Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Penalty of our Sins

Today, in church, I heard a commonplace of Reformed preaching:

"Jesus paid the penalty of our sins on the Cross."

I've heard this innumerable times in my ecclesial existence, and taken it as face value, for doesn't St Paul say in Romans that "the wages of sin are death" (6:23)?  The "penalty," as understood under the constraints of the "Penal Substitution Atonement" theory (PSA) is eternal hell (even though St Paul says that it is death.  The argument that Jesus suffered the "second death" of Revelation on the Cross or in the grave fails to have any Scriptural or Patristic support, being rather a theological necessity of the Reformed tradition instead of biblically based.  Sola Scriptura, again, fails in practice).  There are some assumptions being brought into this text that need to be examined, however.

One of the assumptions is that the relationship between God and humankind is basically legal: as long as the right things are done, and the wrong things left undone, everything is copacetic.  If not, an appropriate punishment is meted out to set things right or restore the upended balance.  Humans were created by God with capacity to sin, but not the necessity; after the Fall, we necessarily sin.  Since we necessarily sin (enshrined in that most unfortunate translation of sarx as "sinful nature"), God necessarily must mete out punishment to redress the wrong: anything less would be unjust and God is, essentially, just (since, as St Augustine taught, God's simple essence must be His attributes).  However, since God loves (and, to take back what I just said, His love is antithetical to His justice...somehow this does not upset the divine nature), He must satisfy His justice not on us (unless we are not of the elect), but on His Son (who, according to the Reformed tradition, is the elect one).  God the Father, then, punishes God the Son to eternally restore the balance (only for the elect): since Christ's divine nature is eternal, the satisfaction is eternal as well, meaning we are free of the "wrath of God" in perpetuity.  The wrath, paradoxically, only lasts for (at most) three days, hardly eternal, but the effect of it is eternal.  (A quick side-bar question: since God's justice needs infinite satisfaction, is God the Son eternally/infinitely judged/punished by the Father?  How does one accomplish the necessarily infinite in an extremely finite space of time?)  All this to say that our relationship to God is basically legal.  Christ is our mediator, to be sure, but He mediates between the demands of God's Law and us -- it is only if we make the assumption that God's Law is Himself that we actually have a relationship with the Father.  Our relationship necessarily has a double mediation: Christ Himself and the Law, with Christ taking on a decidedly secondary character (this gets even more confusing when we realize that Christ is the Word of God to which the Law acts iconically).  Is this assumption legitimate?  Is it biblical?  Does it reveal Christ Himself?

This is not to say that there isn't a legal element to our relationship with God -- the question of what legality would be to the ancient Hebrews and the later Greco-Roman society needs to be probed, as it seems that their understandings of legality would not necessarily be so dispassionate and detached as ours are (supposed to be).  However, to say that "Jesus paid the penalty of our sins" is to place not the possibility of juridicial understandings of atonement on the table, but rather to say that they are the main (if not only) course.  We've sinned; God is angry and requires justice (understood rather narrowly as satisfaction from wrongs); Christ placates the Father.  Then what?  It is at this point that most of the preaching and teaching I've heard stumbles: we Reformed have no great emphasis on union with Christ (no matter if it does appear prominently in Calvin), we have no theosis, we have no beatific vision.  In fact, we stumble as to the place of sanctification or even if it is possible.  If the primary relation between God and man is legal and not ontological, then once the legal problem is solved we have reached the nature climax of the relationship.  This may explain why some evangelical churches have folks go up week after week for altar calls: during the week the relationship is broken and so must be amended using the prescribed formula.  Holiness is looked at as "good works," since, as a pastor friend of mine recently said, "We are naturally legalists, looking to gain our own salvation."

The second assumption concerns the use of the word "penalty."  I had trouble, listening to the sermon, determining which Hebrew and Greeks words might be translated as such.  (This isn't saying much, of course; my training in the languages is now over a decade old).  I went for some research this afternoon to find out.  I tried the NKJV and came up basically empty-handed, so I turned to that evangelical standby, the NIV.  Since translations act as silent Magisteria, it makes sense to see how they use English to convey Hebrew and Greek concepts.  Some of the instances I'm leaving to the side (such as the ones in Proverbs, where the word could easily be translated as "consequence"), if you have the urge to look through those, I'd be happy to hear your thoughts.

The first significant instance comes in Leviticus 5, where sacrifice for sin is discussed.  In verse 6, the NIV has: "as a penalty for the sin they have committed..." and then lists what is necessary to affect their atonement.  However, the word used for "penalty" is a technical word in Leviticus that does not mean "penalty" -- it means "guilt" or "guilt-offering."  A better translation, starting from verse 5, would be: "And it shall be, when he is guilty [asham] in any of these [sins listed in 5:1-4], that he shall confess that he has sinned in that matter and he shall bring his guilt [asham] to the Lord for his sin which he has committed: a female from the flock, a lamb, or a kid of the goats as a sin offering [chattat]."  Here the awkwardness of older translations (where asham is translated as "guilt-" or "trespass-" offering) is avoided (there is only one, not two distinct types of offerings being required), plus the action of the sinner is made clear: he is to formally repent in the presence of the Lord at the Temple.  He could "confess that he has sinned in that matter" without the cultus, but if he wants atonement he must make the trek to Shiloh or Jerusalem (depending on time in history) and make the public confession and sacrifice -- he must "bring his guilt" to the Lord.  To translate asham as "penalty" here misses the point, especially as it is reaching back to Genesis 3, where God calls Adam and Eve before Him to confess their guilt and so find some measure of restoration (which, as is well known, they fail miserably at, falling into recrimination of the other and of God: yet still here God acts in mercy, providing for them "skins," the first chattat, or animal sacrifice for sins).  Leviticus uses the word asham many times, either as guilt itself or possibly as a "guilt offering," usually reserved for atonment of sacrilege.  While it would take much more space and time than I have here, this is one of the clues that should show us that the Temple itself is not primarily a legal institution, but rather a participatory-sacramental one: the whole point of the Temple cultus is theotic, the dwelling of God with and in man, as St Paul starts to unpack throughout his epistles.

Job 8:4 is another example: "When your children sinned against Him, he gave them over to the penalty of their sin."  The word here for "penalty" is not asham, but "yad" which means "hand" and, by extension, "power."  There is an Exodus motif (if I might be a bit anachronistic) at work here: Bildad is arguing that when Job's children sinned, God gave them into the power of that sin.  Or, in other words, the argument in Romans 1:18-32.  In that chapter, St Paul is showing how the "wrath of God" works: God gives people what they want, which leads to death since they have detached themselves from the Source of Life.  This does reveal an important, and often neglected, part of biblical atonement theology: sin is not just something we do, but a mode of existence from which we cannot extricate ourselves.  Once we are in bondage to sin, and we are born into said bondage, we need a Deliverer to redeem us and overlook our actions during that time period of bondage (for how could we do anything but act out that mode of existence?): in other words, we need an Exodus.  God did give Adam and Eve over to the power of their sin, over to the Devil, as was their acted-out wish.  He even warned them what would happen: "on the day you eat of it, you will be liable to death" (the construction of "you shall surely die" in Hebrew is "dying you shall die," which in cases of warning or legal sanction imply liability, not necessity).  Since then, we have all shared in the corruption of Adam (mortality and bondage to the power of sin), needing to be rescued from it.  This is exactly what has happened on the Cross.  The death of the Firstborn allows us to escape, with our past sins and corruptions being deluged in the Red Sea/font of baptism.  Whenever the concept of the "power of sin/death/the Devil" is introduced, it is never accompanied by punishment of those needing redemption, or their Redeemer.

Ezekiel 23:49, however, might be the verse we've been waiting for: "You will suffer the penalty for your lewdness and bear the consequences of your sins of idolatry."  However, a more literal translation calls this into question: "And they shall give to you your lewdness and you shall bear the sins of your idols."  Again, the meaning is less juridicial (although here it does in fact occur as a lawsuit) and more along the lines of what was just discussed concerning Job 8:4.  The prophet, bearing God's word, is telling the people what the natural consequences are for turning away from Life: death.  What they sow, in this case "lewdness," they shall also reap: as sexual sins turn the process of life-creation into degradation and humiliation, so their lives shall be degraded through conquest (here metaphorically imaged as stoning -- an interest use by Ezekiel, which brings out the point of capital punishment in the Torah: it is an eschatological enactment at the present time of the inevitable consequences of private and communal turning from God).  The image of "bearing" is also vital, as humankind is imagined as beings who bear something, whether the "name of God" (Ex. 20:7 -- the word "take" is "bear") or the "sins of your idols."  I need to do more work on this, as the importance of the concept is not fully fleshed out yet in my understanding.

The point, I think, is becoming clear: if our atonement theories do not have at their root the Exodus, they are most likely out of sync with what is revealed -- as powerful as the readings of Anselm, Augustine, and Calvin can be, they are not necessarily accurate interpretations of the Bible or the Faith.

This takes us, again, to Romans 1.  When St Paul is discussing the consequences of turning from God ("being given over" further to the power of sin), he says that the active homosexual (not necessarily one who suffers from a distorted passion, but a practicer) "received in themselves the due penalty for their error" (v. 27).  The word here for "due penalty" is antimisthia, a word St Paul uses only twice in his whole corpus (in fact, it is only in Paul that the word appears in the NT): the other being chapter 4:4 ("Now to him who works, the antimisthia are not counted as grace, but as debt.")  Douglas Campbell, in The Deliverance of God, proposes an alternate translation that makes better sense of the context: "when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation" (327).  This hearkens back to 1:27 rather strikingly: if righteousness is something that is procured by ways of "works of Torah" as an obligation, as an effect from a cause, then they are not grace but necessity, just as a person's paycheck comes necessarily from their labor at a shop.  What those in chapter 1 receive is the "obligation" or "paycheck" of their error, the natural consequence, which again is death, "those who practice such things are deserving of death" (1:32).  The legal concept of penalty is strikingly absent once again.


When we says something like "Jesus paid the penalty of our sins on the Cross" we must exercise great caution: the assumptions under such a statement are freighted and not necessarily biblical.  Certainly, there is a very real sense in which the statement is true: sin leads inexoriably to death, Jesus died so that death might not claim any more, therefore Jesus "paid the penalty."  However, this does not "satisfy the demands of justice" (a phrase, and concept, absent from the Scriptures), rather it shows the justice of God who delivers those who call on His Name.  He delivers and sets right (justifies) those who place their allegiance (faith) in Him, not holding any of their past against them, but calling them to a different mode of existence (holiness, which is not a 'moral' state, but a sacremental state of God indwelling us -- Rom. 5:5).  This is, I would argue, the controlling atonement metaphor in Scripture through which all legal and juridical language must be understood.  Applying this to, say, Romans, produces a very different picture of God as Judge: He is not judging us generally, but sin/death/the Devil who have illicitly laid claim to us and enslaved us.  Those who cling to Christ and share in His death through faith and baptism are freed/redeemed from their pharonic power, which those who reject this Exodus share in the "wrath" and "condemnation" meted out against the oppressors by the Cross and the Resurrection.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Weak Christians?

I see a lot of memes floating around that say something like, "Don't think I'm strong because I go to church -- I'm weak and in need of a Savior."  I understand the sentiment, but the underlying theology is all wrong: it assumes that we can get along, but will do so only weakly.  God is like a protein shake or a five-hour energy.

What we have seemingly forgotten is that a car without gas isn't weak, nor a toaster unplugged from the wall, nor an animal without food or drink. They aren't weak, they are either unable, or dead. They are meant to be powered by something external to themselves. Calling them weak is a misuse of terminology: we aren't weak and so need a Savior, we were meant to be filled with Life, with God, and so only operate for a short span (70, or 80 by reason of strength) without that indwelling.

As I insinuated with the animals, this shouldn't surprise us: our biological life depends on the gift of external nourishment.  As we withdraw from that we certainly do get weak, but to be devoid of it is to be dead.  Our first sin involved food, our salvation likewise involves food: one brought death, the other confers Life (but this time not merely on the biological level).

Are are churches starving?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Saints Go to War

War is a constant reality of human life.  The question is not whether or not there will be war, but what is the necessary war.

In the United States, we tend to do our war from afar ("Safe! Rare! Legal!") and so have long believed that we are in a time of peace, relatively speaking.  We also have the rather na├»ve and conceited belief that we could never, as a people, devolve into the savagery we see in other nations' civil wars or ISIS.  Alas, we will someday put ourselves to shame.

In looking at the Old Testament, we see the nature of war: brutal, deadly, and often godless.  Petty and unjust.  But, even with that said, we must remember that it is God Himself who first formally declares war, based on the deceptive provocation of His enemy: "I shall put enmity between your seed and her Ssed..." (Gen. 3:15).  However, as should quickly become apparent, only God Himself is able to justly declare and prosecute war; even His holy servant Moses sometimes takes His commands and makes them unjust (for example, when Israel sins with Midian at Peor in Num. 25, the command is to "harass" them -- by the time we reach this in chapter 31, Moses commands his troops to kill all the males).

How, though, do we know that the war is just?  Just War Theory can function as a guide, but there is something more.  In the OT, the prophets often held the role of advisor to the political leaders (the judges themselves were often a combination prophet and magistrate), as they had stood in the Presence of the Just One and could definitively exposit His word on the matter.  What about today, though?  Who are the prophets we can consult?

My mind is directed towards places like Mt Athos in Greece, a place where men dedicate themselves to communion with God and so, sometimes, become wise.  What would they say?  My thought is that they would tell us the true nature of war is not against our own flesh-and-blood, our fellow humans, but against spiritual wickedness in high places.  Even our land-based military exploits are guided by those beings who wish to see us tear one another apart.

This raises an important and practical question: what if we actually devoted ourselves to prayer over the issues that cause us to war with one another?  Done trust the Spirit to work for reconciliation?  We must remember, of course, that reconciliation of enemies takes the shape of a Cross (Rom. 5:10) -- our passions, individually and corporately, must be put to death.  Even so, sometimes we may find ourselves needing to intervene or interpose for the protection of the weak, the widow, or the fatherless: we must do so with tears of lament over the damage to our fellow image-bearers and to the unavoidable fracture of our own souls.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Rereading Ephesians 1

In all my studying and thinking about predestination, I've tended to focus on Romans 8-11.  St Paul's definition of the relevant term preemptively in the first chapter of his epistle effected a rather techtonic shift in my thinking.  Ephesians 1, on the other hand, has long been a confusing and frustrating passage to me.  Try as I might, I've been unable to understand it in any way other than the traditional Reformed reading.  However, I've also been unsatisfied with that reading since my very Reformed pastor did a sermon series on the book: too much of Ephesians has to be read in other ways to make sense of it.  Did Paul go through a shift from the first chapter to the rest of the book?  How does the predestinating decree jive with his assertion that into Christ are being gathered all things (1:10)?

Aside from those things, there are various hiccoughs in the text itself that beg for exploration and evaluation.  The chief thereof, which has caused a "scales falling from my eyes" moment tonight, is the strange usage of pronouns in the first chapter.  The Aposte switches from "you (pl)" to "our" and back again in ways that make it difficult to tell who he is actually addressing at any given point.  The key, I think, lies in v. 12, where he states that the "we/us" he'd been talking about was, in fact, an exclusive group of people with an extraordinarily inclusive mission: "we who first trusted in Christ."  In itself, this is a rather strange statement from the Apostle who elsewhere describes himself as "one born out of due time" (1 Cor. 15:8): what he means will hopefully be clarified shortly.  Going back in the actual text, though, it starts to make sense of what he is saying and the possible meaning.

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ, just as He chose us ["we who first trusted"] in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having designated us before to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will..."

Seeing the "us" as the "first trusters" is made a bit more clear when we examine 2 Tim. 1:8-11:

"Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortaility to light [that is, He has been resurrected] through the gospel, to which I was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles."

Note the similarities between the two passages: both speak of being chosen/called "before the foundation of the world/before time began"; both talk about how this is God's purpose/the good pleasure of His will; both speak of the resurrection, Ephesians in terms of adoption (cf. Rom. 8:23), 2 Timothy in terms of the cosmic effects of such.  It isn't too far of a stretch to suggest that the Apostle is talking about the same thing in both passages.  For the Ephesians one, however, it necessitates a shift in how we understand what is being said: this predestination (which I translated as "designated before") is not exclusive to this "we/us" group, but is rather missional.  The whole point of selecting this group of people (the Apostles and their entourage fit the bill nicely for "we who first believed," especailly considering 3:5) is so that the "mystery of His will" could be revealed/passed onto those who would come after.  This starts to come out in v. 13, where Paul says "In Him you also trusted...".  This group of Ephesians, called saints, was not necessarily included in the "we/us" previously, but now is so that they themselves can take up the divine mission to "make known the manifold wisdom of God by the Church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose [to unite all things in Christ] which He accomplished in Christ Jesus" (3:10-11).

The language of predestination and election used in the first chapter, then, functions in a slightly different way than it did in Romans 8 (although I think the case could be made for an equivalence if the "foreknown" in 8:29 are the Jews, as they are in 11:2, more on this later), which makes sense considering Paul in Romans is seeking to "establish" the Church (1:11), whereas Ephesus has long been established and is ready for mission.  What the Saint is doing, then, is to press home the function of the apostolate and what happens next: the Church herself must start doing the work that Paul had been entrusted with.  In fact, he says that this mystery revealed to "we who first believed" of Gentile/all things inclusion has been his ministry (3:7), but that the apostles/prophets/evangelists/pastor-teachers who share it are to not hoard it, but "equip the saints [whom Paul is addressing this epistle to] for the work of the ministry" (4:11-12).  Just as Paul tells St Timothy to "guard the deposit entrusted to you," so he is telling the saints of Ephesus to do the ministry of the mystery.

Again, from the text itself, I think we can dispense with viewing predestination as an excluding concept and locate it firmly in the historical work of the Church for the sake of the world.  Hallelujah that our Lord saw fit to call certain men and women, as He had called Abraham, for this task: it has been passed down to us "until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory" (1:14).

The Telos of Predestination

I've argued before that Romans 1:4 is exegetically determinative for 8:28-30 (but not necessarily for Eph. 1); that is, when St Paul talks about those "foreknown" being "predestined," that which they are predestined for is established by Christ's designation as the Son of God by the Spirit via the resurrection.  In other words, Christ is made publically known ("with power") as "Son of God" by virtue of His resurrection: we are assured of our status as "sons of God" in the present time by the same Spirit, even though we await our resurrection ("the adoption" of 8:23).  He is designated Son now, we are "pre-"designated, which is a better translation of proorizo than the Latin praedestinatus.  

The goal of this pre-designation (we might call it justification) is for us to "be conformed to the image of [God's] Son" (8:29), which, I wish to argue, is another way of speaking about the resurrection.  In 1 Corinthians 15, St Paul sets off on a complicated argument about the necessity of Christ's resurrection for our salvation.  In verses 47-49, he ends up making the same argument he made in Romans 8, albeit without the language of pre-designation/justification (which should make us wonder about whether or not the Apostle considered language about justification as important as we, post-Reformation, do).

"The first man: of the earth, earthly; the second man: the Lord, from heaven.  As the earthy, so also those earthy; and as the heavenly, so also those heavenly.  And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly" (translation mine-ish).

The Apostle's analogies are terse, which I've tried to reflect in the translation.  In the context of the whole passage, St Paul is saying that the image of the heavenly is the resurrection (otherwise the inclusion of this syllogism into the argument makes no sense).  Adam was an imperfect reflection of God's Image (Christ), especially as he abandoned likeness to God and fell into mortality ("for all have fallen short of the Glory of God"); Christ, as the Image and known now only "according to the Spirit" (the self-same Spirit that designated Him "Son" by the resurrection), grants immortality ("a life-giving Spirit") in the form of a share in His resurrection.

Here's where things get strange: all humans will partake in the resurrection, but the effects of it will be different based on their status before God while on earth.  In Romans, the Saint regularly uses language that can be interpreted in a universalist manner: "as through one man's offense death [cf. 5:12, 17] came to all through one Man's righteous act came righteousness to all men, resulting in justification of life" (5:18 -- v. 19 is curious here, as Paul changes from "all men" in both Adam's case and Christ's, to "many", yet is proving the same point).  That is to say, all through the resurrection of Christ participate in His resurrection, yet for some that will lead to further death ("the second death" of Revelation) for they will not be ready for the vision of the Glory of God.  This seems to be the reason that Paul can speak in such universalist and such exclusivist terms.  It also frees the predestination discourses from the impasse put on them by Augustine and Calvin, as the way we experience our common predestination ("to be conformed to the image of the Son" or resurrection) is not dependent on some secret, pre-historical decree of God, but rather on faith -- which St Paul is famous for saying is the way we get saved in the first place.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Divine Reprobation and Human Sin

According to Richard Muller, in Christ and the Decree, Calvin believed that divine reprobation occurred as part and parcel of God's elective decree outside the bounds of human history (and understanding).  He quotes him at length: 

"As Scripture, then, clearly shows, we say that God once established by his own eternal and unchangeable counsel those whom he had determined once for all to receive into salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, he would devote to destruction.  We assert that, with respect to the elect, this counsel was founded upon his freely given mercy, without regard to human worth [emphasis mine]; but by his just and irreprehensible but incomprehensible judgment [emphasis mine] he has barred the door of life to those whom he has given over to damnation" (22).

A little later Muller says this:

" view of Calvin's emphasis on the knowledge of God, reprobation does not appear the exact coordinate of election.  It occurs apart from Christ [emphasis mine] and therefore apart from any mediated knowledge of God.  If those men who remain in the mass of perdition inquire into themselves they can only know their own sin and infer its penalty of damnation.  They cannot know of the decree of reprobation as a cause of their condition" (25).


"Calvin could state categorically that God had not 'necessitated the sin of men'" (24).

I'm a bit puzzled by all of this.  When I've asked pastors and teachers how it is just for God to damn to conscious eternal torment those whom He had chosen, not by their own merits but by His secret will, to be so condemned, the answer has always been: they justly deserve it because of their sin, which was freely chosen.  While I think that this can be gotten from what Muller has said about Calvin, I don't think it is logically necessary.  Since God has determined the destiny of the individual, but does not necessitate their sin, it is at least possible that a sinless human being could be condemned to Hell.  More than this improbability, though, is the fact that their sin has nothing to do with their reprobation or punishment: they are elected for damnation for no reason ascertainable by man, including sins of omission or commission.  The role of the conscience, then, is to provide a legal fiction for the damned to accept their predetermined fate.  There is no real, and can be no real, connection between the two, unless we were to posit that God predestined the righteous and so foreknows them, but foreknows the wicked and therefore predestines them.  This would, however, both introduce partiality into God and bifurcate the image of God (the reprobate could not reasonably be said to bear God's Image, Christ, since their destiny was determined "apart from Christ").

So, how is it just for God to damn to conscious eternal torment those whom He had chosen, not by their own merits but by His secret will, to be so condemned?  The only answer possible in this scheme is: it just is.  'Justice', in this case though, has no relation to the concept as it is presented in Scripture: there is partiality, it is not based on what has been done or not done in history, and it involves a verdict and sentencing to take place with no advocate/defense counsel.  In other words, Calvin will need not only to split the will of God into the revealed and the hidden, but also divide God's justice/righteousness into the same categories.  The frightening thing is that these wills and attributes need have no actual relation: the God revealed in the Scriptures does not need to be the same as the God who predestines.  While Muller is careful to say that Calvin always asserted that there is no God behind the revealed God, it is hard to see how his theological system does not necessitate such a terror.

Muller goes on to mention that, for Calvin, the Person of Christ and His Essence/Nature as the Eternal Son have no real relation either: His Personhood comes from the Father, but His divinity comes from Himself (autotheos).  How this makes any sense, or has any claim to Christian orthodoxy, is beyond my admittedly limited ken.  What it does allow for, though, is the same bifurcation in Christ Himself that we see in God's will and justice.