Today for Morning Prayer (Wednesday after Septuagesima), the Canadian 1959/62 BCP had as the Second Lesson the Transfiguration from Matthew 17. First this:
Since I’m in the midst of teaching a course on the Nicene Controversy, I look at the Transfiguration and all the things I’ve been reading in St Athanasius, St Ephrem, St Basil, and their modern interpreters comes flooding into my heart. Indeed, this icon even reflects the Nicene Creed:
God from God, light from light, very God from very God.
As Edith M. Humphrey puts it,
It is in the shining face of Jesus, and in the glory seen most profoundly on the cross, that we catch a vision of the likeness of God.
Ecstasy and Intimacy, p. 91
And St Gregory of Nazianzus (the Theologian):
He was bright as the lightning on the mountain and became more luminous than the sun, initiating us into the mystery of the future.
Oration 3.19, “On the Son”, quoted in Edith M. Humphrey, Ecstasy and Intimacy, p. 98
As at all times, the appropriate response to Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration is to worship.
Yesterday I was crucified with Him. Today I am glorified with Him! Yesterday I died with Him. Today I am made alive with Him! Yesterday I was buried with Him. Today I rise again with Him! To Him who suffered and rose for us, let us offer — what? Maybe you’ll think I’m going to say we should offer Him gold, silver, costly tapestries, or crystal-clear precious stones. But such things are the earth’s mere vanishing stuff, forever limited to this world, generally owned by bad people — the world’s slaves, the bondsmen of this world’s Prince.
No, let’s offer Him our very selves, that which is most valuable to God, and most fitting as an offering! Let’s give back to the Divine Image what is made according to that Image. Let’s acknowledge the dignity of our own creation; let’s honour Him who is our Model. Let’s experience the power of the Mystery of His salvation, and the purpose of His death. Let’s become like Christ, since Christ became like us. Let’s become divine people for Him, since He became human for us.
He took upon Himself the worse, to bestow on us the better; He became poor that we, through His poverty, might become rich; He came down to lift us high; He was tempted that we might gain victory; He was shamed to glorify us; He embraced death that He might give us salvation; He ascended heavenwards that He might draw to Himself those who were lying prostrate, fallen through sin. Let us give all, let us offer all, to Him who gave Himself as the price of our redemption and our reconciliation. But we can give Him nothing as precious as ourselves.
–Oration 1.4-5, trans. Nick Needham, Daily Readings: The Early Church Fathers, 25 March
Thanks to Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, universalism is big news these days. Everyone and their dog is chiming in on universalism and Rob Bell. Including, it would seem, me.
Many of us seem to think that universalism is some sort of nineteenth-century liberal idea. In some of its manifestations it is, of course. In others, it is older, while in others it is newer. But the idea that everyone, somehow, gets saved in the end is old, and antiquity is no guarantee for whether an idea is mainstream or orthodox, as Kevin DeYoung points out in his review of Love Wins:
Universalism has been around a long time. But so has every other heresy. Arius rejected the full deity of Christ and many people followed him. This hardly makes Arianism part of the wide, diverse stream of Christian orthodoxy. Every point of Christian doctrine has been contested, but some have been deemed heterodox. Universalism, traditionally, was considered one of those points. True, many recent liberal theologians have argued for versions of universalism—and this is where Bell stands, not in the center of the historic Christian tradition.
My thoughts on the subject are primarily concerned with Origen at present.* Origen’s doctrine of ‘universalism’ is called apocatastasis. This is the belief that at the end of all things, all souls will be reunited with God. Origen does not rule out the possibility that among these souls we may find the Devil. No one is beyond the long arm of God’s great, saving grace for Origen.
David at Pious Fabrications points out that others whom we deem quite orthodox — Met. Kallistos and St. Gregory of Nyssa,** to take two big examples — believe in apocatastasis. It is not, then, this belief alone that gets one into a lot of hot, heretical water. In the blog post, David argues that the big difference between Origen and these others is the firmness of his belief on this point. Everyone is saved. Period. Kallistos et al, on the other hand, leave it open. Everyone is saved? It’s a question, a hope, but not stated as a dogma for all to believe. Thus, while the Church may condemn Gregory of Nyssa’s belief in apocatastasis, she will not condemn him.
I think there’s also the fact that Origen is one of the great Neoplatonists of the third century to consider. His system involves a type of salvation that the revelation does not present unto us — we are all restored to union with God as disembodied souls that do nothing but contemplate Him and have no distinctive individuality. Origen, then, is more than a case of damnation by punctuation. Origen has an entire system of cosmology, large portions of which are incompatible with Scripture. This is the ultimate cause of his anathematisation at the separate sessions led by Justinian and the bishops at the Second Council of Constantinople (Fifth Ecumenical) in 553.
Ultimately, the Church cannot affirm apocatastasis and other forms of universalism because either they run counter to Scripture and are pieces of speculation or they involve bad hermeneutics. As DeYoung’s excessively long review, cited above, shows us, Love Wins involves bad hermeneutics.
Still, ought we not at least to hope for apocatastasis? Maybe, in the end, God will redeem everyone. No, it’s not in Scripture. What we find in Scripture regarding those who die outside of the Faith is varied and largely unpleasant. Nevertheless, to hope for the salvation of all is not an un-Christian hope, even if one finds the possibility unlikely, even if one thinks that it ought not to be preached loudly from pulpits or ensconced as dogma.
*George MacDonald will hopefully be the subject of a later post, if all goes according to plan.
**He lists all three Cappadocian Fathers, but I haven’t heard elsewhere of Sts. Basil and Gregory the Theologian believing this. Until I have corroborated it, I can’t print it.