Creation as Incarnation – A Communion Meditation with Maximus

“The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things” (Maximus, Ambigua, 7.22). As Maximus explains: “This is the great and hidden mystery. This is the blessed end for which all things were brought into existence. This is the divine purpose conceived before the beginning of beings, and in defining it we would say that this mystery is the preconceived goal for the sake of which everything exists, but which itself exists on account of nothing, and it was with a view to this end that God created the essences of beings” (QThal. 60.3).[1]

Maximus’ formula not only provides the interpretive key to creation and “everything that exists,” but it establishes the concrete mode in which interpretation occurs. The danger in describing Maximus’ Christo-logic, is to turn it into an abstraction or principle, when he is referring throughout to the person of Christ. There is the constant danger, Maximus warns against, of mistaking words for the Word. The letter, the principle, the abstraction, the form, the theory, threaten to displace the Person. On the other hand, the material, the “substance,” the elemental, threaten from the other direction, when these too are departures (abstractions of a different order). All things hold together, whether symbolic or material, in His Person.

In short, every event, every point of creation, every true idea, contains and is contained in the incarnate Christ. He is a flesh and blood person, but even flesh and blood and person are comprehended in Him. According to Maximus, He is not simply another instance of a person or individual, but personhood and individual are comprehended in Him. Creation is incarnation means that all things are framed and comprehended in the Christ-event.

One way of approaching the difference this makes, is in regard to the Eucharist. The arguments surrounding communion betray the fallacy of reducing the Christ-event to an abstraction. Here is the point at which incarnation takes hold in creation, and yet the discussion focuses on the nature of the elements and the point of transformation. Arguments about transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or pure symbolism, miss the Christ-event, confusing it with the material elements. All flesh and blood, all bread and wine, every human body, begins and ends with incarnation. Incarnation is not the transformation of bread and wine into flesh and blood, rather here is creation as Incarnation (the Christ-Event). Flesh and blood do not constitute the person, rather Christ constitutes the flesh and blood. The Lord’s Supper is the enactment of the body of Christ – or the person of Christ within believers. Literal reduction or symbolic abstraction of blood and flesh reifies the sign and misses the person of Christ and the purpose of the meal.

The point is to destroy what would reduce and abstract (that which killed him, which was the attempted destruction of the person and a reduction to flesh and blood). The material elements do not constitute personhood, but the Christ-event incorporates these elements into Incarnation and personhood. Christ’s personhood is the condition of creation, and incorporation into this condition is not an abstraction, reduction or symbolization, but is the reality enacted, shared, and celebrated in the love feast of the body of Christ. Transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and Zwinglian symbolism miss the person for the sign, falling short of the person in the material form and missing the Person in pure abstraction.

The Lord’s Supper is the center of the founding of a new community, a new economics, a new ethics of sacrificial love. It is the mystery of the Incarnation actualized. “This is the great and hidden mystery. This is the blessed end for which all things were brought into existence. This is the divine purpose conceived before the beginning of beings, and in defining it we would say that this mystery is the preconceived goal for the sake of which everything exists, but which itself exists on account of nothing, and it was with a view to this end that God created the essences of beings.”  Creation in Incarnation, enacted in incorporation into the person of Christ. This is the significance of the Lord’s Supper.

[1] On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios abbreviated as QThal.

Escaping the Meaning that Kills

“For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep.” (1 Cor. 11:30).

We normally think of meaning in positive terms, as that which gives a narrative whole and goal to our lives, but what if the story that shapes our lives is killing us. A punishing, angry God, like a father who can never be pleased, a system of acquisition and consumption which can never satisfy, an isolated sense of self focused on autonomy and choice, may provide a religious, capitalistic, individualistic system of values but the system itself may be diseased. Meaning systems are necessary for survival, but they are also that which create the environment of life, potentially producing stresses and traumas as part of the system, which science is more and more linking with the increase of disease.

The first step in recognizing the role of culture, meaning, religion, and belief in physical health is mind/body holism, in which we instinctively and practically recognize that the body and mind cannot be split. What we believe, think, and experience, leave an imprint on our physical health. Physicians, such as Dr. Gabor Maté, are beginning to explore the relationship between trauma and repression and the increase of a variety of diseases. Rather than simply treating the physical symptoms (the physical disease) he began to recognize that the root cause of disease can be linked to stress or trauma. Maté realized, as coordinator of the Palliative Care Unit at Vancouver Hospital, that patients with chronic illness often shared an emotional history. “Similar dynamics and ways of coping were present in the people who came to us for palliation with cancers or degenerative neurological processes like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.” In his private practice the same pattern appeared in patients with “multiple sclerosis, inflammatory ailments of the bowel such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, autoimmune disorders, bromyalgia, migraine, skin disorders, endometriosis and many other conditions.”[1]

There is even a new field of medicine, psychoneuroimmunology, tracing the link between the brain and the immune system. Emotional makeup and stress have been linked to diseases such as scleroderma, and the vast majority of rheumatic disorders, the inflammatory bowel disorders, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis.[2] Maté cites a study of medical students under the pressure of examination, demonstrating that their immune system was suppressed. He notes that loneliness has been shown to have similar results in psychiatric inpatients, concluding: “Even if no further research evidence existed—though there is plenty —one would have to consider the long-term effects of chronic stress. The pressure of examinations is obvious and short term, but many people unwittingly spend their entire lives as if under the gaze of a powerful and judgmental examiner whom they must please at all costs.”[3] His description verges on the theological, with certain forms of Christianity and other religions, projecting onto God the role of examiner, making all of life a final exam. If the problem is not religion per se, it may be we do not have emotionally satisfying relationships which “recognize or honour our deepest needs.”[4] At the deepest level, the level of experience and meaning, we may not recognize that we are filtering the world through an understanding which is spiritually, psychologically and physically, sickening.

As has been widely noted, our culture is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. An article in JAMA journal of psychiatry refers to this epidemic of loneliness as responsible for the death of 1 American every 5.5 minutes due to suicide and opioid overdose. An annual mortality of 162,000 Americans is attributable to loneliness (exceeding the number of deaths from cancer or stroke), which is a term that, according to the British historian Fay Bound Alberti, did not exist in the English language until 1800.[5] It is not simply that people are not connecting with others, but the very notion of self is disconnected. As Charles Taylor describes it, “We are ‘buffered’ selves.” We conceive and experience the self, not as in traditional societies as porous and interconnected, but in an inner mental space.[6] This self-conception creates the condition for developing acute loneliness. The very concept of self, pits the self against others, and even within the self our mind is divided, with the inner self in conflict with the outer self or the “body.”

Meanwhile, theologically inclined psychologists have developed the new field called Neurotheology, which recognizes, not only does our understanding of God shape our mental health, it shapes our brain as well. Recent studies in this new field show that the view that God is angry, punishing, or loving, directly impacts the growth and shape of the brain. Andrew Newberg, a leading researcher in the new field, has scanned the brains of praying nuns, chanting Sikhs and meditating Buddhists so as to demonstrate the relationship between the brain and religious experience.[7] Timothy R. Jennings, a medical doctor, in The God Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life,compares the impact on the brain of an angry or loving concept of God.[8] As he notes, “Brain-imaging studies have demonstrated that the more time a person spends in communion with the God of love, the more developed the ACC (the anterior cingulate cortex) becomes. Not only that, the person experiences decreases in stress hormones, blood pressure, heart rate and risk of untimely death. Even in our mortal and defective bodies, love is healing. Conversely, the more time spent contemplating an angry, wrathful, fear-inducing deity, the more damage to the brain and the more rapidly one’s health declines, leading to early death.”[9] Not only does this demonstrate a mind/body connection, but implicitly, a God/human connection of expansive proportions (a point I return to below).

It is not simply one’s view of God, as religion may or may not enter in to our understanding and experience of reality. The tendency may be to project an image onto God, as an extension of the superego – the punishing father figure who personifies a retributive legal order, such that it is not doctrine or belief about God, but an inner bent or pattern which takes precedent. Getting rid of a punishing God, for example, through atheism may (and in my experience, often does) simply unleash an obscene superego figure which is beyond religious control. Ex-believers may continue to feel the punishing effects of the God they do not believe in. The law or father-figure of the conscience, is not subject to denial. The real issue is not so much God, but how to get rid of an oppressive experience of self and the world, which may or may not be experienced as religion.

Psychotheology, as I have developed the term, fuses Lacanian psychology with a (fuller) reading of Paul, so that psychoanalysis finds the completion of its categories and the resolution of the human predicament in theology. The Lacanian understanding develops what Paul calls “the body of death” which is the isolated, interior notion of the self, but Lacan does not counter this understanding in the way that Paul does, with being joined to “the body of Christ.” As a result, for Lacan, death drive or the superego is a constant factor in a person’s life. The only possibility is to manipulate this force for death, but there is no deliverance. As a result, the isolated sense of self, the inner dialectic between ego and superego, or between the law of the mind and the law of the body, is a permanent condition.

In Pauline terms, 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 or the symbolic and this constitutes the work of death (the death drive, in Lacanian terminology). Meaning systems, as we have them, take effect within this system (translated into religion or economics or personal striving) between the ego and superego (or the law). One scores points, gets ahead, establishes themselves, according to the zero-sum game of the score-keeper (God, the superego, the cultural imperative). The symbolic of this body of death is the very substance of meaning, and to escape this system is to escape meaning as our world constitutes it.

As Paul Hessert has described, the encounter with Christ brings an end, or should, to meaning as we know it.[10] But of course, the opposite is also often the case, as Christ is made to support our meaning systems (be they legal atonement theories, nationalism, capitalism, or some other measure of success). These systems are “meaningful” according to the point or end toward which they take us. For example, education is only judged meaningful, if at graduation a job is secured – otherwise it may be judged meaningless. Christianity may be meaningful in this context, as it serves to bolster the goals of society – a good education, a good job, a happy family. What possible purpose for a faith that does not serve, or perhaps interrupts, the accepted pattern of meaning.

As Hessert notes though, the New Testament describes culture has having an “endemic flaw” summed up in the term covetousness. The greed or desire of culture is its shaping force and value system, which according to the New Testament is definitive: ”I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world” (1 Cor. 5:9–10). The world is constituted by covetousness, and to be shaped by the world is to partake of this meaning system (see Eph. 5:3, 5; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 2:5, Heb. 13:5, 2 Pet. 2:3). This is what belief embraces and what unbelief cannot begin to fathom, as unbelief is founded in the meaning system immediately available. As Hessert puts it, “Covetousness names the dynamic of the meaningful life of self-realization, self-development.”[11] In Paul’s terms, covetousness (as in Romans 7:7) constitutes an “ethos” or orientation to the law, in which the I is ever striving and never achieving. The demands for attaining and improving are constant, as there is no achieving the illusive object behind the law. Paul calls it “the body of death” as the alienated individual in relationship to self is involved in a deadly struggle. The body or self is objectified, something one has, rather than what one is. The body is a means to fulfillment (or not). “There is no choice within the culture-body between self-fulfillment and non-self-fulfillment.” The choice is only “how self-fulfillment is to be –achieved and expressed” and the body provides the instrumentation. “In the ‘body of death,’ . . . the life of the body is only ancillary to its parts (‘members’).”[12] Modern medicine has taken this understanding to the extreme, picturing the body in terms of a mechanical apparatus (e.g., the heart as a pump, the brain as a computer, etc.,) and like much of theology, it does not address the root of sickness.

Paul’s other usage of “body” pictures not the individual, but the corporate body of the church, or the body of Christ. “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12). This resurrection body exceeds the possibility of meaning provided in the body of death – “resurrection is not a possibility of the body of death, as though that body destined for death might have an entirely different order of life hidden within it. While from the standpoint of the body of death there may be renewed life, there is no resurrection, no other life. Even imagination, bound to meaning, fails at this point.” Paul (in Romans 6) pictures resurrection life as death. There is a dying to meaning. “This death is not the transition to another ‘life’ within the body of death, another set of possibilities (‘life beyond the grave’). It is not the death that meaning is able to encompass and transcend. The death associated with resurrection is total and final death.”[13] In this ultimate relinquishment of meaning, resurrection occurs.

As Christ describes it, this is a completely different environment: “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you. As a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself, but must remain part of the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing” (John 15:1-5, JB). This different environing does not depend on its members, on the body, or on the branches, for life. In the body of death, the body borrows its life from its members. The members of the physical body or other members of the cultural body provide life, and delivers it to others. In Paul’s imagery, it is only through being incorporated into the body of Christ, that the eye, the hand, the foot, or a particular individual has access to life. “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).

Thus, in the celebration and realization of being incorporated into this body, to turn to consumptive desire is a return to the body of death – which is quite literally, in Paul’s estimate, deadly: “Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk” (1 Cor. 11:20–21). They have turned to a covetous biting and devouring one another. “For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep” (1 Cor. 11:29–30). They have traded life for death, and this impacts them bodily/spiritually/physically.

[1]Gabor Maté, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress (Alfred a Knopf, 2003) 57-58.

[2] Maté, 47.

[3] Maté, 54-55.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dilip V Jeste, Ellen E Lee, Stephanie Cacioppo, “Battling the Modern Behavioral Epidemic of Loneliness: Suggestions for Research and Interventions,” JAMA psychiatry, 77(6)

[6] Charles Taylor, “Buffered and porous selves”

[7] Andrew Newberg,

[8] Timothy R. Jennings, The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life (InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition).

[9] Jennings, 42.

[10] Paul Hessert, Christ and the End of Meaning: The Theology of Passion (Rockport, Massachusetts: Element Inc., 1993).

[11] Hessert, 190.

[12] Hessert, 194.

[13] Hessert, 197.

What Happened to the Jesus People?

This week I watched Jesus Revolution, the story of the Jesus Movement in Southern California, and it brought back memories of what, at least according to Time magazine, was the greatest spiritual awakening in American history. I was not familiar with the characters and events in the film, yet it all seemed so familiar from my experience in Kansas (of all places). The film might leave the impression this was a local event that spread, but it seemed more of a spontaneous combustion igniting across the country. Counter-culture, drug-culture, youth-culture meet Jesus was not an isolated event; at least it seemed spontaneous with us. Which raises the question as to what it was and what happened to it?

The most obvious lasting effect in most churches is the music (which to my ears started so sweet and has now become intolerable), the vague influences of the charismatic movement (mostly reduced to hand raising), casual attire, and the lack of concern with denominational markers. As portrayed in the film, the movement was intensely evangelistic – a lot of handing out tracks and dramatic personal testimony. The tenor may have been Hal Lindsey (the end is coming) meets David Wilkerson style evangelism, but there was also a sense of return to the early church and communalism (at least we made a run at it, as did many others). But other than the rise of new forms of worship and the “new paradigm” churches such as Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard Fellowship, the theology was more of the same. Even the focus on peace and love was gradually absorbed into the general evangelical ethos.

In the end, sociologically and politically, the movement captured a large portion of the counter-culture for the Republican Party and right-wing conservatism. The evangelical sub-culture became a social, cultural, and political force of mainstream proportions in the 1980’s, and a major contribution must have been that the Jesus Movement succeeded in preserving “traditional” values for many counter-cultural “radicals.”

The even greater irony – the anti-materialistic Jesus Movement gave birth to the church growth movement, with its pure materialism of bigger is better. The open acceptance in the Jesus Movement of youth culture, translated into a seeker-friendly anti-theological focus – not for the purposes of openness, peace and love – but for larger numbers. The unity of the Jesus Movement, in its rejection of denominational division – was a felt unity, the crossing of boundaries that has translated into bland sameness.  The radical edge (however vague it was) is long gone and is unwelcome in groups seeking the largest common denominator. No mention of hard doctrine (certainly not anti-materialism, nonviolence or views of God and atonement advocating as much), politics, or pressing social issues, are generally welcome.

The Jesus Movement came with a lot of baggage, which no one was sure how to deal with, and which subsequently was translated into an already existing evangelical theological understanding. This is partly reflected in the Jesus Revolution’s treatment of Lonnie Frisbee. Lonnie came to Jesus during an LSD trip. He assumed Jesus had come to earth on a flying saucer, and he was an active homosexual, none of which is mentioned in the film. He must have adjusted some of his doctrine, but part of his radical appeal (he was the original draw for the large crowds) was his assumption that God was speaking to him and that he was a latter day prophet on the order of John the Baptist. He would eventually contract aids, but it is clear in subsequent interviews that Chuck Smith never knew what to do with his sexuality (other than that he should repent of it), let alone his free-wheeling theology. As Smith tells it, he backslid, contracted aids, and then repented.  The bizarre, and obviously fragile human nature of Lonnie, was not simply his “weakness” but the very thing that drew the crowds.

The same thing could be said for Larry Norman, who is not treated in the film, but who claimed to be the father of contemporary Christian music. Larry came through our town in Kansas, and embodied the cool of Jesus Music. His were some of the most memorable lyrics of the period, but Larry suffered from mental illness, probably arising from childhood sexual abuse. Friends and family did not intervene or confront him; it just seemed that Jesus did not deliver him, and that he too tended to backslide. Evangelical theology was not and is not capable of accounting for the fragile, beautiful, but broken humanity with which it was openly confronted by the Jesus Movement.

The great joy of the time is the most memorable part of the period, and I think for many of us who passed through the period, that joy has been preserved, not through the focus on experientialism but through grappling at an intellectual and theological level with the deep things of God. The Jesus Movement was heavy with experience and light on theology, but many of us were naturally inducted, through thinkers like Francis Schaeffer (with all of his limitations) C. S. Lewis and others, into a deeper theological pursuit and a conversation that is unending.

This is my recommendation to this generation seeking revival (through what often seems a misplaced experientialism): the abiding experience of joy comes with an ever-deepening transformation of the mind.

“Jesus Came to Fulfill the Law”: The Deadly Misunderstanding of the Pharisees and Penal Substitution

Legal theories of the atonement, such as satisfaction theories or penal substitution, not only preserve violent notions of God and allow for human violence (as in just war, capital punishment, self-defense, etc. etc.) but keep alive Zionist notions of Israel and nationalism (e.g., the United States is a Christian nation etc.) through preserving the primacy of the law given to Israel. Not only the violence of God, the violence of humanity, and violent nationalism, are preserved but the cancer afflicting the depths of human interiority are unaddressed in legal theories of the atonement. This conception leaves human desire, rivalry, jealousy, anger and need for violence, undisturbed. Worse, legal theories, such as penal substitution, serve to aggravate self-punishing oppression, as it is presumed human conscience is the voice of God. If God would torture and kill his Son, no wonder that this violent force is unleashed in self-apprehension.

Whether or not the interior and exterior can be separated, what is clear is that legal theories, in preserving the primacy of the law, leave the human disease (exterior and interior) untouched. The war rages within and without and the predominant understanding of the cross adds fuel to the fire – providing a religious confirmation for the worst forms of evil. This dark prognosis is evident at a time when some of the worst actors on the national and world stage are evangelical Christians (e.g., with the promotion of ethnic cleansing in Gaza, the denial of the environmental crisis, the promotion of right-wing racism around the world, and the looming crisis for democracy in the United States).

The New Testament converges on the human predicament, the war within and the war without, in what it does with the law – but it is not that Jesus satisfies the law, affirms and maintains the law, or confirms the eternal purposes of the law. Jesus introduces something new. Which brings us to the exegetical contention over what it means, in Matthew 5:17, that Jesus came to fulfill the law.

Doesn’t this mean, as many contend, that Jesus is the correct interpreter, putting the final exclamation point on the commandments, forever confirming the validity of the law – and isn’t this what it means that he fulfilled it and did not abolish it? Afterall, doesn’t Jesus go on to affirm that every “jot and tittle” – the “smallest letter and stroke” – must be preserved? It all has to be “accomplished” and this accomplishment will mark those who enter in to the kingdom Jesus is proclaiming. It is clear in Matthew 5, the law is not fulfilled and its purpose is not accomplished apart from the person and teaching of Christ, who does not simply confirm the law, but brings forth something new. This new order and new kingdom Jesus describes (throughout chapter 5), was promised and anticipated by the law, but it was not contained in the law. The law of love, or Jesus statement of a new ethical order, is not a restatement of the Mosaic law, but an abrogation, deepening, redirection, and contradiction of the law, all of which is aimed at Jesus and the new kingdom he is ushering in.

Perhaps the most telling point, indicating Jesus’ intent, is the final verse of this thought: “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:21). Apparently, those most attached to law-keeping have not achieved the righteousness for which the law was intended and toward which it pointed. This indicates that “fulfill” cannot simply mean that Jesus fulfills the law as in accomplishing what it foretold (as what is missing is righteousness). Certainly, he fulfilled certain predictions and filled out certain typologies, but this verse speaks of “fulfilling all righteousness.” He is ushering in a righteousness which the law could not accomplish and which the harshest advocates of the law completely missed. How did they fail and what did the miss? What is the substance of the righteousness which they could not grasp? Is it that Jews could not keep the law, and Jesus succeeds (as in legal theories of atonement), or is it that they have missed the significance of Jesus?

It is not simply that the scribes and Pharisees fail to obey the law as their problem is more serious: “For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Matt. 23:13). In this passage, Jesus lays at their feet, in their attitude toward him, the history of murder: “So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets” (Matt. 23:31). They would murder the Messiah, just as their fathers did the prophets. Their problem is more serious than hypocritical showmanship or a legalistic failure. In their clinging to the retributive system of the law (which seems to promote hypocrisy), they reject and kill the Messiah. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling” (Matt. 23:37). They have stumbled over Christ, rejecting him and in so doing imagining that they were thus upholding the law and the temple.

If we imagine their problem was primarily the law, the danger is we commit the same error. In penal substitution, it is taught they could not perform the law adequately and Jesus performs it and thus fulfills it. But what this misses, is that the law always pointed beyond itself, to Jesus. Just as Jesus is the point of the temple, the sacrifices, and the priesthood, so too he is the point of torah. The scribes and Pharisees were pretty good at understanding and doing law, but what they missed was Jesus. They did not stumble over the law; they stumbled over Jesus. They clung to the sign and missed what it signified, but so too modern Christians who imagine that penal substitution – Jesus’ performance of the law and his bearing its penalty – is his fulfillment of the law.

Israel, the law, the temple, all looked forward to what they did not contain – a living temple, a peaceable kingdom, a new creation, a new birth, and a new form of humanity. As Jesus indicates, the purpose for which he came was to fulfill the law; that is to usher in righteousness and the kingdom of righteousness. In this kingdom it is not simply murder, but murderous anger that is outlawed; it is not simply adultery, but adulterous thoughts that are to be brought under control; it is not simply false promises but the very need for swearing, selfishness, or revenge that are precluded. In the bluntest manner, Jesus abrogates the law, setting forth its inherent inadequacy as an end in itself.

Throughout the passage (Matt. 5), Jesus is making direct reference to torah. “But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Ex. 21:23–25). His summary of the lex talionas (“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”) is not a gloss, interpretation, or oral tradition. Jesus is referencing the heart of the law. “You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matt. 5:38–39). The law is specific and Jesus quite specifically overturns it.

The law allows for and calls for vengeance, but in the kingdom of God there is no retribution. Jesus references the decalogue and the Mosaic law some six times only to overturn it each time. This is brought out in Jesus’ sharpest example, the passage from hatred to love: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43-33). As David VanDrunen argues, “Many claim that ‘hate your enemy’ is a clear example of an oral tradition or contemporary teaching that illegitimately added something to the Mosaic law. On the contrary, ‘hate your enemy’ summarizes a line of Old Testament teaching. In fact, ‘hate your enemy’ was such an important part of the Mosaic legal order that no one could be a faithful Israelite without doing it.”[1]

While fellow Israelites were to receive special consideration, certain alien persons were to be hated, obliterated and shown “no favor” (no compassion, mercy or love, Deut. 7:1-2). “Do I not hate those who hate You, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with the utmost hatred; They have become my enemies” (Ps. 13921-22). Jesus is not saying they have heard wrong (when he says, “you have heard it said”), he is saying you have heard it read from the law, but I am saying something different (Matthew 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44). “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (5:45). Keeping the law, by definition, is to fall short of the kingdom of God ushered in by Jesus.

Jesus does not question the interpretation of the law given by the scribes and Pharisees. It is true, as the Pharisees point out, one should not normally associate with sinners (Psalm 1:1), one should normally obey the rules regarding fasting, and one should not work on the Sabbath – this is all according to the law. What the Pharisees failed to recognize is Jesus as the purpose, fulfillment and accomplishment of the law. Jesus’ purpose was to heal the sick and to save sinners: “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). He is the bridegroom and “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?” (9:15). The Pharisees lack mercy and demand strict adherence to the law, and in so doing they break the law and miss its purpose: “Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT A SACRIFICE,’ you would not have condemned the innocent” (Matt. 12:5–7). Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath (12:8), he is greater than the temple (12:6), and he is greater than Moses and the law (Heb. 3:3-4), but all of these are indicators of who he is.

Jesus’ fulfillment or accomplishing of the law is no simple confirmation, nor is it simply a tighter or inward confirmation rather, Jesus sets up a direct antithesis between his teaching, his kingdom, and his law of love, and the Mosaic law. It is not that the Mosaic law is abolished, but its significance is now apprehended through Christ. Just as the temple and its sacrifices take on their fulfilled meaning in Jesus as true temple and true atonement, so too all of the Mosaic law is significant in its bearing witness to Christ. The Mosaic law remains significant, as it points to this new ethic and new kingdom, with its more fulsome commandments and holistic fulfillment in Christ.

This is not an ethic for worldly kingdoms (such as Israel), grounded as they are in retribution, but the “heavenly kingdom.” Jesus came announcing this kingdom at the beginning of his public ministry, and the beatitudes (meekness, peace, love, going the second mile, etc.) mark the righteous nature of this kingdom’s citizens. It is not that these kingdom members accomplish this apart from Christ, but this is what it means that he would save his people from their sins. This kingdom ethic flows from its founder, creating a new people. Jesus is the fulfillment of all righteousness and being incorporated into his kingdom means embracing his eschatological and cosmic fulness. The law is not accomplished or fulfilled in perfect performance of its strictures, but in the appearance of its purpose.

If the scribes and Pharisees can be said to have missed Jesus by clinging to the law, so too legal theories of the atonement make the same mistake. They both miss how it is that Jesus “will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). They miss the very meaning of his name (the name “Jesus” or “Joshua” derives from Hebrew roots meaning “the Lord is salvation”) and they miss the fact that Jesus is the salvific point of the law, and the law has no point (no salvation) without him.

[1] David VanDrunen Jesus Came “Not to Abolish the Law but to Fulfill It”: The Sermon on the Mount and Its Implications for Contemporary Law, 47 Pepp. L. Rev. 523 (2020) Available at:

Jesus’ Challenge to Christian Zionism

“Prominent Israeli officials have called not simply for the defeat of Hamas but for the annihilation of Gaza, the starving of its population, and the removal of Palestinians from some or all of its territory. The Israeli president suggested that civilians in the Hamas-controlled territory are not ‘innocent.’”[1] Washington Post

“We are the mother who is not willing to rip her child to shreds. We are the true mothers of Jerusalem.”[2] The Master of Ceremonies at an Israeli rally comprised of a quarter-million people in Jerusalem

The first quote comes from yesterday’s Washington Post and the second from an article in the same paper in 2001, when Bill Clinton proposed sovereignty over east Jerusalem be divided between Israel and a Palestinian state. For some Jews, the land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem cannot be shared (it would be the equivalent of Solomon slicing the child brought to him in half in 1 Kings 3:16–28), as it is their land by divine fiat. Jewish identity is, for many, tied to the land, which in the world’s religions is not unusual. Sacred shrines, sacred groves, sacred mountains, and sacred land, are thematic in the world’s religions, and most particularly Judaism, but my concern is what role Christianity plays in the notion of a sacred land.

Cleanliness and the Temple

Ethnic cleansing is not far removed from notions of purity that are tied to sacred land. In the Hebrew Bible, Gentiles, along with blood, dead bodies, the sick, women in their menstrual cycle, certain foods, and certain religions (e.g., idolatrous and Samaritan) are a pollution to the land. In fact, God seems to condone genocide in order to cleanse the land of its original inhabitants, and thus create a sacred land and people.

When the LORD your God brings you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and stronger than you, and when the LORD your God delivers them before you and you defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. (Dt. 7:1–2)

First century Jews could agree that the problem is pollution and the answer cleansing, but what they could not agree on was how to cleanse the land. The priests would have focused on the sacrificial cleanliness of the temple, while the Pharisees considered themselves an alternative to the priests with an alternative mode of cleanliness. Many Jews, such as the Qumran community, considered Herod’s temple and its hierarchy and priesthood corrupt, and so they looked forward to the establishment of the real temple, and true purification. As Karen Wennell describes, “The Qumran community separate themselves from the Jerusalem temple and can therefore view themselves as a temple community in opposition to the institution in Jerusalem, the problem being that the temple is no longer the seat of the law, but that Israel has not followed the correct law because it was rooted in the wrong temple.”[3]

The temple was the center for cleansing, sending out concentric circles of holiness from the holy of holies to the holy place, with God’s holiness flowing through the temple, to all of Israel (Ex. 25:8-9). It is not entirely clear how literally or symbolically this may have been conceived. Isaiah or God declares, that God obviously does not dwell in temples made by man (Is. 66:1-2), and it was to be understood the temple, priests and sacrifices, were a symbolic order pointing to a reality they did not contain. Both Stephen and Paul reference Isaiah, Stephen to Jews and Paul to Gentiles, to make the case they may have all instinctively understood, that temples or any place do not literally contain God.

The temple as symbolic is accentuated with the controversies surrounding the second temple. It was clear the temple represented, not so much the power of God, but bestowed a more material power, thus it was considered by many to be corrupt at its root. The closer one could position themselves to the temple, the greater power one exercised, but this was not spiritual power (at least in the estimate of the Pharisees, the Samaritans, and the Qumran community). Priestly power flowed from proximity to Roman and Herodian power, along with the wealth afforded those receiving the tithes of Israel. The wealthiest priests lived, with their families close to the temple. “There were bridges from the western wall of the enclosure leading to Jerusalem’s upper city. Here, the prominent ruling and priestly families had homes connecting them directly to the temple building.”[4] Josephus in Antiquities (18.90-95) indicates Herod and then Rome kept direct control over the high priest’s vestments, loaning them out only as needed. In addition, Rome maintained a fortress located next to the temple, fortified by extra troops during temple festivals giving them direct control over its activities (War 2.224; Ant. 20.106-107).[5] While there may have been a more unanimous understanding surrounding Solomon’s Temple, there was a great deal of contention as to whether the second temple was accomplishing or corrupting its purpose.  

Jesus, Cleanliness and the Temple

Jesus’ kingdom, ushering in the rule and sovereignty of God, was clearly not tied to a particular land or temple, but was a message to be preached to the ends of the earth. This kingdom is cosmic and universal, and it never occurred to anyone to localize it, but each new group of believers was its own temple, living stones spreading God’s presence. As Paul describes, Christ’s rule is cosmic and all inclusive: “For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col 1:19–20).

Jesus not only did not concern himself with observing the boundaries between Israel and Samaria, he did not concern himself with ritual boundaries, such as food laws, sabbath keeping, laws of cleanliness, or the special role assigned to priests, scribes and Pharisees. Among his followers, we find both zealots and those who consorted with Rome. With Paul, and many of the early Christians, the Pharisees are widely represented among his followers. We also find the Sanhedrin represented by Nicodemus. All of this to say, Jesus was not concerned with the various arguments among the Jews about what place is holy or which modes of ritual cleanliness are correct. Jesus had come to unite them all, not by litigating their arguments, but by setting the discussion in a different register. “But the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness’” (Lk 11:39). The Pharisees were concerned the land and the people were polluted due to a ritual uncleanness, but Jesus dismissed their concerns, and focused on human interiority rather than spatial and ritual pollution.

The mode to purity, in Jesus’ system, is not through a sacred place, sacred rituals, or a sacred building, but through himself. At the beginning of John (as I have described it here), Jesus disrupts the Passover sacrifice in the temple with a sign which, in his explanation, points to himself as true temple: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The temple incident is not about cleaning up Herod’s temple nor is it about getting rid of coin exchange (it was necessary that the coins bearing Caesars image be exchanged for those with “no graven images”) or animals being sold. As Mary Coloe points out, such trade was not itself wrong; rather, “his words and actions must be seen as a prophetic critique of the entire sacrificial system.”[6] The Jewish response indicates as much, as they do not question why he did it but ask what sign he could give that he had the authority to do such a thing. They did not take his action as some sort of violent assault on the temple, but presumed it called for a legitimating sign of authority, as with Moses’ “signs and wonders” (Deut. 34:11). They knew the prophecies concerning the end of sacrifice and the limitation of the efficacy of animal sacrifice, and indeed, Jesus is declaring the end of the sacrificial system, as he is true temple and true sacrifice. As Jacob Neusner describes Jesus’ action in the temple, it “represents an act of the rejection of the most important rite of the Israelite cult and therefore, a statement that there is a means of atonement other than the daily whole-offering, which now is null.”[7]

The particular pollution that Jesus cleanses from, which temple cult, sacrifice, and law, all pointed toward but which they could not accomplish, was cleansing from death and the grave. In brief, John is identifying the life God provides in Christ (the work of the Lamb in Egypt celebrated in Passover) as the means of “taking away the sin of the world.” The life of God as the rescue from sin and death is the means by which sins are taken away.

It is precisely assignment of the sacred to a place that Jesus challenges, in that he himself now occupies and opens up life to all everywhere. The Hebrew Bible certainly places a (the?) primary importance on the “holy land” and many Jews today retain focus on the land of Israel as an essential part of Jewish identity, but the radical difference Jesus introduces is a challenge to this understanding.  Jesus and Christianity broke from Jewish attachment to sacred places, such as the temple and the land. Christ and Christianity are universalized, and so are not attached to a particular place, a particular space, a particular building or a particular land. As Jesus explains to the woman of Samaria, “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23–24). Those attached to a holy building or a holy land are not the true spiritual worshipers Jesus describes.

The creation of the modern state of Israel, and the ongoing displacement of Palestinians, supported by Christian Zionists, raises once again the question of the role of Christianity in colonialism. Does Jesus challenge or confirm the fusion of the sacred with particular places or a sacred land? The clear and obvious teaching of the New Testament does not accord with the history of “Christian colonialism” in which lands have been conquered and peoples removed in the name of Christ, nor does it accord with widespread support of Israel and its ethnic cleansing of Palestinians among modern Christians. God’s purposes are not localized in a chosen land, but they are realized through the gift of his Son to all everywhere.

[1] Ishaan Tharoor, “Israel’s war in Gaza and the specter of ‘genocide’”, Washington Post, (November 7, 2023).

[2] Keith B. Richberg with Eetta Prince-Gibson, “Jerusalem Protesters Decry U. S. Proposals: Crowd Insists City Remain Undivided as Israeli Capital, ” The Washington Post; Tuesday, January 9,2001: A17.

[3] Wenell, Karen J. Jesus and land: constructions of sacred and social space in Second Temple Judaism. (PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2004), 92-93.

[4] Wenell, 84.

[5] Wenell, 80-81.

[6] Mary Coloe, “Temple Imagery in John,” Interpretation (2009, 368-381)

[7] Jacob Neusner, “Money Changers in the Temple: The Mishna Explanation,” NTS 35 (1989) 290. Quoted in Coloe, ibid.

Killing Palestinians for Jesus: Christian Zionism and Justification Theory

Palestinian Christians have written an open letter to Western Christian leaders and theologians condemning their complicity, not only in the destruction of the Palestinian people, but of Palestinian Christians: “some of us lost dear friends and family members in the atrocious Israeli bombardment of innocent civilians on October 19, 2023, Christians included, who were taking refuge in the historical Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza.”[1] The letter sets forth Palestinian Christians’ commitment to nonviolence, universal peace, and the condemnation of national ideology and racism being mixed with Christian teaching. The letter is a desperate plea to Western Christians to come to Jesus and oppose the ethnic cleansing unfolding on the world stage.

The irony of American Christians, predominantly evangelicals, blindly supporting Israel’s destruction of Palestinians, is that this is a repetition of the moral and theological error, which Paul and the writers of the New Testament condemned. The privileging of the law, of Israel, of circumcision, of food laws, is a “wall of hostility” or a “work of the law” undone in Christ.

It is not that Judaism is displaced, nor is it a distinct entity apart from what is being done in Christ, nor is the covenant with Abraham a distinct promise from that fulfilled in Christ, rather Israel is made complete in Christ, fulfilling the promise given to Abraham (Paul’s argument in Romans and Galatians). Israel is not made complete through land holdings in the Middle East, but through inheritance of the earth and a drawing in of all nations and peoples. This is the picture in both Testaments. Egypt and Assyria (Is. 19:24-25), foreigners of every nation (Is. 56:6-8; Ez. 47:21-23), those who are far off (Zech. 2:11) and those who are the traditional enemies of Israel (Egypt, Philistia, Babylon, Tyre, and Ethiopia (Ps. 87:1-7)) will be counted part of Israel and part of God’s plan for world-wide redemption.

In the New Testament Jesus calls himself the true vine of Israel (Jn. 15:1-11) through whom all believers are incorporated into Israel (Jn. 17:20-21). Paul describes those who were once aliens to the commonwealth of Israel as being made citizens through Christ (Eph. 2:11-21). He has abolished “in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace” (Eph. 2:15). Paul makes it clear that to cling to the ordinances of the law is synonymous with enmity, which Christ has brought to an end by incorporating all believers into a singular temple (Eph. 2:20-22).

As Paul describes it in Romans, Gentile believers are grafted onto the branch, which is Israel (11:26). Both James and Peter describe the dispersed Christians as dispersed Israel (James 1:1; I Pet. 1:1) and Peter describes Christians in terms which the Old Testament preserved for Israel: “But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION” (1 Pet. 2:9). Revelation pictures heaven come to earth in terms of a cosmic new city, Jerusalem, into which all peoples are counted among the twelve tribes of Israel (Rev. 21:12). Israel is not replaced but completed by the church. The church and Christ are not distinct from Israel, but the fulfillment of the promise given to her in Abraham, the establishment of her Temple, and the incorporation of all the earth and peoples into her precincts. There are not two covenants, two Israels, two temples, two peoples, but one singular new people. Israel is expanded and universalized, so as to include all the earth and all people.

The great irony is that it is Christian people who are insisting on a separate covenant, a separate race, a separate temple, and in so doing they are literally defending the wall of hostility. The enmity between Jews and Gentiles, the wall of hostility of the law, torn down and ended by Christ is once again being erected. The nationalism which killed Christ, in favor of the nation and religion of Israel, is that which continues to kill the body of Christ (in the name of Christ) today. The reification of the law, as if the Mosaic law, Judaism, and Israel, were an end in and of themselves, apart from Christ, is the Judaizing false teaching that threatened the early church and which much of the New Testament is aimed at preventing.

Justification theory has played a key part in making the law foundational to the work of Christ (rather than relativizing, suspending, and setting aside the law in light of Christ), and this has led to the conviction that the Jews must have a central role to play in a future millennial kingdom. This Zionism, or essentializing of the nation state was present among English Protestant colonists, who began to think of the United States as the city set upon the hill, like Israel. As Robert Smith has described it, “These hermeneutics, adapted by English colonists, were transposed into the apocalyptic foundations of American national identity and vocation.”[2] As James Skillen has noted, the point “at which the particular connection between Americanism and evangelicals . . . becomes truly significant for foreign policy” is the Puritan heritage of Americans seeing themselves as “a city set on a hill to be a light to the nations.” This heritage, “is the root that still gives light to the national identity, affecting even those who are not Christians or associated with a house of worship.” American evangelical support for the State of Israel “is based on the civil religious faith that God has chosen America to be the kind of new Israel that helps shepherd the survival of the Jewish state so that Christ’s return will come about as prophesied.” Skillen concludes, it is “more accurate to say that Christian Zionism is a specific kind of political theology arising from within the American civil religion.” [3]

Donald Lewis, in his history of Zionism concurs, that Christian Zionism is not primarily about the “restoration of Israel,” or about Jewish recovery of “the land” or even about Christian understandings of prophecy, but it is about how Protestants have framed their identity. Protestant identity has primarily been “hammered out on the anvil” of Christian relationship to Jews. “The ethno-nationalism that Christian restorationists fostered in England in the seventeenth century was largely focused on Protestant England’s duties toward the Jews, and from there this ethno-nationalism spread to America and in the last few decades has flowed to the ends of the earth.” American Christian nationalism, within this frame of understanding, is based upon being a nation that “blesses Israel.” Christian Zionism is attached to a form of Christian nationalism that constitutes a violent alternative form of the faith. Lewis concludes, “Christian Zionism today is an ever-widening stream and is expanding rapidly in many directions; it is a river that has burst its banks and is flooding new territory.” [4]

The specific origin of Israel as the anvil upon which to hammer out Christian identity has its roots in justification theory (the understanding worked out in the last several blogs here and here), in which the work of Christ is defined according to the requirements or condition of the law. Paul’s point is that Christ is the condition defining the work of the law and the purpose of Israel. There are no legal, ethnic, or contractual conditions which constrain the work of God in Christ. Israel has not created herself or determined herself. God has chosen, and it is not that this choosing conveys any significance on the quality of those so chosen, or that those chosen have done or could do anything to be chosen or not chosen. God chooses: He chooses Sarah, Rebekah, Isaac, Jacob, “so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls” (Rom. 9:9–11). The potter can do whatever he wants with his clay, and thus if God has fashioned Israel for a particular purpose, namely to bring in the Gentiles, who are we to protest. As He says also in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’ And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they shall be called children of the living God” (Rom. 9:25–26, NRSV).

In both Romans and Galatians, Paul argues that there is a singular covenant given to Abraham and fulfilled through Christ, which is inclusive of all people. As he argues in Romans 9-11, Israel is not the end point of this covenant, but the means of its historical mediation, as the Messiah would arise through the generations descending from Abraham for the blessing of all peoples. The people of God can include pagans should God wish to call them, and this is obvious from the arbitrary and unconditional choices He has made in the selection of Israel.

Paul describes Israel stumbling over the same stone which Christian Zionists have stumbled over. Isn’t Israel special, not just because she has brought the Messiah into the world? She is God’s chosen people, and if everyone is chosen to be in Israel, isn’t this wildly arbitrary? Isn’t it an abandonment of Israel?

What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.” (Rom. 9:30-33)

Israel is formed from a neutral clay for God’s purposes, which included all people. As Douglas Campbell puts it, “Pagan inclusion in the saved people of God, then, seems to be not merely a possibility latent in the divine action of calling but a reality prophetically foretold.”[5] This was always God’s plan, and it is not “as though the word of God has failed” or has drifted off course. “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (9:6). As Campbell writes, “We can virtually hear the Teacher accusing Paul in such terms: ‘Has the creative and saving word of God drifted off course?! Your gospel seems to suggest that it has, dragging pagans into the people of God! Indeed, it seems destined for shipwreck …’”[6] And indeed, between the false teacher, justification theory, and Paul, we have very distinct portrayals of Israel.

Israel in justification theory, represents a “timeless, ahistorical, individualistic, and contractual” arrangement.[7] For the false teacher, the law, and its significance are, likewise, eternal. While for Paul, Israel was never simply an ethnicity or specific national identity, but a medium in God’s purposes being worked out in Christ.

These are incompatible portrayals of Israel, and Christian Zionism clearly sides with the false teacher and justification theory. In fact, Christian Zionism seems to fall under Paul’s critique of seeking to establish a righteousness over and against the righteousness of Christ. “For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:3). Israel has failed to acknowledge Christ and has imagined the law could deliver its own righteousness, apart from Christ (actually a possibility posed in justification theory). Israel is running a race (a striving or agon) that has ended, and they have stumbled in the process. “Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law” (9:31). Pursuing righteousness through the law they missed the law.

As Paul argues, in chapter 4 and elsewhere, the law was a medium whose significance was preceded by the promise and fulfilled in Christ. “The law competition and striving is over. If the Christ event is the end of the race for the law, in the sense almost of being the finish line, then the key point is that the race is over (see Phil. 3:2–16). Any subsequent racing on the part of Jews is therefore misdirected if not ludicrous.”[8] Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness” (Rom. 9:30) and they weren’t even in the race. The racers, the Jews, are running aimlessly, stumbling over faith, and meanwhile the race is over and the crown is awarded.

The mistake of Israel and the mistake about Israel, is not that she stumbled prior to Christ, in being Jews and keeping the law. The stumbling is over Christ, after the race has ended. She has not responded to Christ, but has continued to cling to the law, to cling to Judaism as an end in itself, when the end was in Christ. Prior to Christ’s arrival, Jews kept the law, and understood the Scriptures, but she has stumbled over the stumbling stone. “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame” (Rom. 9:33). Those who have faith will not be put to shame, otherwise stumbling Israel is out of the race. Jewish pursuit of righteousness on the basis of the law (as a futility), is a post-Christian phenomenon. To assign an ongoing significance to this race, which is finished, is to miss Christ. To ignore the Christ event, the righteousness of salvation given by God, renders subsequent pursuit of righteousness on the basis of the law a false religion, a false alternative, and not one of two possibilities. In this, Christian Zionism is not of Christ, but a false teaching on the order of assigning righteousness to “works of the law.”

The immediate fruit of this anti-Christ teaching is the slaughter of Christians in Palestine and the cry of Palestinian Christians pleading for their very survival in the face of a theology of ethnic cleansing. In their open letter, Palestinian Christians embrace the fullness of the peaceable gospel, and unlike the majority of American Christians, they recognize nationalism, of any brand, is a perversion of the all-embracing, universal gospel: “We are also profoundly troubled when the name of God is invoked to promote violence and religious national ideologies.” The problem is, American Christian nationalism and Christian Zionism, arise from the same soil and history, in which national, religious, and ethnic identities are fused with the name of Christ, privileging the law over the unconditional good news.  


[2] Robert O. Smith, “More Desired Than Our Owne Salvation”: The Roots of American Christian Affinity for the State of Israel (PhD submitted to Baylor University, 2010) from the Abstract.

[3]James W. Skillen, “Evangelicals and American Exceptionalism,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 4:3 (Winter 2006): 45, 46. Cited in Smith, 2-3.

[4] Donald M. Lewis, A Short History of Christian Nationalism: From the Reformation to the Twenty-First Century (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2021) 7-8.

[5] Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (p. 777). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[6] Campbell, 780.

[7] Campbell, 780.

[8] Campbell, 791.

Circumcision Versus Baptism: Joined to the Law or Joined to Christ

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Rom 6:12–13).

The Greek term for body (σῶμα) is a permeable identity within an environment so that it is the capacity to act and be acted upon by an environment. The body can be attached to either sin (Paul uses the phrase, “body of sin”) or to the body of Christ, indicating that the body mediates and is permeated by the environment of which it is a part. The issue is, which is the constituting environment? As Paul employs the term in Romans 6, the body can re-environ itself in Christ, and set aside sin (and the law). The body joined to Christ in his death and resurrection becomes one with Him, no longer subject to sin in the environment of the law.

We might imagine the problem is the body or the flesh. The flesh opposes the spirit, and so we need to get rid of the flesh, maybe cut it off, as symbolically and literally carried out in circumcision; a sort of shedding of the body. Paul explains that this is not a battle that can be won in this manner, and in fact this oppositional antagonism is the problem. The resolution reveals what that problem is in the first place. Paul pictures it as being constituted in the environment of either law or grace: “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). Sin thrives in the environment of the law – but why?

Where law reigns, or where law is the constituting factor, there is a deadly split or antagonism. As Romans 7 describes, the body or the I has the ability to objectify or split the self (to reflect on the self), which is most often experienced in the negative capacity for self-estrangement or self-alienation. We become our own worst enemies in acts or thoughts that are inherently self-punishing or in which the “body of sin” or the “body of death” is pitted against us. The ego (or I) views its own body, which is its self, as an alien force which has been colonized by that which is not the self. Paul describes it as two laws working at cross purposes within him: “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom. 7:22–23). Is Paul’s problem that he cannot align himself with the law of his mind due to the law of his body, or is Paul’s problem the law per se and the manner in which this law has overwritten his life and identity? Is it just a matter of getting the law straight?

Paul argues that there is a deception that works through the law. Part of what it must mean to be deceived in the most fundamental sense, is to be deceived about reality. Not reality in the abstract, but the reality of the human body, or the reality of embodiment. The law would negate, cut off, or override the body, which is the problem constituting, in Paul’s description, the “body of sin” or the “body of death.” This negating, obscuring, or overriding is the dynamic of deception at work in sin. The naked and ashamed would clothe themselves in the law, but this clothing obscures reality. The human body, inclusive of thought and language, is the ground of reality as we have it, but part of the deception is that we do not have access to the reality of ourselves and the world as we are written over or inscribed into a deception.

This deception is directly experienced as a futile desire or an exponential covetousness, which Paul links to death: “I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind” (7:7-8). This desire is shaped by the particular environment, the command, permeating the body, such that particular cultures, particular religions, or particular legal constraints, do no so much curtail desire as deceptively direct it. Particular systems consistently churn out characteristic forms of desire.

As I have described it (here), the violence of “Christian” pedophiles, sexual abusers, and whore-mongers – or to state it differently the characteristic forms of perversion found in Roman Catholicism, evangelicalism, and fundamentalism, respectively – on Walter Benjamin’s scale of violence (per his “Critique of Violence”) amounts to “law-maintaining” violence. That is, these systems consistently churn out characteristic forms of sexual transgression as part of the necessity of maintaining the status quo of these forms of belief and their institutional structures.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is obvious that systems structure desire, through law or doctrine, in such a way that the transgression supports the desire. Fundamentalism gives us a steady flow of Jim Bakkers and Jimmy Swaggarts, and evangelicalism churns out its endless Bill Hybels, in the same way that Roman Catholicism seems to manufacture pedophiles. By not coming to grips with the characteristic nature of sin these systems reconstitute it.

It is precisely the forbidden object which shapes the desire. The object of desire is that which is relinquished or lost and this loss is definitive of the identity. This identity produces a split within the body such that the law of the mind (be it that of Roman Catholicism or of fundamentalism) is established through the transgression of the flesh.  The law always has its transgressive support – doing a particular form of evil so as to produce a particular form of the good. This is Paul’s definition of sin – which indicates that these forms of faith may perpetuate, rather than identify and dispel, sin.

Circumcision literalizes the loss, in that the desire that is supposedly cut away (with the foreskin), becomes definitive. Circumcision would excise, cut off, or mark the alienating force. It is aimed at bringing the body and mind and the spirit and the flesh, into alignment by getting lust and desire under control. It is meant to bring about a correspondence, putting the body under control of the ethical principle of the law. But being written over with the law, marked in the flesh, does not resolve the problem, according to Paul, but it accentuates and even aggravates it. The symbolic is paid for by the cutting of(f), the removal of the desire of the body, but this accentuates the antagonistic dialectic between the mind and body, which is an obscuring of the reality that both are of the body.

The body of sin is one that disowns the empirical bearer of the “mind” or the “soul.” Being written over with a particular sign (the law) is to be interpolated into the law, with the body serving as the literal place of inscription. The sign is the means of achieving the signified. The letter is the means to the spirit. The name contains the reality. Language, symbolization, signs, convey truth, by virtue of their mark. There is an equation of logos with Logos, or trues with Truth, or doctrines with God. The presumption is that the one who possesses the law, or the one written over with it, is at an advantage, but Paul’s point is this presumption is itself the problem. It is not simply the Jewish problem but the problem of Adam and all who are his descendants.

 As Paul describes his experience in Romans 7, there is the “I” and the not “I” and sin taking advantage of this split privileges the “not I.” As Paul states it, ‘it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me’ (Rom. 7.20).  This “body of sin” or “body of death” (Romans 7.24) may be perceived or experienced as the physical body getting out of hand or out of control, but the reality is that it is the self in its experience of the self that is out of control.

Or is it the case that I only know myself in and through this antagonistic relationship with myself. Who am I apart from this struggle? This is the entry point into the attachment to binaries, antinomies, dualisms, and dialectic. The sorting out of the I and not I is at the base every knowledge of good and evil. Every circumcision/uncircumcision, law versus no law, Jew versus Greek, slave versus free, male versus female, is a sorting out of myself. A discerning of who I am. I am at stake in the dialectic as it constitutes who I am. The law being worked out, into which I would interpolate myself in my striving, is the means of being a self, or at least that is the delusion of sin.

This negative understanding can be, and needs to be, extrapolated from the solution of baptism. “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Paul pictures the “body of sin” as being reduced to the “nothing” from whence it came (Rom. 6.6) through a reversal of the power it exercises.  His description is of “the body of death” or (its parallel in 6.6) “the body of sin” put to death in Christ for those who have died in Christian baptism.  Baptism is the ontological alternative to the body of death as the Subject of baptism, instead of being joined to loss, negation and death, is joined to the “body of Christ.” Where in sin, the Subject can only be joined to death and death drive, Paul pictures a Subject “joined” to Christ with a “likeness” or ontological certainty on the order of Christ’s incarnation.  

An Alternative Understanding of Sin and Salvation

The understanding of salvation that I and maybe the majority were reared on, or the typical Protestant understanding (as in justification theory) is that all people recognize God and his righteousness, and experience the incapacity to keep the law. This inability to keep the law is definitive of both the human problem and the solution of the cross of Christ. We come to Christ, having realized we cannot keep the law and that only Jesus can fulfill the laws righteous demands and pay the penalty for transgression. Much of this understanding is drawn from just a few texts, mainly in Romans (and primarily in the first 4 chapters of Romans). I want to pose a different picture of the human problem and a different soteriology, based on an alternative reading of Romans.

As I have argued (here and here), this common Protestant understanding is a result of fusing the words of the false Teacher, as found in 1:18-32 and scattered through the first three chapters, with the teaching of Paul. The human predicament, judging from the rest of Romans, turns out to be much worse than described in Romans 1:18-32. In this description, people know God and know what they should do (keep the law) but do not do it (implying in the description a means of escape through the law), but in the rest of Romans Paul describes people who are in bondage (8:15-6), who have been deceived and enslaved by a lie (7:7-15), who are hostile to God (8:7) and this hostility is the best they can do. Death reigns (5:14), both in the literal sense and in that life is ordered by this reality (5:12). People attempt to engineer reality, through the law (1:18-2:21), through the flesh (7:5, 25), through the elemental principles of the cosmos (Gal. 4:3, in a parallel passage), such that they can negotiate death but all of their various means of escape are deadly.

Far from the law offering a potential means of escape, either through law-keeping or through Christ’s law-keeping, the law is deadly in the same way that flesh is deadly. Though people imagine they can defeat death (through law or religion) in what is called “the covenant with death,” death reneges on the supposed arrangement (9:32 referencing Isaiah 28). The human arrangement with death, which Paul sums up as the sin condition (the law of sin and death, 8:2), deals only in death – there is no life in the arrangement.

Though 1:18-32 pictures a universal capacity to recognize God and the law from nature, it turns out (at least according to the rest of Romans), Paul is not optimistic about people perceiving the problem let alone coming up with a solution. Far from some sort of deep anthropological insight on the part of humanity, Paul pictures a deluded humanity. A deadly exchange has taken hold universally, corporately (chapter 5) and individually in the human psyche (chapter 7) and Paul spends most of the first 4 chapters of Romans explaining how the perceived solution, the law, is bound up with the problem. The deception in regard to the law, through which death takes hold as the perceived means of escape, is obscuring the singular solution: the gospel. That is, God has provided a resolution to the human predicament, but because the problem has been misunderstood (due, in part, to false teaching) the solution is now misunderstood and obscured.  Thus, Paul is writing this letter.

Paul explains the problem, in light of the solution (7:7-25), as the problem cannot otherwise be grasped. As Douglas Campbell explains, chapter 7 is not simply a psychological portrayal of pre-Christian experience. “Essentially, it supplies a theological analysis of non-Christian ontology, whether that is present in the non-Christian (as seems obvious to the Christian) or in the Christian (as seems at least partly to be the case on this side of the end of the age). Hence, it is fundamentally retrospective—the result of a vantage point available only in Christ, which supplies the key theological categories and insights for constructing it.”[1]

Chapter 7:7-25, referencing Adam, is more complicated than mere legalism. Judaism per se is not the problem, though the law of Moses creates the same sort of problem. The reality of the human predicament may be perceived to revolve around the law, but this perception itself, in Paul’s description, misses how it is that sin has deceived in regard to law. In other words, Christianity as we have it in much of Protestantism (justification theory) is implicated in the problem inasmuch as the problem and solution are thought to be defined by the law.

In Genesis 3, it is not that the command per se is problematic, but due to the lie of sin (as Paul describes the work of the serpent) the presumption is that the command is the means of access to life. “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.  For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment deceived me and through it killed me” (Romans 7:10-11). Paul is not describing a slowly dawning awareness in the struggle to keep the law, and then the recognized inability to do so. He is describing the deception as it occurred in Genesis and which continues to reign. This is not someone who has deep cognitive awareness of their sin problem. This person is deceived, controlled by the flesh, and serving the desire of the flesh (7:5, 7, 8, 14). This individual is controlled by death, with chapter 7 providing a detailed account of 5:12-21, of how it is that death came to reign and continues to reign in the human race.

It is not a matter that no one can keep the law, and this is why they are not justified, though this is how verses such as Galatians 3:10 are often read. As Daniel Boyarin notes, a better understanding is not to imagine there is a problem with the doing of the law. Most Jews, like the Pharisee Paul, assumed they kept the law perfectly. The problem is not that it cannot be done, the problem is imagining that the doing is the main thing. “We could rewrite the verse, then, as: ‘Everyone, who [precisely] by doing it does not uphold all that is written in the book of the Law, is under a curse’; i.e., by doing it, by physical performance, works of the Law, one is not upholding all that which is written in the book of the Law, and that is the curse, because ‘all that is written’ implies much more than mere doing!”[2] As Paul, argues in chapter 4, it is faith that precedes the doing of the law. Or as he states it in 3:27, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” But as he argues (in chapter 4), this is an idea that can be extrapolated from the law. The law points beyond itself to the faith of Christ. As Boyarin maintains, “It follows from this that those who live by faith are the righteous, i.e., the justified. He then argues that those who live by the Law do not live by faith, since the verse in Leviticus explicitly reads ‘He who does them lives by them,’ i.e., one who does the commandments lives by them and not by faith. Since, then, we know from Habakkuk that the righteous live by faith, he who lives by them and not by faith (and, thereby, does not fulfill the Law) is not righteous—is not justified.”[3]

Boyarin maintains Paul is arguing in a manner familiar to the Rabbis and Pharisees: “Paul is using methods of interpretation that would not surprise any Pharisee (I suspect) or Rabbi, although the results he arrives at would, of course, shock them to their depths.”[4] The law is a curse if the doing of it, or the having it, is thought to be adequate. According to Campbell, “The curse’s basis is actually life in Christ—a life of freedom, adulthood, inheritance, and the Spirit. In comparison with this life, Judaism under the law is confined, immature, harsh, and oppressed, and hence also cursed; it is the life from which Christians have been ‘purchased.’”[5]

The law does not produce faith nor resurrection, though it is based on faith (resurrection faith, 4:23). “In short, by acknowledging the crucified and resurrected Christ, and relying on him for deliverance—a deliverance that is already in some sense inaugurated (so vv. 17–20)—Paul observes that Jewish Christians have automatically displaced law observance from a critical saving and transformational role.”[6] There is no room for “works of law” even in the anteroom to faith. One does not progress through works of the law, to despair about keeping the law, to faith. Galatians, like Romans, describes a setting aside of law: “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (Gal. 2:15). “Because transformation comes through the Christ event, works of law have been negated (at least in relation to transformation), along with any subsequent construction of their importance.”[7]

As Louis Martyn argues in regard to Galatians, the false teachers (who seem to be the very one or ones in Rome) are arguing Christians need the law, in particular circumcision, so as to curb the desires of the flesh. But Paul equates this reliance on the law as equivalent to reliance on the flesh. “Abraham, in their estimate, would have defeated the desire of the flesh by keeping the law, beginning with circumcision. So, Paul’s juxtaposition of flesh against Spirit, specifically refers to the foreskin of the penis. Their reliance on the law is literally reliance on this piece of flesh.”[8]

This reliance, as depicted in Galatians, is the equivalent of being a slave to the elementary principles of the cosmos. The widespread notion in the ancient world, which Paul is clearly opposing (in Gal. 3:28 and 6:15), is that the origins or the fundamental building blocks of the universe are based on opposed pairs (earth/air, water/fire). The problem with the law, the problem with the flesh, and the problem with “this present evil age” reduce to the singular problem that the “elements of the cosmos” (στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου) have been made absolute (a divine dialectic) and have not been understood in relationship to God. Whatever Paul might mean by these elements, it seems that the law and the flesh are counted among those things which held all people captive (Gal. 4:3).

The same dynamic is at work in Romans 7. It is not a matter of the law of the mind gaining control of the law of the flesh, as both are part of the dynamic (dialectic) of the law of sin and death . It is not the body over and against the spirit that is the problem, but this dialectic, as in Paul’s pitting of his mind against the body is definitive of the predicament. He sees two laws at work: “I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom. 7.23). The point is not that one of these laws is right and the other is wrong; the point is there is a war being waged in which the individual is the victim, and only Christ can end this struggle.

As Martyn notes, the antinomies that served as the building blocks of the universe have disappeared.[9] The cosmos founded on opposed pairs no longer exists. “For when all of you were baptized into Christ, you put on Christ as though he were your clothing. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is no male and female; for all of you are One in Christ Jesus” (3:27–28). Those in Christ have suffered the loss of the cosmos for the unity (the new cosmic order) found in Christ. The cosmic order, in which law versus no law, circumcision versus uncircumcision, or flesh versus spirit is broken open by Christ: “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the cosmos has been crucified to me, and I to the cosmos. For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:14-15).

As Paul explains in chapter 8, there is an incapacity – but it is not an incapacity of the will or of someone attempting to keep the law and finding they are not able. Rather, there is an incapacity to recognize God, due to an innate hostility in the fleshly mind: “it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so” for “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:8). This hostility arises in conjunction with the flesh and the law. It is not a matter of separating the law from the flesh, but it is a matter of doing away with the law as the basis of understanding the problem (sin) and the solution (salvation).

In chapter 5 of Romans, when Paul turns from the problem of the false Teacher and the law, he provides a picture of the problem and solution (from chapters 5-8) revolving around death and life: “For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (5:17). This pictures “life” in the future age, but it also references a different sort of life now. People are baptized so that they “might walk in newness of life” (6:4).  In this new life the oppressive measure of the law has been set aside in being joined to Christ (7:1-3). Rather than the law serving to define salvation, with its being set aside the reign of death has ended (5:21). Salvation is rescue from death and the reign or rule of death through sin (5:18). This simple observation comes with a host of implications in regard to God, the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and the nature of reality and experience.

In contrast with justification theory, the primary human problem is not God’s anger due to transgression of the law, but captivity, deception, and hostility arising through sin and death. Both chapter 5 and chapter 8 mention an inherent hostility to God. The sons and daughters of Adam are fundamentally God’s enemies (5:10; 8:5–8) as “the sinful mind is hostile to God” (8:7). Romans 7 describes the inner workings of this hostility, which does indeed include the law, but not as a point of recognition and enlightenment but as the place where deception, desire, and death enter in. In 7.7ff the law, which gives rise to forbidden desire, in spite of the life that it seemed to offer and due to the deception of sin, produces death for the ἐγὼ or a life of death described as an agonistic struggle in which the self is split against itself and sin is in control.  Paul sums this up as the “body of death” (7.24) or “the law of sin and death” (8.2).  The law of sin and death is the structuring principle of the Subject in which life is controlled by an orientation to death (a primordial deception and a destructive drive).

While the problem is more tragic and all-encompassing than pictured in justification theory, the good news is that the solution is more all-encompassing (universal) and unconditional. “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (5:10). Here there is no angry deity punishing legal transgression by taking out his wrath on Christ. This salvation speaks of a loving God transforming the cosmos and the very make-up of the human psyche and subject. This salvation is transformational, a passage from death into life, a passage from flesh – law – elementary principles into new life through the Son and the Spirit. The old order of bondage, enslavement to law and flesh has been defeated and the new age is inaugurated. This is an apocalyptic intervention into a bondage in which a right understanding of God and the human situation are impossible. Deliverance, rescue, resurrection and new creation are inaugurated by God through Christ, and this alone allows for salvation and a consequent right understanding (Rom. 8:20–23).

[1] Campbell, Douglas A.. The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (pp. 141-142). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Berkely: University of California Press, 1994)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Campbell, 425.

[6] Campbell, 844.

[7] Campbell, 846.

[8] J. Louis Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Yale University Press, 1997), 294.

[9] Martyn, 570.

The Trivialization of Christianity and Its Cure in Speculative Theology and Romans

When the queen of the sciences, theology, reigned the falsehood of this rule was bound to be exposed but with her abdication the wasteland she left is obvious. The church, Protestant and Catholic, has abdicated moral authority; classicism with its notion of a mono-cultural imperialism has crumbled; scientism and the pursuit of absolute and certain knowledge has succumbed to relativity. Institutionalism, cultural imperialism, scientism, or most simply, foundationalism, were never adequate ground for Truth, leaving out of the equation, as they do, the centrality of human subjectivity. However, each of these “failures” has made the turn to the human Subject inevitable. Could it be that this is the moment theology might find her proper place? This is the argument of the brilliant book by Ryan Hemmer,[1] in which he makes the case that it may be that speculative theology (the theological engagement of the present) perished only to give way to new life in an altered form.  While Ryan is tracing the macro movements of theology in history (and I am only referencing a small part of his major work), the seed form of this understanding – its proleptic micro-form – is evident in Paul’s movement in Romans – or at least that is the case I want to make.  

In Romans Paul is trying to deepen the Romans’ understanding of the faith, or to state it the other way round, they may have a trivial notion of the faith inasmuch as it is tied to the law, and Paul would dispossess them of this obstacle to a deeper understanding.  The law as focus reduces to signs, scruples, morays, such that the letter is reified and the Spirit is by-passed and as a result, death reigns (part 1 below). Where the law is set aside there is entry into personhood – the Personhood of God and human personhood as they encounter one another in experience and human intelligence (part 2, below).

The Letter Kills

The focus on the law is what killed Christ, but so too priestly celibacy gives rise to a culture of child abuse, purity culture and male dominance in the church have given rise to a culture of sexual abuse and criminality. Where kissing dating goodbye was the focus, sex crimes have flourished. The cultural imperialism that gave rise to genocide of Native Americans, continued with Catholic and Anglican Indian schools which finalized the systematic destruction (hundreds of graves of children have been recently discovered in Canada and the United States at these “Christian” schools). Where the attempt to “Christianize” means living according to a particular cultural standard, speaking a certain language, living up to the scruples of an imagined set culture, law reigns. 

The New Yorker, this week recounts the decades long reign of terror of the “Child-Observation Station” at the Sonnenstrasse villa, aimed at eliminating masturbation, bed-wetting and sexual excitement in children. The children were injected with a regimen of drugs, including epiphysan, an extract derived from the pineal glands of cattle which veterinarians used to suppress estrus in mares and cows. Their beds and underwear, containing censors, were monitored 24 hours a day, with any infraction resulting in various punishments and beatings. Dr. Maria Nowak-Vogl, a devout Catholic, was the founder and head of the institute who spent her life and career trying to eradicate masturbation and bed wetting, which she considered the sure signs of decadence.[2]

The modern attachment to law or trivialization of the faith is not trivial in its evil consequences, but in its majoring in minors and thus giving rise to a destructive bondage, it misses the depth of salvation.

Understood in this way, there is a parallel between Paul’s depiction of the law as the trivializing captivity to signs (circumcision and the significations of Judaism), to the surface of texts (the letter of the Old Testament apart from its center to be found in Christ), or to the cultural imperatives of Judaism or Gentilism, and to the obstacles posed by modern reason, classicism, foundationalism or justification theory. That is, the unfolding of Christian history and theology repeat the failures and must rediscover the insights, in parallel terms, the obstacles and insights Paul is tracing in the course of Romans.  They are parallel as there is a universal problem – true for all time and in every place and culture – but the theological task is to realize once again, in the present, in what these barriers consist and how they are overcome. The barrier of the law poses the universal bondage from which salvation delivers.

Salvation for Paul, is not deliverance from hell, but the transformation of humans from being subjects of the law to Subjects participating in divine love.

The Spirit Gives Life to the Mind

The impetus behind Paul’s writing and the work of theology is the conversion of the mind, the transformation of the Subject, the rise of a new form of consciousness including self-consciousness.  God, the essence of reality, is not passively intuited or grasped by sight or images – which by definition remain objects – but God in Christ presents himself for the understanding, to be actively apprehended as part of human decision and judgment.

Theology is not a matter of mere logic, though in “the hands of Duns Scotus and William of Ockham it quickly became very purely logical, and while logic is a valid systematic ideal, its atmosphere is too thin to support life.”[3] This passage is movement from a life driven by eros, in which one is left desirous of life that is lacking, to one filled with divine life and love: “God effects the redemption of humanity from every consequence of sin by making the divine life the innermost constitutive element of human life.”[4] Ryan applies this realization as the answer to the failure of classicism, but recognizes this is always the movement of salvation:

it is God’s gift of God’s self to the psyche that both completes the psyche’s native transcendental erotic orientation, and elevates the psyche itself . . . Divine constitutive meaning rejects the normative claims of classicism, and liberates the psyche from the narrowness of its vision to a historically minded perspective, capable of bearing witness to the soteriological vector operative in the law of the cross at work in every culture and every age.[5]

The “historically minded perspective” taking in “every culture and age” does not seek to escape history through some immutable form (e.g., classicism), and in this, it pertains to what it means to be human. The kenotic gift of God’s self on the cross is a gift of the Divine Subject to the human Subject and psyche, God sharing himself and thus completing the human Subject (as in Romans 8).

Salvation, for Paul is not about missing punishment and going to heaven, but it is about life, having life more abundantly. Between Romans 7, where he is describing a form of damnable oppression, and chapter 8 where he is describing full participation in the life and love of the Trinity, we see the movement from despair, oppression, and death, into peace, joy, life and participation in the Trinity as God gifts Gods-self.

This gift is what theologians call the grace of charity, “and it is offered by the divine ground to the eros of the psyche.” Through the divine initiative, the transcendent measure is given to the psyche and, through the psyche, to the community. The concrete form of agapic integrity, “the revelation of attunement with the divine ground,” is “a visitation of humanity by soteriological truth.” In Christian theology, the truth of agapic attunement is revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. The psychic integrity that measures the integrity of the community is, accordingly, the just and mysterious law of the cross, the love that returns good for evil, that transforms evil into good, that would lay its life down not only for one’s friends but also for one’s enemies.[6]

The gift of salvation through faith is nothing less than the gift of God Himself, given to the individual. God is Abba, through identifying with the faithfulness of the Son, communicated through the Spirit. The measure of this gift is not according to law, culture, or living up to certain scruples, but is measured and recognized by “the love that returns good for evil, that transforms evil into good, that would lay its life down not only for one’s friends but also for one’s enemies.” Salvation is a “‘twofold agapic invitation,’ in which one is invited both ‘to receive the divine agape’ and to embody it in one’s own existence.”[7] 

The “problem” with agape is it is pure personhood, in both the Giver and its recipient, and it does not and cannot rely on impersonal law, static doctrine, or immutable institutions.[8]  The human tendency is to pass “beyond” the personal to that which is static and subject to control, however this “postmodern” moment calls for the suspension of any imagined impersonal essence: “As the divine ground of world-transcendent meaning is communicated to the various matrices of human culture through the incarnate proclamation of the law of the cross, all forms of cultural pretention, universality, normativity, and permanence are invalidated and undone.”[9] Relativity, even as Einstein understood, is not the relinquishing of stable truth, but it is the recognition this truth resides in personhood – or for the theologian, in Divine Personhood. Metaphysics no longer serves as the sure and certain ground, rather “cognitional theory overturns metaphysics as first philosophy, as the critical ground for epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and philosophy of God.”[10] Meaning is not to be found in some objective, stable structure, but within persons, in their understanding and intelligence.

Science is no longer the “sure knowledge of things through their causes” but is a heuristic or method which takes into account both the scientist and his observations. So too, theology can no longer presume some singular point, or stable cultural foundation. “The notion of culture as the social objectification of human nature, an immutable and universal achievement crumbles with the discovery of the multiplicity of cultures. The theological task must broaden to be able to effect a mediation of revealed meaning within this multiplicity.”[11] The mediation of meaning is not institutional, structural, doctrinal, or propositional but personal. “Between the experience that elicits philosophical wonder and the certitude that follows upon true judgments of fact is the act of understanding, the operation of organizing intelligence that grasps from within data an intelligible form, a quiddity, an essence.”[12] As Bernard Lonergan puts it:

the root of the problem, I believe, its really baffling element, lies within the subject, within each one of us. For the problem is not solved merely by assenting to the propositions that are true and by rejecting the propositions that are false. It is a matter of intellectual conversion, of appropriating one’s own rational self-consciousness, of finding one’s way behind the natura naturata, the pensée pensée, of words and books, of propositions and proofs, of concepts and judgments, to their origin and their source, to the natura naturans, the pensée pensante, that is oneself as intelligent and as reasonable.[13]

The encounter with and participation in Divine Life is simultaneously the discovery of oneself in intelligence and meaning. Conversion is a transformation of the mind, “an intellectual conversion,” which penetrates behind nature, taking into account the nature of nature (natura naturans), the thought of thought (pensée pensée), as these reside, not in books, propositions and proofs, but within the mind. It is not that all of God is grasped, but the encounter with God begins within human understanding and experience. [14] Pursuit of the experience and meaning of God is an endless growth into His likeness which is initiated within human thought, intelligence, and experience.

Conclusion: The Movement in Romans is the Continual Movement of Theology

Romans begins with an argument about the law and the extent of its application, concluding in chapter 7 that the law itself is bound up with the problem. This problem is described in terms of an alienated subjectivity, an agonized intellect, and a futility of mind, in which death reigns. There is a marked Trinitarian absence, with the law of the mind serving in place of God, the ego serving the subjective position (taken by Christ in chapter 8) and the law of sin and death reigning in place of the Spirit. Romans 8 pictures the result of being in Christ rather than in the law; “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom. 8:2).

The picture (in Rom. 8) is of a transformed mind and experience, the life of the mind in participation with the Trinity: “the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace . . . For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” (8:6, 15). Adopted as brothers and sisters of Christ, the children take the same attitude as Christ in suffering and adoption: “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him” (8:16–17). Here is the fulness of Paul’s transformation of the mind: Participation through the Son, by the Spirit, in the love of the Father is salvation. Anything short of this is law.

Inasmuch as modern Christians look to the law, much of Romans might be read as an indictment of Christianity as we have it: an indictment of retributive justice, of foundationalism (or the notion law is the foundation), an indictment of salvation as missing punishment (hell) and receiving rewards (heaven), an indictment of the notion that God is primarily known through law (and all this entails in classicism and the history of theology), an indictment of the trivialization of Christianity.

[1] Ryan Hemmer, The Death and Life of Speculative Theology: A Lonergan Idea (Lanham: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2023).

[2] Margaret Talbot, “The Villa Where a Doctor Experimented on Children,” The New Yorker (September 25, 2023) 30-43.

[3] Hemmer, 41.

[4] Robert Doran, Theology and the Dialectics of History, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990) 488. Quoted in Hemmer, 72.

[5] Hemmer, 72.

[6] Hemmer, 71-72. The quotes are from Doran, Ibid, 486 and 486-487 respectively.

[7] Hemmer, 72.

[8] Eros, in the depiction of Paul and the tradition, may have no natural fulfillment. “In receiving divine agape, one receives that which eros can only desire.” Ibid.

[9] Hemmer, 81.

[10] Hemmer, 45.

[11] Hemmer, 45.

[12] Hemmer, 38.

[13] Bernard Lonergan, “Method in Catholic Theology,” In Philosophical and Theological Papers, 1958-1964, 29–53. Edited by Robert C. Croken, Frederick Crowe, and Robert M. Doran. Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan 6. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996) 6, 38. Quoted in Hemmer, 40.

[14] The “unification it attains cannot be explanatory in its entirety; the mind attains a symmetry, but its apex, the ultimate moment and the basis of its intelligibility, stands beyond the human intellect.” The reference is from Bernard Lonergan, Grace and Freedom: Grace and Freedom: Operative Grace in the Thought of St Thomas Aquinas. Edited by Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran. Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan 1. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000) 166. Hemmer 27-28

Beyond Justification by Faith: Faith as the Resolution to Pluralism and “Postmodernism”

Faith is potentially the entry point into meaning, a coherent and dynamic personal engagement with the reality of God and the world. Faith, rightly understood, is the answer to foundationalism and ontotheology and their collapse. Faith is not dependent upon sure and certain knowledge nor does it presume a singular, stable culture, but presumes (from its inception with Abraham) a plurality of cultures, a dynamism in apprehending reality, and an always unfolding personal dimension of growth in wisdom and understanding. Abraham as the prototype of faith leaves his home, family and culture, departing from the unified Babel-like world recorded in Genesis 11, to go into an unknown country. Babel’s foundations were singular, unified, and presuming to attain the heavens (absolute and certain), based on literal concrete foundations not subject to mortality and death. The survival of the culture, through the tower, is the enduring meaning pursued in Babel.

Abraham departs from Babel, and his personal journey (there are no distinguishable persons in Babel) is defined in regard to his encounter with God. There is nothing certain, nothing permanent, and nothing concrete, in his life’s journey. He has the promise from God, and on this basis, he negotiates life’s uncertainties, but most particularly the defining reality of death. The promise from God is his means (meaning) of triangulating between the reality of God, his own mortal reality, and the hope for an enduring life in a son. This triangulation concerns his own bodily self-understanding, counting in his being as good as dead and Sarah’s womb being dead (4:19). Abraham’s understanding of the world depends upon the interpretive lens of the promise and his faithfulness is the point of apprehension. His experience is made intelligible, when it would otherwise be chaotic and futile in the face of death, due to his faithfulness to the promise of life.

This intelligibility is at first laughable, for both Abraham and Sarah. They are not simply dismissive, but the coherence of their life through faith is not evident, especially in the twenty-five some years prior to the birth of Isaac. Faith is not reasonable, it does not accord with experience, and on the surface, it appears to contradict the way things are (though it is not internally contradictory). Abraham has resurrection faith, according to Paul (4:23-25), which means he has an intelligible vision (though it may not be rational in the normal sense, it is not contradictory).

The how of God’s capacity to deliver on his promise is beyond Abraham’s ability to explain, as is evidenced in his attempt to help God along by siring a child through Hagar, his slave. His dependence upon and abandonment of natural explanation is part of his growing faithfulness. Nature is not definitive, life’s circumstance is not definitive, as faith encompasses these realities in a larger understanding. The reality of God does not simply trump other realities, but it brings a coherence and intelligibility they intrinsically lack.

This understanding on the part of Abraham is more than assent to facts, or even trust in a promise, as his entire life’s journey of faithfulness constitutes his recognition and confirms – as Paul describes it, that just as God can create from nothing so too, he can give a son to Abraham: “in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist” (4:17). God is not known or determined on the basis of the world, but the world and its reality are known and understood through an integrated knowledge of God. God is not caused, but causes all things, and this is the determinate reality in which Abraham lives his life. It is the insight provided by faith.

Abraham spent his life seeking understanding on the basis of faith, and this understanding pertained to his life, his body, his marriage, and his world. His faith is no abstraction, nor a set of dogmas, nor a law, nor a particular doctrine, but his faith pertains directly to the person of God and himself. He can abstract from God’s ability to give him a son, and God’s creation of the world (and vice versa), but this abstraction is grounded in personal reality. His faith opens him to an understanding of the world, and this understanding changes the fabric of his experience, his self-consciousness, and refracts back on his understanding. In other words, faith launches understanding, coherence, intelligibility, and meaning, and these things cannot begin elsewhere, for either Abraham or those who have his faith.

What is at stake in chapter 4 of Romans, first of all in Paul’s battle with the Judaizing false Teacher and then in justification theory, is nothing less than the meaning of faith, the meaning of Christianity, or the meaning of meaning and understanding. Where faith is defined by law (and law here may be any imagined static structure) propositions, dogma, or an imagined stable tradition (positive theology) are determinative. Meaning, rather than being personal, dynamic, continually engaging an unfolding reality, is static, impersonal, and objective. Christianity is reduced to a system or belief in a static set of propositions. Meaning is reduced to grasping the system, and understanding is not concerned with personal reality or a dynamic engagement with the world’s reality. Rather than faith being an ever deepening engagement with God and the world – evinced in an ever-deepening wisdom and understanding – faith becomes belief in doctrines and propositions. The justification theory arising with the Protestant Reformation, is not only nominalist in its origins, but it gives rise to a faith (a meaning system) which must satisfy itself with an impersonal, static, nominalist faith.

It may be necessary to do a misreading of Romans 4, the reading of justification theory, in order to make clear the absolute alternative represented by Paul’s view of faith. In justification theory, Romans 4 illustrates how faith justifies in place of the law, so that Abraham is to be emulated by all believers so that they too, if they have faith in the manner of Abraham, will be saved. Abraham is the prime example that faith alone (sola fide) saves, apart from works of the law. In this way, both righteousness and faith are given a meaning they simply do not have in this passage.

Abraham, like all who turn to faith, has recognized that he is a sinner and that he cannot please God through the law, and therefore he has faith. His faith fills in the incapacity of the law, a fact Abraham has had to discover (as it is a necessity in justification theory). Abraham trusts in the one who “justifies the ungodly” (4:5), so, though there is no record of Abraham’s struggle with sin, verses 7-8 must apply to him and reference his struggle. We must presume Abraham had a struggle with works righteousness, and his faith is an answer to this struggle (though Paul in no way intimates this). Justification theory requires the encounter of failure in regard to works of the law, as this is the very definition of righteousness, faith and salvation.

Righteousness and salvation are determined through the law, though the law is no aid in meeting these requirements. What is meant by salvation in justification theory is that humanity is sinful (which is defined by inability to keep the law) and faith fills in where works did not cut it. Faith defined by its role in regard to the law is precisely the argument set forth by the false Teacher which Paul is refuting. The Teacher is arguing for the necessity of the law while justification theory argues for the necessity of realization of the inadequacy of the law to achieve good works, but both systems need the law.

There are several problems with justification theory’s account of faith. Though faith is centered on the work of Christ, in place of the law, how can Abraham believe in Jesus, when he does not yet exist. How can he be said to be the father of all who believe, when his own belief (in justification theory) is not Christ centered but God (the Father) centered. Abraham’s faith pertained directly to his life’s journey – he had no son, but justification theory is concerned with law and its requirements. Abraham gives no evidence of an abstract struggle with a universal law. Is Paul picturing Abraham as somehow imputed with righteousness, as defined by the law, before there was law? There is nowhere in the text the notion that legal righteousness is transferred to Abraham, this misses the focus of the promise and the fact that Paul is using the term righteousness, not in reference to the law, but in reference to the life given through Isaac. As Douglas Campbell translates verse 3: “Abraham trusted in God, and it [i.e., his trust] was credited to his advantage with δικαιοσύνη.”[1] “These texts specifically disavow the notion of merit as the basis of God’s action—which would create a forensic-retributive relationship—correlating that act, rather, with ‘trust.’”[2] Paul has stated his intended purpose in 3:21-22: “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.” Justification theory reads this “apart from the law” not as a complete departure from the law, as Paul argues, but as filling in the weakness of the law. Paul is making the case that faith has nothing to do with the law.

Paul is not doing justification theory, and his use of Abraham as an example of faith, has nothing to do with Abraham’s imagined discovery of the inadequacy of the law. Paul is using Abraham as a type of Christ, and of course does not picture a Christless faith as saving. There is no resurrection faith, no defeat of death, no enduring faithfulness, apart from Christ. Abraham’s journey is a type of the journey of Christ, and is not merely one to be emulated. No one is up to the task of faith like that of Abraham, any more than mere mortals are up to taking up crosses, dying, and being raised, apart from the fact that Christ pioneered this course. This is not something merely to be emulated – which would amount to a greater work than any work of the law. Participation in the faithfulness of Christ is the point. Christ did this and Abraham, in his own life-long encounter with death and his resurrection faith, is a type of Christian faithfulness. In both instances, there is a direct trust in God. Christ is not the object of faith, but the means of faithfulness, so that the focus is on trusting God as he did, through him. The Christian does not conjure up this faith through intense effort, but he participates in the faithfulness of Christ, of which Abraham is the key Old Testament type.

Paul’s argument undercuts the necessity of law, by arguing that Abraham’s faith is prior to the giving of the law. Righteousness does not and cannot pertain to the law, but it first of all refers to God’s promise to give Abraham a son, where he had no means of having a son. “For what does the Scripture say? ‘ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS’” (Rom. 4:3). Abraham was declared righteous, and was given life where death reigned, due to his faith. The declaration of righteousness pertains directly to the giving of Isaac – life in place of death: “(as it is written, ‘A FATHER OF MANY NATIONS HAVE I MADE YOU’) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist. In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, ‘SO SHALL YOUR DESCENDANTS BE’” (Rom. 4:17–18). So, Abraham’s faith is organically connected with his predicament, of being childless (without life) in the face of death.

Where justification theory has no role for resurrection in salvation, Paul puts the weight of Abraham’s faith and vindication on resurrection. “Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (4:23–24). This definition of righteousness does not and cannot refer to the law, and so too this faith is apart from the law.

Justification theory has misconstrued faith, righteousness, salvation, and the work of Christ, but it has also relinquished the intelligibility fostered by the journey of Christian faithfulness. The immutable classicist concept of culture has crumbled, institutional Christianity has faltered, and postmodernism has presumably cleared away the foundations of the modern, but this homelessness is precisely the context in which faith takes on its fulness of meaning. There is no stable reality to be accessed through culture, science, or institutions, but the dynamism of faith apprehends an order of meaning which is not dependent upon these falsely reified forms of immutability. Through faith we can move forward into the unknown country and not be given over to a futile relativity; rather there is an intelligible, personal, meaning, to be continually garnered on the faith journey. Romans 4 in depicting the meaning of faith but pictures entry into an alternative world, a world of life and meaning, on the basis of the dynamic intelligibility of faith.

[1] Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (pp. 731-732). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] Campbell, 731.