Seriously, fellow Christians, can we have a chat?

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July 14, 2019

If you are familiar with the theological blogosphere and Twittersphere, you may have heard about Mark Driscoll’s comments about Calvinism (If you haven’t seen it, you can watch the YouTube video here). To summarize, Driscoll said that he didn’t hold to the five points of Calvinism because “it was garbage.” Now, being Wesleyan, I am not too inclined to defend Calvinism as a theological system, but this is a bit strong of a statement. But where my real concern comes in his rationale for why it is a problem: Driscoll describes the “young, reformed, restless” crowd as “little boys with father wounds.”

This, my fellow Christians, is a potentially abusive type of speech, and we should shun it. I don’t say this because of what Driscoll was known for in the past. I say this with a broader knowledge and experience of how this type of explanation for people’s behaviors, be it religious or otherwise, has a real potential for falsehood and damage to other people.

Let me begin by saying that the single biggest inflicter of psychic wounds are parents. Psychological studies have shown that parents are one of the most significant impacts on people’s lives and damage is done there can have a tremendous impact on the rest of people’s lives. Furthermore, stories of parental abuse are far too common too stomach. But we need to bring a bit of sobriety about this: this isn’t because “parents” are dangerous or that all problems people have can be derived from their parents, but it is because parents more than any other type of figure in a person’s lives have more time with children and more power over them in positions of vulnerability. Statistically speaking, people are put in more vulnerable situations when it comes to their parents than anyone else. This is a basic fact of child-rearing, as the vast majority of children are raised by parents when they are vulnerable and therefore there is the greater chance that the problems of the parent can lead to harm coming to the child.

But, here is where we need to step in and recognize something: parents are not the only possible source of wounds in life. Peers who bully can cause great harm. For instance, social ostracism has the power to induce panic and fear into someone that can become a trauma. Institutions that refuse to be accountable can sow devastation. Need I mention the stories of trauma in religious spaces? Spouses can tear apart the life of another; we know this as domestic abuse. A person who has had good parents can have deep traumas caused by the behaviors of other people. I would know.

Secondly, people’s choices are not solely dictated by their psychological wounds, parental or otherwise. There are reasons, for instance, that someone might adhere to Calvinism, such as its simple, parsimonious way of explaining God and salvation that requires little ambiguity in understanding the role of God’s work. Furthermore, Calvinism can seem like a plausible interpretation of Scripture depending on how one’s faith community defined the terms read in the Bible. This is not due to “daddy wounds” of Driscoll’s condescending explanation.

But when we appeal to Driscoll’s type of language to explain why people do things we don’t like, we are doing something: we are appealing to a common idea within the culture, as we in the West are deeply aware of the damage that parents have inflicted on children growing up, and then treat that as an explanation everywhere we find it expedient for our purposes. After all, if something is due to their “daddy wounds” it means that they are in deep error and that they are the ones who need to change.

This is potentially abusive on multiple levels. Firstly, when wrongly applied, it denies the truth of why people think, feel, and act as they do and instead substitutes it with some explanation that is far from the truth. Secondly, it treats people as simply passive people who have not thoughts and feelings on their own, even when people do have parental issues. There are many people who have such pains in their past and to use it as an explanation for things you don’t like disregards the fact that they may have grown and healed beyond them. Thirdly, it has a way of gaslighting people by making them question themselves unnecessarily because someone doesn’t like what they think, feel, or believe (rather than observation of an actual pattern of behavior). 

Finally, however, and this is getting rather personal, in some instances (though not in Driscoll’s case) blaming things on “daddy wounds” can be a form of blaming the victim and inflicting pain on the innocent. Take my brother for instance, who committed suicide. While never formally diagnosed, he fit the patterns of bipolar disorder. That combined with the teasing blurring into bullying he received in high school were likely contributors to his decision to take his own life. My parents, who were not perfect but did a good job to raise up children who were kind, fair, honest, and hardworking, were devasted. But what then added to their pain is that some people had the audacity to blame my brother’s suicide on my parents. They who think they knew so much had no idea how foolish they truly were. They had little knowledge of the situation, but their unthinking words and implications without any sense of involvement inflicted needless pain on a family that was already suffering. To do this was the blame my family, who were victims of losing a loved one due to a primarily genetic disorder that was beyond our control.

I have heard even similar implications directed towards me as I deal with the effects of my college and adulthood trauma (in addition to the losing of a brother) and trying to return back to a sense of normalcy. People who have never talked to me in detail about the reasons I struggle have made statements to me that imply that my upbringing was the source of the problems I experience and not the experiences of losing my own capacities and sense of connectedness from events in college and later one. While I believe such people to be well-intended, even then, it doesn’t take away from the pain when people make judgments about things they haven’t talked to me about directly.

The problem is this: we in Christian circles have treated psychological and therapeutic principles as tools for our own usage in explaining people and their lives, even though we have not had the necessary training to really do such.1 Since the matters of faith, religion, and spirituality are so connected to psychological concerns, we have been tempted to integrate psychology knowledge into our repertoire of tools to address the problems we see.

And often times, this is often with the intention to help. For instance, I think Driscoll is sincere about what he is saying and trying to help people to see the problem with Calvinism. But the problem with ‘helping’ is that, firstly, we can often be tempted to frame the problems in ways that make us look better and not necessarily with a real concern for helping the people we think we are trying to “help.” This means that we are readily tempted to pull out the psychological explanations that make us look the best, and not necessarily reliably explains the situation or effectively helps the persons. Secondly, because in Christians circles we have often treated our intentions to help as a substitute for thinking well and understanding, we are inclined to think we know what people’s problems are. When it is joined with the refusal to listen so as to learn, it leads to people unknowingly acting in ignorance. People substitute the psychological principles for actual understanding because people feel they have good intentions.

But let me be clear: this is not healthy but a potentially damaging pattern, even despite what we might feel to be good intentions. It needs to stop. Driscoll, as a person who has been somewhat of a bully in the past, seems to be trying to become more sensitive to emotional concerns, but at the same time, he still acts in a way that would be potentially toxic if used in a more interpersonal setting rather than the rather generic discussion of a broad group of people (which can still be harmful through creating stereotypes, but doesn’t tend to have the immediate consequences). Ceasing bullying doens’t come by spouting a few words that show emotional sensitivity, but it comes by a sense of patience that doesn’t jump to extreme explanations for something someone merely dislikes (though, to be clear, sometimes there is bad behavior that needs to be spoken to when there is an actual pattern). “Daddy wounds” are not something to throw around to diminish other people, to explain why people do things we don’t like. “Daddy wounds” are serious matters that should be addressed by people in the know, not talked and gossipped about by those who are ultimately unaware of what the facts of a person’s life are

Trust leading to truth

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July 10, 2019

The question of what is ‘true’ has loomed over the history of the Western intellectual tradition since the pre-Socratics, when philosophers as early as Thales tried to ascertain what was the fundamental makeup of the cosmos. Thales thought the cosmos was ultimately made of water; Anaximander thought the originating principle of the universe was the infinite. Others like Heraclitus and Parmenides didn’t try to explain the origins of what we see but the fundamental nature of the world, with Heraclitus advocated for the fundamentally changing nature of the world whereas Parmenides consider the way of truth to be fundamentally unchanging and everything else to be appearances and opinions. While Parmenides ultimately used truth in the way that has come to influence Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the course of Western intellectual thought, it wasn’t unique to him as the pre-Socrates as a whole were trying to discover something more fundamental that was responsible for what they otherwise readily knew. As a consequence, when we talk about truth, we today use it to refer to some sense of the way things really that appearances do not deliver to us.

But, here is my hypothesis that will probably never be directly validated: what was guiding the intellectual activities of pre-Socrates prior to Parmenides wasn’t a sense of truth that is distinct from appearances, but a sense of discovering what we can reliably understand about the world around us. I would suggest when Thales was suggesting the originating principle as water, he was saying something about the world could be understood in relation to water. Rather than Aristotle’s fitting Thales into his hylomorphism, what if Thales theory of the originating principle was more about saying something about the effects of water upon the world than it was simply trying to discern an original cause. In this sense, Thales intellectual purpose could be considered more pragmatic, concerned about getting to a systematic understanding of how things are rather by finding something that could shed light on all of it. To be clear, it would still entail Thales believing water is the origination of everything as ‘true,’ but for a specific reason: the perceived reliability of the idea. Something that is considered reliable is therefore also true. It was Parmenides who then took this sense of truth and separated it from the world of appearances. I present this hypothesis more so for the purposes of a thought experiment than any full confidence in the idea: what if Parmenides conception of truth was a change from an earlier understanding of truth as something that is reliable?

Allow me to flesh this idea out in a modern context of diagnostic medicine. What is the difference between the symptoms of an illness and the causes of an illness? A symptom is not responsible for all or most of the problems a person has, whereas something that is a cause is implicated. Consider a person who has a painful headache and feels very exhausted. It is likely that a person’s exhaustion is the cause of the headache. In this case, knowledge about the physical effects of exhaustion is reliable to understand the headache and this is the end of the story. However, in another cause, it could also be the headache that is functionally causing the exhaustion. In both of those cases, there is some knowledge we have about one phenomenon that is useful to explain another phenomenon. Still, it could also be the case that there is another cause, such as the person has motion sickness (Thanks WebMD symptom checker!), in which case neither symptom can be considered the cause of the other.

What is at play here is this fundamental idea: our knowledge about one thing is intuitively considered to provide us a reliable understanding of something else that I am aware of (although, what I know about and what I am understanding may, in fact, be considered coextensive upon further understanding). I know one person is sad because I see them crying. I know a computer hard drive is crashing because I hear a clicking. My sense of the truth of the matter of a person feelings and the state of my computer is understood in terms of what could be referred to as appearances. AT the same time, another person may mask their emotions, leaving me clueless as to what they are feeling. My hard drive may be about to crash but there will be a discernible signal of this being the case.

This is how our sense of knowledge and understanding works in day to day life. Truth is delivered by appearances rather than distinct from the appearances. It wasn’t until philosophers tried to analyze thinking itself that we developed a concept of truth that approaches our modern notion of theory. Now, there is a good reason for Parmenides thinking: many ‘appearances’ provide little explanation whatsoever ever. The color of the table I am sitting at doesn’t explain why I can put my laptop on it without it falling to the ground. Then, there are the cases of deceiving appearances. A person’s crying may not be a sign of sadness, but a sign of happiness. The sound of clicking coming from the computer may be a problem with the fan rather than the hard drive. Our inferences based upon appearances are often at fault and there are many appearances that seem to have no significance. It is a small move from many or most appearances do not reliably tell us anything to all appearances are unreliable. While most of our brains are capable of handling the issue of selective reliability of perceptions well by learning to contextualize perceptions and beliefs with other perceptions and beliefs to determine if something is reliable in this case or not, the conscious act of analysis would not discover the contextual nature of reliability that happens largely without conscious knowledge of it, but most of us would have been left unsure how to distinguish between appearances and thereby regarded no appearances providing truth in virtue of our instinctual bias and strong aversion to false positives rather than false negatives.

The point here? Parmenides ontological distinction between truth and appearances is reflective of the failure of conscious analysis to reflect the way most people developed a sense of what is true. It is a reflection of philosophy’s difficulty with understanding the way human thinking generally makes sense of the world; our brains are capable with some degree of success of discerning which perceptions provide a reliable understanding of other things in our experience, environment, and world more broadly. The way we are generally able to determine what is true is by developing intuitions for what is reliable, which is a result the neural integration of the various networks of neurons together that fire under certain specific experiences that occurs over the course of time.1 That is to state that our sense of what is true is (a) largely the result of pre-rational assumptions that (b) are sensitive to experiences but not necessarily rational reflection, and (c) emerges from what appearances our conscious minds would perceive to be reliable due to the processes of neural integration that occur mostly outside of conscious thinking.

To my understanding, the concept of reliability wasn’t a major factor in philosophy until the emergence of it in 20th century philosophy in the field of epistemology. The closest we get to the notion of reliability that I am personally aware of (and I am not a scholar on the history of philosophy) is with Hume’s explanation of causation as constant conjunction as an explanation for our understanding of causation. The pragmatist tradition gets close to the idea in proposing that truth is discernible by the consequences, but, in my admittedly truncated knowledge, it still regards truth as operating more in the philosophical, theoretical sense than investing a sense of truth within our appearances.

However, there is a tradition within Western history that does regard reliability as the conditions for discovering truth and can ‘invest’ this sense of truth within what appears: the Hebraic-Christian tradition. Without going into a full analysis of the tradition, I will simply give a basic exposition on this from the perspective of my orthodox Christian theology: we as Christians trust God and we trust God is known in the historical appearance of the human Jesus Christ. Faith is not the result of some calculated reflective process that determines the truth of the Christian claims apart from the reliability, or to use more Biblical language, the trustworthiness of God. The truth of God is known by the trustworthiness of God as revealed in Jesus Christ who is the fulfillment of promises and prophetic visions of the (Old Testament) Scriptures. Then, when it comes to the Spirit, they do not appeal to some higher methodology to distinguish between various claims to inspiration from the Spirit, but rather they seek the test the true origins of people’s claims to revelation, prophetic inspiration, etc. on the basis of what is considered to be reliable, which is most notably summarized in Jesus as Lord.

Now, in making this claim of a way of knowing truth that is closer to pre-analytic forms of knowing truth, I am not trying to say the Christian tradition is true in virtue of this fact. Even if my hypothesis about reliability as a theory of truth is the right way to go, it could be the case that the early Christians wrongly thought knowing Jesus is an absolutely reliable way to know the truth about God. The point is rather this: there is a distinctly different way of conceptualizing truth within the history of the Western intellectual tradition that has largely been won by the tradition of the Greek philosophers. While it was present in the Augustinian synthesis of the Gospel with Neo-Platonist ontology and in the metaphysics of Aquinas’ appropriation of Aristotle, it wasn’t until the revival of classical thinking in the Renaissance that lead to the emergence of the Enlightenment that truth as a theory really became the prevailing understanding of what truth is. Furthermore, because of the Enlightenment’s reliance upon reason, rather than reliability, as the conditions for discovering truth, there was a neglect of the way that claims to truth were often times far from the case and become increasingly unreliable.

In this context, post-modernity found its genesis in question the foundation of ‘truth’ in the Enlightenment, with people like Foucault developing skeptical responses to claims to truth as veiled forms of power. When truth is disconnected from an unconscious sense of reliability or trustworthiness that is responsible for pre-analytic conceptions of truth, “truth” becomes increasingly untrustworthy and worthy of the post-modern scorn. But much as Parmenides conscious reflection made him mistrust all appearances even though this was not an adequate reflection of how people generally thought, post-modernity mistrusted all claims to the truth even though most people have an intuition of truth that created an aversion to the stronger forms of relativism. The ultimate consequence of this is that whereas Parmenides thought all appearances as unreliable, postmodernity has simply masked the unreliability of appearances in a veiled attempt at power without being trustworthy and reliable. AT the end of the day, post-modernity reflects the ultimate failure of Parmenides, mediated through the influence of Plato’s Socrates, to take account of the concept of reliability that unconsciously directs pre-reflective thinking; post-modernity is Parmenides without the way of truth, and thereby making the same fundamental error but with one significant consequence: the views of post-modernity are fundamentally untrustworthy to all but those who the various fragmented views represent. Post-modernity and the views heavily influenced by it are incapable of bridging people together to work towards a communities, social networks, and societies that can be trusted by a wide range of people because it has no real concept of reliability and trustworthiness to begin with, but only the suspicion that is ultimately selectively ignored for one’s own claims. 

This is not to suggest that the solution then is to go back to modernity, as its conception of truth did not reinforce reliability but rather the unthinking idolatry of reason, The Enlightenment worked only so far as its conception of truth was ultimately considered reliable, even as it was not capable of giving what the proponents of the Enlightenment promised. The way to move forward is to rediscover a new conception of truth that is really the notion of truth in its more pre-analytic form as practiced in most of daily life. It is in “relying” on reliability and, when applied to social relations, trustworthiness to provide us what is true.

And from a perspective of Christian theology, it would deliver the possibility of re-conceptualizing our understanding of various theological and doctrinal matters that have been influenced by the historical victory of the Greek and Enlightenment philosophical conceptualization of truth over pre-analytic conceptions of truth. For instance, we can consider Scripture is  to be true not because it provides us abstract knowledge about God qua God Himself in isolation (such as the predicates of omniscience, omnipotence, etc. or metaphysical claims about God’s nature as being in opposition to sin) or even that it provides some “witness” to God that is separate from the truth of God (thereby unwittingly recapitulating Parmenides’s distinction of appearances and truth), but because we discover it reliably informs us about God’s will and purposes for our lives and the world. Additionally, the basic formulation of the Trinity as God being three-in-one can be understood as an important reflective account explaining how we can know God through the trustworthiness of our knowledge from Jesus Christ and the inspiration of the Spirit that conditions and forms our faith and spiritual life, and not simply as a doctrinal formulation about God Himself. Finally, it can provide an answer to a specific type of apologetic and philosophical questions: how can we know God exists? By finding that God is trustworthy, rather than by some other form of rational analysis independent of discovering the trustworthiness of God.2

The problem of combining athletics and Christian faith

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July 6, 2019

I love sports. I grew up playing them. Throughout the years, I have played baseball, football, soccer, tennis, basketball, and volleyball. I haven’t played much in recent years as I haven’t had the regular opportunity to play with other people, sports has always been part of my life. I love watching sports too. Having been in Scotland the past two years, I haven’t been able to watch much of the sports I love in the United States, especially Mississippi State athletics.

So, what I am about to say isn’t a criticism of sports, per se. However, it is a real pitfall that comes from some of the intended consequences that occur when we blend Christian faith and sports. When sports and faith are combined, there is a real tendency for people to take faith to be some sort of guarantor of victory in the type of things that the wider world considers significant, both in sports and in the rest of life.

Consider, for instance, the oft-stated and oft-criticized ‘praise’ of those who won a championship: “I want to thank God for winning.” While this type of public proclamation hasn’t been as common in recent years, whenever it happens Christians in America looking for some sort of cultural recognition to hang their hat on cheer such public statements on television. Meanwhile, people criticize such prayers, thinking that God has more important things on his hands than deciding who wins a sports championship. Certainly, God is a bigger God than the critics, who can be concerned about everything in life, including sports. But beneath the somewhat false portrayal of God in the critics is something that is of deeper substance: is God out to give them a sports championship? Was that His real purpose?

Or look at how readily athletes appeal to Philippians 4.13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” including doing things such as marking it out in eye black, which Tim Tebow was especially known for.  Once again, many of us Christians will celebrate when we see a figure use a Scripture reference like that. Sometimes the more sober minded among us will point out that the verse is used out of context. However, I would say that critique doesn’t get at the real point. Why? What does this action convey? While it is a mistake to reduce the meaning to one single thing as it can convey and be intended in many different ways, one implication of this message is often “I can win this game through Christ who strengthens me.” The problem isn’t simply that the Scripture is used out of context from the specific situation Paul’s writes about. In fact, I would suggest Paul’s statement has an aphoristic meaning to it that is meant to apply to a variety of circumstances, not the difficulties that come with not having enough. Rather, the problem is that the way it gets used in the context of athletic competitions with the goal of winning.

The risk in the fusion of faith and athletics is that athletics turns people faith into an expectation in competitive, social victories over one’s opponents, whether it be in sports, in one’s career, in one’s relationships, etc. This is the risk that is unique to athletics; it is a risk whenever we try to bridge faith too tightly with another occupation, hobby, career, goal, etc.: rather than letting Christian faith shed light on that activity, we instead define our faith in terms of the goals and purposes of that activity. Politics is a shining example of this, where rather than the light of the Gospel shedding light on politics, it becomes more often the case that politics tries to determine the shape and true importance of faith. Put more generally, when we apply the symbols of Christian faith to other forms of activities, there is the possibility that we define the symbols of Chrisitan faith by the goals of those activities, whether it be the goal of winning in sports and life or the goal of ideologically conformity and societal victory that is deeply entrenched in the practices of political power.

If the fusion of sports and faith were simply contained to the sports field, then the problems this would cause would be relatively contained. However, unfortunately, sports is often an avenue in which we learn, develop, and refine our social skills in how we discipline ourselves and socialize with others in teamwork and competition. It is also often used as a metaphor for life. Because sports are not contained off from the rest of life, the way we join sports and faith will also impact others parts of life that our involvement in sports will impact. This is where my real concern lay: not that we treat Christian faith as some sort of tool of our sports victory, but that we treat Christian faith as a tool we use in the broader, social spaces of our life and we seek to be victorious in those areas, without concern for the impacts upon others. When the Gospel, directly or indirectly, becomes a message about our success and victory in the social arenas of life, it becomes real easy for us to see people as potential roadblocks to our victory, as potential opponents that we need to find a way to overcome to win. Insofar as sports determines the shape of our faith, we can see others who stand in our way as something less than with the intentions of our loving God. Furthermore, since sports often teach us to never give up but to constantly strive to win, it can also create in us a resistance to repentance because that can entail an attitude of submission, which is what “losers” do.

But, the Gospel is not the story of the winners, but of the losers. For, God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble. As Jesus says, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. It is the poor in spirit who are blessed, not the rich. It is meek who shall inherit the earth, not the strong. Jesus does not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. This is not to ‘glorify’ losing, being weak, poverty, sin, etc. There is nothing glorious in them themselves. Why is that? Perhaps, it is because it is in those positions in life that we are most willing to learn, we are willing to look towards someone or something to direct our lives as we feel helpless ourselves, we are most willing to receive a hand of help from those who can teach us. It is in recognizing our sin, that we repent, which isn’t an attitude of shame-filled “I am a terrible person” sort of humiliation that the self-righteous often seek as signs of their own validation and other people’s subservience, but rather an attitude of “I have been getting it wrong, but I want to go in a better direction.” Those who feel they are winning, who feel proud, who feel first, who feel rich, who feel strong, who feel righteous are very inclined to be self-contented, almost to the point that they will see no reason to change and learn. Faith and sports can be marshaled in that direction, to teach the ‘losers’ that they can still get up, that they are not forgotten, and that they can learn and grow from them.

Having been a head soccer coach for a year in a recreational league on two different occasions, I have found that this lesson is more satisfying in my time. While I did not make this conscious connection at the time, there was something satisfying in my time as a coach. Overall, I probably have something close to a 30% win record as a head coach. It isn’t because I don’t know how to play or coach. I played most of my childhood, where I had to learn how to play because I wasn’t as naturally athletic as some others. My father was also my soccer coach growing up, so I learned some from him. It is simply because I didn’t know the league or the players when I got assigned the team whereas the other coaches knew the league, so I got the team that was, intentionally or unintentionally, set up to lose. But, if you were to track my win-loss record over the course of the year, you would see my teams winning more later in the year. Why is that?

Because coaching is about teaching kids as much as it is about setting them up to win the game. In fact, before it is ever about putting them in the places to succeed and win, coaching is about teaching. And I took pleasure in that as I saw players ranging from those who didn’t know how to play to those who had physical talent but not sure how to use it and I saw them get better as the season went along. We were learning; they were learning how to play and I was learning how to coach as neither they or I were able to win.

I remember this one kid who was one of the fastest players on the team but was always out of control and made big mistakes as a result that would give the other teams goals, despite me trying to teach him time and time again how to slow down and take his time. It frustrated me as a coach to see it happen again and again, but as a person he was one of my favorites as he was a sweet and wonderful kid who was always willing to try. He just didn’t quite get it because no one had taken the time to teach him (his home situation was not the best) and I was admittedly having a hard time figuring out how to teach the concept of slowing down to a 9-year-old. But, after nearly a year, towards the end of the season, despite many efforts that were left in frustration, I started to notice that he was beginning to take his time every now and then. He didn’t always have to go 110%, but there were moments when it is better to go 60-70% and figure out what to do from there. Even though I was not the best at what I was trying to do, eventually, the light bulb started to go off. He was learning and growing, along with the rest of the kids, because he wanted to be better at soccer. While he wanted to win, sure, he wanted to do the best that he could. He was at almost every practice even when others wouldn’t show up.

While I never explicitly express my faith in my coaching and teaching the kids, though people knew I was serving as a pastor, I found my understanding of God’s guidance and direction of us impacting the way I tried to approach sports, competition, and coaching. Sports and Christian faith intersect more when it comes to how we live when we are on the losing side, when things don’t go our way, when we make mistakes that cost us, and when the deck is unfairly stacked against us.

God has victories for us in life, for those of us who love Him. Some of those may turn out to be victories in career, in relationships, or even in championships on some occasions. But God’s victory in the Gospel is firstly about how He gives those who are on the losing side due to the way the powers of sin and death have stacked the deck against them. That type of victory sometimes means we lose some of the time, maybe even much of the time, because the deck has been stacked against us. But rather than trying to cheat to beat cheaters, to destroy those who destroy, to tear down those who tear down, the Gospel shows us how to learn and grow in our ‘losses,’ to let God direct and lead us through His Holy Spirit amidst the struggles with sin, injustice, and brokenness towards the type of victory that Jesus experienced and has. Because, unlike the President’s haughty and arrogant derision of people as “losers,” it is Jesus who gives victory to the ‘losers,’ and brings contempt to the self-proclaimed winners.

Paul the philosopher

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July 2, 2019

The more I work through my dissertation on 1 Corinthians, the more I am struck by a simple premise that explains roughly half of Paul’s discursive style in the non-Pastorals: Paul is a philosopher of sorts. Certainly, such an idea might appear to be an error prima facie. Even Troels Engberg-Pedersen, who has advocated for interpreting Paul in light of Stoicism, does not go so far as to say that Paul is a philosopher. However, the more I study 1 Corinthians, the more I am left with this basic feeling: the problems of the Corinthians seeing Paul and Apollos as competitive teachers of wisdom cannot be well accounted for if Paul did not, at least in some form, act like philosophers were expected to act in the day.

But this thesis bears clarification by first answering the question: what is a philosopher? While we all seem to have our images of what a “philosopher” is, there are not necessarily the same thing. For some, being a philosopher is to be engaged in the study of philosophy; a philosopher reads people like the ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle and the more recent philosophers like Nietzsche or Heidegger, etc. in the continental tradition or Russell and Ryle in the analytic tradition. This definition of a philosopher is largely defined by the study of a particular domain of thinking that is known as philosophy. However, this definition isn’t perfect. For instance, the philosophers of science such as Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos, etc. studied primarily the practice and thinking that occurs in science and formulated ideas about the field.

So, maybe we can define philosophy as a field that studies thinking in its various forms. This gets closer to the image we might get when we think of an academic philosopher, who studies ideas and the logical consequences of those ideas. But yet, this definition of a philosopher doesn’t quite work either unless we add an explicit qualification of being professional. For instance, two friends in conversation in a coffee shop (guess where I am at as I write this!) may talk about the way to approach relationship issues and one of them gives advice based upon some overarching principles about how they think relationships work and the other says “You are quite the philosopher.” While such designation is not serious in terms of defining an occupation, that it can be used to describe someone who thinks deeply about how they approach various life circumstances means that being a philosopher isn’t necessarily about precise logical analysis of abstract systems of beliefs and propositions.

It is in this last sense of the usage of “philosopher” that is closest to what I am meaning when I describe Paul as a philosopher. While philosophy from the Presocratics through to Socrates and up to the Hellenistic period had largely preoccupied itself with more “theoretical” ideas about the world and its constitution, from the Hellenistic period into the Roman era, philosophy took a turn towards focusing on ethical matters. As Europe had increasingly integrated various peoples and cultures towards political integration through the processes of regionalization that Alexander the Great’s empire and then the Roman empire created, the various structures of meaning and norms would begin to break down. Concomitant with that would have been an increase in anxiety about one’s life and place in the world, especially in light of the more familiar local governance that people were closely connected to being replaced by imperial governance and its system of laws that were ultimately enforced by penal and military power. How one is to live in such a context would become highly imperative to determine. Epicurus’ philosophy based upon finding happiness, far the hedonist that Epicurus is caricatured to be, was trying to promote a way of thinking that avoided the anxieties and features that come from the reality of death and the consequences of impulsive, hedonistic behavior. The 1st century AD Roman Stoics of Seneca and Epictetus gave a lot of time discussing ethical matters of how to live within the various circumstances of life. While certainly there were some ‘philosophers’ who had a fascination with the more abstract and logical matters of philosophy, these were regarded as misleading people and a charade; philosophy was practical and it addressed the anxieties that people faced in life.

Philosophers in Paul’s day were helping people to deal with the realities of life: to that end, they are closer to our modern day therapists than our image of philosophers in the modern day. Now, to be clear, this comparison isn’t perfect. Philosophers were expected to have a knowledge of logic and reasoning, although therapists and counselors who employ cognitive techniques may have some basic understanding of reasoning themselves. Philosophers also had certain ontological views on the way the world is and certain definitions of virtue that helped them to determine the norms for how one should learn to adapt in the world, whereas modern-day therapists typically allow for the client’s own values and norms to determine how to adapt. Philosophers also didn’t delve deep into consciousness, but their therapy typically focused on finding the errors of reasoning. Finally, philosophers didn’t do talk therapy like we do today. They may instruct classes in how to think, but their ‘therapy’ wasn’t typically personalized to a single client. Nevertheless, with these qualifications in mind, the goals of the philosopher in Paul’s day were closer to the goals of modern therapists: to help people to live and adapt in the world in a way that maximizes their well-being. Philosophy in the Apostle Paul’s world was more concerned about therapeutic and ethical interests rather than with logic and abstract propositions.

To that end, I would contend that it is best to understand part of Paul’s discourse in his letters as most aptly described as a form of philosophical discourse. Paul engages with Christians across the Roman empire on various matters such as how to live in the face of suffering (Romans 5.1-5), how to become virtuous/righteous by being conformed to Christ through the Spirit (Romans 6, 8). In addressing matters of marriage, he provides practical advice that should impact one’s decision on whether to marry or not (1 Cor. 7). Rather than seeking for one’s own benefit in matters of eating meat, Paul instructs in how one should seek other people’s interest above one’s own due to its association with idolatrous temples (1 Cor 10.23-11.1). Rather than judging each other based upon the appearances of the flesh, one should consider looking at each other in terms of the new creation being created in them (2 Cor. 5.16-17). Paul instructs the Galatians in how to live out their freedom that they have been given in Christ by living by the Spirit rather than the flesh (Gal. 5). Rather than letting anxiety reign, Paul advocates engaging God in prayer and focusing on the good in life (Philippians 4.4-9). The list goes on and on.

Moral instruction was not unique to philosophers, as the Pharisees themselves engaged moral instruction insofar as the Tannaim represents the Pharisees form of ethical thinking and instruction. However, once Paul moved away from a Pharisaical life where righteousness was derived from the interpretation and application of Torah, he could not employ the same style of ethical guidance as his ethical instruction was based upon the power of God at work in the love of Christ to demonstrate what God’s righteousness was ultimately about. The shape of Paul’s ethical reasoning becomes more narrative-driven rather than being based upon a hermeneutical approach to the Old Testament Scriptures. To that end, he shares much more common with the ancient philosophers, who would regularly make use of their mythical and philosophical stories of figures like Odysseus and Socrates as ethical narratives to guide their own behavior. Nevertheless, Paul also does not do philosophy the way that they philosopher did it, at it is the person of Christ who makes known the shape of God’s redemption and the nature of human life rather than simply serves as an example of some noble or lofty ideals.

Furthermore, Paul was a philosopher only in a constrained sense. His vocation was as an apostle who proclaimed the story of God’s redemption of humanity in the death and resurrection of Jesus as foretold in the Jewish Scriptures. To whatever degree Paul was capable of philosophical thinking and speech, it did not define his apostolic proclamation (1 Cor. 2.1-5). He primary saw himself as God’s ambassador, empowered by the Spirit to speak to and, through the Spirit, demonstrate the nature of God’s in-breaking love into the world. To that end, his wisdom was more defined by what he did in laying the foundation of Christ down (1 Cor. 3.10-11) than any wisdom exhibited in the form of philosophical discourse. However, Paul could speak in more of a philosophical manner (1 Cor 2.6-16) but even this was due to the inspiration of the Spirit to make known what cannot be known through the normal modes of philosophy in observation, learning, and reasoning (1 Cor. 2.9).

As a consequence, what defined Paul’s philosophical thinking from that of his nearest contemporaries, the Stoics, is that God’s wisdom is unknowable except through specific acts of revelation and that God’s wisdom isn’t based upon the way of the current order of the world, but how God is transforming the cosmos by Christ and through the Spirit to bring about a new creation that is eroding the order of the present age. As such, Paul’s philosophical thinking is more eschatological, if not even apocalyptic in a sense, that persistently relies upon the direction and inspiration of the Spirit for a person through faith to be intellectually and ethically be formed into the ultimate eschatological pattern that Jesus Christ is the source of and first visible appearance of.

Paul is firstly an apostle whose primary task is to proclaim the story of the resurrected Messiah to the Gentiles. However, in guiding the Christian communities he was responsible for teaching and in engaging with the conflicts with other outsider teachers who were leading them astray from the Gospel, Paul could engage in a form of thinking and discourse that closely resembles philosophical discourse in terms of style of instruction and its goals, although radically different in the presuppositions that determine the shape of the philosophical reasoning in taking the narrative of Jesus Christ as constitutive for the content of his philosophical thinking.

1 Corinthians 4.20, the Kingdom of God, and epistemology

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June 19, 2019

If you were to look at the scholarship of 1 Corinthians that engages rhetorical critics, you would see a trend in thinking that 1 Cor. 1.10 serves as the propositio for the epistle.1 Margaret Mitchell and Ben Witherington have both argued for that arrangement. This reflects the conviction that Paul’s primary task in 1 Corinthians is to address the causes of division in Corinth. However, it seems apparent to that issue of division is an auxiliary, rather than a primary issue for 1 Corinthians. Instead, the problems of division reflect a deeper problem, a roadblock for the Christian community to rightly learn about God through the Spirit that inspires the various members of the community. A community is in internal conflict is a community is not learn the way God makes Himself known. Rather, for me, I would suggest the concern about unity is connected to an overarching epistemic concern: how is it that one comes to experience and know God’s kingdom?

In my own arrangement of 1 Corinthians, I consider 1.10-4.19 to an extended narratio2 that seeks to clarify the nature of God’s wisdom in relationship to various teachers, such as Paul and Apollos. The probable reason why Paul takes this route is that he has received a request from the Corinthians for some instructions regarding specific matters (1 Cor. 7.1), but as he has gotten word that they are divided, a narratio that address matters of how God teaches the Corinthians is perhaps deemed necessary in order for the Corinthians to receive Paul’s response to their letter in the appropriate mindset, rather than risk them treating what Paul set as over and against what Apollos said. While various members of the Corinthian Chrisitan community were associating themselves with various teachers due to the type of wisdom they demonstrated in their teaching, Paul demonstrates in 1 Corinthians 2 that the Corinthians come to understand God from faith to the more mature wisdom because of God’s power and inspiration that was evident in Christ’s crucifixion and understanding and is in action among the Corinthians through the Spirit. God’s work is evident in various person such that no real distinct can be made between Paul and Apollos except in the specific task they are undertaking as given to them by God. Likewise, making divisions between each other is also counter to the way God is at work among the Corinthians.

It is in this context that 1 Corinthians 4.20 can be understand as Paul’s propositio: “God’s Kingdom is (known)3 not in speech but in power.” Whereas the Corinthians were accustomed to evaluating the wisdom of people based upon their evaluations of the speech in accordance to the conventions of the wisdom of the day, as if human wisdom had some reliable way to inform persons about God and His will, Paul provides a different account of how one comes into God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God is not mediated through speech, but rather it comes into experience and understanding through power. Whereas the conventions of wisdom would assign speech, specifically speech that follows the conventions of reason, as a way to come into an understanding of God, the Body of Christ comes to know God by understanding what God does. Put differently, ancient conventions of wisdom often made reason and those deemed experts in wisdom because of their rationality as the epistemic source of knowledge about divinity, whereas Paul has an epistemology that takes as its source various acts and speech among the Christian community that are deemed to have been empowered and inspired by God.

However, there are good reasons to suggest that this epistemic starting point did not originate from Paul himself. Rather, I would hypothesize that 1 Corinthians 4.20 originates as an understanding of Jesus’ own discourse about the kingdom of God/heaven. Read Matthew 12.28:

if it is by the Spirit4 of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.

Here, we see a similar connection to God’s Kingdom and power as in 1 Corinthians 4.20, as it is the Spirit who is the agent of God’s power among the Corinthian community.

However, I don’t think 1 Cor. 4.20 is pulling from the saying in Matthew 12.28/Luke 11.20. Rather, I think it is more so descriptive of how the early Church understood the significance of Jesus over and against the religious background, particularly of the Pharisees. Consider this teaching attributed to the Pharisee Gamaliel in Mishnah Berakhot 2.5:

A bridegroom is exempt from reciting the Shema on the first night until the end of the Shabbat, if he has not performed the act. It happened with Rabban Gamaliel who recited the Shema on the first night after he had married. His students said to him: Our master, have you not taught us that a bridegroom is exempt from reciting the Shema. He replied to them: I will not listen to you to remove from myself the Kingship of Heaven even for a moment.

The nature of the question isn’t immediately clear to most of us today, but it boils down to a question of priorities for Gamaliel. On the night in which one should be consummating one’s marriage, it was given as an exception that a man would not have to remember and spend time recited the Shema. They would presumably be too distracted by their marital ‘duties’ that it wouldn’t think to recite the Shema prayer, so an exception was made. However, Gamaliel’s response to the inquiry highlights that the exception was a concession and not a rule. His rationale is that to fail to recite the Shema would be to absent from God’s rule.

What this somewhat humorous episode (at least humorous to me) shows is that the relationship between speech with the idea of God’s Kingdom among the Pharisees. To be clear, Gamaliel is not referring to some mindless recitation of the Shema as if it is a mere ritual. Rather, he is referring to a meaningful act of devotion that was not just a matter of words but also ordered the mind in devotion to God, just as outlined in Deuteronomy 6.4-9, a significant portion of the Shema prayer.

The specific relationship between this act of prayer and devotion and God’s Kingdom is not apparent in this episode, nor should we try to speculate about Gamaliel in this episode. However, we can outline at least three types of relationships that could account for the relationship. A conditional relationship would suggest that God’s rule comes in some form to the person in response to the recitation of the Shema. A constructive relationship would suggest that recitation of the Shema is an act in bringing about God’s rule in the life of the person, perhaps as a way of appropriate what God made known for one’s own life. A receptive relationship would consider the recitation of the Shema would prepare the person to enter into God’s Rule.

Most any good Pharisee and the later Rabbis would reject the conditional relationship between the Shema and the Kingdom of God as they knew that it was God who showed mercy and made a covenant with them before God did anything. Rather in virtue of the covenantal nomism that E.P. Sanders outlined in Paul and Palestinian Judaism, such a view that condition God’s action as a necessary response to human action would fly in the face of the understanding of God’s mercy in the Torah.

A constructive relationship would be more amenable to religious life structured according to covenantal nomism, where obedience was a response to God’s mercy and covenant. In this view, God can be seen as giving the ‘resources’ for bringing about God’s rule and one’s appropriation and usage of those resources takes what God has given access to and constructed one’s own life in accordance to it. It is this constructive view that seems to be most consistent with Rabbi Joshua ben Korbah (from a generation after Gamaliel) explanations as to the order of the Shema in Mishnah Berakhot 2.2:

Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah said: Why was the section of “Shema” placed before that of “And it shall come to pass if you listen”? So that one should first accept upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven and then take upon himself the yoke of the commandments.

Here we see the outworks of the covenantal nomism, with one first receiving God’s rule (i.e. convenant) and then one obeys the commandments. However, what is significant for the question at hand is the metaphor of a yoke. The metaphor of a yoke works by treating what God provides as the very things that Jews are to experience. The Shema, along with the commandments, were seen as something whose significance is in what they brought to the person. Thus, a constructive relationship between speech and the Kingdom of God offers a possible explanation for an understanding of Pharisaical and Rabbinic Judaism. By recitation of the Shema and by obedience to the commandments, one was bringing the Kingdom and God’s will into one’s life.

This view is not that different from the Stoic view of reason, where God/Zeus has given humans the ability to reason and by learning how to use that power, one can raise oneself up to becoming one with God. While there is clearly a different understanding of God for the Stoics from the Pharisees, a constructive relationship that considers God giving some resource that human’s use in response to form themselves can certainly be shared between the two.

However, it is this constructive relationship that Jesus/the early Church seems to opposed to. In John 5.39, Jesus says: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.” (NRSV) There seem to be things going on here. Firstly, Jesus is addressing their way of thinking. While we today often say “I think” or “you think” as an automatic way of hedging what people are saying, the force of Jesus’ usage of δοκέω is more akin to the way an ancient philosopher would point out and correct the way a person was reasoning. There is an identification here of a specific pattern. Secondly, Jesus speaks of the ‘Judeans’ usage of the Scriptures as having a specific purpose in mind when they read: they are seeking eternal life. Thirdly, Jesus also describes the way they relate to the Scriptures as them possessing this life ἐν αὐταῖς. Here, Jesus is addressing the way they approach the Scripture in their thinking: the writings themselves possess life-giving properties.5 This rules out either the conditional or receptive relationship between the words of Scripture and God’s Kingdom and life, whereas the constructive relationship is the best explanation of three relationships I provided.

However, Jesus provides a different view of the SCripture that is closer to the receptive relationship, in that the Scriptures were said to testify to Himself. However, this is not an isolated testimony, but as mentioned previously in John 5.36, Jesus’ works also testify to Himself. Thus, for the Gospel of John, we see the testimony of Scripture connected also to the testimony of Jesus’s powerful works, like the healing of the man at the Sheep Gate that preceded this discussion. Without digressing into a rabbit trail, I would suggest that Jesus’ view of the Scripture as a testimony of Himself intersects with the works of power that he was performing.

Thus, I would suggest this is suggestive of a contrast of two different views of God’s Kingdom. In the Pharisaical view, the Torah, both in the Shema and in the commandments, gave resources for the faithful Jews to construct God’s rule in their lives through the recitation of the Shema and obedience to the commandments. For Jesus and later Paul, the Kingdom of God comes through Jesus’s/God’s power that is at work, rather than through language.

This presents a sharp difference in implicit epistemology when it comes to knowing and experience God’s Kingdom. If the words of the Torah are like raw resources that one uses to know about God’s Kingdom, then how one interprets and applies these words are of paramount importance. Hence, any read through of the Mishnah can show the great care and concern that is given to the interpretation of the Scriptures. However, if God’s Kingdom is known through God’s powerful actions, then the reading of Scripture doesn’t provide a direct, knowing acquaintance with God’s Kingdom. Rather, one knows God’s Kingdom through experiencing and identifying God’s actions. And, to bring this back to 1 Corinthians, if this is true of Israel’s Scriptures, how much more true is this for Greco-Roman wisdom? It too can not provide insight into God’s Kingdom, only God can through His power and inspiration of human speech and thinking in the Spirit as demonstrated in Christ.

This relationship of overlaps with Barth’s view of Scripture as a witness to divine revelation, with some modifications as Barth’s concept of “revelation” has a problem with it. Barth’s view of revelation is an epistemic concept that distinguishes itself from all human ways of knowing; one knows God’s self-disclosure in that God reveals Himself in the person of Christ. However, without going into my full argument as to why, I would suggest the New Testament concept of revelation as contained in the word ἀποκαλύπτω refers to some phenomenon of human thought and speech, such as Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2 or Paul’s vision of a flash of light and hearing Jesus call to him in Acts 9, that is deemed to have been originated/inspired by God. It can also apply to Jesus Christ in virtue of Christ being in the flesh and visible, but ἀποκαλύπτω was a concept that referred to those phenomena that were seen and heard that originated from God. Rather than bearing any overarching epistemic implication about all knowledge about God, a revealing/ἀποκαλύπτω was something deemed to be from God and thus contained understanding from God that would need to be interpreted and expounded upon. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 2.10-13, Paul describes revelation and speech trained by the Spirit as being combined together.6

It is also important to clarify ἀποκαλύπτω doesn’t get used to refer to some self-disclosure of God’s own ontological nature in the New Testament.  Rather, it is used to refer to future events of God’s power, with its usage in 1 Cor. 2.6-13 most notably connected to the resurrected Jesus as the Lord of Glory as determining the shape of the general resurrection as described in 1 Cor. 15. It is more accurate to suggest that ἀποκαλύπτω refers to the revelation of God’s will for new creation as demonstrated in Christ. Thus, ἀποκαλύπτω is connected to the future manifestation of God’s power, especially in the redemption of creation. In other words, I would say what God self-discloses is God’s will for humanity and creation. Thus, contra Barth, I would not say that God reveals Himself as Triune, but God reveals His will in His Triunity.7

With this modification in mind, the language of Scripture can be found to have a special relationship to what is deemed a revelation: it can point to and expound upon God’s revelation when revelation is understood as pertaining to manifestation of God’s power in creation and in humanity. This is how Scripture seems to be used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.3-5 in describing the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus: the Scriptures help to understand that the shape of God’s power in Jesus is loving in that Jesus died on behalf of human sins and was raised for the behalf of humans. The words of Scripture providing an understanding of God’s powerful actions as indeed, loving actions express God’s commitment to humanity.

This pulls back to Jesus criticism of the Judeans in John 5. They bristled at Jesus’ healing the man on the Sabbath. But the Scriptures testified to Jesus and the power at work in Him, including, notably, God’s love. This also comes into Paul’s repudiation of the expectations of wisdom among the Corinthians; whereas ancient philosophy was often a competitive enterprise, the body of Christ was to be ordered in love so that people could learn from God’s inspiration throughout the body.

So, this plays into Paul’s view of God’s Kingdom in 1 Cor. 4.20. Paul wasn’t rejecting the capacity of human speech to talk about God, but familiarity with God’s Kingdom didn’t come through speech but through God’s power. But insofar as God’s inspired speech was a part of communities learning, it can only perform its function when it was done in love to build each other up. Hence, Paul’s question in 1 Cor. 4.21, far from some sort of veiled intimidation, rather implies that what the Corinthians would really want to know God’s Kingdom is for Paul to be a loving, gentle teacher, rather than some competitive fighter to address the arrogant persons in the congregation. Only in learning to see the Christian fellowship as a community of love rather than a competition in wisdom would the Corinthians be able to truly come to comprehend and know deeply God’s wisdom describing God’s beneficient intentions for them.

Anger in the Christian life

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June 17, 2019

Anger is a complex emotion. At the heart of anger are three basic cognitive notions: a person who is angry has felt a sense of violation, is prepared to take some action to remedy the violation, and the violater is seen in a negative light. The nature of the violation can range from the superficial, such as a child’s temper tantrum for not getting their way to the worst violations of abuse, murder, etc. The type of action a person is willing to take isn’t generally communicated by the signs of anger, but people can try to establish boundaries, try to control to get their way, seek vengeance, etc. Then, perception of the violator can range from anger in the moment at an otherwise friend to the rage that regards the perceived violator with absolute disgust and contempt. When we are angry, someone is angry at us, or we are aware of someone’s anger at someone else, we don’t consciously go through this list, but we generally have an intuition about these three notions, although we don’t always have a clear, precise understanding about the violation, action, or the view of the violator.

Anger is additionally a powerful emotion, as it represents a potential for some form of aggression to remedy the situation, whether the aggression is symbolic, covert, limited, or takes on a more extreme actions. As such, anger also has the potential to evoke fear in the targets of angers and even onlookers, especially depending on the degree of anger. Consequently, because fear is based upon protection oneself from possible threats, but not necessarily probable ones, anger often times lead to its targets feeling the need to protect themselves, especially when there a lot of ambiguity about the violation, the potential response to the violation, and the perceptions of the violator.

This brings me to what I consider to be part of the dividing line between dealing with anger in a right way vs. a wrong way. When you get back the people who are directly and abusive in their anger, one of the real problems with anger is often times the communicative dysfunctions that take place in anger. Whether it is because of the lack of effective communication that leads to fear and defensiveness in its targets or because of the harsh things that can be said and done in the heat of anger, anger in our present day is more so toxic of our social connections through sabotaging communication. Sometimes, people who have learned how to toxically control people through a combination of anger and ambiguity and use this to their advantage, such as an abusive spouse who regularly expresses contradictory, yet harsh criticism or stonewalls. However, many of us more so struggle with communication when in anger, largely because we have not learned how to regulate ourselves when we become angry. This is a natural, human inclination that does not make a person morally bad, but it nevertheless facilitates conflicts that could be avoided through the ability to communicate more effectively.

I point out the communicative dysfunctions of anger to use this concept to bring to light in reading Jesus’ words about anger in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5.21-26, Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (NRSV)

These words have often been used with the idea that Jesus was saying that anger is equivalent to murder, much like the follow verses in Matt 5.27-30 has been used to suggest that thinking about sex with someone who isn’t your spouse is the same thing as committing adultery. However, these interpretations are convenient form of guilting and shaming people for their emotions, and consequently have served as a way to gaslight people for simply being anger and shame them for sexual feelings. They are not actually address the heart of what Jesus is trying to demonstrate. This ignores Jesus purpose that can be seen from what is immediately said before going into his discourse on anger in Matthew 5.17-20:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (NRSV)

AT the heart of Jesus’ concern is this. He is not nullifying the Torah. Rather, what he is doing is trying to teach people to go beyond the Pharisees, who were often exemplary in their understanding of the Torah, although they often used their traditions to nullfying a commandment in the Torah. In other words, if your righteousness is simply limited to the Torah, then one will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. For Jesus, the Torah was not the totality of God’s will for people, but it was a starting point that was to ultimately lead them towards the love of God and to be reflect His completeness. (Matthew 5.43-48) However, if one considered one’s obligations to end where the Torah is silent, then one had failed to really understand of heart of God and the way of life in the kingdom of heaven.

So, when we read the passage about anger (and also about lust and adultery, although that passage has its unique interpretative challenges, as it more so about lust towards a married woman), it is important to reflect that Jesus is not saying “Anger = murder.” Rather, it is about Jesus addressing matters that go beyond a righteousness based upon the Torah that said “I did not murder, therefore I am not liable to judgment.” Jesus point is to rather say that one is accountable to one’s anger and what one does with it. The key word that Jesus uses is ἔνοχος, which refers to the idea of accountability, which he uses four times. It doesn’t stritly speak, refer to a guilty judgment, although that is often times the implication as it is with murder, but that one is accountable to what one does. It is more appropriate to understand Jesus instruction as effectively saying that we are not simply free to do whatever we wish when we are angry. This explains the intensification of anger in the actions of insulting and calling a brother a fool and the corresponding, hyperbolic intensification of accountability. The more one does in anger, the more one will be held accountable with the possibility of increasing consequences.1

What is noteworthy is that as Jesus intensifies the actions done in anger, he focuses on verbal behaviors. It seems as if part of the problem with anger is the way it often leads to dysfunctional, if not abusive, communication. Before anger ever leads to murder, it readily leads to harmful words that are spoken. The danger of anger is the damage done in what we say and the resulting damage our in social relationships. Hence, Jesus warns such a hypothetical person that has engaged in such dysfunctional communication that they need to make amends with the one they have targeted, because one is often held accountable to what one says and does in anger. Anger combined with dysfunctional communication that focuses on tearing down and treating another party with contempt (which is one way angry people try to remedy what the deem to be a violation) has serious, serious consequences.

Jesus point is to provide a form of practical wisdom about anger and the consequences it can have. How we deal with our anger is of an imperative importance if we wish to live life in way it is lived in the kingdom of heaven. Anger is not sin and is not equivalent murder. Nevertheless, we are accountable for how we behave in our anger.

Attempts to pathologize and “harmatia-nized”2 anger, however, often work on the assumption that to be angry is to either automatically be wrong or wrong by default unless one can prove their case. This is often the case with narcissists who are unable to consider the possibility of anger towards them ever being legitimate. Such persons may routinely violate boundaries and trust in other persons and will then manipulatively take those person’s anger as further evidence of their contempt and disregard. However, in most situations, anger can also be pathologized and “harmatia-nized” by otherwise well-intended persons. Because of our fear of anger and because anger is often used to threaten the status quo, we can often times regard anger as automatically wrong in order to feel a sense of righteousness or authority to protect oneself. While such attempts are not intended with evil, but simply a result of a natural push towards egocentricity, when such a norm becomes enculturated and institutionalized, it is readily used by narcissists and other predatorial types to reinforce their control over those they mistreat. So, how we are set to deal with other people’s anger has massive implications not just for ourselves, but also our social networks in what strategies and norms we allow to regulate our response to anger.

The way I presently frame addressing anger is through the concept of accountability in which both the angry person is accountable to the target of their anger for how they treat them. As I understand it, accountability isn’t a form of control, but rather the way we respond to another person’s behavior. Thus, a person is free to be angry and should have space and permission to express their anger (assuming there are no legitimate reasons to be protective). On the other hand, they don’t have a right to escalate far beyond the perceived violation, nor are they free to treat me in whatever way they wish without a response. However, in seeing my “right” to hold an angry person accountable, I should first consider my accountable to give me the responsibility to try to allow the space for healthy addressing of anger, by first focusing on trying to aid in the communication and then trying to be clear about my own boundaries. While some in their anger may refuse to recognize my place in holding them accountable to how they address their anger towards me, placation will teach such people that they can act as they wish. In other words, I see part of my role in accountability is to make it such that I create the space for the appropriate expression of grievances towards me. Rather than trying to automatically avoid anger, I aspire to consider how I can help the person to express their anger better, so far as I feel any threat in contained and manageable. Not that I am perfect at that, but I have found this way of responding to anger, which is rooted in Jesus’ own explication on anger, is a better way to address the dysfunctional communication that occurs in anger rather than the other ways we try to respond and deal with another person’s anger.

In part, this is rooted in the fact that I myself can recall a couple of times where I had legitimate reasons to be angry (one time I was legitimately furious), but I did not know how to appropriately address that anger, which was usually suppressed (and thus leading to the inability to communicate anger well), when it finally came out. I wished the other parties had more effective strategies for dealing with anger. But as Jesus calls on us to do to others as we wished they would do to us, I have taken on the notion of accountability seriously, both for my own anger and for how I respond to the anger of other persons.

There are times to be angry. While we should aspire to be like God, who is slow to anger, in being slow to anger ourselves, the experience and expression of anger should not pathologized and “hamartia-nized.” Persistent and unreasonable anger that is not curtailed and contained with time, accountability, and legitimate redress is a real problem; anger that is used to reinforce narcissism should be considered toxic. However, anger itself should not be considered the enemy, but something that we should consider ourselves accountable for and that we hold others accountable to. 

Marriage, celibacy, and being caught in between

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June 16, 2019

The Christian faith has throughout history upheld one of two options for sexuality: marriage between a male and female or celibacy. While in the late 20th and early 21st century, this idea has been challenged, it remains true that the New Testament presents these two venues to live out one’s sex, by Jesus and then later outlined with more detail by the Apostle Paul. Christian and churches that seek to remain living by Jesus’ teaching on sex and marriage are left to live within two options. However, the way we come to arrive at those options may not have been as well understood.

For many people, they exist as caught in between the two options. While most Christians assume that marriage is something that they should do as part of the process of growing up, there are some of us who have considered celibacy. While Jesus describes celibacy as something that is gifted to a person is not entirely clear (Matthew 19.10-12), the Apostle Paul declares that it is better for a person to marry than to burn with passion (1 Cor. 7.9). This has often lead people to reduce the question as to whether one should marry or not to a singular question: do you desire sex? If so, you should marry. The assumption can be that celibacy is for those who are devoid of desire as if they have received a special gift to be celibate.

However, this isn’t what either Jesus or Paul actually says. Jesus didn’t refer to the gift of celibacy, but rather to gift of being able to accept the teaching that it is better to not marry than to do so. In his three fold discussions of eunuchs, the first two he refers to were made eunuchs not by choice but either by birth or by other people. However, the third type of eunuchs for God’s kingdom, Jesus does not speak of them being involuntarily made a eunuch. Rather, the verb εὐνούχισαν is active, describing the act of a person making themselves a eunuch. While Jesus certainly doesn’t advocate any form of castration, he does see the lifestyle of voluntary celibacy as something one does to oneself; it is not a gift that one receives. The best hint that Jesus gives is that it is connected to one process of learning and discipleship because Jesus refers to people receiving this teaching. Learning in the ancient world, particuarly when it comes to learning from esteemed wise figures, was not taken simply for the sake of head knowledge, but for the sake of forming one’s own character, behavior, and virtue by learning when and how to control their behavior and thinking. Thus, Jesus can be best be seen as saying that some people may came to live as a eunuch of the kingdom through discipleship.

Furthermore, a closer reading of Paul would show that Paul isn’t saying “if you have sexual desire, you must marry.” Rather, Paul reading is much more nuanced. Firstly, the condition he provides is the Greek verb πυρόω, which literally means to burn. Many commentaries will consider Paul’s usage as a metaphor for sexual desire. However, this fails to take into account the ancient view of desire and emotions. Our modern psychological of affect defines our emotions and desires based upon the conscious content of thinking and feeling. For instance, different experiences of desire may be seen as having various degrees of intensity, but otherwise less intense and more intense desire are considered the same thing. On the other hand, ancient accounts of affect were more defined by the consequences of such affective states, whether behavioral or cognitive. For instance, the Stoic doctrine of the passions were concern about emotions that made people think and act in irrational ways. Far from the modern caricature of a Stoic as emotionless, Stoics could experience what we today would refer to emotions, but they would feel they weren’t threats to rationality and would not call them passions. What defined the negative passions was not an inner state of consciousness and feeling, but the cognitive and behavioral consequences of irrational thinking and immoral behavior. So, when Paul refers to a person burning with fire, he is not referring to the existence of sexual desire in a person, but rather referring to a form of sexual desire that makes people close. To burn was to describe someone who was “in heat” and the pursuit and engagement of sexual behavior was almost inevitable.

Furthermore, Paul does not say “If you are on the cusp of engaging in sexual activity, you must marry.” Rather, he says it is preferable (κρεῖττον) to marry. Paul does not provide a declaratory decision about what one must do, but rather describes it is more advantageous to marry and to refrain from marriage. In a similar fashion, Paul later provides such an account as to why people should not marry (1 Cor. 7.28). Thus, Paul would still leave open the possibility of remaining celibate for even those burning with a passion. Paul is not pronouncing a command about marriage to those who burn, but commending it as something they should pursue. Why? Not because they experience sexual desire, but because they are not controlling themselves. The core fundamental question is whether a person has behavioral control of themselves in their desire, not the existence of any desire. However, it is still possible that someone who has not practiced self-control could learn to do so. Hence, Paul does not provide an absolute judgment on what people should do.

What undergirds Paul’s understanding of marriage is, like Jesus, also the concept of a gift (1 Cor. 7.7). However, the context makes clear: this isn’t the “gift of celibacy” but rather is a matter of self-control. (1 Cor. 7.5) For Paul, celibacy is a preferable option when one is able to exercise self-restraint upon ones’ sexual behaviors. In other words, celibacy is something given by God’s empowerment to have regulated oneself, to not act upon the temptations and drives that can dramatically alter the way you think and act. Much as Jesus hints at the willingness to live a celibate life comes through discipleship and brings about self-control, Paul also considers the advantage of celibacy to be conditioned upon self-control. In other words, through the process of Spiritual maturation, some persons would obtain the capacity to effectively self-regulate their sexual behaviors.

Thus, what has often been assumed to undergird the option of celibacy as being conditioned upon a gift for celibacy is not how Jesus and Paul understand it. Furthermore, the idea of a “gift for celibacy” is potentially harmful to a whole range of people who are caught in the middle. There are many people who would like to marry but are unable to do so. People who are gay and lesbian but committed to the Church’s historical sexual ethic are not able to marry. Then, there are heterosexual persons who do to a combination of undesirability to others, the lack of opportunities, and/or personal difficulties and traumas are unable to marry. I, for instance, due to a few threatening and a couple of traumatic experiences with women from later in college and afterward, find myself unable to even try to date; when I sense even a possibility of serious interest from another female, I can sometimes freeze, sometimes engage in avoidant behaviors, and can even feel incredibly nauseous and sick afterward, even if I am interested in that moment. As men’s chances to date correspond in part to their ability to pursue, people with trauma like mine don’t ever really get the chances to overcome the biological power of our traumas through experience. As much as I have wanted to fall in love, get married, and have a family, I am among those caught in the middle, whose struggles make me avoid opportunities and undesirable even when I don’t avoid.

People like us can experience extreme emotional pain, even as we are able to self-regulate ourselves from engaging in sexual activity and even substitute behaviors like pornography, we deal with incredible difficulties. Living in a society that valorizes romance and sex (but not necessarily marriage except as a symbol of societal recognition for non-heterosexuals) and being constantly reminded of how the benefits of close relationships, people caught in the middle are often times left with a deep sense of emptiness and feeling of being on the margins of life. Not to mention the way people respond to celibate persons. When I served as a pastor, I was routinely encouraged to date someone that well-meaning parishioners had in mind, but with the mindset that at the end of the day, places me as a person who had something wrong with me more globally rather than recognizing that I struggle to even form the earliest parts of emotional attachment. Neither society nor the church knows quite what to do with people who remain celibate. So, people who remain in the middle can deal with the emotional turmoil on both ends in the inability of relational dreams to become realized and the implicit social judgments that can arise.

Part of this problem arises from how we account for the instinct of sex that has influenced our society. Whether it is Freud’s reducing most everything down to sex or some simplistic evolutionary account that treat sex as singular, reproductive instinct to individual biological organisms. Freud’s view treat social interactions as ultimately definable to sexual behavior, reducing the role of non-sexual relationships. Simplistic evolutionary accounts considers everyone as having a sexual instinct for the sake of reproduction, as if every human organism reproduces to continue the species. As a consequence, we have been accustomed to regard sex as an essential part of being human, as if we are biologically fated to participate in sexual behavior. But I would suggest this misunderstands human nature and sex as a simplistic instinct.

The common trend in earlier psychology was to assume that specific behaviors and thoughts were reducible to a single mechanism that accounts for the whole range of behavior. Thus, when it came to sex, it was considered a singular instinct that was an essential part of what it means to be human. But the notion of a singular instinct is flawed, as what seems to be the case is that human motivation and behavior more so emerges from the overlap and various physiological and neurological states. Sex is one of those instances, evidence by the fact that people can experience deep ambivalence about sexual activity. On the one hand, a person may feel some desire for sex. However, because we are also physiologically protective of our own physical space and emotional well-being, for a person to actively engage in sexual behavior to occur, they would need to both feel desire and feel a degree of safety that inhibits the degree of physical and emotional self-protection. A primal feeling of vulnerability in either way can actively inhibit what the person might otherwise experience as sexual desire; they might feel ambivalent about sex or sexual desire might become entirely inhibited. The point is that there isn’t a single instinct responsible for human sexual desire, but rather it is more likely a composite of various, other physiological states.

Thus, I would hypothesize that it is more accurate to suggest that human have sexual potential that is regularly activated enough in enough people to reproduce. Seeking to be physically stimulated, desires for a close social connection, hopes for having a family can all be effective and cognitive “triggers” that can activate our sexual potential, which all happen regularly enough to ensure adequate reproduction. There are likely other, non-conscious neural and biological factors that can trigger sexual potential. However, what does not seem to be the case is that there is some singular sexual instinct that demands to be satisfied, but rather there are other motivational states and goals that active sexual potential so that we become motivated to engage in various forms of sexual behavior, from the early phases of dating to sexual intercourse. If correct, this means that sexual desire is largely conditioned to various specific physiological, affective, and cognitive states that are not inherently seeking to engage in sexual activity with another person, rather than it being a singular craving that should be satisfied. If this is the case, then the experience of sexual desire is not controlled simply by innate biological patterns but is also very adaptable and flexible to the patterns of cognitive and emotional experience and learning, including within our culture. I would go so far as to posit that sexual desire more so mirrors the cognitive and emotional ordering of society and people’s experiences within it.

The implications of such is this: the emotional intensity of sexual desire is more so a factor about what we value and think rather than simply the consequence of some instinct or instincts. I would posit there are three big factors that contribute to sexual desire: desires to be physically stimulated, desire to be emotionally connected to another person, and desire to create and generate something. Pleasure, bonding, and creating in the form of reproduction provides conditions for our desire for sexual activity. Some of these desires become fixated and persistent, if not sometimes taking on a degree of obsession, that regularly generates sexual desire. Then, there may be other motivations that can contribute 

If this view is correct, then this would generate some suggestions when it comes to Christian discipleship and sex. Frequently, Christian responses to framing sexuality employ a combination of approaches that a) focus on managing and address sexual desire and identity and/or b) engage in what  I refer to as “therapeutic archaeology” by trying to resolve the events of the person’s past, including frequently traumas. However, if sexual desire is conditioned more so upon other values, then the first route is self-defeating. Perhaps this is why we can find people trying to directly regulate and control their sexual desire find it a defeating experience; if sexual desire is a function of other desires, then addressing sexual desire doesn’t actually address the causes. Meanwhile the problem with the second option works on the assumption that you can reverse what happened and somehow to move towards some more pristine, better form of desire; it does not treat the present as what is most important, but addressing the past. However, especially when it comes to traumas and the way memories of fear are resistant to extinction, there is never any going back to the way things were beforehand. I myself have experienced the futility of both approaches in the past. Direct addressing of sexual desire was largely effective in keeping me from sexual activity, but it left me disturbed by the regular experience of it combined with the lack of dating opportunities to allow for marriage due to my trauma. However, trying to address my problems therapeutically with psychologist never really solved my hang-ups and struggles with dating that stopped anything from happening; all I was capable of doing was finding some other avenue of life in substitute for my inability to be someone else saw worth giving a chance.

But, if I am correct, this view of sex would prescribe a different way to address matters of sex in the Christian tradition: focus on the other values that are connected and generate sexual desire. For instance, I am a person who is highly desirous of emotional connection and for a family; I have found I experience the most thoughts about sex when I feel the worst pangs of loneliness. As a heterosexual male, which makes close relationships with both men and women hard due to gender conventions, and with trauma that makes it hard for me to regularly socialize in such a way that I become a person people actively seek to be around, the lack of emotional bonding and feelings of deep loneliness are near impossible to address aside from my family. Addressing problems of sexual desire would work more so in addressing the needs and struggles to bond. This doesn’t mean there is no place for managing sexual desire; this is indeed part of self-control. But managing sexual desire controls behavior rather than addresses conditions for desire. Therapeutic treatment of past traumas and other events has a place in a professional, therapeutic relationship to help people to understand and manage the problems their experiences present them, but these would not address the actual experience of sexual desire.

This overlaps with the views that I ascribe to Jesus and Paul, in that they both consider celibacy a gift that emerges from discipleship. The learning in the various other parts of life. If this is correct, then this provides a way for the people in the middle like me to be able to learn how to navigate the pain and sorrow of lost and unfulfillable dreams and begin to move towards a place towards spiritual contentment with celibacy. While it doesn’t rule out the possibility of those in the middle from ever marrying, and in fact in some cases where the barriers are not strong, perhaps going through hte process may allow for those barriers to pass. However, for some persons where the hang-ups, limitations, and lack of chances are pervasive, perhaps this way is more effective at allowing them to overcome the lifelong dilemmas they might be faced with. Perhaps in this way, the Church can  find a better way to minister to people.

What is the curse of the Torah in Galatians 3.10-14?

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June 10, 2019

Galatians 3.10-14 is an interesting passage. Paul does not provide an explicit account of his logic regarding the curse of the Torah, which means that in order to comprehend the passage people will rely upon their theological pre-understanding to fill in the gaps. A prominent reading in traditional Lutheran-Reformed circles sees the curse of the law as a punishment due to the lack of perfect obedience, whereas Jesus’ taking on the curse is Jesus’ a description of penal substitution atonement in taking on the punishment that sinners deserve. By contrast, NT Wright considers the passage to be a description of the national exile of Israel in accordance to the Deuteronomic curses in Deuteronomy 28 that Jesus in his death represents Israel. Then, J. Louis Martyn interprets the passage as Paul’s counter-argument against his opponents usage of Deuteronomy 27.26 against the Galatians; for Martyn’s Paul, the Law is a universal power that inherently condemns due to it not being based upon faith, and not simply in virtue of any failure to obey, condemns that Christ by being a greater power provides a liberation from. In each of these three readings, pre-understandings about punishment, identity, and power influence the way Galatians 3.10-14 is read.

Given the lack of specificity by Paul, any understanding of Galatians 3.10-14 entails drawing on concepts that are not explicitly mentioned in the discourse to make sense of (a) the nature of the curse and (b) how Christ redeems from the curse. As a consequence, most interpretations of 3.10-14 will rely upon providing an understanding that provides ideas that can sufficiently explain the passage, but there is little in the text that necessitates one set of explanatory ideas over another. Punishment, identity, and power can all provide accounts that are coherent with 3.10-14, although questions certainly arise about how coherent it is with the rest of Galatians, his Jewish heritage, etc.

I personally favor Wright’s interpretation insofar as it makes reference to the curses of Deuteronomy 28. However, I find setting Paul’s understanding as a discussion of the nation of Israel as a whole to be a bit disjarring of the text. While social identity certain plays a role in discussions about the Torah and certainly Paul is influenced by his understanding of the Israel’s national history in the Scriptures, the text does not read as a commentary on social identity groups specifically. While we should heed Krister Stendahl’s warning against overly psychological readings that can emerge from individualist readings, Paul’s does not frame his discussion of the curse in terms of nation or social identity, but rather in terms of personal identity. In v. 9, Paul refers to those who believe (οἱ ἐκ πίστεως) as sharing in ABraham’s blessed as Abraham believed; Paul highlight individuals with a distinctive identity of having faith. Then, ὅσοι (“as much/many as”) in v. 10 functions naturally as a count noun in that context, suggest that Paul is talking about an indeterminate collection of individuals who rely on works.

Thus, I take Paul’s discussion of the curse to not primarily be about the national exile of Israel, but about individual person who bear a specific property of relying on works. While discussion of national history and social identity can certain be relevant for our understanding what happens to individuals, as our understanding of history and of groups by providing a way to conceptually frame our understanding of individuals, our construal of personal identity is not reducible to the understandings we have of history and social identity.1 Therefore, I take as one criteria for interpretations of Galatians 3.10-14 is that it provides an explanation of what happens to persons.

However, at this point is important to distinguish between the argument of Paul’s discourse and Paul’s understanding of the concepts he discusses. I would contend that Paul’s argument about those being under the curse is purely a Scriptural argument based upon Paul’s understanding of what the Scriptures specifically describe. On what grounds does one say the Torah curses those who try to rely upon it? Because the two Scripture Paul quotes from say that righteousness is based upon faith and not the works of the Torah. Paul does not explain the reason the curse exists, but makes a Scriptural argument that a right interpretation of the Scriptures show that relying on the Torah leads to a curse. It is an argument from the authority of Scripture, rather than providing any specific account and explanation for why the curse exists. This is why Paul does not provide an explicit understanding of the curse: his argument is closer to a form of proof-texting that undercuts his opponents that make circumcision and Torah obedience necessary than it is offering any sort of clear understanding or systematic explanation.

That does not mean that Paul’s argument is simply arbitrary and rests solely on the interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures. Paul may have a deeper comprehension of why those who rely on the Torah are cursed that extents beyond the authority of the Scriptures; in fact I argue that there is good reasons to suggest he does. However, it is important to do justice to Paul’s actual discourse try to not try interpret Paul making a type of argument that he is not.

Now, I would say insight into Paul’s understanding of why relying on the Torah brings about a curse is hinted at in Gal. 3.21-22. Paul understands the Torah as being incapable of bringing about righteousness, but rather it has a universal effect of locking people into sin. It is a shocking idea that Paul expressed in Romans 5.20 that the Torah lead to the increase of sin. However, Paul explains this more fully in Romans 7 that this is not because the Torah is bad, but rather the presence of sin in people’s lives leads to a self-deception that keeps people enslaved to sin, even as they are aware of the presence of sin; the person obeying Torah is caught up in a spiritual battle between seeing and understanding God’s will and the mind being deceived. While Paul doesn’t make his argument in Romans explicit in Gal. 3.21-22, the Romans explanation that sees Christ as the liberating answer to the dilemma of sin that hearing the Torah brings is also Paul’s answer in Galatians. The various correspondence between Romans and Galatians on this point is highly suggestive that power of sin in the flesh to use Torah to increase sin is implicit, but not express as Paul does not wish to provide an apologetic for the Torah that would potentially mislead the Galatians who already seems to think Paul will eventually call them to Torah obedience.

Now, one might hear echoes of Martyn’s understanding of the Torah as a cursing entity, but there is a subtle difference. Martyn treats the Law as a cursing entity, that to curse is part of its power. It is almost certain that Paul would not agree with that. Rather, God is the one who curses as in Deuteronomy 28, not the Torah, but the fleshy reality of humans hearing and obeying the Torah leads them to become entrenched in sin which God responds to with a curse. The Torah is simply the covenantal way of life that governs God’s relationship to the people of Israel; it does not curse so much as it expresses the reality of the curse that comes from God for disobedience.

It also bears clarifying that Paul does not say that the Torah leads to a greater amount of sin than if it had been absent. Paul is not arguing that God gave the Torah to make sin even worse than it was beforehand. His point is solely observational, with the giving of the Torah, sin increased. But for Paul, this is because sin is an inevitable reality of life in the flesh as separated from God’s presence. If we were to imagine Paul offering an apologetic for giving the Torah rather than doing nothing, one might imagine Paul giving an answer that approximately says that human sin leads to an inevitable escalation of sin, but the Torah kept the escalation manageable. While we can not be sure what Paul would say there, my point is to say that Paul’s understanding that the Torah leads to an increase of sin does not entail that he thinks the Torah was not beneficial in any way. Paul is concerned only with the inability of the Torah to make a person righteous.

So, why then do I think Paul considers relying on Torah lead to the curse? Because trying to rely on Torah inevitably leads to further entrenchment in sin, not liberation from it. As a consequence, people who think they are justified by the works of the Torah become increasingly self-deceived about their own condition because they falsely think their obedience to Torah makes them more righteousness and fall into the trap of escalating disobedience that brings about the Deuteronomic covenantal curse from God. This differs from the traditional Lutheran-Reformed reading that suggests the curse if a condition of anything less than perfect obedience. Rather, the curse is the consequence of the escalation of sin that ensues.

This then provides the backdrop for Paul’s understanding of the redeeming curse of Christ. Paul implicitly employs Deuteronomy 21.23 as a description of Jesus’ crucifixion; Paul identifies the crucifixion as a curse. However, it is a curse of a different sort; it is not a covenant curses of Deuteronomy 28. Thus it is not the substitute punishment for disobedience to Torah, but rather a description of Jesus’ own status in virtue of his crucifixion. In fact, I would argue it is an interpretive mistake to assume Paul must have an idea of one curse substituting for another in mind. Nowhere else do we see any development of such an idea, but we see Paul make repeated references the crucifixion and blood of Christ, which suggests the redemption is more based upon something in Christ’s experience of the cross than in the status the cross conveyed to him. Rather, I would suggest that Paul’s argument is largely rhetorical as a better explanation; I would suggest the reference to Jesus being cursed discursively functions as an oblique reference to the crucifixion, using to rhetorically highlight the connection between the cross and redemption from the Deuteronomic curses. Such a rhetoric strategy would suggest that there is the actually effect that Christ’s curse in being crucified on a tree redeems people from the covenantal curses, but Paul does not explicitly suggest a direct causal mechanism from the curse of Jesus to the redemption of a curse of relying on the Torah.2

So how then does Paul consider Christ’s curse/death redeem Jews and other Torah-observers from the curse? Firstly, Christ’s death demonstrates that the works of the Torah does not make one righteous. If many of the most dutiful observers of Torah rejected Jesus and put him to death on the cross, then for those Jews who truly believe and recognize Jesus as the Messiah, it should dispel the illusion of Torah observance providing any basis for becoming righteous. To suggest otherwise would be to suggest that Christ’s death had no purpose (Gal. 2.21) and that there could be have been another way to bring about the blessings of God’s promise to Abraham. Those who failed to recognize this but promoted a message of circumcision and Torah obedience was tantamount to rejecting the Gospel (Gal. 1.6-9), and are called false brothers (Gal. 2.4). Instead, the faith comes from a calling (Gal. 1.6, 15) and came with some sort of vision (mental imagination? a perception of Paul as a Christ-like figure?) of Jesus’ crucifixion (Gal. 3.1). While Paul does not explicitly state that faith in Jesus dispels such illusions, the way he talks about the cross and those who believe certainly suggests at the very least that he considers such a belief not simply in error but a case of being fundamentally deceived, as if they have not really understood the significance of what happened to Jesus and the events leading up to the crucifixion. Furthermore, in light of his own Damascus Road experience that lead him to look upon his previous life as misguided and with the rest of the Pauline corpus as evidence, it is warranted to consider that the death and resurrection of Jesus was seen as having a sort of persuasive power upon believers in casting way deception and illusions when it came to how many Jews understood the significance of the Torah.

Secondly, in Jesus Christ, believers experience a freedom that the reliance on the works of Torah could not provide but instead actively works against (Gal. 5.1-6). As the Galatians received the Spirit when they heard Paul’s preaching about Jesus’ crucifixion with faith (Gal. 3.2), they experienced of the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit that lead them to call out to God as Abba conveys their own adopted status as God’s children (Gal. 4.6) and at work in them to cultivate and bring about a future righteousness (Gal. 5.5; 5.22-25) that will bring the blessing of life (Gal. 6.9) that the Torah could not provide (Gal. 3.21). While Paul does not make explicit in Galatians the intrinsic connection between Jesus and the Holy Spirit like he does in Romans 8, that faith in Jesus Christ is the “gateway” to receiving the Spirit who transforms the believers highlights the way that Jesus Christ provides redemption from the entrenchment of sin that the Torah also caused. 

Thus, through dispelling the illusions about the power and purpose of the Torah and providing freedom from the entrenchment of sin that trying to obey the Torah brought about, the Jewish believer (1) doesn’t operate their life under the covenant of the Torah can instead become recipients of Abrahamic covenant and its promises instead3 and (2) is freed to begin to realize in their life the righteousness that God wants from His people that the Torah was not capable of bringing.

Christ and the collapsing of covenant nomism

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June 8, 2019

In my previous post, I offering a different frame for interpreting Paul’s letters, particularly the idea of justification by works of laws as a matter of self-deception for Paul. However, I briefly alluded to an idea that I did not thoroughly develop is that I suggest that for Paul there is a collapse of covenantal nomism. E.P. Sanders describe covenantal nomism as follows:

In favour of the use of the term ‘soteriology’ is that it points to a concern which is central to Judaism: a concern to be properly rather than improperly religious, to serve God rather than to desert his way, to be ‘in’ rather than ‘out’. When a man is concerned to be ‘in’ rather than ‘out’, we may consider him to have a ‘soteriological’ concern, even though he may have no view concerning an afterlife at all. There does appear to be in Rabbinic Judaism a coherent and all-pervasive view of what constitutes the essence of Jewish religion and of how that religion ‘works’, and we shall occasionally, for the sake of convenience, call this view ‘soteriology’. The all-pervasive view can be summarized in the phrase ‘covenantal nomism’. Briefly put, covenantal nomism is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression.1

In other words, covenantal nomism holds that the purpose of the works of the Torah was part of one maintenance of one’s status as part of God’s covenant people. Early Protestant theology consider justification to be a matter of how one gets saved, whereas Sanders influenced the later New Perspective on Paul to see justification as a matter of one’s status and identity: what does it mean to be part of God’s chosen people? If I may appeal to marriage as a metaphor, the traditional Protestant view focuses on how one goes from being single to being married, whereas the New Perspective of Paul is focused on how one should live once one gets married so that one doesn’t get divorced. (To extend this metaphor to the apocalyptic school of Paul in this metaphor, they would say it isn’t about getting married but in falling in love.)

However, it should be stated that Sander’s evidence for covenantal nomism rests primarily on Rabbinic evidence. While this does not rule out the covenantal nomism pattern throughout all of 1st century Judaism as Sanders, the Rabbinic evidence best situates covenantal nomism with the Pharisees prior to the destruction of the Temple. Meanwhile, the possibility of the collapsing of covenantal nomism remains a possibility within Judaism such that the pattern is not constitutive of all of 1st century Judaism. For instance, Sanders considers 4 Ezra to have lost a covenantal nomism and become concerned with a legalistic perfectionism.

Furthermore, such a pattern would certainly flexibly adapted for the social and religious circumstances a religious group or sect. For instance, the Qumran covenanters represent one way is which covenantal nomism, while not necessarily becoming absent becomes radically transformed. Since they saw Israel as a whole as apostate due to moral failings, becoming part of God’s elect entails a certain moral transformation of the person. One’s election by God is evidenced by one’s attitudes, particularly in listening to and attending to God. Whereas one’s membership in the elect people would be considered passed on by a combination of birth and circumcision by more mainstream Judaism, the Qumranian community saw certain ethical attitudes as a necessary consequence of one’s election. This is evidenced by their sharp dualism, such as in the doctrine of the two spirits, that categorizes all people according to their religious and ethical status; there is no liminal phase between the righteous and unrighteous. One can not simultaneously be unrighteous and recipients of the covenant, whereas in traditional covenantal nomism the offering of sacrifices provided a means for allowing people to remain part of the covenant despite their unrighteousness. While one can still maintain a sense of covenantal nomism in seeing a distinction between getting in and staying in, both getting in and staying in retain sharp ethical requirements that would counter the potential ethical complacency that might be seen to arise from a view of membership in God’s covenant based upon birth and the ritual of circumcision. I would suggest Qumran represents a community where covenantal nomism is on the verge of collapsing but becomes reconceived.

A good analogy for this shift in views of membership in God’s people in Western theology is the holiness movement of John Wesley. Seeing the ethical complacency of a Christian culture that saw their infant baptism as evidence of their inclusion in God’s community, Wesley challenged many people as “almost Christians” that had more so a sense of righteousness that resembled the pagans. While Wesley was not as sharply dualistic as the Qumran covenanters since Wesley allowed a more liminal category of people who were influenced by God’s grace but had not come to faith in his doctrine of prevenient grace, the redefinition of membership to become more consciously ethical represents a response to a religious context where it is deemed that people think their religious identity is grounded upon events that are not evidence of ethical conviction. The point is not that the Qumran covenantors and the Wesleyan holiness revival are exactly equivalent, but rather to show that understandings of membership in God’s People both in how one becomes a member and one stays a member can be radically reconstituted in the face what is perceived to be deep moral failings. 

I would suggest something similar has happened in Paul that has lead to not just simply a redefinition of what it means to become a member of God’s people and then to stay a member through one’s righteousness, but a stark collapse of the distinction between coming in and staying in. The catalyst for such a judgment? The crucifixion and widespread Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. That the very people to whom God gave the Torah to rejected the Messiah suggests there was a fundamental problem in what it means to belong to God’s People, hence Paul offers a redefinition of election.

Romans 9-11 offers evidence of this redefinition of election and membership taking place. In Romans 9.6-18, Paul redefines election as not being constituted by a genealogical ancestry. Rather than God’s mercy being a condition of the national election of all of Israel, God’s mercy is the condition for personal election. However, Paul clarifies himself to not suggest that Israel is rejected as a whole, but he does afford a special status to Israel as being foreknown in virtue of their ancestry; but this status in God’s eyes is not the election of all of Israel and it is a matter of God’s faithfulness to the Jewish patriarchs rather than to their descendants. To put more analytically, Paul includes a third, liminal status for the people of Israel that rejected Jesus as Messiah: they are enemies of the Gospel, but because of God’s election running through his promises to the patriarchs, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are loved even if they are not themselves individually part of the elect.

Meanwhile, Paul’s discussion on justification in Romans 3-8 and in Galatians represents the reconceptualization of what God’s People are to be like. The problem with trying to be justified by works of the Torah, as I have argued is largely a problem of self-deception. Romans 2 highlights this self-deception in the judgmental attitude by hypothetical Jews who boast in the Torah towards the Gentile world. Then, in Romans 7, Paul describes the way sin residing in the flesh deceives the hearer of the Torah such that there is no escape from within themselves from sin, but that they must be delivered by Christ. The problem is that of seeking to assure one’s status as part of God’s People based upon how one obeys Torah actually puts an epistemic veil over the eyes of people, because they are no longer paying attention to and focused on God but on the letter of the Torah. They think they are being instructed by God by hearing the Torah that God gave, when in fact Paul would argue that sin has deceived them in the hearing and reading that they only have knowledge about their own sin but not about God’s own righteous nature.

However, Paul’s answer to this problem presents a distinct challenge to covenantal nomism. Covenantal nomism assumes that one’s reading of the Torah is sufficient to be able to come to obey God; if however, one’s own reliance of the Torah ends up leading one astray through the self-deceptive power of sin, then the pattern of covenantal nomism collapses from within due to the impossibility of obeying God through Torah.

Paul’s pointing to faith as the means of justification, which Abraham had prior to receiving any covenant, goes back to the psychological conditions that are necessary for obedience. One’s status with God as part of the righteous is assured not by being dutiful in reading, interpreting, and practicing the Torah but by a trust in God that attends to His instruction. While this instruction would certainly include Torah as source for teaching about sin, Paul sees in Jesus the highest form of God’s teaching humanity about His own righteousness and in the Spirit the way in which people become conforming to the pattern of righteousness and life in Jesus Christ. To pay attention to only the Torah as if it is the linguistic ’embodiment’ of righteousness means one misses Jesus Christ as the human embodiment of God’s very own righteousness. In faith, one receives Christ as the Lord and as the demonstration of God’s will for humanity. Only in faith can one apprehend the Righteous Jesus and be transformed by the Spirit to be like Him.

In addition, Paul’s definition of justification itself shifts such that is ceases to be solely retrospective in that one is justified based solely upon one’s past, but it also becomes prospective based upon the eschatological future. When Paul speaks of the ungodly being justified by God in Romans 4.5, Paul no longer considers justification in God’s eyes to be conditioned simply upon one’s past behavior. Rather Paul’s usage of justification in Romans 6.7 suggests that Paul sees justification being related to the future of the believer’s life in participation in Christ; God’s justifying of humanity is prospective, focusing on the believer’s future in Christ. We can see this concern for the prospective future in Galatians. Paul see the person who has been justified in God’s eyes being set upon a new horizon and future in which they have been set free so that they may wait for the hope of righteousness (Galatians 5.1, 5.5), although a future righteous behavior is not guaranteed and thus one must learn how to love one (Gal. 5.13-15) through the cultivating work of the Spirit (Gal. 5.22-26). In other ones, in faith people’s future is to become conformed to Jesus Christ. We might suggest that for Paul, God’s justification is both retrospective AND prospective, taking the whole of the human life into account. Hence, Paul can say that the final judgment that justification is based upon what one did (Romans 2.6-16) that is a purely retrospective account, but prior to the eschaton, God’s justification incorporates a prospective account of a person who through faith will be formed into the pattern of God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ. 

In exapnding upon this understanding of election and justification, I am trying to demonstrate my thesis: the very categories of covenantal nomism, at least as proposed by E.P. Sanders cannot account for Paul’s own view on justification. Rather, the pattern of covenantal nomism that Paul would have been familiar with as a Pharisee entirely collapses in the face of Jesus Christ and the widespread Jewish rejection of His Messiahship. Instead, Paul sees the entirety of people’s membership in God’s People, both in getting in and staying in, as perpetually conditioned upon a continuous response of faith to God’s grace.

This allows me to construct two different, hypothetical models of divine-human synergism that I think represent the Pharisees and Paul. The Jewish historian Josephus describes the Pharisees as thinking humans both have free will while believing that God’s actions make things so. Questions have been brought up by NT Wright and others about how much stock we can put into Josephus’ account on free will, suggesting Josephus is essentially “translating” Jewish doctrine into the concepts of Greek philosophy. While I think such a distinction can be overplayed, I would think it is merited to suggest there is a connection between the Pharisaical synergism and the pattern of covenantal nomism; if one is a member of God’s covenant people in virtue of God’s mercy, but then one is responsible for obedience to God, there is what we might refer to as a diachronic synergism: God’s actions and human actions are both consequential for people’s future over the course of time. God establishes one’s place in the covenant and then one responds in faith.

One distinctive pattern of a diachronic synergism is that God and human action would be construed sequentially. God’s action enable human obedience. This can then be turned into a sequential synergism which would make human action as conditioning to God’s past action that provides a once-for-all enablement of human action. It is this pattern that covenantal nomism could potentially fit within, suggesting God’s prior historical election of the Patriarchs and giving of the Torah has included the people of Israel into the covenant and made obedience to God possible. As a consequence, the tradition of the Patriachs and the Torah takes priority in the understanding and governance of the Jewish life.

To be clear, I am not arguing that this is in fact the intellectual understanding of the Pharisees. Rather, this represents a more practical model of how a covenantal nomism would work in practice, even if the theological explication would be different. It is this practical model, not theoretical, that I would contend Paul’s understanding of grace and faith is developed in response to.

I would propose that Paul has a synchronic synergism, in which human righteousness is at all points of time conditioned upon a human response in faith to God’s grace, both in the historical event of the crucifixion of Jesus but also the present Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit. There is no point in time where human action alone is sufficient on its own capacity to know and obey God, but that the course of the life from initial baptism into Christ to the transformation into the image of Jesus Christ is always conditioned to God’s grace actively working in the Spirit. The net effect of this is that distinction between election and justification become blurred, as both election and justification is conditioned upon God’s grace responded to and receiving in faith. One’s election and possession of the benefits of such election like the Torah does not provide what is epistemically and morally sufficient to know and obey God.

It is this perpetual, synchronic synergism that I think undergirds Paul’s argument in Galatians. It seems to me that Paul thinks the other teachers who are encouraging the Galatians to be circumcised and obey the Torah are suggesting that Paul will ultimately tell the Galatians that they need to be circumcised and obey Torah. Furthermore, it seems there is some concern about how one spiritually develops in Galatians, hence Paul talks about beginning by the Spirit and coming to completion (Galatians 3.3) and employs the cultivating metaphor in talking about the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5.22-23). Concerns about development could be explained by the proponents of circumcision retaining a pattern of covenantal nomism, where the Galatians are considered to elected and called by Jesus Christ but after coming to the faith they are now to obey the Torah in virtue of this election. Paul’s discourse emphasizes that it is always the Spirit, from the beginning when one is called by Christ and towards maturity, rather than there being any difference. Development cannot be broken down into discrete phases of God’s actions and human obedience to Torah; the Gentiles were not only called because of Jesus (Gal. 1.6), but His death shows that the Torah is not how one becomes justified (Gal. 2.21).2

In other words, I would contend that when it comes to the place of God’s action human faith and obedience, there is no distinction between how one becomes a part of Christ and how one remains in Christ for Paul. God’s grace manifested in Christ and given to the person through the Spirit is always received and responded to in faith. At no point does the believer shift into a “more mature” version of spirituality and religion, as new life and obedience is always conditioned people being responsive to God’s actions. This also overlaps with Paul’s discourse about wisdom in 1 Cor. 2, where it is the Triune action of the God demonstrated in Christ and communally realized through the actions of the Spirit that makes the initially coming to faith and the later possession of wisdom about God possible.

In other words, the distinctions of covenantal nomism collapse for Paul. As a consequence, it was easy for Protestant Reformation to see the language of justification as pertained to how one gets saved, because Paul’s language of grace is applicable both for “getting saved” and “remaining saved.” As a consequence, Paul’s discourse that relates grace to salvation, such as in Ephesians 2, is seen as defined Paul’s discourse about justification, as if election/salvation and justification are exact synonyms. However, if I am correct, the collapse of covenantal nomism would mean the concepts of election/salvation and justification blur into each other in virtue of the necessity of God’s grace and human faith for both, but that Paul understands these concepts as distinct based upon how they function within the covenantal nomism of his Pharisaical background. 

Justification by works of the Torah as self-deception

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June 8, 2019

In Protestant Pauline scholarship, there are three broad categories one could identify in the understanding of Paul.

Firstly, one category is the Lutheran-Reformed understanding where justification by faith contrasts with the works of the law as a legalistic, self-righteous sense of meriting God’s salvation.  Here, the fundamental problem pertains to a sense of personal entitlement: what makes me worthy of God’s grace? Do I need to do good to be in God’s good graces?

Secondly, one can take on the New Perspective on Paul ushered in by James Dunn that see justification by faith contrasting with the works of the Torah as being taken as definitive of Jewish identity. While there is no real central consensus of what the NPP ultimately stands for, one might suggest one prevailing question pertains to a sense of social identity: how do we determine where a person belongs? Does doing particular works of the Torah identify me as belonging to God’s people?

The third category can be designated as apocalyptic readings. Douglas Campbell’s rereading of Romans in The Deliverance of God presents the highest example of this sort of reading, as he contrasts God’s liberating grace with a false, retributive view of God from a Jewish teacher that Paul opposes. Perhaps the best way to define the central question here: how is it that God truly makes relates to us and makes Himself known? 

While I recognize this is very simplified and the scholarship cannot be reduced to the questions I presented for each, but my point is to highlight how the reading of Paul is determined by the various way we frame our readings: whether in an implicit behavioral-psychological frame, a social identity frame, or a theocentric frame, it impacts how we read Paul.

I want to propose a fourth frame that can generate a different reading from Paul: an epistemic-hermeneutic frame that asks the question: how is it that I can know that God sees me as one of the righteous? What makes it a different question is that it is not a question of how one gets saved, nor is it per se about belonging to God’s covenant people, nor is it focused on how God makes himself known to us. Rather, to change the language from righteousness to a different parlance, it relates to the question of (1) how we know God’s will for us as His people and (2) whether God sees us as persons within His will.

In E.P. Sanders seminal Paul and Palestinian Judaism, he argues that the traditional Protestant understanding of Judaism as a religion of work righteousness is false. Rather, in describing covenantal nomism, Sanders highlights that God’s mercy is a part of Israel’s understanding of its own story in that people are freely included in God’s covenant. However, their status of remaining in God’s covenant is conditioned upon their obedience to God. I do think there is more diversity of views in early Judaism and thus do not think Sanders’ interpretation of 1st century Judaism is entirely representative. Firstly, we do not have any reliable knowledge about the beliefs of the Sadducees. Secondly, if the strong sectarian view of Qumran community that view all of Israel as apostate can still be considered to holding to a form of covenantal nomism, it radically reconceives the way one graciously enters into the covenant as they considered all of Israel as apostle. Nevertheless, I do think it is certainly likely that the pattern of covenantal nomism describes the Pharisaical pattern, which the Gospels portray Jesus as primarily responding to and describes the religious pattern that Paul came from prior to trip to Damascus.

One thing we do know that also particularly describes the Pharisees is their acceptance of the oral Torah and the prophets as authoritative, as opposed to the Sadducees who accepted only the written Torah as authoritative. If as a Pharisee, one is trying to figure out how one is to obey God to be righteous in his eyes, then one’s understanding of what it means to be righteous would be tightly connected to their understanding of the oral Torah and of the prophets.

As the prophets presented visions of restoration and judgment, including ultimately an eschatological restoration and judgment in the general resurrection, the question of knowing that one is obeying God’s righteous will would be tied up to eschatological judgment. In a sense, the question of living out God’s righteousness pertains to the question of who will stand at the judgment.

The logic of such a question would start from the basic premise: if one knows what type of behaviors that God will judge, one can know one is righteous in God’s eyes if one does what God says and does. If God’s will has been fully expressed in the Torah, both the written and oral Torah, of who God judges, then presumably all one needs to know if one is righteous in God’s eyes is self-knowledge about one’s own behaviors. Thus, if one does the things of the Torah, then one can be confident that one will stand blameless at God’s judgment. In that case, being seen righteous in God’s eyes comes from an axis of interpretation and obedience: if one rightly interprets God’s Torah and what the commandments apply to, then one puts this into practice and one will be righteous in God’s eyes.

However, Jesus criticism towards the Pharisees is in part focused on the interpretive practices of the Pharisees, such as in Mark 7.6-23. Jesus criticism employs Isaiah against the very people who accepted the authority of the prophets to describe the way their interpretative traditions in the Oral Torah as authorizing them to overlook the commandments in the written Torah. Then, Jesus provides a different understanding of purity that contrasts with the Pharisaical religious program of purity. Ultimately, Jesus uses the words of the prophet Isaiah to renderδιὰ. the traditions of the oral Torah and the resulting traditions around purity as void; instead Jesus offers his own understanding of purity as pertaining to moral contamination rather than physical contamination. From that one pericope, we could suggest that whereas the Pharisees consider the oral Torah and prophets authoritative, Jesus embraces the prophets but not the oral Torah. Instead, Jesus treats his own wisdom as the right interpretive framework for understanding and applying the Torah. 

Paul description in Philippians 3.2-11 of his former way of life can be seen to be in reference to the similar pattern. While in his previous way of life he was confident and persuaded of his status (v. 3-6), he wants to judged by God as having God’s righteousness rather than one based upon the Torah (v. 9). There, Paul presents two specific contrasts with the Torah. The first contrast operates at the personal level of personal righteousness (ἐμὴν δικαιοσύνην) that Paul rejects as coming from (ἐκ) Torah but rather is  through (διὰ) faith. The shift if prepositions is probably significant, highlighting that one’s own response is instrumental but not constitutive of being see by righteous by God; in other words, I would suggest that this may be understood as the human response in faith is necessary for justification but is not sufficient on its own to being justified in God’s eyes. Something must be coming from God before faith becomes effective.

That brings me to the second contrast at the theological level: personal righteousness from (ἐκ) Torah contrasted with personal righteousness that is from (ἐκ) God’s righteousness. Here, the usage of the same proposition highlights that the contrast between the Torah and God’s righteousness pertains to the same specific function when it comes to righteousness. However, trying to specifically designate what ἐκ specifically refers is to miss Paul’s point, as the priority is the contrast between the sources that the preposition points to: for Paul the righteousness he seeks is that which God himself has rather than what is know about through Torah. I take this contrast to suggest something of a profound epistemic significance: the Torah does not actually communicate the fullness of God’s will. I will say more on this in a moment, but for now I want to posit the idea that Paul was aware of the epistemic insufficiency of the Torah to inform a person what it is that God wants.

When comparing Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisaical hermeneutics and praxis with Paul’s own criticism of his past way of life, I want to suggest there is one important similarity: having the Torah does not secure an understanding of the righteousness that God wants, either in the hearing of the Torah or in the doing of the things of Torah. What I mean by epistemic insufficiency isn’t that the Torah is somehow a false form of religion (which can emerge in the grossest caricatures of the Luthern-Reformed Protestant railing against legalism) but rather that knowing God and being seen as righteous in God’s eyes is not reducible to simply knowing and doing the Torah.

As an analogy, it is the difference between believing one knows a person through what a person communicates on social media versus knowing the person by regularly being in communication and relationship with them; even if a person’s social media account is a genuine representation of who they are, there is much more to know about the person than can be known by a narrow range of communication that might surprise you.

Herein lies what I would consider to be Paul’s principal concern with the Torah: if one evaluates one’s own status in the eyes of God based upon one’s doing of the Torah, one has become self-deceived; what one thinks is how God sees things is simply confidence in one’s own flesh. One has substituted God’s will with one’s own interpretation and understanding of specific writing which far from simply introducing an error in one’s thinking, but actually takes one far off course from God’s will. Paul considers his past way of life as a Pharisee, to represent it colorfully, as “crap” and has no real redeeming value when it comes to pursuing God’s righteousness known in Christ. Hence, Paul will elsewhere says that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3.6; cf. Rom 7.6). If one relies upon (1) the interpretation of the Torah to ascertain God’s will and (2) their obedience to that interpretation as confidence for their righteous status in the eyes of God, one is essentially dying rather than having the life that God gives. One believes oneself to know God and His will when in fact one simply knows a text. The problem isn’t the Torah is bad or evil, but (a) that it is epistemically insufficient as it conveys knowledge about personal sin (Rom. 3.20, 7.7-12) rather than knowledge of God’s righteousness which is demonstrated in Jesus (Romans 3.21-26) and (b) that sin deceives and killing a person through the commandments (Rom. 7.11-13).

To put in a general manner that isn’t specifically tied to Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, it is our human sin and the self-deception that ensues that causes people to takes the things that come from God and treat our understanding of those things as a sufficient for knowing God. Faith thus represents the alternative: a reliance upon the God’s own actions and instruction to teach and guide people into what God wants. For Paul, what is important to be seen as righteous in God’s eyes is to be receptive of what God is doing and teaching in Christ and through the Spirit. For Paul, a person who has faith has a teachable spirit that is willing to learn and leads to obedience to what one learns.

While the letters of Paul do not explicitly present anything approaching a systematic view of human self-deception and sin, as he addresses more so the particular concerns that comes with following Christ in the context of Second Temple Judaism, one can infer that Paul does see those who think they are righteous in God’s eyes because of the works of the Torah are self-decieved. His usage of the word flesh (σάρξ) can function synonymously as describing people whose life is solely determined by their fleshly, embodied way of life that excludes a way of life and thinking that is influenced and determined by God’s own love and power in Jesus Christ and the Spirit. If in seeking to obey Torah and thinking this ensures God’s justification of themselves, one is fundamentally deceived at the ontological level and simply thinking and living in the flesh. So, one can imagine this idea of self-deception as being relevant to Paul’s concerns about Israel’s story and the Jewish people.

However, one can not nor should not reduce the totality of Paul’s understanding of the works of Torah to simply matters of theological self-deception. There are a host of other concerns, such as questions about God’s faithfulness in relationship to Torah in Romans and the relationship of the works of the Torah to God’s various covenants in Galatians that resist any such reductive interpretation of works of the Torah as merely being about a self-deception about one’s status in the eyes of God. In other words, that self-deception may be an apt description of Paul rejection of the works of the Torah as bringing justification doesn’t mean that is the only thing we should see Paul talking about. In fact, Paul spends more time delving into the theological and covenantal implications of his doctrine of justification in Romans and Galatians rather than explaining the “why” behind this doctrine.

So, in highlighting the explanatory frame of self-deception, I am highlighting an interpretation that I think is (1) warranted in Paul’s letters, (2) that can explain the problem with being trying to be justified by works of the Torah and (3) can theologically apply to our own understanding today as being part of God’s People. However, I do not suggest it is either the overarching interpretive question for all the theological content of Paul’s letters that excludes the specific concerns about God’s relationship to Israel.

To that end, I try to avoid the tendency of apocalyptic interpretations to treat Israel’s story and Scriptures as secondary to the person of Christ. Rather, I take Paul to thinks the Scriptures are fulfilled in Christ and thus are to be interpreted in light of Christ. However, that Jesus is revealed to be God’s righteousness points to the Pharisees, among others, having missed the boat. This necessitated a paradigm shift in an implicit theological epistemology: studying Torah and obedience to one’s interpretation did not secure one’s obedience to God when God came in the flesh. In other words, the epistemic shift operates (1) at the social level in rejecting the pattern of hermeneutics and praxis of the Pharisees and (2) limits the extent to which one can knows God and His will through Torah, but does not challenge the authoritative status of Torah nor displaces the importance of the Scriptural narrative for understanding God’s actions in their day, namely in raising Jesus Christ from the dead and in Pentecostal gifting of the Spirit.

However, this self-deception frame does not understand justification as primarily a matter of membership or identity in God’s People. While matters of social identity are historically important for the situations that do Paul address, it is possible that Paul has other concerns in mind at the same time. Thus, I do think there is an important epistemic and psychological understanding to questions about justification that the New Perspective on Paul does not readily give.

Furthermore, in light of the covenantal nomism that E.P. Sanders described, this self-deception frame does not start by address the question of how one comes into God’s grace but rather the question of how one can be confident one is seen as righteous in God’s eyes. However, I think that ultimately, Paul collapses the distinction between the two. When it comes to the role of God’s actions, there is no real fundamental difference between being chosen in grace, that is in becoming a recipient of God’s covenant promises, and being justified by grace, that is in being seen as righteous and obedient to the covenant one belongs to. Due the self-deception to think one has what is necessary to understand God and His will that can creep in after one is called by grace, it still remains God’s gracious action being recognized, received, and responded to in faith that secures one’s status as being righteous in God’s eyes.

Finally, I would say that Paul’s view of Torah can be warranted as being considered consistent with the early Church’s memory of Jesus and his criticisms of the Pharisees. As Paul’s own critique of his Pharisaical past in light of Christ can be argued as overlapping with Jesus’s own criticism of the Pharisees and His own sense of authority when it comes to Torah, I would posit that we can see this understanding to not be a radical novelty from Paul, but rather as a form of explication upon the significance of the event and teachings of Jesus ministry in relation to the Pharisaical pattern of religious interpretation and practice. However, this interpretation treats Paul’s rejection of the Pharisees as rooted in (1) their rejection of Jesus that is (2) given an ontological explanation (Paul’s appeal to the flesh) that gives a framework to suggest how they were in error and self-deceived about themselves in the eyes of God, rather than based upon a gross mischaracterization, stereotyping, and even vilifying caricature of what the Pharisees believed and taught prominent in Protestant circles (ranging from the less malevolent railing against “legalism” as the antithesis of genuine Christian faith to the more extreme and overt anti-semitism.