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.

What I love about Reformed theology as a Wesleyan

January 26, 2018

Yesterday, I posted about John Piper’s view of women, and as is predictable whenever a prominent figure is criticized (not just John Piper; it happens when scholars such as N.T. Wright get critiqued too), I got a few responses that were less than happy with me. If I could summarize what was said, it was that I was being unfair towards Calvinism. While I don’t feel I was unfair; there is something important to remember when it comes to engaging with various theological traditions: theology should not be judged solely based upon their problems and failures. As a Wesleyan, I have been trained to think negatively of Reformed theology in general and Calvinist theology in particular, but the more one understands and appreciates the origins of John Wesley’s theology, the greater appreciation one should have for Reformed theology. John Wesley famously said that he was a hairs’ breadth away from Calvinism. While later Methodists (and Calvinists, might I add) have seen the gap between Wesleyan-Arminian and Calvinist-Reformed perspectives widen by identifying against each other, our stories are more intertwined than modern discussions would have us to believe. The questions of predestinaton and free will are only a portion of the theological heritage for Wesleyan and Reformed theology. While not seeking to retrace the relationship between Wesley’s teaching and the Reformed tradition, I feel it is a good to always express what you value in another theological tradition, particuarly one that is intertwined with yours.

Firstly, I think the Reformed emphasis on the will of God as the center of the story of salvation is of the utmost importance. While I feel the Calvinist doctrine of predestination shifts the Biblical language of predestination from about the story of God’s origination of redemption through Israel to an individualistic view of who God saves,1 understanding the narrative of the New Testament requires a great appreciation for sovereignty and power of God as taking center stage. The tendency for Wesleyan and Arminian thinkers to emphasize free will2 comes up massively short in trying to work through New Testament, particularly the Pauline epistles. While Paul speaks would allow for the freedom of the mind to think differently from what the flesh compels upon a person, 3 Paul’s anthropology of redemption in Romans 6:1-8:17 is focused on the natural enslavement of humanity; humanity is only freed through the crucified and resurrected Jesus through the work of the Spirit. Whatever sense of freedom there is to human lives, Reformed theology is more apt to get the right emphasis in Paul rather than in more Methodist circles,4 even if there is a tendency to take it too far.

Secondly, as has been pointed out by many scholars such as N.T. Wright, John Calvin’s view of justification occurring in Christ5 provides one of the central insights for Pauline studies. While one can debate whether the Apostle Paul means “in Christ” as a mystical experience, participatory relationship, or a patterning of conformity, at the end of the day, Reformed theology understands that the person of Christ stands as the very center of redemption. While I can critique how Calvinism tends to define what this “centrality” looks like, its launching point in understanding redemption starts from the prevailing Pauline theme of the person of Christ. My Methodist heritage tends to put the emphasis on “grace” at the center of redemption in the forms of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifyingng grace. While I appreciate these ideas and feel this taxonomy of grace is the closest we get of the Protestant traditions to describing Paul’s understanding of grace6, the language of grace is secondary to “In Christ” for Paul. This is much to the loss of Methodism, which has a tendency to speak of a generalized idea of God’s kindness and/or empowerment that lacks real substance and specificity beyond a vague evocation of emotion and hop; my fellow Methodists do not sufficiently ground the shape and contours of this grace to Jesus Christ. While I feel the Reform tradition doesn’t always get the meaning of it right, the way they place Jesus as the center of redemption is much more in alignment with Paul.

Thirdly, the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints reflects a vital, important notion: God both initiates and finishes the salvation of his people. While as a Wesleyan, I recognize that people may “fall from grace” as any real honest look through the letter to the Hebrews should lead people to consider, emphasis upon one’s free choice leading one to “lose salvation” has a tendency to overlook the confidence Paul expresses about God’s continuing work in HIs People. Passages like Romans 8:31-39 and Philippians 1:6 in Paul evoke a confidence is God’s power on behalf of his people. While the letters to the churches at the beginning of Revelation recognizes that people may somehow fail the test and end up on the wrong side in a coming judgment, Revelation in part seeks to encourage Christians that God is acting on their behalf. While one can potentially apostatize, the New Testament is littered with references to God’s continuing power on behalf of his people. Perseverance of the saints, while it wrongly treats these passages as the basis for forming a rule about salvation for all individuals, implicitly believes that God will always be acting to take care of and ensure the faithfulness of the Church throughout history. Meanwhile, in various Christian contexts that are influenced by the concept of free will, there is often an anxiety that if we don’t do something, Christianity will fade away, as if the Church is principally founded upon the power of human preaching than the one who sends the Word and the Spirit. Rarely, do I hear anxiety from Reformed Christians about the future of the church; this is much more prevalent within my Methodist circles.

In short, I think the Reformed traditions has the right emphasis when it comes to interpreting the New Testament, although it doesn’t always quite get the signifiance of those emphases correct in my opinion. This is to be forgiven, as the Bible is a product of 1st century Judaism with a bit of Hellenism blended in, whereas Reformed theology stems from the 16th century onward in Europe: the historical and cultural difference would lead to Calvin and the Reformed tradition being astute observers of Scripture while not quite getting the significance of its observations in the original historical context. In some ways, I feel like John Wesley’s theology attempts to get some of the significant ideas of REformed theology7 more on track and successfully accomplishes that task to a degree. However, in the need to define its theology against the ideas and language of predestination that was pulled from the Biblical texts, it employed language and concepts that did not immediately pull from the Bible, even if it corrected for some of the errors of Calvinism.

It is for this reason that I find a deep appreciation for theologians like Karl Barth. While I think it has its weaknesses in getting the particulars straight and has a tendency to exaggerate certain concerns, the creativity of the Reformed tradition manifested in people like Calvin, Barth, Moltmann, etc. starts from the right emphasis. Semper Reformanda!

Why John Piper is wrong about women

January 25, 2018

John Piper, no stranger to stoking controversy and drawing the ire of people, recently suggested that women should not be seminary professors. Since according to his view, only men should be pastors women should not be training men to be pastors. As one could have predicted, this has lead to no small amount of criticism, restoking debates about complementarian and egalitarian interpretations of Scripture and calling forth the accusations of patriarchy; for good reason might I add. But amidst the attempts to try to express the error of Piper’s ways, debating on the right interpretation of Scripture and trying to show the value of women in ministry, as good as it can be to validate women who have felt invalidated, does not really get to the heart of the matter. That we can describe Piper’s view of complementarian in a positive way and patriarchal in a negative way can provide us an illusion of understanding. When calling him a complementarian, we tend to attribute his views as a result of his interpretation. When calling Piper a patriarchy, we suggest it is positive view of men and negative view of women that is the cause of his views. However, an important heuristic I have learned through life is as follows: describing is not explaining. That Piper has a complementarian interpretation of Scripture or an unequal view of men and women does not mean these are the real causes of what I would say are fundamentally flawed views.

Standing at the center of Piper’s style of interpretation and view of gender are a very particular set of beliefs that color everything else. Much of the persuasive power of Calvinism has been derived from it’s parsimonious explanations of theology; from just a few basic ideas, one could derive a wide, all-encompassing theological system. The most salient example of this is the 5 doctrinal points of TULIP: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. Through these few basic theological rules, people feel that there are given a powerful system by which to make sense of faith, the Bible, and the world. The pleasure and aesthetic beauty that such parsimony evokes not only motivates remembering these ideas for future use but gives people confidence in the truthfulness and usefulness of such principles. In short, the persuasive power of Calvinism largely rests on its apparently simple yet vast explanatory power.

As humans, we are naturally attuned to explanations that are simultaneously simple to understand and yet help us to understand a lot. This has been where much of the appeal or science comes from, where theories have been developed that are simple to understand1 and allows us to interpret a wide range of observations. Similarily, pseudo-science exploits the same draw towards powerful, yet unfounded, explanations, such as the automatic, law-like such as the belief that anything artificial is automatically harmful. Religious cults also draw people through the power of seemingly simple, yet powerful explanations. Thus, parsimony evokes a sense of power and is a motivation for those who seek power.

This sense of parsimony is also engendered by a desire to reduce ambiguity. If we can explain everything down to a few basic rules, we can avert any feeling of fear or anxiety about the unknown. We don’t have to have intellectual humility when someone says something that conflicts with our views; our sense of us having powerful, explanations tell us that we don’t need to consider anything that differs from our views. Instead of ourselves being in the risk of feeling wrong or in error in the face of ambiguity, powerful, parsimonious explanations motivate us to think we are in the right. I don’t need to change and I am not at risk in the face of ambiguity; it is you who needs to change and at risk.

However, this is precisely the problem of parsimony. The world is incredibly complex, with every event being caused as the result of innumerable, overlapping factors. What might be a good explanation for one event would be misleading for another. For instance, one person may experience fear as a result of being threatened, whereas another person may feel fear because they have a paranoid personality; it might seem powerful to always say that people who are scared have always been harmed or to say that people who are scared are paranoid, but the reality is much more complex than this. Our draw towards parsimony and aversion to ambiguity inclines us to miss complexity. As parsimony simplifies, it has an almost irresistible impulse to oversimplify.

So what does this have to do with Piper’s Calvinism and his view of women in ministry? Everything. Calvinism at its core of a theology of power, where there is a sovereign, all-powerful God that routinely demonstrates this power2 Combine this notion of power with an aversion to ambiguity and it leads to power hierarchies in which the power flows in only one direction; two-directional power is ambiguous, hard to predict, and harder to know who is in the right. Thus both God and humans both having significant degrees of freedom is too messy for many Calvinists, as is men and women both having the capacity to teach and lead is too messy for many. Furthermore, this aversion to ambiguity leads to oversimplistic interpretations of the New Testament, where for every passage that may seem to place males firmly in authority, there are passages showing where women take the lead role; those passages suggesting women have more power than complentarian/patriarchal interpretations would allow for are either missed,3 ignored,4 or radically reinterpreted.5 While the New Testament clearly shows a tendency towards males as being in power, oversimplifying leads to the cases women were in power operating outside of awareness.

In short, Calvinism’s character is largely defined by its theological parsimony, which leads to valuing of power, aversion to ambiguity, and oversimplification of reality. These three principles impact how Scripture gets interpreted and therefore how gender is construed in Piperian circles. All the arguments in the world as to why women are valuable contributors to ministry and why they misinterpret Scripture will have little influence on Piper and others who are in agreement with him; only when people who value and worship power repent of this valuation of power are they open to seeing how they oversimplify and reside in ignorance of the truth about the world, and I would say, the truth of God giving the various gifts of His Spirit to women and men both without regard for the status people ascribe to gender.

However, it should be noted that the distortion nature of overvaluing power is not simply true about modern Calvinism’s view of women, but of the modern Western valuation of power on the wide range of the political spectrum. This is not simply a problem of evangelicals, particularly of the conservative or Calvinist variety, but a more wide-spread problem that manifests itself in different ways.6

Paul’s “In Christ”: Mysticism/participation or patterning?

January 24, 2018

In his originally overlooked book, The Mysticism of the Paul the Apostle, Albert Schweitzer attempts to set to explain Paul’s theology as mystical, where the believer is mystically united with Christ, which he labels as Christ-mysticism.1 He sets this pattern of mysticism in contrast to other forms of Hellenistic religious patterns, such as Stoic pantheism and the mystery religions2 and instead argues it is grounded in Jewish eschatology.3 While allowing that Paul’s theology expresses also eschatological and forensic conceptions of salvation, ultimately Schweitzer says that “when all is said and done, Pauline personal religion is in its fundamental character mystical… its own essential life lies in the mystical.”4 Simarily, as Adam Neder observes, Karl Barth’s employs the idea of participation in Christ as a fundamental core of his theology throughout the Church Dogmatics.5 Barth’s theological framework becomes realized through the subjective revelation in which Christ is made known to the person, but revelation is not given to the person as something they control and possess such as knowledge.6 IT has an impact on the believer that ushers in a person’s faith, the qualitative distinction between Christ and the believer is made absolute. This is in distinction to Schweitzer’s proposal of Pauline Christ-mysticism that suggests the believer experiences the dying and rising of Christ;7 what happens in Christ happens in the person such that there is a blurring of the boundary between Christ and believer. However, while Christ-mysticism according to Schweitzer and Barth’ participation in Christ have their differences, they have a fundamental similarity; there is a direct, ontological relationship between Christ and those who believe in him.

There is much to commend in favor of either mystic and participatory explanations as there is a plethora of places in the Apostle Paul8 where some connection between Christ and believer is imagined. PAul’s favorite repeated phrase “in Christ” conveys a critical connection. The union with Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism in Romans 6:1-13 is certainly well explained by mystic/participatory frameworks. It needs to be asked, however: is Paul’s language of “in Christ” and of “union” suggestive of a direct, ontological union between Christ and believer? While such an idea does explain the critical Pauline phrases and discourse, it runs into difficulty when one has to explain the role of the Spirit in this union. The emphasized role of the Spirit in places such as Romans 8:1-11 and 1 Corinthians 12:13 render both Christ-mysticism and participation in Christ explanations as either reductive or misleading. A fitting explanation will either incorporate the Spirit with Christ in a direct ontological relationship or will make the Spirit ontological basis for being in Christ. The former option finds its weakness because Paul does not treat Christ and Spirit as operating in the same mode:  in 1 Corinthians 12:13, the Spirit is the cause of union with the body of Christ. In Romans 8:1-11, Paul does not speak of Christ impacted the believer personally, but rather that Christ defeats the forces of sin and death; rather the believer realizes the life of Christ through the Spirit. The different modes that Christ and Spirit take in regards to the believer undercuts the former option and highlights the latter option. It is more consistent with the whole Pauline corpus to say that the Spirit is the means by which a person is connected to Jesus Christ.

If that is the case, then “in Christ” and union in Romans 6 are not designating a direct relationship. Instead, they are a metaphorical9 designation for the pattern that a person comes into conformity with. To be sure, Paul doesn’t believe these metaphors are merely metaphors; these metaphors are used to describe a particular effect in the believer, but that the effect comes to fruition through the Spirit. However, what Paul has in mind is more about the source of the human pattern of Christ and its realization in believers rather than a direct, mystic/participatory relationship between the two.

The best passage that can demonstrate notion of pattern is in Galatians 2:15-3:1. There Paul expresses in v. 16 what I think should be best translated as: “we know that a person is not vindicated not by works of the Torah, but through the faith of Jesus Christ. And we believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be vindicated by the faith of Christ and not be works of the Torah.” I think the best sense of this passage takes the genitive in the phrase πιστις χριστου as subjective (the faith of Christ), whereas πιστις is referring to faith and not faithfulness. In so doing, Paul is suggesting there is a connection between the one who believes/has faith in Jesus and Jesus’ own faith: to believe in Christ leads to believing as Christ believed in God who vindicated and raised from the dead. Put differently, to follow Jesus means to live life in the same mode and expectation as Jesus did. In so doing, the believer begins to resemble Christ through the way they respond to God as the who initiates and completes the redemption of his people. Hence, this can explain why Paul then says that Christ lives in him in v. 20; there is a conformity of Christ’s pattern being realized in Paul.  One could have a different interpretation of v. 16 and a different relationship between v. 16 and v. 20, but the pattern of conformity of believer’s faith to Christ’s faith is the simplest, most parsimonious explanation of the data that I am aware of.

Furthermore, this pattern helps to explain what immediately follows, as Paul recounts how Christ was “publicly crucified” before the Galatians in 3:1. This odd phrase makes sense if Paul is speaking of his own conformity to Christ, as Paul is recounting how the Galatians saw the very example of Christ’s suffering in the Apostle Paul. This idea becomes explicit in 4:12-14, where Paul says the Galatians received him as if he was somehow acting in the pattern of Christ. If Paul is talking about his own conformity to Christ and Christ’s faith, then much of the Galatian discourse becomes coherently explained.

However, Paul does not ascribe an ontological relationship with Christ in Galatians. Rather, Paul states in 5:5: “through the Spirit, by faith, we await the hope of righteousness.” Then, he speaks of “in Christ” in the following version as a way of pointing to the importance of faith rather than circumcision (and implicitly Torah). Read together, Galatians 4:5-6 suggests the Spirit is the ontological basis by which faith is effective; presumably this is because it is through the Spirit, the faith of Christ comes to realization in the believer, as faith/πιστις is mentioned as part of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. More generally, it seems that Paul has a tendency to speak about Christ in visual10 or exterior11 terms, whereas he is more apt to speak of the Spirit’s impacts in the believer’s heart.12

In summary, a Spirit-mysticism as the basis for a connection to Christ in Paul’s letters is a parsimonious explanation of a wide range of Paul language about the Son and the Spirit. The term Paul uses that may best express this idea of conformity to the pattern of Christ is συμμορφος in Romans 8:29, where Paul says “those whom he knew beforehand, he beforehand ordained conformity to His Son’s image.” Here the idea of patterning after Jesus is clear; this expains the calling, vindication, and glorification in v. 30 as references to Jesus traditions that are then applied to others.13

Therefore, it seems more in line with Paul’s arguments for his language of “in Christ” and union with Christ to pertain more to a patterning of the believer’s life in resemblance to Christ. However, the nature of Paul’s language pushes against mere imitation of Christ, which would highlight ethical action by believer; the conformity to Christ that PAul emphasizes pertains to God action’s to call, vindicate, resurrect, glorify, etc., and thus still contains a divinely-realized transformation of the total life. Hence, It would be better defined as a Christ-patterned Spirit-mysticism; for Paul, Christ took on a renewed human form which the Spirit then molds God’s people into.

An analysis of Suffering (Part 1)

January 19, 2018

The idea of suffering is an important part of the Christian faith. While it is often times underemphasized and treated as an evil in modern Western society that values fulfillment and pleasure, it plays an important role in the New Testament and the development of the faith throughout the centuries. As Jesus and His followers were inevitably at odds with and deviating from the socio-political culture in which they inhabited, the persecution, the exclusion, and the daily reminders that the world was not as they believed it should be made faithfulness as a Christian necessarily entail suffering. To be at odds with the world one inhabits and to be reminded of it by the way people treated them would make suffering not just a possibility, but a necessary reality if one wishes to embody God’s character in imitation of the Messiah’s suffering love and faithfulness. As such, the Apostle Paul takes up the theme of suffering, both by direct reference and through reference to the cross, including in multiple places in Romans such as 5:3 and 8:17-39.14

However, in our modern psychological world that analyze people based upon interiority rather than their relationship to the world, we tend to treat suffering based upon its emotional state and we do not readily distinguish between different types of suffering. We are apt to analyze all suffering as fundamentally similar because of the similar emotional experience that occurs when people are going through long-term anguish. Furthermore, in a society that highly values empathy and acting on behalf of victims, the idea of suffering is often times blurred by people who feel the need to save people from suffering and by people who exploit such appearances for ulterior gain.  Our ideas of suffering are too interiorized, empathized, and victimizing to appreciate what suffering is.

Having been a person who has experienced a lot of suffering in my life (picked on relentlessly and excluded in grade school, the loss of my brother by his own hand and seeing his dead body, being sexualized and objectified, having had my future curtailed, and struggling through extreme levels of lingering stress), I unfortunately feel like somewhat of an expert on the subject. MY psychological background has given me the ground to analyze. AS such, what I offer here is an analysis of this experience that I saw in my myself and what I observed and inferred from others that attempts to assess and analyze the nature of suffering, dispel false ideas, and give a nuanced understanding so that those that suffer can work through it and those that love someone who is experiencing suffering can comprehend it. I am not formally trained as a psychologist nor am I a physician, so do not treat this as a precise clinical description of psychological suffering nor is this about suffering primarily rooted in physiology/the body.15

If I could define suffering, I would call it a prolonged battled with pain that does not readily abate. While we may be apt to talk about suffering when something bad happens, I would caution against this usage as it diminishes the true nature of suffering by treating as grief, victimization, etc. Suffering may entail grief, victimization, etc., but suffering is about a prolonged battle over psychological pain. This pain is further defined by the feelings about where our life currently is far from what we wish it would be; psychological pain at the core is a dissonance between what we think is real and our values. So, bringing this together, I would define suffering more specifically as a prolonged struggle of feeling life is far from what we wish and hope for it to be.

As such, suffering is not about mental disorder, such as depression. While depressed and other mental impairments people may suffering and suffering may lead to such mental struggles, these are not the same. Suffering may be caused and the effect of mental disorder, but suffering is neither wholly explained by nor wholly explains mental disorders, particularly depression.

Furthermore, suffering is not about victimization; while victims of injustice often suffering, not all victims experience such a prolonged bouts of pain. In addition, sometimes there is suffering that is brought about by the consequences of our own bad actions where we are not the victims but the perpetrators. Pain and its prolonged experience is not automatically someone else’s fault, but nor is it automatically the sufferer’s fault either.

Also, suffering is not experiencing an event of distress or loss and the immediate, natural feelings from such loss. Losing a significant other, not getting into the school you hoped for, losing one’s job, feeling wrongly treated, mourning the loss of a family member, etc. all can evoke deep pain, but this pain is natural and will abate when everything within us and the world is close to as it should be. Suffering happens because something within ourselves and the world holds us back from going through the natural process of pain and loss. So, suffering is not merely unfairness, injustice, loss, etc. Typically speaking, the emotional pain, grief, fear, and anger people experience are psychological processes that changes something about the way we think, feel, actions, and relationships in the short term and the long term; when this emotional process allows us to adjust to the circumstances we live in or adequately adjust our circumstances, we experience change in such feeling, thinking, action and relationships where we no longer experience the strong, dissonant disharmony of what we believe to be true and what we wish were true. In other words, most of the time, the negative feelings of life events allow things to change so that we don’t experience this prolonged psychological pain that is suffering.

So, I would say more specifically that suffering is the result of the natural adjustments our emotions lead to us to do in changing ourselves and our context that does not accomplish the purpose of bringing together what we believe to be true and what we wish to be true. Maybe a victim of a rape remains in persistent fear of their rapist and never transitions to feeling anger and finding responsible people to help address the violence and violation done to her/him; or maybe they do transition to anger and never find someone to help. Maybe a person whose spouse passes away never learns to let go on that relationship and their dependence on that person, or maybe there is no one available or the lack of resources at hand to help one to transition. A person caught in serious moral violation may never fully accept their fault and let go of what they lost and will persist in believing they were unjustly treated and therefore experiencing prolonged suffering. The causes of suffering are diverse and various, but at the end, it is because our belief about what is true or our believe of what should be true do not adjust accordingly.

Given the various causes of the dissonant disharmony of suffering, one can speak of suffering coming in different forms. Each of these forms of suffering entail a certain way we relate to the world and context around us, and as such, each form has a particular response one can take to overcome such suffering in a moral and beneficial way (There are always multiple ways of addressing our circumstances, but there are often fewer choices when we consider the impact our actions have on others and ourselves). This will be the topic of my next post. My ultimate goal in that will be to give a more nuanced view on suffering that can help sufferers, help helpers of sufferings, while understanding it in such a way that accords to the moral world of the New Testament and clarifying what type of suffering is Christian suffering and what types of suffering are not.