While we were yet sinners

I’d like to offer an open view take on two passages never considered by any open theist writer I know of. All the familiar passages used in defense of open theism are pretty familiar, but these two passages aren’t among them. I’ve read these for years as at least implying a partly open future.

Romans 5.8 — “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” It’s obvious enough from 5.8 that God’s love for us is demonstrated in the Cross. You can’t get a more radical demonstration of such love. But then Paul adds a curious qualification we’re invited to ponder, and that qualifying phrase is “while we were yet sinners.” How does this phrase function with respect to the demonstration of God’s love in the Cross? It’s not just that Christ’s death for us demonstrates God’s love. The complete thought is that his death for us “while we were yet sinners” demonstrates his love. How so?

This is particularly difficult to appreciate on either of the traditional views of foreknowledge (determinism or traditional simple-foreknowledge). If, following theological determinism, God has always chosen precisely who is to respond and who is not to respond, and if the atoning efficacy of Christ’s death is virtuous only for the elect, then there remains no sense in which his having died for us “while we were sinners” uniquely qualifies his death is a demonstration of love. If God predetermines who comes to faith and Christ only dies for those elect who are foreknown, then therein is the love of God revealed, not in the fact that he died for us “while we were yet sinners.” What we are “when” he dies makes no difference if God knows when he dies precisely who he has elected and what the outcomes are. But if God dies for sinners without guarantee or foreknowledge of any change in the status of particular individuals, then the fact that he died “while we were sinners” is indeed a demonstration of love.

Similarly on the traditional Orthodox and Arminian understandings of foreknowledge, God always knows precisely who chooses and who doesn’t, who responds to God’s love and who doesn’t. On this understanding of foreknowledge God embraces the Cross with this knoweledge in mind. That entirely relativizes the fact that people are sinners “when Christ died.” Foreknowledge precedes and informs the Cross. So there would be no perceivable sense in which his dying for us “while we were sinners” would qualify or enhance or clarify the manner in which Christ’s death demonstrates God’s love. How is that love demonstrated in dying for us “while we are sinners” if it’s the case that God knows precisely who remains sinners and who comes to faith? The fact that “we are sinners” when Christ dies would matter little to a God who suffers knowing the outcome of faith for all persons.

Note, I’m not saying that dying for those you know are positively affected by your sacrifice is no love at all. I’m just saying that in such cases it would add or prove nothing to argue the especially loving nature of the sacrifice from the fact that it was made “while those for whom it was made were estranged from love.”

imagesCA7DF51ERomans 9.10-13 — “Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” The same logic applies to Paul’s reasoning regarding the unconditional nature of God’s choice of Jacob over Esau. How does Paul establish his claim that God’s choice of Jacob over Esau was not conditional upon the actions of either child? Easy. He simply shows that God made the choice while they were still in Rachel’s womb before they had done anything good or bad. The timing of God’s choice, Paul reasons, proves that the choice was not based on the actions of either. But this logic falls apart once we admit the traditional view of foreknowledge, for such a view holds that while the twins were in their mother’s womb God was cognizant of all their future actions. True, this doesn’t prove that God did base his choice on foreknowledge of their actions. It might be that God was truly indifferent to his knowledge of their future choices in choosing Jacob freely. But the logic of Paul’s argument would still fail, for it is Paul’s conviction that the unconditional nature of God’s choice is proven by the timing of the choice. But the timing of the choice doesn’t prove anything regarding the unconditional nature of the choice if it’s also the case that at the time of the choice God knows all the choices in question. A God who knows the future choices of the twins wouldn’t need to wait until after those choices had been made if he wanted to make his preference for Jacob over Esau dependent upon those choices. He has those choices in mind when they’re in the womb. That’s the problem. However, if those choices aren’t fixed in God’s mind when the twins are in the womb, if their futures are “open” and God knows this, then Paul’s logic follows—choosing one over the other while they’re in the womb does indeed prove the unconditional nature of the choice.

(Pictures here and here.)

On Infants’ Early Deaths

baby_ambroWe thought we’d share some interesting comments by Gregory of Nyssa regarding divine foreknowledge. There’s no question Orthodoxy affirms that God, to use Gregory’s expression, “knows all things before they be” (from Gregory’s On the Making of Man). That seems pretty straightforward. And there are many such examples from the Fathers that repeat the same thought.

More interesting, however, are Gregory’s thoughts on the providential use of such foreknowledge which he expounds at some length in his On Infants’ Early Deaths, explaining that God uses his foreknowledge of future evils to be committed by certain individuals should they reach maturity as the basis upon which to bring their life to an end while in infancy. Gregory has moments of brilliance, but it’s hard to see this as one of them, for it is clearly not possible that what is in fact foreknown can be the basis upon which God acts either to bring about or prevent what is foreknown. What is foreknown (on the traditional view) is by definition already the result of whatever was done to bring it about or prevent it. It is that which shall occur. Gregory’s reasoning here is impossible—if the point of his encouragement is to discuss ‘possible’ explanations. See what you think. Here are several of Gregory’s comments from On Infants’ Early Deaths:

“It is a sign of the perfection of God’s providence, that he not only heals maladies that have come into existence, but also provides that some should be never mixed up at all in the things which he has forbidden; it is reasonable to expect that he who knows the future equally with the past should check the advance of an infant to complete maturity, in order that the evil may not be developed which his foreknowledge has detected in his future life, and in order that a lifetime granted to one whose evil dispositions will be lifelong may not become the actual material for his vice.”

“Therefore, to prevent one who has indulged in the carousals to an improper extent from lingering over so profusely furnished a table, he is early taken from the number of the banqueters, and thereby secures an escape out of those evils which unmeasured indulgence procures for gluttons. This is that achievement of a perfect Providence which I spoke of; namely, not only to heal evils that have been committed, but also to forestall them [foreknown evils] before they have been committed; and this, we suspect, is the cause of the deaths of new-born infants.”

“But seeing that our reason in this matter has to grope in the dark, clearly no one can complain if its conjecturing leads our mind to a variety of conclusions. Well, then, not only one might pronounce that God, in kindness to the founders of some family, withdraws a member of it who is going to live a bad life from that bad life, but, even if there is no antecedent such as this in the case of some early deaths, it is not unreasonable to conjecture that they would have plunged into a vicious life with a more desperate vehemence than any of those who have actually become notorious for their wickedness. That nothing happens without God we know from many sources; and, reversely, that God’s dispensations have no element of chance and confusion in them every one will allow, who realizes that God is reason, and wisdom, and perfect goodness, and truth, and could not admit of that which is not good and not consistent with his truth. Whether, then, the early deaths of infants are to be attributed to the aforesaid causes, or whether there is some further cause of them beyond these, it befits us to acknowledge that these things happen for the best.”

“The premature deaths of infants have nothing in them to suggest the thought that one who so terminates his life is subject to some grievous misfortune, any more than they are to be put on a level with the deaths of those who have purified themselves in this life by every kind of virtue; the more far-seeing providence of God curtails the immensity of sins in the case of those whose lives are going to be so evil. That some of the wicked have lived on does not upset this reason which we have rendered; for the evil was in their case hindered in kindness to their parents; whereas, in the case of those whose parents have never imparted to them any power of calling upon God, such a form of the Divine kindness, which accompanies such a power, is not transmitted to their own children; otherwise the infant now prevented by death from growing up wicked would have exhibited a far more desperate wickedness than the most notorious sinners, seeing that it would have been unhindered.”

I cannot see such explanations as a consolation to the parents of an infant who has died: “Take courage good mother, your son would have done great evil. So in his kindness, God has prevented your child’s foreknown sins from being committed.” Wait a sec. Weren’t they foreknown?

(Picture from here.)

Whatcha reading? 2

DarknessofGodThis is a good place to make a quick plug for a second book. I’m presently in the middle of Denys Turner’s The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (Cambridge, 1998). Turner describes his book as “an essay in the philosophical history of some theological metaphors.” Those key metaphors include “interiority,” “ascent,” “light and darkness” and “oneness” among others. He reviews the origin and development of these metaphors as expressions of human transformation and relationship to God, beginning with Pseudo-Denys, then Augustine, Bonaventure, Eckhart, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, Denys the Carthusian, and finally John of the Cross. And you get a decent survey of other significant persons along the way. Thus far it’s been a great tour of the cataphatic-apophatic approach to theology and the difference between what has come to be known today as “mysticism” (on the one hand) and “mystical theology” (on the other hand) as it was pursued and expressed before the modern era. I was surprised. Turner writes:

imagesCA1QI2QF“I began to see that not only would it be dangerous to assume that the similarities of language entailed a similarity of purpose, but that it would be actually wrong to suppose this. For the purposes being served by this cluster of metaphors in the mediaeval traditions began to seem very different from those it is serving today and, in one important respect, it looked as if it is serving the opposed purpose.”

Part of the book’s purpose is to expose this difference between what is typically called “mysticism” today and what is properly called “mystical theology” and then to recover the latter. Again:

“Put very bluntly, the difference seemed to be this: that whereas our employment of the metaphors of ‘inwardness’ and ‘ascent’ appears to be tied in with the achievement and the cultivation of a certain kind of experience—such as those recommended within the practice of what is called, nowadays, ‘centering’ or ‘contemplative’ prayer—the mediaeval employment of them was tied in with a ‘critique’ of such religious experiences and practices.”

“I have drawn the conclusion from my study that in so far as the word ‘mysticism’ has a contemporary meaning; and that in so far as that contemporary meaning links ‘mysticism’ to the cultivation of certain kinds of experience—of ‘inwardness’, ‘ascent’, and ‘union’—then the mediaeval ‘mystic’ offers an anit-mysticism. For though the mediaeval Christian neoplatonist used that same language of ‘interiority’, ‘ascent’ and ‘oneness’, he or she did so precisely in order to deny that there were terms descriptive of ‘experiences’…. what is decisive about the employment of these metaphors within the mediaeval traditions of ‘mystical theology’ is the Neoplatonic dialectical epistemology—its apophaticism—within which those metaphors are set and by which their employment is governed. What differentiates the mediaeval employment of those metaphors from ours is the fact that we have retained the mataphors, evacuated them of their dialectics and refilled them with the stuff of experience.”

“At its boldest, my hypothesis is that modern interpretation has invented ‘mysticism’ and that we persist in reading back the terms of that conception upon a stock of mediaeval authorities who knew no such thing—or, when they knew of it, decisively rejected it.”

Spoiler alert. Turner hopes to apply this retrieval of a cataphatic-apophatic theology to contemporary (Western?) ‘experientialism’:

“‘Experientialism’ in its most extreme forms is the displacement of a sense of the negativity of all religious experience….It abhors the experiential vacuum of the apophatic, rushing to fill it with the plenum of the psychologisitic. It resists the deconstructions of the negative. It is happy with commendations of the ‘interior’ so long as it can cash them out in the currency of experienced inwardness and of the practices of prayer which will achieve it.”

I’m not finished the book yet, but I’m anxious to know whether Denys sees Christian faith as an experience at all. I’m sure he does. And while I’m all for checking an unrestrained experientialism that reduces God and the truth about God to one’s experience, we don’t want to lock ourselves existentially out of our own faith either. In the end (as Orthodoxy itself says), theology IS the experience of God (albeit not the shallow experientialist fix that pays the bills for so many churches). So I’m curious to know in what senses Turner will AFFIRM the existential after chastising experientialism.

True to our feelings

9780195368536I’ve just finished a 12 week spring session (in our Recovery meetings) entitled “Feelings and Faith: Exploring our Emotions.” I found a lot of inspirational support in Robert Solomon’s True to Our Feelings: What Our Emotions Are Really Telling Us (Oxford, 2007). I like a lot about Solomon’s take on emotions. He writes against reductionist theories that view emotions as mere chemical reactions which occur in the brain, as based in physiological disturbances (William James), or which displace responsibility for emotions by transferring determination of them away from ourselves and in external influences (whether in terms of Skinner’s ‘Behaviorism’ or some other mechanism). He views emotions as “evaluative judgments” which are purposive strategies the self adopts for living in the world. Emotions are neither irrational nor do they happen to us. They are ultimately strategies adopted by the self for the maximization and management of the self’s well-being.

This worked really well with my main point in the series (in pursuit of exploring how apatheia is realized in our own experience and faith) which was that since emotions are some ‘self’ interpreting the events of life in terms of that self’s perceived well-being (either as an expression of well-being or an attempt to secure it), the ‘self’ is at the heart of our emotional health. That is, “who” we believe we most fundamentally are is what shapes and directs the emotional life, not the other way around. This is a fundamental Stoic insight (as well as that of Eastern philosophical/religious traditions) and we think it reflects biblical truth (as we shared previously).

If one’s ‘self’ is defined most truly in terms of relationship to/in the risen Christ, then one is as transcendent of the world as is Christ, meaning nothing in or of this world can define who we are and what we most fundamentally mean. No worldly event (neither height nor depth, life nor death, sword nor sickness, etc.) can threaten the Christ-centered self. And you can’t fear or be angry at or anxious about or depressed over what cannot possibly harm or diminish you. In Romans 8:15 Paul tells us that we are not given a spirit which makes us again slaves to fear but are instead given the Spirit of Sonship “by whom we cry ‘Abba’, Father.” There it is. God’s own self-talk. The Son’s own sense of self. It is ours. We are given it to step into. And so it is that “not I but Christ” or who I am is on the inside of who Christ is (the “new self, created to be like God….” (Eph. 4) As Paul asks, “If God be for us, who and what can be against us?” Who or what indeed! What would happen to our emotional and psychological turmoil if we chose never to view ourselves or step outside the truth of this relation?

Brilliant Darkness

Light Uncreated

Falling Plunging Careening
Headlong into what
appears to be my demise
In a strange way, it is
All that I believed composed me
becomes as ephemeral, wispy
as I’d always feared
Darkness everywhere
in the void
of no-thingness
I have been revealed to be
absent of turbulent thought and passion
a Presence looms, within and without
Slowly, silent song breaks forth
And Illumination too bright
too brilliant to be created
more than speech can say
shines darkly everywhere
and yet no-where
into the Light
I dive


(Picture here)

A cell made of diamonds?


“We were with Christ; we didn’t know that we were in prison.” Richard Wurmbrand (1909-2001), was a Romanian Pastor tortured for Christ in prison for years. Check out a bit of his testimony here. Listen to what he says from 2:08 to 3:17. That is apatheia, far from the debilitating doctrine that some conclude it is.

(Picture here.)