Debating Hartian Apokatastasis

Invoking my magisterial authority, I hereby declare that anyone who wishes to enter the Eclectic Ortho­doxy lists to debate David Bentley Hart’s views on apokatastasis and eternal damnation must in fact have read his book on the subject. If you have not read it yet, then please refrain from disputation until you have remedied that deficiency. 

Thank you for respecting this solemn decree.

— Fr Aidan

Posted in Uncategorized

God is Heaven, God is Hell: A Review of ‘That All Shall be Saved’

by Chris E. W. Green, Ph.D.

It took everything I have to write this review of That All Shall Be Saved by David Bentley Hart. Not because I didn’t like the book. I did like it, very much in fact. I found Hart’s arguments by and large persuasive, even if at times I was weary with his supercilious tone and too-quick dismissal of others’ views—especially Balthasar’s. As someone who lives with bi-polar disorder, I was especially unsettled by his comments about “diseased emotional conditions” (p. 29).

(As an aside, I have to admit that I worry Hart is at risk of becoming a caricature of himself as a pugilist, and I would hate for that to draw attention away from his theology. On the other hand, however, I have to admit that I very much enjoy Hart’s sense of humor, which has shown up not only in this book, like his other writings, but also in the various inter­views he has done since the book has been released. And that is why at least some of what others took to be condescension I took as droll self-deprecation. That is not to say that it was all self-deprecation, however. There was definitely some other-deprecation and self-congrat­ulation happening, too. And that I didn’t enjoy very much. At one point, I found myself wondering if Hart’s tone would change at all if he personally had undergone a change of mind on this issue, and knew from experience how difficult that can be.)

Anyway, as always with Hart, there were magnificent passages, magnificent both in form and content. Like this one:

Hell appears in the shadow of the cross as what has always already been conquered, as what Easter leaves in ruins, to which we may flee from the transfiguring light of God if we so wish, but where we can never finally come to rest—for, being only a shadow, it provides nothing to cling to. (p. 129)

Or this one:

The eschatological discrimination between heaven and hell is the crucifixion of history, while the final universal restoration of all things is the Easter of creation. (p. 104)

And of course there were penetrating insights everywhere—like this one: “for Paul the cross of Christ revealed the law’s wrath against sin, in that it was an eminently legal murder” (p. 25); this one: “the free will defense requires … a mythical sort of God” (p. 182); this one: “I am not even sure it is really possible to distinguish a single soul in isolation as either saint or sinner in any absolute sense” (p. 144); and this one: “We exist as ‘the place for the other,’ to borrow a phrase from Michel de Certeau. Surely this is the profoundest truth in the doctrine of resurrection” (p. 153). These provoked me to set the book aside to think. But perhaps best of all, there were a number of claims and observa­tions, some of them made only in passing—like the one about “casual callousness that is so frequent a concomitant of deep piety” (p. 11)—that made me set the book aside to think prayerfully—as only the best theology can do.

No, it took everything I have to write this review because I made the mistake of reading other reviews. In particular, the abysmal ones. No need to name names. There were, of course, a number of solid, even stellar reviews, which illuminated Hart’s book beautifully. But there were a few that were truly awful—poorly written and even more poorly argued. Many, if not all of these reviewers, obviously failed to grasp Hart’s arguments, either through negligence or incapacity, yet decided to write their reviews anyway. All that was annoying, to be sure, but that is not what bothered me, not really. Perhaps I am being unprofessional, or simply precious. But if I am honest, what really bothered me—left and leaves me sick—was that some of the reviewers seemed more than happy to go on thinking horrific thoughts about God, about the freedom God has given us, and about the evil that has arisen in defiance of God and freedom, thoughts that seem to me obviously unworthy of God and at odds with the gospel.

I do not agree with Hart when he says “the God in whom the majority of Christians through­out history have professed belief appears to be evil” (p. 73). (I would have agreed if he had said the majority of what Christians have professed about damnation appears to be evil, provided the emphasis was on the word “appears.”) Instead, I believe, as Hart himself elsewhere suggests, that what Christians as a rule have believed about hell—or at least what they have believed that they believe—is actually at odds with what they know to be true about God. Perhaps it is nearer the truth, then, to say the majority of Christians believe that God is good—and feel the best they can do is somehow hold this belief in tension with what they have been told is true about hell.

They feel bound to hold this tension because they have been told that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, which means we must never question what we are told about God’s ways. But, as Hart intimates, this way of thinking is stupefying, dehumanizing. We do not find truth by denying the questions that arise, especially not questions about the character of God, but by living with those questions courageously and patiently. We do not find truth by crucifying our intellect, but by yielding our minds and hearts to the crucified one. The ugly fact is, however, that many people are convinced they cannot trust themselves to question what they have been taught, which, of course, they take to be authoritative. And so, instead of losing their minds, they just keep the question close, unasked and unan­swered, waiting to be rescued. They are not stupid or faithless; they are confused.

But what some people are willing to say when they are denouncing apocatastasis (whether Hart’s or someone else’s) terrifies me. That is what takes the wind out of me. How can you respond when people are willing to say we cannot really know what it means to say that God is good? Or that eternal conscious torment is exactly what people deserve for not choosing God? Or that God respects our “freedom” so much he freely determines not do everything in his power to save us from sin and death? Or that the doctrine of hell is what grounds faith and animates faithfulness? It is possible to articulate a doctrine of hell, even an infernalist doctrine of hell, without implying that God is cruel, or that our words about God are meaningless, or that our freedom is in fact autonomy.

I want to emphasize the point: Hart does not reject the doctrine of hell. He does not deny the reality of damnation. He simply names the inherent limits of that reality—and the limitless­ness of the God who determines those limits. I think, as Hart obviously does, that the doctrine of hell is absolutely necessary, for at least two reasons. First, because it is a way of remaining aware of what we have done and can do to ourselves by resisting grace, by turning from the good. Second, because without it, God’s character is impugned. God cannot fail to do justice for those who were wronged, even as he has mercy on those who did the wrong. Hell, then, is not so much for sinners as it is for those who sinned against sinners, those who took advantage of others’ brokenness or oppressed them in their misery. God damns the abusers, the victimizers, the violators. And he damns them both for their own sake and for the sake of those abused, victimized, and violated. No wrong can go unanswered.

As Origen and Gregory of Nyssa and George MacDonald and Sergei Bulgakov, among many others, including Hart, have said, “hell” is the name for the process in which God separates sinners from their sins, destroying not only those sins but the evil that animates them. Florensky refers to it as a “fiery surgery” (The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, p. 175), in which “every impure thought, every idle word, every evil deed, everything whose source is not God, everything whose roots are not fed by the water of eternal life … [is] torn out of the formed empirical person, out of human selfhood” (p. 173). If this vision is right, then when hell has finished its perfect work, nothing will be left but godliness, or, better, nothing will be left but pure creatureliness, burning with the divine light.

I learned this first from George MacDonald, reading Lilith and then his Unspoken Sermons. Although I had been raised a full-bore infernalist—I heard countless sermons on the torments of hell, each one more graphic and ferocious than the last—reading MacDonald cured me, healed my conscience and my imagination, virtually overnight. In perhaps his most important “unspoken” sermon, “The Consuming Fire,” MacDonald insists, “love loves unto purity … Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed. And our God is a consuming fire.” MacDonald, I realized, had it exactly right: God is heaven and God is hell. Or, said differently, heaven and hell are nothing but relations to God. Hell, in particular, is the way God relates to us so that both we and those we have sinned against are delivered from our sins.

Eriugena insists that “it is not part of God’s justice but wholly alien from it to inflict penalties on what he has made.” Instead, God inflicts penalties, justly, on all that he has not made (On the Division of Natures V.36). That is, sin, not the sinner, evil, not the evildoer, is destroyed. Murder and abuse and rape and despotism and racism and lying, like all evils, are God-damned and forever eradicated. God does not merely “forgive” the rapist and then expect the one who was raped simply to accept that this forgiveness is just. God, somehow, consumes the sin itself, the evil that was done, so that both the victim and the victimizer are made whole.

Hart, of course, says all of this, or assumes it in what he says. But without necessarily finding fault with his book, I want to say more than he said. I want to say that only this doctrine of hell—hell as separation of the sinner from his sin, hell as the eternal eradication of evil and the once-for-all purgation of the created self—can answer the problem of evil. And that problem has to be answered. Personally, I believe that this doctrine of hell as purgative teaches us, better than anything else, that God’s forgiveness is not the triumph of mercy over justice but the triumph of justice in mercy. Jesus promised that those who mourn shall be comforted.

At the sentencing of Amber Guyger, the Dallas police offer who murdered Botham Jean, Brandt, Botham’s younger brother, crossed the courtroom to embrace her, to forgive her, and to encourage her to find Jesus. When the news broke, some were quick to celebrate it: “This is Christianity,” they said. “This is what the world needs.” Others were not so sure. J. Kameron Carter, for one, questioned it, posting this reflection to his Facebook page:

The verdict on the police officer in Dallas of 10 years in prison plus the show of grace and forgiveness by the brother of the murdered victim, just like after the massacre at Emanuel AME, requires that we ask some hard questions: What if “grace” and “forgiveness,” and their compulsory racialized perfor­mance in this society, are part of the antiblack world? What if they work in the interest of antiblackness? What if “grace” and “forgiveness” are already racialized? And, what if “grace” and “forgiveness” are part of what we must refuse? I know, these are profane questions. But what if the sacredness of “grace” and “forgiveness” precisely helps keep in place the structures that murder us? Rather than “grace” and “forgivenes­ses,” I’m increasingly interested in their non-performance because their performance, it seems to me, is part of what’s keeping in place the antiblack world.

Carter is right, I think, to question what we mean by “grace” and “forgiveness,” given how their performance plays in American society. And this, I believe, is the critical point: ultimately, grace, if it is truly grace, must accomplish more than mere forgiveness. Scripture is clear, God offers no amnesty to the wicked: “… yet by no means clearing the guilty” (Ex. 34.7). God insists on a reckoning, a reckoning that comes in the confrontation with the Crucified. And in that confrontation we finally see that God’s embrace of his creation actually makes all wrongs right, transfiguring what we have done and what has been done to us without simply undoing what has happened.

In his review of Hart’s book, Peter Leithart challenges Hart’s understanding of God’s goodness:

Would a good God create a world in which even temporary apostasy from the good is a possibility, where many or most will have to suffer excruciating purgation before they are fully united to God? Wouldn’t a genuinely good God have avoided all this temporal misery too? Wouldn’t a God who created a world without the possibility of defection, without the possibility of cruelty, be gooder than the Christian God? Wouldn’t such a being be the actual transcendent Good?

This may, to some, seem like a good question. Or at least one worth asking. But knowing what Leithart is doing with it, I find it to be a deeply troubling one. I won’t pretend to know how Hart would answer it, but it seems to me that the entire reason we must walk by faith and not by sight is that our experience calls God’s goodness into question. And so, yes, I do think it would have been better if there had been no defection or misery or cruelty. How could I not? My hope is that when God finally fully reveals himself, he will in fact do something about the defection, misery, and cruelty—all that went wrong with his creation. I trust that God is good, and precisely for that reason I cannot imagine accepting these horrors as somehow his work. If Leithart is right about what it means for God to be good, then we are of all people most to be pitied.

As Hart says, history—including our personal histories—must be crucified. Only so can they be resurrected into the life of God. And the eschatological crucifixion and resurrection are nothing if not the reconstitution of reality. In the end, all things are to be made new, which means, I believe, that the defection, misery, and cruelty Leithart describes will be changed, although obviously I cannot imagine how. I believe, even though I have no idea how it will be done, that in the end, our “works,” good and bad, will be re-worked, made by grace into what they naturally were not. We give glory to the one who is able to do “far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Whatever we imagine the end to be, whatever we might ask for it to be—and I know what I would ask for it to be—it will be better. “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard …”

Robert Jenson asks what makes final salvation in fact both final and salvation, and answers, “Precisely that we are set right with each other, that I have the joy of God’s rebuke for my sin against my brothers and sisters, and the joy of seeing the repair of my injuries to them, at my cost” (“The Great Transformation,” in The Last Things, p. 39). That, it seems to me, is what it means to hope Christianly.

I suppose this is for me the bottom line: we cannot justify God’s ways. Theodicy is impos­sible. But we can celebrate the God whose ways we trust will prove to be justifying. And we can trust that that justification, that rectification, when all is said and done, will include everyone and everything. I cannot imagine what else it would mean for God to be “all in all.” Or what else it would mean that “love never fails.” First God is hell, then he is heaven. And so we sing, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearch­able are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return? For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Rom. 11.36).

As a postscript, a final word: Some readers of this book are going to be tempted to come away from it thinking about Hart, concerned with whether they like or dislike his tone, whether they agree or disagree with his arguments, whether he is a “great” theologian or not. But we would do better to come away from it thinking about God, asking ourselves whether what we are saying about God is in fact worthy of him and whether what we are saying about hell is worthy of the gospel. If we do that, we will have rightly received the gift Hart has given us, received it, in fact, with all of its faults, as a gift from God.

*  *  *

Dr Chris Green is Professor of Theology at Southeastern University and the author of The End is Music (an introduction to the theology of Robert W. Jenson) and Surprised by God. Three years ago he contributed an article to Eclectic Orthodoxy: “The Problem of Hell and Free Will.”

Posted in Book Reviews, David B. Hart | 101 Comments

But the Problem of Free Will

by David W. Opderbeck, Ph.D.

As mentioned at the end of my previous post, David Bentley Hart’s argument in That All Shall Be Saved depends on a specific understanding of human freedom and the will. In response to the “free will” argument that “Hell’s gates are locked from the inside,” Hart makes two crucial moves. First, he defines “freedom” not as “libertarian” freedom to choose one thing rather than another, but rather as the ability to act in accordance with one’s created nature. Second, he relies on Maximus the Confessor’s distinction between the “natural” and the “gnomic” will for the argument that all rational creatures ultimately must choose to be united with God.

“Libertarian” and “Compatibilist” Freedom

In the contemporary analytic philosophy lingo, Hart’s first move is a kind of “compatibi­lism” about human freedom. I personally agree with this move. More precisely, I agree that the modern analytic categories of “libertarian” and “compatibilist” freedom produce confusions when they are abstracted from the pre-modern contexts in which debates about free will and determinism first arose in Ancient Near Eastern/Hebrew, Greek, Christian, and Islamic thought. In other words, without transcendence — without God — the very notions of “freedom” and “the will” make no sense. “Freedom” is choosing the good; choosing evil is not a “free” choice but an irrational dissolution of the will into bondage. That was the view of most of the Church Fathers and Doctors prior to modernity, and I’d say its the view reflected in the Law, the Writings, and the Prophets, the Gospels, and Paul’s letters.

Many — perhaps most, outside some Calvinist and Thomist circles — contemporary theologians and philosophers of religion disagree. They argue that libertarian freedom is essential to human moral responsibility. This is the view, for example, of one of the leading current defenders of the free will defense of Hell, Jerry Walls: Hell: The Logic of Damna­tion  and Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. I don’t want to try to recite the different moves in that debate, because in the end I basically agree with Hart on this point. It’s fair to note, however, that this is a Very Big Question with many possible shades of meaning, and it seems impossible to adjudicate one camp as completely wrong and the other as completely right.

Maximus on Adam, Christ, and the Will

But even if we adopt a classical compatibilist view of human freedom, we’re left with the reality of sin. The fact is, we choose unfreedom. Why? And if we choose unfreedom now, why should we think we’ll turn around and choose freedom sometime in the distant eschaton?

For Christian thinkers of various stripes, the “why” question always centers on what happened with Adam in the Garden. Hart skewers the crude Augustinian view of original sin, but the difference between humanity now and humanity in the Garden was important to all the Church Fathers. This was certainly the case for Maximus the Confessor. In fact Maximus’s doctrine of the “gnomic” will is directly tied to his understanding of the nature of humanity before and after the Fall.

Like Origen, Maximus believed that Adam was in a state of spiritual perfection before the Fall. While Origen believed Adam fell from a state of dispassionate rest into a state of embodied strife, Maximus’ view of the prelapsarian Adam was more dynamic, with a state of motion that should have moved towards God into rest but that instead went in a different direction (see Andrew Louth, Maximus the Confessor, 67). So while Maximus corrected what he thought were distortions in Origen’s thought, Maximus also thought there was something fundamentally broken in human psychology that related to Adam’s fall into our current kind of embodiment.

Problems with Maximus’ Protology

Some aspects of Maximus’ understanding or prelapsarian humanity — not unlike the similar views of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa — remain so indebted to Platonism that they seem to deny the goodness of the material creation. Most significantly, in Maximus’s view, before the Fall there was no sexual differentiation or sexual reproduction, at least for humans. The need to have sex — to lose control of one’s self in the pleasure of orgasm — in order to reproduce, for Maximus, is a consequence of the Fall (see Ad Thalassium 61: “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression,” in On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 131-144). And because each human being since Adam comes into the world through the “unnatural” passion of sex, all humans are born into a stream of imperfection.

For Maximus, our “gnomic” will is that part of us that perceives a choice between such “unnatural” passions as sex and our natural created good. The “natural” will, oriented to the spiritual goodness of our prefallen state, remains, but we do not always follow the rational course of our natural will and instead choose unnatural passions through the gnomic will. The purpose of ascetic Christian practice is to tame the gnomic will and thereby to learn to live according to our natural will — that is, to eliminate the tendency to “choose” unnatural passions and instead to receive freedom from the passions in our natural created being. Christ is able to heal humanity because, having been born of a virgin and not through the “unnatural” process of sexual intercourse, he has only a natural human will and not a gnomic will (see Ad Thalassium 21, “On Christ’s Conquest of the Human Passions,” and Ad Thalassium 42, “On Jesus Christ, the New Adam Who ‘Became Sin,'” in Blowers and Wilken, 109-114, 119-122; Difficulty 41, in Louth, 156-162). Maximus’ overriding concern in his connections between protology, Christology, and eschatology is to show that the “divisions” in creation are not “natural.” “Division” is not how the creation is meant to share in the goodness of God, who is one. The central “division” is the conflict in the human will. The “division” between male and female, resulting in differences that produce conflicts, is one that must be overcome.

There is much here that a constructive Christian theology for today, sensitive to the important concerns of feminism, can critically appropriate (see, e.g., Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self). At the same time, it’s important to pause and note that Maximus’ understanding of human physicality — particularly of sex and the pleasure of orgasm — is no less distorted than Augustine’s. However we might criticize Luther and Calvin, I’m grateful that they reminded us that our bodies, in all their functions, are created good. Luther’s marriage to Katharina von Bora help free Christians to enjoy the beautiful gift of sexuality. A doctrine of creation that recoils from embodied humanity, including the created goodness of sexuality, is a flawed doctrine of creation.

Is the Restoration of All Humans Inevitable for Maximus?

But let’s set aside some of these specific elements of Maximus’ thought that still seem too indebted to a body-denying Gnosticism and note the obvious truth of his deep understanding of human psychol­ogy. The desire for pleasure overrides our needs for other goods, including goods of mutuality and community, such that our pursuit of what we think is pleasure paradoxically plunges us into loss and despair. We are not all heroin addicts but we all in some ways greater and lesser live like heroin addicts, throwing away the gift of our lives while chasing the dragon. This is not a unique observa­tion of Maximus’s, but he places it into a bigger cosmic context with Christ at the center — which means with humanity, true humanity, at the center.

Maximus does not suggest, however, that this restoration is an inevitable process for any human person. Indeed, it takes faith and ascesis:

Those will alone be judged blessed who count nothing of value alongside the goods of the soul and share in the divine and eternal goods, beside which they take account of nothing whatever through any kind of care for material things, completely oblivious of wealth and health and other transient goods which the virtues transcend. (Difficulty 10, 1172C-D, in Louth, 135-136)

Passages such as this one suggest many will be lost, while the overall logic of Maximus’ vision of cosmic renewal suggests otherwise. Indeed, there is a debate in the secondary literature on Maximus over whether he in fact accepted a modified form of Origen’s doctrine of apokatastasis, or whether his occasional comments about judgment and the eternity of Hell should be taken at face value (see Andreas Andreopoulos, “Eschatology in Maximus the Confessor,” in The Oxford Hand­book of Maximus the Confessor). In any event, Maximus’ emphasis on ascetic practice shows that he meant to correct the view, supposedly drawn from Origen, “that the providential order of the cosmos would suffice in itself to accomplish the return of fallen souls to union with God. . . .” (Louth, 69). Louth suggests that, “[f]or Maximus, any such idea grossly underestimates the damage done by the Fall” (Ibid.).

Contemporary Challenges for Maximus’ Account of the Will

All of the discussion above raises plenty of questions about whether Maximus’ account of the will really does all the work relating to apokatastasis that Hart ascribes to it. But even if it might, we’re still left with the question whether Maximus’ account of the will is actually true.

Maximus developed his distinction between the natural and gnomic wills in the context of a long and contentious history of philosophical and theological debates about human freedom, determinism, and providence, in the particular hothouse of the monothelite controversy (see Bronwein Neil, “Providence and the Gnomic Will Before Maximus,” in The Oxford Hand­book of Maximus the Confessor; Ian A. McFarland, “Willing is Not Choosing,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 9:1 [January, 2007], 1-23). It’s fair to say the general question of human freedom and cosmic determinism is one of the biggest questions in all of the history of philosophy and theology. It’s also fair to say that the monothelite controversy reflects on the central mystery of Christian faith: how Jesus can be both fully human and fully God. We may appreciate Maximus’ brilliant insights into these questions, but the notion that he basically “got it all right” and settled the questions forever seems facially unlikely.

From a contemporary perspective, we must ask how Maximus’ insights relate to what the natural sciences have disclosed about the evolution of the universe and of life on Earth, including the evolution of homo sapiens. This question, of course, in turn raises huge methodological questions about the relationship between theology and science. I devote about fifty pages to this question (and I don’t claim to solve it!) in a forthcoming book on law, theology, and neuroscience, drawn from my doctoral dissertation on this subject, so I can’t possibly do it justice in a few paragraphs in a blog post. Let me note this: I studied with Conor Cunningham, author of Darwin’s Pious Idea, and I broadly agree with the critique Radical Orthodoxy has raised about much of the modern “theology and science” literature (and that Hart has alluded to, for example, in The Experience of God). The natural sciences are made possible because of theology — because God is the Creator — and so the “dialogue” between theology and science is not just a matter of two otherwise neutral parties sharing a pint at the local pub.

At the same time — and here I depart from at least some Radical Orthodoxy thinkers, at least as far as I can tell from the little they’ve written on this — a theology of creation tells us that the physical universe is real and possesses a causal integrity that allows the natural sciences to make truth claims that theology cannot simply ignore. Sarah Coakley’s Gifford Lectures, Sacrifice Regained, I think offer excellent insights about how “critical realism” in theology and science can be modified in relation to Christian metaphysics, though I disagree with many of Coakley’s conclusions about the theological import of evolution. None of this means I reject philosophical idealism tout court, but I think it does mean that if philosophical idealism is to inform a Christian doctrine of God and Creation it must result in a created order that is real, not illusory or ephemeral, precisely because the “ideas” of God are not an effervescent part of God’s being, but because God, who is and who is one, by his Logos gives creation its life, and because that creation participates in God’s own life.

Back to Maximus: the history of human evolution, which involves the development of human emotions and psychology, including, centrally, the drive to procreate through sex, extends back in time millions of years. And before primates began to diverge from other mammals about 85 million years ago, sex was central to the drives of our earlier mammilian forbears. Indeed, “Sex and Death” can be described as the core facts of evolutionary biology (see Kim Sterelny and Paul E. Griffiths, Sex and Death). Contra Maximus, humans didn’t inherit a “gnomic will” when a sexless Adam fell from a heavenly realm into the present material world. We inherited what Maximus calls the “gnomic will” through billions of years of evolution — that is, through the means God employed to create our bodies, which always entailed sex and (physical) death.

This doesn’t mean we can’t appropriate some of Maximus’ (and for that matter Origen’s) insights about the ideal nature of humanity, particularly with further help from some aspects of modern philosophical idealism (see, e.g., my article “Can Origen Help Us Understand Adam,” New Blackfriars, 99:1083, August, 2018, 561-577). I am not — most definitely not — a modern neuroscientist or evolutionary psychologist who thinks the human “will” is nothing but an epiphenomenon of evolution (if and when I finish that book, I’ll make that argument more fully). But at the same time we can’t just take Maximus’ categories, developed in a pre-scientific era and drawn from Platonic-Christian creation myths, as actual descriptions of how things were and are.

In fact, the second creation narrative in Genesis 2 and the account of the “Fall” in Genesis 3, clothed as they are in ancient near eastern mythology, seem to confirm that the “gnomic” will, the possibility of choosing against the good, was present in the Garden, before the first evil choice was made. The “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” stands alongside the “Tree of Life.” The command not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was the first law before it was broken, which means the choice whether to eat or not was always present in creation’s design (Gen. 2:8-16). The “serpent” was made “crafty” (“cunning”) from the start, meaning the waters of chaos could always return (Gen. 3:3; cf. the tohu wabohu of Gen. 1:1 and the Leviathan/sea serpent of Job 41).

Neither the Genesis narratives, nor Paul in his appropriation of them, nor the Greek Fathers (including Maximus), nor Augustine, properly explain why Adam made that first choice or why that first choice was metaphysically possible. The surd of Adam’s sin is a surd, whether Adam was a pre-material creature, an Augustinian superman, or the fruit of evolution’s random walk. If that first choice was metaphysically possible and Adam made it, it’s unclear why any eons of eternity will purge the possibility of such a choice from humanity, or if what might be left after such a purgation would really be “human” after all. We might wonder if this kind of “heaven” is really “hell,” where forced cognitive reprogramming lobotomizes all human difference in a kind fascist’s paradise.

In my view, where scripture leaves us here is where theology leaves us. We want the certain answers of one system or another, but we’re not given a neat, rational system, we’re given light and the waters of chaos, gardens and serpents and trees. We “see through a glass darkly” and we won’t see “face to face” until time ends. (1 Cor. 13:12.) For now, the love that bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things provides the substance that elude our reason. (1 Cor. 13:7.) I don’t think we can say much more with certainty than this, though I’m grateful for Hart’s efforts to do so.

(Return to first article)

* * *

David Opderbeck is Professor of Law at Seton Hall University Law School. In addition to his legal training, he earned an M.A.T. from Fuller Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Systematic and Philosophical Theology from the University of Nottingham. He is the author of Law and Theology, forthcoming with Fortress Press this November.

Posted in Book Reviews, David B. Hart | Tagged , , , , , , | 98 Comments

But the Problem of “Infernalism”

by David W. Opderbeck, Ph.D.

As I noted in my first post, David Hart’s moral objection to what he calls “infernalism” is important but raises questions about the nature of epistemic and theological authority. In this post, I’ll highlight what I think are visible seams in Hart’s moral argument. Most basically, I don’t think Hart’s moral argument is really an objection to Hell as such, given the reality of sin. His moral argument raises bigger questions about the kinds of creatures God creates, and about why God creates at all.

Infernalism or Proportionalism (Or Restorative Justice)?

Hart’s chosen label for the position he opposes — “infernalism” — is rhetorically brilliant but stacks the moral deck. “Infernalism” calls to mind an “inferno,” a Hell that burns each and every person in it alive forever. The thought of anyone being burned alive forever (or at all) is, of course, morally revolting. And it’s true that, to some extent or another — often to a large extent — this is precisely what many traditionalists imagined and many funda­mental­ists still imagine Hell to be. But as Hart acknowledges, this is not the whole of the “tradi­tional” position. Some thought of the “flames” of Hell as the experience of God’s glory by a person unable to love. Many, including a key bête noire for Hart, Thomas Aquinas, imagined Hell to contain degrees of punishment.

On the question of degrees of punishment, Aquinas responded to an objection based on a quote from Gregory the Great: “There is indeed but one hell fire, but it does not torture all sinners equally. For each one will suffer as much pain according as his guilt deserves” (ST III.97.5 Obj. 3). Aquinas’ response to this objection remained facially gruesome. It literally involved “degrees,” since Aquinas imagined God adjusting the intensity of the flames with a sort of Thermostat of Justice based on the magnitude of the sinner’s wrong: “although fire is not able, of its own power, to torture certain persons more or less, according to the measure of sin, it is able to do so nevertheless in so far as its action is regulated by the ordering of Divine justice: even so the fire of the furnace is regulated by the forethought of the smith, according as the effect of his art requires” (ST III.97.5 Reply 3). But, cloaked as it was in literal language about Hell’s flames, Aquinas’ fundamental point remains vitally important: Hell is proportionate to each individual person in it, never the least bit excessive, always perfectly regulated by justice.

With the concept of proportion in mind, it’s particularly surprising that Hart refers to Dante as an example of the moral depravity of any traditional idea of Hell. Indeed, the label “infernalism” invokes Dante’s Inferno. It’s true that Dante imagined some gruesome punishments, but these are literary devices, drawn from a harsher cultural-judicial context, and often quite amusing in how they poke fun at hypocritical Popes and Cardinals. The bigger point for Dante is that Hell — and Purgatory, and Paradise — contain multitudes of degrees of punishment or beatitude, each perfectly appropriate to the person. The Inferno has to be read in conjunction with the Paradiso. Some of the blessed in Paradise are not as blessed as others, but they aren’t sad about it, because the blessedness they enjoy is perfectly in proportion to who they were and are.

For Aquinas and Dante, then, it is not that every person in Hell suffers the maximal amount of agony that any human person could possibly suffer for all of eternity. To be sure, Aquinas said the pains of Hell are not bearable for anyone, but the key point is that they are never­theless proportionate. And Dante’s vision, in its own way, is really quite modern: each individual person, from the deepest depths of Hell through the highest heights of Paradise, and at every myriad stop in between, receives only what he or she deserves, nothing more, and nothing less.

So let’s acknowledge that Augstine and Aquinas’ speculations about the precise nature and magnitude of the flames of Hell take the Biblical metaphors too literally, and reflect the ugly context of an age when tortures and burnings at the stake were thought appropriate forms of judicial punishment. Outside of fundamentalism, few theologians today who consider them­selves traditionalists would argue that God literally burns people alive for eternity. The primary point such traditionalists take from Aquinas et al. is that, however we might under­stand the Biblical metaphors of fire, the punishments of Hell are entirely proportionate and just, never more, nor less, than each individual sinner in Hell deserves. In the modern legal sense of the term, this understanding of Hell does not involve torture at all. “Torture,” by definition, is disproportionate and unjust — “cruel and unusal punishment,” to use the American Constitutional lingo.

Perhaps then we should modify Hart’s rhetoric: let’s call the “traditional” view of Hell “proportionalism” rather than “infernalism.” The notion that justice is proportionate — that to do justice is to “render to each person his or her due” — is at the core of the classical understanding of justice. I don’t think Hart wants to dispose entirely of this classical understanding of justice. In fact, Hart seems happy to allow that many, or most, or all people will be punished in the next life, often very painfully and harshly, and perhaps for eons upon eons, in accordance with their due. His real problem, I think, is not that the punishments some people are due might be harsh in accordance with the gravity of their wrongs. His problem is that in the “infernalist” view the punishments are eternal. It is not the kind of punishment Hart seems most concerned about, it is the duration of punish­ment.

I could be wrong about this observation. It’s unclear to me whether Hart rejects the idea of punitive and retributive justice entirely in favor of restorative justice. Maybe this is because I haven’t read carefully enough, or because of Hart’s book at points is more reflective than analytic.

The concept of restorative justice has become popular in legal and theological scholarship in recent decades. Some advocates of restorative justice argue that it is the only reasonable way to think about justice and that older concepts of punitive and retributive justice should be discarded as ancient pre-Enlightenment religious baggage. I’m personally sympathetic to arguments for the centrality of restorative justice, but the claim that this is the only reason­able way to think about justice seems to me overstated and impossible to establish. In any event, if this is part of the series of moves Hart wants to make, I think it has to be stated and defended explicitly.

Time, Death, and Eternity

Assuming Hart agrees that restorative justice is not the sole framework for thinking about justice, his concern about the relationship between temporal wrong and eternal punish­ment is interesting and important, but more complicated than he suggests. First, Hart is not clear about the relationship between “time” and “eternity” and of any moral relation­ship between the two. Second, in light of the ambiguous relationship between “time” and “eternity,” and the liminal space of “death,” it is not clear why it must be impossible for anyone ever to merit an eternal punishment. Finally, Hart’s rejection of a key moral justification for the eternity of Hell — the free will argument — depends on a deeply contested understanding of the will and human freedom. I’ll address the first two concerns in the remainder of this post and leave the third one for my final post.

I’ll tackle my first two concerns together because they’re related. In one moving passage in his book, Hart wonders about a person who is in Hell a “trillion years” from now, and then a “gajillion years” after that. But who said there are “years” in Hell? “Time” is a feature of this universe, not a property of God’s being. Indeed, God is timeless. And even in this universe, “time” is relative and not absolute. “Years” are just the way we measure what we experience as the passage of time from our point of reference on this Earth as it circles the Sun. Send a person on a trip away from Earth at light speed, let them return in 300 Earth years, and that person will have aged only the equivalent of about 40 Earth years when they return.

What will “time” and “relatively” look like in the eschatological future? Will an “arrow of time” even be a fundamental part of it? We have no idea. I think there’s a sense here in which Dante was very much ahead of his time, when he pictured the lowest circle of Hell as a state of being frozen in ice. Maybe the subjective experience of the person in Hell a “trillion years” from now is of the slightest moment of sad, frozen longing. (I am drawing here to some extent on Jonathan Kvanvig, The Problem of Hell [Oxford: OUP 1993].) Maybe the subjective experience of the person in God’s presence “one year” from now is of trillions of years of ecstatic joy. This reflection on the relativity of time even in this uni­verse, and on our inability to know what “time” might be like in the age to come, means the simple formula “a finite wrong cannot result in an infinite punishment” is overly simplistic. The comparison is literally beyond our comprehension.

Another piece of this puzzle that is beyond our full comprehension is the liminal space of “death.” Hart does not discuss a theology of death — what it means for a person to pass from “life” through “death” to “eternity” or the “age to come.” Most of the living, sadly, eventually gain an experience of observing the dying process in another person, but by definition, none of the living have yet personally experienced death. (I mean here, “death” in its finality, not some loss of function that can be revived through CPR or some other technological means, regardless of the validity of any reported near death experience. I’m also setting aside Biblical figures such as Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter, from whom we have no testimony about their experiences of death.)

From the perspective of the living, the dying pass relatively quickly. It may happen in the blink of an eye, as in an aneurism or terrible accident, or over weeks or months or longer, as in the last throes of illness or age. It seems, as Hart suggests in his book several times, that the short span of a person’s life cannot form a basis for judgment through the endless ages after death. But what if the passage of “death” itself is not “short” at all for the dying? What if the passage of “death” is the final process of clarity when the love and grace of God are fully disclosed to each of the dying, for as “long” as it might take for this final good to be made fully available? With the preparation of this life (for good or ill) stretching behind, and the future of the eternal ages stretching ahead, does the dying person experience an Archime­dean point of final decision? Is the boundary between “life” and “death” in the experience of the dying as thick and timeless as it needs to be for grace to become present? Is that experience, in fact, the experience of meeting Christ in the tomb, between crucifixion and resurrection?

I am echoing here, of course, existential theologies of death and decision such as those developed by Karl Rahner and Karl Barth. (I’ll also refer here to a wonderful book by one of Hart’s endorsers, Fr. John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death (Yonkers: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 2019). Whatever the merits or demerits of those specific theologies, they do demonstrate reflections on the significance of death that I think Hart glosses over. A theology of death and dying could render the connection between our choices in this life and their eternal consequences in the next less apparently dispropor­tionate or arbitrary.

Merit, Nature, and Grace

These thoughts about time, eternity, and death also raise a related and important question about “merit.” A Christian, whether of an Augustinian bent or not, must acknowledge that no one merits paradise on their own. We need Jesus to save us. The Atonement, however understood, is not optional for us. Justification, however construed, is not something we accomplish without Christ.

If anything like a remedial, non-eternal Purgatory or Hell is true, the basic truth of our need for Christ must remain. The purgative flames would not enable us to overcome our own sins by forging our own superior merits. If we can overcome our own sins by enduring some eons of purgation, then Christ’s death and resurrection are suplusage. Christ would not then be the Victor over sin and death who hands the Kingdom over the Father. He would be at best a kind of sherpa for some on the path to their own purification.

The purpose of the purgative flames must be to reorient our souls so that we are able to receive grace, that is, to receive Christ, to be united with Christ. To reject grace finally, to reject Christ finally, is to lose paradise, that is, to remain in Hell. There would be nothing unjust about this state of affairs if, in fact, someone freely refuses what God so freely offers. It is only to receive what one is due rather than something better than what one is due.

Hart’s response to this is his argument that no rational will can forever refuse the good. This depends on a very particular understanding of the freedom of the will, which I’ll address in my final post. For now, I want to point out that this is not really an argument based on the morality or justice of Hell as such, given the reality of sin. It’s an argument about the kinds of free creatures God may create, God’s purposes for creation, and the goodness of a God who might create a world in which he knows that justice would require some of his creatures to be separated from their final good ends forever. Really, it’s nothing less than the question of the intelligibility of the good and the surd of evil — of why God ever made a universe in which creatures could sin and thereby do experience the deprivations of evil. Maybe Hart is right that the Christian narrative of the perfectly loving and self-subsistent Triune God who freely creates, redeems, and consummates makes no sense if any surd of evil finally remains. Even though I’m inclined to agree, I think I need to acknowledge the enormity of the question and the limits of my human frame. I’ll reflect on that problem in my final post about human freedom and the will.

(Go to “The Problem of Free Will”)

* * *

David Opderbeck is Professor of Law at Seton Hall University Law School. In addition to his legal training, he earned an M.A.T. from Fuller Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Systematic and Philosophical Theology from the University of Nottingham. He is the author of Law and Theology, forthcoming with Fortress Press this November.

Posted in Book Reviews, David B. Hart | Tagged , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Why I’m a “Fan” of DBH — But the Problem of Authority

by David W. Opderbeck, Ph.D.

Introduction

Thanks to Fr. Kimel for inviting me to comment on David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved. I have been a “fan” of Hart’s for many years, and enjoyed hosting him as speaker in a “law and theology” series at my law school several years ago. Like all of Hart’s writing, this new book is magnificent, penetrating, and rich in its attention to scripture and the Christian intellectual tradition. There are some key places, however, where I see seams in Hart’s argument — important and contestable moves that I think are less smooth than Hart’s rhetoric suggests. I don’t think any of these seams mean Hart’s argument can easily be torn apart, but I do think they make his conclusions much less certain than he suggests. Before getting to the seams, however, I’d like to discuss the whole garment.

In my first draft of this post, I included a lengthy narrative about my traumatic experi­ences with hellfire preaching growing up in dispensationalist-fundamentalist churches. I use the word “trauma” here intentionally to invoke post-traumatic stress disorder and the like. I decided against including that longer narrative in the final draft for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is that the people who were part of these churches, including my family, were on the whole good people who loved God, loved each other, and loved me. I learned an enormous amount from them, including a passion for the scriptures. Another is that I pretty early on began to receive a better education with some broader perspec­tives. But it did take me a long time to re-learn some things, and I suppose I’ll always be re-learning.

So let me just note a theological/sub-cultural milieu that I think will be familiar to many “fans” of Hart who find him refreshing: a very literal eternal Hell; the need for a specific kind of personal conversion experience; the belief that everyone who hasn’t had that very specific experience — including all Jews and people of other faiths, people who never heard of Jesus, and “deceived” psuedo-Christians such as Roman Catholics — that is, the 98% of humanity who don’t think just like us — will burn forever; the imminent destruc­tion of most of the world during a seven-year Tribulation under the auspices of the anti-Christ; the “rapture” of the Church before that event so true Christians can avoid the Tribulation; the conflicting claims that world missions will speed the rapture and that a return to “Christian America,” in partnership with the state of Israel, will delay it; the nagging feeling that if all of this is true one shouldn’t be wasting time studying for school or pursuing a career or family; the disquieting fact that everyone listening to these sermons and consuming the related literature, videos, and televangelist programming is otherwise a regular person with an ordinary career and a family rather than a frantic mendicant missionary.

Hart’s book doesn’t cure my PTSD, or say anything that I haven’t heard said before. But there is something especially helpful about hearing someone like Hart say (I’m paraphras­ing): “If an apologetic argument is dumb and a theological position is morally vile, you don’t have to believe them — and in fact, your commitments to Christian faith and to truth require you to reject them.” This isn’t, after all, just some hipster preacher like Rob Bell tossing off a few Zen-like aphorisms, or yet another confused and hurting megachurch pastor announc­ing on Twitter that he’s leaving the faith. Hart actually has the chops to expose bad theolo­gians and bad apologists as the shills, hucksters, and ideologues they so often are, or at least to show they are just not as well informed as they claim to be. At this point in my life, I don’t, or shouldn’t, need Hart to do that for me, but it’s good to see I’m not alone, and indeed that someone far more accomplished than me can speak truth plainly to powerful forces in our religious landscape.

But — and if you’re like me, you know there’s always a “but” — Hart’s appeal to conscience is also one of the big “seams” in his argument. There is, of course, a long and complex history of debates about authority and conscience throughout Church history. Those debates have produced innumerable excommunications, breakings at the rack, stake-burnings and the like, two great eras of schism (between the Eastern and Western Churches in the 11th century and between the Roman Catholic church and what became the Protestant churches starting in the 16th century), devastating intra-Christian wars, and the multitude of conflict­ing confessions and denominations on offer today. It isn’t just as simple as deferring to conscience if scripture and traditional also carry weight.

Method and Authority

I’m a “method” guy. I think the method someone is using, whether as a legal scholar, theolo­gian, scientist, or whatever, matters. And I think, except maybe for the method for solving certain kinds of math problems, there is no such thing as one indubitable method for doing anything. This is certainly true for theology.

For example, a Roman Catholic theologian is obligated to take certain propositions of the Church’s Magisterium as axiomatically true, or at least to explain why, within the assump­tions of Roman Catholic theology, he or she feels one or more of those propositions should not be fully normative. Many Roman Catholic theologians speak of philosophy (reason) and conscience as a means of interrogating and clarifying Magisterial propositions. Some liberal Roman Catholic theologians have suggested that reason and conscience can supercede Magisterial propositions, but their moderate and conservative co-religionists respond that such a view is really Protestant and not Catholic.

These more traditional Catholic voices argue that any individual’s conscience or reasoning processes can be misdirected and malformed — an observation that is impossible to dispute — and that individual judgments therefore must always be submitted to the fuller commu­nity of the Church. A person may indeed be obligated to believe, or at least try to believe, or at least externally acknowledge and abide by, propositions that twinge his or her sense of conscience or reason, if in the end the collective body of judgment tells that individual he or she is misguided.

I am not a Roman Catholic theologian, so I have no interest in entering into the intramural debate of what role conscience should play in Catholic life and thought, but this example shows that neither conscience nor any individual person’s reason can self-evidently supplant tradition as a source of authority. In fact, the requirement that sometimes an individual must set aside his or her own judgment for a decision reached by the broader group is a necessary component of any kind of human society. If everyone only does “what is right in his own eyes,” to use a Biblical phrase (Judges 17:6), the result inevitably is violence and chaos.

The same is true for Protestants who hold scripture — however they might specifically define the meaning of its “inspiration” and truthfulness — to be the final norm. Roman Catholic polemicists can score points by noting that when Protestants say scripture is the norma normans non normata, in practice this means that each person’s individual interpretation of scripture governs. That might be true in practice, but at least the ideal remains: individual conscience and reason are supposed to serve the reading and interpretation of scripture, not supplant it, and the reading of scripture is supposed to involve a communal dimension, informed by the expertise of those called and equipped for deeper study, led by those called and equipped to proclaim it through preaching, and tested within the broader community of faith.

And, the same is true in Eastern Orthodoxy. It’s true that neither “tradition” nor “scrip­ture” usually are viewed in Orthodoxy as “final” norms or even as co-equal norms. I personally appreciate the sense within Orthodoxy that “scripture” is really a part of “tradition” just as “tradition” is a part of “scripture.” And I also appreciate the sense in Orthodoxy that, even in our fallenness, there is more left of our original human created goodness than usually seems to be the case in Western theologies influenced by Augustin­ian versions of “original sin.” But the spiritual tradition of Orthodoxy — one of the elements of that tradition that, again, I deeply appreciate — emphasizes the need to overcome our human “passions” in order to become free for union with God.

Authority doesn’t disappear in the context of an ascetical theology informed by the Eastern Church. It might be that my strong sense about a teaching’s moral ugliness or unreason­able­ness stems from ascetical practice and a clearer vision of God. Or, it might be that my impres­sions reflect an inability to tame my passions and to take solace in God’s utter other­ness. Since I’m not a saint, I should at least suspect that the latter might be part of how I think and feel. Again, I’m not looking to enter into any intramural Orthodox theological debate, much less to question the bona fides of Hart’s commitment to capital-O Orthodoxy. The point is that, no matter how you slice it, Christian theology and practice are never grounded on personal conscience or individual reason alone.

Sapere aude is the motto of the Enlightenment. The Church’s motto is fides quaerens intellectum. Contrary to fundamentalisms of all sorts, I don’t think the charge to dare to know, to think for one’s self, is a bad thing. But even that charge, as a charge, cannot be taken literally: if I refuse to think for myself, I’m disobeying the charge, and thumbing my nose at Kant and everyone else who says I ought to be enlightened. There is always first some kind of fides before the intellectum.

The fact is that humans cannot escape some kind of appeal to authority. As I mentioned in my introduction, I think Hart’s invocation of conscience and reason in relation to how we think about eschatology is vitally important. But to make the theological case that universalism must be accepted as a dogmatic claim requires more attention to the ambiguous, and often contrary, strains of scripture and tradition. That ambiguity of authority — and not, as Hart suggests, some kind of morally culpable timidness — is why I can’t accept the claim that universalism must be true.

Scripture, as Hart ably points out, contains many escha­tological images and metaphors, which are not always consistent, and which in places seem to suggest both a dual outcome and universal salvation. The tradition as a whole, as Hart acknowl­edges, has always included universal salvation as a minority voice, but only as a minority voice. Maybe, according to the typical Orthodox trope Hart alludes to, the Western church has terribly misunderstood scripture and the tradition since Augustine. I think it’s fair, though, to treat this kind of sweeping, polemical historical decline narrative with more than a bit of suspi­cion. The presence of so many important voices over such a long period of time, and their persistence in the dogmatic formulations of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, inclines me against excessive confidence in my personal conclusions.

This post on “authority” might suggest that I think Hart’s appeals to conscience and reason are seamless. I don’t. I think those appeals are often compelling, but that they depend too much on overstatements — even, at times straw men — and highly particular and endlessly debateable metaphysical presuppositions. These thoughts will be the subject of my next post.

(Go to “The Problem of Infernalism”)

* * *

David Opderbeck is Professor of Law at Seton Hall University Law School. In addition to his legal training, he earned an M.A.T. from Fuller Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Systematic and Philosophical Theology from the University of Nottingham. He is the author of Law and Theology, forthcoming with Fortress Press this November.

Posted in Book Reviews, David B. Hart | Tagged , , | 34 Comments

“Faith gives rise to prayer, and this prayer obtains an increase of faith”

Reading the Holy Gospel nourishes in us the habit of prayer, builds up our faith, and disposes us to trust in the Lord rather than in ourselves. What more powerful incentive to prayer could be proposed to us than the parable of the unjust judge? An unprincipled man, without fear of God or regard for other people, that judge nevertheless ended by granting the widow’s petition. No kindly sentiment moved him to do so; he was rather worn down by her pestering. Now if a man can grant a request even when it is odious to him to be asked, how can we be refused by the one who urges us to ask?

Having persuaded us, therefore, by a comparison of opposites that “we ought always to pray and never lose heart,” the Lord goes on to put the question: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, do you think he will find faith on earth?”

Where there is no faith, there is no prayer. Who would pray for something he did not believe in?

So when the blessed apostle exhorts us to pray he begins by declaring: “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved;” but to show that faith is the source of prayer and the stream will not flow if its springs are dried up, he continues: “But how can people call on him in whom they do not believe?” We must believe, then, in order to pray; and we must ask God that the faith enabling us to pray may not fail. Faith gives rise to prayer, and this prayer obtains an increase of faith. Faith, I say, gives rise to prayer, and is in turn strengthened by prayer. It was to guard against their faith failing in times of temptation that the Lord told his disciples: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

“Watch,” he says; “and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” What does it mean to enter into temptation? It means to turn one’s back on faith. Temptation grows stronger in proportion as faith weakens, and becomes weaker in proportion as faith grows strong. To convince you, beloved, that he was speaking of the weakening and loss of faith when he told his disciples to watch and pray that they might not enter into temptation, the Lord said in this same passage of the Gospel: “This night Satan has demanded to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith may not fail.” Is the protector to pray, while the person in danger has no need to do so?

But in asking whether the Son of Man would find faith on earth at his coming, the Lord was speaking of perfect faith. That kind of faith is indeed hardly to be found on earth. Look at God’s Church: it is full of people. Who would come here if faith were non-existent? But who would not move mountains if that faith were present in full measure?

Mark the apostles: they would never have left everything they possessed and spurned worldly ambition to follow the Lord unless their faith had been great; and yet that faith of theirs could not have been perfect, otherwise they would hot have asked the Lord to increase it.

St Augustine of Hippo

Quote | Posted on by | 1 Comment

In illud: Tunc et ipse filius

by St Gregory of Nyssa

All the utterances of the Lord are holy and pure as the prophet says [cf. Ps 33.4-5]. When the mind (nous) has been purified as silver in fire and cleansed of every heretical notion, it has the capacity of noble utterances and a splendor which is in accord with truth. Before this, however, I think it is necessary to attest to the brilliance and purity of Saint Paul’s teachings; for in paradise he was initiated into the knowledge of unintelligible things. Having Christ speaking within himself, Paul uttered such things which, indeed, anyone would utter who was taught by such a teacher, guide and master as the Word. Since evil frauds lay hands on the divine silver to make it base by mixing it with heretical and adulterated conceptions which obscure the Word’s brightness and the apostle’s mystical perceptions, they either do not understand these perceptions or else they resolve wickedly to choose selectively among them in order to defend their own wicked behavior, having appropriated them for their own wicked purposes. Such persons claim, in order to diminish the glory of the Only-Begotten [Son] of God, that the apostle’s words agree with them when he says, “Then the Son will be subjected (hupotagestetai) to him who has subjected all things to himself” [1 Cor 15.28]. Thus, they would say such a style of speaking reveals a certain servile subjection of the Son to the Father]. For this reason it seemed necessary to diligently examine what is being said here, that we may show that the apostolic silver is truly pure, separated and unmixed from every kind of sordid and heretical concept. We, for our part, know that such a saying or word [that is, hupotasso] has many meanings in Holy Scripture and is not always suited to the same purposes: now it signifies one thing, and at another time something else … for instance slaves are to be subjected to their masters.

Man’s irrational nature is to be subjected to God, of which the prophet says, “He put all things under his feet” [Ps 8.8]. As for those taken captive in battle, it says, “He subjected peoples under us and nations under our feet” [Ps 46.4]. Yet, again, mentioning those who have been saved through knowledge, the prophet says in the person of God, “He subjected other peoples under me” [Ps 59.10]. Thus, it is fitting for us to see how what was examined in this psalm verse can be applied to Psalm 61: “Will not my soul be subjected to God?” [Ps 61.2]. That which is brought to our attention by our enemies from all these examples is taken from the Epistle to the Corinthians, namely, “then the Son himself will be subjected to the One who subjects all things to himself.” Because this text can be understood in many ways, it would be helpful if each use of the word [subjection] is examined so that we may know the proper meaning the apostle had in mind by the term ‘subjection.’

We say that those vanquished in battle unwillingly and forcefully submit themselves to their victors — this is a sign of subjection. If any opportunity arises which may offer hope of overcoming their masters, the captives who consider it bad and disgraceful to be in such a state once again rise up in rebellion. Irrational (alogos) beasts are subject to men endowed with reason (logikos); such is the order of things. How necessary it is for that which is inferior to be subjected to that which enjoys a superior lot by nature! Those under the yoke of servitude as some consequence of the law — even if they are equal in nature (to their masters), but are unable to resist the law — hear the state of subjection, having inevitably been brought to this state out of necessity.

On the other hand, the mark of submission to God is, as we have learned by the prophecy, “To God be subjected, my soul, for from him is my salvation” [Ps 61.2]. Therefore, when the apostle’s text is brought forward by our adversaries, that is, the Son must be subjected to the Father, it follows that once its meaning has been clarified, we must ask those who are accustomed to attribute Paul’s text to the Only-Begotten [Son] of God what they mean by subjection. But it is clear that the Son’s subjection should not be understood according to any mode of human speech. For neither does an enemy vanquished in battle rise up a second time against his victors out of hope and eagerness [for overcoming them]. Neither through a lack of the good does an irrational beast have a natural, necessary subjection, as in the case of sheep and cattle which are subjected to man. Similarly, neither does a bought or home-born slave ever expect to become free of slavery’s yoke by law either through kindness or clemency. With regard to salvation’s goal it is said that the Only-Begotten [Son] of God is subjected to the Father in the same way salvation from God is procured for mankind. As for mutable [human] nature’s participation (metousia) in the good, it is necessary for such a nature to be subjected to God by means of which we have fellowship (koinonia) in this good. Subjection has no place in God’s immutable and unchanging power; in it is contemplated every good name, intelligence, incorruptibility and blessedness. This power always remains as it is; neither does it have the capacity to become better nor worse. Also, neither does God’s power receive increase in the good, nor a downward inclination to a worse condition. Rather, God’s power makes salvation spring up for others while having no other function than bestowing salvation.

What then can reasonably be said as to the meaning of subjection? Everything which has been examined is found quite remote from a proper understanding and discussion about the Only-Begotten [Son] of God. If it is necessary to attribute the kind of subjection spoken of in Luke’s Gospel to Christ — “The Lord was obedient [subjected] to his parents until he reached twelve years of age” [2.51]. Neither is the meaning of this text proper for the God who existed before all ages, nor true when applied to his real Father. Christ was tempted in our human nature [literally, ‘there,’ ekei] in everything according to our likeness except sin [Heb 4.15] and advanced through the stages proper to our human existence. Just as a little child, Christ received a newborn infant’s nourishment, that is, butter and milk. Thus, while advancing into adolescence, Christ did not avoid anything related or pertaining to that particular stage of life, but was an example (tupos) of good conduct (eutaxia) for that particular age.

Since the understanding of some persons is imperfect regarding these matters, the function of Christ’s youth is to lead to a better state by what is more perfect. Because of this, the twelve-year-old child [Jesus] was subject to his mother; Christ showed us that which is perfected through advancement, although he was perfect beforehand. Rightly did he take subjection as a means to the good. He who is perfect in every good and was neither capable of assuming any kind of diminution — because his nature is self- sufficient and cannot be lessened-is subjected for a reason which thoughtless persons cannot express. Christ associ­ated himself (sunanastrepho) with our human nature and experienced the stage of child­hood through which he effected the obedience [subjection] proper to this time of youth. It is clear that Christ progressed from that state to a perfect age when he no longer relied upon a mother’s authority. His mother urged him to manifest his power in Canna of Galilee when there was a lack of wine at the wedding feast, and wine was needed for the celebration. He did not refuse those in need, but rejected his mother’s request as no longer being appropri­ate for his present age (kairos) of life. He said, “What do you have to do with me, woman?” [Jn 2.4]. “Do you wish to have power over me now at this stage of my life? Has not my hour come which shows that I have a mind and free will of my own?” If, then, the just measure of our parents’ subjection in this life according to the flesh is shaken off — for it has a place in our present existence — no one is able to command Christ whose lordship is forever. For the divine and blessed life is his own which always abides in him, never admitting of transformation due to change.

Since the Word, the Only-Begotten [Son] of God from the beginning, is alien from every aberration and change, how can what now is not a reality exist afterwards? For the apostle does not say that the Son is always subjected, but that he will be subjected at the final consummation of all things. If subjection is said to be good and worthy of God, how can this good be apart from God? The good is equally in both persons — in the Son who is subjected and in the Father who receives his Son’s subjection. Such a good is lacking to both Father and Son at the present. What the Father does not have before all ages, neither does the Son have — at the fulfillment of time this good will be present in to Father]. On the other hand, there will be a certain addition and increase in God’s own glory, which at present he does not have. How does this relate to what is unchangeable? That which will exist afterwards, but not now, refers to our mutable human nature. If subjection is good, the good now consists of believing in God; if such a good is unworthy of God, neither can it exist now nor in the future. However, the apostle claims that the Son is to be subjected; He is not so at the present.

Does the term ‘subjection’ have another significance which is far removed from any kind of heretical perversity? What then is it? Perhaps by connecting what has also been written in this part [of First Corinthians] to the text at large, we may obtain an idea of Paul’s mean­ing. When Paul wrote against the Corinthians who had received their faith in the Lord, they held the teaching of the Resurrection as a myth, saying, “How can the dead rise? And what kind of body will they have?” [1 Cor 15.35]. By what diverse and varied ways do bodies return to existence after death and disintegration, after being destroyed either by carnivorous animals, reptiles or animals which swim, fly or are four-footed beasts? Paul therefore sets before the Corinthians many arguments, entreating them not to compare God’s power to their own human capacity, nor to estimate anything as being impossible regarding man as well as God. However, one may consider God’s greatness from examples well-known to us. Thus, God placed in man the marvelous example of seeds in their bodies which are always renewed by his power [1 Cor 15.37]. God’s wisdom is not exhausted. It is found in myriad bodily forms of all descriptions — those which are rational, irrational, air-borne and on the earth, as well as those which we see in the heavens, such as the sun and other stars. Each one having been begotten by the divine power is a certain proof that God will resurrect our bodies.

All things are brought to manifestation not from any underlying matter (hule) but from the divine will acting as matter and substance for such created things; it is easier to mold that which already exists into its proper shape (schema) than to bring into being that which had no substance and essence right from the beginning. Therefore, in the text [cf. 1 Cor 15] Paul showed that the first man was dissolved into the earth through sin and was therefore regarded as being of the earth. It followed that all who took their origin from this first man became earthly and mortal. Another consequence necessarily resulted by which man is renewed once again from mortality into immortality. Similarly, the good begotten in human nature was bestowed upon every person as one entity, just as evil was poured into a multi­tude of persons by one man through succeeding generations. These words then can be used for confirming Paul’s teaching. “The first man,” he says, “was from the earth; the second man is from heaven. As it was with the man of dust, so it is with those of the dust; as it is with the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven” [l Cor 15.47-48]. There­fore, these and similar reflections confirm the fact of the Resurrection.

By many other arguments, Paul entangled heretics with syllogisms. He showed that the person not believing in the resurrection of the dead does not admit of Christ’s Resurrec­tion. Through the web of mutual connections there comes the inevitable conclusion — “If there is no resurrection of the dead, neither has Christ risen. If Christ has not risen, our faith in him is vain” [1 Cor 15.16]. If the proposition is true, namely that Christ is risen from the dead, then it is necessarily true that this connection spoken of is true, that there is a resurrection of the dead. For by a particular demonstration the universal is presented at the same time. On the contrary, if anyone says the universal is false, that is, the resur­rection of the dead, neither is the truth found in an individual example, that is, Christ’s Resurrec­tion from the dead. Paul therefore compels the Corinthians by syllogisms to accept his teaching on the Resurrection. From it he claims that if the Resurrection does not exist, its universal confirmation is concluded. For with a specific proof the general principle is also revealed. And, on the contrary, if anyone were to say that the general principle is false (that there is a resurrection of the dead), then neither would the specific be found true (that Christ was raised from the dead). Paul adds to this fact that as all have died in Adam, all will be restored to life in Christ. Clearly does Paul here reveal the mystery of the Resurrection. Anyone who looks at what results from the Resurrection readily sees its consequence, that is, the goal for which all men hope and for which they direct their prayers.

Here then is the object of our treatise. I will first set forth, however, my own understand­ing of the text, and will then add the Apostle Paul’s words as applied to my understanding. What therefore does Paul teach us? It consists in saying that evil will come to nought and will be completely destroyed. The divine, pure goodness will contain in itself every nature endowed with reason; nothing made by God is excluded from his kingdom once everything mixed with some elements of base material has been consumed by refinement in fire. Such things had their origin in God; what was made in the beginning did not receive evil. Paul says this is so. He said that the pure and undefiled divinity of the Only-Begotten [Son] assumed man’s mortal and perishable nature. However, from the entirety of human nature to which the divinity is mixed, the man constituted according to Christ is a kind of first fruits of the common dough (oion aparche tis tou koinou phuramatos). It is through this [divinized] man that all mankind is joined to the divinity.

Since every evil was obliterated in Christ — for he did not make sin — the prophet says, “No deceit was found in his mouth” [Is 53.9]. Evil was destroyed along with sin, as well as the death which resulted; for death is simply the result of sin. Christ assumed from death both the beginning of evil’s destruction and the dissolution of death; then, as it were, a certain order was consequently added. Decrease of the good always results by straying from its principle, while the good is found closer to us insofar as it lies in each one’s dignity and power; thus, a result follows from the action preceding it. Therefore, after the man in Christ, who became the first fruits of our human nature, received in himself the divinity, He became the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep and the first born from the dead once the pangs of death have been loosened. So then, after this person has completely separated himself from sin and has utterly denied in himself the power of death and destroyed its lordship and authority and might … if anyone like Paul may be found who became a mighty imitator of Christ in his rejection of evil … such a person will fall in behind the first fruits at Christ’s coming (parousia).

And, on the other hand — I say this as an example — there is Timothy, who as much as he could, was also imitating his teacher; but there are other persons not quite like him who, one after another, suffer little by little a loss of goodness and are found to follow behind certain people who are always ready to anticipate and lead until the followers, by continual imita­tions, resemble (reach) their leaders in whom there is little good because evil abounds. In the same way, there is a conformity that comes from those who are less flawed and, as a consequence, turn from those who excel in evil by following their own inclina­tions and who are driven back from better things until at the last gasp of evil, growth in goodness achieves the destruction of evil. Similarly, by a growing resemblance to less evil persons, those who excelled in doing evil enter the way of persons being led into what is better until through progress in the good they put an end to their evil ways by the destruc­tion of wickedness. The goal of our hope is that nothing contrary to the good is left, but the divine life permeates everything. It completely destroys death, having earlier removed sin which, as it is said, held dominion over all mankind. Therefore, every wicked authority and domination has been destroyed in us. No longer do any of our passions rule our [human] nature, since it is necessary that none of them dominate — all are subjected to the one who rules over all. Subjection to God is complete alienation from evil. When we are removed from evil in imitation of the first fruits [Christ], our entire nature is mixed with this self­same fruits. One body has been formed with the good as predominant; our body’s entire nature is united to the divine, pure nature. This is what we mean by the Son’s subjection — when, in his body, Christ rightly has the subjection — when, in his body, Christ rightly has the subjection brought to him, and he effects in us the grace of subjection.

Such is the understanding of these teachings which we have accepted from the great Saint Paul. It is time now to quote the apostle himself on these matters. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be des­troyed is death. ‘For God has put all things in subjection under his feet’ [a reference to Ps 8.6]. But when it says, ‘All things are put in subjection under him,’ it is plain that he is accepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who puts all things under him, that God may be everything to everyone” [1 Cor 15.22-28].

In the last of his words [above], Paul plainly speaks of the nonexistence (anuparktos) of evil by stating that God is in all things and present to each one of them. It is clear that God will truly be in all things when no evil will be found. It is not proper for God to be present in evil; thus, he will not be in everything as long as some evil remains. If it compels us to truly believe that God is in everything, then evil cannot be seen as existing along with faith; for God cannot be present in evil. However, for God to be present in all things, Paul shows that he, the hope of our life, is simple and uniform. No longer can our new existence be now compared o the many and varied examples of this present life. Paul shows, by the words quoted above, that God becomes all things for us. He appears as the necessities of our present life, or as examples for partaking in the divinity. Thus, for God to be our food, it is proper to understand him as being eaten; the same applies to drink, clothing, shelter, air, location, wealth, enjoyment, beauty, health, strength, prudence, glory, blessedness and anything else judged good which our human nature needs. Words such as these signify what is proper to God.

We therefore learn by the examples mentioned above that the person in God has every­thing which God himself has. To have God means nothing else than to be united with him. Unity then means to be one body with him as Paul states, for all who are joined to the one body of Christ by participation are one body with him. When the good pervades every­thing, then the entirety of Christ’s body will be subjected to God’s vivifying power. Thus, the subjection of this body will be said to be the subjection of Church. Regarding this point, Paul says to the Colossians, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’ s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church of which 1 became a minister according to his dispensation” [Col 1.24]. To the Church at Corinth Paul says, “You are the body of Christ and his members” [1 Cor 12.27]. To the Ephesians Paul more clearly puts this teaching when saying, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and builds itself up in love” [Eph 4.15-16].

Christ eternally builds himself up by those who join themselves to him in faith. A person ceases to build himself up when the growth and completion of his body attains its proper measure. No longer does he lack anything added to his body by building, since he is wholly constructed upon the foundation of prophets and apostles. When faith is added, the apostle says, “Let us attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” [Eph 2.13]. If the head, in turn, builds up the body, it joins, connects and brings together everything else for which it was born according to the measure of its function, such as the hand, foot, eye, ear or any other part completing the body in proportion to each person’s faith. By so carrying out these functions, the body builds itself up as Paul says above. It is clear that when this is accomplished, Christ receives in himself all who are joined to him through the fellowship of his body. Christ makes everyone as limbs of his own body — even if there are many such limbs, the body is one. Therefore, by uniting us to himself, Christ is our unity; and having become one body with us through all things, he looks after us all. Subjection to God is our chief good when all creation resounds as one voice, when everything in heaven, on earth and under the earth bends the knee to him, and when every tongue will confess that has become one body and is joined in Christ through obedience to one another, he will bring into subjection his own body to the Father.

Let not what is said here sound strange to anyone, for we ascribe to the soul a certain means of expression taken from the body. That which is read as pertaining to the fruitfulness of the land may also be applied to one’s own soul: “Eat, drink, and be merry” [Lk 11.19]. This sentence may be referred to the fullness of the soul. Thus, the subjection of the Church’s body is brought to him who dwells in the soul. Since everything is explained through subjection as the book of Psalms suggests. As a result, we learn that faith means not being apart from those who are saved. This we learn from the Apostle Paul.

Paul signifies, by the Son’s subjection, the destruction of death. Therefore, these two elements concur, that is, when death will be no more, and everything will be completely changed into life. The Lord is life. According to the apostle, Christ will have access to the Father with his entire body when he will hand over the kingdom to our God and Father. Christ’s body, as it is often said, consists of human nature in its entirety to which he has been united. Because of this, Christ is named Lord by Paul, as mediator between God and man [1 Tim 2.5]. He who is in the Father and has lived with men accomplishes interces­sion. Christ unites all mankind to himself, and to the Father through himself, as the Lord says in the Gospel, “As you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, that they may be one in us” [Jn 17.21]. This clearly shows that having united himself to us, he who is in the Father effects our union (sunapheia) with this very same Father.

The words contained in the Gospel then add, “The glory which you have given to me I have given to them” [vs. 22]. I think that Christ’s own glory is meant to be the Holy Spirit which he has given to his disciples by breathing upon them, for what is scattered cannot other­wise be united unless joined together by the Holy Spirit’s unity. ” Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” [Rom 8.9]. The Spirit is glory, as Christ says of the Father: “Glorify me with the glory which I had with you before the world was made” [Jn 17.5]. The Word is God who has the Father’s glory and became flesh during these last days. It is necessary for the flesh to become what the Word is (that is, to become divine) by uniting itself to him; this is effected when the flesh receives that which the Word had before the world was made. This is none other than the Holy Spirit, that same Holy Spirit existing before the ages together with the Father and the Son. Hence, the text says, “The glory which you have given me, I have given to them” in order that “the unity given through the Holy Spirit to me might be given to you through me.”

Let us look at the words following those quoted above from the Gospel: “That they may be one as we are one. You in me and I in them, because I and you are one, in order that they may be perfectly one” [Jn 17 .21-23]. 1 think that there is no need for exegesis of these words which agree with what we have already explained above, for the text itself clearly sets forth the teaching on unity. “In order that they may be one as we are one.” For it cannot be otherwise — “that all may be one as we are one”– unless the disciples, being separated from everything dividing them from each other, are united together “as we are one,” that “they might be one, as we are one.” How can it be that “I am in them?” For “I alone cannot be in them unless you also are in them, since both I and you are one. Thus, they might be perfectly one, having been perfected in us, for we are one.”

Such grace is more clearly shown by the following words: “I have loved them as you have loved me” [Jn 17.23]. If the Father loves the Son, all of us have become Christ’s body through faith in him. Thus, the Father who loves his own Son loves the Son’s body just as the Son himself. We are the Son’s body. Therefore, the sense of Paul’s words becomes clear — the Son’s subjection to his Father signifies that he knows our entire human nature and has become its salvation. The text Paul is referring to might become clearer to us from his other insights. I especially recall one of his many reverent testimonies without quoting it at length. Paul says of himself that “with Christ I am crucified. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” [Gal 2.20]. If Paul no longer lives, but Christ lives in him, every­thing which Paul does and says is referred to Christ living in him. Paul’s words are spoken by Christ when he says, “Do you desire proof that Christ is speaking in me?” [2 Cor 13.3]. Paul claims that the good works of the Gospel are not his; rather, he attributes them to the grace of Christ dwelling within him. If Christ living in Paul works and speaks those things as a result of this indwelling, Paul has relinquished everything which formerly dominated him when he was a blasphemer, persecutor and behaved arrogantly. Paul looked to the true good alone, and by it made himself submissive and obedient.

Once Paul has been subjected to God, he is brought to the One who lives, speaks and effects good things. The supreme good is subjection to God. This fact which occurred in one person [Paul] will be harmoniously applied to every human being “when,” as the Lord says, “the Gospel will be preached throughout the world” [Mk 16.15]. All who have rejected the old man with its deeds and desires have received the Lord who, of course, effects the good done by them. The highest of all good things is salvation effected in us through estrangement from evil. However, we are separated from evil for no other reason than for being united to God through subjection. Subjection to God then refers to Christ dwelling in us. What is beautiful is his; what is good is from him, which God expresses through the prophets. Because subjection is both beautiful and good — for Christ himself demonstrat­ed this to us — the good is entirely from him who is good by nature, as the prophet says. No one who looks at the term ‘subjection’ as generally used spurns it. The great Paul’s wisdom knew how to use the outward appearance of words. He knew how to adapt such appearances by joining them together in his own mind to see if the common usage of words may be employed for other meanings. One such occurrence of this reads as follows: “He emptied himself” [Phil 2.3]; and “No one will make void my boasting” [l Cor 9.15]; and “faith is made void” [Rom 4.14]; and “In order that the cross of Christ may not be without effect.” What use are these expressions to their author? Who can judge him saying, “I am desirous of you” [1 Th 2.8]? Such words as these show a loving attitude.

From where does Paul’s lack of arrogance, which is love, come? It is revealed through his statement that love does not boast [1 Cor 13.4]. Strife is full of disputes and is vengeful as the term eritheia signifies [selfish or factious ambition]. It is clear that erithos [a worker in wool] is derived from the term eritheia, and we are accustomed to signifying diligent work with regards to wool (eria) by the term eritheia. Paul, however, finds pleasure in such cold etymologies, and by them he desires to show the sense intended by these words. Many other examples may be examined closely in which the apostle’s words are found. They do not serve the common use of speech, but Paul freely brings his own peculiar understand­ing to them while avoiding the common usage. Hence, another meaning of subjection is understood by Paul as opposite to the common one.

The exposition of the term ‘subjection’ as used here does not mean the forceful, necessary subjection of enemies as is commonly meant; while on the other hand, salvation is clearly interpreted by subjection. However, clear proof of the former meaning is definitely made when Paul makes a twofold distinction of the term ‘enemy.’ He says that enemies are to be subjected; indeed, they are to be destroyed. Therefore, the enemy to be blotted out from human nature is death, whose principle is sin along with its domination and power. In another sense, the enemies of God which are to be subjected to him attach themselves to sin after deserting God’s kingdom. Paul mentions this in his Epistle to the Romans: “For if we have been enemies, we have been reconciled to God” [Rom 5.10]. Here Paul calls subjection reconciliation, one term indicating salvation by another word. For as salvation is brought near to us by subjection, Paul says in another place, “Being reconciled, we shall be saved in this life” [Rom 5.10]. Therefore, Paul says that such enemies are to be subject­ed to God and the Father; death no longer is to have authority. This is shown by Paul saying, “Death will be destroyed,” a clear statement that the power of evil will be utterly removed: persons are called enemies of God by disobedience, while ‘se who have become the Lord’s friends are persuaded by Paul saying, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: ‘Be reconciled to God’” [2 Cor 6.20].

According to the promise made in the Gospel, we are no longer slaves of the Lord; but once reconciled, we are numbered among his friends. However, ” it is necessary for him lo reign, until he places his enemies under his feel.” We reverently take this, I believe, as Christ valiantly holding sway in his power. Then the strong man’s ability in battle will cease when all opposition to the good will be destroyed. Once the entire kingdom is gathered to himself, Christ hands it over to God and the Father who unites everything to himself. For the kingdom will be handed over to the Father, that is, all persons will yield to God [Christ], through whom we have access to the Father.

When all enemies have become God’s footstool, they will receive a trace of divinity in themselves. Once death has been destroyed — for if there are no persons who will die, not even death would exist — then we will be subjected to him; but this is not understood by some sort of servile humility. Our subjection, however, consists of a kingdom, incorrupt­ibility and blessedness living in us; this is Paul’s meaning of being subjected to God. Christ perfects his good in us by himself, and effects in us what is pleasing to him. According to our limited understanding of Paul’s great wisdom which we received, we have only under­stood part of it. The apostle’s purpose was not to expose heretical teachings, which is what you would gather from the text being treated. If what was said by our inquiry has been sufficient for you, it must be attributed to God’s grace. Should our inquiry appear insufficient, we will eagerly offer its completion, if indeed you make it known to us by writing and if through our prayers what is hidden has been manifested by the Holy Spirit.

(trans. Casimir McCambley)

Posted in Gregory of Nyssa | 1 Comment