Ainulindalë: Hints of Providence and the Election of Frodo

Eru Ilúvatar is absent in the narratives of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. He is neither named nor invoked. Yet there is one moment (actually two) that hints at Ilúvatar’s providential involvement. During their long conversation after Bilbo’s birthday party, Gandalf reviews the history of the One Ring and explains to Frodo how it came into the possession of Gollum and then Bilbo:

“A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo. It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it. . . . It was not Gollum, Frodo, but the Ring itself that decided things. The Ring left him.”

“What, just in time to meet Bilbo?’ said Frodo. “Wouldn’t an Orc have suited it better?”

“It is no laughing matter,” said Gandalf. “Not for you. It was the strangest event in the whole history of the Ring so far: Bilbo’s arrival just at that time, and putting his hand on it, blindly, in the dark.

“There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master. It had slipped from Isildur’s hand and betrayed him; then when a chance came it caught poor Déagol, and he was murdered; and after that Gollum, and it had devoured him. It could make no further use of him: he was too small and mean; and as long as it stayed with him he would never leave his deep pool again. So now, when its master was awake once more and sending out his dark thought from Mirkwood, it abandoned Gollum. Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!

“Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.”

“It is not,” said Frodo. “Though I am not sure that I understand you.”

That Frodo does not understand is unsurprising. Belief in a supreme being does not appear to have informed the lives of Hobbits, and they were typically ignorant of the Elven myths that spoke of Ilúvatar. As Tolkien observes, “I do not think Hobbits practised any form of worship or prayer (unless through exceptional contact with Elves).”1

The conversation continues. Finally Frodo exclaims:

I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?

The Grey Wizard replies:

Such questions cannot be answered. You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.2

A power that can override both Sauron’s will and the will of his Ring? A power that intended Bilbo to find the Ring and then persuaded and enabled him to pass it on to his nephew? A power that has chosen Frodo to be the Ringbearer? These questions remain unanswered through the rest of the story. Readers of The Silmarillion, though, know the identity of this One that rules the events of history.

And how was it that Gandalf could be so certain that Eru’s hand was at work here? We know that he was one of the Istari, sent by the Valar to Middle Earth to encourage the peoples in their long battle against Sauron. After the fall of Sauron, Gandalf shares with Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Gimli the details on how he acquired the map and key to Erebor and then years later, in a “chance-meeting” with Thorin Oakenshield on the road, how he conceived the plan of the burgling of Smaug’s lair and ultimately persuaded Thorin to accept Bilbo into his party. “I knew in my heart,” he tells them, “that Bilbo must go with him, or the whole quest would be a failure—or, as I should say now, the far more important events by the way would not come to pass.”3

“But who wove the web?” asks Pippin.

I do not think I have ever considered that before. Did you plan all this then, Gandalf? If not, why did you lead Thorin Oakenshield to such an unlikely door? To find the Ring and bring it far away into the West for hiding, and then to choose the Ringbearer—and to restore the Mountain Kingdom as a mere deed by the way: was not that your design?

After a long pause, he replies:

I do not know the answer. For I have changed since those days, and I am no longer trammelled by the burden of Middle-earth as I was then. In those days I should have answered you with words like those I used to Frodo, only last year in the spring. Only last year! But such measures are meaningless. In that far distant time I said to a small and frightened hobbit: Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker, and you therefore were meant to bear it. And I might have added: and I was meant to guide you both to those points.

To do that I used in my waking mind only such means as were allowed to me, doing what lay to my hand according to such reasons as I had. But what I knew in my heart, or knew before I stepped on these grey shores: that is another matter. Olorin I was in the West that is forgotten, and only to those who are there shall I speak more openly.4

Mere coincidence? A wild guess? Surely not. Guiding the history of Arda, there is the providential hand of Eru Ilúvatar. We must return to the Ainulindalë and the Music of the Ainur.


[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter 153, fn.

[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, chap. 2.

[3] J. R. R. Tolkien, “The Quest of Erebor,” Unfinished Tales (1980), pp. 324-325.

[4] Ibid., pp. 329-330.


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Necessity and Possibility in God

by Roman Montero

This post will engage with what I consider an extremely difficult topic, so what will follow are at best my tentative thoughts on this issue as far as I able to make them. My hope is that this might at least encourage readers to continue thinking about this issue in a way that does not reduce it to simple dichotomies (as is sometimes the temptation), and in a way that allows for the full breadth of its mystery and depth.

Gotfreid Leibniz famously declared that this world was the best of all possible worlds, a claim that seems to follow nicely from his principle of sufficient reason. A more recent use of possible world’s talk in theology is Alvin Plantinga’s ontological argument for God’s existence, which appeals to God as a necessary being and his relationship to possible worlds. There are two similarities that I want to highlight from these claims:

  1. They both rely on modal reasoning, reasoning around necessity and possibility in discussions of God in himself (for Leibniz, in his act of creation, for Plantinga, in his existence).
  2. They both seem to myself, and many others, extremely suspect.

Leibniz’s argument seems to fly in the face of our phenomenal experience, and although it is true that we are finite creatures and can never have the widest perspective necessary to see the whole context of every event, the experience and phenomenon of real suffering is so powerful that it often seems to rule out even the possibility justification from any larger context. Plantinga’s argument has the bizarre consequence of maintaining that a world in which God does not exist is not a logically possible world, even a world in which nothing at all exists; since had the existence of such a world been possible, God’s existence would be impossible.

I want to claim that this kind of modal reasoning breaks down when we get to theology proper—attempting to speak of God in himself—and especially when speaking of God sans his relation to creation. One reason for this is that God is himself the ground of any and all metaphysical possibilities and necessities. That is not to say that logical impossibility is logically posterior to God, but that any possibility for anything to be actual is grounded in God, and that God’s willing is sufficient to necessitate it. Given that there is no logical reason prior to God’s will compelling God’s will one way or the other, God’s willing cannot be said to have been able to be otherwise than what he willed, since there is no state of affairs that could have been different such that God’s will would be different outside of God’s will itself.

When we think of finite wills, such as our own, we can understand possibility in terms of the rational relations making up our reasons for choosing things, and the state of affairs that make certain things possible and certain things impossible, and what it would take to actualize those possibilities. It is possible that I will have a quesadilla for lunch next week. The reason that this is possible (not just as a logical possibility but as a true potential) is that there are criteria which would make it the case that I would likely choose to have a quesadilla for lunch, and criteria that would make it not the case. Even if I don’t know what those criteria are, I know that there is a possible state of affairs that would make my choice actual and a possible state that would make a contrary choice actual. In that sense, it is possible that I eat a quesadilla for lunch. This is the case for agential possibilities as well as non-agential possibilities. Possibilities depend on states of affairs in which a possibility could be actual. This need not mean that my choice is necessitated by a specific state of affairs. It might be that in the same state of affairs I choose not to eat a quesadilla whereas I could have chosen to; nevertheless, the possibility of the choice depends on certain states of affairs being actual, such as there being tortillas and cheese available.

When it comes to God, however, God sans creation, things get tricky. The theologian who perhaps understood this the best was Dionysus the (pseudo) Areopagite. The Areopagite in The Divine Names, chapter 5 (on being), insists that God, being the creator of all being, is itself pre-existent, pre-being, not a particular being among beings, but that by which all beings subsist. This God is not a type of being—in that he does not participate in being—but rather, being participates in him. This is not to say that God is non-being, nor to say that God is the highest being, but that all distinctions of beings and modes of being, and as such are posterior to God.1 In his Mystical Theology, the Areopagite highlights what I take to be a dialectical approach to God in himself. He lists some negations that are largely the denial of lack: God is not inexistent, lifeless, speechless, mindless; he is not material, embodied, and so on.2 He then, in a sense, negates those negations: God is not a soul or a mind, he is not speech, he is not a substance. He exists neither within the category of nonbeing nor being.3 The point here is that whatever we grasp from our position as finite creatures making sense of a finite world, God can neither be identified with anything we can grasp nor can that which we grasp be denied to him. Positive affirmations of God are analogical affirmations only, which are made by denying the univocal affirmations. The Areopagite writes:

We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial.4

The reasoning here is precisely the logic of creation ex nihilo, because God is the cause of all that is, he is not bound by anything that is in and of himself, and any determinations are posterior to God and thus not of God in himself. Given this, can we speak of possibility when it comes to God in himself, prior to creation? What state of affairs could come about? What state of affairs could not come about? What state of affairs could not fail to come about? None of these questions can be really engaged in the way we engage with states of affairs in creation: states of affairs and their possibilities are determined by their finitude and their being conditioned by other states of affairs. God in and of himself is determined by nothing. His act of creation is not conditioned by anything other than his will. God’s will is not conditioned by anything but … God’s will. Any knowledge of God, any speaking of God and God’s possibilities is, as the Areopagite writes, of what is next to it; in other words, we can speak of God insofar as creation is related to him. In this sense, and this sense alone, we can speak of possible worlds, we can conceive of other states of affairs that could have been actualized, not because of any knowledge of the absolute, the ground of reality, but by our grasping of creation, the distinc­tions of creation and the distinctions of finite conceptual reality (such as that of mathematics). Through grasping those dis­tinc­tions and abstracting from them, we can imagine virtual worlds in which the relations of the world are different. However, creation is created by God, the distinctions of finite conceptual reality are determined by their finitude, and all finitude is posterior to the infinite: any essence of a thing, including finite concepts, are what they are only because of their relations, their relations being ultimately with things whose essences are also determined by their relations, the whole picture being determined by the absolute, the infinite horizon.5

To put it in Hegelian terms, all Dasein is determined by its negation (which is contained within its determination but distinct from it), but this negation is itself determined in the very same way, it is being-for-another just as much as it is being-in-itself.6 In fact, to be something in itself (to be being-for itself), to be a particular existent, something must be being-for-another, it must be posited as negation, otherwise it would be a mere abstrac­tion. This is to say that to be something is to be finite, and alterable, being something is being ‘being’ that is limited and in relation to the other.7 As Hegel sees it, pure being is itself indistinguishable from pure nothingness, and nothing but an abstraction, so when it is thought it collapses into becoming, of which Dasein results, as that which becomes.8

Therefore, given this model, any state of affairs by which modal reasoning can apply can only be in the realm of Hegel’s Dasein, the realm of becoming, existence determined by its negation, being-for-another. This is because all possible worlds are possible world of some conceivable alteration, some variation of relation. To say something is necessary is to say that some determinate thing, in all its determinate relations, holds in every possible world; to say something is possible is to say that the relations that determine that something, that make it something, could hold or could not, to say something is impossible is to say that the relations necessary to determine that something cannot hold in any possible world.

I submit that when speaking of God in himself, God sans-creation, modal reasoning just cannot apply, and I believe that when speaking of God sans-creation, the Dionysian method may be the most appropriate.

However, modal reasoning cannot apply to the act of creation either. This is because the act of creation is the relation between God in himself and the world of existent determi­nate being, the world of finite being, and the possibility and necessity distinction depends on the distinctions of finite being, conditioned being, whereas the God/word relation is the relation between the unconditioned, and the conditioned.

One may say that the possible worlds are merely virtual, merely concepts in the mind of God; so although God is not a finite being, why couldn’t he consider virtual or conceptual possible worlds and then pick one to actualize? The problem is that the exercise of picking out a possible world—and therefore picking out what is necessary, possible, and impos­si­ble—depends on these possibilities and necessities and impossibilities being independent of the exercise itself. For God, any conceptual possible world is not, in fact, possible outside of God willing it to be, the state of affairs in which anything is possible is the act of creation. Therefore, any state of affairs that God does not will is impossible, yet it would be not impossible had he created it. The only laws that one might posit as governing God will would be the fundamental laws of logic: God cannot create a square circle, yet logical impossibilities are relations between determinate concepts, squareness and circleness, and any instantiation of one or the other can only be possible insofar as God wills it. So even the laws of logic themselves depend on certain relations, conceptual relations perhaps, but determinate relations nonetheless. Given that, laws of logic can only really be applied to God’s will a posteriori; in other words, given creation one might say that God could not have made a square circle, but that is only once the conceptual distinctions on which the laws of logic depend on are, in fact, distinguished. In this sense one might imagine Dionysius the Areopagite saying that God is beyond logic but not illogical, that God is hyper-logic, and hypo-logic, that logic participates in God, but not vice-versa.

When describing the act of creation, Thomas Aquinas points out that God created some­thing from nothing is due to his being pure actuality, not something with potency such that it could be actualized by another; therefore, God’s action of creation, for Thomas, is not one in which a prior principle, or cause, or reason actualizes a potency, but it is truly from nothing. For Thomas, it was ‘logically’ possible, in that it did not entail a contradic­tion, but it was not some potency in God to be actualized.9 Lack of contradiction might make something possible in a sense, but something’s ‘possibility’ is the possibility of a state of affairs being actualized, which in the case of God in his act of creation, is entirely dependent on God and cannot be actualized by something other than God himself.

So, what can we say about God in himself and his relation to creation? In my article “God as Love: In Creation,” I touch on that issue a little bit. My basic contention is the category of possibility cannot apply to God in himself and his relation to creation, but the category of love can. Does not John tell us in his first epistle that God is Love (1 John 4:8, 16)? Therefore, should we not expect a phenomenology of Love to give us something about God in himself and his relation to creation. Modern philosophical treatments of love, for example by Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, have challenged the idea that love can be neatly put into a category of something which is chosen as one possibility and something which is necessitated, which is imposed, Badiou writes:

After all, love takes place in the world. It is an event that can’t be predicted or calculated in terms of the world’s laws. Nothing enables one to prear­range the encounter—not even Meetic, and all those long, preparatory chats!: in the end, the moment you see each other in the flesh, you see each other, and that’s that, and it’s out of control! However, love cannot be reduced to the first encounter, because it is a construction.10

To make a declaration of love is to move on from the event-encounter to embark on a construction of truth. The chance nature of the encounter morphs into the assumption of a beginning. And often what starts there lasts so long, is so charged with novelty and experience of the world that in retrospect it doesn’t seem at all random and contingent, as it appeared initially, but almost a necessity. That is how chance is curbed: the absolute contingency of the encounter with someone I didn’t know finally takes on the appearance of destiny. The declaration of love marks the transition from chance to destiny, and that’s why it is so perilous and so burdened with a kind of horrifying stage fright.11

If “I love you” is always, in most respects, the heralding of “I will always love you”, it is in effect locking chance into the framework of eternity. We shouldn’t be afraid of words. The locking in of chance is an anticipation of eternity. And to an extent, every love states that it is eternal: it is assumed within the declaration. The problem then resides in inscribing this eternity within time. Because, basically, that is what love is: a declaration of eternity to be fulfilled or unfurled as best it can be within time: eternity descended into time.12

What makes this interesting is there is a contingent encounter which retrospectively seems necessary. Slavoj Zizek makes a similar point writing:

If I am directly ordered to love a woman, it is clear that this does not work; in a way, love must be free. But on the other hand, if I proceed as if I really have a free choice, if I start to look around and say to myself ‘Let’s choose which of these women I will fall in love with’, it is clear that this also does not work, that it is not ‘real love’. The paradox of love is that it is a free choice, but a choice which never arrives in the present—it is always already made. At a certain moment, I can only state retroactively that I’ve already chosen.13

The points here that I want to highlight are that love is both experienced as a contingent encounter and a free choice (just like coming across two cups of water and picking one up over the other), yet it is also experienced as a kind of necessity, the love is locked into necessity, it is experienced as permanent and even ‘eternal,’ it in fact defines who you are such that it is experienced as something like ‘destiny.’ It also differs from any other free choice, because although it is free in the sense that no one did, or could, impose it on you, it was still never ‘chosen’ in the sense of a deliberation and conscious decision, it is a true event, one without precedence, one which could not be predicted. It is both chosen and constructed, and an unprecedented event that one encounters. Here the clean distinctions between possibility and necessity become blurred, was it possible for you not to fall in love with your beloved given the encounter? Could you have chosen otherwise? Was it not necessitated by the encounter?

Nevertheless, in this case we still have a contingent event which is prior to love, perhaps the love itself blurs the lines of necessity and possibility, but the encounter that enables it does not. God has no encounter prior to creation, God did not ‘fall’ in love, like we do. Perhaps the reality of love is not conditioned in the encounter—in other words, nothing in the encounter necessitates love, but it cannot be said to have been any way else given the encounter—but the encounter is itself conditioned, and that encounter is a condition for the event of love.

Can one have an event, a kind of event like love, that transcends possibility and necessity? freedom and determination? One source as a possible way to engage this issue is the 19th century dialectical idealist philosopher (and theologian, I would say) Friedrich Von Schelling.

Schelling’s Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom contains an attempt to engage with God’s freedom in creation. For Schelling, God is grounded in himself, that ground however, is pure undifferentiated and eternal will, God as actual is this will directed towards an another. Schelling puts, this directed will is ‘pure unity’ and ‘pure understanding.’ Gud thus becomes God through his willing the other. The ground precedes God but is only real insofar as God actualizes it in his actuality, the ground and God as actual presuppose one another and do not exist without each other. This other willed by God is itself grounded in the ‘ground’ of God, and actualized by God’s desire for this other, but this other, being grounded in pure will is free, free to move towards God as actual, or not. God as actual for Schelling, is therefore the very act of God relating to the other through love, that other being actualized by God out of God’s own ground as the finite objects of God’s love, through which God himself is actualized as the absolute actualization of his ground.14

In this sense, for Schelling, God becomes actual in his desire to relate to another, God as actual is God in his desire for the other, his love. This cannot be a choosing of pre-existent possibilities, but these possibilities are God himself, but they only are possibilities insofar as God actualizes the object of understanding in creation. Here we see a similar paradox as we saw earlier in the discussion of love. The ‘event’ of creation is not God choosing between possibilities, but it is what actualizes God as God. The possibilities, the pure potency of God’s ground is not a set of options for God, but God’s own ground, and these possibilities are only real possibilities retrospectively, since only God as actual, God as the lover of the other, could have realized them. Just like the lover finds himself already in love, yet that love is absolutely free chosen, just like the contingency of the event of love in the encounter become retrospectively necessary (in that the encounter could not have failed to result in love), God—given this schema—is both prior to creation yet actualized by creation. God freely brings creation out of his undifferentiated will, but this undifferen­tiated will is itself only real insofar as God actualizes it into a directed will.

This kind of dialectical approach allows us to talk about God as the ground of all possibility and necessity, yet also as that which actualizes possibility and necessity. This is because the act of God’s creation actualizes God himself which is the pre-condition of the ground of all possibility and necessity. This may seem like circular reasoning, and in a sense, it is. Does this mean that God does not exist without creation? Not necessarily, God may only exist as God actualized in creation, and God actualized may be grounded in God’s pure will which only exists insofar as God is actualized. One may want to say, as I do, that beyond God’s actualization in creation, one can posit—with Pseudo-Dionysius—a God which cannot be predicated or abstracted from, a God which is beyond being. If we go with this model this absolutely apophatic God beyond the actualization of creation is inaccessible to us. The God we know is that very God, but that God as creator, the dynamic relational God who is Love as both our ground and as our actualization, ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος, ὁ παντοκράτωρ.



[1] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names, 5.

[2] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Mystical Theology, 4.

[3] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Mystical Theology, 5.

[4] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Mystical Theology, 5.

[5] See Pannenberg, Metaphysics and the Idea of God, 103–105; 160–168. 

[6] Hegel, The Encyclopedia Logic, §91.

[7] Hegel, The Encyclopedia Logic, §92.

[8] Hegel, The Encyclopedia Logic, §89.

[9] Thomas Aquinas, Questiones Disputatae de Potentia, 3.1–3.

[10] Badiou, In Praise of Love, 31.

[11] Badiou, In Praise of Love, 42–43.

[12] Badiou, In Praise of Love, 47.

[13] Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 187.

[14] Schelling, Philosophical Investigations, 17–19; 27–32.

* * *

Roman A. Montero is the author of  All Things in Common: The Economic Practices of the Early Christians and Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Plain.

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Andrew Rillera, Ph.D., on Penal Substitutionary Atonement

New Testament scholar Chris Tilling has posted a seven-part assessment of PSA by another New Testament scholar, Andrew Rillera. Dr Rillera is the Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies and Theology at The King’s University. The articles are listed here:

Penal Substitutionary Atonement

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The Spiritual Charlatanry of Substitutionary Penal Atonement and Imputational Righteousness

The glorification of the Son of God
is the glorification of the human race,
for the glory of God is the glory of man,
and that glory is love!
~ George MacDonald

Good Friday—on this day Christians around the globe contemplate the atoning death of Jesus Christ. Why did Jesus die? What was its purpose? What did it accomplish? Many Protestants, particularly within the Reformed and evangel­ical traditions, have a ready answer—penal substitutionary atonement. On the cross God the Son bore the wrath of the Holy Trinity against sin. Given that I have been away from the Protestant literature on this topic for a couple of decades, I’m hesitant to offer a sum­mary of the position. Instead I quote the respected evangelical J. I. Packer:

The notion which the phrase ‘penal substitution’ expresses is that Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory. To affirm penal substitution is to say that believers are in debt to Christ specifically for this, and that this is the mainspring of all their joy, peace and praise both now and for eternity.1

This succinct statement captures the gist of penal atonement. All the benefits of salvation flow from Christ’s substitutionary act. The wrath of God has been poured out upon the Lamb once offered. Justice has been done, and the way is now open for “forgiveness, adoption and glory.” Packer concludes his lecture with this amplified statement:

1) God, in [James] Denney’s phrase, ‘condones nothing’, but judges all sin as it deserves: which Scripture affirms, and my conscience confirms, to be right.

(2) My sins merit ultimate penal suffering and rejection from God’s presence (conscience also confirms this), and nothing I do can blot them out.

(3) The penalty due to me for my sins, whatever it was, was paid for me by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in his death on the cross.

(4) Because this is so, I through faith in him am made ‘the righteousness of God in him’, i.e. I am justified; pardon, acceptance and sonship become mine.

(5) Christ’s death for me is my sole ground of hope before God. ‘If he fulfilled not justice, I must; if he underwent not wrath, I must to eternity.’

(6) My faith in Christ is God’s own gift to me, given in virtue of Christ’s death for me: i.e. the cross procured it.

(7) Christ’s death for me guarantees my preservation to glory.

(8) Christ’s death for me is the measure and pledge of the love of the Father and the Son to me.

(9) Christ’s death for me calls and constrains me to trust, to worship, to love and to serve.

Packer eschews the crude pagan account of an angry deity who needs to be placated and mollified. The atonement of Christ is propelled by the eternal love of the Father and the Son for humanity. But God is also just. Our sins deserve his condemnation. The divine wrath must be appeased before humanity’s salvation can be achieved. Solution: the Son becomes Man and on the cross offers a substitutionary atonement for humanity’s diso­bedience. Our sins are imputed to Christ Jesus, so that his righteousness might be imputed to sinners. In the words of the Westminster Confession:

The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased not only reconciliation, but an ever­lasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him. (8.5)

Those whom God effectually calleth, He also freely justifieth: not by infus­ing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God. (11.1)

This story of divine sacrifice speaks to our conscience. Do not our sins deserve divine punishment? Yet questions continue to nag:

  1. What is this penalty and debt that must be paid before our salvation can be effected?
  2. How does Jesus’ death redirect the “destructive divine wrath”? How does it “purchase” reconciliation with the Father?
  3. How is the imputation of the righteousness of Christ not a legal fiction?
  4. Why couldn’t God just forgive outright and skip the horror of crucifixion?

George MacDonald was raised in the dual doctrines of penal substitutionary atonement and forensic imputation and reacted violently against both at an early age. In his novel Robert Falconer, which may reflect the Scot’s own youthful wrestling with Reformed doctrine, we find a fascinating conversation between Robert and his grandmother:

‘And we have no right to say we know God save in the face of Christ Jesus. Whatever is not like Christ is not like God.’

‘But, laddie, he came to satisfy God’s justice by suffering the punishment due to our sins; to turn aside his wrath and curse; to reconcile him to us. So he couldn’t be altogether like God.’

‘He did nothing of the kind, grannie. It’s all a lie that. He came to satisfy God’s justice by giving him back his children; by making them see that God was just; by sending them weeping home to fall at his feet, and grip his knees and say, ‘Father, you’re in the right.’ He came to lift the weight of the sins that God had cursed off the shoulders of them that did them, by making them turn against them, and be for God and not for sin. And there isn’t a word of reconciling God to us in all the Testament, for there was no need of that: it was us that he needed to be reconciled to him. And so he bore our sins and carried our sorrows; for those sins coming out in the multitudes—ay and in his own disciples as well, caused him no end of grief of mind and pain of body, as everyone knows. It wasn’t his own sins, for he had none, but ours, that caused him suffering; and he took them away—they’re vanishing even now from the earth, though it doesn’t look like it in Ragfair or Petticoat-lane. And for our sorrows—they just made him weep. His righteousness just annihilates our guilt, for it’s a great gulf that swallows up and destroys it. And so he gave his life as a ransom for us: and he is the life of the world. He took our sins upon him, for he came into the middle of them and took them up—by no sleight of hand, by no quibbling of the lawyers, about imputing his righteousness to us, and such like, which is not to be found in the Bible at all, though I don’t say that there’s no possible meaning in the phrase, but he took them away; and here am I, grannie, growing out of my sins in consequence, and there are you, grannie, growing out of yours in consequence, and having nearly done with them altogether by this time.’ (Part 3, chap. 5)

MacDonald passionately believes that in the gospel, God has revealed himself as absolute and unconditional Love. He loves, has loved and will forever love to the nth degree. The Father has never needed to be reconciled to humanity. He is not the problem—we are. We are the ones who have alienated ourselves from our Creator. We are the ones who are enslaved to egoism and sin. We are the ones who need to repent and be reborn in the Spirit. We are the ones who need to hear the gospel and partake of our Savior’s Body and Blood. We are the ones who need to be made righteous. In the words of the Apostle Paul: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconcil­iation” (2 Cor 5:19). MacDonald repudiates the claim that Jesus vicariously endures the retribution due to our sin. The divine justice is restora­tive, not punitive. When God chastises, he intends to persuade the sinner of the futility and destructiveness of sin: “Punishment is for the sake of amendment and atonement.” There is, therefore, no penalty that must first be paid before God can forgive and save. God has no wrath that needs to be sacrificially propitiated.2 The love of the Father is his justice. As Robert tells his grannie: “He came to satisfy God’s justice by giving him back his children.”

MacDonald elaborates on his rejection of penal substitutionary atonement in his sermon “Justice”:

Their system is briefly this: God is bound to punish sin, and to punish it to the uttermost. His justice requires that sin be punished. But he loves man, and does not want to punish him if he can help it. Jesus Christ says, ‘I will take his punishment upon me.’ God accepts his offer, and lets man go unpunished—upon a condition. His justice is more than satisfied by the punishment of an infinite being instead of a world of worthless creatures. The suffering of Jesus is of greater value than that of all the generations, through endless ages, because he is infinite, pure, perfect in love and truth, being God’s own everlasting son. God’s condition with man is, that he believe in Christ’s atonement thus explained. A man must say, ‘I have sinned, and deserve to be tortured to all eternity. But Christ has paid my debts, by being punished instead of me. Therefore he is my Saviour. I am now bound by gratitude to him to turn away from evil.’

I do not know if Packer would accept MacDonald’s formulation of penal substitutionary atonement—I imagine he might object to the use of the word “torture”—but I do not doubt that MacDonald is accurately describing the doctrine as it was taught in 19th century Scotland. “I know the root of all that can be said on the subject,” he remarks; “the notion is imbedded in the gray matter of my Scotch brains; and if I reject it, I know what I reject.”

MacDonald does not object to divine punishment per se, if it is directed to the sinner’s repen­tance. But he rejects the claim that the divine justice requires suffering as satis­fac­tion: “Suffering weighs nothing at all against sin.” It cannot atone for wickedness, for it neither recompenses the victim nor transforms the wrongdoer. To inflict retribution is to exact vengeance, nothing more, nothing less; but as the Scotsman memorably states: “The only vengeance worth having on sin is to make the sinner himself its executioner.”

Penal substitutionary atonement, though, goes yet further: it asserts that the suffering of an innocent—and specifically, of the innocent and holy Son—can substitute for the deserved suffering of the wicked:

If there be no satisfaction to justice in the mere punishment of the wrong-doer, what shall we say of the notion of satisfying justice by causing one to suffer who is not the wrong-doer? And what, moreover, shall we say to the notion that, just because he is not the person who deserves to be punished, but is absolutely innocent, his suffering gives perfect satisfaction to the perfect justice? That the injustice be done with the consent of the person maltreated makes no difference: it makes it even worse, seeing, as they say, that justice requires the punishment of the sinner, and here is one far more than innocent. They have shifted their ground; it is no more punishment, but mere suffering the law requires! The thing gets worse and worse. I declare my utter and absolute repudiation of the idea in any form what­ever. Rather than believe in a justice—that is, a God—to whose righ­teous­ness, abstract or concrete, it could be any satisfaction for the wrong-doing of a man that a man who did no wrong should suffer, I would be driven from among men, and dwell with the wild beasts that have not reason enough to be unreason­able. What! God, the father of Jesus Christ, like that! His justice contented with direst injustice! The anger of him who will nowise clear the guilty, appeased by the suffering of the innocent! Very God forbid!

One hears in these passionate words MacDonald’s indignation and outrage. Instead of believing in the sheer forgiveness of the Father, theologians have concocted a legal mecha­nism—“a piece of spiritual charlatanry” and “grotesquely deformed absurdity”—that permits God to forgive:

Unable to believe in the forgivingness of their father in heaven, they invented a way to be forgiven that should not demand of him so much; which might make it right for him to forgive; which should save them from having to believe downright in the tenderness of his father-heart, for that they found impossible. They thought him bound to punish for the sake of punishing, as an offset to their sin; they could not believe in clear for­give­ness; that did not seem divine; it needed itself to be justified; so they invented for its justifica­tion a horrible injustice, involving all that was bad in sacrifice, even human sacrifice. They invented a satisfaction for sin which was an insult to God. He sought no satisfaction, but an obedient return to the Father. What satisfac­tion was needed he made himself in what he did to cause them to turn from evil and go back to him. The thing was too simple for complicated unbelief and the arguing spirit.

Atonement for MacDonald begins with the unconditional love and forgiveness of God and terminates in the concrete reconciliation and transformation of sinners. Love and justice are one. Hence the irrelevancy of penal atonement and forensic imputation: God’s absolute love for sinners nullifies both. No substitutionary exchange and pretense is necessary.

Consider the words of Paul in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “He hath made him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (5:21). MacDonald interprets the verse plainly: “He gave him to be treated like a sinner, killed and cast out of his own vineyard by his husbandmen, that we might in him be made righteous like God.” But the Reformed proponents of imputational righteousness intro­duce an “as if” into the verse: “he made him to be treated as if he were a sinner, that we might be treated as if we were righteous.” MacDonald has no truck with such tendentious exegesis:

That is just what Paul does mean,’ insist not a few. ‘He means that Jesus was treated by God as if he were a sinner, our sins being imputed to him, in order that we might be treated as if we were righteous, his righteousness being imputed to us.’

That is, that, by a sort of legal fiction, Jesus was treated as what he was not, in order that we might be treated as what we are not. This is the best device, according to the prevailing theology, that the God of truth, the God of mercy, whose glory is that he is just to men by forgiving their sins, could fall upon for saving his creatures! . . .

I now protest against this so-called doctrine, counting it the rightful prey of the foolishest wind in the limbo of vanities, whither I would gladly do my best to send it. It is a mean, nauseous invention, false, and productive of falsehood. Say it is a figure, I answer it is not only a false figure but an embodiment of untruth; say it expresses a reality, and I say it teaches the worst of lies; say there is a shadow of truth in it, and I answer it may be so, but there is no truth touched in it that could not be taught infinitely better without it. It is the meagre misshapen offspring of the legalism of a poverty-stricken mechanical fancy, unlighted by a gleam of divine imagination. No one who knows his New Testament will dare to say that the figure is once used in it. (Righteousness)

MacDonald’s judgment is harsh, but is it undeserved?

But, some object, MacDonald has compromised the finished work of the cross. Evangelical faith cleaves to the announcement that the Crucified has accomplished our atonement once and for all; otherwise assurance would be impossible. In his sermon “The Truth in Jesus,” MacDonald rejoins that there is a crucial difference between believing in a theory of atonement and abiding with and obeying the living Christ:

To make my meaning clearer,—some of you say we must trust in the fin­ished work of Christ; or again, our faith must be in the merits of Christ—in the atonement he has made—in the blood he has shed: all these statements are a simple repudiation of the living Lord, in whom we are told to believe, who, by his presence with and in us, and our obedience to him, lifts us out of darkness into light, leads us from the kingdom of Satan into the glorious liberty of the sons of God. No manner or amount of belief about him is the faith of the New Testament. . . . What I insist upon is, that a man’s faith shall be in the living, loving, ruling, helping Christ, devoted to us as much as ever he was, and with all the powers of the Godhead for the salvation of his brethren.

Faith is not a matter of assenting to a doctrine about what Christ achieved for us in the past. Faith is trusting in the glorified and living Savior who is present to us now, who speaks to us in Word and Sacrament, who indwells our hearts and pours out his Spirit, who establishes us “in absolute oneness with God and all divine modes of being, oneness with every phase of right and harmony” (“Life”). Atonement is not truly finished until sinners have been brought to perfect unity with the Father through the Son in the Spirit.

Though MacDonald does not frequently address the resurrection of Jesus, clearly his preaching presupposes it. Easter lies at the heart of his faith, not as a doctrine but as an existential relationship in the Spirit with the living Christ. MacDonald demonstrates little interest in doctrine. He knows how easily it can become a substitute for and obstacle to genuine faith—hence his focus on obedi­ence. Why obedience? Because it is the key, he believes, to personal union with our Creator: “The doing of the will of God is the way to oneness with God, which alone is salvation.” It is this doing that distinguishes mere propositional assent and a living faith—what the Apostle Paul described as “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). It is through our obedience to Jesus, by taking up our cross and following him, that we are shaped according to his righteousness and conjoined with his Father in heart and mind:

Well do I know it is faith that saves us—but not faith in any work of God—it is faith in God himself. If I did not believe God as good as the tenderest human heart, the fairest, the purest, the most unselfish human heart could imagine him, yea, an infinitude better, higher than we as the heavens are higher than the earth—believe it, not as a proposition, or even as a thing I was convinced of, but with the responsive condition and being of my whole nature; if I did not feel every fibre of heart and brain and body safe with him because he is the Father who made me that I am—I would not be saved, for this faith is salvation; it is God and the man one. God and man together, the vital energy flowing unchecked from the creator into his creature—that is the salvation of the creature. But the poorest faith in the living God, the God revealed in Christ Jesus, if it be vital, true, that is obedient, is the beginning of the way to know him, and to know him is eternal life. (“Truth in Jesus”)

Did MacDonald believe in the atonement? There can be only one answer: he believed in nothing but atonement! “With all my heart, and soul, and strength, and mind,” he confesses, “I believe in the atonement, call it the a-tone-ment, or the at-one-ment, as you please. I believe that Jesus Christ is our atonement; that through him we are reconciled to, made one with God” (“Justice”).

The Crucified lives!

(16 April 2019; rev.)


[1] J. I. Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution,” Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture (1973).

[2] “There is no Wrath that stands between God and us, but what is awakened in the dark Fire of our own fallen Nature; and to quench this Wrath, and not his own, God gave his only begotten Son to be made Man. God has no more Wrath in himself now, than he had before the Creation, when he had only himself to love. The precious Blood of his Son was not poured out to pacify himself (who in himself had no Nature towards man but Love), but it was poured out, to quench the Wrath, and Fire of the feverish Soul, and kindle in it a Birth of Light, and Love.” William Law, The Grounds and Reasons of Christian Regeneration (1739), §110.

(Return to first article)

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“You are about to become heaven, a God-containing tabernacle, a living temple of God, wider and higher and more wondrous than the seven firmaments”

The Angel
Hear, most blessed one, hear the hidden words of the Most High:

“Behold, you shall conceive in your womb, and you shall produce a son, and shall call him Jesus” (Luke 1.31). Prepare then for Christ’s coming. For I have come to announce to you what has been decreed before the foundation of the cosmos.

The Theotokos
Depart O man, from my city and my fatherland. Depart quickly from this house. Go a long way from my vestibule, you who speak to me. Do not bring this announcement to me, unworthy as I am.

The Angel
The Lover of mankind, wishing to fulfill His ancient plan, and having mercy on mankind’s wandering, was pleased in his goodness and love for man to become man. Why do you not accept my greeting, O blessed one?

The Theotokos
Young man, I see the beauty of your comely form which is worthy to be painted, and the radiant vision of your appearance, and I hear your words, which I have never heard before, and I am suspicious that you have come to lead me astray.

The Angel
Know truly and believe that I am more amazed at seeing your God-created beauty. Seeing you I know that I am examining closely the glory of my Lord.

The Theotokos
I have heard a tongue which I do not comprehend. I have beheld an appearance which I have never seen. How should I not be perplexed? I begin to tremble all over. I have obtained a proper suitor, and am not accustomed to speak with strangers.

The Angel
Accept this joyful message which is worthy of being heard, along with the song of praise which is due to you. For “the one who is borne of you, shall be called the son of the Most High” (Luke 1.35), and your son shall be born in the height of hallowed goodness.

The Theotokos
I am afraid and I tremble at your words. I suspect that you have come to deceive me like another Eve. I am nothing like her. What a greeting you bring to a maiden whom you have never seen before!

The Angel
I proclaim to you good news of joy. I proclaim to you unimaginable birth. I proclaim to you the inexplicable coming of the Most High. Perhaps even that purple thread you are holding foretells your royal status.

The Theotokos
Since you are telling this to me, and since you won’t stop saying it, for the rest I will say to you that I don’t trust this announcement of yours. You come to debase my virginity, and to grieve my betrothed.

The Angel
Zacharias the prophet and the beloved of your cousin Elizabeth, will convince your unbelief. Go to her so that you may learn from him the things that will happen to him.

The Theotokos
Joachim and Anna are my holy and blameless parents, and I their child, how can I be an embarrassment to them? Who will inform them that Mary did not misbehave?

The Angel
When my words shall come to pass in their own time, then you will understand the power of this incomprehensible mystery. Then you will know the result of my words and the ineffable condescension of the Most High.

The Theotokos
You have heard that I am of the House and the ancestry of David. How shall I assist in these awesome, heavenly mysteries? And how shall I be able to conceive the holy Jesus who sits upon the Cherubim?

The Angel
You shall be called the throne which bears God, the royal seat of the heavenly King. As you are Queen and Virgin, and a daughter of David the earthly king, so you have a royal character.

The Theotokos
How shall I become the throne of the Most High? Answer me, you who are speaking to me! How can flesh made of clay touch the unapproachable light which is brighter than the Sun? You are proclaiming impossible news, young man.

The Angel
Why? For what purpose, for what reason, have you distrusted my good news, Glorified one? How long will you disobey the angel that was sent to you from heaven? I am not Eve’s deceiver—far from it.

The Theotokos
I have seen your many changeable faces, and have heard your most marvelous message, which no one has ever heard. And therefore I cannot accept this good news.

The Angel
Even though my voice and my form terrify you, I know that the words of my mouth shall become a harbinger of ineffable joy to you. And all heaven and earth shall bless you according to your own words.

The Theotokos
How shall I know this, that what he says will be accomplished? I am an unwedded virgin, and have not experienced shameful, sweet pleasure. For I am the handmaiden of the Lord who created me.

The Angel
I shall tell you clearly, that Elizabeth your cousin at this very moment is about to give birth in her old age to a son, and at his birth many shall rejoice and be amazed, for his name will be called John.

The Theotokos
You who speak to me, receive these gifts from me and leave. Whether you are an angel or a man I do not truly know. I see the vestments of an angel, and in the glance I perceive a man.

The Angel
You saw me, didn’t you, O blessed one, when you were in the Holy of Holies, and when you received nourishment from my fiery hands? I am Gabriel, who always stand before the glory of God.

The Theotokos
I have a pious, holy and righteous fiancé, who is a master carpenter. I am cautious about him lest he may come upon me conversing with you, a stranger, and especially since we are alone.

The Angel
Now I have begun to speak. I am full of eternal words; and for the rest I shall tell you that the Lord who is about to be born of you, is the King of kings, and “will rule over the House of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1.35).

The Theotokos
Now my heart is troubled and I do not know what to make of this wondrous vision. For I believe that your words are true. And Joseph will hand me over to those who judge these things.

The Angel
I cannot comprehend, O holy one, that you are doubtful about me who come to you from on high. Rather, I should be cautious concerning you as you are about to become the mother of my Lord, and I should tremble in your royal presence.

The Theotokos
Your message is strange to me. Your authoritative manner of coming contradicts your words and demeanor. You come into my house and approach me without being announced, as if to a servant girl, not as if you considered me a lady.

The Angel
You have been entirely pure and blameless. I am amazed that you have so much distrusted my words, O full of grace. Behold even as I speak, I think that the King of Glory has made his residence in you, O Queen.

The Theotokos
You are greeting an untried virgin, and an unmarried girl you extol. You know the truth: when and where and “How will this happen to me, since I know no man?” (Luke 1.34).

The Angel
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, and therefore the holy one who is born of you shall be called the Son of God. Fear not Mary, you have found favor with God” (Luke 1.35 and 1.30).

The Theotokos
You came from heaven and deliver to me a much-anticipated message. You proclaim to me the presence of the Holy Spirit; but how should I not reject and even more disbelieve this paradoxical good news? Tell me, you who speak to me.

The Angel
Cast away your unbelief, Virgin. For behold, as it seems to me, my words have been accomplished, a lump is rising in your belly. Even if you do not wish it, “with God nothing is impossible” (Luke 1:37).

The Theotokos
I am a sprout of the root of David. I fear that on me as on him David will come unexpected scorn of adultery, and the golden plate of the holy head dress of the priest will show me to be a sinner.

The Angel
You shall bear the Lord, the Savior, who is one of the life-beginning Trinity. You shall bring unexpected joy to the world, which neither angels nor men have ever brought; and your name shall be called blessed.

The Theotokos
Tell me, young man, what kind of savior, am I to bear? For truly your good news is strange even to the spiritual powers of angels, fiery might of archangels, and the commanders of the many-eyed cherubim.

The Angel
At all times your words are sweet and joyous, O blessed one. It is because of this that I will say to you, your pregnancy is due not to the will of the flesh but to the will of God and the descent of the Holy Spirit.

The Theotokos
Who will persuade Joseph that I shall conceive not by the will of man, but by the descent of the Holy Spirit? For it has never at any time been heard that a virgin has given birth to a child without a man.

The Angel
All the races of men shall take refuge under your compassion. And all tongues of clay shall bless you. And your name shall be spoken from generation to generation, for through you, the Lord, the light of the world, is about to be born.

The Theotokos
How shall the race of men flee to me who am matter and drawn from the earth? And how shall I embrace Christ the Light of the World? And how shall that unsetting Sun be born by the spiritual moon? Or how will the race of men take refuge with me?

The Angel
Put on a joyful countenance, O blessed one. You are about to become heaven, a God-containing tabernacle, a living temple of God, wider and higher and more wondrous than the seven firmaments.

The Theotokos
I shiver at the beginning of the paradox of my unusual childbearing. I am concerned about Joseph and I do not know what will happen. But it is good for me to go to the house of Zacharias, to see my kinswoman.

The Angel
You shall become the common propitiation of all Christians. And therefore again I salute you as is fitting, “Hail 0 full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women, blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1.38).

The Theotokos
I am of royal blood, and spent my earliest childhood in the royal house of Bethlehem, and my childhood I spent blamelessly in the temple; and being a virgin up to now, how can I be called the mother of my child?

The Angel
The Most High searched all the universe, and did not find a mother like you. Certainly, as he knew, as he wished, as he was pleased, from you, the holy one, he shall become man because of his love for mankind.

The Theotokos
I shall praise the Lord in song, “for he has looked upon the lowliness of his handmaiden; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1.48) and the people of the Gentiles shall unceasingly praise me.

The Angel
O Virgin, bringer of heavenly joy,joyful and marvelous dwelling place, and propitiation of the whole cosmos, the only truly blessed one among women, prepare yourself for the mystical coming of Christ.

The Theotokos
O young man, messenger of ineffable joy, you have come from the bodiless ones, and speak to one made of clay. How long shall I tolerate you? How long will you continue to speak? “Behold, the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1.38).

St Germanos of Constantinople

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“God himself is that living fire through which souls breathe”

Then near the mountain that I spied as if amid the eastern stretch, as described above,I saw as if a wheel of wondrous size, in the likeness of a shining cloud and turned toward the east. Stretched across its middle from the left side all the way to the right, a line could be seen, its color clouded like human breath. Another line appeared, gleaming like the dawn, so that it was in the half of the wheel that was above the first line, descending from the top of the wheel to the middle of the first line. Moreover, the upper half of this wheel cast from the left edge to its middle as if the color green, and it shone from the right edge to its middle like the color red, so that these two colors were divided between them by an equal measure of space. But the half of this wheel that was stretched all the way across beneath the aforesaid line showed a pale color intermingled with blackness.

And behold, in the midst of this wheel, sitting upon the line I again saw the image that had previously been identified to me as Divine Love; but she appeared now with different trim than I had seen previously. For her face shone like the sun, while her tunic gleamed like purple; she had a golden necklace set with precious stones around her neck, and she wore shoes that reflected her brightness like lightning.

But there also appeared before the face of this image as if a tablet, transparent as crystal, on which was written: “I shall reveal a beautiful form of silver color, for divinity, which has no beginning, possesses great clarity; but each thing that has a beginning is darkened in fear and cannot fully know or grasp the secrets of God.”

And this image gazed upon the tablet, and then the line upon which she sat began to move. And soon, where that line appeared to join the wheel at its left edge, the outermost part of the wheel became for a short bit of space watery. Then, for another bit until just past the middle of that half of the wheel that lay stretched beneath the line, it became reddish, and afterwards bright and clear, and finally like a turbid and stormy tempest near the end of that half, where the line was [again] affixed to the wheel.

And I heard a voice from heaven saying to me:

O human, hear and understand the words of him who was and who is, unbound by the terms of time’s mutability: for in him there was that ancient counsel that willed to do a variety of works, and upon these he gazed like a sunbeam before the oldest of days, for they were to come. For God is one, and nothing can be added to this unity; but he himself foreknew that a certain work that he would make would try to usurp the likeness of that unity for itself. And so he set against it the stumbling block of rebuke, for he himself is the unity that has nothing like itself; otherwise, it could not be called unity. Therefore, he cast from himself that one who perversely sought that likeness, so that every person’s rational soul—which exists because of him who is true God—might choose what pleases it and refuse what displeases it, because it knows what is good and what is harmful to itself. Yet, even though God is one, he still foreknew in the force of his heart that very work that he so magnificently multiplied. God himself is that living fire through which souls breathe—God who was before the beginning and exists too as the beginning and entire course of time. This present vision reveals all these things.

For near the mountain that you spy as if amid the eastern stretch, as described above, you see as if a wheel of wondrous size, in the likeness of a shining cloud and turned toward the east. This shows that God has neither beginning nor end, but exists gently within his works, prepared for all good things. Stretching across its middle from the left side all the way to the right, a line can be seen, its color clouded like human breath. For God’s will appears perfectly in the beginning of the fallen world and through to its end stretching into eternity, because he has separated the temporal from the eternal. Another line, gleaming like the dawn in the half of the wheel that is above the first line, descends from the top of the wheel to the middle of the first line. Through this is shown that the divine plan of order, directed towards all good things, wondrously appears as with an unfailing flash before the world’s beginning and after its end and in all its ages. This divine ordinance reveals that God’s fullness, which excels temporality and is established by his will in the heavens, was prepared for all justice.

And so the upper half of this wheel casts from the left edge to its middle as if the color green, for when God caused the parts of creation to go forth in their forms to their labor, just as they were foreknown by him, he kept them as if in the viridity of his will. And it shines from the right edge to its middle like the color red, for after the end of the world, God changes for the better what is [to pass] from this transitory world unto life. To the souls of the faithful he also grants the reward of their refulgent labors and allows neither labor nor defect to rule over them anymore. These two colors are divided between them by an equal measure of space, for as eternity lacks a beginning before the start of the world, so too, after the world has ended, it shall have no end. Rather, the beginning and ending of the world are defined as if by a single, contained circle.

But the half of this wheel that stretches all the way across beneath the aforesaid line shows a pale color intermingled with blackness. This indicates that the fallen time spans of worldly things have a beginning and an end, and over them rules unfailing eternity, unbounded by any end. As long as the world endures, it bears often and heavily at once the pallor of neediness and then again the blackness of tribulations.

But all that has been said of these things thus far also pertains, in another sense, to the salvation of human souls, such that God’s power is joined to the supreme strength that consists in the perfection of shining justice, for God’s power and strength cleave to one another. God’s power indeed is rounded by balanced equality, because it lacks beginning and end. It can do all that it wills with full capability and gleams bright white in the gentleness of heavenly judgments. For no mutability, no vicissitude touches God with increase or loss, nor does any unit of time ever divide him; rather, he remains ever without beginning, inviolate and immutable, granting life to all that is and gathering to supreme blessedness those who purely worship him.

St Hildegard of Bingen

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An Apology for Fr James Dominic Rooney

“Never apologize, mister, it’s a sign of weakness.”
~ Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles ~ 

It appears that I owe Fr Rooney an apology.  For months I have understood his writings as asserting a version of the free choice model of damnation. This model is predicated on the inability of the Creator to bring all rational beings into his Kingdom without violating their freedom and autonomy. I have also understood him as rejecting the Augustinian-Thomist notion of efficacious, or irresistible, grace. But it appears I was wrong on both counts. Yesterday on Facebook Rooney denied this was his view and brought to my attention the following paragraph in his article “Hard Universalism, Grace, and Creaturely Freedom“:

Further, on traditional theories of grace such as that of Thomas Aquinas, God could have predestined everyone to glory without “violating” their freedom. God predestined the Blessed Virgin or Christ Jesus from before their birth to be perfectly sinless, without thereby eliminating their freedom to do otherwise. More generally, the ability to sin is no part of freedom; one can still do otherwise, without sin, if all your options are good ones. (Otherwise, God and the saints would not be free!)

I remember reading these sentences when the article first appeared, but at the time I did not draw the conclusion that Rooney was claiming them as his own view. Should I have? I don’t know. But I wish I had, as I would have immediately asked him if he agreed with the claim that “God could have predestined everyone to glory without ‘violating’ their freedom” and asked for elaboration. His answer would have been clarifying.

What I do know is that some of Rooney’s social media statements sure sound like they are grounded in a free will theodicy, and that is how many of us have taken them. Consider, for example, this Twitter thread:

I do not know how to reconcile his above comments with his belief that God could have ensured the salvation of all by the exercise of his predestinating will. I’m sure that a thorough search of Fr Rooney’s tweets would reveal other comments that are equally vulnerable to misunderstanding. Yesterday I searched through his comments here on Eclectic Orthodoxy. I did find some that appear to dissociate him from the positions that I have attributed to him. Unfortunately, I did not read them when he first posted them. That’s not unusual. As a general rule I do not follow combox conversations, unless a question has been directly posed to me.

In any case, none of this matters. I have misunderstood Fr Rooney’s views and have attributed to him opinions that are not his own. Sir, I apologize. I thank you for your correction, and I trust that other universalists will take note of this clarification of your beliefs.

But I must point out, Fr Rooney, that your agreement with St Thomas on predestination opens you to the serious charge that God is evil or at least beyond good and evil. If God could have saved all but chose not to (for very, very, very good reasons, of course), then it’s difficult to see how he can be rightly confessed as perfect and absolute Love. But this question has already been discussed thoroughly on Eclectic Orthodoxy, and I will not belabor the point.

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Peter Enns Interviews Robin Parry on the Historical Roots of Universalism

Episode 7: Robin Parry – The Historical Roots of Christian Universalism

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