René Girard: The Most Interesting Theologian in the World

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Projecting the Trinity onto the World

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Debating the Tuggy Triad

Are you ready for a one-post break from the universalist/infernalist debate? I know I am. So how about a discussion on the Trinity? Everyone please click on the link and hop over to philosopher Dale Tuggy’s article “Jesus, God, and an inconsistent triad.”

As you probably already know, Dr Tuggy is a unitarian who also has a high regard for Jesus of Nazareth. In this article he hopes to persuade us that the classical trinitarian doctrine is logically absurd. He presents us with these three statements:

D: Jesus and God have differed.
N: Jesus and God are numerically one.
I: If any X and Y have ever differed, then they are not numerically one.

One cannot affirm all three statements, insists Tuggy, without contradiction.

First things first.  I do not know how to to affirm or disaffirm the first two statements without begging somebody’s question.  That is to say, in my judgment whether one agrees or disagrees with them depends on whether one whether one has first embraced either the unitarian or the trinitarian doctrine of God (or something in between).

Consider statement #1: “Jesus and God have differed.” The first thing I notice is the past tense. It assumes that God is a being in time; but I do not accept the premise that God is a being in time. He is the creator of time. None of our temporal categories apply to him. Therefore the statement is meaningless.

But I suppose Dale can come back and say: “Forget the past tense for the moment. If God is not a being in time, then that in itself is a clear way in which God and Jesus differ: according to your view, God is an immutable, impassible eternal being; but Jesus is a temporal being. He grows older in time. He moves around in time. He gets hungry in time. He dies in time. Your God doesn’t do any of that stuff.”

Point taken. But we classical trinitarians are also Chalcedonians, and we believe that Jesus Christ is one hypostasis subsisting in two natures. The Chalcedonian Definition authorizes us to attribute to Jesus both divine and human predicates. As a result, we can and do affirm that Jesus can simultaneously walk around Nazareth and eternally create the world from out of nothing.

“But Jesus talks to God!”

Yes he does. Isn’t it wonderful!

“You have to admit, however, that this dialogue with God distinguishes Jesus from God.”

Absolutely. This dialogue distinguishes Jesus the eternal Son from his eternal Father. That’s why the Church teaches that the Father and Jesus are distinct hypostases. As we say in the Nicene Creed, Jesus Christ is “eternally begotten of the Father.” Or as St Athanasius writes: “The Son is everything the Father is, except ‘Father.'”

Now I realize that you find the  trinitarian-incarnational construal implausible, Dale; but why should I prescind from the dogmatic faith of the Church when interpreting your first two statements?  Or to phrase it differently, why should I adopt your hermeneutical rules for reading the Bible?

On to statement #2: “Jesus and God are numerically one.” If this means that Jesus and God are one hypostasis, then the statement is clearly false—but who believes otherwise? The developed trinitarian faith is clear: Jesus (the Son) and God (the Father) are two distinct hypostases. It also goes on to assert that Jesus and God are numerically one in one precise sense: they both equally possess the divine nature. So I can also affirm statement statement #2.

Statement #3: “If any X and Y have ever differed, then they are not numerically one.” Sure, I’ll grant you this. Sounds commonsensical enough.

So there you have it, Dale. A trinitarian Christian can easily affirm each of the above statements. The triad is not inconsistent.

“But that’s not what the inerrant Word of God says!”

It all depends on how you read it. Think of the dogmatic decisions of Nicaea and Chalcedon as grammatical rules for the proper reading of the Bible. Just because the rules are not explicitly stated in the Bible does not mean that they do not normatively govern the proper reading of the Bible. I learned to speak English years before I was ever introduced to a grammar book.

“But your rules are implausible.”

I’m afraid you’re in the minority, Dale. For the past 1600 years Christians have found that reading the Bible through the lens of the trinitarian model yields superior and more convincing readings than reading it through a unitarian or Arian model. You might consider this a purely subjective judgment, but discursive reason alone cannot decide which model or set of grammatical rules is true and which is not.  An act of paradigmatic imagination is needed (see Imagining God by Garrett Green).

But I ain’t no philosopher. I’m sure the above needs to cleaned up a good bit. But I think my key point holds. Unless one presupposes that the doctrine of the Trinity is false, the above three statements can certainly be affirmed as true.

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We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway

Though it has been many years since I last opened its cover, Brother to a Dragonfly remains one of my favorite books. I think I read it in seminary or shortly thereafter. I do not recall who recommended it to me. It is a profound book, full of wonderful stories and deep wisdom, written by a remarkable Baptist preacher, the late Will D. Campbell. Campbell grew up in the deep South, was ordained a Baptist minister at the age of 17, served as a medic during World War II, after which he attended Wake Forest College and the Yale Divinity School. In the  mid-1950s he became active in the Civil Rights movement. In 1957 he was the only white person to be invited by Martin Luther King to the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was one of four ministers who escorted the “Little Rock Nine” to the Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1963 he joined King’s campaign of sit-ins and marches in Birmingham, Alabama. He was also friends with Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Daniels, who was murdered in 1965 by Thomas Coleman, a white deputy sheriff. Campbell was filled with rage and grief. It is at this time that he experienced, as he calls it, his conversion to Christ.

With Campbell when he heard the news of Daniels’s death was his old friend P. D. East. East was an agnostic. Several years before East had demanded from Campbell a succinct definition of the gospel. Campbell answered: “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.” At this moment of grief East decided to put Campbell to the test:

“Come on, Brother. Let’s talk about your definition. Was Jonathan a bastard?”

I said I was sure that everyone is a sinner in one way or another but that he was one of the sweetest and most gentle guys I had ever known.

“But was he a bastard?” His tone was almost a scream. “Now that’s your word. Not mine. You told me one time that everybody is a bastard. That’s a pretty tough word. I know. Cause I am a bastard. A born bastard. A real bastard. My Mamma wasn’t married to my Daddy. Now, by god, you tell me, right now, yes or no and not maybe, was Jonathan Daniel a bastard?”

I knew that if I said no he would leave me alone and if I said yes he wouldn’t. And I knew my definition would be blown if I said no.

So I said, “Yes.”

“All right. Is Thomas Coleman a bastard?”

That one was a lot easier. “Yes. Thomas Coleman is a bastard.”

“Okay. Let me get this straight now. I don’t want to misquote you. Jonathan Daniel was a bastard. Thomas Coleman is a bastard. Right? Which one of these two bastards do you think God loves the most?” His voice now was almost a whisper as he leaned forward, staring me directly in the eyes.

I made some feeble attempt to talk about God loving the sinner and not the sin, about judgment, justice, and brotherhood of all humanity. But P. D. shook his hands in a manner of cancellation. He didn’t want to hear about that.

“You’re trying to complicate it. Now you’re the one always told me about how simple it was. Just answer the question.” His direct examination would have done credit to Clarence Darrow.

He leaned his face closer to mine, patting first his own knee and then mine, holding the other hand aloft in oath-taking fashion.

“Which one of these two bastards does God love the most? Does he love that little dead bastard Jonathan the most? Or does He love that living bastard Thomas the most?”

Suddenly everything became clear. Everything. It was a revelation. The glow of the malt which we were well into by then seemed to illuminate and intensify it. I walked across the room and opened the blind, staring directly into the glare of the street light. And I began to whimper. But the crying was interspersed with laughter. It was a strange experience. I remember trying to sort out the sadness and the joy. Just what was I crying for and what was I laughing for. Then this too became clear. (pp. 221-222)

This moment of revelation was a turning point in Campbell’s life. East had forced him to look at Thomas Coleman and all the racists in the world in light of the gospel. Now opened a new ministry for Campbell—sharing the good news with the Ku Klux Klan.

I thought of this story when I read about the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17th. I wondered what Preacher Will would say about it. I wondered how he would preach it. I wondered what gospel wisdom he would share with us.

“We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”

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The Unconditionality of Divine Love and the Universalist Hope

What is at stake in the universalist/infernalist debate? Perhaps the best way to answer this is to first identify what is not at stake.

What is not at stake is the christological foundation of salvation. I wholeheartedly affirm that salvation is through and in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God.

What is not at stake is the freedom of the human being. I wholeheartedly affirm that God does not violate personal integrity nor coerce anyone into faith.

What is not at stake is the preaching of repentance. I wholeheartedly affirm that the preacher must summon sinners to repentance of their sins and personal participation in the life of the Holy Spirit.

What is not at stake is the horror of hell and the outer darkness. I wholeheartedly affirm that rejection of God necessarily results in spiritual death and is thus a fate about which the preacher needs to warn his congregation.

And I’m sure there are several more “not at stakes” that I cannot think of at the moment.

So what is at stake?—the good news of Jesus Christ. In this article and the next, I’d like to highlight what I believe to be the two essential matters—the unconditionality of divine love and the eschatological triumph of the risen Christ.

The Unconditionality of Divine Love

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has been revealed as love—absolute, infinite, unconditional love. In the wonderful words of St Isaac the Syrian:

In love did He bring the world into existence; in love does He guide it during this its temporal existence; in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised. (Hom. II.38.2)

“God is love,” the Apostle John declares (1 Jn 4:8). God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Church catholic declares. The former is but the succinct expression of the trinitarian revelation given in the Scriptures. I believe, I hope, that all Christians agree with the above claim, though many disagree with the implications that the universalist draws from it. God wills the good of every creature he has made. As the Apostle Paul writes, God our Savior “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4). And the Apostle John: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10).

Yet while all Christians may affirm God as love, many balk at the description of the divine love as unconditional. They insist that God has in fact stipulated multiple conditions for the fulfillment of salvation, the most commonly mentioned being the free response of faith and repentance. Thus St Basil the Great:

The grace from above does not come to the one who is not striving. But both of them, the human endeavor and the assistance descending from above through faith, must be mixed together for the perfection of virtue … Therefore, the authority of forgiveness has not been given unconditionally, but only if the repentant one is obedient and in harmony with what pertains to the care of the soul. It is written concerning these things: “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” [Mt 18:19]. One cannot ask about which sins this refers to, as if the New Testament has not declared any difference, for it promises absolution of every sin to those who have repented worthily. He repents worthily who has adopted the intention of the one who said, “I hate and abhor unrighteousness” [Ps 119:163], and who does those things which are said in the 6th Psalm and in others concerning works, and like Zacchaios does many virtuous deeds. (Short Rules PG 31.1085; quoted in Augsburg and Constantinople, p. 38)

Patriarch Jeremias II cites this passage from Basil in his critique of the Lutheran construal of justification by faith, which he interpreted as undermining the necessity of good works. His critique is well worth reading, as are the responses by the Tübingen theologians. For the Patriarch, as for so many of the Eastern Fathers, the emphasis falls not on the sola gratia, as one finds in St Augustine of Hippo and St Bernard of Clairvaux, but on the repentance that draws to us the divine mercy: “Even if salvation is by grace, yet man himself, through whose achievements and the sweat of his brow attracts the grace of God, is also the cause” (p. 42). Clearly, though, this is not the whole evangelical story. I understand such statements as expressions of pastoral care, as exhortations to devote our lives wholeheartedly to a life of holiness and discipleship; but I have also seen, and experienced within myself, the spiritual and emotional damage that can be done by the rhetoric of “worthy repentance” and “worthy communion.” One cannot but hear this language as speaking of a divine love that is conditional upon the human response: God will be merciful to us if we believe, if we repent, if we obey or at least try very hard. Despite all that Christ has done, the burden of salvation finally falls upon the sinner. The urgent question then becomes, How do we fulfill these conditions and how can we ever know we have fulfilled them? Jeremias offers sound counsel to the despairing, yet the despair is precisely the consequence of the exhortation to perfection that appears to call into question the all-embracing love of the Father: “those to whom the promise of the kingdom of heaven is proclaimed must fulfill all things perfectly and legitimately, and without them it shall be denied” (p. 39). For the Patriarch, justification before God is a purely future possibility; and the threat of everlasting damnation, even if rarely stated, is never far away.

It’s not just a matter of achieving in our teaching a scholastic kind of balance between divine grace and human effort but rather of understanding how authentic faith is grounded upon the unconditional promise of eternal salvation. Jeremias understands that the grace and mercy of God precedes and anticipates, yet he cannot declare the love of God as unconditional, for fear of cultivating sloth, indifference, and presumption. Not unexpectedly the Tübingen theologians found wanting Jeremias’s conditionalist construal of the gospel: “But it is necessary that the divine promise be most clear and certain, so that faith may depend upon it. For were the assurance and steadfastness of the promise shaken, then faith would collapse. And if faith is overturned, then our justification and salvation will vanish” (p. 126). To a large extent the parties are talking past each other. Why so? I tentatively propose the following: Patriarch Jeremias is reflecting on justification from within the existential struggles and dynamics of the ascetical life, in anticipation of the coming judgment; the Lutherans are reflecting on justification from within the existential situation of having heard the future judgment spoken to them in the preaching of the gospel.

Another oft-stipulated condition of salvation is the time limit. As we have seen, this is the central assertion of Fr Stephen De Young’s article “Hell (Unfortunately) Yes.” At some point, either at the moment of death or at the Final Judgment, repentance assertedly becomes an impossibility for the sinner: either God withdraws his offer of forgiveness or the sinner becomes frozen in his obduracy. With the former, the divine love is truly understood as conditional; with the latter, the divine love remains theoretically unconditional but now effectively impotent and helpless. As Dumitru Staniloae puts it, the reprobate are “hardened in a negative freedom that cannot possibly be overcome” (The Experience of God, VI:42). In both construals the gospel is necessarily presented as contingent promise: “If you repent before such-and-such a time, you will be saved.”

Those who confess the universalist hope, whether in its weaker version (St Gregory Nazianzen, Fr Hans Urs von Balthasar, Met Kallistos Ware) or its stronger version (St Gregory Nyssen, St Isaac the Syrian, Fr Sergius Bulgakov), object to—indeed emphatically protest against—the conditionalist portrayal of deity. Their objection is not grounded on the exegesis of a particular verse or two but rather upon a deep apprehension of the God they have encountered in Jesus Christ. How someone achieves this apprehension no doubt varies from person to person. Some experience it through their reading of Scripture, others through sacrament and liturgy, others through prayer and mystical experience, others through their service to the poor, others through philosophical reflection, still others through the love bestowed upon them by their neighbors and fellow believers—or any combination of the above. But once the love of God is known in the fullness and power of its unconditionality, there can be no turning back. From this point on, it becomes the prism through which all of reality is experienced. God is love—absolute, infinite, unconditional love—and it is this vision of God that now informs the faith, hopes, and dreams of the believer. As Balthasar declares:

Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed. This is the achievement, the “work” of faith: to recognize the absolute prius, which nothing else can surpass; to believe that there is such a thing as love, absolute love, and that there is nothing higher or greater than it; to believe against all the evidence of experience (credere contra fidem” like “sperare contra spem“), against every “rational” concept of God, which thinks of him in terms of impassibility or, at best, totally pure goodness, but not in terms of this inconceivable and senseless act of love. (Love Alone is Credible, pp. 101-102)

In the lapidary words of the Apostle Paul: “Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6).

Yet there is much in Scripture that seems to argue against the unconditionality of divine love, including some of the parables and teachings of Jesus. We need not rehearse these texts. I imagine that we all have wrestled with them and continue to wrestle with them. I remember posing this question to Robert W. Jenson in the late 80s. His reply (rough paraphrase): “Go back and reread the Bible.” At the time I didn’t find the reply particularly helpful, but I eventually came to understand what I think he was saying—namely, “Try looking at the Bible differently. Put on a different pair of spectacles.”

Is it a rabbit or a duck?

In his book Imagining God Garrett Green invites us to consider the role of theological paradigms in our interpretation of Scripture. Analogous to the role of paradigms within modern science, theological paradigms and metanarratives organize the data available to us and help us to make sense of it. “Our perception of parts,” he writes, “depends on our prior grasp of the whole” (p. 50). Perhaps the greatest stumbling block to a serious consideration of the universalist reading of Scripture is our inability, or refusal, to step outside the traditional paradigm of conditional love. How is it possible that God could accept us in our sinfulness, “just as we are”? What is needed is an imaginative leap to a new, but also very old, paradigm. Only then will we be able to apprehend the universalist reading as a coherent gestalt.

A few months ago a fellow Orthodox priest answered the question Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved?” thusly: “No, we do not dare to hope for such a thing. It is a delirious fantasy, neither a proper object of Christian hope, nor a proper subject for Christian speculation.” I was scandalized, just as I am scandalized by the anathemas recently delivered by my fellow priests at Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy. I understand why they believe that the universalist hope is heretical; yet when I read their articles, I am shocked nonetheless. I hear them proclaiming a different gospel than the one I have long, long believed and confessed. If God is not absolute, infinite, and unconditional love, then there is no good news of Jesus Christ and life is not worth living and dying. But if God is absolute, infinite, and unconditional love, then we may not put restrict his desire, willingness, and power to accomplish his salvific ends for mankind; we may not put limits on his love, for he most certainly puts no limits on it.  God wills our salvation and only wills our salvation.

For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-39)

What is at stake in this present debate?  Nothing less than our understanding of who God has revealed himself to be in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.  Any qualification of the unconditionality of the divine love is intolerable. If there should come a point, any point, where God abandons the one lost sheep or no longer searches for the one lost coin, then God is not the Father of Jesus Christ, and our worst nightmares are true.


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René Girard Hits Popular Culture

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George MacDonald and the Love of Jesus

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