One of the questions that ran through my mind when I was in my psychology degree at Mississippi State was trying to figure out how to allow for free will to believe in God if neural and hormonal patterns determined human thought and behavior. While I have never been able to give a strong answer, other than accept more-or-less Wesleyan view of grace while moving away from the metaphysical concept of “free will” to the less metaphysically burdensome but similar concept of “freedom,” one of the intellectual tasks this question catalyzed was the question about the power of God in human life. How is it that God’s power operates in human life? Or, can we simply reduce religious faith and impulse to simply patterns of conditioning?
For me, for Christian faith to be real and legitimate, there had to have been something more that contributed to human faith than what psychology could observe, analyze, and theorize about. However, implicit in that was the assumption that God’s sort of activity worked on a purely different level than “normal” psychology. In other words, I had embraced a dualistic causality that made God’s agency had to somehow engage the person by contact at the “spiritual” level, as if Spirit-to-spirit “contact.” In light of this intellectual question, 2 Timothy 3.5 played a role in my thinking, where Paul spoke of people in the last days “holding to the shape of godliness, but denying its power.” Clearly, in my mind, if Christianity was to be true, there had to be something happening behind the vale of materiality to make it so. Now, certainly, I still do believe that the activity of God’s Holy Spirit can not be reduced to material observation and reality. However, at the same time, I had come to devalue the power of what is embodied.
In 2 Timothy 3.5, Paul uses the word μόρφωσιν. BDAG suggests the word refers to “outward form,” but this seems to not make the best sense in context. The contrast with δύναμιν/power does not suggest a outer/inner framing. Rather the contrast between them better fits as referring to two of the four types of causes that Aristotle spoke of: formal cause and efficient cause. The formal cause refers to, essentially, the shape of something, the way something looks and appears. The efficient cause, on the otherhand, is the cause that creates the change in something, which is readily associated with power. If this is the case, then 2 Timothy 3.5 would read more along the lines of “having the shape of godliness, but denying its power.”
The image being conveyed here isn’t a dualistic separation of the outside from the inside, but rather the relationship between what is observed and that which forms what is observed. It is like, to use a metaphor apt for our prsent worldwide crisis, like the relatioship of a symptom to a virus. Both are very real and distinguished between the two, but the virus is considered the cause of the symptoms. Likewise, what Paul is describing here in 2 Timothy 3.5 are people who have a specific shape in their lives of godliness, but they have somehow denied the efficent cause of it. What exactly does this mean?
It is helpful to consider what exactly Paul means by the word ἀρνέομαι, often translated as denying. The meaning of this likely relates back to Paul’s usage of this word back in 2 Timothy 2.8-13:
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him
if we deny (ἀρνησόμεθα) him, he will also deny (ἀρνήσεται) us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny (ἀρνήσασθαι) himself. (NRSV)
Here, in the third line of the saying, the language of denying is pointed towards the person of Jesus, in which Jesus will reciprocate a denial offered against him. The first three lines of this saying is perhaps an echo of Jesus teaching in Mark 8.34-38. If that is the case, then to deny Jesus is to be understood in contrast to taking up one’s own cross to follow him and giving one’s life to to save it, which the first two lines of the saying make refernece to. The fourth line adds a bit more to this, as Jesus’ inability to deny himself is connected to his remaining faithful. In context, it seems to refer to Jesus’ own faithfulness to death. In light of all of this, Paul seems to use denial here as someone who refuses to accept the difficult journey in following Jesus to the cross, much as the disciple Peter originally did three times before being restored by Jesus (and may even be a demonstration for the fourth line).
So, when we move back to 2 Timothy 3.5, it makes sense to suggest that the power being denied that Paul is talking about is being will to take up suffering on behalf of the Gospel. This is supported by the fact that in contrast to such false teachers, Paul highlights his own ministry, which includes his persecutions and sufferings in 2 Timothy 3.10-11. He then goes on to say that “all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Notice that Paul does not say “all who live a godly life,” but he specifically uses the verbal participle to refer to people who want (οἱ θέλοντες) godliness. In other words, it isn’t the accomplishment of righteousness that makes one persecuted, but it is those who actively seek to be godly who will face trials, possibly suggesting that the trials are formative for godliness (cf. James 1.2-4). Meanwhile, those Paul denigrates as wicked and false keep on getting worse. The implication behind this, then, is that faceing the tribulations and persecutions is instrumental in making progress.
Of course, at this point, it bears mentioning that Paul is not lauding some sort of masochistic “one must seek suffering to be righteous.” No. Rather, he is ultimatley talking about taking Jesus as the pattern for being able to live a godly life. Perhaps it is best to suggest that a Christ-shaped faithfulness is the power that is being denied. In seeking to be faithful to Christ, one will face such trials.
The exegetical advantage of this reading is that it doesn’t try to explain the power of godliness by appeal to the Holy Spirit , who is barely mentioned in 2 Timothy asides from perhaps 1.6-7. This Christocentric reading is part of a well-established pattern throughout the letter.
The theological advantage is that it provides a precedent that any explanation for the cause of the Christian life does not have to resort to an exclusively “spiritual” explanation that is compartmentalized from human activity. The Protestant Reformation’s tendency to split off faith from works has the way of treating the Spirit as the cause of all works, thereby diminishing the formative role that comes when people bear their cross. This doesn’t mean that we can explain everything about the Christian life to simply human agency and choice to following Christ; certainly the work of the Spirit plays a role. However, instead of a pattern of spiritual development that splits off human agency from Divine agency in formation, we can instead move towards a type of human agency instructed and directed by Divine agency, both in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and his life, death, and resurrection alongside the Spirit who brings to remembrance the teachings of Jesus and leads people to put to death the deeds of the flesh.
Put differently, I have found it is very helpful to think of spiritual formation as empowered by God through God drawing our hearts towards a specific, Christ-shaped telos, with this telos being continuously sustained through our faithfulness in walking by the Spirit. As we are continuously drawn further and further towards this telos through the narrative of Christ and the various leadings and gifts of the Spirit, our hearts and minds become continuously formed by the actions we take.
This contrasts with the standard Divine empowerment model that suggests that humans are given a power to obey God that is innately not part of us. This is due to a form of total depravity that explains human inability to human nature itself that permanently altered in the fall. The above model of spiritual formation does not deny total inability, but it explains human faithless and sin differently as due to a distance of God that was created from human sin spanned back to Adam, which makes us ignorant of Him. Given our limitations, only the God who is not limited can rectify this by drawing near to us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and the powering of the Holy Spirit into our heart. This nearness and closeness of God provides an image and intution about Him and His purposes which draws us in to come close to Christ, much like the apperance and approach of a missed beloved motivates a person to approach and draw near. It isn’t that God gives us some general ability to obey God, but that it is God who gives us a vision of knowledge of Himself in Jesus Christ and through the Spirit, without which we could not draw near and continue to do so.1
I have never really satisfactiorally explained the paradox I felt between human freedom and psychology, but I have found and discovered something that is perhaps much more valuable from that intellectual journey.
- The ever present need of the leaidng of the Holy Spirit prevents this from becoming Pelagian/semi-Pelagian, as there is never a point in time where human transformation can be purely directed by the resources, knowledge, and capacities the person has at hand. To always grow and be transformed into the glory of Christ always entails the continuing learning about the narrative of Christ and the ongoing leading of the Spirit.