Saturday, May 30, 2015

God is unavoidable

There is a proverb that reads as follows:

The poor and the oppressor have this in common:
    the LORD gives light to the eyes of both (Prov 29.13).

I understand from this proverb that God is inextricably connected to all the persons whom we meet and whom we affect in our day-to-day interactions. Importantly, God gives each and every one of us light, life, health, movement of body in every passing moment. It is God's desire that a person lives and comes to know him.

For this reason, to harm another person is to act against God. While God desires that person's life, you desire her death and suffering. While God desires that person to come to know him, you make this impossible because, bearing the name of a Christian, you act like a son of the devil. While God wants this person to do well in the world, you are opposing the will of heaven by seeking her downfall and misery.

Christ told us that this principle will be used in the final judgment: whatsoever you did unto others, you did unto Christ who is concerned for those others (Mt 25.31-46). True wisdom sees God behind every person, and lives accordingly.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Isaac the Syrian on tranquility in the storm

For the monastics, it was crucially important to remember the divine providence in all of life's trials and tribulations. It is no different for Isaac the Syrian. He writes:

Provided a person remembers that it is through the will of God that all times of respite and of vexation take place for a person -- when God bids it, he has respite, and through His will he is allowed to be afflicted by whatever it may be -- however much he has to struggle, he will be continuously without anger or vexation in his mind all his life, through all the changes that press upon him, through providence, in body or in mind. With this knowledge his heart will exult in serenity, and he will gaze in great peace, in hope, towards God, giving thanks for His providence towards humanity -- a providence which He dispenses continually in accordance with what is fitting for them (Isaac the Syrian, Second Part 25, 1).

For Isaac, peace of mind in times of trouble and tribulation is possible because we remember that all things happen to us by God's will. If times are hard, that is because God is permitting that certain things afflict us; and if times are good, then it is thanks to God's grace and his favor in blessing us.

Of course, the implicit premise in all of this is God's immutable goodness and love. That is how it is possible to remain at peace in times of trouble and vexation: because God loves you, and is in control of everything that happens to you; therefore he allows these things to happen because it is fitting, for your own sake.

Isaac goes on to say:

Such a person does not blame the demons in his vexation, or his fellow human beings, or the body -- for it is from these three immediate sources that all vexations that exist derive -- since he is aware that it is God who sets these things into motion: it is not through the will of any of these three that his respite or vexation takes place, but rather it is through the will of Him who sets them into motion.

When Isaac says that these things do not trouble us through their own will, I take it that he means: they do not act independently of God's providence, as if God had control over them and even opposed them powerlessly. Rather, God sets these things into motion, and everything that happens to us is a part of God's plan. There are no events which are outside the reach of God's providence or care. Isaac would insist, furthermore, that it is only in these way that we can keep from despairing. Otherwise, if some things are outside of God's control, then his goodness and power -- the only grounds of our hope in the world -- are compromised.

God makes use of us, too, in his providence. Notice this wonderful line Isaac has at the end of this section:

For not a single restful thought is put into motion in us except as a gift that comes from God. And down to the smallest kindness that someone does to us, that person is moved to do this by God, and this action is needed for the setting aright of our lives.

The small good thing that someone did to you which brightened your day was a gift from God, as was the comforting thought which gave you peace in a time of trouble. Indeed, if this post is of help to any person, it is a gift of God to them through me. We have God to thank for everything that comes our way, for the good which is enjoyable and for the bad which is yet ultimately for our good. Because we know that the Lord works everything for our good, and nothing lies outside of his control, we can retain peace of mind and tranquility even in difficult times.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The instability of identity in the Bible

Tuesday evening in my Galatians exegesis course, we discussed this rather harsh verse from Paul:

You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace (5.4).

This seemed problematically harsh to some of us, because it apparently left no hope for those Galatians who might have been circumcised. This however appeared to us unreasonably strict.

Suppose you were a Galatian Christian. The Teachers come along a short while after Paul leaves, and with compelling arguments from the Old Testament scriptures, not to mention anecdotes and claims about the statements of the other apostles in Jerusalem, they convince you that you ought to be circumcised and begin obeying the Mosaic Law in order to be a proper recipient of God's favor. So you are circumcised and try your best to do as the Law teaches. Then, after two weeks, Paul's letter arrives.

Is there no hope for you? Are you cut off from Christ forever? Can the stakes be so extreme, in light of the precarious and vulnerable position of the Galatian Christians?

My own take on it is as follows.

God speaks to Ezekiel in ch. 33 and tells him the following. If a righteous person turns from righteousness and begins to live in sin, doing this and that and the other, I will not remember his previous righteousness but will punish him. On the other hand, if I tell a wicked person 'Surely you will die!' but he repents, and no longer engages in the same sinful activity for which I had previously condemned him, I will forget all his wickedness and I won't punish him; rather, he will live.

What follows from this is a picture of humanity and a picture of God. Starting with the former, we can say that human identity as righteous or unrighteous is not stable or determined. The righteous person is called in the scriptures to persevere, which implies that she may fall; the wicked person is called to repent, which implies that her wickedness is not definitive or essential to her. As for the latter, we can say that ultimately what God wants is that human beings be upright and live in the divine likeness: he calls the righteous to remain in righteousness, and he threatens the wicked, not because he wants to punish them but because he wants to get them to turn from their evil. God can even use unambiguous, certain language of judgment -- Surely you will die! (Ezek 33.14) -- and yet if the wicked person repents, no punishment will come upon her. Like Isaac the Syrian has said: For God wishes for our salvation, and not for reasons to torment us (Second Part 40, 12).

So also in the present case. Paul uses harsh, indeed unforgiving language, but not because the Galatians who accepted circumcision are hopeless. They are indeed hopeless so long as they persist in seeking salvation through the Law of Moses as opposed to Christ, but there is no necessity in their remaining thus. They can repent and turn back to the LORD. Indeed, Paul elsewhere makes exactly the same point about the mass of Israel which has rejected the messiah God sent to them (Rom 11.23).

This is the secret: there is always the condition of repentance.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Some exegetical remarks on Gal 2.15-3.5

For my Galatians exegesis course, I had to write a paper on Gal 2.15-3.5. Here it is, if you ever wanted to know what I have to say about that passage:



Luther appreciated that Paul’s message of δικαιοσύνη ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ καὶ οὐκ ἐξ ἔργα νόμου is essential to the Christian religion. Paul himself is willing to curse and anathematize any who would insist on preaching another message (Gal 1.8-9). But the interpretation of these various phrases is very controversial, as different scholars offer a number of competing renderings. What does Paul mean by δικαιοσύνη—legal standing before God, or an upright character, or something else? And is it won through our faith in Christ, or through Christ’s own faithfulness? Further, does Paul envision that no human activity whatsoever contributes to δικαιοσύνη, or does he mean only specific aspects of the Mosaic Law? Answers to these questions are held with sufficient fervor on some sides that disagreements over their interpretation call for schism. My proposed interpretation aims to be sufficiently ecumenical so as to be appreciable by a number of different theological frameworks. The three cruces interpretum to be discussed in order are: first, δικαιοσύνη and the related δικαιόω; second, πίστις Χριστοῦ; and third, ἔργα νόμου.

The received Protestant interpretation of Galatians (and Paul’s theology more generally) understands δικαιοσύνη “in forensic terms” (Moo 2013, 155), understanding it as a sort of legal standing before God. For Westerholm writes that “when Paul uses the verb ‘justify’ [δικαιόω], he means (what the word always meant) ‘to find innocent,’ ‘declare righteous’” (2013, 66). These traditional Reformed theologians often argue from anthropological and theological assumptions purportedly found elsewhere in Paul: human beings are all utterly sinful and incapable of living up to the standards of God’s righteousness; consequently they can find innocence by faith in Christ, as opposed to doing any works, whether of Torah or otherwise. But there are problems with this greater theological system. Douglas Campbell persuasively argues that this systematic picture of God as unyielding judge in the face of an impotent humanity is incoherent and unjust (2009a, 45). The fact of humanity’s moral impotence does not by itself necessitate neither the guiding metaphor of God as cosmic judge, nor the conclusion that δικαιοσύνη is essentially a forensic standing before God.  What Paul has in mind is far broader and more universal, encompassing all facets of a person’s being.

Δικαιοσύνη per BDAG typically refers to the quality of a person’s character as upright, righteous, just, and so on. It typically translates צדק, which in the Old Testament refers to the same thing (Westerholm 2013, 58-61). Likewise, δικαιόω most broadly refers to practicing δικαιοσύνη, which may mean acquitting or condemning a person in the court of law. But these are abstract definitions; oftentimes the word can gain a specialized meaning when used in particular contexts. For example, in Ps 98.2 (97.2 LXX), δικαιοσύνη is put in parallel with σωτήριον to refer not so much to God’s character but an event of salvation brought about by God in his righteousness: “The LORD has made known his salvation [τὸ σωτήριον αὐτοῦ], he has revealed his righteousness [τὴν δικαιοσύνην αὐτοῦ] before the nations.” Δικαιοσύνη is similarly used in parallel with σωτήριον at Is 51.5, 6, and 8: “my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance [δικαιοσύνη] will never be ended” (v. 6 NRSV). In both of these passages, themes of great importance to Paul are present: in Ps 98, the revelation of God’s righteousness and salvation before the nations in remembrance of his promises to Israel (cf. Rom 1.16-7); in Is 51, the pursuit of righteousness, the figures of Abraham and Sarah, and the putting away of the wrath of God. To my mind, it is eminently plausible that Paul’s use of δικαιοσύνη [θεοῦ] draws from these sources and must be interpreted in their light. No other interpreters I consulted even consider both these passages in their discussions (though Campbell considers Ps 98).

For Paul, then, δικαιοσύνη refers to salvation or deliverance, not merely or even mainly a forensic or legal standing before God. Two further things must be said. First, the precise moral norms which inform an author’s use of δικαιοσύνη will oftentimes be elaborated in context. This ought to correct our assumptions what about genuine righteousness means. Rather than supposing that God’s righteousness demands that he punish sinners, for example, there is good reason to think the opposite is the case. In Ps 143, the psalmist prays to God: “Answer me in your righteousness [δικαιοσύνῃ σου], and do not enter into judgment with your slave, because all who live will not be found righteous [δικαιωθήσεται] in your sight” (vv. 1-2). Here God’s righteousness means his treating undeserving sinners with grace and mercy, rather than punishing them or visiting punitive justice upon them. Martyn (1997, 266) catalogues parallels to this notion from Qumran. Paul knows that God showed his love for us in that Christ died for us while we were still sinners (Rom 5.8). As Campbell appreciates, “Paul’s root metaphor of God, then, is benevolent, or merciful. There is no retributive character to the God revealed to Paul by Christ” (2009a, 706; emphasis original).

Second, δικαιοσύνη evidently refers to a deliverance or salvation that affects many different aspects of a person’s existence. There is no doubt that forgiveness by God is partly what is included in Paul’s usage of this phrase. However, it is clear from Paul’s writing that δικαιοσύνη entails an ontological transformation of a human person’s mode of existence. Paul opens his letter with the declaration that Christ Jesus “gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal 1.4). What is envisioned here is a transfer from one αἰών to another, from one contingent arrangement of the world to another. This furthermore involves the indwelling of God in the human person through the Holy Spirit, which is made evident through Paul’s seamless transition from his discussion of δικαιοσύνη to a question about the reception of the Holy Spirit (3.2-3, 5). He likewise later speaks of life and δικαιοσύνη in parallel with reference to the Law’s inability to provide either (3.21), which suggests again that δικαιοσύνη refers to a salvific change of the whole of a person’s existence. We might say that it means a person’s theopoiesis, as a person becomes deified and brought to life through the presence of God within her.

Now Paul uses both the noun δικαιοσύνη and the verb δικαιόω in close parallel one with the other through 2.15-21. He speaks simultaneously of “being justified” [δικαιωθῶμεν] (v. 16) and receiving δικαιοσύνη (v. 21).  In light of our proposed interpretation of δικαιοσύνη referring generally to salvation or deliverance on multiple levels, it is a happy coincidence that δικαιόω per BDAG can also mean “to cause someone to be released from personal or institutional claims that are no longer considered pertinent or valid, make free/pure.” This is the meaning of the term as it appears in Rom 6.7: “the one who died is freed [δεδικαίωται] from sin”; and at Acts 13.39: “by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free [δικαιοῦται].” Indeed, the most general interpretation of δικαιόω is “to practice δικαιοσύνη.” Consequently, if δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ refers to deliverance or salvation, then δικαιόω can likewise be translated as “deliver” or “save.”

We have seen, then, that Paul’s gospel affirms that a person is delivered or saved ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. The interpretation of this second phrase is even more vexed than that of the former. On the one hand, Moo considers a number of arguments for the subjective genitive construal and rejects them (2013, 45-7), as does deSilva (2011, 124ff.). Westerholm claims that Paul never makes Christ the subject of the verb πιστεύω (2013, 17, n. 15), though Campbell (2009a) offers an argument that it is implicit in 2 Cor 4.13. The former likewise argues that if works of the Law are presented as one human means by which δικαιοσύνη may be attained, it makes sense to interpret πίστις Χριστοῦ along the same lines as referring to human faith in Christ. On the other hand, Martyn (1997, 265) argues that δικαιοσύνη in Old Testament theology is an act of God. Consequently it makes sense to contrast works of the Law as human with the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ as the divinely ordered means to salvation. Likewise Campbell argues that a “pessimistic anthropology [such as Paul’s] dictates an unconditional solution” to the problem of human sin (2009b, 65), which is better accommodated by the subjective genitive reading. So there are powerful arguments on both sides!

My tendency is to go back and forth on this matter, but one argument from deSilva impresses me in particular: “Christians closer to Paul in terms of linguistic and cultural context—church fathers like Origen and Chrysostom—read the relevant passages as speaking about ‘trust in Christ,’ not as speaking about ‘Christ’s faith’ or ‘Christ’s faithfulness’” (deSilva 2011, 126). Because I always try to be faithful to the pillars of the ancient Christian tradition, consequently I must opt for an objective genitive reading. However additional arguments in its favor may also be given. David Brondos (2006) has done much good work in attempting to interpret Paul’s unique theological language in keeping with the themes of the gospels. There we find that faith in Christ—which meant obedience to him, accepting his claims and teachings, as well as trusting approach of him in supplication—is the means by which people found God’s deliverance, be it through physical healing or forgiveness of sins or empowerment through the Spirit or new understanding through teachings. This implies Christ’s own faithfulness to his mission, of course, as none who come to him will be cast away (John 6.37). But I think that this is precisely what Paul means, too: those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved (cf. Rom 10.13). Though grammatical considerations will not yield definitive answers in either direction (Campbell 2009b, 644-5), I think that a strong argument can be made in favor of the objective genitive reading. This is further confirmed by Paul’s implicit affirmation that the Galatians received the Spirit—a part of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ—when they believed (3.2, 5).

So I understand, then, that God’s deliverance and salvation is won through trusting and calling upon Jesus Christ in faith, and not ἔξ ἔργα νόμου. But what sense can be made of this final phrase? To my mind, Paul does not mean by this that nothing humans do whatsoever contributes to their deliverance or salvation by God. I think that this is a myopic reading of Paul which introduces a hard distinction between justification and sanctification nowhere to be found in the apostle’s theology. Paul insists towards the end of the epistle that Christians “work for the good fall, and especially for those of the family of faith,” because “If you sow to the flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you reap eternal life from the Spirit” (6.10, 8). Likewise he strongly warns his audience that those who practice the vices listed at 5.19-21 “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (5.21). Consequently human behavior and ethics have a role to play in deliverance and salvation. This doesn’t mean that salvation is earned, as if human beings could make debtors out of God. But it does mean that we make a contribution of our own to our salvation through our obedience and efforts to live in the Spirit, with God’s help in everything through the Holy Spirit and forgiveness by Christ’s mediation.

For this reason I reject an interpretation of ἔργα νόμου that understands it to refer to all human ethical activity in attempt to win God’s favor or justification. Not only is δικαιοσύνη not a legal standing in God’s court, Paul seems to think humans have to respond to God’s favor shown in Christ and through the Holy Spirit through efforts of their own in order to inherit God’s kingdom. Rather, I think the context makes it clear that Paul is referring to the strictures of the Mosaic Law in particular. It is evident that Paul’s is concerned that the Gentiles not adopt circumcision, as well as holidays and festivals (4.10). These are specifics of the Mosaic Law, so Paul evidently means by ἔργα νόμου the demands and commandments of the Law given to Moses and the people of Israel. Paul does not mean by this phrase human ethical conduct in general, as I have already shown.

But why shouldn’t God’s salvation come through the works of the Mosaic Law? An interesting answer can be found in Jon Levenson’s analysis in Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton University Press, 1988).  He references a rabbinic tradition according to which the Torah as the Jews currently have it is not eternal simpliciter, but at least in part temporary. Some of the commands—for example, not to murder or to commit adultery—will carry over into the next world, but others will not. One rabbi wrote: “Whoever has not eaten meat from an improperly slaughtered animal in this world is earning the right to eat it in the world-to-come” (Levenson 1988, 35). Thus obedience to the Torah here serves a qualifier for participation in the next world, where Torah will in part have passed. Thus Levenson summarizes: “The commandments of Torah are neither valid in toto for all time nor dispensable in the currently unredeemed world” (ibid.). But now remember that for Paul, Christ came to redeem us from the present evil age (Gal 1.4). Christ accomplishes this through his obedience to and fulfillment of Torah (Mt 5.17), through his death in which all of humanity participated (2 Cor 5.14), and through his resurrection into the life of the next world (Rom 6.9-10). When a person believes the gospel of this redemption, she engages through baptism in an identification with Christ (Gal 3.27-8) who has died to the present world and lives to God in a sense in the future world, where Torah no longer applies. Thus Paul writes: “I have been crucified with Christ” (2.19); if he has been crucified with Christ, then Paul occupies the space of that next world, in which Torah is no longer entirely valid. Further evidence that Paul considered Torah to be a preparatory stage in human development is found in his likening the law to a παιδαγωγή (3.23-5). Just as an instructor is for children, so also the Law was for a particular period of human development. It must be outgrown, and in any case the lesson it attempted to teach the whole time was: love your neighbor (5.14), which the Spirit teaches us to do anyway.

In conclusion, then, I have argued that Paul’s gospel—δικαιοσύνη ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ καὶ οὐκ ἐξ ἔργα νόμου—means God’s deliverance or salvation, which includes forgiveness but also the deification of the human person as the temple of the Holy Spirit, through faith in Jesus Christ and not through the works of the Torah. My proposed reading is unique because it makes appeal to important yet crucially ignored possible OT source texts for Paul’s theology, which might have played an important role both in his own personal understanding as well as in his preaching. To my mind, however, it is also very important for the following reason: it interprets Paul’s language in sufficiently broad and general language so as to suggest a general Christian gospel message of deliverance through faith in Christ. It interprets nuances of Paul’s vision of salvation that any Christian group can appreciate. Insisting on an interpretation that goes further than this—for example, insisting upon the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, or whatever, as essential to the proper understanding of the gospel—goes beyond and contrary to what Paul explicitly and implicitly says, and in any case is systematically problematic, as Campbell (2009b) has argued. Theological differences between Christian groups have proven excessively divisive because fine details and speculative notions are made central when they shouldn’t. A more holistic and generalized interpretation of Paul’s gospel as salvation or deliverance by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ can help towards a process of reconciliation. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brondos, David A. Paul on the Cross: Reconstructing the Apostle's Story of Redemption. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006.

Campbell, Douglas A. "2 Corinthians 4:13: Evidence in Paul that Christ Believes." Journal of Biblical Literature 128, no. 2 (2009): 337-356.

—. The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009.

deSilva, David A. A Sri Lankan Commentary on Paul's Letter to the Galatians. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011.

Levenson, Jon D. Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Martyn, J. Louis. Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.

Moo, Douglas J. Galatians. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.

Westerholm, Stephen. Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2013.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Loss of identity and the destruction of sinners in Gehenna

Imagine a person has been sentenced to death for some horrific crime he committed. He was previously unrepentant, and indeed even prided himself in having committed the crime. Suppose that he is to be executed by firing squad. He is shot in the head, but because of some freak accident, he doesn't die; rather, he survives the accident, but he also suffers total identity loss. Or suppose instead that, on the way to being killed, he is accidentally hit in the head by a falling brick and suffers the same. Unlike the normal case of dissociative fugue state, which is temporary, this identity loss is entirely permanent. He comes to and doesn't know who he is, where he is, or why people were concerned to kill him. He has no recollection of the previous crime, and if you were to tell him that he committed it, he would be horrified; in short, he bears no connection in terms of personally constructed identity to the person who was sentenced to death.

Would you still kill this person? His previously vicious character has been more or less wiped clean, and he no longer poses a threat to anyone. He doesn't remember committing any crime, and he claims that he could never do such a thing as he is accused of having done. 

To my mind, it would seem pointless to kill him. The person whom we wanted dead -- the unrepentant criminal who prided himself in this crime -- is gone forever, and now we effectively have a new human being, with no connection of character or recollection to the crime. 

Perhaps what happens in hell is something like this. Consider that Paul writes that our "old man" was crucified with Christ (Rom 6.6), that the old self is to be put off (Eph 4.22; Col 3.9-10), that the old self has died (Col 3.3), and that the old self has to be put to death (Col 3.5). There is a sense of the word death which has to do with what we may call social identity, as opposed to substantial identity. As a substance, as an individual thing, I still exist; but as a person, defined by my character and habits and relations to others and God, I may die and come into a new life. Perhaps what happens to the damned is something like this.

They are punished for a while, which punishment eventually leads to a sort of total identity loss. The sinful person who had defined herself in opposition to God's will in this way is totally destroyed. The blank slate which remains is then led into a new life in God's kingdom, assisted in some way by the different physiology of the resurrection body. Perhaps here is the wiping of every tear (Rev 21.4), the walking of the nations by the light of the heavenly city (21.24), and the leaves of the Tree of Life for the healing of the nations (22.2). 

This is an eternal punishment and destruction, since the old identities of sinful  persons have been utterly destroyed and done away with forever. Someone might argue that God, in doing this, doesn't respect the free choice of human sinners to construct their own identities in opposition to God. I simply have to grant the point and insist that, as far as I can understand the biblical descriptions of hell, God doesn't seem particularly concerned with upholding individual autonomy. Either you serve God or you are destroyed -- that's the rhetoric of both Old and New Testament. Furthermore, the same objection could be offered against any understanding of hell, whether traditionalist or annihilationist, since God does not let sinners live their own lives in peace but either punishes them forever or else destroys them. God's not much of a Kantian, nor an existentialist. Anyway, hell is hell. I am not persuaded by the attempts of some modern theologians (e.g., Lewis, Walls) to make hell more palatable or less medieval. Fire, worm, weeping, gnashing of teeth, destruction, ruin: these describe a situation in which people seem to be getting precisely what they don't want, and it utterly undoes them.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Pentecost sermon

In the last few months, I've preached on Christmas, on Easter, and I'm going to be preaching this Sunday on Pentecost. All I need to do is preach during a funeral and a wedding, and I'll have reached the top; I can retire from preaching a happy man. Here is a rough draft of the upcoming Pentecost sermon.



In the beginning, God created everything that exists. He created the earth, the dry land, the waters, the trees, the wolves and bears, the birds, the fish, and everything whatsoever. He made one particular creature, however, in a special way, and that is humankind. Whereas the other creatures were made in various ways, according to their species, humankind was made according to the image and likeness of God. God's intention from the beginning was that he have a sort of representative on earth, namely human beings, who could take care of the creation and could love and worship God for his goodness. Human beings were made to be living, moving, breathing icons of God in the world. Moreover, Gen 3.8 suggests that God even intended to live in the garden with humanity. God had created the world in love and wanted to see it guided to perfection in love, alongside humanity.

But human beings decided not to go with God on this suggested journey, and they sinned. And with sin, they incurred a punishment of death, contracting into themselves a sort of disease which would affect every aspect of their being. Whereas God wanted them to live, now they are doomed to die; whereas God wanted them to know him in close proximity, now they are condemned to live outside of the garden; whereas God wanted them to work to care of a creation that was favorable, now they had to work a cursed land with sweat and tears. Worse still, because of the presence of sin, they were turned one against the other. Brother murdered brother, wife turned against husband, and so conflicts and strife became part and parcel of life in God's world.

What God intended was that humanity be made into his image, that humankind be made like God. But as it happened, humans were turning into devils more and more with every day that passed. God did not want to leave things like this; he did not want to allow his creation to be undone. So after many years, he called a person named Abram to leave his home, to leave his father's house, and to go out to a land which he would give him. And he told Abram that he would make a great nation out of his offspring, that they would have a blessed land to live on, and more than that -- he told him that all the nations of the earth would be blessed in him. God was going to make use of Abram and the family that would come from him to bless the entire world, to bless all nations.

So Abram, whose name was eventually changed to Abraham, had a child: Isaac. And Isaac in turn had two children of his own, and from his son Jacob, a great nation had come forth. Jacob's twelve sons eventually had children of their own, until they formed quite a large group. Famine forced them to move into Egypt, where they were successful for a while, thanks to the favor of the Pharaoh. But after a while, a new Pharaoh took control who did not like the Hebrews, and so he made slaves of them.

They were slaves for quite some time until God raised a liberator to set them free, Moses. Through God's power and miracles, Moses managed to move the now very large Hebrew family from Egypt to Mt. Sinai, where he received from God a law that would guide the new nation. This law was supposed to teach them how they ought to live; it was a help to them to understand God, his nature, and how they can be like him. God gave them conditions with this law: if they obey it, they will be blessed and enjoy long and prosperous lives in the land that God would give them; but if they were to disobey, then they would be cursed and suffer horrific punishments.

Yet even if they should suffer the curse for the law, yet this accursed state did not have to be permanent. God gave them the opportunity to repent and to start things from the beginning. And this is what he tells them:

When all these things have happened to you, the blessings and the curses that I have set before you, if you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, and you and your children obey him with all your heart and with all your soul, just as I am commanding you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the Lord your God has scattered you. Even if you are exiled to the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will bring you back. The Lord your God will bring you into the land that your ancestors possessed, and you will possess it; he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors. Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live (Deut 30.1-6).

Notice what God says! After they have incurred the curse of the law and have been scattered throughout the nations, and after they repent and turn to the LORD with all their heart, then he will do something special to them. He will "circumcise their hearts," so that they will love the LORD and no longer turn away from him. God's goal from the beginning was always that humanity love God, and he will do what it takes to win humanity's love for him.

So the Israelites received the law and began a new covenant with God. But they did not obey God's laws, even though he sent prophet after prophet to them, and would punish them for their sins, calling them back to repentance all the while. After a certain point, their evil became too great, and so God condemned them to be exiled. They went away, some to Assyria and others to Babylon, and there they stayed for some time. The temple they had constructed for God had been destroyed, and it is as if God had abandoned them. Indeed, that is what many of the Isrealites felt for some time. But notice what the Lamentations of Jeremiah say, even after describing the horrors of their punishment:

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. It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth, to sit alone in silence when the Lord has imposed it, to put one’s mouth to the dust (there may yet be hope), to give one’s cheek to the smiter, and be filled with insults. For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love, for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone (Lam 3.22-33).

This trust in the eventual mercy of God did not fail, because after 70 years the exiles returned from Babylon. They were given freedom to return to their homeland in Palestine. There they rebuilt the temple. And yet they were still eventually subjugated by the Greeks, and then by the Persians, and then by the Romans. Though they had turned to the LORD, yet it would seem that his curse was still upon them, because they were not free to worship God and to enjoy his good gifts in their own land.

It must have been that their repentance was not sufficient. So a man came from the desert, John the Baptist, and he began to call all of Israel to repent of their sins. He would call the nation to repent, to begin to live differently, so that God would fulfill his promise in the Law to restore them to his favor. And as he was calling Israel to repentance, there came a man from Nazareth, named Jesus, who was sent by God for the salvation of Israel and the whole world. John was anticipating that this Christ would come, and he said of him: I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1.8).

So Jesus came and was baptized, and then for three years afterwards, he began his ministry in Galilee and Judea. He took the burden of providing adequate repentance on himself, and he did what the Israelites in their weakness could not do. He went from place to place, doing good to everyone, healing the sick, teaching the multitudes, and freeing those who were under the control of the devil. He provoked the ire of the religious authorities at the time, so they put him to death with the help of the Romans. Little did they know that in his death on the cross, he had died for all humanity, to reconcile it to God! Through his death, all of humanity had died, and when he rose from the dead three days later, he guaranteed the resurrection of all humanity after him. He had undone what the first humans had ruined: for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ (1 Cor 15.22).

Now death and sin were no longer obstacles before God. His goal, of course, as I said from the beginning, was to make humanity into his image, to make of human beings little gods to live on earth in love and harmony. Now that Christ had offered atonement for the sins of the world, now that he had kept the law and offered up a sort of repentance on behalf of Israel, the promise from Deut 30.6 could be fulfilled: the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live. So before Jesus ascended, he told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem.

Then something happened which they never could have expected. As they were praying in the upper room, the Holy Spirit of God descended upon them! They had received the Holy Spirit which the Law and the prophets had promised! Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, to whom they had prayed and whom they obeyed in remaining in Jerusalem, had baptized them with the Spirit of God just as John the Baptist had foretold. Now something new had come into the world; the very Spirit of God was living in the human heart, and the human body was made into God's temple. No longer did God reside outside of a human person in some far off temple; on the contrary, now God was within the human person, empowering him to live a life in the likeness and resemblance of God!

Pentecost therefore represents the fulfillment of God's intention from the very beginning. He created humanity to live in the world and to be the image and likeness of God. Though humanity had provided obstacles for this through sin and death, yet in Christ God conquered sin and death, so that his goal and purpose would not be frustrated. And on Pentecost, the Spirit of God was given to humanity, and in a way we can say that the human person was deified. Now it is no mere human being who walks and moves and breathes, but a living creature of God in whom God's very Spirit lives. God, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, was transforming human beings back into his own likeness, making them like him, little gods on the earth.

If Christmas is an important celebration for Christians, and if Easter is even greater, to my mind Pentecost has to be the greatest and most important of holidays for Christians. On this day, God himself took up residence in the human heart -- not only Christ's heart, but in mine and yours and the apostles' hearts, as well. God came even closer to humanity than previously: whereas Jesus ate and drank with the apostles for three years, now the Spirit of God comes in even closer proximity, taking up residence within the walls of your heart, animating your life from the inside.

God does all of this in order to make us like himself. God's goal from the beginning was that humanity be like God, that we be like little gods on the earth. So he gives us his Holy Spirit in order for us to be made into his likeness. And what is that likeness? Paul tells us:

... the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5.22-3).

This is the sort of person we become when we have the Spirit of God living within us, because this is what God is like himself! God is love, is joy, is peace, is patient, is kind, is generous, is faithful, is gentle, and is self-controlled. When we have the Spirit of God living within us, we become persons like this thanks to his grace.

Perhaps you don't find yourself to be this sort of person. Certainly oftentimes I do not. But the good news is that we are not called to be like this on our own powers, which would be impossible. Rather, God gives his Spirit generously and graciously to all persons who ask! This is what Jesus said: If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11.13) All we have to do is ask of God to give us his Spirit, and he is happy to do so!

Don't get it into your head that you are unworthy of such a thing, and therefore you will not ask. That thought does not come from God. Notice what Peter told the people on the day of Pentecost:

You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. . . Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him (Acts 2.22-3, 38-9).

The same persons who killed the Christ of God are the ones whom God promises the Holy Spirit. Our sins, all of our sins, put Christ on the cross. There is no one here for whom Christ did not die; there is no one here who did not, by his own sins, contribute in some way to the death of the Son of God. But Christ was happy to die for our sins, because it meant that we could live for God; and then God could give us the Holy Spirit, which was promised for us.

So today, on Pentecost, I want to ask of God that he give me his Holy Spirit. And I invite all of you, all of us together, to ask of God to give us his Holy Spirit, so that we can love him, and one another, and can made into his likeness. Amen.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Ethical (as opposed to dogmatic) universalism

Solomon once had two women come to him, both claiming to be the mother of a child over whom they were fighting. Probably the DNA maternity labs were closed that day, so the king had to think of a different way of establishing which of the two women was telling the truth. He decides the following will do the trick: the child will be cut in half, and each woman given one half of the child to keep. One woman is fine with this arrangement while the other would sooner give the child up than have it die. That is how Solomon discerns that the latter is the true mother, because a true mother would never give her child up to die.

Solomon's commandment, literally understood, was a demand that the baby be cut in half. But it would be absurd and myopic to think that this is actually what he wanted. Rather, he gives a commandment that he doesn't intend be obeyed in order to discern which woman is the true mother. He is trying to do something else with his words than is typically understood of imperative statements; he has no intention at all that it be obeyed.

God also engages in this kind of activity, I think. He tells Moses after the Israelites worshiped the golden calf: Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, and I will make of you a great nation (Exod 32.10). Of course, Moses intercedes for them, and then the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people (32.11-4). It is not as if God did not know that Moses would intercede. Rather, he provokes Moses' intercession precisely by telling him to leave him alone, and through the threat that he will destroy the Israelites.

Consider also what he tells Ezekiel:

Again, though I say to the wicked, "You shall surely die," yet if they turn from their sin and do what is lawful and right ... they shall surely live, they shall not die. None of the sins that they have committed shall be remembered against them (Ezek 33.14-6).

In this case, even a certain threat of death can be set aside if the sinner repents, and nothing they have done will be remembered against them! God's threats, uttered in the most certain and unambiguous language, are never final. Why is this? Because I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from heir ways and live (33.11).

Now I have been wondering whether or not the universalist might make use of these texts in his understanding of the final judgment and hell. Suppose we grant for the moment that the proper interpretation of the various relevant hell texts (e.g., Mt 25.46) implies that the punishment of the damned will go on forever, without end. (I happen to question this, but I will grant it for the moment.) 

We have already seen that a threat of death and judgment, even formulated in unambiguous terms, is not necessarily going to be realized, if the sinner repents. Moreover, God can make use of a threat for other purposes than telling the threatened person what will happen; he may make a threat while having no intention whatsoever that it be realized. Language can be used in many other ways. Why, then, might God make threats about eternal hell, if they are not to be realized?

God simultaneously tells Christians to pray for all persons, precisely because God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2.1-4). Christ gave himself up as a ransom for all persons (vv. 5-6), showing that his desire is the salvation of all, and he is willing to give his life for this. Moreover, the sort of character birthed in a Christian who has the Spirit of God within her is such that the damnation of a sinner is unthinkable, repulsive: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5.22-3). Such a person as this doesn't want the destruction of a sinner but her restoration, and this is because God himself gives her such sentiments! 

So there is an apparent tension: God wants the salvation of all persons, and makes Christians to desire the same, and moves them even to pray for the salvation of all persons, while simultaneously threatening in (tentatively admitted) uncertain terms that the unrepentant will be punished forever with no hope. How can a universalism be maintained?

Such an "ethical" universalism works like this. God makes use of the threats of hell in order to motivate repentance on the part of sinners, on the one hand, while also motivating sympathy and pity in Christians, on the other. He moves Christians to pray for the salvation of the world because this is what he desires, and if they are to be transformed into his image, they must desire the same. God has no intention of refusing the prayer of his saints (which is the prayer he himself inspires, as Catherine of Siena herself realized). Still, he requires that we preach that hell is eternal, and that sinners will suffer forever, because of the motivational power that this threat has.

In a way, we might understand the role of the Christian as akin to Jonah's. God knew that the Ninevites would repent. Still, the message that Jonah preached was unambiguous and hopeless: Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! (Jon 3.4). The point is to teach and inspire love and compassion and selfless prayer on the part of the prophet -- or in the present case, on the part of Christians. 

So what we have is a universalism that permits the various hell texts be interpreted along traditionalist lines. This is an ethical universalism because the universalist conclusion is associated with Christian ethics, rather than a dogmatic reading of the various hell texts. (I am not dead-set on this particular name for this reading.) This is a universalism that doesn't "say" that the torments will end, and thus doesn't seem to come under the condemnation of the Fifth Ecumenical Council, and yet prays for the salvation of the whole world and all sinners and knows and expects this intercession to be obeyed, because God himself demands it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Live according to the Spirit

This coming Sunday is Pentecost, the day in which we celebrate what might be the highest point in Christian theology: the coming of the Holy Spirit to live in the hearts of men; the deification of the human person, the end towards which all of Christ's salvific work was oriented. This is what Christianity is ultimately about: God living in the heart of a man and transforming him through his presence.

The church I attend is Romanian Pentecostal -- perhaps a surprise, given some of the things I post about on here! In my experience, the Holy Spirit is associated in the Romanian Pentecostal's mind with ecstatic experiences and the loss of agency. Speaking in tongues happens spontaneously, and the person doesn't know what is being said as it is happening. Prophetic utterances arise spontaneously as well, as God chooses to use some person to communicate an unpremeditated message.

It would be a mistake, however, to limit the role of the Holy Spirit in our life to these sorts of special encounters and events. On the contrary, the Spirit is involved in our every-day life just as much; he is present in each of the little choices we make throughout the day. Consider what the Apostle Paul says:

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh (Gal 5.16-7).

Far from being limited to momentary losses of control over ourselves, the Spirit is present in the choices we make every day. Indeed, every day we face a choice either to live by the Spirit, or else to live by the flesh. Because we have this choice, therefore we are given the injunction: Live by the Spirit and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. These two options stand before us, and so we are called to choose the one and not the other. In a manner similar to the injunctions in Deut 30: See, I have brought before you life and prosperity, death and adversity. . . Choose life so that you and your descendants may live (vv. 15, 19).

What does it mean to live by the Spirit? And what does it mean to live by the flesh? The way I understand it, Paul seems to describe two different impulses within us, and the choices we make to some extent determine which will take over our personalities:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. . . . By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (vv. 19-21, 22-3).

What kind of a life are you living? From which fountain do you draw, when you live your day-to-day life? If we draw from the flesh and live according to it, we see the sorts of things that we end up doing. We are turned against each other and against ourselves, we have dealings with evil spirits, and we put up false gods for ourselves. On the contrary, to live according to the Spirit is to act always for the good. That's the sort of person we turn into when God is within us, and that is how God shows us what he is like: his presence in us transforms us into his image, which is one of unbounded goodness!

More often than not, I end up living in the flesh. I notice it, and I don't always do much about it. But Paul's injunction stands before me: live according to the Spirit! Make your choice today about how you are going to live, where you will draw your strength, and whom you will serve. Don't expect that God will simply "zap" holiness into you and you will be instantly transformed. I am discovering that we have to make the difficult choice to live according to the Spirit every day, making progress by baby steps if at all.

The choice to live by the flesh is one with catastrophic consequences: I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do [according to the flesh] will not inherit the kingdom of God (v. 21). In the kingdom of God, where human persons are transformed into the divine likeness, a son of the devil has no place. There is no place in the people of God for those who will kill, destroy, hate, steal, and consult with devils. These things have to be purged from us, and God gives his Spirit for this end.

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith (6.7-10).

Once again we see that living according to the Spirit means acting for the good of all.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Power of Film: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

For my Theology and Film class, I had to write a brief paper about the "power of film" as experienced in my own life. I got a perfect grade on this paper, and the T.A. who graded it enjoyed it quite a bit. I will repost it here; perhaps I can fool you, as well.

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I am something of a Werner Herzog fan-boy. I’ve seen around 30 of the 60+ films for which he is credited as director, as well as a film here or there in which he acted (e.g., Julien Donkey-Boy). When I learned a few years ago, then, that his newest 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) would be shown at a “nearby” cinema, I took my brother and another friend of mine along for the forty-minute drive to watch. The first time I saw the film, the 3D projection was malfunctioning, which proved to be an incredibly distracting experience. The proprietor of the cinema compensated us with free tickets, and so I went back the next day to watch it again. I enjoyed the film so much, and it left such a mark on me, that I now consider it among my very favorites.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a documentary about the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave paintings in France, which date from about 32,000-30,000 years B.C.E. Inside are paintings of bison, rhinoceroses, horses, and other wildlife. There is also an ostensible altar formation, which suggests that the cave had religious significance to its original designers. (Perhaps the animals painted on the wall function as icons of sorts!) In general, Herzog’s film discusses these paintings from the point of view of artistic achievement. For example, there is mention made of some cave paintings which appear to have multiple heads. This is interpreted as an attempt on the part of the early artists to capture motion, which makes them especially interesting to an accomplished and seasoned filmmaker such as Herzog. Beyond this, however, there is also discussion of the spiritual and religious aspects of the cave paintings. One French scientist interviewed for the film discusses the concept of the ancient peoples of permeability: this world and the spiritual world can interact with one another, and there are no hard, impassable boundaries between the two. The cave perhaps functioned as one of these permeable places. He rejects the definition of man as homo sapiens, “the man who knows,” saying instead: “We don’t know, we don’t know much. I would think homo spiritualis.” Thus the essence of man is not knowledge but spirituality—a fascination and interaction with the world beyond.

This film was certainly fascinating as far as documentaries go, since the cave paintings themselves are endlessly fascinating and mysterious artifacts of the very distant past. What I appreciate about it, however, is what I will call the ethical effect it had on me. A common theme in Herzog’s films is this: the precarious existence of vulnerable, wishfully thinking humanity in an unkind, uncaring, uninterested, inhospitable nature. Aguirre: the Wrath of God (1972) illustrates this theme very well: the grandiose aspirations of the deluded Spanish conquistadores seeking after the imaginary city of gold, El Dorado, are brought to a pathetic and tragic end by the unforgiving, unwelcoming Amazon jungle. Thus Aguirre demonstrates the futility of humanity attempting to rise up against the forces of nature, so as to conquer them. On the other hand, Cave of Forgotten Dreams shows a humanity leading a life appreciative of nature and the spiritual forces which permeate it. The cave paintings are all of animals: these human persons were fascinated with the world around them, and perhaps even worshiped it, recognizing the divinity behind all.

Behind all this activity, however, there is also the question of the meaningfulness of human life in light of death. These ancient artists are long dead; all that has remained is their paintings, masterpieces yet shut off in an inaccessible cave. Yet in some way, during the film I felt their presence through the paintings I was admiring. Removed by thousands of miles and tens of thousands of years from them, they were nevertheless present with me in the movie theater as I gazed upon their opera. The final shot, especially, affected me powerfully: a single handprint, outlined in red paint perhaps blown through a tube or flute of some sort. This simple image encapsulates two extremes of humanity. On the one hand, it is something even a child would do; I think of myself writing “Steven was here” on another’s piece of paper in grade school. On the other hand, it is a desperate attempt on the part of a mature adult to leave his imprint on the world, knowing that death will soon wipe him out and leave no trace, no memory beyond what he establishes himself. I saw myself and my own concerns in the cave paintings of ancient European humans.


As he typically does, Herzog uses this final image as a background for the beginning of the rolling credits. The pounding, melancholic organ tones of Ernst Reijseger’s soundtrack made the spectacle all the more powerful. In that moment, I felt I was aware of a shared essence of all human persons, who all share the same struggle for a meaningful and lasting existence in hostile world in which death is inevitable, the same fascination with an unseen and powerful order, the same sense of the otherworldly and divine situated just behind what we can observe. Moreover, this perception of commonality led to an experience of love: I felt as if I loved all human persons, wanting the good for them, and as is always the case, praying to God for the sake of the whole world: Lord, have mercy!

Monday, May 11, 2015

How not to become an atheist


This picture is rather stupid.

My reason for not believing in Allah as Muslims understand him, or in Vishnu, or in Thor, is because these gods did not incarnate and die for my sin, and through their resurrection from the dead secure my own resurrection to a restored and immortal body.

Many Christians become atheists, I think, because they try to think of God outside of the revelation of Jesus Christ. God in the abstract may be more or less the same across various religious traditions. But the unique revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the crucified God who dies for our sins, surpasses them all and distinguishes itself by virtue of its depiction of God: fundamentally concerned for the good of the whole creation, he doesn't stand far off in the face of our sufferings or evils, or promise a reward in an uncertain afterlife for which we have no compelling evidence, but he condescends to suffer them himself, and to take them head-on. And through his resurrection appearances, he shows us that his victory over death and evil is definitive, and he assures it to us, also.

Christians ought to think about God as Christians, not as Muslims or Jews or as polytheists or atheists.

Addendum: It goes without mentioning that there might also be positive reasons to believe in God, even if there are reasons not to believe in him. There are reasons pro and contra belief in just about anything that matters. Not all life is so black and white and simple as this meme-for-dummies would have us believe.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Why create in order to destroy?

Athanasius writes in On the Incarnation, 6:

As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? Surely it would have been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and perish; and, besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never created men at all. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself.

This is an interesting argument. He is speaking of the state of post-lapsarian, pre-Christian humanity: the human creatures which God had made with rationality, with a bit of the Logos himself in them, were tending towards destruction and annihilation because of their turn from God towards sin. Importantly for Athanasius, God's goodness is fundamentally compromised by this situation if he doesn't intervene in some way. For him, it would be unworthy of God's goodness that he create human persons simply to see them destroyed. Why create them in the first place, if he is not going to see that they live as he designed them to do, knowing and enjoying him?

Therefore, Athanasius argues, God sends Christ to die for their sins, so that death could be destroyed through the sacrificial self-offering of the Logos incarnate. But we have to ask the same question of those persons who hold that human creatures will suffer eternal torment in hell, or else be annihilated after a limited period of punishment: why would God create those persons in the first place, if he knew that would be their end? It would have been better had he not created them at all, then to cretae them only to see them go to ruin.

Ilaria Ramelli, in The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (Brill, 2013) suggests that Athanasius was possibly a universalist, and there are some good reasons to think so. One of them is the line of reasoning which he pursues in the passage I've quoted. If he weren't a universalist, the very principles to which he appeals in motivating the incarnation count against his theology, compromising his coherence as a thinker. So also, the same argument can be made against anyone who thinks that God's incarnation in Jesus was done out of God's goodness, that God's majesty and goodness are compromised by the destruction (whether deserved or not) of human creates made in his image, and yet God knowingly creates many persons who will either spend an eternity in hell or else be annihilated after some limited period of punishment.

Different theological traditions might try to address this issue in different ways. Someone of an Augustinian Reformed bent like Oliver Crisp might argue that God creates those persons who are damned in order that his justice may be demonstrated in the punishment of their sins. An Arminian like Jerry Walls might suppose, on the other hand, that the damned refuse to reconcile with God and effectively damn themselves.

In either case, however, the Athanasian principle about God's goodness has to be denied. For the Reformed person, it is not contrary to God's goodness that some human creatures made in his image be destroyed, since God intentionally brings this about. For the Arminian, it is likewise not incompatible with God's goodness, because he creates some persons who he knows will only be destroyed in the end, anyway. But whether these are plausible positions is something else altogether.

Goodness is the disposition to do good, to act in the benefit of others. Goodness does not reduce to a mere treatment of others in keeping with their merits, as Oliver Crisp seems to suggest in some of his papers. Consider the parallel between goodness and compassion in Ps 145.9: The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. Likewise, the psalmist appeals to God's goodness in asking him not to treat him according to his merits: Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O LORD (Ps 25.7).

Consequently, the goodness of God, as a disposition to do good and to act to the benefit of others, is not satisfied with treating other persons according to their merits. It's not enough for God's goodness that people get what they deserve, if they are being harmed. Goodness disposes God against harming other persons, unless it be necessary for the time being. That is why the Scripture likewise teaches that the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have according to the abundance of his steadfast love, for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone (Lam 3.31-33).

Whether it is the Augustinian Reformed supposition that God predestines the damnation of some persons, or else the Arminian position that God knowingly creates some persons who will end up damned or annihilated, it would seem that -- following Athanasius -- God's goodness is compromised in either case.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Death is but sleep

While He spoke these things to them, behold, a ruler came and worshiped Him, saying, "My daughter has just died, but come and lay Your hand on her and she will live." So Jesus arose and followed him, and so did His disciples. . . . When Jesus came into the ruler's house, and saw the flute players and the noisy crowd wailing, He said to them, "Make room, for the girl is not dead, but sleeping" (Mt 9.18-9, 23-4).


In the face of the one who holds power over life and death, the one who can lay down his life and take it back once more, death becomes like mere sleep. What is naturally irreversible for ordinary persons such as you and me -- to bring a dead person to life again -- for Christ is no more difficult than rousing a little girl from her slumbers.

This is true when speaking of physical death, but it is also true when speaking of spiritual death. Thus Paul tells the Ephesians: And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins (Eph 2.1). Gregory of Nyssa, rephrasing a golden one-liner from Origen, said it this way: Nothing is impossible for the Omnipotent; no one is incurable for the One who created it.

When we find that we ourselves are sick, not to mention others with whom we have to do, we can pray with confidence to Christ the Healer that he visit and heal our infirmities. Dumitru Stăniloae said: Mercy accompanies Christ every and at all times. That is why we are to ask for it always. But mercy apart from power is good for nothing. The Creator to whom no one is incurable (not even I!) is the same Omnipotent to whom nothing is impossible. With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible (Mt 19.20).

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Publication

My review of Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (Brill, 2013) is now published in the Journal of Analytic Theology.

You can read it here.