Two forms of self-denial

February 24, 2020

Self-denial is at at the heart of the Christian life of discipleship. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16.24). Images and stories of self-sacrifice can be incredibly moving, as they embed moral ideas that bring a sense of hope by reminding us of our better values. Listen to this quote about self-denial:

We set out on the road to freedom when we no longer let our compulsions or passions govern us. We are freed when we begin to put justice, heartfelt relationships, and the service of others and of truth over and above our own needs for love and success or our fears of failure and of relationships.

Sounds good and wonderful, correct? This quote so many ideas, both explicit and inferred, that give it a raw, emotional, evocative power that language often gives us.’

What if I were to tell you, however, that these words were written by Catholic philosopher Jean Vanier, who has just recently been accused of sexually abusing six women between 1970 and 2005? What initially sounded so good now seems to reeks of hypocrisy. In the words of my friend Jeremy Rios on his Facebook page (from whom I pulled Vanier’s quote), “I’d say this has aged like milk.”

Where did it all go wrong? Was Vanier just a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Or did he goes astray somewhere along the way? These are complex questions that we can not hope to answer without a detailed investigation, but there is something I want to point out in the problem with Vanier’s quote and why it appears to be self-denial, but it is not the self-denial of the cross. Undergirding this problem lays down the foundation of a ‘false narrative of redemption’ (I don’t want to say false Gospel as I don’t think if someone believes what is said above that it means one does not know and follow Christ) that leads to the powerlessness over human sin.

What is undergird the implicit narrative of this form of self-denial? It is this: that one frees themselves by their attempts at self-control. Self-control is the route to freedom, redemption, and transformation. To any student of ancient philosophy, they would hear the echoes of Stoicism. At the heart of this form of self-denial is that there is some comprehensible pattern of truth, goodness, reasons, etc. understandable and knowable by rational reflection that can free us simply by giving ourselves over to this pattern. We are aware of two paths: one that our impulses present to us and one that our reason gives to us, and we in our strength give ourselves to the path of reason. We can refers to this as cognitive self-denial.

Now, self-control is not a bad thing. It is a very good thing in its appropriate place. If someone makes you angry, having self-control to not immediately react in the throes of passion is a good thing. But this is not a rational, reflective form of self-control, but it is an reactive form of self-control. This form of self-control allows us to act appropriately in individual situations when our emotions spike, for whatever reason.

However, here comes the problem. Cognitive self-denial according to our rational choices does not alone produce reactive form of self-control. It can contribute to it as a mental form of simulated practice that can help strengthen the muscles of reactive self-control, but all the exercise in the world will produce nothing if you don’t have the necessary food to sustain those muscles in the first place. But, as most of us has experienced, simply thinking of the right way to address something does not make it happen when the situation arrives. This is because our sense of reflective reason and our more reactive thinking processes are not actually the same. But, when we believe in the powers of our cognitive reflection to give us *direct* control over our more reactive, instinctual behaviors, we can be brought into a illusion that we are actually in control of ourselves when we aren’t, or at least we aren’t in as much control as we like to think we are.

The seductive power of what I colloquially refer to as Stoic self-denial (because it dovetails with my research in 1 Corinthians and Stoicism) is that it has all the appearances of self-control, but it is ultimately ignorant of (1) the reasons that such self-control can successfully occur over the long-haul and (2) why self-control is important. It will be successful some of the time, but a life lived under self-control is more like a marathon than a sprint. It doesn’t simply work some of the time, but it is successful most of the time and even when one loses control, the actual problems are minimal compared to what could occur.

In the case of sexual exploitation, as in Vanier’s case, one could be in control of one’s faculties 99% of the time, but the difference between 99% and 100% over the course of over three decades can lead to multiple victims.

However, it needs to be said though that this form of self-control does not turn people into a Vanier. We don’t need to see people who endorse this model of self-denial as dangerous. There are a host of other factors that go into why people do what they do, not simply one belief. In some cases, this form of self-denial can turn people phobic towards their desires, pushing them into avoidance mode. Even as there is no damage to others, the combination of rational self-control and avoidance can create the what I refer to as a broken righteousness, where a person is successfully diligent but with great costs to their own well-being. While preferable to a self-control with occasional lapses, it still belongs to the same form of self-denial.

But even in cases that don’t revolve around the sexual instinct and less dangerous ‘vices,’ but for other things like money, food, health, etc., etc, images of self-control seduce us into thinking we have the power to accomplish what we wish, only to discover that that form of self-control is an illusion that we maintain in our minds by either denying the problems or by avoiding the problems. We try to eat healthy, while denying to ourselves that that midnight snack is going to be a problem or by avoiding anything that might remind us of food (again, self-control and avoidance is usually more preferable to self-control and splurging).

You want to know why people are successful at controlling themselves? While they have the capacity to exercise their self-control muscles through cognitive reflection, they themselves are the type of people’s whose desires match the goals for their life. They do not experience the sharp divergence between heart and mind, but their hearts and minds are closer together. For them, cognitive self-control is more like housekeeping, making sure they keep their houses clean of clutter rather than the source of their power. In other words, self-control is more successful at preventing people from letting that specific desire have place in their world when it arises rather than freeing themselves from that desire.

How then do we become the type of people who have self-control? Worship and imitation. We become who or what we worship. What we believe and know about who or what we worship begins to define our hearts and our desires. If we ‘worship’ money rather than simply instrumentalize it, then our knowledge of money and how it operates begins to control how we think and desire money. However, worshipping of objects, or abstracted, cognitive objects known as ideas, essentially leads to the reinforcement of our own selves, as our cognition about objects is controlled by the way we use those objects. It means that most worship becomes a projection and amplification of some parts of our selves.

It can become very different, however, if we worship a ‘who’ rather than a ‘what.’ To truly worship a who means that we have to get outside of ourselves to understand someone else. While this is always a messy process created by the epistemic gap from one person to another, in regular, on-going worship we are given the place to begin to percieve and understand the one who we worship. Through that process, we are given the ‘raw materials’ of wanting and desiring something else other than what we desire, as our emotional draw to the object of our worship is more powerful than the other desires we have.

However, even this worship is not enough. We can worship but go nowhere, because worship as provides a potential way of life and thinking to us and offers it, but worship by itself doesn’t make that native to us. We also need imitation of who we worship. Not some woodenly slavish imitation in which we do things in some exact repetition of what our object of worship did, but rather a form of imitation that seek to accomplish what the object or worship accomplish but in our own contexts. Through the combination of worship and creatively inspired imitation, we embark in a journey where we are freed not from our desires, but from the wrong form of those desires, to have our desires rightly ordered.

It is here, then, that we have the ingredients for a Christian form of self-denial. Christian form of self-denial is not some cognitive self-control of our desires in accordance to some abstracted form of reason, which in fact becomes a worship of some part of our own projected selves, no matter how hidden we are1 from the self whom we worship.2 The Christian form of self-denial is rooted in the worship of the crucified Christ and imitation of His cross through the Spirit who guides us to put to death the deeds of the flesh to put an end to the desires that go with them and to pursue the good that God desires for us and for others. It is not a self-denial that is empower by abstraction, reason, and reflection, but it is a self-denial of redemption that is narrativized, embodied, and enacted. This is the spiritual food that gives us the foundaton and strength so that our life and desires can be transformed so that our cognitive self-control can be relied upon to keep the house clean, but not to lay the foundation, build the house, or renovate the interior.

The “impending crisis” of 1 Corinthians 7.26: The conflict between Gospel and Rome

February 19, 2020

Marriage and celibacy. For the longest time, it was simply assumed that any good Christian would just get married. Sure, there were those few people that may have remained unmarried their whole life, but it was almost as if there was something incomplete about them. However, in recent years, due to the rise of concerns about sexuality and also the increasing rate in which Millenials are getting married at dramatically lower rates than generations past, a lot of discussions, both formal and informal, have been brought up around the New Testament teachings about celibacy.

One of the key passages on this occurs in 1 Corinthians 7.25-35 where Paul commends celibacy as an option given what he refers to as “the impending crisis” or the “present necessity” (τὴν ἐνεστῶσαν ἀνάγκην). How one interprets this has significant impacts as to how to understand Paul’s instructions about celibacy. Is Paul’s instructions for celibacy highly situation specific that doesn’t really apply to this time? Or, is Paul expressing a deeper, persistent value about God’s Kingdom?

The meaning of the participle ἐνεστῶσαν is highly relevant here. According to BDAG, ἐνίστημι has three meanings: 1) arrive, 2) happen now, 3) imminent. Popular eschatological imaginations about the early church as waiting and expecting the coming of Jesus Christ as any moment might give #3 a preference in the minds of some. This preference would only be exacerbated by popular (but atrocious) pre-millenial rapture teaching that is looking for the end of the world as we know it on the horizon. Beyond the dubious theological assumptions behind this, the problem is that it just doesn’t make sense in the rest of Paul’s discourse. In vs. 31, Paul says that “the way of life (τὸ σχῆμα) of this world is passing away.”1 Whatever Paul is talking about, it is already occurring. There is not some feared crisis waiting on the horizon; there is instead a struggle going on in the present time.

John Barclay proposes a different understanding for τὴν ἐνεστῶσαν ἀνάγκην in his chapter in Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination. Barclay suggests:

“The present constraint” (ἡ ἐνεστῶσα ἀνάγκη) refers, I suggest, to a feature of “the present evil age” (ὁ αἰὼν ὁ ἐνεστώς, Gal. 1:4), the “constraint” being the inevitable mortality and decay of all things in “this age.” Life in “this world” is lived under the hegemony of “powers” and “authorities,” of which death is the final and most potent (1 Cor. 15:24–26). This power currently holds sway over all humans, and even over the bodies of believers, which are limited and vulnerable because of their weakness and corruptibility (1 Cor. 15:42–44; cf. Phil. 3:21).2

This interpretation takes a different approach to the eschatological and apocalyptic ideas in 1 Corinthians. Rather than viewing Paul’s language through the lens of an imminent crisis waiting on the horizon, instead Barclay engages in what I refer to as metaphysical apocalypticism: that apocalyptic discourses are literary tools used to influence perception of the circumstances and the world through certain metaphysical construal of the world. In interpreting “the present constraint” as pertaining to the abstract conceptions of mortality and decay, Barclay regards Paul’s apocalyptic discourse as fundamentally metaphysical in function. Even if it does not look like traditional metaphysics that we are accustomed to, by making the significance of the apocalyptic language pertaining to overarching ideas about morality (which Paul primarily brings up in relationship to the cross and resurrection of Christ in 1 Corinthians but not so much elsewhere), it treats Paul’s discourse as a coded message about general and abstract realities that we used to categorize life and experience.

What indications are there in 1 Corinthians 7.25-35 that death is the primary concern undergirding Paul’s instructions? The two closest indications are in the language of mourning in 1 Corinthians 7.30 and the usage of the language of σάρξ in 7.28. However, neither of these are demonstrably being used to refer to mortality. Instead, Paul’s instructions about marriage are more general than a concern about mortality. For instance, Paul is concerned about divided interests between a man pleasing his wife and serving the Lord. This is not the language of mortality, but rather Paul is suggesting that in the current circumstances, the pleasures of marriage life may be particularly difficult to keep up simultaneous with one’s services to Jesus. Paul’s discourse doesn’t seem to be particular relevant to Barclay’s interpretations of τὴν ἐνεστῶσαν ἀνάγκην as pertaining to concern about mortality.

It is at this point that it bears mentioning. The primary purpose of apocalyptic literature was not as a vehicle of a specific set of abstract ideas and frames of references encoded in the symbolism to make sense of the present world. That may be how we can comprehend how apocalyptic literature conveys meanings from our analytic perspectives, but that doesn’t mean these functions actually determine the specific communicative meanings and purposes that communicators like Paul may have had in using themes and language drawn from apocalyptic literature. In other words, analysis of apocalyptic literature can explain HOW the various symbols, motifs, and words convey specific meanings, but it does not explain WHAT they were used for. In recent attempts to understand the significance of “apocalyptic” in Paul and within the New Testament, there has been a tendency for analytical and exegetical methods to bleed over into our construal of the meaning. The result is that we can get rather interpretations of Paul that regard him as a propogater of ideas and schemas.

However, the purposes of apocalyptic literature, while potentially diverse, often centered around ongoing sociopolitical circumstances and the dream for God to do something new. In other words, apocalyptic is usually better understood as evoking a sense of a narrative drama between God and the political rulers of the day in which God acts to defeat, topple, or in some cases like in Daniel, “convert” empires (or other agents of widespread evil) so that God’s purposes for His people can become realized. If we are to understand apocalyptic along the lens of abstract ideas, it is best to see it in terms of societal tension and conflict where God gets the upper hand. We see this motif of conflict and tension back in 1 Corinthians 1.20, where Paul boasts evoke the image of God getting the upper hand on the reputedly wise.

This leads me to my proposal about the meaning of τὴν ἐνεστῶσαν ἀνάγκην. Paul uses the phrase to refer to the ongoing tensions and difficulties that have emerged as the result of the Gospel of Jesus Christ setting those people who are called intension with wider Greco-Roman society. Wider society, ideologically regulated by human wisdom in the form of the Stoics and political orators and even the occasionally influential Jewish scribe, finds the word of the cross offensive. However, as the wisdom of God in Christ emerges as He continues in his victory and triumph over human wisdom, the tensions between God’s wisdom and human wisdom present a stark challenge to face for believers. This tension rooted in the conflict of two wisdoms are responsible for the divisions the church in Corinth is facing.

In the midst of this conflict of ‘wisdoms,’ there would be dramatic changes to the way of life (v. 31) that would people would engage in. The way people are usually accustomed to taking care of the needs of themselves and their family are going to be radically altered and disturbed. The present tensions are going to eventually culminate in something on the horizon that is shortly at hand (v. 29), so it would be better for people to not have their own lives and interests rooted in taking care of families as the changes that are occurring will totally unsettle married and family life.

This interpretation sits between the two others options already presented. It is best understood according to the idea of trajectory: the trajectory for Christians believers in Corinth is such that they are already in the midst of the struggle that occurs when God makes war with oppressive human wisdom and power, but that it is going to culminate into something more in the future. Paul can see the course that is set before him and he is trying to tell his fellow believers that marriage life is quite a challenge amidst all the unsettling God is doing in the world. While it isn’t a sin to still marry, it is going to be harder to be involved in what God is doing through the Gospel of Jesus Christ if it becomes increasingly more difficult to take care of one’s family.

That the τὴν ἐνεστῶσαν ἀνάγκην is more a matter of circumstances is implied by Paul’s instructions in 36-38. By encouraging people to remain unmarried but keep their fiancee (literally: virgin/παρθένος), Paul is not envisioning a permanent, enduring state of affairs. A time may come where the stress and trials of life would make marriage easier. However, for the time being, there are struggles that are being faced. It is not unlike God’s instructions for the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 16, which may be somewhere in the back of Paul’s mind as some who himself sees himself a bit like Jeremiah,3 although the emotional tone and description of the problems in Jeremiah 16 and 1 Corinthians 7 are very different. In fact, if one wants to get a bit into personal psychological analysis, which is a highly tenuous thing to do with ancient texts, Paul’s own identification with Jeremiah may be the source for Paul’s concern about the marriage in the context of the ongoing struggle and its building tension. 

In other words, Paul’s commending of celibacy are words that may be very relevant whenever the Gospel of Jesus Christ is challenging oppressive sociopolitical societies and cultures. Believers will often be thrown into a crisis from the trials that they will face, leading to the possibility of division of one’s attention and concern.

However, it should also be noted that celibacy is not presented as an option simply because there is an ongoing struggle. Paul commends it because by remaining unmarried, one can give undivided attention to the Lord. The ongoing struggle only makes that route a much easier route to consider if one can handle it.

To that end, Paul’s instructions on marriage and celibacy are often at risk of being overly spiritualized or being presented as a fixed paradigm to make sense of marriage in all circumstances, when in fact Paul is much more pragmatic about his instructions given the circumstances the Gospel of Christ has created. Jesus’ words on about marriage in Matthew 19 are much more broad sweeping about the goodness and value of life-long celibacy. Meanwhile, Paul is more so commending this way of life as being even more advantageous in light of the upcoming difficulties, but primarily in a circumstantial manner. In Paul’s mind, it is best to forego any plans for marriage for the present moment if one has control of themselves. We might could imagine Paul’s instruction being understood along the lines of “now is not the right time to make such a big life decision, so wait on it for a time when the dust settles and then you can see more clearly the life set before you.”


Developing a sense of the supra-mundane

February 18, 2020

Anyone who knows me knows that my theological reflections have much to owe from NT Wright.3

Put differently, it might be appropriate to describes Wright’s argument as boiling down to the premise that we should be thinking about new creation is changing things such that what might have been the abnormal at one point is no longer abnormal, that there is a fundamental change in the scope of all creation when Jesus was raised from the dead. To think about natural and supernatural in light of the new creation being inaugurated in the resurrection is to essentially posit a static universe with the mostly absentee landlord God who occasionally comes by for a visit to pop his head in to say hello and make sure everything is nice and tidy.

Such a transformation of reality can not be possibly understood with the metaphysical assumptions of modern materialism, as the idea that the nature of creation is changing would present some uncertainty to some of the undergirding assumptions of science since its ascendancy with Newton: that the fundamental makeup of the universe is static and unchanging such that we can develop and discern timeless, regular laws about all that exists. Perhaps in practice this is incredibly messy and untenable, but science has long worked under this basic assumption that given enough information, time, and brain power, one could discern the immutable laws of reality, replacing the immutable God with the immutable universe. Not without any reasonable warrants for such a conclusion, however, because there are many, many, many things that stay the same the more things changes. When we adopt the atomic paradigm of the philosopher Democritus, who influences Epicurus, that suggests the world can be broken down and analyzed in terms of its smaller parts, we do see great regularity within these smaller points such that they can be represented with mathematical precision.

It is important to note, however, that undergirding this sense of atomism isn’t an intrinsic sense of the world as it really is, but certain assumptions about the relationship between those things that change and those things that stay the same and how to go about orchestrating our understanding of the two. The presocratic philosopher Parmenides suggested that all change was illusion by arguing change would require something to come from nothing. Atomist such as Leucippus and then Democritus offered another perspective: one can account for the changing and unchanging nature of the world by suggesting that the smallest parts what exists, that is “atoms,” are unchanging, even as the configuration of these “atoms” in larger blocks do regularly change. Even as they reject Parmenidies ultimately conclusions, their analysis is still trapped by the need to assume immutability is the default nature of the world.

While what we told call “atoms” do not have the property of invariability, the basic assumption that the universe is fundamentally the same throughout time in virtue of the regular behavior of the smallest known particles permeates the modern sense of time and change. Even as this analytic framework has proved immensely useful in addressing many strictly empirical questions, there is still the tendency to get cause up in the ever present Parmenidean assumption that our reality as a whole is fundamentally unchanging in its most fundamental sense, whatever that is, and our perceptions of change are more superficial and primarily owing to our ignorance.

While most scientists would recognize that their scientific methodology does not deny that changes do occur, to suggest that reality is not fundamentally unchanging, but rather it is that which is changing is more fundamental, would wreck some havoc with scientific methodology, placing its conclusions under a persistent yet not necessarily boisterous ‘skepticism’ that would render the necessary assumption of continuity for scientific knowledge in question. The point being is that beyond just the Epicurean worldview; most any sense of atomism that thinks the world can be made sense of by understanding its smallest, individual and immutable parts would find the idea of God’s inauguration of new creation as a threat to these implicit, undergirding assumptions, even if one could still otherwise affirm the overall validity and truthfulness of scientific theories and knowledge built upon this bottom-up understanding from the parts to the whole.

Therefore, to divide up the natural and the supernatural would actually entail us dividing our understandings of events in the world to by made sense by one of two ways of thinking. The natural is to be understood by the bottom-up, parts-into-the-whole mode of analysis, which requires direct and regular observation and precise measurement of the parts to understand how everything fits together. Then, the supernatural entails a suspension of this bottom-up thinking to see the top-down analysis where God as a being who has intention and purpose does something dramatic in the world that are understood as miraculous events as a whole (what happens does not naturally emerge from the smaller parts doing what they do). More than just the Epicurean division of heaven and earth, there is the actual division of how we think about the world and how we think about God.

But, what if our thinking abut God and nature is more an epistemic matter rather than truly a matter of *clearly definable* metaphysical distinctions between nature and God.4 What if “nature” is more so a designation of a specific type of information we use to make sense of the world that the scientific method and other similar methods of knowledge construction are reliable for? On the same token, what is “supernatural” refers more so to those tremendous events that we can not readily make sense of through a scientific or scientific-like epistemology that promote a strong sense of God, or on some occasions the demonic, having their hand involved in it? In other words, what if the metaphysical ideas latent in our understanding of the natural and the supernatural are more so simply deeply assumed paradigms that influence how we come to generate knowledge and understanding about these specific type of events?

If that is the case, then we are left not really be able to draw a strict boundary between the “natural” and the “supernatural” in terms of the reality of these things, but only in terms of how we approach them for knowledge. If then, it is the case that God can be involved in the “natural” then we are left with an interesting question: how can be identify God’s actions in the world around us? Should we just start arbitrary saying “This is God’s healing here” and “this is a small miracle there?” Certainly, if our only goal is gratitude to God, we can do this, but if we want to recognize that there is something profoundly different about the ‘miracle’ of the resurrection that is not the case about some of the more mundane events we praise God for, how can we bring together these epistemic conceptions of the natural and the supernatural?

I would put forward there is a category we can refer to as the supramundane, in which what has happened is understandable in some manner from a scientific point of view, while at the same time believing and recognizing a degree of uniqueness in the event attributable to God. These things operate somewhere between the thresholds of the blurry line between those things understandable by science and those things that have the marks of also being understandable by faith in God.5

If there are events that can be legitimately understood as the supramundane, then we have a way of making sense of Wright’s understanding of the new creation and the changing of the way things are in the resurrection and not accepting the Epicurean metaphysics. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has launched a new trajectory in history in which the supramundane is become more regular, to the point that the supramundane is becoming more possible and, as a consequence of its increasing possibility and even accomplishment by human ingenuity, it seen more as mundane and natural. None of these supramundane events are blocked off from some degree of scientific observation and understanding, at least in theory.

Put differently, the resurrection of Jesus Christ has enabled humanity to engage in a new possibilities and transformations previously impossible. The metaphysics behind this possibility don’t have to be clearly articulated for it to be a useful framework to consider how earth and the natural converges with heaven and the supernatural. If we have (a) good warrants for the usefulness of scientific understanding and (b) good warrants to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, and (c) do not wish to succumb to an Epicurean dualism, then the concept of the supramundane as something that passes the threshold of the natural but yet is in some degree comprehensible in terms of our ‘natural’ epistemology can hold these three together.

This isn’t a biblical way of analyzing the matter at hand. However, the Biblical worldview on its own terms does not have the cognitive resources to provide a robust account for the great usefulness of scientific knowledge, even if it doesn’t automatically rule it out either. The idea of modern science neither inherently fits nor conflicts with the Biblical worldview. The concept of supramundanity can help to bridge the implicit worldviews of the OT and the NT with the usefulness of science. At the same time, the concept also has a potential useful for recognizing something important within the Gospels and Jesus. The miracles that Jesus performed, the various healings, exorcisms, etc. can be understood as supramundane events that were intending to point towards the sign of signs and miracles of miracles, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as they all bear the hallmarks of God’s direct activity, even as the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a unique event in itself (even the resurrection of Lazarus was not of the same manner). Other miracles are not intended to simply be signs of the “supernatural” and of God but that they are rather foretastes of God’s dramatic inaugurations of His Kingdom, both in terms of the supramundanity of Jesus’ powerful signs as foretastes of the resurrection and the supramundanity of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as a foretaste of the fully inaugurated kingdom of God.


Why theology needs nature

February 17, 2020

Want to make a Barthian theologian cry with great weeping and mourning? Utter the words “natural theology” and you will witness a lot of intellectual turmoil and rationalizing that is only surpassed by those who think Trump is God’s appointed political savior of the United States.

I kid, mostly about Barthian theologians as many of them have more than a hint of sanity to them. For instance, I have a high degree of respect and apprecation for the thinking Alan and Andrew Torrance, two of my teachers at the University of St. Andrews, for their ability to critically and reflectively think through matters of Christian faith and theology within the Barthian theological tradition. This is because, for a long time, I have had a high degree of respect for Barthian theology and have been influenced by some of the ideas, even as I felt some pushback against parts of the intellectual *system* of Barthian theology. There was something very important in Barth’s Nein! to natural theology, even as I also felt the response would in some contexts be excessive and has spawned unthinking reflexes in some of his less critically reflective theological progeny. The influence of natural theology in Christianity has often had the effect of looking more like Roman Stoicism that could lightly criticize Roman power while ultimately buttressing the whole system as part of the order of things. One need to look no further than the natural ‘ethic’ of exceptionalist, economic materialism that conservative American Christians embrace that have contributed to the tendency to rationalize that Trump is God’s agent for the United States to see how natural theology, often implicit, can become a poison in the Church.1 This natural theology in right-wing Christianity is evident in how you would hear many of them talk about the “order of creation.” I am reminded of a Twitter ‘conversation’ I had with a conservative, Christian, aspiring politician who talked about protecting the natural order when it came to the family.

The problem of natural theology, or at least the way it is usually done, is that it has a way of leading us to rationalize the present order of things in such a way that we can begin to treat any and all change or deviance from the perceived ‘order’ as dangerous. In is important to state that while I think this is a deep problem, there are reasons to be concerned about change and deviance, as most, but not all, forms of change and deviance brought about by human agents would cause more harm than good. Progress is implanted in the human imagination, but the human mind and emotions have little capacity to effectively realize the dreams of progress as our minds and hearts can not comprehend the totality of all there that can influence what is happening, either to support our dreams or to work against them. We can seek to change things a little bit better for ourselves by finding the nooks and crannies of life that aren’t controlled by others and then learning to see what does and does not work, but widespread sweeping changes for the better is something the human mind and heart doesn’t have the wisdom to accomplish on its own. In other words, most human efforts to create change are either too small to make widespread change or are more likely to be highly dangerous. Consequently, concerns about the present order of things are often grounded in a somewhat realistic fear of the dangers sweeping change. Nevertheless, even if one has a good warrant for one’s beliefs, it doesn’t mean the beliefs themselves are true and good. Most forms of natural theology that has been practiced by the influential strands of theology in the West has a way of making us rationalize the present order of things to the extent of vilifying all change. Prototypical forms of natural theology can blind us to the goodness of some changes to the present state of affairs.

Nevertheless, while I think a fear of natural theology is ethically warranted, to excise anything we can associate with thinking about nature from theology is not a true and good conclusion to draw from this ethical warrant. In the moment of living amid immediate, widespread murder and oppression like Barth, a decisive “Nein!” may be all that can be offered. When nature is “colonized” by oppressive institutions, one should not really trust the present order of things and our perception of them to be good, although the very power of oppressive ideology is to subtly form and determine the very criteria we use to determine goodness. Furthermore, even if in that situation one has the eyes to see and the ears to hear how natural theology should work, such institutions would respond to the challenge by either snuffing out their speech or by trying to portray them as more similar and different and make minimal concessions to their points, thereby trying to turn their critic into a support for they agenda without really changing the fundamental ideological apparatus by which the legitimate their political power and rule. In that case “Nein!” is the only answer that someone may seek that can be offered to successfully challenge an oppressive ideology rooted in a natural theology. Nevertheless, such a response is more circumstantial and we should not be apt to treat every instance of natural theology as evidence of the reality of oppressive power and control. In other words, just because there seems to be an implicit natural theology that undergirds political support of Trump, it doesn’t mean we should see our present age as existing in such an *immediately* dangerous state of affairs, even if we should be vigilant against it, nor that we should just reflexively and unreflectively reject thinking about nature in theology.

Why should we still include nature within the realm of theology? Because we are humans and any pretense that we do theology apart from nature is a foolish dream that denies our reality as embodied creatures, whose thinking and feeling are intimately connected to pulse of life. Because oppression isn’t rooted in natural theology, but in oppressive control that uses any and all forms of thinking as sheep’s clothing to mask the wolf, whether it be natural theology or revelation. In fact, I would put forward that a theology of “revelation”2 without an appropriate place for nature is a potentially even more insidious form of ideological control, as it invests authority and power into some person, idea, etc. that can not be verified or confirmed by others; “revelation” as an ideological apparatus is even less susceptible to accountability than natural theology is. It is more insidious as the explicit content of “revelation” may appear to be the furthest thing from nature, but yet the very concepts embedded in the communication of “revelation” and the very way these concepts and principles are employed by people are influenced and determined, if not controlled, by our experience of nature. “Revelation” without thinking about nature is more like a used car salesman telling people “don’t look under the hood of the car.”

However, there is better reason for including thinking about nature in theology that is more focused on what is good: because God loves us. God does not love some ethereal abstraction of us; God does not love some spirit or soul while hating the body; God does not love only our potential future selves. God loves us in our embodied state. God created us in our embodied state. Theology without nature is to intellectually separate us from the very good thing that God created in us. To be sure, God does not love how our embodied life is presently functioning. God doesn’t love all the ways we are attached to certain things. Even as God loves creation, God does not love the way nature works itself out in the present state of affairs. However, if God loves creation, then any understanding of God in relationship to us and creation has to include nature within its scope.

In fact, even if we don’t accept this conclusion, the truth is our theology will be influenced by nature. When we perceive and come to focus on God’s revelation of Himself in crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ, we do not suddenly become spiritual tabula rasas that interpret and comprehend Christ fully as He is in role as the second person of the Trinity, even if we accept and believe in Him as the Logos made flesh. We interpret and comprehend him in terms of concepts of human life and death drawn, developed, and formed by nature. Our interpretations and comprehensions of Him are not perfect and should not be regarded as the final, theological explication on the Word made flesh, but that in faith we are drawn into an ongoing transformation of the criterions and categories we use to understand Christ through the leading of the Spirit. Nevertheless, it is in our state of nature that we understand the Logos who came to us in the form of creation.

It is through this interplay of nature and revelation as epistemic sources (albeit epistemic sources that are used and related to differently) for theological perception and reflection that we come to faith in God in Christ and that our sense of creation becomes transformed. It isn’t that nature gives us some confident, secure knowledge about God that we can then use unreflectively as axiomatic for theology, ethics, politics, etc. It can’t possibly do that as God is holy, holy, holy and therefore different from creation in some aspects that are fundamentally important as it pertains to our understanding. But, we can find in nature, particularly in the weakness and brokenness of nature, the place where God’s revelation transforms us, both in living life and our reflective understanding of this life. It is in nature that God demonstrates Himself as Savior, Redeemer, and Lord, not apart from it, and so it is only with nature that we can testify and legitimately say that Jesus is Savior, Redeemer, and Lord.

It is through this faith then, and the wisdom from God in Christ that emerges, that gives us then the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the heart to comprehend so as to *begin* to discern between the good changes to the present order that are ultimately coming from God and the various changes, of varying degrees of goodness, neutrality, or badness, that ultimately come from the hearts of humans. As our sense of nature is transformed in coming to understand the Word made flesh through the Spirit, we can then *begin* to discern within nature where God’s redemption is bringing life to death, strength where there is weakness, hope where there is despair, even if our discernment may still be imperfect.

However, to clarify, I would prefer not to call this inclusion of nature in theology as “natural theology,” as that title seems to suggest one can do distinctly Christian theology with nature as the only epistemic source. I don’t know what phrase or term to use to describe this role of thinking and reflecting about nature in theology, but I would push back against any label that subtly and implicitly leads us to regard nature and revelation as being in some intrinsic opposition, either in a dualistic good-vs-evil separation or a Hegelian-like synthesis of the two. Our understanding of nature and our understanding of revelation may be opposed to each other, but that doesn’t mean the theological thinking that relies upon nature as an epistemic source and the theological thinking that relies upon revelation as an epistemic source are inherently antagonistic with each other, but an unrelenting perception of antagonism of the two is perhaps reflective of our ignorance, the way we were taught or, God forbid, perhaps the hostility and antagonism laid up within our own heart. To those whose hearts are entrenched in this last state of affairs, I can only say: God didn’t reveal a religion and theology of “revelation” as apart from nature, but God revealed Himself in Christ in creation and humanity, through creation and humanity, and for creation and humanity.

Re-prototyping wisdom: 1 Corinthians 1.30, Stoic philosophy, and Christ the wisdom from God

February 16, 2020

Wisdom and philosophy. If you were to ask someone on the street what the difference between wisdom and philosophy was, you would probably get a response that would treat wisdom as something practical and philosophy as something closer to theory or an imaginary cognitive run-off about impractical subjects. While this would be something of a stereotyping mischarachterization of what people we consider wise do and what people who are called philosophers do, there are some good reasons for this subtly misleading stereotype: the semantics sense of wisdom and philosophy represent our way of making sense of reflective thinking directed towards (a)  one’s behaviors in a way that have good implications now and into the future (wisdom) or (b) the analysis of ideas and concepts insulated from any significant, immediate concerns of normal life so as to think on specific ideas and develop them out in the abstract (philosophy).

This is not entirely unlike philosophy in the Hellenistic world that the Apostle Paul inhabited. When he wrote 1 Corinthians, wisdom and philosophy were distinguishable from each other in one way: philosophy sought to understand wisdom. However, one of the results of this intellectual state of affairs is that philosophies often butted heads as to what wisdom was and even sometimes who could be considered to be wise.

It does need to be stated that wisdom and philosophy were not seen to be so different in the ancient day. Whereas today philosophy has abstract concepts such as truth, knowledge, meaning, etc. as its focus, Hellenistic philosophy took wisdom itself as its object of focus. Modern philosophy often pushes towards meta-cognition about our meta-cognition about life, thinking, existence, etc.; Hellenistic philosophy was meta-cognition about the more concrete, experiential life of successful, virtuous people. Simply put, modern philosophy can regularly trend towards to taking itself as its purpose for existing as an almost entirely self-created intellectual enterprise; Hellenistic philosophy shared a closer affinity to the more practical intellectual thinkers of our day such as Karl Marx who wanted change the world for the better: their intellectual resources were dedicated to the betterment of human life and activity.

In many ways the emergence of Marxism and its intellectual child, critical theory, both of which has a specific praxis of human life as its driving goal, in the West is the act of bring wisdom and philosophy closer to each other as it was originally in Hellenistic philosophy. There are still some dramatic differences to be sure. Hellenistic philosophy took human virtue and good action as its object of focus, whereas Marxism and post-Marxists take economics, politics, and identity as its primary object of focus. But in one critical way they are similar: their intellectual focus is on the rightly lived life through bringing intellectual activity to bear more directly onto the present state of affairs of life.

In Paul’s day, the equivalent of modern critical theorists, who have the ears of many political leaders, were the Stoic philosophers. By no means unanimously accepted by everyone with political power, their influence was deeply embedded into the early history of Imperial Rome, with many Stoics having obtained roles as advisers to the Roman Caesar. Much as critical theory today supplies the set of default moral and intellectual categories that dominate our conflicts on politics and ethics in our present day, so the Roman Stoics would have had a similar type of influence in their day.

A close comparison of 1 Corinthians with the philosophical language and concepts of the Stoics, and a little bit of the Epicureans, would confirm the way that Stoic philosophy was in the air and in the water. These affinities in 1 Corinthians and in the rest of the Pauline epistles has lead some scholars, such as Troels Engberg-Pedersen, to emphasize the similarities between early Christianity and Stoicism as if the former had an intellectual influence on the latter. However, such arguments have not, to my knowledge, sufficiently accounted for an alternative explanation: that some of the more basic language and concepts of Stoic philosophy had become the default intellectual register and worldview of the day that to even talk about intellectual manners in a comprehensible way to people in that culture would entail using that language to some degree. For instance, to talk to the Corinthians about wisdom, Paul functionally has to adopt language that resembles Stoicism and other Hellenistic philosophies because that is the way the Corinthians thought about wisdom.

This hypothesis explains the similarities of language and concepts between Paul and the Stoics, while at the same time making greater space for the discontinuity between the two without taking the stronger stance of C. Kavin Rowe in One True Life, who  regards Stoicism and early Christianity as largely rival traditions. In other words, there is a certain influence upon Pauline (and maybe even Johannine) discourse in terms of influencing the collection of salient intellectual language and concepts through various societal and cultural means of dissemination, but that there is a distinct language and thought community among early Jewish Christians (alongside other Jews who resisted greater cultural accommodation), whose thought had become more dominated by the Rabbi Jesus who they worshipped and by how they can connect what happened to Jesus with the Scriptures. To this extent, Paul inhabits a cultural ‘Stoicism,’ even as the foundation of his way of thinking and life emerges from his understanding of Jesus as the Messiah.

What would be one implication of this hypothesis? That Paul could use ideas and concepts familiar with Hellenistic philosophy, but present them with a radically different understanding that emerged from his faith in Jesus as Lord and Messiah. This is precisely what I want to suggest is happening in 1 Corinthians 1.30.

For the average person walking the street, when they thought of wisdom, they would have thought it referred to how to live the good, virtuous life. This pulled back from the progenitor of Classical and Hellenistic philosophy, Socrates, who thought that a virtuous person was someone who had knowledge. As a consequence of this basic ethical premise that propagated through Hellenistic philosophy, philosophers and teachers of wisdom would be much closer to what we consider preachers to be today, with Socrates as the ideal example of a wise teacher and sage. Often, it was Socrates who was lifted up as the exemplar of wisdom and virtue, including most notably by many of the Stoics. Meanwhile, even as Stoic philosophy had three branches in terms of physics, logic, and ethics, it was the prevailing assumption that the first two were in service to the latter.

By contrast, Paul portrayal of God’s wisdom 1 Corinthians 1.30 pushes against this Stoic portrayal of wisdom in two ways. Firstly,  using language that echoes Proverbs 8, he casts Jesus as the source of wisdom, subtly contrasting Jesus with the Socratic exemplar. Portraying Jesus as the source of God’s wisdom in contrast to Socrates is further inferred from 1 Corinthians 2.16, where Paul speaks of the mature having the mind of Christ, whereas the Stoics would have lifted up the reasoning of Socrates as a model.

However, even more subtly, Paul gives a broader account of what wisdom is. He predicates certain qualities of the nominative noun σοφία through apposition via three further more nominative nouns in the phrase δικαιοσύνη τε καὶ ἁγιασμὸς καὶ ἀπολύτρωσις. The first predicate, δικαιοσύνη, is used extensively in the Septuagint would have been a close approximation to the Greek concept of virtue, αρετή. There would be some subtle differences as δικαιοσύνη pertains more to God and people’s obligations to each other, whereas αρετή was closer to our idea of character, but the differences are subtle as δικαιοσύνη could be considered an enduring trait of a person similar to αρετή.

However, it is the next two predicates, ἁγιασμὸς and ἀπολύτρωσις that provide a broader vision of wisdom than the traditional Greek might have been accustomed to with an emphasis of ethics. Paul designates these two predicates as being significant and out of the norm by the phrase τε καὶ, which may be equivalent to the phrase “and also” that expresses a further continuation that somehow goes beyond expectations.

By including ἁγιασμὸς as part of wisdom, Paul is intimating to the Corinthian believers that wisdom incorporates the cultic sphere of life, not just the ethical sphere. This no doubt finds it origins in Levitical prescriptions to be holy as God is holy, the significance of which was primarily in regards to Israel’s relationship to God’s presence among them. In other words, God’s wisdom pertains not just to how you live ethically, but one’s worship and dedication of life to God through cultic behaviors. We see this theme come up in 1 Corinthians 6.12-20 and 8.7-13 where Paul addresses temple prostitution and eating meat at the pagan temples. Both of these behaviors have negative effects on believers. Engaging in sexual relationships with temple prostitutes causes one to sin against one’s own body, whereas eating meat at the temple risk damaging the faith of one’s fellow believers.

Holiness and sacrality was not usually consider to belong to the domain of philosophy. Much as we might segment faith from politics or faith from science today, there was a a separation of sorts between philosophy and cultic ritual in the ancient world. While philosophy could occasionally foray into matters of the temple cult, it was not a common theme. When philosophy did engage in temple rituals, it was usually to interpret the significance of these rituals and their corresponding myths rather than to give any cultic instruction like a temple priest might. However, for Paul, God’s wisdom includes very specific instructions about what type of cultic rituals to participate in and not and how to participate in those one should, such as the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11.17-34).

As a brief aside, it bears mentioning here that the English equivalent of ἁγιασμὸς in sanctification can convey some theological ideas, particularly in my own Wesleyan circles. While I as an aspiring theologian recognize that God is actively at work in our lives to transform us and it is important to recognize this, I don’t think Paul’s usage of ἁγιασμὸς is intended to refer to God’s ongoing action to make us holy, but rather to the way people themselves engage in specific type of behaviors, particularly of those of significance in God’s eyes. We see this in 1 Thessalonians 4.3, where Paul describes ἁγιασμὸς/sanctification as pertaining to the way one engages in sexual behavior. Certainly, Paul would attribute God’s action to guiding people in holiness, but Paul thinks of holiness primarily in terms of human behaviors that have profound, wide-reaching, and subtle significance for our relationship to God and with each other.1

The third and final predicate of wisdom that Paul gives is ἀπολύτρωσις. This one is a bit more complicated to explain, as it doesn’t relate to a specific domain of life such as moral virtue or cultic ritual, but rather pertains to the relationship of people to the present order of things. The Stoics believed that there was an order in the universe that “God” created and that through the use of reason, people could understand that order and become wise. For instance, the Stoic theory of oikeiosis started from a basic life principle that we have from birth, that is our relationship to our families and extending this familial love outward to increasingly more and more people until one includes the the whole world. In other words, there exists within us as humans a certain moral principle that once we find, we just need to extend further and further. In other words, ethical development in Stoicism is a linear, continuous narrative of progress in one’s own life. The net effect of this is that Stoics were often propagators of the present political order, even if they could recognize the excesses and abuse of the emperor, because they found the present order of things to be wise based upon God’s providence.

So, when Paul talks about ἀπολύτρωσις, he provides a stark antithesis to the linear ethical progress and accommodation to the present order. While the term and its cognate ἀπολύω were not used much in the LXX or OG OT, ἀπολύω did get used more frequently in Second Temple literature, particularly in the Maccabean literature where it gets used in a variety of ways, primarily relating to personal and societal changes of status and position in regards to political realities and punishment. However, there was no real single, fixed sense of ἀπολύω, but rather had a rather flexible sense of change or freedom that could be extended to various types of events, such as acquittal from charges and freedom from penalty, the taking of a person’s life, breaking people out of captivity, the dead being freed from their sins, etc. The two most significant points to take not is that 1) most uses had connotations of human power and control with their usage and 2) in 2 Maccabees 12.45 it is used with regards to the sins of the dead in the context of discussion of the resurrection. If one could take one basic overarching idea that undergirds the usage of ἀπολύω without regarding this as the semantic sense of the word itself, it relates to new statuses and realities that are discontinuous with the old statuses and realities.

On this point them, Paul’s account of God’s wisdom has a stark point of antithesis with human wisdom. Whereas the human wisdom of the Stoics was ultimately situated in the present order of the world, God’s wisdom was a world-transforming wisdom that was making the present order of the world pass away (1 Cor. 7.31b). This transformation was to ultimately culminate in the universal resurrection where Christ overcame and put under his feet all the enemies that held people and society in chains, including most notably sin and death (1 Cor. 15).

Having identified δικαιοσύνη and ἁγιασμὸς and ἀπολύτρωσις, we can begin to point out that each of these three predicates of God’s wisdom simultaneously correspond to and distinguish themselves from the Stoic branches of philosophy in ethics, logic, and physics, respectively. That δικαιοσύνη corresponds to ethics is obvious. Their primary difference is that δικαιοσύνη starts from relationship and obligations and then proceeds to the character of the person, whereas the αρετή of Hellenistic and Stoic philosophy started from the person as an individual moral and reasoning agent and then proceeded to analyze one’s relationships through the lens of this individually cultivated reasoning.

However, ἁγιασμὸς standing in contrast to logic might not seem obvious at first glance until one recognizes that Paul’s portrayal of people’s engagement in cultic ritual in 6.12-20 and 8.7-13 has epistemic consequences in terms of knowledge. Stoic logic included what we consider to be the philosophical field of epistemology today. Furthermore, one’s actions in taking the Lord’s Supper was to be done by making the appropriate distinctions (διακρίνω) as expressed in 1 Cor. 11.31. Logic was concerned with such types of judgments and discernment. In a sense, ἁγιασμὸς provides the basics of a “Christian logic” that, when rightly understood and developed, helps people to understand God’s wisdom. To that end, the cultic life of appropriate worship is a necessary component to Christian reasoning about God’s wisdom and purposes.

Then, ἀπολύτρωσις may be said to refer to the physics of discontinuity, whereas Stoic account of physics assumed a fundamentally static, persistent order of the world. Those who have faith in and love for God through Christ and the Spirit are being given the eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to comprehend that things that God is doing that is not yet visibly manifest, whereas Stoic accounts of physics relied upon amassing multiple observations of the world. In short, God’s wisdom gives insight into things that are not yet, where the human wisdom of Stoicism understood the temporal, perishing things of the present state of affairs.

In other words, Paul presents God’s wisdom in Christ as a rival philosophy to the prevailing categories of Greco-Roman philosophy in terms of ethics, logic, and physics. While not as strong as Rowe’s suggestion that early Christianity and Stoicism inhabited two very different language communities, there is a fundamental difference\ in terms of the overall, intellectual framework and accounts of wisdom between the two. The person and life of Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Scriptures presents the exemplar of exemplars for what type of a person God calls people to be. In so doing, Paul cuts against the most revered figure of philosophy of that day, Socrates. Paul himself may be even said to engage in a little bit of Socratic irony from 1 Corinthians 2.1-5 to 2.6-16, but with a twist where Paul hides his knowledge when first coming to the Corinthians to allow people to have faith in God rather than him as a wise person, whereas Socrates hid his knowledge to frustrate and gain an intellectual and pedagogical advantage over his opponents. In so doing, Paul’s discourse attempts to do something quite profound: re-prototype the ideal figure of wisdom and its fundamental make up to the person of Christ understood in light of Israel’s story, especially as told in the Scriptures.



The Incarnation as God's transformation of humanity

February 14, 2020

There is a regular idea, although I wouldn’t necessarily call it common, that you will hear bandied around in Christian circles. It can be summarized by this pithy phrase: “Jesus Christ teaches us how to be human.”  What we see and understand in Jesus is what we are ourselves are called to be as humans made in the image of God, so the thinking goes. We can call this the prototype human model I want to put forward something a bit different, although related: Jesus Christ shows us how to realize God’s purposes for humanity. We can call this the prototype redemption model. There are a couple reasons I think this is a better way to understand the relationship of the Incarnation to our humanity and God’s creation and then I will unpack its significance.

Firstly, the Jesus Christ as the prototype human model does something very subtle. It flattens out the course of Jesus’ life to simply being an expression of ideal humanity, as if everything Jesus does from birth to ascension is representative of what is means to be fully living about God’s intentions for humanity. Jesus does not develop and grow, especially within the years of ministry recorded in the Gospel. This picture of Jesus is a static model of a person that simply progresses through the narrative based upon the way his disciples, onlookers, and his enemies response to him. Jesus and His humanity is a fixed point in the story.

There are a couple reasons against this fixed view of Jesus. Hebrews 5.8-10 strongly suggests that Jesus developed, grew, and learned through the course of his ministry, particularly through His suffering. It specifically says of Jesus that he had to “learn obedience” and was “made perfect/complete” (τελειωθεὶς) as a condition for our salvation. This suggests something quite significant: Jesus was not “complete” during his ministry. Some might go so far to interpret this suggestion to say that Jesus was a sinner, either to suggest the preacher of Hebrews endorsed this or to consider this interpretation of Hebrews 5.8-10 as absurd based upon its theological implications. That isn’t what is being suggested by the preacher, however. Christ’s perfection was in his sufferings, as if to state that Jesus Himself had to grow to fully realize the purpose and mission His Father had for Him as the Son to be the high priest in the order of Melchizedek.

The point being is that we can not look at any snapshot or series of snapshots of Jesus life prior to the cross and say “this is what it means to be human.” Without the suffering of the cross, there is no completion of God’s purposes for His Son.

If at this point we want to maintain holding onto the prototype human model of Jesus, then we are left with a real ethical problem: it is to suggest that the way ot be human is to suffer and to die on a cross. It is here where people pursue suffering and martyrdom for its own sake. May this never be the case!

This is where the prototype redemption model comes into place. Jesus’ life is a demonstration of how ourselves can make the journey of redemption from the curses that come with being human in this present age and begin to realize God’s purposes for humanity in our life through conforming our life to the pattern of Jesus. Jesus is the prototype of how we can ourselves come to learn and be completed ourselves. This idea doesn’t need to suggest that Jesus had sin, but only that Jesus took on human nature with the predilection and temptation towards sin. However, ultimately, the purpose of redemption is not to get rid of sin in our lives per se, but it it is to bring about God’s new creation, which by implication makes an end to sin. To that end, Jesus experience of learning obedience through suffering is something our own lives can share in common with His: we are following Him to experience and live out what is means to be in the image of God.

The point of this model is to suggest something different. The imitation of Jesus is not about being on the right side of the ethical register, as the well intended WWJD bracelets tried to get people to do. The imitation of Jesus is about the transformation of our own lives, which can only be accomplished in us by the same Spirit that came upon Jesus at His baptism. Everything we see in the person of Jesus in the Gospels is the transformation of humanity in process that has found its full culmination but we have yet to see Jesus in His full glory, because according to our faith, Jesus has ascended into heaven. So too is our transformation into the image of Jesus Christ in process that will not be fully culminated until we see Jesus in His glory.

There is a stark ethical implication of this view, however. We simply lack the capacity to be able to adequately describe and prescribe what it means to be fully living out God’s purposes as being in the image of God. Such knowledge can only be had be seeing Jesus as He is in his full glory, but being on this side of the second coming, we simply lack the necessary epistemic source to give us this understanding. Furthermore, as the entirety of the life of Christ in the Gospels never gives a comprehensive snapshot of the image of God, we can not create a all-encompassing set of ethical principles and rules that can fully gives a vision for what God’s purposes are. Rather, in Jesus Christ, we have the glimpse of what God’s redemption of us in our embodied nature looks like. We can certainly rule out certain types of behaviors and activities as evil and sin that are entirely far from the heart of God. We can even say that through the Spiritual transformation of our lives we can have an internal sense of good and evil that can be a reliable, but not necessarily perfect, guide to what God seeks for human life. At the end of the day, however, there are no ethical principles or rules that we can derived from Jesus and that we can then separate from Him that we can use as the basis for Christian worship, theology, ethics, etc. Only by our lives being brought into conformity to the life of Christ through the Holy Spirit can we even begin to have the beginnings of a practical comprehension of what it means to be made in the image of God.

The advantage of prototype redemption model over the prototype human model is that it can simultaneously account for Hebrews understanding that Jesus grew and learned Himself while also not making the suffering of the cross as central to the definition of what it means to be human. Rather, by being will to bear our cross in following Jesus (and if you are genuinely seeking to follow Jesus, suffering will come to you: you don’t need to seek it), we are instead embarking on a journey that brings us through the death of suffering into the life of hope and joy that reframes, revitalizes, and reintegrates a different sense of what it means to live life according to God’s will and purposes, both here and now and into the ongoing future.

This may seem abstract and esoteric, but it is so because it is trying to challenge a fundamental assumption that is a source of problems in modern theology: that we can simply look at Jesus and know what exactly it is that we as the Church need to be like and doing, that we can have transformation through abstraction of information apart from the imagination and emulation of the cross.

It was once said by Reinhold Niebuhr that the problem with liberal theology is that “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross. It could also be said that another problem with theology today is closer to a “A God who calls without cost brought people without suffering into a Kingdom without pain through a ministration of a Christ of a cross that is only borne by one person.” What is intellectually challenging is that the Kingdom without judgment and the Kingdom without pain are both images of theology developed in response to some distortions of Christian teaching. Liberal theology is in some ways a reaction against the often hated-filled images of God cast in some quarters. In a similar manner, a Kingdom without pain may seem palatable because some might be tempted to make suffering a virtue, which it isn’t, and we have seen that occasionally throughout church history. Both the Kingdom without judgment and the Kingdom without pain are safer theological options that avoid the obviously wrong pathways of hate-filled religion and masochistic religion. However, despite what they rightly reject, neither are able to give an adequate account of the whole of Scriptures, the Gospels, and the testimony and significance that the New Testament authors had of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

In the end, I would suggest the prototype redemption model provides a better lens to understanding the relationship of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ to the image of God. In Jesus’ life as a human, He faces the challenges of being human and overcomes them as the Son through the Spirit. When we come to Jesus in faith and follow Him through the Spirit who enables and guides us, we are set on that same transformation journey towards the goal of completion that Jesus first trekked on our behalf and in a way that we don’t have to go through all of what He went through, but that the Holy Spirit takes our own our faithfulness amidst suffering to form us into Christ, even as we ourselves do not experience our own crosses to the same extent that Jesus did.

Worship and epistemology

February 13, 2020

Since I am presently taking classes in Advanced Greek and Hebrew 2, which does not afford me as much time to research and exploring a wide array of topics, most blogs that I write over the next few months will be brief, but I still want to record for future usage ideas for me to come back to in the future, along with any benefit it could provide to anyone who happens upon my blog.

Today, during worship in Estes Chapel, we heard from Dr. Constance Cherry, Professor of Worship and Pastoral Ministry at Indiana Wesleyan University. She provided some interesting thoughts on the nature of worship, including the way that liturgy impacts belief, using the familiar three-fold categorization of the Christian life according to lex orandi, lex credendi, and lex vividendio (the way of prayer, the way of belief, and the way of life for those not familiar with them or Latin).

In reflecting on the sermon/talk, a thought stirred up within me from my research at the University of St. Andrews that delved into epistemology. In what way can we consider worship and epistemology to overlap? The polymath Michael Polanyi write a little bit about worship in Personal Knowledge. He says

Religion, considered as an act of worship, is an indwelling rather than an affirmation. God cannot be observed, any more than truth or beauty can be observed. He exists in the sense that He is to be worshipped and obeyed, but not otherwise; not as a fact—any more than truth, beauty or justice exist as facts. All these, like God, are things which can be apprehended only in serving them. The words ‘God exists’ are not, therefore, a statement of fact, such as ‘snow is white’, but an accreditive statement, such as ‘“snow is white” is true’, and this determines the kind of doubt to which the statement ‘God exists’ can be subjected.1

Now, Polanyi was no theologian, so these reflections certainly don’t merit being decisive in drawing and connection between worship and epistemology, but I want to highlight something that is significant in what Polanyi says: he says that religion is an ‘indwelling.’

However, before trying to ascribe explicit Christian theological significance to what Polayni says, it is important to note that he is using the word to describe a more general phenomenon of human knowledge than any sort of Pneumatological experience. He uses the term to describe the way people relate to the object of investigation and its knowledge base, such as the way astronomers make observations by “dwelling in astronomic theory.” 2 Polanyi’s usage of indwelling may at best be consider analogical to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but these two concepts are profile different phenomenon and ontological schemes.3

What I want to draw from Polayni’s reflection on worship and knowledge is this: worship is the place in which we simultaneously engage in the ‘theology’ of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, both in its explicit, articulated forms and its implicit nature built into the liturgy, that makes sense of the observations and experiences of our life in relation to God. While theology is not a theory, or at least it should not be, there is the sense in which theology provides the lens to make ‘observations’ about our lives as it pertains to the will of God.

Now, if this seems vaguely familiar to you who are philosophically trained, there is a good reason for it: it sounds a lot like Thomas Kuhn’s understanding of paradigms, to whom Kuhn acknowledged influenced from. The exact relationship isn’t important, but I point it out to draw a critical distinction between the idea of indwelling and the idea of paradigm. In the former, the theory impacts the cognitive action of making observation. In the latter, the theory determines the cognitive action of how people make sense of the observations.  While these two acts are related, they are critical distinctive in that indwelling is pushed more towards perceptual whereas paradigms lean more towards analysis.

It is important to understand the role of theology in worship more in terms of influencing the perceptual apparatus by which we make sense of experience.4 Theology in this sense provides us a sense of what we believe to be the purpose and significance of what God has done in Christ and through the Spirit in human history and our lives.

Allow me to give a specific example. Tuesday I had the chance to take part in a communion service in which the speaker taught us briefly on the idea of anamnesis. While it can be used in a few different settings, in Christian circles, it is primarily used to refer to the remembrance we make of the Lord’s death. In taking part of communion, it was seemingly like most any other communion service I had been to in which we set our eyes to the life and death of Jesus Christ. However, something interesting happened that afternoon. For those of you who don’t know, I have struggled with deeply embedded trauma over the years and and that afternoon and evening I had one of the strongest, most distinctive remembering of events of trauma in the past. Trauma, for those who don’t know, is essentially memories that have been so ‘powerfully’ encoded that it has been stored even in our bodies and the way the mind interacts with the body, even if our minds are not always aware of it. As the discussion on anamnesis brought us into a deeper focus on the death of Christ, it eventually ‘transferred’ to my own recollection of some of the deep traumatized pains of the past.

In this case, the theology of remembrance was a way of making sense of the experience of remembering my own past traumas. It wasn’t, however, that I simply had my mind cognitively primed toward remembering, though that may have been a factor, but that there was a conscious identification of my trauma with Christ’s suffering, or to be more precise, in Christ I perceived my own trauma and remembrance of it in the manner that I did. My indwelling (in the way Polanyi means it) in the act of worship through communion with an understanding of anamnesis, in obedience to Christ’s own to “do this in remembrance of me,” providing the ‘perceptual frame’ to experience, engage with, and understood my remembering of my past traumas in a particularly fresher manner.

Now, there is a certain assumption implicit in this way of understanding worship and knowledge. That theological knowledge delivers to us not deeper understanding about theological ontology, as if theology gives us a knowledge of God’s nature abstracted from creation, but that theological knowledge provides us insight (a) into God’s will for human life and creation in terms of redemption and new creation and (b) how we can receive that insight in Christ and the Holy Spirit. By suggesting that the remembrance of Christ’s own enables a particular form of perception of my own trauma, I am not reducing theology to an abstraction emerged from projected anthropology that then becomes reified in human experience, but rather I am suggesting that theology reframes and reforms anthropology, both in an understanding of anthropology in an abstract sense but also in the concrete sense of human experience. My own narrative understand of the death of Christ has formed and continues to form the way I relate to my own experiences of trauma, pain, suffering, etc.

This brings me to the seminal idea for understanding the relationship between worship and epistemology. Worship provides the theological apparatus as embedded in worship and liturgy that allows us to make sense of the work of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit in human lives and in all creation. To be clear, the reality of the cognitive indwelling of Polanyi is not by itself sufficient to deliver this statement as it also entails God’s action. Otherwise, we would simply be lost in a Feuerbachian project. However, assuming that in faith we have good warrants for believing in the power of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, we can see how the indwelling of the Holy Spirit engages with our cognitive indwelling in the theology embedded in worship to provide to make sense of human redemption and transform and the emergence of new creation. Worship whose theology has been properly ‘aligned’ to the God’s redemptive act in Jesus Christ enables, but does not deliver on its own terms, the capacity to perceive and understand the will and work of God. There is, of course, the potential for false-positives, where we see the work of God where it isn’t, but that is another thread for another time that I would simply respond to by saying that if God is real and actively in work in creation, God’s work is not contingent on our understanding it for it to occur.

There is much more to flesh out and think through, but it is a reflection from the blessing that came from the past couple days.

Truth as representation and calibration

February 8, 2020

Within epistemology, there are two broadly large camps that divide different views of what exactly knowledge is, especially as it pertains to epistemic justification. On the one hand, you have the traditional epistemic internalism that posits that knowledge is justified in virtue of specific perceptions, beliefs, etc. For example, to be justified in believing that person A is sitting in the library at table T (guess where I am currently writing this at the moment!), one would need to have specific cognitive access to some perception, testimony, etc. that functions as good evidence for that belief. However, if these specific types of evidence are not actively a part of one’s mental states and/or memory in forming one’s judgment, then one is not justified to believe as one does. In short, epistemic internalism makes justification contingent on a person’s own perspective. On the other hand, epistemic externalism is primarily defined by the reject of this basic premise, but allow that some conditions for justification of belief may fall outside of a person’s awareness.

While this is a very rough summary, I want to present an approximate theological reflection on this based upon 1 Corinthians 8. In that passage, I would make the argument that Paul is best understood as addressing a brand of thinking and conventions about knowledge that were largely influenced by Stoic philosophy.1 In a sense, Paul is addressing two types of ‘epistemologies’ (even though epistmeology was not separate disciple but was a part of philosophical field of discourse) that an best be described as differing in terms of internalism and externalism, except rather than addressing an issue that would fit under our idea of epistemic justification, Paul addresses knowledge in terms of its truth beairng properties.

On the one hand, there was the concern by some Corinthians to pursue knowledge/γνῶσις. Roughly speaking, one might consider this question of knowledge being influenced by Stoicism. One piece of evidence in favor of  this idea is that 1 Corinthians 8 may be consider to be roughly divided into three parts that correspond to the Stoic philosophical domains of Stoicism: logic, physics, and ethics in vss. 1-3, 4-6, and 7-13 respectively. For Stoicism, one pursue wisdom and became a sage by beginning to understand the world as it is and then using that knowledge to direct one’s actions in according to the physical nature of the universe. At least for some stoics, logic helped you to understand the physical nature of the cosmos, which then directed one’s ethical actions.

One pursued this knowledge through what were known as impression, roughly approximate to our own sense of perceptions, that were stamped onto the soul (though the soul was a corporal body for the Stoics and not immaterial). However, the person moving towards wisdom would avoid rashly assenting to any belief based upon a specific impression, but they would eventually move towards wisdom through rightly reasoning through all their impressions. In a sense, Stoic could not claim to have the knowledge that gave them wisdom apart from these impression, which would essentially make them fall under the label of epistemic internalists.

However, Paul warns against this basic account of knowledge for one basic reason: it fails to adequately understand and know God and other people. While it has been awfully tempted to see Paul discourse about being known by God and being concerned about one’s effect on other people as a simply relational and ethical rejoinder to this Stoic epistemology, Paul’s point is a bit broader than that. Firstly, in talk about the “weak” believers, Paul mentions their perceptions of those people who know (vs. 10). The effect of this is to suggest there is a perception that those who have “knowledge” do not have, which Paul then explains this perception of the “weak” seeing fellow believers eating in temples ends up ruining their faith. This is more than simply just saying be considerate of others. Paul seems to be subverting the “epistemic ideology” that the sort of knowledge that leads to virtue and righteousness is that of an isolated individual who makes sense of the whole world on their own.

This becomes more evident with a little closer attention to what Paul means when he means when he says “anyone who loves God is known by him.” We might be tempted to turn this into a matter of relationship and intimacy, as if Paul is engage in sort of an equivocation on the idea of knowledge. While knowledge can certainly be used in the context of intimacy in Genesis, this interpretation would miss the intellectual significance of Paul’s flipping of knowledge in 1 Corinthians 8.1-3. For the Stoics, only sages truly possessed knowledge, whereas everyone else was making progress towards this state of affairs. Vs. 2 plays off of this notion, reminding the Corinthians that they should not be at the stage of a sage yet as any good Stoic would. Where the real twist occurs, however, is why they are not yet at the sage? Because it is God who knows people, which is a reversal of the Stoic concern that people should know about the cosmos, including the divine. Yet, not only flipping the role of humans knowing God on its head to God knowing humans, one inferred meaning within the matrix of Stoic conventions about wisdom is that God is the sage who has wisdom (see 1 Corinthians 1.30-31 and 2.6-16).

Paul’s point: one should be more focus on the fact that it is God who knows and is wise than we should be concerned about what we know about God. This isn’t to deny the pursuit of truth in a much less lofty sense, but that believers should not become epistemically isolated individuals whose γνῶσις is formed based upon their own acquisition of wisdom, but that there is a fundamentally open nature to the process of learning that always makes γνῶσις about something that believers don’t quite grasp and have. Otherwise, one will harm others through one’s puffed up self-confidence and sin against others and Christ by being resistant to their concerns. Hence, Paul mentions that those who have “knowledge” that eat at temples are hurting those whom Christ died for: those who have knowledge are oblivious to Christ’s own attitude of love and service towards the “weak.”

At stake here, then, is something we can label as an epistemic externalism. That knowledge is not something possessed within the mental capacities of a single, isolated individual person. There is always something that stands outside of us, ungrasped by us, even on our best of days with the highest peak intellectual power and learning at our disposal, whether it be other people or God. And, speaking as one who has experienced the breakdown with excruciating consequences, always trying to take into account what everyone else thinks or knows so that one can become independent of others is something our brains are just not meant to do, as we have only one brain with one mind that can not possibly comprehend even a medium degree of understand of other minds while always keeping our ownself mentally intact.

Notice what Paul does not say: he does not say you should be more focused on understanding what God thinks or become even more focused on trying to understand how other perceive you. Our modern age would say “you are ignorant, so listen a bit more and try to empathize and understand.” While noble, that is not the implication of Paul’s argument. His simple point is to break down the resistance, one might even say hardness, by seeking to be one who possesses knowledge. Paul’s language is not about trying to extend our empathy and understanding even further outward to the point that we may begin to risk losing our entire sense of self in the process, but simply not being hardened to what is true that is outside of ourselves, whether it be from God or others, in virtue of the pursuit of γνῶσις.

Put differently, our pursuit of knowledge in the most grand and philosophical sense of the term (I am not referring to acts of learning that we can call ‘knowledge’ in less rigorous, more informal sense) makes us hardened to thinking and acting based upon what can be understood from God and others. For instance, it has been demonstrated that empathic thinking inhibits analytic thinking and vice versa.2 The active, unrelenting pursuit of knowledge in this grandest sense can lead us to become increasingly and permanently entrenched in the analytic mode of thinking, making us resistant to other modes of thinking that are more responsive engagement with others.3

This might then suggest that our truth and love are somehow at odds with each other. However, it is here where I think a concept of ‘truth externalism’ comes into play. Put basically, there are things that we can come to believe and understood about life that are truth, but what these truths do is recalibrate our thinking, feeling, acting, etc. to be in concert with other person or impersonal state of affairs.

As I am most familiar about this from the perspective of an epistemology of love, allow me to illustrate this by what I am sure my few regular readers are accustomed from me by now: a reference to dating and love.4 Imagine a two people who have been going out for a few months. Then, one day one of them says to the other “I love you.” What happens at that moment?

If one were to try to “propositionalize” this into some understanding of truth, as much as this might seem to miss point, how might we interpret this phrase? One way to approach it could be to say that this expression represents the proposition that there are a certain state of affairs in the person saying “I love you” where they possess some sort of enduring affect, positive regard, etc. But, if I were to offer that to someone as an account of what happened, it would somehow seem to be false, even if it seemed true in a sense. Something more is happening there. Using J.L. Austin’s understanding of speech acts, those words do not just have a locutionary effect of denoting something about the person’s feelings, but also have a perlocutionary effect of attempted to do something to the other person. The statement “I love you” would not just convey to the other person “They have a deep, enduring positive feelings for me” but it would do something further: depending on how it was received, positively or negatively, it might dramatically alter how the recipient of those words acted and responded. The way the other person would not begin to respond to the other person would change: it might transform their positive feelings into love. Beyond that, it would change their overall perceptions of their significant other beyond simple the specific state of affairs and how they are inclined to relate and respond to them in the future. While the language doesn’t adequately describe what happens with love, the phrase “I love you” can function as a recalibrating response.

One can say, then, that the truth that comes from “I love you” is not just a representation of the person’s feelings, but also a change in the recipient would engage with the person in the future. Both representation and recalibration are taking place in this example of truth.

The problem is, however, is that the internalist sense of knowledge that has undergirded Western philosophy and thinking since at least Descartes, if not sooner, is that truth is to be primarily understood in terms of a representation of a state of affairs. Some belief or idea is true only in virtue of how it adequately corresponds to some state of affairs external to the person. This is part of the reason that talking about the ‘truth’ of “I love you” might feel to miss the point. For most of us, we have a primarily representational view of truth.

However, if we move towards an externalist understanding of knowledge and truth, then knowledge and truth is not what they are simply in virtue of some representation we have. For instance, knowledge in an externalist conception is some belief that is reliable. In a similar vein, we can suggest that truth in an externalist sense of something that in virtue of our comprehension recalibrates the way we respond in line with some deeply held values. Put simply, truth as recalibration transforms the way we think, feel, and act so as to allow us to more reliably and effectively realize what we value, long for, and seek.

It is important to say here, however, that I am not setting representation and recalibration against each other as opposing theories of truth. In some ways, I think this is the fatal error of Western theology, whereas a propositional/representational view became the de facto reality of orthodox theology, whereas progressive, but perhaps more aptly called protest, theologies could be said to have an understanding of religious truth that in understood more so in terms of the way it calibrates and forms us, but without any real concern for representation. The end result of a foundationless formation that moves with the blowing of the societal wins as there is not basic conviction that anchors their “recalibration.”

What I am suggesting is that representation and recalibration go together in our understanding of truth. The best example I can give of this is not the example of “I love you,” as moving as that might be, but the call of God as discussed in 1 Corinthians. While Paul does provide sufficient information to analyze his discourse into the distinctions I am making between representation and recalibration, we can imagine both being at play here.

Earlier in 1 Corinthians 1.26, Paul reminds the Corinthians that they had previously been called (τὴν κλῆσιν). Paul goes on to recount the call of the Corinthians in 2.1-5. There, something happened in which the people began to put their trust (ἡ πίστις ὑμῶν) in God and His power, rather than the wisdom of human. What we could say is that the call of God was en event  that fundamentally recalibrated the intellectual and ethical (the two components of wisdom) orientation towards God. However, the event of hte Corinthian’s calling was not just simply a recalibrating event, but Paul says it occurred by the conjunction of Paul’s preaching of Christ crucified and the demonstration of the Holy Spirit. Both of these events could be considered to provide some sort of truth content in terms of representation of God’s actions in Christ and His benevolent intentions on behalf of humanity.

In other words, the call of God may be considered to contain within it the truth both in terms of some sort of theological and/or ethical representation and also in terms of recalibration. However, while I may be able to analyze this in terms of my abstract cognitive apparatus for making sense of truth, it does not mean we can split the reality of God’s call into representation and recalibration. That would be to either reify the abstract concepts or to misattribute the the mental effects and processes that correspond to representation and recalibration onto the act of God. So I offer these concepts not so much as a direct comment about theological reality, but rather a way of trying to break the hardness that intellectual endeavors for knowledge can create in oneself, which has been more true of myself than anyone else I know.

This can be similarly applied to the way we read the rest of the Scriptures. For instance, when we read “God is spirit/πνεῦμα” in John 4.24, is Jesus saying something that fits within a ontological represent of God or a concept that would recalibrate our relationship to God? Both, as Jesus says “Those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth,” which could be say to cover both cognitive understand and the way people are engaged and respond to God.5 Jesus’ expression of God’s nature as πνεῦμα is intended to both convey a question of fact as to where God the Father is to be worshiped and an anticipatory recalibration as to how worship should be done when the hour comes.

Or, consider the Pauline doctrine of theological justification (not to be confused with epistemic justification). Justification simultaneously speaks of the state of the sinner who trust in God in the eyes of God and recalibration of the person that brings them into way of relationship to God that will transform them into the very thing God has called them as part a new creation word of “Let there be righteousness.” Without truth as calibration, justification becomes simply an idea of representing our status before God that we can then use and marshal for all sort of other personal and social agendas.

The perpetual danger is that we are tempted to split the two up as a result of the intellectual tradition of the West culminated in the Enlightenment and the counter-response of Romanticism. We may be inclined to intuitively think of God’s truth, Scripture, etc. as representative some doctrinal facts or recalibrating of some deep emotional life, for instance. Taking representation while relegating recalibration makes love wax cold (I would know); taking recalibration with little regard for representation creates the form of godliness without its power.

In summary then, perhaps we need a broader concept of what truth is. If however, truth (ἀλήθεια) in the New Testament can be understood as a comprehension of what is faithful and reliable in terms of sources, such as Jesus is a source of salvation, wisdom, etc., rather than propositions, then truth can be said to be both representative in providing an account of where to find specifics good, values, etc. like life, redemption, wisdom, etc., and recalibrating in adjusting the way we respond to the source we believe to be true in terms of trustworthy and reliable. In that sense, saying truth is a person, that is Christ, brings a whole new light to what the possible significance of truth is from the perspective of the Christian way of life.

A (truly) brief thought about finding the will of God

February 6, 2020

In my journey as a Christian, I have always had two causes of concern when it comes to trying to discern the will of God. On the one hand, I am concerned about passive rationalization in which we simply think “it happened, therefore it must be God’s will.” One has no real criteria to rule things in or out of God’s will except what occurs. On the other hand, I am also worried about the reverse problem that I refer to as active rationalization, but can be colloquially referred to as the self-fulfilling prophecy, where a person thinks something is God’s will but it is fact their own action that made it happen but they are lead to think it was God’s action rather than their own that made things happen. In this case, the criteria for determining God’s will is whether it fulfills a goal we have that we actively seek to make happen.

What if, however, discerning the will of God is more like prospecting, where people neither just sit around and accept whatever is nor are they always out and about trying to make something happen, but they listen, pay attention, and seek to prospect what God is willing to happen, sometimes in possible future that ‘synergistically’ involves our actions to bring about and sometimes in an inevitable future that God ‘monergistically’ brings into play? Through the midst of prospect, we neither accept something simply because it is the way things turned out nor are we quick to accept something as God’s will because it fits with our designs and goals.

As an analogy, what might this look like? A man and a woman who simultaneously are attracted to each other and want to be close to each other and yet don’t want to force each other into a place the other doesn’t want to be in. And so, they don’t just simply accept whatever happens happens and do nothing, nor do they try to force each others hand, but they each prospect with each other to see if the will of that other person is to be with them.

You know what else this way of discerning God’s will would look a lot like? Critical realism or, as NT Wright has popularized it, an epistemology of love.

A (relatively) brief case for Christological and Pneumatological reference in the Old Testament

February 6, 2020

As I have happened to make my way back to my seminary grad school, Asbury Theological Seminary, to take a couple of classes in Greek and Hebrew, I have had the chance to sit in Estes Chapel, see professors and even an acquaintance and former volleyball teammate turned PhD Student and my Hebrew instructor (who did a great job on day one of the class!). There is a distinctive sense of familiarity in being here, talking with the professors, being in worship, and listening to the sermons.

One of those classes is New Testament Theology by Ben Witherington, which I am actually auditing. In one of the topics that came up, Dr. Witherington addressed the way the New Testament reads the Old Testament with a Christological lens. For those familiar, this is has been a well-worn battleground in Biblical Studies and theology: can one legitimately read Christ as being described in some manner in the Old Testament? However, he went on to mention that there were only a couple of places in the Old Testament that directly referred to the Holy Spirit. This eventually spurred a line thinking: why is it that as Trinitarians we don’t talk about reading the Old Testament Pneumatologically as well as Christologically?

Now, part of the reason is that we don’t talk about that is because it isn’t an inherently controversial thesis. The cause of the contention that Christological readings of the OT stir up are manifold. There are at least three reasons.

Firstly, Christological readings of the OT almost all but assume the doctrine of the Incarnation, unless one decides to go into some heretical form of ontic angel Christology.1 The idea of God being uniquely identified as a specific human being in history radically disrupts what NT Wright refers to as the Epicurean worldview where there is a radical, disjunction between God, the heavens, and the supernatural with humans, the earth, and the natural. To do Christological readings of the Old Testament would almost certainly amount to regarding this disjunctive dualism division that has seeping into many people’s implicit way of construing life and the world as somehow wrong or false.

Secondly, Christological readings of the OT also spark contention with our religious cousins: Jews. Since one significant boundary marker between Judaism and Christianity is whether Jesus is the Messiah or not, the very act of interpreting Jesus in the Old Testament Scriptures by people who are not ethnically and culturally Jewish can seem like an act of cultural appropriation.

Thirdly, and most important for this post, is a very basic cognitive habit that many of us have, but that is rarely brought to light. I hesitate to call it anything other than a cognitive habit as it isn’t an assumption so much as it is just simply the way we have been trained to think. It relates to what philosophy knows as ontology and epistemology and what has essentially been a dominant heritage of the Western world through Plato’s Theory of Forms. There may be a name for this in the philosophical literature, but I am not familiar with it, but I refer to it as the ontic-grounding of epistemology. Simply put, the way we come to implicit understand that we know something is determined by what we believe to be the nature of the things we seek to know. Ontology determines, at least in part, our epistemology.

However, the ontic-grounding of epistemology is not the natural way we actually think. By nature, when we try to ascertain what something is, we have a sense of how to figure out what something is, and then we come to develop a sense of what that something is. However, with the Athenian philosophers, this natural way of learning got flipped on its head. In the aspiration for knowledge, Socrates derided any ideas that did not have a clear, distinct explanation for all of a particular subject matter, such as justice, as less than knowledge. Instead, Socrates’s arguments imply that one can only have knowledge if one has a clear conception of what it is one is talking about. While there is certainly some truth to this idea as a clear, distinct idea that parsimoniously, coherently, and reliably describes a wide range of other ideas, observations, experiences, etc. can be taken as a better sense of understanding than a vague, shadowy understand of a concept, something happened with Plato. Plato presents the Theory of Forms that made knowledge dependent on ontology: you can only know something because with the mind’s eye you perceive the true form that the examples in the observable world are merely imperfect representations of. Essentially, Plato turned what we could tentatively refer to as the epistemic-grounding on ontology2 Even as the Platonic forms are rejected and Aristotle’s more ontologically cautious hylomorphism, the very pattern of thinking demonstrated in Plato’s portrayal of Socrates won out. Hellenistic philosophy, both in Epicureanism and Stoicism, contain certain ontological assumptions about the way reality is that shades how they consider we come to acquire knowledge.

What does this have to do with reading the Old Testament Christologically? Everything! Reading Christ into the Old Testament is controversial because of the implicit ontological that informs the way we read the language of the Old Testament. As theories of language have moved away from referential theories of meaning that take the meanings of words to be things out in the world, we have developed an implicit ontological account of what meaning is, or more precisely, what meaning is not. Meaning is not in the world, but meaning is, essentially, mental. If Jesus is not perceived as being described by any responsible interpretation of the Old Testament, then the ontic assumptions that undergird the way we seek to come to know what the Old Testament would essentially rule out from the get-go any linguistic reference to Jesus. Meaning is only found in the text/language and not anywhere else, so if Jesus isn’t found in the responsible interpretation of the text, it is not responsible to engage in Christological readings.

Now, before I seek to address the problem being this, I want to suggest there are very good reasons for moving away from referential theories of linguistic meaning. The reason I present for that, however, is the same reason that I think modern accounts of language in interpreted the OT are also similarly flawed: all attempts to arrive at a theory for linguistic meaning that is (1) reliable, (2) coherent, and (3) exhaustive is impossible as it is my observation that language is irreducibly complex and should see the sources and functions of linguistic meaning as being unbounded. That is to state that the way words convey meaning can not be reduced to any specific single action, cognitive mechanism, source, etc. that we can then use as a theory to explain and predict all uses of language. We can only work towards a ‘meta-theory’ that can not explain or predict all uses of language, but that can only give us resources that we can then make use to understand specific instances of language usage.

This is a very complex and not entirely complete way of saying that even as language usage is not determined exclusively or even primarily by referring to things in the world, reference is often a very important, central component to language usage that is irresponsible to ever rule out as a possibility a priorii before engaging in an act of reading and interpreting. The meanings of language may, in fact, be things taken to exist in the world, but that it is due to our own ignorance that we are not able to understand the reference. Say, for instance, I were to write a story that seemed impossible about a person that I referred to as “Laura.” The way the series of events line up in the story I tell about Laura would seem so out of the norm and crazy that it would seem to most people to be an act of fiction. And yet, what if these series of events, as improbable as they might seem, actually happened, those people who actually know the story would read the language and implicitly interpret the story with a sense of reference to it, whereas those who had little to no knowledge of Laura would read it without any sense of reference. Their reading of the story would be wholly derived from a combination of (a) their own understanding of the meanings of the words and grammar I used and (b) the way the further simulate and develop the story that goes beyond what I wrote. To those who know, Laura they would think of “Laura” as referring to a specific person in the world, but to those who don’t know, “Laura” is simply regarded as a fictional character. In other words, our sense of whether someone or something is real or not has a marked influence as to how we come to derive our understanding about that someone or something.

Allow me to give another example, but one in Biblical Studies. For the sake of argument, pretend that Luke-Acts was written to Seneca the Younger to offer a defense of the early Christian movement and Paul as he was set to appear before Nero. It would be highly debatable that this is actually the case; I would imagine the majority of New Testament scholars would laugh at such an idea. But pretend for a moment that it is the case. In Acts 18.12-17, Seneca’s brother Gallio is not mentioned with any title before his name like other Roman officials in Acts, such as Felix. Instead, Gallio’s position as proconsul is described by the adverbial use of the participle ὄντος, as if the writer of Acts understood the recipient of Acts did not need to provide a formal introduction as to whole Gallio is. If this is because the name Theophilius is used to refer to Seneca in a coded manner, then we have a sense of reference that influences how we read the rest of Acts, including Paul’s defense of himself before the Stoics and Epicureans on Mars Hill in Athens. The real world Seneca is referred to by Theophilius and implicitly plays a part in the language usage by the author of Luke-Acts, even though there is no word and name whose sense can be used to identify Seneca the Younger as the recipient of Luke-Acts directly. It could also explain some of the differences between Luke and the other Synoptic gospels, where the sources Luke uses are altered in such a way so as to avoid needlessly making the early Jesus movement as expressing any anti-imperial sentiment.

This thesis that Seneca was the recipient of Luke-Acts would seem entirely unlikely to modern readers who have no first hand or second hand knowledge about such interactions between Paul and his entourage with Seneca. However, at the same time, that Paul and Seneca knew each other would explain why Tertullian thought highly of Seneca even though he wasn’t a Christian and why there was a pseudepigraphic exchange of letters between Paul and Seneca. Paul influencing Seneca in a meeting could offer a partial explanation and source for Seneca’s writing about the Holy Spirit in Epistle 41, a phrase that is highly uncharacteristic for Seneca. There is reason to suggest there could have been some second-hand knowledge about some interaction between Paul and Luke, but no decisive proof of it. As a result, those who reject the claim3 would not read Luke-Acts with Seneca in mind but imagine some other “Theophilus,” whether real or imaginary, but those who accept the claim would read Luke-Acts with the historical Seneca in mind. Our sense of what is real, both in terms of what is specifically true and what we can consider being possibly true, can influence, if not control, how we read and come to understand and ‘know’ what a text says.

In a similar manner, it may be considered perfectly legitimate to read the Old Testament with a Christological lens while at the same time not egregiously violating much of our norms and understandings of how language and texts convey meaning. Insofar as we allow for language to have a referential nature to a real God and that this God could possibly become incarnate in the specific person of Jesus at a point in history, then it is possible to see Jesus is implicitly referred to in some indirect, oblique manner, even if absolutely none of the texts of the Old Testament have the purpose of doing such. One may still reject Christological readings on the grounds that they do not believe that this God actually exists, but the readings are ruled out on the grounds of what one considers to be a matter of facts and not just simply assume it is impossible for such to be the case, either in terms of reality of God’s existence or the reality of reference as a source of linguistic meaning.

By analogy then, we can legitimate a Pneumatological reading of the Old Testament. We can go back as far as Genesis 1.2 and suggest the “wind of God” is in reference to something/someone that/who we would now call the Holy Spirit. Perhaps there is an ontic difference between the wind of God and the Holy Spirit. However, in that case, the person one would need to come to that conclusion on different grounds that basic metaphysical assumptions one makes about reality and language/meaning that rule out a priorii certain readings. In other words, one would need to have a more robust epistemology implicit in our hermeneutics and linguistics that does not require implicitly assumed ontologies to rule out Pneumatological references in the OT.

Now, here is an implication of this possibility. If indeed there is Pneumatological reference in the Old Testament and we can only reliably know someone by some sense of familiarity or experience with it, whether it be consciously recognized or not, then this would be grounds to suggest that a *fuller* understanding of the Old Testament can only be accomplished on the grounds of engagement with the Holy Spirit, that is inspiration. Even if we can understand the Old Testament in part apart from the Holy Spirit, if there are many real yet oblique Pneumatological references in the OT, then our understanding would be limited if we are not inspired. That isn’t offered to undercut “non-inspired” readings of the OT as false or unreliable, but only that in these conditions, such understandings of the text would be incomplete and partial.

And this is perfectly okay because no one fully understands everything that went into the production of a text. We all read texts with only partial illumination and comprehension at best, even the best of us. While such a difference in reading and comprehension may have profound implications for our life, it doesn’t really throw out the place of critical studies of the OT. It would just simply says to those persons who are practitioners of an almost exclusively critical hermeneutic that is skeptical of faith: “You need to focus on humbly knowing yourself first, just as we also need to do. If we both know our limitations, we can still learn from each other.”