The Caponian Vision of (Almost) Apokatastasis

Having completed my series on the parables of Jesus as interpreted by Robert Farrar Capon, I’d like to bring into the discussion his soteriological reflections as presented in his books The Mystery of Christ, published in 1993, and Between Noon and Three, originally written in 1975 but not published in its entirety until 1997. These reflections will clarify, illumine, and perhaps correct my articles on the parables. Capon was not, of course, a systematic theologian, even though he taught theology at the seminary level for several years. He wrote his books for a popular audience. He also has a unique conversational writing style that resists the systematic articulation of his views. He does not develop his thoughts in a way that would satisfy academic scholars, and he rarely references those who have informed his thinking. Capon is first and foremost a biblical theologian and preacher, yet he is not content to simply repeat its “plain” teachings. His vision of the atoning work of Christ can only be described as . . . Caponian.

At the heart of Capon’s vision is the unconditional love and grace of God. This is his prin­ci­pal theme throughout his writings, summed up in the Apostle Paul’s declaration: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). The gospel of Jesus Christ represents nothing less than the announcement of the final judgment, spoken ahead of time. We are justified by grace, not by works. Period. Capon sounds very much like Martin Luther, but he goes beyond him in one decisive way: every human being, he avers, is justified in Christ, now and eternally. There is nothing we need do or can do to make our­selves right with God, for Jesus has already made us right with him on the cross. It’s all grace. It’s all done, all accomplished. Salvation, therefore, is nontran­sactional. It comes to us as sheer and irrevocable gift, without conditions of any kind, and will never be withdrawn. Faith comes into the picture only because there is nothing else left for us to do. All we can do is either believe or disbelieve the truth of our justification in Christ. It’s as if God has depos­ited to our banking account a million dollars. It’s ours. We didn’t do any­thing to acquire it. We didn’t earn it. All we need do is enjoy the gift of our new wealth. Faith is simply the joyful writing of checks. It is living on the basis of the gift of God’s freely given forgiveness. Capon is insis­tent: God’s forgiveness covers all of our sins—past, present, and future. By the atoning work of Christ, we have been given a blanket absolu­tion; in Christ all of humanity is recon­ciled to God. The Anglican Capon may be the most radical “Lutheran” any of us will encoun­ter. He pushes grace to the nth degree. Every human being, including the most wicked, have died in Christ and been raised with him into the glory of the Trinity.

How can this be so? Capon’s answer: Christ’s work of reconciliation belongs to the eternal life of the Trinity. He calls it the Mystery of Christ:

The Mystery, as the New Testament presents it, is not at all a transaction model poked into a universe that previously didn’t have the benefit of it. Rather, it is a cosmic dispensation that has been present at all times and in all places but “kept secret for ages and generations” (Rom. 16:25). It is a dispen­sation, in fact, that has been hidden “from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 13:35), or even “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4) until it could finally be revealed in Jesus. In other words, the mysterious and reconciling grace that has been revealed in Jesus is not something that got its act in gear for the first time in Jesus; rather it is a feature of the very constitution of the universe—a feature that was there all along, for everybody and everything. And it was there, Christians believe, because the Person who manifest himself finally and fully in Jesus’ humanity is none other than the Word of God, the Second Person of the Three Persons in One God who is intimately and immediately present to every scrap of creation from start to finish.1

The Incarnation, accordingly, is a Mystery that is true all through his­tory. Jesus is the great sacrament of that Mystery, the real presence of it in his historical time and place. But the Mystery of the Word incarnate in Jesus is also really and effectively present at all times and places because that Word is God himself, the second Person of the Trinity. In Jesus, the Mystery didn’t show up in a world from which it was previously absent; rather what had been there all along was finally and fully manifest in him.2

Capon’s proposal solves the problem of how God can save those who lived and died before Jesus or those who have never heard the gospel. The problem doesn’t exist. In a mystery all are included in the atoning work of Jesus. Or to put it differently, every human being indwells their Creator and Savior, Jesus the eternal Word:

One of the perennial problems of theology is how to imagine, how to figure to ourselves, the way in which God, having made the world and let it get out of whack, manages to get it back in shape. The problem is usually solved by thinking of God as coming down from heaven and fixing some­thing: putting in a new fuse, or doing a valve job on the world so it will run right again.

But that introduces an impossible set of images. It suggests that God, in his deepest being, is at some distance from the world—that if he turns up at all, he comes as a kind of celestial road service doing incidental repairs after the damage has been done. But. If there is indeed therefore now no condemna­tion, it can mean only one thing: that from the most important point of view (God’s), he was already on the scene before the damage was done, and he fixed it before it had a chance to do any final damage. Because if God can tell you that now you are uncondemned for some sin you are committing right now, or even will commit next week (and he does indeed tell you just that), then he’s talking about something a lot more intimate to your being than some ex post facto visit by a garage mechanic. He’s talking about something he is present to eternally. He is telling you that as far as his Word is con­cerned (and his Word goes), you have never been out of line at all—or, more accurately, that anything you may have put out of line was, in the very moment of its misalignment, realigned then and there by the suave and forceful Wisdom that goes through all things and is more moving than any motion. And above all he is telling you that what was announced in Jesus by that Word, what was done in Jesus by that Wisdom, was not the temporal start of the repair of your wreck but the final accom­plishment of it from the beginning by the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world—by the Ultimate Beloved whose voice creates and reconciles all.

Put that together, then, and ask the right question. Do not ask, “Where is God, and how does he get here, and what does he do when he arrives? Ask instead, “Where is the world?”

And then, finally, you see. The world is in bed with Paul and Laura, with the Father and Saint Sophie. The world leaps out of nothing into being between the lips of the Word and the ear of the Father. The world is what the Ultimate Beloved whispers to the Ultimate Lover. Creation is the Pillow Talk of the Trinity. The world is the Place the Divine Persons create by the power of their eternal Affair.

Do you see now? Do you see why, in that bed, there can be nothing wrong? Why you are uncondemned and free, just by being? It is because, if the Wisdom of God be for you, nothing can be against you, nothing can separate you from the love of Christ. For you are the very body of that love, and if Wisdom speaks you into being in that bed, she speaks you reconciled forever. Whatever in you is evil, or nasty, or stupid, or said is not men­tioned in that bed; it is taken down into the Silence of the Crucifixion of the Word that is the Forgetting of the Father.3

The reconciliation of humanity through the Cross belongs to the eternal act of creation, by the Father through the crucified and risen Son in the Holy Spirit. It is not an afterthought that requires God to intervene with plan B. Humanity is forgiven, justified, sanctified before the foundation of the world, eternally destined to share in the love and unity of the New Creation. Capon invites us to read Ephesians 1:3-10 with fresh eyes:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us. For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph. 1:3-10)

The world is created from Calvary, and Calvary lies in the heart of God. In the words of the great Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky: “The mystery of the Cross begins in eternity, ‘in the sanctuary of the Holy Trinity, unapproachable for creatures.'”4 From all eternity, for all eternity, God is Pascha:

Christ, the Word of God by whom all things are made and offered to the Father, is also the Lamb of God by whom all things are reconciled—from the very foundation of the world. That means that the Mystery, the hidden, ever-present act by which he perpetually causes all things to leap out of nothing, is matched at every moment by another Mystery, another hidden, ever-present act by which he perpetually reconciles all things to the Father. And that means that the Creating, Reconciling Word himself is perpetually present to every single created thing at every moment of history, B.C. or A.D.5

But what about judgment? How can we reasonably say that the impenitent wicked are now justified in Christ? Capon acknowledges the scandal and concedes that this is hard to believe. It offends our sense of morality. He directs us to two sayings of Jesus from the Gospel of John:

The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son. (John 5:22)

For I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. (John 12:47)

Both the Father and the Son have abdicated their roles as judge. They only will our good and salvation. Capon comments:

There is therefore no condemnation for two reasons: first, there is nobody left to be condemned; and second, there is nobody around to do the con­demn­ing. And likewise, there is therefore now no condemnation for two reasons: you are dead now; and God, as the Lamb slain from the foun­da­tion of the world, has been dead all along. The blame game was over before it started. It really was. All Jesus did was announce that truth and tell you it would make you free. It was admittedly a dangerous thing to do. You are a menace. But he did it; and therefore, menace or not, here you stand: uncondemned, forever, now. What are you going to do with your freedom?6

Recall Capon’s interpretation of the Parable of the Unjust Judge: the judge justifies the persistent widow for no good reason whatsoever, and in that act dies to his role as judge. “There is therefore now no condemnation . . .”

Consider, or perhaps reconsider, the parables of judgment. I fear I did not do them justice in my articles. Though I noted Capon’s observation that they are predicated on inclusion, I appear to have missed his point:

Let’s get straight what the Greek word for judgment is: it’s krisis—the same word as “crisis” in English. And it means the same thing: an act or situation that, because it puts a new set of rules into the game, calls for a new deci­sion about the game on our part. It does not, in the first instance mean “judgment” in the sense of condemnation (Greek has a number of other words for that). Because if you read Jesus’ parables of judgment carefully, you’ll see that the krisis in them—the primary judgment of God that calls us to decision—always comes at the beginning of those parables. Furthermore, it’s always a krisis caused by God’s favorable judgment about us: he starts out each of those parables with a declaration that every one of the char­ac­ters that stand for humanity is okay. It’s a krisis, in other words, that Jesus set up having the “God” character declare at the outset that he’s going to act on the basis of the presumption—the effective declaration—of innocence. It’s a krisis of faith, therefore: none of the “human” characters has to prove he’s not guilty by doing something to establish his innocence; the only thing any of them needs to do is believe in the innocence already proclaimed over him.

Look at a few instances. The guests invited to the king’s son’s wedding are all judged equally worthy of being at a royal wedding. All ten virgins are mem­bers of the bridal party. And all three servants, whether they receive give talents, or two, or one, are equally in their master’s favor. They all receive a judgment of acceptability, of inclusion. They’re all presumed innocent. Nobody is condemned to start with.

Now obviously, at the ends of those parables, there’s plenty of condemna­tion. But it’s crucial to note what that condemnation is based on. The temptation, of course (since we’re totally committed to justifying ourselves by our own goodness), is to read the hard-hearted endings as based on evil works—on the characters’ failure to perform properly. But that just won’t wash. What the final judgment is really based on is not their works but the presence or absence of their faith in the God-character who graciously included them in his favor from square one.7

In Jesus’ parabolic teaching, the judgment of God is not a judgment of who is good and who is bad; it is not a judgment of works, righteous or evil. It is, rather, the recognition of who trusts the infinitely loving God and who does not. The wise virgins are rewarded even though they uncharitably refuse to share their oil with the foolish ones. The prodigal rake of a son is welcomed with open arms by his father, without even a demonstration of his contrition. And in the Parable of the Vineyard (which I did not write upon but should have), “the Johnny-come-lately workers in the vineyard are given a full day’s pay for next to no work.”8 Why the inequities? Why the lack of interest in who deserves or does not deserve the reward of the Kingdom? “It’s because Jesus cares only about whether people are someplace where trust alone can get them, not about whether they can claim to have worked their way there by noble efforts.”9 The judgment of the Almighty is not about justice at all:

While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Rom 5:6-10)

Yet still we balk. What about the bad people? Capon replies:

But, but Jesus is in bad people. And Jesus hasn’t turned his back on them. Don’t you see? Jesus is all that counts. After all, he’s the Word of God who made them, and he’s the Incarnate Word who reconciles them. No matter what you or I may do or not do in our lives, the Gospel truth is that when we’re dead, he’s going to raise us, good or bad. And when he raises us, he’s going to raise us repaired, not left in the mess of our sins. Of course, if you want to be like the guy in the parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding and refuse to put on the free tuxedo, then you can go to hell. But as I said, not other­wise.10

God has died for our sin and risen for our justification, and his eternal word of judgment is an astounding not guilty! Recall the eschatological significance of Jesus’ dining practices: he scandalously ate and drank with sinners in proleptic celebration of the Messianic Banquet. He did not first demand their repentance. He simply invited himself to dinner. “Zacchae′us, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5).

And this brings us to the Parable of the Last Judgment (Matt 25:31-46). As several readers have noted, Capon’s exegesis of the parable is unsatisfactory. Given his exegesis of the other parables, he rightly maintains that the parable should not be interpreted as an abrupt retreat into justification by works. The sheep are justified because of their relation­ship with Jesus (of which they were unaware); the goats are condemned because of their non-relationship with Jesus (of which they too were unaware). Capon plausibly claims that this relationship is one of unknowing faith, yet faith is nowhere mentioned or hinted at in the parable. What seems to be decisive as the basis for the final separation is ministry (or non-ministry) to the poor, the hungry, the dispossessed, the ill, the imprisoned. “In as much as you did it (or didn’t do it) to the least of my brethren, you did it (or didn’t do it) to me.” The sheep and goats are judged according to their loving actions as participation in the love of Jesus. What we needed from Capon, therefore, was a discussion of the rela­tion­ship between faith and love. Given his analysis of faith-in-action in the Parable of the Talents, I expected him to carry that over into his discussion of the Last Judgment. And he did—sort’ve. The inade­quacy of Capon’s exegesis prompted me to email Dr Phillip Cary, author of The Meaning of Protestant Theology, and ask him to share his thoughts about the Last Judgment parable. He replied:

For Luther and Calvin, I expect Matt. 25 is just a case of “By your fruits shall you know them.” Why can we know them by their fruits? Because only a good tree can bear good fruit, i.e. only a good person does good works (a point Luther makes over and over again). And we are a good person in God’s sight (coram deo) only because Christ is in our hearts by faith. (Again, a recurrent point in Luther). The good fruits reveal this, make it known and public, as it were. So the great judgement can be expressed in terms of the good works the Lord approves in Matt. 25. Hence also James can say Abraham is justified by works when he offers Isaac (James 2:21), which he does “by faith” according to Hebrews (Heb. 11:17). That is why the LORD himself says, “Now I know that you fear God” (Gen. 22:12) when he sees Abraham stretching out his hand with the knife. So in Matt 25 the Lord Jesus knows who fears, believes and loves the Lord by seeing what they have done. By their fruits he knows them.

This raises a pastoral issue which shows why the doctrine of justification by faith alone is necessary. When you hear this parable, do you think that if you do enough good works for the poor you will be assured of salvation? How then do you know if you’ve done enough to win the approval of this judge? You’ve given money to the poor now and then–or perhaps a single onion, as in Grushenka’s story in the Brothers Karamazov. Will that be enough? (Have ANY of us really given more than Grushenka’s onion?) For you have also neglected the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, the naked. All of us have. Every single one of us has lived in such a way that we can count as both sheep and goats. Who will tell us which we really are? Only the Lord himself. What reason do we have for thinking he will be merciful and count you or me or anyone as a sheep rather than a goat? How can we love, believe or trust such a terrifying judge, who could so easily say: one little onion, balanced against all your negligence and heartessness–who are you trying to fool?

That was the terror of conscience to which the doctrine of justification by faith alone was addressed by Luther in the 16th century. Everything depends on whether the Lord himself has made a promise of mercy in Christ that we may take hold of, a promise we can count on him to keep (for he is indeed true to his word). Otherwise we have nothing but terror and anxious attempts to save ourselves that are never enough to dispel the terror, never enough to show us a God who can be loved rather than feared and ultimately hated. Without faith in the promise, we surely have Christ as judge, but we have no assurance at all that Christ is really our savior. (He’s going to save you because of one little onion? Really?) So, says Luther, give up trying to please the judge, and take hold of the promise of the savior in faith. And then you will find that it is possible to love God and gladly do what pleases him. You will give away plenty of onions, and you need not even keep count.

In short, it’s precisely with the last judgment in view that the importance of justification by faith alone becomes paramount. As Luther and Calvin both insisted.11

Cary and Capon are in full agreement (I think), yet I still await a presentation of the relationship between faith and love. “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:2). Perhaps if Capon had been able to read Sergius Bulgakov’s treatment of the Last Judgment parable, he would have offered a more illuminating interpretation.

By this time readers will have come to realize that Capon has one foot (maybe two) firmly placed in realized eschatology:

  • the final judgment has already been spoken in the death and resurrection of Jesus;
  • we are justified by grace, not by works;
  • the Kingdom to come is already present;
  • we are dead and risen in Jesus;
  • in Christ all things have been made a new creation.

Capon is of course well aware that these are stupendous, perhaps unbelievable claims, given that nothing appears to have dramatically changed in the world since Easter and Pentecost. Death, pestilence, violence and war, hurricanes and earthquakes, horrific suffering—life pretty much goes on as it always has. Only by faith do we hear the music of the Kingdom:

It’s like a dance—a big formal party that everybody is already invited to and present at. Now what happens at a dance? When the band starts to play, almost everybody decides to trust the “new world” of the dance and to act accordingly: they move in harmony with the music. But when the band takes a break they go back to acting in accordance with the “old world” they know better: husbands and wives get into arguments; some people drink too much; others try to make real-estate deals; and so on.

If you think about that, it gives you a much better picture of what Chris­tians are really supposed to be up to. Because the dance that God has invited us to—the dance of the Mystery of Christ—is always going on: the band playing the music of forgiveness never takes a break. The music of the Mystery, of course, is hidden music: we have to trust that it’s being played—and for anyone who doesn’t trust, it’s just as if there’s no music going on at all. Christians, therefore, are not some select who have music nobody else has; they’re simply people who by faith—trust—always hear the music of the Mystery of Christ that the whole creation has been provided with. And so the real job of Christians as far as the world is concerned is simply to dance to the hidden music—and to try, by the joy of their dancing, to wake the world up to the music it’ s already at, even though it thinks it doesn’t hear any music at all.12

But how do we hear music that cannot be heard? Is the life of faith simply make-believe? At this point Capon takes a surprising contemplative turn:

T. S. Eliot called the cross—the death of Christ—“the still point of the turning world”; and except for that point, he said, “there would be no dance.” That was in the Four Quartets. And somewhere else in them he says, “So the dark­ness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” It’s only when we can sit still in our deaths—present “deaths,” like your inability to hold a book, or our final death in death itself—that we can hear the music at all. Everything else we might do is just noice that drowns it out. It’s only when we listen in the stillness that grace can have its way with us. But grace is always there because Jesus is always there: and any time we stop our noice, the music comes up.13

Yet realized eschatology strains credulity when taken too seriously. I sure don’t feel like I’m living the Messianic Banquet. Where is the compelling evidence of its presence? If I’m risen from the dead, why does my back hurt all the time? Yes, the Gospel of John certainly seems to intimate a realized eschatology, but surely it’s just a figurative way of speaking we can jettison when convenient. But Capon refuses to let us off the hook. We need to take both present resurrection and future resurrection with equal seriousness, for it is under these two sets of images that the resurrection is proclaimed to us by Holy Scripture: “resurrection now, and resurrection then—resurrection presented under the the imagery of immediacy, and resurrection presented under the imagery of history.”14

So how does Capon envision us holding both together. Begin, he suggests, with the most difficult—realized resurrection:

Which is the harder reading? Resurrection now obviously. Accordingly, take that reading first, make resurrection now utterly real. Insist that, in him, we have always been as risen as we’re going to get—that there will not be a single moment of our life at the end of the world that wasn’t present, in the Mystery of the Word, from the foundation of the world. Say flatly that he’s always had it all together, and that in him we’ve got it all together too right now. In short, take the vertical imagery of the Mystery at full force.15

By divine revelation we know that our lives are grounded upon the reality of present resurrection in Christ. God has declared to us the general resurrection of mankind—and indeed of all creation—under two signs: first under the historical sign of his own resur­rec­tion in A.D. 30; secondly under the promissory sign of our participation in the general resurrection at the end of time. “They are not, either of them, when the resur­rec­tion happens,” Capon explains; “they are simply two times when the eternal happening of the resurrection is sacramentalized—historically manifested—as really present. They are simply two points at which the truth under all points is thrust up for our attention in faith.”16

If all of this is true, when then is heaven?  Right now, of course, despite the obvious reasons why we think it cannot be.

If we are now in Christ, we are now in the new creation. Unless what we believe is a lie, it is just that simple, and the proof is as easy as the yoke of Christ. For if we are now dead with him, we are also now risen in him; and if we are now judged by him, we are also now reconciled in him. And therefore if heaven is the fullness of that reconciliation, it is that now, and we’re in it already. The only important sense in which we are not in it is the least important sense of all; and the only catch to it turns out to be not a catch but the ultimate liberation: our apprehension of heaven-face-fo-face waits only for the easiest, most inevitable thing of all—our literalphysical death. That alone has yet to be true; everthing else is true already. Therefore, we are as good as home now. Q.E.D.17

If at this point you are asking yourself, “Does not Capon’s vision of the universality of grace within the divine life of the Trinity entail apokatastasis?” know that I too am asking that question. All the necessary ingredients are there—or perhaps not quite all. In Between Noon and Three Capon discusses humanity’s innate desire for the Good. He doesn’t name Thomas Aquinas as his inspiration, but I’m confident that he was. Capon has even caught something of Thomas’s Neoplatonism. The following long quotations are often phrased in the past tense, as Capon is describing his intellectual journey to a radical understanding of grace and the mystery of the Kingdom:

Because the divine knowing—what the Father knows, and what the Word says in response to that knowing, and what the Spirit broods upon under the speaking of the Word—all that intellectual activity isn’t just day-dreaming. It’s the cause of everything that is. God doesn’t find out about creation; he knows it into being. His knowing has hair on it. It is an effective act. What he knows, is. What he thinks, by the very fact of his thinking, jumps from no-thing into thing. He never thought of anything that wasn’t.

But that meant his knowing was determinative of the being of each and every thing. And not simply of its static being, its existence considered as something just sitting there doing nothing. God’s knowing (the knowing of the Trinity, to be precise) has also to be seen as determinative of the dynamics of the being of everything thing—of the way it moves by desire toward the Highest Good. For all things arise out of nothing for one reason only: because of the desire of the Word and the Spirit to offer to the Father what he delights to know. Everything that exists is a delightful present, gift-wrapped and given, at the Father’s eternal un-birthday party. All creatures spring from and are borne upon a torrent of desire for the Father’s good pleasure; there is a river of longing flowing from the Son and the Spirit to the Father, a river whose streams make glad the City of God.18

So very good! I love Capon’s description of creation as rooted in the mutual knowing and loving of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He then proceeds to talk about the self-knowing of creatures:

But that in turn meant something more. Since it is the very creatures them­selves that are the gifts of the Beloved to the Father, the creatures them­selves are participants of that flow of desire; and they are participants by knowing themselves on whatever level they can manage. The apples of his eye, to whatever degree they can know and love themselves as apples, to that degree they really do participate in the knowledge and love of the Son for a Father who is crazy about apples.

In other words, the proper self-knowledge and self-love of every created thing is ipso facto a participation in the knowledge and love of God. The entire universe moves by desire for the Highest Good simply because every part of it loves what God loves—namely, its own being. The stones on the beach, the grass in the field, the rabbits in the woods, and the stars in the sky all move toward him by the most dependable of all motions; their own desire to know and love themselves.19

Shades of Dionysius the Areopagite! Maybe Capon even read his writings. Capon acknowl­edges the objection that ascribing desire to inanimate objects suffers from an extreme anthropomorphism, but he decides that it’s closer to the mark than not, especially for animals. Finally he comes to humanity’s natural desire for God:

The second objection, however, was less easily dismissed—though in the end, when I properly understood it, it turned out to be the biggest lead of all. It was that when you applied the grand rubric to human beings—when you said that every motion human beings make is a motion toward the Highest Good and works by means of our desire to know ourselves as the totality that God knows—you had to include Sin in the equation. All the horrible items in my list—Roberto and Vito at the moment the garrote was applied, Paul and Catherine at the fatal lunch in the Italian restaurant, and so on [here Capon is referring to two stories around which the book is structured (a mob execution of a gangster and the tragic affair of an adulterous couple]—had to be said to fall under the same rubric. Even those acts of knowledge that end up desiring what God does not desire had to be seen as expressions of the desire for the Highest Good by means of a desire to know what God knows. Perverted desires, perhaps—knowings-in-contradiction, inconvenient and dangerous alterations in self-knowledge—but still the same desire to know which is the only root of all motion and which, despite its perversion, is still a desire for the Highest Good.20

The above movement of thought leads Capon into a “re-membering” of the story of Adam and Eve. He posits the Fall as an alteration in the self-knowledge of the couple. From knowing themselves as oriented to God as their true good, they begin to know themselves outside of themselves. As Capon puts it: “It was by knowing themselves that they were supposed to desire the Highest Good; but instead, they parked that knowledge in a dumb tree and forsook their own center.”21 That was, of course, disastrous. When Adam and Eve then tried to know themselves, they couldn’t do it anymore: “‘And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked’—a discovery, of course, of nothing at all.”22 And from this alteration of human self-consciousness follows the tragic history of sin and death.

The Fall of humanity into disorder and death then leads Capon to speculate upon the dead mind of the dead Jesus before his resurrection: “For if the origin of evil lay in the altera­tion of human knowl­edge, then the end of evil—the quashing of it, the reconciliation of all its disastrous conse­quences—must lie somehow in a second alteration of that same knowl­edge.”23 The death of the Lord’s human consciousness thus becomes,” so Capon conjectures,

the device by which all the perverted alterations in human knowledge could finally be terminated and our full historical existence be seen as reconciled in the unaltered remembering that the Word of God offers to the Father. For our sake, Christ dies not simply to the law but to that whole contra­dic­tory way of knowing the good for which the law condemns us. By the deadness of his human mind and ours, we are literally absolved, set loose, from the unrecon­ciled knowledge of our times as we held them in our hands. And in the power of his resurrection, we are lifted up into nothing less than the reconciled knowledge of those times as they are held by the Second Person of the Trinity in both his unaltered divine mind and his risen human consciousness.24

A remarkable speculative proposal! As far as I know, this is original to Capon. I have never read any theologian who has speculated along these lines. The soteriological significance of the death of Jesus’ human consciousness has been ignored by even the best thinkers of the Church. Capon continues his speculation (forgive yet another long quotation):

And as Christ holds us risen in himself, the deadness of our own human minds—yours, mine, Vito’s, anybody’s—works the same way. All the horrible alteration, perversion, and contradiction in Vito’s knowledge, for example—the one and only root of all the evil in his life—is absolved, dissolved, in his death. Because in his death he loses everything that was his, good and bad. And when he comes out of his death into the power of Christ’s resurrection, he comes out with the full knowledge of everything in his life, good and bad, restored to him from the hand of God—held by him as it is in the risen mind of Christ. He sees it all with a knowing untainted by alteration, perversion, or contradiction (because the mind that knew it that way is dead forever); and he grasps it no longer as the evil it once tried to be but as the desire for the Highest Good it always was in the offering of the Word to the Father. If our Fall was our recognition, our re-knowing of the good as evil, then our Reconciliation is our re-cognition in Christ—our re-knowing in the risen humanity of the Word—of evil as the good he has made it once more.

And there finally stood the dock, clearly visible. The grand image of it all turned out to be nothing other than the great sacrament of reconciliation itself, the Eucharistic offering: “Do this in remembrance of me. . . . As often as ye eat of this bread and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord’s death till he come.” Do this, he says, for my anamnesis, for a remembering, a re-cog­ni­tion, a re-knowing, a re-presenting of my death. Take, he commands us, the worst thing you ever did to me—that most disastrous of all the disastrous alterations in your knowledge—and see it now, face it now, accept it now as I see it in my resurrection: as the best thing that ever happened to you. Take this worst of all the world’s Fridays in thankful anamnesis and recog­nize it now, celebrate it now as the Good I always meant and saw—and that you meant, too, but could never achieve in your contradiction. By the grace of my unaltered risen knowledge, see even the disasters of your history as the inexorable desire for the Highest Good I always knew them to be.

Nothing, therefore, is lost. Not a scrap of history. Not the smallest, whitest lie or the greatest genocidal holocaust. It is all held in a renewed knowledge—in an anamnesis, in a re-membering, a re-cognition by the grace that raises those whom death has absolved. . . . What God effects in the reconcil­iation does the work of forgetting without the danger of forgetting. He does better than forget: he remembers our evil in grace as the only real thing it could have been. He takes away the flaming sword between us and our self-knowledge and brings us home to ourselves.25

The vision is glorious! In the Kingdom of God that is the Father, Son, and Spirit we are are already forgiven, healed, sanctified, deified. However we might judge Capon’s specula­tions, still we must applaud his accomplishment. Yet sadly, Capon was unable to divine the logically necessary conclu­sion of universal salvation. He devotes a few pages to the topic in Between Noon and Three, but his arguments are unconvincing. The weight of Scripture and ecclesial tradition holds him back. He does not see that when resurrected, transfig­ured, renewed human beings are brought into full knowledge of the risen Christ’s knowl­edge, both of God and of themselves, they will be irresistibly drawn to unite themselves to the absolute love, joy, happiness, and rapture that is the life of the Holy Trinity. For that is our true end and consummation.26

 

Footnotes

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, The Mystery of Christ, pp. 25-26.
[2] Ibid., p. 72.
[3] Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three, pp. 120-121.
[4] Also see my article “God Creates the World From the Cross.”
[5] Noon and Three, p. 220.
[6] Ibid., p. 114.
[7] Mystery, pp. 86-87.
[8] Ibid., p. 90.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., p. 76.
[11] Phillip Cary, email to Alvin Kimel (7 March 2022).
[12] Mystery, pp. 169-170.
[13] Ibid., pp. 169-170.
[14] Ibid., p. 221.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid., 222.
[17] Noon and Three, p. 281.
[18] Ibid., pp. 235-236.
[19] Ibid., pp. 236-237.
[20] Ibid., p. 238.
[21] Ibid., p. 241.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid., p. 243.
[24] Ibid., pp. 243-244.
[25] Ibid., pp. 244-245.
[26] Capon acknowledges the possiblity of universal salvation, if we allow posit the freedom of the damned to change their minds:

Time (along with space) is a condition of creation as we hold it in our hands; eternity is a condition of that same creation as it is held in Christ’s. Accordingly, all moments in time are held for our eternal exploration of them. Therefore, even though the damned are deeply committed to only the most unreal exploration of those moments, the real moments themselves are always there in Christ, and it is at least possible for any or all of the inhabitants of the nail wound in Christ’s left hand to take a fresh, and refreshing, look at them. On their nine-millionth unreal revisit to a day that Jesus holds for them—to the day a red-winged blackbird flew across the gray sky, or to the time the beloved’s eyes shone purple in the sun—the way is open for them suddenly to catch on to what it was really all about and come staggering out of nowhere with one hugh laugh at all their fuss over nothing. (pp. 277-278)

In Between Noon and Three Capon describes the damned as dwelling in the nail wound in the Lord’s left hand; in his books on the parables, he changes the image to the spear wound in Jesus’ side. Whichever image one prefers, the wound has become purgatory. Sooner or later, Phil will figure things out and get the girl, and when he does he will awaken to the Groundhog Day party that has been going on around him for all eternity.

(27 March 2022; rev.)

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9 Responses to The Caponian Vision of (Almost) Apokatastasis

  1. I enjoyed reading these excerpts from Capon so much!

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  2. Rob says:

    I think your summation is quite brilliant, and I think I pretty much agree with you on all points. I’ve had a deep love for Capon ever since I discovered him over a decade ago (courtesy of the late Michael Spencer, aka the Internet Monk), but reading these recent posts of yours makes me want to go back and revisit some of his books that I haven’t read for a few years now.

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  3. Robert Fortuin says:

    Capon’s speculation on the dead mind of Christ raises the question as to whether, or how so, the mind and knowledge, exists as separate from intention and agency; can the mind really be isolated from volition, from act? Does creation’s fall, and its restoration, consist merely in a restoration of knowledge? No, and I would think Capon would agree with me here – but yet his parsing of the mind without considering the whole of the Human is misleading at best. It’s Christ’s complete human nature which dies on Golgotha, and the complete human is glorified, not merely the mind. I am not sure what made Capon suppose that evil’s origin lay merely in the alteration of the mind (“if the origin of evil lay in the alteration of human knowl­edge, then the end of evil—the quashing of it, the reconciliation of all its disastrous conse­quences—must lie somehow in a second alteration of that same knowledge”); in any case, if followed through this line leads to, or is a consequence of, an impoverished understanding of the human person and salvation.

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  4. brian says:

    I am ambivalent about Capon. He can be quite charming, and his exuberance for the gospel an antidote to timid or overly sedate exposition. At his best, his voice is winsome, a preacher who lures with delight and surprise rather than the lament or bathos of contemporary evangelicalism. Yet there is that strain of populist chattiness that offends my sense of style . . . and style turns out to be evocative of deeper theological import than many credit. Caveats aside, certainly, there is much to admire in Capon. I do agree with Robert that there seems to me something not quite robustly ontological in his speculation regarding the vanquishing of evil by the death of psychic individualism tied to sin and wandering error — though it remains provocative and interesting. By itself, probably not enough, but still intriguing. Since this is only a comment and not an article, I’m just going to assert — well, honestly, I often just assert anyhow. Like Capon, I’m not primarily interested in scholarly erudite argumentation. There’s a dualism that runs through Western theology indicated in the matter of faith versus works which recapitulates the dichotomy of grace and nature. Some try to get around the controversy; assert grace alone as both transcending and comprehending the elemental differences. Yet that formula or dicta or whatever you wish to name it tends to elide with faith so that it subtly or not so covertly turns out to be a rhetorical restatement of the faith side of the equation. The faith without works is dead aspect of things is then typically reframed. In Protestant versions of this theology, salvation is utterly free and gracious, whilst sanctification then becomes the labor of the soul striving for perfection. One might wonder if there is something artificial in this kind of distinction. If salvation properly understood is participation in divine life, the distinction between salvation and sanctification becomes unconvincing. Gregory of Nyssa’s eschatology of epektasis certainly envisions a kind of infinite progress into ever greater beatitude which must involve ever greater appreciation and appropriation of the already implicitly possessed Good.

    If one distinguishes grace and nature, whilst nonetheless perceiving in grace the deepest truth of nature, the stark dichotomies of Reformation and Counterreformation modes of thought appear insufficiently dexterous, callous to the porosity of being stressed so often in the writing of William Desmond. Fidelity is best touched upon as an act of love, apart from which faith can reduce to assent to abstract concepts even if those concepts are derived from revelation. And so, to borrow from Von Balthasar, love alone is credible. So, if one is going to make use of pithy declaration, love alone is the superlative expression of the gospel. And here, I think what is a bit frothy in Capon’s exposition may be evident. The absolute difference of economy between the scarcity and zero sum game competition of finite being and the infinite plenitude of triune joy founds the delight and power of Capon’s assertions. The realized eschatology of fully flourishing being confounds the world of antinomies encountered in fallen time. And I don’t have space or time or desire to sketch out what I have speculated upon for decades – I have a lengthy novel manuscript that touches on all this – so I shall merely assert here that a proper understanding of time, eternity, eschatology, the manner in which the gospel is both proleptically finished and existentially Not Yet means that our conceptual approach to these mysteries must leave much in either apophatic silence or attempt to bridge the gap in images that have passed through mystical night. Identities, in any event, do not follow the law of fore and aft, the linear, efficient causality of the machine. Something prior, different, before Abraham was I am, bespeaks life vibrant, infinitely charged beyond our limited, imperfect awareness. And still, none of this has broached the pleromatic unity of human nature, how Christ as the head of Creation is not an abstract sovereignty, but an intimate, ontological reality that explodes modern notions of atomized, nominalist individuals or of flesh as deathbound matter. There is an art involved in forgiveness that is tied to the passio essendi, the fore given that is neither before nor after, because the giftedness prior to what can be discursively known in order to be forgotten. Anamnesis is not a remembering of that kind of forgotten. Along with a moralized forgiveness, there is a shallow estimation of imagination, an undiscerning and coarse theory that relegates the imagination to subjective fantasy rooted in the psychic ephemera with merely transient effect.

    In any event, the aporetic contradiction between Capon’s implicit or announced apokatastasis and his retreat into conventional dogmatism when pressed on the logical consequences of his gospel proclamation ought to be resolved on a different level than simply asking him to be consistent. Let us say that love alone is the divine way, that Golgotha founds human time from all eternity because kenotic nurturing, prayer, the appeal of beauty, the discovery of self in quest and service of the Other is synonymous with Triune, perichoretic bliss. Then, perhaps, add in what is searching and correct in Hegel’s intuition that history is a fete, a teleological act. There is often confusion here. My own experience with forms of Catholic fundamentalism, unimaginative variants of Thomism, a slavishly moralized gospel can be discovered in Protestant and Orthodox exemplars. In the Catholic variety, pious certitudes equate the rightly incommunicable singularity of person with a purely individualist notion of salvation. Whilst corporate ecclesial being is recognized, and even the circumincession of Dante’s mystical Rose ardently acknowledged, all that is yet contingent, and subject to reversal or at least reduction, the result of human freedom which may refuse the gift eternally. In consequence, to speak of the We Are as more fundamental than the I am is apt to be taken as wooly thinking or presumptive. The flourishing, relational being of the eschaton is then utterly Not Yet or somehow aped by the Gadarene demoniac, an unraveling that is set against the western individual taken as the site of salvation.

    But this is false: the Origin is discovered in the Triduum. Identities would never have entered the time stream in the first place were they not tethered to the perfected amity of eternal adventure. Well, I cannot avoid a certain cryptic quality. Hamann had the same problem trying to speak of the Origin of language. Here is the hidden consequence: Christ must live out all creaturely lives, redeem the time. If you are “saved” you do so as an utterly free gift that is nonetheless union with Christ. That Cup that Christ must drink, you also drink. And so, all those attempts to turn eternal joy into something frivolous, a get out of jail free card, a winning lottery ticket, that sort of thing, miss love’s majesty, its ardor, the child’s refusal of necessary loss, the pagan tragic wisdom. The innocence of God is still the winsome desire for the Cross. What this means is that any notion of individual survival that allows within the permissive divine will even the self-damnation of the least soul or, in my view, the death doom into oblivion of the least creature, has not yet reckoned upon the radical demands of perfected love – or upon the eschatological plenitude that paradoxically founds temporal adventure, even the wandering in abyssal hells of noetic darkness. Here then, is the heft that might seem lacking in Capon, as well as the non-negotiable elemental community that the saints in their most perceptive moments cry out as the essential tang of divine love.

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  5. fgsjr2015 says:

    All scripture was written by human beings who unwittingly created God’s nature in their own fallible and often-enough angry, vengeful image. Sadly, too many of today’s institutional Christians believe and/or vocally behave likewise.

    I, a believer in Christ’s unmistakable miracles, therefor can imagine many ‘Christians’ likely finding inconvenient, if not annoying, trying to reconcile the conspicuous inconsistency in the fundamental nature of the New Testament’s Jesus with the wrathful, vengeful and even jealous nature of the Old Testament’s Creator. [Personally, I like to picture Jesus enjoying a belly-shaking laugh over a good joke with his disciples, now and then.]

    While he was no pushover, Jesus still was about compassion and charity. He clearly would not tolerate the accumulation of tens of billions of dollars by individual people — especially while so many others go hungry and homeless.

    But when a public person openly supports a guaranteed minimum income, he/she is nevertheless deemed communist/socialist, atheistic and therefore somehow evil by many institutional Christians. This, while Christ’s teachings epitomize the primary component of socialism — do not hoard morbidly superfluous wealth in the midst of poverty. To me, that truly is upside-down Christianity.

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    • Grant says:

      To be fair, that kind of division amongst Christians is more a specifically US cultural issue related to faultines and points of political and social reference points many US Christians get sucked into, just like all their other fellow citizens of that country. I assume significantly due to cultural battles becoming stuck on artificial left/right binaries, so the left was seen as the one against Christian worship and ‘traditional’ social-relational beliefs and the right there would defend them. A massive simplification definitely, but many evangelicals and others signed up to that, and supported everything else that came to characterize the right, seeking to justify it theological, it became a whole package. It also has to do with a long tradition, going back to the pilgram founders of seeing the new lsnds as a new Israel, and Americans as God’s new chosen people, blessed with a special mission. This idea remains very powerful and is fully embraced by secular and non-Christian Americans even as they have long since ditched thr overt and traditional “religious’ language, it remains fully on evidence in how thry talk and spesk about their country (to be fair, their far from the only one). Evrn thr current fade of ‘self-hatred’ is this, because behind this as well, the US remains the centre of conceptual universe, around which all revolves, even if it must be sn irredeemably villain to be so. Similar sentiments exist in Great Britain in relation to it’s past, the self-hatred is still a kind of national arrogance and self-importance disguised as the opposite.

      You’ll find Christians outside the US don’t fall under the same binaries, snd many fully support ‘socialist’ policies, seeing them as more in accord eith the Gospel. The only outiers are those evangelicals to influenced by their American fellows, and a few decades back the Catholic hierarchy was ambivalent to identified socialist groups due to the specter of Soviet Communism and it’s hostility to the Church (though this was far less the case amongst many rank and file, see say Oscar Romero), but still were also ambivalent to Western capitalism as well. And that suspicion has largely faded with that Communism’s fall and China’s morphing into a kind of authoritarian, state-controlled and directed aggressive capitalism (but then they were always two sides of the same coin, the worship of the infernal machine and Mammon, with humanity and all creation reduced to gears and raws resources to used and exploited in it’s perpetual service, the true anti-Christ of our time).

      But yes, most Christians elsewhere don’t have the same faultines their US brethern do andvoften political support the things you talk about.

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      • fgsjr2015 says:

        It’s the seemingly unconditional support from the institutional (or faux?) Christians that troubles me perhaps the most. … While many Protestants and Catholics have rejected Trump and his politics (though mostly quietly), regardless of his tempting conservative politics and pro-life professions, there nonetheless remains a vocal and politically active ‘Christian’ element celebrating Trump conservatism.

        Yet that blatant contradiction appears to take a muted back seat to Trump’s successful nominations of three conservative justices for the U.S. Supreme Court; and, from my understanding, he was strategically doing likewise with a number of lower courts. There also was his politically/diplomatically destabilizing (fire-stoking?) move of the U.S Embassy in Israel, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. …

        Like most people, I don’t blame his teachings for this; rather, it’s the money-minded, theocrats and zealots who misinterpret and/or plainly misrepresent themselves as being Christian that are the problem. … I believe Jesus must be spinning in heaven knowing what abhorrent behavior is unjustly connected to the faith.

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  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    For anyone who wants to know, I have added two quotations, one in the text proper and another in the footnotes. Your challenge is to find them. 🙂

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