Finitum (non) Capax Infiniti

The Great Panagia (Our Lady of the Sign)

The Great Panagia (Our Lady of the Sign)

Finitum (non) Capax Infiniti

Finitum non capax infiniti: the finite cannot contain the infinite. This is the argument of the Reformed (Calvinist) confession against the idea that the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ is present in the Eucharistic bread and wine. The Lutheran position states finitim capax infiniti: the finite can contain the infinite — that god is everywhere present, but makes Himself known only where and how He wills.[1] The theological shorthand for this argument is (non) capax, meaning it is a question of whether the infinite God who is everywhere present and filling all things can also be locally and bodily present in the bread and wine.

The source of this disagreement is Aristotle: specifically, the application of Aristotle’s philosophic speculation to theology. In Book 3 of Aristotle’s Physics, he writes: “the infinite body will obviously prevail over and annihilate the finite body.”[2] Following Aristotelian logic, the finite cannot contain the infinite. This means the Son of God cannot be contained by the bread and wine.

If we accept the argument that the infinite God cannot be contained in the bread and the wine, we must extend this argument further to encompass both the Incarnation and the person of Jesus Christ. If the infinite Son of God cannot be present in the bread and wine, how then can the infinite Son of God be present in Mary’s womb? If the finite cannot contain the infinite, then how can Christ be fully God and fully man?

Some Protestants deal with the problem through Kenotic Theology, which is derived from the Carmen Christi, or the Hymn to Christ.

Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Ph 2:6-11)

In Kenotic Theology, the passage from Philippians 2 is taken to mean the kenosis (or self-emptying) of the Son of God had to do with the Son of God emptying Himself of his divinity so as to fit within the confines of the human body. Kenotic Theology is contradicted by the Apostle Paul, who writes: “For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Co 2:9). Clearly we cannot accept any diminution in the divinity of the Son of God, for then the fullness of the Godhead would not be present in Jesus Christ.[3]

In 451 A.D., the Fourth Ecumenical Council was called to settle disputes as to the relationship of the divine and human natures in Jesus Christ. They settled the issue as follows:

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.[4]

If orthodox theology is correct, if Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, then God built for Himself a body of flesh taken from the Virgin Mary and took up residence in Mary’s womb. The Virgin Mary became the container of the uncontainable (χώρα άχωρήτου),[5] just as the human body of Jesus was united with the divinity of the Son of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Iconographically, this is represented by the icon of the Panagia (a.k.a. Our Lady of the Sign), which depicts the Virgin Mary at the moment of the Annunciation, a medallion showing Jesus Christ in her womb, and her hands raised in prayer. Her extended hands also depict the boundlessness of Him who is contained in her womb. Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306-373 A.D.) writes the following in Hymn 3 of his Hymns on the Nativity.

Glory to that One Who never before could be measured by us;
our heart is too small for Him and our intellect too weak.
He dazzles our smallness by the wealth of His forms.
Glory to the All-knowing Who cast Himself down,
and asks to hear and to learn what He already knew
to reveal by His questions the treasure of His benefits.[6]

In this hymn, St. Ephrem is describing the vast gulf that separates us from God. Our finitude is too small to contain God — that is, until God Himself enlarged our finitude by His presence. Our Lord’s infinitude was hidden behind the veil of His flesh and revealed only when He desired it for the salvation of souls. By uniting our humanity with His Divinity, our Lord Jesus Christ made it possible for our common humanity — by God’s grace — to grasp His likeness.

In the Christian West, the issue of whether the finite could contain the infinite is extremely important. In the Christian East the issue is not even raised. Indeed, this is an example of how the Christian East considers Roman Catholics and Protestants to be two sides of the same coin, for they ask the same questions — only their answers are different. The Christian East looks at the issue quite differently. Of course, the finite can contain the infinite; in fact, that is the very purpose of creation itself.

In the first creation account, God says: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Ge 1:26). God is by definition infinite; we as His creation are finite. And yet what does it mean for God to create humanity in His image and likeness? Does it not imply that humanity was created to be like God in all things, excluding God’s essence? How can the finite be like the infinite if the finite does not contain within itself the capacity for infinitude — if the finite is not meant to share, by God’s grace, in God’s infinitude?

In the tabernacle, we see the Holy of Holies as the dwelling place of God. We see this recapitulated in Solomon’s temple. Once the temple was built, the ark placed within the Holy of Holies. In the book of 1st Kings we read:

And it came to pass, when the priests were come out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the LORD, So that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud: for the glory of the LORD had filled the house of the LORD. Then spake Solomon, The LORD said that he would dwell in the thick darkness. I have surely built thee an house to dwell in, a settled place for thee to abide in for ever. (1Ki 8:10-13).

The glory of the LORD filled the temple, for God dwelt there. How can this be? How can the infinite God be fully present with His people in such as way as to dwell among them? Somehow, in a way beyond our understanding, God is not constrained by His infinitude. He is fully present with His people while at the same time being everywhere present and filling all things. Although the Son of God chose to empty Himself and took our poverty upon Himself, yet in accordance with His judgments, He used the gift that He received from us for His own adornment and majesty.[7]

God revealed Himself to Moses not as the impersonal absolute, but as a person. Elder Sophrony writes: “But He Whom I had discarded as ‘unnecessary’ …suddenly put before me the Bible text, the revelation on Mt. Sinai: ‘I AM THAT I AM’ [Exod 3:14]. BEING is I. God, the absolute Master of all the celestial worlds is PERSONAL — I AM.” [Brackets in the original.][8] In speaking of the relationship between human persons and the personal God, Elder Sophrony later said: “By the grace of God, I am.”[9]

So yes, the finite can contain the infinite. By grace, the Holy of Holies contained the glory of God. By grace, the Holy Virgin’s womb contained the uncontainable God. By grace, the body of Jesus contained the infinite Son of God. By grace, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is (1Jo 3:2).

Bibliography

Anonymous. 2005. Finitum capax? Some tricky theology. November 21. Accessed June 8, 2016. http://www.christianforums.com/threads/finitum-capax-some-tricky-theology.2325926/#post-20117952.

Archimandrite Aacharias (Zacharou). 2015. Man, the Target of God. Essex: Stravropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist.

Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov). 2006. We Shall See Him as He Is. Platina: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood.

Aristotle. 350 B.C.E. “Physics.” The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed June 7, 2016. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/physics.3.iii.html.

Cabasalis, Nicholas. 2013. “Homily on the Annunciation by St. Nicholas Cabasalis.” MYSTAGOGY RESOURCE CENTER. March 25. Accessed June 7, 2016. http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2013/03/homily-on-annunciation-by-st-nicholas.html.

Peltomaa, Leena Mari. 2001. The Image of the Virgin Mary in the Akathistos Hymn. Boston: Brill.

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

St Ephrem the Syrian. 1989. Hymns. Translated by Kathleen E. McVey. New York: Paulist Press.

Endnotes

[1] (Anonymous 2005)

[2] (Aristotle 350 B.C.E.)

[3] In Kenotic Theology, the Son of God is said to have emptied Himself of his divinity prior to His resurrection.

[4] (NPNF2-14, 388)

[5] (Peltomaa 2001, 138)

[6] (St Ephrem the Syrian 1989, 85)

[7] (Cabasalis 2013)

[8] (Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) 2006, 28)

[9] (Archimandrite Aacharias (Zacharou) 2015, 79)

Clothed in Glory

The Annunciation. Oldest surviving icon of the Annunciation, Rome, Via Salaria, Catacomb of Priscilla, mid-2nd century.

The Annunciation. Oldest surviving icon of the Annunciation, Rome, Via Salaria, Catacomb of Priscilla, mid-2nd century.

Clothed with the Glory of God

When we discuss the communion of persons, which is a sign[1] and symbol of the communion the trinity has with itself, we can then understand what the scriptures mean when they speak of Adam and Eve being naked, and not ashamed (Ge 2:25).[2] By nature the man and the woman were in full communion with each other, and full communion with God (Ge 2:8). The fathers of the church believed Adam and Eve were thereby clothed with the glory of God.

The obvious question is whether the idea of the original and prototypical humanity being clothed with the glory of God has any scriptural foundation. In the introduction to Robert Alter’s translation of Psalms, he notes the way the language of Psalms presents the idea of light’s being a mythological property of deity, of God wearing light as a garment, and of God stretching out the heavens as a garment.

God, as we note in Psalm 27[3], is associated with light — in that instance, because light, archetypically, means safety and rescue to those plunged in fearful darkness, but also because radiance is a mythological property of deities and monarchs. Psalm 104 is a magnificent celebration of God as king of the vast panorama of creation. It begins by imagining God in the act of putting on royal raiment: “Grandeur and glory you don” (hod wehadar lavashta). The psalmist then goes on: “Wrapped in light like a cloak, / stretching out the heavens like a tentcloth” (verse 2). What makes the familiar figure of light for the divinity so effective is its fusion with the metaphor of clothing. The poet, having represented God donning regalia, envisages Him wrapping Himself in a garment of pure light (the Hebrew verb used here is actually in the active mode, “wrapping”). Then, associatively continuing the metaphor of fabrics, he has God “stretching out the heavens like a tent-cloth,” the bright sky above becoming an extension of the radiance that envelopes God.[4]

The association of God with light is the source for the phrase describing Jesus Christ as “light from light” in the Nicene Creed. Since Sacred Scripture speaks of God being clothed in light, and of spreading out the heavens like a tentcloth, it is only natural to extend that idea to original and prototypical humanity. St. Ephrem the Syrian writes: “God clothed Adam in glory”; and again: “It was because of the glory with which they were clothed that they were not ashamed. It was when this glory was stripped from them after they had transgressed the commandment that they were ashamed because they were naked”[5] In like manner, St John Chrysostom writes: “[W]hile sin and disobedience had not yet come on the scene, they were clad in that glory from above which caused them no shame. But after the breaking of the law, then entered the scene both shame and awareness of their nakedness.”[6]

The 17th century mystic Jacom Böhme remarks:

Man should have walked naked upon the earth, for the heavenly [part] penetrated the outward, and was his clothing. He stood in great beauty, glory, joy and delight, in a child­like mind; he should have eaten and drunk in a magical manner; not into the body, as now, but in the mouth there was the separation; for so likewise was the fruit of Paradise.[7]

Such was the state of humanity in Paradise. Yet once Adam had sinned and the glory of God had departed from him, it was immediately clear to him that he no longer belonged in Paradise. St. Ephrem the Syrian, explains this in the seventh verse of his second Hymn on Paradise:

At its boundary I saw
figs, growing in a sheltered place,
from which crowns were made that adorned
the brows of the guilty pair,
while there leaves blushed, as it were,
for him who was stripped naked:
there leaves were required for those two
who had lost their garments;
although they covered Adam,
still they made him blush with shame and repent,
because, in a place of such splendor,
a man who is naked is filled with shame.[8]

There are striking parallels between this hymn and the account of the Philistines capturing the Ark — how the pregnant wife of Phineas, upon hearing this, gave birth. “And she named the child Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel” (I Sam 4:21). It is only after the fall, after the glory has departed, and after full communion of persons has been lost, that the man and the woman objectified each other as individuals rather than persons partaking of the same nature; in their fallen state they saw themselves as naked before each other and before God.[9]

The reader will no doubt be reminded of how the Ark of the covenant was shrouded in the “thick darkness” of the Holy of Holies (I Kings 8:12); and of how in Ezekiel chapters 8-10, the prophet is given a vision of the glory of God, the defilement of the temple, and how the glory of God departed from the temple as a consequence for Israel’s sin. In this manner we come to the understanding that the glory with which Adam and Eve were clothed, or overshadowed, is natural to mankind in the state of original righteousness, a state of communion with God. We also understand that the glory of God, with which they were clothed, would quite rightly depart as a consequence of Adam’s sin. In this context, we note that after the Babylonian captivity and the rebuilding of the temple, Ezra makes no mention of the glory of God returning, filling the temple, and overshadowing the Ark. Instead, the return of the Shekinah glory came at the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel informed the blessed virgin that the Holy Ghost would come upon her and the power of the highest would overshadow her. What we see at the annunciation (and in Revelation 12), is the blessed virgin clothed with the glory of God, as was Eve in the garden — which points to the Incarnation as the inauguration of God’s plan for reconciliation and recreation, for the reestablishment of that perfect communion between God and man, and between each human person.

 


Endnotes

[1] On the nature of the sign and the thing signified, Karl Barth notes: “Sign and thing signified, the outward and the inward, are, as a rule, strictly distinguished in the Bible, and certainly in other connexions we cannot lay sufficient stress upon the distinction. But they are never separated in such a (“liberal”) way that according to preference the one may be easily retained without the other.” (Barth, Church Dogmatics The Doctrine of the Word of God, Volume 1, Part 2 1956, 179) In other words, the sign always points to the thing signified. However, if we believe in the thing signified, we have to accept the sign as well—as, for example, with the virgin birth being the sign of the Incarnation (Isa 7:14).

[2] (John Paul II 2006, 163)

[3] The Lord is my light and my rescue.

Whom should I fear?

The Lord is my life’s stronghold.

Of whom should I be afraid?

Ps 27:1, Robert Alter’s translation (Alter 2007, xxv-xxvi; 91)

[4] (Alter 2007, xxviii)

[5] (St Ephrem the Syrian n.d., 99, 106)

[6] (Louth, Conti and Oden, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament I, Genesis 1-11 2001, 72)

[7] (Böhme 2009)

[8] (St Ephrem the Syrian 1989, 87)

[9] (Lossky, The Creation 1989, 77)

 


Bibliography

Alter, Robert. 2007. The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Barth, Karl. 1956. Church Dogmatics The Doctrine of the Word of God, Volume 1, Part 2: The Revelation of God; Holy Scripture: The Proclamation of the Church. New York: T&T Clark Ltd.

Böhme, Jacom. 2009. “Mysterium Magnum (part one).” Gnosis research. October 9. Accessed November 15, 2010. http://meuser.awardspace.com/Boehme/Jacob-Boehme-Mysterium-Magnum-part-one-free-electronic-text.pdf.

John Paul II. 2006. Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. Boston: Pauline Books & Media.

Lossky, Vladimir. 1989. “The Creation.” In Orthodox Theology: An Introduction, by Vladimir Lossky, edited by Ian Kesarcodi-Watson and Ihita Kesarcodi-Watson, 51-78. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Louth, Andrew, Marco Conti, and Thomas C. Oden. 2001. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament I, Genesis 1-11. Vol. 1. 28 vols. Westmont: InterVarsity Press.

St Ephrem the Syrian. n.d. “Commentary on Genesis.” Scribd.com. Accessed June 9, 2013. http://www.scribd.com/doc/56174298/St-Ephraim-the-Syrian-Commentary-on-Genesis.

—. 1989. Hymns on Paradise. Translated by Sebastion Brock. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

 

Blessed Among Women (Luk 1:42)

Visitation ( visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary with Saint Elizabeth, Virgin Mary shown pregnant ), 14th century Wallpaintings, Timios Stavros Church in Pelendri, included in the UNESCO World Heritage List

The Visitation of the Virgin Mary to Elizabeth

Then said Ozias unto her, O daughter, blessed art thou of the most high God above all the women upon the earth; and blessed be the Lord God, which hath created the heavens and the earth, which hath directed thee to the cutting off of the head of the chief of our enemies. (Judith 13:18)

And she [Elizabeth] spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. (Luk 1:42)

After saving her city by beheading Holofernes, the commanding general of the Assyrian army, Judith brings the head to Ozias, one of the governors of Bethulia. This happens in much the same way as the story of the death of Sisera by the hand of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite (Jud 5:24). A great deal of similarity exists between the praise heaped upon Jael by Deborah and Barak, and the praise heaped upon Judith by Ozias. Nevertheless, Elizabeth is clearly quoting from Judith, whereas Ozias — in his praise of Judith — is alluding to the praise of Jael.

Judith Beheading Holofernes (Caravaggio)

Judith Beheading Holofernes (Caravaggio)