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Introducing the Course on Sin and Salvation

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

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

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

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

This problem is compounded with the conversion of Constantine (under whom violence is still equated with sin, but is now allowed) and the developments of Augustinianism (dualism, original sin, etc., which make violence inevitable) which feed into Anselm’s rational theology (the ground of a violent atonement), culminating in Lutheranism and Calvinism (giving rise to penal substitution and endorsement of state violence). It becomes nearly impossible to begin with a positive theology of atonement without deconstructing this error. To state the situation most darkly, a mistranslation (of Ro 5:12) gives rise to sin as a mystery – and this nonsensical notion gives rise to an equally mysterious and nonsensical notion of salvation (divine satisfaction and penal substitution) and an entire system which, in each of its parts, has nothing to do with New Testament Christianity. Total depravity of the entire race gives rise to unconditional election – divine fiat that cannot be penetrated with any insight. This cannot include all (limited atonement) and all of this is built on a flattening out and rendering irrelevant of human will and action (irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints). Where Christ is removed from the center it is questionable if what survives can be called Christianity.

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

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

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

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

(Apply for the course, Sin and Salvation: An in-depth study of sin and salvation with a focus on the meaning of the atonement (2022/1/31–2022/3/25) here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/student-applications/new)


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

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

Decoding Your Matrix: Are you ready for the Real?

This is a guest blog by Tyler Sims.

It is 2022 and an opportunity to start the year off with some puzzling questions.

Did you watch Matrix Resurrections? Watching the film created questions for me.  I am quite curious about my downloading, processing and uploading of this multifaceted existence.

What reality is being created around you? 

What do you see unfolding in the world? 

How  do you view God in relation to you? Is God here, there, within?

What is r/Reality?

Think for a moment. Feel into your answers. Sense the beat of your heart. The feeling of your gut. How you answer these questions– including their countless offspring –shapes your reality. You are the “processor” forming your reality.

Jesus was a subversive-peaceable agent undermining the regional matrix of His day. He helped people question their experience of Reality and realize the importance of subjective perception. The distinction is key. Subjective perception plays a crucial role in how a person creates their particular reality–lowercase r reality.

Much of Jesus’ work was helping people perceive through the matrix as in Matthew 6. 22: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”

The experience of the external world, your reality of God, your reality of yourself is up to you. This creating of reality unfolds presently as you think, feel and sense the world around and within you.

How can this be? You might ask, “Am I omnipotent?” One thing is for sure your perception is potent. More potent, more powerful than you have been taught to understand. You have indwelling power in you to create your reality and influence Reality. 

Do you believe it? How does it feel to state, “someone else creates my reality.”? How does it feel to claim, “I create my reality.”?

It is the Matrix programs of various societal structures that teach you otherwise. The government, news media, technocracy and co-opted religious institutions regularly upload programming into your “operating system” and influence your processing. 

The message you hear is, “Reality is out of control. Be afraid. Exchange your freedom for the security of consolidated power.” In other words, “You do not create your reality. We-the powers that be-create reality.”

Thus, the Empire claims that only might creates reality. Meanwhile, religious bodies teach of creating reality as God’s business not man’s. Fittingly, the American Matrix uses Romans 13 as proof text for the blessed metaphysical union of the Empire and God’s people. Thus, placing individual and community based reality-creating out of reach. In regards to what’s perceived to be real,  the teeth have been removed from the lion so to speak.

Institutionalized church steps in and teaches God’s metaphysical powers and divine will are beyond and above human agency. God’s reality-creating Spirit is approached more as a gentle-lullabye to be conjured at one’s whim through worship songs and morning devotions. 

Again, ignoring the embodied power within a reconciled and awakened humanity. The more fully integrated people are seen in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul described them as both BEing the body of Christ and BEcoming the temple of the Spirit. How did creative power and responsibility feel to Ephesians? How did this creative empowerment change everything for the group of people at Ephesus?

Reality-creating empowerment is absolutely subversive to Matrix dogma. It is what got Jesus noticed by the Judeo-Roman matrix and crucified. He claimed to be One with God and He actively created the kingdom of God via communities. Jesus was not passive with his identity as Son of God and he encouraged fellow humans to accept the power of their divine connection to God. For example , in John 17:21 “that all of them may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I am in You. May they also be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me . Jesus challenged the matrix by more than his words. He embodied reality-creating-power. Jesus felt it in his being. He claimed it.

Jesus was response-able and creative with his Power. How many people are responding with the embodied, felt empowerment of creating? Perhaps this is why the Earth is moaning in the 21st century waiting for the awakening of humans as reality-creating Children of God (Romans 8).

Instead of passively viewing matrix systems wield their power, creative agents respond. Wide eyed (Matthew 6:22) and reconciled humans are those who claim their Divine lineage of co-creating. Consider, Jesus’ blessing: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). They create realities of a peaceable world with every step.  How? Through BEing holistically united with God and embodying the movement of the Spirit. They see and feel what is Real. This is the sort of empowered exploration the matrix abhors.

How do you and I start feeling the reality-creating power of BEing within Spirit?

How powerful is it to take responsibility for creating your reality? How does it impact Reality?

This is exactly the power of individuals waking up to being embodied in God as a participant. 

Wake up to being descendants of  the Father/Creator.

Wake up to being constantly unified through the  Spirit . 

Wake up to being the flesh of God through the body of Christ. 

As a member of the Body of Christ, claim your power. “My business is my Father’s business.” Start creating reality. Connect your creative desire with the Spirit. Claim God’s power in your being. Do not be sheepish about your creative power. After all Jesus said, ““Truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do. And he will do even greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. John 14:12”

Some might claim radical creating is idolatry–as Jesus often heard.

But what if idolatry is sitting passive and letting the Matrix-agents  proliferate illusion and inequality?

What if it is time to become an awakened agent of creating reality? 

Now, what r/Reality will you help create?

Quilting Points Versus Being Clothed in Christ

Maybe it is, as Adam Philips has noted, that the most important fact about us is that we are born helpless, totally dependent upon others.[1] As Freud noted, the child’s experience of hunger, separation, and excitation is overwhelming and the drive to gain control marks all of human life.[2] We begin as helpless, overwhelmed by the chaos of uncontrollable emotions and desires, and we would hold together by attaching ourselves to defenses against this condition. Identity (individual and corporate) serves this purpose, and it is out of the web of associations (means of cohering), large and small that we attempt to ward off fear. Total vulnerability gives rise to pursuit of total invulnerability or total mastery. Being subject gives rise to the drive to subject. What the world offers is various means of quilting together the fabric of our lives so as to resist the continual threat of unravelling.

Jacques Lacan captures this process in his notion of the quilting point, which attempts to explain how the historical and social reality one inhabits become subjectivized. Contained within his explanation there is a picture of a two-fold process explaining how the social world becomes comprehensible and how I become comprehensible to myself, having an identity or unity as one experiencing the world. It is not as if the social world offers meaning that coheres differently than the individual, but both come to bear the semblance of coherence through the same process.

As Slavoj Žižek explains it, the quilting point sutures the field of the signifier (the sign, language, etc.) and the signified (what the word indicates), but in the Lacanian frame, these are not really two realms apart, as “the signifier falls into the signified.” That is the word or name seems to suture together a realm of disparate things by being included or counted as a thing itself. Žižek captures this in a series of jokes: “Socialism is the synthesis of the highest achievements of all previous historical epochs: from tribal society, it took barbarism, from Antiquity, it took slavery, from feudalism, it took relations of domination, from capitalism, it took exploitation, and from socialism, it took the name.” That is the name, in the old Polish anti-communist joke, stitches together things that should not be held together and do so only in sharing the name. So too with the anti-Semitic image of the Jew: “From the rich bankers, it took financial speculation, from capitalists, it took exploitation, from lawyers, it took legal trickery, from corrupt journalists, it took media manipulation, from the poor, it took indifference towards hygiene, from sexual libertines it took promiscuity, and from the Jews it took the name.”[3] The point of the joke is precisely the quilting point – these things do not really hold together but are contradictory and disparate and are given the appearance of holding together through the name.

Maybe it can be stated even more sharply in that the contradiction inherent to the quilting point is not simply conveniently covered over but is necessary (the force) to the internal (il)logic of the system. From out of the chaos arises unity, not because there is any actual coherence but because the world threatens and this very threat or violence must be tamed. The entry into a coherent or unified understanding, the ability to name and control the chaos, depends upon the continual threat of the chaos. That is, the unity that we would impose on the world is a desperate fiction in which our own survival is at stake. Whether it is the child gazing in the mirror and arriving at the imagined I by means of which it will hold all of the appetites, desires, and urges at bay, or the Nazi who needs the Jew to give a focal point to threat and control by which his world holds together.  

The Germans, for example, after the defeat of WW I arrived at the singular explanation which would give new life to the nation: “following their ‘undeserved’ military defeat, the German people were disoriented, thrown into a situation of economic crisis, political inefficiency, and moral degeneration— and the Nazis offered a single agent which accounted for it all: the Jew, the Jewish plot.”[4] So too the world of the white racist is given coherence through the black other, the post 9/11 American nationalist requires the Muslim other, but so too every identity depends primarily on a quilting point. Nothing new is added by the name, but now this nothing (the meaningless signifier) unites disparate features and properties into a singular thing – the name. So ultimately the signifier is the signified. The sign is reified so that it functions as an actually existing object, when in reality it is a forced fictional unity. But beginning with the child’s earliest reflexive identity, isn’t this always the role assigned to language?

As in René Girard’s scapegoating theory, the scapegoat is perceived to contain both the disruptive element to the culture or tribe, but then upon being sacrificed, the group coheres around the sacralized scapegoat/victim who has warded off danger (the very danger he bore) and brought about unity. The scapegoat functions as a master signifier, simultaneously containing and holding at bay a perceived chaos. In post Christian society, in which the scapegoat mechanism is no longer effective, the chosen trauma and chosen glory, in the description of Vamik Volkan, does not fold into a singular person or group but the same process is at work.

In a real or perceived past event, in which a group suffered loss or experienced helplessness and humiliation at the hands of a neighboring group, this trauma may become the “trauma of choice” – the shared traumatic event marking a people and linking them together. In Lacanian terms, the chosen trauma is a quilting point, inseparable from group identity, and leaders may call upon the trauma, reactivating it during times of conflict or crisis. For example, “Czechs commemorate the battle of Bila Hora in 1620 which led to their subjugation under the Hapsburg Empire for nearly 300 years. Scots keep alive the story of the battle of Culloden in 1746 and the failure of Bonnie Prince Charlie to restore a Stuart to the throne. The Lakota Indians of the United States recall the anniversary of their decimation at Wounded Knee in 1890, and Crimean Tatars define themselves by the collective suffering of their deportation from Crimea in 1944.”[5]

The idea behind calling upon the trauma in times of conflict is to legitimate inflicting suffering on those (or their stand ins) who have caused the trauma. “Remember the Alamo” became the rallying cry for slaughter of Mexicans. On the other hand, September 11th is justification for the slaughter of a people that had nothing to do with the event. The Jewish Holocaust is justification for Israeli slaughter of Palestinians. The Serbs’ chosen trauma, the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, was the rallying cry connected to the atrocities in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The bombing of a military installation at Pearl Harbor, would result in the firebombing of Tokyo and the complete devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Likewise, the Nazi slaughter of civilians would result in the allies also targeting civilian populations. Through the twisted illogic of trauma as a node of identity, there is an intrinsic clinging to the perceived “necessity” of making the other suffer. In Girardian terms, a country takes on the look of its enemy in a large-scale mimesis.

By the same token, large groups have ritualistic recollections of shared success or triumph which function as chosen glories. According to Volkan, “Past victories in battle and great accomplishments of a technical or artistic nature frequently appear as chosen glories; virtually every large group (i.e., ethnic) has tales of grandeur associated with its creation.”[6] As with chosen trauma, chosen glory may be recent or ancient, real or mythological, but it also serves to bind groups together. Though chosen trauma and chosen glory cannot neatly fold into a singular scapegoat, nonetheless it is clear the two are tied together. The humiliation of Pearl Harbor and German aggression is integral to the notion of the “good war” and the “greatest generation”; “taxation without representation” is tied to the Boston Tea Party and George Washington triumphantly crossing the Delaware; the destruction of the Twin Towers and the killing of Osama bin Laden, are inextricably tied together. The chosen trauma gives substance and justification to the chosen glory.

This is not to suggest that character and personality are simply a by-product of this process, but the quilting point (a master signifier) or a shared trauma and shared glory provide the material (the quilt, or in Volkan’s terminology, the tent) from out of which we cover or clothe ourselves. We find ourselves as parts of large groups in which the nation, tribe, and extended family are determinate. Individually, we may think of career or artistic or athletic ability as unique to our identity, but what holds us together on a larger scale is incorporation into a shared core identity. While one might lose their job, their spouse, their talent or athletic ability, when one loses this core identity there is complete decomposition into what Volkan calls “psychological death.” The result may be schizophrenia, total anxiety and terror, or escape into a new core identity. One must be clothed with an identity, as to be unclothed is intolerable.

Genesis depicts this unclothed trauma, this shame, as an experience of death. The first couple deploy language (the knowledge of good and evil) as something like a quilting point (a new master signifier), deploying signs as if they could provide identity (God-likeness). So far as we know this is the condition of their offspring. Not that they bear some Augustinian Original Sin, but they pass on to their offspring the clothing problem and the language problem, as is evidenced in the psychopathic killers of the generation of Noah and the Babelites. This attempt to quilt a new cover gives rise, not only to their own experience of death, but to a series of murders and eventually to a chaos of signifiers.

The only resolution to this clothing problem and language problem, in Scripture, is the depiction of being clothed in the Word of Christ. In one of the final scenes of the Bible, the Messiah or rider on the white horse, comes with a new form of clothing.  “He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God (Re 19:13). The language problem, the clothing problem, and the inherent violence involved are addressed by the Word who provides each of his followers new clothing: “And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses” (Re 19:14).

Could it be that the story of redemption is this: the recognition of the failed quilting point, the chosen traumas and chosen glories out of which we would fabricate a violent identity, and that in the recognition we are simultaneously provided an alternative Word and identity so as to clothe ourselves in the garments of peace?  


[1] Joan Acocella, “This Is Your Life: A psychoanalytic writer urges us to just deal with it.” The New Yorker (February 17, 2013), https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/02/25/this-is-your-life-2

[2] See Simone Drichel, “Reframing Vulnerability: ‘so obviously the problem…’?” in SubStance, Volume 42, Number 3, 2013 (Issue 132), pp. 3-27. https://www.otago.ac.nz/english-linguistics/otago596051.pdf

[3] Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 13288-13300). Norton. Kindle Edition.

[4] Žižek, 13307-13311.

[5] Vamık D. Volkan “Transgenerational Transmissions and ‘Chosen Trauma’: An Element of Large-Group Identity” (Opening Address XIII International Congress International Association of Group Psychotherapy August, 1998),

[6] Volkan, Psychopolitical Concepts, Paper presented at the European Association of Transcultural Analysis Workshop, Budapest- May 25-28, 2006. https://www.academia.edu/24667252/PSYCHOPOLITICAL_CONCEPTS

Centering Prayer: A Door into the Trinity and Beyond Self

This is a guest blog by David Rawls.

In this blog I will be presenting a method of praying which helps us to better access the Trinity in our prayer lives.  Whereas many approach the topic of Trinity and prayer from a theological position, I plan to avoid an exegesis of such terms. It is my hope to provide a rarely used tool called centering prayer, which I believe can help us enter into the Holy Trinity.  The Apostle Paul may have had in mind centering prayer when he wrote Romans 8:26-27: “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.  And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”

Centering prayer by its very nature takes the focus off the one praying and seeks to focus on the Trinity.  Sarah Coakley believes this type of prayer, found in Romans 8, is a way in which a believer yields to the Spirit which then allows the Spirit to direct toward what is most important.  She says, “prayer at its deepest is God’s, not ours, and takes the pray-er beyond any normal human language or rationality of control.”[1]  Simply put praying in this manner is a way in which we listen and God talks.  Bruce Demarest further suggests that the goal is “to permit the Holy Spirit to activate the life-giving Word of God.”[2]

So, what is centering prayer?  Thomas Keating defines it as “a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship.”[3] So what are the practical ways to foster this discipline?  Here are a few practical steps which come from Michael Frost’s book Surprise the World.

Eliminate Distractions

Frost suggests that listening to the Holy Spirit is not an easy task.  One must seek to eliminate anything which might be a distraction.  It is important to avoid things which might interfere with your contemplative time.  Sights, sounds, smells and even taste can become a hindrance to listening to the Holy Spirit.  The quieter the place where you will be praying the better to eventually hear the Holy Spirit.  Matthew 6:6 reminds us from Jesus’ prayer that one should go into their room or closet.  The idea is that one needs to remove distractions.  Frost suggests that finding a comfortable position is essential.  This of course will depend on a person’s preferences.  He also suggests that if you clasp your hands together so that they are not moving it will make you less aware of them while you listen.  Closing your eyes is also important as it helps keep light out and helps us focus simply on God.  Personally, I have been trying this method at intervals of 10 minutes but Frost suggests 20 minutes or more, as he believes something happens many times 10 to 15 minutes into your quiet time.

Let God In

It becomes important that as you start in contemplative prayer time that you do not begin by asking questions or telling the Holy Spirit what you want.  The goal is simply to enjoy God’s presence.  Rather than controlling the Holy Spirit you are wanting the Holy Spirit to control you.  Frost says that we will be tempted at times to want the Holy Spirit to get to the point or to reveal what he wants.  If Coakley is correct, we need to believe prayer is not ours as much as it is God’s.  It is up to God to speak and reveal to us.  It is our job to let God in and have the place for him to do it.  Frost would say, simply let God’s love lavish you.  Phil Fox Rose says when we go into centering prayer it is important to “resist no thought; retain no thought; react to no thought.”[4]  Our minds are usually busy.  To simply not have any thoughts can be discouraging.  Frost suggests that we can help our minds by possibly saying things like,  “Amen, Abba, grace, love, peace and even let go.”  Ultimately, in centering prayer we let thoughts happen.  Frost says that the more we practice this discipline the more our thoughts will slow down so that we might hear the Holy Spirit.

Follow God’s Promptings

When we begin to quiet ourselves we may start to hear promptings which God gives us.  These promptings can be missional in nature.  God may place on our minds a person we need to see or talk to or even revisit.  The Spirit may prompt us to help someone in need.  Is it possible that when the Apostle Paul received his Macedonian call he was using the centering method?  Certainly this fits Paul’s theology of Romans 8 where it seems the prayer life he promotes is focused more on listening rather than petitioning.  The prompting can also lead us to a sin for which we need to ask forgiveness, or changes we need to make in the form of repentance.  A God-prompting can also help in restoring relationships. Not every encounter will prompt us to do something.  It is likely that most promptings simply will be for us to experience God’s presence in our life.  In this manner, as we simply enjoy God, we can be certain that the Holy Spirit is groaning and interceding on our behalf (Romans 8:27).  This is by no means a secondary reaction but a way to be reminded and encouraged that God is alive and well and that we are loved by Him.  Frost says that this is a time when God can bring oxygen to the soul of the believer.

Centering prayer is a great tool for the believer to enter into the life of the Trinity and to be shaped by the Trinity.  Referring back to Romans 8, we find that this may be the way a believer can focus on the things of the Spirit and not on the flesh. Ultimately this is one of the themes of Romans 8.  This is the purpose of centering prayer.  It brings us directly into the Trinity.  We are no longer praying to a God “out there” but we enter into the very Godhead itself. Coakley describes it this way; “an act of cooperation with, and incorporation into, the still extending life of the incarnation.”  Centering prayer reminds us that as we pray to the Father, the Holy Spirit prays for us in words we don’t even know, to conform us into the likeness of Jesus.  This is our goal to be more like Jesus.


[1] Coakley, Sarah. God, Sexuality, and the Self (p. 115). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Bruce Demarest, Satisfy Your Soul, (Colorado Springs: Nav Press, 1999), p. 133

[3] http://www.centeringprayer.com/

[4] Phil Fox Rose, “Meditations for Christians,” On the Way, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/philfoxrose/meditation-for-christians/


 

“This is My Beloved Son Whom I Hate”: How Modern Evangelicals Have Come to Preach a Different Gospel

There is a compelling logic that unfolds from John Calvin’s penal substitution that goes beyond even where Calvin would take it. As I have argued (here), it is Calvin that creates the full formulation of the doctrine known as penal substitution, bringing together the notion of Jesus bearing eternal punishment in hell, innovating on the Apostles Creed and I Peter 3:18-22, tying the punishment of Gehenna to the chastisement of Isaiah 53, and then moving both of these passages to the context of the trial and punishment of Jesus. Calvin may not have felt the full weight or compelling nature of his innovation, as he will continue to provide orthodox readings of passages such as Psalm 22, quoted by Jesus on the cross and describing being forsaken by God and being reduced to a worm. But among his followers there are those who are willing to apply Calvin’s doctrine more consistently than their master.

In some Calvinist extrapolations, Jesus is pictured as being not only forsaken by God but the object of God’s hatred. As Dr. Abner Chou describes the significance of Jesus’ death: “In that death the wrath of God was poured out on Christ, and the darkness exploded. In that instant God cursed Jesus, putting Him in a position of absolute, perfect hatred. God hated Him and desired to make Him nothing.”[1] Dan Allender and Tremper Longman propose that, “God chose to violate His Son in our place. The Son stared into the mocking eyes of God; He heard the laugher of the Father’s derision and felt Him depart in disgust. . . . In a mysterious instant, the Father who loved the Son from all eternity turned from Him in hatred. The Son became odious to the Father.”[2] As Tim Keller put it on Facebook (and quickly revised, due to subsequent criticism), “If you see Jesus losing the infinite love of the Father, out of his infinite love for you, it will melt your hardness.”[3]

Even devout believers in penal substitution such as Joshua Farris and Mark Hamilton (from whom I have gleaned these quotes), realize there is an unfolding logic to the doctrine in modern evangelicalism that amounts to a different version of the Gospel:

From the academy, to the pulpit, to the pew, for those who affirm that the Son made atonement by being hated by the Father— albeit temporarily—Christianity has a new message, the simple logic of which goes like this. “The Son became sin; the Father cannot look upon sin without hatred; The Son willingly took our place of condemnation—and for an instant the Son bore the fury of God.”[4]

They raise the question and answer in the affirmative, “Is this the new logical deposit of an all-new dogmatic inheritance for American evangelicals? Some seem poised to accept it as such.”

While Farris and Hamilton want to extract penal substitution from the unfolding logic of the time, perhaps they have not realized the full weight of the logic of Calvin’s doctrine. Eternal wrath in hell as the focus of Christ’s saving work, with Christ becoming the object of wrath, seems to entail “the new logical deposit.” Those who are teaching what Farris and Hamilton dub the “Christus Odium” version of penal substitution, are drawing out the logic of Calvin’s original notion. That is, Calvin (certainly influenced by and extrapolating from Luther) created the context for a fully odious gospel that has been unfolding since he formulated it.[5]

With each innovation in atonement theory there seems to be an accompanying sociological shift. Just as Anselm works out his notion that it is God’s honor that is offended in a feudal society (very much concerned with honor), so too the reformers stressed the juridical, evident in their focus on Christ bearing the punishment of the law. Luther is concerned to point out “how horribly blind and wicked the papists were” in teaching that “sin, death, and the curse” could be conquered by “the righteousness of human works, such as fasts, pilgrimages, rosaries, vows, etc.” rather than “by the righteousness of the divine Law.”[6] Though Luther recognizes the Law has no power to save, he sees the Law of Moses as regulating the necessity of salvation: “a magistrate regards someone as a criminal and punishes him if he catches him among sinners and thieves” and “Christ was not only found among sinners” but due to the will of the Father and his own free will he “assumed the flesh and blood of those who were sinners” and “when the Law found Him among thieves, it condemned and executed Him as a thief.”

Luther becomes woodenly literal in understanding how Christ became sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and a curse (Galatians 3:13) which accords with the notion that God momentarily hated him. He says Christ is, “the greatest robber of all, the greatest murderer, adulterer and thief; the greatest desecrator of temples and blasphemer; the world has seen none greater than this.” He describes Christ taking on eternal punishment in his commentary, but he first describes the nature of this punishment as flowing from human evil: “He took upon Himself and abolished all our evils, which were supposed to oppress and torment us eternally.” He draws back from the sort of split he finds in Calvin’s explanation of the two natures of Christ, and depicts a more coherent unified fulness of deity in Christ:

the curse clashes with the blessing and wants to damn it and annihilate it. But it cannot. For the blessing is divine and eternal, and therefore the curse must yield to it. For if the blessing in Christ could be conquered, then God Himself would be conquered. But this is impossible. Therefore Christ, who is the divine Power, Righteousness, Blessing, Grace, and Life, conquers and destroys these monsters—sin, death, and the curse—without weapons or battle, in His own body and in Himself, as Paul enjoys saying (Col. 2:15): “He disarmed the principalities and powers, triumphing over them in Him.” Therefore they can no longer harm the believers.

Calvin and his followers would disagree with Luther, claiming Christ was damned and that he bore the full weight of the curse which is also eternal. Though both Calvin and Luther subscribe to several images and theories of atonement, both rely heavily on Anselm’s satisfaction theory and both translate satisfaction of debt into payment of punishment under the law. They share reliance on the metaphor of the criminal justice system in their theology (the apprehension and punishment of the guilty) and the presumption is that Christ became the sin that God hates (though Luther’s failing and grace may have been his inconsistency).[7] But it is Calvin’s innovation, his notion of penal substitution, that wipes away the relative significance of any other theory.

There is nothing more logically weighty than substitution for eternal torturous punishment, in which God’s wrath takes on the singular hue of eternal white-hot destruction (how can this not be hatred?). Thus, mere finite imagery and categories, such as those found in ransom theory and Christus Victor (still to be found in Calvin), will be gradually displaced in his most influential followers for focus on penal substitution. John McArthur, for example, concludes that any theory other than penal substitution is false (listing theories such as ransom theory and Christus Victor).[8]

There is a gradual and logical whittling down of other theories as penal substitution takes center stage through George Whitefield,[9] Jonathan Edwards,[10] Charles Hodge, and into modern times with J. I. Packer, John Piper,[11] D. A. Carson, and John McArthur. What evolves in these thinkers is the central weight that must be given to penal substitution, even when there is acknowledgement of other theories. It is inevitable that penal substitution be given central focus, more than Calvin gave it, as it bears a logical eternal weight that diminishes all finitudes (death, the devil, sin, evil). For Packer, this doctrine is the distinguishing mark of evangelicals, “namely the belief that the cross had the character of penal substitution, and that it was in virtue of this fact that it brought salvation to mankind.” He believes penal substitution “takes us to the very heart of the Christian gospel.”[12] For McArthur, “The doctrine of penal substitution is the only view that incorporates the full range of biblical principles regarding atonement for sin.”[13] As Carson puts it, “if one begins with the centrality of penal substitution, which is . . .  grounded on a deep understanding of how sin is an offense against God, it is very easy to see how all the other so-called “models” of the atonement are related to it.”[14] For Carson, penal substitution provides internal coherence to the gospel, bringing all the theories together. “In other words, it is easy to show how various biblical emphases regarding the atonement cohere if one begins with penal substitution. It is very difficult to establish the coherence if one begins anywhere else.”[15] Of course he is correct (assuming penal substitution is the case), as all other theories pale into insignificance next to penal substitution. In light of being saved from eternal torturous wrath, mere finitudes such as death, the devil, sin, and evil, (the actual focus of the New Testament) must take second place.

What Farris and Hamilton miss is that the “Christus Odium,” the new gospel of divine wrath and hatred, is simply the final step entailed in Calvin’s innovation.[16]

(If you are interested in pursuing this topic further sign up for our class on the atonement with PBI starting at the end of January.)


[1] https://www.adamsetser.com/blog/2015/7/25/the-big-picture-of-gods-mission-a-concise-over[1]view-of-the-entire-bible-by-dr-abner-chou. [June 19, 2018] Quoted from Joshua R. Farris & S. Mark Hamilton, “This is My Beloved Son, Whom I hate? A Critique of the Christus Odium Variant of Penal Substitution” (Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies, Volume 3, Issue 2).

[2] Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman, In the Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions About God (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, [1999] 2015), pp. 184-85. Quoted from Farris and Hamilton.

[3] https://calvinistinternational.com/2017/07/27/tim-keller-the-cross-and-the-love-of-god/ From Farris and Hamilton

[4] Ibid, Farris and Hamilton

[5] Farris and Hamilton almost acknowledge that the origins of penal substitution are with Calvin: “Despite some recent and rather awkward attempts to forge a genetic link between contemporary evangelical articulations of this doctrine and the Fathers and Medieval Schoolmen, proponents of the penal substitution theory ought to be cautious when looking for the origin of this theory not to look much beyond the Reformation, particularly John Calvin.”

[6] This quote and the following from Luther are from Martin Luther, On Galatians 3:13 (Luther’s Works 27.276-291). The commentary on Galatians 3:13 is quoted in full on the website https://wolfmueller.co/did-martin-luther-claim-that-jesus-was-an-adulterer/

[7] This is the way Joel B. Green and Mark Baker characterize it in Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000) 142.

[8] John McArthur, “The Offense of the Cross,” From his website,  Grace to You,  (Wednesday, February 10, 2021), https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B210210/the-offense-of-the-cross

[9] George Whitefield for example, probably the most famous religious figure of the eighteenth century, with newspapers referring to him as the “marvel of the age,” and who is estimated to have reached an audience of some 10 million hearers, would focus on penal substitution. (From Christian History, published by Christianity Today https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/evangelistsandapologists/george-whitefield.html)  In his Sermon entitled “Of Justification by Christ” (1771-1772a), Whitefield emphasizes the need for penal substitution. 

 “he [God] hath also given us both a natural and a written law, whereby we are to be judged and that each of us hath broken these laws, is too evident from our sad and frequent experience. And if we are thus offenders against God, it follows, that we stand in need of forgiveness for thus offending Him; he demands our obedience to that law, and has obliged us universally and perseveringly to obey it, under no less a penalty than incurring his curse and eternal death for every breach of it unless some means can be found to satisfy God’s justice, we must perish eternally.”

George Whitefield, 1771-1772a. Sermon 46: Of Justification by Christ. In The Works of the Reverend George Whitefield, Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics Website, http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe= Quoted from WOOD, MAXWELL,THOMAS (2011) Penal Substitution in the Construction of British Evangelical Identity: Controversies in the Doctrine of the Atonement in the Mid-2000s, 76, Durham theses, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/3260/

[10] It was Jonathan Edwards who may have most colorfully and successfully spread Calvin’s version of penal substitution, with his focus on being saved from the torments of hell as in his sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Where even Whitefield refers to eternal death, Edwards makes death and the grave a refuge from the eternal torturous hell of divine punishment. “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire.”

[11] Prior to the atonement he says, “God was not my Father. He was my judge and executioner.”

[12] J.I. Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution” The Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture, 1973. https://www.the-highway.com/cross_Packer.html     

[13] McArthur, Ibid.

[14] D. A. Carson, The SBJT Forum: The Atonement under Fire, https://s3.amazonaws.com/tgc-documents/carson/2007_forum_penal_substitution.pdf

[15] Carson, Ibid.

[16] Which in no way denies the lineage of missteps that can be traced from Augustine, Anselm, Scotus, and Luther, which lead to Calvin.

The Lure of Death Defeated in Christ

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

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

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

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

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

Subsequent to Augustine’s mistaken reading of Romans 5:12, both sin and salvation, disconnected as they are from death, have been mystified. Augustine’s misinterpretation makes nonsense of Paul’s explanation of the propagation of sin through death and, as a result, in the history of the Western church, sin’s propagation is a mystery. In Paul’s explanation, it is the reign of death which accounts for the spread of sin and not vice versa. Interwoven throughout Romans 5 is the universally observable truth that death reigns (“death spread to all men” v. 12; “death reigned” v. 14; “the many died” v. 15; “death reigned through the one” v. 17; “as sin reigned in death” v. 21). As Paul concludes in verse 21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way around. This then lays the foundation for explaining why the death of Christ addresses the problem of sin. Christ exposes the lie of sin; he exposes the lie of death as empty of the sham promise of transcendence.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Augustine imagines Christ saying:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[5] Beattie, 102.

[6] In Bettenson, Documents, 51.

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

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

[9] Quoted from Beattie, 102.

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

God With Us: The Shattering of the “Idea of God” and Discovery of His Presence

“My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? … And most are offended by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not.” CS Lewis[1]

Last night we finished a course on the Holy Spirit through PBI, and each of the participants (all seasoned pastors and theologians) described experiencing (at some point in their lives but reappreciated in our time together) something on the order of what Lewis describes as the shattering of former ideas and the realization of God’s presence in the realms of marriage, fatherhood, friendship, prayer and ultimately every order of being. The class brought home the recognition that centering, contemplative prayer opens a continual awareness of divine activity pervading our world. We are so attuned, in this secular age, to a disenchanted mechanical universe (the “God-forsakenness” of the world in Charles Taylor’s description) that it takes conscious effort to wake up to the endless iconic nature of the world. In continually looking for God to show-up, it may be we have missed the still small voice beckoning through friendship, contemplative prayer, and married love. The ordinary course of human suffering and love, the questions of a child, and even a rescued cat (continually present in class), testify, we realized, to the divine presence. The recognition requires a relinquishing of settled (limited) notions of God which then opens us to the unsettling realization of the pervasive presence of the Spirit.

The seeming tension between a settled idea of God and continually attempting to conjure up God’s presence are not opposed but consist of the same failure. To divinize an idea is to miss the enfleshed manner in which God comes to us. An “idea” is not enfleshed, it is not felt, it has no presence, and it gives no comfort but at the same time it offers no threat. Isaiah pictures Immanuel (God With Us) as shattering human ideas, human religion and human plans, precisely because they depend on death, darkness and absence. If the music is intense enough, the lights and smoke adjusted just right, and the medium is appealing, it may be that “whisperings and mutterings” may seem to conjure up God’s presence, but Isaiah warns the real thing shatters this conspiratorial belief system.

Mathew announces that Christ as Immanuel brings about this shattering presence of God, and it is Israel and her institutions who will stumble over God With Us. But is Jesus the same one who “will sweep into Judah” and “fill the breadth of your land”? Is God With Us on the order of water which “will overflow and pass through” reaching “even to the neck” and is it his metaphorical wings which will cover the land (Isaiah 8:8)? Mathew also quotes Isaiah to say the Messiah is one who will cause no disturbance: “He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope” (Mt 12:19–21, ESV). How will he bring about a revolutionary justice and provide universal hope without causing a disturbance? How is it that from the womb of a humble peasant girl, as a baby in a manger, working in a carpenter’s shop, teaching a few disciples for three years, and dying on an implement of torture reserved for slaves, Christ changes the world order?

God With Us in the womb, in ordinary life, on a cross, and in the resurrection has, in Irenaeus image, recapitulated all things, so that the world is opened to Trinitarian fellowship. Hans Urs von Balthasar describes Christ as convening a “cosmic liturgy” as he has opened up the world to divine love: “the essence of all being has become visible in Jesus Christ” who reveals the Father, as “a wellspring of reciprocal love.”[2] The fellowship of friends, the love of marriage, the birth of a child, and quiet meditation bear the presence of Immanuel. As Julian of Norwich pictures it, “everything is penetrated, in length and breadth, in height and in depth without end; and it is all one love.”[3]

Many of us have tended, perhaps due to the combined influence of modernity and patriarchal religion, toward a settled idea of God. A static God, a stale theology, a world emptied of the grandeur of God, passes over the unsettling dynamic of God With Us. The incarnation opens to us the interdependent relations of the Trinity, and the fact that Jesus displays the dependence of an infant upon his mother, the dependence of a child on his parents, dependence upon other people’s generosity (e.g., the wealthy women who provided him support), and just the basic human dependence on culture, demonstrates an interdependent reality on a continuum that extends into the Trinity. To be dependent on God and others or to be an interdependent part of a community is part of the mediating reality of knowing God. In Jesus we see the divine in every area of human life: his healing touch, his thirst, his sorrow at death, his love of children, and his tiredness, are mediating realities in which he is known as “I am.” This relational understanding of God revealed in Christ is not a departure from the “I am that I am” revealed to Moses, but its completion; the fulfillment that goes ahead into Egypt and the world.

The Bible knows nothing of the Unmoved Mover but pictures God in dynamic interpersonal relationships such as deliverer, father, mother, husband, beloved, companion, friend, advocate, liberator, king, and judge. God is interpersonal relatedness and this reality extends to his relationship to the world. The God of the Bible gets his hands dirty shaping earth (adamah) into his likeness. Rather than God being unmoved, unoccupied, and settled he is pictured as a shepherd, farmer, laundress, construction worker, potter, midwife, physician, baker, artist, writer, nurse, and homemaker, busily going about the tasks which occupy people and in which we can recognize his activity. Far from an uninvolved patriarch or distant king, God is pictured as giving birth, nursing the young, and is particularly concerned with children, the poor and the weak. The world is alive with the activity and grandeur of God but it may be that the idea of God blinds us to the reality. The Bible points to the constellations, the wonders of nature, the constancy of the seasons, as bearing the fingerprint of God. A she bear protecting her cubs, a mother hen hovering over her chicks, the work of ants, the stealth of the badger, the fragility of birds or even inanimate objects such as running water, light, fire, rocks, or clouds point us to his presence and activity.[4]

Elizabeth Johnson lists the variety of names in the Mishnah as a further example of the dynamic identity of God. In this post-biblical Jewish usage he is the Living God, Friend of the World, Mighty One, Searcher of Hearts, the One who knows the thoughts of all, Lord of Consolations, Height of the World, Eye of the World, Life of the World, Beloved, the One who dwells in hidden places, the Heart of Israel, the One who understands, the One who spoke and the world was, Justice of the World, Home of the World, Rock of the World, the Holy One, Holy Spirit, the One who hears, Peace of the World, Strong One, Merciful One.

In the spirit of Paul on the Areopagus referencing an idol to the “unknown god,” God may also be approached through the myriad of names and activities found in traditional religions: Alone the Great One, the Powerful One, Wise One, Shining One, the One who sees all, the One who is everywhere, Friend, the Greatest of Friends, the One you confide your troubles to, the One who can turn everything upside down, the One there from ancient times, the One who began the forest, the One who gives to all, the Rain-giver, Highest of the Highest, Unknown, Queen of Heaven whose glory shines in mist and rainbow, Great Spirit, Great One of the Sky, Protector of the Poor, Guardian of Orphans, the Chief, the Almighty, Watcher of everything, Owner of everything, Savior of all, the One who loves, who gives birth to the people, who rules, who makes children, who embraces all; the One who does not die, who has not let us down yet, who bears the world, who has seen many moons, who thunders from far-off times, who carries everyone on her back, who is heard in all the world; the One who blesses. The world knows something of the God revealed in Christ, and just as Christ reappropriates and gives new meaning to the Hebrew names for God, he appropriates and fulfills human expectations of an ultimate interpersonal reality.

There is not one settled concept which is adequate for God but what is required is an inexhaustible variety of names and concepts which allow for a dynamic unfolding of the divine reality. Even “Abba,” the name revealed by Christ, does not sum up or amass the Truth in one stroke. As expressed in the metaphor of Henri de Lubac, one can only keep afloat in knowing God in the way that a swimmer keeps afloat, through a continuous stroking of the water. As Johnson puts it, referencing de Lubac, “They are forever brushing aside the representations which are continually reforming, knowing full well that these support them, but that if they were to rest for a single moment they would sink.” As Aquinas notes, if you imagine you have understood God, then what you have understood is not God. [5]

Even the world (in all of its parts), which is open to understanding, seems to require infinite exploration and explanation. I spent some twenty years teaching scientists English in Tsukuba Science City in Japan, and among my students, one was spending his career studying the circulatory system of the silk worm, another was studying the genome of rice, another was a specialist in the human intestine. Several meteorologists passed through my classes and I discovered there are forest meteorologists, desert meteorologists, and those who specialize in ocean currents, but there was no accurate working model of world wide weather as the variables and factors are too great. Tsukuba boasted a small particle accelerator but it was well known that the subatomic world was proving bottomless and the only hope was for larger accelerators. There was no area of science, no matter how small its area of study, that was settled or finished. Just the opposite, the tiniest realm, to say nothing of the rapidly expanding universe, is proving to have infinite depth so that the world seems to consist of an endless number of, what Jason Baxter calls, finite infinities.

In Baxter’s explanation, there was a window between the 12th and 15th century, prior to the secular age but subsequent to the reign of Greek notions in which infinity was equated with incomprehension, in which beauty began to be experienced in terms of the infinite. Where classical philosophers strove to whittle down diffuseness to a tapered and simple whole (the One despite the plurality), the “Gothic aesthetic,” as Baxter dubs it, found a new point of analogy between the world and its maker in the infinite. Thierry of Chartres, for example, discussed how each creature potentially functioned as a mirror of God, with the world consisting of an infinite variety of mirrors reflecting one face: “Just as a single face, when casting its reflection off many mirrors, is still one” (Commentum super Boethii librum De Trinitate, II,48), so God looks at the world and history and sees his face reflected in an infinite number of mirrors. Nicholas of Cusa, in his treatise, On Searching for God, “tells a spiritual brother that the path to God is a paradoxical ascent accomplished by a descent into the world.” He deploys the mustard seed as an example, which grows into a tree which then drops thousands of seeds, each potentially becoming a tree such that “if its potential should be unfolded in actuality, this sensible world would not suffice, nor indeed, would ten or a thousand or all the worlds that one could count.” Nicholas then performs a thought experiment unfolding the infinity immediately available in the mind:

All capacity of the whole sensible word, and not only of this one world but also of an infinite number of worlds . . . How great a magnitude there is in our intellect! . . . through similar ascents, you will be able to ascend from the power of the millet seed and likewise from the power of all vegetable and animal seeds. The power of no seed is less than that of the mustard seed, and there are an infinite number of such seeds. Oh how great is our God, who is the actuality of all potency!

As Baxter notes, “That last part is important, because even if all the potentialities in every seed were unfolded into their infinities, the world would still be but a shadowy explication of God.” [6]

If we settle upon a static image, an idea, a limited whole, a distant and perhaps patriarchal notion of God, then we miss the iconic dynamic of God With Us in the boundless finite infinities. He is with us in creation, in history, in time, in the human circumstance, which mirrors his infinity. We can see him at work in the infinite depth of friendship, in the ever unfolding love of marriage and in the bottomless fellowship and relationship in the world all around us. Immanuel, in shattering the settled finite idols, offers up the infinite icon of the world as the mirror of his image.


(Thank you to Allan, Matt, David, Rob, Dan, Trenton, and Justin for exploring these possibilities together.)


[1] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (London: Faber, 1966), 52.

[2] Theo-Logic, III, 438.

[3] Julian of Norwich, Showings, trans. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 296-97; see Joan Nuth, Wisdom’s Daughter: The Theology of Julian of Norwich (New York: Crossroad Pub., 199 1). Quoted from Elizabeth Johnson, “Naming God She: The Theological Implications” (2000). Boardman Lectureship in Christian Ethics. 5. http://repository.upenn.edu/boardman/5

[4] See Johnson, Ibid.

[5] Henri De Lubac, Discovely of God, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: I?]. Kenedy, 1960), 120-2 1. Johnson, Ibid.

[6] Jason Baxter, “The Nine Billion Names of God” in Church Life Journal (December 8, 2021) https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-nine-billion-names-of-god/?fbclid=IwAR22nJYREsZNhrTDkBOusl2B6OjvVUK36tOFiBUKZl0bKD4qiIMrRxRgXbk

Abba – Father as Fulfillment of Cosmic Incorporation

“What is God to man, that is man’s own spirit, man’s own soul; what is man’s spirit, soul, and heart – that is his God. God is the manifestation of man’s inner nature, his expressed self; religion is the solemn unveiling of man’s hidden treasures, the avowal of his innermost thoughts, the open confession of the secrets of his love.” Ludwig Feuerbach – The Essence of Christianity

Ludwig Feuerbach’s notion that God is a projection of human values and needs is a key modern theme. Nietzsche maintains God and religion are a product of the resentments of the weak; Freud teaches us that God-language is really about sex; Marx teaches us that it is an instrument of economics, and Carl Schmitt teaches us that God-language is the structuring principle of the state. Psychoanalysis, atheism, Marxism (Communism and Socialism), fascism, and nationalism, all turn theology on its head, claiming that the theological and divine are really about the human.

The proper theological move is to turn theology back round by reclaiming secular insights: instead of God language being for the weak, weakness is really about God and how God comes to us; instead of God language really being about sex, sex is really about God – the erotic is not over and against agape love but is woven through it and indicates its proper end; instead of religion being an opiate to numb economic oppression, economics and economic justice is all about God; instead of allowing for the modern theory of state to occupy theological concepts and structures, the theological must challenge the sole sovereignty of the state.

This final point, Schmitt’s recognition of the sovereign as the exception which establishes the law and the order of state power, pinpoints the unified theme underlying all of these realms. In each instance, God was marked out as a point of exception, the means of escape, the point of oppression, a tool of legitimation, so that the transcendent concept of God came to occupy the supreme place of power, emptied out of immanent categories and these categories were then turned, in secularism, against his transcendence. “God is dead, and we have killed him,” is not an admission of defeat but a claim of power. The power of state, the power of sex, the power of money, the power of the human psyche, each unleashed from its sun have proven deadly and out of control. Capitalism, nationalism, the state as sovereign, sex as an identity, or simply the manipulation of psychic categories, each have claimed their own legitimating frame in pure power, but in their own way each realm has bottomed out. Which is to say God cannot simply be dropped back into the formula as a continued resource for exploitation. Inasmuch as the God of modern religion is a stop gap, a legitimating source for state power, the exception which establishes the law, the gold standard of capitalism, modern religion is atheistic in its practice.

To truly believe in the Trinitarian God, the Abba of Christ, and the Spirit of love, has economic, sexual, ascetical, psychoanalytic, political, and environmental requirements. God With Us, comes to us in and through the realms of the world and where deity has been evacuated from these realms both God and world are lost for us. Where there is no horizon beyond the economic, the sexual, the ascetic, the psychoanalytic, the political, and even the environmental, this becomes sole horizon. There is no proper ordering of these realms, no telos, but only a random groping as in each instance in money, in sex, in the psychoanalytic, etc. we live and move and have our being and this is not a realm apart or a distinct entity in our life but is our life. On the other hand, to picture God as accessible apart from these realms is not to elevate God, but is to demean him to a projection, an instrument, a justification, an opiate, an abstraction who leaves the world to our power.

The point is not that we understand God on the basis of the categories of the world but the categories of the world are mediated to us on the basis of our understanding of God. For example, we do not understand God as Father on the basis of human fatherhood, but we grasp the meaning of human fatherhood as it mediates to us the Fatherhood of God. But, of course, it is not simply fatherhood per se that pertains to recognizing God, but all things, all categories, all ordering of the world, must pertain to being able to rightly realize the identity of God. We understand what children are, what fathers are, what sex is, what a healthy psyche is, what a proper politic is, and what love is on the basis of rightly integrating God and world in Abba (as in Ro 8:15 and Gal 4:6). I presume the realization of this truth of God and world integrated, is what is conveyed in the proper name given to God, communicated by his Son, and realized through the Spirit. God is integrated into our lives and world, not on the basis of the world but on the basis of who he is in Christ in the world, and it is also on this basis that we receive the world. In the incarnation we receive God in the world and the world and all of its categories are transformed in light of Christ. The world is not too low for God; the womb is not beneath God; eating and working and growing tired and living and dying are transformed by Christ. All that is of the world is taken up by Christ and through the world we are now given divine insight.

God has poured himself into the world and into human experience due to his yearning and love, and he draws all things back into himself through this same yearning. So, for example, we can say with Dionysius, that human desire originates in divine yearning and that the basis and end of eros is agape: “let us not fear this title of ‘yearning,’ nor be upset . . . for, in my opinion, the sacred writers regard ‘yearning’ (eros) and love (agape) as having one and the same meaning.”[1] The desire of love pertains to ultimate reality, to God himself, as source and substance (as I have described it here). But this is an understanding that opens up every phase of human subjectivity and experience. The erotic or embodied as agape points to the deepest and earliest phases of human subjectivity as the groundwork of the divine. Just as the erotic rightly ordered is the root of agape, so too all unconscious/conscious origins of development, though we may know only of their disorder, must serve as ground and structure of divine love. As Dionysius puts it, through excessive yearning of his Goodness he is transported outside Himself “to dwell with the heart of all things”:

hence this universe, which is both One and Many; the conjunctions of parts together; the unities underlying all multiplicity, and the perfections of the individual wholes; hence Quality, Quantity, Magnitude and Infinitude; hence fusions and differentiations, hence all infinity and all limitation; all boundaries, ranks, transcendences, elements and forms, hence all Being, all Power, all Activity, all Condition, all Perception, all Reason, all Intuition, all Apprehension, all Understanding, All Communion—in a word, all, that is comes from the Beautiful and Good, hath its very existence in the Beautiful and Good, and turns towards the Beautiful and Good.[2]

All perception, all intuition, all development is in and through and drawn toward His goodness. It is only where this flow and development is stopped short or stunted that the disorder of sin enters in. This principle of sin, a misorientation toward the law, would interject law in place of God and might be described as a misperception of God’s fatherhood. God or the law is pictured as a delimiting factor or a point of proscription. The law is taken as an end in and of itself and God perceived through this law does not beget, desire, or engender but forbids and disrupts. Just as rightly ordering the world is summed up in the realization of Abba-Father, so too the disordering of sin is summed up in the failed orientation of perceiving God through the law.

Without recounting the details of this failure, I presume this stands behind Paul’s culminating point of the Gospel found in the name Abba. The realization of God as Father puts right, not simply the failure of earthly fathers and mothers, but it completes compliments and teaches a true form of subjectivity by locating the human subject in the Trinitarian Subject. Just as Christ calls God “Abba,” we take up this relationship through the Son and the Spirit and this relationship re-appropriates and fulfills the worldly order. This order displaces the monism and pantheism of the world as mother (the law of oneness), and it escapes punishing patriarchy (the binary law of difference). It is in the Trinity, in the place of the Son that brings out the cry “Abba,” through the Spirit. This is not a law-like relationship imposed from outside but describes an interpenetrating realization of true subjectivity. Kittel notes, “Jewish usage shows how this Father-child relationship to God far surpasses any possibilities of intimacy assumed in Judaism, introducing indeed something which is wholly new.”[3]

As John explains, No one has seen God at any time but God the only Son who abides in the bosom of the Father has made him known or explained him (Jn 1:18). As both Galatians and Romans explains it, the Son is born under the law so as to deliver the future sons and daughters from enslavement to sin under the law. In both Romans and Galatians, the shift from slave to adopted child is realized in the heart cry induced by the Spirit: “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba! Father!’ Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:6-7). The explanation and the adoption accomplished through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, in Paul’s explanation, confronts the lie of sin in regard to the law and defeats the enslaving death dealing orientation. The Abba relationship to God involves all of the work of Christ but it must also involve every aspect of human subjectivity. Paul pictures it as involving the conscious and unconscious self; it addresses the punishing and enslaving aspect of the law taken up into the self and replaces this form of subjectivity with one who is able to imitate Christ.

The Abba relationship and naming of the Father is specific to the work of the Son and the fulfillment of the Spirit, such that to change the name (for example, to Mother) would seem to miss both the universal father problem of the law and the cosmic answer to this problem found in Christ. To erase, evade, or change the name would seem to create the danger of falling back into or failing to be extracted from the original predicament. This in not to occlude the feminine characteristics of God, as it is precisely where we encounter the mothering, birthing, nurturing images of God in the Holy Spirit that the Abba relationship is made possible. This Abba relationship must be a fulfillment of the child’s early concept of mother/father as the unified source engendering one’s individuality. The child’s development is not unlike Paul’s depiction of the Spirit’s (feminine) engendering of sonship as enabling the Abba relationship.

 In conclusion, the development of human subjectivity in all of its stages, known and unknown, along with “all Being, all Power, all Activity, all Condition, all Perception, all Reason, all Intuition, all Apprehension, all Understanding, All Communion” comes from God and turns all things toward God. This pull of divine desire is realized in the Abba relationship, a fulfillment of the specific work of Christ as it overcomes the universal problem (a perceived problem of father) in a cosmic and universal human incorporation into the family of God.    


[1] Pseudo-Dionysius, Divine Names, IV. 12.

[2] Dionysius, IV. 10.

[3] Kittel, G. (1964–). ἀββᾶ. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 1, p. 6). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Engendered Female by the Spirit of Thanksgiving

The primary issue in relating God and gender pertains to God’s engendering qualities, which necessarily refers to both male and female characteristics. The issue is not God’s gender but whether God begets, brings about, catalyzes, creates, effectuates, generates, produces, spawns, or breeds or whether he primarily impedes, limits, restricts, squelches, quashes, represses, smothers, stifles, punishes, and arrests. There is a gendered quality to the two sets of actions but the word is deployed differently in each instance. Gender in the first instance refers literally to producing and propagating and in the second instance the words are metaphorically gendered masculine as these are connected to qualities associated with a father or with God perceived primarily as lawgiver.

The problem in trying to speak of God without gender or in terms of a singular gender is that the engendering quality of God tends to be traded for what is death dealing rather than life giving. That is, God viewed simply as Father or as law giver will be primarily perceived in negative terms of punishing and restricting. God perceived as female, apart from the masculine, does not engender in others but enfolds all multiplication and propagation within herself. In the first instance (God as male), God might be perceived as absolutely transcendent on the order of the Aristotelian unmoved mover. In the second instance (God as female), God is completely immanent and perceived in a pantheistic monism as the womb and consumer of all things. God as purely male or female loses engendering power.

The contrast between Romans 7 and 8 might be characterized, as I have pointed out (here), as a contrast between male and female but this is not entirely accurate. Romans 7:7-25 is about sin and the law and the implication is that God perceived through the law will take on masculine characteristics of dividing, punishing, alienating, and ultimately of being a cold, inaccessible, transcendent figure. Of course, this is not God in reality but God misperceived (due to the deception of sin) as equated with the law. Romans 8 displaces this law of sin and death or this false understanding of God (the law of sin and death) with the reality of God (the law of life in the Spirit). The feminine qualities of the Spirit are accentuated in this exchange, but it is only with this accentuation that the proper role of God as Abba – Father is realized.

The real issue is the receptivity and openness of those who are the objects of God’s engendering activity. Should they take the law as the orienting factor in their relationship to God, then theirs will be a Romans 7, and not an engendering, sort of experience. To conceive this as an experience of God is to miss Paul’s point, as experience of the self is the focus. Where God is presumed to be known through the law what occurs is a relationship to the law which alienates, proscribes, and punishes – God does not really enter into the picture. It is not simply that God is excluded or that the law is felt as an outside and oppressive force, but the force of the law excludes one part of the self from another part of the self. The “I” experiences his own body as if he has a body rather than as if he is his body. The opposite of engendering occurs.

Where God’s birthing, engendering, fructifying activity is realized, the recipient of this activity takes on a feminine openness. Christians become metaphorically female as the bride of Christ, as they become impregnated with life from God and give birth to the fruits of the Spirit (Romans 8:23). The indwelling Spirit engenders life and peace (8:6), and is equated with the indwelling of the Son (vs.9-11). The Spirit incorporates into the familial relation with the Father and Son (vs.15-17), and the believer becomes womb-like in bearing fruit for God (v. 23). As each of the persons of the Trinity converge upon her, with the Father searching the mind of the Spirit who has interpenetrated the mind of the believer (vs. 26-27) as it is being conformed to Christ (v. 29), the believer groans in the Spirit in the pangs of childbirth (v. 23).

I am not sure we need go so far as Gregory of Nyssa who imagines that prior to the fall humans were non-sexed and angelic like, and that in redemption they will no longer bear sexualized bodies but will all become quasi-female in relation to God. The imagery of becoming the bride of Christ, of bearing fruit for Christ, of being the subjects of the incorporating activity of God, may not literally involve the sexual organs but it does refer to a feminine receptivity. This receptivity however, may simply contrast with the impenetrability of one oriented to the law. This masculine sort of orientation is not subject to being conformed, shaped, or reoriented or re-conceptualized. The possibility of being conformed to Christ and of receiving the indwelling of the Spirit may simply reference gender in that there is a feminine receptivity to the character of Christ.

In both Romans and Thessalonians, the shape of this reception is described in terms of a reversal of the way in which we may conceive of prayer. We often picture prayer as an articulation, originating in our own minds, directed at a distant deity, who may or may not hear or answer. Paul pictures prayer as a dynamic exchange in which the persons of the Trinity intermingle, converge, and bring about the incorporation of the believer into the life of God. Even this imagery may be too weak, if we are simply thinking of the cold breath of speech. Prayer, for Paul, is a constant, which already indicates it is not a constant articulation but a constant openness giving rise to a characteristic emotion calling for and flowing out of a continual gratitude.

In I Thessalonians (5:16-18) Paul describes the Spirit as a flame which is not to be quenched, but if allowed to burn, rather than consuming oxygen, produces the breath of life. If the flame is not quenched or suppressed, or stilled, or restrained – that is if the flame of life is not doused by the death dealing law – it lights up the various seats of human personality – the will, the mind, the emotions, the character. Paul aligns a series of exhortations regarding one’s continual state of mind which fold into a singular command, not to quench the Spirit. The way to let the Spirit flow in life is to “rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances.”  The engendering reality of life in the Spirit shows itself as one is caught up in a continual dynamic of life flowing through the individual – receiving and gratefully acknowledging life.