The Subtle Heresy of William Lane Craig and Why It Matters

This is another rather lengthy post, whereby I seek to clarify the orthodox Christological position of dyothelitism against the heretical position of monothelitism that’s espoused by analytic philosopher, William Lane Craig. To do so, we will look first to Maximus Confessor and the Third Council of Constantinople, and then assess Craig’s position in light of the orthodox position derived from the former. Finally, I will articulate the ecumenical consensus of the orthodox position and why it matters.

Maximus the Confessor and the Third Council of Constantinople

St. Maximus the Confessor

Maximus Confessor was a revered theologian and saint of the Church—venerated in both the East and the West. He wrote hymns, Biblical commentaries, and even a biography of the Virgin Mary. However, he is most known for his Christological writings that draw from Pseudo-Dionysius and Gregory of Nazianzus in order to defend the Orthodox Christological position that appears in the Creed of Chalcedon. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Council of Chalcedon had discerned that Jesus Christ was indeed fully God and fully man, and that he had two natures, one human and one divine.

An implication from Chalcedon that had bleed into the period that followed was a dispute over whether or not Christ had two natures and one will (monothelitism) or two natures and two wills (dyothelitism). Maximus vigorously defended the truth of dyothelitism. For Maximus this wasn’t any small matter; it had serious implications. If Christ did not have both a human will and a divine will, then depending on which was emphasized, he will either become less than fully human or less than fully divine. Therefore, Maximus bodly proclaimed in the face of imperial threats and ecclesial punishments that his Lord had two natures, two wills, was fully human, and fully divine; this is what the Church had passed down to him, which he had confirmed in his reading of Scripture. Maximus believed the Bible and the tradition were clear: dyothelitism was crucial for maintaining a Chalcedonian Christology.

The price that was paid by Maximus was no small sum. Back before the passive aggressive jabs laced within AAR panels, or candid extrapolations of intellectual adversaries in the footnotes of one’s work, there were violent and permanent consequences for confessing your position against the powers that be. Maximus is known as “the confessor” because he defended his orthodoxy to the end. He had his tongue ripped from his mouth so that he could not speak of his Christological convictions, and he had right arm (the arm that he wrote with) removed so that he could not write any more texts that would elaborate the Biblical support for dyothelitism. He was then exiled to a small village where he died presumably alone and without voice.

As fate would have it, Maximus’ writings vindicated him after his death, as his position of dyothelitism was established as orthodoxy at the Third Council of Constantinople in 680 CE. It was the sixth ecumenical council that had been gathered to sort out theological debates threatening the unity of the Church. In other words, this council represented the Church proper before the great schism, and therefore its conclusion were not just the discernment of one particular denomination or tradition. For all intents and purposes, this council stands in the lineage of the tradition; and therefore, it is much more difficult to dismiss one of the positions of this council and remain an orthodox Christian.

William Lane Craig and Monothelitism

William Lane Craig

Dr. William Lane Craig is a Christian apologist who is well-known for his work in defending theism against atheism, using rigorous analytic philosophical argumentation. Dr. Craig is revered by many people as a devote defender of evangelical faith against arguments proposed by the New Atheists, et al. While it is obvious that Craig has done a lot to instill the Christian faith into others, it is important to note that the particular kind of Christian faith that he argues for is a distinct product of modernity and rejects many key tenants of the historic Christian faith that’s found in various affirmations of classical theism. On top of that, Craig is also a defender of an ancient heresy, monothelitism—the very heresy that Maximus went to his grave in order to oppose.

Back in 2008, on his blog, Reasonable Faith, Dr. Craig is asked to clarify his position on monothelitism. The subscriber who wrote in to Craig, voiced some concern over this position, writing, “[m]y question is, are you not concerned that some evangelicals consider you as heretic for your belief on monotheletism? Since I am more convinced of your explanation, I do not want to be considered as a heretic too for taking this stance.” Hence, not only is Craig propagating a heretical position, but he’s spreading this heresy to vulnerable followers like a contagion. Even the more unfortunate is Craig’s response (the entirety of this interaction can be found here: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/monotheletism).

Craig begins his reply with the following paragraph:

“No earnest Christian wants to be considered a heretic. But we Protestants recognize Scripture alone as our ultimate rule of faith (the Reformation principle of sola scriptura). Therefore, we bring even the statements of Ecumenical Councils before the bar of Scripture. While one disagrees with the promulgations of an Ecumenical Council only with great hesitancy, nonetheless, since we do not regard these as invested with divine authority, we are open to the possibility that they have erred in places. It seems to me that in condemning Monotheletism as incompatible with Christian belief the Church did overstep its bounds.”

Citing Scripture as the trump card to defend his heretical position, Craig then fails to cite even one Biblical text in the rest of his response. He doesn’t look to Scriptures such as Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:42, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (NRSV); or even more obvious is Luke’s account of this same incident, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42, NRSV). I agree that Scripture outweighs even ecumenical councils, but I do not know of any ecumenical councils that have contradicted Scripture. Moreover, if one is going to make that claim, then it seems fitting for he or she to offer at least one Scriptural citation or scholarly exegesis. Despite that, there is one way to defend monothelitism in light of the above Biblical texts, but it will lead to an even deeper heresy.

One could say that Christ, with only one will, was asking that not his will be done but that God the Father’s will be done. And on the surface, that seems to work. However, it implies that God the Son and God the Father have two differing wills—or at the very least that God the Son’s divine will is withered by his incarnation. This first implication is theological problematic for it leads one to begin drifting toward a view of disunity in the Godhead, which Craig clearly would seek to avoid. On the other hand, if his incarnation has depleted the divine will, then that whole doctrine is in jeopardy because it implies that Christ would be some kind of blend of humanity and divinity, not the fullness of God incarnated in the fullness of a man. However, I cannot fairly assess what Craig would make of this text because, once again, he fails to cite it or any other Biblical passages.

The only positive argument that Craig provides for monothelitism is that it is the only one that’s logically coherent. This of course is not a Biblical argument, but merely a deferral to reason, which those of us in the Wesleyan tradition know is already a methodological error since Scripture is the primary (and sole) authority of our quadrilateral.

Craig writes:

“By contrast, it seems to me almost obvious that the will is a faculty of a person. It is persons who have free will and exercise it to choose this or that. If Christ’s human nature had its own proper will so that Christ had literally two wills, as the Council affirmed, then there would be two persons, one human and one divine. But that is the heresy known as Nestorianism, which divides Christ’s person into two. I cannot understand how Christ’s human nature could have a will of its own, distinct from the will of the Second Person of the Trinity, and not be a person.”

He further states:

“In the chapter on the incarnation in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, I provide a possible model of the incarnation according to which the human nature of Christ becomes complete through its union with the Second Person of the Trinity. Because there is only one person in Christ, there is but one faculty of will, and that faculty serves both the humanity and deity of Christ, exercising itself through both the human nature and the divine nature. So Christ has two complete natures but a single will, just as–and because–he is a single person.”[1]

For Craig, then, to affirm that Christ has two wills is to affirm that he is two persons indwelling one body, which would in fact be heretical. However, his proposal lacks any evidence for the claim that having a will is intrinsic to personhood to the extent that to be a person is to have a distinct will. This too seems to lead Craig into dangerous Trinitarian implications—in fact, the same ones as above. For how can there be one will in the Godhead if there are three persons and being a distinct person implies having a distinct will and vice versa? Would each person of the Trinity have a unique will? And then, in what sense does the Trinity remain one God and not collapse into a form of tritheism?

It seems that Craig’s logical defense of monothelitism is rendered the same as the hypothetical exegesis offered above; namely, that there are unique wills for each person of the Godhead and at best, in the garden of Gethsemane, we see a Son who merely surrenders his will over to the will of the Father. This scene, if taken without the fact that the Son has both a human and divine will, results in the implication that the Son and Father do not share the same eternal will prior to or during the incarnation. It seems difficult to imagine someone being able to hold onto a proper understanding of the Trinity while upholding Craig’s position of monothelitism without it all collapsing in on each other. Moreover, coupling this with his rejection of divine simplicity, it seems untenable that Craig can maintain a God who isn’t a composite of many wills, hierarchies, persons, and natures.

Dyothelitism

Lest this entire presentation hinge negatively upon what it stands against (monothelitism), it is crucial to briefly elaborate on what affirming dyothelitism means and why any of this debate matters.

Unlike Craig, Maximus believed that in order for Christ to be fully human, he indeed had to have a human will, and in order for Christ to be fully divine, he indeed had to have the divine will. Notice I did not say “a divine will,” for there are not multiple divine wills, but only one. God the Son, who was incarnate in Christ doesn’t have a will distinct from the Father or Spirit, but shares in the one eternal divine will, which permeates from the essence of the one God. Hence, the divine will is present in the Son for it permeates from the divine nature which the Son shares with the Father and Spirit; and since the Son is present in Christ, for he is incarnate in Christ, it follows that the divine will permeates from the divine nature which is incarnated in Jesus Christ. Hence, Christ is fully God—fully divine. So the divine nature then is fully present in Christ, but in what sense is he fully human? Some Christians claimed that the divine nature, and with it the divine will, merely resided in a human body that was otherwise void of a human mind or faculty of will. This position was condemned as a heresy known as Apollinarianism. The incarnation is not making the claim that God the Son resided within a human vessel so that the mind of God replaced the human mind in the body of Jesus. Instead, God the Son truly did become human. He had a human mind that surrendered itself fully to the divine will.

When Christ prays for the cup to pass from him in the garden scene of Luke 22 and Matthew 26, or when Jesus states in John 6:38, “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (NRSV), these texts only make sense if we locate the human will and the divine will coexisting in one flesh. These two wills do coexist in Christ “without division or confusion.” In these Biblical passages, we see that there is a human will which submits to the divine will in the one man, Jesus. John of Damascus interprets these texts in the following way: “when He begged to be spared death, He did so naturally, with His divine will willing and permitting, and He was in agony and afraid. Then, when His divine will willed that His human will choose death, the passion was freely accepted.” John continues, “the Lord’s soul was freely moved to will, but it freely willed those things which His divine will willed.”[2] Hence, we see the human will of Christ submitting to the divine will. We see a God-man whose divine will wills something in which his human will freely accepts.

Following John of Damascus’ exegesis of Gethsemane, there’s an ecumenical consensus on the doctrine of dyothelitism, which Dr. Craig rejects. Drawing on the arguments made by Maximus Confessor, the Third Council of Constantinople affirms that in Christ we see his “human will following, and not resisting or opposing, but rather subject to his divine and all-powerful will.”[3] With some Wesleyan flavor, Thomas C. Oden likewise affirms, “[T]he divine will always ‘goes before’ or ‘prevenes’ (leads the way by grace) for the human will, so that the human will may choose freely in accord with the divine will.”[4] And Vladimir Lossky summarizes, “[T]he two wills proper to the two natures are different, but He who wills is one.”[5] Hence, almost every tradition of the Christian faith agrees that Christ has two wills, and does so without diminishing the truth that Christ is one person.

To affirm dyothelitism is not to suggest that Jesus is speaking as God one moment and as human the next, as if there were two sons, one divine and one human. Instead, in the incarnation, divinity has assumed humanity in such a way that in the one person of Jesus Christ, we see the full revelation of God. This truth is what prompted Gregory of Nazianzus to say, “both are God, that which is assumed, and that which was assumed; two Natures meeting in One, not two Sons.”[6] Thus, Christ has two wills operating in one person, two natures coexisting in one flesh, without distinction or confusion.

Why It Matters

Craig is right to suggest that turning his back, not only on an ecumenical council’s discernment, but also on the vast majority of the rest of Christendom, merits “great hesitancy.” But this isn’t just a difference on some abstract topic. Gregory of Nazianzus says, “[W]hat has not been assumed has not been healed.” If Christ did not assume a human mind or a human will, then his human nature and flesh has done very little for us. Only by Christ assuming our very nature, sharing in the fullness of what makes us human (including our human will), has he redeemed us, and invited us to enter into the mystery of divinity through him. Our will is the very aspect of our nature that needed to be assumed and healed by him the most, for we had become soaked in sin by our willful disobedience. By assuming a human nature not only did Christ die to set us free, but he accomplished what we failed to do: to fully surrender our will freely over to the divine will of the Triune God. The subtle heresy of monothelitism nearly scoffs at the healing offered in Christ’s incarnation and rules by reason alone what it is that God the Son has and has not assumed by taking on our flesh. It is important that we affirm the doctrine of dyothelitism, and I prayerfully hope Dr. Craig and his followers discern the Scriptures and come to uphold the doctrines of the Christian faith. For my fellow Wesleyans out there, this is a sterling example of what happens when a theologian deploys reason at the expense of Scripture.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Once again, to be fair, I have not read Craig’s book. But assuming he cites a hefty amount of Scripture in it, still it seems he ought to be more careful in merely toting out condensed answers without one iota of Biblical support.

[2] John of Damascus, Orthodox Faith, 318.

[3] Third Council of Constantinople.

[4] Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity p. 315.

[5] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 146.

[6] Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations 37.2.

No, The Trinity is Not Like a Fidget Spinner

Anytime folks begin to teach on the Trinity and say, “the Trinity is like….” I immediately brace myself for impact. Too often something inaccurate is said. The Trinity is not only beyond our grasp, but if you teach on Him using objects like shamrocks, the states of water, an egg, or a fidget spinner, you are sure to commit heresy.

Not to be a heresy hunter, but heresy is serious. Many pastor-types like to joke about being heretics, but, in all reality, it’s spiritually dangerous to flirt with heresies pertaining to the Trinity.

I’m of the mind that correct belief (orthodoxy) and proper doctrinal understanding often leads one to spiritual maturity. I also believe that getting our theology correct is vital to establishing the foundation for a healthy spirituality.

The Shamrock Meme

Every St. Patrick’s day, people attribute the “Trinity is like a shamrock” meme to Patrick. Not only is this teaching not found in any of Patrick’s hagiographies (Patrick adored the Trinity, by the way), but it’s also heretical.

The shamrock, depending on how it is viewed, will either devolve into tritheism (the Godhead is three deities such as the three leafs), or partialism (the Godhead consists of three separate parts that together make up one whole). Both of these heresies are deadly to a vibrant, Trinitarian faith.

Not unlike the shamrock analogy, recent attention has been drawn to fidget spinners as tools by which the Trinity might be taught. Far from an innovative resource to be used by relatable youth leaders or pastors, this analogy leads to a similarly heretical understanding of the Trinity.

The Fidget Spinner Meme

The fidget spinner has three circles that triangulate to form a nifty gadget for fidgety people. These three circular weights are not, in themselves, the fidget spinner. Instead, they’re each only 1/3 of the device.

The Trinity is the doctrine by which we affirm God’s threeness in God’s oneness, celebrating the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three distinct persons who are of one substance; each person of the Trinity is fully God yet distinct. To compare the Trinity to a fidget spinner (as with the shamrock) is to commit the heresy of partialism, for it undercuts the full divinity of each person, so as to indicate that each are only one part of a three part God.

The Mystery of the Trinity

Friends, let’s go ahead and denounce this new meme before it begins. Like the (inauthentic) shamrock meme, the fidget spinner is a poor analogy for the Triune God.

The Trinity is a glorious mystery. Let’s let that be enough. In the wisdom of Augustine of Hippo, let’s remember that those who claim to understand God or tend to reduce God to a series of concrete analogies, are merely speaking of something less than what the fullness of God is.

To be spiritually vibrant, we must seek to properly understand who God is. We know that God is Trinity, but such a mystery we cannot surely comprehend.

 

Anselm v. the Apologists

“I have never seen anyone die for the ontological argument.” –Albert Camus

Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt ...
Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt an ontological argument for God’s existence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anselm of Canterbury wrote two tracts that set out to demonstrate the existence of God. The first one is called Monologion, and the second, Proslogion. Often the Monologion is skipped over in its entirety and the Proslogion is read only for its early chapters. Indeed, this lack of a thorough reading is made evident by the fact that Anselm’s texts are seldom interpreted appropriately. What results is Anselm only becoming known for two things, the satisfaction theory of atonement and the ontological argument. Both of these were crowning novelties of his mind’s output, but they’re each often presented in ways that grossly misrepresent the heart of his writings.

I have shown how to properly read Anselm’s account of satisfaction atonement without its Calvinist derivative here. In this installment, it is my task to free his ontological argument from the apologists, who do to his ontological argument what Calvin did to his atonement theology—they make it forensic and cold. I apologize for the length of this post, but it is something I have long desired to put forth. First, I will examine the way that Anselm is often misused by Christian apologists, and then seek to portray the impetus of the Proslogion in a manner that is more appropriate to its author.

I. Misunderstanding Anselm’s Ontological Argument

The way Anselm’s ontological argument is typically presented is as follows:

1: The greatest possible being can be imagined to exist.

2: It is greater to exist in reality than to just be imagined to exist.

3: The greatest possible must exist in reality or it is not the greatest possible being.

4: The greatest possible being, therefore, must exist.

This argument is vicarious and easily refuted. In fact, if this is actually Anselm’s argument, then it was swiftly disseminated in the first portion of Guanilo’s rebuttal. Guanilo was a contemporary of Anselm who sought to show the absurdity of Anselm’s ontological argument, understood in this way, by supposing the following scenario:

1: It can be thought that a “lost island” exists, which is the greatest possible island.

2: It is greater to exist in reality than to just be imagined to exist.

3: The greatest possible island must exist in reality or it is not the greatest possible island.

4: The greatest possible island, therefore, must exist.

Since everyone knows that this “lost island” most certainly does not exist in reality, despite one’s ability to think that it does, it is possible that God likewise does not exist in reality despite one’s ability to think that God does. Worth noting here is that Guanilo was a devout Christian, and he didn’t object to anything else in Anselm’s argument other than that listed above. He thought it was salvageable by substituting the word “understand” for the word “think”—that is, one who truly understands who God is (rather than one who merely thinks of God) cannot doubt that God must exist. In fact, he believed that this is what Anselm was getting at, and seems to have been simply trying to get Anselm to alter his word choice to avoid this potential misunderstanding.

Typical to today, when listening to theologians like Alvin Plantinga or William Lane Craig (the former of which I have a great deal of respect for), one might hear Anselm’s argument presented along with language about “possible worlds”. While this language indeed is foreign to Anselm’s original argument, it is often accepted as uncritically as Calvin’s penal language is surrounding Anselm’s satisfaction atonement.

Anselm was not interested in possible worlds; he was interested in one specific world. The world that was his focus was that of his audience, the world found within the monastery. In fact, he wouldn’t have written the Proslogion if not for his dissatisfaction with the Monologion, and he wouldn’t have written the Monologion if not for his monastic brethren beseeching him to rationally articulate God’s existence without the aid of the Bible or Church authorities (its purpose was to be used to guide meditation upon God). This is crucial for understanding what he thought his initial ontological argument actually accomplished, and why he responds how he does to Guanilo.

II. God is not an island

Curiously, in Anselm’s response to Guanilo he begins by saying “Since it is not the Fool, against whom I spoke in my tract, who takes me up, but one who, though speaking on the Fool’s behalf, is an orthodox Christian and no fool, it will suffice if I reply to the Christian.”[1] If Anselm’s argument was meant to be an nomothetic argument of pure reason, able to persuade atheists, fools, and fellow believers alike, then it seems odd that he would address his interlocker’s concerns by way of their shared faith. Even more odd is the fact that, after re-stating Guanilo’s refutation, he remarks, “Now my strongest argument that this [Guanilo’s rebuttal] is false is to appeal to your faith and to your conscience.” [brackets mine][2]

It should be clear by this point in Anselm’s reply to Guanilo that Anselm is no apologist and he is making no appeal to reason alone by which a non-believer might be convinced to believe God exists from a position of non-faith. Instead, Anselm is a master of contemplative theology whose meditation on the greatness of God has been totally lost on countless Christians due to this ongoing misunderstanding of his intentions.

His reply to Guanilo was hardly a private letter; he was so proud of it that he asked scribes to attach both Guanilo’s reply and his response to it at the end of the actual text. The reason that Guanilo’s corresponding argument pertaining to the lost island fails to properly replicate Anselm’s claim about the greatest possible being, namely God, is because it fails to consider what attributes are entailed in his conception of “God”. Namely, God is no island. In fact, an island is just a good thing—a good object in a world full of objects—that can be discernably placed on the ladder of ascending good beings, as discussed in the Monologion. Anselm himself says:

Now, I truly promise that if anyone should discover for me something existing either in reality or in the mind alone— except ‘that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-bethought’— to which the logic of my argument would apply, then I shall find that Lost Island and give it, never more to be lost, to that person.”[3]

For Anselm, God is not just the greatest being of a certain kind atop other less-great beings of that kind. God is the source of being itself, the one who creates all beings from their previous non-being. God, as the greatest imaginable reality, is a being beyond all other beings, with no beginning and no end. If God were merely a being of a certain kind—even the greatest of such—like Guanilo’s lost island, then God wouldn’t discernably be God.

Unlike God, an island has a beginning and an end. Unlike an island, God’s existence is necessary for everything else that exists to exist. That is, if God is properly thought to be that by which every being even comes into being, then God must exist or no being exists. This makes the contemplation of God’s existence categorically distinct from that of the lost island.

The place whereby an atheist or theologian might object to Anselm’s argument is not the second premise, which Guanilo parodies with his lost island scenario. Instead, it is within the first premise that dissent is permissible. That is, the possibility that God, as defined above, might exist at all. Guanilo was right to make the distinction between Anselm’s wording, and he was right to suggest that what Anselm meant by the word “think” was better captured by the word “understand”; for if God, understood as Anselm’s faith defines him, can possibly exist then God surely must exist. I don’t think Anselm would necessarily disagree, as suggested by his own words in the Proslogion: “No one, indeed, understanding what God is can think that God does not exist.”[4] What seems clear at this point is that Anselm misunderstood Guanilo’s concerns, just as Guanilo misunderstood the initial intent of Anselm’s words, and ultimately the two end up talking passed one another.

The important thing to notice from this section, however, is that the logical conclusion that Anselm arrives at in his ontological argument is dependent upon his foundational understanding of God (founded as it were by the orthodox faith that he and Guanilo shared). At this point, let me conclude with a clarified presentation of Anselm’s ontological argument, accompanied by a meditation akin to its original (devotional) usage.

III. Anselm’s Ontological Argument as Testimony to the Greatness of God

As we have seen, faith lingers throughout Anselm’s argument. Rather than the conception of the one who by reason alone inevitably arrives at faith, Anselm’s impetus inspires something more akin to one who inquires by reason, sees by faith, and confirms their faith by continued contemplation (understanding). After all, he initially wanted to title his second tract, which contains his ontological argument, “Faith in Quest of Understanding.”[5] Key here is that faith is primary and reason is only used for clarifying faith—hence, a faith understanding itself. It is not the reverse; it is not reason seeking faith. As such, let us consider Anselm’s argument in light of this context and glimpse at its devotional ramifications:

1: The greatest possible being possibly exists.

2: If the greatest possible being possibly exists, then it does exist.

3: The greatest possible being does exist

Anselm’s argument broken down:

1: God possibly exists. As noted above, it is often supposed that the first premise is merely that the greatest possible being can be imagined (i.e. one simply imagines a being greater than all other beings). This doesn’t quite cause much difficulty for non-believers, but it should. After all, the first premise is the one that not everyone can agree upon, because, to put it rather crudely, this premise is a euphemism for “faith”. This simply is to say; God, as presented in orthodox Christianity, possible exists (i.e. can be thought to exist).

2: If God possibly exists, God must exist. God is the being beyond all other beings by which all beings came into being from non-being. It’s absurd to compare this being to a lesser being like an island. At maximum, God is beyond all thought, and at minimum is the greatest possible thought. If a proper understanding of God can be placed before one’s heart after much contemplation and seeking, then of course God must exist or what has been reflected upon is less than God or something else entirely. Succinctly put: if God, then God.

3: God exists! This is where the awe that’s peeked at in the second premise reaches its crescendo; this is where the one who manages to contemplate God’s existence must pursue its implications, for they cannot manage to un-think this God. God isn’t the type of being that—such as a lost island—may or may not exist somewhere “out there.” God’s existence is central to one’s entire worldview.

Meditation

One cannot simply say, “if God exists, there he is, over there, lost at sea like the island!” If God who is omnipresent exists, he exists everywhere at once; if God who is omnipotent exists, he exists behind all else, thunderously bringing it all into being; if God who is omniscient exists, he exists knowing all things as they seek to know him; if God who is all loving exists, he exists as the glue by which all things are held together in love and mutuality, bridging the gap between every molecule of our DNA. If God who is thought to exist by faith, can be imagined, he cannot be imagined to exist in any sort of limited way—in a modest or non-affective way; it is either all or nothing with this God. Either God is impossible, or he demands us to find him in everything.

The power of Anselm’s original ontological argument is that it compels one to discard any semblance of a lukewarm faith or lethargic agnosticism. One cannot think God is possible, and remain unmoved or apathetic. If God exists, then he requires our utmost and our whole being must seek to rejoice in him. It is therefore no wonder that the fool is the one who discovers this and turns away—how foolish it is to be confronted with the balm of our souls through which we are offered infinitive wholeness and close off our hearts in disbelief.

In conclusion, I believe Anselm’s intent was this. He wanted to demonstrate to his fellow monks that their faith can be confirmed by reason, and by seeking to further understand their faith, they must meditate upon the greatness of God. The Proslogion is spiritual formation! This meditation upon the greatness of God will expand one’s mind and heart, as the wonder of God grows exponentially through these thoughtful tracts (or, meditations).

Camus was also right. I wouldn’t die for the ontological argument that is espoused by the apologists, or critiqued and rejected by the Thomists and Kantians. However, for the ontological argument of Anselm, whereby one sees God in all things as the most infinite, greatest being—for this argument I would most certainly agree to live. I invite you to read the Proslogion with fresh eyes and ears and behold the wonder of our matchless God.

 

 

Continue reading “Anselm v. the Apologists”

The Host and the Servant of the New Creation: A Homily

This is a sermon I preached on Maundy Thursday 2016, which Joel graciously let me share with you via his blog.


Gospel Text: John 13.1-17; 31b-35

Please pray with me as I pray a prayer written by St. Anselm of Canterbury:

“O my God teach my heart where and how to seek you,

where and how to find you…

You are my God and you are my All and I have never seen you.

You have made me and remade me,

You have bestowed on me all the good things I possess,

Still I do not know you…

I have not yet done that for which I was made….

Teach me to seek you…

I cannot seek you unless you teach me

or find you unless you show yourself to me.

Let me seek you in my desire, let me desire you in my seeking.

Let me find you by loving you, let me love you when I find you.”

Amen.


I don’t know about anyone else, but I grew up a little turned off by the idea of washing someone else’s feet. In our culture we just do not practice these sorts of things—largely because there are no conventional reasons to. However, in the historical context of tonight’s Gospel lesson there were a few reasons for the washing of feet, and, after exploring these reasons, I promise that the idea of foot washing will make a little more sense.

First, feet were primarily washed for hygienic reasons. Proper hygiene in the form of foot washing was imperative to societies that primarily relied on foot traffic along dusty roads. After all, first century Palestine was essentially a desert location, and therefore washing the dust that had been accumulated from travel off of one’s feet would have been as essential then as washing one’s hands is in today’s society. This is often overlooked by us today as there are socks and shoes, while back then there were only sandals.

Second, feet were often washed as a gesture of hospitality. What this means is that upon entering one’s residence, the service of foot washing would be offered as a gesture of good faith that was extended for the hygienic practices mentioned above. Sort of like our efforts to make a sink and bathroom available for guests to freshen up in today’s culture. We’ll talk more about this in a moment.

The third reason for foot washing in John’s cultural context would have been cult activity. There are some cases in which foot washing was enacted for cultic worship, though it’s worth noting that never would these cult leaders or deities ever be depicted washing the feet of their followers.

Considering each of these options, it seems most likely that John’s Jesus is washing his disciples’ feet for the sake of hospitality—not only that, but representing the unique portrait of a God that serves his disciples and not the other way around. So, let’s dive into the intricacies of hospitable foot washing in John’s culture.

The host of a gathering would typically make foot washing available for their guests, especially if the gathering was a meal—think hygiene—and the host’s servants were usually the ones who carried out this service. In other words, it was highly unlikely that the host of a gathering would have washed the feet of his guests himself. This is where the novelty lies in John’s account of this gesture. Not only is Jesus hospitably providing the means by which his disciples are to be cleansed and cared for, as any good host would have done; but he is performing this service himself, as any good servant would have done.

In this passage of Scripture we are confronted by Jesus as both the host and servant, the one who invites us and delivers us—who serves us as he leads us. Notice how that Jesus’ identity as teacher and Lord is directly tied in with his actions of self-emptying love and servant leadership. He even asks his disciples to imitate this gesture toward one another—a suggestion that is directly paralleled with the commandment to love one another as we have been loved by God. What can this mean? There are a few things to consider.

First, this isn’t just an ethical formula for living into one’s faith. In other words, one cannot simply reduce this text to yet another rule that the Christian is to follow. It’s not that we must simply wash feet once a year, even as when we don’t want to, even if we are repulsed by feet, or even as we might find this particular, liturgical expression obtuse and awkward. For us to assume such a conclusion would be almost as clumsy as Peter’s insistent misunderstanding in tonight’s Gospel lesson, refusing to have his feet cleansed by the Lord. This isn’t just a suggestion; this is an opportunity to be transformed by the acts of love carried out by and through Jesus Christ. This act serves as an expression of our transformation in Christ. How are we transformed? When we dine with Christ! When we receive God’s sacramental grace, we are transformed and renewed in such a way that we can performs acts of hospitality, such as the washing off of our neighbor’s feet.

Second, there is more going on in this text than the act of foot washing itself, as alluded to above. While this specific gesture was culturally relevant at the time, and the water can be seen as symbolic for a whole slew of other elements in the Christian faith, it must not be forgotten that this scene is unfolding in the shadow of a meal—and not just any meal! The washing of the feet is just a liturgical act unfolding in the context of the bread that is broken, the wine that is poured and ingested, the feasting upon Christ’s broken body and shed blood.

The sacrament of Holy Communion is the meal in which we are invited to attend—the meal that Christ is hosting for us, into which he invites us so that we may receive the ultimate fulfillment for which we long. It is in the imitation of our teacher who accomplished for us what we cannot accomplish ourselves that we are able to see the revelation of God’s nature, and we are able to find a deep love for one another through our abiding love of God’s presence.

So while I want you to see this liturgical act, this tradition of washing feet, as something essential in John’s Gospel for revealing the character of God through Jesus Christ, it is insurmountably more important that you realize that through this act you are being invited into something so much more profound! Namely, the presence of Jesus Christ and the grace of the Father, as it dwells among the elements of this table before us, calling us into deeper union and intimacy with both God and each other.

The host that serves you in everyday life—by washing your feet, by suffering even until his death on the cross—is throwing a banquet in which heaven and earth fuse together, and the glory of God is shown forth from within the self-emptying love of Jesus Christ.

May God’s Holy Spirit call us into a deep meditation on the nature of Jesus’ ministry—his sacrifice and his self-emptying hospitality.

May we participate in and imitate the inconceivable hospitality of our host as we serve one another by the washing of our feet and the cleansing of our hearts.

And, while we imitate and embody our Lord’s hospitality, may we realize the invitation to behold the New Creation that’s unfolding within our midst.

Behold, God is making all things new; let us embody the example of Jesus and rinse off the dust that we have accumulated while walking down the roads of our lives—welcoming and serving each other as we have been served through Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and his ongoing work in our lives through Holy Communion.

Let us serve those gathered, seeing this expression of faith in the shadow of such a seismic meal. Let us see Christ as our example—our host and servant—upon whom we feast and feast with.

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

Amen!

Anselm v. Calvin

Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt ...
Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt an ontological argument for God’s existence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Church has never taken an official stance on what exactly it was that Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection accomplished in order to secure salvation for humanity. One of the most innovative theories of atonement is St. Anselm of Canterbury’s Satisfaction Theory. Unfortunately, most seminarians that encounter Anselm’s work do so through the lens of John Calvin’s Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) can be historically placed underneath the umbrella of satisfaction atonement, though it often comes with the temptation to identify PSA as the definitive satisfaction theory of atonement. As a student of Anselm’s teachings, I believe there are more powerful and deeply orthodox ways of understanding atonement in a satisfaction paradigm that do not involve Calvin’s theory. What follows is an attempt to distinguish Calvin and Anselm’s atonement theology from one another, concluding with a short explanation of why, in my opinion, Anselm’s theory is a better option.

Calvin’s Penal Substitutionary Atonement

To begin understanding Calvin’s soteriology, we must start with the fallen state of humanity. Humans are totally depraved, deformed by the curse of sin, and beyond any recognizable form of holiness in the eyes of God. God, being utterly Just and Holy cannot simply overlook sin, nor be in its presence. Therefore, sin had to be punished by necessity, which meant that unless God’s wrath was satisfied in some alternative way, every human being would have to be punished in the eternal torments of hell. Thus, that which needed to be satisfied in Calvin’s theory was the wrath of God toward sin, and Jesus was the substitute who took God’s wrath in our place.

Out of God’s love, God the Father sent God the Son to became a son of man and suffer all of the afflictions brought upon humanity by the curse of sin. Jesus, God’s only begotten son, suffered in body and soul all of which humanity must suffer; himself being innocent, he took the full curse of sin upon himself and subjected himself to the full wrath of God. Important to note is that Jesus didn’t just have to die, but had to die a death reserved for the worst sinners and criminals (crucifixion), after being publicly condemned by Pontius Pilate (in accordance with the Apostle’s Creed), and before descending into hell; all of this happened in order to undergo the full penalty of human sin. The resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus, his victory over death and hell, and the sign of hope for the elect who will become purged from sin and redeemed by God’s irresistible grace.

Anselm’s satisfaction theory is often retroactively interpreted with Calvin’s theory in mind because many Christians are indoctrinated with the Calvinist understanding of atonement in their local Church before ever encountering the proto-scholastic thought of Anselm in college or seminary. This causes many distinguished aspects of Anselm’s theory to go unnoticed. For this reason, I will now present a brief synopsis of Anselm’s theory for contrast.

Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory of Atonement

To assess Anselm’s theory of atonement, we will begin again with the human condition. According to Anselm, humans were created by God and fell under the seduction of sin. Sin introduced dishonor for God in the place of honor, injustice in the place of justice, and disorder in the place of order. All of which thwarted God’s intended goal of a harmonious, heavenly city in which creation and God delighted in one another. As those who acted out of their free will, choosing to sin, humanity was obligated to make recompose for its sin, restoring God’s honor, and along with it, his justice and order. Yet humanity was unable to do such a thing because the affects of sin produced too heavy a weight for humanity to bear. God was capable of such restoration, able to give a recompense for humanity’s sins, but under no obligation to do so (meaning if he does enact such a restoration it’s out of his free will to do so and not an external indictment).

At this point God had two options. Either God could punish humanity for its sin, trapped as it were in a prison of its own making, or God could restore creation from its sin God’s self. Choosing the latter, God the Son chose to take on human nature in order to restore humanity to its former perfection.

God the Son became a human being, Jesus, and, being fully God and fully human, was capable of making recompense on behalf of those obligated to do so, satisfactorily restoring God’s honor among creation. Being a human, Jesus was already obligated to be righteous, but, being without sin, he wasn’t under the obligation to die. Thus, the giving of his life for God’s glory was the one thing that wasn’t otherwise required of him—something he could do to honor God like the martyrs who died for God’s glory (note: unlike Jesus, the martyrs were going to die anyway). Being fully God, Jesus is the greatest possible being, making his death the greatest possible injustice; thus the greatest possible good (God) underwent the greatest possible evil (crucifixion) for the sake of redeeming an undeserving humanity. And, by his voluntary death, Jesus secured the greatest possible reward. Since no reward could benefit Jesus, as he was already perfect, he was free to give his reward over to anyone of his choosing. God the Son therefore gave his reward over to the rest of humanity, enabling humanity to be liberated from sin’s bondage.

With these two distinct understandings of atonement parceled out above, let me explain what is problematic about Calvin’s theory and preferable in Anselm.

Why is Anselm’s Theory Better?

To depict the ways in which PSA is problematic one could refer to its implication of parental abuse, its glorification of retributive justice, etc. etc. Yet, I can sum up my concerns in one question. That is, in PSA, who is punishing whom? After all, it would appear that one person of the Trinity is punishing another, bound by an external logic of punishment that cannot be forgone in any other way. And, as Calvin’s theological determinism would suggest, this rather problematic depiction of Triune discord is what the Godhead had preferred all along out of all other possible options.

On the other hand, in Anselm’s theory, it is clear that God the Son wasn’t punished by God the Father, but that God the Father and God the Son shared the same will as coequal members of the Trinity. Moreover, God the Son voluntarily laid down his life to restore his own honor, along with the honor of the Father and the Spirit, as he was in fact fully God. Thus, in Anselm’s system, we can definitively say the Father didn’t punish the Son because Anselm is very careful in demonstrating that a distinction between the will of God the Father and God the Son is a failure to understand the Trinitarian backdrop of the incarnation. Anselm makes it clear that the person of the Son taking on human nature is part of the shared Trinitarian mission to avoid any form of punishment. By God choosing to find a way to make recompense, God is saying “no” to redemptive punishment and retributive justice. This isn’t quite so clear in Calvin’s theory. Since Calvin’s Godhead demands punishment, which means one person of the Trinity must punish another, it must be accounted for how PSA can maintain the unified will of the Godhead in each of its persons.

Anselm’s presentation is deeply orthodox in its understanding of the Trinity. In my opinion, it’s also more Biblical in its rejection of retributive justice, and its orientation toward sacrificial love over divine wrath. It’s my hope that from my brief synopsis above that I have articulated at least some of the many contrasts between Calvin and Anselm’s atonement theories. More importantly, I hope that everyone would take the time to read Anselm’s work with fresh eyes so as to discover many powerful qualities that I wasn’t able to dive into here.

 

Further Reading:

St. Anselm of Canterbury’s Cur Deus Homo (Eng. Why God Became Man)

Book II of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion