Our Church’s Biblical Journey to Allowing Women in Leadership

The following is a guest blog by David Rawls.

Recently, my local church family made the decision to allow women to serve in leadership roles in our church community. Since the founding of our church in the early 1970’s these roles were only open to qualified men. The view of our church (and the view which I held for many years) was that the Bible does not permit women to serve in leadership in the church. Throughout my Christian Journey whenever I heard that a church had allowed women to serve in such leadership positions I immediately believed that they had watered down the scriptures. In my mind I believed such churches were simply compromising to secular society, which was seeking to rid itself of all beliefs and systems the church held dear. If I were to accept egalitarian leadership, it would simply be a slippery slope to allowing the Bible to say whatever culture wanted it to say.

Today I no longer believe that allowing women to serve in leadership is the root of secularism or a denial of scripture. If anything, I have come to believe that allowing women to serve in leadership is not only culturally right but biblically correct as well. How could I make such a change? How could our church make such a change? The answer lies in seeing the story of the Bible.

Early in my Christian journey I was taught that we can see scripture through two lenses. The first lens was a liberal one. This lens allowed one to interpret scripture through different starting points. Each starting point was based upon one’s experience or background. This starting point was a springboard to such things as liberation theology, feminist theology, LGBTQ theology and an assortment of other systematic theologies. I whole-heartedly rejected this way of seeing scripture because at its foundation was human experience rather than God.

The second lens I was taught to see scripture through was a conservative one. In this approach, one seeks to use all hermeneutical tools available to try and determine what the text meant to the original audience and then seek to make it applicable to today’s audience. This approach was a very systematic approach to the Bible. The belief was that the Bible had set categories (i.e. God, Jesus, sin, salvation, atonement, end times, women’s issues etc.) If we understood these categories correctly we could systematically find scriptures to back up what we believed the Bible to be saying. Therefore, if we believed that women were not permitted to preach or lead we should be able to go and find scriptures which could prove our point of view or disprove it.

There is some value in this historical/cultural approach but I find that it, too, makes some of the same mistakes as the liberal view. This is why I have opted for a third way of interpreting scripture, one which focuses not on turning to the Bible as a source of propositional truths to decipher (although propositions have their place) but on a story to understand. The method I’m referring to has been called “narrative theology.”

The central assumption of narrative theology is that the Bible has a story to tell. It is not an “encyclopedia” of “facts” we can use to build a case for our beliefs; rather, it is a story of God’s great renewal project of the whole World. The story of creation, the fall, a family, a nation, a messiah, a church and a new creation are not illustrations on how one gets saved and goes to heaven, but they are the framework from which all things must be interpreted in scripture.

So, when discerning whether women can or cannot serve in leadership of the church we decided to look at this issue through the narrative of scripture. The narrative of scripture forced us to look at the whole forest before we could even decipher what individual trees in that forest might be telling us. Here is the story we saw concerning women and leadership.

Understanding Gender Roles Narratively

The story begins in the garden. In the creation account we learn right away that God saw no hierarchy between men and women. They were created equal and they had a task to do. They were invited by God to help manage all of creation. Genesis 1:28 says,

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Genesis 1:28

This was God’s intended design—male and female working together on a common project. Yet it is not long before the story takes a sharp turn and God’s great creation project went wrong. In their arrogance the man and the woman decided they knew what was best for themselves rather than trusting in God. So, in Genesis 3 we see the results of the fall. Many complementarians (people who believe that women should not have leadership roles in the church) will admit that man and woman were to rule equally but that the fall changed this plan. Our church, however, did not see this in the story. What we saw in the story was not a change in God’s plan but a change in people. Our old view was that, after the fall, God wanted men to be in charge over women. When we carefully read the scriptures we saw the story was trying to tell us something completely different.

In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve’s sin, God curses the serpent and the ground. If you read the text carefully, you’ll notice he never curses Adam or Eve. Yet they are told that because of sin the world has been altered. Growing crops for the man will not come easy. For the woman child bearing will be painful (possibly to remind us how valuable life is). Then God tells Eve near the end of verse 16, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” We saw this not as a command of God’s will but as a declaration or a warning about what is ahead. God knew that sin would cause a battle between the sexes, a struggle for power which would see women usually on the losing side of in history.

The rest of the story in the Old Testament, we believed, could back up this interpretation. Throughout the OT (although male dominance was a part of the culture) God never forbade women to lead. Instead, he actually called women to lead in some phenomenal ways. Three women in particular stood out to us in our church. Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah. Miriam co-led with Moses and Aaron the nation of Israel in its infancy (Micah 6:4). Deborah led Israel during the time of the judges. Huldah, the prophetess, gave King Josiah direction on how to deal with the nation after finding the Torah. These three women were not simply placed in these positions because there were no good men available! They were called to lead because they were the right person for the position. This is what the story of the Old Testament was telling us. But what of the New Testament? If women could be leaders in the Old Testament did God change his mind in the New Testament?

When the story picks up in the gospels, patriarchy was alive and well. Yet the biggest defender of women was Jesus. Jesus treated women differently than his Jewish brothers and sisters. Jesus allowed women to sit at his feet to learn (In Jewish culture this was a man’s position only). He allowed women to be his disciples (again culturally reserved for men). And the irony of all ironies, women became the first witnesses and preachers of the Resurrection! When Jesus ascended to heaven it was both men and women who waited in the upper room to receive instructions from the Holy Spirit. Finally, when the day of Pentecost came Peter proclaimed from the prophet Joel (Acts 2) that it would be both men and women who were to preach that the Kingdom of God had arrived. This is the story that the gospels and the first two chapters of Acts tell us. So what part did women play within the early church? What does the story tell us from the New Testament letters?

The Apostle Paul has gotten a bad reputation in our present day because some believe that he taught that women had no part in leading or preaching and even forbade women to speak in churches. I believe his letters have been misrepresented and have been interpreted in such a way that does not follow the story of the Bible and especially not the story of the New Testament. I believe a careful study of the story shows a picture in which Paul saw women preaching and leading not as subordinates but as equals.

In Acts we learn of women like Philip’s daughters who were preachers, while in Paul’s letter to the Romans we learn of some of the women who were leaders in the early church. Phoebe was a leader in her house church in Cenchreae, Priscilla taught Apollos theology, and Junia was considered great amongst the apostles. The story seems to show that Paul did not deviate from the Old Testament story nor Jesus and the early disciples’ view of women.

Certainly, when we get to some of the more difficult passages where Paul seems to forbid women from leading we must interpret what he says through the lens of what the story tells us he did. Paul served with women leaders. Now as a church we did look at these difficult passages of Paul’s. Yet when we saw what the story had already told us and began to read about these churches in Corinth and Ephesus, what we saw was not forbidding of women leaders but instructions to these churches about some issues they were facing.

On the topic of women’s roles in the church, I believe that if we allow the narrative to speak, we will find that, rather than forbidding women to serve in leadership the Bible actually opens the door for it. This is the journey our church has taken. We have a high view of scripture and ultimately want to make sure we do not allow culture or trends to decide how we serve in the Kingdom. My hope is that for churches who have forbidden women to serve in leadership to at least look at the scriptures again with fresh eyes. Take a look at the story again allowing it to shape you. You might be surprised at what you find.

Training in Resurrection

Matthew describes a jarring post-resurrection scene in which the 11 remaining apostles “saw him, worshipped him; but some doubted” (Mt 28:17).  Some of them are stuck between two epistemic orders, hovering on the edge of a new understanding but unable to escape the gravity of their former world. It is not only Thomas who presumes he can apprehend the resurrection through a measured, proto-Lockean accumulation of facts – “seeing the nail marks, put my finger where the nails were, put my hand into his side.” The perspective of an alternative epistemic order comes late to Peter, even after the women report the resurrection: he “got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened” (Jn 20:12). The women told him what had happened but as John explains, “their words seemed like nonsense” (Jn 20:11). As with Thomas, and perhaps the entire modern epoch, Peter is left “wondering,” just short of an epistemic shift.

 As with the doubting among the 11, it is not simply that more data must be collected, more apologetic arguments presented, so that a preponderance of evidence will tip the scales toward grudging belief. This bland, earthbound, Humean religion is a possibility even in the resurrection appearances, but what we also see, first in Mary Magdalene, is an alternative way of knowing. She is having a discussion with a local gardener when this man speaks her name, and she turns again and she would cling to him as she seems to recognize, not only the grave but earth will no longer hold him. Her own understanding, perhaps the first instance of resurrection faith, is ascended or suspended from heaven to where he would ascend. As with the two on the Road to Emmaus, the transformation is not in what she sees but in her comprehension. As with some of the 11 though, it may be that this epistemic transformation momentarily falters, so that one needs to undergo a sharpening of perspective, a growing understanding, of how the world coheres where death no longer reigns.

The various witnesses grow into this alternative epistemic order. When we first see the women at the tomb, the two on the road to Emmaus, the apostles gathered and hiding, Jesus is still accursed in their sight, death has won out, the grave has consumed him, and their understanding is bound by this reality. They are so constrained by their earthy, Euclidean, cause and effect ordering around the absolute of death, that the risen Jesus, even as he stands before them, is a stranger, a gardener, unrecognizable. With Mary it is him saying her name, with the two disciples it is his breaking of the bread, with Peter it is not simply the miraculous haul of fish; John identifies for Peter the stranger on the shore as the Lord. The flesh and blood intonation of a name, the sense filled breaking of the bread, the dawning of a new day on the shore of a lake, get at the embodied, creation encompassing, shift. The earthy, salty, fleshly, focus of their new insight is at once commensurate with their world and ours. Seeing the resurrected Jesus, where the vision was previously obscured, casts everything in a new – heaven suspended – Jesus is Lord – perspective but it is not simply that the Kierkegaardian leap or the Barthian strange new world vision is fixed or incommensurate with the world that came before.

Nor is their reconstituted insight simply the popularly predicated “historical truth of the resurrection.”  As Wittgenstein puts it, theirs is not the belief appropriate to a historical narrative. Belief simply in the historical truth of the resurrection, Wittgenstein maintains, still rests its weight on the earth. There is a growth in their perspective such that one sort of belief, even though it sees the resurrection, leaves them doubting, mis-recognizing him (he had already appeared prior to the miraculous catch of fish), looking into the sky, as they are still confined to horizontal and vertical symmetries short of the asymmetrical, fully developed, resurrection faith. The bonds of an earth-bound knowing cloud their vision and comprehension – even in the midst of worshipping Him they doubted.

It is important to say both things: there is a shift in perspective but this shift is one they grow into. It is not that they did not firmly believe but then collected more data, examined the testimony, made a thorough analysis of the eye witness testimony, compared notes, and came to a belief in the historical truth of the resurrection. Their belief is not this sort of speculative calculation; it is not simply the capacity to entertain a dispassionate historical truth, or to arrive at a singular isolated conclusion. But neither is it that they saw and instantaneously everything changed, such that what came before and after is such a sharp disjuncture that we cannot trace the second glance of Mary or the burning realization of the two on the Road to Emmaus. Even in the upper room in which Jesus suddenly appears, their understanding follows his greeting and his showing them the scars of the crucifixion. They “were overjoyed when they saw the Lord” (Jn 20:20) but the seeing is noted subsequent to explanation and seems to dawn gradually. By the same token, the implication of the resurrection (full resurrection faith) has yet to be worked out, and is clearly miscomprehended by Peter (not yet sure about the cost of feeding sheep), at the close of the Gospels. It is precisely the possibility beyond historical affirmation and an incommensurate realization which opens us, who have not witnessed the resurrection, to the epistemic reconstitution of resurrection faith.

Paul, in I Cor 12:3, contrasts two orders of knowing orbiting around either the core affirmation, “Jesus is cursed” or “Jesus is Lord.” The difference marks the understanding granted by the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit which, in all their variety, promote a practical realization of Christ’s resurrected Lordship. If the accursed Jesus is the crucified, rotting in the grave, dead Jesus, and Jesus as Lord is the resurrected, death defeating, ascended Jesus, then the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of life and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, enable a resurrected order of knowing. Paul describes this heaven ascended/suspended knowledge as participation in the Trinity: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work” (I Cor 12:4-6, NIV). The Holy Spirit distributes or bears the gifts, which serve Christ’s body (they are service gifts, or servant gifts for the body of Christ) and in this they are the embodied, creation redeeming work of the Father.  It is heavenly knowledge in that it is divine but it is God come to earth incarnate knowledge. It is an understanding not bound to earth but which addresses and overcomes the earth binding condition of death.

There is a modernist Christianity that believes the resurrection on the basis of a preponderance of historical evidence – which seems to coerce the possibility of belief, with doubt always hovering, as there is no change of epistemic order. Here one might think of the spiritual gifts as accentuated capacities enabling belief in the resurrection as one sifts through historical consideration, scientific validation, or accumulated apologetic argument. On the other hand, there is a Christianity that imagines the gifts enable an ecstatic, incommensurate, heavenly vision which does not engage practical, lived out, realities. Both are a far cry from the belief “Jesus is Lord” and the practice of this realization in the incarnate body through the spiritual gifts. The gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, power, prophecy, tongues and interpretation are all communicative/communion gifts to be used in cultivating the different epistemic order extrapolating from and returning to “Jesus is Lord.” Here is the communion of the Trinity opened to us through the communicative reality of knowing the risen Christ.

Beyond Divine Satisfaction, Penal Substitution, and Christus Victor to a Healing Atonement

If salvation is a harmoniously functioning body (a body “at one” with itself) in which we are united under the head, who is Christ (the thematic picture in the New Testament is of being “in Christ” as part of his body), then the image would seem to also account for the entire movement from damnation to salvation. Sin as discord, disharmony, sickness, or the cancer to be rooted out rules out not only the predominant notions of salvation (salvation from the effects of sin), but the prevailing understanding of punishment, wrath, suffering and damnation.  A good doctor wants to get to the root cause of the problem and so too the Great Physician does not simply address our symptoms but the disease disrupting and destroying the body. Our root problem is not the result of sin. Our root problem is sin itself and yet the prevailing understanding is that sin has caused a series of unfortunate events (God’s honor impugned, the wrath of God unleashed, the law broken, the prospect of hell, suffering, etc.) toward which salvation is directed. Yet, none of these are themselves the cancer of sin which Christ destroys and a Christianity solely focused on dealing with symptoms is inadequate and devastating to the Gospel message (the great insight of George MacDonald). A doctor who only treated symptoms and not the disease would be no doctor at all, so too the primary New Testament picture of Christ as the Great Physician is lost in an understanding focused on the effects of sin rather than the problem itself.

The shift of focus onto sin itself explains how suffering, punishment, anger, and damnation are part of salvation as part of the same process. The destruction of sin, something on the order of radiation treatment destroying cancer, might give rise to suffering but to confuse the suffering with the cure would be the worst sort of doctoring.  A doctor who insisted on making his patients suffer would be a sadist or psychopath and such a notion is certainly not worthy of God. Suffering is not curative, nor is it a means of meting out justice. It is an odd sort of justice or righteousness which imagines suffering “makes right,” the very point of God’s rightness or righteousness given to humans. Suffering is a symptom of sin and increasing it does not address sin nor satisfy anyone but the sadist. Every sort of suffering is a futility (Ro 8:20), even that suffering to which the creation is subjected in redemption. Suffering does not satisfy God nor justice, any more than suffering figures into the cure for any disease.  Suffering may play a part in the destruction of the cancerous sin and one might speak of a doctor punishing a disease or of God destroying sin, but only the worst sort of doctor or judge imagines that punishment or suffering is inherently restorative.

To say God’s honor is restored by extracting a pound of fleshly suffering is already odd, but then to say he punishes someone unconnected to the crime and finds this satisfying, falls short of the goodness of God and in no way addresses sin. Evil is precisely the pursuit of this sort of satisfaction – the pursuit of a human sense of justice. The way we would make things right and what we project onto God is the notion of getting our pound of flesh.

If a theft occurs, punishing the thief does not restore what was stolen, even if it is the honor of God that has been taken (as in Anselm’s picture of atonement).  Neither would a good doctor imagine that receiving radiation for his patient will help the cure. A good judge would not presume that punishing someone other than the criminal is justice. Where God is presumed to be satisfied and penalties meted out in his anger, punishment, and inducement of suffering (whatever one makes of it) this has nothing to do with the work of Christ in making people right by incorporating them into his body.

Part of the issue is to specify how and why sin disunites, alienates, and separates (from the self, others, and God). If salvation is a body united, sin is the resistant core, the alienating power, which as Paul depicts is the turning of self against itself. In the corporate body the foot might refuse to be a part of the body because it is not a hand, or the ear might refuse its place as it wants to be an eye (I Cor. 12:15-26), or as in Ro. 7, it may be that the individual experiences this turning against the self as the mind pitted against the body. This violent turn is a taking up of death as if it is life, as the darkened mind is deceived, given over to “lusts of deceit” (Eph. 4:22) so that humans violently turn on one another and themselves (James 4:1-2). The deceit, to which the self-deceived do not have access, is to imagine theirs is a pursuit of life or a lusting after life (being, power, gratification) when the desire itself is death dealing (“sin deceived me and I died” Ro 7:11) as it is alienating and isolating (it is “I” alone in Paul’s description). Sin is interwoven with death as it is always violence against life together; it is always a sin against the body. What would have us be lone rangers, Marlboro men, individualists in the worst sense, is simply that which causes us to take up death into ourselves. Sin is death because it is a turning from life together (in Christ) and life together is the only kind of life there is.

In Christus Victor, Christ defeated sin, evil, and the devil, by resisting the lie in his manner of life (he resists the temptations as a grab for life through material gain or powerful status) and undoing or defeating the lie in his death (death and the devil are made powerful in death resistance or the grab for life), and in exposing the lie in his resurrection (death is not absolute, the grave is empty and emptied of its power). The fruit of this defeat, though, is the emergence of a new form of humanity which puts on Christ (in his life, death, and resurrection). In this way, the law of sin and death is displaced by the law of life in the Spirit. The defeat of evil and the overcoming of death must be combined with all of the positive atoning (at one-ing) or incorporation into his body through the Spirit.

The gift of the Spirit is life, shared life, and all of the gifts of the Spirit are aimed at promoting this communal reality. These gifts are not bottled separately so that we have the Spirit apart from being in community. The Spirit indwells us communally. There is no such thing as a private gift of the Spirit. The entire point of exercising a gift is for the community, whether that of the body of Christ or participation in the intra-Trinitarian community. God’s grace is channeled to us in community or not at all.

The whole point of grace, gifts, indwelling Spirit is to bind us together. God does not care about individual souls drifting in isolated units up to heaven any more than God cares about torturing individual souls forever so that he might delight and find satisfaction in their suffering. The entire problem of sin is that we are cut off from God and others and the whole point of salvation is to bring about incorporation into the body of Christ.

Forsaking Membership in Magical Church

Imagine a meal set out before a starving crowd. It is obvious someone must take control as there is only so much food to go around and people are eager to grab the food first. To avoid a stampede, stronger individuals or those who get there first, through “altruism,” take control of the food.  They put the food in a sealed room and limit access to qualified members. Those able to sit properly can receive preliminary training so as to enter the Civilized Eaters Society (CEASE). Those who show themselves sincerely interested in eating through their willingness to submit to the authority of Trained Eaters (TEATS) are considered as Candidate Eaters (CANEATS). Through a 12-step program including Forkery (history and use of the fork), Knavery (use of the cutting tool), Spooning (information only for members), one can attain to Novice Eater, Eater Ordinanaire, Eater in Residence, and for those called not only to eating but food control they might be considered for Vocational Eating. These special individuals, called to CEASE Leadership, undergo years of training in food preparation, secret recipes, and incantations, in which ordinary food is rendered eatable.

According to CEASE tradition, an unfortunate eating incident with the Food Supplier resulted in the death of the first eaters. Now the only reliable food source is through CEASE TEATS. CEASE controls unwarranted eating from other sources (small garden plots) by declaring it poisoned ordinary food (POOF).  Only CEASE TEATS have the power, training, recipes, and incantations, necessary to provide life-giving sustenance from POOF. POOF is transformed into the eatable kind at special Bake Offs, presided over by Top TEATS, shrouded in special aprons and tall hats which, according to size and color, mark the Order of TEATS Extraordinaire. 

For some reason this special treatment of the TEATS helps satiate the anger of the Food Supplier who requires that TEATS be highly honored and well fed – at least according to CEASE Tradition which only Top TEATS have authority to understand. To appease the anger of the Food Supplier, food has to be specially blended, baked, and chanted over, by Top TEATS – who, it goes without saying, eat first and most at the Bake Offs. TEATS insist that POOF kills and they point to the fact that the Food Supplier himself came to demonstrate how angry he was by eating POOF, which killed him.

Not everyone is convinced the Food Supplier is placated by the Bake Offs and some have even suggested that there is nothing wrong with the food and that the Food Supplier is not angry at all.  These DEPOOFERS say it was not the POOF, nor that the Food Supplier is angry (let alone committing suicide), but that the very attempt to seize control of the food supply by CEASE and its predecessor (PRECEASE) left everyone starving. The Food Supplier came to feed the hungry and declare the food free and unlimited but was killed by those who wanted to control supply and demand. His death was the seed for an endless food supply. CEASE, according to the DEPOOFERS, cut off access to the true message of the Food Supplier by creating the myth of limited supply which they control through their magic.

Now imagine a different community gathered around another table: Come eat, it is not our food that is offered and it is not our place to debar or keep anyone from eating nor is it our place to invite. It is the Lord’s Table and he is the Host who says to all, come eat and drink all of you.[1]  

[1] For Cash and Sarah.

Christ Defeated Sin, Death, and the Devil – Not God’s Wrath

The predominant New Testament and early Church picture of atonement, Christus Victor, is that the death of Christ defeated the powers of evil and brought about liberation from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil. For a variety of reasons Christus Victor was displaced.  The rise of Constantinian Christianity left no room for identifying state powers, the emperor, the principalities and powers, with real world evil as the archon or ruling prince, which would have normally been identified as a minion of the world archon (the Prince of this World) was now a Christian. Maybe it was simply that Christus Victor was sometimes ill conceived and poorly illustrated. Origen presumes that if we were bought with a price then it was the devil who demanded and received the payment of the blood of Christ. Gregory of Nyssa pictures the devil as a “greedy fish” and Jesus as the bait; “For he who first deceived man by the bait of pleasure is himself deceived by the camouflage of human nature.” God “made use of a deceitful device to save the one who had been ruined.” Augustine’s original sin mystified sin (see here) and opened the way for a semi-mysterious theory of atonement (divine satisfaction). The crude depiction of a too powerful devil and a deceitful God, the political and sociological shift with the rise of Christianity as the state religion, the development of a competing notion of sin (original sin), resulted, in the West, with a displacement of Christus Victor.

Anselm’s notion of divine satisfaction bears the allure of reasoned argument couched in the implicit metaphor of Roman law.  Anselm’s genius is often overlooked, coming as he does between the giants, Augustine and Aquinas. However, it is Anselm who marks the shift to a philosophical-like argument which, like his ontological argument and his cosmological argument, functions in a necessarily closed system (pure reason).  Both divine satisfaction and penal substitution are focused on an exchange between the Father and Son: an infinite offence against the infinite honor of God requiring an infinite payment so as to avoid infinite punishment. The infinite and divine exchange (between the Father and Son) is such that it tends to leave out finite human concerns, lived reality, and permits no further insight but it succeeds in shifting focus to pure reason. Instead of being ransomed from sin, death, and the devil, the focus shifted to reasoned abstractions – law, the mind of God, justice – so that we are saved from transcendent categories rather than pressing realities. Salvation becomes an exchange removed from the sickness unto death, as the wrath of God (certainly in Calvin but wrath and anger play a key role also for Anselm) is presumed to be the real problem.

As Gustaf Aulén has noted, penal substitution and Christus Victor present opposed views: the Son bears the anger of the Father (the focus of the Cross) in penal substitution, but in Christus Victor the Father and Son are united in the work of the Cross in defeating evil, death, and the devil. Where the resurrection is a natural consequence as the sign of this accomplished defeat, the resurrection seems to be an addendum to the main event in penal substitution. Instead of a ransom price paid to the devil, it is now God who requires and receives payment – a failed or mistaken notion compounded. Though Satan is depicted as “the prince of this world” (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) possessing “all the kingdoms of the world” and deciding upon who administrates his power (Lk 4:5-6) as “god of this world” (II Cor 4:4), penal substitution seem to leave this power in place. The state (including legal, political, and administrative apparatuses) is now part of the divine order rather than minion of the prince (archon) of this world.  Roman law and Mosaic law are so integral to the logic of both systems that rather than displacing the law (summed up by Paul as the law of sin and death) both divine satisfaction and penal substitution leave the law in place as it is the logic of these legal systems which called for the death of Christ, rather than the death of Christ suspending, displacing, or rendering the law unnecessary. In Paul’s language this would amount to a continuation of the rule of the law of sin and death.

Where penal substitution renders the teaching of Christ pre-Christian and thus not an integral part of the salvation of the main event – the Cross, Christus Victor joins the narrative of the Gospels as Jesus casts out demons displacing the Satanic (Math 12:22-29), challenges the principalities and powers at every turn – Roman and Jewish, heals the physically and spiritually sick under the power of evil. This is the inauguration of the displacement and defeat of the dark kingdom with the kingdom of light (continued in the Church). Gospels and epistles are joined in a singular narrative movement of the defeat of evil, death, and sin through Christ and the Church. Instead of sin being a mysterious guilt posing a problem in the inaccessible reaches of the mind of God, sin is here understood to pertain to enslavement to death and evil as administered by the Evil One. We can witness and explain the hold evil has upon us as the Cross exposes the working of the sin system.

Paul describes sin as a fearful slavery from which Christ defeats and frees us (Ro. 8:15). As Hebrews puts it, he freed “those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb 2:15).  The Gospels picture Jesus confronting this enslavement in myriad forms: for Nicodemus and the Pharisees the security of their religion provides life (life in the law); for the woman at the well the security of sexual love is life (looking for love and life in all the wrong places); for Pilate security is provided by Rome (life through state identity). All have entered into a covenant with death in which pride of place, of identity, or of association, wards off death (death as the loss of pride (shame), the loss of place, the loss of identity). In each instance, the encounter with Christ exposes the emptiness of the covenant with death.

In his life and death Christ continually enters that place or circumstance violently resisted by all. His is the poverty of no place (Nazareth, a peasant, a Jew), the humility of being a nobody servant, the shame of associating with social outcasts. As he enters the jaws of death by walking into Jerusalem his walk of death acceptance overcomes and defeats the myriad forms of death denial that would kill him. Peter’s denial is precisely a refusal of death, but so is the betrayal of Judas who most obviously illustrates denial of death as a succumbing to evil.

The Cross is a confrontation, not between the Father and the Son, but the forces of evil (the Jews, the Romans, Judas, and the Judas in all the disciples) which killed him. It is a defeat of the death resistance which would kill the one (the scapegoat) that the Nation might be saved. It is precisely a defeat of nationalism, racism, ethnocentrism, egocentrism, and all forms of evil that would deal out violence and death as salvation.

It is not God’s violence that kills Jesus but the violence of evil. His death confronts and defeats evil and binds the evil one whose singular weapon is exposed as empty by the empty tomb.

The Real Tragedy of Augustinian Original Sin

The mistranslation of Ro 5:12 in the Latin Vulgate obscures (or in fact makes impossible) the meaning of the Greek original but it took the theological genius of Augustine to ensure that this fundamental error would shape Western theology.  What Augustine provides is explanation for the mistranslation “in whom (i.e. Adam) all sinned”: “Nothing remains but to conclude that in the first man all are understood to have sinned, because all were in him when he sinned.” Whatever it means that all were in him when he sinned (Augustine will link it to sexual passion), in some way everyone is born guilty and damned in the eyes of God. Because they are guilty and damned or because they all sinned (mysteriously so even in Augustine’s account), death then spread to everyone. Even for those who have done nothing (infants – presumably upon conception), it is as if they have sinned. The mistranslation reverses cause and effect in Paul’s explanation, so that instead of death spreading to all and giving rise to sin, sin is made the cause of death such that anyone subject to death has to have been thought to have somehow sinned (in Paul’s language).

This mistranslation and misinterpretation make nonsense of Paul’s explanation of the propagation of sin through death and, as a result, in the history of the Western church, sin’s propagation is mostly left a mystery. It is the reign of death which accounts for the spread of sin and not vice versa. Interwoven throughout the passage is the universally observable truth that death reigns (“death spread to all men” v. 12; “death reigned” v. 14; “the many died” v. 15; “death reigned through the one” v. 17; “as sin reigned in death” v. 21). As Paul concludes in verse 21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way around and it is this explanation for the propagation and work of sin (to say nothing of salvation) that he will build on for the next three chapters.

Original sin also directly contradicts what Paul says in verse 14: “death reigned from Adam to Moses even over those who had not sinned in the manner of Adam.” In Paul’s explanation there are those who have not sinned as Adam did (there is no concept for Paul of everyone sinning “in Adam” before they exist) but death reigned even over these.

 Sin’s struggle, in Paul’s explanation, is a struggle for existence in face of the reality of death. In chapter 4 Abraham is depicted as relinquishing the struggle – though he is as good as dead due to his and Sarah’s age and childlessness – nonetheless they believed God could give them life (a son) and this belief is summed up as resurrection faith. It is not clear how resurrection faith would have anything to do with sin were it not for the fact that sin is the orientation to death (death denial) reversed in Abraham and Christ (death acceptance).

We have been so inundated with the notion of an original guilt equated with sin that it has obscured the open and obvious explanation of sin as an orientation to death. Sin reigns in death not simply because people are mortal or already guilty, but because sin arises in conjunction with death in which people deceive themselves into believing life can be had by other means. Life in and through the “I” or ego or life through the law (ch. 7), life in the tower of Babel (the implicit background of ch. 4), all amount to the lie Isaiah characterizes as the – Covenant with Death (Is. 28:15, a key reference for Paul). The irony of sin is that it is a taking up of death – a living death under the auspices of having life – and this deception is the definition of sin.

For Paul, Adamic humanity and those in Christ are two alternative identities (the only two possibilities), and they are ontological poles apart in regard to life and death. Death reigned through the first Adam and life through the second Adam. Sin follows the reign of death and righteousness follows the reign of life in a similar sort of cause and effect relationship. The transgression of Adam resulted in the condemnation to death for all (access to the Tree of Life is cut off) but the one act of righteousness resulted in life for all people and with this life things are made right in a multiplicity of ways (5:18-8:39).

Rather than sin being accessible to explanation, sin is obscured by the theory of inherited guilt and notions of total depravity, which eschew explanation. They completely relinquish the possibility of breaking down the (il-)logic of sin or any notion of how salvation addresses the sin system and its propagation. Calvin’s explanation of Augustine’s doctrine confounds the possibility of explanation, in that he will attribute the propagation of sin to divine ordinance (along with natural inheritance). The result is that sin is not subject to explanation (in light of salvation) but becomes the lens through which salvation is interpreted (Calvin’s system of TULIP).

To state the situation most darkly, a mistranslation gives rise to a nonsensical notion – a mystery – and this nonsensical notion gives rise to an equally mysterious and nonsensical notion of salvation (divine satisfaction and penal substitution) and an entire system which in each of its parts has nothing to do with New Testament Christianity. Total depravity of the entire race gives rise to unconditional election – divine fiat that cannot be penetrated with any insight. This cannot include all (limited atonement) and all of this is built on a flattening out and rendering irrelevant of human will and action (irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints).

There are a series of secondary effects related directly to this failure of thought. Augustine’s theory of original sin was so tied up with his disapproval of human sexuality that for centuries it contaminated all sexual passion with the idea of sin. Though he deems marriage “lawful” he concludes “the very embrace which is lawful and honorable cannot be effected without the ardor of lust. . .. the daughter of sin, as it were; and . . . from this concupiscence whatever comes into being by natural birth is bound by original sin.”[1] Augustine’s convoluted notion that the male alone contains the proper and full image of God while woman is corporeal (defined by her bodily nature), carnal, and necessarily subordinate to the male, is tied to his notion of the original misdeed and its propagation. One wonders if clergy sexual abuse, not just among “celibate” priests, but across the Protestant and Catholic world today is not connected to this degrading of human sexuality. At a minimum the misogyny and anti-sex bias of the Western church has certainly been influenced by this error. The idea of being punished for a crime committed by someone else (for eternity) is unethical but this unacceptable notion gives rise to an equally unfair idea that someone else can be made to bear this punishment for the crime (divine satisfaction and penal substitution).

Perhaps the primary tragedy of this misreading is that it renders Christianity irrelevant to real world problems and the reality of the solution Christ provides. The biblical picture in Genesis and Ro 5 accords with an already recognized reality in that we all have the problem of death. Death for humans is interconnected with what most everyone would agree is evil: violence, murder, war, and the recognition that death accounts for the human sickness at its root in the inward self (death drive, Thanatos, masochism, etc.). If we believe in evil then it has to be connected to the problem of death. In the human psyche our main problem is not some sort of inherited guilt but that we die and how we orient ourselves to this reality. The fact that Christianity addresses this universal and most basic problem is nearly completely obscured by notions of inherited guilt and imputed righteousness which leave out the painful reality of the human condition and its resolution. Paul’s cry, “Who will deliver me from this body of death” (7:24) goes unanswered where Augustine’s mistaken reading reigns.

[1] Augustine, De bono coniugali

The Treatment of Women as a Test of Trinitarian Orthodoxy

The male/female nature of the image in Genesis, as Paul explains in I Corinthians 11, is necessarily plural and pertains directly to gender in that the two are interdependent in both origin and relational integrity (the woman is from the man and the man from the woman and separated from one another they are nothing, v. 11). That is, image bearing pertains to relationship between the two, with God, with the world, and within the self, and this multidirectional relational capacity is interwoven within all these spheres. We might say the Fall of humankind is a failure of gendered identity but of course this pertains to the deep psychology of the individual, relationship to God, or simply the capacity for relationship. The New Testament brings this out most sharply (it is present already in the Old Testament) in that salvation and final redemption are depicted in terms of restored gendered relations: the Church is depicted as bride and Christ as groom, the Kingdom is celebrated as a marriage feast, and the most abiding mystery, male/female unity, is either the vehicle for or analogy of the unity between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5).

Even Paul’s depiction of individual failure in regard to the law is sexualized (in Ro. 7:1-4) in that a woman’s marital status and relational fidelity (adulterous or not) serve to get at the deep psychology of self-estrangement. One can have sexual relations but the status of this act is universally predetermined by the Fall, and of course Paul is not talking about actual sex and marriage but an individual’s internal orientation. Love (of the Christian sort) cannot be coordinated with the body and sex, in Paul’s illustration, apart from the marital-like fusion with the body of Christ. There is a fruitful coordination of love with the body only in being joined to the body of Christ (vs. 4), such that gender fulfillment is salvation.

In both Ro. 7:1-4 and in I Cor. 11, Paul not only depicts human failure and success in terms of gender relations but apprehension and understanding of God, particularly God as Trinity, is interdependent with the full realization of male/female interdependence. “Belonging to another” in Romans (7:4) and male/female interdependence in I Cor. (11:11-12) is to be realized “in the Lord.” In both instances this speaks of a simultaneous realization of right relations between men and women coordinated with a fuller realization and understanding of the work of Christ.

In the case of Romans, Paul is demonstrating that an understanding of God, apart from Christ, will result in a two-fold failure – internal failure within the “I” (“I do what I do not want . . .”) and a failure to know God except as he is wrongly perceived through the law. The sexualized failure of 7:1-3 is more fully depicted from verse 7. It is depicted as an internal antagonism due to a deceived orientation to the law, spelling out the meaning of the adulterous, transgressive, failed relationship described at the opening of the chapter.  Ro. 8 fills out Paul’s sexualized success (of 7:4), in that salvation is depicted as participation in the Trinity in which knowing God takes on the Hebraic sense of knowing (knowing bodily or holistically) in that it is a holistic participation in the Trinity. Through being incorporated into the body of Christ, the Father is apprehended as Abba as one is adopted into His new family and the Spirit enables a new sort of intimate relationship with God. The deep psychology of chapter 8 contrasts with that of chapter 7 in that union with God and others (in the body of Christ) displaces alienation, hope displaces desire, life in the Spirit displaces death, the body of Christ displaces the ego, and God as Father displaces the law (the law of sin and death is replaced with the law of life in the Spirit).  Paul sums all of this up at the end of the chapter as the full realization of love. Love can be coordinated with the body (no more mind body antagonism) through incorporation into the body of Christ, as the rightly gendered relation finally and completely overcomes alienation: nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro. 8:39, NASB).

In the chapters leading up to I Cor. 11, Paul has been attempting to dispossess the Corinthian elite of a domineering, cruel, authoritarian, treatment of the weak in regard to sex, finances, visiting pagan temples, and eating meat. The Corinthians’ conclusion that the idol is nothing is indirectly countered by Paul’s depiction of male/female interdependence. Woman is nothing apart from man and man is nothing apart from woman and it is this separation and alienation commonly portrayed in idolatry.  As in Ezekiel, the idol as male or phallic and the worshiper as a female adulterer depicts an impossibility of relationship. The horse sized phallus (of 23:20), serving in place of God, is not describing intense eroticism but an impossibility of relationship (leading to heightened desire and child sacrifice) created by a false image. The restored image, as a direct counter to the failed image (as nothing), draws a direct correlate between men and women and God and Christ. Just as there is no such thing as the Father independent of the Son (or any one member of the Trinity apart from relation to other members of the Trinity), so too there is no such thing as man apart from woman and woman apart from man. The very notion of self-identity depends upon how we relate to others but this in turn is best apprehended in Trinitarian relations – relations which are extended to include human participation. The unity of the Godhead is reduplicated or repeated in male/female unity (v. 3) – not just analogously but, as with Romans, through direct participation (as depicted in the language of “headship” and interdependence). As with the Trinity, to say that one is not without the other is to preserve the individual identity of each (male and female distinction is Paul’s point in regard to hair length and head coverings) while positing each as internal to, or interdependent with, the other (through the Lord).

The meaning of God’s image in humankind cannot be abstracted or removed from Trinity, as the created image repeats the reality of the relation of God to himself (in the Trinity), and this repetition is the unifying factor of human relationship. This means our practical and lived out comprehension of God (a unity containing difference) will be first and foremost realized in male/female relationship. In turn, our understanding of these relationships (as expressed in both theology and practice) in marriage and, as in Corinthians, in ministry (praying, preaching, prophesying) will be a test of our understanding of God. Thus, I mean my above title to carry a double meaning: (1.) we can see how orthodox our Trinitarian belief might be in the practices (particularly involving our understanding of personhood) to which this belief gives rise and (2.) we can test orthodoxy itself (which I explain below) in its views of gender and in its treatment of women.

In a sort of crude illustration of part (1.): male/female oppositional difference might be extrapolated from tritheism (the persons of the Trinity are separate), the reduction of the genders to a singular substantial humanity (e.g. androgyny, soul body duality) might be connected to modalism (the persons of the Trinity are simply a manifestation of a singular essence), and as in the recent evangelical controversy (appealing to I Cor. 11:3), subordination of women to men finds support in the heresy of subordinationism (the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father). With traditional Trinitarian doctrine as a guide, notions of maleness and femaleness as separate principles, as manifestations of a singular essence, or as one subordinate to the other (e.g. women subordinated to men), should be ruled out of court.

While it is clear that heretical Trinitarian theology has helped produce oppression of women (e.g. primary focus on God as Father connected to patriarchalism, complementarianism connected to subordinationism), can orthodoxy claim to have done better? So to part (2.): Augustine’s convoluted notion that the male alone contains the proper and full image of God while woman is corporeal (defined by her bodily nature), carnal, and necessarily subordinate to the male, shows up an inherent weakness in his understanding, if not in his formulation, of God’s Trinitarian personhood. Is the weakness, as with the Eastern criticism, that he allows for subordinationism? Clearly there is a failure in what he extrapolates from his Trinitarian formula (which seems to protect against subordinationism). Gregory of Nyssa (representative of the East) posits a double creation: the first is non-sexual and purely spiritual and the second is bodily and includes male and female. His Trinitarian formulations, like his view of men and women, is more egalitarian but so too the union (devoid of sex in the case of humans) is left a mystery. As Sarah Coakley notes, the apophaticism of the East may mask and make room for the hierarchical and subordinationist tendencies manifest in the abysmal treatment of women in the Eastern Church.[1]

Personhood as understood through orthodox traditions surrounding the Trinity and applied (as in I Cor. 11 and Ro. 6-8) to humankind should give rise to difference-in-unity in male/female relationship (something on the order of egalitarianism in marriage and ministry).  Why has this not been the case? Maybe because people are sinful, they simply do not live out their beliefs. Perhaps, it is simply not the case that orthodoxy produces orthopraxy? Yet, doesn’t John suggest that belief and practice are necessarily related (those that practice righteousness do so because they know the righteous One, I Jn. 2:29)? Isn’t this the whole point of Christianity – transformation of the mind and transformation of lives? Or is it simply, as Tolstoy would have it along with revisionist feminists, that the Trinitarian formulas as we have them are wrong?

Mine is a more moderate suggestion: I believe there is progress to be made in theology and orthodox theology provides a foundation upon which we continue to build our understanding of faith and practice. The failure of practice does not necessarily indicate an error in theory. However, in the case of Trinitarian theology as applied to gender (a biblical correlate central to Fall and redemption, as I have argued), it indicates a failed apprehension and understanding and shows the work that has yet to be done.

[1] Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Blackwell, 2002) 63-65.

Beyond the Postmodern Search for Meaning

In the search for meaning throwing off the chains of oppression, relieving suffering, exposing indecency, or what might be summed up as naming the idolatrous powers (political, social, cultural, religious), is the singular goal in postmodern cultural theory. People are oppressed by racism, sexism, ageism, class, or simply life’s circumstance. Failed families, mental and physical disabilities, or ill health, plague us all. Life is filled with suffering, some suffer more, and this inequity and injustice is itself a source of suffering. Naming the power structures, throwing off the chains of oppression, relieving suffering – isn’t this what makes for a meaningful life or at least a meaningful enough life?

The last film we saw at the True/False film festival last week, The Commons, and events following the film, illustrate the problem.  The film (by Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky) documents student protests over a two-year period against the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The protests occasionally consisted of reasoned argument and well thought out speeches but there were also a lot of scenes of people shouting at each other. The students had prepared for the occasion by showing up with bull horns which enabled them to outshout their opponents. At one-point students attached ropes and pulled the statue down, with the eventual outcome that the Chancellor of the University was fired and the monument consigned to oblivion.  Usually at True/False at the end of a film the director or main characters hold a Q & A with the audience. This time the sort of protest we had just been watching spilled over into the auditorium.

The festival organizers had accommodated NCU student wishes and one of their own, Courtney Staton, appeared on stage to read a statement and to have a dialogue with the film makers. At the same time, a group of students went to the front of the auditorium with two of them holding up a banner reading, “Decolonize Documentary.”  Throughout the ensuing dialogue student demonstrators, in a coordinated effort, would begin chanting or shouting. Stanton presented a reasoned and sympathetic objection to the film – that seemed to unravel the more she engaged the filmmakers. They explained they had sought permission from student leaders, sought to include their individual perspective, and turned over all their film for the students to review. They had even shifted the perspective of the film to accommodate the fact that the students were preparing their own documentary with personal interviews. What Stanton and the students seemed to be saying, as Hawley brought out in a question, was that there was only one possible politically correct film and it would not be a film by white people. As I have heard it phrased more crudely and in a different context, white people need to shut-up.

The protestors “succeeded” in the film and in person after the film. The cry against white privilege and black marginalization was heard and contains a truth that needs to be heard but clearly the students wanted to shout down and cancel out other viewpoints – even those, as with the film itself, which was sympathetic to their cause. There may be a time and place when white people, men, the wealthy, the young, racists, need to be made to listen and their power and privilege exposed as an injustice. Protest, revolution, exposing injustice, bringing down the idols, or toppling monuments celebrating oppression, may be necessary. Just as yelling F.U. in someone’s ear with a megaphone (a scene in the film) can be very effective, so too protest, deconstruction, revolution, tearing down idols, may be called for – but as with the commons at NCU – the space is now empty, the protest silent, the message received. The object of wrath, at least this monument in this place is gone, and so either the protest latches onto a new object (the documentary) or the momentum and meaning will dissipate.

The Corinthian elite have made a similar discovery: the idol is nothing and they have been freed from their own version of Silent Sam. The way in which this half-truth is summed up by Paul (who seems to be quoting the Corinthians) is that the idol amounts to nothing and thus, all things are lawful (I Co 10:23 – potentially even eating meat sacrificed to idols). Especially if you were an idolater, this is indeed quite significant. If your life has been filled with fear, which in my experience in Japan characterizes idolatrous religion, to say the idol is nothing is to suspend this fear and oppression. Uchimura Kanzo (perhaps the most renowned Japanese Christian) describes how just walking to school as a child, having to walk past all the idols, filled him with fear. Each god, each idol, each shrine required something. One has to pray just right, show respect in the right way, pay homage correctly or the gods will get you. They will cause your house to burn down, they will bring sickness and disease and the gods always get you – all we can do is momentarily assuage their anger. You can never serve them enough, do enough, so that life under the gods is a form of slavery.

It is not simply the idolatrous circumstance but life under the law (which Paul seems to be equating with idolatry) that is oppressive. This is the law of sin and death, the law of suffering, the law of oppression, the law from which springs every sort of injustice and evil. Law, as Paul is using the term here, is not simply Jewish law as these people are Gentiles. They are under the weight of the universal law that constrains and oppresses all of us.

Step one in Paul’s gospel is the realization that we are free and what we are free from, whether Jew or Gentile, is the constraint and oppression that this world puts upon us (which may involve a different sort of suffering). All things are lawful – nothing constrains us – the idol is nothing. We need to recognize the law, or our orientation to the law, in all of its various modes (the principalities and powers) will cause suffering and then we need to expose the fact that the idol can be undone. Silent Sam can be made to topple, the Emperor can be exposed as naked, and power can be deconstructed.

Many things need deconstructing as we need to relieve the idolatrous oppression by which we may be surrounded. Black people oppressed by whites, women oppressed by men, those with special needs oppressed by the general population, the poor oppressed by the rich. We can enter into many of these battles and declare – the idol is nothing, the law does not define us, race and gender and class are not definitive of humanity. As the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, cries out as the crowd presses around ready to do him harm – “I am a man.” Finding meaning in relieving suffering, in helping others, in finding dignity ourselves, in throwing off the law and idolatrous oppression, offers a vortex of meaning – but is it enough?

Certainly, meaning in life begins in not letting the law, the oppression, the suffering, define oneself and others. This is the discovery or rediscovery of the psychologist Jordan Peterson: we are all oppressed and the only meaningful thing is to pull yourself together.  Do not let your circumstance define you. Reach out and make your life meaningful and relieve suffering, is Peterson’s message.

Paul brings us up short here though, as the Corinthians are verging on the demonic. To say as they are, “we are free from the law,” needs to be qualified with the fact that the law of love now applies. “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (I Co 10:23-24).

The demonic moment of the Corinthian church is one that faces us all. The Christian truth that Marxism, socialism, deconstruction, and postmodernism have discovered is that meaning is largely a social construct. Marx noted that it was the wealthy elites who controlled the levers of power and posited law and morals. His resolution was that the proletariat (the working class) arise and take control. The outcome in the 20th century was the slaughter of hundreds of millions of people (about one hundred and ten million people, foreign and domestic, were killed by Communist democide – inclusive of all forms of murder). The constraint of the law was lifted, the idolatry of culture was exposed, but this unleashed the demonic (a more oppressive form of law). I believe we are witnessing the continued realization of the power of suspension of the law. Race, gender, even humanness is a construct that is put upon us and one means of attempting to demonstrate the plasticity and constructed nature of identity is to reshape it. We can redefine ourselves endlessly but like LGBTQ . . .  which requires an ellipsis or question mark, this is an open ended and infinite striving.

Throwing off oppression (whether of race, gender, or class identity) may simply lead to endless revolution as it did with the unprecedented human sacrifice of the 20th century. Marxism, socialism, and deconstruction may all harbor a Christian capacity for naming the idols (for undoing the constraints of gender, ethnicity, and social class). Each, in its own way, recognizes we can throw off the law. We can behead the Emperor, annihilate the Czar, obliterate the opposition, or as in psychoanalysis (Žižek and Lacan), which is simply borrowing and following Paul, we can suspend the law. Certainly, there are any number of groups that are weak like the Corinthian weak. The lesson of the age and the lesson of Corinthians, however, is not to empower the weak (the proletariat or their representatives in Mao, Stalin, Lenin, or Pol Pot) to be the new authoritarians. Paul’s neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, is not a call for endless social, sexual, and ethnic reordering but a suspension of this order with its oppressive law like structure. According to Paul, we do not throw off the law so as to engage the flesh but we suspend the mode of fleshly identity. This frees us up for love: “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (I Co 10:24).

Paul warns the Corinthians that knowledge, in and of itself, is not meaningful (it simply “puffs up” with empty air, according to Paul). It is not enough to say that the idol is nothing and we are free from the law so we can now dine on the flesh of idols. We can make one of two mistakes: (1.) The fundamentalist or conservative error is to imagine that it is enough to prove that the world, due to the existence of God, through creation, through Christ, has the resources for an epistemological meaning and leave it at this. Apologetics as evangelism, Christianity as belief in doctrine, theology in which ethics is an addendum (or absent), verges on the same sort of demonic possibility in that gnosis or knowledge is made primary. (2.) On the other hand, meaning apart from this epistemological resource is negation, opposition, and protest – requiring continual revolution, continual social rearrangement, continual striving for a properly gendered identity. The first is a resource for a life of meaning without the reality and the second is an attempt at meaning without the resource.

The chief meaning or the chief end of man, according to the Westminster Confession with direct reference to I Co 10:31, is to glorify God: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (I Co 10:31). Glory is an ambiguous term (Humpty Dumpty says it means whatever he wants it to mean) but in Paul’s explanation glory fills out meaning. Giving glory to God is to be found in the loving servanthood of Christ (Paul says that, like Christ, he has become the servant of all) as here meaning is lived out such that every act (eating or not eating meat) can be meaningful. Actually loving, actually caring for the weak does not involve taking the position of the strong but means becoming weak (Paul impoverishes himself by refusing money, he works at a trade, he takes a low social status, he is willing to become a vegetarian). Paul explains, “I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (I Co 10:33). Salvation, in this context, is not referring to conversion but to departure from the crushing oppression of the culture to which the weak are susceptible and from which the Corinthian cultural elites are providing no relief. Paul does not presume to displace these elites by shouting them down but he sums up his argument with, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (I Co 11:1).

It is not enough to name the idols, expose the power structures, tear down the high places, or suspend the law. In place of the oppression of the law the freedom of the law of love is necessary for the full realization and in order to sustain a meaningful life. True, we must fully recognize our freedom from the law as this law is always one which would oppress, cast out, demonize, scapegoat, and choose death for some that others might live. To simply expose this law, realize its weakness, recognize that nothing is there, that it is a human construct, maybe this is what it takes to then exercise the love of the messiah. Christ exposes the principalities and powers but he does not, however, leave us in a vacuum. Paul and Jesus call us to follow them or to imitate their lives and this is where meaning kicks in.

Augustine and Wittgenstein on language, meaning, and understanding (Part III)

In the preface to his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein writes: “The thoughts that I publish in what follows are the precipitate of philosophical investigations which have occupied me for the last sixteen years. They concern many subjects: the concepts of meaning, of understanding, of a proposition and sentence, … states of consciousness, and other things.”i Such a remark makes obvious, I hope, the ways in which Wittgenstein shares many of the same philosophical concerns as Augustine. Whether they share the same conclusions about these concerns, however, is another matter—namely, the present one.

As I tried to make clear in the second blog post, Augustine’s views about the purpose of language evolve throughout The Teacher; despite holding, prima facie, that language has a twofold purpose, by the conclusion of the dialogue he says that language’s purpose is singular—to remind. Wittgenstein, on the other hand—at least the Wittgenstein of the Investigations—, seems to utterly resist the notion that language has a singular purpose. Language, on his view, is infinitely complex; its uses are vast and variegated. People teach and remind, sure, but is that really all that we do with words? What of “Reporting an event – Speculating about the event … Making up a story; and reading one – Acting in a play – Singing rounds – Guessing riddles – Cracking a joke; telling one”?ii Are these all genuine instances of using words mnemonically?

Augustine might answer, “Well, yes; if we look closer at each of these aforementioned linguistic uses, we’ll find that each has a mnemonic function, that is, except for singing.” Recall here Augustine’s contention that singing is not a form of speech because it’s accompanied by melody. “But you notice, do you not, that what pleases you in singing is a certain melodious ordering of sound? Since this can be joined to words, or removed from them, is singing not one thing and speaking something else?”iii

But here, perhaps, Wittgenstein would push against Augustine’s rejoinder. This time, rather than disputing Augustine on the purpose of language, he might draw attention to the way in which “the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.”iv That language is part of a form of life means, inter alia, that it cannot be abstracted from its contexts of use without simultaneously losing its intelligibility. Wittgenstein gives the example of coming across a stand-alone sentence, which says: “‘After he had said this, he left her as he did the day before.’” Upon reading this sentence Wittgenstein asks himself a series of questions: “Do I understand this sentence? Do I understand it just as I would if I heard it in the course of a report? If it stood alone, I’d say I don’t know what it’s about.” He concludes: “But all the same, I’d know how this sentence might perhaps be used; I could even invent a context for it. (A multitude of familiar paths lead off from these words in all directions.”v This final comment is instructive: it elucidates the larger point that our words require contexts to be intelligible; even if there’s a standalone sentence (or word, or paragraph, or…) we come across—like the quotations that begin books or hang on placards—we’ll inevitably supply (or, “invent” in the words of W.) a context for that sentence, if it’s going to mean anything to us at all. The intonations that accompany our speech, the facial and bodily gestures we perform while speaking, the settings wherein we say this or that, the varying levels of familiarity we share with the person(s) we’re speaking to and with— such contexts enable understanding (and misunderstanding!). It’s not so simple, therefore, to abstract something like “melody” from our speech, as Augustine here so imagines. To suggest that we could somehow come to “pure speech” completely unadulterated by our contexts, that we could know the world independent of our words and the practices in which they live is to indulge chimera.

But doesn’t Augustine seem to grant Wittgenstein’s point about meaning and the centrality of contexts of use when he, for instance, repeatedly tells Adeodatus that prior to knowing the things to which words refer (name), words can neither teach us nor remind us of anything:

[I]t is by knowing the realities that we also come to a knowledge of their words, whereas, by the sounds of words, we do not even learn the words. For we cannot learn words we already know, and, as for those which we do not know, we cannot profess to have learned them until we have seen their meaning. And this comes about, not by hearing the sounds they make, but from a knowledge of the realities they

Augustine, The Teacher

Without prior knowledge of the realities to which words name, there is no meaning. Knowledge of the realities themselves establishes the necessary context for linguistic meaning. Additionally, Augustine argues that, for meaning to occur, we often need things like gestures to accompany our speech. Pointing, for example, helps us communicate to others something about the concrete reality of which we might be speaking; sometimes it’s even the doing of a thing itself that helps us understand what that thing is; e.g., you want to knowing what “dancing” is, so I dance. This therefore shows that Augustine rightly understands the necessity of “contexts” for linguistic meaning, and sufficiently answers Wittgenstein’s qualms. Right?

Wrong. There remains a key issue in Augustine’s theory of naming and conception of meaning. According to Augustine, all words are nouns because all words name things.vii This picture of meaning requires that one know the reference to which a given word refers. This means that our knowledge of a thing—or, let’s make this more grandiose: our knowledge of the world is separable from our language.

The problem with Augustine’s picture of meaning here on display in The Teacher is, therefore, in many ways the same that emerges in Confessions: Augustine posits a gap between a word and a thing; or, to paraphrase literary critic Toril Moi, he divides up the word from the world. On this view, then, philosophy is tasked with bridging the gap between our words and the world; the philosopher must find the connection, the essence, between a word and its object. The solution for bridging the gap, according to Augustine in both The Teacher and Confessions, ultimately comes through naming; by naming, our words get connected to the world, and therefore become meaningful. But this whole “picture of language,” in the words of Moi, “is not so much wrong, as too simple and too circumscribed.”viii Or, as Wittgenstein writes: “Augustine, we might say, does describe a system of communication; only not everything that we call language is this system.”ix

In contrast to this picture of a word/world gap, Wittgenstein talks about human knowledge of the world as intimately bound up in and with our words. He compares language speaking to gameplay, as if it were “part of an activity, or of a form of life”x (think here of his famous “language games” designation). His reasoning for this is clear: “words and action, talking and doing, are intertwined.”xi Words are meaningful in our use of them in this or that activity. And naming is but one activity amongst a host of others, and it’s an incredibly complex activity at that!

All well and good, but this just scratches the surface of the larger issue that a speculative Wittgensteinian view presents for Augustine’s picture of linguistic meaning. The bigger problem with Augustine picture of meaning is that it tempts us to go looking within ourselves to establish meaning. This is the insidious idea of “the private language,” the idea that somehow, some way, we can think, mean, yea, understand the world and ourselves prior to language acquisition. In the words of Philip Porter: “Augustine’s move is to identify his pre-verbal self as a human capable of thinking and meaning something to himself alone, just not yet able to express this meaning to others.”xii This view is not just philosophically bankrupt; it’s theologically and spiritually dangerous, for it ultimately establishes me, the individual subject, as the ultimate authority of truth. Not only that, but it reifies and deifies the hidden and the private. If I can know, think, mean, and understand something to myself, by myself, prior to any form of language acquisition and involvement with the world, then I’m not actually human; I am a god.


i Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, et al (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), 3.

ii Wittgenstein, PI, §23.

iii Augustine, The Teacher, 8.

iv Wittgenstein, PI, §23.

v Ibid., §525.

vi Augustine, The Teacher, 49.

vii See, e.g., Ibid., 52.

viii Toril Moi, Revolution of the Ordinary (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 28.

ix Wittgenstein, PI, §3.

x Wittgenstein, PI, §23.

xi Moi, Revolution, 45.

xii Philip Porter, “Inheriting Wittgenstein’s Augustine,” New Blackfriars (2018), 18.

Is Shame Ruining Your Porn Experience: The Anarchism of Love

Animals and angels are apparently incapable of shame as animals lack the spiritual and angels the organic, the two ingredients which constitute humans. Shame marks the disruption of the physical and spiritual at the same time as it marks their presence. The feeling of being undone, of not enduring (shame and death are interconnected in experience and the biblical portrayal) or the attempt to isolate the physical (the drives such as sex and hunger) from its moral implications and to thus suppress shame, both point to the coexistence of the two realms in humans. Shame is a holistic physical/spiritual experience in that both human physicality (turning red with shame, the desire to cover up) and human spirituality or personhood (the desire to not be seen by others or the Other, the desire to disappear – to die of shame) are conjoined in the shame experience. Shame brings a more holistic perspective to bear, as one is made fully aware of oneself through the interdiction of the eyes of another (another person, God, or in the mind’s eye). This failure of one world, though, opens up the possibility of another.  

To truly enjoy pornography, sexually abusing children, or the services of sex slaves, requires the inhibition of shame and the momentary or permanent forgetting of human fulness (the closure of the world). The happy pornographer is able to focus on the organic and physical to the exclusion of the spiritual (self-reflection).  Through the aid of religion, wealth, and (pop) culture, one is kept busy pleasuring self so that others or the Other cannot intrude. Maybe this is always the principle or arche of culture; it is certainly at the core of our current culture. Billionaires, rap stars, preachers, priests, politicians, – the icons, leaders, representatives of the culture excel in shamelessness. One can apparently best accomplish suppression of shame, and full occupation with self-pleasure, through occupying a place of power in the culture; at least it is powerful individuals (empowered by money, position, and fame) most openly spending the coin of their success in shameless abuse of minors, children, and the enslaved. Perhaps they are simply the best students in absorbing cultural lessons – their casting off of shame is signified in both their achievement and exercise of power. Subjection to shame is, after all, to be rendered powerless.

With someone who loves pornography, as with the idolater, it is not human warmth, engagement and love but a representation, an image, that captures the imagination. The lone pornographer pleasuring himself before the simulacra of the flashing screen depends upon losing himself, forgetting others or the Other. The pornographic is deployed in the Old Testament as a metaphor for idolatry (horse sized dildo idols in Ezekiel and idolaters characterized as adulterers) as both exclude the spiritual dimension. The phallic idol as image focuses on the organic and orgasmic and displaces God as image and humans as image bearers. Pornographic religion suppresses shame and unleashes desire and drive with human sacrifice in all its forms.

Shame (in the form of the prophet in the Old Testament) is the intrusion of revelation, the personal, or the divine on this otherwise happy isolation. In this sense shame is anarchic, disrupting, disturbing, in that a world which would otherwise cohere falls apart. The idolatrous/pornographic arche is the principle around which this world coheres – as it is by definition closed, devoid of the transcendent, and reductive.

Paul, like an Old Testament prophet, is trying to shame the Corinthians at several points in his letter. He says as much in chapter 6, “I say this to shame you” (v. 5). He is trying to give them a more holistic picture so as to draw them out of their abusive relation with the weak, to prevent them from visiting prostitutes, and to halt their eating in temples (ch. 10). Shame is the moment of self-awareness, the awareness of others, and it is the moment of love’s possibility.

The question for us, as for the Corinthians, is whether the Christian faith as we have it is pornographic or anarchic?