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A Different Form of the Faith: The Constantinian Shift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Hermeneutic of Peace: The Spiritual Reading of the Old Testament Through Christ

What difference would it make to our theology if Jesus had died in bed of old age or if he had been killed as an infant? If his death is primarily a sacrifice of appeasement, then an infant sacrifice might be quite fitting. If he is a model for right living, then modeling dying in old age would be most fitting. What is missing in old age dying or infant sacrifice, and a theology which might accommodate such a death, is the political nature of his death. He was a political prisoner killed by imperial power on an instrument designed to reinforce the subjugation of slaves and noncitizens. His was a political death brought about by human violence. The point is not to isolate the political, but to recognize that the violence that is accentuated and exposed on the cross (which is political) pertains to every human sphere. The political along with its violence is not isolated from the religious, the social, and the personal. Each of these spheres are addressed in the New Testament, but not discreetly or separately. The New Testament uses battle imagery, legal imagery, family imagery, or psychological imagery, so as to describe the form of universal enslavement and emancipation (another image). There is no singular way of describing the problem and solution as both are pervasive and pertain to everything, while overlapping in a central nexus. It is, in the language of the New Testament, of cosmic proportions, pertaining to the word and world, so that we speak it and live in it. If the problem is violent (dealing in death throughout) then the danger is that we will miss it. More than a danger, the interpretive frame focused on the cross as a religious sacrifice or Jesus as a moral example, demonstrate the violence remains. This interpretive frame is demonstrably subject to an overlooked pervasive violence, which means a peculiar hermeneutic is necessarily part of the answer.

The incarnation tells us the answer is worked from the inside out, and this pertains to our hermeneutic strategy. As Paul describes, Jesus came “from a woman, coming to be under the Law” (Gal. 4:4). A sacrificial theology “satisfied” with a dead Jesus, or an ethical theology content with a moral Jesus, or even a political theology focused on a revolutionary Jesus, all suffer from attempting to contain the solution in the problem. In Paul’s language, they make Christ fit the Law. They all suffer from fitting the answer to a facet of the problem. By the same token, if we fit Jesus to the frame of the Old Testament, he might be taken as another sacrifice, another prophet, or another revolutionary. This explains the interpretive strategy demonstrated in the New Testament in its reading of the Old Testament and the predominant hermeneutic of the church fathers. The presumption is not only that Christ is the interpretive key to the Old Testament but this key entails suspending a literal, flat, violent, reading.

Paul, in explaining the significance of Mount Sinai says, “These things are told allegorically” ((Gal. 4:24) in David Bentley Hart’s translation). As Hart explains in a note to his translation, “Again, one should not assume that Paul does not mean precisely what he says, and does not take the tale to be essentially (not merely secondarily) allegorical. His interpretive habits are rarely literalist.” Paul is explaining the significance of the Law, but in his explanation, he is also making it clear that all people, both Jews and Gentiles, were enslaved to the fundamental elements or principles of the cosmos (τὰστοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου in 4:3) which included the Law. These “elementary things” might entail any number of things and there is a sense in which the obscurity and plural valence of the term gets at its inescapable nature. According to Hart, the “Stoicheia” might refer to material constituents of the world, the elementary aspects of language, or they might refer to idols. Paul may be likening the religions of the world to children’s earliest lessons prior to Christ, much as he describes the Law as a schoolboy’s tutor or custodian. Perhaps it is something like the deep grammar which religion and language share (in a Girardian sense) with the Law.

His argument in verse 8 is, if Galatian Christians return to the law this would amount to returning to idols or the impoverished Elementals which formerly enslaved. All religion, and particularly the Jewish religion, in Paul’s explanation, suffered from this deep grammar or this elementary way of talking that enslaves all religionists prior to Christ. To read the Old Testament and the law literally, as of equal weight and as a guiding prefix to Christ, would be nothing short of “turning again to the weak and impoverished Elementals” and to once again be enslaved (4:10). Paul is teaching the Galatians that the Law, including the story of Hagar, Jacob and Esau, and the story of Sinai, have a role on the order of a maidservant. To treat the maidservant as if she is the freewoman is to mistake freedom for bondage. “Cast out the maidservant and her son, for by no means shall the maid servant’s son inherit along with the freewoman’s son” (4:30). The allegorical interpretive strategy puts the container of the Law in its proper place. It was a tutor, a maidservant, a part of what is now counted as among the impoverished Elements.

In Corinthians Paul explains that to miss the allegorical sense in which Christ was present in the Law is to miss the true spiritual food and true spiritual drink for “the rock was the Anointed” (I Cor. 10:4). Paul makes the point throughout that in light of Christ, “Now these things have become typological figures for us, so that we should not lust after evil things, as indeed those men lusted” (10:6). To take the letter of the Law as an end in itself, or as Christ says, as if it contains life, is to fall under the same principal under which the Israelites lusted and which caused them to be idolaters. In both Galatians and Corinthians, Paul is describing a fundamental desire connected with the Law and elemental principles which caused them to “go whoring” after idols (10:7-8). He once again emphasizes that the correct reading is the spiritual understanding which reads Christ as the end of the lesson: “Now these things happened to them figuratively, and were written for the purpose of our admonition, for whom the ends of the ages have arrived” (10:11).

A spiritual or theological reading will find Christ in the Old Testament, so that the focus is not on the text per se (or the intent of the author, etc.) but on Christ. As Paul explains in 2 Corinthians, God is the authority in whom we should have confidence due to Christ (3:4) and not the words of scripture. It is God, “Who also made us competent as ministers of a new covenant, not of scripture but of spirit; for scripture slays but spirit makes alive” (3:6). A text-based faith or a letter-based competency is a “ministry of death” (v. 7) but the spirit and the spiritually based hermeneutic lifts the veil of the Law, in Paul’s simultaneous explanation and demonstration of this interpretive method. This spiritual reading is not focused on the historical events but on the lesson to be drawn, allegorically, for the admonition and edification of contemporary readers.

As Hebrews puts it, God has spoken in the Old Testament through a multiplicity of sources and in a variety of ways. This plurality of words and messengers is contrasted with the singular message and messenger in which this plurality is overcome (Hebrews 1:1-3). Hebrews, like Galatians, argues that the former word or Law from God was imperfect because it came by way of secondary mediators – angels, or prophets, or Moses – and the message did not come directly from God. The implication is that the human mediators marked/marred the quality of the message and this is in contrast to the perfect representation of Christ. This imperfect message shaped by imperfect messengers resulted in its hearers perishing in the desert, missing both the promised land and the promised rest. They were bound to death by the imperfection of the message but now the full message has resulted in freedom from bondage to the former message.

As Romans states it, “But now we have been released from the Law, having died wherein we were imprisoned, so that we slave in newness of spirit and not in scripture’s obsolescence” (7:6). It is not that the Law or the scriptures are abolished but their punishing effect, or the idolatrous desire which they accentuate and aggravate, have been suspended. “For when we were in the flesh the passions of sin, which came through the Law, acted in our bodily members for the purpose of bearing the fruit of death” (7:5). Paul’s cumulative description of this Law includes Moses, Sinai, Jacob, Esau, and the various commands subsequent to Abraham. The Law and scriptures (or the gramma or word) must include much of the Old Testament, but it is also connected at a deep grammatical level (the elementary principle, the childish language, the idolatrous inclination) with the universal law of sin and death. At points in Romans, it is not clear what law he might be referencing (the prohibition in Genesis, the Mosaic law, or some sort of natural law) and it no long matters, as all law is the law of sin and death.

Origen draws out his allegorical hermeneutic from this Romans passage (7:1-3) but his larger point is to bring about peace, inclusive of peace between the Old Testament and the New.

The word ‘woman’ doubtless stands for the soul that was held fast by the Law of Moses, and about which it is said, ‘so long as her husband lives, she is bound by the Law.’ But if her husband, doubtless, the Law, has died, he calls her soul, which seems to be bound, ‘released.’ Therefore it is necessary for the Law to die so that those who believe in Jesus should not commit the sin of adultery.

 He concludes that Moses is dead and the Law is dead “and the legal precepts are now invalid.” He patterns his claim, an allegorical hermeneutic rightly handling the Law, after the Apostle and with an appeal to Jesus. “Do you want me to bring forth proofs from the Scriptures that the Law is called Moses? Hear what he says in the Gospel: ‘They have Moses and the Prophets, let them listen to them.’ Here, without any doubt, he calls the Law Moses.”[1] The woman, according to Origen, stands for every soul bound by the Law and thus drawn into adulterous desire. The dead husband stands for a Law that no longer rouses adulterous desire. And all of this in a series of sermons on Joshua.

His point is, like this woman defined by the Law and subject to desire, now that we understand Joshua is Jesus (the same name in the Hebrew) we can also understand the true enemy. What is slain by Joshua is this adulterous sin that afflicts the soul:

You will read in the Holy Scriptures about the battles of the just ones, about the slaughter and carnage of murderers, and that the saints spare none of their deeply rooted enemies. If they do spare them, they are even charged with sin, just as Saul was charged because he had preserved the life of Agag king of Amalek. You should understand the wars of the just by the method I set forth above, that these wars are waged by them against sin. But how will the just ones endure if they reserve even a little bit of sin? Therefore, this is said of them: “They did not leave behind even one, who might be saved or might escape.”[2]

The battle the Christian has joined with Jesus/Joshua is against sin. Both the surface (the wars and carnage) and deep violence of the Law (sinful desire) are suspended in Christ as hermeneutic key.  In this sense,  one can agree with the refrain to “sanctify war,” as it is a war to become holy in body and spirit by destroying “all the enemies of your soul, that is “the blemishes of sins.” The battle is one in which you “mortify your members” and you “cut away all evil desires” and you are crowned as a victor by Christ Jesus – our true Joshua.

Origen’s point, as he states it plainly in Homily 12, is “that the wars that Jesus/Joshua waged ought to be understood spiritually.” He references Hebrews to make his case that the entire Mosaic system, inclusive of the tabernacle, the sacrifices and the entire worship are a “type and shadow of heavenly things,” and so too the wars that are waged through Jesus, “the slaughter of kings and enemies must also be said to be ‘a shadow and type of heavenly things.’”[3] He defends this allegorical suspension and transformation of the Law by appealing directly to Paul: “All these things, which happened figuratively to them, were written for us, for whom the end of the ages has arrived” (I Cor. 10:11).[4]

Origen expands on Paul’s argument (referencing Corinthians and Romans) to make the case that one who clings to a fleshy reading or a literal circumcision also clings to wars, the destruction of enemies, and Israelites seizing kingdoms. This literal sense mistakes Joshua the son of Nun for the son of God.[5] The one who is an outward Jew and who insists on circumcision, in Origen’s explanation of Paul’s allegory, is committed to reading the violence of Joshua literally and in the process misses what it means to be a Jew secretly and to receive the circumcision of the heart. This fleshly reader of scripture misses Jesus’ casting out and destroying those powers ruling our souls so as to fulfill his word, “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”

This violent non-allegorical or non-Christocentric hermeneutic of the original readers will only increase the violent work of the Law and will not achieve peace:

Then that Israel that is according to the flesh read these same Scriptures before the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, they understood nothing in them except wars and the shedding of blood, from which their spirits, too, were incited to excessive savageries and were always fed by wars and strife. But after the presence of my Lord Jesus Christ poured the peaceful light of knowledge into human hearts, since, according to the Apostle, he himself is “our peace,” he teaches us peace from this very reading of wars. For peace is returned to the soul if its own enemies—sins and vices—are expelled from it. And therefore, according to the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we indeed read these things, we also equip ourselves and are roused for battle, but against those enemies that “proceed from our heart”: obviously, “evil thought, thefts, false testimony, slanders,” and other similar adversaries of our soul. Following what this Scripture sets forth, we try, if it can be done, not to leave behind any “who may be saved or who may breathe.” For if we gain possession of these enemies, we shall fittingly also take possession of “the airy authorities” and expel them from his kingdom, as they had gathered within us upon thrones of vices.”[6]

Origen concludes that apart from this non-violent allegorical reading of scripture it is questionable that “the books of Jewish history would ever have been handed down by the apostles to the disciples of Christ.” Christ “came to teach peace so it is only by transforming these tales of “physical wars” into figures of “spiritual wars” that these books are made worthy of being read in the churches. “For what good was that description of wars to those to whom Jesus says, ‘My peace I give to you; my peace I leave to you,’ and to whom it is commanded and said through the Apostle, ‘Not avenging your own selves,’ and, ‘Rather, you receive injury,’ and, ‘You suffer offense’?”[7]

It comes down to a choice between the violent, fleshly, inheritance of the Law and Moses or the peace of Christ, and to cling to the fleshly reading, according to Origen, is disqualification from the inheritance of Christ. “If, therefore, you wish to be made worthy to pursue the inheritance from Jesus and if you wish to claim a portion from him, you must first end all wars and abide in peace, so that it may be said concerning the land of your flesh, “The land ceased from wars.”[8] Origen’s Christocentric allegorical hermeneutic has the peace of Christ as its continual aim and only the defeat of sin and violence are worthy of Christ. He suggests that the primary enemy of Jesus is the root of “bitterness” (the meaning of “Amorite”) that continues to dwell in those who continue to “strike out violently” (the meaning of Edom) and may linger on even in those who dwell in peace (the meaning of “Salamin”) but the lesson is clear:

The ones who strike violently are those who, placed in contests, endeavor to overcome devilish abodes and structures. But peaceful ones are those who produce peace for the soul after overcoming fleshly desires. Nevertheless, a hostile power, bitterness, steadfastly continues and strives to persist in both.[9]

Origen extends the reading of Paul, in what he describes as a cruciform hermeneutic applied to Joshua.

To what then do all these things lead us? Obviously to this, that the book does not so much indicate to us the deeds of the son of Nun, as it represents for us the mysteries of Jesus my Lord. For he himself is the one who assumes power after the death of Moses; he is the one who leads the army and fights against Amalek. What was foreshadowed there on the mountain by lifted hands was the time when “he attaches [them] to his cross, triumphing over the principalities and powers” (Col. 2:14-15).[10]

This allegorical reading, far from unusual, is the hermeneutic that prevailed in the apostolic period, the early Church, and it was the approach of much of Judaism in the first century. It is the approach of Hebrews, Galatians, I & 2 Corinthians, and Romans. As Hart points out, “Philo of Alexandria was a perfectly faithful Jewish intellectual of his age, as was Paul, and both rarely interpreted scripture in any but allegorical ways.”[11] 

The literal interpretation, with the peculiar meaning it will take on in the modern period (literalism) is a development arising only with the Reformation, prior to which the spiritual reading was normative. “From Paul through the high Middle Ages, only the spiritual reading of the Old Testament was accorded doctrinal or theological authority.”  Hart’s conclusion seems to echo Origen, “Not to read the Bible in the proper manner is not to read it as the Bible at all; scripture is in-spired, that is, only when read ‘spiritually.’”

To read the Bible as if it encourages violence or as if God is violent is to miss Christ, the New Testament, and the predominant witness of the church. To read the Bible through the hermeneutic born in the sixteenth century is, according to Hart, “at once superstitious and deeply bizarre.” This late Protestant invention is “not Christian in any meaningful way.”


[1] Origen, The Fathers of the Church: Homilies on Joshua, vol. 105, Translated by Barbara Bruce, (Washington D. C. The Catholic University America Press) p. 29. This blog is the product of a discussion with Matt Welch who prompted me to read Origen, provided me the text, and then pointed me to the key passages which I have deployed above. Matt has also pointed me to Hart and provided me with his translation of the New Testament. Matt’s friendship and dialogue through the years have been a key demonstration to me of Christ’s peaceful hermeneutic.

[2] Origen, 94

[3] Origen, 120

[4] Quoted as the opening to Homily 13.

[5] Origen, 125

[6] Origen, 130

[7] Origen, 138

[8] Origen, 168

[9] Origen, 204

[10] Origen, 29

[11] David Bentley Hart, Good God? A Response, a post in response to Peter Leithart on his blog at https://theopolisinstitute.com/leithart_post/good-god-a-response/ All the Hart quotes are from this blog.

The Origin of Language and the Nature of Salvation

The theory of Noam Chomsky and of René Girard set forth a different focus on the origin of human language, with Chomsky focused on the necessary preexistence of a “language module” (a black box containing the capacity for language) and Girard focused on mimetic rivalry, and through the scapegoat the rise of a symbolic and sacred order. For Girard the capacity for language would be driven through the need or circumstance in which symbolization resolves or suspends generalized violence, while for Chomsky the leap to language and symbolization requires an already existing innate capacity. For Girard, the societal need would give rise to the capacity, which should be traceable through its unfolding grammatical impact, but (as discovered in the wake of Chomsky) syntactic complexity is equal across all known languages and there is no residual sign within language of an evolving capacity or complexity. There are no “primitive” languages, which supports (though not decisively) Chomsky’s picture of an already existing capacity necessary to language. This may be a long way around to posing the question of whether, with Girard, we can trace the origins of language to its implication in violence, or whether as with Chomsky, there is no determined origin for language, violent or otherwise? Are humans always negotiating the problem of violence as part of what it means to speak, or is violence subsequent to and not a necessary part of human language?

 In theological terms, are humans stuck in a violent metaphysics because their language fosters this singular orientation? Are we so steeped in a meaning derived from violence, whether conscious or unconscious, that there is no conceptual ground from which to make out or discern an alternative? Or can Girard be supplemented with Chomsky so that, as in the biblical depiction, humans begin with an uncorrupted capacity for language which is corrupted by what is done with this capacity.

 In Anthony Bartlett’s depiction, Girard’s theory of mimetic rivalry and the discovery of the scapegoating mechanism, are a necessary step in evolutionary development,[1] which would seem to be on the order of Hegel’s depiction of the necessity of the fall for cognition or the Calvinist notion that sin and evil are a necessary step in salvation. The nearest equivalent is Lacanian psychoanalysis which attaches human personhood to a primordial but necessary lie. Is Girard’s depiction of human deception, in mimetic rivalry and the scapegoat mechanism, a necessary step in human evolution or a misstep in human de-evolution? It is a question that Bartlett makes worthwhile, but even his own cumulative evidence points to a more nuanced Chomsky-like biblical depiction. In fact, his book can be read as giving clearer support to this slightly different premise.

 Either way, revelation would necessarily entail a radical departure and breaking in, and to the degree that theology has girded itself with a Greek philosophical understanding it has a hidden and necessary violence at its origins. This is the charge Bartlett levels at the Thomistic understanding of God (along with Anselm or any theology which would employ Greek philosophical thought). As first cause of everything (being), according to Bartlett, “God here reinforces a hierarchical order of origin, authority, and, necessarily, violence.”[2] Only the unadulterated Word intervenes so as to foster transformation beyond scapegoating and violence, and it is only the cross which brings about this semiotic transformation (an alternative meaning with an alternative center).  In Bartlett’s description, the concept of god carries the metaphysical baggage of violence (with all this entails in terms of religion and human institutions), while the God of revelation infiltrates and challenges this conception.

Bartlett lines up the linguistic turn in 20th century thought to make the case that semiotics, or the study of signs, reveals a dependence on negation, otherness, absence, or nothingness, which is inherent to the sign system. The theory of Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, and John Deely, converge on the notion that “being,” which cannot be posited apart from its apprehension in language, already contains the antagonistic otherness of the sign. There is no being apart from its sign, and the sign contains or sets forth meaning in its separateness from the biological world. Both being and the sign refer to an extended, infinite, otherness. “The world itself is the ‘other,’ rendered present in a sign, yet strange, infinite, congenitally open itself, by virtue of the mysterious, ‘nihilating’ event of the sacred.”[3] In Girard’s terms, the original murder is hidden in the sign as that which is negated and this compelling emptiness or otherness requires another sign, so that the signifying chain covers over the original absence (murder), as in Derrida’s “deferral” of meaning (to define one word requires a multiplicity of words – ad infinitum), or Heidegger’s and Hegel’s nothingness (the other over and against which all else, something, derives its meaning). The conclusion: to imagine God on the basis of the sign of being is to project violent mimetic desire and sacrifice onto God.  

The question is whether Bartlett’s notion of the origin of language actually fits his Girardian reading of the Old Testament, or does it fit better with Chomsky’s model combined with Girard and a more traditional reading of Genesis. Is there room in violently determined language for the understanding that the Old Testament already fosters, in part and in shadows, the understanding culminating in Christ (e.g., in the story of Joseph and his brothers, in the depiction of Solomon’s wisdom)? Bartlett pictures the creation account in Genesis as containing an original peace which stands in contrast to other creation myths and he quotes from the prophetic tradition depicting the revelation of God as completely over and against human understanding. As he puts it, “How could the experience of violent mimetic crisis leading to sacrifice give any authentic sense of the God who said, ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (Isa 55:9).”[4] The question is, how can God’s voice break through to his human prophetic vessels? If, in the words of Giambattista Vico, the world of human beings, including their deployment of signs, is made by human beings, then what room for the voice of God in human language.

A differently nuanced understanding, which would accommodate both Girard and Chomsky, is to picture the human predicament, not as endemic to the origins of language, but concerning, rather, the orientation to language. The biblical picture poses the possibility of an original image or an original language untainted by violence (an image we can see in every child). The original connection to nature and to God, however one might read Genesis, points to something other than a total incapacity or a total lack of access to reality. This fits what we find in both people and the Bible. Humans are inherently capable, no matter their race, religion, or place of origin, of developing deep and abiding insights about reality, though they are still given over to violence and the world of unreality indicated by Girard. The biblical nuance is of a capacity that is obscured by assigning to language (the knowledge of good and evil) an inherent capacity for the divine (for being like God and escaping death) that displaces God. But what the biblical picture (aligned with both Chomsky and Girard) allows for and points toward is human agency (self-deception) at work in the deception and displacement.  

Bartlett’s theory, like the notion of total depravity, considers human understanding tainted at its source. In turn, what God has brought about is not simply a reorientation to or within language but a whole new mode of code making. “If there is a God and this God cares for the world, then it is by changing the actual root dynamic of our codes that God intends to save us.”[5] If he means by this that the orientation to law and language, and not language and law per se, are the root problem from which we are saved, this is a deep insight that accords with the New Testament. But if he means that language per se is the problem, one wonders if this fits his own semiotic picture of meaning as something which arises between signs (within language) as part of the dynamic of language.

As both Saussure and Claude Lévi-Strauss conclude, it is not the signs or the terms themselves, but the relationship between terms which bear meaning. This moveable or transposable middle (between terms) allows for meaning in the opening to the possibility of a lie. Both possibilities arise as there is no necessity, biological or ontological, in the arbitrary sounds or signs that make up language. There is an arbitrariness to language and human culture which is “inevitably” codified into laws, which make the arbitrary “essential” to the culture and to what it means to be human. The big lie is to imagine this arbitrary and ever dynamic sign system can be frozen into law and made to serve as an unchanging stairway to heaven. The biblical depiction of a stone tower reaching to the heavens captures the notion of language set in stone as the avenue to God and life. It is not a problem that people speak, make laws, and build towers, it is that they imagine their arbitrary and limited understanding is of eternal, life-giving significance.

 Lévi-Strauss applied Saussure’s insight to kinship relations, to indicate that what was important was not any specific relationship but pairs of relationships or oppositional pairs which control other pairs in endless correlations and inversions. For example, a familiar relationship between father and son was paralleled by a rigid taboo between brother and sister; or this could be inverted among a different people with a close relationship between brother and sister and a rigid one between father and son. As Lévi-Strauss explains, “A kinship system does not consist in the objective ties of descent or consanguinity between individuals. It exists only in human consciousness; it is an arbitrary system of representations, not the spontaneous development of a real situation.”[6] Yet, by definition the arbitrary kinship system of a particular culture is protected by sacred immovable boundaries definitive of a people and equated with what it means to be human.

 In biblical terms, the problem is not a particular law or set of laws, but the problem arises when these laws are equated with sacred boundaries marking off life and death or “we the people” from the surrounding non-people. These laws, by their very nature, were subject to being inverted and subverted among other people or tribes. This arbitrariness and human origin of law is a continuous refrain among a segment of the prophets. The laws regarding sacrifice, marriage (polygamy, divorce), food laws, or the code surrounding the Temple and its priests, are pronounced non-essential in this minority report. “For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.  But like Adam they have transgressed the covenant; There they have dealt treacherously against Me” (Ho 6:6-7). The covenant concerns a loyalty and knowledge which cannot be codified, and the failure to keep covenant involves mistaking the arbitrary for the essential and losing what is essential.

Bartlett develops this semiotic nature of language, or the relation between terms, as key to his understanding of the work of Christ. In a meditation on John, the book of signs, he demonstrates that Christ reconstitutes the human sign system by emptying it of violence. This culminates in his intervention into the sign or taboo of consuming human flesh and blood. “The primitive semiotic boundaries against eating human flesh and drinking blood could only be undone by a revolution in human and theological meaning, when a particular flesh and blood became an event of absolute nonviolence and peace.”[7] The shift from a sacrificial system which would feed God (human flesh, animal flesh, etc.) to one in which God is the food, marks the ultimate intervention into human prohibitions. The point is to overturn a fixed, law-bound meaning attached to violence and to open a semiotic register free from violence. “’Eating and drinking Jesus’ are signs then of an entirely new semiosis and anthropology, and it is only by meditating continually on the total collapse of the old human way that they are saved from being simply an outrage.”[8] As Bartlett points out, this was quickly returned to the sacrificial form of sacred by Anselm and a major portion of the Western church, so that the gospel is veiled. (This veiling seems to fit with a truth that was not an impossibility, which Paul describes as veiled by the law, but which is permanently unveiled by Christ (2 Cor 3:14).)

In conclusion, Bartlett explains the work of God is to bring about a semiotic shift, “Because human meaning is constructed originally out of violence, its inversion and subversion in the nonviolence of the cross constructs at once a new fundamental relation and, therewith, a completely new possible universe.”[9] This conclusion does not make allowance for human agency as portrayed in the OT (indicated in the arbitrariness demonstrated in language and culture) and it assigns a necessary role to violence in the development of meaning and language. I would question whether Bartlett requires this origin story for the key part of his argument. One could concur with the latter half of his statement (which includes most of the argument of his book), that it is the inversion and subversion, a necessary possibility within language, which Christ enacts in his incarnation. Perhaps this is not “a completely new possible universe” but the completion of creation realigned with its foreordained purpose found in the original Logos.

To state it plainly, Girard’s theory still holds in my understanding, but not omni-competently (an explanation of everything) so that it may describe universal historical developments which are not tied to syntactic or semiotic evolution (an explanation for language) but to a universal human failure overturned by Christ.


[1] Anthony Bartlett, Theology Beyond Metaphysics: Transformative Semiotics of René Girard (Cascade Books, 2020). I have to thank Tim, again, for the gift of this fine book. Bartlett unifies and makes accessible the turn to semiotics as itself a significant theological indicator. So, this initial critique is in no way a dismissal of the book or even the theory Bartlett is setting forth, but I think the theory needs slight revision.

[2] Ibid. 91

[3] Ibid. 97.

[4] Ibid. 98

[5] Ibid. 129

[6] Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, 50. Quoted in Bartlett, 35.

[7] Ibid. 171

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. 162

Intellectualism, Arrogance, and Peaceful Theology

Or, “Why arrogance has no place in a peaceful theology

Getting a Handle on Intellectualism

One of the early issues I began wrestling with during my education was the prevalence of anti-intellectualism in the evangelical traditions I was familiar with.  Marva Dawn’s Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down and offerings from Robert Weber helped me articulate the irony of the banality of contemporary worship songs, shallow preaching and religious practices, and a people more informed by Fox News than by solid biblical and theological training, but who still acted and spoke with a supreme sense of certainty about their rightness about social issues and religion.  I felt that the Church I was seeing reveled in self-certain ignorance.  And I wanted to change it.

Anti-intellectualism (being a symptom of right-leaning politics as well) is a worldview that reacts to new learning or new information which challenges the status quo by assuming that the new information is suspect, biased, a corruption of “traditional values,” or (in religious circles) a lie of the devil. 

Of course, it’s always selectively so.  Science is a liberal, socialist plot foisted by the “elite” when it presents evidence for its theories on origins or warns about the dangers of climate change.  But we’re generally all grateful for science when Aunt Mildred needs a heart transplant.  Similarly, all university professors are atheist, liberal, socialists trying to brainwash our youth when our youth outgrow their parents’ worldviews, but we don’t question whether our kids need to go to college if they’re going to be successful capitalists. 

Such were the ironies of anti-intellectualism.  But I actually am not writing about that today.   My intent, instead, is to introduce anti-intellectualism as a springboard to criticize an equally problematic -ism, intellectualism.[1]  But first, another analogy:

In the same way that anti-intellectualism holds hands with anti-science, I want to suggest that  scientism (which my good friend Paul wrote about some years ago) is akin to intellectualism.[2]  Whereas, science is a precise system for studying phenomena (i.e., physical reality), scientism is an extreme view pervasive in some segments that elevates science to something solipsistic, either answering questions (noumena, metaphysical) that it cannot and should not be expected to answer, or dismissing those questions as irrelevant outright. In that way, scientism perverts the scientific discipline into something other than it is.[3]

Similarly, while I like to think that most intellectuals may not be the demons that anti-intellectualism has made them out to be, intellectualism happens when intellectuals elevate reason and learning to something unhealthy, or even obscene.   The danger (as with scientism) is that, in becoming an intellectualist, the intellectual forgets that there is more than one kind of intelligence, and the intellectual collapses into a type of epistemological solipsism, where all the relevant questions and solutions are asked and resolved through a specific process of inquiry available only to the intellectual.  Another name for this is “the Ivory Tower.”

Like all things, science and intellect are good, even marvelous things, in the context of the whole of human endeavors.  But they are perverted into something cold, cruel, and evil in isolation.

The damage and resentment that this kind of solipsistic intellectualism causes is illustrated brilliantly in Wendell Berry’s Remembering.  In it, Andy Catlett, a late-mid-20th century Kentucky farmer, laments the industrialization of farming that happens when the academy and the corporation are applied to agriculture.  In this brief quote, Andy, who has had enough intellectualist pontification, speaks out at a farming convention:

I don’t believe it is well understood how influence flows from enclosures like this to the fields and farms and farmers themselves.  We’ve been…hearing about the American food system and the American food producer, the free market, quantimetric models, pre-inputs, inputs, and outputs, about the matrix of coefficients of endogenous variables, about epistemology and parameters—while actual fields and farms and actual human lives have been damaged.  The damage has been going on a long time.  The fifteen million people who have left the farms since 1950 left because of damage.  There was pain in that departure….

I think that bill came out of a room like this, where a family’s life and work can be converted to numbers and to somebody else’s profit, but the family cannot be seen and its suffering cannot be felt.[4]

Andy Catlett

For Andy, the issue is that there are other types of intelligence, other interests besides profit, which in this case the intellectuals and the profiteers seem to have forgotten.  Their own assumptions are too solipsistic.  They’ve collapsed into themselves; and harmed the people around them.

What does that have to do with Forging Ploughshares?

Peace Theology Against Intellectualism

I’d propose that if, when asked the question, “What do you think has happened in American culture and politics to bring us to the Trump/post-Trump era?” your first response is to quote some obscure piece of text from Bernard Lonergan instead of asking questions about the reality of people’s access to health care, clean water, or food, then…it may be time for some reflection.  If people’s satisfaction with their work or their lives, or how and why they feel left out of cultural conversations, or their debt and financial woes, or the opioid crisis, or how they have been exploited and tossed aside doesn’t seem as relevant as Hans Urs von Balthasar’s work on theological aesthetics, you may be approaching the line separating being an intellectual from being an intellectualist.  In other words, it’s possible that some of us, even some of us who are contributing to Forging Ploughshares, aren’t operating with the rest of us here in the real world.  And sometimes I get the feeling that we like to hear ourselves talk.

How the Universalism fad has made it worse

Years ago, the pop-theologian Rob Bell wrote his own little treatise on universalism: Love Wins.[5] In it, Bell argued for the position that all people will, after dying, be offered unlimited second chances to come to belief in Christ so that, eventually, all people will “go to heaven.”  Bell certainly wasn’t the first to argue such and wasn’t the last.  Yet, at most the effect of the book was a momentary blip on the theological radar.  Here and gone.   Why did Bell not unleash the floodgates of the current universalism obsession with Love Wins?  Why no movement?  We’ll get there.

For my own part, I remember thinking Love Wins was a little flaky, but still thoughtful.  But, because my foray into William Hasker’s emergent dualism had led me to annhiliationism (please read the footnote),[6] I remember also feeling a sense of kinship with Bell and I kind of rooted for him a little.  I get it.  He was offering up an alternative.  I could appreciate it because he seemed honest, sincere, and I found dialogue was still possible with the people who read it. 

It feels important for me to restate that before the David Bentley Hart thing, I didn’t really have a problem with universalists.  I have had many conversations with people who wear that label and maintained friendship!

The latest form of universalism, though, established by Hart’s That All Shall be Saved, has a far different mood.  In terms of academic seriousness, Hart is, far and away, light years beyond Bell’s argument.  But, substantially, I take that to be the extent of the difference.  The eschatology is the same as Bell’s: all people, after dying, will be offered unlimited second chances to come to belief.  Hence, all will “be saved.” 

So, why the movement after Hart?  The difference, dear friends, is intellectualism.  What do I mean?

Hart’s Universalism is an Intellectualist Universalism

The problem that Hart presents is essentially that human will is incapacitated by the failure to understand the Kingdom of God.  Being lost is being intellectually challenged (a restatement of Calvinistic original sin) from seeing God’s right way.  There is no evil, just foolishness and misunderstanding.

The solution?  As I was told while recording a podcast recently, “once people understand the Gospel, they WILL accept it.”  Once their intellect is corrected or restored (whether here or after death), they will choose it (merely reworded irresistible grace). 

This, of course, precludes the possibility that someone might actually understand salvation and still reject it.  It also would seem to rule out the notion that someone might not fully understand it and still choose it, if the issue is simply an intellectual one.[7]  I’ll get to what I take to be a problem with that momentarily.

And that is the point I am attempting to make without belaboring: this view of universalism is predicated on an intellectualist understanding of what sin and salvation are.  The whole thing is merely a problem of the intellect which is solved by a correction of the intellect.  Is it any wonder it’s found such popular acceptance among intellectual progressives who want to reject their evangelical roots and feel intellectually superior?  I attest that what has risen in the current universalist mood is an intellectualist arrogance that is nearly unbearable for those of us who think differently.  Why?

Hart’s Intellectualist Universalism is arrogant and his followers are, too

An honest conversation with anyone who has read even a section of Hart’s book elicits a response that Hart is, at least harshly critical of people who disagree with universalism.  Others have described it as being downright cutting and hostile to those who disagree.  And it’s not hard to see why.

To begin, might I, for a moment, comment on the ableism of Hartian universalism?  Might I point out that the arrogant assumption of sin as merely a failure of the intellect to properly understand the gospel implies that those who do not accept it are mentally impaired?  Does this not also imply that those with mental or intellectual disabilities are more sinful by virtue of the fact that sin is no more than the fallen inability to understand truth?  Is this not the height of power and arrogance that Jesus meant to undo in the Gospels? 

And furthermore, does this not imply a hierarchy of intellect in which the universalist is at the peak?  I think, ultimately, this is the arrogant, undeniable conclusion of this recent form of universalism. 

In fact, Hart’s universalism is expressed best (as it is expressed by Hart) with a generous helping of condescension and disdain, a general sense of certitude that “this position is the ‘informed’ one and that all others are simply backward, ignorant, small-minded: or foolish.  If all sin is, simply, foolish misunderstanding, it follows that people who don’t understand it that way are simply not as intellectual as the universalist.  And that assumption tends to emerge anytime I end up in dialogue with someone who follows Hart, as these recent interchanges went:

  1. “Universalism is undeniable, once you understand it.”
  2. In response to a previous article of mine, “His Christology is good, but I don’t think he understands universalism.” 
  3. “I think your understanding that God can only work with someone on this side of death is crude and small-minded.”

To be a universalist along Hart’s lines is to believe not just that sin is a failure of intellect and salvation is a restoration of intellect.  It is to believe that those who understand this are of the highest intellect, and that all objections are intellectually inferior to this position.  In other words, if people don’t choose the Gospel (which is understood to apply to everyone once they understand it), it’s because they don’t understand it—including those of us who reject their universalism (we just don’t understand it—if we understood it, we’d accept it). 

This form of solipsistic intellectualist universalism comes packaged with an obnoxious, self-sustaining pretense that has made reasonable dialogue impossible.  It mocks questions, rolls over objections, commandeers honest conversations, and shouts down dissent.  It is self-righteous, self-important, and it has hurt honest, seeking people who just don’t see it the same way. 

I argue that Milton, hardly the keeper of eschatological orthodoxy, was right when he said that there are will always be people who choose: “It is better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.”  And, if you want to know the truth, the desire to reign is what I feel has emerged when discussing “universalism” with Hartian universalists. 

Say what you will about Rob Bell’s book on universalism; at least he wasn’t a pretentious d*ck about it.  But the more I talk to Hartian universalists, the more convinced I am that the pretentiousness is the attraction for smug progressives[8] who are completely certain that they’re more intellectual than you are.  For them, the Good News is that, someday, God will make sure the rest of us lowly cretins agree with the universalists so that, in the end, the only people in heaven will be the universalists.  Then we’ll all know…they were right.

And the more I talk to Hart’s followers, the less I find their position comports as a peaceful theology.  It feels, instead, more like people trying to win arguments and prove their superiority.  It feels less like the cross and more like people struggling to overpower their enemies.


[1] Here, I want to be careful to note that I am using the standard suffix “-ism” to imply an extreme or dogmatic position. 

[2] What my friend Paul does not know but that I still talk about was how many of my science friends and my theological friends both took exception to that article—for the same reasons, but from different viewpoints.  It was fascinating.

[3] For my part, aside from the obvious advantages for the military in the Department of Education’s interest in STEM over and against the liberal arts in education, the best reason I can see for doing STEM and de-emphasizing literature, history, art, music, home economics, and shop class is that science and technology are achieving religious status.  The questions that other disciplines answer are superfluous at best.  Hence, scientism. 

[4] Wendell Berry, Remembering: a Novel. Counterpoint, Berkely, CA. Pgs. 19-20.

[5] Perhaps the benefit of this outing for universalism was that it acted as a “fuzz buster” (you’d have to be a child of the 90s to truly appreciate the reference), exposing objections from folks like John Piper, who, famously, said “Farewell, Rob Bell.” 

[6] If, unlike non-physical persons such as God or angels, what we call soul or spirit is a product of our physical being, then it makes no sense to say that there can be life for us apart from that physical being.  For this reason, I began to explore an earthier sense of what Jesus’ Kingdom was all about; and my view of resurrection became a restored physical life on a restored physical world.  For that reason, an eternal hell apart from a resurrected body ceased to make sense.  This means, though, that neither does the option of making the choice to follow Jesus “after we die” unless that person is also raised to physical life in the resurrection.  And how, in a resurrected world in which everyone is raised, regardless of whether they chose not to follow Jesus, would that resurrected world be any different from the world we live in now (except being more crowded and, thereby, more broken)?  And, if that resurrected world is no different than the one we live in now, why should we think that those who refuse to follow now would choose to in the next world?  Most “universalists” have blocked me, invited me to leave the conversation, or walked all over me before I could even set up my question.  Their intellectualist assumption won’t allow for alternative objections other than the ones they feel Hart has already debunked: and that is precisely because their certainty is established by the assumption of intellectual superiority.  The problem with we who disagree is that we just…don’t understand.  God will prove them right, someday.

[7] For my own part, I take the story of the rich young man in Mt 19, in which Jesus explains that he must relinquish his power and wealth to be a part of the Kingdom and he walks away disheartened to be a story not of someone who rejected because he did not understand.  He rejected because he did understand.

[8] As someone who has considered himself some type of “progressive” for a while now, I know we can be smug.  But we needn’t be.

Revelation as the Exposure and Defeat of a Violent Concept of God

Scripture records a progressive revelation of God culminating in Christ which ends up pitting an obscure earlier understanding, with its own tradition and cultic development, against the fulness and truth of Christ. My argument (here) was that Christ bore this difference in his death. My argument below is that this development of two competing concepts of God, coming to a final conflict in Christ, is what constitutes revelation and that to miss this point is to miss the word of the cross and the nature of inspiration.

The two biblical uses of “God breathed” illustrate the point that God’s life or breath animates human-kind (Gen. 2:7) and stands behind biblical inspiration (2 Tim. 3:16) in a similar way. In both instances the human impinges upon, is allowed to act upon, the divine gift.  The human bearer of the divine breath or image is capable of obscuring that image in a way that the rest of creation cannot. That is, the rest of God’s creation bears his fingerprint but it is only humans, those who directly bear his image, that are empowered to erase it. They might erase the image within themselves as individuals, corporately as part of societies, or as part of their religion. This is brought home most starkly by the cross in the one who was “the exact representation of his nature” (Heb. 1:3) who was tortured to death in an attempted annihilation. I presume that there is no divine breath that is not marked by this deadly human impetus to erasure. If the person of Christ, God incarnate, is acted upon by evil men, how can there be any word that does not bear the mark of this encounter. If the God breathed revelation in Christ bears the human attempt at erasure (murder, violence, deicide) in his flesh, is Scripture miraculously protected where the Word was not?

There are occasions, such as when his hometown synagogue tried to assassinate him, that Jesus “passed through their midst” (Lk. 4:30) unharmed. He had the ability to escape, but we cannot see how he did it and the mode of his passing is such that it leaves no trace. He might have carried out his entire ministry, passing through their midst and “going on His way” so that he slips through their hands and minds. But the implication is that his ministry and teaching would have passed, as he did on this occasion, undetected through their midst. Apparently, a word that is untouched by human hands will also not touch upon the human mind. The revelation occurs when they get their hands on him. The height of revelation occurs when humanity acts upon him and shapes the Word to the contours of the cross. Far from the cross silencing or erasing revelation, the Gospel message is this “word of the cross.” But the cross is revelation because the message pertains to what they would do to him. Their murderous intent is the condition that is exposed as what always acts upon revelation but it is only in Christ that the Word exposes and defeats these conditions.

We might call the cross an accommodation of the message to those who have received it, and incarnation certainly indicates God willingly submitted himself to the human condition, but the cross ends the shadowy form of revelation which preceded it, as Hebrews describes it. Perhaps as Novation put it (c. 200-258), God has allowed himself to be fitted to a “mediocre” state of belief so that in Israel he was understood “not as God was but as the people were able to understand.” It is not, Novatian concluded, a problem with God but with human limitations: “God, therefore, is not mediocre, but the people’s understanding is mediocre; God is not limited, but the intellectual capacity of the people’s mind is limited.”[1] Perhaps we could agree with Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329-390), that God allowed aspects of fallen understanding to get mixed in with his self-revelation, as they could not have otherwise received it. Like a wise physician he blended flavorful juice with the nasty-tasting medicine so they could stomach it. As they were able to endure more, he gradually peeled away their fallen beliefs so as to reveal more and more truth about himself. As Gregory notes, God first “cut off the idol” though he “left the sacrifices,” and then we learn in the latter prophets that he doesn’t approve of animal sacrifices. He allowed for sacrifices and even stooped to a level of spiritual immaturity which pictures him as enjoying the great smell (Gen. 8: 21; Exod. 29: 18, 25; Lev. 1: 9, 13; 2: 9; 4: 31) but which he clearly reveals he never enjoyed or wanted (Psalm 50:8; Hosea 6:6; Psalm 51:16; Psalm 40:6–8; Isaiah 1:11–31; Jeremiah 7:21–23; Hebrews 10:4–10).[2] In Christ, while there is still a form of subordination to the human condition, there is a revelation of the whole truth without the former admixture or impurity.

With Christ, the accommodation has given way to conflict between God and Israel’s conception of God. While God in Christ is addressing the human understanding, he is also challenging it as it has never before been challenged. Now God is commanding all men everywhere to repent, as he is finished with overlooking the times of ignorance. The cross marks the contradiction and difference with this former time as it is now being challenged. It is a challenge to every aspect of human understanding. It pits the human power of death against the divine power of life and it pits a human conception of God against God incarnate. Jesus will die because of the threat he poses to the Jewish Temple, the Jewish Nation, the Jewish religion, and the Jewish conception of God. And of course, the Jews are simply the best of humankind, so that Roman, Babylonian, American, or the universal is represented in what is Jewish.

The cross, then, reveals divine communication in an odd sort of dialogue, a reciprocal give-and-take, in which human agency is given free reign and Christ is willing to bear this sin. The sin, in this instance, is a form of thought, a state of mind, a belief system, or simply the symbolic order in which meaning is attached to violence and death. The violent symbolic order and religion (the Jewish religion which is the prototype of human religion) conceives of God in its own image, so that the worship of this God requires sacrifice and it results in killing God in the flesh.

This misrecognition of God is one that Israel’s Scriptures describes as slowly evolving. God has accommodated their desire for a king, their desire for polygamy and divorce, their desire for sacrifice, and even their desire to take the promised land violently. Indicators are that he planned for a slow movement in which he would remove the population by angel power (Ex. 33:2), by his own divine means (Ex. 34:11; Lev. 18:24), or by a gradual expansion of borders (Ex. 34:24). The land itself would spew out its inhabitants due to their own moral wickedness (Lev. 18:25) but also due to a hornet infestation (Ex. 23:28). But for God’s nonviolent means to be realized, patience would be required: “I will not drive them out before you in a single year, that the land may not become desolate and the beasts of the field become too numerous for you. I will drive them out before you little by little, until you become fruitful and take possession of the land” (Ex. 23:29-30). The picture is of a gradual migration, in which one people moves off the land while another occupies it.  

Throughout Israel’s Scriptures there is a tension between God’s original ideal and the actual execution of the plan. It is not always clear that God has accommodated as much as he has been made to accommodate.  For example, there is a clear record of his warning against having a king and the curses that will be bound to follow. Nonetheless, he accommodated their desire for a warrior king and then succumbed to their notion of a warrior God. All of these accommodations are codified into the law, so that what was “allowed” becomes what was legal. But contained in Israel’s Scriptures is also the evidence of God’s true desire.  Yahweh concludes, you were mistaken: “you thought I was just like you” (Ps 50: 21). The end result is that they do not know or recognize God: “An ox knows its owner, And a donkey its master’s manger, But Israel does not know, My people do not understand” (Is. 1:3).

Would it be too much to suggest Israel made a mistake fostered by their religion and recorded and challenged by their Scriptures?  Though, modern conservatives believe the Bible is a progressive revelation and even a revelation which passed through human vessels, it imagines this involves no errors or misconceptions (that it was inerrant). To save the Bible from error the trade-off is an illogical flattening out into something worse than Novatian’s mediocrity. Without the possibility for the sort of critique, which the Bible allows itself, no distinction can be made within the various prophetic traditions and portrayals of God. The result is to ignore the counter-prophets who maintain God never desired key elements codified in the Law, which cumulatively serve to misrepresent him. In order to accommodate the notion of an inerrant Bible, rather than the Bible accommodating human failing, the trade-off is to fit belief in a violent God to the person and work of Christ. Thus, doctrines like penal substitution or divine satisfaction not only hold that Christ satisfies God’s need for violence (to restore his honor or to assuage his anger), but historically mark the reshaping of atonement to fit Constantinian nationalism and the just war tradition, in which God is turned into something like a tribal deity.

 As Jeremiah describes the false prophets and priests, “They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ But there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14). This false peace is promoted by the prophets who imagine God’s blessing is achieved through wars for national interest and they inaugurate and sanctify a nationalism which goes on into the Maccabees and to the various parties which challenged Jesus. The Sadducees would collaborate, the Zealots would rebel, the priests and Pharisees would appease, but they agree upon the need for the violent sacrifice of Jesus that the nation might survive. Jesus refusal to wage war for national independence and his revolutionary non-violent peace, in turn succumbs in large measure, in Constantinianism to the lie which put him on the cross.

Between the Edict of Milan (C. E. 313) which established toleration for Christianity within the Roman Empire and Augustine’s master work, The City of God (circa 410), which argues that Christianity is responsible for Rome’s success, the church became identified with the Holy Roman Empire. No longer is Jesus teaching conjoined, as it had been for three centuries, with the obedient nonviolent, anti-sacrificial, line of the true prophets but it is made to serve national interests through cultic means (Jesus as one more sacrifice) which, according to the true prophets, had corrupted Israel’s religion. As John Howard Yoder puts it, “The church does not preach ethics, judgment, repentance, separation from the world; it dispenses sacraments and holds society together.”[3] It is no longer a matter of discerning the will of God in a corrupt society, as now all of society is Christian (i.e., all are baptized) and the most that one need be concerned with is personal sin and attaining the lesser evil. Augustine imagined the Roman church was the millennial kingdom and that the conquest of the world had been achieved and all that was left was a clean-up campaign. As a result, the Roman state as God’s agent in the war on evil is set (by the beginning of the new millennium in 1096, the first crusade), not to preserve peace (the purpose of kings, I Tim. 2), but to wage war for faith and Empire against the heathens.[4]

Just as Jesus enemies would have annihilated him on the cross, the symbol of the cross in the Crusades, in The Thirty Years’ War and in the multiple “Christian” state wars, comes to represent the demonic force which killed him rather than his defeat of this power of death. Rather than the cross depicting God’s willingness to bear violence, it is now justification for the state to pronounce God-like judgments on its enemies. The state can now enact its own hell in exterminating all it deems to be evil. As a result, we continually hover on the brink of world annihilation as a theologically inspired nationalism, a reenactment of Jewish nationalism, mistakes the Father of Christ for the father of the nation state.

Is there the possibility that this violent image of God is mistaken and we know that it is mistaken due to the Word of the cross? Isn’t the message of the cross precisely the Word encountering and overcoming this death dealing human condition?


[1] Novatian, De Trinitate, 6, cited in Gregory Boyd, Cross Vision (Kindle Location 1563). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Gregory of Nazianzus, “Fifth Oration: On the Holy Spirit,” in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, vol. 7, trans. P. Schaff and H. Wace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), 326. Cited from Boyd, (Kindle Locations 1564-1565).

[3] John Howard Yoder, The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical (Kindle Locations 3312-3317). Herald Pr. Kindle Edition.

[4][4] Yoder, (Kindle Locations 3322-3326)

Sorting Out Atonement Theories

This is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Ríos

“To land our ‘sins’ onto a dead first-century Jew is not just ridiculous; it’s disgusting. To suggest that some god projected our ‘sins’ onto that man is even worse: it’s a sort of cosmic child abuse, a nightmare fantasy that grows out of— or might actually lead to!— real human abuses in today’s world. We can do without that nonsense.” -N. T. Wright.

WHY DID JESUS DIE?” IT IS A QUESTION TO WHICH CHRISTIANS automatically answer, “For our sins.” Although it may be a satisfactory answer within Christian circles, this answer might alienate those seeking some semblance of coherence, particularly inasmuch as this entails an angry God sending his innocent Son to die for all who reject him which, frankly, does not make much sense.

Western theology has passed along the idea that God requires a sacrifice in order to forgive humanity’s sins. This becomes an interesting (ironic) doctrine when analyzed in light of the teachings of Jesus and within light of the counter-prophetic message that sacrifice is a human, and not a divine, innovation. Why would Jesus ask humankind to forgive others 70 times 7 (Matthew 18:21-22), when God cannot forgive humankind unless something or someone dies? If God really wants to forgive and restore humankind, why does He require a sacrifice? Jeremiah 7:22 says “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Either something is wrong with many of the traditional atonement theories or something is wrong with God (He is schizophrenic and/or sadistic). The major western theories all partake of the same basic errors, which I briefly describe below, before pointing toward what I take to be a more biblical understanding of why Christ died.

Contractual Theories

 In summary, contractual theories teach that humans are sinful (as in original sin/total depravity), everyone violates the Law (in which life resides), therefore they are damned. The Contract (Covenant) humanity and God had was not working, therefore God provides a way out in Christ, who satisfies God’s justice by taking humanity’s punishment on Himself, and imputing to them His righteousness through faith in Christ’s sacrifice.

There are several problems with the basic assumptions of the contractual approach, in that they contradict what the Bible teaches:

  1. Life is in the Law, contrary to what Romans 8:2 says (life is in the law of the Spirit in Christ).
  2. Those who killed Jesus acted according to God’s will.
  3. The ultimate purpose of the mission of Jesus is not to restore all things (Acts 3:21), but to die as a sacrifice.
  4. It assumes some satisfaction (of divine wrath) is required for forgiveness.
  5. Humankind has a debt to pay that requires human blood from a demanding God that rejected sacrifice in several verses in the Old Testament.
  6. God demands humankind to forgive their neighbor, but He cannot do that Himself without the death of someone.

These theories claim that justice needs to be done in order for forgiveness to be granted, but when justice is done, forgiveness is no longer necessary. So, why is there a need to forgive if justice was done in the death of Christ? The obvious answer is, Jesus’ death is not just, but far from it, an innocent man is killed to spare the truly evil guilty ones that, paradoxically, kill him according to God’s will. Justice is absent when violence is done, and violence is precisely what the cross represents: namely, human violence against its own Creator.

The theology of the early Church became corrupted through time due to the events surrounding the “conversion” of Constantine who merged Church and State and this may go a long way in explaining the multiplication of perverse theories of atonement. In addition, several atonement theories arose which were intended to illustrate the death and resurrection of Christ (at specific times in history),[1] and not necessarily to pose singular or dogmatic understandings, but which unfortunately ended up being codified into doctrine.

The theories can be sorted according to the problem Christ would solve, specifically within the various persons (Satan, Man, God) which contain the obstacle to salvation. The question arises as to the person and the nature of the obstacle?

 According to Ransom theory (developed by Origen, 185-254 AD), sinful man is controlled by Satan, therefore, the death of Christ is a payment to Satan to free the captives. Sometimes this ransom is illustrated as a hoax; in other words, Jesus ripped off Satan. Somehow Jesus ensures the escape of mankind from the hands of Satan, and then he scams Satan by escaping through the resurrection. The problem with this theory is immediately obvious, if God or Jesus owes something to Satan, is Satan more powerful than God?

The Man theory has multiple variations, but essentially holds that the death of Christ serves as a catalyst to inspire the reformation of society, that is, to bring about repentance and to halt rebellion against God. God could have forgiven without the cross, but He uses the cross to persuade humanity to repent. In this theory, salvation depends entirely on the human response, that is, on human repentance. The two main variations of this theory are:

The Moral Influence Theory. This theory (held by Abelard; 1033-1109) teaches that God wanted to forgive man, but the problem lay in how to convince man that he could be forgiven. On the cross Jesus demonstrates the love of God and His willingness to forgive. Man, turning to see the cross and the love of God it portrays, rekindles his love for Him, repents, and then God forgives him.

The Governmental Theory. This theory teaches that God is a ruler who uses Jesus as an example to impose fear on the hearts of sinners. This theory emphasizes the seriousness with which God regards His law, such that whoever breaks it suffers the wrath of God. As God demonstrates His wrath through the cross, He persuades humanity to respect God’s moral law.

The main problem with the Man Theory is the fluid (it seems to illustrate opposed notions in the two versions of the theory) and the non-essential purpose it assigns to Jesus’ sacrifice (any number of things might illustrate the love or moral seriousness of God). If anger falls on the one who breaks God’s law, what law did Jesus break? Wasn’t He innocent?  Was there not a simpler way to demonstrate His love than the murder of Jesus? If the crucifixion was not necessary, then why carry out such a plan?

In the God Theory it is taught that the death of Jesus removed the obstacle to forgiveness within the nature of God. God’s loving nature wants to forgive humanity, but His holiness does not allow it and demands that there be punishment. Therefore, before sins can be forgiven, God’s justice must be satisfied. The main variants of the theory are:

Divine Satisfaction. In this theory (held by Anselm;[2] 1093-1109 AD) sinful man must pay a debt to satisfy the honor due to God or suffer eternal punishment. But, since man constantly sins, it becomes impossible to pay a debt that continues to increase. Since Christ was sinless, He can and does pay the debt of all humanity.

Penal Substitution. This theory (held by Calvin; 1509-1564 AD) is a modification of divine satisfaction, with a shift in focus from satisfying honor to appeasing anger. Since man broke God’s law the exact penalty prescribed by the law must be paid. In order to save a few, the elect, God transfers His punishment to a substitute: Jesus. Christ takes upon Himself the divine anger and suffers the penalties and imputes His justice to the elect.

Divine satisfaction and penal substitution are focused on the exchange between the Father and the Son: an infinite offense against the infinite honor of God that required a divine exchange (between the Father and the Son) that basically leaves out finite humans. Instead of being rescued from sin, death, and the Devil (which was the primitive belief about the ministry of Christ), a change arises in which humanity is now being saved from the law, justice, and God.[3] Salvation means that God’s wrath is removed or His honor is reestablished through the death of Jesus.

In this perverse alternative to Christianity, instead of the disciple taking up his cross and following Jesus, Jesus dies in his place so that the disciple no longer has to die. Salvation is focused on the death of Christ: in Catholicism it is a continuing death and in Protestantism it is death mostly in isolation from His life. This is typically linked to the denial of the body as a means for the salvation of the soul. Instead of the Father and the Son being united to defeat evil, death, and the Devil, now it is the Son who suffers the wrath of God for humanity.

Instead of resurrection being the sign of a completed mission against evil, now resurrection is secondary to the penalty or substitution exacted on the cross. In this alternative Christianity, the State (the Roman Empire) is now part of the divine order, instead of being the servant of the prince of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4). The death of Christ, instead of suspending, displacing, or rendering the law useless, requires Roman law and the Mosaic law. Law is integral to the logic of the governmental theory, divine satisfaction and penal substitution and the law, rather than being suspended or displaced, is left in place as the logic that required or justifies the death of Christ.

In short, there are a multiplicity of atonement theories, several of which do not focus on biblical exegesis. As mentioned above, the function of some was merely illustrative and they did not purport to be biblical. The theories are dense and complex, and each Christian has a responsibility to scrutinize the Bible and study these theories and hopefully leave behind those unworthy of the God found in Christ. No theory may be complete or perfect, and thank God, humanity will not be saved according to the correctness of their theories. Like Michael Hardin says (in Finding Our Way Home), “God forgives our theology… just like He forgives our sin.”[4]

What can be said, without a doubt, is that the image of a God who demands satisfaction for His honor or wrath is not the God of the Bible; it is a paganized notion. The larger problem with many of the atonement theories is that, as Richard Rohr puts it, “to turn Jesus into a Hero we ended up making the Father into a ‘Nero’.”[5] In other words, God becomes the first to persecute the Body of Christ.

The reality is that the cross is a confrontation, but not between the Father and the Son, but against the forces of evil that murdered Him. It is the overthrow of death, nationalism, ethnocentrism, racism, self-centeredness, machismo, feminism, and every form of evil that results in violence and death. It is not the “violence of God” that murders Jesus, it is the violence of human evil that murders Him.

Rightly understood, this accords with the classic understanding of Christus Victor, which Gustaf Aulén maintained was the understanding of the first church and to which he advocated a return. The Christus Victor paradigm understands the word of Christ in terms of His conflict with, and triumph over those elements of the kingdom of darkness that enslave humanity, that is, Satan and his demons, sin, death, and the curse of the Law. Though it may be a parallel to Ransom Theory, the theory need not be associated with the cruder elements of this understanding[6] and it also stresses Christ’s victory over sin and is thus centered to an equal degree in the idea of the resurrection.

In conclusion, to think that God is angry and wants to send everyone to hell is not biblical. The story the Bible tells is of God’s search for a relationship with His human creation, and this creation constantly turns away from Him, choosing to abandon the singular source of life. This is precisely what sin is, not just the breaking of moral codes, but idolatry and the distortion of human identity because of that idolatry. It is exchanging life for death. It is offering God death instead of sacrificial life. It is exchanging the covenant with God and making a covenant with death itself.

N. T. Wright describes (in his book The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion) the three-layered error in modern Christianity: we Platonized our eschatology (by substituting the promise of being a new creation for ‘souls going to heaven’), we moralized our anthropology (by substituting the biblical notion of human vocation for a qualifying test of moral performance) and we paganized our soteriology (by substituting the genuine Biblical notion of forgiveness with the idea that “God killed Jesus to calm His anger”).

Christianity, under the influence of Plato (and Platonist theologians), inevitably interprets God as a violent god, but perhaps people will distance themselves from that god and be drawn to the God of the Bible. The hope is that by moving away from the repulsive god of a failed atonement theory the true God will be sought, though, this is often not the case.


[1] The error of many of these atonement theories is locating themselves in a specific time and space other than the time and space in which Jesus died. That is, they try to explain the purpose of Jesus’ death according to the historical context that surrounds them. For example, Satisfaction theory repeats themes from its medieval context. Not that this is necessarily bad, because Jesus died for everyone in all times. But you cannot speak of His death and resurrection without placing them in their own context. Another example of this error is the one that N. T. Wright rightly points out, and that is, even, many of these atonement theories are not based on the Gospels, but on the letters.

[2] Augustine is the theologian who most influenced Western theology and that is why it is necessary to mention the following: Augustine, who had Neo-Platonic notions, leads theology to reinterpret human subjectivity and the functioning of truth. It fails to appreciate the embodied nature of truth, and unfortunately this infects the rest of theology with a dualistic tendency, thus fusing it with Greek philosophy. The interaction between soul and body becomes more Greek than Judeo/Christian. It begins the belief that the soul is eternal and is trapped in a human body. And it is Augustine who mystifies sin, opens the way to the atonement theory called “divine satisfaction” that is today’s standard imposed in most Western churches and that Anselm developed later.

Anselm completely absorbed the change that Constantine brought about and gives life to the Satisfaction theory. In this atonement theory, God is the object, and the human is the subject. This theory used Roman law as a metaphor (and, on behalf of Anselm, his intention was only to make an illustration). Unfortunately, his illustration became the only way to see the cross of Christ in Western theology.

“In ancient times, Christ was seen first and foremost as the conqueror of the devil and his powers. His work consisted above all in freeing humanity from the yoke of slavery to which it was subjected. And so, the worship of the ancient church was centered on the Resurrection. But in the Middle Ages, particularly in the ‘dark ages,’ the emphasis shifted, and Jesus came to be thought of primarily as the payment for human sins. His task was to appease the honor of an offended God. In worship, the emphasis fell on the Crucifixion rather than the Resurrection. And Jesus Christ, rather than the conqueror of the devil, became a victim of God. In Why God Became Man, Anselm clearly and precisely formulated what had become the common faith of his day [Justo L. González, History of Christianity: Volume 1, vol. 1 (Miami, FL: Editorial Unilit, 2003), 424-425.] Translated by me.”

[3] A violent atonement theory – a theory that uses violence to generate its meaning – will only serve to multiply and even justify violence in the world.

Calvin, one of the most influential theologians, is a good example of the violence that this blog criticizes. He agreed with the murder of heretics and blasphemers (who would determine who was a heretic? Him?), to the point that, according to A History of the Church by James North “Servetus was burned to death in Geneva by Calvin and his followers (p. 350).”

Although there is debate as to how much Calvin directly influenced the assassination of Servetus, and other assassinations (sometimes the number exceeds 58), there is no doubt that his theology justifies such acts and greatly influenced during the Protestant Reformation.

[4] Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, eds., Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007), 64.

[5] Ibid, 208.

[6] Gregory of Nyssa (335-394 AD) illustrates the Devil as a fish, Jesús is the bait and hook, God is the fisherman. Augustine (354-430 AD) used an example similar to Gregory’s: a mousetrap. Jesus on the cross was the bait, a man without sin. Satan kills Jesus, but at the same time falls into the trap and is mortally wounded.

Revelation as Cognitive Dissonance

The God of the Old Testament who commands that the Jews slaughter every living creature (e.g., Dt. 20:16), who tells soldiers they can take Midianite virgin women captive (if they find them sexually attractive) but to slaughter everyone else (Num. 31:1-17), who specifies that Amalekite children, infants, and women are to be slaughtered (I Sam. 15:3), who commands the stoning of disobedient children prone to too much drinking and eating (Dt. 21:18-21), who portrays himself, using the instrument of Babylonian warriors against Israel, as indiscriminately slaying both the righteous and wicked Israelites (Ezek. 21:3-4), who promises he will dash Israelite fathers and sons together (again using Babylon) so as to slay them without pity or mercy (Jer. 13:14), who depicts himself as crushing virgin Judah like grapes in a winepress (Lam. 1:15), who depicts both the fetus and the pregnant women of Samaria being “ripped up” and newly born infants being “dashed in pieces” at his behest (Hosea 13:16), and who causes parents to eat their children and children to eat their parents (Lev. 26:28-29; Ez. 5:10), bears a striking difference to the one who defeats death rather than deal in death, who is a gentle shepherd providing rest for the weary (Matt. 11:29), who is so gentle so as to not break a bruised reed (Matt. 12:20), who commands an end to any form of violent resistance or any type of violent thoughts but instead, insists upon loving the enemy (Matt. 5), who as Lord of the universe (“knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands”) models absolute humility by washing the disciples’ feet (Jn. 13), who depicts his Father as filled with such love and compassion that he runs to meet the prodigal son (Luke 15:20), who even as king is gentle, riding on a donkey (Matt. 21:5), who does not inflict violence or death but weeps at the tomb of his friend and raises him from the dead (Jn. 11), who heals the lame, the blind, the paralytic, the lepers (e.g., Lk. 4), who commands Peter to put away his sword, and who bears the lash and torment of violent men and ultimately dies a torturous death on the cross. What one does with this sharp contrast is not only determinative of their view of God, of the Bible, of the meaning of Christianity, but ultimately it is an insight into how they view themselves and the world. What one does with the violence of the Old Testament indicates what would be done with violence in general, whether it is to justify it or ignore it. What one does with the former picture of God in light of the revelation of the latter, is the very question which the revelation of Christ raises.

The attempt to reconcile the two perspectives has resulted in a dual notion of God, in which the Father is angry and violent and the Son absorbs this violence. No matter the extremes to which one might go to explain the violence (it is a hyperbolic description, it was a temporary necessity, etc.), the tendency to justify the violence presumes violence is necessary even for God. On the other hand, one might dismiss the Hebrew scriptures (with Marcion), or reject belief in God or belief in biblical revelation, but perhaps the very point of inspiration and revelation is a long hard look at the contrast, and though we might be tempted to turn our heads or to skip over the unworthy and ugly portrayal of God in light of Christ, could it be that dwelling on the contrast is part of recognizing Christ as the final and full revelation of God?

 Jesus identifies himself on the basis of this contrast. He declares John the Baptist the greatest spokesman for God up to that point (Matt. 11:11; Luke 7:28) but then says, “the testimony which I have is greater than the testimony of John” (John 5:36). There is an unfolding progress in revelation culminating in John, but then the revelation of Christ completes this progress. As the writer of Hebrews describes, what came before Christ was a shadow but now the full reality has come (10:1). To blend the two things as if they bore equal weight will reduce the reality to its shadow or it will relinquish the fulness of the Gospel by harmonizing it with what is incomplete.

The thesis of Hebrews is to spell out this difference: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (1:1-2).  J. B. Phillips translates the “many portions” (polymerōs) as “glimpses of the truth.” This previous message would not hold up in a court of law as “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” as it is a portion or glimpse of the truth. The implication of the difference, which Hebrews draws out but which is summarized in this opening verse, is that the previous messengers brought a message lacking in glory, lacking in what it represented (God, life, salvation), lacking in substance (it left the Israelites dying in the wilderness), lacking in coherence, lacking in power, lacking in its challenge to sin, or lacking in reality.

To suggest that the previous message is partly wrong or mistaken does not get at the profundity of the difference. It is not simply that God gave a message that was distorted by the messengers, but the world in which this communication occurred was distorted and distorting. It is as if the entire field of gravity, that which holds all things together, has been disrupted. What is needed is cosmic correction. So, this messenger is he “whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power” (vv. 2-3). The world distorted by sin and violence cannot be undistorted with new information, as what is needed is new creation. The problem of the message of the fathers and prophets concerned the message, the messengers and their world, and what is needed is of cosmic proportions. To speak of this previous word as mistaken then, misses both the depth of the problem and the solution.

It is not simply information about God but the nature of God, truth, and the world that suffer from distortion apart from Christ. Jesus says as much, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (Jn. 14:6-7). To imagine that you know God apart from Christ, on the basis of the Hebrew Scriptures is, according to Jesus, on the order of mistaking the evidence for the reality. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life” (Jn. 5:39-40). What is at stake in this misidentification is to take mere testimony as the thing itself; it is to mistake the evidence pointing to God as God himself; it is to imagine a dead letter is the same as the living Word.

Partial truth or glimpses of the truth are better than no truth but only the Son is the truth itself. God cannot be discerned in shadows or partial truth, but as Jesus explains to Philip: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (Jn. 14:9). Jesus as the way, the truth and the life, and as the one who resolves the problem of sin, overcomes the distortion of the Law of sin and death, but as Hebrews explains, the previous message is shaped by this field of distortion: “After saying above, ‘Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have not desired, nor have You taken pleasure in them’ (which are offered according to the Law) then He said, ‘Behold, I have come to do Your will.’ He takes away the first in order to establish the second” (Heb. 10:8-9). The writer puts in the mouth of Jesus the long counter-prophetic tradition which explains that it was not God who wanted sacrifices and offerings and the notion that he enjoyed their smell or delighted in their slaughter is denied – he finds no pleasure in them. Though sacrifice is offered according to the Law, the Law is not identified with the will of God. In fact, Christ as the one who has come to do the will of God, exposes the false premise upon which the Law is built. The writer explains, “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second” (Heb. 8:7). There was something wrong with the first covenant. It dealt in shadows, it did not penetrate to the heart and mind but left these untouched and it falsely purported to establish a relationship with God (8:10), and for these reasons this covenant is declared “obsolete” and will “disappear” (v. 13).

This declaration of the faulty nature of the Law and its need for correction more or less characterizes the ministry of Jesus. His continual refrain, “You have heard it said . . . but I say unto you” makes it apparent that Jesus was not simply supplementing the Law but was pointing out its errors. Though a great deal of ink was spilt explaining clean and unclean foods, Jesus dismisses the very concept: “And He said to them, ‘Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?’ (Thus He declared all foods clean.)” (Mark 7:18-19).  The failure of the food laws is like the failure of the sacrificial system and of the law in general; they did not change either the heart or mind. 

Keeping the Sabbath holy, the fourth commandment, was a key consideration, as breaking Sabbath law was punishable by death. Even gathering necessities like firewood on the Sabbath resulted in death (Numbers 15:32-36). The presumption of the Law is that since God rested on the seventh day, this day should commemorate His rest (Exodus 16 & 20). Yet, here too Jesus questions the very premise of Sabbath Law: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Whether it was healing on the Sabbath or picking grain on the Sabbath, Jesus presumed he was not constrained by Sabbath Law as “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28).

Jesus contravened the Law of stoning for adultery (John 8), he declared invalid the Law of oath taking from Deut. 6 (teaching that we are not to make oaths at all (Matt. 5:34)) and declares that more than yes or no “comes from the evil one” (Matt. 5:37). He pronounces James’ and John’s suggestion that fire be called down from heaven on the Samaritans (which was to emulate Elijah, who had used fire to incinerate a hundred people in this same region (2 Kgs. 1:10-12)), as deriving from another (evil?) spirit (in some manuscripts). He directly contradicts and undoes the law of retaliation (the lex talionis). No more will it be an eye for an eye or 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). Where the OT presumes wealth is a sign of blessing, Jesus pronounces a curse on the rich. Where the OT presents victory in battle as a divine blessing, Jesus presumes it is only the nonviolent peacemakers who are God’s children.

As Greg Boyd concludes, “To follow Jesus and be considered a ‘child of the Father,’ one has to be willing to violate this law. Indeed, Jesus taught that to be considered a ‘child of the Father,’ a person has to commit to doing the exact opposite of what this law commands!”[1] The implication Boyd draws out, in the light of Jesus command to refrain from violence and to love one’s enemies, is that Jesus contradicts and displaces the portrayal of God and ethics found in the Law. He concludes, “We have compelling reasons to interpret the entire Mosaic law, together with the law-oriented portrait of God it presupposes, to be an accommodation.”[2]

The price of this accommodation and the stark contrast it poses, culminates in the one who embodies the truth of the Law being crucified by the protectors and keepers of the Law. The High Priest, the chief Jews, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, in alignment with powers of Rome, saw Jesus as a threat to their Law, religion and Temple. Though he was the fulfillment of the Law, though he was the true Temple, though he was the glory of God, the price of accommodating sin in the Law was the distortion that made God incarnate unrecognizable. Though every Jew understood that love of God and neighbor, as in Jesus two great commands, is the summation of the Law, this love was also distorted beyond recognition. Jesus concludes that they cannot recognize the word of God because of their traditions (Mark 7) and though these traditions might be thought to refer to something other than OT Law, it is specifically the food Laws and the accompanying ritual washings he targets. As Paul describes it, the law and the old covenant can function to veil or obscure reality, creating a dullness of mind (2 Cor. 3:13-14). Christ lifts the veil or undoes the obscuring effect of the Law (v. 16).  The Law, in Jesus’ critique, concentrated on non sequiturs, yet accommodated every form of human violence (even against one’s own parents in this case). This violence was projected onto God, so that the Law’s center and purpose was obstructed and made impossible.  Of course, to imagine that Law is the problem is to miss the distorting effect of human sinfulness, the real problem.

The distortion of God posed in the OT, the distortion of love, the distortion of ethics, the distortion codified in the Law, stands in sharp, irreconcilable contrast with the truth of God in Christ, and this difference is what killed him. This difference, this curse of the Law, is sin itself. To cover over this difference, to live with the dullness of mind induced by the obscuring of the Law, to rid oneself of all cognitive dissonance, is to miss the cross. The cross is the final and full revelation of God, in contrast to the Law of sin and death, and it is on the cross that he bore this difference. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor 5: 21). The difference between the Law that killed him (the curse of the Law) and the truth of the Law (unadulterated love, even of the enemy), the difference between sin and love, is the difference he bore. By doing so “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3: 13). Where the power and wisdom of this world puts people on crosses and equates this violence done to the enemy, this redemptive violence, with salvation, Christ bears this curse. It is the curse of capital punishment (Dt. 21:22-23), the curse of Law sanctioned homicide, the curse of Lawful execution, the curse of holy war, the curse of crosses, which he bore.

His death is an act of love, not because he bore the legal weight of sin, but because the violence done to him in the name of Law, God, and nation, was itself sin under the guise of Law. He is afflicted with the core of evil – religious violence carried out in the name of God – and in his divine identity he exposes the fact that God is not on the side of Herod, Pilate, the Jews, or the Law, but God, in Christ, is their victim. God is not the one who victimizes and oppresses, he is not the one who commits genocide, or the one who approves sex slaves and sexual assault, or the one who slaughters infants, God is the one who rescues the victims of murder, oppression, and assault by identifying with them.

God is love, and the love of God is enacted in doing what he did. “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (I Jn. 3:16). This passage into self-sacrificial love entails passage out of death into life and out of a lie into the truth (3:14-19). I suppose there is an inevitable cognitive dissonance in recognizing how deeply engrained our world, with its laws and religion, is in this lie but this is the dissonance of revelation.  


[1] Gregory, Boyd, Cross Vision (Kindle Locations 633-637). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition. I am relying on Boyd’s summary of the biblical depiction.

[2] Ibid, Kindle Location 1763

Is Nonviolence Essential to the Gospel?

Justin Martyr assured Emperor Titus that he need not fear that Christians were insurrectionists as they have, by definition, forsworn all violence. They have, he explains, turned from violence to “cultivating piety, justice, and love” and “they have turned their swords into ploughshares and their spears into farm tools.” In a recent video, the Capitol insurrectionists pause on the senate floor, led by the horned man (Jacob Chansley), to pray and dedicate their invasion to Jesus. Frank Schaeffer also released a video explaining that he and his father, the famous missionary Francis Schaeffer, were to blame for the events that unfolded in Washington. He explained that his father had declared a kind of holy war and that in his last book, A Christian Manifesto, he had called for a potential revolution against the government if Roe V. Wade was not overturned. Schaeffer blames himself, his father, C. Everett Coop (Ronald Reagan’s Surgeon General), Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, and Ralph Reed, as leaders and creators of the religious right. He claims, “America does not have a political problem but a religious fanaticism problem.” Certainly, the Christianity which Justin defended to Emperor Titus is not that which Schaeffer describes or that of the insurrectionists dedicating their invasion of the Capitol to Jesus. Which raises the question, is there a violent form of the Christian faith, a violently insurrectionist Christianity?

Since we have just recently celebrated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, it is fitting that he serve as a counter-example, as one who has enacted a revolutionary-peaceful gospel, but also as someone who gives testimony to profound personal courage provided by the gospel of peace. His life is a portrayal of the nonviolent revolution at the heart of the gospel but what may be less well understood was the depth of his personal dependence upon the peaceful gospel and the peaceable vision he gained from the Hebrew Bible.

King’s epiphany at his kitchen table, perhaps the central spiritual experience of his life, is on the order of the epiphany of Isaiah during a time when Judah faced the possibility of obliteration at the hands of Assyria. Isaiah calls for Judah to trust in God and not in weapons of war. King, like Isaiah, would realize God’s power and presence in his life, and both would recognize God’s power to determine the course of history, in spite of the terrible events of the present moment.

King’s encounter came during the Montgomery bus boycott. It had become a months long affair and he had expected it would be over in a few days. As the economic threat of the boycott began to hit home, he was receiving up to 40 phone calls and threats on his life daily. After being pulled over for speeding and taken to jail, he feared he would be lynched. In his description, he was overcome with fear. He had reached the breaking point on Friday night, January 27, 1956. Then, he once again received a death threat: “N, we’re tired of your mess. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow up your house and blow your brains out.”  

With the Assyrian army bearing down on the tiny Kingdom of Judah, Isaiah called on the people of Israel to trust in the Lord and not in horses and chariots. The basis of this trust is spelled out in Isaiah’s vision of a future which, to paraphrase King, Egyptian children, Assyrian children, and Jewish children would hold hands in one accord. It is a trust which came to King that night, Shaken by the continual threat, he buried his face in his hands and began to pray aloud:

I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone. Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right … But … I must confess … I’m losing my courage.”

The great sense of comfort and courage that came to him at that moment is what strengthened him a few days later when his house was bombed. “Strangely enough, I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.” As he writes years later, “It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”[1]

Isaiah’s understanding of God’s peace came from an encounter while he was officiating in the temple. Just as King’s “kitchen table epiphany” revealed God’s comforting presence and power to determine the course of history, Isaiah had a temple epiphany (in the temple and concerning Zion, the temple Mount).

And in the last days the mountain of the Lord shall be manifest, and the house of the Lord on the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall come unto it. And many people shall go and say, ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, unto the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us his way, and we will walk in it.’ For out of Zion shall go forth a law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

(Is. 2:2-3)

Isaiah 2 reflects a central theme in the Hebrew Bible, in which Zion is the center of the world and as it is lifted up this center of new creation heals the nations by removing what wounds and divides. As the nations of the earth “stream” to Zion (v. 2) they come together in a unified worship. As the “mountain of the house of the Lord” is “established as the chief of the mountains” (Is. 2:2) there is deconstruction of the counter religions – the “oaks of Bashan,” the “lofty mountains,” along with all the instruments of war – “every high tower,” “every fortified wall,” “all the ships of Tarshish,” or in summary, all “the pride of man will be humbled, and the loftiness of men will be abased” (Is. 2:13-17). The instruments of war and worship or all that goes into nation building and violence are undone. With the participation of all nations in Israel’s worship, there is a simultaneous movement “up to the mountain of the Lord,” an enabling to “walk in His paths,” and a movement outward as this teaching of Zion “will go forth” downward and outward (v. 3). As a result, “the court of YHWH will replace the battlefield of the world” as “people will use the scarce and valuable materials of earth to cultivate life instead of crafting death.”[2]

God’s reign, in Isaiah’s vision, culminates in a series of reversals: where the Edenic garden-world was turned into a blood-soaked burial plot (Abel’s blood cries out and, with the generation of Noah, the earth is filled with violence), now warriors are turned into gardeners as swords are beaten into ploughshares; the worlds languages had been confused and this confusion (the etymological and literal root of war) is synonymous with the scattering and enmity of violence, but as all gather in the singular place of worship on Zion they are instructed in the singular word of the Lord.

This Temple restoration sets the cosmos revolving around a new order of peace (shalom among men and even within nature), brought about by the branch of Jesse. This messianic figure will establish righteousness upon the earth and nature herself will be relieved of all violence. It is Isaiah 40, the culmination of the prophet’s kingdom vision, which King will quote in his most famous sermon:  “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made straight, and the glory of Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together” (Is. 40:4-5). From verse 1 we understand that this straightening of the rough places and the lowering of the high places is synonymous with the fact that earth’s “warfare has ended.” 

In Isaiah’s depiction, peace is the purpose of the religion of Israel, and this purpose is fulfilled in the branch of Jesse: “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse” and “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him” (Is. 11:2-3). As a result, righteousness will be established in all the earth (vv. 4-5) and “the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little boy will lead them” (v. 6).

The lesson of Isaiah brought to culmination by Christ (the true cosmic Temple), is that the children of God need to put their confidence and trust in the Lord and not in violence (chariots, horses, or swords). Jesus taught that peacemakers are the children of God and he demonstrated in his wilderness temptation the refusal of violent power or the temptation to become a violent messiah; he demonstrated the peaceful healing of the nations in his healing ministry; in his casting out of the violent demons, and in feeding and liberating the hungry and oppressed he embodied the cosmic vision of peace in which each will sit under his own vine and fig tree. He called for love of neighbor and of enemies and he called for his followers to offer no violent resistance. He sent his followers “as lambs sent among wolves” to carry out a mission of peace in a violent culture. He would enter Jerusalem as a nonviolent king, “a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass…He shall banish the war chariot from Ephraim, and the war horse from Jerusalem…and he shall proclaim peace to the nations” (Zechariah 9:9-10). He commands Peter to put his sword away and the command stands. He nonviolently challenged the Temple system and then submitted, without resistance, to those who put him to death precisely due to this challenge to the Temple and religion of Israel.[3]

The understanding of the early church consistently placed the nonviolence of Jesus at the center of their life and discipleship. The Christian community refused to participate in the insurrection against Rome (66-70 CE), it resisted most any form of military service. Christians refused to kill on behalf of Caesar, and discipleship was aimed at preparing followers of the Way for martyrdom or witness. The practice of forgiveness, the application of the works of mercy, the cultivation of patience, all had as their center the nonviolent, nonretaliatory, gospel of Jesus.  Prior to the conversion of Constantine there is no Christian writing supporting “Christian warfare” as such a concept would have been oxymoronic. There were a few Christian soldiers, those who converted while in the service of the emperor (as testified by discovery of eight epitaphs to Christian soldiers). Tertullian (in 197) informs us that there were soldiers who converted, but the implication is that following Jesus meant they would quit the army. Nearly a century after Tertullian, St. Maximilian refused conscription into the Roman army and he was beheaded. His testimony during his trial would become, for centuries, a standard part of the mass: “I cannot serve. I cannot do evil. I will not be a soldier of this world. I am a soldier of Christ.”

St. Maximilian is a saint because the early church sought out those modeling the nonviolent Jesus. It was understood that Jesus broken body was celebrated not simply as another religious sacrifice, but as a model that accepts brokenness rather than to break the bodies of others. Christ submitted to torture and execution so as to overcome the violence and death which has the violent kingdoms of this world in its grip. [4] Christ rose from the dead and sends his disciples into the world so as to defeat death and the violent way that deploys death.

The early Christians understood the Church as the place where Isaiah’s vision is to be enacted. According to Gerhard Lohfink, the swords into ploughshares vision (of 2:3) is the most quoted text from the Hebrew Scripture in the early church. Origen (writing in the 240’s), presumed that every catechist would be familiar with it as the text was, apparently, a part of the catechism of every candidate for baptism. Justin employs the text in his explanation to Emperor Titus that Christians could not possibly be insurrectionists: “We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and all wickedness have each and all throughout the earth changed our instruments of war, our swords into plowshares and our spears into farm tools, and cultivate piety, justice, love of humankind, faith and the hope, which we have from the Father through the Crucified One.” The testimony against violence and for peace is the consensus, as demonstrated by Christian writers such as Tatian, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, Minucius, Felix, and Lactantius.[5] The peaceful kingdom of Isaiah, inaugurated by Christ, deployed by the early church, and taken up by modern disciples like Martin Luther King, breaks the chains of violence and death, the very point of being a follower of Christ.

Where this peace is not the means and end, can this be said to be the faith of Christ or the Christian religion? Rene Coste summarizes the broad consensus of church history and gospel criticism in affirming, “It is an incontestable fact that Christ did preach nonviolence, both as a condition and a consequence of the universal love that he taught us. To pretend, as is sometimes done, that his directives are only meant to be applied to individual relationships is a supposition nowhere to be found in the New Testament.”[6] Peace is the primary marker of the faith of Christ and it is unclear what remains of the religion of the New Testament in the absence of this understanding.


[1] Dr. Martin Luther King, recounted in his Stride Toward Freedom, quoted from https://lisasingh.com/southeast-travel/martin-luther-kings-defining-moment-a-kitchen-in-montgomery-alabama-past-midnight/

[2]Ralph P. Smith, Micah–Malachi. Word Biblical Commentary 32. (Waco, TX: Word, 1984)

[3] Fr. John Dear and Ken Butigan, “An overview of Gospel nonviolence in the Christian tradition,” in Nonviolence and Just Peace 11-13 April 2016 Rome, Italy at https://nonviolencejustpeacedotnet.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/nvjp-conference-background-papers.pdf The understanding of Lohfink is found in •Kreider, Alan. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (p. 92). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

The Love of Knowledge and Why Josh Hawley Can’t Think

Prominent among the many incapacities on display in the Capitol and country this past week, the incapacity for thought is most striking. It was not just the rioters in favor of the Holocaust (according to their shirts), in favor of murdering the vice president, willing to do violence to the media, and demonstrably willing to kill police and politicians, but the impenetrable and apparently imperturbable presumption that the election was stolen. The long line of conspiracy theories circulating among Trump supporters: that the coronavirus is a hoax or a Chinese lab product, that a group of Satan-worshipping elites running a child sex ring are in control of our politics, that there is no climate change, that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax, and most recently, that the insurrectionists invading the Capitol building were Antifa radicals imitating Trump supporters, compounds the stupidity. Given this exuberance of stupidity, it is futile to hope distinctions might be made between legitimate protest (e.g., against racial injustice and police brutality) and insurrection and violence. From my perspective in rural Missouri, it seems futile to even imagine that there might ever be a consensual willingness to wear masks, to socially distance, to take active measures to end this plague. But the core and more enduring problem is not COVID-19, but the epidemic of stupidity which is proving to be the deadliest foe this country has faced.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

While there are multiple (endless?) sources for stupid, conservative Christians are clearly the key resource for energizing the base of stupidity.  Since I am speaking from inside the problem of conservatism, it should be clear, it is not a matter of my prejudice against the orthodox tenets of Christianity.  In fact, I would suggest that Christian orthodoxy is the remedy for the stupid that has gripped evangelicalism and that there is an incapacity for thought linked to a particular theological failing. Which brings me to the case of Missouri’s native son, Josh Hawley.

Hawley, with degrees from Stanford and Yale, is not lacking in mental capacity but his inability to distinguish truth from fiction is, I would argue, connected to his version of the Christian faith. His clenched fist support of the pro-Trump rioters and his objection to the results of the election on the floor of the Senate, can, to a large degree, be chalked up to the peculiarities of his reformed fundamentalism, though, certainly, his own craven ambition has played a role. His Lutheran/Calvinist understanding of the role of government and his convoluted notion of the protections required against “free will,” go a long way in both demonstrating a lack of depth and something like a religious commitment to shallow forms of thought.

In his widely circulated Christianity Today article, it is the Augustinian/Pelagian debate, or the argument over the role of free will to which Hawley attributes societies present problems and it is here that he sees his special contribution. For the uninitiated, this may seem like an obscure reference but for the initiated it is an even more obscure reference, as the true role of Pelagius (as the loser, heretic, in the argument) has undoubtedly been exaggerated and mythologized and the position of Augustine was inconsistent. To connect modern notions of freedom and individualism to Pelagius is a stretch, which conveniently passes over the true source of the problem. The hardening and reaction against free will, as occurs with Martin Luther and John Calvin, is in response to Catholic and Anabaptist notions of free will more than any survival of Pelagius and his doctrine. So, Hawley’s true point of reference is a thousand years removed from what Hawley imagines is the point of origin, but this also enables him to ignore contemporary scholarship which would credit the Reformation with key elements of individualism, capitalism, and modern notions of freedom. Nonetheless, he lays at the feet of Pelagius blame for most all modern ills surrounding the notion of freedom and individualism. It is his “particular philosophy of freedom” with its “liberation from family and tradition, of escape from God and community” that Pelagius got going some 1700 years ago, that is bearing fruit in America today.

Hawley points to Pelagius’ notion of perfection as the root cause of the problem, but he misses both Pelagius and the New Testament. He exaggerates even the myth of Pelagius, in maintaining “Pelagius believed he could save himself” (he is a Christian Monk, after all) and he misunderstands the notion of perfection. Jesus, in fact, commands perfection (Matt. 5:48), but in Hawley’s Christianity this is to lend too much credibility to human capacity. Hawley and evangelicals imagine God uses necessary evils, such as Trump and all this entails, precisely because people are not to be trusted, as original sin has stolen their true agency.

It is the Reformed concern to separate out the heavenly kingdom and the role of the earthly civil government (Luther pictures it as God doing one thing with his left hand on earth, and another with his right hand, kept busy with the spiritual realm in the heavenly kingdom), which requires governmental restraint (e.g., against globalism, for protectionism, and isolationism) and utilization of worldly oppression by God and his human instruments (capital punishment, war, trust in chariots and horses). The fallen nature of humanity means that human nature requires the guidance and constraint of civil government, and certain key teachers and civic leaders who are saved, will be the best choice. On the other hand, it is this sort of two-kingdom separation that has allowed evangelicals to give up concern with the morality of leaders like Trump. God can use a tyrant for his purposes, and thus the foibles of Trump can be overlooked. They would maintain, we need a strong force for God, and morality is beside the point, and as has been argued by some (e.g., Robert Jeffress), it will only get in the way.

The logic of his argument escapes me at key junctures, but the conclusion is that Pelagian individualism “leads to hierarchy” and his notion of individual responsibility “produces elitism” and though he “proclaims liberty, it destroys the life that makes liberty possible.”[1] Overlooking the leap to modern notions of freedom from Pelagius, the leap from free will to hierarchy and the destruction of liberty, Hawley seems to be using theology, not in any serious engagement with history or the issues, but as the vehicle for his populist political realism (or his own form of elitism).

In the end, Hawley seems to be saying that only those with his interpretation of Christianity are to be trusted. Only Christians, like himself, can speak for the masses. There is no room for an open society, religious or cultural pluralism, or notions of equality, but, of course, the implicit argument is that only a religious elite, like Josh Hawley, has the correct theology so as to control society from its ever-present impulses. Evangelicalism, with its view of an ineradicable evil, an ever-angry God, a looming eternal hell, and total human depravity, requires the sort of hidden elitism that Hawley is promoting. There is a limited atonement allowing salvation (going to heaven) only for those elected by God, the rest are damned, and human will and agency do not figure into the calculations of God. Hawley’s peculiar trick is to finesse this into anti-elitism.

What Hawley and his evangelical cohort are missing is the Gospel message: real-world salvation, not just in some future kingdom, but in an-all embracing cosmic salvation. The notion that human agency or human freedom (even the false kind) is the source of all our problems does not exactly accord with Hawley’s notion of original sin, and inasmuch as the Gospel teaches that there is a restoration of human freedom and agency, his notion that there is no such thing misses the goal of salvation. The problem, as portrayed in Scripture, is not connected with an absence of human agency, but it’s opposite. It is willful self enslavement and deception – belief in a lie – from which Christ delivers. Christ does not give up on freedom and agency but aims for their restoration. Unfortunately, Hawley’s gospel preaches against what Christ presumes: the human capacity for freedom. This is not Pelagian or American or modern, it is simply the teaching of the New Testament rejected by the Reformed tradition.

His belief in the stolen election is obviously a lie aiming to establish his own power, his own potential run for president, but it is a lie easily incorporated into a gospel which does not concern itself with real world morality and salvation. The shape of the “gospel” that Hawley believes is the shape this lie always takes. Given special knowledge (the presumed elite understanding of salvation given to a few select individuals) these chosen individuals are in a place to dictate truth and to take the reigns of power. Hawley, in his drive for power, misses a key point of Christianity, which outside of its Calvinist enclave, is aimed at producing freedom, to enable human agency, and in the words of Jesus to bring about perfection or fullness (human thriving), especially the fullness of knowing God.

In his gospel lite anti-elitist, anti- intellectualism though, Hawley is true to his roots. As has been noted by a series of authors, the scandal of the evangelical mind (Mark Noll), in which there is no place for truth (David Wells), is a long simmering crisis which has led to the anti-intellectualism and formulaic populist notions of American evangelicals. Worst of all, I believe it can be directly connected to the epidemic of stupidity literally killing our fellow countrymen.

I have spent most of my life in pursuit of education, a transformation of the mind, and one of the great obstacles, which took me many years to overcome, is that posed by certain (I would claim heterodox) forms of the Christian faith. Systematic theology, especially of the Reformed bent, can be such a neat package, a closed case, a doctrinaire understanding that no further thought is allowed or called for. No one puts it like that, but that is the way that dogmatic religion functions. It is dependent on perverse forms of authority, it cannot extract itself from the heavy weight of tradition or an imagined tradition, and the end result is a deadening of thought. Christianity, for many, functions as a closure of thought, a departure from reality and facts, and may require, as with Calvin, a violent confrontation (burning some 50 heretics at the stake) so as to establish the “truth.” This violent grab for power so as to establish an alternative truth exposes the lie. The force for unthinking violence, the promotion of the necessity of evil, and the embrace of the abomination of immorality and violence (e.g., Donald Trump), as if it is the way of God, is antithetical to the loving knowing engendered by Christ.

The Love of Knowledge and Freedom

The Gospel truth shows itself as that which establishes peace and love, and the way of violence (according to Paul) it does not know. A personal universe created by a personal God means that all true knowing is further entry into the freedom of interpersonal relationship. “It is for (this) freedom that Christ has set us free” (Ga. 5:1). “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn. 8:36). Far from a lack of free will or agency, the whole point of Christ’s message is the full restoration of human freedom and agency.

All of this is summed up in a few verses in James 3, which describes what course to pursue for wisdom or right understanding. The reason for Luther’s disdain for the book of James (“it is,” he claimed, “a book of straw”) is evident in its clear teaching that people can rid themselves of sin and that they are on the road to fullness/perfection (the same biblical concept) through their works and agency. The straightforward teaching of James (and the New Testament) is that people can be righteous, they can produce good works, they have the capacity for freedom of thought. Certainly this freedom can be perverted, but that is part of James’ point.

Step 1, the one who has understanding will demonstrate this in his gentleness and good behavior (v. 13). But jealousy, selfish ambition, and arrogance are a lie against the truth and this sort of knowledge is not from God but is “earthly, natural, demonic” (vv. 14-15). The disorder that results from selfish ambition and jealousy exposes the evil origins of this false wisdom (v. 16). Step 2, the wisdom from God shows itself in that there is no admixture with immorality. It is pure and purity, without evil, is a real possibility, where the earthly sort of wisdom shows itself in its immorality and impurity (evil is a necessity).

Step 3, this heavenly wisdom is peaceable (v. 17). Violence is not true and cannot contain the truth. Step 4, heavenly wisdom is gentle and humble as it is accepting of the other and can listen and receive from the other (v. 17). Humility is its own epistemological method.

Step 5, heavenly wisdom and knowledge are reasonable (v. 17), which means that this sort of knowing is not contradictory, it is not a dialectic, but it coheres into a singular frame of understanding and does not collapse into two contradictory logics for two different kingdoms. Step 6, this wisdom is full of mercy and grace as it is a gift to be received and given, circulated without expectation or cost. Mercy or grace is characteristic of this knowing as it is a personal giving. God gives himself and every one who would know receives himself in the gift. Grace is not a limited possession given to a few by a stingy God, but is the characteristic form in which God comes to all of humanity in the knowing that is characteristic of this gifted reality.

Step 7, this knowing produces good fruit as it is an integrated, growing knowing (v. 17). There is a knowledge that is truncated, which halts thought, which dampens curiosity, and which is mere impersonal information. Good fruit or good works is salvation. Step 8, this knowledge is unwavering in that it contains no double mindedness (v. 17). James warns about the double minded man who seems to be pitted against himself or to wear an actor’s mask, depending on the occasion (hypocrisy). One need not switch roles or moralities or methods, depending on the kingdom.

Step 9, the summary and sign of true knowledge is that it produces righteousness (v. 18) which is often equated with salvation. This righteous knowing is out of court in a Calvinist system, yet it is the summary of both James’ and Paul’s picture of the end goal of the Gospel. This is no imputed righteousness but one literally knows it and experiences it. Step 10, James triples down on peace in that he has already mentioned it above (step 3) but here (v. 18) he mentions peace two more times as both the method (the means of sowing) and what is sown by those who make peace.

Freedom, peace, and virtue are not delayed for a future heavenly kingdom, they are the goal of this present earthly life. Further, this loving sort of knowledge gives rise to community as pursuit of true knowledge draws us together into a fellowship of those who would pursue understanding together. Rather than the sort of alienating community of dissent, or communities drawn together by what they oppose, loving knowing integrates us into the lives and thought world of other people. Just as God is ever moving outward in the processional love of the Trinity, so too pursuit of his sort of wisdom integrates us into an ever-expanding community of persons.

As a picture of how true knowledge functions, I conclude with what would normally be a footnote but which deserves to be front and center – how a community of knowing works. The adventure in peace and love that is the community of Forging Ploughshares, is to an equal extent an adventure in communal knowing. This blog is the direct fruit of class and conversation with Tim, Matt, and Tyler. Tim suggested the passage in James and gifted me with the book, A Little Manual for Knowing, by Esther Lightcap Meek, from which I drew some of the ideas on knowing. Tyler suggested the understanding of integration and Matt made the point, on several occasions about humility. My friends are my best teachers from whom I draw understanding. This is a concrete example of how love and knowledge must go together.


[1] Josh Hawley, “The Age of Pelagius,” Christianity Today – https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/june-web-only/age-of-pelagius-joshua-hawley.html

The End of Naïve Evangelicalism: Exposing the Word of Death

With the storming of the Capitol building, it is clear that we have reached the end of a naïve era: a four-year long indulgence of right-wing politics, and a decades long linking of evangelical religion to nationalism. The exposed underbelly of this religion has shown it to be antithetical to the teachings of Christ. The President’s deployment of his Christian base and the fact that it serves his strategy, indicates the shape of the religion that would serve him. It exceeds guilt by association, as the very possibility of association (with white nationalism, the KKK, or the raw grab for power) is a blasphemous implication of the Prince of Peace in violent nationalism.

 I cannot help but link recent events to an emptying out of the religion, which Faith and I have witnessed personally, since we returned to this country 15 years ago. We came back to work for a Christian College here in Moberly, and it was there we recognized that the religion had morphed into something unrecognizable. The microcosm of the rule by fear and intimidation witnessed at the national level, we witnessed in this institution. The misogyny and maltreatment of women, the commitment to a hellish Christianity built upon fear, and the commitment to a violent God and violent faith, produced systemic abuse which we did not encounter in twenty years in Japan. The forms of violence directly pitted against the rule of law in the Capitol, in this little institution were pitted against basic humane and legal treatment. The same forces that put up a JESUS sign during the storming of the Capitol, the forces that put Donald Trump into office, have transformed what is called “Christianity.” The religion has been turned inside out, along with the nation state, set to destroy what it is meant to uphold and protect.

 In other words, the deployment of the religion in support of the nation state is imploding. The endless sex scandals, the attachment to the cult of personality, the commitment to consumerism over principle and ethics, describes both church and state. It is as if the worst elements of the religion have come to a head in this political period, and the religion connected to the political right has been exposed for the misshapen anti-Christianity that it truly is. The lawlessness of the rioters on Wednesday did not arise in a vacuum, as they were clearly egged on by the President, but this President has been egged on by religious supporters and advisers.

I have pointed to the broad, two-kingdom sort of theology which enabled national socialism (Nazism) in Germany, and which is embraced by American Christian nationalists (here), but I think there is a more specific element in Nazi ideology which coincides with American evangelicalism. The escapism, the “going to heaven when you die,” the otherworldly nature of the American form of the faith, allows death and alienation to reign here upon earth. This was accomplished for Germans in many ways, but archetypically by Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger, the premiere philosopher of the Nazi period, might as well have been declared “Official Nazi Theologian” for his subtle separation of the insights of the Christian faith from the tenets of the teaching of Jesus. He deploys key vocabulary of the New Testament in a negation of the religion. This negative Christianity, instead of trading in resurrection life, presumes the primacy of death and the strategies that deal in death. The religion and philosophy might be summed up in Heidegger’s conclusion that the defining characteristic of humans is death:

Mortals are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do so. But animals cannot speak either. The essential relation between death and language flashes up before us, but remains still unthought. It can, however, beckon us toward the way in which the nature of language draws us into its concern.[1]

Heidegger’s linkage of language and death may be a flash of insight worth dwelling upon – he continues to dwell upon it and little else – but left in isolation this focus supports and coincides with one of the most destructive periods in human history. At the same time, Heidegger’s singular focus reveals the shape of a Christian theology which allows death to stand in this life as the controlling factor.

Heidegger’s singular link of death and language, which is certainly serious and worth developing, is only one instance of an infinite number of similar links with language. “Humans are they” who can experience life as life because they speak. Humans are they who can tell jokes because they speak. Humans are they who can experience sex as more than mere animal copulation because they speak (etc. etc. ad infinitum). Certainly, humans appear as “mortal and speaking” but they also appear as liars and speaking, as jokesters and speaking, as lovers and speaking, and as potentially immortal and speaking.

The point is not to trivialize the link between language and death but to recognize the many faceted nature of this relation so as to draw out what it must mean to be “constantly delivered to death” (2 Cor. 4:11), or to defeat death through the peculiarity of the Christian orientation to the word.  Heidegger seems to picture deliverance to death as a one-way street, but Paul is here recognizing and moving beyond where Heidegger stops short. More than that, he is describing an impetus behind language – to take up the word and speak – where Heidegger seems to make the case for silence. Paul is describing a reconnection to the world, to human relationships, which is not obstructed by death, due to participation in the death of Christ. The power of the word of the cross is the power of fellowship, the power for life, the power for preaching.

In contrast, a faith which pictures the cross as a death to benefit God (divine satisfaction, penal substitution) or a deliverance from hell, and not a defeat of death and an opening up of the world, leaves death and violence as a world orientation and strategy. Heidegger and evangelicalism share a singular, flat link to death. Heidegger maintains that death is the main thing about humans and evangelicalism allows this singular emphasis to stand.  

Paul is suggesting that all of life is opened up in rightly understanding the link between the word and death, not because the orientation to death is denied, but because it is displaced. In one instance (in both Paul and Heidegger) language and being human might appear deadly and death dealing but in the other (the Pauline alternative to Heidegger), every facet of life, including death, takes on the aura of revelation. Christ’s death defeats death, baptism inaugurates this victory for all, and communion in the body of Christ describes a life that continually overcomes death. As Paul describes the Christian life: “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10). The Christian embrace of immortality is not meant to be an escape from the connection to death, language, and the world, but it is meant to reverse the sinful orientation to death and to open up life and love in the world.  

Think here, again, of my previous reference to Helen Keller (here), who pictures her entry into language as an opening to the world on the order of a divine revelation.  “The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!” For the first time Helen experiences “water,” “earth,” “teacher,” “baby,” and some 30 odd things she names in an afternoon. Language acquisition, for Helen, is on the order of divine revelation, but what Heidegger demonstrates is the human barrier to this equation. There is a link between language and death which may characterize people and which is spelled out in philosophy and psychology, but the point of Christianity and even the possibility indicated in language is the opposite of this stunted link.

 I do not mean simply that people have the possibility for future eternal life, but that there is a specific orientation to law and language which is deadly and death dealing and that there is an alternative orientation implied even in this stunted negative orientation. Christian engagement with death is aimed at defeating this deadly orientation here and now.  The point of Christianity, the power conveyed through resurrection faith, takes us beyond he word of death to the word of life.

Heidegger does not note the necessary positive side, which makes the negative appear. He only recognizes the negative aspect, the absence and negativity, and he imagines this absence and nothingness is final ground. Heidegger’s philosophy concludes to a pure negativity and nothingness, which presumes with Hegel that to be human is to be founded on negativity. Heidegger is following Hegel, for whom the human is a negative being who “is that which he is not and not that which he is.” He is a “placeholder of nothingness” as death is definitive. I would suggest, Heidegger and Hegel are partly correct in their assessment. Absent a Christian reorientation to the law of sin and death, humans are driven by death as if it were the force of life.

Paul presumes death, like the word, holds out a series of links and possibilities. His understanding of the truth of death, is that death, like language, is peculiar for humans because it holds out a different, an enduring, possibility. Just as mortality is constituted by the possibility of immortality, death is only death where it is presumed to be something other than ground or end. What I mean here is not that death is necessarily linked in reality to immortality, I just mean that human death is constituted as death because the peculiarity of language necessarily opens up another possibility.

Paul is describing a reorientation to both death and language in which neither is presumed as its own end, and he is presuming upon this inherent possibility within language. This might be taken as a trivial reference to a future possibility, but Paul is describing a present actuality, in which death threatens but this very threat opens the mortal to the immortal. He is linking the inherent possibility of language to the realization of a different reality. Certainly, this is realized through Christ, but this should not be separated from everyday life. Paul is describing the “mortal flesh,” the feeling of being “abandoned,” of being “destroyed,” or of “slowly dying,” with the life of Jesus being revealed. As he puts it, “So death works in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. 4:12). Paul is focused on both sides of the valence of the word – it is joined with death in one instance so as to be joined to life in the other instance.

What Heidegger misses, is that while death and mortality appear as primary in human orientation, it is on the same basis that their opposites also “flash before us.” Immortality, too, is not a consideration for unspeaking animals and it is precisely this possibility that constitutes the peculiar human experience of mortality and death. Death taken as life, immortality folded into mortality, or the enchantment of religion lent to nationalism, describes the human tendency to immortalize the tomb and the religious and “secular” systems which worship the tomb. In a pervasive but bizarre reversal, death takes on the patina of life and immortality, as the human condition is not simply bent to death but to immortality – to immortalizing death. What the Bible calls the covenant with death and links to the lie of the serpent and the lie of idolatry, Heidegger identifies with Dasein, with the house of language, with “being there” or waking up to being, which only death and nothingness can make shine. Heidegger is selling his philosophy on the basis that death and nothingness serve in place of life.

This is not simply the accomplishment of a subtle philosophical mind, but I believe it is the articulation of the human condition outside of Christ. It is the reality that is left standing, one way or another, where death is not dethroned as the point of life. A Christianity focused on the problem of God, the problem of hell, the problem of the law, and which misses the way in which the world is entangled with the lie oriented to death, lets death have the last word. It has failed to enact the reign of the living word.

The sign that authentic Christianity has been traded for a counterfeit is the violence this entails, as violence is the necessity where death reigns. As Heidegger’s philosophy fits national socialism, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust, in the same way evangelicalism is a fitting theology for American nationalism and the death of hundreds of thousands sacrificed to Mammon, as both transfer the glow of life and truth to death and violence.

As Hitler needed Heidegger and German Christians, so Trump is dependent on evangelicals to lend a religious aura to his violent grasping after power. Heidegger was Hitler’s favorite living philosopher precisely because of his nihilistic embrace of violence and death. Nazi Christianity (the German Christians who embraced Hitler and the Nazi party as opposed to those who did not) was shown up as hollow and empty, just as the religion which led to the storming of the barricades at the Capitol is now exposed in its promotion of death and violence in place of life and peace. This exposure of the religion, spent as it has been on the coin of the realm of a deadly nationalism, is clearly an empty word, a bankrupt form of the faith.  


[1] Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language, (trans. Peter D. Hertz, New York, 1971), 107-108.