Big Salvation Words: “Redemption,” Pt. 1

giphyBeing a common word that is used frequently when we talk about salvation, it’s easy to forget that redeem is a fiscal term. It is first used to describe the Israelites salvation from slavery to the Egyptians (Ex. 6:6). In a normal slave transaction, humans are bought and sold. If a person wants to free a slave, it would be necessary to first purchase (redeem) the slave from the current owner and then set him or her free. This is the classic fiscal meaning of the term “redemption.”

Of course, that’s not at all what happened to the Israelites. At first Moses politely demanded that the Israelites be set free (Ex. 5:1). Egypt’s Pharaoh refused and a battle of wills and disaster ensued. Each time the Pharaoh refused, another plague came upon Egypt (Ex. 5-12). In the end, not only did the Israelites leave Egypt, the Egyptians gave them jewelry and gold on their way out (Ex. 3:21-22), lost their first born (Ex. 12:29) and their army (Ex. 14:26-30). This is not a redemption from slavery at all if we think of it in fiscal terms. The slave owners (the Egyptians) were plundered and utterly defeated, so if anyone paid, it was the Egyptians.

Israel’s redemption from slavery is therefore more ironic than literal. It might be better say that they were “redeemed” from Egypt, the double quotes not implying that it did not happen, but rather that the transaction went in the opposite direction, the Egyptians paying for the privilege of releasing the Israelites from slavery.

There’s another monetary term that’s used three times in the New Testament, once by Jesus (in Mk 10:45 and Mt 20:28, in parallel passages) and 1 Tim. 2:6. Mark 10:45 says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” This phrase has led to a great deal of speculation about who was being paid the ransom. Among the ideas floated about is that it is either the Devil (more common in the Christian West) or Death itself (more common in the Christian East) that is on the other end of the transaction. In response, the rest of the commentators are a bit horrified by the idea that Christ was paying a ransom to Death or the Devil in order to buy us out of slavery. So this is a controversial topic.

But it doesn’t have to be if we keep in mind two things: first, that “ransom” is, in a sense, the noun form of the verb “to redeem,” and second, what actually happened when the Israelites were “redeemed.” In other words, if we maintain the ironic character of this ransom, it’s not a problem. The Pashcal Troparian (or hymn, if you want a more common term in English) that is sung throughout the Easter season in the Orthodox Church, and sung several dozen times during the Pascha service itself (with either the priest or the choir randomly breaking out in song during the service as a sort of celebratory exclamation point), says, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” This hymn gets to the heart of the matter.

Like the Israelites “far down in Egypt land,” this is redemption language turned on its head. We are “ransomed” or “redeemed” from Death, but ironically, it is Death who ultimately pays – not Christ, not us – and is therefore ultimately defeated.

And then the Exodus imagery is extended even further. Death is not only defeated, Death becomes an important and even vital tool for Life. Paul says, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Colossians is even more specific. “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)” (3:5). And then the text goes on to pick up another Big Salvation Word (see this post) in the next verse: “On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.”

So, in the beginning (that is, the three days Jesus is in the tomb), Death pays for the privilege of giving us life and releasing us. And then, Death keeps on paying by becoming the tool that we use “to work out our salvation” and ridding ourselves of the passions that would otherwise prevent us from becoming Christ-like in this life.

And this is the delicious irony of our redemption: It’s a “ransom” … It is God’s act of making Death work against itself in order to give us victory and life.


What is Salvation and the Task of the Christian Life?

A review of Compassion, by Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill, and Douglas A. Morrison, 1966, rev. ed. 1982, Image Books.

I read this book as part of a group book study. Very early in the study, one of my study partners commented that I was having a real problem with the idea of compassion and was clearly pushing it away, or at the very least pushing against it. That wasn’t true but at that point in the book, I couldn’t put my finger on just what I was pushing against. Eventually it became clear.

There are two very different ways of understanding our salvation. The one, most common in Roman Catholic and Protestant communions, is that salvation is a transformation of the heart and will and thus is worked out ethically (although I’m not sure this is the best word). God changes my mind allowing me to change my actions. The Orthodox understand salvation to be far deeper and more pervasive than that. Salvation is physical and encompasses the whole person, body in addition to mind and will.

There is a profound unity of body and soul, heart and will. In Orthodox anthropology the will would be classified as a bodily (or animal) function, and when Christ united himself with humanity, he united himself, even at this most primitive animal level in order that our whole being could be saved.

The differences between these two conceptions of salvation are often subtle and a bit hard to grasp. I will offer two examples from the book. The first comes in ch. 4, entitled “Community.” The foundation of the authors’ understanding of community is Phil 2:1-2. “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

The Orthodox begin, not with the mind, but with the body. Community begins in communion, which is a process of union with Christ which is physical and spiritual (the word mystical is helps convey this profound unity). At the Table I eat his body and drink the blood of the covenant. As a result of this a union begins to be formed that is completely real, although invisible.

The call to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind,” is therefore not the goal, but rather a necessary warning. A body (in this case, the Body of Christ), that is mystically united cannot be warring against itself. In medicine we call this cancer. The unity that Paul calls for is thus an outworking of a far deeper unity that already exists objectively.

In ch. 7, entitled “Patience,” the authors consider the need for discipline. All three are Roman Catholic priests and they have a difficult history to overcome on this subject, because “discipline” in the form of misguided practices such as self-flagellation, has a long history in the Roman Catholic church. Instead of offering a classic or historic definition of discipline they opt for the Protestant version:

“In the Christian life, discipline is the human effort to unveil what has been covered, to bring to the foreground what has remained hidden, and to put on a lamp stand what has been kept under a basket.” This is not a bad definition as far as it goes, but this understanding of discipline will result in a feeble light.

Again, we need to remember that salvation is not only mental but physical. We were created in God’s image, and from that starting point we need to grow into the fullness that this divine image allows. The word that’s used to express this is a Greek word that is problematic to translate. Nous, is sometimes translated mind and sometimes translated heart, and refers to the most inner part of our being. (Note: the word “like-minded” and “mind” that appears twice in Phil. 2:1-2, above, is a different word, phroneo.)

The most remarkable characteristic of the nous, is that after it is brought to life from spiritual death (the first step of salvation) is that it can grow … and grow. It reflects, to the extent possible in a created being, the infinity of God. Through the Spirit it is filled with divine love that shines out in the darkness, and as the nous grows, it is able to “contain” or “reflect” (here I suspect human language fails) more and more of the divine light.

But expanding or stretching out our nous requires discipline; not just an uncovering of what is already there, but a further development of what the divine image might become. Paul compares it to athletics (both a boxer and a runner) and military training. Thus, this process of discipline is called askesis (the Greek word from which we get the English athletic) and it is often compared to military boot camp.

I realize that at this point we get into an area of the spiritual life where there is a profound difference between the Latin west and Greek east. There was a great controversy in the 14th century, called the Hesychast controversy that had to do with this precise thing. The Orthodox and Catholics came down on different sides of this controversy. I therefore realize that Roman Catholic and Protestant readers might well have some heartburn over this. But that is not the question at hand, the question is, “Why do I find myself pushing this book away?” It’s not that I have a problem with their ideas about compassion, it’s that I find their conception of salvation, and thus the root and outworking of compassion, to be truncated.

This differing understanding of the expanse of our salvation truly comes to a head in ch. 9, entitled, “Action.” The chapter begins by saying that the discipline of prayer necessarily leads to the discipline of action. They turn to James to remind us that faith without works is dead. Thus, the goal of the Christian life is the active life. It is a very specific sort of active life to be sure. Christian action is not action for action’s sake, it is an outgrowth of the disciplines of patience, prayer, etc., but action – being in the world – is where all these disciplines inevitably lead us.

From an Orthodox perspective, this is quite a muddled version of salvation. All of these disciplines, this askesis, leads to the transformation of the person. The goal is not centered in “the other” and particularly in service to the other, the goal lies within the self. This is certainly an idea that service oriented Christianity finds troubling, so more needs to be said.

Since salvation is ultimately physical and not ethical, our disciplines need to focus on the preparation of our physical selves (through prayer, fasting, alms, the three classic disciplines of the church) so that God can transform us. This does not mean that Christians ought not care about the world, it rather puts into perspective how Christians ought to care for the world. As I am transformed, my nous expands and is filled with more and more of God’s love. Thus the actions that would be described as service to the world are not something I do, they are something that I am.

It does little good, from the perspective of God’s Reign, to help the poor because, as Jesus reminded us, the poor will always be with us. Helping the poor, in this context, is an application of the sort of “works” that Martin Luther and the Protestants railed against. Rather than being an expression of God’s Reign, it is an attempt to help it along or to bring it about.

I suspect most Protestants will disagree with me. Presbyterians are especially fond of the dynamic between grace and gratitude. God gives us his grace and we respond with gratitude. Our action in the world is not works because it is a response to salvation, i.e. gratitude, rather than attempt to secure salvation. My response to this is that it still sells the breadth of salvation short and therefore fails to faithfully describe what’s going on.

So I don’t want to make a bigger deal out of this than it is. There is plenty of room for ecumenical dialog and further nuance. But my starting point, if that discussion is ever to happen, is that this book failed to take seriously the depth of salvation and, as a result, reduced compassion to an activity that can never be a satisfying form of service.

The Trinity as Life instead of Doctrine

There’s currently quite a little tempest going on among Evangelicals about Trinitarianism. Certain high profile Evangelical professor types have gone astray of Trinitarian orthodoxy (specifically in relation to the doctrine of subordinationism) and are seemingly unrepentant. Of course, Evangelicals have no disciplinary structures to speak of, so all that remains for the remaining orthodox Evangelical sorts is to huff and puff with little consequence … oh and offer that little 33 question “Are You A Trinitarian?” test that Tim Challies put together.

A relative of mine posted it on Facebook. I took the quiz because I figured I might flunk it, since I confess and believe the Nicene Creed as it was written and approved by the ancient councils, and not with the “and the Son” phrase that the Western Church has added in order to defend the double procession doctrine. Turns out this little test didn’t touch on the subject of the procession of the Holy Spirit, so I am safely Trinitarian according to this little quiz. (Whew! You can’t believe how relieved I am!! Winking smile)

Beyond the “Are you a Trinitarian?” question is the follow-up question of “So what?” Here is Challies “So what?” answer (from Q31):

Redemption is illogical and impossible without Trinitarian distinctions. For example, in order for the Father to pour out his wrath on his Son and for the Father to accept Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, the persons must be distinct. That the Son is infinite God also explain how his death can be infinitely valuable and thus able to pay the just penalty of eternity in hell for all those he redeems.

I used to be Presbyterian, so I get that a Presbyterian is going to put emphasis on a juridical framework for salvation, but I was left wondering, “Is that actually all you’ve got?” This is certainly not why Trinitarian doctrine is vital to salvation. I will explain:

We are spiritually dead and Trinitarian doctrine, with all it’s arcane details about oneness, threeness, Jesus’ full humanity and full deity, procession, etc., explains how it is possible for Creator God to enter into creation and offer spiritually dead humans the Source of True Life for now and eternity.

Our physical life is not unlike a cut flower which is beautiful and seemingly alive for days and even weeks. But since it has been snipped from its source of life, it will eventually wilt and die. We too are cut off from our only possible source of life, which is the life-giving Trinity.

Trinitarian teachings show us that it is possible for us to be united, or “made one” with Christ through the Holy Spirit, and thus to be made one with the life-giving Trinity because Christ is actually and truly God. Christ, fully God and fully human, participates in our life even to the extent of dying a humiliating cross death. This participation by God with us and as us in turn allows us to participate in God’s life. All of this talk of judgment is certainly biblical, but it is a side-bar to the content of the Gospel: the mysterious life-giving power of the life-giving Trinity who, in Christ, is fully united with humanity, thus giving humans the gracious opportunity to drink deeply and forever of the actual source of life.

To reduce the doctrine of the Trinity to a riff on divine wrath, divine judgment, and Christ’s sacrifice as a solution to judgment rather than as the more fundamental issue of how we actually access the life that is offered to us through Christ’s participation, is a pyrrhic Trinitarian victory. It is the essence of what we find in 2 Timothy 3:5. “… holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power.” It is the conceit of knowledge (v. 4) without proper application of that knowledge to the actual problem: we’re dead … still pretty as we stand tall in the vase but decaying and wilting fast. If we don’t want to get thrown out and replaced by tomorrow’s bouquet (ie, judgment), we need to “put off [the] old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts and to be renewed in the spirit of your [nous] (not “minds” as intellectual endeavors, but our true inner being). Eph. 4:22f.

Good doctrine either improperly applied or only partially applied is not a lot different than bad doctrine. Even the demons believe, as James reminds us (2:19). Being a Trinitarian Christian is not a matter of good doctrine, it is rather a matter of understanding how to properly apply it and the will to do so (ie, the putting off) and the humility to allow it to be done to us (ie, the being renewed in the spirit of our nous).

The Covenant of the Heart

I picked up a book expecting one thing but getting quite another. The book is The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher (d. 1655). What it turned out to be was a very early Reformed exposition on grace primarily using the frame of the Covenant of Works vs the Covenant of Grace (ie, classical Covenant theology). His argument is familiar. Doing good things is not the essence of Christian piety because doing good things will not get you to heaven.

Fisher recognizes that when Christians equate piety with doing good things, having a good attitude, etc., the Christian in question is slipping back into a Covenant of Works frame. When this happens the Christian is negating the Gospel of “free grace” (a phrase Fisher likes) that is put forth by Paul in Romans and Galatians.

This sort of language is not commonly used in the Orthodox Church, but it is the normative language used among the people with whom I most commonly have theological discussions. A book such as this leaves me with the question of how I explain why what I do is not the sort of works religion that this book is describing.

While reading Fisher, a new category occurred to me that might be helpful. Let me begin by saying that at this point I am wandering off into what might best be described as a fantasia (the musical genre); I’m riffing on a Reformed theological theme and using the covenant frame to explore the doctrine of theosis. What I propose is a Covenant of the Heart (or Nous). The best of Covenant Theology will emphasize that there is only one overarching covenant between God and humanity. It had various expressions (Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus Christ) but each expression both offered more revelation of who God is and was based on a deeper understanding of God that those involved in the previous covenants did not have. Covenants are therefore a means of expressing God’s progressive revelation in a relational rather than rational context. I am proposing that the touchpoint of the Covenant of Grace is our justification while the touchpoint of the Covenant of the Heart is our sanctification.

With this in mind, my proposed Covenant of the Heart (Nous) – which I again want to be clear, is my own invention – is yet another expression based on better human understanding of God’s revelation. Here is a brief overview:

God desires, not only to reveal himself to us (knowledge), but enter into union with us. When God unites with us, we are transformed by what we might call the super-abundant life of God. But our dead, sinful, corrupt humanity resists this living transformation. We therefore need to make every effort to tear away the old skin, the scales, the shell (think of a snake shedding its skin so it can grow) so this process of transformation can, not only begin, but advance and even possibly near completion in this life.

The purpose of life is not only to be stewards of the earth … the purpose of life is not only to learn more about creation … the purpose of life is not only to know God and be known by him … the purpose of life is to be transformed into Christ’s likeness, to enliven the divine image which we all have, and thus allow it to expand and grow and ultimately to become united with God.

The potential of this process is best captured by Elder Sophrony’s contribution to Orthodox theology (as described by Fr Zacharias, his disciple). The true potential, in this life, of the transformation of our being by the Gospel is in the expansion of the “heart” (and here I come to that italicized word in parentheses). Nous is a Greek word that can be, and is often, translated as heart, intellect, or being. It is the true inner person. When we “invite Jesus into our heart” this is where we are inviting him. Similarly when Paul says our “mind” should be transformed (as most English translations phrase it), the Greek word is nous. It is a notoriously difficult word to translate because it has no English equivalent and is thus often left untranslated. Fr Sophrony, who despises the tendency of experts to use technical language that excludes people, almost always refers to it as “the heart.” Following his lead, I will speak of a Covenant of the Heart.

Elder Sophrony, through a lifetime of monastic experience, believed that the heart is the specific link between Creator and created, the divine and human. The heart therefore has the potential to be infinite, or like God. Through discipline, as the heart grows, it can “take in” (or “wrap its arms about,” or, “envelope”) an increasingly larger segment of reality. Thus, as we allow our heart to be expanded by the Spirit, we can love more of the world, pray for more of the world, actually care about more of the world, without losing the specificity of the particular. Ultimately, he surmises, a person’s heart can, through the enlivening power of the Spirit, become so alive and so stretchable, that it could expand to hold the whole world. If that were to happen, such a person would indeed become a “priest” (in the basic sense of the word, not in its ecclesiastical meaning) praying for and being an intermediary on behalf of the whole world.

But if this were to actually happen it would require every bit of dead and resistant “old self” (Eph 4:22f) to be stripped away … a painful and difficult process. This requires a remarkable amount of effort to prepare one’s own body, soul, and spirit to be transformed by the living power of the Holy Spirit. It’s why Paul, the champion of “free grace” is also the one who says we must be like spiritual athletes who force our bodies into submission in order to win the prize of the high calling of God.

And here’s the difference between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of the Heart: All this effort is not aimed at making me acceptable to God … in other words, it’s not effort in the Pauline sense of “works of the law” … this effort is aimed at preparing the ground (Mt 13:8) for the Holy Spirit to create the miracle of the ever-expanding heart. In so doing I am not trying to make myself acceptable to God, rather I am removing all the impediments (the “old self”) that cause me to resist and reject God. This is the irony of extreme effort to open oneself to pure grace … the more extreme the effort, the purer the grace.

There is an undeniable tension between the utterly free gift of grace and the tremendous effort required to not resist the grace. (And yes, the concept that God’s grace is irresistible is considered a heretical idea in Orthodoxy because it reduces us to automata. The greatest expression of God’s freedom is his own willingness to circumscribe that freedom in his dealings with humans who are made in his own image. This is the inevitable wound of love.) Distinguishing between the Covenant of Grace and my newfangled Covenant of the Heart does not remove the tension, it rather breaks it into its constituent pieces in order to better understand the tension.

Divine Glory and Suffering

I just ran across another place in Romans where Paul says two opposite things one after another, and in so doing demonstrates that they’re actually the same thing. This one is in 5:2f. The NRSV says, “… we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings …”

The “glory of God” in which we will share is Paul’s way (in this instance) of describing our heavenly goal, or the final consummation of our salvation. What’s remarkable here is that he puts our sharing in the divine glory in parallel with our sufferings here on earth. Let’s unpack what’s happening.

When Paul describes salvation in verses 1-2, he’s not describing a one-off single event that we can point to and say, “that’s the moment I got saved.” It begins with justification, which results with us entering into a state of peace with God. That state of peace gives us access to grace which ultimately leads to our sharing in the divine glory. In other words, Paul views salvation as a long term process. It is not the escape from the wrath to come that is the interesting part of salvation in this particular text, it is rather because of our access to grace we can be transformed and that transformation will allow us to ultimately share in the divine glory, the same glory that would have surely killed us (Judges 13:22, et al.) prior to being transformed.

Beginning in verse 3, Paul describes another series of connected events, starting with the phrase “but we also boast in our sufferings”: suffering – endurance – character – hope … hope that does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Notice that both series start with a boast and end with our hope. Paul is describing parallel actions. The one description views the action from what we might call the divine side (justification – peace – grace – glory) and the other describes the action from the human side (suffering – endurance – character – hope/Holy Spirit).

They’re the same thing! And let me reiterate: To make sure we don’t miss that point, Paul says something a bit odd. He says that we “boast” in both of these actions. The term “boast” (kauchaomai) is a wonderfully evocative word that has no good English equivalent. It is used in either the middle or passive tense, so “boast” (which is inherently an active tense word) is not a particularly good translation. It is not something that we do but neither is it something that is done to us. It is more akin to a state of being in which we live.

The word is also found in Rom 5:11. One strengths of the NRSV is that it tries hard to consistently use the same English term for a Greek term. Thus it says, “we even boast in God.” Although it is not particularly good English (thus other translations didn’t follow along) the King James Version of Rom 5:11 gets to the sense of this word. “We also joy in God.” That is a state of being! We’re not boasting nor are we rejoicing exactly. Rather, “we joy in our hope” (v 2), “we joy in our sufferings” (v 3) and “we joy in God (v 11).

But back to the point of this essay. How are we transformed? How do we ultimately share in the glory of God? Suffering! Suffering is what allows us to be transformed. Read the following very carefully, because the idea of suffering being in any way salvific went totally off the rails during the Middle Ages, and we still feel the lingering effects of that silliness. Paul says that suffering produces “endurance.” As is so common when translating from one language to another, it is impossible to find equivalent terms. “Endurance” expresses perfectly one half of the Greek word “hypomone.” The way to strengthen a muscle is to work it hard (ie, make it suffer); over time the muscle can endure more.

But there’s another angle to this word that is better illustrated by a dog than a gym rat. An untrained dog on a leash jumps from one side of the sidewalk to the other, straining toward any sort of thing that interests it. A well trained dog doesn’t even need a leash because it has learned to ignore distractions. In the same vein, the Ignatian spiritual exercises make a distinction between a thought passing through the brain (something we cannot stop) and the active part of the brain actually grabbing hold of that thought and running with it. Calmness is not the absence of thoughts, it’s the ability to ignore or let pass any thought so that it is not distracting; thoughts are always flowing, it’s the holding on to the thought that interrupts the peace. This is the second angle of “hypomone” That is not expressed in the English term “endurance.”

In the Orthodox East this idea of letting thoughts go is a particularly beloved monastic practice, but is expressed more commonly in relation to things rather than thoughts among the average Christian. Sin causes to lose sight of the truly spiritual and focus on the physical. Since we are created to enter into union with God, sin causes us to cling to physical things (family, fame, wealth, power, shoes, trucks, you get the idea). At its most pernicious we so completely identify with the things we love, we have a hard time separating our true selves from the things that have come to define us.

Suffering begins to tear away at these things that have come to define us. True suffering no doubt feels like (and I’m speaking metaphorically here) our very skin and flesh are being peeled off our bones. For a self-centered sinner, it is probably the worst thing imaginable. But as that happens we slowly begin to discover that these things that have defined us are not actually us. We begin to discover our true self. And as we begin to discover our true self and put a bit of separation between our “selves” and the “things” that defined us, we discover that we no longer have that compulsion to grasp on to those things. As our hands begin to loosen and unfold from their grasping, the Holy Spirit (v 5) that was given to us can now actually begin to dig through all those things all the way into the true self … and transformation can begin.

This is the potential force of that seemingly simple word “endurance” (hypomone) that Paul uses. It is also worth noting that not all suffering has this effect. Suffering must be faced within in the context of faith, justification, and the peace that grows out of that. Suffering is not salvific in and of itself but in the context of the work of salvation that God is doing, it is the tool that opens us up to God’s work of grace that ultimately leads to sharing in his glory.

And this brings us full circle back to the wonderful mash-up that Paul offers in Rom. 5:2-3. We joy in the hope of sharing God’s glory just as we joy in our sufferings, because when the whole process is understood, we realize that human suffering has the potential to be the back side of divine glory. Thanks be to God.

God, Salvation, and Word Pictures

Reading the Daily Common Lectionary, which is going through Hebrews at the moment, I am reminded that there are different metaphors for salvation, and those metaphors are not necessarily compatible with each other. If the metaphors are taken too literally or too far it will appear that there are contradictions within scripture. The four big salvation metaphors are slavery and freedom (based on Israel’s escape out of Egypt), the temple and the sacrificial system (based on the Law given to Moses after the escape from Egypt), the banquet and the invitation of unworthy people to the banquet (one of Jesus’ favorite metaphors, at least according to John), and the legal system (Paul’s favorite metaphor).

God is unknowable to us in a manner similar that human culture and pathos is unknowable to an ant. But God takes things that are within our experience and that we can understand (systems of sacrifice, big banquets, the court system, jails, and fines, etc.) and says, “I am like this,” or “The reasons for my actions are similar to this.” But I suspect we forget that God’s relation to us is ultimately beyond our understanding and that the only way to get a handle on God’s actions is to speak of it in metaphorical terms. Heaven won’t literally be a big banquet hall where we will eat forever and ever, but it is a helpful image that offers a counterpoint to our getting kicked out of the Garden where food was both easy and always available.

Growing out of the idea of metaphor or analogy is a second principle in talking about God called apophatic language. The essence of apophatic thinking is to say what God is not, rather than what God is. A simple and hopefully obvious example, since we began with my reading of Hebrews and the metaphor of the sacrificial system is to start with a metaphorical statement, “Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God,” and then add an apophatic clarification, “But Jesus is not a lamb,” or “Jesus had skin, not wool.” Or, as I wrote in the previous paragraph, “Heaven won’t literally be a big banquet.” That’s an apophatic clarification.

Once we understand metaphorical language, then we begin to realize that the whole sacrificial system in the Old Testament is a gigantic metaphor about God and humans. Even the ancient Jews understood this: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15:22).

The origins of sacrifice have been lost beyond the time horizon. Granted, God “made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them” (Gen 3:21). This is often called the first sacrifice and is considered a pointer toward Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, but in truth that is speculation. The text actually says nothing about sacrifice. What we do know is that God used practices common to humans and then revealed glimpses of his true self by redefining those common practices and giving them new meaning.

Anthropology has shown us that sacrifice, for ancient cultures, was a way of appeasing and manipulating the gods who were either angry or non-cooperative. It was an attempt to gain some small amount of control in a capricious and dangerous natural world. Some of that same sensibility is present in the Old Testament system. Appeasement is certainly a big part and is at the root of the theological arc that we might call the “wrath of God.”

Going back to our original exploration of analogic and apophatic theology, the question of divine wrath must be explored. Is wrath actually a divine attribute, a dark side to the attribute of holiness? Or is divine wrath actually a metaphorical description of the distance between Almighty God and his human creatures? And if that’s the case, must we put wrath into the context of other things God has revealed about himself and say, “God is not literally full of wrath (ie, an apophatic statement); making wrath an attribute takes the metaphor beyond its reasonable conclusion. Making wrath a metaphor (in contrast to an attribute) gives the distance between God and us a great deal of emotional punch.

No doubt it’s obvious by now that I fall into the camp that believes the idea of the wrath of God is a helpful metaphor, but metaphorical none the less. Not all interpreters take this same position. But I hope this essay helps us move beyond the idea that to reject divine wrath as an attribute of God is to somehow reject or deny scripture. It is rather an attempt to allow scripture to mean what it wants to mean rather than to force what we want scripture to mean on to the text.

Men’s Group? … Schmens Group!

I’ve joined a men’s group / Bible study at work, and honestly, I’ve been hating on it ever since I joined. While other members talk about how much they need it for their spiritual life, I find there is little that is spiritual about it. We watch videos and the videos seem to me to be a cross between Dr. Phil and Peter Drucker with a few Bible verses thrown in much the same way that the Human Resources department uses those goofy inspirational quotes posters to lift morale around the office.

When I was a pastor in eastern Kansas and Nebraska I would take occasional retreats at monasteries (something the Presbyterian Church encouraged, by the way). In retrospect, one thing that struck me about monastic life was that the monks never got together for Bible Studies nor fellowship groups. They gathered daily, but it was always for prayers: matins and vespers for sure, and for those who were available, also prayers at “the hours” (every three hours throughout the night and day). Furthermore, these prayers weren’t an opportunity to talk to and encourage each other, they were highly structured with the purpose of making us humans shut up. They were made up of psalms, hymns, readings, and typically some sort of call and response prayer. (Later on I discovered this is also the pattern of Eastern Orthodox monastic life.)

What do the monks know that we Christians in the secular world have not figured out?

  1. While becoming a nicer, more polite, and productive human is a perfectly fine goal if you’re Miss Manners or Peter Drucker, those things can actually be distracting to our entering into communion and unity with God. The true goal of our spiritual struggle is a struggle to become one with Christ, not to become successful in our spiritual life.
    1. The enemy of our union with Christ is our love of self. Becoming a better human (better husband, better, father, better coworker, etc.) easily becomes a means of promoting my love of self disguised as love of God. (A classic form of idolatry.)
    2. Overcoming what the Orthodox Church calls the passions – what might be called the noisy distractions of everyday life, everything from my mind flitting from this topic to that willy-nilly, to my perceived need to obey my hunger pangs at a moments notice, to my becoming quickly bored when I’m not being entertained – are the true enemies of my entering into true communion with Christ.
  2. True unity is achieved through an attitude of prayer. Brother Lawrence called it “practicing the presence of God.” Talking to other people about spiritual things frequently causes us to focus on other people and the so called “spiritual things” and takes our focus off of God. The presence of God can only be discovered when our innermost being becomes truly silent, because God will very rarely interrupt our busy-ness of mind and body. He will wait silently until we too are waiting silently.
  3. The “language” of heaven, I suspect, is twofold. It is a “language” made up of silence and singing. Of course it isn’t actual silence, but that’s how we perceive it in our current state, because all our thoughts and words drown out the sublime and profound communication of the heart that leads to authentic communion with God and results in union.
  4. Authentic spirituality, like being a professional athlete, is highly disciplined. Disciplines require constant repetition.  Once we begin to truly discipline our inner life, we are finally freed to enter into the world of God’s true light and life. (This is why in the Greek language, people who do this are called “spiritual athletes.”)

Knowing God is not an intellectual exercise, nor does it come about magically through socialization. It is an activity of the true heart. I suppose that fellowship groups have their place, but in the midst of this most recent experience I am reminded of the frustration of two decades of promoting this stuff as a pastor. The result is a deep sadness that we seem so willing to substitute this for true knowledge of God.

Is the Christian Life All About Knowing God?

My brother called me a couple of months ago and asked, “What is Gnosticism?” Well, that’s an open-ended question, given the diffuse character of the Gnostic mindset, and so I gave a rather diffuse and open-ended answer. I should have questioned him further because it turns out that a speaker at his church had accused contemporary Evangelicalism of being Gnostic. That’s something that is far easier to nail down. This essay deals with the side that’s easier to nail down and leaves the question of the vaguely gnostic mindset that permeates our society for another time.

In the context of contemporary Evangelicalism, it is simplest to say that one of the main things that made Gnosticism a heresy was its assumption that salvation was a form of knowledge. (By the way, if you didn’t make the connection, the English word “know” is something of a transliteration of the Greek word gnosis. A “Gnostic” is literally a “knowledge person.”) It is therefore easy to accuse Protestantism of the Gnostic heresy because in Protestant (and especially Evangelical) shorthand, salvation is knowing. (Remember J.I. Packer’s runaway best-seller, Knowing God?) Salvation is believing Jesus Christ and accepting his message by faith. Protestantism, because of it’s emphasis on the Bible, and because it matured alongside the Enlightenment, is a very rational sort of approach to Christianity. The simplistic approach is to say that since Gnosticism is a heresy, and Protestantism is a lot like Gnosticism, Protestantism is therefore a heresy.

And let’s face it, that’s overly simplistic … and simplistic is usually dangerous.

Accusing some denomination or flavor of contemporary Evangelicalism of being Gnostic (very popular at the moment) is sort of like accusing a political movement of being Fascist. First and foremost, both are emotional rather than rational arguments because the actual meaning of either “Gnostic” of “Fascist” is rather vague but fraught with emotional freight.. Second, both are anachronistic, because the things that made Fascism what is was were specific to the the time between the two wars, just as the things that made Gnosticism what is was were specific to the intersection of Jewish, Hellenistic, and Christian thought of the second and third centuries C.E.

But back to the original issue: How is knowledge of Jesus Christ related to the Christian life? there is a beautiful passage in Philippians 3 where Paul piles image upon image, indicating some of the faces of the multifaceted jewel that is our goal in the Christian life:.

8 Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Notice that “knowing Christ” is emphasized twice in this passage: “The surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” and “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection.” But “knowing” is not the goal. Paul not only wants to know him, he wants to “be found in him” (v 9). He wants a “righteousness from God” (v 9). Verse 10 sounds like building blocks, beginning with knowledge and then moving beyond that to “the power of his resurrection,” sharing in his suffering,” and “becoming like him in his death,” all of these building blocks leading to a specific kind of life: “that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

It’s the last part of the passage that gets at what I suspect makes it so easy to accuse Protestantism, and Evangelicalism  in particular, of Gnosticism. Paul is working hard; he’s an apostle, and he’s not even sure he will attain the resurrection. In other words, the Christian life is hard; it’s expensive; it’s action oriented.

From the beginning the Protestant movement has had a weakness toward what Bonhoeffer (a WWII Protestant pastor killed by the Nazis) called “cheap grace” and what is often called “easy believism” today. (I mention Bonhoeffer to remind us that this is not a brand new phenomenon.) It also needs to be noted that easy believism is rampant all across the Christianity of the wealthy, industrialized Western world. Orthodox priests rail against it regularly. The lack of life-changing commitment in the Roman Catholic church is scandalous. But conservative Protestantism, with its unique emphasis on empirical knowledge in conjunction with easy believism, almost always takes the brunt of the Gnostic accusation.

True salvation, the real Christian life, is not knowledge, it’s experience or activity. It’s “gaining” Christ and then being “in him” (to borrow Paul’s phrase from vv. 9-10. It is knowledge, but it is knowledge that leads to suffering, death, and resurrection. It is not bringing the message of God down into my head, it is moving upward toward God (v. 14).

Of course this message is not foreign to mainstream Evangelicalism at all. The particular way that Evangelicals (especially those with some Reformed sensibilities) emphasize Christ alone, scripture alone, and faith alone can obscure the the Apostle Paul’s strong emphasis on “the obedience of faith” (Romans) and pressing on toward the prize of Jesus Christ (Philippians) as well as the more mystical sense of being “in Christ” (or as John puts it, being “one with Christ” and Peter’s “partaking in the divine nature”). But let’s be honest, that’s rather different than being an outright Gnostic.

In review: What was Gnosticism? In this context, it was a world view and eventually a Christian heresy that believed in a special knowledge (in contrast to activity or transformation) that was salvific. Is Evangelicalism Gnostic?  No. But since much of contemporary society has many Gnostic tendencies and Protestantism and Evangelicalism have a particularly knowledge-oriented relation to the Bible and their understanding of salvation, it is certainly easy to understand why the accusation pops up so frequently.

The Fourfold Way of the Christian Life

Kallistos Ware, retired Oxford lecturer and titular Bishop in the Orthodox Church, is fond of describing the Christian life with God in a fourfold way. It is

  1. A gift of grace – not a human inquiry into God, but God’s disclosure of himself.
  2. A mystery – no matter how much we learn there is always more to learn and no matter how well we learn a specific thing, what we say about it falls short of the truth.
  3. A process of purification – God can reveal his inner life/light to us only to the extent that we are pure enough to not be consumed by that divine life/light.
  4. Silence, or stillness of the heart – ultimately, communion with the Living Word (ie, the Son of God) is not through words, but Being communing with being. Communion is not “conversation with,” it is “union with” God (the etymology of “communion”), Busy-ness and talkativeness distract while silence, stillness, and presence promote personal knowledge and experience with God.

In other words, the Christian life is to know God; and to know God – and to be known by God – is to do God’s will and to become like God. Knowledge, action, and transformation are facets of a single activity. There is a wonderful Greek word – perichoresis – often translated into English as “coinherence,” a word essentially invented to express the idea of perichoresis. It refers to the manner in which the divine life flows from one person of the trinity to the whole of the trinity and vice versa. The life of the Father flows into the Word and the Spirit; the life of the Word flows into the Spirit and the Father; the life of the Spirit flows into the Father and the Word.

Similarly, the Spirit indwells the Body of Christ, the Church, even as the Body of Christ indwells the very being of God so that the life of God flows into the Body while the life of the Body is known fully by God. At this point I am uncomfortable with the idea of the life of the Body flowing back into God because it implies that the Body of Christ, the church, is necessary to God’s existence. Extending the analogy that far would be a falsehood. This is why I begin this paragraph with “similarly.” Perichoresis, or coinherence, is properly a doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The analogy of between the Spirit and the Body of Christ is similar to but not the same as coinherence. This is a primary reason why we use the term “communion” to describe the divine/human relationship.

And this is why Ware’s third point, that the Christian life is a process of purification, is so critical. There is a movement back and forth between God and human; it goes both ways. God dwells in me so that I can dwell in God. But holiness and wickedness cannot be co-mingled. So it is that authentic communion (which is analogous in certain ways to perichoresis) is only possible to the extent that the human has been purified.

With this dynamic relationship in mind we realize the poverty of the term “works” when trying to describe the human side of salvation. “Washing” rather than “working” is where we begin. “Serving” others rather than “earning” anything at all (as if that is even possible!) is how we relate to others. Finally, adoration, which ultimately will lead to stillness and pure presence with one another, is how we express our life with God.

[A footnote of sorts: This fourfold way is not original with Ware. It is how the patristics, who generally wrote in Greek, viewed things for the most part. The four facets get translated into English in a variety of ways, but the Greek words at the root of these ideas, for those who want to pursue it further, are charisma (a gift of grace), mysterion (mystery, often translated as “sacrament,” via the Latin, by Roman Catholics – a highly problematic translation, but that’s another story), katharsis (cleansing), and hesychia (silence or stillness).]