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.

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.

 

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.

Ransom: Exchange of One Life for Another

“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). Oddly, this verse regularly gives Bible scholars and theologians heartburn. The central point is sublime: In the whole paragraph, Jesus is telling his disciples, who are starting to get a big head, that leadership is expressed, not in lording over others, but in serving them. In this sentence he personalizes this and says that why he came to earth: to serve.

But then he adds that phrase, “and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This has led some to propose that the Devil was holding humans hostage and God had to pay a ransom (his Son’s life) to get them back. While this extreme position has never been the predominant view of the church, no matter which communion, it begs the question, “What’s this ransom all about?”

Over the years I have figured out that God’s work in the world is ultimately inscrutable, and human language can never do justice to what is going on. Because of this, our theological language is more suggestive than precise. The language about how the atonement works is typical. “Ransom,” (along with “justification,” “predestined,” etc.) cannot be precise in the same manner our scientific or mathematical language is precise.

Ransom was on my mind because Brenda and I are reading together in the evenings, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. We just read the portion about C.S. Lewis writing Out of the Silent Planet, an allegorical bit of science fiction that deals with this topic, and whose main character is Elwin Ransom.

With this fresh in my mind, this morning, I read the following from Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart, p. 52f:

In the Liturgy we are but poor instruments of Him who “offers and is offered.” So, when we say to God, “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee, in all and for all,” we do not just offer him a small cup of wine and a tiny piece of bread, for in that wine and that bread we put all our love, all our faith, all our intercession for our beloved, for the people who suffer, for the whole world. … So He does the same: He receives those gifts and He puts all His life in them, the Holy Spirit, and he says to us: “The holy things unto the holy.” In the Liturgy there is an exchange of lives. Man offers his life to God, and God offers his life to man, and who can compare, or rather measure, this exchange of lives? For ours is temporal, corruptible, earthly, and His is incorruptible, heavenly, eternal. Therefore, in the Liturgy, there is an unequal exchange of lives.

To be clear, Zacharias is not talking about the word ransom, nor has he said anything about theories of the atonement. He is talking about how humans and God interact. But what he describes at this point in the lecture is quite a good description of ransom:

It is an exchange [read: ransom]. Man offers his life to God, and God offers his life to man.

To return to Mark 10, this exchange, this ransom, is the ultimate example of the humble service that is the essence of Jesus’ leadership.

As an aside, I picked up the audio recording of this conference (Fr. Zacharias speaking to the gathering of the priests of the St. Raphael Clergy Brotherhood in 2001) fifteen or so years ago and have been listening to those repeatedly for over a decade. It was turned into the above-mentioned book. I purchased it a few years ago and am finally getting around to reading it. For my learning style, the book is far superior to the recorded lectures because I can stop and reread a particularly dense paragraph here and there. I am enjoying it immensely.

 

God Who Is Grace

The Sermon on the Mount is often described in terms of a new law, a Christian law that supersedes the Mosaic Law. Indeed Matthew structures his Gospel to parallel the events of Moses receiving the Law from God on Mt. Sinai. There is also a sense that Jesus interiorizes and radicalizes the Law, making God’s demands on us absolute. But if this is all we see, we will miss the point in much the same way that Luther’s half measures in relation to divine grace (described in the previous essay) miss the point. Child rearing offers an apt example of what I am getting at.

Children first and foremost need to know that they are loved and accepted as they are, no matter what. (This is analogous to our new understanding of God as pure Grace in contrast to God simply offering grace where it is needed. It is described with some depth in the first essay in this series.) Once this basic reality of love and acceptance is established, children need to be encourage (and often pushed a bit) to do things beyond what they think is possible. Kids, in fact, don’t know what is possible; their natural sights are set far too low.

Tell a child to build an outdoor shelter that will be adequate to spend the night in. On her first try the kid does an abominable job. Mom knows it’s an abominable job. But she tells her daughter that the two of them are going to spend the night. Mom doesn’t tell the kid that it’s going to be a miserable night; instead, she suffers the night with her. In the morning the miserable child gives up and declares that she is incapable of building a shelter. But Mom, in a tender motherly wisdom that is likely experienced as punishment by the child, tells her to try again. Mom never builds the shelter, but gives pointers along the way. After much “punishment” meted out by mother, the child finally figures out how to build an excellent and comfortable shelter in which she and her mother spend a glorious night.

The Sermon on the Mount might be considered the shelter we are to build. The “demands” of the Sermon on the Mount are absolute and simply cannot be fulfilled. But after trial and error, and with the urging of the church and the nudging of the Spirit, we begin to get the hang of certain bits and pieces. Eventually our life is transformed in some small way and we spend a glorious season with God basking in the new person we have become.

Of course, while God accepts us, God also believes we are capable of things that we quite literally can’t imagine. While the Sermon on the Mount is an unattainable goal in its absolute sense, it and other similar teachings by Jesus lay out path which we will travel. We can (and will) spend a lifetime tinkering, asking for help, getting nudged and empowered by the Spirit, and always, bit by bit, making a better shelter and being utterly transformed by God in the process.

In his book On Being a Christian, Hans Küng describes our various efforts at social justice in light of the above process.

Jesus, as we shall see later, did not prescribe for everybody either renunciation of possessions or common ownership. One will sacrifice everything to the poor, another will give away half his possessions, a third will help with a loan. One gives all he has for god’s [sic] cause, others are active in servicing and caring for the needy, someone else practices apparently foolish prodigality. Nothing here is legally regulated. Hence there is no need for exceptions, excuses, privileges or dispensations from the law. [p. 248]

One could argue that all of us should do all these things. And indeed, all of these things are part of the absolute demands of Jesus Christ. But when we understand the dynamic—God pushing us beyond what we think possible, yet always joying in our lives and growth, even when our efforts fall short—it makes sense that both the church and us as individuals fail so miserably in our efforts. God knows what we are capable of, and because of that he has set out description of life that is limitless in possibilities.

If one one insists on the “traditional” perspective, we are guaranteed to fail. In contrast, what is actually happening is that we are provided literally unlimited possibilities for growth—more than we can ever accomplish in this life. And as we grow bit by bit, God enjoys us as his children toddling and goofing our way to transformation and holiness. This is the Gospel of God-as-pure-Grace.

If God Is For Us

The place we must begin as Christians is that God is on our side. As Paul says, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32) This is what Jesus lived out in his earthly life. He embodied the reality that God is for people. He certainly opposed religious leaders who tried to misconstrue religion to make it burdensome. But his opposition was never against people in principle but always against those who stood in the way of the people coming to God.

The history of religions is rather different. Broadly speaking, religion (that which was thought up by us, not that which was revealed by God) grows out of the sense that we have displeased the gods. Religious practices were put in place to overcome that displeasure. Erich Neumann, in The Origins and History of Consciousness (a summary of Carl Jung) argues that this trope is beyond ancient, it is part of our primordial mindset.

Because the belief that the gods are against us, or at the very least, displeased, runs so deep in our consciousness, it is not surprising that it is a theme that weaves its way throughout the Old Testament. Since it is clearly present in the Old Testament, there is a tendency to say that this is how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob truly is. It is a sentiment that is expressed in the extreme in Jonathan Edwards’ infamous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It is a sentiment that the Apostle Paul wrestles with in his epistles. The theme has also shaped our interpretation of hell, wrath, and judgment.

But if God isn’t like this, why has God allowed the idea that he is angry with us to persist and even creep into scripture? The answer comes when we consider what was important to Jesus. His interaction with the woman at the well was typical. She was concerned with right theology. Being a Samaritan, questions about the correct place to worship—the Jewish Mt. Zion or the Samaritan Mt. Gerizim—were foremost. But Jesus essentially brushed correct theology off by saying, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him” (Jn 4:23). Instead he was far more interested in her life struggles than her theology. When he probed her mind, it had nothing to do with theology. “Go call your husband and come here” (v 16). Her life, it turns out, was a wreck, and Jesus was far more interested in getting her human relationships sorted out than sorting her theology.

“Who is my neighbor?” turns out to be a question that must be answered, not by the Rabbis in the synagogue (or the priests and theologians in the seminary) but by you and I as we walk or drive to work. As we read the Old Testament with this sensibility revealed by Jesus, we realize that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was as Jesus said and not like the old gods who were easily piqued and demanded that everything be just right. The living God demonstrated that he wanted those ancient wanderers to come along side God and wander with him. God is profoundly relational, and that’s what took center stage, not the need to get all our ideas about God exactly right.

I’ve never had foster kids, but as a pastor I’ve seen a number of them placed in the homes of congregation members. When the foster parent says, “I won’t beat you; you’re safe here,” it’s largely an empty statement, because it’s not the child’s experience. That is a message that can only be expressed through presence and action, not words. After several times when the kid messes up and is not beat, after several months of living in an environment that is actually safe, then the kid himself or herself will begin to say, “You won’t beat me; I’m safe here.” It does little good to tell the child, don’t cringe in fear. The good foster parent ignores that while working hard to create an authentically safe place. It is a truth that is revealed, not by words, but only in action and relationship.

We have come to believe in a wordy revelation. We hold the Bible in our hand and think that this is the divine revelation. But in a profound sense, it is not. The revelation is God who didn’t bother correcting all of the ancients’ misconceptions with mere words, but rather busied himself by creating a safe home (to carry on our analogy) so that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could figure out on their own that, “You won’t beat me; I’m safe here.” The revelation isn’t what Matthew, and John, and Peter, and Paul wrote about Jesus, in a far more fundamental sense, Jesus himself was and is the revelation. To return to the woman at the well, Jesus didn’t start out by saying he was the Messiah, he let her figure it out on her own. And then when she finally put into words the outrageous idea that the Messiah might actually be present, he affirmed her insight. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you'” (Jn 4:26).

Like the foster child, it does little good for God to tell us how to think and act. There is a primordial sensibility seemingly structured into our genetic makeup, if the neuroscientists are to be believed, that the gods are against us and probably enjoy messing with us. (Consider the story of Job.) The only way past that sensibility is to live through it and ultimately beyond it.

And so we end, full circle, where we began. “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32) This is what Jesus lived out in his earthly life. He embodied the reality that God is for people.