Revisiting (yet again!) the Fifth Ecumenical Council

I have spent the past five days revising my article “Did the Fifth Ecumenical Council Condemn Universal Salvation?” I originally wrote the article six years ago and have returned to it from time to time to revise, expand, and correct it in light of new reading on my part. I think I have devoured almost all the scholarship available in English on this topic. I say almost because I’m sure there is some journal article out there which I haven’t discovered yet. Unfortunately, my linguistic incompetence prevents me from reading important material written in other languages, both ancient and modern. This is one reason I have not sought to publish my article in an academic journal. I am very much aware of my scholarly limitations. And now that the piece is published online, no academic journal will touch it.

I am more persuaded than ever that the Second Council of Constantinople (A.D. 553) did not formally, officially, properly, explicitly address the twin questions of apokatastasis and the everlastingness of eschatological punish­ment. It wasn’t on the agenda; the synod had other fish to fry. Why is this important? Because when it comes to doctrinal claims allegedly based on the decisions of ecumenical councils, the conciliar decrees must enjoy dogmatic priority. We need to know exactly what the dogmatic definition says and does not say. Only then can we discuss its proper interpretation.

And this is where matters become difficult. For a millennium and a half Christians have believed and taught that apokatastasis was definitively repudiated by the Fifth Ecumenical Council, yet the determinative primary source—namely, the acts (minutes) of the council—do not mention any discussion by the council fathers fathers on apokatastasis and damna­tion, nor do they cite any decrees on the question. One would think that would settle the matter, but for various reasons it has not.

History has also presented us with a set of anathemas, fifteen in number, that condemn teachings that can only be described as exotic. These teachings appear to have been taught by the sixth-century followers of Origen and Evagrius Ponticus. Contemporary historians believe the anathemas to be connected in some way to the Fifth Council—yet it needs to be noted that modern historians have not always believed this. Prior to the 20th century, many attributed them to the 543 Synod of Constantinople! (I bet no one told you that in catechism class.) In other words, because of the limitations and ambiguities of our primary and secon­dary sources, we are inescapably stuck with the fallible hypotheses, speculations, and judg­ments of historians. Who knows what they will opine in another century.

As you read (or reread) my essay, keep this one fact in mind: the acts of Constantinople II do not record any decrees addressing apokatastasis and the finality of damnation. That should keep you grounded in reality.

Did the Fifth Ecumenical Council Condemn Universal Salvation?

Posted in Byzantine theology, Eschatology | 2 Comments

Preaching the Astonishing Love of God with St Isaac the Syrian

MarIsaac_zpsac10bda7.jpg~original.jpegWho among the Eastern Fathers has written more eloquently, more profoundly about the astonishing love of God Almighty than St Isaac the Syrian? “In Isaac’s understanding,” states Met Hilarion Alfeyev, “God is above all immeasurable love. The conviction that God is love dominates Isaac’s thought: it is the source of his theological opinions, ascetical recom­mendations and mystical thought.”1 Sadly this great doctor of the divine love remains relatively un­known in English-speaking Christendom. Only in recent decades have his discourses become available in translation. Yet despite Isaac’s relative obscurity, I believe that his writings are necessary reading for all Orthodox and Catholic preachers, pastors, and con­fessors. Why do I say this? Because having heard my fair share of Orthodox and Catholic sermons over the past eight years, I am convinced that most Orthodox and Catholic preachers simply do not understand what it means to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. They do not under­stand that preaching is, first and foremost, the declaration of the God who is absolute love and mercy. The large majority of homilies I have heard may be characterized as exhortation:

  • exhortations to good behavior;
  • exhortations to imitate Christ in his care for the poor;
  • exhortations to repentance and the acquisition of the virtues;
  • exhortations to prayer and ascetical discipline;
  • exhortations to adhere to the dogmas and traditions of the Church.

But rarely, oh so rarely, have I heard the kerygmatic announcement of the surprising and unmerited mercy of God. Rarely have I heard the proclamation of the resurrection of Christ and the eschatological existence now freely given to us in the Church by the Spirit. Rarely have I heard of the God who leaves his flock in search for one lost sheep and upon finding it lays it on his shoulders and rejoicing takes it back to the flock. Rarely have I heard that God’s good will for us will triumph, come what may. Orthodox and Catholic preachers prefer to exhort, urge, counsel, warn, admonish their congregations. They do not understand that by itself this kind of preaching cannot save. Exhortation alone either drives away sinners away in despair or makes them into Pharisees frantically trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The prophet Amos declaimed: “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord God, ‘when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD'” (Amos 8:11). In the Church today we are experienc­ing a famine of the gospel. We are exhorted to act better, to pray better, to live better, to be better; but we are not given the only Word that can actually transform us and make us new. Only the proclamation of love effectively communicates the abundant life that Christ came to bring us. St Isaac the Syrian is a salutary antidote to the crisis of preaching in the Church.

Isaac’s reflections on the divine love are scattered throughout his discourses–the First Part and the Second Part. I cannot point to a single homily or two in which Isaac expounds on the love of God at great length, though Homily 38 in the Second Part is a good place to begin. Fortunately Alfeyev has written a fine introduction to Isaac’s mystical thought, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, and it is readily available from Orthodox bookstores and internet booksellers. Every preacher should read and inwardly digest this book. I wish I had been acquainted with the discourses of St Isaac during my years of active ministry. Perhaps I would have been a better preacher. I know I would have been a better disciple of Jesus Christ.

For Isaac the world is a gift of the divine love. It begins in love and will be consummated in love. This love is unconquerable and irresistible, not because it coerces—God forbid!—but because it woos us into the Trinitarian life through its intrinsic beauty, truth, and good­ness:

What profundity of richness, what mind and exalted wisdom is God’s! What compassionate kindness and abundant goodness belongs to the Creator! With what purpose and with what love did He create this world and bring it into existence! What a mystery does the coming into being of this creation look towards! To what a state is our common nature invited! What love served to initiate the creation of the world! This same love which initiated the act of creation prepared beforehand by another dispensation the things appropriate to adorn the world’s majesty which sprung forth as a result of the might of His love.

In love did He bring the world into existence; in love does He guide it during this its temporal existence; in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised. And since in the New World the Creator’s love rules over all rational nature, the wonder at His mysteries that will be revealed then will captivate to itself the intellect of all rational beings whom He has created so that they might have delight in Him, whether they be evil or whether they be just. (II.38.1-2)

What a magnificent passage! God has created the world in love and for love. Angels and human beings alike have been brought into existence to delight in the divine mercy and to enjoy eternal communion with the God who is love. Everything that God has done, every­thing that he does in the present and will do in the future, is an expression of love. “Among all his actions,” Isaac declares, “there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love, and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of his dealings with us” (II. 39.22). Here is the purpose of creation and the Incarnation, “to reveal his boundless love to the world.”2

The love of God is indiscriminate, promiscuous, prodigal. It intends every rational creature. As Jesus teaches, the Father who is in heaven “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:45). There is no one “who is to the front of or to the back of God’s love. Rather, He has a single equal love which covers the whole extent of rational creation, all things whether visible or invisible: there is no first or last place with Him in this love for any single one of them” (II.38.2). There is no before or after, no greater or lesser. The divine love addresses and upholds all equally. St Isaac firmly rejects the Calvinist thesis that God has predestined some human beings for damnation. Such a thesis is unthinkable, indeed blasphemous. Every being created by God is loved by God. Our disobedience does not change the character of the Father; our sin does not diminish his love for us. “There is no hatred or resentment in His nature,” Isaac explains, “no greater or lesser place in His love, no before or after in His knowledge” (II.38.5). No matter how much disorder we cause in the world, no matter how grievous our sin, no matter how horrific the evil we commit, God’s salvific will for us does not change. He eternally wills our good, and in his wise providence he will accomplish this good. “There exists with Him a single love and compassion which is spread out over all creation, a love which is without alteration, timeless, and everlasting” (II.40.1).

The providence of love encompasses all material and spiritual dimensions:

Let us consider then how rich in its wealth is the ocean of His creative act, and how many created things belong to God, and how in His compassion He carries everything, acting providentially as He guides creation; and how with a love that cannot be measured He arrived at the establishment of the world and the beginning of creation; and how compassionate God is, and how patient; and how He loves creation, and how He carries it, gently enduring its importunity, the various sins and wickednesses, the terrible blasphemies of demons and evil men. Then, once someone has stood amazed, and filled his intellect with the majesty of God, amazed at all these things He has done and is doing, then he wonders in astonishment at His mercifulness, how, after all these things, God has prepared for them another world that has no end, whose glory is not even revealed to the angels, even though they are involved in His activities insofar as is possible in the life of the spirit, in accordance with the gift with which their nature has been endowed. That person wonders too at how excelling is that glory, and how exalted is the manner of existence at that time; and how insig­ni­ficant is the present life compared to what is reserved for creation in the New Life; and how, in order that the soul’s life will not be deprived of that blessed state because of misusing the freewill it has received, He has devised in His mercifulness a second gift, which is repentance, so that by it the soul’s life might acquire renewal every day and thereby every time be put aright. (II.10.19)

The merciful God has provided a way for sinful creatures to avail themselves of the mercy of God—repentance. Nor is repentance something beyond our capabilities, says Isaac. God understands our weaknesses and limits. Repentance involves the whole person, mind, will, conscience, heart, “so that it might be easy for everyone to acquire benefit from it, both quickly and at any time” (II.10.19).

The infinite love of the Creator is dramatically displayed in the Incarnation of the Son. Why did God become man? Why did Jesus die on the cross? Certainly not to propitiate an angry deity. If God’s sole purpose were to achieve the remission of sins, he could have accom­plished this end by another means. The cross is the perfect and compelling revelation of the divine mercy. Isaac understood that sinners would not and could not believe in the possi­bil­ity of their reconciliation with their Maker without a revelation embodied in the terrible suffering and bloody death of God himself:

If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe himself in the body, using gentleness and humility in order to bring the world back to his Father? And why was he stretched out on the cross for the sake of sinners, handing over his sacred body to suffering on behalf of the world? I myself say that God did all this for no other reason than to make known to the world the love that he has, his aim being that we, as a result of our greater love arising from an awareness of this, might be captivated by his love when he provided the occasion of this manifes­ta­tion of the kingdom of heaven’s mighty power—which consists in love—by means of the death of his Son.3

God must die on the cross. Only thus can human hearts be pierced and turned away from self and sin; only thus can mankind apprehend the true identity and nature of their Creator and be converted to the path of salvation. It is the divine love, manifested in the humility and death of the Son, that transfigures sinners and brings them into everlasting life. The divine charity is cruciform.

But the sum of all is that God the Lord surrendered His own Son to death on the Cross for the fervent love of creation…. This was not, however, because He could not have redeemed us in another way, but so that His surpassing love, manifested hereby, might be a teacher unto us. And by the death of His only-begotten Son He made us near to Himself. Yeah, if He had had any­thing more precious, He would have given it to us, so that by it our race might be His own. (I.71)

St Isaac quotes the famous verse from the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16).

Why do we not hear this message of the astonishing love of God every Sunday, Sunday after Sunday, in our Churches? This is the gospel. There is no other gospel worth preaching, no other gospel worth hearing. In a world filled with wickedness, suffering, despair, and death, we desperately need to hear the proclamation of the omnipotent power of God’s love and mercy. We need to know that he treasures us, that he has a plan for us, that his saving will for us and the world will triumph. Only thus does it become possible for us to cooperate with him in prayer and good works. In the words of the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar:

Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed. This is the achievement, the ‘work’ of faith: to recognize this absolute prius, which nothing else can surpass; to believe that there is such a thing as love, absolute love, and that there is nothing higher or greater than it; to believe against all the evidence of experience (‘credere contra fidem‘ like ‘spere contra spem‘), against every ‘rational’ concept of God, which thinks of him in terms of impassibility or, at best, totally pure goodness, but not in terms of this inconceivable and senseless act of love.4

Without the preaching of the boundless love of God enfleshed in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, the Church has no reason to exist; indeed it cannot exist, for it is the Word of love that creates the new life that is the Church. Without love, there is no theosis, no repentance, no sanctification, only Pharisaic zeal and deadly dogmatism.

(16 March 2013; rev.)


[1] Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, pp. 35-36.

[2] Quoted in Alfeyev, p. 36.

[3] Quoted in Alfeyev, p. 52.

[4] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible, pp. 101-102.

(Go to “Scandalous Injustice of Grace”)

Posted in Isaac the Syrian, Preaching | 11 Comments

“For who would not blush for shame, strip himself of his possessions, and embrace a life of poverty when he saw an apostle carrying neither bag, nor even bread which is so very essential?”

Besides teaching himself the Lord also sent out the Twelve in pairs. The reason for sending them in pairs was so that they would go more readily, for they might not have been so willing to set out all alone, and, on the other hand, if he had sent more than two together, there would not have been enough apostles to cover all the villages. So he sent them two by two: “two are better than one,” as Ecclesiastes says.

He commanded them to take nothing with them, neither bag, nor money, not bread, so as to teach them to despise riches, and to make people ashamed when they saw them preaching poverty by their own lack of possessions. For who would not blush for shame, strip himself of his possessions, and embrace a life of poverty when he saw an apostle carrying neither bag, nor even bread which is so very essential?

The Lord instructed them to stay in the same house so as not to give the appearance of restlessness, as though they moved from one family to another in order to satisfy their stomachs.

On the other hand, he told them to shake the dust off their feet when people refused to receive them, to show that they had made a long journey for their sakes and they owed them nothing; they had received nothing from them, not even their dust, which they shook off as a testimony against them—a testimony of reproach. “Be sure of this, I tell you: Sodom and Gomorrah will fare better on the Day of Judgment” than those who will not receive you. The Sodomites were punished in this world, so they will be punished less severely in the next. What is more, no apostles were sent to them. For those who refused to receive the apostles greater sufferings are in store.

“So they set out to preach repentance. They cast out many demons, and anointed many sick people with oil and cured them.”

The fact that the apostles anointed the sick with oil is mentioned only by Mark, but the practice is also referred to in his general letter by James, the brother of the Lord, who says: “Are there any sick people among you? Let them send for the elders of the Church and let these pray over them, anointing them with oil.” Oil is beneficial for the relief of suffering, and it also produces light and makes for cheerfulness. It symbolizes the mercy of God and the grace of the Spirit, through which we are freed from suffering and receive light, gladness, and spiritual joy.

St Theophylact of Ochrid

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St. Maximus on Humanity’s Liberation from the World and Nature: A Translation of Letter 9

by Jordan Daniel Wood

Brief prefatory note

Below sits a working English translation of Maximus’s Ep 9. It previews an ongoing translation project of all his extant letters, the details of which I will disclose in the near future. The letter’s recipient, Thalassius, is the figure to whom Maximus addressed his monumental Quaestiones ad Thalassium, and seems to have been an abbot of a group of monks somewhere in North Africa. We know neither the proximate date of this letter nor the troubling events to which Maximus alludes at the end.1

Some remain uneasy over certain trends in contemporary theology that would see “nature”—an admittedly multivalent notion—as a hindrance to creation’s perfection. What strikes me in this brief letter is the way Maximus presents nature as both rational intermediary between and existential barrier to our primordial vocation to become God. Man as methorios, “liminal boundary,” is still not true man, at least if humanity’s truth appears only in its actual end. That end and beginning is Jesus Christ (QThal 60). Only a God-human is truly human. Which is why Maximus observes in this letter that our own nature, abstracted from Christ, proves no less a condition of the Fall than bestial passion. If Christ is Adam, pure nature is a source of Adam’s original sin, not some display of divine sovereignty. Anything less than personal, which is to say hypostatic and erotic, ascent into God is not yet God’s true creation. Astonishing in all this the implication that what seems like reverential reserve, an ostensibly dignified resolve never to presume we could be God in any sense, is itself a rejection of the divine intent in creation. Reason without love is natural; but we’re to become spiritual. Nature without persons is Fall.

* * *

Letter 9

To Thalassius the priest and hegumen

[PG 91, 445C–449A]

They say there are three things that move human beings. Or rather there are three things toward which human beings are freely moved through their own intention and disposition2: God, nature, and the world. When one of these draws someone, it pulls that person away from the other two and changes the person moved into itself; it makes that person by position into what the mover itself is known to be by nature—without, of course, making that person of the mover’s own nature.3 For God naturally preserves what constitutes the human being when God makes a human being into God by position, insofar as deification is a supra-natural good given to the one moved and severs the person clean from the other two, I mean from the world and nature. And if nature moves a man then this manifests what that human being is in himself—he finds himself the intermediary between God and the world, partaking of neither through his disposition. But if the world bears someone along, it renders the human a beast. In other words it renders a man moved solely by the flesh, creating passibility in him through deception, which sets him far off from both God and nature and teaches him how to make every sort of thing that opposes nature.

​Thus the extremes, God and the world, as well as the intermediary, nature, are wont to vie with one another in an effort to drag away the human being. Now the mean is the liminal boundary of the these extremes [448A]. So if it inclines man to set his gaze only on the mean itself then it drives him away equally from both extremes: he does not concede to reverting to God, yet he is also ashamed to let himself sink toward the world. When therefore a person is moved toward one of these terms according to interior disposition, that term instantaneously alters his activity and changes his designation so that he is called either fleshly or natural or spiritual. The work and distinctive mark of fleshly man is knowing how to produce only evil; that of natural man is desiring neither to produce nor to suffer evil; that of spiritual man is desiring to produce only good and, if necessary, to suffer beautifully for the cause of virtue—even eagerly embracing it.

​If then, my blessed friend, you long to be moved by the Spirit of God—and I know you do—expel from yourself the world and nature. Or rather sever yourself from them entirely: do not avoid enduring wrong, do not refuse to bear mockery and violence. In a word, when you suffer evil never cease to do good to those who do evil to you, and refer everything done to God’s grace and virtue in accordance with the saying: “If someone wants to take you to court and take your tunic, give him your cloak as well.”4 And again according to the blessed apostle who says: “Reviled, we bless; persecuted, we endure; blasphemed, we pray.”5

​If you wish to be persuaded by me, blessed servant of God, it remains only to render grace to those troubling you and, if needful, to endure all their punishments. Instead bless when you are reviled, endure when persecuted, and pray when blasphemed. Do this and you will not become fleshly, knowing and desiring to do only wrong. Nor will you become natural, unwilling to endure wrong. Rather you will become spiritual, voluntarily and knowingly doing good alone, training yourself in ascesis, eagerly and deftly suffering the evil of those who wish it upon you. Do all this for the sake of virtue and cast your gaze upon Jesus, the primordial cause of our salvation.6 In exchange for every good, which no one had ever been capable of knowing how to grasp firmly, he patiently endured every horrifying thing, which no one had endured from sinners—and yet he did so for sinners. For the aim of the Giver of the commandments was to liberate humanity from the world and nature. Which is why whoever does not obey is condemned, and why it is futile for parents in this world to use progeny as an excuse < to disobey the commandments >, or for those who put their relations before the monastic life of ascetic labors in order to make their obligations more “reasonable,” rendering the commandments fairly light. If we were to accept these as viable paths, we would have to presume that the Lord has not in any sense written the law of salvation after all. Hence the psychical man—which is what I think the scriptural account calls the natural man. For, as the experts in these matters say, one contemplates nature’s distinguishing property by considering animate beings (τὰ ψυχούμενα) in themselves; or to put it plainly, by considering anything subject to generation and corruption.

​I have written such things to you, master, because I sensed strongly [449A] through your message that you are perturbed by these events. Still I ask you, worthy father, on behalf of Maximus your servant and disciple, to pray with power as your power permits to the One who has the power to forgive sins.



[1] Marek Jankowiak and Phil Booth, “A New Date-List of the Works of Maximus the Confessor,” in The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor. Edited by Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil (Oxford: OUP, 2015) 69, speculate that the remark might refer to some sort of trouble with Thalassius’s pro-monothelite bishop.

[2] Maximus uses three technical terms here, each a modality of freedom (βουλήσει τε καὶ γνώμῃ κατὰ προαίρεσιν). In Opsuc 1 Maximus describes them thus: “imaginative intention” (βούλησις) aims at a general end, “free choice” (παροαίρεσις) determines the course of action toward that general end, all of which inculcates a “disposition” or “inclination” (γνωμή). His phenomenology of freedom is actually more complicated. The crucial point here is that all three modes involve conscious and voluntary deliberation. We are passively moved but never without our active (if deluded) assent.

[3] “By nature” (φύσει) vs. “by position” (θέσει) form a recurrent pairing across Maximus’s thought. The main idea is that a being can become characterized in fact by what it is not in itself. Nature furnishes the inherent potencies in a being, but those potencies must be reduced to act and can be reduced wrongly. False rational motion (i.e. sin or vice) is still motion, still some sort of actualization. The deeper distinction lurking even here is hypostasis (“person” or “subsistence”) vs. physis or ousia (“nature” or “essence”). Neochalcedonians such as Maximus held that the latter never actually exist except in and as the former. So every action concretizes what did not really exist anywhere else, i.e. that person’s way of actualizing this or that natural potency. Our spiritual life is an attempt at true Incarnation (deification) rather than false incarnations (decreation).

[4] Matt 5.40.

[5] 1 Cor 4:12-13.

[6] Cf. Heb 12.2.

Posted in Jordan Wood, Theology | Tagged | 22 Comments

Perfect Being Theology, Theistic Personalism, and the Eclipse of the Apophatic


Readers of this blog are well-acquainated with the term “theistic personalism.” It was coined by Brian Davies to describe what he believes to be a problematic understanding of divinity, commonly advanced by analytic philosophers. He specifically names Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, perhaps the two best-known contemporary Christian philosophers on the planet. Unlike the metaphysically simple God of classical Christianity, theistic personal­ists begin with the notion of God as an incorporeal person. “Person” here means just what it does in our ordinary discourse—a being that possesses intelligence and will. To this divine Person we may attribute various properties, such as omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, righteousness, benevolence, and so on. These properties are typically determined by perfect-being extrapolation and the plain reading of the Scrip­tures. Philosophers of the analytic school debate among themselves which properties may be properly attributed to the Deity. Does God foreknow the future, for instance? Some say yes, others no. How can even the Creator know what hasn’t happened yet? Many theistic personalists also divine passibility and mutability. “Indeed,” comments Davies,

many of them make a point of doing so. Why? Largely because they think that, if God is impassible and unchangeable, then he cannot be taken seriously as a person. The persons we call people are changed by what they encounter and discover. They are modified by other things. And, says the theistic personalist, this is how it must be with God. An impassible and unchanging God would, they argue, be lifeless. Such a God, they often add, would also not be admirable. We admire people who can be moved by tragic events. We admire people who can become elated when good things happen. And, theistic personalists sometimes say, we can admire God only if he, like admirable people, is suitably affected by the good and the bad which occurs in the world.1

Theistic personalists also commonly reject the metaphysical attribute of divine simplicity, both because they deem the notion philosophically incoherent and because it ostensibly contradicts the biblical portrayal of divinity. The God of the Bible is, if nothing else, a distinct individual with distinct properties and perfections. As William Lane Craig remarks: “the doctrine of divine simplicity is one that has no biblical support at all and, in my opinion, has no good philosophical arguments in its favor.”

Classical theists wonder whether the deity of theistic personalism can be properly described as God. David B. Hart is characteristically blunt:

Many Anglophone theistic philosophers …, reared as they have been in a post-Fregean intellectual environment, have effectively broken with clas­sical theistic tradition, adopting a style of thinking that the Dominican philoso­pher Brian Davies calls theistic personalism. I prefer to call it monopoly­the­ism myself (or perhaps “mono-poly-theism”), since it seems to me to involve a view of God not conspicuously different from the poly­theis­tic picture of the gods as merely very powerful discrete entities who possess a variety of distinct attributes that lesser entities also possess, if in smaller measure; it differs from polytheism, as far I can tell, solely in that it posits the existence of only one such being. It is a way of thinking that suggests that God, since he is only a particular instantiation of various concepts and properties, is logically dependent on some more comprehen­sive reality embracing both him and other beings. For philosophers who think in this way, practically all the traditional metaphysical attempts to understand God as the source of all reality become impenetrable.2

Theistic personalists emphatically reject any suggestion that in their prayers and reflections they are intending any other deity but the Holy Creator rendered in the biblical witness and worshipped by Christians for the past two thousand years. All affirm that he is a metaphys­ically necessary being, existing in all possible worlds. As Swinburne puts it: “His existence is not merely an ultimate brute fact, but the ultimate brute fact.”3  Most affirm that God created the world from out of nothing and continues to sustain it by his providential will. How then can the personalist Deity be compared to a god? Aren’t the classical theists being more than a bit unfair?

Barry Miller does not think so. In chapter 1 of his book A Most Unlikely God, he contrasts the classical theistic understanding of divine nature and attributes with what he calls “perfect-being theology.” He cites Thomas Morris as a notable practitioner of this “Ansel­mian” method. Given the limited availability of Miller’s book, I quote him at length:

In challenging the controlling notion of God employed by perfect-being theologians, I have no wish to deny that he is indeed the absolutely perfect being. What I shall be denying, however, is their particular understanding of that notion. Aquinas, for example, understands a perfect being as Actus Purus, a being devoid of all potentiality; Maimonides conceives of it as One, a being ‘without any composition of plurality of elements’; but Anselmians understand it as a being having the maximally consistent set of great-making properties or perfections. Whether the Anselmians’ view is acceptable, however, depends on what they mean by a perfection. As explained by Morris, it is a property that fulfils the following conditions:

1.01.  It is better to have than not to have.
1.02.  It may vary in degree.
1.03.  It is ‘constituted by the logical maximum of an upwardly bounded, degreed great-making property.’ Omnipotence and omnipotence are offered as examples.

The procedure for determining which great-making properties belong to God could hardly be simpler, namely, if having property P contributes to the excellence of a thing that does have P, then an absolutely perfect being has P, otherwise the being does have not have P. Among those that pass the test are omnipotence, omnibenevolence, omniscience, and indeed all the perfections.

The Anselmians’ notion of a perfection has immediate implications for their understanding of God’s transcendence over his creatures. They succeed in setting him well apart from his creatures, many of which may perhaps have great-making properties but no one of which would have even one of them to the maximum degree possible. On this view, the gulf between God and creatures would therefore be wide, and perhaps unimaginably so, though it would not constitute an absolute divide. It is difficult to see how it could be more than a difference of degree, since the terms indicating his properties—‘powerful,’ ‘knowing,’ ‘loving,’ ‘merciful,’ ‘generous’ and so on—seem to be univocally of God and creatures. True, when applied to God, those terms are often qualified as ‘maximally powerful,’ ‘all knowing,’ ‘infinitely merciful,’ unsurpassably generous,’ but the qualifiers do nothing to change the sense of the terms they qualify. Hence, the role of ‘maximally,’ ‘all,’ ‘infinitely,’ and ‘unsurpassably’ cannot be that of alienans adjectives like ‘decoy’ in ‘decoy duck,’ or ‘negative’ in ‘negative growth,’ each of which does serve to change the sense of the term it qualifies. Rather, they are merely superlatives, which of course leave quite intact the sense of the terms they qualify. Thus under­stood, God’s properties are merely human ones, albeit extended to the maximum degree possible.

As conceived of by perfect-being theologians, therefore, God turns out to be simply the greatest thing around, some kind of super-being that would be quite capable of evoking admiration and wonder, but who could scarcely be described as being absolutely transcendent, or as being worthy of worship. The point is that the terms that perfect-being theology predicates of God are being used in precisely the sense that ipso facto precludes their being predicated of a God who is absolutely transcendent, since it is a sense in which they could equally be predicated of creatures. The difference between creatures and any God of whom they really could be predicated would therefore be simply one of degree. Although this may seem to be a hard saying, it follows straightforwardly from the fact that absolute transcen­dence cannot be attained merely by extending human attributes to whatever degree is deemed to be ‘maximal.’ The Anselmians’ God is therefore anything but ineffable, for not only can we talk about him, we can do so in precisely the same terms as those we use in talking about humans. Such a view succeeds in presenting God in terms that are comfortingly familiar, but only at the price of being discomfitingly anthropomorphic.4

The give-away here for Miller is the univocity of language for God. For perfect being theology, to say that God is “wise” and that Plato is “wise” is basically to say the same thing, though God’s wisdom is also qualified as (infinitely?) greater. In this sense, the eternal Creator and his creatures share all sorts of properties in common. The difference between them is relative, not absolute—at least so it appears. For the classical theist, on the other hand, to affirm the univocity of language for God is to reduce divinity to the status of a finite entity. On the basis of creaturely perfections, via their participation in the divine perfections, we may speak of God analogically; nonetheless the interval between the two remains infinite, ineffable, absolute. We do not know how our language for God applies to him, for we do not comprehend his transcendent essence. And so the debate continues, world without end.

The contrast between the God of theistic personalism and the God of the Church Fathers and medieval doctors is stark. Although St Basil of Caesarea and St Gregory of Nyssa may have affirmed the univocal use of language when speaking of the divine propria, they also insisted upon divine simplicity and the incomprehensibility of the divine essence. How they pulled this off is the burden of Andrew Radde-Gallwitz’s ground-breaking book Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity.5 But for the Cappadocian brothers, God remains absolute, incomprehensible Mystery, as he was for St Augustine, St Maximus the Confessor, and St Thomas Aquinas.



[1] Brian Davies, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, chap. 2, pp. 12-13. I am told that the first edition of his book is to be preferred. I have not compared the first and the third. A fourth edition was published last Fall.

[2] David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, pp. 127-128.

[3] Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism, p. 277.

[4] Barry Miller, A Most Unlikely God, pp. 1-3.

[5] Radde-Gallwitz has recently changed his mind and now believes that St Gregory affirmed a stronger version of absolute divine simplicity than the formulation he explicated in his book. See his essay “Gregory of Nyssa and Divine Simplicity,” Modern Theology 35 (July 2019): 452-466.


(30 May 2016; rev.)

Posted in Philosophical Theology | 57 Comments

A Dream of the Great Assize

For fifteen years Kayla was an important part of the life of our family. She was a Husky/​Ger­­man Shepherd mix, had a sweet disposition, loved and protected the kids, and adored my wife and me. She also had a sonorous, deep-throated howl. When Kayla sang, one heard echoes of ancient wolves joyously running through the mountains. I loved her dearly and was frequently accused, not least by our kids, of spoiling her to excess. Nolo contendere. After a full life, she fell asleep in 2011.

My dream of the Last Judgment:

The incarnate Lord returns in glory and gathers the quick and the dead around his Throne. His voice thunders out:

“Can anyone provide one good reason why I should permit this man, Alvin, son of Alvin, to enter into my Kingdom?”


“Is there no one who will speak on his behalf?”


I look over at my wife and children. They hang their heads.

“Has he done no good works?”


“He was a priest of Holy Church for several decades. Did he not preach at least one good sermon?”


“What of you, his devoted blog followers? Surely Alvin must have written some insightful articles?”

The terrible silence deepens. 

My heart sinks. I try to remember my once well-articulated theology of unconditional grace, but all it has become hazy … blurred … abstruse. No words will come. My mouth goes dry. Taste of chalk.

Terror grips my soul.

“No one?”


The King appears to be prepared to render his verdict … but then a glorious sound erupts from the multitude.

Aroooo! Aroooo! Aroo-aroo-arooooo!

And Christ smiles.

I miss the howls of my Kayla. I pray to hear them again at the great assize.

(15 May 2017; rev.)

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Me and my Dogs

Dogs have long been an important part of my life. My first dog, so I was told by my moth­er, was a Cocker Spaniel. I do not know how how old I was (4? 5?). It was run over by a furni­ture van in front of the house. Apparently I saw it happen. I have no memory of the tragic event; I have no memory of the Cocker nor of its name. Strange.

When I was nine or ten, we drove out to Potomac, Maryland to pick up a Collie puppy. I think it was January, because I have always thought of her as my birthday present. I was born on January 30th. We named her Missy. My parents told me that I would have special responsibilities in caring for her. I always considered her as my dog. My sister Ninon would no doubt challenge the claim (she loved her very much, too); but that is how I thought of her. Missy was my dog, and I was her boy. I was the one who accompanied her through obedi­ence training. I was the one who scooped up her poop in the yard. I remem­ber taking her on walks throughout the neighborhood and down to the Potomac. On one occasion I was attacked by a Great Dane, and Missy jumped in front and fended off the larger dog. During Easter break of my freshman year in college, she was hit by a car and mortally injured. I remember going to the vet’s office with my family to bid her goodbye. I walked into the room, got down on my knees, and spoke her name into her ear. Missy immediately opened her eyes and looked at me. Her tail wagged once or twice. The vet said it the first time she had acknowledged anyone. I cried. We did not stay for her death. I do not know if my father ordered her to be euthanized or whether she died naturally. None of us wanted her to suffer. I wish I had a photograph of her to share with you. Picture Lassie.

A dog did not return into my life for many years. Christine and I chose not to add a dog to our family during our thirteen years in Maryland, as the rectory was located on a busy road. But after we moved to Charleston, South Carolina we got a Husky-Shepherd puppy within six or seven months. The year was 1996. Naming her proved difficult. We could not come up with a name upon which everyone could agree. One afternoon, while sitting at the family computer, Aaron suddenly remarked, “How about ‘Kayla’?” Everyone nodded in recognition of her true name.

Kayla was on the smallish size (45 lbs or so), but she had a deep resonant bark that sug­gest­ed a much larger dog. Sometimes we could coax her into a Husky howl. “Sing, Kayla, sing,” we would say to her. The howl of her ancestors did not come easily to her. She usually had to attempt it several times before she found her voice. It was a beautiful sound. I loved to listen to her sing.

Kayla was very dear to me. As a puppy she would always pee with excitement when she first saw me in the morning; but as she moved out of puppyhood, it became clear that she had chosen Christine as her favorite human. I tried (unsuccessfully) not to be jealous. For some reason the kids never bonded to Kayla as deeply as we hoped they would. Kayla lived to the age of fifteen. She accompanied us from Charleston to Johnstown, Pennsylvania; from Johnstown to Newark, New Jersey; from Newark to Roanoke, Virginia.

In Johnstown we lived in an old house built in the 20s. The electric meter was in our base­ment. Once a month a man would come to take a reading of power usage—almost always a different person. Kayla never took notice of them. She was a friendly dog and welcomed strangers. But on one occasion she began to growl when my wife let the meter man into the house. Her hackles went up. And despite attempts to quiet her, she continued to growl. This was unusual and Christine took notice. The man asked for the dog to be locked in a room. Christine politely but firmly declined and instead put Kayla on the leash and kept her by her side. There was something about the guy that the family guardian did not like. The man took his reading and quickly left. He never returned.

In 2008 we moved to Roanoke. By 2011 Kayla’s health had begun to decline. She now lived in severe joint pain. Walking was difficult. She lost her patience with other people but especially with small children. And then one day she bit the toddler son of my niece. We knew then that the decision we had barely talked about had to be made. It was terrible. To me it felt like a betrayal of her deep love for us. We stopped the pain medication we had been forcing her to take. Her unease and edginess disappeared. “I am ready,” she seemed to be telling us. “All is well.” A week before our appointment with death, Aaron and I dug a grave for her in the backyard. He made some black humor jokes to lighten my mood. The eutha­nasia itself was very peaceful. One moment she was alive and then she wasn’t. There were many tears. We took her body home. It was raining, nay, pouring, and the grave was filled with water. We desperately bailed out the hole, but we could not keep pace with the hard-pouring rain. Finally we put Kayla’s corpse into the grave and shoveled in the dirt. I was weeping all the time. This was not how I had planned her funeral. It was awful.

Christine and I agreed that we would wait six months before making a decision to get a new dog, but within a month she declared, “I want a dog.” I suggested a Collie and she agreed. I began to search the internet for Collie puppies but none were to be found any­where near us. I contacted a breeder in Leesburg and asked if puppies were in her near future. She said no but she did have a one year old female she could sell us. Apparently they had intended her to become a show dog, but that had not worked out. She emailed me a photograph. She was beautiful. I showed the photo to Chris, and we immediately made the decision to drive to Leesburg. The breeder took us into the basement of her home. Treasure (that was her given name) was in the grooming room. We sat down on the floor and waited. The door opened and out came this magnificent, stunningly gorgeous creature. She walked right past Chris­tine and came to me. She put her head under my armpit and nestled for what seemed an eternity. Her fur was long and luxuriously thick. Her eyes black, with no white visible. It’s hard for me to describe the joy I felt. It was a choosing, a divine election. Christine smiled at me and said to the breeder, “We’ll take her.” When we got home, we gave her the name Tiriel.

How did we come up with “Tiriel”? We wanted to give her a name from either the Silmar­il­lion or Lord of the Rings, but we couldn’t find one we liked. As I perused the internet, I stumbled upon the fan-fiction story “Watcher of the Stars by the Sea.” It tells the story of the daughter of Círdan the Shipwright, one of the great lords of the Sindar. Her name is Tiriel. I did not read the story. I just loved the sound of the word and immediately shared it with Christine, who also fell in love with it. It comes from the Sindarin noun “watching.” How appropriate. I often find Tiriel silently gazing upon me.

Tiriel is very special. Her specialness became evident to us during the year after Aaron’s death. His death was devastating. Not a day passed when we did not find ourselves weeping uncontrollably. One day I was downstairs in my office. I began to cry and eventually found myself on the floor. My body racked with the violent sobbing. And then all of a sudden there was Tiriel, licking the tears from my face. She did not stop until the weeping stopped. In this way she ministered to us both throughout that terrible year of sorrow. Tiriel is an empath. No matter where we are in the house, no matter where she is in the house, she feels our deepest emotions. Even if we are crying silently, the tears draw her to us.

Christine fell as deeply in love with Tiriel as I did, but she needed a dog who would love her as deeply as Kayla had. So we added a second Collie to our family, a rescue that we found in Maryland. His name is Feanor. He bonded with Christine very quickly. There is no question about it. She is his human. She belongs to him and he to her. I suspect Feanor would disap­prove if I were to refer to him as “my dog.” It did, after all, take two years for him to warm up to me. We suspect that he was badly abused by males in his life before he found his Xanadu. He is one happy canine, especially when he snuggles with his woman on the sofa and gets his nightly tummy rub.

[Feanor: The above paragraph needs clarification. My master is correct that my Mistress is my chosen and favorite human. Of course she is. She gives the best tummy rubs in the whole world! However, I do permit master to address me as “my boy.” We both understand that this endearment in now way qualifies or undermines my absolute love for loyalty to Mistress. I, in turn, am very fond of master—most of the time.]

Do dogs have souls? Are they capable of deification? Several years ago an unpleasant debate erupted on the web between David Bentley Hart and the analytic-scholastic theologian Edward Feser. Feser took the traditional line, expressed in the above Thomist coffee mug, that dogs are incapable of the beatific vision because they lack the faculty of rational thought. As Feser puts, dogs do not go to heaven because “non-human animals are entirely corporeal creatures, all matter and no spirit.” When they die, they return to the nihil from which they came. He even went so far as to suggest that “Hart, like so many people these days, seems to have an excessively sentimental attachment to non-human animals. Perhaps he simply can’t imagine Heaven being a very happy place without a resurrected Fido to share it with.” Oh my. Dem’s fightin’ words. Hart, in turn, dismissed Feser’s argument as just another example of bankrupt Western rationalism and a denial of what is obvious to all pet owners:

Our experience of the animals with whom we live is that they exhibit be­hav­iors similar to many of our own; that those behaviors clearly seem to be signs of emotional and mental qualities familiar to us from our own knowl­edge of ourselves; that animals possess distinctive individual traits, charac­ter­istics that are irreducibly personal (even if we feel obliged to recoil from that word on metaphysical principle), their own peculiar affections and aversions, expectations and fears; that many beasts command certain rational skills; and that all of this makes some kind of natural appeal to our moral sense. (Among my own pets over the years, I have known a dog who would protect and tend any wounded animal she came across with doting tenderness, a cat who unmistakably mourned the death of his brother, another cat who brought food of her own to share with a dog who would not eat, and so forth.) We can, if we feel we must, for the sake of our prior assumptions, strive to convince ourselves that all of that is just so much maudlin anthropomorphism; but we might just as well try to convince ourselves that the kindred feelings and thoughts we fancy we perceive in our fellow human beings are just so much mawkish “idiomorphism.” It is an almost impossible feat of willful ignorance—a denial of direct experience verging on sheer emotional and moral obtuseness.

I shan’t go any further into the debate, but I would like to point you to a fascinating discussion between Hart and the controversial biochemist and plant physiologist Rupert Sheldrake.

There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

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“The Christ who spoke then and the Christ who speaks now throughout the whole world is one and the same”

Brothers and Fathers, many people never stop saying—I have heard them myself—”If only we had lived in the days of the apostles, and been counted worthy to gaze upon Christ as they did, we should have become holy like them.” Such people do not realize that the Christ who spoke then and the Christ who speaks now throughout the whole world is one and the same.

If he were not the same then and now, God in every respect, in his operations as in the sacraments, how would it be seen that the Father is always in the Son and the Son in the Father, according to the words Christ spoke through the Spirit: “My Father is still working and so am I.” But no doubt someone will say that merely to hear his words now and to be taught about him and his kingdom is not the same thing as to have seen him then in the body. And I answer that indeed the position now is not the same as it was then, but our situation now, in the present day, is very much better. It leads us more easily to a deeper faith and conviction than seeing and hearing him in the flesh would have done.

Then he appeared to the uncomprehending Jews as a man of lowly station: now he is proclaimed to us as true God. Then in his body he associated with tax collectors and sinners and ate with them: now he is seated at the right hand of God the Father, and is never in any way separated from him. We are firmly persuaded that it is he who feeds the entire world, and we declare—at least if we are believers—that without him nothing came into being. Then even those of lowliest condition held him in contempt. They said: “Is not this the son of Mary, and of Joseph the carpenter?” Now kings and rulers worship him as Son of the true God, and himself true God, and he has glorified and continues to glorify those who worship him in spirit and in truth, although he often punishes them when they sin. He transforms them, more than all the nations under heaven, from clay into iron.

Then he was thought to be mortal and corruptible like the rest of humankind. He was no different in appearance from other men. The formless and invisible God, without change or alteration, assumed a human form and showed himself to be a normal human being. He ate, he drank, he slept, he sweated, and he grew weary. He did everything other people do, except that he did not sin. For anyone to recognize him in that human body, and to believe that he was the God who made heaven and earth and everything in them was very exceptional. This is why when Peter said: “You are the Son of the living God,” the master called him blessed, saying: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you”—you do not speak of something your eyes have seen—”but my Father who is in heaven.”

It is certain therefore that anyone who now hears Christ cry out daily through the holy Gospels, and proclaim the will of his blessed Father, but does not obey him with fear and trembling and keep his commandments—it is certain that such a person would have refused to believe in him then, if he had been present, and seen him, and heard him teach. Indeed there is reason to fear that in his total incredulity he would have blasphemed by regarding Christ not as true God, but as an enemy of God.

St Symeon the New Theologian

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