Chesterton on Christmas

And another one, from Chesterton's excellent The Everlasting Man:
"No other story, no pagan legend or philosophical anecdote or historical event, does in fact affect any of us with that peculiar and even poignant impression produced on us by the word Bethlehem. No other birth of a god or childhood of a sage seems to us to be Christmas or anything like Christmas. It is either too cold or too frivolous, or too formal and classical, or too simple and savage, or too occult and complicated. Not one of us, whatever his opinions, would ever go to such a scene with the sense that he was going home. He might admire it because it was poetical, or because it was philosophical or any number of other things in separation; but not because it was itself. The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man. It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventourously to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can sometimes take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good. It is not made of what the world would call strong materials; or rather it is made of materials whose strength is in that winged levity with which they brush and pass. It is all that is in us but a brief tenderness that there made eternal; all that means no more than a momentary softening that is in some strange fashion become strengthening and a repose; it is the broken speech and the lost word that are made positive and suspended unbroken; as the strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over something more human than humanity."
(Hat tip to CDK.)

Lewis on Demons

From the Postscript of The Screwtape Letters:
"A belief in angels, whether good or evil, does not mean a belief in either as they are represented in art and literature. Devils are depicted with bats’ wings and good angels with birds’ wings not because anyone holds that moral deterioration would be likely to turn feathers into membrane, but because most men like birds better than bats. They are given wings at all in order to suggest the swiftness of unimpeded intellectual energy. They are given human form because man is the only rational creature we know. Creatures higher in the natural order than ourselves, either incorporeal or animating bodies of a sort we cannot experience, must be represented symbolically if they are to be represented at all....

In the plastic arts these symbols have steadily degenerated. Fra Angelico’s angels carry in their face and gesture the peace and authority of heaven. Later come the chubby infantile nudes of Raphael; finally the soft, slim, girlish and consolatory angels of nineteenth-century art, shapes so feminine that they avoid being voluptuous only by their total insipidity—the frigid houris of a tea-table paradise. They are a pernicious symbol. In Scripture the visitation of an angel is always alarming; it has to begin by saying 'Fear not.' The Victorian angel looks as if it were going to say 'There, there.'

The literary symbols are more dangerous because they are not so easily recognised as symbolical. Those of Dante are the best. Before his angels we sink in awe. His devils, as Ruskin rightly remarked, in their rage, spite and obscenity, are far more like what the reality must be than anything in Milton. Milton’s devils, by their grandeur and high poetry, have done great harm, and his angels owe too much to Homer and Raphael. But the really pernicious image is Goethe’s Mephistopheles. It is Faust, not he, who really exhibits the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self which is the mark of hell. The humorous, civilized, sensible, adaptable Mephistopheles has helped to strengthen the illusion that evil is liberating.

A little man may sometimes avoid some single error made by a great one, and I was determined that my own symbolism should at least not err in Goethe’s way. For humour involves a sense of proportion and a power of seeing yourself from the outside. Whatever else we attribute to beings who sinned through pride, we must not attribute this. Satan, said Chesterton, fell through force of gravity. We must picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives in the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment. This, to begin with. For the rest, my own choice of symbols depended, I suppose, on temperament and on the age.

I like bats much better than bureaucrats. I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of 'Admin'. The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid 'dens of crime' that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern."
(Hat tip to this blog.)

Fish Tank Post: What Is the True Meaning of Christmas?


Fish Tank Post: Thoughts on Omnipotence

Here it is. Interested in what people have to say.


Λόγος Christology in John, Justin, and Origen

...and yet another. (I took it out of formatting because it was being weird.)

Λόγος Christology in John, Justin, and Origen

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”[1] So famously begins John’s Gospel, in which Jesus is identified as the λόγος (“Word”) incarnate, “who became flesh and dwelt among us.”[2] In the first eighteen verses of the Gospel alone,[3] we learn (among other things) that Jesus has existed from the beginning; indeed, “[a]ll things were made through him.”[4]

With these simple words, John outlined a Christological doctrine that would reverberate through subsequent Christian thought. The idea of Jesus as λόγος was hugely influential in later Christian theology:

The Prologue was so shocking, so divergent from what had gone before, so different from what the rest of the New Testament was saying about Jesus and the Word that it had an immense affect [sic] on what followed, whether that affect [sic] meant convergence with or divergence from Johannine teaching.[5]

Virtually everywhere else in the New Testament (including the Johannine corpus), the λόγος is simply the message or teaching of Christ, not Christ himself; John’s introductory proclamation to the contrary, then, is a powerful attestation to Jesus’ divinity which functions as a “signpost pointing to the incarnation and to Jesus” until Jesus himself enters the narrative.[6] (Importantly, John is not concerned with prolonged metaphysical discussions of the nature of the λόγος, as later Christians would be; John’s use of the λόγος lexeme is not primarily philosophical, but literary – “a clever ruse to grab the reader’s attention.”[7])

Of course, none of this theological reflection exists in a vacuum; long before the time of John or Jesus (in the flesh, at least), Judaism had evolved understandings of “subordinate agencies and powers” – such as God’s Spirit, Word, Wisdom, and Law – which served as intermediaries between God in Heaven (Who, it was thought, could not simply abandon His throne to address human affairs) and man on Earth.[8] (Most famously, the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria – considered a forerunner of Christian thought – developed a Platonic theology of Judaism in which the λόγος was variously described as the only-begotten Son of God, man of God, and image of God.[9]) Thus, John, in equating Jesus with the λόγος, draws upon earlier Jewish concepts of divine revelation that are seen both in the ubiquitous Old Testament formula “the Word of the Lord” (suggestive of God’s power) and in the Jewish perception of Wisdom as the Word of God.[10]

As the faith spread beyond Jewish Palestine to the entire Roman Empire, this nascent Johannine Christology (along with the rest of Christian theology) was subsequently Hellenized by later Christians, who increasingly drew on Greek philosophical sources for their conceptualization of the λόγος.[11] (Greek philosophers had used “λόγος” as a technical term since the time of Heraclitus.[12]) Platonists had deemed the “transcendence of God [to be] such that it became more and more difficult to suppose that He exercised any action whatsoever upon the Cosmos.”[13] In contrast, Stoicism had thought of God as being in direct contact with the material world, operating through a divine λόγος that manifested itself in various forms (and was thus more often referred to in the plural as λόγοι – more specifically, λόγοι σπερματικοί[14]).[15] An “elegant blend” emerged as Platonists borrowed the Stoics’ λόγος to serve as an intermediary (or, in practice, as whatever they needed) between their transcendent God and His creation.[16] (One crucial consequence of this appropriation was that the λόγος was always “subordinate, in the second rank” – and indeed, for the first few centuries of Christian history, the Son was thought to be secondary to the Father.[17]) This syncretistic (and multifaceted) doctrine of the λόγος acted as the backdrop for ensuing Christian theologies, even when those theologies strayed significantly from the original meaning of the λόγος (a common occurrence; as de Faye observes, “[The] Logos, adopted by the early Christians, is not exactly the Logos of the philosophers”[18]).

One early example of a Christian thinker influenced by such Hellenistic thought was Justin Martyr (who, ironically, was unfamiliar with the Gospel of John),[19] a pagan philosopher who converted to Christianity in A.D. 132 and became the foremost Christian apologist of his time.[20] For Justin, Jesus is the incarnation of a “rational power [proceeding] from [God], who is called by the Holy Spirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and then Lord and Logos.”[21] Christ can bear all these names because he was begotten by the Father in the same way in which we beget words; such begetting does not diminish the Father any more than the act of speech diminishes us.[22] (In this sense, Jesus is both λόγος as spoken word and λόγος as rational principle; as Stead puts it, “The Logos is pictured in two-fold form, as the Father’s immanent Reason and as his outgoing, active and creative Word.”)[23],[24]

Why did Justin posit such a transitional divine entity? What metaphysical purpose does the λόγος serve? According to Minns and Parvis,

Justin believed that the very possibility of divine revelation required the existence of such a distinct, subordinated, or second-order divinity, for the possibility of God directly and immediately communicating himself to anyone else was ruled out by God’s own transcendence. […] This idea that God deals with the created order by means of a ‘second God’ had contemporary parallels in Jewish exegesis and in Greek philosophy.[25]
(Is Justin’s Christology implicitly ditheistic? It is difficult to say; Justin does, after all, go as far as calling Jesus “another God and Lord.”[26] In fairness to Justin, his λόγος is conceived more as a power than as a persona – following Tertullian – or as an ὑπόστασις – following Origen. Nevertheless, though his Christ is still “subject to the Maker of all things … [announcing] to men whatsoever the Maker of all things … wishes to announce to them,” the problem certainly remains.[27])

It was through the λόγος, then, that the world was created; it was through the λόγος that God spoke by His prophets; and it was through the λόγος σπερματικός (“spermatic word”) – the seed of the λόγος, reason, implanted in all people – that mankind could partially perceive the Truth.[28],[29] (Justin appropriates the concept of a “spermatic” λόγος from Philo and Stoic philosophy. [30]) This seed had afforded the Greek philosophers of antiquity (to whom Justin is heavily indebted) an imperfect view of God; it was only afterwards, however, through Jesus – “in whom the Logos dwells fully” – that a full understanding of God became possible.[31]

Evidently, Justin’s λόγος Christology was deeply rooted in the unfolding revelation of God to man – in Old Testament theophanies, in the Old Testament itself, and ultimately (and most fully) in Jesus himself. Yet, in using a lexeme married to a rich tradition in classical Greek philosophy (as well as in the pagan philosophy of his own time), Justin also clearly sought to establish a common ground with his opponents.[32] In fact, Justin goes so far as to call certain pre-Christian philosophers who have followed the (thitherto un-incarnate) λόγος “Christians”:

We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word [λόγος] of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably [μετὰ λόγου] are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them.[33]

Thus, the λόγος operates not only as a mediator between God and man but also as a mediator between Justin and his interlocutors.

Justin’s λόγος Christology constitutes an unmistakable progression from that found in the Gospel of John. Justin unequivocally follows John in identifying Jesus as the λόγος, but then proceeds (as it were) to flesh out this identification; the λόγος becomes connected to classical philosophy, God’s rationality and revelation, and the faculty by which mankind discerns truth.

Origen’s λόγος Christology (aptly named, for “[t]he doctrine of the Logos … constitutes the very essence of [Origen’s] Christology”[34]) is not wholly dissimilar from Justin’s. Just as Justin sought to defend Christianity against its detractors by means of a λόγος Christology, “the whole of [the] Christology of Origen is nothing else than a learned justification of the Christian belief of his time.”[35] Finally, for both Origen and Justin, “God the Father delegates to his Logos tasks which it would be inappropriate for him to perform in his own Person. […] The Logos might therefore be described as the permanent agent of God’s self-limitation and condescension.”[36]

Yet Origen is innovative in speaking of the λόγος as a distinct ὑπόστασις (“hypostasis”),[37] and he is also the first to develop a concept of eternal generation.[38] Arguing that it would be absurd to suppose that there could have been a time at which God existed but His Wisdom (i.e., Christ) did not, Origen concludes that “we must believe that Wisdom was generated before any beginning that can be either comprehended or expressed.”[39] (This vital distinction, Trigg notes, “provided the theoretical foundation of Nicene orthodoxy. It allows the Father to be the cause of the Son’s begetting and the Spirit’s procession, but in such a way that, in distinction from all other created beings, they share in the Father’s eternal and incorporeal existence.”[40] Arius, in contrast, believed that “the Son came into being in time and out of non-existence.”[41])

Furthermore, Origen integrates into his sophisticated theology the belief that Christ has a divine and a human nature:

The divine nature, God’s Logos, fully shares … in the Father’s eternity and incorporeality. … [T]he Logos also shares our full human nature. […] This union is so intimate that Scripture habitually applies the properties of either nature to the other, so that the man Jesus Christ is called the Son of God and the Son of God is said to have died.[42]

This full human nature includes not only a human body, but also a human soul (which, according to Origen, the divine λόγος assumes before assuming the body itself);[43] in Origen’s words, “[T]his altogether surpasses human admiration … how that mighty power of divine majesty, that very Word [λόγος] of the Father … can be believed to have existed within the limits of that man who appeared in Judea.”[44]

At this point, it may be the case that Origen diverges slightly from John and Justin Martyr. Origen does not believe, as John and Justin did, that the λόγος became Jesus; instead, Origen believes that the λόγος “cohabits with Jesus and remains himself. So independent is he [the λόγος] that … it is permissible for him to leave the man he has chosen, to absent himself, to return and again take up his associate.”[45] In his own words,

[I]f in that man [Jesus] as He appeared among men there was something divine, namely the only-begotten Son of God, the first-born of all creation … of this Being and His nature we must judge and reason in a way quite different from that in which we judge of the man who was seen in Jesus Christ.[46]

Origen does, of course, affirm that Jesus and the λόγος are “one personality.”[47]

Nothing in Origen or Justin, fortunately, indicates any radical departure from the λόγος of John’s Gospel. The same dominant themes of incarnation, creation, rationality, revelation, and subordination to the Father reappear in all three Christologies (though some of these themes are inevitably only implicit in John, given the brevity with which he discusses the λόγος). Differences exist, obviously, mainly indicative of general trends in the evolution of a Christianity that was increasingly Hellenized and systematized; the λόγος of Light and Life in John gave way to the rational power of Justin and finally to the ὑπόστασις of Origen. Ultimately, however, the best summation of the λόγος doctrine remains the opening words of the Gospel of John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.[48]

[1] John i. 1. (Unless otherwise noted, all scriptural references come from the English Standard Version.)

[2] John i. 14.

[3] The only other potential New Testament reference to Jesus as the λόγος occurs in Revelation xix. 13. Peter M. Phillips, The Prologue of the Fourth Gospel (New York: T&T Clark, 2006), 88.

[4] John i. 2-3.

[5] Phillips, 90.

[6] Ibid., 140.

[7] Ibid., 140-141.

[8] Christopher Stead. Philosophy in Christian Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 148-149.

[9] “logos.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[10] “Philo Judaeus.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[11] “logos.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[12] John Mark Reynolds. When Athens Met Jerusalem (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 39.

[13] Eugène de Faye, Origen and His Work (New York: Columbia University Press, 1929), 100.

[14] Stead, 47.

[15] De Faye, 100.

[16] Ibid., 101.

[17] Ibid., 102.

[18] Ibid., 103.

[19] Helmut Köster, “Rome and Religious Sectarianism in the Second Century (From the Death of Paul to Irenaeus).” Andover Hall 102, Cambridge, MA. 24 Sept. 2009. Lecture.

[20] “Saint Justin Martyr.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[21] Justin Martyr, Dialogus cum Tryphoni, LXI.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Denis Minns and Paul Parvis, Justin, Philosopher and Martyr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 61.

[24] Stead, 156.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Justin Martyr, Dialogus cum Tryphoni, LVI.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Helmut Köster, “Christianity and Philosophy.” Andover Hall 102, Cambridge, MA. 8 Oct. 2009. Lecture.

[29] It should be noted that Minns and Parvis argue that Justin – unlike Philo before him and the majority of Christians after him – does not “explicitly assign a mediatorial role to the Logos in the creation of the world. […] His remarkable coyness about ascribing a directly mediatorial role to the Logos or Son in the work of creation, especially when set beside the fact that it is from God as creator that Justin habitually distinguishes the Logos or Son, suggests that he was chary of the idea – perhaps suspecting that it would provide comfort for Gnostic heretics who sought to disparage creation and to deny that it was the work of God.” Minns and Parvis, 62-65.

[30] Minns and Parvis, 65.

[31] Helmut Köster, “Christianity and Philosophy.”

[32] Minns and Parvis, 65.

[33] Justin Martyr, Prima Apologia, XLVI.

[34] De Faye, 99.

[35] Ibid., 113.

[36] Stead, 156.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Joseph W. Trigg, Origen (London: Routledge, 1998), 24.

[39] Origen, De principiis, I.II.2.

[40] Trigg, 24.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., 25.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Origen, De principiis, II.VI.2.

[45] De Faye, 105.

[46] Origen, Contra Celsum, VII.XVI.

[47] De Faye, 105-106.

[48] John i. 1-5.

Trinity and Controversy in the Third and Fourth Century

Another (slightly rushed and unformatted) paper related to the purpose of the blog...

Trinity and Controversy in the Third and Fourth Centuries

Today, of course, the doctrine of the Trinity is relatively uncontroversial among most Christians (with some notable exceptions).[1] For the first few centuries of Christianity’s history, however, the true nature of the Triune God was hotly contested; in fact, “[i]t was not until the 4th century that the distinctness of the three and their unity were brought together in a single orthodox doctrine of one essence and three persons.”[2] Though Trinitarian formulæ did exist in the New Testament,[3] their exact theological and metaphysical implications were left unexplored. This lack of fixity in apostolic doctrine concerning the Trinity – “the Church entered [the Trinitarian] dispute possessing no established doctrinal consensus concerning the understanding of God as Triad”[4] – provided the impetus for subsequent controversy: “The occurrence of a major debate in the Church concerning an understanding of God as Trinity was inevitable. The issue was too central and basic and too open to conflicting and contradictory positions to be avoided.”[5] Put simply, the need to reconcile the putative divinity of Christ and of the Spirit with the clear Old Testament proclamation of the one God (seen especially in the Shema) was pressing.[6]

What, specifically, was at stake? The broad question involved the entire Trinitarian conception of the Godhead; however, discussion about the exact role and status of the Holy Spirit often appeared peripheral in comparison to the analogous disputations over the Son.[7] Indeed, Novatian, in his third-century treatise De trinitate,[8] summarized the contemporary disagreement in the following manner: “Some heretics have thought [Jesus] to be God the Father, others that he was only God without the flesh.”[9] The former heresy was modalism (also known, in its various forms, as Monarchianism and Sabellianism, or Patripassianism[10]), the latter subordinationism, which developed into Arianism.[11] Both began with the principle of monotheism and concluded either (in the case of modalism) that there was only one person in God or (in the case of subordinationism) that Christ was necessarily inferior to the Father.[12]

The central idea of Sabellian modalism is this:

[A]n only God, Father and Legislator in the Old Testament … became flesh and Son in the New and sanctified the Church as Holy Spirit after Pentecost. […] God was one originally and eternally but … became trinity in time: Father at creation, Son at the time of the Incarnation and Sanctifier at the time of Pentecost. Thus the Three Persons were conceived as modes or functions of one really single Person, just as the same human person could be successively priest, doctor, and magistrate.[13]

For Sabellius and other modalists, the Trinitarianism of what would become Nicene Orthodoxy was, in fact, implicitly tritheistic.[14]

The obvious alternative, which denied the equality of the Son with the Father, was subordinationism. Importantly, subordinationism, though essentially anathematized in the Council of Nicæa,[15] was not terribly dissimilar to earlier theological beliefs that were (in their time) thoroughly orthodox; in fact, Lonergan implies that the ante-Nicene Fathers were, in certain respects, subordinationists.[16] (He cautions, however, against an anachronistic evaluation of “the doctrine of the ante-Nicene authors according to the criteria of a later theology.”[17] We should understand the alleged subordinationism of the ante-Nicene Fathers not as heresy, but simply as an indication that they “were not well up in the theology of a later age.”[18]) Nonetheless, more explicit strands of subordinationism were always rejected as heterodox.

One such strand was adoptionism, according to which “Jesus was a mere man, in whom God dwelt in a special way.”[19] “The son of Mary … was not the Son of God by nature but only by adoption.”[20] Some, such as Cerinthus, extended this notion and argued that Jesus, “superior to other men only in prudence, justice, and wisdom,” was conceived naturally by Mary and Joseph; God sent His Spirit (called Christ) upon Jesus during his ministry, but the Spirit abandoned Jesus before his death.[21]

Others – the Docetists – suggested instead that “Jesus of Nazareth was not really a human being at all. Jesus only seemed to be human; in reality, he was divine. His humanity was a phantasm, an illusion.”[22] Such ideas could be traced backward at least to the time during which the three Johannine epistles were written.[23] Docetism never emerged as an organized movement within non-Gnostic Christianity but enjoyed popularity among Gnostics such as Valentinus and Basilides.[24]

The most important branch of subordinationism, of course, was due to Arius, a presbyter in the church of Alexandria who publicly criticized the doctrine of the co-eternality of the Son and Father maintained by Alexander, his bishop.[25],[26] Arius’ objection to Alexander was simple: Scripture clearly taught that Christ was begotten,[27] yet Alexander contended that he was eternal. For Arius, such a conjunction was impossible: “[Christ] was either unbegotten and eternal, as the Father was, or he was begotten and had therefore come to be.”[28] Arius opted for the latter option:

God was not always a Father, but [that] there was a time when God was not a Father. The Word of God [Jesus] was not always, but originated from things that were not … wherefore there was a time when He was not; for the Son is a creature and a work. Neither is He like in essence [κατ' 'ουσίαν] Neither is He like in essence to the Father … but He is one of the things made and created, and is called the Word and Wisdom by an abuse of terms, since He Himself originated by the proper Word of God, and by the Wisdom that is in God.[29]

Though Jesus was a “very perfect creature … he did not really know the incomprehensible Father, for the finite cannot know the infinite.”[30] The line between God and creation was absolute; rather than reconcile the immutable, transcendent God with the mutable, earthly Christ, Arius chose instead a dissociation of the former from the latter.[31],[32]

Arius’ criticisms of Alexander eventually led to his excommunication in 318 by the Synod of Alexandria; nevertheless, “he continued to spread his own doctrine, and even managed to find favour with other bishops.”[33] Marsh writes,

Arius … did not accept his degradation easily. He already had … considerable support … in Alexandria, but he now sought support also from farther afield and in more powerful quarters. He pleaded his cause to bishops in the Greek East outside of Egypt…. Arius could not but have been gratified by the support he received, especially from the two Eusebiuses [of Nicomedia and of Cæsarea]. Any hope Alexander had of confining the dispute within his own jurisdiction … had now vanished. He too was now obliged to circulate his Episcopal colleagues in the East in order to discredit Arius and vindicate his own position. But the affair had now effectively passed outside his control and had become a public controversy involving and dividing the whole Church of the East.[34]

The repercussions of this parochial squabble were thus far-reaching.

In response, the Emperor Constantine convened a church-wide council to come to a resolution.[35] In Luibhéid’s words, “The bishops who assembled in 325 at the Council of Nicaea dealt with several matters, but the main reason for their gathering lay in [the controversy between Arius and Alexander] which had broken out in Alexandria.”[36] The significance of this first ecumenical council is unmistakable. Such an opportunity to formulate a single, universal proclamation of faith – to address the emerging theological fissures before they ruptured completely – was unprecedented.

The Council, of course, rejected the Arian tenets of the Son’s creaturehood, non-eternality, and mutability.[37] But its enterprise was not entirely negative; in what would become a pivotal moment in the Church’s history, the Council affirmed the ὁμοούσια (consubstantiality) of the Son and the Father, “[proclaiming] inseparably the dogma of the perfect divine unity and of the divinity of the Word, equal to the Father.”[38] Such terminology was not without its drawbacks – it ran the risk of a modalist interpretation – nor was it, strictly speaking, biblical.[39] Nonetheless, it determined the course of all further theologizing concerning the Trinity.

The bishops assembled at Nicæa subscribed to the proposed Creed with near unanimity. (Several bishops – among them Eusebius of Cæsarea, the famed church historian – chose not to endorse it out of concern over the exact meaning of ὁμοούσια.[40] Furthermore, Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicæa, both of whom had signed the Creed, soon thereafter “let it be known that they were now dissatisfied with the conciliar document.”[41]) The controversy, however, was far from over. Arius had been exiled by imperial decree following the Council, but Constantine subsequently decided to accept Arius’ return to the Empire.[42] It was this decision of Constantine’s that effectively “brought into existence two opposed parties and initiated the real controversy” in the East.[43]

Athanasius, an Alexandrian deacon and vigorous opponent of Arianism who had succeeded Alexander as Bishop of Alexandria in 328, was commanded to receive Arius back as a priest in the Alexandrian church; his subsequent refusal led to banishment for him and for other prominent anti-Arians.[44] The tide had turned. Arianism was far from dead; in fact, the controversy would persist for another sixty years (long after Arius’ death) until the Council of Constantinople in 381.[45]

How did Arianism persist for so long? Any sufficient answer must address the political dimensions of the controversy. As de Margerie argues,

The gravity of the Arian crisis, in the course of which, some thirty years after Nicaea, about half of the bishops abandoned the orthodox doctrine, becomes more comprehensible when we perceive that the divine unicity … appeared to offer a better justification for the existence of the monarchical Roman Empire. The eternal monarchy of God was the supreme exemplar of the Empire, a projection of the eternal in time. Such a mentality … inclined [the official theologians of the Empire toward the side of Arianism.[46]

Regardless of the truth of this (somewhat Freudian) claim, the political divisions which followed Constantine’s death in 337 must have exacerbated the theological divisions in the Church.[47] The emperor’s three sons (Constantine II, Constans, and Constantius) all adopted competing Trinitarian views; afterward, the co-emperors and brothers Valens and Valentinian would also espouse conflicting stances (Valens, in fact, went as far as to persecute non-Arian Christians in the eastern empire).[48] Only after Valens’ death in 378 did the Emperor Theodosius I succeed in establishing Nicene Christianity in the East as Damasus had already done in the West.[49] (The entire sequence of events, of course, was much more complicated. At one point, four distinct theological positions – the Nicene, Arian, pro-Arian Conservative, and anti-Arian conservative – coexisted in the East.[50])

The Trinitarian controversy, then, was an iconic moment in Christian history. It was during this time that orthodox conceptualization of the Trinity was solidified, and ecclesiastical precedents for settling doctrinal disputes among the different bishops and churches were set; however, it was also the time during which the heavy hand of the Roman State began to meddle in internal Christian affairs. The events of the fourth century involving Arius and Nicæa would thus set the stage for the next thousand years of Western history.

[1] Examples include Christian Unitarians and Oneness Pentecostals.

[2] “Trinity.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[3] cf. Matthew xxviii. 19, 2 Corinthians xiii. 14.

[4] Thomas Marsh, The Triune God (Blackrock: The Columbia Press, 1994), 97. Adds Luibhéid: “What has to be remembered here is that at the start of the Arian controversy the establishment of a consensus on such great problems as the nature of the Trinity … was still in the future.” Colm Luibhéid, The Council of Nicaea (Galway: Galway University Press, 1982), 3.

[5] Ibid., 95.

[6] “Trinity.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[7] Marsh, 96.

[8] “Novatian.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[9] Novatian, De trinitate, XXIII.

[10] Bernard Lonergan, C.C., S.J., The Way to Nicea (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1976), 36.

[11] Bertrand de Margerie, S.J., The Christian Trinity in History (Still River: St. Bede’s Publications, 1982), 72. It should be noted that different scholars use these labels in inconsistent ways.

[12] De Margerie, 73.

[13] Ibid.

[14] For example, Hippolytus quotes the modalist Callistus as saying the following: “I will not profess belief in two Gods, Father and Son, but in one. For the Father, who subsisted in the Son Himself, after He had taken unto Himself our flesh, raised it to the nature of Deity, by bringing it unto union with Himself, and made it one; so that Father and Son must be styled one God, and that this Person being one, cannot be two.” Hippolytus, Refutatio Omnium Hæresium, IX.VII.

[15] Maurice Wiles, “Attitudes to Arius in the Arian Controversy.” Michael R. Barnes and Daniel H. Williams, Arianism After Arius (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), 32.

[16] Lonergan, 41.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Lonergan, 36.

[20] “Adoptionism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[21] De Margerie, 87. While adoptionism per se may not explicitly contradict the New Testament, a denial of the virgin birth clearly goes against the Gospel narratives.

[22] Alister McGrath, Heresy (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), 111.

[23] Ibid., 111. cf. 1 John iv. 1-3: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.” (Unless otherwise noted, all scriptural references come from the English Standard Version.)

[24] Ibid., 113-116.

[25] Luibhéid, 25.

[26] Such criticism, Luibhéid observes, should be understood in its historical context rather than in the context of “a later age when the major doctrinal issues had long been settled and bishops … had come to be regarded as the custodians of a received and unalterable tradition.” In this light, Arius’ actions do not seem quite as mutinous. Luibhéid, 3.

[27] On this point, Arius was in agreement with his opponents; the Nicene Creed itself states that Jesus is “begotten of the Father.”

[28] Luibhéid, 25.

[29] Athanasius, de Arii depositione, II.

[30] De Margerie, 88.

[31] McGrath, 144.

[32] Recent scholarship has proposed a slightly different interpretation of Arius’ theology, beginning not with a particular view of God’s transcendence but with “a particular view of redemption and the Redeemer-figure which this view entails. Arius saw redemption, according to this view, in moral terms, as a breaking out of the cycle of moral weakness and evil which envelops the human scene to union with God. […] The Redeemer was the one who achieved this union with God…. […] But since the Redeemer achieved this union with God, he could not have been one with God from the very beginning or in his essential being.” Marsh, 103.

[33] Lonergan, 69.

[34] Marsh, 99.

[35] “Council of Nicaea.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[36] Luibhéid, 1.

[37] De Margerie, 91.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid., 90-91.

[40] Lonergan, 73. Theodoret preserves a letter from Eusebius to Paulinus in which Eusebius writes, “[W]e affirm that the unbegotten is one and one also that which exists in truth by Him, yet was not made out of His substance, and does not at all participate in the nature or substance of the unbegotten, entirely distinct in nature and in power, and made after perfect likeness both of character and power to the maker. We believe that the mode of His beginning not only cannot be expressed by words but even in thought, and is incomprehensible not only to man, but also to all beings superior to man.” Theodoret, Historia ecclesiastica, I.V.

[41] Luibhéid, 126.

[42] Marsh, 101.

[43] Ibid., 101-102. Of the party opposed to the Nicene Creed, not all were necessarily Arians: “This latter body was … a heterogeneous group which included strict Arians, pro-Arians like Eusebius of Nicomedia and a large middle group which … were very uncomfortable with the statement of Nicaea.”

[44] Ibid., 102.

[45] Ibid., 117-118.

[46] De Margerie, 89.

[47] Marsh, 111.

[48] Ibid., 116.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid., 113.

Lonergan on Gnosticism

From The Way to Nicea, by Father Bernard Lonergan, C.C., S.J.:
"From the time of Harnack it has frequently been said that the Gnostics were the first Christian theologians, since it was they who first used the psychological analogy, and the notions of consubstantiality and of procession. What is one to make of such an assertion? In the first place, we must note that there is a great difference between the dramatico-practical pattern of experience, common to all men, and the intellectual, or theoretic, or scientific pattern of experience.... Further, the drive towards theory has first to develop and become manifest, before one can learn how to guide and control it by logic, by scientific method, and so on. So the cult of numbers preceded the science of mathematics, astrology preceded astronomy, alchemy preceded chemistry, legend preceded history and theogony precede theology. Viewed from this point of view, what happened when heretics borrowed some elements of the Christian faith should cause no great surprise, but one does not have to call the resulting speculation Christian theology."
It's an interesting thought; I'm not sure, however, how far it can be taken.


A Technical Note

I've started posting to the blog from a different profile that looks exactly like the old profile. There shouldn't be any real difference, however.

Communion: December 13, 2009

It was my honor today to provide the Communion message at church. Per the request of a friend, here is the written-down version of what I said:
"Hi. My name is Joseph Porter, and I am a sophomore at Harvard College. I’d like to share briefly about some of what the cross means to me.

How many of you guys are stressed out about finals right now? I know I am; I have three in the next week. It’s tough, isn’t it? When I’m studying for a final and I’m lonely and it’s three in the morning, it’s hard to
feel like God loves me. I’m literally too tired to feel loved by God.

Of course, finals aren’t the only thing that can make it hard for us to feel loved by God. There are times when we can be too hurt to feel loved by God, too depressed to feel loved by God, too
outraged to feel loved by God. There are times when we can want nothing more than to cry, to forget, to escape, to scream, Why? Why did my girlfriend break up with me? Why did I lose my job? Why did my husband die in Iraq? Why does my kid have cancer?

I think about some of the things I have seen happen to people around me. I remember when I was seven years old and I found out that I was leaving the United States and all of my friends and
everything I knew for a different country. I remember crying and asking my mom if I could hang out with my best friend one last time. I remember crying when I visited an orphanage for children with cerebral palsy. Their bodies were stunted and they were crying for their mothers, and I just couldn’t bear it. Why? Why should I trust You, God? How can this suffering all be worth it?

God could have just given us a point-by-point answer to these questions. He could have simply said, 'Trust me, it’s for the best. My ways are higher than your ways; it’ll all work out.' But He did something much, much better instead: He gave us His Son.

Why should we trust God that it will all be worth it? My answer is
the cross. The cross, to me, says this: 'I love you, and I know that you are suffering. So am I. I know that you are wounded. So am I. I know that you are broken-hearted. So am I. How do you know that I love you? This is how you know: Jesus Christ laid down his life for you.'

What’s crazy isn't that an all-powerful God would let mankind suffer. What’s crazy is that an all-powerful God would let Himself suffer. That is why the cross is the ultimate proof of God’s love; as John 3:16 famously says, 'For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son.'

As many of you know, Jon and Rachel were engaged yesterday, and Jay and Alex were engaged just a couple weeks ago. Because of all the recent engagements, I’ve been thinking about what it means for the Church to be the Bride of Christ.

Let’s fast forward to Jay and Alex’ wedding. (I’m going to pick on Jay since he’s my cousin.) It’s a beautiful day outside, Jay’s in a nice tux; Alex is wearing a beautiful white dress. Alex walks up to the altar and Jay begins his vow: 'I, James, take you, Alexandra, to be my lawfully wedded wife: to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, but not for worse; for richer, but not for poorer; not in sickness, only in health.' That’d be a pretty pathetic vow. (Hopefully Jay realizes this.)

We all know that that’s not how marriage
works. The beauty in a marriage vow doesn’t come from the commitment to someone for better; the beauty comes from the commitment to someone for worse, for poorer, in sickness. The beauty comes from the commitment of the lover to suffer for the beloved. And Jesus is the most reckless lover in history. Romeo doesn't have anything on Jesus. Because Jesus committed to his Bride when doing so meant dying on a cross for his Bride.

There will be times when life will seem hopeless and unfair, when the pain will feel unbearable, when we may want to hate God or to plead with Him: 'My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?' When those times come, remember that
Jesus was there, too. Jesus felt the same way. And he endured all that pain and all that God-forsakenness simply because he loved us.

On August 23, 2006, I was baptized into Christ in Davie, Florida. I became Christ’s bride, and this was the vow made to me:

'Your present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in you. I am for you; who can be against you? Who shall separate you from my love? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things you are more than a conqueror. For neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate you from my love.'

As we prepare for Communion, let us remember that vow and that love."


Fish Tank Post: How to Read the Bible


Fish Tank Post: Beyond the Sunday School God

Here it is.

Just a few of my thoughts on the "tone" of modern Christianity. They are, for now, incomplete thoughts.


Ichthus Article: Must Christians be Pacifists?

Here are some of my thoughts on the matter. I'm still very open to more discussion on the issue.


The Last Day

The Last Day

Kevin Hart

When the last day comes
A ploughman in Europe will look over his shoulder
And see the hard furrows of earth
Finally behind him, he will watch his shadow
Run back into his spine.

It will be morning
For the first time, and the long night
Will be seen for what it is,
A black flag trembling in the sunlight.
On the last day

Our stories will be rewritten
Each from the end,
And each will hear the fields and rivers clap
And under the trees

Old bones
Will cover themselves with flesh;
Spears, bullets, will pluck themselves
From wounds already healed,
Women will clasp their sons as men

And men will look
Into their palms and find them empty;
There will be time
For us to say the right things at last,
To look into our enemy’s face

And see ourselves,
Forgiven now, before the books flower in flames,
The mirrors return our faces,
And everything is stripped from us,
Even our names.
(Hat tip to RB.)


Fish Tank Post: By Any Other Name?


To Create an Enemy

To Create an Enemy

Sam Keen

To create an enemy
Start with an empty canvas.
Sketch in broad outline the forms of
men, women, and children.
Obscure the sweet individuality of each face.
Erase all hints of the myriad loves, hopes,
fears that play through the kaleidoscope of
every finite heart.
Twist the smile until it forms the downward
arc of cruelty.
Exaggerate each feature until man is
metamorphasized into beast, vermin, insect.
Fill in the background with malignant
figures from ancient nightmares - devils,
demons, minions of evil.
When your icon of the enemy is complete
you will be able to kill without guilt,
slaughter without shame.
(Hat tip to RB.)


Fish Tank Post: The Criterion of Modernity


Pruss, Rasmussen, and the Kalām Cosmological Argument

In my opinion, Pruss' thoughts and Rasmussen's shore up many concerns about the Kalām cosmological argument.


Chesterton on Humility

From Orthodoxy:
"It is only with one aspect of humility that we are here concerned. Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and infinity of the appetite of man. He was always outstripping his mercies with his own newly invented needs. His very power of enjoyment destroyed half his joys. By asking for pleasure, he lost the chief pleasure; for the chief pleasure is surprise. Hence it became evident that if a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small. Even the haughty visions, the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations of humility. Giants that tread down forests like grass are the creations of humility. Towers that vanish upwards above the loneliest star are the creations of humility. For towers are not tall unless we look up at them; and giants are not giants unless they are larger than we. All this gigantesque imagination, which is, perhaps, the mightiest of the pleasures of man, is at bottom entirely humble. It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything - even pride.

But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt - the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature. But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn. Thus we should be wrong if we had said hastily that there is no humility typical of our time. The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance."
(Hat tip to NN.)


Lewis on Morality

"The very activities for which we were created are, while we live on earth, variously impeded: by evil in ourselves or in others. Not to practice them is to abandon our humanity. To practice them spontaneously and delightfully is not yet possible. This situation creates the category of duty, the whole specifically moral realm.

It exists to be transcended. Here is the paradox of Christianity. As practical imperatives for here and now, the two great commandments have to be translated 'Behave as if you loved God and man.' For no man can love because he is told to. Yet obedience on this practical level is not really obedience at all. And if a man really loved God and man, once again this would hardly be obedience; for if he did, he would be unable to help it. Thus the command really says to us, 'Ye must be born again.' Till then, we have duty, morality, the Law. A schoolmaster, as St. Paul says, is to bring us to Christ. We must expect no more of it than of a schoolmaster; we must allow it no less."
(Hat tip to CQOTD.)

MacDonald on Prayer

From George MacDonald's "The Word of Jesus on Prayer":

"We know that the wind blows; why should we not know that God answers prayer?

I reply, What if God does not care to have you know it at second hand? What if there would be no good in that? There is some testimony on record, and perhaps there might be much were it not that, having to do with things so immediately personal, and generally so delicate, answers to prayer would naturally not often be talked about; but no testimony concerning the thing can well be conclusive; for, like a reported miracle, there is always some way to daff it; and besides, the conviction to be got that way is of little value: it avails nothing to know the thing by the best of evidence... 'But if God is so good as you represent Him, and if He knows all that we need, and better far than we do ourselves, why should it be necessary to ask Him for anything?'

I answer, What if He knows prayer to be the thing we need first and most? What if the main object in God's idea of prayer be the supplying of our great, our endless need - the need of Himself? Hunger may drive the runaway child home, and he may or may not be fed at home; but he needs his mother more than his dinner. Communion with God is the one need of the soul beyond all other need; prayer is the beginning of that communion, and some need is the motive of that prayer... So begins a communion, a talking with God, a coming-to-one with Him, which is the sole end of prayer, yea, of existence itself in its infinite phases. We must ask that we may receive; but that we should receive what we ask in respect of our lower needs, is not God's end in making us pray, for He could give us everything without that: to bring His child to His knee, God withholds that man may ask."
(Hat tip to CQOTD.)


Sicut Cervus

Palestrina's Sicut cervus, as (spontaneously) performed by the Harvard Glee Club in Limerick, Ireland:

Harvard Glee Club - Sicut Cervus from Umang S on Vimeo.


Fish Tank Post: Secular Reductionism


Fish Tank Post: "The Red Sweater"

Here it is.


Aristides on the Early Christians

From The Apology of Aristides, written in the early second century:
"Christians love one another. They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If a man has something, he gives freely to the man who has nothing. If they see a stranger, Christians take him home and are happy, as though he were a real brother. They don't consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit, in God. [...] And if they hear that one of them is in jail, or persecuted for professing the name of their redeemer, they all give him what he needs - if it is possible, they bail him out.

If one of them is poor and there isn't enough food to go around, they fast several days to give him the food he needs... This is really a new kind of person. There is something divine in them."
(Hat tip to CQOTD.)

Tertullian Is Ballin'

From his Apologeticus:
"As to the Emperor and the charge of high treason against us, Caesar's safety lies not in hands soldered on. We invoke the true God for the Emperor. Even if he persecute us, we are bidden pray for them that persecute us, as you can read in our books which are not hidden, which you often get hold of. We pray for him because the Empire stands between us and the end of the world. We count the Caesars to be God's vice-regents and swear by their safety (not by their genius, as required). As for loyalty, Caesar really is more ours than yours; for it was our God who set him up. It is for his own good, that we refuse to call the Emperor God; Father of his Country is a better title. No Christian has ever made a plot against a Caesar; the famous conspirators and assassins were heathen, one and all. Piety, religion, faith are our best offering of loyalty."
(Hat tip to CQOTD.)


Fish Tank Post: Unity and Doctrine


Pinnock and Universal Salvation

Clark H. Pinnock seems to think universal salvation would be unloving:
"Most Christians would agree with C. S. Lewis when he says [of the doctrine of the Final Judgment], 'There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power.' But we cannot do so, for two reasons: first, because it enjoys the full support of Christ's own teaching, and second, because it makes a good deal of sense. If the gospel is extended to us for our acceptance, it must be possible also to reject and refuse it. The alternative would be for God to compel an affirmative response.

It would be nice to be able to say that all will be saved, but the question arises, Does everyone want to be saved? What would love for God be like if it were coerced? There is a hell because God respects our freedom and takes our decisions seriously, more seriously, perhaps, than we would sometimes wish. God wants to see hell completely empty; but if it is not, He cannot be blamed. The door is locked only on the inside. It is not Christians but the unrepentant who 'want' it [to be locked]."
The implication is that God simply cannot simultaneously take everyone's decisions seriously and save everyone.

Regardless of whether or not the doctrine of universal salvation is correct, I don't think this argument works. The reason is that Pinnock is arguing with a very simplistic kind of universal salvation that most Christian Universalists wouldn't accept, a kind that can be roughly summarized by the following:
Judgment Day comes. All people proceed immediately to Heaven, regardless of what they have done.
But of course, that is not the only possible means of formulating universal salvation. Here's a version of Christian Universalism that passes Pinnock's "coercion test":
At Judgment Day, some people proceed immediately to Heaven; the rest proceed to Hell. However, people in Hell are given the opportunity to repent, be baptized, and cross the chasm into Heaven.
Under this story, everyone would eventually be saved without being coerced by God, because everyone would eventually choose Heaven over Hell given the prospect of eternity in the latter.

The scriptural, theological, and doctrinal merits of these two iterations of Christian Universalism can, of course, be debated. But I don't think I can agree with Pinnock that Universalism necessitates some sort of coercion on God's part.


Fish Tank Post: Divine Epistemology

Here it is.


Some Other Varieties of Religious Experience

At the recommendation of a friend, I've been (slowly) reading through Gaudium et Spes, a Catholic constitution that resulted from Vatican II. I thought this one particular discussion of atheism was interesting:
"The word atheism is applied to phenomena which are quite distinct from one another. For while God is expressly denied by some, others believe that man can assert absolutely nothing about Him. Still others use such a method to scrutinize the question of God as to make it seem devoid of meaning. Many, unduly transgressing the limits of the positive sciences, contend that everything can be explained by this kind of scientific reasoning alone, or by contrast, they altogether disallow that there is any absolute truth. Some laud man so extravagantly that their faith in God lapses into a kind of anemia, though they seem more inclined to affirm man than to deny God. Again some form for themselves such a fallacious idea of God that when they repudiate this figment they are by no means rejecting the God of the Gospel. Some never get to the point of raising questions about God, since they seem to experience no religious stirrings nor do they see why they should trouble themselves about religion. Moreover, atheism results not rarely from a violent protest against the evil in this world, or from the absolute character with which certain human values are unduly invested, and which thereby already accords them the stature of God. Modern civilization itself often complicates the approach to God not for any essential reason but because it is so heavily engrossed in earthly affairs."
Some different "varieties" of "atheism" are mentioned: "garden-variety" atheism, logical positivism, relativism, &c. More importantly, however, several different emotional and spiritual factors that contribute to unbelief are enumerated: pride, apathy, materialism (i.e., consumerism), the idolatry of human values, and - most interesting - "violent protest against the evil in the world."

Of course, one could make similar lists, mutatis mutandis, about theism. But it's interesting to think of unbelief as a similarly multifaceted set of phenomena.


Fish Tank Post: What Is Science?

Here it is.


Chesterton on Wealth

From Orthodoxy:
"Only the Christian Church can offer any rational objection to a complete confidence in the rich. For she has maintained from the beginning that the danger was in not in man’s environment, but in man. Further, she has maintained that if we come to talk of a dangerous environment, the most dangerous of all is the commodious environment. I know that most modern manufacture has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle. I know that the most recent biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover a very small camel. But if we diminish the camel to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest - if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this - that rich men are not likely to be morally trustworthy. Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags."
(Hat tip to JCP.)


Fish Tank Post: People, Ideas, and Motives

Here it is.


Fish Tank Post: Perfection

Here it is.


Cyprian on Joy

From a letter Saint Cyprian wrote:
"This seems a cheerful world, Donatus, when I view it from this fair garden, under the shadow of these vines. But if I climbed some great mountain and looked out over the wide lands, you know very well what I would see - brigands on the high roads, pirates on the seas; in the amphitheaters men murdered to please applauding crowds; under all roofs misery and selfishness. It is really a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. Yet in the midst of it I have found a quiet and holy people. They have discovered a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasures of this sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians - and I am one of them."
(Hat tip to CQOTD. Incidentally, several of the quotations I've posted here before have come from them, and I don't think I've ever remembered to tip my hat to them before! Apologies.)


Barth on Baptism

From Karl Barth's "Die christliche Lehre nach dem Heidelberger Katechismus":
"The real reason for the persistent adherence to infant baptism is quite simply the fact that without it the church would suddenly be in a remarkably embarrassing position. Every individual would then have to decide whether he wanted to be a Christian. But how many Christians would there be in that case? The whole concept of a national church (or national religion) would be shaken. That must not happen; and so one proposes argument upon argument for infant baptism and yet cannot speak convincingly because fundamentally he has a bad conscience. The introduction of adult baptism in itself would of course not reform the church which needs reforming. The adherence to infant baptism is only one - a very important one - of many symptoms that the church is not alive and bold, that it is afraid to walk on the water like Peter to meet the Lord, that it therefore does not seek a sure foundation but only deceptive props."
(Hat tip to Halden.)


Fish Tank Post: In Osama's Shoes

Here it is.


Fish Tank Post: The Bible and the Word of God

Here it is.


God Loves Wrestling

From a post at Stuff Christians Like:
I once wrote about something that my counselor said when I told him I felt like I was wrestling with God on some issues. He said, 'God loves that.' This is not the answer I was expecting. I thought he would say, 'You need to trust the Lord more.' Or 'You need to let go and let God.' But he didn't say that. Instead he remarked, 'Jon, do you know what is true about wrestling? Have you ever stopped to think about the nature of wrestling? God loves to wrestle with us, because you can't wrestle with someone who is far away. They have to be close to you. It's a very intimate, personal activity.' And I think he was right. I think that God wants me close. I think He wants me near to His side, close enough to feel His breath and know His strength. And when I approach to wrestle over an issue with Him, like Jacob wrestling, I don't think He is angry. I think He is happy, because I am close. Sure, I want to surrender and trust without question, but I no longer see wrestling as instant failure."


Health Care Reform Alternatives

This article gives a wonderful summary of the many problems with our health care industry and why Obama's proposal won't really help fix it (though the author isn't entirely opposed to the current bill in Congress). I'm not sure how well his HSA plan proposed on the final page will work, but it sounds a whole lot smarter than the system adjustments currently proposed. It's good to see an article written by a Democrat who doesn't deny established economic principles.

Hat tip to Dr. Mankiw for posting it.

Micah 6:6-8

"With what shall I come before the LORD
And bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
With calves a year old?

Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
With ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
And to walk humbly with your God."


Churches of Christ and Baptism: An Historical and Theological Overview

A good summary of Restoration Movement thought about baptism, relevant to my most recent post. A couple notes:

1. The current ICOC view is not what Dr. Foster describes it to be.

2. The son of the Jimmy Allen mentioned in the article (who is also named Jimmy Allen) spoke at Harvard about baptism just a few months ago!

(Hat tip to Douglas Jacoby. Also, thanks to LT for the correction about which Jimmy Allen was mentioned in the article.)


Some Thoughts on the "Cognizance" Issue

(N.B.: A good portion of my argument depends on what Peter's hearers knew. I am certainly no expert on that subject, and would appreciate any corrections or further information about them. Furthermore, these thoughts are only preliminary.)

[UPDATE: In one of his podcasts, Douglas Jacoby states that most of the people whom Peter addressed on Pentecost had probably been aware of Jesus' ministry for a few years. In a way, I think this undermines my argument. However, certainly not all the people in the crowd - including those who were baptized - were familiar with the gospel beforehand.]

Recently, I've been thinking about the "cognizance" issue, the issue of whether one's understanding of the spiritual import of baptism affects the validity of one's baptism. The most germane question for those of us within the conservative wing of the Restoration Movement is this:

Do we have to understand that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins in order for our baptisms to be "valid"?

For conservatives within the Restoration Movement, this question is hugely important. Very few Christians today subscribe to the Restoration Movement view of baptism (i.e., immersion of adults for the forgiveness of sins and gift of the Holy Spirit); however, many Evangelicals, "born-again" Christians, and other Protestants (not to mention converts to Catholicism) are baptized as adults. This means that our position on the cognizance issue immediately affects what we believe about the salvation of many of our friends and people such as C.S. Lewis and Peter van Inwagen. If our answer to the question above is Yes, then C.S. Lewis et al. are not saved; if our answer is No, then they are. (Some people I know do not answer the question Yes or No, instead arguing that we cannot say with certainty. While this is true in theory, some tentative answer must be given in practice.)

I have not finalized my thoughts on this matter, but I thought it would be worthwhile to share a few thoughts on the implications of Acts 2 for the cognizance issue.

More conservative Church of Christers will argue that a proper understanding of baptism is necessary because Peter's hearers in Acts presumably understood that baptism was "for the forgiveness of sins" (cf. Acts 2:38). The argument, then, is that baptisms are only valid for those whose "cognizance" of baptism is at least comparable to that of the Christian converts in Acts 2.

Because the argument centers around the understanding of Peter's hearers in Acts 2, it would be useful to reflect on what exactly their states of mind were prior to their baptisms.

Peter's Acts 2 sermon was given during the Pentecost. Jews from all over the Roman world had traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Weeks.

These Jewish pilgrims were "amazed and perplexed" (v. 12) because the Christians were speaking in their native languages (vv. 7-11). On top of all this, the Christians had tongues of fire resting above their heads (v. 3). In other words, this was no ordinary day.

Jesus was well-known in Jerusalem and the surrounding regions, but most of those present for Peter's sermon - travelers from various distant lands - had probably never heard of him. They were religious Jews - familiar with the Tanakh (the Old Testament), not necessarily with Jesus' ministry. This means that what they knew about Christianity and baptism was, for the most part, limited to Peter's sermon (vv. 14-36). It is true that Peter's comment in v. 22 ("as you yourselves know") implies some prior awareness of Jesus' miracles; that notwithstanding, I find it difficult to believe that their insight into Jesus' life was anything more than cursory.

From Peter's sermon, they learned that Jesus had performed miracles (v. 22), had been raised from the dead (v. 24), had been exalted to the right hand of God (v. 33), and was Lord and Christ (v. 36).

That is pretty much it.

As far as I can tell, they did not know that Jesus had died for their sins (barring some extremely quick inference from Isaiah 53) or that God was Triune. They probably did not understand the entirety of Jesus' divinity. In all likelihood, some of them knew nothing about Communion, Christian morality, or the relationship of the New Covenant to the Old. For that matter, their understanding of baptism was incomplete or undeveloped at best; they did not know, for example, that baptism was a means of participating in Christ's death, burial, and resurrection (cf. Romans 6). Even if many of them were more informed than I suppose (which is certainly within the realm of possibility), it is clear that no emphasis was placed on their comprehension of Christian doctrine.

In short, any cognizance they may have had of any issue was rudimentary and disorganized - so much so that their exact understanding of the significance of baptism seems completely irrelevant.

Am I to believe that the very same men who may not have known that Jesus died for their sins were saved because they understood that baptism was for the forgiveness of sins? Is incomplete knowledge of baptism necessary for salvation if knowledge about Jesus' death on the cross is not?

Perhaps - but, at the moment, I find it extremely unlikely. And if our answer to the question posed at the beginning of this post is "No, such understanding is not necessary," then we should probably reconsider how we approach evangelism, re-baptism, and almost all of our interactions with the broader Christian community. Acts 2 never says that the Pentecost converts knew exactly what they needed to know to be saved; for all we know, they knew more than what was necessary.

But these are just my initial thoughts.


Pelagius on Will

From Pelagius's Defense Of The Freedom Of The Will, as quoted by Augustine:
"The man who hastens to the Lord, and desires to be directed by Him, that is, who makes his own will depend upon God's, who moreover cleaves so closely to the Lord as to become (as the apostle says) 'one spirit' with Him, does all this by nothing else than by his freedom of will."
"That we are able to do good is of God, but that we actually do it is of ourselves."
It seems to me that Pelagius has a valid interpretation. If we are not responsible for our own good behavior, it seems unjust for God to reward us for it. Heretics can still be right some of the time...


Fish Tank Post: Water and the Spirit

Here it is.


Fish Tank Post: Faith and the Binding of Isaac




Would thy beauty be lost forevermore,
If thou wast reforged again?
Or would thy glory be restored
Every day until the end?

Would some metal disappear with every fix?
Is the cut too deep to mend?
Or could mettle be added to the mix
Until the perfect descends?

What if the sword n'er were wrought
With gold so great to heal?
What if its life is merely bought
With refinement as its seal?

What is grace that we can be
Reforged, refined each day?
The perfect never, but we can see
His glory bestowed our way.

A Woman's Question

A Woman's Question

Lena Lathrop

Do you know you have asked for the costliest thing
Ever made by the Hand above?
A woman's heart, and a woman's life-
And a woman's wonderful love.

Do you know you have asked for this priceless thing
As a child might ask for a toy?
Demanding what others have died to win,
With the reckless dash of a boy.

You have written my lesson of duty out,
Manlike, you have questioned me.
Now stand at the bars of my woman's soul
Until I shall question thee.
You require your mutton shall always be hot,
Your socks and your shirt be whole;
I require your heart be true as God's stars
And as pure as His heaven your soul.

Your require a cook for your mutton and beef,
I require a far greater thing;
A seamstress you're wanting for socks and shirts-
I look for a man and a king.

A king for the beautiful realm called Home,
And a man that his Maker, God,
Shall look upon as He did on the first
And say: "It is very good."

I am fair and young, but the rose may fade
From this soft young cheek one day;
Will you love me then 'mid the falling leaves,
As you did 'mong the blossoms of May?

Is your heart an ocean so strong and true,
I may launch my all on its tide?
A loving woman finds heaven or hell
On the day she is made a bride.

I require all things that are grand and true,
All things that a man should be;
If you give this all, I would stake my life
To be all you demand of me.

If you cannot be this, a laundress and cook
You can hire and little to pay;
But a woman's heart and a woman's life
Are not to be won that way.


Miller on Despair

From Arthur Miller's After the Fall:

"You know, more and more I think that for many years I looked at life like a case at law, a series of proofs. When you’re young you prove how brave you are, or smart, then, what a good lover; then a good father; finally, how wise, or powerful, or what-the-hell-ever. But underlying it all, I see now, there was a presumption. That I was moving on an upward path toward some elevation, where - God knows what - I would be justified, or even condemned - a verdict anyway. I think now that my disaster began when I looked up one day - and the bench was empty. No judge in sight. And all that remained was the endless argument with oneself, this pointless litigation of existence before an empty bench. Which, of course, is another way of saying - despair."
(Hat tip to Nick Nowalk, who is writing an excellent series of blog posts on being known by God.)

Poem From a Slain Soldier

A poem written by an anonymous soldier killed in World War I:
If it be all for naught, for nothingness
At last, why does God make the world so fair?
Why spill this golden splendor out across
The western hills, and light the silver lamp
Of eve? Why give me eyes to see, and soul
To love so strong and deep? Then, with a pang
This brightness stabs me through, and wakes within
Rebellious voice to cry against all death?
Why set this hunger for eternity
To gnaw my heartstrings through, if death ends all?
If death ends all, then evil must be good,
Wrong must be right, and beauty ugliness.
God is a Judas who betrays His Son,
And with a kiss, damns all the world to hell,-
If Christ rose not again.


My Guest Post on Cloud of Witnesses

Chris Reese was cordial enough to allow me to write a post on his blog Cloud of Witnesses. Here it is.

Sayers on God's Way

From Dorothy Sayers' The Devil to Pay:

Hard it is, very hard,
To travel up the slow and stony road
To Calvary, to redeem mankind; far better
To make but one resplendent miracle,
Lean through the cloud, lift the right hand of power
And with a sudden lightning smite the world perfect.
Yet this was not God's way, Who had the power,
But set it by, choosing the cross, the thorn,
The sorrowful wounds. Something there is, perhaps,
That power destroys in passing, something supreme,
To whose great value in the eyes of God
That cross, that thorn, and those five wounds bear witness.


Fish Tank Post: One Thing You Lack

Another Fish Tank post.


Fish Tank Post: Of (Animal) Farms and Fundamentalism


Intentions and Moral Relativism

One consequence of moral relativism's influence in our society is that we are much more likely to consider someone's intentions when evaluating the goodness of their actions. The prominence we assign to such internal factors follows naturally from our tendency to contextualize and "relativize" cultural, moral, and religious questions.

I certainly think that intentions matter - to some extent. God does, after all, judge the heart. However, I also think it is a real possibility that we are over-prioritizing intentions in ethical discourse.

One reason I think that is what Halden discusses in this post (not that I agree with him completely).

At the moment, I won't argue for any specific role intentions should have in our ethical analyses. Instead, I'll just share a few thoughts related more to the psychology of the matter than to the ethics per se:

1. One man's "relying on intentions" is another man's "rationalization." I doubt that Stalin would have said that he acted the way he did simply to kill large numbers of people. How honest are we with ourselves about our intentions?

Most of our intentions are not, admittedly, blatantly malicious. But most of our intentions are also not selflessly altruistic. Most of them are, in fact, hopelessly self-centered. How much is it to the credit of rich, well-fed Americans to say we are "well-intentioned"?

2. A quotation from Pascal: "There are only two kinds of men: the righteous, who believe themselves sinners; the rest, sinners who believe themselves righteous."

3. "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:43-48).

Our standards for "good intentions" are far too low if "good intentions" means "not overtly malicious intentions." "Good intentions," according to the Sermon on the Mount, are radical intentions, even bizarre intentions.

4. It's never good when we trust our own intentions more than God's intentions.


Rabbis and Stones

An excerpt from Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead (hat tip to my friend SJP):
"A great rabbi stands teaching in the marketplace. It so happens that a husband finds proof that morning of his wife's adultery, and a mob carries her to the marketplace to stone her to death. (There is a familiar version of this story, but a friend of mine, a Speaker for the Dead, told me of two other rabbis that had faced the same situation. Those are the ones I'm going to tell you.)

The rabbi walks forward and stands beside the woman. Out of respect for him the mob forbears, and waits with the stones heavy in their hands. 'Is there anyone here,' he says to them, 'who has not desired another man's wife, or another woman's husband?'

They murmur and say, 'We all know the desire. But, Rabbi, none of us has acted on it.'

The rabbi says, 'Then kneel down and give thanks that God made you strong.' He takes the woman by the hand and leads her out of the market. Just before he lets her go, he whispers to her, 'Tell the lord magistrate who saved his mistress. Then he'll know that I am his loyal servant.'

So the woman lives, because the community is too corrupt to protect itself from disorder.

Another rabbi, another city. He goes to her, and stops the mob, as in the other story and says, 'Which of you is without sin? Let him cast the first stone.'

The people are abashed, and forget their unity of purpose in the memory of their own individual sins. Someday, they think, I may be like this woman, and I'll hope for forgiveness and another chance. I should treat her the way I wish to be treated.

As they open their hands and let the stones fall to the ground, the rabbi picks up one of the stones, lifts it high over the woman's head, and throws it straight down with all his might. It crushes her skull, and dashes her brains onto the cobblestones.

'Nor am I without sin,' he says to the people. 'But if we allow only perfect people to enforce the law, the law will soon be dead, and our city with it.'

So the woman died because her community was too rigid to endure her deviance.

The famous version of this story is noteworthy because it is so startlingly rare in our experience. Most communities lurch between decay and rigor mortis, and when they veer too far, they die. Only one rabbi dared to expect of us such a perfect balance that we could preserve the law and still forgive the deviation.

So, of course, we killed him."
(P.S. This excerpt is just one other reason my name is Speaker for the Dead.)


Fish Tank Post: Science of the Gaps

Here it is.


The Appeal of the Gold Star Mother

The Appeal of the Gold Star Mother

Alexander M. Sullivan

To him the call in life's morning,
He whispered a fervent adieu,
He followed the flag of his country,
Far away as she knew he would do.
Somewhere by a hill or valley,
Stands a cross o'er the grave that he won,
In that place where the ivy is clinging,
Let the mother draw close to her son.

Let her gaze on the white cross above him,
Marking his flower-decked bed,
Let her kneel where he fell in his glory,
And pray where the laddie lies dead.
Let her weep where the sod rise o'er him,
Like a canopy fit for the true,
Let her pour out the love a mother,
And receive consolation anew.

Not long may she linger beside him,
But happy in heart she will be,
With green sod, the cross and the ivy
Entwined in sweet memory.
Back home in the land that he died for,
She will think of her pride and her joy,
And in fancy she'll see a red poppy,
Abloom on the grave of her boy.
I came across this while doing some research on soldiers. It's incredible how we often forget how much soldiers truly sacrifice for us. Their love is the kind of self-sacrificing, Christ-like love for which we should all strive, and their level of disciple is absolutely admirable.


Fish Tank Post: Atonement and the Problem of Evil

My latest post for The Fish Tank is up. (And read everyone else's posts, too!)


Global Cooling?

So it seems like every year (at least for 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009), there's been someone talking about global cooling. Based on the most recent climate change data, it appears that the world may actually be cooling (or, for the sake of being cautious, it appears that the world cooled in 2008).

So I know I shouldn't be, but I'm confused about how this mounting pile evidence was somehow trampled by the global warming bandwagon. Can they take back Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize now? Please? It'd be a shame if it was awarded for nothing.


Love Is All We Need...

...as long as it is in the right place.

So many people desperately want to hear those words, "I love you" or "I can't live without you!" As humans, we long to feel loved and to express our feelings for those whom we love. We want to find the perfect person, marry them, and live happily ever after. We want to pretend that we can be satisfied in marriage, that we can find rest in this life. The problem is: we can't. As Augustine said, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee."

I wonder if our longing for love in other people isn't just a displacement for the love that God has for us. I'm reminded of Psalm 139.
"O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar."

- vv. 1-2
We want someone who can know what we are thinking, just with a glance or a smile.
"You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways."

- v. 3
We want someone who knows all of our idiosyncrasies, and who loves us because of (or in spite of) them.
"Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD."

- v. 4
We want someone who finishes our sentences for us.

We want these comforts from people of the opposite sex, but it is only the Lord who can truly fulfill them all. Even our spouses cannot not know us perfectly. We cannot share our every thought, our every feeling with another person. The demands of life (and our not having telepathy) prevent it from occurring. Only the Lord can know everything about us.

But more importantly, when we look for love in other people, we want it to be constant. G.K. Chesterton said, "It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word." We get married because we want someone to love us for the entirety of our lives, and often beyond. Yet the high rate of divorce indicates that even marriage cannot guarantee the eternal love of fallible humans.

The Lord reassures His people, "I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness" (Jeremiah 31:3). His love is unceasing - not just in this life, but in what lies beyond it as well. His love never fails. Yet time and time again, our trust and our love placed in other humans fails us. We continue to place comfort in other people, instead of seeking our security in God. Rather than letting the Lord be our refuge, we put our heart and soul and mind and strength into our relationships with other people.

It's funny, because we don't normally think of romance as being sinful. Obviously, relationships can lead us into impurity and sin, but we don't think of longing for others as necessarily bad (that's not to say it always is, either). But when we seek our security in relationships, we are filling that God-shaped hole in our hearts. We are filling a void that is meant for God, and inadvertently separating ourselves from Him. We are accidentally falling into sin!
Jesus Doodle!Before official relationships begin, both people tend to develop a crush on each other first. The characteristics of a crush are pretty clear: constantly thinking about the person, talking to your friends about him or her, writing adorable heartfelt poems, doodling on every spare scrap of paper, and floating through the day because of being generally happy with life. I can sense these characteristics when I think of 1 Thessalonians 5:16-17: "Be joyful always; pray continually."

I wonder if, before we start to deal with our human crushes, we should start cultivating a more divine crush. God ought not be second in our hearts. Plus, I think it'd be much more romantic to hear my husband say, "I can live without you, because I rely on God, but I don't want to live without you, because you help bring me closer to Him."