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

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June 2, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May 29, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Corinthians 12.1-3 and atonement

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May 28, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the New Perpsective on Paul simply a cultural byproduct?

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May 26, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God and social identity

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May 19, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hermeneutical key to the Scriptures: The cross vs. Gnosticism

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May 16, 2019

Early in the life of the church, the defenders of the orthodox faith by people such as Irenaeus of Lyons had to face off against a creek that branched off and the river of Christian tradition: Gnosticism. What Gnosticism taught is impossible to answer because a) there was not a monolithic Gnosticism or a central authority that resembled what emerged in orthodox Christianity and b) the scattered nature of our sources make it hard to systematically reconstruct the various branches of Gnosticism. But one key element that distinguished the orthodox Christians from the Gnostics was hermeneutical: how it is that one should come to understand the Scriptures?

For the Gnostics, there was a general pattern that they laid claim to having a secret teaching that made sense of the Scriptures. Much like the Pharisees used the traditions of the elders that controlled how they understood and applied the Torah, the Gnostics also had an oral tradition from teachers, such as Valentinus, that they used to interpret the Scripture. This secret teaching unavailable to others was contrasted with the public confession that existed throughout the orthodox churches. At one level, the distinction between orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism is at the level of public and shared vs. private and secret hermeneutical knowledge.

While this contrast between public and private knowledge is helpful in a historical analysis of the causes behind the pluralism of Gnosticism and the unity of the emergent catholicity, I think this is of a secondary value theology.1  I think the shared tradition of the early churches has a derivative value coming from the central core of the apostolic faith: the hermeneutical key of the cross to provide the right understanding of the Scriptures. A shared tradition ensures a common confession across the churches that protects the epistemic centrality of the cross through a common voice, even if this was not the overt intention of Irenaeus and later Catholic thinkers in establishing the importance of catholicity and tradition for interpreting the Scriptures.2

The deeper theological difference I would suggest divides the orthodox Christians from the Gnostics is that differences they have in how one rightly interprets the Scriptures. But to be clear here, I am not referring to hermeneutics in the senses we usually hear it in referring to a prescribed methodology and principles for right interpreting the words of a text, such as Scripture. Rather, I am referring more so the pre-understandings we bring to the act of interpretation that influences how we construe the meaning of what it is that we read.

For the Gnostics, it came in the form of specific ideas and concepts that they taught. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies immediately catalogs a Gnostic cosmology of Aeons as preexistent powers/beings that they can then see being referred to in the Scriptures. For the Gnostics, the pre-understanding was essentially a form of metaphysical mythology that one can then see mentioned in the Scriptures.

By contrast, the orthodox Christians creeds and practices functioned to maintain the centrality of the cross in the narrative of redemption, even if there was a penchant to address metaphysical concerns like the Arian controversy. While not presenting the cross as a key to interpreting the Scriptures (although, the person of Jesus was early on taken as the center of understanding the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament), they kept the Jesus’ crucifixion front and center in the Church’s worship and life. I would say they value of this is that by keeping the cross in the center, it had the value of training people to understand the Scriptures with the event of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in mind, even if that was not the intentional purpose a common theology and tradition was used to serve.

So, from a hermeneutical angle, I want to suggest what makes orthodox Christianity so different from Gnosticism: orthodox Christianity makes possible, although does not ensure, that one’s understanding of the Scriptures is influenced by a way of life defined by the cross. The whole of Jesus’ life and teachings, the epistles of Paul, the visions of Revelation, etc. can come to be comprehended by people who have been formed by a cruciform life. One’s own experience, one’s own formation, one’s own memory informs and influences every part of one’s reading of the Gospels, for instance. The necessary (although perhaps not sufficient) conditions for right interpretation rest upon personal participation in the Church’s worship and praxis.

By contrast, Gnosticism appealed to some specific set of teachings as the necessary condition for right interpretation. Once you get these specific concepts, you have the hermeneutical key to find everything else that is important to learn. I want to suggest that there are two problems with this: it leads to (1) a form of eisgesis that leads to interpretations that massively diverge from the basic sense of the words of Scripture and (2) leads to a form of intellectual reductionism that stifles real creativity.

While the former is covered by Irenaeus and others, the latter is of particular ‘interest’ to me. It might sound surprising to suggest that the Gnostics, often times heralded as those fights against the dogmatic powers of the narrow-minded orthodox, would lead to a stifling of interpretive creativity, but I would suggest this is the problem with all forms of interpretation that emphasize specific ideas as the necessary key. When one has a specific doctrine or set of doctrines in mind, be they Gnostic or any other theological system, one’s mind becomes trained to pick up on these specific cognitive patterns in one’s reading. Whatever the idea is, one engages in a form of cognitive entrenchment that leads one to see this idea everywhere one can find it.

Allow me to give another alternative from my own experience. Early in college, I developed a doctrinal obsession with the idea that one could lose one’s salvation. To be clear, this wasn’t simply motivated by some sense of crippling fear that God would reject me. Rather, it was taken up in my intellectual conflict with what I saw to be the bad interpretations among many people from my Southern Baptist background, particularly Hebrews. I was so focused on this that when I started really reading the Old Testament, the Bible I had regularly underlined all the passages I saw that warned about judgment about sin. It was not until years later that I started reading about creation and redemption in the Old Testament that my reading of the OT began to dramatically change. I had developed a doctrinal fixation that impacted what I read and saw in the Bible, as the exclusion of so much more that was there.

I would similarly contend that this becomes a routine problem in modern theology, when certainly doctrinal fixations become paramount. Whether it be a fixation with the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith, a progressive obsession with love, etc., the end result is that readings of the Scripture emerge that often times overlook and miss parts that don’t directly pertain to that. Doctrinal fixation, whether intended or not, becomes a hermeneutical key that influences, if not controls, our act of reading and interpreting.

I would contend this is a problem, even if one has some doctrine that can be found at some point in the Scriptures. I would contend this is a problem, even has a doctrine that substitutes some moral principle such as love in place of a less emotionally powerful idea that gets labeled as “doctrine.” And it is this that I consider the primary problem of Gnosticism; the key to rightly understanding the Scriptures is some specific idea. That the important ideas are totally foreign to the Scriptural witnesses makes Gnosticism a full-blown heresy, but that it treats ideas as the key to understanding is a more pervasive problem that is not monopolized by formal heresy, but also by even the seemingly orthodox.

On the other the hand, a way of life defined by the following by taking up one’s cross influences one’s interpretation not by specific ideas that one keeps cognitively in front of oneself and masters, but the various experiences of following Jesus that colors how we read everything else. The experience of forgiveness in the midst of extreme hurt from others can help us to comprehend Jesus’ own discourse about forgiveness. The experience of shame and rejection can help us to comprehend the shame of Jesus’ cross. The conflict one experiences in obeying God over other people provides insight into the most important commandment being the love of God before the love of neighbor. There is no single, overarching idea one can find that can express the significance of forgiveness, of overcoming shame, of experiencing the tensions between our social commitments, but as one lives a life following Jesus by taking up the cross, the various experiences of life we have shed light on the meaning and significance of these teachings.

I present that as a narrow set of examples to highlight this: the necessary hermeneutical key of the Scriptures is pointed towards, but not given, by the creeds of the Church. Only when we live out what the creeds point towards do we then gain a hermeneutical perspective that can help make sense Jesus’s teachings, for instance. But this form of life and obedience is not some way of obtaining merit in the eyes of God, but is more like what Paul says in Philippians 3.7-11: 

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead

This is spoken in the context of Paul’s rejection of his status and excelling as a Jew and Pharisee. What partly undergirds this confession of Paul is his devaluation his prior way of life, which including being a Pharisee that was likely defined in part by the practice of interpreting the Torah with specific principles and ideas in mind. This interpretation of Torah would then lead to the emergence of a behavioral pattern of supposed righteousness based upon the Torah, but rather find one’s bearings and understanding in the crucified Christ and sharing in the resurrection power found in Christ. Through taking up his own cross, through being like Jesus in his death, even if a more muted form of death in suffering and pain rather than the full-blown death of biological cessation, Paul would find a significance far greater and more important than his prior life that emphasized the role of righteousness via specific ways of interpretation.

Now Paul didn’t reject the importance of interpreting the OT Scriptures, as even as a cursory view of Romans and Galatians will show, but the center of his understanding becomes profoundly cross-and-resurrection centered. However, Paul didn’t do what the early churches soon did thereafter in seeing the person of Jesus Christ referenced through archetypes throughout the Old Testament. Rather, he became a better reader of Scripture by letting go of his prior intellectual commitments to his Pharisaical Judaism. Rather than trying to treat Abraham as a prototype of righteousness based upon his obedience to circumcision or willing to sacrifice Isaac (Mattathias’ speech in 1 Maccabees 2.52 see Abraham as a prototype through his willingness to sacrifice Isaac), Paul could rightly emphasis Genesis 15.6 is the place where Abraham was justified in God’s eyes before the commandment of circumcision had even arrived. Why? I would contend because his understanding of the Scriptures became less defined by specific, overarching ideas and more by a specific way of life formed in accordance to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that influenced how he understood the Scriptures.

This is perhaps where Gnosticism was going off track, even as its heresy turned it into a disastrous train wreck: it was tempted by the value of higher cognition as providing the key for understanding, just as like the Corinthian church sought intellectual wisdom from their teachers to help them to grow and mature.

We can define this tendency towards the valuation of specific ideas influenced interpretation as part of a top-down process of higher cognition, where our mind filters out much of what we read except that which conforms to the ideas we have in advance. 

Higher cognition certainly has a value in the church, but it doesn’t provide the necessary criteria for understanding the Scriptures. When the necessary conditions for understanding the Scriptures are being satisfied, such as following Jesus through walking by the Spirit, then higher cognition can help to marshall the other resources that can be helpful, such as theological knowledge. I would even extend this further to even include the higher cognitions associated with Biblical Studies, such as the knowledge of Biblical languages, history, etc., although the higher cognitions of Biblical studies tend to be a bit more diversified than with a knowledge of a particular strand of theology.

However, the ideas and practices of higher cognition don’t provide the secrets to understanding, but they are tools that are of great use.  Their effectiveness, I would say, is conditioned to having access to the ‘secrets’ that emerge in our hearts as a result of trusting and then living in accordance to what is publically confessed by the Church: Christ crucified.

Jesus as an obscurantist rabbi

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May 16, 2019

Any cursory read through the Gospels of the New Testament, except perhaps the Gospel of Mark, will present something very obvious that almost anyone who knows anything about Jesus will know: Jesus was a teacher, or more precisely, a rabbi. Regularly implied in this is a strong moral sense in which Jesus teaches about love, justice, etc. This perception of Jesus has been influential throughout the West, exemplified in many ways. Thomas Jefferson created a rendition of the Gospels that cut out everything that was miraculous but kept the moral teachings of Jesus. It is often common knowledge in the West that Mahatma Gandhi resonated with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount while lamenting the failure of Christians to follow it. The Red-Letter Christian movement has emphasized Jesus’ own teachings and actions about justice and compassion in the face of political polarization on key ethical issues, particularly in the United States. Jesus is a teacher of morals, so the West knows and so would any cursory read through of the Gospels.

Except, there is a real problem to this image if one reads the Gospels closely. Jesus plays the role of a teacher, certainly. But Jesus doesn’t really do the things we today consider key criteria for teachers, one of which is teaching clearly so that one can easily and effectively help as many people as possible understand.

Take his usage of parables for instance. It is common in the halls of a church to hear that the reason Jesus taught in parables was to make his teachings easy to understand. But if that was his purpose, then the Son of God ostensibly failed as his parables often confused more than they clarified. Jesus even had to take aside his own disciples and explain his parables to them. Apparently, his disciples even felt the need to ask Jesus why he taught in parables (Matthew 13.10). Jesus wasn’t the first rabbi to use parables so the disciples’ question wasn’t probably motivated by curiosity at some novel teaching method. It might have stemmed from the manner in which people responding to the parables, although we have little further background to that question. However, Jesus’ response in Matthew 13.11-15 actually goes against the normal trends for rabbis to use parables, which was indeed to effectively teach vital principles. Jesus spoke in parables so that the people would not understand, would be further confused. With all but those disciples who were close to him, Jesus could be defined as an obscurantist. Rather than making it easier for people to understand the secrets of the kingdom, he made it even harder.

Jesus routinely told people to keep his miracles a secret. Nicodemus in John 3 left more confused without any answers as to what it means to be born from above/again. His disciples were regularly confused by the things he said and did. If Jesus’ goal was to be understood, the Gospels record his extensive failures at this.

However, it seems to be an expectation that we bring to people we designate in the teacher role. We seek clarity, simplicity, concision, etc. The end result is a pronounced tendency to try to summarize the teachings of Jesus into some pithy moral idea, such as love, non-judgmentalism, etc. We can become tempted to treat Jesus as if he was some sort of early TED speaker, providing some big idea that will change everything. We so assume this is the way good teachers teach that we automatically fit our understanding of Jesus into this scheme.

What we don’t readily accept is that Jesus was teaching something mysterious, that is there is a reason people had a hard time understanding Jesus, including his disciples. His teaching ministry was never about giving a few words that will revolutionize your thinking; it was never about setting about a new moral framework. This becomes clear when you look at the earliest Gospel and the earliest letters in the New Testament from the Apostle Paul.

Mark’s Gospel, which the majority of scholars considers the earliest of the Gospels, is incredibly minimalistic when it comes to Jesus’ teaching, especially of moral teaching. There are spatterings of ethical teaching about divorce and to the rich young ruler in Mark 10; Jesus’ criticism of using the traditions of the elders to avoid the commandments is described in Mark 7. However, the Gospel focuses more so on the events of Jesus’ ministry and his training of his disciples, while painting a picture of the socio-political danger Jesus was wading into. The bulk of Jesus’ extended discourses pertain in some manner to describing the kingdom of God.

Why is this? Because the core purpose of the Gospel of Mark is to point towards the crucifixion of Jesus as the ushering in of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ first words were “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1.15). His last words were the cry of dereliction, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani,” before he breathed his last breath (Mark 15.33-38), after which the temple curtain was torn, causing the centurion before him to make the connection saying “This man was God’s Son.” (Mark 15.38-39) The Gospel of Mark presents the crucifixion of Jesus’ coronation as King and Lord; the cross is where the kingdom is found.

This is perhaps why Jesus tells his disciples that to be His followers they would have to deny themselves and take up the cross. (Mark 8.34). Then this gets soon followed up by a very obscure statement: “Some standing here will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” (Mark 9.1) While we might look to that as some reference to the disciples, the generic “some standing here” does perhaps point to Jesus’ own death in an obscure way: he would be one who would taste death before seeing God’s kingdom coming with power, that his own death would reveal to the disciples the way and power of the kingdom is in the cross that they too are called to take up.

We can then say that for the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ pathway to the cross is the story of God’s Kingdom. Jesus’ often obscurantist style of teaching provided words that were intelligible in speech, but what they were referring to was veiled and obscured until the events of the cross. Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God only finds its true reference, it right point of application, in Jesus’s crucifixion and God’s resurrection power that the Gospel of Mark alludes to the knowledge the early Christian communities would have already had.1

Consider also the lack of Paul’s quotations from Jesus in his epistles. His epistles certainly show evidence of knowledge about Jesus that spans beyond the crucifixion. 1 Corinthians, for instance, shows signs that Paul is aware of Jesus’ teaching about divorce (1 Cor. 7.10) and his words as part of the Lord’s Supper ritual (1 Cor. 11.23-26). I would also make the argument that in 1 Cor. 2.8 Paul casts Jesus in a common Socratic trope of the teacher of wisdom misunderstood and falsely punished to death by political powers, suggesting perhaps some knowledge about Jesus’ examination before leaders like Pontius Pilate, King Herod, the chief priests, etc. I would also contend that Paul was aware of Jesus’ baptism as a model for the baptism of people in Romans 6. Nevertheless, Paul makes rare references to the teachings of Jesus.

Why is this? Perhaps the answer is contained in 1 Cor. 11.23-12.3. In describing Jesus words at the Lord’s Supper, he exhorts the Corinthians to judge themselves when taking the Supper, probably because they had demonstrated little understanding of the significance based upon their behavior that disregarded the less fortunate of them. Then, in 12.1-3, I take Paul to be addressing the practice of a spiritual speech that would be given as these dinners, much like the Greco-Roman symposium dinners where some discussion of philosophical topics would be presented following the meal. Thus, the spiritual speech given at the Lord’s Supper, if it is truly from the Spirit, will understand the Lord’s Supper as a tradition describing how Jesus becomes Lord through the death of the cross, rather than seeing the cross an accursed state that the victims of crucifixion were considered to be under. If Jesus is coronated as Lord through an instrument of torture and control that dehumanized and shamed its victims, to act with such disregard for the less fortunate among them and forget them at the Lord’s Supper is tantamount to not really comprehending the significance of the cross. Jesus’ words about the Lord’s Supper must be understood in a dramatically different way, through the action of the Spirit.

How much more so would this be the case with the rest of Jesus’ teachings that are not immediately pointing to the crucifixion? The Corinthians, for instance, would have desired some wisdom that brought some ethical insight, just as the Roman Stoics regularly emphasized in their philosophy. But if Paul is aware of Jesus’ teachings, he isn’t eager to demonstrate it in his letter to them. Perhaps it is because one can only understand the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings by having become of a mature status in which one can comprehend and understand the things that the Holy Spirit reveals and words the Spirit teaches so that one can then have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2.6-16). But until the Corinthians can truly come to comprehend the nature of God’s power as demonstrated in the cross and resurrection that is at work in them and let go of their attachment to the prevailing wisdom and politics of their day, they would not understand the wisdom teaching, including perhaps even Jesus’ words of wisdom.

I would suggest both my read of Mark and my understanding of Paul, particularly in 1 Corinthians, makes sense historically if Jesus’ teachings were known to be often obscure, hard to rightly comprehend, and could only be rightly understood by people who themselves have taken up their own cross and allow God’s resurrection power to work in them. To understand much of what Jesus said beyond the intelligibility of the speech to what he actually meant and what he was actually referring to, to go beyond recognition of the words and their combinations to deeper comprehension, one must understand God’s Kingdom going through a cross in one’s own experience and life (and not just as an abstract hermeneutical principle) to know what His wisdom and ethics is pointing towards.

Even the scribe who agreed with Jesus in Mark 12 that the two most important commandments were to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself, going further to state they were more important than the ritual offerings sacrifices, Jesus simply says “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12.34) Even understanding the summation of Jesus’ most important ethical ideas and the valuation of love over ritual did not bring one into the kingdom, although one was closer to those who had forgotten this.

Jesus was an obscurantist rabbi, who was hard to understanding, if not impossible for most people. Everything he taught only began to make sense to the disciples after the events of His crucifixion and resurrection. While seeing Jesus as a moral teacher is convenient for discussion how the power of politics and morality should be direct, it is only in the cross, through the cross, and from the cross that Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God, his teachings about the ways of the kingdom, begin to find their true center around which they become coherent, rightly understood, and appropriately applied.

Jesus was not a TED speaker who gives you some inspirational words that empower and motivate you; Jesus was a hard to understand, esoteric teacher that brought more confusion and chaos than he did clarity and calm. To fail to recognize this and pull the reins back about our sense of confidence about what Jesus taught and meant by his teachings leads us into the failures that much of the scholarship for the quest of the historical Jesus succumbed to: the Jesus they found was actually a self-image. In the obscurity of ambiguity, we readily impress an order and meaning that conforms to our desires and our expectations. But if the cross was the central point and significance of Jesus’ ministry, which is a point that the early church has attested to in the NT canon without as much obscurity, perhaps then when the cross becomes part of who we are in following Jesus can we then understand the more obscure and “erratic” parts of Jesus’ teachings.

Community, way of life, and the missio Dei

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May 1, 2019

Real community is a hard thing to accomplish. Much of what we label as community is often something else. What we call community can be a collection of friends with whom we share life together based upon our personal bonds. Or, maybe it is a small group, which was largely based upon a therapeutic model of small groups as a place where people learned how to share who they are and relate to one another. Or, maybe we call community is actually a small, tightly interconnected network defined by strong hierarchical relations, where relations are primarily ordered around the decisions of a few people whose status gives them a place of leadership. Friendship, therapy, and leadership all have a place in our life and they may even exist within the contexts of a community, but I would suggest none of these are necessary nor sufficient for group of people to be a part of a real community.

Which leads to the definition of community. What is a community? Community is one of those words that most people seem to know what it is but few people would come up with a similar definition of community. For some, community might be defined by something that resembles the local church or other civic and religious organizations. For others, it is a town or village. Yet, for others it is seen in more emotional terms, such as a place where one feels connected, where one feels loved, etc. The task of trying to define community is a tenuous one as it seems to point to some common experience of social life with other people that is valued for its emotional significance, but what makes a community community is not always the same from person to person. This combination of “objectivity” in terms of it being a particular form of social network and “subjectivity” that takes specific desires and emotional experiences being satisfies for it to be community means that “community” can be understood descriptively and normatively. While recognizing that various people would understand the community a bit differently, I will try to provide a definition that I feel best reflects the various descriptive and normative aspects, recognizing that no definition of community will be perfect for all people.

I offer this as a definition of community for my analysis that follows: Community is a group of people 1) who do not have deep relationships with all members but yet 2) have regular interactions with each other 3) based upon having mutual dependence to other community members such that 4) their behaviors are regulated based upon a common way of life.

The first three features are offered to define the community in such a way that community is not reducible to a) a collection of friends but includes other people outside a zone of personal intimacy, b) therapeutic interactions where people experience personal growth or healing but includes interactions that are structured for other purposes, nor c)  hierarchical relations where those in power have little dependence or accountability to those whom they lead. To be clear, friendships, therapeutic interactions, and hierarchy can exist in a community; a community does not negate the existence of these features. However, for a group of people to be a community, there must be another feature that prevents friendships, therapy, and power from determining the nature of the social network.

This is where the fourth features come in. Community member’s relationship to each other is regulated based upon a common way of life. What constitutes a “way of life” can be many things. It can be a specific set of proscribed practices and rules. It can be an assumed pattern of habits that people all share. It can be the behaviors that are necessary to live within a specific geographic area. What specifically constitutes a “way of life” can vary from one community to the next, but this “way of life” and however it emerges, however it is experienced, however it is expressed, serves a vital model for regulating the interactions that people have with each other.

This distinguishes a community from other social networks that are goal-driven, such as a corporation. A corporation is built around a specific goal in which people’s behaviors and interactions with each other is primarily evaluated and regulated based upon pragmatic instrumentality: is one doing what is necessary to help the corporation to succeed in its goals. An employee spends their time accomplishing specific tasks allotted to their job, such as a customer service representative helping customers who call in with questions, so that they can maintain customer satisfaction that ensures repeat business. Employees answer to their managers for their job performance, to make sure their quality continues to help maintain their bottom line. They work together with their co-workers to make sure their specific tasks are accomplished. Corporations are an example of social networks in which participants behaviors and social interactions with each other are regulated based upon a principle of pragmatic instrumentality where specific goals and results have precedence over all others.

A community, by contrast, does not define interactions based upon any specific set of goals that are always given precedence to other goals. A community may have goals, but what goals are selected in a specific moment by its members vary based upon the common way of life. A community of Christians may respond to a member in need based upon the principle of Christian ‘agape’ found in the person of Christ and establish a goal of helping that person; but that community is not defined simply by this specific task so that they only seek to help people in need. They also value meeting together for meals together with the purpose of fellowship, where ‘agape’ directs people to engage in conversations together. Then, during worship, ‘agape’ is directed towards God as they express gratitude and their anxieties and listen to a person who they trust and hope God has formed to communicate a message from God to them. A Christian community defined by a way of life of ‘agape’ will have various goals, depending on the time, people, and circumstance.

I point this out from my Christian perspective to highlight a concern I have with many of the modern ecclesial models built around church planting and revitalization; many of them designate themselves as trying to create missional churches or some other synonymous term for goals, which is usually used in reference to trying to form and lead churches into practices of evangelism, discipleship, service, etc. Now, I certainly have nothing wrong with churches seeking to participate in the missio Dei where we as Christians are formed and directed to take God’s mission of salvation and reconciliation into the world. The problem is, however, is that to define a church “missionally” is to define it according to a pragmatic instrumentality rather than according to a distinctly Christian way of life of agape. The church becomes defined around specific goals that take precedence over others, and this gets reflected and communicated in worship, discipleship, etc. Rather than trying to broaden the understanding of the way of life of agape in its fullness such that we learn, grow, discern opportunities for, and engage in evangelism, discipleship, service, etc. the way of life can be readily substituted for specific missional goals.

However, I would say that churches can participate in the missio Dei without giving up its way of life by understanding the way of life of ‘agape’ by the pattern of God’s love as fully demonstrated in the ministry, cruxifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and empowerment through the Holy Spirit. What God makes known about wisdom, righteousness, redemption, etc. in Christ is realized through the Spirit. Here, worship and discipleship would be patterned are according to two different themes: the worship of the Savior and the enactment of the Spirit’s gifts.

However, what is essential to this relationship of worship and disciple to the Christian communities’ way of life is that the worship of Christ and enactment’s of the Spirit’s gifts are not rigidly fixed to a specific, fixed patterns, such as a perpetually routinized focus on Jesus’ crucifixion as an atonement for our sins (as is commonly the case in evangelical Protestantism) or the valuation of the gifts of tongues (as can be a big pitfall of Pentecostal and charismatic churches). There is a diversity both in how Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to be understood and how the Spirit manifests human empowerment according to the same tasks. Jesus was prophetic, even as the Spirit provides prophecy to guide the Church and its people. Jesus was wise, even as the Spirit provides wisdom to build up the Church Jesus was a servant to the well-being of others, even as the Spirit provides capacities for healing and power in service of others.

Through this recognition of the diversity of the ways to construe the ministry of Christ and the empowerment of the Spirit, the people of the Church become progressively aware of the fullness of Christ that is to be realized in the the body of Christ as the people are formed by the Spirit to have the mind of Christ. A source of division between ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ churches can be partly attributed to the narrow construal of the church in service to very specific types of tasks; progressives can be quite prophetic in seeking to challenge unjust structures, whereas evangelicals can aspire to the rightness of doctrine that approximates what wisdom would often have been understood as. And so, progressives can portray Jesus in this prophetic revolutionary, whereas evangelicals can construe Jesus and his crucifixion more so to fit the specific doctrines of atonement and justification. The diversity and fullness of Christ that the community of Christ is to grow into can be sidetracked by the specific construals of Christ and gifts that are more highly valued for other, pragmatic purposes; various images and gifts are treated as instrumental towards our pragmatic goals , whether it be the realization of a new way of life through prophetic, societal transformation or conservative retaining of an old way of life through doctrinal maintenance.

The net effect of this devaluation of the diversity of images and empowerments is to “missionalize” churches towards specific goals that define the church according to specific purposes within the world and the challenges that they present. When this form of diversity is devalued, even if it is in the name of diversity of another type, then a church becomes an image of the part of the earthly world we live in and it begins to mirror the specific desires, practices, and conflicts that define that specific task and goal. Retaining of the diversity of construals of Christ and empowerments of the Spirit allows the way of life of ‘agape’ in the Christian community to not be defined by particular tasks and struggles that come with a specific type of ministry, even as it engages in those tasks and struggles.

However, even in this diversity, there is a unity; even as there are many gifts, there is one Spirit, and even as there are many services, there is one Lord. All the construals of Christ must, to be authentically Christian, recognize Jesus is Lord through a crucified life; the cross is Jesus’ coronation and so all the rest of how we perceive Jesus in term of various ministries like the prophetic, teaching, and healing are all situated to and pointing towards a crucified and resurrected way of life. Our understanding if the Spirit’s work must, to be authentically Pneumatological, recognize that the empowerment of the Spirit is for building up the Body of Christ as advancing movement of the new creation of God’s kingdom; thus, the empowerment of the Spirit is not for the attainment of personal status or control over the world as it is. Instead, the diversity of the construals of Jesus’ ministry and the diversity of the empowerment of the Holy Spirit function around a central point of coherence: God’s action to bring about new creation through death and resurrection. Any understanding of Christ’s ministry and any employment of the gifts of the Spirit that conflict with this central point of coherence is at the risk of redirecting the church into some other purpose, some other mission, some other task other than the missio Dei.

And where is it that we can begin to understand God’s will for new creation and what God’s work is progressing towards in Jesus and the Spirit? While one might be tempted to answer “In Jesus and through the Spirit,” that is an answer that while it sounds good is liable towards a form of vicious circularity in which we define the images of Jesus and the gifts of the Spirit by reference to themselves. At this point, one can attribute most anything to Jesus or the Spirit and then one finds oneself in a self-reinforcing theology that never finds any source to actually challenge our understanding of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

This task for the community of Christ can only be fulfilled by the Scriptures, which we believe testify to God’s actions in addition to also explaining them. When Paul tries to explain the what God makes wisdom known in 1 Corinthians 1-3, he builds it in the form of a Jewish homily that makes repeated references to the prophetic Scriptures. Understanding God’s wisdom in Christ is understood by God’s purposes expressed in the prophets, particularly Isaiah; God is overturning human wisdom so that wisdom about God will be seen to only come from God. Then, as express in 1 Corinthians 15, the death and resurrection that Jesus experienced was understood in terms of the Scriptures; the shape of God’s redemption spoken throughout the Scriptures without exact definition is now demonstrated in the cross of Christ. Hence, the Scriptures are the way in which the Church comes to be able to reliably understand and distinguish God’s purposes and help understand purpose the Christian way of life participates in.

However, even here Christian communities can tend towards different perspectives of the Scriptures that can redirect and reform the Christian way of life for other pragmatic goals. One tendency in the fundamentalist hermeneutics treats Scriptures as containing various propositions, all of near equality in doctrinal and spiritual value. Holding to six literal days of creation is of near the same importance as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. By contrast, one can consider a common hermeneutic in progressive circles to highlight on specific key themes or ideas as most important treat the rest of entirely superfluous, if not even misguided. For instance, Jesus told us to love others and that is all that really matters, so we don’t need to consider with care what we teach about sex and marriage. What these two hermeneutical practices seem are taking specific principles of responsible understanding of the Scriptures and then taking it to the extreme at the exclusion of other principles. To name two of them, 1) certain parts of Scripture bear greater significance and weight to our faith and life than other parts, such as most notably Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion, but 2) all of Scripture is useful for Christian teaching. Propositional hermeneutics can prioritize #2 and forget #1 and the prioritization of #1 while forgetting #2 seems to be a driver in various progressive circles. Why? Because these hermeneutic practices are pragmatically instrumental for accomplishing other, specific goals rather than the learning and realization of the specific, Christian way of life for God’s people demonstrated in Christ, empowered by the Spirit, and testified to by the Scriptures.

To bring this back to the place of community, it can become easy to change a group of people who live other in a community into so other type of social network, situated for other purposes, whether they be for friendship, therapy, power relations in the form of transformation or maintenance of a specific way of life, etc. But a Christian community is properly defined not by these various social relations that the church becomes instrumental for fostering (although friendship, therapy, and specific power relations may be instrumental for the Christian way of life) but by the way the people live together in a mutual dependence upon each other in accordance to the agape way of life as God’s will testified to by the Scriptures, demonstrated in the crucified Christ, and realized through the charismatic empowerment of the Spirit; by allowing our minds to understand both the appropriate diversity and fullness and coherent unity can a Christian way of life in the body of Christ participate fully in the missio Dei, without having to resort to “missionalizing” through the systematic valuation of certain goals over and against others in evangelism, worship, and discipleship.

Soteriology is Pneumatology

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April 26, 2019

In my research on 1 Corinthians 2, I have noticed an interesting tendency among various scholars commenting on the text. Commentators are inclined to place a lot of emphasis on the places where Paul mentions Jesus in vs. 2, 8, and 16. If you note, very little is actually said about Jesus in those places. Only two pieces of information about Jesus are explicitly mentioned: he was crucified by the political powers and that he is someone who has a particular mental understanding. All of this is something that the Corinthians could have very well already understood about Jesus.

And yet, you will see commentators trying to draw a lot of implications about Paul’s mentioning of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 2. Duane Litfin in St. Paul’s Theology of Proclamation considers v.2 to establish the parameters of Paul’s preaching by relying exclusively upon the cross; he similarly considers v. 6-16 to be an understanding of the cross from God’s perspective, rather than a human perspective. Or consider Mary Healy’s analysis of 2.6-16 in “Knowledge of a Mystery” in The Bible and Epistemology where she understands the revelation mentioned 10 as defined by the historical event of Jesus incarnation and death. While by no means universal in the scholarship, there is a noted predilection to give much greater theological weight to the mentions of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 2, as if Paul’s purpose in chapter 2 is to teach how Jesus and the cross saves, reveals, and defines preaching, even though all the information Jesus references is something we can imagine that the Corinthians already had.

But as I have paid close attention to the structure of 1 Corinthians 2, this is the wrong way to read the passage. While I won’t give it all away as it is part of my research project and I would like to keep that for my final work, chapter 2 is heavily weighted towards the Spirit, not Jesus. Most obvious is the fact that there are seven references to the Spirit, along with two other references to people who are defined by the Spirit.

Why then do commentators focus so much theological weight on the reference to Jesus in that chapter? Part of the reason is a natural problem of ignorance as we are not always clear how ancient texts conveyed meaning.  Thus, we fill in the gaps of ambiguity with knowledge that we do have, which Christians who have studied theology have a lot of knowledge about Jesus. This is a natural and unavoidable part of reading and interpreting.

However, the corollary to this is that many commentators don’t understand 1 Corinthians 2 as giving the greatest weight to the Spirit, even though the Spirit is given much greater weight than Jesus. Certainly, the exegetical overemphasis on Jesus in 1 Corinthians 2 is not universally true. For instance, the Pentecostal Gordon Fee has observed that vs. 6-16 is about how the Spirit brings about wisdom. But it is common to place the emphasis upon Christ, especially when the theology that has influence is a starkly Christ-o-centric theology. For instance, Mary Healy’s analysis of 2.6-16 shares many resemblances to Barthian theology in language and themes.

This leads me to a general tendency that I am making towards Protestant theology prior to the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition: there is a sharp emphasis for placing the locus of salvation on the cross of Jesus, or even the resurrection of Jesus, that leads to the diminishing theological necessity for the Spirit. Our theological questions and explorations have been distinctly focused on how Jesus saves, or how our faith in Jesus saves, that has lead to the construction of metaphysical and ontological schemes that can deliver salvation by death on a cross and through faith. If you construct an ontological scheme that makes the connection between Christ’s death and human salvation, then you have a diminished role for the Holy Spirit.

Allow me to reference the doctrine of the atonement as prototype of this intellectual tendency. How does Christ’s death atone for sins? Clearly, the Scriptures speak of Christ dying on behalf of how our sins, but how exactly does the death of Christ accomplish this? The predilection is to come up with a metaphysical explanation to explain this. Most prominently, penal substitution raises guilt and punishment to the level of an ontological necessity to address in order for people to be saved. But what is the role of the Spirit in this? Perhaps to “apply” the atonement in some fashion. However, if I may be bit suspicious at the risk of saying something false, these ways of including the Spirit in atonement smack of trying to be “orthodox” in including the Spirit, but that the role of the Holy Spirit is not really important to the understanding the doctrine of the atonement except as a theological assumption.

However, without trying to prove my argument here, I will counter that Jesus’ death and resurrection ‘atone’ because the work of the Spirit forms human life into the pattern of the incarnate Christ. The Holy Spirit is not some secondary figure in the atonement, but is God realizing the life of Christ in us as human people. Atonement happens because God acts in Christ and the Spirit to change people and creation, rather than any attempt to address some other ontological necessity or reality independent of the God-human relation.

This leads me to a point I would make about Paul: soteriology is Pneumatology, not Christology. To be sure, Jesus is the disclosure of God’s righteousness to the world, both in how God saves and what type of people God saves us to be, but the event of salvation in a specific person is not attributed to the event of the cross, but to the Spirit who brings us into body of Christ.

But this is not some mere ideological and doctrinal talking point for Paul to create a consistent metaphysical system that seems consistent and coherent. Paul is not concerned with a logical, systematic account of Christian theology that ties together all to the loose ends and answers all intellectual questions. Rather, the charismatic empowerment and ethical direction of the Spirit in evangelism, in people’s lives, and in worship are a recurring them in the Pauline correspondence. This is precisely part of Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 2: the wisdom that the Corinthians are seeking can only be realized by the work of the Spirit and their cooperation with this work as spiritual persons rather than acting like people of the flesh who engage in conflicts based upon favor teachers as he mentioned in 3.3-4. Chapters 12-14 can be understood as putting 2.6-3.4 into instructions about their worship practices; Paul explicates this Pneumatological reality in worship and how it needs to be ordered by love for the building up of each other through the charismatic empowerment. I would say, in the end, it is only by the Holy Spirit that Christians can have a Scripturally warranted grounds for treating theology as referring to lived life rather than simply understood.

When our theology treats soteriology as Christology, we try to fill in the gaps between the historical event of the cross and our own lives by various psychological practices on our own that we think make us “spiritual” For instance, we are repeatedly told to bring something to the cross of Jesus, whether it be our sins, our struggles, our anxieties, etc. etc. But what does this amount to but a psychological practice and act of devotion? I am not begrudging these ideas if they are treated as a spiritual discipline. However, unfortunately, they can be treated as necessary and sufficient actions that form us as Christians that can readily be universalized.

For instance, the idea of surrendering to God is a very helpful practice for people that have struggle with addictions that manfiests very real spiritual transformation to people. But is it that surrender somehow provides a spiritual benefit to all people, or is it that the Spirit works through those people as they surrender? Now Scripture provides the language of faith, humility, submission, and following as paradigms for understanding the Christian life, and “surrendering to God” can lead one to trust God, humble oneself to God, submit to God, and follow God, but is it that we surrender to God or is it that we allow the Spirit to lead us as we faith, humble ourselves, submit ourselves, and follow Christ?

Consider the counter-example of a person who has come into a state of learned helplessness, where what they do is never provides what they are looking for, and feels like they have no sense of control as it doesn’t matter what they do and feels like giving up? Is trying to get them to “surrender” the best option? Or, do they need to learn how the Spirit provides them power and strength to act according to God’s purposes? The necessary action in faith looks different from those whose keep trying to control and the despondent who feels nothing will ever change.

If the “distance” between the event of Jesus’ cross and ourselves is not bridged by the Holy Spirit but by something else, we will be inclined to frame spirituality by our own experience as a monolithic paradigm of redemption rather than the diversity of the work of God through the Spirit. If we treat soteriology as Christology and are synergists in our theology, like me and my fellow Wesleyans, we might be tempted to think the “distance” between the cross and us is through some specific behavior, attitude, etc. that makes the cross efficacious. At this point we would be in the risk of works righteousness, becoming semi-Pelagian, and allowing the triumph of the therapeutic.

For us as Wesleyans, the only warranted theological basis upon which we can situate our salvation as occurring by God’s action while simultaneously maintaining a very real place to our own human action is through how we  understand our lives in relation to the empowerment and leading of the Spirit. It is Pneumatology that bridges the tensions that we have faced between giving prominence to the work of God and recognizing the place of human action. Without a robust Pneumatology, we Wesleyans will think and act as if we are Reformed in its authoritarian emphasis or as a liberal-progressive in its human-centeredness. But a Pneumatologically-inclined Wesleyan theology will allow us to relate to God, not like a distant King who commands and takes nor as our best friend who tells us what we want to hear, but like a Rabbi who teaches, instructs, and guides as we trust, humble ourselves, submit ourselves, and follow.

Romans 8.10 and the place of pain and suffering in morality and experience

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April 22, 2019

There is a very basic moral principle that guides many of the actions of our life: pleasure is a moral good and pain is a moral evil. It is this basic moral principle that undergirds the morality and ethics of the modern world in its pragmatist-utilitarian ethic; we should determine the goodness and badness of certain actions and states of affairs based upon the pleasure and pain principle.

Now, to be clear, there is something important about this principle. It is part of a our biological ‘programming’ that means we have a visceral reaction to extremes of life, both in mountain peaks of of love and in the valleys of hate. This principle guides us towards those sources that quite literally sustain life and guides away from and to fight those sources that destroy and take it.

But there is a problem with this principle: most of life is not experienced in and lived in the extremes of pure good or pure evil. Life is radically complex and radically mixed between things we would consider to reflect the prototypes of true good and true evil. For instance, imagine a case where the same person can be a genuinely devoted spouse but can also cheat in their workplace. Is this person truly good, truly evil, or a mixture in between? While his spouse might think he is good and his employers think he is evil, it is likely that he is something in between. But, each person’s own experience of them, the pleasure that spouse has received from his devoted attention can mask them from seeing the darker sides. The pain that their employers and coworkers received might make his better side. The problem with pleasure and pain is this: it is a reliable guide at the extremes of life, where what is life-giving and death-dealing is clear and distinct, but it isn’t reliable in telling us the truth about the more complex things in life.

This is true not just for people, but also actions. Lets consider the condition of divorce. For most Christians, it is an obvious wrong that we should avoid. Jesus Himself argues vociferously against the practice of divorce, but perhaps Jesus speaks hyperbolically to get people to recognize the clear evil that comes with covenant-breaking in marriage, but was never intended as a law-like pronouncement that divorce is in every single instance impermissible by all parties. Elsewhere, we do see Paul consider Jesus’ teaching on marriage to be fit to be compared with other teaching on marriage that he himself had in 1 Corinthians 7.10-16, as if Jesus’ words were not intending as a law-like universal prohibition that allows for not consideration of other concerns. So, if a person who has been severely abused divorces their spouse, is the act of divorce a wrong, sinful action? We might recognize the rightness of protecting the abuse victim. But what if it causes a deep sense of pain to the perpetrator? Many of us would intuitively recognize that the experience of the pain of the abuser does not obligate the victim, nor that is makes her actions wrong or evil. Nevertheless, there is the very real experience of pain by the abuser.

In the two examples above, I am seeking to point out something: the experience of pleasure and pain is not a reliable guide to what most of us would consider morally good and evil. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest people whose sense of right and wrong and is strongly and primarily determined by the pleasure and pain principle are actually people who are dangerous to others; that to treat pleasure and pain as a basis for most morality is a moral evil because it actually leads to reversal of how one interprets the extremes, where good is called evil and evil is called good. Many an abuser responds from the pain they really feel and even use to justify their own abuse towards their victims. If the abuser has power and influence over the person and others, they can frame ‘morality’ such that they exhibit increasing abusive control of their victims.

The problem with the pleasure and pain principle is that it is essentially egotistic. While the extremes can evoke a sense of awe or aversion that makes us ’empathetic’ with the feelings of many others who would respond the same way, for the most part, pleasure and pain is egotistic. It imagines moral good and evil from the specific situatedness of the person, or even the persons they empathize with, but it does not provide us a complete picture of complexity reality. Instead, it motivates an instinctual response that does not motivate us to stop and think about what is happening, but to react immediately to appearances.

This is good in the extremes of life: spouses who love each other should ideally not have to stop to think if this love is real, as it can create a distancing from one another. A person faced with an immediate danger should not stop to think, because their life and well-being will be on the line. But most of life is not lived in these extremes. However, the more we make moral decisions about life based upon the pleasure and pain principle, the more we simplistically evaluate the world as it they operate in the extremes. As a consequence of this, we can inflict pain on others who bear no responsibility nor were no threat and we can try to get pleasure from those who share no love for us. Life lived solely by the pleasure and pain principle makes someone see another person in the most egotistic of manners, making others subservient to whatever the emotions, desires, and aversion a person has in that moment.

This does not mean we should ignore pleasure and pain in our moral thinking. It simply means that pleasure and pain of a person or a specific group of should not have the first and last answer on morality and ethics if a group of people seek to move towards a life where we experience the extreme goodness of life and do not experience extreme evil in life.

This brings me to what Paul says in Romans 8.10:

if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.1

Paul’s usage of the terms of life and death are complex, and I can not hope to give a fair and appropriate evaluation of them in this blog post, but I will summarize it to say this: whereas we in the West tend to see life and death in terms of a specific biological state, life and death was understood more so as encompassing both 1) what we consider the specific biological states and 2) the experiences associated with those biological states. In other words, to speak of death is not only a reference to the biological cessation of life, but the experiences of pain, suffering, etc. that are a part of the experience of biological death.

In this case then, I would propose that Paul here in Romans 8.10 is actually giving a fully embodied account of human life lived when one is in Christ. When one is in Christ, one experiences the forces of death that are coming from the body, that is, pain and suffering but one also comes under the forces of life, which can include joy and peace, through the Spirit in virtue of the submission of one’s life being lived according to the Spirit. This then points forward to the resurrection in the following verse: the final, ultimate experience of the life-giving Spirit.

However, Paul does not explain the idea of death and life here much further. He previously expanded on it in Romans 6 as it bears relation to one’s union with Christ before then bringing back up again in 8.10, but Paul gives no real explanation as to the why, as that is not his purpose.

However, if I can try to reach for an explanation, I would offer it as follows with more modern ideas and language: our instinctual nature towards pleasure and pain can lead us to egoticity. However, once we let go out of all our egotistic actions and pursue the good that God calls us towards, we begin to experience the pain that comes from such self-denial. It can be the pain and suffering of those who have previously harmed others learning to be different; Paul is a pivotal example of his. It can also be a very real pain and suffering that can even emerge from the injustice that has been or is being done to us, where we commit ourselves to life and peace. 2 Regardless of who we are in relationship to others and the world, when we commit to follow Christ life and the leading of the Spirit, we are subjecting ourselves to certain experiences of pain and suffering that come from our body. By failing to be egotistic in our behaviors, but rather commit and submit ourselves to a way of life we may not even understand at the start because we trust the One from whom it comes, we are committing ourselves to a very real experience of pain.3

But, this is not the reversal of the pleasure-and-pain principle. It is not to state that pleasure is bad and pain is good. This would be a quick route towards calling good evil and evil good. Rather, it is the recognition that pain is part of the process and that the process is not evil simply because it creates bodily, visceral pain and emotional suffering for oneself. The presence of pain can certainly give us a recognition that something is wrong still, but it may not always be clear what the real culprit(s) are in our pain, whereas when we are instinctively reacting to pain we tend to act with confidence that we know the culprit(s) and their evil action(s).

However, Paul does not envision this experience as pure suffering and pain in Romans 8.10. The life lived in seeking righteousness leads to the emergence of life by the Holy Spirit, which can include joy and peace. Pain is not the only experience of the life of obedience in Christ through the Spirit.

However, we should note something very clear here: while Paul does refer to life and death here and that it probably refers to the experiences that are connected to them, we should not evaluate people’s faithfulness based upon their emotional experiences and expressions. For Paul, life does not come from the body but from the Spirit. But, it can readily happen in some circles of piety to judge people’s faithfulness based upon the emotional experiences people express and show, but this amounts to a form of spiritual elitism. Much as the social elite experiences better outcomes of life and thus on a whole experience more joy and less suffering than those who are not elite, to regard people’s spiritual experiences based upon the emotional content of their lives without regard for context is to act in the form of spiritual elitism; it is to be guilty of giving too much into the pleasure-and-pain principle but putting a spiritual garb on it.

For Paul, joy and other related experiences as marked out as the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.22-23 is a process of cultivation by the organizing work of the Spirit. Whereas the gifts of the Spirit are considered to some degree under the control and possession of the one to whom it has been given, albeit in a conditional manner, the fruit of the Spirit is not something one simply possesses or accesses. Rather the agricultural metaphor highlights it is something that emerges from the Spirit. Whereas the “deeds of the flesh” are entrenched and well-established in human life and hence it is referred to in a more straightforward, literal, the life led by the Spirit must emerge and thus is referred to with an agricultural metaphor.

Thus, the life the Spirit gives in Romans 8.10 is not referring to a simple provision of the experiences that we associate with life, but it is that which emerges from the formation of the Spirit. The body has been colonized by the powers of sin and death (Romans 7.14-25) and so the experience of life from the Spirit is what emerges in the bodily life, but not what is necessarily already present. In both Galatians and Romans Paul shows an understanding that there is an already established entrenchment of the patterns and habits of the flesh that is being overturned in Christ and through the Spirit, but it may not immediately become phenomenologically realized through the experiences of emotional joy, peace, etc. until the overlap of formation and context is reached.4

In summary, we are inclined to treat the pleasure-and-pain principle as a source of our moral and ethical thinking, but the more we treat it as the exclusive source we are in risk of actually moving towards calling good evil and evil good. Furthermore, this pleasure-and-pain principle is often times giving a ‘spiritual’ garb to it by Christians. However, Paul’s understanding of the experience of the life in Christ and lead by the Spirit challenges the limits of the pleasure-and-pain principle in order to realize the most obvious forms of goodness that the pleasure-and-pain principle can help us to see.