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The Two Popes, Netflix
The Two Popes, Netflix

The Two Popes, Rahner, and Divine Immutability

I recently watched The Two Popes, a film written by Anthony McCarten and directed by Fernando Meirelles available on Netflix. The movie recounts the relationship between Joseph Ratzinger and Jorge Bergoglio through the death of Pope John Paul II, Ratzinger’s election to become Pope Benedict XVI, and his subsequent resignation and the election of Bergoglio to become Pope Francis. Surely, the creators have taken a measure of creative license in portraying the dialogue between the two men, but it serves the film well as it should. Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins have each been nominated for Academy Awards, which would be reason enough for me to watch. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and found it moving and thought-provoking.

Prior to Benedict’s resignation, Cardinal Bergoglio had planned to retire. To do so, he wanted the approval of Benedict, who was more than a little reticent. Given many of Bergoglio’s simple lifestyle and public comments, Ratzinger felt Bergoglio’s retirement would be seen as a protest against Ratzinger and the conservative direction of the Catholic Church.

There is a powerful scene in which Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Bergoglio stroll through the garden of the Pope’s summer residence. They debate the status and direction of the church.

Ratzinger: “God does not change.”

Bergoglio: “Yes, he does. He moves toward us.”

Ratzinger: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. Where should we find him if he is always moving?”

Bergoglio: “On the journey?”

Ratzinger: “Oh. . . This is your ego talking. You think you know better.”

There is more here than merely a difference in personality or philosophy of life. These two figures express vastly different approaches to theology proper.

The “real” Bergoglio has perplexed many during his tenure as pope. Much of what he says and the way in which he operates is understandable if you have studied the theological threads in Vatican II and one of the most significant theologians coming out of the Council. Pope Francis, a Jesuit, espouses a similar theological construct to that of Karl Rahner.

Around the time of Vatican II (1962–1965), Ratzinger and Rahner were set apart as something akin to theological nemeses. Personally, I would love to see a Ratzinger and Rahner sequel. Netflix, hear me out 😉 Perhaps the most recognizable feature of Rahner’s theology is his Trinitarian axiom. The so-called “Rahner’s Rule” states, “the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity and vice versa” (Rahner, The Trinity [New York: Crossroad, 1997], 22). This is often misunderstood as modalism, but Rahner’s doctrine of the Trinity cannot be reduced to this. Rahner does not make the trinitarian persons change in relation to creation so much as he “eternalizes” them as modes of divine self-communication.

Son and Spirit are eternal, consubstantial persons of the Trinity. Yet, the Son as begotten and the Spirit as proceeding should be understood as self-communications of the “unoriginate” (think “unbegotten”) Father. Rahner leans heavily upon the Eastern tradition, which states that the Father communicates the divine essence to the Son and Spirit. Though falling with the ecumenical tradition, this is not Reformed [Update: see comments below]. Calvin, for example, affirmed that the Son is autotheos (God himself). He does not receive the divine essence from the Father. Rather, his begottenness refers specifically to his personality. What distinguishes the Son from the Father is not that the Son is derivatively divine, it is his incommunicable personal property of begottenness. The same could be said of the Holy Spirit, who is consubstantial and, according to the Western tradition, proceeds from both the Father and the Son.

How then do we understand these persons in their relation to one another and then their relation to the world? The fictional Bergoglio says God changes by “moving towards us,” and we come to find him “on the journey.” Where would a modern theologian locate such change without denouncing the ecumenical tradition?

Even while maintaining immutability in the essence of God, some theologians have recently sought to locate change in the divine persons. In such a formulation, God does not change according to his essence. Nevertheless, he changes personally (according to the divine hypostases as he relates to creation).

This view fails to grasp the doctrine of perichoresis (the mutual indwelling or co-inhabitation of the divine persons). What is the divine essence apart from the persons? And what are the persons without an essence? There is no “portion” of the divine essence that is not fully indwelt by each of the three persons under all possible circumstances. Likewise, there are no private portions of the trinitarian persons that are not fully dwelling in the divine essence, and therefore, in and through one another. Herman Bavinck is particularly instructive at this point:

The divine nature cannot be conceived as an abstract generic concept, nor does it exist as a substance outside of, above, and behind the divine persons. It exists in the divine persons and is totally and quantitatively the same in each person. The persons, though distinct, are not separate. They are the same in essence, one in essence, and the same being. They are not separated by time or space or anything else. They all share in the same divine nature and perfections. It is one and the same divine nature that exists in each person individually and in all of them collectively. Consequently, there is in God but one eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient being, having one mind, one will, and one power. . . . All created beings necessarily exist in space and time and therefore live side by side or sequentially. But the attributes of eternity, omnipresence, omnipotence, goodness, and so on, by their very nature exclude all separation and division. God is absolute unity and simplicity, without composition or division; and that unity itself is not ethical or contractual in nature, as it is among humans, but absolute; nor is it accidental, but it is essential to the divine being.

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:300.

The processions in his being simultaneously bring about in God his absolute personality, his trinitarian character, and his immanent relations. They are the absolute archetypes of all those processions by which human nature achieves its full development in the individual, in the family, and in humanity as a whole. For that reason the three persons, though distinct from each other, are not different. The “threeness” derives from, exists in, and serves the “oneness.” The unfolding of the divine being occurs within that being, thus leaving the oneness and simplicity of that being undiminished.

Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:306.

Bavinck advances a theology that is much sounder than locating real change in the divine persons. While not denying a genuine loving relationship between God and his people in history, Bavinck remains thoroughly faithful to the orthodox ecumenical tradition and, more importantly, to the testimony of Scripture, by affirming an absolute immutability and simplicity for God (essence and persons). In other words, he denies real change in God.

I am using the word “real” in the sense used by classical theism. It is not a synonym for “genuine” or “legitimate.” It refers to ontology, that is, the study of beings. God exists, yet he does not change. He is immutable in his essence as well as in each of the three persons. Certainly, creation changes in relation to God, and we may speak about that change in certain ways (e.g. we once were children of wrath but now are under grace), yet God remains unchanged. The Lord declared through the prophet Malachi, “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed (Mal. 3:6).” Praise the Lord that we may seek him and find him. He will never change his mind and consume us in his wrath. Through Christ, we may have a genuine, personal, loving relationship with the triune God precisely because he does not change.

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