Thursday, July 31, 2014

Metaphysical naturalism and the success of the natural sciences

Some persons labor under the delusion that the success of the natural sciences to explain the material reality we inhabit in some way lends credence to the doctrine of metaphysical naturalism, according to which the material reality and its empirically detectable aspects are all there is; nothing else outside of these exists. See my friend Bill's recent posting on this matter.

It should be obvious that this is a very poor argument, one that anyone who pretends to be a philosopher should be able to see right through from the start.

The method of the natural sciences is limited a priori to the investigation of only those aspects of reality which have certain qualities -- e.g., they are quantifiable, they are testable and repeatable, etc. Now insofar as every material object has aspects of these sorts, it is in principle guaranteed that a natural-scientific account may be given of every event within history which has a material substratum. If to be material implies having qualities such as these, it is obvious that every event involving material reality will be capable of being understood along these lines.

This says exactly zero about whether there are not other elements of reality, however. If I limit myself ahead of time to the investigation of only that which is quantifiable, then naturally I am not going to be proffering explanations of what I find in the world in non-quantifiable terms. This does not mean that everything can be quantified, or that there are no non-quantifiable elements of the very things I am investigated. I am cut off from them from the start by my own decision; my subsequent research does nothing to confirm or negate the "hypothesis" that all that exists is quantifiable, or that non-quantifiable realities are illusions.

Beyond that it should be obvious that the success of the natural sciences presupposes the existence of a number of things which are not themselves subject to scientific scrutiny. For instance, we make statements about the qualities and attributes of atoms, even though our research has only ever dealt with an extremely small proportion of them. The only justification for doing this is the supposition that atoms have universal natures, an essence that defines them as atoms and which is always the same. But already we have moved from empirical science to metaphysics, that ancient and most glorious of the classical sciences.

This shows us that our scientific practices presuppose certain metaphysical commitments, they presuppose certain substantial claims about reality that go beyond the empirically verifiable and quantifiable. The success of the natural sciences, if anything, disproves metaphysical naturalism, since essences and the like are clearly not natural things. They are not quantifiable or testable or repeatable or anything of the sort; they are the necessary presuppositions of having and investigating a reality that is quantifiable and the rest.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Fellowship with God and awareness of sin

One of my favorite passages from scripture is 1 John 1.5-10, one with which we are all familiar:

5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7 but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

If you have a sensitive conscience and an awareness of your own sinfulness, if you know yourself to some extent and therefore know that more often than not you fall well short of where you should be, it may be easy to be intimated by John's message here. He says, after all, that if we do not walk in the light, we are not in fellowship with God. Who among us can claim for himself that in him there is no darkness at all? But as a matter of fact, I think such a person, for the very reason that he is aware of his unworthiness, is assured by John's words that he does have fellowship with God.

John affirms that those who are in the darkness and who ascribe darkness to God by making him a liar are those who say that we have no sin (v. 10). Likewise those persons are self-deceived and lack the truth. Those persons, if anyone, are in the darkness. The darkness represents ignorance and deception, whereas light is associated with the truth and with reality. Therefore John introduces God by an association to light, but says that our fellowship with him means a life lived in the truth; and per v. 8, having the truth within ourselves means a recognition of our sin.

Notice then what this means: precisely those persons who feel their own sinfulness and distance from God's desired goal are already in fellowship with God; they demonstrate that they are in the light and they've had fellowship with God, by the very fact that they realize their own sinfulness before God. On the other hand, those persons who simply cannot be convinced that they do anything wrong, who have no sense that their life is not well-lived -- those persons are lacking in fellowship with God and are in the darkness.

This text, then, ought to be a comfort to those persons who might be intimidated by it. Through the fact that you see darkness in yourself and recognize it as such, you demonstrate that you have been in fellowship with God all this time. It is God himself within your heart that reveals this to you. He doesn't want to cut you off; he doesn't want to cast you away. On the contrary, he gently turns your eye to the things you do and their true nature so that you may turn away from them, no longer to harm yourself or be cut off by pangs of conscience from his fellowship.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Evaluating the conditions of life with Epicurus and Maximus the Confessor

It is fascinating to read how different thinkers may approach the same question. For instance, Epicurus the Greek philosopher said one thing about human existence, giving it one evaluation, whereas Maximus the Confessor described it in far different terms from his own Christian perspective.

Epicurus thought that Everything we do is for the sake of freedom from pain and anxiety (Letter to Monoeceus). When Epicurus speaks of "pleasure" as being the goal of a happy life, by that term he means freedom from pain and suffering, relief from our ostensibly natural state of being which is painful and needy. For Epicurus, this is just the way things are. The world is such that humans naturally seek pleasure and try to avoid pain, and the wise man is one who (in accordance with Epicurus' teachings, of course) knows how to do this effectively.

Maximus the Confessor is not ignorant of this reality, but he thinks this is an unnatural state of affairs for humanity, one brought about by mankind's evil. Maximus defines evil in a couple of different ways, but one suggestive definition is this: Evil is the thoughtless motion of a thing's natural powers towards some other end than the one natural to them, as a consequence of a mistaken judgment (Quaestiones ad Thallasium, 11; translation mine from Romanian). For Maximus, then, evil is not primarily suffering or pain, but is defined morally: it is a straying away from the natural order of things because of a mistake in judgment. Maximus here adopts a kind of ethical intellectualism that was particularly important for Origenians throughout the early ages of the church.

For Maximus, then, the situation of mankind's pursuit of pleasure and flight from pain came about because of humanity's mistaken judgment in obeying the disastrous "advice" of the serpent in the garden (Quaest., 12). Through this mistaken judgment, he became convinced that the true good, the true fulfillment of his nature, would come about through the pursuit of pleasure by means of the five senses. The continuous pursuit of bodily pleasure, of course, was found to be intimately connected to the experience of pain: And because any evil disappears along with the modes that produce it, mankind, learning through experience itself that every pleasure is certainly followed by pain, was thoroughly determined to seek pleasure and to flee pain. For the first he would fight with all his strength, the second he would combat with all his striving, imagining the impossible, namely that through this awareness he would be able to separate the one from the other (Quaest., 13).

There is one thing I want to emphasize here: what for Epicurus is natural and inevitable, for Maximus is eminently unnatural and unintended. Epicurus speaks from the perspective of Greek philosophy, which sought to explain the world as it was, and in the case of Epicurus, without aid of divine revelation. Maximus, on the other hand, cannot but evaluate things from the perspective of Christian revelation.

The lesson we learn is that Christians and non-Christians do not approach the world starting from the same premises. What is obvious to one group is nonsense to the other; what is natural and good to one group is anything but to the other. If this is so, then it is hardly a surprise that non-Christians might find some Christian perspectives on things to be utterly nonsensical! And the same is certainly true vice-versa. This is why dialog between believers and non-believers can be so fruitless at times: they don't agree on the first things (basic principles, axioms, standards of judgment, etc.), and so they inevitably find they disagree vastly on later things as well.

What is needed is a willingness to listen to the other side and try to see things from different eyes. This is a quality notably absent in the case of many theologians and philosophers, by the way, who will in published writing confess their ignorance as to the meaning of another's statements, the plausibility of another's arguments, etc. There may be a time and place for that, I don't want to say that nobody could possibly propagate an unintelligible or implausible position, but certainly an effort must be made for understanding first. Both Maximus and Epicurus note the human tendency towards pleasure and away from pain, but both ascribe to it very different meanings; both evaluate it very differently.

Monday, July 28, 2014

St Anthony and Epictetus on care for things

St Anthony says this:

Inasmuch as someone's life is measured, to that extent it is he is happier, because he doesn't worry about many things: about servants, about laborers, about lands, and about wealth of animals. For grasping onto these things we will drown in the burdens that accompany them and we will blame God. Behold in what manner death is sustained through the desire of our will, and how we wander lost in the darkness of a life of sin, not knowing ourselves (On the Character of Men and the Virtuous Life, 6).

To anyone familiar with ancient Greek philosophy, this passage could easily pass as having been written by a Stoic such as Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. In fact it was a regular warning of Stoicism that too great a concern for things which lie outside our control -- namely, anything that is not the state of our own character, but especially riches and material goods which come and go at random -- puts us at odds with ourselves and with God.

In his Enchiridion (Handbook), Epictetus introduces the basic ethical distinction of Stoic philosophy:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions (Enc., 1).

Attention to this distinction is critically important for the Stoic, because an inordinate desire for those things outside your control will leave you frustrated, angry, wrathful when you can't get a hold of them. It is because you care about those things that are not in your control that you are upset when you lack them. If you would only care about the things that depend on you -- such as your character, and your reactions to the things that happen -- then you would always be happy, because it is always within your grasp to have them. But if you want those things which don't depend you, You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men (ibid.). You will blame the gods for the bad things that happen to you.

Anthony makes the same point here that Epictetus does. If we care too much about the things of the world, we are going to be at odds with God and blame him when we lose them -- as we inevitably will. We might point to the example of the Israelites in the desert, who cared so much about material comfort and had so little trust in God, that as soon as they saw the intimidating stature of the Canaanites, they said to themselves, It is because the Lord hates us that he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us (Deut 1.27). The sinful heart of man is ready to blame even God himself, and to accuse him of malevolence and evil, if it doesn't get what it wants.

I don't know enough about Anthony's personal history, but it would seem from a passage like this that he had some familiarity with Greek philosophy. Like so many others in the early days of the Christian church, he must have seen it a wisdom and a light, even if imperfect and ignorant of the things of Christ. It is wisdom well worth heeding!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

St Anthony the Great and thinking about the law

An essential part of Christian living involves obeying --  or at least making the attempt to obey -- God's commandments. Part of the difficulty of this may lie in our distorted thinking about the nature of God's commands. It is important, therefore, think rightly about them so that we may help ourselves on our way.

To this effect I want to quote a line from St Anthony the Great:

Just as sailors guide a ship with care, so that they don't strike it against seen or unseen rocks, in the same way those who strive for a spiritual life ought carefully to search into what they ought to do, and what they ought not to do. Likewise they ought to believe that God's laws are useful for them, cutting all sinful thoughts from the soul (On the Character of Men and the Virtuous Life, 16).


Living a spiritual life, as Anthony insists, is like sailing a ship. You are your own ship, and you have to know where to go and where not to go, what to do and what not to do. Otherwise you may find you are leading yourself into a life of sin and spiritual death, rather than the spiritual life you set out to pursue from the beginning. But for this you need guidance, and this guidance has been given to us in God's commandments. Consequently we must think that God's commandments are useful and good; we must be ready to hear them and take them as sage advice, directions so that we may arrive at our destination.

If we love sin and are happy living a life as we see fit, then God's commandments will seem a burden and an obstacle to a life well lived. But this is all the same with not believing God, who insists that Happy are those whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night (Ps 1.2). God tells you that it is not right to live in the things he calls sin, and that in fact they will lead away from your happiness. Rather, true happiness comes from a life lived in accordance with his laws! Obedience to the laws inspires others to say: Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people! (Deut 4.6).

If we are to believe God, then we must take his word about what is right and wrong, good and bad, healthy and unhealthy. We can't presume that we know better than him, but must be willing to receive the commandment he gives us as one who knows better. If we're going to live a true spiritual life in fellowship with God, we have to trust him that the commandments he gives us are useful for us, as Anthony says, and are worth obeying.

Even obedience, then, is subsequent to faith. If we are to obey, we first have to trust God when he tells us that it is better to do things his way than the way we think is right.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Dealing with guilt, à la Isaac the Syrian

If I ask him, will God forgive me these things, for which I am so sorry and whose memory brings me such pain? things into which I slip and fall, even though I am disgusted by them, for which my feelings of guilt and the pain which they produce in me are sharper than a scorpion's sting? Even though I hate them, I remain in them, and though I repent of them with travail, like a wretch I return to them (Isaac the Syrian, Ascetical Homilies II/40, 15).

In the course of a long discussion on justification by faith through God's grace, brother Isaac gives us the following sage advice, appropriate for all of us who may feel bogged down by our sin:

For if someone's happiness depends on his own behavior, it will be a deceptive one. More than that: it will be an impoverished happiness! And not only will his happiness be impoverished, but also his understanding. For whoever is made happy because he has understood that God is indeed good, this one is comforted with a lasting comfort and he is happy with true happiness; and this because, as I've said, his soul has been made wise and has understood that truly the goodness of God is boundless (III/6, 22).

It is all too easy, in the course of our struggles and fights against the flesh, to become overwhelmed by the sense of our own sinfulness. Seeing our weaknesses, seeing how we are constantly tempted, seeing how prone we are to fall and to fail to keep that which God requires of us, we may too easily trapped in despair and a kind of spiritual lifelessness. It paralyzes us and keeps us from praying, from worshiping, from seeking fellowship with God.

When this happens to us, we have allowed our own behavior to be the condition of our happiness: if we do what is good, we feel good and are happy; if we do what is bad -- which happens more often than the former -- we are disappointed and our happiness and joy disappear. Worse than that, this joylessness and despair make it even more difficult to get back on the horse, so to speak, and to do what is good. It is a downward cycle, a vicious circle.

Isaac's advice for us is to ground our happiness in the knowledge and understanding that God is good, immutably and eternally good! That is the only way our happiness will be lasting, and thus we will have the strength to do what we ought, knowing that God is good and he accepts.

And this goodness, for Isaac, is grounded in the fact of salvation that God has provided for us. Especially important is justification by faith: even the slightest faith, the slightest turning toward God, is counted as righteousness, and all our sin is done away with, so we can start with a blank slate. Whoever doesn't have deeds, but merely believes in the One who justifies sinners, that one sees the faith of his conscience reckoned by God as righteousness (III/6, 12). God is eager and waiting to justify sinners: Therefore, even if a person be sinful, taking advantage of even the smallest pretext, God declares him righteous right away; and for the good deed of a single day He forgives the wickedness of his entire life (III/6, 34).

In his evangelistic zeal, and so impressed by God's mercy, Isaac even uses language of trickery and schemes: In any case, although [God] gives power to the will so that it might not fall into sin, and though he is the fount of every good, yet He is delighted to declare us righteous. As I was saying, He wanted this so that, making use of every available device, he would be able to enjoy all persons as righteous, and so as to contain every man in the number of these righteous persons (III/6, 36).

God was wise, and so in his goodness he provided for us a way out of trouble: Because in his fully merciful understanding God knew that hardly one man in ten thousand could have entered the Kingdom of heaven if complete righteousness were asked of them, therefore he gave everyone a treatment fitting for all: repentance. In all their days and at any moment they have an opportunity to set themselves right easily through this treatment: through the compunction of their hearts they can wash themselves at any moment of the stains which they might suffer, renewing themselves every day through repentance (II/40, 8). How good is God to provide for us! Elsewhere he writes that God asks of us merely the smallest volition, and His grace gives abundantly and He forgives our sins (III/6, 17).

We ought to think about God's goodness all the time, because this will transform us and give us true happiness. It will give us strength. Let us strive in the meditation of these things, because the discernment that comes from it is great, and the happiness it brings is measureless. This is the delight of angels! (6, 44) Indeed it is a way of having fellowship with God: Remaining at these things, the intellect speaks with God at every moment (6, 51).

Friday, July 25, 2014

Isaac the Syrian on salvation by grace

In the last posting I briefly considered some citations from Isaac from III/5 regarding the gift of deification. In III/6 Isaac spends a lot of time addressing the notion of salvation or justification by grace. This is a topic which moves him immensely, the contemplation of which he considers to be an important mandate: The fact that we don't rightly do what we are supposed to do is less grave than the fact that we don't meditate upon what we've received [viz., the gift of salvation], so as to understand it and consequently confess it as much as we are able (III/6, 1).

Isaac begins his discussion with a mention of the things of God (6, 4), by which I take it he refers to the gift of salvation and deification. It will become evident, however, that for Isaac, salvation includes something like justification by faith. He again and again emphasizes the grace of God operative in salvation, and the inability of the flesh to make itself right.

Therefore: We are justified by His things, not by our own. We inherit heaven through what are His, not through what are ours (6, 6). The ultimate reason for which salvation depends upon God and not upon us is the fact of our own natural weakness:

The explanation of what has just been said, namely that a person is not justified through works, is this: he cannot be justified by works that are seen, that is, works of the Law. Because the flesh is not able to fulfill all that is commanded and thus to justify a person. A person is justified by the works of faith! (6, 7)

What are these works of faith that justify a person? Isaac says a number of different things:

. . . whenever a person tries to do some thing very small in accordance with his powers and he does it of his own will, even if he doesn't realize his deed, and therefore [he does it] without great labor for its realization, God by his grace considers it the fullness of righteousness, attributing to him the completed work. As for myself, even if I cannot do anything, I work according to my powers. It is certain that I cannot be without reasons for embarrassment and without sin, but You [o God], for this tiny work that I complete, give me righteousness (6, 13).

Here you would get the impression that justification by grace is accomplished by the effort, however small, to do some thing which God expects. This sounds like justification by grace by small works. But he goes on:

Sometimes it happens that I don't even do this tiny deed; and not only that I will not bring forth any deed, but many times even that sincere volition for a good desire which I had turns from your sight, it deepens into evil and departs from you, while I end up empty even of a sincere will towards you. Then, even though I lack both deeds and volition, merely through the thought of repentance which you awaken with me, right away you grant me the fullness of righteousness, though I am far from deeds . . . And waiting for all these things, You yourself receive me, and through grace, without works, you justify me, you seat me once more in the high place where I was earlier; and just through the turning of my will, without being capable of anything, you cast away from me the death of conscience and you give me an innocent righteousness (6, 14-5).

At this point Isaac affirms that there is a justification which takes place even apart from the completion of any works, however small or imperfect, merely through the thought of repentance. Here were are far from accusing Isaac of any justification through small works. This is indeed a justification by grace, when upon even the thought of repentance God will grant justification!

It seems to me that Isaac is proposing a justification by faith, where "faith" is understood as the slightest turn towards God. Faith in God, trust in him, belief in his word, is presumed by any Godward orientation at all. You could not even consider repentance if you did not think that what you had done was sin, in accordance with God's word. Therefore Isaac is proposing justification by faith, where faith is any turn toward God of any magnitude. Of course, there is a turn, but it is not always one accompanied by works; what is needed is just the turn of the will: . . . He asks of us merely the smallest volition, and His grace gives abundantly and He forgives our sins (6, 17).

For Isaac, justification by faith so understood implies that God, in his generous mercy, can hardly wait to forgive us of our sins and to resume fellowship with us. Wherever even just the name of repentance is found, even if it be a mere facade, He stoops down happily to grant us forgiveness (6, 27). God loves the entire human race and therefore all human persons, not only some of them (6, 31), and God's justice is never separated from mercy and a concern for the good of those persons with whom he has to do (6, 20, 32). Therefore Isaac concludes: even if a person is sinful, taking advantage of even the slightest pretext, [God] names him righteous right away; and for the good of a single day He forgives the wickedness of his entire past life (6, 34). God is delighted to name us righteous. As I said, He wanted this so that, using any pretext, He'd be able to enjoy all persons as righteous, and to include every person in their number (6, 36).

Justification by faith is an evidence of God's great mercy towards us, because he readily accepts as righteous any person that makes the slightest turn towards him. Isaac repeats more than once that God happily and willingly uses any pretext or device to name a person righteous and thus enjoy fellowship with him. He thinks that it would be well for us to meditate upon the love of God, upon his readiness to accept us and to grant us life: This is the delight of angels! (6, 44). For Isaac, God in the infinity of his love, can hardly wait to justify us and to give us everything that is good!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Isaac the Syrian on deification

My parents recently returned from a vacation in Romania, and they brought me a number of theological works in Romanian. Among them are parts II and III of Isaac the Syrian's Ascetical Homilies, which had only recently (in 1983, if I am not mistaken) been discovered. They are fantastic, and will undoubtedly provide plenty of material for future postings.

It would not be unfitting to title Isaac the Theologian of God's Love, for that is the topic about which he gets the most energized. Many times, after he will have described an action or event which is an expression of God's love, he will break out into impassioned doxology. For instance, in III/5 he addresses the question of God's love for the creation and its proof through his work of salvation and deification.

He says, Even if there was a time when the creation didn't yet exist, there never was a time in which God did not love it; since even if it didn't yet exist, yet there never was a time in which God did not know his own creation. And even if he hadn't made himself known to it, insofar as it did not yet exist, nevertheless God knew it from all eternity in all its various parts and natures. For God created it to exist when it seemed to him a good thing (III/5, 1).  His emphasis here is that God always and at all times loves his creation. This is true as much when it didn't yet exist and was just an idea in the divine mind, as when it had been created by him; now, too, when he continues to sustain it in existence! God is always loving towards his creation!

But for Isaac, yet there is a certain and impressive proof of the divine love for the world. What really proves God's love for the world is the fact that he is deified, a thing which it never could have asked for itself. Through this deification, he made it a unique thing:

The true love of God for the creation is known by the fact that, after he had completed its creation in its various parts, he assembled it entirely into a unique entity: he assembled the sensible and the intelligible into a unique bond; he united it with his divinity; he made it climb high above all the heavens; he made it to sit upon an eternal throne and he made it god over all (5, 2). Here he is undoubtedly referring to the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, evidently something which has had a divinizing effect on the entire creation, or at the very least upon all humanity. This is the true evidence of God's love: not only did he create the world, but he gave it a gift of union with him, a gift which won it a state it never could have expected.

For Isaac, nothing else could have convinced a person of God's love more effectively than this: What request did the creation make in order to receive this? When did such a thought ever arise in its heart? What behavior did it offer in exchange to become divine? (5, 4).

The meditation upon this topic is for Isaac the most important thing. Indeed, elsewhere he says: The fact that we don't rightly do what we ought to do is less grave than the fact that we don't meditate on that which we have received, so that we might known it and consequently to confess this thing as much as we can (6, 1). Sin is undoubtedly grave, but what is worse than sin is to fail to meditate upon the gift of God's grace, the divinization of the creation in Christ Jesus.

Therefore he says: How comes it that we lose ourselves in our thoughts before insignificant, mortal things and we don't draw near to that great treasure which we have received and which we don't sense? (5, 4). When we could be thinking about God's gift of deification, we lose ourselves thinking over mortal and transient nothings!

Let me spend now a little bit of time on that phrasing; which we have received and which we don't sense. As I've said, Isaac here envisions deification as something which has extended to the entire creation through its union with God in Jesus Christ. But evidently for Isaac this deification is something which might not be immediately sensed. If anything it is a reality into which we have to grow. It is as God's incarnation planted a seed that remains to grow in every creature until its fulfillment.

On this view of things, faith is not a prior condition to be fulfilled in order to deification to be granted, or for union with God to be effected. There is no contract here, as Douglas Campbell insists in The Deliverance of God. Rather, there is a reality which is objectively present in every creature; faith is the awareness of this reality as something already present, but of which we are not conscious.

Certainly there is language like this in the scriptures, when categorical statements about Christ's reconciliation of the world with God are specified as having occurred in his body. For instance, Paul says that through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Col 1.20). Peace was made with all things -- objectively -- by the blood of Christ's cross. Likewise he insists that Colossians were reconciled in his fleshly body (v. 22), once more speaking of the present reality of reconciliation as having in some mysterious way already occurred in Christ's own person. Again, Paul tells the Romans that they died to the law through the body of Christ (Rom 7.4), referring to Christ's death on the cross. When Christ died to the law at his death, they died too because they were already present in him. Likewise he speaks of Christ uniting Gentiles and Jews, reconciling both to each other and to God in his body through the cross (Eph 2.11-6). Elsewhere he says that one died for all, therefore all have died (2 Cor 5.14), speaking of the death of all persons as an already accomplished reality in Christ.

On this view of things, as I've said, faith is not a previous condition to be completed in a contract of salvation. Rather faith is the recognition of an antecedent reality, one realized mysteriously in Christ and then appropriated or birthed in one's own person upon believing the truth. It was already true that I was reconciled to God in Christ; now I've come to know it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Justification and the Holy Spirit

Clearly understanding what Paul means by "justification" (δικαίωσις) is one of the most important tasks to interpreting his theology at large. It is a massively important concept in the letters to the Romans and to the Galatians, where the very truth and substance of his gospel is at stake (cf. Gal 1.6-9).

I think it would be a mistake to understand "justification" merely as a judicial declaration of righteousness or something like that. I think Paul's understanding of δικαίωσις and δικαιοσύνη involve much more, and that in fact they touch upon ontological themes and aspects as well.

Consider Paul's argumentation in ch. 3 of Galatians:

The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (3.2-5)

After a few emphatic statements that a person is not justified by the works of the law (2.16, 21), he goes on to mention the Holy Spirit. In these quoted verses from ch. 3, he argues a posteriori from the experience of the Galatian Christians, as though that should settle the matter. His argument is this: you have received the Spirit already, and you did that when you believed, not after having done any works of the Law; therefore justification is not by works of the law. The implicit premise is that there is a tight conceptual connection between justification, on the one hand, and the reception of the Spirit, on the other. Another implicit premise is that the telos of works of the law would be to receive the Spirit/justification. Since they received the Spirit, since they accomplished the goal of works of the law without performing them, there would be no point in going back to works according to the law. That is Paul's argument. This argument presumes that reception of the Spirit and justification are the same thing, or at the very least are closely related.

His continued argumentation in ch. 3 likewise speaks of the promise made to Abraham, a promise Paul interprets as the promise of the Holy Spirit (3.14). Justification is about receiving the Holy Spirit, it is about being united with the Holy Trinity and deified. That is what Paul says. His point is that you received this promise when you believed and when you were baptized (3.16, 26-7). Christ received the promised Holy Spirit (see, e.g., Mark 1.10; Acts 2.33), and so did the Galatians when they believed and were united to Christ through baptism into him. Their justification therefore is their unification with Christ and their receiving God the Holy Spirit; in a word, it is their deification.

For all these reasons, our understanding of justification must be understood much more broadly. It is not merely a declaration of righteousness or something of the sort. Paul's argumentation goes far beyond that and touches upon themes that have nothing explicitly to do with that. I am not denying that there isn't a judicial element involved in justification; perhaps there is. What I am affirming, however, is that justification for Paul -- at least in his letter to the Galatians -- involves an ontological transformation realized through the reception of the Holy Spirit. It is a transformation of identity that calls for a new life in light of what has happened (Gal 5.16; Rom 8.12-4).

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"All" in Rom 5.18-9

One of the more compelling scriptural evidences for the doctrine of universal salvation is found in Paul's letter to the Romans, in the fifth chapter. Following a brief discussion of the different effects of Adam and Christ on humanity, Paul terminates the section with the following affirmations:

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous (Rom 5.18-9).

The idea here seems obvious enough: Adam's effects were universally bad; Christ's effects will be universally good.

Some persons try to escape the conclusion by understanding "all" as "Jews and Gentiles alike," without insisting that it includes every individual Jew and Gentile. This line of thought is not plausible, to my mind, and I will try to demonstrate why.

It seems to me that the critical interpretive point for understanding the universalized language in Rom 5.18-9 is found at 3.9, where Paul summarizes his case for universal sinfulness: We have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin. The Greek text here is as follows: Ἰουδαίους τε καὶ Ἕλληνας πάντας, Jews and Gentiles alike all. Nobody supposes that Paul envisions some possible exceptions to the argument for universal sinfulness in these opening chapters of the letter to the Romans: it is not as if there might have been a Jew or Gentile here and there who had never sinned and was not under the power of sin, and consequently had no need of Christ's salvation. Paul's language here is universal in the true sense: it applies to each and every person.

Now this sense of "all" is clearly carried over into the subsequent discussions, since it is precisely this problem of universal sinfulness that Paul's gospel addresses. For instance, what he says in Rom 3.23-4 clearly must be applied distributively to all human persons: all have sinned and lack the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift. Here too Paul affirms universal salvation as God's gift through Christ. There is no reason to delimit the domain of "all" here when the pivotal verse for the entire discussion clearly implies a universal reading.

All the same points may be made mutatis mutandis in the case of Rom 5.18-9. Paul envisions Adam's sinfulness to have extended to all human persons as evidenced by their death (5.12). Importantly Paul emphasizes that Christ's righteousness has a greater efficacy than Adam's sinfulness numerous times (v. 15-7). He says that the free gift is not like the trespass (v. 15), and accents that much more surely the gift of God will take effect and destroy the works of Adam (cf. 1 John 3.8). He does mention those who receive the abundance of grace in v. 17, but this passage is not as significant as so often supposed. His point throughout this is all is that salvation was something given by God, not something accomplished by man. Death was brought about because of the one man's trespass (v. 17); it is something humanity accomplished for itself, whereas salvation is a free gift (v. 15). Beyond this, Paul says receive, not accept -- his point is that humanity is a passive recipient of God's gift of salvation. In any case the analogy between Adam and Christ, along with the affirmed superiority of Christ's work, clearly demands that even the language of acceptance, if it is insisted upon, be universalized -- Christ's work is greater than Adam's, so that all will eventually accept it and be saved.

This attempted evasion of the universalist argument of Rom 5.18-9 is therefore a failure.

Monday, July 21, 2014

No longer under the Law?

One of the important questions in interpreting Paul's understanding of the gospel concerns the manner in which the Law relates to Gentile believers. A lot of it has to do with the interpretation of the statement at Rom 10.4: For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. Is Christ the goal of the law, the fulfillment of the law, the termination of the law?

It seems to me that Paul's picture of salvation contains a continued place for the Law in the life of Christian believers, though this has to be understood in a specific way. Paul says that What was impossible for the law insofar as it was weakened by the flesh, God accomplished sending his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and with regard to sin, he condemned sin in his flesh, so that the requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk after the flesh but after the Spirit (Rom 8.3). It seems to me that the Law has not been terminated, it has not been entirely eliminated, but that in some great measure it continues to exist and to perform a role in the life of Christians. Christ is the one who accomplishes what the Law was previously unable to do on its own, yet he has an effect on us. In a word, Christ obeys and fulfills the Law for us; we participate in that obedience and fulfillment through our union with Christ, realized and accomplished through the Holy Spirit. Paul also says later that love is the fulfilling of the law (13.10), and he clearly expects Christians to do this (v. 8).

The role of the Law in the life of Christians, then, is an important but mediated one. We participate in Christ's fulfillment of the Law through our participation in his life, death, and resurrection through our union with him. The Law is not terminated or undone or set aside in its entirety; rather, its fulfillment is made possible through Christ and his redemptive work of sanctifying human nature.

What, then, might Paul possibly mean when he says at 6.14 that sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace? He doesn't mean that the Law in its entirety has no presence or role in a Christian's life, and that a Christian is not expected in some significant way to obey the Law. Pay close attention to the preposition he uses: we are not under the Law. The Law is not an oppressive force, it is not a burden, it is not a finger pointing at us. For Christians, liberated by Christ through the Holy Spirit, the Law can be a joy to us. Indeed, insofar as the fruit of the Spirit are love, joy, faithfulness, etc. (Gal 5.22-3), we can say that the Law in its essence becomes a part of our very character. We embody it and obey it.

Of course it is important to realize that our obedience to the Law comes about only through our union with Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, and that it is not a condition of the forgiveness of our sins or our right standing before God. When we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ (Gal 3.27) and have assumed a new identity through our union with him. Growing into this new identity of accepted child of God, as led by God, is where the Law comes in, and not in its entirety. (Food laws, circumcision, etc., are not necessary.)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Pauline (non)authorship of Ephesians

Among many other things, one of the topics discussed with some amount of zeal in my Introduction to the New Testament course was the question of pseudepigraphy and the authorship of the deutero-Pauline epistles. Our professor asked us to get out a piece of paper and write down what we would say in the following situation:

A congregant comes up to you and tells you, "Pastor, I heard on the TV that Bart Ehrman wrote a book where he says that Paul didn't write Ephesians. But I love Ephesians -- what am I supposed to do?"

My hypothetical response was something along these lines:

I am glad you love Ephesians; I love it too. But I think the reason we love it is not so much for the fact that Paul wrote it, but because the Holy Spirit speaks to us through it. We really do come into contact with God the Father, with Jesus Christ, and with the Holy Spirit in the words written here. The authorship of Paul is not what wins us over or impresses us, but this real contact with God. We know that it is God speaking to us, because Ephesians is all about Jesus Christ and what he has accomplished for us! It calls us to turn to Christ! Moreover, we know we are not peculiar in this respect, because the whole tradition of the Christian church has had this experience of God in the text for as long as it has been around. So we ought to read Ephesians, and we are right to love it! Thank God for it!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Confidence through Christ

One of the repeated motives of Hebrews is a call to faithfulness and confidence on the basis of Christ's accomplished work of salvation. This is a point the author repeatedly emphasizes, a signal heralded again and again throughout the entire work. It is important because Christ's accomplished work gives us the confidence and the fidelity to know that our sufferings, travails, and misfortunes are not too much to bear.

The story of salvation as the book of Hebrews knows it is the same classic one from the beginning of the church. The Son of God assumed a condition like ours so that we might receive a condition like his; he became as we are so that we might be made like he is.

He saw that we share in flesh and blood (Heb 2.14) and that we are mortal, and so he took them upon himself so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (2.9). Seeing that the existing covenant cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper (9.9), that the law . . . can never . . . make perfect those who approach (10.1), he assumes the condition of those under the law and through his death redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant (9.15). These are all references to the downward aspect of Christ's incarnation: he becomes as we are.

But there is also an upward aspect of Christ's incarnation, namely the sanctification of his human nature, its divinization, its uplift to the image of God. Thus Christ, after offering himself, entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God (9.24). When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to the angels as the name he inherited is more excellent than theirs (1.3-4). The resurrected Christ is now crowned with glory and honor (2.9). In this respect he embodies God's goal for all of humanity: man was created to have dominion and power in the image of God (Gen 1.26-8); this is not yet a reality for all (Heb 2.8) but it is for the risen Christ, the goal of humanity.

Stăniloae is on the same page when he writes that Jesus Christ has come to ask humans to advance higher toward the goal of their fulfillment as human persons, a goal He already attained (The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, vol. 3: The Person of Jesus Christ as God and Savior, p. 20).He likewise writes that Christ is the man fulfilled (p. 21).

Because we see where Christ has ended up, because we see what he has accomplished, and more importantly because we see that he did all of this for us, therefore we can have confidence and trust in this life. He knows what it is like to be tempted; therefore he is able to help those who are being tested (Heb 2.18). He is a priest forever; Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them (7.25). He has entered into the goal a forerunner on our behalf (6.20), and he calls us and beckons us to follow after him.

This, of course, will mean suffering. But Jesus suffered for us! Therefore, since Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood, the author calls us to go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured (13.12-3). In any case the alternative is not without suffering: how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? (2.3). Those who've heard the message of Christ's salvation and opt to live in sin anyway have nothing but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries (10.27): How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? (v. 29). Suffering inevitable: either now or then.

The point, however, is that suffering is not a necessary reality. The sufferings of the moment will pass for those who trust in Christ and who call upon him in their striving to enter the promised rest (4.11). Christ has gone and suffered it all for us, that having attained that which was intended for us, he might share it with us and strengthen us to bear the necessary burdens along the way. Thanks be to God! Therefore we can have confidence in the face of all suffering and evil through Christ, who is with us.

Friday, July 18, 2014

In Christ, everything

In a previous posting I referenced the No-Fishing rule: if a sign has been posted that says NO FISHING, that must be because someone has been fishing where he shouldn't have been; if an author harps on about an issue or topic, it must be because there have been misunderstandings or misbehavior in this regard. The No-Fishing rule tells us, therefore, that for the audience of Paul's epistle to the Ephesians, there must have been some problem in understanding the centrality of Christ. That is why Paul goes on and on about what is true in Christ in the opening of the letter (Eph 1.3ff.).

Paul emphasizes a few key things about Christ in this passage:


  • He says we have been blessed . . .  in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. 
  • He says that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love
  • He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, in God's glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved
  • He insists that in Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses
  • Paul affirms that God's will is to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth
  • He reminds us about the early Jewish Christians that in Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory
  • As for the Ephesians, he tells them: In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.


Paul's point in all of this, as I've already said, is to drill the point home that all spiritual and salvific blessing is in Christ, is found in communion and fellowship with Christ. This implies that the Ephesians needed to be told these things.

We cannot look for the good things of salvation anywhere else except in God's gift to us, his Son Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ we have the forgiveness of sins: looking anywhere else will lead us into despair, because no one else has the audacity to utter Son, your sins are forgiven except Christ (Mark 2.5). Even if someone else were to say it, why should we believe it? Why should anyone care, why should anyone trust that the sins have indeed been forgiven? Christ alone has been risen from the dead, and he alone gave himself as a ransom for many (Mark 10.45), he alone died one for all (2 Cor 5.14), he alone was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification (Rom 4.25). No exotic Eastern philosophy or feel-good New Age insights will solve this problem for us; at best they will tell us there is nothing to be forgiven -- something the sensitive human conscience cannot tolerate.

Likewise Christ shows us that God's plan is to gather up all things in him (Eph 1.10). Christ is the proof that God has not abandoned this creation nor any part of it, but intends that all of it be restored and saved from death and decay. Being confronted with death and destruction, our hearts yearn for something better; we are convinced that this is not the way things should be. In these respects we are right, but it is only Christ's death and resurrection on behalf of all that confirms that anything will be done. Paul affirms that Christ died for all, and therefore all have died (2 Cor 5.14), and that this death leads to justification and life for all (Rom 5.18). Again Paul affirms that in Christ all will be made alive (1 Cor 15.22) -- you too! -- and therefore death will be defeated and God will be all in all (1 Cor 15.26, 28).

When all these things are present in Christ, why should we go elsewhere? When God's divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness (1 Pet 1.3), how can we think to abandon God's salvation in Christ and seek it in ourselves or in other persons? We can be too easily fooled by the philosophies and "wisdom" of the world in this regard (cf. Col 2.8). No -- everything we need for salvation, every hope we have of salvation, is in what Christ accomplished and accomplishes for us. Praise be to God!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The all-importance of doing good and wishing well

Towards the end of his letter to the Galatians, Paul says: whenever we have the opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith (Gal 6.10). There is much wisdom in these words. I want to explain a little bit of what I understand from them.

I recently attended a wedding around which there was some considerable controversy. The parents of the groom did not approve of the whole arrangement, and so they were not present. During the portion of the ceremony at which the groom and bride were asked whether they take each other in marriage, etc., the groom was particularly emotional and was crying. I imagine it was at least in part because his own parents were not there.

The parents, I am sure, are convinced that they had ample reason to object to the wedding. As I said, it is a wedding around which there was some considerable controversy. But they did not act wisely in boycotting his wedding, if I may so express myself. In some short amount of time, whether a few months or years or whenever, they will get over their objections and protests, and they will want to restore the relationship between parents and child. One obstacle this, one which will remain written in the immutability of the past, is the fact that they were not present for the wedding of their own son. This is something that they will not be able to erase or undo, something they will regret on their death beds. They would have done better, seeing that the wedding was going to happen anyway, to set their objections aside and be there for their son to help him in whatever way possible.

This is at least part of the reason why we must be ready and disposed to do good to everybody, as Paul says. It is not worth living with regrets over words uttered, actions committed, etc., out of ill will. Whether the other person was a total stranger, or else a family member or even a fellow Christian, your malevolent act will eventually become an object of regret -- at least if you are full of the Spirit's fruit: love, kindness, gentleness (5.22-3). This will be an obstacle to your prayers. Evagrius the Solitary said, Whatever you do to avenge yourself against a brother who has done you a wrong will prove a stumbling-block to you during prayer. These words are certainly true in my own experience.

I regret the words spoken against friends in the heat of the moment. I regret the coldness and anger towards my brother in times of conflict or estrangement. There is no changing the fact that these things happened. What can be changed, however, is my disposition to do them again in different contexts in the future. Paul calls me to renounce all ill will, every act of angry disposition, and to seek only the good of the persons around me. Naturally this requires an amount of control over myself that I cannot naturally possess, and in the end what is required is the fellowship with the Holy Trinity which exists in love. But in fellowship with the Three, I can be transformed into their loving image.

At the end of the day the Bible teaches us that God is love (1 John 4.8) and that whoever claims fellowship with this God must likewise love. God did us good and only ever does good to anyone; this is clear if he is willing even to die for sinners while they are still enemies (Rom 5.8). Nothing else matters except faith working through love (Gal 5.6).

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Baptism and being clothed with Christ

Paul's letter to the Galatians addresses the nature of the Law and its role in the salvation of the Gentiles. The blessed apostle makes the point over and over that the Law is a relic of the past for the Galatians, because in Christ they have inherited the promise of blessing made to Abraham. Paul's argument depends on the notions of participation in Christ, union with Christ, etc.

Abraham was given a promise, which Paul interprets as the promise of the Spirit (Gal 3.14). For Paul the promise of blessing is a union with God and a fellowship with the Holy Trinity through the Spirit. The promise is nothing less than the embodiment of the image and likeness of God and fellowship with the Creator, the intention of God for humanity from the beginning (cf. Gen 1.26-7).

This promise was given, says Paul, to Abraham and his singular offspring (Gal 3.16). This offspring, this son of Abraham, is Jesus Christ. Peter too speaks of Christ's having received the Spirit in his sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2.33). Now here comes the critical point: Christ received the promised Spirit, but this isn't itself any good news unless I can somehow unite myself with Christ and gain the Spirit as well. And this is precisely Paul's gospel: through our union with Christ, we become adopted children of God, just as Christ is a natural Son, and we too get the Holy Spirit. This is what salvation consists in: adoption through union with the Son.

This is what Paul says: God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God (4.4-7).

Now how does this happen? Paul certainly emphasizes that the gospel is good news for those who believe, but he is also clear that baptism plays an important role: . . . in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (3.26-7). It is by being baptized into Christ that we are clothed with him, that we are united with him and thus benefit from the adoption as sons. Through baptism we receive the promised Holy Spirit through our union with Christ.

It is evident from the logic of Paul's argument that baptism is the mode through which we are united to Christ. This is what he says elsewhere in Romans, too, when he says that in baptism we have been united with him in a death like his (Rom 6.5).

I can't understand some persons in large evangelical free churches who have believed for a long time and yet have never been baptized. Likewise I don't understand persons who claim to be Christians, who've been in the church their whole lives, and yet don't seek baptism. Paul emphasizes that our union with Christ is through our baptism; our salvation is closely connected to baptism. Some persons may have the impression that baptism is a ritual only for the pure, or for the serious, for the worthy. This impression is woefully ungrounded and mistaken, however, since it is precisely because you are unworthy that you ought to run to get baptized. Through baptism you are united to Christ, you receive the Holy Spirit, and are thus made worthy.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness

Paul says to the Galatians:

My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted (Gal 6.1).

This is an incredibly important instruction, because I've noticed in my own experience that this is a real danger. It is precisely when I've judged another person for being weak in an area in which I considered myself strong that I found I suffered from the same weakness, too, even if it did not manifest itself in the same way. This sort of thing has happened to me a number of times, and it reminds me that I am not any different or better than the other person. It is certainly true that vices are manifested differently in different persons: anger becomes murder for some while it remains "merely" hateful and spiteful in others; lust becomes philandering and adultery for some while it remains "merely" pornographic addiction for others; covetousness becomes theft for some while it remains "merely" bitter envy for others. In all cases, however, the seed of sin is present.

It is important to realize that we are not made of any different stuff than the persons in our churches who fall. Paul says elsewhere that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin (Rom 3.9). Christ had die for me as much as for you; Christ had to die for the weak as much as for the strong. Consequently Paul tells us: Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Precisely in those moments when you try to separate yourself from the fallen brother and think to yourself, I am not that bad; I would not have fallen in this way -- those are the moments when temptation flares up. Satan uses your judgmental attitude and arrogance to mock you and embarrass you.

Our common weakness, then, is a reason to be careful and not to judge others. Just as it is a motivation not to judge so that we are not tempted, however, it is also a reason to restore the sinner in a spirit of gentleness. Paul says that persons who have received the Spirit are to restore the fallen brother or sister in gentleness. He specifies that it is those who've received the Spirit, since the Spirit will make known to them that they, too, are weak and susceptible to fall. Those without the Spirit may not have any conception that the life they live is wrong, that they are tempted to do evil, and that they are in need of a savior. But those who have the Spirit can believe the gospel, which among other things also says that we are sinful and in need of God's grace, all of us.

This same Spirit that shows us our sin inspires us to be merciful and have pity for those who fall. Jesus emphasizes over and over again that the ethics of the Bible implies a kind of identification with the other person; it involves seeing myself in the other, including her into my circle of friends and dear ones, so that I learn to care for the other. The Spirit that convicts us of our sins helps us to see ourselves, lost and fallen, in those who've stumbled and fallen into sin. This inspires pity and mercy, just as we'd want for ourselves.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Two ways vis-a-vis ontology and theology

A realist ontology -- one which posits real knowledge of being in itself -- will correspondingly imply a realist theological stance, and likewise a nonrealist ontological stance will imply a nonrealist theology. In other words, if we believe that we can know things in themselves, then we will be inclined to take theological statements as real and adequate descriptions of God's being in himself. On the other hand, if we have doubts about the possibility of knowing being in itself, then we should likewise be skeptical that theological statements describe God's actual being.

I go back and forth between these extremes. Some days I am inclined to take theological statements such as the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, union with Christ, etc., as real statements of metaphysical facts. Other days I am inclined to think of these as endorsed ways of conceiving of the world, which are spiritually useful insofar as they form us and train us to think and feel certain ways, but which may not be the fact of the matter; the fact of the matter would be unknowable. It is hard for me to come down on one side.

I think there is a problem with taking some theological statements in a realist way. For instance, Paul tells the Corinthians not to consort with prostitutes, and he appeals to the doctrine of union with Christ: Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! (1 Cor 6.15). The appeal to union with Christ is certainly a powerful one, and this kind of thinking can undoubtedly motivate a person to a purer life. Gregory of Nazianzus has a powerful passage somewhere in which he says that, in light of his union to Christ, so long as he does not obey God, he makes Christ to be disobedient and a sinner. It certainly has motivational power.

On the other hand, there are many things that I am within my rights to do, and yet I would not engage in them if I took this metaphor of union with Christ as real, as a metaphysical fact. It is within my rights to sleep with my wife, but I would not want to unite Christ's members to my wife any more than a prostitute. The counterexample is crude, I grant the point, but so was Paul's to begin with.

I will give another example. Steven Jeffrey, Andrew Sach, and Michael Ovey in Pierced for Our Transgressions (2007) argue that penal substitution and the doctrine of the imputation of righteousness are intelligible in light of the doctrine of union with Christ. Because Christ is really united to believers, their sins become his through this union, and consequently he can justly bear the punishment for them; on the other hand, because he is really united to believers, they really do receive his righteousness.

A realist interpretation of this doctrine likewise terminates in contradiction. If through union with Christ, I gain his righteousness and he gains my sinfulness, the logic of union dictates that what remains is a single person who is simultaneously righteous and sinful. This of course is a contradiction.

For reasons such as these, one might incline towards a nonrealist interpretation of theological statements such as these. They are useful descriptions and metaphors used in describing a reality that actually goes beyond the bounds of what we can know and understand. Salvation and its process is a mystery; theology is the way we attempt to describe what cannot be described, and understand what cannot be understood.

This doesn't mean that salvation is nothing at all. Believers know from their own experience that something is changed in them, and that they have real communion with the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. It is something real; it is just that its nature cannot be understood or named adequately. Neither does this mean that all theology is on a par. Paul's use of the metaphor of union with Christ in the context of consulting the services of prostitutes is extremely efficient, perhaps in a way that other metaphors or rebukes might not be. Moreover theology may still be inspired, even if not strictly speaking adequate in describing the metaphysical reality of things. Certainly it is possible that God wants us to theologize in a certain way (e.g., praying to him as Father) because it trains us to relate to him in a way that other theologies cannot do, and he gives us this theology in through the scriptures and the teachings of Christ. It may even be necessary that we firmly believe our theology as if it were a realist statement of the actual nature of things, because in this way it has the desired effect.

If someone complains that this would be tantamount to having a false belief and believing a lie, I respond that to the extent that we cannot know some reality in itself, we cannot have an obligation to believe rightly about it. On this view of the world there is no categorical imperative to have perfect knowledge, to believe only and all true things. But moreover if we cannot but come into contact with this unknowable reality, we have to believe something or other about it, and especially so if it tells us what we ought to believe, what we ought to say, etc.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Gentle rebuke in 1 John

In one of my courses I learned a principle of interpretation called the "No Fishing" rule. If you were to go somewhere near a body of water and see a sign that read NO FISHING, what inference could you draw about the purposes and origins of the sign? You could prima facie observe that some persons had been fishing there when they weren't supposed to; or at least you might infer that there was a risk that persons fish there when they are not supposed to. This principle also works in interpreting scripture: the moral injunctions and proscriptions an author includes in his work might tell us something about the context and situation of his target audience.

One of the topics that comes up again and again in 1 John is that of love. More than anything else John insists that that the members of his audience love one and other, insisting even that this would constitute a definitive evidence of their having met God (or not): Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love (1 John 4.8). In light of the No Fishing rule, therefore, we can infer that the congregation to which John had written was seriously struggling in this regard. They had to be told again and again that God has shown love for them, that Christ has laid down his life for them out of love, and that therefore they were expected to live in the same intense love (3.16).

The thought that John's audience was experiencing considerable agapic deficiencies is plausible enough in light of the evidence of the letter itself. It never occurred to me, however, that his audience might have been experiencing such tremendous difficulties. I suppose the reason is that 1 John reads as a very "gentle" and "soft" text. It doesn't have the fire and brimstone of 1 Corinthians, for instance, where the nature of the text as rebuke is evident.

I appreciate that about John: not only does he call for his audience live in love, but he demonstrates a certain gentleness of character even in the rebuke. 1 John doesn't read like a "hard" text. To my mind it has a "soft" character, and I think it is only fitting that it do so, because the love of God as demonstrated in Christ Jesus is a soft love. It is God's Son dying for the sins of humanity and giving life to the dead (4.9-10). It's a love that takes harm upon itself rather than issuing harm on the beloved (tough love). The tone of John's epistle fits well with this.

I think I would do well to learn from John's rebuke in this letter. Oftentimes I am tempted to come off as a strict moralist, laying down a law with harshness. John's method, however, is to remind others of the love of Jesus Christ and God the Father as demonstrated by what they've done for us: dying for our sins and giving us eternal life (5.11). That is, after all, how you inspire love in another person: through showing your own goodwill and winning them over with goodness. I think that is how you inspire love in your audiences as well: you warm them up to God and to each other through a reminder of God's goodness towards them.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The high priestly prayer

Some persons take the high priestly prayer of Jesus at John 17 to contain some powerful evidences in favor of an Augustinian-Reformed view of God's salvific intentions and purposes. On this view of things, God does not intend to save all persons but only some, and it is precisely for these persons that Christ accomplishes atonement for sin. Hence the doctrine of limited or definite atonement. I don't agree with this scheme of things, and I happen to think the high priestly prayer contains the opposite message.

Jesus opens his prayer with the affirmation that he has received authority over all persons: Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him (17.1-2). This is, to my mind, a very powerful and unambiguous statement of God's universal salvific intentions: the Son receives authority over all, so that he may give life to all those given him. I don't see why there should be any distinction supposed between those whom the Father has given the Son, and those over whom the Father has given the Son authority. What is it to belong to the Son, if not that the Son has authority over you?

Some objectors may note that Jesus later makes a distinction between the world and those whom the Father has given him from the world (v. 6). This, the suggestion goes, shows that it is not all one to be given to the Son, and to be given under the authority of the Son. But this point is not at all obvious. In the first place, it is evident that the phrase "those whom you have given me" from v. 6 onward refers not to "the elect" as the Augustinian-Reformed understands the phrase, but to the apostles. This is evident because he later goes on to pray not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word (v. 20). Moreover he says that they now, at the time of his prayer, know that everything Jesus has received is from the Father, and that Jesus has given them the words he received from the Father (vv. 7-8). These things clearly could not have been said of future believers who were not even born at that moment, let alone of those who would believe but had not yet come into contact with the gospel.  It is evident, then, that the phrase those whom you have given me at v. 6 is a special reference to the apostles. It would be absurd to suppose that we could identify the scope of this usage with the usage of those whom you have given him in v. 2, as if Jesus only gives eternal life to the apostles.

Importantly, however, Jesus does not lose sight even of the world. He goes on to pray for those who would believe through the testimony of the apostles that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (v. 21). Jesus prayers for the unity of believers so that the world may learn and come to believe that he has been sent of the Father. This is the question that had been debated over the course of twelve or so chapters in John's gospel: where does Jesus come from? By whose authority does he do the things we've seen? What is his relation to God -- is he a sinner or the promised Christ? To believe that he has come from God is the definition of salvation for John's gospel, and the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God, the Christ of God, the Holy One of God, etc., is to have eternal life. Jesus consequently prays for the salvation of the world as well.

We must not forget, either, that there are numerous affirmations in John's gospel that God's salvific intentions are universal, encompassing the whole creation. The Samaritans come to believe that Jesus is the Savior of the world (4.42), which phrase echoes John's words in his epistle: we have seen and testify that the Father sent his Son as the Savior of the world (1 John 4.14). Jesus says in the bread-of-life discourse that he gives his flesh for the life of the world (John 6.51). He says further that he will drag all persons to himself upon being lifted up (12.32).

For these reasons I think the high priestly prayer does not support a doctrine of definite atonement. Rather the universalist affirmation of vv. 1-2 remains, and the remainder of the prayer is concerned with the salvation of a slowly expanding group: first he prays for the apostles; then he prays for later believers, as well as for the whole world. He begins his prayer with an affirmation of God's universal salvific purposes, and this cannot be lost.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Keep away from idols

1 John ends on a very short note: Little children, keep yourselves from idols (5.21). Of course this message is one that is utterly ubiquitous in the Old Testament texts. Everywhere and at all times the LORD rebukes the idolatry of his own people, Israel, as well as that of the nations. False gods are denounced and the true divinity of YHWH alone is upheld. We might pose the question: why is idolatry such a dangerous thing? Why does God care about worshiping idols, if an idol is nothing at all?

One answer that won't do for me is that somehow God alone has the right to be worshiped, and he insists on this right for his own sake. The doctrine of divine aseity teaches us that God is entirely of himself; he exists on his own, he gives existence to everything else, and he needs nothing from no one. This means he doesn't need our worship and our devotion, either. It doesn't help him with anything, it doesn't complete him in anyway, as if he needed completing. Why would he ask for anything for himself, if he needs nothing?

(This is one reason why I disagree with Reformed theology which posits that God does everything for the sake of his glory. If he needs nothing, why should he seek his glory? I agree that God's glory is an element of his workings, but I don't think he is concerned with glory for its own sake. If God has a concern for glory, it is because he wants people to know about him and to seek him, for their sake. It is because he wants people to know him, to repent of their sins, and to be saved (1 Tim 2.4). More on this below.)

Neither do I think God insists on the worship of himself alone because it is just right that it be done, and that's that. I don't understand God as interested in the abstract obedience of moral principles for its own sake, simply because it must be done. This is because I don't believe in abstract moral principles that have nothing to do with the welfare of human persons and finite creatures more generally. It makes no sense to say that something is morally required, but that it doesn't contribute in any way to the actual well-being of the persons who fulfill the requirement, or that it doesn't benefit anyone.

I think John tells us in the previous verse why we ought not worship idols:

And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life (5.20).

I think God doesn't want us to worship any other gods because true life, true blessedness, true welfare, true shalom can only come through fellowship with the true living God. If YHWH alone is the true God and if life is found only in him, then worship of anything else will end is falsehood, in lies, and in death. God demands that we worship him because it is good for us to do so; in the context of the worship of the true God, we find life and shalom as God intended us to have it. This is because he teaches us how to pray, how to depend on God, how to forgive others, how to do good to others and not evil, etc. So God demands we worship him and seek fellowship with him for our sake.

Importantly, John here affirms this within a specifically Christian trinitarian context. He affirms that the Son Jesus Christ is "the true God" and the "eternal life," which echoes 1.2: this life was revealed . . . the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us. In the context of the fellowship with the Father and the Son (cf. 1.3) we find truth and eternal life. Therefore we must not turn away to idols, and to any denial of the Son who is true God -- this will lead only to death and lies.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Repentance: keep looking ahead

1 Sam is a fascinating book of the bible. Interspersed here and there in the midst of a long and bloody narrative of battles and wars and conflicts you find occasional gold nuggets of explicit theology. This is not to say, of course, that you couldn't do some heavy-duty theologizing from the narrative portions as well, but I am especially impressed by the explicit theology of the book at moments.

Consider this episode. The people ask for a king, which is effectively a rejection of Samuel as their leader. Samuel is naturally upset about this, but God tells him that they have rather rejected the LORD and not the prophet. Eventually Saul is anointed king, but Samuel also gives a farewell speech in which he rebukes the people for the grave evil they have committed in rejecting the leadership of God.

The people are cut to the heart by Samuel's sharp rebuke, and they ask him: Pray to the Lord your God for your servants, so that we may not die; for we have added to all our sins the evil of demanding a king for ourselves (1 Sam 12.19). His response is impressively enough one of encouragement:

Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil, yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart; and do not turn aside after useless things that cannot profit or save, for they are useless. For the Lord will not cast away his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself (vv. 20-2).

This is fantastic spiritual advice for those who find themselves confronted with their sins. Samuel tells them: Yes, you've sinned and you've committed evil, but now that you have recognized this fact, your job is not to dwell on the past but to move forward; commit yourself in obedience to the LORD and don't get caught up in the worthless things of the past. Orient yourself to the future and change your ways in light of your new recognition. There's no help or use in getting overwhelmed by the guilt of your wrongdoing. What God is interested in is obedience (1 Sam 15.22-3).

Of course this is not to deny the importance of that moment of guilt, that moment of deep recognition of your wrong, the shame you feel for having committed it, the darkness bubbling deep within the surface that has found its way out on this occasion. I don't think it is spiritually normal or healthy never to feel any kind of guilt or dissatisfaction with yourself; otherwise it is hard to me to see how one might be motivated to change one's way of life. If you do wrong, you should feel guilty; it's a way of aligning your inner emotional life with the realities of morality and sin.

At the same time you do not remain there, paralyzed forever, because -- again -- God is interested in you living, not remaining frozen in self-abasement and self-loathing. Eclectic Orthodoxy on Facebook recently quoted something from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware on the topic of repentance that I think is good in this context:

To repent is to look, not downward at my own shortcomings, but upward at God's love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I can yet become.

How can you have confidence to move forward in repentance? Because, as Samuel says, the Lord will not cast away his people (12.22). In Jesus Christ you were once far off in your sins have been reconciled to God and brought near (Eph 2.13; Col 1.19-22). God has made you his own, and has taken your very salvation upon himself, pledging his very life for it. Therefore, in recognition but also in trust in him, repent of your sins and by his strength endeavor to obey.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Everyone is leading a difficult battle

In 1 Sam 1.9-17, Hannah goes to the temple to pray to the LORD. She is her husband's favorite of two wives, but she can't bear him any children because the LORD had closed her womb (1.5). It were bad enough to bear the cross of infertility, but she must also deal with her husband Elkanah's other wife, Peninnah, who used to provoke her severely, to irritate her (v. 6).

When her family meets together for dinner, Hannah instead weeps and refuses all food (v. 7). Her husband knows the problem, because he asks her, "Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?" (v. 8). Elkanah loved Hannah more out of the two wives (v. 5), and no doubt was sensitive to her struggles. But evidently his attempts at consoling her do not work, because she leaves and presents herself before the LORD at the temple (v. 9). When she is there, the burden on her heart is so great, and her grief is so deep, that only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard (v. 13). Hers is a grief and sadness that she can't speak in a loud voice with anyone -- not with her husband, not with God. She simply keeps quiet as she carries an unbearable weight on her shoulders.

But things just seem to get worse and worse for her. Eli is the priest of the temple, and he observed her mouth as she prayed (v. 12). Seeing that she was moving her lips but no words were coming out, therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, "How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine" (vv. 13-4).

Imagine how Hannah must have felt! Not only can't she have any children; not only can't she bear her husband, who loves her very much, a son to carry on his name and memory; not only must she suffer the abuse of his other wife, who had children of her own -- now the priest of the temple, the representative of God himself, abuses her and accuses her of public drunkenness at a holy sight!

There is a lot to learn from all of this, but one especially important lesson is the following: you never know what kind of a battle the other persons you see are leading; you never know what kind of struggles they have, and what kind of pains they bear in their hearts. Consequently you ought to be careful what you say to them. You ought to be careful not to assume the worst, not to judge them if things do not seem all right.

Eli caused further unnecessary suffering to poor Hannah, who was praying to the LORD with sincerity and zeal. He broke her heart even further with his unfounded rejection and judgment. We are all liable to do the same thing, when  we see someone behaving in a manner we find strange or objectionable and automatically assume the worst. Rather we ought to think to ourselves, as we pass by others on the street or at the market or at school or at church, that behind the friendly or indifferent exterior may lie a tortured soul, bearing a burden far greater than we every may have imagined. This ought to inspire in us a merciful heart, a generosity of spirit which doesn't judge but only wishes well and prays for one and all alike.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The intricacies of divine providence

I was reading recently through the opening chapters of 1 Samuel and I was impressed by the working of divine providence as the book depicts it.

The story opens up by the introduction of four characters: an Ephramite named Elkanah; his two wives, Peninnah and Hannah, the former of which had children and who teased the latter for not having any; and Eli, a priest of YHWH at Shiloh. Elkanah regularly would go up to Shiloh to worship God and bring his family with him. He loved Hannah more than he did Peninnah, but she did not have any children whereas her rival did. For this reason Peninnah used to provoke her severely, to irritate her because the LORD had closed her womb (1 Sam 1.6).

This is fascinating: the author at least, but also the personages of the tale, ascribe causality for Hannah's infertility to God. In this respect they are a bit different from many contemporary readers, who try to remove God as far as possible from the 'evils' of the world, natural and otherwise. Why would God have caused her infertility? If he is good, how can he do this?

It seems to me that 1 Sam suggests God's providence sees further than we often can see ourselves. Hannah saw her situation to be a miserable one: she had no children of her own; her husband's other wife relentlessly teased her for this; she had to bear the shame of childlessness in the ancient world. In fact her situation troubled her so deeply that Hannah wept and would not eat (v. 7). In her desperation she went to the temple of YHWH and prayed. The pain in her heart was so heavy that she couldn't even pray out loud; she just whispered her prayers, and Eli thought she was drunk because her lips moved but no words could be heard (v. 13).

In her silence, she prayed like this: O LORD of hosts, if you only will look upon the misery of your servant, and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head (v. 11). The LORD listens to this prayer desperate prayer of the heart and she conceives Samuel (vv. 19-20).

It seems to me the motivation for the closing of her womb was clear: the LORD had need of Samuel. Knowing perhaps that Hannah in her desperation to have a child would offer it in dedication to God, he denied her any children until the prayer was made and her will in this respect was established. This is precisely what happens: as soon as the child was weaned, She left him at Shiloh for the LORD (v. 28). This tells me that God knows how to work alongside human freedom of the will in order to accomplish his will.

But he is also good, beyond being provident, and he provides further children for Hannah as well: the LORD took note of Hannah; she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters (2.21). She gave her first son to the LORD to be raised by him, but she was given the joy and blessing of being able to raise five other children herself.

It seems to me that 1 Sam offers us a way of understanding divine providence. For these persons, God is intricately connected with everything that happens, even infertility in Hannah. Even the smallest most insignificant thing, moreover, can turn out later to be momentous and crucial: in a time when the word of the LORD was rare and visions were not widespread (3.1), God raises up a prophet in Samuel to lead the people of Israel and to guide them. There was a purpose for the misfortune of Hannah's infertility: it was that Samuel be born, that the LORD's people receive a prophet to lead them, one dedicated to him from birth.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

How to do evangelism per 1 John 1.1-4

I am always impressed by the introduction of the epistle of John, especially as regards its evangelistic methodology. There a few things to notice here, some of which I have already commented upon in the past but which are worth considering once more.

In the first place we observe a repeated emphasis upon the personal experience of the author and his group (namely the apostles) with Jesus himself. Over and over again the author mentions what he has heard, what he has seen with his eyes, what he has touched with his hands, and the reality of his present fellowship with the Father and the Son. He twice mentions what he has heard (ὃ ἀκηκόαμεν, vv. 1, 3) and three times what he has seen (ὃ ἑωράκαμεν, vv. 1-3). It seems to me this has at least a double significance.

The first thing to note that is that the apostolic message regarding Jesus Christ, the message of life (τοῦ λόγου τῆς ζωῆς, v. 1), is a message about what they themselves have experienced and continue to experience. Not only does the apostle make use of the past tense in describing things seen with Jesus in the past, but he also uses the present when he says that Our fellowship is with the Father and the Son (the implied εἰμί, ἡ κοινωνία δὲ ἡ ἡμετέρα μετὰ τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ μετὰ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, v. 3). In other words the apostles have had and continue to have real, lived fellowship with God and with his Son. This is the reason why they dare to tell other people about it, because it is something real for them. The apostles did not make up stories about Jesus, and they did not dedicate their lives to an unattainable but inspiring ideal with no basis in reality. Their appeal is always to the empirical: what we've touched, what we've seen, what we've beheld with our eyes, what we've heard with our ears. This is why Jesus mythicism has no basis in reality, and why convinced mythicists are the most lamentable and miserable people on the planet: there is absolutely no basis for what they say in the biblical texts.

I further gather from this passage that the purported evangelist must herself have experience with the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit). What's the use in telling people about a reality you haven't experienced yourself? What's so good about evangelizing persons to bring them into fellowship with the Father and the Son, if you yourself do not live in this fellowship and experience it? Why should anyone believe you? To my mind, evangelism should be left to those persons who can speak in the same language as the apostle here.

Another important aspect is the motivation the apostle relates for his evangelism: What we've seen and heard, we proclaim to you as well, so that you might have fellowship with us. . . . We write these things to our joy may be complete (vv. 3-4). The purpose of evangelism is to share the fellowship we have with the Holy Trinity, to include others into it as well. As Karl Barth says in CD IV/1, the Christian message is fundamentally "God with us." We have fellowship with God, but as Barth emphasizes, this fellowship belongs to others as well -- they just don't know about it yet. Therefore we bring this message of God's presence among us, and of our fellowship with him, so that the rest may participate in it too.

Of course, one of the critical points here is that evangelism is fundamentally about bringing others into the community of the church. That's why John says, so that you might have fellowship with us. Outside of the context of the church -- and here I am speaking of the whole Christian community, not any particular local congregation -- there is no fellowship with God. That is something which occurs only in Jesus Christ's community. Therefore we do not evangelize so that people remain as they are but believe, nor do we evangelize without integrating the evangelized into a community of believers.

Crucially, too, the apostle relates that the evangelistic endeavor satisfies the longing of the evangelists. They evangelize so that their joy may be complete when others join them in their fellowship. This, I think, is another precondition of evangelism: you must desire the salvation of those whom you are evangelizing. Unless their salvation is a cause of happiness for you, unless your heart burns and aches for them, unless you love them and want to do good to them in gentleness and kindness, don't bother evangelizing anyone.

(There is a provocative question to be asked here: what sort of joy may we have in the next life, if we know that some persons are not enjoying the same fellowship with God which we experience? Wouldn't this detract from our happiness, and from God's as well?)