Big Salvation Words: “Redemption” pt. 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critiques on my Justification Series

In this essay I would like to address three critiques offered in response to my recent series on justification. The first critique is from Mark. I opined that no one (both in the responses on the web site as well as in face-to-face conversations) was addressing the exegetical issues of Gal. 2. Mark pointed out that while I referred to them, I didn’t focus on exegesis but rather relied on N.T. Wright’s exegesis without telling my readers what he said in detail. It was therefore natural to talk about the ecclesiological and historical issues. Trying to address the exegetical issues would have required a great deal of background study.

 I stand corrected on this point. Mea culpa. While I am primarily interested in the exegesis, it is only natural that this set of essays would generate response about ecclesiology.

 The second critique comes from a recent phone conversation about the essays.  My friend (formerly Protestant but now Orthodox) took strong exception to my characterization of Orthodox liturgical life being too Byzantine in its social structure. Specifically, I said the following:

 “In the end, the conversion to Orthodoxy is as much conversion to ancient Byzantium as it is to Christ. Converts are required to take up the yoke of Byzantium – leaders and their courtiers, who dress up and act like Oriental despots, making divine liturgy look and feel like an Oriental throne room, complete with ancient Oriental sensibilities and actions, etc. And if one doesn’t put on this yoke of ancient Oriental serfdom, then one isn’t going to become a Christian in the fullest sense of the word.”

 My friend’s response is that this “Byzantine” model is far friendlier to scripture than anything familiar to contemporary Western culture. St. Paul said we were slaves of Christ. My friend contended that until we were pedagogically taught to be bond-slaves (Paul’s frame) or Byzantine serfs (my take on the Orthodox frame) we could never possibly understand the meaning of freedom in Christ.

Upon further reflection, he’s correct. But I would add this caveat: The Orthodox Church demands a very specific cultural embodiment of this principle. I suspect that Orthodoxy in general is far more aware of the cultural embodiment than they are the underlying theological significance. That probably strikes many people as far too cynical, but that’s how it appears, although my only specific evidence on this point is admittedly weak. I appeal to the attitude toward the Western Rite, which I talked about in the sixth essay.

 And this discussion leads to the third critique made by David. I compared contemporary Orthodoxy to Second Temple Judaism in its latter stages. My contention is that both have used the Mosaic Law (Judaism) and the Tradition (Orthodoxy) as a wall to protect itself from an outside world that is generally considered (for good reason) malevolent. While this is understandable, it creates a dynamic in which outsiders have to jump through many extraneous doors to get through the wall. The result is that rather than coming to God through faith, one is required to come to God by “the works of the Law” or “the works of the Tradition” (to update St. Paul’s phrase).

 David disagrees. He says,

“The Orthodox Church has many major issues of it’s own to resolve. It’s true that these issues occupy much of the attention of the Church outside the parish clergy and their lay charges. … While I admit to all those things, they aren’t walls against the outside world, but demands for time, attention and institutional necessity.”

 I’m pretty sure David’s contention is the majority opinion within the Orthodox Church and again my opinion might be viewed as cynical. But it simply makes no sense to me that the systemic problems are that easily dismissed. Even though I realize I am taking a minority position, on this point he and I will simply have to disagree.

 I have come to my conclusion based on the Orthodox Church’s outlook on the world. It is primarily concerned about Orthodoxy and only secondarily concerned about the world. This basic attitude was also true of some of the Presbyterian churches I served as a pastor. Everything they did had a what-will-this-do-for-our-survival calculation involved. Inviting new members was not primarily about the Gospel mandate, but rather about bolstering the precarious financial position of the parish, for instance.

 But while that is true of many local churches, my sense of the PC(USA) as a denomination is quite different in my experience. Their mission and service outreach is not aimed at improving the PC(USA), it’s about serving the world. The focus is specifically about serving the other person for the sake of Christ, without little regard for what the PC(USA) gets in return.

 Orthodox mission and service appears to have a rather different mindset. I will use the International Orthodox Christian Charities as an example. Three or so years ago when there were devastating fires in California, IOCC had no response. When there were devastating fires in Australia, with many lives lost, IOCC had no response. When there were devastating fires in Portugal that not only killed people but destroyed several significant religious shrines, IOCC had no response. But when there were fires in Greece, IOCC sent out pleas for cash and emergency response teams to address this terrible tragedy. Could it be that the IOCC’s unspoken mission is to serve the Orthodox with little energy given to places where Orthodoxy is not strong?

 A similar dynamic seems to exist in the relationship between the Patriarchates and the new world churches. North American Orthodoxy is in a shambles because of this dynamic. Metropolitan Jonah (OCA) has been quite vocal in his opinion that the primarily problem is the old world Patriarchs who want to maintain control of the American churches. The general opinion is that it is money driving this attitude – without control over the North American churches, the Patriarchates would lose much of the money that flows back to the Middle East, Russia, and Greece. No matter what the specific reason, it is clear that the Patriarchates are in a defensive position, making decisions based on how they are going to survive financially, not based on what the church needs.

 These two items illustrate the attitudes that result in the walls that have been erected around the Orthodox Church. Because of this inward rather than Godward focus, conversion is not so much to God as it is to the thing that the church is focused on: its institutional self. The result is a requirement to do “the works of the Tradition” (to paraphrase St. Paul) in addition to faith, which St. Paul says nullifies the faith.

 In summary, David, my friend who chooses to stay anonymous, and Mark have all provided excellent and needed critiques of the previous series of essays. Some of the criticisms I agree with, some I do not. But it needs to be clear that in the places where I disagree, I am taking a minority view on the subject.

 Finally, back to the exegetical question. None of this addresses the question of what St. Paul was talking about in Galatians 2. I agree with N.T. Wright (and contra the vast majority of Protestants) that when Paul speaks of “justification by faith rather than the works of the law” in this passage, he is not talking about salvation, but rather the question of how people on whom the Spirit has been poured out relate to one another. In the third comment down of the first essay I mention what I think is the critical exegetical issue: Wright assumes the Eucharist is the background story of Galatians 2.

 I suspect it is not the Eucharist but the Agape Meal that was eaten in conjunction with the Eucharist. (It is my understanding the 1 Corinthians 11 also deals with the Agape Meal.) I also believe the evidence would indicate that the Agape and Eucharist are so closely related that a problem with one spills over into a problem with the other. Therefore I believe that Wright’s assumption about the context of Gal. 2, while slightly off base, remains valid. But I am aware that this is a contentious point among Protestant (and particularly Lutheran) scholars. It is something on which, as far as I can tell, the Orthodox exegetical tradition is completely silent.

 If the Lutherans are correct, and Wright is incorrect, then all of this discussion about ecclesiology and polity is for not. But if Wright is correct, I hope the clarifications of this essay have been helpful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Existential?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dunn, on the other hand,

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

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

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

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

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