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Posts Tagged ‘First Things’

Martin Luther

Over at First Things a 2014 post by Timothy George on Reformation Day has been reposted. Understandably, I, being a Catholic, had completely forgotten that such a day exists. In his post Mr. George states: 

It was not Luther’s intention to divide the Church, much less to start a brand new church. To the end of his life, he considered himself to be a faithful and obedient servant of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Though Luther renounced his monastic vows and married a former nun, Katarina von Bora, he never forgot that he had received a doctorate in Holy Scripture. His vocation was to teach the written Word of God and to point men and women to the Lord of Scripture, Jesus Christ.

Leaving aside the fact that Luther’s actions did divide the Church (you will know a tree by its fruits and the path to hell is paved with good intentions), there is something else stated here that is laughable: “he never forgot that he had received a doctorate in Holy Scripture. His vocation was to teach the written Word of God.” WE ARE TALKING ABOUT A MAN WHO ADDED A WORD TO SCRIPTURE AND CALLED ONE OF THE INSPIRED WRITINGS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT STRAW!!!!! Please my Protestant brethren, before you go singing the praises of Luther let that sink in.

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St. Thomas

Don’t get me wrong. I like First Things, but it has a serious problem. It has been a while since I have read an issue of First Things, but I remember the articles always being thought provoking. If I didn’t agree with the author, at least what they wrote was well-written and thought out. It allowed for engagement and challenged the intellect. Online, however, the posts are often subpar. The latest of many examples is “Correcting St. John” by Russell E. Saltzman. Mr. Saltzman does not have a problem with the Gospel according to St. John; rather, he has a problem with the way a great many Christian pastors, priests, and others interpret St. John concerning the Apostle Thomas and his encounter with the Lord after the Resurrection. So when he writes, “Due to a misreported episode around the resurrection of Christ (20:10-29), which I am hopefully about to fix,” or “In the accepted (my emphasis) telling of John’s version,” or “I am convinced that there is an original version somewhere that has been replaced with what we have now”, he his not being literal. He goes on to say that he discovered the original version that had been long lost, by which he means his interpretation of this particular pericope in St. John. Perhaps Mr. Saltzman was trying to be clever and I certainly do not think he intended to facetious, but really that is what happened. It is unfortunate especially since he makes a good point concerning how Thomas will be treated in homilies and sermons across the world this coming Sunday. It is also unfortunate because in his lack of seriousness he makes some blunders in his interpretation of St. Thomas and the Resurrection, particularly in laying unwarranted criticism on the other Apostles that Thomas seems to be exempt from. Finally, the end of his “account” his shallow, which often accompanies facetiousness.

In the “lost” account which Mr. Saltzman “discovered” (meaning his personal interpretation of this account in the Gospel of St. John), the other Apostles are blamed for Thomas’s lack of belief, an excuse which Jesus accepts. As St. John relates, when Jesus appears during Thomas’s absence, He says to the other Apostles, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” After which He breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” At this point in the “lost” narrative it is pointed out that the Apostles were still hiding in the upper room. They had not gone out (hadn’t they been sent), nor had they forgiven or retained sins (is this not power they were given for their being sent). Thomas hears the other say, but he does not see them do it. Thomas does not believe because the other Apostles did not act on what they were proposing for belief, that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead. So says the “lost” account. When Jesus again presents Himself the Apostles in the upper room Thomas is there. In the Gospel of St. John after Thomas confesses belief – My Lord and my God! – Jesus says to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Here we have a divergence between the Gospel and the “lost” account. Mr. Saltzman is no longer interpreting, but is now rewriting. In our “lost” account after Thomas is “chided” by Christ, he defends himself saying, “Hey, I needed to see something…. It’s not my fault; these guys, they all acted like you were dead.” To which Jesus replies, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Mr. Saltzman is so focused on righting the wrongs committed against St. Thomas throughout history that he neglects the larger resurrection narrative. First, there is the general mystery surrounding the Resurrection encounters: Mary Magdalen not recognizing our Lord, nor the two disciples on the road to Emmaus; multiple disciples not recognizing Him when returning to shore on the Sea of Tiberius; the sudden and inexplicable appearance of our Lord in a locked room accompanied by His sudden and inexplicable disappearance. There may have been certainty among the Apostles and other disciples that Christ had indeed risen from the dead, but this does not by any means mean that their was understanding, clarity, or knowing what this meant for them. These things would come with the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

This sheds a little light on Saltzman’s accusation that the Apostles acted like Jesus was dead because they had not gone forth forgiving sins. Jesus gave multiple commands during His time on earth after the Resurrection. The 40 days from the Resurrection to the Ascension was a period of formation just as the 40 years had been for the Israelites in the desert. His final command was given just before He ascended into heaven: to go forth to all nations proclaiming the Good News and baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The Apostles did not immediately go and do this. No, they returned to the upper room, not to hide (they had already stopped doing that) but to pray and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, Who Jesus had told them would be sent to them. They knew they could not carry out Jesus’s great commission without the Holy Spirit. On another note, it is odd that Mr. Saltzman would accuse the Apostles of acting as if Jesus were still dead without leveling the same accusation against St. Thomas. He finds fault with the Apostles for not immediately going out and forgiving sins. Thomas, however, did not immediately go out either. Why does St. Thomas get a pass when the other do not?

To end, I’d like to point out one place where you are sure to hear a positive presentation of St. Thomas: the Orthodox churches, both those in communion with Rome and those that are not. It would have been better if Mr. Saltzman had pointed to their example so that Christians could learn from one another and from the great and vast tradition that belongs to the Church. If he does not know about these prayers from Orthodox liturgies, I hope that he soon may.

“As the disciples were in doubt, / the Savior came on the eighth day / to where they were gathered and granted them peace, / and cried unto Thomas: / Come, O Apostle, and feel the palms in which they fastened the nails. / O good unbelief of Thomas, / which hath led the hearts of the faithful to knowledge! / Hence, he cried out with fear: // O my Lord and my God, glory be to Thee.” (Sticheron from Lord I have cried, vespers for St. Thomas Sunday)

“O strange wonder, / unbelief hath given birth unto steadfast faith! / For Thomas said: / Unless I see, I shall not believe. / And when he touched the side of Christ, / he spake with divine authority / concerning the Incarnate One Who is the very Son of God, / and recognized Him as the One Who suffered in the flesh. / He proclaimed the Risen God, and cried with a radiant voice: // O my Lord and my God, glory be to Thee” (Aposticha, vespers for St. Thomas Sunday)

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Yes.

Now that that is cleared up, we can take a look at Stephen Webb’s article with the same title over at First Things. He opens:

Classical theism, with its identification of God with infinity, has developed a reputation for emphasizing divine transcendence to the point of making God nearly unknowable. The problem with this judgment is that infinity—as in, God is infinitely unknowable—does not admit to degrees. An infinite God is not like an unimaginably large number that we could count to if only we had enough time. Nor is an infinite God like the largest possible number we know, or at least know well enough to use in any practical way.

The crux of the problem is God being incomprehensible. The infinite God Who is wholly transcendent is also, therefore, wholly unrelatable. You cannot enter into a relationship with one you cannot know. When you get right down to it, there is no point in praying and, therefore, no point in religion. This is the problem that the Greeks encountered and one of the ways Greek philosophy was redeemed by Christian doctrine. The Greeks while being religiously polytheistic were philosophically monotheistic. However, this one god, the god of the philosophers, was not accessible to the people. It ultimately made not only religion irrelevant, but philosophy as well. With the Incarnation though the one God Who is infinite, eternal, and wholly inaccessible and unknowable became man. His condescension became our ascension. An ascension of the whole man rooted and invigorated by the Ascension of the Incarnate One. This is an ascension of our intellect, will, passions, body, soul, and of every other aspect of man save sin. In short, it is the divinization of man. In our secular and materialist world the concept of God as being unrelatable is the norm. It is all the more unfortunate then that it would be encountered in an article in First Things written by a professor of philosophy and religion who is a Catholic (if we are to take Wikipedia’s word for it).

At the end of his article, Dr. Webb concludes that God is not infinite, but rather it is our potential knowledge of Him that is. He ends saying:

Aristotle denied that anything that actually exists can be infinite, although he accepted a potential infinity, in the sense of a series that continues without any logical ending. Following Aristotle, perhaps the best we can mean by calling God infinite is that our knowledge and enjoyment of his presence will never be exhausted. God is like a hypercube whose dimensions, if ever mapped for the purposes of notation, would have no apparent numerical end. If so, then it is not quite accurate to say that God is infinite, but it would make some sense to say that our potential knowledge of God most certainly is.

What Dr. Webb has done (whether intended or not) is attempt to confine God to overcome the problem of the gap which exists between Him and us. He commits the error of the Greeks by his seeking to correct it through reduction. God, however, cannot be reduced to anything nor confined by anything. Dr. Webb’s own conception of God and his interpretation of theology seems too physical. He says, “Theologians in the tradition of classical theism claim that God is also greater than the known universe, but can they propose a rational way of demonstrating that God is greater than Graham’s number?” The problem with this question is that Graham’s number is itself confined by creation. God is not greater than the known universe in the sense of being bigger. He is neither bigger nor smaller. He does not exceed the boundaries, is not confined by the boundaries, nor is He the boundaries of the universe. He is greater in the sense of being wholly other than it, as well as the universe having been produced by Him and being entirely dependent on Him for its continued being.

The true answer to this problem is – as stated above – the Incarnation. The union of God and man, the Uncreated and created, in the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ. Dr. Webb seems to have forgotten about Him and instead has looked to pure philosophy for his answers; but pure philosophy in the end leads only to confusion. I think he does this because he doesn’t like apophatic theology. He says, “Such a God might exist—philosophers still debate whether Anselm’s statement can serve as the basis for a proof of God’s necessary existence—but we cannot know anything positive about him [emphasis mine]. Attributing infinity to God and negative theology go hand in hand;” and a little later, “God’s infinity is infinitely receding, according to Przywara’s perspective. Knowing God is not just analogous to knowing what infinity is, since we can have some idea of that. No, the infinite God must be infinitely unknowable.” Apophatic theology, however, is the reality of our finiteness in relation to the Infinite. It is our humility in the presence of the Mystery. And this is why the fathers, doctors, and all the saints of the Church have affirmed that God cannot be grasped by our intellects, but He most certainly and wonderfully can be grasped by our love. As for Dr. Webb’s god, a god who is infinite only in the sense of my potential knowledge is not worth my worshipping at all, for in the end that god is only a thing that happens to be bigger than me.

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