Thursday, April 24, 2014

Luther's Legacy on the Gospel

In describing, teaching, and applying (if not defining) the gospel people in my (Protestant) circles seem inclined to use spectra and dichotomies: our works and God's works, living by law or living by grace, being justified or being condemned, heaven or hell, etc. In extreme cases (as I described last time), this can lead to a working definition of the gospel based more on what it is not—legalism, "works-righteousness", or the Pelagian system of soteriology—than on what it is. And what's left of what the gospel is—justification by faith—our working definition of "faith" can (and does) drift from what I consider to be the biblical definition which is related to "trust".

I tried not to overstate my case last time (but may have done so anyway). Just as plenty of pastors, theologians, and laypeople still have a strong definition of "faith", it's not as if we've totally forgotten to define what the gospel is. We are still able to describe it positively, even if the negative side often gets more weight in these descriptions (what I was arguing against last time). Lopsided definitions of "faith" and excessively anti-works definitions of the gospel both piously distort the truth rather than totally missing it. Though you may hear them at revivals or in individual sermons, testimonies, or blog posts like this one, you probably won't see much of them in creeds, confessions, denominational statements of faith, or serious theological writings.

But are these missteps simply distortions of sound theological truth, or ripples off an underlying gospel theology that is already distorted?

As I will try to show in depth, I think that the latter is the case—that very large swaths of Protestantism hold to and propound a gospel that I now consider, at best, to be incomplete and not very helpful for me personally.

Yet another disclaimer: please don't hear me as breathlessly proclaiming that "The church has been wrong on the gospel all along, especially since the Reformation!" (and, presumably, that I have just the insights and wisdom to set it right). The more I study, the more I know that I don't know, and the less I can stand when people make such claims. My reasons for writings this series on the gospel are nothing like that, but are much more personal—they are the result and fulfillment of years of struggling to understand the gospel and find what I "really" believe. Even if no one read it, I would still write it for catharsis' sake.

Additionally, I'm not trying to say that the large numbers of Protestants who hold to the gospel theology I'm going to critique have been horribly misled or are part of a false church. Or that I look down on them, for that matter; I still worship and minister alongside many of them. It's evidence of grace that God doesn't require perfect theology from us in order to call us His own or work through us any more than He requires perfect behavior (unintentional hint for next time). As N.T. Wright reassuringly writes, "We don't have to get everything right before anything can work!"

With that said, bear with me for a short tour of Martin Luther's early life. Studying his life and thought for a week in my master's program helped me to see how, though his desire for reform was far from unique in his day, the personal way in which justification by faith hit home for him, the steadfastness (some would say stubbornness) of his faith, and his willingness to act on his convictions made him the center of the rapidly-expanding Reformation. I saw how his experience of trying to believe and live the theology he'd been taught led him to see that it didn't add up (much as I am doing!), how he went from trying to change the Catholic church to rejecting it, and how he found himself under attack from both sides as more radical reformers quickly advanced his ideas further from the status quo than he would have liked. Without further ado, let's explore...

Luther's early life

Luther was born the son of a miner in Eisleben, Germany, 1483. His upbringing was strict—he later spoke of being physically disciplined both at home and at school—and his childhood probably contributed to his recurring existential depression and eventual decision to become a monk. But much more significant to these was the religious climate he lived in. In his biography Here I Stand, Roland Bainton describes this climate:
In the elementary schools the children were instructed in sacred song. They learned by heart the Sanctus, the Benedictus, the Agnus Dei, and the Confiteor. They were trained to sing psalms and hymns. How Luther loved the Magnificat! They attended masses and vespers, and took part in the colorful processions of the holy days. Each town in which Luther went to school was full of churches and monasteries. Everywhere it was the same: steeples, spires, cloisters, priests, monks of the various orders, collections of relics, ringing of bells, proclaiming of indulgences, religious processions, cures at shrines. Daily at Mansfield the sick were stationed beside a convent in the hope of cure at the tolling of the vesper bell. Luther remembered seeing a devil actually depart from one possessed.
Just as young Martin's physical surrounding were saturated with religion, so his studies and thoughts became full of theology and reflection on God. From Bainton: "The entire training of home, school, and university was designed to instill fear of God, and reverence for the church." And this wasn't fear of God as I've come to understand it, but actual religious terror of the awesome Judge who alone had the power to justify or condemn. The present life was thought of as merely training for the final judgment and life to come. Medieval theology alternately played on peoples' hope of heaven and fear of hell, driving them to the church and her sacraments with lurid descriptions of hellfire and them soothing peoples' fears with talk of purgatory or indulgences which could extinguish this fire. God and Christ were likewise depicted both as loving Father and Son as well as implacable, omnipotent judges, and people anxiously hoped that they would receive His favor when judged.
The Last Judgment, Albrecht Dürer, 1510.
This woodcut by Albrecht Dürer is a depiction of Christ with which Luther would have been highly familiar. Christ sits enthroned on the clouds (or a rainbow) as the heavenly judge, saying to those on His right, "Well done", and to those on His left, "Depart from me into everlasting fire." Below are human figures either being escorted by angels into the heavenly light of paradise or by demons into the mouth of a monster. Christ has a lily coming out of His right ear (symbolizing His mercy and tenderness to the redeemed) and a sword from His left (signifying His wrath for the damned). Before Him kneel the virgin Mary and another saint (Peter? John? Paul?) interceding on behalf of the faithful and pleading for His mercy.

Behind this picture was a soteriology influenced by both early Christianity and Greek philosophy, in which man's reconciliation with God was an ontological process of "divinization", becoming increasingly like his Creator. The Christian was suspended in the hand of God somewhere between heaven and hell, on a lifelong pilgrimage through this world. Sin was a sickness or handicap to this process of salvation which had to be dealt with by the medicine of divine grace which was administered through the church and infused into or imparted to the sinner, especially by the sacraments. Justification then, was the end of this journey, Christ's final verdict of the soul's full recovery, and an invitation into eternal paradise.

So Luther, per the church's design, grew up with an intense anxiety for the fate of his immortal soul. He sought to lay hold of all the medicine for his soul that the church had to offer: sacraments, pilgrimages, indulgences, and the intercessions of the saints. But besides all these, he had to make sure he merited the saints' favor. The best way to pursue this heavenly merit was to become a monk; the very wearing of the cowl was thought to confer favor in the final judgment. Bainton: "Monasticism was the way par excellence to heaven." In a flash of lightning in 1505, Luther had a vision of death, Christ the terrible judge and demons rising up to whisk him off to hell. In terror he cried out, "St. Anne [the mother of Mary and patroness of miners] help me! I will become a monk."

Luther's "evangelical experience"

In the Augustinian monastery he joined, Luther lived a simple, ascetic life of prayer, devotion, song, contemplation and the austere pursuit of holiness. For a while his inner demons subsided. But when performing his first mass, he was pressed by feelings of his own unworthiness to perform the otherworldly rite that would transform the elements into the very body and blood of Christ. How could such a transgressor as he stand and minister before the majesty of the divine?

This question began to plague him not only at the altar but constantly. He realized that man stood before the all-holy God all his life; but how could he bear it, being as unworthy as Luther felt? So he redoubled his monastic efforts at holiness, fasting and praying in excess, but never felt that he had satisfied God or compensated for his sins. He went on a pilgrimage to view the holy relics in Rome, but was disillusioned by the ignorance and irreverence of the Roman priests and doubted whether the pilgrimage could confer any merit. After returning and being transferred from Erfurt to Wittenburg, he sought help by other means. It's interesting to note here that Bainton says, "Salvation was never made to rest solely nor even primarily upon human achievement. The whole sacramental system of the church was designed to mediate to man God's help and favor." Whether this was so in practice is debatable. Salvation was a affirmed to be by God's grace, but man had to take definite steps (said to be appointed by God) to receive and apply that grace in his life.

So Luther turned to the sacrament of confession, often spending hours a day on it, running through the seven deadly sins and Ten Commandments, trying to be sure he'd included everything, until his confessor began to grow impatient and at one point told him to "go out and do something worth confessing". Luther believed that sins, to be forgiven, had to be confessed, but even after leaving the confessional began to remember more sins he'd missed. He was also afraid that he had sins that he had simply not recognized or remembered, protected by his subconscious. He began to realize that there was something wrong with him beyond his individual sins. The penitential system was directed towards particular lapses of a soul in progress towards God, but his entire self was in rebellion against God and needed forgiving. He sought answers in Christian mysticism and was taught to simply love God, but how could he love this angry, judging, condemning, consuming fire of a God?

Luther's evangelical revelation began when he was teaching on Psalm 22, which he took to allegorically foreshadow the life and death of Jesus. The Psalm began with the words, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Luther was taken aback. This was the cry of his own heart, the expression of his feeling of filthiness and insufficiency before God's perfect, consuming holiness, but it was coming from the perfect, sinless Savior. How could Christ have been so desolated? Only, Luther thought, because Christ took on himself the sins of us all. Luther glimpsed a new picture of Christ: besides the heavenly judge, Christ also identified with the condemned through the cross, taking their rejection on Himself. The cross was where God's just wrath and love came together for us. By His self-abandoning goodness, He has taken our sin and given us His perfect righteousness.

And so, by being identified with Christ, though we suffer deep hurt and condemnation as He did, afterward we are raised with Him. Luther saw in the Greek of the New Testament a word to describe this vicarious vindication: the word for "justice", dikaiosyne, could also be rendered "justification". Bainton explains, "justification is a process of the sort which sometimes takes place if the judge suspends the sentence, places the prisoner on parole, expresses confidence and personal interest in him, and thereby instills such resolve that the man is reclaimed and justice itself better conserved than by the exaction of a pound of flesh." The iustitia Dei, a phrase which had previously struck terror into Luther's heart, became the means of his relief.

This justification came entirely apart from man's own merit, which (as Luther knew) was never enough; it was passively received by faith, as a free gift. It was not gradually imparted or infused, but simply imputed to the sinner in a conclusive declaration of "not guilty". The "justice of God" was no longer a source of death for him but of life. Luther had come upon a totally new view of Christ as both judge and justifier, and he clung to it in the face of his demons. About this realization, Luther later wrote,
I greatly longed to understand Paul's epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, 'the justice of God', because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant. 
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that 'the just shall live by his faith.' Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors to paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the 'justice of God' had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.

The example of Luther

What was the point of that description? To attempt to show that in many ways, Luther is the prototype of modern (especially evangelical) Protestants in several circles, even those not descended directly from his theology. I mean this in at least three ways:
  1. Luther's experience is made into the normative salvation experience for all Christians. Luther's account of God wounding us with the law and then healing us with grace/alien righteousness through faith is how we are supposed to "get" the gospel. Our sin, clearly condemned by the law, is supposed to make us feel just like how Luther's sin made him feel, unholy and unworthy to stand before a perfect God, so that we can better appreciate how we have been forgiven, declared righteous, at no fault of our own. The most graceful thing you can know is how sinful you really are—because this makes clear how much you need the gracious gift of salvation through justification by faith. We are expected to go through our own version of Luther's pilgrimage to we can enjoy the same appreciation of the true gospel that he came to.
  2. Behind this, Luther's view of God is made into the "true" view of God. That is, God's being just means that He is relentlessly critical of sin, judging the inner secrets of the heart and condemning anyone who doesn't make the cut to an eternity in hellfire. (Can you see possible echoes of Luther's parents and schoolmasters in this God?) Luther saw this necessity to condemn and punish sin as essential to God's justice. He still saw merit, or righteousness, as the way to avoid this condemnation, except we can only get the perfect righteousness which God in His justice requires by imputation from Christ's perfect record. We have to be "good enough" for God, but on our own we cannot. And so the cross is where God's justice and desire to have mercy on people collide and both meet their fulfillment in Jesus' taking our sins on Himself and receiving condemnation, and our receiving of an "alien righteousness" as we rise with Him. In this strange economy, we are declared simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and a sinner).
  3. Finally, Luther's view of Scripture becomes our view of Scripture. This assertion must be weakened somewhat because the hermeneutics behind this (evangelical) version of the gospel are also influenced by Reformed theology and the Enlightenment. Nonetheless, like Luther we read our Bibles primarily as a testament to God's gospel, written for our salvation. We look for Jesus in every verse. And we cling to Scripture as the highest authority, though of course receiving its authority from its divine Author, over against all human tradition and authority.
Of course we readily admit that for all his vision and courage, Luther, like us, was far from perfect (he would have been the first one to assert this, and quite vigorously). If you happened to disagree with him, you would probably say he was kind of a prick. But we rarely look on his theology so critically. As I just pointed out, we tend to follow Luther much more than we question him (our differences on matters like communion, baptism, and the church/state divide are quietly swept aside). But should this be so? N.T. Wright astutely points out that "The greatest honor we can pay the Reformers is not to treat them as infallible—they would be horrified at that—but to do as they did"; that is, to continually test our lives and beliefs against fresh revelation through Scripture.

Which is just what I plan to do for the gospel account which Luther helped beget. Specifically, I'm going to explore how, in all three of these areas in which we follow Luther, though he brought much valuable reform, he left some errors uncorrected and introduced new ones in his (piously intended) zeal. Not that I wish, for even a moment, that Luther had led a quiet life as a lawyer, but I believe that what we need is not a reformed church, but a truly, continuously reforming church. May God edify His people through this exploration and work through it for just such an end.

Friday, April 18, 2014

God [was] Dead: A Good Friday Reflection

When explaining how Jesus' death on the cross 'deals with sin', we tend to emphasize the divine will and love behind it. Out of love for His fallen creation, the Father sent the Son to the cross, and out of love for Him and for us He stayed there until His victory over sin was accomplished. Now, of course this is true; none of the events leading up to Jesus' death were in any way surprising to God or outside His control. In fact, one thing that strikes me is how in control Jesus seems even as He is being arrested, manhandled, beaten, and killed, both in terms of not being afraid and accepting His role (Mat 26:53: "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?"), and in terms of how He radically loves those who are putting Him to death (Luke 23:34: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."). We view the cross as a supreme example of God's sovereignty and the crux of His redemptive plan for us. But by emphasizing the planned-ness of the crucifixion, we can miss a different, more disturbing angle on it:

The God of the universe became a man, and was put to death by sinful men. We killed God.

This recalls Nietzsche's famous proclamation that "God is dead". We (rightfully) view this as the epitome of blasphemy, but for three days, because of us, it was actually true. (Now is not the time to blunt the impact of this with metaphysical talk about Jesus' place in the Trinity or where He "went" for that time) In a real (but mysterious) sense, God was actually dead, and we killed Him. We talk about the cross as where the great victory was won, and this is true inasmuch as it fit into God's aforementioned plan, but it is much more the ultimate defeat, the death of God, begging for the ultimate victory to come. But God's wisdom, and power over death, are such that Good Friday, though a catastrophe in itself, served to make possible Easter Sunday. For "death has been swallowed up in victory." (1 Cor 15:54)

When we speak of Jesus' death as "dealing with sin", allowing Himself to be (temporarily) defeated at our hands is certainly part of how He did it. The cross of Christ, more clearly than anything else, reveals the depth of human sin. God came to earth in the flesh; most people hated Him and had Him killed, and those who didn't nonetheless deserted Him. I can't honestly say that I'd have done any better had I been there, and neither can you. It was the clearest possible manifestation of the human rebellion against God: not simply holding an attitude in our hearts, or disobeying His commands, but actually seizing God and killing Him (as Jesus pointed out in advance in the parable of the tenants, Mat 21:33-46). It's no wonder that the Jews who heard Peter proclaim this in Acts 2 were "cut to the heart"—some of them had probably been in the crowd shouting, "Crucify him!"

In the crucifixion, mankind's depravity is set in the starkest possible relief against Jesus' unrelenting love for us and His humble obedience to the Father. Of course we also see the latter in the cross, but it testifies just as clearly to the former.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Gospel Faith Alone: The Negative Gospel

My last post, surveying the ways I and other evangelicals often get the all-important concept of "faith" wrong, probably didn't raise many eyebrows. It wasn't supposed to. My own working definition of faith, like that of many others, is a mixture of what I pretty firmly consider the "true" definition of faith (as trust), and the three wrong ones that have become prevalent, especially faith-as-belief-of-facts. In other words, my misconceptions about faith did keep teaching and preaching of "the gospel" from making as much sense to me as they should, but this is because I misunderstand "faith", not necessarily because others do. It's very much a plank in my own eye that I have to remove (and again, it is also in many other peoples' eyes, but that is not my biggest concern). So, as I recognize them, these misconceptions shouldn't create any difficulty in believing "the gospel" as I hear it, only in understanding it.

The Negative Gospel

The difficulty in belief (for me) comes in not with what kind of faith is preached, but how it is so often preached. The mistake builds off the doctrine of "faith alone" or sola fide, one of the five Latin solas of the Reformation, and the salvation narrative that builds off of it, which goes something like this (and should sound familiar):
The bad news of the gospel, without which the good news makes no sense, is that we are all dead in our sins (Rom 6:23, Eph 2:1-2). "Dead" doesn't just mean "unaware", or "far gone", or that that we need some help, it means lifeless, powerless, dead! We can do nothing to make ourselves righteous before God and gain salvation (Jhn 15:5). And so God would be totally just to condemn us for eternity.
But the blessed news is that though we can do nothing, Jesus has already done everything on our behalf, on the cross (Eph 2:4-7). He lived a sinless life (Hbr 4:15) and died an atoning death (Rom 3:21-25), so there is nothing we have to do to gain His righteousness except to accept it by faith (Rom 3:22, Eph 2:8-9). Jesus saves us from trying to save ourselves; we can stop trying to earn our way to God (which was never possible anyway; Gal 2:16) and rest in His completed work for us. It is faith alone that justifies, not any of our works, and the life we now live in Jesus we live by faith (Gal 2:20), not by works.
It sounds great, doesn't it? Though we are powerless in ourselves to take any steps toward the righteousness God requires, Jesus has already done for us what we could not do for ourselves and secured an eternal righteousness for us. We cannot earn it, we can only stop trying to work for our own salvation and rest in what He has already done. This is good news both for the one who doesn't know Christ and is endlessly trying to make his life matter by sheer effort, and for the Christian who is trying to live an endless series of rules, checklists, "three simple steps" to be a good person rather than a relationship based on faith alone.

But what if it isn't everything? What if the gospel is bigger than this common description of it?

Here's what I mean. If there is one thing Christians in the Reformed and Lutheran traditions believe in more fiercely than justification by faith, it's justification by faith alone. Luther was so certain of this exclusivity that he introduced the word "alone" into one such translation of Paul, arguing that he was merely bringing Paul's own emphasis into German. This kind of emphatic assertion usually comes hand-in-hand with an equally emphatic denial of our own powers to "earn salvation", "make moral progress", "justify ourselves", "become good", and so on. In a game of theological oneupmanship, this denial gets stressed more and more heavily; to let up for even a moment on our thorough corruption and moral bankruptcy would be to go easy on sin, leave open the possibility of some kind of human-driven Works-Righteousness, and embrace semi-Pelagianism. Right?

This arms race leads toward a gospel that seems more defined by what it is not—legalism, or "salvation by works", or "religion"—than by what it is. I call this diminution of the gospel the Negative Gospel. It is the gospel reduced to its own rebuttal to one particular constellation of heresies, namely "self-justification", "works of the law", Pelagianism, or late medieval Catholic soteriology (which are all erroneously believed to be the same thing), which must then be considered to be endemic to all humankind, virtually equivalent with sin itself. It may be very effective at freeing people from following rules to gain credit with God (besides, perhaps, the rule to constantly deny your own moral capability and emphasize that it's all from God), but after that—what? A negatively defined gospel can't give an answer. And for this reason, it is dangerous.

A disclaimer. The Negative Gospel is not a doctrine or system of theology, it is a distortion of one. This means that no one intentionally subscribes to it, and it is rarely held in "pure" form like a classical heresy (e.g. monophysitism or the nondivinity of Jesus). So although the examples I give may sound like theologians I've heard, please don't think that I'm trying to attack them or label them as proponents of it. There is no Negative Gospel "camp". It is something that we are all susceptible to, to varying degrees. It is arguably centered somewhere in Lutheran or Reformed theology, but this doesn't mean any given Lutheran or Reformed theologian espouses it, certainly not completely.

With that said, let me give roughly four reasons why I want to stop negatively defining the gospel by its opposition to "works-based righteousness", and hope that you will too.

It undermines the importance the Bible places on works

In many ways, the Epistle of James is the ugly stepchild of the New Testament. Its emphasis on the necessity of works doesn't fit into the above scheme of "justification by faith alone" with its attendant denial of our works having anything to do with our justification, and often people don't know what to do with it. Specifically and especially, 2:14-26:
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
In his preface to the book Luther, though he saw much of value in it, expressed his dislike for it and personally did not consider it to be the work of an apostle, saying that it flatly contradicted the writings of Paul and the rest of Scripture. Christians today don't consider so disparaging a book in the canon to be a viable option, and so we find ways to integrate it with what Paul seems to be saying. The result of this is something along the lines of, "James of course knew that justification is by faith alone, but he was saying that justifying faith, if it is genuine, will produce Christian works and a changed life as evidence." Or, as the adage goes, "Faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is never alone"; that is, it is necessarily accompanied by works (which nonetheless do not themselves justify at all, insufficient as they are!).

I don't think this is consistent. It seems to be saying, "Faith alone matters for our justification, but works matter too", a contradiction concealed behind layers of rationalization. If our actions are judged as not reflecting "saving faith" and we sincerely retort, "No, my faith is genuine," we reach an impasse. Are we justified or not? If we prioritize the inward experience of faith, we seem to contradict James; if the lack of outward works, we seem perilously close to "works righteousness", having to prove our salvation by doing things. James seems to be describing a cooperation between faith and works (faith being "completed" by works; works demonstrating our faith and playing a role in our justification), not the antithesis that is usually drawn in our rush to condemn "salvation by works".

An image that is commonly used to describe how God works through us with His spirit and His righteousness despite our insufficiency is that of someone blowing through a straw. The straw merely channels the energy of the blower, and no one says afterward, "What a great straw!" This image, and the perspective of God's righteousness over against our inability even as believers that it conveys, seems at odds with how Christians are very seriously called to pursue holiness ourselves (see Paul's race analogy in 1 Cor 9:24-27 and Phil 3:12-16, or his exhortations to Timothy in 1 Tim 4:7-16), as well as what the New Testament says about our receiving praise or commendation from God.. How do these things make any sense if we're just passive, sin-laden vessels through which God works righteousness that is exclusively His? Isn't He just praising Himself in a bizarrely circumscribed way? Can a straw train itself to be a better, less holey straw?

Or, since we're such huge fans of Romans, consider Romans 2:6-8: "6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury." Then verse 13: "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified." 26-27: " 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law."

If we have such great reverence for Paul, we should listen to him when he clearly says that there will be a final judgment according to works. We do not honor his words or the point he's trying to make by skipping this chapter, saying that he's speaking hypothetically about someone being rewarded at this final judgment when it can never really happen, explaining that since Christ's righteousness is imputed to us we will really be judged by His works, or by inventing a second judgment in which people are only rewarded for their good works (see 2:8) which happens after the "Bema seat judgment" that decides peoples' eternal destinies and is based on faith alone. None of these explanations does Paul justice.

Still not convinced? Here are some other gems from Paul:
  • Romans 14:10b,12: "For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God...So then each of us will give an account of himself to God."
  • 1 Corinthians 4:5: "Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God."
  • 2 Corinthians 5:10: "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil."
  • Galatians 5:21, after a long 'sin list': "I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God."
  • Ephesians 6:8b: "whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free."
In none of these passages is there a hint of two separate judgments, or of our deeds not actually mattering because we get Christ's instead. If works never enter into God's judgment of us and this point is really so crucial to the gospel message, we have to go against Paul to find it. To assume these things is to miss a point he makes repeatedly and hear from him something he is not trying to say.

A better analogy than the straw might be that of an infant being weaned off milk, growing up, and in all ways taking after his father, one which is used by Paul (1 Cor 3:1-3, Eph 4:13-16), Peter (1 Pet 2:2), and the author of Hebrews (Hbr 5:12-14). In all of these passages it is used to describe holistic growth into spiritual maturity, not only in the sense of individual moral development (a concept to which none of them seem to show any aversion), but of the whole church growing in love, unity, faith, and knowledge of the Truth. I will not exegete each passage individually, but will simply point out how this image of not just the individual Christian but the whole church as a child maturing seems to assume a much more active role for us than that of someone blowing through a straw. A straw receiving praise from its blower is absurd; a child receiving praise from his father is natural and beautiful. Of course we still depend on God in this process, and so Paul says we are taught by the Spirit (2:13) and that our growth is made consequent on the gifts of Christ (Eph 4:7-16), but it is a stretch to believe that Paul and others didn't envision some kind of active involvement on the believers' part.

And after that, I can't but say a few words on the role of sanctification, or the believer's "growing into" holiness in increasing resemblance to Jesus. This growth is paralleled with human development in the passages described above, and is also the goal of the "spiritual disciplines" or "pursuit of holiness" that are mentioned in the same circles as "justification by faith alone". Of course very few would say that sanctification isn't real or important. But neither will you hear anyone saying primarily (as the main point of a sermon, gospel tract, biblical commentary, etc.) that Jesus died so that we could be sanctified, become conformed to His image, and be holy like His father, and secondarily that He justifies us or saves us from our sins by grace through faith. But the reverse is quite commonplace. We have separated out justification/salvation and sanctification, making the former absolutely essential, worth preaching and teaching about constantly, and the latter something different that hopefully happens afterward, but if it doesn't that's fine too, because Jesus already dealt with our sin and we are already perfectly justified by His imputed righteousness and nothing can take that away. Could our fear of works be to blame for this focus on what must be believed over what must be done?

I'm not saying that this negative portrayal of the gospel is logically incoherent. I have heard it explained in numerous ways that make logical sense. But making logical sense is not enough. It's a theology that seems to be based on conflicting principles. We shun spiritual passivity (as in the parable of the talents; Matthew 25:14-30), yet prevailingly seem to prize it as a virtue, the antidote to works-based righteousness. We insist that the only works that matter or are sufficient are what Christ has already done for us, and simultaneously emphasize the very intentional practice of "spiritual disciplines". No matter how much these things are made to make rational sense, they have never "clicked" for me.

It is dualistic 

Let me be as clear as possible what I mean here by dualism. I don't mean moral dualism, as in the postulation of equal and opposing entities of good and evil (though Scripture also rebukes such ideas), but something more like ontological dualism, the Platonic dichotomy between the material and the spiritual, or between God and man, His actions and ours. I'm applying the term to the disconnect, critical in the Negative Gospel, between what God does and what we do. These things are zealously believed to be utterly incompatible, or even at odds with each other. It seems as if we try to outdo each other in how much of a contrast we can draw between the utter ineffectuality of our own deeds and the perfection of God's. So it's not about what we do, it's about what He has done. Our total incompetence versus God's all-sufficiency. Our stubborn rebellion against His relentless love. Our constant unfaithfulness versus God's faithfulness, and so on.

In this mindset of dualism, our actions and God's are thought of like portions of a pie; if we contribute anything to our salvation from ourselves, that means God doesn't get the whole pie, which is supposed to be the worst offense against the gospel since antipope Pelagius started selling indulgences to help people get their best life now (or something like that). God's standard for righteousness is set so high that any effort of our own is seen as not just hopeless, but counterproductive and a threat to our total reliance on His sufficiency. So Luther supported infant baptism partially on the grounds that there is no better demonstration of God's role as author of our justification than His producing faith in an infant who is unable to believe the gospel, or even understand it. So Calvin, in his Institutes, seems almost eager to deny that any shred of our good actions is really from us; the implication is that this would somehow threaten God's sufficiency. See this excerpt from 2.3.6 (emphasis added):
“We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them,” (Eph. 2:10). [Paul's] meaning is to show in this way that our salvation is gratuitous because the beginning of goodness is from the second creation which is obtained in Christ. If any, even the minutest, ability were in ourselves, there would also be some merit. But to show our utter destitution, he argues that we merit nothing, because we are created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God has prepared; again intimating by these words, that all the fruits of good works are originally and immediately from God. Hence the Psalmist, after saying that the Lord “has made us,” to deprive us of all share in the work, immediately adds, “not we ourselves.” That he is speaking of regeneration, which is the commencement of the spiritual life, is obvious from the context, in which the next words are, “we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture,” (Psalm 100:3). Not contented with simply giving God the praise of our salvation, he distinctly excludes us from all share in it, just as if he had said that not one particle remains to man as a ground of boasting. The whole is of God.
This dualism, this implication that any effort to "be good" ourselves is basically counterproductive to our believing that the good work we do is only God working through us, is probably the biggest way that the Negative Gospel contributed to the passivity of my faith. It seems to not only not answer the question, "Okay, I'm saved by grace alone; now what am I supposed to do?", but to deny that such a question should even be asked. Yet no matter how many times I reminded myself that it's not about what I can do, but what's been done for me, I still had to do something. Because God gave me a will, I simply can't be a passive bystander to my own life. The vision of the Christian life this gospel presents is quite literally unlivable, because it self-consciously disconnects our salvation from how we live.

In his book The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright presents a surprisingly satisfying definition of "worldview" that I enjoyed. It includes not only answers to the fundamental questions of life, origins, and meaning (which are too often made into the whole of what a worldview is), but also an overarching story in which the holders of the worldview live and through which they view reality, symbols (such as artifacts or events) that express these stories and answers, and praxis, or "way-of-being-in-the-world". Depictions of the gospel are generally presented as answers to questions of first importance, and Christianity as a whole does not lack for symbols (the cross, baptism, communion, church holidays...), but often the story aspect is deemphasized (more on this later), and its dualistic ways of setting our actions against God's undercut any stable basis for a praxis. If everything essential to our salvation and Christian life has already been done, it's hard to be sure what to do next.

The Incarnation is the most decisive rebuke to this kind of dualism that God could ever have delivered. God becoming a man annihilated the sharp distinctions the Greeks threw up between matter and spirit just as His death destroyed the curtain in the temple, a Jewish symbol of the holy separation between God and man (Mat 27:51). What clearer symbol could there be of God restoring His tarnished image in fallen man so he could willingly serve Him and continue His work, just as God made Adam His "deputy creator" in the Garden? (Gen 2:19-20) Our active, willing participation in God's redemptive work does not destroy or steal God's glory, but heightens it.

Philippians 2:12-13 is the clearest depiction I see of how union of how this union works out practically in the believer. Paul tells the Philippian church, "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." Before the section I quoted, Calvin cites verse 13 to emphasize God's agency, but conspicuously leaves out verse 12, cutting Paul off mid-sentence as it were. In light of Paul's use of the reflexive pronoun "your own" and the then-recent reality of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, it seems more likely that he is writing of God's power and purpose being exercised through human will and work, not replacing them as something altogether separate.

For more support of this same concept from Paul, see also Colossians 1:29: "For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me", or 1 Corinthians 15:10: 'But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me." I'm not simply trying to prooftext, but to show a real and repeated dynamic that Paul mentions, of God working His power through our own effort, not apart from it. This is how I believe God can use our works in conjunction with His grace, over against exclusive formulations like in the Negative Gospel that tear the two asunder.

It neglects the work of the Spirit

The key to this this union in which divine and human wills cooperate without the limitation of either (which, after all, is what is meant by the term 'synergism'), is the fact that God sends His spirit to dwell in us. The Spirit is the reason why God's all-powerful will working in us does not trump or override our own responsibility, and why our exertion of effort to "work out our own salvation" does not threaten it. He is the reason why there is an alternative to strict monergism besides plunging into Pelagisnism, uniting the two in ways too mysterious for me to comprehend. He is the means of our sanctification. He is the third member of the Trinity, and sadly the Negative Gospel largely ignores His crucial behind-the-scenes role (except, perhaps, to give us assurance that we have been saved by grace through faith apart from anything we do) in favor of making as much as possible of the work of Christ.

In his book Justification, N.T. Wright repeatedly points out this fact. The Spirit, he says, is the reason why we can bear good fruit for God, the reason why the final judgment according to works isn't a foregone conclusion for those who are in the Spirit. The Spirit undercuts our-works-versus-God's-works dualism and makes a biblical theology of works possible. As Wright notes, this is a paradox, but a paradox that we must live rather than trying to "solve" theologically (which, to use one of his analogies, tends to lead to 'solving' the puzzle by throwing half the pieces back into the box!). I'd do better by simply letting him speak for himself:
The pastoral theology which comes from reflecting on the work of the spirit is the glorious paradox that the more the spirit is at work the more the human will is stirred up to think things through, to take free decisions, to develop chosen and hard-won habits of life and to put to death the sinful, and open apparently not freely chosen, habits of death. (164) 
True freedom is the gift of the spirit, the result of grace; but, precisely because it is freedom for as well as freedom from, it isn't simply a matter of being forced now to be good, against our wills and without our co-operation (what damage to genuine pastoral theology has been done by making a bogey-man out of the Pauline term synergism, 'working together with God'), but a matter of being released from slavery precisely into responsibility, into being able at last to choose, to exercise moral muscle, knowing that one is doing it oneself and that the spirit is at work within, that God himself is doing what I am doing. (164) [He does caricaturize monergism here,but look at the last bit (emphasis added to it), which I consider the best summary of true, biblical synergism I have ever heard.]
From one point of view the spirit is at work, producing these fruits (Galatians 5.22f), and from another point of view the person concerned is making the free choices, the increasingly free (because increasingly less constrained by the sinful habits of mind and body) decisions to live a genuine, fully human life that brings pleasure—of course it does!—to the God in whose image we human beings were made. (167)
It is by the energy of the spirit, working in those who belong to the Messiah, that the new paradox comes about in which the Christian really does exercise moral free will and effort but at the same time ascribes this free activity to the spirit. (209) 
The more the spirit is at work in someone's life, the less they will even be thinking about their hard moral effort, their work for God's kingdom, as 'earning' anything or 'qualifying them for' anything, because the more they will be looking away from themselves and celebrating the unique triumph of the creator's love in the death and resurrection of the Messiah. (210)
I'll also let Paul speak for himself. In Galatians 5:16-26, after he exhorts the Galatians to stand firm for their freedom and resist circumcision, in order to love each other rather than serve the flesh:
16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 
24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.
Of course there is much I could make of this passage, but it's plain that Paul sees the work of the Spirit (accompanying and leading us to the aforementioned freedom) as the key to dethrone the flesh from our lives. Again, another favorite passage, Romans 8:1-13 (with the end of 7 for context):
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. 
1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 
9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
Notice the close collaboration between Christ and the Spirit (it's almost as if they're part of the same Trinity) in verses 2-4, the mention of the "Spirit of Christ" in 9, and especially the conflation of Jesus' resurrection and the life-giving work of the Spirit in verse 11. Clearly, at the very least, you can't have one without the other. The Spirit transforms those in Christ to be like Christ. So let's stop treating human works, human effort, and human responsibility as a boogeyman and glimpse how, through His spirit, God uses and transforms them so that we will see they were His doing all along.

The role of the Spirit is crucial to articulating a better, less anemic theology of works than that of the Negative Gospel. I mentioned that Paul, Peter, and the author of Hebrews all use the analogy of a growing child to describe the growth of a Christian in faith and maturity. Jesus' insistence in John 3 on being born again can even be seen as a prelude to this: when we enter the community of believers, we are "born again" as spiritual infants, living on "spiritual milk" rather than solid food. In this rebirth, our old self is united with Jesus in His death (Rom 6:3-6) and our new self grows into the likeness of Jesus as part of His body, the church (Eph 4:15-16). Of course all this growth is the Spirit's doing even as it involves us.

So, through this simultaneous, concurrent action, God gives us a new heart that responds to Him, and so we willingly respond to His lead, just as He intended. God does get the glory, but it is the glory of a father watching his son take his first steps, rather than "depriving him of all share in the walk" by carrying him around indefinitely. We bring glory to our Father (not ourselves!) by growing into mature sons and daughters of His kingdom, rather than by effectively remaining sacks of flour in His arms or by burying our talent in the ground (Mat 25:24-25) and passively letting Him "take over". To anyone who would answer that such a synergistic view makes the Christian life dependent on human effort or gives us something to boast about before God, I charge that you don't understand the holy paradox (or mystery, if you will) that is the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

It flirts with a classic heresy

I couldn't find the right word to describe how the Negative Gospel, which so strongly deemphasizes the role we ourselves play pre or post-salvation, could affect the church. Then I remembered one: antinomianism. (Hint: "anti" = "against", "nomian" = "law") This article on antinomianism by Kevin DeYoung introduces a bit of its historical context, describing it thus:
The antinomian impulse was one which maintained that good works were not necessary for salvation, that God delights in all Christians in the same way, that God does not see sin in the believer, that the moral law is no longer binding for Christians, that law and gospel are diametrically opposed in every way, that to strive after holiness smacks of legalistic effort, that we should not speak of spiritual duties or spiritual progress, that the subject of spiritual activity is not the believer but Christ. Clearly, antinomianism was much more complicated and went much deeper than a simple indifference to sin.
He then quotes J.I. Packer, who offers some more insights into its perversion of the gospel (emphasis added):
The common ground is that those who live in Christ are wholly separated from every aspect of the pedagogy of the law. The freedom with which Christ has set us free, and the entire source of our ongoing peace and assurance, are based upon our knowledge that what Christ, as we say, enables us to do he actually does in us for himself.
So now we live, not by being forgiven our constant shortcomings, but by being out of the law’s bailiwick altogether; not by imitating Christ, the archetypal practitioner of holy obedience to God’s law, but by burrowing ever deeper into the joy of our free justification, and of our knowledge that Christ himself actually does in us all that his and our Father wants us to do.
Clearly most theologians would disagree with antinomianism's disregard for the moral law, but I can't see how many of these things are perversions of the gospel, at least not the Negative Gospel. "What Christ, as we say, enables us to do he actually does in us for himself"? "The subject of spiritual activity is not the believer but Christ"? "We live...upon our knowledge that Christ Himself actually does all in us all that his and our Father wants us to do"? I've heard statements that very close to these, from some fairly big-name theologians. Clearly there is no slippery slope to antinomianism, or at least little awareness of one as there is for "religion".

Is it really surprising that so much of evangelical Christianity struggles with antinomianism? This is exactly what I observed in the early church in my post on negative theology. Polarization leads to excesses of some things and absences of others. If you think of legalism and antinomianism as two extremes on a spectrum and try to get as far away from legalism as you can, where will you end up? The more the gospel is defined by its opposition to the Great Enemy of legalism/"religion", the more it will creep towards antinomianism. We strive against legalism so strenuously that we risk making it the new center of the gospel, rather than Jesus.

Conclusion/The need to dig deeper

I am now at risk of falling prey to the mistake I just pointed out—"doing theology" to deny what is false rather than to express what is true. Unfortunately, due to the breadth of my critique and the extent to which I have been immersed in these formulations of the gospel, there is a good deal of tearing down still left to do, and it will be a while before I get to doing more than scratching the surface of what the gospel is if not anti-legalism. I hope that I've managed to articulate some kind of a healthier theology of works along the way, because this post is eight single-spaced pages and doesn't need to be any longer.

First, I must proceed deeper and poke at the assumptions that give rise to the Negative Gospel. This will be the subject of the next post. For now I will tease you with the question: could Paul's statements of "justification by faith" be serving some purpose other than to say that we "get right with God" by faith alone, apart from works?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Tribute to Louise

On Wednesday my grandma Louise died at the age of 91. She was my last and most cherished grandparent, and her passing left a hole in my heart and in those of the family and friends who gathered to remember her. At her visitation and funeral this weekend, I was abundantly reminded (and learned a few new things) about rich and compassionate a life she led. If you knew her in any capacity, you no doubt have fond memories of her constant, selfless concern for others, her priceless smile, or maybe her delicious oatmeal.

Whenever my family came out to Walnut Grove to visit, she would have a warm bed and a hand-knitted pair of slippers for us (as well as the aforementioned bowl of oatmeal in the morning). She would set the table with care for meals grand and small; each one was a time to grow closer and love each other as a family. She would help hide Easter eggs for the grandchildren to find, and give hints to us when we weren't sure where to look. When grandpa's health kept him from going to Christmas service, she and her children brought a Christmas pageant to him, put on by all of us, making all of the costumes we wore. These are only a few of the memories I have of her, and even they are only from the last 20 or so years of her life. Even when she got too frail to express her love for us in these ways, her graciousness and habit of putting others first made her the favorite in her assisted living community; several of her nurses showed up to her visitation.

So during the funeral yesterday, as her nephew was reading a eulogy that better expressed what I was trying to say, I realized not only how great a grandma she was, but how much of a role model. I wondered, "What if I did theology the way grandma kept her home?" Obviously it takes a lot of abstraction to transfer home economics to biblical studies, but still, her example puts flesh and blood on so many of the teachings of the Savior whom she loved. Some answers I can think of to this question:

I would seek to write about God in a way that illuminates peoples' hearts, minds, and spirits, not just satisfying my own private search for truth or impressing people with my insights.

I would show concern and compassion in my words for everyone, even if I disagree with them.

I wouldn't take myself too seriously. In fact, I wouldn't think much about myself at all.

I would try to know peoples' needs and bless them in ways they didn't even expect.

What about you? Who is someone in your life who has modeled Christlike character like my grandma Louise? What lessons can you learn from them to apply to your own life?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

What do early schisms in the church have to do with us?

The following is a paper I wrote for my masters class on church history, plus a short relection that didn't fit in the page limit.

In its first few centuries after the conversion of Constantine (and even before), the Christian church faced some of its defining theological struggles. By "defining" I mean both that these struggles served as models for how future Christian leaders could contend for the faith, and that they resulted in several points of doctrine that we consider just as important and foundational as any in Scripture. My text puts it this way: "Those whom the rest of the church eventually rejected as heretics and schismatics left their mark in the theology that was developed in order to refute them."


One of the first such theological battles of this era was the Donatist controversy. This began even before the conversion of Constantine as the question came up again over what to do with the "lapsed", those who renounced their faith under Diocletian's persecutions, or traditores, those who handed over sacred writings to destruction. A divide arose between those who favored more lenient restrictions on readmitting them and the rigorists who demanded stricter measures. This dispute came to a head in Carthage when the new bishop, Caecilian, was consecrated by an alleged traditore. The rigorists considered this consecration invalid and appointed their own bishop, Majorinus, succeeded after his death by Donatus. The presence of two rival bishops in Carthage became a flashpoint for controversy on the issue of the lapsed, and the affair came to be known as Donatism.

What was at stake was much more than practical matters of church government. The conflict between moderate and rigorist Christians was underlaid by questions about forgiveness and the true nature of the church. How were Christians who had compromised their faith but wanted to be readmitted to be treated? Are sacraments administered by a traditore valid? More fundamentally, can someone who appears to have lost his salvation be saved again? And is the holiness of the church grounded on that of its members, or of the Lord and the church offices He instituted? There was also a social element to the controversy; the rigorists tended to live outside major cities, and be poorer and less accepting of the "Romanization" of the church, which they saw as worldly corruption. The Donatist issue was the spark they needed to express their discontent with the direction the church was going, and break away.

The council of Nicea helped resolve this issue, establishing procedures for the readmission of the lapsed, after which they could presumably administer valid sacraments. The proponents of the majority view argued that if the validity of sacraments was based on the holiness of the one administering them, no one could even be sure of his own baptism; they were based on God's holiness, not ours. Augustine would later help to solidify the validity of sacraments performed by an unworthy bishop in his writings.


A contemporaneous, and much larger, controversy in the church was Arianism. This was the teaching that Jesus, the divine Logos (Word), was not equally divine or coeternal with the Father, but was the foremost of the created beings under Him. This teaching originated from Arius, an elder in the city of Alexandria, who like others was seeking to reconcile Christian theology and classical philosophy by interposing Jesus as the Word of God who mediates between an immutable, invisible Supreme Being (the Father) and mutable, material humanity. He was strongly opposed by Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, who claimed Arius was denying Jesus' divinity and the worship of Him that had been practiced for centuries; Arius replied that Alexander's assertion of Jesus' divinity was a denial of monotheism and that Jesus' perfect obedience to God was drained of its meaning if He was Himself God. Both parties had plenty of biblical proof-texts to support their positions.

This might have been a local controversy if Arius had not been highly popular and influential. Soon he had gathered many allies to his position and the Arian controversy had spread through the empire. It was still dividing the church when Constantine converted and Christianity became accepted in the empire. Seeking to end this, Constantine called the first ecumenical council of the church at Nicea in 325, the first such gathering of Christians from all over the known world. Its main purpose was to settle the Arian controversy. Alexander and Athanasius were the main proponents of what would become known as Nicene Christianity; Arius, not being a bishop, was represented by Eusebius of Nicomedia. When Eusebius presented Arius' views, they were received with scorn and quickly condemned by the council. The council wrote the Nicene Creed as an expression of orthodox Christianity that explicitly excluded Arianism; Arius was condemned and deposed (and banished from Alexandria by Constantine). Due to his political abilities, Eusebius was eventually able to change Constantine's mind on the matter and Arianism, though condemned, would stick around for several centuries.


The three following controversies mostly concerned the eastern branch of the church. Apollinaris, the bishop of Laodicea, was a defender of the Nicene formula of Christianity. In his eagerness to defend Jesus' divinity and to explain how He, though a man, could also be coeternal and co-divine with the Father, he began teaching that Jesus' human mind was replaced by the divine Logos. This was one form of monophysitism, the belief that Jesus only had one nature (even if He also had a physical body). Unfortunately for him, his views were judged to be heretical by several local synods before the Council of Constantinople condemned him as a heretic in 381. The council also re-asserted its condemnation of Arianism (which was still a threat to orthodox Christianity) and augmented the Nicene Creed with a description of the divinity of the Holy Spirit.


The next controversy concerned Nestorius, then the patriarch of Constantinople. In his understanding of Christ's dual nature, he was concerned that Jesus' divinity not override His humanity in any way, so that He could no longer identify meaningfully with us as human. So he drew a sharp distinction between them, saying that Christ had "two natures and two persons" and that Mary should not be called theotokos ("bearer of God") but Christotokos ("bearer of Christ"). He and John of Antioch held this view and were opposed by Cyril of Alexandria. In the ensuing Council of Ephesus, Nestorius was declared a heretic and the title of Mary as theotokos was affirmed in no uncertain terms. This council contributed to the growing acrimony between the Antiochene school of theology, which like Nestorius sought to preserve Jesus' human nature distinctly, and the Alexandrian school, which emphasized His divinity even at the neglect of His humanity.


Then the pendulum swung back the other way when Eutyches, a monk in Constantinople, began teaching that Christ's two natures were united into one new nature, which was "of one substance" (homoousios) with the Father but no longer with us. This amounted to saying that Jesus had only a divine nature and was no longer truly human. Though Patriarch Dioscorus of Alexandria supported him, Patriarch Flavian of Constantinople saw this teaching as close to docetism. The resulting Council of Ephesus in 449 was subject to political manipulation by Dioscorus, who ensured that it would rule in his favor, and which handled Flavian so roughly that he later died. Dioscorus also disallowed a letter from Pope Leo, which expressed a position of compromise largely from Tertullian's views, from being read. This council increased the tension between the rival schools of theology even further.

Once Marcian became emperor, he called for a new council, to be held in Chalcedon in 451. This council condemned the "Robber Synod" of 449 and finally read Leo's letter, with which most of the bishops in attendance agreed, saying it described their beliefs. Based on this, the council wrote a definition (not a creed) that would set the standard limits for Christology for the future. Eutyches and Dioscorus were condemned, but some heretical factions still clinging to Nestorianism or monophysitism broke off in the east.


As I studied these controversies in their historical context, not just as abstract contentions over the finer points of Christology, one thing that stood out to me was how none of these "false teachers" seemed like they were "wolves among sheep" intentionally trying to lead people away from orthodox Christianity, as we usually think of them. The Donatists were expressing legitimate concerns about the direction the church was taking; Arius was looking for dialogue between Christianity and classical philosophy. Nestorius was concerned about Jesus' humanity and divinity being blurred together; the monophysite churches were contrastingly concerned about them being so separated as to render the Incarnation meaningless. Apollinaris and Eutyches seem to have arrived at their views in response to earlier heresy, in a desire to refute it. The controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries were like a pendulum swinging farther and farther away from equilibrium.
What I take from this, at least, is the danger of what I will define as "negative theology": that is, "doing theology" not in order to seek what is true, but to refute or exclude what you know cannot be true. So instead of being drawn towards something (hopefully God), you are repulsed away from something else. As I think the above examples show, when this is the case you are likely to proceed straight into an opposite extreme that is at least as bad, and make some enemies in the process. Also notice how much more precise and philosophical the Chalcedonian definition is than anything in the Bible, even John or Romans, due to the necessity of navigating safely between the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools of thought. Of course I agree with it, but if you make it your new starting point for Christology, you are likely to go about the task with quite a different focus than someone who has only the "mere Incarnation". What is important is recognizing not what the definition is against (Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, Eutychianism...) but what it is for—the simultaneous affirmation of Christ's total divinity and humanity, in light of repeated challenges to one or the other—and to continue affirming those same things.

What about you, reader? (Yes, I'm asking a discussion question) Do you think Christians sometimes think about theology not in terms of seeking what is true, but of denying what is not true? Your responses may have a major effect on the next post I'm writing about the gospel!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Gospel Faith

I'm continuing right along with this series of posts delving into the complex, often tense relationship I've had with "the gospel", the all-important confessional centerpiece of the evangelical circles in which I find myself. Recall that in my introduction I introduced the doubts and questions I had about the gospel, as it was described to me, by comparing them to a house with a front and back door. Well, this metaphor turned out to be so utterly brilliant that I'll be expanding it even further, because I'm just that brilliant. I picture the house from The Simpsons.

I'll start with the front door, that is, a highly emphasized and visible point to which we constantly return: justification by faith. This was the crucial realization that (as the story goes) Martin Luther had that sparked the German Reformation. If you hear in someone's testimony about how they found a church that "really preached the gospel", they usually mean they heard something like justification by faith there after not hearing it elsewhere. It's safe to say that evangelical (and most Reformed and Protestant) Christians make a huge deal out of justification by faith; it is the center of the gospel, if not the whole.

I increasingly try to avoid buzzphrases like "justification by faith", or at least to avoid relying on them. Weighty terms like these are like a suitcase into which rich concepts can be easily packed and transported, but if they aren't opened up and unpacked every once in a while, it's easy, for me, at least, to forget what's inside. So I'm going to try and dissect "justification by faith" as I see it used, both by myself and (as far as I can tell) in the wider Christosphere. My change of perspective on the nature of "justification" came through the back door which I'll get into later, so for now I ask: what, exactly, is this all-important "faith" that everyone says is so essential?

Faith as belief (of facts)

Personally, by far the biggest misconception I've had about faith is to keep shut the suitcase into which I pack my concept of it, until my working definition of "faith" is more informed by my own biases and habits than Scripture or any Christian tradition. "My own biases and habits" mean that my concept of faith is highly intellectual in nature, consisting of figuring out, "believing", and affirming things about God. For example, when I first started to actually care about my "faith", it led to some of the most intensive study of theology and apologetics I have ever done—and nothing more. This is why I have so frequently pointed out, from my third post onward, that faith is not just an intellectual assent to propositional facts—I need to hear it more than anyone else!

More practically, this means that where my faith is concerned, my thoughts and words are constantly running ahead of the rest of my life. I see this constantly when looking through my old journals—I will clearly describe some shortcoming or unfulfilled need or sin issue I'm facing, but then continue to struggle with it for years because I have this underlying misconception that by identifying the problem and "figuring it out", I have solved it! And the biggest irony of all is that the problem is self-perpetuating; I may even be doing it right now! The underlying issue is this wrong definition of "faith"-as-intellectual-belief that I hold, which leads me to equate faith problems with deficiencies in my knowledge, understanding, or thinking.

I'm not alone in this misconception, either. Besides how I described above, this intellectual distortion of "faith" can come about in another, related way, which I will refer to as "orthodoxy". Of course, orthodoxy is not a bad thing; its Greek root simply means "right belief", which is presented as important in, for instance, Philippians 2:2 and Titus 2:1. Historically, orthodoxy has meant conformity to the established traditions of the church, or the "rule of faith" used by the early church to distinguish orthodoxy from "heterodoxy" (different belief).

But Protestants tend to distort the old idea of "tradition" (and, therefore, orthodoxy and faith) in two ways: by intellectualizing and individualizing it. With regard to intellectualizing, I mean that we make faith dependent on affirming certain doctrinal propositions, rationalizing that "if you truly have faith in God, you will believe and affirm His teaching through Scripture of ___". The alternative, we think, is putting ourselves above what God has told us and believing whatever we want. I saw this clearly recently with the whole blow-up over World Vision's decision to hire people in legal same-sex marriages, a move which many commentators equated with denying the gospel and the Christian faith.

You might say that this is simply a continuation of how the church has always made belief of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles a non-negotiable; the idea of a "rule of faith" or a creed that all believers were supposed to abide by goes back to the early years of the church. And so today we continue this defense of the truth given us by refusing to compromise on God's words in Scripture. Right?

Are they really "God's words", though? All too often I see theologians equate what Scripture "clearly teaches" with what we make of it. This is a subtle, but common form of theological arrogance in which an interpreter of Scripture becomes blind to the fact that he is interpreting. So his conclusions are what the Bible "clearly teaches" and are thought to have all of its authority; to disagree with him is to disagree with God. If we make our opinions equal to God's, there are bound to be consequences—such as the sadly unnecessary divisions among Christians who have different opinions, all of whom refuse to budge because they believe themselves to be defending "the truth" God told them, and so unknowingly replace Him as the standard of truth.

This is where the individualism comes in, and where the difference from historic Christianity becomes sharpest. Luther had the revolutionary idea of the "priesthood of all believers", or the end of the clergy's monopoly on the interpretation of Scripture. While this was a definite positive step towards God's promise that all would know Him, from the greatest to the least (Jer 31:34), by itself it did nothing to solve the problem of sinful people baptizing their false interpretations. Now, instead of one church (or two) declaring its teaching on the Bible to be true, anyone could back their teaching with the authority of God's Word.

In our post-enlightenment age, this means that as long as we follow the methods of Sound Hermeneutics and remain blind to our own subjectivity, we can consider any conclusions we arrive at from Scripture just as reliable, and therefore just as fundamental, as the early creeds, councils, or rule of faith. We can be sure that every Christian, if his faith is authentic, will believe as we do, having listened to what God's word clearly teaches. This is evident in extreme form in Christian cults or churches that believe all other churches are false, and in less extreme form in the growing multitude of Protestant denominations.

All this is to try to illustrate how, in our rationalistic and individualistic way, we can easily add to the "faith" that justifies us in a way that stifles doubt, alienates people, and distracts us from living the gospel rather than just believing it. I've certainly done it, and I struggle not to keep doing it, especially in times like the recent World Vision controversy where there's just so much I want to say, all of it true and necessary to hear... Of course not all Protestants fall into this trap, but it's a danger we face constantly by virtue of our history.

Faith as passion

Another distortion of faith, somewhat the opposite of the first but similarly common, is to focus too much on its emotional side. Rather than emphasize "correct" belief, it makes authenticity of feeling what counts. You have to feel a certain way when you pray, or when you worship, or repent in a certain way, or have a certain spiritual experience to know you're saved. More charismatic branches of Protestantism are certainly at risk of this, but I have little experience with them, so I won't say any more.

I bought into this misconception about faith when I was younger, in middle and early high school. I remember one summer at the camp my old church ran, when my friend and cabinmate described praying a prayer on his bunk to ask Jesus into his heart, at which point he felt a sensation like a chill or tingle (I can't remember exactly) running up and down his whole body. When I heard this, I was amazed. This was what becoming a Christian must feel like, I thought. I longed to have a similar experience and began to get nervous that I hadn't "truly" repented in similar fashion, even talking to a counselor about it at some point. He prayed with me and tried to reassure me of my salvation, but the worries lasted for years until they were mostly replaced by the intellectualizing tendencies I described above.

So whereas faith-as-doctrine reduces faith to assenting to propositions or holding certain positions, there is also an opposite tendency to make faith all about chasing a certain spiritual feeling, or having a certain transformational experience. Given how unstable human emotions are, this is a sure path o discouragement. The KGP (Knowing God Personally) booklet that Cru distributes admirably answers this kind of thinking about faith, reminding readers not to rely on their feelings, just as the (relative) safety of a flight is in no way dependent on the fears or worries of the passengers, but on the pilot. In other words, our faith in God is not based on how we presently feel about Him, which is worth repeating. The KGP, however, does show one more way faith is often distorted...

Faith as decision

Particularly in evangelical circles, high emphasis is placed on securing "decisions of faith", or "decisions for Christ"—getting people to take that crucial step that separates believers and nonbelievers, the saved from the unsaved. I've recently referenced Scot McKnight on this kind of "threshold" evangelism and its problems, so suffice it to say here that it incorporates parts of both of the other two distortions. Great importance is ascribed to the conversion experience, to the point of distracting from what comes afterward. And yet the essence of conversion is making a decision, which (to minimize the barriers to faith) is often distilled to the "raw gospel", or a bare essential framework of propositions that people must believe to be saved. Can Christian faith really be boiled down like this without losing something valuable? How much do these decisions mean, anyway?

There is an irony to all of these working definitions of faith. We so often emphasize how faith is not about our own strength, or our works, or anything we do, but what God has done for us (more on that next time). Yet all of these definitions of "faith" come down to something we do, or at least experience. We assent to certain doctrinal beliefs, or seek a certain religious experience, or make a crucial decision, and then go to great lengths to explain how these things were really not our doing at all, but God's. I have tried to believe them (again, more next time), and ultimately I think all of these definitions of faith make it about us. That is, the answer way to know you "have faith" and don't doubt is to make sure your beliefs are in line with what Scripture "clearly teaches", or seek some new spiritual high, or rededicate your life to Christ, or just to "have more faith" (possibly the most unhelpful advice ever). All of these things are unreliable as they depend on us, and so if we base our "faith" on them we will be racked with doubts, tossed around like a wave on the sea.

Faith as trust

But, blessedly, most people don't just believe one of these three distortions about faith, not without mixing them with what I consider to be a much worthier view. The word in the Greek New Testament for "faith/belief", pistis, is also translated to "trust", or even "faithfulness/trustworthiness", which is significant. If we distill this to one of the above three things, we lose sight of the fact that Christian faith is not about us, but about the One we have faith in, or trust. It looks outward for its assurance, not inward.

The three distortions I list all diminish this powerful trust in some way. If we must think of this faith as belief in doctrine, then it is not a hollow profession but a real truth that has completely sunk into who we are and how we live. If we characterize it as a passion, then we must admit that it is deeper and more abiding than fickle emotions and religious "highs". If it consists of a decision, then it is a decision that be made constantly. We can't realize any of these things ourselves, and by accepting this our dependence on God for it becomes plainer and much truer than depending on indicators of faith we find in ourselves—putting our faith in our faith, as it were.

Some Scripture will help to define faith better than I can. Probably the clearest such definition is in Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." This definition is in two parts:

The assurance of things hoped for: The Greek here is interesting in that the word for "assurance" is hypostasis, which is better known as the technical term later used in the Chalcedonian definition to describe the common divine "substance" shared among the Trinity. What is this theological term doing here? I'm not yet good enough at Greek to speak with confidence, but it seems to be emphasizing the present reality of the things still hoped for, at least in the mind of the believer. It means laying claim to future hopes as if they have already been realized. In the following examples we see that it roughly means trusting God with peace and full assurance for the fulfillment of His promises. Matthew Henry's commentary is insightful:
It is a firm persuasion and expectation that God will perform all that he has promised to us in Christ; and this persuasion is so strong that it gives the soul a kind of possession and present fruition of those things, gives them a subsistence in the soul, by the first-fruits and foretastes of them.
The conviction of things unseen: Echoing Jesus' words in John 20:29: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." In other words, faith is the firmly established belief in something unseen. To the extent that we look to things we can see (or perceive) like our doctrines, emotional state, or past decisions to find our faith, we undermine it. These things will come in later, but not here. Faith looks beyond the visible to the invisible, to what we can't know for sure by any conventional means, and trusts in that. It may appear irrational, but in fact it completes what is lacking in mere rationality.

Two stories from my own experience might help show times when I experienced faith more authentic than the intellectual kind I tend towards. The first was on the 3rd of July, 2010, in an incident described here. That night, I was watching fireworks over the lake in Milwaukee with my summer project crew. I had previously been informed by another friend from Milwaukee that for the finale, the US Bank tower shot fireworks off its top. So I eagerly awaited this; during pauses, I knew the show couldn't be over because they hadn't shot off the US Bank tower. Unfortunately, this faith turned out to be misplaced and I went home disappointed. But my faith stayed strong against what I was seeing, until the very end.

The second one is my more recent struggle with, and triumph over, doubt. As unanswered questions made the teachings about God and the gospel I'd heard for so long seem increasingly unbelievable, I lost my faith—at least by the above standards. Christianity no longer made intellectual sense to me, and I wasn't really sure what, if any, doctrine I could believe. My peace and comfort as a believer were gone, replaced by a desperate sense of having them torn away by doubt. And because of this, the previous "decisions" I'd made for Christ seemed foolish or misguided.

And yet, somehow, I still trusted. Even though all these signs of belief were gone, I didn't despair, because I still felt confident that God would restore me somehow. And He did! (The answers He subsequently guided me to are most of what led to the current series of posts) But I had to lose all these things that we normally associate with faith to realize what it really was—"mere faith", if you will. Ironically, by realizing that faith was less than I used to think, I saw how it was far more powerful and crucial than I imagined.

Application: Which of these distortions of faith do you subscribe to? This simple definition of faith has deep implications, so it's easy to (like me) say you believe that faith is more than just an intellectual assent or what-have-you but not believe it consistently. Like many others, I still tend to think that if someone disagrees with me on a theological matter than I consider important, then their faith is false, or at least self-deluded. The perspective on faith I learned for myself, I don't consistently apply to others.