From God to You – A Children’s Book

From_God_to_You.coverWEB__87954.1404854285.1280.1280My very dear friend John Skinas has just released his book “From God to You – The Icon’s Journey to Your Heart.”

This is the follow up to his first volume Pictures of God. It is a children’s book, beautifully done, with 12 sections of 12 icons.

They are placed after the introduction which contains a picture of the extraordinarily beautiful iconostasis of the Holy Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco, where St. John Maximovitch’s incorrupt relics lay.

 

 

photo (17)

For each icon, John includes two sections – one, a description of the substance and significance of what is depicted on the icon; next to it, a “Notice This” explanation of the particular features of the icon shown.

 

The 12 icons are: photo (20)

  • The “Icon Not Made By Hands”
  • The “Virgin of the Sign”
  • “Saint Luke Painting the First Icon”
  • “Flight into Egypt”
  • Royal Gates in the Form of Peacocks” (a description of the gorgeous Gates at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in San Francisco)
  • The “Christ Pantokrator” of Sinai
  • The “Angel with the Golden Hair”
  • The “Original Iveron Icon of the Theotokos”
  • “Saint Theodora”
  • The Transfiguration”
  • “The Resurrection”
  • “The Good Shepherd”

The book closes with a brief description of 3 “Defenders of Icons” – St. Kassiani, St. Stephen the New and St John of Damascus – and of the five major colors used in the icons with their respective symbolic meanings.

 

photo-(21)This is all done in a delightful arrangement that is both theologically sound and yet very intelligible to children. It is a wonderful tool to help them begin to discover and understand the beauty of God through the iconic windows of heaven.

As John says, “Burned, smashed, and buried, icons have endured a great deal as they’ve made their way from God to you. They’ve reached you because He wants them in your church, in your home, and in your hands. But most of all, God wants you to keep His image in your heart, where, if you listen closely, you can hear his message with every beat…”

John and his wife Suzanne are the parents of 5 children, and I am privileged to witness firsthand how their Orthodox faith permeates their entire family.

The book is printed by Ancient Faith Publishing and you can find it here:
http://store.ancientfaith.com/from-god-to-you-the-icons-journey-to-your-heart/

 

Hegel’s Realization of the Spirit in History

Friedrich-Hegel-2Hegel is the first thinker to treat history as a matter of philosophical and theological study. He made a distinction between individual existence and social existence, so that history refers primarily to our social life, not individual, private lives. The spirit moves the individual, but history is primarily society in its temporal process – and Hegel’s basic social unity is the nation/state.

The spirit works through history in bringing together freedom and necessity, subjectivity and objectivity. There is a rational pattern that can be discerned in history, as the spirit continues to move forward toward freedom. The progression is necessary, because development is necessary in all levels. In nature, organic matter develops, as a seed becomes a tree; in human beings, children develop, and by necessity a three year old child cannot think and behave like a thirty year old adult.

In the same manner, the spirit develops through the thoughts and actions of nations and civilizations. The spirit actualizes itself in the self-consciousness of human beings and in their progressive consciousness of freedom. For Hegel, it is a discernible pattern of history that the more ancient civilizations had a more limited concept of freedom, whereas democracy only appears in modern times. He argues that in ancient Oriental civilizations, the general pattern was that only the ruler was free, whereas in the later Greek civilization there was an oligarchy of the few who were free – and finally modern nations have the awareness that all should be free. There were exceptions to the rule, and breaks in the general chronology, but the exceptions only prove the rule.

History is not a mere succession of sheer contingencies – not just one random thing after another. For Hegel, if one looks at the world rationally, the world will look rationally back. There is a development of reason in the pattern, since for Hegel reason is substance and infinite power, the infinite material of all natural and spiritual life and the infinite form which activates this material content.[i]

General Design

The sole aim of the philosophical enquiry then is to eliminate the contingent, and so in history we must look for a general design. World history is governed by an ultimate design; it is a rational process of the divine and absolute reason, the manifestation of the one original reason, and a reflection of the archetype in a particular element in the life of the nations. Reason is self-sufficient and contains its end within itself, bringing itself into existence and carrying itself into effect.

The history of the world is thus a rational process, the rational and necessary evolution of the world spirit. A divine will rules supreme and is strong enough to determine the overall content, as events are moved by the moving of the spirit within them, the “true Mercury, the leader of the nations.”[ii]

Modes of Historical Thinking and Writing

As Hegel observes and explains the patterns of the development of world history, he makes distinctions concerning what kind of historical writing is appropriate for his project. He discerns three modes of historical writing: original history, reflexive history and philosophical history.

The first mode, historical writing, is one in which the author is immersed in the spirit of the events he describes, and does not rise above it to reflect upon it. The writer is an eyewitness of the events, and although perspective is time fresh it is also limited by a lack of wider perspective.

The second mode, reflexive history, depicts not only what was present and alive in this or that age, but that which is present in spirit, and so it looks at the past as a whole. This includes surveys of history (compilations), pragmatic history (focus on significance and moral instructions[iii]), critical history (history of history, higher criticism[iv]) and specialized history (which is fragmentary, particular, and abstract: e.g. the history of art).

The third mode of philosophical history (the one Hegel proposes to adopt) focuses on the concrete and “absolutely present,” the “spirit which is eternally present to itself and for which there is no past.” It is the Idea, the leader of nations and of the world, the spirit with its “rational and necessary will” which directs the events of world history.[v] This mode brings a synthesis of reason, spirit, providence, subjectivity, objectivity, movement, and teleology.

The Realization of the Spirit in History

Philosophical history then discerns the patterns of the spirit, which combines reason and will. This is expressed not only in individuals, but also in higher levels of human existence.

There are for Hegel three basic levels of the activity of the spirit:

1. First, the spirit becomes conscious and seeks freedom in the individual spirit.

2. It also moves individuals together as it sublates contradictions and seeks freedom in the level of the nation – the nation spirit.

3. Thirdly, the spirit will also move not only through individuals and nations, but also in guiding the totality of world history – the world spirit.

From a different perspective, these three levels can also be understood in a descending scale: The absolute spirit is incarnated, embodied in the world spirit; the world spirit is incarnated, embodied and particularized in the nation spirit, and the nation spirit is incarnated and embodied in the individual spirit.

The absolute spirit is the ultimate agent and ultimate goal. It is absolute in that it is not determined – but it seeks determination in its embodiment in the world, so that it can eventually sublate contradictions towards ultimate freedom.

In this way, world history belongs to the realm of the spirit. Physical nature does plays a part, but the spirit and the course of its development (actualized in human beings, and, more importantly, in nations) are the true substance of history. After the creation of nature, man appears as the antithesis of nature since the kingdom of God is the spiritual kingdom which is realized in man and which man is expected to translate into actuality – man is active withinthe spirit, and the spirit is active within man. Human nature is a combination of spirit and nature, and essence of the spirit is self-consciousness. [vi]

Deutschland über alles!

hegelHegel, however, is primarily concerned with the spirit of the nation, which for him is the basic unit of world history, not the individual person. Thus he takes a thoroughly socio-historical approach to his philosophy of history, opposing atomistic individualism. Hegel recognizes that it is from the state that and individual derives the substance of his life.

This approach is markedly different from the modern philosophical approaches which, since Descartes, generally concentrate on the individual and his relation to the external reality. Hegel’s philosophy does not allow for any identity outside of relationships embodied in concrete reality, and therefore it is natural that, while recognizing that the movement of the spirit is indeed realized in the individual, there is no meaningful individual who does not derive his existence and meaning from historical relations.

There is no independent individual, for (as we will see later) each element of finite reality is thoroughly dependent upon its finite counterparts, just as finite reality is thoroughly dependent on the infinite and vice-versa.

As an individual, I derive my food, my protection, my value system, and so on, from the social relationships in which I live, move, and have my being. Therefore the spirit of the nation is the womb in which individuals live, and is the basic vehicle of the spirit in its progression toward self-knowledge and freedom.

Hegel’s conception of the state is therefore spiritual, not materialistic, and the “spirit of the nation” is constituted by the ideals that bind people together. All spheres of our lives – politics, technology, religion, art, philosophy, etc. – are expressions of the spirit of the nation.

This is an organic conception of society, in which there is what Hegel calls a principle of coherence between laws, politics, religion, culture, and so on, because the spirit of the nation in its own locus of development toward freedom will affect all these areas in a reasonably uniform way. For example, a nation that has an authoritarian religion will find it hard to have a democratic constitution.

Just as an individual life has to cohere in its different aspects, embracing its negations and sublating them, so also with the state. Internal conflicts bring revolutions and the dialectical approach demands reconciliation of the many realms of life present in the state, since the spirit of the nation articulates itself in this diversity of spheres. They have to cohere, and they generally do – again, the state cannot impose a constitution on a people, since it has to come from the spirit of the people. There must be as much unification of differences in society as possible (and this does not mean sheer uniformity), and some kind of totality is essential even for the sake of difference.

Hegel took the German nation and society to be the pinnacle of the development of the spirit. However, to apply his insights to our current history, it could be said that this becomes especially relevant in our present context, since globalization clearly requires a harmonizing element between the different cultures, religions, ideologies, societies, economic systems, and so on, which have been brought face to face more than ever in the history of mankind.

Civilizations are becoming more and more amalgamated, as now the “wholly other” is my next door neighbor; the challenges of reconciliation and the questions concerning the possibility of unity that maintains diversity brings Hegel’s idea of negation-transcendence-preservation to great relevance today.

Freedom: the part Marx tweaked.

The nation spirit, then, continues to move into greater awareness of freedom. The ultimate phase of national consciousness is the recognition that man is free. This consciousness encompasses and guides all the aims and interests of the nation, and it is on this consciousness that the nation’s rights, customs, and religion depend.

This progression is achieved through a dialectical movement where contradictions are constantly being encountered and sublated; as we have seen, the world is a struggle of classes, religions, ideas, systems, cultures, etc., and thus,

The ultimate aim of the spirit is to know itself, and to comprehend itself no merely intuitively, but also in terms of thought. It must and will succeed in its task; but this very success is also its downfall, and this in turn heralds the emergence of a new phase and a new spirit.[vii]

There is progression, growth and succession, and the task of philosophical world history is to discover the continuity within this movement. It is important to emphasize that the movement of the spirit (particularly the nation spirit throughout history) is not a cycle, but a progression. Every instance in which ideas and practices within a particular society have come into tension and conflict, and then have been resolved and sublated in any way, there is fulfillment.

hegelmugBut as Hegel points out, when the ideals, aspirations, and goals of a nation have received some relief though some resolution of conflict, the tendency (as with individual human beings) is that stagnation and “boredom” occurs. Once (literal or metaphorical) battles have been fought, human beings and nations tend to become complacent, and often lose their sense of greater purpose. For Hegel, this eventually issues in a kind of “death” of the nation, and what is needed is a sort of resurgence from the ashes.

The universal spirit does not die; it dies only in its capacity as national spirit. But the universal spirit will continue to move, and even this death will not be final.

As a phoenix, the spirit rises out of the death of change and comes again to life. The spirit rises again not just as a mere repetition of what it was before, but rather now enhanced and transfigured in a new stage of development.

The Spirit Carries On.

[i] Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, 27-28

[ii] Ibid., 29

[iii] Hegel argues that history teaches that we have never learned anything from history, because each age and each nation finds itself in peculiar circumstances and situations.

[iv] For Hegel, higher criticism “has been the pretext for introducing all the un-historical monstrosities a vain imagination could suggest … a method of bringing a [present into the past, namely by substituting subjective fancies which are considered the more excellent the bolder they are … (22-23)

[v] Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, 24

[vi] Ibid., 44

[vii] Ibid., 56

Christmas: Redemption of the Physical Universe

nativity-icon1 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.”

These were the prophetic words of Zechariah the priest, when his tongue was loosed to praise the Word of God who had become incarnate.

The Word of God who created the world had now entered the world in the womb of a virgin, as the Second Adam became incarnate in the womb of a virgin Second Eve.

Mary, the lowly maidservant from Galilee had conceived in her womb, and she become the Mother of God as the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, filled her, hovered over her in the new creation for the redemption of man and the renewal of all things.

The Theotokos was full of grace, the Lord was with her; blessed is she among all women, because blessed is the fruit of her womb, Jesus. The Fall of men was being reversed, and that lowly maidservant magnified the Lord and her spirit rejoiced in God her Savior. Now it is time for the Son of God to be born, as the light was to shine ever brighter in the darkness of fallen mankind.

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  And all went to be registered, each to his own town.  And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David,  to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

As it is characteristic of Luke’s writing, he grounds his narrative in history. This is very important not only for the objective placement of the events he is describing, but also as a reminder that Christianity is not merely an ideology. God has entered time and space, and he has redeemed humanity by changing history. God has not become a Man eternally or timelessly, but he became incarnate in the womb of a Virgin in a particular day of a particular week of a particular month and year. Mary was about to give birth in the year that there was a decree that went out from Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria, that all the world should be registered.

Scholars debate precisely when this happened, but evidence points that it was between 6 and 4 BC. Luke tells us that the decree was that “all the world” should be registered, and this immediately sets up the universal significance of Christ’s birth, because Luke is comparing and contrasting the decree of the ruler of the world, the Roman emperor, with the decree of God. Augustus’ decree was to affect the whole world (which is Biblical language referring to their world), but God’s decree was to affect the whole humanity and indeed the whole cosmos. The emperor wants to number the people so he can tax them, but God embodies humanity to give himself to it, as gathers his people to himself.

In order to be registered, Joseph takes his family with him to the designated city. He is taking with him a young teenager to whom he is betrothed, and yet carrying a Child who is not his son. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, had resolved to divorce her quietly, but an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” And so Joseph, described as a righteous man, also receives the Word of God by faith and takes Mary to himself trusting in God’s promises – and in this way he was also embracing Mary’s joy as well as the pain that was to come.

Joseph and Mary had to register in the city according to their clan, which was the tribe of Judah, the house of the king David. The legitimate heir to David’s throne was about to be born, and his parents, descendents of David, go to Bethlehem, the city where king David had been born and anointed king 1000 years earlier This is also a fulfillment of the prophecy of Micah, given 700 years before Christ:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)

Luke continues,

And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

The Mother of God gives birth to God the Son – and this takes place not in the most glorious royal palace there could be, as it would be fitting, but in the place where the animals were (tradition says it was a cave), because there was no place for them in the guest house in Bethlehem. There was no place in this world for the very creator of the world, for, as John tells us, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”

Now God the Son has been born, and the baby is wrapped in cloths and laid on a manger. The creator and sustainer of the world comes to redeem the world, but he comes not in his unveiled glory, but as a frail baby who needs to be cared for, fed, nourished, protected, and loved. God becomes a Man and so he does not merely relate to humanity externally, as one whom we only encounter only the outside and as one deals with us merely through judicial decrees. No, he also takes humanity upon himself completely, for, as the Fathers remind us, that which he has not taken upon himself, he cannot redeem. The Logos fully assumes a human nature, excepting sin (since sin is not natural or inherent in human nature); as he becomes truly human, he is able then to redeem us entirely.

As the baby is born, he is wrapped in cloths and laid on a manger. Later in Luke’s gospel, he will use the same words to describe a different event: he was also wrapped in cloths and laid in a tomb. It is not by accident that ancient representations of the birth of Jesus depict the baby Jesus being laid on a manger wrapped in linen cloths in the style used for burial – for God was born as a man so that he would die as a man and be resurrected as a man for our redemption. Even from his birth, his path was towards the cross and the grave, so he would destroy death there.

Ironically, the baby is laid on a manger. He is not laid on a royal, golden crib, as it would be fitting for the King of Kings, but on a feeding trough used to feed animals. The one who created all things was indeed to become the slain lamb of God who would give himself for the spiritual food of his people. The bread of heaven has come to feed us, and thus from his birth he is put on a feeding trough. The one who is wrapped in his birth and in his death is also put on the place of feeding because he had also come to be the food of sinners.

The Glory of God

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

As the Son of God is born, the glory of the Lord is shining brighter than ever. It is not shining in the great city of Jerusalem,  on in the great temple there; but in the countryside, because he came not only to save the Jews but the whole world. The glory of the Lord shone with the multitude of his heavenly hosts not before the religious leaders of Israel but before the shepherds, who were considered to be one of the lowest classes in Israel. The angel of God comes to call shepherds to worship the one to become the ultimate Shepherd of our souls.

The glory of the Lord is shining to point to that very glory which is now concealed in a weak and defenseless baby lying in a feeding trough in a cave. The shepherds are told, “unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” He is the Savior of mankind, and thus his name is Jesus: Joshua, YHWH saves. He is Christ, because he is the anointed one to be prophet, priest and king for our redemption. And he is Lord, because that defenseless and needy little baby was YHWH himself.

And thus a multitude of the heavenly host praises God saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” The birth that has just taken place might seem insignificant – in a cave, in a small village, of poor parents, laying on a manger, animals laying around – but that birth is the pivotal point in history, affecting heaven and earth, affecting past, present, and future, affecting God who becomes man and man who is redeemed to be united to God.

The shepherds were keeping guard of their flock by night, and it is in the night that Jesus is born and that the glory of the Lord shines. It is in the darkness of sinful humanity that God sends his own Son to be the light of the world. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God  . . .  In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And so he says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.”

Consecration to God

And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”

Following the Law, Jesus was circumcised on the eight day, and following the Jewish custom (as with John the Baptist), he was officially given the name Jesus on that day. Also according to the Law, a woman who had given birth had to undergo ritual purification for forty days, and then make an offering for her purification. Mary then went to the temple in Jerusalem to make the offering, and the firstborn would also be presented before the Lord according to the Law, as we are told in Exodus 12: “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.”

The firstborn was to be consecrated and redeemed because God had spared the Israelite firstborn children at the Passover in Egypt, when the angel passed over the Hebrew children because of the blood of the Lamb on the doorpost. Also, God considered all the firstborn to be devoted to him for priesthood, and the non-Levite families were allowed to redeem the firstborn by an offering. Now the ultimate High Priest is consecrated to God.

His Poverty, Our Riches

According to the Law, if the parents cannot afford a lamb, then they could take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. This makes clear that Joseph and Mary were poor, because they could not afford the lamb for the offering. The Son of God was born not in a palace amongst the riches that are befitting him, but in a cave, laid on a manger, born of poor parents that could not afford a lamb, because Jesus came to redeem humanity in all its frailty, including poverty.

Ironically, when Mary was presenting the two turtledoves and the two pigeons, she was also presenting the Lamb of God for the offering that would take away the sins of the world. Mary and Joseph could not afford a lamb, but as with Abraham, the Lord was providing himself a Lamb for the sacrifice.

God humbled himself for the redemption of his people, and he comes into the world as a baby born of poor parents. Contrary to those who would think that poverty is necessarily a sign of sin or of God’s displeasure, God made himself poor in every way so that we might become rich with redemption, spiritual healing, and eternal life.

The Church does function as a vehicle of God’s blessings to alleviate the physical and material needs of God’s people – and we ought to do that always and to the best of our ability, for a faith that sees a brother and a sister in need and neglects their plight is an empty and false faith.

And yet, it is precisely by taking poverty upon himself that Jesus tells us that poverty is not God’s curse. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “Sell your possessions,” He says, “and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Poverty and riches are different states of life within God’s providence, but true riches are those given us by God through faith, which are riches and treasures in heaven.

Mary and Joseph were poor and yet they were actually very rich, for they held the very Son of God in their arms, the one who had come to save with his glory concealed in weakness and poverty. The Son of God was rich as he owned the whole universe, and yet he was born in a poor family. We also may be very poor, but whether poor or rich in the world’s standards, we have infinite riches in the grace of God which pardons, heals, transforms, resurrects, and glorifies.

Nunc Dimittis

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.

And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

Again we have another man introduced in the narrative who is described as righteous and devout. Elizabeth and Zechariah were described and blameless in the commandments of the Lord, Mary was full of grace, Joseph was a righteous man, and now Simeon is a righteous and devout man who through faith was waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises. The narrative of the birth of the Son of God involves God working in and through the lives of people who, while not sinless, were devout and holy people who devoted their lives to pleasing God and walking in his commandments.

These were the people who, because of their devotion, were filled with the Holy Spirit, and who had eyes to see and ears to hear that which God was bringing about. They are examples to us in that God’s grace given us requires our cooperation, our synergy with him – which in turn brings about our deification.

They are models for us, who also are called (as Paul says) not to grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption, but to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being diligent (as Peter says) to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.

Simeon, the righteous and devout man, was thus the friend of God, and God had revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. The same Holy Spirit who will lead John the Baptist – and eventually even Christ – to the desert, here leads Simeon to the temple, where God had promised to manifest his glory.

Simeon the righteous man is looking with faith for the fulfillment of God’s promises to redeem his people, and this is his whole purpose in life. Simeon is also a type of the Old Covenant, which, for those who had faith, was the revelation of God’s holiness and the vehicle of his promises and his grace until that time when the Savior would come. Now he has come, and the Old Covenant is ready to pass away, having fulfilled its purpose to lead the righteous to the grace and coming of Christ.

And so Simeon prays, in what is called the Nunc Dimittis, and says, Lord, dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation! I have waited all my life for your promise, and by your grace you gave me such a privilege as to hold the very Creator and Redeemer of the universe in my arms.

And behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed – and Mary, a sword will pierce through your own soul also, for in a very real sense his suffering will be your suffering, and his cross will be your cross.

The narrative concludes in the verses following with the description of Anna, a prophetess, a devout widow advanced in age who did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour, we are told, she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Prophet, Priest and King – Immanuel, God with Us

The beginning of the Gospel of Luke presents us with the Advent of Christ, given us through the historical narrative interwoven in the lives of holy people who pleased God and were looking for his promises. Elizabeth and Zechariah were of the priestly house who were chosen to be the parents of forerunner of the Lord; Mary and Joseph were of the royal house of David chosen to be the parents of the Son of God (Mary receiving the greatest blessing and honor of all as the Theotokos, the Blessed Mother of God); Simeon and Anna were the devout servants of the Lord who prophesied in his temple and saw the fulfillment of this promises.

In this way, these people were all fulfilling the offices of prophets, priests, and kings around the conception and birth of the ultimate Prophet, Priest and King who had finally come to redeem his people from sin and death.

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel,” said Isaiah the prophet, and as that prophecy was partially fulfilled in his immediate context 700 years before Christ, now the ultimate fulfillment has come through a literal Virgin Birth, and a baby who was literally Immanuel, God with us.

Christmas: Redemption of the Physical Universe

Christmas is a great time to join with family, to give and receive presents and gifts, and everything that goes with that. But most importantly it is a time to remember that commercialism and family functions are not the essence of Advent season. This is the time to consider the great event of God becoming man for our salvation. It is a time to remember that God has taken upon himself our own humanity with all its frailties and limitations to go to the grave with it, and then break the bars of death with it.

Humanity has been redeemed in Christ, death has been conquered, there is a fully human man sitting at the right hand of the Father, a man now glorified and united to God in his humanity, so that he might take us there with him.

He has sanctified birth, and he has sanctified death. He has sanctified riches and poverty, time and space, history and people. The incarnation reminds us that Christianity is not merely a set of timeless ideas, although it includes that. Christianity is not Gnosticism, and so it is not merely a vehicle of salvation through ideas, or through knowledge, or through the right propositional statements and confessions, although it includes those.

Christianity is a faith of flesh and blood that redeems not only the soul and the heart, but also the whole body, the man, the woman, one’s whole life, and the whole cosmos.

The Christian faith is the revelation of God who not only is truth, but also embodies truth, who enters history, enters time and space, enters humanity, is born, lives, eats, cries, dies, is risen from the dead. God knows humanity from inside because he has become man.

God redeems the soul and the body, thoughts and feelings, physical and spiritual ailments and needs. Jesus Christ is the God-man. He sanctifies physical things as holy, because everything he created is good and is worthy to be redeemed. He sanctifies water, bread, and wine as means of grace.

He sanctifies fallible human beings as his Church, the vehicle of His grace to the world. He sanctifies joy and pain, marriage, motherhood and fatherhood, youth and old age, richness and poverty, heath and sickness, the blessing of life and the pain of death.

St. Athanasius, one of the greatest of the church fathers, has written much on implications and the blessings the incarnation has for us. Here’s some of what he has said in his book On the Incarnation:

The incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are.

But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us . . . pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery  . . .  He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. . . . through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, [all] men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection . . .For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death. . . .

He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality. . . . such and so many are the Savior’s achievements that follow from His Incarnation, that to try to number them is like gazing at the open sea and trying to count the waves.

Christ is born for the redemption of humanity. He was born for our salvation, he has died for our salvation, and he has risen again for our salvation.

Let us, like John the Baptist, be impelled by the Spirit into the wilderness of this world to be Christ’s witnesses there; like Simeon, impelled by the Spirit to his temple, the Church, so that there we may see his glory. Like Mary, let us submit to God, saying, let it be done according to thy will; and as the Spirit abides in the Church, let Christ be continually be formed in us, born in us, as we bring him forth as the life of the world.

Let us come to the Altar, the Manger, to partake of the very flesh and blood of the lamb of God laid for us. Let us partake of his life, for in him light has shone in our darkness.

For unto us is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

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.

Luminous Darkness? Dazzling Darkness!

St.-Gregory-PalamasSt Gregory Palamas, in attempting to explain the vision of the divine light, the divine energies, makes several points worthy of note:

First, it is not a mere negation, a mere expression of the apophatic way. Rather, it goes beyond negation; when one sees the divine light, one sees something, one does not see the void.

However, secondly, one does not see by mere positive apprehension of discursive or intellectual knowledge either. It is something that is apprehended directly, and beyond both the knowing of reason and the unknowing. It is beyond words, and yet analogous words are used to describe it. But only direct experience can give knowledge of it, as St Paul saw the divine light and was changed.

Third, it is a divinizing union of the pure heart with the very being of God, in his energies. And this is through grace, not intellectual effort.

Fourth, and therefore, it is something that is not seen either with the senses – it is not seen with the eye – or with the discursive intellect. (Thus, it is not a symbolic theophany given to the senses, as. e.g., Augustine had argued in De Trinitate).

Fifth, it is a participation in God, a mystical union, a deification, the call and destiny of Christians.

It is a Luminous Darkness, as St Gregory of Nyssa had put it (see the about section of the blog), or, as St Gregory Palamas (citing the Areopagite) puts it here, a Dazzling Darkness.

So, when the saints contemplate this divine light within themselves, seeing it by the divinising communion of the Spirit, through the mysterious visitation of perfecting illuminations—then they behold the garment of their deification, their mind being glorified and filled by the grace of the Word, beautiful beyond measure in His splendour; just as the divinity of the Word on the mountain glorified with divine light the body conjoined to it.

For “the glory which the Father gave Him”, He Himself has given to those obedient to Him, as the Gospel says, and “He willed that they should be with Him and contemplate His glory” . . .

No one has ever seen the fullness of this divine Beauty, and this is why, according to Gregory of Nyssa, no eye has seen it, even if it gaze forever: in fact, it does not see the totality such as it is, but only in the measure in which it is rendered receptive to the power of the Holy Spirit.

But in addition to this incomprehensibility, what is most divine and extraordinary is that the very comprehension a man may have, he possesses incomprehensibly. Those who see, in fact, do not know the one who enables them to see, hear and be initiated into knowledge of the future, or experience of eternal things, for the Spirit by whom they see is incomprehensible.

As the great Denys says, “Such a union of those divinised with the light that comes from on high takes place by virtue of a cessation of all intellectual activity.” It is not the product of a cause or a relationship, for these are dependent upon the activity of the intellect, but it comes to be by abstraction, without itself being that abstraction.

If it were simply abstraction, it would depend on us, and this is the Messalian doctrine, “to mount as far as one wills into the ineffable mysteries of God”, as St. Isaac says of these heretics.

Contemplation, then, is not simply abstraction and negation; it is a union and a divinisation which occurs mystically and ineffably by the grace of God, after the stripping away of everything from here below which imprints itself on the mind, or rather after the cessation of all intellectual activity; it is something which goes beyond abstraction (which is only the outward mark of the cessation).

This is why every believer has to separate off God from all His creatures, for the cessation of all intellectual activity and the resulting union with the light from on high is an experience and a divinising end, granted solely to those who have purified their hearts and received grace.

And what am I to say of this union, when the brief vision itself is manifested only to chosen disciples, disengaged by ecstasy from all perception of the senses or intellect, admitted to the true vision because they have ceased to see, and endowed with supernatural senses by their submission to unknowing? But we intend to show later on, by God’s aid, that though they have indeed seen, yet their organ of vision was, properly speaking, neither the senses nor the intellect.

Do you now understand that in place of the intellect, the eyes and ears, they acquire the incomprehensible Spirit and by Him hear, see and comprehend? For if all their intellectual activity has stopped, how could the angels and angelic men see God except by the power of the Spirit?

This is why their vision is not a sensation, since they do not receive it through the senses; nor is it intellection, since they do not find it through thought or the knowledge that comes thereby, but after the cessation of all mental activity.

It is not, therefore, the product of either imagination or reason; it is neither an opinion nor a conclusion reached by syllogistic argument. On the other hand, the mind does not acquire it simply by elevating itself through negation. . . .

Similarly, beyond the stripping away of beings, or rather after the cessation [of our perceiving or thinking of them] accomplished not only in words, but in reality, there remains an unknowing which is beyond knowledge; though indeed a darkness, it is yet beyond radiance, and, as the great Denys says, it is in this dazzling darkness that the divine things are given to the saints.

Thus the perfect contemplation of God and divine things is not simply an abstraction; but beyond this abstraction, there is a participation in divine things, a gift and a possession rather than just a process of negation.

But these possessions and gifts are ineffable: If one speaks of them, one must have recourse to images and analogies—not because that is the way in which these things are seen, but because one cannot adumbrate what one has seen in any other way.

Those, therefore, who do not listen in a reverent spirit to what is said about these ineffable things, which are necessarily expressed through images, regard the knowledge that is beyond wisdom as foolishness. . . .

– St. Gregory Palamas, Triads, pp. 33-36 . (emphases mine)

St John Chrysostom on The Birth of the Church on the Cross

crucifixion-iconThe gospel records that when Christ was dead, but still hung on the cross, a soldier came and pierced his side with a lance and immediately there poured out water and blood. Now the water was a symbol of baptism and the blood, of the holy Eucharist.

The soldier pierced the Lord’s side, he breached the wall of the sacred temple, and I have found the treasure and made it my own. So also with the lamb: the Jews sacrificed the victim and I have been saved by it.

“There flowed from his side water and blood”. Beloved, do not pass over this mystery without thought; it has yet another hidden meaning, which I will explain to you.

I said that water and blood symbolized baptism and the holy Eucharist. From these two sacraments the Church is born: from baptism, “the cleansing water that gives rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit”, and from the holy Eucharist.

Since the symbols of baptism and the Eucharist flowed from his side, it was from his side that Christ fashioned the Church, as he had fashioned Eve from the side of Adam. Moses gives a hint of this when he tells the story of the first man and makes him exclaim: “Bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh!”

As God then took a rib from Adam’s side to fashion a woman, so Christ has given us blood and water from his side to fashion the Church. God took the rib when Adam was in a deep sleep, and in the same way Christ gave us the blood and the water after his own death.

Do you understand, then, how Christ has united his bride to himself and what food he gives us all to eat? By one and the same food we are both brought into being and nourished.

As a woman nourishes her child with her own blood and milk, so does Christ unceasingly nourish with his own blood those to whom he himself has given life.

– St. John Chrysostom (Cat. 3, 13-19; SC 50, 174-177)

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.