Thursday 9 March 2017

Romans Study Course : Assertion One by John Stevens

Before the course starts, John writes a series of articles to define his new parameters. You could think of them as a string of Forewords
The original is here

Assertion One: It’s difficult to lose things…experimental post 28th January 2017Real theologyAristotle, geocentric, St Augustine, Theologian, Theosis, Thomas Aquinas, Watchman Nee
It’s difficult to lose things.

Jesus said ‘for nothing is secret that will not be revealed, nor anything hidden that will not be known and come to the light’. I love these ‘Confucious says’ type aphorisms. My hunch is that they express universal spiritual truth that is deafeningly obvious to anyone with an ear to hear and that Jesus applied these truths to the many contexts that he was immersed in. It cuts both ways. On the one hand the hidden (evil) leaven of the Pharisees would eventually come to light in the grotesque manner in which they rid themselves of that inconvenient and dangerous Jewish upstart, Jesus, and on the other hand the gospel – a minority pursuit in 1st Century Israel – would also come to light and transform the lives of countless individuals and civilisations.

The truth is that I lose things temporarily quite often. After the blissful ignorance of the loss is shattered, frustration and frantic searching set in and threaten to overwhelm us as we search desperately for our keys, or diary, or…well it’s usually my keys or diary. It doesn’t take long before we find ourselves pouring out prayers to God to help us to find ‘it’ ‘after all Lord, You know where it is and, by the way, I’m sorry for being a clot – again. Have mercy…please’. In direct proportion to the anguish and reminder of personal weakness is the sheer joy on finding the lost items. Smiles, sometimes tears, certainly woops, and probably impromptu dancing all tumble out and life it seems can begin again.

In 1054 the church finally split in what has been known as The Great Schism. Jerusalem had long been replaced by three great centres of Christian leadership; Alexandria (in the West), Rome (in the middle), and Constantinople (representing the east). The great split – which some say would have occurred anyway due the increasingly different geographies, language, political persuasions and cultures at play – divided the church into two halves; Alexandria and Rome in the Catholic west and Constantinople in the Orthodox East.

So deep has this schism been that each ‘church’ has, over time, developed its theology in different directions. Some of the good news landed up in the East and some in the West and there has been a mutual loss. But Jesus said there is nothing hidden that shall not be revealed – and I believe Him. Perhaps our blissful state of ignorance of what we’ve lost is about to experience a jolt?

One of the criticisms of the East of the West is that the Western version of Christianity (meaning, at the time, the Bishops who looked to Rome) bases its theology largely on reason and thus exalted the mind above the heart. Symptomatic of this approach, says the East, is the appeal to Greek philosophy and in particular the philosopher Aristotle 384 BC – 322 BC.

Thomas Aquinas 1225–1274AD lived near Rome at the time when Aristotlean literature became freely available in Latin. Aquinas’ influence on western civilization cannot be underestimated. He was known as a teacher and philosopher and – despite the overthrow of the Aristotlean geocentric universe in the 16th Century – Pope Benedict XV 1854 – 1922 declared that ‘The Church has declared Thomas’ doctrines to be her own’ and to this day they are used in the preparation of the Catholic priesthood. Fifty years after his death he was canonized as St Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas developed much of his theology from St Augustine of Hippo. The Orthodox Church, for example, has a high regard for St Augustine of Hippo (354–430AD) as does the western Catholic and Protestant church. St Augustine is considered by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint and a great theologian; in the East he is considered to be a saint but not a theologian!

A theologian in the East is someone who demonstrably ‘knows God’ through direct spiritual experience and engagement with the divine – called ‘theoria’ – whilst in the west a theologian’s personal experience of God is not considered to be important at all, simply his or her ability to make sense of spiritual and biblical interpretation. You’ll search in vain, for example, for an Eastern Orthodox commentary on Romans that explains salvation in terms of a forensic courtroom scene between God the righteous judge and the guilty sinner in the dock awaiting the intervention of Christ to take His punishment so that the judge can pronounce the verdict ‘Not guilty. Justified and acquitted’.

In the West the emphasis to explain salvation is to ask ‘saved from what?’ in the East it is far more ‘saved for what?’.

Late in Thomas Aquinas’ life he had a direct experience of God. He said the effect of this experience was for him to realise that all his work had been like ‘straw’ alluding to 1 Cor3v12,13 ‘if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become manifest for the Day will declare it, it will be revealed by fire’. As a consequence Aquinas dedicated the final two years of his life to the reconciliation between East and West but died two months before he had a chance to attend the Council called in May 1274 to attempt this reconciliation.

Watchman Nee (Normal Christian Life p150f) speaks of one of the consequences of Adam eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil as leaving man inheriting an ‘over developed soul’. So fallen man is left to attempt to live a life from the soul rather than, as has been made possible through Christ, from the life of His Son. Fallen man, in fact, ‘walks according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience’ Eph 2 v 2)

James A Fowler ( has written an extensive examination of Christ in us and Christ as us in the light of the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of ‘Theosis’; otherwise translated as ‘divinisation’ or ‘deification’. His article will go far further than this little jab or provocation to realise that what perhaps was lost in the great schism cannot be lost forever.

God regularly allows us in our fallibility to lose things. There is something deeply human and therefore deeply divine in the joy of finding the lost. It is beyond emotion. It contradicts systematic searching – often a waste of time – and, like running out of petrol, it is often when we have spent the last drops of our own will that the wretched and beautiful lost object reveals itself. If God is opening our eyes to see what has been hidden by western theologians (and here I include Catholic and Protestant together) let it be. God will do what Aquinas could do not.

Theosis directs our attention to seeing ourselves as a living temple in whom God lives; and as Jesus Christ was 100% human and 100% God, so, in Christ, God has come to dwell in us. To say more is to drift from the point of assertion one that God will bring to light all that is hidden. It’s the way things are.

ps If you are after a shorter version of James A Fowler’s article maybe start with the October 2008 Christianity Today article ‘Keeping the End in View’ by James R. Payton Jr. To quote: ‘Orthodox understanding of theosis reminds us that salvation is less about what we get than about what God gets. It is about his purposes being accomplished in us’

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