Notes on Revelation, Election, and Apophatic Theology

– With Torrance, I say that in Jesus, divine election and predestination has moved from the eternal into time, and thus it follows that election has a temporal aspect to it.

– Election, becoming temporal without ceasing to be eternal, then confronts us (Torrance again) in the person of Jesus.

– While it is temporal, election is not thereby historicized or bound up with us.

– In the act of revelation, God’s being declares God’s reality (see Barth’s ‘Dogmatics’, II/I p. 262)

– Following Barth, I say that as God’s being declares reality, so God determines our capacity to receive Him.

-Bruce McCormack, in his LATC lecture on the atonement, interacted with apophatic theology briefly – his position can be sketched as follows:

Apophatic theology draws on epistemic considerations in order to establish the limit of human knowing and so locate God right on the other side of that line. The problem with this, as McCormack sees it, is that in so establishing this limit we control the epistemic relation. His answer to apophaticism is that the limits of human knowledge are no limits for God. God comes completely into this world – if the God who reveals Himself in Christ is not complete, whole and entire, then it is not God who reveals Himself.

An interesting claim, but it doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. McCormack rightly recognizes that apophatic theology does recognize a limit to human knowledge of God, but this limit isn’t simply posited but is rather shown by the affirmation of the uncreated being of God. If God is uncreated, and all our knowledge is of created things, then it follows that we cannot know God in the same sense as we know every other thing we experience. The limit is then given by God and not human epistemology. Apophatic theology does, however, agree with McCormack that there is no limit to human knowledge of God – but this is because that God so utterly transcendent and so infinitely more than us that we could never comprehend or know him fully. As Augustine said, if you can comprehend it, it is not God.

‘St. Gregory of Nyssa believed that even in heaven perfection is growth. In a fine paradox he says that the essence of perfection consists precisely in never becoming perfect, but always reaching forward to some higher perfection that lies beyond. Because God is infinite, this constant ‘reaching forward’ or epektasis, as the Greek Fathers termed it, proves limitless. The soul possesses God, and yet still seeks him; her joy is full, and yet grows always more intense. God grows ever nearer to us, yet he still remains the Other; we behold him face to face, yet we still continue to advance further and further into the divine mystery. Although strangers no longer, we do not cease to be pilgrims. We go forward ‘from glory to glory’ (2 Cor 3:18), and then to a glory that is greater still. Never in all eternity, shall we reach a point where we have accomplished all that there is to do, or discovered all that there is to know. ‘Not only in this present age, but also in the Age to come,’ says St. Irenaeus, ‘God will always have something more to teach man, and man will always have something more to learn from God’” (Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, pp 135-138).

Furthermore, apophatic theology is fundamentally based on the Incarnation, the full revelation of God in the union of God and man, or created and uncreated. While Jesus is truly God, fully God, and truly man, fully man, this serves to highlight the truth that while God is present among us in the person of Christ, God is still uncreated and in His innermost essence and being fully beyond our knowledge. As Balthasar says,

‘The “I” of Jesus Christ is the measure of God’s distance from and nearness to man, that unimaginable nearness of him who is, and remains, even more unimaginably sublime above everything in the world (in similitudine major dissimilitudo)–and both things are equally true.  We shall never be in a position to encapsulate the mystery of this “I”, with its nearness and its distance, in a concept or a formula, for at its heart lies the mystery of the relationship between God, the Absolute, and man, the relative.’

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Notes on the Analogy of Being, Barth and Torrance

– T.F. Torrance bases most of his theology on the fact that the Word can’t be divorced from God’s act or being. Torrance also very forcefully rejects any system of theology or philosophy that purports to arrive at God based on study of nature. Torrance rejects it on the grounds that such a system would be independent of any actual knowledge of God as revealed in the Incarnation. However, if the Word became flesh, and it was through the Word that the world came into being, and the intelligibility of creation comes through the Word, couldn’t it be argued that a study of nature is, in a way, a study of God through the Word? Maybe. Maybe not.

– Torrance and Barth both tend to see the goal of natural theology as arriving at God – once you accept the arguments, or the arguments convince you, that’s it – you’re there. But a study of the history of natural theology reveals two things: that God, whether in Scholasticism, Patristic thought, Reformed thought, etc, is never something that can be simply arrived at but something we are continually striving to. Second, natural theology is less about reaching God than it is about exploring the reality of God. Perhaps this is an oversimplification but I see this as an accurate diagnosis of the pathos behind these views.

– A mistake that I see Torrance and Barth making is taking apophatic theology to be a positive statement of what can be ascribed to God (‘nothing’) when apophatic theology is in fact a limitation of what can be positively ascribed to God. It also recognizes humility in theology – the limitations of the human mind. However, as Pelikan notes, this same limitation is also a freedom – it frees the mind to explore the reality of God within the boundaries of apophatic theology. The analogy of being, as well, serves as a boundary:

‘And to this extent, it bears an analogy to the kind of natural theology that Barth rejected. Again, however, anticipating our response to Barth in the final section, the ultimate point of the analogia entis is precisely to humble all natural (and even all supernatural) knowledge of God, to deconstruct every closed system (whether philosophical or theological), in short, to break to pieces every conceptual idol, and to insist that all our knowledge of God, no matter how exalted by grace, is ‘patchwork’ (cf. 1Cor 13:12)—a knowledge in ‘images and likenesses’ that break and fail and thereby point to a God who is beyond comparison, indeed, ‘beyond all analogy’.

– What Barth and Torrance both acutely realize is the effect of mans fallen condition in knowing God – the heart is turned inwards upon itself (as well as the mind) and so any natural revelation can be darkened in a flash, and turned into an idol. This is all too often what happens.