June 22nd, 2008
A remarkable instance of valuable reflections upon an occasion of lies.
Karl Rahner, “The Assumption of Mary into Heaven”
Today we celebrate the feast of Mary’s Assumption. After her quiet death, the Blessed Virgin and mother of God entered, body and soul, into eternal life, the life of God himself. In Mary’s case, too, the fruit of death was life, and so this feast is also the anniversary day of a death. It is a question of that mysterious moment when time and eternity, transitoriness and immortality touch one another in the existence of one human being, the moment when a mortal person enters the house of her eternity. From this point of view we shall attempt to come a little closer to the mystery of this feast.
If we examine the life of a human being as it appears to us externally and immediately, we find in that life—as in all things—that common trait of being bound up with and limited by time. Everything breathes the breath of evanescence, every earthly thing lives only a moment, laboriously joining one tiny interval to the next, just as one breath follows the other, so that life may continue. And each period of time, each breath, can be the last. Each is born only for a little while, first one, and only then the next. As we seize the next, the first escapes from us, and no power calls it back to life again.
So, everything that we do—whether in the inner life of the soul or in the external works of the body—takes place in this temporal order. Everything is endlessly a coming and a going. People come into existence and pass away; they are born and they die. Everything that has its beginning here on earth must someday come to an end. The shout of joy will someday fade away; all misery will one day be wept out; someday all power will vanish like smoke. Vanity of vanities, moaned Qoheleth.
How strangely vain and puny, in a certain sense, must all our activity be: no matter how great it may have been, it cannot endure, but passes away. It hastens away as soon as possible to hide its insignificance in the empty darkness of the past. This is probably why human beings, whose hands tremble with greed and with secret horror in the face of death, snatch up in this short interval, in this short dream that we call life, as much pleasure and honor, power and knowledge as they can. But the vessel is narrow, and everything that we pour into it is finite. Both the wine of joy and the bitter water of suffering are always coming to nothing. Everything ends in death.
The immortal soul seems to be only the ground over which marches the ghastly procession of things and actions destined for death. The soul seems to exist only for this purpose, that the eternal succession of all thoughts, actions, and feelings that flutter past may be eternally accompanied by the painful knowledge of their transitory nature. The soul seems to exist only for the purpose of whispering to each moment of success the bitter truth that it shall pass away like the success that was previously experienced and seen to pass away. All living is dying.
Still there is something in these things that does not pass away. Every wave of time that seems to rise only to sink back as if it had never existed lifts something up that it does not take back again into the frightening emptiness of the past. In the indifference of all coming and going there mysteriously lives something full of meaning, something eternal: good and evil. It is as if every wave of time in its restless rise and fall is continually beating against the shore of eternity, and each wave, each moment of time, each human deed leaves there what is eternal in it: the good and the evil. Good and evil are things of eternity; they are eternity in the things of time.
It is at once a comforting and a frightful mystery: our deeds sink into nothingness, but before they die they give birth to an eternal property that does not disappear with them. The eternal goodness and badness of our perishable works sink down into the eternal “ground” of our imperishable soul, and shape this hidden ground. Even if new transitory waters keep rushing over this deep ground of the soul, neither time nor forgetting obliterates what goodness and badness have brought about in those depths. Only new goodness and repentance can make good what evil has done there for eternity; and only new evil can still destroy the hidden beauty of the goodness there. Only evil, not time; not what is transitory.
In this way the eternal countenance of our soul—and in it our eternal destiny—slowly develops while we exist in this transitory state. And then the moment comes when a person passes out of the temporal order into eternity. When this happens, a stream of transitoriness vanishes forever. The restless fluctuation of time ceases to surge over a soul in endless rise and fall, and it sets free the ground of the soul that until now was seen by God alone. The eternal countenance of the soul is now revealed—the countenance that was hidden in the depths, veiled by the haze of life on earth. What exists now, what has endured, is eternal; and we are eternal because of what we have thus become in time. This means that an individual travels the path of his or her life through time into an eternity that is no longer time.
Mary has traveled this path. Today we celebrate the day when for her time became eternity. She too led this life of transitoriness. With her as with all the children of the earth, life was a restless coming to be and passing away. Her life began quietly and obscurely, somewhere in a corner of Palestine, and soon it was snuffed out, gently, and the world knew it now. In between these two points, her life was filled with the same restless change that constitutes our life, and it was filled with the cares common to all Eve’s children: anxiety for bread, suffering and tears, and a few small joys.
So too were her hours measured out to her: a few hours of the utmost happiness in God her savior joined with many routine, ordinary hours of grief, one after another, lusterless, feeble, and seemingly so empty and dull. But finally all the hours, the sublime as well as the ordinary, had passed away; and they could all now appear as one insignificant whole, precisely because they could thus fade away into the past.
Mary’s life was a life of transitoriness, just like our own. And yet, in one respect it was entirely different. How enigmatic and incomprehensible our life is, not because of the darkness of fate—Mary, too, had her share in this common loss—but because of guilt. This is what makes our life so paradoxical and so confused. In our life, the eternal that makes up a part of our moments is sometimes good, sometimes evil.
And when through God’s grace a moment of repentance blots out what the evil hours would have made eternal in the depths of our being, even then there is one effect still left: these evil hours are gone forever; they are forever empty. Never again will a bright eternity issue from their womb, for they have sunk back fruitless into the nothingness of hours that “have been.” No one can fetch them back again to relive them in the present, to make them good. Never again will the radiant light of the goodness that shall shine like an everlasting dawn rest upon them.
We know of only one person besides Jesus who can enter into eternity without repentance. This is Mary, the ever-pure Virgin, the immaculate one. What our heart in its bitter experience can hardly believe has become true for one human being—Mary. She need not disclaim one moment of her life; no part of it has remained empty and dead. She can stand by each deed of her life: not one was dark; not one passed away without enkindling an eternal light, without shining with the luminosity that entirely consumes the moral possibilities of each moment.
Such a life did not come to an end with Mary’s death; when she died, only the transitory died, so that what was eternal in her life might be revealed—that eternal light from the many thousand candles enkindled by each moment of her life. Thus her whole life entered eternity—each day, each hour, each breaking of the waves of the life of her soul, every joy and every pain, the great and the small hours. Nothing was abandoned; everything lives on in the eternal goodness of the soul that has gone home.
Is not such a day, a day of joy for us? We know, indeed, from our own experience, that our constantly changing human life hurries on towards its eternity, to its everlasting destiny. But when the last moment of time that is meted out to an individual has come, then his mouth is closed in death, and his eyes no longer transmit a glimpse of his soul; only an enigmatic death mask looks at us—and he is silent. It is as if the passageway of death had two gates, and when the person steps into this passageway, she closes the first gate behind her before she opens the second, so that no light shines through to us from tat land that lies beyond the passageway.
Is it not wonderfully consoling, then, that our faith tells us of that world into which the dead have gone and of their eternal destiny? What can move us most deeply in all this is that this witness of faith does not merely give us information about the objective, impersonal possibilities that can begin after death. It is rather as if God’s revelation, which speaks to us of the life of God hidden in inaccessible light, reveals to us more than that life’s blessedness.
The very same word of God speaks also of the holy lives of those who rest eternally in the merciful heart of God. God affectionately calls each one by name: Peter, with his repentance and threefold love, is with me; Paul, the great warrior and long-sufferer is with me; Francis, the happy beggar, is with me; Benedict Labre is with me, and he spent his life begging on the highway; Stanislaus is with me, and he was simply a pious, brave child.
And so God still has many names for us: he has called us by countless names. He has thereby willed to entrust to us a sweet mystery of his heart; he has, as it were, placed us in intimate contact with those whom he has sheltered forever in his heart as his child, his friend, his betrothed. And thus we know that a blessed soul’s quite fixed life—a life which cannot be repeated once it is lived, which we can call by name, which we can narrate, in the paths of which we follow, which we love and honor and which calls us to imitation—this life has not disappeared, but still lives.
With meaning and profit let each moment of such a life pass before us once again and we can say again and again: the goodness that inspired that fixed deed still shines unimpaired and bright in the soul; the heroic spirit that sacrificed its life at that instant has outlived death.
That is why the church celebrated feast upon feast of her saints, fresh again every day, birthdays of an eternity, victory feasts of imperishable goodness, feasts of delight because love never ceases. They rouse us anew every day from tired resignation to transitoriness: it is not true that everything passes away, for the good is immortal. Wherever in this world only a tiny light of purity, of kindness, of humility, of fortitude, of patience shines, it burns on before God’s eternal light as the reflection of his own eternally blessed light.
And just as the mysterious God is quite close to us in faith because his own reality brings the shining rays of his beauty to the eye of our faith, so too, in the same faith, these holy men and women of eternity are close to us; the beauty of their goodness completes our love. It is as if each one gently touches our soul, and we can say to each in words of love: I am joyful over your eternal goodness, you are very close to me, and your goodness is an eternal victory.
Thus it is with the Virgin Mary. In faith we know that the charming splendor of grace that already filled her soul when the word of her maker called her into being is still an indestructible reality. The tender humility, the brightness of her grand spirit, the boundless submission to God—everything that filled her soul when she said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord”—all this is always present and new. The simple greatness of her life, the sacrifice of her Son under the cross: all this goodness and holiness that once brightened this dark world is eternal that now, at this very hour, mixes its roar with the waves of divine life in the eternal today.
As eternal life slowly came into being during her earthly existence, all that was once broken up and then vanished into the past has streamed together into a superabundance of bliss in the one now of eternity. This now of eternity, always the same and always new, beyond all time, sees how, in the uttermost depths, time makes its way.
And only the thin veil of this earthly life lies between us and this perpetual rejoicing—a veil through which the light of faith and the voice of God, who is a God of the living, penetrate. And these give witness of the eternal life of the most pure Virgin. For him who in yearning and longing reaches out for it, isn’t her gracious heart close to us through the nearness of faith and of love, through the still, holy nearness of eternity?
When we, from the depths of our dying day, greet this eternal today, we will be greeted with the same endlessness of eternal life that has been roaring for two thousand years (in human measurement) and that shall never vanish. And then we reflect that this eternity rises up out of the dark valleys of the transitoriness, and we look up full of blessed hope, because in Mary’s bliss we see prefigured the blessed destiny that our soul shall one day find.
If it is true that we merit more love the purer and holier we are, then whose love are we indebted to, if not that of the most Blessed Virgin and mother of Jesus? When we love goodness, we should be excited by the thought that Mary’s incomprehensible goodness is now blessed and preserved in eternity.
Thus we are blessed in the pure, unselfish joy that the goodness, purity, and all the virtues that we love have achieved an eternal victory through the most Blessed Virgin. We sense that her victory is our own. We know, too, that the goodness that today has become eternity was not on that account taken away from us, but works among us in blessing and grace.
That is why we should fold our hands and pray: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now in this transitoriness, which was also yours, and in the hour of our death, so that we may enter into the eternity that today is yours.
June 17th, 2008
First, Richard Sibbes, To the Christian Reader, (prefixed to John Smith’s An Exposition of the Creed: cited in A.B. Grosart, Memoir of Richard Sibbes, D.D., in v.1 of the BOT reprint, p.CIII)
Though we are to believe circumstance as well as the thing itself, yet not with the same necessity of faith, as it is more necessary to believe that Christ was crucified than that it was under Pontius Pilate; though when any circumstance is revealed we ought to believe it, and to have a preparation of mind to believe whatsoever shall be revealed. Yet in the main points this preparation of mind is not sufficient, but there must be a present and an expressed faith. We must know, as in the law, he that breaketh one commandment breaketh all, because all come from the same authority; so, in the grounds of faith, he that denies one in the true sense of it denies all, for both law and faith are copulatives. The singling out of anything is contrary to the obedience of faith. Fides non eligit objectum.
Second, Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics
—Hence it follows (1), that the distinction between fundamental and derivative articles of doctrine is well worth observation. The doctrinal propositions in which the real foundation of doctrine is expressed and expounded have a higher and more essential meaning than those which do not impinge upon it directly.—All Reformed dogmaticians discuss this distinction with peculiar interest. E.g. Voetius II p. 513: “The first hypothesis is, that everything that occurs in Scripture is not equally necessary to saving faith or to Church union and communion, or needs to be taught the faithful and inculcated upon them with a like necessity. This we gather from 1 Cor. 3:10,12,15; Phil. 3:15-16; 2 Tim. 1:13; Tit.1; 1 Tim. 6:3. There is the additional reason that as in all disciplines so in the Scripture the essentials and oiketa of religion, or the axioms or precepts are to be distinguished from the commentaries upon them.—p. 531: These (fundamental) articles are the principal theses in the separate dogmatic heads of the Christian catechism; or they are the common ennoiai and aphorisms of Christian doctrine, necessary for promoting and preserving the practice and profession of faith and holiness in the unity and society of the Church”.—Similarly Franz Turretin I, xiv, 5: “Although all truths which are revealed in Scripture are necessary to be believed as divine and infallible, they are not all equally necessary. Here we must accurately distinguish between the scope (amplitudo) and extension of the faith and its necessity. Not everything within the scope of faith is at once of its necessity”.
June 15th, 2008
The doctrine of the Trinity is no doubt one of the sacred mysteries of the faith, a wonder before which we bow and adore. At the same time, the statements that most Christians even in sound orthodox churches hear about the Trinity (one God, three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit) while most certainly true and necessary, are not everything that can be said about this doctrine. Consider this:
[Riissen (IV,14)]: “What the difference is between generation of the Son and the procession of the H. Spirit cannot be explained and it is safer not to know than to enquire into it. The Scholastics would look for the difference in the operation of intellectus and voluntas, so that the generation of the Son is brought about by means of intellectus, whence he is called the wisdom of God; but procession by means of voluntas, whence it is called love and charity. But as this is said without Scripture, it involves rather than explains matters. Those talk more sanely, who babbling in such a difficult matter find the distinction in three things. (1) In principle: because the Son emanates from the Father alone, but the H. Spirit from Father and Son at once. (2) In mode: because the Son emanates per vim generationis, which culminates not only in personality but also in likeness, on account of which the Son is called the image of the Father and according to which the Son receives the property of communicating the same essence to another person. But the Spirit does so by spiratio, which ends only in personality, and through which the person who proceeds does not receive the property of communicating that essence to another. (3) In order: because as the Son is the second person, but the H. Spirit the third, generation by our way of thinking, precedes spiratio, although really they are co-eternal.
From Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics
June 12th, 2008
The peculiar heresies of our generation are sexual heresies, and the Church has been slow to catch on. Thus it is that we take heart (pathetically) when some Christian leaders support women’s ordination, but still oppose homosexual marriage. Or they are silent on the abomination of sending women into combat, but can be pestered into registering their disapproval of a different abomination. But here it is — women’s ordination, women in combat, the breakdown of sexual standards for the unmarried, polygamy, pederasty, lesbian marriages, homosexual male marriages, bestiality, robo-sex, and virtual sex are all the same issue at the root.
And that root is this — will Christians submit to the authority of God in defining our sexual identity, roles, and lives? Or not? And will they grant that this sexual authority of God can only be honored in public ways? Private agreement will not cut it. Those Christians who respond affirmatively need to be preparing themselves for a full-scale collision with homo pervens. For those who prefer to waffle, the time will come when they are either swept away completely, or find themselvs sitting like Lot on the edge of the fountain in the city square of Sodom, saying, “Oh, dear,” but being very careful to say “Oh, dear” under their breath. They will either capitulate completely, unable with any consistency to draw a line somewhere, or they will draw an arbitrary (private) line that will give them something to wring their hands over. Or they will repent, across the board, and return to a sexual orthodoxy, prepared to affirm that orthodoxy in public.
Sexual orthodoxy prohibits ordination to women. It prohibits civil unions between homosexuals. It prohibits marriages between homosexuals. It recoils from the idea of sending women into combat. It does so because all the Bible is authoritative for all Christians throughout the course of all their lives. To do anything less is to capitulate completely. It does no good to preserve the integrity of 90% of the dam. To go soft on any of these issues is to go soft on all of them — whether that was intended or not.
To be sure, there are many other errors afflicting the church, from all of which Mr. Wilson himself is not, it seems to me, entirely free. But this makes quite obvious that it is past time to steel ourselves for the conflict. Will we speak God’s truth, or will we have the persons of militant homosexuals in admiration because of advantage? Let God be true and every man a liar: 22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination. 23 Nor shall you mate with any animal, to defile yourself with it. Nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it. It is perversion. (Leviticus 18:22,23).
June 8th, 2008
Conscience and Scripture both testify to the reality of the covenant of works. Consider these brilliant extracts from Cocceius and Mastricht, helpfully provided and introduced by Heinrich Heppe in his Reformed Dogmatics. (Formatting and punctuation edited here for readability, and Heppe’s copying out of Scripture texts suppressed.)
Cocceius (Summ. theol. XXII, 20-21) explains how man is taught by his conscience about the covenant of works originally ordained by God. Conscience witnesses to man that he “who has preserved the image of God and has done righteously in accordance with it “has” a covenant with God, provided that there is (1) “no offense between him and God but (2) the peace by which benefits are possessed in security; but also (3) that he is righteous, i.e. has a right to God’s friendship and communion and to ask and expect of God what it is just, right and holy to expect of God”. Conscience bears witness that “God cannot put off those who seek Himself or refuse to satisfy and fulfill a right and holy desire”. Could it be assumed that God wished not to be found of them for their enjoyment, it would follow that it is wrong to seek and desire God. But if it is wrong, God “is not man’s good and cannot make man happy in Himself.” So it would have to be the case instead that “man’s good” and its “end” “are things created by God; for man’s good is man’s end”. Thus it follows (XII, 22) “that he who does what conscience dictates has exousia and power to call God his God and to glory in Him as his good”.
So conscience itself is a witness to the reality of the covenant of works. But we are not left with the light of nature in this regard: God has spoken in His word as well.
What is thus guaranteed to man by the voice of his conscience is confirmed for him by the witness of H. Scripture—From H. Scripture the fact is proved as follows (Mastricht III, xii, 23), that God has made a covenant with Adam:
“(1) It specifically (rhtos) states in Hosea 6:7: ‘they like Adam have transgressed the convenant [sic]; there have they dealt treacherously against me’; cf. Job 31:33 (if after the manner of Adam (man) I covered my transgressions by hiding mine iniquity in my bosom) where the best translators (Vulgate, Tigurinus, Pagninus, Castalio, Belgae and others) take [Hebrew] proprie, not appellative, though I admit there are not wanting those who prefer the appellative sense.
(2) The Apostle, Gal. 4:24 ,mentions a double covenant, the former of which is ‘by the works of the law’, 2:16, demanding most punctilious obedience, 3:10, by means of which no can ever obtain everlasting life, 2:16; 3:2, under which we all were until the covenant of faith, 3:23, and are, as long as we live as children of the flesh, 3:22,29, which only begets to slavery, 3:24; Heb. 2:14-15. And this is the very thing which we call the covenant of works, subsequently; as the result of the faith of the Gospel. If you say the apostle is speaking of a covenant not in Paradise, but the covenant at Sinai, the answer is easy, that the Apostle is speaking of the covenant in Paradise so far as it is re-enacted and renewed with Israel at Sinai in the Decalogue, which contained the proof of the covenant of works.
(3) Synonyms of the covenant of works are extant in the NT, Rom. 3:27; Gal. 2:16. Moreover what is the law of works but the covenant of works? What is law simpliciter as opposed to grace? Rom. 8:3; what, I say, if not the legal covenant? Because we are said to be not under the law but under grace, Rom. 6:14-15; 4:16, what is that but that we are not under the covenant of the law? At least for us these are plainly synonymous.
(4) We have previously in the exegetical section shewn that all the essentials of the covenant of works are contained in the first publication of it, Gen. 2:17.
(5) To very many heads of the Christian religion, e.g., the propagation of original corruption, the satisfaction of Christ and his subjection to divine law, Rom 8:3-4; Gal. 3:13; 4:4-5, we can scarcely give suitable satisfaction, if the covenant of works be denied”.
Item 2 of course has deep interest in its mention of the doctrine of the republication of the covenant of works in the Mosaic administration of the covenant of grace. (See also Thomas Boston on the subject.) Item 3 is a fascinating line of argument, and something to keep in mind to follow up in more detail. But note item 5. The covenant of works is to be accepted as a Scriptural doctrine because of its explanative power. By upholding the doctrine of the covenant of works we are able to give full weight and due credit to many representations of Scripture which we should otherwise be tempted to underplay or deny, if we care about a harmonious doctrinal system, or accept as flat contradictions if we don’t. This gives the covenant of works the force of due and necessary consequence, in addition to the direct testimony of Scripture and conscience.