Classical Theism

A brief introduction to classical theism. Classical theism is a systematic understanding of God shared among many Christian, Jewish, Pagan, Muslim, and Hindu thinkers throughout history. It is primarily philosophical rather than scriptural in origin, but it also opens up an intellectual space for understanding theism as a plausible and reasonable way to see reality. And so it makes for a useful point of entry into the world of scripture and religious experience.

With this episode I would like to do some systematic theology and focus on the most foundational subject of theology: God. Systematic theology is theology that pursues an orderly, rational, and coherent method. There are benefits to the systematic, orderly approach, which I want to take advantage of here. But it is admittedly not characteristic of the texts of scripture, which are often disorderly, uncanny, and occasionally contradictory. The systematic approach is a convenient way to understand and analyze theological concepts, but it’s usually not the way we actually encounter these things in religious experience. I’m reminded here of Blaise Pascal’s statement: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers.” There’s much to be said for that sentiment. Nevertheless the systematic approach still has significant utility for comprehension and analysis. In talking about God in this systematic way the understanding of God I will take is that of classical theism.

In what follows I just want to lay out what classical theism is. I won’t get too much into arguments or proofs for God or for classical theism. That’s another topic. But I hope that just presenting what classical theism is will show it to be a very plausible and reasonable thing to believe. Even before taking any steps to argue for it or prove it.

First some definitions. Theism is the belief in the existence of God or gods. Monotheism is the belief that there is only one God. Classical theism is the belief that God is the source of all things. In more technical terms classical theism is the belief that God is metaphysically absolute. Classical theism is a form of monotheism but it’s more theoretically developed. It takes the belief that there is only one God and analyzes what that means, the way in which there is only one God, what this one God must be like. This is what makes it systematic, theological, and philosophical.

What does it mean for God to be metaphysically absolute, the source of all things? There are two major ways for there to be only one God. They are quite different and imply very different things about God’s nature. One way is for there to be a pre-existing reality in which God exists, a reality that is independent of God and prior to God. There’s a universe that happens to have a God in it and there’s only one God. The other way, the way of classical theism, is for God to be prior to everything. There is nothing without God. All reality depends on God for its existence. We could think of these loosely as God being inside all reality versus God being outside or beyond all reality.

In classical theism all of reality derives from God and depends on God. It’s even possible for God to be the only thing that exists. But it’s actually not possible for God not to exist. This is to say that God is absolutely necessary. Nothing else is necessary in this way. Everything else is contingent. It is possible for everything else not to exist. But it is not possible for God not to exist.

Classical theism tends to be philosophical, trans-religious, and trans-scriptural, meaning that it spans many religions and the texts of many religious traditions. Throughout history classical theists have been Christian, Pagan, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu. Obviously classical theists in each of these traditions disagree on a lot. But they tend to agree in their classical theism and in their understanding of God’s primary attributes, even if they disagree on the specific things they believe God to have done in human history. Pagan classical theists include Plotinus and Proclus. Jewish classical theists include Philo of Alexandria and Maimonides. Christian classical theists include Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas. Muslim classical theists include Ibn Sina, and Ibd Rushd. I also think that many of the ideas of Hindu thinkers like Shankara and Ramanuja have much in common with classical theism.

What’s interesting about classical theism is that it basically starts from the premise of God’s metaphysically absolute nature and derives God’s attributes from there. These attributes often coincide with scripture, albeit not always perfectly, which is an important theological issue. But that’s also a topic for another time. The attributes of God in classical theism include the following:

Aseity
Necessity
Simplicity
Eternity
Immutability
Immateriality
Omnipotence
Omniscience
Perfect Goodness

Aseity is not a well-known term but it’s very important to the topic. The word comes from Latin “a se” meaning “from self”. Aseity is the property by which a being exists of and from itself, and not from anything else. God’s aseity means that God does not depend on anything else for his existence; not on the universe, not on anything it all.

Necessity is when something cannot fail to be the case. For example, logical truths are generally considered to be necessarily true. An example would be the proposition “If p and q, then p”. This would seem to be necessarily true. It couldn’t be otherwise. Philosophers might still debate that but it should at least be clear what we’re talking about with necessity. God’s necessity means that God cannot not exist. Understanding why that is and arguing for it is a bigger topic. But understanding the claim that God is necessary is key to understanding what classical theism is.

Simplicity means not having any parts. According to classical theism God is simple in this way. God is not composed of parts. Put another way, God is not composite. Composite is the opposite of simple. Many philosophers consider divine simplicity to be the most important concept of classical theism and hold that all of classical theism derives from it and is ultimately equivalent to it. To understand some of the motivation behind this, anything that is composite, made up of parts, has to be put together in the way that it is put together. But composition of this kind makes it dependent on whatever it is that puts it together. So it wouldn’t be the first or source of all things.

Eternity refers to what exists outside of time. Eternity, as understood in classical philosophy, is different from how the word is commonly understood. There is the notion of things being everlasting, existing within time but lasting forever, for an infinite duration. But this is different from the kind of eternity in classical theism. God’s eternity is his existence outside of time itself. Time, in fact, would be one of the things created by God. We can imagine God looking at the passage of time as we look at the passage of time for characters in a book. For the characters in a story, if they were real, they would experience time sequentially. But for us as readers we can look at the story as a whole, all at once, because we are outside of the time of that story. Like the characters in that story, we experience our time sequentially. The past is behind us. The future is ahead of us. Only the present is before us. But for God it is all present and equally before him.

Immutability is the impossibility of changing. There’s definitely a relation here to eternity. God could hardly change across time since he exists outside of time itself. This brings up an interesting question about whether God, being immutable, will seem the same to us at all times. Not necessarily. Even if God doesn’t change, we do. For example, God is perfectly good and that doesn’t change. But our morality varies significantly. The way we perceive God will vary significantly depending on whether our conduct is mostly moral versus mostly immoral.

Immateriality, as the term suggests, is the quality of not being material. Even without a technical definition I think we all have a good intuition what materiality is. In fact, it’s more difficult to think of anything that isn’t material. It’s the material that makes up our immediate experience. Matter is the stuff that, when you kick it, it kicks back. Material things exist in time and space. If we refer to more modern chemistry and physics, matter is composed of particles, waves, and fields. Particles like protons, neutrons, and electrons have mass, particles like photons do not. But they’re all material. Material things interact with each other. They exchange momentum; they attract or repel each other through electric change. Photons induce chemical reactions. But God, being immaterial is not like any of these things.

How could any thing be immaterial? This was a question that Augustine had. He was finally able to conceptualize immaterial entities by way of Platonist and Neo-Platonist philosophy, which have a lot to say about immaterial forms. Today we most commonly come across immateriality in the form of abstract, mathematical, and logical objects. The philosopher Phillip Cary uses the example of the Pythagorean theorem. The Pythagorean theorem is not something that exists in space and time. It’s eternal, necessary, and omnipresent. It didn’t ever start being true and it will never stop being true. It cannot not be true. And it’s true everywhere. It’s not made up of particles, waves, or fields. It’s not something you handle or that kicks back. That gives an idea of what an immaterial thing can be like.

God is not an abstract, mathematical, or logical object. But he is immaterial in classical theism. He’s more like an abstract, mathematical, or logical object than he is like an electron, proton, or magnetic field.

Omnipotence is the quality of having unlimited power. This is very related to God’s nature as metaphysically absolute, the source of all things. All things come from God and are the way they are because of God. There is no other source for all that is and no other power in serious competition with God. God is able to do anything that it is possible to do. What kind of constraints does that condition impose? What would be impossible for God? Contradiction certainly. Even God cannot make something to be the case and not be the case. You’ve probably heard the question, often asked in jest, “Could God make a stone so heavy that he couldn’t lift it?” Well, no. That would be a contradiction. Other constraints imposed by consistency may be more subtle. Like, why does God permit human history to proceed in certain ways, especially ways that we would much prefer that they didn’t? Here again, self-consistency probably plays an important role. Human free will is an important constraint. And there are likely other, unknown constraints, resulting from God’s unrevealed purposes.

Omniscience is the quality of knowing everything. This is also very related to being metaphysically absolute, the source of all things. As the cause of all things God also has knowledge of all things. If we imagine all things that can be known as a book God knows all things in that book, not only because he has read it, but also because he wrote it. He is the author of all that is. Many of the foregoing points about omnipotence apply here as well. There’s a classic concern about the conflict between divine omniscience and human free will. If God knows everything, including everything that we will ever do, can we really be said to freely choose to do those things? That’s a complicated problem and a whole topic in itself. Without actually resolving that question I’ll just make an observation using the analogy of the author. There is a sense in which the author of a story is constrained by the story itself. Authors can arbitrarily impose nonsensical decisions on their characters. But good authors don’t. Good authors follow their stories where they naturally lead. Their characters, even though they’re fictional, have a kind of free will of their own. That’s just an analogy but I think something similar applies to God’s authorship of all things and his knowledge of them. On the one hand he is the author and cause of all things. But this authorship and resulting knowledge is not just arbitrary. The evolution of all things, especially of human history, make sense and have a narrative coherence to them.

Finally, God is perfectly good. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates actually placed “the form of the Good” at the highest point on his spectrum of entities, the Divided Line. Goodness is not incidental to God’s nature but is absolutely intrinsic to who he is. One of the oldest problems in moral philosophy is whether God decrees what is good because it is good or whether it is good because he decrees it. This is a form of the Euthyphro Dilemma, based on another of Plato’s dialogues. Put another way, the question is whether God is prior to goodness or goodness prior to God. But in classical theism this is a false dilemma. God and the Good are not distinct at all. God is the Good.

Apart from classical theism the great worry with the Euthyphro Dilemma is that if goodness is merely whatever God decrees it to be then God could decree horrendous evils to be good. And they would have to be good. But under classical theism this is not possible. God is the Good. Neither God nor the Good are arbitrary. Horrendous evil cannot be made good and God cannot and will not decree them so. To do so would be to contradict his own nature.

All of the foregoing is principally philosophical rather than scriptural or based on revelatory religious experience. Though it has been most developed by Christians the foundations come largely from Platonist and Neo-Platonist philosophy, for example from Plotinus’s Enneads and Proclus’s Elements of Theology. Whether that is a weakness or a strength is a matter of perspective. I think it’s a strength but it also means that for Christian theology classical theism is a starting point rather than an end point. But I also consider it a great strength to see that classical theism spans so many traditions and schools of thought.

One of the best modern books on classical theism is David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God. In that book he makes the following point:

“Certainly the definition of God I offer below is one that, allowing for a number of largely accidental variations, can be found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, various late antique paganisms, and so forth (it even applies in many respects to various Mahayana formulations of, say, the Buddha Consciousness or the Buddha Nature, or even to the earliest Buddhist conception of the Unconditioned, or to certain aspects of the Tao…” (p. 4)

I find the Hindu convergences especially fascinating. Shankara (circa 700 – 750) was an interpreter of Vedantic Hinduism, Advaita Vedanta to be specific. A central concept in that tradition is Brahman, the highest universal principle, the ultimate reality, the cause of all that exists. In Advaita Vedanta this is identical to the substance of Atman, the Self or self-existent essence of individuals. Ramanuja (1017 – 1137) had a different interpretation called “qualified non-dualism” which makes greater distinction between Atman and Brahman. But Brahman, the ultimate reality behind all that exists, is central to the thought of both.

There are four modern authors on classical theism that I really like. These are David Bentley Hart, Edward Feser, James Dolezal, and Matthew Barrett.

I already mentioned David Bentley Hart’s book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Hart is an Orthodox Christian and also has an interesting affinity for Hinduism. In fact, the subtitle to his book – “Being, Consciousness, Bliss” – is a nod to the Hindu concept of Satcitananda, a Sanskrit term for the subjective experience of Brahman, the ultimate unchanging reality. Satcitananda is a compound word consisting of “sat”, “chit”, and “ananda”: being, consciousness, and bliss. These three are considered inseparable from Brahman.

Edward Feser’s book Five Proofs for the Existence of God goes through five proofs that he reworks from the ideas of five individuals: Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, and Leibniz. Each of the five proofs is classically theistic in nature. Later chapters in the book also go over the classical theist understanding of God’s nature in great detail.

James Dolezal’s major book on this subject is All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism. Dolezal pushes back on what he perceives as some drift away from classical theism in Evangelical theology. I mentioned earlier that some theologians place simplicity foremost among God’s attributes. Dolezal is one of these. Simplicity is central to his thought.

Matthew Barrett is a delightful theologian to read. He is editor of Credo Magazine and host of the Credo podcast. One of his common themes on Twitter is the need for Protestants and especially Evangelicals to take seriously the thought of Aquinas, the Church Fathers, and classical theism. His major book on the subject is None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God.

Why talk about classical theism? To lay all my cards on the table, I desire for all to believe in God the Father, his Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit. I am enthusiastically Christian and desire for all to be so as well, because I believe it is true. One of the first steps in this direction is belief in God. But in modernity belief in God is hardly a given. It might even seem implausible. How is believing in God any different from believing in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Well, it’s actually extremely different. And I think that to really understand classical theism is to understand this difference.

God is not just an invisible being that we have to believe in, just because. Blind faith. Classical theism is much more philosophically reflective than that. To think about God is to think about and have some interest and curiosity about everything that exists, why it exists, and why it is as it is. It is maximally inquisitive and critically so. I believe that classical theism is very plausible and reasonable. That’s not actually why I believe in God or in Christianity. I attribute my belief to revelation from the Spirit. But intellectual openness and receptivity preceded that Spiritual revelation. Seeing classical theism to be a plausible and reasonable way to understand reality broke down intellectual and cultural barriers to spiritual receptivity. And that’s why I think it’s a topic worth talking about.

Christ and the Uncanny

When Jesus taught that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood many of his disciples walked with him no more. Many of his teachings and actions were strange and unsettling. In a word, uncanny. Rudolf Otto similarly described the Holy as a numinous mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Something radically other. Flannery O’Connor evoked dramatic responses to the uncanny in her fiction through narratives of shocking violence. As much as it unsettles and disturbs, the uncanny also has remarkable power to provoke new ways of thinking and conversion.

Image from the PBS documentary “Flannery” (2021) by Kathleen Judge.

There are a lot of reasons people rejected Jesus. People disagreed with his teachings, his claim to divine sonship. They worried he would upset the religious and social order. But one of the reasons for rejecting him that I find especially interesting is that some of his teachings were just strange. And disturbingly so. I think the best example of this is in John chapter 6. 

“’I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.’ The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.’ These things He said in the synagogue as He taught in Capernaum. Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can understand it?’ When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, ‘Does this offend you? What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. And He said, ‘Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.’ From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” (John 6:51-66)

This is one of Jesus’ teachings that I’d put in the category of the uncanny. The uncanny is something that is strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way. Part of the problem was that Jesus was making great claims about himself:

“The Jews then complained about Him, because He said, ‘I am the bread which came down from heaven.’ And they said, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that He says, ‘I have come down from heaven’?’” (John 6:41-42)

Who does this man think he is? That was a common criticism. But it was the other part that made even his disciples start to turn away. ‘How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?’ And Jesus doubled down: ‘Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life’. What a strange saying! They called it a ‘hard saying’, difficult to understand. I find this particular rejection fascinating because it’s not like Jesus hadn’t demanded difficult things before or taught things that were difficult to understand. He taught in parables and had required disciples to leave their families for his sake. But it was in this case especially that ‘many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more’.

There are other examples of the uncanny: strange and disturbing things in Jesus’ ministry. A couple that come to mind are Jesus casting the legion of demons into the herd of swine where the people ‘asked Him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear.’ (Luke 8:37) Also when Jesus cursed a fig tree (Mark 11:12-14). In all these cases it’s possible to give a rational explanation but the rational aspects are not immediately apparent and they certainly weren’t apparent to the people experiencing them in the moment. These episodes seemed quite strange and unsettling.

The uncanny side of Jesus reminds me of the ideas of two religious writers: Rudolf Otto and Flannery O’Connor. I think these two have a lot in common actually. Both are fascinated by the uncanny.

Rudolf Otto lays out his theory in his book The Idea of the Holy. Otto explains the holy as a ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’: a great mystery that both fascinates and terrifies. Another term for it is the ‘numinous’, something mysterious or awe-inspiring. One way I like to think about this is that the holy is radically other.

This is one primary meaning of the Hebrew קָדוֹשׁ (qadosh) in the Hebrew Bible. The Lord God stands separate and apart. This radical otherness is a useful way to understand the often alien-sounding Holiness Code of the Torah. There’s a strangeness to God that Israel is made to remember through ritual.

In the apocalyptic visions of both the Old and New Testaments we see prophets confronting the strangeness and otherness of God as they struggle to describe their uncanny visions. For example in Ezekiel:

“Now as I looked at the living creatures, behold, a wheel was on the earth beside each living creature with its four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their workings was like the color of beryl, and all four had the same likeness. The appearance of their workings was, as it were, a wheel in the middle of a wheel. When they moved, they went toward any one of four directions; they did not turn aside when they went. As for their rims, they were so high they were awesome; and their rims were full of eyes, all around the four of them. When the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, because there the spirit went; and the wheels were lifted together with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When those went, these went; when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up together with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.” (Ezekiel 1:15-21)

What a fascinating and strange vision! My response to this is that it is intentionally and quite effectively mind-bending. Whatever Ezekiel experienced it was something very different and it should challenge our assumptions about the way things are and expand our imagination of what is possible.

And this same divine otherness carries over into the New Testament. A crucial feature of Christian theology, one that’s easy to forget, is that Jesus is the same God as in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus is the same God who the Israelites had to approach so carefully in their holiness code. And even though Jesus reveals God in bodily form in a more accessible way. With the veil taken away, as Paul says (2 Corinthians 3:12-18), sometimes some of that otherness and strangeness still comes through in ways that upset and disturb his disciples.

In my opinion Flannery O’Connor captures this uncanny otherness of God perfectly in her fiction. Her ‘gospel’, so to speak, is well stated in the title to her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, which is taken from Matthew 11:12 – ‘From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.’ For O’Connor acts of God and of the Holy Ghost are shocking, dramatic, and overpowering. She provokes this response in her fiction through violence. Reading an O’Connor story can be quite emotionally taxing. In fact, my wife recently read “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and it gave her nightmares. Literally. These stories are meant to be impactful, revelatory, and theophanous.

The O’Connor story that I think best demonstrates her use of the strange and uncanny is ‘A Temple of the Holy Ghost’. This story is classic O’Connor and I really encourage everyone to read it. It’s hilarious and has her classic clash between social classes and between urban and rural. For present purposes I’ll just focus on one part of the story. In the story the main character, a young girl, goes to a county fair with her older cousins. Her cousins attend a ‘freak show’ that she’s not allowed to go to, but that her cousins tell her about afterwards.

“It had been a freak with a particular name but they couldn’t remember the name. The tent where it was had been divided into two parts by a black curtain, one side for men and one for women. The freak went from one side to the other, talking first to the men and then to the women, but everyone could hear. The stage ran all the way across the front. The girls heard the freak say to the men, ‘I’m going to show you this and if you laugh, God may strike you the same way.’ The freak had a country voice, slow and nasal and neither high nor low, just flat. ‘God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen. I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it. I don’t dispute hit.’ Then there was a long silence on the other side of the tent and finally the freak left the men and came over onto the women’s side and said the same thing.”

“The child felt every muscle strained as if she were hearing the answer to a riddle that was more puzzling than the riddle itself. ‘You mean it had two heads?’ she said.”

“’No,’ Susan said, ‘it was a man and woman both. It pulled up its dress and showed us. It had on a blue dress.’”

“The child wanted to ask how it could be a man and woman both without two heads but she did not. She wanted to get back into her own bed and think it out and she began to climb down off the footboard…”

“She lay in bed trying to picture the tent with the freak walking from side to side but she was too sleepy to figure it out. She was better able to see the faces of the country people watching, the men more solemn than they were in church, and the women stern and polite, with painted-looking eyes, standing as if they were waiting for the first note of the piano to begin the hymn. She could hear the freak saying, ‘God made me thisaway and I don’t dispute hit,’ and the people saying, ‘Amen. Amen.’”

“’God done this to me and I praise Him.’”

“’Amen. Amen.’”

“’He could strike you thisaway.’”

“’Amen. Amen.’”

“’But he has not.’”

“’Amen.’”

“’Raise yourself up. A temple of the Holy Ghost. You! You are God’s temple,

don’t you know? Don’t you know? God’s Spirit has a dwelling in you, don’t you know?’

‘Amen. Amen.’”

“’If anybody desecrates the temple of God, God will bring him to ruin and if you laugh, He may strike you thisaway. A temple of God is a holy thing. Amen. Amen.’”

“’I am a temple of the Holy Ghost.’”

“’Amen.’”

“The people began to slap their hands without making a loud noise and with a

regular beat between the Amens, more and more softly, as if they knew there was a child near, half asleep…”

Notice how O’Connor portrays this spectacle as a kind of reverent religious experience. “The men more solemn than they were in church, and the women stern and polite.” The carnival atmosphere is transmuted into something holy. Later, when the girl attends the Catholic Mass, the process is reversed and the holy is transmuted into the carnival. Or at least the two are merged to highlight their similarities.

“The chapel smelled of incense. It was light green and gold, a series of springing arches that ended with the one over the altar where the priest was kneeling in front of the monstrance, bowed low. A small boy in a surplice was standing behind him, swinging the censer. The child knelt down between her mother and the nun and they were well into the ‘Tantum Ergo’ before her ugly thoughts stopped and she began to realize that she was in the presence of God. Hep me not to be so mean, she began mechanically. Hep me not to give her so much sass. Hep me not to talk like I do. Her mind began to get quiet and then empty but when the priest raised the monstrance with the Host shining ivory-colored in the center of it, she was thinking of the tent at the fair that had the freak in it. The freak was saying, ‘I don’t dispute hit. This is the way He wanted me to be.’”

In both settings – at the fair and at Mass – spectators are witnesses to something strange and uncanny. And at the Mass we see enacted the very thing that Jesus said that so disturbed his disciples: the preparation of his flesh and blood, to be consumed by the faithful. In both settings the usual categories and boundaries that we use to understand the world break down. Categories and boundaries like male and female, bread and flesh, wine and blood, God and human. It’s not that these categories and boundaries aren’t real. But with these uncanny incidents  we’re forced to see things in a new and jarring way that shakes us up. This is what the Holy Ghost does in O’Connor’s theology.

Sometimes revelation from God is shocking and strange. For some, Jesus was too strange. “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?” But others among his disciples persisted.

“Then Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you also want to go away?’ But Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” (John 6:67-69)

It’s interesting that in other passages of scripture Jesus says that this understanding – that he was the Christ, the Son of the living God – did not come from flesh and blood but rather from the Father (Matthew 16:17). What Peter and the Apostle came to know and testify was not something that was continuous with normal experience and expectations. It was discontinuous and came from outside the normal frame of events.

I suspect that this may be the value of the strange and uncanny features of the religion. There are things that break up the normal flow of things and force us to stop and think more carefully and to think in fundamentally new ways. That seems to me like the only way something like a real conversion could ever be possible. We’re usually carried along a habitual stream from one moment to the next with each action following predictably from our prior actions, according to our ingrained behavior. How then would conversion even be possible? Something has got to interrupt the flow, knock us into a different plane, and get us to see things differently. And what better way to do this than something truly unpredictable, strange, and uncanny? Some will recoil at the revelation and say, “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?” But others will convert and say, “We have come to believe.” There is real transformative value and opportunity in Christ’s uncanny teachings. So when we see them we should pay attention.

The Apostles’ Creed

I love the Apostles’ Creed. If you ask me for a one-paragraph statement of what I believe, most fundamentally, this is it. Not just what I believe about religion, but what I believe most fundamentally about everything; about life, existence, and all of reality.

I love the Apostles’ Creed. If you ask me for a one-paragraph statement of what I believe, most fundamentally, this is it. Not just what I believe about religion, but what I believe most fundamentally about everything; about life, existence, and all of reality. The Apostles’ Creed gets right to the core of the most fundamental truths of all of it. It’s not scripture but a distillation of the truths of scripture that directs us toward the scriptures. Cyril of Alexandria (375 – 444) said that this “synthesis of faith” was made to accord with “what was of the greatest importance from all the Scriptures, to present the one teaching of the faith in its entirety. And just as the mustard seed contains a great number of branches in a tiny grain, so too this summary of faith encompassed in a few words the whole knowledge of the true religion contained in the Old and New Testaments.” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. illum. 5, 12: PG 33, 521-524.) Here is the text of the Creed:

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth;
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead;
He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic [universal] church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
Amen.”

What’s fascinating to me about this is that it’s not only a set of propositions, though it is partially that. It’s also a story. The Gospel is a grand story and we find our stories by making it our own. On the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit filled the Apostles and gave them utterance Peter told this story:

“’Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know—Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it… His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear… Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’ Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 2:22-24,31-32,36-38)

This is the Gospel. This is the grand story. I love Peter’s transformation here. The Spirit converted him into a confident and valiant preacher of the Gospel. When it grips you it’s exhilarating, like the “rushing mighty wind” (Acts 2:2). Paul had this same confidence and zeal for the Gospel. As he wrote to the Romans: “I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” (Romans 1:15-16)

Let’s look at the Apostles’ Creed in detail.

I believe in God, the Father almighty

Belief in God is foundational to Christian faith. The rest of the Gospel story depends on this foundation. But it also works in the other direction because the Gospel story is the way God is revealed to us. There are rational reasons to believe and good arguments for the existence of God. Those are valuable for apologetics. But in the Bible, in liturgy, and in worship it’s in the story of the Gospel that we come to know who God is.

Scripture is emphatic that God is one. There is only one God. One reason for the emphasis of this in the Hebrew Bible is because the Israelites, like all other surrounding nations, very often were polytheists, worshiping gods other than the Lord, something pointed out by modern historians of ancient Israel. And it should be no surprise. Idolatry was the great struggle that the prophets railed against incessantly over the centuries. But on this point the Torah was emphatic:

 שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה ׀ אֶחָֽד ׃

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

The Shema was to pervade all life:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:5-9)

This was especially stressed in Second Isaiah’s writings:

“Look to Me, and be saved, All you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.” (Isaiah 45:22)

When Jesus taught us how to pray he taught us to call God “Father”:

“In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespesses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:9-13)

Jesus further emphasizes God’s nature as Father in his parables. I also love the way Jesus portrays the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son:

“And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ (Luke 15:20-24)

Paul taught that the Holy Spirit leads us to call God “Father”:

“For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.” (Romans 8:14-17)

Thinking of God as Father makes a big difference. I think we are meant to understand this in a loving, nurturing way. It’s worth noting too that scripture also portrays God in maternal ways.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, And not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, Yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands” (Isaiah 49:15-16)

“As one whom his mother comforts, So I will comfort you; And you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 66:13)

We are encouraged in scripture to think of God in this way, as a parent who cares for us, teaches us, disciplines us, and loves us, as parents do to their children.

Creator of heaven and earth

The Bible begins with God’s act of creation:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)

There is much that is significant about God and among these things his role as creator is especially salient. Consider all that is. He is before all things. Even though creation doesn’t define God exactly it’s certainly significant among the ways that we understand him and think about who he is.

“You who laid the foundations of the earth, So that it should not be moved forever… O Lord, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all. The earth is full of Your possessions” (Psalm 104:5,24)

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord

We move now to distinctive Christian teaching. We believe not only in God the Father but also in His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God’s son: 

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

The Father declared Jesus’s sonship at his baptism:

“When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’” (Matthew 3:16-17)

Furthermore, the Son, Jesus Christ, is the manifestation of God to us.

“For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9)

“No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” (John 1:18)

“He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)

Christian faith is distinctive for this focus on the man Jesus. In fact, our faith is exceedingly Christocentric, i.e. centered on Christ. And you really can’t go wrong with that. Phillip Cary has called it a Christian “obsession” with Christ and I think that’s right, in the best possible way (The History of Christian Theology).

Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary

Speaking of Jesus, one of the things I find most fascinating about our faith is the Incarnation, that being Christ became physically embodied. The Son became an embodied human being like us. I don’t think we even begin to understand the Incarnation until we’ve reflected on it enough to be astounded by it. And essential to this process was a mortal woman, Mary. 

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.’” (Matthew 1:18-21)

“Then Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I do not know a man?’ And the angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.’” (Luke 1:34-35, 38)

The story of Mary is both miraculous and exemplary. Something I like to think about is how we can be like Mary in receiving and bearing Christ in ourselves, doing figuratively what she did literally. To say to God: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.”

Suffered under Pontius Pilate

This statement explicitly situates Jesus in history. The story of God is not abstracted from our world. It takes place in time and space. This is the God who covenanted with Abraham, who led the Israelites out of Egypt. And it’s the story of the Son becoming a man in a specific place at a specific time.

Furthermore, Jesus suffered. This is another crucial aspect of the wonder of Incarnation. Jesus lived and died in complete solidarity with us, suffering not only pain, but also abject humiliation.

“Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole garrison around Him. And they stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him. When they had twisted a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand. And they bowed the knee before Him and mocked Him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ Then they spat on Him, and took the reed and struck Him on the head. And when they had mocked Him, they took the robe off Him, put His own clothes on Him, and led Him away to be crucified.” (Matthew 27:27-31)

It’s certainly proper to reflect on this suffering and be moved by what Jesus was willing to suffer for our sakes. 

Was crucified, died, and was buried

The crucifixion is undeniably a scandal. We worship a man who was crucified as a criminal. In crucifixion he was executed in the most humiliating and actually cursed way possible. The Torah says:

 “If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God.” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)

This is embarrassing for Christians, but Paul leaned right into this and emphasized this point:

“Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” (Galatians 3:13)

Paul didn’t try to explain away Jesus’ cursed manner of execution. Instead he explained that this was precisely the point. Jesus became a curse for us. Regarding this article of the Creed Pope Benedict XVI said in his Introduction to Christianity:

“What position is really occupied by the Cross within faith in Jesus as the Christ? That is the question with which this article of the Creed confronts us once again… It is the expression of the radical nature of the love that gives itself completely, of the process in which one is what one does and does what one is; it is the expression of a life that is completely being for others… Almost all religions center around the problem of expiation; they arise out of mans’ knowledge of his guilt before God and signify the attempt to remove this feeling of guilt, to surmount the guilt through conciliatory actions offered up to God… In the New Testament the situation is almost completely reversed. It is not man who goes to God with a compensatory gift, but God who comes to man, in order to give to him… Here we stand before the twist that Christianity put into the history of religion. The New Testament does not say that men conciliate God, as we really ought to expect, since, after all, it is they who have failed, not God. It says, on the contrary, that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor 5:19). This is truly something new, something unheard of—the starting point of Christian existence and the center of New Testament theology of the Cross: God does not wait until the guilty come to be reconciled; he goes to meet them and reconciles them. Here we can see the true direction of the Incarnation, of the Cross. Accordingly, in the New Testament the Cross appears primarily as a movement from above to below. It stands there, not as the work of expiation that mankind offers to the wrathful God, but as the expression of that foolish love of God’s that gives itself away to the point of humiliation in order thus to save man; it is his approach to us, not the other way about. With this twist in the idea of expiation, and thus in the whole axis of religion, worship, too, man’s whole existence, acquires in Christianity a new direction. Worship follows in Christianity first of all in thankful acceptance of the divine deed of salvation. The essential form of Christian worship is therefore rightly called Eucharistia, thanksgiving.” (Introduction to Christianity, 161-162)

I think Benedict makes a very good point here about the radical inversion we see in the cross. This is truly something new. And how appropriate, since with Jesus “all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). No wonder people responded to Jesus with amazement and asked, “What is this? What new doctrine is this?” (Mark 1:27)

He descended into Hell

An Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday reads:

“Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. the earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . ‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.’”

It is fundamental to Christ’s victory that he redeemed the dead from death. Christ descended into the realm of the dead but he didn’t stay there. He entered as conqueror and took the dead with him.

“’When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.’ Now this, ‘He ascended’—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth?” (Ephesians 8-9)

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison.” (1 Peter 3:18-19)

“For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” (1 Peter 4:6)

“Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live.” (John 5:25)

Where are our dead? What is to become of us when we die? The state of unembodied death is not a place that we want to remain. And the announcement of the Gospel is that we won’t be left there, but that the dead will hear his voice and live.

The third day he rose again from the dead

Easter morning was the event that started it all. Jesus had a following before but it was the empty tomb and his bodily appearance to his disciples that launched the revolution of Christianity throughout the world. This was what the apostles announced:

“Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. (Acts 10:40-41)

Here is one narration of that day:

“Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared. But they found the stone rolled away from the tomb. Then they went in and did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. And it happened, as they were greatly perplexed about this, that behold, two men stood by them in shining garments. Then, as they were afraid and bowed their faces to the earth, they said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee, saying, ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’ ‘He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father almighty’” (Luke 24:1-7)

“Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, ‘Peace to you.’ But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit. And He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.’ When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, He said to them, ‘Have you any food here?’ So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb. And He took it and ate in their presence.” (Luke 24:36-43)

When Paul wrote of the significance of this event to the Corinthians he not only affirmed it with conviction but directed them to the many living witnesses who could affirm that they had seen the risen Lord.

“For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas [i.e. Peter], then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty

Christ’s ascension was another event witnessed and testified of by many. 

“Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9)

His seat at the right hand of the Father is a place of honor affirmed by Stephan just before his martyrdom.

“But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” (Acts 7:55-56)

From thence He shall come again to judge the living and the dead

Among the announcements of the apostles to the world was that Jesus would come again and that when he returns he will judge all who have ever lived.

“And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.’” (Acts 1:10-11)

“Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead.” (Acts 10:40-42)

“And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books.” (Revelation 20:12)

I believe in the Holy Spirit

Also unique to the Christian faith is our belief in the Holy Spirit alongside the Father and the Son. Scripture doesn’t give too many details but they leave no doubt about the Spirit’s existence and divinity. The Holy Spirit is invoked in the rite of baptism itself:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19)

And the Spirit plays an active role throughout the history of the early Church:

“It came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened. And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him (Luke 3:21-22)

“When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:1-4)

“This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear.” (Acts 2:32-33)

Jesus also spoke of the Spirit’s mission directly, as recorded in the Gospel of John:

“And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever— the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you… These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you. Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. (John 14:16-18,25-27)

The Holy Spirit testifies of Christ and brings the words of Christ to our remembrance. 

The holy catholic [universal] church, the communion of saints

Actually this is usually recited as, “The holy catholic church, the communion of saints”. Not only Roman Catholics profess the Creed or course. Christians of other denominations understand “catholic” here as small “c” catholic, in the sense of “universal”. For better or worse, there are multiple Christian denominations. But we still hold to one universal, catholic faith. Paul wrote in several instances about the importance of the unity of the Church.

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6)

“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)

Unity is key for Paul. But he also values diversity in the service of unity. The Church is the Body of Christ. And as a body it is an organic system with mutually interacting parts:

“For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many… But now indeed there are many members, yet one body… But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-14,20,24-25)

The forgiveness of sins

I think that one of the most important affirmations of the Gospel is that it is possible for people to change. I believe this but I actually find it more difficult to believe than many of the supernatural and miraculous aspects of Christianity. And that’s just because of the competing evidence of experience. We really seem to get set in our ways. Is it really possible to change? I think that believing this demands about as much faith as anything. But this is the message of the Gospel: that we can become new creatures.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Let’s look at some examples from the Gospels:

“When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven you.’ And some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, ‘Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, ‘Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins’—He said to the paralytic, ‘I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.’ Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that all were amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We never saw anything like this!’” (Mark 2:5-12)

“Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, ‘This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.’ And Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ So he said, ‘Teacher, say it.’ ‘There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered and said, ‘I suppose the one whom he forgave more.’ And He said to him, ‘You have rightly judged.’ Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.’ Then He said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ Then He said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.’” (John 7:36-50)

This great transformation is expressed ritually in baptism:

“Our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:6-11)

Baptism not only symbolizes death of the old self and rebirth as a new creature. It should also orient us in the way that we think about ourselves, as being dead to sin and alive in Christ.

The resurrection of the body

When I affirm the resurrection of the body it leads me to reflect on our nature as human beings. What are we? Critically, we are embodied, physical beings. When we die and our bodies decay we are no longer completely ourselves. We understand the intermediate state between death and resurrection to be one of peace for the righteous, but this immaterial aspect that is left of us is not complete. We can be ourselves fully only by being physically embodied. This is why resurrection is simply indispensable. The resurrection of our bodies is not just a nice-to-have. It’s absolutely essential to the continuation of our identities as human beings. Paul explained this very clearly:

“And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:17-20)

“So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?’ The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)

Resurrection changes everything. I think of history in terms of two major epochs: the fourteen billion years before Christ’s resurrection and the couple thousand years after it. The universe changed fundamentally with Christ’s resurrection. Death is no longer absolute. And that changes everything.

And the life everlasting

I can think of no greater affirmation of the goodness of personal existence than the hope for life everlasting. In this way we say, “Yes. Life is good. I want it to last forever.” Maybe this seems obvious but we might ask, would life get boring eventually and actually become unbearable? If you’ve seen the show The Good Place this is a problem they deal with. I think this doubt is quite astute and I actually don’t think it’s really possible for us to comprehend how everlasting life would be endlessly joyful and engaging. But I believe this is what we affirm with our faith in everlasting life. A few thoughts on this. Jesus talked about everlasting life as living water. He said to a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well:

“Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:13-14)

Working with this metaphor of the fountain of water, I think Gregory of Nyssa (335-395) had an important insight:

“The person who has drawn near to the fountain will marvel at that limitless supply of water that ever gushes out and flows from it, yet he would not say that he has seen all of the water. (For how can he see the water that is still concealed in earth’s bosom? The fact is that even if he remains for a long time at the gushing spring, he is always just beginning to contemplate the water, for the water never stops in its everlasting flow nor does it ever cease beginning to gush forth.) In the same way, the person who looks toward that divine and infinite Beauty glimpses something that is always being discovered as more novel and more surprising than what has already been grasped, and for that reason she marvels at that which is always being manifested, but she never comes to a halt in her desire to see, since what she looks forward to is in every possible way more splendid and more divine than what she has seen.” (Homilies on the Song of Songs, Homily 11)

I imagine here the wonder that a young child has at everything because everything is new. In Gregory of Nyssa’s metaphor this is what it’s like to look upon the divine and infinite Beauty. It’s always new, always surprising and novel.

The most important scripture pertaining to everlasting life is also the most well-known verse of the entire Bible:

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

This verse’s fame is well-deserved. This is the Gospel, that the gift of life, everlasting life, is possible through God’s only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

Of course there is a lot more to Christian faith than what is in the Apostles’ Creed. But I like Cyril of Alexandria’s metaphor of the “great number of branches in a tiny grain”. The scriptures are interconnected in such a way that you can pick up at any point and quickly find yourself immersed in its vast network. Each of the scriptures here is part of a story and each story is part of a larger story. Reading these stories is the project of a lifetime of study. But the Apostles’ Creed distills the message so as to be able “to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). It says what all of this is about and what God is about. And it’s what I believe most fundamentally about everything; about life, existence, and all of reality.

Unknowns and Knowing God

Christianity has many unknowns, which makes possible many differing beliefs. This can be discouraging. There are limits in the extent of our reasoning, something Immanuel Kant explored in his theory of antinomies. And there are limits in the answers resolvable in scripture, in response to which Pseudo-Dionysius admonished that theology must remain within the bounds of revelation. But the unknowns need not stop us from knowing God. Key is to persist in way of holiness and nurture a life with the Holy Spirit.

Anyone familiar with a religion will have noticed that there are a lot of disagreements. Every religion has multiple versions even if they share common origins and common sacred texts. Christianity is replete with unknowns, which makes possible multiple interpretations as different people try to fill in the gaps. These differences are not only over minor matters but concern even the most fundamental doctrines like the nature of God, Jesus Christ, and the process of salvation. With so much underdetermined how is it possible to know God and follow him? I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I don’t know of any way to answer all the unknowns. But I do think that even with many unknowns it is nevertheless possible to know God and to follow him. The unknowns don’t need to be a cause for despair.

My original working title for this episode was “theological antinomies and apophatic theology”. I’ll explain what those terms mean in short order. But I scrapped that title for a few reasons. For one thing, it’s kind of alienating and pretentious. And I also don’t really want to endorse apophatic theology wholesale. Still it’s the title that got the wheels turning. And that was by putting two important thinkers into imaginary dialogue with each other: Pseudo-Dionysius and Immanuel Kant. The reason for doing that was to think through how to persist in the joyful celebration of the ideas of Christianity even in light of the many unknowns that remain unresolved.

Pseudo-Dionysius was a philosopher and Christian theologian in the 5th or 6th century. He’s called Pseudo-Dionysius because in his texts he takes on the persona of Dionysius the Areopagite, a 1st century disciple of Paul. He wasn’t that Dionysius, so we just call him Pseudo-Dionysius. The texts I’ve been reading are On the Divine Names and The Mystical Theology. These are very significant works in the history of Christian philosophy. His theology is a standard case of apophatic theology. Apophatic theology is also called “negative theology”. Rather than make statements about the way things are it makes statements about the way things are not.

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who lived from 1724 – 1804. Kant’s greatest work was his 1781 Critique of Pure Reason. In the Critique Kant came up with a  very interesting model for the way that the mind works and how we reason. What’s most relevant in it to my topic here is his notion of antinomies. An antinomy is a contradiction between beliefs or conclusions that are each in themselves reasonable. Kant proposed that it is part of our human nature to try to understand things beyond the limits of what reason can establish. And so our reasoning eventually leads us into antinomies. Kant’s antinomies had to do with the finitude or infinitude of time and space, the existence of fundamental, indivisible substances, causality versus spontaneity, and the existence of necessary being. Those all have some overlap with theological ideas but I don’t want to focus on Kant’s particular antinomies but rather this general idea that as we continue reasoning about things we eventually run into antinomies that, for one reason or another, we’re not able to resolve.

Dionysius wasn’t addressing the same problem of antinomies that Kant was but I think his thought is applicable to it. Here’s my basic idea. Christians devote themselves to God in many ways; through obedience, sacrifice, prayer, song, art, service, love, and through study. Theology is a rational study of God and of the religion. But since it is a rational activity it’s susceptible to the kinds of antinomies that Kant talked about. As we push further and further in our thinking about God and religion we reach limits that are intrinsic to the reasoning process itself. Also in the case of theology we come up against the limits of the finitude of revelation, in at least two ways. First, the scriptures just don’t answer all the questions we want to ask. And second, different parts of the scriptures lead us to different answers. You might say that the scriptures themselves contain antinomies.

One classic example of this is in regards to the godhood of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the theological topic of the Trinity. Take the following ideas:

The Father is God.
The Son is God.
The Holy Spirit is God.
The Father is not the Son.
The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is not the Father.
There is only one God.

We can find scriptures to support all of those. But it’s pretty apparent that this just doesn’t all fit together very nicely. There’s something unusual going on here. There’s been a lot of theology on this topic and I think a lot of it has been quite productive, even if indirectly. For example, the philosopher Joseph Koterski made the case that the philosophical concept of a “person” as understood in natural law theory arose in large part over the intellectual effort to make sense of this Trinitarian puzzle (Koterski, Natural Law and Human Nature. 2002). And that’s useful. Still, I can’t say that any theology has ever resolved the puzzle. And to be fair, it’s usually understood to be a holy mystery anyway, one that we can’t resolve, which is a bit like a Kantian antinomy.

Dionysius’s apophatic approach was to forebear from theorizing and even to deny any particular positive theological formulations. It reminds me a bit of twentieth century deconstruction, though it’s of course rather different in its underlying motivations. Dionysius had a keen sense of the way many religious ideas go beyond our capabilities to understand through our reason. And that was one reason for his apophatic approach. But he was also especially sensitive to our reliance on scripture. For example, here’s a passage from the opening paragraph of On The Divine Names:

“And here also let us set before our minds the scriptural rule that in speaking about God we should declare the Truth, not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the power which the Spirit stirred up in the Sacred Writers, whereby, in a manner surpassing speech and knowledge, we embrace those truths which, in like manner, surpass them, in that Union which exceeds our faculty, and exercise of discursive, and of intuitive reason.”

So that’s the first motivation, that these truths exceed our faculty and exercise of discursive and intuitive reason. Continuing on:

“We must not then dare to speak, or indeed to form any conception, of the hidden super-essential Godhead, except those things that are revealed to us from the Holy Scriptures.”

And there’s the kicker. I think that’s the even bigger issue for Dionysius. He is very sensitive to our dependence on revelation.

We might ask here, was Dionysius always true to his own standards? In my assessment he was not. He actually made a lot of positive assertions in his writings that were not based in revealed scripture but rather in Neoplatonist philosophy. That’s not to say those assertions were wrong. They might be correct. I find Neoplatonism rather compelling and attractive. But I also think it tends to make God look too impersonal and inaccessible, which is exactly the opposite of what a life with the Holy Spirit presupposes. So he wasn’t perfect or perfectly consistent. But I find him an interesting and valuable thinker. And his standards were good ones.

One more passage from Dionysius:

“For a super-essential understanding of It is proper to Unknowing, which lieth in the Super-Essence Thereof surpassing Discourse, Intuition and Being; acknowledging which truth let us lift up our eyes towards the steep height, so far as the effluent light of the Divine Scriptures grants its aid, and, as we strive to ascend unto those Supernal Rays, let us gird ourselves for the task with holiness and the reverent fear of God. For, if we may safely trust the wise and infallible Scriptures, Divine things are revealed unto each created spirit in proportion to its powers, and in this measure is perception granted through the workings of the Divine goodness, the which in just care for our preservation divinely tempereth unto finite measure the infinitude of things which pass man’s understanding.” (On The Divine Names 1:1)

This is great stuff. I think this is consummate theology right here. Dionysius is exceedingly astute and a gifted philosopher and that’s wonderful, but even more important to his success as a theologian is his piety, his humility, and his reverence for God. I think that makes a huge difference. It’s one thing for an intelligent person to be able to expertly articulate the fine details of a theological theory. But in the words of Paul, if he doesn’t have the pure love of Christ it’s like sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1).

It’s important not to claim to know more than we do. It’s alright, actually admirable to acknowledge the unknowns, the limits of our knowledge. It’s an act of reverence for God to acknowledge that we are dependent on his revealed word and that he has chosen not to reveal answers to all of our theological and doctrinal questions. But what is critical in the life of faith is to know God in a personal way. Something I consider indispensable and irreplaceable in religious life is direct communication with the Spirit. It’s crucial to remember that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are persons and that we come to know persons through personal encounters. Our personal encounters with people don’t give us exhaustive knowledge about them in every possible detail. In my relationships with human beings there’s a ton of information that I don’t know about them. It would certainly be valuable to know more about them in that manner. But ultimately that’s not what it means to have a personal relationship.

The Holy Spirit is the indispensable gift in the life of a Christian. Jesus said:

“If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever—the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you… These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you. Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:15-18.25-27) A life with the Holy Spirit is a life of keeping the commandments and of prayer. The Holy Spirit is sent to bring the words of Christ to remembrance and to give peace. This is a life of a personal relationship with God.