The Story of Mordecai and the Great Rabbi

The story is told of a very pious Jewish couple – they had married with great love and the love never died. Their greatest hope was to have a child so that their love could walk the earth with joy.

Yet there were difficulties. And since they were very pious, they prayed and prayed and prayed. Along with considerable other efforts, lo and behold the wife conceived and when she conceived, she laughed louder than Sarah when she conceived Isaac. And the child leapt in her womb more joyously than John leapt in the womb of Elizabeth when Mary visited her. And nine months later a delightful little boy came rumbling into the world.

They named their son Mordecai. He was rambunctious, zestful – gulping down the days and dreaming through the nights. The sun and the moon were his toys. He grew in age and wisdom and grace, until it was time to go to the synagogue and learn the Word of God.

The night before his studies were to begin, his parents sat Mordecai down and told him how important the Word of God was. They stressed that without the Word of God, Mordecai would be an autumn leaf in the winter’s wind – He listened wide eyed. Yet the next day he never arrived at the synagogue. Instead he found himself in the woods, swimming in the lake and climbing the trees.

When he came home that evening, the news had spread throughout the small village. Everyone knew of his shame. His parents were beside themselves – they did not know what to do.

So they called the behavior modificationists to modify Mordecai’s behavior, and the psychoanalysts to unblock his blockages – nevertheless he found himself the next day swimming in the lake and climbing the trees.

His parents grieved for their beloved son – there seemed to be no hope.

At this same time the Great Rabbi visited the village and the parents said –

“Ah! – Perhaps the Rabbi.”

So they took Mordecai to the Rabbi and told him their tale of woe. The Rabbi bellowed, “Leave the boy with me, and I will have a talking with him.”

It was bad enough that Mordecai would not go to the synagogue – but to leave their beloved son with this lion of a man was terrifying. However, they had come this far and so they left him.

Now Mordecai stood in the hallway, and the Great Rabbi stood in his parlor. He beckoned, “Boy, come here.” Trembling, Mordecai came forward.

And the Great Rabbi picked him up and held him silently against his heart.

His parents came to get Mordecai, and they took him home. The next day he went to the synagogue to learn the Word of God. And when he was done, he went to the woods. And the Word of God became one with the words of the woods, which became one with the words of Mordecai. And he swam in the lake. And the Word of God became one with the words of the lake, which became one with the words of Mordecai. And he climbed the trees. And the Word of God became one with the words of the trees, which became one with the words of Mordecai.

And Mordecai himself grew up to become a great man. People who were seized with panic came to him and found peace. People who were without anybody came to him and found communion. People with no exits came to him and found a way out. And when they came to him he said:

“I first learned the Word of God when the Great Rabbi held me silently against his heart.”

Brennan Manning

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Suffering, Theodicy, and Apokatastasis

“What then, one might well ask, is divine providence?” David Bentley Hart poses this question after pondering upon the evil and suffering of the world in his beautiful little book The Doors of the Sea. In the preceding eighty-one pages Hart compares the orthodox Christian understanding of God to the watchmaker deity of the Enlightenment, who fashions a cosmic machine designed to maximize human flourishing, and the all-sovereign deity of Calvinism, who wills equally life and death, goodness and evil, beatitude and suffering, salvation and damnation. The former is easy enough to refute. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 need only be remembered. In the words of Voltaire:

All is well, you say, and all is necessary. What? The entire universe, but for this infernal abyss engulfing Lisbon, would have been worse off?

But the absolute divinity of naked power, who determines every historical event in every detail, who directly causes weal and woe—this god is not so easily exorcised. It satisfies a deep desire in the human soul for a comprehensive and sufficient explanation for our misery and sorrows. There must be a divine plan, we think, that can justify the loss of hundreds of thousands of souls in the great tsunami of 2004, the countless barbarities of modern totalitarianism, the murder of a single child at the hands of a serial predator. And so all of history becomes a manifestation of the will of the Creator, majestic and terrifying.

That there is a transcendent providence that will bring God’s good ends out of the darkness of history—in spite of every evil—no Christian can fail to affirm. But providence (as even Voltaire seems to have understood) is not simply a “total sum” or “infinite equation” that leaves nothing behind. … There is a point at which an explanation becomes so comprehensive that it ceases to explain anything at all. In the case of a pure determinism, this is always so. To assert that every finite contingency is solely and unambiguously the effect of a single will working all things—without any deeper mystery of created freedom—is to assert nothing but that the world is what it is, for any meaningful distinction between the will of God and the simple totality of cosmic eventuality has collapsed. If all that occurs, in the minutest detail and in the entirety of its design, is only the expression of one infinite volition that makes no real room within its transcendent determinations for other, secondary, subsidiary but free agencies (and so for some element of chance and absurdity), then the world is both arbitrary and necessary, both meaningful in every part and meaningless in its totality, an expression of pure power and nothing else. Even if the purpose of such a world is to prepare creatures to know the majesty and justice of God, that majesty and justice are, in a very real sense, fictions of his will, impressed upon creatures by means both good and evil, merciful and cruel, radiant and monstrous—some are created for eternal bliss and others for eternal torment, and all for the sake of the divine drama of perfect and irresistible might. Such a God, at the end of the day, is nothing but will, and so nothing but an infinite event; and the only adoration that such a God can evoke is an almost perfect coincidence of faith and nihilism. (pp. 29-30)

Against the determinist deity the catholic faith stands firm. God is not the author of evil; iniquity is not divinely ordained. Suffering, grief, evil, mortality—they are but “cosmic contingencies, ontological shadows, intrinsically devoid of substance or purpose” (p. 61). They do not have ultimate meaning. God may make them the occasions of his redemptive grace and incorporate them into his providential ends; but they are not good in themselves. From them the eternal Word came to deliver us.

Hart does not shrink from the provisional dualism intimated by his words. Did not our Lord tell us that his Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36)? And did not the Apostle Paul warn us that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph 6:12)? The texts may be easily multiplied. Nor should we dismiss them as mere mythology, for how else but in the language of mythology may we speak truly of the profound intuition “that we exist in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe: that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in one umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, that the universe languishes in bondage to the ‘powers’ and ‘principalities’ of this age, which never cease in their enmity towards the Kingdom of God”? (pp. 61-62). The ascetics and elders of the Church have always known this truth, even if we moderns have now forgotten it in our spiritual amnesia.

The God of the gospel is not the author of sin and death; he is their conqueror. There can be no peace with the Enemy and certainly no suggestion that evil and death secretly reside in the heart of the Creator. Our God is uncreated Light and in him darkness is banished; our God is eternal Love and in him evil enjoys not even a sliver of existence. Christ is risen from the dead, hell is harrowed, the tomb is empty, the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh.

Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation. Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin, the emptiness and waste of death, the forces—whether calculating malevolence or imbecile chance—that shatter living souls; and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. And we are not only permitted but required to believe that cosmic time as we know it, through all the immensity of its geological age and historical epochs, is only a shadow of true time, and this world only a shadow of the fuller, richer, more substantial, more glorious creation that God intends; and to believe also that all of nature is a shattered mirror of divine beauty, still full of light, but riven by darkness. (pp. 101-102)

What then is divine providence? We must distinguish, Hart instructs, between the view that God has ordained evil and death as necessary to his plan for creation and the view “that God has willed his good in creatures from eternity and will bring it to pass, despite their rebellion, by so ordering all things toward his goodness that even evil (which he does not cause) becomes an occasion of the operations of grace” (p. 82). Only the latter is properly described as Christian and orthodox. The difference between the two views may be summed up in the critical distinction between what God wills and what he permits. God does not will death. He does not will evil and damnation. He may temporarily allow human beings to defy him, to deny their identity as images of the incarnate Logos and turn away from the Good who alone can quench their thirst for happiness; but his Kingdom will and must ultimately triumph:

God has fashioned creatures in his image so that they might be joined in a perfect union with him in the rational freedom of love. For that very reason, what God permits, rather than violate the autonomy of the created world, may be in itself contrary to what he wills. But there is no contradiction in saying that, in his omniscience, omnipotence, and transcendence of time, God can both allow created freedom its scope and yet so constitute the world that nothing can prevent him from bringing about the beatitude of his Kingdom. Indeed we must say this: as God did not will the fall, and yet always wills all things toward himself, the entire history of sin and death is in an ultimate sense a pure contingency, one that is not as such desired by God, but that is nevertheless constrained by providence to serve his transcendent purpose. God does not will evil in the sinner. Neither does he will that the sinner should perish (2 Peter 3:9; Ezek. 33:11). He does not place evil in the heart. He does not desire the convulsive reign of death in nature. But neither will he suffer defeat in these things.

Providence works at the level of what Aquinas would call primary causality: that is, it is so transcendent of the operation of secondary causes—which is to say, finite and contingent causes immanent to the realm of created things—that it can at once create freedom and also assure that no consequence of the misuse of that freedom will prevent him from accomplishing the good he intends in all things. … As God is the source and end of all being, nothing that is can be completely alienated from him; all things exist by virtue of being called from nothingness toward his goodness; every instance of finite becoming or thought or desire subsists in the creature’s “ecstasy” out of nonbeing and into the infinite splendor of God. And it for just this reason that providence does not and cannot in any way betray the true freedom of the creature: every free movement of the will is possible only by virtue of the more primordial longing of all things for the beauty of God (to borrow the language of Maximus the Confessor, our “gnomic will” depends upon our “natural will”), and so every free act—even the act of hating God—arises from and is sustained by a more original love of God. It is impossible to desire anything without implicitly desiring the infinite source of all things. (pp. 83-84)

When I first read The Doors of the Sea many years ago, I did not note the apokatastatic implications of Hart’s presentation. Nor did I note the implications in his essay “Providence and Causality,” written four years after Doors. In this essay Hart attacks the sophistry of Banezian Thomism and its doctrine of preterition—God antecedently wills to save all mankind, while consequently willing that some be allowed to fall into irredeemable alienation and obduracy. It’s not that God expressly wills the damnation of the damned; rather he quietly refrains from raising them into faith and new life. This negative reprobation is too close to the Calvinist deity that Hart so emphatically rejects. If God refuses to supply to some the grace necessary for salvation, then this logically implies that he does not will the salvation of all. But Scripture teaches that God positively wills the salvation of every human being. We must therefore conclude that “God’s good will and his permission of evil, then, are simply two aspects of a single creative act, one that does not differ in intention from soul to soul” (p. 46). The Creator has given to humanity “a dynamic orientation towards the infinite goodness of God that is the source of all rational life and of all desire within us” (p. 47), yet he also permits the human being, in its divinely-given autonomy, to reject the Good which he himself is:

It is the movement of the natural will towards God, moreover, whose primordial motion allows the gnomic will its liberty and its power to assent to or rejection of God. In the interval between these two movements—both of which are rational—the rational soul becomes who God intends her to be or, through apostasy from her own nature, fabricates a distance between herself and God that is nothing less than the distance of dereliction. For, whatever we do, the desire of our natural will for God will be consummated; it will return to God, whether the gnomic will consents or not, and will be glorified with the glory the Son shares with the Father from eternity. And, if the gnomic will within us has not surrendered to its natural supernatural end, our own glorified nature becomes hell to us, that holy thing we cannot touch. Rejection of God becomes estrangement from ourselves, the Kingdom of God within us becomes our exile, and the transfiguring glory of God within us—through our refusal to submit to love—becomes the unnatural experience of reprobation. God fashions all rational natures for free union with himself, and all of creation as the deathless vessel of his eternal glory. To this end, he wills that the dependent freedom of the creature be joined to his absolute freedom; but an indispensable condition of what he wills is the real power of the creature’s deliberative will to resist the irresistible work of grace. And God both wills the ultimate good of all things and accomplishes that good, and knows the good and evil acts of his creatures, and reacts to neither. This is the true sublimity of divine apatheia: an infinite innocence that wills to the last the glorification of the creature, in the depths of its nature, and that never ceases to sustain the rational will in its power to seek its end either in God or itself. (pp. 47-48)

I think readers may be excused for reading Hart here as affirming a free-will model of damnation, something along the lines of what the Orthodox popularly speak of as the River of Fire. Yet he stops just short of saying that human beings can create for themselves an everlasting Gehenna from which not even God can rescue them. How could such ever be the case if every human being has been given an insatiable hunger for the Good and if God never ceases to will the salvation of all? Is not an everlasting hell that victory of Satan that Hart has assured us can never occur? As he writes in The Doors of the Sea: “At the heart of the gospel, of course, is an ineradicable triumphalism, a conviction that the will of God cannot ultimately be defeated and that the victory over evil and death has already been won” (p. 66). In his recent essay “God, Creation and Evil,” Hart finally connects the theodicial dots for all to controversially see:

If God is the good creator of all, he is the savior of all, without fail, who brings to himself all he has made, including all rational wills, and only thus returns to himself in all that goes forth from him. If he is not the savior of all, the Kingdom is only a dream, and creation something considerably worse than a nightmare. But, again, it is not so. God saw that it was good; and, in the ages, so shall we. (pp. 16-17)

Here is the answer, the only existentially satisfying answer, to the evils we commit and the sufferings we endure.

A couple of months ago I published a series on Hugh J. McCann’s understanding of divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom. The commonalities and differences between McCann and Hart are instructive. Both assert a noncompetitive understanding of divine transcendence, thus allowing the Creator to be deeply immanent within the processes of nature and history. God, as McCann likes to say, is too close to the creature to be seen as an other existing on the same metaphysical plane. Hart would agree. McCann and Hart are also one in their rejection of Molinism. But I suspect that Hart would find McCann’s construal of divinity as drawing too close to the Banezian Thomism to which he so strongly objects. McCann describes God as the ultimate micromanager (“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will” [Matt 10:29]) and then strains to explain why his position does not fall into determinism. Creatures, he states, are the immediate expression of the eternal act of divine creation rather than being a consequence of it. He provocatively likens the relationship between Creator and creation as that of author and novel: “The author of the novel never makes her creatures do something; she only makes them doing it. It is the same with us and God. He does not make us act; he makes us acting, so that the freedom that goes with genuine action can still be present” (Creation and the Sovereignty of God, p. 108). McCann thus rejects a model of command-and-causation and distinguishes his construal of double agency from the concurrence theories of Calvinism and Neo-Thomism (he explicitly mentions Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange), advancing a version of transcendent causality that he believes upholds and grounds genuine human freedom, while also granting the Creator the kind of sovereign control of history that perfect divinity should have. The divine rule is marked by neither violence nor manipulation. “It is true that our destinies are written; but the handwriting is ours” (p. 111). Hart, on the other hand, eschews any intimation of an all-embracing “universal teleology” in which history becomes “a positive determination of God’s will whereby he brings to pass a comprehensive design that, in the absence of any single one of these events, would not have been possible” (Doors, p. 85). It seems to me that some of Hart’s criticisms of Bañez and his fellow Baroque Thomists strike home against the position articulated by McCann. With McCann, we are left wondering how God is not in fact the author of sin and calamity—at the very least divinity has a lot to answer for. McCann even speculates that the fall was necessary for the achievement of personal autonomy and genuine friendship with God. This is all quite heterodox. Evil becomes intrinsic to the divine. As Hart writes: “Simply said, if God required evil to accomplish his good ends—the revelation of his nature to finite minds—then not only would evil possess a real existence over against the good, but God himself would be dependent upon evil: to the point of it constituting a dimension of his identity (even if only as a ‘contrast’)” (“Providence,” p. 49). Yet with Hart, we are left wondering how the omnipotent and wise Creator could have allowed the serpent to enter the Garden to begin with. Does “permission” absolve the sovereign Creator of his responsibility for the chaos, tragedies, and horrors of cosmic history? C. S. Lewis appealed to personal autonomy and free will to explain the presence of moral evil in the world, yet this sounds too libertarian for Hart’s metaphysics of freedom. And how can God make things right if humanity remains free to resist him till the bitter end?

Every novel is ultimately judged by its conclusion. A bad ending can ruin the story, while a great ending can redeem a mediocre plot. What then of reprobation and hell? Although expressing a measure of sympathy for the universalist hope, McCann takes his stand with the long tradition of the Western Church:

How, then, might God be justified in consigning a sinner to damnation? The answer to this question will depend in part of what the sufferings of the lost consist in. And I think that here it is easy to be misled by the concept of hell as mere retribution: as endless suffering imposed on the sinner in recompense for unrepented evils—especially, perhaps, the evil of offending an infinitely magisterial God. The more plausible view is that whatever else their fate may include, the greatest evil sustained by the lost is final and irremediable separation from God. Nothing could be worse than to be cut off from the love and friendship of a Father whose power extends to every detail of the universe, and who invites us to a share in his very life. But if this is the greatest evil of damnation, then no one who ends that way is treated unfairly, for this separation is precisely what one chooses by insisting on a life of rebellion rather than seeking reconciliation with God. Indeed, having once created beings destined to be lost, it is hard to see how a loving God could do anything but honor their choice in the matter. The alternative, after all, would be to undercut the capacity of would-be reprobates to frame their own destinies—perhaps by simply refusing to take No for an answer, and waiting out the millennia it might take for them to change their minds; or, should that fail, by simply overriding their freedom, and placing them in some motivational situation where there is no legitimate alternative but to accept his rule over their lives. Either of these courses would amount to God diminishing his own project of creation, by effectively nullifying the dignity not just of those headed for perdition but of all free agents: those who would reject his friendship would find their capacity for effective decision making destroyed, and those who would join with him would find their choice trivialized. If God were reduced to dealing in this way with those who try to refuse him, then evil would indeed have scored a major victory. Humans may begin as God’s children, but if any are truly to become his friends as well, then he must finally treat all as adults and potential partners—which means honoring their decisions. (p. 129)

I find McCann’s theodicy of hell curious and disap­pointing. Throughout his book McCann distances himself from the free-will defense of suffering, insisting that the relation between divine and creaturely agency cannot be understood as a zero-sum game. Yet at the last moment he tells us that the author of the cosmic novel is incapable of saving those who choose perdition over the transcendent Good. God has no choice but to “honor” the definitive decisions of his creatures. Anything else would be a form of coercion. Thus is the justice of God revealed: “Terrible though the end of the lost may be, therefore, this manifestation of the good that is justice could not exist but for the creation of those destined for unrepen­tance” (p. 131).

Hart would be appalled by McCann’s justification of the morally unjustifiable. If God creates the world, knowing that even one soul will be condemned to everlasting perdition, then the asserted goodness of God has become mere equivocation. Even if, as the open theists claim, he does not actually foresee this one person’s doom, he at least knows that his damnation is a genuine possibility. Oh well. As the Royalist general François de Charette nonchalantly remarked when asked about the deaths of so many during the War in the Vendée: “Omlets are not made without breaking eggs.” Now compare Hart’s judgment:

Not to wax too anthropomorphizing here, like some analytic philosopher of religion, but let us say God created simply on the chance that humanity might sin, and that a certain number of incorrigibly wicked souls might plunge themselves into Tartarus forever; this still means that, morally, he has purchased the revelation of his power in creation by the same horrendous price—even if, in the end, no one at all happens to be damned. The logic is irresistible. God creates. Alea iacta est. But, as Mallarmé says, “un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard“: for what is hazarded has already been surrendered, entirely, no matter how the dice fall; the aleatory venture may be intentionally indeterminate, but the wager is an irrevocable intentional decision, wherein every possible cost has already been accepted; the irrecuperable expenditure has been offered even if, happily, it is never actually lost, and so the moral nature of the act is the same in either case. To venture the life of your child for some other end is, morally, already to have killed your child, even if at the last moment Artemis or Heracles or the Angel of the LORD should stay your hand. And so, the revelation of God’s glory in creatures would still always be dependent upon that evil, that venture beyond good and evil, even if at the last no one perishes. Creation could never then be called “good” in an unconditional sense; nor God the “Good as such,” no matter what conditional goods he might accomplish in creating. And, here too, the losing lot might just as well have fallen to the blessed, given the stochastic vagaries of existence: accidents of birth, congenital qualities of character, natural intellectual endowments, native moral aptitudes, material circumstances, personal powers of resolve, impersonal forces of chance, the grim encumbrances of sin and mortality… Once again, who would the damned be but the redeemers of the blessed, the price eternally paid by God for the sake of the Kingdom’s felicity? (“God, Creation, and Evil,” pp. 13-14)

If God truly is an eternal communion of Love enhypostasized as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then he will not be satisfied with anything less than a glorious consummation of the story of creation. It is still unclear to me how Hart envisages the conversion of the impenitent. In his essay on divine providence he speaks of God respecting the evil choices of human beings, thus bringing upon themselves the sufferings due to separation from the Good who is their ultimate good. In his essay on God and evil, though, he speaks of apokatastasis as virtually a foregone conclusion. Yet how? It seems to me that speculation along the lines of Sergius Bulgakov’s proposal of “universal purgatory” or of George MacDonald’s vision of the alienated soul cast into the outer darkness is legitimate and necessary. Thus MacDonald:

If the man resists the burning of God, the consuming fire of Love, a terrible doom awaits him, and its day will come. He shall be cast into the outer darkness who hates the fire of God. What sick dismay shall then seize upon him! For let a man think and care ever so little about God, he does not therefore exist without God. God is here with him, upholding, warming, delighting, teaching him–making life a good thing to him. God gives him himself, though he knows it not. But when God withdraws from a man as far as that can be without the man’s ceasing to be; when the man feels himself abandoned, hanging in a ceaseless vertigo of existence upon the verge of the gulf of his being, without support, without refuge, without aim, without end–for the soul has no weapons wherewith to destroy herself–with no inbreathing of joy, with nothing to make life good;–then will he listen in agony for the faintest sound of life from the closed door; then, if the moan of suffering humanity ever reaches the ear of the outcast of darkness, he will be ready to rush into the very heart of the Consuming Fire to know life once more, to change this terror of sick negation, of unspeakable death, for that region of painful hope. (“The Consuming Fire“; also see “The Last Farthing“)

But perhaps, given the logic of transcendence, neither rational nor imaginative explanation is possible. Perhaps we may only hope—yet confidently hope—that the absolute Love made known in Jesus Christ will bring all to happy consummation. In faith we confess the triumphant and glorious apokatastasis that Pascha must entail if God be truly good and evil vanquished. Surely this is sufficient for the present moment.

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:3-4).

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“Come, you who fostered my love, for I am love”

As the holy Gospel clearly proclaims, the Son of Man will gather together all nations. “He will separate people one from another, as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. The sheep he will place at his right hand, the goats at his left. Then he will say to those at his right: Come, my Father’s blessed ones, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Come, you lovers of poor people and strangers. Come, you who fostered my love, for I am love. Come, you who shared peace, for I am peace.

“Come, my Father’s blessed ones, inherit the kingdom prepared for you” who did not make an idol of wealth, who gave alms to the poor, help to orphans and widows, drink to the thirsty, and food to the hungry.

Come, you who welcomed strangers, clothed the naked, visited the sick, comforted prisoners, and assisted the blind.

Come, you who kept the seal of faith unbroken, who were swift to assemble in the churches, who listened to my Scriptures, longed for my words, observed my law day and night, and like good soldiers shared in my suffering because you wanted to please me, your heavenly King.

“Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Look, my kingdom is ready, paradise stands open, my immortality is displayed in all its beauty. Come now, all of you, “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

You are the Eternal, without beginning like the Father, and co-eternal with the Spirit. You are the One who created all things from nothing; you are the King of angels; you make the depths tremble; you are “clothed in light as in a robe”; you are our maker who fashioned us from the earth; you are the creator of the world invisible. The whole earth flies from your presence. How could we possibly have received your lordship, your royal majesty, as our guest?

Then will the King of Kings say to them in reply: “Inasmuch as you did this to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” Inasmuch as you received, clothed, fed, and gave a drink to those members of mine about whom I have just spoken to you, that is, to the poor, you did it to me.

So come, enter “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”; enjoy for ever the gift of my heavenly Father, and of the most holy and life-giving Spirit. What tongue can describe those blessings? “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard nor human heart conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”


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Thomas Aquinas and the Pseudo-Denys on the Darkness of God

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Michael Hanby on the Metaphysics of Creation, Darwinism and Evolutionary Biology

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“Because we are the sons of God, we must become the sons of God”

God can no more than an earthly parent be content to have only children: he must have sons and daughters– children of his soul, of his spirit, of his love–not merely in the sense that he loves them, or even that they love him, but in the sense that they love like him, love as he loves. For this he does not adopt them; he dies to give them himself, thereby to raise his own to his heart; he gives them a birth from above; they are born again out of himself and into himself–for he is the one and the all. His children are not his real, true sons and daughters until they think like him, feel with him, judge as he judges, are at home with him, and without fear before him because he and they mean the same thing, love the same things, seek the same ends. For this are we created; it is the one end of our being, and includes all other ends whatever. It can come only of unbelief and not faith, to make men believe that God has cast them off, repudiated them, said they are not, yea never were, his children—and he all the time spending himself to make us the children he designed, foreordained—children who would take him for their Father! He is our father all the time, for he is true; but until we respond with the truth of children, he cannot let all the father out to us; there is no place for the dove of his tenderness to alight. He is our father, but we are not his children. Because we are his children, we must become his sons and daughters. Nothing will satisfy him, or do for us, but that we be one with our father! What else could serve! How else should life ever be a good! Because we are the sons of God, we must become the sons of God.

There may be among my readers—alas for such!—to whom the word Father brings no cheer, no dawn, in whose heart it rouses no tremble of even a vanished emotion. It is hardly likely to be their fault. For though as children we seldom love up to the mark of reason; though we often offend; and although the conduct of some children is inexplicable to the parent who loves them; yet, if the parent has been but ordinarily kind, even the son who has grown up a worthless man, will now and then feel, in his better moments, some dim reflex of childhood, some faintly pleasant, some slightly sorrowful remembrance of the father around whose neck his arms had sometimes clung. In my own childhood and boyhood my father was the refuge from all the ills of life, even sharp pain itself. Therefore, I say to son or daughter who has no pleasure in the name Father, ‘You must interpret the word by all that you have missed in life. Every time a man might have been to you a refuge from the wind, a covert from the tempest, the shadow of a great rock in a weary land, that was a time when a father might have been a father indeed. Happy you are yet, if you have found man or woman such a refuge; so far have you known a shadow of the perfect, seen the back of the only man, the perfect Son of the perfect Father. All that human tenderness can give or desire in the nearness and readiness of love, all and infinitely more must be true of the perfect Father—of the maker of fatherhood, the Father of all the fathers of the earth, especially the Father of those who have specially shown a father-heart.’

This Father would make to himself sons and daughters indeed—that is, such sons and daughters as shall be his sons and daughters not merely by having come from his heart, but by having returned thither—children in virtue of being such as whence they came, such as choose to be what he is. He will have them share in his being and nature–strong wherein he cares for strength; tender and gracious as he is tender and gracious; angry where and as he is angry. Even in the small matter of power, he will have them able to do whatever his Son Jesus could on the earth, whose was the life of the perfect man, whose works were those of perfected humanity. Everything must at length be subject to man, as it was to The Man. When God can do what he will with a person, that man or woman may do what they will with the world; they may walk on the sea like our Lord; the deadliest thing will not be able to hurt them—‘He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater than these shall he do.’

George MacDonald

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Gospel, Mortal Sin, and the Search for Assurance

The problem with mortal sin is that it’s so damned mortal. It scares me—as it rightly should. Mortal sin is nothing less than a state of spiritual death and impenitence. I know that the reason I was initially drawn to Martin Luther back in the 80’s was because he seemed to provide a way to get the fear of dying in mortal sin off my back. Wasn’t that the great quest of Luther, to find the gracious God and relieve his fear of eternal damnation? And didn’t he resolve that quest by his discovery of justification by faith? “Faith in Christ,” Luther declared, “overcomes sin, death, and hell, and gives life, righteousness, and salvation.”

That sounds pretty darn good. Salvation is the gracious gift of God. I don’t have to earn it. I don’t have to do anything. From his side, God has done everything for my salvation. Does that mean, therefore, that I can’t be damned? Does that mean that I can’t choose hell? Well … errr … even Lutherans admit that hell remains a possibility for Lutherans. Some who believe today will disbelieve tomorrow and thus cut themselves off from the mercy of the Savior.

Now, one might reasonably ask why anyone would make such a choice. Why would anyone choose to be Judas? Karl Barth called this the “impossible possibility.” And yet we each know that we are given in Christ the freedom to make this choice. And we know that, under the right circumstances, we might indeed—God forbid!—make this choice. Who hasn’t read C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and seen himself reflected in the various characters who choose to return to the “grey town”? The door to hell may be locked only from the inside, but that doesn’t mean that I will decide to unlock the door.

How do I know that I will choose God? How do I know that I am choosing God at this present moment? How do I know that I have truly repented of my sins? There are no second chances, traditional teaching teaches us. Not even the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory offers a second chance. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repen­tance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back” (§1861). Life is a single choosing. When we die and meet the living God, we will then discover which choice we have made.

The problem is free will. Whatever one wants to say about the bondage of unbelievers to sin, the New Testament is clear that believers are given a new freedom in the Spirit. We are given a freedom to say “yes” to God, to obey his commandments, to love, to follow Christ unto death. But apparently we are also given a freedom to say “no” to all the above. Even for the Spirit-filled, born-from-above believer, hell remains a possibility, an impossible, terrifying possibility. “For it is impossible,” declares the Letter to the Hebrews, “to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit” (Heb 6:4).

Calvin and his successors sought to negate the threat by insisting on divine monergism and the predestination of the elect. God will ensure that those whom he has chosen for salvation will persevere in faith. The threat of damnation is thus eliminated for the elect. Of course, a new problem is created: Who are the elect? How do I determine whether I am one of them?

We cannot penetrate by our intellectual and spiritual efforts into the inscrutable will of the sovereign God. Christ may be the mirror of my election, but how do I know if the promise of salvation is truly spoken to me? How do I know if I have fulfilled the saving condition of faith? How do I know I am predestined to heaven and not to hell? In his seminal essay “Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant,” Phillip Cary argues that Calvin’s greatest theological innovation was not double predestination, as is sometimes thought, but rather his insistence that knowledge of one’s membership in the company of the elect is not only a possibility but a necessity: “individual believers can and should know they are predestined for salvation (since all who are saved are predestined to be saved, I cannot know I am saved without knowing I am predestined to be saved). We can call this, Calvin’s epistemic thesis about predestination” (pp. 474-475). How does one come to know that one is predestined to eternal salvation? By examining one’s life and determining whether one believes in Christ: “Calvin’s epistemic thesis therefore makes Christian faith essentially reflective. Since the Gospel does not tell me directly whether I am predestined for salvation, I must work by inference, and the crucial premise of my inference must be that I believe in Christ. From the fact that I presently believe I can infer that I will persevere in faith to the end—from which it follows that I am predestined for salvation” (p. 477). The logic of faith may be schematized as follows:

Major Premise: Whoever believes in Christ is saved.
Minor Premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am saved.

Major Premise: Christ promises absolution of sins to those who believe in him.
Minor Premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am absolved of my sins.

Faith here works reflectively. It looks to Christ, but it also looks back upon the self and its act of faith. Cary writes:

In this syllogism the major premise is taken from the Scriptural promise, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). The minor premise is a confession of faith in Christ. The logical conclusion is the assurance of salvation. Hence to know that I am saved I must not only believe in the promise of Christ but also know that I believe it. In this sense faith is reflective: faith is based on God’s word, but the assurance of faith must include believers’ awareness that they have faith.

To achieve assurance, the believer must believe that he believes. But how does one determine whether one believes? Typically through two ways—either by evaluating one’s inner experience or by evaluating one’s behavior (or perhaps a combination of the two). The former is common in charismatic and pietistic circles. The believer confirms his faith by appealing to past experiences (“I’ve been born again or baptized in the Spirit”) or by assessing the quality of his present spiritual experience; the latter in confessional circles. But whether one is looking at one’s inner experience or one’s moral actions, one is looking at the self. Protestant faith is inherently reflective. As Cary writes, “A reflective faith has itself for object in addition to God’s word” (p. 455).

Because of their dogmatic confession of absolute predestination and limited atonement, some Reformed preachers actually got to the point where they could not speak directly and personally to any given sinner the words “Christ died for you,” because they could not confidently determine who the elect were. And so gospel preaching became reduced to the third-person procla­mation “Christ died for sinners.” J. I. Packer, however, does not see this as a problem. Following the Puritan theologian John Owen, Packer tells us that it is sufficient to proclaim the message “Christ is the Savior. Repent of your sins, believe on him, and you will be saved.” The following lengthy passage confirms Cary’s analysis:

What does it mean to preach ‘the gospel of the grace of God’? Owen only touches on this briefly and incidentally, but his comments are full of light. Preaching the gospel, he tells us, is not a matter of telling the congregation that God has set his love on each of them and Christ has died to save each of them, for these assertions, biblically understood, would imply that they will all infallibly be saved, and this cannot be known to be true. The knowledge of being the object of God’s eternal love and Christ’s redeeming death belongs to the individual’s assurance, which in the nature of the case cannot precede faith’s saving exercise; it is to be inferred from the fact that one has believed, not proposed as a reason why one should believe. According to Scripture, preaching the gospel is entirely a matter of proclaiming to men, as truth from God which all are bound to believe and act on, the following four facts:

  1. that all men are sinners, and cannot do anything to save themselves;
  2. that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is a perfect Savior for sinners, even the worst;
  3. that the Father and the Son have promised that all who know themselves to be sinners and put faith in Christ as Savior shall be received into favor, and none cast out – which promise is ‘a certain infallible truth, grounded upon the superabundant sufficiency of the oblation of Christ in itself, for whomsoever (fewer or more) it be intended’;
  4. that God has made repentance and faith a duty, requiring of every man who hears the gospel ‘a serious full recumbency and rolling of the soul upon Christ in the promise of the gospel, as an all-sufficient Savior, able to deliver and save to the utmost them that come to God by him; ready, able and willing, through the preciousness of his blood and sufficiency of his ransom, to save every soul that shall freely give up themselves unto him for that end.’

The preacher’s task, in other words, is to display Christ, to explain man’s need of him, his sufficiency to save, and his offer of himself in the promises as Savior to all who truly turn to him; and to show as fully and plainly as he can how these truths apply to the congregation before him. It is not for him to say, nor for his hearers to ask, for whom Christ died in particular. ‘There is none called on by the gospel once to enquire after the purpose and intention of God concerning the particular object of the death of Christ, every one being fully assured that his death shall be profitable to them that believe in him and obey him.’ After saving faith has been exercised, ‘it lies on a believer to assure his soul, according as he find the fruit of the death of Christ in him and towards him, of the goodwill and eternal love of God to him in sending his Son to die for him in particular’; but not before. The task to which the gospel calls him is simply to exercise faith, which he is both warranted and obliged to do by God’s command and promise.

For Packer, the gospel remains third-person proclamation.  It is up to the individual sinner to apply to himself  the general message “Christ died for sinners.” But the sinner who finds himself in the condition of the anguished conscience needs to know quite specifically that Christ died for him, not just for the elect. I need to know that God’s saving love is intended for me! Imagine asking one’s mother “Do you really love me?” and receiving the response “I love all my children. Go look for your birth certificate.” The last thing need to hear from the preacher is “Look inward, examine yourself and determine whether you truly believe.” All preachers who have been shaped by the hermeneutical understanding of justification must reject the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement and the way it necessarily distorts the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.

What then is the alternative to the reflective faith of Calvin and Packer? Consider another set of syllogisms:

Major Premise: Christ told me, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
Minor Premise: Christ never lies but only tells the truth.
Conclusion: I am baptized (i.e., I have new life in Christ).

Major Premise: Christ says, “I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Minor Premise: Christ never lies but only tells the truth.
Conclusion: I am absolved of my sins.

One immediately notes their objectivity and even sacramentality. The major premise speaks an unconditional promise in the first-person, and the minor promise affirms the reliability of the speaker. Neither syllogism invites the hearer to look into his subjectivity to discover faith. The hearer is directed to the external Word and invited to draw the appropriate conclusion. If Christ Jesus tells me that my sins are forgiven, then they are forgiven, no matter what my feelings or inner voice might be saying to me. The evangelical syllogism thus produces what Cary calls an unreflective faith—a faith that relies exclusively on the promises of Christ:

Christians must not rely on their faith but on God’s word and sacraments, and therefore are free not to worry about whether their faith is real or sincere enough. Pastorally speaking, it does not matter whether I am strong or weak in faith, because in either case the word of promise refers to me and is true. So strong or weak, confident or doubtful—even sincere or insincere—what is required of me is the same: I am to hear the gospel promises, believe them and take them to my comfort. (p. 473)

Here is the source of genuine assurance in the salvation of Christ, an assurance that transcends presumption and short-circuits the condemning voice of Satan. Faith puts no faith in faith; it clings to the sacramental promise of Christ alone. Luther powerfully spoke of this evangelical faith in his 1535 Commentary on Galatians:

The true Gospel, however, is this: Works or love are not the ornament or perfection of faith; but faith itself is a gift of God, a work of God in our hearts, which justifies us because it takes hold of Christ as the Savior. Human reason has the Law as its object. It says to itself: “This I have done; this I have not done.” But faith in its proper function has no other object than Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was put to death for the sins of the world. It does not look at its love and say: “What have I done? Where have I sinned? What have I deserved?” But it says: “What has Christ done? What has He deserved?” And here the truth of the Gospel gives you the answer: “He has redeemed you from sin, from the devil, and from eternal death.” Therefore faith acknowledges that in this one Person, Jesus Christ, it has the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Whoever diverts his gaze from this object does not have true faith; he has a phantasy and a vain opinion. He looks away from the promise and at the Law, which terrifies him and drives him to despair.

Therefore what the scholastics have taught about justifying faith “formed by love” is an empty dream. For the faith that takes hold of Christ, the Son of God, and is adorned by Him is the faith that justifies, not a faith that includes love. For if faith is to be sure and firm, it must take hold of nothing but Christ alone; and in the agony and terror of conscience it has nothing else to lean on than this pearl of great value (Matt. 13:45–46). Therefore whoever takes hold of Christ by faith, no matter how terrified by the Law and oppressed by the burden of his sins he may be, has the right to boast that he is righteous (LW 26:88-89; cf. David Yeago, “The Catholic Luther“)

Preaching and sacraments now take on a decisive role in the life of the Church. There can be no assurance of salvation—and indeed no genuine repentance—if the promises of Christ are not spoken and sacramentally celebrated. I cannot speak the gospel to myself. In the name of the risen Jesus, it must be spoken to me.

[Originally published on 19 November 2014; now edited and expanded]

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