Life with God

 

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The ultimate evil of idolatry is the forsaking of God. It’s not merely unauthorized worship or illicit pleasure; it’s the folly of seeking satisfaction in anything other than the fount of all goodness. It is the rebellion of seeking acceptance from anyone other than the Father of all mercies, of seeking protection from anyone other than the Lord’s Christ, of seeking comfort from anyone other than the Paraclete. We worship the creation rather than the Creator. We pursue the gifts rather than the Giver. We settle for the seen rather than seeking the Unseen. Over and over again in the Scriptures, the people of God are warned against contenting themselves with God’s blessings and thus forsaking the true and lasting beatitude of life with God himself.

But let’s be honest: the seen has certain advantages over the unseen. For starters, the seen is, well, seen. It is in right in front of our eyes. It promises immediate gratification. Furthermore, injunctions to move through and beyond the visible world to the invisible God are difficult even to understand. What does it even mean to seek God above everything else? Is it anything more than a pious cliche? Do we even know what we are talking about?

The whole concept of God seems abstract and mystical. This is because, in part, the concept of God is abstract and mystical. To be sure, God has made himself concretely known. In the incarnation of the Son of God, the invisible God has made himself visible to us. The intangible has become tangible. The unseen has become seen. It is precisely through the concrete revelation of God in the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ that God has come near to us and has disclosed to us his true identity.

The incarnation reveals to us the dignity of the created order. It shows us that Christianity can never be a world-denying religion, that redemption is not a flight from creation but a restoration of it. But the purpose of the incarnation is to lead us back to God himself. God became man so that man might become God, as many of the Fathers put it. The goal of incarnation is theosis—union with God himself. This goal reaches its apogee in the life to come and the beatific vision of the glorified saints. But it begins even now in the present life, as believers learn to seek the things above, where Christ is, rather than the things of earth.

Life with God is, then, in a very real sense abstract. It asks us to think beyond the merely physical and concrete. It stretches our minds to consider a being who is beyond being, the source and ground of being. It beckons us to meditate on a God who is utterly independent, timelessly eternal, and absolutely immutable. It requires our greatest intellectual resources to consider the very idea of God.

But, in another sense, life with God is also irreducibly mystical. When we skate beyond the capacities of our reason in our contemplation of God, no more cogitation is advisable, or even possible. All that remains is the experience of God. This is why the mystical writers of the Eastern tradition have sometimes spoken about God as utter darkness. Of course, they were familiar with the Scripture that teaches us that “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).  The point being made wasn’t about God’s moral character but about God’s knowability: “The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness” (1 Kings 8:12). We could even say, the point wasn’t so much about God as it was about us. As creatures, we cannot comprehend God–we cannot traverse his circumference and subject him to our rational measurements. It is not a function of some kind of quantifiable inability. It is the qualitative distinction of the Creator and the creature. This apophatic approach to God has much to commend it when we consider the scriptural teaching about God’s incomprehensibility: “Behold,God is great, and we know him not; the number of his years is unsearchable” (Job 36:36; cf. Psalm 145:3).

So where does this leave us? How are we to avoid the sin of idolatry, of becoming so enamored with the creation that the Creator himself is eclipsed? What does it mean, in the trenches of the battle against sin, to treasure God above all? Perhaps we could seek some help from the mystical writings of Maximus the Confessor. At the risk of oversimplification, we might summarize his contemplative approach as a three-step movement from mediation on the created order to the patterns and principles (logoi) according to which the world was made and finally to God himself. So, the abstract and mystical is not divorced from the concrete and creaturely; they are organically related. God made the world good; he reveals himself to us through it; and he came among us in Jesus Christ in order to restore it. So, he means for us to enjoy the gifts of creation as the gifts that they are. When viewed from within the creation, these gifts are ends in themselves. No one loves anything for what he can get out of it. Otherwise, it would not be love. So marital love, the love of children, the enjoyment of the creation or art—these are ends in themselves when viewed within the system of creaturely goods. But when viewed in light of God, the gifts of creation were meant to led us in contemplation to the mind of God, who so designed and ordered and disposed of these gifts that they reflect the divine reason and benevolence. And beyond these creaturely designs, we are finally led to contemplate God himself—absolute, unqualified, unneeding Blessedness. It takes time and effort and prayer to get to this place. But surely this life with God is what lies behind such biblical cries as “you have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7) or “one thing I have asked of the LORD, that I will seek after…to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD” (Psalm 27:4).

Early Christian Interpretation and Classical Christian Theism

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that there were quite a few major movements in twentieth century theology, from a variety of theological streams, that concerned themselves with overturning or significantly revising classical Christian theism (CCT). Influences as varied as biblical theology, apologetics, philosophy, church history, and the history of interpretation have contributed to the suspicion, revision, and rejection of CCT. These rejections, revisions, and suspicions have resulted in everything from process theism to denials or thorough revisions of, for example, simplicity and impassibility. The basic gist of objections to these and other CCT-related doctrines is that they are unbiblical and philosophically untenable. And, at bottom, that basic objection rests on the assumption that CCT developed via reflection on God through the lens of Greek philosophy rather than through the lenses God’s Word or his actions in history.

This kind of gross mis-characterization needs to stop. The early Christian theologians were just as concerned as, say, 21st century conservative evangelicals, with demonstrating that their doctrinal formulations were thoroughly biblical. The distinction between pre-modern and modern exegesis and theology is not that the former is philosophical and the latter is biblical, but between what counts as “biblical” in either period. For pre-modern interpreters, “biblical” meant considering passages in their original historical and literary context, but it also meant considering those passages in their canonical, narratival, and metaphysical context.

One example of this kind of holistic theological method is found in Maximus’ Ambiguum 7:

For it belongs to God alone to be the end and the completion and the impassible.

Maximus in this section is discussing God’s impassibility, and his foundational metaphysical principle is that, on the one hand, “Nothing that came into being is perfect in itself and complete,” and, on the other hand, “That which is perfect is uncaused . . . [and therefore] free of passions.” In the immediately prior paragraph he says this slightly differently:

. . . nothing that comes into being is its own end, since it is not self-caused. For if it were, it would be unbegotten, without beginning and unmoved since it has nothing toward which it can be moved in any way. For what is self-caused transcends what has come into being, because it exists for the sake of nothing [other than itself].

The logic here is simple – Anything that has a prior cause (namely creation) has a purpose – “an end” or “telos” to use Maximus’ language. And because it has an end, which it has not already reached, it moves, or is passible, until it reaches that end. That which is unmade (namely God) is necessarily immovable since it is the end in itself. To put it simply, God has no greater end to move toward. This is why Augustine can famously say, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee” – he’s drawing on impassibility. God is immovable because he is uncaused and therefore the true end, or goal, toward which all creatures are designed to move. There is no greater goal toward which he moves. Impassibility is thus directly related to telos – God is already complete, has no telos (movement towards completion), and therefore is without movement (passions).

All that may not sound very “biblical” since I have yet to provide a prooftext or even a citation. But Maximus’ logic here is filled with biblical quotations, citations, and allusions. After the second block quote above, Maximus goes on to quote, cite, or allude to Gen. 2:9, 17; Deut. 12:9; Ps. 16:15; Ps. 42:2; Phil. 3:11; Heb. 4:10; and Heb. 11:39. The point in all of these texts is that human beings are created to move toward their rest, namely rest in God. And then the kicker passage comes with his citation of Matt 11:28 – “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Christ himself, as God incarnate, is the telos, the goal, the rest toward which all creatures move. And while Jesus in his human nature experiences sleep, hunger, temptation, and death, Maximus here draws on the classic hermeneutical move of early Christian writers, partitive exegesis. (Augustine calls this the “form of a servant” / “form of God” distinction.)

We could also go on to talk about how, for Maximus, Jesus is not only the center of Scripture but also the center of the universe (again, he backs this up repeatedly with biblical citations). It’s an important point in understanding why Maximus ends with Matt. 11:28 and not, say, OT texts that talk about YHWH as Israel’s rest. Nevertheless, the point here is merely that before evangelicals (including myself) knock the Great Tradition, either hermeneutically or theologically, we should recognize that in the last half century or so our own tradition is largely untrained in the history of interpretation and historical theology. There is a thoroughly biblical, metaphysical logic behind classical Christian theism and pre-Enlightenment Christian interpretation that should be understood on its own terms before we consider rejecting it. That means returning ad fontes, reading primary sources in full and not just proof-texting them, and doing the hard work of understanding how our own hermeneutical assumptions differ from theirs.

Maximus on the Mystical Knowledge of God in Christ

I have recently been reading St. Maximus the Confessor’s commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, and it, like all of Maximus’ writings, rewards careful (and prayerful) reflection. If you don’t know about Maximus, I’m not talking about this guy (but he was pretty awesome too). Maximus was a seventh century Byzantine monk, theologian, and controversialist. He is most well-known for the pivotal role he played in the monothelite controversy—the debate over the number of “wills” in the incarnate Christ—which culminated in the sixth ecumenical council (the Third Council of Constantinople, 680-81) and its proclamation that Christ does in fact have two wills (dyothelitism) that correspond to his two natures. Maximus was so convinced of this position that he was willing to endure torture (he had his tongue cut out and his hand severed) and ultimately the exile that took his life. As such, he is referred to as the “Confessor,” which in Eastern Christianity refers to one who suffers for the sake of orthodoxy.

But Maximus’ theology is much richer and wider than this single doctrinal controversy. Indeed, his work is nothing less than cosmic in scope, in that he sees the whole of reality—everything from personal piety and the church’s liturgy to the created order and the grounding of abstract properties—summed up in the Incarnate Logos and the Triune God that he reveals.

But back to his comments on the Our Father. His commentary is wide-ranging. It touches on the specifics of the prayer but also interprets the prayer as a kind of window into the whole economy of redemption. It is full of rich intertextual connections and allegories that illuminate the mysteries of the Christian faith. This paragraph, in Maximus’ prologue to the commentary, especially stood out to me:

In becoming incarnate, the Word of God teaches us the mystical knowledge of God because he shows us in himself the Father and the Holy Spirit. For the full Father and the full Holy Spirit are essentially and completely in the full Son, even the incarnate Son, without being themselves incarnate. Rather, the Father gives approval and the Spirit cooperates in the incarnation with the Son who effected it, since the Word remained in possession of his own mind and life, contained in essence by no other than the Father and the Spirit, while hypostatically realizing out of love for man the union with the flesh.

Maximus provides here a tightly packed summary of the whole Christian faith. Notice several salient points:

  1. Christocentrism: For Maximus, the incarnate Christ provides the key that unlocks the mystical knowledge of the whole Trinity. The Son reveals the Father and the Holy Spirit because, even though the Son alone is incarnate, the other divine persons are fully present in the Son, in whom the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily. Thus, true Christocentrism can never be Christomonism, because Christ reveals the whole glorious Godhead.
  2. Perichoresis: As Maximus argues, this Christocentrism is predicated upon the mutual indwelling of the divine persons. The Cappadocian concept of perichoresis is often misused in contemporary Trinitarian thought when it is leveraged as a kind of catch all, meant to solve the problem of divine unity in social or relational models. But this misuse should not cause us to jettison this crucial insight. Perichoresis is not the interpenetration of distinct divine agents but the intimate sharing of life together in the numerically singular divine essence.
  3. Inseparable operations: Maximus argues that the incarnation is not an act of the Son alone but of the whole Trinity in unity. The Augustinian insight that all of the external acts of the Trinity are indivisible is echoed here by Maximus. It is not enough to say that the Father sends the Son or that the Holy Spirit is the agent in his virginal conception; the Son himself also “effected” the incarnation. The Trinity acts in unity to bring about the mystery of the Word-made-flesh.
  4. Appropriation: Having said that, Maximus is also careful to safeguard against theopaschism or patripassianism, by maintaining that the Son alone is made man. Incarnation is properly appropriated to the Son alone, but this truth should never be pitted against the indivisible divine act of incarnation. The doctrine of inseparable operations and the doctrine of appropriation must be held in tension.
  5. Extra Calvinisticum: In becoming incarnate, the Son did not surrender his divine “mind and life.” He continues to share in the selfsame divine life as the Father and the Spirit, even in his incarnate state. This doctrine, which came to be known as “Calvin’s extra” in the Reformation debates over the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, is actually a much older teaching. Indeed, as David Willis has suggested, the doctrine is more properly titled the extra Catholicum or the extra Patristicum because of its near universal acceptance in classic Christologies.
  6. Hypostatic union: Finally, Maximus highlights the union of divinity and humanity in the person, or hypostasis, of the Son. This union is realized “out of love for man,” since the motivation and telos of the incarnation is the salvation of fallen humanity. As the Nicene Creed has it, the Word became incarnate and was made man “for us men and for our salvation.” So the goal of God in the incarnation is soteriological in nature. As Maximus says elsewhere, “the realization of the divine counsel is the deification of our nature.”

What a rich paragraph! If you have never read Maximus, you should remedy that. You might start with this selection of his spiritual writings or this collection of his Christological reflections. For secondary sources, you might try Balthasar’s classic treatment, Andrew Louth’s introduction (with several important translations of Maximus’ own writings), or the recent work of Paul Blowers.