Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Animal Suffering and the "Cosmic Fall"

Last Sunday night at my interchurch small group, beginning from the subject of the end of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life, the question was raised: "Why is there death? Why does God allow death, pain, and suffering in His 'good' creation? And why do these things affect not only sinful humans, but uncomprehending and morally neutral animals, and even the forces of nature?" The question, it turned out, was one of those Pandora's boxes that simply cannot be put away once it is asked. The result was some of the most heated discussion we've ever had in that group. (I'm thankful that we managed to keep it mostly charitable)

The discussion was basically most of the group espousing and defending the idea that part of the "curse", God's just punishment for Adam and Eve's terrible sin in Genesis 3, was a "cosmic fall" that caused not just humans but also the rest of creation to become subject to death and decay, myself strongly opposing this thesis, and another friend with lots of questions trying to adjudicate between these views. Given that I express myself much better in writing after a few days to process, I decided against trying to persuade people then and there in favor of writing this post. (Which, incidentally, contains much that I was going to write about in my Gospel series)

In a way, this discussion on animal suffering and "natural evil" was perfectly timed as it came shortly after I got a long-desired book on just this subject, Death Before the Fall by Ronald Osborn. (Previously quoted here) The longer first part of the book is his somewhat heavy-handed answer to biblical literalists who refute evolution and an old earth using a strictly literal, scientific reading of Genesis 1-2 (which contained some interesting points but was not overall terribly useful for me), but the second part was his honest meditations on the problem of animal suffering. Given the magnitude of this question and its close relation with the "problem of evil", it's understandable that he doesn't try to state many firm conclusions, but he takes the discussion in a healthier direction that I overall agree with.

In structuring my own thoughts on animal suffering, and the "cosmic fall" hypothesis often used to explain it, I'm deliberately avoiding any discussion of the age of the earth and the truth of evolution (which I am planning on addressing later anyway). I'm instead trying to get into an "inner-biblical" understanding (that is, what the biblical authors and their contemporaries would have thought) as much as I can.

A note on Hebrew ontology/cosmology

Though many Christians would deny the reality of evolution (see how I promised not to mention it again?) as an unjustified encroachment of modern, scientific thinking on the truth of Scripture, scientific thinking can also affect our take on Scripture in more subtle ways. Consider, for instance, our generally rational view of the universe as operating by mathematically describable natural laws. The laws of mechanics explain everyday motion; the law of gravity explains why things fall, why the earth is round, and why it orbits the sun; the laws of electromagnetism account for much of our modern technologies; and so on. Of course most Christians are on guard against naturalism, or the view that these laws and the matter they describe constitute the whole of reality. We confess the existence of an immortal, invisible God who wrote these laws, is not controlled by them, and can suspend them as He wishes to accomplish His purposes. But these laws describe the way things "normally" behave. If we desire a strictly "biblical" ontology (philosophy of being), this will not do.

To begin with a point I make often, ANE ontology was not material (that is, something "existing" did not mean its consisting of a set of atoms with a position, orientation, and velocity) but functional; something "existed", to quote John H. Walton in his helpful description, "by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system", namely the well-ordered cosmos. ANE creation myths aren't concerned with the material origins of the cosmos so much as the functional origins. They primarily consist of a creator deity creating lesser deities (often by birth or other such analogues of human life) and giving them functions; to be the sky, the storm, the water, the fertile earth, etc. Again, these things are not thought of in material terms but in terms of their functions, their contributions to the working, ordered system of society.

Of course, we can't assume the ancient Hebrews thought just like their contemporaries; we know for a fact that they did not. I don't think they defined Yahweh strictly in terms of his functions (except maybe, circularly, the function of existing: "I AM WHO I AM." [Exo 3:14]), nor did they view Him as creating sub-deities to govern the functions of the cosmos. But it is more likely that the Hebrews did think of God as creating functionaries, not matter in the modern sense (albeit impersonal functionaries that totally obeyed His word). If we read Genesis 1 and 2 as an explanation of where the material sun, moon, earth and stars came from, why life exists on earth, etc., we are missing the precise point the text is trying to make: God created all that was created not to follow scientific laws that govern the universe, but to serve an ordained function in His ordered cosmos. It's a much more personal view of the universe than we have today.

Besides this, in the ancient Near Eastern cultures from which the ancient Hebrews arose, there was no distinction between the "natural" world in which we live, and the "supernatural" plane in which the gods lived. Walton explains how this works for the sun/sun-god:
The cosmic deities were manifest in that element of the cosmos with which they were associated, and they had some jurisdiction there. Sun gods were active in and through the sun—but they did not create the sun, at least in the material terms that we are used to thinking in. ... Existence is much more closely bound with function and role. Consequently, that the sun and sun god function together and that their roles coincide suggest a modified "creative" role. The birth of the sun god is coterminous with the origin of the sun(neither functions/exists without the other), thus explaining the oft-mentioned correspondence between theogony and cosmogony. Though the god is the controlling party in the functioning partnership, the god has no existence separate from, or outside, the sun. The sun is the manifestation of the god and the expression of the god's attributes. The god is the power behind the sun. ... In the ancient world the origins are inseparable from operations. Hence cosmogony, cosmology, theogony, and theology are all inextricably intertwined.
Again, there are big differences between the ANE and Hebrew views. Yahweh was seen, in stark contrast to the gods of the surrounding nations, as transcendent, not confined to any particular function, but the creator of all the functions. The second commandment (Exo 20:4-6) is not simply an application of the first but a rebuke to the absurd pagan notion that the true God who created everything could be depicted and contained in a figure created by creaturely hands. But there are also similarities: the modern, scientific view in which mathematical laws describe how the universe "normally" is unless God steps in bears little resemblence to the ancient notion of an immanent God "in [whom] we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). Or the God who displays the knowledge of Him in the stars and makes the sun run its course like a man on his wedding day or a champion runner. (Psa 19) Or the God of Psalm 104 who makes the clouds His chariot, waters the mountains, grows grass for the cattle, and so on. Perhaps the great tragedy of the modern, scientific worldview is that it threatens not our capacity to believe in miracles, but the premodern sense of divine wonder that permeated all things.

The upshot (no, I wasn't just rambling): in the Hebrew cosmological view, the creation is not some semi-independent entity that normally runs "on its own" when God doesn't reach in. He doesn't have to reach in because He is already very much at home in governing His creation. Even man's exercise of his God-given free will is subject to this government, for sovereignty does not mean crowding out every other agent. Based on this, I assert that it does not make biblical sense to think about death the way we tend to—as an alien entity with a life of its own that somehow broke into the creation to "change the rules", cause havoc, and subvert God's dominion, outside His control, and that needs to be slain. To do so is to confuse biblical metaphor with the reality it describes.

Death (physical death) is described in the Old Testament more simply (and Augustinian-ly). It is simply the absence of life, specifically, the breath of life. Ishmael and the patriarchs each died by "breathing his last" and being gathered to his people (Gen 25:8,17; 35:29; 49:33; RSV, see also Jesus' death in Mar 15:37,39; Luk 23:46). God brings Adam to life by breathing the breath of life into him (Gen 2:7), and states man's mortality by saying, "My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh" (the words for "spirit" and "breath" are interchangeable in Hebrew, as in Greek). In Psalm 104:29, speaking of the animals, the Psalmist says, "when thou takest away their breath, they die and return to their dust." In the Old Testament view, the only thing separating living creatures (man and the animals) from dust is the life-giving breath (Spirit) of God.

The "cosmic fall"

With that said, it should be a bit clearer why I think reading a "cosmic fall" into the Old Testament, before which everything was perfect, is nonsense. There is simply no way to interpret such an event as being a consequence of human sin—to blame it on us. There is no logical way to argue that the first sin could have somehow radically altered the physiological structure of lions, edited biological processes to allow for disease, changed meteorological and geological patterns to make natural disasters possible, and so on. It's nonsense. It simply does not follow at all.

The alternative (and the view my friends were arguing) is that God made such changes in response to Adam and Eve's sin. These changes accompanied His curses pronounced on them in Genesis 3:14-19; because of Adam's role as the representative head or God-appointed ruler over creation, and because of the awful seriousness of their sin, God was entirely just in imposing such a punishment. Man's fate became the fate of all creation; it was "subjected to futility" by God (Rom 8:20) so that all of creation would be redeemed along with sinful man (8:21). So the whole creation groans in travail along with us, (8:22-23) waiting for this redemption from the grievous evil wrought by the sin of Adam.

This is where expressing myself in writing helps; I disagree with this view so strongly and for so many reasons that they get jumbled up and become incoherent when I try to argue against it verbally.

First, this view, though justifying God's action in cursing the creation by invoking His "justice", forgets an extremely basic axiom of all justice: justice only punishes the guilty. No matter how much you play up the seriousness of Adam and Eve's sin, no matter how guilty you make them out to be (a separate matter that I won't get into here), this still in no way justifies punishing uncomprehending, morally neutral animals (much less plants and forces of nature) for the sins of the first humans, no matter how bad those sins were. There is not some threshold of "bad"-ness after which the punishment of a sin is justly allowed to spill over to others. The sheer obviousness of this makes it hard for me to understand how anyone could question it. You may protest (as theologians have done) that God struck the creation to teach man a moral lesson about his sin, but this in no way lessens the infraction of justice. It's like a father who, to teach his son a lesson about obedience and the combustibility of fire, throws the family cat into the furnace. The son will learn a lesson, of course; but what will he learn about his father?

Further, even besides this basic misunderstanding, this view depends on the misconception of "God's justice" as basically being His necessity to punish sin. it is not. As I have previously argued, God's justice is not something negative (opposition to sin and a determination to repay it) but something positive that is compromised or destroyed by sin and which God desires to restore. It is the fair, righteous, and compassionate administration of authority, of which dealing with wrongdoing is only one piece. God's justice is not "in tension" with His mercy; they are both blessings that He wants to bestow on His people and restore in His creation, but which require punishment for those who oppose them. God's "justice" is terrible for those who continue to rebel against Him, but it is so much more sweet for those who are His. We must not allow ourselves to forget this positive picture of justice as something to be desired and sought after, not just something Jesus saves us from so we don't have to experience it.

The upshot of this is that God's justice is not simply a license to take arbitrarily harsh measures against sin or the basis of divine voluntarism (the view that whatever God does, no matter how awful it seems to us, is automatically right because God is the one who does it). It does not stand on its own in conflict with His "nice" attributes like this. It is a part of His plan to redeem all things, so that Amos, in calling Israel to repent and turn back to God, can say that "But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." (5:24) The same Isaiah who prophesies that the Messiah "will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth" (42:4) gives one of the most beautiful passages linking the work of this Messiah to an act of restoration that goes beyond humans to the animal kingdom (emphasis added to this part):
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious. In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant which is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. He will raise an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. The jealousy of E'phraim shall depart, and those who harass Judah shall be cut off; E'phraim shall not be jealous of Judah, and Judah shall not harass E'phraim. [Isa 11:1-13 RSV]
This is the background to my biggest objection to any divinely mandated "cosmic fall". God promises a redeemed "natural" world without predation, existing in harmony with humans rather than existing as a danger (as it did in the Old Testament) or as a resource to be exploited (as it all too often is today). These promises, however, are meaningless if the reason the natural world is in need of redemption is because God "broke" it. He would only be promising to undo what He did in the first place. The deep biological changes that would have to take place to allow the lion to eat straw would only be the reverse of the ones God made in bringing the lion into its present state. If our hope for the restoration of the created world is simply for God to return it to the way it was before He cursed it, what kind of a hope is that?

You may claim (with biblical justification) that God is not restoring the creation to exactly the way it was before; it will be better somehow, to His greater glory. But this still fails to answer how, exactly, it's to God's glory to arbitrarily afflict His creation only to restore it later. Sure, it's a display of His power, but if the ideal is a world without "natural evil", why would He actively move the creation away from this ideal? How does this enhance His glory? This is roughly analogous to answering Paul's question in Romans 6:1, "Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?" with a resounding "Yes!", and the additional caveat that God is the one making us continue in sin so that His grace may abound. One of the rules for interpreting Scripture in the early church was that any interpretation must be worthy of God's character, and I contend that this interpretation is supremely unworthy of Him.

At this point, I'm reminded of another book I read recently, a chronicle by Austin Fischer about his journey into and out of Calvinism. It was a nice little read, and I like how he clearly explained his (still-valid) reasons for being a Calvinist to help show how Calvinists are not simply pretentious, joyless exegetes obsessed with God's sovereignty. He made clear that Calvinism is not a horrible heresy; it is a good way of understanding God's sovereignty and grace, but not the best way. I hope to do something similar with the "cosmic fall" view. Yes, it has its merits, both in how it portrays God as sovereign over creation and deeply concerned about sin, but it is not the best way to explain natural evil.

Fischer's central critique of Calvinism is a more sophisticated version of the old objection that it portrays a God who is no longer good. In response to Calvinist objections that God gets to define what 'good' is and that we are bound to listen and obey, Fischer asks, essentially: if God's definition of 'good' is, in the case of the reprobate, so completely foreign (that is, diametrically opposed) to our definition, how can we be sure that His definition of His other attributes, for instance His truthfulness or trustworthiness, are not also the opposite of our definitions? How can we be sure that His "truthful" speech in Scripture is not lies to us? How can we have any meaningful relationship with Him?

I think this critique applies equally to the doctrine of the "cosmic fall". If, in this instance, God's definition of "justice" is so completely contrary to ours, punishing the innocent for the sins of the guilty, how can we trust this justice? And, as Fischer objected, how can we know His Word is really trustworthy for us, etc.? Again, if God somehow gains greater "glory" (for this view also calls our understanding of His glory into question) by cursing creation and then restoring it, how can we hope that the restoration of all things will really be permanent? Why not continue breaking and fixing the cosmos for ever-greater glory, if God's glory is such an abstract and mathematical notion?

Understanding natural evil as being ordained by God also undermines any incentive we may have to act as "stewards" of creation; after all, God is the one who placed the animals in their plight of mortality, predation, and disease in the first place, and He is the only One who can do anything about it, so why should we try to improve it? Why not make the created world serve our interests with deforestation, pollution, factory farms, and the like and focus on the only thing that really matters, loving our neighbor and the salvation of souls? (I think that such instances of humans failing as stewards and denigrating creation are the only way in which human sin does negatively affect animals, and it is quite obviously our fault, not God's)

Finally, and perhaps most devastatingly, is the fact that not only is this "cosmic fall" never spelled out anywhere in Scripture; in much of the Old Testament, God Himself does not seem sorrowful about "natural evil". There is no hint that it is not the way things are supposed to be, or that it is God-wrought. Psalm 104's beautiful description of the natural world in all its "wild"-ness, including God providing meat for lions and sea monsters, is how Osborn opens his book.
Thou makest darkness, and it is night, when all the beasts of the forest creep forth. The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. When the sun rises, they get them away and lie down in their dens. Man goes forth to his work and to his labor until the evening. O LORD, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy creatures. Yonder is the sea, great and wide, which teems with things innumerable, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan which thou didst form to sport in it. These all look to thee, to give them their food in due season. When thou givest to them, they gather it up; when thou openest thy hand, they are filled with good things. When thou hidest thy face, they are dismayed; when thou takest away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created; and thou renewest the face of the ground. [Psa 104:20-30 RSV]
Likewise in Job:
"Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food? [Job 38:39-41 RSV]
"The wings of the ostrich wave proudly; but are they the pinions and plumage of love? For she leaves her eggs to the earth, and lets them be warmed on the ground, forgetting that a foot may crush them, and that the wild beast may trample them. She deals cruelly with her young, as if they were not hers; though her labor be in vain, yet she has no fear; because God has made her forget wisdom, and given her no share in understanding. When she rouses herself to flee, she laughs at the horse and his rider. ... Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high? On the rock he dwells and makes his home in the fastness of the rocky crag. Thence he spies out the prey; his eyes behold it afar off. His young ones suck up blood; and where the slain are, there is he." [Job 39:13-18, 27-30 RSV]
And of course, the whole of Job chapter 41 about the "leviathan" (probably the crocodile), who is portrayed as the proud, terrible king of of the creatures, rather than man. In all of God's descriptions the tone is one of a proud parent giving a glowing description of his progeny, not of regretfully describing necessary measures taken in response to human sin. Likewise in Psalm 104 the tone strongly suggests that the Psalmist's description of the created world is working just as God intends it to, even the cycle of life and death in v. 29-30. The only suggestion that things are other than they should be is in the last verse, which is directed solely at human sinners and is distinct from the discourse on the harmonious creation.

Death before the Fall?

Osborn's thesis, as the title of his book suggests, is that death could have existed before the Fall. In other words, the pre-Fall creation was not the golden age of perfection that Augustine and later interpreters made it out to be. I have come to cautiously agree with this, fully acknowledging that it leaves much unanswered (but doesn't have the horrible implications of a divinely decreed cosmic fall).

First, the creation in Genesis is never called "perfect". It is called "good", or "very good". The Hebrew for these are tob and tob me'od. These words are elsewhere used to say that Rebekah was "very fair to look upon" in Gen 24:16, that God meant Joseph's brother's mistreatment of him "for good" in 50:20, that the promised land was "exceedingly good" in Num 14:7, that man should "take pleasure" (or "see good") in his toil in Ecc 3:13, and that "it is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth." (Lam 3:27)

If Moses (or whoever wrote Genesis, depending on your theory) had wanted to say that the creation was perfect, he most likely would not used tob and tob me'od, for there is a Hebrew word for "perfect", tamim. So, using this word, Noah was "blameless in his generation" (Gen 6:9), the sacrificial offerings in Leviticus are to be "without blemish" (Lev 1:3,10; 3:1; 4:3; 5:18; 14:10), and in Deu 32:4 God's work is said to be "perfect". If the author really did view the pre-Fall creation as existing in a state of ontological perfection, why didn't he say so?

Or again, if the creation was perfect and exactly "the way it's supposed to be" before the Fall, how do you explain the presence of the snake (later interpreted as being Satan) in the garden? How did he get there? If he really was a fallen angel, who let him in? It's hard to argue that the creation was "perfect" if it contained this lying figure, whatever his identity.

In God's charge to the first humans in Genesis 1:28-29, He tells them to "subdue" the earth and "have dominion [rule] over" it. These are not nice words that describe the work of a gardener; they are militaristic words. The word for "subdue", kabash, is used to describe how the land of Canaan lay subdued before the advancing Israelites, King David's conquests (2 Sam 8:11), people being subjugated into slavery (2 Chr 28:10, Neh 5:5, Jer 34:11,16), trampling or treading down an opposing force (Zec 9:15), Haman "assaulting" Esther in the king's presence (Est 7:8), and God treading our iniquities underfoot. (Mic 7:19) In no other place in the Old Testament is kabash used to mean anything nice.

Likewise with the word for "rule" or "have dominion", radah. At best, it is used to describe the Lord or a prevailing nation exercising dominion over a subjugated nation; at worst, it is used to describe especially harsh rule in Leviticus 25:43,46,53 or the mission of Christ to "Rule in the midst of your foes!" (Psa 110:2) The picture of human's mission here in Genesis 1 is not merely a dignified, representative role as the "head" of a perfect, harmonious creation, but conquerors appointed to subdue an unruly creation (likewise the word for "helper" in Gen 2:18 does not simply mean a personal assistant, but usually speaks of God's much-needed support against a superior force, even enemy armies). In light of the tension between the garden and the land outside (was only the garden perfect?), it's quite possible to see Adam's mission as the expansion of the garden, the subjugation of the untamed earth.

The scope of the "curse" in Genesis 3 is much smaller than what we commonly present as the consequence of sin. The only animal cursed is the serpent, but even it is not forced to become a predator, but only told, "upon your belly you shall go, and dust [not mice] you shall eat all the days of your life." Eve's pain in childbirth is "greatly multiplied", leaving open the possibility that pain did exist before. (There is also the fact that no one has to explain to Adam and Eve what pain and death are, but this is only an argument from silence)

Finally, it is worth remembering, as I often say, that nowhere in the Old Testament do we find any mention of a generalized curse affecting all humans (much less all creation) reverberating from Adam's sin. Isaiah 43:27 does mention him, saying "Your first father sinned, and your mediators transgressed against me", but even here Adam is merely being used as a bad example for the later Israelites, not as the origin of "original sin" common to all.

Neither is death universally presented as the direct consequence of sin; says Osborn, "Death in classical Jewish thought is at times seen as a divine punishment and the consequence of sin, but at other times it is seen as the God-appointed fulfillment of full lives", as seen in the above-mentioned deaths of the patriarchs. Again, going back to the cosmological note, death in the Hebrew understanding is not some alien force that Adam unwittingly introduced to creation, but simply the withdrawal of God's Spirit, the breath of life. It is quite feasible that Adam and Eve were not created immortal intrinsically, but immortal conditionally on their continuing to eat from the tree of life (see Gen 3:22-24). Without continuing access to this tree, man went the way of all flesh, back to the dust from which he came. God's curse to Adam in Gen 3:19, "you are dust, and to dust you shall return", could be God merely reminding him of his finite, creaturely nature and dependence on God's active, sustaining grace for life rather than editing his biological makeup to make him start aging.

I'm not claiming that this case is airtight. There is still plenty that doesn't make sense to me. My goal is that you would, if only for a moment, remove your current interpretive lenses and try on some different ones. This different, admittedly more difficult and ambiguous view of the creation is, at least, one possible way to read the Old Testament—and, in my view, closer to the beliefs of the ancient Jews than our Augustinian reading of a perfect, deathless paradise destroyed by both human and divine action. It draws a closer parallel between creation and redemption (at least for the non-human world), seeing the latter as a continuation of the former to a state of completion that never was in the past.

And yet...

At this point, you are probably just about ready to throw your New Testament at my head. I have been sticking to the Old Testament in an effort to show how we can piously introduce later ideas into it. It is to those later ideas that we now turn. But before getting to Paul, it's worth noting, as I mentioned earlier, that God promises a redemption of all of creation not just in the New Testament, but also through Isaiah. Quoting the relevant passage again:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. [Isa 11:6-9 RSV]
A similar theme is found later in Isaiah:
"For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the child shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD, and their children with them. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the LORD." [Isa 65:17-25 RSV]
These passages both describe a plan of redemption that goes beyond human sin to encompass all of creation, including what we would call "natural evil". Interestingly, you'll notice that people are still subject to death in the second passage, just at a good old age. (Was death per se a problem to Isaiah and his audience, or just untimely death? That is, does this passage describe an "intermediate state" of redemption, as is commonly supposed, or an earlier vision of the eschatological paradise?)

But, of course, it's primarily in the writings of Paul that death itself is revealed to be a great enemy of mankind, which Jesus defeated (or at least defanged) on the cross. In Romans 5 Paul typologically compares and contrasts Adam, the man through whom death came, with Jesus, the man through whom life comes. This passage is also the basis for a doctrine of "original sin".
Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned-- sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the effect of that one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Then as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous. Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. [Rom 5:12-21 RSV]
Again, pay attention to what Paul does and does not say. He does say that death came into the world through Adam's sin, and that it "spread to all men". He does not say anything about whether it also reigned over animals through Adam, or whether "death" is some kind of dualistic spiritual power or simply the loss of man's conditional immortality made possible by perfect communion with God in the garden. The strong parallel Paul draws between sin and death makes it hard to believe he could also have meant his words to apply to natural evil.

Later in Romans, Paul makes clear that the promised redemption and glory which Christ will bring extend not just to us but to all creation, which was "subjected to futility" by God in hope of this redemption.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. [Rom 8:18-25 RSV] 
"Futility" here cannot be the same as "bondage to decay", or we again read Paul as saying, absurdly, that part of God's plan of redemption is simply fixing what He broke.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul makes very clear that death is "the last enemy to be destroyed", and destroyed it will be at the resurrection.
For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. "For God has put all things in subjection under his feet." But when it says, "All things are put in subjection under him," it is plain that he is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one. ... Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." "O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. [1Co 15:21-28, 51-57 RSV]
In his great Christological hymn in Colossians 1, Paul speaks of how, through the cross, God reconciled to himself "all things, whether on earth or in heaven". As many as were created through Christ will be reconciled through Him.
He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities--all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. [Col 1:15-20 RSV]
And in his vision of the final victory, John sees the final destruction of death, and the future hope of eternal life without any death.
Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; [Rev 20:14 RSV] 
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away." [Rev 21:1-4 RSV]
Reading these passages together, it seems pretty obvious that they share some common themes and promises. Paul draws close parallels between sin and death; they both entered the world through Adam, they were both decisively defeated (but not done away with) by Jesus' death and resurrection, and they will both be destroyed forever when Jesus finishes what He started. To Paul, they work together closely; the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23), the sting of death is sin (1 Cor 15:56), death came through sin (Rom 5:12), sin reigns in death (5:21)... Furthermore, given Paul's emphasis in 1 Cor 15 on both the physical and spiritual implications of Christ's resurrection, it seems unjustified to say that Paul drew a distinction between physical death and spiritual death, as I used to do. As with Isaiah, Paul envisions a redemption not just of human sinners, but of all creation to its creator.

In this light, it's easy to see how, reading the Old Testament through the lens of the New, an interpreter could extend Paul's dynamic of "death through Adam's fall, life and redemption through Christ's rise from the grave" to all creation: the whole cosmos "fell", in some sense, with sinful man, and now awaits redemption along with us. This view is based not so much on a specific text as on the desire for consistency; animals age, get sick, and are subject to the same kinds of dangers we are, so shouldn't they have the same source? Yet, as I tried to show earlier, such a "cosmic fall" could not be the direct consequence of Adam's sin, but only God's free response to it. But if the Old Testament perspective I argued for is correct and what we see as "natural evil" is part of God's original, intended creation, the "way things are supposed to be", why are we promised that it will be redeemed? Something doesn't add up...

Picking up the pieces

A few words on methodology. I'm not claiming for a moment to have the solution to the problem of evil, or even of natural evil. If Job is any indication, it lies beyond the human capacity to fully understand. So any solutions that we attempt to come up with are doomed to be both fragmentary and speculative. Fragmentary because they will not be ultimately conclusive or satisfying (I think Jesus Himself is the only truly satisfying answer to these questions), and speculative because in trying to assemble the biblical evidence into a coherent picture, it must add something. What the Bible tells us underdetermines a sure, complete conclusion about God's purpose in allowing sin and suffering. This is why throwing favored proof-texts back and forth doesn't get us anywhere; both parties try to go beyond what God has revealed while thinking theirs is the truly "biblical position".

I think something like this was going on in my small group. As I hope I have showed by this point, the Old and New Testaments (and even different parts of the Old Testament) don't provide a single, neatly cohering viewpoint. Job and some of the Psalms seem perfectly fine with animal suffering and natural evil; Isaiah and Paul promise an end to it. The Old Testament doesn't see Adam's sin as having a global, spiritual effect on his progeny; Paul does.What was happening in our discussion was that I was placing the Old Testament position more centrally, while my friends were emphasizing the New Testament position.

So what is the answer? Does the Old Testament take precedence because it came first? Does the New Testament view supersede the Old by virtue of being more recent? I hope you are as dissatisfied with either of these options as I am. Prioritizing the NT leads to the "cosmic fall" theory and all of its problems, whereas continuing my focus on the OT might have led to a passive acceptance of the creation as it is now, with all its imperfections. The Bible is the work of human authors, but in light of the Christian belief that "all Scripture is theopneustos" (2 Tim 3:16), we rightly expect God to communicate a single message rather than a list of options.

The way I do this is by looking for a progression from the earlier to later views, rather than simply saying that Paul gets to control how we read Isaiah, David, Moses, and Job. Currently, this progression looks something like this:

Job is probably the earliest book of the Old Testament to be composed, despite not having the earliest chronological setting. As I mentioned before, in God's speech to Job in chapters 38-41 we get a very positive view of the created order in all its wild-ness. The sea (associated in the ancient world with danger, monsters, and the unknown) is given boundaries, but still allowed to exist. God asserts knowledge of the gates of death and deep darkness (38:17; probably Sheol); mastery over hail, torrential rain, and thunderbolts; providence of food for both plant and meat-eating animals. Much of chapters 40 and 41 are taken up by what can only be described as God boasting in two particularly spectacular creatures, behemoth and leviathan, on whose identities we can only speculate. On hearing all of this, Job does not question the wisdom of any of it but only falls silent before the great Creator who ordains and sustains the cosmos, and provides for everything in it. Again, there is no hint of a "curse" that has fallen on the natural order, or that any of it is other than it should be.

Genesis, by its third chapter, makes clear that all is not as it should be in the creation. Humans, created to bear God's image and exercise His sovereign rule over His creation, sin against their creator and descend into self-destructive rebellion. This all happens in the first 11 chapters. But through the increases of sin, a glimmer of hope is preserved, first through Noah, and then Abraham and his line. The patriarchs become the main characters throughout most of Genesis as the recipients of God's promises to deal with sin and extend His blessing not just to their line but to "all the families [nations] of the earth". (Gen 12:3) God's promises to Abraham become the vehicle by which He will solve the problem of Genesis 3.

Moses, and Joshua afterwards, lead Abraham's descendants, now a large nation, to claim the promises given to him. Yet even before the Israelites reach the promised land of Canaan, we have to wonder whether they're really the solution God intended or just part of the problem. The big question through the subsequent books of history is whether Israel will remain faithful to God, who gave them the promises, or join with Adam in rejecting Him. Unfortunately they do not, and the curses promises in Deuteronomy 27 and 28 come true as the promised land is taken over by Assyria and Babylon, and the people taken into exile. All seems lost; Israel has failed in her faithfulness to God, and as a consequence lost both her land and the temple their God's presence dwelled among them.

The prophets, however, remind Israel that even if she has been unfaithful, God is still faithful to her, though displeased with her sin and determined to cleanse it. So they prophesy both of punishment at the hands of other nations (either beforehand, as it is happening, or in retrospect) and of God's future redemption of His people. But through the prophets we are also reminded that God's plans aren't just for Israel, but for all nations, as He said to Abraham. And, even more surprisingly, where Genesis and Job seemed to accept the created order, Isaiah foresees a coming redemption that goes beyond humans, to the animal kingdom and even the whole earth. Regardless, even after returning home, Israel senses that her exile is not over. They still live under foreign pagan rulers; the temple has not been rebuilt; her people still don't keep Torah faithfully.

Jesus, of course, is the ultimate fulfiller of the promises made to Abraham, the "faithful Israel" who demonstrated perfect obedience when no one else could. He ministered to both Jews and Gentiles—the promises were coming true for all nations! His death fulfilled Israel's conception of her continuing exile serving as an atoning and purifying sacrifice, and in His resurrection He showed the destiny of the redeemed Israel, the enjoyment of eternal life. He was the Messiah, though not the one Israel expected.

Paul, then, does much of the work of interpreting Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, showing how He fulfilled God's promises. He identifies Israel's continuing exile with the "curse" promised by Moses and presents Jesus as the one to break it, but more than that, to bring the promises of Abraham to all nations. This inheritance of redemption extends not just to the Jews, not just to humanity, but all of creation (Rom 8:19-23); Jesus is truly the savior of all. He never states it explicitly or expounds on it, but it is hard to deny that he saw this redemption extending even to animals and natural evil.

The way I put these viewpoints together, roughly, is that through the Bible, the hope for redemption remains ever since Genesis 3. But the expected scope of that redemption increases, from Israel to all the nations to the whole creation. Since the means by which the whole creation came to be in need of redemption are never spelled out, we seem to be faced with a dilemma. We can either say that God created the world "just right" (assuming that tob me'od really does mean "perfect") and, by implication, is the one who "broke" it, or that He created the world imperfect, with mortal animals, disease, natural disaster and such, so that the promises of a global creation are not a return to the way things were but something totally new.

The first option, that God made the creation perfect but caused it to fall in response to human sin, begs the question of why God would do such a thing and then reveal His master plan to redeem it, that is, to undo what He Himself did. But the second option, that God made the world imperfect, with death, disease, disaster and the like already there, runs into similar difficulties: if it was all the same to Him, why make the world worse than He could? Each explanation for natural evil is beset with such troubling implications.

But is there a third way?

Notice that neither of these patterns fits humans, at least in regard to sin. In the Jewish account we were created sinless, but no one would argue that God "caused" us to fall into sin. Rather, Adam and Eve were created with free will, the powers of self-choice and self-direction, and it was through the abuse of these God-given powers that they sinned. Even after the Fall, the fact that we have free will is not a bad thing, only that we misuse it to sin. Free will is assumed to be a unique gift to humans, and so the blame for the Fall of man can truly be placed on our shoulders, not God's. It's easy to see how God's creation of a self-directing, self-creating people can be to His greater glory than a world of automatons, but also how this freedom creates the possibility for creation to autonomously rebel.

What if the fate of man is analogous to the fate of the rest of creation? That is, what if the animal kingdom and even the forces of nature were also created with a degree of limited autonomy from their Creator? And the misuse of that freedom, rather than God's direct fiat, is the reason for natural evil? In other words, what if there was a "cosmic fall" of some kind, but it was not God's doing but the misuse of creaturely freedom, just like the human condition? It's crazy on its face, not highly supported by the biblical evidence and totally outside the scope of modern science, but then, so is the notion that God edited the biological structure of animals, introduced disease and decay, and even reorganized plate tectonics in response to human sin and then blamed it on us—and this explanation is much more consonant with God's character.

This is the view that Osborn finally, tentatively, settles on, and he explains it better than I can. (Underline = emphasis added)
In Genesis 1, there are implicit and explicit distinctions made between domestic and wild animals, or cattle and "beast[s] of the earth" as well as "creeping thing[s]". ... So there is a still-untamed and wild aspect to the creation. Adam and Eve must wrestle with this side of the created world and bring it more completely under God's dominion without overriding or exploiting its freedom. This is their high calling, and it may be a formidable task. The language of "subduing" in Genesis does not suggest pruning hedges. It suggests doing battle. Put another way, Adam's role is not simply that of a caretaker but of a redeemer. The pressing question is: Might this wildness in the creation that still needs to be "subdued" or redeemed, emerging from principles of freedom or indeterminacy built into the creation, have included death as well? Could God ever have looked at a world that included death or pain of any kind and pronounced it "very good"? And could an untamed and very good creation have included elements of ferocity and even predation? 
The first unmistakable death is recorded in Genesis 3:21—and it is by all accounts God who is responsible for it. ... Readers who hold to a high view of Scripture's authority must be very careful, then, about projecting their own notions of perfection and goodness onto the text and onto nature in the name of defending God's character. These readings may in fact pose far greater theological and moral perils than the idea of death of a kind before Adam's rebellion. To say that seasonal change and cycles of birth, life, and death in nature are, without qualification, "satanic", "evil", and things we will someday escape by leaving this veil of tears and illusion behind, may actually be an expression, in Jewish perspective, of ingratitude if not contempt for God's good creation and the earthiness of material existence.
Whatever its difficulties, the only position that makes any moral, religious or rational sense of human moral evil to my mind is the one that declares that the divine will wills human free will, and is both powerful enough and self-giving enough to create beings with the capacity to make meaningful, self-defining choices that are morally and spiritually significant. And in the same way we speak of moral evil as resulting from human free will, we should now somewhat analogously speak of natural evil and animal suffering as emerging from free or indeterminate processes, which God does not override and which are inherent possibilities in a creation in which the Creator allows the other to be truly other. "The Creator wills that his creation itself should affirm and continue his work," writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "he wills that created things should live and create further life." And God continues to create in and through these processes while still allowing the creation to be as it is, each element and organism working out its inner principles according to its kind. 
Or as Terence Fretheim writes of "natural evils" such as earthquakes and floods, "the created moral order" is best grasped as "a complex, loose causal weave." God "lets the creatures have the freedom to be what God created them to be." At the same time, "the looseness of the causal wave allows God to be at work in the system in some ways without violating or (temporarily) suspending it." This opens the door to the possibility of suffering, whether from the sheer randomness of plate tectonics and bolts of lightning that set forests ablaze or from the rise of adaptations in some creatures that are harmful to others. We might summarize this view of the natural world ... by saying that God's way of creating and sustaining primarily takes the form of divine providence working within history, including natural history, rather than absolute miracle radically interrupting history from without.
Building off C.S. Lewis' speculations on animal sufferings in The Problem of Pain, Osborn looks at the situation in a slightly different way, drawing another parallel between the human and animal plights. Man did not fall on his own, but after the temptation of the serpent, traditionally identified with Satan. Could animal suffering and death, like the human Fall, be a result of the influence of a preexisting spiritual principle in opposition to God's good, creative purposes?
[quoting Lewis] "it is also worth considering whether man, at his first coming into the world, had not already a redemptive function to perform. ... It may have been one of man's functions to restore peace to the animal world, and if he had not joined the enemy he might have succeeded in doing so to an extent now hardly imaginable."
Nevertheless, there is a clear sense throughout the New Testament that we are living in a time of temporary dualism in which God has permitted parts of his creation—and not humans alone—the autonomy of radical freedom and even defiance, which God himself not must in some sense struggle against.
If we take this language not only of human but of cosmic redemption seriously, we will see that the gospel is not only good news to people—it is good news for creation in its entirety, including suffering and stupefied animals, subjected to chaos, cruelty, and death not by their own sinfulness, not by Adam's disobedience, nor again by God's design, but potentially before the arrival of humanity in a universe of unequal but mysteriously conflicting spiritual realities. ... Human as well as natural history now appears as the stage for a drama that has involved opposing principles of freedom and sovereignty for vastly longer than we may have first imagined. 
The advantages of Lewis' in some ways highly literalistic but at the same time nondogmatic speculations include the following: (1) he emphasizes competing principles of freedom rather than postfall miraculous refashioning of matter (whether demonic or divine) to account for the physical universe we now see before us—an approach that seems to this reader to offer greater theological and moral (not to mention scientific) coherence; (2) he offers a nondefensive and open approach to what scientists have to tell us about the evidences of the "book" of nature, without giving away to philosophical naturalists the conceit that they possess the full story; and (3) he exhibits a humble recognition that there is much we simply do not know or understand on both the scientific and biblical sides of the problem.
Lending credibility (if not support) to this hypothesis, remember that Paul does not say that Adam created or begat sin in Romans 5:12, but only that it came into the world through him. John teaches that Satan is the one who has "sinned from the beginning" (1 Jhn 3:8). And, of course, Satan is said to have been cast from heaven (Luk 10:18, Rev 12:7-9) and has (somehow) been given great power and authority over the world (Luke 4:6, Eph 2:2), traditionally identified as the "god of this world" (Jhn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 2 Cor 4:4).


This view removes (or at least softens) the line we tend to draw between man and the rest of creation. Instead of making it a hapless casuality of (God's response to) Adam's fall, it sees their situations as more analogous. Both were created with a limited degree of freedom of self-direction; both were influenced by an opposing spiritual force that (for reasons entirely beyond our present scope) has been allowed access into, and even a degree of authority over, this world. This hypothesis of the origin of animal suffering and natural evil may be wrong; there may be a reading of the biblical evidence that does greater justice to both the Hebrew viewpoint and our modern concerns. But I am content with it for now, in part because it puts me in a place similar to that of Job; in the scope of these grand questions I now see myself as a mere extra on, in Osborn's words, "the stage for a drama that has involved opposing principles of freedom and sovereignty for vastly longer than we may have first imagined." It allows me to see God's mystery as it truly is, not as an excuse for behavior unworthy of His character but as the impossibility of the finite trying to comprehend the mind of the infinite.

The Bible's dual role as a divine and human book means that we can trust it to reveal not only truth about God, but also to reveal the true God, and we rightly keep it at the center of our discussion of natural evil, for it is, I'm convinced, something that God cares about. But at the same time, it is not a magic book or answers or 8-ball that gives us a neat answer to any question we may think to ask of it; it may turn back and question us and our questions. The question "why is there animal suffering and death?" is simply not directly answered anywhere in Scripture, so evidently God did not consider it crucially important to clarify. We can search for a composite answer, in the end, answer or no, we must adopt Job's silence and not make a bigger issue of this question than is warranted.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Going on hiatus

Public service announcement: my posts on this blog (or, at least, the ones on the gospel) will be going on hiatus for a while. This is because of two things:
  1. I will be leaving in a week for a long-awaited three-week trip to Europe with friends. I don't expect to finish anything more before then, so that means at least a month-long break.
  2. When I wrote my introductory post to the gospel series, I thought I was at something of a junction in my faith journey: done tearing down, not yet started building up. The plan was to write the series as a way of both establishing my footing and sharing with others where I was at, then beginning the process of building a new vision of the gospel. Well, it turns out God had other plans, and in the midst of the post series He has begun taking my journey in a new direction that can't but affect my writing. Currently my beliefs are in a new and more promising state of flux, so I will continue again after things (relatively) settle down.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Is America a "Christian nation"?

The tricky part about determining if America is or was a "Christian nation" is that the term "Christian nation" is terribly slippery and seems to mean something different to just about everyone. Does it mean the majority America was Christian at its founding? (Certainly true) Does it mean Christianity was ever established as a state religion? (Certainly false, and against the intentions of the founding fathers) Does it mean that Christian morals or beliefs have somehow been enshrined in the Constitution or Declaration of Independence? Or does it mean that America is under some kind of ontological obligation to have its civil law reflect Christian teachings and ethics (this seems to be the effective definition of many who argue for America's status as a "Christian nation")?

The material in this course has helped to answer this question. First of all, it is certainly true that the vast majority of the English colonists in America were Christians, and indeed quite a few of the colonies (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Georgia) were founded in whole or in part for religious reasons.1 Some, like Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, were founded as experiments in religious tolerance much like what we experience today. The Massachusetts Bay colony was founded by Puritans wishing to establish a theocracy according to their convictions.2 Still others, like the Plymouth Plantation, were founded by religious dissidents seeking freedom from persecution (though this did not mean they were always tolerant of other churches). Maryland was even founded as a haven for English Catholics.3 Several of the colonies had established churches, either Anglican or Congregationalist.4 So the American colonies displayed a wide range of attitude towards religion, from full tolerance to relative apathy to what could definitely be called a "Christian colony".

The case for a "Christian nation" doesn't do much better if it turns to the founding fathers. Fully two-thirds of them were Anglican5, but most were relatively cool to religion and held faiths strongly influenced by the Enlightenment and Deism. Benjamin Franklin seldom attended church and didn't care to spend energy affirming the divinity of Christ. Thomas Jefferson distrusted organized religion and, famously, created the "Jefferson Bible" by cutting out all the parts of his Bible that he disagreed with. George Washington never received communion and preferred to refer to Providence or destiny rather than God.6 The struggle for independence drew inspiration from the political philosophy of the Enlightenment and came with a "rationalist ideology that spoke of Providence above all as a principle of progress."7 This came hand in hand with distaste for what was seen as outmoded Christian dogma and superstition. It's safe to say that by and large, the majority of the founding fathers esteemed Christianity only insofar as it aligned with the "natural religion" of the philosophers and Deists.

Given the patchwork nature of American Christianity and the founding fathers' preference for private, rational religion that left behind the struggles of orthodoxy of the past, it's easy to see how Pennsylvania and Rhode Island's model of religious tolerance became enshrined in the Constitution. It made no reference to Christianity or its God except the date in 'the Year of Our Lord', which was unprecedented at the time.8 The Federal Government had erected a "wall of separation between church and state" (first referred to by Jefferson in 1802) that consciously rejected the established church model of Europe, and one by one the state churches were dismantled, ending in 1833. Established churches became denominations that were free to operate apart from government aid or opposition, the church model which continues to this day.

So it's difficult to see how American can be called, in any meaningful way, a "Christian nation". The founding fathers were certainly no defenders of the faith, much more interested in the ideals of the Enlightenment and natural religion than in anything particular to Christianity. There was nothing distinctly "Christian" about the founding of the federal state as there was with Plymouth or Massachusetts Bay. Certainly the great majority of its population has been at least nominally Christian for much of its history—but what kind of Christian? By the time of its independence, America was home to Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Catholics, to name a few.

When I hear appeals to America's supposed status as a "Christian nation", it is in the context of an attempt by the speaker to in some way lay claim to America's religious heritage for his own tradition or agenda. But America's religious history, even on the popular level is far too ambiguous for this kind of talk. If America is in some sense a "Christian nation", it is so in all of the diversity that the Church in America had in 1776 and has grown into today. If I may be allowed to finish with a truly atrocious pun, I think it would be more accurate to refer to America in a way that describes its heritage of religious diversity and tolerance: a "denomi-nation".

  1. Robert C. Walton, Chronological and Background Charts of Church History (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2005), chart 96.
  2. Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 280.
  3. González, The Story of Christianity, 286.
  4. Walton, Charts of Church History, chart 96.
  5. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London: Penguin Books, 2009), 763.
  6. MacCulloch, Christianity, 764.
  7. González, The Story of Christianity, 320.
  8. MacCulloch, Christianity, 764.

Athanasius, Aquinas, Palamas, and Incarnational Theology

The following is a paper I wrote for my Church History class.

Christian truth is distinguished from secular thought in many ways, but perhaps the biggest difference between the two is the pervasive presence of mystery in the study of God. In contrast to other fields of study that can be systematically explored, theology is full of seemingly simple truths in which you can lose yourself for many lifetimes. Prominent among these these is the Incarnation. It can be stated simply and completely: "God took on flesh and became a man in the person of Jesus Christ." Yet the implications of this doctrine are unimaginably profound, and they have occupied the Church every since, most visibly in the early Christological controversies. This paper will attempt to demonstrate in brief this supreme mystery by profiling the life and thought of three major figures in church history who were significant in the study and application of the Incarnation: Athanasius, Thomas Aquinas, and Gregory Palamas.

St. Athanasius (c. 297-373) was most likely a lowborn Copt, growing up along the shores of the Nile; his African ethnicity and stature earned him the nickname "black dwarf".1 Little is known of his early years except for his contact with the nearby desert monks, particularly St. Anthony. He wrote the Life of Saint Anthony, our main source of knowledge about the reclusive anchorite, and is said to have visited the monks of the desert several times, a relationship which gave him a degree of monastic discipline and may have later saved his life. He was secretary to Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, at the Council of Nicea (325), and at his death in 328, the mantle of bishop passed on to Athanasius (against his wishes) as did the task of fighting Arianism, which was then resurgent thanks to Eusebeius of Nicomedia's political dealings.

Even before Nicea, the young Athanasius had written defenses of what would become Nicene theology. He did not care for the speculation of Clement or Origen; like that of Irenaeus, his conviction for orthodoxy was pastoral: safeguarding our direct approach to God through the God-man Jesus Christ.2 He placed great importance on the Incarnation,3 resenting the abstraction of Arianism for how it both distracted and detracted from it as the ground for our salvation. To be able to save humans from sin and death, Jesus had to be human, but such was the extent of our need that the author of our re-creation could only be the One who created us initially.4 5 So Jesus had to be both fully God and fully human. In the name of protecting God's singularity and transcendence, the imaginings of the Arians simply did not leave room for any meaningful salvation in Jesus Christ.

Against Arius' use of Justin Martyr's conception of Jesus as the divine Logos (word), Athanasius showed how Jesus-as-Logos was not at all incompatible with Jesus-as-God, but in fact indispensable to it. Jesus was not created, but creator of all things along with God: "only he who had created the universe could save man, and that to do either or both of these he himself had to be divine and not a creature. The Logos was present in all of creation as the one through whom it had come into being."6 The Logos' role as creator fit perfectly with Jesus' role as re-creator, and both roles could only belong to one who was truly God.

As Athanasius became the principle opponent of Arianism in the mid-fourth century, he made powerful enemies. Eusebius and other Arian leaders tried to discredit him, claiming that he ruled Alexandria's church like a tyrant or that he practiced magic, (Gonzalez 201) though these attempts did not succeed. However, his influence in Constantine's court exceeded Athanasius' and he was eventually able to win the emperor over to his side, even baptizing him on his deathbed.7 Athanasius was exiled from Alexandria, only to be restored after Constantine died.

After he returned, Athanasius found that the Arian party in Alexandria had gained such influence that it had appointed a rival bishop, Gregory, and ran him out of the city again. He went to Rome, where he gained the support of the Roman clergy for the Nicene cause; eventually, Constans, the emperor of the west, managed to convince his brother Constantius to allow Athanasius to return. He was welcomed back as a hero, and enjoyed ten years of relative peace during which he was able to write a number of treatises against Arianism. But Constantius, who was a committed Arian, eventually gained control of the empire and tried to expel Athanasius again. He was saved by the clergy and went into hiding with the desert monks for five years. Only once Julian "the apostate" took the throne could he return.

Though unwavering in his opposition to the heresy, Athanasius took a more conciliatory tone with the Arians. He tried to allay their fears that the statement in the Nicene Creed that Jesus and the Spirit were homoousios (of the same substance) with the Father obliterated the distinction between the three, and said that it was even permissible to speak of them as homoiousios (of similar substance) as long as this was not taken to mean tritheism.8 Until the end, Athanasius believed that the Nicene cause would prevail, and he was posthumously proven correct at Constantinople. He has since been remembered as one of the greatest proponents of Nicene Christology and trinitarian theology, as well as one of the foremost of the church fathers.

But while the west still affirms Athanasius' teaching of orthodoxy Christology for the sake of salvation, the east applies his theology in a different and more interesting way. Athanasius' doctrine of the Incarnation receives considerably more stress in Orthodoxy Christianity, and more practically. He is one of the founding fathers of the idea of theosis, or "divinization". Jesus' incarnation, the union of God and human flesh, allows us to share in God's glory and become more like Him. He boldly summarized the purpose of the incarnation thus: "God became human that we might be made god."9 Or, put differently, "The Word took flesh that we might receive the Spirit."10

Soon after Athanasius (and presaged by their different perspectives on him), east and west began to diverge in their thinking about God and our knowledge of Him, though still influenced by his stress on the Incarnation and Trinity. Two later thinkers from after the Great Schism will illustrate this difference. Possibly the most influential thinker in Catholic history, save perhaps Augustine, is St. Thomas Aquinas.11 (1225-1274) He was born to aristocratic parents near Naples, who hoped that he would pursue a prestigious ecclesiastical career. They placed him in the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino to begin his education; he began studying at the University of Naples at fourteen.12

His life took a major turning point when he decided to become a Dominican monk at the age of nineteen. His parents opposed this decision and went as far as locking him in the family castle before he escaped, became a Dominican, and went to study under Albert the Great in Cologne. Albert was at the forefront of the efforts to reconcile the philosophy of Aristotle, recently reintroduced to the west, with western theology, though Aquinas would soon overtake him. He was also the first medieval scholar to articulate the concepts of philosophy and theology as separate disciplines.13 Though limited in the scope and certainty of the truths it could uncover, philosophy guided by reason could operate independently of revelation, and maybe even prove some of the truths previously accepted by faith alone.

Having first encountered Aristotle at the University of Naples, Aquinas helped to bring his philosophy into the very heart of Catholic thought and end the Platonic bias that had prevailed in western theology since Augustine. Rather than discouraging the study of the natural world in favor of the purely spiritual contemplation of God (which risked ignoring God's acts of creation and Incarnation), Aquinas held that all knowledge must begin with the senses, echoing Aristotle's axiom that "nothing is in the mind unless it was first in the senses."14 He believed that the mind was primarily oriented outward, toward the world, and that since God was the ultimate cause of all things, His perfections could be glimpsed through His creation.15 In other words, we can (imperfectly) know God by reason through His created order, not apart from it.

Aquinas also articulated the relation between faith and reason which would henceforth be adopted by the Catholic Church. He saw faith and reason, theology and philosophy as running parallel to each other, though faith is ultimately greater.16 Though reason can prove some of the truths necessary for salvation, God does not limit salvation to those who are intellectually gifted, so all such necessary truth has been revealed and is an acceptable field of inquiry for both philosophy and theology.17 What faith simply accepts, reason can sometimes prove. The two can never contradict each other, but the truths of God far transcend what finite reason can discern.18

Aquinas’ relation of reason and theology can be seen in his “five ways” of proving God’s existence: motion, causation, necessity of existence, the gradation of goodness, and the rational governance of the natural world.19 Zooming in on the first way, he argued from the manifest existence of motion, which must be initiated by some other motion. But this chain of movers cannot go on forever—there must be an Unmoved Mover who set the universe in motion. Aristotle thought that this was an impersonal supreme Being, but Aquinas revealed it to be none other than the personal, loving God of Christianity. In such a way, Aquinas showed how our minds and senses could be redeemed to know their Creator, and at the center of this realization was Jesus' role as that Creator as well as the One who became incarnate within creation.

Aquinas' impact on the church, and indeed on western civilization, cannot be overstated. His thought has so pervaded the Catholic church that as late as the 20th century pope Pius X "proclaimed Thomism to be the preeminent Catholic system of thought, directing that it serve as the basis of all theology."20 His ideas dominated the church afterward, though his denial of Augustine's doctrine of the divine illumination of the soul (as opposed to finding knowledge of God through the senses) is controversial. His outward turn from abstract contemplation of spiritual truths to a greater reliance on sense knowledge, as well as his separation of philosophy and theology as disciplines, also helped to prepare the way for modern science.

Aquinas' system of thought contrasts interestingly with a roughly contemporary eastern thinker who would similarly set the tone for the Orthodox view of God ever since: St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). Both realized the importance of the Incarnation as Athanasius tirelessly stressed it and sought to apply it to our knowledge of God, but the differences end there. Unlike Aquinas, Palamas scorned scholarly learning and instead pursued mysticism. Early in his life, he became a monk of Mount Athos, and the life of asceticism he cultivated there would prepare him for what would become his greatest legacy: the Hesychast controversy.

Hesychasm (from the Greek word for "silence" or "stillness") was not new in Palamas' day. The Hesychasts sought to glimpse the Uncreated Light of God which the Apostles saw at the Transfiguration (Mat 17:1-8, Mar 9:2-8, Luk 9:28-36); they held a "mystical idea of light as the vehicle of knowing God, or as a metaphor for the knowledge of God."21 But this was not a purely spiritual contemplation of God in the Platonic sense; Hesychast prayer incorporated specific physical elements like the contemplation of an icon, structured prayer, physical posture, breathing patterns, and the repetition of a short devotional prayer, especially the 'Jesus Prayer': "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me."22

In the Hesychast controversy, this growing devotional trend collided with a theological one, namely apophatic (negative) theology. Apophatic theology stresses the essential difference between us as creatures and God as Creator. It thus takes as a foundation for speaking of God that we cannot speak definitively about what God is like, but only of what He is not: mortal, finite, visible, etc. Gregory of Nyssa, one of Athanasius' contemporaries, stated that "The true knowledge and vision of God consist in this–in seeing that He is invisible, because what we seek lies beyond all knowledge, being wholly separated by the darkness of incomprehensibility."23

But if God was truly invisible and essentially unknowable as apophatic theology claimed, how could Hesychasts claim to glimpse His Uncreated Light—with their physical eyes, no less! Barlaam, a convert from Catholicism, pointed out this contradiction, holding that expecting to see God's essence in prayer was to confuse creator and creation.24 He warned of the danger he saw in Hesychast prayer of abandoning the bounds of reason and letting mystical experientialism carry one away into deception and fanaticism.

Palamas stepped in to reconcile Hesychasm with Orthodox theology, much as Aquinas did for Aristotelian philosophy. He criticized what he saw as Barlaam's western-style rationalism that reduced everything to apophatic theology.25 To show how it really didn't invalidate the practices of Hesychasm, Palamas draw a crucial distinction between God's essence and His energies. He was not forging innovative theology here, but echoing another Cappadocian Father, Basil the Great, who said, "We know our God from His energies, but we do not claim that we can draw near to His essence. For His energies come down to us, but His essence remains unapproachable."26 Palamas taught that these energies are none other than a manifestation of the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised to His disciples (Acts 1:8).27 So though "no single thing that is created has or ever will have even the slightest communion with the supreme nature",28 God graciously reveals Himself to us in His energies

Palamas further defended the use of physical practices in prayer, even the expectation of seeing the Uncreated Light, by the fact that through the Incarnation, God had shown His intention to redeem whole people, just as He created us as whole people: not just souls, but bodies as well, and so we were to love and seek Him with our bodies as well as our souls. In a way very different than Aquinas, Palamas also tore down the Platonic distinction between mind and body as it pertains to knowing God. His concern was ultimately that of Athanasius: "to safeguard our direct approach to God, to uphold our full deification and entire redemption."29

Palamas has been just as influential in eastern thought as Aquinas was in the west. He was vindicated at two local councils held in 1341 and 1351, and later became the Archbishop of Thessalonica; for good measure, he was swiftly canonized in 1368. Barlaam was condemned as a heretic at the 1341 council and later rejoined the Roman church. And thanks to Palamas' efforts, Hesychasm, and especially his distinction between God's incomprehensible essence and graciously knowable energies, was integrated into Orthodox Christianity.

As I stated above, the major theological thread that ties these three disparate individuals together is the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus. Athanasius saw this Incarnation as crucial for our salvation, which he understood as theosis, the restoration of the likeness of God in ourselves as we draw closer to Him in mind, soul, and even body. Aquinas and Palamas, then, can be seen as fleshing out this truth in different, characteristically western and eastern ways. Aquinas focused on the redemption of the mind and the senses, applying the Incarnation to our knowledge of God; Palamas focused on the redemption of the body and soul, applying it to the Hesychasts’ mystical experience of God.

What modern application can the Church make from their life and teachings? One obvious one is that doctrine (especially, at present, the Incarnation) cannot simply be "held" or "believed" as “timeless spiritual truth”, it must be lived. If we simply make belief in the Incarnation a litmus test for orthodoxy or the basis for expounding further truth about Jesus, we miss out on its mystery and power. The Incarnation has far-reaching implications for our modern Christian lives, if we are willing to see them.

One of the biggest challenges for the modern church from Aquinas and Palamas' teaching is the importance they place on the body and senses. Aquinas toppled Neo-Platonism from its place atop Catholic theology, but some strands of Protestantism, rejecting Catholic traditions (Luther from the beginning strongly disagreed with Aquinas' esteem of reason for knowing God, calling it a "theology of glory" as opposed to a "theology of the cross"30), ironically ran back to older Catholic traditions that were more Platonic in their study of spiritual truths apart from human experience. One modern result is the aforementioned tendency to merely hold or believe doctrine rather than living it. The Incarnation should shake this habit of ours to the core.

One other application of the Incarnation is to our worship. Like me, many evangelicals come from a "low church" background which deemphasizes the formal, sacramental, and liturgical elements of worship in favor of a less-formal atmosphere, more preaching, a looser routine, less "ritual", or (as my church puts it) just "doing life together". The rationale behind low church, founded on the Reformation's rejection of "popish" traditions, is that the formalities of liturgical worship are not necessary for "true" worship, which is assumed to be spiritual, or for the preaching of the Word. Yet Athanasius', Aquinas', and Palamas' applications of the Incarnation should get us to think twice about our dismissal of more formal, liturgical, worship. Could it be that the external form of Christian worship is not supposed to be simply a passive vehicle for the preaching of the Word and the acting of the Spirit? If Christ came in the flesh, and if the redemption He offers involves our bodies as well as our souls (which we have good reason to think it does; see 1 Corinthians 15), then perhaps we ought to adopt what James K.A. Smith calls a "sacramental" understanding of the world, one in which "the physical, material stuff of creation and embodiment is the means by which God's grace meets us and gets hold of us."31 Indeed, this understanding seems to sum up those of both Aquinas and Palamas.

It is to God's glory that this discourse on the Incarnation is only a drop in the ocean of its meaning—it is a divine Mystery, after all. So, as we come to appreciate Athanasius' insistence on the centrality of the Incarnation for our salvation in Christ, Aquinas' connection with the rational knowability of the created world and the Creator God through it, and Palamas' call for the redemption of even our physical bodies so as to know God's energies (as the manifestation of the Spirit) as whole people, we must also keep in mind that even their wisdom is only the beginning. It is the responsibility of each generation of Christians to carry the truths of God forward, unchanged but reapplied to a changing world—and thanks in part to the Incarnation, we know that we are not left on our own in this task.

  1. Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, Volume I: From the Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 199.
  2. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 69.
  3. González, The Story of Christianity, 200.
  4. González, The Story of Christianity, 205.
  5. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 204.
  6. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971), 203.
  7. González, The Story of Christianity, 191.
  8. González, The Story of Christianity, 206.
  9. Ware, The Orthodox Church, 21.
  10. Ware, The Orthodox Church, 230.
  11. James Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 183.
  12. González, The Story of Christianity, 375.
  13. Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church, 181,
  14. Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church, 182.
  15. Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church, 183.
  16. David K. Clark, To Know and Love God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 38.
  17. González, The Story of Christianity, 377-378.
  18. Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church, 181-182. 
  19. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1.2.3, New Advent, <> (8 May 2014).
  20. Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church, 371.
  21. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London: Penguin Books, 2009), 487.
  22. MacCulloch, Christianity, 488.
  23. Ware, The Orthodox Church, 63.
  24. MacCulloch, Christianity, 487.
  25. MacCulloch, Christianity, 489.
  26. Ware, The Orthodox Church, 68.
  27. MacCulloch, Christianity, 487.
  28. Ware, The Orthodox Church, 68.
  29. Ware, The Orthodox Church, 69.
  30. Clark, To Know and Love God, 39-40.
  31. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 141.