Incarnation and Creation

Ebstorf Map, Jesus encompassing the world

This Advent, my mind has been drawn to the doctrine of creation and the place of the Incarnation in the great drama of the cosmos. I am not entirely sure why this is so. Certainly last week I noted Oliver O’Donovan’s statement in On the Thirty-Nine Articles: Conversations with Tudor Christianity that much Reformation theology was weak on the doctrine of creation, and this has had an effect upon the sciences and theology, etc. He wonders what different roads we may have taken if the doctrine of creation had been one of the parts of St Thomas Aquinas we had kept.

Anyway, if we think theologically about Christmas, I imagine our thinking is typically something along these lines: Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity; He took on the form of a slave for our salvation; He became a baby so that He could die for us as a Man.

Yet today at church, the sermon closed with some beautiful words of Madeleine L’Engle, pointing towards the pre-Incarnate reality of the Second Person of the Trinity, bringing home the force of what it means that God became man as Jesus. If we do that, we need to realise that something as well as salvation from sin, death, damnation, devil, is going on.

Why?

The eternal life of God is an extra-temporal reality. God is. God is reality. Or maybe not — maybe God is beyond reality. God has no being because being relies entirely on God. A robust doctrine of God should make the dramatic event of the Incarnation that much more potent.

And a robust doctrine of God makes for a robust doctrine of creation — God made everything very good. As the Fathers, including St Augustine, were ever keen to note, all of creation is good by nature. It was created good, even if now it is fallen and tending towards entropy. Creation was made because God willed it. Creation was made to glorify God.

God entered into that creation. The timeless creator joined the creation in time.

Why?

Not simply to save us and make us what Adam was, but to make us what Adam was meant to be.

To make us god.

This is the emphasis of St Athanasius, On the Incarnation, as well as of Robert Grosseteste’s work (which is to say, it is not the sole preserve of the Eastern Church). It is a consideration of salvation history primarily as Creation – Incarnation – Paradise, whereas we tend to think in terms of Fall – Crucifixion – Redemption. Both are true, but the former we usually neglect.

We usually think of the biblical drama as an arc from Genesis 3 with the Fall to Revelation 21 with the lake of fire.

This Christmastide, let’s meditate on the restored creation, on that arc from Genesis 1 with creation to Revelation 22 with the crystal river and lamb upon the throne.

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The Apocatastasis Project (as if I have time on my hands to do this)

I have blogged about Origen (184/5–253/4, on his impact see here) and the concept of Apocatastasis before (here), in the context of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and the debate surrounding universalism. At the time, I was unaware of the use of the word apokatastasis by St. Peter in Acts 3:21, and I boldly declared regarding this theological doctrine, ‘No, it’s not in Scripture.’ My flawed research has been taken to task, for which I am grateful, and now I am going to be thorough, sort of for the fun of it.

First, the terms. When referring to the theological concept as espoused by Origen et al., I shall use the Latinised spelling Apocatastasis, capital A, no italics. When referring to the Greek lexical term, I shall use the Hellenised spelling apokatastasis, lower case a, italicised.

Second, the method/outline of this project on Apocatastasis. First, I shall discuss what doctrine it is that we are discussing, exactly. What is Apocatastasis? We shall investigate the teachings of Origen and Evagrius Ponticus (345-399) in particular; one of the questions we shall investigate is why their teachings of this name were condemned in the sixth century and suspect in the late-fourth and early-fifth centuries. Two other illustrious Origenists shall be considered, the Cappadocian Fathers St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389/90) and St. Gregory of Nyssa (335–394, Saint of the Week here). We shall see to what extent their eschatological teachings and understanding of Judgement Day align with the “Origenist” teaching on Apocatastasis condemned in later years.

Once we have come to understand what the ancients understood theologically about Apocatastasis, we can consider modern writers and their contemplation of “universalism”. We shall look at Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Madeleine L’Engle (herself a reader of the Cappadocian Fathers), and George MacDonald (Saint of the Week here, discussion of his “universalism” here).

Met. Kallistos is a living Eastern Orthodox Bishop (website here) and patristics scholar who, like most Eastern Orthodox, could easily be considered “conservative”. Madeleine L’Engle was a popular Anglican author of the last half of the twentieth century (website here), most famous for her children’s/young adult novels such as A Wrinkle in Time. The only reason anyone has ever called her heretic is over the question of universal salvation; she is, nevertheless, very popular amongst Christians with a firm belief in eternal damnation. The third is George MacDonald, a nineteenth-century Congregationalist pastor and novelist, the grand inspiration and “teacher” of popular “conservative” Anglican novelist, literary critic, and amateur theologian C S Lewis.

I have chosen these three because I believe they highlight different approaches to the question of universal salvation and Apocatastasis as well as pushing us to question the borders of orthodoxy, for all three are popular amongst conservative, orthodox believers, despite the unpopularity in such circles for theology of universal salvation (as we saw in the furor over Rob Bell).

We will then have set the stage for understanding this doctrine and how it has persisted to this day in differing guises. Having a clear understanding of Apocatastasis, we can then turn to the Scriptures and see whether or not Apocatastasis is in Scripture. This will be time to play with the writers of the Patristic, Mediaeval, and Reformation eras, part of the point of this blog.

We shall look at the occurrences of the word apokatastasis in Scripture, especially in Acts 3:21, but also in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament used by the writers of the Apostolic and Patristic ages, including not only Sts. Peter and Paul, but also Origen (who composed a document called the hexapla that put various editions of the Septuagint in parallel columns with the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew) and the Cappadocians, as well as our friend Met. Kallistos.

Our interpretation shall at one level be lexical, giving the basic definition and nuances of the word bare of any text. Then we shall approach each text using the Talmudic exegetical method outlined by Weekend Fisher here. This approach is not entirely suited to the New Testament but will not be profitless. We shall also consider the ancient grammarians’ technique of textual interpretation that believes that the text interprets itself; taking holy Scripture as the entire text – something done early by the Fathers (as recounted by Lewis Ayres in a paper given at the University of Edinburgh in Autumn of 2010) – we shall consider what apokatastasis means both in its immediate context and in the rest of Scripture.

Having thus sought to understand the question and passages at hand in their own right, we shall turn to our forebears in the faith. What do they say about the passage? For the Acts passage, we shall look at St. John Chrysostom, the Venerable Bede, and others, relying in part on IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture because life is short and I don’t necessarily have time to scour the library for resources. The relevant Medieval commentators shall be considered as well as the famous Reformation commentators Calvin and Luther. From these considerations, we shall sound out the mind of the Great Tradition as to what St. Peter envisages when he refers to apokatastasis.

My hypothesis is that St. Peter’s apokatastasis, his “restoration”, will be similar to St. Irenaeus’ anakephalaiōsis, his “recapitulation.” If so, we shall move the discussion of Apocatastasis into a discussion of Recapitulation and what exactly the difference is. By so doing, we shall re-cover the ground concerning Origen/Origenism, the doctrine of Apocatastasis, and the modern adherents to related ideas.

Having done all of this, we will be able to make conclusions about Apocatastasis and whether it is in Scripture, and whether, if not in Scripture, it is compatible with Scripture. By so doing, we shall see what all the fuss was about in the old disputes and what the fuss is about in the new disputes, and we shall get to try out the older ways of reading the Bible advocated on this website. It will be Classic Christianity in action.

It will also take up a lot of posts; I have thus created a new category called “Apocatastasis Project” to be able to check them out quickly.

On the Quicumque Vult (pt 2): Religion Gone Bad?

Yesterday, I successfully placed the so-called “Creed of Saint Athanasius” or “Quicumque Vult” in its context.  It has lived beyond its context, surviving in books and documents and liturgical use — traditionally, Anglicans recite this statement of faith every Trinity Sunday.  I don’t think very many do, anymore, and not just because of the equation: length + liturgical laziness = cutting out bits of the liturgy.

I would venture to say that many people dislike this piece of theology because of its introduction and conclusion.  The introductory paragraph of the Athanasian Creed runs:

Whoever wishes to be saved, it is necessary before all things, that he cling to the Catholic faith:  unless someone will have held this [faith] whole and undefiled and away from falseness, he will perish eternally.

The offending clause is the closing one, “he will perish eternally.”  No one wants to hear this sort of thing today.  Isn’t this the sort of thing Fred Phelps is into?  Isn’t this what a lot people are trying to get away from?  Doesn’t this just prove that religion is an oppressive, divisive force?

What does it even mean, “perish eternally”?  Most people are probably thinking, “Hellfire and brimstone!  Hellfire and brimstone!  HEAVEN!  OR HELL!!  HEAVEN!!  OR HELL!!!”  I don’t rightly know, actually.  It seems that those who are not caught up into the great embrace of Christ in the great beyond, those who find themselves amongst the goats on Judgement Day, are described variously as being cast into the outer darkness where there is moaning and gnashing of teeth, or into Gehenna which is Jerusalem’s burning garbage heap, or into a lake of fire, or to suffer the second death, or simply to be sent away from the presence of Christ.

Whatever it is that happens to those who find themselves outside of Christ at the Resurrection, it is not something to look forward to.  Perhaps it is simply the cessation of existence.  St. Augustine seems to think it is eternal punishment.  Madeleine L’Engle can’t imagine a good God punishing any of His creation for all time; neither can St. Gregory of Nyssa.  Origen even imagined that the people who die the second death and go to Hades are raised up and perfected by Christ and reunited to the Monad at the end of all things (apocatastasis for those who care).

Whatever it is, though, we freely choose it.  We pave our own road to Hell.  We choose ourselves over others, the world over Christ, sin over righteousness every step of the way.  And this road we pave is easily laid.  It’s also nice and broad, smooth and pleasant.  Until, of course, we reach the top of a hill and are tossed off the hill by demons into a pit of dragons (this description based on an icon I saw in a supermarket in Cyprus).

God offers the free gift of salvation to everyone.  If we choose not to accept it, we are condemning ourselves to perish eternally.

Of course, protestations arise that that’s not what the Quicumque Vult says. It says that we must keep the Catholic faith whole and undefiled.  We must also do good works, according to the conclusion of the text.

The Catholic faith is the means of accepting the gift of salvation.  If God is offering us a gift, we must have faith in Him to accept it.  If I did not have faith in my brother, I might not accept a gift given by him, expecting instead of something pleasant those springy snakes instead.  So faith, as in trust, is essential for accepting the gift.

Part of accepting this gift is knowing the giver.  God is not aloof from us.  He offers us salvation, and if we truly trust* Him, we will come to know Him.  We will learn of Who He is.  And Who is He?  Who is this God whom we trust, this God Who saves us from sin, death, the devil, eternal perishing?

Look at the Quicumque Vult.  It will show you Who it is Whom you trust.

*Philological phun phact: these two words are cognate along with tree.

Leave My Hymns Alone!

Sometime in the past decade or so, the Anglican Church of Canada decided to get a new hymn book; this item is called Common Praise.  In this new hymn book, a good number of the hymns have the little abbreviation next to the author’s name, “alt.”  So, you’ll see, “Charles Wesley, alt.”  This abbreviation means “altered.”  One usually imagines that “alt.” simply means, “We made human beings gender-neutral,” as though the ancient English word and suffix “man” only ever had one meaning, not two, and that one meaning was “male human being.”

We’re not going to argue about so-called “inclusive language”.  If that were all that hymn books such as Common Praise or Voices United did when the letters “alt.” appeared, I’d get over it eventually.  However, the hymn-book editors, having started to alter hymns in some ways to suit their tastes, have altered them in other ways, thus reducing the timelessness of many hymns and marring both their aesthetic beauty and theological truth.

One oddity is “Good Christians All, Rejoice!”  wherein the word ye has been removed.  Christmastide, as my wife was quick to point out, is one time when people are willing to be old fashioned.  Why get rid of a perfectly good word?  This removal forced them to mess around with the entire hymn, since every verse has ye in it.

“Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending” was missing the third verse.  The loss of the third verse was very disturbing to me, for the original runs thus:

Those dear tokens of his Passion
Still his dazzling body bears,
Cause of endless exultation
To his ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!

It was on a cross our Saviour died.  By his scars we are healed.  There is no good reason why a Bible-believing theologically-orthodox Christian should shy away from these words.

They decided, as well, that “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” an ancient Latin hymn by Prudentius, ought to be “Of Eternal Love Begotten.”  Not only is this avoiding the biblical and traditional Name of one Member of the Godhead, it is also not what Prudentius wrote.  Now we see that we are smarter not only than the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but even those centuries that forged our very faith.

Common Praise seems to dislike the Godhead, in fact.  In “To God be the Glory,” they removed all the masculine pronouns and put in the word “God.”  Thus: “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!  Let the earth hear God’s voice,” and so forth.  I understand the reasoning behind this move.  It is the same as that which caused the change in “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”:  God is beyond gender, beyond personality.  However, God is not less than a person.  Theologically speaking, God is three Persons, in fact.  If we are to speak about God, we should be able to use pronouns in reference to God.  Otherwise, I have a feeling God becomes less, not more, than a person.

I cannot help but think of C.S. Lewis in this moment:

A good many people nowadays say, ‘I believe in a God, but not in a personal God.’  They feel that the mysterious something which is behind all other things must be more than a person.  Now the Christians quite agree.  But the Christians are the only people who offer any idea of what a being that is beyond personality could be like.  All the other people, though they say that God is beyond personality, really think of Him as something impersonal: that is, as something less than personal.  If you are looking for something super-personal, something more than a person, then it is not a question of choosing between the Christian idea and the other ideas.  The Christian idea is the only one on the market. (Mere Christianity, near the beginning of “The Three-Personal God”)

I believe that the removal of pronouns in reference to God makes Him less, not more, than us.  The best compromise I have seen is Madeleine L’Engle’s use of El, but I find it unsatisfactory.  I will continue to use “He, Him, His,” about the Divine Being, knowing that God is not male, that the Triune God does not have a penis (well, not more than one, anyway)*, that He is not a man at all, for I am a man, and I am by no means near the same sort of being that God is.

In “Joyful, Joyful,” Common Praise has marred the beautiful line, “Thou our Father, Christ our Brother”, making it, “Thou our Father and our Mother.”  Now, theoretically, since God is beyond gender, and since God, being perfect, as our divine parent carries within Himself the best of both fathers and mothers and even more and even better than they, God is theoretically both Father and Mother to us.  However, this is not cause enough to change a line that is bringing two Persons of our three-personal God into play and forcing it to reflect a modern liberal sensibility about the divine and push out one of the Persons.  God the Son has been shoved out in favour of non-traditional language about God the Father.  “All who live in love are thine”, the following line, is about those who are the FatherMother God’s, not those who are the Father’s and Christ’s.

I do not believe that editorial boards should tamper with hymns in any way other than making references to the human race gender inclusive.  I don’t even think they should do that, but I know they will.  If they must tamper with hymns, they ought to leave the theological content of the hymns alone.

We find ourselves turning to C.S. Lewis again, and his Introduction to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.  Here, Lewis tells us that we should read old books because they give us a point of view other than our own.  By reading only new books, we are trapped by the blinders of our own age.  By singing only new songs, we are similarly trapped.  By praying only new prayers, likewise.  By tampering with old hymns, by changing their theological content, by modifying their language of God, we are saying that we know better than 2000 years of Christian tradition; we are saying that our age is the only age that knows about God, and that we therefore have the right to change the words of our forebears.  We are depriving ourselves of wisdom that the hymn-writers have to offer us simply because their words do not fit with certain contemporary sensibilities.  We are turning aside from anything uncomfortable — yet isn’t God supposed to make us uncomfortable?

Thus, if you feel that we need to sing, “Thou our Father and our Mother,” and “Of Eternal Love Begotten,” do not tamper with someone else’s art, with someone else’s view of God, with a point of view that may have great wisdom behind it that we do not see.  Write a new hymn.

And if you cannot write a new hymn, wonder what on earth our culture has lost.

*Pretty sure Jesus has a penis.  I’m just sayin’.

Christian Fiction

Ever since Joseph and Aseneth was a runaway second-century bestseller, Christians have been writing fiction.  Some of it has been among the world’s great literature, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Evelyn Waugh’s Helena, and many more.

My recent discussion of The Shack by Wm. Paul Young and its lack of certain heresies (read it here) has set me thinking about Christian novels worth recommending.  While The Shack was entertaining and thought-provoking, it won’t be in the following list.  The books I’m going to recommend have the following benefits: not only are they good novels but they express deep truths about the universe, God, humanity, and people who aren’t professing Christians could enjoy and read them as well.  Here are five, in alphabetical order by title:

Byzantium by Stephen R. Lawhead.  This is a novelisation of the adventures of St. Aidan, an Irish monk who, in the Early Middle Ages sets off from Kells to Byzantium with a complaint about the behaviour of Western clerics on the Continent.  There are Vikings, Muslims, Byzantines, loss of faith and its recovery.  Aidan is very . . . real.  And the Vikings are fantastic (“Heya!”).

The Cosmic Trilogy by C.S. Lewis.  Many people find The Chronicles of Narnia their favourites; others applaud Till We Have Faces as a work of genius.  I’m not sure what my favourite work of Lewis’ fiction is.  The Cosmic Trilogy, however, is well worth a read.  These books centre on the adventures of Ransom, who in the first (Out of the Silent Planet) travels to Mars (Malacandra), the second (Perelandra) to Venus (Perelandra), and in the final volume (That Hideous Strength), the battle takes itself to Earth.  The stories are excellent, the characters compelling, and a whole gamut of “issues” is run throughout this trilogy.

Godric by Frederick Buechner.  This is a novelisation of the life of St. Godric, an Anglo-Saxon hermit in the Middle Ages.  This well-written novel tells Godric’s life, including Godric’s struggles and doubts, his own humility and questioning of his vocation.  It is beautiful and wonderful.

Helena by Evelyn Waugh.  This is a novelisation of the life of St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine.  I believe that this book captures the spirit of the Late Antique world, especially in terms of philosophy and religion.  Waugh is not trying to make a historical reconstruction but simply telling the legend of St. Helena’s life.  I believe this is a masterpiece; it was Waugh’s favourite of his works.  Loyola Classics has a snazzy edition out.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  This, along with its companion novels, is among my favourite books.  It is a type of science fantasy, if such a genre exists.  It is about four children who set out across the universe to fight the Dark and to find their missing father; the Dark is taking over planets, extinguishing stars.  Their greatest weapon in the fight against the Dark?  Love.

Christian fiction I want to read:

All Hallows Eve by Charles Williams

Brenden by Frederick Buechner

The Pendragon Cycle by Stephen R. Lawhead (I’ve only read Taliesin)

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

The Psychomachia by Prudentius

What Christian novels do you recommend?

Why read the Bible? Unspiritual Reason #1: Books

From AD 381 to some point in the Renaissance or Enlightenment, the Western world was ostensibly Christian.  And as the pagans were converted, the only non-Christians left were Jews.  The Jewish holy book forms the bulk of the Christian holy book, and the Christian holy book was the foundational text for Western culture.  Knowing the Bible, then, means knowing your own culture better and being better equipped to understand the thought-patterns of those who come before you.  And their allusions.  And what exactly is going on in their art.  And, understanding your heritage and culture, you can begin to fulfil the Delphic Oracle’s command: ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΑΥΤΟΝ· KNOW THYSELF.  We shall begin with literature.

The PG Wodehouse post demonstrates the first unspiritual reason to read the Bible: the biblically illiterate simply will not enjoy literature as much.  Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” means less to those who don’t know the Bible.  CS Lewis’ The Last Battle loses much meaning without the book of Revelation.  There is other literature directly inspired or based upon the Bible: Paradise Lost by John Milton, Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace, Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, to name a few.  Knowing the Biblical story and how it unfolds adds a deeper layer of meaning as you read literature that plays off it.  The intensity of Many Waters was deep for me, as I knew how the story worked out in the Bible — so how would the twists of this plot dovetail with the Bible?  And I saw characters whom I knew from Genesis characterised and enfleshed by L’Engle.  My familiarity with Genesis increased my enjoyment of the novel.

Other literature is explicitly Christian, even if not directly inspired by the Bible, and an understanding of the Bible will help understand it.  This is the case with Helena by Evelyn Waugh, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, and Godric by Frederick Buechner.  Some literature by Christians is not explicitly Christian; nonetheless, an understanding of the Bible still helps you understand the literature.  We see this in The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and Father Brown stories by GK Chesterton (although these are at times quite explicitly Christian).

How do you expect to delve into the depths of the riches of John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, Edmund Spenser, TS Eliot, Prudentius, et al., if you have not investigated the Book that is the foundation of their hearts, minds, souls — yea, their very lives!  Take “Prayer (I)” by Herbert (chosen at random from a selection of Herbert’s poems).  Ideas/allusions that, from my vantage point, clearly originate from Scripture: “Gods breath in man returning to his birth,” “Christ-side-piercing spear,” “The six-daies world-transposing in an houre,” “Exalted Manna”.  Four in three stanzas, and one could argue for a biblical theology surrounding the rest of the poem.  If you seek to woo a poet, get to know his or her holy book and worldview.

Not that this use of the Bible is restricted only to Christian writers.  The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, an atheist, displays a notable intimacy with the Bible, including controversy surrounding interpretations of some of Jesus’ sayings.  The very deaths that propel the plot are fixed around the book of Revelation as a core, and many biblical ideas flow in and out of the conversations had by the monks through the course of the book.  His novel Foucault’s Pendulum also shows a knowledge of the Bible.

Now I must sleep.  My message is: Cure your biblical illiteracy!  Read the Bible!  It can only do you good.