Universalism: How does Roman Catholicism respond?

PassionAdultery

“Universalism” as I am using the term is defined as the position in which all human and angelic beings are restored to fellowship with the Triune God through the redemptive work of Christ Jesus. That is, if universalism were to turn out to be correct, then there would be no human or fallen angel (“demon”) who goes to Hell forever.

In addressing this question, I have committed myself insofar as I am capable to the faith of the teaching authority (“Magisterium”) of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). That is, I have undertaken great pains and theological revisions in order to think about Hell and universalism from an orthodox Roman Catholic perspective. In this post, I will discuss universalism as I have come to think about it.

In order to have a meaningful discussion about universalism from a Roman Catholic position, I believe that at least four broader topics must be addressed, namely, Holy Scripture (the Bible), the Magisterium (especially Emperor Justinian’s anathemas against Origenism that have come to be associated by many churchmen with the Fifth Oecumenical Council) and the broadly universalist writings of the Patristic period (particularly those of Origen and St Gregory of Nyssa), universalism’s relationship to models of human and angelic freedom, and the sin of presumption. Finally, I will propose an approach to Hell and universalism based on Christ’s role as Son to whom the Father has given all Just and Loving judgment, an approach that I hope is at once practical and daring.

Universalism and Holy Scripture

Arguably the most epistemically significant source of information about Hell and universalism is Holy Scripture. The first item to note about Holy Scripture is that it is — frankly — ambiguous on the question of universalism. Even the most abrasive threats of Hellfire are arguably conditional: “if one does ‘x’, one will go into everlasting punishment”; however, it is by no means necessary that anyone will do ‘x’. Even a thief who was crucified with Jesus, who apparently repented only in the hour of his death, is promised paradise by Christ. In Scripture, Christ speaks of a God who does not consider a ninety-nine percent success rate good enough. Even one lost sheep out of one hundred total sheep is not expendable to Christ.

Universalism, the Roman Catholic Magisterium, and Patristic Universalists

The Magisterium is the dogmatic teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Its decrees are “infallible”, free from the very possibility of error. The only question one must face when approaching the Magisterium is this: what doctrines are properly understood as true decrees of the Magisterium, and what doctrines have not been addressed by the Magisterium?

To answer this question, it is necessary to distinguish between the “Ordinary Magisterium” and the “Extraordinary Magisterium.” The Extraordinary Magisterium consists of statements like ex cathera doctrines of Popes (who according to Vatican I are capable of defining dogmatic statements) and decrees of Oecumenical Councils (such as Nicea and Florence), whereas the Ordinary Magisterium consists of the perennial teachings of the church throughout time (such as teachings on human sexuality) [1]. In order for any sort of belief or hope for universalism to be permitted for Roman Catholics, universalism must be demonstrated to be consistent with the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium.

Regarding the Extraordinary Magisterium, there is probably only one topic that greatly needs to be addressed: the Justinian anathemas against Origenism that are sometimes associated with the Fifth Oecumenical Council. The first thing to note here is that it seems to be the case that the Justinian anathemas were not approved by the Fifth Oecumenical Council. Eastern Orthodox theologian David Hart addresses this critical point in online article about Origen [2]. As Hart observes, Norman Tanner’s edition of the decrees of the Oecumenical Councils omits the Justinian anathemas as spurious late additions to the decrees of the Fifth Oecumenical Council. If Hart and Tanner are correct, then the Extraordinary Magisterium has not closed off the possibility of universalism. Furthermore, even if the anathemas against Origenism are authentic to the council, it is not at all apparent that they eliminate St Gregory of Nyssa’s version of universalism [3].

What about the Ordinary Magisterium? One obvious possible rebuttal to claims that the universal teaching of the church contradicts universalism is that at least two very early theologians — the aforementioned Origen, and even a canonized saint, the Cappadocian “father of fathers” St Gregory of Nyssa — explicitly taught universalism. Origen taught it at least as a possibility, and Gregory proclaimed it as a certainty. According to St Gregory, even the Devil himself will one day be redeemed by Christ. As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on Gregory of Nyssa states [4],

…the logical consequence of Christ’s deification [for Gregory] is the apokatastasis–the restoration of humanity to its unfallen state. Because evil is a privation of the good and is therefore limited, Gregory believes that there is a limit to human degradation. At some point, everyone must turn around and strive for the good. Besides, the ultimate good, which is God, is infinitely attractive. Thus, Gregory endorses Origen’s (First Principles I 6.3, II 10.4 – 10.8, III 6.5 – 6.6) much-maligned theories of remedial punishment and universal salvation (Great Catechism 8 [36 – 37], 26 [69], 35 [92]; Making of Man 21 – 22 [201 – 205]; Soul and Resurrection [97 – 105, 152, 157 – 160]). In other words, for Gregory as for his intellectual ancestor Origen, everyone–even Satan himself (Great Catechism 26 [68 – 69])–will eventually be saved. This means that there is no such thing as eternal damnation. Hell is really purgatory; punishment is temporary and remedial. As Gregory puts it in a colorful metaphor, the process of purgation is like drawing a rope encrusted with dried mud through a small aperture: it’s hard on the rope, but it does come out clean on the other side (Soul and Resurrection [100]).

Origen and St Gregory represent a minority tradition among Patristic writing. However, given their testimony, it appears to be possible that the Ordinary Magisterium and the Extraordinary Magisterium may permit universalism, or at least the hope of universalism’s potentiality. Indeed, the liturgy of the Church invites us to pray for the salvation of all.

Universalism and Creaturely Freedom

To fully address universalism’s relation to human and angelic freedom would take us to speculate depths that far exceed my own capacities and learning [5]. However, I will make a few comments that I believe are worthwhile. First, I believe it is plausible that the Thomistic conception of human free choice coheres with a compatibilist understanding of freedom [6]. I also accept the possibility of the salvation of demons, a position that Paul J. Griffiths’ argues has not been precluded by the Magisterium [7]. Assuming that these premises are valid, then it is indeed possible that the salvation of every creature is compatible with a specific variety of freedom of the will.

One important biblical reason that I accept a compatibilist notion of free will comes from St Paul’s brief statements on predestination in Romans 8:28-30 and “the remnant” in Romans 11. I estimate, in line with Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, that Paul accepted a model of predestination [6]. In any case, I personally do not see at the moment how it could be possible that anyone is the object of infallible predestination unless a compatibilist theory of freedom of choice is correct. If anyone is predestined, then compatibilism seems true to me. If compatibilism true, then it would not be problematic to assert that God can save all creatures in cooperation with the exercise of a truly free will on the part of the creatures.

Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Hopeful Universalism and the Sin of Presumption

Probably the single most famous Roman Catholic argument for embracing a “hopeful” universalism is Hans Urs von Balthasar’s book Dare We Hope that All Men be Saved? [8]. I think that one of the most valuable points that Balthasar makes in that monumental book is universalism’s relationship with the sin of presumption. We may, Balthasar asserts, hope and pray for the salvation of all humans [9], but to predict universalism would be in Balthasar’s estimation to commit the sin of presumption, whereby we presume that, for whatever reason, God owes us divine grace. In contrast with presumption, Holy Scripture teaches that the only wage we are due for our sin is death. Any act of rescue on God’s part is sheer grace. This means that, while we can hope and pray for our own salvation and for the salvation of every creature, we must refrain from presuming that God owes salvation to us. God does not owe us salvation, for as St Paul writes, all of us have sinned (Romans 3).

The challenge, as H. U. von Balthasar frames it, is to hope and pray for the salvation of all without presuming that God is required to give anyone eternal salvation. I believe that it is possible to cultivate this attitude, and I will now offer advice on how this might be accomplished.

If Christ alone is the Judge, We may not Presume or Pronounce Judgment

John’s wonderful Gospel states that God the Father has given all judgment to Christ the Son. If God has given “all” judgment to Christ, then that means that there is no judgment left for us to pronounce. I propose that we may neither judge that any will be damned, nor that all will necessarily be saved. Either view would be equivalent to pronouncing a judgment, whether negative or positive. We can be neither convinced universalists nor committed infernalists.

Allow me to end this series of meditations on universal reconciliation by discussing Karl Barth’s stance on universalism. Although Barth was a Reformed (Calvinist) theologian, Pope Pius XII called him the greatest Christian thinker since Thomas Aquinas. (It is difficult to imagine higher praise for a Protestant from a Pope of Rome!) Like Balthasar, Barth taught that we are free to hope and pray for universalism, but should not expect it as something necessary on God’s part. I believe that this posture is healthy. However, I also recognize that at least one churchman (Gregory of Nyssa) held a more certain position than Barth’s, and that Gregory is a canonized saint. In any case, the pronouncement of the final judgment belongs to Christ and not us.

Further Reading

Fr Aidan Kimel: Readings in Universalism. Accessible here as of 10/04/17: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/essential-readings-on-universalism/.

David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite. The chapter on eschatology provides an in-depth discussion of universalism throughout the corpus of St Gregory of Nyssa.

St Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection. This work can be accessed for free by searching the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (ccel.org).

Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, 235-255. I think that this source offers a particularly excellent universalist exegesis of Matthew 25:31-46.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, The Doctrine of God: The Election & Command of God. In this book, Barth attempts to revise John Calvin’s controversial doctrine of election.

Paul J. Griffiths, Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures. Of particular interest is Griffiths’ argument for the possibility of Satan’s salvation in chapter 4 (on the angels).

Robert Wild, A Catholic Reading Guide to Universalism.

References

[1] http://www.dummies.com/religion/christianity/catholicism/what-are-extraordinary-magisterium-and-ordinary-magisterium/ (accessed 10/04/17).

[2] https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/10/saint-origen (accessed 10/04/17). To be clear, Origen has never been canonized as a saint, and I personally do not believe that he ought to be; Ecumenical dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox Church is difficult enough for Roman Catholics without the tension that would undoubtedly be caused by questioning the St Justinian’s anathemas against Origen.

[3] https://afkimel.wordpress.com/essential-readings-on-universalism/ (accessed 10/04/17). Here Fr. Kimel asserts that, “Gregory’s views on the apocatastasis were not condemned by the Church at the 5th Ecumenical Council and would later profoundly  influence the eschatological reflection of Sergius Bulgakov.” I am inclined to agree with Fr. Kimel on this score.

[4] http://www.iep.utm.edu/gregoryn/ (accessed 10/04/17).

[5] Probably the single best Roman Catholic treatise on eschatology (besides Dante’s Divine Comedy) is Paul J. Griffiths’ Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures ( https://www.amazon.com/Decreation-Last-Things-All-Creatures/dp/1481302299 ). Griffiths’ study addresses the eschatological teachings of the Magisterium as well as the spectulative theologies of the Dominican and Franciscan traditions. Griffiths also discusses Magisterial statements on the salvation of the fallen angels (demons), arguing that even the Devil’s salvation is a possibility left open by the Roman Catholic Church.

[6] As its name suggests, “compatibilism” is the view that freedom of choice is compatible with determinism. If compatibilism is (as I think it is) a coherent view of human (and demonic) freedom of will and choice, then it is possible for God to determine that all humans and demons will be reconciled to Himself. However, I estimate that it is very important to insist that God does not owe anyone salvation; salvation is a sheer gift of grace. It is also necessary to say that, if any human or demon does end up in Hell, it is not because of God, but because of that human’s (or demon’s) completely free decision to reject divine love.

[7] A statement in the Catechism of the Catholic Church appears to contradict the possibility of a demon’s salvation, however. “It is the irrevocable character of their choice, and not a defect in the infinite divine mercy, that makes the angels’ sin unforgivable. “There is no repentance for the angels after their fall, just as there is no repentance for men after death.”” (CCC 393, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s2c1p7.htm , accessed 10/04/17). However, it is important to recognize that the Catechism sometimes reproduces merely the opinions of specific church fathers, and does not necessarily represent the infallible teachings of the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium.

[8] https://www.amazon.com/Dare-Hope-That-All-Saved/dp/158617942X/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_14_t_0?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=07R8PXA9ZZKT7AP7EYDJ (accessed 10/04/17).

[9] Contra St Gregory of Nyssa and Paul J. Griffiths, Balthasar rejected the possibility of demonic salvation.

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A Plea to Turning Point USA

Today I wrote a plea to Turning Point USA regarding its mission statement and “professor watchlist.” I have copied it below.

Subject: A comment concerning the part of your mission statement, which says “Empower.”

Dear TPUSA,

I was raised (and homeschooled) in an conservative evangelical and Republican home. My father has been a Republican longer than he has been a Christian. For my family, political and fiscal conservativism are basically creeds.

As for myself, I’m still developing many of my views concerning politics and the global market. (I haven’t even had an economics class, to my personal shame!) For me, Christianity is the most important aspect of my identity. At the moment, I do not really mind whether I am a “conservative” or a “liberal.” It is my belief that Christianity is unconcerned with our secondary identities.

One verse in the Bible says that, “There is no Jew nor Greek, there is no slave nor free, there is no ‘male and female;’ you are all one in the Messiah” (Galatians 3:28). To me, being a Christian *is* a political ideology. To be precise, it is a monarchy. For me, to say that “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9) is a political confession of Jesus’s universal Kingship. To put it in today’s terms, one could reasonably say that “Jesus is President of the world.” That is my belief.

(Note: None of this means that our civil governments do not matter. The author of Galatians 3:28 was also the author of Romans 13:1-7, which teaches Christians to “submit” to the governing authorities that God has allowed to have power. I love America, and desire the best for her and her people.)

Having provided a brief sketch my personal background, I would like to say something about TPUSA’s mission statement, specifically, the part called “Empower.”

Under the heading “Empower,” it is written, “…the *fight* for free markets and limited government” and also “…equipping activists with the knowledge and strategies needed to *combat* the left…” (emphases mine). Since I consider myself a Christian, I will point out that the rhetoric of these statements are extremely disturbing to me. Why is it called “fight”? And why is it called “combat”?

If the motto of the United States, “E Pluribus Unum” (“out of the many, one”) — which is written on the back of our currency — is taken to be correct, then it implies that all Americans are supposed to be *one the same side.* No one should be fighting each other. We should all be lifting each other up insofar as we can. That is, we should not be in a “fight” for anything, unless it is a matter of obvious human rights needs and injustices.

Considering the disagreements upon “free markets” and “limited government” that exist in the U. S., I think it can safely be said that these do not qualify as obvious human rights needs. Whether we are on the “left” or the “right”, we should not be fighting each other. We should be helping one another.

One of the things that really bothered me about Hillary Clinton’s campaign, in fact, was that she said that Republicans are her enemies. That is profoundly troubling to me. We are supposed to be united in America.

The great lie, I believe, of the right-wing / left-wing divide is that we live in a bifurcated country. But I think we do not live in a divided country. Our decisions affect the lives of everyone around us. We should all be united as patriots. As our current President said after the election of Donald Trump, “We’re patriots first.” I believe that unity (“E Pluribus Unum”) is the best paradigm for making America great again.

Having written all of this, I believe that it also relates to the “Professor Watchlist.” I strongly encourage you to consider removing the Professor Watchlist from the Internet. There are other countries (which do *not* have “limited” governments) make watchlists, and some of them imprison, torture, and even kill professors who disagree with them.

I do not want America to become a country like that. Therefore, I implore TPUSA to consider removing the Professor Watchlist from the Internet. TPUSA could even keep the list, and simply re-name it. Perhaps TPUSA could call it the “List of Professors whose work challenges our Political Mission.” That would be much better, and I think it would even welcome positive debate between the left and the right. But I think that when it is called a “watchlist,” it has a disturbingly totalitarian ring to it. If TPUSA is truly committed to “limited government,” then it absolutely behooves TPUSA to avoid totalitarian rhetoric.

I also suggest rephrasing two key parts of the “Empower” statement in TPUSA’s Mission statement. Here are my suggestions played out:

“Empower young activists to get involved in the *propagation of* free markets and limited government. Through building strong campus networks, organizing conferences and training workshops, and equipping activists with the knowledge and strategies needed to *critique* the left, TPUSA empowers young people to make a difference within their own campus and community” (emphases mine).

I believe that the above changes — from “fight for” to “propagation of” and from “combat” to “critique” — would go a long way in marketing the mission of TPUSA to American college students around the country.

I wish you the best in your mission to “make America great again.” I pray that, as an organization, you will do so using the rhetoric of peace which I believe has its origins in the Christian gospel.

I will close with three verses from the Bible which outline what I believe is an excellent Christian view of “fight” and “combat.”

“Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:10-12).

Our fight is not against women and men, but against the unseen forces of evil that threaten to poison every economy, government, and person.

* I edited one phrase in the original e-mail that was somewhat vague.

We Shall see Him as He Is: 1 John 3:1-3

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies herself as he is pure.

(1 John 3:1-3, paraphrased from the English Standard Version.)

This is one of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture to me. God–the Father of all, as J.R.R. Tolkien names God in The Silmarillion–will appear, and with him, the form of the children of God, the form so precious to God that the imprisonment of everyone to disobedience (Romans 11:32) was worth it all. And even further still, by some miracle, “we shall be like him.”

The offer to be like God, the ancient serpent’s false offer to Adam and Eve, will actually be fulfilled by the true, great, and precious purpose of God Himself. The father of lies will surrender to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The prowling lion will be defeated by the Lion of Judah. He who is in the world is lesser than He who is in us.

God Himself, through the hope-giving of the Holy Spirit, will purify us as he is pure, so that when he appears we shall be like him.

I can only exclaim with Paul the Apostle,

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

(Rom. 11:33-36 ESV)

“Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:29 ESV)

‘Neither Do I condemn you’: How I have come to Approach Sexual Sin

I will begin today’s blog post by defining ‘sin.’

I am no expert, but my friends who are familiar with Greek tell me that the Greek word used to describe sin in the book of 1 John is ‘hamartia.’ It basically means, ‘Missing the mark.’ It reminds me of Romans 3:23, which says ‘For there is no distinction: all have sinned and fall short [miss the mark] of the reputation of God.’ I do not view sin so much as a vile thing that we ought to be ashamed of (although it is that). The real problem with sin in my view is that we miss the mark–the best in Christ–that God has for us. Sin is a barrier to the experience of living ‘abundantly’ (John 10:10). I hate sin not only because it is wrong. I hate sin because my Father hates it.

Concerned about sin? Yes, for it is the tragic barrier to real living.

We come now to sexuality. What is a sexual sin? A sexual sin is simply an act or disposition towards sexuality that misses the highest mark–for God’s mark is always highest, best, and most lovely–for sexuality. This of course begs the question: what is God’s mark for sexuality? If I am to strive to be perfect as my perfect Father in heaven desires, what does it even mean for me to be perfect in my sexuality? Jesus gives us a clue in the sermon on the mount. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matthew 5:27-30 ESV)

Jesus is clear that true holiness will involve a kind of sexual perfection that does not even sin in the mind. For Jesus, the enemy of ‘holy matrimony’ is not inappropriate sexual affairs, but inappropriate imagination. Before an act can be committed, it must be imagined and desired. Jesus is striving for holiness.

Now does this mean that if we mess up, that’s just it, we’re going to hell? No. Not if the first letter of John has anything to say about it. ‘My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.’ (1 John 2:1 ESV) Jesus himself elaborates here. ‘Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.’ (Matthew 12:30-31 ESV) Every sin and blasphemy, including sexual sin, will be forgiven people. (In my view, even the blasphemy against the Spirit would be forgiven if only the blasphemer would cease to blaspheme, but that is perhaps a topic for another time.)

Okay. There we go. Our terms, sin and sexual sin, are laid out very generally. That’s all fine and dandy. A bit too philosophical, perhaps, but well and good. There is, however, another part of the story that is important for our answer, and that pertains to my story, my background.

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Most of my life, I’ve been a very worrisome guy. Worry seems to be the final frontier for the power of God’s Spirit in my life. May I submit to his purpose for me.

Much of worrying for me pertained to theological issues. I was a young earth creationist, and I believed the people who weren’t were suppressing the truth. I was a deterministic thinker set on Calvinism, and I believed that it was just for God to create people only to torment them forever and ever. I was unsympathetic to alternative interpretations of the Bible to those to which I had been conditioned in my younger days. I believed God was true, but I was terrified–sometimes horrified–of the picture of him that I had so long carried. When the Bible said God desires all people to be saved, I didn’t believe it. When the Bible said God was love, I did not believe it. Anyone with this kind of psychology would feel like I did, at least, so I presume.

When it came to sexuality, I was probably just worried about myself and my friends. I didn’t want us to do the wrong things. I didn’t want us to forsake God. I wanted things to be ‘ok.’

I think I was still wrestling with these thoughts. My meta-cognition is not keen enough for me to recall to what extend I had become more laid back about these issues, but I do have a few guesses.

I began to believe that which I had originally professed, that God is love. I began to believe–for the first time, perhaps–that God loved us ‘while we were still sinners.’ If that is true, what is the difference between my sexual sin and someone else’s sexual sin? Before the cross of Christ, sin and his child death are less than nothing. They have no existence when pitted against grace. I guess I finally came to believe the following two verses:

“Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 5:20-21)

I realized that before the power and the presence of Jesus Christ our Lord, no sexual sin has power over anyone. (Philosophically of course, people still sin sexually, so has sin won? On my view, no, but again, that may be a topic for another time.)

The point, dear reader, is this. I’ve come to a point in my walk with God in which I utterly trust him to do that which is right. I am not afraid to commit myself or my friends into his loving hands. If I or my friends should fall sexually, I have no doubt that God is able to more than infinitely restore us.

Practically, this means:

1) It is no longer my role to condemn. A person’s sin, I believe, is between himself and God. There is only one man for whom I may speak on the day in which God judges the secret thoughts of men, and the man is me. Will I try to help others? Yes, of course, but I must help them in the ways in which Christ approves, and apparently, he does not approve of the kind of judgments so often rendered by humankind.

2) It is absolutely my role to demonstrate love to others by keeping doors open for our relationships. If my friends are doing something wrong, I am confident that God can use me to help, even that he can speak without my voice. My actions themselves are a voice in the mouth of God, or so it would seem to me. Would I be demonstrating my love by offering a condemnation that God has forbidden me to give? No. I think not. I will let the Spirit speak to a person’s sin. I will speak to the hearts of people by loving them at the same time that God does–while they are still sinners.

3) It is written in 2 Timothy 4:1-8: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.” The appearance of Christ was and is an altogether lovely thing to all that is the good creation of God in this world–including sexuality. I cannot preach a loving thing in an unloving manner. If I am to be concerned about sexual sin, I will do so on the Lord’s terms–through the renewal of my mind, that by testing I my discern that which is excellent and pleasing to God. (Romans 12:1-2)

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It is not so much that I am less concerned about sexual sin than that I am more confident in the power of God through grace. As I pray for myself and my friends and for sexuality on earth to be conducted as it would be in heaven–in holiness, the fear of God, and out of a desire to love, for love is the cardinal virtue with faith and hope–I lack no confidence that he who began a good work in us will bring it to completion in the day of Christ.

Sacramental Odyssey: What I learned from visiting a Roman Catholic Mass

Having been raised Protestant, my exposure to the Roman Catholic Church has been fairly limited, aside from a single mass that my family visited once while on vacation. The usual Protestant dogma concerning Catholics — veneration of Mary, emphasis on tradition and rituals, nominal faith — is upsetting to me, because it sells Protestants short of the approach to Christianity that dominated in the Western world during the first 1,500 years after the life of Christ.

I offer two ideas below that I believe would benefit Protestants–myself included–to consider.

  1. Roman Catholics may venerate Mary, but do not many Protestants venerate Scripture? “The Bible is the final authority”, it is often stated. That may very well be the case, but for what, and to what end? Without God, without Christ, the Bible is just one of many very old collections of religious texts. Maybe the same goes for Mary in Catholicism. Without God, without Christ, Mary would just another ancient person, no more extraordinary than Homer or Nero. All that aside, if one is to admire any historical figure of Christian faith, Mary would definitely not be a bad choice, especially if we are to believe anything that is written in Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke.
  2. Emphasis on tradition and rituals. I’m surprised to see this criticism emerge from Protestantism — particularly from American evangelicals (the religious community in which I was raised), whose most popular theologians seem remarkably incapable of divorcing their inherited theology from what the Bible actually teaches. To take an obvious example: how is it the case that many evangelicals believe that Genesis 1 offers a literal account of creation (the earth was created 10,000 years ago without evolutionary processes), while simultaneously believing that when Christ says “this is My Body” when referring to the bread of His Last Supper, it is metaphorical?

Introductory thoughts completed, here’s what I did learn visiting a Roman Catholic Mass this evening:

  1. Roman Catholics love to pray. During mass, each member of the audience is expected to pray and to relish the delightful reading of Scripture and well-written liturgy.
  2. Roman Catholics appreciate church history. The clergy trace their succession of Holy Orders all the way back to the Apostolic age. A strong emphasis is placed on specific saints in Christian history that, in my view, has the potential to inspire the Catholic to live a life worthy of the good news.
  3. Roman Catholics go to great lengths to beautify the place of worship. In an age in which the doctrine of the beauty of God is oft hidden beneath the doctrine of the wrath of God — in my view beautiful itself, if properly understood — Catholicism presents a refreshing break from any spirituality unconcerned with beauty.
  4. Roman Catholics feel very much in touch with the Global Christian movement. Time would fail me to speak of the benefits of this attitude, especially in light of Jesus’ prayer in John 17, many of Paul’s statements throughout his letters, and the letters of John.

I believe that Protestants should look for ready allies in Roman Catholics who are hungry for the kingdom of God to rule on earth and the peace of Christ to rule in hearts.

The Enemy of my Enemy: Conservative vs. Liberal

Conservative vs. Liberal. True battle, or false dichotomy?

In an age in which many resist labels, many succumb to implicit labels by polarizing their views through a ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ lens. Apparently, this happens more in U.S. academia than in U.K. academia, but the point remains that in the U.S., too often are well-meaning people polarized by self or others for this or that belief that identifies with this or that ‘party’, ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal.’

A view of the world that can split any given issue into ‘black’ and ‘white’, ‘conservative’ or liberal’, is oversimplified.

Instead of bowing to the demands of the idol of party, we ought to approach issues on a case by case basis, letting the data and the results of a given approach speak for themselves.

“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” ~ Jesus Christ (John 7:24 ESV)

Speak Friend and Enter: A Welcome to gandalfsbeardblog

Greetings! And welcome to gandalfsbeardblog.

“David Abrams” is the pen name that I will use for the purposes of this site. Aside from Biblical (and science fiction ^_^ ) allusions, the name has no real relationship to my identity.

I was raised and homeschooled in an Evangelical Protestant family, the oldest of six kids (not a Catholic or Mormon family). It would not be possible for me to overstate the gratefulness that I have for the way that my parents raised me in the fear of God. Throughout my life, my hobbies have included Christian studies, Islamic studies, philosophy, science, fantasy (hence ‘gandalfsbeard’), science fiction, music, video games (especially the 3D renditions of The Legend of Zelda), running/jogging, and more. The love of my life said “I do” to me recently and for that I am evermore amazed and thankful. I hold a B.S. in biochemistry and am currently studying organic chemistry in pursuit of a Ph.D.

Throughout the existential crises of my life I have lost many philosophies, but Christianity (Christ) has stuck with me. I remain utterly convinced that God–the mind behind our cosmos–is revealed in Jesus Christ and that his message–the gospel (‘good news’)–is actually the answer to the world’s problems. Unfortunately, it is my present opinion that Christianity has in many respects turned into ‘bad news,’ a far cry from its humble and profound beginnings. It is my desire to devote my life to contending for what I believe to be the truth of the matter, that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:19 English Standard Version.) The God who loves while we are still sinners asks us to do the same. What kind of world would it be if we all became a Christ to our neighbors–the reality of neighborhood is made fortunately, painfully obvious by our modernized, globalized world–not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to them the message of reconciliation? To this end I toil and strive, because I have my hope set on the living God, who is the savior of all people. (1 Timothy 4:10.)

It is my yearning that my blog–one of many in an internet age–may be but one of many whispers from the Spirit of Christ in your life, calling you to the God who is love. (1 John 4:8.)

“For I am not ashamed of the good news, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”” (Romans 1:16-17)

“Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all.” (2 Thessalonians 3:16)

Written for Our Learning: A Word About History and Christianity (Pt. 1)

One of the most important limitations of the historian concerns sources. Historians use ‘primary documents’ and ‘secondary documents’ in their studies. A ‘primary document’ is a document from the time period with which we are concerned. For instance, Codex Sinaiticus, one of the earliest complete Biblical manuscripts, would be considered a primary document from the 3rd century. A ‘secondary document’ is a source written about a source. For example, a history textbook about the life and theology of Paul–such as N.T. Wright’s wonderful recent work–would be considered a secondary document.

Christianity as a historical religion must be approached with an understanding of and a respect for history, for it is only through engaging with the historical narrative that we are able to understand the language and symbols in the Bible and the so-called ‘Church Fathers.’ It is also arguably critical that we make use of the literature and artifacts of the surrounding cultures to which the Christian movement was speaking and in which the Christian movement was living in order to better contextualize the message of Christianity. I think we as Christians ought to adopt a robust appreciation for the practice of a most honest history. N.T. Wright seems to me to have grasped this fundamental concept well. We would do well to imitate his example.

So what are our primary documents when it comes to the Bible? Well, textual experts recognize a number of Biblical manuscripts and fragments from which we are able to piece together the Bible. Strictly speaking, the Bible as we have it today is a composite of the whole collection of these manuscripts and fragments. We owe a profound debt to those throughout history who have preserved this wealth of information for us. I am reminded of the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Romans: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4 ESV.)


I believe that as we come to recognize these important realities in our approach to hermeneutics, the science of interpreting the Bible, we equip ourselves to be as faithful as possible to the message that was proclaimed in the past and therefore better able to apply it to our present lives and future hope.

Reconciliation: The Meaning of Christianity (Primer 1)

All Biblical quotations from the English Standard Version translation unless otherwise noted.

“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17)

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-19)

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

The suggestion of Christ? Not the suggestion, but the *law* of Christ.

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27)

Religion that is pure and undefiled before the Father is this: to believe the right things? No. To visit the marginalized in their pain. To be a suffering servant–a Christ–to someone else, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11)

“For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (1 Peter 2:19-25)

“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:3)

“If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.” (1 John 2:29)

“Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)