Subjectivity and the Hypostatic Union


One of the major difficulties in thinking through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is the problem of single or dual subjectivity. The first holds that the subject of every action in the Incarnation is the divine Word of God. Thus we say that God is born, God eats, and God dies and rises. If we were to ask Jesus who He is, in His response of “I AM…” the “I” is the “I” of the Logos, the second person of the Trinity.

This causes some problems and seems to lead us toward a deficient humanity in Christ. The human “I” that each of us is, seems to be lacking in Christ. There is an “I” but it is a divine, not a human self. We find ourselves slipping into a kind of Apollinarian viewpoint in which the self-determining rational mind of Christ is replaced by the Logos.

To check this, we do all we can to buttress the humanity of Christ, insisting on a human spirit and mind, but then finding ourselves in a position in which we are now very close to seeing this collection of elements that make up a human person, doing exactly that. Jesus’ humanity, it seems, must be self-determining to be really human. The “I” of the human Jesus appears to need to be the “I” of a human person otherwise we lose the full humanity of Christ.

But of course, if we follow this well trodden road, we now have two subjective elements, the divine “I” and the human “I”. This falls into the serious problem of the nature of the union between God and our nature. How is it accomplished? If the “I” of Jesus is not divine, how does his life, death, and resurrection help us?

Doctrinally, of course, the Church holds to the Neo-Chalcedonian enhypostatic formula of the human nature of Christ being personal (a person, a subjective ‘I’) in the Logos. A single subject. Yet, if we are sympathetic, we can hear the validity of the concerns of the “two-sons” theology of Antioch.

Perhaps of course, the answer to our conundrum does not lie in trying to refine our formulas to try to explain which elements are maintained and which are lost in the union. Perhaps the answer lies in the deeper mystery of divine Subjectivity.

The “I” of human nature appears to be fundamentally exclusive. It is the “I” that says that I am I and you are you. I am I by not being the “I” that you are. This is, of course, a source of terrible suffering, for selfishness, domination, and abuse all come from the over emphasis of this distinction. But it also is the opportunity for all charity, altruism, and empathy. I cannot have charity if there are no others to love.

This firm distinction of self, however, may not be what is at the base of all creation. The Triune God who is the Father’s self-giving to the Son and Spirit, dwells as the root and base of all self. In the Trinity all self is wholly given away, nothing held back, and no boundaries set up. Distinction, not separation, is the law of love in the Trinity. While we must affirm the “non est” of the Father/Son distinction, we must also more firmly hold to the Dominical mystery that “I and the Father are One.”

One God, not three Gods who share a divine nature. One mystery of three interpenetrating selves giving themselves away wholly and with abandon, patterned on the Father’s foundational gift of self to the Son.

The Self then in the divine life is wholly integrated into the other, or the one who is distinct. We can see the pattern played out Christologically in the Dominical commandments to love our enemies, to give all we have to those who ask, and to love all as brothers and sisters. The divine broadness of selfhood is also revealed in the mystery of the last judgment in which all good and evil done to the least are done to Christ.

It is through these lenses then that we must consider the hypostatic union of single subjectivity that preserves and maintains the fully humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. Only by thinking the whole self-giving and self-identification of the Trinity, and thinking the whole self-giving and self-identification of the Christian life, can we begin to contextualize the mystery of a single subject in Christ.

The subjective “I” of the Logos does not unite itself to any reality to expel that reality from itself. Grace comes to complete, not to destroy. Far be it then that the Logos, in its most perfect union with human nature, should cast out any element, even the human way of saying “I.” Indeed, the Logos unites itself so closely to our nature that our nature can say “I” in the person of the Logos in the way that it says “I” in every other human being. It’s psychology, though unfallen, functions as a human psychology, not driven out by the Logos, but in perfect union with it.

It is a mystery. The perichoretic selves of the Trinity, and indeed the perichoretic selves of Christians, tear down the diabolical demand that I and Thou must always mean different things, while resisting the misunderstanding that they must wholly collapse into each other. Distinction without division is the rule.

These, then, appear to me to be the tools with which we must work at our understanding of the Hypostatic Union of Christ. Let the doctrines of Trinity and Christian love shine a light on the doctrine of the incarnation so that it might shine greater light in return on them.


The Relational Secret and the Eschaton


This week I attended the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology’s conference this week, a conference which I heartily suggest to those even mildly interested in adding an ecumenically attended conference to their year.  The academic presenters range in tradition from Roman Catholic to Methodist, Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran and more on common theological topics.  This year the discussion centered around the last things, or Eschata: Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory.  The last was left open due to the ecumenical nature of the conference; though I think it got very little play.  Both the papers and the discussions surrounding the topic were top notch, and well worth the time of anyone interested in theological issues.  The center’s page can be found here for both its journal Pro Ecclesia and to keep an eye out for next year’s conference:

Now that I have done my part to bring more people to the conference, I wish to address a topic which was not directly considered in the papers presented (I place here the caveat that I did not attend the very last paper of the conference which was concerned with preaching about Heaven and Hell).  The topic in question is one of relationships as constitutive of being.  Here I am drawing on Metropolitan John Zizioulas’ proposal that the most fundamental category through which we are to understand God is not “being” but “communion” (Koinonia).[1]

Zizioulas’ understanding of persons as relational aims at undermining two of the three great sins of our reading of personhood in the last century, Radical Individualism, and Collectivism (the third being Objectification which is obliquely addressed by this theory).  Persons are persons, not individuals.  They are not particular instances of humanity existing on their own in a sea of other individuals.  Instead, they are radically related to other persons in a way that both explains and constitutes them.  From our very conception to our death, our identity is defined by who we are in relationship with.  It is not the whole of our being, of course, for we are still subjective “I’s” thinking our own thoughts, loving Celtic Music instead of Hip Hop, or vice versa, or both.  We have our own tastes, our own experiences, and our own particular existence in relationship to other persons with their own tastes, experiences, and particular existences.  This is the safeguard against simple collectivism.  I am I because I am related in some way to you, though I was I before I met you.

Some relations are of course, intrinsically constitutive.  My parents are my parents at the same time that I come into being.  In fact, they are coterminous realities.  My brother, younger than myself, has my brotherhood as intrinsically constitutive of his being, since I became his brother the moment he was conceived. This is somewhat asymmetrical, of course, because the same was not true when I was conceived.  There are of course, many ways we could examine these kinds of relationships, but it is enough to say that who we are is deeply defined by who we are in relationship with.

The Eschatological question here is one that concerns itself with the question of the resurrected identity of those in the Heavenly State.  (I use Heavenly State here to describe the state of the resurrected who are in communion with God, in whatever environment that entails).  A question arises about our identity as either whole or partial in the resurrection if those who are in some way constitutive of our identity are not present.  If someone who was either more or less central to the constitution of my identity is missing because they are ultimately and eternally in Hell, how can I be a full person?  How can I be really myself?  And if not really or wholly myself, how am I fully raised?

While this may seem to us, as we know ourselves now, to be a question about a very few number of people, I think the question is ultimately about every human’s relationship with every other human who has ever lived, or will ever live.[2]  We may not understand how we are shaped by the person who bags our groceries for seven minutes once in our lifetime, but it would be a strange thing to say that even the minutest relationships between two images of God are meaningless.  Far less can we understand how persons who lived in faraway places in times remote and perhaps forgotten, even sequestered from the flow of the rest of human history, could constitute our beings.  But once more it seems strange that any two of the myriad images of the Living God should not be in some way related in a meaningful way that transcends our perceived social and familial relations.

The question of being as constituted in some way by relation continues to plague us when we consider the imago Dei of each person.  Drawing on George MacDonald’s anthropology,[3] I would argue that the revelation of God’s own self is enacted in a special way through the personal relations of each person to God.  Your relationship with God is revelatory of the God who made you, and that relationship is unique.  MacDonald uses the image of the White Stone in the book of Revelation for this idea.  Each person is given a white stone on which is inscribed a name known only to the recipient and the Father (Rev 2:17).

The revelation of God then is personal in multiple ways.  It is a personal relationship directly between a human being and her creator, redeemer, sanctifier, and deifier.  But it is also a relationship with the images of that God who speak, though their very lives, secrets about God.[4]  It seems true that if God has revealed Godself in a particular and unique way in my best friend and worst enemy, like it or not, I must love my enemy as well as my friend to fully love God.

And so we come to the second problem that lies inherent in the question of relation as constitutive of our identities.  For my relationship with God, and who I am in relation to God, is reliant on my reception of the revelation of God given to me.  But that revelation is bound up in the images of God close to me or distant from me in space and time.  Should some of these be lost, that revelation is lost.  My knowledge of God will not, in fact, be complete, or even complete in an Epektasis model, going from fullness to greater fullness.

We may argue that if persons are lost eternally, God will indeed supply the missing bits of ourselves.  God might say, “I am all in all, and I shall give to you what you once had with those persons without their presence or consent.  I will be your brother, cousin, lover, friend, so that you need them not.  What I have bound up in them as revelation of myself, I free from them and give to you directly.”

But can God, or would God do this?  Perhaps the second question first.  Would God take what was revealed as particular persons in our history and say “ultimately, you needed them not, for I am all you need.”  Would the God who has instilled in us the command that the eye should not say to the hand “I have no need of thee” (1 Cor 12:21), say to us “you in fact did not need them at all”?  This seems out of character for the God who teaches us to model all of our behavior on the divine character and life.

The more difficult question seems to be, can God even do it?  Can we distinguish some inner principle of the revelation of God which is in my worst enemy from the person that is my worst enemy?  Can we say that God can abstract from that person some truth or fact that can be presented to me in some other way?  Or is it that the revelation is the person in relationship with God?  Is it that my worst enemy is the secret or truth about God that I must learn, and can learn no other way?  If this is the case, it seems that the only way then, once God has set this truth, this person, forth in history, for me to know this truth, is to know this person in the most intimate exchange of love in the Heavenly State.

It seems then, if Zizioulas is right, that our beings are constituted by relation, and the steps taken in this short essay are safe ones, that the result of a doctrine of eternal hell leaves us with both incomplete persons in the Heavenly State, and an incomplete Revelation to those persons.  This seems intolerable for a solid Christian Eschatology.

Finally, as a bit of speculation, we might also consider the human race as a body (a not unbiblical image).  If the body is also imago Dei, and not only each individual, then we must ask who the audience is for that image.  Might it not be that the angelic hosts wait with bated breath for the day when the full revelation of God in human form is set forth?  One might argue that this is already done in Christ, but while that may be true on the level of nature, it does not seem true on the level of the particular members of that body in relation.  If, as Dr. Paul Griffith’s suggested at the conference, the only things really important about us are the sacramental elements, we might say that the revelation of each human is rather like every other.  But this seems to me to be a rather deficient anthropology.  If instead, my most despised opponent is in fact, by the very fact that he hates the show Mad Men, loves Eggplant, and skiing, particularly revelatory of God, then his inclusion in the body of Christ with Christ at its head is necessary for the full setting forth of the revelation of God called the Human Race.

Perhaps then it would be that revelation that the whole of creation stands in wonder of as the very last Son of Adam comes forth from the hell of self to stand in new godhood before all things.  Perhaps then he will be in new and renewed relation with all others, and all will be made whole.  Perhaps then will the Son of Man say to all else that He has made, “Behold, I tell you a secret about myself.”  And perhaps then the sons and daughters of the earth will shine forth like the sun in the fullness of the glory that was set as their inheritance for all things to behold and rejoice in with not a single light missing, nor a single voice silenced.

[1] John Zizioulas, Being as Communion.

[2] We may also say this about the creation as a whole, which would not stray far from Zizioulas’ ecological intentions.

[3] George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Series I.

[4] Once more we could also say this of the whole of creation.

The Sweet Law

This post is specifically about an element of Lutheran theology that I find problematic.  For some, I believe, this will appear to be an attack on a central tenet of their faith.  It is not meant as an attack, but perhaps the beginning of a dialog.  For those who are not familiar with the Law/Gospel distinction, we may summarize it briefly to begin with.

In the Lutheran teaching of Law/Gospel, as I understand it, Law is defined as those teachings which convict, or command a person.  If a teaching places any weight whatsoever on a person, it is seen as Law.  Perhaps the epitome of the “law” teachings of the New Testament is “Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect”  (Mt 5:48).  Over and against this is “Gospel” that good news that God has done all things for you, and you need not do anything.  God has you well in hand, and your salvation is assured through your Baptism and Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Law treats things as if they are on your shoulders, Gospel reveals that they are really on God’s.

The problem with all of this is that the line between the believer and Christ is blurred so heavily in the New Testament, that these kind of distinctions are no longer valid.  While there is a distinction between the freedom of Christ and the Torah in the New Testament, there is no demonstrable theme of this kind of distinction between those things which call us to righteousness, and those things which reveal that such calls are already met by Christ.

Instead, there is a demonstrable theme of Christ’s commands revealing the life of God in the world.  Christ’s moral directives of the Sermon on the Mount culminate with the “Be ye perfect” line.  The whole of the Sermon on the Mount appears as Law in the Law/Gospel dichotomy, yet it stands as one of the centers of the Matthean account of Jesus’ public Ministry and teaching.  St. John has Jesus tell us that if we love Him, we will obey what He commands us.

The key thing to these and other passages is that these words are given in the context that the commands bring life and joy, not sorrow and weight that will be overcome by the Cross.  Christ is preaching Good News, and not Law in the sense of the Law/Gospel contrast.  In fact, it is very clear by a simple and plain reading of the Gospels that the Law of Christ is not opposed to the Gospel.  Christ is commanding us to live in ways that are liberating, life giving, and ultimately transforming.  The transformation that comes in obeying Christ is salvific in nature, turning us from the kingdom of death to the kingdom of Heaven.

In other words, the Law of Christ is the Gospel.

And we can see why this must be.  For God to command us to forgive is not a burden, though it may be hard in our fallen state.  It is good, it is “True” in the same way that the Hebrew writers said that the Torah is “True.”  One gets a sense of this from a section from Psalm 19:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.

In the Law/Gospel distinction, the law is anything but sweet.  It is a burden to the soul from which we are freed.  Christ has done all, we need not.  But is that really good news?

The question revolves around the character of God.  For a God who does not demand that His children be righteous is hardly a righteous God.  A God who says, oddly enough “I am righteous, therefore you need not be” (which is the logic inherent in the statement that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us) is hardly a God we should rejoice at having.  We may be glad when we want to do something rather shady, or when we consider the shady things we have done.  But we can hardly be glad overall.

But a God who will not let us merely live as sinners, but demands righteousness from us, who will descend to our own fallen nature and lift it back up with Him into the Godhead, who will infuse us with His own life so that we might be made righteous as co-workers with God…this is a God worth rejoicing over.  For all who have not simply been sinners, but the victims of sinners, must rejoice at a God who demands that all victimization stop.  It is not “Law” that says that we must love without limit, it is Gospel that demands it.  The Good news to the poor, the freedom to the slaves, is not merely that Christ has won the victory, but that that victory conquers all sin in all hearts everywhere; and that that conquest continues today in the heart of the person writing, and in the heart of the persons reading.

Ultimately, the real Gospel is a Gospel that in fact does call us to be righteous, and will not leave us unchanged.  It calls us to be transformed into the living images of the living God.

Now, a word must be said here about historical context.  Lutheranism appears in history as a response to the tortured conscience of many late medieval Christians bound up in the piety of their age.  It offered relief to the beleaguered heart who thought that her salvation depended on her good works.  The doctrines of this tradition still offer such rest to people suffering from the same ills.

However, the very question of earning one’s salvation, or not earning it, is not a question that has arisen in our modern age.  It is a question kept alive by the mere fact that much of protestantism has carried forward its original arguments against Catholicism and other branches of Protestantism into the modern day ripped from their contexts.  People, it seems, mainly worry about earning their salvation or not because we have told them to worry about that.  (There are exceptions to this, I admit).

It is my desire that we set this question where it belongs, in the past.  The question of earning salvation or not earning it, is the wrong question.  We have been made, in Christ, fellow workers with God (1 Cor 3:9, 2 Cor 6:9).  Once we are in Christ, we begin the process of growing into the statue of Christ, and thus increasing in our salvation from sin day by day, and entering into the heavenly communion day by day.  This is not a state of waiting for our reward, or hoping for heaven, or even simply knowing that all has been done for me.  It is a state of having been given the power to be called the sons and daughters of God in Christ, and living as Christ on earth.

To live as Christ on earth, and to hope in the resurrection, is salvation.  To claim that there is some distinction between the commands of this new life, and the freedom of this new life, is to misunderstand Christ on a fundamental level.  To claim that here is some distinction between faith in Christ and living as Christ, is to make the same mistake.

First Theology

I recently promised on Facebook that I would write about what I call “First Theology.”  For some this may be a very disappointing post, as I am not going to discuss what I think to be the proper starting place of all systematic theologies.  For while some would put first the One God, and others would put the Incarnation, and still others the Creation, Revelation, or the Trinity, I am not going to say which of these venerable starting places is my own preferred way of entering into the mysteries of God.  Instead, I will focus on the First Theology that lives in the context of all of these realities, and while most identified with the Incarnation in our minds, has just as much right to be associated with each of these other areas as well.

For if Theology is the study of God, or the science of God, or the reason pertaining to God, then there is only one reality which can claim to be the First Theology:  The Divine Logos.  For it is from all eternity that the Logos is the full and perfect revelation of the Father.  In fact, from all eternity, the Father’s greatest act is the begetting of the full and perfect image of Himself.  In other words, the Son is a self study of the Father, a contemplation of the divine self in the form of a person who is just as much God as the Father is.  The First Theology is done by the Father in the person of the Son.  Perhaps “in” here is a poor word, but if I had used “as” there could be some confusion as if I were saying the Father acts “as” the Son.  Instead, what is meant is that the perfect imaging of, perfect study of, or perfect contemplation of the Father is not merely an attribute of the Son, but is, without limit or reservation, the person or being of the Son.

All that is made comes from the Son, as we are told in the prolog to St. John’s Gospel.  All that exists that is not God is put forward into being by the Son.  When God says “Let there be Light” in Genesis, it would be wrong to think that his was somehow done primarily by the Father.  Instead, the Son creates.  This is why it is improper to replace “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” with “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.”  In fact, all three of these names belong to the Son.  The role of the Spirit, which we will not go into here, is also in fact to sanctify, but that does not exclude the Son’s primary role of sanctification by the incarnation.

Lest I fall into the trap of tri-theism, it is important to point out the reality of perichoresis.  For wherever the Son is, so also are the Father and Spirit.  Whatever the Son does, so the Father and Spirit are acting.  However, it is the Son who makes all things.  This point is important, for it explains how and why we are made in the image of God.  For the Son’s act of creation is the act of the First Theology.  The Divine Logos creates to image the Father in things other than Himself.  It might be asked why the Son chose to image through creation, instead of further begetting.  Theories exist for why there are not more Sons, or more persons in the Godhead.  However, all I think we can say for sure is that it was better to create than to simply go one begetting or proceeding.

All that was made was made to reflect the glory of the Father; some things more than others.  The Son sets up creation to be a study of the Father, and makes conscious beings as its crown, made in the image and likeness of the Father.  He, like the Father He is the perfect image of, creates persons to image the Father[1].

It is this setting up of a study of the Father by means of creation, especially the creation of sentient procreative beings, that is fully consistent with the Son as the First Theology.  For this act images the Father in creation in such a way that we continue the imaging in all we do.  From joy to peace to the giving of life in our own images, we continue to be a study of the unending and inexhaustible life of the Father sent out into created being by the Son.

It is therefore this great imaging which is shattered by the introduction of sin into the world.  The imaging of the Father is broken, and the images and likenesses have been marred.  Now, what was at first set up to be a great joyful contemplation of the Father, has turned against the whole Trinity of God.  It is for this reason that the Son, the perfect Image of the Father, comes among us to repair the image and set it right again.  He enters into the brokenness and reverses it by perfect obedience, suffering, death, and ultimately resurrection.

Thus the First Theology, the first Theou Logos, is the very Logos Himself, and the whole history of Humanity and salvation is the history of the First Theology.  And all that human beings do, and all that we are, is rooted in this great theology.  It must give us pause, those of us who do theology, to consider what we dare to do.  For we suppose to do the work of the Son in the world, revealing the Father in Truth.  And thus, if we dare to do this work, we must pattern ourselves wholly on the Son whose whole life and being is a living image of the living and invisible Father portrayed for us in all that is made.


[1] Now some might object here that we are made specifically in the image and likeness of the Trinity, or that by “in the image” what is really meant is that we are “in Christ.”  I object to neither of these interpretations.  Instead, I argue that imaging the Trinity is in fact imaging the Father, for the trinity is the divine imaging of the Father.  As well, by being made “in Christ” who is the first and true and whole image of the Father, we are made in the living image of God, which is to be ultimately like God.  Thus the distinctions fail to be exclusionary.


Understanding Salvation Differently

In my last post I showed some of the problems with the popular conception of the atonement. This post I hope to offer an alternative understanding of the atonement.  Now this would be sheer madness if I was offering some theory of my own that I had come up with last week.  Instead, I would offer something far older than myself, a theory that has existed in the church since the beginning. For those familiar with different theories of the cross, the term Christus Victor might be the most fitting for this theory.  However, it is not exactly the theory identified by Gustav Aulen in his book of the same name.  It is something more.

The popular modern conception of the cross, which dates back to the Reformation, is familiar to almost everyone.  God is angry with us, wants to smash us to bits, and has every right to do so.  So Jesus comes in, takes the smashing for us, and the problem is solved.  The more ancient understanding of the cross is that it is the place where Jesus confronts human sin, suffering, and death, as well as the dark powers of the earth, and overcomes them.  Jesus takes on human suffering as the fulfillment of His incarnation, drawing us to Him in His suffering.

This meeting of God and human suffering, death, and guilt, is all based on the fact that Jesus, as God, is stronger than all of these things.  But He must become a human being to experience them in Himself.  He must be the one who suffers, experiences guilt, shame, sorrow, loss, and the perceived abandonment of God.  He must take on a body that can suffer and die so that He may directly encounter this suffering and death in Himself.  Then, once he has died, He overcomes the suffering and death in the resurrection. (1)

By doing all of this as a human being, Christ transforms our human nature and binds it closely to his divine nature.  In other words, humanity is now in the trinity by means of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection.  By dying he has confronted human death in himself, and overcome it by his divinity.  That divine overcoming is shared with us, and we are grafted into it, being allowed to now become, as St. Peter says, partakers of the Divine nature.  The divine nature of Jesus is shared with all of us, so that our sin, suffering, and death, may be overcome by his victory.

Of course, this is not merely a simple pardoning then of sins.  Our sins are forgiven by Christ, and his death works in a mysterious way to blot out sin.  But this is not the only thing.  We are not simply made legally righteous before God, but invited to share in God’s own person so that we are transformed into Christ in the world.  All of this seems very clear in John’s Gospel.

This image of redemption does not put us in the hands of an angry God.  Instead, it puts us as people who endangered our own existence by doing evil.  We undermined our own beings by disconnecting ourselves from God who is the very root and ground of our being.  By being in conflict with God, for in God being and goodness are one, we have lost our ground for goodness and existence.  Thus we do evil, and we die.  In other words, “the wages of sin is death.”

Christ comes to fix all of that by binding us tightly to Him in goodness and being.  The result is that we begin a journey of life that transcends what we understand of human life.  We are called to be humans bound up in the divine life of God.  None of this requires a God who is wrathful against humanity.  None of it requires that we think of ourselves as dung or worthy of God’s terrible wrath.  Instead, we are loved people, far more valuable to God than merely people He wants to see in some kind of legal relationship with Himself.  He says to us, as the New Testament makes clear, “you are one flesh with me” by making humanity in the Church His bride.

As well, all of the problems listed in the last article, do not pertain.  Instead, there is one consistent act of creation, redemption, and glorification.  God creates so that we might partake of God. When we fall, God acts to restore the relationship in reality, not merely in a legal fiction. And we then begin to partake of God’s life here and now, with a great hope that we will partake of it without limit after the resurrection.

(1)  All of this may be found in St. Athanasius, as well as much of it seen in St. Cyril as well as Maximus the Confessor and others.

The Angriest of Gods

I’m taking a break from my hobby of debating atheists to return to my main area of study, that of discussing modern theological topics from a systematic perspective in dialog with the ancient church.  Way simpler than showing skeptics that their epistemological position is self contradictory, right?  So let’s get into it.

The general view of the atonement (that process by which humans are brought back into right relationship with God) inherited from the Reformation and preached in many modern American Evangelical Churches, goes something like this:  God made people, people did bad things, and that made God angry.  Now God is an infinite God, and if God gets angry, God gets infinitely angry.  And God is a just God, and thus infinitely Just.  Now an infinitely Just and Angry God is not a God you want on your case.  So, humanity is in something of a pickle.  We might try to appease God, but we’ve made the terrible mistake, being finite beings, of angering an infinite being.  No matter what we do, we can’t get out of this mess.

In pops Jesus, who knows how to appease God, being one of the persons of the three-person God.  Jesus tells us that we’ve got to love each other, obey his commandments, and generally be willing to put up with a lot of crap because we follow him.  But then, of course, none of that matters because the big bad enemy of humanity, God, is out to get us and there’s no getting around Him by being nice and doing good, and loving our neighbor.  Instead, Jesus has got to take on the infinite wrath and justice of God so that we don’t have to.  Jesus is also God, and therefore infinitely able to suffer, which pleases the Father, the first person of the Trinity, because now he’s got a worthwhile target for his wrath who is both human (and therefore the just target of wrath) and God (and therefore able to infinitely suffer).  For God had a problem.  If God was infinitely angry and infinitely just, how would he manage to extract infinite punishment from finite creatures?  Well, the answer was going to be “let them suffer…forever.”

And despite there being literally dozens of problems with this model of God, Jesus, Sin, and Judgment, here is where the traditional model meets what appears to be an insurmountable problem.  For if human beings are to suffer forever, God’s wrath will never be satisfied.  For, if God’s wrath is infinite, it takes infinite justice to appease it.  Now, in the case of the “Jesus Shield” model (where Jesus stands in front of us and takes the brunt of God’s wrath) instead of us, Jesus, being infinite, can “take” the infinite wrath of God in a satisfactory way (hence the name “Satisfaction theory”).  God is satisfied in that His Wrath and Judgment have met an appropriate target.  But with the rest of humanity, if God is pouring out His infinite wrath, that wrath can never be satisfied.

There might be some nodding their heads and saying “yes, that’s why they will burn FOREVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!”  But this leaves God in a sticky position.  For if God’s wrath is not satisfied, does that not place God in a position of lack?  Does God not then depend on humanity in order for His wrath to be satisfied?  And, that’s one hell of a dependence, because it can never be fulfilled.  For no matter how long a finite human burns in hell, infinite satisfaction can never be achieved.  (This is one part of what we call the Kalam argument  “An actual infinity cannot be achieved by incremental addition.” (The other part of that argument isn’t relevant here).  We use this argument against an infinite regress of time.  Well, it also works on an infinite progress of suffering.  No matter how long a finite number of humans suffer, that suffering will never reach infinity.)

While the human side of this has been focused on to show why hell must be forever, the divine side of this has not been realized in the theory.  God has nothing like the right material to work out God’s wrath or justice on.  One would need an actual infinitude of human beings (which is ostensibly impossible) or an actual infinitude of time in which to punish a finite number of humans (also impossible, as shown above).

Thus we find that God must be a very frustrated God.  We are also left with some questions.

1.  If Jesus takes all the wrath for humanity, why is there still some left over for those burning in Hell?

2.  If God’s wrath is never to be appeased, why not let everyone but one guy go, to burn forever?  For burning billions for finite amount of time, no matter how big that finite amount of time can be (which must be the state of any temporal reality in hell, that of the incremental addition of instants), can no more satisfy God’s wrath than the burning of one person…or no people.  For a finite set taken from an infinitude does not lessen the infinitude.  But if we insist on a single person, well, there’s always that Jesus fellow who took all that suffering before.  Again, why does his suffering not suffice for everyone?  And if it does, how can there be any left over for all those people who didn’t accept him?

3.  If God is eternal and unchanging, is not this wrath which must be appeased somehow eternally part of God?  But if it is dependent on our sin, did we change God?  If not, and God is eternally wrathful, doesn’t that take away God’s ability to be called “All Good and loving?” since God is wrathful logically prior to the creation of humanity who deserves the wrath?

4.  Why isn’t Jesus wrathful with us?  If He is the perfect image of the Father, why does there seem to be a difference between the Son, who wants to make nice, and the Father who wants to burn us all alive?  Doesn’t this seem in contradiction to the scriptural statement that God does not desire the death of a sinner?

5.  If the answer to all of this is “Jesus DID do enough, we just need to accept it” in what way do those two things connect logically?  If what is being dealt with is a legal element, there is never any question that the victim must accept his pardon.  He cannot make the headsman chop his head off, or the guards strap him into the chair and pull the switch.  He may insist over and over that they don’t exist, or that they have no authority, or that their authority is a sham and a miscarriage of justice.  But there is no instance in which a legal decision made by a court is somehow dependent on the acquitted man agreeing that he is acquitted. The acceptance of Jesus’ life giving work does not fit in this model when we consider it.  It does in another model, one put forward by the ancient church, and for understandable reasons.  But not this one.

One sees the problem.  The traditional narrative of Substitution or Satisfaction atonement is fraught with dozens of problems.  This isn’t the largest, this is merely a funny little piece of a much larger picture of all sorts of things wrong with an interpretation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that divorces itself from the first millennium of the Church’s understanding.

We should instead take some cues from the early church in understanding how the reconciliation between humanity and God works, and I’ll touch on that in my next post on the restoration of humanity.