Thursday, November 26, 2015

Paul: Sonship, Resurrection, Justification, Predestination

It was a number of years ago that I made an offhand comment to a former student (who is now a prominent Lutheran apologist): "I think the key to 'justification' is the Resurrection." Since then the idea has been percolating away on the back burner. The initial impetus for the thought, perhaps, was the wild disconnection I felt between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Reformed take on St Paul. Yes, the Lord had to die and be resurrected to secure our salvation, but the relationship between that and 'justification' was murky indeed. 'Justification' was trusting ("having faith") in the work of Jesus, but there was no reason that the work had to be crucifixion and resurrection; that is was that way was certainly the case, but there was no reason salvation couldn't be by, say, divine fiat. In fact, for most of the Reformed preaching I had heard, this was in fact the case: the decree of justification is the real salvation for us, not the Cross of Christ. Yes, they were related but not causally. How, in the end, could they be? The decree (here not just of 'justification,' but of predestination, which is the true cause of 'justification') logically and temporally (even if in eternity) precedes the Cross. Coupled with  an overemphasis on PSA (penal substitutionary atonement), the resurrection itself then becomes an afterthought.

However, St Paul seems to see things rather differently. (And, as a note, I could be wrong in my assessment of Reformed theology. Certainly, in my theological reading, it could be noted that I am missing a lot of historical nuance and clarification. However, this is an assessment from the preaching and teaching I've heard and been under, not the hallowed classics. I once started a post here on what "Reformed" even means, as I couldn't find how the various theologies were connected, except perhaps by a loose historical memory and even loose subscription to confessional standards from the post-Reformation scholastic period.) In Romans, as well as elsewhere, St Paul collects strands of metaphorical theology to make his case for the significance and efficacy of the Christ event. It does not go too far to say that, for Paul, the Christ event (the Incarnation proper, which includes conception, birth, life and ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and session) is our salvation: our belief, which I previously linked to baptism in ancient Church ritual, is decidedly secondary (yet not, therefore, of no importance). We can start to see this as we tease out the connections between Paul's language of sonship, resurrection, justification, and predestination.

In Romans 1:16 (a verse often taken as programmatic for the rest of the Epistle and St Paul's theology writ large), he says, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ: the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also the Greek." What, though, is the Gospel? Paul has already alerted us to it in the opening salvo: "the Gospel of God, which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures [here meaning the Old Testament], concerning [this word should be understood as "the content of which is"] His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead." This version of the Gospel, which is both different and similar to his recounting in 1 Cor. 15, is decidedly similar to the narrative presentation of the canonical Gospels. As can be seen, the conception of sonship, of the paternity of Christ, is central to this telling. Yes, according to the flesh, He is the son of David, which entails all the requisite claims to kingship found in the Old Testament, especially the Psalms (2, 45, and 110 coming immediately to mind). However, St Paul makes the daring -- and important -- move to ground a divine paternity "in power," the same power by which salvation comes to "everyone who believes." What is this power? The resurrection from the dead. (If I wanted to emphasize the Trinitarian nature of all this, I would note that the agent of resurrection is the Spirit of holiness. That will have to wait for another day.) It is this "power" that enacts the "declaration" (or, better, "designation") of Christ as the Son of God; in other words, the resurrection was the public ("with power") justification of Christ's claim to be "Son of God" as recorded everywhere in the Gospels. Here we are already seeing a possible connection between sonship and justification, although the link is not yet particularly explicit. Having this start, though, allows us to reread Romans fruitfully.

It is worth noting at this junction an important aspect of sonship, both to the ancient world generally and Christian faith in particular. Sonship was not just about biology, or filial affection, but about authority and inheritance. The son and the father were, legally, co-authoritative over whatever property was in the possession of the father. Of course, the son had to reach legal age, otherwise the property would be held in trust by regents or stewards (who could be slaves, cf. Gal. 4:1ff.): once he came into his full inheritance, however, he could be co-regent with his father (we see this in the co-reigns of many of Israel and Judah's kings). Now, if a naturally-born son either died before (or after) this or was disinherited, someone could be adopted in his stead. We see this happen with Julius Caesar's adoption of Octavius to be his "son": the point was that Octavius would inherit Caesar's legal authority, if not his role as dictator for life (obviously, this was contested). If the father happened to be a king, then the inheriting son would have the kingdom as his own, which was more than just authority: kingdom are made up of subjects, of property, and privileges. What if, though, the son (whom the father wishes to bring to "glory," that is, into the inheritance with all the attendant privileges) has been kidnapped and enslaved? This seems a strange thing to say; however, it is St Paul's argument in Galatians 3-4:

If there had been a Torah given which could have given life [not biological life, but God's Life], truly justice would have been by the Torah. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by the faith of Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the Torah, confined for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the Torah was our pedagogue to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a pedagogue. For you are all sons of God through the faith in Christ Jesus...Now I say that an heir, as long as he is a minor, does not differ at all from a slave, though he is master of all, but is under guardians and stewards until the time appointed by the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Torah, to redeem those who were under the Torah, that we might receive the adoption as sons...but then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods. But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage?

Galatians, as a letter written to a (set of?) congregation which had already been catechized by St Paul, is necessarily laconic: it is an occasional and pastoral epistle, not a fully-explicated statement of doctrine. In many ways the language employed in this passage is reminiscent of the fuller explanation found in Romans, to which we will need to go to fill out details. (It is my theory, which I need to work on more, that Romans is essentially an unpacking of the argument found in Galatians for an audience with whom St Paul had no previous personal contact. Even the altercation with St Peter is reminiscent of Romans 1-3.) The problem of justice ("righteousness" in most translations) is here again prominent; yet the Torah, and therefore the special elected relationship that the Jews enjoyed, could not bring this justice to bear. Why? Because "the Scripture has confined all under sin." Or, as put in Romans, "Now we know that whatever the Torah says, it says to those who are under the Torah [that is, to Jews], that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may be accountable before God" (3:19), or, "For God has confined [the same word as in Gal. 3:22 and 23] them all in disobedience, that He might have mercy on all" (11:32). The purpose of the Torah was not to justify, to liberate from sin, but rather that through those who bore it [the Jews] God might judge sin itself for the salvation of all. For the Jew, then, to "boast" of their election (Rom. 3:27-31), was to commit to an over-realized eschatology: election was a means to a much greater end, but it had been reduced to the End. The problem with this, of course, is that if Israel's election had been the telos, then the problem of sin dwelling within man, of the corruption leading to death plaguing all humankind, had not been dealt with and God could not be truly just. A truly just God would save His creation from the nothingness it had become enslaved to and enamored with.

St Paul's rejoinder to the claim of privilege, of election, is that the point of it was to "confine all under sin," so that the faith of Jesus Christ, His allegiance to His Father as the Incarnate One, would lead to sin/death/Satan overplaying their hand by condemning to death an innocent human, not knowing that this Innocent One was the Holy One of Israel that cannot be contained by death, contaminated by corruption, or swayed towards sin. "Before that time," though, Israel [the only possible referent for Paul's first person plural pronoun] was given a teacher, a pedagogue, to point them towards the liberation to come, the maturity of the son into his inheritance. Israel, here, is acting as the representative of all humanity: their salvation, their maturity, would lead to "all the families of the earth being blessed" (Gen. 12:3).

The strange moment, though, where we see the severe providence of God, is how Paul then goes to compare how a minor is under "guardians and stewards" until maturity to being in "bondage to the elements of the world." Here the metaphor of household slaves could include the pedagogue, the Torah, but it seems rather odd to consider it as one of the "elements of the world," especially as the Apostle further explicates that the Gentiles were under the elements as well as the Jews, yet the Gentiles were not given the election and the Torah. The "elements," instead seem to refer to "those which by nature are not gods" (4:8), whom the Galatian Gentiles "served" (a term of bondage/slavery). The Torah served Israel, even though Israel did not have the full maturity; the elements are oppressive to both Israel and the Gentiles. However, by misusing the Torah, it becomes one of the "elements of the world" and therefore oppressive -- this is the main point of Paul's allegory of Abraham's two sons. All of this to say, though, that the "son" [humankind, both Jew and Gentile] is, by the permission (?) of the Father "under bondage" to the elements of the world, until such a time as his maturity/liberation is at hand. However, to become mature, to participate in the liberation, requires pistis, faith, which St Paul connects to the ecclesial sacrament of baptism. There is a rather poignant, if not difficult, mixing of metaphors going on here: are the powers that enslave the agents of the Father, or are they acting of their own accord against the Father's purposes? The answer takes us to another part of Paul's theology: the principalities and powers.

Paul recognizes that these beings are "created by Him [Christ]...whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers...all were created...for Him" (Col. 1:16), and that they rule with an authority granted by God Himself (Rom. 13:1); yet...the Apostle also says that they "crucified the Lord of Glory" (1 Cor. 2:8), that they are "the rulers of the darkness of this age...spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenlies" (Eph. 6:12) against which the Church must be armed by Christ; however...Christ is "far above all principality and power and might and dominion" (Eph. 1:21) and has "disarmed principalities and powers, [making] a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it [the Cross!]" (Col. 2:15). In other words, these authorities -- which can be conceived of both as political rulers and the (fallen) angelic hosts behind such -- had a role given to them by God from which they asserted their own will and became tyrants over humankind. The Incarnation, leading to the Cross, is God's great judgment against them and their leader, Satan, and the liberation of those so enslaved and enamored by them. The mixing of the metaphors in Galatians, then, is not confusion, but terse revelation of the true state of affairs that God's "son," both Jew and Gentile, find himself in. One of the truly awful corollaries of this is that the Torah, God's gift to the Jews for the sake of the world, has been turned from a pedagogue into a tyrant, into an element, which explains St Paul's polemic against it, yet his right admiration for it.

For Paul, then, there is a cosmic problem at work and a cosmic solution that has been enacted: the work of Christ is bigger than Israel, and even bigger than the Gentiles, it goes to the heart of the "subjection to futility" the creation has been put under by God.

Why, though, has the creation been subjected to futility? Why have all been confined to disobedience? Why are all under sin? Here is the place, I believe, that Paul is most profound in his theology and most misunderstood: all are kept in this fallen state so that God might save all from futility, from disobedience, from sin. To unpack this, we must return to Paul’s account of the Gospel as found in 1:3-4. The Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord has been “declared” or “designated” as Son of God “with power” by His resurrection from the dead. It is key to note that Paul does not identify Christ as Son after the resurrection, but starts his account of the Gospel with that identification. The “declaration” of divine paternity is not an adoptionist statement: Christ is acknowledged as Son – what He was before – “with power.” Jesus was already the Son of God, but His claim to be so (found everywhere in the Gospels) could not be believed, or even understood, until His vindication/justification, that is, His resurrection. At this point, the matter was settled: this One truly is the Son of God. From this point the apostolic mission begins. It is the same power, the power to raise from the dead, that can bring “salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also the Greek” (1:16). This revelation of God’s justice, Christ’s resurrection, shows as well that Christ is the “image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15), the image in whom humankind was created to begin with. Those who bear the image, though, have become enslaved by deception and now enact their own destruction, trending towards death, the opposite of God Himself, who is Life. What this says, then, is that humankind’s divine sonship is not what Christ’s sonship is based on, but the other way around. God, who is Love, so desired to share Himself with that which is outside of Himself that He created beings like Himself, in His very image, so that they might participate in His blessedness. Into this entered sin and death, which since man was God’s image-bearer meant that sin and death spread to the whole of creation which had been put in man’s trust and under his authority. The problem, for St Paul, is how to finally eradicate sin, death, and corruption from God’s created order and how to then bring that order into God’s glory. Now that sin and death had a foothold of universal corruption, now that the sonship of humankind had been spurned, it was God’s prerogative to so orchestrate history to save His world, His image-bearers, and deal with sin and death. Sin and death, though, had to be shown for what they really are. Hence the Torah, which would be the power that would be “an avenger to execute wrath on him who practice evil” (Rom. 13:4), that is, on Satan, for “the law brings about wrath” (4:15). How did it do this? “For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me” (7:11), “sin, that is might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good [that is, the commandment], so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful” (7:13), “for what the Torah could not do [give Life, Gal. 3:21], in that it was weak through the flesh [sin having produced death in it], God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh” (8:3). Christ’s death on the Cross, then, was God’s judgment against the encroachment of sin, death, and corruption as it tried to parasitically destroy God’s whole creation. This is the meaning of St Paul’s rather terse statement in 2 Cor. 5: “For He [the Father] made Him who knew no sin [Christ] sin for us” (v. 21). Note that there is an element of wrath here, but it does not divide the Trinity, as so many popular accounts of PSA do: God does not punish His Son, nor does He pour out His wrath on the hypostasis of His Son, but rather judges, condemns, and executes sin in the flesh of His Son. While God judges sin and what has caused it to be in His world, He freely pardons those humans (which St Paul tells us is all of them), “in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed” (Rom. 3:25). Christ does not suffer some “penalty” for every human sin; God “passes over those” because of the Paschal sacrifice. Rather, God attends to the root problem of sin’s origin and continuing tyranny while protecting the very ones, humans, He has come to save. This is how Paul can say that “we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (5:9). There is a penal aspect to the Cross, but it is against sin, death, and the devil. Since these have become integrated into human persons, however, we must escape the judgment by joining ourselves to Christ in His protective Paschal death. It is in this very act of liberation, Christ’s death, that we are made to share in His divine paternity, that is, we are adopted into the family of God. Here is the connection between justification, that liberation from the power of sin, that deliverance from the wrath of God, that protection afforded us by the Passover Lamb, and adoption, the full sharing in the Life of God which He intended from before the creation of the universe (“predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son” 8:29).

Yet…whereas Christ’s sonship was justified “with power” by the resurrection, our situation outwardly seems the same. We still die, we still struggle against sin, we still groan for the liberation of all things. St Paul sees all this in eschatological terms: what is true of Christ is, by virtue of faith and baptism, true of us, but it has not been accomplished “with power.” However, based on the powerful resurrection of Christ, we know that this will happen. Whereas Christ has been “designated” as Son of God with power, we are “pre-designated” to be so conformed to that image. The word “designated” here is used both in 1:4 to talk about Christ’s paternity and in 8:29-30 to talk about ours: it is most often translated as “predestined.” However, that term carries a lot of baggage, especially since the time of St Augustine, that it was never intended to carry. There is no need to go to any “secret will” of God to understand it: the word isn’t speaking of any pre-temporal choice of those who would be saved and those “passed over.” Rather, it is an eschatological term of promise that what God has done in Christ, He will do in those who are sacramentally joined to Him. Christ has been declared Son, we will be declared sons: this is so certain that God has “pre-declared” us to be what we have not yet been revealed “with power” to be.

With all that has been said about sonship, about Israel’s election, about “confining all to sin,” and so on, chapters 9-11 of Romans make a natural home in St Paul’s explication: if this is what God intended from the beginning, to bring both Jew and Gentile into adoption by Christ’s faith and ours, what does that mean for Jewish history and, more pertinently, the Jewish future? So many had cast off God’s Messiah – in fact they had become agents of His demise – so what would happen to them? Paul’s beautiful answer (which has little, if anything, to do with Augustinianism or Calvinism) is that their work of bearing the covenant, of bringing the Messiah to judge sin in His flesh, has allowed the Gentiles to come in, which in turn will allow them, through jealousy, to abandon the supposed exclusive privileges of their election and cling to what God’s true plan all along was. The Jewish contribution (“the root” of 11:16-17) is what made possible the salvation of the world, which makes their rejection of the Messiah all the more tragic, as the Apostle laments in 9:1-5. By rejecting the work of the Son, the Christ, and clinging on to the privileges of Torah, they align themselves with the powers that abused the Torah to put all creation under God’s wrath and so, like any Gentiles who so refuse, fall under the condemnation that has come upon sin in Jesus Christ. Works of the Torah could not justify, that is liberate from sin, for the Torah was meant to bring wrath upon sin, that Life – that is, resurrection – could come through God’s Son, whom death could not hold.

Justification, Resurrection, Adoption, Predestination. While I will not claim to have fully expounded St Paul (nor do I think anyone can make that claim), I do think the argument presented here offers good clarity as to what his overall theology is and how these specific terms fit into that larger whole. I will continue to work on this, gladly accepting your comments and rejoinders.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Scriptures, the Church, and the Trinity

Friends, what a long, strange trip it has been.

Over at Eclectic Orthodoxy, Fr. Kimel has been reblogging a shortened series of articles on the relationship between the Scriptures as we have them and the Church.  The full series starts with a fascinating and too-close-to-home salvo entitled "Unitarianism and the Bible of the Holy Trinity".  In it, he responds to a few evangelical thinkers, pastors, and scholars who are traveling the road away from any semblance of historical orthodoxy to a form of 'biblical' unitarianism.  Readers of this blog and close friends will see some remarkable similarities to my story, especially as it was expressed in my "Postmodern Protestant Dilemma" phase.  Reading the sources Fr. Kimel has been critiquing, along with the comments on the various postings, has been a trip down (a very painful) memory lane.  I've, in a certain narrative form, detailed most of the important things from that time before.  I still struggle, from time to time, with holdovers from that formative decade.  The strange thing to me, as I reflect on it further, is how those theological struggles effectively deconstructed my inherited Western (that is, Catholic-Protestant) understanding of God and built in its place an Eastern (that is, Orthodox) understanding via almost all the heresies of the ancient Church (as if they've ever really gone away).  To me, the grace of God is evident in hindsight; I wouldn't have known it at the time, though.

To continue the strangeness, Fr. Kimel's posts have been tackling the same questions I asked (and experienced as spiritual pain), in almost the same order.  One of the main ones, which I'd like to focus on here, is: is it possible to read a set of texts outside of their intended context and get their meaning?  In other words, can the Scriptures be divorced from the historical ecclesial setting they were written in and for, and still lead us to Trinitarian dogma?  It is a fascinating question; one that gets to the roots of lingering problems for Protestants and biblical interpretation.

One of the corollaries of sola Scriptura, as it is commonly practiced today, is that the Scriptures are a self-contained, self-interpreting set of documents.  Since they are the "only infallible rule for faith and life," they must contain completely clear and authoritative teaching on all that is necessary for faith and life.  (I know that this was not the original intent of the Reformation doctrine: I'm looking at my own experience with it and what I see in contemporary Protestantism.)  The Church can err; their interpretation of the documents can be taken as wisdom, but not ultimately authoritative, which includes confessional standards to which individual denominations and individual believers profess some sort of allegiance.  I've discussed this problem before.  Without a binding, authoritative (and implicitly infallible) interpretation from an ecclesial community, it falls to the individual believer to ascertain dogma for themselves.  This is key, as it opens up the problem of relativism: is there a dogma in these texts?  If so, how can we sufficiently prove it for the salvation of all humans?  In other words, once we determine the dogma behind the Scriptures, we must become apostles of it.  One can look at the work of Frank Viola in Reimagining Church for just such a stance.  One may also look at the work of Douglas Wilson and the CREC, or Mark Driscoll and the Acts 29 Network, or...etc.  But, and this is a rather sticky wicket here, if the individual is the arbiter of the text's meaning, how can it be objectively judged as the authoritative and binding (that is, true or infallible) interpretation of the text?

Short answer: it can't.

At this point, even if one were to adhere to some theory of "mere Christianity" (a common core of beliefs that are non-negotiable, whether C.S. Lewis-style or "The Fundamentals"-style), there is no medium to assure and discern either accuracy of interpretation or authoritative status.  One individual's reading is just as likely to be Spirit-inspired as another (especially given the demotion the Spirit often "enjoys" in evangelical circles from reality/hypostasis to emotion).  In the end, there is nothing that can be done about this, which calls for a radically different sort of ecclesiology, very akin to what we see in evangelicalism as it exists today.

However, the Scriptures never assert a doctrine of self-containment or self-interpretation.  In fact, "the Scriptures" itself doesn't exist in the Scriptures as understood in the modern world: what we call "the Bible" or "the Scriptures" are an abstraction.  The implicit understanding is that this collection of books is (a) self-authenticating, (b) complete by its own authority and testimony, and (c) self-contextualizing.  In other words, the Scriptures stand alone interpretively, without historical development or communal use.  This isn't to say that a community (or set of communities) hasn't utilized the books for its "faith and life," but that the community is always under judgment for error of misappropriation (semper reformanda secundum verbum dei).

Looking at the genesis of the texts (and here I'll concentrate on the New Testament), though, we see that this was not the intention of the authors.  Here's my claim: the authors of the New Testament never intended their epistles or books to have meaning outside their use in the ecclesial community started by Jesus Christ through His apostles and their legitimate successors.  In other words, there is no meaning to the, say,  book of Romans outside of its context in the Church.  Certainly, the words and sentences can be read and understood by those trained to read texts; but all that such a reading will generate are interesting tidbits that lack any binding authority for "faith and life."  Such a reading misses, for example, the link between St Paul's language of "faith" and the ecclesial sacrament of baptism.  The letter itself was never intended to be excised from this context, even though it was originally addressed to a certain (set of?) congregation in a historically delimited time and place.  Wherever the local Church is, there is the Catholic Church, we might say.  If we desire, then, to find the "original" meaning of a biblical text, it must be read within the liturgical and ascetic life of the Church.  To do otherwise is to produce, necessarily, eisegesis.

Another example might be the Gospels themselves: there are lots of scholarly theories about what they mean, which of the Lord Christ's sayings are "authentic," and what communities they were written for.  However, there is no evidence that the books ever circulated independently in disconnected communities (this isn't to say that they definitely never did, as one cannot prove an argument from silence): rather, the first mentions of them as authoritative texts come from, say, St Irenaeus who always speaks of them as a diverse unity.  What point, then, is there to trying to find their individual genesis?  Whether or not they ever circulated independently, they were not intended to stay that way (and very quickly left such a situation).  Any attempt to "get behind" the texts to figure out the "Johannine community" (for example) is an eisegetical red herring.

What, then, does the ecclesial context look like?  Here we encounter a question that I've only recently thought to ask: what did the Apostles hand on to the communities they established and nurtured?  I think I had always assumed that they gave them a verbal form of the Scriptures, maybe a copy of the Old Testament (and some not-yet-canonized New Testament works), and left it at that.  However, this assumption is riddled with problems: did they expect those who just came out of paganism, full of idolatry and immorality, to puzzle together what worship was and what it was for?  (I think, although I cannot prove this, that here is the origin of the various theories that put early Christian "innovations" such as invocation of the saints and iconography in the hands of the 'unwashed masses' who foisted them upon powerless and unsuspecting bishops.  These same pusillanimous bishops, of course, are they ones who used their power welded to Constantinian statecraft to force Trinitarian tritheism on the aforementioned pure unitarian 'unwashed masses.')  It seems clear, not only from the New Testament (particularly the necessarily laconic Pastoral Epistles) but also early Church history, that the Apostles were very thorough in passing on liturgies, ascetic practices, institutional forms, and dogmatic assumptions necessary for rightly reading and applying the inspired texts of Holy Writ.  In other words, "Holy Tradition" is just as old -- and necessary -- as the documents of the Church.  Tertullian and St Irenaeus, for example, received the (amazingly consistent, even with their variations) regula fidei from those who went before them as the necessary and unquestionable assumptions that guided biblical interpretation.  Those regula were, by all accounts, Trinitarian in form, even if not as fleshed out as they would need to become by the Arian, Eunomian, Pneumatomachian, Nestorian, Monophysite, Monothelite, Monoenergite, and other controversies that threatened to misinterpret and therefore damage the Apostolic Deposit.

What about the irregularities we see in these early centuries, though?  The whole of the Church Catholic did not, for example, use the so-called St John Chrysostom liturgy.  This is to be expected.  It only becomes a problem if we take the ecclesial context out of its own context: the action and work of the Holy Spirit within the community.  Could the liturgy develop in different ways in different historical and geographical contexts, yet still proclaim the same Faith?  Yes, as long as the same Spirit guided the developments.  Any theory that posits some some of "fall" of the Church needs to commit a terrible heresy: the Holy Spirit abandoned, wholesale, the Church sometime after the death of the Apostles.  In my own personal journey, this was the question that started to break up my own arrogance at interpreting the Scriptures outside the Pneumatic and ecclesial contexts in which their home is: if the Spirit had so abandoned the communities, why was my interpretation privileged?  Could the Spirit have just as easily (if not more easily, given my historical and cultural distant from the original Apostolate) have abandoned me?  Was it Descartes' proposed demon whispering my interpretive work in my ears?

This isn't to say, in the aftermath and my salvation via St Irenaeus and St Antony of Egypt, that things have gotten particularly easier.  The questions of where (that is, in what community) the Spirit resides, which form of the text is authoritative, and so on continue to dog me.  But the air has been sufficiently cleared from trying to read the Scriptures as a stand-alone document.  Conceived as such, they are a wax-nose: the Trinity won't be found in them because, and this is vital, the Trinity is the assumption needed to make sense of the texts.  Salvation is, in the end, sharing the Life of God (called "the Kingdom" and "eternal life"), so it only stands to reason that participating in that Life is necessary for the right use and understanding of the texts gifted to us by that very same God: Father, Son, and Spirit.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Rereading Romans 1-3

My friend, colleague, and professor has, in his comments on "Atonement and Iconicity", encouraged me to look more deeply at Romans 1-3.  Since I was teaching on chapters 1-8 tonight, there was opportunity to start digging in.  I am by no means anywhere done meditating on these chapters, but I did find some very interesting things I'd never noticed in the text before.  I won't be tackling the issues he raises specifically, as we've reserved those for a personal meet up.

What I did notice, and I think this helps my overall reading, is that St Paul has a very specific set of pronouns he uses as he develops his argument, an argument that has hints of chiasm as well.  In 1:1-17, the Apostle is very comfortable using first person singular pronouns, climaxing in the grand statement of "I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ: for the power [referenced in 1:4] of God is to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also the Greek.  For in it [an ambiguous pronoun, is it referring to the Gospel, that is, the proclamation found in 1:3-4, or the 'power' of resurrection by the Spirit?  I'm inclining towards the latter.] the justice of God is revealed by faith to faith, as it is written: 'The Just One shall live by faith'."  (It is controversial, but I think reading the Hosea passage as referring to Christ, who by faithful obedience to the Father lived, that is, was resurrected, is a preferable reading to the commonplace interpretation.)  What is key to note, at this point, is that St Paul has brought us a compact and lovely declaration about what the Gospel is (1:3-4), about the revelation of God's justice, and faith.  We'll return to that shortly.

The gears are shifted, then, to third person plural pronouns in 1:18-32.  The whole passage is describing the work of "men who suppress the truth in injustice" (1:18).  I think it important to ask whether or not the comma, which the NKJV has between "men" and "who" is warranted.  Is St Paul making a broad, universalizing claim?  This is the traditional reading, as I understand it.  There are textual reasons, however, to withhold that judgment, particularly chapter 2, where the pronouns switch again to second person singular, with the vocative of "man" being used.  The "men" of chapter 1 are being contrasted against the "man" of chapter 2, in the form of a dialogue (starting in earnest in chapter 3).  The "man" critiqued in chapter 2 assumes that he is not part of the deviant cadre of "men" in chapter 1.  The context clues (particularly 2:12-16, 17, and so on) show that the critiqued "man" is a Jew who has rested on the blessing of Torah and covenant who thinks that the "men" of chapter 1 are the Gentiles ("sinners" -- Gal. 2:15), well deserving of the "wrath of God" (that is, being left to their own devices leading, ultimately, to death).  However, as chapter 2 starts, St Paul turns the table of this interlocutor in the most dramatic fashion: "Therefore, you are inexcusable, o man..."  If chapter 1:18-32 is true (and, as St Paul avers later, it is), then both Gentile and Jew are "under sin," that is, under the power/dominion of sin, awaiting the end of that state, which is death.  This helps to explain what the Apostle says at the beginning of chapter 8: "Therefore [since Christ has delivered us from the 'body of death' (7:24-25)] there is no condemnation [that is, death has been defeated and life has come in the resurrection] for those who are in Christ Jesus..."

All of this to say: 1:18-32 is a very common set of Jewish critiques of pagan life, assumed by everyone.  However, the problem St Paul is explicating is that even the Jew is in danger of death, of reverting to the nihil from which he was formed (as St Athanasius might put it), since both are "under the power of sin."  The major problem, then, isn't the distorted will (that does mean it isn't a problem, though) but the bondage to death and sin that distorts the will in the first place (7:5, 8).  Man is a sinner because he is born into that state: "through one man [Adam] sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, in which [eph ho] all sinned" (5:12).  How can man do anything but sin and die, Jew or Gentile, when he is in this state?  Indeed, the Jew is no better off for having the Law, except that the Torah was given to them that its purpose, of "bringing about wrath" (4:15), of "making the offense abound" (5:20), of being taken advantage of by sin so that sin "might appear sin", and therefore "become exceedingly sinful" (7:13), so that Christ might "condemn sin in the flesh" (8:3).

God's wrath, it appears, is a function of His love: He is condemning sin in the flesh of Jesus Christ, even the sin that makes us enemies of God (5:10 -- note that we are God's enemies in this passage, yet God is consistently said to bear towards us love, not hatred or animosity).  It also appears that God's wrath is twofold: He is actively condemning sin, yet for humans it is experienced as allowing them to actualize their desires and passions, distorted as they now are since they are separated from the Source of Life.  That is, God's wrath is letting them go the full way to death (1:32 and 5:23).

This does change the lawcourt metaphor from its common presentation.  Instead of God as Judge, mankind as defendent, and sin/death/Satan as prosecutor, with Jesus stepping in to take the punishment deserved by man, God is the Judge who is punishing Satan for enslaving and perverting mankind, with Jesus Himself being the rescuer.

More, of course, needs to be said about this.  This is in no way a complete understanding of God's work of salvation in Romans, especially as I've not discussed the act of faith done by trusting in the blood of the Passover lamb, nor of Christ's identity as said Lamb.  I also have not gotten to the chiasmus present, but it is late.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

St Paul and Baptism: An Early Foray

What is meant by St Paul’s phrase “in Christ”?  It is a common enough phrase in his corpus, whether in the form already listed or in some other configuration (“in Christ Jesus,” etc.); however, as with many things in Paul, the amount of occurrence tends to be inversely proportional to its explanation by teachers and preachers. As far as I’ve been concerned, the phrase has worked as shorthand for “one saved” or “one exercising faith.” Aren’t we, after all, “saved by grace through faith” (Eph. 2:8)? And isn’t it true that “if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9)? What do we make, then, of Paul’s passages about the centrality of baptism? Is it necessary? Isn’t it a “work”? (A related question, one that I cannot dive into just here, is: what about infants/children?) It is here that the phrase “in Christ” as “one with faith” becomes problematic.

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ…” (Gal. 3:27)

“Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” (Rom. 6:3)

“In Christ” seems to be shorthand in Paul for having been baptized. However, this goes further: “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free – and have all been made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:12-13). “In Christ” is shorthand for baptism, which itself means we are part of the ekklesia, the body of Christ, which Paul accounts as Christ Himself in this passage. To be “in Christ” is to be a baptized member of the Church. What that means, at least for the present passage and for Galatians 3:28, is that the old modes of life (Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female) no longer hold. Why? Because they have died with Christ. “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism unto death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4), which holds the eschatological promise of resurrection/sonship.

Here an interesting corollary becomes apparent: if we die in baptism and are raised to “newness of life,” this could metaphorically be understood as a “new birth.” The old has gone, the new has come. This ties Paul’s theology very closely to that of St John, as he explicates the mystery of baptism in John 3. The reality of baptism is a change, then, from the mode of existence characterized by death (“in Adam”) to that of one characterized by life (“in Christ”), which is to say an ecclesial existence (to use the terminology of Metr. John Zizioulas).

What role does faith play in this? I have not time, nor energy, to go into the debate over whether pistis Christou means “the faith of Christ” or “faith in Christ” (I incline to the former). Instead, I think ancient liturgical practice informs the relationship between faith and baptism. In the catechumenate, the candidate would confess faith in Christ (using some form of what would become the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds) and then receive the sacrament: in other words, faith and baptism were the same event. “Faith” was not merely an inward disposition of assent, but a (semi-)public affirmation and declaration of allegiance to the Christ which was then followed immediately by the new birth, baptism. This is why Paul is so insistent that one must “confess with your mouth” in Romans 10. This sacrament, which secured deliverance from the principalities and powers/stoicheia, then, was the moment of justification, of the declaration that one was innocent before God, as sins/bondage had been put to death in the font and the baptizant was raised to newness of life, foreshadowing their full sonship in the eschaton (which was “predestined” – see my earlier posts on this concept). One was justified by their faith, their profession of allegiance to Christ, in the rite of baptism: there is no conflict between the two, rather they are an integrated whole. This goes a long way to explaining why some of the “quirks” of the earliest church exist, such as why catechumens were considered “saved” if they died in martyrdom before baptism: it isn’t that baptism became a proto-Pelagian “work,” but rather that it was considered the moment of saving faith through the work of the Spirit. One can also see why “validity of baptism” is such a contentious issue to this day: salvation in Christ is necessarily through His Body, the Church.

A benefit of this reading is that the tension between Paul in Romans and Galatians (where he is supposed to be “anti-works”) and the Pastoral epistles (where he is viewed as “too Catholic” and therefore probably not the author) evaporates: St Paul is, very early, a liturgical and ecclesiastical Christian.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Atonement and Iconicity

Lately, as I've been reflecting on the Calvinistic understanding of predestination, I've also had an opportunity to meditate on the most common view of atonement, called Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA),  I'll direct interested parties to the post entitled "The Penalty of our Sins" for more on that topic.  What I say there, though, is mostly negative; you can't, however, beat something with nothing -- as regards atonement, a purely via negativa approach does not ultimately satisfy.  Here is a small contribution towards a positive understanding of atonement, one that, I think, avoids many of the pitfalls of PSA.

The Exodus Motif

As I've averred previously, I think the Exodus from Egypt should be the controlling metaphor utilized to understand the atonement.  I'm unhappy with the use of the word "metaphor" here, though, as if this was just some sort of Wittgensteinian language-game, disconnected from actual reality.  To speak of the atonement in terms of Exodus is to engage in a sacramental-iconic reading of the Scriptures, in which the events of the Exodus are truly connected with the events of the Incarnation, without the one being reduced to the other.  The Exodus truly occurred, as did the Incarnation, yet both are sacramentally the same event.  I find this way of reading (and inhabiting) the texts extremely revelatory, but also almost impossible to describe in this medium.  When I use the word "metaphor," then, it is to be read in a "recapitulatory" manner: Christ is fulfilling the form of the Exodus in His salvific life and death.

The motif itself precedes its explication in the book of Exodus, a sort of adumbration of events to come (just as the Incarnation was foretold in types before it occured historically).  We see it in the enslavement of Adam and Eve to the domain of death, for example.  However the slavery comes about (whether retribution based on Joseph's enslavement of all Egyptians or as a consequence of distorted willing), the Lord has come to pass judgment on the captor and lead His people out through a trial of water.  The connections to justification (understood in a liberative sense: being freed from unjust captivity) and baptism (the Red Sea) are apparent.  The strength of this model, other than it being eminently biblical, is that it properly places the wrath of God against the captors, instead of those captive.

The Wrath of the Liberator

One of the commonplaces of, at least, Reformed preaching is that because of sin, God is angry at every human person and only the sacrificial death of His Son can placate that anger.  What has made God so angry with all humanity is the primordial (or original) sin: Adam sinned and all humankind bears his guilt, so all bear the wrath of God for that sin.  This understanding of the human predicament (whether it comes from Augustine, Anselm, or elsewhere) leads to some very sticky pastoral questions: what about those who never hear of the Christian God?  What about babies who are aborted or still-born?  (Apparently according to Augustine, prebaptismal deaths necessarily lead one to hell: I cannot verify this reading of the saint, but it is carted out often enough in debates).  While maybe God had a beef with Adam, the first man's judgment and punishment are recorded in Genesis 3: he is exiled from the Garden and given over to the forces of entropy and corruption.  Why are his children, all of us, then punished for his sin?  There is no court of law that would uphold such a practice, yet this is the common interpretation placed on the event and its aftermath.  Indeed, here Romans 1:18-32 is brought forth to cement this interpretation: "for the wrath of God is revealed against all godlessness and injustice of men..."  There are certain reasons why this passage, though, should not be universalized: have all known God and then refused to be grateful (v. 21)?  Have all professing to be wise (v. 22)?  Have all dishonored their bodies with "unnatural" uses of the same sex (v. 26)?  The answer to these questions are an uniequivocal 'no.'  The passage does read well, though, as a retelling of the story from Adam and Eve (who did know God, yet did not glorify Him, nor were thankful -- they also ate from the Tree that they believed would make them wise -- Gen. 3:6) to Sodom and Gomorrah (the exchange of the "natural" use) and so on.  It does not make sense to jump from these narratives to a universalized willing depravity.  Rather, what St Paul seems to be doing is to take a commonplace of Jewish theology and turning it back against those who would condemn Gentiles while relying on their own religious heritage (2:1, 17, etc.), particularly the gift of the Torah which has paradoxically brought both "Jew and Gentile under sin" (3:9).  The Law, then, has revealed the wrath of God against sin itself, but is powerless to stop that force.  Humankind is, then, not guilty of Adam's sin and so under divine censure, but is under the power of sin from which it needs to be liberated.  The Law cannot do it, especially since it divides Jew from Greek.  The point of the Law, then, becomes eschatological: it was intended to create the conditions for God's theanthropic Messiah to come and be put to death by, thus freeing God's humanity (the Jew first and also the Greek) from the tyranny that Adam had put them under.  In other words, God's wrath is directed against godless and injust actions (Rom. 1) because it is primarily directed against sin, death, and the devil (7:13, for example).

While We Were Yet Sinners

This context of Exodus liberation (sin/death/Satan playing the part of Pharaoh/Egypt) makes sense of a passage that PSA is necessarily ill at ease with in Romans: "God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Much more then, having now been justified [set free from our captivity to sin] by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath [the wrath intended for sin/death/Satan] through Him.  For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life" (5:8-10).  This brings out an important point: while we were in slavery to sin and the corruption of the world, we were in fact under God's wrath, just as citizens of a country are liable to feel the brunt of a war upon their soil.  The Israelites, to go back to Exodus, had to suffer through some of the plagues along with the Egyptians: for those who turned to God, they were an eschatological sign of impending judgment against the evil powers; for those who did not, they became a foretaste of hell.  The mercy extended in them, however, was the same from God's point of view: God's judgment against sin is the clarion call to us to "come out from among them and be holy" (2 Cor 6:17).  The anger expressed, then, is not towards men in their Adamic guilt, but towards the power of sin over them ("Jew and Greek under sin"): if they remain in that state, however, they feel the consequences of that wrath.  Here the will does play a part in the salvation of humankind; it is enslaved to sin, yet the Liberator has come and is calling all men to freedom, even offering all that is needed to make the escape: how shall we respond?  (It probably goes without saying here that an enslaved will is not necessarily an inoperative or powerless one).

Baptism and Death

Just as the Israelites needed to have the Egyptians cut off from them by water, so do we need the old impulses of sin and corruption to be washed from us: enter baptism.  This requires baptism is be more than promissory or merely symbolic: it must be sacramental.  This is in line with St Paul's argument concerning baptism in Romans 6.  We who have been baptized have shared in the actual death of Christ, dying along with Him, sharing in the final Exodus moment of freedom.  Sin and corruption have no rightful claim over us, therefore, and we need not heed them.  (This also helps to make sense of the debates between communions as to whether the various baptisms are valid or not.)  This then connects the Exodus back to the Garden: to be free from the power under which Adam foolishly (God forgive him) put us, death was required.  Baptism is our death into Christ, He who death has no rightful claim on, so our participation in Him through faith means that we can, in the present time, rise to "newness of life" (6:4) and, in the age to come, experience the adoption, "the redemption of our bodies" (8:23).  Christ's death, then, is necessary not only as the "demonstration of God's love" (5:8), but also as the event which judges sin and Satan, finds them wanting, and destroys their power of death (Heb. 2:14, cf. John 16:8-11).  As noted, this is an eschatological reality: what has happened in Christ is complete, but not fully realized under the Last Day -- Satan has been judged and cast out (exorcised), but yet he still prowls around like a lion.  The difference is in whether we are "in Christ" or "in Adam."

The Continuing Wrath?

What do we make, then, of the Wilderness Wanderings?  Don't we see God's wrath poured out, over and over again, on His people then?  Let us remember that these things are written to us as types, for our admonition (1 Cor 10:11).  In other words, God's judgment on His people in the wilderness (and when they were in the Promised Land) is meant to cleanse out the old Egyptian life, just as our discipline from God (which can include our physical death -- 1 Cor 11:30) is meant to purge out the consequences of Adam's sin (death and the corruption of our nature, not guilt for his action), so that we might be "conformed to the image of His Son" (Rom. 8:29), which was the plan God had from the beginning.  The Wanderings should be read as a narrative of "making good on baptism": as truly dying to the world through repentance, so that we might live.  Christ is recapitulating these events in us so that we might be fully made holy in His love.

Concluding Remarks

This is, obvious, just a bare-bones sketch of an atonement theory: I haven't dealt with the sacrificial system in any way here.  Much more could and, of course, should be said: about the importance of the Incarnation and hypostatic union, our becoming "co-workers" with Christ in the Christian life, and so on.  It is meant as no more than a different, yet biblically coherent, reading of atonement as set against Penal Substitionary Atonement theory.  I'm sure I've made mistakes here; God forgive me.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Sermon: Mark 10:17-31

The folks at 1st Presbyterian Church of Beaver Falls have invited me to preach tomorrow morning.  The lectionary passages for this Sunday are particularly difficult -- not to understand, but to live.  The sermon is directed back towards myself: I am that youth who went away sorrowful, although I cannot claim to have "kept the commandments from my youth."  I pray that, even so, the Lord, looking at me, might love me -- as I know He does.  Hallelujah.

Sermon: Mark 10:17-31

We often, I think, look at the young one who comes to our Lord Christ with a bit of pride: where he went away sorrowful, we have stayed faithful -- here we are in worship, after all. But what one of us can claim to the Lord Christ's face that we have "kept all these commandments from our youth"? Take note that our Lord does not correct him or chastise him for pride: "Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him..." This youth has done what to us seems impossible: he has kept the Law of God! Surely there is eternal life stored up for him! Job, from the Old Testament reading today, certainly seemed to think that in God’s presence “an upright man could present his case and...would be delivered forever from his judge” (Job 23:7). What hope do we, who have followed the Christ yet sin, have of inheriting eternal life? The news is even more dire than that, I fear: this perfect youth misses the mark, for his god is ultimately his riches. He is held under a cruel tyranny by them. In him the saying of our Lord comes to full life: "no one can serve God and Mammon" (Matt. 6:24). Keeping the Law does us no good if we do not forsake all this world has to offer for Christ Himself. This is not to say, though, that the Law does no good: as St Paul teaches us "Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor catamites, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the Kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 6:9-10). There is a tension here: even if the whole Law was fulfilled, we could still miss out on eternal life, yet those who do not fulfill the Law "will not inherit the Kingdom". What is there to do? It is here that we can understand the Apostles' astonished question: "Who then can be saved?" Jesus, looking at them just as he had the rich youth, said, "With men -- impossible; but not with God, for with God all things are possible" (Mk. 10:27).

Let us share in the disciples' astonishment; if we don't, we are asleep or, in St Paul's language, deceived. Our life, our salvation, is at stake here. "With men -- impossible." Here is the great mystery of our Faith: Christ calls sinners to Himself and, like in the Exodus, He sets them free and gives them Himself. The one who kept the whole Law had a different master, an unrelenting lord as cruel as the Pharaoh of old: the love of money. This love, which enslaves young and old, rich and poor alike, cannot share room in our hearts with the love of God. Pharaoh could not find it in his hard and hardened heart to let the Hebrews have a 3-day festival to their God; the love of money refuses to let our prayers arise unhindered. Yet, in the Gospels, the tax collectors, the sinners, the Apostles, the prostitutes, they knew their poverty of spirit and forsook all they had, great or little, to follow Him. Those who know they are cruelly enslaved are glad when the Liberator has come; those who receive pittance from the old master go away sorrowful, thinking themselves rich when they are truly destitute. Which are we? St Paul continues in the passage I mentioned earlier: "Such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God!" (1 Cor. 6:11). We cannot compare with the rich youth, who kept the commandments; but we have been washed in baptism, sanctified at the font, and justified by faith when we confessed Jesus Christ as Lord, sharing in His death and rising to newness of life (Rom. 6:4). As our Lord says, "Go and sin no more" (John 8:11). You might respond to this, rightly, "who can do this? Who can keep himself from sin?" This is exactly what the disciples are asking! "With men -- impossible." Hear the grace of the Lord: "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). This is why our Lord instructs the youth to "take up the Cross and follow Me" (Mk. 10:21): it is only by communion with Christ that we have hope. Riches will not save us, keeping the commandments -- though important as St Paul reminds us -- will not save us; only sharing in the work of Christ through faith and baptism will save us. Faith confesses what Christ has done; baptism incorporates us into it.

For some of us, I imagine, baptism is a distant memory: maybe it happened when you were a baby, or a youth. My children were all baptized as infants, while I was as a teenager: I remember my baptism, but there is no chance that they do. It is easy, given enough time, to forget about the importance of that moment. Hear St Paul again: "Do you know know that as many of us were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death...our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin" (Rom. 6:3-7). Baptism is no mere symbol; it is your sharing in Christ's crucifixion, His salvific death: you died on that day. Died to what? Died to sin, to what St John calls "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life" (1 John 2:16), that is, to the way of Adam that we have inherited, the way that leads without mercy to judgment and death, the way of enslavement to sin and the corruption that is in the world, that is what we have died to. This includes the love of money. How can we look at our culture, the air we breathe, every time we turn on the TV or listen to the radio or use social media or read the paper, without seeing that it is a culture of Adam, a culture of death? We are surrounded by those who have made it their goal to "get rich or die trying," by those who feel the need to "keep up with the Kardashians," by those who think the purpose of life and education and labor is to retire comfortably. We are those selfsame people. This is the way of Adam. Hear instead the summons of our Lord Christ, who "though He was rich, yet for your sakes became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9): "sell whatever you have and give to the poor" (Mk. 10:21). This is the baptized life, the life that shares in the death of Christ, and so "lives and that abundantly" (John 10:10).

What do we gain, though, by this forsaking of all things? Isn't this just a recipe for poverty? "Assuredly," in the Greek this is a vow from our Lord, "I say to you, there is no one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the Gospel's, who shall not now receive a hundredfold in this time -- houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions -- and in the age to come, eternal life" (Mk. 10:29-30). This is rather strange, isn't it? What does He mean that we receive all these things "now in this time"? Look around you: are not all these your brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers in the Faith? Would they not take care of you as one of their own, from their own body? For you are all one Body, Christ's Body, which transcends genetics and biology, in other words, in this case baptismal water is truly thicker than blood. You are the family of God and have, therefore, received all things: you are all co-heirs with Christ, if in fact you have "put on Christ" in baptism (Gal. 3:27), the inheritance of all things is yours, which means you have no need for riches or wealth or the love of them to control you or guide your life. Instead, you have the Holy Spirit of God, who St Paul calls the "down payment of our inheritance" (Eph. 1:14). The Holy Spirit, as we confess in the Creed, is God, the infinite God! And yet He is called our "down payment!" For those of you who have a mortgage, you know that a down payment is only the promise that someday, maybe, you’ll own the house outright. The Holy Spirit is our down payment on eternal life, on sharing the Life of the Holy Trinity, our inheritance forever. Truly we have been blessed with "every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies with Christ" (Eph. 1:3) -- God Himself has made His home in us! What fear should we have, then, of "selling all we have and giving to the poor"? "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on....Look at the birds of the air...Consider the lilies of the field...your Heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you" (Mt. 6:25-33). The Lord knows what we need, much better than we do, and will provide it: we must turn our eyes instead to Christ, who is the righteousness of God, and His Kingdom. As the author of Hebrews encourages us, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-3) "With God all things” -- even that which is impossible for humans -- “are possible." We have nothing to lose but our sin and our slavery and all of the Holy Trinity to gain -- this is the inheritance of eternal life. Amen.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

More on Reprobation and Damnation

As I continue through Muller's book, some clarity is dawning on me.  Part of the difficulty I've had with the traditional Reformed delineation of the doctrine of predestination has been its supposed justice.  I've heard the claim many times that "the reprobate are justly damned because of their sins."  However, if they sinned necessarily (even if not under compulsion), then where is justice?  More than this, though, is the bizarre logic needed to hold reprobation and damnation together.  The Scriptures abundantly tells us that those who are judged are judged according to their sins, or their works (sin is, in some forms at least, very labor intensive): however, this cannot be the same as God's reprobation, since that is done without regards to their works or sins.  Yet only the damned are reprobate (and vice versa).  So, what's the connection between the two? Is this a case of "correlation does not equal causation?"  It seems, according to the early Reformed thinkers, that this is in fact the case: reprobation and damnation at not causally linked in any fashion; both happen, though, to have the same outcome, the eternal perdition of some (most?) of the human race.

How, then, do we not have reprobates who are actively sinless?  Isn't this a logical possibility?  No, according to the Reformers: because of the Fall (which was at least permitted, if not outright planned, by God), we humans -- elect or reprobate -- sin necessarily.  Salvation, then, is the intrusion of God's predestinating decree into that necessity, so as to reveal His hidden counsels in the space of history.  Your salvation reveals that, in God's eternal will, you are in fact ontologically different from the mass of humanity: they may be made in the Image of God just like you, but that doesn't matter (God, apparently, is the original iconoclast), for you are imago Dei and elected.  Election is not just a legal matter, but a qualitative ontological difference between those who ostensibly share human nature.  The implications of this are profound.  There is more than one human race, even though they look and necessarily act the same. This difference in ontology, though, is not passed on sexually (as, can be argued, human nature is): you very well could be producing the reprobate as the next generation.  No matter your catechesis, your family worship, or your faithful church attendance: if they are ontologically reprobate, there never was any hope for them.  Certainly, you can keep them from sinning too greatly and thus lessen their punishment in Hell; but, as any parent would tell you, this is rather cold comfort.  Your prayers for their salvation, as well, are wasted breath for the predestinating decree is done without regard to human merit, including your own.

The difficulty I am encountering, and one which I'm not sure I'm capable of overcoming or comprehending, is this: how is human existence as we know and experience it, that is as contingent and free, not a cosmic farce?  A fiction that covers up the real truth of the decree?  "You will be damned according to your sins" is meaningless against the backdrop of eternal reprobation.  You are damned because you were created into a nexus of necessary sinful causality: your damnation is merely the logical out working of your original reprobation.  God, in this scenario, may not be the author of sin, but He is the author of the conditions that make sin necessary.  How justice can be related to this is beyond me.  Someone might say, "because God defines justice, whatever He does is just."  Point granted.  So, how does God define justice?  Is justice determining the outcome of an event before the event takes place?  Is justice determining the impossible conditions of that event and the punishing the players for acting out the necessity of their roles?  Is justice the exercise of partiality without hope of appeal?