The problem of “purifying” sexuality

August 14, 2018

Becca Andrews on Mother Jones wrote her personal story of the damage the “purity culture” and how it made her rationalize away the sexual assault that had happened to her. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon occurrence, as over the past few years there have been an increasing number of articles criticizing the purity culture that did everything it could avoid the “heinous” sin of pre-marital sex. And this story telling has happened for good reasons. There are many tales, mostly of women, of how this culture harmed them through the way they saw themselves and the way the males in their life saw their sexuality. Women have been victimized by this purity culture.

But there are some men who have been victimized by this. My story is one where because of what I was told about sex in my late teenage and early college years, lead me to pain from different events that I have to seriously consider the prospect that I will never be able to have a close, romantic relationship with a female. Purity culture screwed my own heart up. Firstly, it taught me that as a male, I am the pursuer and that all responsibility is on me; the purity culture wasn’t just a one-way sort of instruction. It didn’t teach me that a female was responsible to how they treated me; they were responsible to how they presented themselves in not being objects of lust, but they didn’t have any responsibility to treat my boundaries approriately. So, the evening in college where I told a female “no sex” and she ignored this lead me into a spiral of spiritual grief and dirtiness that I didn’t understand. I only saw the event as a profaning event of myself and my body and not an event of crossing of personal boundaries. It wasn’t until years later, when I overcame the effects of another female repeatedly encroaching upon my boundaries that I recognized that night for what it was.

Then, a couple years later, I was lost in a college-age passion in a relationship with a different female, but things proceeded with consent this time. But afterward, the extreme guilt of “having crossed the line” and probably the unconscious response from the past lead me to react in such a sharp emotional reaction that I disconnected myself from her for a time period, causing her great pain along with myself. The whole time leading up to this, I remember struggling with “lust in my heart” that made me have great difficulty with the relationship itself. My sexuality was something to manage and to control to the point of its extinction; any breaking out of sexual thoughts and feelings was a violation leading me down a dark path. 

The way the sexual purity culture caused me to respond to these events got me to the point that I was hyper-vigilant down the line of any signs of sexual attraction from another woman. If they had that look in their eye during a date or a time out with friends, if they made a comment or reaction that was suggestive of some mild innuendo, it would lead to a “distancing” or “get out” mentality.

The various ways that the “purity” culture had formed the way I responded to this events is complex, and I don’t intend to systematically explore the ins and outs of it of all the practices and instructions and the negative impacts. But instead, I want to highlight the basic problematic psychological dynamic that undergirds the purity culture, the problematic interpretation of Biblical passages and reconstruct how this could lead to my traumas.

Firstly, the best metaphor I can give for the purity culture is fencing off. Evangelicals concerns about purity were preoccupied, sometimes obsessed, with walling off anything and everything sex. Much as the traditions surrounding the Torah around Jesus time and afterward were built upon constructing a whole set of rules to prevent the possibility of breaking any commandment, evangelical culture had done the same but primarily for one thing: don’t have sex outside of marriage. Popular books like Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye essentially creating a set of fences to keep us from every cross into the dangerous zone of sexual impurity. Women were to never risk being an object of sexual attraction and men were to avoid their sexual lusts. Sex was taboo. It was at the point that during college Sunday School one Sunday, the teacher had to give us permission to use the word “sex.” We had been trained to avoid any and all things sex. 

Now, there was a good intention behind this: sexual activity is something that really is best kept for a marital covenant commitment. Not because sex outside of marriage makes us “dirty,” but firstly due to the procreative powers of sexuality but also the fact that if we decouple sex from that commitment, we are creating the grounds to sexually objectify persons. There are some a good reason for reserving sex for that context.

But, the psychological reality is that we are sexual creatures. Our sexuality does not have an on-off switch that we can flip whenever we need or want to. If you try to avoid what you are forced to experience, you don’t tend to handle those things well. The fear and aversion of avoidance prevent us from understanding the forces at play, thereby leaving ourselves unwitting victims to the directions these forces can have upon us. In other words, if we avoid our sexuality, we can not understand it; and if we do not understand it, we can not direct this impulse in appropriate ways. So, when sexual desire is on in a way we can’t control, we are left helpless to deal with it except in rather extreme ways, whether it is to be lost in the throes of lust despite the consequences (either in consensual or nonconsensual ways) or to avoid it all with great fervor. Rule-bound avoidance of sexuality only gives sexual desire more power over us. This echoes Paul’s sentiments in Romans 7 about how the commandment can lead us to sin despite our desire to do otherwise. Avoidance just doesn’t work when you are dealing with a powerful, pervasive force.

However, mild forms of avoidance would work if it is only selectively applied, but if avoidance is your primary style of coping with sexual desire, then it will become increasingly fruitless. As the methods of avoidance don’t work, instead of giving up avoidance, you just try harder to avoid, with more rules, more limitations, more efforts to control. Therefore, as an evangelical culture’s attempts to regulate our sexual behaviors was becoming increasingly powerless in a highly sexualizing culture, the response wasn’t to shift from avoidance to a more direct and honest style of dealing with sexual desire. It was to propound more and more steps and rules with greater passion and fervor, creating unrealistic expectations and false notions and leaving those instructed by it incapable of identifying and healthily participating in romantic relationships. Close relationships are hard enough; adding sex to the equation made it all the more unstable. Combine the sexual passions of youth with false “wisdom,” and you have the recipe for a powerful cocktail of confusion. In short, I would suggest that evangelical purity culture was ill-equipped to address the sweeping culture changes; there are many thoughts I have about this, but perhaps for another time.

In the midst of this, I remember the one passage that was seered into my brain by this “purity culture.” Matthew 5:27-30. Here was a passage where Jesus was talking about sexual feelings towards women, or so I thought, and I felt that I was on a dangerous path if I ever even felt sexual attraction towards someone. And Jesus said you should go to great extents to avoid sin in this manner. This was the passage many of us males were familiar with, and so those of us who took following Jesus seriously were tempted to try to control what we felt and to be averse to anyone or anything that activated these sexual feelings.

But here is the problem: that passage isn’t about sexual attraction to just anyone. It is firstly about adultery, which is about having sexual relationships with someone who is already married. What Jesus was talking about wasn’t any female, but was talking about the intentional gaze and focus on a woman who was already married with sexual intentions in mind. One could not argue one was acting righteously simply because you failed to actually engage in adultery in that was the intention within your heart. And, this wasn’t simply coveting a wife to be part of your own household; this was a sexual desire for the wife of another. In this context, Jesus words about cutting of one’s hand and plucking out the eye is doing what one can to avoid the intentions of sexual intrusion into two other people’s relationship. Therefore, Jesus words weren’t a denial of our own sexual attractions; it is to not wrongly direct our attractions towards the wrong people. Now, we could generalize this into a larger principle that we don’t intend on sexual pursuing someone when there are boundaries, such as marriage, personal boundaries, etc. But this generalizes the concerns about how we treat each other, rather than generalizing what happens within ourselves; it generalizes into a statement about loving one another rather than a statement about self-preoccupation. It is how we express and direct sexuality towards other persons. Jesus’ concern on the sermon on the Mount is deeply relational in how we love one another, and this includes his concerns about adultery of the heart.

This is a different way of seeing sexuality within the Scriptural witnesses. It isn’t that the feelings exist; it isn’t that we have desires.  This view of sexuality encourages respecting of boundaries, including but not limited to the wisdom of a marital boundary for sexuality activity, for the sake of each other. It wouldn’t put burdens upon people to control everything about themselves, whether it be a female controlling her looks or a male controlling his thoughts, so that they might avoid the risk of doing something wrong, but a basic sense of respect for people.

But I wasn’t taught to blend sex with the notion of interpersonal respect by my church upbringing. So in my case, while I had a natural respect for other people (although, I had to grow and learn myself how to show this respect), I didn’t learn that respect was also something I should receive. So I didn’t understand what happened to me in my college years in the violation of my boundaries and then the hurt I brought upon another person and myself. I saw my own sexual nature as something to avoid, rather than something to learn how to direct in a relationship. I was taught that God was looking at me negatively for these feelings and struggles, rather than Jesus being sympathetic with the struggle.

So, I don’t go so far as to identify myself as “exvangelical” because of my problems with the purity culture, but I see a deep, spiritual wound within the evangelical world that I still have a certain marginal identification with. But there are signs of change, and hopefully, with the recent outing of the sexual sins across society but also among the churches, there can be a disciplining judgment that can lead the Church in America and in the wider West into a better direction. There are many rudimentary thoughts I have about what I think that direction should look like, but that is perhaps for another time and place.

Sacramental eschatology

August 14, 2018

I am somewhat of a hybrid when it comes to my sacramental theology. On the one hand, my penchant towards skepticism has me leery of any sort of “magical” view of the sacraments. My skepticism of sacraments isn’t the idea that God could act through baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but the automat-icity we attribute to the relationship between the ritual actions and God’s presence and action; it is “magic” in the sense that our actions somehow automatically correspond to a power that we do not control. On the other hand, if one reads the accounts of the New Testament, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not construed as merely ritual but that one is participating in a reality with Christ. To take a reductively ritualistic view as a Christian would entail a form of demythologizing that I find deeply uncomfortable.

My theological and exegetical reflections over the past couple of years have had me looking into the nature of the “apocalyptic” for Paul. By apocalyptic though, I don’t mean end-of-the-world scenarios that we use the term today in popular culture; this is not the meaning of apocalyptic in most Biblical Studies and theological circles. Rather, if we are to frame it in terms of Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:7-10, apocalyptic, or revelation as it is translated there, is a work of God that is so dramatically different from the world in which it is made known; it is something that no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has imagined. God’s revelation can not be reduced to what is presently true in the world of our senses or that we can derive from our unaided imagination and reasoning. Revelation calls forth people into a wisdom that is different from what presently it. Beyond that, it is something intended for human glory; there is a distinctly future purpose of the revelation that God made known to Paul. In addition, this revelation takes the shape of Jesus, as the Lord of glory. Put differently, for Paul, apocalyptic revelation takes its launch point in the past in what is known in Jesus Christ, calls people in the present into a way of being that can not be explained by what precedes, and points towards the future in the eschatological glory.

What if this nature of apocalyptic revelation frames Paul’s understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper?

Regarding baptism in Romans 6:1-12, I would make the argument that there is good evidence that Paul was familiar with Jesus’ own baptism, but it isn’t explicitly expressed. Nevertheless, for Paul, baptism looks backwards to the past of what happened in Jesus, who was put to death and raised against. Thus, baptism is understood in a backwards direction. But yet, for Paul, being baptized with Christ entails a future where one will be raised as Jesus was raised. Then stuck in the middle of the past Christ event and the future eschatological event is the present reality of Christians to be free from and dead to sin so that they can live for God; this way of life is not in accordance to the present age, as Romans 12:1-2 later express.

Then, we can take a look at the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. It recalls the evening in which Jesus communicates a hermeneutical insight into the purpose of His death. But it isn’t simply looking backwards, but for Paul this points towards the future as “you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” But then, there is the present circumstances in which Paul reminds them they should act and operate as a community, not excluding others, so that they can be one as the bread as the body of Christ is one. By being united, they would eschew the practices of social status and presumptive “wisdom” from the surrounding culture that separated them, bring them forth into a new community. Again, we see the outlines of past remembrance, future expectations, and present transformations into something different.

What then does this communicate about the sacraments? The power of the sacraments stems from what it is rooted in in remembrance of the past and where it is pointed towards in expectation of the future. It is a ritual action, but it is a ritual action that attunes us and joins us in the work that God has done, is doing, and will continue to do. Because God is at work and the sacraments are grounded upon and expecting of this work, then the sacraments have a power upon us in the present that spans beyond the mere psychology and sociology of ritual. Thus, sacraments do not have a special power or infusion of grace that is had independently, but they are acts of participation in the grace that God has provided in Jesus Christ and is continuing to give in Holy Spirit.

Also, I would suggest it is significant that there are only two ritual actions that are given this type of significance in the New Testament, even though there are other rituals such as foot washing. It is these two rituals that are apocalyptically sacramentalized that participate in the grace that transforms us into the love of God via baptism and the love of neighbor via the Lord’s Supper. Baptism and Lord’s Supper are the two acts that call us to the very heart of God in our love for Him because He loves us and in our love for others because He loves them; thus a covenant community is being formed where God is rightly worshipped and people are rightly joined together. It is here the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom is being realized in the now, but this inbreaking still points and works towards the not-yet, future, fullness of glory where we see Jesus as He is and we are joined together in perfect union with peace and righteousness.

Therefore, sacraments are not automatic, pseudo-magical infusions of grace that the Church has indiscriminate power to effectively use that sacramental theology can blur into, but nor is it merely a human response to God that denies anything substantive happening beyond psychological and sociological dynamics. In the sacraments it is our response to what God has done, transforming us in grace in dramatically novel ways in the present, looking forward to what God will do. Thus, sacraments are a participation in the work of God through time and history. However, their power is grounded in the rituals being connected through faith to the work that God is doing.

Revelation and Religion

August 12, 2018

In his Church Dogmatics I.2, Karl Barth makes the statement “religion is unbelief.”1 For Barth, religion stands in an antithetical relationship to God’s revelation, such that revelation is where God makes himself known,2 whereas religion contradicts revelation because religion entails an attempt to “grasp at God.”3 In other words, revelation and religion are two different modes of thinking; one receives from God whereas another analyzes God. Barth states the following about how one should approach revelation:

We need to be ready and resolved simply to let the truth be told us and therefore to be apprehended by it. But that is the very thing for which we are not resolved and ready. The man to whom the truth has really come will concede that he was not at all ready and resolved to let it speak to him. The genuine believer will not say that he came to faith from faith, but—from unbelief, even though the attitude and activity with which he met revelation, and still meets it, is religion. For in faith, man’s religion as such is shown by revelation to be resistance to it. From the standpoint of revelation religion is clearly seen to be a human attempt to anticipate what God in His revelation wills to do and does do. It is the attempted replacement of the divine work by a human manufacture. The divine reality offered and manifested to us in revelation is replaced by a concept of God arbitrarily and wilfully evolved by man.4


What undergirds Barth’s thinking about religion is the work of philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, who argued that Christianity’s view of God was simply a projection of people’s own natures. Far from religion saying anything ontologically true about God, thoughts about God were simply a subjectivity that was hypostatized. Therefore, for Barth, his distinction between revelation and religion was understood principally along the lines of subjectivity vs. objectivity. 5

However, Feuerbach is far from the only theorist of religion. Other theories of religion have been proposed, such as Sigmund Freud’s religion as wish-fulfillment, Emile Durkheim’s view of religion as a source of solidarity, etc. Feuerbach’s theory was more cognitivist, being derived from Hegel’s philosophy, whereas Freud’s is more emotional and motivation, whereas Durkheim’s is more social. If we assume that these different theories have observed some of the ways that religion can function, but that they have not propounded laws without exception about religion, we can suggest the following that is more consistent with modern views of: religion is made up of a complex pattern of thoughts, discourses, emotional attachments and experiences, and social relations. Consequently, people may become attached to religion for different reasons. Some may find it a source of social comfort. Others may be committed to a religion because the social network it brings. Others may appreciate the intellectual challenge it presents.

So, I would suggest Barth’s antithesis between revelation and religion is too narrow, focused principally on the cognitivist aspect of understanding. However, I think do think the antithesis between revelation and religion is quite fruitful if we think about the relation of revelation to religion in terms of logical reasoning.

When God acts, including in revelation, that means God has in some manner caused something to be the case, whether it be human perception of God, new knowledge about God, miraculous healing, etc. etc. God’s actions are causal, which can lead to the following proposition:

(1) If God acts, then X is true.

However, as humans we have a predilection to try to reverse this line of reasoning to the following:

(2) Since X is true, therefore God is acting.

This is known as the fallacy of affirming the consequent. IT is a wrong argument to make, as proposition (1) does not suggest other things could not lead to X happening. Take for instance recovery from illness. If God miraculously heals someone, they would be healthy. But there is a tendency to reverse this reason to if someone becomes healthy, it is because God miraculously healed them. Notwithstanding certain views of divine providence, we would not attribute someone who took medicine and got over the flu as being healed by God’s miraculous action. Affirming the consequent leads us to fallaciously reverse the logic of God’s actions. From my own observation, much of religious hermeneutics about God’s work in the world tends to stem from the fallacy of affirming the consequent.

But I would suggest the pattern goes further than merely affirming the consequent. The way of reasoning pushes further, somethings assuming that there is a mutual causation between God’s actions and what happens. For instance, if God speaks His word, then if I speak God’s word, through the Scriptures, then God is speaking. The is part of the logic that often underlies much of the theology of preaching. Here, it doesn’t merely exist in affirming the consequent, but assumes a certain statement about causality: if I imitate what happens God acts, God will be acting. I would call this “reverse-engineering” God’s revelation and activity.

At the heart of much religion, at least within Christian circles, then the fallacy of affirming the consequent and the causal assumption that our reverse engineering is joined in with God’s actions.

How does this apply to the various aspects of religion I mentioned earlier? It applies in the sense that we can be inclined to think “If we reproduce what happen when God did this great thing, God will do this great thing again.” For instance, if we can just pray like the disciples were praying before Pentecost, we will experience a Pentecost-like revival. Or if we meet together in groups after Pentecost, we will be truly faithful to what God is doing. Or, put it more at the level of persons, if (some) people when the Spirit moves are radically energized, if we can just reproduce that energy the Spirit must be moving among us.

So, to critique Barth, the issue isn’t per se that religion seeks to understand when people should receive revelation. It is a broader issue of trying to reverse revelation in it various, multitudinous effects; rather than letting God’s disclosure form us so that we can act within the world, we seek to try to recapture what God has said or done in formulaic or law like manners where we narrow some valued aspect of revelation and religion. Rather than letting the Word of God be a testimony that impacts how we make sense of God, Jesus, ourselves, the world, etc., we seek to reverse engineer to pursue the power of the original revelatory experience or reverse engineer to create a hard set of rules that govern and justify our actions. When God makes Himself known, as He did to Moses in the wilderness or most fully in the resurrected Jesus to His disciples, it calls people to move outward with a new understanding in mind rather than to cling on to the past.

True religion trusts in the loving and powerful activity of God, and upon seeing this, seeks to find ways to live in attunement with that work. It isn’t our attempt to reproduce God’s love, power, and movement, but it is a seeking to move forward with this in tow. True religion does not reverse-engineer God’s activity and revelation, but it trods forward in faith that this God who has made Himself known is at work; we may remember God’s disclosure and power, such as in Holy Communion, and trust that God meets us there in those places, but this remembrance and presence has the (eschatological) future on the horizon rather than trying to reverse-engineer the past. Because God is at work, we are invited to pray and to meet together; because God is at work, we are to long for the powerful movement of God’s Spirit amongst us. But this isn’t to reverse-engineer God’s revelation and action but it is to go in light of what God has made known and done in His action and revelation.

Christ transforms our language

August 12, 2018

Christians aren’t supposed to cuss, you have probably been told or even think. Good Christians don’t say things that offend others but only be nice. We might quote Paul in Colossians 3:8 or Ephesians 4:29 or Ephesians 5:4 as a moratorium on all cussing or thinks that hurt other people’s feelings. Ther is some mistake notions behind this. Firstly, rather than having taboo language that we don’t use, Paul is focused on the ways we use language to abuse or portray coarse scenes. Rather than the penchant to think that only kind and edifying language is initially beautiful to the ears, Paul is concerned about the way we talk to others being used for their benefit; this can entail an honesty. But there is a difference between speaking honestly and berating, as the former brings problems to the surface, focused on actions, with a flexibility about why people are acting as they do whereas the latter pigeonholes and labels people in a people that they do not have the freedom in your speech to be different.1

However, despite some of the superficial expectations we have about our speech as Christians, there is some substance behind it all. Being Christian entails a transformation of our speech in terms of how we use our words. Our words are important. Far from “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” words can tear people’s hearts and souls; but they can also restore. Beyond that, however, speech helps us as groups of people to make sense of the world; how we label events, such as if we see God’s actions behind events or not, impacts how we interpret the world and influence how other people interpret. Thus, Christian speech has its own culture from the speech of others cultures, where we help to make sense and label the work of God and help to bring people to a rightly understood place through our speech.

This is the focus on Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:33-37:

Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your wordsyou will be condemned.

Jesus says this after warning the Pharisees about blasphemy of the Holy Spirit after they had said that Jesus was, essentially, demon possessed and that was the source of his wonders. Two things were operating here in their speech. Firstly, they were blaspheming Christ, a person who was right in front of them. This would be abusive speech that denigrates Jesus with lies2 and could be used to justify all sorts of evil against him. But Jesus said that there will be forgiveness for this. But then, they were also blaspheming the Holy Spirit, because they were labeling the work of the Spirit as the work of the devil. Their hermeneutical capacity had them interpreting the work of God as the very opposite, the work of Satan. This echoes the words of the prophet Isaiah in 5:20:

Ah, you who call evil good
     and good evil,
who put darkness for light,
     and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet,
     and sweet for bitter.

Therefore, at stake here in Jesus statements about being justified by words is that the way words are used towards people and used to understand, including understanding the work of God, reveals what is in people’s hearts.3

But the issue isn’t merely about what words we use, but it entails a transformation of how we understand and use language also. Karl Barth recognized this. Karl Hunsinger states about Barth’s theology of words:

The particularities of the biblical witness, Barth was convinced, are utterly singular in their content. Ordinary words as they are generally used are profoundly inadequate when it comes to speaking of God. Consequently it would be fatal, were we to assume that we know in advance what words like “love,” “person,” “father,” and “lord” mean in a theological setting. We must rather let ourselves be told what these words mean by attending to the particularity of their scriptural usage. Only by meditating on the deeper patterns of the biblical witness, and in particular on patterns of divine activity to which it attests, can we begin to understand the theological semantics of these terms. Only then will we see, for example, that God’s “loving” is uniquely concerned with seeking and creating fellowship for its own sake, that God’s “personhood” involves a perfect coincidence, or coincidence without discrepancy, between being and act, that God’s “fatherhood” is a relationship of creative self-giving, and that God’s “lordship” comes to its fullest expression in servanthood. Only by fixing our gaze strictly on God’s unique activity, not allowing ourselves to he influenced unduly by ideas derived from elsewhere, will these matters come clearly into view. Only by breaking up and reforming our ordinary conceptions will we be able to do justice to these particularities. Only by conforming our ideas to the subject matter (rather than the other way around), regardless of how strange that subject matter might be, will we truly learn to think theologically.4

Put simply, the very meaning of words changed. The meanings of words shifted based upon what we know about God. So when we as Christians talk about love, we don’t mean what the world means necessarily, but we mean what we see of the love in Jesus Christ. Or, Lordship is not understood against the backdrop of top-down political power like the Roman Caesar, but in the way that Jesus leads His people. Definitions of many words are different in Christian contexts.

But, one could take this to an absurd direction to suggest that words are totally different within a Christian culture from other cultures. But this isn’t the case. There is generally some similarities between how Christians immersed in the Scriptures would talk about love and how wider societies would talk about love. What is different however is what is known in cognitive science and cognitive linguistics as the prototype(s) we have for words.

While I won’t get into the nitty gritty details of prototype theory, in part because I am not an expert and in part because it can be needlessly tedious, (but this Wikipedia article has a good summary) it is a theory from Eleanor Rosch where our understanding of categories and concepts derives from a specific image that has various features, but not all features have to be present for that category or concept to be valid. To make it a bit more concrete, one person’s image of love may include things such as being liked, kind words, generous actions, and spending time, but they may say someone loves them who is kind and generous and can’t spend time with them. However, the more and more features are absent, the harder it is to say something is love; for instance, someone may not consider something love is the other person only likes them but doesn’t have kindness, generosity or spend time with them.

Therefore, as our words are defined by prototypes, such as God or our parents as prototypes of love, there is a) a different set of features b) of which only some features have to be present. What features define our concepts/words and how strict or loose we are with how many features much be present impacts how we interpret the world and how we relate to one another. For instance, someone who considers that a work of God must be scientifically inexplicable entails a very strict set of definitions bound to a modernist prototypes of science and the world, whereas a looser definition may allow for God’s work to incorporate events that scientific explanation is plausible. Or, in regards to the way we treat others, a person who has a strict view of love may excoriate someone as harsh for a single transgression whereas a person who has a looser view of love may be merciful for a transgression.

How does this extend to the nature of Christian language speech? Because what happens in the Christian community is two things. Firstly, there is a “reprototyping” of our language based upon what we know of God. Rather than defining love in a familial or tribal sense, love for Christians is defined by God’s love shown in Jesus Christ. This is what Paul is getting at in 1 Corinthians 2:13, where the words he uses are not being used in the same way that the surrounding (Stoic) wisdom used words but in a different way based upon the inspiration of the Spirit.

Secondly, how strict or loose we are with our definitions is largely determined by the strength of our desires and expectations. Demanding persons expect (near) perfect adherence to their expectations, whereas less demanding people can be satisfied with less. But when our desires are transformed in Christ through the Spirit, this means what we are stricter about and what we are looser about changes. This impacts how strictly or loosely we apply our concepts, so that a forgiving person may still express the possibility and reality of goodness in people who commit bad actions but a demanding person may expect perfection to call something good. Or, in reverse, demanding people may readily throw out negative labels readily, using the words in the loosest of fashions, whereas a forgiving person may demand much stricter uses of negative labels. For instance, demanding people may call another person “crazy” or a “trouble-maker” in cases of a little bit of frustration, whereas a forgiving person may have stricter definitions for problematizing and negative psychologizing language, reserving it only after a long, persistent pattern has developed.

In summary, when we are transformed by Christ, the way we use language changes by a) giving us new, conceptual prototypes that determines how we are to make sense of God, other people, and the world and b) transforming our desires which impacts how we use those words and concepts to make sense of God, other people, and the world. Thus, the way we use words reveals our hearts, and so we can be justified or condemned by our words.

Justification by faith now and judgment by works in the future

August 11, 2018

Having explored Paul’s doctrines of justification and salvation by faith, it is appropriate to take a look at the other side of things: the role of works. We as Protestants have always been ambivalent about works; many of the passages about Jesus’ judgment of the world are decided by works, but the standard construal of righteousness as moral perfection creates some hermeneutical gymnastics to avoid the patently obvious, necessitating an imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Here are a few places where the nature of Jesus’ judgment of the world is described:

Matthew 25:31-46 (NRSV):

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

John 5:25-29 (NRSV):

Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life,and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.

Romans 2:6-16 (NRSV):

For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.

Revelation 20:11-15 (NRSV):

Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

In each of these pericopes, the judgment is determined by what one has done. There is no mentioning of the criteria of faith. This isn’t to state faith in irrelevant judgment; only that it isn’t what determines Jesus judgment of people.

The problem boils down to this: essentially, Protestants ultimaely made justification pertain to a distant eschatological event. Justification and salvation wasn’t about the realization of a new life in Christ at the present time where the power of heaven become realized in the present here on the earth; justification and salvation had become more about being forgiven of one’s sins so one can stand at the judgment of God. While this wasn’t the express purpose of Luther, as his main purpose was to reject the works-righteousness of Catholicism, it morphed into this. The end result is a hermeneutical gymnastics that largely relied upon an imputation of Christ’s righteousness (rather than the universal revealing of righteousness in Christ and a personal impartation of righteousness through the Spirit) to explain how one can survive the judgment of works: Christ’s own righteousness is credited to our accounts. But any reference to anything remotely like imputation is seriously lacking in the judgment texts.

Imputation is a doctrine necessitated by cognitive dissonance, to explain how certain traditions surrounding the meaning of righteousness and faith can align with seemingly dissonant passages about the way God judges. This is not only about the passages mentioned above. But the dissonance always relates to how God is merciful in judgment; if any sin makes one liable to the hellfires of judgment, then one needs to a mechanism that can explain why God will be merciful despite people’s sin. God is not merciful at the core of who He is, but something must satisfy his wrath to become merciful. So, Christ’s imputed righteousness allows God to be merciful. In other words, imputation is a necessary doctrine based upon a certain line of reasoning, but if the very foundational definition and concepts are off-base, then the whole doctrine is unnecessary.

Here is where I think a good reading of Romans fits in. In Romans, Paul is trying to move many Jewish-Christians away from speaking a narrative of condemnation and judgment towards the Gentile world, which Paul reflects in Romans 1:18-32. In part, he wants them to move to a narrative of God’s faithfulness rather than God’s judgment, but Paul also wants to develop a mission to the Gentiles in Spain and the Roman church can be a great source of help, but they need to see the way God works amongst sinners rightly. The thrust of Paul’s argument is that God will judge the world, but that He is at work in Christ to make it so that people will be able to stand at the future, apocalyptic judgment (Romans 2-3). It has always been by faith that God relates to others as his righteous people (Romans 4), and so God sends Christ into the world to make the many righteous (Romans 5) by being redemptively joined to Christ to be free from sin (Romans 6). This happens not through the Torah (chapter 7) but through the work of the Spirit (chapter 8:1-17). In other words, the very Gentile people the Jewish Christians at Rome were judging as worthy of condemnation for their unrighteousness, God had made a way for them (and Israel also) to live a new life through His Son and His Spirit. It is these people who love God as they are led by the Spirit who can have confidence in God’s love for them (Romans 8:18-39). Hence, through the transformation of the Spirit in conformity to the death and resurrection of Christ, sinners may be changed to stand confidently at the judgment Paul speaks of in Romans 2. God is creating a people who can stand with confidence and assurance at this final judgment and these people can even come from amidst the most ungodly, because this justification and redemption rests upon their faith in God and not their prior works. 

This reading of Romans doesn’t require a doctrine of imputation. Rather, it entails a proleptic view of justification (much as Paul sees believers as being seated in the heavenly places in Jesus in Ephesians 2:6, even though we are clearly living in the present earth which has not been transformed yet). Those who do the things of Torah are justified at the eschaton. So in the present time, those who God justifies by faith are set on a trajectory to be justified by works in the future eschaton. God declares what is a person’s true trajectory, which becomes a person’s future reality because God has revealed His righteousness, the standard by which people will be judged, in Christ and it is being realized through the giving of the Spirit. Sinner and weak though they are, they can be awakened and arise and realize this destiny that God has spoken over them as they follow the Spirit to live as Christ lived.

The tension between justification by faith and the judgment by works exists within the context of the now/not-yet eschatological tension. It is through faith that the now-ness of God’s eschatological work is realized. Justification by faith is linked to the present now-ness of God’s work to free people caught in sin and death; judgment by works is the not-yet, future judgment. In a sense, for Paul, faith is the means by which people are brought into a new, eschatological trajectory of life through Christ and the Spirit that will be fully and finally realized by the judgment.

One hindrance from the classical Protestant view to move past is to not construe God’s judgment too strictly in a forensic sense, where one is punished any and all violations of the law. That isn’t the vision of Jesus’ judgment. Rather, for Paul, it is a judgment that assays the inner parts of a person and how their heart directed their actions towards good and evil. This is similarly the point of Jesus in Matthew 12:33-37, where what people bring out ultimate is a reflection of their heart, so people’s words will be used to justify and condemn them because, as the implicit logic goes, their words reveal their hearts. Hebrews 4:12-13 brings this view of judgment up after exhorting them to not people’s become hardened and fall away due to sin:

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

The apocalyptic judgment is not a strict, by the letter of the law, judgment. It is a judgment of who the person ultimately is in a way that earthly judges can not filly do in truly assess who the person is, particularly in their relations to one another. Hence, unlike earthly judges who should only judge by what they can verify, God can and will show mercy to the merciful (Matthew 5:7; Matthew 25:34-40; James 2:13b) but also will be strict and harsh to those who are strict and harsh (Matthew 7:1-2; Matthew 25:41-45; Romans 2:3, James 2:13a). Thus, in Romans, it is Paul’s hope that those who immerse themselves in the narrative of God’s judgment due to a Maccabean-like zealotry will themselves move more towards a narrative of God’s faithfulness that will make them more open and cognizant of God’s patience and mercy and lead them into mercy.

Thus, we are justified by faith so that we can be changed at fundamental core of who we are so as to be judged as righteous by our works at the eschaton. Imputation is an unnecessary idea if we pair faith and works with the now/not-yet eschatological tension latent within Paul. 

Church. Just say no to empire-building.

August 11, 2018

The Church in America is addicted. It is addicted to attitudes and mores of the society in which it inhabits. There are many symptoms of this addiction. The culture of Christian celebrity and mega-church centralization are just a couple examples. These symptoms aren’t the problem, however. Christian celebrity and mega-churches are not themselves the problem, but they manifest a deeper concern and ambition: empire-building in the body of Christ.

What do I mean by empire-building? It is firstly a metaphor drawn from political empires, such as the Roman Empire, in which there is a steady accumulation of different resources of power that gives them an increasing influence over a larger number of people. Empires don’t just accumulate, but they lay down the necessary infrastructure and groundwork to make their power and resource accumulation from a centralized place more efficient and effective, such as the Roman roads. Then, according to the Oxford Dictionary, it is used to refer to “the practice of obtaining more power, responsibility, or staff within an organization for the purposes of self-aggrandizement.” I don’t mean to refer to empire-building as simply self-aggrandizement, although that is a common motivation. But empire-building has a way of giving one or a few central figures increasingly more power and privilege, even if it is done in the name of some good motivations, even it is done genuinely for that purpose.

So what do I mean by empire-building in the Church? I am referring to the predilection for a small selection of Christian leaders to steadily accumulate greater and greater control over a wider array of resources and people, all in the name of Jesus Christ. The phenomenon is most readily exemplified in mega-churches where the founding pastor becomes a permanent pillar of the church they planted. Bill Hybels and Willow Creek is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Planted in the 70s, Hybels remained there for over 4 decades and created an empire amongst Christian circles; they and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church were the two go-to resources for everything church in my college years. Now, we see some of the fruits of this in the numerous allegations of sexual misconduct and the failure of Willow Creek to adequately address these accusations and remove and/or appropriately hold Hybels accountable.

But the problem isn’t simply an issue of sexual misconduct. It is deeper and more pervasive. The will of God was never intended to be realized amongst empires; God can certainly use powerful figures and positions, such as King David, but this has never been God’s preferred method of enacting His will. Israel, which had memories of the cruel bondage under Egypt came to long for a king to be like the nations; they wanted to have power the way the other nations had power. God through Samuel accommodated the wishes of Israel but with a warning: it would come with great injustice.

We see the similar phenomenon among churches today. But instead of simply longing for imperial political power, which we witness among brands of conservative Christianity, we also witness a longing for the power of the corporation and its processes. Numerous churches are founded upon organizational principles and process of larger, successful businesses. Of course, many people have lamented this and even though trying to learn from businesses recognize that the Church is not a business. The compromise that is offered is something along the lines of adopting the processes but not adopted the messages and purposes.

What I am criticizing isn’t the accommodation of these processes however. What I am critiquing is the underlying assumption that the churches exist under the continued supervision of a specific figure or set of figures. These churches are not simply plundering the Egyptians, but they are imitating the Egyptians. Many newer, corporate brands are often synonymous with their leaders and their personality, much as Egyptian power was an extension of Pharoah’s personality. For instance, Apple was synonymous with Steve Jobs; Bill Gates with Microsoft; Tesla with Elon Musk. Empires routinely become extensions of their leader(s) by creating the infrastructure that makes accumulation, management, and dissemination of information increasingly efficient for a few people.

Apple was mined for wisdom in how to do church. But in doing so, they replicated not simply processes, for instance, but the style where a singular leader can impress, if not enforce, their own personality onto the life of the church and the people in it in increasingly efficient and wide-spread manners. But here is the problem: Apple in the end is in the business of selling products. While they have created a culture for their products, desides the people they hire, they don’t impact the core of people’s lives in a powerful way. That isn’t the case for churches. Church are in the work of forming relationships, relationships with God and with that in two, then relationships with each other; these things have a central impact on who we are as persons. So when the Church tasks of building relationships is imperialized, it becomes a dangerous thing; witness the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church prior to the Reformation. When churches empire-build, they become closer to Egypt and Rome with tremendous impact upon people at a level far greater than corporations like Apple.

But if we compare Paul to the empire-building churches of today, we see something different. Paul does not rest in one place. He sees his job at laying the foundation of Christ; he doesn’t want to preach where Christ is known but he wants to make the love of God in Jesus Christ known in new places. Then, through instructions to Timothy, he seeks to make the churches sustainable on their own, perhaps hoping that one day they will not need to rely on him for instruction and guidance. Paul expands, but as he expands, he also lets go. Paul is no personal empire-builder, but he is a builder of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Contrast that with the mindset in churches today. Founding pastors of successful churches don’t generally go on to plant new churches. Rather, they tend to persist and remain in their place, to enjoy the longer terms comforts of the power they have and accumulate rather than using their giftedness for expanding in new places while relinquishing the current power they have. Sure, they preach Christ, but so did the Pope.

Now, the apostolic calling of Paul and church-planting are not exactly equivalent. Apostles were ambassadors coming to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ to places that were ignorant of what had happened in Judea. Church planters in the United States go to places where people are familiar with Jesus and attitudes about Jesus are already largely defined. A lot more work is necessary for someone who already has views about Jesus to come to a place of faith than it is for someone who knows nothing about Christ. So, church planting in the United States can come with a lot more time, energy, and effort in a single place if they are making new disciples. Church planters are not apostles.

But there is something important to take from Paul. Paul employed His giftedness in new places. While he certainly developed a social network that assisted him as he moved to new places and received assistance from the churches he had planted in the past, as he was expanding, he had to let go. Paul was no empire-builder; he couldn’t be even if he had wanted to. And if you pay attention to Jesus, he wasn’t an empire-builder either. He eschewed the attempts to anoint him to political power. He didn’t accept anyone and everyone who came to him; he often spoke in allusive ways that befuddled people. Much of Jesus time was spent mentoring the disciples to understand rather than trying to build a following.

Why? Because in the end, empire-building is inconsistent with the ethos of God’s Kingdom. The problem isn’t expansion; mega-churches themselves are not the problem. The problem isn’t people developing a higher status; Christian celebrity isn’t the problem. The problem isn’t success; having a big impact is not the problem. The problem is accumulation without letting go; this is at the core of empire-building.

“Better” is not the language of God’s kingdom

August 10, 2018

I was watching a video on Twitter this afternoon that was praising a musician for the quality of his album that had a religious message to it and the person said it helped to make him a better person, better husband, etc. The word “better” rung out to be. It is similar to the language I have heard on Christian retreats, where people commit themselves to be “better”  in some capacity. Then, if I could summarize the implicit message of a lot of books on ministry, it can be summarized to this: “how you can be better at…” “Better” is a word and concept that has infiltrated our moral and spiritual vocabulary.

Offhand, this doesn’t seem like a bad thing. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we just treated each other better? I think most us can intuitively see the moral goodness to the idea. But there is a problem with this: it subtly betrays an obsession with quality, an obsession that has developed in our modern, technological capitalist society. It isn’t simply about being good enough; one has to be better. We live in a society consistently trying to upgrade our way to happiness and peace, whether it upgrading your phone, an improved state-of-the-art psychotropic drug to treat your mood, or hoping your sports team make a trade at the deadline to upgrade production at first base.

Now, there is nothing wrong with quality, so far as a) you are talking about products and b) you aren’t placed you full hope on these products. But besides the obvious negatives about consumeristic hopes in better products, when the language of quality pervades our views of people, we are walking down a tight-line towards objectification of people.

The damages isn’t as overt as what can happen when we are obsessed about being “good.” Obsession about being “good” and avoiding being “bad” has its own problems which can express itself in pathology. “Better” is much more subtle as it isn’t necessarily saying “you are bad, but you need to really try harder.” In a culture of improving quality, it creates an insidious liturgy of continual disenchantment with ourselves and others. We aren’t satisfied with “good.” We got to extend ourselves to be more, which leaves us always exhausted, always worn out, always worrying about tomorrow because we aren’t doing good enough today. Here, “better” can fertilize the seeds of a strident perfectionism.

Now, sometimes the language of better masks the language of repentance. For instance, men who wish to be better husbands may have a recognition that they have not been as respectful and faithful to their wife as they should have been. But this masking of repentance I would say is a problem, because lurking underneath it is often times a sense of “my failures are readily redeemable” rather than “I am in need of forgiveness” and “I see my past actions with regret.” Being better rushes through the heart of repentance, seeking to get past the problem in our minds, when in fact we may need to spend the time so we can truly recognize the gravity of the situation and to accept there may not be an immediate, quick-fix solution to get better at it. Here, “better” can fertilize the seeds of an impervious narcissism.

Then, there is the issue that “better” suggests we can’t redirect to focus on other concerns, because this one thing needs improvement. There are many ways that we fall short of perfection, but when we are obsessed about “better” we tend to focus on the narrow concerns that we are preoccupied by, while overlooking other concerns that we may have entirely neglected. Typically because we are concerned about what the most people are concerned about, but not necessarily concerned about what is really happening. Being “better” means I don’t have the time to consider anything else, I have to stay focus on this one specific thing that I can not let go. Here, “better” can fertilize the seeds of an oblivious parochialism. 

“Better” is not the language of God’s kingdom. The language of God’s kingdom is repentance, faith, and faithfulness. Repentance is the attitude where we see our past actions in light of a new attitude; it isn’t a “let me fix it” mindset but “I understand” reflection. Then, with repentance, we pair faith; faith in God that He is merciful and forgiving, but in the context in our social relationships, a well-placed faith in others that they will be there with us to help us(this type of faith should be towards those who do act in a trustworthy fashion; you shouldn’t trust the untrustworthy). Then, what is usually translated as righteousness in the Bible we can helpfully understand as faithfulness, which is built around a concern from our heart for the other, not a successful product(ion) for another. Faithfulness from the heart comes both with attentiveness, which enables us to learn, and an eagerness, which motivates to act according to what we learn.

Christian. Quit trying to be better. Repent, have faith, and be faithful. This way of life will create a harvest of righteousness; better can have you straining at a gnat while you swallow a camel.

Justification as a relational status

August 10, 2018

From Martin Luther onwards it has been a common view to see Paul’s discussion of justification pertains to a forensic status that people have before God. It evokes an image of a court-room, where a verdict is given that has the power to determine reward, or more generally, punishment. However, given the obvious sinfulness of people, it produces a contradiction or paradox: how can God be righteous if he justifies sinners by faith? Hence, a necessary explanation within this framing of justification is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to our account so that Christ’s perfection is attributed to our account. But what underlies this framing of justification is the conceptualization of righteousness as moral perfection. To be righteous means one never sins; the existence of one sin means one is classified as a sinner.

This contrasts with the Catholic view of righteousness as infused. For Augustine, justification was the act of God to make people righteous; this then morphed into righteousness coming through the sacraments to make people righteous, since the sacraments were consider invested with God’s own action and even being in the body and blood of Christ. Here, what underlies this framing of justification is something similar to the Protestant framing: moral character.

The real difference between Catholicism and Protestantism roots in how one frames justification; is righteousness in terms of personality or perfection? But what if the problem is the association of morality with some moral code? This is a natural conclusion to draw; since righteousness is linked with the Law/Torah and works, clearly righteousness and justification relate to these things. Doesn’t that pertain to morality?

It doesn’t have to. Consider the idea of faithfulness in the context of a marriage. Do couples measure faithfulness to each other in terms of some moral code, such as don’t commit adultery, don’t lie, contribute your share to the relationship, etc.? Or, is faithfulness comprehended more so in the way the people love and are attentive to each other in such a way that leads them to not committing adultery, not lying to each other, helping each other, etc.? In other words, is marital faithfulness as matter of conformity to rules or a matter of responsive to each other? I would imagine most people would say ideally faithfulness should be a matter of the latter, rather than the former.

Let’s consider this as a way to understand righteousness and justification for Paul. Rather than righteousness being a moral character of a moral perfection, it is of a relational nature that determines how people respond to God. If that is the case, when Abraham believes God, God’s crediting this as righteousness is neither some forensic act that overlooks Abraham’s sins to see him as perfect nor an act of making Abraham a better person. Rather, it is to recognize that Abraham is responsive to God in the way he trusts; just as Abraham trusts God, God recognizes Abraham as the type to be trustworthy and reliable to Him.

This is essentially the point in James 2:18-26. Abraham is recognized as a “friend of God” and this corresponded to his willingness to offer Isaac. In a sense, one could say that God could trust Abraham as Abraham trusted God. Paul’s discussion of Abraham in Romans 4 is of a similar sort: Abraham remained faithful/trusting in God regarding the promise God made to Abraham regarding his descendants despite his advanced age and childlessness; Abraham’s faith wasn’t a fickle faith but he persevered in his trust in God. While they talk about different aspects of Abraham’s responsive to God, they both illustrate Abraham’s faith from how he responds to God after what happens in Genesis 15.

Therefore, if this is a correct reading, justification is not a moral status or personality. It is God’s statement about a person’s relational status to Him. But it isn’t a recognition of past credits that one says “See how faithful I am to you, God”, but rather God’s statement about a person’s future. It is God declaring what trajectory the person’s life is on since they trust Him, which will lead to a change of behavior in the future. Hence, God can justify the ungodly because justification isn’t per se about moral behavior or status, but about the recognition of how this (outwardly) ungodly person trusts in God. Nothing about them would signal to others that they were someone God can and will trust, but God sees what other people don’t.

But it should be clarified that this wouldn’t be a statement about a person’s own inner personality that makes them trustworthy to God. God’s justifying the ungodly is grace because it is God’s drawing close through His Son and in the pouring of His Spirit that give the person’s heart towards God the capacity to come to fruition in their actions. God graciously what the person longs to do and be but are not capable of doing themselves, which is what Paul talks about in Romans 7:14-25.

Hence, the contrast between faith and works of the Torah in Romans and Galatians pertains to the status of being recognized as faithful to God. One can have the Torah, hear it, and even do it, but one’s heart may not truly be one with God’s heart in what one is doing. This is Jesus’ implicit criticism of the Pharisees in the Sermon on the Mount. This is Paul’s criticism in Romans 2:17-29: people who were circumcised and instruct people in the ways of Torah still commit many sins, in hypocrisy to the judgment they launch outward at others. Why? Because the Torah was never given with the power to create a righteousness of heart, but rather it helps people to have the knowledge so as to recognize sin (Romans 3:20; 7:7).

To put this in more modern language, to the people who genuinely trust God, God trusts them with the power of the Spirit in conformity to Christ to make their desires to love God come to fruition. With a faith like Abraham’s, God recognizes the trajectory and course our life is taking.

The ingredients of an insufficient response to injustice

August 10, 2018

There is a full cleaning of house at Willow Creek with the all the elders and lead pastor resigning because of to their lack of appropriate action when multiple women accused Bill Hybels of sexual misconduct. Such sweeping changes are rare, unless there are threats of criminal or civil action, but it is a step in a positive direction for Willow Creek. Whether the church survives this scandal and shaking up or not remains is not certain, but it would have been more likely had an adequate response been in place from the beginning. Unfortunately, when it comes to matters of potentially deep injustice, in whatever forms they take, there is the tendency to “under-respond” to the concern at hand; it is even more painful for me when churches and church leaders, whom should ideally be peaceful places of refuge from the objectification and abuse that the world offers up, are deeply complicit in the problem. The elders treated the accusers with an undeserved skepticism and thus failed to appropriate hold Bill Hybels accountable. Why is this the case for Willow Creek, accusations of sexual misconduct and harassment, and injustice more broadly?

There are at least three inter-related, psychological factors that can readily be contagious across a group of people: 1) a strong positive idealization of a person, organization, institution, brand, etc., 2) motivating an attempt to resolve any dissonance between negative reports of injustice towards the person, organization, institution, brand, etc. with positive idealization by 3) reframing, minimizing, and ignoring the accusations and reports of injustice so that the positive idealization may continue. Put more succinctly, we have difficulty tolerating blemishes on someone or something that is deeply important to us. As a consequence, reports of injustice have a way of either a) being denied outright or b) minimized to an emotionally comfortable level. Therefore, the responses to such reports either keep the same status quo going or put on a band-aid, thinking it will solve the minor problem they noticed.

All this leads to a tendency to rush through all the emotionally uncomfortable stuff of dealing with accusations. It is deeply uncomfortable to consider someone or something you love being a source of hurt, harm, or even evil. Accusers and the accused are not properly talked to with the appropriate opportunities for feedback, but they tend to be pigeon-holed into specific boxes that control how those investigating engage with and hear the parties. Their discomfort with the idea makes them poor listeners and causes them to rationalize away why they should not listen in the first place, such as premature explanations that the accusers are lying, mental disorder, etc. based upon no to the slimmest of evidence. Or, in the case where the accusers are highly valued as persons (which almost never happens when the accused is of a high status), the accused is immediately treated as having a deep problem with little opportunity to tell the narrative that is dissonant with the high value placed upon the accuser; this creates the opposite problem of over-correction if the situation is not appropriately understood, which can itself become a source of deep injustice. In short, our emotional idealizations cause us to be resistant to any information that would challenge those positive views, thereby inhibiting listening.

As a result, those charged with investigating complaints are often out of the loop of important and significant events, developing a sense of confidence of the biased information they have; they really do believe they know the truth about the accusations and thus can offer an adequate (non-)response. Rather than recognizing the existence of “known unknowns” that would challenge their confidence, they have a tendency to operate in the ignorance of “unknown unknowns.” Their attachments lead them to not realize how ignorant they are of the damages that have been caused. Thus, they rarely, if ever, adequately address issues of injustice and are often caught surprised later on down the road if the story ever gets out.

But, if I may suggest, this becomes the reality we face when we face situations where people, organizations, institutions, brands, etc. are “too big to fail.” Our attachments are not based simply upon what has happened in the past, but our sense of the future. I can imagine many of the Elders of Willow Creek feeling a bit of anxiety about the future of the church if these accusations against Hybels were true. “What will happen?” The fears in such a mindset activate a sense and need of self-preservation, which can then lead to a distorting one’s beliefs about the circumstances to operate according to your own best desires and interests. When we feel someone or something is “too big to fail,” we unwittingly pull out our rose-colored glasses. The net effect is that listening is rather poor when things are “too big to fail.”

This is the opposite of how Jesus called brothers and sisters to live together. In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus says the following:

If another member of the church (literally, “brother” or a gender-neutral “sibling”) sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (NRSV)

Here, Jesus doesn’t put the emphasis on an agreement, although that is probably implied, but on the act of listening. Jesus, who was showed a keen observation of people’s behavior, places the emphasis on how the ‘accused’ response to what the persons says, as if it is how one listens to an accusation that determines whether one truly honors the family one is a part of.

So, in effect, then, the “too big to fail” mentality prominent in mega-churches, denominations, seminaries, etc. creates a potential division within our larger spiritual family. If I may suggest, this “too big to fail” mentality is probably responsible for a lot of abuse that is happening within our Christian family. Look at what has happened within the Roman Catholic church! Us Protestants are only now starting to receive the same judgment the Catholic church has had to face. 

Paul addresses a similar mentality in 1 Corinthians, where the church was dividing along lines of associating themselves with particular teachers; social status and hierarchy was ruling the Christian community at Corinth. Then, Paul mentions there were reports of sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 5:1-2. The response: people responded to it with arrogance, thinking they were invulnerable, rather than responding with mourning at the word of what was happening. In the arrogance, they failed to respond; instead, if Paul’s larger report about the Corinthians practices of “knowledge” and “wisdom” are representative, they may have rationalized the behavior away in a boastful manner. As a consequence, Paul warns them about the contagious nature of this behavior, speaking about it in the metaphor of leaven/yeast in vs. 6-7; the more the yeast remains, the worse it gets.

And this seems to have been the case with Bill Hybels, although I am not familiar with all the timeline and details of Hybels behaviors over the years. As the necessary corrective measures were neither allowed for or taken, the problem got worse and worse to the point that it not only became a deep, pervasive sin for Hybels but it infected the Elders with a wrongful attitude towards their sisters in Christ. The problem only got worse and corrupted Willow Creek to the point that is a real question what its future will be, but perhaps this is for the best for this mega-church?

The solution for the church isn’t simply to develop better procedures. As valuable as these are, when the rules run against the desires and passions of the heart, the heart will win 90% of the time and will apply the rules in selectively self-serving manners. While better procedures are helpful to direct and instruct, moving away from the personal and institutional expansionism that pervades the church and creates a “too big to fail” syndrome will reduce the feelings of cognitive dissonance that inhibits appropriate listening and response. This pulls back to the mentality more authentic to the body of Christ, where people sees themselves as belonging to Christ. Instead of deriving our primary identity from a specific, larger-than-life personality or organization, we derive our identity from a lower-than-life-to-the-point-of-death Savior.

Faith as THE means, not the condition, of salvation

August 9, 2018

In his sermon “Salvation by Faith,” John Wesley explores the doctrine of the aforementioned salvation by faith in his proto-analytic style1 where he a) analyzes the concept of saving faith as distinct from other types of faith and b) the effects of salvation. Before getting into his analysis of the two concepts, he states the following relationship between grace, faith, and salvation that is based upon his sermon text of Ephesians 2:8: “Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation.”2

When Wesley says faith is the condition of salvation, it is better amplified by his comments in I.5:

And herein does it differ from that faith which the Apostles themselves had while our Lord was on earth, that it acknowledges the necessity and merit of his death, and the power of his resurrection. It acknowledges his death as the only sufficient means of redeeming man from death eternal, and his resurrection as the restoration of us all to life and immortality; inasmuch as he “was delivered for our sins, and rose again for our justification.” Christian faith is then, not only an assent to the whole gospel of Christ, but also a full reliance on the blood of Christ; a trust in the merits of his life, death, and resurrection; a recumbency upon him as our atonement and our life, as given for us, and living in us; and, in consequence hereof, a closing with him, and cleaving to him, as our “wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,” or, in one word, our salvation.3

Faith is the condition of salvation insofar as it relies upon the atonement that Christ has bought. So, when Wesley’s speaks of a condition, he is not referring to some condition that arbitrarily has a certain result, without any sense of connection between the condition and the result. Rather, there is a connection between faith and salvation/justification in relying upon what God has provided in Christ to bring about salvation; there is a relationship between God’s work in Christ and faith to bring about the result of justification.

However, the precise nature of this relationship isn’t exactly clear for Wesley. As Matt O’Reilly observed Wesley did not have a doctrine of imputed righteousness until somewhere between 1739, the earliest date for his sermon “Justification by Faith” where he denies imputed righteousness and 1765, the latest date for “The Lord our Righteousness” when he affirms imputed righteousness. Meanwhile, “Salvation by Faith” was given less than a month after his famed Aldersgate experience, whereupon hearing Luther’s preface to his commentary on Romans he felt his heart strangely warmed. Wesley had taken a whole of Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith and immediately began preaching about it. However, that Wesley changed his mind about imputed righteousness over the years could suggest that the relationship between Christ’s atonement, faith, and salvation wasn’t entirely clear for Wesley, necessitating a later acceptance of the Lutheran and Reformed doctrine of imputation. But if we are to read the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as being the effectual act that establishes the relationship between faith and salvation/justification, then conditions, while not meant in an arbitrary manner is appropriate. Faith bears no causal effect that brings about justification, except that God chooses faith to be the condition of salvation. It is by God’s will and action that human faith causes salvation.

However, this is not the best way to understand Paul, including in Ephesians 2:8. Paul says that people are saved διά πίστεως (“through faith”). This prepositional phrase occurs two more times in Ephesians in 3:12 and 3:17. In 3:12 the prepositional phrase 1) includes also the genitive pronoun αὐτοῦ in reference to Christ and 2) probably stands in an adverbial relationship to the verb ἔχομεν (“we have”), which takes “access” as its direct objects. Here, Christ’s own faith4 is the basis upon which Paul can preach boldly the mystery that has now been made known. Since, it is a quality of Christ, Paul certainly intends διά τῆς πίστεως αὐτοῦ to refer to some causal relationship between faith and the action the prepositional phrase stands in relationship to. Then, in 3:17, Paul uses διά τῆς πίστεως to adverbially describe the verb κατοικῆσαι (“to live”). Paul has the desire that Christ live in the hearts of the Gentiles, and so “through (the) faith” describes the way his desire will become a reality for them. In both instances, διά (τῆς) πίστεως has an instrumental relationship to the verb it describes. It is no mere condition, but it plays an instrumental role.

This then should be read back into 2:8. Paul isn’t outlining a mere condition of being saved. Rather, Paul is suggesting that faith is somehow instrumental in God’s gracious salvation, which Paul defines as being made alive together with Jesus Christ in 2:5. What is this relationship? I would speculate it has something to do with the relationship between Christ’s own faith in 3:12 and our faith in 3:17. Paul says that there is “one faith” in 4:5. Then in 4:11-13, Paul describe the purposes of God’s gifting of leadership offices for the “building up the body of Christ” towards the goal of “the unity of Christ’s faith and knowledge.”5 Paul’s concern is being fitted into the pattern of Christ. Thus, he sees one type of faith, Christ’s own faith, that is becoming a reality.

This suggests the instrumental nature of faith in salvation for Paul. By faith, one is sharing in Christ’s own character, and thus one is being joined together with Christ’s own life. Faith is the way in which we realize the very life of Christ into our own person. But Paul is not a proto-Pelagian in this, suggesting we can merely muster up our hearts and minds to have this type of faith, therefore become saved. Rather, the access Paul describes in 3:12 is an access that is provided by the Spirit, as mentioned in 2:18. Paul’s desire for Christ to be in the Gentiles hearts is preceded by the expression of the prayer for strengthening by the Holy Spirit in the inner person, suggesting the possibility that Paul thought the Spirit impacting the person to cause the necessary and/or sufficient conditions for faith to become true.6 In other words, God’s gracious intentions are enacted through the Spirit, which could be argued should be construed in terms of regenerating grace in the Reformed tradition or prevenient grace in the Wesleyan tradition.7

If my exegesis of Paul is correct, that suggests that Ephesians 2:8 is not stating faith is the condition of salvation, in the sense that Wesley employs the term. Rather, it refers to something similar other parts of Wesley’s definition of salvation in II.7, “a deliverance from the power of sin, through Christ formed in his heart.”8 While Paul’s construal of salvation of Christ in the heart is more than solely a power over sin but rather includes also a sharing in the heavenly blessings and riches, Wesley’s recognition of the transformation of the person over and against sin is more consistent with the definition of salvation in Ephesians.

In this light, the inability of “works” isn’t about a misguided attempt at a works-righteousness that Luther saw and that was transmitted to Wesley through Luther. Nor do I think Paul is referring to precisely the same thing as he does in Romans and Galatians when saying the works of the Torah do not justify, though the two concepts are related. Paul barely addresses the notion of the Torah in Ephesians. Rather, I would suggest Paul is in a sense arguing that the Christian way of life is not realized through the standard patterns of the pedagogy of virtue within the wider Greco-Roman culture; for instance, the Stoic Epictetus saw the formation of habits through actions as a necessary condition for virtue.9 Paul’s response, which isn’t to adopt a theory of virtue but an alternative to virtue ethics, is to say that when one has faith in the pattern of Christ one is formed by God into the pattern of Christ’s life, which includes the both the overcoming the death-dealing power of sin and the blessings and riches that Christ Himself has. This implicit rejection of virtue theory could also incorporate the idea that the works of the Torah do not justify, but as part of a more general, global anthropological theory.

To use a different Wesleyan term, I would say Paul thinks of faith as the essential means of realizing salvation and its benefits. In a sense, faith is a means of grace, but a means of a totally different quality than the things Wesley referred to as the means of grace such as the sacraments, Scripture reading, prayer, works of mercy like service to the poor, etc.. I would say that faith is the means of grace that makes all the other means of grace effectual; however, I would add that faith firstly works in isolation from the other means of grace/works so that one is not merely creating a sophisticated form of virtue ethical theory that simply adds Christ on top of it.