Volpe on Sin, Hope and Desire for God

However else we may want to describe sin, it signals a failure of hope. (p.233)

This is a beautiful line from toward the end of Medi Ann Volpe’s Rethinking Christian Identity: Doctrine and Discipleship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). In discussing Gregory of Nyssa’s theology of desire for God, she notes that the fundamental nature of sin–‘ontological sin,’ to use the technical term–is desiring created things rather than God (as, too, for Augustine). To desire what God has made over and above God himself is a turning away from God to lesser things; it is, in other words, to give up hope on what is greatest and to settle for ultimately unsatisfying realities. God wills to be had: he gives himself to us in Christ by his Spirit. Yet our sinfulness consists precisely in failing to hope that such infinite goodness could be ours.

Resurrection, the Creator and the Creature

The act of resurrection can be considered with reference to both God the Creator and the human creature.

On the part of God the Creator, the act of resurrection is the Creator’s final judgment in the positive, his vindication of the creature over against the curse of death. Resurrection is also, in this way, the victory of the Creator over the power of sin and death in his human creatures in that it is the final restoring and perfecting of human creaturely life. God’s subsequent continual, beatifying presence to the creature is, in his economy, his act of preserving resurrected humanity against any relapse into sin, evil and a renewed death. Resurrection, thus, is the Creator’s definitive refusal to abandon his creature and his decisive affirmation of the human life he has made.

On the part of human creaturely life, resurrection is recomposition, restitution and perfection. The resurrected life is the soul restored to the body, and thus the human being rendered once again whole and entire, as God first created and intended it. This state, however, is not simply a reconstitution of created human being as in Eden, but also its restitution and perfection: a final restitution from a fallen state of spiritual sinfulness and bodily decomposition and a perfecting of its physical, moral and spiritual capacities in ways that are now only partially visible to us.

In this way, the theology of resurrection bears importance for both the doctrine of God, divine goodness and power, and Christian teaching regarding human being, its final state and end.

On Three Kinds of Resurrection

There are three kinds of resurrection. These are: resurrection in this age, the resurrection of Jesus Christ and resurrection in the age to come. Each can be distinguished by (i) the presence or absence of human mediation, (ii) the decomposition, or relative lack thereof, of the resurrected body, and (iii) the susceptibility or insusceptibility of the resurrected person to future death.

(1) Resurrection in this age. Into this category fall all the resurrections which have taken place so far, save the raising of Jesus Christ from the dead, which is a foretaste and pledge of resurrection in the age to come. These raisings are typically characterized by three things.

First, they usually take place by human mediation of God’s life-giving power (e.g., 1 Kgs. 17:17-24; 2 Kgs. 4:8-37), even where the mediator of divine power is no longer alive (see the unusual case of Elisha’s bones in 2 Kgs. 13:20-21). The miraculous raisings from the dead performed by Jesus in his earthly ministry also fall into this category (e.g., Mt. 9:18-26; Lk. 7:11-17; Jn. 11:1-45), as do those performed by the apostles (e.g., Acts 9:36-42, 20:9-12) and the contemporary Church. However, the mediation of these raisings by human persons is not the defining mark of this kind of resurrection. Some resurrections have taken place without any human mediation, as we see in Mt. 27:51-53.

Second, resurrections in this age are of those who are recently deceased. For this reason, they can be termed resipiscentia (‘coming back to one’s senses’) as much as resurrectio (‘standing up again’). Those raised in this age have not suffered severe or total decomposition of their bodies. Yet, there is nothing that prevents God from exercising his power to raise someone severely or totally decomposed back to life in this age, though we see no example of it in Scripture (cf. the vision of Ez. 37:1-14), or, as far as I am aware, in the history of the Church.

Rather, third, resurrections in this age are defined by the fact that the one raised will die again. This kind of resurrection is temporary. Those who are brought back from death in this age are raised again into a world where death still has power.

(2) The resurrection of Jesus Christ. The distinctive mark of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, by contrast, is that “death no longer has dominion over him (αὐτοῦ οὐκέτι κυριεύει)” (Rom. 6:9b). The raising of Jesus, unlike all the resurrections that preceded or have yet followed, was a resurrection to eternal life. “Christ, raised from the dead, will die no more” (Rom. 6:9a). He lives and reigns in victory over death. “I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Rev. 1:18).

It is also distinguished from the great majority of resurrections in this age in that it was not accomplished by any human mediation; no disciple was sent to raise Christ from the dead. Rather, Scripture tells us that each of the Trinity raised Christ. With equal truth, one can say that the Father raised Christ (Rom. 6:4; Gal. 1:1), Christ took up his own life again (Jn. 10:17-18), and the Spirit raised him from the dead (Rom. 8:11). The resurrection of Jesus Christ was a singular divine action of the triune God, unmediated by human activity.

Again, the resurrection of Jesus Christ was similar to resurrections in this age in that Christ was raised as one recently deceased, after only three days. (Lazarus, note, was dead for four days before his resurrection: Jn. 11:17, 39.) Thus, his body was not subject to severe decomposition. This, along with their insusceptibility to future death, is the distinctive mark of all those resurrected in the age to come.

(3) Resurrection in the age to come. This is the great hope of Christian faith, enshrined as an article of faith in the Apostle’s Creed. It is this final victory of Christ that we await with longing: “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:25-26). When Christ returns, death will be finally vanquished and all humanity will be raised to life: “The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done” (Rev. 20:13). I hold it an open question whether this is a resurrection that will take place by human mediation; Christ will raise us, but whether this is in virtue of his humanity or his divinity is difficult to discern. It will certainly not take place through any human person other than Jesus Christ.

This kind of resurrection is unique in that involves all humanity, including many millions who have long since died, their bodies being severely or totally decomposed–even reduced to ash. It is an essential tenet of Christian faith that this poses no obstacle to divine power. As Augustine writes, “The earthly material, then, from which the flesh of mortals is created does not perish to God, but into whatever dust or ash it is released, into whatever vapours or breezes it is dispersed, into whatever substance of other bodies, or the elements themselves, it is turned, even into whatever flesh of animals or, it may be, human food it is changed–in an instant of time it returns to that human soul which at first animated it, that it may become, may grow, may live as a human being” (Enchiridion 23.88).

The great joy of this resurrection in the age to come is its finality. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Those resurrected to life, unlike those resurrected to judgment (Jn. 5:28-29), will then share in the eternal life of Christ. Like the Son of God, death will no longer have any dominion over them and they will die no more. Instead, they will share in the life of the Living One forever, their resurrection a mirror and image of Christ’s glorious resurrection and an incontrovertible, powerful work of God the Saviour.

Ordinary Miracles

Protestant scholastic theology distinguished between several forms of God’s calling, referring to how God calls people to salvation in himself. One of the basic distinctions is between ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ calling. God ordinarily calls people to himself through the preaching of the Word; less often, extraordinarily, God will call people to himself by other means. The Leiden theologians thought the way God calls us ‘extraordinarily’ is “unknown to us”, a mysterious inner calling of God’s Spirit (Synopsis purioris theologiae [1642], disp. 30.1.33, p. 368). The Lutheran theologian Quenstedt has other suggestions:

Calling is either ordinary or extraordinary; it is the ordinary which acts by means set up by God, that is, the external and visible ministry of the Word. It is extraordinary and special when someone, not by the ordinary ministry of the Word, but by miracles, ecstasies and other uncommon means, is called to the light of the gospel. (Theologia didactico-polemica [Leipzig, 1702], 3.5.1.5 nota 2, p. 462).

As examples, he gives the Magi called by the star from the east to the newborn Jesus and the miracles shown to the people of Tyre and Sidon during Jesus’ ministry. It is these miracles, I want to argue, that belong not to God’s extraordinary and “most rare” calling (Theologia didactico-polemica, p. 462), but rather to his ordinary means of calling people to believe in him.

In the ministry of Christ, miracles regularly accompanied his teaching (Mt. 4:23, 9:35; Mk. 1:21-28; Jn. 2:23). When he commissioned his disciples to continue his teaching, Christ promised the same ‘accompanying’ of the Word by miraculous signs (Mt. 10:7-8; cf. Mk. 16:20). And this is what we see in the early history of the Church (Acts 3:6-26; 5:12-16, 13:5-12, etc.).

It seems, then, that there are two ordinary and accompanying means of God’s calling: preaching and miracles. The miracles confirm the teaching (e.g. Acts 13) and the teaching explains the miracles (e.g. Acts 3). These are both “means set up by God” (Quenstedt) to draw people to himself and show them where they ought to look for their salvation.

St. Athanasius on Victory over Death

I’m quickly coming to love St. Athanasius’ theology. This is from his On the Incarnation of the Word–I’ll highlight my favourite bits:

A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead. Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection. But that devil who of old wickedly exulted in death, now that the pains of death are loosed, he alone it is who remains truly dead. There is proof of this too; for men who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, once they are converted despise it so completely that they go eagerly to meet it, and themselves become witnesses of the Savior’s resurrection from it. Even children hasten thus to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing robbed of all its strength. Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot the passers-by sneer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, “O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?” (On the Incarnation, ch.5, §27) 

Jacques Derrida and the Apostle Paul

Here’s an interesting blog post on Derrida’s deconstruction of justice and how it relates to Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith. It’s heavily academic—as that last sentence shows—but if you can bear it, it’s very interesting. This presents another possible route to bypassing ways of talking about justification that abstract it from the transformation (or sanctification) of the individual.

“Divinization”

What a good word. It means “to make divine”, or “to deify”. I’ve learned that it’s at the center of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox understandings of justification. The belief is that what Jesus accomplished on the cross opened the way for us to be made like Him, more specifically in our obedience to God. Oddly, this strikes me as a fuller salvation than the simple legal transaction that we Protestants take justification to be. (We had an debt we couldn’t pay. Jesus paid the price for us. We get off scot-free without any necessary life change.)

It’s often thought to be a type of salvation-through-works, which strikes me as a complete misunderstanding. The belief, actually, is that we are enabled to live rightly because of our contact with a sanctifying, renewing, life-giving God. Jesus’ death on the cross opened the way for us to come into the presence of God, and to be changed by Him—not to be removed from His presence every time we sin, as before the death of Christ. Thus, every good work is completely of grace; grace enables us to live like God. I find that to be a beautiful and awe-inspiring belief.

Now, I’m still wrestling with and evaluating this view of justification, but I must admit that it strikes me (initially, at least) as more beautiful, more far-reaching and more biblically coherent than the Protestant view. (That itself is kind of frightening.)