Knowing God’s Essence

The danger with the traditional arguments for God is that they impart the epistemological skepticism upon which they rely as normative. The reason that attains God in the ontological argument (on the basis of an incomparable difference) is deployed by Descartes, critiqued but confirmed by Kant, so that the gap between a thinker and his thought, between the noumena and phenomena, or between God and the world, is as good as it gets. (To tell the story as if it is the fault of the philosophical arguments or the philosophers, is a slight miss-telling, as it presumes philosophy or philosophers are the movers and shakers in society when they may simply be the markers of a general failure.) It is not that the arguments or their purveyors generate this dualistic epistemology, but the gap, difference, or alienation, inherent to a common understanding, articulated and explained by Kant, presumed by Hegel, followed by Heidegger, becomes the epistemological frame for generations of theologians. The dichotomy between spheres of knowledge (science/humanities, sociology/religion, theory/practice, etc.) marks modern theology, which even at its best is modern because it presumes the mind is stuck in apriori Kantian spatio-temporal categories. Biblical studies focused on the historical critical method (whether of a liberal or fundamentalist bent), or theology focused on satisfying the mind of God, going to heaven, the apophatic, or the God beyond being, all betray this dualistic epistemology. Whatever else it might have spawned (e.g. the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation etc.) the modern is this shared epistemological starting point presumed to be more basic than religion or particular convictions about God. It is presumed that people know in the same basic way; it is just that they have journeyed to different places along the same road. Thus, the philosophical arguments (to say nothing of Christianity so engendered) do not challenge, but utilize what everyone knows to be the case (as the arguments explicitly state it).

Natural theology as the theological prolegomena (the philosophical arguments about God serve to introduce classical forms of theology and it was this beginning point Barth was attempting to sidestep), indicate that this problem is not external but internal to the modern theological project. Given the epistemology of the philosophical arguments, as Kant saw it, Christ is simply a prototype of what can be accomplished by reason and reason cannot get us to either the noumenal or to God. Though most theologians would not want to state it so bluntly, Jean-Luc Marion’s notion that God is unknowable is the theological conclusion to working within the Kantian framework (God is without being and beyond knowing). His is only one example of a long line of theological systems which would seal off God’s essence from the incarnation (cordoning off the economic Trinity from the immanent Trinity, or disconnecting the pre-incarnate Logos from the incarnate Christ, or suggesting, with Barth, that human language is inadequate, though it can be specially appropriated for and by revelation).

The solution (let’s not go there but start elsewhere), may seem to be no solution at all in its unwillingness to engage the starting point, but my understanding is that Christianity begins elsewhere. The fittingness of the world as a dwelling place for God is where the Bible begins (creation, God walking in the garden) and ends (heaven come to earth) and it is the point of the incarnation (Emmanuel – God with us). There is no inherent incommensurateness, no gap, no duality, no noumenal/phenomenal split, as creation, language, the world, are perfectly suited to revealing God in his essence.

As I have described it elsewhere (here), we identify who God is through incarnation because this is really who God is. The Logos is the incarnate Christ and, though we can ask other questions and raise other issues, the main point (God is with us in Christ) should not be subjected to some other mode of understanding or some other speculative questioning. We may ask after the pre-incarnate Christ, but the Bible and the early Church fathers equate the Word, of John’s prologue, with the Word of the Cross and the Word of the Gospel. It is not that the Word became incarnate and then suffered on the cross, but rather the One on the cross is the identity of the Word. The mystery of God revealed as Trinity does not unfold from a fleshless (asarkos) heavenly realm but from the Word of the Gospel (the crucified and risen Lord and not the Word of God somehow devoid of the content of the Gospel). We begin as believers with the presumption that we encounter God a se (in his essence) in Christ, and this presumption tells us what sort of world we live in and what sort of creatures we are, who bear the image of God.

As Katherine Sonderegger describes it, in her “theological compatibilism,” God’s being is not remote but is known in “our earthly words and world and signs.” In what she considers a paradigmatic case, the appearance of God to Moses, “The bush burns with divine fire; yet the bush remains unconsumed. . . This event and truth simply is the mystery of the cosmos itself. . . This is the gospel. And every reflection upon epistemology and metaphysics must be in its turn gospel, rendered in formal analysis.”[1] God has revealed his nature and his name in an unapproachable light (Moses both sees the light and turns away), that both reveals and conceals God. To call this revelatory theophany a “paradox” would be to impose a prior framework, while what is unfolding in this event fits no frame. It is not idolatry, it is not an affirmation of absolute transcendence, and it is not some sort of paradoxical contradiction, but provides its own frame of understanding. God’s transcendence does not preclude his immanence as, on many occasions culminating in Christ, God is present, without mediation, without distance, without analogy, in creation.

God manifests himself in the world and this need not be balanced out, as Aquinas would have it, with negative concepts extrapolated from his transcendence. Aquinas reasons that humans can speak of God on the basis of the divine name (Ex. 3:14) but this negativity falls short of apprehending God in his simplicity, indicated by the name. As Matthew Wilcoxen describes it, Aquinas strips away false understandings of God’s being so that his existence is shorn of all composition. No relation to creation (inclusive of the elements of human understanding) can penetrate or approach divine simplicity – God’s essence within his self-relation.[2] This will become such standard fare in theology that it nearly goes without saying. Aquinas will set the stage for apprehending God through both the way of negation and the positive mode of revelation, and of course, subsequent to Thomas, these will become competing modes in which philosophical negation and certainty will co-opt the faith of Christ.

Understanding Jesus as Logos (as opposed to a pre-existent Christ) and recognizing with Sonderegger, God has chosen in his transcendence to be immanent/present in human history and human language, means that the world is perfectly adequate to reveal God in his essence. Humans, in their sinfulness, may not be up to this adequacy and may prefer to cling to dualism, antagonism, and a violent epistemology, but this human failure is not a delimiting factor for God. This is the point of the incarnation (the life, death, and resurrection of Christ). God does not need protecting or defending through mediating categories which preserve his transcendence. Christ is truly human and divine.  Certainly, this does not mean that we know all of God in Christ or even all of Christ in Jesus. It does mean we can really know God in his essence as revealed in Christ which, in turn, points to divine hiddenness and transcendence. However, this hiddenness is forever being revealed and this transcendence is not an impassable barrier. As Sonderegger puts it, “We are never done with this invisibility and hiddenness, never done with this exceeding light, never far from this scorching fire. It is communicated to our hearts and to our intellects; yet never identified with them.”[3]

As she maintains, we do not need to be able to spell out how God can be poured into our world and into our understanding, it is enough to report that he has and to extrapolate from his act (in Christ) how we are to interpret and receive this mighty deed.[4] There is no end to the theological quest, no end to the questions and applications, given this compatible epistemological starting point, which forecloses on Anselm’s incomparable difference (the end point of his cosmological argument and the starting point of his ontological argument), which bequeathed to the world, not only philosophical arguments for God, but an epistemology devoid of the essence of God.  

[1] Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, vol 1, pp. 81-83. I am quoting from the Dissertation, Morally Perfect Being Theology: A Doctrine of Divine Humility by Matthew A. Wilcoxen.

[2] Wilcoxen, p. 182.

[3] Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, vol 1, pp. 87-88.

[4] Ibid, p. 127.

A New Ordering of the Body of Thought

We can trace three psychological types in the New Testament, which correspond to three psychoanalytic descriptions, in which the coordinates between the mind and the body are determinative of alternative perceptions of reality.  What might be called the inside out person is completely subject to the valuation of cultural norms, such that there is no interior conflict or alternative awareness, at least at a conscious level (here we encounter the most common type and the most frightening possibilities). The second type is someone who begins to question the order of things (the cultural norms, the symbolic order, the law) but the struggle with these norms is still determinative, as there seems to be no way forward or no escape. The third type has not exactly escaped appearances or phenomena arising from the symbolic or cultural order, but there is a turn to an alternative order of experience.  Deploying the work of the philosopher Michel Henry, it is this third type that I want to explore in depth, but a description of the first two orders of experience will indicate the way the third order of experience is constituted.

The inside out person, the individual who knows who she is based on the scale of values afforded by complete identity with the law or the symbolic order, is at one level the most transparent and the most dangerous. Paul, during the phase in which he is arresting and presumably aiding in killing Christians, is transparent in his identity. He describes this phase of his pre-Christian understanding as guilt free in which he regarded himself “without fault” in regard to the law. As he describes it in Philippians, he considered himself righteous, zealous beyond his peers, and bearing the highest qualifications and impeccable credentials: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Php 3:5–6). Paul has a clear conscience.  No introspective guilt-stricken conscience here. By reason of his birth, his descent from Benjamin, his linguistic and cultural identity as a Hebrew, Paul considered himself faultless and head and shoulders above his peers. His status as a Jew is his identity. This is an inside out world, as we understand this Paul by the outward markers of the law and his Jewishness. Inside out characters must be the most predominant: the Adolph Eichmanns of the world, willing to find their identity in the bureaucracy, the law, the legal proceedings, making sure the trains to the death camps are running on time. Their ambitions, hopes, and desires, are determined completely by the particular symbolic world in which they find themselves. Perhaps we all come to age as petty bureaucrats, presuming the order of things and the scale of values are those set out by the social order.

In Lacanian psychoanalysis this type is dubbed masculine, not because it necessarily pertains to gender, but because of complete identification with societal authority or the father figures of a particular cultural order. As Paul describes this type, “the law dominates the man for whatever time he lives” (Romans 7:1 DBH translation). Paul will identify this type, according to his own experience, as ignorant of their own actions and an incapacity to discern evil. There is a fusion between sin and the law so that Paul, at the time he was doing it, could not discern the sort of evil in which he is engaged. As he describes, in a parallel passage in Galatians, his zeal for the law and his advancement in Judaism were marked by his persecution of the church and his desire to destroy it (Ga 1:13-14). For Paul, the law was not a marker of sin and evil but was fused with sin such that he could not perceive his own evil due to his zeal for the law. As he advanced in law-keeping and in Judaism he simultaneously advanced in his participation in evil. It did not occur to Paul the Pharisee that there was a reality which exceeded the measure of the law. Clearly, Paul is not imagining that in this understanding he has rightly perceived the law; quite the opposite, as he dubs this orientation as “having confidence in the flesh.” [1] The problem is, the flesh marked by the law, has become a principle unto itself.

The second type of subject questions the cultural symbolic order but this questioning and challenging become definitive of this individual. Paul devotes most of chapter 7 of Romans to describing this individual, continually tossed about by their orientation or disorientation to the law. While this person is perhaps a step-up morally and spiritually from the first type, this psychologically tormented individual is consumed with their personal struggles. Sometimes these folks bring a breath of fresh air into our lives with their willingness to challenge all the norms but ultimately, they are exhausting as we realize there is no end to this pursuit of freedom against the law.

 Ironically, in kicking over the traces, shedding all the shackles of culture, this person is oriented to a transgressive questioning of the law, but it is still the law that defines them. This radicalized freedom might express itself philosophically, politically, socially, or as is most often the case, sexually (e.g. democratic revolutions including the American Revolution in which freedom is enshrined as an end in itself, in Marxist and communist revolutionary movements, and in the gender revolution of the moment). The possibility of reconstructing, from scratch, what it means to be human unleashes a plague of possibility. Beyond good and evil, unchained from the worlds sun, not only describes a philosophical realization but a nearly unbearable psychology and a new form of personality or personality disorder. The two most common psychological disorders might be traced to this agonistic questioning. Where obsessional neurosis is structured around the question of existence (think here of the Cartesian cogito in attempting to establish being through thought), hysteria is structured around human sexuality: “Am I a man or a woman?” or “What is a woman?”

The problem of the first two subjects is that their life is defined by the symbolic order. This order might be associated with law, culture, normative values, or simply language. The problem is how to suspend this order so that a person’s life is not spent in service to an artificial construct. Slavery, bondage, deception, and exodus, redemption, and truth, are the motifs under which the Bible poses the problem and solution. The passage is described as new birth, recreation, adoption into a new family, or citizenship in an alternative kingdom. At its most radical it is depicted as an exchange of one cosmic order for another or one sort of body (the body of death) for another (the body of Christ). The movement is not away from embodiment but towards a different sort of body, constituting a different sort of world. 

The way that Paul pictures this as happening in both Colossians and Ephesians is in and through Christ’s flesh. “He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body” (Col. 1:22) “by abolishing in His flesh the enmity” (Eph. 2:15). The enmity with the symbolic order is taken up in the sickness of the self that is definitive of the human disease. To state the reversal of this state most succinctly, the Life that is God (as opposed to death under the law), revealed in and as Christ, is communicated to us through the incarnation, in which we can become participants (through the body of Christ). At a basic level, this is to give absolute significance to embodiment. Where the human body is written over with the law, it appears as a medium for the true significance of the symbolic order.  But the body is not a medium but a source of significance in itself, and this distinguishes it radically (substantially) from other things (which are lent their significance symbolically in language).

As Wittgenstein put it, “The best picture of the soul is the body.” It is because there are human bodies that there is a world of communication and it is by my body that I belong to this world. But there is a profound sense in which we are dispossessed of ourselves, of our bodies, as the flesh becomes symbolic of something else. The first two sorts of subject inhabit a world controlled by the flesh and the desires of the flesh, not because they occupy their bodies, but because the flesh is written over with a significance in which it takes on an alien principle. Paul describes it as giving rise to hostility as it pits the self against the self, the self against God, and the self against others. Paul’s “confidence in the flesh” speaks of an objectifying and distancing from the center of life. There is a sense in which we are restored to ourselves, to our own bodies, without interference, only through the incarnation of Christ. That is, we become incarnate (peace is restored, the dividing wall of hostility is broken down) as we become as he was, incarnate, truly inhabiting our bodies, and this is definitive of true life.

The philosopher Michel Henry begins with the realization that experience of life, pure subjective experience from within, contains the only direct phenomenological access to life. Life reveals itself in itself through the flesh. Everything else presents itself from a distance and poses a gap between the perceiver and the perceived. In his exposition of the Word become flesh in John, Henry points out that if this is the way the Word becomes human, then relationship with God is to be had in and through the flesh. The flesh is not an obstacle but is the locus of our identity with God.[2] This explains why the Word becoming flesh is revelation (John 1:14). It is not that another body among many has appeared, but the flesh of the Word is the revelation. To say the Word became flesh is not to add something else to the Word. This is the cogito as it should be, without any gap between the subject and object of reflection, but pure revelation. There is not, as with ordinary human words, the possibility of duplicity or misrecognition. As Henry puts it, “Because the Word has become incarnate in Christ’s flesh, the identification with this flesh is the identification with the Word—to eternal Life. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.’”[3]

The danger is that we might reduce the body of Jesus by allowing a symbolic significance to reduce it to a sort of mystical writing pad. So, step one is to acknowledge the primacy of the incarnate Jesus. The story of Jesus is the story of Trinity. The mission of Jesus is nothing other than the eternal generation of the Son. There is nothing secondary, shadowy, or even analogous about Jesus. Jesus is the reality of God incarnate. Jesus is the absolute truth and an absolute morality. The mystery of God revealed as Trinity does not unfold from a fleshless (asarkos) heavenly realm but from an embodied earthly realm. In turn, all human bodies are accorded their full meaning as they participate in this fullness of incarnate significance.

This reconstituted world through the flesh is determined by the incarnate Christ. This world is not a symbolic order pointing elsewhere but meaning inheres in it. There is a world where law might reign or where it has not yet been determined what one should do or can do. In Christ’s embodied life what we should do is determined and what we should not do is determined. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). What we are to do flows from the absolute which is the body of Christ. Notice that it is Christ Jesus – the incarnate Christ. His human body is the source of significant behavior. His body and our body and human embodiment is the place from which the absolute flows, not from a transcendent law, or a vague situational principle, or a symbolic order utilizing the body and the world as its medium. The body is not a tool or a medium for writing, or a megaphone for the voice, such that we are inside of it, manipulate it, and “have” it. The flesh of the body is our incorporation into the world, community, communion, and communication.

The hostility of the flesh written over by the law is undone in Christ. Living significance (as opposed to a dead letter) is restored as “now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). As we inhabit his body, we are no longer divided in ourselves, from one another, and from God. “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Eph. 2:14). Entering this peace is synonymous with life and meaning and is a first order experience which serves as its own ground of meaning. This is a self-validating and self-evident truth and not a truth that refers elsewhere or mediates something else. This truth is without the gap between signifier (I think) and signified (I am) as the life is in this Word of truth. There is no gap in this order, as it is a Word enfleshed, a direct access to life and the realization of life as a first order experience.

[1]  Žižek, Ticklish Subject, 247-51 Lacan dubs this most common human a “pervert.” Perversion does not refer so much to abnormal sexual practices as to a structure in which the subject sides with the law in the attempt to escape its punishing effect and to partake of its surplus enjoyment. Every individual, religious or not, who presumes to sit in judgment and to punish others in the name of the law, God, Jesus, the Nation, etc. is acting out the simple formula Paul epitomizes as the sinful orientation: the law is completed or established through sin. There is a denial of sexual difference and of death in what Žižek describes as giving oneself completely over to the symbolic without regard for finitude and mortality: “Perversion can be seen as a defense against the motif of ‘death and sexuality,’ against the threat of mortality as well as the contingent imposition of sexual difference.”

[2] Michel Henry, Incarnation: A Philosophy of Flesh (Northwestern University Press, 2015), 124.

[3] Words of Christ, 124. I am following John Behr’s exposition of Henry in, John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 296 ff.

Everything Hinges on the Flesh

“The truth is that the flesh is the very condition on which salvation hinges. And since the soul is, in consequence of its salvation, chosen for the service of God, it is the flesh which actually renders it capable of such service.” Tertullian

Sin and salvation and the logics, theories, and worlds attached to each are centered in orientations to the flesh.  Sin takes hold in the flesh and Christ came in the flesh so as to address sin. Which raises the questions as to what the flesh might be (is it the sinful nature or does it refer simply to the physical body), what happens to the flesh at resurrection and what is its relation to Spirit? David Bentley Hart has re-raised the issue of the flesh, suggesting that resurrected bodies have no flesh and that the writers of the New Testament were, indeed, denigrating the flesh and did not hold to the notion that flesh was a designation for the “sinful nature” (the NIV rendering). As much as I might enjoy Hart’s cheekiness (“I would check the exact wording, but that would involve picking up a copy of the NIV”),[1] the entertainment value is diminished as it becomes clear his is an extreme version of the system he critiques.

Before I get to critique though, it may be helpful to attempt an appreciative word of what I think Hart may be up to. In countering N. T. Wright’s heavy focus on all things earthy and material it may be that Hart simply hopes to ground theology and understanding firmly in Spirit as a first order reality. A healthy dose of German idealism and basic Aristotelian philosophy mixed with the New Testament tells us that matter ultimately eludes understanding and that the true essence of things is in the Mind of God and is to be discovered by tracing his thought with and through the Spirit. Flesh, matter, and physicality, are not the ground of being but the Word of God is true Ground and substance. The turn to the material and empirical may have gone too far Wright and Hart, in pushing it left, is aligning himself more with German idealism rather than a naïve critical realism.  This may account for his focus: “Spirit was something subtler but also stronger, more vital, more glorious than the worldly elements of a coarse corruptible body compounded of earthly soul and material flesh.” [2] Setting aside for the moment the anachronism and dialectical contrast with spirit, the notion that soul and flesh are a compound (presumably separate entities), this is an affirmation we (or he) might wish Christians appreciated (even if it has nothing to do with common philosophical thought in the first century).  

 As James Ware points out in his not unappreciative critique, Hart is wrong in presuming that the ancient world held to a notion of spirit that would accommodate (even Hart’s) resurrection (the resurrection was shocking and unbelievable even for those who eventually believed); Hart is wrong in presuming that it is Protestants who have innovated the notion that Jesus was raised and ascended in a fleshly body (it is the overwhelming position of the early Church as Ware demonstrates); he is wrong; and he is “egregiously” wrong in presuming that Paul’s contrast between spirit and soul (in I Cor. 15) is typical of the ancients.[3]  Hart’s factual errors though, point to a more deeply rooted hermeneutical problem.

 I presume that Hart’s determined misreading is rooted in something more than a momentary lapse, but is connected to his more eloquent and less unorthodox groundings in Neoplatonism, versions of natural theology, and notions of God’s absolute impassibility. That is, Hart’s error springs from the same well he imagines has poisoned Protestant theology; he too drinks of the presumption that there is a given understanding (knowledge of God as creator and law giver) available to all persons (whose capacity for reason remains largely intact in spite of sin) and that salvation does not pertain to the source of this epistemological putrefaction. Hart’s efforts to read the New Testament in the context of contemporaneous thought and philosophy is more Protestant than the Protestants (strange for an Eastern Orthodox theologian) in that he presumes Paul and John are mostly reflecting and not critiquing the received understanding. The conceptual world of the New Testament, he claims, is not to be found in a distinctive Hebrew or Christian form of thought but intertestamental apocalyptic literature fused with Platonism informs New Testament cosmology and gives meaning to words such as “spirit, soul, and flesh.”

Hart blames Descartes for modern Protestant failures and presumes that by being steeped in knowledge of intertestamental literature, ancient cosmology, and Greek philosophical thought, he has access to what Paul really meant. Thus, “In the New Testament, ‘flesh’ does not mean ‘sinful nature or ‘humanity under judgment’ or even ‘fallen flesh.’  It just means ‘flesh,’ in the bluntly physical sense. . ..” (He goes on to say “flesh is essentially a bad condition to be in; belonging to the realm of mutability and mortality, it can form only a body of death” (and yet he maintains flesh does not mean “sinful nature,” making death a natural outworking of creation, and salvation deliverance from what God calls good and a “shedding of flesh.” All of this is so problematic as to bear no further scrutiny).)[4] When Paul describes the “body of death” and connects it to the working of the flesh he certainly does not mean that this flows naturally from what God has created or that sin is an inevitable result of creation.

Paul says that “I” “of the flesh” is “sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14). Not everyone is given to this condition but only those deceived by sin in regard to the law are afflicted with “the body of death.” Paul describes the “body of death” as constituting a split within the “I” with one half of the self pitted against the other in a struggle in which human agency is entirely relinquished to sin: “So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me” (Rom. 7:17).  The flesh as descriptive of this dynamic, is not a stand-alone force (the physical body as Hart would have it) but is the combination of law, deception, sin, and an orientation toward death.

The “body of death” pits “the members of my body” against “the law of my mind” and this makes “me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (7:23-24). The body of death does its work, as the body itself, with its members, stands outside the law of the mind (that world which is presumably without extension, as with Descartes), and this constitutes the work of death. Death is not simply mortality, and the principle of the flesh is not simply the fact that one has fleshly members. The members of my body are out of control (or “I” am out of control). “Nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (7:18) but this is not because of God’s good creation but because of sin. The precise place which sin dwells is not in “my members” alone but in the law of the mind pitted against the members of my body. The entire dynamic of mind against body (dualism) constitutes the problem.

In presuming Paul is just an extension of his time (more of the same), Hart misses the deep nature of this Pauline critique of human wisdom (inclusive of both Descartes and Hegel, as Žižek notes), such that he falls into the very dualism constitutive of this wisdom (flesh/spirit is no advance over soul/body or mind/body).

Descartes is not the innovative genius giving rise to modernism (it is modernism and not Paul that is more of the same) but Descartes succeeds in giving formulaic expression to the dualism Paul describes as inherent to human wisdom. “I think therefore I am,” (the ground of Descartes’ certainty and the point of departure of modernity) pits the law of my mind (thought without extension into my body) as separate from being (leaving no room for the biological body). The transaction works itself out in a distancing from the biological body, such that the body becomes a medium for the “soul” – the “true essence of the self.” One does not identify immediately with the physical body but it is a screen or orthopedic for the soul. This gives rise to two bodies, as the biological dimension is refused and yet the symptoms of embodiment begin to speak and intrude, such that the soul cannot recognize itself.  Paul calls this second body the flesh (sarx), as it is not the actual physical body (soma) but it is a principle or orientation which has taken on a force and significance that is out of control. Hart seems to repeat sin’s delusion in imagining a body without flesh (without itself) is salvation.

In I Corinthians 15, around which much of this controversy revolves, Paul uses a series of analogies (several employing a positive notion of “flesh”) from nature so as to enable conceiving of the resurrection as on a continuum with the fleshly body. A seed has continuity with the plant that springs from it. Though it may cease to be a seed, this same entity transforms into something else. The person that dies is the one that is raised as it is the same self, though the same self will assume a different form. Paul declares not all flesh is the same flesh. Human flesh differs from that of animals, and so too the sun, moon, and stars vary. Resurrection, it would seem, is not a departure from the created and fleshly order but an addition to it.

The “soulish body” does not become the “spiritual body” by ridding itself of flesh. Pneuma (Spirit) conveys immortality but this immortal kind of pneuma is from God. Spiritual body (σῶμα πνευματικόν) does not mean composed of nonmaterial spirit (God alone is Spirit); rather, Paul is referring to the work of the Holy Spirit. The raised body is characterized by the uninterrupted, transforming power of the Holy Spirit as there will be no frustrating of the work of the Spirit. Paul’s contrast is between the body energized by either the soul (and thus subject to death), or the risen body infused with the Holy Spirit. The body does not become the Holy Spirit but is energized and enlivened by an undisrupted divine power.

Paul has already indicated that if the Corinthians do not hold to bodily resurrection they might as well be nihilists – “eat and drink for tomorrow we die” (15:32). He has already said the soulish human (the psychikos person) does not receive the things of the spirit, because they are spiritually discerned, while the pneumatikos person discerns everything (I Cor. 2:14-15). This passage and others like it do not speak of the human soul and spirit, but contrast the human soul with the divine Spirit of God (e.g. 1 Cor 2:14-15; Jude 19).[5]  They could easily have conceived of souls or spirits going to heaven and leaving physical bodies behind (as the Gnostics will soon demonstrate). Paul says this is not good enough. One can presume the Corinthian problem is just more of the same, more identity through difference – mind against body – heaven against earth – light against dark – being over against nothingness – or spirit against flesh, but to presume Paul concurs precludes the very need for such a letter and such harsh warnings.  

While one can appreciate that prime reality is Spirit, part of realizing this essence is not to subtract matter or flesh as an obstacle to the One who conceived it but to realize the physical body is fully itself when joined to Spirit.

 As Tertullian(160-220 A.D.) puts it, “Shall that very flesh, which the Divine Creator formed with His own hands in the image of God; which He animated with His own Spirit, after the likeness of His own vital vigour; which He set over all the works of His hand, to dwell amongst, to enjoy, and to rule them; which He clothed with His sacraments and His instructions; whose purity He loves, whose mortifications He approves; whose sufferings for Himself He deems precious; — (shall that flesh, I say), so often brought near to God, not rise again? God forbid. God forbid, (I repeat), that He should abandon to everlasting destruction the labour of His own hands, the care of His own thoughts, the receptacle of His own Spirit, the queen of His creation, the inheritor of His own liberality, the priestess of His religion, the champion of His testimony, the sister of His Christ!”[6]

[1]David Bentley Hart,  “The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients,” in Church Life Journal (July 26, 2018),

[2] My source on this paragraph is Ryan Hemmer whose incisive insight came right as I was writing this blog thus I added this paragraph. Here is the key idea for Hart and the entire quote: “Spirit,” by contrast—πνεῦμα or spiritus—was something quite different, a kind of life not bound to death or to the irrational faculties of brute nature, inherently indestructible and incorruptible, and not confined to any single cosmic sphere. It could survive anywhere, and could move with complete liberty among all the spiritual realms, as well as in the material world here below. Spirit was something subtler but also stronger, more vital, more glorious than the worldly elements of a coarse corruptible body compounded of earthly soul and material flesh.” If his focus elsewhere was on continuity and transformation of the flesh and not discontinuity, and was not factually and theologically suspect, and if he had recognized the peculiar application of Spirit by Paul, this particular passage might have had insightful elements.

[3] James P. Ware,  “The Incarnation Doesn’t End with the Resurrection,” Church Life Journal (June 21, 2019), Ware provides extensive counter examples. One example, Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165) – “They who maintain the wrong opinion say that there is no resurrection of the flesh; giving as their reason that it is impossible that what is corrupted and dissolved should be restored to the same as it had been. And besides the impossibility, they say that the salvation of the flesh is disadvantageous; and they abuse the flesh, adducing its infirmities, and declare that it only is the cause of our sins, so that if the flesh, say they, rise again, our infirmities also rise with it.” (Fragments, 2).

[4] A less generous assessment is to be found here:

 [5] According to Ware, “This is something that never occurs in pagan literature, and is contrary to the usual collocation of “soul” and “spirit” in Jewish and Christian texts. Graeco-Roman thinkers did not use “spirit” (pneuma) in contrast with “soul” (psyche), as Hart claims. Platonists and Peripatetics used pneuma (Latin: spiritus) straightforwardly of the “breath” and “air” exhaled by the lungs. The Stoics used the word in this way as well, but they also used it of the divine spirit or pneuma that they believed pervades the universe and subsists as the soul (psyche) within each person.” 

[6] Tertullian, De Resurrectione Carnis, 8 – 9. Thank you for pointing me to this quote Joelle.

Beyond Hysteria: From Frankenstein’s Monster to Hegel, Freud, and Paul

For most of human history people lived out their lives in the codified cocoon of traditional societies in which the cosmic order was presumed to dictate immutable laws determining every aspect of human life. One might respond by submitting or transgressing, but the laws were held in place by divine dictate. To change up the world order was not a possibility and was made a possibility only by one who would claim to be the way, the truth, and the life. Changing the world order is a possibility introduced by Christianity but the notion of freedom, even among the first Christian heretics, is perverted to mean an absolute freedom from all constraint.  Freedom from the law combined with the revolutionary notion of recreating the world, apart from the specifics of the work of Christ, created a stream of thought already developing in the Corinthian Church but famously represented by such key figures as Descartes, Hegel and Nietzsche. Beginning with doubt and constructing from the foundations up (Descartes), with death and nothingness itself as foundational (Hegel), philosophy marked the turning to a radical freedom in which no values hold (Nietzsche). Continue reading “Beyond Hysteria: From Frankenstein’s Monster to Hegel, Freud, and Paul”

Deconstructing “Absolute Truth” to Arrive at the Truth of Christ

The NT understanding of the meaning of the death of Christ, reflected in the earliest theology, is that humankind exists under a delusion or a lie from which the truth of Christ redeems.  This is an understanding largely abandoned with the turn, worked out by Anselm, to the law as the final and full explanation of the meaning of the death of Christ. An aspect of the shift surrounding the atonement (from Christus Victor or its near equivalents to divine satisfaction) is that Christian truth was no longer counter to the truth of the principalities and the powers of this world. The era of Constantine, through Anselm, Calvin, and the modernist era are characterized by the development of a notion of secular truth which parallels the truth of Christ. The NT depiction of the truth of Christ is that it challenges the truth offered by this world and constitutes a new world and a new order of truth. Continue reading “Deconstructing “Absolute Truth” to Arrive at the Truth of Christ”