Wednesday 13 June 2007

Ten propositions on heresy

by Kim Fabricius (his 25th set of propositions!)

1. Heresy comes from the Greek hairesis (literally “choice” or “thing chosen”) and denotes an “opinion” or a “school of thought.” In I Corinthians 11:19 the RSB translates haireseis as “divisions”, the NRSV as “factions”; and while Paul suggests that “there have to be (δεῖ) factions among you,” as a way of separating the wheat from the chaff, nevertheless, as the context confirms, he deploys the word in a negative sense. See also the list of vices (“works of the flesh”) in Galatians 5:20: “factions” (NRSV), “party intrigues” (REB).

2. Of course what constitutes heresy is not pre-packaged; there is no timeless, pure dogma, discovered, simpliciter, like a diamond. On the other hand, a purely constructivist account of orthodoxy is inadequate, as if it were costume jewellery. There is a real sense in which dogma gives expression to what has been given to the church from the beginning, to what the church already knows before it recognises it, yet comes to recognise it only through relentless arguments about it, arguments issuing in fine and fragile articulations that say neither too little nor too much, and sometimes say it in negatives (cf. the apophaticism of the Chalcedonian Definition). The rough diamond has to be cut.

3. The early cuts, set in the creeds, were made in the context of ferocious Christological controversies. In dispute was the very identity of God, the God who creates and redeems us, to whom the church witnesses and prays (lex orandi, lex credendi). The arguments were not “academic,” what was at stake was “personal,” viz. the experience of salvation in Christ, and the transmission, through careful conversation, of the parameters within which the experience may be realised. Augustine called sound doctrine the hedge that protects the field where the Christian encounters God. I would only add that a hedge is made of shrubs, not bricks and barbed wire.

4. Another image: if orthodoxy is the bull’s eye, heresy is, as Rowan Williams puts it, the “near-misses” – which actually help guide the church towards the target (cf. Schleiermacher’s reference to his own teaching on God as “inspired heterodoxy”). The early heretics were generally neither knaves nor fools but pious and passionate men, zealous for God, morally serious, scrupulously scriptural. They were very clever, but conventional, fetchers and carriers for the zeitgeist. Heretics like a “wrap”, and heresies are fastidiously neat and tidy, the product of minds stuck inside the box of common sense. “Consistency,” said Oscar Wilde, “is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” Unsurprisingly, then, heresy is aesthetically unattractive, even ugly.

5. I think it was Alfred North Whitehead who said that there are no such things as whole truths, there are only half-truths, and treating half-truths like whole truths plays the devil. Whitehead might have been talking about heresy. Heretics are one-eyed, they lack the “vision thing”: failing to see the bigger picture, they take the part for the whole. That’s why heresy is inevitably rather boring. Heretics have no sense of adventure; they go only so far, they won’t go “all the way.” You could say they are theological prudes, often wearing philosophical chastity belts, who resist being ravished by revelation.

6. Marcion was a literalist who couldn’t get his head around the apparent contradictions between Old and New Testaments, and so he hacked the Bible in two. Arius was monomaniacally monotheist and uncompromisingly conservative and resistant to conceptual innovation; his “notion of unity is devoid of the richness – and the mystery – of God’s unity. It is devoid of the unity of love” (Arthur C. McGill). Eutyches was “a confused and unskilled thinker ... blindly rushing forward to defend the unity of Christ against all attempts to divide Him”; while Nestorius, if not perhaps a Nestorian, launched such a “maladroit, crudely expressed exposition of the Antiochene position” on the two natures of Christ that he was never able to explain coherently what constitutes His centre (J. N. D. Kelly).

7. And then there are those perennial pests, Pelagianism and Donatism (technically a “schism,” an error of love rather than faith). A fair-minded comparison of Pelagius’ exegesis of Psalm 14, and Donatus’ interpretation of the parable of the Wheat and the Tares, with Augustine’s is initially embarrassing. But when the bishop of Hippo raises the bar, deconstructing the human soul and insisting that God is always greater than we think, the two heresiarchs, the one monkish and severe, the other hawkish and charismatic, both perfectionists, are out of their depths. They are noble figures, and theirs are heroic theologies, but, as Rowan Williams observes, commenting on Augustine’s legacy, “God asks not for heroes but for lovers; not for moral athletes but for men and women aware of their need for acceptance, ready to find their selfhood in the longing for communion with an eternal ‘other’.”

8. “Remember,” wrote Chesterton, “that the church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer.... This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into the foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad.” And the mark of the mad: “this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction.” And so: “Whenever we feel that there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.” Heresy is uncomfortable with the oddness of God.

9. “The truth of dogmas does not depend on the fact that the church maintains them. But is this really so? This is an abiding question, and dogmatics must always leave it open!” (Gerhard Sauter). Tradition always gets the benefit of the doubt, but might some of it be but “agedness of error” (Milton)? An ancient dogma, now widely contested, is the divine impassibility. With Moltmann, Jüngel declares that the cross “has destroyed the axiom of absoluteness, the axiom of apathy, the axiom of immutability, all of which are unsuitable axioms for the Christian concept of God.” Process and liberation theologians join the troops, while Thomas Weinandy and David Bentley Hart mount rearguard actions. Were the Theopaschites (if not the Patripassianists) right after all? In any case, claims to infallibility – a kind of tradition fundamentalism – bring orthodoxy into disrepute, and church history is littered with enough ill-conceived defences of orthodoxy to warrant theological vigilance and modesty. Moreover, while doubt plays black to trust (Wittgenstein), the acute post-enlightenment awareness of the historical and social location of ideas, and the undeniable insights of Tendenzkritik regarding the power-interests that texts serve and legitimate, entail a loss of dogmatic innocence that must give suspicion its due.

10. Finally, what do you do with heretics? Burn ‘em (though in fact none of the early heresiarchs were murdered)? Or at least track them down and corner them? If you’ve got a magisterium, you can fire the Küngs and the Currans. If you’re a powerful and aggressive church leader, you can threaten to take your ball and go home while at the same time invading other pitches (or is it Bishop Akinola who is the [Donatist] heretic?). Karl Barth warned against witch-hunts against Bultmann, and the author of the Barmen Declaration found the contemporary “confessional movement” “dead, cheap, fly-sieving, camel-swallowing, and Pharisaic.” On the other hand, I’m sure Barth would have approved of declaring apartheid a heresy. Finally, however, Stanley Hauerwas is right: “That one of the tests of orthodoxy is beauty means orthodoxy betrays itself if it is used as a hammer to beat into submission those we think heterodox.” And, of course, unless orthodoxy itself issues in orthopraxis – because truth is not so much thought as done (John 7:17) – well, hypocrisy isn’t heresy, but it ain’t pretty. The telos of orthodoxy is not conformity but faith working through love in joyful obedience.


Sam Charles Norton said...

Thank you Kim (again) but please can you explain what 'doubt plays black to trust' means. I don't recognise the reference (presumably a chess analogy?)

scott said...

That was terrific. Thanks for posting it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sam,

Yes, the metaphor is drawn from chess. I don't know where it's to be found in the Wittgenstein corpus. I thought I'd come across it in one of Newbigin's books - The Other Side of 1984 (1983) or Foolishness to the Greeks (1986) - but on a quick perusal I couldn't find it. If anyone wants to track it down, that'd be great.

Anyway, the point, to quote Newbigin (who himself refers to Polanyi), is that, the laudable Enlightenment critique of superstition notwithstanding, "doubt can only be secondary, not primary in the act of knowing... What is primary is the act of attending and receiving, and this is an action of faith." Thus Newbigin retrieves "dogma" as "a good word".

Anonymous said...

A little "heresy" then...

Christian theology has always been incorrect in its interpretation of the Hebrew God YHVH and in its characterisation of the Hebrew Jesus of Nazareth.

The New Testament writers claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was a perfectly normal human who exemplified and enacted the values and principles required of creatures by their Creator and that he was 'anointed' with plenipotentiary powers to speak and act in the name of God.

Having created mankind in his own image, God is not likely to find the necessity of becoming the image of himself. To do so would be an admission that it was he who had failed in his work of Creation.

The New Testament was written to prove that Jesus of Nazareth was the man appointed by God to rule the world in righeousness. It was not written to provide fodder for post-apostolic doctrines and traditions, nor was it written to prove that Jesus was in any sense equal to God, except as it pleased God to make him so.

When the scriptures fell into Greek, and subsequently Latin, hands, the teachings underwent a change in accordance with the predilections of those particular nationalities. Because their minds were set in the key of a different structure, they projected into the scriptures their own prevailing national religions.

Doctrines were crystallised by the disputes among early Gentile church fathers who looked into the Pool of Narcissus (the scriptures), saw themselves imaged there, and then projected this, their own image, upon the world through the medium of the ecclesiastical councils called by Roman Emperors from 325AD onwards.

So-called "Christianity" bears the image, not of the mind of Jesus and the character of the Supreme Being, but of early Gentile theology. In fact, I would go so far as to assert that doctrines such as the Trinity and the Miraculous Incarnation are nothing but expressions of rank idolatry.

Now what is "aesthetically unattractive, even ugly" about that?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Vynette. Your view here might sound like heresy -- but a hundred years ago it would have been perfectly respectable scholarly "orthodoxy"!

Today, however, this view is challenged by some of the best scholarship on early Christianity. Recent studies have demonstrated that devotion to Jesus and belief in Jesus' divinity, far from being later Hellenistic perversions, were in fact part and parcel of the Jesus movement right from the start.

Having said that, most of us would still agree with your criticism of crude interpretations of Jesus as a miraculous god-man, etc. The point of "orthodox" christology is not that Jesus is some sort of miraculous superman with a divine substance added on to his humanity -- rather, the point is that the life and acts of this man are so transparent to the will of God that this man is rightly said to belong to God's own identity. After Jesus, it becomes impossible to speak about "God" in the same way -- that is the point of orthodox christology and of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Matthew said...

"heresies are fastidiously neat and tidy, the product of minds stuck inside the box of common sense."

And orthodox teachings only seem reasonable to those who have been soaked in them until the bizarre seems normal. Most anyone else finds orthodoxy utterly ridiculous.

Like, the trinity as Metaphysical Fact? Try selling that to an unindoctrinated man-on-the-street.

(Also, every time I read Augustine, I can't help but think, "What a punk!" But maybe that's just me.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Vynette,

I'm glad I scrolled down to the end before replying to your comment, as I couldn't have done any better than Ben's response.

But in my own words: the Christology of the NT is high enough to require no further heightening by the metaphysical categories of the Fathers, which are (if you like) a good, not a misleading, translation of biblical thought-forms. The NT itself clearly affirms the divinity of Jesus, and indeed includes Jesus within the identity of Yahweh, without in the least infringing strict Jewish monotheism (Richard Bauckham's God Crucified [1998] is essential reading on the subject), or infringing our Lord's complete humanity. And the doctrine of the Trinity - it is sound exegesis which simply (!) spells out the full nature of the divine identity.

Anonymous said...

Hi Matthew,

I suspect it would be no harder, if no easier, to explain the Trinity to the proverbial man on the street than it would be to explain general relativity, quantum mechanics, or string theory (or, in the US, the theory of evolution!)!

But one thing is certainly true:

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of Thee,
And Thou, O Lord, art more than they.
(Tennyson, In Memoriam)

David W. Congdon said...

Magnificent, Kim! I don't really have anything to add. I might point out the selection of theses on heresy by Eberhard Jüngel which Ben Myers translated on my Jüngel blog.

Thanks for this, Kim. I especially liked the quote from Chesterton.

Richard Beck said...

Hi Kim,
Big fan of your posts. Here's my question:

But isn't the notion of orthodoxy inherently violent, even if just rhetorically so?

My sense is that you are sensitive to this issue given some of your qualifications in the list (e.g., "a hedge is made of shrubs, not bricks and barbed wire").

Another way to phrase this might be: Must not heresy be allowed to keep orthodoxy non-violent?

Anonymous said...

May I (again) recommend a handy logical device for dealing with questions that invite heretical answers, namely the Buddhist tetralemma. For example:

one cannot say that God changes.
one cannot say that God does not change.
one cannot say that God changes and does not change.
one cannot say that God neither changes nor does not change.

The last of these is a reminder that there is no simple appeal to apophaticism (it might be restated "one cannot say that God is beyond changing and not changing"). That is, it is a real question, one that is highly relevant to "the experience of salvation in Christ", and beating our heads on such questions is a road to salvation, especially when we learn to apply such questions to ourselves, as well as to God.

Aric Clark said...


I'm with Beck here, I think that orthodoxy has an inherent violence to it - a shadow side that must be confronted and that permitting heterodoxy is an act of self-emptying for the orthodox consistent with a non-violent witness.

Shane said...


There is an exclusionary element to orthodoxy in that there are myriad ways to be a heretic and only one in which to be orthodox. I don't think this means that orthodoxy is inherently violent in that it spurs people to kill those they take as heterodox. (Although that has happened quite a bit as well).

But "permitting" heterodoxy is a different thing. Let's be more precise. Do you mean, "permitting" heretics to live or do you mean permitting them to keep voting at church meetings? It seems to me that one could endorse the former and reject the latter. At any rate, I would require a detailed argument that the former position actually entailed the latter before I could be persuaded that we ought to "permit" heterodoxy.

How we respond to heresy is obviously a very difficult pastoral issue. Tongs and brands are probably not the most effective tools.


Why can't you say that God doesn't change? (An appeal to the authority of the Buddha probably won't persuade me.)


Suppose you pastored a church. One day a member of your congregation comes to you and says, "Hello Pastor. My and my lesbian partner would like you to officiate our pagan lifesharing ceremony for us. We want to sacrifice a pig on the altar here and then you will come and draw some magickal incantations on our bodies with its blood. At the end of the ceremony there will be a short orgy followed by a singing of 'amazing grace'. Is that ok with you?"

What would you do or say in response? Please bear in mind your commitment to non-violence, kenosis and embracing the other, etc. etc. etc.

Anonymous said...

I understand that the process of ortodoxy was very different before Constantine. The bishops met together and debated for months, until there was "unainimity", with the goal of maintaining the faith of the apostles and scriptures. When the Roman Empire "baptized" Christianity as her chosen religion, her interest of "Pax Romana" infused the process with power, resulting in more hurried councils. The debates were cut short in interest of "Pax Romana", and not the union of the church. Thus the whole process of the councils was changed, and orthodoxy became more mean and violent. Not to say that the debates before were not fierce. Is this a little to generalized?

Anonymous said...

Hi Richard,

It's great to hear from you - particularly when you ask such an incisive quesion!

I have recently been wrestling with the thought of the late Gillian Rose (and I inevitably feel defeated by this dense and complex thinker!), who, while uncompromising in her insistence on the inexorability of (post-lapsarian) violence, and on the inevitable contamination of compassion itself with violence, yet refused to esentialise violence (or otherness) and courageously and confidently spoke of "love's work" (the title of a late essay). "Love's work" makes it possible to recognise error, to converse, to renounce closure and finality, to experience provisional dispossessions and reconciliations, as we try to work out how to be "good".

It all sounds rather grim, but crucial to managing this seemingly impossible human condition and challenge is - the comic! There can be no truth-telling, Rose suggested, without laughter (and apparently Rose had a particularly pesky laugh!).

Where is this leading? The one thing that may keep both orthodoxy and heterodoxy relatively non-violent is laughter. To adapt a question that Nietzsche put to all Christians, why do the Fathers and the heresiarchs alike always look so grim?

Anonymous said...

Hi Shane,

In reply to the question you put to Aric, I think I'd say something like, "Forget the pig and the magic - who do you think I am?! - but 'Amazing Grace' sounds good - and the orgy is negotiable."

Anonymous said...

Beautiful! This is my favorite list yet. Thanks for writing this.

Shane said...

@ Kim

Fantastic! Now if I can just find a caterer.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't go with those who claim orthodoxy is inherently violent. But the history of the enforcement of orthodoxy is extremely bloody--and this violence is a greater heresy than any being violently suppressed. Given the history of violence and coercion involved in the decisions about what counted as heresy and what counted as orthodoxy, I think we have to be free to revisit everything.

If we reaffirm certain orthodoxies (as I would reaffirm the Trinity, for example), our reasons for doing so are likely to be different than those originally given, especially where violence and coercion were part of the picture. For example, Kim quoted Arthur McGill in defending Athanasius vs. Arius. (I HIGHLY recommend McGill's little book, Suffering as a Test of Theological Method, which is the source of Kim's quotation.) But McGill's reasons for making that affirmation are very different from the ones put forward by Athanasius.

In other cases, I suspect that we contemporary Christians judge as heresy or orthodoxy may differ from what was decided in the past. I reject, for instance, the doctrine of God's immutability and impassability. I believe these are alien concepts taken from Hellenistic metaphysics and violently imposed upon the Biblical narratives--which show God having passion, love, changing God's mind, REPENTING, etc.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Kim's last thesis and my previous comments about violence and coercion, I am deeply suspicious of the current Roman Catholic pope--beyond my normal Baptist aversion to having popes. I would defend Kung's orthodoxy (and Curran's--at least on birth control) over Ratzinger's, and even more, I would defend the orthodoxy of Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino whom he continues to attack.

As Luther said, "I place no trust in popes or Councils [not even the early ecumenical councils like Nicea or Chalcedon--even if I affirm what they did for different reasons], for they have often erred and often contradicted one another." In fact, I believe this pope has done much to undermine the wisdom and spirit of reform that John XXIII and Vatican II ushered in. And there are Protestant versions of the same--or I would still be part of the (now nearly cultic) Southern Baptist Convention. I watched up close as people drove out many an orthodox Christian that they labeled heretical and did great violence in the name of orthodoxy.

On the other hand, I agree that apartheid was a heresy and that the concept of orthodoxy and heresy is needed for the health of the church--but the history of abuse here means we need to tread VERY carefully.

Anonymous said...

Shane asked: Why can't you say that God doesn't change?

First, because I can't imagine experiencing without changing (or love, or creativity,...). Hence, the phrase "God doesn't change" (given that God is not totally detached from creation) can only be assigned a truth value arbitrarily.

Second, because it implies an absolute determinism, which, though logically possible, is useless in practice.

David said...

At Tat Bank Road Methodist Church Mrs Pickles, the Chief Steward for life, and Doris Smedley, the lady who does the Kareoke machine, talk of little else.

Anonymous said...

Hi Methodist Preacher,

Thanks for making me smile and laugh! The scene you picture, replete with talk-balloons, would make a great cartoon. Is Dave Walker listening (readers of the Church Times will know to whom I refer)?

O for the good old days of the fourth century when you could hardly go to the market or the baths without getting into a heated discussion, if not a fist-fight, over the Trinity. Nowadays it's difficult to get a clergyman to talk about the Trinity on Trinity Sunday!

Anonymous said...

I have a fairly orthodox theology, I guess. But coming from a heritage of dissenters, of people who were burned at the stake or otherwise executed (e.g., Balthasar Hubmaier, Felix Mantz, Conrad Grebel, Hans Denck, Maeynken Wens) or thrown in prison for life (e.g., Thomas Helwys), or repeatedly jailed (John Bunyan, Richard Overton and his wife who was still nursing their firstborn), or whipped (Obadiah Holmes), or expelled into "ye howling wilderness" in mid-winter (Roger & Mary Williams), for their beliefs by others who were the self-declared guardians of orthodoxy, I get nervous everytime the subject of heresy comes up.

Even in more "enlightened" times, dissenters have been punished for not going along with established orthodoxies (e.g., Henry Dunster, first president of Harvard College, was fired after coming to Baptist views and refusing to have his infant son christened). And those whose "orthodoxy" has been impeccable have defended executing heretics (Calvin's defense of Servetus'--admittedly a heretic--execution; the Puritan fathers of Massachussetts Bay colony defending the hanging of Quakers like Mary Dyer), or burning witches. Some "orthodox" such as Charles Hodge James P. Boyce staunchly defended slavery while heretics fought against it.

Any discussion of orthodoxy and heresy which doesn't BEGIN with this kind of history and warnings about repeating it, makes me nervous. However boring or ugly or just plain wrong heretics are, they have seldom been as violent as self-appointed defenders of orthodoxy. And I say that as a Trinitarian with no problems with the Apostle's and Nicene creeds.

Anonymous said...

Ben and Kim, thanks for your responses.

Ben, you said: "Recent studies have demonstrated that devotion to Jesus and belief in Jesus' divinity, far from being later Hellenistic perversions, were in fact part and parcel of the Jesus movement right from the start."

Even the best scholarship cannot overcome the fact that the concept of the 'divinity' of Jesus would not have entered the minds of the Hebrew disciples and was not taught by the Hebrew Apostles.

Are not these 'recent studies' working backwards from an established viewpoint in order to justify doctrine?

Kim, you said: "The NT itself clearly affirms the divinity of Jesus, and indeed includes Jesus within the identity of Yahweh..."

In my view, the NT affirms exactly the opposite and proposes the following - if an ordinary man possessing only great qualities of character can achieve 'godliness,' then we too can develop those qualities and become 'godlike.' It further proposes that there are no more excuses for the rest of us, no more justification through the Law of Moses, no such excuses as 'how can we be expected to emulate the righteousness of Jesus when he is not really one of us, even though theologians talk about his full humanity as well as his divinity?'

Aric Clark said...


Kim beat me to it, but my response is similar to his. Permitting heterodoxy does not mean ourselves engaging in it. Or rather, since we all consider ourselves orthodox with very few exceptions, we shouldn't judge others too harshly and definitely shouldn't be tempted to use coercive power of to enforce our views on others.

In the US the church was disestablished for the health of the church so we no longer have the use of the implements of state terrorism to murder dissenters with. However, we continue to practice a form of violence by verbal excoriation and exclusion. As pastor of a church I would not conduct ceremonies that conflicted with my faith, but I would not brand such persons as heretics for wanting to perform those services, kick them out of my church, or try to prevent them from performing those rituals elsewhere. If I felt that the behavior was not only "wrong", but also harmful then I would attempt to compassionately persuade them of their error.

Aric Clark said...

As for whether orthodoxy is inherently violent, it was born in blood, it has usually been upheld with blood, we have to be very selective to imagine orthodoxy to be non-violent.

Anonymous said...

Kim, your post and its discussion has proved a perfect illustration of Ben's historiography post.

Anonymous said...

A great post and line of comments. Not much to add, except:
1. Once a Benedictine priest said to me that a saint is one who pushes the boundaries of the truth of the faith where God calls them, is persecuted by the established church for it, until the church catches up and then canonizes them.
2. People who are certain they are right and that they have ‘God on their side’ are bound to be dangerous. I want to be a member of the church of ‘a few – very few - things I’m more sure about and other things I’m not so sure I know what they mean any more’.

Anonymous said...

My theology professor, Shirley Guthrie, said that a heretic overemphasizes what the rest of the Church underemphasizes. I never thought much about that definition until it floated up in my mind regarding Joel Osteen. Osteen's right, God does want to bless us, but God probably doesn't want 52 sermons a year on that.

If Guthrie's definition of a heretic holds, then they're everywhere!

Matthew said...

"They are but broken lights of Thee,
And Thou, O Lord, art more than they."

Preach it, Alfie. Preach it.

Anonymous said...

Why are people so afraid of Miracles?
If you believe in NT, then you must also believe in Miracles.
And why not the Creator himself work a few miracles. What is so odd in that

Shane said...


Is this ecclesiology or political liberalism (in the Locke/Mill sense)? Respecting people's opinions is all well and good, but it does not make a church, I think. Would you administer eucharist to the pagan and her lesbian lover, even if you wouldn't marry them? I should hope not.


Your knowledge of what the apostles could or could not have known or thought is truly astounding.

Since I lack this knowledge, I will just work with the texts we have. I take Jesus's statement "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30) as a statement of his divinity. Apparently his contemporaries took it that way since they took up rocks to stone him for the "blasphemy" of "making himself God".

You can dodge all of this of course by claiming that these are just later accretions from the second century, etc. But you really don't have any evidence of that. At this point its just your unargued assertion based on your psychic powers to discern what the apostles could or could not have thought.

So, I'll stick with orthodoxy.

@michael westmoreland wright

I've heard you claim again and again that you don't believe in impassibility because it's greek. what i haven't heard you explain is why it's wrong. the biblical objection doesn't hold much sway. the bible talks about God's "hand" and so forth too--should we take this to mean that God really have a physical body and that incorporeity is just a hellenistic greek accretion distorting the purity of the gospel? God forbid.

If then there are successful arguments for God's impassibility, and i think there are, we should read the Bible in the light of those conclusions, not reject the conclusions on the basis of Biblical anthropomorphisms accommodated to the understanding of people in the stone age.

@Scott Roberts,

I imagine there are several aspect of God's existence that you, being finite and mortal and temporal cannot imagine. God, in his eternity, experiences all time in a single living instant. What is future or past for us is eternally present to him. He does not change--nothing changes at an instant by definition--but this does not mean he does not experience. It just means that you can't extrapolate your experiences to the case of God's.


Thank you for the wonderful Tennyson poem. "Like straw" is never a bad place to reach at the end of a career of careful systematic thinking. Having done one's duty, it behooves one to see the cracks in the edifice.

However, an apprentice, e.g. me, has no right to appropriate his masters' sentiments and point at the cracks without paying the lifetime of diligent labor first.

Another way to say it: Derrida paid his dues to the history of philosophy. John Q. Deconstructionist, the Grad Student who doesn't want to read Aristotle because it's "metaphysical," has not.

Anonymous said...

Shane, with all due respect (especially since I agree with some of your comments to others), I think there is a big difference between translating biblical concepts into Hellenistic categories (or the metaphysics or other thought forms of any other culture) and imposing a view of God drawn from Hellenism that is quite alien to the biblical view of God. And there is a fundamental difference between calling "the hand of God" an anthropomorphic metaphor (something I believe the biblical writers knew full well) and saying that references to God's emotions are EQUALLY anthropophatic (and thereby dismissing them in favor of impassability). After all, if God is impassable then God cannot love and the gospel is null and void. An impassable God cannot forgive, after all. We can only be saved by a God who suffers with God's creation. But, according to the "orthodox" from Nicea until the 20th C., theopaschism is a heresy. So, on this point, I will side with the heretics.

I hold great respect for the received wisdom of the church through the ages. I want to be in dialogue with it all and I think the burden of proof is always on something that is a departure from the majority report. But if we are not more concerned that our views are "true" than whether other consider them "orthodox," we as theologians betray the church we claim to serve.
It is not a question of live and let live on opinions. It is a question of remembering that all received opinions can be wrong.

Shane said...


"After all, if God is impassable then God cannot love and the gospel is null and void. An impassable God cannot forgive, after all."

This is what I have been looking for from you! This is the hard core of your objection and now I have something to work with.

Basically, your argument goes like this:

(1) If S is impassible, then S does not have emotions.
(2) The Bible clearly describes God as loving.
(3) Love is an emotion.
(4) Therefore, the Bible implies that God has emotions.
(5) Therefore, God is passible.

Now, as I'm sure you are well aware, none of the church Fathers who claimed that God is impassible denied that he was loving, so clearly there must be some proposition of the above argument they would reject.

I don't think they would reject (1), but notice the way we are using the word "emotion" here. An emotion such as anger is a passion (as opposed to an "action") in the sense that it is something which comes over one involuntarily, it is something done to one by an external force. One of the major reasons for asserting God's impassibility, it seems to me, is that we don't think there is anything greater than God which can force him to do anything, including get angry, sad, happy, etc.

But, of course, the Bible often speaks of God as "loving," "being angry" and so on. Of course, in order to get to (4) "God has emotions" you need to argue that (3) "Love is an emotion," even in God's case. I will agree that love is often an emotion (or passion) in the case of human beings. I see a woman and spend a bit of time with her and her personality smites me to the heart and I fall in love, against my will, better judgment, commonsense, etc. However, I do not think that this can be the case for God, because there is nothing sufficient to overpower him in the way that this woman can overpower me. It does not follow from this that God does not love, merely that his love is different from ours in that his love is absolutely voluntary. I had no choice but to love, but God loves freely, unconditionally, and out of sheer gratuity. It is only right and fitting of course that there be a difference between God's manner of loving and mine, he is infinite, necessary, and needs nothing. I am finite, contingent, and needy and therefore so is my love. On the other hand, we should assert most strongly that God's love stands in no need of another, and is for that very reasons as unchangeable as God himself. Loving is an eternal action which God of his own free choice determines to do. We are loved "from the foundations of the world," in other words.

Now, it just does not seem to me that I am illegitimately importing any pagan notions into my understanding of God's love here. Perhaps I am wrong and perhaps so were the Fathers. But I think that upholding divine impassibility is the key to preserving the gratuitous character of God's love and restraining the idolatrous impulse to anthropomorphize the divine.

Does this account go any way towards lessening your hostility to divine impassibility?


Anonymous said...

Shane, thanks for trying, but, no, this lessens none of my hostility toward the notion of divine impassability. Your account strikes me as pure sophistry. I do not think of emotions as outside forces which overcome one and control one. The motive behind arguing for divine impassability, as you demonstrate, is the belief that a passable God, a vulnerable God, cannot be omnipotent. I would rather redefine omnipotence (and I have never accepted the Romantic notion of love that you outline--a view of love unknown until the high Middle Ages, btw. See Denis de Rougemont's classic, Love in the Western World for the history of this notion of "falling in love" and it's basically adulterous account of love).

But whether one denies or accepts impassability or immutability or any other classic metaphysical property claimed for God, one denies or accepts such based on arguments which are probably very different from those which persuaded the ancients one way or the other. That's why I gave no argument against impassability, Shane. Because that doctrine, as such, was not my point. My point is that, accept or reject it, one does so because one is persuaded that one view or the other is true--not because one view or the other is "orthodox."

R.O. Flyer said...

Kim, great post and a good discussion that's followed!

In response to Vynette:
"Even the best scholarship cannot overcome the fact that the concept of the 'divinity' of Jesus would not have entered the minds of the Hebrew disciples and was not taught by the Hebrew Apostles."

I'm not sure what scholarship is evening trying to distinguish the differences between the "Hebrew" and "Greek" mind anymore. I can only recall the very outdated (and conservative) so-called "biblical theology movement." You seem overly concerned (and in my opinion arbitrarily), with the purity of the Hebrew mind and categories of thought. Your comment seems to suggest that what is not Hebraic is an imposition, but this is utter nonesense. There is no pure Hebraism uneffected by its surrounding culture.

Anonymous said...


I'm aware of the Parmenidean view of God and time. I am also aware of the Heracleitian view. (And I am aware of the limitations of human imagination.) The point of the tetralemma is that both views fail when taken as "the truth", that maintaining either requires turning a blind eye to the logic of the other.

Shane said...


"I want to be in dialogue with it all and I think the burden of proof is always on something that is a departure from the majority report."

Ok, burden of proof is on you. You claimed above that God's love implies his passability. If you don't agree with my reconstruction of an argument for that claim put one forward yourself. If you don't have an argument that love entails passibility, then you have in point of fact just discounted the tradition willy-nilly and your claims to respect it are vacuous.

You don't like my moral psychology or my analysis of emotion. That's fair enough, I'm not inspired after all, but I thought the premises were pretty plausible prima facie. But apparently they were not, so please put forward your own. But remember, of course, to put forward a "biblical" as opposed to Aristotelian, Spinozistic, scientific or Kantian moral psychology to support your claims that love implies passability.

If you find it difficult to produce such a "biblical" moral psychology to support your claim, let me suggest you drop the rhetoric of pure unadulterated "biblical" truth. I'm pretty sure that to say anything significant about moral psychology you are going to have to go beyond the bounds of what the Bible itself says and if you do that, then you need to justify why you choose the principles you do, as opposed to the ones that I chose and which you rejected. (By the way, my example of "love" above is just an examples any number of others might have been chosen, such as anger, fear, etc. But I also reject the idea that love is a modern or medieval invention. The idea of sexual love as an irrational passion is present already in Plato (sexuality is a necessary evil because it involves the animal part of the soul overpowering the reason) and Augustine (who thinks that the involuntary nature of the male erection is a result of the fall).

"One denies or accepts such based on arguments which are probably very different from those which persuaded the ancients one way or the other."

Why shrug our shoulders as if the arguments of the fathers are completely lost? They are still around. For instance, Paul Gavrilyuk has written an entire book debunking the myth of a Hellenic fall of the early church specifically concerned with impassibility.

What will happen if the early fathers did advance arguments like mine?

Shane said...


It's Boethius, actually. Parmenides' view isn't quite as sophisticated, although he does believe in changelessness.

But a dilemma only works if both of the arguments are valid--and manifestly Parmenides's and Heraclitus's views are not. Aristotle fixes both of these in the early books of the Physics, if I recall correctly.

Aric Clark said...


You said: Is this ecclesiology or political liberalism (in the Locke/Mill sense)? Respecting people's opinions is all well and good, but it does not make a church, I think. Would you administer eucharist to the pagan and her lesbian lover, even if you wouldn't marry them? I should hope not.

First of all - allow me to say, you are a great deal of fun to debate with. You come across as a cantankerous bastard at times, but you're undoubtedly smarter and better read than I am, so you force me to think.

I am not talking about political liberalism, though I am probably shaped by it living in the time and place that I do. I find that I am almost always convinced of my own rightness, and others seem equally convinced of their own rightness. This inevitably causes conflict. If we allow coercive force as one of the legitimate means of resolving this conflict then, not only do we permit all manner of horrors to be committed in the name of truth, but we actually have no guarantee that the conflict will be resolved in favor of the Truth. All we have is certainty that the conflict was resolved in favor of the group with control of the mechanisms of coercion.

At a minimum, loving your neighbor means not doing violence to your neighbor. Being non-violent means more than not doing physical harm (though that would be a hell of a good start). It also means not practicing social/psychological exclusion and so on.

On the separate question of whether I would administer the Eucharist - I do in fact believe in a completely inclusive table. Jesus Christ is the host of the feast and who he has invited I would not turn away. I believe in the power of the Eucharist to work in the hearts even of those who do not believe. Read this book for a glimpse at a conversion that came about by taking communion before being baptised:

W. Travis McMaken said...


I would not so quickly concede to Shane the point of being smarter or better read. I have known him for a long time, and generally he's just drunk...

Of course, I'm kidding.

More seriously, however, I want to address the Lord's Supper issue. That fundamental question here pertains to the purpose of the Lord' Supper. If we think that it has to do primarily with the dispensation of some sort of salutary quality, be this metaphysical / social / psychological / substantial / etc, then we will tend to be in favor of open communion. However, if we think of the Supper primarily in terms of union with Christ, this is not the case.

Union with Christ is not the exclusive property of the Lord Supper, but the Lord's Supper is an action of the community that is performed in the recollection and expectation of Christ's self-giving to his followers. In and through this activity of the community, Christ acts to unite the coomunity with himself. While one can be united with Christ through preaching, baptism, the reading of Scripture, the study of theology, etc, this is accomplished in a special way in the Supper.

The Supper is the banquet meal that Christ sets for his church. It is the proleptic instantiation of the eschatological banquet. As such, it is properly reserved for those who, by God's grace, can expect to have a share in that banquet, namely, those who have been awakened to faith in Christ and who seek to live faithfully in response to Christ's work on their behalf.

This is where church discipline comes into the mix, and also where the question of open communion becomes pressed. I am very sympathetic to open communion, but on the basis of what I have sketched above (as well as on other bases), I must finally advise against it.

One final point re: the book you mention. God makes it a habit of working through our inadequacies. Therefore, results of this kind cannot be taken as evidence of correct practice.

Anonymous said...

A hobbit mumbles out - great discussions, I'm trying to understant Shane and MWW. I'm not a philosopher so I will speak common folk language.

The idea that God changes seems interesting. The Fathers on the other hand, (I think some of them liked ale too), they argued that God never changed.

They certainly knew the scriptures, so it seems they got into greek thinking, or sosome folk keep saying from time to time. Makes a little sense, (slurping down some ale)
The Bible also narrates God changing His mind, his judgements, loving, emotions, and so forth. Though it seems love is primarily a choice to be made followed by faithfulness (belches out loud).

What I think I understand is that the Fathers understood that God's essence did not change. He was, is, and will always be love, holy, faithful, omni-this and omni-that...(another swig of ale)
And since he is always that way when creation changes this does not change Him, He is still love, holy, omni-... When King Joash? was judged and sentenced to death God was holy, love,... when Joash changed, God acted according to His eternal plans, He gave him grace of 10 more years. God did not change, what changed was what He created, Joash and creation. God continued to act for good.

This does not mean God can not relate, understand, what we feel, it just will not change his essence. In this sense I think God does not change, or He would not be able to be faithful?

This is maybe all mundane, and I would be better off returning to the Shire and down another draught of ale...with my fellow hobbits

But what I cannot understand, if I did understood something above, is the incarnation, except to say that God created humans in His Image... but I am lost here...his body certainly changed, but His essence did not, love, holy, omni-this... (to bartender)I need another ale

God can love and feel our needs, our humility, as Christ felt these all, but these do not change Him. (Most certainly drunk by now) So when the Holy Spirit placed the Word in Mary's womb this must not be contrary to God's essence but it certainly seems like a change.
But Jesus did not really lose anything,(though it seems He gained something), and the problem of kenosis, well it seems it must have been part of God's love plan and omni-this..., or is it that to not change God chooses to limit himself, thus changing creation to good? Essentially God doesn't change.. (Hobbit falls drunken to the ground, someone please help him up and I hope this wasn't too far out)

Aric Clark said...


I've been to your blog a few times, it often goes over my head, but I'm getting better.

Regarding the Lord's Supper/Eucharist/Communion - your observation is interesting, because I prioritize the eschatological banquet in my own thinking about this sacrament and that is the primary reason for my supporting open communion. You see, if the sacrament is not merely a memorial ritual, or a magic talisman, but it is actual participation across time in the joyous banquet of the people of God post-parousia and judgment then we have no way of knowing who should be included and who excluded. We must be agnostic about deciding who it is Jesus has invited to the feast and therefore include whoever comes to the table, presuming that they have been invited. It is the role of Christ as Host that disestablishes our authority to act in that role. We are merely members of the body at table passing the bread and wine along like at a family meal.

Shane said...


As Catallus puts it, "in vino veritas."


Thank you for the kind words. I hope I haven't given any offense--I do so enjoy frank discussions like these.

However, I wouldn't agree with open communion just because I believe that "holiness" is a mark of the church which ought to be enforced by church discipline.

"Come out from among them and be ye separate" doesn't make good postmodernism, but I think that points to the shallowness of postmodern accounts of 'tolerance' (which is just the attenuated heretical form of the Christian imperative to love, just as 'globalization' is the attenuated heretical form of catholicity).

@The Tippling Hobbit

Yes. When God is angry at my sin and glad at my repentence this does not signify a change in God--it signifies a change in me. God is constant always to his own character--call that the moral significance of impassibility. We can explain this better if we appeal to the notion of divine eternity that I've outlined above. God's anger at my sin and his joy when I repent are simultaneous events in the divine life although they are not simultaneous events in mine because God experiences all times at an instant and I have to take them in a sequence.

As to the problems posed by the incarnation I will mind my limits and defer this question to those more qualified than I. It's a difficult question for sure, but I trust that the fathers of the church found a way to reconcile incarnation and impassibility. I've tried to address one small aspect of this topic here.

Anonymous said...

Shane, why should I put forth an argument for passability when I used that issue ONLY as an illustration of my major point: that we cannot decide something's truth or falsity based on whether or not some council somewhere declared it orthodox or heretical?

Since I was persuaded by Moltmann's and McGill's arguments for passability, I will let them speak for me. I am not claiming that this view is simply biblical without any interaction with other thought forms. We always interact with the surrounding culture. That's clearly why the Patristic writers used various streams of Hellenistic philosophy to hammer out early Christian metaphysics.
I am not arguing for a complete Hellenistic fall of the church (I would argue for a Constantinian fall of the church). Without Hellenistic metaphysics, doubtless the discussion of Christ's "natures" or the "persons" of the Trinity would have been very different--but some language would have to be found to try to make sense of the data of both experience (worship) and Scripture. I fully agree with Kim's points at this juncture.

But on the issue of divine impassability, I simply think the Fathers got it wrong. And to say that this was "Hellenistic thinking" is simply shorthand for saying that their understanding of perfection, etc. was more influenced by Plato et al., than by the Psalms, Isaiah, the Gospels, etc.

So, no, Shane, I will not use this space to argue for divine passability. That was not my point. My point is that truth, not orthodoxy, must be our standard. Of course, we wrestle with the witness of the church through the ages--but with the firm realization that it can, has, and does ERR! And so can, have, and do we. That is simply the risk of any theology whatsoever.

In one sense, I think every Christian is a heretic (i.e., seriously wrong) at some point of our theology. I expect to spend some time in eternity getting my theology corrected--but I expect that for Athanasius, Augustine, the Cappadocians, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and even Barth, too.

Mykel G. Larson said...

I'm with the Hobbit.

Though I have to say I am more conscerned with an authentic relationship with The One than oridnary, human "heresies."

Interesting read though. Thank you. :)

Anonymous said...

Can you start a new page on the topic of intercommunion? I'm also for handing out the Eucharist to anyone who puts their hand out for it....but the arguments are better not to go into here.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Re: Aric

You make all the right points about the banquet and our lack of knowledge about who will and won't (if anyone?) be there. But, you draw the wrong conclusion. Our lack of knowledge should compell us to look for those whom, as far as we can tell, have responded in faith to Christ. Since for all practical purposes we can assume that these will be at the eschatological banquet, these are who participate in the prolepsis of that banquet here and now.

Re: Shane

True dat!

Anonymous said...

And how do we tell? Isn't someone coming forward with an open hand a prayer, of sorts, for relationship with Christ and asking to receive what He offers?
Anyway, I think exclusionary positions put the manifested church in an ontological role that the belongs properly only to the mystical body of Christ.

Ben Myers said...

I'm with you on this one, Ann. I reckon the exclusion of any sort of "sinners" from the eucharist simply undermines the whole meaning of the meal. You might be undeserving in all kinds of ways: but if you come with empty hands to this meal, Christ will feed you.

Anonymous said...

Hi Shane,

It's interesting that your language about the eucharist sounds quite Donatist! I guess I'm not sure what you mean by "holiness". Are you using it as a moral category? If so, spread how wide? And how on earth (heaven is a different matter) are you going to police it - and at the Lord's table? On the other hand, "holiness" as a moral category at least would presumably open (say) the RC table to Protestants (unless we're all swine!), so if not open communion, then at least inter-communion? Or does "holiness" refer to purity of doctrine, as in "it's the disunity of faith rather than love that keeps tables fenced"? And whose Supper is it anyway? Is it the Lord's Supper or the Church's Supper? And even if that's too glib, even as the Church's Supper, what if we take with full serious that it's the eucharist that makes the church (which is simply sound exegesis of I Corinthians 10:17)? And if I have a problem with "Come out from among them and be ye separate", it's not because it's not postmodern, it's because it doesn't sound to me like Jesus, in speech or action - or the way he re-wrote the book of holiness. And I'm sure there are robust forms of Christian tolerance as well as attenuated forms of the postmodern variety.

And, WTM, I have similar problems with the position you finally, if hesitantly, come to on eucharistic hospitality. You rightly emphasise the eucharist as the sacrament of union-with-Christ (very Calvinist!), but without mentioning that that unity is implcitily compromised if we are in disunity with other Christians. Or are you using the term "open communion" as I would, to refer to hospitality extended to the unbaptised? In which case forget the above! But then while I appreciate the theological arguments against open communion (particularly those based on the intimate connection between baptism and communion), if we're serious about the eucharist as a proleptic messianic feast, then the Parable of the Great Feast (Luke 14:15-24) - particularly the ending! - it makes me nervous.

Finally to get back to the 10Ps: Leaving the unbaptised out of it, is the Lord's Supper the place to exercise the discipline of separating the orthodox from the heretic, or even the heterodox - really, in actual practice, wielding an axe if not casting a stone?

Anonymous said...


Neither Jesus' contemporaries nor his later adherents understood that his words were 'spiritual.'

For instance, you quoted John 10:30 - in John 17, Jesus himself expands upon what he meant when he said "I and the Father are one":

"Holy Father, keep them in your name which you have given me, that they may be one even as we are...

Neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on me through their word,

That they may all be one, even as you, Father, are in me and I in you that they also may be in us.

And the glory which you have given me, I have given to them, that they may be one as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may be perfected into one..." (John 17:11, 20, 21-23, 26)

Jesus is speaking of an affinity of spirit, of love, binding his disciples, his believers, himself and the Father into one bondage.If the interpretation is made on the basis that Jesus IS the Father, then there is as much authority for saying the same thing of the disciples,and the believers for all were to be perfected into one.

As to what was in the disciples' minds regarding the 'divinity' of Jesus, John 1 provides confirmation that none of the disciples found it necessary for Jesus to be born of any other than human parentage.

John the Baptist identified Jesus to his own disciples by saying:

"Behold the Lamb of God...I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven...and I have borne witness that this is the Son of God" (John 1:29-34).

Subsequently, two of the disciples who heard John the Baptist's words were in a group which identified Jesus as the son of Joseph (John 1:45).

Another member of this group, Nathanael, who had never met Jesus before, and knew him only by Philip's identification of him as the son of Joseph (John 1:45-48) nevertheless called Jesus the Son of God, seeing no contradiction between the terms.

These exchanges provide ample evidence that none of the disciples mentioned found 'divinity' a prerequisite to belief in Jesus as the Son of God.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Re: Kim and Erik (and Ben)

'Open communion' = unbaptized (for me)

How do we tell? "I believe in God the Father almighty..."

Someone coming forward with an open hand is a prayer of sorts, but what we are concerned with here is responsibility of ecclesial action. The Supper is for those who come forward with open hands and a prayer to Jesus Christ the Son of God, not merely a prayer per se.

Here is a question: In giving away its distinctive activities and in seeking to be open and relevant to the unbaptized, does the church loose its relevance and meaning for them?

Re: Luke 15 - With reference to the Supper, I read this passage as a reminder that even those who appear to be sitting at the table cannot presume upon their seats, and that one of the most important aspects of their sitting at the table is their commission to go out and bring in the others. Of course, all this is theologically riffing upon the actual historical-critical meaning that deals with Jesus' relation to the Jewish establishment, etc.

Anonymous said...

I side with the open communionists, but the closed marriages (Christian marriage is for Christians; you want to marry a pagan, go before a justice of the peace). Judas Iscariot was at the Last Supper/first Eucharist. If the table wasn't closed to Judas, to whom could it be closed? It's not our table, but the table of the Lord.

Anonymous said...

Nice try MWW. Judas was a faithful disciple by all outward appearances at that point, so of course he was there. On the other hand, Pontius Pilate was not at the table. That's a more relevant comparison. Could Pilate have just made a unrepentant guest appearance just to share food and a good conversation, no commitments. I think not.

Anonymous said...

Hi again WTM,

Thanks for the clarification. "We believe ..." - so admission to the table for you is credal - which at least (it follows) means full inter-communion among Nicene Christians regardless of denomination - and that's to bracket the question of particular Christians who have particular problems with particular articles of the creed (say) literally understood - for example, does the church refuse those who doubt that the virgin birth was a biological miracle (the Church of England doesn't)? And, again, how would this tick-the-box approach be policed - by ticking the boxes?

Anonymous answers the question of Judas and raises the question of Pilate. The inclusion of Judas is justified on the basis of "all outward appearances", which I take to suggest a confessional criterion. Doesn't it strike you as odd, though, that (say) the Roman church will communicate tyrants with blood on their hands but exclude Protestant saints?

Then there is the exclusion of Pilate on the basis of his being "unrepentant" and having "no commitments", which I take to mean that he is both morally and credally compromised. The things is, however, that the Pilate scenario is almost preposterously unlikely (like Osama bin Laden showing up for Mass). And indeed just considering non-Christians, going to church with their Christian friends (forget about their moral status), my experience is that it is is extremely rare that they want to receive Communion "just to share food and a good conversation" - interestingly, they seem to take it much too seriously for that - but if they do, I wonder if it doesn't suggest a kind of nascent faith the feeding of which should not be refused (cf. the notion of Communion as a "converting ordinance").

Just some troubling thoughts of mine on this very vexed question.

Shane said...

@KF, et al.

Protecting the holiness of the table has nothing to do with Donatism. It has to do with the proclamation of the gospel. Is the table for sinners--absolutely. But only for those sinners of the "repenting" variety. Suppose someone comes to you and says, "Preacher, I just cheated on my wife and embezzled a bunch of money from my firm. I'm thinking about running for mayor, so I'd like to get a photo of me taking communion to use to snatch the religious vote. Can ya help me out?" The right answer is, "Go home, confess to your wife and the police. Pay back what you owe and make amends, then we'll talk about communion." Giving the eucharist to the wicked is putting the pearls before the swine, so to speak.

My understanding is that this is at least part of the meaning of that spooky elliptical passage 1 Cor 11,27-30. Maybe the catholics have this one right--confession before communion.


There are a number of ways in which a thing might be one literally and metaphorically. Jesus and his disciples are "one" in a certain sense. ("Remain in me and my words in you . . . ") But Jesus and the father are one in an entirely different sense. I think the cases of John 10 and John 17 are entirely different, because it is clear in John 10 that his opponents understands Jesus's words as a claim of identity with the father--that's why its blasphemy from their point of view. John 17 can be read as making that identity claim, but does not have to be. But you simply cannot deny the divinity of Jesus on NT grounds.

Nor could you deny it on basic theological grounds. The early fathers believed in Jesus's divinity for a reason. If Jesus isn't divine, in what sense did he die for our sins? How could the virtue of one single man erase or heal the whole world of its sin? How is the resurrection of this man the sign of God's overcoming of death and hell? Look at the book of revelation--if Christ isn't a divine figure in the book of revelation then you are working with the most strained interpretation I can imagine.

I think it would be wise for you to ask yourself two basic questions:

"Do I have any special skills or expertise in biblical interpretation?"

Do you read Greek or Hebrew? Have you ever taken any classes in the theory of interpretation? Have you sat at the feet of someone who did have these skills who could teach you as a sort of apprentice? Have you spent years doing exegetical and translation work professionally to be able to evaluate the work of other professional exegetes?

I'd venture that the answer to those questions is no. So then ask yourself,

"Am I just making up my own beliefs and then going looking for passages in the New Testament that I can make to support them?"

If that answer to that question is yes--then you have fallen into heresy and need to repent of it.

The Bible is a large difficult book and the history of its interpretation is even larger and more difficult. I'm not saying you should not be interested in reading it and learning about it--just that you ought to be a bit more trusting towards people who are authorities in its interpretation. God gives some people this role at biblical scholars to help people like you and me out and to keep us orthodox.

Best of luck.


You should put forward an argument because you claimed to respect the authority of tradition, even if it needs to be challenged sometimes. That much I agree with. However, when you dissent from the tradition without offering any argument whatsoever, you can hardly be said to be respecting it.

Moreover, everything that you've given as a plausible motivation for your position, such as the myth of a hellenic fall and the idea that love implies passibility I have debunked. So, at this point you need to either come up with a new argument to support your claim that God is passible or you need to say, "I suppose the tradition was right all along."

If the point is about truth and orthodoxy then I will simply argue that truth is orthodoxy. Whatever is true is orthodoxy--even if people have not recognized it yet. Take the set of all those theological propositions that are generally recognized to be true and let's call that Orthodoxy. (orthodoxy is always true by definition, Orthodoxy is probably true, by virtue of consensus). I think divine impassibility is true, therefore I think it is orthodox. Furthermore, I would add that if any belief (such as impassibility) is generally agreed to be Orthodox, then one is justified to believe it without further argument. To have a justified belief contrary to Orthodoxy one requires an argument to defeat the Orthodox opinion.

Anonymous said...

The context suggests that I Corinthians 11:27-30 warns against participating in the Lord's Supper if you are part of the problem of a fractured Christian community (Paul is addressing the scandal of social and economic divisions in the Corinthian house church - that is what "dishonours" the Lord - though of course so too would sleeping with the wife of the centurion who is lounging next to you!).

Luke 19:1-9, I think, is also not irrelevant to our question. It is interesting that Jesus happily shares, indeed initiates, table fellowship with Zacchaeus, a tax collector of all people (yuk!), with no questions asked - then, behold!, as a result, not pre-condition, of their time together, Zacchaeus repents with the promise of restitution (and more!) for the people he's robbed.

I just wonder, not only with respect to Communion, but with our evangelism, whether we tend to turn the gospel back into the law from which Christ came to release us. Is grace unconditional or not? Does the gospel begin with a list of demands or an invitation? Are we graced only if we repent (isn't that a pagan model?), or is it not rather that we are liberated and empowered to repent because we are first freely graced while we are yet sinners? Isn't that the scandal and foolishness of the gospel, that God's economy of grace is so counter-intuitively different from ours?

The church often seems to me to have a rather paranoid mind-set, as if it were our vocation to defend the holy from the unholy, like suspicious border guards zealous about proper documentation - i.e. we have Donatist tendencies - when what the entire ministry of Jesus demonstrates, contra the Pharisees, is that it is not unholiness that is catching but holiness. In other words, the church, in running a kind of protection racket, betrays a lack of real confidence in the power of the gospel.

W. Travis McMaken said...

I’m down with shared communion with all Nicene Christians. I would fence the table in three ways: (1) confess the Creed prior to celebration, (2) the community celebrating should practice church discipline with respect to its own members prior to celebration (if necessary), (3) if there are visitors in the community on the occasion of celebration, they should be welcomed to the table as long as they have confessed the Creed (see the above) and are members in good standing of their own communities (that is, the community celebrating is not aware of their disciplined exclusion from the table among their own fellowship. If these things are in place, I would thing, you have as safe a table as you need.

As far as reservations about points of the Creed and whether they should be taken ‘literally’, it seems to me that this is a concern that could be raised only among those who value their superiority more than the practice of Christian fellowship. This is not to imply that you fit into this category, Kim (far from it I should suspect!), but it means that I am happy if people are willing to make the confession. Interpretative issues should be addressed within a community’s catechetical process.

Finally, we need to make a few distinctions. First, although Jesus’ practice of table fellowship is relevant in a consideration of the Lord’s Supper, it is different in these ways: the latter was instituted for and among the proto-church (the disciples), and the former was practiced in the spatial-temporal and physical sense by Jesus himself, whom we are to imitate as by distant echo, but whose saving work is solely his own and to which we bear witness. Second, the withholding of table fellowship for any reason (lack of confession, church discipline, etc) is not a withholding of salvation. It simply makes the lived expression of that salvation a pre-condition (and I believe that I’ve set this bar very reasonably) for participation in this unique form of fellowship with Christ and his church.

I don’t think any of this could be classified as being ‘paranoid’, and I would join Kim in his condemnation of such superiority complexes.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, WTM, for this constructive table-talk!

Shane said...

Just to pick a nit, desire to guard the purity of the church is not the heresy of Donatism. The Donatist controversy orbited around two questions:

1. Can people who betrayed the church be welcomed back into communal fellowship? Donatists said no.

2. Are the sacraments officiated over by traitor bishops and priests valid? Again, Donatists said no.

The catholic response to the first was that traitors could be forgiven if they repent and make public penance. The catholic response to the second was that the sacraments were valid because they were valid in virtue of the work of Christ, not the holiness of the individual minister.

It wasn't that the donatists were arguing that the church should be holy and the catholics said, "Nah, holiness is only for fascists." The catholics were very concerned with the purity of the church--but they also recognized the grace of God to forgive. But just because God can forgive sinners doesn't mean that you should not warn the unrepentant--cf. Paul's instructions to the corinthian church in the case of the man living with his father's wife "with such a one do not even eat!"

So, donatism is bad. But nothing Travis or I have put forward even comes close to being Donatism.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I will argue for divine passability on my blog, sometime. I see no reason to do so here, in a comments section, where it is a rabbit chase. You haven't debunked anything but strawperson positions--nothing that I have claimed.
Your "truth=orthodoxy and orthodoxy=truth" formula is ridiculous. Groups of powerful people (e.g. Councils backed up by politicians with armies who think they are theologians) decide what is "orthodox" and, historically, and enforced this by violence. I have argued against the idea that orthodoxy is inherently violent, but there is no getting around the fact that claims about orthodoxy have been violently enforced.
And often these have been falsehoods--or there would have been no need for any Reformation, whether Magisterial or Radical. Further, "orthodox" always entails "to whom." The Westminster Confession defines double predestination as orthodox and condemns Arminianism as heretical (in terms derived from the controversy over Pelagius much earlier). Many Reformed creeds condemn "the error of the Anabaptists" about nonviolence.
Am I supposed to simply accept these claims to orthodoxy as "truth?" Ridiculous. Or are you restricting your claim, as the Eastern Orthodox do, to a claim of infallibility for the 7 Ecumenical Councils of the undivided Church? (Would this put you in the position of condemning the filioque?)

I have zero sympathy for attempts to fence the Lord's Supper and "protect its holiness." Sorry, I follow One of whom it was said, "This man eats with sinners." And anonymous' claim about Judas and "outward appearances" seems to deny that Jesus saw through Judas. No, Jesus knew Judas as a traitor and invited him to the meal ANYWAY.
Any eucharistic celebration which is not open to all is a denial of the gospel, not a protection of it.

If I were to be at all sympathetic to closing communion, it would be to the practice, in the church just after Constantine's "conversion", of denying communion to soldier who have killed for between 3 and 7 years as a form of repentance. (See the Canons of Hippolytus.) But, in truth, I prefer other forms of church discipline.

BAPTISM follows repentance, but the Table of the Lord reenacts the offer of free grace of Golgotha and to fail to offer that to one and all is to deny the universal offer of the cross. I worry about WTM and Shane introducting the concept of holiness in this regard: Here I side with Marcus Borg in his claim that Jesus practiced a "politics of compassion" in direct contrast to the Pharisees' "politics of holiness." (Unlike Borg, I do not think Jesus rejected all holiness thought; I think he redefined holiness away from purity and exclusion to terms of compassion, justice, and mercy--as did the prophets before him.)

I agree with Kim that the Pilate scenario is unlikely--but had Pilate shown up wanting to take the Passover with them (the Last Supper/First Eucharist was, remember, a Passover meal), he would have been welcomed. The very act of his showing up would have been an act of repentance and faith, perhaps. As for wiley politicians--if they eat and drink judgment on themselves for failure to discern the Body, that is their problem.

Anonymous said...

Just a few other characteristcs of the Donatists (which, if not exclusive to them, are, I think, defining, and important for understanding their psychological as well as theological profile). They were an angry bunch of dudes, an aggressive gang of "rednecks" (Henry Chadwick described them as the "hawks" of the fourth century). Above all, they had a defective take on "holiness", understanding it in Levitical terms, and utterly failing to parse it in terms of forgiveness - in short, failing to see that it is above all the ungracious person who is the quintessential unholy person.

Shane said...


"orthos" = right
"doxa" = opinion.

Therefore, the "orthodox" opinion about any particular subject is the right one. I have nowhere made the claim that there is some nice apriori way to tell whether a particular opinion is orthodox or not. i.e. X is not orthodox just because the pope says so.

this was the point of the distinction between orthodoxy and Orthodoxy. the one with the big O is the one where you have that a priori decision procedure. if X number of bishops and ratified by the popes, and so on. Is there political influence on the shape of big O orthodoxy? Oh sure.

But the tradition of the church--in a very very broad sense--has some to an agreement on a couple of important things. (It's not quite semper, ubique et ab omnibus--which is a decision procedure--but it's close.) I think the broad consensus of the church over hundreds of years warrants a belief in the absence of any convincing argument to the contrary. Respect for the tradition entails at least that much.

In the particular case of impassibility, i think the fathers have good reasons to believe in it and that this is why it became Orthodoxy in the big O sense. You think, in fact, that impassibility is not orthodoxy, because it's wrong. Ok, I will look forward to seeing your arguments on impassibility and engaging them at your blog later.

@ KF

I'm better at reading words than what's in the lines between them, but it seems to me that being an asshole isn't a heresy.

(Thank God.)

Anonymous said...

Shane, how very dare you accuse moi of such between-the-lines innuendo! Besides, of the many aspersions one (not me) might cast your way, being an asshole is certainly not one of them. And if it were, you have turned it into a virtue.

By the way, that is one of the truly American expressions that I have missed most living in the UK: "What an asshole!" And even when they say it, Brits can't manage the requisite inflectional contempt, nor can they spell it. I mean, you've got to be an asshole to spell "asshole" "arsehole"!

Anonymous said...


do you think Jesus wasn't aware of who Judas was (or should i say wasn't) when he reclined at the table? I think MWW's point is a little tougher to refute than what you have made it sound.

Aric Clark said...

Wow! I'm thrilled that this discussion around communion took off. Tons of interesting arguments here.


You're right that holiness is one of the marks of the church and the orthodox have traditionally been concerned for it, but I think in a wrong-headed way. Most people interpret holiness to mean separation of some kind and therefore exclude sinners and those who haven't confessed, but Jesus seem pretty clearly to be about the business of making holiness about compassion and justice a la Amos etc... The holiness of the church is a characteristic it simply has, not one that needs protected - we impart that holiness to the world through compassion rather than by reserving ourselves from contamination.

As for the crafty politician - I would tell him to confess as you have, but not as a prerequisite of receiving communion. I would not permit the "photo-op" because communion is not a publicity stunt. He would be welcome to come to communion without his photographer however.


I disagree that our imitation of Jesus is necessarily so attenuated. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and union in the Body of Christ we are able to act and work as Jesus did - indeed he said "you shall do greater things than these..."

Furthermore, neither you nor Shane has yet come up with a good response to Kim's point about the priority of grace. Our ability to repent, even confess, even have faith, is a gift received. It is quite logical that someone might first receive the body and then be moved to repent.

Making the fence around the table credal also makes the mistake of treating faith as intellectual subscription. Faith is an invisible gift of the holy spirit more akin to trust than "right-opinion". In this sense we cannot know whether those coming to the table have faith even if they've said the creed. I prefer to take it that their very presence at communion is a sign of the Holy Spirit working in them building faith.

Anonymous said...

Shane, literally "ortho= right" & "doxa=worship." But etymologies are not definitions and definitions change over time. Or do we really define "ecology" as "the science of the home?" Or "economics" as "laws of the home?" Orthodoxy involves a CLAIM of right belief by a group of people--usually against another group of people. And, as part of the theologian's task of trying to keep the church faithful, this has its place. We need to be able to right Barmen Declarations from time to time, for instance.
But my point remains: We do not hold to something just because in another context some other group (however respected) labelled it "orthodox." We believe it or fail to believe it because we think it true or false.
The distinction between "orthodoxy" and "Orthodoxy" you make, Shane, won't hold up. "Orthodoxy" with a capital "O" refers to those Christian communions of the Eastern Church which accept the 7 ecumenical councils as infallible and which split with the West when the pope took it upon himself unilaterally to add the filioque to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. For the Orthodox, the Bishop of Rome is only "first among equals" with the bishops and patriarchs and not infallible himself.
So one has to find a different way to distinguish between true doctrines, and doctrines some consider "orthodox."
Again, I do not believe that anyone is correct in every doctrine they hold. We are all heretics somewhere about something. If we correct one thing on earth, others will have to wait until the eschaton.

Shane said...

@ Aric,

I'm not a theologian, so call this a shot in the dark in answer to Kim's point about the priority of grace. Baptism is the intitiation into the covenant community, not eucharist.

Let's take the case of an adult converts. God convicts them of sin and shows them to repent. Then they are baptized into the covenant community and their sins are washed away, their natures are healed and so on. At this point if they cooperate with the grace of the holy spirit infused into them through baptism by struggling to live a holy life and repenting when they sin, they may continue to receive grace and pardon through the eucharist. No cooperation with grace--e.g. a notorious wicked sinner who is through struggling to be holy--then no eucharist. It's not the business of the church to judge people's salvation, but it is the church's business to warn, counsel, encourage and at times discipline. Excommunication is a powerful tool in that process--and one which seems to have been used in the early church as a corrective measure as well (e.g. the example of the incestuous corinthian man I noted above.)

Shane said...


I'm not interested in getting into any RC/EO polemics. Nor am I disagreeing with you about how authoritative the fathers are. My point is only about what it means to respect the tradition. I have maintained that no one who disregards the tradition of the church without an argument respects it. (If you push me to define the "tradition" maybe I'd say the 7 ecumenical councils, but that seems like an arbitrary way of defining it.)

You claimed to respect the tradition but to have a good reason to depart from it on the issue of impassiblity and gave some intimations of what those reasons were. I tried to construe those intimations into an argument and then show why I thought that argument was wrong and the traditional view correct.

You objected to this for some reason which is still not clear to me and then we have been talking about orthodoxy and violence and communion and all sorts of other things.

So I'll boil it down to this. If you are willing to say, "The church fathers are all assholes and I'd be proud to be considered a heretic in their eyes." I would have no objection to you. You can believe or say whatever you want. But you don't say that the fathers were assholes (although you got close at one point). You claim to respect them, as if you are going to take over the tradition from them and improve upon it. And if you can indeed do this, then please do so. I'd be very interested to see a critical rejection of the arguments of the fathers on this point. I don't know anything about Moltmann, but if he has something good to say about this, then I'd like to know about it.


Chris Tilling said...

Quite a breathtaking post.

Chris Tilling said...

- and I mean that positively!

Anonymous said...

I have to claim to improve upon the Fathers in order to respect them? I have to offer an argument for something that was, I repeat, an illustration of a different point, and do so in a comments section or I don't respect the tradition? Wow.

No, I don't think the Fathers were assholes, to use your team. I think they were right about more than they were wrong. My ONLY point is that we should not believe anything just because they declared it orthodox. Why is that so hard to grasp?

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