“Ride on! Ride on in Majesty!”

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Love Thine Enemy

by George MacDonald

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy; but I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven; for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.—St Matthew v. 43-48.

Is not this at length too much to expect? Will a man ever love his enemies? He may come to do good to them that hate him; but when will he pray for them that despitefully use him and persecute him? When? When he is the child of his Father in heaven. Then shall he love his neighbour as himself, even if that neighbour be his enemy. In the passage in Leviticus (xix. 18,) already referred to as quoted by our Lord and his apostles, we find the neighbour and the enemy are one. “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord.”

Look at the glorious way in which Jesus interprets the scripture that went before him. “I am the Lord,”—”That ye may be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

Is it then reasonable to love our enemies? God does; therefore it must be the highest reason. But is it reasonable to expect that man should become capable of doing so? Yes; on one ground: that the divine energy is at work in man, to render at length man’s doing divine as his nature is. For this our Lord prayed when he said: “That they all may be one, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.” Nothing could be less likely to human judgment: our Lord knows that one day it will come.

Why should we love our enemies? The deepest reason for this we cannot put in words, for it lies in the absolute reality of their being, where our enemies are of one nature with us, even of the divine nature. Into this we cannot see, save as into a dark abyss. But we can adumbrate something of the form of this deepest reason, if we let the thoughts of our heart move upon the face of the dim profound.

“Are our enemies men like ourselves?” let me begin by asking. “Yes.” “Upon what ground? The ground of their enmity? The ground of the wrong they do us?” “No.” “In virtue of cruelty, heartlessness, injustice, disrespect, misrepresentation?” “Certainly not. Humanum est errare is a truism; but it possesses, like most truisms, a latent germ of worthy truth. The very word errare is a sign that there is a way so truly the human that, for a man to leave it, is to wander. If it be human to wander, yet the wandering is not humanity. The very words humane and humanity denote some shadow of that loving-kindness which, when perfected after the divine fashion, shall include even our enemies. We do not call the offering of human sacrifices, the torturing of captives, cannibalism—humanity. Not because they do such deeds are they men. Their humanity must be deeper than those. It is in virtue of the divine essence which is in them, that pure essential humanity, that we call our enemies men and women. It is this humanity that we are to love—a something, I say, deeper altogether than and independent of the region of hate. It is the humanity that originates the claim of neighbourhead; the neighbourhood only determines the occasion of its exercise.” “Is this humanity in every one of our enemies?” “Else there were nothing to love.” “Is it there in very deed?—Then we must love it, come between us and it what may.”

But how can we love a man or a woman who is cruel and unjust to us?— who sears with contempt, or cuts off with wrong every tendril we would put forth to embrace?—who is mean, unlovely, carping, uncertain, self-righteous, self-seeking, and self-admiring?—who can even sneer, the most inhuman of human faults, far worse in its essence than mere murder?

These things cannot be loved. The best man hates them most; the worst man cannot love them. But are these the man? Does a woman bear that form in virtue of these? Lies there not within the man and the woman a divine element of brotherhood, of sisterhood, a something lovely and lovable,—slowly fading, it may be,—dying away under the fierce heat of vile passions, or the yet more fearful cold of sepulchral selfishness—but there? Shall that divine something, which, once awakened to be its own holy self in the man, will loathe these unlovely things tenfold more than we loathe them now—shall this divine thing have no recognition from us? It is the very presence of this fading humanity that makes it possible for us to hate. If it were an animal only, and not a man or a woman that did us hurt, we should not hate: we should only kill. We hate the man just because we are prevented from loving him. We push over the verge of the creation—we damn—just because we cannot embrace. For to embrace is the necessity of our deepest being. That foiled, we hate. Instead of admonishing ourselves that there is our enchained brother, that there lies our enchanted, disfigured, scarce recognizable sister, captive of the devil, to break, how much sooner, from their bonds, that we love them!—we recoil into the hate which would fix them there; and the dearly lovable reality of them we sacrifice to the outer falsehood of Satan’s incantations, thus leaving them to perish. Nay, we murder them to get rid of them, we hate them. Yet within the most obnoxious to our hate, lies that which, could it but show itself as it is, and as it will show itself one day, would compel from our hearts a devotion of love. It is not the unfriendly, the unlovely, that we are told to love, but the brother, the sister, who is unkind, who is unlovely. Shall we leave our brother to his desolate fate? Shall we not rather say, “With my love at least shalt thou be compassed about, for thou hast not thy own lovingness to infold thee; love shall come as near thee as it may; and when thine comes forth to meet mine, we shall be one in the indwelling God”?

Let no one say I have been speaking in a figure merely. That I have been so speaking I know. But many things which we see most vividly and certainly are more truly expressed by using a right figure, than by attempting to give them a clear outline of logical expression. My figure means a truth.

If any one say, “Do not make such vague distinctions. There is the person. Can you deny that that person is unlovely? How then can you love him?” I answer, “That person, with the evil thing cast out of him, will be yet more the person, for he will be his real self. The thing that now makes you dislike him is separable from him, is therefore not he, makes himself so much less himself, for it is working death in him. Now he is in danger of ceasing to be a person at all. When he is clothed and in his right mind, he will be a person indeed. You could not then go on hating him. Begin to love him now, and help him into the loveliness which is his. Do not hate him although you can. The personalty, I say, though clouded, besmeared, defiled with the wrong, lies deeper than the wrong, and indeed, so far as the wrong has reached it, is by the wrong injured, yea, so far, it may be, destroyed.”

But those who will not acknowledge the claim of love, may yet acknowledge the claim of justice. There are who would shrink with horror from the idea of doing injustice to those, from the idea of loving whom they would shrink with equal horror. But if it is impossible, as I believe, without love to be just, much more cannot justice co-exist with hate. The pure eye for the true vision of another’s claims can only go with the loving heart. The man who hates can hardly be delicate in doing justice, say to his neighbour’s love, to his neighbour’s predilections and peculiarities. It is hard enough to be just to our friends; and how shall our enemies fare with us? For justice demands that we shall think rightly of our neighbour as certainly as that we shall neither steal his goods nor bear false witness against him. Man is not made for justice from his fellow, but for love, which is greater than justice, and by including supersedes justice. Mere justice is an impossibility, a fiction of analysis. It does not exist between man and man, save relatively to human law. Justice to be justice must be much more than justice. Love is the law of our condition, without which we can no more render justice than a man can keep a straight line walking in the dark. The eye is not single, and the body is not full of light. No man who is even indifferent to his brother can recognize the claims which his humanity has upon him. Nay, the very indifference itself is an injustice.

I have taken for granted that the fault lies with the enemy so considered, for upon the primary rocks would I build my foundation. But the question must be put to each man by himself, “Is my neighbour indeed my enemy, or am I my neighbour’s enemy, and so take him to be mine?—awful thought! Or, if he be mine, am not I his? Am I not refusing to acknowledge the child of the kingdom within his bosom, so killing the child of the kingdom within my own?” Let us claim for ourselves no more indulgence than we give to him. Such honesty will end in severity at home and clemency abroad. For we are accountable for the ill in ourselves, and have to kill it; for the good in our neighbour, and have to cherish it. He only, in the name and power of God, can kill the bad in him; we can cherish the good in him by being good to it across all the evil fog that comes between our love and his good.

Nor ought it to be forgotten that this fog is often the result of misapprehension and mistake, giving rise to all kinds of indignations, resentments, and regrets. Scarce anything about us is just as it seems, but at the core there is truth enough to dispel all falsehood and reveal life as unspeakably divine. O brother, sister, across this weary fog, dim-lighted by the faint torches of our truth-seeking, I call to the divine in thee, which is mine, not to rebuke thee, not to rouse thee, not to say “Why hatest thou me?” but to say “I love thee; in God’s name I love thee.” And I will wait until the true self looks out of thine eyes, and knows the true self in me.

But in the working of the Divine Love upon the race, my enemy is doomed to cease to be my enemy, and to become my friend. One flash of truth towards me would destroy my enmity at once; one hearty confession of wrong, and our enmity passes away; from each comes forth the brother who was inside the enemy all the time. For this The Truth is at work. In the faith of this, let us love the enemy now, accepting God’s work in reversion, as it were; let us believe as seeing his yet invisible triumph, clasping and holding fast our brother, in defiance of the changeful wiles of the wicked enchantment which would persuade our eyes and hearts that he is not our brother, but some horrible thing, hateful and hating.

But again I must ask, What if we are in the wrong and do the wrong, and hate because we have injured? What then? Why, then, let us cry to God as from the throat of hell; struggle, as under the weight of a spiritual incubus; cry, as knowing the vile disease that cleaveth fast unto us; cry, as possessed of an evil spirit; cry, as one buried alive, from the sepulchre of our evil consciousness, that He would take pity upon us the chief of sinners, the most wretched and vile of men, and send some help to lift us from the fearful pit and the miry clay. Nothing will help but the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son, the spirit of the Father and the Brother casting out and revealing. It will be with tearing and foaming, with a terrible cry and a lying as one dead, that such a demon will go out. But what a vision will then arise in the depths of the purified soul!

“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your father which is in heaven is perfect.” “Love your enemies, and ye shall be the children of the highest.” It is the divine glory to forgive.

Yet a time will come when the Unchangeable will cease to forgive; when it will no more belong to his perfection to love his enemies; when he will look calmly, and have his children look calmly too, upon the ascending smoke of the everlasting torments of our strong brothers, our beautiful sisters! Nay, alas! the brothers are weak now; the sisters are ugly now!

O brother, believe it not. “O Christ!” the redeemed would cry, “where art thou, our strong Jesus? Come, our grand brother. See the suffering brothers down below! See the tormented sisters! Come, Lord of Life! Monarch of Suffering! Redeem them. For us, we will go down into the burning, and see whether we cannot at least carry through the howling flames a drop of water to cool their tongues.”

Believe it not, my brother, lest it quench forgiveness in thee, and thou be not forgiven, but go down with those thy brothers to the torment; whence, if God were not better than that phantom thou callest God, thou shouldst never come out; but whence assuredly thou shalt come out when thou hast paid the uttermost farthing; when thou hast learned of God in hell what thou didst refuse to learn of him upon the gentle-toned earth; what the sunshine and the rain could not teach thee, nor the sweet compunctions of the seasons, nor the stately visitings of the morn and the eventide, nor the human face divine, nor the word that was nigh thee in thy heart and in thy mouth—the story of Him who was mighty to save, because he was perfect in love.

O Father, thou art All-in-all, perfect beyond the longing of thy children, and we are all and altogether thine. Thou wilt make us pure and loving and free. We shall stand fearless in thy presence, because perfect in thy love. Then shall thy children be of good cheer, infinite in the love of each other, and eternal in thy love. Lord Jesus, let the heart of a child be given to us, that so we may arise from the grave of our dead selves and die no more, but see face to face the God of the Living.

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“All get what they want …”

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Kasper and Moloney on the Divine Attributes

Fr Daniel Moloney recently reviewed Walter Cardinal Kasper’s book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life for the March issue of First Things. I have not read this book, and I have to admit that Kasper is not one of my favorite theologians. The German bishop has recently returned to the limelight with his advocacy of the restoration of communion to penitent divorced Catholics.

So I read Moloney’s review of Kasper’s book with interest. I found it surprising. If Moloney’s analysis is correct, then Kasper is a sloppy theologian—and that made me wonder whether Moloney was giving the good Cardinal a charitable hearing. Moloney here states Kasper’s thesis:

Kasper thinks that the Catholic theological tradition doesn’t talk about mercy enough and that the classical concept of God, which sees God as perfect and unchanging, is “pastorally … a catastrophe.” To most people, “such a God appears to them to have little or nothing to do with the situation of the world, in which almost daily horrible news reports come, one after the other, and many people are deeply troubled by anxieties of the future.” To counter this, we need a new dogmatic theo­logy of divine mercy: “What is now required is to think through anew the entire teaching about God’s attributes and, in the process, to allow mercy to assume its proper place.” And its proper place is as the fundamental attribute of God, while all other divine attributes are in some way secondary. Even God’s justice is to be made subordinate to his mercy, because mercy “surpasses” and “goes beyond” justice.

Now I am as suspicious as the next priest when someone describes the classical understanding of God as a pastoral catastrophe. Is it the theological understanding that is at fault or the translation of that understanding to the realities of human existence? But so far, anyway, Kasper hasn’t said anything that Pope John Paul II hadn’t already said in his encyclical Dives in Miseridordia:

In this way, mercy is in a certain sense contrasted with God’s justice, and in many cases is shown to be not only more powerful than that justice but also more profound. Even the Old Testament teaches that, although justice is an authentic virtue in man, and in God signifies transcendent perfection nevertheless love is “greater” than justice: greater in the sense that it is primary and fundamental. Love, so to speak, conditions justice and, in the final analysis, justice serves love. The primacy and superiority of love vis-a-vis justice—this is a mark of the whole of revelation—are revealed precisely through mercy. This seemed so obvious to the psalmists and prophets that the very term justice ended up by meaning the salvation accomplished by the Lord and His mercy.

Perhaps there are substantive differences between Kasper and the Pope on mercy and justice, and if there are, I hope someone will tell us what they are. But Moloney reads Kasper as falling into a serious blunder. I quote him at length:

Mercy is a virtue that requires someone who needs mercy, someone with some sort of sin or other imperfection. The Father is not merciful to the Holy Spirit. He loves the Holy Spirit, but there’s nothing imperfect about the Holy Spirit so that he needs the Father’s mercy. For mercy to be essential to God, as Kasper holds, it would mean that God could not exist without ­expressing mercy. But since God does not show mercy to himself, it would not be possible for him to exist without there also being sinners in need of his mercy—and that notion is absurd.

So there is a good, basic reason that the tradition has not made mercy essential to God. The Father can be loving and just to the Son and the Spirit, and so to say that God is loving and just essentially doesn’t create the problems that come from saying he’s essentially merciful. It’s not hard to see how God’s mercy ­toward sinners could be rooted in his goodness and love, that when God shows mercy he’s manifesting his love in a particular situation. To say this is perfectly coherent with the classical doctrine.

Kasper doesn’t actually make arguments for his views but says, among his many statements that aspire to be premises in an argument, that “mercy is the externally visible and effectively active aspect of the essence of God, who is love (1 John 4:8, 16). . . . In short, mercy expresses God’s own goodness and love” ­[emphases added]. These are perfectly orthodox things to say. Unfortunately, Kasper also says that “forgiveness belongs to [God’s] essence,” “God’s mercy is the . . . ground of creation,” and “mercy is the perfection of God’s essence.”

It’s disappointing that Kasper never bothers to respond to traditional objections to his sort of view. According to the classical doctrine, divine justice must be more fundamental than divine mercy, because justice is essential to God and mercy is not. But God’s justice is not more fundamental than his love, since both are essential—God is Love (and loving), and God is Justice (and just). This suggests that there must be some way of talking about love and justice—whether human or divine—such that they are at least not contraries; ideally, the concepts would be defined so that every action that is just is also loving and every action that is loving is also just. In either case, it would not make sense to say, as Kasper does repeatedly, that love “surpasses” justice or “goes beyond” justice, either in God or in creatures, since God is both of these things, essentially and completely.

Mercy cannot be an essential attribute of divinity because mercy requires a universe toward which God can be merciful. Mercy is love as directed to imperfect, sinful creatures. If God had never created the world, then mercy disappears from the inventory of the divine attributes. This is obvious, of course. But as I tweeted to a Catholic theologian last month:

Cardinal Kasper has now responded to the First Things review.  He too is perplexed that Moloney could attribute such an elementary blunder to him:

Therefore I would like to invite the author of the critique to look again in the Summa Theologiae, where he will find most of the theses he criticized. Among others, in the Pars prima he should study the quaestio 21 “De iustitia et misericordia.” There in articles 3 and 4 he can find what Thomas thinks about mercy as the greatest attribute of God, its precedence over and against justice and that mercy presupposes justice and is its plenitude—affirmations Moloney thinks must be criticized. About mercy as summa vitae christianae see the Pars seconda secundae quaestio 30, article 4. And if this shouldn’t be enough I recommend reading the fine article of Yves Congar “La miséricorde. Attribut souverain de Dieu” (La vie spirituelle, 106,1962,380–95).

He who thinks in the line of Thomas knows very well how to distinguish between the inner nature of God and the attributes of God which are related to the acts of God ad extra. The latter aren’t a part but a mirror of God’s inner nature and—as a headline in my book clearly states—mercy is a mirror of the Trinity. Thomas, following Anselm of Canterbury, goes so far as to say that mercy in salvation history is God’s justice to himself and God’s historical faithfulness (in Hebrew: emet, truth!) to his nature, which is love.

I cannot understand how Moloney’s critique could suppose the contrary and then end up with a reductio ad absurdum. Sure, if mercy would be the inner nature of God, the Father would have mercy with the Son and the Son with the Spirit. But I don’t know whether there is one Catholic theologian who teaches such nonsense. As Christians, we should keep to the rule of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and instead of ridiculing each other we should interpret each other in the best possible orthodox way. If we don’t, meaningful theological dialogue becomes impossible and sacra theologia turns into a political and ideological battlefield. [my emphasis]

Given that I have not read the book, I cannot confirm whether Kasper expressed himself poorly or the reviewer just badly misread him. Moloney remains convinced it’s the former. In his rejoinder he reiterates his criticism as if Kasper had not just clarified his position. Moloney apparently thinks he knows Kasper’s mind better than Kasper does.

I find Moloney’s rejoinder cavillous and unconvincing. If Kasper says that he well knows the difference between love and mercy and would never have committed the elementary blunder of which Moloney accuses him, then take him at his word and get on with important matters. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Moloney’s review may evidence a deeper problem, however. “God’s justice,” he writes, “is not more fundamental than his love, since both are essential—God is Love (and loving), and God is Justice (and just).” In what sense, though, is God properly described as Justice? Are we to think of God as having (or being) two equally balanced attributes, ineffably united in the divine simplicity? This way of thinking about the essential properties, I suggest, inappropriately prescinds from God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ as Holy Trinity. God is constituted as triune by the immanent relations of mutual self-giving between the Father, Son, and Spirit. As Met John Zizioulas writes: “God is love in his very being. It is not however himself that he loves, so this is not self-love. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit, the Son loves the Father and the Spirit, the Spirit loves the Father and the Son: it is another person that each loves. It is the person, not the nature or essence, who loves, and the one he loves is also a person” (Lectures in Christian Dogmatics, pp. 53-54). We properly think of the trinitarian being as communion, as divine substance constituted in the dynamic coinherence of the eternal hypostases.  And for this reason “love ceases to be a qualifying—i.e. secondary—property of being and becomes the supreme ontological predicate” (Being as Communion, p. 46). If God is a communion of love, constituted by love and in love, how do we speak of love and justice as complementary essential attributes?  It’s not clear to me that we can.  Moloney asserts that the Father is loving and just to the Son and Spirit, but I find this problematic.  How is the Father just to the Son and Spirit?  How is the Son just to the Father and Spirit? Are the divine persons defined by justice?  But perhaps I am simply exposing my theological ignorance. At any rate, it remains a question for me, and I welcome correction.

I do not know if Kasper would agree with Zizioulas on the trinitarian being; but at this point I am less interested in defending Kasper (I have no dog in this Roman Catholic hunt) than in noting the deficiency in Fr Moloney’s presentation of the divine attributes.  If God is eternal communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then his justice toward mankind must be seen, and can only be seen, as an expression of his absolute and infinite love.  God wills our good and only our good—what a wonderful mercy!

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The Speculated God of Roger Olson

Most theology books, suggests Roger Olson, should probably come with a warning label on the front cover: “Nothing but guesswork inside.” Whenever theologians depart from the clear teaching of Scripture, they are engaging in speculation. They probably know this, but rarely are they open and transparent about the speculative nature of their reflections. Hence Olson’s proposal: “They should label their truth claims with degrees of speculation—from that which is closer to the data (‘justified speculation’) to that which is farther from the data (‘guesswork only’).” And the greater the distance from Scripture, the higher the odds that the speculation is unwarranted.

Olson cites the classical Christian teaching on divine eternity as a prime example of unwarranted theological speculation. He describes the teaching as follows:

Under pressure from Greek ontology traditional, “classical theism” has generally agreed that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (the Yahweh of the Bible) is somehow (i.e., differently expressed) “outside of time” such that temporal sequence, the passage of past into present into future (or future into present into past) is known to God but not experienced by God. Put in other words, for this classical theistic view, God’s eternity means (in relation to time) “simultaneity with all times.” In other words, in this view, explained best (most scholars agree) by Boethius, God exists in an “eternal now.” For him, our future has already happened. In other words, this is not just a claim about God’s foreknowledge; it is a claim about God’s being. It is not merely epistemological; it is ontological.

As Olson notes, Boethius’s construal of divine eternity has exercised powerful influence upon Western theology. I thought it might be helpful, therefore, to quote the relevant passage from the Consolation of Philosophy:

Eternity is the simultaneous and complete possession of infinite life. This will appear more clearly if we compare it with temporal things. All that lives under the conditions of time moves through the present from the past to the future; there is nothing set in time which can at one moment grasp the whole space of its lifetime. It cannot yet comprehend to-morrow; yesterday it has already lost. And in this life of to-day your life is no more than a changing, passing moment. And as Aristotle said of the universe, so it is of all that is subject to time; though it never began to be, nor will ever cease, and its life is co-extensive with the infinity of time, yet it is not such as can be held to be eternal. For though it apprehends and grasps a space of infinite lifetime, it does not embrace the whole simultaneously; it has not yet experienced the future. What we should rightly call eternal is that which grasps and possesses wholly and simultaneously the fulness of unending life, which lacks naught of the future, and has lost naught of the fleeting past; and such an existence must be ever present in itself to control and aid itself, and also must keep present with itself the infinity of changing time. Therefore, people who hear that Plato thought that this universe had no beginning of time and will have no end, are not right in thinking that in this way the created world is co-eternal with its creator. For to pass through unending life, the attribute which Plato ascribes to the universe is one thing; but it is another thing to grasp simultaneously the whole of unending life in the present; this is plainly a peculiar property of the mind of God.

According to Boethius, therefore, God transcends time, which properly belongs to the world he has created. He possesses his life in all of its infinite fullness. God does not pass through time, as do creatures, nor can he be said to exist within time. As Paul Helm explains: “So it is not that God has always existed, for as long as time has existed, and that he always will exist, but that God does not exist in time at all. He is apart from his creation, transcendent over it. Eternalists such as Augustine and Boethius deliberately reject the idea that God is everlasting, or sempiternal, that for any time t God exists at that time” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Hence God does not experience creaturely history as we do, as movement into the future, with the past left behind. He apprehends temporal events immediately and atemporally, not by observing them but by causing them (see John H. Boyer, “Eternal God“).

It is admittedly tricky, indeed perhaps impossible, to understand what is here being said. First and foremost the eternalist position is a piece of negative theology. We can say what divine eternity is not but we really cannot say what it is. Even for accomplished scholars it is difficult to express the eternalist position without slipping into temporal language. Take a look again at the long Olson quotation above. Did any sentence jump out at you as odd? Consider this one: “For him [God], our future has already happened”?  (If you think you know what is wrong with this sentence, please share your thoughts in the comments below.) Here’s a clue from Herbert McCabe:

There can be no succession in the eternal God, no change. Eternity is not, of course, a very long time; it is not time at all. Eternity is not timeless in the sense that an instant is timeless—for an instant is timeless simply in being the limit of a stretch of time, just as a point has no length not because it is very very short but because it is the limit of a length. No: eternity is timeless because it totally transcends time. To be eternal is just to be God. God’s life is neither past nor present, nor even simultaneous with any event, any clock, any history. (God Matters, p. 49)

We speak nonsense when say things like “the future has already happened for God” or “the future already exists for God.”  By definition, the future does not exist.  Even using the word “now”—as in, for example, “God experiences time as an eternal now”—can be misleading, for what is “now” but the moment between past and future?  Inevitably we seem to find ways to pull the Creator into the world and idolatrously reduce him to a temporal being.

So why did the theologians of the patristic and medieval periods develop this apophatic understanding of divine eternity? Olson tenders what has now become the stock modernist explanation—because of Christianity’s tragic captivity to Hellenistic philosophy. Instead of remaining within the “biblical” worldview, patristic and medieval theologians uncritically embraced the Greek understanding of divine timelessness, with disastrous consequences for both belief and practice. “The classical view of God’s eternity (‘outside of time,’ ‘eternal now-ness’),” Olson bluntly states, “is pure philosophical-theological speculation unrelated to the God of the Bible and alien to any religion that values an interactive God.”

But what does Olson mean by “the God of the Bible”? He cannot mean the God depicted in the Bible as read by the Church, because the Church ostensibly got God all wrong as early as the mid-second century.

Lest my readers misunderstand, I am not taking Olson to task because of his proposal of divine temporality. I used to hold a similar position back in my Jensonian period. It’s a position that needs to be seriously evaluated.   I have become, however, increasingly skeptical of the metanarrative of Christianity’s theological corruption by its contact with Greek philosophy.  As Robert Wilken remarks: “The notion that the development of early Christian thought represented a hellenization of Christianity has outlived its usefulness” (The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, p. xvi).  It would be more accurate, he submits, to speak of the “Christianization of Hellenism.”  My complaint is directed against Olson’s biblicistic, nonecclesial reading of the Bible. Olson states that “the logic of the Bible, the flow of the biblical narrative, God’s story with us, never says or even hints that God is ‘outside of time'”—but … so what‽ When a god, any god—even the God of Israel—is narratively portrayed, he will inevitably be presented as an everlasting, sempiternal agent; for that is what he is within the dramatic structure of the story. Temporal, anthropomorphic, even corporeal renderings of deity are thus inescapable; they are intrinsic to the narrative genre.  But the mere fact that the divine Creator has appropriated the genre for the purpose of self-revelation does not entail the consequence that he is defined and limited by the genre.  The Church Fathers came to recognize this very early in the life of the Church, as they reflected on divine transcendence and the meaning of creation (see, e.g., Georges Florovsky, “Creation and Creaturehood“). Who is the God of the Bible?  He is, they declared, the timeless, impassible, immutable, omnipotent, omniscient Maker of heaven and earth who has become Man and died on a tree.  We should not think of the Fathers as merely carpentering together two incompatible construals of divinity, the biblical and the Hellenistic.  Such a caricature distorts their revolutionary accomplishment:

It is certainly true that the Gospel was translated into Greek from the very start and it was largely in Greek thought-forms that the early Church gave public expression to its preaching and teaching. However, far from a radical Hellenisation having taken place something very different happened, for in making use of Greek thought-forms Christian theology radically transformed them in making them vehicles of fundamental doctrines and ideas quite alien to Hellenism. In fact, the mission of the Church had the effect of altering the basic ideas of classical Hellenism … through its formulation of a distinctively Christian doctrine as one, as Creator of the universe out of nothing, and as triune in his eternal being, and not least through the doctrine of the incarnation as the personal and saving intervention of God himself in the affairs of mankind, together with the attendant conceptions of providence, judgment and resurrection. This was one of the most significant features of Nicene theology: not the Hellenising of Christianity but the Christianising of Hellenism. (Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, p. 68)

Fidelity to the preaching of the gospel to a Greek world compelled the theologians of the Church to move beyond the surface, literal meaning of Scripture into a deeper and more profound apprehension of the mystery of the living God. Without such theological exegesis and contemplative reflection, they would have been unable to clarify the figurative nature of the biblical language and thus prevent the mythological importation of the structures of creation into the Godhead.  Without such theological exegesis and contemplative reflection, they would have been unable to meet the challenges of Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, and Arianism.

Consider the drastic consequences if we were to accept Olson’s strictures on “unwarranted speculation.” Out goes the creatio ex nihilo. Out goes the homoousion and the dogma of the Holy Trinity. Out goes the Incarnation and the ecumenical doctrine of the two natures of the one Christ. Out goes, in other words, the Christian God—all in the name of a reconstructed “biblical” God.

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“There is an end to the deadly tedium of the impersonal”

I AM THAT I AM.  Yes, indeed, it is He Who is Being. He alone truly lives. Everything summoned from the abyss of non-being exists solely by His will.  My individual life, down to the smallest detail, comes uniquely from Him. He fills the soul, binding her ever more intimately to Himself. Conscious contact with Him stamps a man for ever. Such a man will not now depart from the God of love Whom he has come to know. His mind is reborn. Hitherto he was inclined to see everywhere determined natural processes; now he begins to apprehend all things in the light of Person. Knowledge of the Personal God bears an intrinsically personal character. Like recognizes like. There is an end to the deadly tedium of the impersonal. The earth, the whole universe, proclaims Him: “heaven and earth praise him, the sea, and everything that moveth therein” (Ps. 69.34). And lo, He Himself seeks to be with us, to impart to us the abundance of His life (cf. John 10.10). And we for our part thirst for this gift.

Elder Sophrony

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Fr Thomas Hopko on Armageddon and the End of the Age

Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko fell asleep in the Lord this past Wednesday. May his memory be eternal and may his soul rest in peace.

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