September 22, 2015
Paul Griffiths, Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures. Texas, Baylor, 2014. 431 pp. $68.99
Paul Griffiths's Decreation is systematic theology in grand, classical style. Eschewing the notion of "eschatology" because of its ambiguity and (one suspects) its modernity, Griffiths probes the novissimum of creatures, the last things after which no novelty, no new state, will occur.
Christianity teaches as settled doctrine the reality of eternal life, the immortality of the soul, the future resurrection of the flesh, the restoration of the world, and the saints' eternal enjoyment of the beatific vision. Beyond this core is a broad space for speculation, which elaborates and interprets doctrine in part by bringing extra-doctrinal concepts to bear on doctrine. Most of Griffiths's book is speculative, and one of the refreshing things about it is his rigorous distinction between the two.
Griffiths has a scholastic knack for spotting unfashionable, forgotten questions. Decreation includes a carefully argued section on angelology. Griffiths asks whether angels have bodies and, having answered Yes, ponders what sort of bodies they are. He affirms the traditional notion of a disincarnate intermediate state, and speculates on the experience of those in the intermediate state. He asks whether plants and animals and inanimate objects will end up in heaven. He displays a scholastic (or Heideggerian) knack for coining new terminology (the "LORD" for the Triune god, in contradistinction to other "gods"; "the devastation" for the fallen world; "timespace"). Distracting at first, these technical usages rapidly become familiar, some ("the devastation") quite captivating.
Like all good scholastics, Griffiths makes judicious use of contemporary thought. Quarks make brief appearances as Griffiths explains the locatable embodiedness of spiritual beings. While admitting that Christianity has usually operated on anthropocentric assumptions about non-human creatures and while recognizing the Christological grounding of anthropocentrism, he asks whether it is plausible to believe that the millions of creatures that live and die without human contact exist propter nos. He finds it much more likely that non-human creatures praise the LORD without human mediation. Drawing on phenomenological as well as Aristotelian/Thomist categories, he gives a wonderful account of habits (sinful, and liturgical), and his discussion of acedia is profound and profoundly convicting. Drawing Christianity into dialogue with world religions, he makes the startling claim that orthodoxy teaches "reincarnation" in a strict sense: Souls receive their carnis again at the resurrection.
Two of Griffiths's conclusions are controversial. The first is that non-human creatures have a place in heaven. Creatures other than humans have a novissimum other than simply ceasing to be. Even on anthropocentric assumptions, then, it can be argued that other living creatures will join humans in heaven. Given the hierarchy of creatures, human beings are constituted by their difference from animals: Would we be the beings we are if they simply disappeared? Besides, plants and animals are not merely functional to humans, but are part of our happiness. If other creatures are not included in heaven, finally, then there is no transfiguration of what he calls "human blood-soaked relations" with other creatures. On the whole I think Griffiths is correct: Creation is restored, which means creatures other than human must be translated into a final state of glory.
Griffiths is less convincing on the second controversial speculation, his claim that annihilation is a possible novissimum for human beings. Saints will ultimately exist in a condition of "repetitive stasis," a condition without novelty but with "internal complexity." The damned suffer torment during the intermediate state but are not re-enfleshed at the resurrection. In the end, they simply cease to be.
Griffiths's conclusion is based in part on the character of sin. Griffiths rightly argues that we cannot exhaustively account for sin as a misdirected pursuit of goods. Sin is an effort to "move away from the LORD" (p,199), back to the nihil out of which we were created. Sinners do seek evil, and perfected sin is pure nothing. If sinners are capable of pursuing nothing, then sin "may, in some cases, find its proper terminus, which is the bringing of the sinner to nothing" (p.202). The LORD doesn't punish or condemn to hell (p.212); hell is simply the end of the sinner's deliberate path toward non-existence. Further, the notion that enfleshed people suffer eternally in hell implies that "not all pain is redeemed" (p.246), and Griffiths finds the idea that the LORD sustains the damned in existence only to torment them forever to be "ugly." Hell is maximal separation from the LORD, the maximal separation of annihilation.
Even if Griffiths were utterly convincing, it would be beside the point. Augustine and Thomas, not to mention Calvin and Edwards, aren't concerned with whether or not annihilation is a systematically and logically possible end for humans. Rather, having concluded that eternal punishment is a revealed truth, they expend considerable ingenuity to account for it. Griffiths more or less turns this procedure around: He believes that Scripture is at best ambiguous on the topic, and then teases out speculations from more general theological claims. But he doesn't give nearly enough attention to Scripture to establish that it is ambiguous.
Lack of sustained attention to Scripture damages other parts of Griffiths's book. Early on, he suggests that the last thing for humans might be simple stasis ("without change of any kind"), repetitive or cyclical stasis (without novelty, but "cyclically repetitive rather than frozen"), or annihilation. At the same time, he insists that human beings are temporal/spatial creatures who always exist in timespace. Heaven itself is the timespace of the redeemed. The speculative challenge is to describe a form of temporality that excludes novelty.
He accomplishes this by distinguishing between "metronomic" and "systolic" time. The former is the time we experience within the devastation, a time that tocks relentlessly toward death, measured out in coffee spoons. Metronomic time is an "artifact of the fall." According to Griffiths, because Edenic life was free from death it was also free from endings of any sort. Units of time "such as that of the sun's rising and setting" are part of the devastation, not of Eden or heaven (p.91). Griffiths may have his reasons to ignore the details of Genesis and Revelation, but we are left with a more fundamental question: Granted that he is speculating, what is he speculating on? Where does he get his information about human life before the devastation, if not from Genesis?
Eden and heaven are both timespaces, but they exist in "systolic" time. Appealing to 1 Corinthians, Griffiths characterizes systolic time as time that is contracted, pleated, folded around the events of the cross and resurrection. Systolic time isn't merely subjective and psychological, but a real aspect of created reality, most evident in the liturgy: In the Mass, the past is re-represented, as the present of performance is folded over onto the event of Jesus' crucifixion.
This distinction is fundamental to Griffiths's project. Heaven is the absorption of the metronome into the systole; the time of heaven is without remainder pleated into the time of Christ. This systolization of time is time's healing, it is redemption completed. Hell, on the traditional interpretation, is metronomic time without remainder, and this becomes one of Griffiths's arguments for annihilation: If metronome continues to exist, then time is not fully redeemed.
But the distinction isn't persuasive. For starters, it is difficult to conceive of a vision of God without novelty of some sort. We are transfigured "from glory to glory," Paul says, but for Griffiths, when we arrive at our glorious novissimum, the process of glorification ceases and we are instantly as glorious as ever we will be.
Griffiths has a ready response: Of course it's difficult to conceive healed time while we live in the time of devastation. But the more fundamental problem for Griffiths is that his account of Eden contradicts the Bible. Contrary to Griffiths, a rhythm of light and darkness isn't an artifact of the fall but is the creation of the first day. And that means that measurable time-periods existed in Eden; to that extent, "death" and ending is a feature of creation. Griffiths might note that the new Jerusalem "has no need of the sun or of the moon" and "there shall be no night there" (Revelation 21:23, 25), but that doesn't save his argument. Perhaps the creation was destined to remain in its Edenic state forever, but that would mean metronomic beginnings and endings would last eternally. Perhaps Eden itself was on a trajectory toward the new Jerusalem, but would mean that the initial time of Eden was designed to "die" so that a new state might come to be.
Either way, the metronome is inherent in created timespace, and that means that Griffiths's general conclusion that heaven is a repetitive stasis is an error. In his terms, this would mean that there is no novissimum at all, but instead an epektasic future of endless novelty, of eternal advance from glory to glory, of everlasting expanding capaciousness as we become ever-more transparent to and full of the LORD's glorious light.
Peter J. Leithart is President of the Theopolis Institute, Birmingham, Alabama, and an adjunct Senior Fellow at New Saint Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho. He is the author most recently of Traces of the Trinity and Gratitude: An Intellectual History. He and his wife Noel have ten children and seven grandchildren