Can self-abnegation, a basic tenet of Neoplatonic Mysticism and other spiritualities, ultimately be selfish and self-centered? In The Gospel of the Incarnation (NY: Anson D. F. Randolph & Company, 1893), pp. 52 f., renowned Bible scholar Benjamin B. Warfield thought so.
Our self-abnegation is thus not for our own sake, but for the sake of others. And thus it is not to mere self-denial that Christ calls us, but specifically to self-sacrifice: not to unselfing ourselves, but to unselfishing ourselves. Self-denial for its own sake is in its very nature ascetic, monkish. It concentrates our whole attention on self—self-knowledge, self-control—and can, therefore, eventuate in nothing other than the very apotheosis of selfishness. At best it succeeds only in subjecting the outer self to the inner self, or the lower self to the higher self; and only the more surely falls into the slough of self-seeking, that it partially conceals the selfishness of its goal by refining its ideal of self and excluding its grosser and more outward elements. Self-denial, then, drives to the cloister; narrows and contracts the soul; murders within us all innocent desires, dries up all the springs of sympathy, and nurses and coddles our self-importance until we grow so great in our own esteem as to be careless of the trials and sufferings, the joys and aspirations, the strivings and failures and successes of our fellow-men. Self-denial, thus understood, will make us cold, hard, unsympathetic, —proud, arrogant, self-esteeming,—fanatical, overbearing, cruel. It may make monks and Stoics,—it cannot make Christians.
The following is an excerpt from the journal article, “On the Construction of Romans ix. 5,” by Ezra Abbott (Journal of the Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis, vol. 1 (1881):87-154), p. 114. Theologically, equating the person of Christ with the person of God the Father (= Yahweh/Jehovah), without qualification, is erroneous and wrong-headed, confusing as it does the fundamental relationships of the Trinity, within which concept is couched God’s purposes regarding law versus grace, sin versus propitiation, judgment versus Justification, and condemnation versus Redemption. God had his reasons for sending his Son, rather than himself, to declare the Father and die for forgiveness of sin.
It is important to observe, in general, that in respect to the application to Christ of the name “God,” there is a very wide difference between the usage not only of Paul, but of all the New Testament writers, and that which we find in Christian writers of the second and later centuries. There is no clear instance, in which any New Testament writer, speaking in his own person, has called Christ God. In John i. 18 the text is doubtful; and in I John v. 20 the [HOUTOS] more naturally refers to the leading subject in what precedes, namely, [TON ALETHINON], and is so understood by the best grammarians, as Winer and Buttmann, and by many eminent Trinitarian commentators (see above, p. 19). In John i. I [THEOS] is the predicate not of the historical Christ, but of the antemundane Logos. The passages which have been alleged from the writings of Paul will be noticed presently.
But it may be said that even if there is no other passage in which Paul has called Christ God, there are many in which the works and the attributes of God are ascribed to him, and in which he is recognized as the object of divine worship; so that we ought to find no difficulty in supposing that he is here declared to be “God blessed for ever.” It may be said in reply, that the passages referred to do not authorize the inference which has been drawn from them; and that if they are regarded as doing so, the unity of God would seem to be infringed. A discussion of this subject would lead us out of the field of exegesis into the tangled thicket of dogmatic theology . . . .
Dr. Hugh M. Scott (1848-1909), Professor of Church History at Chicago Theological Seminary, writes in Origin and Development of the Nicene Theology: with Some Reference to the Ritschlian View of Theology and History of Doctrine, Lectures Delivered on the L. P. Stone Foundation at Princeton Theological Seminary, January 1896 (Chicago Theological Seminary Press, 1896), note, pp.248-251.
Within this form of mystery, the conception of the Lord’s Supper changed in the following direction: The New Testament Church spoke of all worship as sacrifice; the post-Apostolic Fathers applied the term sacrifice especially to the prayer and gifts offered at the Lord’s Supper; next, the idea of sacrifice was transferred to the Supper itself; the bread and wine were given the virtue of Christ’s atonement and finally they were identified with the Lord’s body and blood; so that in the third century the Supper was regarded as a sacrifice offered by Christ for the Church, instead of an offering presented by the Church to Christ. It was Athanasius who went beyond the realistic view of the Apostolic Fathers and Apologists, and beyond the symbolical, mystical view of Clement and Origen, to the metabolic theory that the bread and wine became “entirely transformed,” as was done at Cana in Galilee (cf. Thomasius, I. 434). The chief factors in this change of view were the prominence given in the Supper to the death of Christ, the assumption of priestly functions by the clergy, some influence from the pagan mysteries, but especially a failure to grasp the finished redemption of Christ as ever present to the believer. The real presence was limited to bread and wine, instead of being found in every Christian; it was put in the hands of the clergy and not in the hearts of all believers. The result was that the merits of the one sacrifice for sin were overlooked, and man regarded it as a merit on his part to cause the sacrifice of Christ to be repeated.
This Moralism, which captured the sacraments, took most striking form in Monasticism. The monk followed a leading idea of Greek theology, which regarded salvation as separation from the world. He interpreted this to mean, first, imitation of Jesus and then imitation of Christ. Asceticism, a life of poverty, chastity, obedience, meant following the lowly Jesus. Contemplation, ending in the beatific vision of God, meant to ascend to heaven with Christ. New Testament teachings, historic circumstances, the influence of heathenism all helped produce Monasticism; but none of these weighed so much as the false theory of man’s relation to Christ. The pupils of Origen regarded the Gnostic and the ascetic as the true types of Christian living (cf. Harnack, II. 424); that is, knowledge and the life of superiority to the world made the ideal man. But it is plain such a theory lands us in the place of learners, with Christ as nothing but a great teacher. The monk needs no Saviour; he is a self-redeemer like the Stoic or any other moralist. In the fourth century, when worldliness was pressing hard into the Church, every form of piety was combined against it; hence asceticism, which was fully developed among the heathen, with no Christ in it, when adopted by Christians did not find a place for Him as Redeemer. The Neo-Platonist thought that through the contemplation of nature he became partaker of God; so the monk in rapt devotion might reach God without the saving help of Christ. The Church fell again into two classes; ordinary Christians who were saved by the potent mysteries of the sacraments, and ideal Christians—the monks—who saved themselves by good works and ecstasy; but both had lost sight of Christ as perfect Redeemer of men.
[Footnote] The loss of the gospel conception of personal, living union throughout life of the believer with the exalted Christ was followed inevitably by the wrong soteriology of the early Church: (1) Because He was not felt to be the head of every Christian man and every congregation, bishops and other heads arose. (2) Because direct personal communion with Him was obscured, the Church and the Sacraments came in between the soul and the Saviour, thus not only bringing in a hierarchy but perverting the whole conception of man’s relation to Christ. (3) Because constant, direct approach to Christ was lost, a thousand indirect approaches by washings, fastings, visions, ascetic practices, confessions, came into use. (4) Because the witness of Christ by His Spirit in the heart was largely overlooked, too much stress was laid upon intellectual forms of faith, philosophical proofs of Christianity, and theological creeds. (5) This loss of the present Christ in the midst of the worshiping congregation was followed by a more formal worship, in which liturgies, elaborate ceremonies, and theological statements, too much took the place of the free charismatic prayers and teachings of the primitive Church. (6) In life also, as the thought was obscured that Christ dwells in each believer, a loss of holiness followed. To have the rules of the Church, to follow her discipline, was a lower standard than to “have the mind of Christ.” From the individual this view spread to the Church. For the New Testament, believers were a temple of God; for Callixtus, the Church was the ark of Noah, full of both clean and unclean creatures. (7) Finally, this loss of Christ as King in each Christian changed the whole missionary character of the Church. Instead of all preaching—let him that heareth say, come”—the clergy preached and the laity listened; or monks went out, spreading their defective views of Christianity.
Dr. Hugh M. Scott (1848-1909), Professor of Church History at Chicago Theological Seminary, writes in Origin and Development of the Nicene Theology: with Some Reference to the Ritschlian View of Theology and History of Doctrine, Lectures Delivered on the L. P. Stone Foundation at Princeton Theological Seminary, January 1896 (Chicago Theological Seminary Press, 1896), note, pp. 220 f.:
The greatest problem in the internal history of the early-Church was that of sins committed after baptism. Connected with it, appeared Montanism, schisms, asceticism, sacraments, penances, etc. The solutions reached were various and, in an increasing degree, unsatisfactory. (1) In opposition to Montanism, many Catholic Christians grew content with a lower standard of living, became more unholy, and trusted in general belief in Christianity and doing one’s duty. (2) In recognition of a certain truth in the attitude of separation from the world preached by Montanism, ascetics and later monks sought pardon of post-baptismal sins in the anchorite life. (3) The Church that did not flee to the deserts magnified more and more the sacraments and mysteries as means of blotting out sins. The number of sacraments was increased, a penitential system (from Cyprian on) grew up about them, and a mathematical calculation of good works arose, which reckoned the alms, prayers, and other exercises, required for the removal of every kind and degree of post-baptismal sin. Sacraments especially got between the soul and the Saviour, till, by a strange combination of superstition and a longing for the Divine Redeemer, the doctrine of the Mass arose in the Middle Ages — the one dogma developed in that eclipse of faith — and brought the penitent, kneeling before the bread and wine, to bow also to Christ crucified. The supreme central position attained by the Mass, with all its errors, helped fasten the faith of the worshiper upon Christ, even though the very prayer addressed to Him was part of a system of legality. (4) But above all and crowning all, was the thought that good works earned the pardon of post-baptismal sins. Cyprian said, “we wash away by alms ” such defects. He summed up religion in “prayer and good works” (Ep. xvi. 2). These, he said, satisfied God. The Lord’s Supper, which Irenaeus called “a gift” (IV. 17, 5), Cyprian called “a sacrifice,” offered by “a priest” and only in the Church (Ep. Ixiii. 14). It was the great aid of good works. Here we find the clear outlines of early Catholicism, with its “utter materializing of religion” by legalism and priestcraft (Seeberg, S. 115). The result was a two-fold morality, of “secular” Christians, who did as well as possible in the world, and “regular” Christians, who assumed the Virgin, the ascetic life. Heaven was the reward of such good works; hence eschatology now became prominent with its resurrection to crown the saints with immortality, and the rich payment for all faithful services. The Kingdom of God passed more and more into this future of hope.
The following are excerpts from Hodge’s Systematic Theology, vol. I (NY: Scribner, Armstrong, and Co., 1877), pages 63-86, in which he defines Mysticism and differentiates it from Evangelical spirituality. His one glaring shortcoming, being a Cessationist, is his blindness toward the continuation of New Testament Pentecostal charisms, which he circumscribes (typical in the 19th Century) to the First Century and largely to the Twelve Apostles, for the formation of Scripture and the Church. Apart from this blind spot, his observations provide a supportive parallel account to the recent published works on Sacramental Realism and Neoplatonism, and differentiation of Pentecostal spirituality from Contemplative Prayer/Mysticism, found in the following published works by Paul A. Hughes:
- The blog series, “Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism,” parts 1-7
- “Notes on Pentecostalism versus Mysticism“
- “John Wesley, Reluctant Mystic“
- The book Neoplatonist Stew, based on the collected articles above
According to Hodge:
The Sense in which Evangelical Christians are called Mystics
As all Evangelical Christians admit a supernatural influence of the Spirit of God upon the soul, and recognize a higher form of knowledge, holiness, and fellowship with God, as the effects of that influence, they are stigmatized as Mystics, by those who discard everything supernatural from Christianity. The definitions of Mysticism given by Rationalists are designedly so framed as to include what all evangelical Christians hold to be true concerning the illumination, teaching, and guidance of the Holy Spirit. …. And Bretschneider defines Mysticism as a “Belief in a continuous operation of God on the soul, secured by special religious exercise, producing illumination, holiness, and beatitude.” Evangelical theologians so far acquiesce in this view, that they say, as Lange, and Nitsch,” that every true believer is a Mystic.” The latter writer adds, “That the Christian ideas of illumination, revelation, incarnation, regeneration, the sacraments and the resurrection, are essentially Mystical elements. As often as the religious and church-life recovers itself from formalism and scholastic barrenness, and is truly revived, it always appears as Mystical, and gives rise to the outcry that Mysticism is gaining the ascendency.” …. There has been a religious theory, which has more or less extensively prevailed in the Church, which is distinguished from the Scriptural doctrine by unmistakable characteristics, and which is known in church history as Mysticism, and the word should be restricted to that theory. It is the theory, variously modified, that the knowledge, purity, and blessedness to be derived from communion with God, are not to be attained from the Scriptures and the use of the ordinary means of grace, but by a supernatural and immediate divine influence, which influence (or communication of God to the soul) is to be secured by passivity, a simple yielding the soul without thought or effort to the divine influx.
The System which makes the Feelings the Source of Knowledge
A still wider use of the word Mysticism has to some extent been adopted. Any system, whether in philosophy or religion, which assigns more importance to the feelings than to the intellect, is called Mystical. ….
…. The Mystic assumes that the senses and reason are alike untrustworthy and inadequate, as sources of knowledge; that nothing can be received with confidence as truth, at least in the higher departments of knowledge, in all that relates to our own nature, to God, and our relation to Him, except what is revealed either naturally or supernaturally in the feelings. There are two forms of Mysticism, therefore: the one which assumes the feelings themselves to be the sources of this knowledge; the other that it is through the feelings that God makes the truth known to the soul. “Reason is no longer viewed as the great organ of truth; its decisions are enstamped as uncertain, faulty, and well-nigh valueless, while the inward impulses of our sensibility, developing themselves in the form of faith or of inspiration, are held up as the true and infallible source of human knowledge. The fundamental process, therefore, of all Mysticism, is to reverse the true order of nature, and give the precedence to the emotional instead of the intellectual element of the human mind.” This is declared to be “the common ground of all Mysticism.”
…. The illumination claimed by the Mystic communicates truth independently of its objective revelation. ….
The doctrines of spiritual illumination and of Mysticism differ not only in the object, but secondly, in the manner in which that object is to be attained. The inward teaching of the Spirit is to be sought by prayer, and the diligent use of the appointed means; the intuitions of the Mystic are sought in the neglect of all means, in the suppression of all activity inward and outward, and in a passive waiting for the influx of God into the soul. They differ, thirdly, in their effects. The effect of spiritual illumination is, that the Word dwells in us “in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” (Col. i. 9). What dwells in the mind of the Mystic are his own imaginings, the character of which depends on his own subjective state; and whatever they are, they are of man and not of God.
The so-called Dionysius the Areopagite
Mysticism, in the common acceptation of the term, is antagonistic to speculation. And yet they are often united. There have been speculative or philosophical Mystics. The father indeed of Mysticism in the Christian Church, was a philosopher. About the year A. D. 523, during the Monothelite controversy certain writings were quoted as of authority as being the productions of Dionysius the Areopagite. …. Though their authorship is unknown, their influence has been confessedly great. The works which bear the pseudonym of Dionysius are, “The Celestial Hierarchy,” “The Terrestrial Hierarchy,” “Mystical Theology,” and “Twelve Epistles.” Their contents show that their author belonged to the school of the New Platonists, and that his object was to propagate the peculiar views of that school in the Christian Church. The writer attempts to show that the real, esoteric doctrines of Christianity are identical with those of his own school of philosophy. In other words, he taught New Platonism, in the terminology of the Church. Christian ideas were entirely excluded, While the language of the Bible was retained. Thus in our day we have had the philosophy of Schelling and Hegel set forth in the formulas of Christian theology.
The New Platonists taught that the original ground and source of all things was simple being, without life or consciousness; of which absolutely nothing could be known, beyond that it is. They assumed an unknown quantity, of which nothing can be predicated. The pseudo-Dionysius called this original ground of all things God, and taught that God was mere being without attributes of any kind, not only unknowable by man, but of whom there was nothing to be known, as absolute being is in the language of the modern philosophy, — Nothing; nothing in itself, yet nevertheless the DUNAMIS TWN PANTWN [“power of all things”].
The universe proceeds from primal being, not by any exercise of conscious power or will but by a process or emanation. ….
The end [i.e., “goal”] of philosophy is the immediate vision of God, which gives the soul supreme blessedness and rest. This union with God is attained by sinking into ourselves; by passivity. As we are a form, or mode of God’s existence, we find God in ourselves, and are consciously one with him, when this is really apprehended; or, when we suffer God, as it were, to absorb our individuality.
The terms God, sin, redemption, are retained in this system, but the meaning attached to them was entirely inconsistent with the sense they bear in the Bible and in the Christian Church. The pseudo-Dionysius was a heathen philosopher in the vestments of a Christian minister. The philosophy which he taught he claimed to be the true sense of the doctrines of the Church, as that sense had been handed down by a secret tradition. Notwithstanding its heathen origin and character, its influence in the Church was great and long continued. The writings of its author were translated, annotated and paraphrased, centuries after his death. As there is no effect without an adequate cause, there must have been power in this system and an adaptation to the cravings of a large class of minds.
Causes of the Influence of the Writings of the pseudo-Dionysius
To account for its extensive influence it may be remarked: (1.) That it did not openly shock the faith or prejudices of the Church. It did not denounce any received doctrine or repudiate any established institution or ordinance. It pretended to be Christian, It undertook to give a deeper and more correct insight into the mysteries of religion. (2.) It subordinated the outward to the inward. Some men are satisfied with rites, ceremonies, symbols, which may mean anything or nothing; others, with knowledge or clear views of truth. To others, the inner life of the soul, intercourse with God, is the great thing. To these this system addressed itself. It proposed to satisfy this craving after God, not indeed in a legitimate way, or by means of God’s appointment. Nevertheless it was the high end of union with him that it proposed, and which it professed to secure. (3.) This system was only one form of the doctrine which has such a fascination for the human mind, and which underlies so many forms of religion in every age of the world; the doctrine, namely, that the universe is an efflux of the life of God, — all things flowing from him, and back again to him from everlasting to everlasting. This doctrine quiets the conscience, as it precludes the idea of sin; it gives the peace which flows from fatalism; and it promises the absolute rest of unconsciousness when the individual is absorbed in the bosom of the Infinite.
Mysticism during the Middle Ages: General Characteristics of this Period
The Middle Ages embrace the period from the close of the sixth century to the Reformation. This period is distinguished by three marked characteristics. First, the great development of the Latin Church in its hierarchy, its worship, and its formulated doctrines, as well as in its superstitions, corruptions, and power. Secondly, the extraordinary intellectual activity awakened in the region of speculation, as manifested in the multiplication of seats of learning, in the number and celebrity of their teachers, and in the great multitude of students by which they were attended, and in the interest taken by all classes in the subjects of learned discussion. Thirdly, by a widespread and variously manifested movement of, so to speak, the inner life of the Church, protesting against the formalism, the corruption, and the tyranny of the external Church. This protest was made partly openly by those whom Protestants are wont to call “Witnesses for the Truth;” and partly within the Church itself. The opposition within the Church manifested itself partly among the people, in the formation of fellowships or societies for benevolent effort and spiritual culture, such as the Beguines, the Beghards, the Lollards, and afterwards, “The Brethren of the Common Lot;” and partly in the schools, or by the teachings of theologians.
The First Class of Medieval Theologians
Of these theologians, however, there were three classes. First, those who avowedly exalted reason above authority, and refused to receive anything on authority which they could not for themselves, on rational grounds, prove to be true. John Scotus Erigena (Eringehorne, Irish-born) may be taken as a representative of this class. He not only held, that reason and revelation, philosophy and religion, are perfectly consistent, but that religion and philosophy are identical. ….
…. His philosophy as developed in his work, “De Divisione Naturae,” is purely pantheistic. There is with him but one being, and everything real is thought. His system, therefore, is nearly identical with the idealistic pantheism of Hegel; yet he had his trinitarianism, his soteriology, and his eschatology, as a theologian.
The characteristic common to these classes, which differed so much from each other, was not that in all there was a protest of the heart against the head, of the feelings against the intellect, a reaction against the subtleties of the scholastic theologians, for some of the leading Mystics were among the most subtle dialecticians. Nor was it a common adherence to the Platonic as opposed to the Aristotelian philosophy, or to realism as opposed to nominalism. But it was the belief, that oneness with God was the great end to be desired and pursued, and that that union was to be sought, not so much through the truth, or the Church, or ordinances, or Christian fellowship; but by introspection, meditation, intuition. As very different views were entertained of the nature of the “oneness with God,” which was to be sought, so the Mystics differed greatly from each other. Some were extreme pantheists; others were devout theists and Christians. From its essential nature, however, the tendency of Mysticism was to pantheism. And accordingly undisguised pantheism Was not only taught by some of the most prominent Mystics, but prevailed extensively among the people.
Pantheistic tendency of Mysticism
It has already been remarked, that the system of the pseudo-Dionysius, as presented in his “Mystical Theology” and other writings, was essentially pantheistic. Those writings were translated by Scotus Erigena, himself the most pronounced pantheist of the Middle Ages. Through the joint influence of these two men, a strong tendency to pantheism was developed to a greater or less degree among the mediaeval Mystics. Even the associations among the people, such as the Beghards and Lollards, although at first exemplary and useful, by adopting a system of mystic pantheism became entirely corrupt. Believing themselves to be modes of the divine existence, all they did God did, and all they felt inclined to do was an impulse from God, and therefore nothing could be wrong. In our own day the same principles have led to the same consequences in one wing of the German school of philosophy.
It was not only among the people and in these secret fellowships that this system was adopted. Men of the highest rank in the schools, and personally exemplary in their deportment, became the advocates of the theory which lay at the foundation of these practical evils. Of these scholastic pantheistical Mystics, the most distinguished and influential was Henry [Meister] Eckart, whom some modern writers regard “as the deepest thinker of his age, if not of any age.” …. His doctrines were condemned as heretical, although he denied that he had in any respect departed from the doctrines of the Church. …. It is not necessary here to give the details of his system. Suffice it to say, that he held that God is the only being; that the universe is the self-manifestation of God; that the highest destiny of man is to come to the consciousness of his identity with God; that that end is to be accomplished partly by philosophical abstraction and partly by ascetic self renunciation.
It is true that no one can intelligently affirm the transcendence of God, and still hold the extreme form of pantheism which makes the world the existence-form of God, his whole intelligence, power, and life. But he may be a Monist. He may believe that there is but one Being in the universe, that everything is a form of God, and all life the life of God. Pantheism is Protean. Some moderns speak of a Christian Pantheism. But any system which hinders our saying “Thou,” to God, is fatal to religion.
Quietism: Its general character
Tholuck says “There is a law of seasons in the spiritual, as well as in the physical world, in virtue of which when the time has come, without apparent connection, similar phenomena reveal themselves in different places. As towards the end of the fifteenth century an ecclesiastical-doctrinal reformatory movement passed over the greater part of Europe, in part without apparent connection; so at the end of the seventeenth a mystical and spiritual tendency was almost as extensively manifested. In Germany, it took the form of Mysticism and Pietism; in England, of Quakerism; in France, of Jansenism and Mysticism; and in Spain and Italy, of Quietism.” This movement was in fact what in our day would be called a revival of religion. Not indeed in a form free from grievous errors, but nevertheless it was a return to the religion of the heart, as opposed to the religion of forms. The Mystics of this period, although they constantly appealed to the mediaeval Mystics, even to the Areopagite, and although they often used the same forms of expression, yet they adhered much more faithfully to Scriptural doctrines and to the faith of the Church. They did not fall into Pantheism, or believe in the absorption of the soul into the substance of God. They held, however, that the end to be attained was union with God. By this was not meant what Christians generally understand by that term; congeniality with God, delight in his perfections, assurance of his love, submission to his will, perfect satisfaction in the enjoyment of his favour. It was something more than all this, something mystical and therefore inexplicable; a matter of feeling, not something to be under, stood or explained; a state in which all thought, all activity was suspended; a state of perfect quietude in which the soul is lost in God …. This state is reached by few. It is to be attained not by the use of the means of grace or ordinances of the Church. The soul should be raised above the need of all such aids. It rises even above Christ, insomuch that it is not He whom the soul seeks, nor God in him; but God as God; the absolute, infinite God. The importance of the Scriptures, of prayer, of the sacraments, and of the truth concerning Christ, was not denied; but all these were regarded as belonging to the lower stages of tlie divine life. Nor was this rest and union with God to be attained by meditation; for meditation is discursive. It implies an effort to bring truth before the mind, and fixing the attention upon it. All conscious self-activity must be suspended in order to this perfect rest in God. It is a state in which the soul is out of itself; a state of ecstasy, according to the etymological meaning of the word.
This state is to be reached in the way prescribed by the older Mystics; first, by negation or abstraction; that is, the abstraction of the soul from everything out of God, from the creature, from all interest, concern, or impression from sensible objects. Hence the connection between Mysticism, in this form, and asceticism. Not only must the soul become thus abstracted from the creature, but it must be dead to self. All regard to self must be lost. There can be no prayer, for prayer is asking something for self; no thanksgiving, for thanksgiving implies gratitude for good done to self. Self must be lost. There must be no preference for heaven over hell. One of the points most strenuously insisted upon was a willingness to be damned, if such were the will of God. In the controversy between Fenelon and Bossuet, the main question concerned disinterested love, whether in loving God the soul must be raised above all regard to its own holiness and happiness. This pure or disinterested love justifies, or renders righteous in the sight of God. Although the Mystics of this period were eminently pure as well as devout, they nevertheless sometimes laid down principles, or at least used expressions, which gave their enemies a pretext for charging them with Antinomianism. It was said, that a soul filled with this love, or reduced to this entire negation of self, cannot sin; “sin is not in, but outside of him;” which was made to mean, that nothing was sin to the perfect. It is an instructive psychological fact that when men attempt or pretend to rise above the law of God, they sink below it; that Perfectionism has so generally led to Antinomianism.
The following is a preview excerpted from Chapter 2, entitled, “. . . Was the Logos,” of the upcoming book, The Fullness That Fills: The Unifying Principle of Biblical Revelation by Paul A. Hughes, M.Div.
In his Gospel, John uses the common Greek concept of the Logos (λόγος), “Word,” to introduce aspects of the Messiah concept to Hellenistic readers.
It is no coincidence that John’s Gospel begins with the same words that initiate Genesis, “In the beginning.” The God who spoke forth the creative Word by which the worlds were made expresses himself not only in Creation but also in his eternal Plan. At the center of this Plan God placed a self-generating and self-determining (“free-will”) creature, i.e., Man, who represents the height of God’s Creation. Man, as the height of God’s self-expressive acts of creation flowing out of his very nature, further presupposes redemption of such a creature who seems predisposed to fall. Connecting the dots, the instrument of redemption from this fall, from the beginning, is a Savior not only commissioned for the task but possessing the divine potency and status to redeem God’s creation. Who would possess status on the level of God’s stature except a participant in, indeed an associate member of the Godhead? John is saying to the Greeks and Hellenistic Jews that this Logos for whom they have been looking, and to whom in their philosophy they have perhaps already related the Messiah, is none other than the one immediately preceded by John the Baptist, preached by him, and by whom was baptized—and who now has become Savior of the world.
Here, this preview omits the following headings:
- “The Personification of Wisdom”
- “‘Son of Man” and ‘Son of God'”
- “‘Firstborn’ and ‘Only-Begotten'”
- “Hellenistic and Rabbinic Speculations”
- “The Logos and the Prologue of John”
“And God Was the Logos“
Therefore, approaching the Prologue of John without a “doubtful mind” toward its origins, let us examine its content in regard to its overall contribution and application to the present study, meanwhile attempting to dispel any misapprehensions or myths.
The Prologue begins as a transparently intentional reflection of Genesis 1. Its first words, en archē, are identical with the Septuagint rendering, along with other verbal correspondences, including its simple modes of verbal expression. The correspondence to the Hebrew original, b’reshith, “in the beginning,” is no less striking. Robinson further notes in detail the verbal correspondences between John 1:1 and 1 John 1:1 f.1 The latter begins with ho ēn ap’ archēs, “that which was from the beginning,” referring not directly to “the Word of Life” (seemingly a personification of Eternal Life in the form of Christ, its giver), but indirectly, by way of that which had been observed of him by the Apostles during his Incarnation. That the Word was (existed) in the beginning obviously signifies preexistence, but by itself neither justifies nor denies the Arian view that Christ was created along with the rest of Creation, or was created, chronologically, first. The Imperfect Tense of the verb “was” does not simply express past action but carries about as much of a continuous sense as is typical of the Present Tense, or at least expresses duration. It is not punctiliar (the opposite of durative), as is the Aorist Tense, expressing action that occurred then ceased at a point in time; nor does it, as in the Perfect Tense, emphasize the action as completed. B. F. Westcott writes, “The ‘being’ of the Word is thus necessarily carried beyond the limits of time, though the pre-existence of the Word is not definitely stated”; hence “was” describes “a continuous state. The imperfect tense suggests in this relation, as far as human language can do so, the notion of absolute, supra-temporal, existence.”2 According to Johnston, “In the beginning the Logos already was, and then at a point of time all things came into being through Him. Thus eternal existence seems to be implied, though not directly asserted.”3 “The former is a ‘being,’ the latter a ‘becoming.'”4 Stevens agrees,
The Word was at the beginning; he existed before the world came into being. It is true that John does not employ the words eternal or eternity in the connection, but we hold that this idea is involved in the logical relation between the terms was and in the beginning. When John speaks of that which comes into existence he uses both a different word and a different tense [panta di’ auton egeneto, etc., 1:8]. All things came into being, but at the beginning of all things, he was.5
More provocative, if only by way of implication, is Christ’s statement of John 8:58, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Oepke purports that in John, “ideas of pre-existence develop almost imperceptibly from the underlying general conception.”6 Let it suffice for now to presume that if Christ is, in his person, the self-expression of God, there was no conceivable time in the past, ad infinitum, that God did not in some way express himself. John Calvin objects to those who “reduce Christ to the common order of the world,” by accounting him to be a created being, giving “insult not only to the Son of God, but to his eternal Father, whom they deprive of his wisdom,” and follows Augustine of Hippo in deprecating “those who conceive of any point of time when he went before his Wisdom,” who thus “deprive him of his glory.”7
Both verses 1 and 2 state that the Logos was pros ton theon, most often translated “with God.” However, pros in this construction overwhelmingly means “toward.”8 T. K. Abbott prefers “with a view to,” perhaps “looking to,” either of which carries much the same thought as “toward.”9 Coupled with the example of pros ton patera (“toward the Father”) in 1 John 1:2, and in contrast to meta tou patros . . . (“with/after the Father,” etc.) in the following verse, Meyer is on solid ground to infer from our passage “the existence of the Logos in God in respect of intercourse.”10 A. T. Robertson states that “The idea seems to be ‘facing,'” comparing pros to German gegen, and suggesting the meaning in John 1:1, “face to face with God.”11 The fact that it is Logos who is the subject and God the object of the preposition seems significant: one conceives the Logos being disposed toward, attentive to, even beholden toward God, whereas God is the focus of that concern. Stevens explains that the choice of the preposition pros over para “emphasizes a direction or tendency of life. The moral movement of his life is centred in God, and ever goes out toward God.” John’s purpose was “to show how the Son is fitted to reveal God to mankind, and it is his essential and eternal relation to the Father which would constitute the ground of that fitness.”12
The phrase commonly translated, “the Word was God,” represents perhaps the stickiest exegetical problem of all, bearing as it does on the fundamental nature of the Godhead in regard to the Trinity. Its meaning hinges upon a deceptively simple but rigid syntactic and semantic construction, including the internal order of its words, such that the depth of its meaning lies beyond the competence of “armchair” interpreters. (Indeed, it has suffered at the hands of many purported “scholars.”) The phrase does not read, “the Word was the God” (ho logos ēn ho theos), which would seem to particularize and equate both God and the Word, but “God was the Word” (theos ēn ho logos). To equate the person of God with the person of the Logos, Meyer notes, is contradicted by pros ton theon in verses 1 and 2, which already distinguishes two persons. Theos “can only be the predicate, not the subject,” so that “The predicate is placed before the subject emphatically (comp. iv. 24 [pneuma ho theos), so that] the progress of the thought [is], ‘He was with God, and (not at all a Person of an inferior nature, but) possessed of a divine nature . . . .'” Thus “John neither desires to indicate, on the one hand, identity of Person with the Father; nor yet, on the other, any lower nature than that which God Himself possesses,” even though the subordination of the Son to the Father is maintained.13 Calvin concurs:
We have already said that the Son of God is thus placed above the world and above all the creatures, and is declared to have existed before all ages. But at the same time this mode of expression attributes to him a distinct personality from the Father; for it would have been absurd in the Evangelist to say that the Speech was always with God, if he had not some kind of subsistence peculiar to himself in God.14
Johnston moreover notes that John uses theos and not ho theos, such that “the thought is rather of the nature of the Logos than of His personality.”15 By virtue of this very strict grammatical construction, John maintains the distinction between God and the Logos and, at the same time, “an identity of essence.”16
From his exalted position beside God, the Logos participated in the creation of all things. As the Word, by which God spoke forth, “Let there be light,” etc., the Logos was not just the personification of a divine faculty, as was Wisdom, but the instrument by which God’s purpose was accomplished. “God is the Creator in the absolute sense, but the Logos is the co-efficient agent of God in creating, sustaining, and governing the world,” wrote Stevens; “All things were created by (dia) him, and for (eis) him,” (Col. 1:16, see also Heb. 1:2).17 (Literally, John 1:3 begins, “All things through (dia) him became,” etc.) That there was nothing done without the presence or instrumentality of the Logos speaks not only of his presence throughout, but his own exclusive status as firstborn and only-begotten. It must also be suggested that this statement further supports his preexistence to Creation since, were he part of “all things,” he could hardly be said to have created himself.
Moreover, John writes panta and not ta panta, the latter suggesting “in a mass” or in “totality”; rather, “each separate thing is the handiwork of the Divine Logos.”18 As shall become clear during the course of this study, original Creation was just the precursor, foundation, or firstfruit of the fullness which is ever bestowed by God on his created beings, and ultimately through Christ on his Church. “And of his fullness we have all received, and grace for grace” (John 1:16).19
“In Him Life Was”
“In him life was,” en autō zōē ēn, “and the life was the light of men,” kai hē zōē ēn to phōs tōn anthropōn. John uses the same Imperfect Tense verb, “was,” used in verses 1 and 2, to express not only a durative state of being full of life, but also in terms of Christ constantly bestowing, through his life, light upon Mankind (and through his light, in turn, life upon Mankind). Robertson describes the sense of the Imperfect as “a sort of moving panorama, a ‘moving-picture show.'”20 Add to this the Present (and durative) sense of “shines” in the following verse, and one may presume that to John, the past endowment of life invested in the Logos endured and was still shining in his own time and beyond.21 Bernard exclaims, “Jn. does not say ‘the Light SHONE,’ but ‘the Light SHINES.'”22
The equation Life = the Light of Men in verse 4 may be explained in terms of John 8:12: Christ as Light of the World conveys the light of the truth of the Gospel, able to bring life to those who follow him (see also 9:5). In 3:14 ff., Christ has provided for Eternal Life, but those who choose evil hate and reject the light. Those who fail to walk in the light stumble (11:9 f.), hence should do their walking while they have the light (12:35 f.). Since Christ lights the world, Men need not walk in darkness (12:46). Eternal Life stems from knowing God and Christ (17:3, et al.). “Life was that which existed in Him, of which He was full,” writes Meyer.23
Men should walk in the light because God is light (1 Jn. 1:5 ff.). Not only does Life = the Light of Men, but John maintains a strict dichotomy (or dualism) between darkness = sin, versus light = goodness and truth. “Light and darkness in the prologue, and in the Gospel elsewhere, are not abstract metaphysical conceptions, but ethical conceptions,” concludes Stevens. “Darkness is sin, and light is goodness.”24
In verses 7 and 8, Light is personified, obviously as a metaphor for the One who gives light, in terms of spiritual, arguably even intellectual enlightenment (“If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” Jn. 8:31 f.). John the Baptist had only represented God’s light in a metaphorical sense (Jn. 5:35) as one who conveyed the “light” of Gospel truth consciously and intellectually (i.e., the message); but in doing so, he refers to the One and Only who is himself the personification of that truth (Jn. 1:6 ff., see also 1:15, 26 ff.), as well as of the Eternal Life which that truth conveys. Just as “In the beginning,” echoes Genesis 1:1, references to Jesus as “that Light” in John 1:4 ff. echo the creation of light in Genesis 1:3.25
The next few verses proceed in logical, not chronological order. (Some interpreters delay consideration of the Incarnation until verse 14, whereas verses 10 and 11, “He was in the world,” etc., obviously refer to Christ’s Incarnation, as well.) John’s point is the acceptance or rejection by “his own” versus “as many as”—those believing and accepting him—being granted the gift of “power” (exousia, “authority,” “right,” “ability,” not dunamis, “power,” “might,” “ability”)26 to acquire sonship through believing.
Both the concepts light and sonship through new birth (“born of God,” Jn. 1:13) are paralleled by Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus in John chapter 3 as he marvels that a “teacher of Israel” could remain ignorant of spiritual rebirth. Christ speaks of the things “which we know” and “which we have seen,” amounting to the light of the Gospel which has been received, and equivalent to those “heavenly things” which cannot be understood except by way of faith in the Son of Man, who “came down from heaven” (3:10, 12 f.).27 Yet the choice is Man’s, to “hate the light” and avoid it in an attempt to evade conviction, or to “do truth” and “come to the light” to display works of God wrought through faith (3:20 f.). The “light” has nevertheless been provided if Man will accept it. Johnston considers that “every man” refers to “Not all men in the mass, but every individual receives his own share of the Logos-light.”28 “But the Light, while it is the prerogative of men, is the possession of all men. If it is limited to men, it is not limited to any one section of humanity. The Light is diffused everywhere. It shineth in the darkness.”29 Johnston concludes,
The separation of the world from God is not the result of any inherent law of the universe, but the result of sin, the moral choice of human free will. The divine order of the universe is that in which the Logos-life and the Logos-light should everywhere be present and potent. But it is in the power of man’s free will, as we shall see in vv. 10, ii, to violate and oppose this divine order. The activity of the Logos is thwarted, though it is not defeated, by the sinfulness and selfishness of man. Sin is a deliberate shutting out of the Logos-light, and a remaining in the darkness and isolation of self.30
The above thoughts perhaps help interpret “the light of men” (Jn. 1:4) and “the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (1:9). Everyone has been provided with a measure of light, but not all receive it, and not all light is “true light.” As Jesus said,
The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness. Take heed therefore that the light which is in thee be not darkness. If thy whole body therefore be full of light, having no part dark, the whole shall be full of light, as when the bright shining of a candle doth give thee light (Lk. 11:34–36).
For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind. And some of the Pharisees which were with him heard these words, and said unto him, Are we blind also? Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth (Jn. 9:39–41).
“And the Logos was made flesh, and dwelt (“tabernacled”) among us” (Jn. 1:13).
“Tabernacle” (skēnē or skēnōma) literally means “tent” or similar structure, the implication being that of a temporary, short-term, or perhaps unsubstantial dwelling. The word is used in the Septuagint to describe the original “tent of witness/testimony” (as Ex. 38:21) or “tent of the congregation” (as Ex. 39:32), but was sometimes applied later to the temples that replaced it, even a future heavenly one. Still “tabernacle” is differentiated from a temple referred to as a “house” (as 1 Chr. 6:32), and God declared his intention, up till the establishment of David’s kingdom under Solomon, to have no permanent dwelling place (1 Chr. 17:3 ff.), further implying the transitory nature of tabernacles. At the Transfiguration, Peter suggested that they erect tabernacles for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, respectively (Mt. 17:4 and parallels), probably thinking more in terms of temporary resting places, by way of hospitality, than shrines (for which substantiality would seem more appropriate, but which would also be problematic in terms of Jewish religious prohibitions against idolatry and competition with the Jerusalem Temple). The idea of a tabernacle became a metaphor for the mortal body, with emphasis on the transient nature of human existence and a preference for future immortality (2 Cor. 5:1 ff., 2 Peter 1:13 f.). Meyer notes that the tabernacle was the place where God’s shekinah was revealed, which in his mind is reflected in John’s statement, “we beheld his glory” (Jn. 1:14).31
After another use of the Imperfect Tense (“He was in the world,” 1:10), the last segment of the Prologue now presents us with a spate of Aorist Tense verbs. Zerwick and Grosvenor account “tabernacled” in verse 14 to be either an inceptive (also called ingressive) use of the aorist, i.e., he “took up his abode (incarnation)”; or a constative (global) use, i.e., he “dwelt among us (earthly life).”32 Robertson classes the same verb a constative aorist, which carries the basic connotation of the Aorist Tense, that of expressing action simply taking place at a point in time (hence, “punctiliar”). “The ‘constative’ aorist,” he explains, “just treats the act as a single whole entirely irrespective of the parts or time involved.” He assigns diverse usages to the other verbs in the passage. “Know” in verse 10, “received” in verse 12, and “became” in verse 14, are ingressive aorist, emphasizing the beginning of the action. Robertson describes “beheld” in verse 14 and “received” in verse 16 as examples of the effective (or resultative) use of the Aorist, in which the conclusion of the action is emphasized.33
Regardless, John’s choice of tense in this passage makes it clear that in his mind, all the action that he describes is accomplished—”done, and done”: hence, by the Word the world became (accomplished). The world did not know him (accomplished). He came unto his own (accomplished), but his own did not receive him (accomplished). But all who received him (accomplished), he gave power (accomplished) to become sons of God (accomplished). From God, those who believe in him were born (accomplished). The Word became flesh (accomplished) and dwelt among us (accomplished). We beheld his glory (accomplished). From his fullness we have all received (accomplished). The Law, Moses gave (accomplished), but grace and truth through Jesus Christ became (accomplished). No one has seen God, but the only-begotten Son declared him (accomplished). Thus John sees Christ’s work, in terms of a new Creation through his Incarnation, to be finished. In Christ’s own words,
My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work (Jn 4:34).
But I have greater witness than that of John: for the works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do, bear witness of me, that the Father hath sent me. And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me. Ye have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his shape (Jn. 5:36 f.).
I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do (Jn. 17:4).
It is finished (Jn. 19:30).
With the words, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mt. 3:2 and parallels), the Baptist had launched the New Testament Gospel; and by baptizing Jesus, inaugurated the Church Age, the Age of the Indwelling Spirit. “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 4:17, see also Mk. 1:14 f.). In Christ’s revelation of himself as the Logos, moreover, he has revealed God’s unfathomable grace toward Man. The age is to be that of “grace and truth,” drawing upon the fullness of the risen Christ, and the worship to be “in Spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:23 f.), according to his example and his commandments. For these purposes, God through Christ provided the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, as the resource for spiritual enablement and the continuing bestowal of grace. Hence Paul applies the term charismata (“graces,” “grace things”) to miraculous, spiritual manifestations of grace.
“We became sharers, in the plenitude of divine blessing which came to the world in Christ, and, in consequence, one gift of grace has succeeded another,” Stevens summarizes, with reference to “grace upon grace” (charis anti charitos) in Jn 1:16.34 Contrary to popular conception, the preposition anti does not usually mean “against.” Often it carries the connotation of substitution or exchange, perhaps “equivalence.”35 Compare “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth” (Mt. 5:38), and “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (Rom. 12:17). According to Robertson, its “etymological picture” is “face to face,” suggesting the image of two men carrying a log while facing each other.36 In regard to its use in John 1:16, Zerwick and Grosvenor suggest the “idea of succession rather than substitution, one grace after another, grace upon grace.”37 Robertson does not disagree: “As the days come and go a new supply takes the place of the grace already bestowed as wave follows wave upon the shore. Grace answers (α̉ντὶ) to grace.”38
1 John A. T. Robinson, “The Relation of the Prologue to the Gospel of St John,” New Testament Studies 9 (January 1963):123 f.
2 Brooke Foss Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John: The Greek Text with Introduction and Notes, vol. I (London: John Murray, 1908), p. 5.
3 J. S. Johnston, The Philosophy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study of the Logos-Doctrine: Its Sources and Its Significance (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1909), p. 21.
4 Johnston, p. 27.
5 George B. Stevens, The Johannine Theology: A Study of the Doctrinal Contents of the Gospel and Epistles of the Apostle John (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1894), p. 89.
6 Oepke, “Eis,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. II, p. 423. See further on preexistence, F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984), pp. 60 ff.
7 John Calvin, Commentary on the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to John, vol. I, trans. William Pringle, The Calvin New Translations, Instituted A. D. 1843 for the Publication of the Works of John Calvin in English (Edinburgh: Printed for the Calvin Translation Society, 1847), pp. 27 f.
8 A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934), pp. 622 ff.
9 T. K. Abbott, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and to the Colossians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1916) p. 276 f.
10 Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Gospel of John, Vol. I, 2d ed., trans. William Urwick, trans. rev. and ed. Frederick Crombie, Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Part II, ed. William P. Dickson and Frederick Crombie (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1883), p. 67; see also Johnston, p. 23.
11 Robertson, p. 623. The Centenary Translation of the New Testament, trans. Helen Barrett Montgomery (The American Baptist Publication Society, 1924), concurs with “face to face with God.”
12 Stevens, p. 90.
13 Meyer, pp. 67 f.
14 Calvin, p. 28.
15 Johnston, p. 25.
16 Stevens, p. 91.
17 Stevens, p. 93. Dia, “by” or “through,” instead of the locative en, “in,” or the instrumental en, “by.” Eis, normatively translated “into” or “unto,” often conveys purpose or result, e.g., “for the purpose of.”
18 Johnston, p. 28.
19 See Stevens, p. 96.
20 Robertson, p. 883. He notes, pp. 882 f., that the aorist form for “was” (ēn) is identical, but a punctiliar sense hardly fits the passage at hand.
21 Aorist “comprehended” is, in relation to present-tense “shines,” perhaps an example of a “timeless Aorist.” This accords well with Westcott’s earlier description of a “supra-temporal” sense; nevertheless, its normative action would be punctiliar, though sometimes translatable as Present Indicative, see Robertson, pp. 842 f.
22 J. H. Bernard, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John, The International Critical Commentary, ed. A. H. McNeile, vol. I (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929), p. 5.
23 Meyer, p. 71.
24 Stevens, p. 100.
25 See Peder Borgen, “Logos Was the True Light: Contributions to the Interpretation of the Prologue of John,” Novum Testamentum 14 (April 1972):124.
26 See Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed., trans. and adapted by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, rev. and aug. by F. Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker (The Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979), under exousia and dunamis, respectively.
27 Verses 11–13 probably refer to Dt. 30:11-14, in which Moses declared that the Hebrews need not wonder about God’s will, and imagine that they need to send a prophet to fetch and inquire into it, since it has already been delivered to them in the Law, if only they believe and obey. To this text Paul refers, Rom. 10:6 ff., specifically in reference to acquiring the righteousness which is by faith—which lately had been declared in the Gospel, but ought to have been understood already from the examples of Abraham and the intent of Moses’ Law. Christ, after this reference, proceeds immediately to cite the example of the brazen serpent of Numbers 21, which demonstrated salvation by faith in response to obedience to God’s command.
28 Johnston, p. 35.
29 Johnston, p. 29.
30 Johnston, p. 32.
31 Meyer, John, p. 89.
32 Max Zerwick and Mary Grosvenor, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament, rev. (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1981), commentary to the verse cited. On ingressive aorist, see Robertson, p. 829.
33 Robertson, pp. 829, 832, 834.
34 Stevens, p. 96.
35 Robertson, pp. 573 f.
36 Robertson, p. 573.
37 Zerwick and Grosvenor, commentary to the verse cited.
38 Robertson, p. 574.
Copyright ©2015 by Paul A. Hughes
The lessons of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” are lost on many Christians. The Divine Health (as opposed to Divine Healing) crowd hates the idea that there might be a disease that God chooses NOT to heal. The Deliverance crowd hates the thought that there might be demonic oppression from which God chooses NOT to deliver. The Word-of-Faith, Hyper-Faith crowd hates the notion that there might be a prayer that God might choose NOT to answer in the affirmative, or a presumed legal claim to a promise to which God might refuse to comply.
The blanket lesson of Paul’s thorn in the flesh is that “Christ’s grace is sufficient.” Christ asserts this claim to Paul in spite of contrary outward appearances. The main contrary circumstance was continued mortality manifested by continued need, continued pain, continued oppression, as Paul experienced in his flesh. The fact that Christ’s grace remained “sufficient” in spite of mortality demonstrates many subordinate lessons. One is that Christ’s priorities are not our own. Human suffering in itself is not outside the will of the Lord. The Spirit said of Paul, “I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:16). Peter described those “that suffer according to the will of God” (1 Peter 4:19). Epaphroditus was “sick nigh unto death,” but was praised by Paul for his dedicated service (Php. 2:27).
Yet another lesson is that while we have received “the earnest of the Spirit,” and in the eschatological sense Eternal Life, believers have not yet received the fullness of that “inheritance” (2 Cor. 1:22, 5:5; Eph. 1:13 ff.; 1 Peter 1:3 ff.). Not until the Parousia (“appearing in person”) of Christ will we be “changed” to “see him as he is” and “be like him” (1 Cor. 13:12, 15:51 f.; Col. 3:4; Php. 3:21; 2 Tim. 1:10; Titus 2:13; 1 Jn. 3:2). Immortality remains a future promise and a “purchased possession” yet to be redeemed (Gal. 3:14 ff., Eph. 1:14, 1 Tim. 4:8, 2 Tim. 1:1, Heb. 10:36 f., 1 Jn. 2:25). Therefore, the Church can at times expect to experience a “foretaste” of immortality, but never its fullness, as the Spirit “divides severally as he wills” (1 Cor. 12:11).
In particular, Paul was taught a lesson pertinent to “the abundance of the revelations” that he had received. Christ’s purpose was “lest I should be exalted above measure.” Paul needed “self” to be deflated enough to keep his feet firmly planted on solid ground — or rather, enough to realize that the power working in and through him was that of Christ and not a product of his own human strength, intelligence, holiness, or pedigree. No, the Lord declared, “my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Only in the failure of “self” does humanity turn to God, and only in his utter inability would Paul learn and be reminded to rely solely on the Lord.
Thus we come round to the sticking point wherein self-reliant and self-actualizing people dismiss the lessons of the thorn in the flesh. People hate not getting what they want. Even more, people hate suffering. The flesh bridles at being denied. We see everywhere people going to great lengths, trodding over laws and over other people, insensitive to principles and the rights and welfare of others, in a never-ending quest to get what they want at all costs. Christians are hardly immune to this propensity. In arguing with the lessons of the thorn, those who hate it actually demonstrate the need for it by their own carnality and lack of consecration to the Lord. They will not put up with any such burden! They sacrifice New Testament principles while stubbornly misappropriating others, in self-seeking and spiritual pride. In so doing, they risk a mighty downfall when brought to the end of their own devices by their own thorn, which is sure to come in time.
Paul came to his thorn in all earnestness. The thought of the thorns facing the carnal and rebellious is too horrible to contemplate.
© 2014 Paul A. Hughes