Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Real Predestination: Part 2

What does the vision of predestination that I outlined earlier mean in everyday life? I think, first of all, that it drives the Christian to worship: this God is accomplishing His good plans of mercy and salvation, even in the midst of great evil. This is not the only thing, though.

A second practical corollary is that this God humbles us. Especially me. I often want to "bring in the Kingdom" on my own, at my own pace, in my own way. But this is not what is happening. God is doing the work. I am coming alongside -- what He calls us to is not to establish the work, but to fidelity. Our living in the Spirit, our Chalcedonian existence if you will, leads us to participate in the gradual recreation of the world by the Spirit. God is doing it, so we can come alongside. Note here that the brunt of the doctrine is not "God is doing it, so we don't have to." That is to fall headfirst into fatalism, which assumes that God is abstract and impersonal. If God does nothing without first revealing it to his prophets (Amos 3:7), why should we assume that God does anything without involving the body of His Son? (Here is another reason that I have turned back to orthodoxy -- incarnation is inescapble). Predestination, when viewed historically, produces humble action as the people of God exercise fidelity to God's plan, which He set out through the prophets and apostles, and supremely in Jesus the Messiah.

We reach, then, Ephesians 1, where Paul -- as prophet -- proclaims what the will of God is: to reconcile all things to Himself through Christ and His Church. He will do it -- it is now time to join Him.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

What Use are the Creeds?

Here is a draft of the second chapter of this short meditation. The chapters aren't meant to be long discourse, but are modelled after the brief remarks given by Bonhoeffer in his excellent little book on the Psalms.
What Use are the Creeds?

Following, then, the holy fathers, we unite in teaching all men to confess the one and only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. This selfsame one is perfect both in deity and in humanness; this selfsame one is also actually God and actually man, with a rational soul and a body. He is of the same reality as God as far as his deity is concerned and of the same reality as we ourselves as far as his humanness is concerned; thus like us in all respects, sin only excepted. Before time began he was begotten of the Father, in respect of his deity, and now in these "last days," for us and behalf of our salvation, this selfsame one was born of Mary the virgin, who is God-bearer in respect of his humanness.

We also teach that we apprehend this one and only Christ-Son, Lord, only-begotten -- in two natures; and we do this without confusing the two natures, without transmuting one nature into the other, without dividing them into two separate categories, without contrasting them according to area or function. The distinctiveness of each nature is not nullified by the union. Instead, the "properties" of each nature are conserved and both natures concur in one "person" and in one reality. They are not divided or cut into two persons, but are together the one and only and only-begotten Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus have the prophets of old testified; thus the Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us; thus the Symbol of Fathers has handed down to us.

(The Definition of Chalcedon, AD 451)

The mistake that I made early on, an easy mistake to make, is that the Creeds act as a definite proclamation of theology. Rather, they are guide-rails, meant to keep us on the right path by showing what is not the road. Note in the Definition given above that the two natures are not positively defined, but negatively: united, yet not confused, not transmuted, not divided. The only positive statement, essentially, is “one and only Christ – Son, Lord, only-begotten.” The union is proclaimed, but the mechanics of such is not, nor can it be. This frustrated me early on, but now I see it as necessary – not all of God’s knowledge is for us, but “the things revealed belong to us and our children forever that we might be careful to do all the words of this torah” (Dt. 29:29).

The Creeds, then, are meant to be summary grammars of Scriptural teaching. Instead of being positive contributions – revelations of the character of God – they are signs of the paths we should avoid. Avoid, then, the Arian god Jesus, who is a lesser being that cannot save derived from a greater being that cannot love. And so on. That way dragons lay. Creeds, in the end, are not stand alone documents able to bring us to salvation, for “faith comes from hearing, hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17). The Church Fathers, in general, can helpfully be read this way. The Creeds only make sense and are only used properly when they are reflections on what has been called from ancient times the “economy of salvation.” The economy is God’s act (comprised of His many acts in both Old and New Testaments) to bring salvation to the world through Word and Spirit. The Scriptures bear testimony to this event, whom we know as the Messiah Jesus.

In my own experience, maybe it would be proper to compare the Creeds to Balaam’s ass. The donkey faithfully tried to warn its rider of impending danger, yet Balaam (the true ass) refused until God knocked him down.

In the case of Chalcedon, which this meditation seeks to understand, how might this guiding work? The key is that the mysterious two natures of the Christ – the truly human and the truly divine – are in full union with one another; there is no conflict or discord. While they might still be distinguished (they are not confused or collapsed into one another), they work together so well as to be understood as one Person. In other words, Jesus is not schizophrenic, nor has multiple personalities. Remembering Paul’s assertion that we are being conformed to the image of the Son (more on this anon) and Irenaeus’ contention that “Christ became what we are so that we might become what he is,” we can posit that we – human beings in faith – are Chalcedonian by created nature. That is, we have our human natures, but God also gives us His nature, His Life, His Spirit and joins us in union to Himself. We don’t become God, of course, but we are united with Him (here, again, we are in the realm of mystery and can only define negatively – the practical applications of this mystery, though, are immense). The goal of Christian life is the ever-deepening union with the Spirit of God that makes us more and more like the Messiah here on earth.

When we view the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus, then, we can read it profitably not just as an historical record, but as giving us hope and direction for our lives. While our union with Christ is not perfect (our human nature often giving fits), we can start to see how that Chalcedonian union gives power to the Christian life. Consider the temptation narrative found in Matthew 4.

Here we see Christ being tested as to his resolve to follow the Father in all things. Christ responds, not with assertions of deity, but by doing what every believer united with the Spirit can do – he lives out the Scriptures, proclaiming them as his own. While we are not yet perfect in our union with Christ, certainly we can follow his example – Word and Spirit to overcome sin and evil and even death.

This reveals something important for us who are traveling down this road. While biological growth cannot be stopped, spiritual growth can. Our union with the Spirit – even though it is predestined to be accomplished (Rom. 8) – can stagnate and shrivel. Our human natures can, by reason of sin and disobedience, push the Spirit out. Remember how King Saul and Judas both lost their places of honor and responsibility. Our union progresses as we are constantly connected to both Word and Spirit, since they are the path to the Father. This gives us reason, not only to be learning the Scriptures, but to be memorizing them, to be living them. “Let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2). How, though, can we be connected with the Spirit? In a word, worship.

When believers gather together under the one Head, Jesus the Messiah, especially when they celebrate Eucharist (or communion) with him, they act as the one Body of Christ. Our human natures are joined to, and changed by, his human nature. At the same time, through the Spirit, God joins Himself to the community that is praying. This is especially true when the Psalms are being recited/chanted/sung, for they are the prayers of Christ to the Father. This joins the divine (God in the Spirit) to the human (God in Christ), creating a moment of union in the daily life of the Christian community. This moment, especially when pursued in the morning-evening pattern, gives a redemptive framework to the day: all that occurs between the moments of special union with God is offered up to God. It is in the context of this communal celebration that we have the opportunity – the privilege! – to hear God’s Word to us as a community. Instead of the individualization that often happens in our readings of Scripture, here we can join in union with Word and Spirit so that our common life might look more like the life of Christ. Think of how the earliest Church functioned in Acts, sharing all things so that the Word might be proclaimed.

The Creeds bring us to a way of reading – a hermeneutic – for the economy of salvation. Notice that this guidepost, though, doesn’t offer us a dispassionate, “objective” reading of the text, but one that fully takes the divine nature of it (its inspiration) along with its human nature (our contemporary application) seriously: the Word is living and active, as Hebrews tells us. Here is a Christ that is not far off, but as close to us as the confession of our lips (returning to Romans 10).

“Open my lips, o Lord, that my mouth might proclaim Your praise” (Ps. 51:15).

The Faith of Chalcedon

Here is a first draft of an introduction to a proposed book on Chalcedonian faith. They say to "write what you know," so this is intensely personal. May God use it to give strength to those, who like me, have gone through the dark night of the soul and feel lost and forsaken.
There is no such thing as dispassionate theology. Theology, like all branches of human endeavor, is necessary connected to the whole person. Yet, this particular branch, much maligned and much abused, has an even stronger claim to be passionate. It is born out of and returns, always, to worship. We ask questions about the God we meet in worship; theology helps us to make sense of that experience. Good theology, passionate theology, grows out of that experience and leads us back to it. This is one of the reasons that theology is for everyone, not just trained professionals and clerics: we engage in what is called “primary theology” whenever we pray communally or individually, whenever we sing, whenever we are overcome by the strange ineffability of the divine who works in history. But theology is passionate in another sense: it is necessarily connected to the Passion of the Messiah Jesus. That is, all thinking about God is anchored in what God in Christ did on Golgotha – this is true whether we are speaking of the “Old” Testament, the “New” Testament, or the history of Christian life and thought. Theology is passionate because it reflects on Christ’s Passion, when he reconciled the world to the Father. That unspeakable grace is given words by theology, so that we might worship the God who enacted them.

This is a theological meditation. As such, it is passionate. I am not interested in a dry, academic treatment of my Subject – to do so would be to worship another God, not the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. There are other reasons as well. When I was much younger, I decided to do a project for my (public) school about the history of the Christian Creeds. While I quickly became disabused of the notion that a high schooler could adequately tackle the topic (I chose, instead, to do a preterist interpretation of the book of Matthew), it forever changed my course and my path. In my preliminary background reading, the theory (which I accepted as absolute truth) that the Church Fathers had gotten their idea of what it meant for Christ to be the “Logos” (Word) of God from classical, philosophical paganism was presented. This is a fairly common – and always disturbing to Protestants – claim about the development of doctrine (teaching) in the early Church. Being of a very conservative theological background, I had grown a distinct disliking for all things Greek (except the language): Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics were all evil men who had maliciously attacked the Bride of Christ and stolen her doctrinal purity. Once the linchpin of understanding John 1 was taking away, I did not know what to think. I was a follower of Jesus, but who was He? Or he? I wanted to tackle the question of the relationship between Jesus and the Father (as I often put it) with intellectual honesty and vigor. When I told my pastor this, he responded (in words I can never forget): “That’s fine, but if you come to a conclusion other than that he was fully God and fully man, we will know you have apostatized and left the faith.”

Left the faith. Damned. Accursed. But if the foundation is Greek philosophy and not Biblical religion, how could the Christological building stand? How could any of it stay? Left the faith. Damned. Accursed.

Here started the decade of Hell.

St. John of the Cross described – beautifully – my Dantean descent into the “dark night of the soul,” in which the Christian is stripped bare so that he might be fit for the Master’s use. During that time, I wandered spiritually, growing ever more confident in my emerging unitarian beliefs, yet growing ever more fearful of my own damnation. How could I see, in Scripture, what so many countless others had not seen? Was I to ascribe it to the episcopal “will to power”? Did the Catholic and Orthodox Church hold a conspiracy to trap men’s souls for their own gain and sovereignty? I certainly could look at the abhorrent behavior of many Church leaders, whether Roman, Eastern, or Protestant, for confirmation of some sort of this thesis. Invoking ‘God,’ as many atheists and unbelievers alike point out, is an easy way to gain your own earthly desires. There was a fear that grew in me at that point, since I could no longer trust any teacher in the Church – to question the Trinity would be to question their vested interests. Still the nagging question of how so many could be so wrong for so long dogged me.

The Creeds continued to be witnesses against me. I’d excuse myself from the assembly when we would say them (we didn’t say them very often which helped to cloak my growing separation) – I couldn’t say “of one substance with the Father.” I instead developed a liturgical bent that emphasized the grammar of the Scriptures over the grammar of theology. I dove deeply into Biblical Theology and despised Systematics. I was being stripped – no part of me was to be left untouched. A new foundation had to be laid before anything could be built. It is strange to be thankful for heresy, but it is necessary.

While Nicea perturbed me, Chalcedon absolutely infuriated me. Here, indeed!, was the acme of Plato’s takeover of the Church: one Person (I still have not received a good definition of this), two Natures undivided, yet distinct; different, yet united. Surely there was nothing – nothing – in Scripture to back this up. Surely it was the final straw that made Christianity pagan. I could not, would not, have anything to do with it. Instead, foreswearing theology, I would read the Scriptures and only them.

For me, the Creeds and theology acted as a strait-jacket. I have since learned to see them as kindly guideposts, apophatically leading me away from theology as rationality to theology as worship. But to get to the full sense of what is happening, it is important to see what I thought of the heritage of the Church. It was rubbish. I had separately myself from the community of the faithful and stood alone.

And yet, in that loneliness there was a fresh Wind, a Breath from God.

I saw, in Paul’s epistles, a recurring theme: what God has done in Jesus, He intends to do in the whole human creation. I had, without fully knowing it, stumbled across the foundation I had been looking for and avoiding. This confirmed, in my mind, the full humanity of Jesus – the necessary humanity of Jesus. Much of my frustration with Church teaching was its implicit Docetism – Jesus became the Christ, the Pantokrator, the far-off and aloof God. Since his presence was no longer close, no longer that of a brother or a friend, but rather a Dread Sovereign, something was needful to fill that emotional gap: enter Mary and the Saints. Jesus, for me, had been rescued – what God had done in Jesus, He intended to do in the whole human creation. Jesus was close. Jesus was close.

Paul also led me to another important point. Whenever God the Father (or, as I liked to refer to Him, the Father, God) is mentioned, in the same breath Jesus and the Spirit are mentioned. I did not know what to make of it precisely, but there was something inescapable about the identity of God: He is forever connected to Jesus and the Spirit. They exist – in some way I couldn’t understand and didn’t want to admit – always in union, even if just linguistically. God is never separate from Jesus or the Spirit. And, if John is to be believed, then Jesus is somehow equated with God’s Word (albeit not Platonically); this means that God has always been linked, somehow, to Jesus as the Word and the Spirit. For God speaks and breaths always.

I had done the impossible (or, at least at that time, I thought that I had done it): I had become a Biblical Trinitarian. I did not want to go to the ontological level – I would never bow to Platonic metaphysics. I still needed some confirmation that this is where the Spirit was leading, but I knew I was on the right track.

In the midst of this I had reluctantly started seminary. This was a dark time. One day, as my wife and I sat in our empty coffee shop on a Sunday afternoon I lost it. I screamed in a voice and in a way I did not know possible. The dark night had done me in: I was naked and I was afraid. The words of Psalm 22, of Christ’s Passion, were extended to me. I screamed, “Either God has abandoned His Church since the 2nd century or He has forsaken me!” Not even the moon or stars gave their brightness. All was lost. In the darkest part of the night, all that remains is the promise of the dawn.

Two days later, in my Church History class, I was saved. That is an intentional word. Looking back over my journals and blogging, I had slowly stopped calling myself a Christian and was now only a follower of Jesus. He had the words of life, and I could not seem to leave him, but I couldn’t quite trust him. We read that day these words from Irenaeus, a 2nd century bishop in France: “Christ became what we are, so that we might become what he is.” What God has done in Jesus, He intends to do in the whole human creation. I cried, as I cry now, with a heart that was both broken and healed. The naked and bare Adam was given, not a coat of skins, but the garment of the Messiah – that adornment for a wedding feast. And he gave me a greater gift, one I had never had before, the Spirit of God filled me head to toe, enlivening me, freeing me, causing the tormentors of persistent sin and degradation to flee at the sign of the Cross, as Antony of the Desert counseled.

It is my firm contention now, dear reader, to take you further on this journey with me. It is a short step, I assure you, from this place to Chalcedon – to find reconciliation of the Scriptures with the Creeds. And it pertains to this mystery of Father, Son, and Spirit – not in a detached way, but the way in which they work, even now, to bring you and me into conformity to the image of the Son; to bring us into union, the divine Spirit and our created selves, body and soul, that joins us truly and wholly to the body of Christ.

Come and see.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Necessity of Christian Communities

For a long time, the monastic impulse in much of Christianity was foreign to me. I brushed it off as gnostically ascetic neoplatonism. That was wrong (much I've thought in the past, it turns out, was wrong -- hence the whole "rethinking" series). While I do not uphold celibacy as the best lifestyle for many (certainly it is for some), nor think it is wise for the "clergy," the life together of the monatic communities is something to emulate. As we've been thinking about the buzzword of 'community' at the assembly, it has slowly -- inexoriably -- dawned on me that the only way to reestablish a real, long-lasting, and effective Christian witness in a post-Christian society is to live in semi-monastic community. That this can be done by groups of families, I am sure of. It can even be done with folks who live blocks away (although not too many to walk -- it is interesting that this is a dominant metaphor of the Christian experience, we "walk with Jesus" daily, but it is almost totally disconnected from our actual life, as we must drive upwards of 30 minutes or more to worship together).

The demands of the Christian life cannot be met without the structure and support of a community that shares a common life, common values, common schedules of worship/work/play, and a common aesthetic. This does not mean, of course, uniformity in all those things, but there must be some sort of commonality that links them together. The adoption of morning and evening prayer by a neighborhood, for example, would quickly destroy the demands of greed, avarice, and non-neighborly competition (there is such a thing -- a good thing -- as neighborly competition) that our impersonal, "late" capitalist society places upon us. We speak of these things -- the things that control our lives in the realm of habits -- as forces (the force of the economy or history or whatever); Paul speaks of them as "principalites and powers" that must be warred against and have wisdom spoken to by the Church, which cannot exist only on Sundays, but rather is the foundation of the cosmos since it is the body of the Messiah himself. There are, and never have been, lone gunners for Jesus.

A local assembly cannot just talk about community without radically reorienting their lives to the demands of the Gospel. As much as I enjoy middle-class existence (and I do), it must be subverted to the life-giving programme of the Lord Christ. Spiritual growth is not an automatic thing, such as biological maturity, but rather occurs when we live, work, play, and worship together in God's world -- as, in other words, we are continually connected to the Spirit -- God's own Life! -- and each other -- the Messiah's own body!

The American Church, especially, has spoken enough about the individual -- and we have seen our economy be taken over by usurers, robbers, and crooks; we have seen our cities be eroded by both a corporate culture and an urban culture (often inextricably linked) that fosters death in the inner city, the suburbs, and the countryside; we have seen the family destroyed because there are no ties that bind them more than the progress and freedom of the individual. It is time for the Church, not only to speak of life together, but to live it. To Christ be the glory of a renewed, reconstructed, rejuvenated world.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

To Hell with Hell? Symposium Presentation

Below is the text of my presentation to the "To Hell with Hell?" Symposium. Some diveregences from this text were made during the presentation, especially towards the end. I hope you enjoy it. (NB: It is long.)
My topic is the current understanding of hell. That is, as I’m sure you can imagine, an impossibly large topic. For every ten people, there are 11 views of hell. So, for this presentation I will concentrate on the biblical, historical, and cultural background to Mr. Bell’s understanding as a help into understanding our own. As will hopefully be seen, Mr. Bell is not arising out of a vacuum, but out of a long tradition of questioning and thinking that does go back centuries. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Without possibly knowing all the influences behind him, Bell digs deep and yet goes farther than those before him. Whether we follow him or not is another story. What we can learn from him (and there are many things that can be learned) is how our own cultural and historical setting influence our thinking: no one theology totally comprehends the afterlife, or God Himself – no one human or human system can aspire to such great heights without itself being truly in the depth of an idolatrous hell. We shall return to think about our own views towards the end.

In C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, an odd scene unfolds when the young servant of the false god Tash, Emeth by name, is found to be in the New Narnia:
Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.

"Then he breathed upon me and took away the trembling from my limbs and caused me to stand upon my feet. And after that, he said not much, but that we should meet again, and I must go further up and further in. Then he turned him about in a storm and flurry of gold and was gone suddenly.

Each of the semesters that I have taught this text, students inevitably chafe at this scene. “Isn’t this teaching justification by works?” is a common rejoinder. I understand that reaction, but I think it may be beside the point (for some, however, that is always the point); instead, Lewis here is not focused on the fate of the moral infidel, but rather on the character of God. The question that I ask my students in return is: what is the nature of the God we serve? How do we understand Him in light of His name (ehyeh asher ehyeh – I will be what I am, underscoring the freedom and constancy of God) and His revealed nature (God is love)? Mr. Bell is asking this same question.

It is my task today, not to demean Mr. Bell’s position, nor to defend it. I have been asked to define it – not in the dictionary sense of the word, although I think there is a very particular word for his belief that I will investigate. Instead, I am to set the stage, much like the Chorus in Romeo and Juliet, to place before us not the whole of the play, but to situate us in Verona, to introduce us to the warring Montagues and Capulets, to warn us ahead of time that the lovers are, indeed, star-crossed.

The cover of Mr. Bell’s book gives the impression that the contents concern “heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.” While this is true enough, it is somewhat misleading as well (I do not place this fault upon Mr. Bell; often writers have no control over either the title or subtitles of their books). It is similar to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (this is what happens when a Humanities professor is asked to speak at a symposium!): the title itself leads the reader to think that the book is about Dracula. However, and this is a spoiler – the book has been in print for at least a couple of years now, when Dracula is killed the battle takes up not much of a page. It simply isn’t important. The reader, when confronted with this, must ask themselves: what was this story really about? I’ll let you decide concerning Dracula. For Mr. Bell, “heaven and hell,” while being major issues (Dracula was, after all, a major character in that story) are only the precursory issues to the real event, the question: who is God?

But there is more to this question than initially meets the eye. Mr. Bell, as a consequence of his postmodern style and thought process, revives an ancient way of thinking about God and doing theology: the practice of apophaticism. Apophaticism is sometimes called the “way of negation:” it is a way of understanding God, not by saying what God “is,” but what God is not. The Creeds of ecumenical Christianity (the Apostles, the Nicene, the Athanasian, and I would add the Chalcedonian) are, in this way of reading them, not statements about what God is, but what He is not: He is not the Arian God, nor the Manichean, nor the Gnostic, nor the Mia- or Mono-physite. Instead, He remains beyond us and always out of our grasp. This last metaphor is important, since to have something (or someone) in our grasp means we have control of them, and when that is brought into the divine realm, that entails a belief in magic. Early Christianity, and I think Bell fits comfortably in this tradition, rejected the magical control over God by using theology as guidelines, not as propositions – God is too expansive, they would argue, to be controlled by our thought processes, but there is still truth that can lead us to Him – the economy of salvation. The apophatic way always must lead to an emphasis, not on what God is in Himself – not His essence, but rather on what He has done, especially in “Jesus Christ our Lord, who became man for us and for our salvation.” While we cannot fully comprehend God, we can know – have a covenanted relationship – with him because of what He has done and continues to do in Christ Jesus.

If we understand God by seeing, primarily, what God is not, we may get to the question at hand: what sort of god does Bell not believe in? Here is where the important bits of his thought about hell come into play:
“Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number ‘make it to a better place’ and every other single person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?
Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?” (Bell 2)
While just in the first pages of the book, these are the questions that reverberate all the way through. These questions give us an insight into the kind of god Bell is rejecting (the language of ‘rejection’ is not too harsh here, as Bell says on page 182, “Have nothing to do with that God”). The god that Bell rejects is one that creates “billions” of his creatures with no other intention than to plunge them into everlasting agony, despair, and torture. He rejects a god who gives a fiction of free choice, while deciding before to cast into hell for sins that they could not help but commit (for who has resisted his will?). Bell ably describes it thus:
Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormentor who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony (Bell 174).

And so, as all good apophatic theologians must do, Bell returns to the economy of salvation to understand what God should be believed in, should be followed, should be worshipped, should be “glorified and enjoyed forever.” It is here that he sees Jesus, not as angry judge, not as helpless victim, not as good moral example, but as God incarnate, doing what God incarnate does – love. Returning to the previous quote, what sort of God “goes great lengths to have a relationship with them,” that is, is incarnate of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, and rose again on the third day, and then promptly turns around and says: “Too late!”? The very economy of salvation, of Christ becoming what we are, so that we might become what he is, as Irenaeus said, militates against that.

It is here that the Biblical background comes into view. Much of Bell’s critique swells around an old Calvinist question: is God able to save? I put it that way because I’ve heard many amateur theologians confront their ostensibly Arminian friends about this: if the atonement is not limited to God’s elect, why doesn’t He save everyone? Is He not powerful enough to do so? Bell affirms that God is all-powerful and His will shall be done: the question becomes “what is God’s will?” For this, Bell relies on I Timothy 2:1-7:
Therefore, I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men: for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle – I am speaking the truth in Christ and not lying – a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
The will of God, which shall be done on earth as it already is in heaven, is for “all men to come to the knowledge of the truth” for Christ “gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.” This God is “good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” (Ps. 145, Bell 101), His anger “lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime” (Ps. 30), so that already God’s self-revelation in Exodus 34 (“The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation”), this revelation is qualified by the shortness of God’s anger. Three to four generations is hardly “everlasting.”

There are other passages, both explicit and implicit, that Bell draws on. These are often the head-scratching passages, such as I John 2:2, “he himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole word” or Matthew 12:31, “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men.” Matthew 25, which seems to be in the background to the Lewis piece read earlier, also comes into play. Here we see the Son of Man judging between the sheep and the goats, the sheep going into eternal joy, the goats into eternal destruction. Note that the “nations” – the Gentiles! – who did not know they were serving Christ are ushered into the Kingdom, not Christians who are looking for Jesus’ face in the widow, orphan, stranger, and prisoner.

While there can (and should) be many objections to Bell’s reading of the economy, I must leave that to the able hands of Dr. Shidemantle: I am just setting the scene. But this introduction to the real question is vital. The uproar over this book should not concern the specifics of Bell’s doctrine of hell, nor do I think it really does. Frankly, we do not have enough information to make adequate judgments about the details of the damned afterlife. Maybe Meatloaf does, but he returns us to Mr. Bell, since he “would do anything for love.” Instead, the uproar over this book concerns our conceptions of who God is, what He has done in the economy of salvation, and how that applies to all of world history, especially the parts of Christendom.

Bell’s views on the afterlife, both heaven and hell, flow out of his belief concerning God. It is important to mention, as he does throughout the book, that his views are not of his own invention: they are, in fact, ancient. He says, “In the third century the church fathers Clement of Alexandria and Origen affirmed God’s reconciliation with all people. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa and Eusebius believed this as well” (107). The view, though he does not use the word, is known as apokatastasis. Instead of hell being a punitive place of torture, it has a pedagogic and purifying function, as least in the case of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and, possibly, Gregory of Nazianzus. For each of these writers – all of whom are well respected among the Fathers – the main issues are the image of God, the telos (purpose) of the incarnation, and the nature of God. While they all have difference, they share these common foundations.

We tend to think of the image of God as what we were created in, but have lost. For the early writers, the image of God is what has been restored in Christ and what will be totally restored as people are incorporated into the body of Christ, who is the image of God. Man, as mankind without remainder, has been made in that image, so man, as mankind without remainder, must be remade in that image. For this reason did God become man. “Coming in human nature to restore humanity, he spread out his holy bodily form to the ends of the earth and gathered mortals and formed them into one. He placed this one into the arms of the great Godhead after he had washed away all stain with the blood of the Lamb and, as leader of mortal humanity, lifted them up on the path to heaven” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Carmina). The very telos of the incarnation was not merely to deal with sin, for that would leave man basically as he was ontologically; rather, the purpose was to raise man to a new height, higher than Adam himself, through the resurrection of the body in union with Christ. That is must happen to all stems from their reading of I Corinthians 15:22 “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.” The nature of the God who is doing this, then, could not want to torment His image eternally, but rather would want to purify it. For those who come by faith to the Christ, this purification happens in this life. For those who do not, it seems that hell is their lot, until they are purified – here we should see the beginnings of the doctrine of purgatory. In fact, the doctrine of apokatastasis is often called the “purgatorial” view of hell. All the writers, including Bell, shy away from saying that hell shall one day be emptied: a view that was condemned by the Council of Constantinople in 543AD: “If anyone says or holds that the punishment of the demons and of impious men is temporary, and that is will have an end at some time, or that there will be a complete restoration (apokatastasis) of demons and impious men, anathema sit.” The hope that is held out, though, is that maybe the mercy of God will win out over His judgment, as James (2:13) tells us, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Hell is meant, not to punish, but to educate and finally restore the soul that was recalcitrant during life. Whether or not it is successful depends on what one thinks of the relation between God’s will and man’s will. It is obvious that if the god is a puppet-master, then none of this matters: human freedom is an illusion. This is a god that Bell does not believe in. Yet, he retains an interesting strain of predestinarian thought: Love Wins. In the end, God gets His way, His “will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Even the most hardened of sinful wills came be wooed, swayed, and persuaded by this mighty and loving God.

In the midst of all this comes the problem of time and eternity. As noted before, Bell is particularly reluctant to have anyone sent to “billions and billions of years” of torture and torment. Instead, he presents hell (and, it could be argued, heaven) as a state of mind. At this point, it is helpful to see that he recommends C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. This delightful story concerns a man who has dreamed (much in the tradition of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) of being in Hell and in Heaven, watching the interactions between the various inhabitants thereof. Much of the story is conversations between the Bright (or Solid) People – those in bliss – and the Ghosts – those either in Purgatory or Hell itself. The poet George Macdonald acts as Lewis’ Beatrice (for those of you who know Dante’s Divine Comedy), explaining the strange sights and experiences the narrator encounters. At a certain point, Macdonald begins to unravel, ever so slightly, the mystery of hell, heaven, time, eternity, and the fate of every person who has ever lived. I quote at length:
“Not only this valley but all this earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in that town, but all their life on earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell. That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say ‘Let me but have this and I’ll take the consequences’: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say, ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.”
He goes on to speak of the conditions of pride, hubris, and navel gazing that characterize the damned and will continue to do so eternally. The narrator asks about the saved, then, and elicits this response:
“Ah, the Saved…what happens to them is best described as the opposite of a mirage. What seemed , when they entered it, to be the vale of misery turns out, when they look back, to have been a well; and where present experience saw only salt deserts memory truthfully records that the pools were full of water.”
To this the narrator responds, “Then those people are right who say Heaven and Hell are only states of mind?”
“Hush,” said he sternly. “Do not blaspheme. Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakable remains.”
In other words, Heaven is the true reality. For God’s will “to be done on earth as it is in heaven” means that God’s reality is the true reality, our reality either conforms to Him through union with His Son and so can be heaven, or maybe better, eternal life even now, or it deforms from God into a shadowy existence hardly worth calling existence at all. This being away from man’s telos, his ultimate goal of union with God in Christ, is the worst torment of all. It involves becoming more and more fully what one had started to become during physical life; all the inhabitants of “hell town” hate each other and themselves, moving further and further away from one another and the celestial bus that could ferry them over to the other side, until night falls and darkness covers all.

Both Bell and Lewis work within similar understandings of the afterlife at this point, especially the idea that we become what we were in life (although Bell is less clear about this than Lewis). Part of this revolves around the idea that in death humans cease to be in time, even though we cannot properly imagine such a state (we are, in this life, necessarily time-bound creatures and can only think in such terms). Eternity, then, is less a quantity of moments as it is a quality of life. The thinking stretches back to Boethius in the sixth century. For him, as well as many other Christian philosophers and theologians, God exists and acts in the Now, the moment that contains all moments of what we call past, present, and future. This is why asking what God did before the creation of the world makes no sense: there is no before “in the beginning” – for there is no time. Instead, the quality of being fully oneself, which is what God is, is what is given to us through Christ (note here that Boethius, although he uses heavily philosophical language, is not far off from the Eastern Gregories): we have “eternal life” both now and after death. For those who do not place their trust in the Son, though, who insist on the primordial Augustinian sin of selfish pride, they are already dead, under judgment, under the wrath of God. Whether that it an everlasting – in the temporal sense – state of being is unclear, but quality-wise it is eternal, total, unrelenting. It reminds one of the parable of the wheat amongst the tares: while they look similar for a time, eventually they show their true colors, and then are divided according to what they, by nature, are and have always been.

This brings us to Bell’s most extended exposition of Scripture: the tale of the prodigal son. The party that is thrown when the prodigal returns is like Heaven, with both the damned and the saved there. The saved, knowing they have nothing to offer, are invited in; the damned, even though they have been in possession of the party all along, refuse to come in and so lose all. The attention is not focused on the choice of the saved – the choice there was to base service, but instead glory was given – but on the choice of the damned. Here, then, Bell is not presenting a stereotyped Arminian theology: the saved are not saved by their “choice” to accept Jesus, but by the love of the Father. The damned, however, are damned by their own choice because they cannot humble themselves enough to be in the Father’s love – even being in His presence is a hateful thing.
“[The elder brother’s] problem is his ‘goodness.’ His rule-keeping and law-abiding confidence in his own works has actually served to distance him from his father…Our badness can separate us from God’s love, that’s clear. But our goodness can separate us from God’s love as well” (186-7).
Here Bell engages in a trenchant critique very similar to that of Karl Barth. Barth claimed that Jesus was the Aufhebung of religion. In the larger Church Dogmatics this is mistranslated as “abolition” or “destruction.” Instead, it means that religion – our response to God – must undergo death, so that it might be purified through resurrection. In other words, our religion must be transfigured if it is to be true:

Our relation to God is ungodly. We suppose that we know what we are saying when we say ‘God.’ We assign to Him the highest place in our world: and in so doing we place Him fundamentally on one line with ourselves and with things. We assume that He needs something: and so we assume that we are able to arrange our relation to Him as we arrange our other relationships. We press ourselves into proximity with Him: and so, all unthinking, we make Him nigh unto ourselves. We allow ourselves an ordinary communication with Him, we permit ourselves to reckon with Him as though this were not extraordinary behavior on our part. We dare to deck ourselves out as His companions, patrons, advisers, and commissioners. We confound time and eternity. This is the ungodliness of our relation to God. And our relation to God is unrighteous. Secretly we are ourselves the masters in this relationship. We are not concerned with God, but with our own requirements, to which God must adjust Himself. Our arrogance demands that, in addition to everything else, some super-world should also be known and accessible to us….And so, when we set God upon the throne of the world, we mean by God ourselves. In ‘believing’ on Him, we justify, enjoy, and adore ourselves. Our devotion consists in a solemn affirmation of ourselves and of the world and in a pious setting aside of the contradiction. Under the banners of humility and emotion we rise in rebellion against God.

Bell’s critique of our understanding of who God is is an act of Aufhebung, an attempt to show that many times those of us engaged in theology and ministry worship our mental constructs, our ways of semi-magically controlling God, so that we might have the control. All those who have any experience in ministry know the temptation to take control, know the need for certitude instead of mystery, know that sometimes God does not act in ways we prefer nor in time frames that are suitable. For Bell and for Barth, this is a fatal toxicity: the real rationale behind it is not a true understanding of God – who apophatically is always beyond our grasp – but a desire to be god ourselves. It is the primordial sin. “Our goodness can separate us from God’s love as well.”

It is at this point that Bell’s rhetoric combines all three historical and cultural strains we have been investigating. “As obvious as it is, then, Jesus is bigger than any one religion. He didn’t come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day. He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called ‘Christianity’” (150). The human tendency is to create idols, idols in our own image and idols that suit our agendas, to which we ascribe the names of Yahweh, Jesus, the Trinity, and other “cages and labels.” Instead, Jesus takes our sin-limited view, and transfigures it continually: it is always under judgment, being purified by God’s fire, so that it might be a true response to the mystery that is the event of Jesus Christ. Here his exegesis takes on an original stance concerning John 14. The much beloved passage, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” is often used to say, in effect: if you don’t follow our way (you don’t belong to the right church, you don’t believe the right theology, you don’t pray this prayer, etc.), you cannot come to the Father – because we are Jesus’ representatives. Instead, Bell turns the traditional understanding on its head: it is a passage, not of hubris, but of humility:
“What [Jesus] doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him” (154).
That is, we don’t hold the key to Jesus, Jesus holds the key to the Father. Our response to God, even our response of faith and obedience, must go through Jesus – through death and out the other side through resurrection – is they are to be pleasing and acceptable to God.

This does present us with a difficulty: Bell intentionally is placing us in the position of the elder brother looking on as the party is starting. If we don’t have our theologies to give us certitude, or our liturgies, or our experience, what do we have? We have Christ, who has “become man for us and our salvation.” We have access, because of Christ and Christ alone, to God the Father who gives us His very Spirit – His life! – so that we might have communion with Him. The ever-present and ever-true testimony of this is the Scriptures, but we must always – with the Spirit’s help – resist the urge to turn the Bible, or our worship, or our experience into an idol with which to close off Christ to the rest of the world: to do so would be to repeat the error of the Judaizers, an error that we are too often prone to repeat.

Regardless of what we think of Bell’s position, the question posed by him is this: have we rightly understood God? Are we worshipping the Creator of the universe, who in His self-revelation shows us that He is love, His mercy is everlasting, His anger lasts but a moment, and is willing to die for us to live? And not us only, but also for the whole world? Or are we worshipping and following an idol? Here is where the story of the painting from chapter two comes into play. The culture we make is a reflection of what we truly believe, but it also shapes what we can believe. Here are some paintings of hell from throughout the years: how have they shaped not only what we think of the afterlife, but who God is? The task in front of us today in this symposium and outside in our lives and ministries is: what God are we presenting in our catechesis and our evangelism? Are we getting our doctrine of the afterlife from the Bible or from somewhere else? Much hinges on this question. Time does not allow us to look deeply into some of the “classic” hell sermons, such as Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” or John Wesley’s “On Hell.” But it is clear that, at least as far as Bell is concerned, the traditional understanding of hell – whatever that turns out to be – has not fully integrated all the Biblical data and stands in need of, at least, readjustment. Bell would argue, it is clear, that readjustment may not be enough, but rather a complete overhaul is needed. I leave it to the other presenters to tackle that claim. We need an Aufhebung of our religion, of our ministries, to fully take on the issues that confront us today. There are two phrases that I’d like to leave you with, one theological and one from the humanities. The first is the oft quoted motto of the Reformation: “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei,” which means “the Church reformed, always reforming according to the Word of God” – the “secundum verbum Dei” is often left off, but it is the most important piece. Since Christ is the Word of God, he is the one reforming us according to his Scriptural word. We must return to the Scriptures for wisdom and guidance. This will require us to take up the old standards of Scripture memorization and chanting, so that the people of God at any age may be equipped to serve. The second phrase is from the Renaissance: “ad fontes,” which means “to the sources.” Evangelical and Reformed Christianity has long shied away from the sources of our faith, the Church Fathers and the early Councils (not to mention the wealth of medieval sources). It is time, as we rethink these issues, to come to terms with what our faith is really about, what has “been believed everywhere, always, and by all,” as Vicent of Lerins advises us. We may start in the seedbed of our own traditions, whether that is Bonar, or Wesley, or Cranmer, or Calvin, or Luther, or Ratzinger. From there, we can progress back to the great masters of faith such as Bernard of Clairvoux (Calvin’s favorite monastic) or Francis of Assisi. Irenaeus and Ignatius, early bishops, will help draw us closer to the Scriptures as well. Bell’s challenge, in the end, is not for us to give up our doctrines and theologies, but to reexamine them – to be Bereans who search the Scriptures and the Tradition: to bring our own faiths through the death of Christ into his glorious resurrection light.

Much more, of course, could be said about the scene in fair Verona. Bell’s combination of apophaticism, apokatastasis, and aufhebung gives us much to think on. Many will not follow his conclusions as far as he does, but even one of my very Reformed friends said the other day, “I hope Bell is right.” As much as we talk about God, and claim to have His very mind, we are human: beset by sin and limited (thank God!) by our own finite existence. In the end, we rely on God’s character and nature, set forth in the Scriptures, in the person of Jesus Christ whom the Scriptures testify, and in the Spirit that is promised to “guide into all truth.” This is what we have: this is all that we need.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Real Predestination

I've written elsewhere about the primacy of worship in the theological enterprise, rather than straight rationality. Whereas Aristotle might say (depending on translation) that man is a "social" or "political" animal, and whereas many college students might say that man is a "party" animal, I think the Biblical definition is inescapble that man is, at his core, a worshipping being (my apologies for the male-centric language -- no offense is intended). The effect of this on theology is at least two-fold: we can only understand the mysteries of the Christian faith (and there is much irreducible complexity) by worshipping and theology that is understood in worship is inherently historicized. The latter point is what I wish to attend to now (although the former is very vital -- if my book of Chalcedonian faith ever gets written, I'll be dealing with that).

What is meant by "historicized theology" is theology that is relevant for the life of the Church. Or, to put it negatively, historicized theology is the opposite of philosophical theology. Many in the Calvinist Tradition (the "Geneva Rite," I suppose), end up worshipping a philosophical God, especially concerning the doctrine of predestination. We talk about the "eternal decree" and the "double will" of God, about the necessity of reprobation, and other things that are, frankly, more philosophical than Biblical (to be clear, they are derived from the text, not necessarily imposed from an outside system). Predestination, then, gets turned into a caricature such as can be seen in Love Wins by Rob Bell, which he bases his whole argument against. In the end, this "god of the philosophers" ends up producing a very troubling sort of theologian (I should know, I've been through this ghastly "phase"): an arrogant know-it-all who, instead of being humbled by God's grace, cannot wait to shove the esoteric knowledge down the unsuspecting Arminian's (or whatever) throat.

What might a "historicized" predestination look like? Consider Romans 8. Here (St.) Paul is discussing God's plan for the world through Jesus the Messiah -- the restoration of all creation into the "liberty of the sons of God." A beautiful picture. It is this picture that is capped with Paul's great assertion that God has "predestined [us] to be conformed to the image of His Son." That is, God is remaking the world right now, God is remaking us right now, God is going to do it through this strange and wonderful collusion of His love, His justice, and His power. And, He's given us His Spirit so that we can fruitfully tag along. Instead of the abstract, eternal decree, Paul seems to be describing predestination as a very this-worldy phenomenon (whether the plan originated before or after the Fall seems to be quite beside the point), the brunt of which is this: God is doing this great work, He's equipped you to be a part of it, don't you want to orient your life and the life of your community correspondingly?

Here is where worship comes in. We do not worship a remote, far-off god who, even if he could hear prayers it would not matter; instead, we worship the God who created the world "and everything in it" and who is actively remaking the eagerly-waiting world, who gives His Spirit now to us so that we might join Him, and who guarantees success in the endeavor. There are no words that can truly express the worship that bubbles up in me when this Gospel is proclaimed -- thank God for the Psalms and liturgy, to supply my dumbstuckness with a voice! "Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim Your praise!" This worship, then, this moment where the Spirit joins the community in union with the Messiah, sends us out into that "eagerly waiting" world to hear the news that its captivity has ended, its sins have been paid for, and it is time for the "seasons of refreshing to come."

Even so, come Lord Jesus.