Do We Need the Church?


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In our fiercely individualistic and overly cynical society the statement, “I don’t need the Church,” has become somewhat of a truism. Typically followed by something like, “I don’t see why I need to go to some building every Sunday when I can experience God just as well on my morning walk?” Faith or, as it is nebulously referred to these days, ‘spirituality’, is viewed as purely a private affair. Church is perceived as some drafty building filled with stuck up, superstitious, people who gather to hear some stuck up preacher foist his opinions on a bunch of mindless drones for an hour. Ironically, these sentiments are increasingly shared by Christians who feel all they really need is their Bible and a personal relationship with Jesus.

Now, it is certainly true that we can experience God on our morning walks (or whilst doing any number of things); it is equally true that we need to read Holy Scripture and have a relationship with Jesus. But, is the Church largely irrelevant in this process? Can a vague spirituality, practiced in relative isolation, ultimately satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts? To answer these questions, let’s examine the popular sentiments I just canvased a little more closely.

Experiencing the Numinous

Clearly, there is more than one way to experience–to have some sort of contact or interaction with–a person. Take my wife, for example. One way I can experience her is through her art (she’s an extremely talented photographer). When I observe her photos–paying attention to the way she frames each shot, to the colors and lighting she utilizes, and to the story each picture tells–I, in some limited way, experience her thoughts, her intentions, and her creative power. Yet, I am far removed from her. She is the cause and her art is but an effect.

Another, more intimate, way I might experience her is through reading her blog. Her writings afford me a glimpse into her mind. In them I discover her hopes, dreams, and desires; I learn about her values, convictions, and overall philosophy of life. I become very close to her; yet I am still one step removed. For she is not wholly present to me; her words are but a shadowy extension of the reality that is her.

Which brings us to the next level of experience: personal contact. When I sit down with my wife, and speak to her face to face, I encounter the creative power behind the photos and directly interact with the mind from which the writing sprung forth. I have come into personal contact with the reality I had, up to that point, only experienced from afar. I am no longer interacting with the cause through its effects but dealing directly with the cause herself.

Yet, I can get even closer still. As her husband, there is an even deeper way in which I can experience my wife; and that is through the nuptial embrace. When she and I become one; and share ourselves with one another in the most intimate way possible.

Each of these interactions describe very real ways to experience my wife; yet, clearly, these experiences vary greatly in terms of the level of intimacy involved.

The point being, many of us only seek to experience the numinous from afar; avoiding any intimate or personal contact. This is not to downplay the importance of such interaction. For, surely experiencing God through the beauty of His creation whilst on our morning walk is a great good (like any experience of great art). However, if I want to draw closer to and fully experience the Creator of all things I have to come into direct contact with Him; I must move beyond the Universe and interact with its ultimate cause.

Just as with my wife, I might seek to experience God through something He has written (or has inspired to be written). Again, this too is a great good. For, without a doubt, reading and meditating on the Bible will reveal much about God’s character, His motives, and His plans for my life. The key question is: Is this all God has to offer? Are we stuck merely experiencing God vaguely through the Universe He has made or through reading His inspired writings? Or, has He provided a more intimate, more personal, more direct way to experience Him? Something akin to the intimate relationship that I share with my beloved bride.

A Personal Relationship

As I said before, many Christians advocate having a personal relationship with Jesus. Yet, most understand this relationship, this experience of the numinous, to be an isolated, private, affair; one that is mediated almost entirely through the private study of the Bible. Perhaps, however, this is only scratching surface; it is only the tip of the proverbial ice-burg. Perhaps, God is interested in something deeper; something more profound. Perhaps God is offering Himself to us; that we might intimately experience Him in a way analogous to that of the relationship I share with my wife.

The biblical theologian Brant Pitre explains:

 …none of these ways of seeing God–as a distant watchmaker, as an impersonal force that binds everything together, or as a kind of invisible superhuman hero–is the way a first-century Jew like Jesus of Nazareth would have seen God. From an ancient Jewish perspective, the one true God–“the LORD” or “He Who Is” (Hebrew YHWH) (Exodus 3:15)–is not just the Creator. From an ancient Jewish perspective, the God of Israel is also a Bridegroom, a divine person whose ultimate desire is to be united to his creatures in an everlasting relationship that is so intimate, so permanent, so sacrificial, and so life-giving that it can only be described as a marriage between Creator and creatures, between God and human beings, between YHWH and Israel.

Christians believe this divine marriage was fully realized in the person of Jesus Christ who, through His incarnation and passion, initiated a New Covenant between God and men; who gathered for Himself a people; namely, a Church; i.e., the New Israel. St. Paul communicates this idea, utilizing the imagery of marriage, on multiple occasions. Perhaps, most clearly, in this passage from Ephesians:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the Church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones (Ephesians 5:25-30).

Being a Christian means being grafted or adopted into a community; a family. It means entering into the life of God who exists as an intimate communion of three distinct persons sharing one essence and will: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It means being part of a living Body–the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church–whose head is Christ. It is within this community that we fully and completely encounter the risen Lord; the Bridegroom who desires us to know Him and to experience Him directly.

Within this community, this communion of saints, we are able to experience Christ in a very real, very tangible, very personal, and deeply intimate way: namely, through the most Holy Eucharist. Through partaking of the Eucharist–the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord really present in the bread and wine–we not only become one with our Lord but He draws us into union with each other as well. St. Paul explains:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of the one bread (1 Corinth. 10:16-17).

Understood in this sense, asking the question, “Do we need the Church?” is on par with asking, “Do I need to spend time with or make love to my wife?” I suppose I could get by with a long distance relationship; but that is not my hearts deepest desire and longing. My desire is to be near her, to experience her personally, and to be as intimate with her as I possibly can. Likewise, we can get by on our own, experiencing God from a distance, but this will never satisfy the deepest yearning of our hearts: which is to be known by and to know the God who brought us into being in the most intimate way. Such an experience of the numinous can only take place within the context of the Church.

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Penal Substitution, Sola Fide and the New Docetism


Isaac Gutiérrez Pascual ©2010

Earlier this month I spoke about the cosmic importance of the Incarnation.  Today I’d like to build upon this reflection.  As I noted before, many Christians fail to see the Incarnation as the cosmic destiny or telos of creation and, likewise, fail to see the work of Christ as including the sanctification, redemption, and renewal of the body and the physical/material world in general.  For many, the work of Christ is narrowly construed.  It was merely to satiate the wrath of God the Father so as to take away the punishment necessitated by sin (i.e., Penal Substitutionary Atonement).  This popular view of the atonement is accompanied by another important doctrine classically referred to as Sola Fide or “salvation by faith alone.”  It is this doctrine which teaches that belief—often understood as a sort of mental assent—in Jesus’ work on the cross is the sole means of our salvation.

I submit that both Penal Substitutionary Atonement (henceforth, PSA) and Sola Fide represent a form of “Neo-Docetism.”  Unlike classical Docetism, which explicitly denied the Incarnation (that the Word actually became flesh), Neo-Docetism places such little significance on the Incarnation, and such heavy emphasis on Sola Fide (i.e., a mental assent to the propositional truth of PSA) it implicitly denies the Incarnation as being absolutely necessary for our salvation.  Unfortunately, when we fail to view theology, and especially soteriology, through the lens of the Incarnation we run into major problems.  Before we elaborate on this point, however, let us first take a closer look at Docetism as it was originally espoused.

Classical Docetism

Classical Docetism rejected the Incarnation outright and, in consequence, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (which was overwhelmingly accepted by all orthodox Christians for over a thousand years).  Evidently, the original Docetist’s also rejected works of mercy as being crucial or necessary aspects of true faith in Christ.  We learn this from the letters of St. Ignatius—who, consequentially, knew St. Peter and was installed as the Bishop of Antioch after St. Peter traveled to Rome .  In his letter to the Smyrnaeans these three common threads of Docetism–the rejection of the Incarnation, the Eucharist, and works of mercy—are made very clear.  St. Ignatius writes:

“But look at the men [i.e., the Docetist’s who deny the Incarnation] who have those perverted notions about the grace of Jesus Christ which has come down to us, and see how contrary to the mind of God they are.  They have no care for love, no thought for the widow and orphan, none at all for the afflicted, the captive, the hungry or the thirsty.  They even absent themselves from the Eucharist and the public prayers, because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Savior Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins, and which the Father in His goodness afterwards raised up again.  Consequently, since they reject God’s good gifts, they are doomed in their disputatiousness.  They would have done better to learn charity, if they were ever to know any resurrection.”

Neo-Docetism

By minimizing the soteriological importance of the Incarnation, and, in fact, failing to make it the measure of their theologizing, the Neo-Docetist’s appear to follow the same pattern as their ancient predecessors.  They reject the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist—and, thus, renounce the sacramental worldview held by the earliest Christians.  In so doing, they fail to see how the love of neighbor (in tangible ways) is of soteriological importance.  In point of fact, Sola Fide flatly rejects the idea that works of love and mercy are necessary for authentic faith and, thus, for salvation.  For some the Neo-Docetist attitude has morphed into a full blown Gnosticism which views the human body as superfluous (e.g., we’re just “spirit-beings” waiting to escape the body), considers matters of social justice of secondary importance, and almost completely ignores the environment.  Interestingly, these Neo-Docetist/Gnostic tendencies play a major roll in why Millennials seem to be drifting away from evangelicalism.

Incarnational Theology 

In contrast, theology viewed through the lens of the incarnation recognizes the broader implications and importance of, “the Word [who] became flesh and dwelt among us . . . full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  It recognizes creation as being essentially good (Genesis 1:31) and as originally intended to be in full communion with God.  It knows that nature is ultimately designed to direct us to its Creator.  It thus maintains a sacramental worldview which acknowledges the Holy Spirit works in and through the created world to sustain and renew it.

It further understands that sin has subjected all of creation to futility because sin estranged the creation from its Creator.  Affirming with St. Paul that:

“The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:20-22).

Incarnational theology understands that, by taking on a real body, the Word of God, through whom and for whom all things where made (Colossians 1:16), sanctified the flesh and ushered in the renewal of creation.  As a real man Christ lived a life of perfect faith—obeying the will of the Father, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, feeding the hungry, turning men away from their sin— admonishing us to do the same.  Saying, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).  Thus, showing us that to have a living faith is to be like Christ; to love the world as He loved it; to obey the will of the Father; to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  This is why St. James says:

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?  So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).”

Thus, salvation understood in light of the Incarnation is holistic–encompassing the whole of man.  Jesus requires we give God everything we are.  It is the first and greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:36).  Mental assent given to a set of propositions about Jesus (i.e. Sola Fide) is not enough; for, “even the demons believe–and shudder” (James 2:19).  Faith certainly has a knowledge component but is not merely knowledge.  Faith is tangible–it is played out through us as we live our lives in the corporeal world.

The Eucharist 

In accordance with everything that has been said, incarnational theology also recognizes the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  It embraces the most controversial of Jesus’ teachings because it knows that He desires to draw us—in our entirety, body and soul–into full communion with Him; for this is the very point of the Incarnation.  Thus, it understands what Jesus means when He emphatically states:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.  For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:53-56).

The Word became flesh to give his flesh for us; to transform us; to redeem us; to restore us to what we truly are: men and woman made in the image and likeness of God.  What amazing grace this is–that the God who formed the universe would unite Himself to it in order to preserve and keep it.  This is the Gospel message–the kingdom of God is at hand!  The Almighty God who created the heavens and the earth draws near!  Intimately and, some might say, uncomfortably near.  It is the most provocative message ever proclaimed by any teacher in all of history.

Understanding Apophatic Theology (Part Two)


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/  Apophaticism is an essential feature of Eastern Catholic theology but is often misunderstood by Western theologians and thinkers.  This is part two of a series of articles designed to introduce apophatic theology to those who are unfamiliar with it . . . It should also prove useful for those who have a negative aversion to negative theology (pun intended).   /

Another way to characterize apophaticism is in terms of the impersonal versus the personal.  In contrast to Plato’s heavenly realm of the forms and enigmatic Demiurge, or Aristotle’s reduction of form to that of particular instantiations of essences and his impersonal notion of the Unmoved Mover, early Christian apologists and theologians grounded the forms in the mind of God.  Unlike the Greek philosophers, Christians understood Ultimate Reality in terms of a dynamic, self-determined, Personality who lovingly created (out of nothing) and maintained the world.  Identifying the forms with the mind of God, however, necessarily leads to apophatic conclusions.  Why?  Because no one can know the mind of God.

Dionysius declares that we,

“must not dare to apply words or conceptions to this hidden transcendent God [outside of what He Himself has revealed],” because, “the divinity is not only invisible and incomprehensible, but also “unsearchable and inscrutable,” since there is not a trace for anyone who would reach through into the hidden depths of this infinity.”

These statements make all the more sense when we recognize that the transcendent God is personal.  There is always an element of profound mystery attached to human personhood; especially in terms of  communicating our personhood to other persons.  No matter how ardently we attempt to communicate our interior life to the outside world the human soul remains a “black box” to those who remain forever distinct from us.  No matter how intimate the relationship there forever remains something private and unseen between even the closest friends.   If this is true of the human heart and mind, how much more so when it comes to the Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity?  As Judith states, “You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart or understand the workings of the human mind; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out his mind or comprehend his thought?” (Judith 8:14).

In this, apophaticism offers an epistemological advantage because it grounds our discovery of the Good, of Truth, of Ultimate Reality, in love.  For it is out of love that God makes Himself known (in as much as He can be known) and it is out of love that we seek to know Him.  According to apophaticism, seeking Truth–seeking to understand Existence–is ultimately the pursuit of and desire for intimacy with a Person (whether the pursuer realizes this or not).

Thus we are faced with a paradox.  Apophaticism teaches that the Divine Nature is completely inaccessible to us, and that He is actively seeking to make Himself known to us (which is why apophaticism, rightly understood, acknowledges that we can make positive statements about God).  But how can this be?  To understand this, we must now turn our inquiry to an important distinction; namely, the difference between God’s essence and His energies.

God’s Active Presence and Self-Revelation

While it is impossible for us to comprehend the essence of God, it is possible for us both to know and experience Him.  How?  By participating in His energies.  Because God is love (1 John 4:8) He desires to be known and to be in communion with His creation.  His active presence and self-revelation in the world is what apophatic theology refers to as God’s uncreated energies.  God’s foreknowledge, His providence, His will, His goodness, His love, His justice, Hist power–all of these attributes are discovered through participation in God’s energies.  These works of God are, according to St. Gregory Palamas, “manifestly unoriginate and pretemporal.”

Which is simply to say, they are uncreated and, hence, not something ontologically grounded outside of God’s being.  St. Palamas explains:

“Neither the uncreated goodness, nor the eternal glory, nor the divine life nor things akin to these are simply the superessential essence of God, for God transcends them all as Cause.  But we say He is life, goodness and so forth, and give Him these names, because of the revelatory energies and powers of the Superessential.”

Thus, while God’s energies dynamically flow out of His essence, his energies are not to be mistaken as being His essence.  To understand this, St. Palamas provides a very simple illustration:

“The divine essence that transcends all names, also surpasses energy, to the extent that the subject of an action surpasses its object; and He Who is beyond every name transcends what is named according to the same measure.  But this is in no way opposed to the veneration of a unique God and unique divinity, since the fact of calling the ray “sun” in no way prevents us from thinking of a unique sun and a unique light.”

So, as it would be mistaken to confuse the act of eating with the person eating it would be mistaken to confuse God’s foreknowledge with the One who knows future contingents.  Likewise, we would be mistaken to separate God’s providence from His essence as we would be mistaken to separate rays of light from the sun; nevertheless, we are able to recognize the rays as being unique in relation to the sun as we are able to recognize that God’s providence is unique in relation to His essence.

It must be stressed, however, that the things we learn about God through participating in His energies are still restricted by the confines of our finite language and limited noetic capacities.  Thus, while we can affirm positively that, for example, God is good–because He is creator and sustainer, always keeps His promises, brings about our salvation, etc.–we must remember that such a positive affirmation is still analogical, and does not provide us with information about the Divine Nature.  For, as Dionysius states,

“we use whatever appropriate symbols we can for the things of God.  With these analogies we are raised upward toward the truth of the mind’s vision, a truth which is simple and one.”

Likewise, St. John of Damascus explains that,

“many of those things about God which are not clearly perceived cannot be fittingly described, so that we are obliged to express in human terms things which transcend the human order.  Thus, for example, in speaking about God we attribute to Him sleep, anger, indifference, hands and feet, and the alike.”

Apophaticism, therefore, maintains God’s complete transcendence–His otherness–and his nearness and familiarity without falling into contradiction.

This article was previously posted on Truth is a Man.

Which Came First, Doctrine or Practice?


Tony Jones has put up a post talking about how the earliest of Christians were concerned about how one lives and not really about what one believes. He makes the argument that if you read the earliest texts of Christianity they were about living and not about doctrine.

But I’m curious how Jones defines “doctrine.” The most open definition simply means a set of beliefs that a church or organization teaches. If this it the case, then practice and doctrine were intertwined in the early Church. The examples he cites do encourage believers to live the right way, but then turn to doctrine to explain why they should live the right way. So which came first? Neither.

Both Christian practices and doctrines arrived at the same time and neither is the origin of the other. Rather, back then (as now) both were necessary for a Christian life; one had to know what one believed and how one should live in accordance with those beliefs. Then, as now, we discover more and more about doctrine, which in turn challenges how we should live. Some of these discoveries are also caused by how we do live. Thus, the intellectual aspect of Christianity will impact the existential impact, but in other cases the existential impact will influence the intellectual aspect of Christianity. The two work off of each other.  Continue reading