“And with terror he confessed one after another all his sins, which revolted every ear”

Terrible indeed was the judgment of a good judge and shepherd which I once saw in a monastery. For while I was there, it happened that a robber applied for admission to the monastic life. And that most excellent pastor and physician ordered him to take seven days of complete rest, just to see the kind of life in the place. When the week had passed, the pastor called him and asked him privately: ‘Would you like to live with us?’ And when he saw that he agreed to this with all sincerity, he then asked him what evil he had done in the world. And when he saw that he readily confessed everything, he tried him still further, and said: ‘I want you to tell this in the presence of all the brethren.’ But he really did hate his sin, and, scorning all shame, without the least hesitation he promised to do it. ‘And if you like,’ he said, ‘I will tell it in the middle of the city of Alexandria.’

And so, the shepherd gathered all his sheep in the church, to the number of 230, and during Divine Service (for it was Sunday), after the reading of the Gospel, he introduced this irreproachable convict. He was dragged by several of the brethren, who gave him moderate blows. His hands were tied behind his back, he was dressed in a hair shirt, his head was sprinkled with ashes. All were astonished at the sight. And immediately a woeful cry rang out, for no one knew what was happening. Then, when the robber appeared at the doors of the church, that holy superior who had such love for souls, said to him in a loud voice: ‘Stop! You are not worthy to enter here.’

Dumbfounded by the voice of the shepherd coming from the sanctuary (for he thought, as he afterwards assured us with oaths, that he had heard not a human voice, but thunder), he instantly fell on his face, trembling and shaking all over with fear. As he lay on the ground and moistened the floor with his tears, this wonderful physician, using all means for his salvation, and wishing to give to all an example of saving and effectual humility, again exhorted him, in the presence of all, to tell in detail what he had done. And with terror he confessed one after another all his sins, which revolted every ear, not only sins of the flesh, natural and unnatural, with rational beings and with animals, but even poisoning, murder and many other kinds which it is indecent to hear or commit to writing. And when he had finished his confession, the shepherd at once allowed him to be given the habit and numbered among the brethren.

Amazed by the wisdom of that holy man, I asked him when we were alone: ‘Why did you make such an extraordinary show?’ That true physician replied: ‘For two reasons: firstly, in order to deliver the penitent himself from future shame by present shame; and it really did that, Brother John. For he did not rise from the floor until he was granted remission of all his sins. And do not doubt this, for one of the brethren who was there confided to me, saying: “I saw someone terrible holding a pen and writing-tablet, and as the prostrate man told each sin, he crossed it out with a pen.” And this is likely, for it says: I said, I will confess against myself my sin to the Lord; and Thou hast forgiven the wickedness of my heart.1 Secondly, because there are others in the brotherhood who have unconfessed sins, and I want to induce them to confess too, for without this no one will obtain forgiveness.’

St John Climacus

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“I bind unto myself today the strong Name of the Trinity”

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“For Thomas Aquinas, God is not ‘separated’ from the world as a subsistent entity conceivable apart from his causal relationship to created beings”

Far from being a ‘supreme being’, a nameless deity beyond the world who is ultimately in charge of everything, God is maxime ens, who enjoys being in the highest possible degree. Such a reality must be thought to be utterly simple, but simple in the ‘concrete’ sense of perfection, including, in its simple being, the perfection of all things. And, as implied by his universal perfection, God is self-diffusive goodness, the abundant source of all the good gifts which creatures receive from him, among which the gift of ‘being’ occupies the first place. Consequent upon its simplicity, the reality of God must be thought to be infinite, but infinite in the sense of being most intimately present in each thing, causing it to be from within. And also, as implied by its simplicity, it must be thought to be absolutely unchangeable, but in the sense of being enduringly present to everything which changes over time. The mark of subsistence as qualifying the simplicity of the divine being appears here to be of crucial importance. It is not the subsistence of a supreme substance, conceived somehow as inert and static, enclosed in itself, prior to its creative activity with respect to the world of creatures; rather, the divine essence is the full and unrestricted actuality (actus purus) of being, which, by nature, tends to communicate its actuality to other things by letting them share in being.

There is something in Thomas’ conception of God as ipsum esse per se subsistens that does not fit very well into the picture of ‘classical theism’. Classical theism, as it is usually understood, tends to view God as an absolute entity existing independently of the world. The theistic God looks more like a being, a ‘self-contained substance’ above and apart from the world, than the pure actuality of subsistent being itself. From Thomas’ perspective, this would mean that the independence of God, as over against the world of finite beings, is conceived wrongly. It is as if the character of subsistence, attributed to a theistically conceived God, is a logical expression by means of which we think of God as separated from the world, as a distinct reality, while Thomas intends to express by subsistence that the being of God is separated through itself from all other beings. The difference is crucial. For Thomas, God is not ‘separated’ from the world as a subsistent entity conceivable apart from his causal relationship to created beings; it is as cause of all beings that God ‘separates’ himself from all his effects by distinguishing those effects from himself. In this sense the ‘concept’ of God is, in truth, the concept of the relationship of God and world, conceived as an ordered plurality of diverse beings, each of which receives its being from the divine source of being. For Thomas there is no way of thinking of God concretely outside the relationship. The independence, or absoluteness, of God characterizes the way He relates as cause to all other things; it is the independence of the perfect goodness of God, who is not under any obligation or necessity to fulfil himself by creating, but who acts out of his own goodness, establishing all other things in being by letting them share in his own perfection.

Rudi te Velde, Aquinas on God, pp. 84-85

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“God Differs Differently”

To say that God is simple is to express God’s transcendence. All divine persons, because of the identity of supposit and nature are simple. However, Aquinas accepts the predication of persona composita, composed person, of the Son Incarnate. Does that mean that God and Christ Incarnate are opposed as the transcendent and the immanent God? No, and if one is tempted to conclude to such an opposition, one has a wrong understanding of divine transcendence and of divine simplicity. To predicate simplicity of God is to say that there is no one else who qualifies for being God than God himself. For simplicity says that divine being and divine essence or nature are identical, and thus no one else shares in divine essence and no one else shares in divine being. This makes ‘simple’ to be a predicate different from all other predicates, since it does not describe a certain feature of God’s divine nature, but it says something about all of our language about God: we cannot but employ predicates in talking about God, thus suggesting that God participates in something essential bigger than God alone, but this suggestion should be denied; we cannot but employ predicates in talking about God, thus suggesting that God has a certain being, but this suggestion should be denied. The language we use is fit for talking about creatures. This language uses words that are defined. Each definition contains something that is common and something that is different. The definition of human being for example employs ‘animal’, a genus, and ‘rationalis’ a specific difference, combining together to form the definition of the species human being. Any proposition about something concrete, using words with a certain definition, intensifies this difference between something common, the predicate, and something particular, the subject. The distinctions used reflect the very structure of human thinking and human speaking, which expresses that something is unique by its being different from other things. This will not do for God, since God does not differ from the world in this sense. God is not transcendent in the sense that he needs a difference to be the unique one he is. God is not different within a certain genus, on the basis of a common similarity. This is what simplicity expresses: God is ‘outside’ of any genus, and thus God is not different from creatures the way in which creatures mutually differ. God differs differently. This is where description of God’s being or nature stops, and where we discover that simplicity and transcendence are actually words qualifying our thinking and speaking about God, instead of qualifying God himself. All of our language about God should be analyzed in such away, as the analysis of words and propositions used analogously in fact does, to account for this unique uniqueness of God.

Such an account undermines the opposition between transcendence and immanence, because God is not transcendent in such a way that he is simply ‘outside of or ‘above’ the world, and thus not transcendent in such a way that it would exclude his ‘descent’ into the world. The true light that came into the world was already in the world (Jn 1). A proper understanding of divine transcendence does not exclude divine immanence; formulated in terms of ‘union’, God was already united to the world before he was united with this human nature. However one interprets divine simplicity, an understanding that implies God to be unknowable and ineffable because God is simply ‘outside of or ‘above’ creation is utterly misleading.

Henk J. M. Schoot, Christ the Name of God, pp. 144-145

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“There is no cause for despair—by ourselves we can do nothing, but we have Christ’s promise”

When the Lord tells us in the Gospel that anyone who wants to be his follower must renounce himself, the injunction seems harsh; we think he is imposing a burden on us. But an order is no burden when it is given by one who helps in carrying it out.

To what place are we to follow Christ if not where he has already gone? We know that he has risen and ascended into heaven: there, then, we must follow him.

There is no cause for despair—by ourselves we can do nothing, but we have Christ’s promise.

Heaven was beyond our reach before our Head ascended there, but now, if we are his members, why should we despair of arriving there ourselves? Is there any reason? True, many fears and afflictions confront us in this world; but if we follow Christ, we shall reach a place of perfect happiness, perfect peace, and everlasting freedom from fear.

Yet let me warn anyone bent on following Christ to listen to Saint Paul: “One who claims to abide in Christ ought to walk as he walked.”

Would you follow Christ? Then be humble as he was humble; do not scorn his lowliness if you want to reach his exaltation. Human sin made the road rough but Christ’s resurrection leveled it; by passing over it himself he transformed the narrowest of tracks into a royal highway. Two feet are needed to run along this highway; they are humility and charity. Everyone wants to get to the top—well, the first step to take is humility. Why take strides that are too big for you—do you want to fall instead of going up? Begin with the first step, humility, and you will already be climbing.

As well as telling us to renounce ourselves, our Lord and Savior said that we must take up our cross and follow him. What does it mean to take up one’s cross? Bearing every annoyance patiently. That is following Christ.

When someone begins to follow his way of life and his commandments, that person will meet resistance on every side. He or she will be opposed, mocked, even persecuted, and this not only by unbelievers but also by people who to all appearances belong to the body of Christ, though they are really excluded from it by their wickedness; people who, being Christians only in name, never stop persecuting true Christians.

If you want to follow Christ, then, take up his cross without delay. Endure injuries, do not be overcome by them. If we would fulfill the Lord’s command: “If anyone wants to be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me,” we must strive with God’s help to do as the Apostle says: “As long as we have food and clothing, let this content us.” Otherwise, if we seek more material goods than we need and desire to become rich, we may fall prey to temptation. The devil may trick us into wanting the many useless and harmful things that plunge people into ruin and destruction.

May we be free from this temptation through the protection of our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.

St Caesarius of Arles

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To Be or Not to Be: The Christian Distinction

“‘It ain’t obvious what’s obvious,’ at least not in philosophy,” quips Bill Vallicella, quoting Hilary Putnam. I walked right into that friendly gibe. After all, I did remark that “God, as conceived by Christians, is not a being among beings is so utterly obvious to me that I honestly do not know how to argue against it.” Yet I walked into it with my eyes wide open, hoping it might elicit a thoughtful response from the Maverick Philosopher–and he has not disappointed. Vallicella has surveyed and analyzed the arguments, pro and con, and has concluded that a definitive judgment, at least for himself, is presently impossible. While he is inclined to believe that God is best identified as Being, he acknowledges that theistic personalists like Dale Tuggy and Alan Rhoda have presented a good case for their position. They could just be right … or not.

anselm_2.jpg~original.jpegI am reminded of Bertrand Russell’s great eureka moment in 1894. He had gone out to buy a tin of pipe tobacco. While walking along Trinity Lane, he threw the tin up in the air and exclaimed, “Great God in Boots!–the ontolog­ical argument is sound!” The illumination immediately led to Russell’s conversion to … no, not God … but Hegelianism, which lasted, he says, about three or four years. Sometimes arguments are persuasive, sometimes they aren’t; but as Vallicella observes, they are rarely obvious.

Of course, I ain’t no philosopher, yet I remain convinced that a properly Christian understanding of divine transcendence denies, or at least dramatically qualifies, the theistic-personalist claim.

We begin with “the Christian distinction,” as articulated by Robert Sokolowski in his book The God of Faith and Reason (also see “God+World≠2” and “Creatio ex Amore“). The Christian understanding of divinity, he argues, is best appreciated when contrasted with pagan religion and philosophy. Modernity can be a hindrance, for it is partly, if not largely, defined by its rejection “of both Christianity and antiquity, and many of the teachings we find in modernity could hardly be understood except as subsequent to Christian belief” (p. 22). The kind of theology articulated, for example, in the writings of analytic philosopher Richard Swinburne is inconceivable apart from the deism and atheism generated by the Enlightenment. The Church Fathers would no doubt have found Swinburne’s presentation of God alien, disturbing, despite the employment of traditional terminology. Consider how Swinburne defines deity:

There exists necessarily and eternally a person essentially bodiless, omnipresent, creator and sustainer of any universe there may be, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and a source of moral obligation. … An individual of the kind defined I shall call a divine individual or a God. (The Christian God, p. 125)

“Divine individual,” “a God”? Perhaps you find this way of speaking as odd as I do. Yet Swinburne is considered to be one of the premier Christian philosophers in the world. There is something strange going on here. The Christian faith is not just being translated into a modern idiom. It is being rendered in a way that theologians would have eschewed 1,500 years ago. Preachers have always spoken of God as a divine individual—it’s inevitable when one proclaims the gospel in narrative mode–but patristic and medieval theologians quickly realized that they could not remain at that level of discourse. Apophatic qualification was necessary. In the Eastern Church theologians came to speak of God as beyond Being; in the Latin Church, as Being. In speaking this way they were not subjecting their understanding of deity to the strictures of Greek philosophy but rather appropriating and adapting metaphysical conceptuality for the elaboration of the Christian distinction between deity and the world. Sokolowski formulates the distinction as follows:

Christian theology is differentiated from pagan religious and philosophical reflection primarily by the introduction of a new distinction, the distinction between the world understood as possibly not having existed and God understood as possibly being all that there is, with no diminution of goodness or greatness. (p. 23)

That God might not have created the world, without diminishment of being and glory, represented the introduction of a new vision of divinity and the cosmos. Pagan critics of the gospel recognized its novelty. In the second century, for example, the physician-philosopher Galen took Christianity to task for its rejection of demiurgic creation of the cosmos from preexistent matter. He was scandalized by the claim that God created the world freely from out of nothing, thereby portraying the Deity as arbitrary and capricious and thus undermining the rationality of the world (see Robert Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, chap. 4).


The Christian distinction was given its verbal formulation by theologians and philosophers; but it did not, Sokolowski reminds us, first emerge in a purely theoretical context. It was formulated in “reflective thought because it had already been achieved in the life that goes on before reflective thinking occurs” (p. 23). Before the distinction came to word in the Church’s dogmatic teaching, it was experienced and known in the sacramental, ascetical, and moral practices of the Church. The distinction flows from the depths of the Church’s existential and spiritual life. Hence we are not speaking here of metaphysical speculation but of a fundamental apprehension of Creator and creature, as revealed in Jesus Christ and his Spirit. We do not think our way to the Christian distinction; we receive it by faith and live it in faith.

“In pagan religion and philosophy,” Sokolowski explains, “distinctions are made within the context of the world or the whole, the matrix of being in which one thing comes forward as differentiated from others” (p. 31). Beings within the world are identified by their differences. Each is what it is by not being what it is distinguishable from. But the Christian doctrines of God and creation confront us with a distinguishing that transcends the world:

But in the Christian distinction God is understood as “being” God entirely apart from any relation of otherness to the world or to the whole. God could and would be God even if there were no world. Thus the Christian distinction is appreciated as a distinction that did not have to be, even though it in fact is. The most fundamental thing we come to in Christianity, the distinction between the world and God, is appreciated as not being the most fundamental thing after all, because one of the terms of the distinction, God, is more fundamental than the distinction itself.

In Christian faith God is understood not only to have created the world, but to have permitted the distinction between himself and the world to occur. He is not established as God by the distinction (whereas pagan gods are established by being different from other things). No distinction made within the horizon of the world is like this, and therefore the act of creation in terms of any action or any relationship that exists in the world. The special sense of sameness in God “before” and “after” creation, and the special sense of otherness between God and the world, impose qualifications on whatever we are to say about God and the world, about creation out of nothing, about God’s way of being present and interior to things and yet beyond them. All the names and syntax we use for such theological discourse have to be adapted from their normal use in the element of the identities and differences within the world. …

The Christian distinction between God and the world is therefore a distinction that is, in principle, both most primary and yet capable of being obliterated, because one of the terms of the distinction, the world, does not have to be. To be God, God does not need to be distinguished from the world, because there does not need to be anything other than God alone. (pp. 32-33)

I have travelled far from the Maverick Philosopher’s analysis of God as being and Being–but perhaps not too far.

(4 May 2015; mildly edited)

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Absolute Deity: Being, Beyond Being, or a Being?


Is God a being among beings or Being itself? This is the question presently being discussed by philosophers Bill Vallicella and Dale Tuggy. If this is a question that interests you, please jump over to Vallicella’s website and read his article “God.” Then jump over to Tuggy’s site and read the two articles he has posted: “God is a being (part 1)” and “(part 2).” And then see Vallicella’s follow-up: “God and Socrates.” Not being trained in philosophy, analytic or otherwise, I find the arguments dense, difficult, and more than a little bit weird; but I imagine this happens all the time when laymen read chats between analytic philosophers.

That God, as conceived by Christians (and I’m not really interested in any other God), is not a being among beings is so utterly obvious to me that I honestly do not know how to argue against it. One of the very first theology books I read back in the 70s was He Who Is by Eric Lionel Mascall. When I look back now on my theological development since then, I have come to realize how profoundly he influenced my understanding of God, even though it was decades later before I read even a little Aquinas. My paperback copy of the book is filled with underlining (ditto for my copy of Existence and Analogy). Here’s one passage that I underlined:

We cannot lump together in one genus God and everything else, as if the word “being” applied to them all in precisely the same sense, and then pick out God as the supreme one. For if God is the Supreme Being, in the sense in which Christian theology uses the term, “being” as applied to him is not just one more instance of what “being” means when applied to anything else. So far from being just one item, albeit the supreme one, in a class of beings, he is the source from which their being is derived; he is not in their class but above it. … In the technical term, when we apply to God a term which is normally used of other beings, we are using it not univocally but analogically; for he is not just one member of a class with them, but their ground and archetype. (p. 9)

04_doura_sacrifice_of_elijah-1.JPGThe claim that God is a being among beings is immediately ruled out, so it seems to me, by the classical understanding of divine transcendence: if all beings have been created from nothing by the self-existent One, then this One cannot be classified as one of them, as sharing a world with them. To think of God as a being would thus represent nothing less than a return to paganism. We would be back at Mt Carmel with Elijah and the priests of Ba’al. Among theologians of the first millennium, the question was never “Is God a being?” but “Is God Being or beyond Being?” I know that having just written this, someone will now come back at me with a quote from one or more of the Church Fathers; but even if excep­tions are identified, I think my generali­zation stands.

Reading through Vallicella’s article, I kept asking myself, Would Mascall agree with the proposition “existence exists”? I find the proposition odd. What about the assertion of Pseudo-Dionysius that God is beyond all Being? Aquinas would certainly agree that the Creator transcends created being; but I suspect that Dionysius is trying to say something more. I wonder what the Maverick Philosopher thinks about “beyond Being” language  (I can pretty much guess what Tuggy thinks about it).

I look forward to hearing your thoughts about Vallicella’s and Tuggy’s arguments. Please do not be reluctant to avail yourself of the comment box. I, for one, need to hear from you. Perhaps even Vallicella and Tuggy might join us. Probably not, but who knows? Even the Lord of Hosts deigned to make an appearance at Mt Carmel.

(30 April 2015; mildly edited)

(Go to “To Be or Not to Be”)

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