The Allegory of the Veil

When Paul is interpreting scripture allegorically, as he does in 2 Corinthians 3, it’s always worth going back to refamiliarize oneself with the text he is allegorizing. In this case, it’s Paul’s take on the story about Moses and his veil found in Ex. 34:29-35.

Moses began with the best of intentions. He came down from the Holy Mountain and, unbeknown to him, “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” This frightened the people and they were afraid to come near him, but Moses soldiered on and “called to them” (the implication is that he ordered them to come near so he could talk). When he was done speaking, he put a veil on his face. After that, he would take the veil off when he went to talk with God, call a meeting with the people so they could see his shining face, and then put the veil back on. Although not stated in the text, the implication is that the glow faded with time. Moses wasn’t hiding the glow, he was hiding the fade.

Paul’s take on Moses’ veil is a very nice bit of psychological insight, attributed in modern times to Carl Jung. What Paul tells us is that the veil works both ways. It not only hides the truth on the inside from those on the outside, it hides the Truth on the outside from the person hidden on the inside.

“Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (2 Cor. 3:15f). What is the veil that he speaks of? It could be described as unbelief, but with the Old Testament story in mind, we can dig a bit deeper. In Exodus the story doesn’t start with unbelief, it starts with pride. Moses isn’t satisfied with who he really is, he prefers the passing glory of God’s presence. The veil hides the fact that it’s passing.

But when Christ’s glory is allowed to function as it ought, it not only reflects off the outside, it begins to seep in. “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). The veil of pride is a barrier, not allowing that surface glory to seep through and do it’s work of transformation. Thus the root of the veil of unbelief is pride.

When we experience the early stages of transformation that comes from our exposure to Christ’s glory, we get a sense of what is to come. We can intuit the end product of what Christ is transforming us in to. But the actual transformation only comes from “one degree to another,” not all at once. Our tendency is then to put on an act, as if we are already transformed rather than revealing the less than fully transformed person we actually are. And as soon as we put on this mask (or veil), it prevents the glory from seeping in and doing its work.

We tend to think of unbelief in black and white. We either believe or we don’t. But unbelief is more subtle. Like the degrees of glory and transformation, there are degrees of pride and resulting unbelief. It is incumbent upon us to always be rooting out the slightest bit of pride, to always be utterly honest with who we are right now (rather than wishfully living as if we already are what we will become). This is the essence of true humility.

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A Tale of Two Epistles

I was struck this week by the difference in tone between two of Paul’s letters: 2 Corinthians and Philippians. To appreciate the difference, it must be remembered that the circumstances of the two letters are quite similar. He tells the Philippians that he is likely facing death. He is praying for his deliverance (1:19) but he is confident that

Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. (Phil 1:20-24)

In this circumstance, he clearly sees the Philippians as fellow-workers and “overflows” with joy at the connection. “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.” And again, “It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”

Philippians has rightly been referred to as a sort of love letter in which Paul expresses his deep fondness for the Philippians. Even though he is suffering in prison, and suspects he will die before he gets out, he faces every day with joy because of his fond remembrance of his friends in Philippi.

Similarly, just before writing 2 Corinthians, Paul was beaten and nearly killed. It seems he’s still not out of danger, so again his possible impending death is on his mind. But as he tells the Corinthians about this, his description remains formal and a bit strained. He says all the right things, but the relationship is not there.

For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation. (2 Cor. 1:5-7)

While Philippians is a love letter, this part of 2 Corinthians is more a formal treatise on fellowship and comfort. There is great theology being expressed in the above passage. The word consolation is paraklesis (remember, Jesus called the Holy Spirit, “the Paraclete” or “Comforter”). “Our comfort is abundant through Christ. The translators, I suspect are careful to not use the word “comfort” in order to avoid any confusion. Paul isn’t speaking formally of the Holy Spirit, but the overtones of Trinitarian activity are clear in the passage.

The other doctrine that shines through is the fellowship (Greek, koinonia) that results from our all being part of the Body of Christ. “You patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering.” There is no indication in the historical record that the Corinthian church was being persecuted at this time, so the sufferings they endure are Paul’s sufferings that the church suffers because we are all one Body.

He finishes this sentence by affirming his “hope.” Again, this is a loaded theological word for Paul. Hope isn’t just wishing something will come true, it is an expression of confidence in the things God is doing that are not yet revealed.

In 2 Corinthians Paul is the consummate model of how Bishops are supposed to act. They discipline, correct, love, encourage, and guide whether they like the congregation or not. A cursory reading of the two Corinthian letters makes it abundantly clear that his relationship with the congregation is quite strained. But it doesn’t matter. He still affirms all the right things: He loves them. They are connected at the deepest level possible so that they share (koinonia) each others joys and sufferings and comfort (paraklesis) each other in their mutual presence.

Ah, but when you compare 2 Corinthians with Philippians, we can’t help but note that it does matter. While he has a deep love for both congregations, he has a profound affection for the people of Philippi. While there is mutual consolation (paraklesis) with both congregations, his “love overflows” and he “prays with joy” for the Philippians.

Now let’s think about our own lives. Every congregation I have ever known, worked with, and been a part of (and having served for years on congregational relations committees in two Presbyteries, I’ve worked closely with a lot of congregations), is annoying and deeply irritating in some manner. Every congregation has at least one person, or group of people who have the ability to make life miserable.

Our tendency is to hop from here to there in search of that perfect group of people. But Paul does us a great service by showing us how to relate and join with people who are far from perfect. In all of his subtle theology in 2 Corinthians, he reminds us that it is not we who create the group. The group is a given. No matter our group, it is our task to find, embrace, and nurture the consolation, love, and fellowship that is already concretely there (whether we can see it or not) through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit.

Winter Lent

We are now a week or so into the season of “Winter Lent,” Fr. Thomas Hopko’s felicitous name for the Nativity fast. For Eastern Christians (Orthodox, Oriental, and Eastern Catholics), the Nativity Fast is pretty much the same thing as Great Lent: forty days of fasting leading up to the Nativity Feast (Christmas). I am enough of a romantic (and born and raised northerner) that it doesn’t feel like the Nativity Fast until it looks like winter outside. Today is our first real snow of the season. (The picture accompanying this essay is from the window I look out while typing away.) With snow on the ground, my mind is finally beginning to turn toward Winter Lent.

In the Latin and Protestant West, Advent focuses on preparation for the coming of Christ. The Sunday before Advent is all fire and fury, with the readings about the Second Coming, the Judgment, and the end of the world. The four Sundays of Advent then focus on preparation for Christ coming into the world as we prepare to celebrate his First Coming.

While this sense of preparation for Christ’s coming is certainly present in the Nativity Fast, there is another element that plays a major role: giving. The theme of giving certainly centers around the gift of Jesus Christ, offered to us by the Father. But while Christ is central, the imagery and thematic content is then rounded out with a focus on the gifts of the Magi, which are also celebrated at Nativity. (The Magi are not celebrated until Epiphany—twelve days later—in the West.)

Watching a schmaltzy and saccharine seasonal advert foisted upon the television watching public by Apple, I was reminded how the whole concept of giving has been largely emptied of content in contemporary culture. It is a promotion of the god of consumerism, all dressed up in a Christmas-y costume that I find to be at best banal, but in my secret heart of hearts, to be rather repulsive. The advert is a metaphor for how God’s chrism of grace (that quietly insists on a response!) has been transmogrified into a world of presents, decorations, parties, and no doubt a bit of wassail or rum punch consumed to dull the ache of emptiness that lingers in this dark and cold season. … But enough Grinch-iness, let’s ponder what giving truly means in these darkening and joyous days of Winter Lent.

The Magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. All three give us glimpses into the true meaning of giving. Gold relates most closely to our contemporary practice of giving gifts. Giving gold costs the giver something significant. Such a gift requires a commitment the giver has to the receiver. Just as the incarnation was terribly costly to God, so our response back to God is costly to us. Gold also represents permanence. It’s a reminder that Christian giving (not just of wealth, but of time, and emotional sharing) is not just a Christmas thing, but something defines who we are and ought to be year round as Christians.

Frankincense (a particularly expensive form of incense) symbolizes prayer. “Let my prayer arise before you as incense” (Ps. 141:2). If gold is a symbol of giving, then incense is a symbol of fellowship or communion. I remember my father inviting a drunk to dinner one night. My mother was furious. The dinner was uncomfortable. The guy spent all of his money on booze and needed something to eat. Dad could have bought him a hamburger and sent him on his way. Instead he brought him into our home. Buying him a hamburger would fall under the category of gold. And that would be a worthy gift. Bringing him into our home took that act of charity up to the level of incense. It was an attempt, not only to give, but to connect in the very act of giving. Authentic giving almost always has facets of this sort of connection and fellowship and Frankincense is a reminder that we need to be intentional about this connections.

Myrrh was used, among other things, for anointing the dead. It is both a fragrance and a preservative. The Magi’s gift of myrrh pointed toward Jesus Christ’s death. And this is truly where the rub is when it comes to giving. Authentic giving is not only costly, it empties us. Other people resent givers. Other people take advantage of givers. Give too much without protections in place and it leads to death.

But this last gift is not a call for purposeless martyrdom, it is rather a snapshot of the deepest mystery of the Christian life. Just as Christ sacrificed his life on our behalf so that we could enter into fellowship with God, so we are called to to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God (Rom 12:1-2). The mystery of giving is that if it is halfhearted, it is all for naught. Giving is an all-in sort of proposition. And as unpleasant as that sounds, it turns our that when we do this, true fulfillment and joy results.

Presents under the tree, secret santas, dropping a few coins in the bell ringers kettle can all point us in the direction of authentic Christian giving and the essence of Winter Lent. But those things can also become substitutes, giving us a momentary sense of goodwill, but helping us avoid the bigger question of giving. So during this season, the challenge is not to settle for the trinkets, but use them as a springboard to the real thing: kneeling before God’s gift to us with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Gregory: The Patron Saint of Social Media

In the previous essay I explored the rather different Hebrew conception of time. I began that essay by mentioning Sergie Bulgakov, a theologian who was active about 100 years ago. Bulgakov, while brilliant, was eccentric, and his eccentricities are probably the reason there continues to be so much interest in him 100 years after his writing career. And, among his most infamous eccentric beliefs is that he was a universalist. Before I can say more, though, we need some background related to my previous essay on time.

Probably because Eastern Orthodoxy has no magisterium and is instead led by the cooperative will of all the bishops, there are far fewer things that are dogma. (In fact, I suspect Orthodoxy has fewer dogmatic statements than most Protestant churches, which, ironically, consider dogma suspicious in general.) In place of a complex set of dogmas, the Orthodox church has theologumena, which is best described as a consensus of the church fathers and mothers. While the theologumena are authoritative, it is not strictly required to hold to these beliefs and rules in the same way that dogmatic teachings (such as the Holy Trinity, the incarnation, and Christ’s return) are required.

Among the teachings that are not dogmatic is what happens to unbelievers after they die. St. Gregory of Nyssa (not only a saint, but celebrated as one of the three Cappadocian fathers—the three most significant theologians of their generation) taught that there was a possibility that everyone (including unbelievers) would be saved in the end. It is far beyond the scope of this essay to go through the details of the argument, but two things can be said about it. First, a significant piece of the argument in favor of universalism has to do with that slippery word “eternal” that we explored in the previous essay. Second, Gregory didn’t say everyone would be saved, rather he held out the possibility that universal salvation might be a possibility.

In relation to the first point, the Greek words that get translated “eternal life,” and in turn, “eternal damnation,” don’t speak primarily about the length of time, but rather about the quality of life. At this point I need to make clear that I have not read Gregory himself on this subject, only various authoritative interpreters of his work. But Gregory argued that the Greek word we translate eternal is distinctly different than our modern concept of infinite. Eternal damnation, therefore, doesn’t point to the length of time spent in hell, but rather that hell is a separate realm.

He speculated about this partly because of what Paul said in 1 Cor 15, a passage that is exceedingly difficult to make sense of. Beginning in v. 24, Paul says,

24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all. 29 Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

There are a couple of things I will note in this passage. First, in the end, God will be all in all. Gregory speculated that this might mean that God is even greater than our unbelief. In the end, God has the ability to draw, even the unbelieving to himself. Second, if our own deaths are an absolute break, after which nothing can happen (as Hebrews seems to indicate), then what about this “baptism on behalf of the dead”? To be clear, no one knows what Paul is talking about. Whatever it was he was referring to, it is a practice lost in the mists of time. Furthermore, no Christian group (except heretical sects) baptize on behalf of the dead, so v. 29 is a real head scratcher.

Gregory’s point is that we simply don’t know what happens after death. We have hints and pointers. The general arc of the New Testament is that there is such a thing as eternal damnation. But then there are other things, such as 1 Cor. 15, that don’t fit the general pattern. When this is the case, it is dangerous to be dogmatic. The only sensible thing to do is say, “I don’t know.”

This is why Gregory held out the possibility of universal salvation while more generally holding to the majority opinion that there will be damnation that lasts forever for those who reject God’s offer of mercy. His speculation about the theoretical possibility of universal salvation was his way of emphasizing that some things are beyond our comprehension and when it comes to those things, Christian humility demands us saying, “I don’t know.” Many teachers since then have been of the opinion that Gregory would have been better off just keeping his mouth shut. He should have left it at, “I don’t know” rather than speculating about other possibilities.

And this brings us to Bulgakov, who was not nearly as humble as Gregory. Using logic and exegesis that was “unique,” he felt that he had proved the point. He said that there wasn’t an “I don’t know” involved. Instead, he argued that he had proved from scripture, the teachings of the church, and logic, that universal salvation was necessarily the truth of the matter.

And this is Bulgakov’s error. It is not that he believed and taught universal salvation. His error was that he was dogmatic about a matter that the church in her wisdom has always refused to be dogmatic about.

His views are certainly eccentric. Eccentricity is something we should forgive because Christian charity demands it. But his attitude is arrogant to the point of being dogmatic. That is something Christians absolutely cannot condone. And again I emphasize that Gregory was never dogmatic on this topic. His point was quite specifically, “I don’t know.”

And the ironic thing is that even though we absolutely cannot condone Bulgakov, he may actually be right. But on that point we need to stick with Gregory and affirm that in the end, we don’t know.

And finally, I offer a concluding unscientific postscript. I believe that Gregory of Nyssa should be the patron saint of social media. Why would I say that? Well, “I don’t know,” if you get my drift. 😉

 

The Meaning of Time

While reading an article about Sergie Bulgakov, an early 20th century theologian, I was reminded how our modern conception of time is so different than that of the ancient world. Time, for us, is not substantive. Like a clothesline that stretches into both the past and future, time is something we hang events on. It’s how we order events.

I suspect this process of emptying out time has been going on for millennia. The Greek word aion (eon), for instance originally meant “life force” and had little, if anything, to with time. By the time of Plato, “eon” had lost this primary sense of life force and had come to mean something a bit more familiar to us, but time had not yet become the clothesline stretching infinitely into past and future; it was more akin to a realm where beings existed and less like the clothesline, or “arrow of time.”

The Hebrews had a somewhat different perspective, but it included the idea of time as realm more than clothesline. It is this Hebrew (and then early Christian) sensibility that I want to focus on. One convenient point of entry is Jesus’ Parable of the Seeds found in Mark 4.

And [some of the seeds were] sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. (Mark 4:18-19)

Of interest here is that word “world,” which isn’t world at all. What Jesus says is “the cares of this eon … choke the word.” “Eon” is a time word, and while time (as we think about it) is not completely absent from this sentence, what Jesus has in mind is not the passage of time, it is rather the quality or realm of the time. Sometimes when “eon” is used in this sense, it is translated as “age” (“cares of this age”). Here in Mark 4, this age is marked by cares and distractions. It is reminiscent of Ecclesiastes: “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind” (1:14),

So far I’ve talked about “eon” as a noun, but it is far more common in the New Testament in its adjectival form. Jesus speaks frequently of “eonic life” (if we turn the noun “eon” into an adjective), or as it is typically rendered in the New Testament, “eternal life.” But just as “eon” is better translated “this world” rather than “this time” or “this age” in the Parable of the Seeds, in order to get the true sense of what Jesus is saying, so the sense of “eonic life” is not best expressed with the word “eternal” because “eternal” (as we use the word today) only expresses the time sense of eon and not the sense of place or quality.

Contemporary translators are aware of this problem and render the term “eonic life” rather differently on occasion. For instance, the KJV renders the term as “eternal” in 1 Tim. 6:19. “Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.” But the context isn’t about time, it’s about how we live our lives. Here is 1 Tim. 6:17-19 from the NRSV, which better catches these sense in this context.

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life [“eternal life’ in the KJV].

Jesus expresses something similar in John 10:10. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Here Jesus does not use the word “eternal,” but what we see is that “abundant life” is a synonym for “eternal life.”

We need to avoid thinking about this in an either/or manner. The word “eon” and its adjectival form “eonic” are both time words, so they also include a sense of time (thus “the cares of this age” and “eternal life”). My point is that in Scripture the sense of eternity (as we think about it) is a consequence of the more fundamental sense of the term. The life that we receive from God is not corrupted life that is full of cares and distractions and ultimately withers away because it lacks solidity and the proper connection to the source of life. The life we receive from God, on the other hand, is rooted in God’s being and is thus, solid, full, and complete. It is “life that really is life.” Because this is the case, it will last forever. But the forever part is a consequence of the quality of life that God gives us, not vice versa.

Remember, for the Hebrews, time is less a clothesline and more a container. For us, time has completely lost its “container” or “realm” sense and is almost exclusively a clothesline. We therefore need to work hard at thinking about the word in its fullness rather than in its stripped down and narrow sense when we are reading scripture.

Because we think about time differently than how Jesus or Paul thought about it, we also tend to think about salvation differently. Salvation, for us, tends to be something that happens on the clothesline of time, making the clothesline continue infinitely past the clothesline pole of our own death. But salvation, for Jesus and Paul, is not about the length of the clothesline, its not even about the clothesline. It’s about the container: a water pot gushing over with water or a wine skin that bursts with the bubbling expansion of new wine.

That doesn’t mean that our modern sense of eternity is absent. Scripture does talk about eternity in the manner we typically think about it, but it is necessarily described a bit differently, using the phrase “from ages to ages,” If we think about the prepositions “from” and “to” as arrows, one pointing backward and one pointing forward, this phrase will make sense. The two prepositions essentially place the eons (the container of time) on the clothesline and extend it forward and backward. This, by the way, is the scriptural phrase Michael Card and John Thompson picked up in their well known song, El Shaddai, when they say “[from] age to age you’re still the same.” This is the biblical phrase for eternity.

Finally, I want to reiterate the scriptural sense of time but specifically in the context of the incarnation. Again, if we think of eon as a container or realm rather than a clothesline, God dwells in one eon and we dwell in a different eon. When the Son of God became human, he not only entered created and fallen space, he entered created and fallen time. He entered the fallen human eon. As one who properly dwells in the divine eon, but lives in the human eon, he offers us a way to enter into the divine eon. This, I would argue, is a more accurate way of conceptualizing the gift of eternal life.

An Exploration of How Paul Knew what he Knew

Saul (that is, the Apostle Paul before Jesus Christ gave him his Christian name on the road to Damascus) was a rather remarkable and faithful Hebrew who, in other circumstances, we would probably want to emulate. He described himself as a “Hebrew born of Hebrews: as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5f). (Remember he sincerely believed the church was teaching heresy. He was not persecuting Christians as much as he was stamping out heresy—a venerable Christian tradition in later centuries.)

Saul’s heart was in the right place. He was seeking after God through a combination of knowledge of God, faithfulness to the rituals that had revealed God through the centuries, and the sort of self-discipline that can only be called athletic in its practice. These are the very things that Christians have promoted as the means to truly know God over the centuries.

While Saul’s heart was in the right place, his intellect had led him astray. He knew the scriptures inside and out. He knew his own tradition inside and out. He knew his internal drives and desires inside and out. But in all of that, he never actually came to know God. And because he never actually knew God, our tendency is to dismiss all these facets of his life as useless. Paul’s own description can be read in this manner, but what Paul finds useless is not his knowledge of scripture (he tells Timothy to study them as “a worker who has no need to be ashamed” to the end that he can “rightly explain” them in 2 Tim. 2:15). Nor does he find his remarkable self-discipline to be wasted, calling on Christians to similar discipline, to run the race, not just to compete, but to “receive the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24). The real problem is not in the running, but rather “running in vain” (Gal 2:2).

It was his encounter with the living Truth that revealed his intellectual vanity. On the Damascus road God “was pleased to reveal his Son to me” (Gal. 1:16). What was revealed was a profoundly different sort of knowledge of God described above. It was a knowledge that defies, and in fact, shatters, human categories of knowledge.

I hesitate to call this mystical knowledge, but if we can move beyond the baggage of that word “mystical,” it is a helpful idea. A mysterion is knowledge that shuts the mouth. (Yes, that’s actually one of the historical meanings of that Greek word mysterion!) It is knowledge that is not gained through the intellect but is instead communicated to the heart (Greek, nous, the center of our being). Paul’s insights into the Gospel were so radical he did not initially trust them and therefore went to Peter and the other apostles to verify that what was revealed was indeed true Gal. 2). This mystical knowledge transformed Christianity from a sect of Judaism into something different and, while continuous with Hebrew faith, was at the same time completely new.

We almost certainly won’t have encounters as dramatic as Paul had, but this is the pattern of how we acquire knowledge of God, as distinguished from knowledge of the Bible, the Church, or theology. I am regularly accused by my Evangelical friends and family of dismissing the Bible, or diminishing its importance. That is only true if one thinks of the Bible as a source of intellectual knowledge about God and faith. I am not seeking fellowship with scripture; I am seeking fellowship with God. And the Bible is the preeminent stepping stone into the mysterious, “mouth-shutting” realm of true knowledge of God that leads to the fellowship Christians seek. There are other stepping stones: the liturgy, the insights of Christians who have gone before us, the athletic struggle of prayer and fasting, but scripture is the preeminent stepping stone. And it must be always remembered that it is a stepping stone. Again, the goal is not knowledge of scripture, but personal knowledge (ie, interaction, and ultimately, communion with God).

The way I just described it was not Paul’s frame of reference, so this is not how he described it. But when Paul warns against human wisdom and rails against the works of the law, this is certainly a big piece of what he is railing against. Knowledge of God is a dangerous thing that drains the power of the gospel and leads to confidence in our own understanding. Knowing God, on the other hand, shuts our mouth and circumscribes our being (will, intellect, emotions, etc) while enlarging the heart so that we can take in more divine presence and thus be transformed from glory to glory.

This new (and yet older than Abraham) form of knowledge is Paul’s greatest gift that he gives to us in gasps and glimpses in his various letters found in the New Testament.

Wisdom and Works of the Law

I have been doing in-depth study of 1 Corinthians in recent months. The manner in which Paul discusses wisdom has been quite surprising to me. In his best known argument, found in 1 Cor. 1, he claims that human wisdom (what the Greeks seek) and signs (what the Jews seek) are dead ends in light of message of the cross, which reduces the former to foolishness and makes the latter a stumbling block. If either human wisdom or a demand for signs are pursued, they empty the gospel of its power.

This doesn’t mean that Paul rejects wisdom altogether. He makes this clear in 2:4-7.

4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. 6 Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. 7 But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.

One of my surprises came when I discovered the parallel between 1 Corinthians (the distinction between human wisdom and secret divine wisdom) and Galatians (“works of the law” and “the righteousness that comes from faith”). Paul’s distrust of the law in both Romans and Galatians is well known and a particular interpretation of that distrust is the foundation of the Reformation doctrine of salvation by faith through grace alone. Both the Latin and Greek traditions reject this interpretation that leads to the Reformation emphasis because both traditions consider it bad exegesis, a topic I cover frequently in this blog.

My fixation with the Reformation doctrine caused me to miss the parallels between works of the law (Galatians) and human wisdom (1 Corinthians). Both letters deal broadly with the question, “How do we know?” But Paul’s interest is not so much in how we know, it is rather a question of why we want to know in the first place. What we have come to think of as classic western theology (embodied in the discipline of systematic theology) appears to fall into Paul’s category of human wisdom. It is an attempt to plumb the depths of God in a manner not dissimilar to chemists, biologists, and physicists plumbing the depths of the physical universe. Such knowledge, while valid within its particular frame of reference, empties the Gospel of its power because divine wisdom operates in a fundamentally different frame of reference.

Divine wisdom may lead to a knowledge of God, but this is a side-show that, while profoundly attractive, is ultimately illusory. Divine wisdom, on the other hand leads to righteousness (“[God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption… 1 Cor. 1:30) and what later Christians described as a state of “unknowing.” This logical arc is remarkably similar to the logical arc of Galatians where Abraham receives righteousness, not by “the works of the law” (which came 400 years after Abraham), but by believing in the promise of that which was coming in Christ.

Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? (Gal 3:3f)

If the goal is knowledge, then it is “of the flesh” (Galatians) or “human wisdom” (1 Corinthians). But the goal is not acquiring knowledge, it is receiving the Spirit, which leads to righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, and a profound sense of knowing less than when you started. Paul calls this apprehension of that we cannot intellectually know, “things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (2 Cor. 12:4).

In a previous essay I observed that Paul (in Galatians and Romans, and now in 1 Corinthians) is rejecting the preeminence of objective truth in favor of personal truth, and more specifically, living truth (Jesus Christ, the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity), which explodes the category of objective truth because this divine, living Personal Truth, is limitless, fathomless, its fullness always being well beyond our grasp. Objective truth is something we can bring down to our level and box up in a multi-volume Systematic Theology. And to the degree we do that, we have created an idol, which is, by definition, a falsehood. The Living, Personal Truth, on the other hand, is active, changing us, transforming us, and leading us to communion with God. Objective truth, because it is something we can essentially control, becomes our “works of the law,” while Personal Truth is something that takes control of us and thereby transforms us by the “righteousness of faith.”

And this begs the question, where did Paul discover and enter into the realm of Living, Personal Truth? Fortunately, his letters point us in the right direction so that we can answer this question.

 

Archetypes of Conversion, Pt. 2

In the previous essay I presented two of three archetypes of conversion in an attempt to expand our appreciation of salvation. Salvation, while God’s action, requires a human response, but not just a single response. Varying and multiple responses are required when God offers us his grace. The archetypes offer us images of these varying responses. The first can be summed up with the binary of repent/receive and is illustrated in scripture by John the Baptist’s message of, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” The second can be summed up with the binary of accept/receive and is illustrated in scripture by Gabriel’s appearance to Mary and her affirmation of Gabriel’s message (and resulting reception of the divine grace of becoming the Theotokos) of, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Saul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (when he was given his Christian name, Paul) gives us a third archetype of conversion. This one offers us the binary of see/recive. Saul is a complicated person to understand. When we consider his own description of his life before Damascus, we have to conclude that he had a heart for God. In Philippians 3 Paul describes that life. “As to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (5b-6).

This description could describe many deeply devoted Christians, both lay people and even monks who spend their days striving (ie, Heb 4:11, “let us strive to enter the rest”) to become holy or defending against false teaching. Saul’s problem was not his heart (he was seeking God and not self) nor his discipline (he was evidently an authentic “ascetic” or “spiritual athlete”). Yet, in spite of his efforts and good intentions, something went horribly wrong and those good intentions became truly evil as he sought to exterminate Christianity (his version of “false teaching”) from the face of the earth.

I believe the key clue to what went wrong can be found in 1 Corinthians, and specifically his distinction between earthly and divine wisdom. He offers his basic argument in ch. 1:19-24.

19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Keep in mind that Saul fits both categories of being a Jew and a Greek. He was evidently a leading “debater of this age.” He was also looking for “signs” of the Messiah. But because he approached his faith through the lens of what we would call propositional truth today and what he describes as earthly wisdom, he missed the signs that God gave through Jesus because Jesus didn’t meet his expectations of a proper Messiah. The Messiah was supposed to defeat the Roman overlords. Instead, Jesus was crucified. Jesus was thus a “stumbling block” to his Jewish sensibilities, and “foolishness” to his Greek sensibilities.

So, based on his testimony, it seems that while his heart was converted and he could rightly be called a follower of God, the problem was his intellect, which had not repented of its reliance on human wisdom (or propositional truth). But the intellect is one of strongest and most devious of our emotions, and it often requires quite a shock to the system to shake the intellect out of its self-sufficient blindness. So it is that the risen and living Jesus Christ himself encountered Saul on the road. “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).

The intellect is such that it can soften the harshest truth and excuse the most evil action (killing Christians because they are Christians, killing Jews because they are Jews, etc.). The intellect is so seductive that it can even seduce an otherwise righteous person into great evil. So it is that conversion which requires intellectual repentance can be one of the most difficult conversions to make. It is therefore not surprising that what we find on the road to Damascus is a scene of terror. Heavenly light flashed around Saul and it left him trembling and unable to even stand.

Truth is personal and living. Most of us prefer to distance ourselves from the living fire of Truth by diminishing it to propositional truth, or book truth, what Paul calls the letter of the law. God “has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). And when someone of Paul’s remarkable self-discipline and spiritual advancement is confronted by the living, personal truth, something remarkable—and terrifying—happens.

Later Christians who have been confronted by this same living Lord and who have had to face conversion through repentance of the intellect often called this living presence “the Shekinah glory,” or “the Divine Light,” or “the Divine Energies.” Paul describes it as being transported to the third heaven, and in that state he “heard things that cannot be told, which no mortal is capable or uttering” (2 Cor. 12:4).

This gets to the heart of the problem with the intellect. The intellect is always trying to frame what it knows so it can be uttered. The framing process boxes in the bit of truth so that the intellect is able to grasp, thus reducing it to less-than-truth, or in the case of Saul, non-truth. But true Truth, being not only personal, but divinely personal truth (the very Word of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity), explodes the limitations of the intellect, leaving us with mere babbling (2 Tim. 6:20) and seeing through a glass darkly (1 Cor 13:12).

The archetypes of Mary and Paul are dramatic and far beyond any experience we are likely to have. (This, by the way, is why they are archetypes: they illustrate conversion in the extreme.) But they dramatically remind us why salvation not only cannot be separated from repentance, but why salvation requires repeated conversion of different sorts of repentance. Encountering Christ and being saved is not the end of the road. We need a conversion of the heart (John), and conversion of the will (Mary), and a conversion of the intellect (Paul). Furthermore, every time we begin to settle in because we believe we’re getting a handle on things, we need yet another encounter with the living God, the burning light of Christ, to remind us that we don’t know the half of it. This is the gospel of repentance in its various manifestations.

 

Archetypes of Conversion, Pt. 1

We rightly think of salvation as God’s act. It is God who both initiates and culminates our salvation, thus it is certainly true that it is God’s act. But when salvation is considered in its fullness, it is not just God’s act, we humans play a role as well. This is why John the Baptist preceded Jesus. We must receive the salvation offered by Jesus Christ, but the first step of receiving is to repent of our sin. Salvation is an act that requires a human response, a response that, in fact, becomes a part (albeit a small part) of the act itself.

Two more things must be said about this if we are to understand salvation. First the response demanded by God varies from person to person. God doesn’t call humanity in general; rather, God calls us personally and calls us in such a way that we must respond individually and uniquely to God. Second, conversion is not a one time experience. I initially respond to the small extent that I am able, but as I mature, additional conversions occur as new and deeper encounters with God occur. I may repent of some sin while being unaware of other sin. Later, as I become more aware of the corruption within me, I repent again based on the deeper knowledge of who I am and who God is. With this in mind I will describe three archetypes of salvation: John the Baptist, Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Paul the Apostle.

John the Baptist came before Jesus and preached a message of repentance, required because the kingdom of God was at hand. The majority Jewish religious sect of the era was the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a renewal movement that sought to revivify Jewish religion that had become increasingly moribund under the influences of Roman rule and Greek culture. (This too, is a model of repentance.) Most Pharisees were good and faithful people who truly sought after God (Saul, later to become Paul, was one example, to whom we will return later), but as is true with all majority religions, many (especially among the leadership) had succumbed to the lure of power, political influence, and the societal advantages that came with being a good Pharisee. This group was the primary focus of John’s message of renewed repentance.

Their hearts were self-serving rather than following God, and as a result, their religion was outward and not inward (they were “whitewashed tombs” in Jesus’ language, Mt. 23:27). What they needed was a complete change of attitude and direction (ie, repentance) in order for God to enact his offer of salvation. In terms of what Paul describes in Romans and Galatians (for the Judaizers, whom Paul struggled against, were primarily from the Pharisee group), they needed to stop thinking of salvation as something they did for themselves, and start thinking about it in terms of something God does because we cannot. It is not about my actions and self-improvement, it’s about the transformation brought about by the Holy Spirit in spite of our own selves and our own intentions.

This is typically what we think of when we use the word “conversion.” But it is not the only sort of conversion that God enacts and enables within us. And this brings us to the second archetype: Mary. Scripture doesn’t say a lot about Mary, but other writings from the earliest era (from people who likely would have known Mary) tell us that she was already an observant, faithful, and holy Jew before Gabriel ever came to her. Her parents dedicated her to the temple at her birth, and life in and around the temple transformed her heart so that she was truly a follower of God.

We could call what John was calling for the pattern of repent/receive. It is typically the initial form that salvation takes. The second archetype follows a different pattern: rather than repentance, acceptance of something new and radically different in order to receive. We see this in Mary. She certainly didn’t need to repent. Mary was already prepared. But salvation is not a single thing (“Inviting Christ into one’s heart,” for instance). It is a transformation “from one degree of glory to another,” in Paul’s lovely turn of phrase in 2 Cor. 3:18. Gabriel appeared to Mary with just this sort radically new thing.

“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” is how Gabriel first greeted her (Luke 1:28). “But [Mary] was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (29). Why was she favored? What does it mean that the Lord is with me? And then the message became more surprising. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus …” (30-33). Mary is not disbelieving, but she certainly doesn’t understand (because, being a virgin, this is impossible), so she responds, “How can this be …?” (34). Gabriel then explains a bit more of what’s going on and eventually Mary responds, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (38).

In the first archetype, the human action that allows for conversion is repentance. In this second archetype, the action that allows for conversion is humble acceptance. Gabriel never fully explained how this was happening, but he did explain that this was truly and completely God’s action within her, as long as she was willing to accept this gift. Because she already had a long history of being faithful to God and experiencing God’s faithfulness to her in return, she was able to accept this new thing that was simply beyond any sensible explanation.

This second form of conversion is not open to John’s audience. For certain types a conversion, a long history with God and God’s dealings is a prerequisite. This is not a conversion from unbelief to belief, nor a conversion from a self-serving attitude to an acceptance of divine transformation. All of that is presupposed. Furthermore this sort of conversion frequently does not involve a radical change of lifestyle or belief. It is rather a move from one level of relationship to another far more intimate and life-transforming relationship. This second archetype describes conversion of a person who is already a faithful Christian into a person who comes to know God at a far deeper and more intimate level.

The third archetype of conversion—Saul’s Damascus road conversion when he received his Christian name of Paul—requires some consideration of 1 Corinthians. Because of that, I will tackle the third archetype in the next essay.

 

Objective Truth, the Living Word, and Divine Wisdom

The blog has been silent for a while because I’ve been busy working on a much larger project related to 1 & 2 Corinthians. One of the preliminary “aha” items is Paul’s description of divine power (which Paul says looks like human weakness) and divine wisdom (which is foolishness). What has struck me most powerfully is Paul’s conception of wisdom (a term he uses in much the same manner that we would use “truth”) as personal rather than objective. I’ll circle back to this in a moment.

Brenda and I just finished listening to The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. They spend quite a bit of time on Lewis’s Riddell Memorial Lectures in 1943. He was disturbed by the subjectivism that had crept into both theological and philosophical thought. “For Lewis it was a chance to defend against relativizing trends in education, philosophy, and literary criticism. The reality of the universal moral code inherent in all human beings.”

Lewis held objectivity in high regard. In The Abolition of Man (the book form of the Riddell Lectures), he goes to great length to establish a universal, objective foundation of all truth, and especially for a moral code. Lewis’ argument in The Abolition of Man is no longer compelling and the book seems a little silly now. What surprised me is, according to the Zaleskis, it was not particularly compelling in the 1940s either. It was received warmly by those who already agreed with Lewis but was skewered by his critics.

While listening to ch. 13 of The Fellowship, the argument Paul develops in 1 Corinthians kept coming to mind. According to Paul, objective truth is never very objective because our frame of reference is limited by our own limitations. Even Reformed and Lutheran churches, who both historically embraced objective truth, disagreed on what that objective truth is. (This illustration comes from my own family, some of whom are Presbyterian Church in America and some of whom are Missouri Synod Lutheran. While I don’t think there have ever been any actual arguments, it is clear that there is more than one set of “objective truth.”)

And this is quite precisely the problem Lewis ran into. I agree wholeheartedly with his contention that the “relativizing trends in education, philosophy, and literary criticism” are quite disturbing, but trying to solve those trends with an appeal to some sort of objectivity is bound to fail. This is using one form of human wisdom to combat a different form of human wisdom.

In sharp contrast to this attempt to find objective truth, Paul opts for what I would call “personal truth.” I hesitate to use the term because it can be misconstrued to mean, “My truth is mine while yours is yours, and my true and your truth may be different.” This misconstrual is precisely what C.S. Lewis was responding to in his Riddell lectures. In 1 Cor. 1:4f, Paul says that his preaching was not “with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” The foundation is not intellectual nor is it “objective truth” as that term is used in the context of reason. Rather the foundation is divine “power” which is inseparable from divine presence, or more specifically, to the divine persons.

Given my Presbyterian training, all of this reminds me of Karl Barth, who struggled with the same issues as C.S. Lewis. Barth rejected the possibility of competing truths, but didn’t seek objective truth in the manner Lewis did, largely because he recognized that any truth that a human perceives cannot be truly objective, given our sinful proclivity to perceive things with an aim to our own advantage. Lewis’s claim for objective truth, would lead to nothing other than a shouting match of competing truth claims.

Barth viewed the problem with 1 Corinthians in mind, but he also shaped his answer along the lines of Kierkegaardian Existentialism. (Ah, that proclivity to perceive things, not as they truly are, but to our own advantage.) Barth believed the earthly locus of divine truth was in the “preaching event,” which he described in sacramental terms. (Barth himself rejected this comparison, but in retrospect he is clearly using eucharistic language but translated into his existential framework.) Scripture is a “witness to the Word,” “the Word” itself being the Second Person of the Trinity. But the Living Word is enfleshed (although at this point Barth uses the word “encountered”) in the “preaching event,” where Christ crucified is made real to the people of God.

What Barth picks up from Paul, which is in stark contrast to the scholastic Protestantism of his day is that divine wisdom and power cannot be found in scripture itself, but only in the encounter with Jesus Christ, the Living Word, through the Holy Spirit. Barth was suspicious of mysticism and he no doubt would have rejected the idea that we could have the same sort of intense experience today that Paul had. (The Orthodox Church, by the way, does believe that this sort of “pneumatical experience” is an ongoing part of the life of the church.) In spite of his suspicions, he describes a process that is more closely aligned with historic Orthodoxy than with scholastic Protestantism. Being a careful biblical scholar and fluent in antique Christian writings, this should be no surprise.

As I talk to others (who are Protestants) about this, they are politely horrified. The idea of jettisoning objective truth is tantamount to turning my back on the whole Christian program. Evangelicals had a similar reaction to Barth’s “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God” aphorism, so this reaction doesn’t surprise me. But is objectivity actually what we want? We are not scientists of faith after all, we are creatures seeking proper relationship with the living God. Working with 1 Corinthians, I have been struck powerfully by the danger of relying on human wisdom, which guts divine truth of its wisdom and power. I have also been struck that the divine path to which Paul calls us will be perceived as weakness and foolishness.