Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up

There are no “raw facts.” All historical reporting is an interpreted reporting, and this is especially true for the canonical gospels. For the evangelists, and for those communities that told and retold the sayings and stories of Jesus, Jesus was not a dead person to be remembered; he was–and is–the living Son of God who reigns in glory and who shares himself with his people in Word and Sacrament. The gospels are theological texts. They interpret Jesus of Nazareth through the lens of faith.

Imagine if you will a modern reporter who is transported back into the past, armed with a thorough knowledge of first-century Jewish and Greek culture and languages. He follows Jesus around for three years, jotting down the things that he says and does. But on the day of crucifixion, he still does not really understand who this man was and what his life was all about. Jesus’ identity still eludes him. He reads over his notes and despairs of writing anything meaningful about Jesus. He knows he lacks the interpretive key and structure by which to understand him. All the old categories seem inadequate.

And so our reporter accompanies Cleopas to Emmaus on Easter day. Jesus appears to our reporter on the road and quietly interprets the Scriptures to him. Finally, he reveals his identity in the breaking of the bread. And finally, our reporter understands. The resurrection of Jesus provides that key by which he can comprehend Jesus’ identity. It generates new ways, new conceptualities, and new images by which to think about Jesus. From this point on he must interpret Jesus in light of the resurrection and all that it means. To do otherwise would be to utterly misrepresent him. Thomas Torrance elaborates:

After the ascension of Jesus the reporter takes out his notebooks and goes over them carefully, for he knows that everything must be corrected and recast now that he is able really to see and understand what he observed. His ‘careful’ account of the events in the life of Jesus as they actually happened is, he is forced to admit, seriously distorting, for it abstracts their appearance, their phenomenal or literary surface, from its objective structure in Jesus Christ himself and thereby deprives the events of their underlying ontological integration; while ‘the objectively established data’ are quite evidently organized through concepts which, in considerable measure, derive from himself rather than from Jesus, and thereby betray his own subjective bias. … Thus an astonishing thing about the resurrection is that instead of cutting Jesus off from his historical and earthly existence before the cross it takes it all up and confirms its concrete factuality by allowing it to be integrated on its own controlling ground, and therefore enables it to be understood in its own objective meaning. Far from being ‘violated’ the historical Jesus comes to his own within the dimension of the risen Jesus, and the risen Jesus is discerned to have no other fabric than that in the life and mission of the historical Jesus. It is the resurrection that really discovers and gives access to the historical Jesus, for it enables one to understand him in terms of his own intrinsic logos, and appreciate him in the light of his own true nature as he really was–and is and ever will be. (Space, Time and Resurrection, pp. 165-166)

The canonical gospels, in other words, provide the spectacles and interpretive structures by which we can accurately see and know Jesus of Nazareth. Thus we should not be surprised that when secular historiography attempts to reconstruct the history of the Nazarene independently of the faith of the apostolic Church, it inevitably fails. The historical-critical method rips the person of Jesus out of the divinely ordained frame of meaning that allows us to understand correctly his words and actions (see Walter Wink, The Bible in Human Translation).

Christopher Seitz maintains that the secular attempt to find the “real” Jesus is doomed to failure, because it is pouring all of its energies into a hopeless quest to find a Jesus hidden “behind the words about him.” But no such Jesus ever existed and thus cannot be found. The true challenge is posed by the subject matter itself:

The very fourfoldness of the gospel record is a witness to the majestic difficulty of the endeavor of presenting Jesus as a character of time and space, fully man, fully God. But this is not an inadequacy that can be remedied through historical-critical heavy lifting, because it inheres with the subject matter itself, which is God in Christ–who exposes our inadequacy in trying to speak of him, and yet simultaneously remedies this through the work of the Holy Spirit in the church, allowing the frail testimony of human minds to be the lens on the glory of God, a touching of the ark of the covenant. (Word Without End, p. 58)

This confession of faithful narrative identification does not resolve the question of historical reference. Apparently the precrucifixion Jesus did not say and do everything exactly as reported in the gospels. It is therefore proper to ask questions like “What really happened?” and “What did Jesus say and do?” But unlike his Jesus Seminar counterparts, the believing historian does not seek a hidden Jesus underneath the texts. Perhaps we might think of his work not so much as excavation but as penetration.

Who is, therefore, the “real” Jesus? Is he the reconstructed Jesus of the historians? Is he the Jesus remembered by the Church and narratively rendered in the gospels? Is he the risen Lord and Savior who is experienced by Christians in prayer, worship, liturgy, Bible study, and service?

As Christians we properly approach the apostolic witness to Jesus as a whole, in all of its variegated texture and depth. While it may be useful to identify levels of tradition, to the extent that such identification can be intelligently and reasonably done, that’s fine. Such knowledge merely adds to the riches of our tradition and hopefully provokes even more interesting preaching. But it would be artificial for the Christian to identify one level of the biblical witness, say “Q,” as being the one, true, authoritative tradition. That would be a form of Q-fundamentalism. We are properly concerned with the apostolic witness in its entirety, in all of its stratified depth and complexity, for it is through this witness that we are given to know the real Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen Son of God.

It is this living Jesus of the Apostles who has spoken to us in the gospel and incorporated us into the salvific life of the Church. How can a believing historian of integrity “pretend” that he does not know, in the knowing of faith, that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead and is now enthroned in glory as Lord and King? In the terminology of Alvin Plantinga, this belief is properly stipulated as basic for the Christian. It would be irrational and schizophrenic for believers to acquiesce to the preconceptions of modernity, preconceptions which exclude a priori the Christian worldview.

Because of our commitment to the fidelity of the biblical witness to the truth of Jesus Christ, Christians will rightly accord greater credence to historical reconstructions that are consistent with the canonical witness than those that are not. Robert W. Jenson explains:

In the church, we will credit reconstructions of “the historical Jesus” that are compatible with the canonical narrative before we credit alternative hypotheses that are not. Theology will thus, for example, give a more willing ear to such pictures of the historical Jesus as those drawn by the midcentury “new quest,” in which he appears as a radical prophet and rabbi, than it will to more recent depictions of a New Age guru. There is no reason to be embarrassed by this prejudgment; it is far more reasonable than any possible alternative, since … the very existence of the Gospels as a corpus depends on the community constituted by the faith that so judges.

Nevertheless, it is conceivable that we might be driven, past “reasonable doubt,” to conclude that research falsifies the canonical narrative. To conclude that would be to conclude that no one person presents himself in the total tradition about Jesus, that Jesus is not now an agent in history. This is a real possibility; whatever may be true of other religions, Christian faith must be in this fashion historically vulnerable. (Systematic Theology, I:174)

Ultimately, the Christian believes and hopes that the identity of the “Christ of faith” and the “Jesus of history” will be eschatologically confirmed.

(Return to first article)

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Jürgen Moltmann: The Most Interesting Theologian in the World

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The God of Open Theism Meets the God of Radical Transcendence

Twenty years ago I read The Openness of God. I was immersed at that time in the writings of Robert W. Jenson and Jürgen Moltmann. Both believe that the Church’s understanding of the God of the Bible has been corrupted by Hellenistic philosophy; both see their task as liberating triune divinity from the constraints of classical theism. I was thus more than a little sympathetic to the book’s assertion of an open future and its reinterpretation of divine omniscience. But in recent years I have become increasingly skeptical of this reading of Christian doctrine and more appreciative of the traditional understanding of God as advanced by the Church Fathers and medieval doctors  Hence I now find myself viewing open theism as representing an unfortunate return to an anthropomorphic construal of divinity (described by Brian Davies as theistic personalism), a construal that ultimately undermines the core doctrines of the Church and thus renders the claims of the gospel implausible. This is a harsh statement, I know. I also admit that it is a statement that I am unprepared to defend. But if I can’t convincingly defend my critical stance, perhaps I can at least mention what lines of argument I might wish to develop if I were a real theologian and not a mere blogger.

In my judgment the critical weakness of open theism is a failure to grasp the radical transcendence of the Almighty Creator. Please note: I am assuming that the doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo belongs to a proper understanding of the Christian God and the world. Without the creatio ex nihilo the trinitarian and christological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries make no sense. Precisely in the gospel’s confrontation with the Hellenistic apprehension of divinity, the theologians of the Church found it necessary to simultaneously assert the radical transcendence God and the absolute gratuity of creation: God is not an inhabitant of the universe, nor does he exist in interdependent union with the world—he is the absolute, unconditioned, and ineffable source of all that is. Theologians did not learn the creatio ex nihilo from the Greek philosophers. They found it hidden, if you will, in the tohu wa bohu of Gen 1:1-3, as they sought to proclaim the God of the gospel within a Hellenistic world (see “The Christian Distinction“).

As a way of unpacking the difference between the Deity of open theism and the Deity of the classical Christian tradition, I thought I would direct our attention to an incisive essay by the Roman Catholic theologian Herbert McCabe, “The Involvement of God,” included in his book God Matters. McCabe reasserts the traditional understanding of God, particularly as articulated in the writings of St Thomas Aquinas. He disallows any separation of the God of the Bible and the God of classical Christian metaphysics:

One of my first claims, then, is that the God of what I have called the ‘tradition’, the God of Augustine and Aquinas in the west, is precisely the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who is not a god, not a powerful inhabitant of the universe, but the creator, the answer to the question ‘What does it all mean?’, ‘Why anything anyway?’ This was essentially the question asked by the Jews, at least from Second Isaiah onwards, the question which, once asked, could not be unasked (except with great philosophical ingenuity), and this is the question which for mainstream Christian tradition gives us meaning for the word ‘God’. (p. 42)

Not a powerful inhabitant of the universe! In my reading of recent atheistic critiques of theism and Christianity, I have been struck by the assumption that Christians really believe that God is some great sky-Person, just larger and more powerful than created persons. Why do atheists think this is what Christianity believes? Probably because that’s what popular Christianity too often teaches. It’s as if the first 1500 years of theological and metaphysical reflection have been suppressed, all in the name of recovering so-called “biblical” religion. Consider the difference between the Deity of Sunday School and the God of the Creeds and Fathers, as described by Eastern Orthodox theologian David B. Hart:

To speak of God properly, then … is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. In one sense he is “beyond being,” if by “being” one means that totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things. Infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss, from whom we are, by whom we know and are known, and in whom we find our only true consummation. (The Experience of God, p. 30)

All this is who God is and must be if he is the transcendent and infinite Creator of heaven and earth.

Hence we should not be surprised when we find McCabe criticizing recent presentations of the suffering God. The God of classical Christianity, precisely because he eternally exists as pure actuality and the plenitude of Love and Being, exists beyond suffering and passivity. He does not “learn from or experience the world and, in general, cannot be affected by it” (p. 44). When we read something like this, we begin to worry. Does this not make God indifferent to the human plight? Does it not distance him from the world? Yet we raise these questions, says McCabe, only because we do not truly understand what it means for God to be God:

Our only way of being present to another’s suffering is by being affected by it, because we are outside the other person. We speak of ‘sympathy’ or ‘compassion’, just because we want to say that it is almost as though we were not outside the other, but living her or his life, experiencing her or his suffering. A component of pity is frustration as having, in the end, to remain outside.

Now, the creator cannot in this way ever be outside his creature; a person’s act of being as well as every action done has to be an act of the creator. If the creator is the reason for everything that is, there can be no actual being which does not have the creator as its centre holding it in being. In our compassion we, in our feeble way, are seeking to be what God is all the time: united with and within the life of our friend. We can say in the psalm ‘The Lord is compassion’ but a sign that this is metaphorical language is that we can also say that the Lord has no need of compassion; he has something more wonderful, he has his creative act in which he is ‘closer to the suffering than she is to herself’. (pp. 44-45)

The conviction that if God truly loves mankind he needs to suffer its sufferings, if not physically then at least emotionally, betrays the anthropomorphism that drives much of popular Christianity. To speak of God as “experiencing” the world immediately posits the world as external to God: Deity becomes a being who stands alongside the created order, as an “other.” But the infinite and transcendent God knows the sufferings of every creature, not as a being external to creatures, but precisely as the eternal act who sustains every creature in existence. “The God of Augustine and Aquinas,” McCabe writes, “precisely by being wholly transcendent, extra ordinem omnium entium existens, is more intimately involved with each creature than any other creature could be. God could not be other to creatures in the way that they must be to each other. At the heart of every creature is the source of esse, making it to be and to act (ST 1a, 8, 1, c). … So I think it makes perfect sense to say both that it is not in the nature of God to suffer and also that it is not in the nature of God to lack the most intimate possible involvement with the sufferings of his creatures. To safeguard the compassion of God there is no need to resort to the idea that God as he surveys the history of mankind suffers with us in a literal sense—though in some spiritual way” (pp. 45-46).

I have to admit that when I first encountered the above argument it really shook me. Had I so misunderstood the classical understanding of God? The answer was … yes … and now I am playing catch-up.

But if God cannot suffer in his divine nature, what about the cross? Doesn’t God suffer as the man Jesus? And the answer is an emphatic affirmative. If God has truly united divine nature and human nature in the one hypostasis of Jesus Christ, then, following the Council of Chalcedon, “we can say quite literally that God suffered hunger and thirst and torture and death. We can say these things because the Son of God assumed a human nature in which it makes sense to predicate these things of him. In other words, the traditional doctrine, while rejecting the idea that it is in the nature of God to be capable of suffering, does affirm literally that God suffered in a perfectly ordinary sense, the sense in which you or I suffer” (p. 46; also see David B. Hart’s essay “No Shadow of Turning: On Divine Impassibility“).

And this brings us to the third part of McCabe’s essay, which should be of lively interest to open theists. If Jesus Christ is the Incarnation of the divine Son in human history, then we may properly speak of his life in Judea and Galilee as the story of God: “The story of Jesus is nothing other than the triune life of God projected onto our history or enacted sacramentally in our history, so that it becomes story” (p. 48). And it is this story that reveals the immanent life and eternal relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This is all fairly traditional, though articulated in a modern idiom. But then McCabe makes a surprising claim: “there is no such thing as the pre-existent Christ” (p. 49). What the heck But we need to be patient and hear out the theologian. McCabe acknowledges the orthodox intent of pre-existent Christ-language, but he believes that the language betrays a confusion of divine eternity and created temporality:

To speak of the pre-existent Christ is to imply that God has a life-story, a divine story, other than the story of the incarnation. It is to suppose that in some sense there was a Son of God existing from the eternal ages who at some point in his eternal career assumed a human nature and was made. First the son of God pre-existed as just the Son of God and then later he was the Son of God made man. (p. 49)

Oops. I do not know how often I have preached and taught about the Incarnation in this way. I think it is quite normal to do so, though. “God became Man,” we confess. This is the diction of Scripture and the creeds. And yet underlying this way of talking is the assumption that we can speak of the eternal life of God in temporal terms, without acknowledging the inappropriateness of our language. We sound like we are referring to a “before” and “after” in the Godhead: once there was a time when the eternal Logos existed in a discarnate state, and then he stepped into the realm of time and entered into a new and different way of being. McCabe then continues:

I think this only needs to be stated to be seen as incompatible at least with the traditional doctrine of God coming to us through Augustine and Aquinas. There can be no succession in the eternal God, no change. Eternity is not, of course, a very long time; it is not time at all. Eternity is not timeless in the sense that an instant is timeless–for an instant is timeless simply in being the limit of a stretch of time, just as a point has no length not because it is very very short but because it is the limit of a length. No: eternity is timeless because it totally transcends time. To be eternal is just to be God. God’s life is neither past nor present, nor even simultaneous with any event, any clock, any history. The picture of the Son of God ‘becoming’ at a certain point in the divine duration the incarnate Son of God, ‘coming down from heaven’, makes a perfectly good metaphor but could not be literally true. There was, from the point of view of God’s life, no such thing as a moment at which the eternal Son of God was not Jesus of Nazareth. There could not be any moments in God’s life. The eternal life of Jesus as such could not precede, follow or be simultaneous with his human life. There is no story of God ‘before’ the story of Jesus. This point would not, of course, be grasped by those for whom God is an inhabitant of the universe, subject to experience and to history. I am not, need I say, suggesting that it can be grasped intelligibly by anyone, but in the traditional view it is the mystery that we affirm when we speak of God. From the point of view of God, then sub specie eternitatis, no sense can be given to the idea that at some point in God’s life-story the Son became incarnate. (pp. 49-50)

Time belongs to the created order. As Einstein might have put it: “Time is God’s way of stopping everything from happening at once.” God, as God, does not live in time, nor can his eternity be literally described in temporal terms. To speak of eternity is not to understand anything positive about God but simply to deny the importation of temporal movement into the Godhead. Even when we speak of the Deity as apprehending all of history in an eternal “now,” we have to be careful. Is not “now” qualified by “before” and “after”? We have all heard God’s relation to time characterized in this way:

But it’s only an image. When we speak of divine eternity, we really do not know what we are talking about. Speculate as we may, we cannot conceive the relationship between God in his timelessness and the world in its timefulness. It’s infinitely more difficult than trying to imagine the encounter between two- and three-dimensional beings. “Eternity” is an apophatic term that introduces us to the incomprehensible mystery of the uncreated Creator.  When open theists speak of God not knowing the future, do they know what they are talking about? Have they not in fact subjected God to the flow of created time?

And this brings us to McCabe’s second criticism of the “pre-existent Christ.” Let’s place ourselves back in history when Moses was alive. From Moses’ point of view, it makes perfect sense to say “Jesus does not exist” or “Jesus of Nazareth is not yet.” It makes perfect sense, because the conception and birth of Jesus has not yet happened. The future does not exist, which, as McCabe notes, “is what makes it future” (p. 50). (And for this reason, it makes no logical sense to say that “the future already exists for God.” That would to attribute to God a philosophical mistake.) And just as Moses can literally declare, “Jesus does not exist,” so Moses can also simultaneously declare, with equal literal truth, “The Son of God does exist.” Given Moses’ specific location in time, both propositions are true.

But now consider the difference between saying “The Son of God exists” and “The Son of God exists now.” As we have seen, Moses could have spoken truly the first statement; but he could not have spoken truly the second. That little “now” makes all the difference. This second proposition, “which attributes temporal existence (‘now’) to the Son of God,” could only become true, within history, when Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary. When Moses lived, it was not yet true that the Son of God now existed. He had not yet enfleshed himself in time as a created being. McCabe concludes: “The simple truth is that apart from incarnation the Son of God exists at no time at all, at no ‘now’, but in eternity, in which he acts upon all time but is not himself ‘measured by it’, as Aquinas would say. ‘Before Abraham was, I am’” (p. 50).

I do not have the philosophical smarts to unpack McCabe’s arguments relevant to the questions of divine omniscience, foreknowledge, and predestination, though I think he would immediately jump on the “fore-” and “pre-.” In fact I know he would. Consider what he says about predestination in his book God Still Matters:

Certainly, a race or a fight that is fixed beforehand is a bogus race or fight; and a human life that has been fixed beforehand is a bogus human life. What has happened here is that we are taking the ‘beforehand’ too literally. Predestination is not something we have from birth, from way back, ‘beforehand’. We do not have predestination at all; it is the plan in the mind of God, it is nothing whatever in us. Predestination exists in eternity and only in eternity, in the eternal timeless mind of God. It is not before or after or even simultaneous with anything. When we plan something and then carry out the plan, there is first the plan and then later the execution. But this cannot be so with God. God has no lifetime, no before and after. There are not times or dates to the thoughts and acts of God. His predestining Jesus to ascend into heaven does not come before his bringing Jesus to heaven. Nothing in God comes before anything else, they are all the one thing which is simply the eternal timeless life of God himself. So we must not take the ‘pre’ in ‘predestination’ literally. What is predestined happens but it doesn’t happen later than its predestination because predestination is only in the timeless mind of God. It is always wrong and a muddle to say ‘What I just did must have been predestined thirty years ago’ because predestination, like the thought of God, has no date at all. It does not mean that we move in predestinate grooves that are there beforehand, like tram lines. (pp. 184-185)

I hope others will read Herbert McCabe and perhaps begin to think these matters through. Of course, I suppose we could all spend the next decade or two reading the Summa Theologiae

[This article was published over at An Open Orthodoxy last week. Now that the conversation has died down over there, I thought I would repost it here, just in any case anyone would like to discuss it here. I have made a few minor changes and additions. --AK]

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The Cappadocian Brothers on the Propria of God

I’m sure it did not come as a surprise to either St Basil of Caesarea or St Gregory of Nyssa. Once they began to elucidate the mystery of the Trinity by means of the analogy between three human beings and the one nature that they share, it was only a matter of time before their opponents would accuse them of proclaiming three gods. Basil responded to the accusation, perhaps not totally successfully, in his homily On Not Three Gods. Gregory offered a more compelling response in his important treatise Ad Ablabium: On Not Three Gods. Gregory’s central contention continues to stimulate contemporary trinitarian reflection, as instanced in the theology of Robert W. Jenson: the Father, Son, and Spirit are one God because they are the joint subjects of one indivisible activity.

But to better understand Gregory’s rejoinder to the charge of tritheism, I’d first like to discuss one of Basil’s letters to Amphilochius. Basil is responding to a Eunomian criticism that the Orthodox do not know the God whom they worship:

Do you worship what you know or what you do not know? If I answer, I worship what I know, they immediately reply, What is the essence of the object of worship? Then, if I confess that I am ignorant of the essence, they turn on me again and say, So you worship you know not what. I answer that the word to know has many meanings. We say that we know the greatness of God, His power, His wisdom, His goodness, His providence over us, and the justness of His judgment; but not His very essence. The question is, therefore, only put for the sake of dispute. For he who denies that he knows the essence does not confess himself to be ignorant of God, because our idea of God is gathered from all the attributes which I have enumerated. But God, he says, is simple, and whatever attribute of Him you have reckoned as knowable is of His essence. But the absurdities involved in this sophism are innumerable. When all these high attributes have been enumerated, are they all names of one essence? And is there the same mutual force in His awfulness and His loving-kindness, His justice and His creative power, His providence and His foreknowledge, and His bestowal of rewards and punishments, His majesty and His providence? In mentioning any one of these do we declare His essence? If they say, yes, let them not ask if we know the essence of God, but let them enquire of us whether we know God to be awful, or just, or merciful. These we confess that we know. If they say that essence is something distinct, let them not put us in the wrong on the score of simplicity. For they confess themselves that there is a distinction between the essence and each one of the attributes enumerated. The operations are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His operations, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His operations come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach. (Ep. 234.1)

On initial reading it might sound like Basil is advancing a hyper-rigorous apophatic theology, along the lines of Clement of Alexandria or Pseudo-Dionysius: we cannot know what God is in himself; all we can know are his energeiai, thus apparently positing an infinite abyss between the inaccessible divine essence and the accessible divine operations. But neither Basil nor his brother (nor St Gregory Nazianzen, for that matter) divorces the immanent life of the Holy Trinity from the economy of salvation in this manner. Basil’s purpose in this passage is to direct us away from the kind of speculation that characterizes Eunomius and his followers. God cannot be comprehensively grasped and defined by philosophical apprehension. He can only be known as he presents himself to us in his acts of self-revelation. As John Behr comments:

Our knowledge of these properties of God arise from our reflection upon the revelation of God, and so depends upon his prior revelation. Basil is very clear that while we can know that God exists from the “common notion”: what God is remains beyond our apprehension (cf. Eun. 1.12). Apart from this bare knowledge of God’s existence, we can only know God as he reveals himself, that is, through his activities and work. … Every human attempt at understanding God depends upon his prior revelation and is a reflection on that revelation. The “inaccessibility” of the essence should not be taken to imply that the “essence” is something other than what is known through the activities, but it itself transcends each particular activity and the sum of all its activities. Some terms arrived at through reflecting on the activity of God, according to Basil, express positively something “present” in God (such as saying that God is good, just, the creator, etc.), while other terms refer to what is absent in God (negative terms, such as unbegotten, incorruptible, invisible, etc.). None of these terms, however, denote the very being or essence of God, and so there is no reason to regard any one of these aspects as more constitutive of his being than any other. “There is no single name which suffices to embrace the whole nature of God and expresses it satisfactorily” (Eun. 1.10). Neither type of name describes God himself independently from us, but only refers to him as he has revealed himself, and as we have perceived this revelation and reflect upon our perception. Or rather, as Basil puts it, from both of these sets of names, the negation of what is not fitting and the confession of those which apply, “a sort of imprint of God is engraved in us.” (The Nicene Faith, II:288-289 [emphasis mine])

Behr’s analysis, however, needs to be supplemented by the more recent scholarly work of Andrew Radde-Gallwitz. As I noted in an earlier posting, Basil inserts a third category between the divine essence and the divine activities—the divine propria. On this point Gregory follows his elder brother. The propria, Radde-Gallwitz explains, are positive divine attributes, such as light, life, and goodness, “co-extensive with and intrinsic to the divine essence, but not individually definitive of that essence. They are neither accidents nor essential complements nor synonyms, and yet they do render knowledge of the divine substance, albeit incomplete knowledge” (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity, pp. 107-108). According to Basil the propria do not violate the divine simplicity, as they are predicated of the divine substance “as a whole” (pp. 156-157); nor are they accidental to the divine substance, as if God could be properly understood apart from them. The propria are not acquired by God but belong to him essentially and indivisibly. In his Homily on Faith, Basil speaks of the properties that belong to God by nature. “None of these is acquired by him,” he explains, “nor added adventitiously later. Instead, just as heat is inseparable from fire and radiance from light, so too are holiness, giving life, goodness, and uprightness inseparable from the Spirit” (De fide 3). And if they are inseparable from the Spirit, they are inseparable from the Father and Son, as each divine person shares equally in “the formula of substance.”

Radde-Gallwitz suggests that we think of the divine propria as analogous to those non-accidental features that characterize finite beings:

This terminology can be used to denote features traditionally thought of as accidental, such as medical skills in a human being, Smith. Smith could forget how to doctor and still be Smith, and certainly still be a human being. Moreover, Jones may be unable to doctor without being less of a human being. But the language of propria also, and more properly, denotes features that in every case go along with the species, such as the ability to laugh or risibility of humans, or the ability to neigh of horses. It is propria of this sort that Basil and Gregory have in mind when they use the terminology to speak of God’s attributes. Just as we cannot think of a horse that cannot neigh, we cannot think of God without goodness. The ability to neigh is no part of the essence of a horse (i.e. neighing will not be included in any definition of ‘horse’ through genus and difference). Yet, so the account goes, it is a necessary truth that if something is a horse, it is able to neigh, and if something is able to neigh, it is a horse. Thus, there is a kind of non-essential necessity with properties of this sort, which distinguishes them from strictly accidental properties. The notion of ‘non-essential necessity’ will sound like a contradiction in terms to those modern readers for whom X’s essential properties just are X’s necessary properties, the properties of X that belong to it in any possible world. To borrow from this modal language, not without some consternation, one can say that for Basil and Gregory, God is good in every possible world, and goodness is what we mean when we say ‘God’, yet we have no grounds for saying that goodness is the essence of God: that it is what makes God, God. (pp. xx-xxi)

For this reason the Cappadocian brothers should be assimilated neither to the Latin identification of the divine essence and divine properties nor the Byzantine distinction between the divine essence and divine energies. Contrary to Eunomius, insists Basil, we cannot comprehend the incomprehensible ousia of God. “If you claim to know the essence,” he declares, “you do not know God” (Ep. 234.2). But unlike the radical apophaticists, Basil does not leave us in total agnosticism. Though we may not be able to define the eternal being of the Creator, we are given to know him as he truly is, in se, through the economic manifestations of his goodness, light, life, power, wisdom, righteousness. These distinct properties are neither identical to the divine essence nor parts of the divine essence; but they inhere in and are concurrent with the divine essence and are thus revelatory of God. As Basil notes, “For he who denies that he knows the essence does not confess himself to be ignorant of God, because our idea of God is gathered from all the attributes which I have enumerated” (Ep. 234.1). There is a knowing of God that is not a comprehension of God. Radde-Gallwitz elaborates:

Basil and Gregory’s notion that a certain class of divine attributes should be viewed as propria of the divine nature constitutes a unique construal of the doctrine of divine simplicity. Propria necessarily inhere in the natures of which they are propria, and do so uniquely, such that they serve as identifying markers for those natures. Accordingly, they make possible knowledge of those natures that is not merely relative or mind-dependent—that is not merely knowledge by epinoia (though we should not disparage this either). Yet, at the same time, propria do not define the essence. God’s propria of goodness, wisdom, power, justice, and truth do not tell us what it is to be God. God is simultaneously known and unknown, and part of the theological task is stating clearly where the lines are drawn between them. (p. 225)

Nor do the essential attributes specifically name the divine ad extra activities (energeia). The activities disclose God to us by revealing the propria intrinsic to the divine nature. Hence when Basil states “that we know our God from His operations, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence,” he is not positing a chasm between the Deus absconditus and the Deus revelatus.  Basil directs us to the economia precisely because it is the place in which the transcendent and ineffable Deity has chosen to make himself known.

In his book Aristotle East and West, David Bradshaw interprets the Cappadocians as anticipating the Palamite distinction between divine essence and divine energies (also see his paper “The Concept of Divine Energies“). He believes, for example, that when they use terms such as “good” and “wise,” they are referring to the divine energeiai; hence, he concludes, “the energeiai are not merely activities of God, but must be God Himself under some nameable aspect or form” (p. 165). But Bradshaw has apparently missed the central importance of the propria in the thought of St Basil the Great and St Gregory of Nyssa. Divine goodness, truth, wisdom, power, light, life—we learn of them from God’s creative energeiai (activities) in Scripture and the world, but they do not name energeiai; they properly name the essential attributes “around,” integral to, and expressive of the divine nature. Bradshaw sees only two possible, and incompatible, readings of the Cappadocians—Latin and Palamite. He chooses the latter. But a third and more likely reading exists. The divine activities do not stand on their own, as it were. They flow from the divine power (dunamis), understood as “a causal capacity rooted in the divine nature, which reflects or expresses that nature in the way that the power of heat reflects the nature of fire. This power is inseparable from the nature and gives rise to the divine activities (energeiai) in the world” (Radde-Gallwitz, p. 183). In Ad Ablabium Gregory speaks of the “varied operations of the transcendent power.” The Cappadocians present us not with an essence/energies distinction but with an essence/power/activities distinction. Perhaps we might extend this to say that they present us with an essence/propria/activities distinction. It is thus easy to see why medieval Byzantine and Latin theologians claimed them for their own, yet on their own they do not quite fit neatly into either tradition.


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“Today there is strength, resurrection of the dead and power”

The resurrection of the Son is a new creation to the whole world,
and the world is new on account of it and hence it is beyond sufferings.
From His resurrection life reigned over mortals,
and we have truly stripped off the old order by His death.
The Mighty One rose up and He made us, those who were thrown down, rise up with Him.
He descended alone, but with many He ascended from the tomb.
The day before yesterday Scribes were mocking at Him, “Save Yourself,”
and today the watchers are kissing His tomb which He has left and gone out.
Yesterday the Dead One was lying concealed and silent in the habitation of Sheol
but today He is alive and gives life to the dead and raises all to life.
The day before yesterday, lance, gall and vinegar and crucifixion,
but today glory and clamour of the watchers with praise.
The day before yesterday the Only-Begotten placed His soul in the hands of His Father
but today He assumed it for He has authority as He commands all.
Yesterday He had mounted the wood of crucifixion,
but today there is strength, resurrection of the dead and power.
The day before yesterday Simon repeatedly renounced that he does not know Him
but today he runs to see His tomb because He was raised up.
The Friday of the sufferings prepared ambushes for the apostolic group;
but on Sunday, a new vision and cheerfulness.
Yesterday the King was held in sleep in Sheol,
but today He woke up and stood like a man who has shaken off his wine.
The other day there were sufferings and sorrow for the women disciples
but today exultation because they were seeing Him as the Gardener.
On the sorrowful Sabbath that Free-Born was among the dead,
but on Sunday He was escorted about by the companies of watchers.
Friday scattered the apostolic group in desolation,
but today has given joy to, and gathered together the company of the disciples.
Yesterday the apostles were lying in concealment,
but today they went out to see the resurrection with wonder.
The other day they had to flee, to be scattered, and to hide themselves,
but today to run, to be gathered together and to bring the tidings.

Jacob of Serug

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“Like Jonah He dived down into the whirlpool”

The Mighty One was struck and the sufferings made Him sleep on Golgotha
and for three days the sleep overcame Him on account of the wounds.
And having laid aside His burden of pains in Sheol,
He rose up and despoiling the luxuriating Sheol and went from it.
He deceived death and was there three days in its dwelling place;
and when He laid waste all its treasures, He left it and went out.
He had been wearied by the scourging which He received from the judge,
and He entered and had taken rest in the abode of the dead and pulled it down and came out.
While He was was redeeming the captives He was smitten by the persecutors,
and He reached death but did not become too weak for redeeming.
The sharpened sword met Him on Golgotha
and it made Him sleep heavily by its blow.
Death mixed for Him the cup to drink in the crucifixion.
He drank it to show that even in death He cannot be powerless.
For two days the Mighty One rested among the dead
but on the third day He conquered the region and went out of it.
Like Jonah, son of the Hebrews, He dived down into the whirlpool.
He explored it in two days and arose from it on the third day.
He descended and drew out Adam who had sunk down into the depth of Sheol.
The superb image came out from corruption with its Lord.
On Golgotha the great Saviour was smitten by the lance,
and He failed in strength on Cross, but at the resurrection He conquered corruption.
Ambushes surrounded Him to snatch away the captives from Him
and He was dragged away but He did not leave it without redemption.
In three days He subdued His wounds so that they might be healed,
and with victory the Redeemer returned from the place of sufferings.

Jacob of Serug

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“God has fallen asleep in the flesh”

Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, 0 sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, 0 sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

Anonymous Fourth Century Preacher

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