“To some extent all the disciples were guilty of disbelief”

Thomas’ profession of faith came swiftly when, eight days after he had declared his unwillingness to believe, Christ showed him his side and the nail marks in his hands and removed every possible doubt.

Our Lord Jesus Christ had miraculously entered the room when the doors were closed. As this would have been impossible for an ordinary earthly body he reassured Thomas, and through him the other disciples, by letting him see his side and the wounds in his flesh.

Only Thomas is reported to have said: “Unless my hands touch the marks of the nails and I see them, and unless I put my hand into his side, I will not believe”; yet to some extent all the disciples were guilty of disbelief. Doubt remained in their minds even after they had told Thomas that they had seen the Lord. This surely proves that it was not only in the mind of blessed Thomas that disbelieving thoughts still lurked, but in the minds of the other disciples as well. It was their very astonishment that made them slow to believe, but when it became impossible to disbelieve what they could see with their own eyes, blessed Thomas made his profession of faith: My Lord and my God.

Jesus said to him: “Because you have seen me, Thomas, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” There was a wonderful providence behind these words of the Savior, and they can be of very great help to us. They show once again how much he cares for our souls, for he is good and as Scripture says: He wants everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. Even so, this saying of his may surprise us.

As always, Christ had to be patient with Thomas when he said he would not believe and with the other disciples too when they thought they were seeing a ghost. Because of his desire to convince the whole world, he most willingly showed them the marks of the nails and the wound in his side; because he wished those who needed such signs as a support for their faith to have no possible reason for doubt, he even took food although he had no need for it.

But when anyone accepts what he has not seen, believing on the word of his teacher, the faith by which he honors the one his teacher proclaims to him is worthy of great praise. Blessed, therefore, is everyone who believes the message of the holy apostles who, as Luke says, were eyewitnesses of Christ’s actions and ministers of the word. If we desire eternal life and long for a dwelling place in heaven, we must listen to them.

St Cyril of Alexandria

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“The early Christians not only said that Jesus had been raised from the dead; they concluded from this that God’s new age had indeed begun”

What then did the earliest Christians mean when they said that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead?

They cannot have meant that, though his body remained in a tomb, his spirit or soul was now safe in the hands of God, perhaps even given a place of honor. That was a perfectly reasonable Jewish thing to think about someone now dead, particularly a great leader or teacher, particularly one who had died a cruel death. There was normal Jewish language to express such a belief. If that had been what Jesus’ first believed about him, Jesus would have been on a par, in their eyes, with the Maccabean martyrs of the prophets of old.

Resurrection implies at the very least a coming back to something that had been forfeited, that is, bodily life. In the well-developed Jewish language for describing the continuing nonphysical existence of someone who had died there would be no question of “coming back” but only of going on, with a spiritual life in unbroken continuity with what had existed before. What the early church insisted about Jesus was that he had been well and truly physically dead and was now well and truly physically alive. If all they had meant was that he was now exalted to a place of honor with God, the language of dying and new life the other side of death would not have been appropriate.

Nor, I submit, would they have used the language of resurrection to describe a sense that Jesus was personally present with them. Such a thing would have been unprecedented, but if it occurred, the natural categories for them would have been angel, spirit, and so forth. In addition, had Jesus’ resurrection been simply a matter of people being aware of his presence, there would not have been a sense, as there clearly is in all our evidence, of a sequence of resurrection “appearances” that then stopped. Paul knows, and he knows that the Corinthians know, that his seeing of Jesus was the last such event. His churches, not least the Corinthians, had all kinds of wonderful spiritual experiences; they knew Jesus as their Lord in the power of the Spirit; but they had not seen him as Paul had.

Nor would they have drawn the conclusion that the new age had dawned. When a Jewish leader, teacher, or hero died violently at the hands of Israel’s enemies, this was the sign that the old age was still here, the new age had not yet come. Yet the early Christians not only said that Jesus had been raised from the dead; they concluded from this that God’s new age had indeed begun, however paradoxically.

This rules out as well the explanation that has recently been offered, that the early Christians received a ghostly visitation from their recently deceased leader. Such events are well known in the modern, as in the ancient world; the worried church thought they were receiving such a visit from Peter in Acts 11. “It must be his angel,” they said; that meant that Peter had been killed by Herod, and they would have to go and collect his body for burial. It would not mean that Peter had been “raised from the dead”; indeed, it would mean that he hadn’t been.

So why did the early Christians use the word resurrection to describe what they believed had happened to Jesus? The large package of heaven-sent renewal expected by many Jews, including the general resurrection, had not occurred. Pilate, Caiphas, and Herod were still ruling. Injustice, misery, oppression, and death were still features of life for Jews and everyone else. Nor were Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and the prophets alive again. From that point of view, “the resurrection” expected by Jesus’ contemporaries had obviously not occurred.

And yet they said that it had—and proceeded to built a new worldview, a significant variation from within contemporary Judaism, on this belief. “The resurrection,” as something that has already happened that must now determine life, faith, prayer, and thought, dominates a good deal of the New Testament: the early Christians really did believe that they were living in the “age to come” for which Israel had longed, the time of forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Spirit, when the Gentiles would be brought in to worship the one God of Israel. The “present age” was still continuing, but the “age to come” had been inaugurated.

We see the same pattern if we ask the vital question: why did the early church believe and declare that Jesus was the messiah? Other would-be messiahs executed by the authorities were thereby forever discredited: a messiah was supposed to lead Israel to liberation from the pagans and to rebuild the temple, not die in pagan hands, leaving the temple still in the grip of Israel’s oppressive pseudoaristocrats. Other groups whose messiah was killed faced a choice: either find a new messiah, or give up the revolution. We have evidence of both patterns. Declaring that God had raised one’s messiah from the dead was not an option. First-century Jews do not seem to have had time or mental energy to indulge in that peculiar twentieth-century phenomenon, cognitive dissonance, believing that something is still true when events have in fact disproved it. Life was too short and hard for fantasy.

Why, for instance, did the early church not decide that James, the brother of Jesus, was now the messiah? He was the central leader in the early church: holy man, wise teacher, man of prayer, man of God. He was known as the brother of the Lord. Other groups, faced with the death of their would-be messiah and the emergence of his brother as the natural new leader, would have been quick to put two and two together: the brother is the real messiah. But the early church did not. Jesus was the messiah; and the explanation was that God had vindicated him by raising him from the dead. Nor was this belief the mere granting of an honorific title to Jesus, a word with grandeur but little substance. Early Christianity was self-consciously a messianic movement, announcing Jesus as the true Lord of the world even at the risk of offending the existing lords of the world, Caesar included. And this political-religious affirmation grew clearly and visibly out of Jewish messianic beliefs, redefined around the person, agenda, and fate of Jesus of Nazareth.

The early Christians, in other words, affirmed not only that “the resurrection,” the great hope of Israel, had happened, but that it had happened in a way that nobody had imagined (a single human being raised within the middle of ongoing history). They reconstructed their worldview, their aims and agendas, around this belief so that it became, not merely an extra oddity, bolted onto the outside of the worldview they already had, but the transforming principle, the string that had pulled back the curtain, revealing God’s future as having already arrived in the present.

N. T. Wright

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Creatio ex Nihilo: The Grammar of Transcendence

“The Rule of Truth that we hold is this: There is one God Almighty, who created all things through His Word. He both prepared and made all things out of nothing, just as Scripture says: For by the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of His mouth. And again: All things were made through Him and without Him was made not a thing. From this all nothing is exempt” (Against Heresies I.22.1).

Thus declared St Irenaeus of Lyons. While even as late as A.D. 150 it was possible for Christian theologians to entertain the creation of the world from pre-existent matter, within only a few decades the creatio ex nihilo had become a foundational dogma of orthodox Christianity. I emphasize both foundational and dogma, as subsequent theological reflections on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, grace, sacraments, deification, providence presuppose the creatio ex nihilo and are inconceivable apart from it. Given the counter-cultural and counter-intuitive nature of the doctrine, this was a remarkable development. So what was at stake? Gerhard May offers this opinion: “The driving motive which underlies the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is the attempt to do justice to the absolute sovereignty and unlimited freedom of the biblical God acting in history” (Creatio ex Nihilo, p. viii). It thus represents a critical response to the world-formation theories of Greek philosophy and gnosticism. I suggest an alternative way to express the same: in the collision between the gospel and Hellenistic construals of divinity, the catholic Church came to see the creatio ex nihilo as the key to securing the proper distinguishment between the infinite Creator and contingent beings. Only by the assertion of absolute creation could the Church intimate the radical transcendence of the Deity she worships and serves.

“Divine transcendence,” remarks Kathryn Tanner, “is not a doctrinal affirmation in any ordinary sense: it signals a general linguistic disturbance, the failure of all predicative attribution, in language about God” (“Creation Ex Nihilo as Mixed Metaphor,” in Creation ‘Ex Nihilo’ and Modern Theology, p. 138). To assert the transcendence of God is to bespeak the oddity of divinity, at least as understood by Christians. Within Western Christianity this oddity is expressed by the claim that God is not a kind of thing, that he surpasses all categories, that God and creature do not exist alongside or parallel to each other. God is Ipsum Esse Subsistens, declares St Thomas Aquinas, and for this reason “does not belong to the genus of substance” (ST I.3.5.1). Within Eastern Christianity the oddity of God is expressed by the claim that God surpasses being. In the words of St Gregory Palamas: “For if God is nature, all else is not nature; but if every other thing is nature, he is not a nature, just as he is not a being if all other things are beings, and if he is a being, then all other things are not beings”(Philokalia, IV:382). But whether Western or Eastern, Christians acknowledge, concede, and celebrate that they do not know what they mean by “God” nor know how the language they use for the transcendent Creator effectively refers to the divine being. God is identified, rather, by our failure to mean:

At the most basic level, God’s transcendence means that God is not one instance among others of a general sort of thing, distinguished from (and ranked hierarchically with respect to) those others by the supreme degree to which it exhibits the designated quality. In other words, divinity is not a class term; and therefore things within the world cannot be differentiated and ordered by the degree to which they exhibit such a (non-)predicate.

Affirmations about God, as a result, do not imply corresponding denials. Talk about God violates the Spinozistic dictum, maintained in ordinary language about things, that all determination is negation; and vice verse. In other words, language about God contravenes the way in ordinary speech that the affirmation of certain qualities implies the denial of others, and the denial of certain properties implies the denial of others. For example, when one denies that God is a body it does not follow that God is spiritual (or whatever is ordinarily incompatible with materiality). And the reverse holds as well: when one affirms that God is immaterial one is not denying that God has bodily existence. Similarly, when one denies that God can be rendered by images, one is not implying that God is an abstractly definable concept; and the reverse. In sum, God transcends the application of all ordinarily contrastive terms.

Since God is in this way incapable of absorption into a general category, God has a non-predicative identity. God is identified, in other words, by this very failure to mean. God becomes the paradigmatic inassimilable Other, the (paradoxically non-predicatively grounded) paradigm for all that remains indigestible to sense-making practices that insist on the exhaustive, homogenizing subsumption of particulars under general concepts. (pp. 138-139)

To get a sense of the Christian understanding of divine transcendence we need to contrast it with the Hellenistic construals of divinity over against which it was first asserted and articulated. Tanner provides a short summary, with the stated caveat that her generalization does not capture the breadth and diversity of Hellenistic philosophy:

In Greek and Roman religion and in Greek philosophy to a great extent, divinity refers to a kind of being distinct from others within the matrix of the same cosmos. Divinity characterizes that which is most powerful, self-sufficient and unchanging among beings, providing loci of intelligibility and meaning within an otherwise disordered world. As a distinct sort of being differentiated from others, like any other kind, within the same spectrum of being making up the cosmos, divinity is a predicate determined by commonality and susceptible of difference: it is the sort of thing which can be said to be shared generically with specifying differences of degree. Divinity is attributed univocally, in other words, to the realm of Ideas, the World-Soul of the Timaeus, celestial spheres and even human souls in so far as they are all characterized by rationality, permanence and stability in varying degrees of purity. (God and Creation in Christian Theology, pp. 39-40)

Instead of a sharp chasm between the divine and non-divine, we should think of the two as existing within a continuum of cosmological being, with the ingenerate God at one end, exhibiting the fullness of divinity, and matter at the other end, exhibiting the fullness of non-divinity, with various semi-divine beings in between. Divinity is contrastively differentiated from non-divinity: “Divinity in Greek thought is often set off oppositionally, as a realm of eternal, changeless intelligibility, over and against the world as a whole characterized by the contrary predicates of becoming, uncertainty and instability” (p. 40). This contrastive methodology generates a dynamic that Christian theologians ultimately found unacceptable:

Divinity characterized in terms of a direct contrast with certain sorts of being or with the world of non-divine being as a whole is brought down to the level of the world and the beings within it in virtue of that very opposition: God becomes one being among others within a single order. Such talk suggests that God exists alongside the non-divine, that God is limited by what is opposed to it, that God is as finite as the non-divine beings with which it is directly contrasted. A cosmology influenced by such suggestions will characterize a divine agency in the terms appropriate for a finite one. Like that of a finite agent God’s influence will be of a limited sort: it may not extend to everything, it may presuppose what it does not produce, it may require the intervening agencies of others. (pp. 45-46)

The more divine something is, the less involved it can be with the existence of the non-divine—and vice versa. Transcendence thus becomes a kind of distance. Transcendence and immanence are set against each other. Aristotle’s unmoved mover is a good example, as is also the primal God of the Middle Platonist Albinus. A third, albeit different, example is the non-being God of the Christian gnostic Basilides.

In rejection of these Greek construals of divinity, the catholic theologians of the late second-century Church asserted the eternal Creator of the Bible. A key player here is Irenaeus. Irenaeus adopts the contrastive predicates commonly used by Greek philosophers to speak of God (God is ingenerate, impassible, simple, etc.), yet he denies “the implications such a contrastive use would have for an account of divine agency” (p. 56). Tanner elaborates:

Irenaeus’ Gnostic opponents assume the need for mediating agencies between God and the world because of the contrast between a simple, impassible, ingenerate God and a world of change, multiplicity and what comes to be. Irenaeus in the second book of Against Heresies argues that this Gnostic limitation on God’s power and presence does not follow from the characterization of divinity in such terms. Applying terms of this sort to God suggests to Irenaeus, instead, a principle of universal and immediate divine agency. It is this connection that shows Irenaeus’ non-contrastive use of apparently contrastive terms. For Irenaeus, what makes God radically different from every creature—the Fullness without limits of eternal and ingenerate unity—is exactly what assures God’s direct and intimate relation with every creature in the entirety of its physical and particular being. Because divine transcendence exceeds all oppositional contrasts characteristic of the relations among finite beings—including those of presence and absence—divine transcendence, according to Irenaeus, does not exclude but rather allows for the immanent presence to creatures of God in his otherness. (pp. 56-57)

Christian theologians thus introduced to the world a non-contrastive understanding of divinity—a new grammar of transcendence. The difference between the God and the world is not like the many differences that obtain between things of the world. It is not the kind of difference that distinguishes different kinds of beings. “God is neither like the world nor simply unlike it,” remarks Tanner. “God is beyond the difference between like and unlike, beyond simple identifications or simple contrasts. That is just what makes God different from anything else” (“Mixed Metaphor,” p. 148). The world is not a part of God; it is not divine to any degree whatsoever. It has been created by God from out of nothing. In place of the Greek presentation of the chain of being, Christianity posits the absolute distinction between Creator and creature.

The critical point of the creatio ex nihilo, suggests Tanner, is to assert the immediacy and unlimited scope of God’s immanent presence and activity in the world. Nothing is beyond his reach because all has been made by him from nothing. Everything is his domain. As the apophatic source of all being, God is radically different from the world. He does not exist alongside the world within the same metaphysical matrix and thus may be intimately present to the world in ways utterly surprising to the Greek mind. The relationship between Creator and creature should be formulated as noncontrastive, nonoppositional, noncompetitive, neither monistic nor dualistic.

The unique transcendence of the biblical God imposes two grammatical rules on Christian theologians and philosophers (God and Creation, p. 47):

(1) When speaking of God and creatures, avoid both univocal attribution of predicates to God and the world and simple contrast of divine and non-divine predicates.

(2) When speaking of divine agency in the world, avoid all suggestions of limitation of scope or manner.

Speak thusly that the  living God in his radical transcendence may be intimated and known.

(Return to first article)

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Thomas Aquinas and Why the New Atheists are Right

This is a wonderful talk. I hope you will find time to listen to it. Fr Barron explains so well what I have been trying to say in my blogs on the nature of God.

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Creatio ex Nihilo: From Story to Doctrine

Christians thrive on stories. We tell stories about Adam and Eve, about Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, and Elijah. Most of all we tell stories about Jesus and his Apostles. Our Scriptures begin with the story of God speaking the world into being and conclude with the same God recreating that world.

But the form of story brings with it its own constraints, for it requires us to render the God whose acts we would narrate within the terms of this world. And so when we tell the story of his initial work of creation, we give him nebulous not-nothing-ness to work with—tohu va-vohu and watery chaos. Every artist needs a medium, every craftsman needs material. Within the framework of narrative, even the divine Creator apparently needs “something” he can shape into heavens and earth.

But a critical question must be asked: “Even though the narrative, as narrative, will be unable to describe the actions of a creator in a manner other than presupposing something to work with, need that fact about the narrative imply that there must be something presupposed to the act of creating?” “Clearly not,” answers David Burrell, “or we could never think creator except as demiurge” (Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions, pp. 24-25). And here is the crux, too often missed by contemporary critics of the creatio ex nihilo: story-telling imposes its own burdens. Just as Israel, when she wanted to speak of YHWH’s mighty actions of salvation and judgment in her history, had no imaginative choice but to portray “him” as One who lives in time and across time, so when she wanted to tell the story of how YHWH created the cosmos, she equally had no choice but to render him as transforming formless chaos into the world that we now know. Yet neither assertion need be literally true, and that is what the theologians of the Church eventually came to realize. The God of the gospel is not a demiurge; the God of the gospel is not a god. To create he does not require any thing upon which to exercise his will. “This is what we mean by creatio ex nihilo, explains Burrell, “which intends to state that nothing at all is presupposed to this activity of creating” (p. 25).

This departure from the narrative meaning of the Bible immediately raises a second question for us: “But when would we be warranted to insist that the truth of a narrative did not presuppose that things in fact were as it describes them? What sets these accounts off as intrinsically inadequate? What tells us that they are telling a story which cannot be told in story form?” (p. 25).  Ultimately, only God himself can teach us when the Scriptures intend “something which they cannot say” (p. 25). How he does so would take us into territory we need not traverse in this article.  All that needs to be noted is that once God had brought the Church into an understanding of himself as transcendent origin, formulation of the creatio ex nihilo could not be far behind.  And once so formulated the Church could no longer read the creation stories as descriptions of God’s making of the cosmos:

So the [biblical] accounts of creation can never stand alone, nor can they even be understood from the outset, even when they stand first in order. For neither their form nor their intent is to offer a philosophical account of origins but rather to introduce the most radical sort of beginning: one that is utterly free on the part of the originator and so cannot even be said to be received, so originating it is. So the accounts of creation turn out to be, rather, revelations of the creator, and that modification should keep us from thinking of them as explanations. We may rest content with their narrative structure once we understand that there is no better way to put what they intended to convey. (p. 26)

If we would speak of God in his radical transcendence, we must move from story to doctrine … from doctrine back to story … beginning and concluding with doxology.

Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous *
for it becometh well the just to be thankful.
Praise the Lord with harp *
sing praises unto him with the lute, and instrument of ten strings.
Sing unto the Lord a new song *
sing praises lustily unto him with a good courage.
For the word of the Lord is true *
and all his works are faithful.
He loveth righteousness and judgement *
the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.
By the word of the Lord were the heavens made *
and all the hosts of them by the breath of his mouth.
He gathereth the waters of the sea together, as it were upon an heap *
and layeth up the deep, as in a treasure-house.
Let all the earth fear the Lord *
stand in awe of him, all ye that dwell in the world.
For he spake, and it was done *
he commanded, and it stood fast.

(Psalm 33:1-9)

(Go to “The Grammar of Transcendence”)

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“On this day paradise is opened by the risen one”

The festival we celebrate today, is one of victory—the victory of the Son of God, king of the whole universe. On this day the devil is defeated by the crucified one; our race is filled with joy by the risen one. In honor of my resurrection in Christ this day cries out:

“In my journey I beheld a new wonder—an open tomb, a man risen from the dead, bones exulting, souls rejoicing, men and women refashioned, the heavens opened, and powers crying out: ‘Lift up your gates, you princes; be lifted up, you everlasting doors, that the king of glory may come in.’ On this day I saw the king of heaven, robed in light, ascend above the lightning and the rays of the sun, above the sun and the sources of water, above the dwelling place of the angelic powers and the city of eternal life.”

Hidden first in a womb of flesh, he sanctified human birth by his own birth; hidden afterward in the womb of the earth, he gave life to the dead by his resurrection. Suffering, pain, and sighs have now fled away. For who has known the mind of God, or who has been his counselor if not the Word made flesh, who was nailed to the cross, who rose from the dead, and who was taken up into heaven?

This day brings a message of joy: it is the day of the Lord’s resurrection when, with himself, he raised up the race of Adam. Born for the sake of human beings, he rose from the dead with them.

On this day paradise is opened by the risen one, Adam is restored to life and Eve is consoled.

On this day the divine call is heard, the kingdom is prepared, we are saved and Christ is adored.

On this day, when he had trampled death under foot, made the tyrant a prisoner, and despoiled the underworld, Christ ascended into heaven as a king in victory, as a ruler in glory, as an invincible charioteer.

He said to the Father: Here am I, O God, with the children you have given me and he heard the Father’s reply: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”

To him be glory, now and for ever, through endless ages, amen.

St Hesychius of Jerusalem

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“There is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness”

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