Review – Passion and Paradise by J. Warren Smith

J. Warren Smith
Passion and Paradise: Human and Divine Emotion in the Thought of Gregory of Nyssa
New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2004

 Gregory of Nyssa, long recognized as one of the most intellectually original of the church fathers, is perhaps most remarkable for his distinct theological anthropology (study of humankind). This work, based on Smith’s 1999 Yale dissertation, explores how the passions function in Gregory’s teachings on God, human creation, and salvation.

The majority of the early church asserted that God, being an utterly transcendent and simple spirit, is without passions. That is, he is not subject to the sorts of reactive states  (anger, desire) that creatures in the realm of change and becoming undergo. Despite the subtitle, very little space is given to establishing and extrapolating divine impassibility in the text. It functions mainly as an underpinning assumption.

As created in the image of God, humanity shares a certain likeness but not identity to its divine exemplar. Two considerations color Gregory’s vision of the image. The first is that unlike Aristotle’s way of defining things, which emphasizes both difference (species) and commonality (genus), Gregory explains the image of God in man wholly in terms of man’s uniqueness from the rest of creation. This leads him to emphasize man’s higher rational functions and downplay (but not entirely discount) his embodied nature. Already the passions occupy an ambiguous role. Second, Gregory constructs his vision of the original humanity by looking ahead to the final humanity after the return of Christ and the consummation of history. He reads in Paul that there is neither male nor female in Christ and concludes that essential humanity is in fact genderless, but that gender was added in view of the coming fall to provide a means of procreation. Also, since the Christian’s goal is divinization, and God is without passions, the status of passions in human existence appears yet more tenuous.

Passions, however, are not so easily uncoupled from humanity. Scripture portrays certain passions, such as desire and anger, as potentially virtuous. Also, the passions are a part of navigating bodily existence, and Gregory accepts as certain a future bodily resurrection. The goal, then, must be to sublimate the soul’s impulses under the intellect’s control and eliminate errant belief claims that would rouse the passions improperly.

The passions may help solve another problem. Origen had developed a theory of the fall, in which the pre-existent souls who contemplated the divine essence became satiated with God and grew cold, turning away from him and falling into bodily existence. Gregory rejects this account of the fall but nevertheless tackles the question of how the soul could not become satiated with God once vision of him has been attained. Gregory’s answer involves both the nature of man and the nature of God. God is infinite, but not only that, he is infinitely novel, fresh, exciting. How can man avoid being overwhelmed by this infinitude? Man’s soul has an infinite capacity for growth. The very beauty of God revealed to it moves it by an erotic impulse to move ever deeper into the mystery of God’s energies.

The way toward God is through perpetual cycles of moral purification, kataphatic illumination, and mystagogy. Gregory employs the allegory of Moses’ ascent of Sinai to explicate the soul’s ascent. The allegory, which I will not reproduce here, is fascinating, absolutely worth reading either in Smith’s account or the original. The point is that only after an ascetic life through which the passions have been completely mastered is one able to enter into the highest contemplation of God. We can participate, in a limited way, in the incredible transformation that the end of history and the restoration of all things will usher in. Gregory’s doctrine of epektasis, the “stretching forth” of the soul after God, portrays the soul as a ship sailing toward an eternal horizon, exploring innumerable islands, each more magnificent than the last. In this state, our yearning for God will no longer be, like hunger and thirst, desire springing from lack; it will be a contented and receptive fullness based on past enjoyment and continued anticipation. The passions, it seems, are never completely eliminated, but are transfigured into something that appropriately reflects the divine apatheia.

The preceding has merely been some highlights gleaned from Passion and Paradise, rather than a full summary of the argument. One of the outstanding strengths of the book is its accessibility. It is quite surprising that it is so readable. Gregory of Nyssa is not a simple figure. The issues of the image of God, the constitution of the soul, the purgation of the passions, and eschatological hope are thorny topics. The Greek philosophers and Christian theologians lying behind Gregory’s thought are themselves quite complex. Yet, without sacrificing precision or scope, Smith has managed to fashion an investigation that should engross both specialist and relative neophyte. A clear thread of argument runs through the book. Questions of source and relation to other figures illuminate rather than distract. Extensive endnotes keep the main text clean while allowing the interested reader significant additional insight. Smith’s controversial synthesis of Gregory’s divergent eschatological strains is enticing and logical, but not dogmatic.

This is one of the best historical studies—one of the best books—I’ve read in a while. It is a rare treat to find a book that delivers much more than is promised in the title and on the back cover. Of obvious interest to any student of the church fathers, I believe this work would also prove stimulating for contemporary theologians who wrestle to relate creation and redemption within a theological anthropology.

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Published in: on March 15, 2012 at 11:24 am  Leave a Comment  
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Reformed Theology Meets Irenaeus

Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith articulates some classic Irenaean and Eastern themes within a Reformed, covenantal framework. The synthesis is invigorating:

The notions of covenant and eschatology are intertwined in biblical theology. Both are oriented toward promise and fulfillment. This promise-fulfillment pattern does not begin after the fall but with creation itself. Human identity was not finished at creation but was to be perfected by fulfilling the trial of the original covenant, winning the right to eat from the tree of everlasting life and blessedness. Hence, human beings are intrinsically future oriented. Though perverted by sin, this eschatological hope—a sense of a destiny to be fulfilled in history—animates human activity and ambition. Thus, even the commission given to Adam to lead creation in triumphant procession into God’s Sabbath rest (following God’s own pattern of creating and enthronement) is a historical movement from promise to fulfillment rather than an ascent of mind.

This eschatological perspective, in continuity with Irenaeus and the Capppadocians, also extends the logic of Reformed (covenant) theology. As Geerhardus Vos reminds us, the particular covenantal and eschatological orientation found in Scripture is thoroughly concerned with the ethical and personal sphere, not with abstract metaphysics and ontology. “The universe, as created, was only a beginning, the meaning of which was not perpetuation, but attainment” (emphasis added). Eschatology is prior to soteriology. Creation began with a greater destiny lying before it. Creation was the stage—the “beautiful theater”—for God’s drama, not an end in itself. Life in the garden was not intended to simply go on in perpetuity but was merely the point of departure for the great march of creation behind God’s vice-regent into the everlasting life of God’s own Sabbath-rest….

[A paragraph about immortality as the reward promised upon completion of the trial]

Thus, the emphasis of the Christian East on the attainment of immortality and that of Western theology on legal redemption can be integrated. Prior to the fall, Adam and Eve lived between the two trees: between everlasting confirmation in blessing and everlasting confirmation in death. Eden was a trial. As human beings are by nature covenantal, they are also constitutionally prospective—even utopian, despite the distorted ways in which fallen humanity seeks to win its glorification apart from and even against God. They not only have the law written on their conscience but carry within themselves a sense of some great task of spreading God’s kingdom and glory to the ends of the earth. It is both of these senses, that of God’s command and that of the promise of glory, that become twisted by human rebellion, but we can discern even in that rebellion the remnants of the original commission. (386-7)

Published in: on April 21, 2011 at 1:12 pm  Comments (1)  
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Review – The Promise of the Future by Cornelis Venema

The Promise of the Future, written by Mid-America Reformed Seminary’s Cornelis Venema, is a single-volume comprehensive work on eschatology. Venema draws inspiration from his mentor Anthony Hoekema’s The Bible and the Future but also displays originality and significant expansion. Although the majority of his sources are Reformed, he engages with the full range of evangelical theologies and at times interacts with mainstream, Catholic, and cult views.

Promise opens by establishing a biblical framework for interpreting history. Christ is the centerpiece of history; the Old Testament history pointed to his advent in “the fullness of time.” His first advent marked an epoch in salvation history and inaugurated the kingdom which the second advent will consummate. The next section concerns the intermediate state of departed souls. Venema emphasizes the abnormality of death and the necessity of the body for full human life. Unbiblical notions such as soul sleep and purgatory are stated and refuted.  This section, focusing on individual eschatology somewhat interrupts the book’s flow, and perhaps would have been better placed after the section on millennial views.

Promise continues with a general examination of the second coming of Christ. This event is both the centerpiece of the church’s future expectation and the consummation of salvation history. These two concepts feature as controls on Venema’s eschatology, providing prima facie cases against Dispensationalism and chiliasm respectively. Venema negotiates between texts that stress immanence and those which imply delay by a nuanced explanation of “the signs of the times.” He denies that “signs” refer exclusively to a time immediately prior to the second coming. Rather, the signs run throughout this period of history as constant reminders of the truths of Christ’s two advents yet intensify as the age progresses. For example, although Jewish people are being steadily converted now, a remarkable conversion of Jewish people will precede the second advent.Anti-Christian teaching has always been in existence, but widespread apostasy will immediately precede Christ’s coming. The signs, then, are not wholly new things but progressively intensifying features of the new covenant era.

The heart of Promise is the approximately 150 pages dedicated to explaining and critiquing the various millennial views. Venema gives historic and biblical overviews of all the positions before beginning critiquing them individually. This approach creates some repetition but allows the reader to grasp the various rationales and emphases before being burdened by polemics.

On Venema’s account, premillennialism fails due to lacking explicit evidence and failing to recognize the second coming as the consummation of history. Dispensationalism is even less satisfactory because it introduces errors concerning the role of the church and deflects attention from the real blessed hope, Christ’s visible return to judge the wicked and deliver his people. Venema’s descriptions of Dispensationalism are refreshingly accurate for an outsider; I expect Dispensationalists will agree with his description, if not his critique. Venema devotes a 30-page chapter to Revelation 20, arguing for “nowmillenialism,” the saints’ present reign with Christ. He embraces William Hendriksen’s progressive parallelism theory of Revelation to harmonize Revelation 19 and 20 into varying descriptions of the same event. The binding of Satan occurred during Jesus’ ministry and is effective throughout the church age in the sense that Satan cannot prevent the spread of the gospel to all the nations. The “first resurrection” of Revelation 20 refers to regeneration, the solution to the second death.I will note, however, that Venema does not deal very seriously with Old Testament prophecies that seem to indicate a future time of unprecedented yet not complete prosperity.

Venema argues against golden-age postmillennialism along several lines. A true golden age postmillennialist must make a sharp qualitative break in history sometime between the first and second advents. This runs counter to inaugurated eschatology, which teaches that the first advent ushered in the kingdom to be completed at the second advent. The golden age also requires a sequential understanding of Revelation 19 and 20, against which Venema previously argued. Many contemporary postmillennialists grant that the “millennium” refers to the entire inter-advent period, but that  at some point (perhaps gradually) before Christ’s return the Church will see unprecedented blessing, usually including the approval of the world’s governments. Venema sees this as a major concession, eliminating an exegetical difficulty at the expense of dropping a major justification. He further asserts that the signs of the times militate against postmillennialism, since many of them would be entirely absent during a golden age. Finally, postmillennialism mutes the New Testament’s emphasis on the believer’s suffering, his status as pilgrim and exile in this world. It substitutes a theology of glory for the biblical theology of the cross.

The final section of The Promise of the Future covers the events attached to the second coming. The resurrection of the believers’ bodies is the last great event of redemption. A person’s resurrected body will be significantly altered (renewed) yet somehow still distinctively his own. “Our resurrected bodies will exhibit all of the marks and benefits of Christ’s saving work.” Both believers and unbelievers will be resurrected unto judgment. Believers will be accepted on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone yet will receive varying rewards according to their faithfulness. According to Venema, these rewards are of grace and not of merit (not even half-merit), but it is difficult to see how this is the case if they are really commensurate with believers’ performance. Unbelievers will be condemned to eternal, conscious torment. Venema considers several alternatives to eternal punishment and argues against them. Finally, Promise closes with a discussion of the new heavens and new earth. Like our bodies, the new creation will be a renewed creation with continuities to the present – all things new, not all new things. The distinctive blessing of the eternal state is perfect, unbreakable communion with God in our resurrected bodies.

The Promise of the Future contains numerous sections of personal application. They are not tacked on as devotional afterthoughts, but well integrated reflections springing from the material.  Though close to 500 pages, the accessible and engaging prose keeps the reader moving steadily toward the index. This book is versatile enough that it could be read by a theologically interested layperson or assigned as a general text in an eschatology course. Venema’s uncommon ability to excel simultaneously at instruction, polemic, and application make Promise a valuable addition to the Christian’s library. It is currently my first recommendation for a book on eschatology.

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Published in: on May 11, 2010 at 9:04 pm  Comments (2)  
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