Lenten Reading: Augustine’s Lenten Homilies

St. Augustine of Hippo

Augustine, as a pastor-bishop-theologian, had numerous opportunities to preach and teach. One reoccurring opportunity was the different seasons of the Church Calendar. During Lent I am reading his Lenten Homilies. In Homily 206, Augustine points out that Christians are called to pursue Christ-likeness throughout the year. So why Lent? Augustine argues Lent offers an opportunity for greater humility and service for those who are faithful, and and time of repentance and renewal for those who are nominal (86). This opportunity, is not abstract, but grounded in the person and work of Christ.

What is the theological basis for Lent as a time of repentance and discipline? For Augustine, it is the life of Jesus Christ: “The humility of Christ has taught us to be humble because he yielded to the wicked by his death; the exaltation of Christ lifts us up because by rising again He blazed the way for his devoted followers” (87). During Lent, we celebrate, imitate, and walk in the way of Christ’s humility. During Easter we celebrate, enjoy and walk in his exaltation. This, however, is not just a pattern for Lent and Easter; it is the pattern of the Christian life, dying and rising, mortification and vivification.

So during Lent what do we put to death? How do we walk in the humility of Christ? This is what Augustine exhorts his congreation to: “Let us by our prayers add the wings of piety to our alms-deeds and fasting so that they may fly more readily to God” (87). Augustine goes on to meditate on alms-deeds and fasting. Here, I will just consider his discussion of alms-deeds

Citing Luke 6:37-38 as his text to discuss alms-deeds, Augustine sees in the text two kinds of alms, physical giving and forgiving. He considers the first as he petitions his hearers to give to the poor, not because of the poor, but because of Christ who is with the poor: “For, in the person of the poor, He who experiences no hunger wished himself to be fed. Therefore, let us not spur our God who is needy in His poor, so that we in our need may be filled in him who is rich” (87-88). This poor and rich motif is a common one in Augustine in reference to Christ’s work of redemption, such that Christ who is rich comes and gives us, who are poor, his riches, i.e., salvation. This great exchange of incarnation and redemption is over-laid onto alms-giving. Just as we have received much in salvation, so must we give to those who have little. The motive is gratitude, not duty. Further, Augustine presses his audience to see that whatever we give is nothing compared to what we will receive in heaven. Thus, alms giving is couched in Christ’s death and the eschatological hope of life in God.

The second type of almsgiving is forgiving others. This almsdeed is something anyone, rich or poor, can do. “Even he who has no means of livelihood in this world may do this to insure his living for eternity” (88). For Augustine this alms-deed is implicitly grounded in the infinite gratuity of Christ’s death and resurrection. And he explicitly warns, following the text, that if we do not forgive we will not be forgiven. With a wonderful turn of phrase he says, “Let them [unforgiveness or enmities] be destroyed by the Redeemer, lest they destroy you, the retainer” (88).

Augustine grounds both practices of alms-deeds in the person and work of Christ even as he grounds the whole practice of Lent in the same person and work. Lent, for Augustine, is a time to enter more diligently into the work of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us through the death and resurrection of Christ.

Lenten reading: George Herbert on Being a Pastor

George Herbert, 1593-1633

George Herbert, the famous English pastor and poet, served in a small country Parish for three years before his early and untimely death. In those years he wrote poetry and The Country Parson. He penned this short text as a Rule of Life for himself, as something to “aim at” (pg 54). I just finished my first read through of it and found much of it helpful, some of it only applicable to his time and place, and some of it translatable into my time and place. I wanted to summarize and quote some of the most personally significant passages as a still new Pastor-Theologian, for my own personal edification, and hopefully the edification of others.

He opens the book with defining a pastor. A pastor, he says, “Is the deputy of Christ for reducing of man to the Obedience of God.” In this definition, Herbert argues is the reason and the goal of pastoral duty and authority, which is none other than Christ and his Gospel. First, he argues, humanity fell from God by disobedience, second Christ is the “glorious instrument of God for the revoking (restoring) of Man.” Third, Christ, in his ascension gave the church Priests to do what Christ did through the Power of the Holy Spirit both in “Doctrine and life” (55). At the heart of Herbert’s definition of the Pastor is the gospel of Christ lived out in the pastor and carried out in the life of the Church. The pastor is to preach the gospel, live a holy life, and exhort his parish to repentance, faith and obedience in Christ. Put simply, the pastor preaches and lives the gospel. So how does one become a pastor of Christ’s Doctrine and life?

In the second chapter, Herbert argues that preparation for ministry requires two things: study and asceticism. Not only do we need to labor to attain knowledge i.e., the right doctrine “but to subdue and mortify the lusts and affections: and not to think, that when they have read the Fathers, or Schoolmen, a minister is made and the thing done. The greatest and hardest preparation is within” (56). Thus, for the pastor to fulfill his duty, he needs both right doctrine and a life pursuing the virtue of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

As to these virtues, Herbert, in his chapter on the Parson’s Life, recommends above all patience and mortification: “Patience in regard of afflictions, Mortification in regard of lust and affections and the stupefying and deading of all the clamorous powers of the soul” to the end of fulfill his pastoral vocation (56). Mortification of lust and affection may sound harsh, but in the context of the Christian tradition, Herbert is basically arguing for putting to death the flesh and arising in Christ, as Paul talks about it in Colossians 3. While these two practices are essential for every pastor, Herbert next notes three particular practices for his context.

He argues that in country parish ministry, a pastor must avoid covetousness, luxury, and duplicity. He avoids these vices and practices their opposite as an example to his parishioners, who live poor, hard-working, and honest lives. And in order not to be a stumbling block to them; to be trustworthy in order to fulfill the duty of being a pastor: preaching and living the Gospel.

In sum, Herbert articulates the pastoral duty as living and preaching the gospel which means that the pastor must know doctrine deeply and have that doctrine deeply applied to their own soul, specifically focusing on patience and daily dying to self. Further, the pastor is sensitive to his context, noting what would prevent him from preaching and living as an example to his parish.

The Refreshing Sight of Christ: A Quote from John Owen

In Michael Reeve’s wonderful book, Rejoicing in Christ, he quotes Theologian John Owen, who speaks of the way Christians should be refreshed in their faith:

Do any of us find decays in grace prevailing in us; – deadness, coldness, lukewarmness, a kind of spiritual stupidity and senselessness coming upon us?… Let us assure ourselves there is no better way for our healing and deliverance, yea, no other way but this alone, – namely, the obtaining a fresh view of the glory of Christ by faith, and a steady abiding therein. Constant contemplation of Christ and his glory, putting forth its transforming power unto the revival of all grace, is the only relief in this case.

Quoted in Rejoicing in Christ, by Michael Reeves, 103-104.

I found this quote encouraging in several ways:

  • He acknowledges that faith involves struggle. We all have times of complacency, deadness, spiritual senselessness. But this is not the way it has to be.
  • The way out of Spiritual deadness is looking to Christ. We do this through the various means of grace that God gives us through the economy of his grace: worship, the read Word, the preached Word, the sacraments, prayer, spiritual reading, and study. In all of these means, we are seeking a fresh vision of Christ and his glory.
  • Christ’s glory, while sounding high and mighty, is his work of salvation for us. Christ was glorified both in his incarnation, his death, and his resurrection, which were all things done for the saving benefit of humanity. Catching a glimpse of the beauty and glory of Christ enlivens our hearts to his love, his generosity, his compassion, and his continual call to life in him.
  • The language of vision and contemplation are significant. There is a kind of blending of the senses in seeking after Christ. We seek to see him, a visual metaphor, we contemplate him, both a visual and intellectual action. Psalm 34:8 exhorts us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” All this together points us to an all-encompassing pursuit of Christ, with our hearts, minds, bodies, imaginations. As we are consumed by the vision, taste, thought of Christ we are revived and renewed in him.
  • Finally, the language of vision points us to our final end. The vision of God in Christ in the new creation. By God’s grace, i.e., through the work of the Holy Spirit, we begin to enjoy this vision of Christ by faith now. The enjoyment of this vision involves both consolation and purification: as the Holy Spirit communicates the vision of Christ he makes us more like him by sanctifying us. Thus, the vision of Christ by faith enlivens us to his glory and purifies us to further reflect and enjoy him.

Quotes from the Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith: Augustine of Hippo

“But wait,” says the Lord, “do not jump to conclusions. I have given human beings the power to behave well, but they do so by my enabling, not from any goodness of their own. Of themselves, they are bad. When they act wrongly they are children of men; when well, they are my children.” This is what God brings about. He transforms children of men into the children of God because he made the Son of God become the Son of Man. Look what our participation in him means: we have been promised a share in his divinity, but he would be deceiving us if he had not first become a sharer in our mortality. The Son of God was made a sharer in our mortal nature so that mortals might become sharers in his godhead. Having promised to communicate his goodness to you he first communicated with you in your badness, he who promised you divinity first showed you charity.” Exposition of Psalm 52.6 (V3.36-37).

In this homiletically stirring passage, Augustine speaks to one of his favorite themes: the wonderous exchange; that God the Son became human so that we could become children of God.

A few observations: 

  1. Augustine grounds his understanding of virtuous human action in the person and work of Christ. Because the Son of God has become the Son of man, sharing our nature so that we could share in his Godhead, those who are Children of God grow in charity through and in Jesus Christ. 
  2. The motif of Children of men and Children of God seems to have Augustine’s two City idea in the background. When we become participators in Christ, being transferred to the City of God, we learn through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit to live and behave well. We first see Christ’s Charity in his incarnation, death, and resurrection, and then receive the love of God in the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5), and in this humans are made Children of God and are brought into the school of Christ. 
  3. Several Scripture verses are in the background of this passage. Here are the ones I picked up on: 
    • John 1:12-13: 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
    • John 1:14 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 
    • 2 Peter 1:3-4 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
  4. Augustine does not clarify what it means to ‘participate’ or ‘share in his godhead,’ but it seems that it is not some kind of absorption into the divine. Rather, he seems to mean that the power and love of God are communicated in Christ (and implicitly in through the Holy Spirit) so that the Children of God can be just that, Children of God. To be a child is to be other than the parent. Christian life and thus Christian behavior and belief are grounded in Christ, and united to Christ, but not absorbed into Christ We are children of God united to Jesus Christ as his body. To use one of Augustine’s favorite themes: Totus Christus (the Whole Christ). I will conclude with an example of this from the Exposition of the Psalms: 

“Christ is both head and body, we must not think ourselves alien to Christ since we are his members. Nor must we think of ourselves separate from him, because they will be two in one flesh. This is a great mystery, says the apostle, but I am referring to Christ and the church (Ephesians. 5:31-32). Since then, the whole Christ Consists of head and body we must understand that we too are included in David… Christ’s members must have this understanding, and Christ must understand in the persons of his members, and the members of Christ must understand in Christ, because the head and members form one Christ. The head was in heaven when he insistently asked, Why are you persecuting me (Acts 9:4). Through Hope, we are with him in heaven, and through Charity, he is with us on earth.” (3.54).

Quote from The Fathers and Mothers of the Church: Aquinas on The love of God and friendship with God

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God’s love and Human love

God loves all existing things. For all existing things, in so far as they exist, are good, since the existence of a thing is itself a good; And likewise, whatever perfection it possesses. Now it has been shown above (Q. 19, A. 4) that God’s will is the cause of all things. It must needs be, therefore, that a thing has existence or any kind of good, only inasmuch as it is willed by God. Hence, since to love anything is nothing else than to will good to that thing, it is manifest that God loves everything that exists. Yet, not as we love. Because since our will is not the cause of the goodness of things, but is moved by its object, our love, whereby we will good to anything, is not the cause of its goodness; but conversely its goodness whether real or imaginary, calls forth our love, by which we will that it should preserve the good it has, and receive besides the good it has not, and to this end, we direct our action: whereas the love of God infuses and creates goodness (ST. Ia Q 20.A2

A few things worth noting:

  1. Existence is good, which is caused by God.
  2. God’s perfect and good will is the cause of all things. His will, however, cannot be disconnected from his goodness. The doctrine of divine simplicity preserves this reality; God’s will is identical with his goodness. Thus, God’s willing of creatures is not arbitrary, but benevolent and purposeful in accordance with God’s character.
  3. Aquinas defines love as willing the good of something. God wills everything into existence, and thus everything that exists is good and is from God.
  4. Humans see the created good in something, that is from God and loves the thing because of the good that is from God. Aquinas notes that this good could be real or imaginary because the good that a human loves can actually be a perversion of the good, i.e., an evil, that they perceive as a good. Thus, a lustful person sees their lust as a good; but it is actually a perversion of love.
  5. Aquinas’s brief anthropology points us to the reality that humans desire the good and are moved by it in others and this is love in humans. God’s love causes existence and moves humans to their end goal; love in humans is supposed to draw us towards our end goal: God. Because of sin, we need our loves and desire for the good re-wired; we need the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us (Romans 5:5).

Charity is Friendship with God 

Charity signifies not only the love of God but also a certain friendship with him; which implies besides love, a certain mutual return of love, together with mutual communion… That this belongs to charity is evident from 1 John 4:16: He that abideth in charity, abideth in God, and God in him, and from 1 Cor 1:9, where it is written: God is faithful, by Whom you are called unto the fellowship of his Son. Now this fellowship of man with God, which consists in a certain familiar colloquy with him, is begun here, by grace, but will be perfected in the future life, by glory each of which things we hold by faith and hope. Wherefore, just as friendship with a person would be impossible, in one disbelieved in or despaired of, the possibility of their fellowship or familiar colloquy; so too, friendship with God which is charity, is impossible without faith, so as to believe in this fellowship and colloquy with God and to hope to attain to this fellowship. Therefore charity is quite impossible without faith and hope. (1a.2ae. 65.a2).

A few things to think about:

  1. Aquinas’s understanding of friendship with God should remind us of John Owen and Richard Hooker in this blog post.  Communion with God is a mutual communion between the triune God and the Christian, which is established by God in his love for us through Christ in the Holy Spirit.
  2. To call charity a mutual return of love signifies a relationship that is established in the Holy Spirit when he is poured into our hearts by Christ. When we speak of the love of God, for Aquinas, we speak of this communion and relationship, first in the Trinity, and then between The triune God and redeemed humanity.
  3. Fellowship or friendship with God begins now and is brought to completion in the beatific vision.
  4. Because this friendship is not one of sight, we hold it by faith and with hope. So friendship with God is Charity, and it is believed by faith and longed for in its fullness by hope. There is an already not/yet dimension to friendship with God in Love.

Quotes from the Fathers and Mothers of the Church: Aquinas: What makes us Happy?

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A few weeks ago my church began running Alpha. In the first session, we ask this question: “If it turned out there was a God after all, and you could ask one question, what would it be?”

As I was listening to other people’s questions and imagining my own question, even though I am a Christian, I was deeply moved by this question: “God, will you, or can you make me happy?”

Now I know that the world “happy’ gets a bad rap. Happy is associated with an emotion, a fleeting feeling. But I think that that desire for happiness or contentment or delight points us to something true real about humanity. It leads us to a fact that whatever way we define happiness, we all know we want it and will do almost anything to strive after it. When we really think about it, happiness strives beyond the feelings towards something deeper, something substantial, something with weight, and value and meaning, something that makes sense of everything else.

Augustine and Aquinas argued that “all men agree in desiring the last end, which is happiness” (Aquinas, 1-2.1a7). Now everyone wants to experience this bliss, this sense of fullness, meaning, purpose or “perfection” as Aquinas calls it. But what will bring about this perfection, this true sense of being who I am supposed to be, that is where it gets all muddled. For Aquinas, the final end of human longing, the end for which we were created, is life in God, communion with God and the vision of God. In fact, the sight of God is called the Beatific Vision which is the same word for happy (Beatitudo).

Now obviously, not many people will agree with either premise of Aquinas’s understanding of happiness: either that we were created for a particular end, and that that particular end is the vision of God. Western culture rejects both of these for a self-made definition of our ends and our beginnings. However, that lingering sense and longing for happiness remain, and Aquinas’s thoughts can help us think through what this longing says about humanity. Aquinas argues that we have this longing because we were created for a particular end, but we are trying to fulfill that end in other things (Aquinas, 1-2.1a7). If we grant that we do long for something beyond ourselves, we can at least listen to what Aquinas says that longing is. Another theologian, Augustine, defined this longing as restlessness and said, “our hearts are restless until they rest in God” (Confessions, 1).

So what of all the things that we think we will find our happiness in? Aquinas goes through a pretty extensive list and tries to demonstrate that no created good will satisfy our longing, will really make us happy. For example, wealth cannot make you happy, because we acquire wealth as a means to a further end, either for the needs of life or to fulfill inordinate desires for other things (Aquinas, 1-2.2a1). Perhaps the most pervasive form of seeking happiness today is physical, either through sex, thrills, or physical exertion. Aquinas basically argues that we are more than physical creatures with physical needs, and thus that ultimate longing will not be fulfilled with physical pleasure. Though, it is understandable that we seek pleasure as our happiness because we are embodied souls (Aquinas, 1-2.2a6). Aquinas covers, wealth, power, fame, glory, intellectual abilities, and shows that all of them will not satisfy our longing for happiness.

In summary, Aquinas argues that no created thing can give us real and true happiness:

It is impossible for a created good to constitute man’s happiness. For happiness is the perfect good, which lulls the appetite altogether; else it would not be the last end, if something yet remained to be desired. Now the object of the will, i.e., of man’s appetite, is the universal good; just as the object of the intellect is the universal true. Hence it is evident that naught can lull man’s will, save the universal good. That is to be found, not in any creature, but in God alone; because every creature has goodness by participation. wherefore, God alone can satisfy the will of man, according to the words of Ps. 102.5: who satisfieth thy desires with good things. Therefore God alone constitutes man’s happiness (Aquinas, 1-2.2a8).

Here Aquinas is saying that the thing we long for in happiness is being wholly contented with nothing left to be desired. The only thing that can satisfy us is that which is perfectly good, beautiful, and true, and that is actually God, who is both the source and end of human existence and desire.

Aquinas goes on to define happiness in light of the fact that God alone can make humanity happy, and how one can then attain such happiness.

To define happiness Aquinas first shows that happiness is a created reality. Why is the important? Because Aquinas is careful to maintain the infinite distinction between God who is our source of happiness and humanity, who finds their fulfillment in creaturely participation in God. (Aquinas, 1-2.3.a1). Humanity is created to enjoy God as creatures, God himself is happiness in his essence, we enjoy God through his Grace (Aquinas, 1-2.3a1). Aquinas proceeds to show that Happiness is nothing less than this: “final and perfect happiness consists in nothing else than the vision of the divine essence” (Aquinas, 1-2.3a8). Why is this the case? Happiness is being fully content, no longer seeking or desiring, and only God is capable of fulfilling such a longing.

In Question 4 Aquinas ponders what is required for happiness, and distinguishes between imperfect and perfect happiness. In this, he acknowledges that humans experience happiness on earth, but it is only a shadow of true perfect happiness, which will be experienced in the Eschaton.

Finally, in question 5 Aquinas asks how we can attain happiness. He affirms that we can attain it, but then asks how. He argues that humans attain happiness through sanctifying grace that comes from the work of Christ on behalf of humanity in his life, death, and resurrection (Aquinas, 1-2.5.a7). Here, Aquinas does argue that humans attain happiness as a reward for works of virtue. But the principle of these works is Grace, which is given without any merit or work.

In summary, Happiness is found in the Vision of God which can only be attained in Christ through Grace. As an Anglican, I would push Aquinas a bit on the idea that meritorious works of virtue giving us access to the beatific vision. Through an Anglican and reformational lens, I would couch what he says in terms of sanctification. I would say that we are justified by faith, in such a way that we are given access to God in Christ now, even as we grow in our sanctification towards the beatific vision in the age to come. All of this is through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, The path to the beatific vision is grounded in Union with Christ; the objective work of Christ is infused into Christian through the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies us and makes us virtuous. Thus, through Union with Christ, there is a foretaste of the beatific vision enjoyed now, one that is nourished through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, and enjoyed in the Body of Christ the Church, through worship, reception of Grace on Word and Sacrament, and service to others. We begin to rest now even as we walk the pilgrim road to the end of our discontent, to the final joy and delight for which we were created. To know God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, even as we are fully known (1 Cor. 13:12).

 

Quotes from the Fathers and mothers of the Christian Faith: Three Theologians on the Knowledge of God

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Christians live in a strange tension: on the one hand, we know God, and on the other hand, God is beyond all knowledge. We know God because he has revealed himself to us; God is beyond all knowledge because he is the infinite Creator, and we are finite contingent creatures.  Scripture speaks of both experiences of knowledge: the intimate knowledge that comes in relationship with God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit (see Ephesians 3:14-21), and the sheer limits of humanity’s ability to know God both because we are creatures. We are limited in our capacity as creatures and because we are sinful creatures, whose God-given limited capacity to know and enjoy God is marred and clouded by sin.

In this, we can see two barriers arise. First, the proper barrier between creator and creature. Humanity is a creature of God made for fellowship with God. We are created to know God, but in being creatures, this knowledge will always be a knowledge of fellowship or participation. That is to say, we were created to know God in a creaturely fashion. Throughout Chruch history, the creator/creature distinction has remained central to Christian theology, because it polices the collapse of God into humanity or humanity into God. As the Preacher of Ecclesiastes says: Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few (Eccl. 5:2) (See my reflections on this verse in this post).

This creaturely knowledge, however, is marred by sin and in need of God’s work of revelation and redemption to bring it back into the right order.

Across Christian Traditions, Theologians have sought to articulate the limits and capacities of human knowledge of the Triune God of Scripture. In this post, I examine three theologians who seek to 1) distinguish between God’s knowledge of himself and our knowledge of God and 2) how God invites humans into proper creaturely knowledge of God without overstepping or severing the creator/creature distinction.

In this discussion, several things are at play. How we know God, who is incomprehensible, and then how we order our knowledge of God concerning who God reveals himself to be. In a previous blog post, I considered how Aquinas order his Summa regarding God’s being, while the knowledge of God is through God’s revelation of himself. In the three examples below we see a similar three-step movement: 1) God reveals himself in the missions of the Son and Spirit, 2) humans learn about God through this revelation/salvation. Because of who God is 3) we order our thoughts, not on our experience of God, but by beginning with who God is.

Basil of Caesarea on The incomprehensible God who reveals himself

I think that comprehension of God’s substance transcends not only human beings, but also every rational nature. Now by ‘rational nature’ here, I mean one which belongs to creation. For the Father is known by the Son alone and by the Holy Spirit… (see Mt.11:27; 1 Cor. 2:10-11) It is to be expected that the very substance of God is incomprehensible to everyone except the Only-Begotten and the Holy Spirit. But we are lead up from the activities of God and gain knowledge of the maker through what he has made and so come in this way to an understanding of his goodness and wisdom. For what can be known about God is that which God has manifested (Rom. 1:19) to all human beings. (Against Eunomius, 1.14). 

In this passage, Basil proposes several important points for our conversation. In the first sentence, he establishes the distinction between God and creation: everything that is created cannot comprehend the nature of God. Turning to Scripture, Basil then asserts that only God can know God; only the Son and Spirit know the Father. If that is true, how then can creatures have knowledge of God? God reveals himself through his activities and creation. His activities are primarily the work of salvation wrought in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit; secondary to this is the knowledge of the creator through creation; which basically establishes that there is a first cause to creation.

So, while creatures cannot know God, God through the economy of Salvation and through the creation, brings humans into a proper creaturely knowledge of God. This knowledge, however, is always a knowledge of apprehension from a limited sphere; even in our redemption, we do not gain access to the unmediated essence of God. In other words, we don’t come to know God in the exact same way that the Son knows the Father. Christians are children by adoption and grace not by nature.

Basil posits that we can have some knowledge of God through nature, looking to Romans 1:19; but salvific knowledge can only come through the action and revelation of the Son and Spirit in their work of salvation and the Holy Scriptures.

The Greek Fathers, of whom Basil is one, are famous for the distinction between Theology (God in himself) and economy (God at work in creation). While he doesn’t use these terms in this passage, the ideas are at work here. Only God knows God and God reveals himself through his activities so that we can apprehend an outline of who God is, through participation in God’s saving work in the Son and Spirit. Theology proper is the redeemed human mind seeking to apprehend, in faith, who God is through what he has revealed of himself; it is the ordering of our creaturely thoughts to God’s infinite being. Our next theologian has a similar division between God’s knowledge of himself and human knowledge of God.

Francis Turretin on Archetypal and Ectypal knowledge

True theology is divided into: (1) infinite and uncreated which is God’s essential knowledge of himself (Mt 11:27) in which he alone is at the same time the object known, the knowledge, and the knower, and that which he decreed to reveal to us concerning himself which is commonly called archetypal; and (2) finite and created, which is the image and ectype of the infinite and archetype (viz., the ideas which creatures possess concerning God and divine things… (Institutes, 1.2.6).

Turretin divides theology in two ways: God’s knowledge of himself and our creaturely knowledge of God. All human knowledge, from those who are in heaven beholding the glory of God, to humans on earth is of the second kind of knowledge: ectypal. It is the image of God’s own knowledge, but it is not identical to God’s knowledge. God in his grace does reveal himself to us, he reveals the archetypal knowledge; but the creaturely apprehension of God’s self-knowledge is a mere image of it. Turretin clarifies for us something that might have felt off in Basil: there is only one God and one knowledge of God: archetypal. There isn’t God in himself and God in his outer works. However, because of our creaturely existence, we do not obtain to archetypal knowledge, but we receive it as an image of the archetype. This is true of creaturely knowledge fall or not, and made more real because of the fall. Humans now need their minds to be redeemed renewed so that they can properly apprehend the ecytpal knowledge of God which he graciously gives us as an image of his own knowledge.

Does this division mean that we cannot really know God? No, and yes. No, we cannot know God if by this we mean having the same kind of knowledge that the Triune God has of itself. But yet, we can know God through God’s gracious act of revelation, especially through the Incarnation and Holy Scripture, we obtain true knowledge of God but not comprehensive knowledge, simply because the human mind is finite and God is infinite. Only God can know God, and only God can reveal God, and only God can redeem human minds to their properly creaturely status of knowing God, through redeemed fellowship in Christ through the power of the Spirit.

In our final theologian, we turn to Webster who adroitly summarizes what we have considered in Basil and Turretin.

John Webster on Theology and Economy.

Systematic Theology has a single but not simple object: God and all things relative to God…The one complex matter may therefore be divided into (1) God absolutely considered, that is, considered in himself in his inner life as Father, Son, and Spirit (theology), and (2) God relatively considered, that is, considered in his outer works and in relation to his creatures (economy) (God without Measure, I.45-46).

It is important to note that Webster considers both aspects of systematic theology to fall under the domain of ectypal theology (God without Measure, I.85). This means that two things; Theology is always a work of progress; we’ve never arrived because we are always seeking the one who is beyond our comprehension. Secondly, Theology proper must be studied under the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit because it is only in fellowship with God that ectypal theology can seek to apprehend either God absolutely considered and God considered in his outer works.

When we consider these three theologians together; we can see some common themes that are significant for everyone in the church:

  1. God in his Goodness and infinite life reveals himself to his creation in a way that we can apprehend him.
  2. Even when humans sinned, God provided a way to reestablish the relationship with him, and provide an even deeper communion with God than before the fall; those who are saved are in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Christians are made participants in God through grace and adoption.
  3. Knowledge of God is possible, but only on a creaturely register, even after the Eschaton, our knowledge of God will be only ectypal.
  4. Knowing God now requires the work of God to redeem and sanctify our minds and hearts. As God does this and we pursue him, we should order our thoughts towards God first and consider everything else in light of his being and his work.

 

John Owen and Richard Hooker on Union with Christ and Communion with God

Justification and sanctification are the double grace of union with Christ, as I’ve discussed in a previous post, on John Calvin. One question that arises for me when I think about union with Christ is how we grow in something which is already objectively true. I am united to Christ in his death and Resurrection, so how do I grow more in this union? John Owen suggests that our union with Christ is the objective reality of the whole scope of salvation – justification to glorification, but we can grow in greater, or lesser, communion with each of the persons of the Trinity (he defends this idea via the doctrine of appropriation, see, Communion with God, 95ff).
John Owen says this about Union with Christ:
[Union with Christ] is the cause of all other graces that we are made partakers of; they are all communicated unto us by virtue of our union with Christ. Hence is our adoption, our justification, our sanctification, our fruitfulness, our perseverance, our resurrection, our glory.
Owen makes a distinction between union with Christ and communion with God. He defines communion with God as follows:
Our communion, then, with God consists in his communication of himself unto us, with our return unto him of that which he requires and accepts flowing from that union which in Jesus Christ we have in him. And it is twofold: (1) perfect and complete, in the full fruition of his glory and total giving up of ourselves to him, resting in him as our utmost end; which we shall enjoy when we see him as he is; and (2) initial and incomplete, in the firstfruits and dawnings of that perfection which we have here in grace (Communion with the Triune God, 94).
Grounded in our Union with Christ, God communicates himself to us, and through the redemption of Christ and the indwelling Holy Spirit we delight in God, obey God, and live for God. For Owen, this will be most true when we are with God in Christ in the Eschaton; in the beatific vision, while, in the present, we grow in communion with God through grace.
This idea of being firmly grounded in union with Christ, while at the same time growing in communion with God sounds similar to Richard Hooker’s understanding of participation in Christ and correlates to something I’ve quoted from Richard Hooker in another blog post. 
First, participation in Christ, for Hooker is defined as follows:
Participation is that mutual inward hold which Christ hath of us and we of him, in such sort that each possesseth other by way of special interest, property, and inherent copulation. V.56.1.
Hooker explains that this mutual inward hold is grounded in the life of the Trinity, and the particular reality of the hypostatic union of Christ. Further, Hooker delineates two kinds of participation: the participation of creatures who are sustained by God’s creative work, and the participation of those who are saved by God (see V.56.1). The second kind of participation is defined as follows:
Thus we participate Christ partly by imputation, as when those things which he did and suffered for us are impulsed unto us for righteousness; partly by habitual and real infusion, as when grace is inwardly bestowed while we are on earth, and afterwards more fully both our souls and bodies made like unto his in glory. The first thing of his so infused into our hearts in this life is the Spirit of Christ… V.56.11.
For Hooker, we are united to Christ, and imputed his righteousness and given his grace (read justified and sanctified). Yet we can grow or decrease in our participation in and reception of God’s grace. Hooker continues by noting that while all who are partakers of Christ by imputation are equally in Christ, there is variety in those who grow in grace. This helps Hooker recognize the objective reality of those who are in Christ through Baptism, while there is a variety of spiritual growth and vitality amongst individuals. For Hooker, the location of this growth in sanctification is through the means of grace, i.e., the Sacrament of Holy Communion (V.56.11-13), worship, and scripture.
I don’t know enough about either John Owen or Richard Hooker to say if they agree on this idea of union/communion with God. However, I find both of their approaches helpful in articulating objective union with Christ and ongoing growth in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Quotes from the Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith: Cyril of Alexandria

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“God in his love for humankind provided for us a way of salvation and of life. For in believing in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and making this confession before many witnesses [at baptism], we wash away all the filth of sin, and are enriched by the communication of the Holy Spirit, and ‘are made partakers of the divine nature’ and gain the grace of adoption. It was necessary, therefore, that the Word of the Father when he humbled himself to emptiness and deigned to assume our likeness, should be for our sake the pattern and way of every good work. For it follows that ‘he who in everything is first’ must in this also set the example.” Cyril of Alexandria (ACD, 2.147).

A few observations:

  1. God not only provides a way of salvation but a way of life as well. Jesus’s life is both an example and the path of the good life. Put another way, Jesus is the Means and the end of true human life. Jesus saved us for eternal life with the Triune God, and this life begins now.
  2.  Cyril narrates the order of salvation in relation to baptism: belief, confess, baptized, filled with the Holy Spirit, “made partakers of the divine nature” and given adoption. This path of salvation is grounded in believing and encountering the Triune God who loves humanity, it is enacted through the sacrament of baptism and sealed with the Holy Spirit who testifies to us that we are adopted children of God.
  3. “Partaking of the divine nature” is a quote from 2. Peter 1:4: “Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” What it means to partake of the divine nature, without transgressing the creator/creature divide has been greatly debated. From this quote, we can say that it means, at the very least, being filled with the Spirit, united to Christ and given the grace of adoption. In other words, partaking of the divine nature is being brought in to a relationship with the triune God for our salvation, and it is grounded in the triune God’s work of salvation. 
  4. Salvation, life, baptism, adoption, being filled with the Holy Spirit, all happens because the eternal Word of the Father, the equal Son of God, became human for our sake so that we can have life in him. The Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the means and path by which we are united to God, receive forgiveness, are justified, sanctified and filled with the Spirit.  Thus, partaking of the divine nature is grounded in and located in Jesus Christ, who is the mediator between God and humanity.

Quotes from The Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith: Gregory of Nazianzus On the Economy of Salvation

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When I started reading the church fathers, one of the most refreshing aspects of their writings was the way they talked about The scope and depth of Salvation. This quote is taken from an excellent resource, the Ancient Christian Doctrine series, and exemplifies the way Gregory summarize Scripture’s witness to the magnificent work of Christ in his life, death, and resurrection.

“He who gives riches becomes poor, for he assumes the poverty of my flesh, that I may assume the richness of his Godhead. He that is full empties himself for a short while, that I may have a share in his fullness. What is the riches of his goodness? What is this mystery that is around me? I had a share in the image; I did not keep it. He partakes of my flesh that he may both save the image and make the flesh immortal. He communicates a second communion far more marvelous than the first; in as much as then he imparted the better nature, whereas now he himself partakes of the worse. This is more Godlike than the former action, this is loftier in the eyes of all men of understanding.” Gregory of Nazianzus, ACD, 2.105.

This is a beautiful passage that exposes some of the most profound mysteries of our faith, in the context of Jesus Christ’s humility as the source of the salvation of the world. First, it is vital to see that Gregory reflection on Christ is an expansion of the magnificent Christological hymn of Philippians 2:6-11:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
This verse, for Gregory and many other church fathers, is a touchstone for reflecting on God’s work of salvation.  Christ who is equal to the Father, the same essence, became human to bring humanity into communion with God.
Significantly, Gregory does not speak of this salvation in abstract terms, he sees his own life wrapped up in this mystery: “What is the riches of his goodness? What is this mystery that is around me?” The life that Jesus lived is the life that he gives Gregory. He took Gregory’s sin and death and gave him his life and love.

To clarify the second half of the quote, let me explain what Gregory is saying. ‘The image’ which Gregory refers to is the image of God, that we read about in Genesis 1:26-28.  The salvation in Christ is much greater than when Adam and Eve were created (‘second communion far more marvelous than the first’) because in Jesus Christ humanity receives a more profound and greater union with God than Adam and Eve had. This is the mystery of the incarnation: Christ has taken our human body and life and made them his, forming what is sinful and dying into his body which is holy and immortal, through his infinite life.

The personal appropriation of Christ’s objective work on the cross for all of humanity is what continues to capture my attention in Gregory and other Church Fathers. They knew and experienced the reality of Christ’s wonderful exchange in their lives. As an Anglican priest, I am reminded that when I serve the meals of Grace of word and sacrament to the church, I am offering my congregation nourishment to continue to grow in this mystery: the mystery of our justification and sanctification and glorification in Jesus Christ through the Power of the Holy Spirit. Every week, we are invited into this great mystery of Salvation – union with God in Christ, so that we can have the same mind and be the one body of Christ in the world.