Tuesday, October 20, 2015

St Paul and Baptism: An Early Foray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Atonement and Iconicity

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

The Exodus Motif

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

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

The Wrath of the Liberator

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

While We Were Yet Sinners

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

Baptism and Death

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

The Continuing Wrath?

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

Concluding Remarks

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

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Sermon: Mark 10:17-31

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

Sermon: Mark 10:17-31

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

More on Reprobation and Damnation

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

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

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