What Is Death?

In the end death is one of those things we’ll never fully understand. It is inscrutable. From a theological perspective we can say that death is separation from God. This is one of the main points of the second creation narrative. God says, “If you eat of this tree you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:17). Adam and Eve ate of the tree and they were sent out of the Garden (a picture of the presence of God) and thus separated from the Tree of Life. Since God is the source of life, to be separated from God is to be dead. In this sense, Adam and Eve were already dead.

From both a biblical and scientific perspective, death is corruption. Once we pass the prime child bearing age our bodies begin to break down. Many functions actually begin to break down long before that, but they are robust enough that they remain hardy and fully functional through the height of child-bearing age. Our telomeres become shortened. The gummy and elastic connectors of everything to everything begin to harden and dry up. Neurons begin misfire. Eventually all these tiny things begin to manifest themselves in a variety of ill health: sore joints, non-pliable skin, lengthened recovery time. Sometimes wires get crossed and things grow that ought not (cancer) or things that ought to be fully functional cease to function (brain function or cirrhosis).

These two things (separation and corruption) come together at an end point for living creatures when the corruption or destruction of the body becomes so extensive that the life force (the soul or spirit or just life) separate from the body. When that occurs corruption of the body (sans spirit) enters a radical new phase better described as decay. Microbes enter in and the dead body can no longer fend them off. They process the dead body and it eventually is turned back into earth.

But for everything we know about those processes, we still don’t really know what death is. We can postpone it, but we cannot prevent it. We don’t know know (on a scientific level) what happens to consciousness after death. If we’re honest there are far more questions than answers for the scientist when it comes to death.

This is also true on the theological side of things. Theologians have never come up with an adequate definition or understanding of death. Scripture often describes it as an active power, but none of us know precisely whether that is really true or only a metaphor.

The greatest of paschal hymns says, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the grave.” That is a rousing hymn to sing on a black and cold Easter night marching around the outside of the church with candles burning against the gloom, but it doesn’t actually tell us much about death itself, although it tells us much about the Victor!

I suppose this next thing will tell you more about me and the fact that I am situated in the post-modern world than it will actually tell you about death, but it is Karl Barth’s description that speaks to me more deeply than anything else. He says death has no reality. It is “nothingness.” It is not merely the absence of light and life, it is the negation of light and life. That definition doesn’t actually tell me any more about death than the other descriptions I have offered, but it does speak to me at a very deep level.

It is therefore with a great deal of humility that I make the following observation: I believe that Martin Luther simply went too far in his description of death and how Christ relates to it. In my opinion he is wrong. (He certainly went beyond what the historic church has had to say, and that gives me some confidence in my critique.)

It is characteristic of the divine majesty to annihilate and to create. Therefore scripture says that Christ destroyed death and sin in himself and granted life. [Luther’s Works 40/1:44, 1-12. As quoted by Tuomo Mannermaa, Christ Present in Faith, p. 19.]

That I agree with. In Christ sin and death are destroyed. But Luther goes much farther than this:

Therefore where sins are noticed and felt, there they really are not present. For, according to the theology of Paul, there is no more sin, no more death, and no more curse in the world …” [Ibid., p. 45. p. 18 in Mannermaa]

Here and elsewhere in his Lectures on Galatians, Luther states that sin and death have been destroyed … no, annihilated … in the world. That’s a bridge too far. Death’s sting has been removed. Sin and death have been conquered. They have been destroyed in Christ, but that’s rather different than Luther’s idea that they are destroyed in the world.

So why do I bring this up? So what if a pastor-theologians some 600 years ago said something a bit off the mark? Why pick on Luther instead of Calvin or Melanchthon or Aquinas or Joel Osteen, for that matter? Well, first because Luther is Luther, the first Protestant reformer who’s reform efforts actually took hold in Europe. Second, because Luther doesn’t need to say this. His theology of justification by faith (as expressed in the Lectures on Galatians) does not require this radical proposal. Karl Barth really needed for sin and death to be nothingness in the larger scheme of his theology; he was compelled by logic to take that position. Luther, on the other hand, didn’t have to go this far.

Let’s return to our initial point. None do or can actually understand sin or death. They are inscrutable. Even with his remarkable insights, Luther did not understand them either. But he did understand that (1) Christ truly and actually defeated them, and (2) because we are in Christ – truly and actually in Christ just as he is in us – then sin and death no longer have any hold on us.

How do you explain (1) something that we can not understand and (2) and that utterly ravages creation, but (3) no longer has any hold on us? I proposed that Luther, in his exuberance over this amazing reality, simply overstated it. You have to admit that hearing him say that death and sin are already annihilated is pretty breathtaking. It is certainly an exclamation point on Christ’s utter victory on the cross, in the grave, and upon his ascension.

So, even though I want to say, “Now hold on just a minute, Pastor Martin! …” I think I’ll forgo that and simply revel along with him his his exuberance for the moment.

The Bondage of the Will & Christian Liberty

I’ve been reading parts of Luther’s Bondage of the Will again to make sure I’m not misremembering his argument. Luther’s argument is quite similar to Calvin’s later argument that gets filed under “predestination,” although there are differences. In both cases I have no doubt that the Reformers are trying to figure out things that are simply beyond figuring out. They reached a bit too far.

The Reformers are certainly in line with classic Christianity when they declare that our will is in bondage. We do need to keep in mind that when we consider these ideas today there are a cluster of words which we tend to jumble together as vaguely synonymous that need to be distinguished when speaking of this bondage.

Choice, for instance still exists. I can choose to follow God or not to follow God. At the end of the giving of the Law in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people they have to make a choice. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30:19). But just because the people chose God and thus chose life did not mean that they were actually able to make good on that choice. They failed over and over because their wills were in bondage. Being free to choose for or against God in principle is far different than the ability to actually follow God’s paths and do what God wants us to do.

Liberty is another one of those ideas that tends to confuse us. Paul says, “[C]reation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). A cursory reading of this verse might lead one to think that bondage and liberty are opposite and if my will was once in bondage (reading Luther back into Paul) then in Christ my will is no longer in bondage but now has liberty (or “freedom” in the NRSV) to do what it chooses (reading pop culture back into Paul). But that reading misses the point.

Many years ago, in my first steps out of Dispensationalism, I discovered R.J. Rushdoony, a “theonomist” who believed that civil law should be based on Old Testament law (a Christian version of sharia, to put it into a contemporary context). In spite of his misguided attempts in this direction, he was a pretty good historical scholar. In a monograph entitled, “The Changed Meaning of Liberty,” he wrote the following: “Liberty as a privilege had reference to a religious fact of immunity from civil controls and regulations. Thus, the ancient privilege of the church is its freedom from the state because it is Christ’s personal domain and body and hence subject to no controls but those of His law.”

Rushdoony is putting it into the civil context between the Christian church and the Roman empire, but originally this is what Paul was talking about in relation to the Old Testament law. As Christians, who are dead to the Law and alive to Christ, we have “liberty” as an immunity to the Law. We can no longer be charged as lawbreakers because those laws don’t apply to us in our new context. This is how the U.S. Navy uses the term. When a ship enters port most of the sailors are let off duty to go wander the town. They are “at liberty.” This means they are no longer under the strict rules of life on the ship, although they are under obligation to follow local law and if they are in uniform they still have to salute a uniformed officer, etc.

This sort of “liberty” is very different than actual freedom as we think of it today. Comedian Ron White, in his well known “They Call Me Tater Salad” story, said that when he was talking to the cops after a bar brawl he had the right to remain silent but he didn’t have the ability. Christian liberty is like that; it doesn’t imply we have the ability. Even with our Christian liberty, our wills are still bound. We can choose to follow God, but, like Ron White, we don’t have the ability.

Christian transformation is a mysterious process where Christ’s will operates through us to transform us in spite of our best efforts. Transformation requires our cooperation. We have to choose God on the level of choosing or rejecting that Moses spoke of in Deuteronomy, but our wills are unable to follow through with our choice, so we keep on doing what we don’t want to do (Rom. 7). But in spite of all this bondage, Christ works in us to do that which we cannot do and transformation actually happens.

There is also a lifelong process of taking back the will and turning it to the purpose that God intended when he instilled it in human beings. But that process is not what you might think. Once Christ is at work within us, his will guides our hearts and directs us in what we should do and how we should think. (This is the ultimate goal, anyway.) So the correct way to battle our own stubborn will is to ignore it. Of course this is easier said than done. We will never win an outright fight over our wills. We can, in contrast, learn to ignore its insistent directions, and over time it becomes more and more quiet. The will lies at the center of what we must put to death in our Christian struggle, and the way we do that is to starve it by ignoring it. And as it dies, it simultaneously comes to life, but in this new life, it imprints on Christ’s will within us, and thus is tamed. Although throughout our earthly life, it will no doubt always have a tendency to rise up and say, “My will, and not yours be done.”

So freedom, as we think of freedom in the modern world, is never possible. We humans were not created to be free and we quickly get out of control if we try to act on our supposed freedom, like a balloon zipping around a room when we let go of it. We were created with the purpose of allowing God to drive, not us. Luther describes this as bondage to Christ (hearkening back to Paul’s imagery of the bond slave). That’s imagery that we naturally shrink back from, but it is there that we find true liberty – like sailors on shore liberty: freed from the concerns of the ships rules and free to truly joy in God.

Some Thoughts on Mannermaa the Ecumenist

I begin with a rabbit track …

I am rereading Tuomo Mannermaa’s little bombshell Christ Present in Faith:  Luther’s View of Justification. (Yeah, I know the original “little bombshell” was Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans, but Christ Present in Faith had a similar effect on continental Lutheranism a century later.) This all came about because John Webster, best known for bringing Eberhard Juengel’s brilliant thought to the English speaking world, died a few months ago. In memory, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School released his 2007 Carl F.H. Henry lecture series on Soundcloud. I listened to the first one and Webster took a couple of cheap shots at Mannermaa, quoting him in just such a way and without context so as to paint him a heretic. It really ticked me off. On the other hand, it did cause me to dust off my copy of Christ Present in Faith.

But back to the actual subject …

Tuomo Mannermaa spent much of his career involved in the ecumenical dialog between the Finnish Lutheran Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. This experience led to a different reading of Martin Luther. Critics say he has read Orthodox theology (and specifically the ancient idea of theosis) into Luther. Allies say that because of an historical accident of timing (Luther was Medieval and the Formula of Concord and most Lutherans ever since are under the sway of Modernity) Luther’s theology was transformed into something that Luther never actually espoused. As Carl Braaten and Robert Jensen describe it, “[T]he Mannermaa school is revising a century of Luther interpretation dominated by German Protestant theologians, who notoriously read Luther under the spell of neo-Kantian presuppositions.”

So what’s the difference between Medieval and Modern in this context? The philosophers of  Modernity (and Kant is certainly part of this process), put distance between us and reality. Some said that what we experience is not reality itself but our interpretation of the experience of reality. This is why Kant’s famous dictum, “I think therefore I am,” is such a big deal. It describes a human being one step removed from reality itself, with my brain (or my interpretation) standing between me and what actually exists.

In Protestant theology this same sensibility comes to us in how we separate the Creator and created. Modern theology has tended to say that we cannot experience the Creator (ie, God) directly because we are created beings. In classic Lutheran language, what we receive in the salvation process is not Christ in and of himself but rather the gift, which we might describe as “grace” which is not exactly the same thing as Christ himself. (And I offer a caveat here: While I consider myself a Reformed scholar, I am not a Lutheran scholar, so my language may not be a precise as some Lutherans would like.)

According to Mannermaa, this is not what Luther taught. This is a neo-Kantian reading of Luther. Being medieval, and thus having no problem with unmediated reality, he read Athanasius and the other classic explainers of the faith  and he interpreted justification as they did. But within a couple of generations, Luther’s words were being read through the Modernist lens and justification took on an exclusively forensic sense rather than Luther’s realist (or “ontic,” if you want Mannermaa’s term) sense.

It is important to realize that Luther (b. 1483) was born right on the cusp between Medieval and Modern. He also had a predominantly religious education and as a result he was steeped in a Medieval cultural-linguistic environment. John Calvin (b. 1509), on the other hand, was Modern, including his education, which was primarily in secular law rather than theology. It is literally true that by the generation after Luther and certainly the one following that, Lutheran’s assumptions about mediated reality (ie Modernity) would have shaped how Luther was read and understood.

Let’s assume for a moment that this is true (because Mannermaa’s critics vociferously disagree with his thesis). How is it that Mannermaa was able to cast off the blinders of Modernity, and for the first time in at least a couple of centuries, read Luther as Luther himself intended? This process is one of great gifts of authentic ecumenism. To be effective in ecumenical dialog (or political compromise, or statecraft for that matter … but that’s a rather different topic) one has to learn to “indwell” the other’s cultural-linguistic environment. Mannermaa spent years doing just that with the Russian Orthodox Church; and the Orthodox are definitely not Modern in their way of thinking.

As Mannermaa did this he was also reading Luther, and especially his lectures on Galatians. Reading Luther with these new eyes he recognized that Luther was dipping into the same well as the Russians (ie, the Chalcedonian fathers, and especially Athanasius), and Luther was understanding them in much the same way as the Russians. In essence, dialog with the Russians allowed Mannermaa to read Luther in his proper Medieval context rather than the Modern context in which he had been interpreted for generations.

In case you haven’t figured it out, I believe Mannermaa was on to something. But there is a profound weakness in this sort of ecumenical theology that I want to point out. The penultimate goal of ecumenical theology is to develop common language, ideas, and practice so that two communions (in this case the Finnish Lutheran Church and the Russian Orthodox Church – so these would be called “bi-lateral talks”) can enter into communion with each and ultimately share Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (to use the words of the Faith and Order Commission). The ultimate goal is to totally break down the barriers between the various communions, but that is even more of a pipe dream than BEM! Even the Orthodox can’t manage that among themselves!!

This process, then, works primarily with the foundational documents of each communion. In the case of the Finnish Lutherans this would be the Formula of Concord and their specifically Finnish constitution. In practice, this means focusing specifically on Luther, and the question inevitably becomes, “What did Luther teach?” rather than, “What is the Gospel?” The effect of this subtle difference is that the process tends to focus on theology rather than transformation, on academics rather than the spiritual life.

But with that caveat in mind, I find this sort of thing (because the Finnish-Russian dialog is not the only significant bi-lateral discussion going on) to be one of the more fruitful and interesting things occurring in the Church today. And it is all the more reason to take the late Prof. John Webster to task for his small-minded snideness toward Mannermaa’s attempts to learn to mean the same thing when we of different communions say the same words.


I was reminded of Soren Kierkegaard’s famous and oft misunderstood phrase, “leap of faith,” when I heard an Orthodox acquaintance talking about faith. The generally accepted starting point for an Orthodox understanding of faith is that it is a mode of perception. This is often a problematic starting point for us Romance Language people because our typical starting point is influenced by the Latin word fidere, which primarily means “trust.” Let’s just set aside “trust” for a moment; we’ll circle back to it momentarily.

God is not physical, so when we say, “God spoke to me,” or “I know God dwells within me,” we must necessarily mean something different than what would typically be understood as the literal meaning of those statements. God cannot “literally” speak and so you must mean that metaphorically, says the critic. And yet, our communion with God is far more than metaphor, or it is not Christian.

Ah, but we moderns have tended to reduce the world to that which we can study with the scientific method broadly defined. The physical world is subject to scrutiny with the scientific method and that study has been amazingly fruitful, so it is understandable that many assume that the physical world is all there is.

And indeed it is if we limit ourselves to touch, taste, smell, sight, etc. But the fathers have argued that there is yet another seat of perception that is mostly overlooked because it has atrophied as a result of sin. This is the mysterious inner being that we might call the heart, or soul, or innermost self. It is capable of perceiving and communicating with reality that is not physical, but real all the same.

Since faith, as a mode of perception, is atrophied (a consequence of spiritual death) it takes specific and intentional effort to develop it and to recognize what it is that the heart is perceiving. This is, by the way, where the spiritual tradition of Orthodox Church excels, and why there is such a heavy emphasis on the monastic life – not that everyone should be a monastic, but rather that monasticism be wide spread enough that everyone can engage with its fruits.

Once we begin to learn to perceive this otherwise hidden reality with our hearts, all the other facets of faith come into focus. We can trust because we actually know God, and are not merely hoping that he’s listening. We can hope – not blind hope, but Christian hope – because we know the actual faithfulness of God. Actual revelation of the Living Word of God (the favored title of the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, in Orthodoxy) to us occurs because we have an actual mode of perception to to receive such revelation.

This is the stuff that Kierkegaard intuited and tried to express in his writings. His context was Lutheran pietism, and that severely limited his language set. Pietism spoke of the warming of the heart, the personal (and arguably, the emotional) attachment to God. But without a thorough knowledge of faith as a mode of perception, Kierkegaard recognized that the movement was built on shifting sand.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard said,

When we objectively investigate the truth, we reflect objectively about the truth as an object to which we are related. We do not reflect upon the relationship, but upon the fact that it is the truth – the truth to which we are related.

This is where his language set falls short. He recognizes that truth is not experiential in the Lutheran pietistic sense, but it has an inevitable and necessary relationship to experience. Because the Truth is living, it is not merely an idea that we incorporate, it actually changes us. And because this entrance into a new sort of truth that is not rationalistic or empirical is an utterly foreign experience for those of us whose (and here I must fall back on Orthodox language) mode of perception for such this is utterly atrophied, the first step is, in a sense, a leap into the unknown.

But it is not that it is actually “unknown,” it is rather that it is unknown to our tried and true modes of perception, which we can categorize as empirical evidence. So the leap is not into something utterly unknown, but rather a leap into something that we know not how to know. As Mary said when Gabriel told her that she was pregnant with our Lord, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The leap of faith is really just a matter of acknowledging that which we know, but we cannot know through “normal” means. It is a matter  of saying, “yes.”

Long before Kierkegaard, Anselm figured out the same thing. He called it “faith seeking understanding” (an active form of faith as a mode of perception). His explorations of this phrase proved to be bedrock for those that understood that Kierkegaard was on to something (Barth, the Torrance brothers, Alasdair McGrath, etc.). As an aside, Anselm’s slim book Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man) is brilliant exposition of this theme. His expositions unquestionably led me to doubt the whole foundation of Protestant epistemology … the consequence of which was my eventual move into the Orthodox Church, which embraces precisely what Anselm was trying to say on this specific subject. (His theory of salvation was not nearly as insightful.) It is sad that nearly all my Orthodox brethren condemn him vociferously and viciously. They’re reading the wrong the parts of the book! … but I digress.

It’s one of those sublime places where east and west meet: Faith is best understood as a mode of perception. That is the starting point into this mysterious way of knowing, an acceptance of what is and an acknowledgement that we don’t instinctively know how to get there from here. I would argue that “leap of faith” is not a particularly good way to describe it, but it seems that this is the direction Kierkegaard was headed when he said it. It is certainly what Anselm had in mind a few centuries earlier. It is the heart of the Orthodox understanding of faith.

Failures, Bad Habits, and Addictions: From Shameful Baggage to Holy Gifts

“Devoted to the Lord for destruction.” Now that’s an interesting phrase! and it’s in Joshua:

For the Lord has given you the city. The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live, because she hid the messengers we sent. As for you, keep away from the things devoted to destruction, so as not to covet and take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel an object for destruction, bringing trouble upon it. (Jos 6:16b-18)

“Devoted to destruction” is how the NRSV translates haram or cherem (alt. transliterations of the Hebrew root hrm). It is the word used in the Old Testament when God commands the utter destruction of something, most commonly, Israel’s enemies as they were conquering the Promised Land. In the conservative Protestant tradition, which celebrates the wrath of God, and interprets it in a very modern, post-Freudian way to mean anger, or fury, or just generally being pissed, this Hebrew idea was proof positive that (as the 1970s bumper sticker read, managing to be simultaneously offensive and amusing) “Jesus is coming again … and this time he’s really mad!”

So,if that’s not the point, what do we do with the haram of Jericho? God told Joshua that “the city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction.” The NRSV insets that word “devoted” because haram has both a negative and positive usage. Positively, it refers to something that is set aside to the Lord. In order to make the parallel clear, the NRSV translates the positive use as “devoted to the Lord” or something similar.

The idea of the Hebrew term haram is that of a gift. But the receiver is not physically there to receive it, so the giver sets it aside to use it exclusively on behalf of the receiver. In the modern context things like the chalice and paten would be haram. It would be unthinkable to use them for coke and pizza at a Saturday night dance. They are “set aside” for a specific liturgical use. Thus the word “holy” (qadosh), while not etymologically related to haram, is quite similar in usage. The chalice and paten are qadosh (holy: what they represent metaphysically) and therefore they are haram (set apart: what we do with them physically).

But haram also has a negative sense. And to help us understand the negative sense we should consider the Hebrew sacrificial system. Certain things brought to the altar were haram and were given to God completely as true sacrifices. This “giving to God completely” was done by burning the whole sacrifice on the altar. Other gifts were “offerings” rather than “sacrifices.” A symbolic portion of the offerings were burned on the altar, but most of it was reserved for the priests’ and Levites’ use (analogous to clergy salary and building upkeep today).

God told Joshua that Jericho would be haram, and therefore destroyed completely. It was not an offering, it was a sacrifice given to God. This is the negative sense of haram.  Furthermore, those who tried to rebuild it – to bring it back “from the ashes” to use the imagery of the altar – would be cursed because Jericho was haram.

Let’s acknowledge that the story is deeply disturbing to modern sensibilities. If we treat it as a war story and apply contemporary rules of war, it’s a shocking scene where noncombatants are slaughtered and where there is no sense of proportionality. Put into the larger context of the conquest and haram of Palestine, we’re also dealing with intended genocide. But the story is thousands of years old and  moral superiority and the resulting condemnation based on a few thousand years of hindsight puts us into a sort of “mote and beam” quagmire from which we’ll never extricate ourselves, due our self-congratulatory modern moral superiority, so the Church has wisely bracketed the historical events as beyond full comprehension and focused on a christological/allegorical reading.

The Orthodox don’t worry so much about the literal/historical arc of the Old Testament. It’s not that it’s unimportant (for it is the necessary strong foundation for an Orthodox reading of scripture) or dismissed as faintly ridiculous (as in a liberal Protestant reading); it’s rather that the best way to mine the spiritual depths of the Old Testament is to read it christologically (Athanasius, et. al.) and thus allegorically, as Paul teaches us to read the Old Testament in his epistles. The literal historical reading may develop one’s intellect but does little for one’s spiritual development. The Christological/allegorical method, on the other hand, is all about Christian transformation.

So, how does this text apply to us today allegorically? One of the great difficulties in spiritual growth is what to do about the bad stuff. We want to give God our very best, but we are beset by failures, bad habits, and on occasion, even addictions. These can be shameful things and we tend to hide them from God. We may also worry that God will be angry or even judge us because we can’t get our act together.

So we need to change the model. We need to take seriously God’s charge to the Israelites: The Promised Land is haram. The gold, silver, and bronze are to be devoted to the Lord (positive haram). The rest is to be devoted to the Lord for destruction (negative haram). And thus our failures, habits, and even our addictions can be “gifts” from us that are devoted to God. If we understand that these sins are not primarily something to be ashamed of, but rather human corruption that are to be devoted to the Lord for destruction, then they can even become, in a sense, “holy” gifts. They are not holy in and of themselves, but the attitude with which we offer them to God, through confession, is indeed holy.

I suppose this is precisely one of the points of confession in the Orthodox tradition. Confession is not about admitting shameful secrets and groveling for absolution, it is rather coming to understand the human condition and devoting it to the Lord so that our very beings can be transformed from the ashes. And this is why we can enter boldly into God’s presence (Heb 19:10). We are not bound for destruction. We have things that need to be utterly destroyed or banished, but they are not weights dragging us down to the pit, they are haram that we can give to God, “devote to God for destruction.” Even our worst can be transformed into the best for God. Thanks be to him. Amen.

A Troublesome Text

Today’s epistle in the daily lectionary is one of those texts that has become truly difficult:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. … For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive it’s approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. (Rom. 13:1,3)

I know that if I were black and living in America, I would have a beef with Paul. So what are we to make of this text? My native instinct is to explain it away, but I choose not to do that.

Instead, I offer up a completely different reaction to society most recently described in the movie Captain Fantastic, which opens this weekend. It features a family that cut itself off from an evil and unjust world (and what happens when they re-engage with it). Following in the footsteps of stories like Swiss Family Robinson, and philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it is yet one more exploration of the supposed innocent and natural life unencumbered by the burdensome order of society. In actual fact, Rousseau’s vision is more frequently worked out along the lines of Lord of the Flies, but that is a different essay.

Rousseau’s vision offers us a dismal view of the potentials of corporate society. Modern society has no redemptive value and the better choice is to flee.

Paul’s vision, in contrast, is an optimistic view of how society can work. In his view, society is redemptive because it offers the order and structure that makes working out our salvation possible in a group context. (And a reminder: salvation is not and, in the end, cannot be individualistic. We are incorporated into the Body of Christ and Christ as head of that corporate Body transforms creation through the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit and the priestly efforts of his Body.)

When things get as dismal as they seem to have gotten, it is tempting to take the Rousseau option and opt out. But that rarely – if ever – works in the long run. And Paul reminds us that there is indeed a fundamental order in the society that exists. As bad as it gets, eventually – and it will happen sooner if we all stay engaged – norms of authentic law and order return.

That doesn’t make the current bleakness (whether that is the American context of violence against blacks and Native Americans, or the Middle East context of utter societal breakdown or the European context of unexpected and absurd violence against the bystanders) any easier to withstand, but it puts it into proper context.

“Pay to all what is due to them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due” (v. 7). When we go through life in that manner, we may suffer, be tortured, and killed. But at least we’ll live and live abundantly.

A New Twist to an Old Hymn

Among my favorite hymns is “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” by Joachim Neander. I grew up singing it to the hymn tune Lobe Den Herren, which is a nice martial tune that works with either organ or piano (God forbid) accompaniment.

As is typical with German hymns, it has a multitude of verses (I think Neander wrote seven stanzas in the original hymn), and so when I run across one that is unfamiliar, I am not surprised. Yesterday it was the appointed hymn for Evening Prayers in the Breviary, and it had a Trinitarian doxology as the last stanza that I had never seen. Hymns in the Breviary almost always end with such a doxology and many of them are written by the Breviary editors when the original hymn doesn’t finish with such a doxology

I was quite surprised when I saw this final doxological stanza in the Breviary’s version:

Praise to the Father most gracious, the Lord of creation! / Praise to his Son, the Redeemer who wrought our salvation! / O heav’nly Dove, / Praise to thee, fruit of their love, / Giver of all consolation.

Suddenly I found myself singing an -in-your-face example of the filioque and I was taken aback. Let me explain. During the great Trinitarian controversies of the fourth century, an Ecumenical Council (with representatives from Rome) hammered out what we call The Nicene Creed. In Greek the Creed says, following a direct quote from John 15:26, that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” When the Roman Bishop and theologians translated it into Latin, they added the Latin word filioque to the phrase, making it say that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

The Eastern Church was not amused by this non-biblical addition that reflected bad theology, and the event was a significant part of the split between the Greek eastern church and Latin western church several hundred years later.

The idea that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son led to some very weird theological conundrums that are still with us today. Certain ancient Greek philosophies (that were decidedly outside the Christian tradition) said that dualities were always at odds with one another. Latin theologians used this idea to explain the Holy Spirit. The Father and Son were never at odds with one another; they loved one another, and the product of that love was the Holy Spirit proceeding from both of them.

This always sounds weird. too cute by half, and just plain contrived to me when I hear it, so rather than have you take my word for it, I will quote C.S. Lewis from ch 26 of Mere Christianity,

 All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love.’ But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love. Of course, what these people mean when they say that God is love is often something quite different: they really mean ‘Love is God.’ They really mean that our feelings of love, however and wherever they arise, and whatever results they produce, are to be treated with great respect. Perhaps they are: but that is something quite different from what Christians mean by the statement ‘God is love.’ They believe that the living, dynamic activity of love has been going on in God forever and has created everything else. …

I know this is almost inconceivable, but look at it thus. You know that among human beings, when they get together in a family, or a club, or a trade union, people talk about the ‘spirit’ of that family, or club, or trade union. They talk about its ‘spirit’ because the individual members, when they are together, do really develop particular ways of talking and behaving which they would not have if they were apart. It is as if a sort of communal personality came into existence. Of course, it is not a real person: it is only rather like a person. But that is just one of the differences between God and us. What grows out of the joint life of the Father and Son is a real Person, is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God.

Parallel to this conception of the Holy Spirit, the seeds of an idea that later came to be known as “Dialectical thinking” developed. The question of which came first is a chicken and egg question, but both ideas were adopted from Greek philosophy. Today we know this best in terms of Hegel’s dialectic of “Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis.” This is essentially what is going on in the Latin and Protestant doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The Father is the “thesis,” the Son the “antithesis” and the Spirit, the “synthesis” of the Trinity. It is one of those items that is so patently foreign to scripture that it gives the Eastern Church a great deal of heartburn whenever there are talks between the Greeks and the Romans.

There are a host of reasons why Protestantism followed the Roman Catholic Church in adding the filioque to the Creed. It is surprising since the sine qua non of Protestantism is faithfulness to the Biblical text and this is one of those spots where the Latin Creed clearly veers away from scripture. But Protestants held the same Trinitarian conceptions that the Roman Church did, so it is no great surprise that the whole Western Church has adopted the filioque. It is beyond the scope of this essay to get into a detailed study of that history.

Rather, this explanation is evidence to why I was so taken aback when I was singing the Joachim Neander hymn. “O heav’nly Dove, praise to thee, fruit of their love, giver of all consolation.”  This sentence is a very precise summary of the filoque. When I stumbled upon it, I stumbled over it. Suddenly, rather than being in a prayerful mood, the spectre of an ancient theological battle came to the forefront of my mind and the moment of prayer was lost.

Ultimately the additional hymn stanza is neither here nor there. I am simply confessing my own weakness for a preference of ideas over prayer. No doubt my Protestant friends will tell me to just get over it and my Orthodox friends will tell me to quit using the Breviary. In the end I’ll ignore them both. I relish living in the gap between East and West and exploring all the rough terrain that I find there.

Political Religion

I just read an extended review of Shadi Hamid’s new book Islamic Exceptionalism, and am intrigued. The book is now on my “to read” list. In his Washington Post review, Carlos Lozada focuses on the idea (from the book) that Islam is inherently political.

The prophet Muhammad was a theologian, preacher and warrior, but also builder of a new state. In Christianity’s origins, by contrast, governing was not the point; Jesus of Nazareth was a dissident against the political order. ‘Within the Christian tradition,’ Hamid emphasizes, ‘there was no equivalent of Islamic law – an accumulated corpus of law concerned with governance and the regulation of social and political affairs.

While it is true that classical Christianity had no “accumulated corpus of law concerned with governance,” over the centuries attempts at just such a corpus have been attempted. Originally there was “Christendom,” popularly attributed to Constantine, where the power of what would become the papacy and the power of the emperor were joined. But that system was specific to the rule of a monarch.

Social developments in northern Europe led to the rejection of both the divine right of monarchs and the pope. Protestantism became the norm and a new political philosophy of democracy, both in church and state developed. The result was the privatized Christianity and freedom of religion that we are familiar with today. Within Protestantism, while there is a highly developed theory of how Christians should relate to the state (Just Law theory, patriotism and conscientious objection, etc.) the idea of specific Christian governance, and the rules surrounding that, is not the norm.

History in England took a different turn than it did in northern Europe. England rejected the Pope without rejecting the Church/State relationship assumed in Catholicism. (The monarch remains the head of the Anglican Church to this day.) While not everyone in Britain was Anglican (the Scottish Kirk was Presbyterian, for instance), this close relationship between Church and State shaped theology as it did no where else in Europe. As a result the Westminster Standards (the confession, catechism, and a whole host of supporting theological writings) use the Old Testament Law as a model for our civil life.

This wholesale adoption of Old Testament law in a Christian context never took hold in England because England had a strong – and much older – tradition of common law that transcended Catholicism, Anglicanism, and the British monarchy.  And while English common law had a profound effect in the colonies, the marriage of Old Testament Law and Christian faith (sometimes called “Theonomy” – literally meaning “God’s Law”) had a great deal more influence in North America than in England.

So while Hamid is broadly correct that “within the Christian tradition there is no equivalent of Islamic Law,” in the American context there is a strain of Christian religion that does have the equivalent. Theonomy is technically a small offshoot of the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition. It was expressly embraced by splinter groups such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, and later, by a large segment of the Presbyterian Church in America.

But Theonomy has a history of punching above its weight. Thus the primarily Baptist “Moral Majority” was deeply influenced by Theonomy, as were some Roman Catholics and their particular take on Natural Law and Legal Positivism in the United States.

The effect of all this is that the U.S. has had a series of groups that attempted to create Theocracies in the United States (starting with Plymouth Colony and the “Shining City on a Hill,” which was originally a specifically Theocratic idea). Many of these attempts have ended in tragedy (Posse Comitatis, Jonestown, the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, etc.).

More significantly, because Theonomy tendencies run strong in American conservative Christianity, there is a certain respect for the idea of an Islamic state just as their is a respect for the idea of a Christian state. And furthermore, for Christians that are warm to the idea of a Christian state, there is typically an abhorrence of a competing state based on Islam.

Classical Liberalism privatized and individuated Christianity by making “freedom of religion” a basic human right. American conservatives (particularly those with Theonomist sympathies) promoted freedom of religion as long as the religion in question was Protestantism. Specifically, because there has always been a wishful idea that America was a Christian nation (in contrast to the Liberal Democratic Republic which was created in 1776), freedom of religion is more specifically understood as freedom of Protestant religion. (For instance, try to offer a prayer to Allah or Mary before a Texas high school football and wait to see what happens next!)

This riff on Theonomy does have a point. We Americans need to take seriously Shadi Hamid’s thesis that Islam is, in contrast to classic Christianity, inherently political. But hand in hand with that, we Americans need to take seriously that a very strong (but often ignored) strain of American Christianity is also inherently political.  For many, America vs. Islam is not so much political as it is inherently a religious war.

Donald Trump understands this and exploits it. I suspect that this is why a politician who in almost any other context would be considered in league with the Antichrist by conservative Christians has been embraced by conservative Christianity. This is not a political fight, it is a religious (dare I say it?) crusade that has led to a union of a blasphemous anti-christian demagogue with conservative Christians against the infidels.

I find the prospect frightening.

The Holy Spirit: No Ashleigh Keister!

The great people don’t need to act great. They understand that what they are (what we perceive as their greatness) comes not from what they do but from who they are. I saw this in action the other day among people none of you would know, so suffice it to say that one up-and-comer (who we will simply call Ashe Keister) was trying to do great stuff (and therefore getting in the way and mucking up the process) while the other person was perfectly content to be ordered around by the secretary, and managed to get a lot done (and save the day), not by announcing the fact that he was the Executive Vice President of All Sorts of Important Things in Life and the Universe, but rather by obeying the secretary.

It reminded me of the Holy Spirit and his relationship to the Father and the Son. Scripture tells us that the Son is begotten of the Father and that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, two phrases that are also enshrined in the Nicene Creed. This is about all that we know about the Trinity. The eternal movement of Divine Life is outward to the Son and Spirit (and beyond), and the eternal movement of Divine Love is to flow back inward as an expression of their true union and unity.

This is their being: three equal persons in eternal dynamic relationship, flowing out and flowing in. Thus God is not a static entity, but a dynamic entity of love.

In contrast to their being, there is they’re work. I have in mind particularly John 15:26 (which I will quote from the KJV, since it uses the word “procession”) where Jesus says, “But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me.”

In terms of God’s work in the world, the Son will send the Spirit for the purpose of testifying of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the “economy” of God (that is, how God works in the world), the Son sends the Spirit. But in the “being” of God, the Spirit “proceeds from the Father” (not “from the Father and the Son,” as the Latin translation of the Nicene Creed incorrectly says, if it is referencing John 15:26). This is why Jesus says, “I will send the Spirit to you “from the Father.”

Of course the Son has already been sent into the world by the Father, so in their work, one might go so far as to say that the Spirit is playing third trombone. If the Spirit was anything like Ashe Keister, he might get a bit huffy about this. He is, after all, of the same essence as the Father and Son, he is equal to the Father and the Son, and just as the Son is begotten of the Father, so the Spirit proceeds from the Father.

But like the Executive Vice President of All Sorts of Important Things in Life and the Universe, the Spirit is perfectly willing and glad to take orders from the secretary (or the Son, in this case), and it is through this invisibleness of person and willingness to work for the greater good, that the true glory and honor of the Holy Spirit is revealed.

Dissent During Prayer

I must start with confession, for when one is arguing with a prayer during prayer, one has failed to actually pray. The prayer I was arguing with is the prayer for Justin Martyr’s feast day (today, on the Western Calendar).

Lord God, in a wonderful way, through the folly of the cross, you taught your martyr Saint Justin the surpassing knowledge of Christ. Heed his prayer for us: dispel every deceiving error, and ground us firmly in our faith. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

I suspect for many a history lesson might be helpful. Justin (d. 165) desired to be known as a scholar and theologian. None of his theology is remembered; only that he desired that it be remembered. He died at the hand of the Roman Empire and is thus remembered for his martyrdom and not his scholarship.

The prayer says, “you taught your martyr St Justin the surpassing knowledge of Christ.” I was irritated that the prayer focused on knowledge. Justin was united with Christ … and we’re talking about knowledge!?

And then I realized it was a gotcha prayer. The “surpassing knowledge of Christ” isn’t “knowledge” as we typically think about it. The prayer is talking about seeing Christ face to face. It is (to borrow a favorite phrase from Michael Polanyi) “personal knowledge.” The prayer isn’t talking about facts, it’s talking about presence (being in Christ’s presence) and relationship.

And so I realize my initial disappointment is completely misplaced.
The surpassing knowledge of Christ” isn’t head knowledge at all, it’s fellowship, it’s union, it’s witness (the translation of the Greek word martyrion) of who Christ truly is face to face. Thanks be to God.