Archives For Gregory of Nyssa

hell-5-views-3-638I often wonder if Christians are so beholden to belief in an eternal hell because they simultaneously assume that belief in the biblical account of creation requires images of brontosauruses reclining with Adam in the peaceable garden of eden. I wonder, that is, if believing in a fiery fate is part and parcel with affirming scripture’s aging of the earth. Certainly I think Christians can only insist that the story ends this awful way for some of us- or, to listen to them, a great many of us- because they mistakenly read its beginning in a particular way.

Belief in an eternal hell relies upon a literal, which is to say static, reading of Genesis. Only such a reading, where the  term ‘creation’ is circumscribed to the first six days, can make belief in a Last Day that begets eternal torment coherent.

To preach fire and brimstone of the ultimate variety one must first conjugate the Triune God’s deliberation (“Let us make humankind in our image…”) into the past tense.

When Christians erroneously suppose that the doctrine of creation refers to our beginnings, in the past, they not only get into misbegotten debates pitting science vs. scripture, they fail to realize that belief in an eternal hell is morally contradictory to belief in creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothing.

Christians do not posit creation from nothing as a claim about the origins of the universe. Nor do we mean it merely as a metaphysical one- that ‘God’ is the answer we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ Of course it includes both of those claims but creation from nothing is hardly reducible to either of them; instead, creation from nothing, as Church Fathers like Gregory of Nyssa saw clearly, does not refer to God’s primordial act but to an eschatological one which witnesses to God’s ultimate, as in teleological, relation to creation.

For Christians, the doctrine of creation from nothing is not a belief about what God did, billions or thousands of years ago. It’s a confession that necessarily includes what God has done, is doing, and will do unto fruition.

Creation from nothing isn’t so much a statement about what God did or what God does but its a statement about who God is. To say that God creates ex nihilo is to assert that God did not need creation. God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is, already and eternally so, sufficient unto himself, a perfect community of fullness and love, without deficit or need and with no potentiality. Creation from nothing confesses our belief that the world is not ‘nature’ but creation; that is, it is sheer gift because the Giver is without any lack. Creation is not necessary to God. It is not the terrain on which God needs to realize any part of an incomplete identity.

Creation from nothing then is shorthand for the Christian assertion that the Creator is categorically Other from his creation, that the Transcendent is absolutely distinct from the temporal. Simultaneously, however, creation from nothing requires that though- really, because– Creator and creation are ontologically distinct they are morally inseparable.

Precisely because God did not need to create, because creation is sheer gift, God ‘needs’ for creation to reveal his goodness.

Morally speaking, God is now bound to creation’s end because its beginning was not bound to him. In other words, for creation to be gift and the Giver to be good, then God ‘must’ bring to fruition his purpose in creation, “Let us make humankind in our image,” for all causes are reducible to and reflect their First Cause. If creation proves ultimately to be less than good (with an eternal torment for some of creation), then the Creator is no longer in any logical sense the Good.

As my teacher David Bentley Hart argues:

“In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth.”

God’s creative purpose does not refer to Adam and Eve’s first day on the third. It was not fulfilled prior to the Fall nor would it have been without it. If, before their mistrust in the Garden, Adam and Eve already bore the fullness of God’s image then God is but a god, and it’s no longer intelligible what we mean by saying Christ is the image of the invisible God for the chasm between Adam and Jesus is only slightly less than infinite. What Christians mean by the imago dei is not immediate. It is, in fact, inseparable from what we call sanctification. Perfection.

God’s “Let us…” does not refer to the events of day 3 of creation but names the plot of the entire salvation story. Making us- that is, humanity, all of us- into the image of Father, Son, and Spirit is what God is bringing to pass in calling Israel, in taking flesh in Christ, in sending the Spirit, and, through the Spirit, sending the Church to announce the Gospel. As Gregory saw it, we can only truly say that God ‘created’ when all of creation finally has reached its consummation in the union of all things with the First Good.

Belief in an eternal hell is absurd then exactly because what Christians mean by belief in the imago dei is not immediate but ultimate.

It is, in fact, inseparable from what we call sanctification.

Perfection.

Creation from nothing for the purpose that humanity would bear gratuitously the image of the good God is what God began in Genesis, what God is doing now through the Spirit, and what God has promised to bring to completion in Christ. Eternal hell does not comport with this telos, this End, towards which God has created us.

Indeed belief in eternal hell, where some portion or multitude of humanity is forever lost and forsaken, contradicts belief in creation from nothing, for if God’s promised aim is that, in the fullness of time all of humanity will bear his image, the promise can never be consummated apart without all of humanity included in it.

 

 

quote-that-thing-of-hell-and-eternal-punishment-is-the-most-absurd-as-well-as-the-most-disagreeable-george-berkeley-16387-4I’m no aficionado of the Oxford Comma, as my friend Tony Jones knows,  so I can appreciate, I suppose, the way a sober dose of grammatical clarification can provoke patronizing tones. Last week my post on how Paul, once he’s properly translated, believes it’s the faithfulness of Christ- not our faith in Christ- that justifies us before God, inspired many a breathless rebuttal. According to the many rejoinders I received, to place “too much stress” upon God-in-Christ as the acting subject of salvation leads to an “abyss of false teaching” where it becomes necessary to affirm that which the New Testament already (inconveniently) does; namely, that the God who created all that is ex nihilo as sheer good gratuity, the God who is all and in all, is the God who desires the salvation of all.

“This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” – 1 Timothy 2.3-4

Apparently, if my critics, clergy and lay, are to be heeded to assert that God desires the salvation of all constitutes a “treacherous absurdity.” It’s a betrayal of the Gospel, I’ve been told in the not so hushed tones of all caps messages, to suppose that the triune God who announced his creative aim in Genesis 1 (“Let us make humankind in our image…”) will not forsake his endeavor until it has reached final consummation, that in the fullness of time humanity will finally bear the full glory of God’s image. Evidently, I take it from these Calvinists in threadbare sheep’s clothing, it’s better to confess that God-with-us may be our Alpha but he is not our End. At least, not for all of us.

Their sanctimonious caveats took me aback, warning me that my logic- which is but the logic of the New Testament’s witness- “could lead down a slippery slope” to (gasp) “universalism.” It’s amazing to me that those most vested- presumably- in protecting the gravity of sin, the majesty of salvation, and the authority of scripture ignore what scripture itself testifies about it and the nature of the God revealed therein. Spurred by my teacher, David Bentley Hart, I actually counted them up. The New Testament contains no less than 47 verses which affirm the ‘all-ness’ of God’s salvation compared to the 3 oft-cited but decidedly cryptic verses which may (or as easily may not) suggest eternal torments for the wicked.

47 vs. 3

What was obvious to the ancient Church Fathers, the totality of God’s salvific aim, has become so hidden it now sufficiently smacks of heresy to exile Rob Bell from the pulpit to the Oprah Channel.

A hero of mine, Karl Barth, famously said that as Christians scripture does not permit us to conclude that all will be saved but that as Christians we should hope and pray that all will be saved. Barth’s is a more generous sentiment than I hear from many Christians today, but despite his reticence I daresay logic permits us to say more.

If God desires the salvation of all it is a logical absurdity to assert that the transcendent God will ultimately fail in accomplishing his eschatological will.

The belief in an eternal hell where some are forever excluded from the ‘all-ness’ of salvation echoed by scripture- that is the absurdity which begets still other absurdities like the Calvinist notion that God predestined some to salvation and others to perdition.

Just as God cannot act contrary to his good nature, so too God cannot fail to realize the good he desires. To say, as scripture does, that God desires the salvation of all is to say simultaneously and necessarily, as scripture implies, that all will be saved, that all things will indeed be made new.

Consider the counter:

If not, if we in our sin (or, worse, in our “freedom”) thwart God’s will and desire, casting ourselves into a fiery torment despite God’s sovereign intention, God would not be God. Or, to put it simpler if more baldly, we would be God. Or, still more pernicious, evil, as that which has successfully resisted God’s creative aim though it is no-thing, would be God.

Evil would God.

Thus the belief in an eternal hell betrays the fact that it’s possible for perfect faith to be indistinguishable from perfect nihilism.

Just days after the slaughter in Orlando, it’s clear how offensive the ‘all-ness’ of God’s sovereign saving love can strike the moral ear. For that ‘all-ness’ must include the shooter too.

To suggest instead that even if Christ came for all and died for all only some will be saved better conforms to our calculus of justice, but it is a moral calculus that is not without remainder, for it makes of evil an idol and of (the once transcendent) God a liar.

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. – Romans 5.18-19

For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. – Romans 11.32

descentAs commonplace as it is for Christians to confess, when we say Jesus died for us, in our place, on the cross, we are in effect claiming that God trucks in such violence as the cross.

And as commonplace as such speech is for Christians today, it contradicts the ancient Church Fathers and, even, Ansem of Cantebury who emphasizesd the necessarily nonviolent mode of the atonement.

Even after you’ve avoided the common problems with substitutionary atonement, making clear it is not merely our individual sin (read: moral impurity) for which Jesus dies or insisting we must not divide the Father’s and Son’s wills against one another, that the cross in no way effects a change in God, or that God’s wrath is poured out on the cross not against his creatures but against the Sin that enslaves them, substitutionary atonement still sees the cross as an apocalyptic battle waged by God.

Even after you resolve the popular problems with substitution, a graver problem remains:

God chooses violence to be the means by which we’re delivered.

Whether or not the fact of God endorsing and using such violence is ameliorated by the fact that God suffers it in our stead is a matter of debate.

To my mind, a more urgent question becomes whether or not a community of perichoretic love, the Trinity, whose very nature is peace, could ever employ violence to good ends?

Is not such an act contrary to God’s nature? And God, by definition, cannot act contrary to God’s nature, such a god would be a god of sheer will not a God who is Goodness.

The idea that the cross reveals the nonviolence of God is commonplace in the ancient Church Fathers:

‘God does not use violent means to obtain what he desires.’

– Iraeneus

‘God does not liberate us from our captivity by a violent exercise of force.’

– Gregory of Nyssa

In his retrieval of Cur Deus Homo, David Bentley Hart argues that Anselm, in harmony with the Fathers before him, does not view God as using the violence of the cross as the means to remit sin.

Quite the opposite, the violence of the cross is our violence, our choice. The cross is a product of the system of Sin to which we’re bound.

Says Hart:

 ‘the violence that befalls Christ belongs to our order of justice, an order overcome by his sacrifice, which is one of peace.’

Hart argues that the same boundless gift God gives in creation the Son gives back in his obedient life offered to God even unto the cross and that such a superabundant gift ‘draws creation back into the eternal motion of divine love for which it was fashioned.’ Thus, Hart concludes, Christ subverts the very logic of substitution and sacrifice from within by subsuming it into the trinitarian motion of love.

As opposed to a violent, apocalyptic defeat of Sin through the cross, Christ’s obedience is simply, as Anselm puts it, ‘a gift that exceeds our every debt.’

 

Image: The Descent from the Cross by Max Beckmann

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought. That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you this precis.

david_bentley_hart_zps3fe63909

 

1. Here’s a money quote that all but begs the reader to ponder whether the exclusive practice of adult baptism, premised as it is on human initiative, is absurd:

 

‘The Spirit is present in every action of redemption- completing it, perfecting it- so that to deny the divinity of the Spirit would be to deny the efficacy of one’s own baptism; as only God can join us to God (which is what salvation is), the Spirit who unites us to the Son (who bears us up to the Father) must be God.’

 

2. Often people object to the ancient, patristic doctrine of immutability, that is, the belief that God does not change, by lamenting that any God who does not change as we do is not a God to whom we can relate. More roughly put: ‘I don’t to want love God if God’s not like me.’

Here, DBH channels Gregory of Nyssa, perhaps the most important Church Father, to point out that, far from being an argument against, our mutability is but another sign of God’s immutability:

 

‘In the end, creaturely mutability itself proves to be at once the way of difference from God and the way of union with God. To begin with, change is a means of release from sin; that same changeableness that grants us liberty to turn toward evil allows us also to recover the measure of divine harmony and to become an ever shifting shape of the good, a peaceful cadence of change.

For creatures, who cannot statically comprehend the infinite, progress in the good is the most beautiful work of change, and an inability to change would be a penalty. We are pure movement; the changeable puts on changeless beauty, always thirsting for more of God’s beauty which is changeless because it encompasses all beauty.’

 

3. It’s Reformation Sunday coming up so there’s no better time to lay blame squarely at the feet of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, the well-intentioned mis-adventure which held that all of Christian vision should conform to and initiate from scripture solely.

The problem of course is that existence itself begets particular questions of existence (‘metaphysics’) towards which the bible shows little interest but logic (another manifestation of God’s truth) demonstrates to be necessary.

For example, scripture- because its the narrative of a People- speaks often of God’s wrath and violence. However, the logic of creation betrays the unnecessariness and hence gratuity of life itself so God, at bottom, in God’s essence is Goodness/Love itself.

Anyways, here’s DBH weighing in on my side:

‘The God of scripture is infinite precisely as the God who loves and acts, and who can be loved in turn; infinite precisely because he will be what and where he will be. What though does this mean?

What has been said regarding being- and with what measure of coherence- when one has said that God is ‘infinitely determinate’ source of all being, the eternal ‘I Am’?’

This is not a question to be evaded by fideistic, biblicist recoil to some destructive (and largely modern) division between ‘biblical’ and ‘philosophical’ theology; theology that refuses to address questions of ontology can never be more than a mythology, and so must remain deplorably defenseless against serious philosophical criticism.’

 

4. Rob Bell got into a hot water for the wrong thing a few years ago. The heat came when he implied in his book, Love Wins, that the God of Easter Love has neither capacity nor inclination for the eternal torment of Hell. That God comes in the flesh for all is clear; equally clear is that God not ultimately getting all would be defeat not victory.

Rob Bell, though, should’ve caught Hell not for the above assertion but for the fact he shamelessly ripped it off from the ancient Church Fathers.

They believed that all humanity comprises the image of the God who is Trinity therefore salvation must include all of the human community.

Citing them, DBH writes:

‘Redemption is God assuming human nature in order to join it to the divine nature…salvation is that creation has been rescued from sin and death by the divinity that Christ has introduced into the entirety of the common human nature…all humanity is now transfigured in Christ, and is saved through its endless transformation into what God brings near; the human soul, assumed into Christ, is striving ever after, seeking the uncontainable plenitude of God…the salvation of all souls is inevitable because each soul is a changing image of the infinite God; the dynamism of the soul has only God’s absolute, changeless fullness as its source and end, and God’s eternity as its element.’

This past weekend we tackled the theme of Imago Dei in worship, the belief that we are, as Genesis 1 declares, made in God’s image.

Exactly how we’re made in God’s image has been the subject of diverse interpretation through the centuries. Does it mean that every human creature looks like God? Or is it that every creature from womb to tomb is precious by virtue of having their origin in God? Is it our conscience or our soul that resembles the divine? Or how about our love? Or maybe it’s our reason or our language? Maybe we reflect God in that we have dominion over the earth just as God has dominion over us?

Through the centuries the Church has understood the imago dei in all of these ways and often such understandings owe as much to cultural assumptions as they do to the scriptural narrative.

Here’s one way to think about our being made in God’s image that you may not have heard before; in fact, it’ll surprise and maybe offend some of you.

Gregory of Nyssa, a brilliant ‘Father’ of the early Church, understood the imago dei in even strict Trinitarian terms. If God is community, Gregory believed, and if Adam and Eve metaphorically represent humanity (‘Adam’ just means ‘the man’ – see even the ancient Christians didn’t have a problem interpreting Genesis allegorically), then it’s not simply the male-female relationship that constitutes the divine image it’s the totality of the human community.

It’s the human community that reflects the divine community. All of us. To leave someone from the human community out of the imago dei is no different then than excluding either Father, Son or Spirit from the divine community.

This is where Gregory’s thought takes a logical, if surprising turn.

Gregory’s understanding of the imago dei unfolds in a way that has unavoidable, universalist implications for any definition of salvation.

If the human community in its entirety makes up God’s image then redemption can not be accomplished unless Christ saves the entirety of the human community through his incarnation, life, cross and resurrection.

If all of us together constitute the image of God then salvation, the reversal of Sin and the healing of our nature, cannot be complete without all of us. Together.

All will be saved, Gregory speculates, because all have been made in the image of God.