Per Caritatem

Describing the main strength of Cyril of Alexandria’s approach in addressing the Nestorian heresies, Balthasar writes,

“Cyril does not start out from the ‘open’ structure of man’s transcendence’, but from God’s self-abnegation, and the Love that stoops down. For God, the Incarnation is no ‘increase’, but only emptying. No doubt, to Cyril’s mind it changes nothing in the divine form (and so in the glory) of the eternal Logos. Yet in the perspective of pre-existence it is a fully voluntary action whereby the Logos accepts the limits (the word metron recurs frequently), and the adoxia, ‘ingloriousness’, of human nature –which means to say an ‘emptying out of fulness’ and a ‘lowering of what was exalted’. […] And in the same tradition, […] Hilary says of the Incarnation (and not expressly of the Cross): ‘His humiliation is our nobility; his weakness is our honour’. Hilary speaks too of the ‘abasement of his uncircumscribable power, right down to the docile assumption of a body’. […] It was with a stooping down, remarks Augustine, that the Incarnation began” (Mysterium Paschale p. 26).

Balthasar highlights Hilary’s extraordinary efforts to explicate these high Christological truths without “reducing the mystery of the Kenosis” (p. 26). Pointing us no doubt in the right direction, according to Hilary “the whole affair proceeds in the sovereign freedom (and so in the power and majesty) of the God who has the power to ‘empty himself, in obedience, for the (eventful) taking of the form of a servant, and from out of the divine form itself’. And so God, whilst abiding in himself (for everything happens in his sovereign power) can yet leave himself (in his form of glory). Were the two forms (morphai) simply compatible […], then nothing would really have happened in God himself. The Subject, doubtless, remains the same—‘non alius est in forma servi quam in forma Dei est’—but a change in the condition of the Subject is unavoidable” (pp. 26-27). In addition to the self-emptying, which in no way suggests “the loss of that power in its freedom and divinity,” (p. 27) Balthasar wants to add a Trinitarian dimension. In Philippians 2, we of course read that the Son of God, though being in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped—or as Balthasar paraphrases,

“he did not believe it necessary to hold on to that condition as to some possession, precious, inalienable, all his own. Though no doubt the case, further theological reflection points us also to the Father who does not hold on to the Son and even delivers him over. Likewise, the Spirit is understood as the ‘Gift’ of them both (p. 28). Moreover, we see that this Triune God is not primarily a God of “’absolute power,’” but ‘absolute love’, and his sovereignty manifests itself not in holding on to what is its own but in its abandonment—all this in such a way that this sovereignty displays itself in transcending the opposition, known to us from the world, between power and impotence. The exteriorisation of God (in the Incarnation) has its ontic condition of possibility in the external exteriorisation of God—that is, in his tripersonal self-gift. With that departure point, the created person, too, should no longer be described chiefly as subsisting in itself, but more profoundly (supposing that person to be actually created in God’s image and likeness) as a ‘returning ( reflexio completa from exteriority to oneself’ and an ‘emergence from oneself as an interiority that gives itself in self-expression’. The concepts of ‘poverty’ and ‘riches’ become dialectical” (p. 28).


In the history of Western philosophy, it is interesting to note the primacy given to “seeing” as the metaphor for knowing. In a cursory reading of Plato, for example, one encounters this “seeing” metaphor time and again. In the Republic, Plato speaks of “seeing,” “looking to” and “viewing” the Forms. He also describes certain people as having “dim sight” and still others who tend to “look” in the wrong direction, i.e., rather than “looking to” the Forms, they focus on the shadows of the sense world. There are numerous other instances in which the privileged “seeing” metaphor could be cited (in Aristotle, Descartes, Kant etc.). However, I’ve noticed that many postmodern philosophers and theologians have introduced the more “neglected” senses as metaphors in various contexts—taste, touch and hearing (e.g., Jean-Luc Marion, John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock).

Though I’m not focusing so much on metaphors in the context below, this somewhat new turn to the less-privileged senses, reminds me of an experience I had while living in Russia and relatedly, of a few verses from Scripture that speak of the power of “touch.” Over the course of our three years in Moscow, Russia, we had the opportunity to visit various cities, small towns and villages in Russia. One winter we traveled by train to a city called Kirov where we stayed for about two weeks. During this time, we were invited to spend a day at one of the orphanages just outside the city. The memories of that visit are quite vivid, and the time with the children was (though brief) an incredible and life changing experience. When we first arrived, the children (from 4-16 years old) were very shy and stand-off-ish. I noticed immediately a cute little boy, Sasha, who was about 5 years old and who seemed extremely withdrawn. I walked up to Sasha and said, “Привет Саша,” [“hello, Sasha”] (thankfully he did not correct my Russian grammar), but he said nothing—no smile—nothing. As the day progressed, we played games, performed skits, ate and so on. While playing one of the more active games (something like dodge-ball), Sasha and I began to slowly “bond” (e.g., I would catch the ball and give it him and things like that). When it was time to eat, I noticed that he wanted to sit with me (which made me of course extremely happy), so I tried to take his hand, however, he did not want me to touch him and quickly pulled it away—but he still wanted to sit with me. So we sat and ate borsch together and then went off to play more games. As the day was drawing to a close, I was sitting on a bench resting and Sasha walked up to me, sat next to me, and to my surprise (and joy) he let me hold his hand. After that connection, he would not leave my side and even let me hold him in my lap. He actually wanted very much to be held and touched, but he of course was simply “one among many” in the orphanage and was by and large deprived of physical touch. When it was time to leave, he did not want to let go of my hand (nor did I want to let go of his). Then the dreaded time came and we were told that the bus was leaving and we’d better pack up and grab seats. As we drove off, the kids ran behind the bus as long as they could keep up, and we of course cried our eyes out. I often think about Sasha, and hope that he remembers me—more than that, I hope that finds a home and a family that will give him the affection that he longs for and needs.

Not long after our short trip to Kirov, I began studying the book of Leviticus, which among other things describes the law of the leper’s cleansing (chapter 13). For example in Lev. 13:45-46, we read, “As for the leper who has the infection, his clothes shall be torn, and the hair of his head shall be uncovered, and he shall cover his mustache and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall remain unclean all the days during which he has the infection; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” [*The following observations are based on observations made by Dr. S. Lewis Johnson in his series on Leviticus]. The first thing to notice is that “his clothes shall be torn.” Why? In the Old Testament, rending one’s clothes expressed symbolically one’s morning over death. Here, the tearing of the leper’s clothes represents the absolutely hopeless condition of the leper. Perhaps it would be worthwhile for us to pause and meditate on the disease itself. It is doubtful that there is any disease that so completely destroys the human body as the disease of leprosy (e.g., ulcers cover the body, the person’s hair falls out, and he/she experiences extremely slow bodily decay–even to the point of losing limbs, not to mention the mental anguish the person endures). In fact, leprosy has been described as a kind of progressive death in which a person dies inch by inch (certain kinds of leprosy can last from 20-30 years). As Johnson points out, though we are not exactly certain of the kind of leprosy that existed in the time of the OT, we can however readily “see” or better “feel” that this disease illustrates well the nature of sin in the spiritual sphere.

Returning to our passage, we read that the leper must cry, “Unclean, unclean.” When the word “unclean” appears, it is not so much a reference to the physical disease itself as it is to the ceremonial status of the person before the Levitical economy. That is, the individual remains unclean ceremonially until he is pronounced “clean” by the priest when (and if) healing comes. Lastly, we notice verse 46, “He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” In other words, the leper experiences a separation—he has no fellowship with the people of God, as he is considered to be ceremonially under judgment.

Though we do read in the OT of some lepers who were healed, there are very few illustrations of healing from leprosy until our Lord Jesus came. We could more or less say that as to the “tonal center” of the OT, it was extremely unusual for anyone to be healed of leprosy. Then we read, in Mark’s gospel, “And a leper came to Jesus, beseeching Him and falling on his knees before Him, and saying, ‘Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.’ Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I am willing; be cleansed.’ Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed” (Mark 1:40-42, italics added). It continually amazes me when I read this passage that Jesus reached out His hand and touched the leper—the one covered in ulcers, the social outcast, the one dying a slow, painful, and lonely death. Not only did Jesus reveal Himself as the Lord and Healer, but He revealed Himself as a God of compassion and fellowship, for He stretched out His hand of flesh and touched this diseased, leperous man, choosing to show His healing power by means of physical touch. Altering Wesley’s hymn slightly, I could imagine the leper, who had probably not been touched by another human being for many years, singing with heartfelt joy, “Amazing Love, how can it be that Thou My God, would touch me—a poor and wretched leper!” Spiritually speaking, this leper likewise shouts, “what amazing love.”


As Michael Hanby notes, in the Confessions, Augustine teaches that there is a “plenitude of true meanings for a single text” […] The ontological warrant that underlies this insistence throughout the Augustinian corpus derives, in part, from the very nature of truth’s oneness, which defies its circumscription or possession” (Augustine and Modernity, p. 34). For example, in Confessions XII, Augustine writes:

“Having listened to all these divergent opinions and weighed them, I do not wish to bandy words, for that serves no purpose except to ruin those who listen. The law is an excellent thing for building us up provided we use it lawfully, because its object is to promote the charity which springs from a pure heart, a good conscience and unfeigned faith, and I know what were the twin precepts on which our Master made the whole law and prophets depend. If I confess this with burning love, O my God, O secret light of my eyes, what does it matter to me that various interpretations of those words are proffered, as long as they are true? I repeat, what does it matter to me if what I think the author thought is different from what someone else thinks he thought? All of us, his readers, are doing our utmost to search out and understand the writer’s intention, and since we believe him to be truthful, we do not presume to interpret him as making any statement that we either know or suppose to be false. Provided, therefore, that each person tries to ascertain in the holy scriptures the meaning the author intended, what harm is there if a reader holds an opinion which you, the light of all truthful minds, show to be true, even though it is not what was intended by the author, who himself meant something true, but not exactly that?” (Augustine’s Confess. XII.27, pp. 327-328, M. Boulding translation).

Maria Boulding (the translator) adds the following note in regard to the passage above, “Augustine’s recognition that meanings other than those intended by the writer can legitimately be discovered in the sacred text is grounded in his conviction that the God of truth who inspired the writer and guarantees the text abides in the minds of believing readers, and that though God makes use of human words, they are never adequate to fully express his mystery; there is always a ‘plus’ of meaning” (p. 323, note 71).

We definitely have something more than gramatico-historical hermeneutics in place here. (Anachronistically speaking, our apologies to Spinoza and company).


Describing the divine “must” that defines Jesus’ earthly journey, i.e., that He must drink this cup, be baptized with the baptizing fire of the Cross, Balthasar says that all this takes place within and in perfect harmony with His sovereign freedom (p. 18). [As a side note, the fact that Balthasar says that without the slightest tinge of “logical” discomfort is for me a highly attractive aspect of Balthasar, viz., he embraces (true) mystery (i.e., mystery-for-us) and does not wield the principle of non-contradiction as that which should define and be Lord over our Triune God]. Balthasar continues his thoughts with the following beautiful and amazingly devotional words:

“But here the journey and the goal (the latter being passage to the Father in the unity of death and resurrection) are so integrated that Jesus’ Passion (18, 4-8) can be interpreted as the personal consecration of Jesus for the men whom God has given him (17, 19), and as a proof of supreme love for his friends (15, 10). This love asks as its return not only the same ‘laying down of our lives for the brethren’ (1 John 3, 16), but also the joyous self-abandonment whereby the beloved Lord was drawn into that death which brought him back to the Father (John 14, 28). And yet the shadow cast by the Cross is so heavy to bear that Jesus, while on his way, ‘weeps’ and is ‘deeply moved’ (11, 33ff), wishes to flee from this ‘hour’ and yet remains faithful (12, 27-28). ‘Becoming flesh’, since it involves ‘not being received’ (1, 14, 11), is for that reason a crushing of the self (6, 54, 56). It is dying into the earth, disappearing (12, 24), yet being ‘lifted up’ in death-and-resurrection like the serpent in which all poison at once gathered and met its antidote (3, 14). For this is the One who, light of heart, was sacrificed for the multitude—and for more, indeed, than his murderers thought (11, 50ff)—as the bread of life which vanishes in the mouth of the traitor (13, 26), and the light which shines in the darkness that does not comprehend it and therefore cannot extinguish it (1, 5). […] A direct line joins the Prologue to the Footwashing—that gesture which sums up the distinctively Johannine unity of intransigence and tenderness, of total abasement and a purification that exalts” (pp. 18-19).


As Balthasar explains, the Cross is the “mid-point of saving history, all the promises are realized in it, every aspect of the Law, with its quality as curse, is dashed to pieces on the Cross. […] What he [St. Paul] takes it upon himself to announce thereby is not just one historical fact among others, but that complete upheaval, that re-creation of all things, which the Cross and Resurrection brought about. ‘The old has passed away, behold, the new has come!’ (II Corinthians 5, 17). Here, then, in the innermost truth of history. This truth appears to the Jews to be a stumbling block, to the pagans as folly, since it seems to speak of the ‘weakness and foolishness of God.’ Yet it so speaks in such a way that it is endowed with an unconditional power to test, to judge, to discriminate and to separate. In the Cross, then, is manifested the entire ‘power of God’ (I Corinthians 1, 18, 24). This power is so great that, paradoxically, it can, in the very act of falling whereby Israel stumbles over the stumbling-stone (Romans 9, 30 ff), catch and save her (Romans 11, 26). Christian existence is a ‘reflection’ of the form of Christ; as one has died for all so, at the deepest level, all have died (II Corinthians 5, 14). Faith must ratify this truth (Romans 6, 33 ff); life must manifest it (II Corinthians 4, 10). And if this death happened out of love ‘for me’ (Galatians 2, 20), then my response must be a ‘faith’ which consists in total self-gift to this divine destiny. In this way, scandal and persecution become titles of glory for the Christian (Galatians 5, 11; 6, 12-14)” [Mysterium Paschale, pp. 16-17]


In light of Michael D.’s excellent comments relating to the previous post, I thought I’d offer a few additional thoughts defending my take on Augustine (of course I am not alone in my observations—e.g., Michael Hanby, in his book Augustine and Modernity, argues that that Augustine’s theology must not be separated from his philosophy, lest Augustine be completed misunderstood). I would also add that I am certainly not claiming that Augustine’s thought is without tensions or that he did not “grow” in his knowledge in light of his spiritual growth in Christ (his own “Retractions” seem to indicate this). However, I am suggesting that the dialectal tensions in Augustine’s thought do not lead to the kind of “ultimate” irrationality that e.g., result from the dichotomies in Kant’s thought.


Perhaps one might object that I am over-emphasizing Augustine’s theology and Christian faith, as after all, it is common knowledge that Augustine was both well-versed in and influenced by Platonic and Neoplatonic thought. This is no doubt the case, as Augustine himself, e.g., in the Confessions, speaks of his indebtedness to the Platonists for helping him to turn from transient to eternal things. So on the one hand, it is uncontested that he was influenced by Platonism and pillaged the intellectual riches of unbelieving philosophers. Yet, on the other hand, one should not ignore or gloss over the significant theological differences between Augustine and the Platonists [1]. For example, in contrast with Plato, Augustine rejects Plato’s doctrine of the soul’s pre-existence, and consequently, denies that the soul “remembers” what it saw in a pre-existent bodiless state. Instead, Augustine’s epistemology is centered in Christ as Illuminator, the one true Teacher who enlightens all who are enlightened [2]. In addition, regarding Augustine’s “inward turn,” we again see formal similarities with Plato and the Neoplatonists. However, there are fundamental differences that must not be ignored [3]. For Augustine, one seeks truth not by turning first to the sensible world; rather, one first turns her gaze inward where the soul can be quiet before God. One of course doesn’t remain inwardly focused, but instead must turn upward to God. Though Augustine doesn’t begin with the senses, he nonetheless does not eschew the sense world in the way that Plato and the Neolatonists tended to do [4]. After all, Augustine is a strong advocate of God’s creation ex nihilo, which God himself proclaimed to be “good.” Consequently, Augustine’s account must include a deeply positive view of the created order. We might summarize Augustine’s rendition as follows: after turning inward and then upward, one casts her gaze back outward to the sense world. Having understood by God’s grace who God is and who you are, the external world becomes intelligible and valued in a new way. That is, the created world is seen as that which imitates or reflects God in its own way (what Augustine and other medievals call, “participation”) and thus has an aesthetic, symbolic and even iconic significance as it ultimately points us to God [5]. Yet, the created order also has value “on its own terms” because it is a gift of God, created freely and given out of fullness of his love.

[1] For example, though the context has to do with Stephen Menn’s continuity thesis regarding Augustine and Descartes, the passage below illustrates my point rather well, viz., that Augustine’s theology must not be separated from his philosophy, lest superficial or formal similarities become elevated such that the heartbeat of Augustine’s thought becomes dismally faint. Hanby speaks to this concern and points out the theological deficiencies in Menn’s account, “In order to sustain his thesis, he [Menn] must read Confessiones as a whole, treating it simply as an ‘autobiographical report of the process by which [Augustine] came to a true understanding of God.’ This interpretation makes the genre of confession adventitious to its meaning. The latter commitment requires that he overlook what is properly Plotinian in the ‘discipline’ of Confessiones VII.17—that it has been occasioned by ‘the beauty of bodies’—and how this discipline might be consummated christologically beyond Plotinus. Menn’s attempt to clarify this soteriological point magnifies the obscurity by imposing post-Cartesian distinctions onto Augustine’s text which it had been the achievement of Augustine’s Christ to overcome: rigid distinctions between reason and faith, ‘natural theology’ and ‘revealed religion,’ and speculation and practice. Each is underwritten by a hard distinction between via and patria. This not only occludes how Augustine’s Christology and trinitarianism inform his conception of voluntas, but it aids and abets the substitution of a Cartesian voluntarism for the Augustinian notion” (Hanby, Augustine and Modernity, pp. 150-151). Hanby also states in his introduction that this tendency in academia to focus on the “philosophical Augustine” to the exclusion of the “theological Augustine” (a hard and fast distinction that Augustine himself would not make) “reflects the marginal role Christianity now occupies in our culture and its negligible effect in informing our vision and our conception of time, history and what ‘really’ determines them” (p. 1).
[2] On the difference between his teaching and that of Plato, Augustine writes, “Wisdom is the contemplation of those eternal forms or principles of which Plato wrote; though his doctrine that the soul retains a memory of them from a former existence is unsatisfactory. It is better to believe that the mind is enlightened by a spiritual sun, as the eye by the physical” (The Trinity, XII.4, p. 94).
[3] As Hanby observes, for Augustine there is an erotic pull toward the beauty of Wisdom that is manifest both in the soul and in sensibilia, yet it points beyond both and calls us to delight in the beauty and goodness of triniarian love. Moreover, sensiblia for Augustine are likewise revelabilia reflecting God in a replete spectrum of temporal diversity, and crying out in all its many voices that we might recognize our Creator (“Augustine and Descartes,” pp. 469-471).
[4] On this point, one can certainly find passages in Plato that indicate a somewhat positive view of the sense world (e.g., in the Phaedrus, Symposium). However, the overall “feel” of Plato’s view seems to suggest a preference for the world of Forms and in relation to humans, a dis-embodied state. For example in the Phaedrus, Socrates presents a myth that describes the origin of human beings. According to the myth, the soul in its original state is compared to a chariot drawn by two horses, one submissive and the other unruly. The charioteer (reason) drives the chariot and endeavors to guide it properly—i.e., according to reason. In the supra-heavenly realm, the chariot travels through the world of the Forms, which the soul contemplates. The charioteer loses control of the horses and the soul “falls” to the earth, i.e., the soul becomes incarnated. In the dialogue, Phaedo¸ Socrates informs us that goal of the philosophic life (which is said to be the highest life) is to prepare for death. That is, the philosopher is to avoid the trappings of the body and the sense world, only engaging in such lowly things according to necessity. This is in part why the philosopher should not fear death—after all his whole life is spend anticipating a release from this “prison-house” called body in order to contemplate the Forms unhindered. Though one might counter that the sense objects, such as beautiful bodies, serve to draw us to the Forms (e.g., the Form of Beauty) and thus have some positive status, bodies still seem to be relegated to a status of quasi-existence and disembodied existence is certainly to be preferred. Moreover, the notion of resurrected bodies would seem contradictory in light of a Platonist view of reality. For more on the tensions between Platonism and Christianity in relation to embodiment, see James K.A. Smith’s, “Will the Real Plato Stand Up? Participation verses Incarnation,” as found in Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition: Creation, Covenant, and Participation, eds., James K.A. Smith and James H. Olthuis. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), pp. 61-72.
[5] Regarding the aesthetic element of the created order, Hanby explains that for Augustine what we have in the created order are a “series of microcosms which manifest the Father’s love for and delight in the beauty of the Son.” Moreover, because of Augustine’s emphasis on the priority of worship, we must understand the beauty reflected in the creatures and even the soul as “penultimate in relation to the full beauty of the created order and somehow a microcosm of that beauty in its fruition. That beauty was the one Christ, Head and Body, in whose unity and sacrifice the love, gift, and delight of the Father are manifest. Creation is finally realized as it manifests this generosity, which is to say that, for Augustine creation is finally realized in and as Christ. Consequently, any account of Augustinian ‘flight from the world’ that neglects this integral role of created beauty in eliciting desire for the Father and manifesting his joy fails to ascend to the Augustinianism of Augustine” (Augustine and Modernity, p. 134).