Moses, Pt. 2: Eternal Security

On Reddit I follow a couple of Orthodox subreddits and a question that comes up repeatedly is that of eternal security. How can I know that I am saved? Do the Orthodox believe in eternal security? Or some other variation on this theme. In the Protestant group in which I grew up (and it seems this is pretty typical of Protestantism) eternal security was summed up by the phrase, “Once saved, always saved.” Very early I realized that there was a loophole in the logic that nullified the doctrine at a practical level, and the keepers of the faith regularly used the loophole. If a person went off the rails and became particularly wicked after “getting saved” and being a good church member for a while, someone would inevitably raise the eternal security question. The answer that I heard on many occasions was, “Oh, that person was never saved in the first place.”

So while Protestants, and the Reformed flavor of Protestants in particular, celebrate eternal security, the doctrine remains a nice theory with little real significance in everyday life. The doctrine is logical trap because when salvation is mis-defined as an event—a specific time when one crosses over into divine favor—questions will inevitably remain about this event we call salvation. When actual life is lived in the wold after Adam and Eve, the doctrine salvation as an event creates a morass of questions and ambiguities.

I am particularly fond of the pre-Reformation approach to the question. The Orthodox understanding is typical of this classic view. It begins with the affirmation that no one can escape the presence of God. Even in Sheol, God is there and “accessible” (See the parable of Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 as well as Ps. 139). The enduring reality for all creation will be the light and love of God. For those who love God, this will be experienced as light and life, for those who love themselves far more than God, that same light of God’s presence is experienced as fire and judgment. Within this context, heaven and hell and “being saved” means something rather different and far more profound than the rather simplistic binary of “saved” or “not saved” by which it is typically described in the modern world.

What determines my eternal fate is not a particular set of actions nor is it the repetition of a simple little prayer (ie, the Sinner’s Prayer). My eternal fate is to be with God, no matter what. Whether I experience this eternal destiny as heaven or hell does not rest in any particular action, nor whether I happen to be living “in grace” or “out of grace” at the moment of my death, but rather in my attitude shaped by life-long thinking and acting. Thus all the hand-ringing over whether I am saved or not is to rather miss the point. The question is, “Do you love God? And I answer, “Of course I do!” And then my spiritual guide and confessor begins to probe my life and I begin to discover that there are quite a number of things I love more than God. (The Orthodox combine all of these earthly loves into a big group and call them the passions.) The trouble with the heart is that it is very deceitful and it even deceives us, disguising the passions as good things. But as these passions—these things I love more than God—are revealed to me, I can seek to put them aside and come to truly love God. Within this framework, salvation is the path of discovering my passions, confessing them, and turning again and again toward God.

Within the classical way of thinking that was normal long before the Reformation, salvation wasn’t a noun as much as it was a verb. It was not a question of whether you were saved or not saved, for those aren’t the two options, but rather if you were working out your salvation (Phil 2:12). Salvation isn’t a moment where you cross a line from one side to another, it is more akin to a process. It is not an instant transformation as much as it is a slow change.

Within this classical framework, eternal security is rooted in three things. First, is the sure knowledge that God loves us, looks for and longs for us like the father of the Prodigal Son, just waiting for the opportunity to run to us and embrace us. Second, is the sure knowledge that Jesus Christ has opened the way to salvation. There are no hindrances to my salvation other than my own pride and stubbornness. Third, in order to be utterly secure in my salvation, all I have to do is continue loving God and learning to love God anew every time I discover an area where I love something else more than God. There are no magic words nor mathematical formulae. Eternal security is not a mental affirmation, but a path to travel, knowing full well that along the way I’ll fall back and have to start anew.

There is a famous icon (see the top of the page) that many Protestants find horrifying because of the tendency to think of salvation as binary. As people climb the ladder to the light of Christ (on the left, note that heaven is on the right), demons are trying to pry them off, making them fall to the ground. My Protestant eyes look at that and see people losing their salvation. But that is not what is pictured. Look closely. The people are not falling into hell, they’re falling back to earth. Such a fall is not the end of the story, it’s a description of how life is actually lived. They’ll just get back on the ladder and start climbing again. The only way to “lose one’s salvation” is to utterly reject it. The danger is not accidental or secret sin, but rather despair (or “despond,” as John Bunyan described it. It would require that one begin to hate rather than love God. This scenario is never considered in this icon. It is rather a picture of the Christian life where we climb the ladder of spiritual maturity, fall off, and start climbing again.

With this more proper context in mind, I will return to Moses and his passions in the next essay.



Moses, the Dark Side

For all of his good qualities—Lawgiver, mediator between God and the nation, organizer of the Exodus—Moses was not an example of holiness in this life. He was quite the opposite. When viewed from his death backwards (Josh. 1:1-2), the defining moment of his life was one of anger and pride. That incident began with a big problem.

Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and against Aaron. (Num. 20:2)

Moses and Aaron went to the tent of meeting asking for a solution to the water problem and God told them,

Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock. (v. 8)

What Moses did was a bit different.

So Moses took the staff from before the LORD, as he had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. (vv. 9-11)

Moses’ anger and lack of self-control shines through in these sentences. He demeans the people by calling them “you rebels.” Rather than speaking to the rock (as he was told to do), he scolds the people with a biting rhetorical question. And then, with no word to the rock, he whacks it twice with his staff. It is the image of a child striking out in helpless anger because he feels there are no options left. While immature, out of control, and childish, Moses’ response is understandable; the nation was out of water and everyone was mad at him. In spite of our sympathy with Moses, there is a big “but” involved.

But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (v. 12)

These petty outward actions reflect a deeper problem. God’s intent was to show his holiness. Moses, because of his uncontrolled passion and resulting outburst, diminished the moment to an embarrassing demonstration of his own failings. God was pushed into the background while Moses stole the limelight. The text then closes with these tragic words:

These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the LORD, and by which he showed his holiness. (v. 13)

God’s holiness was still demonstrated but it was demonstrated through the lens of the people’s mistrust and Moses’ pettiness. Throughout scripture we see that God prefers to clothe his glory in some created form, and especially in human form. Once again God clothes his glory in his servant Moses, but Moses’ antics are such that what we remember is less God’s glory and more Moses’ uncontrolled passions. The place isn’t named for what should have been memorable, “God Provides,” or “God Shows His Holiness.” Instead it’s named after what was actually most memorable; it’s called “Quarrel” (or “Meribah” in Hebrew).

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Mt. 6:24). This was the rub for Moses. He was a slave to his passions. When he tried to serve the Lord his passions took control and he ended up despising God’s holiness in the process of serving his own anger. Because no one can serve two masters, and because in this incident Moses demonstrated for all to see that his master was still his own passion, God told Moses that he would be incapable of crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land and entering God’s rest.

By the end of Deuteronomy the people are near the edge of the Promised Land, but in a sort of limbo. They aren’t moving forward nor are they traveling to any particular place. And then we turn from Deuteronomy to Joshua and discover that everything changes.

After the death of Moses, the servant of the LORD, the LORD spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, “My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites. (Josh. 1:1-2)

Now that Moses is gone, the nation is finally free to “enter the place of rest” as Joshua calls it (v. 13). What are we to make of this? First (and this is the bit of the story that I have been emphasizing here), Moses represents our passions. 1 John says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever” (2:15-17). As the years went by Christian teachers began to describe what 1 John is talking about, along with related issues, with a single term: the passions.

One of the gifts God gave us as part of his image is an unquenchable desire to fellowship with and ultimately to commune with God. One of the consequences of sin is that our original innate connection with God was broken and God became a stranger. But the unquenchable desire remained, and it attached itself to created things. In 1 John it is described as “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of life.” The Fathers and Mothers of the church recognized that anger, intellectualism, and other excesses of life were the same thing with different faces. When this unquenchable desire is pointed directly at God it draws us inexorably toward him. But, as is typical with sin, when this unquenchable desire is pointed at things other than God, it prevents us from drawing close to God.

This is Moses in the story arc that stretches from Meribah to his death in Deut. 34. He, and the passions he represents, had to die before the nation could enter the Promised Land. Similarly, before we are able to enter into God’s rest, it is necessary for our passions to be reigned in and redirected toward God and God alone. Paul calls this dying to the flesh. This battle with the passions is therefore at the center of our Christian life and our struggle to enter into fellowship and union with God.

Hopefully you’ve been paying attention to the scripture text and are now thoroughly annoyed with me because of the reductionist manner in which I have read the text. This is a more complex story than what I have described, but I suspect we can’t appreciate the complexity without looking at the different threads individually. I will explore another thread of the story in the next essay.

St. John of Damascus on Black Lives Matter

I never expected St. John of Damascus to insert himself into my Black Lives Matter pondering, but leave it to a member of the Church Triumphant to nudge us, the Church Militant, in the right direction. I have no direct experience with BLM and my very limited interaction has come first through the online heresy hunters who found heresy in the movement. After a bit of eye rolling I thought I should at least check out their claims. That led me to the writings and podcasts of RAAN (Reformed African American Network, now called “The Witness”) led by Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) pastor Jemar Tisby. Let’s be clear that my opinion is an outsider’s perspective. I almost pursued ordination in the PCA but quickly became troubled by their utterly scholastic theology. Even though I am quite theologically conservative, I ended up being ordained by the mainline PC(USA) rather than it’s Evangelically oriented step-child. I am now Eastern Orthodox and as lily white as a Midwesterner of Danish decent can be, so this whole reflection is by an outsider both culturally and religiously.

I have been impressed by the theological consistency of Tisby. RAAN also includes those who know a lot about systematic theology but who have little clue how to think theologically and are thus caught up in the winds of popular outrage. I took a couple of RAAN members to task for just this sort of faux-theology a few months ago in this post. Black Lives Matter provided a mirror into our American psyche precisely because of this mix of good and bad theology. The PCA (Tisby’s own denomination) had an opportunity at their annual assembly to affirm the theological wrestling that some of their own members (such as Tisby) were doing. Instead, they sorted through that which had been said and written, found things that smelled of heresy, condemned it, back off a bit, then side-stepped the issue, and in the process furthered the suspicion that racism is far from rooted out of this denomination.

Shortly after this debacle in the PCA (and a similar debacle in the Southern Baptist Convention) RAAN changed their mission statement and their name. Rather than an umbrella organization for Presbyterian and Reformed African American pastors, it is downplaying the Reformed part and focusing more on how racism is still endemic within Evangelicalism as a whole. The new name, “The Witness” appears to be an attempt to highlight this change. Tisby and company have taken the high road and not railed against the PCA or the SBC, but it’s hard not to think that the new name is a direct result of the convention this summer.

I have struggled mightily to sort these events out. I believe that heresy (if it is actually there) needs to be rooted out by proclaiming the true faith. Furthermore, most of what this summer’s heresy hunters said about the theological claims surrounding Black Lives Matter was technically accurate (in a motes vs logs manner), so it seems I should have been happy. But I was deeply troubled by the heresy hunters, although I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Last week Cambridge professor Demetrios Bathrellos posted a paper to entitled St John of Damascus and the Future of Orthodox Theology which helped me sort out this summer’s kerfuffle. For John of Damascus, the heresy in question was Islam. (Yes, the Church Fathers of the era considered Islam a Christian heresy and not a distinct religion.) Bathrellos argued that while John’s critique of Islam was insightful and very skilled, it also had a weakness that is common in anti-heretical scholarship. The critic is “often unfair to the other, tending as it does to draw a caricature of its opponents’ position instead of describing it accurately and fairly” Bathrellos goes on to say that this is “particularly repulsive in some of its forms that are still with us today” (p. 215).

Some of its modern forms, because of their excessive preoccupation with heresy, tend to make Orthodoxy defensive, and to give rise to multiple (and naïve) conspiracy theories. Modern heresy-hunters see heresies everywhere, not least in prophetic voices or practices that attempt to promote authentic Christianity in the context of (post-) modernity. This excessive preoccupation with heresy is responsible for the fact that Orthodoxy sometimes tends to define itself not positively, but negatively, namely not on the basis of what it believes but ont he basis of what it rejects. In this way it unwittingly allows its enemies to exercise upon its self-understanding a very powerful influence. (pp. 215f)

Although Bathrellos’ immediate context is the Catholic-Orthodox Epiclesis dispute, the repulsion he expresses about that quite perfectly summarizes my unease with the heresy hunters going after the organization formerly known as RAAN. Furthermore, Bathrellos puts his finger on the root cause of this sort of repugnant heresy hunting. Quoting Angelo de Berardino, he says, “in line with a large majority of post-Chalcedonian authors, he [John] rarely makes direct use of Holy Scripture. To defend and confirm Orthodoxy—the main aim of his theological work—he bases himself, as do the others, more on the authority of the Fathers.” This tendency to rely on “an assumed canon of fathers who represented infallible Orthodoxy” is how “Scholasticism was born” (p. 210) Here’s how Bathrellos describes Scholasticism:

This type of theology, albeit true to the Bible, depends largely on a mediated access to the Scriptures through the works of earlier fathers.

After describing it, Bathrellos goes on to describe the primary symptom of a scholastic theology.

This tendency for a certain dislocation of Scripture has at times been evidenced in all Christian traditions, including not only medieval scholasticism but also the Protestant Reformation. So, in spite of their emphasis on a return to Scripture, the reformers focused rather on the Epistles of Paul than on the Gospels, because the latter gave them more material for constructing dogmas, ideas, and values of perennial significance. (Is it, I wonder, merely an accident that the Damascene’s scriptural commentaries are almost exclusively on the Epistles of Saint Paul.) (p. 211)

In spite of his tendency toward scholasticism, Bathrellos insists that John transcended the tendency because of his ability, not only to wrestle with that which had been written previously, but also with the culture in which he found himself.

John belongs to a very long tradition of Christian authors who rejected innovation as heresy and yet were original thinkers. No innovation is allowed, for we cannot invent new truths … nevertheless, originality and creativity are necessary in a changing world, which demands an ever-deeper understanding of different aspects of the same Gospel, as well as a capacity to address it afresh to new and different persons, conditions, questions, and problems. (p. 214)

There are two points where I am deeply troubled by the heresy hunters that went after RAAN. The first is the above-mentioned tendency to critique a caricature of the other rather than learning to know them in their complexity. The second is this necessary intersection that Bathrellos describes above. The heresy hunters seem only to be concerned that no innovation is allowed. Authentic theology, on the other hand, requires a capacity to address the Gospel (and not just the revered theologians of a previous generation) “afresh to new and different persons, conditions, questions, and problems.” And that is the medicine that keeps the virus called scholasticism at bay.


Karl Barth on Samuel, Saul, and the Divine Condescension of Election

Divine sovereignty and election are the manner in which God reveals his humility in contrast to, and as a solution to, human pride, according to Karl Barth. He offers an illustration in his exegesis of 1 Samuel 8-31 (found in the Church Dogmatics, IV/1, pp. 437-445). The people went to Samuel and demanded a king. But “from 1 Sam. 8 we see clearly that the existence and function of a human king in Israel are alien and indeed contrary to the original conception of the covenant … The Judges of an earlier period, of whom Samuel was the last, were called to their work directly by God and as the need arose” (p. 438). Given that kings are contrary to the covenant (a claim which Barth defends quite extensively), it is surprising that God agrees to their demand. “Indeed Yahweh Himself undertakes the election and appointment of a king for Israel, and Samuel, for his part, can only be the instrument of this election and appointment which obviously contradict everything that has gone before and the Law which Israel has followed” (p. 439). The text makes clear that God is not changing his mind about the covenant (Barth cites 1 Sam. 15:29f), rather,

According to 1 Sam. 8:18 even God’s connivance and condescension to the people in this matter are simply an act of judgment: “And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day.” God gave them up (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28) to their own hearts’ desire, to their perverted judgment. He punished their sin by their sin, simply letting it take its course. But that is not good at all, and it is not the decisive point. The grace of God is not extinguished or withdrawn in this His apparent concession. He knows very well what He is will and doing when He accedes to the perverted judgment of Israel its place and possibility. Even in accepting Israel’s plan He can master it. (p. 439)

Even in the midst of his condescension (and we might add humiliation) in the face of the request, God continues with his plan.

[T]he kingship was to express the monarchy and the sole lordship of the grace of God. This was the purpose of the divine concession to Israel’s sinful and perverted demand. It is a concession in which Yahweh not only maintains His control but exercises it in a new way. He does not give up His will and plan. He carries it through in the face of and in opposition to Israel’s sin.

Of course Saul didn’t carry out his side of the deal and (as Barth goes on to explain in no small detail). Rather than serve the people, he began to make demands of the people so that the people began to serve the institution. Saul even sought to usurp the prophetic role. This ultimately leads to Saul’s downfall and death (in stark contrast to Aaron, who did as the people told him and led them into apostasy, but never usurped the role of Moses). Although we have the interlude of David, the second king who was also elected by God and anointed by Samuel, Saul, not David, was the precursor of things to come. The monarchy turned out to be a disaster for Israel.

What is the meaning of this turn of events? “Again, it was the sin of Israel not to be satisfied with the old form. This is the shadow which lies from the very first on the new form of the covenant, the Israelitish monarchy. It did not need to be darkness. It could mean even higher and deeper grace, like the covenant, which, although it had become something stern and hard because of the sin of the first man, had not been destroyed, but had become all the higher and deeper grace in antithesis to the sin of man” (p. 442). In the end the people were required to serve the king (and institution) rather than the institution serving the people.

The king (and lurking in the shadows of Barth’s critique of “the Israelitish monarchy” is his critique of the papacy, which he clearly sees as a parallel rejection of God’s covenantal structure for the church) would demand difficult and burdensome things of the people. The king would even, on many occasions, lead the people in the direction of great evil. But this did not mean that the people of Israel should cease being Israelites and go out and form a new nation that followed the covenant. Because God’s grace could be expressed in “the higher and deeper grace” of God’s humble activity “in antithesis to the sin of man” in spite of the burden and corruption of the institution, those still committed to the covenant could gladly remain faithful to the covenant, in spite of the false and unnecessary institutional burden being placed on them.

Furthermore, Barth’s recommendation is not that Protestants cease being Protestants and just return to the Roman Catholic Church. What’s done is done and there is always the mystery of God’s higher and deeper grace in our current fractured state. But he is making the point that even when we are part of an institution (whether monarchy or papacy or other institutional church, such as the German Reformed Church that served the purposes of the Third Reich during Barth’s lifetime) that is corrupt, God remains working actively in antithesis to human sin, but in a condescending and hidden manner. Our primary job as people is first to be faithful. Our faithfulness may happen to fix the system, but it usually does not. But it is not our job to fix the system, our job is to remain faithful to the covenant in the situation in which we find ourselves.

It is striking that Barth never left the German church. (Yes, he was in northern Switzerland, but the body he was a part of was part of the German church and not an independent Swiss Reformed body.) It is also striking that while he never condemned Bonhoeffer for his act of treason against Hitler that ultimately led to Bonhoeffer’s death, neither did Barth praise it as the normative model of faithfulness. He certainly never called Bonhoeffer a martyr, for he died, not because he was a Christian, but because he was a traitor to the Reich. In the end, while Bonhoeffer’s action has remained a shining example of Christian resistance, it had little effect on the church beyond his example. Barth’s path was different. He remained in the German church. Since he was in Switzerland, he “fought” with the Allies against the Nazis as a city guard in Basel, and he wrote theology. His body of writings, over the next generation, was key to transforming the German church as it confessed its complicity with the Nazis and moved forward into a new era of self-understanding.

I have a number of friends and colleagues who have remained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in spite of its many problems and its ongoing decent into heresy. Although I never thought of it in the context of Barth’s exegesis of 1 Sam. 8-31, I find my attitude toward them as well as toward those who left the denomination (including me, I should note) in much the same way Barth seemed to react to Bonhoeffer. I neither praise nor condemn, I simply assume that they continue to be faithful to God’s covenant in the path that they have taken. Similarly, I am appalled by the racism enacted in Christian bodies such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church in America, as they turn a blind eye to the rising violence against people of color and too often censure those who do speak out. (This is the reason I waited until today, the ML King holiday here int he States, to post this essay.) But as with my colleagues in the mainline churches, so with my acquaintances in these Evangelical bodies: I have no reason to think they are not being faithful to God’s covenant in spite of the abysmal levels those denominations have sunk. The utter mess and confusion of human perversion makes the correct path forward difficult to see. In the midst of the confusion and perversion, what I am absolutely convinced of is “the higher and deeper grace” of God in Christ in the midst of the modern world.


Karl Barth on Aaron and the Golden Calf

Karl Barth has a most interesting and provocative exegesis of two Old Testament stories in two excurses in Church Dogmatics IV/1. The first one concerns Aaron (Exodus 32) on pp. 423-432. The second is about the rejection of Samuel and the rise of Saul as the first king of Israel (1 Sam. 8-31) on pp. 437-445. The exegesis has to do with the culpability of leaders and organizations in contrast to the culpability of the people the leader is leading. In both he circles around the subject of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. I am surprised I did not notice this passage when I read it back in the late 80s or early 90s, but it could be that Barth’s insight may require the perspective of an old guy looking back rather than of a Young Turk just looking around.

Barth was no fan of the papacy. In these two excurses he manages both to critique the institution quite harshly while at the same time provide a way of being Roman Catholic while remaining faithful to the deeper call of the Gospel. His critique is not only about the papacy, but about all systems where power (or possibly more accurately, authority) is concentrated in a small group. He never mentions Hitler by name, but his life context of the Third Reich and the German church whispers throughout this whole section of the Church Dogmatics. (It’s entitled, “The Pride of Man.”)

Exodus 32 is part of the story of the giving of the Law. Moses is on Mt. Sinai and has been gone a very long time. There is concern, then grumbling, then an assumption that he’s dead and never returning. The people talk Aaron, Moses’ brother, into forming an idol, the Golden Calf, which they can worship in place of Yahweh. Moses does eventually come down the mountain, is horrified by what he sees and breaks the tablets of the Law. God tells Moses that the people have broken the covenant they promised to keep and they therefore will be destroyed. Moses intercedes on their behalf, and even though many people die and everyone suffers, ultimately God forgives the breach of covenant and things return to as normal as it can be after such an apostasy.

Barth argues that the respective roles of Moses and Aaron (in relation to God and the covenant) are important if one is to understand the story. Moses is the prophet and is thus the one who has been appointed to be the mediator between God and the people. Aaron, on the other hand is the priest and is not a mediator. He rather speaks on behalf of the people and organizes the religion.

[Note: This association of “mediator” with prophet and not priest might be hard to defend on exegetical grounds. I haven’t studied it a great deal. But if there is a problem, it is not in the idea but rather in the manner which Barth expresses it. His analysis of Moses and Aaron is indeed what Exodus describes. Moses is the one who talks with God, after all, not Aaron. Barth’s motivation becomes clear when we get to the second excursus. Samuel, and all the prophets who proceeded him (that is the Judges), are clearly the mediators between God and the people. But the people wanted a king who served them, not a prophetic Judge who served God. Barth is making a parallel between the two stories. On pp. 438ff, Barth proposes that Samuel’s function is parallel to Moses while Saul’s function should be more or less parallel to Aaron.

The part of the Golden Calf story that is so striking to Barth is what doesn’t happen to Aaron. About 3,000 people died that day (Ex. 32:28) but Aaron, the high priest of the new religion, is not among those who died. Moses’ rebuke of Aaron is shockingly mild. “What did this people do to you that you have wrought so great a sin upon them?” (v. 21). It’s as if Aaron is not responsible. “What did this people do? not, “What did you do?” This is where Barth observes that Aaron’s role is to speak on behalf of the people and thus do their will (in contrast to Moses who speaks on behalf of God). “The one who receives and mediates the divine revelation, the friend who speaks with God as an equal, is Moses himself. Aaron and all the others are only witnesses” (p. 428).

What is Aaron then? He is “a type of the institutional priesthood” (p. 428). “He is the man of the national Church, the established Church. He listens to the voice of the soul of the people and obeys it. He is the direct executor of its wishes and demands. He shows the people how to proceed and he takes the initiative” (p. 429). The problem is not with Aaron, it is with the people. The institution can and should certainly play a role in teaching and guiding the people back to the truth, but ultimately when things go wrong, it is not the fault of the institution, it is the fault of the people. (And this sentiment is the heart of Barth’s nuanced critique of the Roman Catholic Church; it is what the people want.) “The priestly art as such—building altars and celebrating liturgies and ordering and executing sacrifices and proclaiming feasts of the Lord—is a neutral activity which can turn into the very opposite of all that is intended by it. The priest as such can always be a deluded and deluding pope” (p. 429). In Barth’s mind, “Aaron (and any priest or pope for that matter) is not without blame, but because the institutional priesthood (of which Aaron is a type) faces the people and reflects their wishes. It is the prophet, on the other hand, who guides them.”

[Note: at this juncture it is well worth noting that in the classic Reformed tradition of which Barth is a part, clergy should not be thought of in the priestly role because Jesus Christ is our priest, clergy are rather modeled on the prophetic role. It is, I suspect, why proclamation of the Word tends to overshadow administration of the Sacraments although they are technically equal activities. Ministers are not “priests” but “Ministers of Word and Sacrament.”]

The relationship between Samuel (the last prophet leader, or Judge, of Israel) and Saul (the first king of Israel) is similar to that of Moses and Aaron. Samuel is the prophet and thus the mediator between God and the people. Just as with Moses and Aaron, Samuel serves God on behalf of the people while Saul, as king, should serve the people on behalf of God. This pattern is not God’s ideal because the institutional side (ie, Aaron and Saul) can become overbearing as they cease to serve the people’s will and begin to lord over the people. That tendency is much more clear in the story of Samuel and Saul and will be explored in the next essay.


The Word Became Flesh

On this Feast of Theophany, a description by Karl Barth of just what happened in the incarnation, and thus just what was revealed.

He did not cease to be the eternal Word of the eternal Father, Himself the one true God. But as this one true God He became flesh without reservation or diminution. He became man, true and actual man, man as he may be tempted and is tempted, man as he is subject to death and does actually die, man not only in his limitation but in the misery which is the consequence of his sin, man like us. This is how God is God–as the One who is free to do this and does it for His own sake, to put into effect His own almighty mercy, and therefore for our sake, who are in need of His mercy. The divine mercy, and in proof of it the inconceivably high and wonderful act of God, is that He becomes and is as we are. [CD IV/1, p. 418]

It is not paradoxical and absurd that God becomes man. It does not contradict the concept of God. It fulfils it. It reveals the glory of God. [p. 419]


Revisiting the Humility of God

Is the true character and fullness of God better revealed in Christ’s first coming in ignominy or his second coming in glory? Granted, this is an arbitrary question dividing two things that, in a very real sense, can’t be divided. But I divide them because I suspect that we unconsciously separate Christ’s first and second coming in our everyday thinking. I suspect our thinking goes something like this: Jesus Christ came to us as a human and was crucified for us (pro nobis), and it’s no surprise that the world rejects him, because, well, just look at Him! But when he returns again in glory there will be no question of who he is because his glory (that is, the true character) will be revealed.

Trinity College and Ancient Faith podcasts is in the process of releasing a series of lectures by Fr. John Behr, professor at St. Valdimir’s Seminary, on Athanasius’ seminal work, On the Incarnation of the Word given at Trinity College, Toronto. Behr is making the case that today we rather miss the point of the book. Given the history of doctrinal disagreements, we think it’s about the nature of the incarnation. Behr argues that when approached in this manner Athanasius is indecipherable. The real point is that Athanasius is defending is the humiliation of the Cross. The book is not about the incarnation per se but rather about the possibility that God can be humiliated; it’s not a book about the nature of the incarnation, it is rather about its implications. Athanasius is arguing that the true glimpse into divine glory is not the bright and shiny stuff but rather the humiliation itself.

After finishing my time-consuming project on prayer as social justice (as recently posted on this blog), I have time to return to Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1, which has been gathering dust on the shelf for a couple of months. As seems to happen, Karl Barth is talking about the same thing. (I have become used to such synchronicity.) Barth is exploring sin as human pride (starting on p. 413)  and he argues that we fail to recognize God in creation as well as God in Christ because of pride, and in turn the eternal Son became human for this reason, to cure us of our pride.

According to Barth, Jesus Christ “maintains and exercises and demonstrates His Godhead in the obedience of the eternal Son to the eternal Father” (p. 417). There are three verbs. In the humiliation of the incarnation, Jesus Christ “maintains” his Godhead. This is the “fully God and fully human” phrase of the Creed. But this exercise is not exceptional nor out of the ordinary for God, this humiliation is fully in God’s character. This is the second verb. He “exercises” his Godhead. And finally, it is in this humiliation of the incarnation that the true character of God is revealed to us. This is the third verb. He “demonstrates his Godhead in the obedience of the eternal Son to the eternal Father.”

Sounds a lot like Behr’s take on Athanasius. Athanasius, Barth, and Behr are saying that if we are to begin to comprehend God in his creation and work, we need to focus on divine humility. Incidentally, this is precisely how I got back to reading Karl Barth. My first essay of last year, God’s High Humility (on this topic, but earlier in the book) was on essentially this same subject. That’s the week I pulled this volume off the shelf. One year and 417 pages later (just over half way through Church Dogmatics IV/1), Barth is still circling back to the same topic.


Prayer as Social Justice

A couple of years ago I thought I needed a change because my life had become too insular. One of the things I thought I needed to do was re-engage my social justice sensibilities that had dulled and been slowly moved to the back of the shelf since leaving the Presbyterian Church some twenty years ago. So I have spent the last many months praying and studying with mainline Christians, many of whom can be characterized as social justice warriors.

Of course this re-engagement came just before interesting days. The U.S. has not had two major party candidates running at the same time who were as polarizing as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in my lifetime. Before the election the nation was sure that Hillary would be elected and there was significant concern about how the Trump supporters would react. “We’re one nation,” my liberal friends would intone, “and we have a responsibility to unite after the election.” I have become a bystander in American politics and I don’t think I’ve been emotionally engaged with an election since Ronald Reagan. What follows may or may not align with reality, it is rather how the election affected me emotionally. It’s hard for me to imagine that the Republicans could have been sorer losers or more divisive than the Democrats were in the days following the election. I was appalled and embarrassed and particularly uncomfortable to have divine worship layered over the hatred and vitriol that I was sensing. Even to this day I run into the occasional liberal who says, “He’s not my president.” And I want to shake them and say, “Actually, he is your president, unless you’ve given up your citizenship.”

Eventually, the liberal response to the situation was to form study groups, advocacy groups, organize protests, etc. I was a part of a study group and attended one advocacy group meeting. I found the vitriol toward the conservatives to be just vile enough to make me very uncomfortable. My place of work, in contrast, is a hotbed of conservative radicalism. (Two coworkers claimed they went out and purchased bump stocks the week after the Las Vegas massacre because, “That’s the sort of protection we need, given how pissed off these crazy liberals are.” Given the emotions, I have tended to isolate myself from both sides. Those who claim to hold the middle ground, seem to me to be avoiding the hard issues, preferring to stick their head in the sand, hoping it all just goes away. That is not an option either.

It is in this context of Donald and Hillary, of alt-right and antifa, of pissed off prayers of the people, and a little bit of worry that my bump stock toting cubicle mate doesn’t get too angry this winter that I have been thinking hard about social justice and prayer. My experience with social justice efforts, both back in the 80s and 90s when I was a pastor and now as a layperson, is that while they do some good in relation to the poor and oppressed, they end up being far more divisive than constructive.

Prayer of the heart, on the other hand, is a first, halting step in a completely different direction. As I descend down from head to heart I begin to make the hatred toward President Trump my own and begin to recognize that it’s fear hiding behind a mask of hatred. As I descend down from head to heart I begin to make the bellicose threats of violence that I hear at work my own and I begin to recognize that all the bellowing grows out of the way the “liberal culture” has belittled me and dismissed my concerns for years.

As my prayer moves downward from head to heart, the most difficult step is to do like Christ did so that I may become as Christ is. In order to do this, I must “become sin” just as Christ did so that I may confess that sin, repent, and thus be right with God. So a fundamental part of my prayer is to be clothed with and fully embrace the reality of those with whom I am alienated. This is very heart of the centroversion I talked about in this essay

And once this union of my neighbor and myself begins to take hold, and once I can descend into hell with Christ and fully hear and accept his proclamation of victory over my sin (the sin and hatreds I have become), I can then … and only then … be prepared to go back and do what I need to do. I can serve the poor, I can become an advocate for the oppressed, I can seek justice alongside the immigrants who live in my community who are afraid of the cops, I can encourage the people who are afraid of the immigrants and what sort of future they portend. But I do these things from a completely different direction.

This new context also helps me understand what Erich Neumann was getting on about toward the end of The Origins and History of Consciousness. Social justice by itself is my effort to create the world after my image. Of course I will claim I’m doing it after God’s image and have a dozen Bible verses to prove my point. But because of the breakdown of the collective unconscious, or to put it another way, because I have largely lost my sense of personhood and think of myself and do things as an individual, my efforts at social justice don’t serve society as much as they serve my values. The prayer of the heart is the process by which I can begin to integrate me, as individual, with others including my enemies, even as I integrate myself with God’s energies.

One might argue that this is not really any different than what I used to do as a Presbyterian seeking social justice. I disagree. My experience with social justice efforts then and now is that they is focused on helping them, fixing them, and fixing the system. But what I need to do is help me, fix me, and recognize that I am the system. Over time (and if Neumann is correct, we’re talking decades, not months), as I reintegrate with my neighbor, whether enemy or friend, that reintegration will begin to have reciprocal effects. At that point all of us will begin to move toward the collective “me.”

And with this we have come full circle but ended up at a rather different place. Social justice should still be central in my life, but in a rather different way. I can ignore mishpat because that’s God’s problem and not mine. I can focus on mercy or alms (that is tzedakah) without getting worked up about the broken system which leads to the injustices that cause me the need to give alms. I don’t even need to worry whether the person receiving charity is “worthy of my charity” or whether I am just squandering my money. (And at this point I will stop to let us ponder that sentiment which has been thrown at me on more than one occasion when I give cash to a smelly person. As if I even dare think in terms of them being “worthy of my charity!”) Rather than get caught up in that vicious circle which will inevitably lead to judgment, anger, and possibly retribution, I will use these opportunities to expand my prayer of the heart, thus creating a virtuous circle in which a new community, and eventually, a new collective conscious will begin to arise.

Return to “Prayer as Social Justice” index.


My Neighbor and Myself

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

These words from 1 John 2:1-2 are worth exploring as an introduction to the corporate character of the prayer of the heart. Two things are happening in the text: (1) Jesus Christ is our atoning sacrifice, a concept rooted in the Levitical sacrificial system. Most simply it means that Christ took our place. This makes the other thing possible. (2) Jesus Christ is our Advocate with the Father. He is especially suited to this task because by becoming human (John 1:1) he is one of us, and furthermore by his willingness to be “made sin” for us (2 Cor. 5:21 – another way of describing him as the atoning sacrifice) he understands us from within the context of our predicament.

As our prayer descends from head to heart, a similar process can occur. Authentic prayer not only unites us with God, it unites us with human nature and created nature, and through that, actually and truly (and not just metaphorically) connects us with other people. As this descent of mind to heart occurs we can also willingly become our neighbor (whether enemy or friend) and from that position of being united spirit and heart with our neighbor, confess our sins (not “their,” but “our” sins: me and neighbor united), pray for strength and wisdom, and, to use a familiar word, advocate for us (me and neighbor united).

I am not making this suggestion lightly. There are deep and hostile divides that alienate my neighbor and myself. To embark on such a descent of mind to heart will sometimes involve becoming that which I despise. Maybe my neighbor is a racist or abuses his family. Maybe my neighbor owns a business that does very bad things to the environment and takes advantage of the farm community in which I live. Maybe it’s as mundane as my neighbor being a Libertarian while I believe there should be more societal order. Whatever it is, there are a lot of reasons that I don’t identify with my neighbor and most definitely don’t want to become my neighbor.

One of Fr. Sophrony’s most famous sayings is, “Stand on the edge of the abyss of despair and when you feel that it is beyond your strength, break off and have a cup of tea.” This is our task in prayer. We embrace the other and hold them tight until we understand that they are us. We are all human, after all. We share the same nature and I really am them. As that union begins to occur their failures, hatreds, and sins (from my perspective) become my failures, hatreds, and sins. But I can only stand at the edge of this despair for so long. When I can no longer do it, I step back and have a cuppa tea (although, since I’m not a Brit, it’s more likely to be a Starbucks Americano double shot, rather than a cuppa).

Slowly, over a long period of time, as I stand at the edge of this hell which is my enemy’s life, I begin the process of being able to embrace that hell, the sins, misdeeds, and evil embodied in the other side, and recognize that this is not merely them, this is also me. As that begins to happen I can begin to understand my enemy and why this neighbor does what he or she does. Having “become sin” on their behalf, I can begin to confess those sins as my sins and my evil. I can begin to repent. And with the strength of repentance, I no longer need to stand on the edge of the abyss, or merely at the gates of hell, I can enter into hell along with Jesus Christ and hear his words of victory. And with assurance of those words of victory, I can return to the world forgiven, not needing to escape to the cuppa tea, but ready to engage with the world in joy and assurance.

But what does this accomplish, this descent from head to heart, which then becomes a descent to hell so that I can be where Jesus Christ is, announcing both forgiveness and victory? What does this have to do with social justice? Well nothing, really, and yet it has everything to do with social justice.

Next essay: Prayer as Social Justice

Return to “Prayer as Social Justice” index.