The Sweet Law

This post is specifically about an element of Lutheran theology that I find problematic.  For some, I believe, this will appear to be an attack on a central tenet of their faith.  It is not meant as an attack, but perhaps the beginning of a dialog.  For those who are not familiar with the Law/Gospel distinction, we may summarize it briefly to begin with.

In the Lutheran teaching of Law/Gospel, as I understand it, Law is defined as those teachings which convict, or command a person.  If a teaching places any weight whatsoever on a person, it is seen as Law.  Perhaps the epitome of the “law” teachings of the New Testament is “Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect”  (Mt 5:48).  Over and against this is “Gospel” that good news that God has done all things for you, and you need not do anything.  God has you well in hand, and your salvation is assured through your Baptism and Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Law treats things as if they are on your shoulders, Gospel reveals that they are really on God’s.

The problem with all of this is that the line between the believer and Christ is blurred so heavily in the New Testament, that these kind of distinctions are no longer valid.  While there is a distinction between the freedom of Christ and the Torah in the New Testament, there is no demonstrable theme of this kind of distinction between those things which call us to righteousness, and those things which reveal that such calls are already met by Christ.

Instead, there is a demonstrable theme of Christ’s commands revealing the life of God in the world.  Christ’s moral directives of the Sermon on the Mount culminate with the “Be ye perfect” line.  The whole of the Sermon on the Mount appears as Law in the Law/Gospel dichotomy, yet it stands as one of the centers of the Matthean account of Jesus’ public Ministry and teaching.  St. John has Jesus tell us that if we love Him, we will obey what He commands us.

The key thing to these and other passages is that these words are given in the context that the commands bring life and joy, not sorrow and weight that will be overcome by the Cross.  Christ is preaching Good News, and not Law in the sense of the Law/Gospel contrast.  In fact, it is very clear by a simple and plain reading of the Gospels that the Law of Christ is not opposed to the Gospel.  Christ is commanding us to live in ways that are liberating, life giving, and ultimately transforming.  The transformation that comes in obeying Christ is salvific in nature, turning us from the kingdom of death to the kingdom of Heaven.

In other words, the Law of Christ is the Gospel.

And we can see why this must be.  For God to command us to forgive is not a burden, though it may be hard in our fallen state.  It is good, it is “True” in the same way that the Hebrew writers said that the Torah is “True.”  One gets a sense of this from a section from Psalm 19:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.

In the Law/Gospel distinction, the law is anything but sweet.  It is a burden to the soul from which we are freed.  Christ has done all, we need not.  But is that really good news?

The question revolves around the character of God.  For a God who does not demand that His children be righteous is hardly a righteous God.  A God who says, oddly enough “I am righteous, therefore you need not be” (which is the logic inherent in the statement that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us) is hardly a God we should rejoice at having.  We may be glad when we want to do something rather shady, or when we consider the shady things we have done.  But we can hardly be glad overall.

But a God who will not let us merely live as sinners, but demands righteousness from us, who will descend to our own fallen nature and lift it back up with Him into the Godhead, who will infuse us with His own life so that we might be made righteous as co-workers with God…this is a God worth rejoicing over.  For all who have not simply been sinners, but the victims of sinners, must rejoice at a God who demands that all victimization stop.  It is not “Law” that says that we must love without limit, it is Gospel that demands it.  The Good news to the poor, the freedom to the slaves, is not merely that Christ has won the victory, but that that victory conquers all sin in all hearts everywhere; and that that conquest continues today in the heart of the person writing, and in the heart of the persons reading.

Ultimately, the real Gospel is a Gospel that in fact does call us to be righteous, and will not leave us unchanged.  It calls us to be transformed into the living images of the living God.

Now, a word must be said here about historical context.  Lutheranism appears in history as a response to the tortured conscience of many late medieval Christians bound up in the piety of their age.  It offered relief to the beleaguered heart who thought that her salvation depended on her good works.  The doctrines of this tradition still offer such rest to people suffering from the same ills.

However, the very question of earning one’s salvation, or not earning it, is not a question that has arisen in our modern age.  It is a question kept alive by the mere fact that much of protestantism has carried forward its original arguments against Catholicism and other branches of Protestantism into the modern day ripped from their contexts.  People, it seems, mainly worry about earning their salvation or not because we have told them to worry about that.  (There are exceptions to this, I admit).

It is my desire that we set this question where it belongs, in the past.  The question of earning salvation or not earning it, is the wrong question.  We have been made, in Christ, fellow workers with God (1 Cor 3:9, 2 Cor 6:9).  Once we are in Christ, we begin the process of growing into the statue of Christ, and thus increasing in our salvation from sin day by day, and entering into the heavenly communion day by day.  This is not a state of waiting for our reward, or hoping for heaven, or even simply knowing that all has been done for me.  It is a state of having been given the power to be called the sons and daughters of God in Christ, and living as Christ on earth.

To live as Christ on earth, and to hope in the resurrection, is salvation.  To claim that there is some distinction between the commands of this new life, and the freedom of this new life, is to misunderstand Christ on a fundamental level.  To claim that here is some distinction between faith in Christ and living as Christ, is to make the same mistake.

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Understanding Salvation Differently

In my last post I showed some of the problems with the popular conception of the atonement. This post I hope to offer an alternative understanding of the atonement.  Now this would be sheer madness if I was offering some theory of my own that I had come up with last week.  Instead, I would offer something far older than myself, a theory that has existed in the church since the beginning. For those familiar with different theories of the cross, the term Christus Victor might be the most fitting for this theory.  However, it is not exactly the theory identified by Gustav Aulen in his book of the same name.  It is something more.

The popular modern conception of the cross, which dates back to the Reformation, is familiar to almost everyone.  God is angry with us, wants to smash us to bits, and has every right to do so.  So Jesus comes in, takes the smashing for us, and the problem is solved.  The more ancient understanding of the cross is that it is the place where Jesus confronts human sin, suffering, and death, as well as the dark powers of the earth, and overcomes them.  Jesus takes on human suffering as the fulfillment of His incarnation, drawing us to Him in His suffering.

This meeting of God and human suffering, death, and guilt, is all based on the fact that Jesus, as God, is stronger than all of these things.  But He must become a human being to experience them in Himself.  He must be the one who suffers, experiences guilt, shame, sorrow, loss, and the perceived abandonment of God.  He must take on a body that can suffer and die so that He may directly encounter this suffering and death in Himself.  Then, once he has died, He overcomes the suffering and death in the resurrection. (1)

By doing all of this as a human being, Christ transforms our human nature and binds it closely to his divine nature.  In other words, humanity is now in the trinity by means of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection.  By dying he has confronted human death in himself, and overcome it by his divinity.  That divine overcoming is shared with us, and we are grafted into it, being allowed to now become, as St. Peter says, partakers of the Divine nature.  The divine nature of Jesus is shared with all of us, so that our sin, suffering, and death, may be overcome by his victory.

Of course, this is not merely a simple pardoning then of sins.  Our sins are forgiven by Christ, and his death works in a mysterious way to blot out sin.  But this is not the only thing.  We are not simply made legally righteous before God, but invited to share in God’s own person so that we are transformed into Christ in the world.  All of this seems very clear in John’s Gospel.

This image of redemption does not put us in the hands of an angry God.  Instead, it puts us as people who endangered our own existence by doing evil.  We undermined our own beings by disconnecting ourselves from God who is the very root and ground of our being.  By being in conflict with God, for in God being and goodness are one, we have lost our ground for goodness and existence.  Thus we do evil, and we die.  In other words, “the wages of sin is death.”

Christ comes to fix all of that by binding us tightly to Him in goodness and being.  The result is that we begin a journey of life that transcends what we understand of human life.  We are called to be humans bound up in the divine life of God.  None of this requires a God who is wrathful against humanity.  None of it requires that we think of ourselves as dung or worthy of God’s terrible wrath.  Instead, we are loved people, far more valuable to God than merely people He wants to see in some kind of legal relationship with Himself.  He says to us, as the New Testament makes clear, “you are one flesh with me” by making humanity in the Church His bride.

As well, all of the problems listed in the last article, do not pertain.  Instead, there is one consistent act of creation, redemption, and glorification.  God creates so that we might partake of God. When we fall, God acts to restore the relationship in reality, not merely in a legal fiction. And we then begin to partake of God’s life here and now, with a great hope that we will partake of it without limit after the resurrection.

(1)  All of this may be found in St. Athanasius, as well as much of it seen in St. Cyril as well as Maximus the Confessor and others.

The Angriest of Gods

I’m taking a break from my hobby of debating atheists to return to my main area of study, that of discussing modern theological topics from a systematic perspective in dialog with the ancient church.  Way simpler than showing skeptics that their epistemological position is self contradictory, right?  So let’s get into it.

The general view of the atonement (that process by which humans are brought back into right relationship with God) inherited from the Reformation and preached in many modern American Evangelical Churches, goes something like this:  God made people, people did bad things, and that made God angry.  Now God is an infinite God, and if God gets angry, God gets infinitely angry.  And God is a just God, and thus infinitely Just.  Now an infinitely Just and Angry God is not a God you want on your case.  So, humanity is in something of a pickle.  We might try to appease God, but we’ve made the terrible mistake, being finite beings, of angering an infinite being.  No matter what we do, we can’t get out of this mess.

In pops Jesus, who knows how to appease God, being one of the persons of the three-person God.  Jesus tells us that we’ve got to love each other, obey his commandments, and generally be willing to put up with a lot of crap because we follow him.  But then, of course, none of that matters because the big bad enemy of humanity, God, is out to get us and there’s no getting around Him by being nice and doing good, and loving our neighbor.  Instead, Jesus has got to take on the infinite wrath and justice of God so that we don’t have to.  Jesus is also God, and therefore infinitely able to suffer, which pleases the Father, the first person of the Trinity, because now he’s got a worthwhile target for his wrath who is both human (and therefore the just target of wrath) and God (and therefore able to infinitely suffer).  For God had a problem.  If God was infinitely angry and infinitely just, how would he manage to extract infinite punishment from finite creatures?  Well, the answer was going to be “let them suffer…forever.”

And despite there being literally dozens of problems with this model of God, Jesus, Sin, and Judgment, here is where the traditional model meets what appears to be an insurmountable problem.  For if human beings are to suffer forever, God’s wrath will never be satisfied.  For, if God’s wrath is infinite, it takes infinite justice to appease it.  Now, in the case of the “Jesus Shield” model (where Jesus stands in front of us and takes the brunt of God’s wrath) instead of us, Jesus, being infinite, can “take” the infinite wrath of God in a satisfactory way (hence the name “Satisfaction theory”).  God is satisfied in that His Wrath and Judgment have met an appropriate target.  But with the rest of humanity, if God is pouring out His infinite wrath, that wrath can never be satisfied.

There might be some nodding their heads and saying “yes, that’s why they will burn FOREVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!”  But this leaves God in a sticky position.  For if God’s wrath is not satisfied, does that not place God in a position of lack?  Does God not then depend on humanity in order for His wrath to be satisfied?  And, that’s one hell of a dependence, because it can never be fulfilled.  For no matter how long a finite human burns in hell, infinite satisfaction can never be achieved.  (This is one part of what we call the Kalam argument  “An actual infinity cannot be achieved by incremental addition.” (The other part of that argument isn’t relevant here).  We use this argument against an infinite regress of time.  Well, it also works on an infinite progress of suffering.  No matter how long a finite number of humans suffer, that suffering will never reach infinity.)

While the human side of this has been focused on to show why hell must be forever, the divine side of this has not been realized in the theory.  God has nothing like the right material to work out God’s wrath or justice on.  One would need an actual infinitude of human beings (which is ostensibly impossible) or an actual infinitude of time in which to punish a finite number of humans (also impossible, as shown above).

Thus we find that God must be a very frustrated God.  We are also left with some questions.

1.  If Jesus takes all the wrath for humanity, why is there still some left over for those burning in Hell?

2.  If God’s wrath is never to be appeased, why not let everyone but one guy go, to burn forever?  For burning billions for finite amount of time, no matter how big that finite amount of time can be (which must be the state of any temporal reality in hell, that of the incremental addition of instants), can no more satisfy God’s wrath than the burning of one person…or no people.  For a finite set taken from an infinitude does not lessen the infinitude.  But if we insist on a single person, well, there’s always that Jesus fellow who took all that suffering before.  Again, why does his suffering not suffice for everyone?  And if it does, how can there be any left over for all those people who didn’t accept him?

3.  If God is eternal and unchanging, is not this wrath which must be appeased somehow eternally part of God?  But if it is dependent on our sin, did we change God?  If not, and God is eternally wrathful, doesn’t that take away God’s ability to be called “All Good and loving?” since God is wrathful logically prior to the creation of humanity who deserves the wrath?

4.  Why isn’t Jesus wrathful with us?  If He is the perfect image of the Father, why does there seem to be a difference between the Son, who wants to make nice, and the Father who wants to burn us all alive?  Doesn’t this seem in contradiction to the scriptural statement that God does not desire the death of a sinner?

5.  If the answer to all of this is “Jesus DID do enough, we just need to accept it” in what way do those two things connect logically?  If what is being dealt with is a legal element, there is never any question that the victim must accept his pardon.  He cannot make the headsman chop his head off, or the guards strap him into the chair and pull the switch.  He may insist over and over that they don’t exist, or that they have no authority, or that their authority is a sham and a miscarriage of justice.  But there is no instance in which a legal decision made by a court is somehow dependent on the acquitted man agreeing that he is acquitted. The acceptance of Jesus’ life giving work does not fit in this model when we consider it.  It does in another model, one put forward by the ancient church, and for understandable reasons.  But not this one.

One sees the problem.  The traditional narrative of Substitution or Satisfaction atonement is fraught with dozens of problems.  This isn’t the largest, this is merely a funny little piece of a much larger picture of all sorts of things wrong with an interpretation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that divorces itself from the first millennium of the Church’s understanding.

We should instead take some cues from the early church in understanding how the reconciliation between humanity and God works, and I’ll touch on that in my next post on the restoration of humanity.

On the Fall

I recently had a very brief interaction with a person who describes herself as part of liberal religion who praised Eve for “giv[ing] up blissful ignorance and look[ing] for truth, knowledge, and understanding.”   When I suggested that this was equating the fall which caused the death of God as a good thing, she responded that “Not all see a “fall” in Genesis. Not all believe that humanity is fundamentally and intractably flawed from the outset.”  I then asked if she could explain Paul’s statement that “all sin in Adam” and Christ’s redeeming death.  So far I have received no response.

My view on this is that there are three things going on, each of them regrettable.  First is the equation of that which as brought about every terrible and horrible thing, including the horrific treatment of women, with something good, the engaged desire for knowledge.  Second is a firm understanding of biblical scholarship on the text involved.  Third is a demonstrable lack of familiarity with Christian teaching from the earliest centuries of the church.

The first is easily shown when we consider that every evil caused by human beings is traced to the fall, including human death.  Poverty, starvation, enmity between the sexes, and the sufferings of child-birth are all directly related to the act of Adam and Eve in eating the fruit of the Etz HaDaat Tov VaRa.  As well, the suffering and death of Jesus are directly linked with the fall in the garden in the Protoevangelion and by Paul, and the work of Christ is identified as undoing the death that has come from this “look[ing] for truth, knowledge, and understanding.”

The fundamental problem with all of this is that if in fact God has our best interests at heart, and God’s desire is that we should strive for knowledge, truth, and understanding by directly disobeying God’s command in the garden, then how is it that such evil has come from this “act of liberation?’  How is it that the one who desires our good, has set up a world where the only way to achieve that good is to disobey and then suffer the horrors of famine, plague, rape, torture, blind malice, and death?  What can we say about the Character of God if this is the case?

What we must conclude is then that the one who has set things up is not our friend, for if doing good brings about evil, then we are in an evil world from top to bottom.  We must look to the one who in fact helped us out of our ignorance, the serpent.  Surely he, then is our friend.  He who led us into this new world where we can, as this person has said, “take knowledge,power 2 discern, cocreation w/ God” must be our true companion in this journey.

Now those who know their church history will know that there was another group who thought this way, a branch of the gnostics who saw the creator God as evil and the serpent as a freer of humanity.  This is, of course, very dangerous company to keep, as they denied the real suffering of Christ, and the physical incarnation.  Oddly enough, Jesus is identified directly with the creation of the world.  He insists on obeying God no matter the cost.  How do we reconcile these things?  The Valentinians created a vast complex array of emanations to deal with these problems.  Perhaps those holding to the goodness of the Eve’s decision should take the time to read Against Heresies by Irenaeus of Lyons to understand the complicated work ahead of them if they follow their statements to their logical conclusions.

The second problem here is the lack of Biblical Scholarship that comes into such an understanding.  There has been a recent move to understand the Garden Story in the context of the Babylonian exile, and perhaps even as a critique of the Solomnic wisdom tradition (as per Sparks and Stavrakopoulou).  When the sin in the garden takes place, where does God send them?  To the east.  And when Cain kills Abel, where is he sent?  To the east.  When the Jews sinned, leading to the deportation to Babylon, one need only look at a map to realized that the direction from Jerusalem to Babylon is that of the eastward orientation.  If the Babylonian Exile is the context for the writing of the garden story, it is very hard to say that the intent of that passage is merely one of a people who “look for truth, knowledge, and understanding.”

Even without this particular interpretation, if the same banishment is given to Adam and Eve for their “good deeds” as Cain for killing his brother, what does that say about Fratricide?  Is Cain merely, “exercising his freedom against the tyranny of pastoral theocracy?”  Should we all head out and kill shepherds?  How is it that banishment east is somehow the result of both a liberating act and the murder of one’s brother?

Third, there is a real lack of understanding of the Patristic teaching of humanity’s destiny if we had not fallen.  The Greek fathers suppose, from their understanding of the doctrine of the deification of humanity, that had we not fallen, we would have grown into wisdom over time, and eventually, after growing in knowledge, wisdom and truth, by power of the incarnation, joined faultlessly with God through the deification of humanity (for a simple introduction to this theme, please see Fellow Workers with God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis by Norman Russell).  Such a view supposes that the creation of humanity was not complete in the garden, but only the first phase.  The second phase, the training up of humanity to be able to bear the image of God in a new and fuller way, was always to be completed when God came close in the incarnation.  The difference that sin made was that the incarnation alone was now not sufficient to bring us up to this new relationship with God, but instead the passion, death, and resurrection of the God-Man Jesus was required to undo the work of Adam and Eve.  For some of these ancient theologians, the words “It is finished” on the cross are a statement that completes the process begun in Genesis 1:27, “Let us create Adam in our image.”  If one wishes to see this played out in a fantastical setting, one need only read C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra.

Thus we find that such a view, ignoring the real ramifications of the fall, ignoring the historical context of the text, and ignoring the theological history of the text is in need of simply more education.  It may be well and good to look for good in evil, but we must remember that it is the unique property of God to bring good out of evil, but even God cannot make an evil thing good unless it dies and rises in God’s own self.

(It should be noted here that Adam and Eve are the Biblical representation of the first humans who lived in innocent communion with God, and I am not wedded to a historical reading of the text.  This does not mean, however, that I am not insistent on reading the text as truth revealed about the origin of humanity (created by God in God’s image), humanity’s role in the world (as proper lord of the world and tiller of the earth), the relation of man and woman (equals, coworkers), and the disobedience of those first people that led to sin and death.)