Daydream of a sermon to intellectuals

For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour: Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.

“This quotation has generated controversy among theologians since the beginning, for if God wills everyone to be saved, then it certainly seems that everyone will be. Even if we can make sense of God’s will not being done in this or that particular instance, it seems impossible to argue that this could be true when all things are accomplished.  Ideas like this gave rise to what Origen called apokatastasis and which is now called universalism. Augustine thoroughly critiqued these ideas, but the debate will always be with us.

“But I want to pass over that whole debate here, though I would point out that it becomes extrordinarily difficult to see Paul as a consistent preacher if we read him as denying that anyone can be excluded from the kingdom of God. Rather, I want to focus on the passage in question and point out what Paul actually meant, as opposed to reading the text in isolation. Isolated readings are not always wrong, but there is a danger in an isolated reading here. We intellectuals love our extensive, abstract schemes and we are always tempted to read things as taking part in them. The great themes of “God’s will” and “the possibility of all being saved” tend to blind us from the concrete problem that Paul is speaking about here.

Lets take the passage from the beginning:

1 I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; 2 For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. 3 For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour.

“Paul wants the Church to pray for everyone, which implies he is concerned that the Church tends to avoid praying for some. He is particularly interested in addressing the danger that the Church might neglect to pray and give thanks for the civil rulers who are presently resisting, harassing, and persecuting the Church. But why is this a danger? Because the Church easily understands resistance to its mission as setting up an “us vs. them” dynamic where we are the Church and they are the forces of the world. But this is a false vision of the Church – for the Church is the mystical body, and the mystical body includes all who can be members and not just those who are. This is a crucial point that we cannot stress enough – while every other corporate body on earth only includes those who are actual members the mystical body includes all those who could be members. No one is a member of the McDonalds Corporation just because he could work there, but everyone is a member of the mystical body if he could repent and believe. This is a great mystery, and difficult to keep in mind, but the heart of the mystery is that the difference between the Church and the world is not a difference between two sorts of persons but between two sorts of loves that all persons have. All the conflicts of the world are conflicts within the mystical body – even those that don’t involve Christians at all. There is no “secular society” in opposition to the mystical body: there is simply a part of the mystical body that calls itself secular – and they can only call themselves this because they don’t know what they are. No one is falling out the Church, there are simply members of the mystical body that fail to call themselves what they are and fail to live the life they were actually given. True, to be a part of the body in these ways might not grant one salvation, but it is membership in the body all the same.

“It is precisely this vision of the Mystical Body that Paul is striving to advance in this passage. By revealing himself, God has made a single Church of all those who could  love the things which are revealed, irrespective of what they happen to believe in now. None of us will ever meet a person who is not already a member of the Mystical Body with us, and this is the truth that should govern our relations with others.

“I find this reading of Paul very challenging, even more challenging than the debate about universalism. Universalism is a debate about what God will do, and we can speculate about this for a thousand years without ever having to change anything fundamental in our attitude towards life. But to see all we meet as members of the mystical body – as brothers and sisters to us in Christ – is so extraordinarily difficult and challenging that I’m tempted to scurry back to the cool, detached world of theological speculation. But this would only evade the truth that, at the bottom of things, there is only one people, one culture, and one society of Christ, irrespective of what we decide to call ourselves or believe.


  1. thenyssan said,

    September 22, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    But seriously, solve the universalism problem here. 🙂

    Doesn’t this put you (us) in the position of saying that the damned are part of the Mystical Body? What’s your follow-up sermon for that?

    • September 22, 2013 at 3:30 pm

      STA says that the damned lack any potential to be united to Christ (see end of the corpus here), though he just states the fact without developing it.

      At best, all I could get out of this is a critique of Universalism so far as it grounds itself in 1 Tm. c. 2, but I suspect 1 Cor. 15:22 or Rm. 5: 10 would be the more go-to texts. At any rate, I’ve seen Universalism as pretty much a dead end ever since I read Von B. try to defend the “hope for an empty hell” position. It just doesn’t seem to me a very plausible way of reading the words of Paul as a whole, though the real problem (as all sides have to acknowledge) is explaining the words of Christ at all. If we only had Christ’s end of the world judgment narrative, or his judgment on Judas, or his condemnation of the Pharasees, or his multiple Gehenna references, or the parable of Lazarus and Dives or the foolish virgins then we might be able to plausibly argue him into universalism – but even one of these is a pretty clear denial of universalism, and the collective case strikes me as overwhelming. Like, O.J.-killed-Nicole overwhelming.

  2. thenyssan said,

    September 22, 2013 at 5:26 pm

    I have to confess that, while I no longer consider myself a student of Von B, I retain a certain vague affection for his idea. Still, that’s merely aside to this:

    As to hell and the Mystical Body, I guess it puts us in a position of saying that I Tim applies first and best to the blessed and secondarily to those in the time of merit, but only counter-factually to the damned–precisely because it embraces those who could be a part of the Mystical Body, as you say. But that just delays all the old problems of interpreting I Tim, doesn’t it?

    I know you’re not trying to “solve” any problems with this sermon, but I want to try to at least integrate the sermon into the de concordia problem.

    • sancrucensis said,

      September 23, 2013 at 2:17 am

      I don’t see why it delays the problems of interpreting I Tim. Isn’t part of the point here that the passage is referring to the living: “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life…” Here “all men” seems to refer (as it often does) to all living men. It doesn’t help us live a peaceable life to pray for Hector and Achilles…

  3. RP said,

    September 23, 2013 at 7:31 am

    Reprobation by God does not take anything away from the power of the person reprobated. Hence, when it is said that the reprobated cannot obtain grace, this must not be understood as implying absolute impossibility: but only conditional impossibility: as was said above (Question [19], Article [3]), that the predestined must necessarily be saved; yet a conditional necessity, which does not do away with the liberty of choice. Whence, although anyone reprobated by God cannot acquire grace, nevertheless that he falls into this or that particular sin comes from the use of his free-will. Hence it is rightly imputed to him as guilt. (ST 23, 3, ad 3)

    But what of “anyone reprobated by God cannot acquire grace”? Does this mean anyone who has ever acquired grace (infant Baptism for example) cannot be among the reprobated?

    How is this seemingly plain statement to be read so as not to mean what it appears to mean? It must be like when Christ said “I don’t know” the Church says we are to understand this as, “I know but won’t tell you.”

    • September 23, 2013 at 10:41 am

      This involves a branch of logic that I keep hearing is being extensively written about, but I haven’t read any of the lit. I think the basic idea is this: take four consequences:

      If I’m walking, then I’m moving.

      If the Pythagorean theorem is true, then the square in the hypotenuse equals the squares on the legs.

      If the moon is green cheese, the moon is a dairy product

      If some squares are circles, then logical contradictions are true.

      For St. Thomas, all of these consequences would be true, but the the consequents (namely “I am moving”; “the square in the hypotenuse equals the squares on the legs” “the moon is a dairy product”; and “logical contradictions are true”) are, respectively, possible, necessarily true, false, and impossible. The sense in which all are true is called “conditional”, and the sense in which they are possible, true, false, and impossible is called “absolute”. So the claim that “if John is reprobate, John will be damned” is conditionally necessary (it seems true from the terms) but the statement “John will be damned” is possible, as opposed to being necessarily true, false, or impossible.

      I don’t think this is logic-chopping, since STA would say that the reason why the consequent is possible when taken absolutely is because of the freedom of the will.

  4. RP said,

    September 23, 2013 at 11:06 am

    Yes. I understand this conditional necessity (or suppostional as Thomas often says). What I don’t understand is “that the reprobate cannot acquire grace” (even if his will is at fault) as opposed to “if anyone whatsoever has acquired grace he cannot be reprobated”, which is how I read it. And I want to understand why I shouldn’t read it this way, which seems to be the plain meaning of the text. And which, if true, means not necessarily universal salvation, but the salvation at least of all the Baptized (water, blood, desire).

    • September 23, 2013 at 12:44 pm

      “Reprobate” can’t describe anyone living as they now are, but only persons in statu mortis. If John goes to hell an hour from now, he isn’t reprobate now, or even 59 minutes from now, but only when the hour is up. This seems to be the sense in which the reprobate cannot acquire grace.

      • RP said,

        September 24, 2013 at 6:40 am

        Maybe that’s what it means. But then I don’t see the sense of talking about falling into this or that particular sin. Besides, reprobation is eternal, following logically from (though not caused by) not being predestined.

        I read it as two disjoint circles: those who have or have had grace and can have it again; those who never had grace and cannot ever have it. If this is what Aquinas is saying then it can’t be true that all are potentially members of the Mystical Body (though as far as we can tell, they are).

        As with 90% of what I read I’m at wit’s end (I don’t have very far to go to get there).

%d bloggers like this: