Reconciliation in Christ

Below is an English version of my sermon on the 9th of January. It is based on parts of my PhD thesis.

According to Matthew 3:13-17, Christ was baptised by a reluctant John the Baptist “to fulfil all righteousness” (3:15). And He fulfilled this through death, by giving His life for us. And un Romans 6, St. Paul notes that those who “have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” and that they “have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so [they] too might walk in newness of life” (vv.3-4). By allowing Himself to be baptised with a baptism of a sinner, Christ obediently took upon Himself the mission that would lead to the Cross. As we read in Philippians 2:7-8, He “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” As a human being “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” And thus, He ‘fulfilled all righteousness.’ It is significant, I think, that, as we have seen from today’s Gospel, after the baptism, St. John the Baptist declares, when seeing Christ: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

Through His baptism, then, He took upon Himself the mission to take away the sin of the world. And for us, it is precisely through baptism that we participate in His death and receive new life, as St. Paul reminds us in Romans 6:5-11: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

We see the same with the Eucharist. When Christ instituted it, He did so as a ritual enactment of his impending Passion. The Passion consummated it, made it count. It started in the Upper Room, not just through the institution itself but also Christ’s high priestly prayer (in John 17), where he prayed for the unity of the Church and Her unity with Christ.[1] When Christ instituted the Eucharist, He said “this is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22:19) and “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). For the institution of the Eucharist is oriented towards, and participates in, the Cross. And when we celebrate the Eucharist, we participate in Christ’s institution, in His ‘once for all’ sacrifice, and in His eternal celebration.[2] But at the centre, we find, then, the Cross, where Christ gave ‘once for all’ the sacrifice in which all other sacrifices participate. As St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:1-2: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” This key act was the place where Jesus reconciled us with God. It was “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2).[3] Christ taught the people like a rabbi and healed them like a physician but His salvific and redeeming act is first and foremost the act of a priest. Christ’s transforms His death into an offering and allows us to partake of it, through the Eucharist.

But this finds its basis in the Incarnation itself. This is the ultimate act of God in history, by which the fallen world, with humanity at its centre, is reconciled with God through Christ, the high priest.[4] For the ultimate act of a priest is to act as a mediator between God and humanity, reconciling the two.[5] This must not be understood as God the Father ‘punishing’ Christ as if He was guilty, as we see in certain forms of Calvinist theology, but as Christ giving God something more. He gave what we could not (and did not want to) give. He gave Himself in obedience.[6] Defining sacrifice, the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas notes that “whatever is offered to God in order to raise man’s spirit to Him, may be called a sacrifice.”[7] Aquinas adds that sacrifices are offered to atone for sins, preserve humans in their state of grace, and unite the human spirit perfectly to God. He argues that in Christ, God embraces the world, and particularly humanity, in order to reconcile it with Himself and achieve real unity.[8] St. Paul notes that God sent “his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3). God was not in need of reconciliation but the world was.[9] Christ needed to be fully human to reconcile humanity to God, which included experiencing death, which is the conclusion of life.[10] As St. Gregory of Nazianzus phrased it: “What has not been assumed has not been healed.”[11] This means that in order to save us fully, through becoming a human being, God had to experience all that we experience, from conception to death. And the point of this is reconciliation; that the entire world, the entire cosmos, not just humans, should be reconciled with God.

For, in Christian theology, as we can see daily in the news, the cosmos as a whole is fallen. There is a brokenness to the world, to us. We all need salvation, we need a redeemer. But that’s exactly what we got. For in Christ, God descended to redeem the entirety of creation, as a human being.[12] This follows from Christianity’s emphasis on humanity as the centre of creation. This does not mean that humanity is the most important or highest part of creation, but that humanity, as its microcosm, uniquely incorporates all its aspects, visible and invisible, physical and spiritual. Humanity is, in the words of the Psalmist, made “little lower than God” (Psalm 8:5). Or, in the words of the Russian Orthodox theologian St. John of Kronstadt, humanity is “the crown of creation.”[13] We do not reject that the world or the cosmos is, in some sense, theophanic, that creation bears witness to its Creator.[14] The world has a lot of good in it. But this is rooted in humanity as the microcosmic centre of creation, whose priestly task it is to offer the world back to God.[15] But Adam failed in his task, and the world fell with him. And we all fail to do this. Therefore, reconciliation is only possible through Christ, who according to 1 Corinthians 15:45 is ‘the last Adam’: “‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”

Through the union of divinity and humanity in His person, as the true high priest, Christ has reunited the cosmos with God.[16] Through Him, the incarnate Word “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible” (Colossians 1:16). In Him, “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17) and in Him, “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9).[17] The zenith of His work of reconciliation was His death on the Cross, the “once for all” sacrifice in which all other sacrifices participate (Hebrews 7:27).[18] The sacrifice on the Cross consummates other aspects of Christ’s mission and draws them together, particularly the Baptism and the institution of the Eucharist, as they are all oriented towards the Passion.

In Christ, God becomes the human head of creation by taking “sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3) and healing it, and creation with it. This sacrifice is not just a divine act in history, it is the ultimate divine act in history, reconciling the world to Go. Christ’s sacrifice, then, was necessary for our redemption.[19] Some have argued that while God could have saved us in any way He pleased, He chose Incarnation and Passion. He chose to descend into His own fallen creation, not because He was out for his ‘pound of flesh,’ but because fallenness and death had entered the world and because Christ redeemed it by assuming it all and transforming it from the inside. All of this is true but we must make sure that we do not phrase this in language that implies that God’s choice was arbitrary. We must express the utterly radical nature of the Incarnation.

The Incarnation is not just a handy choice. Without the real union between God and humans through the incarnation, we can only have an extrinsic union with God. We cannot really participate in the atonement, even passively, by being “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:19), unless this union is real. In Christ, divinity and humanity are fully united in one single person, while remaining distinct.[20] We see the divine consummation of human activity in one single person, enabling real divine-human union, finding its apex on the Cross and in the Resurrection, whereby Christ takes all of human experience, up to and including death, and transforms it from the inside. As it says in the second reading today, Colossians 1:19-20: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Or, as we read in the next chapter, Colossians 2:9-10: “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.”

In Christ, we find the ultimate union of God and humanity and through being incorporated into Him through baptism, we are brought into this union, a union which is being strengthened in us when we pray, when we preached or listen to preaching but perhaps most especially when we receive the Eucharist. There, through a humle piece of bread and a little bit of wine, we receive the whole Christ for the forgiveness of our sins and for new life. We might not feel it, but it’s there. So come up later, when we celebrate the Eucharist, and receive it for forgiveness, life, and blessing.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, who was, is, and will remain, one true God, world without end. Amen.

Notes:

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2003), 27-41; Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, 3 vols (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2007, 2011, 2012) II, 76-144.

[2] Kjetil Kringlebotten, ““Do this in remembrance of me…” A Lutheran defence of the sacrifice of the mass” (Studia Theologica – Nordic Journal of Theology 71:2, 2017), 127-147 (esp. 130-136).

[3] Cf. John 10:18, 19:11.30.

[4] 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Hebrews 7.

[5] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, q.22, a.1, corp., cf. aa.1-6. For Aquinas’s works, see Opera Omnia of St. Thomas Aquinas (Lander, WY: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012-), which are available from the publisher’s own website (https://aquinas.cc/), last accessed 3 January 2022.

[6] Gerald O’Collins and Michael Jones, “Aquinas on Christ’s Priesthood,” in Gerald O’Collins and Michael Jones, Jesus Our Priest: A Christian Approach to the Priesthood of Christ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 105-127 (esp. 110-121), cf. Gerald Bray, ed., 1–2 Corinthians (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New York, NY: Routledge, 2012), 247-253 (esp. 251-253). In the Calvinist doctrine of ‘penal substitutionary atonement’ (PSA), an Anselmian notion of atonement is re-interpreted as Christ ‘taking our place’ and as a ‘transfer of penalty.’ For a sympathetic take on this doctrine, see Jason B. Hood, “The Cross in the New Testament: Two Theses in Conversation with Recent Literature (2000–2007)” (Westminster Theological Journal 71, 2009), 281-295. For additional critiques, see J. Patout Burns, “The Concept of Satisfaction in Medieval Redemption Theory” (Theological Studies 36:2, 1975), 286-289; Paul Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1989), 83-111; John D. Hannah, “Anselm on the Doctrine of Atonement” (Bibliotheca Sacra 135, 1978), 333-344; Kringlebotten, “Do this…,” 132-136; Paul J. LaChance, “Understanding Christ’s Satisfaction Today” (The Saint Anselm Journal 2:1, 2004), 60-66; Andrew Sutherland, “From Satisfaction to Penal Substitution: Debt as a Determinative Concept for Atonement Theology in Anselm and Charles Hodge” (The Saint Anselm Journal 13:1, 2017), 98-108.

[7] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, q.22, a.2, corp.

[8] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, q.22, a.3, cf. O’Collins and Jones, “Aquinas on Christ’s Priesthood,” 112-113, 118-119.

[9] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991, 1994, 1998) II, 421-429 (cf. 397-437); Catherine Pickstock, Repetition and Identity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 171-192.

[10] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, trans. and intro. Aidan Nichols (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990), 13-14.

[11] Brian E. Daley, Gregory of Nazianzus (London: Routledge, 2006), 14.

[12] Romans 5:12-14; 8; 2 Corinthians 5:19.

[13] St. John of Kronstadt, My life in Christ, trans. E. E. Goulaeff (London: Cassell and Company, Limited, 1897), 230.

[14] Job 12:7-8; Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20.

[15] See Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor, trans. Brian E. Daley (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2003), 173-177, 207-275; Catherine Pickstock, “The Ritual Birth of Sense” (Telos 162, 2013), 33; Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, 2nd ed. (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1997), 16-18, 32-36, 91-94.

[17] Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:20-23, 42-49; Hebrews 7, cf. Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, new ed. (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2004), 234-243.

[17] Cf. Colossians 1:15-20; 2:6-19.

[18] Cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Galatians 3:13-14; Colossians 1:21-23.

[19] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, q.62, a.5, corp.

[20] Colossians 1:19; 2:9-10; John 1:1-18, cf. The Acts of the Council of Chalcedon, trans., introd. and notes, Richard Price and Michael Gaddis, 3 vols. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005, 2007), II, 203-205.

Theurgy and embodiment

In this post, I aim to show a difference between a Pagan and a Christian approach to Neoplatonic theurgy, as I have worked on in my PhD project at Durham University. Attempting to develop a liturgical metaphysic, I have argued that liturgy should be understood as theurgy (Gk. theourgía).[1] Theurgy is a term from Neoplatonic philosophy which denotes that our worship is a participation in a divine work (Gk. theĩon érgon), something which is primarily actualised in ritual. The most central actor in this tradition is Syrian Neoplatonist Iamblichus.[2] For him, this is not principally our acts but divine acts in which we can participate, as Peter Struck puts it: “Theurgy is a divine act, a θεῖον ἔργον, insofar as it is action, established by gods, put into use by humans, whose effect is to bring the material world (including that part of the celebrant which is material) into harmony with the divine order.”[3] The term was later adopted by amongst others Pseudo-Dionysius in the 5th or 6th century,[4] and in this blogpost I aim to show not just that Pagan and a Christian approach to Neoplatonic theurgy share many similarities but that they also diverge on a central point: the nature of embodiment.

According to Iamblichus, if the theurgist is able, the ultimate end of the theurgic act is a purely spiritual and intellectual union with the divine, something, he notes, only a few select humans have attained:

A certain few individuals … employing an intellectual power which is beyond the natural, have disengaged themselves from nature, and turned towards the transcendent and pure intellect, at the same time rendering themselves superior to natural forces. … Those … who conduct their lives in accordance with intellect alone and the life according to intellect, and who have been freed from the bonds of nature, practise an intellectual and incorporeal rule of sacred procedure in respect of all the departments of theurgy.[5]

For Iamblichus, a theurgist can, if he is able (and perhaps only only temporarily) lose his humanity and become divine:

The theurgist, through the power of arcane symbols, commands cosmic entities no longer as a human being or employing a human soul but, existing above them in the order of the gods, uses threats greater than are consistent with his own proper essence—not, however, with the implication that he would perform that which he asserts, but using such words to instruct them how much, how great and what sort of power he holds through his unification with the gods, which he gains through knowledge of the ineffable symbols.[6]

Furthermore, for Iamblichus, “while heavenly beings possess immediate access to the divine–demonstrated by their circular (noetic) movement,” as noted by Gregory Shaw, “embodied souls move rectilinearly and must proceed “outside” themselves to reach the unity of Nous.”[7] Shaw notes that we find a parallel to this in Pseudo-Dionysius:

Dionysius similarly contrasts the circular movement of divine intelligences, who have immediate access to the divine, with the rectilinear movement of human souls who must proceed outside themselves to be “uplifted by external things.” Both Iamblichus and Dionysius maintain that the dividedness of human souls requires multiple and material forms of worship–corresponding to the soul’s divisions–“until we are brought as far as we can into the unity of deification.” The hieratic use of sensate imagery, essential to Neoplatonic theurgy, was thus also essential to Dionysian theurgy, but Dionysius draws his symbols from the scriptures and the liturgy, not from nature. Iamblichean theurgy is thus narrowed by Dionysius into an ecclesiastical context, but in both cases material symbols reveal the immaterial presence of the divine.[8]

Shaw goes on to point out how Pseudo-Dionysius borrowed categories from Iamblichus, before incorporating them into a Christian ecclesial context. The main difference, then, is in what constitutes divine revelation.[9] But there is, however, some differences that Shaw does not pick up on, namely the relationship between spirituality and embodiment in Christian thought.

First, as I have argued, even spirits do not have immediate access to the divine, because God is only spiritual in an analogous sense. There is a complete ontological difference between God and any creature, spiritual and otherwise, and God cannot be comprehended at all but must, in some sense, be mediated to all creatures. For Pseudo-Dionysius, God is ‘beyond being’ (even ‘non-being’).[10] No creature, however advanced, has immediate access to the divine.[11]

And secondly, as I have argued in my PhD thesis, Christian Neoplatonists, Pseudo-Dionysius included, do not envision a completely spiritual end but a perfection of the body.[12] The point of the liturgy is to point beyond itself, but that which it points to is not something disembodied but Christ, the Logos made flesh (John 1:14).[13] We agree with Iamblichus that rites and symbols point beyond themselves. We will probably not be celebrating the earthly Eucharistic rite in heaven, nor will we probably baptise anyone there. These are symbols, though symbols which participate in, and really gives, that to which they point.[14]

But even so, these rites and symbols do not point to something purely spiritual but to the one who, in his person (and in his very body), holds together God and humanity, without confusion or separation. Christ (as true God and a true, embodied, man) is the focal point of the divine-human union, allowing us to also become one with God, not just ‘spiritually’ but also bodily.[15] We are, then, given the privilege to participate in the divine work, the theurgy, in Christ. Our salvation or deification is grounded in Him. He is the focal point of the divine-human union because he is the exemplar of human life, ordered to God. As St. Paul puts in in Colossians 2:9-10: “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.”

This is one of the central differences between Iamblichean and Christian approaches to theurgy, though Shaw is correct that it is rooted, most particularly in revelation. But the revelation is rooted in Christ Himself, in God made flesh.

Sources:

Addey, Crystal. Divination and Theurgy in Neoplatonism: Oracles of the Gods. Abingdon: Routledge, 2016.

Afonasin, Eugene; Dillon, John; and Finamore, John F., ed. Iamblichus and the Foundations of Late Platonism. Leiden: Brill, 2012.

Chiaradonna, Riccardo og Lecerf, Adrien. “Iamblichus.” In: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fall 2019 Edition, ed., Edward N. Zalta.

Corpus Dionysiacum I, ed. Beate Regina Suchla. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1990.

Corpus Dionysiacum II, 2nd ed., ed. Günter Heil and Adolf Martin Ritter. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012.

Finamore, John F. Iamblichus and the Theory of the Vehicle of the Soul. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1985.

Gorman, Michael J. Aquinas on the Metaphysics of the Hypostatic Union. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Iamblichus. De mysteriis. Greek and English. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon, and Jackson P. Hershbell. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.

Johnston, Sarah Iles. “Rising to the Occasion: Theurgic Ascent in its Cultural Milieu.” In: Envisioning Magic: A Princeton Seminar and Symposium, ed., Peter Schäfer and Hans G. Kippenberg, 165-194. Leiden: Brill, 1997.

Kringlebotten, Kjetil. Liturgy, Theurgy, and Active Participation: On Theurgic Participation in God. PhD dissertation, Durham University, 2021.

O’Rourke, Fran. Pseudo-Dionysius and the metaphysics of Aquinas. New ed. Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.

Perl, Eric. Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007.

Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. Trans. Colm Luibheid, in Colm Luibheid, in collaboration with Paul Rorem. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987.

Shaw, Gregory. “Neoplatonic Theurgy and Dionysius the Areopagite.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 7:4 (1999): 573-599. doi:10.1353/earl.1999.0093.

—. Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus, 2nd ed., with a foreword by John Milbank and Aaron Riches. Kettering: Angelico Press/Sophia Perennis, 2014.

Stang, Charles M. Apophasis and Pseudonymity in Dionysius the Areopagite: “No Longer I”. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

—. “Dionysius, Paul and the Significance of the Pseudonym.” Modern Theology 24:4 (2008): 541-555.

Struck, Peter T. “Pagan and Christian Theurgies: Iamblichus, Pseudo-Dionysius, Religion and Magic in Late Antiquity.” Ancient World 32:2 (2001): 25-38.

Tanaseanu-Döbler, Ilinca. Theurgy in Late Antiquity: The Invention of a Ritual Tradition. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013.

Wear, Sarah Klitenic and Dillon, John. Dionysius the Areopagite and the Neoplatonist Tradition: Despoiling the Hellenes. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007.

The Works of Dionysius the Areopagite, 2 vols. Trans. John Parker. London: James Parker and Co., 1897, 1899.

Notes:

[1] For some introductions, see Addey, Divination and Theurgy in Neoplatonism; Johnston, “Rising to the Occasion”; Tanaseanu-Döbler, Theurgy in Late Antiquity.

[2] For some introductions, see Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul; Struck, “Pagan and Christian Theurgies”; Afonasin, Dillon og Finamore, ed., Iamblichus and the Foundations of Late Platonism; Chiaradonna and Lecerf, “Iamblichus.”

[3] Struck, “Pagan and Christian Theurgies,” 30, cf. Finamore, Iamblichus and the Theory of the Vehicle of the Soul; Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul, 1-20.

[4] See Perl, Theophany; Stang, Apophasis and Pseudonymity; Stang, “Dionysius, Paul and the Significance of the Pseudonym”; Struck, “Pagan and Christian Theurgies,” 26-30; Wear and Dillon, Dionysius the Areopagite and the Neoplatonist Tradition.

[5] Iamblichus, De mysteriis, V, 18.

[6] Iamblichus, De mysteriis, VI, 6.

[7] Shaw, “Neoplatonic Theurgy and Dionysius the Areopagite,” 584.

[8] Shaw, “Neoplatonic Theurgy and Dionysius the Areopagite,” 584, cf. Pseudo-Dionysius, The Celestial (or heavenly) Hierarchy (De coelesti hierarchia), 121D-124A; Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names (De Divinis Nominibus), 705B. For the Greek text of the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus, see Corpus Dionysiacum I, ed. Suchla and Corpus Dionysiacum II, 2nd ed., ed. Heil and Ritter. There are two complete translations in English, Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Luibheid, and The Works of Dionysius the Areopagite, trans. Parker. If not otherwise noted, I use Parker’s translation. See Kringlebotten, Liturgy, Theurgy, and Active Participation, 4, n2.

[9] Kringlebotten, Liturgy, Theurgy, and Active Participation, 112.

[10] O’Rourke, Pseudo-Dionysius and the metaphysics of Aquinas, 65-84, esp. 76-84. For my discussion of this, in comparison to Aquinas’s doctrine of God as subsistent being itself, see Kringlebotten, Liturgy, Theurgy, and Active Participation, 30-34. I maintain that though their vocabulary is difference, Aquinas and Pseudo-Dionysius are essentially in agreement.

[11] Kringlebotten, Liturgy, Theurgy, and Active Participation, 176-188.

[12] Kringlebotten, Liturgy, Theurgy, and Active Participation, 12, n15; 112-114.

[13] This is why I am not a fan of translations which say that “the Word became man/a human being.” In Norway, the standard translation of the Bible Society says, “the Word became human” (“Ordet vart menneske”), while this translation is not very common, as far as I can tell, in English. There are examples, though they seem to be fairly fringe. See here, , here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

[14] See Kringlebotten, Liturgy, Theurgy, and Active Participation, 165-198, esp. 188-196.

[15] See Gorman, Aquinas on the Metaphysics of the Hypostatic Union, esp. 14-52, cf. Kringlebotten, Liturgy, Theurgy, and Active Participation, 40-44.

Jesus is the light of the world!

This is a translation of the sermon I would have delivered this Sunday if I didn’t have a cold. (Don’t worry, I tested for COVID, the result was negative.) I would have had a service of light with the kids in my confirmation class. In the Church of Norway it is common to have a service of light during Advent. Instead of the normal readings, we light seven candles and read seven smaller texts. After each text and light, we sing a verse of a hymn, often either Folkefrelsar, til oss kom (a Norwegian translation of the Latin hymn Veni redemptor gentium) or Gjer døri høg, gjer porten vid (a Norwegian translation of the German hymn Macht hoch die Tür). The texts I would use are these (based on this arrangement by Arne Berge):

  1. Numbers 24:16-17a (followed by v.1 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom)
  2. Psalm 72:11-12.17a (followed by v.2 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom)
  3. Isaiah 7:14 (followed by v.3 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom)
  4. Isaiah 9:2.6 (followed by v.4 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom)
  5. Micah 5:1.4a (or, Micah 5:2.5a, followed by v.5 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom)
  6. Zechariah 9:9 (followed by v.6 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom)
  7. Luke 1:26-33 (followed by v.7 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom)

After reading these texts and singing the hymns, I would have preached this sermon (in Norwegian):

Earlier this afternoon, we celebrated a baptism here in Church, when I baptised a child.[*] And after the baptism, we lit a candle for her, a baptismal candle, which the family got to take home. And then I read a short verse from the Bible, John 8:12, where Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” I read this at every baptism. We light the baptismal candles to show that Jesus is the light of the world, but also specifically the light of the one baptised, and for all who are baptised. Jesus is the light of all the world, but also particularly your light and my light. When you use your baptismal candle, you can remind yourself of your baptism and of the fact that Jesus is with us to the end of the world. He is the gift of God, given to us.

This is the central thing when we usually celebrate services of light in churches all over Norway. Yes, we celebrate it partly because it is tradition but most particularly because Jesus is our light. We come together to celebrate the Divine Service where we may praise God, where we may pray to God, and where we may encounter other people. But why light? What is it with light? Because this is a central metaphor in all human culture.

The point is that where darkness threatens us, the light comes to save us. We do not just find this in Christianity but in virtually all religions. In Judaism they celebrate Hanukkah, for example, in memory of God’s aid in Maccabees’ revolt against the Greek tyrant king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. He had turned the temple in Jerusalem into a temple for Zeus, but he lost the fight and they rededicated the temple to God. The story goes that even though they only had enough oil for the menorah to burn for one day, it burned for eight days.

We actually find a reference to this festival in John 10:22-23: “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.” Furthermore, we see in old Greek religion and philosophy a focus on our enlightenment, something the Apostle John uses when he speaks of Jesus in John 1:9: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

John showed that Jesus is this true light which enlightens us. For God became a human being in Jesus Christ. And this way, we became sharers of this true light. This is the reason why we celebrate this service of light. As it grows darker, we light several candles in the Church, often in combination with the advent candles, to underscore that God comes into our darkness with hope of salvation from the power of darkness.

Where the powers of evil tries to hold onto us, God comes to show both that He is good but also that these evil powers are no powers at all. In fact, they are nothing. Like darkness, they have no independent power. Light, in fact, is the opposite of darkness. For what is darkness? Does it exist in itself? No, in fact, i doesn’t. For it to become dark, we must remove the light. And if we have light, darkness has to yield immediately. For darkness is just the absence of light. Have you ever tried going to the store to buy a ‘dark bulb’? The darkness which tries to consume us is emptiness, nothingness. It is everything God is not. The absolute darkness is life without God, without friendliness, without love. The central thing we celebrate today is that God is the opposite of darkness. But we need Him to see this. He is the One who must send us the light. And He did so in Jesus Christ. Because of this, we have read seven biblical texts who all point to Christ. Because He is the centre.

We celebrate a service of light because He is our light. And light is completely central to us. It is not just a central cultural metaphor, it is also central in creation. I the creation story in the Old Testament, God creates light first. For light is a condition for life. Take, for instance, photosynthesis. In nature, light is transformed into energy. All earthly life depends on photosynthesis, a process which make plants and trees grow and which produce the oxygen we need to breathe.

Photosynthesis, however, depends on the sun. And therefore, many say that the sun is the source of earthly life. But the real source is God. He has created everything, even the lights on the sky, as we see in James 1:17: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” This verse is about the face that the light of the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars, are not gods, but that everything emanates from the One true God.

But it also has another layer. For the tru light of heaven is not the sun, the moon, or even UY Scuti, to mention the name of the largest star we know, with a diameter of almost 2,4 billion km [2 378 704 272 km]. No, the true light of heaven is Jesus Christ. He is the light which comes to us from God the Father. He is the real light, the true light, and through him we gain access to God the Father.

He gives us illumination and enlightenment. But then we also need to be turned the right way. I remember a few years ago, going out of my house to get something in the car. And doing so, I stepped right into a puddle because it was so dark. But when I turned to go back in, everything was illumined. I had stood with my back to the porch light and had created a shadow, of myself, so I could not see. There was light, but I didn’t let it help me.

God is the light but in the Bible it also says that we must turn to him. In Norwegian, the word for ‘repentance’ is omvending, ‘turning.’ I had to physically turn around. And when I did, I received the help I needed. And that is by we must turn to God, to let him be our light. God is the One who gives us true friendliness and love. He is the source of love. Today, we celebrate that the true light came into the world to offer us salvation. We celebrate that God became a human being in Jesus, so that we may share in the divine life through Him. But to do so, we must be turned to Him, to Christ, to the light of the world. As it says in one of the Psalms, Psalm 36:9: “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”

Let us pray:

Eternal God, you created light and sent your Son as a light of the world. We pray: Let us not wander in darkness but live in the light from Jesus Christ, our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and rules, one true God, world without end. Amen.

[*] In the actual Church, I would have mentioned the child’s name. But I won’t do so here.

Arians are still with us

Lately, there’s been discussions on Twitter around Baptist theologian Owen Strachan. See this tweet, for example:

Strachan is a defender of what is often called complementarianism, the notion that “men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, and religious leadership,” according to Wikipedia. A phrase used, according to the encyclopedia, is ‘ontologically equal, functionally different,’ taken from John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s 1991 book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. In 2016, Strachan co-authored a book on this subject, with Gavin Peacock: The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them. In the tweet above, we find a quote from that book. Now, this blogpost is not about male and female complementarianism but about how Strachan (and Peacock) tries to root this in the Trinity in a univocal way, ending up by espousing trinitarian heresy. For an interesting thread, see here:

Regardless of your position on complementarianism, this is not Christian. This is just plain heretical and it turns Christ into a creature. To quote the Athanasian Creed: “This, however, is the catholic faith: that we worship one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance. For the person of the Father is one, that of the Son another, and that of the Holy Spirit still another, but the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one—equal in glory, coequal in majesty.”[1]

But why does Strachan espouse this heresy? What is behind it? I think that the problem behind it is a combination of a modern notion of personhood, tied to voluntarism and a univocal notion of being. Strachan states that God the Son submits to the Father’s will, as God. Now, no serious Christian theologian denies that Christ submits to the Father’s will as a human. Christ said so Himself many times, for example in John 6:37-38: “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”

As the Athanasian Creed states, Jesus Christ, the God-man, is “equal to the Father with respect to his divinity, less than the Father with respect to his humanity.” But this does not mean that the divine persons have distinct wills, qua divinity. For a defence, see Gregory of Nazianzus’s Fourth Theological Oration, XII, commenting on John 6:38.

But Strachan seems to say that since there are three divine persons, there must be three divine wills. He is claiming that the divine persons are ontologically equal, yes, but functionally different, and is thus denying divine simplicity, the centrepiece of classical Christian theism. And the reason he does so is that he, probably unwittingly, assumes a voluntarist notion of personhood, where what defines you as a person is your will and, most especially, your freedom to choose and to obey or submit. But this inverts the relationship between intellect and will.

As Thomas Aquinas shows, will is a rational appetite that follows the intellect.[2] And if we combine this with the Thomistic notion that ‘action follows being’ (Lt. agere sequitur esse),[3] we can see where the error comes from.

If will is what defines personhood, we would say that there was, in some sense, three divine wills. But there is one. And the reason is that will derives from being. And there is but one divine being. That is what the Athanasian Creed teaches, and what Christian theology has taught for almost two millennia. By assuming that God’s being is univocal to ours, and by assuming the primacy of will, Strachan, Peacock, and others end up espousing trinitarian heresy and they ultimately end up denying the divinity of both God the Son and the Holy Spirit, just to espouse their understanding of complementarianism. As a tweeter Kathryn of Caerbannog puts it:

Notes:

[1] I use the English translation found in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2000), 19, 23-25. For a critical edition of the Latin and German, see Die Bekenntnisschriften der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche, vollständige neuedition, ed. Irene Dingel (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014), 51-60.

[2] See David M. Gallagher, “Thomas Aquinas on the Will as Rational Appetite” (Journal of the History of Philosophy 29:4, 1991), 559-584.

[3] Edward Feser, Five Proofs of the Existence of God (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2017), 174-176; Rudi A. te Velde, Aquinas on God: The ‘Divine Science’ of the Summa Theologiae (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 69.