Can you edit the Apostles’ Creed? – “Father Almighty” vs. “Creator Almighty”

June 11, 2018

It has been reported that the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church recited an edited version of the Apostles’ Creed that read “Creator Almighty” rather than the customary “Father Almighty.” Predictably, this stokes up a lot of conversations amongst my fellow United Methodists as to how divided our denomination is. With tensions rising about the future of our denomination and blog posts from progressive-minded United Methodists such as here and here that are clearly standing against historical orthodoxy, it is understandable that an act such as changing a word in one of the Church’s creeds will raise alarm. While at the end, I disagree with the edit, it is prudent to be thoughtful as to why this specific edit is a problem. Theological hypervigilance is not a state in which our responses form good theology, as we will too quickly reach for regulative rules that, while ruling a problematic action out of bounds, will become problematic if universally applied.

Can you edit the Apostles’ Creed? If our understanding of the history of the Apostles’ Creed is accurate, then, yes, you can. The current version of the Apostles’ Creed is not the original form of the creed. It is derived from the Old Roman Creed, which excludes phrases such as “maker of heaven and earth” and “the communions of saints” along with some other differences in phraseology. What we know today as the Apostles’ Creed has not existed for 2000 years, as Rev. Mcilwain said, who posted about the edit on social media. Unlike the Nicene Creed that was formally agreed upon by an ecumenical council and largely unchanged, except for the famous filoque clause, the Apostles’ Creed seemd to have been accepted through convention, not a formal council decision. As a result, it was more malleable through the transmission process.

However, to say that the Apostle’s Creed has been edited therefore it can be edited is different from saying should one edit “Father” and substitute it with “Creator.” There is a general permissibility with editing the Apostle’s Creed, but that does not mean just any edit is suitable. If we look what seems to be the three of most significant edits, we can then begin to inquire what sort of changes are permissible. While the explanations offered for the edits may not end up being the actual historical reasons, but the hope is to show the general nature of the changes the Apostles’ Creed went through.

1) Old Roman Symbol (ORS) – “I believe in God the Father Almighty” vs. Apostles’ Creed (AC) – “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”

This change provides an appositional statement that clarifies the meaning of παντοκράτορα, which is a term of power. The nature of God’s power/almighty-ness is a creational power. Here, the edit provides greater clarification about the Father, which is consistent with the Biblical narrative and statements about creation.

2) ORS – “Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary” vs. AC – “Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit/Born of the Virgin Mary”

The Old Roman Symbol could be misconstrued to read a sexual relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. The Apostles’ Creed adopts a language that would define how Jesus is Son but in a manner that is different from sexual intercourse. Instead, a view of conceptive can be derived from the statement of God being maker of heaven and earth. Just like the change above, there seems to be greater theological clarity that is offered by the change.

3) ORS – “Who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried” vs. AC – “suffered under Pontius Pilate/was crucified, dead, and buried”

The Apostles’ Creed is more direct and vivid about Jesus humanity who is said to have suffered and died. A more docetic Christ who only appeared human could be said to be crucified and buried, but to predicate suffering and death to Jesus in the Apostles’ Creed provides, yet again, further clarity to what was already said. I would suggest the more controversial κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα (which is commonly translated as “descended into hell,” although it can also be rendered “descended into the lower realms” as reference to the holding place of the souls of the dead, rather than a place of punishment and torment) is also a part of making clear that Jesus shared in human life and nature.

4) ORS – “the holy Church” vs. AC – “the holy catholic Church/the communion of saints”

Here, the Apostles’ Creed offers a more robust ecclesiology, defining the church by its universal nature and providing the spiritual basis for hte Church in the communion of the saints. What was implied by the “holy Church” in the Old Roman Symbol becomes more explicit in the Apostles’ Creed.

In summary, one could say each of these four significant edits provides a greater doctrinal clarity. One could argue that nothing new was added to the creed, but it only became more explicit. Later edits respected the implicit ideas latent within the earlier versions of the creed.

However, the problem however with changing “Father” to “Creator” is that this edit offers no clarity at all. If anything, it muddies the nature of the Creedal statement further. Why say the Creator Almighty is maker of heaven and earth? Certainly, it is true, but it is trivially true. Why restate this? However, beyond simply making the creed more trivial, this edit takes away from the implicit Trinitarian structure of the creed. In the Apostles’ Creed, God is spoken of as Father, Jesus is Son, and the Holy Spirit is the one who brings about conception. The three persons of the Trinity are integrally related through the birth of Christ. But if you speak of only the Creator Almighty, you lose this structure, as being a Creator is not as closely related to having a Son and conceiving.

If I may draw an analogy: imagine a copy of the Mona Lisa painting, but because you wanted to make it more modern, you photoshopped it to look more modern in terms of clothing, hair style, etc. and you then called it the Mona Lisa in such a way as to suggest it is the same thing as da Vinci’s painting. Certainly, this new painting might gain some interest, but it isn’t the same thing as the Mona Lisa. You have changed it into some other form that would render it different from its original spirit. What you did might be an interesting parody; it might itself deserve to be a new piece of art in its own right. But what you haven’t done is given the same thing as the original Mona Lisa. That is what happens when you change the Apostles’ Creed “Father Almighty” to “Creator Almighty.”

The statements of the creeds were not constructed as a set of lego pieces, where you can simply plug in play any other equivalently sized piece. The word “Father” says something substantive within the context of the Apostles’ Creed that “Creator” does not. Sure, “Creator Almighty” is something you can say about God from a Trinitarian perspective, which I have argued previously. But by doing that, you are changing the very structure of the creed. Then, by giving it authoritative status by continuing to call it the Apostles’ Creed, you are committing an act of manipulative appropriation. This amount to a hijacking of the Christian tradition rather than appreciating it.

Now, I can empathize with some of the concerns about the patriarchal language. But it is more honest to have the courage to provide a different statement of faith and deal with the backlash from that than trying to misleadingly appropriate a statement. Trying to edit the creed in such a way that does not clarify but only dramatically alters the structure of the Creed due to modern concerns is manipulative at best, deceptive at worst. Even if it is done in the name of a more “ecumenical” approach that has language most everyone would agree with, this is still a manipulative appropriation. The creeds were meant to be specific statements on the nature of Christian that would exclude many people who would call themselves Christian, not generic statements that any and all would accept. Such an edit is foreign to the spirit of the early formation of the creed.

Respecting tradition is not simply taking the forms of early traditions as a starting point to then tear apart and piece back together for your own theological inclinations. Respecting tradition entails allowing the tradition to speak on its own terms and if you disagree with the tradition, representing that objection separately and speaking that honestly. To edit the Creed in the manner of replacing “Father” with “Creator” amounts to an act of cultural appropriation by Western, progressive elites from the early Christian Church that faced persecution for multiple centuries. The edit does not treat the original source material with respect.

Logical expression of monergist and synergistic soteriologies

June 10, 2018

In a previous post on Romans 8, I presented what I believed to be a synergistic understanding of Paul’s understanding of Christian freedom. I said the following:

The point is this: Paul’s paradigm of transformation is synergistic. The new reality of Christians who are located in Christ by the Holy Spirit by God’s sending, which Paul refers to as justification, sets up the conditions for transformational action to take place. This new ontological reality is what enables Christian freedom by impacting how we relate to God’s instruction, doing the actions God desires for with the right focus that the Spirit leads into. Thus, for Paul pedagogy takes on a different direction when one is walking by the Spirit. In this way, Paul outlines a positive form of freedom, that takes the glory of God made known in Jesus Christ, as expressed in 2 Corinthians 3:17-4:6, as the goal that can be realized. It highlights the necessary act of God to make this goal possible, which then makes right behaviors with the right focus to be conditionally sufficent3 for accomplishing this goal of transformation.

My end sentence outlined a logical relationship between God’s action to produce a new ontological reality with human action and transformation. In a more formal logical form, what is said above can be translated as follows:

G = God’s saving action; H = Human action; T = Transformation1

(1) iff G then (1)

(2) if H then T

“iff” is logical notation for a necessary and sufficient condition. So, (2) is true only if (1) is true. G does not determine whether H will be true, therefore making T true. In other words, G only makes it such that if H is true, then T will be true. But G can be true without H being true, meaning T will not be true. Furthermore, if G is not true, then H being true will not lead to T being true. Put in more colloquial language: if God acts, then human action will lead to transformation, but a lack of human action will not lead to transformation. If God does not act, the human action will NOT lead to transformation. This is a synergistic soteriology in logical notation.

Monergistic soteriologies will typically take a different form:

(3) iff G then (4)

(4) H and T

(5) if T then G

Here, the difference is that G is the necessary and sufficient condition for both H and T being true. This means that there if there is a specific relationship between H and T, it will always be true if G is true. There doesn’t have to be a relationship between H and T, however. If G is true, then both H and T will be true, regardless of any other relationship. Put more simply, if God acts to save, then humans will act accordingly and they will be transformed.

(5) is important to suggest that T only happen if G acts; transformation will never happen if God does not act to save. This is necessary because H and T are taken to be true together in the first monergistic statement; with this second statement, then it is presumable that only one of either H or T are true without G being true. In other words, a person will not be transformed without God’s action. A person still might act in a certain way without God’s action, however, but it will not be joined with a transformation of the person.

There are a few notable distinctions when one compares these two systems. They all contain the there same conditions, God’s saving action, human action, and transformation. They also both have God’s action as a necessary and sufficient condition. The difference, however, is whether there is another condition for transformation to occur or not. In a monergistic soteriology, if God acts, then transformation will occur, without question. However, in a synergistic soteriology, if God acts, then transformation may not necessarily occur. Synergistic soteriology thus is a bit more complex, by adding a second condition for transformation to occur, whereas a monergistic soteriology has only one condition.

Now, if we were to posit a stereotypical Pelagian soteriology, it would probably look like (2), where human action leads to transformation, but regardless of whether God acts or not. This explains why synergistic soteriologies get labeled as Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian, because (2) is also a part of a synergistic system, but only in conjunction with (1). However monergistic soteriologies do not typically contain (2), although it is technically possible as it would not change the truth values. There is a basic resemblance between Pelagian and synergistic soteriologies that monergistic soteriologies do not share.

Now, in attempting to formally express a synergistic soteriology and a monergistic soteriology, the task of exegesis has a clearer target to determine which is true. Does the Bible express God’s action enabling a specific process of human action as represented by (2) to occur without making that process happen?

A personal note about my blog

June 9, 2018

For those of my family, friends, and other important people who know me, I want to highlight something important here. Much of the content of my blogging is deeply personal in terms of the ideas, themes, and concepts I explore at times. Having gone through many difficult life events, it is one way I try to work towards bringing something good from those trying times. As a result, in those more personal times, I frequently engage in the analysis of my own experiences. Also, since childhood, I have always had an acute sense of awareness about myself and my experiences, so I have frequently introspective throughout my life, giving me a wide pool to pull from. As a result, many of these experiences include many of you, but I draw on a wide range of my own personal experiences throughout the course of my life. In addition, I have always been an observer of other people. So, my own more personal reflections are personal, but they are broad and also attempt to span beyond myself.

I say that to say this: don’t try to insert yourself into everything that I write. If you and I know each other, there is something important, and I have the opportunity to, I will let you know about it. For instance, when I wrote a blog on emotions and mentioned my experience of anger at someone I love, this was a more general reflection on life events with family and friends and how that type of anger is different from other forms of anger and not directed at any specific, recent event.

So, to my family, friends, and other important people who do read this blog: know that I love you and there is nothing that will hiding behind that the next time we see each other.

Becoming free: Transformational medium and intention in Romans 8:1-8

June 9, 2018

The concept of freedom was a common Greco-Roman concept, routinely contrasted with having a status of a slave. In its prevailing usage, freedom was a social freedom that has much in common with our modern political conception of rights; there are certain choices only I as an individual have a right to make and no one else may abridge those rights.1. In modern language, this is a negative liberty. However, a positive liberty is one where one has the ability to act to accomplish one’s goals. This type of liberty will often times entail social and economic liberties, but it tends to become more psychological, where we overcome the various temptations, drives, and compulsive actions that work against our goals. Thus, positive freedom is much more concern with the interior of a person.

This positive form of freedom happens to be the type of freedom that the Apostle Paul visions as coming from the Spirit. For Paul, freedom in this positive is a common motif to explain the nature of the Christian way of life. Romans 6-8, Galatians 5-6, and 2 Corinthians 3 are significant passage pertaining to Paul’s understanding of freedom. Probably the most insightful summary of Paul’s understanding of freedom occurs in Romans 8:1-8. I offer here my own translation of Romans 8:1-8, although for the sake of brevity I will not justify each translation decision other than I tend to favor a more dynamic equivalence:

(1) Therefore, at this present time there is no longer any condemnation for those who are located within Christ Jesus. (2) For the instruction coming from the life-giving Spirit that is located within Christ Jesus freed me from the instruction coming from death-dealing sin (3) because the instruction’s powerlessness is weak through the flesh. God Himself sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and because of sin he condemned sin located within the flesh (4) so that the just actions of the instruction can be completed within us who are not walking toward flesh but toward the Spirit. (5) For those going towards the flesh think about the things of the flesh, but those going towards the Spirit think about the things of the Spirit. (6) For the thoughts of the flesh are death, but the thoughts of the Spirit are life and peace. (7) For this reason, the flesh’s way of thinking is hostile to God because it does not submit itself to God’s instruction since it is not able to. (8) So those who are located in flesh are not able to please God.

There are two general interpretation difficulties with this passage: 1) what does Paul mean by his repeated uses of νόμος? 2) what is the purpose of the cognitive language in vs. 5-7 of φρονέω and φρόνημα?

The answer to the first question can be understood by understanding that Paul does not mean our concept of “law” as a set of regulative rules when he refers to νόμος. Nor does he simply mean Torah as the particular set of regulative rules that comes from God through Moses. While the Torah is the source of commandments he thinks about, for Paul, νόμος is used with a pedagogical emphasis. Romans 7:7 shows the role that the commandments of the Torah has in instructing a person. It is something that guides a person. However, in Rom. 8-11, sin makes instrumental use of the commandments to produce death instead of life. So, νόμος is not a mere reference to the Torah commandments, but entails a pedagogical usage of the commandments, much in line with the meaning of “Torah” as instruction So, when Paul contrasts the νόμος/instruction that comes from the Spirit and from sin, he isn’t contrasting a separate set of commandments. Rather, his concern is more an issue of how the Torah is being used pedagogically. The nature of the pedagogy is determined by two different modes of life: σάρχ/flesh and πνεῦμα/the Spirit. Vs. 8:2-3 refers to the different pedagogical effects of the Torah’s instruction of these two different modes of life.

What is a significant difference between the two pedagogical modes beyond the ontological difference between the flesh and the Spirit? The contents of thinking. The cognitive language of vs. 5-7 highlight the cognitive role and the specific contents of thinking that occur in the modes of flesh and the Spirit. The flesh has death as its focal point. Death is not understood simply as the cessation of biological life, but it includes all the ways of living and act that lead us to the ending of biological life as in Romans 7:5. We might tempted to refer to this as a “spiritual death,” but Paul is not trying to describe the status of the soul in a way that is like a dead body. Rather, “death” is used to encompass the ways of life that lead to “death.” But, Paul’s emphasis here in Romans 8 is on the contents of the phenomenon of thinking and not per se the consequences of thinking. In other words, the flesh leads to thinking about the things that lead to death. But Romans 7:14-25 suggest this isn’t referring to the intentions to act in ways that lead to death, but more a cognitive attention to such actions, whether they are our intended actions or the actions we commit that we wish we didn’t. By contrast, then, the Spirit leads to conscious thinking about things that lead to life and peace. In short, Paul is describing what today can be talking about as a psychology of attention: what is it that you are focusing on. Elsewhere, Paul uses orientational metaphors that refer to a changing of attention, such as in 2 Co 3:16.

But it is important to note Paul’s logic here. He is not saying “if you think these certain things, you are in the Spirit.” Rather, it is something more specific: “if you think these certain things, you are WALKING towards the Spirit.” Paul does not outline a self-help program of positive thinking or a Pollyanna-ish attitude of positivity. He is not describing how people can become Spirit-led followers of Christ; Romans 7:14-25 has more to say to the “how” of that than Romans 8. What is being set up is a pedagogy of Christian experience. If one is located in Christ and one has the Spirit, then you direct your intentions towards the ways of living that bring life and peace, as these are the thoughts of the Spirit, and it is through this act of intentionality that one realized the freedom to do the just actions that God wants, which He expressed through Torah.

What this means is this: two people can attempt the follow the same commandments, but A) the ontological change in one person being located in Christ and give the Spirit joined together with B) an intentionality to pursue that which brings life and peace will make all the difference between the two people. But if either A or B are not true for a person, Paul would consider them acting out of the mode of the flesh, whether as one who has the Spirit but is misdirecting themselves or one who does not have the Spirit at all and is constrained to the flesh. As it pertains to the failure of intentionality, often times, our actions are done with attention to the things that bring about death, such as the fear of negative consequences happening to us, the selfish desires that would harm others, etc. etc. While there is a diversity of ways we can direct such attention to those things that lead to death, they all have the same ultimate focus. In Christian circles, we often see this is as behavioral maintenance, where we do the right things to stave off negative consequences from God, the church we belong to, etc. At the end of the day, however, our actions have death as the focus in such a mindset.

But what is significant here is to note the role of actions in this form of freedom. Walking towards the Spirit entails this rightly intentioned behavior. Christians are not changed by a failure to do what is good but simply waiting upon some change from God; transformation is not a passive process. Rather it is an active process for Christians, who are changed by the rightly God-centered direction of those actions. What the problem with the works of the Torah, or works in general, isn’t the futility of doing good to try to earn God’s favor as is a stereotyped version of Protestant theology. Rather trying to please God apart from the gracious action of God in sending Jesus and in giving the Holy Spirit is the problem. Grace for Paul is about’s God provision of the ontological condition A that enables the right intentionality of action in condition B. Failure to act rightly or to act with the wrong intentions will impede this transformation.

In 1 Corinthians 3:1-5, Paul chides the Corinthians for their conflict behaviors that is guided with an intentionality of focusing on people of status within the Christian community, suggesting this is the reason the Corinthians have a spiritual childishness to them; while the Corinthians have experienced the ontological change of condition A, they are not doing the actions coming from the right intentionality of condition B. Later in 1 Co. 8, Paul criticizes those that eat meat sacrificed from idols simply because they know idols don’t really exist, while they fail to consider the impact their actions will have on others who do not have such knowledge. There, they have actions could be considered “right” as the idols do not impact meat itself, but because their intentionality and focus behind it excludes what would give life and peace to others, their actions are still wrongly directed, thus cutting against Christ to whom they are related to.2

The point is this: Paul’s paradigm of transformation is synergistic. The new reality of Christians who are located in Christ by the Holy Spirit by God’s sending, which Paul refers to as justification, sets up the conditions for transformational action to take place. This new ontological reality is what enables Christian freedom by impacting how we relate to God’s instruction, doing the actions God desires for with the right focus that the Spirit leads into. Thus, for Paul pedagogy takes on a different direction when one is walking by the Spirit. In this way, Paul outlines a positive form of freedom, that takes the glory of God made known in Jesus Christ, as expressed in 2 Corinthians 3:17-4:6, as the goal that can be realized. It highlights the necessary act of God to make this goal possible, which then makes right behaviors with the right focus to be conditionally sufficent3 for accomplishing this goal of transformation.

In conclusion, Paul’s notion of freedom still bears some resemblance to the Protestant idea of justification by faith, but for very different reasons that traditional Protestant explanations. For Paul, the concern isn’t the futility of doing works. For Paul, the futility is trying to do works apart from the reality of new creation in Christ and Spirit that Christians are placed into by God’s action, which can change the very way one can do those very same behaviors. Christian freedom to be transformed entails the Holy Spirit as the pedagogical medium who directs people to rightly focus their actions to the life-giving, peace-building purposes of God as is made manifestly clear in the revelation of God’s faithfulness through Jesus Christ,

Modern American and Western Politics and the Thirty Years’ War

June 7, 2018

The printing press is invented by Gutenberg, and the trajectory of Western Europe dramatically changes. People like Martin Luther are able to write their protests against abuses of the Catholic Church and these protests gain wider dissemination. Thus, the Protestant Reformation is birthed, with the all sorts of diverse movements loosely joined together in their opposition to the Vatican: Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists on the Continent and the Anglicans on the British Isles. Then a time of bitter conflicted enveloped Europe in religious wars, climaxing with the Thirty Years’ War. Eventually, this resulted in the Peace of Westphalia, thus setting the stage for the dramatic intellectual shift that is the Enlightenment, catalyzing one of the biggest growth in economic and political power history has ever seen.

The Internet, not invented by Al Gore, is widespread, and the trajectory of the world is dramatically changed. Various individual people are able to express their own thoughts and stories for anyone across the world to see. Thus, what is born is a pluralistic postmodern paradise of various ideologies, identity groups, interest groups, etc., all of which protest the injustices and abuses of the political and social institutions of our day. Particularly in America, this conflict has developed in what might be term a Cold Civil War. What is the future of this?

I tell these two very simplified narratives to convey an important point. The nature of the 15-18th century Europe dramatically changes due to a innovation in information technology. Now, we are witnessing a similar, albeit sped up, similar type of change in the world, although my knowledge mainly extends to American and somewhat to Europe. The very change in the medium of information transfer has allowed for the expression of abuses that previously went overlooked, minimized, or forgotten. The #MeToo movement is one salient, recent example. Less visible issues of privilege and racism are brought to our attention more and more. Thus, the traditional centers of power become challenged and the protests movement have the ability to develop a critical mass, grow, and thus become persistent challengers to the traditional centers of power. And so, just as the printing press allowed the spread of information, galvanizing Europe into two bitter factions who interpret much of the same information with very different emotions and responses, we see the same happening in America and the West. What will become of this? Will America and the larger West have its own modern Peace of Westphalia moment?

Likely not. With the Peace of Westphalia, there was a conflict of identity but there was still a substantial amount of common religious ground that the rulers. The European religious wars were more like two brothers fighting with each other. But today, the two sides in the conservative and nationalist movements and the progressive coalition of various smaller identity groups, have a conflict both in identity and in ideology. The main common ground is a shared landmass and decision making institutions. If that is the case, a hopeful optimism for the future will rest upon a social, political, and/or religious movement that can be persuasive enough to draw people in, who can convince people to shift their ideological bases so that people can be drawn together into a union defined by qualified trust rather than the present persistent distrust. Otherwise, the future will be careening towards either perpetual distrust and conflict or domination by the victor.

An early fusion of Adamic and Servant Christologies

June 7, 2018

In Christology in the Making, James Dunn proffers that Christological hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 does not express the pre-existence of Christ, but rather is a reflection of an Adamic Christology. For Dunn, ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ1 in v. 6 refers to Adam’s creation in the image of God in Genesis 1-3, with εἰκων2 being synonymous with μορφή.3  Linguistically, this argument is pretty convincing. The difference of word usage can be explained to the poetic nature of the hymn, which sought to marshal the concept of μορφή as a way to contrast the image of God with the status of a servant. Interpretation of the form of God in terms of the Adamic narrative is strengthened by Dunn’s observation as to the how Christ “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” corresponds to the serpent’s seduction about the tree:12-5 of knowledge of good and evil will make the eaters like God in Gen. 3:5.4

However, his following argument that the μορφὴν δούλου5 in vs. 7 refers to the Adam as a result of the fall is not as convincing. Adam is not spoken of as a slave after the fall by the OT, nor do we see that understanding in the NT. This would actually run counter to the whole narrative of the OT where humanity ceases to be anything like a slave or servant. Instead, starting with Adam and Eve, humanity becomes disobedient to the will of God. Whereas, in contrast, obedience defines Christ as a human in vs. 8, suggesting δούλος is not simply about to losing a “share in God’s glory and [becomong] a slave”6 but rather about a role of social status that impacts how one relates to another. This manner of relating seems to be the heart of the hymn of v. 6-8. Furthermore the hymn is marshalled in support of other people considering other people’s interest’s more important than one’s own.7 Service to others is seen as a positive thing for Paul, and thus would likely not employed this hymn for this moral exhortation to do such if the “form of a slave” was seen as a loss of status due to the Fall.

However, an alternative is to suggest that vss. 7-8 is an echo of the Suffering Servant hymn in Isaiah 53. There the servant is one who has a low social status in being despised, is put to death, and yet this servant’s faithfulness is the basis of salvation for those who rejected him and this servant will given assign a high status as a result of his faithfulness. Low status, death, and being assigned high status are all features of the hymn in Phil. 2:6-11; we may also suggest salvation to others is implied by Jesus becoming their Lord. In this case, what we are seeing is the Adamic Christology is blended with a Servant Christology. This can then explain the hymn’s usage of δούλος.

We can also see this blending of Adamic and Servant Christologies in Romans 5. Romans 5:12-21 compares and contrasts the effect of Adam’s actions on the world with Christ’s actions on the world. In v. 19, Paul says διὰ τῆς ὑπακοῆς τοῦ ἑνὸς δίκαιοι κατασταθήσονται οἱ πολλοί.8 This compares with the impact upon many mentioned of the servant in LXX Isa. 53:11: δικαιῶσαι δίκαιον εὖ δουλεύοντα πολλοῖς.9

This blending of Adamic and Servant Christologies may also be in play in 1 Corinthians 15:45, where Paul contrast Adam’s reception of life with the last Adam’s giving of life. Similarly, Isaiah 53:4-6 assigns a healing role to the servant’s faithfulness. There, it is the sin of the unjust that are healed by the one who is unjustly killed. Thus contrast that may be implicit in 1 Co. 15:45 is how those who like Adam sin are healed by Christ. Whereas Adam is simply a ψυχὴν ζῶσαν,11 means one does not accept instruction from God12 and thus remain in disobedience to God, Christ as a πνεῦμα ζῳοποιοῦν13 heals the mere “soulishness” of Adam. While the allusion to the Servant Christology is more subtle, when you combine it with the blending of the Adamic and Servant Christologies in Phil. 2:6-11 and Romans 5:12-21, there is enough warrant to see the same pattern in 1 Corinthians 15.

If these three passages really do provide grounds for an early fusion of Adamic and Servant Christologies, then there are four possible observations I would make:

1) This pattern of thinking about Jesus has to be really early in the life of the Church. The blending of the two Christologies are subtle enough so as to have become a habitual thought pattern. This would have taken time to form.

2) If Philippians 2:6-11 is a blending of these two Christologies, then Dunn’s reading of it is only half correct. The hymn is not expressing a recapitulation of Adam as Dunn’s exegesis seems to imply, thereby getting rid of any need for pre-existence in the hymn. Rather, the hymn is expressing an implicit discontinuity with Adam, necessitating Jesus to being something more than human in order to not be like Adam. Hence, it is more coherent to suggest that Christ’s pre-existence is predicated in Phil. 2:6, and it precisely this pre-existence that allows Christ to be an obedient contrast to Adam once He becomes human; though equal with God Christ became a servant who was obedient to God, instead of Adam (and Eve) who sought to become like God and thus became disobedient to God.

3) It is this fusion of Adamic Christology with the Servant Christology that would be a sufficient condition for Paul to have Adam function simultaneously as a continuous comparison and a discontinuous contrast to Christ.

4) The manner in which the early Christians related Jesus to the Scriptures was not simply a simplistic pattern where they tried to match Jesus with specific passages in the OT in a proof-texting manner. Rather, what seems to be the case is that the early Christians were actually seeing Christ through the lens of the ideas that they derived from the Scriptures. Thus, the early Christian movement wouldn’t have been a simply proof-texting movement, but rather creatively explored the significance of Christ. This is consistent with Paul’s rejection of the γραμμα of the Torah, but not the Torah as a source for moral reflection, in contrast to a more creative well-spring coming from the Spirit.14

In short, for Paul and the early Church, Christ’s pre-existence allows him to be human and yet escape the corrupting power of Adam, and therefore become the last Adam who lives as an obedient, suffering servant, enduring the injustice from the disobedience of the descendants of the first Adam, thereby turning the unjust towards righteous obedience.

LATER EDIT: After posting, my friend Joshua Toepper on Facebook pointed to a similar idea NT Wright presents in his The Climax of the Covenant. On pages 57-62, Wright argues that a Servant Christology is consistent with an Adamic Christology in Philippians 2. While I have not read it thoroughly enough to comment, there is one comment I would make. Wright says that both Adamic-Christology and Servant-Christology are really Israel-Christologies, and thus on this grounds they go well together.15 My contention would be to suggest that the Servant-Christology is not understood by the early Church as an Israel-Christology, but rather fits within a prophetic strand, which would emphasize a discontinuity with Israel and Torah. It would be possible to allow for the Servant-Christology to be an Israel-Christology only through the idea of the faithful remnant of Israel. Likewise, the Adamic-Christology contains an implicit critique of Israel, as they share the very same Adamic 16 that Christ as the Last Adam redeems them from. So, on the surface of it it looks as if that the Adamic and Servant Christologies have a subtle critique of Israel. Thus, whereas perhaps Wright would make the Adamic and Servant Christologies emphasize a continuity with Israel with Christ as the fulfillment of Israel, I would say the two Christologies contain A) a latent discontinuity with Torah as a set of fixed writings and the history Israel but B) a continuity with God’s purposes that were in those points of history being expressed through Torah and were being brought forth throughout Israel’s history. But since I have not read The Climax of the Covenant except for a few sections, I can not say confidently that this represents Wright adequately, but only my understanding of his body of work. Furthermore, even if it does represent Wright adequately, the question of emphasis may ultimately boil down to a matter of semantics rather than any substantive disagreement on my part with Wright.

“Creator” and the Trinity

June 3, 2018

Yesterday, I got into a brief twitter discussion with Ryan Nicholas Danker and then later David Watson on whether it is appropriate to refer to the first person of the Holy Trinity as Creator.1 Today, Jessica LaGrone posted an article she wrote on a few months back for the Wesleyan Covenant Association on the problem of referring to the first person of the Trinity as Creator. Undergirding the concern for all of them is that the Biblical confession that Jesus and the Spirit both are participants in the act of creation and that the traditions of the Church has affirmed the shared divine act of creation over and against the heresies such as modalism, which attempted to *reduce* the difference between Father, Son, and Spirit down to particular modes, or Arianism which made Christ a creature created by the Father.

There is a degree of legitimacy to this concern. In addressing the heresy of Arianism, which in part rested on understanding Christ as the creative wisdom of Proverbs 8:22 and whether this wisdom was created first before then created what comes afterwards, if we were to speak of God the Father as Creator in such as a way that we would never predicate the act of creation to Jesus or the Holy Spirit, then we might run the risk of falling into a functional Arianism. Or, if in our preferred modes of addressing the there Persons, we consistently used Creator for the Father but never for the Son or Spirit, this discursive practice, even if said with originally Trinitarian intentions, could lead to a modalistic view of God if repeated enough.

However, to acknowledge the potential misconstruals of referring to the Father as Creator is different from saying one should not call the Father Creator. Ss Wittgenstein famously observed, language operates as part of a game with many often implicit rules that govern its usage. In the two examples above, the rule that would emerge with the way the language gets used over the course of time would suggest appellatives are used in an exclusive manner. The Father is Creator and therefore neither Jesus nor the Spirit is Creator. Undergirding this logic is a usage of language where words express certain fixed essences about the entities they refer to and therefore cannot be multiply used unless each usage matches perfectly with other uses. We can refer to this as the Essentialist language rule, which a common thought pattern in the thinking of Hellenistic philosophy. This is a rule that treats the representations our words access as paradigms containing a set of essential features that everything that goes by that name must have to appropriately go by that name. Any difference entails an incorrect usage. Thus, if we say the Father is Creator in an exclusive way, we are suggesting the Father is Creator in way that the Son and Spirit are not. It is perhaps this essentialist view of language that could lead to Arianism, and thus necessitated the Church to affirm Jesus as with God at the beginning of creation. If we are operating under and Essentialist language rule, then certainly it is wrong to call God the Father without doing the same for the Son and the Spirit.

However, the Essentialist language rule is not universal for all language usage. It is not even a language rule of the New Testament. 1 Peter 4:19 can refer to the Father of Creator2  But in 1 Peter is working with an implicit narrative: the Father is the one acting on behalf of the Son in the resurrection and future revealing of glory and making this known and realized through the Spirit as a reality for believers. Hence, to refer to the Father as Creator participates in part of this implicit narrative, where God’s faithful actions are what for Jesus and then believers to trust in. Here, the language rule is a narrative role rule, where language is used to refer to particular roles within the narrative.

The narrative role rule doesn’t forbid talking about multiple persons taking the same role. Here, language refers to what they persons do but in a way that does not treat the actions of each person as concretely the same action. In other words, the Father creates, and so do the Son and Spirit. Furthermore, this creation is a joint action; it isn’t three acts of creation that occur separately from each other. And yet, what the Father does in the act of creation is different from the Son and the Spirit. The language of creation is suitable for each three persons, but yet there are not Creator in the exact same way. The prepositional language of John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16 express Jesus as involved in the act of creation, but it is in an instrumental way, which likely derives from Proverbs 8. Jesus is involved in the act of creation, but it is not the same way that the Father created. This instrumentality of the Word/Son in creation suggests something: while both Father and Son can be called Creator, the Father is prototypically called Creator in a way that Jesus would not be. The term is appropriate for both, but the Father’s role in creation is different from the Son’s role in creation. An alternative example of this is the role of Savior and Lord that Jesus is referred to as throughout New Testament. Does that mean we can not use this language to refer to the Father, or the Spirit? No. What it does mean however is that in terms of the specific actions that Jesus takes, he is prototypically referred to Savior and Lord but not in an exclusive way.

An important difference here is between concrete and abstract notions of action. A role describe by Creator, Savior, Lord, etc. entail an abstraction of what type of actions people who create, save, and rule do. But with a non-essentialist usage of language, there are multiple different concrete actions that can suffice to fall under the abstracted role. However, some of these concrete actions may be considered more significant than another. God’s concrete actions in the event of creation is more protoypical of “Creator” than the instrumental role assigned to Jesus. Jesus sacrificial death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of God is more prototypical of “Savior” and “Lord.”

In the narrative role rule, it is not necessarily appropriate to call them “co-creators” unless the implicit narrative structure allows for such. If you are referring to Creation in an overarching or generic sense, then “co-creators” works. But if your implicit narrative entails a more detailed sense of creation, calling them Co-Creators would be misleading. Thus, in certain contexts, you can call the three persons co-creators just like you can the First Triumvirate of Ceasar, Crassus, and Pompeii co-conspirators, but we would still recognize they had different roles in joint action.

The overarching point is this: the implicit rules of the language games we are playing determine whether it is appropriate to call the Father Creator or all three persons of the Trinity as Co-Creators. There is not a quick and easy rule. If you play the essentialist rule, then you rule out NT language as out of bounds. If you play exclusively by the narrative-role rule, then you can only communicate when the implicit narrative remain the same between people, which entails people having sufficient knowledge of the narrative in the first place. But without that necessary knowledge, the hearers will probably revert closer to an exclusive view of the language usage, such that the Father is Creator and Jesus or the Spirit are not in any way. Thus, what grammatical rules we might apply to Trinitarian language really depends on the context. Pedagogically, calling the three person of the Trinity co-creators is important to teach people who have little narrative knowledge from the Scriptures. However, if you inflexibly enforce that type of language usage, you will form readers of the Scriptures who are blunted to the nuances of the texts, particularly in the NT, which can lead to some problematic interpretations of the words of Scripture. The Trinitarian language of the Creeds while resonant with the meaning of the Scriptures is not consistent with the usage of the language in the Scriptures. Put differently, a rigid view that forbids calling the Father as Creator engenders an implicit hermeneutic that gives de facto precedence to the Creeds over Scripture itself, which is incoherent with the spirit of Protestantism.

So to summarize: Is it acceptable to substitute “Creator” for “Father?” It really depends on the context. Without a sensitivity to this context by giving either a flat, always “yes” or “no” one way or another would unnecessarily set the Scriptures and the Creeds against each other. While certainly, there are implicit heresies that may motivated some persons substituting Creator for Father, creating a grammatical rule to outlaw it is deeply problematic on a linguistic and hermeneutical level. Having a rule to forbid against these linguistic practices may be a short-sighted pragmatism. To this, I would suggest it is better that the Church faces the theological ambiguity and seek other ways to identify and protect against heresy rather than a problematic grammatical rule.

Why fighting abuse is the highest ethical concern of the Church

June 3, 2018

In every day and age, for every culture, every nation, every religion or denomination, there are hot button issues and topics that get us stirred up. In the West, we ask “should two people of the same gender be allowed to marry?” In India, can two people of different castes marry? Sex and marriage is one such hot button topic that always seems to be emotionally charged. But there are others that arise more circumstantially. In America, what obligation does the nation have to allow immigrants into the country, particularly to those who are undocumented/illegally immigrating? What is the minimum wage people should be paid for their work? Etc. Etc. Or, in the history of the Church, should Gentiles have to follow the same laws that Jews have and be circumcised? Human life is no stranger to ethical and moral controversy because as individuals, we all have a set of experiences that both share a lot in common and yet also have a lot that differ. You don’t fight over things you are unaware of or that you do not experience. Moral controversy is always conditioned upon a group of people who have enough in common that they are aware of the same issues, but who differ enough that they see these different issues in dramatically different ways. Commonality breeds conflict.

However, there is one type of ethical conflict that always, by nature, goes unheard of until people are able to speak up and bring forth the issue to light.  It is the nature of abuse. But by abuse, I don’t mean in the ever increasing ways we use the word “abuse,” letting our language fall victim to conceptual creep. I don’t mean “abuse” in the sense of harm happening to a person. By abuse, I mean its original etymological origins as that of a wrong usage, whether it is to wrongly use one’s power for one’s own gain, to wrongly terrorize and threaten vulnerable people under your control, to wrongly take “possession” of another person’s body as in murder or rape, to wrongly use your words to gain what is not rightfully yours in deception, etc. The problem of “abuse” is consistently overlooked because we only know about it when there are the victims that can possible speak out against it or the whistleblowers are bringing into light what has been put into darkness. Abuse occurs because those who abuse by default have a power over the people and circumstances that enables them to control people, resources, information, etc.; without this power, there would be no possibility of abuse in the first place as they could be resisted. Hence, we are often times left only to address abuse after the fact, because we as a whole do not experience it nor are we aware of it, because if enough people were experiencing it and enough people were aware of it, the abuse likely wouldn’t happen in the first place. Even authoritarian cultures and regimes feel the need to blur the awareness of abuse by lying, accusing, reframing, etc. etc. because they know a large enough experience and awareness of abuse would lead to changes.

However, you will note that I don’t think we should define abuse by the experience of the victim. Why? While we should always listen to people and their stories as we only know of abuse through victims, and also whistleblowers, and we should seek to support victims at every turn in their recovery, there are at least three reasons we shouldn’t define abuse by what happens to the victim. Firstly, the feelings of being victimized can be incredibly complex to understand and define. There are some things almost everyone would consider victimizing, such as rape, blatant fraud, torture, etc. However, beyond that, what may harm one person doesn’t necessarily harm another. One person may feel a glare is intimidating, whereas another may think the glare is inconsequential. There is literally no way we can know in advance what any and every individual feels will be harmful to them. Secondly, the more we focus on the victim, the greater the danger there is to blame the victim. If we think abuse is about harm done to victims and not the actions of the abusers, then great harm will be done to the victims to shield from accusations of abuse. A victim-focused definition of abuse makes victims of abuse more vulnerable to demonization. Thirdly, abuse is done by abusers, not victims, and so you can only stop abuse by recognizing what abusers do, not by what victims feel. A definition of abuse that is centered around the experiences of the victim, while often well-intended out of a sense of empathy, is counter-productive, putting road blocks in the way of stopping abuse by the obfuscation of complexity, the distraction of victim’s stories by the increased motivation to blame the victim, and failing to pay attention to the abuser themselves.

When Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount, which I have come to define as the sermon against abuse, Jesus did not focus on the experiences of the victims, except only to say that those who follow Jesus will be persecuted and the importance of forgiveness. It was not an extended sermon on victimization. Instead, it was a protracted sermon that undercut the ways the Torah was weaponized by the Pharisees and scribes, naming the ways they manipulated their public image that gave them power, and criticizing their ways of judging others for their minimal failures while they were maximally corrupted. While these people would have been considered the moral exemplars in the ancient Jewish society, Jesus said people must exceed their righteousness to enter the kingdom of heaven, because, in the end, they were wolves in sheep’s clothing, marshalling the expression of the public values and virtues of the community defined by Torah without considering its ultimate purpose of moving people towards the perfected love of God. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the practice of naming the abuse of the power granted by God in the Torah for the sake of purposes other than God’s own purposes.

This is the very reality that so undergirds the life of the Church. The Christian way of life has power. It has a social power over its adherents and those who marginally identify with Christian faith, whom we may call “cultural Christians.” But more than that, we who follow Jesus believe it is a power that comes from God, and this power, whether people believe it is only a social power or also believe it is a power from God, is something that others desire to have such as Simon Magus in Acts 8. It is something that motivates and tempts people, both in its pursuit and in its possession. However, we often take for granted the nature of this power; while we may experience the effects of this power, we are often unaware of its impacts. And so, the usage of this power often goes unthought of, except by those who seek and desire it. It is at this point that such people, whether well-intentioned or not, go through the process to obtain said power and authority. In the modern day, we go to seminary, we go through the ordination process, we submit ourselves to the evaluations and judgments of others, all with the goal in mind of living out the calling. We do all of this unthinkingly; it is an automatic, taken-for-granted part of the process of obtaining the authority that is ascribed by one’s denomination. But there are those people, whether conscious of it or not, whose motives are not the same as God’s motives. And then, there are those people, whether conscious of it or not, who as they taste the authority and power and experience the benefits and challenges that come with that lose their focus. However, all of this happens unaware, even often to the persons themselves, and at the end of the day, they have a power that is to be used for the kingdom of God and instead it is being wielded for other purposes. This is the reality all of us who seek to be leaders in the Church must face.

However, the problems come in due to our lack of awareness of this reality of power. We become oblivious to its effects, and thus our eyes become blind to what is happening around us. It is here where the Church, as is the case with all other forms of social power, begins to be vulnerable to abuse by those who with awareness of what they are doing and those without understanding. We are witnessing it in the #MeToo movement, both in the Church and outside of it, where masses of women, and even a few men, have come out to say they have been victims of sexual harassment and abuse. So, when we combine the blindness we develop through the reality of powers and the modern societies empathetic emphasis on the victim, our vision is blurred.

But the early Church understood the nature of the power of the Gospel and what men, even sometimes women, would do for it. They jealously and protectively scrutinized those who would take power, such as we see in the Didache’s instructions about traveling prophets. We see the struggles with others would-be authorities in the Pauline and Johannine literature. But more than that, we see Jesus’ own ministry as defined against the abusive ways religious power was being marshaled, and it was his very death combined with his vindication through resurrection that provoked repentance at this abuse at Pentecost.1 And surely, if God is faithful, he can and will raise prophets of this day to speak afresh and anew, to call us as the Church to be accountable to the very power from God we are the recipients of, and when visibly make known, will have a tremendous social power. While I can not speak as a prophet, I do wonder if as many of us in the West who long for revival will find this when we start to take seriously the treasured gift that is the power of the Gospel and protect it jealously as God does. If God would take away the authority of the house of Eli and call out Samuel by name instead, and then take it from Samuel’s house as his children were unfit to use it, then how much more so should the Church protect the gift given to it with the same jealousy?

To which I would want to ask a question of the people of my generation who seek the power to the change the world, and all those that follow in those footsteps: If the world was dramatically impacted by your actions, but few would know your name or what you did, except those closest to you, would you be willing to accept that? If many come to know the name of Christ and justice fills the land, but your heart and body are poured out in that effort without honor and praise, would you accept that? If the purpose God has called you for has been accomplished, would you be willing to let go and enjoy a more mundane life without the benefits? In the end, what is it that you most truly desire, you most truly seek, you most truly want? Because the very power you seek can and will change you, even for the worst; the very power others seek is sought by narcissistic ambitions that would sacrifice those desires for God’s mission in the Body of Christ for personal ambition. It is this that can lead to and foster abuse if we become unaware and blind to it.

And then I ask this question for my specific Methodist context: how is it our other moral controversies are also distracting us from actual abuse itself, rather than simply empathizing with victims after the fact which is a much more useful political tool than proactive action? How is the fight over same-sex marriage and issues of ordination2 distracting BOTH from the mission of the Church and those who gain and abuse the power of the Gospel and cloak this abuse because the other moral controversies grab our attention? It would be more faithful to split and go our separate ways so we can focus on making disciples and fighting abuse, rather than to try to carve out some artificial “unity” while being ineffective at disciple-making and by being distracted by the conflicts, or even by the victims we seek to help, become distracted from fighting abuse. If by being “together” but in a forced way, we overlook and ignore what is necessary for the Church to makes disciples and fight against abuse within the Church, then truly, for the sake of the victims and those who do not know Christ, we should go our separate ways. I could care less for your “unity” that makes you feel warm fuzzies inside when the power of the Gospel is being misused for the wrong purposes. And to those from my denomination who would be angered by reading this, your feelings really are less important to me than the victims of the abuse our moral controversies have caused us to miss and the feelings of God for the mission of the Church. For instance, the fight over marriage and ordination have cloaked our eyes against the abuse towards those Side-B Christians that my friend and fellow Logos student David Bennett speaks out about, who are either outcast by the conservative evangelical wings or used as tokens to validate their side and those on the progressive side who either deny their existence or treat them as traitors. This is not to mention how the United Methodist denomination has focused so much on marriage and ordination for the past few decades and yet in the mean time, the problem of sexual abuse increased dramatically.

The Church is defined by its mission to witness to Christ in making disciples and it is supported by the protection of that power.

Pain is both bad and good: Physiological signals and cognitive judgments

May 31, 2018

There is a latent assumption that is built into our views of morality: pleasure is good and pain is bad. At first blush, this may seem also tautological, as if “pleasure” and “good” are exact synonyms and “pain” and “bad” are exact synonyms. However, while there is a relationship between these terms, it is important to make a distinction between the two. “Pleasure” and “pain” are physiological experiences of our body in interaction with the world and with itself. They are signals that come from the body. “Good” and “bad” are evaluative terms; we deem something beneficial or deleterious. It is the higher cognitive judgments we make about something. This is different from the physiological signals. In thinking about it, it is important to distinguish between the physiological signal and the cognitive judgment.

For instance, chemotherapy may cause pain and suffering, but we evaluate it as good because it can get rid of cancer. What is the basis for this intuitive judgment? Physiological signals of pleasure and pain are very specific to a particular experience at a particular point of time. Meanwhile, cognitive judgments will consider other factors than just the specific cause of the pleasure or pain. While the chemotherapy produces pain, it also will hopefully kill the cancer cells that can take the person’s life. Cognitive judgments of good and bad can consider a wider range of outcomes and future experiences than physiological signals. Furthermore, cancer at the early stage may not produce noticeable pain or ill effects, Nevertheless, despite the lack of pain, we will evaluate cancer as bad because we are aware of what it can do in causing future pain and eventually killing a person From this one example, we see that pleasure is not the same thing as being good, and pain is not the same thing as being bad.

However, there is clearly an intuitive relationship of pleasure with goodness and pain with badness. When we experience pain, we can say there is something bad that has happened. If I come down will an illness that causes me to throw up, the discomfort I experience indicates to me that there is something wrong/bad about the situation. However, the discomfort along does not lead me to identify what is bad about the situation. Is it the flu? Is it food poisoning? Did something just not agree with my stomach? Did I eat too much? Pain lets me know something is wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily tell me what it is that is wrong.

However, the pain will lead to know something is wrong, both of which combine motivate me to do what I can to get better. I can go to a doctor. I can look up information of the website. I can take medicine. I can ask a family member or friend to help take care of me. Etc. It is in this case that the physiological signal of pain is both good and bad, but in different ways. Pain is bad in that something is wrong that causes pain, but the pain is good in that it activates my body to take the necessary adaptive behaviors and guides my mind to identify what specific behaviors I should do. In other words, pain is a cause of something bad but pain then causes something good. Meanwhile, the reverse can be true. Pleasure can be caused by something good, but can then cause sometihng bad. For instance, the pleasure of the elite class often times makes them blind to the pain and suffering of those who have little, thereby making them unempathetic towards suffering.

The point is this. Pleasure can be both good and bad. Pain can be both bad and good. The difference roots down to the order of causation. Pleasure and pain is caused by something which can be good or bad and pleasure and pain can be a motivational cause to do something which is good or bad.

However, the complexity of this point is often times not realized in our common, day to day thinking. We are not creatures who naturally do a good job of imagining good and bad at the same time, because our bodies typically do not experience both pleasure and pain at the same time. There are rare instances where a person may experience mild versions of pleasure and pain at the same time, but these are experiences of ambivalence and rarely do we understand ambivalent experiences; they can be quite confusing if one seeks to understand them. The end result is that we tend to oversimplify our view of pain or pleasure to fit with the pragmatism of the moment. When I feel pain, I don’t go through a conscious, reflective analysis of what is good and bad about my experience of pain. Rather, I instinctively think something is bad, because that is all that is needed to motivate my change of behavior to do something good. My awareness of the goodness of my pain is not necessary for the positive effects of pain to come about.

Now, in most cases, this pragmatic view of pleasure and pain is perfectly fine and suitable to guide our behaviors. However, the problems comes in when we go beyond reacting to pleasure and pain, and instead trying reason about pleasure and pain. If we use the pragmatic notion that pleasure is good and pain is bad, I will be unaware of the complex realities that surround pleasure and pain. Once we start to build ethical rules and principles, our pragmatic understanding pleasure and pain can dramatically mislead us. In a chemotherapy example, one hypothetical judgment that could be inferred that because pain is bad, therefore chemotherapy that causes pain is bad, therefore I should not take chemotherapy. Or, to employ a different intutiively wrong example, because: pleasure is good, and recreational drugs bring pleasure, therefore I should take recreational drugs.

I employ these two examples to make a point: pleasure and pain are not in of and themselves purely good or purely bad. To treat them as such will lead us to take actions that all of us would recognize has some problematic consequences. However, we are frequently tempted to think this way. For instance, we can treat the positive emotions that bring pleasure as “good” and the negative emotions that bring pain as “bad.” This fails to recognize the adaptive signficance of our emotions. The emotional experience of mourning and grief that comes with pain allows me to detach from those things I can no longer rely on, whether it be due to death of a loved one, loss of an important relationship, losing something significant, or a change of circumstance; the process of deattaching is a process that can then allow me to adapt to the new circumstances I find myself in. Shame over my bad actions can motivate me to make amends to the person I hurt, thereby repairing a relationship to prevent losing those relationships that would cause me to mourn. Guilt can motivate my taking of responsibility for my behavior. While these emotions do bring pain and when these emotions take permanent residence within out heart (excuse the metaphor) they can makes our life worse, not better, the emotions do serve a good adaptive purpose. Likewise, the joys of hedonistic practice can lead us to act in bad ways by taking little concern for the negative consequences of one’s actions. A college student who spends all day laughing as they watch NetFlix but does not study will as a consequence get worse grades.

The relationship between pleasure and pain with good and bad is complex. While we do not always need be aware of this complexity when we in the middle of are dealing with the specific situations that cause pleasure and pain, we need to be careful to not oversimplify our understanding of pleasure and pain, otherwise it can lead us to bad results as we fail to recognize the good that is caused by pain and the bad that is caused by pleasure.

It is this insight that segues well into the nature of the Gospel as it pertains to our lives: what the world judges as bad because of the pain, such as the shame and powerless of Jesus’ crucifixion, can be something God chooses to use for good. But this isn’t because we have simply reversed things so that pain is good and pleasure is bad in some masochistic fashion. Rather, there is the simultaneous recognition of the injustice of the cross and the blessing of the cross of Christ. However, even this complex reality of the simultaneous goodness and badness of pain is not simply some generic rule we apply to all experiences of pain and pleasure, as if we should find positive significance in every brutal act of injustice, such as in murder, rape, abuse, etc. God knows how many of the attempts to justify such events in search of a theodicy can cause more problems than they solve. Rather, the goodness of the cross of Christ is defined by the action of God to make it good, despite its simultaneous badness. Pain brings eternal joy because God makes it so. While certainly, pain and motivate something temporal good, we only trust in God to make pain be the seed of lasting goodness. As a result, we do not treat suffering as an ultimate good itself, but allow it to be a penultimate good.1

Thus for us as Christians, we allow two different forms of goodness that comes from pain. There the circumstance goodness that comes from human adaption that pain motives. Then, there is the lasting goodness that comes from the pain that God uses. Nevertheless, we recognize that pain means there is something bad and evil, although we can not always clearly identify the causes of evil or even which causes we know of that should be considered evil. But we do not treat the specific experience of pain separate from its causes itself as evil. This would be to go in a somewhat gnostic direction, where the body that God created is not good itself, but that the reality of pain in and of itself that comes from the body God created is something to escape rather than the things causing pain.

Thus, a robust view of the goodness of creations means we must accept the goodness of pain. Simultaneously, a theology of redemption means we should recognize the badness that pain is a signal of that God is changing. Therefore, Christian theology entails a complex view of pain, and also pleasure, as being both good and bad, depending on the circumstances and the action of God.

I am angry but not angry like you – Emotional construction and the Christian life

May 30, 2018

Not all emotions that go by the same name are the exact same. When I get angry, I have this deep sense of discomfort that comes with my angry. I don’t like being angry. If you were to do something that would be hurtful and crossing boundaries, I might express my anger but feel uneasy about it and try to figure out when and how to express it. However, another person may be angry and enjoy the feeling it provides them; it can be a rush of pride to feel one is better than the person one is angry at or a feeling of power that comes from how anger can motivate you to take control. So a person feeling an “exhilarating” or “prideful” form of anger may go all out in expressing their anger.

I have heard this phenomenon described that we have “we feelings about our emotions.” While this has some practical usage, my feelings about my emotions are a part of and impact what emotion I am feeling. So, say you are angry at a loved one, you may feel uncomfortable about this feeling because you love this person, so you then the experience of anger shifts a bit. But then say you are angry at a subordinate at the job who you feel has shirked you in the past; you may feel a sense of power that comes from your anger than changes the experience of anger. My emotional experience changes based upon the perceptions I have about that emotion, who or what the emotion is directed toward, and what reasons my emotion is there.

What is happening is something more subtle than we generally realized We are inclined to think all emotions of a certain type are the same because they bear the same name. Why do they bear the same name? Because there are similarities between one emotional experience and another, such as the way I generally feel anger and the way the hypothetical person may experience anger. Despite this similarity, there are significant differences in what experiences we are having and the way these emotions will impact our behavior and the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional habits that will form in the future.

This phenomenon is described as emotional construction, as proposed and popularized by psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett.1 At the core of the idea is that each emotional experience is different, that the way we talk about emotions is more based upon stereotypes, and that there are no basic emotions as proposed by psychologists like Paul Ekman. While I do think emotions have specific patterns that tend to fit certain patterns that we know as basic emotions around due to biological and neurological reasons, I would hypothesize2 that emotions are a composite experience from the different neural systems that are responsible for different aspects of emotional experience firing together at different intensities.

As an analogy to this, imagine a person who both plays guitars and does vocals. Sometimes, the strumming of the guitar is more prominent in the music, particularly at the points where they are not singing. Then, at other points, their vocals become more prominent, including the end of the song where they stops strumming and just sings to end it off. The guitar and vocals combine in different ways to produce different musical experiences moment by moment that share a lot of similarities between each other,4 All of these views have a tendency for various reasons to treat all instances of a certain emotion as the same, and therefore to treat them all as equally good or bad.

However, if we take a closer look at a few of the places where the New Testament addresses emotions, you will note that there can be a difference between emotions that come under the same name. Consider Paul’s distinction between “godly sorrow” and “worldly sorrow” in 2 Corinthians 5:9. Or consider how James 1:20 says “human anger does not produce God’s righteousness,” implying that there is a godly type of anger. Or, we can even distinguish between the type of love that is only reciprocating love versus the type of love that is extended to one’s enemies that Jesus refers to in the Sermon of the Mount in Matthew 5:43-48. Or, if we go to 2 Corinthians 2:1-5, Paul distinguishes between the faith in human wisdom, and thus in the teachers, from the faith that is in the power of God.

Now, what is the critical difference between these different emotions that share the same name and so may be experienced similarily? God in some capacity impacts the nature of these emotions, whether it is an ’empathetic’ sharing in God’s way of seeing ourselves, others, and the world, as in sorrow, anger, and love, or an emotional experience that takes God as known in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as the focal attention of one’s experience, as in faith.

For a specific illustration, imagine the emotions of guilt and shame that comes with a recognition that one has done something wrong. Often times these emotions of guilt and shame can put ourselves at the center, with feelings of fear and anxiety about what people will think of and do to us. This type of experience of guilt and shame can be very damaging to us, as we develop a habit of thinking that we are going to be rejected and discarded by others, even God. However, if one has an experience of guilt and shame in repentance that has God as a gracious and merciful God at the center of our attention, the experience of guilt and shame may motivate change of behavior but due to the focus we have on God. Furthermore, if we are grieved in our repentance due to the fact that we think we are going to be punished, it will be different than if we are grieved in our repentance due to us sharing God’s sorrow and disappointment and even indignation over the harm our actions have caused. While the experience of guilt, shame, and grief may bear some similarities in each instance, it is the difference between them taking God as the center of our attention and empathizing with God’s view that shifts the nature of the emotional experience. Trusting God is merciful will not prevent all feelings of guilt, shame, and grief and the pain that comes from those emotions, but it will change how that emotional experience impacts us and forms us into the image of God in Jesus Christ. Allowing ourselves to be lead by the Spirit of God can change how the underlying reasons for those emotions of guilt, shame, and grief such that they are formative tools to change what type of person we are, reducing the inclinations for similar type actions in the future, and lead us to empathetically have the type of love and concern that God has instead.

At the end of the day then, this view suggests that each instance of a specific classes of emotion are not all inherently good or inherently evil, but that each emotion can lead to a good, life-giving direction when they are rightly ordered around the will of God, and each emotion can lead to a evil, death-dealing direction the more they are ordered in a way that opposes the will of God. Thus, the goal of the Gospel in lives of individual people is not a specific set of emotional experiences that we describe by a specific linguistic label, but rather the transformation of the person such that their emotional experiences point towards and lead us to the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Our language and reasoning about groups of emotions are guides to help us understand, but not rules to determine what is ultimately good and bad.