God are not any distance at all from us. Heaven is never more than a step away. God is the air we breathe. There is presently a veil between heaven and earth, a veil that appears to be part of the grace of God for our healing and salvation. But even before I was Christian, I recall having a sense of what I’ve since learned the Celtic Christians called “thin places.” In certain places and at certain times, that veil can be thin indeed.

The proper Christian division of reality, then, is not between the earthly and the heavenly, the material and the spiritual, the natural and the supernatural, but between the created and the uncreated. That’s not to say that other categories do not ever have value. They may certainly have situational or contingent value. But the fundamental divide is between the uncreated, which in the Christian view is God in three persons alone, and the created, which is everything else that exists.

When we begin to grasp that perspective, we can properly see heaven and earth as united aspects of God’s one creation. It’s from this perspective we draw the traditional eschatological vision of a time when the present veil between the two will be no more. Heaven and earth together and everything in them (except God, of course) are creation.

What then of hell? While much of this series will actually be spent exploring that question, as it seems to be the focal point of much confusion within modern Christianity, there is one point I believe needs to be made clearly from the outset. Hell is not “real” in the same sense that heaven and earth are real. Whatever reality it has flows from a distortion of God’s good creation. Hell has substantially less innate and substantial reality than heaven and earth. I think C.S. Lewis illustrated that point well in the imagery he uses in The Great Divorce. Those visiting heaven from hell find that heaven has so much more tangible reality that even the blades of grass are like knives to them.

Christianity is not dualistic in the sense that good and evil are equal and opposing forces. Evil is the shadow of darkness that is dispelled simply by the presence of light. Evil is real, certainly. Those of us who have experienced it would never confess otherwise. The Christian perception is quite different from, for example, the Hindu concept of maya. But as “hell” does not and cannot have the same sort of reality that God’s creation — heaven and earth — has, so evil does not and cannot have the same sort of reality as good. We do not live in the universe of the yin and the yang. In Christian parlance, God and Satan are in no sense equal. In the end, the tempter and accuser is simply another creature, even if he is a powerful creature by our standards. He is still nothing next to God.

The meaning behind the way I structured the title of this series should be clear now.


Original Sin 16 – Healing the Nature of Man

Posted: March 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 16 – Healing the Nature of Man

As I began to knit Scripture together with its ancient Christian interpretations, the image that likely sealed my turn toward Christianity was the image of recapitulation first found in the work St. Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies. His imagery of recapitulation follows St. Paul’s typology of Adam and Christ.

[Christ became man], in order that, as our species went down to death through a vanquished man, so we may ascend to life again through a victorious one; and as through a man death received the palm [of victory] against us, so again by a man we may receive the palm against death.

Or perhaps my turn was sealed when I read Athanasius who in On the Incarnation of the Word wrote, “For He was made man that we might be made God.” Or perhaps it was Paul who in Romans 8, Ephesians, and Colossians described a vision of a work of God in Christ redeeming creation, summing up all that is in Christ, and doing it in and through and by love, that captured my heart as no other story about reality had ever done.

But at every point in my journey, I have been drawn to a God of love who became one of us, who was tempted in every way we are tempted, who endured all that we endure, in order to join his nature to ours and through that union restore us to life, bring us into communion with God, and redeem all that exists. That’s a God worthy of all worship and of all love. I would not say that about any other god.

And here is where the doctrine of original sin as inherited guilt creates a serious problem. For if Jesus was never condemned by God, then he could not have been born guilty. However, if his nature at conception did not carry the burden of inherited guilt and the nature of man is so burdened, then Jesus did not actually become fully human. He became instead something like a superhuman. He was not one of us. He walked above us instead instead of with us. Moreover, if he was not fully man, then his work cannot have truly healed man’s nature. St. Gregory of Nazianzus captures it beautifully in the simple statement, “What has not been assumed has not been healed.”

If Jesus was born with a different nature than the rest of mankind, then whatever else he accomplished, he could not recapitulate our lives on our behalf. He could, perhaps, purchase us. But having purchased us, he could not also heal us. He could not join our nature to God’s. There is a deep theological problem with the fundamental idea that we inherit guilt at birth as part of our human nature. It makes us other than Christ in our very nature. If Christ is not fully human, Christianity has nothing to offer — at least to me.


Holy, Holy, Holy

Posted: October 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory. Isaiah 6:3

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us. Trisagion

A couple of days ago, @tomcottar retweeted @edstetzer:

Holiness is not separation from sinners. It is separation from sin.

At the time I had several thoughts, but none that would fit in 140 characters, so I let it go. I saw it retweeted some more that day, so it stayed on my mind. Then yesterday, I was following up a reference in the OSB when I saw this note with Ephesians 1:4-6.

Becoming a Christian is not so much inviting Christ into one’s life as getting oneself into Christ’s life.

As I reflected on that, I realized that I would need to capture my reaction to the initial tweet on holiness in writing and it would take me considerably more than 140 characters to do it.

I believe many people think of holy as roughly synonymous with good or pure or moral. And, at least in the sense that Christians use the word, that’s really not what it means. We draw our use and understanding from that of the ancient Jewish people and qadosh, to the extent that I understand it, draws more from the idea of being distinct, set apart, or separate. As an illustration, variants of the word refer to the male and female temple prostitutes that were common in the ancient pagan world. The ancient Hebrews certainly did not think of the practice as pure or moral, but did recognize that the temple prostitutes had been set apart for worship, even if pagan worship.

As an aside, that does also illustrate an interesting point. Monotheism, the belief that there is only one God, is not actually the belief of the ancient Jewish people. Rather, it’s a belief that developed over time and we probably don’t see it really in evidence until around the 2nd century BCE. For much of the Old Testament, the faith of the Israelites is better described as henotheism, or the worship of one God even as you accept the reality of other gods. God guided them through a long transition from polytheism to monotheism rooted in the commandment to worship only him. The story of the people of God makes a lot more sense if you read it with that understanding.

One of the tidbits I’ve picked up along the way about the ancient hebrew language is that it did not have comparatives and superlatives (as was not uncommon in ancient languages) in the same way that we modify words to express those concepts. Rather, it repeated the word being emphasized. Thus “holy, Holy, HOLY” as the angels are singing in Isaiah’s vision is a way of saying the most Holy or the most apart, distinct, separate, or different. God, in his essence, is entirely other from creation. He is the uncreated. And yet in the same song, we find the remarkable tension of our faith. God is entirely other from creation, and at the same time all creation is filled with his glory. God is immanent. This is the truth we see  fully realized in the Incarnation of our Lord. The God who is wholly other becomes fully one of us. The God who is other enters into and joins his creation in the most intimate way possible. Why? Because our God is a God who is love and love sacrifices for the other. Our God is good and the lover of mankind. He is not other and distant, but other and near. We pray in the Trisagion for the thrice holy God to have mercy on us. And the raw beauty of the Incarnation is that he does, in the only way possible.

And that, finally, brings me to my reaction to the tweet. The words from which “sin” is translated draw from a theme of “missing the mark“. Since our mark is God and our life is now hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3), it is true that as we draw toward our mark, we will move away from that which is not our mark. And the point of the tweet is an important one. As the people of the Christ (indeed, in so intimate a way that a description of the Church as body and as bride is natural in Scripture) who dined with tax collectors and sinners without regard for the laws regarding ritual cleanliness, as those who are already being healed, we must not draw away from those who need healing. We are the hospital.

As another aside, in the laws of ritual cleanliness by which, in part, the Jews were set apart as a people, it’s clear that one could be made ritually unclean by touch. Ritual cleanness or holiness, however, could not be similarly transmitted. That was utterly dependent on your own actions and required positive effort. Jesus, however, acted utterly differently. Not only did he act as though he could not be made unclean by contact, he acted as though those who came in contact with him could be made clean. Unless you understand that part of the context, you will miss part of the power of the Gospel narratives.

Back to the point, though I agree with the intent of the original tweet, I think there is a problem with the way it’s phrased. Whatever our intent, when we express an idea of “holiness” in the negative sense, as something that it is not, we put the focus and emphasis on that thing which it is not. So by describing holiness as separation from sin, we place the focus on sin. And when that happens, I can find no place in history or experience where our efforts do not collapse into moralism and legalism. We inevitably end up doing exactly what Ed Stetzer was tweeting against. We draw away from sinners.

I would suggest that we are better served by focusing on what holiness is rather than on what it is not. And, as Fr. Alexander Schmemman says in For the Life of the World: “Holy” is the real name of God. We have died and our life is hidden with Christ in God. We seek to live by growing in communion with God. We are on a journey to rejoin our life, toward union with the only source of life. Holiness lies in the journey of theosis.

Holy is God and holiness is our life in Christ.


On the Incarnation of the Word 37 – All Creation Ransomed

Posted: October 6th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 37 – All Creation Ransomed

Athanasius examines more prophecies fulfilled in Christ, but I want to reflect on his closing sentence today.

He it is that was crucified before the sun and all creation as witnesses, and before those who put Him to death: and by His death has salvation come to all, and all creation been ransomed. He is the Life of all, and He it is that as a sheep yielded His body to death as a substitute, for the salvation of all, even though the Jews believe it not.

Salvation has come to all, though not all choose to receive it. Note the emphasis (straight out of Romans and Colossians) on the ransom of all creation. Note also that the ransom was not paid to God (or to the devil, for that matter). Christ was our substitute in death, freeing us from death. It’s one sentence with a world of theology within it.


On the Incarnation of the Word 17 – Fully Human, Fully Divine

Posted: September 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 17 – Fully Human, Fully Divine

We say, of course, that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. It has become almost formulaic. Yet we don’t really reflect on the depth of that mystery and have a tendency to emphasize one over the other. We have discussed and will discuss what it would mean for Christ to be any less than fully human. In today’s section, though, Athanasius focuses on Christ as the divine Word.

For He was not, as might be imagined, circumscribed in the body, nor, while present in the body, was He absent elsewhere; nor, while He moved the body, was the universe left void of His working and Providence; but, thing most marvellous, Word as He was, so far from being contained by anything, He rather contained all things Himself; and just as while present in the whole of Creation, He is at once distinct in being from the universe, and present in all things by His own power,—giving order to all things, and over all and in all revealing His own providence, and giving life to each thing and all things, including the whole without being included, but being in His own Father alone wholly and in every respect,— thus, even while present in a human body and Himself quickening it, He was, without inconsistency, quickening the universe as well, and was in every process of nature, and was outside the whole, and while known from the body by His works, He was none the less manifest from the working of the universe as well.

So even as Jesus lived his human life, the divine logos still sustained all creation, not just the one body within which it was incarnate. Of course, we know that has to be true from Colossians, but it’s hard for us to wrap our heads around. That has always been true. We still see today groups who on the one hand tend to portray Jesus as so divine that he is other than human and on the other as so human that he’s less than divine. Both the superhero and the everyday joe images are easier for us to accept than the reality of Christ.

Fully God and fully man? That’s a tough nut to swallow, but it’s precisely what the Incarnation uncompromisingly demands from us.