Staniloae on Knowledge of God and Pain

staniloaeEvery Christian knows God in his providential action by which the Christian is led in the particular circumstances of his own life, sometimes having good things for his lot, at other times – as a kind of training – being deprived of them. This latter form of guidance Saint Maximos calls leading through judgment . . .

Everyone knows God in the qualms of conscience he feels for the wrongs he has committed and, finally, everyone knows him in his own troubles and failure – temporary or lasting – in his own illness or that of those close to him that results from certain evils done or as a means of moral perfections and spiritual strengthening; but everyone also knows God in the help that he receives from him in overcoming these and all the other barriers and difficulties that stand in his way. This knowledge helps in leading each man on his own way of perfection.

It is a thrilling, burdensome, painful and joyful knowledge; it wakens within us our ability to respond; it gives fervor to prayer, and it causes our being to draw closer to God.

In this knowledge, our being experiences in practice the goodness, power, justice and wisdom of God, his attentive care for us, and God’s special plan in its regard. In this connection the human person experiences a relation of particular intimacy with God as supreme Personal reality. In this knowledge I no longer see God only as the creator and the providential guide of all things, or as the mystery which makes himself visible to all, filling all with a joy which is to a greater or lesser extent the same in all cases; but I know him in his special care and regard to me, in his intimate relations with me, in his plan whereby, through the particular suffering, demands, and direction that he addresses to me in life, he leads me in a special way to the common goal.

This intimate relationship which God has with me certainly does not remove me from solidarity with others or from obligations I have towards others, towards family, nation, my home, my age, all the contemporary world. But God makes himself known to me through the appeals that he addresses to me especially, so as to stir me up to fulfill my duties, or through the remorse that I feel when I have not fulfilled my own special duties . . .

This is why God puts me in circumstances like those described, and through them makes himself transparent on account of the interest he takes in me. It is especially with this purpose in mind that he is the mysterium tremendum.

christ-praying-620x349The difficult circumstances which pierce our being like nails urge us towards more deeply felt prayer. And during this kind of prayer the presence of God is more evident to us . . . the state of prayer is a condition in which through an increase of sensibility, we apprehend God as a “Thou” who is present . . .

The existential experience of God is combined with the apophatic experience of him [and these two combine] with the knowledge of God as creator and providential guide of the world (cataphatic knowledge) . . .

Through these three kinds of knowledge [cataphatic, apophatic, and existential] the personal interest God shows towards man, together with his mystery and greatness that are beyond understanding, come into relief. Through all three, God is known as lover according to the measure of our love for him and for our neighbor.

 

Dumitru Staniloae, The Experience of God (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology vol. 1), pp. 117-122.

Hans Urs von Balthasar and Hope – Conclusion

Abandonment, Holy Saturday, and Hell

lastjudgment_5x10One very helpful insight Balthasar emphasizes is that God does not judge his creatures merely from above and merely from outside. Rather, he has lived out in Christ the ultimate experience of this world, the very world that has exercised its given, created, limited freedom to withdraw obedience from God. Christ was abandoned by man and he was abandoned by the Father, and so he is the incarnate one who has experientially known “every dimension of the world’s being down to the abyss of hell.”[1] This he calls the “central issue” of the theo-drama: “that God has made his own the tragic situation of human existence, right down to its ultimate abysses; thus, without drawing its teeth or imposing an extrinsic solution on it, he overcomes it.”[2]

This heightens the drama and brings concrete reality to the meaningful relationship between God and men. Balthasar’s theology at times is subject to the criticism that it is more abstract that concrete; but here, concreteness gains prominence, and fittingly so at the turning point of the drama of redemption. Christ has suffered concretely for the concrete sins that are done individually and corporately; he has suffered for all the suffering and injustice that are experienced in the world individually and corporately. God proves his love and compassion for the world by taking sin and judgment upon himself in Christ. The Mediator is the one who is in a “pact with both warring parties and yet not a traitor to either; epitomizing the living drama in the very ‘composition’ of his being, torn asunder by his tragic situation and yet, thus torn, healing divisions.”[3]

There are two dimensions that open up in the cross of Christ, where “God himself is forsaken by God because of man’s godlessness.”[4] Balthasar develops the theme of the crucifixion and death of Christ as that which will become the locus of the judgment of God for all humanity. But there are some aspects of his development of this theme that seem to be inconsistent both with Scripture and with Tradition, as some scholars have complained.[5] He argues that, as Christ drank the cup of the wrath of God, he was baptized with the baptism which lead down to death and hell, becoming the accursed one (Gal 3:13) who is sin (2 Cor. 5:21) personified.

So far, this seems consistent with the traditional interpretation of the cross of Christ. But Balthasar goes further: for him, Christ goes to the place where “the smoke . . . goes up for ever and ever,” as described in Rev. 19:3 in reference to the eternal destruction of Babylon; Christ is thrown into the lake of fire which is the second death (citing Rev. 20:14).[6] Referring to Christ’s condition, he says, “this is the essence of the second death: that which is cursed by God in his definitive judgment (John 12:31) sinks down to the place where it belongs. In this final state there is no time.”[7] Further, he states that

The real object of a theology of Holy Saturday does not consist in the completed state which follows on the last act of self surrender of the incarnate Son to his Father . . . rather . . . it is something unique . . . all the sins of the world now experienced as agony and a sinking down into the “second death” or “second chaos . . .[8]

Thus, Christ has suffered “not only for the elect but for all human beings  . . . [and he] assumed their eschatological ‘No’” as he experienced the second death.”[9]

There are a number of problems with these statements. First, if Christ has indeed experienced the second death for all humanity indiscriminately, there are only two options available for a consistent soteriology. One is that all the sins of humanity, without discrimination, are punished in Christ, and thereby all human beings ultimately are justified and saved despite their Yes or No to God; they are automatically redeemed because the objective work of Christ is applied to all without qualification. The second option is that, conversely, some will still remain in their conscious, final No to God and be eternally separated from him in hell despite Christ’s work that applies to all indiscriminately. Both options are highly problematic.

In the first option, there is no significant drama left. All evil has been punished in Christ and all humanity has been saved, whether individuals accept that or not. There will never be any other judgment upon murderers, abusers, oppressive governments, liars, and the like. We can know with certainty (despite Balthasar’s desire to remove certainty in order to maintain genuine drama) that all sins that could ever be committed, whether personally or corporately – indeed, all the evil that is daily perpetrated throughout the world, and all injustice – have been already punished.

In that case, hell has already fully and finally appeared under the cross, and it has fulfilled its purpose in the sufferings of Christ. Balthasar indeed has affirmed that “on the basis of this exchange of place, we are already ‘reconciled to God’ (Rom. 5:18) in advance of our own consent, ‘while we were yet sinners’ . . . we are ontologically ‘transferred.’”[10] This would need some serious qualifications to begin with; but here the implications seem to go beyond “in advance of our own consent” into the idea of despite our own consent.

This unlimited and unconditional act of grace might sound like something desirable in the abstract sense, but when one considers individual people (or particular groups or governments) with their concrete sins and concrete expressions of evil, human intuition reacts against unconditional amnesty. Indeed, it would be unjust if an evil person who perpetrates great evil intentionally, unrepentantly, to the end of his or her life, should go unpunished.

Temporal punishments do not solve the problem either, because they often are not experienced by guilty parties. There seems to be a universal intuition that unrepentant criminals who commit vile crimes should not only be deterred, but punished – and that if they are not punishment, justice has not been served. Human nature can appreciate mercy to repentant offenders; but not unqualified mercy and grace to unrepentant, obstinate evil doers. But that is what the concept of Christ’s suffering the second death for all humanity indiscriminately would require. In fact, the main purpose of the book of Revelation – to comfort the faithful who experience pain and persecution in the world in view of the coming deliverance of the righteous and punishment of the evil persecutors – is defeated.

When John says that “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur; this is the second death,” (Rev. 21:8), to take Balthasar’s approach, one cannot take this other than a symbol for what Christ has endured. They do not apply to people in any meaningful way anymore.

The second option would be one in which God would honor a person’s freedom to remain in his or her No to God despite of what Christ has suffered in the second death. This is what is implied by Balthasar when he says, “Man is always situatied between two principles that, depending on his free choice, govern his perdition or salvation.”[11] Aside from the apparently contradiction this creates with his other statements, this would entail (given his apparently purely objective view of the atonement as described above) that Christ’s sacrifice ultimately is not effective, because, in and of itself, it does not atone for anybody – it only makes forgiveness possible.

It does not accomplish any objective punishment in hell for sinners who say No to God, even though it is meant for them. In this way, finite freedom ultimately triumphs over infinite freedom, and all affirmations (made repeatedly by Balthasar) that Christ’s suffering and abandoment is experienced in the place of all human beings needs to be qualified as a mere possibility posited by God that becomes effective only to those who say Yes to God.

Tradition

Beyond the issues of exegetical difficulties and logical inconsistencies that these options entail, there is also the problem of the traditional understanding of the Church in relation to Christ’s suffering on the cross. Of course, one may not take either Scripture or the Tradition of the Church as bearing any ultimate authority on this or any other issue; but they are central to someone like Balthasar who means to submit himself to the authority of both Scripture and Tradition. When it comes, then, to Tradition, it would be almost redundant to cite the overwhelming majority of the historical Church which has denied that Christ has suffered the second death in the lake of fire. Suffice it to quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

632 The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection.This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.

633 Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.

As the Catechism makes clear, Jesus did not go to the lake of fire in a second death to experience there the abandonment and punishment of God. The Church has understood Christ’s “descent into hell” as done in glory, as Christ descends “as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.” He went, not to the lake of fire, but to “Abraham’s bosom,” where the righteous awaited the proclamation of the victory of Christ; he did not go to the place of torment where was found the “rich man” who begged Lazarus for a drop of water and was denied because of the “great chasm” that stood between them.

One of Balthasar’s concerns in emphasizing Christ’s descent into hell is to make sense of Holy Saturday. If Christ’s work was finished on the cross, why is there a Saturday before Easter? This is an important question, and, indeed, to affirm that Christ needed a day to proclaim victory to the righteous seem unconvincing as a rationale for Holy Saturday, given that Christ exited the realm of physical time when he gave up his spirit on the cross. Announcing victory to a multitude in Abraham’s bosom would take less than a second – indeed it would take no time at all, because that realm is beyond time.

However, to argue that on that day Christ was in hell finishing his atonement and abandonment for mankind is not something necessary for one to make sense of Holy Saturday; indeed, to deny Christ’s suffering in the second death is not to deny the importance of Holy Saturday. Balthasar himself brilliantly expresses the role and importance of the silence and darkness of that day, which is the time “in between his placing in the grave and the event of the Resurrection” when death calls for this silence. He writes,

Death calls for this silence, not only by reason of the mourning of the survivors, but, even more, because of what we know of the dwelling and condition of the dead . . . death is not a partial event. It is a happening which affects the whole person . . . it is a situation which signifies in the first place the abandonment of all spontaneous activity and so [it is] a passivity . . .  In that same way that, upon earth, he was in solidarity with the living, so, in the tomb, he is in solidarity with the dead.[12]

This is consistent with Christ’s cry on the cross: Τετέλεσται (John 19:30), as he gave up his spirit; the work had been completed then and there. Τετέλεσται is the perfect passive indicative of the verb τελέω which means “to complete an activity or process, bring to an end, finish.”[13] The perfect passive form as found in the gospel indicates that, as Christ gave up his spirit, his work of suffering and atonement was completed.

Thus, Balthasar’s exposition of Christ’ suffering in hell, as a second death effecting atonement for all humanity without qualification, faces great difficulties both with the Scriptural data and with Tradition. Edward Oakes argues that “the antinomies that inevitably result from their juxtaposition [of finite and infinite freedom] can only be resolved by the ‘wondrous exchange’ that took place when Christ was ‘made sin’ for our sake.”[14] Yet, it still remains arguable that, at least in the way Balthasar has conceived Christ’s sacrifice, those antinomies still remain.

Conclusion

Balthasar’s argument that man is destined and chosen “before the foundation of the world” to be “blessed with every spiritual blessing” implies a potential universal redemption, concept which, if not vitiates, at least significantly removes the vitality of the drama. The problem is not that we should not hope for the best; hope is always a virtue if that for which is hoped is a good thing – although even here this hope would be questionable given all the biblical data discussed above.

The problem is that, conceptually, the understanding of Christ’s representation and mediation for all men without qualification, and the application of Christ’s redemption to all men independently of the means faith from which the efficient cause of God’s grace cannot be divorced, actually becomes a comedy in which the script does not matter much apart from the work of Christ. That is, decisions made in people’s lives, and throughout history, whatever they might be, are in principle overwhelmed by the grace of God. An actor can fulfill whatever role he chooses, and regardless of whether he cares or not, the play knows what the end will be for him.

Balthasar would probably object and say that, if one thinks one can know what the end of the drama will be, one has misunderstood both Scripture and Balthasar’s theology. But this is where the difficulty in maintaining tensions becomes more pronounced. If all men are destined and chosen “before the foundation of the world” to be “blessed with every spiritual blessing,” then we do know the final outcome of the play. On the other hand, if the No of man can frustrate the Yes of God in Christ, then we may not “dare hope that all men be saved” in any meaningful sense.

If the Yes of Christ is made on behalf of all men indiscriminately, then it really does not matter what role I choose to play in my life. Scriptural commands to repent and to believe the gospel lose their force. My everyday actions as an individual, in all the spheres of life in which I participate – as a parent, as a friend, as a spouse, as a co-worker, as a laborer, as a law-maker, as a janitor, as a president – they have no ultimate, everlasting significance because they are all swallowed up by the grace of God.

Ethics become severely restricted, since whatever realism there might be in the good, the true and the beautiful, it is swallowed up by the nominalism and voluntarism of God who overthrows evil unqualifiedly at the end. On the other hand, if the No a person chooses to consciously and irrevocably give to God is maintained, as God’s “kenosis” in giving legitimate freedom to his creation would necessarily imply, then Balthasar’s hope is not legitimate; and this brings us to another problematic question in relation to hope.

While it may appear that Balthasar’s hope of an empty hell and universal salvation is a pious attitude that conforms more than any other to a robust, biblical, and faithful trust in the ultimate goodness and grace of God, it is in reality a restriction to what the goodness of God can in principle be. For example, if one chooses to say that creation is good, and therefore the salvation of all creation is in principle the greatest good, and therefore the greatest hope, then this would divorce God’s goodness from his justice.

That is to say, it becomes the case that, even if it is just to punish sins, it is good, and even better, to either leave them unpunished, or to punish them in a way that eternal salvation can be eternally secured. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the second option, for that is precisely what is required of any theology that incorporates Christ as representative. The problem is that this representation, in this case, becomes automatic, which again forces the goodness of God to overwhelm human decision. There is no sublation of God bringing good out of evil, but a mere deletion of evil, by fiat. At the end of the day, anything other than universal salvation, even at the expense of human will, will not be considered as a proper expression of the goodness of God.

Against this, however, one has is good reason to believe, both from the testimony of Scripture and of Tradition (as the vast majority of the Church has believed throughout the ages), that the goodness and mercy of God are indeed given to man in a way that is greater and stronger than man’s revolt and man’s sin: because God becomes incarnate in Christ to mediate for the sins of man, and the Holy Spirit imparts the grace of God in men’s hearts to produce faith and unite them to Christ.[15] This is more then sufficient to safeguard the overabundant goodness and grace of God, without requiring that punishment of sins upon any man other than Christ be precluded.

Moreover, the certainty that judgment will indeed be meted out upon those who irrevocably say No to God is precisely what is needed for the theo-drama. Rather than rendering God’s goodness inferior, it actually enhances it because it highlights his justice, which cannot be separated from his goodness – a justice that is itself declaring the goodness and grace of God when it is meted out upon Christ on behalf of those who are united to him by faith.

Therefore, the theo-drama becomes real dramatic when there is a certainty of outcomes, while at the same time there is genuine freedom for actors to choose one or the other. What Balthasar’s soteriology requires is that there is uncertainty of outcomes (on the one hand) and a hope for only one outcome.

This uncertainty softens both the threats against the actors who badly choose their roles, as well the promises to those who choose them well. On the other hand, certainty of the double outcome of punishment and grace (and this is important – the certainty is of the double outcome, not of who will be included in each irrespective of their actions) is what provides the choices in the play to have eternal meaning, consequence, threat, promise, tragedy, and comedy.

Ultimately, the lack of assurance of salvation for those who trust Christ and seek to do good works is precisely what the New Testament seeks to remedy in many places; conversely, the assurance of perdition to those who say No to God in Christ is precisely what it seeks to preserve.


[1] MP 13-14.

[2] Theo-Drama II, 54.

[3] Ibid., 196.

[4] Ibid., 194.

[5] Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, “Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy: An Exchange” in First Things, Dec. 2006.

[6] Mysterium Paschale, 50.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 172-173.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Theo-Drama II, 241-242; emphasis mine.

[11] Ibid., 188; emphasis mine.

[12] Mysterium Paschale, 148.

[13] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Electronic edition, 2000).

[14] Edward T. Oakes, Pattern of Redemption (New York, NY: Continuum Publishing Company, 1994), 226.

[15] The many different ways in which this work in the heart has been understood, ranging from a mere suggestion by example, or an assistance, all the way to an effective work that will infallibly change hearts, is immaterial to the argument here.

Hans Urs von Balthasar and Hope (Part 2 of 3)

Being “Under Judgment,” Presumption and Assurance

dare we hopeBalthasar understands that the passages of Scripture (and particularly of the New Testament) that include threats and descriptions of eternal judgment in hell are “not to be read as anticipatory report[s] about something that will someday come into being,”[i] because there are other statements that indicate they might not. Moreover, he argues, if they are taken as anticipatory reports, they would give certainty of judgment, which would damper Christian hope.

Quoting Karl Rahner, he argues that those statements are to be understood “as a disclosure of the situation in which the person addressed now truly exists.” That is to say, we live in the state of promise and at the same time we are under threat of judgment. “He is the subject who is placed in the position of having to make a decision with irrevocable consequences; he is the one who, by rejecting God’s offer of salvation, can become lost once and for all.”[ii]

The state of being “under judgment” constitutes a cornerstone for Balthasar’s structure of interpretation of the references to judgment and hell. In the opening words of “Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? he says,

All of us who practice the Christian Faith and, to the extent that its nature as a mystery permits, would also like to understand it, are under judgment. But no means are we above it, so that we might know its outcome in advance and could proceed from that knowledge to further speculation . . . Still, in standing trial, we are not left helpless and disheartened; rather, as [Paul] constantly tells us, we can have confidence (parrhesia) and hope, since our judge is he who – as dogma says – has borne the sins of everyone. Are we therefore quite untroubled in the certainty of our salvation? Surely not, for which man knows whether, in the course of his existence, he has lived up to God’s infinite love, which chose to expend itself for him? Must he not, if he is honest and no Pharisee, assume the opposite?  . . . Man is under judgment and must choose.[iii]

It seems almost impossible to read these words and not immediately say, which one is it? Am I under judgment and without the possibility of knowing the outcome of my judgment, or has Christ borne my sins? Am I to have confidence in the outcome of my judgment because Christ has already born my sins, or must I “assume” the opposite, i.e., the certainty of my perdition? One should not deny the mystery involved in Christian revelation and in its paradoxes, but paradoxes can be pressed to the point of self-contradiction.

This is problematic especially because this issue has direct relevance to a person’s spiritual and psychological life (as Balthasar implicitly recognizes). It is one thing to recognize the limits of our understanding when one investigates the Trinity, the hypostatic union, and so forth. But, at the end of the day, am I to have a reverential confidence that, despite my sins, Christ has born the punishment in my place – as long as I don’t say No to God? Or am I to assume the opposite and consider my fear of condemnation as a virtuous antidote to Pharisaic presumption?

Scriptural Foundations

Besides the inherent contradiction in Balthasar’s paradigm here, there is yet another problem with his foundational concept that we are under judgment.[iv] Once again, it is clear that Balthasar wants to take Scripture seriously, and so it is only appropriate that we bring Scripture to bear directly on this discussion.[v]

Paul states in Rom. 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We also read in the gospel of John, “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). Similarly, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24). John writes in the closing section of this gospel that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31).

Therefore, those in whom the gospel fulfills its purpose, i.e., those who do believe, may have that very confidence: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:14). Again, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren” (1 John 3:14a). Far from being presumptuous, confidence and certainty through faith is encouraged in the New Testament:

Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.[vi]

The concept of assurance of salvation is explicitly given in many passages of the New Testament for those who (a) believe the message of the gospel and (b) persevere in the faith.[vii] It is always given in the context of assurance that should create a healthy confidence in the reality of adoption. The teaching is also present implicitly in passages too numerous to list (the passages speaking of salvation and adoption as a past, accomplished act of God on our behalf, that provides the basis of our present condition, are of particular notice).

This is not to say that there are not serious threats in Scripture as well; but also the threats are always given either in relation to apostasy, or in relation to those who deny, by their deeds and by their teachings, that they have actually believed the gospel. John speaks in this way when he says of apostate teachers, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 John 2:19a).

Similarly, the famous warnings of judgment in the epistle to the Hebrews are given to those who, in the face of persecution and suffering, are considering apostasy from the Christian faith. The author often assures his readers of the finished work of Christ on their behalf, and the assurance they might have in entering the presence of God in the Holy of Holies, which way has been opened by Christ on their behalf: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus,  . . . let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:19-22). This is coupled with the command to remain in the faith, and the threat towards those who do not:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful . . . For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries . . . It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God . . . But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.[viii]

Therefore, it is clear that the New Testament does not remove the tension of promise/threat to Christians; but this tension is not one in which Christians must consider themselves without confidence of forgiveness so as to remain free from presumption. On the contrary, believing Christians can rejoice precisely because they are not to fear, since they have already received the Spirit of adoption (Rom. 8:15; 1 Pet. 3:9). This is very important for an assessment of Balthasar’s soteriology. He is wrong to assume Christians are “under judgment” and therefore should not be presumptuous to trust in salvation.

Therefore, it seems that Balthasar is incorrect in interpreting the threats in Scripture as primarily a means to keep man in this state of reverential fear and tentative hope. The threats are real, and the descriptions of judgment, of the separation of sheep and goats, and of the destruction of God’s enemies (e.g., Mat. 25: 31-46; Phil. 3:19; 1 Thes. 5:3; 2 Thes. 1:9; 2 Pet. 3:7) should not be taken as pictures that do not really describe events; they are indeed to be taken “as anticipatory report[s] about something that will someday come into being.” In fact, Balthasar himself seems to take such threats in a more concrete fashion elsewhere in his works. In volume IV of the Theo-Drama, he states,

[W]hen it comes to concrete mention of the judgment, it is, not God, but the Son of Man who will pronounce it. The verdict will depend on how a man has responded to him . . .  if a man has recognized in him the presence of God’s Holy Spirit and has resisted him, his sin is unforgivable . . . the ‘eternal fire’ has opened up below Sheol . . .  balancing, as it were, the heaven that is no open to all.”[ix]

But then again, elsewhere Balthasar argues that the “threatening remarks are made predominantly by the pre-Easter Jesus, and the universalist statements (above all in Paul and John) [are made] with a view to the redemption that has occurred on the Cross.” [x] The statements of the “pre-Easter Jesus,” he argues, use a language that the Jews of that time were familiar with, “whereas certain reflections by Paul and John clearly look back upon all that happened to Jesus – his life, death on the Cross and Resurrection – and, in so doing, consider and formulate this totality from a post-Easter perspective.”[xi]

In this way, the concreteness of the contents of the threats is again put into question – because they do not apply to people, but only to Christ. But if, as we have seen, Christ’s work does not necessarily apply to all individuals automatically, such threats should be taken seriously as referring to those who reject the faith and say an ultimate No to God. In the same way, the promises are just as serious and just as real; they are to be taken as reports of something that has come into being (“we know that we have passed out of death into life,” “that you may know that you have eternal life,” “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” etc.) and something that will be consummated and ratified at the end of one’s life.

All of this seems to contradict Balthasar’s basic soteriological premises. One could argue that there is a long tradition of those who agree with him. There is no question about that. The same can be also said of those who have argued the foregoing. What I argue here, however, is that, given the seriousness with which Balthasar takes the Scriptural data, it is very difficult to maintain what he does in this issue, given the abundance of Biblical texts that assert the concrete reality of God’s judgment upon those who choose to reject him, as well as the concrete reality of God’s promise of ultimate salvation of those who are united by faith to Christ.

Balthasar seems to be driven by his intention to preserve the dramatic tension that would preclude certainties – because certainties would transform the drama in a tragedy or a comedy from the start. Contrary to what he tells his critics at the beginning of Dare We Hope, he has indeed spoken of certainty, or rather the lack thereof, and he has argued that we may not know the outcome in advance. He has argued that we may not be “untroubled in the certainty of our salvation,” which would be the attitude of a “Pharisee,” but rather that we should “assume the opposite.”[xii]

His intention is to preserve one’s lack of certainty of salvation (which presumably produces reverent fear), while at the same time preserving one’s lack of certainty of damnation, which produces tentative hope. He states, “On this earthly pilgrimage, man is, of course, placed between fear and hope, simply because he is under judgment and does not know . . . but precisely the knowing  . . . renders impossible this sate of suspension of those on pilgrimage.”[xiii] But it is John who says ““that you may know that you have eternal life.” Quoting Joseph Pieper approvingly, Balthasar says, “there are two kinds of hopelessness. One is despair; the other, praesumptio . . . praesumptio is a perverse anticipation of the fulfillment of hope.”[xiv] Balthasar wants to keep Christians from this “double praesumptio.” But the New Testament gives assurance of hope to those who believe.

Click here for Part 1.

In the next and final section of this 3 part assessment I will interact with his arguments on abandonment, Holy Saturday, and hell, and make some concluding remarks.


[i] Dare We Hope, 32; emphasis in the original.

[ii] Ibid., 32.

[iii] Ibid., 13-15.

[iv] I am not so concerned here with the general state of mankind, but with the state of those who explicitly embrace the Christian message of the gospel.

[v] All Scriptures quoted in the rest of this paragraph have my emphasis.

[vi] 1 John 4:15-17.

[vii] In responding to the Tridentine accusation that assurance of salvation is presumption, the Canons of Dordt – which are normative for historical Protestant churches of Dutch, German and French origin and their heirs – state (Fifth Head of Doctrine, article 10):

This assurance, however, is not produced by any peculiar revelation contrary to or independent of the Word of God, but springs from faith in Gods promises, which He has most abundantly revealed in His Word for our comfort; from the testimony of the Holy Spirit, witnessing with our spirit that we are children and heirs of God (Rom. 8:16); and lastly, from a serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience and to perform good works. And if the elect of God were deprived of this solid comfort that they shall finally obtain the victory, and of this infallible pledge of eternal glory, they would be of all men the most miserable.

[viii] Heb. 10:26-39.

[ix] Theo-Drama IV, 178.

[x] Dare We Hope, 21.

[xi] Ibid., 29; Balthasar makes clear, however, that he takes this cautiously, and does not want to imply he is arguing for a “progressive revelation even within the New Testament” as some of his critics argue.

[xii] Dare We Hope 13-15.

[xiii] Dare We Hope, 27.

[xiv] Ibid., 27-28.

Balthasar and Universal Salvation

This is a summary from his comments on Theodrama V – the Last Act (Section II. B)

VonBalthasar2The Problem

The idea of an apokatastasis[1] seem to be counterintuitive to a number of biblical passages, and yet there are many that seem to suggest it. As Schleiermacher demands, we should give it at least equal weight to other views. As Gaston Fessard has said, “A la question: Enfer éternel OU Salut universel? je réponds donc: Enfer éternel ET Salut universel!”[2]

First we have to take into account the change from the Old Covenant era to the New: in the Old, it is the God of covenant justice who rules over the nations and over Israel, whereas, in the New Covenant, judgment is primarily the Cross of the Mediator (John 12:31).

Not surprisingly, rejecting the reconciliation of the world wrought by Crist is regarded as much graver than infringing the Law. Here we find again the dramatic core of the theo-drama: the heightened revelation of divine love produces a heightened rejection, a deeper hatred. There is a paradox in which Jesus has come not to judge but to save, and yet, one who rejects him and his command has a judge, namely “the word that I have spoken (John 12:47-48).

Only after we have pursued this dialectic of grace and judgment into its inner depths can we tentatively approach the question of whether there is a convergence between the two poles that seem to be mutually exclusive.

 From the Old Aeon to the New

The imagery of judgment in the Old Testament is largely identical to that in the New, and taken in isolation it can obscure the qualitative difference between them. The Old Covenant is a fleshly, earthly anticipation or pre-image of the New, which is the pneumatic, eschatological truth. The Old Covenant has validity insofar as it shares in the truth to which it points. This is demonstrated by the fact that Abraham’s faith is given priority over the Law.

The Old Covenant presented the faithfulness of God and required the faithfulness of the covenant partner – Israel. The covenant stipulations were blessings for obedience and judgment for disobedience. On the one hand, God reveals that he does not take pleasure in punishment, but on the other hand he does punish according to Israel’s sins. He uses the nations “outside” as instruments of punishment, and then punishes them for their own sins.

At bottom Israel’s sin is always the same: opposing its covenant Lord with its own will, a will that primarily expresses itself in running after foreign gods of its own invention (thus transgressing against the first tablet of the Commandments) or failing to treat his fellow man as prescribed by YHWH (and thus transgressing against the second tablet).

The New Covenant was a complete re-creation of the covenant itself. For in Jesus we have, not one party in a pact, but someone who, in his Person, has be come the unity of God and man. He is the covenant personified; he is the fully realized truth and faithfulness of God, which no longer lie behind his righteousness of reward and punishment, but in it.

God’s whole righteousness (in meeting out punishment) attains its expression and its term in the death of Jesus; in breathing forth his Spirit, Jesus creates the conditions necessary so that the divine Spirit may be put into our hearts and we may be incorporated into the new, eternal and unforgettable covenant, which in Christ has become a Person. Christ fulfills the prophecies that look toward the abolition of the purely external relationship between the covenant partners.

Jeremiah 31:31-34
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Jeremiah 33:8
I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me.

There is then a shift in the New Covenant, where the Law is removed from its old place, and “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). The conclusive judgment has taken place in the Cross of Jesus and in Christ’s death and Resurrection the bonds of death have been burst and eternity stands before us as our reward; accordingly, the Old Covenant’s this-worldly, symmetrical doctrine of retribution collapses. Now there is a fundamental asymmetry insofar as God’s judgment has been pronounced once and for all in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. The crucified Son does not simply suffer the hell deserved by sinners; he suffers something below and beyond this, namely, being forsaken by God in the pure obedience of love.

The judgment that takes place within the Trinity can be understood only in terms of the suffering love between Father and son in the Spirit; henceforth, therefore, all the Old Testament rejoicing at the punishment of the wicked, all eschatological delight at their torment, must fall silent. The absolute refusal of love (which is hell) exists only in the case of him who eternally acknowledges and affirms no one but himself; and it is inconceivable that God would have anything to do with this grotesque possibility. As Joseph Ratzinger says, “Christ allots perdition to no one . . .  He does not pronounce the fatal verdict. It happens where a person has held aloof from him. It comes about where man clings to his isolation.”

There is now no separation of Israel and the “nations,” for Jesus’ parable of the Samaritan shows that, as a result of the Cross, the least of all the prodigal sons has become Jesus’ and God’s neighbor, and it follows that he must also be a neighbor to the disciple of Christ. This is the change from one aeon to another, abolishing all formal continuity between the ideas of judgment in the Old Covenant and those in the New: an abyss now separates them.

Comprehensive Redemption

All of the Lord’s words that refer to the possibility of eternal perdition are pre-Easter words. After Easter the first words we hear are Paul’s full of certainty that, if God be for us, no earthly power can be against us. The Lord suffers for love of all. Coming as a Second Adam, the Son was certain of victory; he died no only for good persons, who open themselves to him at once, but also for the wicked, who resist him. He has time to wait until even these scattered children of God are touched by his light, for not even the wicked person stands outside of the sphere of his power, and the dispersion of the Lord embraces and overtakes even the dispersion of the sinners. As the Good Shepherd, he has been commissioned by the Father to bring back all the sheep, the whole flock, to him – and when he is lifted up, to draw all men to himself.

Eternal life belongs originally to the Father, but from before all time he has shared it with the Son; into this participation the Son leads all those whom the father has given him, namely, all flesh. His whole mission will be completed only when all will be redeemed from sin and be with the Father. The Cross is the decisive judgment because here the Son undercuts and undergirds the world’s sin, which was deserving of a just condemnation.

When the Father in judgment looks at the Son with the eyes of justice, he sees nothing that would call for judgment, since everything is right and just in him, and there is nothing to be judged. Justice therefore has nothing to look for, and judgment naturally dissolves into love. Since the Father has given all judgment to the Son, and the judgment has already become one of love between Father and Son, the Son also cannot pass judgment, which is already dissolved, on men, except as the judgment of love he himself has experienced and received from the Father. The judgment of the Cross is final, but the Lord waits until the Last Day to reveal its complete result. All sins are undercut and undergirded by God’s infinite love, because sin and evil are finite and must come to an end in the love that envelops it. Men’s freedom is not infinite, for man is free within the greater freedom of God.

The Serious Possibility of Refusal

The central mystery of the theo-drama is the Mysterium iniquitatis: God’s heightened love provokes a heightened hatred that is as bottomless as love itself.

There are several passages in the New Testament that point to judgment.[3] The issue is the deliberated rejection of that grace that was so dearly bought at the Cross. Men are not seized by redemption against their will. The decision to believe is not only God’s gift, it is also their personal act – and this has to be performed again and again. Man is always given the possibility of saying Yes or No to God’s offer.

It may seem as if the Lord and evil face each other equipped with equal power and we always decide the battle in our favor as a result of our constant inclination to evil. We shall not be saved against our will, and Christ’s work must not be turned into some sort of blurred collective redemption. If we refuse to allow Christ to accept us, we remain in our sin, and the separation of us from our sins, which can be performed only in him, becomes impossible. Man can break off his relationship with heaven; if a person withdraws from the Son’s judgment of love, the Father has no other course but to replace love with judgment and sentence.

Here the Savior, the Good Shepherd, is in a difficulty, for the sheep are always free to follow or not to follow. When Jesus says, “He who rejects me and does not receive my sayings has a judge: the word that I have spoken will be his judge on the last day,” it sounds like resignation on his part: in the end we have the judge that we ourselves have chose, choosing justice rather than love. Now the situation is that the outcome of the final act seems uncertain on both sides. “There is a sin unto death;” John says this after the Lord on the Cross has redeemed the sinner and after having instituted the sacrament of penance.

But if man’s destiny is thus in the balance, what of God’s destiny? Does he have, instead of certainty of salvation, a flower of hope?

The Judgment of Christ

The question facing us is this: How do justice and love (or grace) constitute a unity in Christ’s judgment of man in his failure?

Eventually, the individual human being will be confronted, after his death, with the unveiled truth ad demands of God. And this is the frightening part: the greater the love of God offered and demonstrated to man, the greater the expectation of man’s response. Once man is released from the outer hell of present self-illusion, the scales fall from the eyes and it is no longer possible for one to deceive himself.

The theme of the dead being weighed in scales is older than Christianity – it is found, for example, in the Egyptian Judgment of Osiris. In Christian iconography, too, scales are sometimes held by two angels, weighing a whole life, no longer subjectively, but objectively.

This is not done in a simplistic weighing of the amounts of good an evil done. Freedom has an infinite horizon, it is not exhausted and defined by momentary choices. It becomes a question of whether this horizon will be possessed in absolute autonomy, or chosen as given by a superordinate absolute autonomy.

On the one hand, there is weight to repentance, even in the end of life (cf. the thief on the cross). At the same time, what is placed in the scales is not the mere final state of a life but this life in its totality. And this can reverse negative decisions at the end of life as well. The conversion of a sinful man is not so hopeless as the conversion of the devil; earlier workings of grace remain behind him, especially the grace of baptism.

One is commanded to “abide” in Him. But this would have to be absolutely denied in a verifiable way in order for perdition to result. The One who judges us is also the One who came to save, not to judge. He will therefore take every abailable path to bring back the person whose sins he has borne.

We can say nothing categorical. We can proceed by way of hypothesis. Both the uncritical notion of a bipolar outcome of human history and the protest against it want to draw up an eschatology from the point of view of th spectator, not of the man most t intimately involved in it. But Christianity is the Good News of salvation, and we are told that god desires all men to be saved.

In his book Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? Balthasar stresses that hope in the goodness and mercy of God is the foundation of the Christian life. I make an assessment of his arguments in that book in my article Hans Urs von Balthasar and Hope.


[1] The restoration of all things, or universal salvation

[2] To the question: Eternal hell eternal OR universal salvation? I answer thus: Eternal hell AND universal salvation!

[3] These are some of the passages Balthasar cites and quotes:

Luke 19:41-44
41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

Hebrews 6:4-6
4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

Hebrews 10:26-29
26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?

Matthew 12:32
32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

Matthew 11:23-24
23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”

Matthew 25:41
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

Luke 16:23-24
23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’

Revelation 2:11
11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’

Revelation 20:6
6 Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.

Revelation 21:8
8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

1 Corinthians 1:18
18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

1 Corinthians 11:29
29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

Why Theology?

Rublev

Christian theology does not exist for the sake of the theologian. Theology is for the sake of the Church; it is for the sake of the challenges of the community. If it is not received by the Christian community, it has failed, for it has to echo the responses of that community. Christian theology has to be historical, and cannot be separated from contemporary issues. Christianity is an incarnational religion, which lives also within time and circumstances.

Systematic theology is a connection of the whole of Christian theology. Trinitarian theology is central and foundational to Christian theology, which has to do with the logos of theos. In the history of the development of Christian dogma, which has been played out in concrete circumstances, affecting concrete lives and palpable consequences, has been a struggle for the Christian understanding of who God is and how he related to Creation, particularly to the ones created in his image and likeness – and the foundational result has been the conception of the Trinity (which includes the attending Christology). Christians worship God, but God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Ontologically, Trinitarian theology is at the foundation of all things, for God is the creator, sustainer and redeemer of all reality. All our social, human, and historical problems are rooted in Trinitarian theology. This is why the Fathers spent so much energy grounding everything they did and taught in the outworking of the reflection of the Trinitarian life in time and space, in the Church.

This is why the medieval theologians also did so; the Summa Theologiae begins with the doctrine of one God and the Trinity. This is why Barth deals with Trinitarian methodology in his first volume.

Epistemologically, on the other hand – given our fallen state which has affected our intellect, our nous, our heart – we do not know God first and foremost. Our order of knowing does not include the Trinity at the very beginning; the Fathers’ formulations were the result of a long process of reflection and development. It is the Church’s role to bring us to the road back to God, which is the road of repentance, of restoration of His image, of remembering God, and remembering us in the context of God. Exitus, reditus.

One thing that is common from the earliest fathers (Justin, Irenaeus, Origin) is the very important distinction between God in his own essence and God in relation to the created world, as known through creation and special revelation. We do not know God in his essence, but only as he has revealed himself to us, in his energies and through his effects.

Christianity affirms both the essential incomprehensibility of God and God’s condescension to reveal himself to us. We do not have an insight into the Trinitarian God apart from what he tells us. Epistemologically, the place of Trinitarian theology in systematic theology is always a controversial topic, even if Trinitarian theology always has to be the ultimate horizon of Christian theology.

Contemporary Issues

As a reaction against essentialism, and under the impact of postmodern critiques, many modern theologians have been moving more to a pluralistic tradition, beginning with Father, Son and Holy Spirit (rather than the idea of the simple divine essence). There is a discernible tendency towards social trinitarianism. Essentialism – the emphasis on the unity of the divine essence as a starting point, among other things, is seen as totalitarian.

Trinitarian theology arose because of Christology, since, without the question of the divinity of Christ, simple Jewish monotheism would have remained. If, however, Christ is divine, are there two gods, is he a lesser god, or are there other options? Many today are looking for alternatives to the traditional conceptualities.

Also, it is perceived by many contemporary theologians that there is sexism in the traditional Trinitarian theology. Some, as a reaction, do away with Trinitarian theology and invocation. Others redefine it.

Importance of the History of Trinitarian Theology

Scripture does not explicitly spell the doctrine of the Trinity as such. Trinitarian and Christological doctrines are the result of historical development, even while have roots in Scripture. The failure to understand this basic concept has, in the context of fundamentalism, crippled some conservative theologians who in turn do not engage many of the ongoing challenges presented to them in modernity.

History means contamination – by blood, power struggles, etc. This is part of any history of human ideas; the more important they are, the more blood is likely to be spilled. This has been true of revolutions such as the American, French, Russian, etc. Some enlightenment rationalists put blame in religion without realizing that ideologies of freedom (as with many other ideologies, including, for example Marxism), have always been abused by the State. State persecutions have killed millions of people.

Historically, Nicean orthodoxy has prevailed – as believed and affirmed by the Church, under divine providence and inspiration guiding infallible councils – but it was not a foregone conclusion, and at many times it seemed as though it had failed. An important question, then, is to consider whether orthodoxy can be measured by the status quo; the place of God’s providence also has to be assessed. Outside of dogmatic formulations of Ecumenical Councils, what criteria can we build Trinitarian theologies today, and how are they binding?

Essential Questions

We cannot avoid using human models, since, again, we do not have an insight into the essence of God. How do we avoid the problems inherent in any human models – anthropomorphism and its attending ideologies? It seems as though contemporary theologians are often unaware or unconcerned with these two essential problems.

Human beings historically have used ideas to oppress other people, which is the development of ideologies. Are we projecting our own ideologies in our conception of the Trinity? Are we projecting our ideologies when we want to determine who God is, and thus how our imitation of him should be? When we want to determine what is or is not important or central in Christian theology? When  we want to determine how God should me made relevant, or how we should worship him? (or her?)

Moltmann, for example, begins with a contemporary critique of oppression, and argues that monotheistic conceptions of God need to be discarded because of their inherent oppressive character. For him, it needs to be replaced with social trinitarianism, which is the only way to preserve equality. Thus, he projects his own ideas into the reconstruction of Trinitarian theology, where equality and plurality come first. Then, he derives from that theology a reconstruction of social relations and structures. This amounts to Feuerbach’s idea of theology as anthropology.

Today, under the influence of Derrida, Heidegger, and others, there are some important metaphysical categories of being, relation, etc.

  1. How do explain the unity and plurality of God using such categories?
  2. How do speak of one God as three irreducible distinct realities?
  3. How do we speak about their relations?
  4. What are the pitfalls to avoid (modalism, subordinationism, etc.)?
  5. How do we speak of the relation of the Triune God in relation to the world?

These are all important issues that still call for theology to be done today.

Radical Orthodoxy – Conclusion (Part 6 of 6)

Counter-Ontology

Erik Olin Wright

Erik Olin Wright, President of the
American Sociological Association

For Milbank, Christian theology/sociology has to provide a “counter-ontology” because, as required by the provision of a different ethics, it has to establish an ontology of participation united with an epistemology of analogy, both of which are necessary to provide depth to all reality.

Outside of such ontology of participation, all reality is flattened; all social, political and cultural aspects become reducible to the mere human and humanistic level, all ethics are reducible to preference and power games, all language reducible to mere signs, and all men reducible to chemical/biological machines.

Within an ontology of participation, there are no things, no ultimate substances, only shifting relations and generations in time which only exist in their constitution of ideal, logical patterns; knowledge is not a representation of things, but is a relation to events, and a action upon events, because truth, for Christianity, is not correspondence, but rather participation of the beautiful in the beauty of God.[1]

Secular reason is part of an antique-modern scheme, and this is counteracted by an ontology of difference where narrative and ontology reinforce each other, the transcendent God announcing himself in the narrative as the God Who Is.

In this ontology, “there can be no more ‘truth and falsity’ . . .  because no positive non-being is posited, as by Platonism, and not pure material potency, as in Aristotelianism, [and] nothing that is, can be in any sense wrong.”[2] The other important points Milbank makes concerning this ontological outlook have been already highlighted in the first section of this paper.

Counter-History of the Kingdom

Lastly, this Christian theology/sociology has to take up again the “counter-history,” but this time under the aspect of ecclesial critique. Milbank has no intention of adopting a naïve perspective in which Christian theology and Christian praxis have been perfect, mere victims of secularization and distortion coming from outside. Rather, the failures of Christian theology and practice themselves have given occasion to ontological and epistemological shifts that have eventually led down the path to secularization and nihilism.

The Church failed to bring about salvation, but instead ushered in the modern secular – at first liberal, and finally nihilistic – world. [3]

For Milbank, the invention of the secular began at least in the eleventh century.[4] The Church helped to unleash a naked violence and failed to displace politics; it engendered a newly rationalistic and formalized approach to law from the twelfth century onwards, even to the degree that theorists of papal absolutism pressed for a doctrine of unlimited absolutism, and the State assumed the form of a perverted Church, an anti-Church.

In the midst of history, the judgment of God has already happened. And either the Church enacts the vision of paradisaical community which this judgment opens out, or else it promotes a hellish society beyond any terrors known to antiquity: corruptio optimi pessima.

For the Christian, interruption of history decoded antique virtue, yet thereby helped to unleash first liberalism, then positivism and dialectics and finally nihilism. Insofar as the Church has failed – and has even become a hellish anti-Church – it has confined Christianity, like everything else, within the cycle of the ceaseless exhaustion and return of violence.[5]

Milbank’s contention then is that the Catholic vision of ontological peace now provides the only alternative to a nihilistic outlook; there can be again the emanation of harmonious difference, the exodus of new generations, the diagonal of ascent, and the path of peaceful flight.

Conclusion

John Milbank and the Radical Orthodoxy project have made important criticisms of postmodern philosophy, and it has great merit in trying to recover the classical Christian tradition in a way that not merely repeats it, but adapts it and applies it to contemporary issues and challenges. Modern and postmodern insights are not just discarded, but rather incorporated and reoriented when they are helpful.

Beginning with the Enlightenment, the idea that there can be a neutral ground of thought – whether in politics, hard sciences, sociology, philosophy, etc. – became generally accepted. The reaction against the influence and authority of the Church over all areas of human life led thinkers to remove its yoke and seek knowledge independently, for its own sake, and for the sake of human achievement and profit. The illusion created was that knowledge can be acquired without any theological and philosophical presuppositions.

Radical Orthodoxy successfully challenges this outlook.

There can be no knowledge without presuppositions (as postmodernism recognized) and there can be no presuppositions without a theological outlook grounding them. There can be no thought without theology, and it is a matter of which theology will inform one’s presuppositions. As theologians have been arguing for centuries now, secular reason has a religion of its own, with its own sacraments (e.g. empiricism), and its own canon law (e.g. closed natural systems).

Milbank’s arguments, however, at times seem to be inconsistent, both internally and with the Augustinian/Thomistic tradition he seeks to recover.

As discussed in the other articles of this series, Milbank presses his arguments too far when challenging the autonomy of reason. There is no purely autonomous reason indeed, but there are serious difficulties in arguing that revelation is “but a higher measure of illumination.”

In this area, Milbank should follow his own directive of appropriating what is useful in the modern/postmodern context; there is legitimacy to reason and knowledge that does not make reference to transcendentals – one can know things in this way, but ultimately, what needs to be shown is that there is no reason why one should be able to know anything in a universe not sustained by God’s Logos.

We can know the laws of physics, biology, mathematics, logic – but they are only borrowed capital from the God who sustains all things and gives order to all things. In a secular universe, there cannot be any order, and therefore there cannot be any law. Moreover, there can be no ethics that is not arbitrary; in a secular universe, all that can be known about ethics – and some things are rightly known – ultimately can be reducible to preferences and power games, if ethics does not participate in the being of God.

Another deficiency in Milbank’s arguments has to do with his vision of peace as the antidote to postmodernity’s will to power. As already shown, Milbank seems to correct this in his later work, but correlative to his views of the altera societas of pure peace and pacifism is the denial of the full legitimacy of the State/Church distinction.

Milbank’s arguments fail to account for the fact that the Church arguably will never engulf all societies before the eschaton. That means that the work of the theologian, as an expression of the work of the Church, is to recognize that God has granted legitimacy to certain aspects of culture – law, government, politics, and so on. Milbank argues that “tending gardens, building bridges, sowing crops, caring for children, cannot be seen as “ecclesial” activities, precisely because these activities are now enclosed within a sphere dubbed “political.”

But what is the alternative? A totalitarian Christian Church that engulfs governments, civilizations, cultures, denying their freedom to believe as they will, and the legitimacy of the value of life to those who are not Christians (or at least theists)?

This will not do.

Christian theology has to view the public square not only as something that is, but also as something that should be, and then address it, precisely because before the consummation of all things, the Kingdom of God advances by the presentation of Christ and him crucified – as Augustine, Aquinas, and many other Church fathers understood – within a context of loving persuasion, not domination. It is ironic that the very context of the early Church that Milbank seeks to recover was one that is the most similar to our contemporary context when it comes to the existence of the Church in a thoroughly pluralistic society.

Christianity did eventually became mixed with the State, but for three hundred years it flourished, even under persecution, in a context in which Christian thought and practice was only possible in a pluralistic context. And this flourishing was not by denying legitimacy to the pluralistic world.

This seems to be Radical Orthodoxy’s greatest weakness: it fails to recognize that we live in a pluralistic world in which globalization is here to stay.

Christian theology should not use this as an excuse to dissolve its message under a relativistic banner of radical correlationism, but neither should it spend its energies outlining a Christian world where there is “no secular.”

Christian theology has to confront nihilism with the core of its message; the center of Christianity is not participation and transcendence – although they are indispensable for it – but the Incarnate, dead, buried, resurrected, and ascended Christ who is the revelation of the Triune God from whom, through whom, and to whom are all things.

When that is obscured, one runs the risk of reifying transcendence and participation, which is precisely one of the main complaints Radical Orthodoxy has concerning postmodernity: reifying things apart from the One who gives them depth.

Therefore, it seems that Milbank’s concerns with relation to the nihilistic path Western civilization has taken are well grounded, and many of his criticisms and suggestions are needed, but there has to be a certain refining towards consistency in his work when it comes to our present global pluralistic context.

If Milbank rightly does not want the One to be swallowed by the many, neither should he allow the many to be swallowed up by the One.

***

See Also:

Radical Orthodoxy – A Theological Vision

Radical Orthodoxy – Altera Civitas

Radical Orthodoxy – Reason and Revelation

Radical Orthodoxy – Metanarrative Realism

Radical Orthodoxy – Counter Ethics


[1] Milbank, Theology & Social Theory, p. 434

[2] Ibid., p. 438

[3] Ibid., p. 383

[4] Ibid., p. 441

[5] Ibid., p. 442

Open Theism Part 3

To support their claims, OT proponents often cite scriptural passages that seem to indicate that God is surprised and disappointed, as well as passages that have been used to support the “classical” position.

For example, Boyd cites Ps. 139:16 (And in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me) and states that “even if this verse said that the exact length of our lives was settled before we were born, it wouldn’t follow that everything about or future was settled before we were born, and certainly not that it was settled from all eternity.”[i]

This seems to be consistent with the claim that the future is partially open and partially settled, but it would still make each individual life, in its practical outcome, far from free. For if “the exact length of our lives was settled before we were born”, and it has been settled that I will live until I reach, say, 70, if I decide to kill myself today, I would be unable to do so; in the same way, I would be unable to kill somebody in the same situation, and these limitations would in principle seem a serious threat to my free will.

God as a “Risk Taker”

OT proponents maintain that God is all wise because he has exhaustive knowledge of the present (and obviously of the past). Yet, he is a risk taker. Every event (and they supposedly are the majority) that is not determined by God to accomplish his purposes is a result of the choices of free agents. Boyd declares that “God’s risks are always wise, of course, for the possibility of things going God’s way is worth it. But they are risks nonetheless. In a cosmos populated b free agents, the outcome of things – even divine wisdom – if often uncertain.”[ii]

The claim is that God does not know the outcome of things he does not determine. Perhaps the position could be better defined than how Boyd puts it. One could say, for instance, that so great, perfect and exhaustive is God’s knowledge of the present, of all the individual souls and their thoughts, desires, sensations, beliefs and wills, that all predictions God makes have the maximum accuracy possible. In fact, Rice states

Not only does a great deal of the future that is indefinite from our standpoint appear definite to God, but even where the future must be indefinite from God’s perspective (as in the case of free creaturely decisions), it appears drastically different to God than to us. This is because God knows each human being intimately . . . he knows the precise range of alternatives available to each individual . . . and God knows exactly what these options are for every individual in every situation. In addition, knowing each individual intimately as He does, God also knows which of the available options a person will likely select. Consequently, while the future is open to God, to the extent that there is genuine personal freedom, it is not ‘wide open.[iii]

Odds and Ends

This maximum accuracy possible, then, has to be, of course, something shorter than 100%, for, as OT claims, it could only be 100% if God knew the future exhaustively, which is, it is argued, impossible. In this case, God can make predictions, say, 99.999% accurate, or so it would seem.

This is a very good level of accuracy, and the difference between that and 100% accuracy becomes almost irrelevant. If this is true, this position becomes attractive. But this picture starts to undermine one of the foundational aspects OT wants to safeguard, namely, a God who has such a dynamic relationship with his creatures that he can be said to be a genuine risk taker.

How much risk is he really taking if he can make predictions that accurate? The OT position runs into a serious difficulty in that the level of accuracy and the level of risk taking (that ensures a dynamic God who does not know the future exhaustively) are inversely proportionate: the higher the level of one, the lower of the other.

Basinger asserts,

The fact remains that freewill theists, unlike theological determinists, must ultimately view God in a very real sense as a risk-taker. The God of FWT hopes that individuals will always freely choose to do what he would have them do. But for the freewill theist there can be no assurance that will do so.”[iv] Compare this with Rice’s contention that “God [has the] capacity to anticipate perfectly the course of creaturely events . . .  As their creator, God knows the range of options available to His creatures. And since he knows precisely the various courses of action available to them, God can formulate in advance an effective response to any course of action they may choose [v] (emphasis mine).

The Ever Evolving God who Changes His Mind as He Learns

It is argued[vi] that the notion of God changing his mind as being a weakness is erroneous, and that rather, God’s willingness to change is actually one of his attributes of greatness, since when a person is in a genuine relationship with another, willingness to adjust to them is always considered a virtue.

This is a very poor analogy that uses equivocation and fails to make important distinctions. No “classical” theologian would ever dispute that God interacts differently with different human actions. If the analogy depends on the meanings of “change” and “adjustment” in the sense of being God’s different courses of action linked to our different courses of action, the argument is not very helpful.

On the other hand, if those can be understood as referring to an improvement in learning how to deal with individuals, which would amount to an improvement on wisdom and character, it is surely praiseworthy for human beings, but, admittedly, impossible for God.[vii]

Concrete, Pastoral Implications – Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Gregory Boyd tells a story[viii] that expresses his pastoral concern and the practical implications of both the “classical position” and the OVG position. Suzanne, he recalls, was raised in a wonderful Christian home, and from a very young age was a passionate, godly disciple of Jesus Christ. From her early teen years, her only aspirations in life were to be a missionary to Taiwan and marry a man with the same vision, since she accepted, as he put it, “the common evangelical myth that God had one right man picked out for her”.

She eventually went to college and curiously met a man that had the same aspirations as she did. They courted for three and a half years, and during their senior year he proposed. Suzanne did not accept at first, but decided to spend several months in prayer, fasting and consultation with family, pastors and godly friends. She finally felt that it was God’s plan for her to marry him, and she did. They went to a missionary school to prepare for Taiwan, and two years into the program she learned that he was having an adulterous relationship. He eventually gave up any missionary plans, and finally broke her cheekbone in a fit of rage right before filing for divorce.

Two weeks later, she discovered she was pregnant. As she subsequently counseled with pastor Boyd, he told her (and his readers) that God made the right decision when he brought that particular husband to her, given his character at the time, and that now God was as grieved (and presumably surprised) as she was. God was still wise, he claims, for when he acted or decided, he made the decision that had the greatest possibility of yielding the best results, before the outcome went awry and shattered his hopes.[ix]

This is a tragic situation, and with the good intent of safeguarding people’s faith in God’s character, I believe the OT proponents construct an erroneous position. They often make the point that evil, physical or spiritual afflictions, do not fit into the plan of God – they are results of fallen human and demonic actions and choices only.[x] God responds to evil, but evil is not part of God’s plan.

Rice states,

Some people try to maintain an uninterrupted awareness of God’s care  for their lives by making it a habit to credit God with everything that happens to them … [this] leads to the potentially harmful conclusion that God’s intentions lie behind everything that happens to us. The effect of such thinking makes God the author of evil [xi] (emphasis mine).

This seems remarkably naïve. As mentioned before, OT proponents often set their position in contrast with what they call the “classical” view, but they automatically assume an extreme form of determinism to which very few people would subscribe, as the alternative position. God’s usage of evil as an instrument to build character does not entail that he is the one creating the evil.

If allowance of evil entails authorship of evil, the OT position is in no better ground, for in it God still has the power to prevent evil and often doesn’t.

Why wouldn’t he prevent the very things he regrets? For example, he should be able to know with immense accuracy that Saul was going to turn from him (1 Sam 15:35, a popular example among OT proponents), since he admittedly knew everything there is to know about Saul’s character throughout his whole life.

If the emphasis is on true regret, in the same sense we experience it, then it would be expected that God would prevent events he truly regrets as soon as they are about to be acted out. It does not take an omniscient God (even if the concept of knowledge is taken to refer to the present and past only) to realize the imminence of evil, and that is a common occurrence for human beings.

It does not take a divine mind to realize that Suzanne’s husband would eventually seriously hurt her when he started abusing her.

This is a tremendous problem. If God had no intention for Suzanne to suffer in any sense (as Boyd implies) wouldn’t it be expected he would prevent the husband from completely destroying her life the minute God realized his change of character?

Basinger actually admits that

Freewill theists do not deny that God has the capacity (power) to keep a person in every case from acting out her intentions and/or to prohibit undesired consequences. In every situation in which a person chooses to buy a car or eat at a given restaurant or rob a bank or abuse a child, the God of FWT possesses the power to keep the individual in question from performing the relevant actions and to keep the actions, once performed, from producing the intended results. Nor do freewill theists deny that God might in some cases be justified in intervening in this manner. Freewill theists believe that God does unilaterally control some things. [xii]

It would be difficult to explain why God did not intervene in this case, if one wants to argue both that evil is never permissible in God’s plan and that he has the power to intervene to prevent it. One of the two options has to be discarded.

OT proponents often point out that God “does not always gets his way”, and this supposedly as a contrast to the classical position. But this is not helpful, since anyone who holds to a God who knows the future exhaustively would grant that such knowledge does not preclude his allowance of evil, which is always against his (usually called) “perfect” will, although whenever it is actualized it is always in accordance with his “permissive” will that operates under his broad scheme of commitment to free agents.

Click here for the epilogue.


[i] Boyd p. 40

[ii] Boyd p. 58

[iii] Rice pp. 56-57

[iv] Basinger p.36

[v] Rice pp. 65-66

[vi] Boyd p. 78

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Boyd p. 103-106

[ix] Boyd p. 57

[x] Boyd p. 102

[xi] Rice p. 72

[xii] Basinger p. 34