Thursday, June 08, 2017

"God cannot be God without man"

On June 7th, the Holy Father Pope Francis delivered a catechesis on the Our Father during his General Audience. The center of his message was that far from being a God distant and unconcerned with man, God is intimately close to man and cares deeply about his affairs. He longs for man's salvation with divine paternity; this is why Christians call God "Father", and the pope called us to reflect on what a revolutionary concept it is to understand God as a Father.

In the course of these reflections, Francis made the following statement, which has raised many eyebrows:
The Gospel of Jesus Christ shows us that God cannot stay without us: He will never be a God “without man”; it is He Who cannot stay without us, and this is a great mystery! God cannot be God without man: the great mystery is this! (General Audience, June 7th, 2017)

Protestants and certain Catholics alike have come out with accusations of heresy or blasphemy against the pope on account of these statements. The accusation is that Pope Francis is teaching that God some how requires man - that the divine substance stands in need of humanity in order for it to be complete, for God to be God. If this were true, this would make God's omnipotence dependent upon man, the Creator dependent upon the creature, and entirely invert the relationship between God and man.

Such would be a very problematic position indeed!

I have been critical of Francis' speech in the past, both in his manner and content; I even wrote an ebook chronicling a series of theological concerns arising from his encyclical Laudato Si. I am certainly no papolater; I'm not one of those people who feels the necessity to offer a knee-jerk defense of every word that comes out of the pope's mouth, least of all in a very low-level, non-biding, non-authoritative pronouncement like a General Audience.

That being said, I do not think what Francis said here was blasphemous or heretical. Sloppy? Yes. Poorly worded? Definitely. Heresy? I don't think so.

First, we must remember that there are two ways to consider God. We may speak of the "theological Trinity" (sometimes called the "immanent Trinity") or the "economic Trinity." When we speak of the theological Trinity, we are speaking in terms of what God is in and of Himself without reference to His creation - to the mysterious inner life of God Himself. When we speak about the economic Trinity, we are speaking about God with reference to the economy of creation - God in relation to creation. The theological Trinity speaks of who God is, the economic Trinity what God does in relation to the world.

When we are speaking about the salvation of the human race, we are speaking of the economic Trinity. Understood in and of Himself, God does not "need" man or anything other than Himself. He is perfectly self-sufficient and blessed in His own nature.  He is all-powerful and all-knowing and needs nothing whatsoever. As Acts 17:25 says, God stands in need of nothing. Creation needs Him; He does not need creation. God is perfectly self-sufficient.

But God did not remain solitary. He freely created mankind, and in creating man out of love, He bound Himself to the fate of man, in the sense that He continues to seek man and provide for man's welfare, even when man rejects Him. From beginning to end, God is initiator of man's salvation. He is the one who calls man to communion, who sent His Son to die, and who constantly prepares man's heart to receive Him via grace. God is the initiator of man's salvation in every sense.

Thus, though God does not "need" man in an absolute sense, within the economy of salvation He cannot stop seeking man. God is faithful and has promised to provide for man's redemption. He cannot fail to seek man anymore than He could lie or betray His word.

The source of this is not any necessity that binds God's will, but the free choice of God Himself, who created man out of love and continually seeks after Him. The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums this up well when it says:
Through an utterly free decision, God has revealed himself and given himself to man. This he does by revealing the mystery, his plan of loving goodness, formed from all eternity in Christ, for the benefit of all men. God has fully revealed this plan by sending us his beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit (CCC 50).

Francis says the Gospel of Christ reveals that God cannot stay without us. Though God communicated to man in many ways throughout salvation history, His definitive revelation to man comes through Jesus Christ. "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son" (Heb. 1:1-2). The people of the Old Testament knew that God was loving, but the depth of His great love are revealed by the mission of the Son and His atoning death on the cross.

This love is perfected in the Incarnation and Crucifixion. God does not need man, but at the Incarnation He forever united Himself to human nature in Mary's womb. The Incarnation is the permanent union of the divine nature with human nature. Thus, since the Incarnation,  Francis is right to say God will never be a God without man. Christ will never not be a God-Man. The Incarnation permanently bonds God to human nature and forever orients all God's saving acts in the world towards mankind. In the economy of salvation, the acts of God are always ordered towards man's beatitude. "God cannot stay without us", yes, in the sense that God can no more abandon mankind than He can undo the Incarnation. The Incarnation was a total and irrevocable commitment of God to mankind.

Again, the Catechism says, "
Although man can forget God or reject him, He never ceases to call every man to seek him" (CCC 30).

Is it then true that "God cannot be God without man"? Not if we take this to refer absolutely, to the theological Trinity; of course, the divine nature needs nothing to be complete. But the whole focus of the pope's homily was God inasmuch as He is a Father to His people; in other words, the economic Trinity, God within the economy of human salvation. And within the economy of salvation, God has permanently and irrevocably committed Himself to the calling, redemption, and glorification of mankind. As long as creation endures, God cannot un-orient Himself from mankind. For God to be what He claims to be, He cannot be without man. He cannot abandon man. He has promised He would not. "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age" (Matt. 28:20).

Thus, I think those who find Francis' words here heretical are not sufficiently grasping the concept of God's permanent orientation towards man within the economy of salvation. Some are citing verses like Daniel 4:35 and Acts 17:24-25 as evidence that Francis has taught heresy. The passage from Daniel merely notes that God is all-powerful and can exercise His will unhindered; the passage from Acts 17 states that God does not need anything. Neither of these undermine the pope's words; if God is all-powerful, as Daniel teaches, then He can voluntarily bind Himself to His creation through all His salvific acts, especially the Incarnation; and since God does not need anything according to His divine nature, as Acts 17 teaches, then the fact that God is so faithful in His relentless pursuit of man is even more marvelous.

God does "need" to do certain things that He has voluntarily bound Himself to. It's like asking does God " need" to forgive the original sin of a person coming to baptism under the right conditions? Considered absolutely, no, but considered in terms of God's salvific works, in terms of what He Himself promised to accomplish through baptism, then yes, God does "need" to remit original sin through baptism - otherwise we would have no confidence in the efficacy of the sacraments. But it must be stressed that this "necessity" is not any kind of compulsion that moves God from without, but rather it flows from God's faithfulness to His own promises. The only thing that binds God is His own word.

Could Francis have worded this better? Could he have perhaps been more sensitive to how his statements could be taken? Could he have perhaps offered more precise distinctions. Would such a clumsy theological statement probably have been censored a hundred years ago? Affirmative on all counts. But I don't think there is anything inherently heretical in these statements, understood rightly. His words are sloppy and confusing, per the norm, but in this case there is nothing to cry afoul of.


Anonymous said...

My problem is that, properly understood, I think his Holiness is simply wrong. Nothing has become clearer to me than that the essential theology of history is that God has done everything He was going to do in the Christ event. He will not lift a finger to do any more than He has already done. Christ being the only way to get to God, He is not really "intimately close to Man" as you put it. Christ is a man and we can be close to Him if we acknowledge him as King, but in the same way a subject can be close to his monarch. The tragedy of history is that almost no one has any real interest in hailing Christ as King. They are holding out for a "better deal," perhaps one where some of attention gets showered on them. No such deal is forthcoming. C.S. Lewis noted that the Gospel must first start out as bad news. The modern church seems to have no interest in delivering bad news.

Unknown said...

Friend, you wrote, "He will not lift a finger to do any more than He has already done. Christ being the only way to get to God, He is not really "intimately close to Man" as you put it. Christ is a man and we can be close to Him if we acknowledge him as King, but in the same way a subject can be close to his monarch."
-- Remember that Jesus Christ is not only a man but also God, the Trinity. Jesus is "the way" but He is also simultaneously one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Also, if salvation and everything we pray for (in faith) is to, through, in Christ (John 14:13-14) how is it we are not "close" to Him? He is indeed a "personal" King! He hears us directly and the God, the Trinity, will work through us and in us. That's close and personal is you ask me. :)

By the way, most of the "bad news" you mention is revealed to those that are called through the Spirit. The unbeliever does not need us to point out their faults, we are to share with them the good news!

Kind regards, in Christ (King!) Jesus.

Boniface said...


I both agree and disagree. I agree that it is obedience to Christ that makes us children of God and makes His closeness to us filial and bears fruit.

But I disagree in these points-

Christ is a King, but that is only one aspect of His relationship to God. God wants us to draw close to him in filial terms. The stories of the lost sheep and the prodigal son do not teach a relationship that is like a subject to a king, but a son to a father. Christ is our brother. Yes, we reverence His kingship, but that is not the only way we relate to Him.

Second, God is still intimate to us all by virtue of just being God. He holds everything in Creation. He is intimately close to our very being, closer to us than we are to ourselves. "he is not far from any one of us...For in him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:27-28). Just by His omniscience and omnipresence He is intimate to us, but that closeness is not reciprocated unless we submit to Him - He is always close to us, but we are not close to Him unless we become His children.

Finally, it is not that the Incarnation brings Christ into communion with every man in particular, but that by joining Himself to flesh, Christ becomes intimately connected with the human race as such, for the Word became flesh. This remains true even if every man were to reject Christ. said...

Your errors:

- He bound Himself to the fate of man. If God is who he IS, nothing can bind him.

- He cannot stop seeking man. Same error as Pope Francis. CCC 50 does not support your argument.

- Francis is right to say God will never be a God without man. Christ will never not be a God-Man. The incarnation changed nothing in the Godhead/the nature of God/The Divinity. The Trinity remains the Trinity without increase or decrease.

- He cannot be without man. Error again repeated.

- But it must be stressed that this "necessity" is not any kind of compulsion that moves God from without, but rather it flows from God's faithfulness to His own promises. inherently contradictory.

It is way past time to excuse Pope Francis for sloppy words and the last thing a pope ought to be is be 'confusing' [which you excuse]. After all, he can reach out to true experts around him to vet his words and speeches. His choice of sloppy and confusing language is purposeful or else why is there never a clarification that comes out afterward [cf. the dubia from the 4 brave Bishops who are Cardinals]. POPE FRANCIS IS AN ILLUMINIST and an APOSTATE BISHOP -

Capreolus said...

Well said, Boniface! Thank you for this article.

One minor note, though: the use of "orientation" in the following "... the concept of God's permanent orientation towards man within the economy of salvation ..." is a little problematic, I think. Orientation implies relation; God, of course, is not in relation to any created thing (not even in the economy of salvation). Rather, created things, including the Sacred Humanity of Christ, is in relation to Him, as relation implies dependence (except, it goes without saying, in the special relations within the Trinity of Persons).

Boniface said...


Boniface said...

Interesting. I've never heard that God can't be in a relationship. If that were true, how can the relation between Christ and the Church be described in spousal language, since a spousal relationship is undoubtedly mutual?

Not That Guy said...

In 1887, the Holy Office under Pope Leo XIII condemned a host of errors of Fr. Antonio Rosmini-Serbati, including this one: “The love, by which God loves Himself even in creatures, and which is the reason why He determines Himself to create, constitutes a moral necessity, which in the most perfect being always induces the effect…” — CONDEMNED (Denz. 1908).

Capreolus said...

In the primary sense of relation, God is never in relation to anything, i.e. there is no dependence (mutual or otherwise) in God. All of which you basically laid out very neatly in your post.

In this same primary sense, though, the Church is in relation to Christ through the Sacred Humanity, and here the Sacred Humanity (and only by concomitance the divine Person, as well) is in relation to creation, as St. Paul mentions in many places ("He is head of the body, the Church," etc.).

Of course, in a secondary or "equivocal" sense, the relations within the Trinity are merely relations without any dependence or causality. The divine Person of the Son, then, could not be in relation--strictly speaking--with the Church or any other creature. That of course does not exclude in any way the fact that there is a true and mutual relation between the Sacred Humanity and the Church.

For what it's worth, it was not easy for me to grasp the metaphysical (in the Aristotelian sense) notion of relation, and certainly the sloppiness of modern devotional language ("God believes in me" and the like) didn't help.