Not Alone

600x600bb-85Anita and I have been enjoying History Channel’s Alone series. Just finished Season 3 recently. Each season documents ten new pre-approved survivalists who are dropped off in remote locations and left to survive on their own. Seasons 1 and 2 were held on Vancouver Island. Season 3 was in Patagonia, Argentina. Each contestant is given a few essential tools to take along, but all have to eat, drink and survive alone. No human contact. They’re given video equipment to set up and record their thoughts and activities.

It’s very interesting to observe the gradual effects of solitude upon each contestant. The quiet breaks and whittles them down, brings them face to face with themselves. If you want to call it quits, you tap out by calling a Sat Phone and you’re extracted. As people tap out, 10 becomes 9, then 7, then 4, etc. If you’re the last one standing, you win half a mill. Season 1’s winner lasted 56 days. Season 2’s made it to 66 days. Season 3’s winner won on day 87. Amazing show. Check it out!

That said, my thoughts on being alone brought to me thoughts of the Cross. On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus said to his disciples (John 16.32-33):

A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

It’s just because Jesus says this before the awful events that end with him on the Cross that its truth gets separated from the Cross and altogether forgotten when you get to the Cross. But the truth Christ here affirms should be included in what we have traditionally considered Jesus’ “Final sayings from the Cross,” for Jesus himself insists that what he here says embraces his suffering to come and so will be true when he hangs on the Cross. Think about it. We should learn to hear Jesus say from the Cross not only “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” but also “I am not alone; my Father is with me.”

Earlier we offered:

Besides explicitly declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus’ point (v. 33) is that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground their own peace in upcoming afflictions as a consequence of his having overcome the world. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how the Father is with us in ours.

Consider also –

Cursed is he who judged by us hangs on a tree
A cell made of diamonds?

Boiling down the Great Apostasy

boilingI used to think the Great Apostasy (2Th 2.3) would be an explicitly heterodox, violent, and Christ-rejecting explosion of unbelief on the part of professing believers who up and walk out of the Church. But I rather expect now that it will be a principled, morally-defended, Christ-confessing, church-attending, hymn-singing, hands-raised abandonment of the Cross on the part of those walking in. The Great Apostasy won’t empty the Church. It will redefine what it means to remain in it.

This is my beloved son; I’m so happy with him

58e630928cfa7eb7b6ac3d260541ee93_w600Even the simplest statements can overwhelm us with their depth and truth, statements that speak clearly and simply in ways that go straight to the heart in uncomplicated ways. One simple statement that grabs my attention is what the Father’s voice declares at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:17; Luke 3:22). The Father says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Typical questions people have about Jesus’ baptism include wondering why Jesus would submit to a baptism of repentance, or what water baptism really means, or why ‘immersion’ is better than ‘sprinkling’. I confess I fall into this. Imagining myself present at his baptism, I can see myself yelling back up to the sky:

       “Excuse me, but before you close the line would you mind helping us out with a few things?”
       God repeats, “This is my beloved Son in whom I’m happy.”
       I’m not dissuaded. “Yes, I understand. Thank you. So, about predestination, what’s your view?” I continue.
       The answer comes back, “This is my beloved Son in whom I’m well pleased.”
       “I get that. Very important, yes,” I reply, a bit irritated. “Now, what about…” and on I continue with my questions, not realizing that the Father’s one utterance is the answer to all my questions. God has been answering me the entire time. God’s answer to them all, indeed, God’s answer to all our questions is “This is my Son whom I love. I’m happy with him.” Christology is complete when we realize this, whatever mysteries we might continue to chase for the rest of our lives.

Consider the timing too. Jesus has yet to begin his public ministry. He has yet to turn water into wine, to preach his first sermon, or to heal a single person. By modern standards of “ministry,” he hasn’t done anything. His résumé wouldn’t especially recommend him for hire at any of our best churches. In addition, 90% of his life is behind him (if he’s, say, 30, and has a 3 year +/- public ministry) and all he’s done is live his life quietly, honor God and his family, work his trade for a living, help his elderly neighbor, celebrate the joys of townsfolk, attend funerals – i.e., take the human journey. Listen, these 30 mundane years of unimpressive mediocrity redeem us just as powerfully as the Cross. Those of us who live mundane lives of unimpressive mediocrity need the 90% of Jesus working 8 to 4, 40 hours a week. His whole story saves us, not just the last 10th of it after his baptism.

This is precisely why the Father’s words here at his baptism are so relevant. The Father is pleased with Jesus before Jesus engages in ministry, before he launches into public service, before he does anything worth writing up in the headlines. But if Jesus hasn’t performed any ‘ministry’ yet, what’s the source of the Father’s pleasure? The answer can be life-changing. What pleases the Father about Jesus is everything that preceded all the accomplishments and notoriety of public ministry and miracles that came later. The Father’s pleasure in Christ preceded Christ’s ministry. We too often look to the doing of things for God to be what recommends us to God and wins his favor, a favor we naturally seek. But that gets things backwards, for ministry flows out of the overflow of an already accomplished relationship of love and acceptance.

You know almost immediately when meeting someone whether they’re at rest in being God’s beloved or whether they’re still striving to get into that place. Less than five minutes of conversation will tell you. People who aren’t striving are able to be fully present in the moment. They’re not self-absorbed. Striving people can never truly attend the present moment. Why? Because ‘who’ they are is always somewhere else. But people who know they’re loved – the present belongs to them.

Only love can fully abide the present.

Lastly, “this is my Son whom I love; I’m so happy with him” is nothing less than creation fulfilled, the gospel, the very salvation of the world. How so? Because this right here is why God created – to celebrate the eternal begetting and loving recognition of Sonship ad extra within a created world, God giving himself to himself anew within and as the non-divine world. The Father’s voice confirms it, for this is what the Father “says” (Logos) eternally. Now he says it within creation. That’s what creation is for. The rest is rescue mission, and there’s no avoiding that. Thank God for it. But all that is just the unfolding of this moment. This baptismal ad extra kiss of love is the Trinity celebrating itself outside itself (so to speak), it is creation as intra-trinitarian gift, God giving himself to himself as created.

Existential arguments for (im)passibility—Part 2

tumblr_o54ed9RF5Q1rx503do1_400We’re talking about existential arguments for/against divine (im)passibility (impassibility as we’ve defended it here, which is simply the claim that God’s essential triune beatitude and happiness are undiminished by the world). How does belief in divine (im)passibility shape one’s experience?

To begin to get at exploring the possible answers, I first want to suggest two perspectives from which to assess the answers. The first has to do with making sense of how we understand divine motivation (and by implication our own). The second has to do with how our belief on this question actually informs and facilitates human transformation. I’ll focus on passibility and work from there.

(1) Divine motivation. Passibility here explains how God is motivated to act on our behalf at all. If God doesn’t suffer on account of our sin, pain, and suffering, God would be so indifferent to our state it would either never dawn on him to act on our behalf or, if he were to act, we could not interpret his actions on our behalf as evidence of love.

(2) Integrating belief in divine passibility. Our spiritual healing and personal transformation are brought about through integrating the truth of divine passibility into our subjective experience. By integration I mean intentionally world-constructing within the framework of some truth or other. In this case such integration involves identifying our well-being with God’s diminished beatitude (his suffering essentially). As we contemplate God’s essential suffering on our behalf, we realize that our pain is expanded beyond the limits of our own experience and into God, and this realization brings us encouragement, strength, hope, relief, etc.

I’ve addressed divine motivation previously. (Check out Divine experience of beatitude the summum bonum—part 2 and God as meaning-maker.) In both posts I argue that God’s motivation to pursue our highest good can be understood as a self-motivating fullness that needn’t be prodded into action either by suffering diminishment or by the prospect of an increased aesthetic value. A present fullness may be its own motivation to pursue the well-being of others as an expression of its own fullness. And we have experiences of our own which demonstrate this to be possible. On the other hand, there are serious problems in supposing that God’s motivation to act on behalf must require his first being emotionally hurt or existentially diminished.

We come, then, to assessing (im)passibility in terms of (2), and I’d like to explore a couple of New Testament passages (Heb 2 and 4) as test cases. Let’s start with Hebrews 4:

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

It is clear here that believers are encouraged and empowered in well-being not through imagining Christ as “high priest” to be “unable to empathize with our weaknesses” but, quite the opposite, through reflecting upon his experiencing their weaknesses and temptations. It might seem that a passibilist could read this passage straightforwardly as saying “we do not have a God who is impassible” and consider the debate closed. But upon closer examination things aren’t so cut and dry.

The first thing to note about Hebrews 4 is that the descriptions in question are spoken of Christ as the Incarnate One. If we take these descriptions of Christ and attribute them without qualification to the divine nature (because Christ is divine), we are bound to say this nature is (essentially speaking) vulnerable to being tempted by evil, something James explicitly denies (Jam 1) when he says there is no shadow of turning in God as the source of all good “who neither tempts nor can be tempted to do evil.” True, in Hebrews 4 the God-Man empathizes with our weaknesses and vulnerability to temptation, but he empathizes with us precisely by actually sharing them as weaknesses and temptations because he, like us, shares an embodied human experience subject to those weaknesses. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Hebrews 2 is close at hand and assumes the same perspective. Here we see (NIV) that Christ “suffered death” (v. 9), “tasted death” (v. 9), was “made perfect through what he suffered (v. 10), “shared our humanity” (v. 14) to “free us from our fear of death” (v. 15). He was “made like us, fully human in every way” (v. 17) in order that he might “become a merciful and faithful high priest” (v. 17), “make atonement for our sins,” (v. 17), and “help us who are being tempted because he suffered when he was tempted” (v. 18).

Again, note that the claims are made of Christ’s embodied accomplishments which qualify him to be high priest. Note secondly that these experiences—sharing humanity, facing mortality, suffering under the pressure of temptation, dying—are available only in human, embodied natural terms. Even if I had other grounds for believing in the passibility of the divine nature (say, on the basis of Old Testament texts describing God) nothing described here is predicable to God outside his incarnate state, and much of it is impossible to predicate of God in his divine nature. Note thirdly in v. 17 that “he was made like us…so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest.” The assumption here is that these sufferings are new to God. That is, while only God can determine the purpose and meaning of human being, only a man can disclose and achieve that purpose and meaning. God has to be made like us so that he might become high priest. The author’s view in Hebrews 2 here is that Incarnation is what makes it possible for God to have an experience that qualifies him as man to disclose, achieve, represent and make available a way of being human that embraces all human beings. Only God can be the perfect man.

Hebrews 2 and 4 are crucial passages if we’re interested in exploring existential arguments, because these passages ground the practical-existential benefits of salvation in the belief that Christ’s sufferings and temptations are a source of healing and empowerment to us. So how’s that empowerment work?

  • How is one encouraged by the God-Man’s having faced mortality and having tasted death if one also believes God is immortal and cannot be threatened with death (as Paul confesses explicitly in 1Tim 1.17)?
  • How is one encouraged by the God-Man’s having suffered temptation if one also believes God cannot be tempted by evil (as James confesses)?

Both experiences (being mortal and being immortal, as well as suffering temptation and being invulnerable to temptation) are had by God; so no impassibilist suggests that the experiences essential to human being are not at all predicable to God. On the contrary, this human nature is God’s human nature. So its experiences are God’s. But we cannot fail to say also that God the Son has that experience essential to divine being (including ‘immortality’ and ‘invulnerability to suffering temptation’, affirmed by Paul and James respectively). Something along the lines of Chalcedon is necessary to hold these experiences together ‘personally’ while recognizing their incompatibility ‘naturally’.

But if I imagine the Son sharing my weaknesses and temptations while also not suffering those weaknesses and temptations, have I not so compromised the integrity of Christ as a single subject as to empty his human experience of any encouragement, confidence, and grace it might provide? I’ve suggested (here and here) why no such compromise follows, but I’ll try to return to this in Part 4’s wrap-up.

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As we can see, Hebrews 2 and 4 cannot be understood as attributing suffering, morality, and vulnerability to temptation to the divine nature per se. I’ve also described (here, here, and here) the inner process of deriving the confidence and grace Christ’s experience provides within this Chalcedonian framework. Remember also that all the biblical passages in which we observe apatheia at work, interestingly, are passages that focus on the practical-existential benefits of the gospel’s power to heal and transform human being.

For now let me suggest three things that I try to keep in mind as I move into Part 3. First, whatever existential benefits (confidence in prayer, freedom from fear of death, provision of grace) Hebrews 2 and 4 offer, they:

(a) do not explicitly attribute suffering to the divine nature,
(b) assume God is only able to have these experiences via the Incarnate state, and
(c) cannot compete with the existential benefit which is ours through contemplation of other unalterable truths about God, i.e., his invulnerability to suffering temptation (Jam 1) and his immortality (1Tim 1.17; 6.16).

Make no mistake about James. He means to encourage and inform faith in the most practical-existential of ways by reminding us of how God’s relationship to the evil which tempts us is unlike our relationship to evil.

Hope, strength, and grace can be and are mediated to us through contemplation of the ways God shares our human experience (Heb 2 and 4), yes. But they can be and are also mediated to us through a contemplation of the ways God is not like us (Jam 1; 1Tim 1) and of the ways God is what we presently are not but shall be (Rom 8.18). I’m sure it was a great comfort to Peter that Jesus was not vulnerable to drowning the night the disciples were caught in a storm.

So to one group of suffering and tempted believers the author of Hebrews says, “Take heart! Christ suffered our weaknesses and temptations. The God-Man knows what you’re going through,” while to another family of suffering and tempted believers James says, “Take heart! And remember that God doesn’t tempt anyone, nor can he be tempted by evil as we are.” Both realities (the essential impeccability and immortality of divine being and Jesus’ embodied sufferings and temptations as God’s own) describe the experiences of a single subject (the Son), and both realities comfort upon contemplation in their respective modes of being.

Secondly, it does not follow (in the case of Christ, both fully human and fully divine) that if the ‘person’ suffers both ‘natures’ suffer since both ‘natures’ are united in the one ‘person’. 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. Nor does it follow that experiences unique to a single of his natures are not genuinely and fully had by him. As we think through Hebrews 2 and 4, it seems to me we have to keep this in mind. The communicatio idiomatum (communication of divine and human properties in Christ) are the communication or attribution of the experiences definitive of both natures to one and the same ‘person’, not the attribution of each nature’s essential properties to the other ‘nature’.

Perhaps an analogy will help. Let us say I am set on a coast to coast journey from New York City to Los Angeles. And let us say the conditions under which I am to make this journey limit me in time and resources. Suppose I have 5 days to get to LA, am given an ATM card and limited to $100 for expenses, and I have no means of transportation. I have to hitch-hike, get a bus here and there, and do whatever else I can to get myself to LA. Let’s assume that everybody who tries to make the trip under these conditions fails. But eventually one guy succeeds. We later find out, however, that he’s a millionaire and his card actually had unlimited funds on it. You object, “Wait a second. No fair! I was truly limited to $100 while he had a million dollars.” Now, the analogy doesn’t cover every imaginable point of comparison. But it does get at exposing the irrelevance of the complaint that unless the millionaire is reduced without remainder to the constraints of my conditions, I can’t be encouraged or motivated by his example, and similarly the complaint that unless God is reduced without remainder to precisely the conditions under which I suffer as a human being, I can’t be helped by the Incarnation. The millionaire actually completed the trip on less than $100. That’s the relevant point. He succeeded at doing what we fail to do with what we are given to accomplish it.

Lastly, I want to suggest that any attempt to make practical-existential arguments in the debate over (im)passibilism begin by stating the telos/end of human being in existential terms and then seek to demonstrate in experiential terms how one’s view succeeds at informing human transformation along those lines. That’s the relevant point in these arguments. I’ll try to explore this in Part 3.

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; “very, very” or “greatly, greatly”) 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.

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)

__________________________

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 us up to see its relevance here. 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 his shock 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.

jesus-reaching-through-the-waterHow—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 his shared vulnerability to drowning, 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 as God’s beloved Son upon the Cross with what drives us insane. But the Cross 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.

Expanding your vocabulary can be dangerous

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Just getting into Gregory Rocca’s Speaking the Incomprehensible God: Thomas Aquinas on the Interplay of Positive and Negative Theology, wanting to keep growing in the conversation about language and God-talk. In the opening pages, he summarizes the vocabulary used to express divine transcendence in the formative years of the Church. The main sources of these concepts, argued by Jean Daniélou, are Hellenistic Judaism, Middle Platonism, and Gnosticism (an interesting range of sources). Rocca reviews the vocabulary/conceptual contribution of each of these sources (pretty much focusing on negative names as expressed in the alpha privative; no mention of concepts for transcendence using the “hyper” prefix [Eph. 3:19’s hyperballousan, knowing love that “surpasses” knowing]).

It is no surprise that these key philosophical terms make their way into the New Testament. Rocca lists them (p. 8). There’s no avoiding their presence and function within biblical language and worldview. Even if you’re not an Orthodox (and I am not) and are not especially inclined to apophaticism (indeed, many are explicitly critical of it), there’s no pretending these terms don’t occupy an important place in the apostolic lingua franca. Consider the list:

  • aoratos (invisible), from Romans 1:20, where Paul states that the invisible things of God are known from the visible things of creation; the same word appears in Colossians 1:15, where Christ is said to be the image of the invisible God.
  • arrētos (ineffable [a concept I was once told was purely pagan and unbiblical]), from 2 Corinthians 12:4, where Paul describes how he was caught up in rapture to paradise and heard ineffable words. [One could add aneklalēto (unspeakable) of 1 Peter 1:8, where we exalt in joy unspeakable.]
  • anekdiēgētos (indescribable), from 2 Corinthians 9:15, where Paul praises God for his indescribable gift of grace.
  • anexereunētos (unsearchable), from Romans 11:33, which is a doxological statement declaring to be unsearchable the judgments of God concerning the fall and eventual restoration of Israel.
  • anexichniastos (untraceable or uninvestigable), from Romans 11:33, occurring as a general synonym for anexereunetos; it also occurs in Ephesians 3:8, which mentions the privilege of preaching to the Gentiles the gospel of the uninvestigable riches of Christ.
  • athanasia (immortality), from 1 Timothy 6:16, a doxology claiming that God alone has immortality.
  • aprositos (inaccessible), from 1 Timothy 6:16, a doxology starting that God dwells in light inaccessible.