Archives For Immutability

heresy_GMSI’ve had funerals and death on the brain this past week. It comes with the job. I’m just happy that for the first time in over a year it’s not my own death and funeral that’s lingering on the brain. It’s most often in the context of death that I hear some hackneyed version (‘God has a plan for everything’ or ‘There’s a reason for everything’ or ‘I know it was a horrific life-altering loss for you but God must’ve needed one more angel in heaven.’) of what I’ve concluded is the most common heresy among Americans, Christian and Non- the fraught, turns-God-into-a-prick-that-his-Son-should-depose bullshit belief that God can do whatever God wants.

No.

No, God cannot do whatever God wants.

The notion that God can do whatever God wants is called ‘Sovereignty’ by Calvinists.

The notion that God is free to do whatever God wants is called heresy by the ancient Christians.

 

As I’ve said again and again on this blog, God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change. God’s unchanging nature, God’s immunity to change we could say, is called ‘immutability.’

Understanding God’s nature as immutable has been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic. Behind the doctrine of immutability is the more foundational doctrine of Divine Simplicity; that is, God is not composed of parts whether spatial, temporal, or abstract. To be composed of parts, the ancient Christians held, implies that God is not the Composer.

Another way of putting it is that God is Simple in that there is no distinction between God’s Nature and God’s Will.

Or, to channel Forrest Gump, God IS as God DOES.

And God cannot DO in contradiction with who God IS.

The ancient Christians held that the categories we call Truth, Beauty or Goodness exist outside of our minds, cultures and languages. They are not merely relative concepts or words we attach to things in this world with no reality beyond this world.

They derive from the universal, eternal nature of God.

What we call ‘Goodness’ derives from the eternal, unchanging nature of God, whose Being is Absolute Goodness. In addition, God does not change.

So:

If God is Perfect, Immutable Love then God cannot do something that is unloving.

If God is Perfect, Immutable Goodness then God cannot do something that is not good.

Not even God, the ancient Christians believed, can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will evil, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature. Unknown

For God to be free, then, is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.

As creatures made in this God’s image, therefore, our freedom is necessarily freedom ‘for.’ We are free when we are unhindered and unconstrained from acting towards the ‘Goodness’ in which we all move and live and have our being.

The heresy that says God can do whatever God wants is called ‘nominalism.’

In contradiction to the ancient tradition, nominalism argues that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions.

God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character.

If God wants to will the collapse of a bridge, God has the freedom to will the bridge’s demise, no matter how many cars may be passing over it.

If God wants to break his promise to a People, by all means. What’s to stop God?

If God wants to give someone cancer or, on a different day and in a different mood, something better then God can.

According to nominalism, God can do whatever God wants and, by extension, whatever God does is ‘good’ simply because God does it.

It’s God’s actions in time and space that determine the ‘good’ not God’s eternal being.

Whereas ‘freedom’ in the realist mind refers to God acting in harmony with God’s eternal nature, ‘freedom’ for the nominalist refers to God’s ability to be pure, arbitrary will.

God’s will is supreme over God’s nature. Freedom, for God, is the freedom to will.

And as creatures made in this God’s image, freedom, for us, is the freedom to will. To want. To choose. Independent of and disconnected from the Good we call God. Freedom is for freedom’s sake alone.

Thus enters the atheist’s familiar conundrum:

Is something good because God says or does it?

Or does God say/do that which is good?

A Christian answers that it has to be the latter.

God is absolute goodness and God does only that which is good (all the time), and if it ever seems to us like God is not all the time good then the problem is with our perception of God not with God’s character and action.

 

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It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted any money quotes from DBH’s The Beauty of the Infinite.

Since Christmas is a time not only for exhausted credit limits and maxed out parents but also a time for sloppy Christian thinking, in which it’s often implied, if not downright said, that God taking flesh in Jesus indicates a change in God’s identity or disposition, I thought I’d post this to mark the holy day.

Of course, were it true that God changes at all or in the incarnation specifically, we’d all be committing idolatry on Christmas.

For a god who changes is, by definition, not God.

Take it from DBH.

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“The Church Fathers were anxious to reject any suggestion that God becoming human was an act of divine self-alienation, a transformation into a reality essentially contrary to what God eternally is: for this would mean that God must negate himself as God to become human- which would be to say God did not become human.

Hence, a strict distinction must be drawn between the idea of divine change and that of divine kenosis.

When scripture says, ‘the Logos became flesh,’ the word ‘became’ signifies not any change in God but only the act of self-divesting love whereby God the Son emptied himself of his glory, while preserving his immutable and impassible nature intact.

God did not alter or abandon his nature in any way, but freely appropriated the weakness and poverty of our nature for the work of redemption…

To say God does not change in the incarnation is almost a tautology.

God is not some thing that can be transformed into another thing.

God is the Being of everything, to which all that is always already properly belongs; there is no change of nature needed for the fullness of being to assume- even through self-impoverishment- a being as the dwelling place of mystery.

Moreover, as a human being is nothing at all in itself but the image and likeness of God- the Logos- in the one man who perfectly expresses and lives out what it is to be human, is in no sense an alien act for God. The act by which the form of God appears in the form of a slave is the act which the infinite divine image shows itself in the finite divine image: this then is not a change, but a manifestation, of who God is.

And finally, and most crucially, the very act of kenosis is not a new act for God, because God’s eternal Being is, in some sense, kenosis: the self-outpouring of the Father in the Son in the joy of the Holy Spirit. Thus Christ’s incarnation, far from dissembling his eternal nature, exhibits not only his particular proprium as the Son and the splendor of the Father, but also the nature of the Trinity in its entirety.”

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.

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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.’

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 these $$$ quotes:

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1.

“Nothing less than a strictly immutable (unchanging) God can provide the explanation of the world’s existence, and that, in consequence, the world must be, in the fullest sense, contingent and altogether unnecessary to God.

Various objections….complain that, on such a view, God could not have the intimate interest and concern with his creatures that is manifested in the Christian religion…while this would certainly be true if God was a finite being, it is not true if God is infinite. I do not believe that this is a logic that theology can intelligibly forsake.”

2.

“The first problem [in believing that God intended sin and evil in order to manifest redemption, i.e. Adam’s fault was to display the glory of the Cross] is that it reduces God to a being whose nature is not love (even if at the end of the day he turns out to be loving)…and should not evoke love in return.

If God’s identity is constituted in his triumph over evil [if God predestined that he should be the crucified God] then evil belongs eternally to God’s identity.

And his goodness is not goodness as such but a reaction…One risks here converting the Christian God into a god of sacrifice…a god forged in such fires may evoke fear and awe, but not genuine desire.”

3.

“A God who can become, who can acquire determinations, who has his future as potential and realizes his future through dramatic self-transcendence- a God who changes and suffers, that is- is not God but a god.

Christianity in this respect has always quite properly been identified as atheism.”

“God does not have to suffer or change in order to love us or show us mercy- he loved us when we were not, and by this very ‘mercy’ created us- and so, as love, he can overcome all suffering. Love is not a reaction [for God] but is the possibility of our every action. God’s love requires no pathos to evoke it, no evil to make it good [because God IS Love].”

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 these $$$ quotes. First, though, a few vocab words are in order to orient you to DBH’s argument:

Apatheia: the attribute of God, held by the ancients, in which God, as perfect within himself and possessing all possibilities as actualities, is unaffected by objects outside of himself.

Impassible: the ancient doctrine that God, as perfect within himself and possessing all possibilities as actualities, does not suffer due to the actions of another.

Immutable: the ancient belief that God, as eternal and existing outside of creation, does not change.

So then…God does not change- not ever- and God is not changed- by us.

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Here are the $ quotes:

“The contents of the creed do not constitute simply some system of metaphysical affirmations, but first and foremost a kind of ‘phenomenology of salvation’; the experience of redemption- of being joined by the Spirit to the Son and through the Son to the Father- was the ground from which the church’s doctrinal grammar arose.”

 

“The Christian understanding of beauty emerges not only naturally, but necessarily, from the Christian understanding of God as a perichoresis of love, a dynamic coinherence of the three divine persons, whose life is eternally one of shared regard, delight, fellowship, feasting and joy.”

 

“Liberal theology’s dogmatic wasting disease- of which no symptom could be more acute than the reduction of the doctrine of the Trinity to an appendictic twinge- was one of progressive and irrepressible abstraction, a moralization and spiritualization of salvation that made of Christ the unique bearer (as opposed to the unique content) of the Christian proclamation.”

 

“If the identity of the immanent Trinity (who God is in himself) with the economic Trinity (who God is as revealed by his works) is taken to mean history is the theater within which God- as absolute mind, process or divine event- finds or determines himself as God, there can be no way of convincingly avoiding the conclusion that God depends upon creation to be God and that creation exists by necessity (because of some lack in God); so that, God is robbed of his true transcendence and creation of its true gratuity.

The God whom Genesis depicts as pronouncing a deliberative ‘Let us…’ in creating humanity after his image and as looking on in approbation of his handiwork, which he sees to be good, is the eternal God who is the God he is forever is, with or without creation, to whom creation adds absolutely nothing.

God does not require creation to ‘fecundate’ his being, nor does he require the pathos of creation to determine his personality as though he were some finite subjectivity writ large…

God and creation do not belong to an interdependent history of necessity, because Trinity is already infinitely sufficient, infinitely diverse, infinitely at peace; God is good and sovereign and wholly beautiful, and creation is gift, loveliness, pleasure, dignity and freedom; which is to say that God is possessed of that loveliest ‘attribute:’ apatheia.”

 

“God does not even need us to be ‘our‘ God.

All we are, all we can ever become, is already infinitely and fully present in the inexhaustible beauty, liveliness and virtue of the Logos, where it is present already as responsiveness and communion; thus God indeed loved us when we were not.”

 

“Immutability, impassibility, timelessness- surely, many argue, these relics of an obsolete metaphysics lingered on in Christian theology just as false believe and sinful inclinations linger on in a soul after baptism; and surely they always were fundamentally incompatible with the idea of a God of election and love, who proves himself through fidelity to his own promises against the horizon of history, who became flesh for us (was this not a change in God, after all?) and endured the passion of the cross out of pity for us. Have we not seen the wounded heart of God, wounded by our sin in his eternal life?

This is why so much modern theology keenly desires a God who suffers, not simply with us and in our nature, but in his own nature as well; such a God, it is believed, is the living God of scripture, not the cold abstraction of a God of the philosophers; only such a God would die for us.

At its most culpable, the modern appetite for a passible God can reflect simply a sort of self-indulgence..a sense that, before God, though we are sinners, we also have a valid perspective, one he must learn to share with us so that he can sympathize with our lot rather than simply judge us; he must be absolved of his transcendence, so to speak, before we can consent to his verdict.”

 

“The Christian doctrine of divine apatheia, in its developed patristic and medieval form, never concerned an abstract deity incapable of loving us…the juxtaposition of the language of apatheia with the story of crucified love is precisely what makes the entire narrative of salvation in Christ intelligible. It is an almost agonizing irony that, in our attempt to revise trinitarian doctrine in the ‘light’ of Auschwitz, invariably we end up describing a God- who it turns out- is actually simply the metaphysical ground of Auschwitz.”

For being conditioned by history such a god is ultimately culpable for that history.

joel-victoria-osteenjpg-0ed2c611ec193324-760x506Anyone who’s known me for about a fruit fly’s lifespan knows that I feel about Joel Osteen the way I do genocide, testicular cancer and Verizon wireless.

His toothy grin, his Dapper Dan hair, his swarmy, snake-oil salvation sales pitch repel me. His dilution of the cross to a gospel that might as well come with a ‘brought to you by the Pax Romana’ sponsorship announcement offends me.

Every summer several dozen people find one of his books in their beach rental, snap a picture and email it to me. Just this week that many people forwarded me the press release about Joel O’s new show on Sirius Radio (seriously? WTF?!).

My antipathy over Joel Osteen is no secret.

So for all the crap I dish out about Joel Osteen, it’s an odd Jesusy sort of joke that I find myself in complete agreement with Joel Osteen’s well-appointed wife, Victoria.

Victoria recently told worshippers at the Osteen’s Rhode Island-sized church:

“When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself…”

Christians and critics all over social media quickly piled on her comments, pointing out that Victoria Osteen’s understanding of God left little room for ‘take up your cross and follow me.’ One ‘defender’ of Victoria Osteen argued that her comments were simply missing a qualifer, that she should’ve just said ‘when you worship Him, you’re not [just] doing it for God.’

Nearly all the criticism of Victoria Osteen sees her as dispensing what Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace,’ the promise of happiness rather than the call to holiness.

Likewise, all the criticism I’ve read of Victoria assumes the truth of the very premise Victoria upended with her comments:

that our worship, devotion, works, faithfulness etc please God.

The critics of Victoria Osteen- and they are legion- seem to believe that our worship of God makes God happy.

That is, Victoria’s critics imply that we, through our act of praise, effect God’s disposition, that our worship of God changes God.

Unwittingly (I imagine), Victoria Osteen was merely rephrasing (however clumsily) a very ancient and foundational Christian belief:

God, by definition, does not change.

Of course, our worship isn’t for God in the sense that our piety brings about a happy change in God because God doesn’t change.

‘Happy’ isn’t really a word that can do the heavy lifting when it comes to God, but, without change, God is eternally, ceaselessly loving towards us because God just is Love. It’s idolatrous to suppose that God is a god whose disposition changes like ours does; it’s even more grave an error to think we can bring about that change.

Victoria Osteen is absolutely right that our worship isn’t for God in the sense that it adds anything to God or changes God in any way.

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While many quickly denounced Victoria’s comments as antithetical to the Gospel, she has at least one esteemed ally; namely the most famous theologian of the Christian Church: St Thomas Aquinas.

In the Summa Theologica Thomas reasons his way through the question ‘Whether God changes?’

Thomas believed almost everything we say about God relies upon that God not to be a being bound in time, a being that changes.

For Aquinas God’s immutability is logically connected with God’s eternity.

Before Aquinas can establish that God is eternal, however, he must demonstrate that God is immutable for only if God is pure actuality- there is no potentiality in God- can God be considered eternal.

The implication of God’s immutability is a logical consequence of what Aquinas has already proved in Q’s 1-8:

God is pure actuality- all things are present and actual in God at all times.

God is the cause of all things and holds all things existence at every moment of existence.

God is not caused by any other being but is Being itself.

Anything that undergoes change is, by definition, moving from potentiality to actuality, for ‘change’ implies that is present now in something was previously missing or absent.

But no-thing can be missing or absent from God- in fact, God creates from no-thing.

Therefore:

God cannot undergo change.

To change is to acquire something new; but God has the fullness of perfection already and therefore cannot acquire anything new.

God is pure actuality and therefore He cannot change in any way; God is the fullness of perfection, so there is no way in which God could change. Loving us, for instance, does not change God, make God more loving, because God is LOVE.

Love is not an attribute of God but is full and always complete already in God.

Or put Mrs Osteen’s way, our love and worship of God does not effect God because love (including love for us) is not an attribute of God but is full and always complete already in God.

The irony is that those who accuse Mrs Osteen of violating the gospel themselves violate the first commandment.

They make God in our image or at least insist upon a god in our image: God must be like us so that we can love Him.

Her husband still makes me throw up a little in the back of my mouth every time I hear his voice, but his wife is absolutely right.

When you come to worship, don’t think you’re doing it for God.

Don’t think your praise pleases God.

Don’t think your devotion changes God’s mood towards you because God- literally and logically- cannot love you any more than God already does love you.

When we worship, we’re not making God happy. Rather in worship, prayer, faithfulness etc we’re participating in the eternal happiness of God called Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

image001Led by Hebert McCabe, the late Dominican philosopher, I’ve spent nights and early mornings the past few months rereading many of the ancient Church Fathers as well as St Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of the ‘Doctors’ of the Church.

I discovered McCabe a few years ago by tracking back through the footnotes of in one of Stanley Hauerwas’ books, and he’s provoked me to return to material I’ve not read since my very first theology classes with David Bentley Hart. dbh-ima

Back then, as an undergrad, I had no inkling that archaic church doctrines like immutabilty could be explosive in both the life-giving and death-causing connotations of the word.

Back then, I had no idea my inbox would one day be filled with messages from all over the globe, from believers and non, pro and non, because of this simple pericope from a blog post:

‘Never think that if you’re contrite and pray to God for forgiveness that God will forgive you…In a fairly literal sense, God doesn’t give a damn about your sin. It’s we who give the damns.’ 

Your prayer for forgiveness doesn’t incline God to forgive you.

God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change.

This has been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic.

To some, the idea that God is unchanging allows them to hear the gospel for the very first time.

After all, who would want a god whose love could change because of little old me?

To others, the insinuation that God is unchanging sounds like an a-biblical intrusion into a narrative that gives us nothing but a pathos-filled God.

And, after all, who would want a God whose immutable nature necessarily means he’s also impassible- unaffected? By my love and devotion? By the world’s sin and injustice?

To the former, a God who changes based on relationship with us not only contradicts God’s self-disclosure (‘I am He who is’) it threatens to break the first commandment. Such a god bears a striking resemblance to us.

To the latter, however, a God who is unchanging seems to bear no resemblance to the God of Israel who frequently rages and weeps like a cuckolded husband.

For reasons that fill more space than I can devote here, my feelings convictions passion lie with the former. I’m convinced the first Christians rightly held God to be immutable.

Not only do I think this is the only logical way to insure that the God the first testament is identified with the God who takes flesh in the second, I also do not think it renders a dispassionate god.

Far from saying God has no feelings or love towards us, immutability secures the fact that God has nothing but loving feelings in perfection towards us. Our relationship with God doesn’t change God because God literally can’t love us more than God already does.

Nor do I think the ancients’ immutable God an abstraction since at several points scripture tells us that the Word made flesh is the visible image of this immutable God.

Alright, but admittedly that begs the next question.

If God is immutable, if God doesn’t change, if God can’t change, then what exactly is prayer?

Isn’t prayer the spiritually-sanctioned means by which we manipulate god to do what we want, ask, or desire?

Doesn’t answered prayer imply a changed god?

No.

imagesAt least that’s how Herbert McCabe sees it.

In line with Thomas Aquinas, McCabe sees all prayer as a kind of parable of the Trinity. All prayer is made possible by the fact that the Son prayed to the Father and all prayer continues that prayer in that whenever we pray it is not us praying but the Spirit praying through us, as St Paul says.

Just as no one can understand or know God except God himself- the Word being God’s idea of himself made flesh- no one can speak to God except God himself. It is the same with prayer, McCabe argues.

“Prayer is God’s communion with God, prayer is the Holy Spirit breathed forth by the Father and by the Son because of the Father. We share in the Spirit in the inarticulacy of our prayer…When we pray we are prayed in, we become the locus of the exchange between the Father and the Son, the Trinity has made its home in us- for that we don’t need the right words with which to pray.’ 

So we don’t pray to God so much as God prays through us. Or, we pray to God in the sense that the Spirit prays through us to the Father and the Son.

As Aquinas says, ‘we should not say in accordance with my prayer God wills that it should be a fine day’ we should say that God wills it to be a fine day in accordance with my prayer.’

God wills our prayers as much as God wills the fine day.

What does that mean?

It means, says McCabe/Aquinas, that God wills it to be a fine day through my prayer; in other words, that it should be more than a fine day. God wills through us that that fine day should be a sacrament of God’s love.

To understand prayer in the categories of answered/unanswered prayer gets prayer exactly wrong, according to Aquinas, in the same way that the category ‘miracles’ gets God’s activity in the world all wrong.

God is never not active in any part or at any moment of the world. A ‘miracle’ is not when God is suddenly intervening in the world; a miracle is when only God is acting upon something in the world.

Similarly, an ‘answered’ prayed implies God is not active until/unless the answer arrives but rather, says Aquinas, the very wants and desires we pray are themselves the handiwork of the ever-present Triune God. Unknown

The desire you pray pray for healing, love, fill-in-the-blank is not your desire.

It’s God for you.

Implanted in you by God.

Prayed in and through you by the Holy Spirit.

Put another way, prayer is the sacrament that God wants healing, love, fill-in-the-blank for you as much as you do.

image001In preaching on the satan this past weekend, I relied upon the ancient Christian doctrine of God’s immutability; that is, God doesn’t change, has never changed, will never change.

To hit the point hard, I quoted the late Dominican theologian, Herbert McCabe:

‘In a fairly literal sense, God doesn’t give a damn about your sin. It’s we who give the damns.’ 

God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change.

That’s been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic.

To unpack the idea of immutability, I thought it would be helpful to go back to the sources; namely to the most famous of the Dominicans: St Thomas Aquinas and his tome, the Summa Theologica, wherein Thomas reasons his way through the question. St Thomas Aquinas

It comes early in the Summa for Thomas believed almost everything we say about God relies upon that God not to be a being bound in time, a being that changes.

So in question 9 of the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas asks whether or not God is immutable; that is, does God change?

For Aquinas God’s immutability is logically connected with God’s eternity, a topic he tackles in the proceeding question.

Before Aquinas can establish that God is eternal, however, he must demonstrate that God is immutable for only if God is pure actuality- there is no potentiality in God- can God be considered eternal.

Aquinas begins as he does throughout the Summa by acknowledging the possible objections to his topic.

Aquinas recalls that scripture appears to talk in terms of God changing in some way. God is said to have emotions for Israel, for example. However, there are also contrary passages such as Malachi 3:6

“I am God, and I do not change.” 

Where Aquinas sees this as an essential description of God’s nature, he suggests we see the passages that speak of changing as metaphor.

Indeed, the implication of God’s immutability are a logical consequence of what Aquinas has already proved in Q’s 1-8:

God is pure actuality- all things are present and actual in God at all times.

God is the cause of all things and holds all things existence at every moment of existence.

God is not caused by any other being but is Being itself.

Anything that undergoes change is, by definition, moving from potentiality to actuality, for ‘change’ implies that is present now in something was previously missing or absent.

But no-thing can be missing or absent from God- in fact, God creates from no-thing.

Therefore:

God cannot undergo change.

As usual, Aquinas is not afraid of counter arguments. Rather than stopping with the logic above, he tackles another two contrary positions. Unknown

An object, Aquinas says, undergoing change only changes in respect of certain properties; but in order to retain its identity it must remain the same with respect to other properties. Therefore such the object must be a composite. However, we know that whatever we mean by the word ‘God’ it’s that God is not a composite in any way whatsoever, therefore God cannot undergo change.

Finally to change is to acquire something new; but God has the fullness of perfection already and therefore cannot acquire anything new.

Therefore:

God cannot change.

Aquinas then moves on to wonder whether God is the only thing that is unchangeable, which he affirms. All members of creation are changeable in the sense that their continued existence depends upon God keeping them in existence. If God were to withdraw his support from a thing, that thing would go out of existence immediately. Therefore all created things can change in the sense of coming into and going out of existence and owing every moment of their existence upon God.

Incidentally, you can see here already how Aquinas allows us to dismiss most debates about ‘creationism vs evolution’ as stupid and a giant adventure in missing the point.

For to call God ‘Creator’ is not to say he ‘began’ something; it’s to say he holds all things in existence at all times.

In Summa

God is pure actuality and therefore He cannot change in any way; God is the fullness of perfection, so there is no way in which God could change. Loving us, for instance, does not change God, make God more loving, because God is LOVE.

Love is not an attribute of God but is full and always complete already in God.

I know how easy it is to hear this completely wrong.

You might argue, as many have and do, that if God were immutable then God must be static and impersonal; that God could not be the God that we love.

But to do this, Aquinas says, is to violate the very first commandment; it’s to make God in our image or at least insist upon a god in our image.

God must be like us so that we can love Him.

Such an approach fails to see that God’s immutability follows on from God’s perfection and is intimately connected with God being in eternity.

God’s perfection means every possibility, realized or not, is already present within God.

God doesn’t change because God literally and logically cannot love you any more than God already does love you.

ar from being static, He provides the very being of all that is dynamic in the created world. Far from being impersonal, by holding all things in existence at every moment of their existence, God is closer to each person than they are to themselves.

image001Here’s my sermon from this past weekend. The text for confirmation weekend was the Lord’s Prayer as found in the sermon on the mount, Matthew 6.1-13.

You can listen to here below or in the sidebar to the right. You can also download it in iTunes or, better yet, download the free mobile app.

Today is confirmation, the ancient ritual in which young disciples make good on their baptismal pledge to follow in the footsteps that lead to suffering, crucifixion and death.

So it’s a happy occasion.

A long time ago, the age at which you were confirmed was called the ‘age of reason,’ meaning confirmation marks the age when you’re now old enough to know right from sin.

In other words, today- confirmation day- marks the point when God starts to hold you accountable for all your sins, stupid lies and dirty thoughts- so I think congratulations are in order.

Just kidding. The ‘age of reason’ is from a different time, a different world.

I was confirmed 20 years ago today. 20 years- it was a different world.

Back then, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush were rumored to be considering presidential runs, Russia had just invaded a neighboring republic and an obnoxious theme song from a recently released Disney movie was on every radio station and every child’s lips.

Like I said, it was a completely different world.

I remember my first confirmation class. After beginning with a spaghetti dinner, the Reverend Dennis Perry taught our lesson.

Back then, Dennis Perry had white hair, a bad memory and tended not to prepare but shot from the hip instead.

Everything was different.

Because I hadn’t grown in the Church or in a Christian family, I was about 5 years older than any of the other confirmation students, which meant- by default- I was smartest one in the class, which meant I loved confirmation.

I was different back then.

I remember that first class. Dennis wheeled in a dry erase board. He sketched a scribble-scrabble drawing on the board, trying to help us conceive of the difference between eternity and creation.

     And then in his terrible hand-writing, Dennis wrote a funny, little word on the board: immutable.

‘That means,’ he said, ‘God doesn’t change.’

We might change. The world might change. But God does not change. Ever.

Immutable.

That was 20 years ago. And the world does change.

20 years ago, according to Gallup, 40% of Americans had attended a worship service in the previous 2 weeks, and 20 years ago if you asked Americans for their religious affiliation the number who checked ‘None’ was 8%.

It was a different world.

Over 50 years ago, the year this church was founded, 50% of Americans, according to Gallup, attended worship every Sunday.

The year this church was founded, church membership across America was growing at twice the rate of the general population. Think about that- churches in America were growing 2 times faster than America.

And the year this church was founded, 1956, if you asked Americans for their religious affiliation the number who checked ‘None’ was just 4%.

It was a different world.

It is a different world.

Just last year, 20% of Americans checked ‘None’ when asked about their religious affiliation.

One-fifth of everybody.

If you count those between the ages of 20 and 30 the percentage- emerging adults- jumps up to over 30%.

Over 40% of that age group report that religion ‘doesn’t matter very much to them.’

40% of the people who will have gray hair when you’re my age say that what we do here doesn’t really matter.

 We’re not just confirming you as disciples today.

We’re sending you off into a world that is very different than anything the rest of us have had to face.

Not only are we sending you off into a completely different world, we’re also handing you a great deal of baggage to carry into that new world.

     According to a Barna study of those between the ages of 20-30, when given a list of possible attributes to describe Christians:

91% checked ‘yes’ to the description ‘anti-homosexual.’

87% checked ‘yes’ next to the adjective ‘judgmental.’

86% checked ‘yes’ next ‘anti-science.’

85% checked ‘yes’ to ‘hypocritical.‘

78% checked ‘yes‘ to ‘too involved in partisan politics.‘

72% checked ‘yes’ to ‘out of touch with my reality.’

70% checked ‘yes’ to ‘insensitive.’

64% said Christians were ‘not accepting of those different than them.’

     All that together adds up to one very large millstone we’re putting around your neck today.

     A millstone whose message is clear, if unintended:

God is against you.

     Who wouldn’t check ‘None’ if that god was the other option?

As familiar as the Lord’s Prayer is, what’s often forgotten is the reason Jesus gives the disciples this prayer in the first place.

Because it’s not that they didn’t know how to pray.

As uneducated 1st century Jews from backwater Galilee they knew how to pray better than all of you, and they did so more often.

As 1st century Jews, the disciples would’ve had all 150 Psalms memorized, ready to recite by heart.

3 times a day (sundown, sunup, and 3:00 PM) they would’ve stopped wherever they were and whatever they were doing and prayed.

They would’ve prayed the shema (‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one’). They would’ve prayed the amidah, a serious of 18 benedictions, and they would’ve recited the 10 Commandments.

3 times a day.

So Jesus doesn’t give the disciples this prayer because they didn’t know how to pray. They knew how.

     This prayer isn’t about the how of prayer it’s about the who:

‘Do not be like the pagans when you pray…’

The pagans believed that god- the gods- changed.

The pagans believed god’s mood towards us could swing from one fickle extreme to its opposite, that god could be offended or outraged or flattered by us, that sometimes god could be for us but other times god could be against us.

And so the pagans of Jesus’ day, they would pray ridiculously long prayers, rattling off every divine name, invoking every possible attribute of god, heaping on as much praise and adoration as they could muster.

In order to please and placate god.

To manipulate god. To get god to be for them and not against them.

You see, the pagans believed that if they were good and prayed properly then god would reward them, but if they were bad and failed to offer an acceptable worship then god would punish them.

The who the pagans prayed to was:

An auditor always tallying our ledger to bestow blame or blessing based on what we deserve.

An accuser always watching us and weighing our deeds to condemn us for punishment or recommend us for reward.

The pagans had a lot of names for who they prayed to: Mars, Jupiter…

But scripture has one name for the kind of person the pagans prayed to: שָׂטָן, ha-satan.

What we call Satan.

duccio_di_buoninsegna_040

     In the Old Testament, satan doesn’t have 2 horns, a tail and a pitchfork.

In the Old Testament, satan isn’t the Prince of Darkness or the personification of evil.

In the Old Testament, satan is our accuser- that’s all the word means.

Satan is one who casts blame upon us, who finds fault in us, who indicts us for what we deserve.

The reason Jesus gives this prayer isn’t methodology.

It’s theology.

It’s not the how.

It’s the who.

Because the pagans got who god is so completely wrong, they didn’t know how to pray. They went on and on, thinking they needed to change god’s mind about them.

Jesus warns us not to be like the pagans not because he’s worried we’ll prattle on too long or call upon the name of Zeus.

No, Jesus doesn’t want us to turn God into a kind of satan.

Jesus doesn’t want us to mistake God for an accuser, to confuse God for one who casts blame and doles out what’s deserved.

Jesus gives this prayer so we won’t ever slip into supposing that God is against us.

 

Actually, it’s not really Jesus’ prayer.

It’s the Qaddish, an ancient Jewish prayer the disciples would’ve recognized and been able to recite themselves. And because they would’ve known it, they would’ve instantly noticed how Jesus changes it.

He changes it right from the beginning. Rather than starting, as the Qaddish does, with ‘hallowed be his great name’ Jesus changes it to ‘Father in Heaven.’

     And, of course, Jesus has in mind not just any father, not ‘father’ in the abstract, not anything analogous to your father or my father but his Father.

The Father who, Jesus says, sends rain upon the just and the unjust. The Father who, no matter what we deserve, just sends love.

     The Father who forgives for we know not what we do.

The Father who never stops waiting and is always ready to celebrate a prodigal’s return.

The Father who reacts to the crosses we build with resurrection.

You see, Jesus changes the Qaddish so that from the outset we are pointed to someone far different than who the pagans prayed to.

We’re pointed to his Father.

And that’s the second change Jesus makes to the Qaddish: the number.

Jesus takes it from the singular and makes it plural.

It’s not just his Father; it’s our Father now.

We’re brought into his relationship with his Father. We’re adopted.

One way of making sure we never get wrong who it is we’re praying to is to remember we’re praying to Jesus‘ Father.

He made it plural. We’ve been included.

And Jesus‘ Father never cast blame on him, never accused him, never acted like a satan, never did anything but love him.

The last change Jesus makes to the Qaddish is to the end. Jesus adds on ‘deliver us from the evil one.’

In Greek that’s ho-ponerous. In Hebrew, it’s ha-satan.

Deliver us from the accuser.

     In other words, the very concern that prompts Jesus to give this prayer in the first place is tacked onto the ending of it.

     When we pray, whenever we pray- Jesus says, which for him means 3 times a day- when we pray, we should pray to be delivered from ever thinking of God as our accuser, from ever thinking of God as one who casts down upon us, from ever thinking that God is against us.

 

It’s a helpful reminder because very often the god we pray to, the god in the back of our minds, the god we unwittingly proclaim is a kind of satan.

Don’t believe me?

Just this week I was talking with a friend in the community. He lost his wife a few months ago after a long illness. They have a son, no older than our confirmands. This week the man learned he has a serious form of cancer.

Eventually our conversation boiled down to 1 question:

Why is God doing this to me?

Of course that question is on our minds all the time.

The difficult pregnancy or the scary prognosis, the marriage that can’t heal or the dream that didn’t come true even though you prayed holes in the rug-

LIFE HAPPENS

     -and we think God must be punishing us.

     That this is happening for a reason.

That this suffering is because of that sin.

That God is giving us what we deserve.

That this is coming to us because God is against us.

Life happens and we want to know why: why is God doing this to me?

And of course we don’t have answers to the why.

     But we do have an answer about the who.

The 1 answer Jesus gives us, the answer Jesus gives us again and again, is this one:

The god you think is doing this to you isn’t God.

God’s not like that. My Father isn’t like that. Our Father isn’t like that.

Don’t be like the pagans.

And just in case you forget, here’s this prayer. When you pray…pray this way.

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We’re not just confirming you today, we’re sending you into a different world.

I wonder-

If the pre-Christian world thought of god as a kind of satan, then I wonder if the post-Christian world will too?

Because if so, there’s never been a better time to be a Christian.

When you’re my age, the people who will have gray hair will fall out like this:

Out of 10 people,

2 will be ‘selective adherents’ meaning they come to worship when someone makes them, like on Christmas or Confirmation. 1 will consider themselves ‘open to spirituality.’ 4 will be ‘religiously indifferent.’ 1 will be a committed person of faith, any faith. And 2 will be actively irreligious- atheists.

Look at that: 9 out of 10. There’s never been a better time to be a Christian!

And sure, we’re handing you baggage too.

But you can put this baggage down because the god behind that baggage isn’t God. The god behind that baggage is a kind of satan.

So put it down.

There’s never been a better time to be a Christian.

Because when you’re my age, 9/10 people won’t know what Dennis taught me when I was confirmation age:

That God doesn’t change. God’s never changed. God will never change.

God just is Love and unconditionally in love with each of us.

When you’re my age, 9/10 people won’t know what Dennis taught me when I was confirmed:

That God doesn’t change.

And so God never changes his mind about us. You.

God’s love does not depend on what we do or what we’re like.

There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less.

9/10 when you’re my age won’t know what Dennis taught me: that God doesn’t change.

God doesn’t care whether we’re sinners or saints.

As far as God’s love is concerned, our sin makes absolutely no difference to God.

We can’t change God because God doesn’t change.

9/10.

9/10 won’t know that God sends rain upon the just and the unjust.

That God never gives us what we deserve and always gives us more than we deserve.

9/10 won’t know that God forgives even when we know exactly what we do.

9/10 won’t know that God is

   an old lady who’ll turn her house upside-down for something that no one else would find valuable,

a shepherd who never gives up the search for the single sheep,

a Father- Jesus’ Father, Our Father-

who never stops looking down the road and is always ready to say ‘we have no choice but to celebrate.’

There’s never been a better time to be a Christian.

Because when you’re my age in the post-Christian world, you can set aside all the baggage, you can forget about all the accessories we argue about and you can get down to the basic, simple message that transformed the pre-Christian world:

God is for us.

For You.

Always.

Nothing can change that.

Nothing you do can change God’s mind about you.

Because God doesn’t change.

Of course, you’ve got more than 20 years before you’re my age.

That’s a long time.

Too long to remember everything I just said.

So maybe you could just try remembering that 1 word I remember Dennis teaching me: immutable.

Or maybe instead to help you remember, whenever you pray…pray like this…

 

 

 

 

 

image001This weekend both in a blog post and in my sermon I emphasized the ancient doctrine of God’s immutability:

Immutability = God doesn’t change.

Far from being a deficiency in God, I’m increasingly convinced that retrieving the ancient conception of God is vitally necessary in a post-Christian culture. Too often the god I hear young people reject is a god but not the God of Genesis 1, John 1, Colossians 1 or even Thomas Aquinas.

St Thomas AquinasSpeaking of Aquinas, my comments this weekend channeled the theologian Herbert McCabe who himself spent his lifetime channeling the ‘dumb ox.’

About God’s immutability, McCabe writes:

“It is very odd that people should think that when we do good God will reward us and when we do evil he will punish us. I mean it is very odd that Christians should think this; that God deals out to us what we deserve. … I don’t believe in God if that’s what he is, and it is very odd that any Christian should, since there is so much in the gospels to tell us differently. You could say that the main theme of the preaching of Jesus is that God isn’t like that at all.

Look at the parable of the prodigal son. The younger son takes his inheritance and squanders it in a far country. Eventually he finds himself impoverished and hungry. In despair he acknowledges how his sin has altered his relationship to his father: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”

But what precisely has changed?

Has the father ceased to love his son?

Has he become the angry patriarch the son now fears him to be?

On the contrary, the father has been waiting for his son to return, and upon seeing him in the distance, he jubilantly rushes to greet and welcome him home.

No, what has changed is the son. Because of his sin, the prodigal is no longer capable of seeing the father as he really is.”

McCabe continues: images

“Sin is something that changes God into a projection of our guilt, so that we don’t see the real God at all; all we see is some kind of judge. God (the whole meaning and purpose and point of our existence) has become a condemnation of us. God has been turned into Satan, the accuser of man, the paymaster, the one who weighs our deeds and condemns us.

The father does not need to be persuaded to forgive and welcome his son. He does not need to change his mind. He loves his son. That is his truth. All the son needs to do is to see his sin for what it is. He recognizes himself as a sinner, and at that moment he ceases to be one. His contrition is forgiveness. All the rest is celebration and feasting: “This is all the real God ever does, because God, the real God, is just helplessly and hopelessly in love with us. He is unconditionally in love with us.”

God doesn’t change his mind about us, McCabe declares;

“God changes our mind about him—again and again and again.”

That, in sum, is the point of everything McCabe ever wrote.

Next, McCabe hides the dense, nuanced theology of Aquinas behind his simple, spare prose:

“God is not a being within the universe; he is not a part of the world. He is the infinite mystery who utterly transcends the world he has made. The world makes no literal difference to God. This is what we mean when we say that God created the world ex nihilo, out of nothing. He did not have to create the universe, and if he had chosen not to, his glory and being would not have been diminished one iota.

God plus the world is not greater than God alone. The world does not add anything to God; it does not change or affect God. Ultimately it does not make a difference to God. God is God, in infinite glory, majesty, and love.”

Crucial to the ancient Christians’ view of God’s immutability is Genesis 1 where we are told that God created the universe from no-thing. In stark contrast to the pagan worldview, scripture conceives of God as totally transcendent of contingent creation.

This distinction between Creator and the creature, therefore, qualifies all our speech about God. We must use language if we are to proclaim the gospel, yet, as Thomas Aquinas noted, the metaphorical nature of these stories must be affirmed, if the Christian distinction between Creator and creature is to be respected.

UnknownOne such problem of language is forgiveness.

Christians talk about the forgiveness of God;

but what exactly do we mean when we say God forgives us?

McCabe elaborates:

“God, of course, is not injured or insulted or threatened by our sin. So, when we speak of him forgiving, we are using the word “forgiving” in a rather stretched way, a rather far-fetched way. We speak of God forgiving not because he is really offended but agrees to overlook the insult. What God is doing is like forgiveness not because of anything that happens in God, but because of what happens in us, because of the re- creative and redemptive side of forgiveness.

All the insult and injury we do in sinning is to ourselves alone, not to God.

We speak of God forgiving us because he comes to us to save us from ourselves, to restore us after we have injured ourselves, to redeem and re-create us.

God’s forgiveness just means the change he brings about in the sinner, the sorrow and repentance he gives to the sinner. God’s forgiveness does not mean that God changes from being vengeful to being forgiving, God’s forgiveness does not mean any change whatever in God. It just means the change in the sinner that God’s unwavering and eternal love brings about. … Our repentance is God’s forgiveness of us.”

Now, I know the pushback that will come at this point. The language of scripture IS filled with conflicting images of God—the image of the wrathful God who hates our sin, who requires propitiation; the image of the God who endures our sins, who is jealous, who is righteously angry at injustice.

While it’s true scripture speaks this way, it is also necessary, says McCabe, for us to think clearly:

“The initiative is always with God. When God forgives our sin, he is not changing his mind about us; he is changing our mind about him. He does not change; his mind is never anything but loving; he is love. The forgiveness of God is God’s creative and re-creative love making the desert bloom again, bringing us back from dry sterility to the rich luxuriant life bursting out all over the place. When God changes your mind in this way, when he pours out on you his Spirit of new life, it is exhilarating, but it is also fairly painful. There is a trauma of rebirth as perhaps there is of birth. The exhilaration and the pain that belong to being reborn is what we call contrition, and this is the forgiveness of sin. Contrition is not anxious guilt about sin; it is the continual recognition in hope that the Spirit has come to me as healing my sin.

So it is not literally true that because we are sorry God decides to forgive us. That is a perfectly good story, but it is only a story. The literal truth is that we are sorry because God forgives us. Our sorrow for sin just is the forgiveness of God working within us. Contrition and forgiveness are just two names for the same thing, they are the gift of the Holy Spirit; the re-creative transforming act of God in us. God does not forgive us because of anything he finds in us; he forgives us out of his sheer delight, his exuberant joy in making the desert bloom.”

God is not a god.

Nor is God the Jekyll and Hyde of so much Calvinism, the god so many people rightly reject, fear or secretly loathe.

God is not a god we need to appease. God is not a god we need to persuade in order for him to forgive.

God is not a god who puts conditions on his mercy and care.

God is the God who comes to us in love, only in love, relentlessly and passionately in love.