Nature Versus Grace: Why My Seminary Education was Confusing

In the Western world in the post-apostolic period, there was no more important thinker than Augustine (born A.D. 354), as his peculiar biography and form of thought have become the key influence for both Roman Catholic and Protestant theology. Because of his own difficulty in overcoming sexual lust, and because of his reading of a mistranslation of Romans 5 in which he understands that all have sinned in Adam, he concludes there is inherited guilt, total depravity or loss of free will, conjoined in his doctrine of original sin. All are conceived in sin and damned from the moment of conception. For “as soon as our first parents had transgressed the commandment, divine grace forsook them.”[1] Nature was from that moment literally “disgraced” as the grace of human nature was utterly lost. Thus, for Augustine, human nature is no longer such that humanity is free to obey the creator as the very possibility of not sinning is lost. Indeed, it is not possible for humanity not to sin or even to choose the good or to choose Christ, as all are guilty and depraved. The result of Adam and Eve’s transgression was, therefore, according to Augustine, a complete change in nature for the whole human race. The original righteous state of humanity has been replaced by “original sin”; a sin transmitted not by imitation but by mystical propagation. Nature knows no grace, for through our first parents it has suffered disgrace.

Augustine’s departure from the first 400 years of church teaching was acknowledged at one level in my education, but unbeknownst to me his understanding was smuggled in as the starting point of my theological education. Molly Worthen in her book detailing the crisis of authority in American evangelicalism mentions my old professor, Jack Cottrell, and describes him as among “specific individuals” who “smuggled Reformed thinking into Restorationist circles”[2] (I have detailed this here). Cottrell couches his theology in an extreme version of the Augustinian nature/grace split (logically entailing the extremes of Calvinism, which he attempts to overcome, while still holding to a version of original sin.). As a student I struggled to navigate this contradictory system of theology, which illustrates the profound and confused nature of this Augustinian departure.  

Creation Trumps Redemption

 Where orthodox theology turned to Christ as central in comprehension of all things, with Christ as the point of comprehension or the one in whom all things (history, creation, revelation and redemption) cohere (as in Col. 1:16-17 and Heb. 1:3), Cottrell posits a split between creation, redemption, revelation, and Christian experience. As he describes it, “In summary, we are saying that the Creator is the essential center of our lives; the Bible is the epistemological center; and Jesus Christ is the existential (or experiential) center.”[3] The presumption is that God as Creator is the ontological core, while Christ is added to this centrality. His role as revealer, creator, sustainer, the Alpha and Omega, is passed over for a God whom we presumably know through nature and law and in spite of sin.  

Cottrell presumes that it is not in Christ or in redemption that we encounter God’s original or true purpose: “Shall we interpret creation in the light of redemption, or vice versa?” Very much in the spirit of Augustine, he explains that redemption is added to creation and was not part of God’s original plan. We would not want, he explains, the undue “elevation of Jesus and his redemptive work as the touchstone or central fact around which everything else revolves and (by which it) must be interpreted.” Here he departs from the biblical principle that there is one Jesus Christ, the only Son of the one Father, who alone has made known (“exegeted,” Jn 1:18) the Father. He reduces redemption to the resolution of the sin problem, and misses that God had purposed from before the beginning to bring creation to fullness in Christ (Eph. 1:10).

Christ is Redeemer and Not Revealer

Cottrell is eager to refute what he calls the “Christological fallacy” or “the attempt to make Christ an epistemological principle, rather than the Redeemer he came to be.” Just as Augustine splits nature against grace – playing off salvation against nature – Cottrell will accentuate the split between Christ as Revealer and Redeemer, presuming that, while Christ plays a revelatory role, “there are many other ways in which God can reveal and has revealed himself and his truth to the human race. Thus our knowledge of God and his works comes to us from God as God, and not necessarily from God as Redeemer.” Though he allows Christ is “the highest revelation,” Cottrell relativizes this role under practical preference for the “many other ways” of revelation in creation and the Bible.

Christ is primarily redeemer, in Cottrell’s view, and this role is pitted against revelation, as Christ’s redemption (penal substitution) does not pertain to revelation nor does revelation pertain to redemption. Cottrell distinguishes Christ’s redemptive work from revelation and specifically the revelation of Scripture: “because of the reality of revelation and inspiration, this knowledge (primary knowing) comes to us in written form in Scripture,” in contrast to Christ. His conclusion: “The Reformers are still right: the Bible is our ‘formal principle,’ our epistemological principle. Jesus Christ is not.”

So, he pits the epistemological centrality of the Bible against the centrality of Christ: “If we mean what is epistemologically central, then the answer is that THE BIBLE is central.” He seems to deny the truth of John (1:8) and the truth presumed throughout the New Testament, that Christ provides both epistemological and redemptive access to the Father (the Bible knows no distinction between revelation and redemption). As Jesus explains to Thomas, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

Nature and Law Precede and Determine Grace

Cottrell goes on to explain that God the Creator is central to our lives, both in terms of ethics and understanding. The will of God, he concurs with Luther, comes to us on the basis of law: “law (grounded in the creation-relation) must precede gospel (grounded in redemption).” True to Luther and Calvin (and the economy inaugurated by Augustine), he sees the economy of redemption and relationship to God as law based, so that Christ is doing nothing more than working within this legal economy. There is no shadow/substance comparison here (as in Paul and Hebrews) as the law is the adequate frame of salvation. There is no need to reorder or change the natural understanding of God and the given notion of law. What is needed is someone to keep the law, and we know Christ’s redemption on the basis of the law which comes to us through both nature and the Old Testament, and which he fulfills by keeping. This stands in contrast to the apocalyptic picture of cosmic re-creation through resurrection (pictured in John, Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, Galatians, and Revelation) which founds a new form of humanity on a different foundation.

Christ Provides an Experience

 Cottrell allows for a narrowed role for Christ’s centrality: he is “existentially (or experientially) central in our lives.” He clarifies that this pertains specifically to feelings: “our strongest felt relationship to God is the relationship we have with Christ our Lord and Savior. He is the One whom we know most about and to whom we feel the closest.” If it weren’t for the elimination of Christ from knowing, ethics, creation, and ontology, this focus on feeling might not be so damning, but Christ is accorded only this role of experience and feeling. We feel honor and gratitude due to Christ, and he is central in worship (which presumably must be feeling and not knowledge centered) and service, but we must not make too much of Christ. As Cottrell warns, “let us not demote Christ and distort truth by trying to make Him an epistemological tool.”

The Multiplication of Dualisms

The problems with this understanding – imagining that experience, knowledge, and redemption are separate realms; picturing law and nature as complete and adequate apart from God’s grace; the focus on the Bible as an independent epistemological source apart from Christ; indicate the inherent contradictions which Augustine bequeathed to Western theology. Cottrell seems to be a case in point of the confusion and splits caused by Augustine’s original sin. The dualities are irreconcilable and they seem to endlessly multiply, in that not only is nature ungraced or disgraced (as if there is such a thing as nature apart from God’s gratuitous gift), but epistemology is pitted against redemption, and redemption apparently does not include or require a revelatory component (if it is purely a legal exchange between the Father and Son). The soul is pitted against the body, the church is visible and invisible, and ethics is divided from redemption. Of course, at each intersection this is a blatant contradiction of Scripture and the early church.

The Deception of Sin is Disregarded

In the doctrine of original sin, the original lie foisted on the first couple and a continuing part of the definition of sin, is passed over. It is presumed that what is wrong in the world is not that people have been deceived in regard to the law, but that the law is an adequate measure of sin. In other words, Augustine’s original sin foists the original lie upon us. By focusing on sin and presuming that human nature is the problem, the cosmic nature of the problem is traded for an individualistic problem pertaining only to human interiority. People know enough to get into trouble but are incapable of doing anything about it.

The Cosmic Nature of Sin is Obscured

The problem here is not that Augustine takes sin too seriously, but he mystifies it, individualizes it, and reduces the problem and answer to human interiority (focused on the soul). But the failure of humanity in the first Adam is corporate (as is the resolution in the second Adam): 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.

Revelation Is Redemption

The twisted presumption that the revelation of Scripture stands apart from the redemption of Christ misses the presumed veil that covers those who would exegete Scripture or understand God apart from Christ. Paul pictures the “same veil” that Moses placed over his face as continuing to obstruct those who would read the law and Moses apart from Christ. “But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ” (2 Cor. 3:14). Only through the removal of the veil can the true meaning of Scripture and full glory of God shine forth. This does not occur by means other than the lifting of the veil through Christ. His redemption is revelatory; it is a seeing of God rightly, and this occurs only through “the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). In turn, this revelation is redemptive: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Co 3:18). The obstructing lie of sin has been removed and with it the truth of God in Christ is revealed in redemption.

The Gospel Precedes and Constitutes Scripture

Christ seems to bear no knowledge content for Cottrell apart from Scripture, which ignores how the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ opens the Scriptures to the Apostles. For the first generation, the Scriptures refer to the Hebrew Bible, which are now read in light of Christ (and not the other way round). The death and resurrection of Christ act as a catalyst in apprehending Scripture in a new way. The preaching of the Gospel enacts a new form of understanding or wisdom, which in light of the old wisdom would be dismissed as foolishness (I Cor. 1:18-24). The preaching of the Gospel is not dependent upon Scripture in the first instance, as it consists of the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ, but in light of this proclamation “the wisdom of God” is revealed. Now there is a means of making sense of Scripture as Christ brings about a coherence it does not otherwise possess.[4]

This exegesis of Scripture and God on the basis of the Gospel constitutes the New Testament. Christ is the hermeneutical lens, the means to wisdom, the ground of epistemology, and this ground is worked out in conjunction with Scripture. The point of reading the Bible is not to find the original meaning; quite the opposite – the point is to apprehend Christ, where the original meaning, taken as its own end, might obscure this reality.

Christ’s explanation of Scripture, with himself as center, to the two on the Road to Emmaus, is not lost to us but is recovered and expanded upon throughout the New Testament. Paul does not read Genesis as an end in and of itself – and his reading may in fact seem to distort the original story, but his point is to show forth the second Adam in conjunction with the first (e.g., Romans 5 & 7).  It turns out the two sons of Abraham represent two covenants (Gal. 4:24 ff.) and yet, there are not two such covenants revealed apart from Christ, prior to Paul’s explanation. The snake of Moses foreshadowed the crucifixion and the giving of eternal life (John 3:14). The Exodus, Passover, the Sabbath, the Temple, the sacrifices, the priesthood, and creation, have to now be read and understood in light of Christ. To reverse this, and to lift up Scripture over Christ is to lose the meaning and substance preserved in the Old and New Testaments through the preaching of the Gospel. Apart from a Christological explanation there is no coherence but only confusion and contradiction.


[1]  Augustine, City of God, XIII, xiii.

[2] Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press; 1st edition (November 1, 2013), 85.

[3] Jack Cottrell, “What is Central in our Lives?” Restoration Herald (November, 2014). All references to Cottrell are from this article.

[4] See John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicaea Volume 1 (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood New York, 2001), 25-28.

Why Death and Not Sin is the Primary Human Problem

Ignatius, Irenaeus, Basil, Athanasius, and the Greek Fathers as a whole, according to John Romanides, look upon salvation as first and foremost redemption from death.[1] In the early church and Eastern tradition death, and not sin, is definitive and primary in the human predicament, while in the West the presumption has been that sin is primary and precedes death in terms of cause and effect. The biblical portrayal, that the reign of death is the cause of sin, has been rendered obscure if not inaccessible, by the presumption of Augustinian original sin (a mysterious and inherited guilt). Where this presumption can be set aside, it is clear that death and not sin is pictured as primary: it is death that is the “last enemy” (1 Cor 15:24–25); death and Hades (the place of the dead) are the last thing to be thrown into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:14); Paul’s primary thing from which he needs rescue is “this body that is subject to death” (Rom. 7:24); sin is the sting or result of death and not the other way round (that is death is not the sting of sin in I Cor. 15:56); the problem is not that sin reigns and then comes death but death accounts for the spread of sin because “death spread to all men” (Rom. 5:12), “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 round. In Paul’s explanation in Romans 5, it is not sin that is inherited from Adam (as in Augustine’s misreading) but it is death which Adam passed on. Now with death comes sin, but not inevitably or all inclusively, as Paul can speak of those who have not sinned in the manner of Adam (5:14).

Certainly, Adam sinned and introduced death, and with the spread of death sin becomes a contagion, but it is precisely this dynamism in which death is the cause and not the effect that accords with Paul’s parallel picture of Christ. Christ introduces righteousness and eternal life into the world, so that this introduction of life spreads righteousness to all of humanity (vv. 17-18). So, what was done in the first Adam is undone in the second Adam – sin introduced death to all (not because all sinned), so too righteousness introduces life to all (but even more abundantly as life and righteousness overflow to all (v. 17)).

But the question arises as to why death would cause sin? Part of the explanation is connected with the depiction of the devil, who exercises his power through fear of death. It is not that death or mortality, per se, can be equated with sin, but fear of death and deception are linked with the work of Satan. It is not that Satan is a generic or ambiguous tempter, but his temptation is specifically linked to how he misorients or enslaves through death. Hebrews pictures the devil enslaving humanity as he wields fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15) and Paul describes this same reign of fear and enslavement (Rom. 8:15). Hebrews explains, the death of Jesus was intended to “destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil.” John puts it succinctly, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (I John 3:8). At the opening of Revelation Jesus holds “the keys of death and Hades” (Rev. 1:18). Presumably the one who holds the keys to death has taken control of what was formerly under Satan’s power. He has the power to unlock the chains which bound human kind.

We can continue to specify in what fear of death consists by recognizing both how it is resolved and what this resolution allows for. John equates love and life as enabled through Christ: “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him” (I Jn. 4:9). The fear, that would obstruct love is cured through the love of Christ: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear” (I Jn. 4:18). On the other hand, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death” (I Jn. 3:14).

Lest there is any confusion, John explains: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (I Jn. 3:15-16). Fear of death leaves one under the control of death and incapacitates love and gives rise to violence. Fear, death, hatred, and violence, pose one option and life, love, abiding in Christ, and laying down life for others constitutes the other option. But we still might ask why captivity to fear enslaves to lovelessness and death? What is it precisely in fear of death that leads to enslavement and violence?

The book of Wisdom goes some way in explaining cause and effect. It sets out to explain how Hades (the place of the dead), has come to rule in place of God’s intent for creation through the ungodly:

For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, “Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end, and no one has been known to return from Hades. For we were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been, for the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts; when it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes, and the spirit will dissolve like empty air.” As a result, death is invited into a person’s life as those who are captured by it say, “Let none of us fail to share in our revelry; everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment, because this is our portion, and this our lot. Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow or regard the gray hairs of the aged. But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless. Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training” (Wis. 1:12–2:15).

As Richard Beck notes, the book of Wisdom may be an indicator that the tendency to read the Genesis 3 story as the origin of sin may have missed the point. It is death that comes to be shared by the race and death contains the impetus to sin. As Beck argues, “the main impulse of the story, given how the Orthodox follow the framing given in texts like those in Wisdom, is less about how the world became infected by sin than how it became infected by death.”[2] Further, “we see that the root cause of death isn’t sin, as the devil/serpent actually predates sin. It’s the “envy of the devil” that introduces sin and death into the world.”[3] In other words, the mortal condition is the situation in which the failed moral condition spreads to all. In this understanding sin is not mystified, as it is in Augustinian original sin. It can be understood how the disease and corruption of death give rise to sin.

In the generation following the first couple, it is not that Cain and Abel are equally depraved and immoral (totally depraved according to Augustine). Cain is evil and he attacks Abel because he is righteous (I Jn. 3:12). This explains how the murderous Cain and his type might come to out-populate and dominate the harmless Abels of the world. We understand how a righteous man like Noah might find himself alone amidst a murderous people. The world has been infected by death, and as Wisdom and presumably Genesis are explaining, this gives rise to murderous competition in which life is a zero sum game and one better grab all the life he can while the grabbing is good.

As Wisdom puts it, God did not intend for it to be this way: “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal” (Wis. 1:14-15). This fits with Genesis but it also fits with what is obvious. People die and this creates a limit condition in which people are desperate.

This might show up, as Wisdom describes it, in a desperation to find pleasure when and where it is possible. Or it might show up in the sort of desperation on display in Cain, in which he is put into competition for God’s acknowledgement, as if there is only so much to go around. Or maybe, as with those in Babel, the attempt is to storm the heavens, make an enduring name, and leave a mark, so that people will not be undone and dispersed by death. The psychology of the fear of death may take any number of forms, but what is obvious is that God did not and does not intend it to be this way. As Beck describes it, “As mortal creatures, separated from God’s vivifying Spirit, humans are fearful and survival-driven animals, easily drawn into sinful and selfish practices.” This mortal drive to self-preservation, makes us “tragically vulnerable to death anxiety—the desire to preserve our own existence above all else and at all costs.”[4]

Mark Lilla’s description, relying upon Thomas Hobbes, describes how fear of death gives rise to the continual need for violence:

Natural man, according to Hobbes, is desiring man—which also means he is fearful man. If he finds himself alone in nature he will try to satisfy his desires, will only partially succeed, and will fear losing what he has. But if other human beings are present that fear will be heightened to an almost unbearable degree. Given his awareness of himself as a creature beset by desire—a stream of desire that ends, says Hobbes, only in death—he assumes others are similarly driven. “Whosoever looketh into himself and considereth what he doth,” Hobbes writes, “he shall thereby read and know, what are the thoughts and passions of all other men.” That means he can think of them only as potential competitors, trying to satisfy desires that may come into conflict with his own . . . That is why the natural social condition of mankind is war—if not explicit, armed hostilities, then a perpetual state of anxious readiness in preparation for conflict.[5]

As Beck notes this fits with James depiction of why there is quarrelling and violence in the church: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts” (James 4:1-2). This formulation closely follows Hobbes. “Why is there violence in the world? Because of a desire motivated by want, lack, and scarcity—whether it be real, potential, or simply perceived scarcity.”[6]

This clarifies why in overcoming the fear of death the very specific result will be the capacity to love. John describes this love as a self-sacrificial love which might be something as simple as the willingness to share worldly goods: “But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (I Jn. 3:17). To obtain, possess, and survive does not lend itself to even the simplest act of sharing, apart from which love is an impossibility. Christ breaks the grip of death in his passion as he succumbs to the worst human situation, and overcomes it.

In his defeat of death Christ opens a way beyond death to life. As Basil writes, “To the extent that [man] stood apart from life, in like amount he also drew closer to death.  For life is God, and the deprivation of life is death.” In Christ life and righteousness are opened up as a possibility. Athanasius the Great writes, “When, by the counsel of the devil, men turned away from things eternal, they returned to things of corruptibility and became themselves the cause of dissolution unto death.”[7] In the defeat of the devil Christ turns men back to life and not their dissolution in death but the dissolution or defeat of death. John Chrysostom writes:

He who fears death is a slave and subjects himself to everything in order to avoid dying. . . . [But] he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed “man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,” [Job 2:4] and if a man should decide to disregard this, whose slave is he then? He fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For he who disregards his own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one’s country? For these are small things to him “who counteth not even his life dear,” says blessed Paul [Acts 20:24]. Do you see that in casting out the tyranny of death, He has dissolved the strength of the devil?[8]

This defeat of the fear of death frees one from slavery – “he fears no one and is freer than everyone” – it defeats the devil and opens one to love. Here is a mode of life that gives life and shares life and does not horde it in fearful self-salvation (the sort in which he who would save life experiences only death). The slavery of self-salvation is driven by fear, lack, and the attempt to preserve what is rendered absent in the attempt. Only one willing to give up the death-dealing grab to save the self has access to life.

Isn’t this the point of Christ’s self-giving sacrifice which is the model to emulate so as to defeat captivity to death?

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,   but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Php. 2:3–8).

The selfishness and empty conceit which enslaves to death is undone in the one who reversed the instinct behind the fear of death and became the means to life and the defeat of sin.


[1] John Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, pp 34-35.

[2] Richard Beck, The Slavery of Death (Kindle Locations 263-267). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition. Thank you, Tim, for the gift of this book.  

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 304.

[5] Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God (New York: Knopf, 2007) p. 81-82. Quoted in Beck, p. 14.

[6] Ibid. Beck, p. 422.

[7] Ibid., Romanides.

[8] The excerpt is from Homily IV of Chrysostom’s Homilies on Hebrews. Quoted in Beck, p. 14.

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The Lost Gospel of Ignatius of Antioch

There is a New Testament and patristic understanding, sometimes lost to modern theology, which organically connects Christ’s death and resurrection to salvation. That is, the predicament of death, with its corruption, inherent deception, and loss, is directly addressed in the life giving truth of the work of Christ. In the modern equation, in which resurrection is a seal of sacrifice accepted, resurrection is not intrinsically connected to either forgiveness or purification and Christ’s death is simply the payment of a penalty. For example, in Calvin’s explanation: “We have in his death the complete fulfillment of salvation, for through it we are reconciled to God, his righteous judgment is satisfied, the curse is removed, and the penalty paid in full.”[1] Once Christ’s death is set in a legal framework, his death addresses a problem in the mind of God rather than a reality inherent in death. Yet, this organic connection of Christ’s death and resurrection to the predicament of death is an understanding repeated and developed in the earliest theological writing of the post-New Testament age. Ignatius of Antioch is working with categories presumed in the New Testament and early church, linking death with corruption and which makes of resurrection, as well as the life and death of Jesus, purification, release from bondage, and forgiveness. The danger is that this understanding is obscured by theological developments from Augustine to Calvin which shift the theological focus to issues of sovereignty, determinism, law, and total depravity.  

When he writes his series of letters to various churches, Ignatius is headed to Rome where he knows he will be martyred. This march toward death informs his comparatively simple theology describing the necessity to embrace death with Christ. For Ignatius, fear of death is the corruption or disease which Satan wields so as to give death the final word. His journey and his letters are a demonstration of how one can put off the corrupting power of death by reversing the instinct and orientation to flee, rather than take up the cross.

 As he explains to the Ephesians, the death and resurrection of Christ are the medicine that provides the cure for the corruption and sickness of sin in its death denying orientation. Death is corrupting precisely in that the sinful, like the false teachers, would deny its reality and would consider the fleshly embodied world as unreal. They would assign prime reality to the soul and spirit and pass over the flesh and the reality of death, and in denying this reality they transmit the original disease. For these false teachers, “He only seemed to suffer, as they themselves only seem to be [Christians].” Ignatius grants that it may happen exactly as they believe: “as they believe, so shall it happen unto them, when they shall be divested of their bodies, and be mere evil spirits.”[2] To lose the body and to become a spirit is an evil and damnable state. The docetists, who deny the reality of the flesh of Christ, “labor under an incurable disease” in that they deny the reality of the cure of the “Physician” who “is the only true God.”[3]

Ignatius explains the cure straightforwardly: “For ‘the Word was made flesh’ [John 1:14]. Being incorporeal, He was in the body; being impassible, He was in a passible body; being immortal, He was in a mortal body; being life, He became subject to corruption, that He might free our souls from death and corruption, and heal them, and might restore them to health, when they were diseased with ungodliness and wicked lusts.”[4] Life and immortality are not innate to man, but come from God. “For were He to regard us according to our works we should cease to be.”[5] God was manifested in Christ “for the renewal of eternal life.”[6] Christ is “the constant source of our life, and of faith and love.”[7] He “breathes immortality into the Church”[8] and “apart from whom we do not possess the true life.”[9]

Ignatius is reflecting the teaching of Hebrews: the defeat of death equals the seizure of the kingdom of Satan, as the devil reigns over a captive humanity through death (Heb. 2:14-15). He is following Paul’s notion that “sin reigned in death” (Rom. 5:21) and “the sting of death is sin” (I Cor. 15:56).

According to John Romanides’ explanation and expansion upon the theology of Ignatius, “Because of the tyrant death man is unable to live according to his original destiny of selfless love. He now has the instinct of self-preservation firmly rooted within him from birth.” Romanides builds upon this to say, “Because he lives constantly under the fear of death he continuously seeks bodily and psychological security, and thus becomes individualistically inclined and utilitarian in attitude.”[10] Though this may put a modern twist on Ignatius, it gets at his understanding of why the “abolition of death” is an undoing of sin and a defeat of the devil.[11]

For Ignatius, death and life are two fates: “Seeing, then, all things have an end, these two things are simultaneously set before us — death and life; and every one shall go unto his own place.” There are two kinds of coin, and each coin has stamped upon it either the character of the world or the character of God, and the sole difference is that “the believing have, in love, the character of God the Father.”[12] Those who deny Him have become the “advocates of death rather than of the truth.”[13] There is life and truth or death and a lie, but there is no means to life apart from the truth of Christ.

It is by Christ alone that man has life. He is the door to life “by which enter in Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the prophets, and the apostles, and the Church. All these have for their object the attaining to the unity of God.” These too “proclaimed the Gospel, and placed their hope in Him, and waited for Him; in whom also believing, they were saved, through union to Jesus Christ.” [14] They pointed to this one in whom “is the perfection of immortality.”[15]

Ignatius tells Polycarp, his friend, to strive as an athlete for the prize of “immortality and eternal life” and he tells the Trallians that “by believing in His death you may escape death.”[16] He warns the Smyrnaeans that those who deny Jesus had a natural body simply succumb to death, and he equates belief in his suffering in the body as the equivalent of resurrection: “But he who does not acknowledge this, has in fact altogether denied Him, being enveloped in death. . . . Yea, far be it from me to make any mention of them, until they repent and return to [a true belief in] Christ’s passion, which is our resurrection.”[17]

Death is corrupting in that it poses a moral orientation which unleashes the fleshly passions, as the mortality of the flesh reigns unchallenged. In this sense, there is no division between the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Christ, in that in each he is combating the same foe. The corruption of death is overcome in his life, in his passion and taking up of death, and in his resurrection. On the other hand, the false teachers are “dumb dogs,” “raving mad,” and their bite is poisonous as they inflict the original lie, which would obscure how it is that Satan and death ensnare and enslave.[18] The truth of life in Christ exposes the lie of Satan positing a death dealing lie.

What is remarkable in this understanding are all of the things that are not only missing but if they are added, will obscure Ignatius’ understanding. There is no consideration of a legal framework or of future punishment. Rather, sin is a disease which Christ cures by uniting his immortality with his mortal body. Christ became subject to corruption which is simultaneously a physical and moral state, as is evidenced in those who are spiritually corrupt. Their corruption is not only that they are subject to death, but in denying this reality they make themselves completely corrupt, as evidenced in their foolishness and vanity, leaving them subject to death.  (Ignatius puts heavy emphasis on the importance of meekness, “by which the prince of this world is brought to nought.”[19])

 As he puts it in the letter to the Trallians, “Abstain from the poison of heretics.” Partaking of heresy is like eating poisonous herbage. So he says, “use Christian nourishment only.” Ignatius claims you can either turn to the nourishment of Christ or to poison, with the result that you will die. Or more fatally, one can ingest the poison of heresy, imagining it is the word of Christ: “For those [that are given to this] mix up Jesus Christ with their own poison, speaking things which are unworthy of credit, like those who administer a deadly drug in sweet wine, which he who is ignorant of does greedily take, with a fatal pleasure leading to his own death.”[20] The result of sin is that one becomes completely subject to death, physically and morally.

Ignatius does not speak of future punishment, and he knows nothing of limited atonement or individual election. One either entrusts herself to the love of Christ or attempts to take in “herbage of a different kind.” These “unbelieving, say, that He only seemed to suffer” and it can be said of them “they themselves only seeming to exist.”[21] They have given themselves completely over to unreality through the delusion of death.

The docetic claim, that Christ did not come in human flesh, is directly from Satan, according to Ignatius, and is equivalent in its effects to the original lie of the serpent. “Flee, therefore, those evil offshoots [of Satan], which produce death-bearing fruit, whereof if any one tastes, he instantly dies.” It is evident that such men are not planting good fruit, “For if they were, they would appear as branches of the cross, and their fruit would be incorruptible.” In denying the embodiment of Christ they deny the reality of the passion, and thus they leave themselves subject to the deadly passions (death resistance) which Christ defeated. “By it (the cross) He calls you through His passion, as being His members. The head, therefore, cannot be born by itself, without its members; God, who is [the Savior] Himself, having promised their union.”[22] The true branches springing from the cross, enflesh themselves with the clothing of Christ, such as meekness and love, in which they “become the imitators of His sufferings.” These are the salvific fruit stemming from faith; specifically, faith “that is the flesh of the Lord” and “love, that is the blood of Jesus Christ.”[23] Living in faith is, by definition, to live by the flesh and blood of Christ.

There is no room here for a disembodied, in the head alone, sort of faith. Living by faith and love connects one to the incarnate, fleshly, humanity of Christ by means of which he can “continue in intimate union with Jesus Christ our Lord.” This union can be disrupted through the heretical tendency, which is a type of the sinful tendency, of denying the reality of Christ’s enfleshment. The alternative is to trust in his works in the body which bring about life in the face of death. The ‘flesh and blood’ of Jesus directly counters the “deadly disease” of “depravity,” “foolishness,” “evil,” and “vanity.”

I arm you beforehand by my admonitions, as my beloved and faithful children in Christ, furnishing you with the means of protection [literally, ‘making you drink beforehand what will preserve you’] against the deadly disease of unruly men, by which do ye flee from the disease by the good-will of Christ our Lord.[24]

As Mako Nagasawa notes, Ignatius links ransom language to cleansing: “When He gave Himself a ransom for us, that He might cleanse us by His blood from our old ungodliness, and bestow life on us.” Life is purification and cleanliness, just as death is corruption. For Ignatius the ransom, while addressing the work of Satan, also “concerns ridding human nature of ‘the depravity that was in us.’ Jesus did for us what we could not do for ourselves: heal his human nature, and rid it of sin, by uniting it perfectly with God. He can therefore do in us what we cannot do by ourselves.”[25]

 Ignatius, according to Nagasawa, reflects (and quotes) the participatory thought of 2 Peter: “He (Peter) reminds them of the power and promises of Jesus, that ‘you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust’ (2 Pet.1:4). The term ‘corruption’ occurs two more times in Peter in connection with false teachers (2 Pet.2:10, 19), who ‘indulge the flesh’ (2 Pet.2:10) and ‘entice by fleshly desires’ (2 Pet.2:18).” One can either follow the dogs and pigs (2 Pet.2:22) or overcome this corruption through “purification” and healing by participation in ‘the divine nature’ in and through Jesus Christ (2 Pet.1:9).[26]

This divine nature, the cure to the predicament of death, is imparted throughout his incarnation and is made available through the fact that his flesh and blood are shared. Church historian Philip Schaff writes of Ignatius’ theology, “The central idea is the renovation of man (Eph.20), now under the power of Satan and Death (ib. 3, 19), which are undone in Christ, the risen Savior (Smyrn.3), who ‘is our true life,’ and endows us with immortality (Smyrn. 4, Magn. 6, Eph. 17).’27 Jesus’ new humanity is the ‘cure’ for our corrupted humanity. It is what the eucharist points to: the ‘cleansing remedy to drive away evil.”[27]

Again, what is missing, is the notion of wrath as a legal category (removed from death), the notion of a limited atonement, or any hint of a monophysite or monthelite will or any discussion of will. Augustine’s notion of original sin, focus on God’s sovereignty, focus on human free will or total depravity, and individual predestination, change the landscape of theology to such a degree that by the time of Calvin, even those Arminians who would oppose him were caught up in the same web. They are seemingly unable to extract themselves from the world put into place by Augustine and Calvin. Thus, they pose the innovation of prevenient grace to combat total depravity, and are left with a focus on voluntarism in which the issue of human will and God’s will is the dominant factor in the universe. What they did not have access to was the world of Ignatius and the New Testament.

 In the description of Romanides, for Ignatius death and its corruption are the condition God would destroy through the incarnation, and next to the will of God and the good, there is only the temporary kingdom of Satan, who exercises his power through death and corruption. Man is oppressed by the devil but is still free, at least in regard to will, to follow one or the other. “The world and God has each his own character – the world death, and God life (Ign. Mag. 5.) . . . It exists now under the power of corruption (Rom. 8:20-22), but in Christ is being cleansed.”[28]


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.xvi.13

[2] Ignatius, The Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 2.

[3] Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians 7.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians 10.

[6] Ignatius, Ephesians 19.

[7] Epistle to the Magnesians 1.

[8] Ephesians  17.

[9] Epistle to the Trallians 9.

[10] John S. Romanides, The Ecclesiology of St. Ignatius of Antioch, http://www.romanity.org/htm/rom.11.en.the_ecclesiology_of_st._ignatius_of_antioch.01.htm

[11] Ephesians 19.

[12] Magnesians 5.

[13] Smyrnaeans 5.

[14] Philadelphians 5.

[15] Ibid. 9.

[16] Epistle to Polycarp 2

[17] Smyrnaeans 5.

[18] Ephesians 7.

[19] Trallians 4.

[20] Ibid, 6.

[21] Ibid 10.

[22] Ibid 11.

[23] Ibid 8.

[24] Ibid, 8. Comments on the translation are those of Mako A. Nagasawa, “Penal Substitution vs. Medical-Ontological Substitution: A Historical Comparison” Documents/atonement/article-penal-substitution-vs-ontological-substitution-historical-comparison.pdfignatius.pdf

[25] Nagasawa, Ibid.

[26] Nagasawa, Ibid.

[27] Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series 2, Volume 4 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1867), p.37. Quoted in Nagasawa.

[28] Ibid. Romanides.

Death as Containing Sin in Irenaeus

A key shift entailed in Augustine’s misreading of Romans 5:12, concerns the meaning of death. Where Irenaeus, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Ambrose, up to Maximus the Confessor, held that death was a prevention of the immortalizing of sinfulness (a containment of sin), Augustine sees death as a penalty incurred due to sin (probably the prevailing understanding today).[1] He says, “We used our immortality so badly as to incur the penalty of death: Christ used His mortality so well as to restore us to life.”[2] In On the Trinity he concludes, death is a “just retribution.” He explains, “Just as the judge inflicts punishment on the guilty; yet it is not the justice of the judge, but the desert of the crime, which is the cause of the punishment.”[3] For Augustine, death is simply the infliction of punishment and through this (mis)understanding, the groundwork is laid for a shift not only in the meaning of death but the meaning of punishment (focused on the second death).  Those attuned to the Augustinian depiction may not recognize the contrast this poses with the teaching that preceded him, in which death is not retribution for sin but the beginning of rescue from sin.

Augustine’s point of departure concerning death (that it is visited upon all due to the guilt inherited from Adam), stands in contrast to the teaching of the earliest church father’s such as Irenaeus, who saw death as limiting sin’s possibility. Irenaeus, as one of the earliest church theologians and one whose experience included both east and west, stood in a direct line, through Polycarp, to the teaching of the Apostles. In other words, he represents the clearest teaching concerning death and sin in the post-Apostolic period up to Augustine. This is especially true, since he is concerned to refute Gnostics (such as Valentinus), who also have a perverted view of sin and death. Where Augustine will make a gnostic-like move in privileging human interiority and rationality (focusing on thought, word, and will) as containing the “image of God,” Irenaeus locates the image of God in the body and in human relationality through the body. Where the body is subject to death and corruption, the image of God in humans is marred (but certainly not completely spoiled).

 One way of getting at the difference between Augustine and Irenaeus (but also between Irenaeus and the modern), is to note Irenaeus’ appreciation for the body and relationality, which is more post-Wittgensteinian than modern. For Irenaeus, to be human is to be a physical body and this entails relationality. As Mako Nagasawa depicts it, Irenaeus had a relational, marital, and physical understanding of what “the image of God” meant for human beings. The marital/physical relationality was paradigmatic, such that to explain how the individual, and not just the married couple bore the image, he “appealed to the relational identity of the Word-Son as the image of God.” So too every “human being was meant to be in relation to God by the Spirit, in some sense mirroring an internal relation of the Son to the Father in the Spirit.” The image could be traced in marital relationship or in relationship to God, but Irenaeus had no notion of an isolated individual bearing the image of God. Nagasawa concludes, “Irenaeus’ theological anthropology was relational to its core.”[4]

This embodied notion of relationality as bearing the image, explains how physical death impacts the image bearing capacity. Irenaeus appeals to the Genesis story and the formation of man from earth, and the giving of breath, seeming to relish the earthy nature of the image as a contrast to gnostic denigration of flesh. “For He traced His own form on the formation, that that which should be seen should be of divine form: for (as) the image of God was man formed and set on the earth. And that he might become living, He breathed on his face the breath of life; that both for the breath and for the formation man should be like unto God.”[5] As he explains in this same paragraph, “And this great created world, prepared by God before the formation of man, was given to man as his place, containing all things within itself.” Though this world contains “all things,” God also prepares a place where he can give himself: “And so fair and good was this Paradise, that the Word of God continually resorted thither, and walked and talked with the man, figuring beforehand the things that should be in the future, (namely) that He should dwell with him and talk with him, and should be with men, teaching them righteousness.”[6] The physical body, the breath from God, God’s presence, and the male/female presence, together constitute the fulness of this relational image.

Irenaeus also pictured the first humans as having free will as part of their image bearing, such that their decision for the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” constituted not only disobedience but a willful rejection of life (in the “tree of life” or in God’s presence); a rejection which God honored. In this sense, death was the fulfillment of the desire of sin; namely, to be free of God’s arbitration of the good (life). Now they would be the arbiters of their own ethics (“knowing good and evil” in the absence of life).

Death though, is the built-in limit to sin: “But He set a bound to his [state of] sin, by interposing death, and thus causing sin to cease, putting an end to it by the dissolution of the flesh, which should take place in the earth, so that man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God.” Death poses a definitive boundary to sin, so that there is no possibility “that the sin which surrounded him should be immortal, and evil interminable and irremediable.”[7] Death is not a punishment then, but the first step in rescue, but at the same time death potentially contains the deception of the serpent. “For at the first Adam became a vessel in his (Satan’s) possession, whom he did also hold under his power, that is, by bringing sin on him iniquitously, and under color of immortality entailing death upon him.”[8] The original lie held out the promise of immortality but brought about death, and death continues to hold out the possibility of this deception in Irenaeus depiction.

Though the tendency, even among expositors explaining Irenaeus, is to pose an aspect to death that is not physical (that is the tendency is to separate out physical and spiritual death). Irenaeus could not be clearer: death refers not to soul or spirit but to the fleshly, physical body.

What, then, are mortal bodies? Can they be souls? Nay, for souls are incorporeal when put in comparison with mortal bodies; for God breathed into the face of man the breath of life, and man became a living soul. Now the breath of life is an incorporeal thing. And certainly they cannot maintain that the very breath of life is mortal. . .. Neither, on the other hand, can they say that the spirit is the mortal body. What therefore is there left to which we may apply the term mortal body, unless it be the thing that was moulded, that is, the flesh, of which it is also said that God will vivify it?[9]

Death then, describes the corruption of the physical body,

For this it is which dies and is decomposed, but not the soul or the spirit. For to die is to lose vital power, and to become henceforth breathless, inanimate, and devoid of motion, and to melt away into those [component parts] from which also it derived the commencement of [its] substance. But this event happens neither to the soul, for it is the breath of life; nor to the spirit, for the spirit is simple and not composite, so that it cannot be decomposed, and is itself the life of those who receive it. We must therefore conclude that it is in reference to the flesh that death is mentioned; which [flesh], after the soul’s departure, becomes breathless and inanimate, and is decomposed gradually into the earth from which it was taken.[10]

This captivity to death, by its very nature, indicates the absence of God: “The flesh, therefore, when destitute of the Spirit, is dead, not having life, and cannot possess the kingdom of God: [it is as] irrational blood, like water poured out upon the ground. And therefore he says, ‘As is the earthy, such are they that are earthy.’”[11] The earthy are subject to the mortality and corruption of the flesh, indicating “a certain dominion of death,” which unless resisted through the soul and spirit describes the state of the man. One succumbs to the corruption of death by being fleshly and living according to the principle of the flesh.

Irenaeus patiently spells out over several chapters that this is what Paul means when he says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom.” It is not that flesh and blood will be gotten rid of in the Kingdom, but the spirit added to the body (flesh and blood) does indeed inherit the Kingdom. As he puts it in the title of book 5 chapter 14: “Unless the flesh were to be saved, the Word would not have taken upon Him flesh of the same substance as ours: from this it would follow that neither should we have been reconciled by Him.” Christ has reconciled us in the flesh by his flesh, not by getting rid of the flesh but adding to it the life of the spirit. Afterall, to be human is to be flesh and blood, even in the Kingdom, as it is by such that we have life in the first place: “Now, since man is a living being compounded of soul and flesh, he must needs exist by both of these.”[12] He concludes, “If, therefore, flesh and blood are the things which procure for us life, it has not been declared of flesh and blood, in the literal meaning (proprie) of the terms, that they cannot inherit the kingdom of God; but [these words apply] to those carnal deeds already mentioned, which, perverting man to sin, deprive him of life.”[13]

Physical, bodily, death can be a bondage as the principle of the flesh is taken as an end in itself, without admixture or resistance of soul and spirit. Irenaeus equates this condition with the “falsehood” put into place by the serpent, and he sees this lie as potentially fragmenting the person: “For godliness is obscured and dulled by the soiling and the staining of the flesh, and is broken and polluted and no more entire, if falsehood enter into the soul.” This corruption is a loss or corruption of the self, just as keeping the self or maintaining wholeness is possible “when truth is constant in the soul” and the flesh is pure.[14]

This in turn, explains the specific nature of the work of Christ as explained by Paul: “And it is this of which he also says, ‘He shall also quicken your mortal bodies.’ And therefore in reference to it he says, in the first [Epistle] to the Corinthians: ‘So also is the resurrection of the dead: it is sown in corruption, it rises in incorruption.’ For he declares, ‘That which thou sowest cannot be quickened, unless first it die.’” As Irenaeus puts it in the title of chapter 7: “Inasmuch as Christ did rise in our flesh, it follows that we shall be also raised in the same; since the resurrection promised to us should not be referred to spirits naturally immortal, but to bodies in themselves mortal.”[15] He does refer to this raised body as a “spiritual body” but in no way is this a departure from the physical body. As he states it, “This, however does not take place by a casting away of the flesh, but by the impartation of the Spirit.”[16]

This may be shocking for those weaned on the Augustinian idea that death is a punishment and the Calvinist notion focused on the second death (eternal torturous punishment in hell). In this  understanding, physical death has next to nothing to do with the human predicament, focused as Calvin is on hell and rescue from infinite torture. (In this sense, evil is immortalized, over and against Irenaeus’ notion that this was the very point of death – to limit evil.) This of course makes nonsense of Paul’s explanation, which Irenaeus is building upon, that sin reigns in and through death. Death is the occasion for sin as where “death spread to all men” (Rom. 5:12), where “death reigned” (v. 14), where “the many died” then “sin reigned in death” (v. 21). Here death is not a punishment and is not even necessarily connected to sin, as Paul describes those who have not sinned in the manner of Adam – “Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam” (v. 14). All people are subject to death, but apparently there are entire classes of people that have not sinned (e.g., infants and children).  As Paul explains in Corinthians it is not that death is the punishment or sting of death but just the opposite, “the sting of death is sin” (I Cor. 15:56).

In Irenaeus explanation, it is not that death of necessity contains the pollution or is itself sin, but he links sin to an inclination of the soul implicit (or contained in a second sense) in death (a deception?).[17] The corruption of death takes up residence in the soul through sin, unless the counter to sin and death is displaced by the spirit of life.  


[1] This is the claim of Mako A. Nagasawa, “Penal Substitution vs. Medical-Ontological Substitution: A Historical Comparison,” The Anastasis Center Documents/atonement/article-penal-substitution-vs-ontological-substitution-historical-comparison.pdf

[2] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1.14. Yet, in this same passage there is a picture of the work of Christ as healing from the sin sickness (we are still far from Calvin’s penal substitution), but death, in this understanding, has no constructive purpose.

[3] Augustine, On the Trinity, 4.12

[4] Ibid. Nagasawa.

[5] Irenaeus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, paragraph 11 p. 81

[6] Ibid, p. 82

[7] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.23.6

[8] Ibid, 3.23.1.

[9] Ibid, 5.7.1

[10] Ibid,

[11] Ibid, 5.9.3.

[12] Irenaeus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, paragraph 2. p.71.

[13] Ibid, 5.14.4

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid, Irenaeus, 7.

[16] Ibid, Irenaeus 8.1.12

[17] So sin is contained in death in a two-fold sense: death contains an inclination to sin but delimits it or contains it.

Introducing the Course on Sin and Salvation

A nonviolent atonement is an entry point that takes into account all of theology. The work of Christ understood as peaceable (throughout) is not a sub-point to the doctrine of God (God is nonviolent and establishing peace), to hermeneutics (peace is integral to the method), to cosmology (the universe is not a dualism but contains the harmony of the Creator), to hamartiology (sin is violence), or to ecclesiology (the church is to be a culture of peace); rather all of these (and the entire theological catalog) are determined together and to separate them is already to have made a decision about each (an incorporation of violence). How each is treated is determined by the whole and vice versa. One might argue that a violent theory of atonement will result in its own sort of coherence, making God the perpetrator of violence, dependent on a violent hermeneutic (incorporating a violent image of God into the image of Christ’s Father), and dependent on a violent cosmology (a cosmic dualism), and constituting a violent ecclesiology (the Church must make its concessions to violence in a variety of forms), but the person and teaching of Christ sticks out as the exception (though, ironically, there are a variety of ways of glossing over Jesus). But where Christ is made central (the hermeneutic key) – not only in reading the Bible but in apprehending God, understanding creation, recognizing the purposes of the church, etc., then peace is the coherent frame in which doctrine holds together.

The peculiar problem with this understanding is entry into the difference of this Christocentric understanding (depicted by Karl Barth – but which is true to the patristic understanding). How do we get there from somewhere else?

So, for example, how do we read the Bible? Do we make this decision apart from our understanding of who Christ is or is this too determined in conjunction with our understanding of the peace of Christ? Is the Bible a book of eternal trues or is it a by-product of the age that produced it (the fundamentalist and liberal choice, respectively) or can we see revelation unfolding such that the work of Christ functions as the hermeneutic key, bringing coherence where there would otherwise be contradiction? What one does with the contrast between the violence of the Old Testament and the peace of Christ is not only determinate of the view of God, of the Bible, of the meaning of Christianity, but ultimately it is an insight into how self and world are apprehended. What one does with the former picture (the God first glimpsed in revelation) in light of the revelation of the latter (the fulness of Christ), is the very question which the revelation of Christ raises. Hermeneutics must be centered on the peace of Christ or there is no coherent doctrine of revelation or of God.

Or, to take another example, how do we understand the history of the church? Does church history bear an authority that floats free of the specific work of Christ? Two things are clear from the teaching of the early Church prior to Constantine: 1. Christians were forbidden to participate in violence or in those professions connected to violence. 2. Violence is such a pervasive and deeply rooted problem that it often went unnamed and unrecognized even among those advocating its abolition. For example, Tertullian forbids any form of participation in violence for Christians, declaring: “But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away?” A Christian, must not bear the sword in any circumstance as the Lord, “in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.” [1]  Yet, Tertullian could also revel in the potential delights of watching his enemies suffer: “What sight shall wake my wonder, what my laughter, my joy, my exaltation?—as I see all those kings, those great kings, unwelcomed in heaven, along with Jove, along with those who told of their ascent, groaning in the depths of darkness!”[2]  Tertullian completely rejected violence, in so far as he understood it but he was simply blind to the violence he projected onto God and which he still harbored in himself. If Christ institutes peace in place of violence, the presumption is that the atonement is aimed at defeating violence throughout. But the extent of violence is not a fully worked out understanding in the early church so that only an unfolding Christocentrism (a gradually realized atonement) holds together the contradictions of history. 

This problem is compounded with the conversion of Constantine (under whom violence is still equated with sin, but is now allowed) and the developments of Augustinianism (dualism, original sin, etc., which make violence inevitable) which feed into Anselm’s rational theology (the ground of a violent atonement), culminating in Lutheranism and Calvinism (giving rise to penal substitution and endorsement of state violence). It becomes nearly impossible to begin with a positive theology of atonement without deconstructing this error. To state the situation most darkly, a mistranslation (of Ro 5:12) gives rise to sin as 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). Where Christ is removed from the center it is questionable if what survives can be called Christianity.

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. But in another sense, this simply returns us to square one – humans have been deceived and religion plays a primary role in that deception. Christ is the resolution to a problem we do not understand apart from his exposure of the problem (again, Christocentrism as opposed to beginning with Augustine’s original sin and all that follows), as stupidity, ignorance, false sophistication, having believed a lie, is part of the problem he exposes (I Cor. 1:20). The answer comes prior to the diagnosis because the disease is one of deception.

Strangely, the theological explanation is, as Anselm and Calvin recognized, in regard to the law, but they make the law explanation of sin and reduce the work of Christ to satisfying a law. Salvation is reduced to payment of a debt or penalty (rather than defeat and deliverance from evil). The biblical picture is that sin involves a misorientation to the law, grounding itself in the very lie that Anselm and Calvin promote. That is, the lie is that the law is the arbiter of life (there is life in the law) and death. This is not only the depiction of sin but gets at the root of evil (the outworking of the law of sin and death) defeated in Christ’s suspension of the law. He does indeed suspend the punishment of the law, but this law and punishment are not from God but is at the root of human evil in its destructive power.

Once the ground clearing is complete, it is obvious the biblical conception of sin and the sinful Subject is built upon a very specific deception, detailed in Genesis, renamed the covenant with death in Isaiah, described as a poisonous lie, a throat shaped sarcophagus, and a bloody path of violence in the Psalms. Paul’s summation of the sin problem calls upon the fulness of this Old Testament depiction, both to describe the problem and Christ’s defeat of the problem. Being baptized into the death of Christ directly confronts the sin condition because sin is entangled with the primordial deception regarding death which amounts to an active taking up of death (Ro 5:12 rightly understood). Death as a lifestyle speaks not only of outward violence but of an inward destructiveness (a psychology of death), and salvation from this orientation to death (death-in-life) is through life in the midst of death.

With a long nod to René Girard, who explains how violent sacrifice/death is projected onto the gods as the genesis of all things, the myth/lie of sacred violence can be dispelled through Christ (even in its Christian form). With the exposure of the lie a series of modern idols (nationalism, capitalism, racism) are exposed as part of the same reifying lie. To put it in the context of Genesis, there are endless means and material for creating a false covering (leaves, sacrificial religion, nationalism, capital, race, etc.) all of which involve a turn to death and violence. Christ does not participate or succumb to sacred violence, but exposes and defeats it. 

Enroll in the course, Sin and Salvation: An in-depth study of sin and salvation with a focus on the meaning of the atonement (2022/1/31–2022/3/25).


[1] Tertullian (145-220 AD) in On Idolatry

[2] Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30. Translation by Carlin Barton in Barton and Boyarin, Imagine No Religion, 68. From https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/sites/ca.grebel/files/uploads/files/cgr_35-3_otto.pdf

The Lure of Death Defeated in Christ

There is such a vast difference between eastern and western notions of atonement that in the eyes of the west it may sometimes appear that the east is lacking any theory at all, and maybe inasmuch as “theory” presumes to say it all, sum it up, or offer a complete understanding this is true. Recapitulation, for example, pertains to every area of human life and the working out an understanding of its breadth of impact is to be able to describe creation made new. There is no end to the realization of this re-creation. So too with Christus Victor (Christ came to defeat death and the devil) and ransom theory (Christ came to rescue from enslavement to Satan and sin), in that both depict subjection to sin as a disease or corruption called death. Being cured of a disease, freed from the devil, set free from slavery, overcoming death, is the initiation of an unending process of being made new. The western focus on legal guilt, punishment, and payment makes for a neat package of debt (or punishment) owed and paid, but what gets left out of this narrow scheme is the horror and reality of death. So too, what tends to be overlooked is the disease model of sin and death (death is a corruption that infects all of life) and full appreciation of the healing power of Jesus. In a sense, the health and wealth gospel and the focus on physical healing in Pentecostalism may be a demand for something concrete resulting from an atonement theory in which the legal fiction of debt and payment has proven abstractly inadequate. The demand for something concrete on the order of health and wealth, misses both the concrete predicament of death and the healing of resurrection life.

The centrality of death found in the Fall, emphasized in the lie of the serpent, described as the covenant with death in Isaiah, called the last enemy by Paul, described as the enslaving fear under the control of Satan in Hebrews and Romans, depicted as the orientation to sin by Paul, and described as a horror in the eastern fathers, is a predicament which does not figure fully into the western focus on a legal predicament. In turn, salvation from death (as the orientation to sin) through the death of Christ, tends not to register in the western theological emphasis.

The biblical conception of sin and the sinful Subject is built upon a very specific deception, detailed in Genesis, renamed the covenant with death in Isaiah, described as a poisonous lie, a throat shaped sarcophagus, and a bloody path of violence in the Psalms. Paul’s summation of the sin problem calls upon the fulness of this Old Testament depiction, both to describe the problem and Christ’s defeat of the problem. Being baptized into the death of Christ directly confronts the sin condition because sin is entangled with the primordial deception regarding death which amounts to an active taking up of death. Death as a lifestyle speaks not only of outward violence but of an inward destructiveness, and salvation from this orientation to death (death-in-life) is through life in the midst of death.

This focus opens up a new vocabulary that passes beyond the strictures of guilt and payment to a more holistic focus on shame, disease, contamination, alienation, cured, respectively, through fearlessness, wholeness, cleanness, and participation in the Trinity. As described in Genesis and captured in the notion of a sinful desire, there is a lure which draws humans out of or beyond life. There is a pursuit of an unreachable excess that cannot be integrated into the life process. This excess hovers around death in that the beyondess of death seems to hold out fulfillment of the infinite craving – beyond the Garden, beyond life, in which Something is traded for an ontological Nothing. This delusion, which describes the ontological condition of all subjects, makes of the world a horizon or marker of what lies beyond it, so that what is gives body to that which is not. This symbolic fiction or lie, is not a desire for any existing thing, but for that which does not exist. The serpent calls it being like God, in that it seems to open up the realm of experience to the transcendent, but what is beyond life is nothing at all. Thus, it can be understood how God’s prediction is fulfilled, “In the day you eat of it you will die” (Gen 2:7). Shame names the experience of the nothing called death. It describes, in the words of the Psalmist, what it is like to die (Ps 31:17). It describes the nature of the disease, in that it contains within it the entanglement with death, alienation, and corruption. The corruption of death, according to the Psalmist, is the ultimate shame.

It is not that the western church is without the analogy of sin as sickness. Billy Graham, for example, demonstrates a profound insight into sin sickness: “Sin is a spiritual virus that invades our whole being. It makes us morally and spiritually weak. It’s a deadly disease that infects every part of us: our body, our mind, our emotions, our relationships, our motives — absolutely everything. We don’t have the strength on our own to overcome its power.”[1]  Graham, however, does not provide any idea of how the disease is generated. He is not able or does not choose to say why sin acts as a deadly disease. The prognosis is on the order of saying you are really sick, but leaving out the name of the disease. Thus, when he points to Christ as cure, it is unclear why or how Christ addresses the illness. In describing the cure, Graham says the Holy Spirit “tugs at our souls” in order to tell us “we are not right with God.” He says sin is the “clogger” and the blood of Christ is the “cleanser.” The blood of Christ is reduced to something like spiritual Liquid Drano. He references I John, which does say his blood cleanses from sin (1:7) but it also adds the explanation as to why. We have fellowship with Him as we walk as he walked. We pass into truth, out of a deception – a deception which would claim we can be in the truth without practicing the truth (see 1:5-10). In other words, Graham’s mistake is the Augustinian mistake and perhaps simply the western mistake, which misses that sin is an orientation to death. Sin is not mysteriously or indirectly related to death; it is an active involvement with the nothingness of death and the grave.

Subsequent to Augustine’s mistaken reading of Romans 5:12, both sin and salvation, disconnected as they are from death, have been mystified. Augustine’s misinterpretation makes 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 a mystery. In Paul’s explanation, it is the reign of death which accounts for the spread of sin and not vice versa. Interwoven throughout Romans 5 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. This then lays the foundation for explaining why the death of Christ addresses the problem of sin. Christ exposes the lie of sin; he exposes the lie of death as empty of the sham promise of transcendence.

The alienating and desirous aspect to death’s reign has to take into account this lying aspect to death: death is taken to be a power for life. Where prior to the fall humans are pictured as existing in harmony with nature and obeying their natural drives, with the fall a sense of disharmony and of shame enter in, but the split evoked by shame and disharmony creates the realization of a possible synthesis. The gap separating man from nature, from himself and from God is precisely the gap in which he imagines he is to be constituted. The dream of closing the gap is the sinner’s dream, which Paul states in various formulas in chapters 6-7 of Romans (equating sin and grace).

In other words, the sinner has joined himself to death as a means to life. But the Subject ‘in Christ’ has been joined to the ontological reality of God in Christ. Romans 8 describes this joining as being ‘in Christ’ (8.1), living in the power of the Spirit (8.5), belonging to Christ through the Spirit (8.9), living now and in the future in the resurrection power of the Spirit (8.10-11), being adopted as a child of God (8.15), and being joined to the love of God (8.37-39). Where the lie of sin is the active taking up of death, being joined to God and entering into communion with God through the Spirit is simultaneously the reception of truth and life. The truth, in this instance, is not an abstraction but is a life-giving truth which specifically counters the death dealing lie. The lie takes up suffering and death (alienation) as primary, but Paul dismisses the power of death in light of God’s love: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (8.35). Where death is the orienting factor in sin, Paul sets out that which trumps death: the love of God in Christ by the Spirit.


[1] Billy Graham, “Sin is a spiritual virus, and Christ is the cure” (Chicago Tribune, June 6, 2019) https://www.chicagotribune.com/sns-201905211906–tms–bgrahamctnym-a20190606-20190606-story.html

The Virgin Birth as Refutation of Plato’s Parable of the Cave

Plato’s parable of the cave depicts the opposite movement to that which is occurring in the Virgin Birth. If one thinks of the cave as a womb, the entire struggle is to escape the cave/womb or set aside the material world and to achieve the singular source of light, the sun. Those imprisoned in the cave live in a world of shadows in which the only light is from a fire behind them, but the prisoner turned philosopher journeys toward the sun, representative of transcendent philosophical truth. As he journeys away from the cave/womb, or away from material reality, the philosopher draws closer to transcendent truth. With the birth of Christ, the equivalent of the singular light or the sole source of truth comes to inhabit the womb.

This not only challenges Greek thought, but as Mircea Eliade points out, since Plato sums up the pervasive religious and philosophical worldview, it challenges a predominant form of thought. There is an obvious impossibility posed in a virgin giving birth but this impossibility is a sign of the even more profound impossibility of God becoming human. This is on the order of the cave housing the sun, or the motherly and earthly encompassing and housing ultimate reality; an impossibility for the Greeks. Jesus born of a virgin is the bringing together of the human and divine in a way that was/is inconceivable for most of humanity.

Plato’s parable of the cave captures the fact that for most people in most of history ascent to the absolute (whether absolute truth, the place of God, etc.) is to shed the finite, material and relative. In the incarnation, signaled by the Virgin Birth all horizontal and vertical wires are crossed. It is more supernatural than the pagan portrayal of the coupling of the gods, as it is by sheer power and does not call upon the natural sex act. Justin Martyr (165 CE), refuting comparisons between the virgin birth and mythological couplings of the gods, writes of the Spirit which “when it came upon the virgin and overshadowed her, caused her to conceive, not by intercourse, but by power.”[1] Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-97 CE) writes, “That a virgin should give birth is sign of no human, but of divine mystery.”[2] Pagans could easily conceive of sex among the gods, but the virgin birth by-passes the sex act. However, it is also more natural and integrated with the human condition, in that Jesus will suffer, die, and experience the human predicament in its fullness, which is even more scandalous to the pagan mind. The Greek and pagan, but maybe just the human idea of God is inverted in the Virgin Birth, as the fully human and the fully divine are intermixed in the motherhood of Mary, her conception through God, and she gives birth to one who is fully God and fully human.

The point of Christianity, beginning with the Virgin Birth, is subversion of the pagan world, but by the same token Greek and pagan thought would continue to attack and attempt to subvert this basic Christian conception of the world. The Gnostics, Marcion (c. 85-c. 160 CE) and Valentinus (c. 100-c. 175 CE), argued that the created order was evil and that the soul had to escape the body in order to achieve enlightenment, so Christ could not have become a human body without loss of divinity. Likewise, Docetists, who shared a Gnostic world view claimed, “If he suffered he was not God; if he was God he did not suffer.”[3]

Christian apologists of the second century, such as Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, appeal to the Virgin Birth to defend the incarnation against Gnostic and Docetic opponents, appealing primarily to Mary’s human motherhood as evidence of Christ’s humanity. In the words of Ignatius; “Be deaf, then, to any talk that ignores Jesus Christ, of David’s lineage, of Mary; who was really born, ate, and drank; was really persecuted under Pontius Pilate; was really crucified and died.” Tertullian goes to great lengths to emphasize the fleshiness of the birth of Christ, precisely to combat the heresy of Marcion:

Come now, beginning from the nativity itself, declaim against the uncleanness of the generative elements within the womb, the filthy concretion of fluid and blood, of the growth of the flesh for nine months long out of that very mire. Describe the womb as it enlarges from day to day, -heavy, troublesome, restless even in sleep, changeful in its feelings of dislike and desire. Inveigh now likewise against the shame itself of a woman in travail, which, however, ought rather to be honoured in consideration of that peril, or to be held sacred in respect of [the mystery of] nature. Of course you are horrified also at the infant, which is shed into life with the embarrassments which accompany it from the womb. … This reverend course of nature, you, O Marcion, [are pleased to] spit upon; and yet, in what way were you born? You detest a human being at his birth; then after what fashion do you love anybody? … Well, then, loving man [Christ] loved his nativity also, and his flesh as well…. Our birth He reforms from death by a second birth from heaven.[4]

For Tertullian, as Christina Beattie puts it, “The human flesh which unites Christ with Mary is as intrinsic to his identity as the divinity which unites him with God, for without her there can be no true salvation of the flesh.”[5]

In the fifth century the problem is reversed, as Nestorians referred to Mary as Christokos, to emphasize Mary was only the mother of the humanity of Christ and not his divinity. To correct this division between the humanity and deity of Christ, the Council of Ephesus (CE 431), affirmed by Chalcedon (CE 451), dubbed Mary, Theotokos (God-bearer), to affirm the divine and human unity of Christ. The definition of Chalcedon describes Christ as “truly God and truly man … as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer (Theotokos).”[6]

As I have described it here, it may be that the focus on and eventual veneration of Mary, did not translate into a full embrace of the feminine, motherhood, or the earthly. As Luce Irigaray has described it, the veneration of Mary made of her “a likeness” or a simulacrum of the reality so that the feminine was put into the service of making “reproduction-production of doubles, copies, fakes, while any hint of their material elements, of the womb, is turned into scenery to make the show more realistic.”[7]

Though the denigration of womanhood and the earthly can be traced to such early key figures as Augustine, it is precisely in Augustine that the Virgin Birth commanded a startling sort of orthodoxy. In one of Augustine’s Christmas Day Sermons based on Psalm 85:11 he describes the Virgin Birth as a joyous merger of heaven and earth:

Truth, which is in the bosom of the Father (Jn 1: 18), has sprung from the earth, in order also to be in the bosom of his mother. Truth, by which the world is held together, has sprung from the earth, in order to be carried in a woman’s arms. Truth, on which the bliss of the angels is incorruptibly nourished, has sprung from the earth, in order to be suckled at breasts of flesh. Truth, which heaven is not big enough to hold, has sprung from the earth, in order to be placed in a manger.[8]

Augustine imagines Christ saying:

To show you that it’s not any creature of God that is bad, but that it’s crooked pleasures that distort them, in the beginning when I made man, I made them male and female. I don’t reject and condemn any creature that I have made. Here I am, born a man, born of a woman. So I don’t reject any creature I have made, but I reject and condemn sins, which I didn’t make. Let each sex take note of its proper honor, and each confess its iniquity, and each hope for salvation.[9]

Beattie concludes that, despite his patriarchal tendencies and the tendency to denigrate the body, “Augustine thus affirms the goodness of the body, including the female body.”

So Mary’s motherhood of Christ repudiates both those who would denigrate the body or those who would question the deity of the human Jesus. It demands a recognition of the goodness of creation, even the messy side of creation in childbirth. Any fear of contamination is not due to the flesh but due to sin. As Augustine says in another work attributed to him, Christ defends Mary’s motherhood against a Manichaean by saying “She whom you despise, 0 Manichaean, is My Mother; but she was formed by My hand. If I could have been defiled in making her, I could have been defiled in being born of her.”[10]

In Plato’s cave we encounter the symptomatic problem in human religion, philosophy, and thought, in that it would fly toward the sun to gain access to God but in Christ this world is turned upside down as the son has come to earth. In the human economy there is a forgetting of life and a death-dealing grab for truth beyond the stars, but the guiding star of Christmas night points us to a humble manger, most likely located in a cave outside of Bethlehem, where God is With Us.


[1] Justin Martyr, “First Apology” n. 33 in The First and Second Apologies, trans. with notes Leslie William Barnard in ACW 56 (1997), 46. I am following Christina Jane Beattie, God’s mother, Eve’s advocate: a gynocentric refiguration of Marian symbolism in engagement with Luce Irigaray (PhD University of Bristol, 1998). Quotes are from her dissertation at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/legalcode

[2] Ambrose, Expos. Ev sec. Luc., Lib. ii. 2,3 in Livius, The Blessed Virgin, 131.

[3] Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979 [1963]), 35.

[4] Tertullian, “On the Flesh of Christ” in The Writings of Tertullian, Vol. 2, trans. Peter Holmes, in ANCL 15 (1870), 170-71.

[5] Beattie, 102.

[6] In Bettenson, Documents, 51.

[7] Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman (SP), trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985 (1974) 340.

[8] Augustine, “Sermon 185” n. I in Sermons 111/6 (184-229Z) on the Liturgical Seasons, trans. and notes Edmund Hill OP, ed. John E. Rotelle OSA, WSA III, 5 (1993), 21.

[9] Quoted from Beattie, 102.

[10] Tract. contr. quinque haeres., cap. v., Int. Opp. Augustini. Append., Tom. 8 in Livius, The Blessed Virgin, 70 (translation modified).

10 Contrasts Between Romans 7 & 8 Proving 7:14-25 Cannot Be Describing the Redeemed

Part of the value in rehearsing failed theories of atonement is that the failure will follow a universal pattern, the same pattern that Paul is demonstrating in Romans 7 as it contrasts with chapter 8. I would argue, Paul is setting up a contrast between the non-Christian and the Christian Subject, with chapter 7 from verse 7 focused on the experience of Adam, or every man. The fact that Anselm, Augustine, John Calvin, John Piper and company read 7:14-25 as part of the normal Christian life is not an insight into Paul but an insight into a theology which could mistake non-Christian experience (that of the “wretched man” of v. 24) for Christian experience. I do not mean this as a dig against the spirituality of these men, but simply to say that their mistake (spelled out in my previous blog here) is the universal mistake which Paul is explicating.

To miss Paul’s point about the nature of sin is not simply an Augustinian or Anselmian error, it is the human error. It points not only to the blunder of Augustine in his reading of Romans 5:12 (described here), but the universal repression of the way in which sin is propagated. To miss that sin reigns through death is not simply a theological error but the human error (the work of the deception) that Paul is tracing throughout Romans. From 7:7-24 he is describing life under the lie (inclusive of vv. 14ff) at which point he introduces the deliverance of Christ, which he will explain in chapter 8.

As I put it in the above blog, it is the reign of death which accounts for the spread of sin and not vice versa. Interwoven throughout chapter 5 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. But there is a sense that human experience mitigates against a correct reading of Paul, as sin’s deception in the law of sin and death reigns.

If we have missed Paul’s point in chapter 5, we are likely to miss his point in the contrast between the orientation to death and the law (the “law of sin and death”) described in chapter 7 and how this contrasts with life in the Spirit in chapter 8. If we have understood 5 correctly (sin reigns through death), then we can see that he is drawing out his point about two forms of human life – in the first Adam (7:7ff) and in the 2nd Adam (chapter 8).

1. The Cosmic and Corporate versus the Alienated “I”

Chapter 8 marks the transition in Paul’s argument to the description of an alternative understanding of the human Subject. Where 7:7ff is focused primarily on the isolated individual before the law (with its repeated reference to “I” with its clear reference to Genesis 3:10 and Adam’s self-description), ch. 8 speaks of a corporate identity in the Holy Spirit which has cosmic implications (“those in Christ Jesus” (8:1); “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (8.19)). Paul is still working in the universal categories he set out in chapter 5 in contrasting the two Adams, but now the cosmic implications are spelled out.

2. Living Death Versus Life in the Spirit

The Holy Spirit does not appear in ch. 7 but is the theme of ch. 8 (mentioned nineteen times explicitly and the main subject of each section of the chapter). Where ch. 7 focused on describing the dynamics of the body of death (7:24) and agonistic struggle, ch. 8 counters each of the Pauline categories constituting the Subject addressed in ch. 7 with the work of the Spirit, which constitutes a life characterized by peace (8:6). This is perhaps the key contrast; that between the living death of chapter 7 and new life in the Spirit. The Spirit can be equated with life (8:2, 10-11), and with the introduction of the Spirit in 8:2, Paul’s question of 7:24 is definitively answered: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” The fear and slavery under the law of sin and death, with its work through deceptive desire aroused by the law, became “another law,” but this law is now voided along with all of its various machinations.

3. The Ego of Desire or What is Seen Versus a Life of Hope

Paul’s depiction of desire, as with the first couple, is focused on the register of sight. In chapter 7 Paul describes a law of sight (βλέπω v. 23), which as with Adam is connected to the rise of shame and the repeated “I” (I heard, I was afraid, I was naked, I hid, 3:10). Paul’s “I” (ἐgὼ) is exchanged for a life of hope, focused not on the seen but on the unseen (v. 24), which brings about a conformity to the image of the Son (v. 29) (who is not an image or object for the eyes but occupies the Subject position in place of the ego) and a reconstitution of the Subject. As a result, the “I” does not appear in chapter 8 but as in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives within me.”

4. Suffering Under the Law Versus Suffering as a Co-Heir with Christ

Paul describes two forms of suffering in chapters 7 & 8. The work of the law (the law of sin and death) is displaced by the law of the Spirit of life (v. 2) which results in freedom from slavery to fear due to relationship to God as “Abba, Father” (v. 15), reconstituting the Subject a child of God. Paul ties this new relationship to God directly to a different experience of suffering. An implicit element of Paul’s agonistic struggle (in ch. 7) is a depth of suffering which he cannot endure. “Who will rescue me,” he cries, as this suffering is deadly, arising as it does from within. In contrast, the suffering of chapter 8 (the source of which is outside the self), is a sharing in the suffering of Christ which marks one out as a co-heir with Christ of glory (8:17).

5. The Body of Sin and Death Versus Resurrection Life Now

The “body of sin” (6:6) or “body of death” (7.24) is displaced in the resurrection life of the Spirit (8:10-11) which is not a departure from the material body or material reality but the beginning of cosmic redemption (“the redemption of our bodies” (8:23) and the redemption of the cosmos (8:21)). The only resolution to life in the flesh, in the brand of Christianity that reads chapter 7 as the normal Christian life, is future. But in chapter 8, Paul is describing an enacted resurrection life which has defeated this sinful flesh principle in the follower of Christ.

6. Through the Work of Christ People are Made Righteous Versus a Failed Righteousness

There is no work of Christ in Paul’s description of his sinful predicament but only the work of sin and the law (in chapter 7:7ff), but chapter 8 describes how the work of Christ changes up this damnable sort of existence. The punishing effects of the law of sin and death can no longer condemn, as God has condemned the law of sin through the death of Christ (8:1-3) ushering in the law of life in the Spirit. Where 7:7ff described the characteristics of this living death (marked by incapacity), ch. 8 describes life in the Spirit, which sums up the difference God’s righteousness makes. The body is dead due to unrighteousness but the Spirit is life and this is God’s righteousness imparted (8:10). This then results in the capacity to “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:4). This walk is characterized in all of its phases by the power of life which enables the mindset and hope of the Subject in Christ.

7. Living in the Lie Versus the Truth of Christ which Exposes the Lie

Paul is describing sin in terms of a deception on the order of the deception foisted on the first couple by the serpent in the Garden. In the opening verses of chapter 8 (countering the opening of 7:7-11), Paul explains how Christ defeats and exposes the lie of sin in the particular death he died. The punishing effects of the law of sin and death (the condemnation he has described in chapter 7) are finished so that there is no condemnation in Christ (8:1). God has “condemned sin in the flesh of Christ” (8:3) so that it can no longer deal out death (an active taking up of death) by deception.

Paul adds to his description in 8:3 by saying “and as a sin-offering.” The sin offering was for the ignorant or unwilling sin, which answers the problem of sin of the “I” (7:15) who does not “know” and does not “will” what he does.[1] Christ does not die for a general wrongdoing but to address the particular work of sin as it appears in ch. 7. This sin which works through deception and ignorance brings about disobedience unto death, and the one who was obedient even unto death makes obedience possible (5:18-20). The disobedience unto death describes an orientation founded in deception (it cannot obey God – it is hostile to God, 8:7) and obedience unto death recognizes death but obeys in light of the resurrection life by which it is empowered (8:11-12). Living according to the lie is to actively die (in death resistance) while to live, in spite of death, is the death acceptance of living in the truth.

8. Life in the Flesh Versus New Life in the Body of Christ

In ch. 7 Paul locates the law of sin “in my members” (7:23), in the flesh (7:25), or as “sin that dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (7:18). The place from which sin works death is the flesh. As N. T.  Wright explains, the reason there is now no condemnation is “because God has dealt with sin in the flesh, and provided new life for the body.”[2] Those in Christ experience the death to sin and the new life which he provides. The sentence of death is passed on sin in the one who was in the true “likeness of sinful flesh” (8.3), so those who are found in his likeness through baptism (6:5) will also experience this death to sin rather than death by sin.

9. Life in the Split “I” Versus Participation in the Unity of the Trinity

The key difference between the living death of 7:7ff and life in the Spirit of ch. 8, or another way of describing the difference between life and death, is that the death of the “I” divides and alienates, while life in the Spirit is a communion founded by the Father who has sent his Son (8:3) who leads by his Spirit (8:14). The Father is the primary agent who subjected creation in hope (8:20), who makes all things work to the good for those who love him (8:28), who has foreknown and predestined those he called (8:29) and these he has justified and glorified (8:31). This communion is “in Christ Jesus” who was sent to free from the law of sin and death (8:2, 3) by condemning sin in the flesh (8:3), who gives his Spirit of life (8:9) so that those who suffer with him will be glorified together with him (8:17) and who died and was raised and intercedes so that nothing can separate from the love of God (8:34-35). The Spirit is the source of life (8:2) who empowers the walk and mindset of those in whom the He dwells (8:9). The Spirit is God’s righteousness (8:10) whose resurrection power will “give life to your mortal bodies” (8:11) as by his life “you put to death the deeds of the body” (8:13). Through the Spirit adoption as sons enables his sons to cry “Abba” (8:15) and He helps the saints in their weakness and through prayer by interceding for them (8:26-27). The Trinity is a communion in which and through which the new humanity walks (8:4), has their mindset (8:5-8), sonship (8:15), endurance of suffering (8:17) and saving hope (8:20, 24).

10. Shame Versus Glory and Love

Paul, from 7:7ff, is providing a commentary on Genesis 3 which describes the shame of the first couple. He is giving us an interior view of that shame, which is marked by an incapacity for being present for the other (love). Shame marks not only the loss of God’s presence but the possibility of interpersonal love – being there for the other. The anatomy of jealousy, anger, and violence are to be traced in this genealogy of shame. Those who are hiding cannot be present for others or even for themselves but are set in an antagonistic relation with God, self, and others. Paul, in chapter 8, is describing a love that is indestructible and indivisible – nothing can separate us from the love of God found in Christ (8:28).

To miss this contrast between Romans 7:7ff and chapter 8, (which I have only partially filled out) would seem to be on the order of missing the reality of Christianity. There is no prayer, no hope, no Spirit, no Abba, no love, no work of Christ, and no other but only law, desire, deception, unendurable suffering, alienation, and death, in 7:7ff. Compounded with this, to mistake Paul’s description of the damnable (κατάκριμα) life of sin as if it is salvation, would seem to leave one stranded in a punishing life from which there is no deliverance.


[1] Wright, Romans , 579.

[2] Wright, Romans, 575.

(Recent critiques of my blogs on John Calvin, Augustine, and penal substitution have mainly focused on what was not said in a particular blog, when I have usually covered the topic in an accompanying blog. To answer some of these critiques here is a guide to what I have written:

Critique One: “Axton does not reference Calvin directly.” My article on his development of penal substitution is an engagement with the Institutes, “Did John Calvin Invent Penal Substitution?” to be found here and my depiction of his purported confusion of sin and salvation is an engagement with his commentary on Romans, “Has John Calvin Confused the Lie of Sin with Salvation?” is to be found here. My depiction of his work on predestination also deals with the Institutes, “The Gospel as the Mystery Revealed Versus Calvin’s ‘Incomprehensible’ Anti-Gospel” is here. I reference the Institutes in this article dealing with Calvinist assurance of salvation, “Are Calvinists Saved?” which is here . In this piece on Calvin’s view of the necessity of evil, “Acknowledgement of the Problem of Evil as a Test of Authentic Christianity” here I deal with his depiction of evil in the Institutes.

Critique Two: “Axton does no history,” (or something on this order). I have dealt with the Constantinian shift and its impact, “The Shift from Love to Freedom is the Turn to the Law that Kills” here and “The Gospel Versus Constantinian Commonsense” here and here “A Different Form of the Faith: The Constantinian Shift” deals with the history and references a series of primary works. I have dealt with the Augustinian misreading of Romans 5 here in “The Real Tragedy of Augustinian Original Sin.”

Critique Three: “Axton does not recognize Calvin is following Anselm.” Some have objected to my notion that Calvin “invented” Penal Substitution, with reference to Anselm, suggesting he is the true culprit. I have probably written more on Anselm than any other figure and what is not to be missed is that he does set the context in which Calvin is working (along with a host of other factors), nonetheless Calvin is also innovating. I discuss the relationship between the two theories here in “Beyond Divine Satisfaction, Penal Substitution, and Christus Victor to a Healing Atonement” here in “Christ Defeated Sin, Death, and the Devil – Not God’s Wrath,” here in “The Lie Behind Penal Substitution and Divine Satisfaction” and touch upon it here in “Deconstructing ‘Absolute Truth’ to Arrive at the Truth of Christ.”)

The Shift from Love to Freedom is the Turn to the Law that Kills

If the church fell with Constantine, as medieval scholastics describe it, I presume this fall is like the first. The love of God is traded for the law/knowledge of good and evil in which death will become the means to life. The Constantinian corporate version of the Fall imagines peace and harmony will be achieved through war, death, and violence. With Constantine, Caesars, princes, and soldiers, in spite of their killing, were permitted into the church under the legal provisions of just war, which though it was an exception to the rule, would result in a theological shift. The main stream of thought continued to forbid priests to be soldiers, and penance was required of princes or their soldiers who participated in killing. Shedding blood continued to disqualify a potential priest for ordination. Nonetheless, with Augustine’s neo-platonic notion that one could both kill and love their enemy, allowing not only for just war but for the use of the sword against heretics, the equivocal nature of common vocabulary was made to float around the hidden counsels of God. God determines what is good so that his will is the good, and this turns out to be quite arbitrary. As the biblical writer says, “Who oh man are you to question God?” So, if God wills it, by definition it is good.

 The shift in ethics that is occurring in the Constantinian church comes at a steep price, as this requires focus on God’s essence as freedom or will.  Rather than presuming the love of God as primary, the shift in ethics implicitly requires focus on the will of God. This may have been an unconscious necessity, but the point as outlined by Augustine, is to make it clear that God acts “beyond any external necessity whatsoever” so as “to shape the destinies of all creation and the ends of the two human societies, the ‘city of earth’ and the ‘city of God.’”[1] As Brad Jersak sums it up, “Augustine begins with God’s freedom to love and forgive and save, in which he is accountable only to himself. . . But Augustine is quick to add that it works both ways. God is also free to judge and condemn and damn.”

As Ron S. Dart depicts it,  

Augustine took a position at times quite at odds with the Alexandrian Christianity of Clement and Origen. It is in Augustine that notions such as election, double-predestination, God’s sovereignty, just war and God’s willing and choosing reach a place and pitch that has much in common with the God of Biblical Judaism. . .. [We see] in Augustine the return to a willing, choosing sovereign God, not bounded by goodness or justice. Such a God could and would use his freedom to elect whom he willed for salvation and whom He willed for damnation. This is not a god [we can] truly trust.[2]

This focus on sovereignty will continue in the Voluntarism of medieval theology, which will be definitive of the Protestant Reformation. Voluntarism also places God’s will prior to his goodness in an effort to protect God’s freedom, and it is particularly concerned to explain God’s complete freedom. God’s own nature is thought to be at stake and so there is a primary emphasis on God’s sovereign will as the primary attribute of God. His will is absolute, even beyond good and evil, so that it is not good or evil which constrain God, but that which is good is good because God decrees it. God’s will is a singular absolute, as this is thought to be the only way to preserve God’s freedom. Nothing constrains God, so that he can forgive or condemn as it pleases him, and to try to say why he does anything is to endanger his freedom with something other than pure, unadulterated, will. God is God, law is law, power is power, or will is will, and to suggest that any finite category, such as goodness, love, or evil, might impinge upon this absolute freedom of the will is to degrade God’s sovereignty.  

Calvin goes where all before him had hesitated, and suggests that all events, even evil ones, take place by God’s sovereign appointment. There is no difference between God’s permission, God’s purposes, or what God allows or what he commands. Calvin turns to Romans 9, and the example of Jacob and Esau, to argue that what God does depends upon nothing other than God’s will:

You see how he refers both to the mere pleasure of God. Therefore, if we cannot assign any reason for his bestowing mercy on his people, but just that it so pleases him, neither can we have any reason for his reprobating others but his will. When God is said to visit in mercy or harden whom he will, men are reminded that they are not to seek for any cause beyond his will.[3]

Calvin makes it clear, God’s mercy and his condemnation are purely gratuitous: “the covenant was gratuitous at first, and such it ever remains.” While one might momentarily think David bases God’s favor “according to the cleanness of my hands,” Calvin points out that God’s unfathomable pleasure precedes this favor. “In commending the goodness of his cause, he derogates in no respect from the free mercy which takes precedence of all the gifts of which it is the origin.”[4]

Calvin concludes:

The devil, and the whole train of the ungodly, are, in all directions, held in by the hand of God as with a bridle, so that they can neither conceive any mischief, nor plan what they have conceived, nor how they may have planned, move a single finger to perpetrate, unless in so far as he permits, nay, unless in so far as He commands; that they are not only bound by His fetters but are even forced to do him service.[5]  

So, the evil of the devil and the evil of wicked men cannot be permitted to somehow exist apart from the volition of God. As Jersak concludes, “Every act of terror, every rape and murder, every genocide or infanticide, every cancer and heart attack, every famine and plague are all in the service of God’s ultimate purpose: that you would fear him and glorify his name.”[6]

Another way of understanding focus on pure freedom and will is as a turn from the person of God (defined by love) to a focus on impersonal power. Personhood does not really figure into the discussion of freedom, as the normal constraints of personhood are set aside. To say that one’s choices are unconstrained – unconstrained by circumstance, unconstrained by time or place, etc., – in the case of a human is clearly contradictory. Someone constrained by nothing would have to be dead or nonexistent, but of course this is the ultimate constraint. But the same thing holds true for God – to say that nothing constrains his will would mean that his personhood is sublimated or overridden by his arbitrary choices. This is not a description of a person but is a description of pure arbitrary or “gratuitous” power (in Calvin’s words).

I would suggest that the Constantinian shift is a repetition of the Fall – as with all sin. The turn from love to freedom, as definitive of the divine essence, is simply a return to the law. To imagine that there is life in the law is synonymous with the reduction of God to raw power. In this system, one does not speak of relationship, covenant, and love prior to the law, but one begins with the law itself as if it is its own reason. “The law is the law – yours is not to question but to obey.” This primary focus on the law is definitive of the sin which the writers of the New Testament are putting to rest.

Paul explains that the law – the law of sin and death – is the power that has been unleashed on the world and which is being defeated by Christ. The Mosaic law per se, Paul explains, was not the problem, but we can follow what was done with the Mosaic law to perceive the problem. This law was grounded in a promise fulfilled in Christ, but the Jewish inclination is to forget the love, to forget the covenant, and to focus on the marker of the law.

John explains that the law was not an end in and of itself. The law is not grace, the law is not truth, as this is the place of Christ (Jn. 1:17). Jesus corrected, reinterpreted, completed, and suspended the law as he is the final and full revelation of the loving truth of who God is. “God’s essence is not pure will. His essence is selfless love. God’s primary attribute is not freedom. God is first of all good.”[7] We know who God is through Christ, and to presume otherwise is to return once again to the law.

As David Bentley Hart has put it, “It is a sort of ‘oblivious memory’ of Paul’s message that all the powers of the present age have been subdued, and death and wrath defeated, not by the law – which, for all of its sanctity, is impotent to set us free – but by a gift that has cancelled the law’s power over against us.”[8] The sovereignty of man (the man Constantine) and the will of humans are playing the decisive role in the turn from love to freedom. God’s sovereign purposes are thought to reign supreme in the Sovereign Constantine, so that all the benefits of law and freedom seem to be accruing, through history, by a different means than the love of Christ. As is always the case with law – there are advantages to those who wield this weapon. God willed, it was thought, that some be rulers, some be powerful, some be on top. God willed it, that settles it, bow before this casuistry. In Western history the devolving focus on pure will makes it obvious that one can take hold of this force and wield it – should he be uber-man enough. The will to power, the will to freedom, the will to throw off all constraints, except as those constraints accrue to my benefit, describes the modern end of the turn to freedom.  

Throwing off the constraints of tradition and religion and turning to the “I am that I am” of the cogito, founds the absolute law of reason and of the individual. This “thing that thinks” is as mysterious and unapproachable as the God who wills. This autonomous, isolated, immortal, entity, is dependent upon no contingency. There is only the free movement of the will, as neither body nor thought impinge upon this mysterious automaton.  The problem is that this thinking thing is as removed from thought as the council of the sovereign God is from history, from Christ, and from love. The curse of this power is that it operates beyond reach, beyond reality, and beyond love. This thinking thing is constrained by nothing – and this death and nothingness is its curse – the curse of the law.

With Paul we might cry out, “but who will deliver me from this law of death. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! . . . Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Ro 7:25, 8:1).


[1] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions of Saint Augustine, (Minneapolis, MN: Filiquarian Publishing, LLC., 2008), 7. Quoted from Bradley Jersak, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel (p. 314). CWR Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Jersak, 64.

[3] John Calvin, Calvin’s Institutes, 3.23.6. http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books/Calvin%20Institutes%20of%20Christian%20Religion.pdf

[4] Calvin, 3.17.5

[5] John Calvin, Calvin’s Institutes, 3.17.11. Reference in Jersak, 315..

[6] Jersak, 66.

[7] Jersak, 79.

[8] David Bentley Hart, The Hidden and the Manifest: Essays in Theology and Metaphysics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 319. Thank you Matt for this gift that keeps on giving.

A Different Form of the Faith: The Constantinian Shift

“The accession of Constantine terminated the pacifist period in church history.” Roland Bainton

If peace of the pacifist kind, as defined by Jesus and as taught by the church for its first 300 years, is central to the gospel, in what sense can it be said that Christianity survived the Constantinian shift? Roland Bainton traces small remnants of pacifism throughout church history, but the overwhelming sense is that the flame of the true teaching of Christ flickered only slightly, if at all, for long periods of church history. Since we are located on the other side of this shift in a period as Constantinian as any other, it may be difficult to recognize the contrast between Christianity before Constantine and the Christendom that came after. But as many are turning from the church in protest at the ugliness of the Christian religion it may be the opportune time to point out that the religion and teaching of Christ have been all but erased by the Constantinian form of the faith. Here in summary fashion is a delineation of the difference Constantinianism wrought upon the Christian faith. (While the shift brought about by the man Constantine is partly in view, the shift begins prior to his conversion and some one hundred years after his death.)

1. A different authority: Church councils came to bear a new authority which continues in both East and West. Constantine called himself the bishop of bishops and he applied his pagan assumptions about the place of priests in the empire. Not yet baptized, Constantine determined the phrasing and was the decisive voice at the Council of Nicaea in determining questions surrounding the Trinity. As John Howard Yoder points out, his primary concern in determining doctrinal issues, as with later emperors, was what was best for the empire. The presumption was that the church must speak with a unified voice on doctrinal questions and the council presumed to be that voice. The rise of the centralized leadership vested in the pope can be attributed to the unfolding of the same Constantinian logic in which there is a singular head and voice for each realm of power and this singularity is presumed to be unifying.

2. A different ethic: Where Christians refused military service prior to Constantine, subsequent to Constantine Christians were not only favored but it was required (by 436) that soldiers be Christians. There was not only an abandonment of nonviolence but there was no longer the resource in the New Testament for ethics, as this was a new situation, so there was a turn, by Ambrose and Augustine, to the Roman heritage, especially Cicero, to work out a new form of the Christian ethic for those serving Rome.

3. A different worldview: Augustine’s Neo-Platonism and the rise of Constantine would cement the duality that presumed God was using the emperor to do some things and Christians to do other things. There is the peace of Rome, the Pax Romana, and the peace of Christians, which were thought to complement one another. It is from this period that a notion like that of Robert Jeffress arises, that Jesus in not fit to be Caesar or president. Should the ruler be Christian he must employ something other than the ethic of Jesus to rule, as the world is split and Jesus’ ethics pertains to the private portion of that world. The soul/body split necessary for a violent Christianity became the norm.

4.  A different definition of Church: Under Theodosius, who became emperor in 379, an edict defined the one true Catholicism as Trinitarian believers in communion with the bishops of Rome and Alexandria. The Council of Constantinople confirmed that those who were less willing to forgive the apostate (the Donatists) or those with an alternative view of Christ (the Arians) did not have the support of the state and therefore were not part of the church. Augustine believed that the state had to force the heretics (he quotes Jesus, “Compel them to come in”), the Donatists, to comply to the edict and eventually their property was confiscated and their meetings banned. State support determines the boundaries of the church through state power.

This clear delineation of who was counted out was aggravated by the fact, that unless you were a Donatist or Arian or a barbarian, everybody was Christian (except a few Jews) no matter the level of objective commitment to Christianity. So, Augustine declared the true church was now invisible as the visible spectacle offered no hint of a subjective commitment. This leads to the notion that most people counted as Christians were not considered saved.  The church is to be found primarily among the priests, authorized by other priests, so that the sequence of ordination coming down from Jesus through the bishops and through those authorized to perform the sacraments, most clearly demonstrated the presence of God. Even priests and bishops though, may not be elect as they can be hypocrites and so the invisibility of the church is nearly complete. This means that the visible form of Christianity can be described in non-New Testament ways, as Neoplatonic dualism divides the visible and invisible realms nearly completely.

5. A different definition of state: Rome became a “Christian state” as it transitioned from the persecution of Christians to the imperial requirement of one Christian norm for all citizens. People were still free to be non-Christians but they would suffer disadvantages and they had no alternative public worship. This would have subsidiary effects on most every aspect of Christian doctrine, as being baptized and remaining in communion involved both church and state.

6.  A different understanding of church/society relations: The story is told that Pope Sylvester and Emperor Constantine agreed to split between them the realm of the empire and the realm of the church so as to work in support of one another. The practical result was that church government fell into the hands of civil government, and the one who bore the sword would determine who became a bishop.

7. A different meaning of baptism: Because of the new relationship of church and state becoming a Christian and becoming a citizen were fused, so that infant baptism (historians cannot agree upon its origins) became universal – no citizen should be left unbaptized. Neither citizenship nor church membership were voluntary.

8. A different set of rituals: To accommodate the 90 percent of the population who had not been Christian prior to Constantine pagan rituals, such as spring fertility celebrations, could be celebrated under the auspices of Passion and Easter. Christmas is usually considered to be the best example, though its origins are more obscure, of an incorporation of a pagan celebration into the church. The cult of the dead, seemingly the universal religion presuming the dead hear and answer prayer, was given a Christian flavor. These new celebrations arose with Constantine as an attempt to take in what was already being observed and celebrated.

9. A different theology: The church would undertake a reinterpretation of troublesome parts of the Bible inveighing against violence (the sermon on the Mount is for the individual acting in private) and would focus on obscure passages to illicit the possibility for violence (the cleansing of the temple, Jesus command to get a sword, etc.) and there was a relinquishing of notions of the possibility of perfection (not possible as government would always be necessary to constrain sin), and sin is inescapable and Original and thus infects all upon conception, and gradually a new meaning would be given to the death of Christ (divine satisfaction rather than Christus Victor – the implications of which were less than flattering for the emperor – Satan’s earthly representative). Augustine’s notion of the church invisible came with a new doctrine of election. He presumed about 5% of the population of Rome might be elect and saved. No one could be sure who might be included in that 5%, as God’s election is secret (we are not far from Calvin’s double predestination).

10. A different idea of history: Prior to Constantine the singular fact for Christians was their life and experience of the body of Christ, while after Constantine they would have to take it on faith that there is a church (as it is invisible). Before Constantine it was presumed that God is at work in history but it was not clear how, while after Constantine it was a fact that God governs history through Rome and the emperor. As Yoder concludes, the eschatology of the New Testament had been turned upside down.[1]

Protestantism is not going to escape the Constantinian shift, but if anything, aggravates it in its dependence upon particular princes and city states to preserve the new form of the faith. As a result, notions of just war, the role of church and state, especially with Luther’s notion that God is doing one thing with the hand of state and another with the hand of the church (clarifying Augustine’s two cities), will accentuate the problem of violence. Augustine’s Constantinian faith created a dualism that continues in Protestant notions that perfection is for another world and what counts now is the inner faith. While there is a reaction against the authority of the pope and a turn to the authority of the Bible, the Bible will be made to serve, in an unbalanced manner, as the corrective to the authority invested in pope and emperor. At the same time, the continuation of just war theory indicates that the New Testament is still relegated to a limited role: Jesus did not command or permit the sort of moral understanding entailed in the theory. Common sense, natural theology, human reason, in spite of Luther’s protests against the theologians of glory, will continue as a parallel authority.

Sign up for our next class with PBI: THE 301 Living in the Kingdom of God: A study of peaceful Christian traditions in light of the Constantinian shift with a view towards eschatology. https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings  

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[1] Throughout I am following John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (pp. 57-65). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.