Christ and other religions: How can United Methodists live faithfully yet openly engage other religious and philosophical ideas?

March 16, 2018

Rev. Dr. Stephen Rankin, a professor and chaplain at Southern Methodist University, posted yesterday about the idea of the United Methodist church having a magisterium much like the Roman Catholic church does. Rankin’s concern pivots on the problem that many United Methodist clergy do not make religious distinctions between the faith in God through Jesus Christ as in the New Testament from other religious traditions such as Buddhism. A magisterium would, if we are being honest, attempt to control the doctrine that is taught by clergy. While I certainly share his concern for the United Methodists teaching Jesus Christ as something unique from and eminently more true than any other form of religion, simply having an institutional mechanism given to a few leaders responsible for enforcing doctrinal standards causes me much concern.1 The concern isn’t in and of itself a fear of any governing body controlling doctrine; there are many reasons within the New Testament to suggest there should be some form of doctrinal accountability, along with pragmatic reasons around such an authority helping to maintain effective teaching, ministry, and meaningful unity.

Rather. my concern rests on the tendency for institutions to promote oversimplified epistemological structures. By that I mean that institutional authority and bureaucracy are inclined towards reducing ambiguity and in so doing, allows for only one type of legitimate body of knowledge. If something appears to potentially be off base from the normative standards and policy, such as a theological teaching that can be imagined to lead to a contradiction with theological standards or a particular action that is on the margins of policy, such mechanisms have a tendency to shut down these possibilities in lieu of maintaining conformity to the standards. Therefore, the only legitimate basis of knowledge within the organization is particular expressed values and policies. Any other knowledge is treated as either wrong, false, or if they are feeling charitable, inconsequential for the mission and purpose of the organization. All other forms of knowing are considered illegitimate, at least for the purposes of the organization.

The problem with that as it pertains to Christain faith is that this flattened, oversimplified epistemology is not witnessed in the New Testament or the early Church. While the New Testament maintains the unique and unsurpassable nature of the faith and knowing of God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, they did not treat all other rivals systems of knowledge as automatically illegitimate. Paul in 1 Corinthians is engaging with a congregation that is influenced by a street variety of Stoicism. Stoicism taught what amounts to a pantheistic cosmology, whereas Paul had a more robust sense of God’s transcendence. They were certainly competitors when it came to knowledge about God; this is not to mention the disagreements on some ethical matters. So this Stoicizing of Christian doctrine certainly lead to a lot of problems in what is going on in the church at Corinth; Paul attempts to address it in the various ethical topoi of the letter. However, Paul’s tactic isn’t to say “that Stoicism stuff is pure rubbish; you need to abandon all of it and just follow Jesus.” No. Rather, Paul uses some Stoic ideas and terminology throughout the letter on behalf of his own argument, as if there is some legitimacy to some of the Stoic ideas, but to evaluate this knowledge critically in light of the knowledge of God in Christ and the Spirit. In his later correspondence to the Corinthians, he refers to “tearing down every discursive argument and heavenly speculation that has been built up against the knowledge of God, and taking possession of every idea for obedience to Christ.”2 For Paul, other rival systems of knowledge must be challenged as it pertains to knowledge about God, but they are not to be rejected as entirely off base about any theological truths, nor does Paul reject them as stating anything true about the world itself.

Similarly, the early Church did not develop an outright rejection of anything not Christian. Justin Martyr saw the Greek philosophers, particularly Socrates and Plato highly. Tertullian, not one for avoiding hyperbole in drawing a distinction between Christan faith and philosophy in his famous “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” still spoke of the Stoic philosopher Seneca as “often one of us.” 3 Many of the early church fathers we perfectly capable of appreciating and appropriating insights from rival philosophies. Rather, the rivals the early Church tends to treated as entirely illegitimate were paganism, Gnosticism, and, at times, Judaism; what was characteristic of paganism is the teaching about others divine powers and the liturgical worship of then, Mean the other two intellectual forms explicitly taught very different things about Jesus; Gnosticism tried to fit Jesus into a Neoplatonic mold; Judaism rejected the legitimacy of Jesus as Messiah. Thus, the main times where the early Church fathers sought to delegitimate rival, intellectual and religious systems as when they tried to offer vastly different pictures of the heavenly realms and the nature of divinity and/or they reinterpreted Christ. Otherwise, there was a qualified openness to other religious and philosophical systems.

An epistemological framework that can make sense of Paul and then the early Church fathers is the idea that there is a knowledge about God that must conform to Jesus Christ; this type of knowledge is exclusive and particularistic. All other spiritual and heavenly speculations are criticized and then either used differently or discarded. They may even have a very broad, basic idea that has some truth as it pertains to God; Paul allowed for the possibility of theological knowledge based upon knowledge of the created order,4, but that this knowledge was neither full, exhaustive knowledge nor was this form of theological knowledge effective in saved people from their sins. In other words, whatever might be true in other rival intellectual and religious systems isn’t worth basing your life upon. However, there is also other bodies of knowledge about the world that other religions and philosophies may provide true ideas about. For instance, the Buddhist tradition has many useful insights into human psychology, particularly as it pertains to consciousness and attention. In fact, a focus on present experience to allay anxiety and worry is similar to what Jesus teaches about focusing on the matters of today so as to not worry.5 The one caveat is to not treat this psychological knowledge as knowledge that is true about God and God’s will, or that God must act in a way that is consistent with this knowledge. This is to metaphysicalize natural knowledge, and this would be inconsistent with Christian faith. However, one can appropriate insights from Buddhism,6 for instance, for understanding certain “worldly” matters. But in light of Christ, this is not knowledge I would put my trust in for the totality of my life, nor would I teach others to put their trust in this knowledge for their whole life either.

This may seem complicated, but I would suggest it only seems that way because in Western Christian circles, we are only familiar with flattened out epistemic practices in the first place. Either only Christianity is true or all knowledge is true; there is no multiple tiers of values and truthfulness of different bodies of knowledge. It is complicated only because we are not familiar with it. However, if church liturgies and discipleship took on epistemic forms that are more authentic to the early church’s epistemic practices, particularly as it pertains to God’s divine self-disclosure through Jesus and the Spirit, I would suggest that both the clergy and laity would be much more equipped to critically evaluate and discern the two different tiers of knowledge and other rival intellectual and religious systems. Then, a magisterium-like authority would be less likely to enact a flattened, oversimplified epistemology. Then pastors would be able to say “We put our faith for our wholes lives in God knowing through Jesus and the Holy Spirit” while at the same time saying “there are some true insights elsewhere that may help address very specific, particular problems.” This form of discipled and liturgically formed epistemological imagination will not so easily collapse into either exclusive particularism where all other religions and philosophies must be rejected outright or inclusive pluralism where all religions and philosophies are treated with equal legitimacy and value.

The weakness of most atonement theories

March 7, 2018

Jesus is the Passover lamb, the one who died for our sins. This proposition, however, we are to unpack such a statement, may be said to summarize the most basic understanding of the saving work of Jesus Christ. Jesus own self-understanding of his (upcoming) death saw it as a sacrifice, echoing the Old Testament sacrifices. Paul likewise suggests that the death of Jesus on behalf of people’s sins was based upon the Scriptures, i.e. the Old Testament. Then we have the letter of Hebrews that obe can perhaps (over)simplify as a sermon on atonement and how Christ’s death was in fulfillment of Israel’s sacrificial system. Expressed throughout the New Testament is this resounding conviction that Jesus death was fundamentally important for Israel and the whole world. However, sans maybe Romans 6-8, we never seem to get what amounts to a systematic account of how Christ’s death is salvific aside from what is stated within Israel’s Scriptures. Even then, the Passover sacrifice in Exodus and the Levitical sacrificial system never provide a theory for the effectiveness of the sacrifices they made; the accounts of the sacrifices simply assume their efficacy.

This has lead to various attempts to account for why Jesus’ death saves. Atonement models and theories have different flavors. such as Christus Victor as outlined but Gustav Aulen, satisfaction theory propagated by Anselm, penal substitution as popularized by Reformed theology, the governmental view in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition, etc. There is a wide array of explanatory models in the world of theology and scholarship, each of which has their own strengths and weaknesses in what Scriptures their theories pulls from and what effects and Christian experiences they account for. However, there is one marked tendency that most atonement theories and models have that in my opinion makes them fundamentally problematic.

Most atonement theories and models rely upon explanations that do not derive from what we otherwise know about God, humanity, and the relationship between God and humanity. What do I mean by this? In evoking Occam’s Razor, the marked tendency of explanations of the atonement leads to the multiplying of entities to explain the atonement, whether it be developing some metaphysical construct that is neither divinity nor humanity that Jesus’ death satisfies or making some claim about God or humanity that has neither been disclosed in revelation nor known through scientific observation.

For instance, I will take my favorite whipping boy, penal substitution theory, although this criticism is equally applicable across the board for me. Penal substitution suggests that when people sin, they deserve death.7 However, Jesus death serves as a substitute punishment for our own punishment. In order to make this model ontologically true, and not just a useful metaphor, there must exist some mechanism by which a) sin always leads to a punishment of death, b) a substitute may take on a person’s punishment and c) substitution is the only way to avert punishment. So, either one must attribute the objective existence of sin-guilt8 or it must stipulate these characteristics belong to God’s nature, which is the more frequent response. However, herein lies the fundamental problem: those three propositions are nowhere clearly defined anywhere in the Old Testament or New Testament. Certain passages can be interpreted as consistent with those mechanisms, such as Isaiah 53, but there is no passages they approximately approach such a clear formulation about some metaphysical entities or about God’s nature.

It seems to me, and this is more of an intuition than a stone-cold fact, that most atonement explanations are more of actually a form of abductive reasoning, trying to find the best fit for the evidence that is known, but it seems as if the premises are assured and therefore operates according to deductive reason where the premises are true. In the process of finding a good fit, the concepts and abstracted relations employed in describing atonement pull more from what seems to be true about the person’s own experiences in life that they ‘impute’ to the Scriptures and not as much pulled from a close reading of the Scriptures themselves.

Furthermore, it seems many atonement explanations attempt to explain the Incarnation by suggesting why Jesus is both fully God and fully human is necessary for satisfied certain conditions for atonement, rather than the Incarnation being itself atoning on the terms of its own reality. In other words, rather than regarding the Incarnation as satisfying some other conditions making salvation possible, I would highlight the concrete reality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection being itself the actual power of the atonement. This is consistent with the atonement theology of Hebrews, which makes reference to the necessity of Christ’s experiential reality as being salvific.9 Furthermore, it coheres well with Paul’s more systematic account of Christian experience in Romans 6-8, where the believer is united with the death and resurrection of Jesus. For Paul, the only necessary explanation for this “transfer” of Christ’s experience to the believer is the Holy Spirit, who becomes the focus in Romans 8:1-17. In the end, this is a more fully Trinitarian and Incarnational view of the atonement, without positing imposing some sort of rationalistic scheme that does not immediately arise from the Scriptures.

In addition, this explanation of the atonement fits with the Old Testament in accordance to the way that the authors of the New Testament used the Old Testament. The New Testament does not treat the Old Testament as a store of metaphysical statements about the world, nor do they treat the Old Testament as discussions into the more abstract, impersonal rumination about God’s nature. Rather, they see the Old Testament scriptures as a) entailing the nature of God’s relationship to Israel and the world and b) serving as witnesses to God’s relational character and actions. As such, they are not mined by the New for explanatory “laws” of spiritual realities, as if they could be used to explain the specific mechanism of Jesus’ atonement. Instead, we can say that Christ’s death is a) a faithful fulfillment of God’s commitment to Israel and b) expresses something substantive about God’s character in the very way Jesus lives, dies, and is raised from the death. The existential reality of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection being transferred to believer via the Spirit echoes both ideas of God’s faithfulness and God’s character that is consistent with the Old Testament Scriptures, but appealing to the Incarnation and Trinity as THE metaphysical explanation of the atonement.

Saving grace and the error of mind-body dualism

March 6, 2018

There is a spectre that has long haunted Christian theology; the relationship of the material body with the immateriality of God (the Incarnation of Christ, excluded) and the immateriality of the soul/spirit, etc. However, in saying that, the problem isn’t the positing of body and soul as somehow distinct entities that cannot be reducible to each other; the distinctiveness of flesh and Spirit is a critical part of Paul’s theological understanding. Rather, the problem is in how the relationship between the material and immaterial modes of existence/reality are considered to be in relationship to each other. Christianity, particularly Western1 have long been tempted by the notion that the body and soul are separate not just in terms of substance, but in terms of functions. It is often a habitual reflex to categorize the spiritual as something that isn’t based upon one’s body or what we see, but something that is attributed to the mind or heart; i.e. thought and feelings. This tendency is most clearly and consciously expressed in the mind-body dualism of Descartes, but it has been a tendency for the Church insofar as they have been influenced by Platonism. As the Neo-Platonist St. Augustine treated the soul as a higher reality than the body, the inheritance of Western Christianity is to separate the body from the soul.

One point, among many, where this becomes a problem pertaining to Christian theology is understanding how God’s grace saves/transforms a person. If the soul, and the inner person of feeling and thoughts are what is really important for the Christian life, then what happens in the physical world and in our bodies is largely ‘immaterial’ (pun intended). This becomes most clearly expressed by the reformulation of Augustinian theology by the Reformed tradition, where nature of human free will is limited based upon the corruptness of the heart: the mechanism by which God redeems the human person so as to be free to believe, trust, and rightly worship God is by a spiritual acting upon the heart. Augustine places particular emphasis on the changing of human will in On the Letter and the Spirit and in his more polemical On Grace and Free Will. As for Calvin, following a discussion on the nature of human will and in particular the nature of the will apart from God’s grace, Calvin observes “They are sufficient, at all events, to prove the point for which I contend, t.e., that whenever God is pleased to make way for his providence, he even in external matters so turns and bends the wills of men, that whatever the freedom of their choice may be, it is still subject to the disposal of God.”2 which is then soon followed by a quote from Augustine from On Grace and Free Will. Thus within Augustinian and Reformed traditions, the internal soul/heart/spirit is treated as the point of action for God’s, whereas any action through human sensation with the outer world is not regarded as secondary.

Therefore, the tendency has been to treat mechanism of God’s action for salvation as being an inner work of the person as the paradigm of salvation. Far from simply recognizing that God’s work in a person must necessarily result in the transformation of desire that is a prevalent theme throughout the Old and New Testament, God’s mechanism of salvation necessarily entails an unmediated, interior work of the heart by the Spirit. For instance, proclaiming the story of Jesus is regarded as never being potentially sufficient to evoke faith in a person; there must always be some corollary inner redeeming of the heart by an inner work of the Spirit prior to or concurrent with proclamation. It is not sufficient to suggest that hearing about Christ’s love in his death and resurrection can move the person to faith; in other words, it is unacceptable to suggest that God may transform the heart via a mediation via one who testifies and proclaims the story of Christ. God’s saving grace entails a direct, unmediated action upon the heart by the Spirit in order to be saved.

At the end of the day, I would suggest this is a result of misreading Paul due to 1) reading the flesh-spirit duality in Paul through (Neo)Platonic lenses and 2) assuming all epistemological statements in Paul are paradigmatic for all Christians.

Regarding the flesh-spirit duality, Paul would have naturally understood flesh and spirit not as two qualitatively distinct substances that has little interaction with each other; rather he would have been influenced by Stoicism that say spirit and matter as two sides of the same coin, with spirit being the active component and matter being the passive component. While Paul’s apocalyptic perspective where God has knowledge hidden in the heavens that is not available to the earthy, material world apart from God’s action would rub up against Stoic pantheism, it is a mistake to treat Paul’s apocalypticism as suggestive of treating spirit and flesh as two separate domains that do not engage with each other in a two-way process, much as we do in the Western division of mind and body. Paul’s flesh-spirit duality is not expressing the fact that what impacts people in a physical way has no impact on the spirit of that person, nor vice-versa. It is rather the employment of the Stoic material-spirit duality but reconceptualizing it in terms of a transcendent God who sends His Spirit into the world, as if the world is not automatically in tune with the Spirit of God unless God sends Him. This does not mean, however, that the Spirit of God only works through inner work of the heart; Paul frequently makes references to the signs of wonders of the Holy Spirit 3, as if it was these dramatic witnessed events in the physical, visible world were critical to bringing people to faith; there is no mention in these instances of an inner change of heart leading to faith. This is to suggest that Paul would allow that what God does through the Holy Spirit in the physical, material world can impact the person’s inner heart to have faith; the soul/spirit of the person is not walled of from the physical realities.

Secondly, not all of Paul’s statements about epistemology are paradigmatic for all people or even for all believers. While not delving into the nitty gritty details of all of this, the best example of the problems of this assumption is the reading of 1 Corinthians. There, Paul outlines the nature of his proclamation of the Corinthians as being based upon telling the story of Christ and His crucifixion combined with a demonstration of the Spirit and power, all leading to the trusting in God’s power and not his own. Then, in vss. 6-16, Paul outlines the nature of a deeper wisdom he does teach among more mature Christians, where he places an emphasis on the Spiritual/spiritual discernment in order to accept the thoughts of God. If one notes the division between basic proclamation and maturity in 1 Corinthians 2, it would be a mistake to suggest that accepting revelation from God based upon spiritual discernment in 2:6-16 is automatically the same inner, cognitive-emotional mode of operation as the demonstration of the Spirit in 2:1-5. Rather, I would say it is exegetically necessary to treating the Spirit in 2:1-5 as entailing a physical, exterior work that impacts the person to have faith, whereas 2:6-16 is referring to an interior work of the Spirit after faith. However, if you are reading Paul’s statements as if they apply to every person or to every Christian, you will be inclined to overlook the differences between these two different epistemological stages. Therefore, because of the predominance of the Spirit being the agent of countering the desires fo the flesh throughout Paul’s letters, there is the inclination to suggest that the sole mechanism of the Holy Spirit’s work in salvation is a direct, internal changing of the mind and heart and to treat the exterior works of signs and wonders as somehow secondary and not really instrumental by itself in salvation.

In other words, the Augustinian and Reformed tradition that treats salvation as impossible prior to a direct, inner work of the Spirit is the result of an over-systematizing, Neo-platonizing, unnuanced reading of the Apostle Paul, and the Scriptures in general. In rightly noticing the absolute necessity of God’s grace for faith, the Augustinian-Reformed tradition wrongly reducing the mechanism of this grace to a direct, inner work on the mind and heart of the believer, and not allowing for a mediated change of the heart and mind through the preaching about the Word made flesh and the Spirit who produces visible signs of new creation that are witnessed by people. I would go so far as to suggest that any rejection of the effectual possibility of the Incarnation of Christ itself as an event in history and all work of the Holy Spirit, including external manifestations, that leads to necessitating yet other acts and mechanisms from God to bring people into faith and salvation represents a theology bearing some resemblance to gnosticism. By treating the physical and material as somehow inferior and ineffectual whereas thinking that it is only the internal and spiritual that is truly meaningful, Augustinian and Reformed traditions become rather Platonized.

Put differently, Western theology has been unwittingly beholden to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave by a presumptive, metaphysical separation of the world into appearances of the physical world and then the true knowledge of hidden realities. However, while Plato’s epistemology and Jewish apocalyptic epistemology share similarities in recognizing that truth is not reducible to what we normally see and know about the physical world, they share distinctly different relationships between the visible and invisible domains of existence. Jewish apocalypticism is not Platonic dualism, but we in the West have read the Bible through (Neo)Platonic.

Who said only Christians go to heaven?

February 26, 2018

The other day the Pope made a statement that it was better to be an atheist than a Christian who fails to live up to the name. Upon seeing some of my friends post this news on Facebook, I saw what amounts to the predictable response from what is likely a fundamentalist Protestant:1 “Jesus is the only way to get to heaven.” Overlooking the fact that there always seem to be the need by some individuals to always play this line whenever a prominent Christian leader ever says anything remotely positive about people of other religions or even *gasp* those wicked atheists, my (hopefully holy) irritation stems around one basic point: that is not anywhere in the Bible. Did my friends who know me as a moderate/conservative evangelical think you are misreading what I said? Nope. You didn’t. The idea that only Christians get to heaven is not a Biblical idea. Rather, I would suggest it is the result of poor exegesis, the obsession of treating religion as about where one goes when one dies, and an ignorance of the Jewish background to the New Testament’s teaching.

While there are many different theological variations on the idea of why people believe only Christians get to heaven, I will summarize what is the prototypical logic of my Protestant evangelical background:2

P1) If a person commits any one sin, God will punish them with an eternal punishment in hell.

P2) Every person sins.

C1) Therefore, God will punish every person with an eternal punishment in hell.

P3) Jesus’s dies on the cross so that he would take our punishment as a substitute for us.

P4) If you believe in Jesus, Jesus’ substitution applies to you.

P5) God provides no other way except Jesus.

C2) Therefore, only those who believe in Jesus will not face an eternal punishment in hell.

Here is the thing: you will not find a single passage that clearly and unambiguously teaches P1, P3, or P4.3 You might cite a reference to Romans 6:23 which says “For the wages of sin is death,” but that passage does not actually state a) one sin makes one liable to such judgment nor b) does “death” refer to eternal punishment/hell. We frequently assume (b) is about hell because it is contrasted with “eternal life” later in the verse, but for Paul eternal life is defined by the bodily resurrection. Thus the point is that the world experiences the power of death due to sin, but God has changed that reality through a resurrection in conformity to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. One could investigate more passages that might suggest teaching P3 or P4, but this blog post is not intended to be exhaustive. However, I am not aware of any passage for which a clear, strong case can be made that P1, P3, or P4 are what is being taught. At best, one might suggest that P1, P3, and P4 are explanations we create to make sense of everything else the Bible teaches, but I don’t think it even accomplishes that purpose if we read the Bible closely and well.

The problem is that argument assumes the fundamental problem of humanity is our future fate of hell if God does not intervene. For the majority of Christians who have been influenced by the Western theological tradition, particularly conservative Protestantism, the idea that we are going to hell if we don’t believe in Jesus stands as the ultimate crux of the Biblical narrative. We sin and so we are going to be punished for eternity. Even if one manages to break free of the assumptions that only Christians go to heaven and everyone else goes to hell, often times people’s thinking is still implicitly influenced by these sort of propositions and still thinks the Bible tells the story of how to get to heaven.4 But if we take a close look at the Apostle Paul in Romans, which serves as the closest thing we get to a systematic theological expression summarizing the meaning of the Christian faith5, then what one would finds is that: the fundamental problem is that sin leads to the ever present, constant, continuous experience of the realities of death in creation. In that light, Jesus didn’t come to save us from hell; he came to save us from the powers of death (and sin) through His resurrection. Therefore, the whole line about one sin leading to hell is not consistent with Paul. In that case, the very foundation of the idea that only believers getting into heaven begins to crumble.

Here is where the problem of the standard line of Protestant thinking really goes askew: we tend to believe that justification of faith is about God’s act of forgiveness of our sins as it relates to P4. Therefore, we are inclined to say that Christians are not judged by their works, but by their faith because Jesus took on the judgment we deserve based upon our works. Therefore, if one believes, one gets into heaven and if one does not believe, one goes to hell. But the things here is in error in two ways. Firstly, whenever the final judgment is referred to in the New Testament, the criteria of judgment is always said to be based upon what one has done; never is the criteria of the final judgment said to be based upon belief; there is no hint of a substitute judgment where someone else will be punished for another’s sins. This is a pretty glaring oversight for the standard way of formulating the doctrine of justification by faith. Now, there are passages, particularly in the Gospel of John, that talk about those who believed avoiding judgment. To this end, there is something the New Testament would more or less affirm: all who are genuine believers, however we define genuine believers, will have eternal life. However, the second problem is that people simply reverse the logic here and assumes its validity: if all Christians go to heaven, then all those who are not Christians go to hell. But aside from a statement in what is almost assuredly a later interpolation in Mark 16:16, nowhere does the New Testament states that everyone else is eternally judged.

So, if we remember that the only criteria for the final judgment is works, not faith, and that the Bible does not say that all unbelievers go to hell, we are left with an interesting question: what is so important about Christian faith if unbelievers may avoid an eternal punishment? The question is answered by the fact that for Paul, there is an assurance that those redeemed by Christ can have that is others may not. Through Christ, people are freed from the power of sin and death,6 therefore allowing them to do the good things that the final judgment requires. Through faith, Christians can have an assurance of their righteous standing before God and know that they are forgiven,7 meaning they will not be judged for the bad things they have done in their pasts. While being a follower of Christ is decidedly not simply about getting to heaven,8 insofar as faith relates to where we spend eternity, those who genuinely believe can have a confidence and assurance when they stand before God in judgment on the day of the universal resurrection. The same assurance is not offered to the rest of the world, but this does not mean one has a reversed, absolute confidence of one’s everlasting judgment.

Now one might retort: “Aha! Doesn’t that mean there is another way to God other than Jesus. Doesn’t John 14:6 contradict what you just said?” Not in the slightest bit. Firstly, the condition for having eternal life is the resurrection, and only that occurs through Christ. Even if an unbeliever does what is good and avoids evil and is not judged, they will have life precisely because Jesus was raised from the dead. Secondly, Romans 5:18 only makes sense if the “justification of life for all people” entails some sort of an impact that happens to all people, just as the “condemnation of all people” from Adam impacts all persons. In other words, that a person who does not believe will be granted eternal life at the judgment does not deny the exclusive nature of Jesus as a way to the Father; all the essential conditions for eternal life are made possible by Christ.

Another response might be to point to passages such a 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 or Galatians 5:19-21. Firstly, let it be stated that both of these passages suggest inheritance of God’s kingdom is conditioned upon one’s behaviors and not whether one believes. However, beyond that, it is not a valid assumption to think “inheriting the kingdom of God” is about the only people who have eternal life. This reading does not make sense against the Jewish backdrop about inheritance, where Israel saw God’s promises relating to their having a land and world where they could live and rule in peace, free from the oppression of other nations. To inherit the promised land to Israel was to rule. However, that Israel ruled the land did not rule out that other people, such as alien and travelers, might reside in the land for the short-term or long-term. Inheritance wasn’t about the exclusivity of residence; inheritance was about autonomy and power that ensured the peace of God’s chosen people. Hence, we actually see 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 coming after Paul has addressed the issues of lawsuits and judging the world in the future: inheriting God’s kingdom is about having a place of autonomy and power in the world to come. It is not a ruling out that people who practiced sin in this life will always, eternally be excluded from residing in the kingdom of God.

Now, there are a lot of complexities and nuances in addressing all the various New Testament, and even Old Testament, texts; a blog post could not hope to be exhaustive. However, in conclusion, I would contend that the best summary of judgment in the New Testament is that genuine believers who have been redeemed by Christ have an assurance of their fate at the final judgment; furthermore, they will know that they will have a place of automony and status in the full-realization of God’s kingdom at the eschaton where the dead are raised from the dead. However, the Bible does not make a confident statement that the destiny of all unbelievers is to eternal punishment. Rather, they too will face the same judgment of deeds that Christians face and that any hope of eternal life is based upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ that breaks the shackling power of death. In other words, one can exhibit a great fidelity to the Biblical texts and not immediately jump to the conclusion that all who do not believe in Jesus are going to hell as is common in my evangelical circles. In fact, I would go so far to say that if one reads the Bible closely and well and does not make vast theological assumptions about the meaning of terms and phrases such as “death,” “inheriting the kingdom of God,” etc. that does not comport with their usual meanings, one should reject that conclusion in the first place as being the result of logic with faulty premises, not the Scriptures themselves.

The Purpose of Transcendence

February 17, 2018

In titling this blog, I thought about many words rather than transcendence. I thought of apocalyptic, divine distance, heaven, etc. as these are somewhat synonymous. In the end, however, I chose transcendence because it is the most flexible term, that can cover a wider-array of theological thinking than the other terms. However, in talking about transcendence, I am not talking about the “objective” claims we are making about God or the world when we talk about transcendence. but rather why it is that people choose to think about transcendence or other synonymous concepts and the impact the concept of transcendence has on them.

In Images of Hope, William Lynch says the following about transcendence in terms of hope:

This great traditional meaning of hope as that which helps us transcend our endless forms of impossibility, of prison, of darkness, is complemented by an equally classic understanding of the word imagination. For one of the permanent meanings of imagination has been that it is the gift that envisions what cannot yet be seen, the gift that constantly proposes to itself that the boundaries of the possible are wider than they seem. Imagination, if it is in prison and has tried every exit, does not panic or move into apathy but sits down to try to envision another way out. It is always slow to admit that all the facts are in, that all the doors have been tried, and that it is defeated. It is not so much that it has vision as that it is able to wait, to wait for a moment of vision which is not yet there, for a door that is not yet locked. It is not overcome by the absoluteness of the present moment.1

While not a theological treatise2, this paragraph on hope and imagination provide a bit of insight into the significance of transcendence. Transcendence is the routinely the realm where we imagine3 where things are different than they are in the present. Some transcendent being, object, or place is not enslaved and controlled by the regular, compulsory rules of reality; what is true in our experience can be different in this realm of the imagination. As such, transcendence provides the possibility of thinking and believing there is something more, something better than what is currently the truth. Whether it be the Jewish apocalyptic that envisioned a day of freedom from its foreign oppressors, or the Christian apocalyptic vision of the New Testament where the truth would be free from the ruling powers of Rome and Jerusalem, or Barth’s neo-orthodoxy that was in protest to the terrors of Nazi Germany, transcendence becomes something we call forth because it enables us to think there is a possibility that things can and will be different. Transcendence allows the possibility of hope, when hope is otherwise seen to be far from the immanent, ever present, painful order and routines.

During my time in seminary, as I had been harassed and discarded, as every avenue I took to try to address and get help for the situation or myself were met with unfulfilled promises, meaningless platitudes, laughter, gaslighting, lies, projection. neglect, spying, slander, and veiled threats, as I felt the weight of shame coming from being so isolated and not seeing much clear evidence of genuine care without harmful agendas (although, I sense some people were unaware of the harm of the agendas they had), my theology took a much more starkly transcendent turn. I routinely criticized the theological beliefs of others as contained projected self-interests, applying a critique stemming from Ludwig Feuerbach and Sigmund Freud, while also having resonances with later, Barthian theology. I did not reduce God to simply projection or wish-fulfillment, but I saw the correspondence between many beliefs about God and people’s own behavior, emotions, and expressions; it was a way of saying they were wrong about so much. It was the notion that people were projecting on this God and that this God was only knowable in revelation that allowed me to operate with a subtle theological protest; it allowed me to resist the power of falsehood from overtaking my own sense of who I was and what I would hope for life to be. I prayed and hoped for a day that the terror would end and everything would resolve itself, believing that somehow, somewhere God would act and put an end to the evil that was occurring. Transcendence was the theology of my hopeful protest. And the reality never changed, and I lost not only my hope but much of anything that made me who I was.

While not everyone’s transition towards theologies of transcendence are so deeply personal and painful, I would surmise that there is a common ground for most people who find such theological beliefs compelling: transcendence allows for hope when what is immediately present would undercut that hope. As I look back on my experiences after the fact, with the benefit of later psychological knowledge, I can extrapolate at least three psychological processes I saw consistent with my own experience that I also see play itself out with other people who appeal to transcendent theologies. While these are often times labeled as defense mechanisms, I do not use that phrase as it has the unfortunate baggage as being “distortive” and leading to false beliefs about reality; I prefer to think in terms of emotional reasoning, with the sense that emotions can very well be rational, well-grounded, and in line with reality.

1) Denial – First, theologies of transcendence function to allow the person to deny the truthfulness or the degree of power of those who are in control. Transcendence has a way of letting the person find a grounds by which they can dismiss the claims of evil power. Whether it be denying the ultimate power of the rulers as in 1 Enoch 38:3-6, Paul’s claim the leading philosophers and rulers of the time did not understand God’s wisdom in 1 Corinthians 1:20-25, 2:7-8, or the Barthian protestant of Nazi Germany, theologies of transcendence have an intellectual justification for saying “No” to the claims and ultimate control of those who in evil ways control discourse and people, if not even destroy. As humans, we are naturally inclined to be submissive to those who have authority over us, but transcendence has a way of countering that natural tendency. The lies of those with great power are ultimately rejected by appeals to transcendence. Instead, faith in something much better can be realized.

2) Wish-fulfillment – Transcendence also allows for believing and expecting that something good can come in the midst of pain, suffering, and/or evil. The depth of the worst pain has a way of “seducing” the mind into entire apathy if not even the idea one should not and will not ever have a good life or have people to care, but even moderate versions of such pain can temporarily suffocate any sense of positive expectations. Transcendence has a way of saying what is real in this moment isn’t all that is true and real. In this space, one can allow the instinctual impulse for life and betterment to find a place where things can and will be different. Thus, the Apostle Paul can have hope for a redemption of the human body and all of creation in Romans 8:18-39. Transcendence allows for the barren soils of human existence to be fertilized with hope.

3) Sublimation – When the realities and powers in play prevent life as it deemed it should be, transcendence allows the space in which a person can imagine the realization of a different way of living. This isn’t just about passive hoping, but an active imagination of what one as powerless may do in the future. Transcendence allows the space to consider different ethical futures. Often times, it can sublimate the impulses of violence, such as the vivid apocalyptic wars in the scrolls of Qumran, in the safe space of imagination, looking for a day to bring these impulses into realization. However, another response is that transcendence can sublimate the opposite feelings of love; in Romans 11, Paul has confidence in the future redemption of all of Israel, this despite the fact that he had been and would continue to be the object of scorn and abuse from many of his fellow Jews. Thus, in seeing the possibilities of new realities stemming form transcendent power, one also sublimates one’s own impulses, whether to hate or love. Therefore, in conformity to the life of Christ, transcendence sublimates love into existence, even if showing that love wouldn’t be the “rational” thing to do in that world.

Hence, we may say that through denial, wish-fulfillment, and sublimation, the theology of transcendence in the New Testament allows for the manifest expression of the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. However, let it be stated that while denial, wish-fullfillment, and sublimation in transcendence is not inherently distortive, one can appeal to transcendence as simply a way to deny, wish-fulfill, and sublimate even when truth does not allow for the specific ideas one wishes to hold onto. The cognitive power of beliefs in transcedence leads us to truth not because transcendence has any inherent truth-value to it, but because there is already a transcendent reality that we happened to stumble upon, or happened to come upon us as in revelation. In other words, the imagination of faith, hope, and love in a theology of transcendence is true only insofar as the ideas that have been formed inside us somehow comes from the Truth impacting us.

The danger of reducing the Gospel to rules about emotions

February 7, 2018

[This is a post rooted in my own experience, and as such, does not attempt to be as analytical as it is expressive and didactic, even if it is sometimes imprecise and not perfectly clear.]

I was a victim, although, now I am a survivor. Many years ago, I lived in a religious environment that was ruled by emotions. In saying this, this is not some “rational” rejection of emotions as being false. I mean to say that people’s emotions ruled them, not simply guided and motivated them. The emotion that ruled that seemed to most rule over them was shame, but not in the sense that they felt shame. No, rather, people were so trying to escape the feeling of shame that they become blinded to the pain they were causing. In this environment, they taught a teaching very common to many spiritual and religious movements: the Gospel is about ending our shame, about setting us free from our shame.

Now at one level, there is much to celebrate within this idea. Overwhelming, toxic burdens of shame can paralyze, cripple, and even destroy people. I experienced it. Sometimes this shackling form of shame can come about as a result having done truly terrible things, but sometimes it can happen for even less egregious action or even things that are not bad in the slightest bit (such as being of the wrong race, gender, etc.). This type of shame is not a good thing; it is, as Paul would call, a “worldly grief that leads to death.”1

But what is overlooked is that shame, and all other forms of emotion, come in various degrees and intensities. Not all anger leads people to destroy, sometimes anger is a righteous anger that leads them to protect others or even themselves. Not all fear cripples people; some fear allows you to avoid those circumstances and people who would do you harm but the fear passes when the threat is out of reach of you. Nor does all shame shackle people; it is the feeling of shame when you have deeply hurt someone that motivates you to not do such a thing again. All of our emotions are signals in our own body that motivate us to do something in response to our relationships and circumstances; they motivate us to protect, to resist, to show compassion, to change our course of action, etc. But sometimes, these signals go haywire and they no longer become tied to interpretations of actual, specific, real-life situations, but instead, they become too tightly tied to our imaginations and memories of things long past, or things never there in the first place. These are the distorting form of emotions. But there do exist realistic, rational emotions that motivate our response to what is going on in front of us and these are not healthy things to avoid or miss.

Often times, when coming out of situations where we have been enslaved by an emotion, we begin to treat that emotion as entirely wrong or bad. Having struggled with depression in my life, there was always this sense that sadness was always a bad thing and that I tried to avoid it. Anytime I felt bad, there must be something incredibly wrong, with me or with someone else. However, sometimes sadness is a “good” thing, such as grieving and mourning the loss of someone close to you. These forms of emotions allow you to “prune” and “mold” your memories, attachments, and thoughts so that you can adjust to your circumstances. However, when in the throes of the pain of the memory of how they emotion held you back, you think of it as always bad, always to be avoided, always to be escaped because you only remember experiencing it as bad. However, at the end of the day, when you create a rule that an emotion is always bad, you still remain enslaved to that emotion in your seek to avoid it. Anything that you might anticipate stirring up that feeling within you, you try to avoid. Or, anytime that feeling does get evoked, you immediately jump to the conclusion that something is wrong, whether it be in yourself, your circumstances, or in other people. However, when you get in that place, you can interpret these signals differently. Instead of feelings of anger being interpreted as a perception of a violation or threat occurring, you interpret the anger as something wrong in and of itself. You do not consider if there is a correspondence between the feeling and the situation you are in: you simply avoid it and as a result, begin to become unaware of the causes of these feelings, except maybe as “triggers” that must be controlled or avoided. So, a person who feels anger at violation may ignore the causes and may seek to control their anger in the first place, rather than trying to figure out how to reasonably deal with the situation. Likewise, a person who feels shame may seek everything they can to avoid the pain, and not pay attention to whether there is something happening that is causing the shame that is one’s own responsibility and not another.

In my example, there were many signals I had sent of what was happening to me; the feelings of being threatened, controlled, and stalked; the feelings of having been cast aside and becoming disconnected from any sense of belonging. However, in my experiences of the people who had the power over my, I consistently witnessed a sense of superiority and power and a quick ease of taking offense; some of my observations afterwards reinforced that idea. You see, shame makes people feel humble and inferior, and people who seek to avoid those feelings are quick to find signs of offense and blame, even when it is not there or it is only of a small, muted kind. They are quick to try to control the situation and how other people might interpret these situations; the people who offend them must be seen as somehow inferior or blameworthy, regardless of the reality of the situation, and they seek to find others who share that feeling in order to feel secure themselves. If that offending person were to have any legitimate cause or concern, that must mean that “I” am an inferior and blameworthy person, but that clearly can not be the case as making me feel shame for my actions is wrong, so clearly “you” are the problem. While I commonly heard in that environment about not being condemned in Christ as a motto of overcoming the shame, what I saw were people enslaved to that shame by trying to avoid it. As my complaints evoked a potential feeling of shame, they presumably blocked that feeling of shame and continued to put the blame and burden onto me, despite the very threatening position I had been put into. In the end, they poured my future down the drain and left me out in the cold, without the slightest bit of listening, sympathy, compassion, or realization. Because shame motivates people to correct for wrong, hurtful behaviors and yet because this idea led to the attempt to block and avoid the feelings of shame, my cries were unheard.

What more, religion has a way of legitimating these rules of emotional avoidance. Our faith often times has us to engage in acts of imagination to comprehend what God is doing, since God’s Word often speaks of that which we can not directly see or hear and thereby necessitating imagination as a tool for comprehension. However, at the same time, our imagination can be ruled by something other than God’s Word, but the very narrow range of personal experiences, struggles, etc. we have. When we engage in the imagination of faith, we may think we are in alignment with God’s Word, but we can easily be imagining a world that is the escape and avoidance of what caused us great pain. In so doing, we believe we have a religious legitimation of our own emotional experience; thus, our emotions became less and less in touch as signals of the world around us, but instead become projected onto the conceptual fabric of God, such that the enslaved emotions are “evil” and the goodness of God allows for no such emotion and seeks to rid these emotions. It is this type of religion based upon emotional rules that can become quite cultish and controlling.

To be clear, the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ definitely entails a transformation of ourselves and the world, now and in the future, such that we experience a change of emotions. If we and the world around us change, so too should the emotional signals change. As such, this will often times free us from the more distorting, debilitating, unhealthy versions of the various emotions we have, although this is not always the immediate case; sometimes a person who follows Jesus and has the Spirit will linger with a long-term battle against such debilitating feelings. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t about freeing us from certain emotions, even if it has that effect; it is about the redemption of the entire creation, our minds and bodies included. But, if we treat the Gospel as (pseduo-)therapy that counsels us to avoid certain emotions, our religiously-justified rules of emotional avoidance will leave us enslaved to the very same emotion, while becoming unaware and oblivious to its control the and to realities of the world around us that evoke these emotions; thus, we begin to get into the game of treating these emotions as evil and thus also treating those people, circumstances, and things that causes these feelings within us as somehow evil and bad. Our rules written up in an attempt to escape from pain will leave the problem lingering, put other people into pain as the problem lingers, and in some situations, this may lead to that pain rebounding back in a greater, more extreme form. But the story of Jesus Christ is not about avoiding the pain of these emotions, but it entails an openness to and acceptance of the reality of suffering, but with the faith that this form of suffering can lead us through the power of the Spirit into conformity to the very pattern of Jesus Christ. It is through this that we overcome the debilitation of toxic forms of emotion; it is through this that our emotions are changed to rightly fit the situation so that that we become molded to the character of Christ.

Pauline Justification and Jesus as the source of semantic change

February 4, 2018

E.P. Sanders notes in Paul and Palestinian Judaism regarding Pauls language of righteousness:

We further see in the Philippians passage1, and this is the only point at which this does become clear, that Paul himself was aware of his own shift in the meaning of the term of righteousness. There is a righteousness which is based on works of law. Here Pauil does not, as he does in Galatians and Romans, deny that there is any such thing. In Philippians, rather, he argues, in effect, that the righteousness based on works of law is no true righteouness or the right kind of righteousness. Just as circumcision of the foreskin of the penis does not, in Paul’s definition, constitute true circumcision – since only Christians are the true circumcision – so also righteounsess based on law is not the right kind. The only proper righteousness is Christian righteousness, which must be based on something else. Since the characteristic act of the Christian is belief in the God who raisd Christ and made him Lord, the true or Christian righteousness is based on faith.2

In this observation, Sanders hits at what I believe to be the core of the debate regarding justification3 for Paul: that there is a different meaning. Put differently, a semantic shift has occurred for Paul, where justification does not mean the exact same thing as it was commonly taken to mean. Galatians 3:7-14 highlights this conscious shift of meaning, in contrasting the unobtainable way of justification by works of the Torah with the justification that comes with by faith through Christ becoming a curse to redeem from the curse. Quite simply, while there is necessarily some similarities between the two different definitions of righteousness and justification for Paul that we might term as a family resemblance, the words can be employed with two distinctly different concepts. It isn’t that justification has stayed the exact same thing, but now a different way has been provided as it is often times construed by Protestant theology (i.e. “Trying to get forgiven by works fails, but you can get forgiven and got to heaven by faith”); it is that righteousness is itself something different (i.e. “Being a righteous person isn’t about the works you do to your credit, but comes from the one who is at work in you.”)  Paul’s teaching on justification isn’t simply that the conditions of justification are different, as true as that might be, but what is means to be justified itself has changed.

This form of semantic novelty presents a challenge for the normal pattern of Biblical scholarship. Attempts to understand Paul often times make the assumption that what Paul is saying about righteousness and justification is somehow like it is in Greek or rest of Second Temple Judaism, so we scour through the uses of δικαιοω in the Greek language, and/or we look through the Tanaatic literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, apocalyptic literature, etc., in hopes of finding an analog that we can associate with Paul. But the process of semantic change means that synchronic word studies will not provide you with the necessary information. While synchronic studies still provide insight as semantic change does still retain continuity with it prior meanings that the language and culture exhibits, you can really only understand semantic change from the particulars of the person and/or community itself.

The reality is more prevalent within the New Testaments reference to Jesus as χριστος. The original sense in Greek is that of an anointed persons; through its usage by Jews, it began to be associated with an anointed figure chosen by God, the Messiah. However, while still retaining the earlier notions of anointing4 and the Messianic roles5, it exhibitσ a semantic shift as a result of its becoming a term used as an honorific6, where Christ is used to refer to the person of Jesus. Because of this semantic shift away from earlier conceptions of anointing and Messiahship, the term would then be defined more by Jesus whom the early Christians used the title for. The implication of this is the very meaning of anointing and Messiahship become redefined based on what they believed and knew about Jesus. Therefore, Romans 9-11 assumes the redefinition of Messiahship as the Messiah was originally conceived as one who the nation of Israel would follow, but instead the nation of Israel as a whole stumbled because of the Messiah.7

A similar process of semantic change for δικαιοσυνη/δικαιοω may be at hand. Paul speaks of the two different concepts of righteousness in Philippians 3:9: “not having my righteousness that is by Torah, but that is through Christ’s faith.” I take the last prepositional phrase “through Christ’s faith” (δια πιστεως χριστου) as a reference to story of Jesus Christ, where Christ’s life is characterized by faith as he obedient to the point of death and thus raised from the dead. If this construal is appropriate, then Paul is saying that righteousness is somehow characteristically related to Jesus own life. Paul is establishing the very pattern of righteousness as something that happens to people in accordance to the pattern of Christ, rather than something they do by Torah.8 Put differently, the meaning of righteousness is defined by what Paul knows about Jesus Christ, much as the sense of messiahship derived from what he believes about Jesus. This would explain why Paul highlights not his own faith in the following verses, as if the center of Paul’s thinking is faith, but rather that he wants to know the power of Christ’s resurrection; there is something that is characteristic of Christ that Paul is seeking to be established in himself. Righteousness is thus defined by Jesus’ resurrection in some manner and becomes realized in the believer’s own life.

In other words, Paul’s usages of the δικε- cluster of terms shifts in accordance to the story of Jesus Christ. As opposed to a justification being defined by the pattern as prescribed by Torah, now there is a justification that is outlined in the story of Jesus’s life. Rather than presuming certain definitions of justification, such as a forensic conception of a legal court, instead, justification is tightly intertwined with resurrection, such that Paul will say that Christ was raised for justification9 and that a person who has been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection are justified.10 If we may generalize into a systematic proposition at this point, one could say that justification is the realization of the resurrection of Jesus in the life of the person, where they are set free from the powers that bind them to their natural way of life (σαρχ) and all the achievements and honors that goes with that way of life11 To that end, justification is a freedom from the current order of creation that σαρχ is constrained to and an entrance into the life of new creation; this is why the two epistles that most highlight the topic of justification and Torah, Romans and Galatians, both make reference to a renewal of creation12 as well as in 2 Corinthians when those in competition with Paul seem to be prescribing Torah.13 It is this definition of justification that is defined by the Christ-narrative that provides the relationship between the language of justification and the language of participation;14 justification is one aspect of the participation in Christ’s life whereby the Christian is allowed to fulfill their purpose through their deeds.

But this analysis comes by allowing that the δικε– cluster of phrases experienced a semantic shift in Paul that is unique for the early Christian, or even more specifically, the Pauline communities. But if this proposal is correct, then what may be the most defining attribute of Paul’s thought is not any singular proposition, nor even a common phrase or concept such as “in Christ,” but rather how the language and concepts Paul uses has experienced a gravitational shift around the Christ-narrative such that the terms bear a family resemblance to their other usages in that time in both Greco-Roman and Jewish contexts, but that they can not be ultimately understood outside of the very particular set of traditions that surround the early Church’s understanding of Jesus Christ and perhaps also Paul’s own revelation of Christ on the road to Damascus. For Paul, he does not simply see Christ as a completing element to the Jewish story or of Greco-Roman wisdom such that we can derive his theology simply by a comparative, historical analysis and/or come up with a basic set of propositions to define his thought by, but rather that these stories and wisdom become redefined by the traditions about Jesus that the early Christians told each other time and time again. This redefinition goes from the level of narratives and wisdom, down to the most basic level of language itself, the very tool which we use to describe the world we live in, the imagination of a new world evoked within us, and through both of those things, hope to move towards speaking about the nature of God’s Kingdom as that which is in heaven, coming to earth.

While certainly not a skilled exegete, I feel this quote from the English translations of Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans is apropos. Coming from his commentary on Romans 3:21-26:

We stand here before an irresistible and all-embracing dissolution of the world of time and things and men before a penetrating and ultimate KRISIS, before the supremacy of a negation by which all existence is rolled up. The world is the world; and we now know what that means. But whence comes this KRISIS? Whence comes our recognition of it and our ability to comprehend it? Whence comes the possibility of or perceiving that world is the world, and of our thus limiting it as such by contrasting it with another world which is unknown to us? When comes the possibility of our describing time only as time, and things only as things, and men only as men? and whence the possibility of our assigning a value to history nad existence by sternly recognizing that they are concrete, limited, and relative? From what left eminence do all these critical opinions descend? And out of what abuss arises our knwoledge of these last, unknown things, by which everything is measured, this shattering knowledge of the invisible Judge in whose hands lies our condemnation? All these questions revolve around one point, which is our origin, and sound one presupposition, from which our existence has emerged. From this presupposition we have come, and regarded from this point, the world and we ourselves are seemed to be bounded, dissolved, rolled up, and judged. But this one point is not a point among other points, and this one presupposition is not one among many presuppositions. Our origin evokes in us a memory of our habitation with the Lord of heaven and earth; and at this reminiscence the heavens are rent asunder, the graces are opened, the sun stands still upon Gibeon, and the mood stays in the valley of Ajalon. But now directs out attention to the time which is beyond time, to space which has no locality, to impossible impossibility, to the gospel of transformation, to the immininent Coming of the Kingdom of God, to affirmation in negation, to salvation in the world, to the acquittal in condemnation, to eternity in time, to life in death – I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth are passed away. This is the Word of God. 15

Or in another sense, we can say that in the case of describing Paul, though no reason to suspect he would say this about himself, Jesus is the Word by which all other words that either describe God’s nature, action, etc. or the relationship to this God are structured and have their semantics natures framed. While bearing a family resemblance to other uses of language does not create the sharp, absolute break with the language of the world that might be deemed necessity by a stronger, Barthian position, it is certainly to be expected that a community that so emphasizes and remembers a set of stories about Jesus as the most important story they know would unconsciously, or maybe even at times consciously, shift the meaning of their language in substantial ways. Hence, the definition of justification flows out from a larger lexical field that is defined by the story of Christ both interpreting and interpreted by the Jewish hope of God’s vindication.

Predestination as the Origins and Purpose of Election

February 2, 2018

The decisive battle line drawn between Reformed-Calvinism1 and Wesleyan-Arminianism pertains to the notion of predestination, more specifically referred to as unconditional election. Did God choose all individuals who were to be saved from the beginning or not? The debate frequently hinges on understanding the passages of predestination, most notably, Romans 8:29-30, Romans 9, and Ephesians 1:3-14. More particularly, based upon Romans 8:29-30, Wesleyan and Calvinist perspectives seek to determine whether God predestines people based upon a forseen faith? John Calvin thinks it absurd that foreknowledge determines his eternal decrees.2 By contrast, John Wesley argues that God knows ahead of time all who will believe, and thus God predestines them to be free from sin.3

However, the nature of this debate makes a few fundamental definitional assumptions about foreknowledge and predestination: 1) Foreknowledge pertains to knowledge of future events, 2) Predestination is about individuals, and 3) Predestination is about one’s future destination of judgment. Put more succinctly, the debate on predestination entails the interaction between God’s decrees and individual persons beliefs and actions against the backdrop of time. These highly metaphysical readings seem to bump up against Paul’s arguments, however.

Firstly, God’s knowing of people for Paul does not specifically entail a knowledge of their actions, choices, etc. Rather, it is a relational knowledge. In Galatians 4:8, Paul clarifies the knowledge that believers have about God as really being about God’s knowing of them. In context, the knowledge being spoken of is relational, as just prior in v. 6, Paul attributes to the Spirit the people’s calling God as their faith. Thus, God’s knowing is more the knowledge of people in relation, rather than people as actors/agents. This has its echoes in the knowledge metaphor being used to describe the relations between husband and wife in the Old Testament.4

Thus, this relational knowledge serves as the background for God’s foreknowing, as in Romans 11:2. In discussing how God moves on to include the Gentiles in the face of the disobedience of Israel, Paul makes the adamant appeal that God does not reject the foreknown people. Such language is relational as its heart, indicating a type of affinity that God has for the nation of Israel where God can never let go of Israel despite their sins because of their covenantal relationship to one another; this echoes the vision of the prophets such as Hosea, whom Paul does quote from, where God’s judgment for Israel’s sins is ultimately stymied by his covenantal love for Israel. As such, “foreknowledge” pertains to God’s specific relationship to Israel. It is not a statement about a set of individual persons who are chosen to have their sins forgiven and avoid the coming judgment; the people God foreknows come under judgment, although never with a judgment that leads to the entire rejection of the nation. However, why does Paul refer to this as fore-knowledge? It is language that is well-suited to explain God’s relationship to Israel as a specially chosen people against the backdrop that God is including the Gentiles; Israel is the nation who had a special relationship to God prior to inclusion of the rest of the nations.

So, when coming upon Romans 8:29-30, the nature of Paul’s logic becomes a bit clearer. God has a people who he has a special relationship with; it is God’s covenantal relationship to Israel that stands in the background for Paul. However, this relationship entailed a specific purpose; Israel as the foreknown people were ultimately selected so as to resemble the image of Christ. As opposed to predestination being about individual people who find their way into heaven, for Paul predestination takes on a Christ-o-centric purpose of being set forth on a path to be called in baptism, vindicated because one trusts in God, and glorified after suffering, just as happened with Christ.

It is here we may note that predestination also serves the purpose of putting the election of Israel in relation to the Gentiles; God selected Israel’s conformity to Christ before he acted to bring forth the nations as fellow inheritors. Both the Greek terms for foreknowledge (προγινωσκω) and predestination (προοριζω) are prefixed by προ, which echoes a statement in Paul’s thesis from Romans 1:16: “to the Jew first (πρῶτον), and also to the Greek.” Foreknowing and predestination are about God’s relationship with Israel temporally prior to extending the same benefits of this relationship to the world; thus it is not an ontological statement about the determination of the salvation of individual people by some eternal decree from God but is an interpretation of God’s action in the course of history through Israel prior to the universal reconciliation.

This recounting of Israel’s own special relationship to God sets up Paul’s wonderful panegyric on behalf of God’s faithfulness, which then sets up the question of Romans 9-11: how is God faithfulness demonstrated amongst much of Israel’s disobedience and the hardening that has come upon them? The trajectory of Paul’s answer in those chapters is that God’s hardening of Israel that lead to the rejection of Jesus then leads to the inclusion of the Gentiles. However, Paul does not see Israel’s future as permanent enemies to the gospel but envisions a future, universal restoration that includes all of Israel. It is here that Paul’s notion of predestination makes sense: Israel’s purpose that was conveyed to them by Torah ultimately points to Christ as their telos5; however, this ordained task was not fulfilled by them. Torah’s was incapable of overcoming sin6, and thereby what was Israel’s righteous purpose and mission was then presented to the Gentiles7. God set forth Israel’s purpose which was failed by their rejection of Christ and therefore because of that the wider world was included into Christ’s redemption. However, this is not for Israel’s ultimate rejection, but they are instruments in this global reconciliation, to which they will be restored to. God’s predestination of Israel’s purpose is thus a) the mechanism by which God brings the world into reconciliation by the failure to abide by it and b) yet will be ultimately fulfilled for Israel upon the entirety of God’s purposes for the Gentiles occurring.

Therefore, for Paul, predestination is not a boundary marker by which some are determined to heaven and others are irreparably barred and left to go to hell. Rather, Paul envisions predestination as God’s original purpose for Israel to be conformed to Christ, but because of Israel’s national rejection of Christ, the whole world becomes included and not just Israel by themselves. Therefore predestination can be said to bring about Christ being the first born of a large family from all nations in a rather surprising way. Thus, it is Israel’s predestination that is the historical starting point of God’s saving work in Christ. Predestination is an explanation of Israel’s peculiar relationship to God, their mixed story of worship and disobedience, and ultimately their role in God’s universal reconciliation. This is consistent with Ephesians 1:3-14 where the “we” is spoken of predestined, whereas the “you” is not spoken of predestined; nevertheless both the “we” and the “you” are redeemed and have an inheritance. As becomes more obvious in Ephesians the “we” is Israel and the “you” are the Gentiles,8 highlighting more so the historical nature of predestination, rather than a metaphysical designation of an eternal decree. To be sure, Paul thinks this choice of Israel happened before the creation of the world, but it is interesting that προοριζω/predestination is not used to refer to the election in Christ before God’s act of creation, but rather is used in reference to the filial notion of adoption in v. 5 and with the corresponding inheritance in v. 11, suggesting predestination is about God’s setting forth of Israel’s purpose but not as the boundary marker for inclusion.

In short, if this reading is correct, the very debate around predestination, and the corresponding concept of foreknowledge, between those of Calvinist and Arminian soteriologies are getting the terms mixed up in the first place. Foreknowledge and predestination is the story of God’s relationship to Israel and His setting forth their purpose, retroactively understood by Paul through the lens of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles. It entails the point where God started his redemptive work in Christ, and not to set out the boundary markers of where the redemption of Christ is limited to. While this may seem to affirm the Wesleyan argument against Unconditional Election, and it does to a degree by shifting predestination away from individual salvation and to national purpose, the standard Wesleyan interpretation a) is also guilty of over-individualizing, b) thinking all this language is ultimately about who gets to heaven, c) fails to really grasp the nature of the relationship that God has with Israel, and d) reading a notion of free choice into predestiantion through an antecedent foreknowledge that undercuts Paul’s argument about the partial hardening of Israel in Romans 9-11, which presents a thorn in the side of interpretation for Wesleyan-Arminia

Understanding Paul: Paradigmatic discourse accessing a multi-valent, narrative thought world

January 29, 2018

When it comes to the New Testament, or even the Bible as a whole, there is very little agreement as to how to rightly interpret these texts. At all levels of Western society, lay people, clergy, and scholars, there is little agreement as to the history, reliability, significance, and meaning of the Biblical canon. Amongst academic scholars, many foundational questions are asked: How historically accurate is the Old Testament? Is minimalism or maximalism a better way to assessing its historicity? Who was Jesus? Did the Gospels really portray him accurately, or are the Gospels a combination of ad hoc traditioning and agendas? If the Gospels as a whole are not reliable, what material from the Gospels can we use to construct a reliable portrait of this engimatic teacher? For much of the Bible, many of the questions critical study routinely raise to the forefront are historical questions.1 This is in large part due to the type of discourse these texts have, the way people interpret them, and use those interpretations to make sense of the world: Historical narratives function to help us to make sense of why things are the way they are and/or the way things should be; hence the critical questions revolve around whether these narratives have the historical factuality that would legitimate their use for making sense of our existence.

However, the disagreements about the Apostle Paul take on a much different tone. While questions of history occasionally rise up, most of the disagreements over Paul relate to issues of meaning. The Lutheran reading of justification by faith and not be works as Paul’s center contrasts with the loosely affiliated readings of the New Perspective trio in EP Sanders, NT Wright, and James Dunn that attempt to situate Paul more within the Jewish context addresses questions of whether Paul should be considered as a Jewish thinker or as one who rejects Judaism. Related to this is the debate between the Lutheran Bultmannian, existential interpretations of Paul in contrast with the apocalyptic and cosmological interpretations2 of Paul by Schweitzer, Kasemann, Marytn, Campbell, etc.

However, if I may offer what stands at the center of these questions isn’t simply a divergence between Lutheran/Bultmannian interpretations vs. more historical readings of Paul. Rather, the disagreement relates more so to the complex style of Paul’s discourse, in which both classical Protestants and modern reinterpreters may find a launching for their interpretational programs. In short, Paul is a systematizing, paradigmatic thinker attempting to make sense of and provide an understanding of the traditions of the early followers of Jesus in the narratives about Jesus, the way of life Jesus followers were to have, and the rituals of initiation and maintenance.3 On the one hand, classical Protestant readings of Paul have portrayed his letters as containing central, paradigmatic idea(s) that Paul is seeking to make known, such as the Lutheran justification by faith alone or the systematic expression of TULIP by Beza and the Calvinists. But more recent scholarship has attributed to Paul a much richer, narrative thought world, starting with Richard Hay’s seminal The Faith of Jesus Christ, with the diffusion of this idea expanding to scholars such as Ben Witherington, NT Wright, Douglas Campbell, etc all of whom attempt to describe the content of this narrative thought world. While the Protestant Reformation picked up on the more salient, abstract style of Paul’s thought, recent scholarship has perceived the narratives that undergirds Paul’s thought through close readings.

It is important to note that paradigmatic and narratival thinking are two distinct ways of thinking. Jerome Brunner distinguished between paradigms and narratives as two forms of thinking that are irreducible to each other, with the former being more logical and mathematical, whereas the latter is more imaginative and experiential.4 Meanwhile, Lee Roy Beach suggests there is more of an interconnecting between the two, believing that paradigmatic thinking is a subset of narratival thinking, whereas paradigms “help us make our chronicular narratives more plausible and coherent.”5 While I am skeptical of Beach’s idea that paradigms are a form of narrative, I find it plausible that paradigms find their launching point from narratives, and can, therefore, function to help understand the narratives with greater detail. Paradigms access the cognitive schemas that are derived from the interpretation of narratives, so that paradigms are constrained to a more fixed, less-changing concepts whereas narratives retain their multi-valent, multi-functional potential for imaginative thinking.

If this understanding of paradigms and narratives is valid, then we can offer some explanation for much of the difference of disagreement on interpreting Paul and propose solutions for understanding Paul. The discontinuities between the two modes may offer insights to the division in scholarship due particular biases to employ certain modes of thinking; understanding the functional interrelationship between the two modes can provide a basis for asking the question of how specifically the paradigmatic thinking o Paul accesses and molds the narrative thought world as it pertains to Israel, Jesus, the ethics of the church, and its rituals. On the one hand, it hedges against over-systematizing readings of Paul that try to find some central core of Paul’s thought, but at the same time provides a basis to consider how to filter the volumninous content about these narratives discerened by modern scholarship into a) the specific schemas that Paul’s language specifically accesses and b) the rest of the thought world that creatively interplays with those paradigmatic schemas.

Why I am Wesleyan and not Reformed

January 27, 2018

Yesterday, I wrote out a few reasons why I greatly appreciate the Reformed tradition and how I feel they get certain things right that my Wesleyan and Methodist tradition miss. One might get the impression that I am somehow secretly Reformed in my theology. I remember being referred to as a “closet Calvinist” during my time at Asbury Theological Seminary, probably due to my willing to express questions and doubts on topics such as free will and my willingness to defend Reformed and Calvinist thinkers from what I felt were unfair criticisms from my Wesleyan friends and fellow seminarians. In some sense, I have always straddled the line between social boundaries we construct in theology, whether it be between Wesley-Arminian and Calvinist-Reformed, or between Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodoxy1 However, despite this tendency live on the boundaries, I unreservedly say that I feel that authentic Wesleyan theology, and not necessarily the common theology prevalent amongst Methodists that only bears a basic family resemblance to Wesley’s teachings, is overall the closest to an overall understanding of the story of the Gospels, the theology of Paul, and the praxis of the rest of the epistles.2

What I have come to appreciate about it today is not exactly the same as what initially drew me to John Wesley’s theology and to becoming Methodist, so one might rightly say the Wesleyan framework has biased me to read this way. Fair enough, although I have always had a critical eye towards my tradition, so while I would not claim to be perfectly objective in my assessment of Wesleyan theology as more closely reaching the thrust of the New Testament, my desire to understand the New Testament and my Wesleyan background have frequently been in tension as well as in harmony with each other.

Firstly, I would say that John Wesley’s theology is much more experimental and focused on praxis, which I feel is more consistent with the overall thrust of the New Testament. The two intial Protestant traditions, both Lutheran and Reformed theology, found its inspiration from the Apostle Paul. Paul is a much more of a systematizing thinker than the rest of the authors of the New Testament, and as such, it seems to be the case that Lutheran and Reformed theology became much more focused on constructing theological systems of thinking. While there is a place for systematizing, the central locus of the New Testament, including even Paul, is much more “down to earth.” Thinking is in aid to trusting and living, rather than living and trusting being fully outlined by a clearly conceptualized system of thinking. It is for this reason that I think that while the Reformed traditions gets the right emphases in understanding Paul, the (over)systematizing tendency in the Reformed tradition leads to overlooking both the ambiguous complexity and experiential elements throughout the New Testament.

By contrast, Wesley was always more focused on how one lived out faith. His formation of the Holy Club that set about what we would today refer to as spiritual practice, a concern about justice in visiting prisoners, arguing against the evils of slavery, etc., and an acute awareness about the role of experience in the Christian life reveal Wesley’s experimental and practical focus; while he is perfectly capable of coming up with intellectual insights, Wesley was no systematizing thinker. While I feel this sometimes leave Methodism ill fit to clearly and adequately convey the core of their theological insights3 and thus a tendency towards theological and ethical chaos, at the same time it allows Methodists to much more fit to both a) living out the nature of their faith in deeply ethical and just ways, and b) appreciating the fuller contours of the meaning of the Bible.4 Furthermore, once one pushes back against the over-systematizing tendencies of the Reformed and Lutheran traditions, it becomes much more plausible to connect the story of Jesus in the Gospels with Paul without the somewhat awkward and forced retrojections of Pauline concepts back onto the Gospels.

Secondly, the Wesleyan taxonomic description of grace under the terms of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace5 more appropriately approximates Paul’s understanding. In the Reformed tradition, there is a tendency to speak of grace given to the elect (saving grace) and then grace given to the world (common grace) in such a way that common grace has no real relationship to saving grace. However, Paul nowhere conveys any such a stark distinction between the loving, beneficent work of God amongst believers and then the world. The Wesleyan narrative of grace starting before faith in prevenient grace to enable a response of faith, justifying grace at the point of faith providing the forgiveness of sins, and sanctifying grace as the means by which Christians live are enabled to live holy lives is more consistent with Paul’s lack of differentiation of grace. While Paul does not conceptualize grace as something different than the actual life of Jesus Christ and the giving of the Holy Spirit, whereas it is common to think of grace as an independent, reified entity in Protestant traditions including the Wesleyan tradition,  the Wesleyan tradition gets closer to seeing how all the functions and effects of God’s gracious intentions in Christ and the Spirit work together: the coming of Christ into the world joined with the autenticating work of the Spirit operate akins to previent grace, leading to the justifying grace that comes from union to the Christ through the Spirit, setting up the condition of sanctifiying grace where the pattern of Christ is fully realized through the leading of the Spirit. When Wesleyan theology defines grace by Jesus Christ and the Spirit, rather than some abstract concept or vague, emotional force, it is much more capable of seeing the fullness of Paul’s theology in a way that the oversystematizing tendency of the Reformed traditions tends to overlook and conceptually split apart as entirely different work.

Thirdly, the doctrine of entire sanctification expresses an important Pauline theme: the totalizing work of Christ leading to the entire transformation of everything. The specific doctrine of entire sanctification itself is an overly individualized expression 6 and can have a tendency towards legalistic conception of perfection, but there is the strong conviction for Paul, particularly in the Deutero-Paulines of Ephesians and Colossian7 that the redemptive work of Christ affects everything. Whereas the Lutheran tradition has a tendency to normalize sin as a result of Luther’s simul justus et peccator, and the Reformed tradition through that Luthern influence, the Wesleyan tradition recognizes that Jesus did not die on the cross and rise from the dead simply to get us on the right side of judgment: God’s telos in redemption in Christ through the Spirit is a total impact on the very nature of the world in the present state of things. There is no simply long distant hope for some day in the eternal future where God will have us in a perfect world but in the mean time, things will always be the same. For Paul, there is the very present and very real transformation of the cosmos and world that is not contained by any power; instead, Christ is putting all his enemies and everything that opposes him under his subjection. As such, this entails the very real, entire transformation of the person in the present life, such as when Paul seeks to continue onwards to perfect in order to know the power of Christ’s resurrection.8 There are no impenetrable strongholds of sin and death that are not being sieged by Christ and the Spirit as often times expressed in a hopelessness of any personal (“I am just a sinner.”) or societal (“This is just the way things are.”) change. While there is much caution and concern about such a totalizing transformation when people believe they have the capacity to institute such dramatic changes by human power, either individually or corporately, that can be expressed in abusive legalism and oppressive progressivism,9 the all-pervasive, all-impacting work of Jesus Christ so that He becomes “all in all,” is approximately hit upon by John Wesley’s idea of entire sanctification.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I witness to the fact that love stands at the center of Wesley’s purpose. In his realization of God’s love and forgiveness of his sins at Aldersgate, the love expressed through life together in various clubs, bands, and societies, and the pursuit of justice for the poor, enslaved, etc. love increasingly stands as the center of any Wesleyan perspective, much in line with Jesus’ own prioritizing of the commandments and in the very pattern of his ministry and death. As opposed to the oversystematizing Reformed theology, which leads to an emphasis on power due to systematic thinkings reliance on parsimony, Wesley’s practical, experimental religious practice takes love of the center.

In the end, this final point blends into the rest It is Wesley’s focus on love that leads him to be more pragmatic and experiential rather than overly systematizing. It is the hedge against such systematizing that allows a deeper appreciation of the Gospels that are more about love and praxis than systematizing thought. It is this loving nature that allows not strict, intraversible boundary line be drawn between the elect and the rest of the world, but instead sees God’s gracious intention as being on behalf of the world. IT is this love that does not brook accepting the strongholds of evil and sin as impenetrable, but that Christ will overcome everything that holds back God’s People from living their God-given vocation in the creation God made. While love, when ill-defined by modern socio-political agendas, can become quite different than the Biblical concept of love, it is the Wesleyan emphasis on love that allows the comprehension of the center of the whole Biblical narrative that the Reformed traditions can sometimes overlook: God’s kindness, mercy, grace, and compassion stand at the center of his work in the history of salvation in creation, in calling Abraham, in calling Moses, in sending the prophets, in sending Christ, in sending the Holy Spirit. A narrative of love holds all the events of the Biblical narrative together in a way that the Reformed tradition’s emphasis on the all-surpassing power and glory of God does not quite explain, even as it is true to speak of God’s sovereignty; my learning in the Wesleyan tradition has trained me towards that understanding.

My Wesleyan and Methodist traditions has many flaws; it has a tendency towards both legalism and unrestrained humanism, it can overemphasize human free will at the expense of the will of God, it often loses the centrality of Christ through its emphasis on the concept grace, its lack of a strong, systematic expression of its central core leaves the churches ill-equipped to clearly and readily pass on an understanding of the faith, etc., etc. But at the end of the day, at the risk of expressing the bias I am sure that I do have, I unreservedly believe that it is Wesleyan theology that best expresses the whole of the New Testament message about Jesus Christ. There is much I value from other theological traditions, including the Reformed tradition, but it is through Wesley that I learned the really grapple and wrestle with the message of the Bible.