Quotes from Lenten Reading: Aquinas on the Incarnation

During Lent I am reading Aquinas’s third part, where he delves into the theology of Christ both in his person and work. I will also be taking a gander through a few sections from Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV.1, Augustine’s homilies on Lent, and George Herbert’s The Country Parson, and The Temple. I wanted to offer a few select quotes from each of these readings throughout Lent.

To begin, let’s look at the Aquinas’s understanding of the fittingness of the Incarnation of Son of God. In the first article of his first question on the Incarnation, Aquinas asks whether it was “fitting that God should become incarnate?” He answers that it is most fitting that God would become incarnate, first, as he argues in his sed contra, so that the invisible God would reveal himself through visible things, referencing Romans 1:20, and specifically, through the true, real and visible Incarnation of the Son of God. This revelation of God is grounded in his goodness and oriented towards humanity’s salvation. This is how he says it:

But the very nature of God is goodness as is clear from Dionysius (div. nom. i). Hence, what belongs to the essence of goodness befits God. But it belong to the essence of goodness to communicate itself to others… Hence it belongs to the essence of the highest good to communicate itself in the highest manner to the creature, and this is brought about chiefly, by ‘His so joining created nature to himself that one Person is made up of these three – the Word, a soul and flesh’ as Augustine says (De Trin. xiii). Hence it is manifest that it was fitting that God should become incarnate.

Aquinas, Summa, 3.Q1A1.

Next, in the first two replies, he clarifies that the Son of God was from eternity and became incarnate, it was the human nature that came into being, not God in the incarnation. And God’s distinct purpose in becoming incarnate was for the sake of humanity’s salvation, because of his infinite goodness, not because of some fittingness of humanity as a kind of receptacle for God. It was fitting that God the Son became incarnate because of God’s goodness, and God’s desire to save humanity and reveal who God is to humanity.

In my next post on Aquinas, I will look at the various ways Aquinas articulate how the incarnation and mission of the son restores humanity.

God is emotionless, and that is Good News for humans: Thoughts about God, humanity, and salvation

I am in a pretty busy time of ministry right now, and I have not had a lot of time to do any real serious writing. I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a while, hoping to get more coherence in my thoughts. I’m posting this now with the hopes that these thoughts will continue to percolate into something helpful. 

The desire for God to have emotions is grounded in a misunderstanding of God’s eternal and self-existent life, the purpose of emotions in human life, and of God’s work of salvation.

In the 1st of the 39 Articles a general statement about the Christian God is made:

THERE is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Here we see God considered in himself in both aspects of who he is: the Unity of the essence and the distinction of persons. In the first half of the statement, several aspects of God’s infinite being and life is established, all of which safeguard against two things: 1) imagining that we can comprehend God, 2) that God is the greatest being in a chain of being. God is not like humans or the created world. He is totally other; not distant, but definitely not a being among other beings. This is how John Webster puts it: “In his inner works, as Father, Son and Spirit, God is plentitude of life and incomparable excellence… in the perfection of his immanent triune life God ‘only’ is God, and God is ‘alone.'” (God without Measure, I.119-120).

Further, Webster argues that God in his plentitude of life and his triunity is Simple. “God has no career, no process of coming-to-be” (Webster, God without Measure, 1.120). Finally, following Aquinas, we say that all creatures are contained within a genus; God is outside and before all genera (ST. 1a.4.3.ad 2).

All this means that God is not like humans, who are created, while God is the fullness of life. Emotions, as they are experienced in human life, are related to the contingency and progression of life, something which is simply not a reality in God. God is the fullness and plentitude of life; he is perfection in all its beauty and light and beyond all measure: as Paul confesses: “he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen” (1 Timothy 6:15-16; see also James 1:17). 

This has been the standard Christian confession for much of history, however, in modern theology, and often times in pastoral care, the question arises whether God should, can or must relate to human experience and emotion. Most understandably, this question arose among theologians after the Jewish Holocaust of World War II.  If we say that God is without passion does this not mean that he is distant and uncaring?

To the contrary, It is my thesis that it is good news that God is passionless, i.e., doesn’t have emotions, especially for the doctrine of human nature and salvation. To prove this thesis, we need to consider the problem from three angles: from the doctrine of God, the doctrine of human nature, and the doctrine of salvation.

God’s infinite, eternal life: 

Building off of what we said above: God’s is infinite life, actuality, and plentitude. To say that God is passionless is to say that he is full of life and being – it is the opposite of aloof. In his infinite life, he is changeless, neither needing anything or advancing towards some goal. God is the creator who does not change; this changelessness is not a defect, but a fact of his being infinite life and goodness. Out of God’s infinite goodness, he creates and sustains the world. Because God is totally complete and full in himself is he able to creates and sustain the created world out of his plentitude and generosity not out of a need for us. If God were not complete in himself and created the world, the world and God’s being would be co-terminus. God would have made the world for his sake, not our own (See Webster, God without Measure, I.126).

God is One, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One could imagine that in the intra-trinitarian relations there is emotion. However, this would be to project some kind of temporal or metaphysical movement in the Trinity. As if God the Father at some time choose to love the Son and the Spirit and thus generate and process them respectively. This would introduce change and progress in the divine life and would collapse the Trinity into created being. Contrary to this, God is eternally the Father generating the SOn and the Father and Son spirating the Holy Spirit, in an eternal, changeless, and infinitely simple way. God’s being is the fullness of life and action; he is the Living God who chooses to create beings who are different than God.

Creatures are from God and are created out of nothing. They are completely dependent on God for their existence and sustenance; everything from God for Creatures is a gift. Further, human creatures are created for fellowship with God. God freely creates creatures and gives them being, “making them for their own sake, not for his” (Webster, God without Measure, I.126). Human existence comes from and returns to God, but God does not depend on creatures. Humans were made for communion with God; this is our end, our telos and a part of that being made by God and toward God is our emotional life.

To be human is to have emotions:

Emotions are a feature of created human nature and correlate to our teleological end – we have emotions because we were created for an end purpose, i.e., life with God in the beatific vision (Ia-IIae Q 1-5). Emotions are an aspect of being contingent creatures on the way to this end.  Emotions are not bad, they are an integral part of human nature that reflect the fact that we were to desire God and love him forever.  Aquinas divides human emotions in terms of longing (concupiscence)  and resistance (Irascible). “For the concupiscible regards as proper to it the notion of the good, as something pleasant to the senses and suitable to nature: whereas the irascible regard the notion of good as something that wards off and repels what is hurtful.”(Ia Q 82.a5). Emotions, properly ordered, draw us towards the good and repel us from what is evil. Emotions are an aspect of humanity’s journey towards God, they are innate to what it means to be human creatures.

One may object at this point and say if we are created in the image of God, doesn’t that mean that emotions are a part of God’s character? Being created in the image of God doesn’t mean that everything we have is identical to God or visa-versa. Obviously, we are not infinite, self-sufficient and eternal. Neither is God changeable, becoming or created. Whatever being made in the image of God means, it does not mean being identical with God or God with us. Because emotions are connected to our mutability, our changing nature that longs for the good, it is not an aspect of being created in the image of God. Rather, emotions draw us toward God who is our good (see Summa Ia-IIae q 22. a 1; q23  a1, a4).

Further, emotions are firmly established on the creature side of the creator-creature divide. the Human desire for God to experience emotions as we do is rooted in our idolatrous desire to see God in our image. If God had emotions as we did, he would not be mighty to save, he would be like us, and we would be lost.

In Scripture, emotional language is used to describe God in the Old and New Testament. I need to think more about the Old Testament language, though traditionally, it has been understood in terms of metaphor and analogy.

But, to properly speak of God having emotions we can only look to the person of Jesus Christ who has a fully human nature in the incarnation.

Pastorally, this is the location we talk about Jesus Christ feeling for us and with us. Further, we have to realize that Christ’s incarnation was not to identify with humanity but to save humanity from death, sin and the devil. The second person of the Trinity experienced human emotion as a correlate of his work of salvation, but it was not the primary purpose. Yet, because The Son of God incarnate has experienced human emotions, he empathizes with our struggle and gives us the Holy Spirit to properly train our emotions. So that we learn to hate evil and love God, with our whole being including our emotions.  (See Hebrews 2; John 11).

 

 

Aquinas and Webster on the Studious Pastor-Theologian

Is curiosity a good or bad thing? If anything it is complicated. On the one hand, we encourage our children to be curious, to explore and discover. On the other hand, the old adage, “curiosity killed the cat” still has currency; usually when parents don’t want to explain something.

I was surprised to discover that the Christian Tradition actually has something to say about curiosity, namely that it is a vice. The virtue that contrasts curiosity is studiousness. In this blog post, I will consider curiosity and studiousness in relation to Theology and the Christian life by examining John Webster and Thomas Aquinas on the topic.

John Webster, following and expanding on Aquinas, defines studiousness as follows:

A strenuous application of the powers of the creaturely intellect, the end of which is to come to know something for the first time, or to apprehend under a new aspect or with a new interest some object already known… Studiousness refers to the activity of the well-ordered creaturely intellect coming to know. (The Dominion of the Word, 194).

This is how Aquinas defines studiousness: “Properly speaking, study denotes keen application of the mind to something.” (IIa IIae 166.1). Curiosity, by contrast, is a vice-filled pursuit of knowledge that Aquinas brilliantly dissects.

First, Aquinas argues, the desire to study and pursue knowledge may be right or wrong. If right, Curiosity can take that right desire down a vice-filled path in two ways: 1) either by taking the pursuit of knowledge to gain pride in one’s knowledge, or 2) to study something in order to sin.

Second, the desire to learn itself can be improperly ordered which results in four further forms of curiosity: 1) a person studies something that distracts them from the thing they should be studying i.e., facebook scrolling instead of homework. 2) when a person learns from a source that is evil or unlawful, i.e., an untrustworthy authority or evil spirits. 3) When a person seeks the truth of creatures without seeking their source and end: God. 4) When a person seeks the truth that is above or beyond his intellectual capacity which easily leads to an error (Aquinas, Summa Theologia, IIaIIae 167.1).

Aquinas’s thoughts on curiosity and studiousness apply to all areas of study, but what of theology and the vocation of Pastor-Theologians and Christians?

According to John Webster, curiosity rears its head in at least five ways in the pursuit of the knowledge of God.

  1. Curiosity appears when Christians forget they are under the instruction and teaching of God. Curiosity detaches the mind from the source of Theology: God.
  2. Curiosity seeks the novel and avoids the discipline of the particular object of theology: God and all things that come from God. Webster says, “In acute form, this becomes a species of intellectual promiscuity, driven by addiction to novelty and a compulsion to repeat the experience of discovery” (Dominion of the Word, 198).
  3. “Curiosity in theology stops short at surfaces, and so inhibits theological intelligence in running towards God.” (Dominion of the Word, 198).
  4. “Curiosity debases the manner in which theological work is undertaken, causing the theologian to adopt a posture at odds with spiritual vocation.”(Dominion of the Word, 199). What does this mean? Basically, theologians can be lured by pride, the desire for new knowledge, fame, and isolation from the church and worship. This can be true of any Christian, the desire to know God and love God is a spiritual and communal endeavor.
  5. Finally, “Curiosity disregards the proper end of theology, which are contemplative and apostolic.” (Dominion of the Word, 199). See my blog post on this topic.

This is Webster’s autopsy of The Curious Theologian, what is the remedy? Webster points to the work of the Holy Spirit: “The Holy Spirit, whose mission is to perfect creatures in realizing the divine purpose for them, secured by the reconciling work of the Son is the fulfillment of the Father’s will. In the Spirit’s original work, the intellect is made new; in the Spirit’s governing work, the intellect is maintained and directed on its true course” (Dominion of the Word, 199). In other words, the Holy Spirit sanctifies the intellect by mortifying and vivifying it, bringing it into alignment with the mind of Christ. Webster outlines three aspects of theological studiousness:

  1. “Christian Theology is an exercise of sanctified studiousness, the work of persons whose intellectual acts are marked by the Spirit’s regenerative presence” (Dominion of the Word, 200). The person becomes studious as they are trained by the Holy Spirit who redirects their desires towards their proper end: God.
  2. “Curiosity falls away as Christian theology directs itself to its singular matter with a definite interest” (Dominion of the Word, 201). By which Webster means God and everything in relation to God, including the whole scope of theology from creation to consummation (see my blog post on the proper order of theology).
  3. “Mortification of curiosity happens as theology is directed to its proper end, which is love: Love of God who gives himself to be known, and love of the saints and the not-yet-saints by communicating what theology has come to know” (Dominion of the Word, 201). In other words, studiousness while concentrated, and full of effort is not for oneself, but for the worship of God and the edification of others.

Curiosity is the unnatural state of human knowledge; it is intellectual pursuit post-fall. We can only become truly studious when we are reconciled to the Truth. We become studious as we are taught by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, who orders our intellectual endeavor and the purpose of our endeavors to their proper end God and others. Studiousness is a virtue that takes practice and effort to attain, an effort that is preceded and followed by the mortifying and vivifying work of God the Holy Spirit.

A question I have, and one I cannot follow up right now, is how Aquinas and Webster’s analysis of Curiosity and Studiousness obtains in other intellectual disciplines and the process of education in general?

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.

Questions from the Parish: Who Created God?

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Last night I was asked this question: “who created God?” Here are my thoughts towards an answer to this question.

If we assume that there is some higher power in the universe, then we have to think through what that means.

We have two options: either this higher power has always existed alongside, in or as the created universe, or the higher power existed before or outside the universe. If we grant the first one, then this higher power is in some way related to or identical with the universe, and we are merely in an eternal existence of matter, and this is ‘God.’ If we grant the second then this higher power exists outside the universe.

Following the second route, we are confronted with a choice: either this higher power is itself created, and there is a being behind this creating being that created it to create the world; or this higher power is the Creator and first cause of all existence and therefore uncreated, eternal, infinite, etc.

If we follow the first path, then we fall into a kind of infinite regress; always looking for the next higher being who created the previous being. If we follow the second path, we are confronted with the possibility of a being who is the first cause of all other beings, and thus unlike anything we know or can imagine. Why? Because there is nothing in our experience of a being that is entirely self-sustaining and the source of all life and being. (see Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.1-2).

At this point, if you accept that there must be a first cause, you are left with a few options. Either believe that this God exists as the primary cause and mover of the universe and you leave it at that, or you seek to discern if this first cause has revealed itself as something more than simply a first cause. For Christians, we believe that this first Cause is the Triune God who has revealed himself in Scripture as the infinite-personal Creator God.

Christians believe based on divine revelation and faith that this creator is The Triune God who has revealed himself in Scripture as the creator and sustainer of the world. In Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1 the Scriptures say that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit created the whole universe out of nothing. In the rest of Genesis 1-2, the author shows that God is the creator of all things by demonstrating that he created everything that people in the Ancient Near East worshipped as gods. Further, the Bible holds that the end goal of creation is life with God in a renewed heavens and earth (Revelations 21-22).

I don’t expect this line of thought to convince someone that God exists and that if God exists this God is the God of Scripture, I find it helpful to see that if we grant the first cause outside of creation, it is possible to  be lead to the God who reveals himself as the creator of the world: The Triune God of Scripture.

 

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.

 

Holy Scripture: What is it and what is it for?

 

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Introduction:

In the life of a Christian, there is an expectation that one read, study, and inwardly digest Holy Scripture. This is integral to the Christian life, as we can see in the collect for the Second Sunday in Advent:

BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

When we read Scripture, a question arises, that is not so easily answered: what is Holy Scripture?

A few quick answers come to mind:

  1. 2 Timothy 3:16-17: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. This verse names what Scripture is, “God-breathed” and communicates the purpose of Scripture, i.e., to complete and form the Christian into the likeness of Jesus. 
  2. Hebrews 4:12-13  For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. This verse is complex and significant because it seems to correlate the written word of God with Jesus Christ himself. It, like 2 Timothy 3 directs our attention to the formative and active nature of God’s Word. 
  3. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. Here Paul notes that he received what was delivered; that Christ died and rose again which was in accordance with Scripture, i.e., the Old Testament. Here we see Christ and his work as the content and goal of the Scripture (see my blog entry on the Gospel). 

From these verses, many of the shorthand answers of what Scripture are presented: it is God-breathed, it the Word of God written. And while these answers are well and good, more needs to be said. Why? Because these answers seem to separate what Scripture holds together: what Scripture is and what it is for. Any doctrine of Scripture must hold together these two questions, and the answer for the second must be derivative from the first. Further, these answers often seem to side-step critical scholarship and function in a rhetorical posture of defensiveness.

The answer to critical scholarship cannot be a blind turn to non-rational belief – “The Bible says it, I believe it.” At the same time, I do not think we need to concede grounds to scholars who read Holy Scripture like another book. Thus, we need a way to articulate what Scripture is and what it is for, in the context of faith seeking understanding.

What we are dealing with when we try to understand the nature of Scripture is how a human text can communicate who God is and what God does. Often, people fall on one of two sides: either emphasizing its supernatural revelation and downplaying the creaturely aspects of it, or emphasizing the creaturely elements of it and ignoring the possibility of divine revelation.

Many analogies are used for the relationship between the human and divine aspects of Holy Scripture, the Incarnation of Jesus is perhaps the most popular one these days. Jesus is fully God and fully human, but one person; similarly, Scripture is fully divine and fully human. The problem with this analogy is that it abstracts the utterly unique work of God in the incarnation into a principle. Further, the analogy falls apart because the two natures of Jesus are held together in the One person of the Son, there is no correlate point of union for the Scriptures. Where do we go for a better understanding of what Holy Scripture is and what it is for?

Let’s begin by considering Article 6 of the 39 Articles of Religion:

HOLY Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the holy Scripture we do understand those Canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.

Here we see the content and purpose of Scripture defined. the material is the Old and New Testament; the purpose is “Salvation.” Further, the article describes the Holy Scripture as authoritative for salvation. That said, the article leaves off specifying the way that Scripture is capable of containing all things necessary for salvation. In other words, how human written words are considered Holy. How can human words communicate all that is necessary for salvation? To answer this question, we need to consider how Scripture is situated in God’s work of salvation for humanity and the world, what is often called the economy of salvation.

In considering What Scripture is, I will turn to John Webster, who has written profoundly and extensively on the nature of Scripture. His reflection on the doctrine of Scripture began in earnest in 2003 when he published Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. While I have not studied his writing in depth, there seems to have been some development and refinement between then and more recent essays. Thus, I am drawing on a later essay where he articulates the ontology of Scripture as a part of the economy of God’s outer works.

The Triune God’s Divine Economy

To articulate a theology of Scripture, we must start with the triune God, and see how Scripture relates to God. In Theology, we distinguish between God in himself (Theology proper), and the divine economy, God’s work in the world (from creation to consummation).  Webster distinguishes between these two aspects of theology in the following.

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).

Webster describes in more detail what the divine economy is in four points: 1) The divine economy is grounded in the immanent perfection of the Holy Trinity. 2) The divine economy unfolds as the history of fellowship in which creatures are summoned to know and love God.  3) The divine economy includes the history of redemption. 4) In all this, the divine economy is revelatory (The Dominion of the Word, 117-118). This final point grounds Webster’s next move: The divine economy, the mission of the Son and Spirit reveal God, and this revelation is mediated in a particular form:

The work of Word and Spirit, through which God gives creatures a share in his knowledge of himself, is mediated through creaturely auxiliaries. of these, Holy Scripture is the chief; through its ministry of the divine Word in the Spirit’s power, God makes himself known and loved (ibid., 120).

Webster started with God’s infinite being, which is the source and end of the God’s outer works of creation and redemption, which reveal who God is. This economic work is the mission of the Son and Spirit. The Son and Spirit make God known through the creaturely auxiliaries of the Scriptures. What is the nature of these Scriptures?

Scripture

Webster describes Scripture “as prophetic and apostolic testimony” (ibid., 120). It functions as “a unified set of creaturely communicative acts having their origin in God’s calling and authorizing certain persons in the communion of the saints” (ibid., 120). In other words, God calls, forms and sends  prophets and apostles (the Old and New Testament writers) as special ambassadors of God’s own Word. So we have specific people who God chooses as creaturely instruments to communicate God’s self-revelation. How do these writing become Holy Scripture?

“Holy Scripture is the textual settlement of this embassy. In it, prophetic and apostolic speech is extended to into the church’s present… Scripture is a creaturely reality ordered to divine communication” (ibid., 120).  So God providentially commisions, forms, and orders the life and writings of the prophets and apostles to communicate who God is and what God is doing. Thus the Scriptures are a human text, but human texts ordered by God with the distinct purpose of communicating and revealing God.

In his book, Holy Scripture,  Webster describes this reality in terms of the creaturely text being ‘sanctified’ by which he means: “the biblical texts are creaturely realities set apart by the triune God to serve his self-presence” (21).

To expand on this notion of creaturely realities being used by God to communicate himself, Webster offers the Lord’s Supper as a parallel example:

Bread and wine are signs in the economy of salvation; by them, the ascended Christ distributes the benefits of his saving achievement, comforting, and nourishing his people by his presence. These functions do not detract from the created materiality of the elements, but indicate, rather, that such created realities are taken up into the divine service. So also Holy Scripture: prophetic and apostolic words are no less creaturely for being servants of the divine Word; indeed, their creaturely nature is therein fulfilled. (The Dominion of the Word, 121).

This analogy is stronger than the Analogy of the incarnation because it simultaneously holds the creaturely reality of the writings of the Old and New Testament, while confessing that through God’s providential and sanctifying work, i.e., the mission of the Son and Spirit these words are ordered and used to communicate divine revelation.

How, precisely, do these prophetic and apostolic words in the Scripture exist as creaturely servants to the divine Word? Webster responds: “Scripture is ‘inspired’ in the sense that its entire course (from pretextual tradition to canonization, including supremely the work of textual production) is superintended by the Spirit” (Ibid., 121).

This is profoundly significant for dismantling the dualism we talked about earlier: either fully divine texts (humans merely writing what they hear from God verbally) or fully human texts. The Holy Scriptures are human texts written by divinely commission Prophets and Apostles, which communicate the Divine Revelation of the Triune God while remaining creaturely in nature. The whole process of the writing of these texts is understood to be inspired by the Holy Spirit who is the proper author of the texts; though he never supersedes or overrides the creature in the inspiring process. The Holy Spirit’s work of superintending the creation and writing of Scripture is what it means for Scripture to be inspired.

Conclusion

Scripture is God-breathed, it is the Word of God written, but it is this by means of God’s providentially ordering, sanctifying and inspiring commissioned prophets and apostles by the Holy Spirit to communicate the Word of God through in and with the words of Scripture.

When we see how Scripture fits into the greater economy of God’s work, the purpose of Scripture is made more explicit by its nature. God uses human creaturely realities to bring about his purpose and will; just as the Lord’s Supper communicate grace and life to Christians, so the Holy Scriptures communicate to believers the truth of who God is, who we are and what God has done and is doing to save us.

Theological Thoughts on Ecclesiastes 5:2: Let your Words be Few

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Ecclesiastes 5:2 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.

Talk about God is so blithely thrown around in church and the broader culture, that this verse and its warning seems almost impossible to abide. In the wider culture, the forces of secularity have reduced talk about God to a sarcastic joke, meme, or worse. In the church, we suffer from speaking too much, or too poorly about God, much like our culture we’ve lost our ability to speak of God without catchphrases or cliches.

In this verse, the preacher of Ecclesiastes warns his readers of two things, gives them two reasons for this warning, and concludes with the result of listening to this warning. He urges his readers to not be rash or hasty in uttering a word, either externally (mouth), or internally (internally) about God. Why? 1) because all our words are ‘before God’and 2) ‘God is in heaven and you are on earth.’ For these reasons, our words should be few.

This verse reorients humanity’s pride and arrogance (rash and hasty) to a proper understanding of who we are in light of God’s infinite majesty and creative saving power. What do the two statements about tell us about God?

God is present everywhere and knows everything. God’s omnipresence and omniscience remind us of the utter difference between God and humanity. God is the creator, and we are creatures. The triune God is the creating and sustaining God. To say anything before God, externally or internally, is to stand before the one who made you out of nothing, and who continues to sustain your existence.

In Christian theology, the creation and providential sustaining is the undivided work of the Trinity, but it is often described as the work of each Person, for example, the Father creates, the Son sustains. We see this reality testified to by Paul: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” (Col 1:16). The Word of God, the Son of God, incarnate in the Virgin Mary, and maintaining the world in all its contingent reality, is the one in whom and through whom our existence is preserved and brought to its proper end: the vision of God. 

The difference between God and his creation is reinforced by the next clause: “For God is in heaven and you are on earth.” Heaven is the location of God’s reign, rule, and authority. Despite human sin and rebellion, we do not thwart God’s authority, power, and rule by our ineffective and destructive loquaciousness. God’s Word does not return void in the battle for his creation.

Our foolish speech is silenced, redeemed and reordered by the one who is from heaven and has come to earth: the Eternal Word of God who became incarnate. Our prideful ramblings are made quiet in the face of the one who in himself is the eternally Spoken Word, reveals in humility, both in the cry of a baby and the cry of a dying man.

In Christ, knowledge of who God is, who we are, and how we are to speak of God rightly, is revealed, as Paul said, “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).  In the mission of the Son, the eternal Word of God silences our pride and hasty words and orders them towards God. How? By revealing himself in the flesh, taking our pride and arrogance to judgment and death, rising victorious and true, and sending his Spirit to teach us to think and speak rightly of God. The Holy Spirit takes Christ’s humility (Romans 12:1-2; Phil 2:5-11) and gives it to those who trust in Jesus, confess him as Lord and are baptized into his death.

It is because of Jesus that our words are “few” and not silenced entirely. For the immensity of God, both as he is in himself and God against sin leads us to baffled silence. We observe this in Job’s confession at the end of God’s speech in Job 42:2-6

“I know that you can do all things,
    and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
    I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
    but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
    and repent in dust and ashes.”

But, when God unites us to himself in Christ his immensity, infinity, and plentitude, leads to the fear and knowledge of God which begins to order our minds and hearts rightly. In light of the mission of the Son and Spirit for our salvation, we slowly become wise as we confess that all things are from God and ordered towards him.

In comparison to the infinite Word of God, redeemed and sanctified talk of God, submitted to the continued mortification and vivification of the Spirit, is minuscule in proportion, and yet it is still invited and encouraged. “Let your words be few.” We were created and redeemed to know God and his Son through the power of the Holy Spirit: “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

The church is called to witness to the God who is in heaven, who is in control and who in his infinite love sent the Son and Word of God to save the world. To do this in step with the Spirit, our minds – our intellect, emotions, and wills – must be aligned to Jesus Christ. We must allow the Holy Spirit to order our thoughts, our desires, our wills toward God. We must desire what is truly good and keep our minds on what is truly beautiful and long for what is truly true: we must desire the Triune God of Grace. “Delight yourself in the Lordand he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). When we delight ourselves in the Lord, we discover that he is the deepest desires of our hearts. 

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.

Augustine as Contemplative Apostolic Theologian

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In a previous blog post, I discussed John Webster’s understanding of the Theologian as both contemplative and apostolic. At the end of that post, I referenced St. Augustine of Hippo as an excellent example of this way of being a theologian.  In this post, I’m presenting Augustine’s struggle with the tension between Contemplation and apostolic work, and the way he lived in the tension.

By way of reminder This is how John Webster defines the task of theology as Contemplative and apostolic:

…theology is both contemplative and apostolic. Contemplative first, because whatever it may offer to the church derives from sustained and disciplined and unselfish attention to divine revelation in its limitless depths and scope; everything depends upon contemplative absorption in God and the gospel of peace. Apostolic second and by derivation, because the rule of charity in the church requires that gifts by communicated, not hoarded, such that theology is part of the flow of love…

How does Augustine exemplify this as a pastor-theologian? First, we must acknowledge that Augustine’s Journey into Christianity was one where he sought to be united with God and contemplate him in an intensely intimate and personal way.

In Confessions, Augustine narrates his conversion experience in light of two moments of contemplation. First, when he was a practicing platonist, he attempted to ascend to God by contemplating created reality to gain access to the divine, but God beat him back (Book VII.16). It was not until he took up and read Scripture, giving his life to God in Christ, meeting the mediator between God and man that he was able to contemplate the true God of the universe in Jesus Christ (see Book XI.24-25). This was only the beginning of Augustine’s contemplation of God. Most of his writing is a rigorous and Holy Spirit infused apprehension of the Triune God, as he consistently sought to find rest in God (Book 1.1). Perhaps this famous quote can adequately express God’s deep passion for Augustine that led him to desire to spend all his time with God, contemplating him and his works:

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new,/late have i loved you!/ Lo, you were within,/but I outside, seeking there for you,/ and upon the shapely things you have made i rushed headlong,/I misshapen./ You were within me, but I was not with you./Tehy held me back far from you,/ those things which would have no being/ were they not in you. You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;/ you flared, blazed banished my blindness;/ you lavished your fragrance, i gasped, and now I pant for you;/ I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst;/ you touched me, and I burn for your peace. (Book X.38).

Augustine’s call to serve in the church prevented him from joining a monastic community, which would have allowed him to continue in contemplation and prayer. This call forced him to deal with and harmonize two proper Christian desires; a single-mindedness towards God and love of neighbors (“Contemplation and Action,” Augustine through the Ages, 233).  N. Joseph Torchia, O.P., in his article “Contemplation and Action” notes how apostolic service aids contemplation. Far from viewing contemplation and apostolic action as mutually exclusive:

He stressed their relationship and interaction. In this regard, he considered action the necessary means to contemplation, both now and in the life to come. As he affirms we find Christ on earth in the poor in our midst, and likewise, we secure a place in heaven by performing charitable works on their behalf. Service to those in need, then, is nothing less than a means to the contemplation of the love of God. (“Contemplation and Action,” 233).

Even so, Augustine struggled with the desire to spend time in God’s presence as he ministered to the Church as the bishop pastor, social mediator, theologian, and teacher. In the end, Augustine concluded:

Although contemplation is superior to action, we must accept an apostolate when the church requires our talents; yet even in the midst of active endeavors, we should continue to take delight in contemplation (Contemplation and Action, 233).

This idea that contemplation is superior is grounded in the fact that it is what we were created for, to behold the face of God. However, we must accept the vocations that we are given, for Augustine it was to be a Bishop out of love for others, while simultaneously remaining in a consistent pattern of practicing the presence of God and seeking his face.

For Augustine, the Christian’s model for this way of life, and the source of strength to live as a contemplative in action is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ who is the eternal word of God the Father, the exact imprint and likeness of the Father, came from the infinite plentitude of the divine life, to save humanity from sin and death, and reveal  God to them. Because The Son became human and was the mediator between God and man, humanity can now contemplate God because God has saved humanity from sin (see Confessions, Book X.67-68, and The Trinity, Book XIII). Taking up the apostolic task, for Augustine and any theologian, is not a distraction from contemplation, but an imitation and participation in the eternal love of God for the world exemplified in Jesus Christ. As we contemplate God in our studies and work, we are called out to share our labor with the church and the world. This is precisely what Webster was getting at when he said that the Apostolic is derivative of the contemplative and is motivated by charity.

Augustine poured out his life for the church, and this was empowered by first the rigorous contemplation of the Triune God and second by participating in the life of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is the pattern of service in the church, this is the pattern for Pastor-Theologians.

While Augustine’s way of life is a good example for Pastor-Theologians, I want to conclude by saying that this pattern of contemplation-grounding-action is the pattern for all Christians in all vocations. We must wholeheartedly seek the triune God, actively live in his presence and do all that we do out of the love that God has for us and the love that God has for others. We do this because God first sought us in Jesus Christ and has filled every Christian with the Holy Spirit. While not all of us are called to be Theologians for the Church, every Christian is called to contemplate God in Scripture, worship, and prayer, and share the love of God that is poured into our hearts by the Spirit in our families, lives, and work.