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The Necessity of Nietzsche: An Apocalyptic Philosophy for an Apocalyptic Theology

One’s philosophical orientation and preferences are reflected in their theology and vice versa but it may be that a particular theology inevitably requires or depends upon its philosophical expression, apart from which the theology would not exist. Whether one is Platonic or Aristotelian (in Nietzschean terms they are both fallen post-Socratics) may make a slight theological difference but the presumption is that “ordinary avenues of philosophic reason” are adequate for Augustinian, Thomistic, or certain Protestant theological leanings. One may need to tweak his Plato or Aristotle but the presumption is that the philosophy and theology are more or less interconnected if not exactly interchangeable. There is no questioning of reason, language, or human psychology, at least not enough to bring the enterprise to a halt. Thus, the Augustinian shift is guided by Neo-Platonism (Augustine equates Plato to Moses) in the same way Thomism is Aristotelian (for Thomas, Aristotle is “the philosopher”). Anselm of Canterbury, in both his philosophic arguments and his atonement theory, is the proper father of scholasticism in his pure distillation of a theology guided by Platonic philosophy. Modern philosophy and theology, in its Cartesian presumptions, will follow a predictable, interlocked pattern (Platonic and Anselmian). So too, Nominalism might as well name both a theology and philosophy as the theology is determined by the philosophy.

It is only in recognizing that theology and philosophy became inextricably interwoven in shared presumptions and foundations (summed up in the term “ontotheology”) that Friedrich Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the death of God can be taken as both theological and philosophical. For Nietzsche Christianity was “Platonism for the masses,” so his pronouncement is prophetic (the spirit in which his Zarathustra makes it) of the coming collapse of Western thought and religion. The demise of the God of the philosophers is implied in the demise of the Christian God, but the death of God is not simply a metaphor for Nietzsche. This death simultaneously points to the role of Platonism and Platonic Christianity in its denial or obscuring of the role of death.

The death of God in Christ on the Cross was, for Luther, the point for challenging scholasticism (the fusion of Greek and Christian thought) and what Luther called “the theologians of glory.” Hegel will take up the Lutheran refrain, not simply as a challenge to the Aristotelian God of pure thought, but also as a new founding moment in the understanding of how God and those created in his image must take up death in the founding of an authentic subjectivity. Hegel’s tarrying with the negative is a zeroing in on the Lutheran challenge to the God of the philosophers but it is also a challenge to modern (Cartesian) notions of an ego-based reason and subjectivity. Nietzsche takes the refrain one step further to declare God and the philosophy and morality attached to him as dead. As with Hegel, his is a call for a new form of radical subjectivity.

There is a shared recognition of the orientation to death that is thematic in Hegel and his heirs. Though Nietzsche is often pitted against Hegel – Hegel is philosopher of the system and Nietzsche is anti-system – yet they share reaction to Kant and the uncovering of a new form of subjectivity centered on the exposure of mortality and death. In the end, Hegel and his disciples (Marx, Freud, Lacan, and Žižek) are the arch-conservatives who brilliantly recognize the darkness of nihilism and imagine its mechanisms can only be manipulated (death drive – the real can be toyed with but must ultimately be submitted to) so as to provide a less painful outcome. Nietzsche names the nihilism and calls for a new religious order – a new myth. Where Hegel and his followers will privilege philosophy and presume it takes precedence over religion, Nietzsche shares with Kierkegaardian existentialism and theological apocalypticism the recognition of the need for the breaking in of a new world order.

His depiction of himself as the singular Antichrist, the marker of a new age on the order of B.C. and A.D., may not be accurate in his sense that he was alone but the work of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, (the French postmodern turn) but also of Martin Heidegger, all take their inspiration, if not their existence, from Nietzsche. He considered himself (as depicted in his autobiographical work Ecce Homo) philosophical dynamite:

I know my lot. One day my name will be linked to the memory of something monstrous—to a crisis like none there has been on earth, to the most profound collision of conscience, to a verdict invoked against everything that until then had been believed, demanded, held sacred. I am no man, I am dynamite.

Whether or not he was the match, the fuse, or the beginning of the explosion, (or is he only, as Bertrand Russell portrayed him, a literary figure) there is no question that the modern world begins to come undone in his wake. It is not just his appropriation by the Nazis, but he is linked with a new form of thought – apocalyptic in its import – (an ironic characterization as he sees religious apocalypticism as the problem). It is this apocalyptic element (the world unchained from its Sun and the need for a new religious myth) that distinguishes him from the mainstream of post-Kantian thinkers.  

What he calls “Socratism” is the refusal to deal with human finitude and his return to mythology, his uber man, his will to power, and especially his myth of eternal recurrence are his attempt to recreate the pre-Socratic dynamism. He recognizes that the success of human artifice – the Apollinarian (culture, art, literature, science) is in direct proportion to its direction and control of the Dionysian (passion, tragedy, emotion, revelry). The rise of the Over Men must freely move “beyond good and evil” with its notion of an objective or divine standard. Violence may be a necessity but the goal is that these new heroes, by whatever means, must lead humankind into accepting they are free spirits who can, of themselves, create a new order.

In his return to Dionysus, obscured by Plato, Nietzsche presumes the Platonic project to control the passions through reason is squelching the power of creativity. The Greek tragedian’s full acknowledgement of the Dionysian was an art form that gave inspiration to the shining light of Apollo. Plato’s reason repressed the tragic Dionysian truth (that we live to die) and simultaneously dismantled the Apollonarian manner of dealing with it in human culture.

Plato pictures passion as a black horse, which the charioteer or reason is to subdue by teaming with the white horse (spirit), the very imagery Freud will deploy in his depiction of the tripartite psyche:

…in its [the ego’s] relation to the id it is like a man on horseback, who hast to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; with this difference, that the rider tries to do so with his own strength while the ego uses borrowed forces (e.g., the superego). The analogy may be carried a little further. Often a rider, if he is not to be parted from his horse, is obliged to guide it where it wants to go; so in the same way the ego is in the habit of transforming the id’s will into action as if it were its own.

 Freudian psychoanalysis is founded upon the notion that the ego, as the center of reason, can gain control over the passions of the id. Though Freud grows less confident in his belief that his “new science” can control the unreasonable idic forces, nonetheless his enterprise of psychoanalysis is dedicated to the prospect that the drives can be manipulated if not subdued. Lacan and Žižek, in this sense, are the true arch-conservative Hegelian-Freudian thinkers as the real of death drive is the final power of good and evil. The emptying out of the Cartesian subject in Marx and Freud takes on a laborious technical odor of politics and the clinic, while Nietzsche represents the call for an apocalyptic break beyond good and evil.

In this he represents the break that inspired the last great metaphysician, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger too presumes authentic existence has to confront the negating power of nothingness and death with a new power of freedom.

Anticipation…unlike inauthentic Being-towards-death, does not evade the fact that death is not to be outstripped; instead, anticipation frees itself for accepting this. When, by anticipation, one becomes free for one’s own death, one is liberated from one’s lostness in those possibilities which may accidentally thrust themselves upon one; and one is liberated in such a way that for the first time one can authentically understand and choose among the factical possibilities lying ahead of that possibility which is not to be outstripped. Anticipation discloses to existence that its uttermost possibility lies in giving itself up, and thus it shatters all one’s tenaciousness to whatever existence one has reached.

Facing the fact of death is transformed by Heidegger into its own metaphysical freedom, which in his taking up of National Socialism demonstrates the bloody aspect of the Nietzschean enterprise he saw Hitler achieving. The Dionysian forces require sacrifice – and as Freud, Lacan and Žižek recognize and Heidegger did not, the rider of the black horse ultimately takes his orders from his mount. I would prefer, if these were the only choices, the more or less self-conscious nihilism of the latter thinkers to Heidegger’s enacted naïve nihilism, which brings us back to Nietzsche’s perception of his project as a resolution to nihilism.

Ironically, Nietzsche located the heart of this nihilism in what he perceived as the apocalyptic approach in Western religion, which set its hope on an ideal world to come or on the otherworldly heavens. For Nietzsche, apocalyptic Christianity was Platonic and he did not know of a Christianity focused on the redemption of this world. But as I have described it (here) this is the very definition of what is now called apocalyptic theology. With its inaugurated this-worldly eschatology, its deceived law of sin and death, and its recognition of God breaking into the world so as to give his own person, in Christ, as the subject of knowledge, apocalyptic theology is now anti-Platonic. Part of this apocalyptic understanding is the recognition that death denied is definitive of sin, and this is the power Christ has come to defeat. The point of this revelation is the realization of freedom from slavery to the controlling principles of the human order. God has invaded the world, not to eventually abandon it, but to reclaim it.

In other words, Nietzsche in his recognition of the pervasive nihilism inherent in Platonic and modern thought, in his focus on the Platonic/Christian obscuring of death, and in his recognition of the need for an apocalyptic break from the prevailing orientation, represents the shift that would give rise to a return to the original New Testament notion of apocalyptic salvation.  

If you would like to learn more register for our upcoming class (June 28th through August 20th), Philosophy for Theology, which will use my book, The Psychotheology of Sin and Salvation, as the text.

Hope Against Hope: The Ground of Faith and Love

Of the three enduring pillars of Christianity (faith, hope and love), hope is often neglected in light of the more obvious qualities of faith and love. The three, though, are necessarily linked, as faith and love exist in hope. Without hope, faith and love are unbalanced and ultimately rendered impossible or, at least, of a different order of meaning than biblical faith and love. Hope transports the realm of faith and love beyond the temporal and its limited possibilities. Hope is unseen because it defies earthly, mortal, deathly, expectations, bringing the eternal into faith and love.

While there are earthly versions of all three, it is hope which specifically contains the biblical element of a continual dying to the world, of passing through death, to an expectant life in God which is no longer grounded by the delimitations of death. Thus, the curative element: the cure of fear, the cure of the curtailments of reason and the earthly perspective, which might be attached to all three, are ensured by hope.

Faith and love might speak of an ordinary finite degree of possibility but hope surpasses what is possible and clings to the otherwise impossible. This can be easily demonstrated in the qualifiers which could be potentially added to faith and love but which are excluded when combined with hope. Limited, temporal, finite, faith and love may be the norm but hope extends faith and love to the unlimited, the a-temporal and the infinite.

We might speak of a dogmatic faith but never of a dogmatic hope. Hope, by its very nature, cannot be paired with hard-headed knowing. This is why David Bentley Hart’s dogmatic universalism, as compared to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s hopeful universalism, seems to miss the point. The point of biblical end time imagery is not to illicit rational certainty or exhaustive explanation, but hope. Hope is the reworking of the imagination on the basis of what is not approachable by sight. Rational sight-bound categories may give us a deity driven by the necessity of human reason – but hope relieves us of such necessities at the same time that it frees the imagination. Hope takes us beyond the temporal and its suffocating rational possibilities. The danger of Hart’s dogmatism is that it would make universalism bear an explanatory weight which would relieve the imagination of doing any work. But this is the entire point of the Christian end-time kingdom imagery – to bring about a reworked imagination which is not bound by temporal-rational possibilities.

Faith and love might be conceived of apart from anticipation but there is no hope without expectation. Rightly understood, faith and love are grounded in this expectation of hope. Both speak of a future in which they are proven to have been true and worthy. Hopeless love would be a quickly passing malady, as there is no expectation of a brighter, fulfilled future for the beloved. Hopeful love presumes this expectation of the best for the beloved. So too, hopeless faith would be a static, time bound belief which does not presume to transport the believer elsewhere. Hope brings an eternal dynamism (the future ever-transforming the past and present) into faith and love. Hope speaks of a living possibility imputed into faith and love. Living by faith and love is the dynamism hope delivers. Living out this hope (the certainty or assurance of faith in Hebrews 11) brings the eternal into time, not as a fully realized achievement, but as an actively lived possibility. It is in hope that human experience of time is transformed by eternity – as the eternal possibilities open a way forward, where time presented impenetrable obstacles.

Where faith and love might be qualified or constrained by the possible, hope makes for unqualified-impossible love and a seemingly impossible faith, as with God there is nothing that is impossible. Jesus tells us that with God all things are possible (Matt 19:26) – an understanding Jesus connects directly to belief in goodness. Given the circumstance of the world camels cannot be threaded through a needle, the rich are hopeless, and goodness is unachievable. Reason cannot resolve the problem of evil even in its conception of the goodness of God. Hope leaps over this impossibility – having faith in goodness and unqualified hope in love. Though bad faith and ill-conceived love may be the norm, hope is hope in an “impossible” goodness. Hope implies a confidence in a good outcome which is not constrained by bleak necessities.

Abraham, as the case in point of hope beyond hope (Ro 4:18), is faced with an impossible, irresolvable situation, apart from divine intervention. His is a journey in which the earthly expectancy of propagating his name is foreclosed (faith rendered impossible) and this is where hope begins. It is not simply his faith isolated from hope that is exceptional, as his hope translates the future expectation into the possibility of moving forward – going into the unseen far country. Faith apart from hope would remain a static possibility, but hope enlivens the eternal possibility in the present so that the journey is energized now by the possibilities of its end.

What is relinquished in the process are not simply the possibilities of earthly hope but with it the weight of earthly desires and necessities. Apart from hope, Abraham’s childlessness, homelessness, and old age, would constitute a final despair – and that is precisely where hope begins. The divine hope (the hope beyond hope), over and against human hope, begins at that point where there is no natural, rational, earthly way forward. At that point where earthly expectations have been exhausted and despair would kick in, eternal hope begins.

The presumed obstacles to Abraham’s faith – hardships, frustrations, suffering, failed expectations – are the ingredient of the hope beyond hope. The impossibility of his circumstance may appear as an obstacle to his faith, but if it is understood that his faith is grounded in the hope of eternity, then the obstacles can be seen as moving him from hope in time to hope in eternity. Hopelessness, despair, and death, prompt the living hope which leaps beyond the world to presuming one’s own incapacity and the necessity of divine intervention.

Maybe this is why faith and love, apart from hope, not only do not imply suffering but seem to be challenged by suffering. Hope presumes suffering but the suffering itself is rendered secondary. As Paul describes it in Romans 8, the suffering with which the creation is infused is on the order of childbirth. “We ourselves,” he indicates, “groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (8:23). This suffering is an expectant suffering which presumes there is a point to the suffering.

As Paul pictures the contrast between two types of suffering, suffering, apart from hope arises from within the individual (their desire) and there is no relief from this hopeless desirous suffering closed up within the self. This self in relation to itself – pursuing and desiring itself, only further isolates itself in its turn inward.  Paul’s despairing cry, “Wretched man that I am, Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (7:24), gets at the isolated hopelessness. The specific element giving rise to suffering in the midst of hopelessness is the futility of this unfulfillable pursuit. There is an incapacity to persevere in the midst of this desire, which seems to empty out any positive, outside possibility. As Kierkegaard describes it, imprisoned air develops a poison all by itself.”[1]

 On the other hand, Paul pictures varieties of suffering (tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword (8:35)) but these outward forms of suffering are no obstacle to the love of God grounded in hope. Thus, the perseverance of hope presumes that what it is persevering in is suffering but the suffering points beyond itself. Faith and love do not seem to have this presumption of a persevering through suffering apart from hope.

It is not too much to claim Christian faith and love require hope.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, 2009. Works of Love, ( trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna Hong. New York: Harper Perennial), 231.

Atonement

The primary human problem is not, as John Calvin portrayed it, the wrath of God. It is not as Anselm pictured it, that God’s honor is impugned by the breaking of the law. The biblical focus is not on future punishment in Gehenna nor is it that some necessary punishment is required to satisfy or propitiate God. Neither God nor his wrath, nor his punishment, nor his righteousness, nor his law is the problem. God is not the problem. Sin and evil are the problem, but the confusion concerning law, righteousness, punishment, etc., is in how each of these relate to the definition of this primary problem. We all recognize the destructiveness, violence, and harm we call evil but what is this thing at its root and how does the work of Christ address this root problem?

Paul sums up the biblical depiction of the anatomy of sin as the reign of death (Ro 5:14).  However, even to say that death is the primary problem may miss that sin and death cannot be equated – though they are aligned. The emphasis should fall upon the reign of death – the orientation to death included in its “reign.” As Paul subsequently explains, “sin reigned in death” (5:21), so that the reign of death is inclusive of the response to this primary limit. Human mortality, the limits of life, the biological destiny of the body, is not the problem, but the human response to death is the problem. The reign of death (inclusive of the human response) may manifest as political, social, or interpersonal. It may be experienced as the antagonism between the sexes, between races, or tribes, or religions. Or it may be experienced as between the individual and God or the corporate body and God. But again, the manifestation of the problem is not the thing itself.

It is difficult to describe a negative – the negating power of death which we come to embody – which may be why consequences of the problem so often stand-in for the problem itself. The absence of peace (violence), the absence of life (death), the absence of love (hatred), the absence of relationship (alienation), has its punishing effect but to imagine this punishment or wrath is a destiny, a primary attribute of God, or an ontological condition of the universe is to miss the secondary quality of sin and evil. The possibility of the parasite of evil is to be found in the goodness it perverts, the life it destroys, the peace it violates, and the grace it refuses. 

Maybe this negativity is easiest to grasp and recognize at the corporate level. It is on the order of the image of the idol – that which is essentially nothing invested with supreme importance. The idol marks the spot where nothing would be transformed into an absolute something and yet it is also the point of absolute frustration and desire. The idol never gives up its secrets, never makes immanent the promised transcendence, but it stands as an impossibility to achieve what is desired.

Many things can serve in place of the idol: money in the modern economy is a purely imaginary value as it signifies no actually existing entity and yet it marks the supreme value in capitalism; nationalism requires continual human sacrifice so as to ensure freedom and to lend it final substance; modern democracy or even pop culture distills the acclamation of the crowd into a glory or “power” which is a palpable (non) existence and ultimate reality. Each object is not an actually existing thing and yet it marks the final goal, the ultimate value, or what people “live” to attain. This living death holds out its impossible object of desire as the true source of life, substance, or existence. Maybe this is easy to understand, and in the understanding, there is already the recognition that this negativity is a delusion – this proposed “knowledge of good and evil” never gives the god-like life it promises.

What is more difficult is our personal and individual participation in this structure.  The ultimate incomprehension must pertain to how the object of desire can be one’s own image (the self-image and the idolatrous image are the same Hebrew word). This interior logic reverberates and confounds so that it is no easy task to describe how the pursuit of self (saving one’s life) is actually the loss of life, but this is the theme of the New Testament.

Usually, Paul will pair the negative with its positive element, so that we understand alienation through reconciliation, hostility through peace, etc. In Romans 7, however, Paul sustains a prolonged description of the dynamic of sin without appeal to its opposite. The negative force, from within this sinful perspective, bodies forth in an unreality, an un-birth, an “essence” which is the place between two antagonistic laws or two parts of the self. These two laws, one centered in the mind and the other centered in the body, create the struggle which causes Paul to cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7.24).

This wretched ego (“I”) arises with a lack of self-consciousness and only becomes gradually cognitively aware as part of a negative process (there are no cognitive verbs in 7:8-11). The ego makes its appearance only in coming up against, or in resistance to, the law, but this law is not an externally imposed force. Subjectivity arises as subjection to a force within, so that it is not mere subjection to an exterior authority. It is self-subjection, such that one part of the self stands opposed to another part of the self, so that the struggle for existence is from out of a not yet existent reality.

In the Freudian picture, the ego emerges from and continues to be partially situated in the id (the place of drives and the unconscious), which may be a complicated way to say the ego is an imaginary construct – a fiction. But it is a fiction which one would make true; it is an imaginary entity one would give birth to. The subject takes itself as an object and this object needs to be established, needs to be brought to life, or given substance. The self as object must be brought into oneness as there is a failure to completely be the self. Self-difference or self-objectification must be overcome, yet this self-antagonism is the very definition of self-experience.

All of this simply articulates the feeling of incapacity inherent to the ego. The self is its own symptom, the primary mental illness in being human.  As in Genesis 3, the ego becomes an articulate consciousness only as the center of fear and shame, as if it is loss and death incarnate. Alienation not only marks the ego; the ego is this alienation. It is a purely negative entity – an absence which would be made present.

One way of approaching this negativity is by recognizing the impossibility put upon the self in the prohibition of desire in Romans 7:7. The command not to covet seems to allude to the tenth commandment of the Decalogue, but the question is why Paul shortens it so that the objects of desire named in the Law are absent? The original commandment has a fairly exhaustive list of things that are not to be desired, but desire itself is not forbidden. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exod. 20.17).  But as Paul pictures his discovery of the commandment, he comes upon it too late. “You shall not desire” causes what it forbids.

Paul formulates v. 7 in such a way that both the prohibition in the Garden and the Law of Sinai are echoed but these laws are not inherently problematic. They do not necessarily generate their own transgression. Yet in Paul’s description, sin and law (at 7:7) have already been fused in an obscene or perverse desire. As he puts it, desire is the force of sin as it takes control: “sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind” (7:8).

Paul’s shorter version of the command lends itself to being readily applied to two alternative distortions of the law, in pursuit of either good (zeal for the law) or evil (transgressive desire), but these two generate their opposite – and this is Paul’s point. The more zeal the more desire and the more desire the more zeal. One can try to gain life through the commandment (zeal for the law) but one’s zealous desire is already a transgression.

Forbidden desire literally isolates the letter of the law or a portion of the command (which Paul explains elsewhere is death dealing). It is as if “Kill” is isolated from “Thou shall not.” Covetousness is isolated from particular objects and from the intent of the law. Sinful desire reduces the law, voided of its context and purpose, to a deadly letter which prompts the transgression it would forbid. Where the law is sin (7:7), sin will establish the law (7.23).

Doing evil is a means of establishing the good, and doing the good is realized only in its identity with evil – “evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good” (7:21). Paul recognizes throughout that he cannot actually split his mind from his body as he is this mind/body. Nonetheless, one who embodies this law is split in an agonizing struggle of law keeping and transgression: “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (7:19). Paul depicts subservience to this law as a war in which the law of the body is a separate entity or “another law waging war against the law of my mind” (7:.21) as the law divides and pits the self against the self.

The mind/body split is an instance of the inherent antagonism of any dualism. The mind does not and cannot exist apart from the body and the body cannot exist apart from the mind, nor can there be an absolute incomparable difference or there would be no point of comparison. Just as (in the knowledge of good and evil) the evil must inhere in the good and the good in the evil, so too the law of the mind and the law of the body must be an interwoven opposition. The opposed pairs are necessary to one another, so that one side of the pair is in the service of the other.

The imagery is not of possessing (though to embody or possess the law may describe the desire) but of being possessed by a force that kills (ἀπέκτεινεν) and deceives (ἐξηπάτησέν). Paul describes the process as one of being reduced to a cadaver; this alien force found an opportunity or opening (ἀφoρμν) and “came upon me” (λαβoῦσα), reducing him to a site of production (κατειργάσατο) for desire and death. The law of sin has colonized “my members” (7:23), and Paul (“I”) is at war with himself in a losing battle. “Sin came alive” as an animate force displacing the “I” and “I died.”

Paul has already provided the solution to the problem in Romans 6. To die with Christ in baptism is to be joined to Christ and it is to reorient oneself to death and the law. The likeness or form of Christ in his incarnation mediates or makes possible a “joining to” which defeats the death dealing attempt to be joined to the law or to be joined within the self. The idea of being joined or “united with him” is of being “knit together” or being made to “grow together” or to unite as in fusing or healing a wound or to “plant along with/together.” This being “united with his likeness” ends the alienation characterizing sin.

Here the gap is closed between subject/object (the image or likeness of the idol) as there is no gap between the subject and the image of Christ. The alienation is overcome in this likeness or participation in the form or likeness of Christ. The gap within, the gap with God, and the objectifying gap with the world is healed. To die with Christ is to be joined to a form which will bring about a conformity without alienation or objectification. The form of the subject in Christ displaces the form of the subject under the law. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (8.2).

There is a suspension of the alienation of the law and a reorientation to death: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8.1). Paul proclaims victory over the forces of evil that work through the force of law and sin’s deception.  The “condemnation” (katάkrima) or the curse (Rom. 5.16-18; Gal. 3.10; Deut. 27.26) is suspended as the orientation to death is displaced by life.

In Paul’s description, sin may be abundant but grace is “super-abundant” (Ro 5:20). “If by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many” (5:15). The reality of God and his grace (his gift of life, peace, and unified wholeness) has the final word.

This is the work of atonement.

Did John Calvin Invent A New Religion?

I concluded in my previous blog (here) that John Calvin, by tying the place of the dead (hades) to eternal punishment (Gehenna) and then linking this with the punishment inflicted on Christ on the Cross so as to achieve forgiveness, invented the doctrine of penal substitution. In this blog, I indicate how this shift changes the meaning of Christianity. By changing the meaning of the death of Christ, making punishment of an innocent man the payment for the guilty and calling this justice, tying it to future eternal suffering or eternal death and making this suffering a legal requirement of God, and by then equating this with mercy, forgiveness and salvation, there is almost nothing left of New Testament salvation. The biblical focus on a practical deliverance from a real-world problem, the ordinary understanding of justice, punishment, forgiveness, and the understanding of Christ and God as united, loving and good, are obscured. More troubling is the depiction of a God who requires and delights in suffering, and who, by any normal standard, would be judged positively evil. Where this God is called good and the methods he deploys considered merciful, all standards of meaning and value are turned on their head.

Suffering does not right a wrong.

The gold standard for Calvin, the line that he moves and which even non or anti-Calvinists have acceded to, is his notion that punishment, as suffering, is tied to justice. The two terms, punishment and justice, abstracted from their biblical context and tied together in his depiction of pure suffering (in Gehenna), completely misses the biblical depiction of justice or righteousness (δικαιοσύνη), which is not simply a legal abstraction but a description of the personhood of God shared with humans in Christ so as to make things right. It misses the biblical depiction of punishment as a loving correction geared toward achieving rectitude. Both terms are obscured in being tied to suffering, as if suffering is equal to punishment enacted and justice achieved. While these are equated in pagan religion and Roman law, and have been preserved in modern notions of legal retribution (a maze of confusion between rehabilitation, revenge, and deterrence), it is Calvin’s fusion of the suffering of the Cross with the suffering of Gehenna which paganizes biblical justice.

The suffering of a thief or a murderer, or the eternal suffering say, of Adolph Hitler, does not restore what has been lost. If my precious android phone is stolen, having the thief imprisoned does not make it right, as far as I am concerned. No matter what suffering the thief may be put through, I am still out one phone. Maybe I derive a certain pleasure, as Calvin depicted it, in seeing the thief suffer but this points to my human perversity. We may have the tendency of delighting in seeing those who have wronged us suffer, but in the biblical framework, this is counted as evil not good (let alone as God-like).

In our human perversity we may link our sadistic sense of seeing our enemies suffer (having their teeth broken, as in David’s prayer) with justice, but this is completely removed from the biblical concept of restoration (restoration of relationship, restoration of the kingdom, restoration of fullness). The way of this restorative justice necessarily involves the one who has done the wrong and the wrong committed. It involves not only their reform, but the setting right of all that they have made wrong. God does not impute honesty where there is none. He does not presume the possibility of theoretical or legal reform apart from the person. The slaves are not theoretically set free and the healing is not a future legalistic reordering of the books.

Where in Calvin, punishment and suffering accomplish atonement, this is a non sequitur.  It does not follow that the punishment of the wrong-doer makes atonement for the wrong done. It does not restore the lost phone or the lost lives if the thief or the murderer is punished. Maybe he should be punished or jailed but this has nothing to do with atonement. It does not help the situation that the man suffers or that he volunteers to suffer or even that he, Luther-like, takes a whip to himself to induce suffering. Suffering per se does not address the problem.  Should the man’s innocent brother volunteer to serve his time or suffer the lash (maybe for a more expensive phone than I own), and I say this is very satisfying to me, this would not reflect well on my character.

Does it help the situation if it is God that finds satisfaction in suffering – the eternal suffering of a completely innocent man? Calvin argues from the incomprehension and mystery of things eternal, but shifting this sort of behavior onto God projects onto God the image of evil humans.

Demanding retribution is not forgiveness.

Calvin pictures forgiveness as enabled by Christ bearing the equivalent of eternal suffering in hell on the Cross. The demand of the law, according to Calvin, is that the offense against an infinite God receive the due payment of an infinite penalty. Only when the penalty is paid can the offense be forgiven. Only when God’s wrath is completely satiated (and it never is for Calvin) can he find it in himself to forgive. This is an odd notion of forgiveness and mercy, subsequent as it is to infinite wrath being propitiated.

The biblical depiction is the opposite of that of Calvin, as God’s love and mercy endure forever but his wrath quickly passes.[1] Mercy is a key attribute of God, but Calvin subsumes mercy under the attribute of wrath, as if wrath is an attribute – the prime attribute of God. Most of us would not consider it merciful to demand that those who have wronged us be executed first, and it would be considered diabolical should we desire that those who have transgressed against us be tortured forever prior to our offer of mercy. Is it that we are too merciful, too forgiving, and once we learn the ways of God, we too will demand our pound of flesh before the debt is forgiven?

We expect tyrants to punish every wrong and to revenge every transgression but we do not call it forgiveness should they grant pardon to an already slaughtered enemy. Again, it is presumed by Calvin that locating this evil in the mysteries of God somehow makes it good. The presumption is that humans are more able to be merciful than their maker due to their less strict code of justice (but this has nothing to do with biblical justice).

God’s punishment does not buy mercy, it is his mercy.

Punishment gets a bum wrap in Calvin as it is equated with eternal suffering which in no way restores, rectifies, or reforms. In the Bible God disciplines those he loves (Prov 3:12; Heb 12:6) and this is the point of the punishment that comes with sin. The presumed split between mercy and wrath, a necessity brought about by Calvin’s insistent misreading of the Bible, so eternalizes God’s wrath as to make it of no earthly good. The question is not simply, how could God be just and not punish sin, but how could God be loving, merciful, restorative, and kind, without punishing sin. His is a cleansing, purifying punishment which is synonymous with his mercy and love.

God is not split between anger and love, but his anger flows from his love. We all “were by nature children of wrath,” but this does not stand opposed to the love of God but explains how his “being rich in mercy” extends the love of God so as to solve the real problem (Eph 2:2-5). “Being dead in trespasses and sins, walking according to the course of this world’s prince, being disobedient sons, following the lusts of the flesh,” is the problem – being children of wrath is a consequence of the problem.  The wrath is not the problem, but sin is the problem, and God is concerned with the problem not the consequence. God does not hate us in his wrath but like the much loved children of the Father being described, his wrath is an element of his love.

If the solution (being made alive) tells us what the problem is, clearly our problem is not simply that God is angry with us, as this verse tells us that his wrath or anger is no obstacle to his life-giving love, but indeed seems to be subservient to his love. Where in Calvin, wrath describes the prime destiny which Christ is dealing with, for Paul wrath is not describing a destiny or an end point. Paul does not mean that people were destined for wrath, since he is talking about himself and in this case other Jewish Christians. He means that they were acting in a fallen way like those who deserved God’s wrath. In fact, wrath is part of the solution.

The phrase “children of wrath” or “sons of death” is a Hebrew expression which occurs in several places in the Old Testament. As in Psalms 102, these children seemingly consigned to death are to be set free so as to constitute “kingdoms to serve the Lord” and to “tell of the name of the Lord in Zion” (Ps 102:20-21). Ephesians seems to be echoing this tradition of building a kingdom by its citizens purifying passage through the love/wrath of God. The “sons of wrath” are those very ones who will be shown mercy and who “are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (2:22). The way to enter this dwelling is not, as in penal substitution, through by-passing or foregoing the divine wrath (directed somewhere else).

Where Calvin absolutizes wrath, he splits God the Father and Son between wrath and love. But the passage from wrath to love is not a change in God (from wrath to love) but a passage through a purifying love. God is one, and God is love; he is not sometimes a God of wrath and other times a God of love. As George MacDonald puts it, “For Love loves unto purity, and is oft experienced as wrath, as the consuming fire that will not be content until our sinful nature, everything that separates us from God, is burned away.”

Calvin’s Religion?

The notion that infinite wrath can be equated with God’s justice (the first perversion), and then that this justice demands suffering as punishment to achieve forgiveness (the second perversion), as God’s wrath stands over and against God’s mercy, and God is split between his love and wrath (the third perversion), all of which perverts justice and mercy and God (the ultimate perversion). This God that demands infinite suffering as justice would cause us take refuge from the Father in the Son. As MacDonald describes it, this is “to take refuge with his work instead of with the Son himself; to take refuge with a theory of that work instead of the work itself; to shelter behind a false quirk of law instead of nestling in the eternal heart of the unchangeable and righteous Father.”[2] Is it possible that Calvin’s interpretation of Christianity might cause some to miss the revelation of Jesus?

Perhaps the question is itself a perversion, imagining that knowing the Son is dependent upon proper theology, but we all know those who are much better than their theology (hopefully myself included). As each of us follow Jesus, we make progress in recognizing evil and extracting ourselves from falsehood. That certainly describes my understanding of my own journey. But as MacDonald points out, there must come a point where those who have believed a lie must abandon it as they come to a fuller knowledge of the truth. Otherwise, “They yield the idea of the Ancient of Days, ‘the glad creator,’ and put in its stead a miserable, puritanical martinet of a God, caring not for righteousness, but for his rights; not for the eternal purities, but the goody proprieties.” Surely, knowing and following Jesus is a faith that will not and cannot be thwarted, no matter what obstacle should be thrown in the way. On the other hand, false prophets such as Calvin “take all the glow, all the hope, all the colour, all the worth, out of life on earth, and offer you instead what they call eternal bliss–a pale, tearless hell.”[3]  


[1] Psalm 30:5 For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for a lifetime; Weeping may last for the night, But a shout of joy comes in the morning. Psalm 106:1 “Praise the LORD. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever”; Psalm 118:1 “Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting”; Isaiah 12:1 “Then you will say on that day, “I will give thanks to You, O LORD; For although You were angry with me, Your anger is turned away, And You comfort me.”

[2] George McDonald, “Justice,” in Unspoken Sermons. I am loosely following MacDonald in the sections and concepts “Suffering does not right a wrong” and “Demanding retribution is not forgiveness.”

[3] McDonald, surrounded by Scottish Calvinism, makes the point.

Alexander Campbell: A Prophet of Peace

This is a guest blog by David Rawls

In 1988 I was baptized in a little pond in Central Ohio.  Shortly after this event, I decided to go to a Bible College to be trained in the Bible so I could help young people who were struggling with life.  When I entered Bible College, I was introduced to a Christian movement that I had never heard of before.  It was called the “Restoration Movement.” This Movement was a result of 19th century reformers who saw how denominational churches in America had drifted away from God’s word and teaching.  The focus of the Movement was a return to the primitive New Testament church.  The Restoration Church had two major themes: biblical authority and the unity of all believers.  Men like Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, David Lipscomb, Racoon John Smith and others led this Movement.  By 1860 Restoration Churches had nearly 200,000 members.  These reformers emphasized such things as believer’s baptism by immersion, regular communion, and local church autonomy.  It was the teachings of these reformers which began to shape my life.

Meanwhile, over the last 10 years or so, I have come to the realization that Jesus taught a gospel that was focused on nonviolence or peace.  When we look to the gospels we see, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, that Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies and not to do harm to them.  For Jesus, this was not simply words but this is how he lived his life, even to the point of death.  Nonviolence was how the church, in its first 300 years, interpreted Jesus’ teaching.  It was only after the church was influenced by Constantine that there was a shift in thought concerning peace and violence.  In the last 10 years, in my pursuit to understand the peaceful gospel, I have been digging into the early church fathers and the works of Anabaptists.  Yet, it is only recently that I was shocked to find out that the early Restoration Movement leaders also taught nonviolence.  They believed that nonviolence was part of the primitive gospel of the New Testament. I was shocked, because I had taken classes both in undergrad and graduate school on the history and thought of the Restoration Movement. I don’t remember any discussion of Restoration leaders focus on nonviolence as part of the gospel.  Yet, leaders like Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb had a rich theology of nonviolence.  In this blog I want to look at some of Alexander Campbells arguments for a peaceful gospel.  I will be using Campbells “Address on War” as well as the work from historian Craig M. Watts, which will show that Campbell had a well-developed theology of nonviolence.

When it came to war, Campbell believed that Christians could not participate in war, as to do so would mean killing other Christians in other nations.  He believed that no nation was Christian except the church.  The church was the “one nation composed of all the Christian communities and individuals in the whole earth.”  For Campbell, this meant that Christians could not take up arms because they would be killing other Christians.  Campbell asked the question, “Can Christ’s Kingdom in one nation wage war against his kingdom or church in another nation?”  His answer was an emphatic, “No.”   War for the Christian was not an option.  His problem was not so much nation against nation as it was a theological problem of church against church.  Campbell had a high view of unity and the church could not have unity if Christians were killing other Christians. 

To understand Campbells gospel of peace, one must first understand his postmillennialism.  He believed that the best way to usher in God’s reign on Earth was for the church to recover the original gospel, which included the gospel of peace.  Craig Watts claims Campbell “had no intention of passively waiting for the millennium.” He believed that one had to enact, in the present, his understanding of the future millennium.  Campbell maintains that for man, “the principles of his government” are “to give them a taste of, and a taste for, heavenly things.” This meant that the Christian could not participate in war and violence because the millennium would be a time when the earthly powers would, according to Isaiah, “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, and learn war no more.” This view had an evangelistic appeal to it as well, because people could get a picture of what the future would look like as they observed the church in the present.  This probably explains why Campbell thought unity was so essential. If the church could not be united, why would anyone want to be a part of it in some future state. If the church killed people now, why would people desire to be a part of a future death and dying. 

Much of evangelical Christianity is a hodge-podge of thought which tries to tie together a belief in God which separates itself from the ethics of Jesus.  Campbell, however, believed that faith and works go together.  He believed that the ethics of Jesus are not simply to be admired but are to be practiced.  Jesus pacifist ways were to be lived out by the church.  Campbell believed that Jesus was at war but his war was not waged like the wars of the World.  The World uses swords to subdue its enemy.  The World uses violence to beat people into submission.  Campbell, though, rejected this coercive method.  He said, “To conqueror an enemy is to convert him into a friend.”  As he explained, “All arms and modes of warfare are impotent, save the arms and munitions of everlasting love.” This is a courageous contrast to the view of Luther and Calvin, who believed violence was a tool of God.  Campbell would have none of this, believing that if one cannot support war by appeal to the life of Jesus, then the Christian has no business in being a part of or supporting any type of violence or warfare.  Christian ethics mattered to Alexander Campbell.

Campbell was a deep and systematic thinker.  If Christians could not go to war with Christians of other countries, if Christians were to live in such a way as to promote a heavenly new millennium which was free of violence, and if the ethics of Jesus did not promote violence, then the conclusion for Campbell was that Christians had no business in fighting at all.  Campbell sums this up in the idea that, “A Christian man can never of right be compelled to do that for the state, in defense of state rights, that which he cannot of right do for himself in defense of his personal rights.”  He goes on to say, “No Christian man is commanded to love or serve his neighbor, his king, or sovereign more than he loves or serves himself.”  In other words, if a Christian cannot go to war for himself, he also is forbidden to go to war for his country.  Many Christians have conceded that we are not commanded to go to war as individuals but have made the argument that we could go to war for our country for a good cause.  Campbell rejects this dualistic approach. If one cannot kill for a personal cause, then one cannot kill for the state, no matter how noble the cause.  For Campbell, this is a matter of witness for the Kingdom of Heaven.  The church must refrain from any violence.

When Jesus was being arrested in the garden, and Peter used his sword to cut off the ear of one of those seeking to arrest Jesus, he told Peter to put away his sword. Jesus famous line, “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword,” was the very line upon which the early church based its commitment to nonviolence.  Campbell also saw this as an important ground for his non-violence.  He would ask, “Have not all nations created by the sword finally fallen by it?”  Although Campbell would not necessarily appeal to the inherent pragmatism of nonviolence, it is a practical witness to the Kingdom of Heaven. Campbell’s observation was that in the moment nonviolence will not necessarily work but over the long haul of history violence has arrived at the same point: failure. Violence has never proven effective.  It certainly has momentary victories but all nations have failed or will fail at some point.  Jesus teaches us, according to Campbell, that ultimately victory will come by laying down the sword.  It will be the slain lamb that will win the day.  This is critical to understanding Campbell.

This is a brief overview of some of Campbell’s views on nonviolence and the way of peace.  Hopefully, the reader recognizes that within the 19th century Restoration Movement, the belief that restoring the ancient church of the New Testament required commitment to nonviolence.  For those, like myself, who presumed examples of peace must be sought outside of the Restoration Movement, the good news is that we no longer need look beyond our Movement.  Certainly, we can learn a lot from other tribes of Christians but we can also know that these reformers took the gospel of peace seriously.  It is now up to the spiritual descendants of Campbell to once again raise the banner of peace.  Nonviolence is not simply a secondary issue for the church but is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus.  It is time to make the Restoration Movement great again by lifting high the name of Jesus.  We do this by living out the peaceful ways of Jesus. 

Did John Calvin Invent Penal Substitution?

Because I was raised in a tradition that boasted its anti-Calvinist stance, in four years of Bible College and three years of seminary in a variety of institutions, it did not occur to me that the doctrine of atonement taught in all of these institutions was that of John Calvin. As one of my teaching colleagues put it, “I was not aware that there was more than one theory of atonement.” Calvin’s doctrine of penal substitution is the understanding of the atonement most evangelicals were raised on, whether they consider themselves Calvinist or not, and for many this doctrine is so central to their faith that, like prominent pastor John McArthur, they would claim that to relinquish this doctrine is to abandon Christianity. But the reality is that the doctrine is not the teaching of the New Testament nor of the early Church but the conscious invention of John Calvin.

That is, in Book 2 Section 16 of the Institutes, we can pinpoint where Calvin acknowledges his departure from the Apostles’ Creed, the Church’s accepted standard of biblical understanding, and proposes the innovation he claims sums up the gospel. There are elements Calvin borrows and builds upon, such as the Augustinian notion of original sin (based on a mistranslation in the Latin Vulgate – see here), the notion of nominalism (that God in his essence is disconnected from his earthly representation), Anselm’s legal abstractions, and notions of substitution, but Calvin consciously innovates a new reading of that most obscure of passages, I Peter 3:18-22.

 In a sense the biblical reference, taken up in the Apostles Creed and understood to be his descent to the place of the dead, is only the occasion for Calvin to suggest that the true work of Christ pertains, not to death or the grave, but to the place of future punishment (Gehenna or the Lake of Fire). He acknowledges that the Creed refers to the place of the dead to which Christ descended between the crucifixion and his resurrection. He is suggesting that the gradual appearance of the doctrine (he realizes it is not a common teaching in the early church) in the Creed must have significance: “There are some again who think that the article contains nothing new, but is merely a repetition in different words of what was previously said respecting burial, the word Hell (Infernus) being often used in Scripture for sepulcher.”[1] But the question is, why would this peculiar passage with its obscure interpretation find its way into the Creed. He is attaching supreme significance to its gradual appearance and its obscurity.

The argument from incomprehension may not strike modern ears as convincing, but Augustine had made sin inaccessible to explanation with his doctrine of inherited guilt (due to his misunderstanding of Ro 5). The acronym TULIP (summing up Calvin’s theology), beginning with Augustinian total depravity, is logically interconnected but built upon this openly embraced incomprehension. Sin is a mystery in its manner of transmission and it creates its own darkness which admits only enough rationality to know one is a sinner but not enough understanding to do anything about it. Thus, TULIP is an explanation of why humans can do nothing and God does everything. Philosophical nominalism is the atmosphere in which this innovation occurs, and it had become commonplace and expected that the things of God are beyond comprehension.  So, Calvin will reference and depend on, throughout his argument, “incomprehensible vengeance” which implies an incomprehensible payment.

Calvin fully acknowledges he is innovating on the slippage between hell as the place of the dead or the place of eternal torment (in Latin it is descendit ad inferos). The Creed is clearly referencing hades or the grave (as Christ descended to the place of the dead after his crucifixion), but he is going to provide a logical/legal argument for this innovation which appeals to incomprehension. Calvin’s first point is that the very obscurity of I Peter, as it is gradually taken up and explained in the Apostles Creed, speaks to a significance hidden beneath the obscurity. If it were simply a matter of saying Jesus descended into the place of the dead why “illustrate it by clothing it in obscure phraseology?” And here he means the phraseology of the Creed, as I Peter 3:18-22 does not directly reference either hades or hell but speaks of the prison in which the generation of Noah was contained. (I Peter 4:6 says he preached to the dead, not the damned, and it does not reference any place.) Whatever Peter’s argument might be referencing, his primary point is to argue that “baptism now saves you” like the Ark saved the eight from among the generation of Noah. The passage is already obscure and then the Creed, in trying to clear up the obscurity, confounds it, which is Calvin’s point.

The confounded obscurity must contain a significance (an inspired obscurity?), and so Calvin will now clear up what is hidden in the clouds of Peter and the Creed. “When two expressions having the same meaning are placed together, the latter ought to be explanatory of the former. But what kind of explanation would it be to say, the expression, ‘Christ was buried,’ means, that ‘he descended into hell’?”[2] Calvin is presuming a divine pointer in the Creed’s explanation equating the burial of Christ with descent into eternal death.

 It can’t be that the Creed is saying the same thing twice (burial and hell) and though we may not be able to immediately discern the meaning, “the improbability that a superfluous tautology of this description should have crept into this compendium, in which the principal articles of faith are set down summarily in the fewest possible number of words” is itself an argument that something profound is taking place in this obscurity. If hell here, just means the place of the dead, then it is a “superfluous tautology.” He presumes that hell must be taken to convey a different meaning than the grave and that in this obscurity resides a meaning he will now reveal.

In reference to Peter’s Pentecost sermon Calvin notes, “He does not mention death simply, but says that the Son of God endured the pains produced by the curse and wrath of God, the source of death.”[3] What it actually says is that “godless men put him to death” and there is no reference to the wrath of God. Nonetheless, he defends the notion that part of this curse involved a descent into hell, or the place where infernal punishments are carried out:

 Here we must not omit the descent to hell, which was of no little importance to the accomplishment of redemption. For although it is apparent from the writings of the ancient Fathers, that the clause which now stands in the Creed was not formerly so much used in the churches, still, in giving a summary of doctrine, a place must be assigned to it, as containing a matter of great importance which ought not by any means to be disregarded.[4]

He does not simply fuse Gehenna (the place of future punishment) and Hades (the place of the dead), however, he argues that eternal punishment should also be fused with the chastisement of Isaiah 53 and then both of these passages should be moved to the context of the trial and punishment of Christ.

The incomprehensibility of the doctrine, in Calvin’s own description, pertains to how Christ could bear eternal punishment in his suffering and death. He concludes that death alone cannot explain what it was that Christ bore on the Cross, so it must be the case that it was eternal suffering in hell or the place of future punishment which he actually bore.

Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death.[5]

Calvin acknowledges that this creates a certain disorder in the sequence of events, with Christ suffering eternal punishment in hell prior to his own death (and one might point out, prior to the inauguration of this category) but Calvin doubles down.

It is frivolous and ridiculous to object that in this way the order is perverted, it being absurd that an event which preceded burial should be placed after it. But after explaining what Christ endured in the sight of man, the Creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price—that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man.[6]

Calvin here subverts the received understanding of the Apostles’ Creed. Up until the sixteenth century, Christians had always confessed Christ’s descent into hades or hell as his victory over the grave. Calvin sets aside the conclusion of the Creed and has Christ descending into eternal torment (Gehenna) while he was still alive. “It was requisite,” he says, “that he should feel the severity of the Divine vengeance, in order to appease the wrath of God . . . necessary for him to contend with the powers of hell and the horror of eternal death.” According to Calvin, even while Christ suffered visibly before men, he also experienced “the invisible and incomprehensible vengeance which he suffered from the hand of God.” In other words, the actual death of Christ comes to mean very little in this system, as it is eternal spiritual suffering which Christ undergoes in his soul which is the reality behind death. (At this point Calvin defensively notes that he makes no scriptural appeal, but even his appeal to the ancient theologian Hilary, is dependent on the ambiguity of the term hell. “The Son of God is in hell, but man is brought back to heaven.”)

One wonders if this spiritual sort of suffering required the incarnation at all – if payment could be made through a pure soulish suffering. But Calvin presumes that it could not have been an ordinary death that Christ feared, as this would reduce him to an effeminate sort of figure.

How shamefully effeminate would it have been (as I have observed) to be so excruciated by the fear of an ordinary death as to sweat drops of blood, and not even be revived by the presence of angels? What? Does not that prayer, thrice repeated, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” (Mt. 26:39), a prayer dictated by incredible bitterness of soul, show that Christ had a fiercer and more arduous struggle than with ordinary death?[7]  

He effectively reduces the object of the fear of death to fear of eternal punishment and makes the real event of the Cross an inward spiritual event. “Thus, by engaging with the power of the devil, the fear of death, and the pains of hell, he gained the victory, and achieved a triumph, so that we now fear not in death those things which our Prince has destroyed.”[8] Though in the popular imagination hell is the place of the devil, the biblical depiction is that death and hades are destroyed in the Lake of Fire. The equation of death (hades), Gehenna (which came to be called hell) and the devil is an odd alignment and one that never occurs in conjunction with the Cross in Scripture. 

In the popular imagination, largely due to Calvin and his various disciples, such as Jonathan Edwards, the idea developed that God punished Jesus the equivalent of an eternity in hell and the primary rescue that he effected was no longer equated with the actual historical events surrounding the Cross but with categories of future and eternal punishment, inward or soulish suffering, and divine wrath. As one of my former professors states it (in spite of his purported Anti-Calvinism), “He bore the equivalent of an eternity of hell for us all. His suffering was much greater than the physical torture of crucifixion. Since God’s wrath is spent on Christ, God is now free to forgive sins without violating His own justice.”

Though we may have all become used to the conjunction of the Cross and eternal punishment, there is nowhere in Scripture that the Cross addresses the category of Gehenna or eternal punishment. Calvin’s choice of, what may be the most obscure passage in the New Testament, and then his examination of the confounding of this obscurity in the Apostles Creed, and then transporting this fusion of the place of the dead with the place of eternal torment to the Cross is, by his own account, an innovation (meaning it is not the received understanding of the New Testament).

Penal substitution subsumes salvation into a problem with God’s anger, as the righteous anger brought on by transgression of God’s law (Calvin depicts the entire transaction as law based) is only satiated by Christ’s soulish suffering. It is an infinite anger, provoked by an infinite offence, satisfied by an infinite payment which, relates to the finite hardly at all. It is an exchange exclusive to the persons of the Trinity, pitting the Father against the Son, and fails to address the finite human circumstance. The exchange between Christ and God is complete in and of itself. Infinite satisfaction for an infinite offence has been made, but it completely bypasses the lived reality of human experience.

The conclusion: John Calvin, by tying the place of the dead to eternal punishment and then linking this with the punishment inflicted on Christ on the Cross so as to achieve forgiveness, invented the doctrine of penal substitution.


[1] Calvin, Institutes 2.16. 8.

[2] Calvin, 2.16.8.

[3] Calvin, 2. 16. 11.

[4] Calvin, 2.16.8.

[5] Calvin, 2:16,10

[6] Calvin, 2.16.10.

[7] Calvin, 2. 16.11.

[8] Calvin, 2. 16.11.

“Vote for Tiberius?” Asked Jesus. “Never!”

This is a guest blog by Allan Stuart Contreras Ríos

“We use violence to get peace and wonder why it isn’t working. That’s like sleeping with a football team to try and be a virgin.”

– Tom MacDonald

Karla and I used to have a neighbor who was a drug dealer – Güero. Everybody around here knew this, although nobody talked about it, especially around him. One night, a few days after New Year’s, Karla and I were buying some tacos at a taco stand on the corner of the street we live on.

Right next to us was Güero buying tacos as well. Everybody felt nervous around him . . . but one learns how to try to ignore this and “act normal” around people like him. Suddenly his phone dinged. It was a text message. We do not know what it said, but we think we do because of what happened next. He got nervous. Yes, as nervous as we were around him. Who was he afraid of?

As fast as he could, he paid for his tacos in advance saying he would come back for them in a few minutes. He walked behind Karla, then behind me, then he turned around the corner. At the same time Karla started adding cilantro to her tacos and salsa to mine I heard gunshots. I looked to the left and there was a Jeep parked right next to me with two guys shooting Güero from the windows. It all happened in a matter of seconds. Güero was dead before he hit the ground.

Although this was a scary situation, it was also a relief for our neighborhood, the bad guy was dead. We could all feel better, safe . . . . until some people moved into Güero’s house.

It was a couple of years later, during the pandemic (July or August of 2020 I believe), that Karla and I woke up, went to the kitchen to make some breakfast, and saw that our house was surrounded by the military.

I opened the door and asked one of them, “Can I help you?”

He said, “Do you know your neighbors from that house?” and pointed toward Güero’s house.

“No.”

“Then you cannot help us.”

A few days later, we heard from other neighbors that somebody snitched on those who lived in Güero’s house, and the police found drugs, guns, and several mutilated bodies. It has been almost an entire year since then and we still have cops basically living on top of our roof to keep watching Güero’s house (they actually made a little grill on our roof and have several chairs).

Day and night, Güero’s house is surrounded by cops. And, because of that, mine too. All this to say, we know the violence of our world. We have experienced it firsthand. And although this worries us, of course, this type of violence is expected from those who do not know God. You know what is troublesome? Violence also happens from those who claim to know God.

When I was a student at CCCB I was a supply preacher. One Sunday I was sent to a small church to deliver a sermon. I got there 30 min. before the church service started, but there was no parking lot. I parked at the end of the road, right next to the church. I opened my Bible and went over my notes repeatedly (I used to get more nervous preaching in English than Spanish). Suddenly I heard a metal knocking on my window. As I looked through my window, I saw the barrel of a shotgun looking back at me. I raised my hands, and the angry guy holding his gun asked me to roll my window down, slowly. I did. He asked me what I was doing parking on his lawn. I explained why I was there and asked him to allow me to park somewhere else, my intention was not to disturb him, and to stay alive, of course. Thank God, he let me go.

A few minutes later, people started walking into the church’s building, I could not get out of my car and into the church fast enough. As I walked in and started greeting my Christian siblings, I started feeling peace again. I was able to breathe a little bit better. They probably could not tell, because of my skin color, but I am sure I was pale. Unfortunately, as soon as my heart calmed down, I saw the angry man walking into the church’s building with two kids, my heart stopped.

He was a church member. Not only was he a church member, but he was also one of the church’s leaders.

You might think that this is one isolated situation. Unfortunately, this is one of several times in which I feared for my life in a church. See the incongruency?

A. W. Tozer once said that “Christianity is so entangled with the world that millions never guess how radically they have missed the New Testament pattern. Compromise is everywhere.” For example, there is a tendency within churches in the Restoration Movement to ignore Church history. It is assumed that from Constantine until the rise of the Stone-Campbell Movement the Church compromised with the world. The Church rejected the Lamb to marry the Roman Emperor. Unfortunately, they fail to see that they have made the same compromise.

Many Christians fight over the “right” side of political disputes, or which amendments or rights need protecting. As Greg Boyd asks, “Where in the New Testament are we taught to rally around anyone other than King Jesus? Where do we find any hint of a suggestion in the New Testament that part of our job as followers of Jesus is to weigh in on the political disputes of the country we happen to live in? We certainly don’t find such a hint in the ministry of Jesus, whose example we’re repeatedly commanded to follow.”[1] When Jesus was tempted by Satan, one of the temptations had to do with political power. As Christians we are to aspire to overcoming, as Jesus did, the archetypical wilderness temptation of gaining political power.

Consider that nationalism teaches us to hate other people, even people that we have not met, and then it teaches us to feel pride in our hatred. At a Christian camp in the USA, we gathered to pledge allegiance to the American flag, and then to the “Christian” flag (which was a little below the Stars and Stripes). I did not pledge allegiance to the American flag for obvious Mexican reasons, and I did not pledge allegiance to the “Christian” flag because that was totally new to me. What was shocking was that some people were offended by my actions, or might I say inactions. But what was even more shocking was that they were offended, not by my not pledging allegiance to the “Christian” flag, but by my failure to swear allegiance to the American flag.

Tony Campolo repeats a story Philip Yancey told him concerning a friend during WWII. This friend was part of a special unit during the Battle of the Bulge that was sent out every morning to kill wounded German soldiers left on the battlefield the night before. One morning he came across a German soldier who was not wounded, he was only tired. His friend raised his gun at the German, and the German asked him to give him a moment to pray. Yancey’s friend lowered his gun and asked the German if he was a Christian, to which he replied “Yes.” “I am a Christian too,” responded Yancey’s friend.

They sat together under a tree. They prayed together. One of them had a Bible and they both shared Bible verses with each other. They showed each other their family pictures and prayed for each other’s families. After all this, Yancey’s friend stood up, looked at the German brother in Christ and said, “I guess I will see you again in Heaven one day,” and shot the man in the head.[2]

The devotion to a nation justifies acts of violence, even against Christian siblings: something Jesus would never condone. This justification comes in all shapes and sizes: crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, etc. The Church has been guilty of all of these horrors. This is not simply the problem of a portion of the church, as many Christian groups have fallen into Satan’s temptation of political power.

Gandhi said, “I don’t reject your Christ, I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.” The early disciples understood Jesus was the head of the Church, but over time “the institutional church seems to have been severed from its head, and as a result became one of the most violent religions in history.”[3] While many might point to this violence as grounds for rejecting Christianity, the violent history of the Church contradicts Jesus’ teaching. As G. K. Chesterton said, “The way of Jesus has not been tried and found unfruitful. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” In other words, the problem is not in what Jesus taught, the problem is many Christians are not doing what He said.

Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies” is without ambiguity – it cannot involve violence. It is impossible to murder the enemy you are supposed to love without disobeying Jesus or betraying his Kingdom. No war is a just war, it is just war.[4] To engage in violence means to reject the eschatological hope of the peaceable Kingdom – the New Creation in Christ.

It saddens me that many of my Christian brothers and sisters seem unaware of the basic teaching of Jesus. They stand by, like the unrepentant Paul at the stoning of Stephen, approving of various forms of violence.  Not only that, they join in the killing by joining the military. This is no surprise, as they are heeding a violent gospel preached with a national flag as backdrop. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in war so that peace may increase?” (Rom. 6:1). Of course not! Jesus Himself taught us differently when He said, “Put your gun back into its place; for all those who take up a gun shall perish by the gun.” (Matt. 26:52).[5] Can you imagine what the Church and its history would look like if those who claim to follow Christ actually lived like Him?

The story that sums up Jesus’ political dealings occurs when Jesus was confronted by the religious leaders and they asked Him, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” This is not only a political but a religious question, since Caesar considered himself a god. In other words, they are asking, “Should we pledge allegiance to the Roman god or not?” If Jesus said “Yes,” He would be a traitor to the Jews and God, and if He said “No,” He would get in trouble with Rome.

Jesus asked them for a denarius. “Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” He asked them. “Caesar,” they replied. Tiberius image, the Roman Emperor during Jesus’ crucifixion, was on the coin along with the inscription, “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus, High Priest.” (Perhaps they are in danger of falling into idolatry, since they are carrying Caesar’s image in their pockets.) “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” Jesus said. Another way of saying this is “Give to Caesar what is made in the image of Caesar. Give to God what is made in God’s image.”

Many Christians live in the hypocrisy Jesus is exposing. To ask questions about how much violence we can use, which wars are justifiable, how much nationalism contradicts Christian belief, is to edge toward idolatry. It is as if the Jews were asking Jesus, “How much of this idolatrous metal can we carry around without breaking the Law?” As Greg Boyd says, “Since it all bears Caesar’s image, give it all back to him! The only important question we ought to be wrestling with is whether or not we are giving back to God all that bears his image—namely, our whole self.”[6]

Jesus did not compromise. He did not say, “Let’s vote for Tiberius and hope for the best. Let’s Make Israel Great Again.” Like the prophets of old (who were killed for their words), Jesus exposed idolatry without compromise. His life was a witness to God’s Kingdom and in direct opposition to worldly kingdoms – an opposition for which he was killed. As Christians, participating in the world’s violent ways, in any shape or form, is to conform to the world which killed him. It is to exchange our vocation as God’s image-bearers for the world’s image. It is to give to Caesar what is God’s.


[1] Giles, Keith,. Jesus Untangled (p. 13). Quoir. Kindle Edition.

[2] Tony Campolo – WWII Story: Christians vs. Christians? – YouTube

[3] Bruxy Cavey, The end of religion: encountering the subversive spirituality of Jesus (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2020).

[4] Roland H. Bainton; Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace. A Historical Survey and Critical Re-Evaluation. p. 222

[5] I am aware Paul and Jesus did not use these exact words, I am updating them to drive the point home. Nobody goes to war with swords anymore.

[6] Giles, Keith,. Jesus Untangled (p. 14). Quoir. Kindle Edition

Cosmic Meaning Versus the Cosmic Christ

What does an illicit romantic affair have to do with war? How does slavery pertain to human psychology? The psychoanalytic and biblical claim is that all share the same structure and they each generate meaning through this structure. All depend upon a split or divide which generates a struggle or drive in which the imagined goal of love, peace, power, or success, is equated with resolution to the struggle.

“True love” cannot be obtained through the law as the deep core of the self is, by definition, that which is beyond the law. I cannot possibly be equated with or captured in something so prosaic as a norm, a law, or a covenant. Deep within me resides the essence of who I am and this essence is in excess of the law, beyond the human symbolic order. The relationship to one’s spouse is the prototypical social obligation, but how can this obligation, this contract, this burden, capture my true essence. Social life consists of an externally imposed law in which I cannot possibly recognize myself. This bind in no way captures the fullness of my capacity for love or more precisely, for being loved; instead, it curtails the depths of my desire which pertains to my true self. Strangely, I experience this depth of love most completely when I feel the imposition of the law. When I feel the forces of society and law as an opposition to my love, then I know that the precious treasure at my core can only be loved without being submitted to the rule of law.

In turn, the very definition of peace is the resolution achieved through war. There is no peace apart from the war which defines it – it would be unrecognizable in itself. Just as perverse love depends upon its opposition, war is not only the means to peace but a symptom of an ever-elusive peace. Just as love is dependent upon the logic of exception (that which exists as an exception to the law) there is a notion of peace that is a symptom of war; more an exception creating the rule of continuous warfare than any positive entity in itself. The contradiction of achieving peace through war seems to pose itself even more directly than the notion that love is necessarily transgressive, yet the path to peace through total war and obliteration seems inevitable.

So too, there is only one way to be a master and that is through the slave. Apart from this enslaved other the subject of master cannot exist. The slave may have the advantage in freeing himself from dependence on the master (at least in Hegel’s depiction) but he cannot pass beyond the dialectic. He potentially reaches its core in recognizing the master represents fear of death and does not, within himself, contain enslaving control. One must still tarry with the negative or face the reality of death and the fear of death to come to this core realization. (Hegel simply exposes the nothingness at the core of the system, but his is a reified nothing that would still keep the dialectic up and running as the subject is this self-antagonism. The dialectic of the subject is the subject.)

The contradiction clearly shows itself when the slave/master relation is reduced to a psychology in which one must play the role of both master and slave. Only continual self-punishment will bring either the pleasure found in ultimate control or the overcoming of that control. Pain and suffering are the very substance of domination and power. As in the wars of the 20th century, only total war – the war to end all wars – will bring bring an end to suffering (peace as obliteration). When it is a dynamic reduced to an individual the pain is the pleasure and the suffering is the power, but each system, individual and corporate, consists of the same twisted logic.

The drive to gain life, peace, love, and substance is turned into a simultaneous drive toward death, war, transgression, and annihilation. The ultimate subject is gained through a final overcoming. The illusion is to imagine the goal (the object giving rise to desire) can survive beyond the struggle. In every instance the subject which would be obtained is simultaneously generated and made impossible by the system of its creation. That is, the lure of the system is to imagine the transgression, the conflict, the subjugation, is a means to an end when it is the means which is generating the imagined end.

If this is the problem of sin, what difference might it make if this system goes unrecognized and the work of Christ is made to fit the problem rather than to defeat it? This explains the various forensic explanations of the work of Christ in which God is the subject gaining satisfaction from his own self punishment. God is reduced to a dialectic struggle, with the Father deploying evil men to kill his Son so that he might have the satisfaction of his suffering and death. Eternal suffering in hell is equated with the suffering of the Son on the Cross, so that no distinction can be made between those that torture the Son in the passion and the Father who requires that they carry out this torture – only he requires eternal torture as part of who he is as eternal justice.  

Knowledge of God, in this understanding, cannot be separated from the dialectic of the law. Through the “the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate,” according to Tertullian, the vision of God is made possible. According to Thomas Aquinas, “the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed.” Oh, happy day when we can delight, along with God, in relishing the torture of the majority of the human race, knowing that God’s justice and human will (particularly in the unrepentant) continue to exercise ultimate power. The law bringing about this punishing God is the means and end of this God. Life, God, and truth are folded into law, and the power or sovereignty of God (God as master) or the free will of human beings become the primary subjects of theological discourse.

Hegel and Calvin represent the culminating point of this God, with God either taking death and nothingness up into himself or being directly equated with evil. Atheism and fundamentalism are near equivalents – with leftist Hegelians presuming God disappears and makes room for a corporate (Marxist) spirit (incarnate will) and fundamentalists equating all that happens, good and evil, with this God. In this system evil is a means to the good, death is the means to life, love is consonant with hate, and sin is the occasion for grace. There is no truth beyond the dialectic. Even the resurrection gains its meaning as part of a dialectic with death and sacrifice. Resurrection becomes a footnote – sacrifice accepted – rather than death defeated.

No part of the work of Christ need challenge the contradictory nature of the system. Revelation is not the revealing of a new truth exposing the lie of sin, but is an establishment of the law. The law is not mitigated, corrected, or suspended but it becomes the economy for explaining the work of Christ. Rather than the work of Christ exposing the meaning systems of this world, his meaning is subsumed into this world order. This explains why the name of Christ has been invoked for justification of holocausts, inquisitions, crusades, war, and the worst of human horrors. Christ is incorporated into the dialectic which supports sexual transgression, war, and slavery, and which aggravates and does not cure the human disease.

Christ as revelation, exposing the lie of this world’s violent wisdom, establishes an alternative truth, peace, love, and subjectivity. Christianity as Revelation exposes a world order built upon the death-dealing orientation of dividedness and dialectic. Christ as God, as the Cosmic Christ, as the full openness of God, is not an addendum, a proviso, or a fulfillment (in the way this is normally understood). Christ is revelation in a two-fold sense: his work is an exposure of the lying dialectic generating this world’s meaning and he serves as foundation to an alternative world of meaning and truth. Christ is the structuring order or the inner ground of creation and it is in him that creation’s purpose is revealed.

Salvation in Christ is not simply a negation of sin, or an effect of the Fall, but the goal of creation. A Christianity focused on the Fall is of the same order as love that needs transgression, peace which requires war, and self-mastery which includes self-enslavement. Sin becomes the essence of salvation where we imagine it is sin that necessitated the incarnation. So too every doctrine is reduced. In this failed system predestination is not about cosmic purposes but about who is in and who is out; the incarnation is not a revealing of the essence of God but a secondary manifestation; the resurrection is not about the defeat of death but about a payment accepted; and redemption is not about participation in the Trinity but about going to a disembodied heaven. The mission of Christ, reduced to payment for sin, misses the incarnation as the principle and purpose behind creation. It misses the fact that creation’s purpose is found in Jesus Christ (the God/Man), that redemption is cosmic completion, and that the Church’s part in a continued incarnation is a fulfillment of creation. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Romans 11:35). We know this due to the incarnate Christ who “is the summing up of all things . . . things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Ephesians 1:10). In Christ, love, peace, and identity are not an effect or symptom of the law and sin but, in the words of Athanasius, an effect of “our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Perhaps the fundamental hurdle to a sin-based notion of Christ is the attachment to human decision, human history, and human time as the controlling factor in the purposes of God. The work of Christ is depicted as necessarily subsequent to sin, rather than as who and what has been predestined “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). In Scripture there is no choice preceding this choice as this is an eternal fact about God. Jesus Christ is not a contingent reflection of God, dependent upon creation and Fall, but creation is an outworking of the love of God found in Christ. It pertains, as Paul describes it to the divine immanence (who God is in himself): “…having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself” (Ephesians 1:9). The will of God does not reside in some dark transcendent council as his will has been revealed in Christ.

Love, peace, and human wholeness cannot be adequately grounded in a salvation geared to deliverance as they will continue to be grounded in a failed cosmic order. Only by recognizing Christ as the foundation of a new order of meaning can we escape the cycles of transgressive love, war, and oppression. Salvation is the overcoming of sin but it accomplishes this overcoming only in a positive fulness and return to Christ as the completion of creations purpose. God’s plan in Christ is beyond human meaning as it is an outworking of love, peace, and identity as participation in the very essence of God.

Reinhold Niebuhr as Archetype of Failed Peace due to Inadequate Atonement Theory

In my previous two blogs I have traced a nearly all-inclusive array of churches in the United States that began as peace churches and which gradually and nearly completely repudiated this original stance. In this final blog on this topic, I trace the thought of what many would consider the premiere American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, as he too begins as a pacifist and then becomes the 2oth century’s most famous anti-pacifist. In my conclusion, I suggest this history of failed pacifism can be traced to a specific and shared cause. The failed peace churches all focused on a forensic notion of the death of Christ, and though Niebuhr had his own view of the atonement, it too focused on a narrow understanding of an achievement of forgiveness. The stark difference found among early Anabaptists and those who maintain a commitment to peace, is a return to the Christus Victor understanding of atonement and notions of a real world transformation.

The most important individual American example of the rejection of pacifism is Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian which Presidents Kennedy, Carter, and Obama, admired and who may have done more to define a generation than is normally allotted a mere theologian. He follows the pattern I traced (here) among indigenous churches in the U.S. of relinquishing his original peace stance due to circumstance, but he names the “realism” which is the controlling factor in his thought, admitting that the correct understanding of the New Testament and Jesus is nonviolent resistance. His point is that one can follow Jesus’ teaching and be nonviolent and irrelevant. To be nonresistant means one must check out of the realities of this world and be consigned to being inconsequential. Due to his experiences with the poor, with the labor movement in Detroit, and then the rise of Hitler, the one thing he wanted was to confront or resist evil, something he presumed Jesus did not do and did not allow for. For him, to resist evil would necessarily entail violence.

His genius was to relate and fit the evils, with which all are familiar, to the biblical notion of sin. Sin arises due to the tension between our embodied social location and the sense that we are meant for more. The lure of transcendence can give rise to pride or it can, due to the inherent inability to get beyond our situation, lead to a turn to the sensuous and a relinquishing of transcendence. As Niebuhr describes it:

“When anxiety has conceived it brings forth both pride and sensuality. Humanity falls into pride, when it seeks to raise its contingent existence to unconditional significance; it falls into sensuality, when it seeks to escape from its unlimited possibilities of freedom, from the perils and responsibilities of self-determination, by immersing itself into a ‘mutable good’, by losing itself in some natural vitality.”[1]

Creatures made for divinity are torn between the extremes of this tension giving rise to sin.

The best part of us individually and corporately is still sinful, but the social or corporate magnifies the sin, so that while we might individually do better than those around us, the corporate and social of which we are a part drags us all down. Sin is the reality we must adjust to. It is the universal human condition and not even Christ has done much to change it other than to secure forgiveness.   

Niebuhr’s analysis of the human condition was an unflinching recognition that people are prone to evil and pride, and that though they may appear sophisticated or educated these were simply means of deploying pride in more creative ways. Some might, given the right circumstance, improve themselves incrementally but the evil condition of human nature is universal and mostly unchangeable, which explains how it is that the realities of war and violence would shape his theological life. This former pacifist had come to see reality for what it is and he adjusted his religion to this grim realism.

Niebuhr’s picture of sin accounts for capitalism and the oppression of workers and the rise of Nazism. These things, though, will have to be dealt with on their own terms, terms which Jesus did not engage. Christianity may help one negotiate the inherent sinfulness of individuals and the social structures, but it does not do this by challenging these structural evils. Christ teaches us that God loves us, in spite of our sinfulness and moral failing and our best hope is to receive his mercy.

The law of Christ teaches us, like the Old Testament law, that we are sinners. Christ tells us to love the enemy, and we need to take this in its full pacifist context, and realize this is an impossibility. Jesus taught we are not to accumulate wealth, but what Christian pacifist even attempts to do this? We cannot hope to follow the Sermon on the Mount, we can only know Jesus forgives us for our incapacity to do so.

 If we do not face the reality of sin, as pacifists are inclined to do, we will only repeat the mistakes of those who let our Nazi enemies get out of hand, then we will be thrown into the other extreme. Like Woodrow Wilson, who pacifist like wanted to resist joining WWI, then concludes the United States must join the war to end all wars so as to obliterate the enemy, the pacifist is in danger of becoming the next crusader who feels obligated to annihilate the enemy he has allowed to get out of control. Like the jail house patsy reduced to being a sex slave and then requiring a shiv to extract himself from abuse, the pacifist must, like Niebuhr, relinquish nonviolence and resist evil from the beginning so as to contain it. God will forgive the necessities thrust upon us, and the goal is to get through life doing as little damage as possible, but committed to trying to do the right thing.

The Bible needs to be submitted to the authority of this modern understanding. Jesus, after all, was no realist as he had no worldly responsibilities, no wife and family, he held no public office. His was an unattached life that did not engage historical reality and his is a spiritual nonresistance not meant for earthly practicality.

Jesus’ ethic might work at an individual level or in a face-to-face confrontation, but it is impossible to turn the other cheek when being slapped from multiple people in every direction. One might carry a single Roman pack, but it is impossible to carry the burdens of multiple soldiers going in different directions. I can only give away my cloak to the first person who asks.[2] There are limitations and inherent impossibilities posed by picturing Jesus’ ethic as applying beyond a very limited and individual condition.

Jesus as “the way the truth and the life” would have to be fit to Niebuhr’s realist frame. He may be a way and truth for another world but his is an ill-conceived way and truth in this world. What Jesus and the early Christian’s wrongly presumed was that this world was about to end, and so we are left with an ethic inadequate for a realist of this world.

Niebuhr limited the work of the cross to a shattering of pride, as we witness in the death of Jesus the human pride which caused this ultimate tragedy. His death is a point of despair which calls for contrition and repentance by which we can receive forgiveness. As he describes it, the Atonement wrought on the Cross is “the good news of the Gospel . . . that God takes the sinfulness of man into Himself and overcomes in His own heart what cannot be overcome in human life.” God suffers sin and forgives it but there is no overcoming of sin, apparently even for God.  

Perhaps Niebuhr’s serenity prayer best captures his theological attitude: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The changeable middle part of the prayer may be quite small, as the primary need is acceptance of an unchangeable world of sin and the wisdom to recognize it is unchangeable.

 Niebuhr, the best and brightest of his generation, illustrates the limited frame within which the work of Christ often continues to be conceived. What Niebuhr could not conceive is the questioning of the socially constructed nature of the “truth” by which he would judge the work of Christ. What his narrow realism could not conceive is that truth itself was being changed up in the person and work of Christ. A different realism is being established in the kingdom of Christ. Jesus’ victory over death, the power which controls us, is absent in Niebuhr as is the notion that Jesus is an example to follow. Niebuhr, like other American based pacifists loses his pacifism, as it seems to have never been deeply grounded in a holistic notion of the depth of peace Christ establishes.

This is the difference that Frances Hiebert finds in the enduring nature of early Anabaptist notions of peace. Though they did not reject Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory, they saw it as incomplete and inadequate. “For early Anabaptists, atonement was the transformation of the believer’s life, an ontological change brought about by the work of Christ and the faith of the believer.”[3] Anabaptists develop a unique cultural ethos, an enduring holism surrounding peace, and a suffering patience, flowing out of a return to a Christus Victor-like atonement theory.

Their notion that one responds to the work of Christ is grounded in the understanding this work directly engages and defeats the evil of the world. Peter Ridemann, spoke about sin as chains by which people are bound by the devil. He wrote that Christ had “come to destroy the work of the devil”; had “destroyed the power of death, hell and the devil”; and had “overcome the devil and death and had risen again.” The Christus Victor motif is evident as Anabaptists had a sharp sense of conflict with the world, the flesh, the devil, and the religious-political structures of their time.

It seems, independent of the Eastern tradition, they too develop a notion of divinization. Balthasar Hubmaier’s picture of God-human relations was explicitly synergistic. As he describes it, the soul is awakened, “made healthy,” and given freedom to again choose the good. It must therefore cooperate with God for the work of Christ to be effective. It must allow itself to be reconciled to God. Salvation, he stressed, does not take place without human cooperation. They came to call this participation in the life of God “divinization.” The gospel was not only the good news of salvation but also a series of directives for the Christian on how to live, how to follow Christ the example, and in following Christ, humanity could be brought back into the life of God.

There is a common thread in the relinquishing of the gospel of peace. It is that atonement as a holistic realization of a socio-political-personal new life is missing. Even where, as in the various holiness movements and restoration movements, Jesus is at first recognized as an example to follow, with an inadequate understanding of the atonement this is lost. Niebuhr is representative of an American Christianity inadequately grounded in an understanding of how Christ’s work is a real-world defeat of evil, death, and the devil and the establishment of a deep and abiding peace grounded in God.


[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: 2 vols. (voL I: Human Nature: New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941; vol. II: Human Destiny, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943) 178-179.

[2] John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (p. 294). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Yoder nicely sums up Niebuhr in this chapter.

[3] Frances F. Hiebert, “The Atonement in Anabaptist Theology” in Direction, Fall 2001 · Vol. 30 No. 2 · pp. 122–38 https://directionjournal.org/30/2/atonement-in-anabaptist-theology.html

A History of Lost Peace

The history of the church can be told as a process which starts with nonviolent peace as central and which is then lost. This is the historical reality of the church, not just in its first 400 years, but often repeated wherever the attempt has been made to restore New Testament Christianity. The pattern is one of return to the centrality of peace and nonviolence in the teachings of Jesus, an initial acceptance of this teaching and an attempt to live up to this reality, and then a gradual obfuscation, fudging, and loss of commitment to nonviolence. This can be demonstrated not only with the Restoration Movement (as I showed last week here), but with a host of restorationist movements in which restoration of the original church and the authentic teaching of Jesus entails focus on nonviolent peace, and then a weakening of this commitment. So, if the Constantinian shift and the acceptance of violence is the “fall of the church,” the church can be said to have fallen many times.

Of course, this is a conclusion Christian “realists” of every brand would resist. Violence and war loom too large, in this estimate, to be defeated publicly and corporately by the church and it is doubtful that even the private individual can make much headway in overcoming personal self-directed violence. Masochism, neurosis, sadism, violence, and war are the given reality, and not even the intervention of God in Christ can be expected to defeat this evil, except in some future estate wiped clean of the present reality. The problem is taken to be so intractable that there seems to be a relinquishing of peace as any sort of real possibility, corporately or individually. Realism, history as we know it, the muck and mess that is the human condition, all weigh too much. To call commitment to peace a rediscovery of the gospel (the depiction peace groups attribute to themselves) will, of course, irritate those weighed down by the heavy robes of tradition and institution. Everyone knows peace is there in the Bible, but some are savvy enough, world-wise enough, grounded enough in history and institutions, to have concluded to the inevitable nature of violence.

Which explains when and where there are renewals of commitment to the peace of the gospel. As John Howard Yoder has noted, “Pacifism arises where people are trying to be Christian without too much rootage in history.” The North American frontier provides a sample proof of the case that wherever there is a frontier culture (Yoder provides exhaustive proofs with worldwide peace movements) or wherever there is a fresh reading of scripture, there is a conclusion that pacifism is central to the gospel and then a commitment to live in this peace.[1]

There is no particular hermeneutic that is rediscovered, but simply an opening, a renewal, or what might be disparagingly referred to as naivety or ignorance. Some situations allow for a fresh start or at least a fresh reading. Maybe every child, like I did, encounters the nonviolence of the teachings of Jesus as raw datum. Then, through education, acquaintance with more sophisticated doctrine and history, one learns better. What is clear is that where a fresh reading is a possibility, the presumption is that violence and war are not part of the authentic Christian life.

In North America, this was not simply the conclusion of an anti-intellectualism, as the age of John Locke gave the sophisticated the sense that, being part of the age of reason, they certainly need not return to the dark ages of medieval theology or the encrusted obscurities of tradition. The Bible is clear and people can reason out its meaning without the aid of priest or church.

On the other hand, revivalism, pietism, Pentecostalism, and just the sense of being on the edges of a new frontier would foster the same confident approach to the biblical text. The United States afforded the rediscovery of nonviolence, or what, as part of a newly founded peace society Adin Ballou (1803-90) would call “nonresistance.” As I described it, part of the impetus for peace was combined with the drive to abolish slavery. David Lipscomb and Barton W. Stone, in their advocacy of nonviolence and the abolition of slavery were following the same course as William Lloyd Garrison, who founded both an abolitionist society and a peace society, each with their own journal.

However, as I also noted in regard to the Restoration Movement, this was not an enduring phenomenon. There was a rediscovery of the words of Jesus, but not usually a deep-seated willingness, as with the Anabaptists, to die for this cause. As Yoder notes, “they lacked a deep sense of the problem’s long history. They did not have an awareness of a suffering community through the ages or of a peace church tradition.”[2]

Maybe for that same reason, the fresh non-threatening condition, there was a mass rediscovery of peaceful nonviolence. The new world was so rife with peace movements, peace societies, peace churches, and utopian communities, that Ralph Waldo Emerson could forecast that “War is on its last legs: a universal peace is as sure as is the prevalence of civilization over barbarism, of liberal governments over feudal forms. The question for us is only How soon.”[3]

Starting with the late developing Pentecostals and working our way backward, we find both those groups indigenous to the United States and those groups that started over in the United States initially embrace doctrines of nonviolence. Though Pentecostalism develops in the 20th century it is the culmination of 19th century Wesleyan revivalism, which had shown Pentecostal-like manifestations at the Cane Ridge Revival in the previous century. Where Cane Ridge, hosted by Presbyterian Barton Stone’s church (but including Methodists and Baptists), would feed into the headier movement of Stone and Campbell, 20th century Pentecostalism was free of the rationalizing tendency and was geared toward a literal interpretation and obedience inclusive of the obedience of pacifism. As Yoder describes it, “In the first generation it became rather directly and simply pacifist, for the simple reason that adherents took the whole Bible straight.”[4]

Though there was a strong sense of being against the world, the world was not anything as complicated as American Nationalism. In my experience in the Assemblies of God, I remember a Philippine national describing his encounters with demons among the headhunters. He gave me a name card in which he described his long list of spiritual gifts, including exorcism, discernment, and other means of dealing with the devil. The demons were always hovering nearby, it seemed. The preacher would sometimes preach, not from preparation but through a directly inspired message. It was more intense and entertaining than the worship at my Disciples church, if a bit confusing for a teenage boy. The reigniting of the gift of the Holy Spirit is a rebeginning of the church, so as with their restorationist cohorts, what happened between the first Pentecost and new Pentecost is irrelevant. History, theology, and Church structure are of little importance in light of the movement of the Spirit.

The story of the upward mobility, success with the implementation of Donald McGavran’s Church Growth theory, and a reversal of integration (Pentecostalism started with poor whites and blacks mixing freely), marks the demise of the commitment to peace. The website of the Assemblies of God, though it is not providing a sequence of this demise, captures an intense, initial focus on peace and then it is rendered irrelevant with provisos. Historically, the need for a seminary degree for qualified chaplains leads to greater focus on education and eventually to a quelling of the strong sentiment of peace. Then in 1967 they relinquished their formal opposition to Christian participation in war, and they gave up their status as a peace church. I assume it would be hard to reduplicate my teenage experiences with the Pentecostals. On my last visit to an Assemblies of God Church, they were indiscernible from other evangelicals.

Methodism in the United States follows a similar pattern of initial embrace of a strong pacifist stance and then a relinquishing of this position (as in the statement put out by the United Methodists allowing for participation in war). Methodism is in many ways the predominant cultural influence on the American frontier. The revivalism of Dwight L. Moody, and his pacifism (little talked about now), were typical of the ethos of the times and a by-product of a long history. Moody was fostered by the Chicago department store magnate, John Farwell, one of the wealthiest men in the country. Farwell would organize the largest corporate ranch in the world, the XIT ranch, and it was run along strict Methodist lines. No guns, no swearing, no drinking, and no private horse ownership for the cowboys on the ranch.

American Methodism, true or not to Wesley, came to emphasize a full-sanctification or ability to keep the ethical commands of Jesus, inclusive of nonviolence. The impetus behind temperance, abolition, and women’s rights was connected to an embodied notion of nonviolent peace. Moody’s description of himself would fit early American Methodism: “There has never been a time in my life when I felt that I could take a gun and shoot down a fellow being. In this respect I am a Quaker.” Instead of joining the Union to fight, Moody would spend the war preaching to both Union and Confederate troops.

Contemporary with Moody, Methodist General Ulysses S. Grant represents the versatility of Methodism in regard to violence. Ironically, Wesley’s most famous namesake in the United States is the most prolific killer of the West. The son of a Methodist minister, and himself a Sunday school teacher to his fellow inmates, John Wesley Hardin killed at least 21 men. The pacifism of American Methodism always contained an unstable element.

The restorationism of Churches of God closely resembles that of Christian Churches in their non-denominationalism and camp meetings in place of a denominational headquarters. They began with a strong pacifist stance and statement: “She [the Church] believes that all civil wars are unholy and sinful, and in which the saints of the Most High ought never to participate.” [5] This stance lasts through the Mexican War and the American Civil War but by WWI it had mostly relinquished nonviolence. The one Church of God minister I knew was also one of the most patriotic people I have ever met. During a tennis game, when the local high school played the National Anthem on a field we were well removed from, he halted the game to hold his hand over his heart.

So too Seventh Day Adventists, who maintained their pacifism through the Second World War and Korean War but now hold loosely to this stance. A Seventh Day Adventist minister and friend depicted to me a church in contention with its own history on both pacifism and the role of women.

My conclusion in this brief informal survey, is that no peace church with its roots in the United States has maintained its peace stance. I would be happy to hear that I am wrong and to hear of the exception. The closest exception, which my daughter pointed out, is the Catholic Worker. It is indigenous to this country and has maintained a strong pacifist ethic. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin may have generated suffering and persecution enough to mold their own unique culture, which survives in the Catholic Worker Movement. Peter, in his Easy Essays sounds very much like a restorationist, but of course they had the sense of simply being true to Catholic social teaching and never considered themselves a church.

Traditional Anabaptist groups and various groups of Brethren, perhaps due to their long history and persecution have been more faithful to pacifism. Their rootedness in history, the example held up of pacifist martyrs, their often distinctive culture, and their sense of long suffering, has surely played a role. Those Mennonite churches I have visited and the short time I spent at one of their seminaries confronted me with a distinctive sense of culture and mission. Though, even among these groups the North American experience has created a rift. The problem for Mennonites, for example, is no longer persecution but acceptance into mainstream culture, which has proven more corrosive than persecution. As long as the world demonstrably hated them there was no problem remaining separate from the world. Subsequent to WWII the peace stance has become not only accepted but admired, so that some Mennonites would now attempt to influence government and there has been a shift in the understanding of the church/world relationship. Meanwhile, some Mennonite churches have been lured by Church Growth Theory and evangelical like success.[6]

By the original standard of these groups, that violence is sin, peace groups indigenous to this country now meet their own criterion for fallenness. If violence is indeed sin, if it is the sin that that Christ came to defeat, then they demonstrate a Constantinian-like failure. The inaccessible nature of this reality, its implausibility, may be an effect of the temptation to violence. We could extrapolate from the notion that “the first casualty of war is truth” to conclusions about the inherent falsehood human violence entails. “Violence is our surest means of securing ourselves. Subduing, suppressing, oppressing, the other is the way in which we obtain safety.” The commitment to making things right through violence and war is already deceived. As in war, truth is already a casualty in commitment to violence. Those who turn to violence have come upon the scene too late, as the course is already determined and the path of violence is already set. Too much water under the bridge or roots already set have predetermined how things must be settled. This is a historical reality but also a psychological reality, which if drawn together can provide explanation as to why peace is a frontier condition – a place of supposed naiveté or a place outside the city gates – continually threatened with realism and settlement.


[1] John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (p. 269). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Yoder, 254-255.

[3] “War” by Ralph Waldo Emerson; quoted in Yoder, 275-276.

[4] Yoder, 262.

[5] Churches of God in North America [Winebrenner] From The Faith and Practice of the Church of God, 1829. http://www.pentecostalpacifism.com/home/services/holiness-pacifist-groups/church-of-god-gc/

[6] See the Mennonite publication Direction and the long lack of unity as regards nonresistance. https://directionjournal.org/47/2/complicated-history-of-anabaptist.html.