How to Speak of God

Posted: March 30th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on How to Speak of God

In this post, I plan to continue the train of thought I began in Speaking Carefully About God and explore how we then should speak of God. I’m not an expert in any way, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. These are just some of the thoughts and ideas I have developed over the years — many of them the result of things I have heard and read from multiple sources.

I want to begin with perhaps the central Christian truth when it comes to describing God in human language. Nothing we say or think can ever truly describe God. Our God, the only uncreated and the one in whom and through whom all creation subsists, so far transcends us we cannot truly know him. We lack the capacity. That’s the central reason the Word, the only begotten Son, became human — to join God’s nature to our human nature so we would have a means through him to know and commune with God.

And that’s fine with me. A God my mind could compass would be too small a God for me to ever worship. But the fact that God so utterly transcends us means we must be exceedingly cautious in the way we describe him.

And thus Christians have developed a way of speaking apophatically about God. It’s really not that difficult. Every time we find ourselves saying or reading a description of God, we must always keep in mind that as much as that description may help us say something about God, at the same time the description so utterly fails to capture the fullness of our God, that we could also say that God is not like that at all.

For instance, we say that God is love. In fact, it’s a positive statement about God taken straight from the Holy Scriptures. This is not some attribute of God; it’s a statement about his very essence. And it’s important that we understand this truth for when we say that God is love we exclude many false descriptions of God — some of which, unfortunately, seem to be popular today.

Nevertheless, we also must then say that God’s love is not like any love we’ve ever known. It’s utterly pure and unending. God’s love knows no conditions and no bounds. God is love and that transcendent love binds creation together and at the same time is so intimately personal that God is with me, around me, and within me filling every breath I take and every beat of my heart. It’s love without condemnation, but a love so fierce it can also be described as a consuming fire. If the image I have in mind of love is any that I’ve known, then I’m forced to say God is not that sort of love at all. So in that sense, God is not love.

And the same is true of anything else we might say. Jesus gave us a prayer in which we call God Father, but if, when we do that, we have in mind our father or any other father we’ve known, that image will lead us astray. Whatever sort of father we had, good or bad, our fathers are all still human. They still have failings and limitations. God is not like that at all. So we must also say that he is not Father in the way we have known fathers.

If we lose that tension and the caution it brings to the images and words we use to speak and consider God, we will inevitably distort our understanding of God in some way. When I find myself saying something about God, I try to remind myself that my description inevitably falls so short of the reality of God that it’s almost as false as it is true.

In and through Christ, we can however mystically know God. We can receive him. We can commune with God. We have access to the sort of knowledge that transcends language. In that sense, it’s not so very different from knowing another human being. We don’t get to know someone by learning a bunch of facts about them — even if those facts are true and accurate. We get to know others by spending time with them, by talking with them, and through shared experience. And so it is with God. Even though he utterly transcends our knowledge, yet we can still know him.

In my final post on this topic, I’ll discuss the Trinity. For whenever we speak of the Christian God, we must always speak in a triune manner.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 16

Posted: February 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 16

43.  The Lord gave clear evidence of His supreme power in what He endured from hostile forces when He endowed human nature with an incorruptible form of generation. For through His passion He conferred dispassion, through suffering repose, and through death eternal life. By His privations in the flesh He re-established and renewed the human state, and by His own incarnation He bestowed on human nature the supranatural grace of deification.

It is no longer the nature of man to die.

I think we sometimes lose sight of that truth as Christians today. We are no longer slaves to death. Moreover, we can now become like God. We can become one with God. Before the Incarnation, that was forever beyond our reach. God was wholly other from us. While we could not know or commune with God, the Word could and did become one of us. That’s why the best short description of salvation is union with Christ. As we are one with Christ, so we become one with God and with each other.


Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Posted: October 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Atonement | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

I’ve worked through my thoughts on this blog across a variety of topics from original sin to justification to hell in separate multiple post series on this blog. I have not written such a series on the fairly common Protestant teaching of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA from this point on) because I don’t have anything to work through on the topic and I don’t really have much to say about it. However, this teaching seems to surface in many of the discussions I follow and I’ve become increasingly convinced that I should try to write something on the topic for those who from time to time browse my blog. I don’t really expect there to be more than this one post on this subject unless others raise questions that seem to me to warrant another post.

I will say up front that I’m pretty familiar with this teaching. I’ve read many of the primary sources. I’m familiar with the common prooftexts. I’ve listened to it expounded and taught countless times in countless ways over the years. I understand many of the different ways it is nuanced — both in theory and in practice. But I do think the essence of this teaching is pretty simply stated. In fact, the following statement I recently saw in Sunday School distills it pretty accurately, if not to any great depth.

Jesus died on the Cross to pay God the Father the debt of our sin.

I beg to differ.

St. Gregory the Theologian provides the best summary I’ve found of my reaction to that idea.

The question is: to whom was offered the blood that was shed for us, and why was it offered, this precious and glorious blood of our God, our high priest, our sacrifice? We were held captive by the evil one, for we had been ‘sold into the bondage of sin’ (Romans 7:14), and our wickedness was the price we paid for our pleasure. Now, a ransom is normally paid only to the captor, and so the question is: To whom was the ransom offered, and why? To the evil one? What an outrage! If it is supposed not merely that the thief received a ransom from God, but that the ransom is God himself – a payment for his act of arbitrary power so excessive that it certainly justified releasing us! If it was paid to the Father, I ask first, why? We were not held captive by him. Secondly, what reason can be given why the blood of the Only-begotten should be pleasing to the Father? For He did not accept even Isaac when he was offered by his father, but He gave a substitute for the sacrifice, a lamb to take the place of the human victim. Is it not clear that the Father accepts the sacrifice, not because He demanded or needed it, but because this was the part of the divine plan, since man had to be sanctified by the humanity of God; so that he might rescue us by overcoming the tyrant by force, and bring us back to Himself through the mediation of the Son, who carried out this divine plan to the honor of the Father, to whom he clearly delivers up all things. We have said just so much about Christ. There are many more things which must be passed over in silence…

I don’t have much to add to what St. Gregory says. As far as I’m concerned, PSA teaches a different God and a different faith than the one I believe. It’s as different to my eyes as the faith taught and the God described by the docetists and the arians.

The problems with PSA are legion. It teaches that God has a problem with forgiveness. Even as he commands us to forgive, he is unable to forgive himself. Rather the infinite debt must be paid in full by someone and since we are finite beings, the debt can only be paid by the divine Son. But PSA fundamentally denies God mercy and forgiveness. Instead, God becomes the unrelenting debt holder. In the mechanics of paying that debt PSA violates everything Christianity says about the nature of the Trinity. It has members of the Trinity acting almost in opposition to each other rather than in concert as one. The Son is paying the debt the Father can’t forgive. The Father is exhausting his divine wrath on the Son. The Spirit almost vanishes from the picture. And even with the debt paid, we are not actually healed and we do not truly commune with God. Instead, we move into a sort of legal fiction. When God looks at us, he doesn’t actually see us. He sees his Son. The list of problems goes on ad nauseum.

Now, that is not to say that the Spirit has not been at work in the groups of Christians who hold some variation of this belief. I would not deny the work of the Spirit anywhere in humanity. And the Spirit certainly has more tools with which to work among those who proclaim that Jesus — the image of the invisible God — is Lord, however distorted their vision of him might be, than among adherents of entirely different world religions.

However, it is also true that there are many people who correctly understand the sort of God postulated by PSA and have rejected that God in revulsion. I empathize with them. If I thought the God described by the PSA theory was really the Christian God, I would absolutely reject Christianity myself. No, our God is the good God who loves mankind. He is the God who has never had a problem forgiving us. He has not required satisfaction. He has not had to have his wrath assuaged by pouring it onto the Son. All three persons of the Trinity were always acting in concert to save us, even in the worst moments on the Cross. Yes, the Cross is indeed the instrument of our salvation, but we never needed to be saved from God. Instead we were rescued by the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in and through the Cross by the power of the Resurrection. We were ransomed from sin and death, the powers which enslaved us — not from our good God and not ultimately from the Evil One (though he certainly used the power of sin and death against us).

And, as Forrest Gump says, “That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”

I’ve posted it before, but I’ll post again this podcast by Fr. Thomas Hopko on the Cross. It says much of what I would say better than I could say it.

Understanding the Cross

I would also recommend the much shorter reflection (5 minutes) by Fr. Stephen Freeman.

The Tree Heals the Tree


Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 4

Posted: September 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 4

8.  If we perceive the spiritual principles of visible things we learn that the world has a Maker. But we do not ask what is the nature of that Maker, because we recognize that this is beyond our scope. Visible creation clearly enables us to grasp that there is a Maker, but it does not enable us to grasp His nature.

I think this is a particularly important point today. It is possible and reasonable to move to a position of general theism simply from our observation of the nature of reality. But that will not and cannot reveal the Father to us. We know the Father in and through the Son and to know the Son, we must experience his reality. Knowledge about him, even knowledge as revealed in the Holy Scriptures — even the Gospels themselves — is insufficient.

I’m drawing a mental blank on who said it, but I recently heard an excellent analogy. Picture the greatest modern authority on Abraham Lincoln. He’s read everything Abraham Lincoln wrote. He’s studied everything recorded by anyone who ever encountered Mr. Lincoln. There’s nothing about Lincoln that our hypothetical historian hasn’t uncovered, studied, and absorbed. He can safely say that he knows more about the 16th President than any other living person. Such a man would still not know Abraham Lincoln as well as Mrs. Lincoln did. In fact, he would be in position to say something like, “From everything I know about Mr. Lincoln, he was a great man. I wish I could have known him.”

How do we know Jesus? Experientially and mystically. We know him through his body, the Church, particularly when we are joined to it in Baptism. We experience him when we eat his body and drink his blood. We mystically commune with him in prayer. We know him as a bride knows her bridegroom.

Our observation and study of the material realm is important. It’s something we are created to do. In certain instances and with some people, such study can help us perceive that their may be a Creator or Maker. (Or it may not. Both are reasonable positions.) But Christianity says our God became flesh, became one of us in every way, so that we could truly know him and commune with him in the most intimate way. I think too many people today settle for knowledge of God rather than knowing God.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 8

Posted: April 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

30. You should know that you have been greatly benefited when you have suffered deeply because of some insult or indignity; for by means of the indignity self-esteem has been driven out of you.

Here we find another distinction in patristic thought that tends to run at a tangent to modern thought. It is true that there is a strong theme that, as icons of God, we should respect our nature. That is, we should have self-respect. The most important theme, though, is that we should try to see ourselves as we really are. And that is hard to do. On the one hand we want to think better of ourselves and thus construct that sort of false image. But the fathers also speak about the dangers of proclaiming how wicked we are, for that also is perversely a path of self-pride, especially when we exaggerate our wickedness.

Within that context, the fathers do not tend to value “self-esteem”. We tend to speak of a high self-esteem as good and a low self-esteem as bad. They would tend to say that there is a problem with esteeming ourselves at all, whether that esteem is high or low. We should esteem God and others highly. And we should strive to see ourselves truthfully.

Truth is hard. We hide ourselves from it because too much at once will crush us. We deceive ourselves as a defense. It is not true, as we often say, that truth — as in true knowledge — will set us free. More often than not, it destroys us. Truth is a harsh taskmistress. We attribute that saying about truth to Jesus, but that’s not actually what he said. Here is John 8:31-32.

If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

If we live according to the way of life, then we are truly following Jesus. And as we do so, we will come to know the truth and that truth is who will make us free. As Jesus says a few verses later:

Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.

Remember, one of the ways Jesus describes himself in John’s Gospel is as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. As you can see from the full context, when he talks about knowing the truth, he is talking about knowing and relating to him. Yes, as we do so we will come to see the reality about ourselves more clearly, but through our communion with Jesus we will be able to bear it. The knowledge will heal rather than crush us.

He is a good God who loves mankind, and his purpose is to heal and commune with us, not condemn us. I think we too often forget that particular truth and it’s the most important one of all.