Apocalypse as Overcoming the Deception of Misenchantment

It has been suggested (here), from a variety of sources, that the problems and solutions posed within an apocalyptic theology (hereafter “AT”) are either contradictory or ambiguous. The unified difference of AT with contractual theology or a salvation historical approach, focused as it is on cosmic bondage and liberation rather than personal guilt and payment, is clear but what, exactly, constitutes the cosmic element of this bondage and liberation? Is it literally demonic or does the demonic serve as a metaphor for the systemic nature of a humanly generated enslavement and, in either case, does the demonic serve in place of articulation and understanding? What role is there for faith or human agency in a system that puts the emphasis on superhuman agencies (demons and God). AT has been accused of being so cosmically minded that it is of no individual good? So, what role for faith and individual agency and precisely what power is it that Christ defeats and how?

I have suggested that the ambiguities and questions raised by AT might be addressed in development of the notion of self-deception, which, in the abstract, may seem either unlikely, or if duly considered, may seem inescapable. That is, to claim that we are fostered in deception and darkness might seem to be a religious abstraction of such magnitude that it is a sort of meaningless metaphor, but then descriptions of how we are captive to culture or to capitalism, nationalism, sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, might paint a picture of inescapable determinism. This parallels the proposal of the demonic in apocalyptic theology: it may seem unlikely that satanic forces (literal or metaphorical) control the world and if they do, best leave that mysterious predicament to an equally mysterious in-breaking of God. The recognition that this enslaving force consists of the elementary principles of the world, thrones and political powers, spiritual and human forces, the very way we think and are constituted in our thinking, might result in the counter-inclination to claim this matrix constituting the Subject is impenetrable and irredeemable. In describing the problem, however, isn’t there already the sense that we may have become enmeshed in a lie which does not have us completely in its grip, as we have named it and, by extension, through our own agency we may be part of its generation.

To illustrate how self-deception might help negotiate the problems posed in AT, let me propose the work of Eugene McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, as an example of the machinations of a cosmic-like deception and active human agency. McCarraher’s starting proposal is that the world is the “sacrament” through which the power and presence of God were meant to be mediated. This opening recognition simultaneously approaches how it is that a failed religion or a failed imagination might “misenchant” the world, as the power of God is assigned to subordinate or created powers (as in Paul’s description in Romans 1), and how it is that this failure is overcome only through rightly recognizing God.

McCarraher is following and refuting the story of Max Weber, in his supposition that capitalism and secularism have disenchanted the world, so that in ridding the world of spirits and deities, reason and science now rule. Haven’t we broken the shackles of dutiful worship, the subordination to the past, the slavish subjection to this vale of tears in hope of a future reward, so that now we are set free to fulfill the self? In the words of Michael Lewis, capitalists are “practitioners of liberty” who “do not suffer the constraints of their private ambition” and who “work hard, if unintentionally, to free others from constraint.”[1] Has capitalism evacuated sacredness from material objects so that the enchanted forces which were once revered no longer structure our devotion and desires?

McCarraher musters a long line of witnesses to suggest there is no difference between the enchantments of mammon and religion.  Journalist Naomi Klein writes of the “the contemporary religion of unfettered free markets” and claims, “corporate business has always had a deep New Age streak,” with branding as the most advanced form of “corporate transcendence.” These neoliberal totems of enchantment (the Nike swoosh, the Starbucks siren) indicate, in the estimate of Barbara Ehrenreich, that despite its reputation for focus on the bottom line, corporate business is “shot through with magical thinking,” inspired and mesmerized by New Age quackery and bunkum. Jesus Christ, Lao-tzu, Buddha, or Carl Jung, provide the keys to the “seven habits” or “four competencies” or “sixty-seven principles of success,” as arcane as end-times prophecy. According to David Brooks, acquisitiveness stems from a “sacramental longing,” a desire to enter “a magical realm in which all is harmony, happiness, and contentment.” Or as historian Steve Fraser puts it, in the stampede for consumer goods slumbers “a sacramental quest for transcendence, reveries of what might be.” Thomas Carlyle, speaking of 1840’s industrial England, perceived “invisible Enchantments” which left owners and workers alike, “spell-bound” by “the Gospel of Mammonism” in which money possessed and bestowed its “miraculous facilities.” Marx and Engels wrote of the capitalist, in The Communist Manifesto, as “like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world he has called up by his spells.” In the first volume of Capital, Marx writes of “the fetishism of commodities,” and of the attribution of human or supernatural qualities to manufactured goods. Even Weber, after tracing the supposed disenchantment which arises with the Protestant Reformation, writes that “many old gods ascend from their graves” avatars of the “laws” of the market animated by the spirits of “the gospel of Mammonism.” Capitalism, Walter Benjamin informs us, is a “cult” with its own ontology, morals, and ritual practices whose “spirit . . . speaks from the ornamentation of banknotes.”[2]

McCarraher maintains this is not hyperbole or metaphor but that capital bears similar enchantments to a world animated by spirits and deities. He proposes that that capitalism, with its perversion and parody of enchantment is not a disenchantment but a misenchantment. As he explains, capitalism is its own sort of cult with its own liturgical codes and high priests, or those who have mastered the arcane art of the deal.

 Its sacramentals consist of fetishized commodities and technologies— the material culture of production and consumption. Its moral and liturgical codes are contained in management theory and business journalism. Its clerisy is a corporate intelligentsia of economists, executives, managers, and business writers, a stratum akin to Aztec priests, medieval scholastics, and Chinese mandarins. Its iconography consists of advertising, public relations, marketing, and product design.” Capital is “the mana or pneuma or soul or elan vital of the world, replacing the older enlivening spirits with one that is more real, energetic, and productive.[3]

Though “secularists” imagine they are free of the enchantments of ideology, in Slavoj Žižek’s estimate, which accords with McCarraher, there is a very particular reason that the world, sacred or secular, glows with the same ideological enchantment. He maintains that in capitalism and not religion, resides the “archideological” fantasy, in that one might imagine he can simultaneously play this game and withhold commitment. Where the religionist may bow down in fear before his gods, the modern ideologue imagines that his is a voluntary consent to enchantment.[4] Žižek argues that the most successful ideology makes room for this “distancing” (even the religious sort). We all know money has no intrinsic value, but this supposed distancing allowing for an “inward conscious freedom,” is itself part of being fully interpolated into the ideology. In religious ideology there is an obscuring of the origins of the idol which closes off the supposed freedom of choice. Like Aaron’s explanation to Moses, the golden calf was not shaped by human hands, it miraculously emerged from the fire and all were forced to worship. Where religion played the role of obscuring the reification of the symbolic, capitalism proves the lie still works even when exposed.  Everyone may know that money has no intrinsic value but, according to Marx, “they know it, but they are doing it anyway.”

The fetishist knows full well that the shoe is only a shoe, but this does not dissolve the need or pleasure of the fetish. In the Matrix, Cypher knows that the Matrix is a computer-generated virtual reality but this does not subtract from the pleasure of his virtual steak or for his desire to “be someone” virtually important in the virtual world: “someone like an actor.” The Matrix is the big Other, and in the end, there may be nothing more satisfying than to be reinserted into a warm vat of embryonic fluid and to once again become part of its ordering of reality. To be “somebody” in the Matrix will mean being literally reinserted (interpolated) into its energy of enchantment.

In the Lacanian version of misenchantment, misrecognition (méconnaissance) of the self is engineered through the register of the symbolic order (the law, the father). One “sees” himself, the ego or “I” as an object through the matrix of the Other or the symbolic order. Whether this Other is God, the Party (as in Stalinism), the People (as in communist China), or the State, the Subject is only constituted in the struggle to be recognized by this agency. (The struggle before the law described by the Apostle Paul in Romans 7.) To be interpolated into the law or to find satisfaction through whatever “master signifier” one may serve, is the peculiar form of human enslavement. This master signifier works by holding out the glow of enchantment (its being, its significance) to its Subjects, but this god must be obscure, unknown, or mute as the master signifier works by simultaneously withholding and promising meaning.

To be a Subject in this order is to “make one’s mark,” to leave a legacy, to accumulate significance, whether that of zeros and ones or just the accumulation of numbers (Anselm’s doctrine of divine satisfaction makes direct appeal to both money and a heavenly calculus in which there is a limited space creating a quantifiable amount). Though they “do not know what they do” in a first order of belief or understanding, the significance of enchantment is that the Other (God, the heavenly calculus, the symbolic order) knows and sees. The worshipper presumes the priest understands the Latin of the mass/matrix, and if neither priest nor laity comprehend, the magic/enchantment still registers with God/the big Other. Every society depends upon this structuring symbolic order, whether it is presumed to be ordained by God or “secular” powers is not determinative of the degree of misenchantment.

If knowledge, whether self-knowledge or knowledge of God, is to be freed from ideology or misenchantment, it must be freed from the dualism between self and Other or between the ego and law/superego by knowing the unified Subject of God.  Where alienation is the structuring principle of the failed Subject and her world, knowing God as the living, personal Word, cannot accommodate this mute deity. Knowing God overturns this impenetrable Other and its alienated subjectivity. The true Subject, the self-communicating God, in the act of communication frees from the bondage of dualism – the servitude of striving to be interpolated into the law – as there is no distance between the subject and object of knowledge. God as the object of knowledge is also the Subject who knows, first in Christ but in all who are “in Christ.”

Do we learn this truth, Kierkegaard asks, as if we are constituted a learning Subject prior to the founding of this subjectivity? This knowing does not reason to the truth but from the truth. The truth determines the form of reason. The truth, Kierkegaard concludes is in the relation to God, who constituted the whole relation, and falsehood or the sickness unto death is to imagine that this one who relates would found the relation within himself. In Lacanian terms he would create a subject-object relation within himself through the Other of the law. Kierkegaard comes closer than any other thinker prior to Lacan, in The Sickness Unto Death, in laying out the empty death dealing nature of this relationship to an empty Other. At the same time, he points to the apocalyptic nature of knowing God. His so-called “fideism” is simply the refusal to subject God’s self-revelation to a method incapable of receiving knowledge of God. God has acted in his Self-revelation to make us (complete?) Subjects, so that this revelation is the act of reconciliation and this soteriology is an epistemology.

As Thomas Torrance describes a Barthian approach to AT, both “how God gives Himself to be known” and “how one receives and knows what is given” are revealed in Christ.

“In short Jesus Christ is Himself both the Word of God as spoken by God to man and that same Word as heard and received by man, Himself both the Truth of God given to man and that very Truth understood and actualized in man. He is that divine and human Truth in His one Person.”[5]

If, as Samuel Adams puts it, “we prioritize the theological sense of ‘apocalyptic’, then we (methodologically?) subject all worldviews and contexts to the freedom of God’s sovereignty over his own self-revelation. This event of self-revelation is the apocalypse, in subjectivity and objectivity, of Jesus Christ.”[6]

The alienated subject/object relation is a misenchanting lie, empty in both poles of the relation, and only overturned and filled out by Christ. This seems to clarify the hue of the supernatural (the seemingly demonic) in every form of human enslavement while tracking human agency in the generation and overcoming of the lie through the truth.


[1] Eugene, McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon (p. 3). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] McCarraher, 3-5.

[3] McCarraher, 5-6.

[4] But even this description is not entirely accurate or always the case. It is very doubtful that an upper-class Roman of the first century directly believed in the Roman gods, anymore than a modern-day Japanese directly believes in his religion. He does not believe it, but he does it anyway as it seems to work.

[5] T. F. Torrance, Theological Science, 50. Quoted from Samuel Adams, The Reality of God and Historical Method: An Examination of Theological Historiography in Critical Dialogue with N. T. Wright.

[6] Adams, 124.

Sorting out Apocalyptic Theology

Apocalyptic theology, as an alternative to what is referred to as a Lutheran (a useful misnomer) reading, or a salvation history approach (represented by N. T. Wright and others) to Paul, presents a largely unified front in what it is not. While this departure is key, there has not been as much work done in providing a full coherence to an apocalyptic approach. Beverly Gaventa’s criticism of Douglas Campbell, that in throwing out the tepid bathwater of justification theory or Lutheranism, he seems to have forgotten the baby altogether, is not altogether accurate or fair but the point is well made that in doing the hard work of showing the failings of other theories, a great deal of work still has to be done in describing exactly what sort of force sin, death, and the devil constitute. Is the problem primarily anthropological or does the emphasis fall on the satanic and demonic, and exactly how is it that Christ breaks in and undoes this system?

While apocalyptic theology has a genealogy through Albert Schweitzer and Wilhelm Wrede, which emphasized demonology as the problem and eschatology as the solution, this sort of reduction has mostly been abandoned. There is still an appreciation of the cosmic nature of this focus but there has been a mass departure from reduction of the power to demons and the solution as future. However, the present emphasis on an inaugurated eschatology and a folding of demonology into an animate sin and death, does not mean that there is a unified or clear agreement on the meaning of apocalyptic theology. Disagreements and ambiguities prevail in both descriptions of the problem and solution. What I will suggest in the conclusion is that my work on Romans 6-8 may provide a bridge between disparate descriptions of the problem and solution and how, specifically, the plight of sin is addressed by the death and resurrection of Christ.

Following the format, which I have already criticized, it seems necessary to begin to describe apocalyptic theology by describing its departure from other approaches. The failures and inconsistencies in salvation history, Lutheran theology, and the insufficiencies of the new perspective on Paul, point to the need for something like an apocalyptic understanding.

As Douglas Campbell explains it, an apocalyptic understanding stands in sharp contrast to a contractual or Lutheran theology. (I have explained this in some detail here.) A Lutheran Plan A/Plan B approach is one in which one must travel through Plan A to get to the better plan B. In this understanding, trying to observe the Law teaches one that she is a guilty sinner and so needs to move on to plan B with Jesus. This contractual or Lutheran approach has inherent contradictions (e.g. there is the simultaneous need to rationally recognize one’s failure yet this sin entails rational incapacity), it contradicts Paul (e.g. Paul, as a Pharisee, had a clear conscience and never seems to pass through Plan A), and it seems to entail inherent anti-Semitism (Jews are the prototypical sinners and Judaism is the archetypical failed religious system, and they should be smart enough to realize their sinfulness so they must be the most recalcitrant or most unreflective of people).[1]

The New Perspective on Paul has attempted to mitigate several of these elements in that “works of the Law” are not equated with works righteousness but with boundary markers of being Jewish, such as circumcision and food laws. Wright has attempted to take this insight and apply it to his own version of the problem, in that his Plan A is not about the individual but it pertains to all of Israel. His salvation history project does not so much reject, as expand upon the Lutheran project. For Wright, Plan A is now the story of Israel’s historical and corporate journey to arrival at Plan B, the church. He attempts to fully incorporate the Old and New Testament, intertextually and progressively, making the Old necessary for the New: the church’s story is told in relation to Christ’s story; Christ’s story is told in relation to Israel’s story; Israel’s story is told in relation to Adam’s story. The focus on knowledge of God’s presence and activity within history imagines history must always be read in one direction – from Adam forward till we come to Christ. As Campbell points out, there is no clear explanation as to how a still unstable Plan A, now focused on sociological boundaries in the new perspective, points to belief in Jesus. The Lutheran model, with its relief of guilt from sin etc., at least made sense.

The critique of Wright by other apocalyptic theologians, beyond his overdependence on the particular unfolding of Israel’s history, is that he seems to bypass the need for God to break through the world so as to give his own person as the subject of knowledge. Jesus claims that he is the way, the truth, and the light, yet Wright has collapsed divine self-disclosure into history, identifying that disclosure too simply with the objective consideration of the historical events behind the texts of Scripture. God is known by our “critically realist” knowledge of his historical activity, given to us by the accounts of Scripture, behind which it lies. Scripture records and bears witness to these events, but the question is if its own disclosure and communicative character are obscured?[2] The New Testament, in an apocalyptic understanding, reads history and reality the other way round, from the vantage point of Jesus Christ, who is not explained by history but serves as the interpretive key for history.

In the American context, the work of Louis Martyn has been central in setting up the parameters upon which most apocalyptic theologians will agree. In his work on Galatians, Martyn maintains Paul’s argument is not intended to describe the progress of salvation history but to say you can live in one of two relationships: a relationship with law or a relationship with God. You can be a slave to the law and what is the same thing, to the fundamental principles of the world, or you can be a son or daughter of God (4:6-7). The focus is not on history but on what world a person occupies, and transference from one world to the other depends upon God’s intervention into the first world and delivery to the second.

Though historical or temporal categories are present in Galatians they serve the purpose of illustrating the problem of cosmic bondage. Paul recounts his personal history and alludes both to the history of Israel and to the history of the Galatians to illustrate the problem of slavery in each instance. Paul conflates the history of Israel and the history of the Galatians, as he and his fellow Jews were enslaved under the elementary principles, and he associates these same elements with the Galatians’ former life in idolatry. If the Galatians were to embrace circumcision, it would constitute a return to the very same elements to which they had been enslaved when they were pagans.

Paul was transformed through a direct intervention by God on the road to Damascus, revealing his Son to him, just as the Galatians were transformed as God intervened and gave his Spirit when Christ was portrayed as crucified before their eyes (3:1). Paul’s purpose is not to provide an overview of salvation history, but to explain the nature of the Galatians’ transition from slavery to freedom as they have been transferred to a new world “in Christ.” Paul is not interested in the history of Israel for its own sake, and he is not trying to show how Israel’s salvation history would benefit either Jews or Gentiles. Paul may think Israel was in a different situation than the pagans in that he distinguishes between the child and the slave but this is in no way a description of some sort of intermediate state, as is revealed in his focus on explaining the similarities. All suffered a form of oppression and all in Christ have received adoption as children.[3]

Sigurd Grindheim maintains, time in relation to world history, salvation history, or cosmic history is not interesting to Paul. The Galatians’ history, their move from slavery to freedom is the only history Paul is interested in. Paul’s references to his personal history and to the history of Israel serve to illustrate the nature of this transfer and to describe the two domains that the letter intends to contrast: slavery under the law and adoption to sonship.[4] The Galatians and Paul have been liberated from slavery by God’s direct intervention through Christ’s act of redemption and, by extension, so have all Christians.

To summarize Martyn, in his own words, and the parameters he lays out:

Paul’s view of wrong and right is thoroughly apocalyptic, in the sense that on the landscape of wrong and right there are, in addition to God and human beings, powerful actors that stand opposed to God and that enslave human beings. Setting right what is wrong proves then, to be a drama that involves not only human beings and God, but also those enslaving powers. And since humans are fundamentally slaves, the drama in which wrong is set right does not begin with action on their part. It begins with God’s militant action against all the powers that hold human beings in bondage.[5]

•J. Louis Martyn, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), 87.

In Campbell’s depiction, “The unconditional, revelatory, transformational, and liberational aspects of this event mean that it is appropriately described as ‘apocalyptic.’”[6]  The world has been taken captive, and Christ is the liberator from this captivity.

In the words of Beverly Gaventa;

Paul’s apocalyptic theology has to do with the conviction that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has invaded the world as it is, thereby revealing the world’s utter distortion and foolishness, reclaiming the world, and inaugurating a battle that will doubtless culminate in the triumph of God over all God’s enemies (including the captors Sin and Death).  

Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul (Louisville: John Knox, 2007), 80.

Apocalyptic clearly refers to cosmic bondage and liberation but what, exactly, is the identity of the cosmic power that has enslaved? Where Ernst Käsemann assumes Paul means the demonic, in a literal sense, Martinus C. De Boer assumes Paul speaks of sin in this way to make an anthropological point.[7] Though Martyn speaks of “real enemies” and “genuine powers,” Shaw suggests the phrases are ambiguous. As he says, “he identifies the curse of the law as chief among them, which, given his account of the law, can hardly be a demon by another name.”[8] There is an “ontological incompetence,” in Campbell’s words, but its cause is not clear or agreed upon. As Shaw concludes, deploying the words of Colin Gunton, the contemporary apocalyptic interpreters appeal to the demonic for its power of metaphorical characterization “which would otherwise defy expression.”[9]

Demonizing sin may at times serve in place of explanation of both the problem and its solution. The role of faith, for example, and how an individual comes to faith are not clear. As the question was put to  Käsemann, “If God’s intervention on the human stage, exorcising the world of its demons, is 100% of the equation, where is human subjectivity in any recognisable form?”[10] As Gaventa has put it in her critique of Martyn, “Martyn’s avoidance of conversion language and earlier individualistic readings of Galatians has taken us too far here, so that even the function of Paul’s self-reference in the letter’s argument (or re-proclamation) does not become clear.”[11]

As long as the demonic is in view the tendency is to see the solution in terms of a purely future eschatological solution (e.g. Schweitzer, Wrede). Where sin and death are the focus, as in contemporary apocalyptic theology, there is focus on a realized eschatology in the death and resurrection of Christ, but the burden becomes one of saying how the work of Christ defeats these powers and how the individual incorporates or is incorporated into this victory.

There is a near equal divide among the apocalyptic theologians with some suggesting there is an ontological release (e.g. Gaventa) from the powers and the others suggesting it is a revelational epistemological release (e.g. Martyn), but even here the explanation is considered wanting. According to Bruce McCormack, readers “are left with a rich battery of images and concepts. But images and concepts alone, no matter how rhetorically powerful, do not rise to the level of adequate explanation. How is it that the ‘rectification’ of the world is achieved by Christ’s faithful death?”[12] While participation in Christ through the Spirit (e.g. Campbell) and revelation or an epistemological release (e.g. Martyn) are pointers, explanation is left wanting.  

What I would point to in conclusion, is that the role of deception which has certainly been noted in an apocalyptic understanding, can potentially bring together the ontological and epistemological divide. I believe sin as a lie, oriented to death by deception in regard to the law, can also go some way in detailing exactly how Christ’s death is a defeat of the power of sin and death and it can help resolve the continuing question and divide over the law.

In the original debate between Käsemann and Bultmann, part of what was at issue was the role of the body and the corporate or individual implications of embodiment and language. As Käsemann would note, in a very Wittgensteinian mode, communication of the self with the self is rendered possible by an already existing communication with and in the environment (language is an embodied capacity). At the same time, this poses the possibility for a simultaneous disruption within the self and between the self and the environment, where communication is broken through deception. The biblical term “body,” as with Wittgenstein, is inclusive of the linguistic capacity that sets man simultaneously into communication and poses the possibility of confrontation or a split within himself, with others, and with God.

In Paul’s depiction, within deception lies the simultaneous possibility for cosmic and personal alienation and enslavement. The fact that the satanic and demonic are consistently linked with the lie of Genesis, but also the lie of religion (the covenant with death, in Isaiah), and that this lie is equated with sin, points to how Christ’s exposure of this lie is both ontological and epistemological in its cosmological import.

In brief, Paul pictures creation and the Creator as containing an infinite depth of communion and communication that has been displaced by a world of deception. In my next blog I will spell out in detail how this understanding fills in the gaps in contemporary apocalyptic theology.


[1] Campbell spells this out quite brilliantly in Deliverance, but is available in his review of Wrights Volumes on Paul and The Faithfulness of God – https://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/douglas-campbell/

[2] “History, Providence and the Apocalyptic Paul” – https://aura.abdn.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/2164/7574/History_2c_Providence_and_Apocalyptic_Paul_SJT.pdf;jsessionid=FA0FD8F9F020B597D401884CE00C1150?sequen

[3] Sigurd Grindheim, “Not Salvation History, but Salvation Territory: The Main Subject Matter of Galatians,” New Test. Stud. 59, pp. 91-108 © Cambridge University Press, 2013, doi:10.1017/S0028688512000264 accessed here – https://www.sigurdgrindheim.com/Salvation%20History.pdf

[4] Ibid, Grindheim

[5] I am here utilizing the fine dissertation by David Anthony Bennet Shaw, The ‘Apocalyptic’ Paul: An Analysis & Critique with Reference to Romans 1-8, Fitzwilliam College.

[6][6] Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 66.

[7] Shaw, 139.

[8] Shaw, 143

[9] Shaw, 144

[10] “A Tribute To Ernst Käsemann and a Theological Testament,” 391. Shaw 145

[11] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “Review of Galatians by J. Louis Martyn,” RBL, 2001, Ibid

[12] Bruce L. McCormack, “Can We Still Speak of ‘Justification by Faith’? An In-House Debate with Apocalyptic Readings of Paul,” in Galatians and Christian Theology: Justification, the Gospel, and Ethics in Paul’s Letter, ed. Mark W. Elliott et al. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 167. Shaw, 160.

Paul’s “Futility” Versus Hegelian Dialectics

Given creation ex nihilo (creation from nothing), one can either recognize with Paul (in Romans 8) and Gregory of Nyssa, Origin, and Maximus, that creation continues toward an eschatological realization of pleroma or fullness in which the nihilo (the chaos, disorder) is reduced and eventually has no place, or one can assume the nothing is part of a cosmic dualism giving rise to fullness (fullness of knowledge or a fullness of salvation). The difference pertains to two readings of Scripture and two modes of ordering reality. Do we read from creation to Christ and understand who Christ is on the basis of creation or do we apprehend creation as being fulfilled or completed through Christ?

Our reading will make a world of difference in how we define sin and evil and how we picture the work of Christ. The Hegelian mistake, in that it sums up the human mistake in giving first place to an immanent frame within creation, is key in regard to the nihilo. Hegel’s dialectic fully articulates Paul’s depiction of the reign of death through the reifying of nothing. Given subjection to this understanding our tendency will be to misread Paul (in the manner of the Western theological tradition?) and to imagine Romans 8 depiction of futility and its defeat pertains simply to sin (a sin reduced to the individual). To put it anachronistically, the world is with Hegel (and by extension the forebears and heirs of Luther) in Paul, while salvation is deliverance from out of this order.

Nonetheless, there is a certain value to be gained in engaging Hegel through Paul. The theological concepts of sin and evil tend either toward reductions to misdeeds and perverse thoughts or toward abstractions of cosmic battle which do not easily translate into the fabric of human experience. Even in our reading of the New Testament we may be so focused on individual transgression that we miss how sin can be definitive, not simply of some experience, but of experience per se as it is filtered to us through our world (so much so that it becomes a mode of reading the Bible). In Marx’s language, we might recognize the failures of the bank robber and even of the banker, but we tend to miss the definitive role of capitalism, which gives us both (bankers and bank robbers). Understood rightly, the nihilo of creation ex nihilo (a key point of departure for understanding God) is not simply an abstraction about the order of creation in relation to God but concerns the “fleshing out” or the overcoming of futility accomplished by Christ. If evil is a privation or a nothing given its opportunity in the manner of creation (i.e. it is without any metaphysical or ontological ground but a parasite on the good), this not only locates sin’s origin in the contingency of creation but its ongoing point of access in human experience as a “counter-force” or absence. Hegel gives full and positive articulation to this understanding.

The point at which Hegel and Paul converge pertains to the psychological or experiential reality of this imagined dualism (nothing and futility as a necessary something) in its constitution of human experience. Both will refer to it as a form of enslavement – even agreeing upon its point of entry in and through human cognition. For Hegel, “we are the activity that thought is.”[1] For Paul, human words and thought are deployed in an attempt to displace God and found an independent realm. Its specific point of entry is futile or deceived thought: “they became futile in their speculations” (1:21). Ματαιόω – is “to present what is vain” or “to deceive.”[2] Though Romans 8:20 (“the creation was subjected to futility”) does not “solve the metaphysical and logical problems raised” by this futility it explains that it has a beginning and end.[3] It arises with finitude and contingency and taken as an end in itself this lie turned them into fools (1:22). But this futility is delimited in those who put on Christ: “the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:21).

Paul consigns this force to its original contingency as part of the unfolding of creation: “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (8:22). The pain of childbirth is no more necessary to the fully formed child than the nihilo is to creation. To assign death, futility, and suffering, to part of the constitution of the finished product is to serve the futility. It is to hollow out reality with the unreality of a lie. Creations purpose fulfilled in Christ consigns this futility to a passage through suffering forgotten or subsumed by the eschatological end point of creation: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Ro 8:18).

Paul, in an appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures, depicts the advance of futility through empty human speech and its embodiment as a lie incarnate: “THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE, WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING,” “THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS”; “WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS” (Ro 3:13–14). Paul describes the phenomenology of the lie as characterizing all forms of humanity (the original contexts of his quotations point to both Jews and Gentiles), originating as part of the universal man (the first Adam in Ro 5) and as definitive of individual human experience (Ro 7). Collective experience, universal experience, individual experience, which is inclusive of human religiosity, human sexuality, and human ethics, all fall under this futility – the exchange of the truth for a lie (Ro 1:21-23).

Hegel (and I presume Hegel is indeed the master thinker – truly summing up the alternative to Paul and the New Testament) gives primacy to human knowing (it is the true creation or outworking of spirit) while Paul presumes that this incarnate lie is an enslaving power and is not part of a creative dialectic. For Hegel enslavement necessarily precedes freedom; slave/master, nothing/something, evil/good are the terms of truth and freedom but also the substance of experience. For Paul, this presumed dualism and its defeat explains his form of dialectic in Romans 7 and Romans 9-11. There is for the individual, the law of the mind and the law of the body constituting the law of sin and death which gives way to the body of Christ (7-8), and there is the corporate experience of Jews and Gentiles fluctuating between disobedience and mercy which results in a Pauline synthesis: “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (11:32). This is not a dialectic between nothing and something but a false dialectic of the lie and disobedience defeated individually, corporately, and cosmically. The lie (disobedience, misorientation to death and the law) is countered by the truth or by the Word (the final Word of creation, the completion or fullness of creation).

The opening to Romans 6 points to sin as the slaveholder but it also indicates the perversity of the Hegelian notion that maintains the necessity of this enslavement for freedom (Ro 6:1). Even those who recognize “sin reigned in death” (5:21), are in danger of positing a dialectic between sin and grace: “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” (6:1). In both Paul and Hegel the dialectic of sin is definitive of human experience. For Hegel, perhaps the archetypical sort of Christian perverter of the Gospel Paul has in mind, the dialectic of sin is normative for Christian thought. Paul recognizes dialectic is liable to be carried over into Christian understanding at key points in 6-7. “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” This is to allow sin to “be master over you” (6:14-15). For Hegel this explains why history is necessarily a “slaughter bench” while for Paul the violence of history definitive of human activity (3:9-18) is a futility overcome in Christ.

Paul’s description of how the dialectic arises through an orientation to the law gives rise to his pithiest dialectic formula: “Is the Law sin?” (7:7). He seems to have recognized the danger of pitting grace against law, such that the law itself is perceived as the problem (perhaps a succinct formula for the Protestant dilemma). But of course, it is not that law is the problem but sin coopts even the law of God. It is not simply that the Jewish law, due to this lie, reduces to the law of sin but all human religious and ethical striving – even the best, even that built upon God’s law, is sin possessed. Thus, Paul concludes that all are unrighteousness and all are misoriented to the law. In the progressive argument of Romans there is a flattening out of all law to the law of sin and death.

The difficulty, where sin and evil are pervasive, is to be able to name this thing – to name and recognize the idol (the ideology, the politic, the value system, or even the theology by which Paul is read) by which we measure and experience. Paul does not presume to have a place from which to begin to describe sin apart from the Gospel. The law provides an opening to sin and serves as a point of revelation only in conjunction with the Gospel. Romans opens with the good news (a proclamation of everything being made right) and part of this news concerns the universal reign of sin and death. God’s saving power (1:16-17) to redeem all of creation (8:19-23) simultaneously reveals that the world spirit is not God but the enemy defeated by Christ.

In David Bentley Hart’s depiction, for Paul we are living in the midst of transition between two worlds: “we are living in the final days of one world-age that is rapidly passing and awaiting the dawn of another that will differ from it radically in every dimension: heavenly and terrestrial, spiritual and physical.” This is a story of “invasion, conquest, spoliation, and triumph” in which “nothing less than the cosmos is at stake.”[4] The world has been made subject to death in and through some form of malign governance (“angelic” or “demonic”). These archons, or what Paul calls Thrones, Powers and Dominions, divide us off from God. Whether arising from a sub-personal or demonic realm, Christ exposed these powers and this exposure is part of their defeat. Given that evil’s modus operandi is a lie, exposure is the beginning of defeat.

Indicators that we have to do with a deadly lie, with philosophy gone bad, with corrupt powers of state, is that sin’s defeat is through life giving truth; it has to do with the transformation of the mind enabling a capacity to know and do God’s will (12:1-2), which is integrated with and gained in new forms of human community (12-15). The futility of the nihilo is displaced with hope (5:1-5; 8:24), peace displaces bloodshed (5:1; 14:17; 15:13), and joy and love displace despair and condemnation (8:1ff; 15:13). While this describes a radical alteration of human experience it is a difference grounded in an alternative reality and alternative world.

The resurrection is the opening and summing up of this world as it defeats and exposes the reign of death which saturates this world order. Cosmic and individual enslavement is a servitude to death definitive of sin and Christ’s death and resurrection dethrone death so that his followers can now face down the powers. The death dealing power can no longer separate from God.  “Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword” or being “slaughtered as sheep” separate from the love of Christ? (8:35-36). There is a confrontation that continues between Jesus followers and the principalities and powers, but Jesus Christ, “He who died, yes, rather who was raised” has determined the outcome of this confrontation (8:34). “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 8:38-39).

To miss this vision would seem to endanger the opportunity to “crush Satan under your feet” (16:20) and to instead give way in the conflict and be overcome by “deceitful men” who may pose as slaves of Christ. Paul warns, “such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (16:18). These deceivers appear to be turning once again to a preference for human speech over God’s Word. How many have been drawn in by their “flattering speech” which would diminish sin and smooth it over through human speech or dialectic?

In summary, sin entered through the opening of nihilo and is accentuated and spread out through human futility. Death, the ultimate futility, entered through Adam and continues to reign through the offspring of Adam, who are its helpless victims. Sin is not a force to simply be forgiven, placated, or satisfied. It is not a force that God can overlook and it is certainly not a force humans can pass over. It is a beast before which one kneels (in the form of nations and kings), a value system by which one gauges all achievement (mammon), and an all-consuming impetus giving rise to human thought and action. It is a mode of thought passed on in this worlds wisdom and it constitutes a philosophical tradition (Colossians 2:8). It is a principal or power that is either served or defeated.

The question is if a Gospel focused on imputed righteousness (a dialectic between law and grace), penal substitution (a dialectic that presumes suffering and death accomplish God’s will through Christ), deliverance from an eternal torturous existence (a dialectic which gives primacy to futility), has anything left of the Gospel in it. In David Bentley Hart’s estimate such a gospel, may have terms “reminiscent” of those used by Paul, “at least as filtered through certain conventional translations”; but “it is a fantasy” to imagine it coincides with Paul’s Gospel. He concludes, “that a certain long history of misreadings of the Letter to the Romans . . . has created an impression of his theological concerns so entirely alien to the conceptual world he inhabited that the real Paul occupies scarcely any place at all in Christian memory.”[5] A recovery of the Gospel, lost as it has become in misreadings of Romans, will of necessity have to begin again with reading Romans.

The notion that sin primarily has to do with guilt and forgiveness or with personal deliverance or private spiritual blessing through a violent sacrifice is not simply inadequate but would seem to be part of the deception. It is deceived in its diminished depiction of sin and in its failure to realize the scope of salvation.


[1] https://scholars.unh.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1018&context=phil_facpub 105

[2] Bauernfeind, O. (1964–). μάταιος, ματαιότης, ματαιόω, μάτην, ματαιολογία, ματαιολόγος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 4, p. 523). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans

[3] Bauernfeind, O. (1964–). μάταιος, ματαιότης, ματαιόω, μάτην, ματαιολογία, ματαιολόγος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 4, p. 523). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[4] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories, p. 373, University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[5]Hart, p. 371-372.

Two Opposed Depictions of Paul and Two Opposed Christianities

The story of Paul’s conversion is often described as arising from an introspective conscience in which he recognizes God’s righteousness, the heavy requirement of the law, and his incapacity to keep the law, which gives rise to his sense of wrong and his guilty conscience. He meets Christ and understands that deliverance is now provided from the requirement of the law, as Christ has met the requirements, paid the penalty, and grace is now available in place of wrath and punishment. In other words, the story of Paul’s conversion is like Luther’s – or more accurately Luther’s conversion and theology become the lens for a revisionist understanding of Paul’s conversion. It is necessary to narrate his story in this way (knowing God, the law, one’s incapacity) as it is a link in notions of judgment and justification which depend on universal access to basic knowledge of God (through nature or as a Jew) and the law (the law written on the heart or given to Moses) as the basis for condemnation and release in Christ. Realization of law and guilt serves as an unchanging universal foundation in this understanding, in which incapacity of will is the problem resolved in Christ.

Contrary to this typical depiction, Paul narrates his pre-Christian understanding as guilt free and “without fault” in regard to the law. As he describes it in Philippians, he considered himself righteous, zealous beyond his peers, and bearing the highest qualifications and impeccable credentials: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Php 3:5–6). No introspective guilt-stricken conscience here. No notion of a failed works righteousness makes its appearance. In fact, even the notion of an individually conditioned salvation is missing – Paul’s Jewishness, his descent from Benjamin, his thorough Hebrewishness (presumably linguistic and pertaining to family practice) are not things he achieved. These are not earned merits in which he exercised or failed to exercise his will but are corporate ethnic markers beyond his control. His break from his Jewish notion of salvation is not because he felt it inadequate.  It was perfectly adequate, and more than adequate, as he excelled in his pre-Christian self-understanding.

Paul depicts a radical break with his former knowing and his former identity: “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Php 3:7–8). There is no continuum of knowing, no building on the law of the heart, no guilt and relief. Paul is describing an apocalyptic, holistic change in which one world and identity is displaced by another. There is no ethical continuity based on the law leading to a guilty conscience. Paul does not begin from what he knew as a Jew, or his status as a Jew and thus arrive at his understanding of Christ.

Profit and loss are changed up in the economy of salvation as former advantages in attaining righteousness are loss. The previous system is “excremental” or “garbage” in comparison: “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Php 3:8). Whatever he knew previously has been displaced, and not built upon, by knowing Christ. His viewpoint, his knowledge, his ethical understanding, has been turned inside out as the former system, which was to his advantage, he now sees as a disadvantage.

Paul is not describing a progressive realization, a slow conversion, but is juxtaposing two worlds, two ways of knowing, two modes of identity. His former glory is now his shame, and his former sense of his own goodness – his zeal – is evil (the same sort of zeal that killed Christ, the ultimate evil). The very thing he would have counted as part of his basic righteousness, is evil in that it makes him “the chief of sinners” in persecuting the Church. This former knowing was deceived, misplaced, and gave rise to evil. The Jew is at no advantage, and though Paul speaks of the Jew having a knowledge of God it is misguided. You cannot get to the one by clinging to the other; the picture is not one of rightly knowing the law, failing to keep it, feeling guilty, and realizing that Christ accomplishes what one could not.

Far from the usual narrative, Paul is completely positive in his Jewishness, blameless in regards to the law, glorying in his status and accomplishments – all of which describe what he characterizes as “knowing according to the flesh.” The negative evaluation of his former condition only arises in retrospect of having known Christ.  There is no available light (he has even misconstrued Jewish light), no natural knowledge, no sense of wrong, even given the special revelation to Israel, by which Paul might be judged. In his own pre-Christian judgment, he is without external transgression according to which he might be condemned guilty. Paul’s problem is not that he discovered himself guilty and in need of deliverance from God’s wrath. Paul discovers he was completely deceived in regard to his former manner of life.

What is the basis of judgment (if not universal law) and what is the nature of salvation (if not deliverance from the law)? If Paul, by his own description, has ascended to the Jewish theological heights and judged himself flawless in regard to the law and, by the same token, the chief of sinners, it turns out the human condition is much worse than commonly reported. One can be evil in good conscience and precisely by means of a zealously clear conscience. Religion, law, Temple, sacrifice, even of a kind prescribed by God, can be so misconstrued so as to promote evil. And ultimately this is what is at stake in the two ways of narrating Paul’s story and the theologies surrounding those divergent versions.

The very meaning of good and evil is at stake in the two main versions of Christianity. In contractual theology, evangelicalism, and the main stream of Roman Catholicism, there is a naturally given recognition of good and evil. One has light available through law, ethics, conscience, and nature. There is a natural understanding of God (as the singular creator who is omnipotent and omniscient), a given notion of law, and the universal recognition of an incapacity to keep the law. Christ does not displace an already realized understanding but provides relief for this recognized incapacity and guilt.

On the other hand, in an apocalyptic understanding cosmic re-creation through resurrection founds a new form of humanity on a different foundation. The failure of humanity in the first Adam is total: it has cosmic consequences in the reign of death, the law of sin and death, and the subjection of creation to futility. The specific nature of this futility (the root meaning of the word) is that a lie reigns in place of the truth. The truth of Christ is not additional information to what has already been received, but the counter to the lie, an overcoming of the prevailing darkness, and a defeat of the reign of death. The difference between the two comes down to the most basic question: is it the case that what is taken to be good is actually evil (a total incapacity of discernment) or is it simply that good and evil are known quantities and the problem is in the will?

There is no part of the interpretive frame which is not affected by and which feeds into these two understandings (as I have shown here it pertains to every key doctrine). But the point of division is centered on Romans 1:18-32 which can be read as a universal, ongoing condition, or as a reference to Genesis and Exodus which pertains universally. Is Paul telling us how history continues to repeat itself for everyone or is he describing biblical history as it has impacted all people? Do all people know God, realize his basic nature, understand his ethical requirements, and reject him for idolatrous religion – all the time recognizing their incapacity and guilt? Or has the past rejection of God, who was known because he walked in the Garden, revealed himself audibly, manifested himself in various theophanies, and was rejected by the first couple and their progeny (Cain, Lamech, the Generation of Noah, the Babelites, the Jews at Sinai, all of whom knew God or knew of him because of direct, special revelation) impacted subsequent history? The difference between the two readings already depends upon the theology which flows from each. If humans are individualistic, rational, and in possession of the basic truth about God and ethics, then Paul cannot be thought to be describing a corporate condition of history in which the early reception and rejection of God has created ignorance of his existence. On the other hand, if sin is corporate, being found in Adam means that there is a generational accumulation compounding the problem.

Paul’s characteristic way of describing Gentiles is, in fact, as those “who do not know God” (e.g., 1 Thess 1:9; 2 Thess 2:8; Gal. 4:8-9; I Cor. 1:21). He engages what little knowledge of God he finds on the Areopagus (the height of Greek philosophical learning) by proclaiming to them the God which, by their own acknowledgement, is “unknown.” God is unknown because people “were slaves to those which by nature are no gods.” They “have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Ga 4:8–9), not because they have applied themselves to their philosophical and natural studies, but because they have been delivered from slavery to the law of sin and death. Paul depicts human wisdom as no help in knowing God, and perhaps is precisely the obstacle to such knowledge: “the world through its wisdom did not come to know God” (1 Co 1:21) and on the basis of this same wisdom judges the true revelation and deliverance to be foolishness (I Cor. 1:23). This deliverance is not conditioned on their knowing, but as Paul points out, on God first knowing them. The shift is from belief in what is not God, but a dead inanimate object, to the living God (I Thess. 1:9). The passage is from out of a Satanic deception to truth (2 Thess 2:8) and is not passage from a frustrated incapacity of the will.

Romans 7, Paul’s depiction of his own, Adam’s, and every human’s interior predicament, is sometimes taken to be Paul’s depiction of his guilty conscience, but this passage is Paul’s retrospective insight. The law (the prohibition in Eden or the Mosaic law), through the deception of sin, becomes another law (a different law – 7:23), but this law is not available to the understanding or conscience (7:15). It is only as a Christian that Paul can look back on his former life and realize the Mosaic law, like the prohibition in Eden, becomes twisted by sin’s deceit: “this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me” (Ro 7:10). The prohibition and the Mosaic law, in reception and practice, become the law of sin and death as life is thought to reside in the law and true knowledge (God-like) is thought to reside in the law. This is not the truth but the lie, which justification theory or contractual theology, seems to continue to promote.

 Paul depicts the work of Christ, and particularly the resurrection, as deliverance from the law of sin and death, which is not God’s law but the deceived human orientation to the law. The shift is more radical and all-inclusive than we might have imagined as these two laws, two ways of knowing, and two worlds do not intersect. One is either found in Adam or in Christ, and to be found in the first is not an aid but the obstacle overcome in the second. Paul’s picture is that Adam instituted the age in which sin and death rule and Christ is inaugurating a new age. 

To die to sin is to break the rule and power of sin and to enter into the reign of Christ. Baptism (dying to sin) is a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ in which there is a fusion with Christ through the Spirit which involves one in a different communion, community, identity, and culture (Rom. 6). Christ’s Kingdom is overcoming and defeating all the dominions and powers of this world and the latter is not preparation for but that which is annihilated by the former (I Cor. 15:24). Paul’s former manner of life was not a propaedeutic to his faith but a deceived “fleshly confidence” – garbage to be disposed of.