Monday, November 10, 2014

Position Paper: Christology, Soteriology, and Pneumatology

The following is the fourth position paper for my systematic theology class, on Christology, soteriology (study of salvation), and pneumatology (study of the Holy Spirit). The paper format (a series of affirmations and denials) was dictated by the assignment requirements, but I found it very helpful for expressing my views on all three subjects concisely.

I affirm that Jesus is the Word of God (Jhn 1:1,14), the Truth of God and the Way to God (Jhn 14:6, 17:17), the eternal Logos of God, who was incarnated on earth for our salvation. "Christ doesn't just speak the truth, he is the truth."[1] The fact that Truth is a person has far-reaching implications. The content of the Word of God, then, is not simply truth about God, but God himself, in the flesh. (Hence both Jesus and the Bible are considered fully divine as well as fully human[2]) Knowing the Truth, that is, knowing God through the incarnate revelation of Christ (Col 1:15-20, Heb 1:1-3), inseparably involves both knowing truth and living truth.[3] As John Chrysostom said, "Virtue is really true, vice is falsehood."[4] Theology, to the extent that it prioritizes knowing things about God over living them, falls short of the Truth.

The personal nature of truth means that those who don't know Jesus consciously and personally still know him partially because of their partial knowledge of what is true and right. "Everything that is true, whether or not it is said by a Christian, is true because of Christ; anything that is approaching truth is approaching Christ. And everyone who is doing the truth is making some kind of approach to Christ, whether or not they name him as Christ."[5] As Justin Martyr wrote, Christ's role as the universal Logos (reason or wisdom) of God means that all people and faiths have at least an "implanted seed of the Logos" in them.[6] This does not mean that everyone has a salvific knowledge of Christ, but it does make dialogue and common ground with nonbelievers of all kinds possible.

I affirm that Jesus is fully God (Mat 25:31-33, 26:64; Mar 14:62; Jhn 8:58, 19:7, 20:28; Phil 2:6; Col 1:15) and fully human (Luk 2:51-52; Jhn 1:14; Gal 4:4; Phil 2:7-8). We do not come to this truth by trying to combine our pre-understandings of divinity and humanity into one person, but by glimpsing in his person both what divinity and humanity truly are.[7] "Rather than measure Christ's divinity by the norm of our humanity ... we can only grasp the mystery of the preexistent Logos, and understand the meaning of that incarnation for our salvation, insofar as we measure our humanity by the norm of his divinity."[8] Christ is the clearest revelation of God to us (Jhn 1:18, 14:6-11; Heb 1:1-3) and shows us true humanity as it is meant to be, free from the corruption of sin and death, as we who are in Christ will be. (1 Cor 15) The more like Christ we become, the more we are living as fully human, and vice versa.

I affirm the Nicene Creed and Chalcedonian Definition as orthodox descriptions of the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ, that he is both fully God and fully human. The Creed truly depicts Christ's nature as "true God" and relationship with the Father as the only-begotten Son, "of one substance with the Father", and the reality that for our sake he took on flesh, suffered, died, rose again, and ascended into heaven. The Chalcedonian Definition teaches how true humanity and true divinity can coexist in one person with two natures "without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation", that Christ is "of one substance with the Father in relation to his divinity and ... of one substance with us in relation to his humanity."

I affirmthat through his death and resurrection, Jesus destroyed the power of sin and death by dying (Jhn 11:25-26; Rom 8:34-39; 1 Cor 15:20-26,51-57; Col 2:9-15, 3:3; Heb 2:9,14-15), ransomed us from the power of the devil (Mat 20:28; Mar 10;45; 1 Cor 6:20, 7:23), and demonstrated to us what true love is (Jhn 15:13, 1 Jhn 3:16). These correspond to the Christus victor, ransom, and moral influence theories of atonement. In keeping with his role as the Truth of God, Jesus also saves us by bringing us to knowledge of God, which is eternal life (Jhn 17:3). The truth makes us free (Jhn 8:32), and God wants everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of him. (1 Tim 2:4) "For it is the God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ." (2 Cor 4:6 RSV)

Regarding ransom theology a little more must be said. Christ's ransom to sin, death, and the devil was not legal in nature, as if these powers had somehow obtained a legal right to us that God must honor. This language is metaphorical; for example we are "sold under sin" (Rom 7:14) not in an actual legal transaction that Christ has to reverse, but in that we are "under sin's power", “owned” by sin, as if we were sold to it in a real transaction. Our salvation from sin does not consist in Christ literally but rather metaphorically buying us back from sin by destroying its power over us and freeing us to live in him. Similarly, Basil the Great wrote that Christ "gave himself as a ransom to death" in his Eucharistic prayer.[9] Again, it strains belief (and the imagination) to see how death could have legal rights over us and demand a literal ransom. Ransom theology does not describe a literal transaction between Christ and sin/death/the devil, but is one of the many ways the church has described his victory over these things for our sake.

I affirm that Christ's death is intended and sufficient for the salvation of all humanity, but is only effectual for those who believe in him. Abundant evidence for the former is found in Jhn 1:29, 3:16-17; 2 Cor 5:14-15; 1 Tim 2:6; Heb 2:9; 1 Jhn 2:1-2, 4:14, and it can also be inferred from God's universal love for and desire to save all people (Eze 33:11; 1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9). The latter is seen in numerous passages like Hab 2:3-4; Jhn 1:12-13, 3:16; Rom 5:1. I believe that in this formulation I express the same meaning that Paul did when he said that Christ is "the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe." (1 Tim 4:10) Passages like Mat 1:21; Jhn 10:11,15,26-27; Acts 20:28; Rom 8:32; Eph 5:25 that appear to limit the scope of Christ's atonement are merely speaking of those for whom it is effective and actualized, and are not intended to limit the extent of the atonement to a special subgroup of humanity.

I deny that the historical reality of the person of Jesus Christ is in any way unknowable or dispensable, as modern theologians like Barth and Bultmann have claimed. It has been the witness of the church from the beginning that the "historical Jesus" is real, knowable, and important. The apostle John takes pains to establish this against Gnostics. (1 Jhn 1:1-4) To dismiss these references to the God-man who entered history, took on a tangible body, and lived among us for 33 years as secondary to the kerygma (preaching and theologizing) of the church about Jesus is to subvert that very kerygma (which has always affirmed the historical importance of the "Christ event") in the name of modern, often existential philosophies.

I deny that Jesus' atonement somehow served as a ransom/payment to the Father, or that it was necessary to "satisfy" his justice. I will expand on this in the section on salvation below.

I deny that Christ "atoned" for our diseases and sufferings, as Mat 8:16-17 and Isa 53:4 are sometimes interpreted to mean. It is true that Jesus' atonement is intended to do away with sickness and suffering; like every other part of our human condition, Jesus bore these things, as the prophet says, to redeem them. The substitutionary nature of the atonement means that Jesus bore the weight of sin and death as our representative (so that we might share in his life and redemption as he shared in our sorrows), not our surrogate (so that we no longer have to go through what he went through). Like the father of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), God is eager and ready to forgive our sins, but never does he promise to make us sinless the moment we are saved; neither does he promise to heal us of every affliction on request, as Paul learned (2 Cor 12:1-10). These things are part of the labor pains of the creation (Rom 8:22-25); we await deliverance from them with faith and patience.

I affirm that salvation is the saving knowledge of God in and through the person of Christ (2 Cor 4:6), reconciliation with God (Rom 5:1, Col 1:21-23), forgiveness of sins (Mat 26:28, Act 10:43, Col 1:14), and freedom from "the law of sin and death" (Rom 8:2) that the devil wields against mankind. (Heb 2:14-15) Most fundamentally, though, salvation is life: true, eternal life in Christ (Jhn 5:24, 10:10, 17:3; Rom 8:9-11). By participating in Jesus' death, we also participate in the eternal life he has in himself. (Jhn 5:26, 2 Cor 4:8-12, Gal 2:20) This will be realized at the resurrection of the dead. (1 Cor 15:51-57) The point of salvation is not what we are saved from but what we are saved to. We are freed from sin and death not merely because they are bad in themselves but because they are separation from the author of life. "Salvation cannot be understood only in the narrow terms of liberation from self, from evil powers, and from death. 'Salvation' in the fullest sense leads to the acquisition of life through grace."[10]

I affirm that nothing can imperil our salvation or pull us away from God (Jhn 10:27-30; Rom 8:31-39, 14:4; 1 Cor 10:13; 2 Tim 1:12; 1 Pet 1:3-5), but that we can remove ourselves from our saving union with Christ by apostasy. This is shown by warnings against doing so (Mat 24:3-14; 1 Cor 8:27, 10:12; Heb 2:1), mentions of the conditionality of our perseverance in faith (Col 1:21-23; Heb 3:14, 6:11-12), and teachings about apostasy (Heb 6:4-6, 10:27-27), as well as countless examples of apostasy both in the Bible and in contemporary Christianity. Just as God respects the freedom he created us with by not compelling anyone to believe in him, so he also does not prevent us from rejecting him. It is misleading to speak of "losing" your salvation the way you might lose your car keys; salvation is not something we merely possess but something we actively partake in. Genuine salvation is not “lost”, but ceased or renounced.

This is not cause for worry, however. It is important to distinguish between "losing" one's salvation and losing one's consciousness (subjective awareness) of it. "Dark nights of the soul" are not unknown to any of the great figures in the Bible, even Jesus (Mat 26:38). These experiences, when we fear and struggle to maintain faith (trust) in God the most, are exactly the situations which the biblical assurances of our perseverance are meant to address: no external circumstances can separate us from God's love. But if we are living as God's redeemed children, fear that we will actually reject his salvation is not only baseless; it is impossible, excluded by our faith in and love for him. I believe this is actually more comforting than the alternative, the Calvinist teaching of perseverance. For if all those who claim to have been Christian and fallen away were never really Christians at all, no matter how sure they were of their salvation, what confidence can we have that we are? How are we any better? So the teaching of perseverance merely substitutes uncertainty about the reality of our salvation for uncertainty about its continuation. I consider the latter easier to deal with and more in line with the biblical teaching.

I deny that God's justice had to be "satisfied" by Christ's death, that our salvation is literally forensic, or that we are literally saved from God's wrath. This doctrine, the "satisfaction theory" of atonement, was formulated by the late-eleventh-century bishop Anselm of Canterbury and is based on an inverted understanding of God's justice (based on the judicial system which Anselm knew) that is inward-directed and demanding rather than outward-directed and generous like his other moral attributes. This is in contrast to the abundance of biblical evidence depicting God's justice as something we positively desire from him, no different than his love, wisdom, righteousness, etc. (Isa 59:15, Hos 2:19, Mat 12:18) God's justice means that he "waits to be gracious to you", not that he is obligated to avenge all offenses against his honor. (Isa 30:18) In effect, the God who has no need of anything is said to "need" satisfaction for his justice, or else the moral economy of the universe will be disrupted! But God's justice is most basically his righteousness and love distributed, not a need that must be satisfied. Construing it as such makes God incapable of truly forgiving sin, as he has commanded us to do in his example (Mat 6:12, 14-15; Eph 4:32; Col 3:13); he can only accept satisfaction for wrongs committed against him.

In effect, satisfaction theology trades the patristic understanding of sin, death, and/or the devil as the one from whom we are saved, to whom the ransom is paid, with the God of "justice". In addition to its implications for God's character and verses depicting God's justice as the means of our salvation (Isa 1:27, 51:4-5; Hos 2:19; Mat 12:18) rather than the reason we need salvation, this switch lacks historical consciousness. Such an understanding of salvation is absent from the writings of the early church. Gregory of Nazianzus, preaching some seven hundred years before Anselm, denied satisfaction theology surprisingly specifically:
But if [the ransom is paid] to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the Incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honour of the Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things?[11]
My use of the word "literally" in the denial is important. The biblical testimony about Christ's death as paying a debt or legally justifying us or about our salvation from God's wrath (e.g. Rom 1:18, 2:5, 3:21-26, 4:15) is not simply there to mislead us. These things are metaphorical descriptions of our salvation, not literal definitions. Athanasius wrote that Christ's death paid a "debt"—but to death, not sin.[12] Obviously this is not a legal debt, but an analogical description of Christ's death as doing all that is necessary, "paying the price in full", so to speak, to purchase us from death's clutches. Similarly, we are saved from God's wrath because we are saved from our sins, which bring God's wrath upon us. This wrath is not the demand for satisfaction or punishment for failing to give it, but the destruction and corruption that result from cutting ourselves off from our Creator. Of course God wishes all men to be saved, not to facilitate our destruction in the name of "justice". (1 Tim 2:4)

I deny that our salvation is most basically from sin. This idea has historically been held as a corollary of the satisfaction theory of atonement and its belief that Christ's death primarily served to deal with the guilt of sin. Rather, I believe the forces of sin, death, and the evil coexist as a sort of "unholy Trinity", and that we are equally saved from the power of all three.[13] The wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23), but the sting of death is sin (1 Cor 15:56). Sin separates us from the author of life in whom all things hold together (Col 1:17) so that we disintegrate into nothing, but death enslaves us to sin and the devil (Heb 2:14-15), whose temptation is revealed to be at the root of the first sin and our mortality. (Gen 3) Our most basic predicament, then, is not sin, but simply man's alienation from God and our ensuing corruptibility, which is the common factor in our subjection to these things.[14] But as we are saved now from the domain of sin, death, and the devil as Christ reconciles us with God, so we will be saved even from our mortality at the resurrection. (1 Cor 15:51-55)

I deny that God individually predestines some individuals and not others for salvation. Again, in light of God's desire to save everyone and that no one would suffer death (Eze 33:11, 2 Pet 3:9), if God really did elect people in eternity past and infallibly perform everything necessary to render their salvation certain and there was no secret duplicity in his will, the result would be universalism, which unfortunately does not appear to be the case. (Mat 25:46, Jhn 5:28-29, Rom 9:22) Rather, faith in God is the necessary condition, and this faith necessarily involves (but is not solely) our free response to God's grace. Salvation is a complex combination of God's grace acting and our will (which, again, we have by God's grace) responding, and is not reducible either to Pelagian synergism or Augustinian predestination.[15] In this I hold what I consider to be the historic semi-Augustinian belief of the church. It is perfectly compatible which make God's "drawing" a necessary component of salvation, as in Jhn 6:44.

Language about God's election must be understood in its context. It is written that we are chosen by God as part of our salvation (Jhn 15:16, Eph 1:3-4). These passages are not speaking about individuals, but about God's redeemed people, the church. The "choice" here was not the secret election of certain individuals for salvation, but the choice to purchase the salvation of all through the blood of Jesus Christ, who "gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds." (Tit 2:14) In Romans 9, the passage most often cited in support of predestination, the focus is again not on individual election of some individuals over others, but Paul's justification of the corporate election of the church over ethnic Israel, the problem he deals with through chapters 9-11. (9:1-5) In Christ we see that God's true people is not a specific nation, but the children of the promise (v. 8), to whom we belong by faith. This is the particular thrust of Paul's discussion on election, at least here. Basically, I understand biblical affirmations that we are "chosen" by God as referring to the church, with no implication of rejection for those outside it except their own rejection of God.

I affirm the full divinity (Mat 28:19; Luk 1:35; Rom 15:19; 1 Cor 3:16-17, 6:19-20; 2 Cor 13:14) and personality (Jhn 14:16,26, 16:14; Rom 8:26; 1 Cor 12:11; Gal 4:6; Eph 4:30) of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force, energy field, power, bond between the personal members of the Trinity, or any other such thing. He is the third member of the Trinity, functionally subordinate to the Father and the Son, but fully God and ontologically equal to them.

I affirm the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is indispensable for our salvation, being responsible for our regeneration (Jhn 3:3-8); conversion is baptism in the Holy Spirit (Luk 3:16). The Spirit is also instrumental in our continuing salvation. He empowers us to perform even greater works than Christ (Jhn 14:12, 16:7) and sanctifies us (Rom 8:9-17, Gal 5:25). The Spirit also helps us to bear the fruit of our salvation (Gal 5:22-23) and gives gifts to the church (Rom 12:6-8, 1 Cor 12:4-11, Eph 4:11, 1 Pet 4:11) as he wills (1 Cor 12:11) to build up the church (12:7, 14:12). He inspired the Scriptures (2 Tim 3:16-17), and he is the one who guides us (as the church, not enlightened individuals) into the all truth as we read and interpret them to grow in salvific knowledge of God in Christ. (Jhn 16:13)

I affirm the testimony of the Nicene Creed to the Holy Spirit, that he is Lord and giver of life, that he should be worshipped and glorified along with the Father and Son, and that he spoke by the prophets (as well as the apostles). I affirm the original text of the Nicene Creed when it states only that the Spirit proceeds from the Father, as does Jhn 15:26. The addition to the Creed saying that he proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father, the filioque, originated in Spain as early as the fourth century and slowly made its way into the western Christian consciousness until Pope Benedict VII formally approved the amended creed for the Roman rite.[16] All who reject the doctrine of papal supremacy should agree that the form of the Creed arrived at by the ecumenical council of Constantinople cannot be changed except by another ecumenical council, which it has not been. Regardless of the theological issues behind the single or double procession of the Spirit (which are easy to oversimplify), I affirm the historic belief of the church that the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone (or from the Father through the Son).

I deny that certain spiritual gifts are normative for all Christians, or that a second "baptism of the Holy Spirit" is necessary following conversion to receive any such gifts. Paul specifically (albeit rhetorically) challenges the expectation that any gift of the Spirit is universal in 1 Cor 12:29-30. Earlier he also teaches that the Spirit "apportions [gifts] to each one individually as he wills" (v. 11). Though we are to seek after the greater gifts (v. 31), we should not make any gift, "supernatural" or otherwise, mandatory for all believers. We do better to expect the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23), which we have every reason to expect to see manifested in every believer. As well, Paul considers entry into the Church to be the true "baptism by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor 12:12-13). The experience of the first Christians in Acts 2, in which the Spirit descends on them accompanied by glossolalia, is not how we should always expect receiving the Holy Spirit to look. Its timing following their conversion by weeks or months reflects the unique and promised bestowal of the Spirit on the church by Christ (Jhn 14:25-26); thereafter, baptism in the Holy Spirit was and is simply Christian baptism.

  1. Peter C. Bouteneff, Sweeter than Honey: Orthodox Thinking on Dogma and Truth (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006), 25.
  2. John Breck, Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press), 39.
  3. Bouteneff, Sweeter than Honey, 22.
  4. John Chrysostom, “Homily XIV. Philippians iv. 4-7,” The Complete Works of Saint John Chrysostom, Kindle Edition.
  5. Bouteneff, Sweeter than Honey, 27.
  6. Justin Martyr, “Justin Martyr on Philosophy and Theology,” in The Christian Theology Reader (ed. Alistair E. McGrath; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 1.1.
  7. Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 671.
  8. Breck, Scripture in Tradition, 189–190.
  9. Basil the Great, “The Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great,” Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, (5 November 2014).
  10. Breck, Scripture in Tradition, 190.
  11. Gregory of Nazianzus, “The Second Oration on Easter,” New Advent, (5 November 2014), XXII.
  12. Athanasius, “On the Incarnation of the Word,” New Advent (5 November 2014), 9, 20.
  13. Richard Beck, The Slavery of Death (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 17.
  14. Beck, The Slavery of Death, 14.
  15. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 324.
  16. Breck, Scripture in Tradition, 171–172.

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