Ascension: Happy Feast!

Today, being 40 days after Pascha (Easter) in the Orthodox Church, is the Feast of Ascension.

It is easy to overlook Ascension because Pentecost is just around the corner (10 days from now). It’s so easy to get wrapped up with the coming of the Holy Spirit – the power and glory involved in this momentous event – that Jesus Christ’s Ascension into heaven becomes an afterthought, a forgotten event between the Resurrection and the coming of the Spirit.

But Ephesians (the end of ch. 1) puts the significance of this event into context. I especially like the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) because it takes one of those incredible run-on sentences the epistle is known for and breaks it up into easier to digest pieces.

Here’s that last run-on sentence of Eph. 1, as found in all its run-on glory, in the King James Version.

[15] Wherefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus, and love unto all the saints, [16] cease not to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers; [17] that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him: [18]the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, [19] and what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, [20] which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, [21] far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: [22] and hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, [23] which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.

I remember having to diagram this sentence in Greek back in college. None of us diagramed it in quite the same way. We had dependent clauses and a few independent clauses popping out all over the place. The problem with such a complex sentence is that when you finally get to the object, you’ve forgotten where the verb is, and you’ve forgotten what the noun was.

The NRSV solves this problem by breaking this sentence up and then repeating the noun and verb so that a dependent clause can become a separate sentence. Here is v. 20 (originally a dependent clause) from the NRSV:

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.

The original verse was a big confusing: Who’s the “he” in v. 20? It’s God, the Father of glory. What was wrought in Christ? Power (or “the exceeding greatness of his power.” And suddenly v. 20, which in the KJV, is simply another phrase in a very long sentence about Christ, jumps off the page, and the reader says, “Wow! That’s why the Ascension is important.

God has all this power. God has this “exceeding greatness of power” which is aimed “us-ward.” It’s the sort of power that allows us to understand heavenly things so that we can grasp the amazing content of our salvation. But it’s all just an idea, sort of like a disembodied energy floating around until …

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.

So how is this possible? It’s explained in the last phrase of the sentence (v. 23), but we need v. 22 for context: Through the Ascension God the Father put all things (ta panta) under Christ’s feet. (If you know a bit of Greek, you understand the profound significance of “ta panta” being put under Christ’s authority. But along with this authority, Jesus was made to be “Head” of the Church, [and then we come to v. 23] “which is his Body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

Oaky, put on your grammar hats: We have two objective nominatives in a row, and I take them to be parallel, as one would frequently find in the Psalms. This verse is an independent clause, and the subject of the sentence is “Which;” the verb is “is.” But this by itself is an incomplete sentence. This structure requires an object. The trick is, there are two objects. The first is as follows:

Which is his Body.

Now, let’s attach the subject and verb to the second object:

Which is the fullness of him who fills all in all.

This structure has all the earmarks of classic Hebrew poetic parallelism. And if that is the case, then “Christ’s Body” (which is the Church, by the way) is “the fullness of Christ who fills all in all.”

Now think about the implications of this. The Enthroned Christ has power and authority over “all things” – everything in the Universe! Furthermore, this same Christ “fills all in all.” Or, said another way, he both has authority over all things and fills all things. So we have this image which is both juridical and mystical of Christ who is both over and in all things at the same time!

But what is the fullness of Christ? What is the fullness of this Christ who is over all and fills all? Why it is the Church, it is us – we who are his Body.

And that is all possible because of the Ascension.

I don’t even pretend to understand what it means that we are “the fullness of Christ” and that it is true because Christ ascended to the Father, but it is clearly a glorious position. Why would God take things like us (he had his choice of “all things, after all), created from the dust, tenuous and insubstantial creatures like us who will return to the dust, willful creatures like us who shake our fists at God or turn our backs on God … Why would God take creatures like us and transform us into the fullness of Christ?

This is grace at its most profound inscrutability. And this particular grace hinges on the Ascension, which we celebrate in gratitude this day, 40 days after Pascha and 10 days before Pentecost. Happy feast!

Judge Sotomayor

I don’t know enough about Judge Sotomayor to know whether she’s going to be good — as if I know what makes for a good Supreme Court Justice! Ha! (Although the Republicans whining about empathy is pathetic beyond words — Try to find substance to talk about. You’re beginning to sound like E! Entertainment Television.)

I do worry about her English maid/nanny and her Dutch groundskeeper. Do you suppose they were illegal aliens? You know those Dutchmen, they’ve been trying to sneak in ever since it was New Amsterdam.

St. Paul, Prof. Dunn, Dr. Waters, and Bultmann (the theologian, not the schnauzer)

Alongside listening to and reading James Dunn (see here and here), in an attempt at balance I have been reading Guy Prentiss Waters’ Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul (and have John Piper’s The Future of Justification in line after I’m done with Waters). The difference in analytical style is so striking that I couldn’t help but report on it with an essay.

Who are these two authors? Both are Reformed Protestants (although Dunn is now a Methodist, but his intellectual framework is clearly Reformed). Dunn is a British Evangelical in the mainstream of intellectual thought. (This involvement with the mainstream draws the ire of most American Evangelicals and leads many of them to question his Evangelical credentials.) Waters is an up and coming theologian who teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary, a bastion of very conservative Presbyterianism in the U.S. Just as Dunn is considered to be on the left fringe of Evangelicalism by many, so Waters would be considered to be on the right fringe by many.

Waters’ method of approaching history is the method I learned in Bible College; Dunn’s is the method I learned in seminary. In his analysis, Waters appears to stand outside history as both a neutral observer and impartial judge. Dunn appears to work within history, wrestling with the ideas and theologians of the past, and certainly not observing events, but doing his part to shape them.

Central to Waters’ method is what I will dub “the received Litany of Woes of Protestant theological history.” I’m not sure who wrote this Litany of Woes, but Waters’ litany is pretty much the same litany I memorized in Bible College, the same litany of history that no doubt every Bible College student across the land memorized. Waters doesn’t repeat the whole litany, but rather the high points that serve his purpose in this book. In his words,

“We jump now from 1564, the year of Calvin’s death, to 1826, the year that F. C. Baur began to teach at Tübingen. … European philosophy had now radically embraced doubt as its epistemological starting point.” (p. 3)

Why Bauer? He is a towering figure in New Testament studies, generally credited for being the first higher critic. From Calvin and Luther until the mid-19th century, pretty much everything was copacetic in Protestant theology; then Protestantism began it’s slow decent into exegetical decadence. Bauer is the figurehead of this decent.

So according to the litany, Bauer introduces dialectical materialism to theology (p. 4), which leads to the Classical Liberalism of Holtzmann, et. al. (p. 8). In response to those excesses we have the rise of the History of Religions school of thought (p. 9)on the one hand and another sort of primitivism in Albert Schweitzer’s “Participationism” (p. 11) on the other. (For the sake of clarity, Schweitzer never called his theology “participationism” but rather “Christ-mysticism.” Participationism was coined by either Dunn or Wright and Waters is reading Dunn’s late 20th century interpretation of Paul back into 18th century Schweitzer.)

And this sets the stage for the next towering figure after Bauer: Rudolph Bultmann. Waters observes that while Bultmann was formally a Lutheran he was materially an existentialist in the mold of Martin Heidegger (p. 17). Furthermore, he observes that his interpretation of Paul’s doctrine of justification is far more Existentialist than Lutheran.

“For Bultmann, the ‘individual’ was central, and justification (a ‘forensic concept’) was central to Pauline theology. Justification, then, was not an inward or mystical ‘change’; rather, it is an ‘eschatological reality’ made present to the believer, a ‘pure gift of God’s grace,’ not attained or attainable by the works of the law” (p. 17).


Well certainly this is an existential reading of Paul, but before anybody had even heard of Existentialism it was also a very Lutheran reading of Paul, straight out of old Martin’s playbook, except possibly for the phrase “eschatological reality” which Martin Luther never uttered, but is oh-so 19th century in quality. But “a forensic rather than mystical change,” and “justification as a pure gift of God’s grace” is about as Lutheran as it is possible to get.

So it is at this point that Waters’ standard Litany of Woes begins to break down. Bultmann was, if not formally, at least materially a heretic of the first order. (On that point I agree wholeheartedly with Waters. I named my dog after him after all! – Bultmann, that is, not Waters.) And Bultmann’s heresy (the theologian and not the schnauzer) was in no small part due to precisely what Waters describes above, but that inherent weakness did not come from Heidegger, it came from Martin Luther himself.

In fact one could argue (an argument that is far beyond the scope of this essay) that Heidegger’s existentialism is simply a secularized version of Lutheranism. The Heidegger we all love to hate could never have developed as a philosopher anywhere on the planet other than utterly Lutheran Germany (or possibly equally Lutheran Scandinavia, the home – not accidently – of the premier Christian existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard).

But that particular insight is not part of the Litany of Woes that I learned in Bible College and that Waters repeats here. Is it possible that since the connection between religious Lutheranism and secular Existentialism isn’t part of the canonical Litany of Woes, the fact that Waters got the Existential cart in front of the Lutheran horse never occurred to Waters?

From Bultmann, Waters continues his Litany of Woes through W.D. Davies, Ernst Käsemann, Krister Stendahl, and E.P. Sanders. But a litany is a litany, and we will not learn a great deal more to continue through this list of bad (from Waters’ perspective) Biblical scholarship. (Nearly all Lutheran, by the way, a likely significant point that the Reformed Waters curiously doesn’t explore. But again, the fact that 18th to 20th century Biblical scholarship was absolutely dominated by Continental Lutherans is not part of the received Litany of Woes, and the remarkable significance of that fact to Reformed theologians simply doesn’t occur to Waters without the nudging of the Litany. So Waters remains remarkably uncurious about this trend.)

Dunn sees the significance of this same history in a remarkably different manner. In his paper, “The Justice of God” (reprinted as ch. 7 in the revised The New Perspective on Paul), Dunn observes that due to Luther’s insistent emphasis on the individual (in stark contrast to the Reformed emphasis on the Covenant of Grace – a very corporate understanding of God’s work in the world), there has always been a strongly individualist (which is the very point of Existentialism) flavor to the Protestant understanding of justification.

“There were attempts, earlier in this century, to shift the focus of the traditional teaching on justification” ie, “the understanding of justification by faith in distinctively individualistic terms” [italics in original]) p. 196.

And here, Dunn observes the overwhelming influence of Bultmann, but Dunn’s observation is far more sweeping – and equally as damning – to the evangelicals as to the liberals. Dunn continues:

“But such protests were swamped by the tremendous influence of Bultmann’s existentialist interpretation of Paul, reinforcing as it did the more traditional, individualistic reading, and giving rise to powerful restatements of the classical Lutheran doctrine within the Bultmann School” (ibid).

Dunn recognizes that Protestants are all – liberal and evangelical, Lutheran and Reformed – children of Bultmann to the extent that they (and he has in mind especially, the Reformed or Presbyterian who should know better, given their Covenantal theology) are blinded to the corporate and covenantal nature of salvation because of the nearly exclusive emphasis on “the more traditional, individualistic reading” of salvation which is based in Luther at the expense of Calvin.”

The Litany of Woes leads us (and here I’m thinking of “us” as those of us who cut our teeth on conservative Reformed evangelicalism in places like Bible Colleges and Reformed campus ministries) to think we can stand outside of the history of theology to observe and judge it: In the beginning was Luther and Calvin, but then came Bauer, and Wellhausen, and Schweitzer, and Bultmann … Woe to them! But we believe in the Bible, so ultimately they are of no concern to us.

Dunn, on the other hand,

  • although he is an Evangelical,
  • although he believes in the Bible in the same manner that American Evangelicals believe in the Bible,
  • although he fundamentally disagrees with and distances himself from the higher critical method that the Litany of Woes condemns

sees the “problem” as much deeper and more pervasive. Bultmann, rather than just being a heretic and a liberal, “one of them,” as it were … Bultmann, in his excess, expresses something common to all Protestantism, but less visible in all Protestantism because it isn’t so excessive. And Dunn sees no room for a holier-than-thou attitude because he embraces the Continental Protestant tradition as in some sense his own. Rather than trying to stand above and outside of history, he perceives in Bultmann and his ilk, a blind spot and failure in Protestantism as a whole. Bultmann unveils a Protestant problem (Dunn’s view) rather than a liberal problem (Waters’ view).

My point is not that Dunn is right and Waters is wrong. It is rather, that in his supposed critique of Dunn, Waters completely misses the point. Dunn says that amidst all the strengths and insights of the classic Protestant doctrine of salvation (of which Dunn believes there are many), Protestantism has had a blind spot that grew out of a misunderstanding of the Judaism that existed in the time of Jesus and Paul.

Rather than addressing whether there is a blind spot or not, Waters attacks Dunn’s conclusions using the standard, centuries-old line of argument (the Litany of Woes) that, if Dunn is correct, includes the very blind spot that Dunn is critiquing.

So, Dr. Waters, set aside the Litany and pay attention to Prof. Dunn’s insights into the history of Protestantism. Maybe then you can figure out what Dunn is talking about and offer an intelligent critique of Dunn instead of the canonical critique of the Litany of Woes that decidedly misses the point.

Justification by Faith and Sacramentalism

I just ran across this summary of the Protestant doctrine of justification from Alister McGrath’s Iustitia Dei in a footnote (#335) in James Dunn’s The New Perspective on Paul, rev. ed., p. 80f:

Justification is defined as the forensic declaration that the believer is righteous, rather than the process by which he is, made righteous, involving a change in his status rather than his nature. 2. A deliberate and systematic distinction is made between justification (the external act by which God declares a sinner to be righteous and sanctification or regeneration (the internal process of renewal within man). … 3.Justifying righteousness … is defined as the alien righteousness of Christ, external to man and imputed to him, rather than a righteousness which is inherent to him, located within him, or which in any sense may be said to belong to him (Iustitia Dei 189).

For a number of years I have been trying to put my finger on the critical difference between the Orthodox and Protestant (particularly Reformed) perspectives of the doctrine. The problem is that there is no single Protestant doctrine of justification by faith. Some Reformed explanations are essentially Orthodox, while others focus so exclusively on the forensic and so completely ignore Paul’s participationist theology that one would hardly recognize them as Christian, much less Reformed. Others (most North American versions of justification) focus nearly exclusively on an intellectual understanding of faith with no connection to obedience (bordering on antinomianism). This antinomian version of “faith alone” seemingly ignores the Apostles’ insistence that at the judgment seat of Christ, we will be “seen for what we are” … “matched to whatever we have done, good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10, NJB), nor on his warning that a mind (lit. nous) not set on the Spirit is hostile God and doesn’t submit to God’s law (Rom. 8:7). How does one sort through the variety in order to distill the core of Reformed thought on this contentious subject? It seems McGrath has clarified the question and, in the process, helped me put my finger on what I believe to be the core issue.

I want to consider the McGrath quote above, especially that first point, in light of the Orthodox understanding of justification. But I want to enter into the issue through the lens of another contentious subject within Protestantism: the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Are the bread and wine at the Lord’s Table the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus, or are they pointers that remind us of the Body and Blood of Christ? When Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life,” was he speaking literally or metaphorically? This question is terribly complicated in the Christian West so there is no simple yes or no. Let me provide a quick summary:

Historically, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Presbyterians have all affirmed that it is really and truly the Body and Blood that we eat and drink at the Lord’s Table (thus, they all call it a “sacrament”). Anabaptists (Mennonites, Baptists, American Evangelicals, etc.), on the other hand, say it is metaphorical and the Lord’s Table rather than being sacramental, is a memorial of the Last Supper. (I know, the Anglicans/Episcopalians are missing from this list. High Anglicans are pretty much like Roman Catholics; low Anglicans are pretty much like Presbyterians. They are both sacramental, but fall into different branches of the three main categories above. Methodists are a branch of Anglicanism, so they are also sacramental.)

Among the first group (the sacramentalists), two of them want to explicitly define what happens while one refuses to define it. The Roman Catholics define it with the doctrine of transubstantiation. The Lutherans define it with the doctrine of consubstantiation. The Presbyterians, on the other hand, say that while it really happens it is indefinable and we have no business trying to define it. They just call it the Real Presence of Christ, and leave it at that. (Except when they’re preaching, in that venue they can’t help themselves; they make clear that it can’t be defined and we have no business defining it, and then they go ahead and try to do it anyway.)

Sacramentalism, then, is the doctrine that while the incarnation (ie, that Jesus was fully human and fully God) is a completely unique and unrepeatable event, but at the same time it is not unique. The bread is fully bread and fully body of Christ just as Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human. Sacramentalism is the doctrine that as a result of the incarnation, God can fully indwell and transform creation without causing any fundamental change to the creation itself. It’s a both/and understanding of God and creation.

And this brings us to the doctrine of imputation (what McGrath is talking about in his first point, without using the term). The English term “impute” is used by the King James Version (and several subsequent English versions to translate the Greek term logidzoumai. (Remember that word; you’re going to see it several more times in the next couple of paragraphs.) Paul liked that word a lot in his letter to the Romans (4:3, 8, 11, 22, 23, 24, 5:13). It has to do with God’s righteousness, human sin, and how God relates to humans. The Revised Standard Version uses the term “reckon” instead, and that’s a more familiar term. The normative Protestant interpretation of these verses is that God “reckoned” that we were righteous even though we weren’t; God treated us as if we were righteous. To use McGrath’s words from the above quotation, God didn’t make us righteous; he declared us righteous. It isn’t a change in nature, it’s a change in status. That’s the heart of the Protestant interpretation of imputation.

But, in light of the story about the Lord’s Supper, we can now understand McGrath’s words in a brand new way. The Protestant doctrine of the imputation of sin described by McGrath is not sacramental. (In other words, it’s more in line with Anabaptist theology than Lutheran/Reformed theologies.) Sacramentalism is the belief that God can fully indwell and transform a human without causing any fundamental change to him or her. God’s righteousness cannot be an “alien righteousness” nor can justification be just a declaration rather than a substantive change in a sacramental view.

If we were to change McGrath’s description into a sacramental understanding of imputed righteousness, when God did that logidzoumai thing that Paul talked about in Romans 4 and 5, he didn’t merely declare us righteous, he changed us, he made us capable of becoming righteous, not with an “alien” righteousness that isn’t really our own, that merely covers over our sin, but capable of actually making God’s righteousness our own righteousness. He not only changed our status, he changed our status by changing our nature (or more technically, by renewing and enlivening the nature he created in us) so that we could progress toward the true likeness of God.

Consider the text, “For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due, But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3ff NRSV).

The question is, “Who was different after Abraham believed?” Was Abraham still the same old reprobate with nothing happening inside him except a decision to believe God while God changed and decided to treat Abraham differently even though there was no substantial change in Abraham other than a decision? Or, did God stay the same, while Abraham’s belief changed him and created the possibility of divine transformation, a possibility that was an impossibility before Abraham believed?

The former view (that God changed) is the standard, non-sacramental doctrine of imputed righteousness that McGrath identifies as the bedrock of the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith. The latter is a sacramental view that is far more consistent with the whole body of Reformed and Lutheran theology.

I first became uncomfortable with the standard interpretation of imputed righteousness in seminary when I started reading Karl Barth. In his study of scripture, Barth was led to the inevitable conclusion that Covenant Theology (ie, Reformed theology which claims that both the Law and the Gospel are facets of the Covenant of Grace, which is specifically in disagreement with the Lutheran theology that puts Law and Gospel at odds) inevitably and necessarily led to a participationist rather than forensic view of salvation (see next paragraph for an explanation). If Barth was right (and he was, imho) it strikes the death knell over the traditional doctrine of imputed righteousness.

While the forensic metaphor is an important metaphor, when used as Paul used it, it is not descriptive of the primary reality. God is not a judge at a distance, never coming in contact, but only changing our legal status (ie, forensic status) so that we can get out of jail free because of our belief (this is the essence of the forensic view as expressed in Protestantism). Rather, God comes to us – in Christ – participates in our life – in Christ – and when we believe, something substantial happens to us that makes it possible for us to enter into God – in Christ – and participate in the life of God – in Christ (this is the essence of the participationist view).

This participationist view perfectly describes the Covenant of Grace that God has made with man. God comes to us. It’s no mere “I’m O.K., You’re O.K.” spoken from a distance, it is life together, originally as Israel, and then in the fullness of time, in Christ. And that life together (here’s the sacramental part that is so necessary in order to be consistent with the incarnation) is actually transformative. Just as Jesus is the Bread of Life, not just metaphorically, but in reality, so we are the Body of Christ, not just metaphorically, but in reality, that is being made holy and pure and entering into the likeness of God, not just as a promise for future consideration when we get to heaven, but here and now, and day by day.

In other words, we can have real righteousness now just as we can have the real body and blood of Christ now, just as Christ promised us in his teachings.

Don’t Try This At Home; Leave It To the Professionals

On Thursday the Bank of England and the European Central Bank followed U.S. Federal Reserve’s lead in practicing some “Qualitative Easing” (or QE),a practice where central banks buy government debt directly. Of course, central banks don’t actually have money, so they have to print it in order to accomplish this sleight of hand.

Bill Bonner, in his Daily Reckoning, responds,

Don’t try QE at home, dear reader; you’ll be arrested for counterfeiting. QE so closely resembles old-fashioned printing press money that you couldn’t tell them apart in a police line up.

Justification by Faith

The following quote comes from an evening conversation (third file down) between James D. G. Dunn and N.T. Wright held in 2005 at the University of Durham. Dunn and Wright are discussing St. Paul and about 18 minutes into the second half of the conversation, Tom Wright says the following, responding to Dunn, who just finished saying that Paul clearly teaches the final judgment will be based on our works. (The first sentence and a later sentence bracketed off are paraphrases because in the original conversation Wright is referring back to earlier threads.)

<— beginning of quote —>

In Rom 2:1-16 Paul talks about the future judgment which ends with, “God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (v. 16). The basic thrust is that at the last day all will be judged by the totality of the life that they have led. [Note: Rom 2:6 “For he well render to every man according to his works.”] And people have said, “Oh, Paul is just setting it up as a hypothetical thing and then he just knocks it down and says, ‘No one can get in that way, so there has to be an easier way, namely, faith.'” That’s a trivialization of Paul’s argument.

The whole point then is that God, in Christ, brings forward the verdict of the last day into the present age and says that when somebody believes the Gospel, they are declared to be dikaioi – in the right – and then they are launched upon this life [which will be evaluated, in the end, by one’s works.] Paul again and again speaks about doing things – works – which will redound to one’s credit on the last day.

And all of us who were brought up as good Evangelical Protestants go sort of, “Oh, you’re not supposed to say that, Paul.” But then you read 1 Thess . Paul again and again says, “What is our glory and crown of boasting in the Lord on the day of judgment? [The reference is 1 Thess. 2:19] And we expect him to say, as good evangelical Protestants, “The blood and righteousness of my Lord Jesus.” And he doesn’t. He says, “It’s you. You are our glory and our joy.” And Paul is quite clearly not so embarrassed about saying, “Things that we have done will redound to our credit on that last day.”

But the point is this does not in any way undermine justification by faith, because justification by faith is the statement that in the present time, on the basis of faith alone, and hence, not on the basis of ethnic identity, moral achievement, any personal civic status whatever, one is declared to be a member of God’s people, which is why justification by faith is the basis of ecclesiology. (20:45)