Vulnerability: the capacity of finitude to bear God’s glory—Part 3

rainI’ve explored 2Corinthians 4 before in a couple of posts that discuss human vulnerability as the capacity of finitude to bear the glory of God, arguing that “the vessels [jars of clay] are fragile and vulnerable, the treasure is not.” This chapter came up again in conversation recently and phrases that had not previously caught my attention jumped out at me.

I’m particularly interested in biblical resources for the belief that God is immeasurable delight, a delight essentially undiminished by the world’s sufferings (not at all a popular view for an evangelical to hold), and that our salvation is precisely a participation in this delight. Such a view of God has been objected to partly on the grounds that it’s a pure, unedited Hellenism foreign to biblical thought. So one of our interests here has been to explore biblical reasons for thinking God to be essentially, unimprovably, happy. We’ve discussed passage after passage the explicit claims of which entail the logic of divine beatitude. See Psalm 23; Psalm 46; Rom 8.18ff; Paul’s prayer in Eph 3; 1Cor 2.9-10; Phil 4.7; James 1.17; 1Peter 1.8f, all of which we’ve discussed and to which I’d like to add 2Cor 4.16-18 (and 2Cor 3.18 comp Rom 8.18).

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Several things come to mind. First, note the distinction between “wasting away outwardly” [lit. “the outward man” wastes away] while “being renewed inwardly” (lit. “inward man” is renewed day by day) based (v. 18) on a vision of what is unseen. At the very least, we are not reduced to the suffering we experience. But more specifically, there is something inside which is not subject to, nor diminished by, the conditions associated with suffering and mortality. On the contrary, the inner man is continually renewed while the outward man wastes away. Here you have the transcendence of the inward man, the undiminished nature of our true selves in Christ. While we waste away and suffer on one level or dimension of experience (outwardly), we are continuously renewed in another respect (inwardly).

Secondly, the curious phrase καθ υπερβολην εις υπερβολην (literally “according to transcendence unto transcendence”). The phrase is likely a Hebraism (מאד מאד) designed to stress the immeasurable and exceeding nature of something. In the NIV this phrase gets reduced to “far outweighs” and qualifies “glory” (i.e., the glory far outweighs the suffering). While it is no doubt true that the glory to which we are destined immeasurably exceeds our present sufferings, I think those commentators who take the phrase to qualify the verb κατεργαζεται (“achieves” or “produces”) better understand the verse (cf. the construction in Galatians 1.13 where “how intensely” qualifies “persecuted” in the NIV). So between our “light and temporary troubles” and our “weighty and eternal glory” lies an immeasurable “according to transcendence unto transcendence.” The final glory which is our destiny is produced in us intensely, exceedingly, increasingly, transcendently. That is, our journey does not merely end in immeasurable glory, it is reached in an increasingly immeasurable way through daily participation in it. This is what Paul means by saying our “inward man is renewed day by day.” Apatheia is not some mysterious divine attribute that locks creation out of God’s life, nor is it merely a heavenly reward presently inaccessible. It is the truest, inward reality of created things (our “inward man” or “true self”).

Thirdly, v. 18 introduces, as Alford says (yes, Henry Alford; I love the older guys) “the subjective condition under which this working out takes place.” We participate in the increasingly transcendent progress of becoming our truest self by way of ‘contemplation’ (or ‘mindfulness’, nepsis). We become what we behold as we become beholden to it. And this is where the practical difference between our view of God (as undiminishing beatitude) and the standard passibilist views is most acute, for the “unseen” realities perceived in the Spirit (see 1Cor 2.9-10) shape the course of our spiritual development and transformation in conformity to God as ‘end’ . If what I see is a “pissed off” God (what one passibilist insisted a truly loving God would be in the face of injustice), I’ll be “pissed of.” Why wouldn’t I be? We become what we see. That’s the transformative power of the human spirit that gives itself, through mindfulness, to a particular vision of ultimate ends and so becomes what it sees. But if what I see is peace in the storm, if what I see is Christ walking on the water of the storm, if what I see is an undiminished glory which is my destiny and the destiny of all persons, if what I see is divine beatitude always already pursuing the highest good of all things as the highest good of those things, I’ll be increasingly transformed into that.

Are we reading into Paul here? I don’t think so. Back up a bit from 2Cor 4 to 2Cor 3.18 for confirmation of what we’re saying:

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Come on somebody!

Lastly, I suggest reading 2Cor 4.16-18 (and 3.18) alongside Rom 8.18f, a passage I’ve commented on a good deal. All these refer to essentially the same transforming vision of divine ‘glory’. In Rom 8 that glory is God as ‘end’, and in 2Cor 3 & 4 that glory is contemplate end ‘as means’ of present renewal. Together these outline perhaps the strongest reasons in the New Testament for believing God to be undiminished, glorious beatitude. I’ll leave you with a few lines on Rom 8 which I’ve previously shared and which I’m now happy to see expressed equally in 2Cor 4.18:

Transcendence as apatheia or as God’s “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction” (as Boyd earlier defined it) is no mere philosophical construct. It can be biblically discerned. Whatever evils we suffer, God remains that which one day shall render all worldly sufferings comparatively meaningless (Rom 8:18’s “sufferings not worth comparing to the glory that shall be revealed in us”). But I urge you to ponder what it is about God to which earthly sufferings are not comparable. If no present suffering can possibly compare to the joy that shall be ours upon seeing God, what joy must presently be God’s who always perceives his own glorious beauty? And if the glory which God now is shall transcend all our sufferings in our experience of him in resurrection, what can these sufferings presently be to God who always and already is this glory in its fullness? Pondering Rom 8, I asked myself, “Is the divine nature itself subject to ‘decay’ and ‘groaning’ as well? Does God ‘await glorification’ along with us?” If not, then what must God’s present experience be? And must not this experience be that about God which renders the entirety of the world’s suffering comparatively meaningless?

Prayer: Lord, fill the earth with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Habb 2.4). Fill ‘this’ earth, me, the earth that I am, with the knowledge of your glory.

Creation as intra-trinitarian gift

I keep coming back to this. I’m learning to see the world this way. It makes a huge difference.

An Open Orthodoxy

the_baptism_of_the_christ_21Dwayne found this note of mine from a few years ago, tucked away hidden somewhere. It represents where he and I have been on this road together, and God knows I wouldn’t be here thinking these thoughts or living this life had God not brought our journeys together.

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Let’s conceive of creation as an intra-trinitarian gift. Take the rationale for incarnation out of the sphere of human salvation. Instead of finding a place for the incarnation within the larger act of creation, let’s turn it around and locate the rationale for creation within incarnation. In other words, creation occurs to make incarnation possible. Creation really is about God celebrating Godself. Creation is God’s gift to Godself. The cosmos is just the means by which God creatively expresses himself to himself for his own enjoyment. One might conclude that we humans are an afterthought, and in a qualified sense, yes…

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Classical theism

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On and offline I’ve been following discussions for and against classical theism. Some of these discussions proceed without having established precisely what counts as classical theism. Some make the wild claim that Dwayne and I are classical theists. So if it helps those interested in the question, I’d like to clarify. It’s not that difficult a vision of God to state.

Back a while ago I stated (hear and hear are examples) what seemed to me to be the sine qua non of “classical” theism, and engaging the questions surrounding this has only confirmed things as we’ve focused on understanding and appreciating the classical tradition as best we could. The fundamental conviction of classical theism is:

  • God is actus purus (“pure act,” by which is meant, among other things, that there is no conceivable unrealized potential in God).

Certain things follow from this, most importantly:

  • God is simple (that God is not composed of parts, spatial, temporal, or metaphysical, which any attempt at qualifying would need to be expressed with extreme caution, since no sane theist can suppose God to be assembled from more fundamental parts).

From these of course other traditional affirmations follow:

  • God is absolutely immutable (unchanging in every conceivable way, possessing no accidents).
  • God is impassible (which for the Orthodox, by whom I mean the tradition that produced the Creeds and Fathers, means firstly that God is never passive with respect to knowledge or emotion in relation to the world; i.e. he is never acted upon or determined by creation in any conceivable sense. Typically debates about divine passibility/impassibility proceed as if what is at stake is whether or not God has feelings or emotions at all, but the issue is bigger than that.)

More could be said (about omniscience, essential benevolence, etc.) but not much that a non-classical theist need disagree with. As one pushes beyond these to what is thought to be implied by them the opinions become diverse. But at classical theism’s defining center is the commitment to God as actus purus, admitting no accidents, no experience of temporal sequence whatsoever, and never in any conceivable way being acted upon or determined by creation.

To any working intelligence, Dwayne and I aren’t classical theists. We deny actus purus and its entailments as classically held.

Far on the other end of the theistic spectrum of beliefs is Process theism. If classical theism’s defining center is actus purus (pure act), Process theism can be reduced to the opposite metaphysical claim, namely, that God is processu operis (a “work in progress”). God is “temporal becoming” par excellence. He is the One whose existence and perfections are without remainder historicized, constituted in and as the ever-changing process of ongoing relations with creation, relations which are as consequential and self-constituting for God as they are for the world.

There are theists in both these camps who see these two options as jointly exhaustive of the theistic options. But the vision and burden of this site is to challenge the claim that our theological options are exhausted by these two visions and to suggest that the unchanging perfections of God’s being/existence, those perfections which constitute God’s freedom from creation and creation’s utter gratuity, are absolutely to be maintained, but that these perfections need not be viewed as threatened by temporal experience per se (if carefully stated), but then also to suggest that these traditional perfections needn’t per se threaten or undermine the sense in which open theists view God as knowing and engaging the temporal world.

Moore misunderstanding

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I need to follow up on my previous clarification of Chalcedon. In that post I responded to TC Moore’s use of a 2012 blog post by Robin Phillips in which Robin expressed his reasons for leaving Calvinism in terms of problems he believed Calvinists have affirming the synergy of divine and human wills (entailed in the Sixth Ecumenical Council). Robin unpacks this in relationship to comments of Calvinist R. C. Sproul. But none of Robin’s criticisms of Sproul apply to Dwayne and me. TC remains unconvinced however, and insists that Dwayne and I are every bit as guilty as Robin believed R. C. Sproul was of denying the Sixth Ecumenical Council’s conclusion regarding Christ’s ‘two wills’, and more importantly (and very strangely), of denying the—hold on folks—passibilism of the divine nature which TC believes is established by the Sixth Ecumenical Council as well as by other Orthodox Fathers (like Maximus and Cyril of Alexandria).

In his latest post on this, TC returns to accusing Dwayne and me of Nestorianism because we limit the sufferings of the person of the Son to his human nature. He supposes this to be a resurrected version of Nestorius’ heresy. In addition, Dwayne and I “lust for the exotic faith of the Eastern church,” a lust which has “degenerated into self-righteous doctrinal certitude” and an “arrogance that has left [us] blind to [our] radically unfaithful views of Jesus’s life and work.” In the end, the God we worship is no longer “God” but merely “[our] god.” Previously, TC has described us as “returning to the classical theism of tradition the way a dog returns to its vomit,” having been “re-infected by the virus” (of classical theism) and of “attempting to infect others.”

We’ve addressed all this before and the ridiculous nature of TC’s accusations are on record. If you doubt our Christology on these points, ask any Orthodox. TC misunderstands the Fathers and Creeds (re: Christology) so badly, and his tone is so angry and insulting, I’m sorry to say there’s no engaging him personally about these things. He’s simply not interested in understanding what we believe or why we believe it and how we distinguish ourselves from “classical” theism. He just knows that Dwayne and I don’t agree that God is ad intra rent asunder and reduced to agony by the sufferings of the Cross and that this must mean (a) we are no longer admissibly ‘open theists’ and (b) we are Nestorian heretics because holds the Son to have suffered only in his humanity and not in his divinity. (Hint: Even Cyril and the entire assembly of bishops at 431 AD who condemned Nestorius all agreed Christ suffered in his humane nature and not in his divine nature.)

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I wish I was making this up. TC misunderstands Orthodox Christology so poorly he’s essentially written himself out of the conversation. In believing in God’s essential abiding, undiminished beatitude we have abandoned “open theism” and embraced “classical theism.” But if he thinks Dwayne and I are classical theists, then he doesn’t understand classical theism.

In the end, I don’t think TC can be taken seriously in this conversation at all. For conscientious thinkers who are interested, Dwayne and I have never suggested that Jesus’ sufferings are merely his human nature suffering independently of his person. Of course the ‘person’ of the eternal Logos suffers on the Cross. I can only guess that for TC that this ‘person’ suffers must mean both ‘natures’ suffer since both ‘natures’ are united in the one ‘person’, i.e., whatever the ‘person’ suffers, both ‘natures’ suffer. But while it’s true that no ‘person’ suffers apart from ‘nature’, and no ‘nature’ suffers apart from its ‘person’, it doesn’t follow that a person with two natures cannot have experiences unique to a single of his natures.

As for the Sixth Ecumenical Council and Maximus (which Robin draws on), does TC really believe that the Orthodox gathered at these councils were passibilists with respect to the divine nature? Does TC think Maximus believed the divine ‘nature’ suffers? One can disagree with the Orthodox positions, sure. But at least state them accurately. Synergy of wills? Of course, yes. But attributing to the divine nature the sufferings of the human nature because both natures are the natures of a single person? Neither the Sixth Ecumenical Council nor Maximus, nor any Orthodox Father does that.

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NB This will be our final response of any kind to TC on any subject. We have a history with TC and have been friends. For that reason, as well as wanting to clarify for interested readers the Orthodox position on this, I’ve posted these comments. But this will bring our engagement with TC here to an end.

Aquatic apatheia

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Immediately after this, Jesus insisted that his disciples get back into the boat and cross to the other side of the lake, while he sent the people home. After sending them home, he went up into the hills by himself to pray. Night fell while he was there alone. Meanwhile, the disciples were in trouble far away from land, for a strong wind had risen, and they were fighting heavy waves. About three o’clock in the morning Jesus came toward them, walking on the water. When the disciples saw him walking on the water, they were terrified. In their fear, they cried out, “It’s a ghost!”

But Jesus spoke to them at once. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Take courage. I am here!”

Then Peter called to him, “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you, walking on the water.”

“Yes, come,” Jesus said.

So Peter went over the side of the boat and walked on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw the strong wind and the waves, he was terrified and began to sink. “Save me, Lord!” he shouted.

Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him. “You have so little faith,” Jesus said. “Why did you doubt me?”

When they climbed back into the boat, the wind stopped. Then the disciples worshiped him. “You really are the Son of God!” they exclaimed. (MT 14.22-34|MK 6.45-53|JN 6.15-21)

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I’d like to offer this incident as an illustration of our understanding of the doctrine of apatheia. It has particular relevance as an illustration of the manner in which passibilists mistake the doctrine’s meaning and relevance. To be sure, I’m not offering apatheia as an interpretation of this text’s meaning per se. But I do find it to be a particularly powerful metaphor for apatheia as Dwayne and I have come to understand it, that is, as God’s “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction” (Boyd’s formerly preferred phrase), as the experience of imperturbable triune beatitude, the fully realized life of God.

One concern of passibilists regarding such undisturbed divine beatitude is that it leaves us with a God who doesn’t share our pain, feel our feelings, suffer in our sufferings, etc. It seems rather impossible, so the argument goes, to relate to such a God. If God doesn’t share our plight, the specific plight from which we need rescuing, God is just ‘pretending’ to be human. It’s a concern possessing considerable relevance, one which we’ve taken up repeatedly here. But I can’t here repeat previous arguments we’ve presented for why we find the passibilist’s conclusions unconvincing. I’d like instead only to suggest that Jesus’ walking on the water and his rescue of Peter together provide us a helpful analogy for wrapping our heads around how apatheia works (and why passibilism doesn’t).

A bit of poetic appreciation of the event will open it up to an appreciation of its relevance for my point. On the one hand we have the disciples caught helpless in a storm. Matthew describes the boat as “tormented” by the waves. The disciples are victims of the storm and defined by its threat. Boats, after all, are imperiled by such storms. People, after all, drown in such waves. And into this enters Jesus, walking on water. Not in peril of his life. Not afraid. Not sinking. Not even needing a boat to stay afloat. Defying (transcending, pick your term) the laws of nature. In the storm but not reduced to it. And thus Christ appears in the storm and assures his disciples:

“Don’t be afraid.” Right.

“Take courage.” Sure thing.

“I am here.” That’s nice, but look where I am.

You know the rest. Peter overcomes the shock of inexplicability and answers Jesus’ invitation to see something different, to share Jesus’ world and walk to him, and with him, on the water. Peter does so. (Apatheia, by the way, is our destiny too, not just a divine attribute forever out of reach and beyond comprehension.) When the object of Peter’s focus is no longer Jesus but Archimedes, Peter sinks. He becomes subject ‘to’ creation rather than subject ‘of’ creation.

savingHow—pray tell—does Jesus rescue Peter? Does Jesus share Peter’s plight? Does Peter take a passibilist line and insist that since Jesus can’t sink, or doesn’t first sink to demonstrate a shared full vulnerability, that Jesus is disqualified from rescuing him? Does Peter complain about being rescued from drowning by someone whom the waves cannot engulf Many passibilist objections proceed along such lines, as if wanting Jesus to be a lifeguard who though he has superior training and swimming ability is nevertheless at risk in all the ways we are at risk and on that basis alone is able to rescue us. But to be pulled out of our drowning peril by someone walking on water? Walking on the very water in which we’re drowning? Many find this unacceptable, even offensive. But if apatheia – understood as God’s uncreated, triune beatitude – comes to us transcendently within our chaotic storms, what good reason is there to object if it comes walking upon the surface of our suffering rather than as subject to its engulfing chaos?

Careful. I am not suggesting some docetic apparition. Jesus is born, grows in stature through the same developmental stages as we do, gets hungry, fatigued, etc. He submits himself to a truly material existence and learns to construct his own identity within the same limited natural constraints that define personal development for us. And yet he shines in transfiguration. He walks on water. And he takes to the nth degree his identification in and upon the Cross with what drives us insane. But this is just a storm of immeasurably greater proportion which fails no less than the Sea of Galilee to swallow Jesus and within its pain deconstruct his identity as beloved Son and master of any chaos (real or mythical). The Son could have shone transfigured on the Cross just as truly as upon the mount. And where Peter views the waves and wind and so becomes their subject, Jesus submits himself to their full force as well (and on the Cross to an immeasurable degree) and remains his own subject. That’s the material point. And that is an apatheia which saves.

Though now long estranged

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Ran across this poem of Tolkien’s recently. Can’t remember where I saw it. I believe it’s from an essay written in a collection to Charles Williams. I love its thought and phrases.

Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artifact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.