Anger in the Christian life

June 17, 2019

Anger is a complex emotion. At the heart of anger are three basic cognitive notions: a person who is angry has felt a sense of violation, is prepared to take some action to remedy the violation, and the violater is seen in a negative light. The nature of the violation can range from the superficial, such as a child’s temper tantrum for not getting their way to the worst violations of abuse, murder, etc. The type of action a person is willing to take isn’t generally communicated by the signs of anger, but people can try to establish boundaries, try to control to get their way, seek vengeance, etc. Then, perception of the violator can range from anger in the moment at an otherwise friend to the rage that regards the perceived violator with absolute disgust and contempt. When we are angry, someone is angry at us, or we are aware of someone’s anger at someone else, we don’t consciously go through this list, but we generally have an intuition about these three notions, although we don’t always have a clear, precise understanding about the violation, action, or the view of the violator.

Anger is additionally a powerful emotion, as it represents a potential for some form of aggression to remedy the situation, whether the aggression is symbolic, covert, limited, or takes on a more extreme actions. As such, anger also has the potential to evoke fear in the targets of angers and even onlookers, especially depending on the degree of anger. Consequently, because fear is based upon protection oneself from possible threats, but not necessarily probable ones, anger often times lead to its targets feeling the need to protect themselves, especially when there a lot of ambiguity about the violation, the potential response to the violation, and the perceptions of the violator.

This brings me to what I consider to be part of the dividing line between dealing with anger in a right way vs. a wrong way. When you get back the people who are directly and abusive in their anger, one of the real problems with anger is often times the communicative dysfunctions that take place in anger. Whether it is because of the lack of effective communication that leads to fear and defensiveness in its targets or because of the harsh things that can be said and done in the heat of anger, anger in our present day is more so toxic of our social connections through sabotaging communication. Sometimes, people who have learned how to toxically control people through a combination of anger and ambiguity and use this to their advantage, such as an abusive spouse who regularly expresses contradictory, yet harsh criticism or stonewalls. However, many of us more so struggle with communication when in anger, largely because we have not learned how to regulate ourselves when we become angry. This is a natural, human inclination that does not make a person morally bad, but it nevertheless facilitates conflicts that could be avoided through the ability to communicate more effectively.

I point out the communicative dysfunctions of anger to use this concept to bring to light in reading Jesus’ words about anger in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5.21-26, Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (NRSV)

These words have often been used with the idea that Jesus was saying that anger is equivalent to murder, much like the follow verses in Matt 5.27-30 has been used to suggest that thinking about sex with someone who isn’t your spouse is the same thing as committing adultery. However, these interpretations are convenient form of guilting and shaming people for their emotions, and consequently have served as a way to gaslight people for simply being anger and shame them for sexual feelings. They are not actually address the heart of what Jesus is trying to demonstrate. This ignores Jesus purpose that can be seen from what is immediately said before going into his discourse on anger in Matthew 5.17-20:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (NRSV)

AT the heart of Jesus’ concern is this. He is not nullifying the Torah. Rather, what he is doing is trying to teach people to go beyond the Pharisees, who were often exemplary in their understanding of the Torah, although they often used their traditions to nullfying a commandment in the Torah. In other words, if your righteousness is simply limited to the Torah, then one will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. For Jesus, the Torah was not the totality of God’s will for people, but it was a starting point that was to ultimately lead them towards the love of God and to be reflect His completeness. (Matthew 5.43-48) However, if one considered one’s obligations to end where the Torah is silent, then one had failed to really understand of heart of God and the way of life in the kingdom of heaven.

So, when we read the passage about anger (and also about lust and adultery, although that passage has its unique interpretative challenges, as it more so about lust towards a married woman), it is important to reflect that Jesus is not saying “Anger = murder.” Rather, it is about Jesus addressing matters that go beyond a righteousness based upon the Torah that said “I did not murder, therefore I am not liable to judgment.” Jesus point is to rather say that one is accountable to one’s anger and what one does with it. The key word that Jesus uses is ἔνοχος, which refers to the idea of accountability, which he uses four times. It doesn’t stritly speak, refer to a guilty judgment, although that is often times the implication as it is with murder, but that one is accountable to what one does. It is more appropriate to understand Jesus instruction as effectively saying that we are not simply free to do whatever we wish when we are angry. This explains the intensification of anger in the actions of insulting and calling a brother a fool and the corresponding, hyperbolic intensification of accountability. The more one does in anger, the more one will be held accountable with the possibility of increasing consequences.1

What is noteworthy is that as Jesus intensifies the actions done in anger, he focuses on verbal behaviors. It seems as if part of the problem with anger is the way it often leads to dysfunctional, if not abusive, communication. Before anger ever leads to murder, it readily leads to harmful words that are spoken. The danger of anger is the damage done in what we say and the resulting damage our in social relationships. Hence, Jesus warns such a hypothetical person that has engaged in such dysfunctional communication that they need to make amends with the one they have targeted, because one is often held accountable to what one says and does in anger. Anger combined with dysfunctional communication that focuses on tearing down and treating another party with contempt (which is one way angry people try to remedy what the deem to be a violation) has serious, serious consequences.

Jesus point is to provide a form of practical wisdom about anger and the consequences it can have. How we deal with our anger is of an imperative importance if we wish to live life in way it is lived in the kingdom of heaven. Anger is not sin and is not equivalent murder. Nevertheless, we are accountable for how we behave in our anger.

Attempts to pathologize and “harmatia-nized”2 anger, however, often work on the assumption that to be angry is to either automatically be wrong or wrong by default unless one can prove their case. This is often the case with narcissists who are unable to consider the possibility of anger towards them ever being legitimate. Such persons may routinely violate boundaries and trust in other persons and will then manipulatively take those person’s anger as further evidence of their contempt and disregard. However, in most situations, anger can also be pathologized and “harmatia-nized” by otherwise well-intended persons. Because of our fear of anger and because anger is often used to threaten the status quo, we can often times regard anger as automatically wrong in order to feel a sense of righteousness or authority to protect oneself. While such attempts are not intended with evil, but simply a result of a natural push towards egocentricity, when such a norm becomes enculturated and institutionalized, it is readily used by narcissists and other predatorial types to reinforce their control over those they mistreat. So, how we are set to deal with other people’s anger has massive implications not just for ourselves, but also our social networks in what strategies and norms we allow to regulate our response to anger.

The way I presently frame addressing anger is through the concept of accountability in which both the angry person is accountable to the target of their anger for how they treat them. As I understand it, accountability isn’t a form of control, but rather the way we respond to another person’s behavior. Thus, a person is free to be angry and should have space and permission to express their anger (assuming there are no legitimate reasons to be protective). On the other hand, they don’t have a right to escalate far beyond the perceived violation, nor are they free to treat me in whatever way they wish without a response. However, in seeing my “right” to hold an angry person accountable, I should first consider my accountable to give me the responsibility to try to allow the space for healthy addressing of anger, by first focusing on trying to aid in the communication and then trying to be clear about my own boundaries. While some in their anger may refuse to recognize my place in holding them accountable to how they address their anger towards me, placation will teach such people that they can act as they wish. In other words, I see part of my role in accountability is to make it such that I create the space for the appropriate expression of grievances towards me. Rather than trying to automatically avoid anger, I aspire to consider how I can help the person to express their anger better, so far as I feel any threat in contained and manageable. Not that I am perfect at that, but I have found this way of responding to anger, which is rooted in Jesus’ own explication on anger, is a better way to address the dysfunctional communication that occurs in anger rather than the other ways we try to respond and deal with another person’s anger.

In part, this is rooted in the fact that I myself can recall a couple of times where I had legitimate reasons to be angry (one time I was legitimately furious), but I did not know how to appropriately address that anger, which was usually suppressed (and thus leading to the inability to communicate anger well), when it finally came out. I wished the other parties had more effective strategies for dealing with anger. But as Jesus calls on us to do to others as we wished they would do to us, I have taken on the notion of accountability seriously, both for my own anger and for how I respond to the anger of other persons.

There are times to be angry. While we should aspire to be like God, who is slow to anger, in being slow to anger ourselves, the experience and expression of anger should not pathologized and “hamartia-nized.” Persistent and unreasonable anger that is not curtailed and contained with time, accountability, and legitimate redress is a real problem; anger that is used to reinforce narcissism should be considered toxic. However, anger itself should not be considered the enemy, but something that we should consider ourselves accountable for and that we hold others accountable to. 

Marriage, celibacy, and being caught in between

June 16, 2019

The Christian faith has throughout history upheld one of two options for sexuality: marriage between a male and female or celibacy. While in the late 20th and early 21st century, this idea has been challenged, it remains true that the New Testament presents these two venues to live out one’s sex, by Jesus and then later outlined with more detail by the Apostle Paul. Christian and churches that seek to remain living by Jesus’ teaching on sex and marriage are left to live within two options. However, the way we come to arrive at those options may not have been as well understood.

For many people, they exist as caught in between the two options. While most Christians assume that marriage is something that they should do as part of the process of growing up, there are some of us who have considered celibacy. While Jesus describes celibacy as something that is gifted to a person is not entirely clear (Matthew 19.10-12), the Apostle Paul declares that it is better for a person to marry than to burn with passion (1 Cor. 7.9). This has often lead people to reduce the question as to whether one should marry or not to a singular question: do you desire sex? If so, you should marry. The assumption can be that celibacy is for those who are devoid of desire as if they have received a special gift to be celibate.

However, this isn’t what either Jesus or Paul actually says. Jesus didn’t refer to the gift of celibacy, but rather to gift of being able to accept the teaching that it is better to not marry than to do so. In his three fold discussions of eunuchs, the first two he refers to were made eunuchs not by choice but either by birth or by other people. However, the third type of eunuchs for God’s kingdom, Jesus does not speak of them being involuntarily made a eunuch. Rather, the verb εὐνούχισαν is active, describing the act of a person making themselves a eunuch. While Jesus certainly doesn’t advocate any form of castration, he does see the lifestyle of voluntary celibacy as something one does to oneself; it is not a gift that one receives. The best hint that Jesus gives is that it is connected to one process of learning and discipleship because Jesus refers to people receiving this teaching. Learning in the ancient world, particuarly when it comes to learning from esteemed wise figures, was not taken simply for the sake of head knowledge, but for the sake of forming one’s own character, behavior, and virtue by learning when and how to control their behavior and thinking. Thus, Jesus can be best be seen as saying that some people may came to live as a eunuch of the kingdom through discipleship.

Furthermore, a closer reading of Paul would show that Paul isn’t saying “if you have sexual desire, you must marry.” Rather, Paul reading is much more nuanced. Firstly, the condition he provides is the Greek verb πυρόω, which literally means to burn. Many commentaries will consider Paul’s usage as a metaphor for sexual desire. However, this fails to take into account the ancient view of desire and emotions. Our modern psychological of affect defines our emotions and desires based upon the conscious content of thinking and feeling. For instance, different experiences of desire may be seen as having various degrees of intensity, but otherwise less intense and more intense desire are considered the same thing. On the other hand, ancient accounts of affect were more defined by the consequences of such affective states, whether behavioral or cognitive. For instance, the Stoic doctrine of the passions were concern about emotions that made people think and act in irrational ways. Far from the modern caricature of a Stoic as emotionless, Stoics could experience what we today would refer to emotions, but they would feel they weren’t threats to rationality and would not call them passions. What defined the negative passions was not an inner state of consciousness and feeling, but the cognitive and behavioral consequences of irrational thinking and immoral behavior. So, when Paul refers to a person burning with fire, he is not referring to the existence of sexual desire in a person, but rather referring to a form of sexual desire that makes people close. To burn was to describe someone who was “in heat” and the pursuit and engagement of sexual behavior was almost inevitable.

Furthermore, Paul does not say “If you are on the cusp of engaging in sexual activity, you must marry.” Rather, he says it is preferable (κρεῖττον) to marry. Paul does not provide a declaratory decision about what one must do, but rather describes it is more advantageous to marry and to refrain from marriage. In a similar fashion, Paul later provides such an account as to why people should not marry (1 Cor. 7.28). Thus, Paul would still leave open the possibility of remaining celibate for even those burning with a passion. Paul is not pronouncing a command about marriage to those who burn, but commending it as something they should pursue. Why? Not because they experience sexual desire, but because they are not controlling themselves. The core fundamental question is whether a person has behavioral control of themselves in their desire, not the existence of any desire. However, it is still possible that someone who has not practiced self-control could learn to do so. Hence, Paul does not provide an absolute judgment on what people should do.

What undergirds Paul’s understanding of marriage is, like Jesus, also the concept of a gift (1 Cor. 7.7). However, the context makes clear: this isn’t the “gift of celibacy” but rather is a matter of self-control. (1 Cor. 7.5) For Paul, celibacy is a preferable option when one is able to exercise self-restraint upon ones’ sexual behaviors. In other words, celibacy is something given by God’s empowerment to have regulated oneself, to not act upon the temptations and drives that can dramatically alter the way you think and act. Much as Jesus hints at the willingness to live a celibate life comes through discipleship and brings about self-control, Paul also considers the advantage of celibacy to be conditioned upon self-control. In other words, through the process of Spiritual maturation, some persons would obtain the capacity to effectively self-regulate their sexual behaviors.

Thus, what has often been assumed to undergird the option of celibacy as being conditioned upon a gift for celibacy is not how Jesus and Paul understand it. Furthermore, the idea of a “gift for celibacy” is potentially harmful to a whole range of people who are caught in the middle. There are many people who would like to marry but are unable to do so. People who are gay and lesbian but committed to the Church’s historical sexual ethic are not able to marry. Then, there are heterosexual persons who do to a combination of undesirability to others, the lack of opportunities, and/or personal difficulties and traumas are unable to marry. I, for instance, due to a few threatening and a couple of traumatic experiences with women from later in college and afterward, find myself unable to even try to date; when I sense even a possibility of serious interest from another female, I can sometimes freeze, sometimes engage in avoidant behaviors, and can even feel incredibly nauseous and sick afterward, even if I am interested in that moment. As men’s chances to date correspond in part to their ability to pursue, people with trauma like mine don’t ever really get the chances to overcome the biological power of our traumas through experience. As much as I have wanted to fall in love, get married, and have a family, I am among those caught in the middle, whose struggles make me avoid opportunities and undesirable even when I don’t avoid.

People like us can experience extreme emotional pain, even as we are able to self-regulate ourselves from engaging in sexual activity and even substitute behaviors like pornography, we deal with incredible difficulties. Living in a society that valorizes romance and sex (but not necessarily marriage except as a symbol of societal recognition for non-heterosexuals) and being constantly reminded of how the benefits of close relationships, people caught in the middle are often times left with a deep sense of emptiness and feeling of being on the margins of life. Not to mention the way people respond to celibate persons. When I served as a pastor, I was routinely encouraged to date someone that well-meaning parishioners had in mind, but with the mindset that at the end of the day, places me as a person who had something wrong with me more globally rather than recognizing that I struggle to even form the earliest parts of emotional attachment. Neither society nor the church knows quite what to do with people who remain celibate. So, people who remain in the middle can deal with the emotional turmoil on both ends in the inability of relational dreams to become realized and the implicit social judgments that can arise.

Part of this problem arises from how we account for the instinct of sex that has influenced our society. Whether it is Freud’s reducing most everything down to sex or some simplistic evolutionary account that treat sex as singular, reproductive instinct to individual biological organisms. Freud’s view treat social interactions as ultimately definable to sexual behavior, reducing the role of non-sexual relationships. Simplistic evolutionary accounts considers everyone as having a sexual instinct for the sake of reproduction, as if every human organism reproduces to continue the species. As a consequence, we have been accustomed to regard sex as an essential part of being human, as if we are biologically fated to participate in sexual behavior. But I would suggest this misunderstands human nature and sex as a simplistic instinct.

The common trend in earlier psychology was to assume that specific behaviors and thoughts were reducible to a single mechanism that accounts for the whole range of behavior. Thus, when it came to sex, it was considered a singular instinct that was an essential part of what it means to be human. But the notion of a singular instinct is flawed, as what seems to be the case is that human motivation and behavior more so emerges from the overlap and various physiological and neurological states. Sex is one of those instances, evidence by the fact that people can experience deep ambivalence about sexual activity. On the one hand, a person may feel some desire for sex. However, because we are also physiologically protective of our own physical space and emotional well-being, for a person to actively engage in sexual behavior to occur, they would need to both feel desire and feel a degree of safety that inhibits the degree of physical and emotional self-protection. A primal feeling of vulnerability in either way can actively inhibit what the person might otherwise experience as sexual desire; they might feel ambivalent about sex or sexual desire might become entirely inhibited. The point is that there isn’t a single instinct responsible for human sexual desire, but rather it is more likely a composite of various, other physiological states.

Thus, I would hypothesize that it is more accurate to suggest that human have sexual potential that is regularly activated enough in enough people to reproduce. Seeking to be physically stimulated, desires for a close social connection, hopes for having a family can all be effective and cognitive “triggers” that can activate our sexual potential, which all happen regularly enough to ensure adequate reproduction. There are likely other, non-conscious neural and biological factors that can trigger sexual potential. However, what does not seem to be the case is that there is some singular sexual instinct that demands to be satisfied, but rather there are other motivational states and goals that active sexual potential so that we become motivated to engage in various forms of sexual behavior, from the early phases of dating to sexual intercourse. If correct, this means that sexual desire is largely conditioned to various specific physiological, affective, and cognitive states that are not inherently seeking to engage in sexual activity with another person, rather than it being a singular craving that should be satisfied. If this is the case, then the experience of sexual desire is not controlled simply by innate biological patterns but is also very adaptable and flexible to the patterns of cognitive and emotional experience and learning, including within our culture. I would go so far as to posit that sexual desire more so mirrors the cognitive and emotional ordering of society and people’s experiences within it.

The implications of such is this: the emotional intensity of sexual desire is more so a factor about what we value and think rather than simply the consequence of some instinct or instincts. I would posit there are three big factors that contribute to sexual desire: desires to be physically stimulated, desire to be emotionally connected to another person, and desire to create and generate something. Pleasure, bonding, and creating in the form of reproduction provides conditions for our desire for sexual activity. Some of these desires become fixated and persistent, if not sometimes taking on a degree of obsession, that regularly generates sexual desire. Then, there may be other motivations that can contribute 

If this view is correct, then this would generate some suggestions when it comes to Christian discipleship and sex. Frequently, Christian responses to framing sexuality employ a combination of approaches that a) focus on managing and address sexual desire and identity and/or b) engage in what  I refer to as “therapeutic archaeology” by trying to resolve the events of the person’s past, including frequently traumas. However, if sexual desire is conditioned more so upon other values, then the first route is self-defeating. Perhaps this is why we can find people trying to directly regulate and control their sexual desire find it a defeating experience; if sexual desire is a function of other desires, then addressing sexual desire doesn’t actually address the causes. Meanwhile the problem with the second option works on the assumption that you can reverse what happened and somehow to move towards some more pristine, better form of desire; it does not treat the present as what is most important, but addressing the past. However, especially when it comes to traumas and the way memories of fear are resistant to extinction, there is never any going back to the way things were beforehand. I myself have experienced the futility of both approaches in the past. Direct addressing of sexual desire was largely effective in keeping me from sexual activity, but it left me disturbed by the regular experience of it combined with the lack of dating opportunities to allow for marriage due to my trauma. However, trying to address my problems therapeutically with psychologist never really solved my hang-ups and struggles with dating that stopped anything from happening; all I was capable of doing was finding some other avenue of life in substitute for my inability to be someone else saw worth giving a chance.

But, if I am correct, this view of sex would prescribe a different way to address matters of sex in the Christian tradition: focus on the other values that are connected and generate sexual desire. For instance, I am a person who is highly desirous of emotional connection and for a family; I have found I experience the most thoughts about sex when I feel the worst pangs of loneliness. As a heterosexual male, which makes close relationships with both men and women hard due to gender conventions, and with trauma that makes it hard for me to regularly socialize in such a way that I become a person people actively seek to be around, the lack of emotional bonding and feelings of deep loneliness are near impossible to address aside from my family. Addressing problems of sexual desire would work more so in addressing the needs and struggles to bond. This doesn’t mean there is no place for managing sexual desire; this is indeed part of self-control. But managing sexual desire controls behavior rather than addresses conditions for desire. Therapeutic treatment of past traumas and other events has a place in a professional, therapeutic relationship to help people to understand and manage the problems their experiences present them, but these would not address the actual experience of sexual desire.

This overlaps with the views that I ascribe to Jesus and Paul, in that they both consider celibacy a gift that emerges from discipleship. The learning in the various other parts of life. If this is correct, then this provides a way for the people in the middle like me to be able to learn how to navigate the pain and sorrow of lost and unfulfillable dreams and begin to move towards a place towards spiritual contentment with celibacy. While it doesn’t rule out the possibility of those in the middle from ever marrying, and in fact in some cases where the barriers are not strong, perhaps going through hte process may allow for those barriers to pass. However, for some persons where the hang-ups, limitations, and lack of chances are pervasive, perhaps this way is more effective at allowing them to overcome the lifelong dilemmas they might be faced with. Perhaps in this way, the Church can  find a better way to minister to people.

What is the curse of the Torah in Galatians 3.10-14?

June 10, 2019

Galatians 3.10-14 is an interesting passage. Paul does not provide an explicit account of his logic regarding the curse of the Torah, which means that in order to comprehend the passage people will rely upon their theological pre-understanding to fill in the gaps. A prominent reading in traditional Lutheran-Reformed circles sees the curse of the law as a punishment due to the lack of perfect obedience, whereas Jesus’ taking on the curse is Jesus’ a description of penal substitution atonement in taking on the punishment that sinners deserve. By contrast, NT Wright considers the passage to be a description of the national exile of Israel in accordance to the Deuteronomic curses in Deuteronomy 28 that Jesus in his death represents Israel. Then, J. Louis Martyn interprets the passage as Paul’s counter-argument against his opponents usage of Deuteronomy 27.26 against the Galatians; for Martyn’s Paul, the Law is a universal power that inherently condemns due to it not being based upon faith, and not simply in virtue of any failure to obey, condemns that Christ by being a greater power provides a liberation from. In each of these three readings, pre-understandings about punishment, identity, and power influence the way Galatians 3.10-14 is read.

Given the lack of specificity by Paul, any understanding of Galatians 3.10-14 entails drawing on concepts that are not explicitly mentioned in the discourse to make sense of (a) the nature of the curse and (b) how Christ redeems from the curse. As a consequence, most interpretations of 3.10-14 will rely upon providing an understanding that provides ideas that can sufficiently explain the passage, but there is little in the text that necessitates one set of explanatory ideas over another. Punishment, identity, and power can all provide accounts that are coherent with 3.10-14, although questions certainly arise about how coherent it is with the rest of Galatians, his Jewish heritage, etc.

I personally favor Wright’s interpretation insofar as it makes reference to the curses of Deuteronomy 28. However, I find setting Paul’s understanding as a discussion of the nation of Israel as a whole to be a bit disjarring of the text. While social identity certain plays a role in discussions about the Torah and certainly Paul is influenced by his understanding of the Israel’s national history in the Scriptures, the text does not read as a commentary on social identity groups specifically. While we should heed Krister Stendahl’s warning against overly psychological readings that can emerge from individualist readings, Paul’s does not frame his discussion of the curse in terms of nation or social identity, but rather in terms of personal identity. In v. 9, Paul refers to those who believe (οἱ ἐκ πίστεως) as sharing in ABraham’s blessed as Abraham believed; Paul highlight individuals with a distinctive identity of having faith. Then, ὅσοι (“as much/many as”) in v. 10 functions naturally as a count noun in that context, suggest that Paul is talking about an indeterminate collection of individuals who rely on works.

Thus, I take Paul’s discussion of the curse to not primarily be about the national exile of Israel, but about individual person who bear a specific property of relying on works. While discussion of national history and social identity can certain be relevant for our understanding what happens to individuals, as our understanding of history and of groups by providing a way to conceptually frame our understanding of individuals, our construal of personal identity is not reducible to the understandings we have of history and social identity.1 Therefore, I take as one criteria for interpretations of Galatians 3.10-14 is that it provides an explanation of what happens to persons.

However, at this point is important to distinguish between the argument of Paul’s discourse and Paul’s understanding of the concepts he discusses. I would contend that Paul’s argument about those being under the curse is purely a Scriptural argument based upon Paul’s understanding of what the Scriptures specifically describe. On what grounds does one say the Torah curses those who try to rely upon it? Because the two Scripture Paul quotes from say that righteousness is based upon faith and not the works of the Torah. Paul does not explain the reason the curse exists, but makes a Scriptural argument that a right interpretation of the Scriptures show that relying on the Torah leads to a curse. It is an argument from the authority of Scripture, rather than providing any specific account and explanation for why the curse exists. This is why Paul does not provide an explicit understanding of the curse: his argument is closer to a form of proof-texting that undercuts his opponents that make circumcision and Torah obedience necessary than it is offering any sort of clear understanding or systematic explanation.

That does not mean that Paul’s argument is simply arbitrary and rests solely on the interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures. Paul may have a deeper comprehension of why those who rely on the Torah are cursed that extents beyond the authority of the Scriptures; in fact I argue that there is good reasons to suggest he does. However, it is important to do justice to Paul’s actual discourse try to not try interpret Paul making a type of argument that he is not.

Now, I would say insight into Paul’s understanding of why relying on the Torah brings about a curse is hinted at in Gal. 3.21-22. Paul understands the Torah as being incapable of bringing about righteousness, but rather it has a universal effect of locking people into sin. It is a shocking idea that Paul expressed in Romans 5.20 that the Torah lead to the increase of sin. However, Paul explains this more fully in Romans 7 that this is not because the Torah is bad, but rather the presence of sin in people’s lives leads to a self-deception that keeps people enslaved to sin, even as they are aware of the presence of sin; the person obeying Torah is caught up in a spiritual battle between seeing and understanding God’s will and the mind being deceived. While Paul doesn’t make his argument in Romans explicit in Gal. 3.21-22, the Romans explanation that sees Christ as the liberating answer to the dilemma of sin that hearing the Torah brings is also Paul’s answer in Galatians. The various correspondence between Romans and Galatians on this point is highly suggestive that power of sin in the flesh to use Torah to increase sin is implicit, but not express as Paul does not wish to provide an apologetic for the Torah that would potentially mislead the Galatians who already seems to think Paul will eventually call them to Torah obedience.

Now, one might hear echoes of Martyn’s understanding of the Torah as a cursing entity, but there is a subtle difference. Martyn treats the Law as a cursing entity, that to curse is part of its power. It is almost certain that Paul would not agree with that. Rather, God is the one who curses as in Deuteronomy 28, not the Torah, but the fleshy reality of humans hearing and obeying the Torah leads them to become entrenched in sin which God responds to with a curse. The Torah is simply the covenantal way of life that governs God’s relationship to the people of Israel; it does not curse so much as it expresses the reality of the curse that comes from God for disobedience.

It also bears clarifying that Paul does not say that the Torah leads to a greater amount of sin than if it had been absent. Paul is not arguing that God gave the Torah to make sin even worse than it was beforehand. His point is solely observational, with the giving of the Torah, sin increased. But for Paul, this is because sin is an inevitable reality of life in the flesh as separated from God’s presence. If we were to imagine Paul offering an apologetic for giving the Torah rather than doing nothing, one might imagine Paul giving an answer that approximately says that human sin leads to an inevitable escalation of sin, but the Torah kept the escalation manageable. While we can not be sure what Paul would say there, my point is to say that Paul’s understanding that the Torah leads to an increase of sin does not entail that he thinks the Torah was not beneficial in any way. Paul is concerned only with the inability of the Torah to make a person righteous.

So, why then do I think Paul considers relying on Torah lead to the curse? Because trying to rely on Torah inevitably leads to further entrenchment in sin, not liberation from it. As a consequence, people who think they are justified by the works of the Torah become increasingly self-deceived about their own condition because they falsely think their obedience to Torah makes them more righteousness and fall into the trap of escalating disobedience that brings about the Deuteronomic covenantal curse from God. This differs from the traditional Lutheran-Reformed reading that suggests the curse if a condition of anything less than perfect obedience. Rather, the curse is the consequence of the escalation of sin that ensues.

This then provides the backdrop for Paul’s understanding of the redeeming curse of Christ. Paul implicitly employs Deuteronomy 21.23 as a description of Jesus’ crucifixion; Paul identifies the crucifixion as a curse. However, it is a curse of a different sort; it is not a covenant curses of Deuteronomy 28. Thus it is not the substitute punishment for disobedience to Torah, but rather a description of Jesus’ own status in virtue of his crucifixion. In fact, I would argue it is an interpretive mistake to assume Paul must have an idea of one curse substituting for another in mind. Nowhere else do we see any development of such an idea, but we see Paul make repeated references the crucifixion and blood of Christ, which suggests the redemption is more based upon something in Christ’s experience of the cross than in the status the cross conveyed to him. Rather, I would suggest that Paul’s argument is largely rhetorical as a better explanation; I would suggest the reference to Jesus being cursed discursively functions as an oblique reference to the crucifixion, using to rhetorically highlight the connection between the cross and redemption from the Deuteronomic curses. Such a rhetoric strategy would suggest that there is the actually effect that Christ’s curse in being crucified on a tree redeems people from the covenantal curses, but Paul does not explicitly suggest a direct causal mechanism from the curse of Jesus to the redemption of a curse of relying on the Torah.2

So how then does Paul consider Christ’s curse/death redeem Jews and other Torah-observers from the curse? Firstly, Christ’s death demonstrates that the works of the Torah does not make one righteous. If many of the most dutiful observers of Torah rejected Jesus and put him to death on the cross, then for those Jews who truly believe and recognize Jesus as the Messiah, it should dispel the illusion of Torah observance providing any basis for becoming righteous. To suggest otherwise would be to suggest that Christ’s death had no purpose (Gal. 2.21) and that there could be have been another way to bring about the blessings of God’s promise to Abraham. Those who failed to recognize this but promoted a message of circumcision and Torah obedience was tantamount to rejecting the Gospel (Gal. 1.6-9), and are called false brothers (Gal. 2.4). Instead, the faith comes from a calling (Gal. 1.6, 15) and came with some sort of vision (mental imagination? a perception of Paul as a Christ-like figure?) of Jesus’ crucifixion (Gal. 3.1). While Paul does not explicitly state that faith in Jesus dispels such illusions, the way he talks about the cross and those who believe certainly suggests at the very least that he considers such a belief not simply in error but a case of being fundamentally deceived, as if they have not really understood the significance of what happened to Jesus and the events leading up to the crucifixion. Furthermore, in light of his own Damascus Road experience that lead him to look upon his previous life as misguided and with the rest of the Pauline corpus as evidence, it is warranted to consider that the death and resurrection of Jesus was seen as having a sort of persuasive power upon believers in casting way deception and illusions when it came to how many Jews understood the significance of the Torah.

Secondly, in Jesus Christ, believers experience a freedom that the reliance on the works of Torah could not provide but instead actively works against (Gal. 5.1-6). As the Galatians received the Spirit when they heard Paul’s preaching about Jesus’ crucifixion with faith (Gal. 3.2), they experienced of the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit that lead them to call out to God as Abba conveys their own adopted status as God’s children (Gal. 4.6) and at work in them to cultivate and bring about a future righteousness (Gal. 5.5; 5.22-25) that will bring the blessing of life (Gal. 6.9) that the Torah could not provide (Gal. 3.21). While Paul does not make explicit in Galatians the intrinsic connection between Jesus and the Holy Spirit like he does in Romans 8, that faith in Jesus Christ is the “gateway” to receiving the Spirit who transforms the believers highlights the way that Jesus Christ provides redemption from the entrenchment of sin that the Torah also caused. 

Thus, through dispelling the illusions about the power and purpose of the Torah and providing freedom from the entrenchment of sin that trying to obey the Torah brought about, the Jewish believer (1) doesn’t operate their life under the covenant of the Torah can instead become recipients of Abrahamic covenant and its promises instead3 and (2) is freed to begin to realize in their life the righteousness that God wants from His people that the Torah was not capable of bringing.

Christ and the collapsing of covenant nomism

June 8, 2019

In my previous post, I offering a different frame for interpreting Paul’s letters, particularly the idea of justification by works of laws as a matter of self-deception for Paul. However, I briefly alluded to an idea that I did not thoroughly develop is that I suggest that for Paul there is a collapse of covenantal nomism. E.P. Sanders describe covenantal nomism as follows:

In favour of the use of the term ‘soteriology’ is that it points to a concern which is central to Judaism: a concern to be properly rather than improperly religious, to serve God rather than to desert his way, to be ‘in’ rather than ‘out’. When a man is concerned to be ‘in’ rather than ‘out’, we may consider him to have a ‘soteriological’ concern, even though he may have no view concerning an afterlife at all. There does appear to be in Rabbinic Judaism a coherent and all-pervasive view of what constitutes the essence of Jewish religion and of how that religion ‘works’, and we shall occasionally, for the sake of convenience, call this view ‘soteriology’. The all-pervasive view can be summarized in the phrase ‘covenantal nomism’. Briefly put, covenantal nomism is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression.1

In other words, covenantal nomism holds that the purpose of the works of the Torah was part of one maintenance of one’s status as part of God’s covenant people. Early Protestant theology consider justification to be a matter of how one gets saved, whereas Sanders influenced the later New Perspective on Paul to see justification as a matter of one’s status and identity: what does it mean to be part of God’s chosen people? If I may appeal to marriage as a metaphor, the traditional Protestant view focuses on how one goes from being single to being married, whereas the New Perspective of Paul is focused on how one should live once one gets married so that one doesn’t get divorced. (To extend this metaphor to the apocalyptic school of Paul in this metaphor, they would say it isn’t about getting married but in falling in love.)

However, it should be stated that Sander’s evidence for covenantal nomism rests primarily on Rabbinic evidence. While this does not rule out the covenantal nomism pattern throughout all of 1st century Judaism as Sanders, the Rabbinic evidence best situates covenantal nomism with the Pharisees prior to the destruction of the Temple. Meanwhile, the possibility of the collapsing of covenantal nomism remains a possibility within Judaism such that the pattern is not constitutive of all of 1st century Judaism. For instance, Sanders considers 4 Ezra to have lost a covenantal nomism and become concerned with a legalistic perfectionism.

Furthermore, such a pattern would certainly flexibly adapted for the social and religious circumstances a religious group or sect. For instance, the Qumran covenanters represent one way is which covenantal nomism, while not necessarily becoming absent becomes radically transformed. Since they saw Israel as a whole as apostate due to moral failings, becoming part of God’s elect entails a certain moral transformation of the person. One’s election by God is evidenced by one’s attitudes, particularly in listening to and attending to God. Whereas one’s membership in the elect people would be considered passed on by a combination of birth and circumcision by more mainstream Judaism, the Qumranian community saw certain ethical attitudes as a necessary consequence of one’s election. This is evidenced by their sharp dualism, such as in the doctrine of the two spirits, that categorizes all people according to their religious and ethical status; there is no liminal phase between the righteous and unrighteous. One can not simultaneously be unrighteous and recipients of the covenant, whereas in traditional covenantal nomism the offering of sacrifices provided a means for allowing people to remain part of the covenant despite their unrighteousness. While one can still maintain a sense of covenantal nomism in seeing a distinction between getting in and staying in, both getting in and staying in retain sharp ethical requirements that would counter the potential ethical complacency that might be seen to arise from a view of membership in God’s covenant based upon birth and the ritual of circumcision. I would suggest Qumran represents a community where covenantal nomism is on the verge of collapsing but becomes reconceived.

A good analogy for this shift in views of membership in God’s people in Western theology is the holiness movement of John Wesley. Seeing the ethical complacency of a Christian culture that saw their infant baptism as evidence of their inclusion in God’s community, Wesley challenged many people as “almost Christians” that had more so a sense of righteousness that resembled the pagans. While Wesley was not as sharply dualistic as the Qumran covenanters since Wesley allowed a more liminal category of people who were influenced by God’s grace but had not come to faith in his doctrine of prevenient grace, the redefinition of membership to become more consciously ethical represents a response to a religious context where it is deemed that people think their religious identity is grounded upon events that are not evidence of ethical conviction. The point is not that the Qumran covenantors and the Wesleyan holiness revival are exactly equivalent, but rather to show that understandings of membership in God’s People both in how one becomes a member and one stays a member can be radically reconstituted in the face what is perceived to be deep moral failings. 

I would suggest something similar has happened in Paul that has lead to not just simply a redefinition of what it means to become a member of God’s people and then to stay a member through one’s righteousness, but a stark collapse of the distinction between coming in and staying in. The catalyst for such a judgment? The crucifixion and widespread Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. That the very people to whom God gave the Torah to rejected the Messiah suggests there was a fundamental problem in what it means to belong to God’s People, hence Paul offers a redefinition of election.

Romans 9-11 offers evidence of this redefinition of election and membership taking place. In Romans 9.6-18, Paul redefines election as not being constituted by a genealogical ancestry. Rather than God’s mercy being a condition of the national election of all of Israel, God’s mercy is the condition for personal election. However, Paul clarifies himself to not suggest that Israel is rejected as a whole, but he does afford a special status to Israel as being foreknown in virtue of their ancestry; but this status in God’s eyes is not the election of all of Israel and it is a matter of God’s faithfulness to the Jewish patriarchs rather than to their descendants. To put more analytically, Paul includes a third, liminal status for the people of Israel that rejected Jesus as Messiah: they are enemies of the Gospel, but because of God’s election running through his promises to the patriarchs, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are loved even if they are not themselves individually part of the elect.

Meanwhile, Paul’s discussion on justification in Romans 3-8 and in Galatians represents the reconceptualization of what God’s People are to be like. The problem with trying to be justified by works of the Torah, as I have argued is largely a problem of self-deception. Romans 2 highlights this self-deception in the judgmental attitude by hypothetical Jews who boast in the Torah towards the Gentile world. Then, in Romans 7, Paul describes the way sin residing in the flesh deceives the hearer of the Torah such that there is no escape from within themselves from sin, but that they must be delivered by Christ. The problem is that of seeking to assure one’s status as part of God’s People based upon how one obeys Torah actually puts an epistemic veil over the eyes of people, because they are no longer paying attention to and focused on God but on the letter of the Torah. They think they are being instructed by God by hearing the Torah that God gave, when in fact Paul would argue that sin has deceived them in the hearing and reading that they only have knowledge about their own sin but not about God’s own righteous nature.

However, Paul’s answer to this problem presents a distinct challenge to covenantal nomism. Covenantal nomism assumes that one’s reading of the Torah is sufficient to be able to come to obey God; if however, one’s own reliance of the Torah ends up leading one astray through the self-deceptive power of sin, then the pattern of covenantal nomism collapses from within due to the impossibility of obeying God through Torah.

Paul’s pointing to faith as the means of justification, which Abraham had prior to receiving any covenant, goes back to the psychological conditions that are necessary for obedience. One’s status with God as part of the righteous is assured not by being dutiful in reading, interpreting, and practicing the Torah but by a trust in God that attends to His instruction. While this instruction would certainly include Torah as source for teaching about sin, Paul sees in Jesus the highest form of God’s teaching humanity about His own righteousness and in the Spirit the way in which people become conforming to the pattern of righteousness and life in Jesus Christ. To pay attention to only the Torah as if it is the linguistic ’embodiment’ of righteousness means one misses Jesus Christ as the human embodiment of God’s very own righteousness. In faith, one receives Christ as the Lord and as the demonstration of God’s will for humanity. Only in faith can one apprehend the Righteous Jesus and be transformed by the Spirit to be like Him.

In addition, Paul’s definition of justification itself shifts such that is ceases to be solely retrospective in that one is justified based solely upon one’s past, but it also becomes prospective based upon the eschatological future. When Paul speaks of the ungodly being justified by God in Romans 4.5, Paul no longer considers justification in God’s eyes to be conditioned simply upon one’s past behavior. Rather Paul’s usage of justification in Romans 6.7 suggests that Paul sees justification being related to the future of the believer’s life in participation in Christ; God’s justifying of humanity is prospective, focusing on the believer’s future in Christ. We can see this concern for the prospective future in Galatians. Paul see the person who has been justified in God’s eyes being set upon a new horizon and future in which they have been set free so that they may wait for the hope of righteousness (Galatians 5.1, 5.5), although a future righteous behavior is not guaranteed and thus one must learn how to love one (Gal. 5.13-15) through the cultivating work of the Spirit (Gal. 5.22-26). In other ones, in faith people’s future is to become conformed to Jesus Christ. We might suggest that for Paul, God’s justification is both retrospective AND prospective, taking the whole of the human life into account. Hence, Paul can say that the final judgment that justification is based upon what one did (Romans 2.6-16) that is a purely retrospective account, but prior to the eschaton, God’s justification incorporates a prospective account of a person who through faith will be formed into the pattern of God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ. 

In exapnding upon this understanding of election and justification, I am trying to demonstrate my thesis: the very categories of covenantal nomism, at least as proposed by E.P. Sanders cannot account for Paul’s own view on justification. Rather, the pattern of covenantal nomism that Paul would have been familiar with as a Pharisee entirely collapses in the face of Jesus Christ and the widespread Jewish rejection of His Messiahship. Instead, Paul sees the entirety of people’s membership in God’s People, both in getting in and staying in, as perpetually conditioned upon a continuous response of faith to God’s grace.

This allows me to construct two different, hypothetical models of divine-human synergism that I think represent the Pharisees and Paul. The Jewish historian Josephus describes the Pharisees as thinking humans both have free will while believing that God’s actions make things so. Questions have been brought up by NT Wright and others about how much stock we can put into Josephus’ account on free will, suggesting Josephus is essentially “translating” Jewish doctrine into the concepts of Greek philosophy. While I think such a distinction can be overplayed, I would think it is merited to suggest there is a connection between the Pharisaical synergism and the pattern of covenantal nomism; if one is a member of God’s covenant people in virtue of God’s mercy, but then one is responsible for obedience to God, there is what we might refer to as a diachronic synergism: God’s actions and human actions are both consequential for people’s future over the course of time. God establishes one’s place in the covenant and then one responds in faith.

One distinctive pattern of a diachronic synergism is that God and human action would be construed sequentially. God’s action enable human obedience. This can then be turned into a sequential synergism which would make human action as conditioning to God’s past action that provides a once-for-all enablement of human action. It is this pattern that covenantal nomism could potentially fit within, suggesting God’s prior historical election of the Patriarchs and giving of the Torah has included the people of Israel into the covenant and made obedience to God possible. As a consequence, the tradition of the Patriachs and the Torah takes priority in the understanding and governance of the Jewish life.

To be clear, I am not arguing that this is in fact the intellectual understanding of the Pharisees. Rather, this represents a more practical model of how a covenantal nomism would work in practice, even if the theological explication would be different. It is this practical model, not theoretical, that I would contend Paul’s understanding of grace and faith is developed in response to.

I would propose that Paul has a synchronic synergism, in which human righteousness is at all points of time conditioned upon a human response in faith to God’s grace, both in the historical event of the crucifixion of Jesus but also the present Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit. There is no point in time where human action alone is sufficient on its own capacity to know and obey God, but that the course of the life from initial baptism into Christ to the transformation into the image of Jesus Christ is always conditioned to God’s grace actively working in the Spirit. The net effect of this is that distinction between election and justification become blurred, as both election and justification is conditioned upon God’s grace responded to and receiving in faith. One’s election and possession of the benefits of such election like the Torah does not provide what is epistemically and morally sufficient to know and obey God.

It is this perpetual, synchronic synergism that I think undergirds Paul’s argument in Galatians. It seems to me that Paul thinks the other teachers who are encouraging the Galatians to be circumcised and obey the Torah are suggesting that Paul will ultimately tell the Galatians that they need to be circumcised and obey Torah. Furthermore, it seems there is some concern about how one spiritually develops in Galatians, hence Paul talks about beginning by the Spirit and coming to completion (Galatians 3.3) and employs the cultivating metaphor in talking about the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5.22-23). Concerns about development could be explained by the proponents of circumcision retaining a pattern of covenantal nomism, where the Galatians are considered to elected and called by Jesus Christ but after coming to the faith they are now to obey the Torah in virtue of this election. Paul’s discourse emphasizes that it is always the Spirit, from the beginning when one is called by Christ and towards maturity, rather than there being any difference. Development cannot be broken down into discrete phases of God’s actions and human obedience to Torah; the Gentiles were not only called because of Jesus (Gal. 1.6), but His death shows that the Torah is not how one becomes justified (Gal. 2.21).2

In other words, I would contend that when it comes to the place of God’s action human faith and obedience, there is no distinction between how one becomes a part of Christ and how one remains in Christ for Paul. God’s grace manifested in Christ and given to the person through the Spirit is always received and responded to in faith. At no point does the believer shift into a “more mature” version of spirituality and religion, as new life and obedience is always conditioned people being responsive to God’s actions. This also overlaps with Paul’s discourse about wisdom in 1 Cor. 2, where it is the Triune action of the God demonstrated in Christ and communally realized through the actions of the Spirit that makes the initially coming to faith and the later possession of wisdom about God possible.

In other words, the distinctions of covenantal nomism collapse for Paul. As a consequence, it was easy for Protestant Reformation to see the language of justification as pertained to how one gets saved, because Paul’s language of grace is applicable both for “getting saved” and “remaining saved.” As a consequence, Paul’s discourse that relates grace to salvation, such as in Ephesians 2, is seen as defined Paul’s discourse about justification, as if election/salvation and justification are exact synonyms. However, if I am correct, the collapse of covenantal nomism would mean the concepts of election/salvation and justification blur into each other in virtue of the necessity of God’s grace and human faith for both, but that Paul understands these concepts as distinct based upon how they function within the covenantal nomism of his Pharisaical background. 

Justification by works of the Torah as self-deception

June 8, 2019

In Protestant Pauline scholarship, there are three broad categories one could identify in the understanding of Paul.

Firstly, one category is the Lutheran-Reformed understanding where justification by faith contrasts with the works of the law as a legalistic, self-righteous sense of meriting God’s salvation.  Here, the fundamental problem pertains to a sense of personal entitlement: what makes me worthy of God’s grace? Do I need to do good to be in God’s good graces?

Secondly, one can take on the New Perspective on Paul ushered in by James Dunn that see justification by faith contrasting with the works of the Torah as being taken as definitive of Jewish identity. While there is no real central consensus of what the NPP ultimately stands for, one might suggest one prevailing question pertains to a sense of social identity: how do we determine where a person belongs? Does doing particular works of the Torah identify me as belonging to God’s people?

The third category can be designated as apocalyptic readings. Douglas Campbell’s rereading of Romans in The Deliverance of God presents the highest example of this sort of reading, as he contrasts God’s liberating grace with a false, retributive view of God from a Jewish teacher that Paul opposes. Perhaps the best way to define the central question here: how is it that God truly makes relates to us and makes Himself known? 

While I recognize this is very simplified and the scholarship cannot be reduced to the questions I presented for each, but my point is to highlight how the reading of Paul is determined by the various way we frame our readings: whether in an implicit behavioral-psychological frame, a social identity frame, or a theocentric frame, it impacts how we read Paul.

I want to propose a fourth frame that can generate a different reading from Paul: an epistemic-hermeneutic frame that asks the question: how is it that I can know that God sees me as one of the righteous? What makes it a different question is that it is not a question of how one gets saved, nor is it per se about belonging to God’s covenant people, nor is it focused on how God makes himself known to us. Rather, to change the language from righteousness to a different parlance, it relates to the question of (1) how we know God’s will for us as His people and (2) whether God sees us as persons within His will.

In E.P. Sanders seminal Paul and Palestinian Judaism, he argues that the traditional Protestant understanding of Judaism as a religion of work righteousness is false. Rather, in describing covenantal nomism, Sanders highlights that God’s mercy is a part of Israel’s understanding of its own story in that people are freely included in God’s covenant. However, their status of remaining in God’s covenant is conditioned upon their obedience to God. I do think there is more diversity of views in early Judaism and thus do not think Sanders’ interpretation of 1st century Judaism is entirely representative. Firstly, we do not have any reliable knowledge about the beliefs of the Sadducees. Secondly, if the strong sectarian view of Qumran community that view all of Israel as apostate can still be considered to holding to a form of covenantal nomism, it radically reconceives the way one graciously enters into the covenant as they considered all of Israel as apostle. Nevertheless, I do think it is certainly likely that the pattern of covenantal nomism describes the Pharisaical pattern, which the Gospels portray Jesus as primarily responding to and describes the religious pattern that Paul came from prior to trip to Damascus.

One thing we do know that also particularly describes the Pharisees is their acceptance of the oral Torah and the prophets as authoritative, as opposed to the Sadducees who accepted only the written Torah as authoritative. If as a Pharisee, one is trying to figure out how one is to obey God to be righteous in his eyes, then one’s understanding of what it means to be righteous would be tightly connected to their understanding of the oral Torah and of the prophets.

As the prophets presented visions of restoration and judgment, including ultimately an eschatological restoration and judgment in the general resurrection, the question of knowing that one is obeying God’s righteous will would be tied up to eschatological judgment. In a sense, the question of living out God’s righteousness pertains to the question of who will stand at the judgment.

The logic of such a question would start from the basic premise: if one knows what type of behaviors that God will judge, one can know one is righteous in God’s eyes if one does what God says and does. If God’s will has been fully expressed in the Torah, both the written and oral Torah, of who God judges, then presumably all one needs to know if one is righteous in God’s eyes is self-knowledge about one’s own behaviors. Thus, if one does the things of the Torah, then one can be confident that one will stand blameless at God’s judgment. In that case, being seen righteous in God’s eyes comes from an axis of interpretation and obedience: if one rightly interprets God’s Torah and what the commandments apply to, then one puts this into practice and one will be righteous in God’s eyes.

However, Jesus criticism towards the Pharisees is in part focused on the interpretive practices of the Pharisees, such as in Mark 7.6-23. Jesus criticism employs Isaiah against the very people who accepted the authority of the prophets to describe the way their interpretative traditions in the Oral Torah as authorizing them to overlook the commandments in the written Torah. Then, Jesus provides a different understanding of purity that contrasts with the Pharisaical religious program of purity. Ultimately, Jesus uses the words of the prophet Isaiah to renderδιὰ. the traditions of the oral Torah and the resulting traditions around purity as void; instead Jesus offers his own understanding of purity as pertaining to moral contamination rather than physical contamination. From that one pericope, we could suggest that whereas the Pharisees consider the oral Torah and prophets authoritative, Jesus embraces the prophets but not the oral Torah. Instead, Jesus treats his own wisdom as the right interpretive framework for understanding and applying the Torah. 

Paul description in Philippians 3.2-11 of his former way of life can be seen to be in reference to the similar pattern. While in his previous way of life he was confident and persuaded of his status (v. 3-6), he wants to judged by God as having God’s righteousness rather than one based upon the Torah (v. 9). There, Paul presents two specific contrasts with the Torah. The first contrast operates at the personal level of personal righteousness (ἐμὴν δικαιοσύνην) that Paul rejects as coming from (ἐκ) Torah but rather is  through (διὰ) faith. The shift if prepositions is probably significant, highlighting that one’s own response is instrumental but not constitutive of being see by righteous by God; in other words, I would suggest that this may be understood as the human response in faith is necessary for justification but is not sufficient on its own to being justified in God’s eyes. Something must be coming from God before faith becomes effective.

That brings me to the second contrast at the theological level: personal righteousness from (ἐκ) Torah contrasted with personal righteousness that is from (ἐκ) God’s righteousness. Here, the usage of the same proposition highlights that the contrast between the Torah and God’s righteousness pertains to the same specific function when it comes to righteousness. However, trying to specifically designate what ἐκ specifically refers is to miss Paul’s point, as the priority is the contrast between the sources that the preposition points to: for Paul the righteousness he seeks is that which God himself has rather than what is know about through Torah. I take this contrast to suggest something of a profound epistemic significance: the Torah does not actually communicate the fullness of God’s will. I will say more on this in a moment, but for now I want to posit the idea that Paul was aware of the epistemic insufficiency of the Torah to inform a person what it is that God wants.

When comparing Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisaical hermeneutics and praxis with Paul’s own criticism of his past way of life, I want to suggest there is one important similarity: having the Torah does not secure an understanding of the righteousness that God wants, either in the hearing of the Torah or in the doing of the things of Torah. What I mean by epistemic insufficiency isn’t that the Torah is somehow a false form of religion (which can emerge in the grossest caricatures of the Luthern-Reformed Protestant railing against legalism) but rather that knowing God and being seen as righteous in God’s eyes is not reducible to simply knowing and doing the Torah.

As an analogy, it is the difference between believing one knows a person through what a person communicates on social media versus knowing the person by regularly being in communication and relationship with them; even if a person’s social media account is a genuine representation of who they are, there is much more to know about the person than can be known by a narrow range of communication that might surprise you.

Herein lies what I would consider to be Paul’s principal concern with the Torah: if one evaluates one’s own status in the eyes of God based upon one’s doing of the Torah, one has become self-deceived; what one thinks is how God sees things is simply confidence in one’s own flesh. One has substituted God’s will with one’s own interpretation and understanding of specific writing which far from simply introducing an error in one’s thinking, but actually takes one far off course from God’s will. Paul considers his past way of life as a Pharisee, to represent it colorfully, as “crap” and has no real redeeming value when it comes to pursuing God’s righteousness known in Christ. Hence, Paul will elsewhere says that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3.6; cf. Rom 7.6). If one relies upon (1) the interpretation of the Torah to ascertain God’s will and (2) their obedience to that interpretation as confidence for their righteous status in the eyes of God, one is essentially dying rather than having the life that God gives. One believes oneself to know God and His will when in fact one simply knows a text. The problem isn’t the Torah is bad or evil, but (a) that it is epistemically insufficient as it conveys knowledge about personal sin (Rom. 3.20, 7.7-12) rather than knowledge of God’s righteousness which is demonstrated in Jesus (Romans 3.21-26) and (b) that sin deceives and killing a person through the commandments (Rom. 7.11-13).

To put in a general manner that isn’t specifically tied to Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, it is our human sin and the self-deception that ensues that causes people to takes the things that come from God and treat our understanding of those things as a sufficient for knowing God. Faith thus represents the alternative: a reliance upon the God’s own actions and instruction to teach and guide people into what God wants. For Paul, what is important to be seen as righteous in God’s eyes is to be receptive of what God is doing and teaching in Christ and through the Spirit. For Paul, a person who has faith has a teachable spirit that is willing to learn and leads to obedience to what one learns.

While the letters of Paul do not explicitly present anything approaching a systematic view of human self-deception and sin, as he addresses more so the particular concerns that comes with following Christ in the context of Second Temple Judaism, one can infer that Paul does see those who think they are righteous in God’s eyes because of the works of the Torah are self-decieved. His usage of the word flesh (σάρξ) can function synonymously as describing people whose life is solely determined by their fleshly, embodied way of life that excludes a way of life and thinking that is influenced and determined by God’s own love and power in Jesus Christ and the Spirit. If in seeking to obey Torah and thinking this ensures God’s justification of themselves, one is fundamentally deceived at the ontological level and simply thinking and living in the flesh. So, one can imagine this idea of self-deception as being relevant to Paul’s concerns about Israel’s story and the Jewish people.

However, one can not nor should not reduce the totality of Paul’s understanding of the works of Torah to simply matters of theological self-deception. There are a host of other concerns, such as questions about God’s faithfulness in relationship to Torah in Romans and the relationship of the works of the Torah to God’s various covenants in Galatians that resist any such reductive interpretation of works of the Torah as merely being about a self-deception about one’s status in the eyes of God. In other words, that self-deception may be an apt description of Paul rejection of the works of the Torah as bringing justification doesn’t mean that is the only thing we should see Paul talking about. In fact, Paul spends more time delving into the theological and covenantal implications of his doctrine of justification in Romans and Galatians rather than explaining the “why” behind this doctrine.

So, in highlighting the explanatory frame of self-deception, I am highlighting an interpretation that I think is (1) warranted in Paul’s letters, (2) that can explain the problem with being trying to be justified by works of the Torah and (3) can theologically apply to our own understanding today as being part of God’s People. However, I do not suggest it is either the overarching interpretive question for all the theological content of Paul’s letters that excludes the specific concerns about God’s relationship to Israel.

To that end, I try to avoid the tendency of apocalyptic interpretations to treat Israel’s story and Scriptures as secondary to the person of Christ. Rather, I take Paul to thinks the Scriptures are fulfilled in Christ and thus are to be interpreted in light of Christ. However, that Jesus is revealed to be God’s righteousness points to the Pharisees, among others, having missed the boat. This necessitated a paradigm shift in an implicit theological epistemology: studying Torah and obedience to one’s interpretation did not secure one’s obedience to God when God came in the flesh. In other words, the epistemic shift operates (1) at the social level in rejecting the pattern of hermeneutics and praxis of the Pharisees and (2) limits the extent to which one can knows God and His will through Torah, but does not challenge the authoritative status of Torah nor displaces the importance of the Scriptural narrative for understanding God’s actions in their day, namely in raising Jesus Christ from the dead and in Pentecostal gifting of the Spirit.

However, this self-deception frame does not understand justification as primarily a matter of membership or identity in God’s People. While matters of social identity are historically important for the situations that do Paul address, it is possible that Paul has other concerns in mind at the same time. Thus, I do think there is an important epistemic and psychological understanding to questions about justification that the New Perspective on Paul does not readily give.

Furthermore, in light of the covenantal nomism that E.P. Sanders described, this self-deception frame does not start by address the question of how one comes into God’s grace but rather the question of how one can be confident one is seen as righteous in God’s eyes. However, I think that ultimately, Paul collapses the distinction between the two. When it comes to the role of God’s actions, there is no real fundamental difference between being chosen in grace, that is in becoming a recipient of God’s covenant promises, and being justified by grace, that is in being seen as righteous and obedient to the covenant one belongs to. Due the self-deception to think one has what is necessary to understand God and His will that can creep in after one is called by grace, it still remains God’s gracious action being recognized, received, and responded to in faith that secures one’s status as being righteous in God’s eyes.

Finally, I would say that Paul’s view of Torah can be warranted as being considered consistent with the early Church’s memory of Jesus and his criticisms of the Pharisees. As Paul’s own critique of his Pharisaical past in light of Christ can be argued as overlapping with Jesus’s own criticism of the Pharisees and His own sense of authority when it comes to Torah, I would posit that we can see this understanding to not be a radical novelty from Paul, but rather as a form of explication upon the significance of the event and teachings of Jesus ministry in relation to the Pharisaical pattern of religious interpretation and practice. However, this interpretation treats Paul’s rejection of the Pharisees as rooted in (1) their rejection of Jesus that is (2) given an ontological explanation (Paul’s appeal to the flesh) that gives a framework to suggest how they were in error and self-deceived about themselves in the eyes of God, rather than based upon a gross mischaracterization, stereotyping, and even vilifying caricature of what the Pharisees believed and taught prominent in Protestant circles (ranging from the less malevolent railing against “legalism” as the antithesis of genuine Christian faith to the more extreme and overt anti-semitism.

A case for female preaching from the perspective of complementarian ecclesiology and exegesis

June 2, 2019

Allow me to offer a little bit of clarity about myself prior to presenting my argument: I am personally an ecclesial egalitarian. I support women and men being in the same roles of ministry in the Body of Christ. However, I came to faith in the Southern Baptist background, where women were regularly excluded from the role of preaching in the church and I held to the complementarian exegesis of various texts used in support of exclusion of women until later in college. While I ultimately found that type of exegesis and application unnecessary and woefully inconsistent with the whole Biblical witness about the ways women are in service to God, I can understand at one level why the leaders in the Southern Baptist denomination and other similar denominations read certain Biblical texts like 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.6 the way they do, and I don’t morally blame them for those specific readings. Nevertheless, even if one retains a complementarian reading of those NT passages, I want to make the case that there are strong Biblical grounds to give women the opportunity to preach.

I will start by first making a distinction between an ecclesial position/office and ministerial action. In the case of the former, we refer to the identity of a person or occupation that engages in a particular action or set of actions. The most relevant for my case here is the word “preacher.” When we talk about “preacher” we talk about a person who engages in the action of preaching. This leads us to the latter concept of ministerial action; preaching, teaching (although the NT does not make a distinction between preaching and teaching), prophesying, etc are all specific actions that are performed in the Body of Christ.

Now, with positions like “preacher,” we regular define the position by the type of ministerial actions they perform. However, we can make further assumptions about this relationship between the position and action. Do only those designated as preachers preach? Or can other people who do not have that formal office preach? In the former, which I refer to as a privileged definition, the office of preacher demarcates a boundary that fundamentally separates the preachers from non-preachers in terms of the authority and space to preach. In the latter, which I refer to as a calling definition, the office of preacher directs the purposes of a specific individual to preach without excluding others from the possibility of preaching also.

It is my contention that the New Testament envisions the offices of the Body of Christ as callings that direct people towards specific purposes in building up the Body of Christ, not a privilege that automatically excludes others from engaging in similar ministry. Consider the relationship between the Apostle Paul and Apollos to the Corinthians, as discussed in 1 Corinthians. Paul designates himself as an apostle and sees himself as having a special relationship to the Corinthians as a spiritual father (1 Cor. 4.14-15). However, Paul did not envision his role as excluding other people from taking a role in guiding the Corinthian congregation. Rather, part of Paul’s purpose in 1 Corinthians is to teach the Corinthian Christians that God works through various teachers, so they shouldn’t affiliate themselves with one teacher or another. Paul’s calling to apostleship did not mean that he has a privileged status in relation to the Corinthians that others could not themselves also teach.

This becomes vital in understanding the nature of the charismatic gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. Inspired actions by the Spirit is not the provenance for any one individual, but that God variously equips people as He sees fit. Therefore, people should take their turn speaking in tongues, in interpreting, in prophesying, etc. as other people can be given the same or a similar gift. Inspired actions of the Spirit is not the exclusive privilege of any one person or individual.

However, even though various people may be equipped to engage in various inspired actions, Paul does still see a difference between positions and action. In Ephesians 4.11-13, Paul describes the five offices that God has given the church (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers) whose responsibility it is to enable all the saints to engage in ministerial action (“work of ministry”; ἔργον διακονίας). We see this similar distinction implied in 1 Corinthians 12.28, where Paul refers to specific positions by numbering them but then what follows refer to actions without numbering them. If we bring insights from Ephesians 4.11-13 and 1 Corinthians 12.28 together, we can say that there is a certain hierarchy within the church, but the purpose of the hierarchy is to lead people in the work of ministry inspired by the giftings of the Spirit. The God-given offices are not intended as zones of privilege that wall off certain types of ministerial actions from others, but are the very people that called to prepare other people to engage in work of the Body of Christ.

Now, one might suggest the offices that Paul describes do suggest specific actions are exclusive to people who hold those offices, whereas the other gifts are not designated by a specific position or office in the Body of the Christ. This is perfectly possible. If that is the case, then complementarians that take this line of thinking should have no problem with women teaching in the Body of Christ, as Paul speaks about women taking on the role of prophesying in churches in 1 Corinthians 11. And nowhere does Paul even imply that these women only preach to other women.

However, I do not believe Paul think the offices are intended to designate privilege action; for instance, I do not think all people with the gift of prophecy are to be designated as “prophets” as an office. Instead, Paul wishes everyone could share in the Spiritual gift of prophecy (1 Corinthians 14.5). That is to say when Paul envisions apostle, prophets, and teachers equipping the whole church to engage in ministerial actions, prophesy is one of those actions. Not only designated prophets prophesy.

Allow me to extend this logic further: not only designated apostles engaged in the apostolic proclamation about the Gospel of the crucified Jesus. Not only designated pastors provide spiritual guidance to people. Not only designated teachers are to teach other people. Rather, if the goals for those with specifically designated positions in the Body of Christ are accomplished, it would make the churches filled with various people who proclaim the Gospel, prophesy, shepherd, and teach.

I want to push a little further regarding Paul’s understanding of positions. I want to suggest that Paul’s vision for the positions of apostleship, prophet, pastors, teachers, etc. are not intended as a perpetual office for all times. Rather, God gives these positions to particular people to give a foothold to the Gospel and its power among the people. Apostolic ministry starts with apostles, it doesn’t end there. Prophetic ministry starts with the prophets, it doesn’t end there. Pastoral ministry starts with the pastor, it doesn’t end there. This is why Paul says the positions are given until there is a unity of faith and maturity. These positions in the Body of Christ are not part of a perpetual hierarchical ordering of the Church, but they are the starting places where the word and power of God can manifest themselves and become realized in other people. What God gives to apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers will also be given to other people.

So, how does this speak to allowing women to preach in churches? I would suggest all of the passages that are interpreted to exclude women from preaching and teaching is either Paul addressing concerns about specific positions, and not a limitation of ministerial action, or is not addressing the worship of the churches at all.

The qualifications in 1 Timothy 3.2 and Titus 1.6 refer to a “bishop” and “elders” as a “man of one wife.” There is a clear statement that Paul expected bishops and elders to be men, although it is not as clear if he expected this as a matter of custom or just as a matter of circumstances of the time. While I don’t think Paul does not envision excluding women from these positions, I will not contend with complementarians their interpretation of gender-exclusivity. I will simply point out that unless he has changed course Paul refers to a position within the churches, and not to specific types of ministerial actions. Nothing about these qualifications excludes women from preaching in churches.

So, allow me to state something from this. Let’s assume the complementarian reading of 1 Timothy 3.2 and Titus 1.6 is indeed the correct one. Paul is still only talking about offices in the churches, and not the ministerial actions that the whole church participates in. Rather, it would be the duty of these male teachers to lead the whole church, men and women, to live out the power the Holy Spirit has given to them to build up and serve one another. Paul never makes gendered distinctions when it comes to spiritual gifts and good works. Rather, males teachers in the church should equip everyone, including women, to also teach in worship as God empowers them to be faithful to God’s commission for apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Anything less than this changes a calling on behalf of the people into a privilege for the person.

Now, there are a couple passages one might think that suggests Paul makes a gendered distinction when it comes to teaching. 1 Timothy 2.11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14.34-36 come to mind.

1 Timothy 2.11-12 seems to be the most explicit that women should never teach men under any circumstances. However, I would contend this is a fundamentally mistaken interpretation. Firstly, the context is not describing the worship of the church, but rather the social life of men and women. In v. 8-10, Paul directs the actions of men and women to behave in a way that is counter to other people of their gender. In vs. 8, the hands of men are to be used in a holy way as part of their prayer life instead of them being used in a way to threaten others in anger. In vs. 9-10, women should address modestly so as to not bring too much attention to themselves based upon appearances, particularly the attention from the gaze of men, but rather valuing the honor that comes with doing good. However, to be clear here, Paul is not placing responsibility on the women for men’s sexual lust. Rather, Paul is encouraging women to be free from the cultural standards that are imposed upon them as women, but to instead seek to be valued based upon the good that they do.

So, when we come to vs. 11-12, Paul places limits on the counter-cultural and counter-gender behavior when it comes to the relationship of a wife to a husband. While women were to no longer identify themselves based upon their physical appearance, they were not to subvert the culture to the point that they tried to take authority over their husbands. Living in a Roman patriarchal culture where men dominated and thus excluding women from learning, women were not in a position to ignore the learning of their husbands. Hence, Paul makes reference to the story of Adam and Eve in vs. 13-15, hinting that the curse of the Fall still impacts the relationship of wives to their husbands. It is how women in faith take action in love and holiness that will allow them to experience the salvation from the curse of the Fall. In other words, Paul is reminding women that while they do not live according to the objectifying standards of men in the Roman society, they still need to keep their connections to their husbands and learn from them. Therefore, Paul is not addressing the worship of the church in 1 Timothy 2.

Then, we come to 1 Corinthians 14.34-36, which speaks of women remaining silent in the churches. We see similar instructions to 1 Timothy 2.11-12, and this time in the context of the worship of churches. However, it is important to keep in mind that it is addressed in the context of Paul saying that people should be taking turns in worship in prophesying, speaking in tongues, etc.1 Furthermore, Paul has previously recognized women praying and prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11, so far as they have a head covering that symbolizes their own possessing the authority to speak. When it comes to instructions about women speaking, it pertains to something being done that is out of order. Vs. 36 suggests some of the women had the practice of speaking out of turn. Perhaps, when someone prophesied or spoke in tongues, they did not give the space for discernment or interpretation, but just jumped in to speak themselves.

Given that Paul had clearly recognized and empowered women to prophesy in church, perhaps 1 Corinthians 14.34-36 is Paul reigning in the overexuberance of these recently empowered women so that they do not take control of worship themselves with their own giftedness and Spiritual empowerment. If their concern is to learn, they can talk to their husband about it later, but worship is a time to listen to those who the Spirit has empowered to speak. Furthermore, when Paul says “it is shameful for women to speak in church,” it is not intended as a gender-exclusive type of shame, but rather is directed towards these empowered women to learn that it is shameful to speak out of order. Silence is descriptive of how the whole church engages in worship during the times of teaching as in 1 Cor. 14.28, not just exclusively women.

In other words, in 1 Corinthians 14.34-36, Paul is addressing the realities of the women learning how to share in ministerial action. The empowerment of the Spirit did not grant women the right to speak indiscriminately, but they must learn how to rightly use the power that God has entrusted to them in an orderly and beneficial manner.

In conclusion, in no place does Paul exclude women from them engaging in the inspired actions of the Holy Spirit. Nor does Paul anywhere say “only men teach men in the church.” These type of readings of 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 are out of context.

So, in conclusion, male teachers in churches that teach only men should have the positions of pastors and teachers, remember this: your position does not provide you an exclusive privilege, but rather a mission to equip all people, including women, to engage in the work of the Body of Christ, including to teach. Even as you do find Paul describing only men in the positions of bishop and overseer in 1 Timothy and Titus respectively, you will find no place where Paul excluded women from specific ministerial actions. And if the purposes of these positions in the Church is to equip the saints for ministerial action, then male teachers, you should be teaching women to teach and give them the opportunity to do so as God empowers them. Your position is granted by God so that people throughout the whole church can learn to do what you do as God empowers them also. Or, did the word of God originate with you, male teachers? Or, are you male teachers the only ones the word of God has reached? It is God chooses what persons He will empower to represent Him and act on His behalf and gender does not serve to divide people in the Body of Christ in God’s eyes (Galatians 3.28).

Second Temple Judaism, the New Testament, and the philosophy of language

May 29, 2019

Note: What is written here is intended as an intuitive speculation that has not been well-researched and explored. I present it a hypothesis at a very early stage, which further research may verify, challenge, or reject.

In a previous post I presented the idea that one distinction between the intellectual currents of Second Temple Judaism and Hellensitic philosophy was that Second Temple Judaism was decidedly focused more so on matters of hermeneutics, whereas Greco-Roman philosophy more focus on matters of epistemology. Consequently, within Judaism there was a diversity of hermeneutic frameworks that different sects seemed to have worked from. I want to suggest a hypothesis that one difference that emerged in the early Christians was that they developed a different practice or hermeneutics based upon an implicitly different understanding of language.

To explain, allow me to make an appeal to the modern field of the philosophy of language to provide a theoretical backdrop for understanding the differences that I postulate occur for the early Christians. Gottlobb Frege, who many have reputed as the grandfather of analytic philosophy, put forward a theory of meaning that made a distinction between sense and reference. Very roughly speaking, sense refers to what a word expresses, whereas reference referred to what a word points to. The specific details of Frege’s philosophy is not as important, as I think Frege’s attempt to try to treat language as logical system lead him and much of the analytic philosophy of language that followed to misunderstand the fundamental nature of language. What is highly useful, however, is that sense and reference can correspond to two different phenomenon in cognitive linguistics: prototypes and targeting.

Eleanor Rosch first brought up the idea of prototypes in the 70s to describe the way we use categories. When we have an idea of a category, there are some instances that are better examples of the category than another. For instance, the category of “breakfast foods” would include certain items such as eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, etc. as central staple items for breakfast food. However, other items might not be as clear. For instance is steak a breakfast food? It is commonly eaten in breakfast with eggs, but I myself have trouble consider steak a breakfast food much as I do bacon and sausage. But it is still more of a breakfast food than a hamburger is.

This is also true of language as a whole. When we think of words such as dog, running, car, etc. each of these words have some “idealized” prototype of what those words were typically used to refer to. When we stop to think about a word by itself, what comes to mind partly corresponds to the neural image that is stored in our brains. We know that not every instance of the word will be the same as is what is in our head usually. When I think of a dog, I think of a Sheltie having grown up with them, but I am perfectly capable of recognizing Rottweillers and Great Danes as dogs even though they are different from my idealized protoype, whereas wolves and coyotes don’t fit my image of a dog as well but they do partly fit. Or, when I think of the action of running, I think of a sprinter dashing as fast as they can. I can also see someone moving at a brisk pace as running, even though they aren’t sprinting.

Why is this the case? Because whereas prototypes are an idealized image, we also neurally encode various other examples that don’t match the ideal prototype but we are perfectly capable of recognizing of thinking of them in conjunction with the same word. When I think of the word “theology” I think of Christian theology specifically because I am a Christian, but at the same time, I recognize that other religions have their own theology. Consequently, when we use these words ourselves, we will tend to use them in reference to the ideal prototypes we have, but we are capable of registering other uses of those words that do not match the prototype. When I speak of and think about theology, I am speaking of and thinking about Christian theology almost all of the time. These collections of idealized prototypes and auxiliary images make up the cognitive content that our sense of words come from.

Meanwhile, Leonard Talmy has proposed the idea in The Targeting System of Language that one cognitive system is responsible for two different processes in language: the phenomenon of referring back to something that has been previously said in a discourse, referring to as anaphora, and referring to something in the spatiotemporal surroundings, referred to as a deictic reference. He suggests both of these linguistic processes emerge from the cognitive system known as targeting, This targeting system ultimately relates to the cognitive system of attention. If I am sitting with you at a restaurant and you say “The bread is really delicious” my attention will be directed towards the bread that is on the table. This roughly corresponds to Frege’s understanding of reference as pertaining to real world objects. However, because the targeting system also applies to cognitive schemas that emerge within the discourse and not just in our spatio-temporal world, targetting is broader than Frege’s understanding of reference.

My purpose in pointing this out is to point out there are different angles one can analyze how language functions. One can analyze it from the perspective of sense/prototypes or from the perspective of reference/targetting, but a robust understanding of language would take both together. Language is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon that can be legitimately understood from multiple angles.

However, the cognitive process that undergird sense/prototypes and reference/targeting influence each other, much as what we pay attention to determines what it is we will better remember down the line. When we were kids and saw a cow and someone said the word “cow” the targeting-attentional system of language was helping to shape the earliest prototypes of what a “cow” is. However, as we grew older and started read books in school about and they talked about cows and basic facts about them the targeting system pointed towards the cognitive image we developed about cows in the book and began to fill out our understanding of the word “cow.” The targeting system in language helps to form the prototypes and auxiliary images we have with our words.

However, there is a significant difference in external, spatiotemporal targeting and internal, discursive targeting. When our attention is focused only on discursive content, there is no radically new cognitive content that can come into our mind. We may use words in a very creative way that creates a novel presentation that we are previously unfamiliar with, but there is not the possibility of radically new cognitive content in our language. Discourse-internal targetting creates a closed linguistic system where the prototypes and auxiliary images of language remained relatively fixed. However, when our words get used to refer to things in the external world, the possibility arises that our understanding of words can take on radically novel understandings that simultaneously (a) correspond to the prototypes and auxiliary images that we have of the word but then (b) changes the protoypes and auxiliary images we have for that word into the future.

How does this apply to Jewish and early Christian hermeneutics? My basic contention is this: whereas the trend within hermeneutics in Second Temple Judaism was towards the exploration of the meaning of words as they were, and thus became a more close, linguistic system, the disciples experience and memory of Jesus created a radical shift in how they understood the Scriptures in virtue of the external, spatiotemporal targeting that created a radically different, dynamic reading of the Scriptures. In other words, the hermeneutics of Second Temple Judaism  and the early Christians subtly diverged because of the radical shift the person of Jesus presented to the early Christian’s language community. Rather than understanding Jesus through the Scriptures, they shifted towards understanding the Scriptures through Jesus.1

This is not intended as a linguistic recapitulation of the common stereotypes that Jews were formal legalists whereas Jesus presented a dynamic religion of the heart. In fact, I would posit that closed linguistic systems are often responsible for heightened passion within a speech community. When people have a closed, insulated understanding of the world that does not dramatically change or shift, this leads to the escalation of emotion and passions when dealing with life as the world fails to conform to idealized understandings one has. This is particularly the case when it comes to morality and ethics. When our moral concepts have become relatively fixed, we become increasingly aroused as we witness the divergence between the moral ideas our language refers to and the world around us. The failure of the world to accommodate to our moral and linguistic prototypes can heighten our emotional experience. By contrast, dynamic, changing linguistic systems takes time and effort to actually process and learn from. Changes in our linguistic systems are a product of rapid learning, which is more effectively realized with a decrease in emotion.2

Richard Longenecker notes that there were four types of interpretation: literalist, midrashic, pesher, and allegorical. For the literalist, midrashic, and allegorical modes of interpretation, there is a reliance on the already understood senses of the words. While it would perhaps be unhelpful if not potentially distortive to try to present any overarching cognitive analysis of these styles of interpretation, I will postulate that these three styles rely upon more fixed prototypes and auxilary images of words. Interpreting words as they are conventionally used in literal interpretation, exploring the various shades of meaning in midrash, and the esoteric meanings found in allegorical approaches do not rely upon a meaning derived from a target in their present day world, but rather emerges from different understandings of the already possessed idealized prototypes and auxiliary images.

There is one notable exception to this division of STJ is the pattern of pesher interpretation. In pesher exegesis, persons thought the Scriptures were referring to events that were occurred in their own day. Consequently, the interpretation within communities that employed pesher exegesis were engaged in more external targetting in their understanding of the Scriptures by connecting their true meaning to their present day circumstances.

However, there remains a distinctive difference between pesher exegesis and the early Christians. The early Christians went radically farther in that their language about God was radically altered by reference to Jesus. The early Christians did not just think the Scriptures talked about present-day events, but that the Scripture’s language about God pointed to Jesus. Hence, the language of oneness in the Shema of Deuteronomy 6.4 is expanded in 1 Corinthians 8.6 to include Jesus. Paul’s understanding of God’s promise and faithfulness to Abraham became understood in terms of Jesus’ death and resurrection in Romans 4. For the preacher of Hebrews, the heavenly realm that the temple represented has now been made known in Jesus. God did not just bring about some set of events that the Scripture pointed towards; God made Himself known.

Therefore, to rightly understanding the language of the early Christians, one needs to imagine a radically different language game being played by them, to borrow Wittgenstein’s famous metaphor, where Jesus changed the rules of the game. While some continuity with Second Temple Judaism is still retained such that Second Temple Judaism is the best historical backdrop to interpret the New Testament as a whole, understanding the New Testament as a whole entails understanding the early Christian’s understanding of the Scriptures, including about God, being radically novel in some fashions such that is not reliably analyzable in terms of the conventions of Second Temple Judaism. The God-language of the early Christians was “re-prototyped” to their knowledge of Jesus, and as such, their knowledge of Jesus served as the structure by which they made sense of the Scriptures.

However, this wasn’t type-archetype exegesis of later generations that saw Jesus being implicitly mentioned everywhere in the Old Testament, but rather that Jesus provides an expanded understanding about God and His promises by which the Scriptures could be made coherent sense around. It isn’t that Jesus was “in” the Old Testament, but rather that He as the pre-existent Logos, Wisdom, etc. stood “behind” the Old Testament understanding of God. Hence, in 1 Corinthians 10.4, Paul can say that Christ was with the Israelites in the wilderness, even though the story makes nothing that could be construed as a reference to Jesus. This isn’t some form of fanciful exegesis of the words themselves; Paul doesn’t talk about what was written in the Scriptures, which is customary for Paul when appealing to the authority of the Scripture to make a point. Rather Jesus is a fundamental assumption that Christ was operated behind the scenes in what the Scriptures describe about Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness. “Reprototyping” one’s understanding of God to Jesus didn’t lead to a radically different exegesis of the words of Scripture so much as it leads them to see resemblances between what the Scriptures described and the person of Jesus.

1 Corinthians 12.1-3 and atonement

May 28, 2019

When one happens upon 1 Corinthians 12.1-3, one finds a passage that is as ambiguous as it is clear. On the one hand, Paul seems to make reference to someone that seems utterly orthodox: recognition as Jesus’ Lordship is tied up with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Then, Jesus is contrasted the Corinthians understanding of this speech with the mute idols. Nevertheless, what exactly Paul is referring to and why he brings up this topic here is not so readily clear. At first blush, it seems to be a rather abrupt shift from the topic of the Lord’s Supper. Aside from understanding what τῶν πνευματικῶν specifically means in v. 1, this is one of those cases in the Bible where the words make perfect sense but the specific practice that Paul is addressing is not readily clear.

Attempts have been made to try to explain the origin of this passage, including the part about saying “Jesus is accursed.” It seems almost obvious to any person of faith that this would be a bad thing to say and doesn’t come from God, but why people might be saying this that Paul needs to address this is somewhat unclear. Unless Paul is simply providing a hypothetical that he never imagined having happened, there is something of a mystery here.

Based upon correspondence to ancient practices of invoking the gods to curse someone, Bruce Winter in After Paul Left Corinth suggest that Paul is referring to an appeal to Jesus to curse another person. However, this interpretation leaves a lot to be desired. Firstly, Paul’s contrast to speaking by the Spirit contrasts with mute idols: Paul is addressing a matter of inspired speech, which he previously attributed to the Spirit in 1 Cor. 2.13. Secondly, there is a parallel structure between 3a and 3b that is as follows: (1) two nominative nouns together, with the second one being “Jesus” both times, (2) repetition of “in Spirit,” (3) verbs of speaking, and (4) universal negation. This parallel structures strongly suggest that Ἀνάθεμα Ἰησοῦς and Κύριος Ἰησοῦς function asemantic parallel, with Ἀνάθεμα and Κύριος bear a similar relationship to Ἰησοῦς. In others, “accursed” is best understood as a predication of something about Jesus just like “Lord” is.

I want to offer a different explanation. I want to suggest that 1 Cor. 12.1-3 refers to the way specific teachers express their understanding about the significance of Jesus’ resurrection. More specifically, Paul addresses the way in which people begin to understand the nature of Jesus’ atonement through the inspiration of the Spirit. I appeal to three pieces of evidence in favor of this argument:

Firstly, 1 Cor. 12.1-3 follows immediately after Paul’s discussion on the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor. 11.17-34. Prima facie, it would suggest that what follows in 1 Cor. 12.1-3 would be related to the same basic topic unless there is a signal of a new topic. Anthony Thiselton suggests that περὶ δὲ in 12.1 is indeed meant to signal a new topic here, appealing to 7.1 and 7.25.1 I would contend that Paul’s usage of περὶ δὲ does not indicate a shift in topic in terms of a distinctly different cognitive domain, but rather a shift in focus within the cognitive domain. The conjunction δὲ suggests some sort of continuation with the previous discourse, whereas περὶ designates a specific topic. The shift in 1 Cor. 7.1, 7.25, and 8.1 can all be related back to the topic of idolatry and sex that Paul references in 1 Cor. 6.12-20. In this case, it seems reasonable to suggest that 1 Cor. 12.1-3 addresses something that is related to the topic of Lord’s Supper.

Secondly, I think the best understanding of τῶν πνευματικῶν in 12.1 can come from a comparison to the same word in 1 Cor. 2.13. In 1 Cor. 2.10-13, Paul describes two actions of the Spirit, making revelation (v. 10) and training in speech (v.13). Paul then describes this training in speech as  πνευματικοῖς πνευματικὰ συγκρίνοντες. Commentators have been divided on the meaning of this, but I take it as a reference to the common apocalyptic pattern of revelation where a symbol is revealed in a dream, event, etc. and then an interpretation is offered of that symbol. In other words, Paul is describing the combination of the revelation that the Spirit makes to one person and the interpretation of that revelation that the Spirit gives to another. Given that 12.3 talks about speech, I take τῶν πνευματικῶν the speech that the Spirit gives to a person that interprets an event of revelation, namely that of Jesus Christ’ death as outlined in the Lord’s Supper.

It was a common Greco-Roman custom at dinners known as a symposium for a designated speaker to give some speech on an intellectual topic. Socrates is portrayed as doing so in Plato’s Symposium. If the practice of the Lord’s Supper was framed in the form of a ‘Christian’ symposium, then 12.1-3 may refer to the speech that a person gave that related to matters of Jesus’s death. However, the custom was a bit different in that whereas the Corinthians were accustomed to religious rituals that did not involve a god inspiring speech within them, the Christian gatherings were considered a gathering of charismatic speech that comes from the Spirit. Whereas the symposium’s audience would evaluate the content of the speaker based upon argumentative or rhetorical content, Paul refers to a different evaluation of the speech based upon whether the speech originates from the Holy Spirit.

Thirdly, if what I have argued up to this point is correct, then Paul suggests there is a particular understanding of the significance of Jesus’s death as remembered in the Lord’s Supper that is a criterion for determining the Spirit’s inspiration. I would suggest that “Jesus is accursed” and “Jesus is Lord” are two basic ways of interpreting the significance of Jesus’  death.

I think the best option is to take “Jesus is accursed” to refers to a common Greco-Roman understanding of sacrifice known as a pharmakos, where some the sins of the community is expiated based upon the sacrifice of a scapegoat. As Martin Hengel observes,

In order to liberate or purify the city, the pharmakos, as the incarnation of the disaster which brought the corruption, had to vanish – i.e. either be covered with stones or be plagued in the sea or – as a humane mitigation – be driven out.2

As Paul’s original evangelistic preaching to the Corinthians spoke of how Jesus’ death died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15.3), it is highly likely that Isaiah 53 was one of the Scriptures Paul referenced. On first blush, it might seem like Isaiah describes something resembling a pharmakos if one reads Isaiah 53.4-11:

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. 

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light;he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.

Although, strictly speaking, the idea of a pharmakos did not entail a sense of innocence of the victim. It was the punishment of the victim that was efficacious.

However, Paul uses different verbiage in using the word ἀνάθεμα. In the Septuagint, it is primarily used to refer to the devotion of utter destruction of the city of Jericho in Joshua 6-7. In almost all instances, it is used to refer to something that should be set apart from destruction. In the LXX, it is almost exclusively used regarding those things that are dangerous.  Paul usage of ἀνάθεμα in Galatians 1.6-9 reflects a similar usage of persons who preach a different gospel. However, Paul also uses this in reference to himself in Romans 9.3 with a similar sense of benefiting his fellow Israelite, as if his own rejection and exile could benefit others; certainly as Paul had been rejected by may of his fellow Israelites after his turning towards Christ, ἀνάθεμα contains echoes of an attribution of guilt towards the victim by others, even if the person themselves were, in fact, innocent of what they were charged with. What is at stake, however, is the notion of devoting someone for destruction, or at least to ostracization and exile, contains some benefit for the community who inflicts the punishment.

Despite this different language that finds its origination in the Septuagint, Paul does use the language regularly used in describing the pharmakos in 1 Cor. 4.13, as Hengel notes.3 Paul shows evidence of understanding the form of castigation and reject that certain people are submitted to in the Greco-Roman understanding of a pharmakos sacrifice. However, Paul’s language in 1 Cor. 4.8-13 is laced with irony that would be apparent to the Corinthians: for Paul, Apollos, and others to be labeled as utterly detestable and worthy of contempt conflicts with the Corinthians own assessment of Paul and Apollos as teachers that they esteem. Rather, 1 Cor. 4.8-13 subverts the status hierarchy of Greco-Roman society by placing the Corinthians in the role of the wealthy and as esteemed kings as if they had risen in status from their humble stature when they were originally called (1 Cor. 1.25). The Stoics considered the wise person to be a king and wealthy.4 Paul’s sarcastic portrayal puts them in the place of authority due to their reputed wisdom; meanwhile, they become contemptuous to some of the teachers in Corinth as they affiliated themselves with a different teacher. Thus, Paul, Apollos, and other teachers are portrayed as filling the opposite role, the role of the despised and the abused while they try to teach and benefit the Corinthians. While intended as a sarcastic hyperbole to correct the Corinthian attitudes, it does reflect the customary view of those of high status with the targets of their derision that the Corinthians could very well adopt towards those who serve their own best interests.

Given the resemblance in language to those used in regards to the pharmakos, it does seem possible that the Corinthian Christians were still influenced by a notion of sacrifice and atonement based upon their own socio-political milieu. Hence, to regard Jesus as accursed would be to regard Jesus’ death as a rejection and discarding for the sake of one’s own benefit as in the pharmakos. To this, Paul suggests this isn’t the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Rather, implicitly, it reflects the religious convictions of Greco-Roman idolatry.

This is not, however, the right way to understand the death of Jesus, according to Paul. Rather than the cross being the rejection of Jesus for the benefit of other people, the cross is the event that reveals Jesus to be Lord in power. Paul’s discussion on the nature of the resurrection in 1 Cor. 15 climaxes with a praise of God for the victory that comes through Jesus Christ. The death of Jesus is portrayed as part of the very battle that Jesus fights. When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, it had been approximately a century since Julius Caesar’s rise to power by bringing his army into Rome and then engaging in the civil war that followed. So, a title indicating one’s rule was more than just a position of authority and title, but also represented the victory the person had obtained through their power. To say that “Jesus is Lord” is to say that Jesus’ death was the final battle that culminated in his victory through the resurrection. If one reads further in Isa. 53 to v. 12 one can see the notion of status given to the redemptive victim:

Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

Then if one looks back to Isaiah 52.13-15 one can see the political implications of Isaiah 53 more clearly:

See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals— so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.

Understanding the death of Jesus and Isaiah 53 in the pharamkos schema is certainly a possible understanding given the Greco-Roman religious convictions, but it fails to understand Jesus’ death and the “substitution” of the servant in Isaiah 53 in context. Thus, for Paul, it would require the inspiration of the Spirit to get the Corinthians to recognize the true significance of the cross as the site of Jesus’ greatest victory, rather than the place he was rejected for others.

This leads me to a theological conclusion relevant for modern theology. While Isaiah 53 does portray substitution in a sense, where one person receives the punishment due to others and those other people benefit, it is important to distinguish between the mechanism of atonement and the effect of the atonement. Isaiah 53 is not metaphysics or ontology. It is a description of the social world, where an onlooker realizes their own sin and their own benefit from what they did to the innocent victim. We can imagine a person moved to repentance and freed from the sins that ensnared them as a result of the sense of self-aware that emerges when realizing suffering servant was unduly treated. This seems to be part of the content of early preaching in Acts, where the crucifixion of Jesus represented the moral status of the people that moved some to conviction. In that sense, then, the punishment is a substitute in virtue of the injustice of the event moving the unrighteous to repentance. It is a social substitution.

However, Christian theology’s predilection towards finding substitutionary mechanism in Jesus’ death begins to tread into the type of understanding that Paul finds to be rooted in the Greco-Roman culture. Just as understanding Jesus as accursed would recapitulate the Greco-Roman religious and social dynamics that were foreign to the leading of the Holy Spirit, when we try to understand the atonement of Christ through some sense of punishment, we recapitulate our own social and political understanding to fit Jesus’ death into. It treats human social systems that institutionalizes and normalizes punishment as a response to wrong-doing as fundamentally a part of God and/or the fabric of creation. Penal substitution in particular echoes Greco-Roman idolatry.

The problem here is when we treat an effect of the atonement as the mechanism as the atonement. Punishment was a part of Jesus’ crucifixion, innocent as He was. Punishment and substitution are discussed in Isaiah 53. But to treat the effect of substitution as more than a social/human reality but as an ontological or divine pattern is to define God by human terms; it is to make the Incarnation an instrument of human society, addressing human concerns, rather than a sharp challenge and transformation of human society by Jesus conquering what humans could not. When we project human culture onto God, we numb our hearts and minds to perceiving and understanding God’s challenge through Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit. Transformation becomes a matter of assimilation to a particular way of culture and society, rather than transformation into the likeness of Jesus Christ. When we assume the effect is itself the mechanism, we blur the boundaries between the divine cause and human effect, subjecting our understanding of God’s causation as definable and constrained to specific effects upon us.

Now, one might appeal to Galatians 3.13 to ground some sense of substitution. But that passage refers to the curse of those under the Torah. Jesus’ cursed state on the cross is not the mechanism of atonement for the world as a whole, but it is a specific effect that happens for those under Torah; they are redeemed from the curse of their own sin through Jesus who was cursed by being hung up on the tree of the cross. In other words, Galatians 3.13 does not refer to how Jesus’ death saves people, Jew and Gentile alike, but rather how Jesus’ death frees the people of Israel so that both Jew and Gentile alike can receive the blessing of Abraham together. Jesus’ death frees the Jews to share in one community with the Gentile believers so that both Jews and Gentiles are blessed together. This is an effect of Jesus’ death, but not a description of the mechanism of atonement.

While I will not go into my fuller account of atonement here, I will make my suggestion as it relates to 1 Corinthians 12.1-3. In the cross, Jesus obtains a victory over sin and death through God’s resurrection, such that Jesus Lordship transfers the benefits of His own victory to us who believe in Him. But it is the person of Jesus who is victorious who we then become baptize and formed into by the Spirit; it is not our benefit we possess in virtue of Jesus’ being accursed by God, spiritually, or at some non-social ontological level but a victory we realize in virtue of Jesus’ victory that emerges in us through the Holy Spirit. When we confess that “Jesus is Lord” through His death, we recognize that Jesus is empowered as our Redeemer, Savior, and Protector. This is the confession about and understanding of the cross that comes from the Holy Spirit.

Is the New Perpsective on Paul simply a cultural byproduct?

May 26, 2019

Michael Kruger on Canon Fodder engaged with an interesting question about whether the New Perspective on Paul is reflective of our current cultural context. In lieu of a “Lutheran” emphasis on sin and guilt, the New Perspective has been influenced by modern-day socio-political concerns about nationalism and ethnocentrism and read those concerns into Paul’s letters. Michael Bird has given a nuanced response, emphasizing the parts of Paul’s letters that don’t fit within the standard Reformed theology. The implication of Bird’s post is that there are good reasons for considering the NPP as a better option than that of Lutheran-Reformed hermeneutics.

However, for me, I want to challenge the implicit assumption in the question that suggests if one’s hermeneutics has been influenced by one’s culture, then one is no longer reading the text in its appropriate historical context.  It rests on one of the ‘sacred’ principles of modern biblical criticism: one best understands a Biblical text by reading it in the context of the history in which the text was originally composed.

I am not about to challenge the value of the principle in theory, but present a challenge to our understanding of the principle in practice. Many post-modern/post-structuralists critiques might be readily applied in rejection of this historical emphasis that inform my own understanding, but I don’t want to reject the task of biblical criticism or the possibility of understanding a text from its original historical context. Instead, I present a “cognitive myth” that has formed based upon our way of speaking about hermeneutics and communication: the myth of perspective-taking.

The perspective-taking myth operates on this basic idea: that in order to understand someone, we should try to see things as they see things in order to rightly understand. A noble idea that undergirds much of understanding of empathy, morality, and even interpretation. But the reason for the myth is this: we can never truly take on another person’s perspective. We are always, inescapably seeing things from our own perspective. I am always egocentric in a cognitive sense. This egocentricity doesn’t entail that I am always absorbed with my own concerns. For instance, I am perfectly capable of making judgments based upon what I think would be better for another person than what I know would be good for myself. Or, I am perfectly able to imagine what someone might seem like from another person’s perspective, even if I am not presently in that perspective. But at no point in my focusing on another person am I doing anything but changing the perspective that I myself operate from. What is true is that my own perspective can change through engagement with other people. I can be influenced by someone else to see things differently. But it is always my perspective.

I never directly access the cognitive perspective of another. Rather their words, actions, facial expressions, etc. can impact me in such a way that my own perspective is changed in such a way that we express the same things, act in concert with each other, etc. Rather than taking on another person’s perspective, it is more strictly a matter of being (a) being able to perceive what another person says and does by (b) cognitively flexible adjust how we construe things and (c) patient enough to receive that feedback so that we can adjust our construal.

Furthermore, there is no way of thinking about our thinking (meta-cognition) that will deliver us a successful understanding of another. Many of the practices we have been encouraged to engage in to check in our own thinking on the matter doesn’t actually deliver understanding to us. Meta-cognition can impact the way we understand when we judge that our thinking can and/or should have been different, but this judgment does not deliver us understanding itself. Instead, our meta-cognitive self-assessment can create the conditions by which our own perspective changes. Nevertheless, it is our perceptions of another that can deliver a change of perspective that more functionally resembles another person’s perspective.

Now, when it comes to Biblical exegesis, our methodologies operate as a form of meta-cognition that regulate our thinking about the Biblical texts themselves. For instance, in my research on 1 Corinthians 2, I am particularly concerned about having a coherent reading of 1 Corinthians. I originally interpreted the actions of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 2, which is described by power, revelation, training in speech, and discernment, as referring to interior, cognitive events, but then I notice similar language in 1 Corinthians 12, 14 that refers to people’s actions empowered by the Spirit, then my methodology leads me to reconsider my understanding of those actions in 1 Corinthians 2. My methodology allows me to recognize that I should perhaps think about the passage differently, but I didn’t ‘magically’ gain Paul’s perspective by my metacognitive methodology. Rather, in my concern about coherence, I assumed that 1 Corinthians 2 is referring to the same things that 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 are, and I reread 1 Corinthians 2 in light of my understanding of 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. What is my point here? It is that my methodology cognitively catalyzed the capacity to change my interpretation because I recognized one perspective was inconsistent with my methodology. But I never ceased to escape my perspective, even as I changed my perspective.

This seems pretty fundamental and intuitive when spelled out, but we readily forget this process. Every time we judge the insufficiency of a biblical interpretation because we can identify how interpreters are simply reading their own personal and cultural concerns into the text, we work under the myth of perspective-taking, that we can somehow take another person’s perspective.

This doesn’t capitulate to some sort of absolute relativism. The possibility of rightly understanding is still perfectly possible, but we can never verify our right understanding apart from anything other than by our perspective being changed by the words and actions of another. My own meta-cognitive assessment of my own thinking doesn’t deliver an understanding of another person’s thinking, but rather a judgment about my own thinking. Rather, the test of my understanding is how well my ideas reflect the words and actions of the person I am seeking to understand.

This brings me back to the question of the NPP. Yes, certainly, the NPP reflects present cultural concerns. The concerns about ethnocentrism and nationalism certainly color readings of Paul. Such an assessment is a cognitive assessment about thinking, which ultimately is a meta-cognitive assessment of one’s own thinking that one imagines another to be using. But the value of such assessments is not in determining whether someone else is right or wrong in our understanding, but simply to help us to be cognitively flexible and receptive to information and feedback.

The real assessment for the validity of the NPP vs. the traditional Lutheran-Reformed reading is how well each understanding makes sense of the text as a whole. How much does one’s interpretation reflect the expressions of Paul as they are presented in his discourse? Does one’s interpretations rely upon complex, cognitive schemas that is rarely, if ever, expressed by Paul? If not, then one has a stronger footing for one’s interpretation. However, if it does, it doesn’t rule out one’s interpretations, but then one needs to show evidence that such a cognitive schema would have been implicit by either a) explicit appeals to other texts that we can consider to plausibly expressing ideas Paul would be familiar with, b) some human universal about thinking, and c) or a combination of the two that allows us to reliably imagine how people might think about something even if it is never directly expressed.

This is where the NPP is superior to the Lutheran-Reformed readings. As Michael Bird’s blog post demonstrates, the Lutheran-Reformed interpretations frequently understand Paul in such a way where the critical ideas they find in Paul seem to go unexpressed by Paul.

For another example, the idea of Christ’s righteousness being imputed to the believer’s account is never explicitly expressed by Paul, nor is such a schema present within Second Temple Judaism. Rather, the idea of transferred-and-imputed righteousness reflects more so an attempt of resolving intellectual dilemmas of a system of thinking that takes sin and guilty to be an ontological reality that exists independent of (a) the God-human relation and (b) the feelings of humans that Christ must address; if (a) sin-guilt exists apart from the recognition of it by God and people and (b) sin-guilt has the power to impact one’s future, then one must address this ‘power’ to bring people into communion with God. The tension between the metaphysical belief and belief about the future necessitates a form of resolution of this cognitive dissonance. However, such a portrayal of sin and guilt does not exist in Paul, thereby rendering unnecessary the doctrine of imputation that resolves the dissonance that operates in Protestantism but not Paul. The imputation of righteousness is a niche intellectual problem for the theological systems in which the independent ontological existence is predicated of sin and guilt, but that theological system doesn’t seem to have sufficient “points of contact” with Paul’s own discourse and the milieu he operated in to suggest Paul shared these same convictions.

Meanwhile, I would attribute the superiority of the NPP to the traditional Lutheran-Reformed interpretation based in part on the more universal nature of social identity that undergirds both (a) modern concerns about ethnocentrism and nationalism and (b) Roman imperialism and concerns about Jewish identity. While modern and ancient concerns do seem to be different expressions of social identity, they both have a common socio-biological mechanism that permeates all of human life. The NPP is no longer beholden to the more niche concerns about early Protestantism that constrain interpretation but has become freer to read Paul for what he says in light of sociological principles that are more general than the niche nature of early Protestantism.

Now, the proponents of the NPP have not escaped their own perspective, but rather much as Hans-Georg Gadamer talks about, their own interpretation starts from their own perspective. However, because their perspective is less niche but accords more with general experiences of human life, it is better able to understand the Pauline texts from the past than the Lutheran-Reformed tradition. This doesn’t make the NPP correct in all that it states or the Luthern-Reformed tradition wrong in everything. However, it does suggest that the NPP will have readings that are more consistent with the Pauline texts on a whole, and thus a better theological reading if we value sola scriptura rather than the Luthern-Reformed tradition.

However, the strength of NPP and other like-minded readers of Paul can also serve as its weakness, because the specific way we are concerned about social identity can become niche for our own time that isn’t really suitable for Paul. Today, we have a distinctive concern about the social ills of injustices of racism and various social phobias; we desire a world that does not experience the inequalities and divisions that differences of ethnicity, gender, etc. have created. While Paul expresses a desire for unity between people, it is not center-less unity but it is a unity grounded in the person of Christ. Whereas today, we tend to try to address the problems of distinctive social identities and cultures by the virtues of tolerance and the aversion to dogmatisms that leaves people’s own social identities largely intact and unchallenged, Paul sees a new social identity emerging in Christ that takes priority over other forms of social identity. So, while concerns about unity and love today and in Paul can resemble each other in some ways in terms of the goal we seek for, the manner in which Paul then and we today address the problem of social divisions are distinctly different.

Therefore, insofar as the NPP becomes a transmitter of the values of modern liberalism and/or progressivism, it can inculcate a way of reading Paul that misses the vital differences from Paul and us today.  Instead, I would say that for Paul, the person of Jesus Christ is the center of reconciliation, not simply someone who advocated for reconciliation, lived and died for reconciliation, or even makes reconciliation possible. Jesus is not some instrument of reconciliation or an authority on the value of reconciliation that we should listen to, but in His own person the way towards reconciliation is realized and embodied that others can participate in and come to embody themselves through active work of the Holy Spirit.

So, the more general perspective of the NPP based upon matters of social identity does not secure an understanding of the vital center of Paul. The more niche concerns influenced by the NPP and our modern contextual concerns about ethnocentrism and nationalism can cause us to overlook where Paul differs in favor of where we can find Paul resembling our own concerns. There is a certain danger of a cosmopolitan ignorance with the NPP in virtue of its broader learning and reliance upon a more general, universal concern that touches based with matters of social identity.

Nevertheless, NPP  being a product of its own culture that is influenced by an awareness of a wider array of cultures that makes it more concerned about more universal concerns of human life rather than the more niche concerns of early Protestantism. In virtue of this very fact, I would argue the NPP provides a more reliable reading of the whole of Paul to the Lutheran-Reformed tradition, even if the Lutheran-Reformed tradition does get a few things right in my book and the NPP can go off the rails. NPP has a more reliable starting point to understand the Pauline letters than the more niche theological concerns of early Protestantism,

God and social identity

May 19, 2019

I love those “aha!” moments that you come across in the course of study when you are studying one topic and suddenly, something else comes along that suddenly makes sense in light of the topic you have been studying. That happened today, as I was enjoying a nice walk in downtown Edinburgh. The last evening, I was reading up on social identity theory as proposed by Henri Tafjel and popularized in Biblical Studies through scholars such as Philip Esler, trying to figure out how it might relate to my own research. Then, as I was walking today, I happened upon a post by an acquaintance on Facebook about another person who was hostile towards Christian faith in virtue of Christianity historically tied to the God of Abraham, whereas faith in this God made one abandon one’s own nation by abandoning the gods of their ancestry. Then it really clicked: our cognitive understanding of divinity and our understanding of our national and social identities are tightly intertwined.1

The heads of an empire, such as Pharoah or the Caesars were bestowed varying degrees of divinity. Rome had the goddess Roma who was a personification of the city. In the more recent past, the United States had a sense of manifest destiny where God has set America for dominance from Atlantic to Pacific. For most anyone with a theological or religious education, the tight, historical relationship between politics and religion is a familiar pattern of human society from the ancient past to the very present day in the form of civic religion and political advocacy.

But, what is not so readily noticed is that this relationship between politics and religion is simply one example of the manner in which religion and identity becoming tightly intertwined. The various socio-political organizations of human societies are but one type of social identity. It is a peculiar form of social identity where we understand ourselves by identities that are shared with each other based upon a common relation to a particular distribution power, where our relationships are centered around a specific person or persons who inherit and/or embody the power that unites and directs the people. Divinity is often an explanation employed to describe how these individuals or political unity possess this power, especially in population groups and societies that do not have some anthropocentric theory about the distribution of power (i..e. democracy as the will of the people, rather than government ruled by the will of particular divinity/divinities).

But there are various social identities that are not structured by power relations. Ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. all are classes of social identities. Religion is often an expression of these social identities. YHWH was the God of Israel, a people defined their ancestry. It has not been infrequent in modern feminist circles to a) switch to talk about a goddess or b) employ the usage of maternal and feminine depictions of God. It is common to hear people of non-heterosexual identities to say “God made me this way.” Whatever the specific social identity, it is a frequent phenomenon to somehow connect one’s sense of social identity with some divine reference, whether it be an (1) appeal to a divinity within a specific tradition (such as God of Judeo-Christian tradition), (2) a call to a different goddess or god, and/or (3) a reference to some other, non-personalistic ontic entity that has a pervasive influence (such as the anima mundi).

Now, for most religious practitioners, they would consider a causal relationship in which the divinity causes their own status as members of the group to which they belong. However, religious skepticism in traditions streaming from people like Feuerbach or Marx would reverse the causal order, suggesting it is our social identities that cause us to conceive of a divinity that aligns with our social identity. Both directions of causality are plausible, if not even probable, under conditions of there does exist a set of divine beings that do interact with humans at some level (i.e. not an Epicurean god). If the God known in Jesus Christ makes the work the Holy Spirit known to me, then I am (a) impacted by God in an “objective” sense while simultaneously (b) developing a “subjective” understanding of God that impacts how I make sense of the work of the Holy Spirit. This is not that different from any other social or interpersonal relationship, where my interactions with other persons or groups lead me to construe them in a specific way. If, however, there does not exist at least one divine being that interacts with people in a such a way that this interaction can be known by at least one individual, then the causality flows one way, from social identity to divinity.

It is at this point, then, that a critical challenge is presented to all of our theological talk. I will use myself to present this: on what grounds can my understanding of God and the relationship God has with people that I share a social identity with (Christian) be considered reliable if my sense of God is influenced by my social identity? This question is connected to a common objection to any sense of epistemic confidence in our theological conviction based upon where we grew up. I had been born in and grown up in Iran, I would most likely be Muslim rather than Christian. Implicit in this objection is the relationship between social identity (nationality and ethnicity) and theology that repeat the skeptical objection.

But these challenges operate on the assumption that to appropriately understand our religious beliefs, we must first proceed from the epistemic known of social identity to the epistemic uncertainty of divinity to determine the right level of epistemic confidence we can have in our belief in divinity. But this implicit assumption only seems legitimate based upon an epistemology rooted in scientific empiricism, where we can have higher epistemic confidence in those things we can sense and readily measure in such a way that the measurement would be generally agreed upon to between ‘rational’ persons. In other words, because social identity is more readily measurable because we can connect specific social identities with specific perceivable actions, speech, symbols, etc. than divinity, the analysis of the relationship between theology and social identity commonly starts from the perspective of the theological skeptics.

However, I would submit that by doing so, theological skeptics end up reinforcing the causal factor that leads to the problem of religious dogmatism and conflict many of them object to. By legitimizing that we start from social identity, our social identity becomes even more salient and therefore becomes a much stronger force in our theology. If our understanding of divinity is tightly intertwined with our social identity, by making social identity more salient, we reinforce the theological understandings that come from social identity. This is why in an age of theological skepticism, religious adherents make more reference to their experiences as people of a specific identity in developing their theology: the age of theological skepticism has strengthened the power that our social identities have on our theological beliefs. Theological skepticism is the fertilizer of “tribal” religion.

But, as a Christian, I would make the claim that the starting point of social identity is the exact opposite of the trajectory of the Biblical narrative about people’s relationship to God. Israel were the people of God, and yet, in the end, God was redeeming the world and not just Israel. Whatever the specific relationship that exists between Israel and God, Israel routinely fell into error when it thought their social identity as descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had cemented their relationship to God. The people of Israel did belong to God in a special way to bring the knowledge of YHWH into the world, but God did not belong to Israel as a guarantor of their particular status and ambitions within the world. In the end, I would say the Scriptures tell more about how God “deconstructs” Israel’s social identity rather than reinforces it. In other words, the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition is a God who challenges social identities rather than reinforces them. The boundaries humans create are in the process of being broken down rather than being built up.

But I want to clarify what I am saying here. I am not saying God is abolishing social identity in the Scriptures. God does not reject Jewish identity, nor does he renege on His promises to Israel’s patriarchs. By deconstructing and challenging, I am suggesting that God is continuously re-tearing down the “towers of Babel” that groups regularly rebuild up to God on the foundations of their social identity. God is not the God of Tradition that takes our past as the confident grounds to know God. God is not conservative. Here is something else I am not saying: God is not providing new social identities that replace old social identities. God retains his commitment to Israel, but He surprisingly incorporates the Gentiles into Israel as children of Abraham through faith. Even as these Gentiles do not follow the Torah, they retain their faith and loyalty to this God of Abraham who did make His will known through the Torah. God is not the God of a revolution that abandons the past for something radically discontinuous and new, as if this new identity has now finally the right foundation for understanding God. God is not progressive. Both the conservative and progressive understandings of God still retain the pattern of a specific social identity as being necessary, if not sufficient, condition for having right theological belief.

What I am saying is that from my understanding of the Bible, God does not reinforce the relationship between social identity and theology as much as He challenges the way social identity impacts our theology. There is a two-way causal relationship between God and our social identity, but it is more typically an antagonistic relationship where God and the people whose theology formed out of social identity come into conflict rather than it is sympathetic harmony between God and the religiosity of groups defined by their social identity. The “theologicalization” of social identity is a contribution of our hostility with God, even as we call on God’s name in old or new ways.

Rather, this God is specially and uniquely known in a personal identity: the identity of the individual person of Jesus Christ. But I would go further to say that God does not bestow to us a specific identity that we then possess in virtue of Jesus. Our identity isn’t in Jesus. Rather, God is in the process of forming our identity into conformity to that of Jesus Christ, which includes both the label we use to identity our affiliation with Jesus and our ever developing understanding of what that social identity entails. In virtue of our being part of the body of Christ, our identity is becoming understood by taking on the mind of Christ, in which this process of sanctification is constantly changing and adapting our sense of identity.2

We might be tempted to call this “becoming,” but even then this can serve as a foundation for social identities, such as that of spiritual pilgrims, by which we can then build yet another tower of Babel. Plus, “becoming” often works with an implicit understanding of change, whereas God’s challenge of our identity may keep it the same as it was. If God has formed something good in us, one should stay consistent with that good; development in that specific case is consolidation rather than transformation. I do not think God ALWAYS deconstructs social identities in Scripture, but only by in large challenges more than reinforces, but consolidation is something God can do. In other words, this is not a theology of eternal becoming, but of contingently being and becoming.

Rather, this is a theology that finds much in common with theological skepticism: we do often try to make God in the image of our own social identities. The difference is that whereas theological skeptics say “we form God in our own image” and leave it at that, I go one step further to say “we form God in our own image, but God tears that image down to show His own image instead.”

Thus, in addition to the person of Jesus, God is primarily known by how He challenges and transforms our social identities through the work of the Holy Spirit. But a more generic understanding of this in the idea that God challenges social identity provides a counter-thesis to the modern analysis of social identity and theology. Yes, if I grew up in Iran I would likely have been Muslim. However, it has been my experience as a Christian that God has challenged and transformed by own social identity in what I understanding about being a Christian. I would contend my understanding of God is based upon how my identity has been changed from how my own acceptance of that identity. I would contend that my understanding of God is generalizable to the hypothetical me born in Iran, even if I would not have that same understanding as a hypothetical Muslim, because my confidence in grounded upon the powerful events I have seen challenge my social identity as a Christian that I can only attribute to the God known in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

While this might seem abstract and abstruse, let me apply it to matters of sexuality that divides Christian theology for a specific example. However, I need to state that as a heterosexual, I try to be intentional to consider why it is that LGBQ3

A conservative evangelical might say to a gay person “Don’t put your identity in your sexuality, but put your identity in Christ.” The problem with this is that it assumes that there is a sense of our own identity we possess or claim in virtue of being a Christian. It seeks to establish that definition over and against one’s sexual identity, as if one identity has a more secure ground than the other in the life of a person. It is treated as if this is some therapeutic process, as if the Christian identity will somehow solve the struggles of people who experience same sex attraction but desire to hold to a traditional sexual ethic.  One’s religious identity is not necessarily more sure or stronger than another identity. Almost all people, straight or otherwise, when sexually aroused will see themselves in terms of their sexual identity, not their religious identity. One can incorporate one’s religious identity into their sexuality identity, but that doesn’t address their sexual experience. Rather, is the God known in Jesus and the Spirit, not a sense of identity in Jesus, who is faithful, true, and powerful. “Putting your identity in Christ” places faith in the cognitive and affective rather than God.

However, alternatively “God made me this way” also succumbs to the “theologicalization” of social identity in a pretty bold way that borders on the type of theological justifications that kings and emperors made for their own status and identity. There are similar conditions for such theological justification in that it (a) resolves the dissonance that people who bear such an identity have with those who do not agree to their own sense of identity and status by (b) evoking God against dissenters in virtue of the moral power such a claim makes. In other words, empires formed in conflict with other powers and developed theological justifications for their identity, and so too does the “God made me this way” appeal to the same form of theological justification.

What then? (I am speaking generally here and not just with the specific case of sexuality) Don’t seek to find one’s identity or to secure one’s identity. Rather, recognize that you are God’s but that God is not your possession for establishing your own social identity. Rather, seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness, which does not have a specific social identity of ours in mind but rather has others in mind.