Archive for the ‘Fr. Edward T. Oakes S.J.’ Category


Pascal: The First Modern Christian Part 3 by Fr. Edward T. Oakes

June 4, 2014
In 1642, in an effort to ease his father's endless, exhausting calculations, and recalculations, of taxes owed and paid (into which work the young Pascal had been recruited), Pascal, not yet 19, constructed a mechanical calculator capable of addition and subtraction, called Pascal's calculator or the Pascaline. Of the eight Pascalines known to have survived, four are held by the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris and one more by the Zwinger museum in Dresden, Germany, exhibit two of his original mechanical calculators. Though these machines are pioneering forerunners to a further 400 years of development of mechanical methods of calculation, and in a sense to the later field of computer engineering, the calculator failed to be a great commercial success. Partly because it was still quite cumbersome to use in practice, but probably primarily because it was extraordinarily expensive the Pascaline became little more than a toy, and status symbol, for the very rich both in France and elsewhere in Europe. Pascal continued to make improvements to his design through the next decade and he refers to some 50 machines that were built to his design.

In 1642, in an effort to ease his father’s endless, exhausting calculations, and recalculations, of taxes owed and paid (into which work the young Pascal had been recruited), Pascal, not yet 19, constructed a mechanical calculator capable of addition and subtraction, called Pascal’s calculator or the Pascaline. Of the eight Pascalines known to have survived, four are held by the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris and one more by the Zwinger museum in Dresden, Germany, exhibit two of his original mechanical calculators. Though these machines are pioneering forerunners to a further 400 years of development of mechanical methods of calculation, and in a sense to the later field of computer engineering, the calculator failed to be a great commercial success. Partly because it was still quite cumbersome to use in practice, but probably primarily because it was extraordinarily expensive the Pascaline became little more than a toy, and status symbol, for the very rich both in France and elsewhere in Europe. Pascal continued to make improvements to his design through the next decade and he refers to some 50 machines that were built to his design.

Originally over in the PAGES section which I am now rewriting while redoing my old PAGES as posts. Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. This is a remarkable article on Pascal that was carried by First Things a few years back.


This craving for distraction is so overriding and exigent that for Pascal it actually constitutes the driving force of ambition. In one sharply worded paragraph in the Pensées, he asserts that the main joy of being a king is the opportunity it affords for endless distraction, since courtiers are continually trying to keep the king’s mind off his mortality and provide him every kind of pleasure. “A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him so that he might be kept from thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself.”

But what applies to the ambitions of a king applies equally well to the motivations of all men. We crave distractions because we do not want to face the realities of the human condition. And because we are unwilling to admit our despair, we perforce cannot face the thought of applying the appropriate balm to heal these unacknowledged wounds. Consequently we hurl ourselves into an endless round of diversions, jobs, hobbies, etc., all to avoid our nature as thinking reeds:

Man is obviously made for thinking. Therein lies all his dignity and his merit; and his whole duty is to think as he ought. Now the order of thought is to begin with ourselves, and with our Author and our end. But what does the world think about? Never about that, but about dancing, playing the lute, singing, writing verse, jousting and fighting, becoming a king, without ever thinking what it means to be a king or to be a man.

Like Kierkegaard and Heidegger after him, Pascal was an acute student of boredom, and saw in this phenomenon (actually rather puzzling when one thinks about it) the clue to the very pathos of the human condition. Generally speaking, says Pascal, “we think either of present woes or of threatened miseries.” But moments occur in almost everyone’s experience when life reaches a temporary pause of homeostasis, when we feel quite safe on every side, when bad health does not threaten, when bill collectors are not baying at the door, when rush-hour traffic is light and the weather pleasant. But precisely at such moments “boredom on its own account emerges from the depths of our hearts, where it is naturally rooted, and poisons our whole mind.” Not just the king craves diversion. So terrified are we of boredom that the king’s ambition is our own.

I have called Pascal “the first modern Christian” because, among other reasons, our civilization, in contrast to all other past civilizations, gets its very identity from the sheer range of distractions that have now been made available to us, from hundreds of channels on cable TV to over a thousand video cassettes on the shelf of any self-respecting video rental agency to the millions of websites on the Internet, group activities of every sort imaginable, aerobics classes, talk-show radio on the air twenty-four hours a day, and so on. As the literary journalist Norman Cousins observed in his book Human Options:

Our own age is not likely to be distinguished in history for the large numbers of people who insisted on finding the time to think. Plainly, this is not the Age of Meditative Man. . . . Substitutes for repose are a billion dollar business. Almost daily, new antidotes for contemplation spring into being and leap out from store counters. Silence, already the world’s most critical shortage, is in danger of becoming a nasty word. Modern man may or may not be obsolete, but he is certainly wired for sound and he twitches as naturally as he breathes.

Of course no one denies the legitimate need for entertainment or the role that diversion plays in generating demand for the works of art that have become the glory of our species. Often life achieves its goal of testifying to its own goodness as worth living when a human being is able to enjoy the highest benefits of culture. I personally count myself most glad to be alive when I am enjoying a good meal with a friend, listening to Mozart in the privacy of my room, or reading a good book. Nor, despite his seeming Jansenist severity, would Pascal contemn such pleasures. Even he, the least therapeutic writer imaginable, admits that diversions can help to heal the beset soul (“that is why the man who lost his only son a few months ago and who was so troubled and oppressed this morning by lawsuits and quarrels is for the moment [because of a fleeting diversion] not thinking about it”).

But our extraordinary obsession with entertainment and distraction constitutes perhaps the hallmark of our civilization in contrast to past cultures. From the time the clock radio goes off in the morning to the late-night talk shows, the average denizen of contemporary culture need never be alone, encounter silence, or have to listen to the voice within. As Pascal says: “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to keep from seeing the precipice.” Or as the French poet Paul Claudel says, speaking of the New Testament’s Book of Revelation: “What if, beneath all this revelry and group cheer, there were something seething under our feet?”

To the journalistic mind, all this gloom-and-doom apologetic is going to sound like the grim Calvinist sermons in The Scarlet Letter that poured forth from the tormented pulpit of the aptly named Rev. Mr. Arthur Dimmesdale. Schooled by the plot of this Urmyth of American Protestantism, the same journalistic mind will inevitably ask: What could be more life-denying than this constant dwelling on the dire straits of the human condition? And since Pascal owes so much to Calvinist doctrines of grace, is he not really the Catholic equivalent of the Rev. Mr. Dimmesdale?

No. Rather, the self-satisfied glee of the professional scoffer-the kind of opinion-monger who takes satisfaction in the fall of Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Bakker, or any other easy target-comes from a different motivation than a resentment against a supposedly life-denying Calvinist or Jansenist Christianity. Underneath the smug cluck-clucking at the fall of a Christian aiming for sanctity, Pascal will detect the “ABC rule” working its effect:

Order. Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next, make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is. Worthy of reverence because it really understands human nature. Attractive because it promises true good.

Of course, nothing could be further from Pascal’s intention than to sweep all religions under the universal rubric of human religiosity and see them merely as aspects of one global “search for meaning.” Enlightenment thinkers, who hoped to find a basis for international comity beyond the particularity of culture and religion, saw the modern pluriformity of religions as a problem. So too have postmodern thinkers, with their opposite privileging of the particular culture over against an allegedly “hegemonic” universal culture. Pascal, however, takes the multiplicity of religions to be a way of proving the truth of Christianity. Its very particularity, for Pascal, dramatically indicates its transcendental truth: “On the fact that the Christian religion is not unique: Far from being a reason for believing it not to be the true religion, it is on the contrary what proves it to be so.”

Perhaps no sentence that came from Pascal’s pen better encapsulates what makes him so modern as this apparent paradox. Nothing so beset, even fixated, the Enlightened mind of Pascal’s time and in the century to follow than what has become known as the “scandal of particularity.” If God’s will to save is universal, how can it matter what one believes in particular? What difference does it make what religion one belongs to or believes in, since-as one is constantly hearing on the lips of nearly every American-”it’s all the same God anyway”?

Second only to Dante, Pascal is Europe’s most politically incorrect writer. He dares to raise the unmentionable topic of truth in religion, and even called one of the sections of his Pensées “Nature Is Corrupt: On the Falseness of Other Religions.” In contrast to most reflection on the problem of world religions in today’s academy, Pascal sees the “problem” as in fact essential for the truth of the Christian message:

That God wanted to be hidden. If there were only one religion, God would be clearly manifest. If there were martyrs only in our religion, the same. God being therefore hidden, any religion which does not say that God is hidden is not true. And any religion which does not give us the reason why does not enlighten. Ours does all this. . . . If there were no obscurity man would not feel his corruption: if there were no light man could not hope for a cure. Thus it is not only right but useful that God should be partly concealed and partly revealed, since it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his wretchedness as to know his own wretchedness without knowing God. “Truly God is hidden with you” (Isaiah 45:15).

But of course the key to finding this light is to search for it, and this once more brings us to the central difficulty: do we want the light of the truth? “Truth is so obscured nowadays and lies so well established that unless we love the truth we shall never recognize it.”

So there are good reasons for Christianity to stress not only its uniqueness (every religion is unique in some way) but its inherent truth. Nothing is more awkward in our ecumenical age than for a religion to stress its possession of the truth. But Pascal would say to Christians that unless it is confident that it possesses the truth, Christianity will not have the confidence that it can apply the only salve that can heal the real wounds of humanity. As the former Marxist Leszek Kolakowski put it in his defense of Pascal:

There are reasons why we need Christianity, but not just any kind of Christianity. We do not need a Christianity that makes political revolution, that rushes to cooperate with so-called sexual liberation, that approves our concupiscence or praises our violence. There are enough forces in the world to do all these things without the aid of Christianity. We need a Christianity that will help us to move beyond the immediate pressures of life, that gives us insight into the basic limits of the human condition and the capacity to accept them, a Christianity that teaches us the simple truth that there is not only a tomorrow but a day after tomorrow as well, and that the difference between success and failure is rarely distinguishable.

But even this formulation puts the matter too weakly (one detects in Kolakowski’s praise of Pascal the same weakness that has made him so diffident toward doctrinal Christianity throughout his published career). Far better perhaps is the judgment of T. S. Eliot, who to my mind has summed up Pascal’s achievement best of all; and, as befits Pascal himself, he has done so in one sentence of unsurpassed accuracy and concision: “I can think of no Christian writer, not Newman even, more to be commended than Pascal to those who doubt, but who have the mind to conceive, and the sensibility to feel, the disorder, the futility, the meaninglessness, the mystery of life and suffering, and who can only find peace through a satisfaction of the whole being.”

Pascal’s was a remarkable achievement, made even more remarkable by one-often overlooked-detail: he died at the age of thirty-nine.


Pascal: The First Modern Christian Part 2 by Edward T. Oakes

June 3, 2014
One of Pascal’s most famous observations, found in nearly every anthology of quotations, holds that "all the misfortunes of men derive from one single thing, their inability to remain at repose in a room." Far from being merely the obiter dictum of a dry cynic, Pascal’s remark actually forms the opening gambit of his Christian apologetics, for he knows that "being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance," and being not too fond of the medicine of Christ on offer either, "men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things."

One of Pascal’s most famous observations, found in nearly every anthology of quotations, holds that “all the misfortunes of men derive from one single thing, their inability to remain at repose in a room.” Far from being merely the obiter dictum of a dry cynic, Pascal’s remark actually forms the opening gambit of his Christian apologetics, for he knows that “being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance,” and being not too fond of the medicine of Christ on offer either, “men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.”

Originally over in the PAGES section which I am now rewriting while redoing my old PAGES as posts. Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. This is a remarkable article on Pascal that was carried by First Things a few years back.


In fact few thinkers, when read carefully, would seem less Cartesian than Pascal, even in his philosophy of science, which at first glance seems so Cartesian, with its praise of the “geometrical” mind. Actually, for all his brilliance as a mathematician and despite his awe before the geometrical method, Pascal gives a much more ringing defense of the empirical method than any of the British empiricists managed to do, and he certainly grants to the senses a much larger role than any of his fellow Continental Rationalists could muster. 

Today we can see that the British Empiricists went too far and misinterpreted rationality as a mere generalization of sensation, while the Continental Rationalists went to the other extreme because they could not grant the exalted title “knowledge” to any but rational truths.

But Pascal, anticipating the errors of both schools and sounding almost like a disciple of W. V. Quine avant la lettre, was able to balance rational and empirical, a priori and a posteriori reasoning with a remarkably contemporary note:

“When we say that the diamond is the hardest of all bodies,” he observes in his fragmentary Treatise on the Vacuum, “we mean of all bodies with which we are acquainted. We cannot and ought not to include those bodies of which we are entirely ignorant. . . . For in all matters in which proof consists in experiences and not in demonstrations, one cannot make any universal assertion save by general enumeration of all the parts and of all the different cases.”

This principle might seem obvious today, but its application had an unsettling effect on the mind of contemporary natural philosophers trained in medieval scholastic physics. In 1648 Pascal’s brother-in-law carried a barometer up a mountain and observed how the level of mercury changed with the height of the mountain.

Pascal then repeated the experiment by checking the mercury levels at various heights inside a Parisian church tower, the results of which prompted him to exclaim: “Nature has no abhorrence of a vacuum, she makes no effort to avoid it. . . . Due to their lack of knowledge of this phenomenon, people have invented a wholly imaginary horror of a vacuum.” As noted philosopher of science Richard H. Popkin rightly observes: “Combining his ingeniously derived experimental data with a clear analysis of the possible explanatory hypotheses, Pascal arrived at one of the major achievements of seventeenth-century science.”

But Pascal is even more noticeably anti-Cartesian in his concern for the Christian religion. Descartes famously loathed theological disputes and avoided their entanglements whenever possible. Pascal, as his acrimonious debates with the Jesuits attest, entered the fray of theological infighting with startling gusto and vehemence. But what most of his contemporaries, both friend and foe, failed during his lifetime to see about his motivation emerged only after his death, when his younger sister gathered together the shards and disjecta membra of his notes for a projected work of apologetics and published them in the form we know today as the Pensées.

From this remarkable work we now realize that Pascal saw himself, above all, as Christ’s apologete and defender against Christianity’s rationalist scoffers (whereas Descartes in contrast knew himself primarily, indeed only, as a scientist and philosopher). No doubt Pascal always remained heavily indebted to Descartes’ dualism of mind and matter, but in his apologetics for Christianity he transforms Cartesian dualism into merely one aspect of a much deeper and more central dualism: not between spirit and matter but between God’s holiness and human misery, not between soul and body but between God’s infinity and man’s sin. Christ came to heal these more agonizing divisions-divisions rooted not in incompatible metaphysical essences but in the pathos of the enfleshed soul trapped in sin. The Incarnation thus becomes a balm applied to man’s riven soul, torn not so much between spirit and flesh as between despair and pride.

[The Christian religion] teaches men both these truths: that there is a God of whom we are capable, and that a corruption in our nature makes us unworthy of Him. It is equally important for us to know both these points; for it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness, and to know his wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer who can cure him of it. Knowledge of only one of these points leads either to the arrogance of the philosophers, who have known God and not their own wretchedness, or to the despair of the atheists, who know their wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer.

We can see from these remarks that for Pascal Descartes’ dualism is missing a crucial element: he has failed to provide an analysis of the moral dangers to which the human spirit is prone precisely because of its capacity for an infinite reach to the very ends of the universe. Pascal openly affirms with Descartes that our capacity to know the universe makes us masters, in some paradoxical sense, of the universe we conceive. But our capacity to “grasp” the universe and transform it into a mental construct of our knowing powers remains both paradox and pathos: we always accomplish these acts of knowing as puny, pathetic, and vulnerable bodies, whose corruption eventually leads to death.

This knowing mind, however, would rather remain enamored of its cognitive powers than acknowledge that this knowing power is an organic function of the brain. (Philosopher John Searle calls the brain “cognitive meat,” which nicely captures in the minor key of neuroscience Pascal’s more metaphysical definition in the major key of man as a “thinking reed.”) Fearing the inevitable dissolution of its powers, the mind hides from itself the reality of its own insignificance. Second only to cognition itself, the most notable fact of the human mind lies in its tendency to forget the realities of its corruption and death.

Hence the central temptation of man is always pride. (Thus did the Serpent tempt Adam and Eve.) For Pascal, pride is a deeply functional sin: it works to help us forget. The mind shrinks from recognizing its status as a thinking reed by hiding under a carapace of pride. Characteristically, Descartes failed to notice this pathos; a missing element that, like the non-barking dog that became the decisive clue in the Sherlock Holmes story, tells us why Cartesian philosophy is more culprit than detective, more likely, that is, to lead us astray than to bring us to the truth.

But despite a few stray remarks in the Pensées that attack Descartes, Pascal’s intent there is not, fundamentally, polemical. Throughout this fascinating book of almost random observations the reader soon picks up the author’s driving motivation. Pascal above all wants to explain to his post-Cartesian contemporaries how the pathos of human nature has its own “balm in Gilead,” a healing ointment in Jesus Christ, who is the very divine incarnation of these human oppositions. 

But of course Jesus Christ can only be accepted as Christ (the “anointed one”) if one first admits that human nature needs His healing balm. Christ’s coming on earth thus has the odd effect of eliciting hate precisely because His presence in history will reopen wounds that our distracted culture thought had been healed not by His balm but by the iodine of hyperactivity.

No wonder, then, that modernity since the Enlightenment has taken scandal in Jesus Christ. Even inside our own culture, which is often called “post”-modern because of its self-image of being more accommodating to local traditions and intercultural understanding than was Enlightened modernity, Christianity still is made to feel something like the bastard son who shows up uninvited at the annual family picnic. 

Inside all the talk about multiculturalism, contemporary culture often balks at including Christianity in its “gorgeous mosaic.” This uneasiness has sometimes been dubbed the “ABC Rule,” meaning “anything but Christianity.” Undoubtedly Pascal would amend that to mean “anyone but Christ,” for at root that is where the scandal lies. Christianity’s scandal is not just itself (though it is that as well, which is no doubt why the Pope wants the Church formally to repent of her institutional sins); its real scandal is Jesus Christ. And He is the stumbling block precisely because to accept Him is first of all to admit one’s hopelessness without Him. Pride and life in Christ are inherently incompatible.

Pride tells us we can know God without Jesus Christ, in effect that we can communicate with God without a mediator. But this only means that we are communicating with a God who is the [prideful] result that comes from being known without a mediator. Whereas those who have known God through a mediator know their own wretchedness.

Not only is it impossible to know God without Jesus Christ, it is also useless. . . . [For] knowing God without knowing our wretchedness leads to pride. Knowing our wretchedness without knowing God leads to despair. Knowing Jesus Christ is the middle course, because in Him we find both God and our wretchedness.

Because he wants the Incarnation to be a cure appropriate to the disease and because the death of Christ on the cross is indeed a most radical cure, implying a serious illness, Pascal is usually categorized as a “pessimistic” thinker — he wants his readers to see how far advanced the disease infecting them really is. And certainly he can be unsparing in his portrayal of the fleshly corruption and frail constitution of that “bruised and crushed reed” that is the human body.

No doubt he could describe the corruption of the flesh so well partly because his own health was so appallingly bad, perhaps the worst of any Christian mystic with the exception of Teresa of Ávila and Adrienne von Speyr. (In fact, at his autopsy it was discovered that the fontanel — the “soft spot” on an infant’s skull-had never been closed over in Pascal’s case by the formation of skull bone, so that Pascal lived his entire life with an unclosed cranium, which certainly provides a weird intensity to his definition of man as a “thinking reed.”)

But in depicting human wretchedness Pascal never wallows in scenes of grim despair but simply faces the human condition as it is, universally. In fact for Pascal, as for Dostoevsky later, the real issue comes down not to the sheer immensity of human suffering but more crucially to the fact that human suffering only has to occur once for the issue of man’s predicament to be raised.

But Dostoevsky (or at least his fictional character Ivan Karamazov) takes the fact of just one child suffering and on that basis assumes the role of being humanity’s “prosecuting attorney,” as it were, charging God to justify Himself as God in the face of that one moment of evil. Pascal lived well before this style of what is often called “protest atheism,” but if he were transported to Ivan Karamazov’s celestial courtroom as “attorney for the defense,” as it were, he would surely turn the argument around and put the challenge to the whole courtroom: anyone who would presume to act as spectator to this suffering (as judge and jury must do in order to fulfill their roles) has a challenge to face too.

What Pascal would say, in other words, is that as long as we take the spectator’s part and view human suffering from the outside, then, no matter how happy our circumstances are at the moment, we must know ourselves fundamentally as wretched beings. “Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death,” he would say to the courtroom as he did in the Pensées, “some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.”

Especially in this era of terrorists parading their hostages in front of the world’s television screens, or hijackers holding a pistol to the head of an airline pilot for all the world to behold, or high school students hiding under cafeteria tables while their friends are being murdered by their own peers, we immediately recognize the truth of what Pascal is saying.

But Pascal does not intend to force his readers to wallow in this misery. Rather, his depiction of the human condition is meant only to create the first opening through which we hear God’s response to that misery. Such a response, like the answer of the Almighty to Job, will be no courtroom defense speech. Jansenist that he was, Pascal firmly believed that “God owes us nothing,” and so Dostoevsky’s formulation would have been inconceivable to him.

And yet, however inadequate it might be in the eyes of the “protest atheist” (who, as a spectator of suffering, must perforce judge God from the outside), God’s answer is not nothing. But that answer cannot even be heard if we do not admit the realities of the human condition in all their bleakness. Even as spectators, we suffer what we are forced to see. Television screens force us to become spectators of appalling suffering, but the situation they reveal is rooted in everyone’s nature. There is no escape from its pathos, only balm for our wounds — if we are willing to accept the astringency of the ointment.

Of course, not many want that kind of painful healing, making it well-nigh inevitable that we will avail ourselves of distractions from our woes. Few words, in fact, are more crucial to Pascal than divertissement, usually translated as “diversion” or “distraction.”

One of Pascal’s most famous observations, found in nearly every anthology of quotations, holds that “all the misfortunes of men derive from one single thing, their inability to remain at repose in a room.” Far from being merely the obiter dictum of a dry cynic, Pascal’s remark actually forms the opening gambit of his Christian apologetics, for he knows that “being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance,” and being not too fond of the medicine of Christ on offer either, “men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.”

“Pessimist” that he is, however, Pascal refuses to let us evade God’s answer to our plight just because we would rather not advert to our distress in the first place. “That is why men are so fond of hustle and bustle,” he says. “That is why prison is such a fearful punishment; that is why the pleasures of solitude are so incomprehensible.”


The Poets’ Incarnation 3 – Fr. Edward T. Oakes S.J.

December 23, 2013
The Virgin of the Veil, Ambrogio Borgognone, 1500

The Virgin of the Veil, Ambrogio Borgognone, 1500

Last Saturday it was with great sadness that we reblogged from First Things the news of the passing and the short tribute to Fr. Edward T. Oakes. I’ve been scouring about for some piece of his writing that would capture not only his scholastic rigor but his extraordinary breadth of learning and perception. I think I’ve done pretty good here – the introduction to his 2009 book Infinity Dwindled to Infancy. Note that all references to “this book” and various chapters refer to Infinity Dwindled to Infancy.


A key has no logic to its shape. Its logic is: it turns the lock.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy


In common parlance, the word “evangelical” has both a more generic meaning, referring to all styles, schools, and denominations of Christianity that are explicitly confessional, and a more specific (and usually American) meaning, which refers to specific churches and denominations that require a confession of Jesus as Lord for church membership.

Thus there can be evangelical Anglicans within the Church of England, while other (usually independent) churches are entirely evangelical. My title of course is meant in the generic sense, but not as if only some Catholics confess Jesus as Lord and others don’t. The word here is meant in the methodological sense: rather than arguing to the possibility of confessing Jesus as Lord (that would be the apologetic approach), I shall begin by presupposing the faith that Jesus is Lord and then seek to understand what that means scientifically (the explicitly confessional approach).

That said, I should also add that my years of involvement in Evangelicals and Catholics Together have taught me how little divides Evangelicals (in the specific sense) from Catholics in matters of Christology. For that reason, especially in the historical sections of this book (Chapters 4 through 10), I shall freely draw on Protestant and Orthodox authors who are themselves evangelical (in the generic sense). In this I will of course be following the directive of the Second Vatican Council, which urged Catholics in these terms:

Catholics must joyfully acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren. It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood. For God is always wonderful in His works and worthy of praise. [Vatican II, Unitatis redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism), §4, in The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter M. Abbott, S.J. (New York: Guild Press, 1966), p. 349.]

As the subtitle indicates, this work will also be frankly and unapologetically Catholic in its outlook, as will emerge especially in Chapter 11, where the developments of modern Christology will find their response in the contemporary Roman magisterium. Throughout the history of Christology the reader will notice a dialectic at work in which certain proposals are moot by individual Christians: when inadequacies are noticed, other writers m respond, often heatedly, but the ultimate resolution of these debates will found in official responses by magisterial bodies: ecumenical councils p manly but also by individual bishops, very much including the Bishop Rome; and what was true of the ancient Church holds true for the Rom Church today.

Finally, there is the matter of the title itself, which is meant as no mere nod to the poets, insightful as they are. It will be the fundamental thesis this book that there can be no getting around the essential paradoxicality the Christian confession of Christ as Lord. “Take away paradox from thinker,” Soren Kierkegaard once quipped, “and you have a professor.” Transposed into Christology, we may paraphrase the line as: “Take away paradox from a theologian, and you have a heretic. [As we will notice throughout this book, but especially in Chapter 4, denial of the central paradoxes of Christology will inevitably lead to heresy; and pagan critics of Christianity were explicit in their rejection of the Christian message for that same reason: "For the one whom the church was calling God was also the one whose suffering and death on the cross were the burden of the church's witness....

The claim that he who was God had suffered called forth some of the earliest doctrinal controversy in the church. Speaking for pagan critics of the gospel, Celsus made this claim the object of his attack, and he contended that `the body of a god would not have been born ... nor eat,' ... and the Gnostic gospels sought to put a screen between the person of the Savior and the pain and suffering described in the canonical Gospels." Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100- 600), vol. I of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 174.]

Indeed, long before the poets began to sing the praise of infinity dwindled to infancy, the most important defenders of Christian orthodoxy were adamant that theology would invariably go astray if it did not openly confess the utter strangeness (strange to worldly logic, at least) of the Christian message of salvation. For just that reason, early Christian writers were generally suspicious of Aristotle, not so much for his specific and distinctive philosophical doctrines but because his logic was unsuited, they felt, to the transcendent “logic” of the Logos incarnate, the application of which was bound to lead to heresy. As Harry Wolfson observes:

Patristic opponents of Arianism as well as Patristic Church historians a heresiographers trace the Arian heresy to Aristotle…. But when we study the passages in which Aristotle is mentioned as the source of this here we are surprised to discover that the reference is not to any particular theory with which the name of Aristotle is generally associated, such, for instance as his denial of Platonic ideas, his belief in the eternity of the world, his conception of God as only a prime mover, or his view that the soul is only a form of the body, but only to the Aristotelian method of reasoning….
And when we examine these references to the Aristotelian method of reasoning as being the cause of the Arian heresy, we are further surprised to discover that they do not mean reasoning by the Aristotelian method from premises which are also Aristotelian, but rather the application of the Aristotelian method of reasoning to generally accepted Christian premises.
[Harry A. Wolfson, Philosophical Implications of Arianism and Apollinarianism, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Number Twelve (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), pp. 3-28; here 5; emphases added. Thomas Aquinas of course had a much higher appreciation for Aristotle, as everyone knows. But he too admits the limitations of reason vis-a-vis the mysteries of Christology: "Among divine works, this [the incarnation] most especially exceeds reason.” Summa contra Gentiles IV 27.1, a passage that will be cited at greater length at the end of this chapter and in Chapter 5. Aristotle, by the way, was perfectly aware that logic could not dictate reality but was merely an instrument for its clarification, which was the whole point of his book Sophistical Refutations: “By a sophistical refutation and deduction I mean not only a deduction or refutation which appears to be valid but is not, but also one which, though it is valid, only appears to be appropriate to the thing in question.” Aristotle, Sophistical Refutations 16gb2o, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), vol. i, p. 287.]

As we will see in Chapter 4, this is particularly true of the fifth-century Cyril of Alexandria, without whom the Council of Chalcedon — itself the touchstone for all later orthodox Christologies — would never have had available to it the conceptual armory that proved necessary for its teaching. Indeed, Cyril frankly avows that in Christ we find “the strange and rare paradox (aethes to kai xenon paradoxon)” of a master who serves and an abased divine glory. ["We see in Christ the strange and rare paradox of the Lordship in servant's form and divine glory in human abasement." Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ, trans. John Anthony McGuckin (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995), p. 101. Earlier in that same work Cyril describes the incarnation of Christ as meaning that "... the one who is immaterial could [now] be touched; he who is free in his own nature came in the form of a slave; he who blesses all creation became accursed; he who is all-righteousness was numbered among the transgressors; life itself came in the appearance of death” (p. 61).]

In another work he describes Christ in these terms: “He is filled with wisdom who is himself all wisdom…. Rich in poverty; the Most High in humiliation:… so thoroughly did God the Word empty himself!” [Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, trans. R. Payne Smith (New York: Studion, 1983), p. 63.]

Such statements could be multiplied at will, both in Cyril’s writings an throughout the annals of historical theology. For example, Cyril asks why the Fourth Evangelist said that the Word became flesh rather than became man. The answer for Cyril was that John wanted to stress the paradox of the incarnation:

That, in my opinion, is the most probable reason why the holy Evangelist, indicating the whole living being by the part affected, says that the Word God became flesh. It is so that we might see side by side the wound together with the remedy, the patient together with the physician, what sank towards death together with him who raised it up to life,… that which has been mastered by death together with him who conquered death, what was bereft of life with him who was the provider of life. He does not say that if Word came into flesh; he says he became flesh in order to exclude any idea of a relative indwelling, as in the case of the prophets and the other saint He really did become flesh, that is to say, a human being.
Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, at John 1:14a, in Cyril of Alexandrea trans. N. Russell (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 105-6; emphases added.

Going back even further, as early as the second century we read in Ignatius of Antioch: “There is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ of Lord. [Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians 7.2, in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Michael W. Holmes, p. 141. A bit later, Melito of Sardis speaks of Christ's crucifixion as predicating Christ both as divine Creator and as the one who suffered a shameful death: "He who hung up the earth is himself hung up; he who fixed the heavens is himself fixed [upon the cross]; he who fastened everything is himself fastened on the wood” (Melito, On the Past p. 96).]

Origen agrees: “He who was in the form of God saw fit to be in the form of a servant; while he who is immortal dies, and the impassible suffer and the invisible is seen.” [Origen, In Leviticam Homiliae 3, 1; Origen's Homilies on Leviticus 1-16, trans. W.Barkley (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1990), p. 52: qui immorta est, moritur et impassibilis patitur and invisibilis videtur.] Athanasius, who would later prove so instrumental in undermining Origen’s proto-Arian subordinationist Christology, refused, however, to jettison Origen’s paradoxes; indeed, he attacked Origen Christology for the sake of these same paradoxes:

For it is a fact that the more unbelievers pour scorn on Him, so much the more does He make His Godhead evident. The things which they, as men, rule out as impossible, He plainly shows to be possible; that which they deride as unfitting, His goodness makes more fit; and things which these wiseacres laugh at as “human” He by His inherent might declares divine.
[St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, translated by a Member of the C.S.M.V. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1953), p. 25]

To be sure, “there is,” as Paul Gavrilyuk rightly reminds us, “a thin line between a plain contradiction and a paradox,” [Paul L. Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought, Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 14.] and how that line should be drawn will occupy much of the rest of this book. In that regard, we will discover that Paul’s use of the concept of the kenosis (self-emptying) of the Logos in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians will prove crucial. [The very fact that Cyril's paradoxes will find their resolution in his interpretation of the kenosis passage in Philippians once again points to the intricate connection of Christology with Trinitarian doctrine.]

But one thing will become clear in the course of the history of Christology: attempts to dissolve the paradox because it is somehow found to be scandalous will invariably run into dead ends, usually heretical. [As the renowned nineteenth-century theologian Matthias Scheeben says: "Here again the Church proposes two doctrines that seem to contradict each other; yet both have been simultaneously upheld by the Church.... With regard to Christian epistemology, the same order is mysterious, that is, it is hidden from natural reason which, by itself and its natural resources, cannot know such an order. It lies above the reach of reason, for it surpasses reason as much as it surpasses nature." [Matthias Scheeben, Nature and Grace, trans. Cyril Vollert, S.J. (St. Louis: Herder, 1954), pp. 7, 14] Reason’s final task, says Pascal, is to recognize where reason’s competence ends; or as Thomas Aquinas says:

It now remains to speak of the mystery of the Incarnation itself. Indeed, among divine works, this most especially exceeds reason. For nothing can be thought of which is more marvelous than this divine accomplishment, that the true God, the Son of God, should become true man. And because among them all it is most marvelous, it follows that toward faith in this particular marvel all other miracles are ordered.
[St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles IV, 27.1]

Maximus the Confessor agrees: “For who could know how God takes on flesh, yet remains God? How he, while remaining true God, is yet truly a human being? … Only faith understands this, by paying silent homage to the Word of God.” [Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua, PG 91, 1057A.

A few pages before, he says: "For the super-essential Word, who took on himself, in that ineffable [virginal] conception, our nature and everything that belongs to it, possessed nothing human, nothing that we might consider `natural’ to him, that was not at the same time divine, negated by the supernatural manner of his existence. The investigation of these things exceeds our reason and our capacity for proof; it is only grasped by the faith of those who reverence the mystery of Christ with upright hearts.” PG 91, 1053A.] John Calvin builds on this tradition and shows how this Christological paradox is fundamentally a saving paradox:

This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us: that, by his descent on earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself that had so sore oppressed us, he has clothed us with his righteousness.
[John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), vol. 2, p. 1362, at 4.17.2]

Joseph Ratzinger adopts this same perspective and locates the most fundamental of Christian paradoxes above all in the execution notice that Pontius Pilate placed on the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” Pilate spoke more truly than he knew, as the future pope explains: “This execution notice, the death sentence of history, became with paradoxical unity the `profession of faith,’ the real starting point and taproot of the Christian faith which holds Jesus to be the Christ: as the crucified criminal, this Jesus is the Christ, the King. His crucifixion is his coronation; his kingship is his surrender of himself to men, the identification of word, mission, and existence the yielding up of this very existence.
[Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, trans. J. R. Foster (San Francis( Ignatius Press, 2004), p. 2o6; emphasis added.]

Such a stress on paradox can lead to some astonishing vistas for apologetics. Even though this book intends to speak within the faith, rather than arguing from skeptical positions to show the reasonability of faith in the manner of apologetics, nevertheless an admission of the paradoxicality of the logic of the incarnation can itself be an entry point for addressing the concerns of the skeptic, even the atheist, a point stressed throughout Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

It is written, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this is what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God…. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God…. [Let] the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.
[Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 145. The paradoxes of the Trinity will not be the focus of this work except as they affect Christology proper, probably the most important of which is the one noted by Ratzinger: "[According to Augustine] `In God there are no accidents, only substance and relation’ [quoting De Trinitate 5, 5.61. Therein lies concealed a revolution in man's view of the world: the sole dominion of thinking in terms of substance is ended; relation is discovered as an equally valid primordial mode of reality." Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, p. 184. See further on this point Francis Cardinal George, "Being through Others in Christ: esse per and Ecclesial Communion," The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion and Culture (New York: Crossroad, 2009), pp. 307-26.]

So much, at any rate, for the title and subtitle of the book. As to its structure, the chapters follow in rough chronological order: Chapters 2 and 3 give an overview of the New Testament witness to Christ; they survey the titles applied to Jesus in his lifetime and then in the proclamation by the early church of him risen.

Here the question of the historicity of the Gospels will constitute the main focus of treatment. Chapters 4 through io then give an overview of the history of Christological reflection from the close of the New Testament canon to the present. Finally, Chapters 11 and 12 provide an overview of current magisterial teaching on the identity and work of Christ. (Past magisterial teachings will be taken up as they arise in the course of Christological history covered in the earlier chapters.)

Now because contemporary magisterial teaching has taken in, and responded to, the many challenges thrown up by modernity to the Christian gospel, we shall be discussing church teaching not as a kind of reference work that can enable the student to look up “the right answers” and be done with it.

Rather we shall see that the teaching of the contemporary church takes place in the same kind of context as did the teaching of the church in the great councils of the first six centuries that will have been treated in Chapter 4: that is, it is a teaching that responds to challenges and speaks definitively from the crises thrown up in each period of church history.

One final point: precisely because Christology is confessional and ecclesial, it both springs from and returns to worship. Nor should this surprise us. As Abbot Vonier says so marvelously:

Christ the Son of God could never be man’s eternal life, if He were not man’s eternal wonder. A Christ whom we could fully comprehend, who we could understand through and through, could never be our life and our hope because we could not wonder at Him anymore. It is an indispensable condition of all true and lasting admiration that its object should be greater than our knowledge of it; and the growth of knowledge far from touching the limits of the marvelous, should convince us more and more of their inaccessibility. Love, no doubt, is born from knowledge and understanding; but short-lived and fragile would be the love which would be merely commensurate with knowledge and understanding. Love is actually noblest and strongest when we know enough of a person to realize that there is in him vastly more….
We find strong love for Christ the Son of God, a love fresh as a spring morning and unchanging the eternal hills, only where there is the belief in His divine nature, because there alone the created spirit has scope for endless wonderment. To make of Christ a merely human being is to deprive Him of the attribute incomprehensibility. Such theology would be the cruelest science, destroying in the soul the most life-giving element of religion — that wonderment which makes it `old yet ever new”
[Abbot Vonier, The Personality of Christ, in The Collected Works of Abbot Vonier, vol.1: The Incarnation and Redemption (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, no date for publication but The Personality of Christ was itself first published in England in 1914), P. 107.]

So the paradoxes of Christology not only give rise to theology but, when rightly understood, they also return to worship. In a fascinating collection early liturgical texts, The Lenten Triodion, we find, not surprisingly, the worship of the early church expressed in the most frankly paradoxical terms.

For example, in Canticle Five of Good Friday, the early church prayed thus: “I seek Thee early in the morning, Word of God; for in Thy tender mercy wards fallen man, without changing Thou hast emptied Thyself, and impassibly Thou hast submitted to Thy Passion. Grant me Thy peace, O Lord who lovest mankind.” [The Lenten Triodion, translated from the original Greek by Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware (London: Faber & Faber, 1978), p. 593.]

And at the moment in the service when the church commemorates the ninth hour, when Jesus gave up his spirit, the congregation sings: “Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross. He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns. He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery. He who in Jordan set Adam free receives blows upon His face. The Bridegroom of the Church is fixed with nails.” [The Lenten Triodion, p. 609] And then comes silence. We should expect no less:

Jesus, we will frequent thy Board,
And sing the Bounties of our Lord:
But the rich Food on which we live
Demands more Praise than Tongues can give.43
Isaac Watts (1674-1748), “The Church the Garden of Christ,” in The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, p. 149.

But that speechless, tongueless praise is still at all points the praise of prayer, where reason finally yields to the light of reason-transcending faith, a point made to brilliant effect in what is probably the most famous English poem of the nineteenth century, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam:

Strong Son of God, immortal Love
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove.


Thou seemest human and divine,
The highest, holiest manhood, thou:
Our wills are ours, we know not how;
Our wills are ours, to make them thine.

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see;
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam, ed. Erik Gray, A Norton Critical Edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004/1850), Prologue, p. 5.

This book, too, is but a “little system” and will someday “cease to be. And even if it speaks the truth, it will do so only as a “broken light of they for God-in-Christ is more than all can say.


The Poets’ Incarnation 2 – Fr. Edward T. Oakes S.J.

December 20, 2013
The Birth of Christ, Federico Barocci, 1597

The Birth of Christ, Federico Barocci, 1597

Last Saturday it was with great sadness that we reblogged from First Things the news of the passing and the short tribute to Fr. Edward T. Oakes. I’ve been scouring about for some piece of his writing that would capture not only his scholastic rigor but his extraordinary breadth of learning and perception. I think I’ve done pretty good here – the introduction to his 2009 book Infinity Dwindled to Infancy.


A key has no logic to its shape. Its logic is: it turns the lock.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy


All the problems listed in the previous post will be the focus of the rest of the book (Infinity Dwindled to Infancy) But before outlining by anticipation the structure and strategy of the following pages, let me first dispatch this question of paradox, at least provisionally — and once again with the help of poets, who perhaps are those members of each society best endowed to see the value of paradox as a valued avenue to truth. Poetic use of paradox does not of course necessarily justify theological paradoxes; but if the reader can recognize worldly truth lurking in poetic paradox, at least reason will find itself initially open to the possibility of truth embedded in theological paradoxes.

Let us take as our lone example of a non-theological poetic paradox passage from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, chosen more or less random (since Shakespeare is so fond of paradoxes, one could choose just about any play or sonnet for an example here). In this passage Friar Lawrence is speaking to Romeo right before he is to marry Juliet. They have been apart for only a few hours after their parting on the balcony, but to both of them it seems an eternity (teenagers in love, and all that), and so when Romeo seems too eager for Juliet’s arrival, the good friar issues this warning:

These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss, consume.
The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore, love moderately. Long love doth so.
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

So how can too swift arrive as “tardy” as too slow? “Tardy” means “late” not “early,” and the swift arrive too early, not too late. So how can “early” mean “tardy”? How can what is sweet repulse the taste, when “sweet” means what attracts the appetite and is pleasing to the taste?

Pedantic questions surely. The friar is obviously not indulging in word games and confusing the two lovers with logical conundrums about square circles and married bachelors. No, he is using the surface language of opposites to get at something deeper, more real than what a flat, stale, and unprofitable use of words in their dictionary meanings can provide. And this is certainly something everyone the world over has recognized and continues to recognize. So it is no wonder that Christian poets glory in the very paradoxes that often intimidate their more pedestrian brethren, the theologians.

Nor will it do to dismiss paradoxes as the indulgence of those who have applied and qualified for a poetic license. Philosophers have long known of paradoxes, from Anaximander and Zeno through Kant and Hegel and down to W. V. O. Quine and our own day. Indeed, in one sense, one may say that paradox has given rise to philosophy in much the same (formal) way it has done for theology. [See Roy Sorensen, A Brief History of Paradox: Philosophy and the Labyrinths of the Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), and W. V. O. Quine, The Ways of Paradox and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976).] In that history, one encounters a variety of definitions for paradox: riddles like the one given to Oedipus by the Sphinx, [Riddle: "What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, three legs in the evening?" Answer: "Man, who begins life as a baby on all fours; then learns to walk upright on two legs, and finally spends his twilight years using a cane."] or the ones popular on the grade-school playground, like this one recounted by Anaximander: “What has a mouth but never eats, a bed but never sleeps?” (Answer: a river.)

But riddles are theoretically resolvable, even the ever-popular “What came first: the chicken or the egg?” (Evolutionary biology answers that one.) Of greater interest to the philosopher are the truly irresolvable paradoxes, which Gareth Mathews defines as conceptual statements that conflict with other conceptual statements but which still remain true, such as the Stoic claim that those and only those are free who know they are not free. [Gareth Matthews, "Paradoxical Statements," American Philosophical Quarterly 11 (1974): 133-39]

Here the conflict is not seen as an outright contradiction that simply cannot exist  (married bachelors, square circles), but as an apparent contradiction that hides a deeper truth (hence the family resemblance between riddles and paradoxes), despite what the dictionary meaning or the rules of logic might say. [R. M. Sainsbury defines paradox as an argument that has acceptable premises an valid inferential logic but an apparently unacceptable conclusion; see R. M. Sainsbury, Paradoxes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1995). Quine agrees: "May we say in genes then, that a paradox is just any conclusion that at first sounds absurd but that has an argument to sustain it? In the end I think this account stands up pretty well" (Quine, Ways of Paradox, p. 1).]

Speaking of logic, important developments in that formal science since the Austro-American mathematician Kurt Godel first proved his two “incompleteness theorems” have also established the cognitive power of paradox. These theorems both, in combination, proved that it is impossible to prove the formal consistency (that is, non-paradoxicality) of mathematics within the mathematical system itself. ["What Kurt Godel proved, in that great paper of 1931, was that no deductive system with axioms however arbitrary, is capable of embracing among its theorems all the truths of the elementary arithmetic of positive integers unless it discredits itself by letting slip some of the falsehoods too. Godel showed how, for any given deductive system, he could construct a  sentence of elementary number theory that would be true if and only if not provable in that system. Every such system is therefore either incomplete, in that it misses a relevant truth, or else bankrupt, in that it proves a falsehood" (Quine, Ways of Paradox, pp. 16-17).]

Prior to Godel’s proofs, this view had seemed absurd to most mathematicians, above all to the German David Hilbert; but all that changed in 1931 when Gödel published his proof, at which point paradox took on a new epistemological sheen, at least according to one of Gödel’s keenest interpreters:

The possibility of paradox, meant to be forever eliminated by Hilbert’s program, reasserted itself. And one of the strangest things about the odd and beautiful proof that subverted Hilbert’s defense against paradox was the way in which paradox itself was incorporated into the very structure of the proof.
[Rebecca Goldstein, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel, (New York W. W. Norton, 2005), p. 164]

Nor is the paradoxicality of Gödel’s proofs an arcane point of use or to mathematicians, for Gödel himself saw its theological relevance: “It [is] something to be expected that sooner or later my proof will be made useful for religion, since that is doubtless also justified in a certain sense.” [From a letter Godel wrote to his mother on October 20,1963, quoted in Goldstein, p. 192]  As G. K. Chesterton saw so well:

The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.
[G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995/1908), p. 87].
At least in the formal sense, Quine agrees: “Catastrophe may lurk, therefore, in the most innocent-seeming paradox. More than once in history the discovery of paradox has been the occasion for major reconstruction at the foundations of thought” (Quine, Ways of Paradox, pp. 16-17). That Chesterton, himself famous for his fondness for paradoxes, had anticipated these later developments is itself remarkable.

Thus, if Paul Ricoeur is right that “the symbol gives rise to the thought,” so too does that hold for the paradoxes of the Christian religion: they are believed because both simple and learned recognize, by a kind of supernatural intuition, as it were, that paradoxes speak the truth. [Pascal, perhaps Christianity's greatest apologete, agrees: "All these contradictions, which used most to keep me away from the knowledge of any religion, are what have led me soonest to the true religion," Blaise Pascal, Pensees and Other Writings, trans. Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 8.] Which is why, in Cardinal Newman’s famous words, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” [John Henry Newman, Apologia pro vita sua (London: Longmans, 1878), p. 239.]

But reason wants to know why and how they can be true, which is why the application of reason to the phenomenon of Jesus Christ in history has given rise to thought, to theology.

Now the application of reason to the data of revelation can be either internally or externally focused: the first shows how various doctrines are interrelated, and goes under the name of systematic theology; while the second attempts to address the objections of outsiders who claim that belief in such a revelation is irrational, and goes under the name of apologetics.

As the word “evangelical” in the subtitle indicates, this book means to be systematic, not apologetic. In other words, it uses reason to reflect from the faith, not to it. In either case, results must perforce be nugatory, as the logician Peter Geach rightly notes:

Of course I do not think that natural reason can establish even the no contradictoriness, let alone the truth, of the Christian belief that a certain human being was and is Almighty God in person…. A demand for a strict proof of non-contradictoriness is anyhow often unreasonable even, as recent logical researches have shown, in pure mathematics. Certainly, if the doctrine of the Incarnation is true, it will not be self-contradictory, and any argument that it is self-contradictory will contain a flaw; but saying this is very different from saying that if the doctrine true, we ought to be able to see, or prove once for all, that it is non- contradictory.
[P. T. Geach, God and the Soul (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), pp. 106]
[Thomas Morris adopts the same approach: "[This] book as a whole should be viewed a defense of the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation, the two-natures view of Christ, against contemporary philosophical attacks. I do not purport here to show that the doctrine is true; I seek only to answer some contemporary arguments against accepting it as true.” Thomas Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 16.]

In other words, the chapters that follow do not claim to have resolve the paradoxes of Christology, nor do they wish to, since, again as we shall see attempts to resolve Christian paradoxes often lead down heretical trails. Nor do they wish to win over, at least as a direct purpose, the skeptical and the unbelieving. They merely seek to set forth, as simply and as clearly as t subject matter allows, the many ways that Christ has given rise to thought, theology, to Christology.

The title for this book, Infinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic a Evangelical Christology, is meant to set the methodological limits and to determine its operative principles. To work from back to front, the word “evangelical,” as we said just above, explicitly avows that, to the extent Christology is scientific; it is so only from inside the confines of a confession of the Lordship of Christ already made. [By "scientific" I am of course referring not to test-tubes, white coats, statistical analysis, and the like, but to that objective method that seeks to conform subjectivity to the reality of the object. But as with all other sciences, matters can sometimes get quite complex. facilitate the use of this work as a textbook on both undergraduate and graduate classes, have sequestered the more complex topics inside the cordon sanitaire of four Excursus, which can be omitted by those less interested in these specialized topics.]

To be sure, secular sciences (above all, history) both impinge upon and influence a scientific account of the identity Christ. But the New Testament is unanimous in holding that a true knowledge of Christ comes only through faith. “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). For that reason, little attention will be paid to non-Christian critiques of the coherence of Christology except as they prompted a deepening and development of the faith of Christians (just as Celsus did for Origen or Friedrich Nietzsche did for some twentieth-century theologians).


The Poets’ Incarnation 1 – Fr. Edward T. Oakes S.J.

December 19, 2013
For this above all is the basis of Christianity: Christology is a truth about God, just as the Trinity is a truth about Jesus.

For this above all is the basis of Christianity: Christology is a truth about God, just as the Trinity is a truth about Jesus.

Last Saturday it was with great sadness that we reblogged from First Things the news of the passing and the short tribute to Fr. Edward T. Oakes. I’ve been scouring about for some piece of his writing that would capture not only his scholastic rigor but his extraordinary breadth of learning and perception. I think I’ve done pretty good here – the introduction to his 2009 book Infinity Dwindled to Infancy. In the opening chapter and the introduction I am posting here, Oakes develops a theme that runs throughout the book, namely, the paradoxical nature of the incarnation.

According to Oakes, this paradox has often been captured best by Christian poets.  Indeed the title of Oakes’ book is taken from a poem by nineteenth-century Jesuit priest and poet Gerald Manly Hopkins. For Oakes, attempts to explain away the paradox of the incarnation run the risk of heresy. The mystery of God becoming man — the infinite becoming finite — is, in a sense, a datum known only to faith.  It is in this sense that Oakes intends his volume to be “evangelical”: he is seeking to develop a Christology from within the faith rather than an apologetic addressed to those outside of the faith.


A key has no logic to its shape. Its logic is: it turns the lock.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy


“Christology,” as the two roots “Christ” and “-ology” embedded in the word indicate, means the study (or science) of Jesus Christ, just as “biology” means the science of life, and “psychology” the science of the soul or mind. But the resemblances of these various “-ology” words can be deceptive. For most sciences regard themselves as publicly accessible, accessible precisely because their field of study is recognized by all. Everyone, after all, knows what life is and what a mind is (one’s own, if no one else’s).

To be sure, some people — called materialists — deny that there is anything special about life, which for them results only from the accidental concatenation of chemicals into ever more complex forms (indeed, for them chemicals are themselves just complex arrangements of atoms). Similarly, materialists regard consciousness or mind as but the exhalation of electricity in the brain (“the brain secretes thoughts the way the liver secretes bile,” as one materialist put it).

But still, even the most hardened materialist recognizes that the very complexity of organisms and of the human mind requires a shift in methodology and of scientific discipline when one studies a frog instead of a stone, or decides to examine the breakdown in a marriage instead of the formation of a galaxy. Here, at least, agreement is both fundamental and universal: biology and psychology are true sciences because their respective fields of investigation are open and accessible to all rational beings.

But not with Jesus Christ. Here the “science” of Christ becomes accessible only to believers, that is, to people who confess that an itinerant rabbi in first-century Galilee was also “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” How can that be? Such is the problem set before that branch of theology called “Christology.”

Even a cursory glance at the history of this branch of theology shows that the fundamental problem running through all Christological thought centers on this juxtaposition of the infinite with the finite. But as we have just seen, that problem has a problem of its own: the problem of the infinite-becoming-finite in Jesus of Nazareth is recognized only by Christian believers. In fact, non-Christians stand outside the precincts of Christianity precisely because they deny that Jesus is (at least in any proper, strict sense of the word) the very enfleshment of God.

Let us, however, leave aside (at least for a while) this preliminary, propaedeutic problem of Christology’s inaccessibility to the non-Christian. The scientific status of Christology is problematic inside the realm of Christian faith too. This is because, for believers, there still lurks a more fundamental conceptual problem: How could the supposedly unchanging, eternal God become anything else?

After all, the word “become” usually denotes change in time.

[Just as the verb "to be" has, from the time of Parmenides, been taken to be the main verb denoting stasis, so "to become" is the quintessential verb for denoting change, of whatever type. Of course there are all kinds of change, from such "weak" types of becoming as when we say, "Socrates is becoming wiser by the day," to such "strong" examples as when the Biology textbook says, "the tadpole became a frog" or when the Brothers Grimm tell us that he pumpkin became a carriage. The first type denotes the becoming of growth from latent potential to full actuality; the latter is the becoming of metamorphosis. But neither sense can apply to God strictly speaking, since first, as Pure Act, God has no potential left to fulfill, and second, because if the Logos of God, as we say, "turned into" a man, he would no longer be God, anymore than a frog is still a tadpole or the carriage has any "pumpkinhood" left in it. Yet the Bible uses that verb explicitly when it says "the Word became flesh" (John 1:14), and so the paradox remains.]

Moreover, what God has “become” in Christian doctrine is not just something else, something conceptually opposite to the infinite and un-changing deity. More crucially, God has become a member of the very race that should be worshiping that changeless God. Among other consequences, this becoming of God “into” a man seems to shift worship away from the eternal God to one of the members of the human race, who as a member of that race should supposedly be worshiping, not being worshiped.

So here is the dilemma: How can the infinite become finite without losing its infinity? Can such a question even be meaningfully asked without lapsing into hopeless contradiction? In other words, how do we develop a Christology without thereby violating the central logical axiom of all sciences without exception, Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction? Put even more glaringly (to use the striking line of the nineteenth-century Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins that is both the epigram for this book and the inspiration for its title), what does it mean for God’s infinity to “dwindle” to infancy?

Of this baffling paradox at least we can say this: Christian poets have qualms with the paradoxes of Christology; indeed, they seem to wallow in it. Take, for example, the poem “The Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” by Christopher Smart (1722-71):

God all-bounteous, all-creative,
Whom no ills from good dissuade,
Is incarnate, and a native
Of the very world he made.
Christopher Smart, “Hymn 32,” in The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, ed. Donald Davie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 182-83.

Or this Christmas poem, “New Prince, New Pomp,” from the Jesuit Robert Southwell (1561-95), martyred during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I:

Behold, a silly tender babe
In freezing winter night
In homely manger trembling lives:
Alas! a piteous sight.

Despise him not for lying there;
First what he is inquire:
An orient pearl is often found
In depth of dirty mire.

This stable is a Prince’s court,
The crib his chair of state,
The beasts are parcel of his pomp,
The wooden dish his plate.

With joy approach, O Christian wight, [wight: fellow]
Do homage to thy King;
And highly praise this humble pomp
Which he from heaven doth bring.
Robert Southwell, “New Prince, New Pomp,” in The New Oxford Book of ChristianVerse, pp 51-52.

Christmas has often sent Christian poets on these paradoxical flights of fancy, even in modern times, as in John Betjeman’s poem “Christmas,” the last three stanzas of which speak frankly of the odd juxtaposition of corny sifts around the Yule tree with the real miracle of the Incarnation:

And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No caroling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was Man in Palestine

And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.
John Betjeman, “Christmas,” in Collected Poems

The Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century made such Christological juxtapositions and paradoxes their metier, from George Herbert’s ‘The Son” (“For what Christ once in humbleness began / We him in glory :all, The Son of Man”) to John Donne’s “Upon the Annunciation and Passion ,Falling upon One Day, 1608,”[In 1608 Good Friday, set by the lunar calendar, occurred on March 25, the annual solar date of the Feast of the Annunciation, a perfect occasion for Donne to reflect on the juxtaposition of these two mysteries.] where he calls Mary “at once receiver and the legacy,” a paradox that shows that “death and conception in mankind is one.”

Even more poignant is his more simply titled poem “Annunciation,” a lovely meditation on the paradox of infinity gestating in the womb of the Virgin:

Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is All everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
So, faithful Virgin, yields himself to lie In prison, in thy womb .. .

… who is thy Son and Brother;
Whom thou conceiv’st, conceiv’d; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and shut’st in little room
Immensity, cloistered in thy dear womb.
John Donne, Annunciation, in John Donne’s Poetry.

And finally my favorite, an anonymous poem from the fifteenth century, called, appropriately enough, “The Divine Paradox”:

A God and yet a man?

A maid and yet a mother?
Wit wonders that wit can
Conceive this or the other.
A God, and can he die?
A dead man, can he live?
What wit can well reply?
What reason reason give?
God, truth itself, does teach it;
Man’s wit sinks too far under
By reason’s power to reach it.
Believe and leave to wonder.
From Religious Lyrics of the Fifteenth Century, ed. Carleton Brown (Oxford University Press,1939), P. 187 (spelling modernized).

Ah, but that is just what Christology has refused to do: just believe and wonder. Christology would never have arisen if Christians had decided only to wonder and to leave it at that. Both Plato and Aristotle said that philosophy is born in wonder, but the same holds for theology as well. Reason was to give reasons for believing what goes beyond reason. Reason wants to understand. That is its function in the human mind.

And if that same mind is believing mind, its reason will want to understand what it itself has been prompted by faith to believe. And so if theology is ultimately faith seeking understanding, what is faith called upon to understand? Nothing less than this: an infinite God who is a finite man, a virgin who is a mother, a God who dies, a dead man who lives, a baby born into the very world it made, a prince who is a pauper, in short, Infinity dwindled to infancy.

[Thomas Aquinas too tried his hand at poetry from time to time, and we are not surprised to find in his efforts the same chiasmic paradoxes that characterize the best of Christian poetry, as here from the second stanza of his poem Adora Te Devote, Latens Deltas: Visus, tactus, gustus, in to fallitur;/ Sed auditu solo tuto creditur./ Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius./ Nil hoc verbo veritatis verius. "Sight and touch and taste here fail;/ Hearing only can be believed. I trust what God's own Son has said./ Truth from truth is best received." In The Aquinas Prayer Book: The Prayers and Hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Robert Anderson and Johann Moser (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2000), p. 68.] These are the problems of faith seeking understanding — and for that same reason, these are the problems of Christology too, which come in several guises.

Take, for example, the problem of time. Here I am not just referring to the knotty philosophical problem of the eternal-becoming-temporal. More crucially, the question of time raises the question of salvation-history, indeed of salvation itself: If Jesus came to save the whole world but was born, as all human beings are, in one period of history and not another, how do his saving effects reach out to all those who came before him or to those who could never have heard of him after his birth due to geographical limitations and different civilizational presuppositions?

The second-century pagan philosopher Celsus raised this objection just as the Christian religion was beginning to spread throughout the Roman Empire: If Christ came to save all, why was he born in such a backwater province of the Empire and so obscurely known by his contemporaries? So natural and obvious is this objection that missionaries often encounter it. For example, Francis Xavier had to face exactly the same question that Celsus had hurled at Christian apologists like Origen:

If God was merciful, why had he not revealed himself to the Japanese before the priests came from Tenjiku? And if it was true, as they taught, that those who do not worship God go to hell, God had had no mercy on their ancestors, since he had let them go to hell without granting them a knowledge of himself.
[Georg Schurhammer, Francis Xavier: His Life and Times (Rome: Jesuit Historical In-,t lute, 1982), vol. 4, p. 222. As Celsus saw, the temporal particularity of the incarnation also entails spatial particularity, a point addressed by Thomas Aquinas when he took up the question why Jesus was born in Bethlehem: "If He had chosen the great city of Rome, change in the world would be ascribed to the influence of her citizens. If He had been son of the Emperor, His benefits would have been attributed to the latter's power. But we might acknowledge the work of God in the transformation of the whole earth, He cI a poor mother and a birthplace poorer still. `But the weak things of the world hath God sen, that He may confound the strong' [r Cor. 1:27]. Summa theologiae III q.35 a.7 ad]

This problem, as we shall discover, is part of what may be called soteriological problem. Another problem that must also be touched on be called the psychological problem, that is, the problem of the mind or consciousness of Jesus: If he is God, does he think God’s thoughts? Does think only God’s thoughts? That is, has the divine Logos (the Greek word “logos” can in certain contexts mean “mind”) replaced the human soul of Jesus, or what would have been the human soul of Jesus had he been conceived in the normal way?

What did Jesus know? Could he foretell the future? Did he know all the languages of the world? How did he pray? Did he fear death? Did he know that he would rise from the dead? Was he always aware of his union with God? Did he have a direct vision of God (the “beatific vision” at all times, so that in effect he dwelt in heaven while he was on earth? What kind of awareness did he have of his mission?

Was he suffused with a messianic consciousness; and if so, when did it come upon him? Did he plan to found a church, or did he expect the end of the world in his lifetime? What did he think was the purpose of his death? Did he despair? Did he think death would provoke the end of the world? What did he think of the Judaism of his time? How did he relate to it? Did he expect to found a new religion only to reform Judaism from within?

Related to these questions is the epistemological or historical-critical problem. If the psychological questions about Jesus’ self-conscious have answers (and perhaps they don’t), how are we to discover them? (documents written almost two thousand years ago provide answers to such questions, especially if the authors of those documents did not pose the questions in a modern way?

Furthermore, does it distort the answers these essentially historical questions if faith brings to bear its presuppositions on the question of history, or is faith the only door that can give us true access to the mind and mission of Jesus? And in either case, what role does historical research, whether faith-based or not, have to contribute? Is it a threat? An aid? Or is it more than a mere aid; is it simply downright inc pensable, perhaps the only standard at all for answering these questions In other words, if Christology is, as we have previously asserted, a “science” peculiar to belief, what does history contribute? What if the historian is an atheist, an agnostic, a Jew, a Muslim, a classicist, a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, a scoffer?

And then of course there is the aforementioned philosophical problem, one so beloved of the poets: How can infinite and finite be equated? How can the eternal become the temporal? How can a baby born into the world be worshiped as the Creator of that world? How can the One enter the world of the Many? the Unchanging into the world of change? the Immortal One into the world of death? And finally, how can these paradoxes be protected from the charge of outright contradiction, so that theology does not become a kind of high-grade chatter about square circles and married bachelors? Can paradoxes yield a form of truth that outright contradictions cannot?

Finally, there is the trinitarian problem. Gradually, with the increased specialization of theology over the centuries, the theology of the Trinity began to be treated separately from Christology; and indeed there are issues (such as the procession of the Holy Spirit) best dealt with on their own terms, distinct from Christology. But it is a fact of Christian revelation that the church only came to know of the triune God in Christ, and correlatively only knew of Christ’s saving work in terms of it being a Trinitarian event.

The mutuality of Christ and Trinity emerges in the church’s consciousness as early as St. Peter’s first sermon on Pentecost, when the first apostle speaks of God making Jesus both “Lord and Christ” in the resurrection, who “has received from the Father the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:36, 33). Although the center of gravity of this book (Infinity Dwindled to Infancy) rests more on issues pertaining to the identity of Christ, we will also see how intimately those questions are affected by decisions regarding the Trinity, and how much those decisions will in turn affect later christological debate.

For this above all is the basis of Christianity: Christology is a truth about God, just as the Trinity is a truth about Jesus.

["In the `bad old days' one could write a christological study and largely leave out the Trinity, and -- vice versa -- one could write a trinitarian study that made little or no reference to Jesus of Nazareth." Gerald O'Collins, S.J., "The Holy Trinity: The State of the Question," in The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity, ed. Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, S.J., Gerald O'Collins, S.J. (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1999), pp.1-25; here 3. This approach is now almost universally regarded as impossible; hence the axiom cited above. For example: "In Bonaventure's thought the Trinity and Christology are inseparably intertwined. It is the mystery of Christ that leads us to the Trinity; and the Trinitarian concept of God is developed as a function of Christology." Zachary Hayes, O.F.M., introduction to Disputed Questions on the Mystery of the Trinity, in Works of Saint Bonaventure, ed. George Marcil, O.F.M. (New York: Franciscan Institute, 1979), vol. 3, pp. 30-31. What holds true of Bonaventure will prove true of nearly all the theologians treated in this study.]

Indeed, one can rightly say that Christology is a sapiential “science” that only becomes possible in and by the Holy Spirit: according to Paul, “No one can say `Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1Corinthians. 12:3). As the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Ignatius of Latakia said at the Assembly of World Council of Churches in 1968:

Without the Holy Spirit God Is Far Away
“Without the Holy Spirit God is far away.
Christ stays in the past,
The Gospel is simply an organization,
Authority is a matter of propaganda,
The Liturgy is no more than an evocation,
Christian loving a slave mentality.
But in the Holy Spirit …
The cosmos is resurrected and grows with the birth pangs of the kingdom.
The Risen Christ is there,
The Gospel is the power of life,
The Church shows forth the life of the Trinity,
Authority is a liberating service,
Mission is a Pentecost,
The Liturgy is both renewal and anticipation,
Human action is deified.”

Available online from at  translation emended. Other sites vary the wording slightly.


Father Edward Oakes, S.J.

December 7, 2013
He will be dearly missed.

He will be dearly missed.

Reblogged from First Things


Father Edward Oakes, S.J., distinguished theologian, gifted writer and teacher, generous ecumenist, and our friend, has died of pancreatic cancer at 8:00 this morning. The announcement from the Academy of Catholic Theology, of which Father Oakes was president, reports:

Father Oakes entered the Society of Jesus in 1966, and was ordained a priest in 1979.  He received his doctorate in theology from Union Theological Seminary in 1987.  He taught at New York University,

Regis University, and Mundelein Seminary, where he was deeply loved and valued by his colleagues, students, and indeed everyone on the staff as well.

He was a major contributor to the ecumenical magazine First Things on theological and scientific topics, and a longtime close friend of Father Richard John Neuhaus.  For close to two decades he was an influential member of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.  He was a founding member of the Academy of Catholic Theology and was elected president of the Academy in May 2013.

A deeply cultured man, Father Oakes enlivened everything of which he was a part by his penetrating intelligence and warm, friendly spirit.  He was an esteemed translator of the works of Hans Urs von Balthasar and others. He was the author and editor of important works such as Infinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic and Evangelical Christology, Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, and The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar.

To say that Father Oakes will be sorely missed is a profound understatement.  Let us pray for his soul as he enters into the infinitely loving communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as an adopted son in Jesus Christ!

Many of us here got to know him through Evangelicals and Catholics Together and his occasional visits to the office. Father Ed was a witty and entertaining guest, the kind who enlivens dinner parties, but also a man of weight and insight, the kind who deepens dinner parties — and then enlivens them again. The enlivening and deepening expressed not just his gifts and personality (both of which were large) but his concern for people (which was also large), that is, his character. He will be missed, on many levels.

We commend him to your prayers.

A collection of Fr. Oakes writings are here. Scroll all the way to the bottom for the first post.


Reason Enraptured 2 — Edward T. Oakes

June 21, 2013
Color, spawned by light and carried by its waves, also creates contrasts. Colors can be complementary, which means that they are opposite each other on the color wheel. These pairs of colors, when placed beside each other, tend to vibrate and contrast thus adding interest and tension to scenes. Yellow and purple, green and red, and orange and blue are some of the key examples. Sunsets are especially beautiful because these complements crash into each other, crescendoing a scene to new heights of beauty.

Color, spawned by light and carried by its waves, also creates contrasts. Colors can be complementary, which means that they are opposite each other on the color wheel. These pairs of colors, when placed beside each other, tend to vibrate and contrast thus adding interest and tension to scenes. Yellow and purple, green and red, and orange and blue are some of the key examples. Sunsets are especially beautiful because these complements crash into each other, crescendoing a scene to new heights of beauty.

Commending the theological project of Hans Urs von Balthasar A reblog of a First Things article I liked. Edward T. Oakes, S.J., is professor of systematic theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago. A longer version of this article appears in The Routledge Companion to Modern Christian Thought.


The Concept Of “Trinitarian  Inversion”
Ever since Nicaea, it has been received orthodox doctrine that the persons of the Trinity share equally in the divinity. Arius was wrong: No ranking of persons is permitted. Yet Jesus frankly avers that “the Father is greater than I,” and Mark describes Jesus as being driven into the desert by the Spirit. Although the terminology of immanent and economic Trinity comes from the nineteenth century, the distinction goes back to the patristic distinction between “theology” (God considered “in himself”) and “economy” (the Trinity acting in salvation history).

Drawing on this distinction, Balthasar concludes: “Whereas in the immanent Trinity the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (or through the Son), [in the economy] the Son becomes man through the Spirit and is led by this same Spirit in his mission. As the one who placed himself under the will of the Father in his act of self-emptying, he lets the Spirit, made available by the Father (and who also proceeds from the Father), have power over him as a ‘rule’ of the Father’s will.”

The Son “does this in order to permit this Spirit resting upon him in all fullness to stream out from himself at the end of his mission in death and resurrection (and Eucharist). And the direction of this outpouring goes both to the Father (‘into your hands . . .’) as well as to the Church and world (‘and so he breathed on them’).”

While this perspective is entirely traditional, Balthasar insists that theology has still not grasped its full implications. He tends to look askance at past approaches to Trinitarian  theology, which began with treatments of God’s oneness (de Deo uno) and only later took up the specifics of Trinitarian  relations (de Deo trino). For him that approach can make it seem as if God’s Trinitarian identity is something secondary, or even something that feels true only for Christians. It is at best misleading, for example, to say that God is love only because God first exists. Rather, the divine persons exist as love; they do not love because they happen to exist. In traditional terminology, Trinitarian relations are subsistent relations.

Of course theo-drama is not merely a matter of God’s Yes to the plight of sinful humanity. Human beings must also respond with their own personal Yes or No — which is often a resounding No to God’s irrevocable Yes. But there is at least one example of a human being born into the drama of salvation who spoke her own total Yes to the Incarnation: the mother of Jesus. This leads to the next important motif in Balthasar’s vast work: his theology of Mary, whom the (Protestant) poet William Wordsworth called “our tainted nature’s solitary boast,” a woman not “the least shade of thought to sin allied.”

Traditionally, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception spoke of Mary as being free from any “stain” of sin (macula being the Latin word for blot or stain), which links it, at least by implication, with Old Testament purity laws. But Balthasar sees the doctrine more in terms of an unmerited prior grace, that is, of God’s radical inbreaking into salvation history via a totally human Yes to his prior divine Yes:

Somewhere on earth there must ring out, in response to his word, not a half answer but a whole one, not a vague answer but an exact one.  . . By the power of heaven, the earth must accept the arrival of grace so that it can really come to earth and carry out its work of liberation . . . [via] a word of consent [that] can only be given to earth from heaven’s treasure house of love.

Although this doctrine is rejected by Protestants, Balthasar’s approach dovetails quite nicely with the Reformation stress on sola gratia: salvation by grace alone. One can hardly “merit” grace, after all, until one first exists; but Mary received this special grace, by definition, at her conception.

Furthermore, far from denying Christ’s unique and irreplaceable role in effecting salvation, this doctrine, properly interpreted, relies on it:

“God’s action in reconciling the world to himself in the Cross of Christ is exclusively his initiative: There is no original ‘collaboration’ between God and the creature,” Balthasar insists. But the creature’s “femininity” possesses an original, God-given, active fruitfulness; it was essential, therefore, if God’s Word willed to become incarnate in the womb of a woman, to elicit the latter’s agreement and obedient consent. . . . But where did the grace that made this consent possible come from — a consent that is adequate and therefore genuinely unlimited — if not from the work of reconciliation itself, that is, from the Cross? (And of course the Cross is rendered possible only through Mary’s consent.)

This he describes as “a circle — in which the effect is the cause of the cause,” one that required centuries of reflection before it could be articulated in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

Balthasar’s provocation is that he implies that the denial of the dogma encourages a kind of Pelagian Mariology. For if Mary had been tainted by sin, there would have to be in her an element of struggle against sin, one born of her own natural powers, which would imply a blemish of works-righteousness in her assent. Not of course that the singular grace she received made her less free; for it has been the consistent doctrine of the Church (especially those most heavily influenced by St. Augustine) that the freedom to sin is no freedom at all. Mary’s Yes to God in her fiat is entirely free precisely because it is entirely a graced assent.

For that same reason, Mary can be called “Mother of the Church,” for the Church’s true identity must also include being the “spotless and pure bride” spoken of by St. Paul, a Church “without stain, wrinkle, or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Such does not currently obtain, of course, in the Church that Augustine called a corpus mixtum, but it is surely the Church that Christ intends and that was accordingly instantiated at the first moment of the earthly existence of his mother, who thereby becomes the Church’s truest identity.

Christ’s Church must also, of course — even in her empirical reality and despite her ongoing sinfulness — reflect in herself somethingof that same holiness Paul speaks of. This holiness is “guaranteed,” so to speak, in the ecclesial structures established by Christ. According to Balthasar, Christian discipleship must live out and reflect Christ’s love, a love that went “to the end,” as John says. “Definitiveness is inherent in self-surrender,” Balthasar explains. “A self-surrender that is temporary is not a genuine self-surrender; at best it is but a preliminary, tentative, experimental stage — a prelude to genuine self-surrender.”

Such definitive commitment is reflected in the Church in two ways: the ordained ministry (the call to which entails a lifelong commitment) and a vowed life of following the evangelical counsels in a religious order or some similar foundation (like the so-called “secular institutes,” one of which Balthasar founded with the physician Adrienne von Speyr). The two states can overlap, of course, in the case of orders comprised mostly of priests, but the distinction between the two states of life is important and goes all the way back to the behavior of John and Peter at the tomb of Jesus on Easter Sunday.

“The priestly state,” writes Balthasar, “requires the closer following of Christ only indirectly by reason of the office it confers, whereas the evangelical state requires it directly by reason of the personal way of life it entails. . . . This latter state of life has its source wholly in the cross of Christ and is, therefore, solely his foundation. It is possible as a way of life only after Christ, its model, had walked the way of redemption.”

This does not in any way imply a lesser dignity to the lay state, as if the laity were some undifferentiated mass from which a few select chosen ones are called. (Before the Second Vatican Council, Catholics who entered a convent, monastery, or seminary were often said to have “entered religion” or “entered the Church,” a usage that has fortunately fallen by the wayside.) For laypeople, too, know a life of the vowed state, in marriage, which Paul explicitly likens to the marriage of Christ to his bride, the Church. Vows, in other words, are an essential aspect of Christian discipleship. Balthasar sees that true love wants to pledge itself to lifelong commitment: “We do not have to urge love to action, but rather to restrain it.” And this will be true no matter what the state of life might be in which the Christian lives: lay, religious, or priestly.

Rejection of the call to commitment is of course always possible, and Balthasar can be quite unsparing when he portrays the consequences of a call rejected: unfilial children, quiet desperation in one’s profession, ceaseless carping at the flaws in the Church, and so forth. But behind these refusals, there lurks a deeper rejection at work in history: the one that rejects out of hand Christ’s claim to absolute singularity, which brings up the final motif, his eschatology and his idea of the “crescendoing No.”

Balthasar has often been accused of Origenism because of his radical insistence that all rebellion against God has already been anticipated, expiated, and absorbed by God’s all-trumping love in the fires of Christ’s descent into hell on Holy Saturday. Such an accusation, however, can be sustained only by ignoring important texts in his corpus that argue the contrary. True, he has no patience with any doctrine of limited atonement or double predestination, an impatience that emerged most clearly in his influential book on Karl Barth, who famously held that the one who was truly predestined and reprobated was Christ on the cross.

Balthasar also openly insists that revelation has not vouchsafed us any “information” about the final outcome of theo-drama. Contrary to Augustine’s views, one may not extrapolate from salvation history (Abel, not Cain; Jacob, not Esau; Israel, not the nations; Peter, not Judas) to any certain judgment about the ultimate fate of the human race. Here his hostility to “system” comes to special prominence. Moreover, the Church prays for the salvation of all mankind in her liturgy, which would be wrong to do if the outcome were already known. Therefore, we must hope for the salvation of all, even if that is the “hope against hope” Paul describes in Romans.

But hope is not the same thing as expectation. The Church, as the body of Christ and therefore as the continuation of his presence on earth, is bound to elicit opposition and persecution, which will not only continue but will build to a crescendo as history moves to its culmination in the Last Assizes:

“In making his provocative claim to have reconciled the world in God, Jesus never suggested that he was creating an earthly paradise. The kingdom of God will never be externally demonstrable (Luke 17:21); it grows, invisibly, perpendicular to world history, and the latter’s fruits are already in God’s barns.” Man tries to create the kingdom of God on earth, but the “power that resists the powerlessness of the Cross” will destroy itself, “for it bears the principle of self-annihilation within it by saying No to the claim of Christ.

And so we are brought to the following formulation, extravagant though it may seem: Mankind’s self-destruction is the only foreseeable end to the world, left to itself, and the only end it deserves, insofar as it prefers to hoard what is its own (power, mammon) rather than to gather with Christ. It has already decided its own fate.”

Far from being optimistic about the world, then, Balthasar is in fact ominously apocalyptic in his vision of the outcome of history. Once Christ enters human history, rejection of him entails an absolutizing of the relative. Death is staved off with a mania for pleasure, health clubs, and advanced medical technology (terminating, ironically enough, in physician-assisted suicide); falling in love becomes a substitute for loving God with one’s whole heart, soul, and mind (as when Juliet calls her Romeo “the god of my idolatry”); and devotion to art leads to the type of man Søren Kierkegaard described, trapped in the aesthetic sphere, so bored with life that he wakes up one day to find himself dead.

No wonder atheism has become so aggressive of late. “Human reason, in its secularizing role in world history,” Balthasar writes, “prevents those who reject Jesus’ provocation from returning to a ‘numinous’ worldview in which the divine and worldly commingle, unseparated.” This creates the conditions for what he calls “post-Christian atheism”:

For when nature is deprived of divinity, the presence of the Creator within it fades. To the observer who sees matters only in terms of the useful, God disappears into the background. This is a natural process, and to it corresponds the claim of Jesus to be “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) — a claim that attracts to itself and concentrates all the religious aspirations of mankind.

Jesus’ declaration that “no one comes to the Father except by me” does not, Balthasar continues, “deny the ultimate salvation of all who do not know him and adhere to other religions; [but] he is saying that the latter religions do not mediate salvation: He alone does.” This affects the other religions themselves. When this teaching becomes “sufficiently well known to mankind, the other religions (those that still remain) are bound to acquire a certain anti-Christian slant. They will try to appropriate all the features of the religion of Jesus that seem to commend it to mankind.”

One great advantage I draw from reading Balthasar comes from the way his theology makes sense of the current situation. Every fair observer of the contemporary scene recognizes the fierce persecution Christians are now facing from two fronts: from aggressively secular societies of the former Christian lands and from countries with Muslim majorities. Even inside the world of Christian theology, relativizing the claims of Christ has now become the order of the day. Balthasar’s theology of the crescendoing No, in my opinion, best accounts for this dolorous situation. Furthermore, by insisting that the claims of and for Christ be taken on their own terms, freed from any mitigating ministrations by liberals inside and outside the precincts of the Church, he has given a solid theological basis for the New Evangelization.

Finally, I must also add his efforts to fuse Christian spirituality with the rigors of a dogmatic theology that can draw on the vast treasures of the Christian tradition. According to Balthasar, theology made a fateful split between devotional and dogmatic theology with the advent of universities in the high Middle Ages, when “school theology” (scholasticism) injected a new scientific rigor into theological method. While beneficial in many ways, this move to the university made theology arcane to the ordinary Christian, while so-called “spiritual” writers such as Thomas à Kempis poured scorn on a life of learning as detrimental to the devout life. Fortunately, in Balthasar rigor and devotion have been reunited. As Pascal says, “Pious scholars are rare.” But they do occasionally appear.

I predict that Hans Urs von Balthasar will continue to be read for as long as Christians draw sustenance from theology.


Reason Enraptured — Edward T. Oakes

June 20, 2013
God is Love on a stele (a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide, erected for funerals or commemorative purposes) at Mt. Nebo thought to be the site of Moses death.

God is Love on a stele (a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide, erected for funerals or commemorative purposes) at Mt. Nebo thought to be the site of Moses death.

Commending the theological project of Hans Urs von Balthasar. A reblog of a First Things article.


Anyone who tries to evaluate the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar faces not only the sheer size of his work and his vast erudition but his great subtlety. To add to these difficulties, what he says in one book or passage he will often balance and qualify later on, even in the same book, and he expressed hostility to — or at least wariness toward — any attempt to systematize Christian revelation, so much so that he is often accused of being too daring in his speculations, of “flamboyance” and taking a “God’s-eye view” of things.

Despite his undoubted speculative flair and genuine elusiveness, one can still discern certain patterns in his thought (“pattern” was a key word in his work, borrowed from Goethe and Gestalt psychology). From those patterns one may detect something that in other theologians would be called a method.

He is most famous for his fifteen-volume theological trilogy, The Glory of the Lord (on theological aesthetics, in seven volumes), Theo-Drama (on the drama of salvation, in five), and Theo-Logic (theology proper, in three). Each part attempts to transpose the entirety of Christian theology into one of the three “Platonic transcendentals,” the beautiful, the good, and the true. (They are called “transcendental” because they transcend the particularities of each individual being: In other words, the quality of beauty or truth is something greater than a beautiful painting or a true statement.)

The order of the trilogy is crucial, he insisted. One must first perceive Christian revelation as beautiful and only then would one’s soul be prompted to follow Christ in a dramatic life of Christian discipleship. Finally, once inside that life of obedience to Christ, one comes to see how and why Christianity is true. If one starts with the question of the truth of Christian revelation, one must engage in apologetic arguments. But for Balthasar, argument just gets in the way of the contemplative gaze necessary for the first movement of perception. The spark of delight moves us to seek God.

Theology done in the reverse order can reinforce rather than overcome impediments to faith. Today’s rampant secularization is due, at least in part, to modernity’s habit of looking at things through the wrong end of the telescope. Influenced by Descartes and Kant, most theology in modernity has started with questions of truth (like apologetics and the justification for theological claims) and then set forth the ethical obligations incumbent upon the Christian, with aesthetics treated, when it was treated at all, as a mere embellishment. This approach proved to be sterile. Balthasar sees a role for apologetics but argues that unless the theologian is first enraptured by revelation his arguments will ring hollow. In other words, the order must be: contemplative, kerygmatic, dialogic.

An example drawn from a preacher’s homily preparation can explain what Balthasar means. The preacher first meditates earlier in the week on the passages from Scripture assigned for that Sunday. After this contemplative moment, in which the preacher (one hopes) is absorbed in the beauty of revelation, there comes the time for preaching, which elicits from the congregation an inherently dramatic response, either Yes or No, requiring from the preacher his own response to their possible objections (here is where apologetics has its role to play).

St. Paul serves as a model here. First enraptured by his encounter with Christ and taken up into the third heaven, he launches on a life of evangelization, proclaiming the resurrection of Christ, at which point those who subscribe to other philosophies and worldviews “began to dispute with him.” For Balthasar, apologetics must come last: Only after one has gazed on revelation and responded by saying “yes” to the proclamation can real apologetics begin.

Inside the depths of his great theological trilogy, other patterns and consistent motifs also begin to emerge — above all, Balthasar’s resolute Christocentrism, his insistence on the priority of Christ as Savior over against any other founder of a world religion or philosophy. Like his friend Joseph Ratzinger, he resolutely opposed any attempt to relativize the claim of Christ to be the way to salvation. Thus, although he spent little time working out the implications of his theology for interreligious dialogue, he emphatically insists that Jesus Christ cannot be subsumed into some wider, overarching category like “founder of a world religion.”

Jesus is unique, descriptively considered, especially in his claim to be “the way, the truth, and the life.” Other founders of a religion or a philosophy have only claimed to be a way to the truth, not the very embodiment of truth itself. Buddhism is particularly insistent on this point: “The finger that points to the moon is not the moon,” goes a traditional koan (a kind of mantra used for focusing meditation).

But what does it mean for someone to claim not just to be the way to the truth but to be the truth? Taken at first glance, the claim seems preposterous. How can one human being, born in history and destined to die a few decades later, claim to be the Logos through whom the universe was created? How could anyone be so presumptuous as to say, “Before Abraham was, I am”? In what other religion are such bizarre claims made by and of its founder?

Christ claims what Balthasar calls an absolute singularity. In attempting to come to terms with so startling and counterintuitive a claim, we are not without helpful analogies in daily life. What he calls relative singularities involve phenomena that manage to encompass more than just their own particular identities — instances, that is, where meaning gets focused. His primary examples are: falling in love (where the lover concentrates the meaning of his or her life onto the existence and reciprocal love of the beloved), death (which forces each individual to determine the meaning of the world inside the confines of one’s own brief life), and great works of art (which far transcend the era in which they came into existence and, in their greatness, continue to inspire new insights and interpretations).

He offers Shakespeare as an analogy for the effect of Jesus’ singularity:

For a moment the contemporary world is taken aback, then people begin to absorb the work and to speak in the newly minted language (hence such terms as ‘the age of Goethe’ or ‘age of Shakespeare’) with a taken-for-granted ease as though they had invented it themselves. The unique word, however, makes itself comprehensible through its own self; and the greater a work of art, the more extensive the cultural sphere it dominates will be.

So far Balthasar has been using these relative singularities as a way of gaining conceptual access to Jesus’ claim to absolute singularity. To make that transition, one must enter directly into the claim itself and take it on its own terms. In doing so, one notices another pattern found in all four gospels but which is particularly vivid in the Gospel of John (the locus classicus for Balthasar’s Christology). This triadic pattern can be described either in narrative terms as ministry, cross, and resurrection, or in more abstract terms as provocation (the claim being inherently provocative, indeed absurd, to human reason), refutation (the people executing Jesus), and validation (God raising his Son from the dead).

In other words, Jesus had to die: “Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” Jesus’ claims about himself guarantee his execution. Moreover, that provocation and the opposition it elicited are by no means specific to Jesus’ time and place but are — precisely as a claim to absolute singularity — events that continue to reverberate in world history. “The Greek mind found it absurd that one of the products of the all-pervasive physis should equate itself with the generative matrix,” Balthasar writes. “Jewish thought found it even more incredible that a created man should predicate of himself the attributes proper to the Creator of the world and the Covenant Lord of Israel.”

This idea is still nonsense, to the modern evolutionary worldview. “On attempting to estimate the degree of provocation in such fantastic claims, we see clearly that any school of religious or philosophic thought must be surprised and further shocked by another statement in the same context: ‘They hated me without cause.’”

So extreme are these claims, and resistance to them so inevitable, that they can be made good, so to speak, only by God. It is not enough for Jesus’ claim to be antecedently true, as John 1:14 insists; it must also be made even more true in the event of the Resurrection, as Paul affirms in Romans when he writes that Christ “was established with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.”

Taking both sets of statements, Balthasar is able to explain how Jesus can be the one and only Savior of the human race (Acts 4:12) and yet also the atoning sacrifice for all sins and all sinners without exception (1 John 2:2), not just because of the claim itself or its validation in the Resurrection but above all because of Christ’s descent into hell. That is, this reality of Christ — singular in history yet infinite in the range of its effects — becomes true in the mystery of Holy Saturday, when Christ descended into the underworld “to preach to those spirits who disobeyed God long ago,” as 1 Peter puts it, launching a motif that became traditional in patristic theology and one that marks another key pattern in Balthasar’s theology:

Something equally crazy follows: All that Jesus is, his life and death taken together, manifests itself as the Absolute. . . . If the claim stands, the whole truth must also possess a ballast, an absolute counterweight that can be counterbalanced by nothing else; and because it is a question of truth, it must be able to show that it is so. The stone in the one pan of the scales must be so heavy that one can place in the other pan all the truth there is in the world, every religion, every philosophy, every complaint against God, without counterbalancing it. Only if that is true, is it worthwhile remaining a Christian today.

Christ must feel the fullest weight of sin and of death. The imagery is bold but also (despite claims to the contrary heard in some quarters) quite traditional. Thomas Aquinas, for example, says in his Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed that the first reason Christ descended into hell was “to suffer the entire punishment due to sin and thereby to atone all its guilt.” Balthasar’s own contribution to this theme comes in the way he explains how the Triune God can be involved in this event without jeopardizing the divine impassibility (the doctrine that God in himself does not suffer pain in the suffering of his Son), which brings us to the next important motif in his theology, his concept of “Trinitarian inversion.”


The Titles of Jesus: Jesus the Son of God and Jesus as God – Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

July 23, 2012

Heinrich Hofmann’s Christ In The Temple

The major titles the New Testament applies to Jesus are as follows: Prophet, Suffering Servant, High Priest, Messiah, Son of Man, Lord, Savior, Word, Son of God, and God. Far from being a mere litany of honorifics, these titles actually refer to different aspects of his work and identity. The Swiss New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann, from whom Oakes has drawn this list, has grouped the various titles into four rubrics: (1) the earthly work of Jesus, (2) the future work of Jesus, (3) His present work, and finally to (4) His pre-existence. In this sixth selection we will look at the title Jesus the Son of God and Jesus as God, the second and third of the titles dealing with the pre-existence of our Lord


Jesus the Son of God
“Son of God” is like “Son of Man” in this sense: it has both a generic meaning that could, at least theoretically, apply to any male human being (or by metonymy, to human beings of both sexes), especially if he is of a pious disposition; and it has a specific meaning with a specific theological connotation, especially when applied to Jesus. But in that regard, the role of these two terms is somewhat reversed. In patristic times, as we shall see, “Son of God” was the term that was taken to apply to Jesus’ divine status, while “Son of Man” was seen to refer to his humanity. However, as we saw in an earlier post, “Son of Man,” at least in some contexts, referred to a heavenly, eschatological figure who would come down on the clouds to inaugurate a new age.

Conversely, in Hebrew usage “Son of God,’ again in some contexts, could be an honorific title given to any pious Israelite, or even to the whole nation of Israel itself. “Son of God” is also unusual in contrast to “Son of Man” in that Jesus rarely uses the former term to describe himself, whereas the latter is constantly on his lips as self-description.

Similarly, in a pagan setting “son of (the) god” [Greek syntax requires the article "the" in front of the word "god" irrespective of whether the reference is to a pagan god or the God of monotheism. Also, small letters were not invented for Greek until about the eighth century of the Christian era, so no orthographic distinction could have been drawn in the ancient world between the monotheistic "God" and a polytheistic "god."] did not necessarily imply that a human being so called had some kind of Olympian genealogy: the usual term in Greek for such a person (like Achilles) would be theios aner (divine man) rather than uios tou theou (son of the god). In any case, such ambiguity would not obtain in Israel, where “son of God” would clearly be understood as an honorific title by virtue of the fact that God was confessed as Israel’s Father. Given the fact that the God of Israel is without pedigree, the sonship that binds Israel to God was clearly one not of biological lineage in the pagan manner but of obedience.

This linkage of the concepts of sonship and obedience explains why the Old Testament can apply the term “son of God” to the people of Israel as a whole, to Israel’s kings, and to persons specially commissioned by God, including angels. For example, Moses is commanded by God to say to Pharaoh, “Israel is my first-born son” (Exodus 4:22), and God speaks through Hosea saying “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea. 11:1); and even when Israel strays, the people are called “faithless sons” (Jeremiah 3:22), implying that even in disobedience God is still calling the people to repentance, lest the bond between God and Israel be irrevocably broken. Kings, too, are called “sons” by God: “I will be his father, and he shall be my son” (2 Samuel 7:14), says God of David; and in a royal coronation psalm much quoted by the early church we read: “You are my son, today I have begotten you” (Psalms 2:7). Angels too are called “sons of God” (Job 1:6; Psalms 29:1; Daniel 3:25, 28).

This wide range of usage in the Old Testament can create problems in the interpretation of Jesus as Son of God, because clearly the New Testament wants to link the idea of obedience and sonship in Jesus but also wants to insist that he is Son of God in a manner unique to him and unprecedented in Israel. A further complication comes from the fact that Jesus is called “Son of God” by both God (at Jesus’ baptism) and by Satan (during his temptations), making it apparently the appellation of choice for the “supernatural” actors in Jesus’ life.

When Jesus emerges from the River Jordan after being baptized by John, a voice resounds from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved” (Matthew 3:17) or “You are my Son, my Beloved” (Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). [FN: The voice from heaven repeats (more or less) these same words at the Transfiguration (including in Mark, who does not narrate in any detail the temptations): Matthew 17:5; Mark 97; Luke 9:35 (where the voice from heaven says "my Chosen One" instead of "my Beloved").]

Jesus is driven out by the Spirit into the desert to pray and fast for forty days and forty nights, at the end of which the devil comes to him with temptations that begin, “If you are the Son of God …” (Matthew 4:3, 6; Luke 4:3, 9). Both scenes stress the obedience of the Son, with the baptism suggesting a unique sonship and the temptations stressing Jesus’ refusal to see his sonship purely in terms of miraculous power but solely in terms of his mission.

FN: “The most important passages of the Synoptic Gospels in which Jesus appears as the Son of God show him precisely not as a miracle worker and savior like many others, but as one radically and uniquely distinguished from all other men. He knows that he is sent to all other men to fulfill his task in complete unity with the Father. This distinction, this isolation, means to Jesus not primarily miraculous power, but the absolute obedience of a son in the execution of a divine commission”
Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament

Moreover, when Peter confesses at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), Jesus explicitly says to him that “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but only my Father in heaven” (16:17), once again showing how Jesus’ unique sonship is a reality accessible only from a supernatural, not natural, perspective, a point Jesus stresses even more forcefully when he says, “All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27; with slight variations in wording in Luke 10:22).

The linkage between sonship and mission is consistently held throughout the New Testament, but there are variations of emphasis. One point to note as we look at these variations: as we already saw, in the Synoptic Gospels “Son of Man” is the favored self-designation of Jesus whereas “Lord” and “Christ” are the favored titles for Jesus by the confessing, post-Easter church. “Son of God,” however, is both a term that Jesus uses to refer to himself and is a confessional term of the church.

In fact Mark defines the entire purpose of his Gospel as one that wants to bring his readers to a faith in Jesus as Son of God: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God” (Mark in), and culminates his narration of the death of Jesus with the centurion’s confession at the cross: “Truly this was God’s Son” (Mark 15:39). The Johannine literature makes this confessional use of “Son of God” even more explicit: “No one who denies the Son has the Father. He who confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23).

Paul too sees the Son-title as explicitly confessional in a passage we have already seen: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God — the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who was a descendant of David according to the flesh and who through the Spirit of holiness was designated with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:1-4).

Another point to note: whereas Paul generally prefers “Lord” as his confessional term, John highlights “Son” above all other titles: for him it is the key to Jesus’ identity and mission. This term more than any other expresses Jesus’ unique relation to his Father and his unique mission, a mission to which he is totally obedient: “I do nothing on my own authority; … I seek not my own will but the will of the one who sent me” (John 5:30). Just like the Synoptic evangelists, John stresses that this unique relationship of Jesus to his Father cannot be perceived except by God’s revelation, as Cullmann deftly explains:

While witnesses can and must be produced to support other assertions, there can be no question of human witness for Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God.God himself is the only possible competent witness. Only he can validate this claim of oneness with himself. The claim to be the Son of God so bursts all human bonds that only this circular explanation is possible: the Father himself must attest that Jesus is the Son; on the other hand, this divine testimony must be given precisely in the Son.
Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament

Jesus as God
There can be no question that the New Testament is quite reticent about calling Jesus “God” outright, without further ado. Such reticence is understandable, for an explicit and unqualified designation of Jesus as God could sound polytheistic and mythological; or if “God” is meant monotheistically, to whom then is Jesus praying if he is already God simpliciter? On the other hand, a refusal to countenance calling Jesus “God” would lead to its own problems, underplaying and undercutting the unique bond that Jesus has with his Father, denigrating his divine status in favor of an excessive stress on his humanity.

We have already seen that the Fourth Evangelist has dealt with that theological dilemma in his prologue when he used Logos terminology: the Word was both with God and yet also was God (John 1:1). Furthermore, the obvious reticence of the New Testament in calling Jesus “God” can be exaggerated, for, as we have already seen, the title “Lord” was a specifically liturgical confession by which Christians addressed Jesus in worship. Still, passages that directly and without further ado designate Jesus as “God” are relatively rare, but no less significant for New Testament Christology on that account.

Outside of John 1:1 the most important passage would be the confession of doubting Thomas to Jesus on the Sunday after Easter, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28), a passage that “frames” the Fourth Gospel in just the way the centurion’s confession “This was truly the Son of God” (Mark 15:39) framed Mark’s Gospel about the Son of God. [The fact that the centurion's confession hearkens back to the opening line of Mark's Gospel just as Thomas's confession hearkens back to the opening line of John's Gospel shows how desperate Arius was in the third century when he claimed that Thomas's confession "My Lord and my God" was really only an expostulation on his part, expressing a surprised prayer, rather in the manner of an American teenager crying out "Ohmigod!"Arius's exegesis is clearly a case of special pleading.]

Paul too speaks of Jesus as “God”: “Put on the mind of Christ Jesus, who, being the very form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (Philemon 2:5-6); and he unambiguously asserts: “In him [Christ] the entire fullness of the Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). In the Letter to Titus Paul speaks of waiting “for that blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).[ An almost identical phrase appears in the Petrine corpus too: "From Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours" (2 Peter 1:1).]

Finally we may mention these perhaps ambiguous lines: “Of their race [the Jews] come the patriarchs, and from them comes Christ according to the flesh, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen” (Romans 9:5). [The ambiguity arises from the possibility that the word translated as "who" (referring to Christ) could instead mean "he" (referring to God), which would result in this translation: "Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them comes Christ according to the flesh, who is over all. God be praised!"]

Another potentially ambiguous passage from Paul speaks of “the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2) [The grammar of the Greek allows for the word "Christ" to modify either "mystery" or "God."].

More ambiguous is the line from Revelation: “He [Jesus] has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself” (Revelation 19:12), which may or may not be the sacred name of God. [Finally, mention should be made of two papyrus manuscripts p66 (published in 1956) and p75 (published in 1961). Both manuscripts give a variant reading for John 1:18, which most manuscripts read this way: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has made him known” (RSV). But these two papyri reproduce the verse to say: “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (NIV), or “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (NRSV).

The very ambiguity of these latter passages, together with their relative sparseness, points to one of the central problems that will beset the church’s later Christological thought: a too-close identification of Jesus with God will render both his obedience to the Father and his outward mission to the world inexplicable; but an excessive reticence, not to say cowardice, about worshiping Jesus as God will undercut the efficacy of his work of redemption and undermine a belief in his uniqueness that it is the whole point of every book in the New Testament to convey.


Titles of Jesus: Jesus the Word – Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

July 20, 2012

The major titles the New Testament applies to Jesus are as follows: Prophet, Suffering Servant, High Priest, Messiah, Son of Man, Lord, Savior, Word, Son of God, and God. Far from being a mere litany of honorifics, these titles actually refer to different aspects of his work and identity. The Swiss New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann, from whom Oakes has drawn this list, has grouped the various titles into four rubrics: (1) the earthly work of Jesus, (2) the future work of Jesus, (3) His present work, and finally to (4) His pre-existence. In this fifth selection we will look at the title Jesus the Word, one of the titles dealing with the pre-existence of our Lord.


Jesus the Word
It would be very difficult indeed to overestimate the impact of the title “Word” (Greek, logos) to the Christology of the first six centuries of the church. For many church fathers the title was considered crucial, for it marked the great point of contact with the philosophical speculations of the educated pagan mind. That said, the use of this term to describe Jesus in the New Testament can be found only in the Johannine writings, and even there it occurs in just a few passages: the Prologue to the Gospel of John (John 1:1-4), in i. John la, and in Revelation 19:13.

What accounts for this discrepancy between New Testament paucity and patristic favoritism? First of all, as Cullmann points out, “the point at which the author of John makes use of the Logos concept shows that the title is indispensable for him when he wishes to speak of the relationship between the divine revelation in the life of Jesus and the preexistence of Jesus.” [Cullman, The Christology of the New Testament] No wonder, then, that the patristic writers themselves found the concept indispensable too, for questions of the preexistence of the divine Son dominated discussion at that time, for reasons to be explained in Chapter 4. (Plus, the Logos concept proved a godsend, so to speak, for Christian apologists trying to justify Christianity to educated Gentiles raised in Platonic and Stoic concepts of logos.)

But before touching on these essentially theological issues, we must first outline the (very large) semantic range of the term logos, which in Greek happens to have far more meanings attached to it than the English term “word” and includes, among others, these meanings: reason, account, narrative, essence, verbalization, and, of course, the spoken word as such. But because the noun logos is the nominative form of the verb lego, legomai (“to speak”), we must first concentrate on its primary meaning as spoken word.

As speech-acts, words communicate thoughts, which themselves are the products of minds. Furthermore, words are received by ears and then understood by other minds. This basically mental feature in all words surely accounts for the rich and powerful religious symbolism that surrounds the concept of word. For unlike the other senses, which perceive objects in their brute physicality, hearing picks up something much more “spiritual,” even evanescent. Tellingly, objects that are seen, touched, smelled, and tasted can be grasped; but words stay ever elusive and disappear as soon as they are heard. For that same reason, a hearer of a word has no control over what is being heard, and this too must surely be religiously significant, as the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar notes in this insightful passage:

Hearing is different [from the other senses], almost the opposite mode of the revelation of reality. It lacks the fundamental characteristic of material relevance. It is not objects we hear but their utterances and communications. Therefore it is not we ourselves who determine on our part what is heard and place it before us as an object in order to turn our attention to it when it pleases us. No, what is heard comes upon us without our being informed of its coming in advance. It lays hold of us without our being asked…. It is in the highest degree symbolic that only our eyes, and not our ears, have lids…. The basic relationship between the one who hears and that which is heard is thus one of defenselessness on the one side and of communication on the other…. Even in a dialogue between equals in rank, the one who is at the moment hearing is in the subordinate position of humble receiving. The hearer belongs to the other for as long as he is listening and to that extent is “obeying” him.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Seeing, Hearing, and Reading within the Church,” in Explorations in Theology Vol 2

The religious implications of this description are clear and hold true even for the nonreligious: listeners have no choice but to receive what is heard. Moreover, what they receive is not so much the object of the speaker but his thoughts, that is, his mental life. In that regard it is telling that Aristotle defines man as the zōon logikon, usually translated as “rational animal” but which could just as accurately be given as the “verbal” or “word-using” animal.

Both in pre-Christian Greek and Jewish thought the concept of logos became more and more “hypostasized,” meaning that Greek and Jewish thought moved more and more away from the concept of word as evanescent, disappearing as soon as it entered the ear, and toward a notion of word as somehow substantial (hypostasis being the Greek word for “substance”). For example, the Stoics identified the Logos with the cosmic law that governs the universe and is at the same time operative in the human intellect. But that notion of logos as law is still only an abstraction (roughly equivalent to Newton’s Law of Gravity).

The situation is different in Platonism, but crucially it is the Idea or Form (eidos) that is hypostasized, not the Word (logos); in other words it is the mental concept that takes on the contours of substance, not that which is communicated from one mind to the other.

“A major difficulty in the interpretation of logos is determining when this common and amorphous Greek word is being used in a technical, specialized sense. Thus Heraclitus, in whom it first plays a major role, frequently employs it in its common usage, but he also has a peculiar doctrine that centers around logos in a more technical sense: for him logos is an underlying organizational principle of the universe…. Plato also used the term logos in a variety of ways, including the opposition between mythos (tale) and logos, where the latter signifies a true, analytical account…. [He also] describes the dialectician as one who can give an account (logos) of the true being (or essence, ousia) of something…. The Stoic point of departure on logos is Heraclitus’ doctrine of an all-pervasive formula of organization, which the Stoics considered divine.”
F. E. Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms (New York: New York University Press, 1967)

But as Platonism developed, the Logos too became more and more “personal,” acting as an agent or go-between, an intermediary between the inaccessible One and the finite world. Nowhere is that personalization made more explicit than in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish contemporary of Jesus whose thought was heavily influenced by what scholars now called Middle Platonism. In a remarkable passage, Philo describes the mediatorial role of the Logos in this way:

To his Logos, his chief messenger, highest in age and honor, the Father of all has given the special prerogative to stand on the border and separate the creature from the Creator. This same Logos both pleads with the Immortal as suppliant for afflicted mortality and acts as ambassador of the ruler to the subject. He glories in this prerogative and proudly describes it in these words: “I stood between the Lord and you “
[Philo, Quis rerum divinarum heres 42.205.]

This passage certainly marks a watershed in the development of the concept of the Logos (capitalized here to show its personal, substantial nature); but it would be an error to think that Philo is influenced here solely by Middle Platonism, for he is also building on developments in the Jewish Bible. [One might be tempted to follow contemporary fashion and say "Hebrew Bible" here; but Philo used the Greek translation (called Septuagint), which is significant, because that translation includes books not found in the Hebrew canon; and it is these books above all where certain aspects of God, such as his Wisdom and his Word, are hypostasized [vocab: To be treated or represented (something abstract) as a concrete reality]. But it is also crucial to note that some Hebrew books included in the Hebrew canon also hypostasize these divine qualities, especially the book of Proverbs]

In the earlier books of the Bible God speaks his word efficaciously. God says, “Let there be light,” and light comes to be. The word of God (Hebrew, debar YHWH) is thus creative of what it speaks. As Cullmann says, “every creative self-revelation of God to the world happens through his word. His word is the side of God turned toward the world. [Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament]

What then happened is that this efficacious word is made the object of independent consideration, precisely because it is so powerful. The Psalmist says, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Psalms 33:6); crucially, this powerful word continues its activities after creation: “He sent forth his word and healed them” (Psalms 107:20) and “He sends forth his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly” (Psalms 147:15). The phrase “his word runs swiftly” might be poetic license; but if so, that license in turn licensed further extensions of the image, and with Isaiah we get close to the word acting as an independent agent: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not but water the earth,.. . so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty but shall accomplish what I purpose” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

Finally, all that is needed now is for this hypostasized Word or Wisdom to speak on its own as an independent agent: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginnings of the earth. Where there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water” (Proverbs 8:22-24).

[FN: Admittedly, Proverbs speaks of Wisdom (Sophia, a feminine word in Greek), not Word (logos, a masculine word), which raises a host of issues pertaining to the feminine in God. Cullmann rightly says that "Logos and Sophia are almost interchangeable" (p. 257) in the respective theologies of the Book of Wisdom and the Gospel of John. Certainly, both authors see their favored terms in equally hypostatic ways, which is the main point of this paragraph. Plus, it should be recalled that the terms "masculine," "feminine," and "neuter" for the gender of nouns are terms of convenience invented by the Greek grammarians in Alexandria because most males are described by nouns in the masculine gender and most females by the feminine gender (for example, hippos can mean either "stallion" or "mare," depending on the gender of the preceding article); but things, concepts, abstractions, and so forth, can be described by words in any gender.

At all events, either Cullmann is right and Wisdom and Word are interchangeable, which means that the question of gender is irrelevant; or the gender of the noun is theologically significant, which means that the Fourth Evangelist must have deliberately chosen Logos instead of Sophia for theological reasons. But semantically considered (which is the focus of this writing), I would say that Wisdom refers more to the internal mind of God prior to creating, whereas Word is an inherently expressive concept, which is why Cullmann can say, rightly again, that in the Old Testament the "word of God" always refers (no matter how early or late the text) to the side of God that is turned toward the world. What Wisdom stresses is that when God creates the world, or relates to it thereafter, he always does so in ways that manifest his providence, his governance, his beneficence. Creation, in other words, is not ill-considered but is aboriginally "well thought out." In other words, God's outward and expressive Word is always a Wise Word, expressive of God's internally well-ordered mind.]

How much the Fourth Evangelist was influenced by these various trends has become a matter of enormous controversy in biblical scholarship, especially as it pertains to the influence of Greek sources in general, and Philo specifically.

[FN:The influence of Gnosticism on the Fourth Gospel should be mentioned here as well, albeit briefly. Speaking very broadly, Gnosticism is a "moralization," so to speak, of Plato's theory of the Divided Line. Plato divided his world into two separate realms, Reality and Appearance, with Reality above the dividing line and Appearance below it. Above the line is static Being as such, the realm of the Ideal, of stasis, and finally of the One. Below the line were matter, division, change, copies of the Ideas, and so forth, in short the realm of Becoming. Because Plato also called the One the Good, Gnostics extended the contrast by calling the realm of matter evil. At a stroke this made evil an independent principle. (For Plato what appeared below the line had but a shadowy claim on being, in contrast to the "really real" realm of true Being; but that did not make Appearance "evil," only less "real.")

For the Gnostics, then, salvation had to be interpreted as a complete escape from the realm of matter. The anthropological correlate of this view meant that the soul of man inhabited the body like "gold in the mud” And salvation could only be effected by a divine hypostasized being coming down from heaven merely clothed in the flesh. It would seem rather obvious, judging by the surface of the text, that the Gospel of John polemicizes against this view and thus John must have known of this worldview beforehand. The only trouble is, our sources for Gnostic beliefs all come from documents written after the New Testament was in circulation. In any case, we are concentrating in this chapter on the concept of Logos for its semantic import solely and only later in the next chapters on its role in determining christological doctrine, so these points need not be stressed further.]

But if we concentrate not on the historical antecedents of the Fourth Gospel (already taking for granted the same trend of hypostatization in both Greek and Jewish sources) but on the meaning of Logos in the text itself, two points emerge immediately. First, Jesus was addressed as Kyrios (in the “high,” divine sense of that word) in Christian worship, whereas the Logos designation must have arisen as a result of theological reflection (even today, Christians do not address Jesus in their worship as “Word”).

Second, prior developments in the intellectual history of Jewish and Greek thought would later make the concept of Jesus as the divine Logos perfectly suited for Christianity’s apologetic purposes, as we shall see in later (and this will account for the greater stress in patristic times of the Logos-concept than is found in the New Testament itself).

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). Leaving aside all questions of historical antecedents, these verses drive home one essential point that is the key to the whole of the Fourth Gospel: in Cullmann’s words, “Jesus not only brings revelation, but in his person is revelation. He brings light, and at the same time he is Light; he bestows life, and he is Life; he proclaims truth, and he is Truth. More properly expressed, he brings light, life and truth just because he himself is Light, Life, and Truth. So it is also with the Logos: he brings the word, because he is the Word “
[Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament]

Finally, we must note that John both distinguishes the Logos from God, yet also identifies that Logos with God. In other words, God and the Logos are not two beings, and yet they are also not simply identical. This blunt juxtaposition of two seemingly contradictory statements brings us back once again to the inherently paradoxical character of Christian doctrine, a paradoxicality that will prove immensely provocative for later Christian thought (“The paradox gives rise to theology,” as we said earlier). Here again the key will be to let theology arise out of paradox without thereby resolving the paradox in a way that would make thought control the doctrine, or theology determine revelation. As Cullmann rightly says:

We must allow this paradox of all Christology to stand. The New Testament does not resolve it, but sets the two statements alongside each other: on the one hand, the Logos was God; on the other hand, he was with God. The same paradox occurs again in the Gospel of John with regard to the “Son of God” concept. We hear on the one hand, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30); and on the other hand, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament


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