St Gregory the Theologian: Incomprehensible Deity and the Glory of Theosis

In the winter of A.D. 380-381, St Gregory the Theologian, recently appointed Archbishop of Constantinople, delivered his famous Epiphany Homilies (Orations 38, 39, and 40) to the congregation of the Church of the Holy Apostles.1 Scholars debate whether the churches in Constantinople had at this time adopted the Latin custom of celebrating the Feast of the Nativity on December 25th. If they had, then Oration 38 was most likely preached on Christmas Day and Orations 39 and 40 preached on the vigil and day of the Epiphany; if not, then Oration 38 was likely delivered on January 4th. The Epiphany Orations, writes Christopher Beeley, contain Gregory’s “most comprehensive treatment of Christian theology and spirituality.”2 Unlike the Five Theological Orations, delivered some six months earlier at the house church of the Anastasia and composed specifically to refute the heresies of Euno­mia­nism and Pneumatomachianism, the Epiphany Orations represent Gregory’s ordinary preaching of the gospel. His intent is to proclaim the Nicene faith in its fullness to a city long dominated by Neo-Arian theology. Of course, there is nothing ordinary about these remarkable homilies.

The focus of Oration 38 is the birth of Jesus Christ, yet this birth quickly leads the arch­bishop into a comprehensive proclamation of the story of the divine Savior who has accomplished the salvation of the world. He who is eternally begotten of the Father without a mother is born into the world apart from the agency of a father: “The motherless one becomes fatherless” (38.2). He who is Being has come into being, “that the one who has given us being might also grant us well-being; or rather, as we fell from well-being through evil, he might bring us back again to himself through incarnation” (38.3). The goal of the incarnation is the reconciliation, restoration, transfiguration of humanity within the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

After this announcement, St Gregory offers a brief reflection on the nature of God. As the Lord declared to Moses on Mt Sinai, he is “he who is”:

God always was and is and will be, or rather always “is,” for “was” and “will be” belong to our divided time and transitory nature; but he is always “he who is,” and he gave himself this name when he consulted with Moses on the mountain. For holding everything together in himself, he possesses being, neither beginning nor ending. He is like a kind of boundless and limitless sea of being, surpassing all thought and time and nature. He is only sketched by the mind, and this in a very indistinct and mediocre way, not from things pertaining to himself but from things around him. Impres­sions are gathered from here and there into one particular representation of the truth, which flees before it is grasped and escapes before it is understood. It illumines the directive faculty in us, when indeed we have been purified, and its appear­ance is like a swift bolt of lightning that does not remain. It seems to me that insofar as it is graspable, the divine draws [us] toward itself, for what is completely ungraspable is unhoped for and unsought. Yet one wonders at the ungraspable, and one desires more intensely the object of wonder, and being desired it purifies, and purifying it makes deiform, and with those who have become such he converses as with those close to him,—I speak with vehement boldness—God is united with gods, and he is thus known, perhaps as much as he already knows those who are known to him. (38.7)

While later Byzantine writers will speak of God as “beyond Being,” St Gregory is happy to identify deity as Being, though clearly transcending all created being. Met John Zizioulas follows St Gregory at this point:

The doctrine of God does indeed take us beyond the common nature of things, but this does not mean that we cannot use the concept of being when dealing with God. “Apophaticism” does not mean that we have surpassed the concept of being or gone beyond ontology. . . . The verb “to be” is not only permissible in discussion of God, but it applies most directly and uniquely to God, for God is “the one who truly is.” “Being” applies primarily to God, so theology is the true ontology. God is not beyond or above the concept of “being, but he is the genuine, the true, “being.”3

In his Theological Orations Gregory had announced that the divine essence is incompre­hensible and unknowable. He describes how he himself once attempted, like Moses, to ascend the holy mountain to comprehend God in his entirety; but his attempt ended in failure. He discovered that his mind could not grasp the transcendent nature of the Creator; he could not pierce the veil and enter the Holy of Holies. Sheltering behind the rock that is the incarnate Christ, he could only see the backside of God, the divine glory manifested in the works of his creation (28.3). Yet in that contemplative moment he does “see” God. On the one hand, Gregory denies that the essence of God can be comprehended and fully grasped; on the other, God does graciously give himself to be apprehended in his glory and majesty, however partially and imperfectly. If the Deity were totally ungraspable, we would and could not hope to enter into true communion with him and thus be deified. Perhaps we might put the matter this way: God communicates himself to man under the conditions of our finitude and alienation; but he communicates himself precisely as ineffable mystery, dazzling the mind and filling the heart with an unquenchable thirst to know the incomprehensible deity more fully. St Gregory’s is a qualified apophati­cism: “For indeed on the mountain itself God appears to human beings, as he himself descends from his own height while leading us up from the lowliness below, that the Incomprehensible may be comprehended at least in the measure possible and as far as is safe for mortal nature” (45.11).

That God cannot be perfectly grasped by the creaturely mind flows from the infinite nature of the divine being. “For the divine is without limits,” Gregory explains, “and difficult to contemplate, and this alone is entirely graspable in it, namely that it is without limits” (38.7). This recognition of the infinity of the divine being flows from Gregory’s contempla­tive experience of God and his philosophical reflection on the radical transcendence of the God who has made the world from out of nothing. To encounter God is to encounter the eternal Creator who surpasses all limits and who thus voids all attempts to define and master him. As corporeal beings, we live in time. If we look to the past, all we can say is that God is without beginning; if we look to the future, all we can say is that God is immortal; if we apprehend past and future simultaneously, all we can say is God is eternal. But this is just a species of negative abstraction. “For eternity is neither time nor some part of time, nor is it measurable, but what is time for us, measured by the movement of the sun, is for everlasting beings eternity, since it is coextensive with these beings, as if it were a kind of movement and interval of time” (38.8).

At this point Gregory recalls that this is a Christmas sermon, not a philosophical disquisi­tion. “Our concern here,” he declaims, “is not ‘theology’ [God as he is in himself] but ‘economy’ [God as self-revealed in the narrative of salvation and the works of creation]. When I say ‘God,’ I mean Father and Son and Holy Spirit” (38.9). St Gregory the Theologian is principally interested in the living Lord of the gospel, not the deity of the philosophers. I am reminded of Pascal’s famous memorial: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars.” Gregory is certainly capable of reflecting on the divinity of theologia, but his heart lies with the God of the economia, the God who has entered time and space to accomplish the salvation of humanity.

Gregory then begins to reflect on God’s original creation of humanity, a creature composed of spirit and matter, made in the divine image (which Gregory identifies with the rational mind), teleologically inclined to “see and experience the radiance of God” (38.11). The human being was placed in paradise and honored with the gift of self-determination—hence the purpose of the tree of knowledge: God did not forbid the fruit of this tree out of envy but only for the good of the human being, to be given to him at the proper time after he had grown in spiritual maturity. But the human being ignored the commandment, ate the fruit, and was banished from paradise. Man was clothed in the tunics of skin (“that is perhaps the more coarse and mortal and rebellious flesh” [38.12]) and for the first knew shame and alienation. Communion with God was broken. We were cut off from the tree of life. Death became a gift of sorts, in that it put a temporal limit on our iniquity and evil.

After trying various remedies to correct and heal the human condition and restore humanity to himself, God chose the most wondrous remedy of all. This profound passage deserves to be quoted in full:

It was the Word of God himself, the one who is before the ages, the invisible, the ungraspable, the incorporeal, the Principle from the Principle, the light from the light, the source of life and immortality, the imprint of the archety­pal beauty, the immutable seal, the undistorted image, the definition and explanation of the Father. He approaches his own image and bears flesh because of my flesh and mingles himself with a rational soul because of my soul, purifying like by like. And in all things he becomes a human being, except sin. He was conceived by the Virgin, who was purified beforehand in both soul and flesh by the Spirit, for it was necessary that procreation be honored and that virginity be honored more. He comes forth, God with what he has assumed, one from two opposites, flesh and spirit, the one deifying and the other deified. O new mixture! O the paradoxical blending! He who is comes into being, and the uncreated is created, and the uncontained is contained, through the intervention of the rational soul, which mediates between the divinity and the coarseness of flesh. The one who enriches becomes poor; he is made poor in my flesh, that I might be enriched through his divinity. The full one empties himself; for he empties himself of his own glory for a short time, that I may participate in his fullness. What is the wealth of his goodness? What is this mystery concerning me? I participated in the [divine] image, and I did not keep it; he participates in my flesh both to save the image and to make the flesh immortal. He shares with us a second communion, much more paradoxical than the first; then he gave us a share in what is superior, now he shares in what is inferior. This is more godlike than the first; this, to those who can understand, is more exalted. (38.13)

Humanity is destined for eternal communion with God, for theosis, yet because of the consequences of the Fall, fulfillment of this destiny has become impossible. The unexpected and miraculous solution is the Incarnation: the infinite Deity enters into the world he has made and becomes a human being. St Gregory speaks of this process as a self-emptying, a kenosis, not a putting aside of his divinity—how could he cease to be God?—but the humble acceptance of a life lived under the conditions of poverty, suffering, and death. The eternal Son personally appropriates a human mode of existence, thereby effecting its healing and re-opening the way to eternal life. One of St Gregory’s favorite ways of speaking of the Incarna­tion is that of mixture and blending. Divinity and flesh are united, blended in the one Christ, but this blending does not compromise the integrity of either the divine or human nature. It is, rather, a powerful way for Gregory to speak of the perichoretic unity of the divine and human in the one Jesus Christ. “The two are one thing through the blending,” the Theolo­gian declares (Ep 101.28). Gregory thus presents us with a powerful and dynamic narrative understanding of the Incarnation: the Son of God has become the Son of Man. This under­standing can only be expressed in the language of paradox: “I myself will proclaim the power of this day. The fleshless one takes flesh, the Word is made coarse, the invisible one is seen, the impalpable one is touched, the timeless one makes a beginning, the Son of God becomes Son of Man, ‘Jesus Christ, the same yesterday and today and for the ages’ [Heb 13:8]” (38.2).

Beeley comments on Gregory’s use of the metaphor of blending to speak of the union of God and man in Jesus Christ:

The language of blending would later be condemned at Chalcedon, on the prompting of the Antiochenes, for seeming to compromise the transcen­dence of the Son’s divine nature. In Gregory’s usage, however, it helpfully conveys both the narrative movement of the incarnation and also the mysterious union between God and humanity in Jesus: first there was the eternal Son of God, and then he took on the full reality of a human being, mixing it with himself to make one incarnate Lord. In Gregory’s view, the real danger lies not in compromising the integrity of these two realities, as the Antiochenes would argue, but rather in the opposite direction: the blending should not be misunderstood as being anything less than a real union. If our humanity is not fully united to God in Christ, then he is in fact two different sons and we have not been divinized in the incarnation.4

Question: What does Gregory mean when he says that Christ’s rational mind mediates the union of divinity and humanity in Christ? Apparently Gregory borrowed this conception from Origen, from whom the the divine assumption of the human soul was the linchpin for the eternal Word’s union with the human body, given the dualistic separation between divinity and created matter.5 But given what I have read so far, Gregory does not appear to have shared Origen’s dualism.

St Gregory is well aware of how scandalous the Incarnation is to many of his hearers. It contradicts pre-conceived notions of impas­sible deity and ostensibly demeans the Crea­tor, perhaps even proving that Jesus cannot be considered homoousios with God the Father. Gregory’s response to all such accu­sations is the miracle of incarnate grace (38.14): in love and compassion God searches out the one lost sheep; in love and compassion he eats with tax collectors and makes them his disciples; in love and compassion he girds himself and washes the feet of his friends; in love and compassion he suffers the agony of the cross. What is his profit in all of this? The salvation of sinners! Gregory does not hesi­tate, therefore, to attribute to the divine Son the passions of creaturely existence: “He was sent, but as human, for he was twofold. For he was tired and hungry and thirsty and endured agony and wept through the law of the body, but if he underwent these things also as God, what of it?” (38.15). Gregory was acquainted with the dualistic christologies of Diodore and other Antiochene theologians, who were keen to protect impassible deity from corporeal engagement with the world; but he is persuaded that the salvation of humanity depends on God’s personal appropriation of fallen human nature and thus his experience of deprivation and suffering.

In his biography of the Nazianzen, Fr John McGuckin comments that “this movement of God’s compassion, however, must be consistently referred to the context of his economic salvation. It does not reveal theological verities per se.”6 McGuckin’s concern is that the long list of Christ’s creaturely limitations might be employed, as they evidently were so employed by the Neo-Arians, to deny his full divinity. “All the references to Christ being sent, or being subordinate, or suchlike,” he continues, “must be taken in reference to the human nature the Word of God adopted.”7 But I do not read Gregory as being particularly concerned in this homily about this problem. I am struck, rather, by his emphatic, albeit paradoxical, assertion of God’s physical involvement in the economy of salvation: God hungers, God thirsts, God suffers, God dies. Gregory’s proclamation of the gospel exhibits a strong unitive christology in the Alexandrian tradition. He willingly risks the censure of Eunomians and Antiochenes alike.

Christology and soteriology are interwined and inseparable in the thought of Gregory, and at the heart of both is theosis. The Nazianzen coined the term and made it the center of his theology. The Incarnate Son is the fulfillment of the divinization of human nature, as clearly stated in his Fourth Theological Oration:

He was actually subject as a slave to flesh, to birth, and to our human experiences; for our liberation, held captive as we are by sin, he was subject to all that he saved. What does the lowliness of Man possess higher than involvement with God, than being made God as a result of this intermin­gling, than being so “visited by the dayspring from on high” that “the holy thing which is born” has been called “Son of the most high” and that there has been “bestowed on it the name which is above every name”? What could that be but “God”? What of the “bowing of every knee” to the one who “was made empty on our account,” who blended the “divine image” with a “slave’s form”? What of the “acknowledgement by all the house of Israel that God made him both Lord and Christ”? (Or 30.3)

Beeley explains the decisive importance of theosis for Gregory:

For Gregory, the purpose and rationale of the incarnation is to bring about our divinization, which has been interrupted by the fall; and conversely, the basis of our divinization is the incarnation of Christ. Yet we are saved and divinized not merely as an extrinsic effect of the incarnation; the human Jesus is himself the first instance and the archetype of our divinization, the one in whose own theosis Christians participate and are thus saved. The determining factor in Gregory’s doctrine of salvation, then, and the key for understanding the work of Christ, is the identity of Christ—who Christ is in order to restore the divinization of humanity. This means that he does not separate the doctrine of Christ from the narrative story of his works of creation, salvation and consummation, since that narrative forms the basis for understanding Christ’s identity. Gregory’s Christology and his soteriology are thus inseparably involved with each other, and in a sense amount to the same thing.9

Our deification is our participation in the life, passion, death, and glorification of the Son of God. “I must be buried with Christ,” declares Gregory, “arise with Christ, be a joint heir with Christ, become a son of God, be called God himself!” (7.23).

Gregory concludes Oration 38 by inviting his hearers into the story of redemption. The birth of the Savior is not just something that happened hundreds of years ago. It is contempora­neous with us now in the festal celebration. Today we are in Bethlehem:

Now welcome for me his conception and leap for joy, if not indeed like John in the womb, then like David when the ark came to rest. Be awed at the census record through which you have been recorded in heaven, and revere the birth through which you have been released from the bonds of birth, and honor little Bethlehem, which has brought you back to paradise, and bow before the manger through which you who were without reason have been fed by the Word. Know, like the ox, your owner—Isaiah exhorts you—and like the donkey know your master’s crib, whether you are among those who are pure and under the law and chew the cud of the Word and are prepared for sacrifice, or whether up to now you are among the impure and unfit for food or sacrifice and belong to the Gentiles. Run after the star, and bring gifts with the magi, gold and frankincense and myrrh, as to a king and a God and one dead for your sake. With the shepherds give glory, with the angels sing hymns, with the archangels dance. Let there be a common celebration of the heavenly and earthly powers. (38.17)

The kerygmatic and liturgical incorporation of Gregory’s hearers into the narrative of the crucified and risen Christ is their conversion and sanctification, their theosis. No longer need they, need we, live by the Adamic story of despair, sin, violence, and death. A new future has been opened by the nativity of the Savior, a future into which we may now enter by baptism and faith. Here is the power of St Gregory the Theologians’s evangelical preaching.



[1] Contained in Festal Orations, trans. Nonna Verna Harrison.

[2] Christopher A. Beeley, Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God, p. 43.

[3] John Zizioulas, Lectures in Christian Dogmatics, p. 55.

[4] Beeley, p. 131.

[5] See Christopher Beeley, The Unity of Christ, p. 34.

[6] John McGuckin, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography, p. 339.

[7] Ibid., p. 339.

[8] Beeley, Gregory of Nazianzus, pp. 121-122.

(26 October 2012; rev.)

Posted in Gregory Nazianzen | 3 Comments

The Kenotic Image: St Sophrony and Austin Farrer on the Imagination

by Rex Bradshaw

1948 saw the publication of two books that I would like to put in dialogue. One was the Bampton Lectures for that year, delivered by Oxford fellow and chaplain Father Austin Farrer, under the title The Glass of Vision. The other was a self-published work by Father Sophrony (Sakharov), an obscure Russian Orthodox monk in Paris, and it was called Staretz Silouan. The Glass of Vision became one of Farrer’s most enduring books, influencing prominent Anglicans such as C. S. Lewis and Rowan Williams, while Staretz Silouan has emerged as a classic of Orthodox spirituality. Father Sophrony, latterly founder of the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, was formally canonized in 2019.

Farrer’s lectures comprise an original and compelling work of speculative theology; Sophrony’s book, the hagiography of a great Athonite ascetic, critiques the very idea of speculative theology. Both pay particular attention to the idea of the image and address its place in the spiritual life, and both come to apparently opposite conclusions. But each of these books has impressed me with its insights. St Silouan the Athonite, as Sophrony’s book is currently titled, played a major role in the revitalization of my faith, while The Glass of Vision is a more recent influence on my philosophical development. This leads me to question to what extent the disparity of thought between these two authors is real, and whether common ground can be identified.

A Brief History of the Imagination

Both Sophrony and Farrer draw implicitly from the classical understanding of the imagi­nation. Imaginatio is the Latin rendition of the Greek term phantasia, which indicates appearance. Plato used the term phantasia infrequently, applying it to perceptual judgment. In Plato’s Sophist, phantasia means opinion or judgment based on appearances—a lower form of understanding, Plato suggests, especially subject to misapprehension, but not intrinsically false. The Timaeus further identifies phantasia with the liver; it is like a mirror, kept clean by the spleen, that is capable of receiving images from the mind (nous).

It was Aristotle’s more thorough investigation into phantasia that seeded the modern idea of the imagination. Aristotle argued that there is no thinking without images (phantas­ma­ta), and these images arise from the imagination (phantasia). Phantasia transforms the elements of sense perception into the unified image—through phantasia, for example, shapes and colors become tables and chairs. But phantasia does more than function within ordinary perception: it is the organ of dreams, memories, and hallucinations. Though Aristotle emphasized the positive and necessary role imagination played in perception, true and false images are alike accessed in and through phantasia.

Neoplatonists developed nuanced notions of phantasia influenced both by Plato and Aristotle. Plotinus believed phantasia had a lower image-making power (phantastikon), which evokes sense images, as well as a higher phantastikon, which evokes intellectual forms. When the mirror-like phantasia is clear and bright, it is capable of capturing the latter from the nous. By implication, a purified phantasia plays a vital though qualified role in intellectual ascent. As Plotinus wrote, the One above all things has no name; “we can say nothing about it: we can only try, as far as possible, to make signs to ourselves about it” (Ennead V.3.13).

Ancient and medieval Christians generally echoed Plato’s ambivalence toward phantasia. St John of Damascus described the imagination as the link between intellect (nous) and senses, passive in comparison to the active and creative reason. Latin scholastics under­stood phan­ta­sia/imaginatio as a kind of mental system for processing and storing images—potentially useful in the approach to God, but often suspect. Islamic philosophy tended to view the imagination (al-khayal) more positively. Philosophers like Ibn Arabi wrote of an “imaginal” level of being (‘alam al-mithal or ‘alam al-khayal), located between the realm of Platonic Ideas and the realm of the senses.

Early modern philosophers who invoked imaginatio were, by contrast, generally disparaging. Whereas Plato and Aristotle saw reason and imagination as functionally interdependent, moderns like Bacon partitioned the logical powers of reason from the creative and fanciful powers of the imagination. Galileo and his rationalist successors generally saw the imagination as a source of chimeric distortions of nature, working over and against a fundamentally rational and quantitative reality. Imagination was branded the handmaiden to error; fantasy (from phantasia) became a synonym for unreality. The Romantics’ efforts to rebrand the imagination did not remove that connotation, which persists to this day, as in the classing of much speculative fiction as “fantasy,” which indicates the genre’s place at a particular remove from the “real world.”

An Ascetic Critique of the Imagination

Eastern Orthodox traditions have generally cultivated the Church Fathers’ dubious attitude toward the imagination. Ascetics are engaged in constant struggle against the passions, understood as disordered and irrational desires. The imagination plays a largely negative role in this struggle of the psyche, as it is through the forms of the imagination that the passions entice the soul to do their bidding. Impassioned thoughts come garbed in appealing images; the sensual person readily caves to the attraction and ingests their poison, rendering his own will passive and inhibiting his ability to contemplate God.

CherubimBut even as an instrument of knowledge, and not simply as the chief organ of temptation, the imagi­nation suffers by comparison with the intellect. Spiritual realities—i.e., intelligible forms— are apprehended by the intellect. The imagination, conversely, is oriented to the material and sensual qualities of existence. St John Climacus urged his monastic readers to shut out the sensory imagi­na­tion during prayer for this reason; intrusive images distract from the pursuit of an invisible God. The Byzantine hesychasts made this assumption the foundation of their techniques aimed at theoria or contemplation: the Uncreated Light would only come to a heart purified of images and guarded by a watch­ful intellect.

St Sophrony develops this critique of the imagination in his writings on St Silouan. Like Plotinus, his definition of the imagination is expansive, encompassing not only sensual images but conceptual forms. “Imagination plays no part in true spiritual life, which is wholly concrete and positive,” he remarks. Sophrony identifies imagination with the lowest form of prayer, which “imprisons man in constant error, in an imaginary world, in a world of dreams, and, if you like, poetic creation.” The soul, in its desire for a vision of God, accepts the imagination’s impoverished substitute. As prayer, especially for beginners, this is not intrinsically negative, but harm and delusion arise when it becomes a fixed method. As one improves in the path of prayer, “the imagination is curtailed and the mind released from all the mental images that have invaded it.”

For Sophrony, the free creative play of the imagination is a barrier to encounter with God. It puts the human will first and gets the relationship backwards; it is God who creates us, not we who create him. The soul that wishes to come face to face with God must wait in humble, imageless receptivity for the dawn of divine grace. The soul that is attached to images—“mirages,” as Sophrony says—easily falls prey to demonic energy. Demonic images invade and deface the divine image of the human being; God works, therefore, to liberate us from the power of images. Thus Sophrony disparages “visual meditation,” intellectualism, and speculative theology as all guises of this carceral imagination.

There is insight and a poignant irony, given the trajectory of Western intellectual culture, in the Orthodox ascetic understanding of rationalism as essentially a disorder of the imagina­tion. The rationalist theologian tries to conceptualize God and falls in love with the artifice of imagination he has constructed, conflating it with God. The rationalist philosopher tries to measure the world by his own lights and, failing to find God from this posture of pride, imagines himself God and master of creation. This is why for Sophrony, humility is the solvent of the imagination. “Pride bristles with desire to create its own world, whereas humility is quick to receive life from God.”

An Anglican Theory of the Image

Anglophone philosophers of the imagination tend to be more influenced by Samuel Coleridge than by St John Climacus. The imagination’s creative power was celebrated, not feared, by Romantics like Coleridge. Whereas for Sophrony, man and God are at an inverse relation—God descends through creative activity, whereas man ascends by relinquishing creation for God—for Coleridge, the creative activities of God and man are in natural harmony.

Farrer does not tread directly on this controversy in The Glass of Vision. His eight lectures explore relations in meaning between philosophy, scriptural revelation, and poetry; they trace a coherent argument about the truths of reason and revelation in which the concept of the image takes a central place. Along the way, we get a sense for Farrer’s understanding of how images and the imagination specifically contribute to the spiritual life.

Lecture I tries to distinguish between the natural and the supernatural. Farrer believes there is a real difference, despite the efforts of some theologians to blur the line. In supernatural action, Farrer argues, God “supernatural­izes” things within the natural world to give them powers they do not have by their nature. Lecture II pursues this line of thought into the subject of revelation, that is, supernatural knowledge, and it is here the imagination becomes obviously relevant. Supernatural inspiration involves the infusion of knowledge from beyond the upper bounds of natural consciousness. In exploring this idea, Farrer finds it necessary to distinguish supernatural inspiration from “inspired wit” and from “preternatural” consciousness. He explains that “the excellence of the mind consists . . . of a conscious intelligence based always upon acute senses and riding upon a vigorous imagination.” He uses several analogies:

The previous labour of the intelligence is thrown down into the imagination as into a cauldron, from which it emerges again fused into new figures and, it may be, enriched with materials from the subconscious sphere, which were never in distinct consciousness at all. . . . In inspired wit a spark leaps from intelligence to intelligence across a field of imagination: whereas in weird abnormal consciousness the spark leaps from the outer dark into imagi­na­tion itself, providing an image of which the intelligence must make what it can. (24-25)

The imagination is thus key to inspiration in the secular sense, but what is the role of the image in the receipt of true supernatural knowledge? A central one, Farrer thinks. Lecture III examines the puzzle of the inspiration of Scripture. The primary revelation is, of course, the person of Jesus Christ, the supremely supernatural one, uniting in himself divine and natural causes. This revelation expresses itself through word and deed. Farrer calls these things “the precious seeds of revelation, but they are not the full-grown plant.” There is no essence perspicuous in itself that can be separated from “the apostolic com­ment” of the New Testament; both the “primary action” and the “primary interpretation” which is scripture must belong to Christ. The “Head” (Christ) retains his utter primacy, but the “members” (the apostles) partake of the mind of Christ through the Pentecostal presence of the Spirit, allowing them to render him truly in their teaching.

It is here that the role of the image comes into focus. Christ expressed his thought in what Farrer calls “dominant images” such as the Kingdom, the Son of Man, and Israel. “These tremendous images . . . are not the whole of Christ’s teaching,” Farrer writes, “but they set forth the supernatural mystery which is the heart of the teaching.” Revelation is precisely the “interplay” of such images with the great events of Christ’s life, each interpre­ting the other. This “interplay” persists long after the Ascension, for these key images “continue to unfold within the apostolic mind.” These images are therefore dynamic, alive: “The several distinct images grew together into fresh unities, opened out in new detail, attracted to themselves and assimilated further image-material: all this within the life of a generation. This is the way inspiration worked. The stuff of inspiration is living images” (44). Even today, these images are not dead: we hear the voice of the Spirit when they quicken in our own minds.

In Lecture IV, Farrer examines how inspired images can be said to convey divine truth. It would seem to be impossible to verify divinely revealed images, precisely because access to the reality they purport to reveal is only through those same images. Or rather, the only verification is that of the Holy Ghost working mysteriously within to unfold and testify to the images of revelation. As Farrer observes, we cannot directly witness the supernatural action of God within us—but “the veil, however impenetrable, is not blank. It is painted with the image of God, and God himself painted it, and made it indelible with his blood. . . . We know him through the image, and by faith” (61). Farrer is not simply resigned to the inherent mysteriousness of this process. Metaphysics, he argues at length, entails “irreducible analo­gi­zing,” moving from term to term into mysteries that cannot be approached otherwise. “What, then, is the ordinary healthy thinking of which metaphysics is the systematic elaboration?” Farrer asks. “It is just contemplative thinking.” The images of revelation act similarly: by juxtaposing them, putting them into creative tension, the contemplating mind advances from the visible word and deed of Christ to awe and adoration.

Lectures V and VI extend this theory to the natural image, and VII and VIII to poetry, but for our purposes it is unnecessary to pursue Farrer thither, other than to note some key assump­tions that emerge in Lecture V. Farrer is here concerned with how we know God or become aware of him directly. After all, God cannot be known through awareness of finite particu­lars; to “reconstruct” some sense of his infinite being from the signs of finite creatures may be to engage in mere mythologizing. No, we must know God in his infinite Act which pervades and precedes the whole of created existence—in the utterness and universality of his presence. But how can our minds receive him? “Will he pass through us completely, as perpendicular light through a pane of perfect glass, or, to change the metaphor, will he find nothing to illuminate in us, like a ray passing into a hollow sphere lined with black velvet?” Farrer argues in an Aristotelian vein that the receptivity of the mind depends on its activity. In fact, “We can only know God in expressing God: and we can express him in no other terms than such as are already significant to us.” We approach God through “embodied discourse.” The mind seizes on finite objects to act as symbols for the otherwise unthinkable Infinite which is present to it as a “shadow” cast on its existence.

In contrast to Archimandrite Sophrony and the tradition of Orthodox asceticism, Farrer believes that God can only be known insofar as he is “bodied forth” (107). We cannot con­ceive God apart from images, whether these be supernaturally revealed or naturally given; though faith is addressed to God, and not images, it discerns God through these images, and not apart from them. Though Farrer does not use the term “imagination” extensively or systematically, it would seem to follow from his argument that the imagination, understood as the psychical organ corresponding to and receptive of the image, is an indispensable faculty in the knowledge of God, who clothes himself in diverse images and is the archetypal image-maker.

Spiritual Stereopsis

The fundamental question at issue between these thinkers is the role of the imagination in the approach to God. Sophrony, following the tradition of Orthodox hesychasm, seems to reject the imagination almost entirely. Those at the beginning of their spiritual journey naturally latch on to images, as their lower nature demands; but they do not truly begin to know God until those images give way to a real and immediate personal encounter (theoria). Farrer, by contrast, does not seem to believe God can be approached in any other way than by a succession of images. Can these two views be harmonized?

One could start by complicating Sophrony’s blanket condemnation of images with the testimony of his own life. Sophrony was an artist in his youth, studying under Pyotr Konchalovsky and Wassily Kandinsky in Russia. As a monk in Paris, he commissioned the first icon of Staretz Silouan from famed iconographer Leonid Ouspensky. In his old age in Essex, he took up iconography seriously and completed several large wall paintings. He referred to icons as “springboards” to eternity and contested the notion that iconographers ought to reproduce their subjects mechanically. For someone whose view of the imagination was apparently so austere, much of Sophrony Sakharov’s life seemed to revolve around images.

One could, further, attempt to nuance Sophrony’s apophatic presentation of Orthodox ascetic theology. Modern Orthodox often deny that imagination or painterly expression should enter into the painting of icons, but closer inspection reveals a deeper tension in the Orthodox tradition. St Theodore the Studite explicitly called despite for image and imagi­na­tion “nonsensical.” Not even Farrer’s suggestion that humans are incapable of knowing God apart from images is unprecedented in Orthodox thought; it seems a natural ally to the East’s theology of incarnation, which identifies Jesus as the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), not to mention its characteristic iconophilia and richly sensual liturgies. St John of Kronstadt’s rhetorical question “Can our nature do without an image?” pushes the image into the center of the Christian approach to God. It does seem, then, that some strands of the Orthodox tradition at least allow that images can truthfully attest to God, and true images are licit and perhaps even necessary to genuine theoria.

Some Orthodox ascetic theologians, going back to Evagrius, distinguish between physike theoria or “natural contemplation” and theologike theoria or “theological contemplation.” St Isaac the Syrian referred to these two modes as two spiritual eyes: physike theoria contem­plates God through created things (we may say images), whereas theologia addresses itself directly to the formless light of God, visioned through divine self-revelation. Although like Evagrius, Isaac frames the ascent to God as a movement from physike theoria to theologia, this metaphor of the two eyes combined with Isaac’s famed attentiveness in prayer to the created order suggests that we are not speaking here of mere sequence. Indeed, it seems reasonable to conclude that we ought to be concerned with the health of both eyes. Physike theoria addresses itself to a universal and ever-present mode of divine self- revelation that is none the less genuine for being lesser, whereas, as the ascetics acknowledge, theologike theoria is a gift of God that none of us enjoy uninterruptedly.

This view seems consonant with the mystical philosophy of Ibn Arabi, who also spoke of two spiritual eyes, which he identified as the modalities of reason and imagination. Reason contemplates created things and discerns God’s transcendence and dissimilarity. But imagination is the organ of symbol and theophany, finding God imminent in created things. Fullness of vision, which we might label spiritual stereopsis, demands that both eyes be open, comprehending images both as signs of God and as wholly inadequate to him. To revert to traditional Christian terminology, the apophatic (negative) and the cataphatic (positive) modalities work most fruitfully in dialectic, presenting us with both sides of a paradox.

Admittedly, the two eyes are not equal. The cosmos of St Isaac and Ibn Arabi alike is a hierarchy of being; the ideal, rather than standing in opposition to the real, is the real’s highest form. That intelligible ideal whose ground is God is communicated through images that transcend the material medium whereby they touch our senses. Yet images, even the most noble, are not unequivocally true or false; they are compounds of the real and the unreal. They are only sensual or conceptual impressions of what they represent, incapable of fully capturing essences.

This means images are intrinsically suspect. According to St Maximus the Confessor, the imagination receives representations which become “scales” that conceal God from the soul— thus also St Isaac would describe an intellect surfeited in images as sickly. The proud and sensual soul is attached to this crowd of images and unable to know God for who he is. Analogously, if we are fixed on our mental sketch of another person, rather than attending receptively to the person in living encounter with us, the relationship is dead; neither growth nor communication is possible.

Austin Farrer himself was more than aware of the dangers posed by the unchecked imagina­tion. As he explains in The Glass of Vision, an image of God qualifies as an idol when it does not advance toward a “relation of identity” with God—that is, toward incarnation. An idol is “an imaginative realization without claims to particular truth” (107), a mythic construction that is not a true representation because it remains unsupernaturalized. Images must be “reduced” Godward through the canons of reason and the principal revealed images, as exemplified by the Church’s first great theologian:

The images which [St John] ‘reduces’ to terms of others no more disappear or lose their force, than do the whole body of images, when we remember that they are no more than images, and so reduce them to the one ineffable simplicity of God’s saving love. All is denied, and all is affirmed: what the Christmas hymns say of God’s descent to earth is the stammering of children’s tongues, and nothing of it in accordance with the truth of that unspeakable mystery; and yet it is what God has taught us to say, when out of the mouths of babes he would establish praise. We speak because silence is impossible, and when we speak this is how we speak: “Behold the great Creator makes/Himself a house of clay:/A robe of virgin flesh he takes/Which he shall wear for ay.” (111)

Here Farrer practically revels in the fundamental tension undergirding the image. The power of the image to manifest God is power in weakness, in negation, in “the stammering of children’s tongues.” Is this not manner in which the image of God functions in every Christian (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9)?

Whether or not the hesychast’s experience of God is truly devoid of images in Farrer’s sense is beyond my competence to question. But I believe Sophrony and Farrer would both agree that images in the broad sense serve a definite purpose in the spiritual life, and that true images point beyond themselves. By extension, Sophrony’s harsh dismissal of the imagina­tion should not be taken absolutely. It clearly does not include use of icons, nor need it necessarily extend, as some of his interpreters would have it, to all works of creativity and imaginative literature. Images that gesture away from themselves and toward God are not idols, and an imagination with open doors is not a prison of the soul.

A late Byzantine text collected in the Philokalia and attributed to Kallistos Katafytiotis describes three “ways” of theoria. The first is the “self-moving way” which employs human will and imagination (phantasia) and allows one to contemplate God indirectly and imperfectly. The “supernatural way” entails direct illumination worked by the divine will. The third is a “mixed way” which starts in imagination and ends in “noetic light and gladness.” For most of us, I would suppose, the path into the presence of the living God is not to be found apart from the images given us by scripture, hymn, rite, and theology. Yet these images are only true insofar as they render themselves ultimately transparent to the light they exist to reveal.

Our fallen imaginations may be stained by delusive, passionate fantasy, but in the fire of humility, false images burn away—and true images burn clear. The imagination is trans­cended by purity of heart. Yet no ascent is possible apart from the divine action of incar­nation, as the invisible God takes upon himself our images, and in so doing, transfigures them. For God is not less than our imaginings, but more, and a holy imagination will unfold its petals to reveal his imageless splendor. “It is God who gives thee thy mirror of imagina­tion,” George MacDonald once wrote, “and if thou keep it clean, it will give thee back no shadow but of the truth. Never a cry of love went forth from human heart but it found some heavenly chord to fold it in.”

(The above icons were painted by St Sophrony of Essex)


Further Reading

Chiari Bottici, Imaginal Politics (Columbia University Press, 2014).
William Chittick, Ibn ‘Arabi: Heir to the Prophets (Simon and Schuster, 2012).
Oliviér Clement, trans. Theodore Berkeley, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (New City, 1993).
Austin Farrer, The Glass of Vision (Glasgow, the University Press, 1948).
Robert McSwain, Scripture, Metaphysics and Poetry: Austin Farrer’s ‘The Glass of Vision’ with Critical Commentary (2016).
Anne Sheppard, “Phantasia in De insomniis,” in Donald A. Russell and Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, eds., On Prophecy, Dreams, and Human Imagination (2014).
Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), St Silouan the Athonite (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991).

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Rex Bradshaw lives with his wife and daughter in Mississippi. He teaches economics and geography at Jackson Academy, history at Belhaven University, and youth Sunday School at St. Stephen’s Anglican Church. He is at work on several writing projects and publishes occasional pseudonymous essays on his blog Burning Poplar.

Posted in Philosophical Theology | 3 Comments

“But the Word is said to be and is alone from the Father because he is not a creature; and the Son’s being ‘from the essence of the Father’ is indicative of this sense, which does not pertain to anything that has come into being”

The council [of Nicaea] wished to banish the impious phrases of the Arians and to inscribe the words confessed by the Scriptures: that the Son is not from non-being but from God; that he is Word and Wisdom, neither creature nor something made, but from the Father as his own (idion) offspring. But the party of Eusebius, compelled by their longstanding perversity, wished the designation of his being “from God” to be taken as something in common with us and the Word of God to be no different from us in this respect, as it is written: “one God from whom are all things” (1 Cor 8:6) and “the old things have passed away; behold all that is new has come to be; and all this is from God” (2 Cor 5:17, 18). So the fathers of the council, seeing their deceit and the machinations of their impiety, finally found it necessary to proclaim the “from God” more clearly and to write “the Son is from the essence of the Father” (ek tes ousias tou theou), so that “from God” may not be considered to be the same and equal in the case of the Son as it is with things that have come to be; but that it may be confessed that while all others are creatures, the Word is uniquely from the Father. For even if all things are said to be from God, this is altogether otherwise than how the Son is. In the case of created things, they are said to be from God in that they do not exist randomly and unaccountably; neither do they attain their origination by chance, as those who speak of an origination that comes about from the intertwining of atoms and of like parts; nor, as certain heretics say, is there another creator, nor, as again others say, do all things have their subsistence through some angels. Rather, all things are said to be from God because the existent God, by himself and through the Word, brought all things that formerly did not exist into being. But the Word is said to be and is alone from the Father because he is not a creature; and the Son’s being “from the essence of the Father” is indicative of this sense, which does not pertain to anything that has come into being.

Certainly, Paul does say that all things are from God, but he immediately adds: “and one Lord Jesus Christ, from whom are all things” (1 Cor 8:6), in order to show to all, that the Son is other than all things which have come into being from God. For the things which have come into being from God have come to be through the Son. Paul said this because it is by God that creation comes to be, not because all things are from the Father in just the same way that the Son is. Neither are all things as the Son, nor is the Word one of “all things,” for he is Lord and Fashioner of all things. That is why the holy council proclaimed in a clearer way that he is “from the essence of the Father,” in order to proclaim the confession that the Word is other than the nature of things which have come to be and is alone truly from God, and in order to leave no more pretext for the deceit of the impious. This then is the reason for their having written “from the essence.”

Yet again, when the bishops said that it is necessary to proclaim the Word as true power and image of the Father and unchangeably like the Father in all things (homoion te kai aparal­lakton auton kata panta to patri) and inalterable and that he is always and inseparably in the Father—for never was he not, but rather, the Word is always with the Father, as the radiance and the light—the party of Eusebius persevered, though because of their shame at the refutations leveled against them, they did not dare to contradict. Instead, they were caught winking their eyes and murmuring among themselves that “like” (homoion) and “always” and the name of “Power” and “in him” are also common to us and the Son, so that it would not hurt them to agree with us. As to “like,” because it is written of us also, “the human being is the image and glory of God” (1 Cor 11: 7); as to “always,” because it is written, “we who live are always…” (2 Cor 4: 11); “in him,” because “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 28); “inalterable,” because it is written, “Nothing will separate us from the love of Christ” (Rom 8:39); as to “Power,” because the caterpillar and the locust are called “power” and “great power” (cf. Joel 2:25) whereas it is often written in reference to the people, as “all the power of God came out from the land of Egypt” (Ex 12:41); and there are other heavenly powers, for it says, “the Lord of powers is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob” (Ps 46:8).

Asterius, who is called “the sophist,” has written these things, having learned from them and, along with him, Arius also, as has been said. But the bishops, perceiving their hypocrisy here also and seeing that, according to what is written, “deceit is in the hearts of the impious who plot evil” (Prov 12:20), found it necessary again to gather together the sense of the Scriptures and to speak more clearly the things which they said before, and to write, “the Son is one in essence (homoousion) with the Father,” in order to signify that the Son is not only like, but from the Father as the same in likeness (tauton te homoiosei), and in order to show that the likeness and inalterability of the Son is other than the imitative likeness that is ascribed to us and which we attain through virtue by keeping the commandments. For it is possible for bodies which are like each other to become in some way separated and distant from one another, which happens with the sons of human beings in relation to their begetters, as it is written concerning Adam and Seth, who was begotten of Adam and who was like him “according to his kind” (Gen 5:3). But since the generation of the Son from the Father is other than that which pertains to the nature of human beings and he is not only like (homoios) but also inseparable from the essence (ousia) of the Father and he and the Father are one, as he himself said (Jn 10:30), and the Word is always in the Father and the Father in the Word (cf. Jn 10:38)—as is the radiance in relation to the light (for this is what the phrase means)—the council, understanding all this, aptly wrote “one in essence” (homoousion). They did this in order to overturn the perversity of the hypocrites and to show that the Word is other than the things which come to be. For immediately after writing it, they added: “But those who say that the Son of God is from non-being or is a creature or changeable or made or from another essence (ousia), these the holy and catholic Church anathematizes.” In saying this, they made it manifestly clear that “from the essence” and “of one essence” are abrogations of the trite slogans of the impious: such as that he is a “crea­ture” and “made” and something which has come into being (geneton) and changeable and that he was not before he was generated. The one who thinks such things is contradicting the council. But the one who does not think along with Arius necessarily holds and takes to mind the teachings of the council and views them appropriately, as indicating a relation like that of the radiance to the light, and in this way attains to an image of the truth.

. . .

But if one considers God to be composite, as an essence in which there is accident, or to have any external covering and to be enveloped and concealed (kaluptesthai), or if one thinks that there is something around him (peri auton) which completes his essence, so that when we say “God” or name him “Father,” we are not signifying the invisible and incomprehensible essence itself but something of what is around God, then let them censure the council for having written that “the Son is from the essence of God.” But let them observe well that to think in this way is to blaspheme twice over, for they are insinuating the notion of a bodily god and they are falsely declaring that the Lord is not the Son of the Father himself but of what is around the Father. But if God is simple, as indeed he is, then quite clearly when we say “God” and name the Father we are not naming something around him, but are signifying his very essence (ousia). For even if it is impossible to comprehend what is the being and essence (ousia) of God, if only we understand that God is and consider that the Scriptures signify him in these terms, we intend to signify none other than him when we say “God” and “Father” and “Lord.” Therefore when he says “I am who is” (Ex 3:14) and “I am the Lord God” (Ex 20:2) and whenever Scripture says “God” we recognize that this signifies nothing other than his incomprehensible essence (ousia) itself and we understand that the one of whom they speak is the one who is.

Therefore, let no one be shocked to hear that the Son of God is from the being of God. Rather, let him be receptive to the fathers who wrote “from the essence” (ek tēs ousias), according to a purified sense, as more explicit and yet equivalent to “from God.” They considered that it was the same to say that the Word is “from God” as it is to say “from the essence of God,” since, as I have said, “God” signifies nothing other than the essence (tēn ousian) of the One who is. Therefore, if the Word is not from God as a genuine son who is from his father by nature, but is said to be from the Father in the same way that all creatures are said to be so, because of their having been created {by the Father}, then indeed he is not from the being of the Father, nor is he a son according to essence (kat ousian), but because of virtue, as are we who are called sons by grace. But if he is alone from God as genuine Son, as indeed is the case, then it is well said that the Son is from the being of God.

The symbol (paradeigma) of the light and the radiance also has the same meaning. For the sacred writers did not say that the Word was related to God like a fire which is ignited from the heat of the sun and which is usually extinguished again, for this is an external product and creation of its maker. But they all preached of him as Radiance, in order to disclose his being properly and inseparably from the essence and his unity with the Father. Thus will his unchangeability and inalterability also be truly secured, for how can he be unchangeable and inalterable if he is not the proper (idion) offspring of the Father’s essence? For it is neces­sary, in regard to this also, to safeguard his identity with his own Father.

Since this explanation is thus shown to be pious, the enemies of Christ should not be shocked by the “homoousios” either, since this term also has a sound sense and rationale. For if we say that the Word is from the essence of God (let this at last be confessed by them!), what is that except to say that he is truly and eternally of the essence from which he is begotten? For he is not different in kind, as if he were something foreign and dissimilar (anomoion) that is mixed in with the essence of the Father. Nor is his likeness merely extrinsic, as if he were in some other respect or completely of a different essence (heteroousios), just as brass shines like gold and silver and tin. These are foreign to one another and of different natures and are separate in their natures and their powers. Brass is not proper (idion) to gold, any more than a pigeon is from a dove. Even though they are considered to be like (homoia) each other, they are nevertheless different in essence. Therefore, if that is how the Son is, then he is a creature like us and not one in essence (homoousios). But if the Son is Word, Wisdom, Image of the Father, and Radiance, then it follows reasonably that he is “one in essence.” Unless it is established that he is not from God but is an instrument, of a different nature and a different essence, then the council has decreed aptly and thought rightly.

St Athanasius of Alexandria

Posted in Athanasius, Citations | 2 Comments

Robert Falconer’s Plan to Empty Hell

For some time after the loss of his friend, Robert went loitering and mooning about, quite neglecting the lessons to which he had not, it must be confessed, paid much attention for many weeks. Even when seated at his grannie’s table, he could do no more than fix his eyes on his book: to learn was impossible; it was even disgusting to him. But his was a nature which, foiled in one direction, must, absolutely helpless against its own vitality, straightway send out its searching roots in another. Of all forces, that of growth is the one irresistible, for it is the creating power of God, the law of life and of being. Therefore no accumulation of refusals, and checks, and turnings, and forbiddings, from all the good old grannies in the world, could have prevented Robert from striking root downward, and bearing fruit upward, though, as in all higher natures, the fruit was a long way off yet. But his soul was only sad and hungry. He was not unhappy, for he had been guilty of nothing that weighed on his conscience. He had been doing many things of late, it is true, without asking leave of his grandmother, but wherever prayer is felt to be of no avail, there cannot be the sense of obligation save on compulsion. Even direct disobedience in such case will generally leave little soreness, except the thing forbidden should be in its own nature wrong, and then, indeed, ‘Don Worm, the conscience,’ may begin to bite. But Robert felt nothing immoral in playing upon his grandfather’s violin, nor even in taking liberties with a piece of lumber for which nobody cared but possibly the dead; therefore he was not unhappy, only much disappointed, very empty, and somewhat gloomy. There was nothing to look forward to now, no secret full of riches and endless in hope—in short, no violin.

To feel the full force of his loss, my reader must remember that around the childhood of Robert, which he was fast leaving behind him, there had gathered no tenderness—none at least by him recognizable as such. All the women he came in contact with were his grandmother and Betty. He had no recollection of having ever been kissed. From the darkness and negation of such an embryo-existence, his nature had been unconsciously striving to escape—struggling to get from below ground into the sunlit air—sighing after a freedom he could not have defined, the freedom that comes, not of independence, but of love—not of lawlessness, but of the perfection of law. Of this beauty of life, with its wonder and its deepness, this unknown glory, his fiddle had been the type. It had been the ark that held, if not the tables of the covenant, yet the golden pot of angel’s food, and the rod that budded in death. And now that it was gone, the gloomier aspect of things began to lay hold upon him; his soul turned itself away from the sun, and entered into the shadow of the under-world. Like the white-horsed twins of lake Regillus, like Phoebe, the queen of skyey plain and earthly forest, every boy and girl, every man and woman, that lives at all, has to divide many a year between Tartarus and Olympus.

For now arose within him, not without ultimate good, the evil phantasms of a theology which would explain all God’s doings by low conceptions, low I mean for humanity even, of right, and law, and justice, then only taking refuge in the fact of the incapacity of the human understanding when its own inventions are impugned as undivine. In such a system, hell is invariably the deepest truth, and the love of God is not so deep as hell. Hence, as foundations must be laid in the deepest, the system is founded in hell, and the first article in the creed that Robert Falconer learned was, ‘I believe in hell.’ Practically, I mean, it was so; else how should it be that as often as a thought of religious duty arose in his mind, it appeared in the form of escaping hell, of fleeing from the wrath to come? For his very nature was hell, being not born in sin and brought forth in iniquity, but born sin and brought forth iniquity. And yet God made him. He must believe that. And he must believe, too, that God was just, awfully just, punishing with fearful pains those who did not go through a certain process of mind which it was utterly impossible they should go through without a help which he would give to some, and withhold from others, the reason of the difference not being such, to say the least of it, as to come within the reach of the persons concerned. And this God they said was love. It was logically absurd, of course, yet, thank God, they did say that God was love; and many of them succeeded in believing it, too, and in ordering their ways as if the first article of their creed had been ‘I believe in God’; whence, in truth, we are bound to say it was the first in power and reality, if not in order; for what are we to say a man believes, if not what he acts upon? Still the former article was the one they brought chiefly to bear upon their children. This mortar, probably they thought, threw the shell straighter than any of the other field-pieces of the church-militant. Hence it was even in justification of God himself that a party arose to say that a man could believe without the help of God at all, and after believing only began to receive God’s help—a heresy all but as dreary and barren as the former. No one dreamed of saying—at least such a glad word of prophecy never reached Rothieden—that, while nobody can do without the help of the Father any more than a new-born babe could of itself live and grow to a man, yet that in the giving of that help the very fatherhood of the Father finds its one gladsome labour; that for that the Lord came; for that the world was made; for that we were born into it; for that God lives and loves like the most loving man or woman on earth, only infinitely more, and in other ways and kinds besides, which we cannot understand; and that therefore to be a man is the soul of eternal jubilation.

Robert consequently began to take fits of soul-saving, a most rational exercise, worldly wise and prudent—right too on the principles he had received, but not in the least Christian in its nature, or even God-fearing. His imagination began to busy itself in representing the dire consequences of not entering into the one refuge of faith. He made many frantic efforts to believe that he believed; took to keeping the Sabbath very carefully—that is, by going to church three times, and to Sunday-school as well; by never walking a step save to or from church; by never saying a word upon any subject unconnected with religion, chiefly theoretical; by never reading any but religious books; by never whistling; by never thinking of his lost fiddle, and so on—all the time feeling that God was ready to pounce upon him if he failed once; till again and again the intensity of his efforts utterly defeated their object by destroying for the time the desire to prosecute them with the power to will them. But through the horrible vapours of these vain endeavours, which denied God altogether as the maker of the world, and the former of his soul and heart and brain, and sought to worship him as a capricious demon, there broke a little light, a little soothing, soft twilight, from the dim windows of such literature as came in his way. Besides The Pilgrim’s Progress there were several books which shone moon-like on his darkness, and lifted something of the weight of that Egyptian gloom off his spirit. One of these, strange to say, was Defoe’s Religious Courtship, and one, Young’s Night Thoughts. But there was another which deserves particular notice, inasmuch as it did far more than merely interest or amuse him, raising a deep question in his mind, and one worthy to be asked. This book was the translation of Klopstock’s Messiah, to which I have already referred. It was not one of his grandmother’s books, but had probably belonged to his father: he had found it in his little garret-room. But as often as she saw him reading it, she seemed rather pleased, he thought. As to the book itself, its florid expatiation could neither offend nor injure a boy like Robert, while its representation of our Lord was to him a wonderful relief from that given in the pulpit, and in all the religious books he knew. But the point for the sake of which I refer to it in particular is this: Amongst the rebel angels who are of the actors in the story, one of the principal is a cherub who repents of making his choice with Satan, mourns over his apostasy, haunts unseen the steps of our Saviour, wheels lamenting about the cross, and would gladly return to his lost duties in heaven, if only he might—a doubt which I believe is left unsolved in the volume, and naturally enough remained unsolved in Robert’s mind:—Would poor Abaddon be forgiven and taken home again? For although naturally, that is, to judge by his own instincts, there could be no question of his forgiveness, according to what he had been taught there could be no question of his perdition. Having no one to talk to, he divided himself and went to buffets on the subject, siding, of course, with the better half of himself which supported the merciful view of the matter; for all his efforts at keeping the Sabbath, had in his own honest judgment failed so entirely, that he had no ground for believing himself one of the elect. Had he succeeded in persuading himself that he was, there is no saying to what lengths of indifference about others the chosen prig might have advanced by this time.

He made one attempt to open the subject with Shargar.

“Shargar, what do you think?” he said suddenly one day. “If a devil were to repent, would God forgive him?”

“There’s no saying what folk would do till once they’re tried,” returned Shargar, cautiously.

Robert did not care to resume the question with one who so circumspectly refused to take a metaphysical or a priori view of the matter.

He made an attempt with his grandmother.

One Sunday, his thoughts, after trying for a time to revolve in due orbit around the mind of the Rev. Hugh Maccleary, as projected in a sermon which he had botched up out of a commentary, failed at last and flew off into what the said gentleman would have pronounced ‘very dangerous speculation, seeing no man is to go beyond what is written in the Bible, which contains not only the truth, but the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, for this time and for all future time—both here and in the world to come.’ Some such sentence, at least, was in his sermon that day, and the preacher no doubt supposed St. Matthew, not St. Matthew Henry, accountable for its origination. In the Limbo into which Robert’s then spirit flew, it had been sorely exercised about the substitution of the sufferings of Christ for those which humanity must else have endured while ages rolled on—mere ripples on the ocean of eternity.

“No, be quiet,” said Mrs. Falconer, solemnly, as Robert, a trifle lighter at heart from the result of his cogitations than usual, sat down to dinner: he had happened to smile across the table to Shargar. And he was steady, and smiled no more.

They ate their broth, or, more properly, supped it, with horn spoons, in absolute silence; after which Mrs. Falconer put a large piece of meat on the plate of each, with the same formula:

“Here you are. You’ll get no more.”

The allowance was ample in the extreme, bearing a relation to her words similar to that which her practice bore to her theology. A piece of cheese, because it was the Sabbath, followed, and dinner was over.

When the table had been cleared by Betty, they drew their chairs to the fire, and Robert had to read to his grandmother, while Shargar sat listening. He had not read long, however, before he looked up from his Bible and began the following conversation:—

“Wasn’t it a bad trick of Joseph’s, grandmother, to put that cup, and a silver one too, into the mouth of Benjamin’s sack?”

“Why so, laddie? He wanted to make them come back again, you know.”

“But he needn’t have gone about it in such a playactor-like way. He needn’t have let them away without telling them that he was their brother.”

“They had behaved very badly to him.”

“He used to tell tales upon them, though.”

“Laddie, take care what you say about Joseph, for he was a type of Christ.”

“How was that grandmother?”

“They sold him to the Ishmaelites for money, as Judas did him.”

“Did he bear the sins of them that sold him?”

“You may say, in a manner, that he did; for he was sore afflicted before he made it to be the King’s right hand; and then he kept a deal of ill off his brothers.”

“So, grandmother, other folk than Christ might suffer for the sins of their neighbours?”

“Ay, laddie, many a one has to do that. But not to make atonement, you know. Nothing but the suffering of the spotless could do that. The Lord wouldn’t be satisfied with less than that. It must be the innocent to suffer for the guilty.”

“I understand that,” said Robert, who had heard it so often that he had not yet thought of trying to understand it. “But if we go to the good place, we’ll all be innocent, won’t we, grannie?”

“Ay, that we will—washed spotless, and pure, and clean, and dressed in the wedding garment, and set down at the table with him and with his Father. That’s them that believes in him, you know”

“Of course, grannie.—Well, you see, I have been thinking of a plan for almost emptying hell.”

“What’s in the child’s head now? You’re certainly not shy, laddie, to meddle with such matters!”

“I didn’t want to say anything to vex you, grannie. I’ll go on with the chapter.”

“Oh, say on. You shan’t say much that’s wrong before I cry ‘hold,'” said Mrs. Falconer, curious to know what had been moving in the boy’s mind, but watching him like a cat, ready to spring upon the first visible hair of the old Adam.

And Robert, recalling the outbreak of terrible grief which he had heard on that memorable night, really thought that his project would bring comfort to a mind burdened with such care, and went on with the exposition of his plan.

“All those that sit down to the supper of the Lamb will sit there because Christ suffered the punishment due to their sins—won’t they, grannie?”

“Doubtless, laddie.”

“But it’ll be a hard thing for them to sit there eating and drinking and talking away, and enjoying themselves, when every now and then there’ll come a gust of wailing up from the ill place, and a smell of burning hard to endure.”

“What put that in your head, laddie? There’s no reason to think that hell’s so near heaven as all that. The Lord forbid it!”

“Well, but, grannie, they’ll know it all the same, whether they smell it or not. And I can’t help thinking that the farther away I thought they were, the worse I’d feel to think upon them. Indeed it would be worse.”

“What are ye driving at, laddie? I can’t understand you,” said Mrs. Falconer, feeling very uncomfortable, and yet curious, almost anxious, to hear what would come next. “I trust we won’t have to think much—”

But here, I presume, the thought of the added desolation of her Andrew if she, too, were to forget him, as well as his Father in heaven, checked the flow of her words. She paused, and Robert took up his parable and went on, first with yet another question.

“Do you think, grannie, that someone would be allowed to speak a word in public, like, there—at the long table, like, I mean.”

“Why not, if it was done with modesty, and for a good reason? But really, laddie, I think this is all nonsense you’re speaking. You heard anothing like that, I’m sure, today, from Mr. Maccleary.”

“No, no; he said nothing about it. But maybe I’ll go and ask him, though.”

“What about?”

“What I’m going to tell you, grannie.”

“Well, tell away, and have done with. I’m growing tired of it.”

It was something else than tired she was growing.

“Well, I’m going to try all that I can to make it there.”

“I hope you will. Strive and pray. Resist the devil. Walk in the light. Trust not to yourself, but trust in Christ and his salvation.”

“Ay, ay, grannie.—Well—”

“Are you done yet?”

“No. I’m but just beginning.”

“Beginning, are you? Humph!”

“Well, if I make it there, the very first night I sit down with the rest of them, I’m going to rise up and say—that is, if the Master, at the head of the table, doesn’t bid me sit down—and say: ‘Brothers and sisters, all of you, listen to me for one minute; and, O Lord! If I say wrong, just take the speech from me, and I’ll sit down dumb and rebuked. We’re all here by grace, and not by merit, save his, as you all know better than I can tell you, for you have been longer here than me. But it’s just tugging and riving at my heart to think of them down there. Maybe you can hear them. I can’t. Now, we have no merit, and they have no merit, and why are we here and them there? But we’re washed clean and innocent now; and now, when there’s no blame lying upon ourselves, it seems to me that we might bear some of the sins of them that have over-many. I call upon each one of you that has a friend or neighbour down yonder, to rise up and taste neither bite nor sup more till we go up altogether to the foot of the throne, and pray the Lord to let us go and do as the Master did before us, and bear their griefs, and carry their sorrows down in hell there; if it maybe that they may repent and get remission of their sins, and come up here with us at the long last, and sit down with us at this table, all through the merits of our Saviour Jesus Christ, as the head of the table there. Amen.'”

George MacDonald

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DBH on St Gregory of Nyssa

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“In the incarnation we have the meeting of man and God in man’s place, but in the ascension we have the meeting of man and God in God’s place”

Now of course we cannot say that the eternal Logos became flesh in such a way that part of the Logos was excluded—that is what the early Lutherans were afraid of, for the Logos was totally incarnate—nevertheless he remained wholly himself, the Creator and Ruler and Preserver of the universe of all creaturely reality. He became man without ceasing to be God, and so entered space and time without leaving the throne of God. Our difficulty is that we have to think both in accordance with the nature of the Logos as eternal Son of God and in accordance with the nature of the human Jesus as creature of space and time. It will not do to think of this in terms of a receptacle view of space and time, nor will it do to cut the knot and think of him only in one way or the other. Hence if we are to be faithful to the nature of Christ as very God and very Man we have to let that determine our thinking of the incarnational event, and say both that he really and fully became man, as we men are in space and time, and yet remained God the Creator who transcends all creaturely being in space and time, and work with a relational view of space and time differentially or variationally related to God and to man. Unless we think in this way we cannot really think the incarnation itself without falsifying it. That was the problem of the kenoticists which the demythologizers sought to solve by resolving away the incarnation as an objectifying form of thinking, but at the expense of detaching faith entirely from space and time, from any ground in physical and historical existence.

The question may be easier if we approach it along the line of ‘existence’. When we say that God exists, we mean that God exists as God, in accordance with the nature of God. Hence divine existence is of an utterly unique and transcendent kind. When we say that man exists, the term ‘exists’ is defined by the subject man, for it is the kind of existence which a man has in space and time. Now when we try to think together the existence of the Son of God and the existence of Jesus, Son of Mary, in one Person, we have to think them in the same way in which we think of the union of divine and human natures in the one Person. Similarly we have to think together the relation of God to space and time and the relation of the man Jesus to space and time.

It is this question that arises again in an acute form when we come to the ascension of Christ, of Jesus who is very Son of God, and who ascends from man’s place to God’s ‘place’. In so far as he is man, truly and perfectly man, we must think of the ascension as related to the space and time of creaturely reality. But this involves a duality in itself. So far as the companions of Jesus were concerned, that is the disciples who were men of this fallen world, living historically on earth, the ascension of Jesus from Peter, James and John, etc., must also be related to the kind of space and time with which we men and women are involved in the on-going existence of this passing world. But in his own resurrection Jesus had healed and redeemed our creaturely existence from all corruption and privation of being, and every threat of death or nothingness, so that in him space and time were recreated or renewed. We have no adequate language to describe this, and can speak of it only in apocalyptic language, that is in language that breaks down in its very using, but which must break down if it really is to point us to this new reality beyond, which cannot be captured or enclosed in the language of this fallen world. Nevertheless the humanity of Jesus, although risen and triumphant over all decay and corruption, was fully and truly human, and indeed more fully and truly human than any other humanity we know, for it was humanity in which all that attacks and undermines creaturely and human being is vanquished. In the risen Jesus therefore, creaturely space and time, far from being dissolved are confirmed in their reality before God. On the one hand, then, the ascension must be thought out in relation to the actual relations of space and time. On the other hand, however, the ascension must be thought of as an ascension beyond all our notions of space and time (cf. ‘higher than the heavens’, Heb. 7: 26), and therefore as something that cannot ultimately be expressed in categories of space and time, or at least cannot be enclosed within categories of this kind. That is why Calvin used to insist that while the ascension was an ascension into the heavens, away from us, yet it was also an ascension beyond the heaven of heavens, beyond anything that can be conceived in terms of earth or heaven. We have heavens that are appropriate to human beings, the sky above the earth, the ‘space’ beyond the sky, but all these are understood anthropocentrically, for they are conceivable to men as created realities. But God in his own nature cannot be conceived in that way—God utterly transcends the boundaries of space and time, and therefore because he is beyond them he is also everywhere, for the limits of space and time which God transcends are all around us. Hence from this aspect the absence or presence of God cannot be spoken of in categories of space and time, but only when categories of space and time break off and point beyond themselves altogether to what is ineffable and inconceivable in modes of our space and time. Calvin was also right when he said that the Biblical writers never thought of the presence of God or of the ascension simply in terms of our space and time or in terms of earth and heaven. What does the ascension to the right hand of God mean? he asked. What else is the right hand of God but the power of God, and ‘where’ is that but everywhere ‘where’ God is? What do we mean by ‘everywhere where God is’, except what is defined by the nature of God himself as the existence of God is defined by this nature?

In order to express this more positively, let us turn back to the incarnation for a moment. Jesus Christ, the man Jesus, is the place in this physical world of space and time where God and man meet, and where they have communion with one another. The Temple in the Old Testament was the place where God put his Name, where he kept tryst with his covenanted people, and where they kept covenant with him. Jesus Christ is that Temple of God as a living reality on earth and among men where God has put his Name, and where he has appointed us to meet him. It is the place where heaven and earth meet, the place of reconciliation within our historical existence in flesh and blood. Jesus Christ is himself among us God’s mercy-seat, God’s place in the world where he is really present to us in our place.

Now we have to think of this Jesus Christ ascended to God as ‘in heaven’. In its way this is the reverse of the incarnation. As in the incarnation we have to think of God the Son becoming man without ceasing to be transcendent God, so in his ascension we have to think of Christ as ascending above all space and time without ceasing to be man or without any diminishment of his physical, historical existence. That is what we normally mean by saying that Christ is ‘in heaven’. But we surely mean something more, for the ascension of the incarnate, crucified and risen Jesus Christ inevitably transforms ‘heaven’: something quite new has been effected in the heavenlies which must alter its material content in our understanding of what heaven is. Whatever else ‘heaven’ is for us it is the ‘place’ where Christ is in God. Hence we can speak of Christ as having a ‘heavenly place’ in God far beyond anything we can understand and far beyond our reach. Nevertheless through his Spirit Jesus Christ bestows his presence upon us in the Church, so that the Church on earth, in the continuing space-time of this world, is the ‘place’ where God and man are appointed to meet. In the incarnation we have the meeting of man and God in man’s place, but in the ascension we have the meeting of man and God in God’s place, but through the Spirit these are not separated from one another (they were not spatially related in any case), and man’s place on earth and in the space-time of this world is not abrogated, even though he meets with God in God’s place. ‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.

There are two points here we have to try to think together: (i) In the ascension Jesus Christ ascends from man’s place to God’s place; (ii) By his ascension Jesus Christ has established man in man’s place in time and space.

(i) Jesus Christ has ascended from man’s place to God’s place, and yet he is in himself the one place in our human and created reality, and therefore in the immanent order of time and space, where God and man fully meet.

We have great difficulty in speaking about this because of our abstract notions of space, but let us remember that as time is to be understood as time for something, the time in which we live our life, time for decision, time for repentance, time for action, and the ‘time’ of God is the time in which God lives his own life, the time which God has in himself for his own eternal will of love, so we must think of space as room for something, as place defined in terms of that which occupies it. This means that we must not abstract the notion of space from that which is located in space—for space concretely considered is place, but place not abstracted from purpose or content, and place not without ends or purposeful limits. Time and space must both be conceived in relational terms, and in accordance with the active principles or forces that move and make room for themselves in such a way that space and time arise in and with them and their movements—they are not receptacles apart from bodies or forces, but are functions of events in the universe and forms of their orderly sequence and structure. Space and time are relational and variational concepts defined in accordance with the nature of the force that gives them their field of determination. In modern thought we cannot separate space and time but think of space-time in a four dimensional continuum—although there is a difference between them, for, whereas space is three-dimensional, time is one directional or irreversible. But in the nature of the case we cannot separate space from time, or location from time—temporal relation belongs to location. This is another way of saying that we must think of place as well as time in terms of that for which they exist or function. This is why we must speak of man’s ‘place’ and God’s ‘place’, but in the nature of the case ‘place’ is differently defined in each case. Man’s ‘place’ is defined by the nature and activity of man as the room which he makes for himself in his life and movement, and God’s ‘place’ is defined by the nature and activity of God as the room for the life and activity of God as God. Man’s space-time is defined in accordance with the field of change and the sequence of coherent structures in which he lives his life, and this way of speaking is appropriate to man as a creature of this physical world—although we would also have to speak about the space-time of his personal, social or mental life in appropriately differential ways. We do not speak of space-time in relation to God, but we must speak of the ‘place’ and ‘time’ of God in terms of his own eternal life and his eternal purpose in the divine love, where he wills his life and love to overflow to us whom he has made to share with him his life and love. ‘Time’ for God himself can only be defined by the uncreated and creative life of God, and ‘place’ for God can only be defined by the communion of the Persons in the Divine life—that is why doctrinally we speak of the ‘perichoresis‘ (from chora meaning space or room) or mutual indwelling of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Triunity of God.

When, therefore, we come to speak of the ascension of Christ from man’s place to God’s place, we make a statement which is delimited and defined or bounded by the nature of man and his space at one end, but a statement which at the other end is ‘bounded’ by the boundless nature of God, and ‘limited’ only by the limitless room which God makes for himself in his eternal life and activity. In the nature of the case, statements regarding that ascension are closed at man’s end (because bounded within the space-time limits of man’s existence on earth) but are infinitely open at God’s end, open to God’s own eternal Being and the infinite room of his divine life. Here we discern the theological significance of the intention in Byzantine art in a deliberate reversal of the natural perspective in depicting the dais on which the figure of Christ is made to stand, lest it should be enclosed within converging lines, which when produced meet at a finite point. When the lines depicting the dais are made to diverge, against the natural perspective, then when produced they never meet but go out into infinity. At one end of the ikon or mosaic the figure of Christ stands in bounded space and time, but at the other end he transcends all such limitations. He became man without ceasing to be God, and lived within our physical and historical existence without leaving the throne of the universe. Epistemologically, this means that statements about God or Christ must not be such as to enclose them within the finite limits of the conceptualities and determinations of creaturely forms of thought and speech, that is, within the ‘room’ or ‘space’ of the creaturely comprehension. Here also, then, in respect of the ascension we must say with Calvin that the ascension is an event which we must speak of, on the one hand, through its relation with space and time as we know it on earth and in history, and within creaturely existence, but, on the other hand, we must speak of it as transcending all that, and as an event infinitely beyond the boundaries of our space and time or anything we could conceive in terms of them. It is the event in which Christ ascends to God’s place and God’s place is wherever God is, the place of the omnipresent God, who is as far removed from us as the Creator is from the creature and yet as intimately and indeed infinitely near us as the Creator is to the creature to whom he ever gives being, sustaining its reality through a relation of himself to himself, since he is so present to the creature as to complete its relation as a creature to himself the Creator. The ascension of Christ is thus an ascension to fill all things with himself, so that in a real sense he comes again in the Ascension. He had to go away in one mode of presence that he might come again in this mode of presence, leaving us in the mode of man’s presence to man, and returning to us in the mode of God’s presence to man, and thus not leaving man bereft of himself.

There are two things to consider here.  (a) The ascension is the revelation of the gap between the time of the new man and the time of the old man, the gap between the resurrection reality of our humanity in Jesus Christ and the corruptible existence which we still wear and in which we are fully implicated. (b) The ascension is the exaltation of new man, with his fully and truly human nature, and therefore of man with his ‘place’ as man, with the ‘room’ which he is given for his human life, to participation in the divine ‘place’, the ‘place’ which God makes by his own life, and the ‘room which he has for the fulfilment of his divine love. It is ascension in which our humanity in Christ is taken up into the full Communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in life and love.

(ii) By his ascension Jesus Christ establishes man in man’s place in space and time.

The withdrawal of Christ from visible and physical contact with us in our space-time existence on earth and in history means that Jesus Christ insists in making contact with us, not first directly and immediately in his risen humanity, but first and foremost through his historical involvement with us in his incarnation and crucifixion. That is to say, by withdrawing himself from our sight, Christ sends us back to the historical Jesus Christ as the covenanted place on earth and in time which God has appointed for meeting between man and himself. The ascension means that our relation to the Saviour is only possible through the historical Jesus, for the historical Jesus is the one locus within our human and creaturely existence where God and man are hypostatically united, and where man engulfed in sin and immersed in corruption can get across to God on the ground of reconciliation and atonement freely provided by God himself. The ascension thus means that to all eternity God insists on speaking to us through the historical Jesus. Just because it is the historical and risen Jesus who is ascended, what Jesus says to us, the Jesus whom we meet and hear through the witness of the Gospels, is identical with the eternal Word and Being of God himself. Jesus speaks as God and God speaks as Jesus. Therefore we are sent back to Jesus, for there and there only may we hear God speaking in person, and there and there only at the foot of the Cross, where God, and man meet over the judgment and expiation of sin and guilt may we meet with God face to face and live, may we be judged and cleansed and have living communion with him in love through the propitiation of Jesus Christ.

Thus the ascension means that we cannot know God by transcending space and time, by leaping beyond the limits of our place on earth, but only by encountering God and his saving work within space and time, within our actual physical existence. Hence the ascension is the opposite of all demythologizing, for demythologizing means that we have to slough off the space-time involvement of the Word and Act of God as merely our own projecting and objectifying mode of thought, and so demythologizing means that we have to try to get to know God in a timeless and spaceless way. The ascension, on the contrary, sends us back to the incarnation, and to the historical Jesus, and so to a Word and Act of God inseparably implicated in our space and time. It sends us back to a Gospel which is really accessible to frail creatures of earth and history, and a Gospel that is relevant to their bodily existence day by day in the structures and coherences of space and time. Thus all true and proper knowledge of God is mediated through the historical Jesus Christ. Now that God has taken this way of revealing himself to us in and through the incarnation of his Word in the space-time existence and structure of Jesus Christ, he has set aside all other possibilities for us, no matter how conceivable they were a priori. Jesus Christ as the actualization of the way God has taken towards us thereby becomes the one and only way of approach to God, so that we have to follow Jesus exclusively. We derive our knowledge of God a posteriori from him who is constituted the Way, the Truth and the Life—there is now no other way to the Father. We cannot and must not try to go behind the back of Jesus Christ, to some kind of theologia gloriae reached by direct speculation of the divine majesty. All contact with the majesty of God as of the glorified Lord is in and through the crucified One. But the obverse of this is, that through the historical and crucified Jesus we really meet with the risen and ascended Lord, we really meet with God in his transcendent glory and majesty, and we really are gathered into the communion of the Son with the Father and of the Father with the Son, and really are taken up through the Spirit to share in the divine life and love that have overflowed to us in Jesus Christ.

How are we to think of these two aspects of the ascension together? Clearly this can be done only through the Spirit. As it is the pouring out of the Spirit that links the historical Jesus with the ascended Lord, so it is through the Communion of the Spirit that we can think these things together, that is, think of the ascension both as actual historical event, in which Christ departed from man’s place, and as the transcendent event in which he went to God’s place. But since God’s place is the place where God is, it is through the Spirit that we can think of Christ as historically absent and as actually present. It is through the Spirit that things infinitely disconnected—disconnected by the ‘distance’ of the ascension—are nevertheless infinitely closely related. Through the Spirit Christ is nearer to us than we are to ourselves, and we who live and dwell on earth are yet made to sit with Christ ‘in heavenly places’, partaking of the divine nature in him.

Thomas F. Torrance

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“For since he became man it is as one of us that he sits at the right hand of God the Father, even though he is above all creation and one in substance with his Father, having truly come forth from him as God from God and Light from Light”

If there had not been many dwelling places in the house of God the Father, our Lord would have told us that he was going on ahead to prepare the dwelling places of the saints. He knew, however, that many such dwelling places already prepared were awaiting the arrival of those who love God. Therefore he did not give this as the reason for his departure, but rather his desire to open the way for our ascent to those heavenly places and to prepare a safe passage for us by making smooth the road that had previously been impassible. For heaven was then completely inaccessible to us — human foot had never trodden that pure and holy country of the angels. It was Christ who first prepared the way for our ascent there. By offering himself to God the Father as the first fruits of all who are dead and buried, he gave us a way of entry into heaven and was himself the first human being the inhabitants of heaven ever saw. The angels in heaven, knowing nothing of the sacred and profound mystery of the incarnation, were astonished at his coming and almost thrown into confusion by an event so strange and unheard of. “Who is this coming from Edom?” they asked; that is, from the earth. But the Spirit did not leave the heavenly throng ignorant of the wonderful wisdom of God the Father. Commanding them to open the gates of heaven in honor of the King and Master of the universe, he cried out: “Lift up your gates, you princes, and be lifted up you everlasting doors, that the king of glory may come in.”

And so our Lord Jesus Christ has opened up for us a new and living way, as Paul says, “not by entering a sanctuary made with hands, but by entering heaven itself to appear before God on our behalf.” For Christ has not ascended in order to make his own appearance before God the Father. He was, is, and ever will be in the Father and in the sight of him from whom he receives his being, for he is his Father’s unfailing joy. But now the Word, who had never before been clothed in human nature, has ascended as a man to show himself in a strange and unfamiliar fashion. And he has done this on our account and in our name, so that being like us, though with his power as the Son, and hearing the command, “Sit at my right hand,” as a member of our race, he might transmit to all of us the glory of being children of God. For since he became man it is as one of us that he sits at the right hand of God the Father, even though he is above all creation and one in substance with his Father, having truly come forth from him as God from God and Light from Light.

As man then he appeared before the Father on our behalf, to enable us whom the ancient transgression had excluded from his presence once more to see the Father’s face. As the Son he took his seat to enable us as sons and daughters through him to be called children of God. So Paul, who claims to speak for Christ, teaching that the whole human race has a share in the events of Christ’s life, says that “God has raised us up with him and enthroned us with him in heaven.” To Christ as the Son by nature belongs the prerogative of sitting at the Father’s side; this honor can rightly and truly be ascribed to him alone. Yet because his having become man means that he sits there as one who is in all respects like ourselves, as well as being as we believe God from God, in some mysterious way he passes this honor on to us.

St Cyril of Alexandria

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Ascending Jesus — The Last Glimpse

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