The Risen Christ and the Language of God

•14 March 2008 • Comments Off

(Revised and expanded)

by Fr Alvin Kimel

“Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews therefore said, ‘It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But He was speaking of the temple of His body.”

“So it is with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory.”

“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

“Take and eat; this is my body.”

“And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”

We know that body is mysteriously at the heart of the gift of salvation. We confess that God the Son took to himself a human body in the Incarnation. We confess that God the Son offered his body in sufferings and death for the sins of the world. We confess that God the Son rose from the dead in a new and glorified body and in this body ascended to the right hand of the Father. And we confess that we share in the salvation and future of God the Son through the communication of his body. But what is body?

Fr Herbert McCabe reflects on the meaning of body—the body of the historical Christ, the body of the risen Christ, the body of the eucharistic Christ—in several of his essays. I cannot pretend that I have yet really grasped his reflections on the body; but I find his thoughts suggestive and stimulating.

Imagine St Peter in Galilee one day pointing to Jesus in the days before his death and saying, “This is the body of Jesus.” While he might mean many things in saying this, one thing he undoubtedly would mean is “This is the way Jesus is present to us.” The body of Jesus is his mode of presence and communication. To touch the body of Jesus is to touch Jesus himself and enter into communion with him. “If I touch even his garments,” the hemorrhaging woman thought to herself, “I will be made well” (Mark 5:28). She yearned to touch our Lord’s body, his clothes being an extension of his bodily presence. Families and friends know the importance of bodily communication. Children need the presence and care of their parents. Parents miss their children when they grow up and move away. Families are renewed when they gather for holidays. Lovers especially know the necessity of physical intimacy. To be separated from one’s lover, from her bodily presence and touch, is agony. Letters, email, telephone conversations—all are insufficient. We must be with the body of the other. Body is the human mode of presence.

It is a characteristic of our historical finitude that our bodies are also modes of absence. If I am presently living in New Jersey, then I cannot be present in Maryland. My bodily communion with others is necessarily limited to those who can come within a certain distance to my body. To overcome these limitations, we thus seek in various ways to extend our bodiliness into the world. We create media of communication—writing, telephones, pens and pencils, fax machines, text-messaging, Christmas gifts, clothes, crafts, paintings and sculpture. But all such media are extensions of the human body; their source is the body itself. The body is not in this sense a means of communication, says McCabe, “because we have to have a body to use such means” (God Matters, p. 121). Human communication is essentially bodily communication. Through our bodies we take our place in the business of life and share with others a common world.

We tend to think of bodies in impersonal terms. Bodies are objects that interact and collide with other objects. Our bodies thus become that objective, impersonal, material part of ourselves, with our true selves located in our souls or spirits. McCabe believes this is the wrong way to think of bodies. Consider a telephone. It sits on a desk. We can see it. We can move it around. It is simply an object. But then it rings. We pick it up and begin a conversation with someone. At this point the telephone disappears as object. It has become a medium of communication, and our attention is now focused on that person at the other end of the line. But with human bodies, McCabe suggests, the reverse is the case:

A telephone is most of the time a thing, an object before you, but just sometimes it becomes a medium of communication with the rest of the world. Your body, on the contrary, is normally experienced as a medium of communication and is just occasionally treated as an object, a part of the world. The ordinary way in which you are conscious of being bodily, conscious of “having a body,” is being conscious of it as your way of being present to the world. Your body is first of all a means of communication. Telephones and books and satellites are only media of communication in so far as they are used by human bodies. Nothing uses the body, except in the sense that we may speak of one part of it being used by the whole—“He used his left hand to twist the knob.” It is because the body is the source of communication that we say it is alive, that it has a soul. The body that communicates by conventional signs, by symbols it has not just inherited but created, by language, is humanly alive, it has a human soul. (p. 111)

Death typically brings the destruction of body and therefore the conclusion of personal communication. Yet not so with Jesus. By his resurrection the bodiliness of Jesus became more intense, more powerful, more available. “The risen Christ,” states McCabe, “has lost many of the characteristics we think of as bodily but in fact is more bodily than ever” (p. 125). Standing on this side of the kingdom, we cannot comprehend this new form of our Lord’s bodiliness, yet we can see that our Lord’s resurrection has made him available not to just a few in Palestine but to all humanity in all places.

Christians have read the stories of the resurrection appearances of Christ for clues as to the nature of glorified bodies, but McCabe cautions we need to be careful, for it is all too easy to reduce the eschatological bodiliness of Christ to the terms of the pre-resurrection world:

I think that in these appearances Christ was more bodily than he allowed himself to appear. In himself he was the risen man, his body was that of the future to which we are summoned, the future beyond the ultimate revolution, but in order to show himself to his followers he appeared more or less as a body of our own time, a body of this world—it is true that he passed through closed doors and appeared and disappeared and so on, but generally speaking he wished to emphasize that he was a body and not a ghost. “‘See my hands and feet that it is I myself; handle me and see; for a ghost has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them: ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish and he took it and ate before them.” The emphasis in this as in the other stories of post-resurrection appearances is on the bodily reality of the risen Christ, but we are not to suppose that his bodiliness is restricted to the bodiliness of this era.

For our present purposes the interest of this point is that in these appearances Jesus presents an intersection of future and present. He is the future world, the body in whom our bodies are to find unity and final humanity, the medium of communication in which mankind is ultimately to realise itself, he is the future world but he appears as a body of the present world. … Although in fact he has surpassed the present and belongs not to this world but to the world of the future, he is presenting himself amongst men of this world and he can only be recognised by them in terms of a part of his biography that he has surpassed. (pp. 125-126)

The Holy Eucharist also enjoys this conjunction of future and present. The risen Christ manifests and communicates himself within the conditions of the old world. In the Supper the language of meal becomes the language of the kingdom. Food and drink are fundamental to human society. By eating together human beings, perhaps indeed all animals, share a common world. This is not accidental to our humanity but is rooted in our bodies. “Food is a medium in which we communicate, come together,” McCabe elaborates. “It is for this reason that Christ can say that he is the true bread that comes down from heaven; since he is the medium in which we finally meet each other, in which we are finally able to communicate ourselves to each other, he is more intensely food than meat and drink can be. We may say that all eating and drinking is an attempt to reach towards the communication we will only finally find in Christ” (p. 127). Christ has a better right to be our food and drink than bread and wine. The doctrine of transubstantiation, at least as interpreted by McCabe, declares that the eucharistic bread and wine have not become something “else”; they have become food and drink in the most radical way conceivable. Perhaps we might even say that they are fulfilled in Christ. As McCabe likes to enigmatically phrase the matter, “our language has become his body” (p. 117).

In the Eucharist, then, we have an intersection of future and present, we have what is ostensibly language of the present, of this world, of this body, but which in fact is language of the future, of the world to come, of the risen body. This does not involve any disguise or deceit for what the bread and wine have become is not something different from food and drink, they have become food and drink in a deeper sense than we can imagine. We cannot say that the body of Christ is disguised as bread and wine any more than we can say that the risen Christ was disguised as a man of six feet high who ate broiled fish. (p. 127)

Our language has become the body of Christ. Christ appears to us, not in his transfigured reality—this side of resurrection, the kingdom cannot be seen within the world as part of the world—but in sign and symbol. Our Lord’s bodily presence amongst us, therefore, is precisely sacramental. As Jesus was the eternal Word in the flesh of this world, so the sacraments are the language of the future in the language of this world. McCabe even coins a word for this—translinguification. I am reminded at this point of the provocative statement of Abbot Vonier: “If the priest at the altar brought down Christ from heaven in His natural state as a full-grown man, this would not be a sacrament at all, for the event would lack the very essence of the sacrament, representative signification” (A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, p. 21). Sacraments work by signifying. In the words of E. L. Mascall: “Sacramental signs do not make present the realities which they signify by spatially enclosing them, in the way in which a gas-cylinder may contain hydrogen, or by being instruments by which they are manufactured, as a sausage machine produces sausages, or by being channels through which they are communicated, as a water-pipe delivers water, but by being divinely-ordained efficacious signs of them” (Corpus Christi, p. 220). Here, suggests McCabe, is the real reason why the risen Christ may be present in many Eucharists celebrated simultaneously around the world: in the Mass his body is present to us in the mode of language, “as meaning is present to a word” (p. 118).

As the Apostle Peter might have pointed to the Galilean Jew and declared, “This is the body of Christ,” so we today may point at the eucharistic bread and cup and make the same declaration. But who is closer to Christ, Peter touching the corporeal body of Jesus before his crucifixion or we ourselves when we take the sacramental body of Christ into our mouths? McCabe offers this answer:

In one way Peter is in closer contact, he actually touches the body of Jesus, they can share a common bodily life—a better example, of course, would be Mary who actually gave birth to Jesus, whose body gave life to his—on the other hand when they were in contact with his body it was not risen and was thus a less total communication of Jesus than is the risen body with whom we make a sacramental contact in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a mere foretaste of the world to come when we shall have it both ways, we shall be present to the risen body of Christ as intimately as Mary was present to Jesus in his birth. (p. 118)

During his historical life, Jesus gathered to himself a community of disciples and friends, to which he was so present that they felt utterly loved and forgiven, thus becoming themselves capable of loving and forgiving others. But this bodily presence of Jesus was restricted to the few, to those who were privileged to hear his words and share his fellowship. But after Easter Christ becomes capable of reaching out to all of humanity. Liberated from the bonds of mortality and the limitations of historical existence, the glorified Jesus is more bodily now than when he walked the roads of Galilee and ate and drank with his disciples. He is alive and present, present in his body, present in the life and communion of the Church. Yet this presence remains hidden, sacramental, known and experienced only by faith. The risen Jesus is no longer physically and locally present as he was during his historical life. He manifests himself to us not in glory, not in his accidents, but in the mode of human language. We experience both presence and absence. “Christ is present but ambiguously present,” McCabe remarks; “what we see, the presence we experience, is the presence of each other” (p. 112). Our hearts thus cry out for that perfect realization of bodily communion that two lovers know in the embrace of ecstasy. But one day our future in Christ will be gloriously achieved and we will speak fluently the language of the kingdom. The Church will be gathered up into the Trinitarian life of God. There will be no sacraments, no rituals, no faith, “only the immediate presence of our risen bodies to the risen body of Christ. Then it will no longer be a question of media of communication which are separate from ourselves (although extensions of our bodies) becoming the body of Christ, but we ourselves will be taken up into the body of Christ which is the incarnate word of the Father” (p. 129).

Come, Lord Jesus, come!

Clinging to Externals: Weak Faith and the Power of the Sacraments

•4 March 2008 • Comments Off

by Phillip Cary, Ph.D.

Behind the debates about the objectivity of Christ’s presence in the Reformed view of the supper are crucial pastoral questions about the nature of faith, and I think it will bring clarity to the debate if we can state those questions clearly. I have suggested elsewhere (“Why Luther is not Quite Protestant: The Logic of Faith in a Sacramental Promise” in Pro Ecclesia, Fall 2005) that the crucial issue for Protestants is whether faith must be reflective—i.e., whether we must first know we have faith before we are permitted to believe that God is gracious to us as he promised. In connection with the sacrament, the question is: must I first know I believe (i.e. must I have reflective faith) before taking the sacrament, or can the sacrament itself be a means of giving me a faith I am not confident I really have? In short, can the sacrament strengthen weak faith, or does it demand faith? Although it is logically possible for the sacrament to do both, in pastoral practice the latter typically excludes the former. Requiring people to believe is not a good way to strengthen weak faith. For—to use the classic Protestant distinction—to require something of people is to preach Law rather than Gospel. God gives his gifts by the promise of Christ, which is the Gospel, not by the commandments of the Law—not even the command to believe.

A good way to get at this issue is in terms of the Augustinian theory of signs that Catholics, Lutherans and Reformed share. The sacrament is a sign (signum) says Augustine, and the thing (res) it signifies is a spiritual gift of grace. What all parties to the 16th-century debate agree on is that unbelief separates the signum from the res. This means that to receive the sacrament without faith does a person no good, because that way one receives a sign of grace without the grace it signifies. The crucial difference between the Reformed on one side and the Lutherans and Catholics on the other, I suggested in my previous essay, is that the Reformed identify the body and blood of Christ as the res in the sacrament, whereas the Lutherans and Catholics identify them as belonging to the signum as well. So for the Lutherans and Catholics, those who receive the sign of the sacrament without the thing it signifies still receive the body and blood of Christ, but do so to their own harm.

What all agree about, again, is that those who receive the sacrament without faith receive it to their harm. That point, I suggest, is what raises the crucial pastoral question. The question is: since faith is required for the sacrament to do me good, must I know—or at least believe—that I believe (i.e. must I have reflective faith) before I approach the sacrament? If so, then the sacrament is not likely to strengthen those who have weak faith.

These pastoral questions have played a large role in the history of the Reformed churches, especially among the Puritans. Early in the history of New England Puritanism, for instance, communicant church membership was restricted to those who could give a profession of saving faith. (For the history here, see the classic study by Edmund Morgan, Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea). This institutionalized the requirement of reflective faith: anyone who could not sincerely profess that they had saving faith was excluded from the sacrament and from church membership. And it is important to emphasize here that we are talking about a distinctively Protestant view of saving faith. In contrast to requirements of church membership among earlier Puritans, it was not sufficient simply to confess the creed or to believe and understand Christian teaching. Much less was it sufficient to be baptized. The profession of faith (which made you, in the technical language or the time, a “professor of religion”) meant that you could confidently show that you had a saving interest in the blood of Christ, which typically meant you must be able to narrate the occasion on which you made regenerate by the Holy Spirit through conversion to saving faith.

The concept of saving faith here is distinctively Reformed, and it underlies the requirement of reflective faith. The crucial distinction is articulated by Calvin himself, who contrasts the faith by which we are saved with a temporary faith, by which we experience the goodness of God for a time but do not persevere in true faith until the end. For like Augustine, Calvin teaches that in order to save us God gives not only the intitial gift of faith but also the gift of persevering in the faith until the end. But unlike Augustine, he sees these as one and the same gift: when God gives true saving faith, he necessarily gives us persevering faith, for a faith that does not persevere to the end does not save.

This is a radical departure from Augustine, and it has enormous consequences. For Augustine and the whole Christian tradition prior to Calvin, it is perfectly possible to have a genuine faith and then lose it. Apostates, in other words, have apostasized from the true faith. For Calvin, on the contrary, there is a kind of faith I can have now which I am sure not to lose, because it comes with the gift of perseverance. What is more, I can know that I have such faith rather than the temporary kind. For the whole point of the distinction between saving and temporary faith is that I can know that I am eternally saved, and that means I must know I have saving rather than temporary faith. Again, this is a profound departure from Augustine, who explicitly teaches that we are not yet saved (nondum salvos, in City of God 19:4). In a typical formulation, Augustine insists that we are saved in hope but not yet in reality (in spe, not in re).

Calvin’s departure from Augustine here results in the requirement of reflective faith. In order to believe that you are eternally saved, you must believe that you have saving faith. From this follows what is genuinely distinctive about Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, which is not (as Calvin rightly argues) the doctrine of double predestination, but rather the epistemic thesis that we can know we are among the elect, those chosen by God and predestined for salvation. For anyone who adds to an Augustinian doctrine of predestination the notion that we can know we are saved for eternity will necessarily believe that we can know we are predestined to be saved. For if Augustine is right about predestination, it is logically impossible to know you are saved for eternity without knowing that you are predestined for such salvation. That is precisely why Augustine denies you can know you are predestined for salvation.

So the reflective faith of the Reformed tradition is strong stuff. It assures you not just that God is gracious to you today (like Lutheran faith) but also that you are saved for eternity, which means you can be assured of this much about God’s hidden decree of predestination: that it includes you among the elect. To require such a faith before admission to the sacrament is to require a great deal. It is, I think, to make faith into a work—and quite a substantial work indeed, which many anguished souls could never accomplish. The Puritan churches of New England included many baptized persons who believed that the creed was true but who did not believe they had experienced a conversion to saving faith, and therefore were excluded from the sacrament. In their case, the sacrament could not serve to build up the weak in faith.

Strikingly, there were attempts to reverse this. Solomon Stoddard, Jonathan Edward’s grandfather, allowed baptized churchgoers who could not profess saving faith to come to the sacrament, which Stoddard said could function as a “converting ordinance.” This is an important moment in the history of the Reformed tradition because it displays the possibilities available within Reformed theology. But the fact that Edwards and his followers, who called themselves “consistent Calvinists,” rejected this compomise, suggests that the weight of the Reformed tradition tends to be against it.

Why? Samuel Hopkins, a student of Edwards and a leader of the consistent Calvinists, gives an explanation that parallels the Augustinian point about how unbelief separates signum from res. The means of grace, Hopkins argues, do no good except to the regenerate, and when the unregenerate (i.e. those who do not have saving faith) make use of the sacraments, they succeed only in offending God by their inexcusable unbelief and misuse of his holy ordinances. Note that all the objectivity in the sacraments thus only makes this offense worse: if Christ is truly presented and offered in the sacrament, as Calvin insists, then all the more inexcusable is the unbelief of those who partake of the sacrament unworthily.

How might the Reformed resist such reasoning? I do not see how they can do so consistently without abandoning the requirement of reflective faith, and I do not see how they can do that without abandoning the fundamental Calvinist conviction that we can know we are eternally saved. It is that radical new conviction that creates the characteristic tensions and pastoral problems of the Calvinist tradition. This is not to say that other traditions do not have tensions and problems of their own. The point is that they take a different form than in the Reformed tradition. Catholics, for instance, do not worry about whether they have true saving faith. You will never find a hint of any such worry anywhere in Augustine, for instance, despite all his introspective power. For the idea that I have to have a special kind of faith which I know in advance will persevere to the end is an idea that simply never occurred to him.

Different worries generate different pastoral practices. Catholics don’t worry about whether they have saving faith but whether they are in a state of mortal sin—so they go to confession. Reformed Protestants don’t worry about mortal sin but about whether they have true saving faith—so they seek conversion. The pastoral problem this generates is that either it turns faith into a work, a decision of faith one is required to make, or it leaves a poor sinner nowhere to go to find the grace of God, since all means of grace only work harm to the unregenerate.

Let me suggest a Lutheran diagnosis (and then identify the pastoral problems that result from this Lutheran view). Reformed and Lutheran will heartily agree that the sacramental means of grace can only do me good only because of the Word that gives them their form and power. There is no sacrament of Christ’s body without the Word of institution: “This is my body, given for you.” The question is, if I am weak in faith, how can I trust that this sacrament and its Word will do me good? Luther points here to the words “for you,” and insists that they include me. When faith takes hold of the Gospel of Christ, it especially takes hold of these words, “for you,” and rejoices that Christ did indeed died for me.

In this way the Gospel and its sacraments are signs that effectively give us the gift of faith. I do not have to ask whether I truly believe; I need merely ask whether it is true, just as the Word says, that Christ’s body is given for me. And if the answer is yes, then my faith is strengthened—without “making a decision of faith,” without the necessity of a conversion experience, and without even the effort to obey a command to believe. In Luther’s view, I have not chosen to believe—as if this were something that could be achieved by my own free will, a notion that Luther fiercely rejects—but have instead received faith as a gift. For what the sacramental word tells me is not: “You must believe” (a command we must choose to obey) but “Christ died for you” (good news that causes us to believe). Thus both Word and sacrament do not demand faith but strengthen it, functioning not as Law but as Gospel.

In my judgment, the requirement of reflective faith is a disaster because it means that I have no right to believe that the sacramental words, “for you,” include me unless I first know or at least believe that I have true saving faith. To make this judgment is to say that the characteristic pastoral problems of the Reformed tradition are not so much problems to be solved as theological mistakes to escape. But to be fair, let me say what pastoral problems my Lutheran view entails.

It entails rejecting the view that we can know we are eternally saved. In Luther’s view, we can be assured we have grace, but we cannot be assured of eternal salvation. For the promise of God gives us Christ—in both word and sacrament—but it does not promise that we shall persevere in the faith of Christ until the end. This is a crucial fact about the biblical Word that no amount of theologizing can get over: the Word of Christ can give me faith and thereby give me Christ himself, but it does not promise to give me perseverance in the faith and therefore does not give me assurance of eternal salvation. If you want that kind of assurance, you have to go the road of reflective faith, believing not just in the Word but in your own belief in it, being somehow assured that the faith you have is true saving faith. To put it succinctly, what you give up by rejecting the requirement of reflective faith is the assurance of salvation.

The pastoral problems this produces have a label, which Luther himself gives them. He calls them anfechtungen, the assaults of the devil, who loves to taunt us with the fear that maybe we are not among those predestined for salvation. This is why Luther insists on turning away from the Deus absconditus, the God of the hidden decree of predestination, and clinging to the Deus revelatus, the God who reveals himself in the Gospel. It is sufficient to know that Christ’s body is given for me. If I cling to that in faith, all will go well with me. And whenever the devil suggests otherwise, I keep returning to that sacramental Word, and also to the Word of my baptism, and to the “for us” in the creed (“for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven” and “he was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate”), where the “us” includes me. Thus precisely the kind of faith that is insufficient to get me admitted to the Puritan sacraments—which is to say, mere belief in the truth of the creed and trust in my baptism—is all the faith I have. If Luther is right, it is all the faith I can ever have, and all the faith I need.

In this way the sacraments do help me when I face the typical pastoral problems generated by Lutheran theology. By contrast, the Reformed tradition generates pastoral problems that cannot be helped by the sacrament, because neither word nor sacrament can assure me that I have true saving faith. The logic of the matter, it seems to me, makes it impossible to split the difference between these two positions and get the best of both. On the one hand, if you want a concept of saving faith and the assurance of eternal salvation, then the sacraments cannot help you in the way that matters most. For—on the other hand—if you cling to the sacraments to strengthen your faith, then the faith you get is not what the Reformed tradition calls saving faith. Therefore I do not think one can consistently hold both a strong view of the power of the sacraments and the Reformed view of the nature of faith.

[Join the discussion at De Cura Animarum]

Eucharistic Presence in Calvin

•1 March 2008 • Comments Off

by Phillip Cary, Ph.D.

Is Christ’s body objectively present in the sacrament, according to Calvin? Unfortunately, that depends on what you mean by “objective,” which is a slippery and ambiguous word with no exact equivalent in the 16th-century discussion. (The word did not begin to acquire its current range of meanings until the writings of Immanuel Kant in the late 18th century). Still, we can always try defining our terms explicitly. And if we do that, we can identify one important sense of the phrase “objectively present,” in which Christ’s body is objectively present in the sacrament in the Lutheran and Roman Catholic views but not in Calvin’s.

For suppose we define “objectively present” as meaning “present independent of anyone’s state of mind,” where “state of mind” includes things like belief. Then Christ’s body is not objectively present in the sacrament in Calvin’s view but is objectively present in the Lutheran and Roman Catholic views. Let me illustrate.

I may believe there is no bread present in the house, but be mistaken: my wife has bought bread and put it in the breadbox where it is objectively present despite my belief to the contrary. Likewise, I can even have bread objectively present in my mouth without believing it: suppose for instance I inattentively pop a piece of bread in my mouth thinking it’s a bit of ricecake. The bread is present in my mouth even though I don’t believe it. In precisely this sense, according to both Lutheran and Roman Catholic views, Christ’s body is objectively present in the mouth of all who partake in the sacrament, whether they believe it or not.

This is a form of Eucharistic presence that Calvin explicitly and repeatedly denies, and he quite astutely identifies it as the key point on which he differs from the Lutherans. The point even has a technical name: manducatio indignorum, or the eating of the unworthy. In the Lutheran view, even unbelievers and anyone else who unworthily partake of the supper have not only bread but Christ’s body in their mouths, whether they believe it or not. Calvin insists, on the contrary, that we do not partake of Christ’s body without faith.

In what sense, then, can a Calvinist say that Christ’s body is objectively present in the sacrament? I would suggest that according to Calvin’s view Christ’s body can rightly be said to be “objectively presented” to us. This seems to me a good description of the intention of Calvin’s characteristic language of Christ’s body being truly offered, exhibited, presented and even given to us.

Since that last verb can be misleading, let me clarify: when Calvin says the body of Christ is given to unbelievers in the supper, he means it is offered but not received, like a gift given but refused. People who partake of the sacrament without faith of course do not refuse the bread—they take it right into their mouths—but they do refuse Christ and his body. And their refusal is effective. Again, the Lutherans affirm the contrary: precisely in putting the bread in their mouths, all who partake of the sacrament put Christ’s body in their mouths, whether they believe it or not. Roman Catholics agree, except that they teach that the Eucharistic host is wholly Christ’s body under the appearance of bread. Those who partake of the sacrament, worthily or not, have no bread in their mouths at all, but only Christ’s body.

Calvin’s view that Christ’s body is objectively presented rather than objectively present–—as he would say, “truly presented to us” but not “enclosed in the bread” or “chewed with the teeth”—gives his teaching a distinctive place on the spectrum of Eucharistic doctrine. This is distinct not only from the Lutheran and Calvinist views but also from the low Protestant view usually attributed (I do not know how fairly) to Zwingli. In this low Protestant view the supper is merely a memorial, which means that the only link to Christ’s body is our state of mind, our faith. On the contrary, when Calvin insists that Christ’s body is truly presented, offered, and given to us, he is talking not about our state of mind but about the action of God, and perhaps the most important thing to pay attention to is the adverb truly, for what is at stake here is the truth of God’s word. Does God do as he says when he offers us Christ’s body? Calvin’s answer is an emphatic yes.

With this in view, we can see why Calvinist theologians insist on the objectivity of the sacrament. And we could explain the fact that the unworthy do not partake of Christ’s body using this terminology: the offer is objectively made—quite independent of whether we believe it—but subjectively refused. As Calvin puts it, in one of his most helpful discussions of the manducatio indignorum, “it is one thing to be offered, another to be received” (Institutes 4:17.33). What is not objective is whether we actually partake of Christ’s body, for that requires precisely our subjective appropriation of the truth of God’s word, which is to say, our faith.

All this can be explained without using the technical terminology of signum and res (sign and thing signified) which goes back to Augustine. But if we turn to that terminology, I think we will see the fundamental conceptual difference at stake here. There are a number of key conceptual points, going back to Augustine, on which all parties to this dispute agree. Reformed, Lutheran and Roman Catholic all think of the sacrament as a sign that signifies spiritual gifts. What is more—and this is not often noticed—all agree that certain kinds of unworthiness, especially unbelief, separate the sign from the thing it signifies, so that the unworthy receive the signum or sacramentum but not the res. So for instance all agree that those who receive the sacrament in unbelief receive an outward sign but not the inner grace it signifies.

Given these agreements, the crucial question is whether Christ’s body is signum or res, the sacramental sign or thing it signifies. Calvin’s answer is clearly the latter. To see this, those of us who read Calvin in English need to be reminded that when he says Christ’s body is the “substance” or “matter” of the sacrament, which he does quite often, the Latin term he uses is res. Thus, in the shared Augustinian vocabulary of 16th-century theology, he identifies Christ’s body as belonging to the res sacramenti, the thing signified by the sacrament. That means it is precisely the sort of thing that is not received by unbelievers.

It can be properly be said of unbelievers that they receive a mere empty sign—which for Calvin means, the bread of the supper without the body of Christ that it signifies. Or to put it in medieval terms, those who partake of the sacrament without faith receive “the sacrament alone” (sacramentum tantum, which means sacramentum without res). This is just another way of saying “the sign alone,” since by medieval definition the sacrament is always a sign, so that sacramentum and res are related precisely as signum and res. And the key point is that those who partake of the sacrament unworthily do partake of the sign, quite independently of what they believe, because to partake of this sacrament is to precisely to take the sacramental sign into your mouth.

The difference between Luther and Calvin on this point is that Luther thinks of the body of Christ as the sacramental sign, not just the thing signified (see for instance his Babylonian Captivity, in Luther’s Works 36:44). Thus in Luther’s reckoning when unbelievers receive the sacrament but not the thing it signifies, this means that they receive no grace or spiritual benefit in the sacrament, but they do receive Christ’s body. For unbelief separates signum from res, but it cannot prevent the sacrament from being the sign that it is. So long as the sacrament is present, the sign is present, which includes Christ’s body. Thus even in receiving a “mere sign” the unworthy eat Christ’s body, whether they believe it or not. They are partaking of the body to their own harm. (There is no paradox in this, for Christ’s bodily presence has always been an occasion not just of blessing and grace but of scandal and unbelief. It was, after all, quite possible to receive Christ’s body and nail it to a tree.)

When Luther thinks of the body of Christ as both sign and thing signified, he is following a standard medieval view. Peter Lombard, followed by many other medieval theologians, not only distinguished sacramentum and res, but added a third, hybrid category, sacramentum et res (“sacrament and thing”), to which Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist belonged. Calvin rejects this threefold classification in Institutes 4:17.33 (the same passage cited above rejecting the manducatio indignorum) and specifically denies that Christ’s body can be classified as sacramentum. He clearly recognizes the implication: if Christ’s body is sacramentum as well as res, sign as well as thing signified, then every valid sacrament will contain not only bread but Christ’s body, present in the outward sign whether you believe it or not. And that is precisely what he means to deny.

Dr Phillip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University. He is author of Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self. He has two books forthcoming from Oxford University Press: Inner Grace: Augustine in the Traditions of Plato and Paul and Outward Signs: The Powerlessness of External Things in Augustine’s Thought. He has published numerous articles, including: “Why Luther is not Quite Protestant: The Logic of Faith in a Sacramental Promise” in Pro Ecclesia 14/4 (Fall 2005) and “Sola Fide: Luther and Calvin” in Concordia Theological Quarterly (July/Oct. 2007). His popular lecture series “Luther: Gospel, Law, and Reformation” is available from the Teaching Company.

[Join the discussion at De Cura Animarum]

When Bread is Not Bread

•28 February 2008 • Comments Off

by Fr Alvin Kimel

The oblations of bread and wine are placed on the altar. The celebrant offers the prayer of thanksgiving. The Holy Spirit is invoked. The narrative of institution is recited. The Holy Gifts are distributed, and to each communicant is spoken the remarkable words of the gospel: “the body of Christ,” “the blood of Christ.”

But what do these words mean? What has happened to the bread and wine? What is now the relationship between the consecrated elements and the Body and Blood of Christ? In response to these questions the Western theologians of the Catholic Church proposed the doctrine of transubstantiation. The most influential formulation of this doctrine has been that of St Thomas Aquinas. Yet as influential as Thomas’s formulation has been, the best Catholic theologians have never been content simply to repeat the views of the Angelic Doctor. Always there is the challenge of penetrating through the formulation and restating the doctrine for a new generation of believers. During the past forty years British theologian Herbert McCabe, a translator and student of Aquinas, has been particularly helpful and creative in articulating the eucharistic presence of Christ.

All Catholic presentations of the doctrine of transubstantiation must navigate, says McCabe, between two errors—between symbolic memorialism and chemical transformation. The symbolic view asserts that the bread and wine are mere signs or tokens that remind us of Christ and form a focus for our faith in him. The bread and wine are not ontologically changed. They are not different from ordinary food and drink but have assumed a specific role and meaning within the ritual of the Supper. Just as a bottle of wine is just a bottle of wine but becomes a symbol of friendship when given as a gift, so the bread and wine become symbols of our unity in Christ when shared in the ritual meal of the Lord’s Supper. The chemical transformation view, on the other hand, asserts that the bread and wine have ceased to be food and drink and have literally become the physical Body and Blood of Christ, though now hidden from us. The Body and Blood are, we might say, disguised as food and drink, perhaps to make their consumption more palatable. A chemical analysis might well reveal the material change; if not, this is only because God is supernaturally preventing us from seeing what in fact now exists. The role of faith is to believe that the communicant partakes of Christ, despite contrary appearances.

Against these two errors Catholic doctrine asserts the radical transformation of the bread and wine at the deepest level of existence. The bread and wine have indeed become the Body and Blood of Christ. The consecrated elements are thus no longer literally described as bread and wine, not because they have ceased to be food and drink but because they are now food and drink in the most profound sense possible. They are now the food of the kingdom. We must distinguish, suggests McCabe, two questions: If we ask “How is Christ present in the Eucharist?” then we must answer, he is present because the bread and wine have become his body. If we ask “How is Christ’s body present?” then we must answer, his body is present to us sacramentally. Thus McCabe: “‘This is the body of Christ’ says how Christ is present to us. ‘This is the sacrament of Christ’s body’ says how his body is present to us” (God Matters, p. 117). The risen Christ becomes truly present to us in our present reality, but he does so not by changing the bread and wine into a different kind of stuff but by changing the bread and wine into the effective symbols of his eschatological reality. The eucharistic bread and wine have become the language of God.

Aquinas is often accused of Aristotelianizing the eucharistic transformation. On the contrary, responds McCabe. Aristotle could not have made any more sense of the doctrine of transubstantiation than he could have made sense of the doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo—and for approximately the same reason. In the thought of Aristotle, to make is to actualize the potentialities of something. It always makes sense to ask what something is made of or what something is made out of. A person might make something by changing its accidental properties (I can paint my car a different color but it still remains a car), or he might make something by effecting an alteration of substance (I can chop down a tree, cut up the wood and fashion it into a cabinet). Within this understanding it makes no sense at all to speak of the divine Creator making the universe from out of nothing, for there is nothing from which or out of which the universe may be made. “If God created the world he operated at a different level, or in a different dimension, from making as we understand it,” McCabe explains. “To bring it about, in this sense, that something should exist is not to make any difference to it or to anything else, it is not to change it in any way. It is just for this reason that Aquinas denies that creation is a change (Ia, 45, 2, ad 2). But what sense can we make of a making that does not change anything” (p. 147). The creation of the universe does not make a difference to anything. At this point the philosophy of Aristotle explodes:

So Aristotle gives us an interesting analysis of coming into existence by substantial change, but had no notion of creation. St Thomas, however, believing in creation, believed in a new and different kind of bringing into existence. He thought there was a kind of cause which did not merely give a new form to the matter of already existing perishable things, but simply brought things into being when there was nothing there before. The creative act of God does not just deal in the forms of things—making one kind of thing into an individual of another kind with a different form. It gives sheer existence to the whole thing. Causes within nature give things the form by which they have existence; God gives things existence itself. God is the reason why there is a world of natural causality; and every natural cause can only give existence because it is an instrument of the Creator, the source of all existence. (God Still Matters, p. 119).

According to St Thomas, transubstantiation involves something analogous to the creatio ex nihilo. It is a changing that occurs at a radically deeper level than that of accident or substance; it is a re-creation that occurs at the level of existence itself:

The bread does not turn into the body by acquiring a new form in its matter; the whole existence of the bread becomes the existence of the living body of Christ. The body is not made out of the bread, as ashes are made out of paper by burning it (a chemical change). Something has happened as profoundly different from chemical change as creation is. It is not that the bread has become a new kind of thing in this world; it now belongs to a new world. As far as this world is concerned, nothing seems to have happened, but in fact what we have is not part of this world. It is the kingdom impinging on our history and showing itself not by appearing in the world but by signs speaking to it. … The change is so tremendous that it is quite imperceptible. In fact, St Thomas says it is not a change (mutatio) at all, for such a change means a re-adjustment of our world—as when one thing is altered or changes into something else. This clearly makes a perceptible difference. But transubstantiation is not a change, just as creation is not a change. What the bread has become is the body of Christ, which is to say the kingdom itself—for Christ does not inhabit the kingdom, he, his body, his human way of communicating with other humans, is the kingdom of God. Now the kingdom, the glorified body of Christ, is not something that could be seen within our world as part of our world; if it is to be manifest among us it can only be by signs, by sacramental signs. And this is just what the Eucharist is. (God Still Matters, pp. 119-120).

A change that is no change. A change that makes no difference. Aquinas employs the language of Aristotle to speak of divine creation and transubstantiation, but in both cases he breaks the language to speak of things of which our language cannot speak. We are confronted with mystery that transcends human comprehension. Hence McCabe acknowledges that traditional formulations of the eucharistic conversion as “substantial change” can be misleading. The change that occurs is not, according to Aristotelian categories, a substantial change at all. It is a change that occurs at a deeper metaphysical level:

The Eucharist is not a question of the substance of bread becoming the substance of a human body (this kind of substantial change is familiar enough and takes place whenever we eat a slice of bread); it is a miraculous transformation at a deeper level, which Aquinas compares to creation, in which the esse (the existence) of this piece of bread and this cup of wine becomes the esse of Christ. This transformation of a substance into another particular existent, as distinct from a different kind of thing (as in ordinary substantial change) would have been completely unintelligible to Aristotle as, of course, was the notion of creation and, indeed, the whole notion of esse in Aquinas’s sense. (pp. 125-126)

Aquinas famously analyzed the eucharistic conversion in terms of substance and accidents, and the Council of Trent appropriated his analysis in its Decree on the Holy Eucharist. The Council declared that under the appearances (species) of bread and wine Christ truly offers his Body and Blood. To make sense of this teaching it is helpful, suggests McCabe, to understand the difference between appearances and signs. The appearances of something are the accidental properties and characteristics by which we recognize things as what they are—size, color, taste, shape, and so on. Appearances show us things; signs tell us things. Appearances, in themselves, never deceive. People may exploit appearances to deceive, or we may deceive ourselves by drawing false inferences; but the way an object appears to us never deceives. It simply is. Signs, on the other hand, are part of language. They speak to us; they communicate to us; they tell us things about things. And signs can be employed to deceive. This is called lying.

When St Thomas declares that by consecration the accidents of the bread and wine have ceased to be the appearances of bread and wine, this does not mean that they have become the appearances of something else. They have ceased, rather, to function as appearances at all. Here, McCabe believes, is where many people misunderstand the doctrine of transubstantiation. When folks hear the Church declaring that the substance of the bread and wine has been converted into the substance of Christ’s Body and Blood, while leaving the accidents intact, they draw the conclusion that the accidents have now become the deceptive appearances of the Body and Blood. But the critical point is that the accidents no longer operate and exist in the way they used to:

There is, then, a lot of difference between the appearance which simply shows you a thing and signs which are part of telling you something about it. I labour this point because it is an important part of St Thomas’s teaching on the Eucharist that the accidents of bread and wine cease to be the appearances of bread and wine, but this is not because they become the misleading appearances of something else. They cease to function as appearances at all, they have become signs, sacramental signs through which what is signified is made real.

Before the consecration the appearances were there because the bread was there; they were just the appearances of the bread. After the consecration it is the other way around; the body of Christ is sacramentally there because what were the appearances of bread (and are now sacramental signs), are there. So with unconsecrated bread the accidents can remain (and vary) so long as the bread still exists: how very bizarre if they were to stay on (like the Cheshire cat’s grin) when what they are accidents of isn’t there. But after the consecration the Body of Christ is sacramentally present just as long as the signs are there. The important consequence of this is that these signs are not the appearances of Christ’s body: they are no longer the appearances of anything. The colour and shape of the host is not the colour and shape of Christ’s body; the location of the host, its being on the altar does not mean that Christ’s body is located on the altar; the fact that the host is moved about, say in procession, does not mean that Christ’s body is being moved about. When we do things to the host, such as eating it, we are not doing anything to Christ’s body. What we are doing is completing the significance of the signs. For bread and wine are meant to be eaten and drunk, to be our food; and food, eating, and drinking together is, even in our secular lives, a sign expressing friendship and unity. This is why Jesus chose it to be the sign which would tell us of the real sacramental presence of his body given for us and his blood poured out for us—the body of Christ which is more deeply our food, our “bread and wine,” than is the ordinary bread and wine with which we began. (p. 118)

This change from appearance to sacramental sign must not be considered as merely conventional, as if we, the Church, have assigned a different role and meaning to the bread and wine. As we observed above, the eucharistic change occurs at the deepest level of existence. When God deems the eucharistic objects as his Body and Blood, then they indeed become and are his Body and Blood. “The notion of transubstantiation,” McCabe writes, “depends on the idea that there can be a kind of transformation in what it means to exist which is not simply a change in what it is that exists” (God Matters, p. 150).

And this brings us to the most controversial assertion of the doctrine of transubstantiation, namely, the assertion that the bread and wine no longer exist as bread and wine. What can this mean? After all, the objects have not experienced any physical, chemical, or material changes. When the Church declares, “this is not bread,” she is not saying that it is now zinc or disguised human flesh. By all normal criteria, the consecrated bread is no different than unconsecrated bread. But the critical point is that the normal criteria are no longer relevant to the proper determination of the identity of the Holy Gifts. Something has happened which can be neither humanly understood nor adequately expressed in human language:

It is not that God tricks us—so that while all our criteria for decision make us think that it is bread, he has secretly switched the ‘inner reality’ to make it zinc or flesh. On the contrary the consecration is God’s quite public announcement that there these criteria no longer apply. It makes no more sense to ask whether this is bread than to ask whether God is bread—of course both these questions could be asked within the realm of metaphor. It appears that we have here a fit subject for our ordinary criteria. It is only because we have faith in the consecrating word of God that we know the criteria cannot sensibly be applied. If we did not know this we would make the mistake of applying them (as the unbeliever does) and then naturally we would say that this is bread and not anything else.

I am suggesting that the consecrated host exists at a level of reality at which the questions of whether it is bread cannot relevantly be asked; our language breaks down when we try to speak of it, just as it does in the case of God. What happens at the consecration is not that the proper description of the host shifts within our language (from “bread” to “Body of Christ”) but that it no longer becomes possible to give an account of it within our language at all. (p. 152)

To continue to describe the eucharistic elements as literally bread and wine is to fail to recognize the radical change that has occurred. It is to misdescribe them. It is to treat “the appearances as accidents of bread when really they are the divine sacramental signs of Christ’s body” (God Still Matters, p. 121). We may and will, of course, continue to speak metaphorically of the Holy Gifts as “bread” and “wine,” just as Scripture and liturgy do; but the doctrine of transubstantiation reminds us of the peculiar use of our language at this point.

Is this the best way to speak of the eucharistic mystery? Fr McCabe readily acknowledges that future theologians may well offer superior analyses and presentations. But he avers that all such analyses must respect the following rule: “Anything which seems to take the scandal or mystery out of the Eucharist must be wrong, whether it be couched in terms of substance or meaning” ( p. 117).

[Join the conversation at De Cura Animarum]

Counting the Saved

•16 February 2008 • Comments Off

by Fr Alvin Kimel

How many souls will be lost? How many saved? As Avery Cardinal Dulles observes in his article “The Population of Hell,” this question has fascinated and haunted Christians from the earliest days of the Church. Will all be saved? many? few? An answer is not given in the divine revelation, yet theologians and preachers have not been able to restrain themselves from speculating. “Among thousands of people,” St John Chrysostom declared, “there are not a hundred who will arrive at their salvation, and I am not even certain of that number, so much perversity is there among the young and so much negligence among the old.” We look out at the world and assess the lives of those we see—and we count. We count to warn ourselves and each other. We count to encourage ourselves and each other. But we count. Even Popes count.

In his recent encyclical the Holy Father states his personal hope that the damned will be few. At the moment of death our decision for or against God is definitively set. This decision can take many different forms. At one end of the spectrum are those who have destroyed within themselves all love—these are the damned; at the other end are those who are utterly permeated by love and given to love—these are the saints. But in between are those who possess an ultimate interior openness to God yet an openness imperfectly realized. Like the saints, these individuals too are saved, yet they still need to undergo further purification in order to perfect their capacity to enjoy and love God. “We may suppose,” opines Benedict, that this group constitutes “the great majority of people.” And if most will be saved, then we may therefore infer that the damned will be few. Though Benedict does not in fact explicitly claim to know that any specific individual is damned, he acknowledges that “alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history.” Names such as Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot immediately come to mind. Unlike his predecessor John Paul II, who left open the possibility that God might save all, Benedict appears to believe that Hell is probably populated; but hopefully it will be a relatively small community. In a recent question and answer session with the priests of Rome, Benedict elaborated:

I tried to say: perhaps there are not so many who have destroyed themselves so completely, who are irreparable forever, who no longer have any element upon which the love of God can rest, who no longer have the slightest capacity to love within themselves. This would be hell.

On the other hand, they are certainly few—or at least not very many—who are so pure that they can immediately enter into communion with God.

Very many of us hope that there might be something salvageable within us, a final willingness to serve God and to serve men, to live according to God. But there are so many, many wounds, so much filth. We need to be prepared, to be purified. This is our hope: even with so much filth in our soul, in the end the Lord gives us the possibility, He washes us finally with his goodness that comes from his cross. He thus makes us capable of living for Him forever.

I was, I must admit, surprised to find Benedict speculating, even tentatively, in this way and must respectfully submit my disagreement. I believe all such speculating on the numbers of the saved and the damned to be unhelpful, both to the spiritual growth of the faithful and to the evangelistic mission of the Church.

How does Benedict know, how can anyone know, what percentage of humanity will be saved? We believe with the Church that the Blessed Virgin Mary and the canonical saints are saved and now enjoying the beatific vision; but what about the rest of humanity? How does Benedict know about them? In fact, he doesn’t. No one does. Perhaps the Lord has privately revealed such information to someone, but the Pope is not relying on private revelation.

Given that I do not have the opportunity to ask the Holy Father about the grounds of his conjecture, I have asked myself: If I were to propose that the large majority of humanity will be saved, on what grounds would I do so? I would do so, I think, on the basis of my personal experience of other people, both Christian and non-Christian, then extrapolating to the whole of humanity. In my experience, most people are decent folk. They work hard for a living. They try to live moral lives. They sacrifice for family and friends. They avoid hurting others, at least until desire, passion, or need strongly asserts itself in their lives. Most people are decent. Most people are nice. Most people certainly do not appear to be evil, when compared to the truly wicked few. And most of the people I know are open, in some way or another, to transcendence. They do not appear to have definitively closed their hearts to God. Of course, my experience of people is fairly limited. I have spent most of the past thirty years in the company of practicing Christians. But as far as I can tell, most Christians are not significantly more decent than non-Christians.

But does this natural goodness allow me to infer that they are saved or will be saved? Does this decency in fact amount to being supernaturally oriented to God, i.e., in a state of grace? Surely not.

I have omitted one important fact: as decent as most people I know may be, I have to admit that every person I know is also selfish, even the nicest ones. My experience, in other words, confirms a fundamental teaching of the Catholic Church—the doctrine of original sin.

According to magisterial teaching, every human being is born into a state of spiritual death and alienation from God. Every human being is born into a world dominated by Satan and corrupted by death and sin. And in a mysterious way which I at least cannot explain, these three elements—spiritual alienation from God, oppression by Satan, and deformation by a sinful world—coincide. To put it simply, every human being begins his life heading away from God, with Satan and the world conspiring to keep it that way. Every person thus needs to be regenerated by a sovereign act of grace and incorporated into the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Against the reality of original sin is the commitment of the Holy Trinity to restore mankind to himself through Jesus Christ. God desires the salvation of every human being and provides sufficient grace for each person to find him and turn to him. Catholic Christians confess that God’s saving grace is communicated through the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments of the Church. The Church is the ordinary means of salvation, and on this basis she commits herself to the vigorous evangelization of all peoples; but we also believe that God does not restrict his grace to the ministry of the visible Church. In the words of Vatican II:

This missionary activity derives its reason from the will of God, “who wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, Himself a man, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:45), “neither is there salvation in any other” (Acts 4:12). Therefore, all must be converted to Him, made known by the Church’s preaching, and all must be incorporated into Him by baptism and into the Church which is His body. … Therefore though God in ways known to Himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel to find that faith without which it is impossible to please Him (Heb. 11:6), yet a necessity lies upon the Church (1 Cor. 9:16), and at the same time a sacred duty, to preach the Gospel. (Ad gentes 7)

Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. (Lumen gentium 16; cf. Gaudium et spes 22)

Original sin, the necessity of gospel and Church, and the universality of God’s salvific will—how do we coordinate these teachings? Their coordination has been the task of Catholic theologians since Vatican II. It is beyond my competence to assess the theories advanced, but such an assessment is unnecessary for present purposes. However we may articulate the interior self-communication of God to sinners, we are not permitted to assert as fact that by his Spirit God has regenerated, and thus overcome original sin in, every unbaptized human being. This would reduce the Sacrament of Holy Baptism to symbolic announcement. We may and must proclaim, with John Paul II, that “man—every man without any exception whatever—has been redeemed by Christ” and that therefore “with man—with each man without exception whatever—Christ is in a way united, even when man is unaware of it” (Redemptor hominis 14); and again: “We are dealing with ‘each’ man, for each one is included in the mystery of the Redemption and with each one Christ has united himself for ever through this mystery” (13). We may and must proclaim the work of salvation objectively accomplished in the incarnate Word, who has regenerated human nature by sufferings, death, and resurrection. Yet divine revelation does not allow us to take that further step and announce that the work of salvation is subjectively accomplished in every human being or even most human beings. There is mystery here that must be respected.

In other words, we are not permitted to count either the damned or the saved. As Dulles writes, “The search for numbers in the demography of hell is futile. God in His wisdom has seen fit not to disclose any statistics.” I would add that searching for numbers in the demography of purgatory is equally futile.

Jesus was once asked the question, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” Our Lord’s answer is instructive: “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:23-24). Jesus refuses to answer the question and instead turns it back on the head of the questioner. He will not entertain the speculation, because it draws attention from the only thing that matters, namely, the call to faith that is spoken to us by Christ at this very moment. Why are you worried about all the others? Jesus asks. Look at me. Listen to my words. Heed my summons. Convert. The time for decision is now.

All conjecture on the number of the saved and the damned directs us away from Christ. Look at everyone else, we say. Most are pretty good people, are they not? They do not appear to have damned themselves by a definitive destruction of love and denial of truth. Yes, they aren’t saints. Yes, they will probably need to undergo purgatorial purification. But isn’t it encouraging that most will be saved? And if the majority, perhaps the large majority, of folks will be saved, then odds are I am included in their number! After all, I’m not nearly as wicked as Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. And thus I decline, without even realizing it, the summons to faith.

In a letter to Dom Bede Griffiths (19 November 1950), C. S. Lewis wrote of the need for spiritual regeneration and warned against inferring a state of regeneration based on behavior and moral goodness:

The bad (material) tree cannot produce good fruit. But oddly, it can produce fruits that by all external tests are indistinguishable from the good ones: the act done from one’s own separate and unredeemed, tho’ “moral” will, looks exactly like the act done by Christ in us. And oddly enough it is the tree’s real duty to go on producing these imitation fruits till it recognizes this futility and despairs and is made a new (spiritual) tree. (Quoted in Leanne Payne, Real Presence [1979], p. 100)

Lewis, I am sure, would agree that true sanctity is discernible in others, for those who have eyes to see; yet as Pope Benedict states, the saints are few. For the rest of us, it is all too easy to confuse moral decency and goodness, or at least absence of grievous sin, with spiritual life. Christians presume a state of grace for those involved in the sacramental life of the Church, yet the Church has always warned her members of the mortality of sin and the need for continual conversion to Christ. We may not presume that others are saved or in the process of being saved because they are decent or at least not truly wicked people. We may not presume that we are saved or in the process of being saved because we are decent or at least not truly wicked people. There is no substitute for gospel, repentance, and prayer. We must cast ourselves upon the mercy of Christ and pray for the anointing of the Spirit. We must seek to be found in Christ, for he alone is the assurance that we are on the right path.

It is thus unhelpful and indeed misleading to think of damnation in terms of the alarming profiles that always come to mind. The Hitlers and Stalins remind us of the frightening conclusion of damnation, but what is important is the road we are on. We are each headed in one of two directions. We are each becoming either a person of Heaven or a person of Hell.

In George MacDonald’s fairy tale The Princess and Curdie, Curdie is given a great gift. He is instructed to place his hands into a fire of roses. Upon withdrawing his hands, the Princess explains that people are either traveling humanward or beastward, and which direction they are moving is not easily discerned. “Two people may be at the same spot in manners and behaviour,” she says, “and yet one may be getting better and the other worse, which is just the greatest of all differences that could possibly exist between them.” The kind of person they are becoming is always first evident in their hands, in their “inside hands” of which the outside hands are but the gloves. Sadly, those who are becoming beasts are unaware of their fate:

Now listen. Since it is always what they do, whether in their minds or their bodies, that makes men go down to be less than men, that is, beasts, the change always comes first in their hands—and first of all in the inside hands, to which the outside ones are but as the gloves. They do not know it of course; for a beast does not know that he is a beast, and the nearer a man gets to being a beast the less he knows it. Neither can their best friends, or their worst enemies indeed, see any difference in their hands, for they see only the living gloves of them.

The Princess then tells Curdie that he has been given the magical gift of discerning by a handshake whether a person is becoming a beast and if so what kind of beast he is becoming. Curdie asks if it will be his job then to warn everyone “whose hand tells me that he is growing a beast.” Alas, replies the Princess, most will not listen to the truth, for they are ceasing to be human.

This is the great danger that lies before us, and that danger is exponentially magnified if we begin to think we are safe because we are not like the truly wicked. Perhaps we do not boast of our virtues, as did the Pharisee after comparing himself to the publican. We rely instead on our relative lack of wickedness. “I thank thee, O Lord, that I have not committed as many mortal sins as Osama bin Ladin.” But as Uncle Screwtape tells his nephew Wormwood: “It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts” (The Screwtape Letters, XII).

Strive to enter through the narrow door!


[Join the discussion at De Cura Animarum]

Protestants and Purgatory

•7 February 2008 • Comments Off

by Fr Alvin Kimel

Protestants and Purgatory do not go together. Of course, there are exceptions—C. S. Lewis immediately comes to mind—but as a rule, Protestant Christians firmly reject the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. Many reject it because they do not find it clearly taught in Holy Scripture. Others reject it because they believe that it contradicts the Reformation doctrine of justification. But does it contradict this doctrine? must it? It all depends, suggests Wesleyan philosopher Jerry Walls, on how we relate justification to sanctification. This relationship has been a matter of intractable dispute between Catholics and Protestants but also between Protestants and Protestants. Walls believes, though, that if we begin our reflection with Heaven we may discover possibilities for resolution.

“Salvation, such as it shall be in the world to come, shall itself be our final happiness,” declares St Augustine. Eternal life with God is the goal and fulfillment of our existence. God is our supreme good, consummation, and end. We were made to live with him and to find in him satisfaction and joy. “This point,” insists Walls, “must be emphasized: Salvation itself is our final happiness. There is a tight, integral connection between moral renewal, salvation, and human fulfillment and happiness. … Salvation is much more than mere morality. It is finally a matter of knowing God as fully as we are capable of knowing him and thereby experiencing the fullness of life” (Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy, pp. 37-38).

But we are not presently the kind of persons capable of Heaven. We are at war with our Creator and at war with our selves. In our fallen condition we are not disposed to love and worship God. We are inclined, rather, to self-centeredness, ingratitude, and disobedience. Our salvation therefore requires our personal transformation and the healing of our disordered desires. We must become persons who love God as their supreme good, who believe that he is infinitely praiseworthy, who desire to be eternally united to him in mutual self-giving. Becoming persons who find their ultimate felicity in Heaven is the heart and center of salvation:

The joy and happiness of heaven is precisely the joy and happiness of salvation. Salvation is essentially a matter of loving God and being rightly related to him. This relationship is the source of our deepest delight and satisfaction. Heaven is not a place that could be enjoyed apart from loving God in the way made possible by salvation. There is no question of “going to” heaven if one is not the sort of person who has the sort of desires and affections for God that heaven satisfies. (p. 40)

Walls is thus critical of forensic construals of justification that neatly cordon off sanctification. “The essence of salvation,” he explains, “is the real transformation that allows us to love God and enjoy fellowship with him. The element of forgiveness, although crucial, is secondary to this” (p. 50). To be declared righteous but never to become righteous is no salvation at all. The best in Reformation theology has always recognized the inseparable union of justification and sanctification, but this unity is often broken, he avers, in popular preaching and piety. The result is a portrayal of faith in Christ that “seems magical and void of moral and intellectual seriousness” (p. 41). Justification and sanctification cannot be divorced. We cannot honestly plead the atoning sacrifice of Christ and simultaneously refuse to become the kind of persons we are called by God to be, to become the kind of persons who are capable of enjoying Heaven. “To plead the atonement,” Walls continues, “we must acknowledge God as God. We must own his purposes for our lives and recognize them as good. That is, God’s purposes for us are indeed for our well-being and ultimate happiness and satisfaction. But we cannot merely ask God’s forgiveness and proceed with our purposes apart from God. To attempt to do this is to operate with a false valuation of both ourselves and of God” (p. 51). Human cooperation with grace would therefore seem to be indispensable in the process of salvation. We cannot by our own powers convert and heal ourselves. God must convert and heal us; yet he must do so, and does do so, in a way that elicits our free cooperation and involvement. In the words of Augustine: “But He who made you without your consent does not justify you without your consent. He made you without your knowledge but He does not justify you without your willing it.”

But how does God transform us in the depths of our being without violating our freedom and personhood? Here Walls appeals to the reflections of Eleonore Stump. If we understand the human self as a unity of hierarchically ordered desires, then we can distinguish between first-order and second-order desires. First-order desires are our basic desires; second-order desires are our desires about our desires. Stump cites the character of Rosamond Lydgate in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch. Rosamond is selfish and manipulative. How, speculates Stump, might God effect her conversion without compromising her personhood? Rosamund must begin to see the wickedness of her actions and the disorder of her primary desires. She must form, in response to grace and in grace, second-order desires that God will change her first-order desires and bring them into conformity with his will. This transformation, as we know from personal experience, simply takes time. Our sanctification is not completed the instant we form a second-order desire to be sanctified. Our volition at this point is vague, says Stump, and insufficiently powerful to effect an immediate conversion of our primary desires:

It consists in a general submission to God and an effective desire to let God remake one’s character. But a willingness of this sort is psychologically compatible with stubbornly holding on to any number of sins. … Making a sinner righteous, then, will be a process in which a believer’s specific volitions are brought into harmony with the governing second-order volition assenting to God’s bringing her to righteousness, with the consequent gradual alteration in first-order volitions, as well as in intellect and emotions. (Quoted on p. 56)

We may broadly desire to be made holy. We may desire that God would change one or more of our primary desires. But it is possible for us to desire all of this and yet not recognize all of our sins as sins or “perceive their destructiveness to the point of truly wishing to be delivered from them” (p. 56). We must grow into this knowledge and freedom. It takes time for grace to penetrate into the deepest recesses of our characters. It takes time for us to pierce the levels of our selfishness and self-deception and to accept the truth of ourselves and, most importantly, to accept the full-range of God’s will for us.

Our free response to grace is necessary for our transformation. God does not impose himself. He does not coerce our acceptance of his gift of love, nor does he overrule our wills in the process of sanctification. God respects our constitution as free beings and graciously guides us into full communion with him. “God enables our transformation each step of the way,” Walls writes, “but our cooperation is necessary for our sanctification to go forward” (p. 55). But what if we die imperfectly sanctified? If in this life God respects and works within our freedom, is it not reasonable to think that he will continue to do so in the next? Walls suggests that the point needs to be made even stronger: “If God is willing to dispense with our free cooperation in the next life, it is hard to see why he would not do so now, particularly in view of the high price of freedom in terms of evil and suffering” (p. 55). Hence Walls believes there are good reasons for Protestants to reconsider the doctrine of Purgatory (also see “Purgatory for Everyone”).

Walls finds unconvincing the Protestant claim that death itself effects an immediate movement into immaculate sanctity. Such a radical conversion would seem to violate our nature as temporal beings. Would we even recognize ourselves after such a dramatic change? If I were to wake up tomorrow perfectly and completely holy, would I in fact be the same person? No doubt friends and family would welcome the change, but might I not experience myself as a stranger, given the absence of historical and personal continuity? This does not mean that time after death must work in the same way as time in our world; yet it does seem appropriate that God would provide a way, transcending our present understanding, for the process of sanctification to continue in an intermediate state. Walls is particularly critical of the quasi-gnostic assertion that we are liberated from sin merely by being delivered from our present bodies and given new bodies. The most deadly sins are spiritual, and they are not cured by resurrection alone. Sanctification is never a purely passive affair. There are no short-cuts to holiness.

Is Purgatory, therefore, compatible with a forensic understanding of justification? Absolutely, answers Walls. Since forensic justification is concerned with our acceptance by God, and not with our being internally made righteous, it does not, in principle, provide a basis for objecting to the proposal of purgatorial sanctification.

The words of C. S. Lewis provide a fitting conclusion:

Our souls demand purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleansed first”? “It may hurt, you know.”—“Even so, sir.”

[Join the discussion at De Cura Animarum]

Purgatory as Self-Knowledge

•4 February 2008 • Comments Off

by Fr Alvin Kimel

“God is the Last Thing of the creature. Gained, He is its paradise; lost, He is its hell; as demanding, He is its judgment; as cleansing, He is its purgatory” (Hans Urs von Balthasar).

This statement succinctly states the fundamental approach of contemporary Catholicism to eschatology: the Last Things are understood as aspects and dimensions of the final encounter with the Triune God. The result has been a movement away from the juridical metaphors that have dominated Catholic imagination for the past millenium. “The court room scene,” writes Fr Zachary Hayes, “is replaced with an interpretation in which the primary metaphors are derived from the experience of personal encounter. The traditional symbols are not lost but are given a new interpretation which stands fully within the framework of theological possibilities left open by the church’s magisterial teaching” (Visions of a Future, pp. 115-116).

The interpretation of the Last Things in terms of personal encounter has been widely received within the Catholic Church. A good example is philosopher Peter Kreeft’s popular and insightful work Every Thing You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven, but Never Dreamed of Asking [Heaven]. Kreeft devotes a chapter to the theme of Purgatory. He also briefly discusses Purgatory in his book Catholic Christianity [CC].

Kreeft notes that the disagreement between Catholics and Protestants on Purgatory seems to be intractable, yet he believes it is resolvable, “if we will only look at Purgatory as the saints do” (Heaven, p. 62). Purgatory, argues Kreeft, logically follows from two facts: our imperfection on earth and our perfection in Heaven. “At the moment of death,” he writes, “most of us are not completely sanctified (purified, made holy), even though we are justified, or saved by having been baptized into Christ’s Body and having thereby received God’s supernatural life into our souls, having accepted him by faith and not having rejected him by unrepented mortal sin” (CC, p. 149). But Heaven requires perfect holiness, not as an arbitrarily-imposed condition, but because Heaven simply is a perfect communion of love and self-giving. No one can love God with all of his heart and soul and body until he has been purified of twisted self-love and liberated from attachments and delusion. If we are not ready for Heaven when we die, then we must somehow be made ready beyond death. Purgatory refers to this process of being made ready for Heaven. Kreeft identifies four essential notes of Purgatory (Heaven, pp. 62-63):

1) Purgatory is a part of Heaven. It is not a distinct “place” between Heaven and Hell. Purgatory is Heaven’s anteroom in which the elect are prepared, cleansed, healed, matured, and sanctified. It is the wash-room, where we shed our dirty clothes and plunge into a hot bath before entering the majestic palace of the King. Purgatory is therefore temporary. There are only two eternal destinies—Heaven and Hell.

2) Purgatory is joyful, not gloomy. Whatever pain may attend the process of purification, it does not diminish the profound joy and triumph of Purgatory. The holy souls have passed through death into life and know that their ultimate destiny is now secure. The sufferings of Purgatory are more desirable than the most ecstatic pleasures on earth.

3) Purgtory is a place of sanctification, not justification. Only the forgiven and justified enter into the final purification. Sin is not paid for in Purgatory but surgically removed. The doctrine of Purgatory neither challenges nor diminishes the finished work of Christ on the cross.

4) Purgatory is a place of education, not works. Purgatory is not a second chance to merit salvation through good deeds but an opportunity to acquire “a full understanding of deeds already done during our first and only chance, and a full disposal of all that needs to be disposed.”

Kreeft acknowledges the long-standing tradition that speaks of Purgatory as the expiation of the temporal punishment due to our sins, but he insists that this punishment must be interpreted by its eschatological purpose—the transformation of sinners into saints:

The reason for purgatory is not the past, not an external, legal punishment for past sins, as if our relationship with God were still under the old law. Rather, its reason is the future; it is our rehabilitation, it is training for heaven. For our relationship with God has been radically changed by Christ; we are adopted as his children, and our relationship is now fundamentally filial and familial, not legal. Purgatory is God’s loving parental discipline (see Heb 12:5-14). (CC, pp. 149-150)

Kreeft’s favorite image of Purgatory is that of reading a book: “Purgatory is reading the already-written book of your life with total understanding and acceptance—the total understanding that comes only from total acceptance” (Heaven, 65). With the story of our mortal lives having reached conclusion, we can step back and read and re-read our stories from God’s perspective, without fear of condemnation, without rationalization and self-deception. Purgatory provides us the freedom to confront our histories and understand our choices and their consequences for ourselves and most importantly for others. “Since in Purgatory,” Kreeft explains, “we do not make different choices but only see and understand clearly all our past choices, the only virtue there is knowledge, and education there does cure all moral ills” (p. 64).

“Human kind,” T. S. Elliot wrote, “cannot bear very much reality.” Humankind cannot bear to see the destruction and horror that it brings into the world, cannot bear to accept the responsibility for the injuries it has afflicted on others. Our offenses, infidelities, greed, lust, and violence ripple through families and communities, affecting people unto the third and fourth generation. We spend much of our time, both individually and corporately, protecting ourselves against this knowledge; but in Purgatory God reveals to us the truth of our lives. Denial is no longer a possibility. God delivers us from our delusions and brings us into reality, into knowledge, into responsibility. This is the suffering of Purgatory.

Sin is purged by sharing in our destiny as light. We see the meaning and the effects of all our sins in Purgatory—their effects on others as well as ourselves, both directly and indirectly, through chains of influence presently invisible, chains so long and effectual that we would be overwhelmed with responsibility if we saw them now. Only a few can endure the saint’s insight that “we are each responsible for all.” … In Purgatory I will experience all the harm I have done, with sensitized and mature conscience. This is a suffering both more intense and more useful than fire or merely physical pain. But I will experience it also with the compassion and forgiveness of God, forgiving myself as God forgives me. … After we remember sin, we can forget it; after we take it seriously, we can laugh at it: after we share in the sufferings of the God Who experienced Hell for us (“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”), we can share in His “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Our experience and forgiveness will be perfect in Purgatory because there we will know. (pp. 68-69)

In C. S. Lewis’s parable The Great Divorce, the visitors from the grey town are met in Heaven by old friends and relatives, who seek to assist them in their journey to God. In love, honesty, and frankness, each speak truth to the visitors. Alas, only one visitor decides to remain in Heaven. The others choose to deny their sins and to return to the grey town. Perhaps this is one of the important functions of the communion of saints—to assist us in the apprehension of our sins. The support of the saints may well be crucial as we read the book of our lives. Reading is most effective when exercised in community. And perhaps in some mysterious way our penitent acceptance of our sins will be instrumental in the healing and final sanctification of those whom we have injured. Perhaps we will even be allowed to ask and receive their forgiveness. The communion of saints, suggests Kreeft, is essential to the process of purgatorial transformation, “for there is no more effective method of religious education than the presence of saints” (p. 72). Even in Purgatory, especially in Purgatory, we need teachers and communicators of holiness. Sanctity is a dynamic, contagious, revelatory power.

“Purgatory, like Heaven,” concludes Kreeft, “is joy and truth. Heaven is the perfection of joy and truth. Hell is the refusal to accept truth and therefore the refusal of joy” (p. 71).

(To be continued)

[Join the discussion at De Cura Animarum]


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 29 other followers