God Almighty?

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“Christ the Pantocrater” icon. Pantocrater is a Greek compound word for “all mighty”, thus depicting Christ as the all-mighty God

The first line of the Apostles’ Creed says, “I believe in God the Father almighty“. What does it mean to call God almighty? At first glance, of course, it means to affirm that God can do anything he wants. He is all-mighty; or, put another way, His might is not limited by the common limitations of human infirmity. He is mightier than anything in this world.

Of course, the snide theologically-minded junior higher might retort about God’s might: “well can God create a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it?”. Beside the fact that the question is a bit wonky (I’m fairly certain it is meant to be unanswerable), it points out a more important question: can God’s might transcend normal boundaries of logic, creation, love?

Alister McGrath explores this question by asking: can God create a four-sided triangle? He answers by saying,

Four-sided triangles do not and cannot exist. The fact that God cannot make such a triangle is not a serious issue. It just forces us to [think about God’s might] in a more complicated way. “To say that God is almighty means that God can do anything that does not involve logical contradiction.” (Theology: The Basics, Kindle Locations 1260-1263)

This is an important assessment. McGrath highlights the fact the God does and will not transgress the boundaries of logic; of course, this is preeminently because he is the one who created those boundaries in the first place! God made triangles three-sided; why would he want to create a four-sided one?

McGrath finishes his exploration of God’s might by answering that his might has boundaries. These boundaries are in place not because he is weak; God can in fact do anything. However, God won’t do anything which transgresses who he is or that which goes outside of the bounds he himself set up. God’s might is thus limited, but by choice. God mightily limits himself so as to remain inside the boundaries he decided upon.

Another (better) way to approach this is to say that affirmation of the line “God is almighty” is not the same as saying that “God is sheer might”. God is mighty, but he is also faithful to his promises. God is sovereign, but he is also love. This means that God’s might will never betray his love etc. And actually, 1 John 4 tells us that of all the things that God could be, he is in and of himself love. His might is thus subordinate to his love. He limits his might, and doesn’t transgress the boundaries he set up.

Hans Urs von Balthasar has a helpful discussion on this line of the Creed:

It is essential, in the first instance, to see the unimaginable power of the Father in the force of his self-surrender, that is, of his love, and not, for example, in his being able to do this or that as he chooses. And it is just as essential not to understand the Father’s love-almightiness as something darkly elemental, eruptive, prelogical, since his self-giving appears simultaneously as a self-thinking, self-stating, and self-expressing. (Credo, 31)

“Prelogical” is an important term here: God’s might does not come before the logic of his love. It is expressed in terms of his love. Here we have limitations again: God’s might is limited, or put better, filtered through his love. God cannot properly do anything he chooses if it out of line with his other attributes or out of line with the definitions he’s already created. For him to do this would create a God of sheer will, unloving, oppressive, “eruptive”.

von Balthasar concludes here that to say “God is almighty” is to affirm the unending nature of God’s love:

When the New Testament refers to him in many passages as “almighty”, it becomes evident from these that this almightiness can be none other than that of a surrender which is limited by nothing (Credo, 31)

Almightiness in terms of love means that God’s love is so mighty and his surrender so great that it cannot be stopped! This is what the cross is! God’s self-sacrificing, mighty love which destroys the power of sin and death and results in life eternal. Ah, that we can affirm!

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Faith and Doubt

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Kallistos Ware, in his primer on Eastern Orthodoxy — The Orthodox Way — begins his book talking about what he calls “a mystery”: God. God in his essence is ultimately a mystery to us. In all that he reveals of himself, he is still a great cause of wonder and awe. As much as we may be able to comprehend him, we are still infinitely far from comprehending him.

Because of this, the Orthodox have a way of “doing theology” called apophatism. “Apophatic” theology is essentially doing theology through negation. Or, put another way, the Orthodox stress that one safe way of “knowing” God is by knowing what he is not. God is not finite. God is not a man. God does not change, etc.

Now, why do theology in this manner? Ware explains:

Without this use of the way of negation…our talk of God becomes gravely misleading. All that we affirm concerning God, however correct, falls far short of the living truth. If we say that he is good or just, we must at once add that his goodness or justice are not to be measured by our human standards. If we say he exists, we must qualify this immediately by adding that he is not one existent object among many, that in his case the word “exist” bears a unique significance. So the way of affirmation is balanced by the way of negation. As Cardinal Newman puts it, we are continually “saying and unsaying to a positive effect”. Having made an assertion about God, we must pass beyond it: the statement is not untrue, yet neither it nor any other form of words can contain the fullness of the transcendant God. (p 14)

God is then, ultimately, in his bare essence, a true mystery. In all that we affirm about God, we must also “go beyond”, explain what he is also not.

With that said, Ware then goes on to explain that because God is a mystery, knowledge of  God must be less of an affirmation of facts or truths about him, and more of a personal knowing of him. Theology, properly speaking, does not give us an air-tight knowledge about God; rather, it leads us into an ever-deepening friendship with him.

Ware explains by way of the Nicene Creed:

In the [Nicene] Creed we do not say, ” I believe that there is a God”; we say, “I believe in one God”. Between belief that and belief in, there is a crucial distinction. It is possible for me to believe that someone or something exists, and yet for this belief have no practical effect upon my life.

I say to a much-loved friend, “I believe in you”. I am doing far more than expressing belief that this person exists. “I believe in you” means: I turn to you, I rely upon you, I put my full trust in you and I hope in you. (p 16)

It is not the task of Christianity provide easy answers to every questions, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery (p 14)

Going on from this, Ware addresses the question of doubt. Usually doubt is seen as something opposite to faith. They are seen as opposing forces, such that to struggle with doubt means to be weak in faith. But, having seen that theology is less about having complete knowledge about God, and more of an intimate friendship with him — entering ever-deeper into a mystery — doubt ceases to be an opposing force.

Ware explains:

Because faith is not logical certainty but a personal relationship, and because this personal relationship is as yet very incomplete in each of us and needs continually to develop further, it is by no means impossible for faith to coexist with doubt. The two are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps there are some who by God’s grace retain throughout their life the faith of a little child, enabling them to accept without question all that they have been taught. For most of those living in the West today, however, such an attitude is simply not possible. We have to make our own cry, “Lord I believe: help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). For very many of us this will remain our constant prayer right up to the very gates of death. Yet doubt does not in itself signify lack of faith. It may mean the opposite — that our faith is alive and growing. For faith implies not complacency but taking risks, not shutting ourselves off from the unknown but advancing boldly to meet it…

The words of Bishop J.A.T. Robinson: “The act of faith is a constant dialogue with doubt”. As Thomas Merton rightly says, “Faith is a principle of questioning and struggle before it becomes a principle of certitude and peace” (p 16)

Holy Saturday: He Descended into Hell

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I’ve written on this subject before, but I want to cover another time. We say in the Creed that Christ “descended into hell”. What do we mean by this? Hans Urs von Balthasar — in a compilation of meditations on the Apostles’ Creed called Credo — has some helpful comments.

He explains that while Christ’s descent into death on Saturday is by no means the victory of Easter — for he was truly dead! — Christ died in a unique way in which no one else had, which opens up new possibilities and realities:

[T]his dead man is different from all the rest. He has died purely from love, from divine human love; indeed, his death was the supreme act of that love, and love is the most living thing that there is (p 53-54).

While it is true that Christ was truly dead like any other man, he died in a way no other man had: out of perfect love, which is living and redemptive. What this means that in descending into death, perfect love is brought into the depths of death, and death is thereby transformed into life. Balthasar says this about Christ’s descent into death:

Thus his really being dead — and that means the loss of any and every sort of contact with God and his fellow human beings — is also an act of his most living love… From Holy Saturday onward, death becomes purification. On that day, the dead Lord opened up a way out of eternal forlornness and into heaven…Descending into [death], Christ has thrown open the entranceway to the Father (54)

Put simply, Balthasar concludes that by going down into death by a perfect divine love, Christ has transformed death into life by love. The realm of the dead is thereby purified, and opened up to Father.

This is good gospel news for all who have died before, for it opens up heaven to all those Old Covenant saints. Balthasar explains, “under the Old Covenant…for everyone, there was only Sheol, the place of being dead” (54). The saints of old, as Hebrews says, died without receiving “the things promised” (Heb 11:39). They went into death, but could not enter into paradise without purification. The death of Christ brings life into death, and purifies the realm of the dead, thereby opening heaven to those who went before us.

Christ descends into the realm of death and opens it up by love. This is the good news of Holy Saturday.

Apostles’ Creed: What does “the holy catholic church” mean?

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Our church says the Apostles’ Creed nearly every week in our liturgy. In one of the lines, we say, “I believe in the holy catholic church”. For some, this is a strange term. And the reason is because nowadays, the term catholic has come to mean: the Roman Catholic Church. Understandably, many want to sort of shy away from this term.

However, during the time of the Reformation, the Reformers did not feel the same hesitancy for the term “catholic church”. For them the term was not something that belonged to the Roman church in distinction to the other churches. In fact, in all of the Reformed catechisms, the Apostles’ Creed (along with the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments) was the bulk of the content. I know that in many Protestant traditions, children presented for confirmation memorize and recite the Apostles’ Creed.

So that term was not controversial. But what does it mean then? What did the Reformers understand it to mean? More importantly, what did the early church understand it to mean?

It is important to first point out that the term catholic means “universal”, or more properly, “according to the whole”. So when we say catholic church, what we really mean is universal church, or the church according to the whole. But of course, the question becomes, what does that mean?

Turriten, in his third volume of Elenctic Theology, has a very helpful discussion on this term. He identifies three things “catholic church” is meant to convey:

First, the term catholic church means that the true church embraces all true believers from all times and places, not just a specific locale or time. Turretin explains:

First, the proper signification of this word teaches not that an assembly, which is restricted to certain places, can claim for itself the name catholic church; but only that society which embraces all the elect and believers, in whatever place they have been or will be, and in whatever time they have lived from the beginning of the world or will live unto the end. In this sense, “the whole family of God is said “to be named in heaven and on earth” (Eph 3:15)…Thus Augustine expresses it on Ps 62: “His whole church, which is diffused everywhere, is his body, of which he is also the Head; however, not only believers of this present time, but also they who were before, and who will be after us even to the end of the world” (Volume 3, p 30)

Catholic properly denotes the assembly of all believers in all places in all times. Hence the term universal: The catholic, universal church is the company of the elect, whether on heaven or on earth. It is the church of all believers in all places for all times.

Secondly, the term catholic church denotes its embrace of all peoples, ethnicities, nationalities, classes, etc, in contrast to the Old Testament church which only embraced believers that belonged to the Jewish nation. Turretin explains:

[The catholic church belongs any and all persons], without distinction from every kind, order and state of men. For there is no distinction either to Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female (Rom 10:12), but in every nationa, he that fears him is accepted by him (Acts 10:35). “In Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond or free: but Christ is all, and in all” (Col 3:11) (p 31)

The church welcomes all without ethnic or class or racial distinction. This was a massive issue during the times of the apostles. Paul spilled much ink over the inclusion of the Gentiles into the church. No longer was the church simply within the boundaries of Israel. Because of the death and resurrection of Christ, the church embraces all peoples, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, rich and poor.

Lastly, the church is called catholic in terms of its doctrinal teaching. Churches which teach the whole of apostolic doctrine, with all of its non-negotiables can be called catholic. It teaches and transmits the apostolic doctrine in totality. In contrast, churches who do not teach the whole truth, or who teach what is error, are not thus “catholic”. Turretin explains:

The catholic church is frequently so called by the [early church] fathers with respect to doctrine because it holds and defends the orthodox catholic doctrine; “the whole of which she truthfully holds,” as Augustine says… Vincent of Lerins clearly sets this forth. “In the catholic church itself great care is to be taken that it holds what is believed everywhere, always and by all; for this is truly and properly catholic: which the very force of the name and reason declare, which truly universally comprehends all things”…In this sense, there can be many catholic church; nay, all particular orthodox churches are catholic, as they are often called (p 31)

Meaning, all churches who teach “what is believed everywhere, always and by all” are said to be catholic.

 

Praying to God as Father

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Christ the True Vine Icon. This icon pictures the disciples of Christ being caught up and participating in Christ’s death and resurrection, akin to branches connected to the vine (John 15)

In Matthew 6, the disciples, lost as to how to pray, ask Christ for a teaching on prayer. What Jesus gives them (and us) is the prayer of the Christian. It is almost credal in its emphasis. It does indeed mirror lines from the Apostles’ Creed. Early church father Tertullian, called the Lord’s prayer the “epitome of the whole gospel”. I assume, at least, that Jesus expected his disciples to memorize it, to know it intimately. To chew on the meaning of the lines, and to pray it often. This applies to the disciples of our age too!

One of the lines with which I’m almost always astonished as I pray, is the first line: “Our Father in heaven”.In this simple, short line, Jesus tells his disciples to pray to God as their Father. This command would almost certainly have been alarming to the disciples. Reason being is because the disciples could not conceive of calling God Father. 

In the OT, the Jewish people did understand Israel corporate to be God’s firstborn son. This is evident in passages such as Hosea 11:1 (a passage, interestingly, that Matthew depicts Jesus as fulfilling and subsuming in himself!). Israel was redeemed and adopted by God from their bondage to Egypt. However, no individual Jew would ever call God their Father. They related to God corporately, covenantally. Individually, however, Jewish people would not conceive to relate to God in such an intimate manner.

Connected to this is the reality that although all human beings can in some way attribute Fatherhood to God (Paul does in his discourse at Mars Hill in Acts 17), there is no human being that is properly, or by nature, God’s child. God is totally and utterly unique in his essence and substance. His holiness and “otherness” cannot even be comprehended by man. Certainly his nature isn’t shared by man. How then can a person even conceivably, realistically, call God a Father? This would have certainly been in the disciples’ minds.

So what did Jesus mean by commanding his disciples to call God their Father?

Frederick Bruner has a helpful discussion on this:

The church confesses in its Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ, [God’s] only Son, our Lord”. Jesus’ relation to the Father is absolutely unique. He and he alone, is God’s Son by nature… Therefore, when Jesus gives us the right to call his Father by the address “our Father”, he is passing on something of his own priceless relation to God. This is Jesus’ greatest gift in the Lord’s Prayer… Jesus’ exquisetly simple reference to God as his “father”…, and now most intimately his gift to his disciples of “Our Father”, indicates a remarkable relation between Jesus, God, and Jesus’ disciples (Christbook, 296)

Bruner makes some theologically important points here (concentrate!): he points out from the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus, being God, has an actual, substantial connection to God the Father: he is God’s “only Son”; he shares in the same substance — the “homoosios”, as the Nicene creed says — as God the Father, and is thus his “eternally begotten Son”. When Jesus became a man, he did not give up his divine nature; rather, He added to himself a human nature — as the Chalcedonian creed says, he is one divine person with two natures. In this way then, Jesus the man, could call God Father and really mean it, because he had a true substantial relation to God the Father. He is truly the only man who can call God Father.

Going back to the Lord’s Prayer now: in giving us the command to call God “our Father”, what is Jesus teaching us?

Jesus is in fact expounding on one of the great mysteries of the gospel. As the early church fathers put it: God the Son became a son of man, that sons of men might become sons of God. That is to say, Christ came down and assumed what properly belongs to us, to give us a share in what properly belongs to him: Sonship (cf Gal 4:4). He united himself to human nature, that by by faith in him, we beggarly humans might be united to him and share in his relation to the Father.

I put the icon up top to illustrate this point. By faith, we are as it were, connected to Christ as branches to a vine; and he takes us up into himself — all the way up — to God the Father. And we gain filial relation to God the Father by the life of his trunk, or to say another way, by his Spirit. We are “born again” and receive supernatural life, and are adopted as true sons in the Son. We become, as a Peter put it, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), and can relate to God really and truly as sons. What a dizzying, amazing truth that is!

 

Lord’s Supper: Truly Seeing

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When Adam and Eve sinned against the Lord and ate of the fruit, it says in the Genesis account that their “eyes were opened”. Their eyes were opened to their own sin and shame. We know this, because they immediately tried to cover themselves with fig leaves. This of course did not resolve the problem, because what they had seen was a spiritual shame, a separation from God’s very life. 

Joseph Ratzinger, in his Spirit of the Liturgy, sees a parallel between this “seeing” of sin and shame, and the episode of the Emmaus road in Luke 24. After his resurrection, Christ met with two of his disciples on the Emmaus road, and that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (vs 16). They could not see Christ as he was; it was only after Christ ate with them that they could see. 

Luke goes on to say that Jesus “took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (vs 30-31). Ratzinger sees this, first, as a reference to the Lord’s Supper, and second, as a parallel to the “eating” and “seeing” in the Genesis account of the fall. 

Ratzinger explains:

[A]t the breaking of bread they experience in reverse fashion what happened to Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: their eyes are opened. Now they no longer see just the externals but the reality that is not apparent to their senses yet shines through their senses: it is the Lord, now alive in a new way.

The Lord’s Supper then is a “reverse seeing” from shame and sin, to redemption and resurrection. The Lord’s Supper is meant reverse the effect of the fall: to open our eyes and unite us to life itself, the risen Lord.

The Role of Tradition in the Early Church

Above, St. Irenaeus of Lyons

If the scriptures are the Word of God, how does tradition play a role in the church without undermining the uniqueness of the scriptures? How does it benefit the church without undermining biblical study? Many Protestants today take the approach of rejecting altogether any extra-biblical tradition. But is this healthy or safe?

Tradition has always been around ever since the conception of the church. And in fact, it was very important during the first five centuries of the early church. To understand the importance and role of tradition, it’s important to get a glimpse of how the early church fathers understood tradition.

Alister McGrath, in his Historical Theology, says this about the early church:

A movement known as Gnosticism emerged as a major threat to the Christian church during the [first century], partly on account of the fact that its teachings were similar to those of Christianity itself.Many Gnostic writers argued that salvation was achieved through access to a secret teaching, which alone ensure that believers would be saved. The “secret knowledge” in question, for same Gnostic writers, was almost like a form of “cosmic password”. When someone died, their spirit was liberated from its physical prison, and it was free to begin its long and complex journey to its final and glorious destination. To get there, it needed to get past series of potential obstacles, for which the “secret knowledge” was required.

Some Gnostic writers argued that this secret oral teaching had been passed down from the apostles, and that it was to be found in a “veiled” form in the Bible. Only those who knew about the Bible in a certain way would gain access to this knowledge, which was not publicly available…. (pg 37)

So within the first few decades of the church, Gnosticism had emerged which threatened orthodox teaching. And the problem was that they claimed to have a secret interpretation of the scriptures which they had received from the apostles. Something which was novel and different from the teaching of the other churches. How was the early church to combat this?

McGrath explains:

In response to the threat from Gnosticism, a “traditional” method of understanding certain passages of the Scripture began to develop. Second-century patristic theologians such as Irenaeus of Lyons began to develop the idea of an authorized way of interpreting certain texts of Scripture, which he argued went back to the time of the apostles themselves. Scripture could not be allowed to be interpreted in any arbitrary or random way: it had to be interpreted within the context of the historical continuity of the Christian church. The parameters of its interpretation were historically fixed and given. “Tradition” here means simply “a traditional way of interpreting Scripture within the community of faith”…

[Specifically], Irenaeus…argues that the living Christian community possessed a tradition of interpreting Scripture which was denied by heretics. By their historical succession from the apostles, the bishops ensure that their congregations remain faithful to their teachings and interpretations (pg. 38)

Irenaeus’ argument was that there was an historical, orthodox interpretation of the scriptures that went back to the apostles, and was passed down to the bishops of that time. One cannot simply have their “own interpretation” of scripture. Novelty is no friend of the church. It must go back to the traditional interpretation of the apostles and bishops. In this way, “tradition” is seen as a historically “verified” interpretation of scripture, passed on to the bishops and so on from the apostles. An interpretation which could be trusted.

And Irenaeus wasn’t the only which argued this. McGrath also cites Tertullian, saying:

A similar point is made by the Roman theologian Tertullian, in an early third-century analysis of the sources of theology dedicated to demonstrating the weaknesses of the heretical position. Tertullian here lays considerable emphasis upon the role of tradition and apostolic succession in defining of Christian theology. Orthodoxy depends upon remaining historically continuous with and theologically dependent upon the apostles. The heretics, in contrast, cannot demonstrate any such continuity (pg 39)

McGrath quotes Tertullian who says,

If the Lord Jesus Christ sent out apostles to preach, no preachers other than those which are appointed by Christ are to be received, since “no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son has revealed him”, and the Son appears to have revealed him to no on except the apostles who he sent to preach what he had revealed to them. What they preached…ought, by this ruling, to be established only by those churches which those apostles founded by their preaching and, as they say, by the living voice, and subsequently through their letter (pg. 39)

Tertullian says that only teaching which proceeds from the Father, to the Son, to the apostles, and to those sent by the apostles, is to be accepted as orthodox. That is, only biblical interpretation which follows this historical line is to be considered orthodox. Again, tradition is this historically verified interpretation passed on by the apostles.

As time went by, into the fifth century, another theologian Vincent of Lerins developed this thought on “apostolic tradition”. McGrath says:

Writing in the aftermath of the Pelagian controversy, Vincent of Lerins expressed his belief that the controversies of that time had given rise to theological innovations, such as new ways of interpreting certain biblical passages…But how could such doctrinal innovations be identified? In response to this question, he argues for a triple criterion by which authentic Christian teaching may be established: ecumenicity (being believed everywhere), antiquity (being believed always), and consent (being believed by all people). This triple criterion is often described as the “Vincentian canon”, the word “canon” here having the sense of “rule” or “norm”…

The problem that Vincent hopes to resolve is: how are authentic Christian teachings to be distinguished from those of heretics? (pg. 40)

So Vincent had this triple criterion: believed everywhere, always, and by everyone. One cannot simply just come up with a novel interpretation. It must find itself in line that rule of faith.

So then, tradition was the historical interpretation of the scriptures passed from the apostles down throughout the centuries. And when verifying a correct interpretation of scripture, all one need do is ask: is this believed everywhere, always, and by everyone?

In this light, tradition is not in competition with the scriptures, but actually protects them! But even more important, no Christian should approach the scriptures a-historically. Meaning, Christians today find themselves in this big saga called the Christian church, with smarter and godlier men and women before us. We must approach the scriptures, standing on their shoulders, depending on the apostles and the churches after them.