Big Salvation Words: Repentance

And so we come to my final big salvation word: Repentance. In case you haven’t figured it out, this little collection of essays are a Lenten meditation. It might seem odd to choose the word “repentance” on this day after Easter. “Shouldn’t you be talking about victory, or new life, or bunnies?” you ask.

Ah, but in truth I am talking quite precisely about our new life in Christ that is made possible in Christ’s resurrection. For millennia those intimate with the spiritual practice of the church has said unequivocally that the Christian life is a life of repentance.

Once God’s divine life and light begin to flow into our being the secret corners of our life begin to be revealed. Once the light is turned on, we see that we need to change. Once we are given the gift of new life, we have the ability to change, or more precisely, to be transformed by the Holy Spirit within us.

And so I repent: I begin to clean out the cobwebs in the corners I have carefully avoided for much of my life. And as I clean out the cobwebs, I find another secret door that I have forgotten about. As I open it and God’s light shines in, I discover that I need to repent all over again. This leads to more inner hallways and doors, more spider webs, and alas, more repentance.

Said in this way, it all sounds rather dreary. But in fact, it is the most joyful thing a Christian can do.

Sometimes we are seduced into thinking that the Christian life is mostly about “fellowship” (ie, coffee and croissants at the coffee shop with my church buddies), “service” (ie, serving meals at the local homeless shelter), spiritual growth (reading Christian blogs, listening to Christian podcasts, reading the Bible), and thinking good thoughts that will chase out the negative thoughts.

None of these are bad things, but too often we settle for the good and never get around to the best things. “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless” (Phil 1:9f). This can only happen in the midst of repentance.

I remember renting my first apartment, a dark, dingy thing that was dirty and bug infested, but something I could afford. I was pretty depressed. But a group of college friends came over and helped my roommate and I clean it up. Windows were washed, curtains were taken down and new bright curtains were put up. Light bulbs were replaced. The carpet was cleaned. Wash buckets of pine-smelling cleaner were handed out. By the time we ordered pizza that evening, we were shocked to discover that we actually had a nice little apartment.

That is a picture of true Christian repentance and the resulting authentic Christian joy. Christ is risen. His light shines. Make the most of it. Amen.

Big Salvation Words: mercy

If you’ve been paying attention for the last month or so as I’ve considered a variety of “big salvation words,” you might realize that asking God for mercy implies much more than, “A little help, please?” At the root of mercy is the double edged sword of divine help through the process of God unmasking everything I am and have ever done (as the Samaritan woman discovered at the well). After a severe warning about disobedience, the Letter to the Hebrews describes it this way:

Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs. Indeed, the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from morrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:11-16)

When read in context, this final verse inviting us to God’s mercy sounds much more ominous than when it stands alone. So far in this series I have mostly talked about the back side of divine activity in the world – judgment, wrath, the fire of love – and now as we turn to the front side, we find exactly the same themes coming to the foreground.

Mercy is not the act of God accepting us as we like to imagine ourselves, it is God accepting us as we are so that he can transform us into his likeness. Ephesians says that there is a necessary process of putting off the old nature and putting on (or being renewed in) the new nature (Eph 44:17ff). I’m quite sure that none of us understand just how devastating “putting off our old nature” is going to turn out to be. We have an amazing ability to view ourselves in the most positive light possible and the result is that we underestimate just how difficult the transformation will turn out to be.

In Walter Wangerin’s dark and beautiful novel, The Book of Sorrows, a follow up to The Book of the Dun Cow, one of the characters, a bastard beast who is half snake and half rooster (ie, old nature and new nature) comes to the point where he needs to shed his snake skin and become a rooster. The process is is itchy; it is painful; it takes a long time; it’s smelly; and he becomes dismayed and regrets the process:

Welcome to divine mercy.

God is in the business of saving us, but he is not in the business in saving that particular persona that we are so fond of, that we show to our friends in order that they will think we are a nice person, nor is God in the business of saving our work persona, which exudes excellence and confidence to our boss. God is in the business of stripping off the snake so that he can save the real me that buried deep beneath my various personas and self-delusions.

The practical effect is that if I want to actually experience divine mercy, I need to actually experience my true inner self which is wicked, deceitful, and (here one can add any number of other synonyms for sin) …

Mercy is truly all glory and light and happiness. Divine mercy doubly so. But that light is at the end of the tunnel of repentance. In short, deep inside your secret self, you desperately want divine mercy. Furthermore, you should absolutely pursue divine mercy; you should pray, asking God for his mercy. But beware. The road to mercy fully and absolutely embracing us is arduous. Pray this prayer with your eyes wide open. Pray this prayer with the knowledge that Aslan is a wild Lion (in Lucy Pevensie’s famous words in the Narnia Chronicles). As the aphorism goes, “Be careful what you ask for. You might get it.”

Big Salvation Words: “Redemption” pt. 2

chrisfarleyquotesIn the previous essay I explained why our “redemption” is a bit ironic (and therefore in quotes). In this essay I want to consider a second reason why we might want to keep those quotation marks around this Big Salvation Word. A cynic might look at the Christians all around and say that salvation is pretty meaningless because the Christians are no better than everyone else. Even Paul is frustrated by this reality. “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24).

Our redemption has the odd character of having arrived while at the same time being something that will arrive in the future. Our redemption is complete but not yet consummated. As a result, we live out our faith in a strange “already but not yet” existence in which we are saved, but not yet, we are victors, and yet suffer under the bondage of sin.

In order to sort out this strange state of affairs, Protestant theology has typically divided salvation into three phases: justification (past tense, we are saved), sanctification (perfect tense, we are being saved) and glorification (future tense, we will be saved). Our seeming bondage to sin can be slowly overcome (we are being saved) and will ultimately be revealed at the consummation of all things (we will be saved). But this division is problematic.

Let’s be clear that any attempt to fully describe our salvation in limited human categories is bound to fail because salvation is a divine act the fullness of which lies beyond our grasp. The classic Protestant division of justification, sanctification, and glorification attempts to describe things from the perspective of linear time but fails to account for the reality of God outside of time and the possibility that God’s acts are not linear in the same manner that our human perception of them are.

It is this idea of God outside of time that Karl Barth focuses on. Consider the three days in the tomb. Why did Jesus spend three days dead? Christ needed only a few moments in death to defeat death. It wasn’t literally a three-day struggle from which he emerged victorious. The three days in the tomb is not for God’s sake it is for our sake. If Jesus would have died on the cross and then been resurrected while the Centurions were removing him from the cross, everyone (including the disciples who pretty much doubted everything at this point in time) would have assumed that he never died at all but only swooned. Three days, on the other hand, was evidence for us that he was truly dead. But seen from the perspective of Christ in the tomb, “the sacrifice which redeems the world is already as completely behind him as the grace of God the Father in his reawakening is before him” (CD IV/1, p. 323).

Similarly, there is no conceptual need for a time of the Church, the period from the mighty acts of salvation (death, resurrection, ascension, coming of the Holy Spirit) to that time when Christ will ultimately come again in the consummation of all things. Salvation has already arrived and is completely behind us, yet we wait to be saved because our salvation remains before us. Rather than seeing the time of the Church as progressive (past, present, and future salvation), Barth describes it as an overlap of two times (p. 322).

Because of these “two times,” there are two things happening simultaneously. On the one hand we are saved; we are alive; we have the sanctifying Holy Spirit living within us. On the other hand, we are engaged in a pitched battle against Sin and Death. The battle is a holding action, but it is not one that we can actually win (although, in the overlapping time of the future, it has already been won on our behalf). Rather we battle away, waiting for that time when the overlapping time of the past comes to a final end, and Christ ultimately and finally and triumphantly defeats Sin and Death.

Our goal, when viewed from the perspective of two overlapping times, is not sanctification, that is to get better and better, but rather to continue the fight. Some days we make progress against the enemy and some days the enemy makes progress against us, but our fight is a patient one, as we await the overwhelming force of Christ himself.

I grew up in a Christian tradition in which sanctification was a big deal. When I became a Presbyterian I discovered it was not a focus of theirs. John Calvin, while on the one hand embracing the doctrine of sanctification, was, on the other hand, rather cool toward the actual process of it. Karl Barth managed to get to the heart of Calvin’s nervousness in a way that Calvin was never able to express well.

If we live our Christian lives with only the progressive idea of redemption in mind, we can begin to be seduced by images of grandeur, that we can actually defeat (in the sense of a final defeat) the devil once and for all, that we can finally overcome our passions once and for all, that we can be holy, and faithful, and loving and joyful, once and for all. And when we fail to do this, we then tend to drift toward John Bunyan’s famed slough of despond and begin to think of ourselves as failures.

If, on the other other hand, we live our Christian lives keeping the idea of the two distinct times in mind, we then do all the same things such as fight evil, work to overcome our passions, become more like Christ, but we understand that there is nothing particularly progressive about it. It’s a day to day slog yesterday being pretty much the same as tomorrow. But we do this within the context of Christian hope, with the sure understanding that this time is coming to an end and our true Victor, Christ, is coming. Life ceases to be a slog and becomes a matter of faithfulness buoyed by hope, even when we see no progress.

And so it is that “redemption” remains bracketed off. It is here, but not yet here. It is accomplished but yet we wait for its arrival. It’s not fully accomplished and so it remains “redemption” awaiting the time that our Savior removes the shroud of the quotations marks and we will be able to gaze upon him face to face.

Big Salvation Words: “Redemption,” Pt. 1

giphyBeing a common word that is used frequently when we talk about salvation, it’s easy to forget that redeem is a fiscal term. It is first used to describe the Israelites salvation from slavery to the Egyptians (Ex. 6:6). In a normal slave transaction, humans are bought and sold. If a person wants to free a slave, it would be necessary to first purchase (redeem) the slave from the current owner and then set him or her free. This is the classic fiscal meaning of the term “redemption.”

Of course, that’s not at all what happened to the Israelites. At first Moses politely demanded that the Israelites be set free (Ex. 5:1). Egypt’s Pharaoh refused and a battle of wills and disaster ensued. Each time the Pharaoh refused, another plague came upon Egypt (Ex. 5-12). In the end, not only did the Israelites leave Egypt, the Egyptians gave them jewelry and gold on their way out (Ex. 3:21-22), lost their first born (Ex. 12:29) and their army (Ex. 14:26-30). This is not a redemption from slavery at all if we think of it in fiscal terms. The slave owners (the Egyptians) were plundered and utterly defeated, so if anyone paid, it was the Egyptians.

Israel’s redemption from slavery is therefore more ironic than literal. It might be better say that they were “redeemed” from Egypt, the double quotes not implying that it did not happen, but rather that the transaction went in the opposite direction, the Egyptians paying for the privilege of releasing the Israelites from slavery.

There’s another monetary term that’s used three times in the New Testament, once by Jesus (in Mk 10:45 and Mt 20:28, in parallel passages) and 1 Tim. 2:6. Mark 10:45 says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” This phrase has led to a great deal of speculation about who was being paid the ransom. Among the ideas floated about is that it is either the Devil (more common in the Christian West) or Death itself (more common in the Christian East) that is on the other end of the transaction. In response, the rest of the commentators are a bit horrified by the idea that Christ was paying a ransom to Death or the Devil in order to buy us out of slavery. So this is a controversial topic.

But it doesn’t have to be if we keep in mind two things: first, that “ransom” is, in a sense, the noun form of the verb “to redeem,” and second, what actually happened when the Israelites were “redeemed.” In other words, if we maintain the ironic character of this ransom, it’s not a problem. The Pashcal Troparian (or hymn, if you want a more common term in English) that is sung throughout the Easter season in the Orthodox Church, and sung several dozen times during the Pascha service itself (with either the priest or the choir randomly breaking out in song during the service as a sort of celebratory exclamation point), says, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” This hymn gets to the heart of the matter.

Like the Israelites “far down in Egypt land,” this is redemption language turned on its head. We are “ransomed” or “redeemed” from Death, but ironically, it is Death who ultimately pays – not Christ, not us – and is therefore ultimately defeated.

And then the Exodus imagery is extended even further. Death is not only defeated, Death becomes an important and even vital tool for Life. Paul says, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Colossians is even more specific. “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)” (3:5). And then the text goes on to pick up another Big Salvation Word (see this post) in the next verse: “On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.”

So, in the beginning (that is, the three days Jesus is in the tomb), Death pays for the privilege of giving us life and releasing us. And then, Death keeps on paying by becoming the tool that we use “to work out our salvation” and ridding ourselves of the passions that would otherwise prevent us from becoming Christ-like in this life.

And this is the delicious irony of our redemption: It’s a “ransom” … It is God’s act of making Death work against itself in order to give us victory and life.

Big Salvation Words: Wrath

Among Karl Barth’s opening general observations about the Doctrine of Reconciliation, he says that God “does not merely give out of His fulness (sic). In His fulness He gives Himself to be with” us and for us. God “gives Himself , and in so doing gives [us] all things.” Giving us “all things” is a good thing, right? Not so fast!

Barth continues: “Even in his experience of what comes to him from God, man can be blind or half-blind, and can therefore make mistakes, and can find terror and destruction in what God has allotted and gives as a supreme benefit. … Even the divine favour will then take on the aspect of wrath. God’s Yes will then become a No and His grace a judgment. The light itself will blind him and plunge him in darkness” (CD IV/1, pp 40f).

In relation to people who reject God, Barth insists that God is not angry, only merciful. “The love of God burns where they are, but as the fire of His wrath which consumes and destroys them. God lives for them, but the life of God can only mean death for those who are His enemies” [from their perspective, not from God’s perspective] (p. 221).

This idea of God’s light being both the warmth of love, the consuming power of divine passion for us, and in contrast, at the same time the consuming power of vengeance is a common theme in the Holy mothers and fathers. God’s mercy could be described as God’s willingness not to shine his love directly upon us (because it would destroy us) but only in veiled form. Once the chaff is gone and we are purified (that is, once we have arrived in heaven), we will be able to endure this shining love, but now it would destroy us.

It is in this sense that the Holy mothers and fathers also claim that heaven and hell are the same place. The conjecture is that all humans enter the identical presence of God after death. For the righteous this presence is love, glory, and light. For the unrighteous it is the consuming fires of hell.

In short, Barth is in full agreement with the ancient church that the wrath of God is a human reaction to God’s presence. Wrath is a negative human interpretation of the fire of God’s love.

Big Salvation Words: Judgment

In one of his more surprising insights, Karl Barth claims that the Fall of Adam and Eve, the root of their sin, was an act of judgment on their part. Adam and Eve “become sinners in trying to be as God: a judge” (CD IV/1 231). Barth says that to be human in the world as we know it (that is, hostile to God) is to be the “pseudo-sovereign creature” who believes its “most sacred duty [is] to have knowledge of good and evil.” Furthermore, we use that “knowledge” to “be a judge, to want to be able and competent to pronounce ourselves free and righteous and others more or less guilty.”

Unfortunately we are terrible judges. Our standard of righteousness, rather than matching reality, is a sliding scale that puts us into the best possible light. Judgment becomes an instrument of value, making us more valuable in our own eyes while making others less valuable, on (again) a sliding scale that allows me to dehumanize you and others that I especially want to dismiss.

Real judgment is something altogether different. Real judgment establishes our true and indelible humanity (and thus our worthiness as creatures of God) and distinguishes our true self from our failures, allowing God to transform us into what we might becomes. As Barth says, “In [God’s] hand there lies this solemn and powerful and redemptive instrument. In ours there is only a copy, a foolish and dangerous but ultimately ineffective toy” (p. 232)

Because of our confusion about judgment as it is exercised in human hands, it is also necessary to say that judgment does not grow out of anger or divine honor, or a need for cosmic justice. It is rather a relational act. “This is undoubtedly the mystery of the divine mercy. God acted in this way because He grieved over His people, because He did not will to abandon the world in its unreconciled state and therefore on the way which leads to destruction, because He willed to show to it an unmerited faithfulness as the Creator, because in His own inconceivable way He loved it” (p 237). We don’t typically think of judgment as an outgrowth of grief and loss, but true judgment is just that.

Finally, we need to understand that divine judgment is merciful because it is final. Much of our life is spent with a shadow of guilt darkening it. Our experience of being judged is that if I am judged unworthy today, the same will happen tomorrow. Human judgment is too often not an act, but an ongoing attitude or devaluing of the other person. Divine judgment is nothing like this belittling action which we often confuse with judgment. The divine sort is “a judgment beside and after and beyond which there need be no further fear of judgment; a judgment which concludes once and for all with redemption and salvation …” (p. 222).

This is not to say that judgment is pleasant, something to look forward to with longing, or any other such nonsense. But it is equally nonsensical to dread it because we tend to equate judgment with condemnation. Judgment, in the mystery of the divine economy, is the evaluation (or, the revelation of who we truly are in our inmost secret self) that makes grace possible. It is the first step in our rescue from despair. It is indeed the “solemn and powerful redemptive instrument” that God uses to bring us sinful humans to himself.

Big Salvation Words: Righteousness

Over the next few weeks I would like to revisit some of the big words that relate to our salvation. Many of them are hard and even frightening words, so we have a tendency to ignore them, or in the case of a word like “wrath,” leave them to the very conservative Christians who seem to revel in them. That’s a mistake.

After World War II – a war that was disastrous for European Protestantism because it revealed how empty that Protestantism was – Karl Barth did the hard work work of looking seriously at all these words and reincorporating the words and the ideas behind them into his theology.

One of the things Barth demonstrated was that it is not possible to merely turn to the Bible to define the big words. We bring all of our cultural assumptions to bear and thus when we read them in the Bible, what we are typically “reading” is not necessarily what the Bible actually says, but a subtle revision of what it says aligned with our cultural assumptions. Thus, you will not find a lot of biblical quotations in these essays. It’s not an exercise in what the Bible says so much as it is a proper definition of terms so that we can understand what the Bible says.

I will be focusing on a single volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics that deals specifically with the atonement. Volume IV, “The Doctrine of Reconciliation” is divided into multiple volumes. I will be using Part One. (It is typically identified as CD IV/1. When you see “CD IV/1, p 1,” or simply “p. 1,” you will know this is what I am referring to.)

The first word I want to consider is “righteousness.” I suspect we often unconsciously think of righteousness as a substance. For instance, I might pray that God would fill me with righteousness (as if it is something that can be poured into me). We might also pray that God would make me more righteous, as if there is a sliding scale, sort of like the air purity index.

In contrast to this, it’s helpful to think of righteousness as a binary (that is, only two options). The binary, in this case would be “right” or “wrong.” Then we might thing of the opposite of righteousness as “wrongeousness,” (if I may coin a word).

This approach to the word is helpful because righteousness is not a value judgment. For example, “God is righteous.” is not a parallel statement to “Michael is handsome.” Something that is far more close to being a parallel statement to “God is righteous.” is, “The speed of light is 3×10^8 m/s.” No value judgment, it is what it is.

The rightness that is referred to in the word “righteousness” is not a value judgment, it is a description of reality. The “rightness” is the way things are. This “rightness” of God is akin to things like gravity, the conservation of energy, etc. Barth defines it as, “the omnipotence of God creating order, which is now revealed and effective as a turning from this present evil aeon to the new one of a world reconciled with God in Him” (p. 256).

Eventually this distinction between value judgment and reality will become quite important. If this were a value judgment, God’s response to our unrighteousness could be construed as emotional. Thus divine wrath could be conflated with anger and vengeance (a term that appears 20 times in the Old Testament) could be conflated with revenge.

But once we understand that divine righteousness is a binary concept, we can begin to grasp that assuming that God is angry or disappointed or let down when we sin makes about as much sense as saying the building that the speeding Corvette ran into was angry at the Corvette and that’s why the building wrecked it and killed its driver.

To say that God is righteous, therefore, is, first and foremost, to proclaim God’s character. Secondarily, it tells us something about creation: The Creator imbued his ultimate reality into this created reality. The same righteousness that characterizes God characterizes our proper relationship to creation as well as to God.

The righteousness of God is not something that we try to achieve, it’s not something we try to measure up to. The righteousness of God is simply the reality in which live, and if we refuse to live in this reality of righteousness we will die as certainly as that unfortunate Corvette driver. This is the context in which we will explore other key words related to our salvation.

Barth on Judgment and Humiliation

One theme in the book Compassion (see this post for a review of the book) was the centrality of obedience and humility and even the necessity of humiliation. That chapter (entitled “Obedience”) was largely based on the first subsection of §59 of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics entitled, “The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country” (IV/1, pp157-210). It is in this subsection that Barth explores, among many other things, the humiliation of Jesus Christ.

In the book group where we are considering the book that word “humiliation” was a significant stumbling block for some. Humble? That’s a good word. Humility? That too is a good word. But “humiliation” was a step too far. It was thought that it implies a stripping away of the basic dignity that is owed all humans. Humility is an excellent virtue. Humiliation, on the other hand, chips away at our very humanity.

If all we have to go on is the one chapter from the book Compassion, I would have some sympathy for this objection. But ever since reading that book, I’ve been once again plugging away at §59 of the Dogmatics. I feel like I’m back in seminary!) I just got started on the second subsection, which is about judgment (entitled, “The Judge Judged in our Place”), and it becomes quite clear why Barth chose that uncomfortable word “humiliation.” The remainder of this essay will be extensive quotes from the second subsection.

We have seen that in its root and origin sin is the arrogance in which man [sic] wants to be his own and his neighbour’s judge. According to Gen. 3:5 the temptation which involves man’s disobedience to God’s commandment is the evil desire to know what is good and evil. He ought to leave this knowledge to God, to see his freedom in his ability to adhere to God’s decisions in his own decisions. He becomes a sinner in trying to be as God: himself a judge. To be a man – in the world which is hostile to God and unreconciled with Him – is to be the pseudo-sovereign creature which finds its dignity and pride in regarding it as its highest good and most sacred duty to have knowledge of good and evil and to inform itself about it (in relation to itself and others). To be a man means to practice to want to be a judge, to want to be able and competent to pronounce ourselves free and righteous and others more or less guilty. [p 231] …

The event of redemption in Jesus Christ not only compromises this position, not only attacks this safe stronghold of man. It is not merely a moral accusation against the pride of man. It is not merely an intellectual exposure of the error which has led him into it. It is the fact by which the position of man [as judge] is taken away, by which it is made impossible and untenable, by which the safe stronghold is breached. Jesus Christ … has penetrated to that place where every man is in his inner being supremely by and for himself. This sanctuary [now] belongs to [Christ] and not to man. [p. 232] …

It is by this action that we are now removed from the judge’s seat, by the fact that Jesus Christ did for us what we wanted to do for ourselves.  … In His hand there lies this solemn and powerful and redemptive instrument [ie, being Judge]. In ours there is only a copy, a foolish and dangerous but ultimately ineffective toy. [p. 232] …

Abasement by an abstract “god” [ie, our conceptions of God, and even our conception of the pre-incarnate God that we might get from the Old Testament] is a safe enough matter which we can turn to our own glory. But abasement by God in the flesh, in the person of this fellow-man is a dangerous matter. It is a real and concrete abasement. If this man is my divine Judge, I myself cannot be judge any longer. I have forfeited the claim to be it and the enjoyment of being it. … Where does our own judgment always lead? To the place where we pronounce ourselves innocent, and where, on account of their venial or mortal sins, and with more or less indulgence and understanding or severity and inflexibility, we pronounce others guilty. That is how we live. And that is how we can no longer live in the humiliating power of what took place in Jesus Christ. We are threatened by it because there is a complete turning of the tables. [p. 233]

The other [side of the coin] is that the fact that Jesus Christ judges in our place means an immeasurable liberation and hope. The loss which we always bewail and which we seem to suffer means in reality that a heavy and indeed oppressive burden is lifted from us when Jesus Christ becomes our Judge. It is a nuisance, and at the bottom an intolerable nuisance, to have to be the man who gives sentence.  It is a constraint always to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent , we are in the right. It is similarly an affliction always to have to make it clear to ourselves so that we can cling to it that others are in one way or another in the wrong, and to have to rack our brains how we can [234] make it clear to them, and either bring them to an amendment of their ways or give them up as hopeless, withdrawing from them or fighting against them as the enemies of all that is good and true and beautiful. It is a terrible thing to know good and evil if only in this ostensible and ineffective way, and to have to live with this doubtful knowledge. It agrees quite simply with what is written in Gen. 2:17, that if we eat of this tree we must die. We are all in process of dying from this office of judge which we have arrogated to ourselves. It is, therefore, a liberation that it has come to pass in Jesus Christ that we are deposed and dismissed from this office because He has come to exercise it in our place. [pp 233f]

A Second Look at Glory

Transfiguration Sunday – as a Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary – is the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday (Feb. 26 in 2017). It is about Jesus being transfigured, his hidden divine glory being revealed. It serves as the culmination of the Christmas cycle, where “revealing,” “light,” and “glory” are major themes. In terms of the lectionary Easter Cycle (which will start three days later), it gives context to the suffering that Jesus is about endure as he turns his face toward Jerusalem and the cross. By juxtaposing the Transfiguration with Ash Wednesday/Lent/Crucifixion, it emphasizes that Jesus’ road to Jerusalem is a path of choice. Suffering and death were not inevitable as Jesus came up against the political powers. He submits himself to humiliation, not out of inevitability, but out of obedience to the Father.

The Feast of Transfiguration (in contrast to the Lectionary Day) is on Aug. 6 so this is a displaced Sunday that serves the purposes of the lectionary rather than celebrating the historical feast. This dislocation is something to which I will circle back momentarily.

I grew up on divine glory. Long before I was a Presbyterian I learned the first question of the Westminster catechism, which seems to belong to the whole Protestant Church and not just Presbyterians. A contemporary renderings of it reads, Q: What is a person’s chief end? A: A person’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.

Once I became Presbyterian, I realized the answer’s order (glory first, enjoyment second) and the placement of the question (first in the catechism) is no accident. Presbyterian theology is sorted around the idea of God’s glory. It’s God’s primary activity in the sense that God glorifies himself whenever God does anything. Why did God create? To glorify himself. Why did God allow the flood? To glorify himself. Why did God call forth Israel? To glorify himself. Why did God redeem? Well, you get the idea.

This year a simple question popped into my mind as the Lectionary Sunday of Transfiguration looms: Is all that actually true? I don’t think so because it stands counter to Jesus’ life and it’s revelation of the true character of God. While it is obviously true and very important that God is glorious and his glory shines forth all over the place, when we start with glory as the organizing principle, it manages to get our relationship with God out of sorts.

The chief end of God is [and here there are a variety of words we might use which I can’t decide between] fellowship, communion, union, all relational words that are rooted firmly in the divine attribute of love rather than glory. God is glorious because the glory arises out of God’s love and not vice versa. If glory were the starting point, the relationship would be profoundly different. It would be about God and not about God-with-us, it would be about God’s advantage over us. “For God so sought to glorify Himself that he sent his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life in order that God could further glorify himself.” (Well, it isn’t an exact quote.)

August 6 is not exactly a high point on the liturgical calendar (aside from the fact that it is a Great Feast of the Church).  It is connected with first fruits (and grapes are a big part of the Orthodox feast). But there is no grand cycle surrounding it (like Lent or Advent). It’s just sort of there all on its own. And this is also, properly, the point of divine glory. It’s always there, it’s always fabulous when we se see it. We know we will bask in it in eternity. But the story of creation, redemption and the consummation of all things focuses on a different story arc altogether. Not much actually revolves around the divine glory itself.

And while there is little to no historical precedent (except in the last 500 years) for making divine glory central, there is a down side to such a practice. Glory is a “power” concept while love and fellowship are “servant” concepts. While the Old Testament is full of glory and awe and the “awe-ful” God, Jesus, true God come to earth in order to reveal God’s most fundamental true character, hid his glory and revealed the more foundational attribute of servanthood instead.

Starting with glory will give us a human kingdom, with all its abuses and horrors. Starting with servanthood and fellowship will give us the upside down kingdom (in John Howard Yoder’s words) that is no kingdom at all, but rather the pervasive Reign of God that is so hidden, smart people think they’re being really smart when they say that God can’t exist. Can you imagine the Twitter storm we would be subjected to if the Society of Really Smart People That Really Matter to the World decided the President of the United States didn’t exist?

But God’s not like that. God won’t tweet in protest when God doesn’t get the proper divine recognition and thus made really great. God is most glorified when God’s not the object of the world’s adoration, and instead the secret servant of that world. God is most glorified when God brings order to the chaos in the form of a wind over the chaotic sea, or a dewy breeze in a Garden. It is glorious precisely because it’s hidden, and thus accessible to everyone God wants to be with, even the least of us.

So, what’s the point of Mat. 17:1-9. the Gospel Lesson about the Transfiguration? In this context, it is that the true glory of Jesus Christ is that he veils his splendor so that the splendor itself will not lord over us. That true splendor of servanthood is revealed when Jesus is momentarily transfigured and then willingly returns to his veiled human self, telling the disciples to keep it all a secret. Divine splendor is always there, but the glory is that the splendor, the greatness, the power, the perfection is hidden so that Jesus, the Word and true revealer of God, can be a servant and call us friend.

What is Salvation and the Task of the Christian Life?

A review of Compassion, by Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill, and Douglas A. Morrison, 1966, rev. ed. 1982, Image Books.

I read this book as part of a group book study. Very early in the study, one of my study partners commented that I was having a real problem with the idea of compassion and was clearly pushing it away, or at the very least pushing against it. That wasn’t true but at that point in the book, I couldn’t put my finger on just what I was pushing against. Eventually it became clear.

There are two very different ways of understanding our salvation. The one, most common in Roman Catholic and Protestant communions, is that salvation is a transformation of the heart and will and thus is worked out ethically (although I’m not sure this is the best word). God changes my mind allowing me to change my actions. The Orthodox understand salvation to be far deeper and more pervasive than that. Salvation is physical and encompasses the whole person, body in addition to mind and will.

There is a profound unity of body and soul, heart and will. In Orthodox anthropology the will would be classified as a bodily (or animal) function, and when Christ united himself with humanity, he united himself, even at this most primitive animal level in order that our whole being could be saved.

The differences between these two conceptions of salvation are often subtle and a bit hard to grasp. I will offer two examples from the book. The first comes in ch. 4, entitled “Community.” The foundation of the authors’ understanding of community is Phil 2:1-2. “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

The Orthodox begin, not with the mind, but with the body. Community begins in communion, which is a process of union with Christ which is physical and spiritual (the word mystical is helps convey this profound unity). At the Table I eat his body and drink the blood of the covenant. As a result of this a union begins to be formed that is completely real, although invisible.

The call to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind,” is therefore not the goal, but rather a necessary warning. A body (in this case, the Body of Christ), that is mystically united cannot be warring against itself. In medicine we call this cancer. The unity that Paul calls for is thus an outworking of a far deeper unity that already exists objectively.

In ch. 7, entitled “Patience,” the authors consider the need for discipline. All three are Roman Catholic priests and they have a difficult history to overcome on this subject, because “discipline” in the form of misguided practices such as self-flagellation, has a long history in the Roman Catholic church. Instead of offering a classic or historic definition of discipline they opt for the Protestant version:

“In the Christian life, discipline is the human effort to unveil what has been covered, to bring to the foreground what has remained hidden, and to put on a lamp stand what has been kept under a basket.” This is not a bad definition as far as it goes, but this understanding of discipline will result in a feeble light.

Again, we need to remember that salvation is not only mental but physical. We were created in God’s image, and from that starting point we need to grow into the fullness that this divine image allows. The word that’s used to express this is a Greek word that is problematic to translate. Nous, is sometimes translated mind and sometimes translated heart, and refers to the most inner part of our being. (Note: the word “like-minded” and “mind” that appears twice in Phil. 2:1-2, above, is a different word, phroneo.)

The most remarkable characteristic of the nous, is that after it is brought to life from spiritual death (the first step of salvation) is that it can grow … and grow. It reflects, to the extent possible in a created being, the infinity of God. Through the Spirit it is filled with divine love that shines out in the darkness, and as the nous grows, it is able to “contain” or “reflect” (here I suspect human language fails) more and more of the divine light.

But expanding or stretching out our nous requires discipline; not just an uncovering of what is already there, but a further development of what the divine image might become. Paul compares it to athletics (both a boxer and a runner) and military training. Thus, this process of discipline is called askesis (the Greek word from which we get the English athletic) and it is often compared to military boot camp.

I realize that at this point we get into an area of the spiritual life where there is a profound difference between the Latin west and Greek east. There was a great controversy in the 14th century, called the Hesychast controversy that had to do with this precise thing. The Orthodox and Catholics came down on different sides of this controversy. I therefore realize that Roman Catholic and Protestant readers might well have some heartburn over this. But that is not the question at hand, the question is, “Why do I find myself pushing this book away?” It’s not that I have a problem with their ideas about compassion, it’s that I find their conception of salvation, and thus the root and outworking of compassion, to be truncated.

This differing understanding of the expanse of our salvation truly comes to a head in ch. 9, entitled, “Action.” The chapter begins by saying that the discipline of prayer necessarily leads to the discipline of action. They turn to James to remind us that faith without works is dead. Thus, the goal of the Christian life is the active life. It is a very specific sort of active life to be sure. Christian action is not action for action’s sake, it is an outgrowth of the disciplines of patience, prayer, etc., but action – being in the world – is where all these disciplines inevitably lead us.

From an Orthodox perspective, this is quite a muddled version of salvation. All of these disciplines, this askesis, leads to the transformation of the person. The goal is not centered in “the other” and particularly in service to the other, the goal lies within the self. This is certainly an idea that service oriented Christianity finds troubling, so more needs to be said.

Since salvation is ultimately physical and not ethical, our disciplines need to focus on the preparation of our physical selves (through prayer, fasting, alms, the three classic disciplines of the church) so that God can transform us. This does not mean that Christians ought not care about the world, it rather puts into perspective how Christians ought to care for the world. As I am transformed, my nous expands and is filled with more and more of God’s love. Thus the actions that would be described as service to the world are not something I do, they are something that I am.

It does little good, from the perspective of God’s Reign, to help the poor because, as Jesus reminded us, the poor will always be with us. Helping the poor, in this context, is an application of the sort of “works” that Martin Luther and the Protestants railed against. Rather than being an expression of God’s Reign, it is an attempt to help it along or to bring it about.

I suspect most Protestants will disagree with me. Presbyterians are especially fond of the dynamic between grace and gratitude. God gives us his grace and we respond with gratitude. Our action in the world is not works because it is a response to salvation, i.e. gratitude, rather than attempt to secure salvation. My response to this is that it still sells the breadth of salvation short and therefore fails to faithfully describe what’s going on.

So I don’t want to make a bigger deal out of this than it is. There is plenty of room for ecumenical dialog and further nuance. But my starting point, if that discussion is ever to happen, is that this book failed to take seriously the depth of salvation and, as a result, reduced compassion to an activity that can never be a satisfying form of service.