On the Possibility of Torture

I was reading a passage in Esther which mentioned two guards being “impaled on stakes.” This led me to google impaling – not that I did not know what was, but that, also in Esther, the book mentioned a man being impaled on a stake 50 cubits long, and I wondered how long that was.

My journey led me to reading about impaling itself. I came across a gruesome passage from an eye witness who described something he saw. I reproduce it below.

They lay the malefactor upon his belly, with his hands tied behind his back, then they slit up his fundament with a razor, and throw into it a handful of paste that they have in readiness, which immediately stops the blood. After that, they thrust up into his body a very long stake as big as a mans arm, sharp at the point and tapered, which they grease a little before; when they have driven it in with a mallet, till it come out at his breast, or at his head or shoulders, they lift him up, and plant this stake very streight in the ground, upon which they leave him so exposed for a day. One day I saw a man upon the pale, who was sentenced to continue so for three hours alive and that he might not die too soon, the stake was not thrust up far enough to come out at any part of his body, and they also put a stay or rest upon the pale, to hinder the weight of his body from making him sink down upon it, or the point of it from piercing him through, which would have presently killed him: In this manner he was left for some hours, (during which time he spoke) and turning from one side to another, prayed those that passed by to kill him, making a thousand wry mouths and faces, because of the pain he suffered when he stirred himself, but after dinner, the Basha sent one to dispatch him; which was easily done, by making the point of the stake come out at his breast, and then he was left till next morning, when he was taken down, because he stunk horridly.

I do not understand how something so horrible could exist. The pain involved must be unimaginable. I get a paper cut – the tiniest incision – and gasp in shock. It lasts a mere moment, but the pain itself draws that moment out in the mind to make it feel longer.

I ask, how can one imagine being impaled – having a spiked rod literally hammered with a mallet up your rectum until it comes out randomly at some point in your upper body (it was not always easy to make it come out “cleanly” where they wanted)?

How is that fathomable? How possible? Who can possibly imagine it happening to a thinking feeling human being? And yet it did.

Furthermore, who can imagine it happening to a loved one? Who can imagine their spouse, their friend, their parent, their child, being sat upon a spike, nakedly with their genitals exposed, moaning and begging for death, with the tip protruding from their chest, for days?

The whole thought nearly paralyses me. It makes me wonder how the world could be ruled by a God who is love essential. It seems that to even make such a thing possible is just too terrible a thing. For if it is possible, the Creator must already be saying in his mind “it is tolerable for such a thing to happen to my creature.”

Even if it doesn’t occur, the Creator has still said it could occur – that such a universe is something he could possibly allow to go through. So in a sense, in creating a world where such suffering is possible, he has already seen and ok’d the suffering of each person that could suffer – that is, each person he had made.

If the possibility is not tolerable to God, then where did it come from? All possibilities regarding creatures were created by him. Therefore he must, somehow, find such a possibility tolerable – that is, it is something he really could create.

“But God may have reasons for allowing such a horrible thing, which, in the end, will pass away. As terrible as it is, the pain will eventually end.”

But have you forgotten about the doctrine of Hell?

Being nakedly impaled on a spike for 3 days is unthinkably terrible. It nauseates me and nearly extinguishes in my mind any possible worldview of hope. But it is nothing compared to an eternity of even more intense suffering.

How can one endure the thought that the universe is such that it is possible for your loved ones to be set up on spikes for eternity, for you to gaze at forever? I cannot bear it!

If a man in this world will moan and beg to be taken out of existence, will not the damned in Hell? If a human being in this life’s body becomes mutilated by the torture described above, and if it is shamed by being nakedly displayed, will not the damned in Hell be unspeakably shamed and more mutilated? And how could our heavenly bliss be constituted by the vision or knowledge of such gruesome and violent facts?

Who could bear to look upon such a scene in this life, and not be moved with the slightest amount of pity? Who could look upon a person being impaled and not think for a moment “that poor soul”? And yet, somehow, the saved in heaven will look upon the damned – who will be suffering unimaginably more, in much more horrid fashion – and be “satiated with joy.”

Is it even morally right for someone to be disturbed by the idea of Hell? To wish it did not exist, is that not to wish that the divine justice is not carried out? Is it not to have your will opposed to the revealed will of God, which plainly does will that some shall be punished eternally? Can one say with a clear conscience “I wish there were no Hell” if he believes the prophecy of Christ – which cannot be wrong – that “some shall go away into everlasting punishment”?

Does not Christ’s prophecy, and do not the Scriptures, tell us the revealed will of God which we, as his followers, must submit to, or else be in rebellion against?

I do not know how to process the possibility of Hell. Presumably, the saved will be so filled with God that they will see all things through the light that he is flooding into them. Therefore if he wills that they be pleased at the punishment of the damned, they will and must be. If God is the source of all human happiness – if he has created the very phenomenon of “happy created human soul” in the first place – I see no problem with the logic. I just have a hard time matching the reality of the next world up with what I feel about the current one.

Then I read of someone like Vlad III, who had around him a “forest” of 20,000 impaled and rotted corpses, who would feed children to their mothers, cut the breasts off of the mothers and feed to the husbands, and them impale all parties. Or I read about being being skinned alive, or nailed to crosses, or roasted in boiling water, or raped and then genitally mutilated.

Such things are so incredibly horrible! To know that the world is such a place where they can happen! I am caught between feelings of deep pity for the sufferers, and righteous hatred at their perpetrators. I am also filled with deep fear of the possible pain that could await me at some point. To know that my body and soul are such to be capable of such horrible feelings frightens me to nearly madness. Or to know that my loved ones may fall to such a fate, brings tears of helplessness to my eyes.

Finally, I am perplexed at how a good and loving God could even think up a world where such things could be. Their could be, after all, must still find its root in He who made all things.

How would Jesus Christ respond to the questions laid out in this post, I wonder?


Transubstantiation I

I aim to say a few words about the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation. No doubt I will not say enough – how I wish I could gather round with my reader and turn over questions as they organically shoot up in the mind! But, alas! I am forced to communicate through this medium. Still, I believe I can say something helpful about the teaching.

The word “transubstantiation” is rooted in Aristotelian metaphysics and therefore relies on the categories of substance and accidents. (Note the trans-substance.) How these categories map onto reality, briefly, is this.

Underlying every phenomenon we perceive with our senses is a being called a substance. This being stands under – it sub-stands – all its qualities or appearances, and so has them. Take an apple, for instance. There is just the apple itself: that being which we understand when we say the word “apple.” But there is also the apple’s redness, or sweetness, or shape, or digestibility. Now, these things are not simply identical with apple as apple. Rather, they are things that the apple has. They are properties – qualities – which inhere in the apple.

Now one may think that, once you describe absolutely all the qualities of the apple, nothing remains left over for a substance to designate. But this, clearly, is not true. At least, the way our minds work preclude us from thinking so. For the apple is not purely identical to its qualities. If you were to simply posit them all together as one combination – sweetness, redness, roundness, digestibility, and so on – you would no doubt have a unique totality of qualities. But you would not have precisely that which is understood by the mind when it thinks the word apple.

This is because qualities are that which are detected by the senses, whereas essences, or substances, are that which are detected by the intellect, through the senses. Your senses all work on the being of the apple, and, somehow, the intellect is able through this working to understand the what-it-is that exists underneath your sense perception.

Thus, when we ask the question: what is it? We are really asking, what kind of substance is this? (Is it not remarkable how early on children begin to seek after substances?) This asking no mere sense organ can do. A sense organ cannot itself inquire – it cannot question, or make a quest towards substance – for only the intellect apprehends substantial being. Nor does it follow from this that the intellect, in its questioning, does not or cannot use the senses to question. A singer uses the microphone to perform his act of singing, and, to the extent that the microphone – or his vocal cords – is damaged, his singing will be hindered. The point is that his singing is not identical to that by which he sings. In the same way, the intellect (or the spiritual soul which thinks) is not identical to that by which it thinks (the corporeal organs of the body, say the brain.)

Now, in the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation, what is taught by faith is that, the substance of the bread and wine which is on the altar prior to the priest’s consecration, becomes, when he says “This is my body,” the substance of the body of Christ himself. That is, before the priest says the words, the substance – the what it is, the being – that exists with the accidents of color, taste, shape, and so on, which the intellect grasps as bread, becomes a new substance: the body of Jesus Christ. The substance has changed – transitioned – from the one, to the other. Yet the appearances of the previous substance remain.

The mind does not and cannot grasp the newly made substance by its natural act of intellection, as it does other substances. For, as I said, the intellect in using its senses, sees the normal accidents of bread, and by nature grasps that the substance of bread therefore exists. But in Transubstantiation, since the mind cannot naturally grasp the substance of Christ’s body that is present, it holds by faith alone that, what exists under the appearance of bread, is really and truly the substance of the body of Christ.

Thus no Catholic should blush to proclaim up front that Transubstantiation is a mystery impossible for natural reason to know or apprehend. This is not because it is false or impossible, but because natural reason grasps substances by the senses sensing accidents. Indeed it is for this very reason that, if such a thing as Transubstantiation actually occurred, it in principle could not be known naturally. If such a thing happened, it could only be known by faith.

It is often said that the truths of the faith are not contrary to reason, but above it. No doubt this is true. But what is even more necessary to point out is that, the truths of the faith tell us of things we cannot know by reason. Reason can tell you whether or not a thing implies a contradiction. But how could reason ever tell you that that which did not imply a contradiction, and was therefore merely possible, was actually occurring? Reason can show that there is nothing self contradictory in claiming that, by an act of infinite power, God miraculously changes one thing into another, but yet keeps the appearances of the former thing in existence. But when you look with your own eyes at the consecrated host, what else than an act of faith can tell you that such a thing actually was taking place?

Sometimes I think the faith ought to be simply defended, rather than positively argued for. Perhaps all reason needs to concern itself with is showing how there is nothing self contradictory in her assertions. For if there is nothing self contradictory in what the Faith proclaims, then such things really may be.

How strange, that it is reason itself which shows us that the truths of faith are really possible. It is reason which shows us that reality really may be how the Catholic Church describes it! And until some contradiction emerges, one has no certainty that is not.

Prophecy and Future Contingents II

Let us consider again the prophecy problem:

  1. In no possible world does prophecy fail to occur.
  2. Some prophet foretells free choice A.
  3. Therefore, in no possible world does a prophet foretell some free choice A and free choice A not occur.

Thus, as soon as we grant that a prophecy has occurred, we must revoke the libertarian freedom of the action prophesied in the world in which the prophecy occurs. It seems it cannot be the case that the one is necessary in the same world that the other is contingent.

However, a solution to the problem seems to me to be found in a corporate or “generalized” view of prophecy.

Essentially the solution is this. All prophecies involving libertarianly free acts are undefined or unsettled in regard to particulars, but defined and settled in regard to the general fact-that. Thus we have a “partially formed” fact about the future that is sufficient to incorporate and solidify several particular possibilities. No possibility becomes actual until the moment God freely chooses to make it so. Up until then, it was always possible for the particular possibility that does occur not to have occurred.

Example: “behold, a virgin shall conceive.” Now, who the particular virgin is need not be settled by any condition logically prior to or sufficient for Mary’s actual fiat. But the fact that some virgin, at some time shall conceive could already be determined temporally prior. What is determined beforehand then is simply a range of possibilities. The particular actuality is not determined until the moment it comes to pass.

Thus the settling of any prophecy about a particular free willed choice would not occur until the precise moment the person performed the free act which was prophesied. Until then, the prophecy would be sufficiently flexible to always accommodate some other temporal moment. If we deny this, then the prophecy, once uttered, would introduce necessity into the act such that there are no possible worlds in which the prophecy is uttered and the particular free foretold act fails to come to be. Then it is hard to see how the future free act remains truly libertarianly free once the prophecy is uttered. For again, there is no possible world where the prophecy occurs and the act fails to be.

By the way, one could also extend this concept of “flexibility” to predestination. Temporally speaking, there could be a “generalized” predestination which comes to be “particularized” at the same moment that person x freely performs whatever act secures his salvation. This infallible securing would not take place before the particularized time. It would take place at the very time itself that it occurred.

The problems of prophecy and predestination have been obscured by intrinsic models of divine willing and knowing, because these models entail that, given God’s intrinsic state of knowing or willing, therefore what God knows and wills cannot fail to come to pass. This creates propositions about the future that impose necessity on the past. Since necessarily God cannot be wrong, and since necessarily some event about the future is true, therefore nothing about the past, or nothing about any event before the future event, can prevent the future event’s coming to be. Examples of people thinking this surface when you hear some say things like “since a prophet foretold God would elect a people, therefore the particular people he elected could not have failed to been elected.” Or “since person x is predestined, therefore, he never could have been lost.”

But, given extrinsic models of divine willing and knowing, we can keep the one way modality of time and so prevent future free acts from imposing necessity on the past. For God’s extrinsic willing, as it were, “honors” temporal directionality such that nothing is necessary before it happens. For God’s extrinsic willing just is the possibilities freely coming to be actualized through time. They go from being possible, to being actual – from being unsettled, to being settled. It is this temporal becoming which makes a particular fact impossible to be otherwise by the necessity of supposition rather than by an absolute necessity. I.e. granting that the free agent chose x when he could have chosen y, it is impossible that he chose y. But since the temporal-causal arrow is one way (moving from being possibly-true to now being actually-true), the fact are never settled temporally before the happen.

Also it must be remembered, for an all powerful God who creates possibilities themselves, knowing a particular future event as certain offers no providential advantage to knowing it as only possible. Since he is the transcendent creator, he can ensure the possibilities extend only so far as he wills them to, and provide sufficient means to deal with these possibilities, granted they come to pass. This gives God an infallible practical certainty regarding the governance of the world, since he is at no disadvantage by the possibilities becoming determinate in themselves as they come to be. Whatever comes to pass was only able to come to pass because God first willed it to be able to possibly come to pass. Thus it is not hard to think that he can make good on any actualized possibility, or combination thereof.

Prophecy and Future Contingents I

The problem of reconciling prophecy with future contingents is essentially this.

1) No divine prophecy can be mistaken.
2) Prophet x divinely prophesies person y will do z.
3) Therefore, given said prophecy, person y cannot fail to do z.

To suppose, given the prophecy, that person y could fail to do z is to also suppose that the prophecy could be mistaken. This is impossible, given p1. It also has uncomfortable consequences for those who believe in the infallibility of prophecy.

Some try to avoid the problem by saying that somehow our future actions can impact our past. This, however, seems incoherent and even contradictory. This is because, for any agent acting at time x, that agent has as part of its causal makeup all moments prior to time x. Indeed, I just am who I am at time x because all my previous moments have led me up to this point. Today, for instance, already assumes all past days into itself to make it what it is. Today includes yesterday, the day before, etc. all the way back to the beginning.

To deny this is like saying that a thing can create itself. But to create oneself requires one to presuppose that oneself already exists to act on himself.

In the same way, if a future moment causes a past moment, we must already presuppose that past moment as existing and as part of the constitution of that future moment. This is viciously circular. To deny that a past moment is a constituent of a future moment is just to deny that the moment is past and simply to assert it as future.

An example of people using this solution is as follows: a prophet can look into the future as “see” a future free act, and then, after having seen the act, report in the present what it will be. But by now we can see why this is impossible. If the prophet looks into the future and sees a future free act, the one acting must already contain all previous moments as part of his causal makeup. For him, the prophecy already happened. That is, we must suppose the prophetic moment as already determinate – as already settled – in the future free acts causal history. But the prophecy itself cannot be settled yet, for it is only settled on the basis of seeing the future free act which has not yet in itself been determined.

Another solution to the prophecy problem is to say that, although any divine prophecy could fail, nevertheless in fact none will. Well, that’s one way of solving the problem. But it does not get at the modal worry of the necessity of the prophecy’s coming to pass. If a prophecy comes to pass, it is just lucky or accidental. For on this solution, there are possible worlds where divine prophecies not only could be false but actually are. Therefore, if there are possible worlds in which a divine prophecy can fail to be, then prophecy as such is not necessarily infallible.

Another solution is to say that necessarily, no prophecy can fail. This is because the event prophesied will necessarily come about, regardless of an agent’s intention. In other words, granting that, given the prophecy, it cannot be in person y’s power to refrain from doing x, nevertheless it may still in his power to intend to refrain from x?

One pedaling this solution will say that there are many things we intend to do and are frustrated in doing, so obviously if libertarian freedom is real then such a fact is not incompatible with its existence. Also, nothing need necessarily follow regarding responsibly. All that is being suggested is how it can be possible for a prophecy to necessarily predict an agent doing x and that agent not be robbed of his contingent/libertarian freedom. And if such an example is even possible, the fact is that there is not a necessary contradiction between an infallible prophecy of a future free action and the freedom of an agent who causes that action. For the agent could freely intend whatever act he pleased, whereas the actual occurrence of said act, could be settled beforehand. God could, for example, determine to perform a miracle and bring about the prophesied event, whether or not the agent freely intended to do so himself.

This solution, however, while possible, entails that no prophecy could be about someone’s future free intention. For the intention of the agent has remained contingent and not something specified by the prophecy. It is only the occurrence of the event that was prophesied. And that is something which God determined to bring about whether or not the agent freely intended to do so.

How then do we reconcile infallible prophecy with future free acts? I shall put forward what I think a possible solution next.

The Two Natures II

We know then what ways lead to errors when talking about the Incarnation. But what about the logical problem? How do we understand statements that seem self-contradictory when said of the same Person?

What are we to do, for example, with statements like the following, found in the ancient writings:

“Consequently, the Son of God entered into these lowly conditions of the world, after descending from His celestial throne, and though He did not withdraw from the glory of the Father, He was generated in a new order and in a new nativity. In a new order, because invisible in His own, He was made visible in ours; incomprehensible [in His own], He wished to be comprehended; permanent before times, He began to be in time; the Lord of the universe assumed the form of a slave, concealing the immensity of His majesty; the impassible God did not disdain to be a passible man and the immortal [did not disdain] to be subject to the laws of death.” (Tome of Leo 449)

“Can. 4. If anyone does not properly and truly confess according to the holy Fathers, two nativities of our one Lord and God Jesus Christ, as before the ages from God and the Father incorporally and eternally, and as from the holy ever Virgin, Mother of God Mary, corporally in the earliest of the ages, and also one and the same Lord of us and God, Jesus Christ with God and His Father according to His divine nature and , consubstantial with man and His Mother according to the human nature, and the same one passible in the flesh, and impassible in the Godhead, circumscribed in the body, uncircumscribed in Godhead, the same one uncreated and created, terrestial and celestial, visible and intelligible, comprehensible and incomprehensible, that all mankind which fell under sin, might be restored through the same complete man and God, let him be condemned.” (Lateran Council 649)

“We also know that the seventh, holy and universal synod, held for the second time at Nicea taught correctly when it professed the one and same Christ as both invisible and visible lord, incomprehensible and comprehensible, unlimited and limited, incapable and capable of suffering, inexpressible and expressible in writing.” (8th Ecu. Council in 869.)

Now, one could of course dismiss these writings. But that doesn’t seem a good idea for two reasons: a) you are still left with the task of articulating the union in a way that does coherently maintain both natures of Christ; and b) you cut yourself off from your strongest link to the tradition and therefore perhaps your greatest hope of a solution. After all, it was the tradition itself that brought to light the puzzle in the first place. Were it not for the Christian Fathers, we would likely be holding contradictions we were not sharp enough to spot on our own.

Back to the dilemma. Look at the last quote from the 8th council. There you have blatantly self-contradictory statements being attributed to the same person: invisible and visible, comprehensible and incomprehensible, capable of suffering and incapable, etc. Now the question: just how do we predicate such attributes of one and the same person at the same time?

Do you see it? As Lewis said somewhere, the whole “sting” of the contradiction lies in the words “at the same time.”

God and man’s existences are not exactly parallel, for they do not exist on the same timeline. They do not even inhabit the same spatio-temporal world. God and man are not like two creatures who can get together and make physical contact. In creation, every creature is, in a sense, competitive with every other creature. But this is not so with man and God. God’s divine nature is absolutely timeless. Quite literally, tensed predicates cannot be logically attributed to it. And what is more: the divine nature is not really related to anything outside itself. All relation is on the side of the temporal and changing thing, as it comes to be referred to the necessary being, God.

What you have then in the case of the incarnation is conflicting attributes being applied to two natures in one person, true. However, the natures themselves are not inhabiting a common world which would cause a true contradiction to arise.

Now, I’m not claiming to fully grasp such an idea or comprehend it, but recognizing the fact that the divine nature is essentially timeless and unrelated to time does avoid the logical contradiction in attributing to God’s Person two conflicting modes of being which exist at the same time. My aim, remember, is simply to clear away logical contradictions so the mysteries of faith can breathe.

Does it seem impossible for one thing to possess two natures which have contradictory properties? Yes, it does. At least until you realize that the most familiar object in the world is a perfect example of this very thing. I am talking about ourselves. Our “persons” are instances of both an immaterial thing – the soul – being united to and subsisting in a material thing – the body. Now, I’m not claiming this gives us a perfect analogy of the Incarnation or removes all difficulties. But is it not an instance of a union that would otherwise seem, on the surface of things, impossible?

How can the divine nature assume or “take on” a human nature? Would that not change it? How could a nature that could not suffer be joined to one which was tortured on the cross?

We must first snuff out all the wrong ways to picture the union, and then to let the mystery materialize in the mind with whatever is left over.

We aren’t to imagine two things existing first and then them moving together to join some third thing – like an egg and a sperm coming together form a zygote or a log being put in a fire and turning to ash. The divine nature is timeless and changeless. Therefore, there was no “time” at which it had not assumed a human nature and “then” assumed one. Neither is it the case that it was “always” united to a human nature, nor that it “began” to be united to it. Both statements are false. Yet their opposites are not therefore true. For both statements improperly apply temporal concepts to a nature that is timeless.

Strictly speaking, all the change and even all the dependence in the incarnation is on the side of the human nature of Christ – his body and soul, which were created. Not on the side of the divinity, which both timelessly created and assumed that which it created.

Christ’s body and soul, which were created, were brought into being. This is not the case with his divinity, which both timelessly creates and assumes that which it creates. In other words, the relation between Christ’s humanity and divinity comes to be entirely from the side of the humanity, and not the divinity. When viewed at this way, we get a clearer idea of how two opposite natures could be united to each other. The human nature is united to the divine, not from any change in the divine or becoming or even dependence on the side of the divine, but by the divine uniting the human nature to itself. God as the changeless first principle, unites to himself in his person, humanity, and by this very act comes to subsist in human nature.

A good analogy is that of the sun and a man. Imagine a man with his back towards the sun, and the sun, without any change in itself, turning the man so that its light now illuminates and warms the man so that the man now partakes of the glory of the sun’s rays. In the turning of the man, the sun is not changed, nor is its brightness added to. All the perfection and goodness accrues on the side of the man. In the same way the divine nature in uniting the human to itself undergoes no addition to itself. The divinity is not “perfected” by the union. Rather it is the humanity, since it is united so fully that it is united in “person” to the divinity, that is perfected.

When viewed at this way – with all the mutation and dependence and even relation being on the side of the created human nature – we get a clearer idea of how to understand how the impassible, timeless nature could be united to the passible, temporal human nature.

With this in mind take for example the property of divine impassibility. We could say that, since the Son’s divine will, which he has in his divine nature, is totally united in every respect to the Father’s, and since in such a perfect union, there cannot possibly be anything other than absolute joy and bliss, the Son, in assuming a human nature, would still be filled with undiminished and unspeakable joy in his divine nature. For any sort of suffering in the divine nature could only come from some sort of disruption or shrinking or frustration in the union of wills of the Trinity. But in God’s triune relations such a thing could not occur, since all three Persons are maximally good and in perfect relation to each other.


The Two Natures I

Who or what is Jesus Christ? Almost all Christians without thinking will reply: the God-man. He is God in the flesh; God incarnate. He is at once both fully man and fully God. That is what most will say. Yet very few stop and think about what the idea actually means. What does it mean to say that Christ is both God and man?

The early Christians hashed this question out over the first 700 years of the Church. While the particulars were settled in the later part of this span, the fundamental definition of the Incarnation was proclaimed at the 4th ecumenical council in 451 AD in Chalcedon. What came to be proclaimed as “Orthodox” was the idea that in the one Person of the Son there existed – and still exists – two individual natures, and that the union of these natures did not itself result in some third nature or the consequent dissolution of the individual two. Rather, the union was itself such that both natures existed as fully existent and fully distinct. As the creed declares, they are held together “without confusion, change, division, or separation.”

What does this mean? And how are we thus to think about this union – the hypostatic union – in Christ’s person of both the divine and human natures?

We must first see why the Fathers thought it necessary to preserve the integrity of both natures in Christ. Every heresy regarding the Incarnation really boils down to one of two teachings: i) Jesus is fully God but not fully man; or ii) Jesus is fully man but not fully God. One kind of heresy sees Jesus as simply God, walking around in human flesh as a kind of “garment,” though not really possessing a human soul or will, and so therefore not being subject to the fullness of the human condition. And the other kind of heresy sees him as simply human, not uniquely united to the Word, such that the second person of the Trinity could be said to subsist in this human body and soul.

Now, obviously no one would intentionally be a heretic. Furthermore, no one would intentionally discount the plain reading of the Gospels – at least no one would have back then – when they taught both divine and human things about the one person of Jesus. What, then, was the problem? Why not just accept both things? Why did anyone champion an heretical opinion?

The problem, which was and still in many ways is most acute, is this. Insofar as Jesus is said to be divine, this entails, if it means anything at all, that he possesses the properties of a divine nature. That is he is uncreated, unlimited, omnipotent, impassible, immortal, timeless, etc. However, insofar as Jesus is said to be human, this entails that he also possesses a set of properties appropriate to a human nature. He was created, limited in body and power, subject to suffering and death, and changed through time. Therefore, the problem really is precisely this: Jesus is said to possess properties that are mutually exclusive. How can one thing be both uncreated and created, impassible and passible, immortal and subject to death? How can the same “Person” be both visible and invisible, finite and infinite, equal to the Father and subject to the Father?

So there you have the problem. What the early church realized however is that whatever the solution is, it is not to deny one set of properties to Christ in favor of the other set. For if you do this, you also do away with the nature that those properties are pointing to. For instance, if to be God means having all these properties, then it follows that if Jesus is God he likewise has all these properties. Just as it is necessary for a human to be a rational animal or else it ceases to be a human, so likewise whatever are the essential properties of divinity these must be present in a thing or else it cannot properly be Divine. Insofar as what you are describing is not uncreated, infinite, immortal, timeless, etc. you do not have God being described but at most a very powerful creature.* And, of course, the same point works the other way on the human nature. If you want to take away some of the things that necessarily make a human a human, such as a rational soul capable of emotion or a mind capable of learning things or of a body capable of feeling sensation or a will capable of choice, then whatever else Jesus is he cannot be a true human being.  

Thus, for Jesus to be God and man he must really be God and man – meaning he must possess both a divine and human nature, and in the Incarnation he cannot ever cease having these natures, for having these natures is just what it means is just what the Incarnation means. Since Jesus is the God-man, therefore he must be both divine and human.

Nor is it possible for both natures to come together to form some new, third thing – some tertium quid as the ancients called it. This is because, again, in such a case you would not have in the incarnation a person who is both fully God and fully man but some unique third thing that was a new class of being altogether. When you combine the colors of red and blue you no longer have two separate colors but a new one: purple. But the Incarnation was not an instance of the coming into existence of a new type of being. Rather, it was the uniting of humanity to God himself.

Also, if the divine nature was united to the human in such a way that a “new” thing came about – as if some addition could be made to the divine – then the divine nature itself would be changeable. This is also unacceptable, for it implies that the infinite and unlimited divine nature was somehow limited such that it could take on a new form and change from existing like such and such “first” to then existing as such and such “after.” But there can be no movement – no going from – in a timeless, unlimited being.

Moving from the idea of mixture there is another idea we must steer clear from when trying to understand the Incarnation. You can’t imagine the human nature being, as it were, swallowed up by the divine, such that the humanity was annihilated in being united to the Godhead. We are not to think of the human nature as a drop of ink that falls into the ocean of divinity and is thereby consumed. Christ’s sufferings on the cross as man were no less intense because he was also God. (In fact, many argue that due to the perfect wholeness of Christ’s human body and soul his sufferings were far more intense.) The trick for understanding the union of the two natures lies in holding both of them intact.  Hence the particular wording in the creed: without confusion, change, or division. Thus either mixing them or having one being subsumed by the other simply won’t work.

Perseverance of the Saints: A Primer

There is a certain doctrine of the perseverance of the saints holds that, for all elected persons, it is impossible for them to lose their salvation. However, I maintain that if this is true, it renders all choice meaningless. Allow me to explain.

If the above doctrine is true, then right now, every person living is either predestined – and so elect – or not. Further, if one is elect, he cannot be lost. And if one is not elect, he cannot be saved. By which it follows that neither the elect nor the non-elect can change the fate that is right now true of them. Thus, their choices are meaningless, seeing as it is impossible for them to effect what will already necessarily be.

If one’s election entails that, right now, it is impossible for him to fall away, then there is no more reason to work towards reaching a particular goal. The end is already determined. For again, if this doctrine is true, and if one cannot lose his salvation, then every individual now living is at this moment either predestined for heaven, or not. But in either case, no one can do anything to change whether or not they are in fact predestined. Thus their destiny is already fixed, and impossible to do anything about. Why then ought any to pray for perseverance from God? Why pray for one’s salvation, or the salvation of his loved ones? If one is predestined for heaven, he cannot be lost, and so a prayer would be useless. If one is not predestined, he cannot be saved, and so again, a prayer would be useless.

“But we do not know who is predestined or not; therefore we pray that we may be sure that we are.”

Our ignorance does nothing to change the ontological fact that our destiny right now is fixed and impossible to be otherwise. Thus the appeal to ignorance does nothing to remove the difficulty.

“We pray for salvation because, God predestines not only the ends, but also the means.”

Yes, but if the end is now necessary, so too are the means. If the elect cannot fall away, the means which cause his salvation must necessarily do so. If the means could fail, the end could fail. But the end cannot fail. Therefore, neither can the means. The same follows for the non-elect.

“Christ cannot lose any of his sheep. Therefore his saints must necessarily persevere.”

Is it then possible for any saint to be lost?

“We do not claim to know who is or is not a saint.”

I ask not about our knowledge of whether one is a saint, but the necessity of the fact that, if one is a saint in fact, whether his damnation is possible. So I ask again: supposing one is a saint, is it possible for him to be lost?


What then did Christ save him from?


Yet you just said that the saint could never have possibly been lost, since from all eternity God had predestined him.

How can one be saved from that which it was impossible for him to experience?

If at no point in one’s existence is one actually saved from a future punishment that could occur, then what sense does it make to say they were saved from such a thing? They merely transitioned from their previous state to their current one. But that transition itself was necessary: the non-transition, or a future of separation from God, was something simply impossible to come about.

The middle ground – as mysterious as it is, metaphysically, is I think much more satisfying, which is this. In our state of wayfaring, all who in fact do persevere and attain heaven, could have failed to persevere. Therefore their salvation was not necessary. They really could have been lost. Their election, while it may have certainly brought about their salvation, did not for that reason destroy this fact’s contingency.

For this reason we must constantly pray for perseverance. What sense would it make to pray for perseverance, if it was already impossible that we either attain it, or not? God’s predestination does not take anything away from our ability. He has predestined the very possibility itself – as well as its contingent outworking. The point being: right now, both our salvation and our damnation are equally real possibilities. This we believe is so for all of who have not yet died.

Many think this a cruel doctrine. They say, if you claiming that an elect soul can possibly be lost, you are saying that he cannot be absolutely sure he is saved!

But is the truth not rather the opposite? If in reality our salvation is really not yet necessary, but only possible – is it not the greatest lie to teach that, simply because one believes he is saved, he can therefore be necessarily sure of his salvation?

How can one truly and honestly work out his salvation with fear and trembling, as St. Paul instructs, if he is absolutely infallibly certain that he shall be saved? Is not a bit of anxiety spiritual healthy? After all, if the apostle Paul himself could think that he was capable of being a cast away, is it not very dangerous to presume otherwise regarding ourselves?

The best thing to foster a healthy and pure faith, is truth. If it is true that our salvation and the salvation of our loves ones is not yet guaranteed but only possible, then us being aware of this fact, is a sweet grace of God. The true horror would be to remain in ignorance about such a thing.

The last thing I will say against this Calvinist doctrine is this. How is the theological virtue of hope not simply absurd, given the premise of once saved always saved? The object of hope is future good, arduous but possible to obtain. Now, if the future good is no longer simply possible to obtain, but impossible not to obtain, where is there any room for hope? One does not hope for something metaphysically impossible. How then can one exercise the virtue, without ceasing to believe the doctrine?