Monergism, Synergism, and Hermeneutics

Monergism vs. Synergism: God thowing a lifeline vs. using a fishhook.

Monergism vs. Synergism

One of the key issues in the Protestant Reformation is whether humans cooperate with God in their own salvation. Early Protestants denied, with different emphases, that humanity had any role in their own salvation. This view is known as Monergism, which means that Salvation is all God’s work and has nothing to do with man’s efforts. Later Protestants split into two camps on this issue. Lutherans and the Reformed (a.k.a. Calvinists) affirming that God alone was responsible for humanity’s salvation. Methodists and many Baptists and Pentecostals adopt a position known as Synergism, which means that humanity cooperates with God in its own salvation. While this is a huge debate among Protestants, Synergism is the default position of (to my knowledge) all other Christian communions.

Having grown up as a Fundamentalist, the idea that humanity cooperates with God was an affront to the saving work of Christ. The battleground between Monergism and Synergism was fought using proof texts from the New Testament. Each side had their own supporting scriptural texts and explained away those of the opposing side. Even as a boy, however, I struggled with this. As a Monergist who believed Scripture means what it says, I found it hard to explain away passages like: “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Ro 10:13) On the other hand, Jesus says: “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him.”

The argument seemed to be along the lines of which came first: the chicken or the egg? Does salvation have anything to do with a person seeking after God, or is it God who causes people to seek after Him? Scripture itself resolves this problem, and in a rather explicit fashion. The prophet Zechariah writes: “Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Turn ye unto me, saith the Lord of hosts, and I will turn unto you, saith the Lord of hosts.” (Ze 1:3)

Given that Protestants hold to the principle of Scripture Alone,[1] how do we move from the clear statement of Zechariah to the Protestant teaching of Monergism? For this, we have to discuss the subject of hermeneutics which Protestants use as a control on the interpretation of Scripture.[2] Hermeneutics consists of a number of rules which govern the interpretation of Scripture. Given this, some speak of hermeneutics as a science.[3] However, these rules can be applied differently by different people, which is why it is sometimes called an art. The idea of the pastor and theologian as an artist implies that they bring something of themselves to the text that guides their application of the rules. David Jasper writes:

Hermeneutics is about the most fundamental ways in which we perceive the world, think, and understand. It has a philosophical root in which we call epistemology — that is, the problem of how we come to know anything at all, and actually how we thing and legitimate the claims we make to know the truth.[4]

Hermeneutics, then, is not a scientific endeavor, nor can the rules be applied with mathematical rigor. It might be helpful to think of hermeneutics not as rules, but as a set of tools that can be applied to the job at hand. A skilled carpenter knows to use the right tool for the job, while an unskilled homeowner might cause damage by using a tool inappropriately. But even skilled carpenters vary in their approach to the job, using different tools and techniques for the same job.

Getting back to the subject of Monergism vs. Synergism, it would appear that Protestants approach the Scriptures with a particular worldview that guides their search for truth. To me, the passage in Ze 1:3 is clear that a person’s turning to God is required for God to turn to them. I would argue the following hermeneutical rule applies: “Interpret the obscure in light of the clear – not vice versa.”[5] However, Richard D. Phillips seems to apply a different set of rules in his commentary on Zechariah when he applies this text to Christians only. He writes:

If you are a Christian, but backslidden into sin and spiritual decline, remember the history lesson Zechariah placed before his generation. Your sin will not bring blessing but ruin, however sweet its deceptive song in your ears. If you persist in sin you will at the least bring upon yourself God’s chastisement, and at the worst you will prove that you have really not believed at all.[6]

Note that the author’s Reformed Theology forms the basis for his interpretation of this clear passage. He interprets this passage both in the light of Irresistible Grace and the Perseverance of the Saints.[7] For Richard D. Phillips, this passage illustrates the wrath of God upon sinners. By contrast, St. Gregory Palamas uses this passage to demonstrate the mercy of God. He writes:

Do you see the extent of God’s wrath? Yet, “He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil of men” (Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2), though only for those who repent and turn from their wicked ways. “Turn ye unto me and I will turn unto you, saith the Lord” (Zech. 1:3). “Thou shalt turn”, it says, “to the Lord thy God, and shalt be obedient unto his voice; for the Lord thy God is a merciful God; he will not forsake thee, neither destroy thee, but thou shalt find him, the Lord thy God, an help, if thou seek him with all thy heart and with all thy soul in thine affliction” (cf. Deut. 4:30–31, 29).[8]

Different presuppositions, different toolsets, different interpretations of what is, on the face of it, a very clear passage.

Endnotes

  1. “The doctrine that the Bible alone is the only infallible rule for faith and practice, and that the Bible alone contains all the knowledge that is necessary for salvation.” (Trenham 2015, 263)
  2. “Hermeneutics is defined as: The science and art of interpretation. …Hermeneutics is required to provide adequate controls for interpretation.” (Carlson 2014, 1)
  3. “Hermeneutics is considered a science because it has rules, and these rules can be classified in an orderly system.” (Henry A. Virkler 2007, 16)
  4. (Jasper 2004, 3)
  5. (Carlson 2014, 72)
  6. Richard Phillips also addresses this passage to non-Christians, but fails to address the obvious issues of Monergism vs. Synergism. (Phillips 2007, 15)
  7. Note, too, that this is what Protestants call an “application” derived from his use of hermeneutical rules. For a Protestant, the “application” of a passage is, in essence the last three of the ancient four senses of scripture: The allegorical, the moral, and the analogical.
  8. (St Gregory Palamas 2013, Kindle Locations 148-153)

Bibliography

Carlson, Norman E. 2014. Hermeneutics: An Antidote for 21st Century Cultic and Mind Control Phenomena. Colorado Springs: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Henry A. Virkler, Karelynne Ayayo. 2007. Herneneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation. 2nd Edition. Grand Rapics: Baker Academic.

Jasper, David. 2004. A Short Introduction to Hermeneutics. Louisevill: Westminster John Knox Press.

Phillips, Richard D. 2007. Zechariah. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company.

St Gregory Palamas. 2013. On Bearing Difficulties: To Those Who Find Hard to Bear All the Different Kinds of Difficulties Which Come Upon Us From All Sides. Kindle Edition. Edited by Christopher Veniamin. Dalton: Mount Thabor Publishing.

Trenham, Josiah. 2015. Rock and Sand: An Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformers and Their Teachings. Columbia: Newrome Press LLC.

On Proof for the Existence of God.

“To oppose something is to maintain it. …To be an atheist is to maintain God. His existence or his nonexistence, it amounts to much the same, on the plane of proof.”[1] Ursula K. Le Guin.

If God exists, why does He not provide incontrovertible proof of His existence? I believe in the existence of God. I have been blessed by experiences that constitute, for me, proof. But those experiences do not (and indeed cannot) prove God’s existence to you. I believe, but I cannot believe for you. I have had certain experiences, but those experiences were meant for me, and me alone.

One definition of a miracle is that it provides access to the divine. It is, therefore, personal. Even when a miracle is performed in public, that miracle is interpreted individually. The individual may choose to internalize or rationalize what they have seen, to accept or deny the event. A person’s response to the miracle is what is important, not the miracle itself.

In the case of Jesus’ miracles, we see at least two reactions. Some people were astonished and praised God. Others argued that Jesus performed miracles by the power of Beelzebub. The same miracle occurred before all, but it was interpreted and assimilated differently.

What if God were to provide incontrovertible proof of His existence? What then? The interpretation and assimilation of that proof take place within each person. Some would love God, some would hate Him. But, having provided absolute and incontrovertible proof would be to end the question. Each person’s reaction would, at that point, be fixed and immutable. For some, the love of God would be paradise; for others, the love of the God whom they hate would be a torment. And so God, in His mercy, leaves the question open and provides the opportunity for true repentance.

Russell's Teapot

Russell’s Teapot

In an earlier post,[2] I discussed Bertrand Russell’s teapot. I must confess to have misunderstood what Bertrand Russell was driving at. He writes:

“If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

What Bertrand Russel was getting at can be summed up in the following quotes:[3]

  • “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” Carl Sagan
  • “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.” Pierre-Simon Laplace
  • “A wise man … proportions his belief to the evidence,”  and “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.” David Hume
  • “An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.” Marcello Truzzi

The problem with this is that it requires the existence of something outside a particular domain to be proved by only the evidence that exists within that domain. To put it another way, the materialist assumes God to be part of the material world, and thereby must be proven by material means. The Christian God not only exists outside the material world, but created the material world. By that standard, the God who exists outside space-time cannot be proven solely by evidence that exists within space-time.

In 1884, the English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott published the book Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. This book begins with an exploration of a two-dimensional world. One of the characters, A Square, visits a one-dimensional world, where his descriptions of life in a two-dimensional world arouse suspicion. After this, A Square receives his own visit from a three-dimensional sphere, and the story goes on from there.

The point of all this (an unintentional pun, BTW), is that in a two-dimensional world, they might indeed be evidence of a three-dimensional world, but no proof. A two-dimensional being cannot experience three-dimensions, just as a one-dimensional being cannot experience two. Thus, we can say that a miracle provides evidence for the existence of God, but does not constitute proof.

But we do not have to postulate higher dimensions to discuss the difficulties with the concept of proving God’s existence. All we have to do is ask what constitutes proof, and within which domain. Within the historical domain, I can prove the existence of Abraham Lincoln, but I cannot scientifically prove his existence. The two domains have very different ideas about what constitutes proof. I can use the tools of science to provide evidence for Lincoln’s existence, yet within the scientific domain that evidence does not constitute proof. And within the legal domain, I may prove someone’s guilt, yet both history and science may yet demonstrate and/or prove that person’s innocence. Scientific tools may be used to provide evidence of either proof or innocence, yet that innocence or guilt exists outside of the scientific domain.

So does God exist? There is evidence, but no proof. Or to put it more precisely, there are miracles that prove to me that God exists, but those miracles cannot serve as proof for someone else. A miracle happened to me and one other person and was witnessed by a third. I realized it was a miracle and was completely nonplussed by it. The witness saw it too and was equally nonplussed. The second person the miracle happened to didn’t seem to even notice it. The event constituted conclusive evidence for the existence of God for me, yet had no effect on the second person. Was I predisposed to believe? Was he predisposed to disbelieve? Am I gullible and he discerning? Am I discerning and he unaware? I know the answer, but I cannot prove it to you.

  1. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Ursula_K._Le_Guin
  2. http://www.whymarymatters.com/archives/645
  3. https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Extraordinary_claims_require_extraordinary_evidence

Spiritual Techniques

"Untitled (Old Man with Prayer Book)"; painted by Maurice Bismouth; Tunisia; 1920

“Untitled (Old Man with Prayer Book)”; painted by Maurice Bismouth; Tunisia; 1920

In the West, we despise tradition, the accumulated wisdom of our predecessors. In some cases this is good, causing us to learn new things. The idea that our predecessors didn’t know everything is a Western phenomenon. The idea that there was more to learn, more to discover, and that our predecessors could have been wrong was unthinkable before the modern era. We now know that disease is not caused by an imbalance of the four humors. The idea that sickness was caused by bacteria and viruses was a medical breakthrough enabled by a culture that allowed for new ways of thinking. So far, so good.

The problem is that western Christianity quickly adopted this same mode of thought. And it is not just Protestants—this began with the scholastic movement among the Roman Catholics, and thus became part of Protestantism as well. I believe it was the Lutheran Samuel Schmucker who stated that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and therefore see further than they did. The idea that we can understand Christianity better than the apostles who studied at the feet of Jesus is arrogant in the extreme, yet widespread in the west. Samuel Schmucker himself was not speaking of seeing further than the apostles, but rather of the Martin Luther himself. Schmucker was using this idea to abrogate and replace Lutheran dogma with something he considered more appropriate for the situation in America.

By dismissing the past, theologians and churchmen are seeking to discover the truth in its purity, stripped of the accretions of dogma, tradition, and folk religion.In fact, by reducing Christianity down to the bare text, they strip Christianity of 2,000 years of accumulates wisdom. This is demonstrated most clearly in the realm of spiritual techniques.

About ten years ago I happened to be listening to a Roman Catholic radio show. A caller asked about resisting temptation, and the host suggested that when faced with temptation, try saying the Lord’s Prayer three times. I tried it, and it worked. I was surprised that I could learn something about the spiritual life from a Roman Catholic. I have continued to keep my eyes and ears open since that time, and have decided it is time to discuss some of these things.

When facing an extended period of spiritual doubt, begin reading the gospels, beginning with the gospel of Matthew. Matthew was used as the earliest Christian catechesis, and the five discourses are key to understanding Christianity. Do not begin reading the gospel of John right away. This is advanced theology, and the person wrestling with doubt needs to build up to it.

When struggling with bad thoughts, begin by saying the Lord’s Prayer three times. if the spiritual assault is severe, you may need to continue saying the Lord’s Prayer, speeding up the tempo until it crowds out the bad thoughts. You can also begin repeating the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” I realize this runs counter to some of the advice from the spiritual fathers, who often counsel praying slowly and concentrating on the words. This is good advice under normal circumstances, but when under spiritual assault the mind needs to be forced to focus on something else.

I the Protestant churches, I was never taught to pray. We had prayer in our churches, and we had our Wednesday prayer meetings, but it was very ad hoc. We didn’t follow any patristic model. Instead, we parroted the prayers of those around us. I am still a beginner in the way of prayer, but this is what I’ve learned.

Prayer is not about accommodating the desires of the flesh. In the Lord’s Prayer, we begin with praising God, then asking for spiritual blessings. Even the prayer for our daily bread is probably a reference to the Eucharist. Even if it is not, it is simply a request for the bare minimum necessary to keep us alive, not for fleshly extravagances. According to the Lord’s prayer, we praise God, ask for our spiritual necessities, and ask for deliverance from the wiles of the evil one.

Likewise, the morning prayer discipline begins with the Trisagion Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, The Morning Troparia, Prayer of St. Basil the Great, Psalm 50(51), and The Nicene Creed. Then we get into the Intercessory Prayers, praying for the health, welfare, and spiritual well-being of the world. Only then do we get to the Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, in which we begin to pray for ourselves. Except even then, most of the prayer is focused on our spiritual needs and our relationship with others.Our Final Prayers are for our spiritual well-being, the spiritual well-being of those around us, and request for intercession by the Mother of God and all the saints. Never do we pray for our physical needs, wants, and desires. Not that these are unimportant, but the model seems to be to have others pray on our behalf, and for us to pray on theirs. Prayer then becomes a communal affair. We share our burdens with our fellow Christians, and they pray for us, just as we pray for them. Prayer becomes a means of increasing our bond of unity as the body of Christ.

I which I had more, but that’s it for now.

 

Homosexual Marriage and the Orthodox Church

Saints Sergius and Bacchus

Saints Sergius and Bacchus. 7th Century icon. Officers of the Roman Army in Syria who were tortured to death for their refusal to worship Roman gods. Some scholars believe they were united in a ceremony called Adelphopoiesis, which is roughly equivalent to what we today call civil unions.

I wonder if one day the Eastern Orthodox Church will accept homosexual marriage as sacramental. I will not see it in my lifetime, and I do not expect it to happen for several hundred years. I am not arguing that this should happen, only that I see a path where it could happen. Let me explain.

Let me dispose of the most simplistic argument first, crassly phrased as follows: “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” If you can make that argument with a straight face, you do not understand the scriptures.

First, it is not at all clear that Adam and Eve are proper names. Adam is a word that means “to be red”, referring to his skin color, and is a play on the Hebrew word ‘adamah’ meaning “earth”. Adam is also a term that could apply to humanity in general. ‘Eve’ means either ‘to breath’ or ‘to live’. Thus, the words Adam and Eve symbolize that we were made from earth, and that God breathed into us the breath of life.

Second, the creation accounts themselves are highly symbolic and spiritual in nature; they have a higher and deeper meaning than the crass literal interpretation. This ties in well with our first point, which is that the names Adam and Eve are symbolic of their natures, and describe the relationship between God and Man.

There is more to be said here, but let us move on.

You might argue from the nature of marriage as symbolic of the relationship between God and Man, particularly in the differing roles each plays. In this view, the husband symbolizes God and the wife symbolizes humanity. As a preacher once said, we are all female before God. However, this view is theologically incorrect. The married couple become one flesh; this symbolizes the distinction of persons within the trinity, while also symbolizing their essential unity. Each member of the trinity is consubstantial with the others; a married couple symbolizes this consubstantiality.

You might argue that gender distinctions themselves are symbolic of the distinction of persons within the trinity. It is true that we all share a single human nature, but that nature is the same regardless of gender. We are different persons sharing a common nature in the same manner as the trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God. Gender is a characteristic of a human person, but is not an essential element of personhood. The apostle makes this clear by saying: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” This oneness is our common human nature; the other characteristics described make no difference in the human person.

You might argue from tradition, saying that no thriving society has ever allowed homosexual marriage. This is an argument I’ve heard from the pulpit, but it happens to be incorrect. Same-sex unions occurred in ancient societies such as Greece, Rome, and Mesopotamia. It has occurred in China and in medieval Europe, and in native American societies. These unions were at times informal, and at other times involved rituals analogous to marriage. It is true that homosexual unions were frowned upon in Judaism and early Christianity, but the existence of these prohibitions serve to reinforce our understanding of ancient Greece, Rome, and Mesopotamia.

You might argue from scripture. These are perhaps the strongest arguments. However, there are a lot of things in scripture that we no longer practice. The Old Testament is full of religious and civil practices we no longer practice. Both the Old and New Testament prohibit the loaning of money at interest. Being in business was frowned upon; selling things for more than you paid for them was considered a form of theft. In the Wisdom of Sirach, we read: “Many have sinned to make a profit, and he who seeks riches will turn away his eyes. As a stake will be driven between fitted stones, so sin will be wedged between selling and buying.” The bible condemns the practices that form the basis of modern economies, yet churches routinely borrow money from banks for building projects, and religious organizations create non-profit businesses to fund their activities. For example, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press is a profitable business and helps to fund the seminary. Priests routinely borrow money to buy houses, something the Wisdom of Sirach warns against.

While we claim to believe the Bible and to follow its teachings, it is clear that we creatively reinterpret (or spiritualize) certain passages when they no work for us. This is an ancient and time-honored practice. For example, in ancient Judaism the biblical injunction to stone a disrespectful son was rarely obeyed. The most extreme example of this is our changing attitudes towards slavery. The Old Testament permits slavery, and the New Testament never condemns it. In the American South, it was routine to use the Pauline epistles as endorsements of slavery. After emancipation, some former slaves loved the gospels but to the end of their lives couldn’t stand the apostle Paul. Other examples are the Old and New Testaments prohibitions against women wearing jewelry, styling their hair, and wearing fancy clothes. These were things the prostitutes would do. By biblical standards, modern women are adorned like harlots.

There are different ways of interpreting the biblical passages most often used as arguments against homosexuality. I do not argue the interpretations of homosexual clergy are always correct, but a number of them have merit. For example, in Middle Eastern cultures being hospitable to strangers is a social norm. Being inhospitable made one a pariah and, depending on the infraction, was sometimes punishable by death. It is argued that the punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah is more about the violation of this social norm than about homosexuality. Given that homosexuality and same-sex unions were widely practiced in the Middle East, it seems odd that Sodom and Gomorrah were singled out solely because there were homosexuals living there. I do not argue against the traditional interpretations of these passages, only that we give these alternate interpretations a fair shake.

Even if we accept all of the above, the argument could be that the Orthodox Church never changes. Strictly speaking, that is not correct. Today we all use the same creed, but in the ante-Nicene Church creedal variation was common. Today the Orthodox Churches all use a common liturgy, but this was not the practice for the first several centuries of Christianity. Even secular people know the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” What most do not know is this saying arose as a result of differences in liturgical practice in the early church. It is said that a nun was travelling to Rome, and asked St. Ambrose how she should behave. St Ambrose is said to have replied: “si fueris Rōmae, Rōmānō vīvitō mōre; si fueris alibī, vīvitō sīcut ibī; (if you should be in Rome, live in the Roman manner; if you should be elsewhere, live as they do there). Many of the liturgical practices we have today did not exist in the early church, at least not in their current form. For example, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is first mentioned by Pope Gregory I (560-604), and is mentioned in the canons of the Quinisext Council (692AD). It probably existed prior to this time, but in a variety of forms that were standardized. The prayer of Saint Ephraim is used in services throughout Lent. Scholars believe that this prayer was written in his name.

You say this is all true, but that the Orthodox Church never changes in the essentials of dogma. Thank you for making my point for me. The Orthodox Church has never defined its position against homosexuality in dogmatic terms. Yes, it is part of the general consensus of the church fathers, but there are no doctrinal formulas concerning this subject.

When a church father like Gregory of Nyssa endorses universalism (the idea that eventually all will be saved), we chalk it up as theologoumena (theological opinion). This is the same reason we accept Augustine as an Orthodox saint while rejecting his theological ideas that conflict with Orthodox teaching. The strength of Orthodoxy is its acceptance of agreement in essentials and diversity in non-essentials.

I contend (and this is my theological opinion) that eventually there will be an understanding that when the church fathers spoke out against homosexuality, this was their theological opinion. Just like we reject things like slavery and the subjugation of women that were common in biblical times, we will eventually reject the prohibition against homosexuality. But like I said, this will take time. A lot of time. Hundreds of years, in fact. But it seems likely to happen.

Theology is in the Prepositions

 

Fresco depicting the First General Council of Constantinople in the narthex of St. Athanasius church on Mount Athos.

1st Council of Constantinople.

A seminary professor once told me that all of theology is in the prepositions. This is mostly true. Take the Nicene Creed, for example. The second clause concerns the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the first half of that clause with which we are concerned.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made.

I recently heard someone quoting the creed incorrectly. He was intending to quote from the original creed from the council of Nicea when he said: “God from God, Light from Light, very God from very God.” That tiny change of preposition makes all the difference. When we say “Light of Light,” the first is not contingent upon the second. This is a statement of identity. Were we to say “Light from Light,” the first is contingent upon the second. The two are not the same; the first is lesser than the second.

When we say “Very God of Very God,” we are making a statement about the self-existent God existing in a multiplicity of persons. When we say “Very God from Very God,” we are saying only the second is self-existent; we are saying the second preceded the first; we are saying the second is the source of the first; we are saying our Lord Jesus Christ is a created being.

A contingent being owes its existence to something else. My existence is contingent upon my parents; upon the people who employed my father; upon the farmers who grew my food; upon the truckers who transported my food; upon the supermarket that sold my food; upon the government that provided basic infrastructure; etc. I am not a self-existent being. My life is not my own.

The bible tells me that when I see Him, I shall be like Him, for I shall see Him as He is. I shall not be Him, but I shall be like Him. The Orthodox call this theosis; that we shall become gods by grace, but not God in essence. In other words, we shall be god from God, but not God of God.

The New Atheism

The Four Horsemen of Atheism: Dawkins, Harris, Dennet, Hitchens

The Four Horsemen of Atheism

I am amused by the New Atheists. They think their arguments are new when in fact, they are more than two millennia old. In the Wisdom of Solomon we read the following:

For the ungodly said, reasoning with themselves, but not aright, Our life is short and tedious, and in the death of a man there is no remedy: neither was there any man known to have returned from the grave.

For we are born at all adventure: and we shall be hereafter as though we had never been: for the breath in our nostrils is as smoke, and a little spark in the moving of our heart:

Which being extinguished, our body shall be turned into ashes, and our spirit shall vanish as the soft air,

And our name shall be forgotten in time, and no man shall have our works in remembrance, and our life shall pass away as the trace of a cloud, and shall be dispersed as a mist, that is driven away with the beams of the sun, and overcome with the heat thereof.

For our time is a very shadow that passeth away; and after our end there is no returning: for it is fast sealed, so that no man cometh again.

Come on therefore, let us enjoy the good things that are present: and let us speedily use the creatures like as in youth.

Let us fill ourselves with costly wine and ointments: and let no flower of the spring pass by us:

Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds, before they be withered:

Let none of us go without his part of our voluptuousness: let us leave tokens of our joyfulness in every place: for this is our portion, and our lot is this. (Wisdom 2:1-9)

Iconography

In his book Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, Stephen Jay Gould discusses the impact of iconography on the way we interpret data. By iconography he means visual representations of our ways of thinking. His argument is that the visual depictions of evolution as the March of Progress or the Tree of Life not only are a misrepresentation of evolution, but also impact the way scientists themselves interpret data.

The March of Progress has become a visual trope used in a variety of mediums. The idea is to show the gradual evolution from primitive organisms to more complex, “evolved” organisms, culminating in modern man.

The March of Progress

The March of Progress

This trope is used in popular culture a lot, as in this amusing example I included for the Dr. Who fans.

The Dalek March of Progress

The March of Progress, along with its analogue, the Tree of Life, is wrong. It promotes the idea of evolution as a progression from disorder to order, from simple to complex. It hides the actual complexities involved, and causes scientists to try and shoehorn fossils into a place on the tree of life as ancestors of modern creatures.

 

Modern paleontology had to undo and reinterpret much of the work done by earlier scientists who were wedded to the idea of evolution as the March of Progress, and who therefore tried to fit morphologically distinct organisms into the Tree of Life. In fact, as Stephen Jay Gould likes to point out, evolution looks more like a bush (although I think it looks more fern-like). After the Cambrian explosion, there were more than twenty kinds of arthropods that have no living descendants. These different body plans died out in the Late Devonian extinction, leaving only the current four families of arthropods. (Arthropods are a phylum of invertebrates which currently is made up of spiders, insects, crustaceans, and myriapods like centipedes.)

The Bush of Life

The Bush of Life

I find this argument fascination, as it provides an interesting way to think about the functioning of religious iconography. Take, for example, this representation of Jesus that is popular with Protestants. This Jesus has distinctly European features with classic movie star good looks.

Protestant Jesus

Protestant Jesus

If you think about this theologically, you’ll notice that the Protestant Jesus looks like us. He is clearly human; this representation provides no clue to His divinity. This is a Jesus you could have a crush on, a Jesus who would not be out of place in People magazine. In addition, the Protestant Jesus is not looking at us. While we are gazing at Him, He is gazing elsewhere. This Jesus is seemingly not engaged with us; he does not look at us with either compassion or judgment.

By contrast, Roman Catholic versions of Jesus are often more sentimental. One stylized depiction is called The Sacred Heart of Jesus, and is often used by various Roman Catholic Churches. In this depiction, Jesus has classic European features but is somewhat effeminate looking. He is gazing out at us with love. Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has to do with the human and Divine Heart of Christ, particularly as it represents and recalls His love for us. This painting is designed to use as an aid in stirring up our imaginations and increasing our devotion to Christ.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

Note, as well, the aureola (halo, or glory cloud), representing the holiness of Christ. While this Christ is clearly human, the aureola serves to indicate His divinity as well. Like the Protestant Jesus, Catholic representations of Jesus pay great attention to representing the humanity of Christ. Christ and his surroundings are painted so as to simulate reality. This is true even in their stylized depictions of the crucifixion.

The Crucifixion of Christ

Catholic Iconography of the Crucifixion

The crucifixion is often depicted with a certain sentimentality. This Christ is the object of desire. As such, this is not the Christ of scripture, the one who has no beauty that we should desire Him. This is not the Christ who had been beaten and scourged to the point that he was unable to carry his own cross. And this Christ is, once again, not looking at us with love, but looking up to heaven. The intent of this painting is for us to use our imaginations to stir up our devotion to Christ.

Contrast this with one of the oldest extant representations of Christ the Pantocrator from St. Catherine’s Monastery, Egypt. This is a representation of Christ as God Almighty, the Lord of Hosts. This icon famously shows the two sides of Jesus. On the left side, He is looking at us with compassion; on the right side, with judgment. Instead of a standard halo, we see Jesus depicted with a halo containing a cross, although only three arms are visible. These three arms represent the trinity. On each arm is written one of three Greek letters (omega, omicron, nu) representing the phrase “He Who Is”. This phrase reminds us of The Name of God as revealed to Moses: “I am that I am.” Jesus Christ is God, and His existence is not contingent on anyone. We, on the other hand, do not exist of ourselves; our existence is contingent.

Icon of Christ the Pantocrator

Icon of Christ the Pantocrator

Note the position of the hands. Jesus right hand is held up in blessing, with two fingers extended (representing the divine and human natures of Christ), and with the ring finger and the little finger touching the thumb (representing the Holy Trinity).

There is much to love about this depiction of Christ, but there is no sentimentality. This Christ is gazing upon us, just as we are gazing upon Him. This is the Christ who is the Captain of the Host, the one who could have called upon 12 legions of angels, but who at the same time is involved with us.