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Christian Platonism

In my PhD project, which is (hopefully) coming to a close, I propose that liturgical theology, in order to provide a coherent account of liturgical participation (as well as Christian life and Christian practices in general), should embrace a theurgic approach, where human acts are consummated by the divine.[1] In this post, I want to explore some other aspects of a Christian Platonic outlook, engaging Paul Tyson’s book Returning to Reality.[2]

Tyson, pointing particularly to the work of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien,[3] makes the point that in Christian Platonism, we seek to focus on that which transcends our everyday experience and phenomena, leading to a life through Christ, in the Spirit (cf. Romans 8; Colossians 3:1-17). This, however, does not mean that we ignore the world. In Platonism, particularly theurgic Neoplatonism, we reach the transcendent realities through temporal things. For Iamblichus, the central actor in this tradition, this means that the world is ‘populated’ with symbols and tokens, which are used in theurgic rituals:

What ritual, after all, and what cult celebrated according to hieratic laws, is there which is accomplished by the utilisation of passion, or which produces some satisfaction of passions? Was not this cult established by law at the beginning intellectually, according to the ordinances of the gods? It imitates the order of the gods, both the intelligible and that in the heavens. It possesses eternal measures of what truly exists and wondrous tokens, such as have been sent down hither by the creator and father of all, by means of which unutterable truths are expressed through secret symbols, beings beyond form brought under the control of form, things superior to all image reproduced through images, and all things brought to completion through one single divine cause, which itself so far transcends passions that reason is not even capable of grasping it.[4]

The created world, then, has certain things in it that function as symbols through which we can contemplate the transcendent. Tyson notes that for Lewis, who in many ways was a Platonist, “the world of immediate experience is not “seen through” and then discarded, but rather that world as we experience it is the necessary medium through which we hear the music of heaven.”[5] Created reality is, in other words, in all its physicality, sacramental and mediatory. It does not point to itself but neither does it point away from itself. Rather, created, physical reality, the visible world, is that along or through which we can see transcendent realities.

The centre of a Platonist Christian attitude to the visible world, then, is not one of rejection. No, it embraces the visible world, as revelatory, but also understands that it is inferior to the invisible realities it points to. As I argue more in my PhD thesis, in the fifth chapter, we do not, and cannot, have a ‘direct’ contact with God, because He is no just one being amongst others but subsistent Being itself, which we cannot grasp directly.[6] Therefore, we can only relate to God in a mediated manner, through the world, which points us to its creator (Job 12:7-8; Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20), and most particularly through the means of grace given us through Christ, as we read in Confessio Augustana. The confession notes that the priestly ministry, centring on “teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments,” was founded so that we might receive the faith which justifies: “For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel.”[7] Through the word and the sacraments, through visible, sensible, things, we are granted salvation and union with the divine. This prioritises the invisible but not by rejecting the visible. Rather, the visible is that through which we reach that which is invisible and eternal. And that is the heart of a Christian Platonism.

Notes:

[1] Besides my thesis, when that comes out, I recommend reading a few books and articles: Crystal Addey, Divination and Theurgy in Neoplatonism: Oracles of the Gods (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016); R. M. van den Berg, Proclus’ Hymns: Essays, Translations, Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2001); Gregory Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus, 2nd ed. with foreword by John Milbank and Aaron Riches (Kettering: Angelico Press/Sophia Perennis, 2014); Charles M. Stang, Apophasis and Pseudonymity in Dionysius the Areopagite: “No Longer I” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Peter T. Struck, “Pagan and Christian Theurgies: Iamblichus, Pseudo-Dionysius, Religion and Magic in Late Antiquity” (Ancient World 32:2, 2001), 25-38; Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler, Theurgy in Late Antiquity: The Invention of a Ritual Tradition (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013); Algis Uždavinys, Philosophy and Theurgy in Late Antiquity, with foreword by John F. Finamore (Kettering: Angelico Press/Sophia Perennis, 2014); Sarah Klitenic Wear and John Dillon, Dionysius the Areopagite and the Neoplatonist Tradition: Despoiling the Hellenes (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007). The book by Charles Stang is an excellent account of Pseudo-Dionysius’s theology, and Neoplatonic philosophy, and it is open access!

[2] Paul Tyson, Returning to Reality: Christian Platonism for our Times (Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2015). Also see Alexander J. B. Hampton and John Peter Kenney, eds., Christian Platonism: A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

[3] Tyson, Returning to Reality, 23-40.

[4] Iamblichus, De mysteriis, Greek and English, intro. and trans. Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon, and Jackson P. Hershbell (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), I, 21, cf. I, 1-2; III, 31; VI, 7; IX, 4.

[5] Tyson, Returning to Reality, 25.

[6] See Simon Oliver, Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), 43-53

[7] For English, see The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds., Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2000). For Latin and German, see Die Bekenntnisschriften der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche, vollständige neuedition, ed., Irene Dingel (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014). I use the English translation of the Latin, if not otherwise noted.

Exult, let them exult!

Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation
sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!

With these words, which open the Exsultet, the Proclamation of Easter, according to the text in the Roman Catholic Church, I want to proclaim the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ! For a sung version, see here:

In Christ, we find forgiveness, life, happiness, joy! And, as St. Paul reminds us, in 2 Timothy 1:8-10, we should not be ashamed of this:

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

That is the Paschal Gospel, as formulated by St. Paul. But what does he mean when he says that Christ has “brought life and immortality to light through the gospel”?

For us the word ‘Gospel’ has become a Christian one, something only understood by those on the inside. But for the recipients of the letters of St. Paul, this was very real and very common. The word, which basically means ‘good news,’ was used by kings, princes, and emperors to mark important occasions and particularly their accession to the throne.[1] After the ‘chaos’ that followed the death of his predecessor, the new ruler would come and promise to introduce peace and stability. That, at least, was the rhetoric used. Life, however, remained the same for most people. And by the same, I mean equally bad. We have probably all heard the saying of Tacitus, describing the conquest of the Roman empire and the so-called pax Romana, ‘the Roman peace’: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.” But with Christ we see something different, something new. Like others before and after Him, He claimed to be Christ, the Messiah, the representative of Israel, but unlike those before and after Him, He did not claim to be a political figure, just another man to free us from physical captivity; from Romans, corrupt Jewish rulers, etc. To use a descriptor someone used of Neo from the Matrix series, he was not a Messiah with a machine gun. In the Passion narrative this Good Friday (John 18:1-19:42), Christ, being interrogated by Pontius Pilate, said, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” He claimed to be the Lord of lords, the King of kings, even God Himself. But His claim was very different from those of other pretenders before and after Him. But this claim did not make Him less of a threat, probably more. For the kingship of Christ relativises the rule of all earthy kings, princes, and emperors. So threatening was this that Herod the Great ordered the death of all male children in Bethlehem up to the age of two just so he might get rid of Christ.[2] And later his grandson, Herod Agrippa, had James killed and Peter imprisoned.[3] He attacked Christians because they proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because they dared to say “Jesus is Lord.” By using this word, ‘Gospel,’ St. Paul, and all Christians, are saying that Jesus Christ is the true Lord and King, not Herod, Caesar, Augustus, Napoleon, Elizabeth, nor Harold. And He is not only the king of Israel, of Rome, France, the United Kingdom, or Norway. No, He is the Lord and King over the entire creation, over the entire universe (or multiverse if that exists). He is the King of kings, the Lord of lords. The Paschal Gospel is this; that this King of kings and the Lord of lords accepted death on our behalf to save us and that he rose again for our justification. The crucified and risen saviour is Lord and King.

But what does this mean for us here and now? To understand how fantastic the resurrection is, not only for Christ but for us, we also need to understand the seriousness of our own sin. Sin is more than just bad behaviour. Sin is to choose sides, against God. As humans we have a central purpose: to give thanks and praise to God for who He is and for what he has done for us and to love and serve our neighbour. But we have not lived up to this. I know I haven’t. What we need to hear now is that there is a deep connection between the Eucharistic celebration of Maundy Thursday, the darkness and despair of Good Friday, and the light of Easter Sunday, represented in many churches by the easter candle. What the disciples thought was the end was lifted up as a sacrifice to God.

In 2003, while he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, pope (em.) Benedict wrote masterfully about how Christ, through the institution of the Eucharist, offered Himself to God and thereby transformed what was about to happen. He does not say that the offering was to appease an angry God out for his pound of flesh but that Christ offered what we could not and would not. Through a life of obedience and love He gave Himself fully to God, in thanksgiving, in praise, in adoration. He gave the perfect sacrifice: a life of love, service, and praise.

Through the prayers and actions of the Last Supper, particularly through the institution of the Eucharist, Christ ‘interpreted’ His death and gave it meaning. “This is my body” not meaninglessly thrown away but “given for you”! To quote Ratzinger, “in these words [Christ] undergoes a spiritual death, or, to put it more accurately, in these words Jesus transforms death into the spiritual act of affirmation, into the act of self-sharing love; into the act of adoration, which is offered to God, then from God is made available to men.”[4] What was the biggest sin of history, the murder of God Himself, became “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). We need both the Upper Room and the Cross, as Ratzinger reminds us:[5]

Both are essentially interdependent: the words at the Last Supper without the death would be, so to speak, an issue of unsecured currency; and again, the death without these words would be a mere execution without any discernible point to it. Yet the two together constitute this new event, in which the senselessness of death is given meaning; in which what is irrational is transformed and made rational and articulate; in which the destruction of love, which is what death means in itself, becomes in fact the means of verifying and establishing it, of its enduring constancy.

Christ gave Himself for us. A mortal sin became a loving act of adoration. And this act was perfect and complete. This act was strong enough to atone for all of our sins. The sacrifice of Christ is not about an angry God that needs appeasement but about how Christ lives the perfect life of love, on our behalf. And this way he abolished the sin of Adam. Where Adam was disobedient, Christ was obedient. He “became obedient to the point of death,” writes St. Paul, “even death on a cross.” And God answered Him by raising Him from death to life: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.”[6]

We can also have a share in this if we are joined to Christ. We need, as St. Paul says, to be ‘in Christ.’ For, he says, there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”[7] Through Christ we may be renewed and restored. Through Him we are enabled to stand before God in thanks and praise. We have died with Christ in Baptism, we have had our sins washed away and we have been risen from baptism to new life.[8]

This is the night that Christ offered humanity back to God and gave us new life. In the words of the Exsultet:

This is the night,
when Christ broke the prison-bars of death
and rose victorious from the underworld.

Our thanksgiving and praise will never be enough to express the magnitude of this act but we will still continue, hoping that death is not the end and that if we remain ‘in Christ’ we will one day rise up to a new heaven and a new earth.

Christ is risen! He is Risen Indeed!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Notes:

[1] Read this interview with N.T. Wright and watch this video where Wright elaborates on the word ‘Gospel.’

[2] Matthew 2:1-18.

[3] Cf. Acts 12.

[4] Joseph Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy: The Sacramental Foundation of Christian Existence (Collected Works, vol. XI. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2014), 251-252.

[5] Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy, 252.

[6] Philippians 2:8-9 (cf. Romans 5).

[7] Romans 8:1, cf. 3:24; 6:11; 6:23; 8:1; 12:5; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 1:4; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:17-20; 3:26-28; Ephesians 1:3; 2:6-7, etc.

[8] Cf. Romans 6:1-11.

Maundy Thursday

Tonight marks the beginning of the Paschal Triduum, with the Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday Mass.[1] Like last year, many churches across the globe are closed, including the churches of the Church of Norway. Here in Britain some remain open. But since many churches remain closed, I choose to do a revised version of my reflections from last year, on what the Eucharist means for us, also when we are in the middle of a pandemic, as many places will, again, only be able to offer streamed or pre-recorded celebrations.

First, I want to quote the Psalm for tonight’s celebration, 116:1-2, 12-19 (according to the Revised Common Lectionary), before I reflect on how ‘online celebrations’ of Mass actually have value for those who watch them:

I love the Lord,
because he has heard my voice and my supplications.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
therefore I will call on him as long as I live.

What shall I return to the Lord
for all his bounty to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord,
I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.
Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his faithful ones.
O Lord, I am your servant;
I am your servant,
the child of your serving-maid.
You have loosed my bonds.
I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
and call on the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord,
in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord!

This Psalm is part of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118) which is sung during the Passover Seder or Passover Meal. And this Psalm is sung specifically in conjunction with the blessing for the fourth cup. But how can ‘online celebrations’ have any effect on us? In her seminal work on the liturgy, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, Catherine Pickstock notes that the Eucharistic celebration is not for the individual alone but is a communal celebration. She cites a rhetorical question supposedly posed by Martin Luther (but actually from British cleric and Protestant reformer Thomas Becon): “Can my eating slake your hunger?”[2] The claim made by Becon is that your eating of the sacrament cannot do me any good. But this is a very individualistic understanding of liturgy. To me it seems obvious that if you are blessed, so will I, in some sense. We are members of the same body of Christ, as St. Paul reminds us (Romans 12:1-8; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31). And, as he states: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). The mere fact that liturgy is being celebrated on our behalf – even if we cannot be there physically – is beneficial. Yes, many cannot partake fully at the moment, and that is a loss, but we can still remain assured that priests all over the globe are celebrating on our behalf and that Christ’s sacrifice is lifted up for the world to see.[3] Therefore, if you cannot go to a physical celebration tonight, tune in – on Facebook, YouTube, or wherever. Let us pray together with those who celebrate on our behalf. For some good reflections on this, see and listen to Fr. Thomas Plant’s reflections on this; “Church buildings, Eucharistic participation and pastoral care.”

And as you tune in to one (or more) of the many celebrations, you can pray this simple prayer of spiritual communion from the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament (found at this resource for praying at home, p.8, produced by the Anglo-Catholic Church Union and the Society under the patronage of S. Wilfrid and S. Hilda):

My Jesus, I believe that you are in the Blessed Sacrament. I love you above all things, and I long for you in my soul. Since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. As though you have already come, I embrace you and unite myself entirely to you; never permit me to be separated from you. Amen.

Notes:

[1] ‘Maundy’ refers to the foot washing and Christ’s command to do the same. It comes from the Latin mandatum, ‘command’ in Vulgate version of John 1:34. In Norwegian we call it ‘skjærtorsdag.’ Skjær means ‘clean,’ coming from the Norse word skíra.

[2] Pickstock (After Writing, 155-156, n.122) cites an article by John Bossy, “The Mass as a Social Institution 1200-1700” (Past & Present, No. 100, 1983, 29-61, here: 44). He cites Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961), 283. The quotation, however, is not found there but is found in Thomas Becon’s “The Displaying of the Popish Mass,” 280, found in Prayers and Other Pieces of Thomas Becon, S.T.P., ed., Rev. John Ayre, M.A. (Cambridge: The Parker Society / Cambridge University Press, 1844), 253-286. Also see Seymour Baker, “Becon, Thomas” (in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

[3] For a Lutheran argument for a sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist, see my article.

Some thoughts on the Filioque

In the Western version of the Nicene Creed (or the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed), a change was made in the article on the Holy Spirit. In Greek, it says (translated into English) that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” In later Western or Latin editions, which is the basis for most of the Western churches, including (most) Anglican and Lutheran ones, this was altered to say that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” This is known as the Filioque controversy. Some Greeks have said that this means that these traditions teach that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son as from two different principles. That, however, is not the case. In this post, I will try to explain why I think the Filioque is not just acceptable but central.

The interpretation of the Filioque in Western Christianity has always been (and remains) that the Spirit comes from the Father through the Son. Latin Christianity – whether Roman, Anglican, Lutheran, etc. – holds that the Spirit proceeds from one principle; the Father. So does the East. I do not think there are any definite theological differences between the two positions.

The traditional western approach does not state that the Father and the Son are two distinct principles but that the Father is the one principle from whom the Spirit proceeds, but that He does so through the Son. This principle was also held by Tarasius I, who was elected Patriarch of Constantinople in 784. In a profession sent to pope Hadrian I, prior to the seventh ecumenical council (and read at said council), he stated that the Holy Spirit proceeds “from the Father through (Gk. diá) the Son.” He did not change the text of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed but he did acknowledge that when we say that the Spirit proceeds from the Father, this implies that He does so through the Son.[1] And the reason why that is important is that if He did not proceed through the Son, there would be no relation between the Spirit and the Son. And since the relations are what constitutes personhood in the godhead, the Son would either be ontologically subordinate to the Father and the Spirit or we would have to say that the doctrine of the Trinity is polytheistic, not monotheistic.[2]

Some have noted that since Latin has more words for ‘and,’ it allows for more distinctions than Greek. Saying that the Spirit proceeds from the Father kaí the Son (kaí being ‘and’ in Greek) would seem to entail that the Father and the Son were two different principles, which would make the Spirit subordinate to both and his relation to them would be identical, and thus you could not distinguish properly between the persons. In Latin, however, you can use the word et (which is basically kaí) or the word que (as in Filioque) which allows for more distinctions.

The traditional western teaching is that the Spirit does indeed proceed from the Father and the Son, but from one principle, from the Father, through the Son. But that does not mean that you should include the Filioque in the Greek version of the Creed (which the Roman Catholic Church does not do, by the way). And maybe we should not have it in the Western version of the Creed either.[3] But I think that it being there is good, as it helps us understand the relations in the Godhead. The Filioque is important in that it shows us that the Spirit is not subordinate to either the Father or the Son but also that the Son is not subordinate to the Father (or the Holy Spirit).

Notes:

[1] See Joannes Metaxas-Mariatos, The Filioque Controversy: Chapters from the eastern orthodox reaction: An historical-theological perspective (Master’s thesis, Durham University, 1988), 8-9.

[2] I also think that without the Filioque, it would be hard to argue for divine simplicity, but that is a discussion for another day.

[3] Some Eastern theologians argue that it is improper because it was introduced without conferring with Eastern theologians. I find that argument unpersuasive, for one very important reason. At Nicea, in 325, the Creed had this much to say about the Spirit: “And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit.” This, however was changed at the second ecumenical council in Constantinople in 381: “And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.” See here. And guess what, there were no Western theologians present at the second ecumenical council.

Edit: I see no principled difference here. If the argument is that it needs to be affirmed to become an ecumenical council, I wonder why the same logic is not applied to the fourth ecumenical council in 451. Large portions of the oriental Church did not approve. Yet the Greeks did not claim that it was not an ecumenical council. The argument, then, boils down to ‘rules for thee but not for me.’ The West, of course, does not approve that. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.