Clarifying two natures

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Anyone who knows the themes and passions we like to pursue here will know that Dwayne and I hold to an open view of the future and to divine epistemic openness regarding creaturely free choice. I won’t rehearse the open view here, but the chief reason we started this blog was to see what could be gained from a conversation between these beliefs and Orthodoxy. We’ve never had any pretensions about becoming Orthodox or about the Orthodox approving our positions. We’ve always assumed these beliefs were not compatibly Orthodox. We simply thought early on that as open theism grew and came into wider conversations to shape its future, a more extended, unrushed conversation with Orthodoxy might help. Some open theists felt, and continue to feel, threatened by any such openness (Oh the irony!) to this particular conversation.

Several years into it now a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. We’ve made some Orthodox friends, learned a good deal, and have come to appreciate much about Orthodoxy. I think the biggest gain for us has come from navigating the bumpy terrain surrounding the doctrine of divine apatheia and, in our case, integrating this vision of God with Greg’s Trinity & Process. Existentially speaking, doing life within the truth of God’s abiding peace and triune delight has had far greater effect upon our lives than has embracing divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents, though the latter belief has had practical consequences as well.

That said, Dwayne and I no longer self-identify as “open theists.” After prolonged debate it wasn’t clear to us what open theism essentially stood for. And we’ve remained out of intra-Openness conversations and debates for some time now. As I argued a while back, open theism is defunct as a social-religious movement anyway, but it’s interesting now and then to run across veiled criticisms of positions we’ve taken here on the basis of a threat we presumably pose to open theism. This past week I ran into concern from one open theist that a certain group of open theists (a veiled reference principally to Dwayne and me) were denying Orthodox Christology along monothelite lines, a concern that was expressed in response to a favorable reading of a 2012 post by Robin Phillips over on Fr Damick’s blog at Ancient Faith (Radio). Robin was exploring his reasons for leaving Calvinism, and in this particular post he explains why he thinks theological determinism makes affirming Orthodoxy’s dyothelitism (the “two wills” of Christ) problematic. It’s a good post (never mind needing a few points of clarity), and it was cheered on as a must read for open theists by one concerned open theist who saw it as championing synergism between God and humanity (which is does), a synergism we affirm, as well as the passibilism of the divine nature (which it does not argue and which couldn’t possibly be assumed in Orthodoxy’s condemnation of monothelitism).

I won’t bore you with details, but I wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to clarify our position and encourage open theists who might be interested in maintaining continuity with what Orthodox Christians have historically believed about Christ’s two natures. Dwayne and I, this concerned open theist has said, “have mistakenly claimed that only Jesus’ human nature died on the cross” (my emphasis). Of lesser interest is the statement that we make this claim, among other reasons, “in a vain attempt to remain orthodox.” He then warns open theists not to “sacrifice an orthodox Christology for their own desire to be accepted by classical theists who reject synergism between God and humanity and who reject divine suffering.”

Oh my. Where to begin?

Robin is all about R. C. Sproul’s comments about the two natures of Christ. I couldn’t be less interested in Sproul, but none of Robin’s criticisms of Sproul apply to us. As Robin rightly notes in his piece, ‘natures’ don’t have experiences independently of their subjects. It is ‘persons’ who suffer (or who are delighted, or what have you), not stand-alone ‘natures’.

This is obviously true. Natures don’t have experiences independent of their subjects. Of course it’s also true that ‘persons’ possess ‘natures’ in terms of which they have their experiences. But certainly there’s no way to avoid attributing to ‘persons’ what they experience in terms of their ‘natures’. Dwayne and I have never suggested, as this concerned open theist falsely supposes of us, that it was merely Jesus’ human ‘nature’ and not the ‘person’ of the Son/Logos that suffered. On the contrary, the Logos is the sole subject having all the very human experiences of his incarnate life. Mary is theotokos, God-bearer, she who gave birth to God. God was born. God grew in stature and wisdom personally. God suffered personally. God was crucified personally. God died personally. We’ve never denied any of this. In fact, we hold the Christian faith to be inseparable from these affirmations.

But the Son/Logos of God has two natures—one divine and one human, the he is subject of both natures, or (if you’re interested in the Sixth Ecumenical Council) two wills, and these natures are not (implores Chalcedon) to be separated (into two persons) nor confused or combined into a tertium quid, a blending of essential divine attributes and essential human attributes into a single nature, a kind of divine-human mixed drink. So the question is not whether the birth, life, ignorance, suffering, and dying of Jesus constitute personal experiences of the Son/Logos of God who is the sole subject of these experiences. The question is whether these human experiences are attributable not only to this ‘person’ (all Orthodox agree they are) but also to this person’s divine nature, which the Orthodox do not do. If  the Son suffers humanly (in terms of his human nature), does it follow that he suffers in his divinity? If God dies in and as Christ, does the divine nature die? Does the unity of the person as subject of both natures require that we attribute to the divine nature all the experiences had by the Son in terms of his human nature (i.e., coming into existence, being nothing more than a zygote in gestation, being ignorant, suffering, dying, etc.)? No Orthodox would think so, and to accuse those who believe the person of the Son has divine experiences (in terms of his divine nature) transcendent of and so not reducible to his human experiences of asserting that ‘only his human nature and not his person’ is having these experiences is such a grievous misunderstanding of Orthodoxy it pretty much writes you out of the conversation.

Open theists rushing to Robin’s post to find confirmation of their belief in the full passibilism of the divine nature because they suppose it to be entailed in the Orthodox belief that God was truly (personally) born, hung on the Cross, and died, may want to explore things a bit more responsibly. No Orthodox person thinks the divine nature died, and neither the Sixth Ecumenical Council nor the two-wills doctrine implies such a thing.

A bird upon my hammock sat

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I have a hammock where I go,
A secret place that’s not for show;
A classroom where my soul learns how
To posture and in stillness bow
My heart and mind and listen for
Less of the world, and to God more.
Just today in fact, tis true,
While gazing upwards into blue,
I had only for a moment lay
And opened up my thoughts to say:
“Father, you are beautiful;
The sun is warm, the shade is cool,
The trees do sway and robins sing;
I’d like to ask you for one thing.
Would you a bird please send my way?
And, in sending her, to say:
‘I love you son, and just to prove
I hear your voice, I see you move,
I’ll have that bird come by and sit
Right on your hammock just a bit’.”
No sooner had I offered up
My prayer to God and then shut-up,
I thought “What foolishness to hope
A bird would land within my scope!”
When suddenly a Blue-Jay flew
From left of me and into view.
She briefly on my hammock sat,
Then flew away—and that was that.
Stunned nearly into disbelief,
But then by faith with great relief,
I knew God heard my humble prayer,
As on my hammock I did stare
Into the sky needing a sign
That I was his, and he was mine.

You shall find rest for your soul

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Was just chatting with Dwayne today. I asked, “You ever get tired of theological conversation? Like, does it ever just wear you out?” He agreed it does. I definitely get there. I’m feeling myself there these days. I engage, press in, think hard, and chase every rabbit down every hole I can find, looking for the right “fit.” Working the old dianoia till it drops. Then something says to me, “Enough already. You need be still in God’s presence in light of what you know. Knowing more isn’t going to help.”

Stillness (Hesychasm). Watchfulness (Nepsis). Not more dianoia.

We really know enough. The dianoia is full to overflowing. Is there a way to expand it to make room for more? When we need to, sure. By the doing of what we know. We study and unravel and speculate and construct (theologically), looking for something, that unified theological field theory. We work towards it. We don’t experience what we long for, so we think the answer must be more dianoia, more knowledge. So we dive back in. But it doesn’t fulfill. Why?

It doesn’t fulfill because we don’t practice the stillness needed to integrate the dianoia into the rest of ineffable encounter with God, into the slating of desire in his presence where the self contemplates not a list of propositions but him who grounds their truth. There the soul is fed, refreshed, fulfilled. There the mind rests. And if the mind does not rest in this encounter of presence beyond discursive thought, what is known by the dianoia gets appropriated by a false self.