Fabricious & classical theism’s metaphysical heritage

Kim_Fabricius1Fr Aidan’s guest post drew in comments by Kim Fabricius. If you follow Ben Meyers’ blog even sporadically you will have run across Kim’s ‘Propositions’ and other inspiring contributions. I think Kim made some interesting observations on Fr Aidan’s comments regarding open theism and wanted to get them up on the front page for now so they’re easier to reference later. Kim comments that:

● We need a real departure from classical theism’s metaphysical heritage.
● McCabe, Hart, Weinandy, Long and others are essentially no departure from this heritage at all.
● Open theism does address real problems with this heritage but is not departure enough. Open theists are right in objecting to classical notions of divine timelessness, but their recalibrations are not Christological enough.
● The needed departure is expressed well by Jenson, Moltmann, Barth, Jüngel, and more recently Alan Lewis, and specifically (and more relevant to open theism) by Bruce McCormack in his Chapter 10 (“The Actuality of God: Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism”) in Engaging the Doctrine of God (2008).

Kim goes on to highlight two critical issues. First, regarding divine impassibility, Kim quotes McCormack:

“There can be only one Subject of the human sufferings of Jesus, and this subject is the Logos. That the Logos suffers humanly goes without saying. Suffering is made possible only through the assumptio carnis. But it is the Logos who suffers, for there is no other Subject. If the Logos is the Subject of the human sufferings of Jesus, then suffering is an event which takes place within the divine life – which also means that the divine ‘nature’ cannot be rightly defined in abstraction from this event. The divine nature can rightly be defined only by this event.”

This, secondly, does not amount to a rejection of divine impassibility per se but only frees it from its classical heritage:

This…does not lead to an abandonment of the doctrine immutability. It does, however, lead to an understanding of immutability that is not controlled by the classical – but quite unbiblical – notion of divine impassibility. ‘God’, as McCormack puts it, ‘is immutably determined for suffering’.

I found McCormack’s chapter unconvincing, and we’d share Hart’s criticism of Jenson along the same lines. But this is a long and developed conversation. Let me leave it here for now with plans to return to it later this Spring.

Food for thought. Fields to plow—upcoming.

Kudos to Kimel

Ex_Nihilo_by_JohnnySlowhandMany thanks to Fr Aidan for celebrating our one year birthday here at An Open Orthodoxy with a thoughtful and challenging post. Before our next guest post pays us a visit we thought we’d share a few points of agreement and disagreement with Fr Aidan’s comments.

If you rummage through our posts this past year, you’ll recognize that we’re in total agreement with Fr Aidan that open theists have no real appreciation for divine transcendence. Open theists generally don’t know what to do with transcendence. At best it represents how very much larger than us God is (Fr Aidan’s sky-God precisely), and this is generally just ‘sameness writ large’, not transcendence. Fr Aidan is totally on point here. A few published open theists (two or three we can think of) have ventured to speak of God’s transcendence in a more traditional sense. The most serious engagement is — no surprise here — Greg Boyd’s PhD work on Hartshorne (Trinity & Process) which we’ve discussed here as well. So Fr Aidan hit the nail on the head: open theists generally speaking have no real sense of divine transcendence.

A second related point of agreement is CEN (creation ex nihilo), but not CEN vaguely related other core claims; rather, what really is implied about God and creation by CEN. It’s our observation that the most open theists tend to do with CEN is use it to distinguish themselves from process theists by affirming God’s freedom from creation. Something tells them that God is best thought of as free from creation. This is of course an important distinction. But we mean the why behind CEN. When explored with serious attention, CEN led Dwayne and me to embrace other important traditional features about God. It began with facing the most obvious entailment of CEN, namely, the utter and absolute gratuity of creation (on the one hand) and the utter, absolute and necessary (i.e., transcendent) fullness of God.

It’s precisely here where Dwayne and I would begin to disagree with Fr. Aidan as regards the temporal status of God’s relating to the created order. In spite of there being important ways to qualify terms like ‘experience’ and ‘temporal’ (and even ‘knowing’, ‘perceiving’ and ‘relating’) when used to describe God as creator and sustainer of the temporal world, we’re not convinced that creation is any less gratuitous and God dependent upon creation in those senses worth objecting to if God is believed to have (qualifiedly) temporal experiences of the world. In fact, it’s our desire to affirm — radically affirm (since ‘radical’ seems to go with ‘transcendence’ these days!) — God’s freedom from the world which is behind our insistence that God be conceived of as ‘actually’ free from creation and not merely ‘theoretically’ or ‘abstractly’ free from the world. It’s our conviction that the divine actuality (as the plentitude of being, as unimprovable aesthetic satisfaction, as the utterly complete and imperturbable divine relations) is free from creation that encourages us to conclude God is ‘actually’ free from creation, not just free on paper (as it were). But in the classical view of God as actus purus, God is not actually free from his determination to creation. On the contrary, God just is his determination to create; that determination defines him essentially, eternally, etc. (as McCabe shows — there is no God apart from the God who creates), which to us undermines a truly radical transcendence. We think a qualified view of divine temporality can better affirm both the essential divine freedom and triune fullness and creation’s absolute gratuity without historicizing that transcendent fullness by assuming God becomes God in all the objectionable ways process theology (on the one hand) and Jenson and McCormack (on the other) advocate.

For an interesting take on the Fathers view of divine freedom and temporality, see David Bradshaw’s “Divine Freedom: The Greek Fathers and the Modern Debate” in Philosophical Theology and the Christian Tradition: Russian and Western Perspectives, 77-92, and “Time and Eternity in the Greek Fathers,” The Thomist 70 (2006), 311-66. Fr Aidan’s post is a good prod to Dwayne and me to finally get around to arguing that Bradshaw’s understanding of God’s relationship to time doesn’t preclude the sense in which God ought to be viewed as temporal by open theists.

Thanks again Fr Aidan for giving us much to think about. McCabe is on our to-buy list!

(Frederick Hart’s “Ex Nihilo”; Washington National Cathedral).

An Open Orthodoxy turns 1: Fr Aidan Kimel

This month marks one year for An Open Orthodoxy, and to celebrate we’ve invited a few friends to contribute whatever thoughts they feel relevant, challenging and/or celebratory. Our first guest is Fr. Aidan. Fr Aidan is an Orthodox priest retired and living in VA. We met on a Facebook discussion site and have stayed in touch since by email and an occasional chat on the phone. We’re so pleased he’s agreed to contribute this very challenging post for open theists.

You can also read Fr Aidan’s post over on his blog Ecclectic Orthodoxy.

13309573511112670181decorative-lines-2_largeI wish to thank Tom Belt and Dwayne Polk for inviting me to write an article in celebration of the one-year anniversary of An Open Orthodoxy. I have learned a great deal from their contributions to the theological blogosphere and have found their articles on open theism particularly interesting.

Twenty years ago I read The Openness of God. I was immersed at that time in the writings of Robert W. Jenson and Jürgen Moltmann. Both strongly believe that the Church’s understanding of the God of the Bible has been corrupted by Hellenistic philosophy; both see their task as liberating triune divinity from the constraints of classical theism. I was thus more than a little sympathetic to the assertion of an open future and the reinterpretation of divine omniscience. But in recent years I have become increasingly skeptical of this reading of Christian doctrine and more appreciative of the traditional understanding of God as advanced by the Church Fathers and medieval doctors. Hence I now find myself viewing open theism as representing an unfortunate return to an anthropomorphic construal of divinity (described by Brian Davies as theistic personalism), a construal that ultimately undermines the core doctrines of the Church and thus renders the claims of the gospel implausible. This is a harsh statement, I know. I also admit that it is a statement that I am unprepared to defend. But if I can’t convincingly defend my critical stance, perhaps I can at least mention what lines of argument I might wish to develop if I were a real theologian and not a mere blogger.

In my judgment the critical weakness of open theism is a failure to grasp the radical transcendence of the Almighty Creator. Please note: I am assuming that the doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo belongs to a proper understanding of the Christian God and the world. Without the creatio ex nihilo the trinitarian and christological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries make no sense. Precisely in the gospel’s confrontation with the Hellenistic apprehension of divinity, the theologians of the Church found it necessary to simultaneously assert the radical transcendence God and the absolute gratuity of creation: God is not an inhabitant of the universe, nor does he exist in interdependent union with the world—he is the absolute, unconditioned, and ineffable source of all that is. Theologians did not learn the creatio ex nihilo from the Greek philosophers. They found it hidden, if you will, in the tohu wa bohu of Gen 1:1-3, as they sought to proclaim the God of the gospel within a Hellenistic world (see “The Christian Distinction“).

As a way of unpacking the difference between the Deity of open theism and the Deity of the classical Christian tradition, I thought I would direct our attention to an incisive essay by the Roman Catholic theologian Herbert McCabe, “The Involvement of God,” included in his book God Matters. McCabe reasserts the traditional understanding of God, particularly as articulated in the writings of St Thomas Aquinas. He disallows any separation of the God of the Bible and the God of classical Christian metaphysics:

One of my first claims, then, is that the God of what I have called the ‘tradition’, the God of Augustine and Aquinas in the west, is precisely the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who is not a god, not a powerful inhabitant of the universe, but the creator, the answer to the question ‘What does it all mean?’, ‘Why anything anyway?’ This was essentially the question asked by the Jews, at least from Second Isaiah onwards, the question which, once asked, could not be unasked (except with great philosophical ingenuity), and this is the question which for mainstream Christian tradition gives us meaning for the word ‘God’. (p. 42)

Not a powerful inhabitant of the universe! In my reading of recent atheistic critiques of theism and Christianity, I have been struck by the assumption that Christians really believe that God is some great sky-Person, just larger and more powerful than created persons. Why do atheists think this is what Christianity believes? Probably because that’s what popular Christianity too often teaches. It’s as if the first 1500 years of theological and metaphysical reflection have been suppressed, all in the name of recovering so-called “biblical” religion. Consider the difference between the Deity of pulpit and Sunday School and the God of the Creeds and Fathers, as described by Eastern Orthodox theologian David B. Hart:

To speak of God properly, then … is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. In one sense he is “beyond being,” if by “being” one means that totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things. Infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss, from whom we are, by whom we know and are known, and in whom we find our only true consummation. (The Experience of God, p. 30)

All this is who God is and must be if he is the transcendent and infinite Creator of heaven and earth.

Hence we should not be surprised when we find McCabe criticizing recent presentations of the suffering God. The God of classical Christianity, precisely because he eternally exists as pure actuality and the plenitude of Being, exists beyond suffering and passivity. He does not “learn from or experience the world and, in general, cannot be affected by it” (p. 44). When we read something like this, we begin to worry. Does this not make God indifferent to the human plight? Does it not distance him from the world? Yet we raise these questions, says McCabe, only because we do not truly understand what it means for God to be God:

Our only way of being present to another’s suffering is by being affected by it, because we are outside the other person. We speak of ‘sympathy’ or ‘compassion’, just because we want to say that it is almost as though we were not outside the other, but living her or his life, experiencing her or his suffering. A component of pity is frustration as having, in the end, to remain outside.

Now, the creator cannot in this way ever be outside his creature; a person’s act of being as well as every action done has to be an act of the creator. If the creator is the reason for everything that is, there can be no actual being which does not have the creator as its center holding it in being. In our compassion we, in our feeble way, are seeking to be what God is all the time: united with and within the life of our friend. We can say in the psalm ‘The Lord is compassion’ but a sign that this is metaphorical language is that we can also say that the Lord has no need of compassion; he has something more wonderful, he has his creative act in which he is ‘closer to the suffering than she is to herself’. (pp. 44-45)

The conviction that if God truly loves mankind he needs to suffer its sufferings, if not physically then at least emotionally, betrays the profound anthropomorphism that drives much of contemporary Christianity. To speak of God as “experiencing” the world immediately posits the world as external to God: Deity becomes a being who stands alongside the created order, as an “other.” But the infinite and transcendent God knows the sufferings of every creature, not as a being external to creatures, but precisely as the eternal act that sustains every creature in existence. “The God of Augustine and Aquinas,” McCabe writes, “precisely by being wholly transcendent, extra ordinem omnium entium existens, is more intimately involved with each creature than any other creature could be. God could not be other to creatures in the way that they must be to each other. At the heart of every creature is the source of esse, making it to be and to act (ST 1a, 8, 1, c). … So I think it makes perfect sense to say both that it is not in the nature of God to suffer and also that it is not in the nature of God to lack the most intimate possible involvement with the sufferings of his creatures. To safeguard the compassion of God there is no need to resort to the idea that God as he surveys the history of mankind suffers with us in a literal sense—though in some spiritual way” (pp. 45-46).

I have to admit that when I first encountered the above argument it really shook me. Had I so misunderstood the classical understanding of God? The answer was … yes … and now I am playing catch-up.

But if God cannot suffer in his divine nature, what about the cross? Doesn’t God suffer as the man Jesus? And the answer is an emphatic affirmative. If God has truly united divine nature and human nature in the one hypostasis of Jesus Christ, then, following the Council of Chalcedon, “we can say quite literally that God suffered hunger and thirst and torture and death. We can say these things because the Son of God assumed a human nature in which it makes sense to predicate these things of him. In other words, the traditional doctrine, while rejecting the idea that it is in the nature of God to be capable of suffering, does affirm literally that God suffered in a perfectly ordinary sense, the sense in which you or I suffer” (p. 46).

And this brings us to the third part of McCabe’s essay, which should be of lively interest to open theists. If Jesus Christ is the Incarnation of the divine Son in human history, then we may properly speak of his life in Judea and Galilee as the story of God: “The story of Jesus is nothing other than the triune life of God projected onto our history or enacted sacramentally in our history, so that it becomes story” (p. 48). And it is this story that reveals the immanent life and eternal relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This is all fairly traditional, though articulated in a modern idiom. But then McCabe makes a surprising claim: “there is no such thing as the pre-existent Christ” (p. 49). What the heck But we need to be patient and hear out the theologian. McCabe acknowledges the orthodox intent of pre-existent Christ-language, but he believes that the language betrays a confusion of divine eternity and created temporality:

To speak of the pre-existent Christ is to imply that God has a life-story, a divine story, other than the story of the incarnation. It is to suppose that in some sense there was a Son of God existing from the eternal ages who at some point in his eternal career assumed a human nature and was made. First the son of God pre-existed as just the Son of God and then later he was the Son of God made man. (p. 49)

Oops. I do not know how often I have preached and taught about the Incarnation in this way. I think it is quite normal to do so, though. “God became Man,” we confess. This is the diction of Scripture and the creeds. And yet underlying this way of talking is the assumption that we can speak of the eternal life of God in temporal terms, without acknowledging the inappropriateness of our language. We sound like we are referring to a “before” and “after” in the Godhead: once there was a time when the eternal Logos existed in a discarnate state, and then he stepped into the realm of time and entered into a new and different way of being. McCabe then continues:

I think this only needs to be stated to be seen as incompatible at least with the traditional doctrine of God coming to us through Augustine and Aquinas. There can be no succession in the eternal God, no change. Eternity is not, of course, a very long time; it is not time at all. Eternity is not timeless in the sense that an instant is timeless—for an instant is timeless simply in being the limit of a stretch of time, just as a point has no length not because it is very very short but because it is the limit of a length. No: eternity is timeless because it totally transcends time. To be eternal is just to be God. God’s life is neither past nor present, nor even simultaneous with any event, any clock, any history. The picture of the Son of God ‘becoming’ at a certain point in the divine duration the incarnate Son of God, ‘coming down from heaven’, makes a perfectly good metaphor but could not be literally true. There was, from the point of view of God’s life, no such thing as a moment at which the eternal Son of God was not Jesus of Nazareth. There could not be any moments in God’s life. The eternal life of Jesus as such could not precede, follow or be simultaneous with his human life. There is no story of God ‘before’ the story of Jesus. This point would not, of course, be grasped by those for whom God is an inhabitant of the universe, subject to experience and to history. I am not, need I say, suggesting that it can be grasped intelligibly by anyone, but in the traditional view it is the mystery that we affirm when we speak of God. From the point of view of God, then sub specie eternitatis, no sense can be given to the idea that at some point in God’s life-story the Son became incarnate. (pp. 49-50)

Time belongs to the created order. As Einstein might have put it: “Time is God’s way of stopping everything from happening at once.” God, as God, does not live in time, nor can his eternity be literally described in temporal terms. To speak of eternity is not to understand anything positive about God but simply to deny the importation of temporal movement into the Godhead. Even when we speak of the Deity as apprehending all of history in an eternal “now,” we have to be careful. Is not “now” qualified by “before” and “after”? We have all heard God’s relation to time characterized in this way:

But it’s only an image. When we speak of divine eternity, we really do not know what we are talking about. Speculate as we may, we cannot conceive the relationship between God in his timelessness and the world in its timefulness. It’s infinitely more difficult than trying to imagine the encounter between two- and three-dimensional beings. “Eternity” is an apophatic term that introduces us to the incomprehensible mystery of the uncreated Creator. When open theists speak of God not knowing the future, do they really know what they are talking about? Does not this way of talking insert God into the flow of created time?

And this brings us to McCabe’s second criticism of the “pre-existent Christ.” Let’s place ourselves back in history when Moses was alive. From Moses’ point of view, it makes perfect sense to say “Jesus does not exist” or “Jesus of Nazareth is not yet.” It makes perfect sense, because the conception and birth of Jesus has not yet happened. The future does not exist, which, as McCabe notes, “is what makes it future” (p. 50). (And for this reason, it makes no logical sense to say that “the future already exists for God.” That would to attribute to God a philosophical mistake.) And just as Moses can literally declare, “Jesus does not exist,” so Moses can also simultaneously declare, with equal literal truth, “The Son of God does exist.” Given Moses’ specific location in time, both propositions are true.

But now consider the difference between saying “The Son of God exists” and “The Son of God exists now.” As we have seen, Moses could have spoken truly the first statement; but he could not have spoken truly the second. That little “now” makes all the difference. This second proposition, “which attributes temporal existence (‘now’) to the Son of God,” could only become true, within history, when Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary. When Moses lived, it was not yet true that the Son of God now existed. He had not yet enfleshed himself in time as a created being. McCabe concludes: “The simple truth is that apart from incarnation the Son of God exists at no time at all, at no ‘now’, but in eternity, in which he acts upon all time but is not himself ‘measured by it’, as Aquinas would say. ‘Before Abraham was, I am’” (p. 50).

I do not have the philosophical smarts to unpack McCabe’s arguments relevant to the questions of divine omniscience, foreknowledge, and predestination, though I think he would immediately jump on the “fore-“ and “pre-.” In fact I know he would. Consider what he says about predestination in his book God Still Matters:

Certainly, a race or a fight that is fixed beforehand is a bogus race or fight; and a human life that has been fixed beforehand is a bogus human life. What has happened here is that we are taking the ‘beforehand’ too literally. Predestination is not something we have from birth, from way back, ‘beforehand’. We do not have predestination at all; it is the plan in the mind of God, it is nothing whatever in us. Predestination exists in eternity and only in eternity, in the eternal timeless mind of God. It is not before or after or even simultaneous with anything. When we plan something and then carry out the plan, there is first the plan and then later the execution. But this cannot be so with God. God has no lifetime, no before and after. There are not times or dates to the thoughts and acts of God. His predestining Jesus to ascend into heaven does not come before his bringing Jesus to heaven. Nothing in God comes before anything else, they are all the one thing which is simply the eternal timeless life of God himself. So we must not take the ‘pre’ in ‘predestination’ literally. What is predestined happens but it doesn’t happen later than its predestination because predestination is only in the timeless mind of God. It is always wrong and a muddle to say ‘What I just did must have been predestined thirty years ago’ because predestination, like the thought of God, has no date at all. It does not mean that we move in predestinate grooves that are there beforehand, like tram lines. (pp. 184-185)

I hope others will read Herbert McCabe and perhaps begin to think these matters through. Of course, I suppose we could all spend the next decade or two reading the Summa Theologiae.

Vulnerability: the capacity of finitude to bear God’s glory

treasure_in_jars_of_clay_by_saireba-d4pjkw2I love the picture! “We have this treasure in jars of clay,” Paul celebrates. I’ve been thinking on this all day, and the thought finally presented itself to me — the vessel is fragile and vulnerable — the treasure is not. Vulnerability is finitude’s capacity to bear the glory of God. Well, that thought led to another and, as you might guess, there I was again thinking about divine transcendence.

Our main philosophical reasons for arriving at a view of God in terms something like Boyd’s unsurpassably intense aesthetic satisfaction come from his Trinity & Process. The conclusion of those arguments is that God is infinite beauty, this beauty is the experienced triune relations, and this experience is the definitive act of God’s essential existence. This much about God is not vulnerable. More of Boyd (Trinity & Process, p. 386):

God’s being is defined by God’s eternal disposition to delight in Godself and the eternal actualization of this disposition within the triune life of God. It is the unsurpassable intensity of the beauty of the divine sociality—their shared love “to an infinite degree”—and God’s eternal “inclination” to eternally be such, which defines God as God and thus most fundamentally distinguishes God from creation, for this divine sociality needs no other sociality to be what it is.

This contrasts with Greg’s present belief that Father, Son and Spirit don’t essentially or necessarily experience one another. We’ll champion the earlier view. And as we’ve been thinking about the various objections to this on the part of our fellow open theists, here’s what those objections seem to boil down to (in block quote for emphasis):

Of course nobody wants to deny that God is infinitely beautiful. Who’s gonna deny that, right? But we don’t want to suppose that God’s triune beauty is an unsurpassably intense delight to behold or even that the divine persons behold this beauty essentially. Why not? For the simple reason that if God is that, there’s no room for us; no room left in God to upload our pain, and we need God to feel our pain. Nor is there room in God to upload our joys, for they can only mean something to him if they improve him. So it needs to be the case that the felt quality of God’s experience (or the pleasure which is God’s) decreases or increases according to the fluctuating well-being of the world. This is so because “God is love” and it’s inconceivable that love should not suffer some diminishing of satisfaction in the face of another’s suffering.

Moreover, love must be motivated to act in the best interest of one who suffers by some loss of joy/pleasure. This loss just is one’s love prior to acting, for love can only act in another’s best interest if it is ‘moved’ (motivated) to act by the loss of satisfaction brought about by worldly suffering. Without suffering this loss of satisfaction, God literally couldn’t act on our behalf in any loving way because he wouldn’t be moved to act by some loss of pleasure. God has to be affected in this way by us or God isn’t love, and if God were to act on our behalf without being motivated in this way, it wouldn’t be love.

Vulnerability-Management-for-Dummies-2ezku89As far as I can tell, this is the heart of the objection. We want to suggest that if true, this a real problem, for it would mean that God is not disinterested love. What’s so bad about that? “Disinterested” sounds bad anyway. Why would anyone think God isn’t interested in us? That should seal it right there. Not quite. “Disinterestedness” (in philosophical and theological discourse) isn’t “not being interested in” others. On the contrary, it’s a particular kind of interest in others. Disinterested love is love which needn’t suffer to be interested, love whose interest in another has no self-interest in play in its movement toward the other. It’s not disinterested because it’s not ‘other-interested’. It’s disinterested because it’s not ‘self-interested’. There’s no self-interest mixed in with its other-interest. What’s amazing about this is how uninterested people are in being loved this way. I admit I’m surprised. But I also admit I wasn’t convinced by argumentation either. Though in retrospect, the arguments were right.

If God is not disinterested in this sense, then he requires some inner disturbance to rouse or move him to action in our regard. But don’t we typically condemn those who only help the needy when they are moved to do so by some inconvenience to themselves? But in this sense God acting in our best interest is about restoring his own loss before it’s about attending to us. Something is wrong with this. But we didn’t come to think so by reading it in a Church father. We found that later. It was Greg Boyd who pointed the way in Trinity & Process, without any appeal to patristics. It’s only because God doesn’t need us to share in constituting his own essential happiness that he is free to love us in truly disinterested fashion, free to enter into our situation in the only way that can genuinely be said to be—from beginning to end—in our best interest.

And though the world does not yet express God’s ad intra delight, it shall do so one day when all created things each in its own proper measure expresses the infinite and inexpressible delight that God is. The question is — does this diastema, this ‘space’ between the imperfect ‘not yet present and the future consummation of creation, also include God? Is God also presently awaiting future fulfillment? Does God get glorified along with creation? Is God to be caught up in the incomparable glory to which our sorrows and his will “not be worth comparing”? And is God presently subjected to groaning alongside creation until his sons are revealed (Rom. 8)?

The views we’ve shared from Trinity & Process are not Greg’s present view. Today Greg insists that the pain of God’s ad extra experience in the world in general and in the cross in particular does indeed define God ad intra. That is, on the cross there is nothing more to the Father’s experience of the Son than the cross. That separation just is God ad intra suffering the rupture of experienced oneness. And if this be the case, then God and creation alike await glorification, perfection, beautification, consummation. Not a view we can get with for reasons we’ve expressed a lot here, but certainly a view the implications of which need to be thought through long and hard.

(Picture here).

“There you are!”

o-GRACE-KELLY-LEGACY-facebookUltimately, the theme here is ‘grace’, which when googled gave me the unforgettable Grace Kelly. Nice, but not exactly what I had in mind. I was thinking of something far more unforgettable that came forcefully to mind with this morning’s Sunday message entitled “There you are!” It centered on Jesus’ amazing capacity to see and recognize others and attend to their needs in truly disinterested fashion. In contrast, we can all think of the sort of person who walks into a room with a demeanor that announces, “Here I am!” But hopefully we also know a person or two of the sort who walk into a room with a presence that says, “There you are!” It’s a bit like that story about a guy on a first date who can’t stop talking about himself — what he’s done, what he likes, who he knows, etc. When he finally manages to let his date speak, he does so with “Well, enough about me. Let’s talk about you! What do you think about me?” Even when attending to others he’s really just attending to himself. He doesn’t really see others. He only sees himself in others.

A human being is a ‘search for identity’. Each one of us is his/her own question mark. Who am I really? Why am I here? What difference will my having existed at all make to the world? We’re hardwired with these questions, and so we find the answers ‘ecstatically’ by moving outside ourselves. That’s what ‘relational theologians’ harp on, namely, that we inevitably seek the fulfillment of our existence as personal beings by moving ‘outward’ (ecstatically) into relationship with others in the world around us and, most fulfillingly, with God.

In the Recovery program I direct, I point to four fundamental human needs that drive this ecstatic, outward movement: our need for acceptance, for identity, for security and for purpose. To be a human being is just to have these needs, and a fulfilled or successful life is just the experience of their fulfillment. Problem is, the same is true of everybody and everything else in the world. We are all this search for an acceptance which is unconditional, an identity which is unique and unrepeatable, a security that provides for our enduring permanence, and a purpose to contribute and partner in ways that make a difference.

In the Christian story, God is different — and this difference is why the gospel is a word of ‘grace’. God doesn’t need us in the ways we’ve just considered. The fullness of his being and existence isn’t a cooperative achievement he realizes through moving outside Godself and into relationship with the world. The world is not the stage upon which God achieves existential self-actualization. And this is why when God does create, he is able to walk into it and say, “There you are!” rather than “Here I am” (to stick with this morning’s sermon).

This gratuity of creation is the grace of the gospel. It’s the gratuity, the utter contingency of there being any creation at all, which points the searching heart beyond the abyss of its own nothingness to the voice of God inside the room saying, “There you are!” And God can say this because he’s free from needing anything at all from us. He shows up not to ‘get’, to self-actualize, to restore his equilibrium, to redeem a meaning for himself in this or that outcome, but to give, to fill up, to overflow. And this is precisely why we are freed. But you only get that kind of absolute gratutity if God is, correspondingly, absolutely full.

This is hard to hear. It doesn’t come across as ‘good news’ for many. Turns out grace is not so easy. It’s hard to hear that God is so immeasurably complete and fulfilled as not to need us to complete him in any conceivable sense. We want to be needed. Not just wanted, but needed, because the only kind of wanting that we know (as the despairing creatures we are) is that wanting which is needing. We experience ‘wanting’ as being motivated to possess what we do not have so that in possessing it we become more than we are without it. Part of this fallen dysfunction, this lie that beguiles us, is our belief that our redemption flows out of and fulfills our perceived need to be needed. If my neighbor needs me, fine. If the governor needs me, better! If my country needs me, fantastic. Why stop? Why not have God need me as well? What kind of existential rush would follow from its being true that my existence fulfills God in some measure? And so we weave our narratives of salvation around this fiction, that God must be lonely without us, or diminished by our sorrow, or injured by our rejection, and ultimately completed and glorified by our homecoming. The entire drama of creation, fall, redemption and final glorification are the stage upon which God achieves his final and fullest self-actualization.

It can be an unexpected stumbling block that grace should be gracious in every conceivable moment, and that the gift of our existence and being is enjoyed fully only on the other side of embracing the implication of our utter contingency and finitude, namely, our nothingness. But in the recognition that God is an unsurpassable delight we can neither diminish nor improve whose love of us both designed and fulfills our four fundamental needs, our own self-serving dysfunctions and narratives are deconstructed and in their ruin we experience “his joy [not his pain] as our strength,” (Neh. 8.10) and we come to possess ourselves in “an unspeakable and glorious joy,” as Peter wrote (1Pet. 1.8), “receiving the salvation of our souls.” We are saved when God’s own peace and repose become the truest thing about us and not until then. But when we are there, then we are in a position to truly see others. Greg Boyd, in Trinity & Process, elaborates:

…a person need not sacrifice their self-love, their contentment with who they are, their own internal “fullness of life” in order to genuinely enter into the sufferings of another. Indeed, it seems that the person who enters into the sufferings of others with a sense of internal fullness is in a better position to genuinely enter into these sufferings than one who lacks such “fullness.”

To speak more specifically, a person who suffers for another because she needs the other — e.g., needs this other to make her “feel good” about herself, to feel loved and needed, etc.—is more inclined to yet have herself as the object of concern, and thus more inclined to be, to that extent, shut off to the real needs of the other. In contrast, one who enters into solidarity with a sufferer but who is self-content, who loves herself, who possesses an internal fullness which is not destroyed [or diminished] by the suffering, is free to have the sufferer as the sole object of her concern. She is free, in a sense, to “forget herself” in devotion to another…

There are, of course, millions of humans who hold to a superficial form of self-contentment to the exclusion of, or even at the expense of, others’ happiness. In fact, the instances of an opposite disposition are unfortunately rare. The prevalence of this attitude, especially in first world countries, is no doubt one of the reasons why we have such difficulty in seeing God as being both eternally self-satisfied and also temporally self-abased. But, as we have argued, there is no necessary connection between self-contentment and insensitivity.

Erich Przywara: Analogia Entis

erichReading through an introduction to Erich Przywara’s Analogia Entis: Metaphysics (1932), I had to post a couple of paragraphs. Przywara (of German-Polish decent) was a Jesuit priest and scholar who exerted profound influence upon his contemporaries, an influence that looks to grow through a recent English translation of his Analogia Entis.

The quote is part of John Betz’s introduction to Przywara’s book, and I’d like to include Betz’s opening paragraph:

“As he [Przywara] puts it, recalling the theme of divine infinity in Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine, ‘Even if we were to have the most sublime experience of mystical union, would we then have any right to come to a stopping point and dream of having finally attained a state of ‘immediacy’ or a state of ‘maximal knowledge’ or a state of ‘ultimate proximity’?’ He answers with a single paradoxical phrase from Augustine: Invenitur quaerendus! [‘He is found in order to be sought!’] In other words, with respect to God, ‘Even the greatest finding is but the beginning of a new searching’. Przywara beautifully makes the same point a few years later in a lecture from 1926:

Thus all our wandering in Him and to Him is itself a tension between an ineffable proximity and an ineffable distance. Every living thing…everything that happens, is full of His presence. ‘He is not far from us; for in Him we live and move and have our being’. But we grow in our sense of His fullness only in the measure that we do not equate Him with any created thing or circumstance, that is, in the measure that we stand at an ultimate distance from every particular shining of His face. He is the one who lights up before us when we stand at a distance, and who lights up before us to urge us on. He is the infinite light that becomes ever more distant the closer we come to Him. Every finding is the beginning of a new searching. His blessed intimacy is the experience of His infinite transcendence. No morning of mystical marriage is a definitive embrace of His fullness; no mystical night of despair a detachment from His presence….He compels us into all the riches and changes of world and life in order that we might experience Him anew and more richly as beyond this world and life. And, ultimately, this indissoluble tension of proximity and distance to Him is but the innermost revelation of His own primal mystery, by which He is in us and beyond us, closer to us than we are to ourselves, such that we love him as proximity itself, and, yet again, farther away from us than any other distance, such that we revere Him with trembling as distance itself. God in us and God beyond us.

Here again we see the basic point of the analogia entis, which Przywara reiterates throughout his early work: there is no genuine natural or supernatural experience of God that does not give way to reverent distance and silent adoration…As he puts it in 1927, What is meant by analogia entis is precisely this: that in the very same act in which the human being comes to intimate God in the likeness of the creature, he also comes to intimate Him as the one who is beyond all likeness.”

Whatcha reading? 7

0801027780Last week a friend shared Craig Allert’s A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon. Allert is an associate professor at Trinity Western University in BC and his book one of four volumes (thus far) in the Evangelical Ressourcement Series edited by D. H. Willilams, Professor of Religion in Patristics and Historical Theology at Baylor.

“Ressourcement” is a French neologism for “return to the sources” or “renewal through the re-appropriation of sources.” It was coined to describe a renewal of Thomas’ thought by early 20th century Catholic thinkers. The phrase has been picked up by others, Reformed and Evangelical, to describe the same recovery within the context of patristics. From the back cover:

The Evangelical Ressourcement series is grounded in the belief that there is a wealth of theological, exegetical, and spiritual resources from the patristic era that is relevant for the Christian church today and into the future. Amid the current resurgence in interest in the early church, this series aims to help church thinkers and leaders reappropriate these ancient understandings of Christian belief and practice and apply them to ministry in the twenty-first century.

Matthew Milliner has (Dec 2011) a nice review of theological ‘ressourcement’ efforts of this type over at Books and Culture (where he reviews Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry). Vox Nova reviews things nicely too. Other such re-appropriations include Robert Webber’s four-volume Ancient-Future Collection (intent on integrating a broad range of traditions views — Orthodox, Catholic & Protestant — with postmodern and away from modernity), and of course Tom Oden’s (as general editor) of IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture project. It’ll come as no surprise to our readers that Dwayne and I think these efforts a good thing. As open theists press farther back to ground their convictions historically and theologically, hopefully more and more of them will make other important discoveries. By the way, my daughter married an Oden (Thomas Oden is brother to my son-in-law’s grandfather Talmadge Oden). So hey, don’t mess with me!

I enjoyed Allert’s volume and am looking forward to reading the others. As you can guess from the title, Allert is concerned to explore how the formation of the NT canon ought to inform our doctrine of Scripture. He doesn’t finally offer any easy answers, but his emphasis upon canon formation as integral to understanding Scripture and inspiration (and related issues) is spot on. From the Postscript:

Foundational to this whole enterprise is the understanding that a high view of Scripture should be just as concerned with how the New Testament came to exist in the form we have it as with what is says. What the Bible says is certainly important, but a knowledge of what the Bible says in intimately related to where the Bible grew — in the church—and how it grew. Another way of stating this would be that the church certainly has something to say about what the Bible says because the Bible is the church’s book. Any examination of the history of the formation of the New Testament canon cannot miss the vital role played by gthe church and its leaders. This does not deprecate the role of the Holy Spirit in this formation, but rather acknowledges the face that the Spirit was a work throughout the entire process of sifting, including, excluding, and interpreting these documents. The early fathers understood the Spirit to be active not only through the writing that eventually came to be included in the canon, but also in the broader context of all the ecclesial canons. Yes, all were measured by these writings, but the Spirit was seen as living and active in the entire community.

The conclusions reached are also not intended to undermine the authority of Scripture, nor should they. The bottom line in ancient and contemporary appropriations of the canon is that it is the foundational and primary source against which any reflection of God’s revelation must be measured. It is thus canonical in the sense of being a standard of measurement. But it could not and did not function in the early church as the only standard for texts. For roughly the first four hundred years of its existence, the church had no closed canon, so the Bible could not have functioned as the sole criterion. This is what makes the distinction between the terms “Scripture” and “canon” so important. Failure to distinguish between them could lead to some significant distortions of the patristic age and its understanding of the nature of canon.

We must also remember that both before and after the church managed to have a closed canon, the necessity of properly interpreting these texts remained. The closing of the canon does not obviate the fact that proper interpretation is key for the Bible to inform the church’s faith and life. Simply closing the canon wold have done little to counter the Gnostics, for example, because in many cases they were offering differing interpretations of the same material. Even today the canon requires interpretation. We cannot escape from this need because we are located in a particular context, with many different influences, and thus we come to the text with different lenses. All this necessitates some sort of standard against which we may measure interpretation.

One may ask, however, if I am denying the principle of the perspicuity of Scripture by saying that the proper interpretation of Scripture is not always apparent. But the clarity of Scripture cannot be uprooted from its context. Protestants from Luther to Wesley found the perspicuity of Scripture as an effective banner to unfurl when attacking Catholics, but always a bit troublesome when common people began taking the teaching to certain conclusions.

For the Reformers, popular translations of the Bible did not imply that the people were to understand the Scriptures apart from ministerial guidance. So, when dealing with a scholar like Erasmus, Martin Luther could champion the perspicuity of Scripture by stating, “Who will maintain that the public fountain does not stand in the light, because some people in the back alley cannot see it, when every boy in the marketplace sees it quite plainly?” But when Luther was confronted with those he called sectarians, he admitted the danger of proving anything from Scripture: “I learn now that it is enough to throw many passages together helter-skelter, whether they are fit or not. If this be the way, then I can easily prove from the Scriptures that beer is better than wine.” Calvin’s understanding was similar: “I acknowledge that Scripture is the most rich and inexhaustible fount of all wisdom. But I deny that its fertility consists in the various meanings which anyone may fasten to it at his pleasure.”

I am not here denying the authority and sufficiency of Scripture; I affirm both of these. I affirm that in the Bible God has given us all truths necessary for salvation. It is the final authority. But the Bible is not self-explanatory. And the very canonical construction of the New Testament as Scripture was a patristic accomplishment. The history of Christian doctrine is not just the story of repeating scriptural statements. Throughout doctrinal history we see the authors of heresies invariable taking their stand on Scripture, often claiming to recognize this as the sole court of appeal. These authors were not subsequently accused of being unscriptural, but rather they were accused of misusing Scripture. Thus, the point was not contended simply by appealing to the authority of Scripture, but the real battle was won on the interpretation of the Bible…

Appeal to the Bible as authority is essential, but not without a similar appeal to the proper lens of interpretation. That proper lens of interpretation has been the ecclesial canons of the church in which the Bible grew. In the early church a high view of Scripture was not one that necessitated a text that functioned authoritatively outside of the church.