Saturday, January 09, 2016

A Patristic Note on Baptism and Justification

In St Paul and Baptism: An Early Foray I said:

"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."

For a primary source documenting this, I found this in St Hippolytus' Apostolic Tradition (while looking for something entirely different, naturally):

"If a catechumen should be arrested for the name of a the Lord, let him not hesitate about bearing his testimony; for if it should happen that they treat him shamefully and kill him, he will be justified, for he has been baptized in his own blood" (II:19, emphasis added).

Note here the close connection between baptism and justification, as if one is the cause of the other.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Augustine, Adoration, and Loving the Saints

In his Confessions, as well as elsewhere, St Augustine propounds a way of understanding love that may shed light on another, seemingly unrelated, Patristic concept.  His proposal, following Sts Irenaeus and Athanasius (as well as the Neoplatonists), is that the fundamental way we operate in the world is through love.  However, we were intended to love God, to "enjoy" Him (using the language from On Christian Doctrine), and, through that enjoyment, to love our fellow creatures (to "use" them -- a difficult term for us moderns).  Sin is loving something inordinately, improperly, or disorderedly, especially if they are loved instead of, or in place of, God Himself.  If ou loves are rightly ordered, though, there is peace.  If we love God properly, we can love others as they are to be loved.

Augustine's understanding can, I think, be fruitfully used in another context: the Iconoclastic Controversy.  St John of Damascus uses a technical distinction between latreia and proskynesis: adoration and veneration, respectively.  (It is important here to note that both actions fall into the larger category of what we call "worship."  The difficulty with this is that our contemporary use of "worship" is closer to that of adoration; one has to only go back to 1611 to see that it wasn't that long ago we had a broader understanding.  Moses worships Jethro, and so on.  Or look to the BCP Rite of Marriage: "with my body do I thee worship."). While God alone is worthy of adoration, the saints, the Theotokos, and holy objects are to be venerated.  St John faced stern opposition from his fellow coreligionists, as they understood veneration to be a form of idolatry.  However, St John (and St Theodore the Studitie after him) said, in effect, that one cannot honor the saints who crushed the idols by making them into idols -- in other words, veneration of the saints was not the same as adoration of them.  Rather, if one was to properly venerate, it could only be done in the context of adoring the Triune God.

The West, even though it technically adopted the distinctions as proper theological method, long struggled with them -- the Carolingian Franks viewed the use of religious art in a distinctly different light than the Byzantine Romans.  This came to a head, of course, in the Third Iconoclast Controversy of the Reformation (and, yes, not all Reformers were so inclined -- Luther's view seems to me to be a republication of the Carolingian understanding).  However, if we bring Augustine and Damascene together, we will find that they are speaking the same language.

Augustine's "enjoyment" of God corresponds almost perfectly with St John's "adoration."  God is the only One worthy of such actions, which involve complete love and devotion offered to Him.  "Use" then is analogous to "veneration."  This provides the clarifiying paradigm that we need to fully make sure our veneration (of one another, the saints, or the Theotokos) does not lapse into idolatry by adoring that which is not God by nature.  If we love God properly, that is as God, we will love His saints, His mother, and all other things in their proper place.  If our adoration is of Father, Son, and Spirit, then we actually can honor and venerate all other things in freedom and safety: our love of God, poured into our hearts by the Spirit Himself, guides us in this.

This, for us Protestants, is very unsettling language.  We are used to thinking that, even after the coming of Christ we are under the rule of the Law, instead of the freedom of the Spirit.  Certainly, we've seen many abuses by this who have claimed the Spirit -- but abuse does not negate the possibility of proper use.  If we actually have the Spirit, though, we have freedom to move and breathe, all the while never forgetting the Law we do live under: the Law of Christ, that we shall love one another and so fulfill the Law.

How, though, do we know we are adoring God properly, so that we might venerate with order?  It should give us pause to consider that this is the driving question behind all the various debates that led to the Ecumenical Councils.  Is Jesus God? (Nicaea I) Is the Holy Spirit God? (Constantinople I) Is Mary the Mother of God, or just a man associated strongly with God? (Ephesus)  Does the human flesh of Christ share in the properties of the divine Word? (Chalcedon) Is the humanity of Christ true and full humanity, complete with distinct will and activity? (5th and 6th Councils) Does the divine nature deify created matter? (Nicaea II)

It is Nicaea II, which declared iconoclasm to be of non-apostolic origin, that brings all this together.  If we properly venerate that which is venerable, through such we adore God.  Since we are creatures of matter, it is only through the mediation of matter that we can love God.  Can God so use matter in a way that opens up true and proper worship of Him?  If we confess the Incarnation in any sort of orthodox way, we must answer 'yes.'  The infinite God truly became finite man (without ceasing to be either true God or true man), so that we finite men might share in His infinite Life (or, God became man that man might become gods -- St Athanasius in On the Incarnation).  If that is the case, then can God share Himself through other parts of creation?  If so, then when we properly venerate where He chooses to share His grace (through bread and wine, through His saints, etc.), we are adoring Him through their mediation.

Augustine's proper ordering of loves, then, works in two directions: if we love God rightly, we can rightly love all lovely things.  If, as well, we love all lovely things in the way they are to be loved, then through them we can adore God.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Full Disclosure in Evangelism

This reflection does not arise, alas, from personal experience of evangelism: I live in a Christian bubble most days and so find little opportunity for it.  My own method, especially as I tend towards introversion with age, is to pray for those around me, with as much unceasing effort as can be managed.

This reflection, instead, arises out of my existential experience as a Christian.  Or, maybe more, in the tensions I've noticed in the theology of broader evangelicalism of which I am a part.

In some ways, and maybe this is because our evangelistic context is America, our sharing of the Faith tends to sound like political campaigning: Jesus will "save" you from your sins, from your loneliness, from your brokenness, from your X, Y, and Z.  If only we will vote Him in as "personal Savior" or "Lord of our life," then...well, what?  Here's the tension.  We make great claims as to what Jesus accomplishes through that moment of decision (or whatever), but then are catechized into simul iustus et peccator, with particular emphasis on the peccator.  For some of the preaching that I have heard over the years, even after salvation we are just as mired in sin as we were before.  Our wills are inable, after conversion, to seek the good.  All our actions are sin, or as Luther supposedly put it, all our works are mortal sins.

It is a preaching of despair.

The point, as it has been explained to me, is to drive us again and again to Christ on the Cross.  Having forsworn works in the earning of our salvation, we must now be sure to not use them to maintain or prove our salvation.  (Yet, how do we know we are saved? Good works.). In other words, it is a continual chopping down of our Self, so that God alone may get glory.  God and man are locked in a zero-sum game: what is good for one necessarily takes from the other.  Our will, created by God to seek Him, is essentially or naturally at odds with Him, as salvation itself does not restore us to any Adamic (or Christic) freedom -- it only tackles the problem of legal justice and wrath.

It must be noticed, then, that the "salvation" offered is wholly eschatological: there is no actual deliverance from the power of sin and death until the afterlife.  It is possible -- nay, required -- that one become more moral, but there is no real power given with which (or by Whom) to accomplish and maintain it.  In this, again, our evangelism seems political: sure, we've got the right man in office, but he's unable (or unwilling?) to actually effect any change. We just have to hope that the future is better (which, of course, it will be, since the promise that this is so came from the same folks who promised us that we were going to be delivered from our sins...).

If this is, in fact, the Christian message and how it is lived out, is it any wonder Millennials are leaving the Church?  Especially when this message is juxtaposed with the optimistic narrative of Western materialism?

Could it be that our message of what salvation in Christ is, is too beholden to that dominant narrative? That the problem is primarily individual and legal (me and my sins), instead of ontological and relational?  Is the fundamental hope of our salvation fixing my broken actions and attitudes, or deliverance from what causes such things in the first place? (You'll notice, I hope, that I'm not "making light of sin" here: a doctor doesn't make light of the symptoms in treatment, even if they aren't worth mentioning in the context of the overarching disease.)

The problem, while exhibiting in every human individual, is cosmic: the whole of creation is under subjugation to Death and Satan.  As such, it is the environment in which, no matter how much we may want the Good, we cannot attain to it without egoism and violence against our neighbors: in the state of corruption, creation and man do get locked in a zero-sum struggle.  Here is where we find ourselves, without remainder, and so have a powerful evangelistic message: we are all confined under sin, in disobedience, but God has come in our form to deliver us from the bondage.  What must be remembered, though, is that as you leave the enemies territory, he will not let you go quietly.  He wants you to come back under slavery and will do everything in his power to make you return (why else would St Paul anathematize a different gospel, one that brought the hearers back into subjugation?).  Being delivered from bondage is only the first part: now you must train for war.  It is not that you can't please God -- far from it, as He now dwells in you and with you -- but you haven't yet built up the habitual defenses, the virtues, needed for full engagement with the enemy.  You will slip and fall from time to time -- the point is that you must resist becoming enslaved again.  For this God Himself abides in us, teaching us to say 'no' to ungodly and wordly passions and desires, and granting us access to His Body, the Church, where we labor with and for one another towards the fullness of salvation.

It seems, at this point, apropos to bring in the narrative of the Old Testament.  Here, again, we see its iconic nature, pointing beyond itself to God's larger story.  Israel, those who bear the promise, are under the heavy rigor of the Pharaoh, cry out for deliverance, and are released (set right, justified, etc.) by God the Redeemer.  However, Pharaoh pursues them until they go through the Sea, which St Paul connects to our passing through the waters of baptism.  Just because the host of Pharaoh is decimated, though, doesn't mean Egypt ceases to exist: there are many stern warnings in the Torah to not return to Egypt or take up Egyptian ways.  The Philistines, the perennial enemies of Israel who arise out of the Sea (sort of a Pharaonic redivivus), are descendants of ancient Mitzraim, Egypt herself.  Only King David will be able to fully subdue them...just in time for his son, Solomon, to make his chief consort the daughter of Pharaoh.  From there, his tragic story unfolds of looking more and more like Pharaoh himself: the conscripted labor force, the amassing of an army, the building of a 'large house' (the very meaning of the Egyptian title), and the accumulation of wealth.  It is possible, if we do not completely reject the corruption in the world, to fall back into it: the end will be worse than the start.

There are more layers to this, however.  After baptism, in which our enemies are thwarted and we are brought into union with Christ (symbolized by the covenant ceremonies in the Old Testament -- they point forward to the fuller union of theosis: covenant is iconic, not an end in itself).  However, the old way of life must be progressively overthrown.  Here is where the Conquest of Canaan becomes particularly significant.  We must, using the weapons of the Spirit, cast out and cast down all our passions, disordered desires, and sins, just as the Israelites were to do to the Canaanites.  We, of course, should add the exorcism of the demons, as a larger thread to this tapestry.  We should not, though -- and this is vital -- expect this to happen in a day: "and the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you little by little; you will be unable to destroy them at once, lest the beasts of the field become too numerous for you" (Deut. 7:22, cp. Ex. 23:30).  We are being trained up for spiritual war, which requires smaller battles until we are ready to enter our inheritance.  Or, as St Antony of Egypt put it, "Expect temptation to your dying breath."

What does all this mean for evangelism?  Certainly, Jesus has (not will) saved us from our sins, from death, and from the devil: once someone has been baptized and confessed the Faith, we can assure them that they are, indeed, free from that demonic dominion.  But, the work has just started, there is a practical eschatology: now we must be vigilant, must train and exercise, until we, through and with Christ, have conquered that and those which sought our enslavement and destruction.  That we are at war and expected to take part in it is an essential piece to evangelism.  Jesus has not died to make us comfortably middle class, but to deliver the whole world from its bondage to corruption.  Be free and enlist in the Kingdom that will throw down its enemies and bring the peace of which our satisfied, warmed, and filled human existence is but a shadow.  There is no room for despair here, for the King has conquered and continues to conquer: He gives us the eyes to see it and trains our hands for war.

Hallelujah, for this Lord is born as one of us and will lead us to the Promised Land.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Why We Should Pray for the Salvation of All

I feel as if this should be uncontroversial.  Not only uncontroversial, but a universal practice, regardless of communal affiliation.  Maybe it is and I'm just too inexperienced with wider Christian practice.

I want, as I seek to enter this, to put aside all predestinarian polemic.  In the end, Barth could be right and God could have elected everyone -- we just cannot see it with our necessarily limited historical scope.  I won't argue one way or another.  What we must do, I think, is to pray for the salvation of all as if we can influence God in His saving work.  I don't say that idly, knowing that God does all His good pleasure; however, I also see that we are called to pray for all, for the will of God is the salvation of all (1 Tim. 2:1-6) and that we are to save our brother and sisters, acting as an atoning sacrifice, by turning them from the error of their wanderings (Jam. 5:20).  (That these passages can be interpreted only as a participation in Christ's Cross should go without saying.)

There is another reason why we should pray for the salvation of all: our own sin.  Follow the Bible's narrative: Adam, though he has the possibility to not sin, does.  As one of my Catholic friends put it recently, we shouldn't blame original sin for our own sin: Adam didn't need it as an excuse, neither do we.  Through this sin, though, we introduce death as a necessary component of human existence.  It becomes the fact of our existence: memento mori.  No one can escape from it, for the link of communion which Adam shared with God had been severed.  Since then, we are all born into death: not only born to die, but born in a state of corruption, violence, and misery.  We then recapitulate Adam's sin, except that where he had enjoyed the vision of God, we enter the world in darkness and continue blind.  We are creatures who were made to seek the Good, but in the absence of experiencing Him (or even knowing that He exists), we turn to all sorts of lesser goods and so turn every action into idolatry of some sort.  Instead of emptying ourselves out for others, knowing that the life of God is our inheritance, we hold back out of fear of loss or, worse, take with force from others to secure our right to the good against theirs.  Sin is seeking after a lesser good with fear, with ingratitude, and with violence.  No human is exempt from this situation.

In light of this, how can we not feel pity for our fellow man?  To vaunt ourselves up, as if we aren't capable of the same evil as they, is to forget our common slavery.  To exalt ourselves is to forget our complicity in their sin: for many of the things taken for granted in our world are built off of the sins of others, and on top of those sinned against.  How else shall we understand the Lord Christ's words "Judge not, lest you be judged"?  Or "if you do not forgive your brother his sins, neither will the Father forgive your sins"?  "Love your enemies"?  And, at the heart of the paradox of the Christian Faith, "be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect"?  Our God is, and always is, a humble God.  If we are saved, we are filled with the love of God poured out by His Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5), which means compassion for those who have not found this purpose of man's life.  It doesn't not mean breathing threats of God's damnation on a recalcitrant massa damnata, but a humble plea to others to share in the liberation effected through the Cross.  It also means ceaseless intercession before the Liberator, who has judged sin and death, to save all those under the cruel tyranny of the demons.

Lord, have mercy, and save us all.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Advent Homily: 12/6/15

Chapel PCA in Brighton once again kindly offered me the invitation to give one of the homilies at their Advent service. My topic this year was "God the Spirit in the Incarnation"; my fellows preached on God the Father and God the Son.

One brief edit: I took out the disastrous joke about Peanuts from the first paragraph. It is best on the cutting room floor.


Around Christmas time, many families read the Christmas story, the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, from the Annunciation to the Birth. Here the Spirit of God figures prominently, for as the angel Gabriel says, “The Holy Spirit shall come upon you and the power of the Highest shall overshadow you; for this reason the Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (1:35). For many of us, though, this is the end of the Spirit’s role. While necessary for Jesus’ taking on flesh, how does that Spirit affect our lives? What, in other words, other than the supernatural character of Jesus’ conception, can we learn from this? What does this story say to us about our salvation?

St Paul takes us a bit further in his epistle to the Romans when he says, “[God’s] Son Jesus Christ our Lord was...declared to be Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). St Luke had said that it was due to the virginal conception by the Holy Spirit that Jesus would be called “Son of God,” St Paul tells us that it was the Resurrection that would lead to the same appellation, this time with power. The Spirit has, in the life of our Savior, caused Him to be born in a womb that could not naturally bear (for she knew no man) and caused Him to be raised from the tomb that was meant to hold those who by nature would die. So the Spirit is as integral to the story of salvation as the Lord Christ -- and, of course, we could go farther in the Scriptures and see the Spirit descend at our Lord’s baptism, hear of Him compelling our Lord into the wilderness to be tempted, and His being breathed upon the Apostles.

But we must again ask, how does this go from the story of salvation almost 2000 years ago into our lives here and now? What was contemporary Pennsylvania to do with ancient Jerusalem? Hear again the Apostle Paul: “Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5) to which he adds, “if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you” (8:11). In other words, just as the Spirit came upon Mary, pouring the love of God into her -- whom we know as our Lord Jesus Christ -- so He pours that same love into us, that we might cry out “Abba, Father” to our God. Because Jesus is the Son, we are sons.

And here is the key to rereading the Christmas story: what God the Father has done in our Lord Jesus Christ, He is also doing in us. Our Lord Christ, of course, is God by nature, something we will never be. But we have, through His grace, God Himself dwelling inside of us, giving life to us. Or, as St Irenaeus said so many centuries ago, “Because of the great love with which He loved us, Christ became what we are so that we might become what He is” (AH, V:Prologue). The Spirit is the One who accomplishes all this for us and in us.

Let us return, then, to that greatest story ever told and see how it applies to us through the Spirit. We hear of a betrothed, virgin mother bearing the Word of God. St Paul says that he intends to present the Church as a “chaste virgin” who has already been betrothed to Christ (2 Cor. 11:2), but also that she is the “Jerusalem that is above, who is free, she is our mother” (Gal. 4:26), the same heavenly Jerusalem to which all believers have come (Heb. 12:22) and which descends from heaven “having the glory of God” (Rev. 21:11). The Church, by the power of the Spirit who resides in her, is our virgin mother, bearing the Word of God in her children to the weary world.

Connected to this, as we saw, is Christ’s Resurrection. The one wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger will be wrapped in burial clothes and placed in a tomb, but the Spirit that achieved His conception will soon accomplish His resurrection. We who are born again by the Spirit of God will, before we know it, be raised from the dead by the same Spirit as the earth is released from her labor pains into the “glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:22).

In between the announcement of our adoption in Christ, our justification, and the fullness of it, the redemption of our bodies (8:23), we travel the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem, expectant of what God is doing in us, but wary of the road we must travel: for as St John tells us, “the Dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born. She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron” (Rev. 12:4-5). The promise is that Christ is our King, but many do not wish to see Him reach the throne. How much more, now that He has “disarmed the principalities and powers, making a public spectacle of them triumphing over them” through the Cross (Col. 2:15) and been seated at the right Hand of the Father in the heavenly places (Eph. 1:20), how much more shall they now seek to persecute those who have been made to “sit together with Christ in the heavenly places” (2:6) for the very purpose of “making known the manifold wisdom of God” to those same humiliated “principalities and powers” (3:10), against whom we have even been marshaled to wrestle and struggle (6:12) using the spiritual weapons and armor of God.

Should we be surprised, then, that at the birth of our Savior “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men!” (Lk. 2:13-14)? The King has come with His army acclaiming Him, to fight the great battle, to overthrow the cosmic Pharaoh, and to conscript us in war that actually does end all war: “peace, goodwill to men.” We must seek the Spirit to prepare, to become like Christ, to put the passions and desires of our flesh to death -- for the Spirit is Life, life in Mary’s womb, life in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb, and life in us for the salvation of the world. Amen.

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.