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.

Orthodoxy and the Eternal Subordination of the Son

Holy Trinity

Holy Trinity

Calvinists have a doctrine they call the Eternal Subordination of the Son. The idea is that by taking humanity into Himself, the Son of God Eternally subjected Himself to the Father. They debate among themselves about whether this eternal subordination is voluntary or not.

There are problems with this doctrine, a doctrine that sets Calvinism apart from historic Christianity. This is a new doctrine, unique to Calvinists, and presents unique problems. The Muslims express the problems the best when they ask how Jesus can be both God and be subordinate to God? Of course, they are viewing this from their non-trinitarian understanding of God, and also their understanding of the submission of humanity to the absolute transcendence of God. Because they have no understanding of the two natures in Christ, they have problems with this doctrine. However, as it turns out, the Calvinists have a faulty Christology, leading to a faulty understanding of the two natures in Christ.

From the Council of Chalcedon, we find the definition of the two natures in Christ defined.[1]

Following the holy Fathers we teach with one voice that the Son [of God] and our Lord Jesus Christ is to be confessed as one and the same [Person], that he is perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, very God and very man, of a reasonable soul and [human] body consisting, consubstantial with the Father as touching his Godhead, and consubstantial with us as touching his manhood; made in all things like unto us, sin only excepted; begotten of his Father before the worlds according to his Godhead; but in these last days for us men and for our salvation born [into the world] of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God according to his manhood. This one and the same Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son [of God] must be confessed to be in two natures, unconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably [united], and that without the distinction of natures being taken away by such union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature being preserved and being united in one Person and subsistence, not separated or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten, God the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, as the Prophets of old time have spoken concerning him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ hath taught us, and as the Creed of the Fathers hath delivered to us.[2]

The incarnation is usually described as God becoming man. But this is only partially correct. We speak of the rising and the setting of the sun, even though we know that what is actually happening is the earth is rotating about its axis. In the same way what actually happens at the incarnation is that the Son of God assumes humanity into Himself. In western Christianity, this is described by the term communicatio idiomatum, or communication of attributes. This is not a true hypostatic union where no communication takes place; instead, the person of Christ is consubstantial with the Father as touching His Godhead and consubstantial with us as touching His humanity.

Calvinists object to the orthodox understanding of the communication of attributes, being that the Son of God assumed humanity into Himself without being changed by it. They assert a change in the eternal Sonship such that the Son of God is now eternally subordinate to the Father. Christ’s humanity trumps Christ’s divinity; Christ is forever limited by His human form, and therefore in Eternal Subjection to the Father.[3]

The Calvinist’s view of Christ is rotten at its core, as it is a combination of a number of ancient heresies. Calvinism has a hint of Monoenergism[4] and Monothelitism[5] in that it treats “the divine and human as if they are two sides in a zero-sum transaction.”[6] This is why they ascribe divine attributes to the Son of God and to the person of Christ, yet deny the bodily exercise of those divine attributes. Calvinism imagines a Christ who is a tertium quid — a third thing indefinite and undefined, yet related to both divinity and humanity. The Christ of Calvin is somehow less than fully divine, as the Christ no longer expresses the full attributes of divinity. In this, Calvinism has a hint of Nestorianism[7] and Arianism[8]. The only way for the humanity of Christ to not partake of the divine energies is to have the divine and human natures be loosely associated in the person of Christ, which is a subtle restatement of the teaching of Nestorius. By asserting the eternal subordination of Christ to the Father, they are partaking in the error of Arius.

St. Athanasius the Great writes in his Letter to Epictetus (59):

And why any longer blame the Arians for calling the Son a creature, when you go off to another form of impiety, saying that the Word was changed into flesh and bones and hair and muscles and all the body, and was altered from its own nature? For it is time for you to say openly that He was born of earth; for from earth is the nature of the bones and of all the body. What then is this great folly of yours, that you fight even with one another? For in saying that the Word is coessential with the Body, you distinguish the one from the other , while in saying that He has been changed into flesh, you imagine a change of the Word Himself. And who will tolerate you any longer if you so much as utter these opinions? For you have gone further in impiety than any heresy.[9]

St. Ambrose of Milan writes:

Let us follow the course of the Scriptures. He Who came will deliver up the kingdom to God the Father; and when He has delivered up the kingdom, then also shall He be subject to Him, Who has put all things in subjection under Him, that God may be all in all. If the Son of God has received the kingdom as Son of Man, surely as Son of Man also He will deliver up what He has received. If He delivers it up as Son of Man, as Son of Man He confesses His subjection indeed under the conditions of the flesh, and not in the majesty of His Godhead.

I could go on in this vein, but this is enough.

Bibliography

Chemnitz, Martin. 1971. The Two Natures In Christ. Translated by J.A.O. Preus. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Phillips, Robin. 2014. “Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist (Part 5″: A Deformed Christology.” Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy. January 23. Accessed February 4, 2017. http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxyandheterodoxy/2014/01/23/why-i-stopped-being-a-calvinist-part-5-a-deformed-christology/.

Schaff, Philip. 2005. NPNF2-14 The Seven Ecumenical Councils. Vol. 14. 14 vols. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

St Athanasius the Great. 2009. “Letter 59.” New Advent. Accessed February 4, 2017. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2806059.htm.

Endnotes

[1] The two natures in Christ is also explained in The Athanasian Creed.

[2] (Schaff 2005, 388)

[3] In practical terms, the physical body of Christ could be omnipresent without changing anything essential to Christ’s humanity. Thus, in the Eucharist the bread and wine can become the body and blood of Christ. Calvinists assert that if the human body of Christ can be locally present in multiple places (as in the bread and wine), Christ ceases to be truly human. If Christ is seated at the right hand of God, He cannot also be physically present in the bread and wine. (As if God the Father had a right hand or a localized presence such that one could be physically seated next to him.)

[4] Monoenergism: Christ did not have divine energies and human energies.

[5] Monothelitism: Christ did not have a divine nature and a human nature.

[6] (Phillips 2014)

[7] Nestorianism: that Jesus was host to two natures; the divine and the human, with only a loose association between them.

[8] Arianism: The Son of God was created in time, and is subordinate to the Father.

[9] (St Athanasius the Great 2009)

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.

Does God Exist?

Jesus casting out demons

Jesus casting out demons

“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.” 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 to provide 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.