Fr Christiaan Kappes on the Essence-Energies Distinction

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Slowly Reading St Athanasius: Four or five pretty good reasons why Jesus isn’t a space alien or astronaut

by John Stamps

C.S. Lewis encouraged us to read old books in his famous introduction to St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. In the best of all possible worlds, he prescribed that, after you have finished reading a new book, you should never ever never start another new one until you have read an old one in between. But we moderns need to be careful. The problem with reading old books is we misunderstand them so easily. We do not necessarily misread them from any prejudice or ill-will. They just might not say what we expect them to say in the way that we expected them to say it. That’s not a bad thing. We simply have to work hard at understand­ing them on their own terms first.

Here is a case in point. St Athanasius describes how “the Logos takes for Himself a body as an instrument and makes it His own.” In his typical concentric style, he makes this point repeatedly but it doesn’t necessarily become more clear to us the more he repeats it. “The body is the instrument of the Logos” doesn’t just sound odd to us. For many readers, it sounds quasi-docetic and dualist plain and simple. Is the incarnate Logos even a real human being? This is potentially a serious jaw-dropping mistake in a book ostensibly written about the incarnation of God the Word. This notion of body-as-instrument is easily the most difficult image for modern readers to grasp that we’ve hit so far.

So let’s grasp the nettle with both hands and see what tolerable sense we can make of St Athanasius here. It’s worth the investment of time and effort. Let’s try to put him into a theological context and tackle that strange term, “docetic.”

Here is how a good Docetist thinks. By nearly all accounts, Jesus of Nazareth was an extra­ordinary human being. He was so extraordinary that many have seriously questioned whether He was actually a human being at all. Josephus the Jewish-Roman historian famously doubted His humanity — “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man.”1 So extraordinary were His words and deeds that many Christians thought Jesus only seemed or appeared to be human. Could such a divine man — a theios aner (θεῖος ἀνήρ) — really die? And if Jesus of Nazareth really was God incarnate and not just a divine man, God is immortal by definition and cannot possibly die. The crucifixion of God could not possibly be real. He just seemed to have a physical body. Jesus was actually an incorporeal being. He could not possibly die a physical death.2

This stance is called Docetism, from the Greek word δοκέω — to seem or pretend. Doce­tism is one of the first notorious heresies actually condemned in the New Testament. St John the Theologian himself goes to great pains to insist Jesus was no phantom, no illusion. He was a genuine human being just like you and me. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). His birth was a real birth. His crucifix­ion was a real death. Jesus made no ex machina escape at the last second from His gruesome execution.

And His resurrection from the dead was no conjuring trick with bones. The tomb was empty and the corpse was gone. Now a missing body raises more questions than it answers. But you shall have the body. Habeas corpus indeed. Jesus of Nazareth did not go missing. He appeared to several eyewitnesses. He showed them the nail marks in His hands and His feet. He commanded St Thomas to place His finger into the hole in His side. Extraordinarily, the resurrection didn’t erase the marks of crucifixion. The Jesus who was resurrected was the exact same Jesus who was crucified. The risen Lord still bears the nail wounds of His crucifixion. Whatever else we Mere Christians confess about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, we don’t confuse it with immortality of the soul. The stone was rolled away, the tomb was empty, and the angels proclaimed, “He is not here: for He is risen, just as He said.”

Even so, many still harbor grave doubts whether the biblical Jesus describes a genuine human being at all. To them, a far simpler explanation is that He is an extra-terrestrial, so to speak. This argument is not as oddball as it seems. It starts with a dubious and dislo­cated3 misreading of St John’s Gospel. That’s how some people read the Gospel of John. The Logos enters the cosmos like a space alien. The world “at its core is an alien realm, just as accord­ing to John, Jesus himself had been an alien sojourner in this world below.”4 Jesus — the Man from Heaven — is God striding over the face of the earth. He is not one of us. So says Käsemann and some others. This misreading starts with a fishy view of God’s transcendence. We’ll address that later.

But for some modern readers, even St Athanasius doesn’t quite escape suspicion of subtle Docetism either, this despite writing the premier theological work on the incarnation of the God the Word. The nub of the issue is how St Athanasius describes the incarnation — the Logos takes for Himself a body as an instrument. Consider the following extracts from De Incarnatione §§8-9:

Having mercy upon our race, and having pity upon our weakness, and condescending to our corruption, and not enduring the dominion of death, lest what had been created should perish and the work of the Father himself for human beings should be in vain, He takes for himself a body and that not foreign to our own.

Although being himself powerful and the creator of the universe, he prepared for himself in the Virgin the body as a temple, and made it his own, as an instrument (ὄργανον), making himself known and dwelling in it.

The power of corruption was fully expended in the lordly body and no longer having any ground against similar human beings.

… as human beings had turned towards corruption he might turn them again to incorruptibility and give them life from death, by making the body his own and by the grace of the resurrection banishing death from them as straw from the fire. For the Word, realizing that in no other way would the corruption of human beings be undone except, simply, by dying, yet being immortal and the Son of the Father the Word was not able to die, for this reason he takes to himself a body capable of death.

Whence, by offering to death the body he had taken to himself, as an offering holy and free of all spot, he immediately abolished death from all like him, by the offering of a like. For being above all, the Word of God consequently, by offering his own temple and his bodily instrument (τὸ σωματικὸν ὄργανον) as a substitute for all, fulfilled in death that which was required; and, being with all through the like [body], the incorruptible Son of God consequently clothed all with incorruptibility in the promise concerning the resurrection.

When he describes the incarnation, it’s not that hard at first blush to imagine the Logos wearing a human body like a suit. I’ll argue this is a decidedly wrongheaded reading of St Athanasius. But you can certainly see where people could get the wrong impression of the incarnate Christ. The image that St Athanasius offers — the Word made His body His own, like an instrument — is open to gross misunderstanding.

Others lampoon St Athanasius’ treatment of the incarnation and say he holds a “Space-Suit Christology.”

Just as the astronaut, in order to operate in a part of the universe where there is no air and where he has to experience weightlessness, puts on an elaborate space-suit which enables him to live and act in this new, unfamiliar environment, so the Logos put on a body which enabled him to behave as a human being among human beings. But his relation to this body was no closer than that of an astronaut to his space-suit.5

An astronaut needs a space-suit to do his work and the Logos needs a body to do His work. There you have it. It’s a straightforward-but-misguided distortion and deserves some careful thought.

The parody described here is a scene straight out of a science-fiction story. Sci-fi 101 stipulates that aliens always need a human body and a fairly normal suit of clothes to blend in with real human beings. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu comes to earth and passes as a reasonably normal person — or an IBM executive, not exactly the same thing — dressed in a rather natty grey flannel suit. In Starman, the alien (Jeff Bridges) cloned a human body to look like Jenny’s husband, right down to the plaid shirt and Levi’s. In Men in Black, Gentle Rosenburg the Arquilian is a tiny homunculus who loves pierogies and drives a robotic human exosuit. But best of all, Edgar the Bug (memorably played by Vincent D’Onofrio) is a vicious alien cockroach who kills a mean-tempered misogynist farmer and then starts wearing his body as a suit, to great comic effect. Agent K (also memorably played by Tommy Lee Jones) describes him like this: “Imagine a giant cockroach, with unlimited strength, a massive inferiority complex, and a real short temper, is tear-assing around Manhattan Island in a brand-new Edgar suit.” Edgar the Bug needs a plausible Edgar suit in order to steal the Arquillian galaxy. Science-fiction as it turns out offers helpful apophatic resources for pondering what we Christians do not mean by incarnation — that is, God’s en-human-ification.

Let’s explore some pretty good alternative reasons why Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t an extraterrestrial or an astronaut. I offer you five.

First, when St Athanasius says the Logos takes to Himself a body-as-an-instrument, he doesn’t mean this body is an external appendage to Him. Jesus doesn’t wear His body like we might wear a FitBit. His “instrument” isn’t any more alien to Him than an opera singer’s “instrument” is alien to her. Singers famously describe using their bodies as “instruments.” Take some diva who blathers on and on in a late-night talk show about how she takes excellent care of her “instrument.” She sounds a bit odd and pretentious, I’ll grant you that. But a world-class singer can talk about her body as something somehow different from herself — even though it is her body — and she doesn’t sound particularly weird doing so. We understand her point. Her body is indeed her instrument. That voice in that body is a precious gift that she dare not squander. From a christological point of view, it’s entirely fitting that a singer or actor can think of her body as a tool she uses for a particular use.6

Because using His body as an instrument is exactly what the Logos did. We need not regard divas as gross dualists. They might be self-centered, but they are not inherently gnostic. And while we all agree that performers are indubitably strange creatures, we need not regard them as space aliens and extraterrestrials. The body that the God Word takes to Himself is a specific instrument designed for a quite specific task.

Jesus speaks in St John’s Gospel, “I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” (12:46). He was born into this world for a specific reason, a specific mission. He came into the world to suffer and die on the cross, to banish death, to expend the power of corruption, and to substitute for us, among other things. The God Word uses His body to do His Father’s works in specifically human ways. “The body allows the Son to do things that he could not have done had he not become man.”7 God’s salvation is explicitly hands-on. He spits on the ground and makes clay to anoint the eyes of a blind man. He lays hands on the sick and He heals them. He pokes His fingers into the ears of a deaf-mute and then spits and touches the man’s tongue to heal Him. “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20).8 All of these hands-on actions are quite genuine, none are play-acting. And no, the God Word here is not estranged, distanced, detached, or otherwise alienated from His instrument, His body.

Second, when we speak about the God Word’s incarnation, we don’t mean He puts on a Yeshua suit. The body of the Logos is not extrinsic, external, or extraneous to Him.9 The body that the Logos makes His own is not “off the rack.” He doesn’t take to Himself a size 42R body from the Nordstrom men’s department. Or if we’re disposed to comparative religion, the Logos doesn’t take to Himself a generic salvation body that any generic savior would wear. His body is truly special — born of the virgin Mary, born under the Law, born in the fullness of time. Hebrews 10:5-10 describes this perfectly, where the writer quotes from Psalm 40:6-8 (LXX):

Sacrifices and offerings Thou hast not desired,
but a body hast thou prepared for Me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings Thou hast taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Lo, I have come to do Thy will, O God,’
as it is written of Me in the roll of the book.10

St Athanasius calls the body of the Logos an organon (ὄργανον) or “instrument.” The most important clue to his purpose stares at us straight in the face. The body of the Logos is being used for a specific function. This instrument is His manifestation, His theophany if you will. The Logos used his body as an instrument for the true revelation and knowledge of the Father.

We might say that St Athanasius is concerned here about epistemology, except then we invariably go down Cartesian or Kantian rabbit holes.11 Athanasius doesn’t want to answer Epistemology 101 questions about what we know and how we know it. Instead, he is deeply concerned about how we come to know the living God. If God can manifest Himself in one part of creation, He most certainly can manifest Himself in a different part. We can know God through the cosmos. The beauty and magnificence of the sun, moon, and stars testify to God’s wisdom and goodness to us. It is certainly plausible — indeed it is meet, fitting, and right — for God to reveal Himself in a human body. Khaled Anatolios summa­rizes St Athanasius’ point nicely: “By “instrument” Athanasius means something very much like a manifestation or “epiphany,” ἐπιφάνεια, which is actually a term he uses in parallel fashion to speak of the Word’s coming in a body. And God’s epiphany is not just in any old body. The body of the Logos is sui generis, utterly without comparison. But it’s still a genuine human body.

Third, let’s go back to the “space-suit Christology” crit­icism of St Athanasius. As you’ll recall, it was snidely said that the relationship of the Logos to His body was “no closer than that of an astronaut to His space-suit.” The problem here is that Hanson resorts to the out­landish when a far simpler explanation lies close to hand. It’s because St Athanasius is a much better biblical theo­logian than R.P.C. Hanson. Hanson is biblically tone-deaf. Not once but twice St Athanasius says the Logos made the body His temple.

He prepared for himself in the Virgin the body as a temple, and made it his own, as an instru­ment (ὄργανον), making himself known and dwelling in it…. For being above all, the Word of God consequently, by offering his own temple and his bodily instrument (τὸ σωματικὸν ὄργανον) as a substitute for all.

This is nothing but St Athanasius echoing St John’s Gospel. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up…. But he spoke of the temple of his body.” His clever lampoon to one side, Hanson missed the obvious echo to John 2:13-22. The body of Jesus crucified and risen is the new temple of God. This temple condemned to die has become the temple of life.

It’s a strange mixed metaphor — His temple is His sacrifice. The temple of His body doubles as God’s house and as His holy oblation. He offers His temple to death. This temple dwelling is uniquely His own sacred space and His own sacred sacrifice. The God Word makes Him­self known in this temple, His body (De Incarnatione §8). He offers it as a bodily instrument as a substitute (ἀντίψυχον12) for all. In this transaction, He offers His life in place of our life. St Athanasius pours the entire Old Testament sacrificial system into this one word.

The Shekinah glory has at long last returned, in the temple body of this Jewish rabbi. We have seen the glory — incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, the Logos made flesh — full of grace and truth. The king returns. He leads us into a new Exodus, He makes all things new. And to top it off, He has built a new temple. God has come to dwell bodily in the midst of His people. God’s fullness dwells fully in this temple.

Fourth, let’s clear the decks and try to state clearly what St Athanasius is not doing. We’ll call it apophatic christology. St Athanasius is not slicing-and-dicing the God-Man — this nice bit of Jesus is God, this naughty bit of Jesus is … well … clearly not God. Athanasius is not trying to figure out what pieces and parts the God-Man is composed of. He isn’t scrutinizing and dissecting the anthropology, psychology, or physiology of the incarnate Logos.

This is the very problem that Apollinaris got himself into. But St Athanasius isn’t Apol­linaris. He doesn’t even want to be Apollinaris. He has other issues he is concerned with. Apollinaris argued the Logos replaced the human soul in Jesus of Nazareth. He tried to figure out the composition and structure of the God-Man.13 But St Athanasius is conspicuously silent about such matters.14

The prime reason why St Athanasius doesn’t make such an christological and anthropolog­ical blunder is he’s much too good of a Christian theologian to speak of God as if He was a partial, localized deity, whether of Egypt, Moab, Assyria, Babylon, or the USA. The incor­po­real, immortal, and invisible God doesn’t have parts. God is not composite. God is a simple whole.

For men, composed of parts and made out of nothing, have their discourse composite and divisible. But God possesses true existence and is not composite, wherefore His Word also has true Existence and is not composite, but is the one and only-begotten God, Who proceeds in His goodness from the Father as from a good Fountain, and orders all things and holds them together. (CG §41; see also CG §28)

Now the universe to be sure is composed of parts and pieces located here and there and everywhere. But there are no parts and pieces to God. God is in all and in every part. St Athanasius did not commit a category error. You simply cannot map 1:1 this piece of God to that part of the genuinely human Yeshua bar-Yoseph. The incarnation of God the Word is not some weird and impossible mishmash of natures. The God-Man is not a mytholog­ical composite creature, like a goat-stag or an eagle-lion or Hercules.

Good apophatic christology hearkens back to Jesus and the Gospels. We have to clear the bogus options out of the way in order to make reasonable sense of His identity. Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” (Mark 8:28) He is not John the Baptist, He is not Elijah, He is not one of the prophets. And He is not a chimera, an astronaut, or a space alien either.

Fifth, we can now more clearly state the aim of St Athanasius when he describes the body of the instrument of the God Word.15 We know God through His works. This particular body is the special way that God manifests Himself. One of the problems that Käsemann, Hanson, and other theologians suffer is they are operating out of a dubious view of God’s transcen­dence that renders His immanence impossible. God is so out there “yonder” that the earth is alien to Him. God is so far removed and so alien to the cosmos that His coming to earth looks like an alien invasion.

Again, St Athanasius is too good of a theologian to fall into such a trap. He suffers from no über-transcendent view of God. God is not distant from us (De Incarnatione §8). The God of Sacred Scripture and Christian theology is never trapped in His own transcendence. He is immanent to us. He is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. Being the good Christian Platonist that he is, St Athanasius knows that the Logos is present and revealed to our minds and intellects, that is, our intelligible Platonic self.

But now God acts in a new unprecedented way — in His in-body-ification (ἐν-σωμά-τωσις).16 Our intellects have grown dull. We have become sluggish, fleshly, and sensible creatures. And because we have become sluggish, fleshly, and sensible creatures, God now condescends to us and manifests Himself in a new way, in a sensible way that our senses can apprehend. He manifested Himself in a body. He was crucified bodily and He was resurrected bodily and He ascended bodily.17

To summarize, when the Logos becomes incarnate in a body, God does not touch down on Planet Earth in His Yeshua suit. The cosmos is His realm after all and He is not remote from it. He is everywhere present in the universe and He fills all things. Incarnation is not a change in who or what God is. God is omnipresent. Incarnation is not a change in God, but is God’s manifestation in a new and particular way. Incarnation is God’s theophany, not in a burning bush, but in a genuine human body. Incarnation is the deepest revelation of the Logos.18

The body of this crucified Jew is where God chooses to reveal Himself most fully.19 “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:36) This particular body is the special way that God manifests Himself. God becomes truly immanent to us than through His embodi­ment. The God Word stands before us, full of grace and truth. “Christ’s body is the privileged medium for the self-disclosure of the invisible God in human form.”20 And “privileged” is exactly the right word here. Incarnation is His inalienable right as God and Word.

We turn to De Incarnatione §§9-10 next.



[1] Of course Josephus could be just using ironic understatement (litotes).

[2] A docetic view of Jesus’ death is embedded in the Koran: “That they said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah”;- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not: Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.” (Qur’an, surah 4 (An-Nisa) ayat 157–158)

[3] For Ernst Käsemann and others, the prologue to John’s Gospel (1:1-18) is a later addition to smooth out theological difficulties. “He came to his own home but His own people did not recognize Him” (John 1:11) would certainly mitigate whether the incarnate Logos is an alien sojourner in an alien realm.

[4] The Testament of Jesus: A Study of the Gospel of John in the Light of Chapter 17, page 65.

[5] R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381, page 448.

[6] For that matter, John Stuart Mill thought the mind of his wife Harriet Taylor “a perfect instrument, piercing to the very heart and marrow of the matter; always seizing the essential idea or principle.” If R.P.C. Hanson doesn’t like St Athanasius using the word “instrument,” then he probably wouldn’t like John Stuart Mill doing it either. This is more than rhetorical synecdoche — when a part of something is used to refer to the whole. For their own reasons, St Athanasius wants to focus on the body as a revelatory instrument to manifest God to us and John Stuart Mill wants to focus on his wife’s mind as an extraordinary instrument for clear and decisive analysis. I discovered the John Stuart Mill anecdote recently, in Robert D. Richardson’s biography of William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, page 157.

[7] Thomas Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction, page 47.

[8] Jesus here echoes Exodus 8:16-20 and 31:18. But in the exorcisms performed by Jesus of Nazareth, God’s finger is a human flesh-and-blood finger.

[9] Peter Leithart observes that “The terminology used here is similar to that used to describe the Son’s relation to the Father. The Son is the Father’s own, proper (idios) Word and wisdom, not an extrinsic or attached Word or Wisdom.” (Athanasius, page 127)

[10] Oddly, while St Athanasius quotes Hebrews quite numerous times, he doesn’t quote this passage in De Incarnatione.

[11] Khaled Anatolios, “‘The Body as Instrument’: a Reevaluation of Athanasius’s Logos-sarx Christology.” Coptic Church Review (1997), page 82.

[12] ἀντίψυχον is not the word I was expecting. It’s not found in the New Testament. According to LSJ, it means “given for life, to give your life for another’s.” By contrast, Jesus says the Son of Man came to give His soul/life as a λύτρον (ransom, atonement) for many (Mark 10:45). St Paul says the man Christ Jesus gave Himself as an ἀντίλυτρον (ransom, antidote, or remedy) for many.

[13] The consequences of such a christological blunder are devastating for our salvation. If Jesus doesn’t have a human soul, then our own souls don’t get repaired with Jesus’ act of salvation. “What God does not assume is not saved.” God must assume the entire human person — soul, spirit, body, and will. This is of course the devastating argument that St Gregory of Nazianzus makes against Apollinaris. But that’s not our concern here and it’s not St Athanasius’ concern either.

[14] Remember that St Athanasius lived and wrote before St Augustine, before Descartes, before Freud. He’s never read Sources of the Self by Charles Taylor. But even if he had, he still would not have gotten himself sucked into the Apollinarian quagmire.

[15] St Athanasius will circle back to the body-as-instrument of the Logos in §41-45. But I won’t steal St Athanasius’ thunder here. I also don’t want to tax the reader’s patience. Plus, I want to avoid repeating myself. But you are certainly free to jump ahead and piece together St Athanasius’ argument for yourself.

[16] This word ἐνσωμάτωσις is actually unusual in St Athanasius. It’s only found in DI, §4: “For we were the purpose of his embodiment, and for our salvation he so loved human beings as to come to be and appear in a human body.” He typically prefers ἐνανθρωπήσις to describe the incarnation — the Word’s in-human-ization or His in-man-ification (DI, §1) — “let us, with the faith of our religion, relate also the things concerning the Incarnation of the Word and expound his divine manifestation to us.”

[17] This of course is a stumbling block and scandal to any self-respecting Platonist ashamed of the body and ashamed to appear in a body (for example, as Porphyry described Plotinus, the most famous of the Neoplatonic philosophers).

[18] As eloquently argued by David Bentley Hart in The Beauty of the Infinite, pages 355-357.

[19] St Athanasius doesn’t state my conclusion quite so bluntly.

[20] Khaled Anatolios, “‘The Body as Instrument’: a Reevaluation of Athanasius’s Logos-sarx Christology,” Coptic Church Review (1997), page 83.


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The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla

I have just finished reading the children’s story The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla by David Bentley Hart. “What?” you ask. “The metaphysician, controversialist, and grandmaster of archaic vocabulary has written a children’s story? Surely you jest?” No, I do not jest. David has given us a delightful and whimsical tale, peopled with talking stuffed animals and sentient canines—a tale of high drama, Musaceaen cuisine, theft, chicanery, deception, a wild chase in a garden maze, and serious detective work. In other words, a mystery in the tradition of Agatha Christie.

Our detective is Theodore Bear, who goes by the name of Teddy. Think of him as the American version of Hercule Poirot, only much smaller, no moustache, and less persnickety. He is accompanied by his schoolmate Porculina (pronounced “por-su-lina”), a stuffed pig who is the creator and part-owner of the world’s largest manufacturer of cosmetics for soft toys. They have been invited by their mutual friend Gorilla to join him at his castle in Scotland for the grand celebration of his elevation to the title of Laird. It is a grand affair which quickly turns into a whodonnit mystery when the MacGorilla treasures are stolen in the midst of a blizzard. The treasure room is locked from the inside and there are no footprints in the snow outside the windows. Everyone’s a suspect. But thankfully, Detective Teddy is there to solve the conundrum and put the toy world to rights.

I don’t want to spoil the tale for you, but I’ll give you this hint: “Justice must be tampered with by Murphy!”

I am eager to read the book to my grandson Ahlrich. I just have to figure out how old he needs to be to enjoy it. At six-years old I’m sure he is still too young. Maybe when he’s ten or twelve or twenty-five. But I am sure that you, my adult readers, will enjoy The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla!

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An Edifying Interview with Maximus Scholar Paul Blowers

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“His hands were as earth beneath the bread and his voice was as thunder above it”

Our Lord in a desert place changed a few loaves into many, and at Cana turned water into wine. Thus before the time came to give men and women his own body and blood to feed on, he accustomed their palates to his bread and wine, giving them a taste of transitory bread and wine to teach them to delight in his life-giving body and blood. He gave them things of little value for nothing to make them understand that his supreme gift would be given yet more freely. He gave them for nothing what they could have bought from him, what in fact they wanted to buy, to teach them that he asked them for no payment. When it was not permitted them to give him the price of bread and wine, which they could have done, they certainly could not pay him for his body and blood.

Moreover, as well as giving freely he lovingly cajoled us, offering us these small things without charge to attract us and cause us to go and receive something greater and beyond all price. He awakened our desire by things pleasing to the palate in order to draw us to that which gives life to the soul. He gave a sweet taste to the wine he created to show how great is the treasure hidden in his life-giving blood.

Consider how his creative power penetrates everything. Our Lord took a little bread, and in the twinkling of an eye multiplied it. Work that would take us ten months to accomplish he did with his ten fingers in a moment. His hands were as earth beneath the bread and his voice was as thunder above it. The movement of his lips acted as dew, the breath of his mouth as sunlight, and in a brief moment he accomplished what normally takes much time. Thus the shortage was forgotten; many loaves came from few as in the flrst blessing: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”

The Lord also showed those to whom he gave his precepts the power of his holy word, and how swiftly he would reward those who accepted it. Nevertheless, he did not increase the number of loaves as much as he could have done, but only enough to satisfy those who were to eat them. His power was not the measure of his miracle, but the people’s hunger. Had his miracle been measured by his power it would have been a victory beyond all measure. Measured by the hunger of thousands, there was a surplus of twelve baskets full. Humans who practice any craft always fall short of their customers’ desires—they are unable to meet their requirements; but what God does goes beyond anyone’s desire. The Lord said: “Gather up what remains so that nothing is wasted” because he wanted to be sure they would not think they had seen a vision. When the fragments had been kept for a day or two they would believe the Lord had really done this, and they had not just imagined it.

St Ephrem the Syrian

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A Conversation with G. K. Chesterton

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How Anthropomorphic is your G-O-D?

Confession time: for most of my parochial ministry, I was a theistic personalist, to use the term coined by Brian Davies.

“Egads! Tell me that’s not true.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”

“But what is a theistic personalist?”

“Someone who espouses theistic personalism, of course.”

“And now you are going to tell me what it is, right?”

“My pleasure.”

According to Davies, theistic personalism makes person the decisive philosophical cate­gory for thinking about God (Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, pp. 9-15). We all know what persons are. For good or ill, we have to live with them every day. So what do we mean by the word? I don’t know what the philosophers would say, but let me throw out this tentative definition—a person is a center of consciousness with whom we can ratio­nally converse. This is probably severely defective (I’m a blogger, dammit, not a philoso­pher!), but at least it will get us started.

Now let’s turn to the Bible and its rendering of deity. Doesn’t YHWH sound and act like a person, not in the sense that we can physically see him, but in all the other important ways that constitute personhood? Consider the definition of God advanced by one of the world’s premier Christian philosophers:

By a theist I understand a man who believes that there is a God. By a “God” he understands something like a “person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who is eternal, free, able to do anything, knows everything, is perfectly good, is the proper object of human worship and obedience, the creator and sus­tainer of the universe.” (Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism, p. 1)

God is that person, Swinburne says, who is “picked out by this description” (The Existence of God, p. 8).

If Swinburne’s exposition represents theistic personalism, then this is pretty much what I preached and taught throughout most of my parochial ministry. I suspect that theistic personalism is the default position of the overwhelming majority of Protestant preachers and probably a fair number of Catholic and Orthodox preachers. It begins where all preachers begin, namely, with the Scriptures. We preach the God of the Bible—the Holy One who spoke to Abraham and commanded him to leave his home and journey to Canaan, who delivered his people from slavery in Egypt, who gave Torah to Moses on Mt Horeb, who spoke to Israel through the prophets, who sent his beloved Son in the fullness of time to die for the sins of humanity and rise into indestructible life. Once God is intro­duced as a character in a narrative, then of course he will and must be portrayed as a being, a divine self, analogous to a human self. How else could a story be told about him? In the pulpit, every preacher is a theistic personalist. This means that if we take the Bible straight, as it were, we will always think of God as person, as a person. All we then need to do is detach God from embodiment and finitude, and … voila! … we have Swinburne’s omnipresent spirit.

Edward Feser has criticized theistic personalism as inescapably anthropomorphic and contrasts it with the classical Christian understanding of divinity:

Theistic personalists, by contrast, tend to begin with the idea that God is “a person” just as we are persons, only without our corporeal and other limitations. Like us, he has attributes like power, knowledge, and moral goodness; unlike us, he has these features to the maximum possible degree. The theistic personalist thus arrives at an essentially anthropomorphic conception of God. To be sure, the anthropomorphism is not the crude sort operative in traditional stories about the gods of the various pagan pantheons. The theistic personalist does not think of God as having a corporeal nature, but instead perhaps along the lines of something like an infinite Cartesian res cogitans. Nor do classical theists deny that God is personal in the sense of having the key personal attributes of intellect and will. However, classical theists would deny that God stands alongside us in the genus “person.” He is not “a person” alongside other persons any more than he is “a being” alongside other beings. He is not an instance of any kind, the way we are instances of a kind. He does not “have” intellect and will, as we do, but rather just is infinite intellect and will. He is not “a person,” not because he is less than a person but because he is more than merely a person. (Also see Feser’s article “Classical theism“)

The emergence of theistic person­alism, unfortunately, has made it possible for theologians and philosophers to begin to significantly redefine the attributes of God. The first to go were immutability and impassibility. After all, don’t the biblical writers speak of God as changing his mind, repenting of his actions, and experiencing grief, anger, and joy? More recently, open theists have begun telling us that the divine omniscience is limited—God does not exhaustively foreknow the future. A significant revision of the traditional under­standing of divinity is now taking place in some Christian quarters. When one reads a philosopher like Swinburne, one hardly notices the shift in emphasis; but the shift becomes marked when one reads those who are more fearless in departing from inherited formulations. Jürgen Moltmann immediately comes to mind.

David Bentley Hart has devoted a few pages of his book The Experience of God criticizing this new, or at least different, model of deity. Hart is blunt. Advocates of theistic person­alism (he prefers the term “monopolytheism”) have broken with the catholic tradition. They are advancing, he writes, “a view of God not conspicuously different from the polytheistic picture of the gods as merely very powerful discrete entities who possess a variety of distinct attributes that lesser entities also possess, if in smaller measure; it differs from polytheism, as far as I can tell, solely in that it posits the existence of only one such being” (p. 127).

There’s a serious theological problem here. I did not begin to recognize it until two decades ago, when I discovered the writings of Robert Sokolowski and Herbert McCabe and began to reassess my theology; but still I minimized it. But then I began worshipping the LORD in the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. Apophatic theology became not just a way of doing theology but a reality lived and prayed. I find it difficult to articulate in words how this is so; it is the experience of the whole: the chanting and multiple invoca­tions of the Trinity, the icons and metanias, the candles, the incense, the opening and closing of the Royal Doors, the sacred choreography, the anaphora and epiclesis, the communion in the Flesh and Blood of the glorified Christ—together they manifest the subtle interplay of negative and cataphatic theology.

It is proper and right to sing to You, bless You, praise You, thank You and worship You in all places of Your dominion; for You are God ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same; You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit. You brought us into being out of nothing, and when we fell, You raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom to come. For all these things we thank You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit; for all things that we know and do not know, for blessings seen and unseen that have been bestowed upon us. We also thank You for this liturgy which You are pleased to accept from our hands, even though You are surrounded by thousands of Archangels and tens of thousands of Angels, by the Cherubim and Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring with their wings.

“We have entered the Eschaton, and we are now standing beyond time and space,” exclaims Alexander Schmemann. In the Divine Liturgy we meet the triadic Divinity beyond being and are lifted into his divine life. Philoso­phy gives way to the Mystery.

(2 December 2013; rev.)

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“For his flesh did not shine with splendour from without, like Moses, but the glory of his divinity flooded from him”

He led them up the mountain to show them who the Son is and whose he is. Because when he asked them, ‘Whom do men say the Son of man is?’ They said to him, some Elias, others Jeremias, or one of the Prophets. This is why he leads them up the mountain and shows them that he is not Elias, but the God of Elias; again, that he is not Jeremias, but the one who sanctified Jeremias in his mother’s womb; not one of the Prophets, but the Lord of the Prophets, who also sent them. And he shows them that he is the maker of heaven and earth, and that he is Lord of living and dead. For he gave orders to heaven and brought down Elias, and made a sign to the earth and raised up Moses.

He led them up the mountain to show them that he is the Son of God, born from the Father before the ages and in the last times incarnate from the Virgin, as he knows how, born ineffably and without seed, preserving her virginity incorrupt; for wherever God wills it, the order of nature is overcome. For God the Word dwelt in the Virgin’s womb, and the fire of his divinity did not consume the members of the Virgin’s body, but protected them carefully by its nine month presence. He dwelt in the Virgin’s womb, not abhorring the unpleasant smell of nature, and God incarnate came forth from her to save us.

He led them up the mountain to show them the glory of the godhead and to make known to them that he is the redeemer of Israel, as he had shown through the Prophets, and they should not be scandalised in him when they saw his voluntary sufferings, which as man he was about to suffer for us. For they knew him as a man, but did not know that he was God. They knew him as son of Mary, going about with them in the world, and he made known to them on the mountain that he was Son of God and God. They saw that he ate and drank, toiled and rested, dozed and slept, things which did not accord with his divine nature, but only with his humanity, and so he took them to the mountain that the Father might call him Son and show that he is truly his Son and that he is God.

He led them up the mountain and showed them his kingship before his passion, and his power before his death, and his glory before his disgrace, and his honour before his dishonour, so that, when he was arrested and crucified by the Jews, they might know that he was not crucified through weakness, but willingly by his good pleasure for the salvation of the world.

He led them up the mountain and showed the glory of his divinity before the resurrection, so that when he rose from the dead in the glory of his divine nature, they might know that it was not because of his harsh toil that he accepted glory, as if he lacked it, but it was his before the ages with the Father and together with the Father, as he said as he was coming to his voluntary passion, ‘Father, glorify me with the glory which I had with you before the world existed’.

And so on the mountain he showed his Apostles the glory of his divinity, concealed and hidden by his humanity. For they saw his face bright as lightning and his garments white as light. They saw two suns; one in the sky, as usual, and one unusually; one visible in the firmament and lighting the world, and one, his face, visible to them alone. His garments white as light showed that the glory of his divinity flooded from his whole body, and his light shone from all his members. For his flesh did not shine with splendour from without, like Moses, but the glory of his divinity flooded from him. His light dawned and was drawn together in him. Nor did depart somewhere else and leave him, because it did come from another place and adorn him, nor was it for his use. And he did not display the whole depth of his glory, but only as much as the limits of their eyes could encompass.

‘And there appeared to them Moses and Elias talking with him’. And the words that they said to him were such as these: they were thanking him that their words and those of all their fellow Prophets had been fulfilled by his coming. They offered him worship for the salvation which he had wrought for the world for the human race; and that he had fulfilled in reality the mystery they had only sketched. There was joy for the Prophets and the Apostles by this ascent of the mountain. The Prophets rejoiced when they saw his humanity, which they had not known. The Apostles also rejoiced when they saw the glory of his divinity, which they had not known, and heard the voice of the Father bearing witness to his Son; and through this they recognised his incarnation, which was concealed from them. And the witness of the three was sealed by the Father’s voice and by Moses and Elias, who stood by him like servants, and they looked to one another: the Prophets to the Apostles and the Apostles to the Prophets. There the authors of the old covenant saw the authors of the new. Holy Moses saw Simon the sanctified; the steward of the Father saw the administrator of the Son. The former divided the sea for the people to walk in the middle of the waves; the latter raised a tent for the building of the Church. The virgin of the old covenant saw the virgin of the new: the one who mounted on the chariot of fire and the one who leaned on the breast of the flame [Elias and John]. And the mountain became a type of the Church, and on it Jesus united the two covenants, which the Church received, and made known to us that he is the giver of the two. The one received his mysteries; the other revealed the glory of his works.

St Ephrem the Syrian


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