18 August 2010

Discerning where the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church founded by Jesus subsists

It is important at this juncture to state plainly the main purpose of this site: help people make their way to the fullness of the knowledge and love of God by becoming members of Jesus Christ in his mystical body which is the Catholic Church. This is the one Universal Church in which subsists the fullness of Christ's body united with its Head, the Church that receives from Christ "the fullness of the means of salvation" which He has willed:

1. correct and complete confession of faith,

2. full sacramental life, and

3. ordained ministry in apostolic succession (which is a prerequisite for 2).

Additionally, this Catholic Church, by enjoying continued divine assistance including infallible magisterial authority, does not suffer from the problems of ecclesiastical deism and definition of the scriptural canon that affect Protestantism.

Let's place ourselves for a moment in the shoes of the people making that journey. They see a menu of "totalities of particular Churches in communion with one another" that might in principle be "the" one Catholic Church founded by Christ: RC, EO, OO and SSPX (the last included only as theoretical example), in order of decreasing volume. Then they start to narrow the menu by making these initial steps:

- Regarding SSPX, it is impossible that, if until 1962 the RC was "the" Church, then at Vatican II only one RC bishop (Lefebvre) was right and all the other RC bishops and the Pope were wrong. So this option is discarded.

- Regarding OO, it is necessary to examine the historical context of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon. This is because the discernment of whether the Catholic Church subsists in the RC, EO or OO candidates cannot possibly be done by using principles specific to any of the candidates. Therefore the following facts must be checked:

- Second (“Robber” for RCs and EOs) Council of Ephesus in 449: 130 attendants. Council of Chalcedon in 451: at least 370 attendants, who in their overwhelming majority signed its confession of faith.

- Was the high number of diophysite attendants in Chalcedon due to the diophysite side having embarked on a massive consecration of bishops during the run-up to the Council in order to tilt the vote to their favor? No.

- Were many of those signing the diophysite position pressed in any way by the emperor so as to render their vote invalid? No.

Therefore the OO option is discarded.

Thus those comprising the target audience of this site have to choose between the RC and EO options. The choice is not trivial because the issues of doctrinal disagreement between RCs and EOs (mainly Filioque, Papal Primacy and those related to Palamism) are serious enough that, as a consequence, the technical position of each side is that the other side is in material heresy in a number of matters (even when members of a particular side may choose not to use the h-word for reasons of charity or courtesy). As a result, the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church founded by Jesus subsists in only one of the two sides. Notably, each side has a completely different view on the consequences of this objective reality on the status of the other side regarding possession of the means of salvation listed above. Thus:

- RCs believe that EOs lack 1 but have 2 and 3.

- most EOs believe that RCs lack 1, 2 and 3.

Let's review the issues of doctrinal disagreement and their status to appreciate their seriousness:

- The Lateran IV Ecumenical Council (1215) defined the dogma of Absolute Divine Simplicity (ADS), which was confirmed by the Vatican I Ecumenical Council in its Constitution "Dei Filius" (1870). The teachings of EO St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), which were adopted by the EO Churches in three councils held in Constantinople (1341, 1347 and 1351), are against that dogma.

- Pope Benedict XII in his Constitution "Benedictus Deus" (1336) defined the dogma of Beatific Vision whereby saints in Heaven see the divine essence, which was confirmed by the Ecumenical Council of Florence (1439). The teachings of EO St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), which were adopted by the EO Churches in three councils held in Constantinople (1341, 1347 and 1351), are against that dogma.

- The Ecumenical Councils of Lyon II (1274) and Florence (1439) defined dogmatically, quoting from the latter, "that the holy Spirit is eternally from the Father and the Son, and has his essence and his subsistent being from the Father together with the Son, and proceeds from both eternally as from one principle and a single spiration", doctrine commonly designated as Filioque. EOs do not accept that dogma, with some EOs denying it outright and other EOs considering it just a theologumenon.

- The Ecumenical Council of Florence (1439) defined the dogma of papal primacy, which was confirmed by the Vatican I Ecumenical Council in its Constitution "Pastor Aeternus" (1870), which added the definition of papal infallibility. Both dogmas are denied by EOs.

To discern in which side the One Church founded by Jesus subsists, the primary path is to check which of the two doctrinal positions is supported or refuted by the 73 books of the Bible (72 if we count Jeremiah and Lamentations as one) that both sides recognize as inspired. Here is a summary of the results of the checks I made in previous posts:

Filioque: RC position supported by Jn 17:26 and Rev 22:1.

Papal Primacy: RC position strongly supported by Mt 16:17-19 and additionally by Jn 21:15-17.

Teachings of EO St Gregory Palamas:

O1. "God is being and not being." Against Ex 3:14 and Wis 13:1. Strongly against Jn 4:24.

O2. Divine essence-energies distinction.

O3. Deification (theosis) through divine energies only. Strongly against Jn 17:26.

O4. Saints in Heaven see only the divine energies. Strongly against 1 Cor 13:12 and 1 Jn 3:2. Against Mt 5:8.

Therefore the biblical texts overwhelmingly support the RC position in almost all the points of disagreement, and are neutral in the rest.

The secondary path to confirm which side is the One Church founded by Jesus is to examine the Ecumenical Councils of Lyon II and Florence, which were attended by Eastern bishops who in their overwhelming majority (in Florence all the Eastern bishops but one) approved the decrees defining the doctrine of Filioque. Regarding those Councils, there are two possibilities:

a. That at least one of those Councils was indisputably Ecumenical (and not just "RC" Ecumenical, which of course for RCs are truly Ecumenical), meaning by that that the positive vote of the majority of Eastern bishops was valid. In this case, the fact that both Councils are accepted by RCs and rejected by EOs would independently confirm that the One Universal Church founded by Jesus subsists in the RC Church.

b. That in both Councils most of the Eastern bishops did not act freely and in right conscience, but were pressed and/or bribed in a way that rendered their vote invalid. To note, this latter possibility would not prevent both Councils from being "RC" Ecumenical, neither would it affect the conclusion from the examination of biblical passages that the One Universal Church founded by Jesus subsists in the RC Church. It would just not provide additional independent confirmation for that conclusion.

It should be noted that, independently of the final result of the discernment, since there is only one Universal Church founded by Jesus, and from the serious doctrinal disagreements between the RC and EO sides it is clear that the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church founded by Jesus subsists in only one of the two sides, then only one of the two sides can be properly called "Church" as a whole, and the proper term for the totality of particular Churches comprising the other side is "the XX Churches".

Thus the proper terms for the sides as a whole are either

a. "the RC Church" and "the EO Churches", or

b. "the RC Churches" and "the EO Church".

If my plain stating of this fact sounds uncharitable to some ears, I strongly suggest reading the "Note on the expression "Sister Churches"" from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, dated June 30, 2000 and signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The core points are 9 to 12. It's at:



It might be useful to have a formal description of the framework involved in this discernement. Let us call System any of the options among which we are discerning, so that:

System = {Sources, Entities, Corpus, Rules}

Thus, a System is comprised of (the examples of Sources and Entities are from the RC Church):

- Sources of Divine Revelation = {Scripture, Tradition}

- Authoritative Entities = {Ecumenical Council, Pope}

- Corpus: definitions by Entities of the content of the divine revelation in the Sources, including the identification of the Sources

- Rules: Subset of Corpus defining Entities, how they work, and particularly how they define the Corpus.

The one divinely-founded System must exhibit several levels of logical consistency:

1. Instrumental: capacity for identifying infallibly and dynamically (i.e. at any time as needed) the content of the divine revelation in the Sources (and the Sources themselves), and for transmitting that content trans-historically and geographically.

2. Historical: abidance by Rules.

3. Internal: absence of contradiction between definitions in Corpus and content of Sources, and between definitions in Corpus themselves.

4. External: absence of contradiction between definitions in Corpus and physical laws or historical facts.

5. Extraordinary: confirmation by occasional targeted breakings of physical laws (miracles).

I posit that all five levels of logical consistency are relevant in principle to discern between Systems, although in some practical cases the evidence from looking at one of the levels might be strong enough to dispense with the need to look at the others. Thus I discarded the OO option above on the basis of just historical consistency, by looking at historical context for the Council of Chalcedon. The importance of external consistency can be appreciated by imagining the consequences to any System that had defined geocentrism as dogma. (By the way, the RC Church never did so, even when its authorities prohibited for a long time the publication of books supporting that theory and, as is well known, gave Galileo a hard time.)

Thus, the main levels for discerning between the RC and EO options are:

- instrumental: superbly covered in Ray Stamper's comments #88 and #89 to this article), and

- internal: covered in my previous posts and summarized above.

As I said above, in order for the EO Churches to exhibit historical consistency, it is critical for them to claim that in Lyon II (1274) and Florence (1439) the third point in the examination above of the Council of Chalcedon applied to the Eastern bishops, who were either pressed by the Emperor in the first case and practically bribed by the Pope, in the context of the Ottoman threat, in the second. Sure enough that claim does not cause the RC Church to exhibit historical inconsistency, because the Western bishops were under no pressure.

Finally, regarding extraordinary consistency, either the RC Church has received ample confirmation at this level, or many RC Saints had very serious mental problems or were pathological liars, or the RC Church has been forsaken by God as playground for the dark side. (BTW, I am talking only about RC Church-approved miracles like Lourdes. I perceive Medjugorje as a purely human phenomenon in the very best case.)

15 August 2010

Point 4. Beatific Vision: angels and saints see the divine essence.

I will finally address the fourth of the four points of RC-EO disagreement related to the teachings of EO St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), which is, in its RC and EO versions:

C4. Beatific Vision: Pope Benedict XII in his Constitution "Benedictus Deus" (1336) defined that saints in Heaven "see the divine essence with an intuitive vision and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature by way of object of vision; rather the divine essence immediately manifests itself to them, plainly, clearly and openly, and in this vision they enjoy the divine essence." The Ecumenical Council of Florence (1439) confirmed it in a more succint manner, defining that saints in Heaven "clearly behold the triune God as he is".

On the other hand, RC St Thomas Aquinas distinguishes between vision and comprehension. Creatures in the beatific vision see the whole, but they do not comprehend it wholly. Only God wholly comprehends God, as no created intellect can comprehend the divine essence (according to Aquinas, not even the glorified soul of Jesus, although I do not know whether this specific point is generally accepted RC doctrine or just Aquinas' personal opinion.)

O4. Saints in Heaven do not see the divine essence, only the divine energies.

Of course, one way to solve the disagreement would be to prove that there is no ontological distinction between the divine essence and energies, i.e. to solve point 2. However, I will proceed the other way.

There are two NT passages that are most relevant regarding this issue:

At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. (1 Cor 13:12)

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 Jn 3:2)

Most clearly, the statements that "I shall know fully, as I am fully known." and that "we shall see him as he is" are not compatible with Palamas' doctrine that the blessed do not see the divine essence. Moreover, the Pauline statement seems at first sight even incompatible with Aquinas' restriction that the blessed do not comprehend the divine essence, because God certainly does comprehend mine!

Regarding the possible objection that the two quoted passages refer to the vision of Jesus in glory like (Rev 1:13-16) and not to the vision of God, an objection which seems to be reinforced by the Pauline reference to God "whom no human being has seen or can see" (1 Tim 6:16), I answer:

First, that the interpretation of the two passages quoted first as referring to the vision of God and not (only) of Jesus in glory is the most logical by far is clearly seen when we take into account that:

1. It does not make sense to refer to the future vision as the two passages do if it is only of a (however much) glorified human nature.

2. The last noun before "he" and "him" in the second passage is "God" (which unequivocally refers to the Father as it is used in the expression "children of God"), and therefore those pronouns refer to God.

Second, that St Paul's statement at (1 Tim 6:16) refers only to human beings on earth is clearly seen when we read it in conjunction with Jesus' statement: "Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God" (Mt 5:8). And at this point it may be useful to compare the interpretations of both statements on the vision of God, regarding:

- what is meant by "God", and
- the circumstances of the vision or lack thereof.

xx -- The clean of heart will see God (Mt 5:8). -- No man has seen or can see God (1 Tim 6:16).

RC -- Essence, in Heaven. -- Essence, on earth.

EO -- Energies, in Heaven and on earth. -- Essence, on earth and in Heaven.

While the EO interpretation of "God" in (Mt 5:8) as referring to the divine energies and in (1 Tim 6:16) as referring to the divine essence is clearly arbitrary, the RC interpretation of (Mt 5:8) as referring to Heaven and of (1 Tim 6:16) as referring to earth is completely logical as it derives directly from the verbal tense used in each statement:

(Mt 5:8): "will see" = future => in Heaven

(1 Tim 6:16): "has seen or can see" = past and present => on earth

Point 3. Union with God is through his essence. Also Filioque.

The second and third of the four points of RC-EO disagreement related to the teachings of EO St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) are, in their EO version:

O2. There is a real, ontological distinction between divine essence and divine energies. God is his essence and his energies. The divine essence is the cause of the divine energies, which are uncreated. Each divine Person is the divine essence and the divine energies.

O3. Deification (theosis) is union with God through his energies (uncreated energy of the Holy Spirit = uncreated grace), and not through his essence.

Let's assume for a moment that O2 is true, and examine O3 in light of the last statement in Jesus' priestly prayer:

"I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them." (Jn 17:26)

Jesus is asking that "the love with which the Father has loved Him" may be in us. Is Jesus talking about the love with which the Father eternally loves the Son in the Godhead, or about the love with which the Father loves the Son in his human nature? The answer is just two verses before:

"that they may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world." (Jn 17:24)

and in case there were any remaining doubts related to which one is the nature whose glory Jesus is talking about (which should be clear from the past tense anyway), there is this also this verse:

"And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed." (Jn 17:5)

Therefore it is clear that "the love with which the Father has loved Jesus", which Jesus asks that "may be in us", is the love with which the Father eternally loves the Son in the Godhead. Now, assuming that there is a real, ontological distinction between divine essence and energies, the love with which the Father eternally loves the Son "ad-intra" must necessarily be at the level of the essence. And if this love is in us, then the proposition that we only interact with God's energies is false.

Now, let's try to learn more about that love by looking again at Jn 17:26. Jesus is placing that love on an equal standing with Himself regarding the desired presence of both in the disciples. This can be seen even more clearly in some translations of that verse, such as in the New Jerusalem Bible:

"so that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and so that I may be in them." (Jn 17:26b)

The only possible interpretation then is that the love with which the Father eternally loves the Son in the Godhead is the Holy Spirit. So Jesus is asking that the Holy Spirit may be in us. He is thus fulfilling at this moment the promise He had made earlier to the disciples:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate ("Paraclete") to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him. But you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you. (Jn 14:16-17)

And at this point, with the help of God and asking for the light of the Holy Spirit, we can address the issue of Filioque. Can the love with which the Father eternally loves the Son remain unidireccional? Will not the Son reciprocate by eternally loving the Father with the same love? Or does this truth revealed by Jesus apply only to the activity of the Son "ad-extra":

To this Jesus replied: "In all truth I tell you, by himself the Son can do nothing; he can do only what he sees the Father doing: and whatever the Father does the Son does too." (Jn 5:19)

If God is love, and if the Son is "the exact imprint of God's being" (Hb 1:3), there can be no possible doubt that the love with which the Father eternally loves the Son is eternally and equally reciprocated. And since this love is the Holy Spirit, this is a most clear and firm basis for affirming "that the holy Spirit is eternally from the Father and the Son, ... and proceeds from both eternally as from one principle and a single spiration." (Ecumenical Council of Florence, session 6)

So, the Filioque is central to the RC conception of God.

Point 1. God is He Who Is.

I will address here the first of the four points of RC-EO disagreement related to the teachings of EO St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), which is, in its EO version:

O1. "God is being and not being." (EO St Gregory Palamas)

The biblical passage that is most relevant regarding this issue is precisely the fundamental revelation for both the Old and the New Covenants: the revelation of the divine name to Moses in the theophany of the burning bush:

God said to Moses, "I Am Who I Am." And He said, "Say this to the people of Israel, 'I Am has sent me to you.'" (Ex 3:14)

The expressions in bold above, which in the original Hebrew text are:

"Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh" = "I Am Who I Am"
"Ehyeh" = "I Am"

were translated in the Septuagint as:

"Ego Eimi Ho On" = "I Am The One Who Is" / "I Am He Who Is"
"Ho On" = "The One Who Is" / "He Who Is".

The fact that the Septuagint translators chose this rendering instead of the (counterfactual) literal translation "Ego Eimi Ho Ego Eimi" is not seen as a fluke by Roman Catholics (RCs) and Eastern Orthodox (EOs) but as a providential design, intended to enable the synthesis between ontology and biblical faith. To note, the Christian certainty that the Septuagint rendering conveys the correct sense of the original Hebrew text does not arise only, or even primarily, from linguistic or philosophical reasons, but from two facts:

a. It is confirmed by a key teaching in one of the two Old Testament books originally written in Greek, the Wisdom of Solomon, a teaching which clearly echoes in Rom 1:19-21:

For all men were by nature foolish who were in ignorance of God, and who from the good things seen did not succeed in knowing Him Who Is, (Wis 13:1)

The coincidence is even clearer in the NETS Septuagint translation at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/, where both Exodus' "He Who Is" and Wisdom's "Him Who Is" are rendered as "The One Who Is".

b. It is in agreement with the centuries-old patristic tradition, as attested by the following two quotes:

St Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300 – c. 368). On the Trinity - Book 12 [1]:

"For according to the words spoken to Moses, He Who Is has sent me unto you, we obtain the unambiguous conception that absolute being belongs to God;"

St Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329 – 389 or 390). Fourth Theological Oration [2]:

"As far then as we can reach, He Who Is, and God, are the special names of His Essence; and of these especially He Who Is, not only because when He spake to Moses in the mount, and Moses asked what His Name was, this was what He called Himself, bidding him say to the people “I Am has sent me”, but also because we find that this Name is the more strictly appropriate. For the Name theos (God), ... would still be one of the Relative Names, and not an Absolute one; ... But we are enquiring into a Nature Whose Being is absolute and not into Being bound up with something else. But Being is in its proper sense peculiar to God, and belongs to Him entirely,"

To note, it is only in the context of the revelation of the divine name at the burning bush that we are able to understand these three assertions of his divinity by Jesus in John's Gospel:

"For if you do not believe that I Am, you will die in your sins." (Jn 8:24)

"When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I Am" (Jn 8:28)

"From now on I am telling you before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe that I Am." (Jn 13:19)

And if any doubts remained that in the above three instances Jesus is claiming to be the same and only "I Am" of Exodus 3:14, they would be cleared by his statement: "The Father and I are one." (Jn 10:30), which clearly echoes the Shema: YHWH Echad, YHWH is one. (Dt 6:4)

Additionally, there is a well-known RC private revelation that provides a strong confirmation of this sense of Ex 3:14 and of its importance. In his Life of Catherine of Siena, RC Bl Raymond of Capua records what RC St Catherine (1347-1380) had often told him Christ taught her when He first began appearing to her:

"Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you have beatitude in your grasp. You are that who is not; I Am He Who Is. Let your soul but become penetrated with this truth, and the Enemy can never lead you astray; you will never be caught in any snare of his, nor ever transgress any commandment of mine; you will have set your feet on the royal road which leads to the fulness of grace, and truth, and light." (Life, no. 92. Original: "Tu sei colei che non è; Io sono Colui che è.")

(BTW, this is a clear example that Church-recognized private revelations, while they certainly do not "improve" or "complete" Christ's definitive Revelation, can confirm the correctness of a certain interpretation of the Revelation. This is also the exact case of St Mary's words to RC St Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes in 1858: "I am the Immaculate Conception", four years after the dogma of the Immaculate Conception had been defined by Pope Pius IX.)

Catholic magisterium has always taught this sense of Ex 3:14, lately through John Paul II in two audiences (Jul 31 and Aug 7, 1985, available from http://catechesisofthepopes.wikispaces.com/The+Father? ), from which I quote (with a few touches to render the translation more faithful to the Italian original and some rephrasing in the first sentence of the second paragraph):

According to the tradition of Israel, the name expresses the essence. The Sacred Scriptures give different names of God ... But the name which Moses heard from the midst of the burning bush is as it were the root of all the others. He who is expresses the very essence of God, which is Being from itself (original: Essere per se stesso), subsistent Being, as the theologians and philosophers say.

A creature does not possess in itself the source, the reason of its existence, but receives it "from another." This is synthetically expressed in the Latin phrase "ens ab alio". He who creates - the Creator - possesses existence in himself and from himself ("ens a se").

To be pertains to his substance: his essence is to be. He is subsisting Being ("Esse subsistens"). Precisely for this reason he cannot not be, he is "necessary" being. Differing from God, who is "necessary being", the things which receive existence from him, that is, creatures, are able not to be. Being does not constitute their essence; they are "contingent" beings.

These considerations regarding the revealed truth about the creation of the world help us to understand God as "Being." They help also to link this Being with the reply received by Moses to the question about the name of God: "I am who I am." In the light of these reflections the solemn words heard by St. Catherine of Siena acquire full clarity: "You are that who is not; I Am He Who Is". This is the Essence of God, the name of God, read in depth in the faith inspired by his self-revelation, confirmed in the light of the radical truth contained in the concept of creation. It would be fitting, when we refer to God, to write that "I Am" and that "He Is" in capitals, reserving the lower case for creatures. This would also signify a correct way of reflecting on God according to the categories of "being."

Inasmuch as he is "ipsum Esse Subsistens" - that is the absolute fullness of Being and therefore of every perfection - God is completely transcendent in regard to the world. By his essence, by his divinity, he "goes beyond" and infinitely "surpasses" everything created - both every single creature, however perfect, and the ensemble of creation, the visible and invisible beings.

It is clear then that the God of our faith, he who is, is the God of infinite majesty. This majesty is the glory of the divine Being, the glory of the name of God, many times celebrated in Sacred Scripture.
And if it were objected that the self-definition of God as "I Am", "He Who Is" is not incompatible with Palamas' statement "God is being and not being", there is yet one more self-definition of God to consider: "God is spirit," (Jn 4:24) which is clearly incompatible with the notion that "God is ... not being". Thus it is clearly seen that, while the RC doctrine is in complete accordance with the biblical texts, the statement by EO St Gregory Palamas is not.

Moreover, this is clearly confirmed by St. Hilary of Poitiers in precisely the sentences following that quoted above, where the extended quote reads [1]:

"For according to the words spoken to Moses, He Who Is has sent me unto you, we obtain the unambiguous conception that absolute being belongs to God; since that which is, cannot be thought of or spoken of as not being. For being and not being are contraries, nor can these mutually exclusive descriptions be simultaneously true of one and the same object: for while the one is present, the other must be absent. Therefore, where anything is, neither conception nor language will admit of its not being."

And this is a key point because it is sometimes stated that the Filioque disagreement causes RC’s and EO’s to worship a different God. Here there is clearly an even deeper issue. Because for us RC’s, God is Being from itself, subsistent Being, absolute fullness of Being that is infinitely "above" the received, contingent, limited being of creatures, and definitely not “not being”. So we RCs do not worship a God which is “not being”. Our God is He Who Is, YHWH (blessed be his name). And He Who Is is our God:

Shema Yisrael YHWH Eloheinu YHWH Echad.
Hear O Israel: YHWH is our God, YHWH is one. (Dt 6:4)


[1] http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/330212.htm

[2] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf207.iii.xvi.html

Four points of RC-EO disagreement related to Palamism

Even when Filioque, Papal Primacy and possibly indelibility of Holy Orders are usually considered the main points of disagreement between the Roman Catholic (RC) and Eastern Orthodox (EO) Churches, there is an additional significant area of disagreement comprising the issues related to the teachings of EO St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). Below I list the four points of disagreement in this area, in both their Catholic and Orthodox versions.

RC doctrine:

C1. God is Being from itself, subsistent Being, absolute fullness of Being that is infinitely "above" the received, contingent, limited being of creatures.

C2. Absolute divine simplicity: God is his essence. Each divine Person is the divine essence.

C3: Sanctification or deification: union with God by way of two inseparably connected gifts [1]

- uncreated grace: the indwelling of the three divine Persons, which is specially attributed to the Holy Spirit only by appropriation. “This wonderful union, which is properly called ‘in-dwelling,’ differing only in degree or state from that which binds the blessed to God in eternal happiness, although it is without doubt produced by the presence of the whole Trinity … is attributed in a peculiar manner to the Holy Spirit." (Pope Leo XIII) [2]

- created grace (sanctifying or deifying grace): the product of the foundational re-creative work (the "new heart" and "new spirit" of Ez 36:26, the "new creation" of 2 Cor 5:17 and Gal 6:15) carried out in the soul by the Holy Spirit, to whom the work of sanctification is specially attributed.  Quoting RC St Thomas Aquinas, sanctifying grace is "a permanent quality placed by God in the very essence of the soul" (i.e. it is an accident and not a substance), which, together with the supernatural operative capacities, chiefly charity, flowing from it, causes the soul to share in divine life, in divine nature (2 Pe 1:4).  I.e., it is precisely by the infusion of sanctifying grace and charity that the soul is inhabited by the Holy Spirit, actually by the three Divine Persons, in a unitive, vivifying mode (Ez 37:14).

C4. Beatific Vision: saints in Heaven see the divine essence.

EO doctrine:

O1. "God is being and not being." (EO St Gregory Palamas)

O2. There is a real, ontological distinction between divine essence and divine energies. God is his essence and his energies. The divine essence is the cause of the divine energies, which are uncreated. Each divine Person is the divine essence and the divine energies.

O3. Deification (theosis) is union with God through his energies (uncreated energy of the Holy Spirit = uncreated grace), and not through his essence.

O4. Saints in Heaven do not see the divine essence, only the divine energies.

In my view the less difficult issue of the four is point 3, where the disagreement, if we leave aside the essence-energies issue, is mostly a matter of emphasis. While EOs have placed emphasis in uncreated grace, i.e. receiving the Holy Spirit, RCs have placed emphasis in created grace, the work of the Holy Spirit in the soul. But RC's do believe in uncreated grace, i.e. divine indwelling, and EOs would most probably agree that the Holy Spirit does some very important work in the soul. The main disagreement in this point is that which is a direct consequence of the essence-energies distinction, as EOs believe that only the energies of the Holy Spirit interact with the faithful, and not the essence.


RC-only saints are prefixed "RC St". EO-only saints are prefixed "EO St".


[1] Fr. John A. Hardon S.J.  "Course on Grace - Part One - Grace Considered Extensively - Chapter II. What is Grace?"

[2] Fr. John A. Hardon S.J. "Course on Grace - Part Two - B - Grace Considered Intensively - Chapter XIII. Sanctifying Grace and the Indwelling Trinity"

[3] Fr. John A. Hardon S.J. "Course on Grace - Part Two - A - Grace Considered Intensively - Chapter VIII. Sanctifying Grace"

30 July 2010

The rock in Mt 16:18: a matter of body language

One issue of disagreement between Roman Catholics (RC) on one side and Eastern Orthodox and Protestants (EO&P) on the other is the interpretation of Mt 16:18. Literally translated from Aramaic into English, the 1st half of Mt 16:18 would be:

"And so I say to you, you are Rock, and upon this rock I will build my church". (Mt 16:18)

Where both instances of "rock" were "kepha" in the original Aramaic, in which the same word kepha is used for a rock or a man's name. When the text was translated to Greek (by Matthew or the final author), as the word "petra" for a rock is feminine, the 1st Kepha was changed to "Petros" (masculine ending) to make it suitable for a man's name.

The issue of disagreement between the RC and EO&P interpretations comes from Jesus' implicit body language. I will make it explicit between () to render the two interpretations of Mt 16:18:

"And so I say to you (pointing to Simon), you are Rock, and (still pointing to Simon) upon this rock I will build my church". (RC interpretation)

"And so I say to you (pointing to Simon), you are Rock, and (now pointing to Himself) upon this rock I will build my church". (EO&P interpretation)

To note, the EO&P interpretation is conceptually in line with 1 Peter 2:4-5, which uses "lithos" = "stone" instead of "petra" = "rock":

"Come to Him (Jesus), a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and, like living stones (the faithful), let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." (1 Peter 2:4-5)

Thus, in the EO&P interpretation Jesus is the rock / cornerstone upon which the Church is built, and Simon is just another living rock / stone in the Church's building, just like any other faithful is.

Actually, the EO&P interpretation is correct in a certain sense: at the personal, spiritual, existential level Jesus is the rock upon which we the faithful are built like living stones (the same rock referred to many times in the Psalms, which is logical since Jesus is "I Am", YHWH), and this truth applies to Simon, his successors the bishops of Rome, and any other faithful. The problem is that it is not logical to interpret Jesus' words in Mt 16:18 in that sense, for several reasons:

1. Why would Jesus rename Simon as Rock only to say immediately that He Himself was the rock?

2. More importantly, why would Jesus rename Simon as Rock if He was meaning that Simon was just another living rock in the Church's building?

3. Even more importantly, the only way to interpret adequately Mt 16:18 is by reading it within the whole statement by Jesus. Let's see what the EO&P interpretation looks like:

17: Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. (In this verse Simon is definitely special.)

18: And so I say to you, you are Rock, and upon this rock (Myself) I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. (In this verse Simon is just like any other faithful, even though he is renamed for some strange reason.)

19: I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (In this verse Simon is again special. And thanks to the fact that in Greek personal pronouns have differerent forms for singular and plural, it cannot be argued that there was yet another change in Jesus' body language and now He is pointing to the circle around Him so that "you" refers now to the 12 Apostles.)

We must use reason to interpret the Scripture. An interpretation of Mt 16:18 where "upon this rock" does not refer to Simon defies all logic.

23 July 2010

On the role of good works in salvation

This article gathers a couple of comments I posted on "Called to Communion" on July 21-22, 2010.

First of all, "salvation" here is understood in the Roman Catholic sense of "sharing in divine life", "partaking in divine nature" (which is at the very least roughly equivalent to the Eastern Orthodox concept of "theosis" if we leave aside the essence-energies distinction, see 2 posts forward), and definitively not in the "ad extra", forensic justification sense.

Having said that, let's see what the Scripture says about the role that good works play in our salvation.

First of all, Jesus Himself makes it unequivocal that good works are necessary to remain in salvation. This is stated in positive statements in John's Gospel, chapters 14 and 15:

“Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.” (Jn 14:21)

“Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” (Jn 14:23)

Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” (Jn 15:9-10)

You are my friends if you do what I command you. … This I command you: love one another.” (Jn 15:14,17)

The Apostle John, in turn, makes the same concept clear in negative statements in his first letter:

Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life remaining in him. (I Jn 3:15)

If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him? (I Jn 3:17)

And as if all the above were not enough, there is this gem from Paul:

And whoever does not provide for relatives and especially family members has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (I Tim 5:8)

Now, besides being necessary to remain in salvation, do good works also add to salvation, meaning that by performing them we grow in God's life and love and consequently will be rewarded a greater degree of glory in Heaven?

Let’s listen first to the Teacher Himself:

“And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple–amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.” (Mt 10:42)

This is expanded in the Last Judgment passage, which I will not quote for obvious length reasons (Mt 25:31-46). And if it were argued that what this passage says is that works of charity are necessary to remain in salvation but do not add to salvation, the previous parable where the talent of the lazy servant was given to the servant who already had ten talents should clear the matter.

“Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy.” (Lk 12:33)

“There is still one thing left for you: sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Lk 18:22)

Let’s now go to Paul.  First, this exhortation to Timothy is an exact echo of the last two quoted exhortations by Jesus:

Tell them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (1 Tim 6:18-19)

The following passage also uses the figure of the foundation, but now in the more conventional way of applying it to Jesus Christ:

But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire (itself) will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Cor 3:10-15)

Sometimes the Apostle uses the metaphor of a temple, which God builds with our cooperation, and other times he uses the metaphor of a body, which God makes grow with our cooperation. Sometimes both are used simultaneously, as in Ef 4:11-16, from which I quote:

Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love. (Ef 4:15-16)

Then there is this:

we do not cease praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding to live in a manner worthy of the Lord, so as to be fully pleasing, in every good work bearing fruit and growing in the knowledge of God, (Col 1:9-10)

which is related to:

make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with devotion, devotion with mutual affection, mutual affection with love. If these are yours and increase in abundance, they will keep you from being idle or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Pe 1:5-8)

As the last two quotes mention “knowledge”, let’s learn from Jesus what that is:

“Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.” (Jn 17:3)

If this knowledge is eternal life, it cannot be purely intellectual. This is made crystal clear by John in his first letter:

Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. (I Jn 2:4)

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. (I Jn 4:7-8)

So, if salvation is having eternal life, and if eternal life is vital knowledge of God, and if by “living in a manner worthy of the Lord”, i.e. “living the truth in love”, we “in every good work bear fruit and grow in the knowledge of God”, then by good works we not only remain in salvation but also grow in salvation = eternal life = God’s love. As John says:

if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us. (I Jn 4:12)

19 April 2010

On physical evil

The existence of physical evil in nature has posed a difficult problem to many people: how can it be compatible with a Creator who is infinitely powerful and good? We will consider this issue focusing on two main points:

1. what creatures can be the passive subjects of physical evil, i.e. suffer it, and

2. what events affecting those creatures can be designated as physical evil.

Regarding point 1, it is evident that the concept of physical evil refers necessarily to living creatures. The explosion of a supernova that does not affect any life-bearing planet does not constitute physical evil. And moreover, such explosions along the history of the universe were essential for the production of adequate quantities of the heavier chemical elements that are necessary for life. Similarly, a volcanic eruption or an earthquake before there was life on Earth did not constitute physical evil. And moreover, those phenomena are consequences of plate tectonics, which was vital for the existence of life on Earth.

Now, once life appeared and started to evolve on Earth, at what point could the deaths or injuries of living organisms caused by e.g. a volcanic eruption start to be considered physical evil?

- Clearly deaths or injuries of bacteria, archaea, protists, plants or fungi do not qualify as evil, since those organisms cannot possibly experience suffering because they do not have a nervous system. Thus we are left with animals except porifera (sponges) and placozoa.

- And as a simple decentralized nervous system such as that of Ctenophora (comb jellies) and Cnidaria (anemones, corals, jellyfish) works in a basic reactive fashion and cannot experience real suffering, we are left with animals with a central nervous system.

- And as a complex brain is necessary to experience true suffering, we are left in principle with arthropods (insects, crustaceans, arachnids), molluscs and vertebrates as the potential passive subjects of physical evil. We will stop here for now, and will group them together under the term "higher level animals".

Regarding point 2, physical evil would consist of suffering experienced by such higher animals, with suffering leading to death possibly the most extreme case. At this point it is useful to analyze separately some of the causes of death and its associated suffering:

1. old age

2. natural disaster (e.g. volcanic eruption)

3. attack by predator

4. starvation

Notably, if death by old age were considered physical evil, then a world without physical evil would have some very curious properties, as higher level animals would be immortal. First, once the individuals of a particular species have reached a certain number, they should stop reproducing. (Otherwise, since higher level animals would not die from any cause, there would not be enough physical room on the planet for them.) But once they stop reproducing, they would stop evolving. Therefore a world without physical evil where death by old age is considered physical evil would be incompatible with creation of living creatures by evolution. One way to surmount this difficulty would be to define that, for animals (*), death by old age is not physical evil and that only deaths where the subject does not reach its lifespan potential are (i.e. cases 2, 3 and 4 in the list above).

Consideration of natural disasters leads to a curious consequence as well: unless higher level animals were intelligent enough to distance themselves from volcanoes, in order to avoid physical evil plate tectonics should have stopped once those animals appeared. So what's the cause of physical evil in this case: the fact that plate tectonics remained active after higher animals appeared (clearly not) or the fact that animals were not intelligent enough to distance themselves from volcanoes?

But it is the case of starvation whose analysis can provide the most insight. Not an abstract case, but the specific case of St Matthew Island in the Bering Sea in Alaska. In 1944, 29 reindeer were introduced to the island, which was covered with a thick mat of lichens at that time. With the abundance of high quality forage, the reindeer population increased rapidly due to a high birth rate and low mortality (no predators), rising to 1300 animals in 1957 and to 6,000 by the summer of 1963. By 1963 lichen, normally the most important winter forage, had been almost completely depleted by overgrazing, and sedges and grasses were expanding into the sites previously occupied by lichens. The increasing difficulty in obtaining adequate food was evident in the fact that the 1963 reindeer were considerably smaller in both body mass and skeletal proportions than the 1957 animals: in 1963 average body weights had decreased from 1957 by 38 % for adult females and 43 % for adult males. With the reindeer population on an already poor physical condition as a result of competition for high quality summer forage during the summer of 1963, deep snow accumulation during the winter of 1963-64 further restricted the availability of the already depleted winter forage, and almost the entire reindeer population died of starvation, with only 42 animals surviving.

In this case, was physical evil caused by the fact that lichen did not grow fast enough to compensate for the grazing rate? Clearly not, because if lichen had grown at twice its actual rate, the reindeer population would have just reached a maximum of 12000 in 1966 and crashed the next harsh winter. So doubling the rate of growth of lichen would just double the total amount of suffering. Rather, the cause of starvation was just the fact that the reindeer were not intelligent enough to realize that the island had a finite carrying capacity (i.e. could sustainably support a finite reindeer population) and that they should stabilize their population once it reached that carrying capacity. Instead, they were acting like yeast in culture media in a Petri dish, which keep doubling their population until the nutrient is exhausted and then die off. But while death of yeast is not evil because they do not experience suffering, death of reindeer is. Or is it not?

And lastly we have the attacks by predators. Notably, the absence of predators in Matthew Island was one of the factors leading to the population explosion and dieoff. But isn't one kind of death worse than the other? Wouldn't the violence involved in death by predators make it a worse fate than an apparently peaceful death by starvation? Not according to the book of Lamentations, at least: "Better for those who perish by the sword than for those who die of hunger, who waste away, as though pierced through, lacking the fruits of the field!" (Lam 4:9)

We thus come back to our successive restriction of the animals that can be the passive subjects of physical evil. Why stopping at a complex brain and consider physical evil the death of an insect? Why not demanding that the brain must have neocortex, which restricts the selection to mammals? Why not demanding that the neocortex must feature a large frontal lobe, which further restricts the selection to the great apes and humans? Or in functional terms, why not demanding that the animals must be self-aware, i.e. able to pass the mirror test, which would add dolphins and elephants to the last list? And why not just demanding that the brain be developed enough to support the operations of a spiritual soul, leaving just us humans? Why indeed not starting from that point, demanding that, for physical evil to be tragic, its passive subject must be a person with a spiritual soul?

In our view the last is the only correct approach, as any other threshold to define physical evil is arbitrary. Thus, we posit that physical evil exists in two fundamentally different kinds: non-tragic when it affects animals and tragic when it affects humans. Non-tragic physical evil is part of God's design in creation, and exists in view of the overall greater good of the material cosmos. In contrast, tragic physical evil was not part of the original design in creation, as man was originally "shielded" from the physical evil that would have affected him otherwise as a result of its biological nature: as long as man remained in the divine intimacy, he would not have to suffer or die (Gen 2:17; 3:16, 19). It was as a result of original sin that man lost that privilege ("preternatural gift") and became subject to physical evil just as animals are. With this approach, there is no problem whatsoever harmonizing physical evil with the existence of an all-powerful, infinitely good Creator.

(*) In contrast to the case of animals, for humans the preternatural gift of bodily immortality would not necessarily have implied that at some point in time they would have had to stop reproducing, because bodily immortality did not imply that each person would have stayed alive on Earth until the end of times. Along the line of 1 Cor 15:51 "We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed," it is legitimate to assume that, if man had not sinned, after a certain number of years (120, 365, 969, whatever), the body of each person would have been glorified without dying and that person would have been taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, to enjoy the Beatific Vision.