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Nature, Grace, and Apocalypse Revisited

In previous discussions on a theology of apocalypse, the issue of nature and grace continued to come up as a crucial issue. It seems  that the key question to those espousing an apocalyptic theology relates to what sort of doctrine of creation one would have to uphold to preserve a radically apocalyptic theology of discontinuity between nature and grace (which I think the New Testament requires). Do we have to posit a notion of sin that is so radical that creation essentially loses its status as creation and as such must be completely anihiliated by grace in order for redemption to take place? Are the options either the complete and total destruction of creation by grace on the one hand, or the analogia entis and natural theology on the other? 

I suggest that there is a way forward if we rightly conceptualize the apocalyptic relationship between nature and grace as grounded in creation’s finitude rather than its fallenness. The Reformed notion of finitum non capax infiniti might be an important axiom for how we understand the relationship between nature and grace and the issue of analogy. Could it be that by virtue of it’s finitude, the entrance of the triune God’s infinite grace and love into creation in the story of Christ must always and only appear as an apocalypse? Certainly it is sin that renders this apocalypse violent, but could it not be the case that creation as finite will always stand in an apocalyptic relationship with the triune God? Could it be that we will never be seamlessly enfolded into the Trinitarian communion, instead being always erotically enraptured, ek-statically dislocated ever and again in an endless apocalypse of divine glory for all eternity? Perhaps the beatific vision, in this perspective, is not a final event of optical immediacy in which we finally see it “all” (as Dante does at the end of the Divine Comedy), but rather the beginning of the eternal, true apocalypse, which, purged of the violence of sin now becomes the endless rapture of having our visage constantly shattered, our consciousness infinitely exceeded by the boundless effulgence of the Trinitarian glory. 

In this perspective, the apocalyptic character of divine action is not ultimately determined by the reality of sin. Sin is merely a passing moment within the eternal apocalypse that all creatures experience in being saved and brought into the life of God. God’s action toward creation is apocalyptic, not because of sin; sin is completely incidental to how God is God towards us. As David Bentley Hart points out, “God simply continues to give, freely, inexhaustibly, regardless of rejection. God gives and forgives; he fore-gives and gives again. There is no calculable economy in this Trinitarian discourse of love, to which creation is graciously admitted.” (The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 351) God’s action towards us is apocalyptic, not because of sin, but rather because of the radical difference between God and God’s creatures. Precisely because the Trinitarian discourse of love is incalculable, it will always be disruptive, invasive, dislocating, as it draws us ever deeper into the infinitely alien riches of divine splendor. In the effusion of God’s infinite beauty into finite creation, the occurrence of communion between the infinite and the finite cannot be anything other than an apocalypse, an apocalypse of divine radiance and luminosity which endlessly and eternally draws us ever further up and further into the inexhaustible depths of God’s Trinitarian plenitude.

God’s action is apocalyptic because the unveiling of an infinite, transcendental beauty, can always and only be entirely beyond what can be assimilated by a finite creature. This is precisely why the revelation of God as Jesus Christ is so enigmatic, so scandalous, such a stumbling block to our finite, created rationality.  But this beyondness in which God is never apprehended is not an apophaticism, if anything it is some sort of super-kataphatism; we are not proceeding by the via negativa but rather by an overabundance of revelation. It is not that we cannot rightly speak of God, it is that we cannot speak enough of God with our created tongues. The event of Pentecost seems to be an apocalyptic event of precisely this sort.

What apocalyptic thinking does for us, then, is to reorient our notion of what it means share in the life of God as a creature. To share, as a finite creature, in the life of the infinite God is to be eternally disrupted, constantly dislocated, endlessly bewildered by “the beauty of the infinite.” Because we are finite, our experience of beatific participation in God cannot be anything other than this sort of apocalyptic experience. As seen in the resurrection, the work of God is, as Hart says “a transgression of the categories of truth governing the world, precisely because it is an aesthetic event, eyes and hands can tell it, time comprehends it, it has shape and quantity and splendor, it allows scrutiny and contemplation and astonishment, it intrudes and invites and seizes up with it strangeness and its beauty.” (The Beauty of the Infinite, 335) Thus, we must conceptualize God’s Trinitarian action in the world for our salvation as apocalyptic, not because of a theology of creation exhaustively immolated by sin, but rather because the infinitude of God’s Trinitarian being always exceeds the capacity of finite creatures to plumb its depths. It at once evokes and evades, invites and intrudes, reveals and veils. As such, our experience of participation God’s life is one of constant dislocation in our homecoming, an endlessly jarring, ever surprising existence of being changed from glory to glory. The beatific vision is eternally iconoclastic and eternally koinonial. This is the great mystery of God’s apocalypic salvation of all created reality.

24 Comments

  1. reibwo wrote:

    Halden, I usually enjoy your posts quite a bit. I find them thoughtful and well spoken. However, I find this post to be difficult to understand. Perhaps, I simply lack the grey matter for it. Maybe I just don’t “get it.” That is certainly possible, and won’t be the last time.

    Let me give you an example of language that I think I understand, but when I think about it there is little I can hold onto:

    “In the effusion of God’s infinite beauty into finite creation, the occurrence of communion between the infinite and the finite cannot be anything other than an apocalypse, an apocalypse of divine radiance and luminosity which endlessly and eternally draws us ever further up and further into the inexhaustible depths of God’s Trinitarian plenitude.”

    I thought I ate a Big Mac when I read the statement, but then realized that I was still hungry. I could taste it, but, in the end, it seems like a distant aroma from the next room.

    Don’t take this as a harsh criticism. It is not. I enjoy your writing.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 6:41 am | Permalink
  2. Lucy wrote:

    Wonderful post, thank you.

    I am left with some christological questions. You appeal to the Reformed finitum non capax infiniti to get your argument up and running. I like this. However, what does this mean for Jesus, particularly his humanity? The Reformed used this slogan against the Lutherans in their christological debates, arguing that Jesus’ finite humanity cannot posses the infinite attributes of deity.

    The never ending apocalypse you speak of is simple the triune event of Jesus Christ. How would you relate Jesus’ finitude to the infinite apocalypse that occurs in him? How can it be that a finite human is the infinite apocalypse if finitum non capax infiniti is true?

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 6:52 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Lucy, good question. That is definitely one I would like to explore in a further post. My initial thought is that because Christ is the site of the communion between the finite and the infinite he is thus apocalyptic in his own person, indeed all of our experience of the never ending apocalypse of being drawn into the Trinitarian life happen “in” Christ and nowhere else.

    Bonhoeffer hit on this in his Ethics where he described Christ as the place where the reality of God and the reality of the World exist together in the same person, and in whom we are invited to participate fully in both at the same time. I think this “same time” is precisely what we would experience as apocalyptic time. Those are just initial thoughts, thanks for helping me think in this direction.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 8:02 am | Permalink
  4. dphenreckson wrote:

    Halden,

    I appreciated your definition of the apocalyptic. I’m wondering if we can even push it one more step.

    The scandal of the Incarnation, of the revelation of the Word of God within the realm of nature, is a scandal and folly to a certain type of mind. But isn’t the paradox of faith that we who have been renewed can now see the inherent rightness of the divine dwelling among us (1 Cor 1:18ff)? Paul seems to suggest that the spatial and ontological distinction we make between nature and super-nature is of our own confection, rather than the “natural” state of things (Rom 1:20). And the birth imagery in Romans 8 also seems to hint that nature herself plays a strangely salvific role in bringing about the Incarnation and final resurrection.

    So I do appreciate the dimensions of your apocalyptic take on nature/grace. I’m wondering if there’s a deeper element of eucatastrophe at play here, and whether the act of judgment/apocalypse is less one of immolation, and instead one of revelation (Rom 8:23). It seems you’re hinting in that direction, and I was wondering how far you want to take it.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 8:05 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Davey, I’m a little uncomfortable with the notion of nature playing a salvfic role in Christ’s redemption. Here I feel I must insist that God alone saves the world, and the world doesn’t help God do that. It is Solus Deus.

    However I do think the notion of eucatastrophe is pertinent, provided it is interpreted right (not as a deus ex machina sort of thing). Also, I agree, the stress must fall on revelation rather than immolation, though I would not want that to be taken in a way that reduces revelation to just information. Revelation is an ontologically-constitutive reality. If I were to put it in one sentence, I would say that the divine apocalypse is a great immolation within a still greater transfiguring revelation, so to speak.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 8:17 am | Permalink
  6. dphenreckson wrote:

    Halden,

    As a Calvinist, I completely agree on the monergistic nature of salvation. My wording was a little unclear, but I was meaning to say that nature is not bystander in the work of salvation. It is a direct object, and (on account of the work of regeneration) a willing participant. Like Mary, it births salvation as a vehicle of grace and is thereby blessed.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 8:50 am | Permalink
  7. I am not sure how this isn’t putting us right back into the sin/grace dialectic. It is hard to see how finitude either helps in explaining the fall or eventual impeccability or could be considered good on such a reading. For the former, if finitude is some kind of condition for sinfuleness it is hard for me to see how this isn’t a round about way of saying that nature is sin. And it is difficult to see how finitude defectability will be precluded in the eschaton save by a constraining of nature. The possibility of sin isn’t rooted in finitude per se but in an initial condition of the gnomic will.

    Consequently I’d suggest rather than an iconoclastic model an iconodule model where apocalyptic doesn’t speak of disruption, anxiety and dislocation but of an ever moving rest without an analogia entis and natural theology. Here apocalyptic means a revealing or making known in peace rather than a cataclysm.
    So I’d offer that the finitum non capax infiniti is exactly the wrong direction, for it was exactly this kind of distinguishing God from nature that prevented Origen from affirming a consistent Christian doctrine of creation and led to the apokatastasis and Arianism since grace could only be opposed to nature. Grace could never be appropriate to it and so a fall was always possible as the only means to distinguish the two since grace can’t be sin. On an iconodulistic view the Platonic genera of same and different fall away and the distinction between nature and grace is seen in terms of image and likeness or logos and tropos.

    Consequently the synegy on the iconodulistic way of seeing things proffers is right at home in a dyothelite Christology, whereas I have a hard time seeing how the model you proffer doesn’t imply some kind of monoenergism.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 8:53 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Perry, I think you fail to grasp the point of my post, or at least your uncertainty of how it doesn’t put us right back in the sin/grace dialectic would have to be further clarified for me to make sense of it. My point is not the finitude is somehow a prerequisite for sin, but rather that finitude always renders our participation in the infinite a rigorously dramatic, dynamic, inexhaustibly energetic affair — one that can be legitimately and fruitfully described as apocalyptic. Your notion of an “ever moving rest” is pretty close to what I am describing here, though I think the radical newness that always attends God’s infinity will always have something of an iconoclastic reality to it, even in the eternal state. We will constantly be having our visage shattered and constituted anew as we are drawn deeper and deeper by the Spirit into the eternal life of the Father and Son. No finite eye can ever fully dilate to take in the fullness of the divine light, it always lies beyond, pulling us further in the never-ceasing movement of love.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 9:15 am | Permalink
  9. Halden,

    If participation in God is iconocalstic, then this seems to imply that there is something wrong with nature per se. I don’t see why the intrinsic human status of motion or kinesis entails disruption in relation to the divine.

    And I’d proffer that our ever motion is not due so much to motion towards a singular end or object of choice where the human position is one of a constant approach but never an attainment but rather due to the plurality of goods that can be genuinely attained. I’d wager that the previous vision was the basis for the thought in popular religon as to why heaven was boring.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 9:34 am | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Iconoclasm would only imply a wrongness in nature if it were assumed that the proper state of nature is one of closure, completed vision. If there is an eternal absence of closure in the finite’s participation in the infinite (which there must surely be), then iconoclasm need only imply that our vision is never complete, always unfinished, always being re-formed. There is nothing “wrong” about being finite, rather finitude by its very nature can never attain infinite closure. This is the glory of finite creation, in fact.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 9:55 am | Permalink
  11. Doug Harink wrote:

    Halden,

    On first reading, I am inclined to think that you have taken us a good step forward on this, confirming my own hunch that Hart is indeed a theologian of God’s apocalypse, even with his stress on creation. You wrote: “If I were to put it in one sentence, I would say that the divine apocalypse is a great immolation within a still greater transfiguring revelation, so to speak.” A wonderful summary sentence. I think I mentioned some time ago that Bulgakov understands the “great immolation” as that which occurs simultaneously with the revelation of God’s glory which purifies and transfigures creation. As you note in a powerful claim, apocalypse is the disruption and disorientation that comes about because of the super-abundance of God’s glory, which cannot but both overcome sin and overwhelm and transfigure the creature.

    At the same time, I have some sympathy with Perry Robinson’s concerns. One thing that struck me from your post is the sheer exciting, always-new livingness of the beatific vision (which surely has to be right), and yet I could not help but feel that we humans might finally be overcome with exhaustion! Where’s the rest for weary souls?

    Great work, captivating proposals.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 9:57 am | Permalink
  12. Halden,

    I’d offer a way to achive the ends you want without the view you give. Self closure is only a problem if we view grace as extrinsic to nature and which comes in from the outside. Given the imago dei, self closure is only a porblem is the imago dei is lost. Further in light of the recapitulating work in the incarnation, openness and closure are not opposed. The logos of our nature is of grace in any case.

    With a plurality of goods we can satisfy the desire for an ever moving rest, an energia or perpetual activity without the iconoclasm.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 10:01 am | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Yes, Doug I agree. I think this notion of the liveliness of the beatific vision is important, and it goes right along with a properly apocalyptic theology. I find much of this in the work of Robert Jenson.

    I suppose the challenge is to find a way to articulate the vivacious aliveness of salvation in a way that also emphasizes the serenity, peace, and rest that takes place in God. Perhaps here we see how a dialectical method is central to all theologizing (thinking now of Barth’s Romans Commentary). Our salvation is at once the Tree of Life and the Wilderness of Love, infinite serenity and infinite ekstasis, eternal rest and eternal journey.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 10:03 am | Permalink
  14. Halden wrote:

    Perry, I guess ultimately I must affirm strongly that grace does come from outside ourselves, extra nos. This does not denigrate nature, or imply some sort of hyper-calvinist notion of total depravity, but simply denies that our salvation is something pregnant within ourselves. The divine gift of being (creation) is not to be equated with the gift of salvation (new creation). Our salvation must come to us from outside as the gift of God in Christ. This I take to be central to a proper soteriology.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  15. Doug Harink wrote:

    Halden,

    One question, touching again on Perry’s comments: How does Christ’s humanity figure in the beatific vision? As human, he is the “eikon of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Must our gaze then not be eternally fixed on him? In other words, the iconoclasm cannot go “all the way down.” Perhaps an answer lies in the event of the transfiguration — the apostles see Christ’s glorified humanity, and they are both afraid (because of sin?) and overwhelmed (because of creatureliness?).

    I also wonder whether for the iconodule, icons are precisely not about closure and completed vision (which would be idolatry), but rather about opening our vision to divine realities that always exceed the icon itself. In other words, the truth of icons lies in a kind of iconoclasm which is intrinsic to their character as icons. Just a thought — I’m no expert on iconology.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 10:12 am | Permalink
  16. Halden,

    My worry about the externality of grace is one of Nestorianism. And given that Christ is the image in which we are made, that doesn’t seem extrinsic to me.

    The distinction between image and likeness precludes the possibility of the gratuity of creation swallowing up the gratuity of redemption. Gift doesn’t imply an extrinsic relation. If your gloss were central in the way you suggest, it would come as awefully big news to a number of important historical figures in Christian theology such as Cyril or Athanasius. Perhaps thats a speed bump to you, but it might as well be Everest to me.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  17. Halden wrote:

    Doug, as I mentioned briefly in response to Lucy’s comment, I think we must actually locate the site of the apocalypse in the person of Christ himself. In him the infinite and the finite enter into communion, and as such the apocalypse of divine human communion takes place.

    I suppose I agree that iconoclasm does not go all the way down, depending on how we define it. What I mean by it is that our vision of God is never a total picture on the one hand and that our eternal state is not one of never-ending cumulative progression on the other. The never-ending movement of our journey into the visio dei can never become some sort of organic progressivism in which just keep discovering “more” of the same. For my purposes, what I mean by iconoclasm is this sort of dynamic, non-progressive, experience of being eternal seized and transfigured through participation in the infinity of the triune God. It is never something seamlessly flowing, but is always a torrent of divine love which enraptures, captivates, and ravishes.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  18. Hill wrote:

    Great post, great discussion. I like where you are going with all of this. My only reservation is that I think there is some hint of the “sublime” in a bad sense that can drift in to your notion of apocalypse (rupture, disruption, other “violent” conceptions). I’m only pointing this out as a tendency or potential danger. I think there is some notion of sublimity and (apparent) violence in our apocalyptic encounter with God, but it is only for the reprobate that this remains simply sublime, a point that Hart makes when he brings up the Eastern idea of the encounter of all souls with God in the eschaton where the reprobate encounter him as pure sublimity without the interval of the gift and the distance of beauty. I still affirm the general thrust of this post, and would suggest that it’s best formulation is still Gregory of Nyssa’s epektasis, which Hart explains beautifully. What I’m getting at is that this encounter with God, to the eyes of sin, is indeed a “violent,” disruptive one, but that the message of the gospel itself and of our sanctification is that of revealing it to us as infinite peace and of our transformation into what we really are.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    Perry, allow me to clarify, the externality of grace does not require that we always remain in an extrinsic relationship to it. It comes to us from outside, but it does not stay outside. The extra nos is what brings about the (ehem) inhabitatio dei.

    I think you are throwing out Christological heresy labels with far too much reckless abandon here, btw. Deploying those terms to rhetorical effect that ignores the original context and scope is just not very helpful to discussion.

    Ultimately, we can’t agree with everybody all the time, but the Fathers you mention are far more complex in their views than you imply. The Pelagianism you veer close to in implying the internality of salvific grace is a greater danger. Ultimately the distinction you make between image and likeness cannot bear the weight you seem to want it to, and despite its long pedigree, it has no substantive exegetical foundation in Scripture. As such I don’t find its mere assertion too compelling.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 10:29 am | Permalink
  20. Halden wrote:

    Hill, I totally agree about epektasis. That is precisely the term suited to the vision I am seeking to articulate here.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  21. Halden,

    But that is my worry, that its externality implies an extrinsicality. I am hardly on novel ground here. Theosis is more than the divine inhabiting humanity or causing created effects in it. I am not using such terms to make rhetorical points but to draw conceptial connections and post the appropriate warning signs.

    I don’t believe I implied that Cyril was simple, but only a model to follow in this respect. As I noted Pelagianism simply isn’t a worry given that divine aid is a necessary condition for likeness. My view isn’t any more Pelagian than say Maximus the Confessor’s view, which is what I take myself to be articulating, or at least trying to.

    I obviously disagree with the claim that the distinction lacks a sufficient exegetical basis. Rather I think the eisegetical shoe is on the other foot with the Beatific vision. I know where that can be found in Plato’s Republic or Plotinus’ Enneads, but Scripture is quite another matter.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  22. Halden wrote:

    Perry, ultimately our ecclesial cards are showing themselves here. While I respect the Eastern church’s theology greatly, I ultimately cannot go with a notion of grace that is simply “divine aid.” Such a notion simply cannot square with the apocalyptic language of the New Testament, or the canon as a whole.

    Thanks for the discussion.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 10:43 am | Permalink
  23. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Halden,

    excellent post, I couldn’t agree more with the direction of your post, and your comments!

    Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 1:10 pm | Permalink
  24. Chris wrote:

    Halden,

    Once again a thought-provoking post. I’ve not thanked you yet for this blog of yours. Mea culpa, and thank you.

    I do think your thoughts and following clarifying comments to provide at least a starting point forward. In other words, it doesn’t appear your first step is insurmountable from my perspective.

    The only thing (off topic) that I’d like to add here is, as a Protestant wistfully (if not longingly) standing on the shores of Constantinople, I don’t think the notion of “divine aid” is as weak as your comment presupposes.

    There are probably numerous examples in the iconography, but one in particular comes to mind: In “Descent into Hell,” an icon from the Ferapontov Monastery (early 16 c.), Jesus is depicted as Christus victor, and he is leading the old covenant “celebs” out of Hades. On his right and left are Adam and Eve, respectively. He is not leading them out by the hand, however. He is, as tradition holds, pulling them out by their wrists, which symbolizes their inability to defeat that ancient enemy, Sin (captial “S”), by the monergistic work of God through Christ.

    To be sure, their entire schema with respect to grace does work against any radical notions of apocalyptic — if that radicalism has as its loci Sin and not the Creator/creature distinction.

    Friday, August 15, 2008 at 7:58 am | Permalink

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