Saturday, September 10, 2011


I am finishing the last of the pile of used books I bought Ben for his birthday - one figures that out of six, at least a couple will suit - which I may discuss in some depth when I finish. Until then, two things caught my attention, It examines the early heresies of the church, with some discussion of how those have played out in later centuries. Yet it doesn't have a bad word to say about the heretics themselves nor the doctrines they put forward. Heresy is not used as a near-equivalent to blasphemy, sacrilege, or denial of belief, but as a precise term for doctrines that look at first as if they could be true. Heresies are theories about Christ that had a following at one point, and had to be examined closely for their implications and faithfulness to all scripture, not just one section.

The second interesting bit was an unpursued analogy to color in describing the nature of Christ. I pushed it a little further for my own amusement. Consider God to be blue, and humanity yellow. The dual nature of Christ, recognised quite early though a full doctrine of Trinity took longer, was difficult to get one's mind around. Still is. Was Jesus, then, essentially blue, but painted over to look yellow? Or essentially yellow, somehow covered in blue? After much wrestling, it was decided that neither was a true picture: Jesus was fully blue, and fully yellow. That led to a next set of questions: can we say that Jesus was green, then? Much debate, and as these things go, the debates were not often gracious. No, not green. Jesus is not a hybrid, new thing, but very blue, and very yellow. Hmm. Striped, then, whether in bold flag-stripes, concentric circles, or a million imperceptible, interpenetrated stripes? No, not that either.

Well then, what? Something can't be both blue and yellow. It has to fit one of the descriptions above. But it doesn't, and by AD 450 or so, there was eventual agreement that this is as close as we can get with our limited understanding. Analogies for mysteries are worrisome, but they are all we have. We like to come up with analogies for the Trinity. A Sunday school favorite is the apple, with skin, flesh, and seeds. It's a terrible analogy - we don't eat the seeds, the skin has no contact with the seeds, what exactly is the tree in this whole process... but we seem to feel we should try something to make it clearer. God as coach, putting down his clipboard and whistle and playing goal as a demonstration for we humans...well, it captures something, but it obscures just as much. The problem is with the arrogance of believing that we've got this mystery under control with our analogy - and yes, I have heard stupid persons, when discussing the Trinity, bring up some favorite analogy as if it settled everything, and the rest of us need discuss no more.

There is a tradition of mystic understanding of mystery call the apophatic, the understanding by negation. God is not this, God is not that. But its practitioners are quite clear that one cannot start from there, but must first build up a structure, from which pieces are discarded: not thus...not thus...not thus... The practice is more common in the Eastern churches, but CS Lewis fans will recognise that he uses apophatic techniques in his descriptions of God often*. We see something of this in the creed from the Council of Chalcedon in 451 - after several positive statements about the nature of God and Christ, a whole section turns to statements in the negative.
...inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten...
(An intro to the Creed of Chalcedon here.) *Start with Narnia, Screwtape, and Great Divorce, and very especially Till We have Faces for this.


james said...

I suspect that it is no accident that the apophatic approach is more common in the east. Thanks to the relative security of the east (compared to the west), most of the theological discussion was greek--and therefore so were most of the hairsplitting efforts to define mystery. Just reading about them gave me a headache, and I can't imagine arguing them out while trying not to wind up heretical.

The obvious response to such discussion is: "You have all these technical words, but do you know what they really mean?" We really don't understand man's nature that well, let alone God's--He is so infinitely beyond us that it isn't clear we ought use the same word "nature" to describe both. There are some apophatic moments in the Bible (you can't see God and live, "What is that to you--follow me!" and so on), but I think the flowering of it in the east was partly fueled by reaction to the incomprehensible hairsplitting.

I'm willing to be corrected :-)

Dubbahdee said...

The colors thing is perfect. I will be using that.