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.

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The Nature of Evil and the Human Condition


Some months ago I wrote a series of posts critiquing the Reformed doctrine of total depravity.  As a result, I was promptly accused, by some readers, of being a Pelagian.  It was then that I realized that I had made a rather notable mistake: I had failed to expound upon what I believed with regards to sin, the human condition, and man’s salvation.  Having failed to explain what I believe, some readers misunderstood my critiques of total depravity and jumped to some rather extreme conclusions about my theology.

In consequence, I have decided to write this post in an effort to further clarify my position.  This essay reflects, however poorly, what I believe about the depravity of man, the  nature of sin and evil, and, in an extremely limited way, salvation.  I will not discuss, in any detail, my theory of the atonement, justification, or sanctification; rather, I will simply emphasize man’s utter dependence upon God for life and his unavoidable dependency upon God’s grace and mercy to be saved.

I will begin by making several metaphysical observations.  First of all, it’s important to understand that everything that God has made is good and no matter how twisted or broken it becomes, it will never cease to maintain some vestige of its original goodness (Gen. 1:31).  St. Augustine understood this fundamental point of ontology and communicated it very clearly:

“All things that exist, therefore, seeing that the Creator of them all is supremely good, are themselves good.  But because they are not, like their Creator, supremely and unchangeably good, their good may be diminished and increased.  But for good to be diminished is an evil, although, however much it may be diminished, it is necessary if the being is to continue, that some good should remain to constitute the being.  For however small or of whatever kind of being it may be, the good which makes it a being cannot be destroyed without destroying the being itself.”

Please note that St. Augustine is speaking of the good in an ontological sense and not in an ethical sense.  Also note that, for him, evil does not  have a substantial existence, in and of itself, but only exists in the form of a degradation of or corruption of something which is substantial good.  Thus, when I say that human beings are by nature good I’m not claiming that they are without sin (i.e. ethically good) but that they are made in the image and likeness of God and, hence, in the image of Goodness and Perfection Himself.  Therefore, no matter how much sin twists and degrades us, we never stop being human–for if the image of God was completely eradicated the good which sustains our being would have been destroyed and we would cease to exist.

St. John of Damascus is also extremely helpful in clarifying this point:

“. . . evil is no more than a negation of good and a lapse from what is natural to what is unnatural, for there is nothing that is naturally evil.  Now, as they are made, all things that God made were very good.  So, if they remain as they were created, then they are very good.  But, if they freely withdraw from the natural and pass to the unnatural, then they become evil.  All things, then, by nature serve and obey the Creator.  So, whenever any creature freely rebels and becomes disobedient to Him who made him, he has brought the evil upon himself.  For evil is not some sort of substance, nor yet a property of a substance, but an accident, that is to say, a deviation from the natural into the unnatural, which is just what sin is.”

It’s clear, therefore, that sin is a corruption of what is substantially good and is fundamentally an ethical problem rooted in the will of man.  With his capacity of self-determination, man choses to act in a way which is contrary to his nature, to turn himself away from the Good, and thus, to subject himself to futility.  Hence, to speak of man being depraved, is to speak in terms of ethics and not in terms of ontology.  Nevertheless, it is also clear that our sin, our depravity has profound ontological consequences.  These truths are evident in Psalm 53:

“The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity, there is none that does good.  God looks down from heaven, upon the sons of man, to see if there are any that are wise, who seek after God.  They have all fallen away; they are all alike depraved; there is none that does good, no, not even one.”  (Psalm 53:1-3)

Further down the Psalmist continues:

“There they [those who have rejected God] are, in great terror, in terror such as has not been!  For God will scatter the bones of the ungodly; they will be put to shame, for God has rejected them” (Psalm 53: 5).

Having rejected God in their hearts (which is clearly an act of the will) mans behavior becomes corrupt and he chooses to live an unethical life.  His sinful choices, as the Psalmist makes clear, lead to his dissolution and destruction.  This point is also made by St. Paul in no uncertain terms, who proclaimed that:  “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  Therefore, from a Biblical perspective, the depravity of man is an ethical problem with profound ontological consequences (1).

Furthermore, according to Psalm 53, this ethical problem is pervasive and universal; that is to say, every human being chooses, of his own free will, to turn away from God in order to serve his own self-interest; to worship the Creation rather than the Creator (this idea is more fully developed by St. Paul in Romans 1).

So, although man is by nature good, being made in the image of God, he suffers from the consequences of Adam’s sin:  namely, he is born outside the garden and, hence, estranged from God, he is subject to physical corruption and bodily death, he is tempted and manipulated by evil spirits, and constantly suffering from and profoundly affected by the sinful choices of others.  Consequentially, this Fallen environment, this twisted and broken world system, drives man to make unethical choices and so, he also suffers from the consequences of his own personal sin.

The Bible teaches that there is only One who can save us from this horrible mess–Jesus Christ.  For man, on his own, cannot save himself; he is utterly incapable of rescuing himself from this dilemma.  Let me repeat this lest I be accused, once more, of being a Pelagian: man, on his own, cannot save himself; he is utterly incapable of rescuing himself from this dilemma.  Salvation is an act of God who lavishes us with his love and grace. (2)  St. Paul, speaking to the Christians in Ephesus, states:

“and you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirt that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.  Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of the body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.  But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus . . . for by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:1-8).

In summary, man is by nature good, being made in the image of God; thus, he is not totally depraved.  However, man is born into a broken and corrupted world, subject to the consequences of Adam’s sin, influenced by the sins of his forefathers and by the, “prince of the power of the air,” and, hence, he inevitably chooses to sin (i.e. to act in a manner which is contrary to his own nature).  In this way, in an ethical sense, man is radically depraved.  Trapped in a dying world and being guilty of personal sin, man is unable to do anything, on his own, to save himself.  He needs Jesus to pull him out of the mire, to give him life, and to fully restore the image and likeness of God which has been soiled by his sin and the sin of others.

(1) On this point, it should be noted, Reformed theology teaches the exact opposite of what we have just outlined; namely, it teaches that man has a serious ontological problem (being totally depraved or having a sin nature) with profound ethical consequences.  This notion, aside from being unbiblical, is also incoherent (see my previous writings on total depravity).

(2) This statement does not negate man’s responsibility or choice in the matter; nor does it deny he has free will.  Man must chose to participate in God’s work to save and restore Creation, he must chose to believe in Jesus; nevertheless, salvation is the work of God in man.

Heaven and the Human Mind: A Response to Stephen Hawking (Featuring St. John of Damascus)


Stephen Hawking was interviewed by the Guardian last Sunday concerning his views of the afterlife and, to no one’s surprise, he denied the existence of the afterlife. His reasoning, however, is shockingly bad. This is because Hawking makes two completely contradictory claims: On the one hand he says that Heaven is merely wishful thinking, but on the other hand he says that our brains are like computers. How can a computer – something that lacks free will – have wishful thinking – something that requires free will?

A computer, by definition, can only know what has been programmed into it. Even computers that learn still lack free will proper because they’re stuck with the programming they have. If you program a computer, say Hal 2000, to murder everyone on a space ship, then Hal 2000 will murder everyone on that ship. It might learn new and creative ways to murder the people, like sucking them into the vacuum of space, but ultimately its sole purpose is to murder everyone on the ship. Thus, the computer is stuck with its programming. I will deal with that later, but first let us look at Hawking’s belief in Heaven directly.

If this is true for humans, then where is the moral responsibility? More importantly, how does Heaven become wishful thinking if we are programmed with knowledge? Ultimately, while Hawking’s religion is science, his reasoning forces us to believe that Hawking is ultimately irrational in his beliefs.

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Four Types of Heresy – Introduction


I am writing this while out of town. This is a scheduled post. Any comments made on this post may not appear until I get a chance to authorize them (all new users go through a filter so I can weed out spam; objections are allowed, but please look at the commenting policy). If your post has not been authorized by June 30, please contact me)

For those who have kept up with my writings, it should be easy to tell that I’ve been working my way through St. John of Damascus’ trilogy. I finished The Fountain of Knowledge (his writing on philosophy and logic) and I’m currently working on his book Heresies. In his book on heresies, he records each heresy up to that point in history (mid-8th century) and gives a brief synopsis of those heresies. There are four common trends that continue to show up among all the heresies, they are (1) a rejection of some doctrine of God (most often in creation), (2) a rejection of some doctrine of Christ, (3) a rejection of the Law, and (4) a rejection of Christian ethics.

Not all heresies contain all four, in fact, few of them do. What is interesting is that the vast majority have one of those four elements within their teachings. There are some heresies that have none of the above four (for instance, the Nazarenes still practiced the Law), but most of them have one of the four trends.

For whatever reason, teaching on heresy has become passe in modern culture. For some it is because we have “heretic hunters” who turn every false doctrine or questionable theological statement into a dire heresy. Thus, listening to rock music, befriending a Roman Catholic, or baptizing an infant becomes “heretical.” The term gets overused and therefore we become weary of such a term.

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An excellent quote on Christ’s sacrifice


I am finishing up St. John of Damascus’ work An Exposition on the Orthodox Faith. I have slowly been working through his three main treatises (Fountain of Knowledge, On Heresies, and An Exposition) and will soon be done, so my posting about St. John will probably slow down. Until then though, I wanted to share this extremely powerful quote:

Since our Lord Jesus Christ was without sin…He was not subject to death, even though death had by sin entered into the world. And so for our sake He submits to death and dies and offers Himself to the Father as a sacrifice for us. For we had offended Him and it was necessary for Him to take upon Himself our redemption that we might thus be loosed from the condemnation – for God forbid that the Lord’s blood should have been offered to the tyrant! Wherefore, then, death approaches, gulps down the bait of the body, and is pierced by the hook of divinity. Then, having tasted of the sinless and life-giving body, it is destroyed and gives up all those whom it had swallowed down of old. For, just as darkness entirely disappears when light is let in, so is destruction driven away at the onset of life, and life comes to all, while destruction comes to the destroyer.

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Why did the Word take on a human nature?


The Bible is very explicit, specifically in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, that the Word (the second person in the Holy Trinity) became flesh. This is a central and foundational teaching within Christianity, going back to the very first Christians. However, in all the explanations of how Christ had both a divine and human nature, few have attempted to explain why the Word took on flesh.

Some will say that He did so that He might redeem humanity, but this raises the question, “Can’t God just do that without becoming human?” Certainly, if God desired, He could have simply purified humanity with a single word, but He chose not to. Why did He choose not to?

A lot of it rests upon how we were created and how natures work. All humans have a human nature, that is, we are both animal (material) and rational (immaterial). To put it in more “Sunday School” terms we each have a body and a soul. We all share this in common and it unites us all. In this unification, when one act is done all of human nature is affected by that act. If Peter steals, then human nature has stolen. This doesn’t mean that Paul is guilty or a sinner for what Peter has done, but instead that Paul’s nature is lowered to the level of Peter’s. When Adam sinned, he brought human nature down with him.

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A Devotional Commentary


From St. John of Damascus’ Fountain of Knowledge, works on philosophy, first paragraph of Chapter 67:

Philosophy is knowledge of things which are in so far as they are; that is to say, a knowledge of their nature. Philosophy is a knowledge of divine and human things. Philosophy is a study of death, both that which is deliberate and that which is natural. Philosophy is a becoming like God, in so far as this is possible for man. Now, it is in justice, sanctity, and goodness that we become like God. And justice is that which is distributive of equity; it is not wrongdoing and not being wrong, not prejudicing a person, but rendering to each his due in according with his works. Sanctity, on the other hand, is that which is over and above justice; that is to say, it is the good, the patience of the one wronged, the forgiving of them that do wrong, and, more than that, the doing of good to them. Philosophy is the art of arts and the science of sciences, for, since through philosophy every art is discovered, it is the principle underlying every art. Philosophy is love of wisdom. But, the true wisdom is God. Therefore, the love of God – this is the true philosophy.

John covers quite a bit in this passage, but he indicates that part of theosis (what he says is “Becoming like God,” or what Protestants say, “More like Christ”) is the study of philosophy. How does philosophy aid in us becoming like God? Philosophy teaches us the reality of the world. It tells us where we came from and how we know what we know. From there, we deduce how we should act. Philosophy teaches us that we should be just in our actions and go even further and be sanctified in how we act toward others, to go beyond justice.

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