Friday, April 18, 2014

“Metaphysical Religion” and “Becoming One with God”

In a work that Lane Keister of Green Baggins considers to be “the best book on Roman Catholicism I have read”, Leonardo De Chirico describes what he believes to be the “core” of Roman Catholicism:

This core is a composite one and entails the ways in which the relationship between nature and grace are worked out and the Roman Catholic self-understanding of the Church which is the main subject of the system itself. The Roman Catholic system can be seen as emerging from the range of the nature-grace motifs which are allowed to coexist within it and serve to enrich it, and expressing itself in the paramount role of the church which is basically understood in Christological terms as the prolongation of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ (p. 24).

That, of course, is an over-simplified version of “what Roman Catholicism is”. At its heart, the Roman Catholic Church, hierarchy and all, considers itself to be “The Mystical Body of Christ”. You can find that idea in all the most recent Catholic literature out there.

Lumen Gentium states it this way:

Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth His holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as an entity with visible delineation through which He communicated truth and grace to all. But, the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. For this reason, by no weak analogy, it is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word. As the assumed nature inseparably united to Him, serves the divine Word as a living organ of salvation, so, in a similar way, does the visible social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ, who vivifies it, in the building up of the body.

De Chirico puts it this way:

The [Roman Catholic] Church is a divine-human reality, analogous to the incarnate God-man, which stands at the centre of the Roman Catholic system as its mediating agent. As Jesus Christ mediated the presence and the gifts of God, so the Church mediates the presence and the gifts of God to the world in that it is the theandric agent which continues the presence of God mediated by Jesus Christ (pg 259).

We know that “the Roman Catholic Church thinks very highly of itself”.

Sorting out all of the many ideas that go into that is a difficult process, especially when you consider that 2000 years’-worth of history and theology is a long time. In another blog post, Lane also overviews the magnitude of the task of truly examining it: “That is, RC as a system needs to be evaluated from the perspective of a united theological encyclopedia (church history, exegesis, biblical theology, systematic theology, apologetics, and practical theology working not in competition, but in mutual inter-dependence).”

The main idea is to really understand what Roman Catholicism is (and also Eastern Orthodoxy) by really and truly mapping out these systems – understanding where the ideas came from – whether Biblical or from Greek or other philosophies – where and when they became incorporated into “tradition”. That is certainly a daunting task.

And in “my brief little blog post yesterday”, I did not intend to do all of that; merely to show the kind of thing we (as Protestants where the “one-world” religion is ascendant) are up against.

* * *

Elsewhere, I’ve cited Bavinck on this:

The doctrine of a supernatural end … is integral to the entire Catholic system, which is constructed, not on the religious antithesis between sin and grace, but on the graduated scale of the good, on the ranking of creatures and virtues, on hierarchy both in a physical and an ethical sense (emphasis added).

The Reformation, by contrast, had but one idea, one conception of human beings, that is, of human beings as the image bearers of God, and this was true for all human beings.

“A graduated scale” … “hierarchy”. These are the marks of “metaphysical religion.

That’s the foundational distinction that I had in mind for my blog post below, entitled “Eastern Orthodoxy: Same as all other Eastern religions”. There, I cited Bayou Huguenot (Jacob Aitken) citing multiple commenters, the result of which was that much objection was taken, specifically, I think, to the response to this this comment:

“What Orthodoxy offers is the promise of communion with the incarnate God, and theosis, leading to the salvation of the eternal soul…”

“Communion” is much more than the “fellowship” that Protestants envision. It is actually a kind of “change of substance” (in the Greek sense). That is very much how other Eastern Orthodox describe “salvation” – “deification”. Here it is, as described by the Eastern mystic “Maximus the Confessor” (580-66 AD):

In the same way in which the soul and body are united, God should become accessible for participation by the soul and, through the soul’s intermediary, by the body, in order that the soul might receive an unchanging character, and the body, immortality; and finally that the whole man should become God, deified by the grace of God-become-man, becoming whole man, soul and body, by nature, and becoming whole God, soul and body, by grace” (cited in John Meyendorff, “Byzantine Theology”, New York: Fordham University Press, ©1974, 1979, pg 164).

This “one-ness with God as salvation” has persisted over the ages, and indeed has formed the heart of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox religions. Before he was pope, Joseph Ratzinger put it this way:

Communion means that the seemingly uncrossable frontier of my “I” is left wide open and can be so because Jesus has first allowed himself to be opened completely, has taken us all into himself and has put himself totally into our hands. Hence, Communion [capital in original] means the fusion of existences. Just as in the taking of nourishment the body assimilates foreign matter to itself, and is thereby enabled to live, in the same way my “I” is “assimilated” to that of Jesus, it is made similar to him in an exchange that increasingly breaks through the lines of division. This same event takes place in the case of all who communicate; they are all assimilated to this “bread” and thus are made one among themselves--one body (“Called to Communion”, 36)

So “the promise of communion with the incarnate God, and theosis, leading to the salvation of the eternal soul”, was offered as “the selling point” by an Eastern Orthodox writer in a comment thread on a larger question, “Losing our Religion: On “Retaining” Young People in the Orthodox Church”.

In Systematic Theology, of course, both Orthodox and Roman Catholics are “orthodox” on their “Doctrine of God” and “Doctrine of Christ”.

But their doctrines of “Tradition” (RC) and “Holy Tradition” (EO) incorporate Greek philosophies that lead, further along in the Systematic Theologies, in their “Doctrine of Salvation”, to this notion of “one-ness with God” (which elsewhere I've called pantheism again, to a great deal of resistance).

It is this idea of “becoming one with God” that dominates the doctrines of salvation in these two systems. Another commenter (related in the OP) then made what Jacob (and I) thought was a lucid observation, to the effect that lots of eastern religions offer some form of “one-ness” with “[some form of god]” as “salvation”.

And Jacob summarized “All metaphysical religions die on this field”.

* * *

So we now have some idea of the notion of a “metaphysical religion”. Metaphysics may be defined as “the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space.”

Metaphysical religion” then may be loosely (and by “loosely” I mean “Wikipedia”) defined in the following way:

Theology is the study of a god or gods and the nature of the divine. Whether there is a god (monotheism), many gods (polytheism) or no gods (atheism), or whether it is unknown or unknowable whether any gods exist (agnosticism; apophatic theology), and whether a divine entity directly intervenes in the world (theism), or its sole function is to be the first cause of the universe (deism); these and whether a god or gods and the world are different (as in panentheism and dualism), or are identical (as in pantheism), are some of the primary metaphysical questions concerning philosophy of religion.

Within the standard Western philosophical tradition, theology reached its peak under the medieval school of thought known as scholasticism, which focused primarily on the metaphysical aspects of Christianity. The work of the scholastics is still an integral part of modern philosophy, with key figures such as Thomas Aquinas still playing an important role in the philosophy of religion.

“God” is loosely defined here, and therefore “becoming God” is loosely defined. But that’s what happens in all of these religions (except for Islam, which was lumped in with the bunch of them).

So when you’ve got human beings in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy “becoming whole man, soul and body, by nature, and becoming whole God, soul and body, by grace”, this “fusion of existences”, then lumping these religions in with other eastern (and largely pantheistic) religions is not a hard leap to make.

* * *

Of course, if all “metaphysical religions” die on that field, it can certainly be said that Reformation Protestantism must continue to defend other ground to the death. Unfortunately, this is one area where the earliest Reformers failed.

Bruce McCormack actually puts it into these terms in his article “What’s at Stake in the Current Debates over Justification”, from Husbands and Treier’s “Justification”, pg .84):

Let me put all my cards on the table. Where the doctrine of justification in particular is concerned, my own conviction is that the Reformers had it basically right with their emphasis upon appositive imputation of Christ’s righteousness. But unfortunately, they were not in a position to explore the theological ontology that was implied in their understanding of justification. And this left their articulation of the doctrine vulnerable to criticism. In an age like our own, in which men and women are crying for real change, for real transformation of the fundamental condition of life, this can all too easily appear to be a decisive weakness. And it can also make the Protestant tradition appear weak and emaciated in comparison with those traditions, like the Catholic and the Orthodox, which have always given explicit attention to matters ontological (pg 84).

One real distinction between Protestantism and the “Cathodox” religions (Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy) lies in the ontologies. This is an area not well understood by Protestants today, by any means. In fact, McCormack argues that it was not well understood by the original Protestants.

In what follows, I will engage in a close reading of Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin on the doctrine of justification and its relation to the theme of regeneration. What I hope to demonstrate is that the break with Medieval Catholicism which we might have expected to be complete if we paid attention only to the Reformers’ doctrine of justification was actually less than complete due to a residual commitment to Medieval Catholic understandings of regeneration and a shaky grasp of the relation of justification and regeneration. I hope to show, secondly, that the reason for all of this is that the Reformers’ refusal to engage directly issues of theological ontology made them blind to the extent to which they continued to subscribe to ontological assumptions which could, logically only fund a Catholic ordering of regeneration and justification (to the detriment of their own definition of justification). Finally, I will suggest that there is an alternative understanding of theological ontology embedded in the forensic frame of reference which would have overcome the residual problems contained in the Reformers’ ongoing attachment to a theologically outmoded ontology—an alternative which I will seek briefly to describe (84-85).

It lies in the area of “nature and grace”. I’ve written about this briefly in the past, citing Michael Horton’s Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ, where he in turn cites Bavinck and McCormack and others in sorting out these “ontologies.”

More about this next time, Lord willing.


  1. Thank you for the RCC source quotes. A lot of people think I am making this stuff up until I tell them to go read False Dionysius. I don't always agree with McCormack's Barthianism, but few Reformed people have read (and understood!) the ontological implications behind positions like he has.

    1. Thanks Jacob -- I understand about McCormack, but Horton cites him extensively in "Covenant and Salvation". I'm glad that SOMEONE is looking at that. I believe that Rome needs to be addressed at this level by Protestants who are engaged theologically.

      I've never seen anyone but you say "False Dionysius"; it's always "pseudo", but I like your designation better. People make a big deal about Aquinas being the greatest scholar of the middle ages, but he relied on a lot of forgeries, and "False Dionysius" was not the worst of them. In his defense of the papacy to the Eastern churches, he relied heavily on Gratian's "Canon Law", which in turn, was composed of about 1/3 "False Decretals" (pure forgeries). And he didn't know this on all counts.

    2. I say False Dionysius just to get people to look up. Historically, I think he was the pagan neoplatonist Damascius who wanted to get back at Justinian by introducing neoplatonism as Christianity.

      Another thing to consider on chain of being. The following is from a popular Orthodox apologist (who no longer lets me comment on his site). It is a perfect illustration of neoplatonism:

      ***The hierarchy in its wider sense, and in particular the Bishop, is an icon that enables the person of Christ to become present in a tangible manner. Meeting the Bishop or Presbyter and even other orders of the hierarchy, is having a direct encounter with Christ.”***

      On the chain of being the higher scale mediates reality to the lower scale. This is pure neoplatonism.

  2. Obat Diabetes yes pelease The following is from a popular Orthodox apologist (who no longer lets me comment on his site).