Saturday, September 27, 2014

The resurrecting glory of God

Note this fascinating line from Paul's discussion of baptism in his letter to the Romans:

. . . Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father . . . (Rom 6.4)

Perhaps "glory of the Father" or "glory of God" by Paul is a special term referring to God's activated power to resurrect, reconstitute, restore what has been destroyed and killed. If that is the case, then consider how we might understand earlier statements in the letter:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God (5.1-2).

Paul here may consequently be understood as affirming that our hope is in being resurrected and restored and reconstituted to man's intended state by God, thanks to the justification which we have by faith. (I think here that 'faith' refers to Christ's faithfulness.)

On the other hand, consider how Paul describes sinners:

. . . since all have sinned and lack the glory of God (3.23).

In this case, the reference may be that humanity lacks the resurrection from the dead. On the other hand, I think a more plausible line of interpretation would understand "the glory of God" as the image and likeness of God, an image and likeness which man lost because of sin but which Christ has (Col 1.15). As Athanasius appreciated, Christ is the one who reconstitutes the image and likeness of God in humanity in his own person, and he does this for others as well. Human beings as sinful lack this image and likeness.

Paul later says that the creation awaits the time when it will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (8.21). Thus the whole world is awaiting the time when the image and likeness of God will be remade in man, and man will begin to have dominion over the world as God intended from the beginning (Gen 1.28).

Thinking about it now, I think a better translation of "the glory of God" is God's life-giving character. It is because of God's life-giving character that Christ was raised from the dead. The sinfulness of human beings, which is characterized by violence and destruction by the verses cited by Paul (3.12-17), falls short and lacks this life-giving character. But humanity will be restored to this image and life-giving character by Christ, and then the creation will flourish and receive life from humanity.

It is God's character to give life, and to bring other beings to flourishing and prosperity. When humanity is remade in God's image, it takes this character upon itself. This character is what motivated Christ to give himself for the life of all (1 Cor 15.22-8; 2 Cor 5.14-5). When we become Christians, we take on this character and give life to those around us. This is God's glory and nothing else -- to give life and to save.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The king who serves others

The second psalm is a warfare psalm; it is about a heated conflict between the LORD and his people, on the one hand, and adverse forces of evil, on the other. For the psalmist, these forces of evil are the nations and the peoples, the kings o the earth and the rulers (Ps 2.1-2). These powers set themselves against the LORD and his anointed and seek to loosen the bonds from around them (v. 2).

The response of the LORD, of course, is to laugh at their weakness and to mock them. His response to their plots is to establish a king on Zion (v. 6), and he tells this newly chosen king: You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel (vv. 7-9). The establishment of the king, therefore, comes with a promise of inheritance: the peoples and the whole earth belong to the Son of God; he is free to do with them as he pleases, and the LORD will be with him.

It is impressive, therefore, to understand how this narrative of coronation and inheritance plays out in the case of Christ, who is anointed Son of God at his baptism. As he was undergoing baptism by John in the Jordan River, a voice cam from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" (Mark 1.11). This is a direct echo of Ps 2.7, and to my mind it means that Christ's baptism is his anointing as king of Israel, Son of God.

Now if Christ is anointed King of Israel, then he is likewise promised the nations as his heritage. But how does Christ make use of this inheritance of his? Far from dashing them in pieces, Christ heals the sick, forgives sins, teaches the ignorant, and above all, gives his life for them: For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (10.45). What goodness, what generosity, what mercy, that the king of the world should die for its sake!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Miracles and the king of Siam

I have been reading Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts in preparation for a speaking event in the future, and I have really been enjoying it. Keener's treatment of David Hume's argument against miracles is particularly powerful; Hume's argument really is not very good at all, and Keener does a great job of refuting it from a number of angles.

I was impressed by the following counterargument that some objectors of Hume gave him in his own day. It is a story about the King of Siam:

Hearing from Dutch visitors about riding horses on top of rivers that became so cold that they became hard like stone, this rule "knew that the men were liars." The king's inference was a logical one based on the reality with which he was familiar; it was his expectation of a rigid uniformity in the human experience of nature that proved inaccurate (p. 104).

Remember that Hume's argument against miracles goes something like this: A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as an argument from experience can possibly be imagined (quoted at p. 107). In other words, uniform human experience tells us that the laws of nature as a certain way, and a miracle would mean something else happened contrary to these laws.

There are many, many, many things wrong with Hume's argumentation here; Keener lists probably five or six or seven different devastating objections one might proffer. In any case, the point here is that Hume's affirmation of the uniformity of human experience is woefully mistaken. It is precisely those who bring forth testimony that a miraculous event has occurred who ought to be taken into the calculation of what constitutes human experience; yet Hume evidently rejects them simply because their experience is contrary to his own and that of his circles.

Like the King of Siam, Hume blindly and irrationally assumes that the world must be exactly as I have experienced it in my small number of years in this small corner of the globe. As Keener says, The prince, who lacks experience of freezing, cannot extrapolate with certainty from his nonexperience of it, and people in everyday situations cannot extrapolate from their nonexperience of potential situations of special divine significance (p. 105).

The King of Siam may have been convinced in his own mind, and "rational," but woefully mistaken. Rivers freeze in other parts of the world, even if he had never seen it before. But to my mind it seems woefully myopic, in the face of the limitations and finitude of one's own being, that one's experience of the world is representative of all humanity and more or less adequate to base judgments of what is possible and what isn't.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Baptism and new identity

In a previous post, I wrote about the nature of baptism as union with Christ, drawing from Paul's discussion in the sixth chapter of his letter to the Romans. There I described the transformational character of baptism -- how it changes our state of being, so that we are not under the power of sin any longer but dead to sin and alive to God, just as Christ is dead to sin and alive to God forevermore.

Now it should be obvious that a change of being, a change of status, implies also a change of identity. This is what Paul talks about in another (admittedly very brief) reference to baptism in his letter to the Galatians. Consider what he says:

. . . in Christ you are all children of God through faith. As many as you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise (Gal 3.26-29).

In this passage we find a lot of the same language of union with Christ that we saw in his letter to the Romans. Here speaks, as usual, of being in Christ, of being baptized into Christ, and of clothing oneself with Christ. Imagine that: just as you put on a uniform and become in some sense a police officer, or a priest, or a judge, or a worker, or whatever, in the same way you put on Christ through baptism. And what does that make you? It makes you children of God, and Abraham's offspring.

We will return to these things in a moment, but I want also to bring your attention what Paul says in the middle of this passage. He says: all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Here is speaking to the Galatian church which consisted of all the baptized believers; he tells them that by virtue of their baptism, they are united with Christ, and therefore they are united with one another. They are all one in Christ Jesus! (In his letter to the Corinthians Paul will speak more specifically of them as members of Christ's body, which further enforces the same point.) Would you imagine that this ought to inform the way we treat and think about one another? If I am one with you in Christ Jesus, then how can I hate you, refuse to forgive you, spread lies and slander about you, or in a word, fail to love you? Can I split the body of Christ in two? Do I dare to break it once more? Or consider it a different way: Paul says that no one ever hated his own body (Eph 5.29); can I hate my own body by hating you, knowing that you and I are members of the same body of Christ? Clearly not!

We cannot divide Christ's body; we cannot break it, once it has already been broken once for us. Consequently, Paul infers from this that previous differences of identity that might have once separated us from one another are invalidated by our union with Christ. He says: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female (v. 28). There is no longer Jew or Greek, because the ethnic and national dividing lines have been destroyed by Christ, who has made a new humanity in his one body (cf. Eph 2.14-5). There is no longer slave or free, because we are all God's slaves and we are all free from the demands of other men because of our belonging to Christ. There is no longer male and female, because both alike have access to union with the one Christ. If they are both a part of the same body of Christ, then neither is superior or inferior to the other!

Now importantly, if these distinctions and dividing lines are invalidated by our union with Christ, then neither can they become the principal sources of our own identities. If in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, then I cannot think of myself fundamentally as a Jew or as a Greek, as an American or Romanian or Serbian, or whatever. If there is no more master and slave, then my identity is no longer my job or any relation that I hold to any other human person; I am not fundamentally a CEO or a theologian or philosopher or bus driver or whatever. If there is no more male and female, then my fundamental identity is no longer a man or a woman, a husband or a wife, a brother or a sister. Above everything, I am a child of God in Jesus Christ and an offspring of Abraham!

So we have seen that baptism involves a fundamental change of identity. But what does it mean to be a child of God and an offspring of Abraham? Here I will give my opinion.

Adam, says Luke, was the son of God (Luke 3.38). He had received a calling, one appropriate to every son and one which comes naturally to us: to be like his Father, to be God's image and likeness (Gen 1.26-7). We know that Adam had failed in this calling because of his sin, and his sin had disastrous results for the rest of the world (cf. Rom 5.12ff.). But Abraham (when he was still Abram) was given a promise by God that I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen 12.2-3).  He will be made into a great nation, and his offspring will inherit a land blessed by God (v. 7).

God was in the process of repairing a world broken by Adam's sin, and he was determined to do it through the offspring of this man Abram, whom he had chosen. Long story short, Paul says that Christ is that offspring of Abraham (Gal 3.16). Now if we are united to Christ by baptism, then we become Abraham's offspring and we inherit the promise! We become sons of God, which is to say, we begin to embody that image and likeness of God; we participate in the restoration of the created world and become the persons God intends all of humanity to be. And we become heirs of God's promise to Abraham: a new and restored land, in which we will live and worship God and prosper!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Baptism and union with Christ

In the religious tradition I grew up in, baptism was something you did when you were old enough to make a voluntary confession of faith on your own. More to the point, baptism was just that -- it was a sort of public confession that "I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back." There was nothing particularly mystical about baptism; it was taking a bath to let people know you love Jesus.

My present conviction, however, is that baptism actually involves much more than that. I think a sort of super minimalist conception of baptism such as the one I grew up hearing is certainly true, as far as it goes, but it doesn't say enough. Baptism is a greater and more profound mystery than that!

Consider what Paul says in Romans 6, the most sophisticated and detailed discussion of baptism in his letters. It opens with the question: What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? (v. 1). Why should he begin with this question? What might motivate this line of reasoning? The answer is that in Paul's theology, God is very unfair; when people sin, rather than responding in terms of equal and proportionate punishment for the sin, he provides grace and salvation! This God shows his love for us by dying for us while we are still sinners (5.8); God reconciles us to himself while we were enemies (5.10). When despicable sinners turn their backs to God and go off on their own way, his response, rather than destroying them or leaving them to be fall apart as a natural consequence of sin, is to restore them and reconcile them. In a word, where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (5.20). But if sin does not get its comeuppance with God, why then should we be holy? How do we motivate holiness with a gracious God?

The answer Paul gives has to do with baptism. His answer is that we do not go on living in sin because we have died to it, and more specifically that this death to sin has taken place during our baptism (6.2-3). Now this is very profound! What he is saying is that through baptism, our fundamental mode of being is entirely changed: whereas previously Paul says that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin (3.9), now he says that we Christians who have been baptized are dead to sin, and that this has been accomplished through baptism. This inspires further research; how can something so simple as baptism free us from the power of sin?

When we look more closely at Paul's reasoning, we find that baptism for him has to do with union with Christ. Notice the language he uses:

. . . all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. (v. 3)

. . . we have been buried with him by baptism into death . . . (v. 4)

. . . we have been united with him in a death like his . . . (v. 5)

. . . we have died with Christ . . . (v. 8)

. . . consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ. (v. 11)

Paul's reasoning appears to my mind to be this. God is gracious, but that does not provide us with motive to sin. On the contrary, we are not to sin because we have died to sin; we have undergone a fundamental change with regards to our identities, with regard to our state of being. This has been accomplished through baptism, because in baptism we were united to Christ, who died and was resurrected.

Now if we are freed from sin because of our union with Christ, this must be because Christ himself is freed from sin. Indeed, this narrative is behind Paul's reasoning. Notice what he says:

We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, begin raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (vv. 6-11).

Here the NRSV's choices of translation leave a bit to be desired. What they translate here as "our old self" (ὁ παλαιὸς ἡμῶν ἄνθρωπος, v. 6) I would sooner translate as "our old humanity." The idea is that Christ took upon himself a human nature such as our own, fallen and subject to sin and destined for death, the same as us. Torrance emphasizes this point, but so do Athanasius and Gregory Nazianzen. He takes our condition upon himself in order to redeem, sanctify, purify, and deify it! This is precisely what he does, ultimately through his death.

Here, too, the NRSV translators disappoint. The literal reading of v. 7 is: the one who died (ὁ ἀποθανών) is freed from sin. Campbell, by my lights, is right to read this as a reference to Christ, who died and therefore was freed from the power of sin in his human nature. This is exactly what Paul goes on to say later: The death he died, he died to sin, once for all (v. 10). Paul understands Christ at one point to have been under sin in some sense, the same as the rest of us; he doesn't suppose that Christ committed sin, of course, but merely that Christ's human nature had the "sin disease," so to speak -- that it was inclined in the wrong direction, same as the rest of us. Through his death, Christ was freed from this power, and in his resurrection he was given life to live for God forever.

Therefore, when we are baptized, we are united with Christ who is beyond the power of sin! Just as he has died to sin forever and lives to God, when we are baptized, we are to consider ourselves to be the same, since we are one with him. So Paul tells us: you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (v. 11).

So baptism, for Paul, is far more than a mere public declaration that "I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back." No, it is the way that we are liberated from the powers of sin through union with Christ!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Paul and T.F. Torrance on God's love

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person -- though perhaps for a good a person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Rom 6.6-8).


The absolute togetherness and oneness in being and doing between the crucified Jesus Christ and the Lord God is of supreme importance for our belief in the Love of God. That was the truth made clear by St Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, when he had in mind the Old Testament account of the 'sacrifice' of Isaac by Abraham, when Abraham showed that he loved God more than he loved himself. And so St Paul wrote: 'If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all -- how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?' (Rom 8:31-32). Jesus is God's very own Son, his only begotten Son -- one who came to us out of the Father's Life who belonged to his very Heart and innermost Self. And when the Father did not spare his own Son but freely delivered him up for us all in atoning sacrifice, the Cross became a window into the innermost heart of God and the nature of his Love. It tells us that God loves us more than he loves himself.

That is what the oneness in being and act between Jesus Christ and God, between the incarnate Son and the Father, reveals to us: that our heavenly Father loves us more than he loves himself -- and we are assured of an infinite love from which nothing in life or death can ever separate us. The love of the Lord Jesus in giving himself for us on the Cross for our salvation, where the infinite sacrifice of the Father and the infinite sacrifice of the Son are forever bound up indivisibly together, assures us that the eternal God, let it be repeated, loves us more than he loves himself. God loves us with an infinite love from which nothing in life or death can ever separate us. That is the love incarnate in the Lord Jesus (T.F. Torrance in A Passion for Christ: The Vision that Ignites Ministry, p. 14).

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The heart aching to be broken for all


They did not speak for some time. The women's laments rose up from every threshing floor. The old men, propped on their staffs, watched the wheat run off with the water. The farmers stood dark-faced and motionless in the middle of their own mown and devastated fields. Some remained silent; others cursed.

The son of Mary sighed. "Ah, if there was only one man who had the strength to starve to death so that the people would not die of hunger!"

Jacob glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. "If you were able to become wheat," he scoffed, "so that the people could eat you and be saved, would you do it?"

"Who wouldn't?" said the son of Mary.

Jacob's hawk eyes flickered, as did his thick, protruding lips. "Me," he answered.

The son of Mary was silent. The other took offense. "Why should I perish?" he growled. "It was God who sent the flood. What did I do wrong?" He looked fiercely at the sky. "Why did God do it? How did the people offend him? I don't understand -- do you, son of Mary?"

"Don't ask, my brother: it's a sin. Until a few days ago I too asked, but now I understand. This was the serpent which corrupted the first creatures and made God banish us from Paradise."

"What do you mean by 'this'?"

"Asking questions."

"I don't understand," said Zebedee's son, and he quickened his pace.

Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ,  tr. by P.A. Bien (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), pp. 119-20.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Jewish way: trust and submission to God always

The third chapter of the Lamentations of Jeremiah is one of my favorite portions of scripture. Previous to this he spends two long chapters describing the utter devastation which had fallen upon Jerusalem when she was destroyed by the Babylonians. The suffering that the Jewish people had undergone in that attack was horrific, and Jeremiah questions the severity of the punishment to have fallen upon the people:

Look, o LORD, and consider!
To whom have you done this?

Should women eat their offspring,
the children they have borne?
Should priest and prophet be killed
in the sanctuary of the LORD? (Lam 2.20)

Such was the grave suffering which had befallen the people because of their sins. They received warning after warning, but refusing to repent at the word of the prophets, eventually the threats were made a reality. God's wrath had come upon them in its fullness, and they were reaping the consequences of their grave injustices. So Jeremiah says about himself:

I am one who has seen affliction
under the rod of God's wrath;
he has driven and brought me
into darkness without any light (3.1-2).

We may very well say that the experience undergone by the Israelites and by Jeremiah here is one of hell. They had broken covenant with God and had incurred the penalty for doing so -- death, expatriation, exile, abandonment. But after two and a half long chapters describing the utter desolation of the city of God, notice what a surprising change of tone appears:

But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
"The LORD is my portion," says my soul,
"therefore I will hope in him."

The LORD is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD (3.21-26).

In the middle of hell itself, with Jerusalem of God being destroyed and women eating their children to keep from starving, Jeremiah can dare to say that he trusts God! How can he do that? How can he look square upon the horrors of the reality he has been living, evil and suffering fully in sight, and say that he trusts God, and moreover that it is good to do so?

This is the Jewish way, as I understand it: you complain, you speak your mind, your object to God, you question everything he has been doing, but in the end you still trust him. It makes sense in a way, since even in hell and outside of it, your only hope is in God. If God exists and he rules the universe, then he is only possible source of hope for you. It would make no sense to do anything else. So the true Jew trusts in God even if it makes no sense, even it is difficult, even if everything tells you otherwise.

There is something deeper here, too. In the middle of hell itself, Jeremiah says that the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases. Here we find the conviction that though God may be quite terrible and fearful, at the same time there is something less than permanent about the "bad" side of YHWH. Jeremiah doesn't imagine that God could not have had anything to do with the calamity which he and his people are suffering. He doesn't say, "I can't believe that a good God would do this." He doesn't make a priori assumptions about what God can and cannot do. But he is also convinced that God must be good, and that this goodness cannot be set aside by a moment's wrath or anger.

It is this conviction about the basic goodness of God that leaves room for hope. Apart from this, there can be no hoping. If one loses the conviction that God is good and that God nevertheless might restore one's fortunes, then all of life becomes a literal hell. But Jeremiah has that hope, because he understands that God, though wrathful, is never happily or voluntarily so: for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone (3.33). Beneath the facade of wrath and anger is an infinite ocean of grace and goodness, to use St. Isaac the Syrian's wonderful language, and this gives Jeremiah hope.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Life in Christ as a battle of the selves

Consider what John the Elder says in these words:

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God's seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters (1 John 3.4-10).

These are some difficult words for many of us to swallow, since they seem to place impossibly high standards on the children of God. Who can say they are without sin? Who can say that they perfectly love their brothers and sisters? Who would have the gall to affirm that he doesn't commit sin? And yet if we admit that we actually do sin, and that we do not perfectly love our brothers and sisters, it would seem we disqualify ourselves from being children of God.

I wonder, however, whether we might not understand John's words by reference to the old self vs. new self dialectic which appears in Paul's letters. Paul often makes reference to the old self, who must be put off, and a new self which is found in Christ and in the Christian life. He speaks about this in Eph 4.20-24, Col 3.9-10, and Rom 6.6, where he explicitly mentions the παλαιὸς ἄνθρωπος, the old person or old self. Christian life becomes a radical change of identity and a reorientation of one's conception of self. The baptized Christian becomes clothed with Christ (Gal 3.27), becomes united with Christ in his death (Rom 6.3-5), and thus assumes a new identity as though he were in Christ; he begins to consider himself dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ (Rom 6.11).

Now the Christian makes these new identifications and changes of identity, and yet finds himself nevertheless doing things that are indubitably not Christlike. Sin is a remaining reality in the life of the Christian, as we all know well from personal experience. How then are we supposed to understand its presence? Aren't we in Christ? Haven't we been united with him?

My proposal is that the new self which is born in the heart of the Christian is that which John says cannot sin; the old self is that which sins and finds itself tempted to sin. The life of the Christian is the battle between these two selves. Consider the story of the two wolves: an old man tells a child that in every person there are two wolves, one representing good and the other evil, and they fight against each other every day; the wolf that wins is the one you feed.

Likewise in the present case. The child of God born in you does not sin, and cannot sin, and when you sin he finds himself repulsed and moves you to repent; the child of the devil in you hates righteousness and cannot but sin, and when he finds you doing what is right, he will oppose you with every bit of power available to him. The one with whom you choose to identify, the one whom you choose to strengthen and with whom to occupy yourself -- that is the one that you will find winning at the end of each day.

When John speaks of the child of God who cannot sin, I take it he is referring to the new self -- those new impulses, that new identity of ours which earnestly desires fellowship with God and righteousness. When she speaks of the children of the devil, I take it he is referring to the old self -- those old impulses and way of doing things, that identity which can't stand the things of God at all. The one can't sin; the other can't help but sin. We are to remember that the Son of God came to do away with this latter self.

The proposal I've given presupposes that a single Christian has both a child of God and a child of the devil in him. But how can a child of the devil still be a Christian? John does say that the children of the devil do not love their brothers and sisters (1 John 3.10). Therefore they are a part of the family of God which is here being discussed; after all, John begins this discussion with the affirmation that we are God's children now (3.1-2). Either he understands all of humanity to have been made God's children through Christ's work, in which case Christians are those who understand this truth and conform themselves to it, or else only those who are baptized and believe are children. In any case, children of the devil have brothers and sisters whom they do not love, and so are nevertheless members of the family.

The idea is that the child of God, the person who truly believes and obeys, the one whom we must become, loves and does what is right and does not sin. The child of the devil, the person who disbelieves and disobeys, the one who is in us and yet whom we must kill, does not believe and does not love the brothers and sisters. The child of God comes out in us when we do what is right and love; the child of the devil comes out when we hate and do what is wrong.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Be ye perfect

Christ tells his disciples, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven . . . Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5.44, 48). What does 'perfect' mean?

It is well-known that the word 'perfect' in the ancient languages (i.e., Latin and Greek) carries the sense of completion. In Greek the word used here is τέλειοι, which is clearly related to the noun τέλος. A thing's τέλος is its goal, its end, the thing or range of activity to which it aims naturally. Consequently for a thing to be τέλειος is for it to have accomplished its purpose, to be fulfilled, to be fully realized. Imagine a machine that is accomplishing its purpose completely and flawlessly, or a tree operating naturally and efficiently to produce healthy and plentiful fruit -- that is what is being suggested here.

Likewise in Latin, the word perfectus, from which we get our English 'perfect', is composed of two elements: the preposition per-, which means 'through', and -fectus, which means made. A thing that is perfectus in Latin is that has been made or realized "all the way through," to the end. Imagine constructing something after a model, and going step by step until the product is entirely finished with nothing leftover. That is something perfectus, made through to the end, complete. A sketch or drawing is one thing, but a painting with all the finishing touches made is perfectus.

Jesus teaches us, therefore, that when we love our enemies in addition to our friends, we are perfect -- we are complete, we are realized all the way through. Our love, too, is complete when we do these things. The implication is that it is a part of God's model for humanity that a human person love each and all, irrespective of merit; this is how Jesus teaches us a person is to be considered and evaluated. Humanity's goal is to love all, and a human is perfect and reaches this goal when he does this. The goal, of course, is no less than God himself, who loves all indifferently. Loving in this unconditional and universal way is consequently a part of being the image and likeness of God!

Now Christ as the image of the invisible God (Col 1.15) certainly fulfills this function himself in his life. As Stăniloae and other theologians emphasize, Christ as the perfected man represents the goal of all humanity; he is the one who, in Athanasius' terms, remakes the image and likeness of God in his own human nature and transforms us in this direction as well. His perfected love is shown through the fact that he has loved enemy and friend alike in his act of atonement: he dies for us while we were still sinners (Rom 5.8), and in fact he is the atonement for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2.2).

We, too, become true humans when we love in this way. That is what Jesus teaches us. We become true humans, which means we become like God, when we lay down our lives for one another (cf. 1 John 3.16).

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Is theism incompatible with morality?

A popular argument -- sometimes developed with sophistication, other times presented rather barely and vulgarly -- has it that morality requires theism. The claim is not that you must believe in God in order to be good, as if there could not be good atheists. Rather the idea is that the whole concept and enterprise of moral action requires the existence of God in order to make much sense. "If God does not exist, anything is permitted" -- that is the oft-repeated line.

This argument can be developed in such a way as to be a good and powerful one, I think. Some persons, however, have tried to run the reverse argument: the argument that moral practice is actually incompatible with theism, with believing in God as well as in the actual existence of God. It sounds surprising, it may seem strange, but initially the argument has an air of plausibility. How does the argument go?

Consider the case of some grave moral evil: torture, or kidnapping, or starvation and famine, or whatever. The idea is that if God exists, he would not permit such a thing to exist unless he had a sufficiently good reason. Supposing then that he does exist, consequently the occurrence of such an evil and misfortune must have a reason which justifies God. But if God is justified in permitting it to occur, why then should we interfere? Why try to prevent imminent evils, or else to alleviate actual ones, if God has reason to let them occur? It would seem that belief in God requires a hands-off approach to the evils of the world: God's got his reasons for permitting them, therefore don't worry about them. But surely such a thing is monstrous and undoes moral behavior altogether. Therefore, the conclusion is drawn, morality and theism are inconsistent.

Though this argument may seem initially plausible -- and certainly to a fair number of atheists it is really plausible -- it is not actually all that good, at least not in my opinion. There are a few things that could be said in response.

In the first place, this argument as such does not prove that morality is compatible with atheism. The argument here is that in a theistic universe, we would lack adequate moral motivation to seek to prevent or lessen suffering in the world; the fact that God's permitted it is a reason not to interfere, or so they presume. But to suppose therefore that morality is compatible with atheism is a fine non sequitur if ever there were one. The arguments of the theist plausibly show that moral practice does not fare well under atheism, either. There is no judgment, there is no life after death, there is no ultimate reckoning -- all these things compromise the motivation to be moral in a universe where there is no de facto judge beyond whoever's got the strongest arms and guns.

But more to the point, the argument itself is not compelling; it makes some drastic logical leaps which are not strictly speaking valid. That God has reason for permitting X to occur does not entail that I have sufficient reason for not interfering or preventing X. That is an invalid inference insofar as God and I are different agents who are not on a par; he has different goals in mind and a different knowledge of the facts, whereas I have my own unique and limited position from which I must act. God has reason to permit an evil to occur, but I have reason to prevent it and stop it if it has already started.

Beyond that, the theist also believes that God himself demands of her that she work to prevent evil or else help those who are suffering. For instance, Jesus uses the parable of the Good Samaritan -- a case perfectly suited for the philosophical problem we are here considering -- in order to teach a man, "Go and do likewise." Part of becoming a human in the world as God intends us to be is "love thy neighbor as thyself"; this implies that I act to help when she is in danger, as much as I would try to save myself and want others to help, too.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Atonement and action

Prov 16.6 says: By loyalty and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for.

This is a plausible line of thought in its own right. How can a person make good for a deed done wrong? How can the relationship be restored if there has been a misstep? It is obvious that trust has to be reestablished, especially in the case of grave wrongdoings; the most obvious way for this to take place is for the other party to demonstrate goodwill and a concern for the health of the relationship through loyalty and faithfulness. This may include apology, reparations, and the rest.

Understanding the point, then, it seems that this insight can be used fruitfully in our atonement theology as well. What is it about Christ's work that atones for our sins? What is it that makes right the wrong humanity has done, and restores the relationship between God and human persons?

It seems to me we ought to make room for Christ's faithfulness to God, in other words his general obedience as a human, in our conceptualization of the atonement. Human sin is atoned for when the representative of humanity, Jesus of Nazareth, takes the burden of God's law upon himself and obeys it for the rest. As I understand it, this is what happens when Christ participates in the baptism of repentance called for by John the Baptist. He is taking the burden of the sin of Israel and humanity upon himself, and being obedient and righteous in their place for their sake.

This means that we ought not limit our understanding of the atonement to the fact of Christ's death. Certainly it plays an important role, and I find Christ's willingness to undergo death on behalf of others as a part of his fulfillment of the law to "love thy neighbor as thyself." But atonement is something that takes place throughout the whole life of Christ, as he repairs the relationship between God and humanity within his own person, through his own righteousness and obedience.

Here, it seems to me, are good grounds for understanding the πίστις Χριστοῦ genitives in Paul subjectively, as references to the faithfulness of Christ. If atonement requires fidelity and loyalty, then it makes sense that Paul would connect atonement, redemption, etc., to Christ's fidelity to God. When he says, for instance, that God προέθετο [τὸν Ἰησοῦν] ἱλαστήριον διὰ πίστεως ἐν τῷ αὐτοῦ αἵματι (Rom 3.25), we may understand him following Campbell in the following way: an atonement for sin, through his faithfulness, by his blood. The atonement is realized through Christ's faithfulness unto death, metonymically referred to as "his blood."

This has important consequences for our own practices of atonement, too. Atonement as I understand it is not about making the other person pay for what they've done, but about establishing and evidencing the necessary goodwill for a relationship to move forward. You can't be my friend if you don't sense that I have goodwill for you and am disposed to act on it in our interactions. Atonement is about my demonstrating that goodwill to you in a way that you can appreciate and (I would hope) is proportionate to the gravity of the wrongdoing.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Suffering orients us to God

Consider these words of Paul from his second letter to the Corinthians:

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would not rely on ourselves but on God who raises from the dead. He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again, as you also join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many (2 Cor 1.8-11).

Why do people suffer so badly in the world? If ever there were a question which led a person to disbelieve in God, it would be this one. It's a question for which there are no easy answers, and certainly there are no answers which apply equally well in every case. Sometimes we have to sit back and be silent in the face of mysterious phenomena. Such a thing is certainly not easy in our scientific age, in which we are convinced that we can figure out the answer to every question, the corollary of this being that if we can't find a reason for some thing, there must not be one.

Yet I think there is at least this response which can be given: suffering occurs to reorient us towards God. And inevitably this is what takes place, whether this reorientation is manifested through prayer for deliverance and faith, as in the case of Paul and his missionary crew, or else in the case of angry protest as in many of the psalms. If the bible were to give a single answer to the question of the reason for suffering, it would be this one: to turn our minds and our hearts away from the quotidian and the sensual, and to think of and speak to God.

The ancient patristic authors such as Athanasius wrote that Adam and Eve would have continued on in immortality, if only they had not turned their minds from the contemplation of God. Their life was supposed to be a God-centered, God-saturated one. Indeed, this what our lives will be like, since the bible tells us there will be a time when God will be all in all (1 Cor 15.28). Consider Jesus Christ himself, our model, whose life was eminently a God-centered life: he spent his nights praying and crying out prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death (Heb 5.7); and he spent his days serving others and teaching about the kingdom of God to those who were in need. This is the sort of life God intends us to live, and suffering is a way of nudging us in that direction.

Suffering awakens within us that sense that all is not right, that things are not as they should be. This awareness, furthermore, obviously directs our attention to the one who ultimately ought to be taking care that things go right -- to God himself. But then what?

Once we have been so oriented towards God by the suffering we see and experience, the bible calls us to do one more thing: to trust; to repent and believe the good news that God is actually king (cf. Mark 1.15), that his will is actually being accomplished in the things that are taking place, though it may seem impossible and wild to our own minds. Trust in God and depend on him with everything; trust that he can raise even the dead, so that even death is a conquerable evil. Trust that he will deliver you from every evil, even if the way in which this deliverance is realized may not be what you desire or anticipate.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Pastoral ministry and the consolation of God

I have recently completed a course on the spiritual disciplines called Foundations for a Spiritual Life. Among the various works we had to read was also Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, which I enjoyed very much. Especially captivating for me was Peterson's notion of the pastorate as the art of curing souls, the care of souls, the cura animarum.

For Peterson, this is the principal work of the pastor. The care of the souls is the everyday pastoral life . . . concerned with developing a life of prayer among the the people. This is the work to which the gathering on Sunday is oriented: Leading worship, preaching the gospel, and teaching Scripture on Sundays would develop in the next six days into representing the life of Christ in the human traffic of everyday (1993, 58).

This notion of the cure of souls is somewhat related to what had first attracted me to ministry. I saw that I benefited much from my study of the bible, from prayer, from my growing understanding of the things of God, and I wanted to share them with others. They helped me in such a way, and I wanted to see other persons helped in their day-to-day lives by the same.

The apostle Paul talks a little bit about this in his second letter to the Corinthians. Recalling his many experiences of persecution and travail, he writes:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God (2 Cor 1.3-4).

The apostle and his team receive consolation from God in the midst of all their troubles and misfortunes, and this consolation they share with others. Their hearts may despair of life itself (v. 8), but they receive a cure for their troubled souls from God; this cure they subsequently pass on to others, to strengthen them in the battle being waged. This is the cure of souls! This is pastoral ministry as I understand it and as I wish to practice it.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Christ did not please himself

One short verse from the bible which has stuck with me for a long time is: Christ did not please himself (Rom 15.3). In five short words is contained the entire message of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah! Someone well acquainted with hardship and sorrow, indeed a "man of sorrows" who pours out his life unto death (Isa 53.12) -- this is our Christ, this is our God.

It seems to me an evident point that Christian ministry is modeled after Christ himself; in fact all of the life of a Christian ought to take its model in Christ, but especially that of the pastor or minister who inevitably embodies Christianity to others. If you wear the collar, you are an unofficial and involuntary spokesman for the church and for Christ himself, a witness unto the nations, even if an imperfect one. This need not be because you want to be such, but because this is how others will see you. Consequently all ministers would do well to follow Paul's words: Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself (Rom 15.2-3).

To what extreme does the minister go? How far can he go on not pleasing himself? There's no sense in talking about the ministers who make of ministry a continuous opportunity to please themselves -- whether because they enjoy preaching or because they make easy money, or whatever. What do we say about the person whose heart and who wishes to serve, and give his life for others as any good minister does?

Recently I completed the fantastic novel Silence by Shūsaku Endō. I have a bit of an obsessive personality, so any time I come across something great it is all I can think about for a week or two afterwards. Silence has had the same effect on me: I cannot get it out of my head, and I am being transformed by it in some interesting ways. Spoilers follow.

The story is about a Portuguese priest Rodrigues who goes to Japan during the persecutions of the seventeenth century for two reasons: first, to perform priestly duties for the underground Christians who are there, who have been lacking a priest for some time now; and second, to investigate the purported apostasy-under-torture of Cristóvão Ferreira, a famous priest who had been present in Japan during a time of flourishing for Christianity there. While attempting to escape from Japanese search parties, he is betrayed by a repeat-apostate who identifies as a Christian and yet apostatizes under every threat of persecution.

Rodrigues eventually meets Ferreira, who has been living a Japanese Buddhist life after the apostasy, writing works on science and medicine in addition to a polemic against Christianity at the behest of the ruling authorities. Ferreira tells Rodrigues that in spite their best missionary efforts and the apparent success of Christianity, the god the Japanese believed in was not that of the Christians but merely their own previous gods under a different name. He tells Rodrigues that Japan is a bottomless swamp; the sapling of Christianity cannot grow here. Rodrigues doesn't want to hear it.

Eventually Rodrigues is held in a very small cell, one that is dark and into which someone has evidently urinated, since the floor is damp with piss. He waits and waits for the moment in which he will finally undergo torture by the pit --  in which they hung a person upside down into a pit, arms and legs bound, with a slit made behind the ear so that blood would escape and the victim would not die for some time. Eventually, as he awaits the moment of his torture, Ferreira comes by and he learns that Christians are being hung in the pit; they have long since apostatized, but they will not be let free until the priest Rodrigues apostatizes by placing his foot upon a crude icon of the crucified Christ.

Ferreira tells him, Christ would certainly have apostatized to help men. . . . For love Christ would have apostatized. Even if it meant giving up everything he had (Endō 1980, 170). Pulling him out of the holding cell, he tells Rodrigues: You are now going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed. . . . Now you are going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed. . . . Your brethren in the Church will judge you as they have judged me. But there i something more important than the Church, more important than missionary work: what you are now about to do. As Rodrigues lifts his foot to trample the icon, Christ from within the icon speaks to him: Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross (171).


Rodrigues apostatizes in order to save the lives of those apostate Christians undergoing the horrific torture of the pit. Is this a work of a Christian ministry? Is this an instantiation of Christ did not please himself? To compromise what he had held most dear, the thing to which he had dedicated his very life, for the sake of strangers who were being tortured cruelly? It is a fascinating question, one which I cannot answer at the moment. To give up one's very self for the sake of the other! Isn't that the essence of Christ did not please himself?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Baptism and faith in Galatians 3

For Paul in Galatians 3, baptism and faith are so closely related as effectively to be synonyms for one another, to be used synonymously in parallel arguments. This is a particularly significant fact, one with important consequences for our understanding of the proper relation between faith and religious actions, as well as for our interpretation of Paul's understanding of salvation.

Consider the argument of the first nine verses of the chapter. There Paul asks the question: Did you receive the Spirit by doing works of the law or by believing what you heard? (3.2). It is clear that by doing this, he is setting up faith and works of the law as alternative means to accomplishing the same end, namely the reception of the Holy Spirit. If the object is obtained by one means, it would make no sense to take up the other means; that is Paul's argument. Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? (v. 3).

He goes on to make the connection between the reception of the Holy Spirit, on the one hand, and the blessing of Abraham and his offspring, on the other. The promise in the scripture -- "All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you" -- quoted in v. 8 is applied to the case of the believing Galatians who have the Spirit of God: For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed (v. 9).

Even further, he later speaks explicitly of the promise of Abraham as the reception of the Holy Spirit. Christ becomes a curse to redeem those who were under the curse of the law, in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (v. 14). "Justification" by faith, the reception of the Holy Spirit, believing, receiving the promised blessing of Abraham -- all of these things are closely and intimately connected.

But now there is a complication introduced, namely the locution "in Christ." What does it mean to be in Christ? How can the promised Holy Spirit be received in Christ?

It becomes clear that Paul makes use of a concept of union with Christ. He explicitly names Christ as the singular offspring of Abraham in v. 16, the implication being that he has inherited the promised blessing of Abraham. This is certainly true: Christ received the Holy Spirit, just as Peter affirms in his sermon on Pentecost (Acts 2.33). Consequently if we are to have this blessing ourselves, we must be united to Christ in some relevant way.

We have already seen that Paul envisions faith as a condition of union with Christ, since it is through faith that one is justified, receives the Holy Spirit, is blessed alongside Abraham, etc. Yet he also speaks  of baptism in the same way. Notice what he says:

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. . . . And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise (vv. 23-7, 29).

Notice that faith and baptism here are used in parallelism: to be in Christ by faith is to have been baptized into Christ; to belong to Christ and to be Abraham's offspring is to have clothed oneself with Christ through baptism.

Why is this important? There is at least one thing important about this: faith and religious action are so closely connected for Paul that he expects the person who has the one to have the other, as well. It would be inconceivable for Paul for someone to have faith and yet not to have been baptized. "In that case," he might say, "what is it that you believe, since the message is 'Repent and be baptized'?" The separation between faith and religious action is lamentable and disastrous, a misunderstanding of Paul altogether. He certainly speaks against keeping the Law, but evidently he expected that all believers would be baptized.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Messiah must die, and so must his followers

From Mark 8.27 till the end of the chapter, Jesus and his disciples are on a road trip up to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. Along the way, the topic of the identity of Jesus comes up and so Jesus asks his disciples, Who do people say that I am? (8.27) They respond: John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets (v. 28). But Peter is bold and believing, and he comes forward saying: You are the Messiah! (v. 29).

Jesus begins to tell them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three day rise again (v. 31). This evidently did not mesh well with Peter's conception of the role of the Messiah, because he takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him (v. 32). But Jesus responds with rebuke and tells Peter, [Y]ou are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things (v. 33).

Then he turns to his disciples and to the crowd and says: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it (vv. 34-5).

Jesus many times throughout the gospel of Mark insists that persons not tell anyone that he is the Messiah. When Peter affirms that he is the Messiah, Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him (v. 30). Why might that be? It is probably because they did not know what the Messiah was supposed to do, they did not know God's actual plan for the Messiah and the salvation he would accomplish. In fact they actively reject that plan and that truth when Jesus tells them quite openly (v. 32) that the Messiah is supposed to suffer, be rejected, and die.

God's plan was otherwise. The Messiah must die because he must give his life as a ransom for many (10.45). And it will be expected likewise of the Messiah's disciples that they give their lives for his sake and for the sake of his gospel. Christianity is demanding; following Jesus is hardly easy, but is rather a death every day (cf. 1 Cor 15.31). It shouldn't surprise us that the spiritual life is painful and difficult; it took pain and difficulty to make it possible for us in the first place. We can have a spiritual life -- a life in the Spirit -- only through the grace and faithfulness of Jesus Christ, who freed us from the curse and death which kept us separated from God.

At the same time, if we do not seek to die along with the Messiah in order that we may enjoy life, the result is rejection: Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (8.38). If we insist on abiding in a life of sin, then the result will be that we are excluded from the kingdom; but if we suffer alongside the Suffering Servant, the reward is life eternal and fellowship with God.

The scourge of classical theism: atheism and determinism

PTL pose the question: how could the philosophically reasoned conception of God particular to classical theism have excited much of modern atheism (An Introduction to Christian Theology, p. 100), ignoring for the moment the controversy of that claim? They suggest the following:

The recipe is quite simple, and the ingredients are as follows: if one conceives of God primarily in the category of causality (the world as an effect of the First Cause); and if one places that transcendent Cause of the world in eternal timelessness; and if one considers God's will and plan toward the world to be absolutely immutable (because everything in the divine being is unchanging, since there is no movement in God, given that God is one, simple, single thing); if one puts these ingredients together as the controlling features of the doctrine of God, what kind of relationship do we get between God and the world? The answer is: one characterized by determinism. So conceived, whatever God timelessly wills toward creation will, as an inexorable cause, work its way out in the world. . . . 

This classical theistic determinism was largely what provoked the most general protest of modern atheism, whose overarching complaint was that there was no room in Christian theology for the true freedom and dignity (i.e., relative autonomy) of the human person. With the rise of modernity and all the various, even religious, influences that contributed to secularization, there was a new emphasis on human responsibility in a less cosmologically and more historically conceived world. . . . 

Likewise with the protest atheist Camus, who objects to a God who appears existentially indifferent to (and therefore metaphysically aloof from) the absurdities, injustices, or suffering in the world, a conception of God reinforced by the classical attributes of immutability and impassibility. For Camus such indifference renders the notion of God unbelievable (pp. 100-1).

There are a number of ways a classical theist could respond to this; there are a number of problems with the supposed atheistic objection to classical theism that are worth noting.

In the first place, we might note that a significant number of modern atheist philosophers were determinists and denied human freedom, such as Baron d'Holbach. Obviously their rejection of the existence of God cannot have been motivated by classical theism's implied determinism, since they were themselves determinists.

On the other hand, there were classical theists who were determined defenders of human freedom of the will against determinism and predestinarianism. Origen is one example. Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis makes the repeated point that ancient Christian defenders of the doctrine of universal apokatastasis such as Origen, Bardaisan, Gregory Nyssen, and others were faithful defenders of human freedom. (In fact they often argued for universalism and freedom of the will within the same documents.) They were all undoubtedly classical theists who affirmed God's immutability, his impassibility, etc.

We might furthermore respond that, even if classical theism threatened human autonomy and freedom, this wouldn't suffice as a refutation of classical theism, and it wouldn't warrant rejecting it. It may just be that human persons are not autonomous in the ways desired. John Martin Fischer speaks in an article about "metaphysical megalomania," wanting more metaphysical power or ability than we could plausibly have. The answer to the problem of freedom, says Fischer, is not insisting on our metaphysical megalomania but adjusting our expectations to the reality we encounter. In order truly to refute classical theism, the atheist has to address the arguments proffered in its defense -- the exact thing that PTL never relate the modern atheists as doing.

Now I want to suggest an even stronger point. Modern protest atheism's concerns are best met by classical theism, and not by any other form, precisely because of the "determinism" that the former suggests. Classical theists insist again and again that God causes no evil and that his purpose and goal in everything is good. Plotinus and the Platonists use the language of the One's drawing all things to itself, and Aquinas ascribes the intrinsic teleology by which everything seeks its own good as being grounded in God himself. The classical theistic tradition insists that God always causes what is good, and never what is evil, and that his purpose is always good.

If this is so, and if God is impassible and immutable and the rest, then classical theism should prove very attractive to the protest atheist. The same omniscient and omnipotent God who is provident over the universe intends its good in everything that happen, and nothing could ever change that. Now that is optimistic! That is empowering! It was precisely this optimism of classical theism that inspired religious ecstasy in figures such as Isaac the Syrian.

Of course PTL cite Ivan Karamazov, who rejects providence on the basis of innocent suffering: And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price ... I don't want harmony. From love for humanity I don't want it ... Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it's beyond our means to pay so much. And so I give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return the ticket to Him (quoted at p. 99). PTL summarize: Ivan's main point is that human freedom does not appear worth the price we pay for its misuse given the history of human suffering (p. 98).

But to Karamazov and PTL we may respond: We don't know why things happen as they do. It may be that we are not in a position to understand why things happen thus, and our proposed theodicies often do not satisfy. But the arguments for classical theism remain, their premises are true nonetheless, and in fact they give optimism that things do not happen senselessly or pointlessly in the world. To refuse to accept reality as it is makes no sense. My friend Derek Rishmawy has made a good point in this respectBack when I was an anti-Calvinist, and even now, when I shudder to live in an Open Theist’s world, I have this thought: “Well, either God is that way or he isn’t. If he is, then that’s God and God is the standard of goodness.  In which case, I’m wrong about the nature of reality, and for me to refuse to worship, love, and acknowledge his goodness, to call him a devil, and so forth, is frightfully close to explicit blasphemy light of my own fallibility and sin.”

On the other hand, compromising the providence of God does not help and even makes things worse. If God knew what would happen, if he knew the state into which the world would fall before he made it, then you must grant that he had sufficient reason for creating nonetheless. On the other hand, if God does not know, then you are confronted with a grave number of objections: why hasn't he taken control of things, seeing that everything is going haywire? why doesn't he stop the evil from misusing their freedom? why doesn't he intervene in more obvious and frequent ways? A non-provident God seems weak, impotent in the face of evil, and can offer the protest atheist no help. Such a God would likely protest alongside us, but seems hardly able to help us in anything; he might as well not be there.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The scourge of classical theism: unmotivated atheism

Plantinga, Thompson, and Lundberg (PTL henceforth) make the following proposal:

Along with other notable theologians, we contend that much of modern atheism is a reaction to a concept of God that is more influenced by classical theism than a trinitarian theism, and that a robust trinitarianism, in addition to being a more biblical kind of theism, can serve as an important apologetic response to this lingering crisis of faith in the late-modern western world (An Introduction to Christian Theology, p. 91).

What therefore is the difference between classical theism and trinitarian theism? In summarizing what they suppose is an attempted reconciliation of competing worldviews on the part of the patristic authors -- viz., that of Greek philosophical theism, on the one hand, and of the trinitarian biblical narrative, on the other -- they effectively make the distinction along metaphysical and personalist lines. Classical theism is a heavily philosophical and metaphysical conception of God, whereas the other is described in large time-indexed and personal terms.

One finds in the church fathers, therefore, a fairly standard treatment of divine attributes. On the one hand, there are trinitarian affirmations as required by the biblical text -- for instance, that God in Christ, the eternal Son of the Father, became incarnate, suffered, died, was bodily resurrected, and will return again in judgment, all of which on the face of it seems to imply a divisibility, mutability, passibility, pathos, and temporality in God But on the other hand, one also finds an array of Greek metaphysical attributes that assert the opposite -- for example, that God is indivisibly simple, absolutely immutable (and therefore impassible or apathetic), and timelessly eternal, a metaphysic that the church fathers largely regarded as consistent with the biblical terminology that God is One (Deut. 6:4), unchanging (e.g., Mal. 3:6), and eternal or everlasting (e.g., Ps. 90:2) (p. 87).

Why would anyone be a classical theist? Why would anyone suppose God to have those attributes? PTL record some of the Middle Platonist-style arguments one might offer:

Middle Platonism tended to view God as an impersonal principle of supreme being -- "God" as the immaterial and transcendent ground, unity, and structure of being, the veritable fullness of life. This theistic concept evolved mainly out of the early philosophical question of "the One and the many." Its basic theo-logic runs as follows: given that our experience in the material world is of the manifold, of the "many" -- things, aspects, moments, and so on -- there must be a "One" that transcends, grounds, and unifies the many-ness of life and gives it coherence and meaning. For the early Greek philosophers, material multiplicity was a problem in itself, since everything with parts eventually over time changes for the worse; everything with parts wears down, deteriorates, dies, and, by all appearances, dissolves into oblivion -- witness, for example, the human body. Only an immaterial transcendent One, without parts, would be immune to this physics of decay and death. This One Supreme Being, or God, would be characterized by the highest perfection, and so would be the supreme instance of all the positive or good things in life: the all-true, good, beautiful, happy, self-sufficient One. Conversely, God would be the opposite of all the bad things. Therefore many of the divine attributes must be expressed as negations. Since material parts or divisibility lead to decay and death, God would have to be immaterial and indivisible -- One simple, single spiritual thing. As the transcendent One without parts, God would be free from change and therefore immutable, since change involves being affected by another (moreover, if God could change, this would entail that God is not perfect -- since change is assumed to be either for the worse or the better, and God must by definition already be the best). As immutable, God must also be impassible or apathetic -- neither affected by another, not even emotionally, nor prone to suffering. All of this entails that the One could not be temporal or "ternal" -- that is, in time, the realm of transience and death -- but rather eternal, dwelling in timeless transcendence (pp. 85-6).

Now PTL have affirmed that various forms of modern atheism are a response to the kind of conception of God drawn from Middle and Neoplatonist philosophy. What becomes obvious as you read their treatments of the varieties of atheism, however, is that none of them actually address anything resembling classical theism. Therefore PTL's claim that modern atheism arose as a response to classical theism is fatally underdetermined by the evidence they bring forth.

Consider what they call scientific atheismAs modern science developed and the world was being discovered in its natural integrity as a well-oiled machine run by natural laws (the Newtonian world), less and less was God needed as an explanatory principle of the world's workings. Life phenomena that were mysterious to the ancients and medievals -- take thunderstorms or earthquakes -- were generally attributed to the spiritual forces of the gods/God. As the operations of the world were discerned as natural laws, the cosmos was significantly demystified and God was increasingly pushed to the periphery of human knowledge (p. 93). This is the atheism of Pierre Laplace, who told Napoleon that he had no need of the God hypothesis to explain the structure of the physical universe.

That these persons are not responding to classical theism is obvious to those with a mind attuned to subtle logical distinctions -- or not so subtle, as in the present case. PTL themselves, when recounting in admittedly abbreviated and inadequate form the arguments of the Middle Platonists to the One, made no reference to natural phenomena of mysterious origins. It was metaphysical facts -- multiplicity, the existence of composites, the nature of change, etc. -- that motivated their arguments, not natural phenomena subject to empirical investigation.  When Plotinus argues in Enneads VI.9 that composite objects have their existence from the unity of their ontological constituents, and therefore there must be a simple metaphysical Absolute which gives existence of itself to everything else, he was not offering an argument from mysterious natural phenomena subject to empirical investigation by Enlightenment-period science. He was offering an argument on metaphysical premises that cannot be empirically investigated or denied. So scientific atheism was not a response to classical theism; it didn't even touch on the same plane of reality from which classical theism drew its arguments and evidences, and which it addressed.

They also speak of humanistic atheism, the sort of atheism that sees belief in God as an impediment to human progress and self-actualization. They cite Feuerbach: Put most simply, Feuerbach thought that the notion of God was a projection of human imagination; "God" was a human fancy, a person blown up to infinite, eternal size . . . Moreover, Feuerbach considered theism a pathology: humanity projects an image o itself as "God" and lavishes on it all our best features and attributes in God-sized measure, but then so objectifies this image transcendentally that in view of God humans become but poor, wretched sinners, unable to do any good. . . . For Feuerbach, all theology was really anthropology, and to face up to this truth is the first step in liberating humanity for positive social and political action in the world (p. 94). Humans anthropomorphize a God far beyond what they are themselves, find themselves small and insignificant before the reification of their own ideals, and are paralyzed

I don't see any projection in the Middle Platonist arguments for the existence of the One; I don't see any projection in Plotinus' arguments, but rather insistent rejection of any anthropomorphism of the divine and persistence in upholding the utter transcendence of the One beyond all human concepts. PTL give the impression that the classical theistic conception of God is irreligiously impersonal and abstract compared to the biblical one (p. 100), and then propose that Feuerbach's proposal of anthropomorphism as a response to classical theism. This makes no sense. Granting gladly that human beings are prone to anthropomorphize God and understand him as a kind of cosmic, massive version of ourselves, none of the Middle Platonist or classical theistic arguments in general are thereby refuted by pointing out this fact. In fact all of this is a gigantic non sequitur.

Then again there is apathetic atheism, the kind of atheism that is motivated by a lack of concern for God. Happy with the content of the life he lives, the apathetic atheist doesn't think about God and doesn't care to investigate the matter of his existence. There is obviously no reaction here, since the apathetic atheist doesn't even engage in intellectual investigation of matters of philosophy and religion anyway.

Finally there is protest atheism, the kind of atheism that is a passionate remonstrance against God in view of the fractured human condition. That is, it takes up the plight of humanity in the face of seeming divine indifference (p. 96). They describe a couple of types of protest atheism.

On the one hand, there is Albert Camus's protest atheism grounded in the absurdity of life: . . . in the absence of metaphysical absolutes or any pattern of life's meaning, as traditionally grounded in God, the individual must resolutely define and "authenticate" his or her own life. . . . For Camus, the absurdity of life appears incompatible with any notion of providential governance of the world; rather, the world seems to be inhabited by "a god who had come into it with a dissatisfaction and a preference for futile sufferings." . . . Like others, Camus cannot reconcile traditional theism with the absurd conditions of human existence (p. 98).

It is hard to see how this is a response aimed distinctly at classical theism. This is a problem, if it is a problem, with any conception of God which admits of a providence of God. Appealing to Ivan Karamazov's remarks in The Brothers Karamazov, they summarize protest atheism: the problem of human suffering renders any notion of divine providence questionable (p. 99). If God knew what the world would be like before he made it, if he knew what he was getting into (so to speak) when he decided to create, then you have the problem that the world as it appears to us seems less than what we would expect of him. We might also make the complaint that protest atheism such as this is not a reaction to classical theism since it makes no effort to refute any of its arguments. Even if God did not care one bit for the world, that would not refute the arguments for his existence that the classical theistic tradition offers.

Summary and conclusion: the forms of modern atheism that PTL recount are not genuine reactions to classical theism. They do not touch upon or ever refute the classical theistic arguments, and they do not even talk about the same things. Even granting the protest atheist's point that the evils of terrestrial existence make the existence of divine providence unlikely, an admission that we do not have to make, we are not thereby refuted as classical theists. The arguments for the existence of the One still stand. In this way we see that modern atheism is largely unmotivated and groundless from the perspective of classical theism.

There is more to be said, of course.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Preparing for death

Ancient Greek philosophers -- or at least some of them -- understand their activity as philosophers to be a preparation for death. That is how Socrates describes philosophy in the Phaedo. Because the philosopher is concerned with the soul over the body, and seeks to perfect the soul by its knowledge of the truth about the universe, therefore the philosophical life is a preparation for death at which point the soul is separated from the body.

Regardless of the metaphysical and anthropological differences between the two, Christianity and ancient Greek philosophy are similar in this respect. Paul speaks of baptism, the beginning of the Christian life, as a sort of intentional death undergone through union with Christ's own death (Rom 6). Elsewhere he speaks of putting of the old self, which is effectively dying, and putting on a new self (Eph 4, Col 3). Of course the real perfection of the new self comes at the resurrection, so Christian life is a kind of training for death and resurrection.

Because death is an inevitable reality, it makes sense to prepare for it. To some extent we have to ignore the fact of our death and its unpredictability in order to go on in the world; many people, if they spent much time thinking about their own demise, would be too depressed and anxious to move forward. But for those who want fortitude of spirit, who want to face reality and adjust themselves to it, and especially those for whom (as Athanasius says in De Incarnatione) death is something dead because of the resurrection of Christ, meditation on and preparation for death are essential.

Meditation on and preparation for death are important for at least the following reason: they help us to understand well the finitude and preciousness of time. They help us to use our time wisely; in an interesting way, meditation about the imminence and inevitability of death can inspire a profound, ardent zeal to live and to live well. One of my favorite lines from The Imitation of Christ:

Many have died suddenly and without warning; for the Son of Man will come at an hour when you least expect Him (Lk 12:40). When the hour of death comes, you will begin to think differently about your past life and great will be your sorrow then that you have been so negligent and lazy in God's service.

How happy and wise are those who try now to become what they would want to be at the hour of death (I, 23, 3-4).

The scourge of classical theism

Not wanting the first thing people see upon visiting my blog to be a posting about Victoria Olsteen, I've decided I will try my hands at a topical series. I've not had much inspiration by way of blog post topics lately, so maybe taking up a series will help motivate me to write.

I'm going to write up a series on "the scourge of classical theism." I am a classical theist, one especially influenced by the neoplatonist Plotinus and the scholastic Thomas Aquinas. I find that most critical treatments of classical theism I read are really very poor, and that more often than not they do not betray a close familiarity with the system of thought that motivates it. This is true, for instance, of An Introduction to Christian Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), by Richard J. Plantinga, Thomas R. Thompson, and Matthew D. Lundberg.

I'm going to be posting short critical posts, focusing mostly on the fourth chapter of their book, "A Tale of Two Theisms" (pp. 77-108). I hope in the course of these posts to show classical theism is a force to be reckoned with, and that at least these of its contemporary critics are not putting up adequate arguments against it.

For a nice refutation of Roger Olson's recent polemics against classical theism, see this post by Ed Feser.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Victoria Olsteen and the heresy hunters

Evidently something Victoria Olsteen said has got the panties of some in a bundle. She is being denounced as a heretic and perhaps much worse in various portions of the Christian web. Knowing ahead of time that hardly anyone will read what I have to say, and that my own words will be eminently inconsequential in this entire debate, I will venture to defend her words. What she says is hardly heresy; if anything, her opponents are the heretics for their deficient conception of God and worship.

Here's the video:


Here are her words, transcribed by imperfect moi:

When we obey God, we're not doing it for God. I mean, that's one way to look at it. We're doing it for ourselves. Because God takes pleasure when we're happy; that's the thing that gets him the greatest joy this morning. So I want you to know this morning: just do good for your own self, do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship him, you're not doing it for God really; you're doing it for yourself, because that's what makes God happy.

Effectively she affirms that we obey God and worship him, not for his sake but for our own. These things make us happy, they contribute to our well-being, and to see us do well is what God wants and what God enjoys.

Now I have to admit that it is hard actually to disagree with all or most of this. For instance, Christian authors regularly talk about the intrinsically religious and spiritual nature of humanity, and how a healthy life requires a spiritual dimension. People are not living as God intended if they are not in fellowship with him; people do not live human life as it ought to be lived if they are not communing with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Human happiness is obviously connected with a life lived with God. That's a point Christians generally grant.

Granting all this, then, it is likewise easy to admit that we do not worship God or obey him for his own sake. Here I make appeal to the classical theistic doctrines of divine aseity and immutability.

Per divine aseity, God exists and has complete beatitude entirely of himself (a se, in Latin). He has need of nothing, he can be given nothing, he is dependent on nothing outside of himself for anything. The biblical authorities regularly make this point precisely in discussions of worship. Paul tells the Athenians specifically that God is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things (Acts 17.25). When you worship God, you are not serving him anything. He needs nothing from you, and anyway he gives you everything you have to begin with.

Likewise the doctrine of divine immutability affirms that God cannot be changed or affected by anything that happens outside of himself. He remains entirely the same from the ages. Now if he is entirely self-sufficient in himself and he is immutable, then there is no changing that fact. It was true from eternity and it always be true that God is not served by human hands, as Paul says.

Now if God is not served by our religious lives, if our spiritual worship doesn't affect him or change him or do him any good, and moreover if he literally has no need of us, then Victoria Olsteen's point seems obvious. If God is like this, and yet demands that we worship, then worship and obedience must be for our own sake. We already grant that the spiritual life is essential to human happiness, and we see that the elements of the spiritual life -- worship, obedience, prayer, etc. -- cannot and do not benefit or affect God in himself in anyway. It is not a difficult inference to make from all this, therefore, that these things are for us, for our sake, so that we may flourish.

Victoria Olsteen's point is philosophically defensible, and the heresy hunters who are up in arms about her "humanism" and "gnosticism" are embarrassing. They are philosophically and theologically illiterate, and their objection to Olsteen's words presuppose or otherwise entail an anthropomorphic conception of God that Christians throughout the ages of the history of the church would have found heretical. There is always this danger, I suppose, the danger of the well-meaning but misguided laypersons who are ready to cast others into the outer darkness because they don't know any better.

At the end of the day, it is really embarrassing that Christian brothers and sisters would object to her for telling people to worship God and obey him, adding that this will contribute to their well-being and make God happy. Yes, certainly, Lord forbid it! The heresy hunters on the web ought to find something else to do with their time -- maybe read some philosophy or theology, or better, both.

Testing the heart of the interpreter: the permanence of folly

Last night I was reading from Proverbs, and I came across this verse:

Crush a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain,
but the folly will not be driven out (Prov 27.22).

It occurred to me that this proverb can be interpreted in at least two ways. On the one hand, we might understand the wisdom to be affirming the permanence of folly. Even if you were to do horrific violence to a fool, yet his folly will remain. There's no driving it out; it's there for the long haul, and God help him. The problem with this interpretation is that the proverb doesn't speak anything about the permanence of folly. It speaks about the inability of a certain course of action to remove folly, while leaving unstated whether folly is actually permanent or not.

I happen to understand the proverb a different way. I understand the lesson to be this: dealing with a fool by harsh and even violent means will not prove effective. The point is not that folly is a problem impossible to treat, but that our natural impulse to be harsh, to be strict, to be exigent with the foolish is itself a foolish impulse. It won't work with them. The foolish person doesn't know to interpret the difficulty of her circumstances as evidence that something isn't right; she is more likely merely to remain convinced of her own truth, and to harden herself to the teaching of experience when it suggests otherwise.

The main point I want to make, however, is that this proverb provides us with a test of the heart. It speaks nothing explicit of the permanence of folly, and yet my first impression was that it teaches that the fool is incurable. It was the evil of my own heart that found permanence in a proverb where none was to be found: of course, I am sure that I am not a fool, and therefore it doesn't bother me if the fool is incurable; and I am so confident of the transparency of my own wisdom, that when I try to convince others and fail, the problem must lie with them and their thick heads. Out of the sinfulness of my own heart, I produce an interpretation of the text that says exactly what I want it to say, and confirms my own evil convictions.

That is why we must not merely read the Bible to be transformed and helped. We have to pray to God to be transformed into capable readers. The task is to prepare our hearts for a true reading of scripture, and to ask God to form our minds and our understanding into the sort of character that will find what pleases God in the scriptures and not what pleases the sinful desires and convictions of a human person.