‘Bearing God’: The Mother Of Jesus In Protestant Theology

This is a paper I wrote in college. Some friends asked to read it. This is the simplest way to easily share it. I present it now without edits or updates. It is not good. Enjoy.

*

Introduction

Theologian Tim Perry was horrified to discover that his colleagues were heretics.[1] At an event hosted by Fuller Theological Seminary, a prominent Evangelical figure opined that he would have sided with Nestorius in the famous “Theotokos” debacle, which led to the pronouncements at the Council of Chalcedon (CE 451). “I think Christotokos is a good compromise,” the colleague said. “It acknowledges what’s important, that Jesus is our savior. But it doesn’t worship Mary, like Theotokos does.” The man meant well, but failed to grasp the stakes. Perry explained that if Mary is not the Mother of God, it can only mean that Jesus isn’t God. Regrettably, Protestants have fumbled around Mary for nearly 500 years, fearful of lapsing into “crypto-Papism.” But there is good reason for Protestants to devote themselves to the study of Mary. This paper will argue that the life and witness of Mary (the mother of Jesus) has unique value for Christian discipleship rooted in her being the “Mother of God” and the consistency of her life and witness.

 

Theological Perspectives

Mary plays a vital role in Eastern Orthodox liturgy.[2] Her full title is “Our All-Holy, Immaculate, Most Blessed and Glorified Lady, Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary.”[3] If these terms are unfamiliar to Protestants, it isn’t because they’re new. They are also not worshipful. Both God and Mary are celebrated, but the Orthodox do not tolerate any overlap in veneration.[4]

Mary is not owed any intrinsic veneration, according to bishop Kallistos Ware, but is bestowed extrinsic honor expressly because of her role as the “Mother of God.”[5] From this ground, they deduce a number of elements that are not explicitly found in scripture. Because Christ is the “New Adam,” consequently Mary is the “New Eve.”[6] He overturns the curse of the Fall on the cross, and He includes Mary’s “cooperation” in bearing and bringing Him to term in the process – though precisely how is a mystery. He is the Savior, she is the Handmaiden.[7]

As such, Mary provides the foundational example of “saving faith.” God’s plan to become incarnate in Mary’s womb was fulfilled because she freely consented. This does not make her worthy of salvation, but simply images her cooperation with the divine will.[8] She was, however, “free from all actual sin.”[9] Formally speaking, however, Orthodox Christians do not believe in the so-called Immaculate Conception because they disapprove of anything that would “separate Mary from the rest of the descendants of Adam.”[10] Her life culminated in the so-called “Assumption.” She died, as do all humans, but was resurrected in anticipation of the resurrection of all believers.[11] “She has passed beyond death and judgement, and lives already in the age to come,” concludes Ware.[12]

Whereas Orthodox Christians avoid detailed explanations on questions that are not clearly addressed in scripture, Roman Catholicism affords greater weight and clarity to deductive conclusions. As such, questions left unsettled in Orthodoxy are given sharper delineation. Because she is the Mother of God, her “Immaculate Conception” was carried out to prepare Mary for the responsibilities of mothering the Incarnate Lord.[13] “In Adam, Mary died, as others.” wrote John Henry Newman, but “for the sake of Him who was to redeem her and us upon the cross, to her the debt was remitted by anticipation.”[14]

A female “helpmate” in Jesus’ redemptive mission “enhances the symmetry of redemption as the inversion of the Fall.”[15] By obeying God’s will rather than disobeying like Eve, she represents humanity obeying where previously they had rebelled. This is what Catholics call Mary’s “Co-redemption.”[16] When she “offers” her Son, she does so on behalf of all of God’s people.

According to Aidan Nichols, her association with her Son must logically be thoroughgoing. As with His birth and life, she must now be associated with Him in His resurrection.[17] It would be fitting, he suggests, for her inevitable death to be followed by an anticipated resurrection: “If the Co-redemption did not issue in the Assumption, then the parallelism between Christ and Mary ceased at Calvary.”[18]

Because she is every Christian’s mother, she is concerned with “the birth and growth of human beings in the divine life,” the “Mediatrix.”[19] She mediates the graces that each person needs need at each juncture, as do human mothers, training her children to be more like her Son.[20] While Jesus, their mediator, “stands before the Father ever to make intercession on [their] behalf” (Heb. 7:25), Mary stands before Jesus praying on their behalf.[21]

Perhaps surprisingly, Mary has cast a towering shadow on the field of “liberation theology.” Against some of the problematic elements of High Mariology, feminist Elizabeth A. Johnson argues that both “salvific” and “sanctifying” roles that have become attached to Mary through the years should be attributed only to God.[22] Instead, she is the “quintessential believer,” and her primary contribution to Christian theology is her example.[23]

A poor maiden in her earthly life, Mary can be envisioned as an advocate, especially, for the downtrodden throughout the Third World.[24] As shown in the Magnificat (Lk. 1:46-55), her witness images a way of being human in which people use their power and privilege to bestow dignity on those marginalized by society.[25] Conversely, destitute Christians, especially women, can “creatively make the Magnificat their own,” integrating the witness of Mary of Nazareth into their experience of abject poverty and oppression.[26] Claiming Mary as an image of themselves, Christians cannot content themselves to echo the world’s categories of dehumanization.[27]

She freely chose to participate in God’s actualizing justice for the whole creation. Thus, according to Carol Frances Jegen, Christians must identify with Mary and freely choose to “participate in God’s mission to bring justice and peace to the world.”[28] She is the model for what discipleship looks like, for both men and women, married and virginal.[29]

Alternatively, classic Protestant approaches to Mary have been more noteworthy for their absences than anything. Wolfhart Pannenberg is representative. Dismissing the Immaculate Conception and “perpetual virginity” as mythical extravagances, he goes on to abandon the virginal conception entirely. That the New Testament is not uniform on the matter, coupled with modern science’s perceived “debunking” of such miracles, has moved most contemporary Protestants to do the same.[30]

Among confessional Protestants, there is a greater tendency to accept traditional designations like Theotokos or “Handmaiden.” In John MacQuarrie’s estimation, the very fact that “Jesus was sent by God” necessitates that “there must have lived a woman through whom He was born into the world.” Historic Protestant exegesis has held that God’s “providence” somehow foreordains all things to achieve His eternal will. In this context, he suggests, “that woman must have been conceived and elected by God in the beginning as the indispensable handmaiden needed to cooperate in His work.”[31]

 

Theological Position

If Mary is Jesus’ mother, and Jesus is God Incarnate, then she is the “Mother of God.” And as Robert Jenson points out, if the epithet Theotokos is justified, “it must also be right for there to be a sub-department called Mariology.”[32] If Mary is the mother of Jesus, and Christians are “crucified with Christ and raised with Him to new life” (Gal. 2:20; Col. 3:1), then Mary can be understood to be every believer’s mother as well. Because Christians are “members” of the “Body of Christ,” it is correct to deduce that her Divine Motherhood carries over to those who are included in Christ’s resurrection. While not everything in traditional Mariology is tenable, there are elements of truth in each doctrine.

Early suggestions of Mary’s “Immaculate Conception” and “Perpetual Virginity” were met with resistance.[33] Jovinian and Helvidius protested that these notions were rooted in an unbiblical denigration of sex and marriage.[34] Eventually, as Protestant religion gradually embraced the notion that marriage, not celibacy, is God’s normative expectation for Christians (and thus de-stigmatized sexual relations) the impetus for “such doctrines as the ‘Immaculate Conception’ and the ‘Perpetual Virginity’ of Mary was cut off.” Additionally, recent Protestant exegesis has convincingly shown that the Scriptures do not regard sex as inherently corrupt.[35] As a result, in the absence of clear scriptural evidence for the “Immaculate Conception” and “Perpetual Virginity,” it is difficult to endorse or even deduce these doctrines. It is best to acknowledge, with the ante-Nicene churches, a fully human, sinful, and often doubtful Mary who led a normal married life after the birth of Jesus.[36]

As the Church pushed further into the Medieval period, functions traditionally attributed to Jesus shifted to Mary and she began to symbolize the forgiveness that Christ paid for on the cross.[37] Medieval devotion to Mary often centered on the certainty that Jesus “would not refuse any favor asked Him by His mother.” Mary would mete out the merits of her Son to those who devoted themselves to her so that they need not fear the wrath of heaven.[38] What the Reformers rejected was the caricature of Mary interceding to her wrathful Son’s “masculine rage” with her “womanly benevolence.”[39] It is best to acknowledge, with the second-century Alexandrians, that Mary’s motherhood should comfort us but does not shield us from divine wrath. [40]

In Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli maintained the Feast of the Assumption among his churches, as did Heinrich Bullinger.[41] This is unsurprising, and perhaps even prudent. Throughout the Old Testament, figures like Enoch and Elijah were “assumed” into heaven. These assumptions came at the end of faithful lives devoted to a singular purpose in the plan of God and do not separate them from the rest of fallen humanity.[42] Assumption need not imply “sinlessness” in the aforementioned figures, nor Mary herself. In the absence of explicit scriptural evidence, it would be irresponsible to dogmatize her Assumption, but it is easy to imagine Mary, who joined her Son in His birth, ministry, and at His death, joining her Son at her death.

 

Objections

According to Mary Aquin O’Neill, denying Mary’s role as Co-Redemptrix effectively bars women from salvation.[43] Because the Savior, Jesus, was historically male and has now ascended into heaven in a male body, His redemptive work cannot be understood as equally efficient for female bodies. Mary’s role as Co-Redemptrix opens pathways for the death and resurrection of Jesus to include a female element by association with Mary. But low Mariologies rob the Incarnation of its female element, she argues, and thus cast doubt of the possibility that women can be saved.

O’Neill’s objection initially sounds weighty, but was actually addressed by Augustine and Theodoret, among others. Patristic consensus held that the Messiah was born male precisely in order to include both sexes in the Incarnation.[44] In classical exegesis, the masculine pronouns given to the Godhead do not imply that God is male, nor does the fact that Jesus was born male. As God is not “sexed,” and both male and female elements were included in the Incarnation, both male and female bodies are eligible for salvation.

Both Catholic and Orthodox Christians have protested that A low Mariology constitutes a hard-break from historic Christian tradition. As have some Protestants, including Anglican John MacQuarrie, who argues that “Protestants cannot afford to ignore Mariology” because it has historically shaped “our Anthropology, Christology, Ecclesiology, Hamartiology, and Soteriology.”[45] Out of 2000 years of Church History, less than 500 have gone by in which low Mariologies have been considered acceptable.

Theoretically, Catholic/Orthodox objections that low Mariology breaks with Christian tradition is self-defeating. Robust Protestant exegesis of the Mary passages only actually breaks away from those elements of “historic Christian tradition” that cannot be squared with the extant Apostolic writings, as found in the New Testament. According to Kevin Vanhoozer, “The ‘mere Protestant’ pattern of interpretive authority begins with the Triune God in communicative action, accords first place to Scripture interpreting Scripture . . . but also acknowledges the appointed role of church tradition . . . in the economy of testimony.”[46]

Reading the “Mary passages” in their Chronological order paints a helpful picture of how “proto-Mariologies” may have developed within her own lifetime. In the Pauline writings, there is only a nameless woman who gives birth to a pre-existent Christ (Gal 1:19, 4:4;28-29).[47] The same can be said of the pre-Pauline hymns and creeds that he includes in some of his writings (Phil. 2:5-11; Rom. 1:3-4). In Mark, she has a name, and perhaps several other children (Mk. 6:3). She exhibits, if nothing else, concern for her Son’s safety as He travels Palestine, preaching and healing (3:20-35).[48] Matthew presents a pregnant Mary whose conception is virginal (Mt. 1:16;18-23; 2:1-23; 12:46-50).[49] Luke, who probably interviewed her for his writing, paints her as a woman who gives Israel its fullest expression (Lk. 1:26-2:1-52; 8:19-21; 11:27-28; Acts 1:14).[50]

Finally, in the Johannine writings, she is imaged as something like a “heavenly queen,” although the precise meaning of his images are not clear (Jn. 2:1-12; 19:25-27; Rev. 12).[51] Liberal Protestantism has historically ignored the “Woman Clothed with The Sun” figure in Rev. 12 as a factor in determining the role of Mary today. But if you believe that the same author produced John’s gospel and John’s Apocalypse, it becomes plausible that this mysterious figure is a reference to the Mother of Jesus, and, of course, the Church. While the “heavenly queen” imagery adds depth to Mary’s role in the Incarnation, it is too vague to draw any precise theological conclusions. To quote Perry, “There is insufficient biblical material to construct a Mariology of the kind of detail that has emerged in Western theological history.”[52]

 

Integration

While Mary “does not figure highly in the New Testament narratives or Epistles, to conclude that Mary is therefore insignificant is wrong,” writes Tim Perry. Because of the vast shadow that “Mariology” has cast over Western culture, to “rethink Mariology” really amounts to “beginning to create a new culture,” according to Ruether. Hearkening to Marina Warner, she notes that her image has borne the cultural weight of patriarchal and domineering associations regarding the relationship of the sexes, the relationship of “superior” to “inferior,” and more.[53] Protestant exegetes have a responsibility to honor Mary’s image by working to undo the trauma carried out in her name.

Among second- and third- wave feminists, there has been a movement to “retrieve” long-buried pre-Christian goddess images.[54] This is a troubling trend for any Nicene Christian, but it is one symptom of a broader cause. The sweep of Western History is one “in which a male ruling-class conquered nature and the female.” The desire for “goddess” figures emerges from a dearth of feminine images onto which women may cling. As Ruether has suggested, this craving for transcendent female figures is meant to find its terminus in Mary.

As mother of the Church, Mary serves chiefly as an example to imitate. Her faithful response to the good news of her pregnancy was to sing the Magnificat. Her privileges in bearing the Son of God only moved her to consider the glory of the God who joins the poor in solidarity.[55] Identifying with Mary, Christians are called to follow her example by participating in God’s mission to bring justice and peace to the world in whatever capacity they are able. That requires us to “see through her eyes,” writes Ruether. Mary of Nazareth saw a world with which neither she nor the Messiah in her womb could be satisfied until “the victims have been empowered to be persons and power itself has been transformed.”[56]

 

Conclusion

While Protestants operate on different interpretive principles than Catholic and Orthodox Christians, engaging the admittedly scant New Testament passages on Mary to develop a robust “Protestant Mariology” creates new pathways for productive Ecumenical dialogue. Protestants cannot share many of the more elaborate deductions that Eastern Orthodox Christians have embraced and Catholics have canonized, but by orienting Mariologies around their common mother’s faithful witness, she can serve as a common anchor for Christian discipleship across Ecumenical lines.

*

 

Bibliography

Blancy, Alain, and Maurice Jourjon. Mary in the plan of God and in the communion of the

saints: toward a common Christian understanding. New York: Paulist Press, 2002.

Bulgakov, Sergej Nikolaevič. The burning bush: on the Orthodox veneration of the Mother of

God. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 2009

Davis, Ellen F. Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament. Cambridge, MA:

Cowley Publications, 2001.

Donnelly, Doris. Mary, woman of Nazareth: biblical and theological perspectives. New York:

Paulist Press, 1990.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts. Mary: glimpses of the Mother of Jesus. Columbia: University of

South Carolina Press, 1995.

______ Blessed one: protestant perspectives on Mary. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox

Press, 2003.

Gebara, Ivone, Bingemer, and Phillip Berryman. Mary, mother of God, mother of the poor.

Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989.

LaCugna, Catherine Mowry. Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist

            Perspective. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.

Macquarrie, John. Mary for all Christians. London: T & T Clark, 2001.

Merrill, Eugene H., Mark F. Rooker, and Michael A. Grisanti. The World and the Word: An

            Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2011.

Nichols, Aidan. There is no rose: the Mariology of the Catholic Church. Lanham: Fortress Press,

2015.

Oden, Thomas C. Classic Christianity. HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Mary through the centuries her place in the history of culture. Urbana:

University of Illinois Pr., 2002.

Perry, Tim S. Mary for evangelicals: toward an understanding of the mother of our Lord.

Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Mary: the feminine face of the church. London: SCM Press, 1979.

Kallistos. The Orthodox Church. 2nd ed. London, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1997.

[1] Perry, Tim S. Mary for evangelicals: toward an understanding of the mother of our Lord. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006. 13.

[2] Ware, Kallistos. The Orthodox Church. 2nd ed. London, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1997. 257.

[3] Bulgakov, Sergej Nikolaevič. The burning bush: on the Orthodox veneration of the Mother of God. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 2009. 95-96;

[4] Ware 257.

[5] Ibid 258.

[6] Bulgakov 41-42.

[7] Ware 259; See also Cabasilas, Nicholas, On the Annunciation.

[8] Ibid 258.

[9] Bulgakov 7-14.

[10] Ware 260

[11] Bulgakov 67-114.

[12] Ware 260

[13]Nichols, Aidan. There is no rose: the Mariology of the Catholic Church. Lanham: Fortress Press, 2015. 64; Also Blancy, Alain, and Maurice Jourjon. Mary in the plan of God and in the communion of the saints: toward a common Christian understanding. New York: Paulist Press, 2002. 131.

[14] Nichols 63.

[15] Blancy, Jourjon, and Group 86

[16] Nichols 87

[17] Blancy, Jourjon, and Group 102-103

[18] Nichols 104

[19] Blancy, Jourjon, and Group 88

[20] Nichols 126

[21] Ibid 146

[22] See Johnson 25-68, “Mary and the Image of God” in Donnelly, Doris. Mary, woman of Nazareth: biblical and theological perspectives. New York: Paulist Press, 1990.

[23] Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Mary: the feminine face of the church. London: SCM Press, 1979. 86.

[24] Johnson 69-91 “Reconstructing a Theology of Mary” in Donnelly, 1990.

[25] Ruether 86

[26] Gebara, Ivone, Bingemer. Mary, mother of God, mother of the poor. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989. 164-171.

[27] Ruether 86

[28] Jegen 133-145, “The Justice Dimension: Mary as an Advocate of Peace” in Donnelly, 1990.

[29] Ruether 84-85, 78-80; Also Carr 7-21 “Mary, Model of Faith” in Donnelly, 1990.

[30] See Perry 275

[31] Macquarrie, John. Mary for all Christians. London: T & T Clark, 2001. 64, 66; More typical is the approach in Sakenfeld 21-31, “Tamar, Ruth, and the Wife of Uriah: The Company Mary Keeps in Matthew’s Gospel” in Gaventa, Beverly Roberts. Blessed one: protestant perspectives on Mary. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.

[32] Quoted in Perry 269.

[33] Ruether 55; Also Warner 244-245.

[34] See Ruether 56 and Pelikan 113-124.

[35] See, for example, Merrill, Eugene H., Mark F. Rooker, and Michael A. Grisanti. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2011. 547-553, and Davis, Ellen F. Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2001. 65-86.

[36] Perry 146.

[37] Ruether 62.

[38] Pelikan 125-138; Also Ruether 65.

[39] Perry 208.

[40] Ibid 147.

[41] Ibid 237.

[42] MacQuarrie 80.

[43] O’Neill, Mary Aquinn 139-157 in LaCugna, Catherine Mowry. Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.

[44]Oden, Thomas C. Classic Christianity. HarperCollins Publishers, 2009. 265-267.

[45] MacQuarrie 60

[46] Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. S.l.: Brazos, 2018.. 143.

[47] Perry 29-31

[48] Ibid 39-40

[49] Ibid 60-62 over against Gaventa, Beverly Roberts. Mary: glimpses of the Mother of Jesus. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. 72-75.

[50] Nichols 6-17.

[51] Perry 113-114, over against Gaventa 79-97.

[52] Perry 268

[53] Ruether 77

[54] Ibid 76-77

[55] Ruether 86

[56] Ibid

from a conversation on Criminal Justice: tone, violence, hermeneutics

I recently picked up two books at a thriftshop for fifty cents each. Both books are from the nineties, so probably not really up-to-date.  However, they looked like good sourcebooks and good ways to help me think about the issues. One book was Biomedical Ethics: Opposing Viewpoints. The other was Criminal Injustice: Confronting the Prison Crisis.
      Here are some thoughts I had on the books, mostly Criminal Injustice, which I felt appropriate to share here.

(Presentation)

Well, the Biomedical Ethics: Opposing Views, is very promising. I think I will learn a lot. I already have. But the Criminal Injustice book is not very promising. Or not exactly. It is still a good source, but its purpose is not to be as convincing as the opposing viewpoints book (which offers each view on its best merits), nor is it to even have a simple “rational” layout as most academic anthologies typically gravitate towards. It is still useful as a sourcebook, and may prove very enlightening.

(Tone and Narrative)

Having a common perspective (not my own) does not throw into doubt everything that is in Criminal Justice – only certain conclusions and certain ways of reaching them. Or more than conclusions or even ways of reaching them, it throws the tone in doubt. And perhaps tone is most important because of how it reflects the narrative behind the argument.

(Revolution?)

To be more precise, while citing sources and making arguments, and having taught me some things already, Criminal Injustice has a distinctive revolutionary tone and a tone of inciting – inciting at least passion if not also violence. While I am very passionate in my own way, much about my personality, my personal development, and my views about things lead me away from this type of passion.

(Violence)

I also think that violence as a foundation of culture and society (related to anthropologist Rene Girard’s version of mimetic rivalry) is a deeper problem than capitalism, communism or even feudalism – so a revolutionary tone which is not tempered in passion and tone by reason and a caution against violence does little to convince me.

(Marxism?)

Indeed, Marx seems to be the main voice of revolution in modern times. And to me he seems to have inherited his ameliorism fron Hegel, and outside of Hegel`s metaphysical grounds for eternal improvement (if he even has them or claims to) I can`t see how Marx or post-Marxism could improve it; concretely, then it seems unfounded to think there is some better epoch coming naturally on the heels of capitalism`s violent overthrow.
     [To whom it may concern, literally, I also got a copy of the Communist Manifesto and Other Revolutionary Writings for fifty cents, as yet uncracked; forgive me my ignorance.]

(Hermeneutics?)

This is disappointing. It does not boil down to waste (for me few books do – or few that I convince myself to buy, even for fifty cents). But it requires more filtering and interpretation; and of course partly I am simply reacting to Justice as it calls out to be pursued – it is natural in sin`s repression of goodness in humanity that we recoil from Justice and Wisdom when it calls to us. But a more tempered view could still have this call – and I picked up the book not thinking I would agree with the book but that it would be a source, that it would lead me to think more about issues of criminal injustice and make injustice harder to turn away from for me (even if I explicitly disagreed with much of the book). I think it can succeed in this.
     I guess I was just hoping that it would be easier to interpret and use and learn from; the revolutionary, inciting tone requires a more complex hermeneutic and framework of interpretation. (I do think that the biblical prophets sounded not unlike those crying out for justice like this; still, they did not sound revolutionary in the distinctively post-marxist way, implying violence and a soon-to-be secular utopia.)

     Hopefully you can see the tensions I am feeling in this.

     I got the book, Criminal Injustice, deliberately to face the tensions I knew would be there. A decade ago I would have been afraid to take a book like this seriously. Now I know that it must be taken seriously, but that taking it seriously is frankly more difficult than simply agreeing or disagreeing with it and, again, requires a more complex hermeneutic. Wisdom and justice must after all be trickier than being convinced or being dismissive. Now I must sift it – sift out violence and the sort of revolution which leads to more unjust violence, but keep the nuggets of true justice which threaten to tear down the worlds of injustice just by being shouted. As I used to say frequently, “everything that can be shaken will be shaken, until only what is unshakable remains.” As I like to say today, “it looks like the wheat and the weeds have grown up together in all of us.”
     Now how to get to sorting?

Misadventures in Being Myself

ChelmonskiJozef.1871.OdlotZurawi

In my early years as an undergrad, my friends and I were very into personality tests. We spent way too many Saturday mornings taking Buzzfeed quizzes when we should have been studying, discussed our Myers-Briggs results in depth, and cringed together over our StrengthsQuest results. Inevitably, we bickered over who was actually which Pixar character or what office supply. In the case of the MBTI, this lead to making fun of each other’s “NF moments” (like crying in Western Civ class, as I’m apparently very fond of blogging about), or mutual eye-rolling at the differences between my decidedly P-lifestyle in the midst of my more J-leaning friend group. And I can hardly go an entire weekend without remembering my friend’s smirk as she pointed out that I was an introvert with Includer as one of my top Strengths.

The first time I read a description of the INFP in high school, my only reaction was tears. Finally, here in this Wikipedia article, of all places, I found the assurance of understanding that I’d longed for from every relationship I’d pursued, every journal entry I’d written, and every fandom I’d pledged myself to. Not only did I feel understood in all the things I had never even considered about myself, but also this article’s very existence validated mine. Because my experience had even been thought of by someone else, someone else must have shared that experience. My existence must somehow be okay.

Personality types also helped me better understand others: that guy probably annoys me because he’s so aggressively E, or I don’t see the world quite the same as that person with a strong S. Of course the scientific validity of such indicators will be debated for aeons to come, not least impacted by how trends change. But at least in the case of my friends and I, MBTI gave us a common language to convey our needs and desires when we lived together.

Oddly, the more I retreated into my identity as expressed by any number of personality descriptors, the more trapped I felt. And maybe my understanding of how personality typing works is just subconsciously flawed: of course I understand that the populace of the world isn’t just 16 persons reincarnated into billions of bodies strewn across the planet. Of course people are more complex than four letters or five strengths, and there are exceptions, backstories, and spectrums to every type. I understand that, at least in theory. In practice, however, I began to make decisions based on who I thought I should be: “I might like studying literature because I have traits that some people express as NF” quickly became “I don’t have to always be around that person because I’m an I,” which escalated into “I shouldn’t make plans because I’m a P.” Explanations became excuses became exemplaries.

I have been known to take things to extremes.

Lately, I’ve had a lot of conversations around the Enneagram. To those unfamiliar, the Enneagram is based off of nine personalities (with variations), and expresses each type’s basic fear, basic desire, key motivations, and the way each type operates in stress and in health. It may or may not come as a surprise that the free online (and totally legitimate, I’m sure) test I took identified me as a Type Nine, the Peacemaker, who fears disconnection while craving harmony. And while I didn’t burst into tears upon reading this description, it did sound spookily familiar.

On one hand, this personality type explains my struggle with all the rest. Nines have difficulty pinning down their own thoughts and emotions. They sometimes long instead to meld with other people and other identities, according to this enlightening podcast from the Liturgists. For me, that manifested in several ways. But most relevant to this post, I took a should/should not mentality toward the way I understood the INFP. If there were an ideal INFP, floating high and Platonic above the shadowy cave of this world, I wanted to become it. That was so much easier than just being me.

Even though the Enneagram helped me understand my understanding of personality indicators (even the Enneagram itself, in some odd, meta way), the moral of the story is not that a set of questions, a few paragraphs, and a list of people who might be like you will solve the longing to be yourself that you feel when a new acquaintance asks you what you do for fun, or when you visit your family to find you’ve changed, or when you make life-altering decisions, wondering what that younger version of you would think of you now. And when I took quizzes, even ones like “Build your dream potato dish and we’ll tell you the name of your future pet iguana,” I searched for these answers in who I thought I was. I wanted to be myself, and for that self to hold some kind of satisfaction that I knew I couldn’t find alone, like cracking open a geode with a hammer because your fist isn’t hard enough. But no personality test can reveal the secret to holism. No construct holds the reconciliation or justification of who I am to strangers, my family, my past. And not just because the MBTI is too simplistic or because the Enneagram is too complicated, or even because Buzzfeed is too ridiculous.

I was looking for answers, satisfaction, in myself. And most of the time, I don’t really know who this “myself” person is.

The sin of Israel, who complained for a king and crowned the tallest person they could find, is mine. The sin of the Pharisees, who made their own laws to feel holy, is mine. The sin of Adam and Eve, who ate fruit to become like God, is mine. And I make up new ways to hide and to atomize and to dethrone. My identity is here, too, in the sins I share.

But in ways beyond my understanding, beyond myself, my identity is in Christ. More than in INFP, in Strengths, in Nine. More than the personalities I try to mold myself into. And certainly more than in my sins. I can identify with Christ not because his personality happens to match mine, like another type, as if the Godhead were a pair of earrings that complemented my eyes. I can identify with him because he identified with me, releasing his own identity and emptying himself to humanity, to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-8). I identify with him because he chose me, and so I choose him instead of the sins of Adam and of Israel and of the Pharisees. I identify with him because I came to the end of myself and there was still no satisfaction, reconciliation, justification (or any other fancy-sounding word, except for maybe humiliation).

And so I empty myself, too.

A Fairly Short Primer on Antisupernaturalism and Why It’s Inadvisable

At the beginning of my first semester at seminary, I was assigned to write a ‘theological integration’ paper for my Systematic Theology class. I chose ‘demonology’ as a topic to write about, primarily because I don’t care about demonology.

Because I’m a fairly by-the-numbers Protestant, and Protestants don’t care about demonology, because Protestants don’t care about the supernatural. Which is an overgeneralization, but all statements are, all the time.

And we really, really don’t. There are some outliers, mostly Pentecostal in orientation, who devote extended attention to the question of the supernatural, of spectral assailants and unholy ghosts – entities that St. Paul generally refers to as ‘principalities and powers’. Generally, though, even when their work is stellar (and it often is), it goes largely unnoticed by the broader Protestant community.

There are good reasons for this. We (allegedly) dislike speculation. We are (allegedly) devoted to speaking boldly where the Bible is clear and keeping quiet where it isn’t. We (allegedly) prefer to keep the gospel front and center in our preaching and discipleship and peripheral curiosities in the background.

Indeed, prospects of retrieving ancient emphases on the ‘principalities and powers’ has been marred by associations with the less-than-careful approaches of thinkers like C. Peter Wagner. His work is undeniably illuminating, but has often been guilty swallowing the bones along with the meat. Premodern notions of ‘territorial spirits’ and so forth have been devoured uncritically, luring intelligent and devout believers into varying degrees of baseless superstition.

“The devil made me do it” is a familiar mantra for those living in the post-Christian West. For those whose religious devotion outruns their familiarity with theology, such claims were, perhaps, the most natural way to understand their continued struggle with sin after experiencing salvation. It’s plenty natural to be ambivalent about integrating ancient demonologies into a contemporary theological framework.

Our grandparents insist that there is already a “responsibility crisis” of sorts in modern-day America, and not only in the youth culture. The notion that each individual is responsible for her own actions is eroding, we are told, and one may suspect that adding in the notion that demonic entities exist who are capable of significantly influencing our thoughts and actions can only compound this.

Of course, the notion that human wrongdoing can be chalked up to demonic co-opting is only rarely entertained in extrabiblical Jewish literature, and never in the scriptures themselves. With the noteworthy exception of the demons that are subdued by Jesus during the itinerant portions of His ministry, we are never given the impression that demons can be responsible for human behavior.

Neither does the notion gain serious traction among orthodox believers in the Patristic period, insofar as can be verified, or even among the medieval Scholastics, whose tendency toward eisegetical flamboyances was one catalyst for the eventual break from the established Church in the Reformation. “The devil made me do it” is a backwater theological error with no substantive connection to the historic Christian emphasis on dethroning the principalities and powers. But the threat of lapsing into such obscurantism is there, and so Protestants remain (allegedly) cautious about giving sustained attention to the supernatural elements of scripture.

There is, of course, another reason. Martin Luther had no qualms about acknowledging the role of the devil in kneecapping the world, but Harry Emerson Fosdick certainly did. What changed?

As the “New Atheists” like to remind us, we are not many centuries removed from the days when cases of what are now known to have been treatable mental illnesses were treated as devilry. Schizophrenics were tortured inadvertently and locked away, often after being put through arduous ceremonies to exorcise the demons believed to control of them. It would not be unreasonable to want to do away with the notion of malicious spiritual entities all together, gravitating instead toward more quantifiable disciplines like the social sciences as the chief lenses through which we examine societal issues.

The West did not abandon belief in devilry because the supernatural was proven to be superstitious, nor even because satisfying explanations were provided for the phenomena that used to be attributed to Beliar. Instead, it has long been assumed that human religion was subject to an evolutionary process by which it gradually became more sophisticated. Animistic religion was, perhaps, its irreducible form, and there wasn’t much to it. Slowly, these religions would mutate and take new shapes, each more vibrant than the last. Eventually, the pantheon of human religious experience grew so variegated that it could hardly be cataloged. The underlying assumption, of course, being that we have now seen the birth pangs of a new religious epoch – namely, secularism. The functions that religion once served are now usurped by more capable tools, most notably the sciences.

In his unfortunately-titled volume, Man’s Rise to Civilization, Peter Farb examines the variegated native tribes that spread out across the Americas as a launching pad to test hypotheses about evolutionary trajectory of early human societies. He notes what ought to be surprising: native tribes whose religion was basically animistic harbor a rich complexity that the wealthy, educated, and white conquerors who gave us the earliest accounts of their lifestyle were incapable of detecting.

Western academia has conditioned itself to look for certain elements, to attribute ‘high culture’ to certain factors, most of which are notably missing in what were ultimately deemed the “least developed” tribes. As such, they were mistakenly deemed “primitive.” They were not. What we presumed to be barbarism was simply unfamiliar, including their religious expression. Animistic, polytheistic, pantheistic religion, etc. were hardly undeveloped, or simple, or primitive.

They were, instead, ceremonially and intellectually rigorous, even inductive in character. The specters presumed to haunt their prairies were not simply products of an overactive and under-stimulated shared imagination, Farb suggests. Even if they were not real, such beliefs were the product of careful investigations by critically adept investigators. He goes as far as to suggest that animism and its distant cousins are approximately as complex as monotheism – and approximately as complex as secularism.

At risk of sounding relativistic to a fault, he points out that much of what one presumes to be “common sense” in a secular society deconstructs to little more than “inherited ritual.” The sciences have illuminated our understanding of the natural world in certain respects. But alongside such ‘objective’ illuminations, we are prone to invent mythologies, incorporating demonstrated facts with baseless but deeply held cultural sentiments. These mythologies become ingrained over generations, sometimes long after being debunked. In this respect, the “secular city” is not unlike every other culture that has ever existed. Human culture has always been incalculably complex, gloriously nuanced, remarkably civilized. Our confidence regarding the non-existence of angels and demons rests not on scientific advancements, but uncritical presumptions of superiority to cultures that we have deemed primitive. It may be too inflammatory to say that antisupernaturalism is simply embodied colonialism, but it’s only half wrong.

In the absence of any falsifiable method to prove or disprove the existence of such supernatural forces as are chronicled in the Christian scriptures, or the Upanishads, or Qu’ran, or native American lore, religious people are left to do the inductive work of searching their respective traditions to understand how such entities have been characterized by their communities through the ages. For those connected at the bone to the Christian community, the scriptures are the primary source by which one comes to terms with the nature of the “principalities and powers.”

*

Recommended Reading:

Harvey Cox: The secular city: secularization and urbanization in theological perspective. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

Peter Farb: Man’s Rise to Civilization As Shown by the Indians of North America from Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State. 1st ed. Boston, MA: E.P. Dutton, 1968.

John Shelby Spong: Why Christianity must change or die: a bishop speaks to believers in exile. New York: Harper San Francisco, 1999.

[Each of these books are problematic, but helpful. Farb is an interesting source – he swallows up much of what is wrong with contemporary Western antisupernaturalism, generally falling back on the wrongheaded consensus of the post-Kantian elite, but manages to step out, ever so slightly, as the result of his extensive studies in Native cultures. Looking closely at the seemingly otherworldly lifestyle of the many-splendored and endlessly diverse Native cultures that spread across the Americas aeons before Columbus, he unmasks the irredeemably reductive and untenable caricatures of “premodern” cosmogonies – and the “mythologized” understanding of the natural world that comes with them.

Spong, on the other hand, represents the worst of contemporary antisupernatural hermeneutics, regularly returning to this as a rationalization for discarding what is less-than-palatable in the scriptures. Whether the Canaanite conquest, Covenant exclusivism, or his pet issue, sexual ethics, such infractions are chalked up to ancient Israel having been in one or the other transitionary stages in the process of religious evolution.]

Saint Nietzsche, Strange Apologist

Friedrich Nietzsche’s been on the receiving end of some rather unfair accusations: That he was a Proto-Nazi; That he was a crude nationalist; Or a militarist: Or a nihilist.

And some very fair ones: That he was misogynistic; That his disorganized, aphoristic  writing style was infantile and self-indulgent; That his mustache looked stupid.

But he’s an important figure. Not only for modern Christians, but for everyone. Much of what dominates contemporary discourse has its roots in Nietzschean thought. Derrida, especially, clung to threads previously oft-ignored by Nietzsche’s readers, which made up, perhaps, the better part of his philosophy: That there are no individuals, not really, but only subjects; We are all, always, at the mercy (or lack thereof) of arbitrary cultural constructs that we had no part in forming, which to a large extent determine our attitudes and prejudices; That our thoughts are not our own, not really. They are the thoughts of those men (always men) from ages past who managed to impose their perspectives on the populace, both in their own day and ours; That we do not “acknowledge” reality, we “constitute” it. We “construct” reality; That there is no “shared reality” that we can all acknowledge together. Or, if there is, we’ll never see it clearly. Especially not together, because there is no “we.” There is only a multitude of you’s and I’s, never us’es. There is simply a plurality of individuals who interpret the world according to somebody else’s constructs, which has co-opted our bodies and minds, somehow, and now compels us to see things through eyes that are not our own; That we do not see the world as it is, but as we were “conditioned” to see it.

One may be surprised to find that such ideas are older than they had thought. And these did not originate with Nietzsche either, but he has certainly been a contact point through which we have retrieved them. None of this, of course makes him a particularly good Christian apologist. But it is important groundwork to understand why he is, in fact, a one of the best.

As Nietzsche recounts (primarily throughout Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals, human creatures are, irreducibly, a “pack of savages,” a “race of conquerors.” There is no such thing as “cooperation,” not really. There is only “conquest.”

There are only “interest groups,” some “powerful,” and others “powerless.” (In summarizing, I am sometimes using language that he did not employ). No one becomes “powerful” without taking power from others. It’s a zero-sum game. There are no truly “mutually beneficial” agreements or “cooperations” to be made. There is only the combined power of certain “interest groups” submerging the interests of other disparate and powerless “interest groups.”

Naturally, certain interest groups hold certain “values” and others hold other “values.” The “contest” between interest groups is a “contest” between irreconcilable “value sets.” Ultimately, the combined power of the victorious interest groups crystallizes into the “dominant culture.” Meanwhile, the “value sets” that dominant interest groups hold become “normative” over all others. Those who belonged to the disparate, powerless, “conquered” interest groups are “subjected” to the values held by the powerful, “conquering,” dominant interest groups.

When such a thing happens, however, the conquered and powerless groups grow to resent their “disenfranchisement,” holding their “conquerors” in contempt – simply by virtue of their having been conquered. They come to envision themselves as “victims” rather than simply as “vanquished contestants.” As such, they come to envision their conquerors as “villains,” simply for having “won” the “contest.” The conquered learn to see themselves as “morally upright underdogs” who deserve “liberation” from their conquerors and the values that their conquerors have imposed onto them.

The “dominant group” is reframed by the “dominated groups” as being the source of the their suffering, at which point what Nietzsche dubs the “slave morality” is born. As Nietzsche frames it, Christianity is the epitome of “slave morality.”

Plenty of groups are conquered, He says. Plenty of groups are victimized, sure. Plenty of groups are “submerged.” But this is simply the result of the inevitable “contest” between the irreconcilable “value sets” of competing “interest groups.” One of the groups will dominate, and the other will be dominated. That’s simply how it goes, always.

But Christianity, which during Nietzsche’s lifetime was generally believed to have began as a movement among the poor that only later spread out to the bourgeois, had, from its inception a distinct “egalitarian spirit.” It was riddled with “contemptible ideas,” as Nietzsche saw it, including the notion that the all-powerful Creator of the universe had, for some unconscionable reason, taken on human flesh and become a peasant – a “slave,” to use more Nietzschean language – in solidarity with what Christians called the “least of these.”

When Christianity became the unlikely religion of the Empire, it overthrew the Greco-Roman “will to power” – the “master morality” – and translated these unprecedented “egalitarian values” into the structure of the Western mind. Heretofore nonexistent concepts, like the “absolute value of the human person,” wholly regardless of their usefulness, strength, honor, or “virility” were thus “inscribed” into the “moral framework” of the West; Slowly, of course, in fits and starts, but inevitably.

Thus, Christianity had embedded, seemingly irrevocably, a “slave morality” into the Western consciousness (in fairly radical contradistinction to the cosmic frat party that was the pre-Christian Roman Empire).

This won’t be particularly impressive to those with revolutionary proclivities. For those post-modern and post-post-modern folks who haven’t collapsed into a kind of formless and void nihilism (the sort that Nietzsche predicted would be our undoing), the fact that the “Christian revolution” didn’t eliminate all sexism, racism, xenophobia and otherwise during the lifetime of the Apostles (or at least their Patristic proteges) renders the whole thing null and void, more or less.

Which is fine. Christianity has always been anti-revolutionary, and therefore never palatable to that particular demographic. Even Barabbas, the revolutionary who was set free by Pilate instead of Jesus (who is traditionally believed to have become a Christian after being released) supposedly put away his revolutionary mindset once he “took up his cross.”

But for those willing to accept it, it’s entirely worth noting: Western progressivism, all of its forms, both good and bad, are ultimately tributaries that run off from a great river that flows back to the incarnate Christ and the Apostles whom he trained. This ought to embarrass, for example, the “religious right,” whose mission, it seems, has long dwindled into painting up progressives as enemies of the Almighty. But it also ought to remind us that whatever “egalitarian impulses” we might have we owe chiefly to the “Christian revolution.”

It did not purge the world of injustice overnight. Some people will never forgive it for not having done so. Fair enough, I suppose. But if Nietzsche is correct, we’re kidding ourselves if we believe that what massive strides we have made, even over the last century, are due to our having liberated ourselves from Christianity. And more: If Nietzsche is correct, even those philosophies that often challenge and sometimes reject Christaity out of hand – whether it’s the Women’s Liberation movement, or LGBTQIA+ advocacy groups – ultimately “live and move and have their being” within the “moral vocabulary” – the “slave morality,” as Nietzsche would have it – bestowed upon us by the “Christian revolution.”

Yes, the West was (and is) an imperialist monolith who has subjected hordes of colonized provinces to a multitude of horrific wrongs. Yes, the West carried out these atrocities both before and after the so-called “Christian revolution.” And yes, the West has yet to fully own the blame and make due reparations to many of the wronged parties. All of these things are positively true. But only within the strange, egalitarian moral imagination that Christianity literally pioneered.

That is, if you believe that imperialism is wrong, or sexism, xenophobia, or racism, you’re already at least half-Christian. These very sentiments are what Cornelius Van Til calls “borrowed capital,” inherited from the Christian imagination. What wrongs the Christian world has inflicted – and they are many – are only actually wrong within a Christian moral framework.

Which is to say that if Nietzsche is correct, then Christianity’s most elucidating critics – feminist critics, for example – amount largely to groups who have applied their Christianized moral imagination more acutely to particular social ills (such as misogyny and “the patriarchy”) than the rest of the Christian or post-Christian world has bothered to as of yet.

I have, I assume, thoroughly upset both Christians who object on principle to feminism, LGBTQIA+ advocacy, critical race Theory, et cetera and non-christians who identify strongly with these particular advocacy groups, who feel that I am appropriating their interests to make a cheap case for Christianity. That much can’t be avoided, I guess. As I mentioned before, it’s only natural to be unsatisfied with whatever pretenses of moral authority the Christian religion still has after not having prevented the following two thousand years of rampant misogyny, brutality, and more.

But your liberative aspirations – what Nietzsche calls your “slave morality” – came from somewhere, and Christianity is that somewhere. And as “deconstructive” models of interpreting culture become increasingly mainstream – as normal folks, rather than simply professional academians, adopt previously avant-garde notions about the “arbitrariness of meaning,” and the “inherent violence of ideas” themselves, warming, as it were, to the notion that all of culture really boils down to the imposed power of certain interest groups over the conquered powerlessness of other interest groups – it’s entirely possible that it’s not wise to cut at the roots of the “slave morality” that has (at an admittedly glacial pace) brought us this far.

A disenchanted West, drunk on extreme relativism, probably will not blossom into a bastion of progressive values. However regressive one believes the Christian religion itself to be, it remains the “bank” from which our favorite liberation ideologies continue to make withdrawals – at least, if Nietzsche is correct. I’d rather we didn’t close the account.

A Very Short History of Who Said What About the Pentateuch, and When

The author of the Pentateuch was virtually unanimously believed to be Moses until the 17th century. And even then, it was not until the 19th century that skepticism regarding Mosaic authorship caught on like wildfire so that the traditional view quickly became the minority view. Throughout the 18th century, serious debate regarding its authorship was waged by heavy hitters like Witte, Astruc, Eichorn, and Ilgen, who ultimately paved the way for the more substantive departures to come in the 19th century by positing the existence of a ‘Jawist’ and an Elohist, on the (rather anemic) basis of the variation throughout the Pentateuch of ‘divine names’.

Through the 19th century, a number of hypotheses were offered to replace the traditional view. Geddes suggested that the Pentateuch was the synthesized product of a multitude of fragments. Franz Delitsch posited a process whereby an initially straightforward sacred tradition was gradually supplemented until finally arriving at its canonical form, somewhere in the Exile period. Hupfield and Graf were pioneers of what has come to be called the ‘Documentary Hypothesis’, which taught that a definite and identifiable group of sources from varying Hebraic cultic traditions, were ultimately brought together into what we now know as the Pentateuch.

Wellhausen ingeniously took this notion and ran with it, presenting a ‘coherent’ reconstruction of ancient Hebrew history. He suggested that Israel’s religious history developed like all religious histories supposedly develop: They began, he said, very simple, with little cultic flair, disorganized and decentralized. By the time of the Deuteronomist, however, there was a push for a unified Temple worship, or, at least, the birth pangs thereof, and so the Pentateuchal sources were further redacted to reflect this (although, apparently not particularly well, since the ‘evidence’ for the previous, ‘decentralized’ religion of ancient Israel is supposedly still plainly visible in the text).

Finally, by the time the Priestly redactor came around, there was little left of the old Prophetic faith, with its emphasis on ethics and such. In its stead, we are told, there is an almost obsessive attention devoted to cultic practice – an elaborate sacrificial system, a colorfully defined Temple, and, most importantly, a ‘central sanctuary’.

Wellhausen’s reconstruction, or at least some variation thereof, has become more or less axiomatic in mainstream academia. Although he largely popularized the Documentary hypothesis, there are a few glaring methodological limitations, not least that its conclusions are largely unverifiable and, worse, unreplicatable (irreplicatable? Unreproducible? Irreproducible? Words are difficult.)

That is, of the manifold scholars who have followed in the footsteps of these skeptical trailblazers, few of them have arrived at terribly similar conclusions about the particulars of the formation and authorship of the Pentateuch. Generally, if a theory is good, it should easily replicated by those who go through the same process whereby it was reach.

But because the Documentary Hypothesis and its various cousins are almost entirely conjectural, they are impossible to work with. As a purely conjectural foundation, they back scholars who operate from them into a corner in which they are forced to content themselves with building entire careers on little more than glorified guesswork.

Nevertheless, the Pentateuch is complex. At some points, Moses is said to be meek, whereas he is elsewhere said to be mighty and bold. Contextually, these hardly need to be contradictory, but they do present a challenge. And, too, the Law codes, especially of Leviticus and Deuteronomy (and elsewhere) have their share of seemingly irreconcilable commands, but often this appears upon closer examination to be a case of non-overlapping casuistic scenarios. Even in cases in which apodictic commands appear to grate against one another, they do not, upon closer examination, need to be read as contestants in a zero-sum duel.

Moreover, reading through the Pentateuch, one is struck more by the remarkably theological consistency between even apparently disparate passages. The uniform witness of the Pentateuch is to God’s unique identity. He is the only Creator – the only one who can bara. He shares no common ground with the pagan deities, and has no difficulty dispatching them – and their subjects – when necessary. Whatever apparent diversity there is to be found in the beautifully complex books of Moses only underscores the broad theological unity thereof.

Thus, given the well-nigh unanimous testimony of the Church through the ages regarding Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, we ought to defer to those who have gone before us in regards to its Mosaic authorship and accept that the man himself was behind it – especially given the flimsiness of the skeptical objections by 17th-19th century elites.

A Post About A Book About Sanctification

“To be sanctified is to have your faith simplified, clarified, and deepened.” Writes David Powlison, author of How Does Sanctification Work. “You know God. You love God. How other people are doing matters increasingly to you. Becoming more holy means, [among other things], that you are becoming a wiser human being.”

He goes on: “You are learning how to deal with your money, your sexuality, your job. You are becoming a better friend and family member. When you talk, your words communicate more good sense, more gravitas, more joy, more reality.”

“You are learning to pray honestly, bring who God really is into the reality of human need. It means you live in more clear-minded hope.” And finally, “You know the purpose of your life, roll up your sleeves, and get about doing what needs doing. You are honestly thankful for good things. You honestly face disappointment and pain, illness and dying.”

According to Powlison, Sanctification does not simply boil down to vaguely thinking about one’s Justification. Although the scriptures say “remember your Justification,” it does not mean that each time I sin, my responsibility is simply to remind myself that I am fully, freely, and forever forgiven because of the work of Christ on the cross.

And it does not simply mean that we try super-hard to be super-good outside of the power of the Holy Spirit. According to Powlison, our whole salvation was purchased by Christ, for Christ, and is accomplished through Christ, including our Sanctification. As we “remember [our] Justification,” we submit to the Spirit whom Christ sent, and the Spirit conforms us, over the course of a lifetime, to the likeness of the Christ whose righteousness is already imputed onto us.

There is absolutely no version of Sanctification that happens outside of relationship with other people. Powlison lists ‘accountability relationships’ as an indispensable resource that the Spirit uses to hammer us into the likeness of Christ. Sanctification involves using all of the ‘tools’ that He has given us. Powlison writes that we are given a ‘truckload’ of tools, and none of them are end-all-be-all; neither accountability nor ‘spiritual warfare’ nor ‘rooting our identity in Christ’ are individually efficacious to root out our sin nature. God has bestowed us with a ‘truckload’, and we submit to His work by using all of them.

There’s no ‘formula’ for Sanctification whereby we follow seven simple steps and come out the other side as a new creation. The process is always scattered, unfolding at a rickety pace, in fits and starts, as we stumble and grasp at straws before submitting again to the Spirit whose work isn’t scattershot and rickety. The essence of Sanctification, he says, is submission to the Spirit – we “remember our Justification” when we allow our Justification to bear its fruit; because we are Justified in Christ, the Spirit comes to us to Sanctify us, completing the work of the cross.

The call to Sanctification and the call to live on mission are essentially the same thing, Powlison writes. God does not simply Sanctify us because it pleases Him for us to reflect the perfect righteousness of His Son (although this is one reason), but because it pleases Him for His elect to draw others into the fold by embodying a righteousness that proves contagious, that gets others God-sick. Our Sanctification, which others see as they know us through the years, is one means by which God seeks out the lost. Sanctified people are de facto missionaries because they are being sanctified, publicly, and it causes people to want to know the God who does the Sanctifying.

Sanctification takes place chiefly in the context of discipleship: you are sanctified as you are discipled, and you are sanctified as you disciple. If we are not being discipled by other believers who are being Sanctified, then we are likely not growing in grace, and we are likely not being “transformed, from one degree of glory to another, into the image of Christ”. And, if we are not discipling others, Christian and non-Christian, then we are probably not being changed by grace. Sanctification is for sinful people, and our ongoing struggles with sin do not derail our Sanctification. But sluggardliness can.

If we are hiding from community and accountability, we are probably hiding from God, even if we think we aren’t. We are conformed together, the passage from Ephesians says, into His image, and we need each other.

Knowing that there is no formula by which Sanctification plays out challenges us to seek out every opportunity to submit to the Spirit’s work in us. This means that every opportunity to share the gospel with someone – say, a homeless person that you have an opportunity to buy lunch for – is to be used for the kingdom. It is not simply a good thing to do, it’s part of the Spirit-wrought process whereby we grow into our identity in Christ.

To paraphrase Powlison, Sanctification is what happens as the Spirit works out the life of Jesus in our own lives. Even if we have jobs and homes and pets, we are, in essence, itinerant evangelists who insert ourselves into the life of our communities as witnesses to the gospel of grace.

“Ministry ‘unbalances’ truth for the sake of relevance; theology ‘rebalances’ truth for the sake of comprehensiveness,” Writes Powlison. “Put another way, because you can only say one thing at a time, a timely word must be a selective word focusing on the need of the moment. And this selective focus produces a kind of imbalance.”

He concludes: “But stepping back from the need of the moment, many things can be said, and this larger theological picture helps us maintain balance.” So it goes with Sanctification.

*

How Does Sanctification Work can be purchased on Amazon and probably other places, too.

Marduk’s Cubicle

When you’re a religion major, it’s not uncommon to meet some disgruntled freshman, fresh out of his second-semester Old Testament class, railing against whatever it was that his parents raised him to believe, citing disparate factoids that his professor briefly covered, ripped from their context and wielded as shoddy weaponry in their crusade to have cool, edgy new opinions. One such factoid is the Ancient Near Eastern belief in what has come to be called the ‘heavenly court’ or the ‘heavenly council’.

There’s an entire chapter devoted to the subject in Peter Enns’ enjoyable if gratingly polemical The Bible Tells Me So, in which he goes to great lengths to make the ‘court’ seem as outlandish as possible, and suggests that its existence in the ancient Jewish imagination means that that most of we think that we know about the Old Testament is basically wrong. He published the aforementioned book pretty fresh off of being terminated from Westminster Theological Seminary because the angry, rich parents of some uppity seminarians complained that his Old Testament classes weren’t enough like Sunday School, so his hyperbolic approach may have reactionary.

In any case, the ‘heavenly court’ is alluded to primarily in ‘poetic’ sections of scripture, which muddies the water. It is not immediately obvious, for example, whether the imagery used in Psalm 82 should be taken as an affirmation that the ‘heavenly council’ is a concrete body that actually exists rather than a simply a literary device. Likewise, in 1 Kings 22:19-23, Micaiah alludes viscerally to the heavenly council as he describes a vision given to him by the Lord: The wicked king Ahab has requested his counsel on whether he should go to war with Ramoth-gilead – but not before having his messenger pressure Micaiah for a favorable prophecy. He replies:

“Hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on His throne, and the whole heavenly host was standing by Him at His right hand and at His left hand. And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab to march up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ So one was saying this and another was saying that.
“Then a spirit came forward, stood before the Lord, and said, ‘I will entice him.’
“The Lord asked him, ‘How?’
“He said, ‘I will go and become a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’
“Then He said, ‘You will certainly entice him and prevail. Go and do that.’
“You see, the Lord has put a lying spirit into the mouth of all these prophets of yours, and the Lord has pronounced disaster against you.”

It is unclear, too, from this passage whether the council is a real entity or simply a common Near Eastern trope that YHWH, through the mouth of the prophet, is satirizing. The verbal prophecy is notably acerbic in tone, and was delivered as a response to Ahab’s complaints regarding his history of unfavorable prophesies. Adding to the formal ambiguity of the passage is the fact that it is puzzling to contemporary readers. Taken at face value, it not only suggests that there is a council of divines with whom the one God YHWH consults, but that He sometimes permits (even solicits!) them to sabotage individual humans (see also: 1 Sam 19:9-14). There is an inordinate demand, even within more conservative religious communities, for demythologized readings of passages of this sort.

What is not ambiguous is the of the book of Job, wherein the council (“the sons of God”) present themselves to YHWH and become spectators of the peculiar exchange between YHWH and Satan. He asks YHWH for permission to torment Job in an effort to incite him to curse YHWH, and permission is granted. He is not, however, given permission to harm Job himself. Later, a similar scene plays out, this time with Satan requesting permission to harm Job himself, again in an effort to incite him to renounce his faith. Again, permission is granted.

It is oft-suggested that the book of Job is ahistorical – that it is chiefly a poem, or a satirical play – and this may be the majority view among modern scholars, but this is an unsatisfactory theory. Although it is true that there is no substantive internal indication that Job is meant to be understood as a tale from history, there is intra-biblical evidence that the man, Job, was a historical figure. Ezekiel 14:15-20, for example, names Noah, Daniel, and Job together in a group.

Now, the reference to Job alone in this prophesy would not by necessity mean that he was a historical figure – the prophets were good rhetoricians (and so is the Holy Spirit) who put the imagery of the Near East to great use in their sermons and prophecies. But it is noteworthy that Ezekiel mentions three men: Noah, Daniel, and Job. Between these three, Daniel is certainly as historical figure, and one can probably expect consistency from Ezekiel here. Which means that, beyond reasonable doubt, it can be assumed that Ezekiel – and thus, probably, all of the ancient Hebrews – believed Job to be a historical figure. And in that case, it is unlikely that an ahistorical tale about a historical figure would be included in the canon (or inspired by the Spirit).

Thus, it can be inferred that the ‘heavenly court’, a common trope in ancient Near Eastern mythology, is, in fact, a historical body – not simply a bit of familiar mythological imagery that the Old Testament writers put to use for rhetorical purposes. As such, the other mentions of the heavenly council throughout the scriptures, although they occur in a variety of genres and therefore must be examined critically, should be understood to refer accurately to a real entity.

Pagan sources are somewhat varied on precisely how the court worked, but a few things were generally agreed upon: The universe was created by the council of gods, either by cooperation or by competition with one another. The world was divvied up and each god took a territory. Together, they bestow kingship on humans (or take it away), and oversee questions of justice and the miscarriage thereof. They hear oaths, treaties, blessings, and curses. They make divine decrees, declare war, and commission the building of holy temples. In some iterations, the gods in the assembly would make obeisance to a higher god.

In the Hebrew scriptures, the assembly was not a gathering of equals, as YHWH appears to have been the final, and perhaps singular, authority over the other supernatural beings with whom He would gather. The other members of the court, the ‘lesser gods’ (Ps. 96:4-5; 97:7-9), would carry out the will of YHWH, sometimes, apparently, by influencing humans (1 Kings 22:20-22) Strangely enough, Satan was apparently granted some degree of access to the court (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-7; Zech. 3:1-2), which has led scholars to suggest that the Jews originally envisaged him as a member of the court whose duty was to keep watch over humanity’s conduct on earth. However, a lack of slam-dunk intra- or extra-biblical evidence supporting this view makes difficult to demonstrate, so there is little reason to depart from the traditional understanding, best articulated by John, that Satan was an antagonistic figure from ‘the beginning’ (John 8:44; 1 John 3:8; Rev. 20:2).

What is not clear is the extent to which their subservience to YHWH was willing or coerced. The Qumran sect identified the beings who abided on YHWH’s council as ‘the holy ones’ – a term that shows up often, especially throughout the Psalms and elsewhere. If this is the case, then the heavenly court is presented, it would seem, in a positive light. The ‘holy ones’ are portrayed worshipping YHWH joyfully and carrying out His will with apparently unadulterated enthusiasm. A cursory reading of the Old Testament suggests that this is unlikely. Of the passages often believed to associate the ‘holy ones’ with the heavenly court (Dt. 33:2-3; Ps. 68:17; 89:5-8; Zec. 14:5), only Ps. 89:5-8 is demonstrably a reference to the court:

Lord, the heavens praise Your wonders—
Your faithfulness also—
in the assembly of the holy ones.
For who in the skies can compare with the Lord?
Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord?
God is greatly feared in the council of the holy ones,
more awe-inspiring than all who surround Him.
Lord God of Hosts,
who is strong like You, Lord?
Your faithfulness surrounds You.

The rest, with the possible exception of Zechariah 14:5, read rather like references to the people of Israel. Thus, although the ‘holy ones’ of the council ‘greatly feared’ the Lord, it cannot be assumed that they treasured His authority or carried out His will with a glad heart, as did the ‘holy ones’ of Israel (in theory, of course). Given the incongruity between the inherent ‘territorialism’ of the pagan conceptions of the heavenly court and the unambiguous ‘unilateralism’ of the Biblical accounts of the court, an interested observer may venture to guess that the arrangement was never to the liking of the ‘lesser gods’ over whom YHWH presided. So much so, it would seem, that the Babylonian Enuma Elish declares that ‘Marduk is supreme in the court of the gods,’ not YHWH, and that ‘No one among the gods is his equal,’ – if he couldn’t be ‘supreme’ at the office, at least he’d brag as though he were at home.

All of which is to say, the existence of the ‘heavenly court’ doesn’t seem to be particularly at odds with a fairly traditional understanding of the God of the Old Testament. It does not, as some have suggested, destabilize the notion that Israel was consistently monotheistic in orientation. At most, it implies a kind of soft Henotheism, but hardly the sort that ought to stir up controversy. A council of ‘lesser gods’ who serve the unilateral will of YHWH, whose disobediences and rebellions are only possible by His sovereign permission, is no particular challenge to the vision of continuity between the Old-and-New Testament conceptions of the Godhead that have been passed down. The ‘heavenly court’ poses no challenge to ‘the faith once delivered’.

*

For reference, see:

Min Suc Kee: “The Heavenly Council and its Type-scene.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 31, no. 3 (2007)

Clinton E. Arnold. Powers of darkness: principalities & powers in Pauls letters. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

Gatumu, Kabiro Wa. The Pauline concept of supernatural powers: a reading from the African worldview. Paternoster Biblical Monographs. Milton Keynes , MK: Paternoster, 2008.

Thirty-Three Propositions from Eph. 2:1-10

Eph. 2:1-10 reads as such:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

There are some things to be derived from this passage. These are thirty-three of them:

  1. Paul’s readers were previously “dead” in their “trespasses”.
  2. Paul’s readers were also previously “dead” in their “sins”.
  3. They used to “walk” in their “trespasses” and “sins”, but not anymore.
  4. When they “walked” in their “trespasses” and “sins”, they did so “according to the ways of this world”.
  5. When they “walked” in their “trespasses” and “sins”, they did so “according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens”.
  6. The “ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens” is “the spirit now working in the disobedient”.
  7. Both Paul and his readers previously lived among “the disobedient”.
  8. When they lived among the disobedient, they “in our fleshly desires”.
  9. When they were living “in our fleshly desires” among “the disobedient”, they “carried out the inclinations of their flesh.”
  10. When they were living “in our fleshly desires” among “the disobedient”, they also “carried out the inclinations of our … thoughts”
  11. During the time when they lived “in our fleshly desires” among “the disobedient” and carried out the “inclinations” of their “flesh” and “thoughts”, they were “children under wrath”.
  12. When they were “children under wrath”, they were so in the same way “as the others were also”.
  13. God is “rich in mercy”.
  14. God had “great love” for Paul and his readers.
  15. God “made us alive with the Messiah”.
  16. God did this even “though we were dead in trespasses”.
  17. The reason that God “made us alive with the Messiah” is “because of His great love that He had for us”.
  18. Paul’s readers “are saved by Grace”.
  19. God raised Jesus “up and seated” Jesus “in the heavens”.
  20. God raised us up “together with Christ Jesus” and “seated play the immeasurus in the heavens”.
  21. He did this to “display the immeasurable riches of His grace.”
  22. The “immeasurable riches of His grace” are displayed “through His kindness to us”.
  23. The “immeasurable riches of His grace”, which are displayed “through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus” will be displayed “in the coming ages”.
  24. Paul’s readers are saved by grace “through faith”.
  25. To be “saved by grace through faith” is something that “is not from yourselves”.
  26. To be “saved by grace through faith” is “God’s gift”.
  27. Paul’s readers are not saved “by/from works”.
  28. The “faith” through which Paul’s readers are “saved by grace” is not, itself, a work.
  29. Because Paul’s readers are “saved by grace through faith”, which is “not from yourselves” and “not from works” but is “God’s Gift”, thus “no one can boast”.
  30. Paul and his readers are “God’s workmanship”.
  31. Paul and his readers were “created in Christ Jesus”.
  32. “Good works” is that for which Paul and his readers were “created in Christ Jesus”.
  33. The “good works” for which Paul and his readers were “created in Christ Jesus” were “prepared beforehand that we should walk in them”.

Most of my posts are extended comedy routines about things I find important, but not this one. I could write for ages about why Eph. 2:1-10 is funny, and important, but today it can speak for itself. Go do some good works that God prepared beforehand.

I Love Bultmann, and He’s Terrible

tissot_moses_sees_the_promised_land_from_afar

Moses Sees the Promised Land from Afar, as in Numbers 27:12, by James Tissot

Rudolf Bultmann is a welcome headache. Drawing a hard distinction between the kerygma – that is, the gospel itself, in its most irreducible form – and the mythic cultural adornments within which it was ‘buried’ in the scriptures, he pioneered a rather scintillating new movement in the twentieth century.

As young Rudolf saw it, the virgin birth, Resurrection, miracles, etc. were not just primitive oddities emanating from the imaginations of the ‘ancient unsophisticates’ who saw and spoke with Jesus (and touched him with their hands), but, in fact, are the gospel, given to us in words inexpressible, to be imbibed and believed, transformed by, and saved by, albeit ensconced in the mythic worldview of the Second Temple Jewry, adorned in the language of ‘proto-Gnostic redeemer myths’ and colored by the flamboyances of the fabled mystery cults. Dizzy yet?

The images by which we receive the gospel are not, themselves, the gospel, he would say. Well, all theology is anthropology, as he’d also say, and Bultmann’s hermeneutic of demythologizing says more about the dangers of modernism’s presumed objectivity than it does about the New Testament. Scientism makes for bad theology.

I should mention here that I like Bultmann. And I look forward to talking these things over with him. One thing I venture to imagine is that the cavernous futures accompanying kingdom come are filled with theologians who never tire of saying “This is greater than I imagined.” So Barth will get his “I told you so,” over Harnack, and J. Gresham Machen, probably, will get his “I told you so,” over the whole lot of them (or maybe Ratzinger). And somebody will get their “I told you so,” over me. I hope it’s Chris Thrutchley.

In any case, Bultmann spent his career expositing what he saw as the gospel in the Gospels. That is, a sort of existentialist  soteriology in which ‘believers’ are ‘saved,’ by faith in Jesus, from something like the existential void, here and now. “The only way to find peace with God, yourself, and others,”he might say,”is through Jesus.”

If he sounds like an embodiment of the worst in contemporary ‘evangelicalism,’ it’s because his ideas – at least, their ghosts – have seeped into the thought and writings of their more widely read authors. If your hip, nondenominational pastor has preached a ghastly sermon from Mark 4:35-41 on how Jesus can calm the storms in your heart, blame Bultmann. (And William Barclay).

I should mention again that I like Bultmann. Actually, a lot. As I said earlier, he suffered from captivity to 20th century’s native scientism. But I have often wondered what he might do given access to the merciful obfuscations provided by modern quantum physics. Dawkins can shrug it off if he wants, and so can John Shelby Spong, but the days are over when we could pretend we were hot on our way to grasping the secrets of the cosmos. For the moment, at least, quantum physics, for one, has so muddied everything that the universe-slash-multiverse seems more arbitrary than ever.

If course, there seem to be something like laws, some sort of consistency. Mankind is still subject to the whims of ‘creation,’ but ‘the whims of creation’ isn’t just a figure of speech anymore. Creation really is whimsical. How great and terrible.

I suspect, then, in ages future, that our centuries long sojourn in ‘Rationalism’ will be a curiosity studied in classrooms, mocked by too-confident students, before they are reminded by their teachers that they, too, hold presuppositions, most of them probably errant, that they assume to be bulletproof. Bultmann was an entrenched genius – both ahead of and indebted to his generation’s worst presumptions. Were Bultmann with us now, he might be less inclined to demythologize. After all, gravity ought to crumple us. Time is inexplicably unidirectional. Some of that Interstellar movie was scientifically accurate. Given the whimsy of everything, a virgin birth is pretty pedestrian.

Resurrection, too. It is out of the ordinary, yes. Certainly noteworthy. We should call it a miracle. But it’s quite arbitrary to take vivification as a given but revivification as a puerile fantasy. Bultmann erred in assuming that the ‘Resurrection’ of Jesus meant only an impossible resuscitation. And it did mean that. But the miracle of it was that nobody, not Rome, not hell, not a garden tomb, could keep the incarnate Son from carrying out the redemption He’d colluded with the Father and Spirit to carry out from the foundation of the world.

I’m speaking figuratively here. Of course the dead don’t rise, as far as we know, or can know. Of course it’s a miracle that one did. But its historicity is no more implausible than abiogenesis itself, which Christians also believe was of divine inauguration. Whether or not Bultmann’s kin want to admit it, the floorboards have dropped out from beneath the demand for ‘demythologizing’ the scriptures – at least, in theory. 

Bultmann imagined himself to be an apologist, and he was. And, to a certain extent, he was a good one. Having first encountered his work as a sophomore  in college, his ‘redeemed existentialism’ struck a familiar chord with me. I still remember the days when I wasn’t sure why I shouldn’t kill myself. I still remember the void. I didn’t climb my way out of it. My emotions never started working right, and things never started being okay. I never pulled myself up by my bootstraps. At risk of sounding nauseatingly saccharine: Jesus did that on my behalf. Bultmann, love-struck Modernist that he was, theologically shoddy but hijacked nonetheless by divine mercy, was always eager to insist that Jesus alone, be grace alone, through faith alone, can make your not-okayness strangely livable.