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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Campbell, 731.

Romans 1:18-32: The Premise of False Teaching Rejected by Paul

The discussion in the first 3 chapters of Romans only broaches Paul’s main point in his gospel. This discussion concludes that all are culpable, all have sinned, and there is no advantage to having the law, but by chapter 7, it is not just that the law is of no help, but the law itself is implicated in the problem. In chapter 7 Paul is referencing the commandment given to Adam and Eve, so that the law and its problems are universalized. It is not only Jews who have a law problem, all people in Adam have the same problem.  It does not matter if the reference is to Jewish or Gentile law, the law of Moses or the law theoretically written on the heart. It does not matter what the source of this law is, as sin creates a deception in regard to the law. Romans 7, implicating the law (period) as giving rise to sin, needs to be kept in mind in chapters 1-3, as in many traditional readings Paul will be attributed with teaching a contradictory understanding to his conclusion in chapter 7: “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. . ..  The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment deceived me and through it killed me” (7:7a; 10-12). Far from teaching that the law is foundational to the gospel, Paul teaches that the gospel delivers those in bondage to the law. Chapters 1-3 is an illustration of how this bondage works, while Romans 4-8 pictures how rescue occurs. Read retrospectively, we can see that Paul is building a case in these first three chapters, not just that the law is of no advantage, but that the law is part of the problem.

It is not just that the human problem is not to be perceived in terms of law and its transgression, but this wrong perception is the problem. The law, which gives rise to forbidden desire, in spite of the life that it seemed to offer and due to the deception of sin, produces death for the ἐγὼ or a life of death described as an agonistic struggle in which the self is split against itself and sin is in control. Paul sums this up as the “body of death” (7:24) or “the law of sin and death” (8:2). The law of sin and death is the structuring principle of the Subject in which life is controlled by an orientation to death due to law (a primordial deception and a destructive drive).

In Paul’s depiction of the Subject, participation in the Trinity is displaced by participation in the law. Specifically, the law displaces relationship with God as Abba, and instead of being found in Christ the struggle with the I or the ego is definitive, displacing life in the Spirit with a death dealing deception. Righteousness perceived on the basis of the law is the sin problem directly addressed by Christ: “Wherefore, my brethren, ye also were made dead to the law through the body of Christ; that ye should be joined to another, even to him who was raised from the dead, that we might bring forth fruit unto God” (Rom. 7:4). Being made dead to law (whether Jewish or Gentile), delivered from its strictures, is a key part of salvation.

If we should imagine Romans 1:18-32 is the last word or even the beginning word in regard to the human situation, the conclusion is that the wrath of God is primary. There is no mention of the love of God, which Paul will describe as primary (in chapter 8). The compassion of God has no place in this understanding, and God’s mercy – at least for these pagans – is absent. God judges and condemns, and the notion that he might forgive cannot be contemplated, as God’s righteousness demands judgment. But we know Paul does not think wrath and retribution are the essential nature of God, though in this presentation, all people, but especially non-Jewish people, are culpable and damned. They know what they should do and yet cannot help themselves. They have a law written on their heart, they have a natural revelation about God, but they have chosen to be idolaters and have become sexual predators and perverts. They could have enlightened minds, but instead they are totally depraved with their hearts completely darkened.

In this system, it is not clear whether the culpability is assigned to individuals or to the group as a whole, as it seems some got sin rolling with initial sins, and then this block of humanity suffers the consequences. As Douglas Campbell puts it, “It speaks in strongly condemning tones about others: ‘they have sinned and sinned and sinned again, . . . and I can assure you personally that God is angry with them’ (‘since he and I are on such good terms,’ one is tempted to add).”[1] The “they” here, as a result, is unclear. Who exactly has this philosophical opportunity to recognize the omnipotence, omniscience, and justice of God? It seems an original few may have ruined it for the rest. “After a foolish rejection of the single transcendent God, the disobedient pagans in the passage are rapidly overwhelmed by lusts . . . becoming so immersed in depraved behavior that they generate an entire culture of idolatry and sexual immorality (so vv. 23–27). The pagans are collectively trapped.”[2] By the end of the passage, philosophical man is gone, and subsequent generations are inundated with sinful passions and ultimately murder. Is it fair that they still be expected to know God and act accordingly. Can they “fairly be expected either to perceive a transcendent God or to act in accordance with that God’s wishes.”[3] It would seem there is a fundamental inequity for those who suffer the consequences of the decisions of those given the original opportunity. Where an original few had the possibility to save themselves at the judgment through wisdom, those who come after are tricked by wisdom.

Wisdom is now foolishness, which shows itself in their worship of the creation. They are “filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them” (Ro 1:29–32). God is angry, retributive, and punishing. Pagans are going to die in their sins, and they deserve it. They are getting their just deserts.

If this is simply Paul’s opinion, we hear nothing of the self-indictment which will come later in the letter, or in notions that he is the chief of sinners (I Tim. 1:15). Are pagan idolaters peculiarly sinful in Paul’s theology, and how does this accord with his notion in Galatians that Judaizing Christians are guilty of idolatry? Whoever Paul is giving voice to, it is in the third person, and he or she is not included among these pagans and their idolatrous ways. As Campbell has described it, this person “has taken the ethical and rhetorical high ground in relation to the pagans, with a striking absence of self-knowledge . . ..  He speaks of God, perhaps as something of a self-appointed representative; indeed, he discloses the future wrath of God now in his own preaching, thereby in part deploying it himself! But this figure has not included himself within this orbit of fallibility. He stands outside and above it. Hence, even if there are elements of truth in what he is saying, the tone of his judgment is potentially repugnant.”[4]

Is this Paul’s starting premise in regard to the human situation, or is this in fact the understanding of a false Teacher he is refuting? What is at stake in our reading of the opening of Romans is nothing short of our understanding of reality. In Romans there are two possible anthropologies, cosmologies and theologies. If we do not clearly sort out the difference here in Romans 1-3, the danger is we will imagine the false anthropology, ontology and theology are presumed by Paul. In these verses retributive justice is the only option, judgment is on the basis of works, and all people have access to full knowledge of God through revelation (they would not need Jesus Christ if they had only done what they know is right).

It is easy to imagine the Teacher giving the amen to 1:18-32, and then extending the argument. “These pagans do not have the benefit of the Mosaic law, by which means idolatry is avoided and enlightened thinking capitalized upon. We possessors of the law control our base desires – you will not find sexual perverts or gossips among us. We circumcised ones, by the very efficacy of this sign receive the benefits of having our desires curtailed.” Texts, such as Maccabees, describe the virtues conveyed by the law – “the goodness or rightness, wisdom, self-control, and courage—to conquer their own bodily appetites and passions even in the most extreme circumstances, here excruciating pain, fear, loss, and humiliation under torture (and this at the hands of dissolute passionate pagans, it should be noted!).”[5] Paul may be arguing so extensively in regard to circumcision, as this is the key sign the Teacher emphasizes. Philo explains the advantages conveyed by circumcision, and the Teacher may presume as much:

It prevents disease (4), “secures the cleanliness of the whole body” (5), makes “the part that is circumcised … [‘resemble’] the heart”—and both organs are, after all, concerned with generation, the heart of thoughts and “the generative organ … of living beings” (6), and allows the seminal fluid to proceed easily, making those nations practicing circumcision the most numerous (7). Philo goes on to suggest, however, that these rationalizations are traditional (8); he supplies two further arguments of a symbolic nature that are closely related to one another. First, circumcision “is a symbol of the excision of all the pleasures which delude the mind; for since, of all the delights which pleasure can afford, the association of man with woman is the most exquisite, it seemed good to the lawgivers to mutilate the organ which ministers to such connections; by which rite they signified figuratively the excision of all superfluous and excessive pleasure, not, indeed, of one only, but of all others whatever, through that one which is the most impervious of all” (9). Similarly, circumcision is a symbol of “discarding that terrible disease, the vain opinion of the soul” (10). Here, then, circumcision is symbolic of the excision of vice and of the achievement of a superior ethical state, which Philo goes on to link immediately not merely with sound sexual ethics but with the absence of idolatry.[6]

The Teacher cannot imagine how sin is going to be curtailed and ethics instigated apart from circumcision and the Jewish law. These pagan Christians will need to be circumcised, they will need to practice Jewish ethics, and only in this way will they be declared righteous at the judgment.

Whether or not there is a specific false Teacher who may have proposed this understanding (the proposal of Douglas Campbell), what is obvious in chapters 2-3 is that on the basis of the premises here laid out, in the words of Richard Hays, Paul has set up a sting operation.

Romans 1:18–32 sets up a homiletical sting operation. The passage builds a crescendo of condemnation, declaring God’s wrath upon human unrighteousness, using rhetoric characteristic of Jewish polemic against Gentile immorality. It whips the reader into a frenzy of indignation against others: those unbelievers, those idol-worshipers, those immoral enemies of God. But then, in Romans 2:1, the sting strikes: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” The reader who gleefully joins in the condemnation of the unrighteous is “without excuse” (anapologētos) before God (2:1), just as those who refuse to acknowledge God are anapologētos (1:20).[7]

As Campbell points out, many interpreters understand that Paul is trapping someone in their own argument, but the problem is who (or whom) and why? This is not the argument of a typical Jew, but more than likely the argument of a false Teacher on the order of the Judaizing false Teacher in Galatia. This Teacher acknowledges Christ but only in conjunction with the law – setting the work of Christ on the foundation of retributive justice, the primacy of wrath, and the necessity of good works. In this understanding Paul is made to agree with the basic theology of 1:18-32, while in the following chapters he is trying to evoke a bit more self-awareness on the part of someone who would presume to judge someone else. “One ought to be aware that one is in the same boat, so to speak; the judge is also a sinner and ought to acknowledge this. Hence, this turn (in chapter 2) is designed to jolt the figure into a healthier level of self-knowledge—one that might elicit repentance and salvation, rather than hard-heartedness and condemnation of others (see esp. 2:3–5).”[8] But is this all that is going on here; namely that Paul wants potential judges of others to repent and receive forgiveness? If this is aimed at Jews in general, does Paul consider hypocrisy intrinsic to Judaism. If this is all there is to it, this judge seems a bit stupid (in Campbell’s words), in preaching just deserts and then excluding himself. Is this what the typical Jew does? Are Jews as a class of people, judgmental, hypocritical and stupid?

According to Paul then—and for the argument construed in these terms to work—Judaism is not merely contractual, conditional, perfectionist, monolithic, and ahistorical, but innately judgmental and hypocritical! It necessarily includes an internal insensitivity to sinfulness, combining this with a rigorously judgmental attitude to outsiders. In short, Jews are stupid as well as conditional. They promulgate a system that, to a man, they do not live up to themselves, but they nevertheless attack others on ethical grounds and are unaware of their own ethical shortcomings.[9]

While some Christian’s may perceive Judaism in this anti-Semitic manner, I presume not many Jews will see themselves in this portrayal. If it is simply Judaism Paul has in mind, is he presuming that this hypocritical Jew is squandering his opportunity to repent (2:4). Is Paul trying to get a stubborn Jew to repent, receive forgiveness, and be saved – and all of this without mention of Christ. Can a pagan or Jew, in the non-Christian phase here described, receive salvation if they repent and start living up to the law? Does phase one of human history, and phase one of the law prior to Christ, contain the possibility of salvation through the law?  

If those trying to do good deeds prior to Christ can sin and then repent, being forgiven those sins, then they may well arrive at the day of judgment effectively righteous. Given the appropriate contrition—which could presumably take place on their death beds if necessary—such individuals would have been forgiven their sins and shortcomings and so be righteous. God would then have to declare them that and save them on the day of judgment, and they would then have been saved independently of Christ, the church, Christian preaching, and Paul![10]

Given these presuppositions, presumably most Jews will be able to repent and be saved and there is no need for Christ.

Lest anyone should miss this is not and cannot be Paul’s understanding of the gospel – he says as much in 2:16: “according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.” In the middle of this presentation, he notes that all of this is contrary to his gospel. His gospel is not a law-based system, but a Christ based system. Though this is only mentioned in passing, Paul will soon make it clear that Christ does not deliver by means of the law but he delivers from the law. But before Paul lays out his gospel, he is going to show the absurdity of a law-based gospel, a law-based judgment, or a law-based understanding of God.

Chapter 2, in universalizing the presumptions of 1:18-32 undermines the Teacher’s notion. He has passed judgment and has not included himself but presumes to judge all of the pagan world, not submitting himself to the same criteria. This Teacher presumes that because he is a law-keeping Jewish Christian, he has met the required standard. In his understanding, the law and circumcision are the means and measure of righteousness. Possessing the law, including or marked by circumcision, must be the means of constraining the sinful passions, evident especially in pagans. The law saves as judgment will be according to works of the law. If this were the case, then Jews and especially Jewish law-keeping Christians would be at a definite advantage (the Teacher’s point).

Paul is not simply trying to convince a hypocritical Jew to repent, he is arguing this entire system makes no sense. He concedes that circumcision may have value if you practice the law, but if not, it is a worthless sign (2:25). On the other hand, the opposite is true: “So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” (2:26). Paul’s point is the law does not aid in righteousness, and as he will eventually argue, it disenables righteousness.

Paul argues, that according to the criteria of the Teacher there are potentially bad Jews and good pagans. “There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (2:9–10). Paul may be ironically quoting the Teacher in this construal of first and last, as to be damned first may not be a privilege, and there is no real difference between Jew and Gentiles in this scheme (to say nothing of Christian or non-Christian).

This Teacher must be boasting about the efficacy of the law: “you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth” (2:19–20). In the Teacher’s view, the law automatically conveys an advantage, such that those who possess it are to be the guides to the rest of blind humanity. Paul gives an historic example (also recorded by Josephus) of some Jews who do not live up to this standard (2:21-24), not to prove that all Jews are charlatans and robbers of temples, but to show that the law and circumcision do not convey the automatic benefits the teacher imagines nor automatically make the Jews the chosen race. 

Having extracted a firm commitment from the Teacher to the principle of soteriological desert, he uses this principle to eliminate an entire set of supposed Jewish advantages—advantages as the Teacher defines them, that is. The Teacher must submit to these eliminations or be exposed as inconsistent if not hopelessly self-contradictory. Paul seems well aware, moreover, that the principle of desert, when it is strictly applied, is peculiarly destructive to historical and elective concerns. Its strict application can produce quite appalling results, if it is pressed.[11]

By 2:29 Paul has rebutted the Teachers arguments using his own premises: “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (2:28–29). By the Teacher’s argument it may be concluded, against the Teacher, that it is righteous gentiles who may judge unrighteous Jews. Jews, even, or especially, by his premises, must be accorded no special privilege.

Paul, however, is going to reject this entire scheme. He does not believe God is retributive, or that righteousness is determined by the law, and so too the traditional reading of 3:1-9 is reversed. Verses 2, 4, and 6 are advocating justice and judgment by works. Paul is usually attributed with this portion of the argument, but this is the Teacher’s argument. It is Paul (in 1,3,5,7 and 9) that questions the advantage of the Jew (3:1), who argues the law is nullified by a lack of faith (v. 5), who suggests a strict works-righteousness system is unfair (v. 7), and who questions that the Jew has any advantage. If we miss Paul is refuting the arguments of the Teacher, not only do we end up with the premises of 1:18-32 but we are likely to get his argument in 3:1-9 exactly wrong, attributing to Paul the argument of the false Teacher and attributing to Paul’s interlocutor (in the traditional understanding) Paul’s point.

The alternative is to recognize that Paul, using the premises of 1:18-32, has refuted the false Teacher. In 3:19-20 he silences the Teacher by driving him into a corner through a series of scripture quotations, the very ones on which he relies. The Teacher may imagine he is rescuing Christian converts by insisting they keep the law, the only way of being saved in his scheme. Paul, on the other hand, considers the teaching that the law is primary as falling short of the true gospel.

Paul makes it clear at the end of chapter 3, should there be any question, he rejects law as the basis of righteousness, he rejects retributive justice, and he rejects the entire scheme of the false Teacher. He clarifies the starting point of his gospel at the conclusion of the chapter:

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus (3:21–24).  

This clinches the argument, but it also serves as the beginning of Paul’s full explanation of the unconditional gospel.


[1] Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (p. 546). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] Campbell, 359-360.

[3] Ibid..

[4] Campbell, 546.

[5] Campbell, 564.

[6] Cited in Campbell, 566.

[7] Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996), 389. Cited in Campbell 362-363..

[8]  Campbell, 363.

[9] Campbell, 364-365.

[10] Campbell, 367.

[11] Campbell, 551.

Paul’s Gospel Challenge to the Romans: From Sin as Law Breaking to Sin as Bondage to Law and Death

In addition to refuting the false Teacher in Romans, Paul is also challenging the Roman Christians to accept a more comprehensive understanding of the work of Christ. His very reason for writing, and eventually visiting, is to explain the gospel (1:15). Paul is presuming they have not heard the gospel in its fulness, and he is eager that they would have this more complete understanding so as to be able to resist the false Teacher, but also so they might enjoy a deeper faith. Where he is moving them from (or his point of departure), is their view regarding the work of Christ (in 3:23-26), in which atonement is said to be “for the sake of release from previously committed transgressions.” Their understanding is true, in so far as it goes, but it does not go very far, and so Paul is beginning with what they understand and building from there. They may be so focused on the efficacy of Christ’s death that they fail to consider the resurrection (as his defeat of death and the beginning of his rule over the powers).

The Roman Christians, as we gather from the way in which Paul builds his case, may simply believe Christ has replaced the need for sacrifice for sin in the Temple (even the false Teacher probably believes as much), but they may not have grasped the cosmic implications of Christ. As Douglas Campbell writes, “Christ’s death functions more as an apparent replacement of the temple cultus, which cleanses or wipes various individual transgressions from the relevant worshipers and their consciences (see Heb. 9:11–14, 24–28). Hence, there is no further atoning role for the resurrection to play.”[1]  They may be looking forward to a future vindication in their own resurrection, but fail to apprehend the notion of a resurrection life now (present participation in the life of Christ). They seem to have missed that sin is not simply breaking laws, but an orientation to death defeated through Christ’s death and resurrection (as Paul will explain shortly, in some detail). (Thus, Paul’s true thesis for the letter may be his opening focus on resurrection in 1:4). It is not that the Roman understanding is wrong per se, but their limited understanding has left them vulnerable to the false Teacher.

In this understanding, God is concerned with good and bad deeds, and the judgment will be based on an accounting of these deeds. As Paul sums it up, “God will render to each person according to his deeds” (2:5) and only “the doers of the law will be justified” (2:14). But of course, this is not Paul’s position, because he immediately refutes this notion saying, “that from the works of law no flesh will be justified” (3:20). Paul’s teaching is that justification comes “by faith, apart from works of law” (3:28). The problem is the Romans may have such a limited notion of faith as to imagine it is defined by law keeping – Christ satisfies the law and faith is trusting in this fact.

The false Teacher has been able to take advantage of their narrow understanding, and Paul is simultaneously refuting the false teaching and broadening their understanding by presenting his more radical gospel. He is doing this on two fronts; showing that the problem of sin is more serious than they imagined, and then showing that the answer of salvation is also cosmic, fundamental and all-encompassing. Where their faith is attached to law and transgression, the resurrection faith which Paul will begin to spell out entails cosmic new creation.

To convince them of his more radical gospel their basic concepts of justification, judgment, and sin, are going to need to be reworked in light of the work of Christ, and this will involve a new hermeneutic. The concept of the false Teacher, which the Romans may share, is that justification is through works, judgment is on the basis of works, and sin is concerned with bad works. This is hardly an adequate understanding of the depth of the human predicament and the need for rescue, so Paul broadens their understanding of sin, moving them from focus on sin as a mere act to picturing it as bondage to deception.

Rather than speaking of plural “sins” Paul speaks of sin as a singular force. As Louis Martyn points out, “While Paul uses the word “sin” in the singular rather frequently, the plural form emerges only four times in the genuine letters.” Martyn provides an examination of all the plural uses of the word, and concludes, “Only when he is quoting traditional formulas does Paul speak of Jesus as having died for our sins (Gal. 1:4; I Cor 15:3).”[2] As long as the Roman Christians think of sins as defined by works of the law (“for the sake of release from previously committed transgressions”), they will consider the human predicament as concerned with outward works and signs (such as circumcision). In turn, God will be understood through the law, as the one who punishes and rewards, and justice and judgment will also be law-based determinations.

What becomes obvious by Romans 7 is that Paul’s definition of sin (deception in regard to the law) is manifest in the gospel of the false Teacher (his false gospel is sin at work). The Romans are susceptible to this false teaching, inasmuch as they have also misconstrued the importance of the law. Paul argues Christ is the righteousness of God revealed (not the law) but they may be a long way from this concept. Isn’t the law the righteousness of God revealed, they might ask? How can Paul say the gospel is the righteousness of God revealed (1:17)?

Paul’s depiction of the work of Christ (righteousness enacted) as release from a death-dealing deception (in chapters 5-8) is a new concept (if 3:23-26 reflects the extent of their initial understanding). The Roman Christians may be similar to Christians today, who hold to justification theory. Neither group seems to fully comprehended that in Paul’s gospel, Christian faith is a participation in the work of Christ (living out his death and resurrection) so as to break free of the bondage of the power of sin. Salvation is not merely a cleansing nor baptism the spiritual equivalent of a bath. Note, that he begins by questioning whether they know the full meaning of baptism: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life (6:3-4). As Douglas Campbell puts it, “Christians are not merely enabled to live, purified, in the present world, but their very being is transformed and they enter a new world.”[3]

So, Paul’s task in Romans is to bridge a gap in the thinking of these Christians. He is going to try to move them from a child-like view of sins, to a more profound recognition of sin, and thus strengthen their recognition of the work of Christ. He does this in the immediate context by appeal to the life of Abraham.

 In chapter 4, he demonstrates from the story of Abraham that the law is not definitive of the faith of Abraham, but the life journey of Abraham (in which he was given the promise of life in the face of death) is definitive. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (4:3). Where the Romans may consider righteousness as defined by the law, Paul connects it to the faith of Abraham, which precedes the law. “How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised” (4:10). Abraham’s faith is not defined by the law, as there was no law. Abraham is the prototype of faith, and yet his faith is nothing on the order of that described by the false Teacher (or justification theory), in which law is determinant.

The law is secondary in the life of Abraham, a mere sign of the promise of life: “he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them” (4:11). Certainly, he is the father of the circumcised, but also of the uncircumcised. “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith” (4:13). Abraham’s faith stands juxtaposed to the notion that faith is in regard to the law, or that faith is objective and static (rather than dynamic and lived out). Abraham’s life journey, his active trust in God, leaving his home country and family, and his continued journey literally and metaphorically into the unknown, describe a participatory, lived out faith.

Abraham does not feel a guilt-stricken conscience before the law; that is not even a possibility. Law does not figure into the equation at all. Rather, Abraham’s faith was exercised in his orientation to the promise of life in the face of death: “Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God” (4:13).

Paul concludes his depiction of the faith defining role of Abraham as culminating in resurrection faith: “Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (4:23-24). Righteousness is not primarily a legal term for Paul, but it pertains directly to Christ, and his making right that which is wrong. Where death reigned prior to faith, now life reigns through Christ and resurrection faith.

The Romans may have had a weak view of the resurrection, viewing it as the reward or end point of cleansing from sin. Paul’s view is more radical: Cleansing and freedom from sin are not the achievement leading to resurrection rather, “Cleansing and hence freedom from Sin [is the] freedom of resurrection.”[4] Resurrection is the liberating event bringing about freedom from the law of sin and death, and this is enacted in Christ for all who have faith. As illustrated in the resurrection faith of Abraham, one’s life course is liberated from death through faith. Christians are liberated from the very structures of sin through resurrection faith. This is the atoning, liberating work accomplished by Christ, displayed by Abraham, and definitive of Christian faith. This resurrection orientation is itself salvific in its defeat of the orientation to death, which is sin.

In Romans 5 Paul takes this a step further, juxtaposing Adam and Christ: “For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (5:17). Death reigned in Adam and this accounts for the spread of sin because “death spread to all men” (Rom. 5:12), “death reigned” (v. 14), “the many died” (v. 15), “death reigned through the one” (v. 17), and just so, “sin reigned in death” (v. 21). Here sin is a singular, ethical, epistemological, and ontological force that has captured the human race, not just in physical death but in an orientation which is death dealing. Paul describes this as a primordial deception, a covenant with death, or the law of sin and death. In chapter 7 he explains how the dynamic of this lie works in conjunction with the law, or simply with human understanding of the law. There is a fundamental deception in regard to the law, by which sin enters in: “sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (7:11). In this chapter Paul describes the topography of the human Subject, as the dynamic of this lie takes hold. Chapters 5 and 7 explain how it is that this law of sin and death has captured the human race, while chapters 6 and 8 describe how Christ frees from the death dealing bondage of sin.

Far from the law playing a guiding or defining role, in Paul’s gospel the law is the occasion for sin. It may be that it is not only the false Teacher implicated in this deception, but the Romans, through their own inadequate notion of atonement have given him an opportunity. But this is not the peculiar trick of the false Teacher, or a peculiar weakness on the part of the Romans, as Paul explains, this deception in regard to the law is the universal human problem resolved through the work of Christ. In his gospel, the law is displaced with a participatory faith in Christ which nullifies the law of sin and death.


[1] Douglas A, Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (p. 709). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] J. Louis Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Yale University Press, 1997), 89. The rest of the quote from Martyn reads: “Of these four instances one is a sentence Paul explicitly identifies as an early Christian confession (I Cor 15:3); a second stands in the broad context of that confession (I Cor. 15:17); the third functions in effect as a plural adjective modifying a plural noun (Rom 7:5, “sinful passions”) and the fourth emerges in the present verse.” Martyn is referencing the verse in Galatians 1:4.

[3] Campbell, 709.

[4] Campbell, 710.

Paul Versus the Teacher in Romans 1-3 and Justification Theory’s Fusion of the Two

It is not simply that Luther and justification theory meld the conditional and unconditional gospel (as I have traced it here), but Luther’s justification theory is the predominant lens for understanding Paul, and in particular the book of Romans, and has been for the past 500 years. Romans 1-4 is considered the “citadel” of justification theory, as this is the text which serves as justification’s frame, with the law providing the foundation for understanding the work of Christ (Christ died to meet the requirements of the law), promoting the notion of retributive justice (God’s righteousness is measured and meted out by law and punishment and wrath are primary), and requiring an anthropology and epistemology in which man has the capacity to know of God and his justice but a total incapacity to do what he knows he should. It is a system which requires that natural revelation provide the same parameters of understanding regarding God and the law as the revelation of the Old Testament, and it presumes that Christian faith serves to complement and complete what is understood through the law. In other words, the gospel is founded and understood in conjunction with law, so that “works of the law” may be judged inadequate but the realization of this inadequacy is a necessity for gospel faith.

Each of these key points finds scriptural attestation in Romans 1-3 (I will deal with chapter 4 later). In 1:18-32, the frame of retributive justice, the pagan capacity to understand God and law through natural revelation and their degenerative failure and culpability are posed. In 2:1-8, the implications for Jews and Gentiles of a retributive, law-based system are universalized, and then 2:9-29, working within the logic of this system, demonstrates that pagans who keep the law might be said to be the authentic Jews in the sight of God such that the benefits of the Old Testament law are thrown into question.

What becomes obvious, as Douglas Campbell demonstrates, is that Paul is not advocating the benefits of Judaism or the advantage of Jews, but he is arguing with a Judaizing Teacher making this case, and Paul turns the logic of this Teacher to “hoist him on his own petard.”[1] Paul is refuting the premises of the Teacher who, like the false teachers in Galatia, is advocating a law-keeping Christianity. In this “accursed gospel” the law is the means of being saved, so that Christians must be circumcised and keep the law, according to the Teacher. Paul is making the same argument he made in Galatians, but now he is giving fuller voice to this false Teacher, so as to thoroughly refute his argument that the law confers advantage and benefits and is the foundation of the gospel.

Paul argues that if possession of the law is thought to confer automatic benefits, recent events in Rome (recorded by Josephus and referenced by Paul) demonstrate the opposite: Jewish swindlers have seduced and tricked a lady out of her money, by having her donate to their Temple (2:22-23, the earliest of charity scandals).[2] One might push the logic of the Teacher’s system (as Paul does), to suggest that not only are righteous pagans the true Jews (better than these particular Jews) but that the uncircumcised righteous are the truly circumcised, such that in the judgment some righteous pagans might end up condemning some unrighteous Jews. Using the Teacher’s retributive justice system and its notion that all are equally culpable, overturns the notion that the Mosaic law is foundational to the gospel and an automatic advantage, and it turns the Teacher’s arguments against him.

Chapter 3:1-20 clinches this argument, pointing out that the logic of this system means there are no advantages to possessing the law and being circumcised, as in a retributive system Jewish sinners suffer the same divine judgment as those degenerate pagans (Paul is not appealing, as of yet to some notion of necessary perfectionism). Within this system, for God to offer leniency would be on the order of a libertine gospel (which Paul says the Teacher and his people are accusing him of: “And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), ‘Let us do evil that good may come’? Their condemnation is just” (Rom. 3:8). Those accusing Paul of being an antinomian libertine, by the logic of their own system, are caught in their own strange web: “But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner?” (Rom. 3:7).

On the other hand, Paul says to the false Teacher, by the logic of your own system and by the Scriptures you appeal to, you are condemned – and though you may claim the name of Christ, your system will not allow God to deliver you. “The Scriptures state repeatedly and hence unavoidably and emphatically that all are sinful, and comprehensively so. No one is in fact righteous.”[3] Paul is referencing and echoing the Old Testament in a long series of quotes (3:10-18) and may be quoting or echoing the Teacher, to show that his own argument and his own Scriptures condemn him. As Douglas Campbell concludes, “By this point in Romans it is apparent that the Teacher’s gospel is incoherent. Its opening—a definition of ‘the problem’ facing all pagans (1)—leads to a set of contradictions in relation to its continuation—its purported solution in terms of circumcision and law-observance—that ultimately overrule and undermine it (4). Properly understood, this gospel—understood in its own terms—saves no one, not even its proclaimer!”[4]

Paul is not setting forth his gospel in these opening chapters, but is dealing with the problem that has arisen in Rome, just as it arose in Galatia, and in fact it may be the same people or person. To miss that Paul is making an argument, which he then refutes – both within its presentation and in the body of the text of Romans (chapters 5-8) – may be to confuse his gospel with the accursed gospel (as in justification theory). In the first instance, Paul is refuting this law-gospel fusion by showing its inherent contradictions. It is the false gospel, not his gospel, which holds to humanity’s rational capacity to understand God and the law. As demonstrated in Romans 5, in his gospel those in Adam are in bondage and helpless (5:6), they are enemies of God (5:10), and death reigns over those under the law (5:13) and even over those who have no law or had broken no law (5:14). Paul does not hold to retributive justice, nor does he imagine that Judaism is characterized by retributive justice. He is not describing or refuting Judaism, but is refuting the Teacher. Paul does not think circumcision or the law conveys benefits to Jews, this is the position of the Teacher. It is the Teacher’s argument that pagans are peculiarly sinful and culpable, as they have enslaved themselves to their evil passions. It is the Teacher that is arguing these pagans must turn to the law so as to recognize God’s righteousness and their unrighteousness. The Teacher, not Paul, imagines people are “storing up wrath” because of bad deeds, or they are storing up reward through good deeds (2:4-5). Neither Paul nor Judaism function according to this works of the law measure, but this is the way the Teacher measures.

Nor is Paul driving anyone to Christianity by demonstrating their helplessness before the law (which justification theory requires as part of the gospel), rather he is demonstrating the contradictions of the Teacher in imagining the law is the basis for God’s justice and judgment. On this basis the Teacher imagines that as a law-keeping Christian he is better than the lawless pagans. The Teacher imagines humanity can be strictly divided between the circumcised law-keepers and those uncircumcised pagans who have succumbed to their evil desire (2:6-12). These pagans, presumably the gentile Christians making up the majority of the Roman church, need to repent, according to the Teacher. Not because they are not keeping the law of Christ, but because according his standard of measure, only the circumcised and law observant will be vindicated at the judgment.

Paul projects into the argument the possibility of righteous unchristian pagans, but this is according to the measure of the Teacher. It is not that Paul believes there are righteous saved pagans, it is that the Teacher’s strict works righteousness theory indicates the possibility there are such people. Paul believes people are delivered from bondage only through Christ. No one, in Paul’s estimate (nor a Jewish estimate) can work their way to heaven; rather this is the argument of the Teacher. Paul is not anti-Semitic nor does he see Jews as having an intrinsic advantage through the law. Paul does not see people as even theoretically capable of knowing and keeping God’s law and thus pleasing God (whether Jew or Gentile). According to Paul, one can come to God only through Christ.

On the other hand, Paul does not believe God is a wrathful, retributive God, set to punish and destroy most of the human race. Rather, he considers that what happened in Adam is reversed in Christ: “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). Paul does not believe people are capable of pleasing God apart from Christ. For him, there is no backdoor, available light, or two-tiered law-system; rather there is either the first Adam (who brings death), or the second Adam (who brings life), and nothing in between.

Where the Teacher is focused on the wrath of God being poured out on humanity (1:18), Paul is focused on the love of God poured out on humanity through Christ: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8). It is not that the enemies of God (inclusive of all humanity) can make peace through law-keeping. Dependence on anything short of God (law, ethnic identity, idols, etc.) brings on its own inherent punishment. Paul explains, that the fleshly person exists in an agonized, “wretched” orientation to death and the law, which they might think empowers them unto salvation (7:7-25), but it actually disempowers and makes them God’s enemies (5:10; 8:5-8) “as the sinful mind,” whether the sinner knows it or not, “is hostile to God.”

Though Paul, in chapter 4, will explain the role of the law and Jews through the life of Abraham, in chapter 5 he sees all of humanity as entrapped by the force of sin and death: Adam unleashed death and “death pervaded all humanity, whereupon all sinned” (5:12). Thus, “death reigned from Adam until Moses” (5:14). The only solution is one of apocalyptic deliverance and divine rescue, and this is precisely what Paul argues. “The agonized ‘I’ of chapter 7 even cries out for such a solution: ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ (‘Thanks be to God … Jesus Christ our Lord’: Rom. 7:24–25; see also 8:21, 23).”[5] This is and must be an unconditional event, as human capacity in Paul’s perspective has nothing to offer. “A pessimistic anthropology dictates an unconditional solution. And no criteria for its activation, appropriation, or reception by humans are apparent in this text, while what causality or agency is apparent is attributed to God: ‘those whom he foreknew he also predestined … those whom he predestined he also called’ (8:29–30; see also 5:6–8, 10).”[6] As Campbell concludes, “People who exist in this dire condition—and we all do according to Paul here—are obviously incapable of accurate theological reflection or of any positive action, ethical or salvific. They need to be rescued first and then taught to think about God and to behave correctly, hence the text’s repeated emphasis on deliverance (7:24b; 8:2; 12:2).”[7]

Romans 1-3, apart from acknowledgement that Paul is giving voice to the Teacher and countering his argument, is contradictory within itself and stands opposed to Paul’s gospel presentation in 5-8. The Teacher sees law-keeping as a necessity for Christians. Paul’s refutation of this notion and the Teacher’s affirmation of it are combined in justification theory, effectively combining the contradictory argument that the law is necessary and that the law is of no advantage. The result is neither Paul nor the Teacher, in that justification theory pictures the failure of the law as the necessary impetus to become a Christian. Paul did not have such a low view of Judaism, and certainly the Teacher did not think or teach this. In turn, the Teacher has a very high view of rationality and Paul gives no credence to human rationale and ability. The fusion of the two in justification theory is both: humans are capable of understanding God, the world, the law and themselves, but are completely incapable of doing anything about it.

Justification theory, as a result, posits a different problem than that pictured by Paul. Where Paul sees humanity as completely captive to the orientation to death, and thus deluded in their ability to understand God, themselves, or the world, justification theory pictures humanity as their own competent ground for knowing and understanding, though people need help in regard to the law. Where Paul would set aside the law entirely, against the Teacher who thinks it a necessity, justification theory fuses the two with disastrous results: the law is the ground for Christ and the gospel. The work of Christ is one of law-keeping, law-satisfying, and law-establishing, as the law informs and grounds the work of Christ in justification theory. Where for Paul, Christ sets aside the law, justification theory has taken up the false gospel of the Teacher and makes the law foundational, rather than seeing Christ as the one true foundation.

This shows itself in the forward perspective of both the Teacher and justification theory, apprehending Christ through the law. Where for Paul, everything is grounded and understood in light of Christ (a retrospective view of creation, Abraham, Moses, the law, Judaism, etc.), in the false gospel, Christ is reduced to a legal fiction, legally covering human incapacity in the sight of God. Justification theory sides with the false gospel of the Teacher, in making law, retributive justice, and the forward-looking perspective (understanding Christ through the law, rather than understanding the law through Christ) primary.

Douglas Campbell, in his massive work, has lifted the burden of confusion surrounding Romans and justification theory. His detailed argument makes the conclusion irresistible, that justification theory has mistaken the false Teacher for Paul and passed on a muddled and confusing gospel. I have argued Paul would call what is preached and taught in justification theory the accursed gospel, or no gospel at all (as I have explained here in regard to Galatians). On the other hand, recognizing that Paul is giving voice to and refuting this false Teacher, is the first step in recovering the fulness of Paul’s gospel.  

(Sign up for our next class, Romans: Salvation through the Body of Christ A theological study of the faithfulness of God revealed in Christ Jesus as articulated in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Focusing on Paul’s exposition of God making the world right through Christ. Starting September 4th https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings


[1] Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (p. 343). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition

[2] Jewish Antiquities 18.81–84. Cited in Campbell, 1086..

[3] Ibid, 593.

[4] Ibid.   

[5] Ibid, 65-66

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 63.

Contrasting Unconditional and Conditional Salvation in Luther and Romans 7

Is Christ meeting the condition of the law or creating new conditions? Is human knowledge and insight the condition through which God is apprehended, or does Christ exceed and challenge the condition of human knowing, serving as an alternative ground of knowing? How we answer these two key questions is determinate of our understanding of Christianity and the world, providing two alternative foundations and two opposed forms of the faith (conditionalim or unconditionalism). In the former, the law (either the Jewish law or natural law) is the precursor to understanding Christ and in the latter, Christ is the means of understanding the law. In both instances, the law is inclusive of Judaism, the Old Testament and natural law (inclusive of human understanding and knowing). So, in reality, the two questions boil down to one question, concerning the foundation for reading scripture and understanding the human condition, the world and God. The conditional form of justification by faith (hereafter, also called justification theory) presumes that faith is the condition that meets the requirements of the law and satisfies human recognition (knowledge) of failure to meet these requirements (thus preparing for justification), while the unconditional form of justification by faith presumes that faith, justification and Christ are not conditioned by anything, but are themselves the beginning and end, the condition and goal. Conditionalism and unconditionalism are opposites, and yet they often are melded together in both theology and biblical exegesis, as if one can hold both positions at once. As a result the unconditional good news has been obscured, as its implications for every area of theology have often not been acknowledged.

The problem in sorting out systems or individuals who may teach conditionalism or unconditionalism, is that the two systems most often exist together in much of Christian understanding. For example, Martin Luther attempts to set theology on new ground through his justification by faith, in which faith is not a work of the law. Faith replaces what he perceived as the law-driven, works-righteousness, of Roman Catholicism and Judaism, but the problem is he does not clearly delineate a system in which faith surpasses the conditionalism of the law. While we might credit both Luther and Calvin with attempting to articulate an unconditional salvation, Luther’s justification theory is responsible for releasing justification theory into the interpretive tradition and thus making faith itself the condition. In the modern period, justification theory (conditional salvation, with all this entails) will become the predominant form of the Protestant faith if not the shaping force in modern culture, philosophy and society (to say nothing of biblical interpretation). While it may have been Luther’s intent to describe an unconditional gospel, what results is confusion and contradiction in which this intent is obscured.

For example, in his commentary on Romans (hereafter, LLR) Luther maintains, “faith must be there to ratify the promise, and the promise needs the faith on the part of him to whom it is given.”[1] God gives the gift of righteousness, but it must be grasped by faith. Luther provides the example of a patient who can only be healed by a doctor if the patient acknowledges his sickness (LLR, 69). In other words, as in justification theory, the patient or the sinner recognizes his sin before an omnipotent and righteous God, and recognizes he has broken the law, and therefore is prepared to receive the treatment of coming to faith. As he states it in The Proceedings at Augsburg: “it is clearly necessary that a man must believe with firm faith that he is justified and in no way doubt that he will obtain grace. For if he doubts and is uncertain, he is not justified but rejects grace.… [T]he justification and life of the righteous person are dependent upon his faith.”[2] Not just any faith, or partial faith will do, but an intense faith free of doubt is necessary. Any hint of doubt means he is not justified, and more than this, it means he has rejected grace. Uncertain faith sounds a lot like a condition, which like the law, may leave a person not only uncertain of his status but despairing of his ability to attain it. In this understanding, faith is intangible, and dependent upon the individual to conjure up and to block out all questions giving rise to uncertainty.

This condition might drive one to despair. At least the law provides a tangible, objective criterion, but this faith condition occurs completely within the individual. Luther acknowledges that one must despair of their ability to keep the law, but the question arises if the condition of faith now calls upon the individual to exercise the very power he proved incapable of under the law. In justification theory, the sinner has the requisite knowledge of God, sin and the law, to be driven to faith so as to relieve the pressure of the law, but faith seems to exercise its own sort of pressure. Faith is not itself the righteousness or ability but the condition that precedes and enables it.

Douglas Campbell provides extensive examples of Luther’s picture of faith as the condition for salvation, but then provides examples from Luther of the opposite – unconditional faith. Again, in his commentary on Romans, Luther pictures faith more as a gift than an accomplishment: “We must understand that this doing or not doing must be freely accomplished by the love of God with all one’s heart and not from a slavish fear of punishment or from a childish desire for advantage, and that this is impossible without the love that is shed abroad by the Holy Spirit.”[3] Luther concludes, “it follows irrefutably: one does not become a son of God and an heir of the promise by descent but by the gracious election of God”[4]; and further states that “[a] man owes his ability to will and to run, not to his own power, but to the mercy of God who gave him this power to will and to run. Without it, man could neither will nor run.”[5] Campbell notes that some Finnish Lutherans picture Luther as affirming apocatastasis or deification (participation). “The Finns argue vigorously that Luther’s justification language and argumentation presuppose this more fundamental, intimate, participatory, and even deificatory stratum.”[6] Campbell concedes that this language is present in Luther, but concludes that this is because Luther is ultimately contradictory.

He then demonstrates the same contradiction in Calvin and Augustine. Luther’s justification by faith has injected this contradiction into much of the Christian world, but Campbell’s point is that this confusion has a long lineage, and to arrive at a consistent understanding will require an examination of the implied anthropology, epistemology, and theology, of conditionalism and unconditionalism, demonstrating they are opposites and cannot be melded. Where they are melded, the implications of the unconditional gospel are lost. Exegesis alone will not accomplish the task, as either one will unwittingly hold to both positions or bend passages toward justification theory. A comparison of the two systems and demonstrating the difference will show the inconsistency of trying to do both, and will recover the full implications of the unconditional gospel. On the other hand, each of the two systems tend to rely on particular passages which seem to teach justification or those passages which teach the opposite. We might, for example, take Romans as our primary text and read according to conditionalism or unconditionalism.

Portions of Romans might seem to be teaching conditionalism (maybe chapters 1-4) and unconditionalism (5, 6, and 8), while chapter 7 would be the place these two systems collide and the contention is brought out, with the conditionalists reading 7:7-25 as the typical struggle with sin in all people leading to conversion (or describing the continued Christian struggle with sin), and the unconditionalists reading it as a depiction of the deception regarding the law binding all people in a futile bondage. In the former, 7-25 is describing what one is delivered to (either as a Christian or a Christian in process) and the latter reads the struggle and deception of Romans 7 as what one is delivered from. The contrasting epistemology, anthropology, doctrine of revelation, theology (doctrine of God), Christology and atonement, drawn from this chapter, bring out the differences and demonstrates the impossibility of doing both.

Epistemology

In terms of epistemology, justification theory reads Romans 7 as evidencing full awareness of God and the law and one’s incapacity to keep the law. The passage (from 7-25) depicts a dawning awareness, concluding with the desperate cry of faith in verses 24-25. Justification theory requires a correct understanding of God, the law, and the self in light of the law, and this serves as the launching pad for faith, thus the passage is read to demonstrate this case.

The unconditionalist notices that the movement of 7-25 is not one of freedom of thought (dawning realization) but depiction of a growing incapacity and enslavement, giving rise to death. Whatever death Paul might have in mind here, it is probably not appropriate to equate death and freedom (the passage is inclusive of both thought and will). The infection of death has taken up residence in every part of this person: “For I do not understand my own actions” (v. 15). Only retrospectively, in light of Christ, does understanding occur. This understanding does not allow for the optimism surrounding human knowing found in justification theory.

Anthropology

The inherent anthropology connected with justification theory pictures the person as sufficient ground, in that rational human capacity and ethical insight are required as the first stage in conditionalism. Sin may darken the mind, but this occurs primarily in regard to the final stage. Prior to that, everyone is thought to reason their way to desperation and depression regarding God, the law, and their interior state. For the conditionalist, 7-25 seems to be a perfect example of the introspective conscience of all human beings. They have correct information about God, the world and the law, and for this reason they know the good, yet the are unable to carry through and do it: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15, ESV).[7] Here is the self-loathing and depression sufficient to deliver to faith and salvation. The trajectory is forward looking, presuming that these are the valid premises, the right sort of knowledge, the correct understanding of the law, to reach the correct conclusion.

The unconditionalist presumes 7-25 is a retrospective view from a Christian point of view, not of the correct premises and conclusion reached prior to meeting Christ, but of the one who is deceived and in bondage. The passage details what its like to be controlled by “the flesh” (vv. 5,14) and, as in Adam, what it is like to be subject to death and desire (vv. 7-8). This corrupted and deceived person is unaware of what has gripped him. Only one who is a Christian can look back on his former manner of life and understand the inherent deception and bondage of his former condition. He could not have known this consciously or introspectively, as this individual is spiritually dead: “For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (7:11). Paul states it even more sharply in chapter 8: “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (8:7).

Where justification theory may read this as Paul’s pre-Christian consciousness and experience or even his continued Christian experience (a true account of his psychology), unconditionalism regards this as an account of his actual existence, but due to deception it is an account he was not conscious of at the time. Philippians 3:6 may be a more accurate representation of Paul’s pre-Christian consciousness, where he imagines, as a Pharisee, he is sin free and perfect in regard to the law. Romans 7 may be his true report on Philippians 3, as Paul will acknowledge he was the chief of sinners and did not know it at the time. Only retrospectively, from the viewpoint of salvation, can he write Romans 7, as he did not know what sin was or the nature of his bondage apart from salvation. Only in light of salvation is the deceptive work of the flesh revealed. In this understanding Christ rescues and redeems humankind from a lie that is not exposed apart from the truth of who he is.

Revelation

This entails two very different accounts of revelation, with conditionalism presuming Christian revelation primarily informs about the final stage of the human condition and does not function in regard to the law (in the initial stage). The law (either natural law or Jewish law) is a primary source of information in recognizing Christ, providing the conditions he would fulfill and the means of understanding his work. The law tells of the problem, which Christ answers. Israel, the Temple, and the Jewish system, form a coherent system, which apart from Israel’s failure, was inherently adequate. If the Jews had kept the law of their scriptures and Gentiles had kept the law written on their heart, the incarnation would not have been necessary.

Unconditionalism equates revelation in Christ with salvation, in that the previous bondage did not allow for right thinking in regard to the law. Where conditionalism presumes to read the Bible and history in an unfolding chronology, with revelation culminating in Christ, unconditionalism presumes that it is only from a retrospective view provided through the truth of Christ that creation, the law, the Old Testament, and Israel can be rightly understood. Now we understand, as portrayed in Romans 8 (a singular example of a New Testament theme), that Jesus Christ reveals, sums up, and concludes creations purposes.

In brief, in conditionalism, the law is the condition which Christ adheres to, affirms, and satisfies. The particulars of this condition (a particular understanding of Israel, the law, and the human condition) are required. Unconditionalism does not predict the necessary singular condition of Israel (Judaism may in fact be any number of things, as we know from the New Testament, it is) and the law (which may be any number of things which serve in place of God). Jesus is the determining factor in understanding the human condition, Israel, and the law.

Theology

Though God makes no appearance in verses 7-24, the conditionalist is not bothered by the impersonalism and focus on the law, as this is assumed to function like God. Where the unconditionalist might suspect it is sin that is oppressing and punishing, the conditionalist attributes this directly to God and his retributive nature. In justification theory, God functions like (or in and through) a retributive legal system, oppressing and punishing, and thus moving people along to faith (or not). The motive is both fear and oppression, and these are not incorrect but accurate perceptions of God. God’s impugned honor or anger is the central fact about God, at least in stage one of justification theory. Thus 7-24, though it is missing God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit (which will be the focus in chapter 8), these verses are thought to provide a right depiction of God. The oppression, which Paul describes as being delivered from in chapter 8, is the oppression of God, with God equated with the law.

The unconditionalist notes that this oppression and punishment do not flow from God, but from sin, the misorientation to the law, and the inherent weight of deception. God, prayer, hope, Christ, and the Holy Spirit make no appearance because this person only knows of law and chronic suffering and oppression, due to the deception of sin. This is the deception and bondage Christ exposes and delivers from, and thus we learn of God’s unstoppable love (8:35 ff). God is love and cannot be equated with death (or the law of sin and death), but the fear of death may be mistaken for a fear of God due to sin. Christ does not confirm this picture of the law or this understanding of God, but delivers from this inherently punishing conception and situation: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Ro 8:1–2). The condemnation has just been described in 7-25 as flowing from sin, deception and death – or as Paul calls it, “the law of sin and death.” God cannot be equated with this law, and where he is, it must be due to the lie of sin.  

Christ and the Atonement

Conditionalists read 7-25 as the anteroom to understanding the work of Christ. Since this is taken as an accurate depiction of God, Christ takes the oppression of sin upon himself. He might be said to be the sinner, and feel the same burdensome weight as described in these verses.

The unconditionalist argues that Christ does not suffer with an introspective conscience nor does he become subject to the particular suffering detailed in 7-25. This is the suffering of the first Adam (with continual allusions to Genesis 3), but Paul has pictured Christ as the 2nd Adam who has defeated these evil forces plaguing humanity (chapter 5). There is a different form of suffering detailed in chapter 8, which depicts the suffering of Christ and the suffering of the Christian, but as in the death of Christ this is not God torturing Jesus, but sinful humanity meting out their vengeful, retributive justice (8:35-36). Christ does not fulfill and confirm this retributive justice, but delivers from it. The retributive system, and not the Father, kill him but this is the retribution of sinful men. Christ defeats retribution, revenge and violence by not responding with force, violence, or retribution, but by submitting to these forces and humbly dying on a cross. Through Christ’s resurrection life the reign of death, violence and retribution have been defeated and displaced. So, Jesus did not die to bear retributive punishment, but through his death he defeats the sinful need for retribution and thus displaces this system entirely.

Retribution is not the condition Christ completes, but that which he overthrew. The law does not enlighten, as it only bears fruit for death (7:5). “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (7:6). The written code was not God’s means of reign or rule, but describes the means through which sin and death reign. Christ has displaced this rule, and has not confirmed and extended it. “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:18–19). The universality of fall and redemption is not dependent upon individual conscience, human knowing, or natural understanding of God and law. The entire movement is framed around Christ and his rescue from enslavement to sin and death. One does not get to Romans 8 by means of 7-25 but by defeat of this condition. This is the meaning of the atonement.

Conclusion

The two accounts focus on very different aspects of the problem, with conditionalists noting that it is the law that gives rise to Paul’s problem, and unconditionalists conceding that the law is part of the focus, but in particular it is deception and sin in regard to the law. The reality of the human problem may be perceived to revolve around the law, but this perception itself, in Paul’s description may miss how it is that sin has deceived in regard to the law. This deception is not a general incapacity but a specific failure, which holds all of humanity and creation in a bondage Paul describes as futility. If Paul is thinking of Genesis, it is not that the law is particularly problematic, but the presumption that the law itself (through transgression or the knowledge of good and evil) is the means of access to God. It is made determinate – the gateway to life – which is what justification pictures but which Paul connects to a lie. “Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good” (Rom. 7:13). Both systems agree sin is the problem, but conditionalists focus on the law and picture the knowledge surrounding the law as trustworthy (with Christ confirming this), and unconditionalists focus on deception in regard to the law and Christ’s defeat of the power of sin and death. Conditionalism relegates the work of Christ to a clean-up operation involved in the final stage of salvation, with human knowledge serving as an initial adequate ground, and Christ serving to satisfy God’s retributive justice. Unconditionalism displaces the lie surrounding God (his supposed angry retribution exposed as a lie displaced by love). The unconditional gospel also exposes the lie surrounding human knowing and anthropology, as man cannot serve as his own foundation for knowing and being. Conditionalism is individualistic and tends to picture salvation as a legal fiction, which may leave one in the same reality before and after salvation (with Romans 71-25 seen as possibly describing the typical Christian). The key import of the work of Christ in this understanding, is to avoid God’s anger, primarily in regard to hell and to go to heaven. The focus is not universal and cosmic but individual, legal, and pertaining primarily to the future. Unconditionalism pictures a universal or cosmic salvation, with Christ as the center of revelation and salvation (unfolding both backward and forward). Jesus Christ is the completion of creation’s purpose, and the ground of human knowing.

In this short space the ramifications for ethics, church, and real world salvation have not been filled out, but the implications may be evident: there are two forms of the faith that need to be clearly delineated so that the fulness of the unconditional good news of the gospel is not diluted with that which is no gospel at all.

(Sign up for our next class, Romans: Salvation through the Body of Christ A theological study of the faithfulness of God revealed in Christ Jesus as articulated in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Focusing on Paul’s exposition of God making the world right through Christ. Starting September 4th https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings


[1] All references in what follows are to Wilhelm Pauck, ed., Luther: Lectures on Romans, LCC 15 (London: SCM, 1961), lxvi. Cited in Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (p. 251). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] See Luther’s Works, 55 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, & Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957–), 31:25–26—hereafter LW. The Proceedings at Augsburg (31:259–92). Cited in Campbell, 253.

[3] LLR, 197, Campbell, 266.

[4] LLR, 266, commenting on 9:6. Campbell, 267.

[5] LLR, 269, commenting on 9:16 and citing immediately Phil. 2:13 in support. Campbell, 267.

[6] Campbell, 265.

[7] Quotations will be from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated.

Justification By Faith: Unconditional Good News or the “Accursed Gospel”

The gift of the Reformation and of Martin Luther to the world is recovery or rearticulation of the unconditional, free grace of the gospel which can be summed up as “justification by faith.” The problem is, this same phrase can be used to describe the opposite; namely conditional salvation defined and bound up with the base line condition of the law. The unconditional good news is easy to understand, but the goodness and joy of the good news can and has been twisted so that this simple gospel truth, justification by faith, has (most?) often been made to fit Paul’s description of “the accursed gospel” (Gal. 1:6-8) which is no gospel at all but the human problem repackaged as the solution. It may be easiest to start with the good news, as this is uncomplicated, unconditional, singular, and straight forward but we (certainly I) may have missed it due to all the obstacles thrown in the way. So, the implications of this good news and the ways in which it may be twisted into bad news needs to be spelled out so as to secure the love, peace, and profound joy that comes with the unconditional gospel of Jesus Christ.

Alvin Kimel has done us the favor of gathering up and gleaning through a variety of sources, and through 40 years of effort as he describes it, “the unconditionality of God’s love for humanity.”[1] Kimel describes his discovery of the work of the Torrance brothers, James and Thomas (which first came to my attention through the work of Douglas Campbell), Robert Jenson, and Gerhard Forde – two Reformed and two Lutheran theologians, respectively. He describes his moment of awakening in encountering James Torrance’s description of the significance of the Reformation (worthy of extended quotation):

The important thing is that in the Bible, God’s dealings with men in creation and in redemption—in grace—are those of a covenant and not of a contract. This was the heart of the Pauline theology of grace, expounded in Romans and Galatians, and this was the central affirmation of the Reformation. The God of the Bible is a covenant-God and not a contract-God. God’s covenant dealings with men have their source in the loving heart of God, and the form of the covenant is the indicative statement, ‘I will be your God and you shall be my people’. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the God who has made a covenant for us in Christ, binding himself to man and man to himself in Christ, and who summons us to respond in faith and love to what he has done so freely for us in Christ. Through the Holy Spirit, we are awakened to that love and lifted up out of ourselves to participate in the (incarnate) Son’s communion with the Father.

Two things are therefore together in a biblical understanding of grace, the covenant of love made for man in Christ, between the Father and the incarnate Son. (a) On the one hand, it is unconditioned by any considerations of worth or merit or prior claim. God’s grace is ‘free grace’. (b) On the other hand, it is unconditional in the costly claims it makes upon us. God’s grace is ‘costly grace’. It summons us unconditionally to a life of holy love—of love for God and love for all men. The one mistake is so to stress free grace that we turn it into ‘cheap grace’ by taking grace for granted—the danger of the ‘antinomianism’ against which Wesley protested. The other mistake is so to stress the costly claims of grace that we turn grace into conditional grace, in a legalism which loses the meaning of grace.

The fallacy of legalism in all ages—perhaps this is the tendency of the human heart in all ages—is to turn God’s covenant of grace into a contract—to say God will only love you and forgive you or give you the gift of the Holy Spirit IF . . . you fulfill prior conditions. But this is to invert ‘the comely order of grace’ as the old Scottish divines put it. In the Bible, the form of the covenant is such that the indicatives of grace are prior to the obligations of law and human obedience. ‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, I have loved you and redeemed you and brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, therefore keep my commandments.’ But legalism puts it the other way round. ‘If you keep the law, God will love you!’ The imperatives are made prior to the indicatives. The covenant has been turned into a contract, and God’s grace—or the gift of the Spirit—made conditional on man’s obedience.[2]

The foundational shift Torrance describes is from contract to covenant. A contract describes a condition, such as payment or an “if” statement (if you do this, I will do that), where a covenant is an unconditional promise without prior obligation or requirement. God has acted in Christ to redeem the world and to deliver all people from bondage. This apocalyptic, cosmic deliverance is nothing short of recreation, new birth, or death and resurrection. Torrance carefully describes, this is neither antinomianism nor legalism but is “unconditional in the costly claims it makes upon us.” This gift requires our life but of course it is not an exchange of life for life, but the relinquishing of the grip death has upon us in order to live. Costly grace costs everything, but this everything amounts to nothing as we have invested ultimate value in a lie.

Part of the problem in receiving and fully comprehending this good news is the confounded (deceived) nature of the bondage. “The house of bondage” from which God delivers is a full-blown “reality,” inclusive of a world economy and psychic reality. That is, the full extent of the unconditional, apocalyptic and universal nature of the deliverance may not be appreciated apart from an accurate description of the bondage. Legalism, in Torrance’s description, captures a prime manifestation of this reality but the all-inclusive nature of the bondage (constituting its own world) undergirds legalism.  But before turning to describing how covenant may fall back into contract, the absolute unconditional, free grace needs to be clearly staked out.

Kimel turns next to Gerhard Forde, who expresses the absoluteness of unconditional grace, asking, “What must we do to be saved?” His answer:

absolutely nothing! We are justified freely, for Christ’s sake, by faith, without the exertion of our own strength, gaining of merit, or doing of works. To the age old question, “What shall I do to be saved?” the confessional answer is shocking: “Nothing! Just be still; shut up and listen for once in your life to what God the Almighty, creator and redeemer, is saying to his world and to you in the death and resurrection of his Son! Listen and believe!” When one sees that it is a matter of death and life one has to talk this way. The “nothing” must sound, risky and shocking as it is. For it is, as we shall see, precisely the death knell of the old being. The faith by which one is justified is not an active verb of which the Old Adam or Eve is the subject, it is a state-of-being verb. Faith is the state of being grasped by the unconditional claim and promise of the God who calls into being that which is from that which is not. Faith means now having to deal with life in those terms. It is a death and resurrection.”[3]

Forde seems to recognize that his “nothing” may raise questions, but the point is to firmly drive home the unconditional nature of grace. He says, the “‘nothing’ must sound, risky and shocking as it is.” We have entered into new territory, a new way of thinking and conceiving the world, thus the silence that should follow the “nothing.” Once one is grasped by faith, this becomes the lens through which everything is perceived. No longer does retribution, punishment and fear determine reality, and no longer can anyone claim advantage over another, as all have fallen short, all have walked according the ways of the prince of this world, all were in bondage, and the same “all” are those who are delivered. When asked why this makes people so angry, Forde gives the following response:  

Why indeed? Because it is a radical doctrine. It strikes at the root, the radix, of what we believe to be our very reason for being. The “nothing,” the sola fide, dislodges everyone from the saddle, Jew and Greek, publican and pharisee, harlot and homemaker, sinner and righteous, liberal and orthodox, religious and non-religious, minimalist and maximalist, and shakes the whole human enterprise to the roots. It strikes at the very understanding of life which has become ingrained in us, the understanding in terms of the legal metaphor, the law, merit and moral progress. Justification, the reformers said, is by imputation, freely given. It is an absolutely unconditional decree, a divine decision, indeed an election, a sentence handed down by the judge with whom all power resides. It is as the later “orthodox” teachers like to say, a “forensic” decree: a flat-out pronouncement of acquittal for Jesus’ sake, who died and rose for us…

The gospel of justification by faith is such a shocker, such an explosion, because it is an absolutely unconditional promise. It is not an “if-then” kind of statement, but a “because-therefore” pronouncement: Because Jesus died and rose, your sins are forgiven and you are righteous in the sight of God! It bursts in upon our little world all shut up and barricaded behind our accustomed conditional thinking as some strange comet from goodness knows where, something we can’t really seem to wrap our minds around, the logic of which appears closed to us. How can it be entirely unconditional? Isn’t it terribly dangerous? How can anyone say flat-out “You are righteous for Jesus’ sake”? Is there not some price to be paid, some-thing (however minuscule) to be done? After all, there can’t be such a thing as a free lunch, can there?

You see, we really are sealed up in the prison of our conditional thinking. It is terribly difficult for us to get out, and even if someone batters down the door and shatters the bars, chances are we will stay in the prison anyway! We seem always to want to hold out for something somehow, that little bit of something, and we do it with a passion and an anxiety that betrays its true source—the Old Adam that just does not want to lose control.”[4]

One’s very being or ontology is changed by the breaking in of love and grace. This is a different way of conceiving God, the world, and humans. Prior to the work of Christ death was the controlling factor in life, and this was the condition put upon everything. The law seemed to provide a measurement or condition to deal with death, just as idolatry attempted similar negotiations. Psychology drives home the point, revealed in the Bible, that the fear of death (sometimes called God) which may be conscious or unconscious, is determinative of the psychic struggle. No one but God has the power to deliver from death and this has occurred in the death and resurrection of Christ. Reality is on a different ground, producing a new world order and a recreation of the human psyche.

The relinquishing of the old order may be disturbing, as some like Paul, may have exceeded their peers in religiosity, moral progress, and attaining heaven, but now all of this is counted as garbage. The human salvation system, which promised life, only produces death and this may be anger provoking news for those who invested everything in saving their own life. The reality may be slow in sinking in as the enslaved have found security in their enslavement. For Adam, the reality of death is determinate and this reality seemingly must be negotiated. A contract must be drawn up, consciously or unconsciously, and the terms of exchange enacted. This fear of death reigns, and only in Christ can we defeat this enslaving fearful orientation. To simply break open the tomb (the tomb which makes life conditional), and give life where death was the bottom line, means the conditions we have negotiated no longer apply.

As Kimel concludes in regard to his approach to ministry, “This liberation requires nothing less than our death and resurrection. The preacher is so much more than an encourager to live well and do good works. He is a prophet of the Kingdom, speaking the Word of God that accomplishes what it proclaims (Isa 55:11); he is a priest of the eschaton, giving to communicants the Body and Blood of the glorified Lord.”[5] This is the good news that the preacher, evangelist, and prophet proclaims. Everything must give way in support of this gospel message, which will mean a redefinition of what it means to be human, a reworking of epistemology, and a relinquishing of every form of conditionalism, with its focus on death, punishment, and retributive justice.

The problem in apprehending free grace lies in the failure to reorder and apprehend everything in light of its unconditional nature. In short, this unconditional gospel is universal, apocalyptic (or a breaking in to a world and system of a different order.) It is not retributive, imagining that suffering is required for penalty and payment, and thus it is not focused on God’s anger but on the love of God (and wrath as a subcategory of love). There is no room for God being eternally angry and there cannot be a category of eternal punishment. Most importantly, the nature of human bondage is directly tied to death, law and punishment, so that the manner in which justification by faith may be misconstrued, is simply an example of the universal human bondage to sin, death, and the devil from which unconditional grace saves.

 Douglas Campbell works out this misconstrual, working in close conjunction with the Torrances, but he calls this failure “justification by faith.” Paul, after all, initially accords the name gospel to those who are preaching what he then says is no gospel at all, but is an accursed message. So too there is “justification by faith,” the answer to the problem, and then there is “justification by faith,” the problem repackaged as the solution. Though it may appear a confounding of problem and solution, sorting out the two simply means following Paul’s argument concerning a law-free gospel, and that “gospel” which the false teachers bind to the law. The law always requires conditions and the gospel frees from every form of conditionalism. “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:24–26). The law is not the standard for faith, but faith, trust, and covenant are primary.   

The false teachers’ accursed gospel makes the law primary and Christ secondary, so that Christianity is reduced to a contract rather than a covenantal relationship, and though we are still calling it justification by faith, both justification and faith have taken on a different meaning. In short, justification is measured by the law. Rather than justification or righteousness referring to the world changing apocalyptic breaking in of the love of God, righteousness is measured and distributed according to the law. Faith, in turn, is defined in conjunction with Christ’s meeting this condition in his death (his life, resurrection, the church, and the Holy Spirit, are rendered secondary), so that the death of Christ becomes the primary and perhaps singular focus. One is saved by applying the legal benefits of Christ’s death to one’s personal law books. One is not saved by taking up the cross and following Christ and being loving and faithful with and through his extended body. One might or might not do such things, but this does not pertain to salvation.   

In brief, according to this understanding, Old Testament law and natural revelation are a system in which one is justified or made right in the eyes of God through works of the law. No one can keep the law perfectly, and therefore everyone fails to be justified. This produces feelings of guilt and depression, but the gospel allows justification, not by works but by faith, which is the new condition (in Arminianism at least). Whenever anyone hears the gospel, they are so happy to be relieved of their burden of guilt for sin. Now they realize that all they have to do is have faith and their sin problem is taken care of. The exchange between the Father and the Son has taken care of the condition, and now one believes this fact and they are saved.

There are several problems in this system, in that law is the standard of measure for Christ and faith, rather than Christ setting aside the law. Justification or righteousness, rather than referring directly to God, refers to law (perhaps a kind of secondary manifestation of God), leading to a depersonalized or fictional element to the entire procedure. Faith consists in believing Christ has met the conditions of the law, and in this sense, faith goes nowhere, as it seems to reduce to faith in faith (that which meets the condition). In this system, to speak of imitating the faithfulness of Christ makes no sense, as Christ’s primary work is in conjunction with meeting the requirements of the law, which is inimitable. Again, faith is not so much participation in or being joined to Christ, as it is the application of an imputed righteousness (a kind of legal fiction).

At the same time, this justification by faith sets a very high standard on both human capacity and incapacity. Jews have the law through revelation and scripture, but what the Jews have through special revelation, everyone else has through the law written on the heart or natural revelation. Under this system everyone, both Jews and Greeks, recognize that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and just and that he has a law which everyone must obey perfectly, if they are going to be justified. So, all have the capacity to recognize God and his absolute standard, but no one has the capacity to live up to this standard.

In the doctrine of Original Sin, as we get it from Augustine, everyone knows enough about God to know his perfect standards, but no one knows enough or can do enough to keep this standard. We all know enough to feel really depressed about our situation in life. In fact, if one does not feel guilty and depressed they have missed the first condition of coming to Christ. They may feel proud, and they may be stubborn, a particular problem with the Jews, but most people finally reach the condition of feeling bad, then they are prepared to hear the gospel message. Luckily, Christ died to meet the requirements of the law, and now the problem with the law, the reason for the guilt and depression, is resolved.

I suppose we can all adjust our conversion story to fit this model, just as Paul’s conversion is pictured along the lines of Luther’s. On the road to Damascus, Paul must have been struggling with his introspective conscience, feeling guilty and miserable until he meets Jesus, who relieves him of his guilt and depression. He meets Christ and understands deliverance is now provided from the requirement of the law, as Christ has met the requirements, paid the penalty, and grace is now available in place of wrath and punishment.

Misery may be the anteroom to many forms of conversion, and perhaps we can chalk misery up to some form of consciousness that we have broken the law. However, after more than twenty years in Japan (a place largely unexposed to justification theory) I never met anyone who had this perception of God, sin and the law, and this is not the way Paul describes his former pride in his religious achievement. Paul narrates his pre-Christian understanding as guilt free and “without fault” in regard to the law (in fact, this fits common Japanese self-perception). As he describes in Philippians, he considered himself righteous, zealous beyond his peers, and bearing the highest qualifications and impeccable credentials: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Php 3:5–6).

Romans 7 might be cited as support of Paul’s guilty conscience, but this chapter is Paul’s retrospective view, about either himself or Adam, from the perspective of a Christian. This is not a narrative about conversion, but about being trapped, and deceived. There is no clear route from Romans 7 to Romans 8, apart from the appearance of Christ and the breaking in of a new order. Romans 7 describes the pre-Christian condition and the nature of deception, and it is a lie that includes Paul’s notion of self-salvation as a Pharisee. It is a lie in which one is entrapped by the law of sin and death, and the law is the object of deception, and the deception is such that one is not aware of his own condition.

The question arises as to exactly what law both Jews and Gentiles share, and obviously, it is the law of sin and death (the law of deception). But in justification theory, law plays a key role in making one guilty about their sin, so the law is a primary force in prompting acceptance of Christ. But what law? If it is something along the line of the ten commandments, do we expect everyone to know about sabbath keeping, and the details about sexual morality? If it concerns the details of the Jewish law, should we expect everyone to know in their heart about not eating blood, about not cutting the forelocks, and about circumcision?. Can we glean a universal ethical standard from the Jewish law, separate from the details of this law?

Maybe there is not one law code but two, and then not one ethical system but a mix, but then we end up with a tightly regulated and specific ethical system, and a more general natural law. Since the law directly reflects the character of God (in this theory), and all infractions are duly punished, the two-system method seems flawed.  As Douglas Campbell concludes, “Either the model must claim that the Jewish law, in all its detail, is derivable from the cosmos through natural revelation or it must work with two ethical systems – one a more general set of ethical principles applicable to all and discernible in the cosmos, and the other a more extensive set with additional distinctive practices incumbent only on Jews and accessible primarily through revelation and texts.”[6] This system is grounded in retributive justice, so that according to how well people do with the prescribed rules, this will determine their punishment. But is this retributive justice on the basis of two distinct standards – the Jewish and Gentile standard? The exact perfect standard by which all are judged is unclear.

On the other hand, if the law is posited, as Paul explains in some detail in Romans and Galatians, not as the anteroom to the gospel but as the law of sin and death, then the universality of deception in regard to the law (Mosaic or otherwise) is accounted for. The law does not set the condition for salvation, but is what unconditional salvation delivers from.

There is clearly a problem in the presumed disjunction between what all people are capable of knowing and what none of them are capable of doing. On one hand they have intellectual capacities, I am suspicious are non-existent. Is it really the case that all people can derive the same basic facts about God, such as his omniscience, his omnipotence, and his righteousness, from nature? Can they then go on and deduce the same uniform ethical requirements – and then, though they are capable of all of this, are they completely incapacitated to do what they know is right? All of this feeds into the false gospel’s notion of faith and justice. “Justification theory posits a God of strict justice who holds all people accountable to a standard they are intrinsically unable to attain, and this seems unjust.”[7]

Or could it be that this perception of God, as law-giver, punisher, and destroyer is the pagan equivalent of deifying death? Isn’t this the lie from which Christ delivers rather than a truth he verifies and satisfies?

There is a further conflict in exactly what it is everyone is expected to know and how this connects to faith. Christianity and Judaism are based on historical revelation, yet the presumed universally shared knowledge is not historically specific but more of a philosophical understanding. That is, the criteria by which people are judged are universal, yet no one can live up to these criteria, so we have Christianity, which is historically specific. So, we have one criterion to condemn and another to save, but what is key is both criteria serve as a condition. As Campbell concludes,

 It is of course a much less arduous criterion than the rigorous demand under the law for ethical perfection (or even for 51 percent righteousness), but it is a criterion nevertheless. It is Luther’s own incapacity, now ruthlessly exposed, that demands this significantly reduced criterion, but the need for a criterion per se is grounded in the model’s opening assumptions. Justification is a voluntarist model throughout, focused on the deliberations of a rational individual, so any such individual must at the crucial moment do something![8]

The answer to Luther: faith saves, not due to the prior criterion of the law nor on a presumed capacity and incapacity for knowing and doing, but on the fact that death reigns in the sinful, deceived orientation to the law, and Christ delivers from sin and death and this is, as Paul describes throughout his gospel, universal, cosmic, for all people and creatures, and is the consummating fact of the eschaton when: “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Php. 2:10-11). Faith is not a condition for salvation, it is salvation enacted in the life of the believer. In the justification system, faith does not seem to address any issue, or change the person beyond believing a set of facts. And the question arises, why these particular facts? But in unconditional salvation, faith is the uprooting of the orientation to death, in that being found in Christ is to be found in his resurrection life.

I conclude where Alvin Kimel concludes, with the Apostle Paul:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:11-14).

This circumcision is not of the law but that performed on the heart by Christ. In the same way baptism, with its death and resurrection, is not an act of the one being baptized but a being acted on by Christ. Forgiveness is freely granted in the “making alive” of God through Christ. “The old Adam has been slain, and we now live in the Eucharist of the eschaton. We are saved by the nothing of grace because God’s love is absolute and unconditional: God wills our good, and he will accomplish it. He has sealed his commitment in the death of his Son.”[9] Through faith God is saving, cancelling the condition of the law (and its death dealing deceit) through the cross.

(Sign up for our next class, Romans: Salvation through the Body of Christ A theological study of the faithfulness of God revealed in Christ Jesus as articulated in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Focusing on Paul’s exposition of God making the world right through Christ. Starting September 4th https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings


[1] Alvin Kimel, David Bentley Hart, Destined for Joy: The Gospel of Universal Salvation (p. 103). The Gospel of Universal Salvation. Kindle Edition.  

[2] James B. Torrance, “The Unconditional Freeness of Grace,” Theological Renewal (June/July 1978): 7-15. The article has been reprinted in Trinity and Transformation (2016), ed. Todd Speidell, pp. 276-287. Cited by Kimel, 104-105.

[3] Gerhard Forde, Justification by Faith—A Matter of Death and Life (1990), p. 22. Quoted in Kimel, 22.

[4] Forde, 22-23. Quoted in Kimel, 107-108.

[5] Kimel, 109.

[6] Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (p. 41). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[7] Campbell, 45.

[8] Campbell, 25-26.

[9] Kimel, 112.

Watching Oppenheimer with Bulgakov: American Prometheus or American Adam

The lesson of Genesis 3, proven in human history, is that knowledge of the good or the depth of insight into God’s good creation, is tied to evil manipulation of this insight. More than this, as in the original deception, the knowledge of good and evil was and is taken as spiritual insight (a step toward becoming god). Through the elements of the world man presumes he can ascend to deity, but the “fruit” of this insight is deadly. The fundamental elements are used by Cain to bludgeon his brother to death so that he might displace Abel in the spiritual hierarchy. Having penetrated the depths of the knowledge of good and evil he descends into the world, imagining he is ascending to deity. As Sergius Bulgavov describes the fall: “Thus the deception of Satan was a grandiose ontological provocation,” in that material means are presumed to gain spiritual ends and spiritual death is presumed to be entry into spiritual life.[1]

This might be illustrated in the history of war and science. The course of human history has been shaped by warfare (with some historians claiming history can be written in terms of decisive battles) and warfare has been shaped by technological and scientific innovation. Mathematics, engineering, metallurgy, astronomy, chemistry, navigation, have each contributed simultaneously to civilization and to warfare, with progress in the former being synonymous with the latter. This is clearly illustrated in the case of physics.

Three-hundred years of research into physics revealed in the past century that the physical universe is relative to an observer, that there is an uncertainty principle or the sense in which the universe is not a determinate structure, but is impacted by observation. The universe is not a machine, and the laws of the universe are open, pointing to atomic freedom. The indication is that there is an incompleteness to the atomic world and that there is room not only for human manipulation, but divine care. On the other hand, the culmination of three hundred years of physics, and the discovery of relativity and quantum mechanics, resulted in the atomic and hydrogen bomb.

The list of those working on innovation in theoretical physics is nearly synonymous with those who turned to working on the bomb, while those who refused this work can be counted on one hand (including, Austrian physicist Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission, and Isidor Rabi, who served in a limited way at Los Alamos and was Robert Oppenheimer’s close friend). This raises the question of the connection between good and evil, in that those who peered deepest into the truth and goodness of the universe, instead of developing deep moral and spiritual sensitivity, were responsible for creating weapons of mass destruction.

We recently saw the film, Oppenheimer, about Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” who oversaw its production or invention at Los Alamos New Mexico, and its explosion at Alamogordo. The book, upon which the film was based, is entitled American Prometheus, and both the book and film convey the moral contradictions and struggle faced by Oppenheimer (brilliantly portrayed by Cillian Murphy). Maybe one of the premiere intellects of his generation, not only an outstanding scientist, but cultured and well read in a number of fields, nevertheless he may not have resembled Prometheus so much as the first man, Adam. Prometheus, the god that would civilize man by sharing fire from the sun, may be the wrong image, as Oppenheimer fails to break the bureaucratic and moral prosaicness (the whisperings of the earth-bound serpent) by which he is grounded.

As Bulgakov writes,

Prometheus symbolizes the struggle with metaphysical “petit-bourgeois” mediocrity, (this is man with a conservative imagination) with the self-satisfaction of this world. He misses the higher principle of life, the kingdom of God. The usual Luciferian “petit-bourgeois” interpretation of this symbol reduces it to the level of a struggle for the immanent empirical values of this world, whereas it actually summons man to a higher vocation, to the kingdom of God. It is this “petit-bourgeois” (conventionalism, conservatism) spirit that perpetuates good and evil in their interdependence as the sole path of life and ascent. The fallen state of man with the possibilities that it contains is therefore considered to be the supreme and unique state.[2] 

Rather than struggling against the petit-bourgeois values of his contemporaries (Bulgakov’s picture of Prometheus’ symbolism), Oppenheimer displays “satisfaction” with “immanent empirical values.” As Bulgakov notes, “Evil first presents itself before man in the guise of the natural world.” The serpent arises from the earth to engage the humans in an earthy, earth bound, and return to the earth dialogue. They confuse this earth-wisdom for spiritual insight. “The beginning of evil in man is therefore connected not with revolt or usurpation, but with misunderstanding, naivete and ignorance. Our progenitors did not know how to recognize or to terminate the poisonous conversation with the serpent.” [3] The serpent arises from the earth and speaks and returns to the earth, the earth seems to indicate he can serve as his own deity. There is a gullibility and curiosity – yet the knowledge of good and evil – continues to raise its head.

Oppenheimer is content to filter his scientific genius into building a bigger rock or larger weapon. He thus perpetuates the conventional spirit of “good and evil in their interdependence as the sole path of life and ascent.” This one, we might expect to be among the spiritually enlightened and morally adept, channels his imagination along the rut carved out by the progenitors of the race. Like Adam and Cain, Oppenheimer would employ the elementary particles to play god (as one of his contemporaries accuses). Rather than breaking free of the dance between good and evil, Oppenheimer embodies and proves the principle. Who, more than the father of the atomic bomb, demonstrated that human fallenness is as good as it gets in the petit-bourgeois value system.

So, we might picture Oppenheimer, as the American Adam, rather than as Prometheus. The knowledge of the good, of God’s good creation, is tied by Oppenheimer and his generation of physicists, to the worst sort of conventional evil. Though Oppenheimer has his doubts, and will later lay moral responsibility on the politicians, he never hesitates in building the bomb and agrees the bomb must be used on Japan (even helping in the selection of targets, and despite the fact his colleagues questioned the decision). Instead of imagining total freedom, which is one of the implications of high energy physics, Oppenheimer and his generation pick up where Cain left off. Using the most fundamental elements of the world, they bludgeon their brothers (along with their children and their wives) to death.

Instead of an enlightened, intelligent, freedom, what we get is completely devoid of this freedom.  In man is born the thought that through the elements of the world he is capable of ascending to the highest levels of spiritual life and knowledge. His consciousness of his spirituality has grown dim and the equilibrium between his flesh and his spirit has been disrupted.[4]

The universe at its core indicates both a guiding intelligence and an atomic ground for freedom but this spiritual freedom is not through the elements of the world. The descent of modern physicists into apprehending the elemental particles, the stuff of the universe, while it provided insight it also demonstrated instability or the possibility of disrupting, splitting, or exploding the world with death. Man can interfere with the world at its atomic level, but what he finds is not ascent into the spiritual. He does indeed find a gap indicating the universe marks his presence. The observer is reflected in the observation. The experimenter has to take account of himself in the experiment. But this also introduces the possibility for splitting, implosion, chain reaction and the infection of all with mortality.

The great insight into physics which is tied to most modern innovations is also tied to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the possibility of world destruction. The battle between good and evil, their necessary mutual implication is captured in Oppenheimer. The man is torn between the depth of insight into the good, and the recognition that with this knowledge he has the power of the sun – atomic power – to become the destroyer of the world. The image of the mushroom cloud over Alamogordo, and then duplicated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bears with it the image of skin melting off thousands, and hundreds of thousands of victims. People are still dying of radiation poisoning and cancer in New Mexico, and surrounding states. And every year the number of dead killed by the atomic bombing in Japan continues to increase.

Man, Adam, has the capacity for depth of insight, but this capacity for truth comes with the simultaneous capacity for destruction. God called man to be fruitful and to multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it, and (to) have dominion (Gen. 1:28). But with this power to dominate and manipulate arises the power not only of good but of profound evil. The universe is such that humans can feed into it, manipulate it, control it, and destroy it. Where God brings forth the universe out of the nothingness of the Big Bang, we recognize humans can reverse the process. Man has the power to return the world to the nothingness from out of which it came, and nuclear explosion perfectly illustrates the point.

Thus, Oppenheimer’s reflection upon the success of the Trinity test is fitting: “I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad-Gita, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” Oppenheimer, in the spirit of the first command, subdued the earth and took his place of dominion, but he too reduced it to thorns and thistles. The thorn of nuclear holocaust and the thistle of atomic power threatens to choke all life out of the world. The American Adam, like his progenitor, turned from the task of cultivating and extending the kingdom of God, to displacing it with the kingdoms of this world.

In this sense, the film Oppenheimer captures the biblical proportions of the human struggle enacted in Robert Oppenheimer and his race.


[1] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition) 162.

[2] Ibid, 189-190.

[3] Ibid, 162.

[4] Ibid, 162.

“I Stand at the Door and Knock”: Sergius Bulgakov and Encounter Between Divine and Human Personhood

Sergius Bulgakov’s description of the image of God in humans fulfilled can be captured in the movement between Romans 7, with its depiction of the image as an unfulfilled trinitarian potential, and Romans 8 with its depiction of participation in the Divine reality. The former, or created Sophia in Bulgakov’s description, is meant for the latter, uncreated Sophia or direct participation in Trinitarian reality. Created Sophia, apart from the fulfillment of this potential, still contains the infinite but as in a Lacanian psychoanalytic understanding, it is a bad infinite. This bad infinite, as with Friedrich Schelling and Jacques Lacan, is nothingness taking the place of divine reality. This dynamic of nothingness, that choice posed in creation ex nihilo (God or nothing), is a non or anti-reality serving in place of the positive reality of God. It is not that anyone can truly be alone or remain solitary. There is no complete separation from God – deism or atheism notwithstanding. Even in humankind’s imagined aloneness God provides for the integrity of human personhood, in that he does not overwhelm or violate or overpower, but as Christ says, “I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come into him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3: 20). God convinces “not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit” (Zech. 4: 6). He convinces by Divine love, which presumes the freedom of the person. As Bulgakov writes, “The freedom of the person remains inviolable and impenetrable even for God. Voluntarily, by His kenosis of Creator and Provider, He suspends His omnipotence before the person.”[1] God comes to us in Christ presuming that the image in which we are created is already correlated, already desirous, already made for Divinity.

In Bulgakov’s depiction, the displacement of the Divine image (unlimited sophianization always approximating – participating – mirroring the divine image) can never lead to a complete break or to a “complete fading of the image,” as it always “bears the stamp of eternity.”[2] This “creaturely eternity,” in and of itself, may not be open to explanation apart from recognizing that for which it was made, which is to say the bad infinity of Romans 7 or the isolated psychoanalytic subject, is an impenetrable mystery, if explanation is sought within itself. Just the notion of the limitlessness of eternal life contained in the image, creates a series of paradoxes or antinomies, if explanation for this limitlessness is sought within finite possibilities.

The impossibility of the infinite in the finite, or the negative mystery which this creates, can itself become the lure (the lure of the obstacle cause of desire). For example, sexual difference, or loading infinite weight on male/female difference, creates an obstacle to fulfilment. As Bulgakov puts it, creation “contains infinite possibilities of ascending and descending motion, of deceleration and acceleration,” in which, apart from grace or providential interaction, there is incompleteness – but “dissatisfied with itself” the created “thirsts for fulfillment” in the divine for which it was made.[3] The human image is a receptacle for union with God, but plugging other things into this receptacle creates a short circuit or a bad infinity, in which absence and nothingness are invested with infinite weight (see my two blogs on Bulgakov tracing why antinomies? here and here). We may be familiar with the short circuit (picturing Romans 7 as the norm), but this creaturely infinity only finds fulfillment, according to Bulgakov, in being joined to the Divine.

As Bulgakov notes, this being joined to God or the “sophianization of man by grace,” which is called salvation, is not simply a by-product of the fall of man. “It is generally thought that salvation is something extraordinary that comes from outside, that it transcends man’s natural vocation, his creaturely sophianicity.” But this “salvation” or deification “is predetermined by the very creation of man in the image of God.” Being created in the image of God, means humankind was made to be joined to the Divine, in the manner in which Christ brings together Divine and human in his person. It is not that the individual becomes something other than herself, but she becomes fully herself. Christ’s Divine-humanity is the pattern set for all of humanity. The incarnation of Christ, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the world, are not counter to the individual or her image, but the correlate of what it means to have been created in that image. This possibility is contained in the image, and the fall is not the explanation for the need for grace, but the image itself calls for the fulfillment of its potential in the work of Christ. “The fall of man here signifies only deviation from the straight path of his ascent, which leads him to deification, or sophianization, by virtue of the image of God in him. Man’s state before the fall does not in any way correspond to the postulates of deism concerning the total separation of man’s life from God and the abolition of God’s leadership.”[4]

The joining of the Divine and the human was not complete with creation, but in the Genesis scene, the image was already dependent upon God’s presence and participation. Genesis indicates the necessity of a synergistic relationship as God’s breath is breathed into the first man. The tree of life (or tree of breath) pictures this synergism as not only present in the the original image but also dependent on the necessity of its fulfillment outside of itself (through access to God or the tree of life). Bulgakov’s project aims to return, through his doctrine of Sophia, to an understanding of the human image as a “co-imagedness, since the creature contains the living image of the Creator and is correlated with Him.” The repetition of God in the human image calls for continued life and repetition. Prior to setting forth his notion of this co-imaging human capacity, Bulgakov makes the case that the failure of Western theology in regard to the most basic questions in regard to cosmology and ontology, is itself an argument. It is, he says, “a negative argument in favor of the sophiological statement of this question as the only possible statement for overcoming the aporias” in Western theology.[5]

Genesis pictures the freedom to refuse the fulfilment of this relationship, but theology subsequent to Augustine, focused as it is on God’s sovereignty, does not allow for either this freedom or any significant survival of the Divine image in humanity.  That is, the significance of the human image is lost and left unaccounted for in subsequent theology. This will result in a conceptualization of salvation, peculiar to the West, which cuts itself off from understanding salvation as fulfillment of the original image and the completion of creation. As a result, sin and salvation are made mysterious. What replaces the biblical picture of personhood (the personhood of humans and the personhood of God) Bulgakov describes as something like a mechanical force. “This entire doctrine of the first and second causes, the doctrine of God as the cause of the world, which acts upon the world but also interacts with it in some way, is only a monstrous misunderstanding, a theological temptation, which replaces the revelation of the living and personal God with the doctrine of an impersonal mechanism of causality.”[6]

The Augustinian doctrine of original sin and predestination did not leave room for freedom but it really left no room for sin and salvation in conjunction with persons or the human image. The problem inherited and furthered by Thomas, in his depiction of God as first-cause, ends in a deterministic understanding in which human freedom and the divine image in man are rendered moot or inconsequential. As Bulgakov describes, there may be a semantic preservation of creaturely freedom, but there “is no ontological place in the system of determinism” for any real freedom. “If a mountain (Mt. Blanc, say) settles with all of its weight upon a thin nail that enters into a soft tree, it is meaningless to speak of the possibility of resistance or of choice for this nail: the choice of entering into the tree or of resisting. But the relation between the omnipotence of God and creaturely freedom is incommensurable even with the hugeness of Mt. Blanc in relation to the nail: creaturely freedom is simply annihilated.”[7]

Bulgakov traces the subsequent attempts to rescue human freedom, as in Molinism, but he judges this theology and philosophy a failure in its rejection of a fulsome understanding of the image. “From this point of view, the difference between Thomism and Molinism, so exaggerated in Catholic doctrine, is purely fictitious, insofar as both are forms of inconsistent determinism, trying to save themselves in different ways from their own inexorability.” Bulgakov shows that the turn to Aristotelianism in Thomism leaves theology with the problems of Greek philosophy. “Strictly speaking, there is a place here neither for the distinction between the first and second cause nor for the distinction (which is the same thing) between God and the world, since God is introduced here into the causal logic of the world and the world is absorbed by God’s being. In this monism, there is neither God nor world in their correlation.” [8]

There is no explanation of how God and world can be in relationship, without destroying or absorbing either God or the world. God does everything, in much of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, as there is a loss of the possibility of the divine image in man due to determinism. Augustinian predestination raises the specter, not only that God predestines some to heaven but its correlate, that some are predestined to hell. “To the question, What explains this election of some and the reprobation of others? Augustine responded that he did not know, referring to the unfathomability of the ways of God. The inevitable conclusion that follows and was drawn later is that Christ brought redemption and came into the world only for the elect.”[9] Augustine makes no attempt to explain, apart from the fact of God’s will. Thomas, following Augustine, offers the non-explanation that the saving of some is brought out and appreciated most fully against background of the majority being condemned: “God wished to show his goodness to people, in relation to those whom he predestined, sparing them according to grace and punishing them according to justice.”[10]

Though Augustine and Thomas will attempt to ward off the doctrine of double predestination, John Calvin fully embraces it, along with the perverse understanding of God this entails. “Having the courage of consistency, Calvinism took all the horrifying conclusions of predestination to their extreme.” Calvin refuses all the subtleties attempted by Augustine and Thomas, and enthusiastically embraces that, which apart from long religious training and attenuation must appear abhorrent – the most perverse doctrine ever formulated. “Calvin proclaims his doctrine of double predestination, to glory and to perdition, as God’s inexorable will (thereby making the Gospel approach the Koran). It is clear that such an absolute predestination completely eliminates the freedom of the will (although good works are retained), election or reprobation being logically considered an inevitable fate (Inst. 3, 22, 2).” To deny this obvious conclusion in regard to reprobation is, in Calvin’s estimate, “childishness.” This conclusion is quickly followed by the adult decision (?) that God wills evil: “’He established with the decree of his will’ the fall of the first man (Inst. 3, 23, 81). Adam fell because of a divine predestination. ‘God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him of all his descendants; he willed it’ (Inst. 3, 23, 7).”[11]

The conclusion, drawn from assuming God as cause rather than as Creator – setting both salvation and creation in a causal mode, is “a monstrous misunderstanding” in which the “living personal God,” to say nothing of living personal humans, is replaced by an “impersonal mechanism of causality.” “Here, the idea of creation, of the Creator and creation, is replaced by the concept of a well-adjusted mechanism of causes; and into the motion, established from the foundation, of the moving parts, one wishes to inject freedom. In this doctrine, neither man, the image of God, nor God, man’s Proto-image and Creator, exists.” Despite the best of intentions, freedom is lost, God is lost, and human personhood is lost, all replaced by a sovereign machine.[12] This negative argument indicates the need for a more positive development.

For Bulgakov, the turn from God as cause to God as Creator is the means of rightly understanding personhood and the possibility of God entering into creation and his creatures. As he sums it up, “In the creation of the world, God, in becoming the Creator, repeats or doubles his own being beyond the Divine Sophia in the creaturely Sophia.”[13] The illustration of what Bulgakov might mean, is found in the divine breath repeated by and in the first man. This repetition of the breath or life of God in the man, gives man his own life, which is indistinguishable, in certain aspects, from the life of God. The man has personhood, free choice, a capacity for relationship, and a capacity to name, order, and exercise his will on the world. Of course, with the fall, there are delimitations set upon this life and personhood, but the original image, in its direct association with God, remains. Just as with the breath, repeated in the Hebrew poetry of Genesis (in God, in the man, in the tree) so too “the creaturely Sophia is the self-repetition, as it were, of the Divine Sophia outside of divine being, in the “nothing” “out of” which or in which God created the world. Having the force of divine being, the creaturely Sophia, in herself, as the “Beginning” of creaturely being, does not need a “first” cause and cannot even have one.”[14]

Bulgakov pictures the human person as retaining the eternality of the divine image, such that birth, or parentage, or physical origins, do not explain personhood. The origin of humans is the eternal image shared by all of humanity, and this eternality is reflected in the repetition of the divine image in the multiplicity, becoming, or potentiality of all human persons. Even the recognition of finitude (mortality and death) points to an eternal reflexive capacity – an infinite capacity for reason and for choice. Thus, the confrontation with Christ does not describe a passive relinquishment of will, personhood, and reason, but their active engagement. “By their very nature, precisely by virtue of creaturely freedom, creatures cannot receive their being in a purely passive manner. They are endowed with free activity and are individually qualified in the reception of their being. They absorb grace, and this absorption of grace is an ongoing sophianization, actualization of image in likeness.”[15] We must imitate Christ, walk as he walked, exercise active choice (opening the door) in following and reflecting to a greater degree his likeness – forever completing our own image. “Creaturely freedom, modal yet authentic within its limits, encounters divine suggestions which graciously flow into it and are ‘synergistically’ united with it. Man wrestles with God, like Jacob, in his freedom, but he also asks for and receives God’s blessing, also like Jacob.”[16]

In the passage from Romans 7 to Romans 8, it is not that human will or personhood are relinquished or absent in either case, but in Romans 7 the misdirected will is split, frustrated, and caught up in death (the infinite turned in upon itself). There is a threefold absence in the I, of Trinitarian proportions. The law serves in place of the Father, meaning the divine-human relation is disrupted. The ego or I serves in place of being in Christ, such that the reflexive image only reverberates in the interior dimension. This refracts into “the body of death” such that the I is an antinomy, split from within. Chapter 7 is filled with the peculiar suffering of the psychoanalytic subject. The individual is driven by jealousy (7:7), a living death (7:9), deception (7:11), bondage (7:14), frustrated willing (7:18), summed up in Paul’s cry of agony: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (7:24). This is not someone devoid of eternity in their hearts, but haunted by it and yet unable to grasp it. The answer to this eternal, agonizing suffering, is found in Christ. In Romans 8 the person is redirected: “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (8:6). The incapacity exposed in 7, “not doing what I want” (7:15) is displaced by an ability to walk “according to the Spirit” (8:4), and the relation with the law is replaced by a relationship with the Father: “you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, Abba! Father!’” (8:15). The synergistic relation is restored as one dwells in Christ and the Spirit melds with the human spirit: “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him” (8:16-17). In the language of Bulgakov, created Sophia (the created image) is filled with Divine Sophia (the person of God) in and through the love of God fulfilling the human image. The created image is melded with the Divine image and here is predestination of holistic, choosing, free, persons (8:29-30).


[1] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition) 226.

[2] Ibid, 203.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 203-204.

[5] Ibid, 221.

[6] Ibid, 220.

[7] Ibid, 208.

[8] Ibid, 211-212.

[9] Ibid, 214.

[10] Quoted in Bulgakov, 216.

[11] Ibid, 217.

[12] Ibid, 220-221.

[13] Ibid, 222.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, 225.

[16] Ibid.

Sophia as Deliverance from the Sin of Gnosticism, Dualism, and Monism

Sergius Bulgakov defended himself against accusations of Gnosticism with the simple statement, that is definitive of his work, that he in no way endorsed dualism.[1] His utilization of philosophy has one overriding point, the point of his work – the antinomies (giving rise to Gnostic dualism and monism) which present themselves in philosophy are characteristic of the sinful human predicament. Philosophical antinomy expresses the antagonism, alienation, agonism, and violence which poses itself in the human condition (human wisdom) as ground. Gnosticism is a case in point of the human problem. His work is the resolution, not only to the Gnostic dilemma, but to the human dilemma (represented by Gnosticism) – namely, that beginning with the world, irresolvable contradiction and dualism (giving rise also to monism) are the result. This is the tragedy of philosophy, but the tragedy of philosophy is the tragedy of the human condition. Understanding the scope of the problem Bulgakov is addressing may be the prerequisite to trusting his orthodoxy, even in those daring passages which an uncharitable reading might consign to Gnostic heresy.

What we learn from Bulgakov, is not that Gnosticism per se is the human problem, though Gnosticism or some form of proto-Gnosticism or Gnostic-like understanding (the term may have limited usefulness) is the primary heresy the early church confronted and which much of the New Testament is written to combat. To call this heresy Gnosticism may be not only a historical inaccuracy but a delimitation of the human problem, which the various Gnostic cults represent, but which they in no way exhaust.  To imagine that it is Valentinian Gnosticism that is the source of Hegelianism, Russian Sophiology, or simply modern tendencies, is to get the cart before the horse.[2] Gnosticism is a case in point of the dualism which inevitably attaches itself to human thought, and Bulgakov is addressing this larger problem. He understands the problem is not simply philosophical, but pertains to events like the Russian Revolution, to world war, or to the unfolding of world history. His vision is that the pervasive manifestation of the human problem is addressed at its root in the work of Christ and the Church: “The truths contained in the revelation of Divine-humanity, particularly in its eschatological aspect, are so unshakable and universal that even the most shattering events of world history, which we are now witnessing, pale and are nullified in their ontological significance in the face of these truths insofar as we perceive these events in the light of that which is to come. And that which is to come is the Church in its power and glory, together with the transfiguration of creation.”[3] Dualism is not simply the problem posed by the abstractions of philosophy, but these abstractions articulate the moving force, the “shattering events” of world history,” which are nullified in the revelation of Divine-humanity. The philosophical arena is the prelude to theological insight in its articulation and demonstration of the problem.

Thus, Bulgakov begins his work on eschatology and ecclesiology by describing the problem inherent to taking human wisdom as an end: “it is first necessary to exclude two polar opposites: pantheistic, or atheistic, monism on the one hand and the dualistic conception of creation on the other.”[4] The nature of Sophia or wisdom in its created form, divine-like as it is, thus gives rise to the characteristic forms of human religion, philosophy, and psychology. Human identity is through sameness (monism) and difference (dualism), and these do not really constitute two alternatives, as every thesis/antithesis is aimed at its synthesis. Monism, in its materialistic form would resist (obliterate) the spiritual, and in its spiritual form it would deny materialistic reality. “On the other hand, dualistic atheism is a kind of subjugation to satanism, where the prince of this world, the black god, pretends to occupy a place alongside God.”[5] Avoiding these two extremes defines Bulgakov’s project.

Created Sophia alone, and in his estimate philosophy only has this resource, cannot account for the world and God. The Greek philosophical effort is aimed at providing an independent integrity for the world, “where the world can find existence for itself alongside God’s absoluteness. The world does not want to become nothing in the face of this absoluteness, but instead seeks its own something. It finds this something in a kind of anti-god or minus-god.”[6] There is a reification of the nothing, from out of which the world was created, or in Platonic terms the chora is the eternal ground of the world.

To posit a god alongside God, or an absolute alongside the Absolute is, in Bulgakov’s estimate, clear nonsense. “Every system of dualism falls apart from internal contradiction, is ontological nonsense, which one does not have to take into account in the general problematic of the world. It is impossible to accept that God exists and that, alongside Him and besides Him, there exists a pseudo-divine principle, a “second god,” expressly directed at the world.”[7] While religion and philosophy built upon dualism can be dismissed, what is undeniable is the goal of finding a place for the world and the problematic this poses, even for Christian theism. The tendency in overcoming dualism is to return to various forms of monism – proclaiming there is nothing outside of the world or that there is nothing existing alongside God (discounting the reality of the world). This is the problem Bulgakov addresses, which accounts for his unique approach in describing the God/world relation as that found in Creator and creation.

Either the world directly has its being in the divine act of creation or it is imagined to have its being in nothing (the contradictory impossibility implicitly posed in Platonism):

The world relates to God not as equal to Him, not as a mode of being coordinated with Him, but (if one can say this) as a heterogeneous mode of being. The world is created by God; it is His creation. The world’s existence is a special modality of being. This being is one; it is precisely divine being. And for the world there is no other ground, or “place,” of being except this createdness by God, except this special mode of divine being. And the fact that the world is created out of nothing means only that the world exists in God and only by God, for the world does not have within itself the ground of its own being. In itself, the world is groundless; it is established on top of an abyss, and this abyss is “nothing.”[8]

The created being of the world is not a fact available in the world but only through Christian revelation. Platonism has no answer as to how the “ideal, intelligible ground” of the world is connected to the world. At least, this is the Aristotelian critique of Platonism, but Aristotle then posits the unconditional eternality of the world and his Unmoved Mover as impersonal force. So the choice is a Platonic dualism or an Aristotelian monism.

Aristotle makes the supreme principle of the world, the prime mover, so transcendent that it appears to be separated from the world, above it. But at the same time, this principle is only the world, although taken to its highest power. Aristotle’s theology therefore has a cosmological character, and his cosmology passes into theology. Strictly speaking, his theocosmism has a real place neither for God nor for the world, because it does not really distinguish between them. The world continues into God, so to speak, and God descends to the world, is immanent in it, as its (impersonal) foundation.[9]

Depending upon one’s preference, Aristotelianism amounts to either a dualism between a distant God and the world or a monism in which the world includes its cause. Aristotle’s Sophiology “is a doctrine of divinity without God and apart from God, of divinity in place of God, in the capacity of God.”[10] Platonism divides created and uncreated Sophia and Aristotelianism allows for ambiguity. Bulgakov concludes:

Thus, all that both Plato and Aristotle (each in his own way and in his own language) have to report about the divine or sophianic foundation of the world is true as an intuition of human philosophy. However, this foundation remains uncomprehended and unexplained in its special nature as Sophia or divinity in relation to God. Sophia is directly equated with God here, and sophiology is considered to exhaust both theology and cosmology. Plato and Aristotle are both sophiologists, but they are unable to complete their sophiologies in a theology. Indeed, they do not even have a theology. In this they are burdened by the limitedness of paganism.[11]

The project of Bulgakov’s Sophiology is to “overcome the world’s isolation” while still distinguishing the world from God. The danger is the world will be lost in pantheism, in which God is everything, or God will be lost in the world (“abstract cosmism”).

Thomism and various trends in scholastic and patristic thought turn to the Aristotelian notion of causality (to attempt to cross this bridge), positing God as first cause or prime mover and the world is what is moved. But the unmoved mover reduces to contradiction as causality causes and is caused and a mover moves and is moved and the unmoved mover is neither moved nor moving. Causality and motion “both belong to the world of uninterrupted, unruptured, unitary being, continuous in motion and in causal connection.”[12] Cause and motion do not transcend the world. The first cause is part of a causal chain, supposedly linking God and the world, yet we do not encounter God in the world or as part of this causal chain. Either God is erased as part of a causal chain, or there is an infinite gap between God and the world. Laplace proposes there is no gap and no need for the hypothesis of God in the causal chain, and inasmuch as God is simply first cause in a series this must be true – God is not needed.  

God, however, is not simply the “cause” of the world but its creator, and this is quite different, in that he stands outside the being of the world. The world is not God and God is not present as part of the being of the world. To project the being of the world upon God, a bottom-up apologetic, inevitably reduces God to part of the furniture of the world. He is simply another link in the causal chain, and if the chain is long enough, God need not be posited as its end. Creator and creation speak of a very different sort of God/world relation. “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the visible came from the invisible” (Heb. 11: 3). Causality and motion are visible aspects of the being of the world and they do not touch upon divinity or reach the notion of creation and Creator.

The Creator is a person not merely an impersonal cause, yet the Aristotelian notion taken up by Thomas displaces God with the mechanism of cause and motion. “But God’s Person, who is a Doer, not a cause, does not fit at all into this category.”[13] The Creator-creation relationship, inclusive of the fact that God sustains the universe, sets God outside of a cause and effect or mover and motion sort of mechanics. Causality is impersonal and “dead” where the creativity bringing forth creation is “alive and life-bearing” and, far from the blind emptiness of causality, it is guided by a person and this person is working out creative goals. Creation has a telos that pulls it forward and not simply a blunt cause that pushes it along.[14]

God’s life, or who God is, is the creative force behind creation. God’s life extends into the very breath or life at the center of the universe. And here Bulgakov makes a clear departure from Thomism and much of western theology, in that he pictures creation as an essential part of God. God is not by chance or accident Creator, but Creator is God’s nature.

The roots of the world’s creation lie in God’s eternity. It is usually considered that the world’s creation is something nonessential, additional, and as if accidental in God’s being. It is thought that God did not have to become the Creator, that He does not need the world, that He could remain in the solitude and glory of His magnificence (cf. Thomas Aquinas and the scholastics; see above).[15]

Along with this notion, that God became the creator at some point in time, there is not only a positing of a time before time, but the posting of a difference between God’s freedom and any “necessity” coordinate with his nature.

 In Thomism creation is not a necessary part of God’s nature, but Bulgakov suggests this leads to contradiction in that “all such attempts to measure God’s being by time, namely before and after creation, or to define different modes of necessity and freedom in God, as well as their degree, are exposed as absurd, as contradicting God’s eternity and unchangeability. In general, the intention, in God Himself, not only to distinguish but also to separate and even to oppose God in Himself and the Creator is wholly fallacious. God’s all-simple essence is one and unchanging, and if God is the Creator, He is the Creator from all eternity.”[16] God is, as part of his essence, Creator and this means creation is included in God’s life. Creation from nothing indicates creation’s ground in the life of God. While creation may have its own sort of created being, the divine life and being are its ground. The world does not simply exist alongside God, though God has granted the world its own autonomy, but this autonomy arises directly from the work of God and arises from the intra-divine life. In turn, God is not limited by the world but who he is extends into the world.

Thus, God is both God in Himself and the Creator, with a completely equal necessity and freedom of His being. In other words, God cannot fail to be the Creator, just as the Creator cannot fail to be God. The plan of the world’s creation is as co-eternal to God as is His own being in the Divine Sophia. In this sense (but only in this sense), God cannot do without the world, and the world is necessary for God’s very being. And to this extent the world must be included in God’s being in a certain sense. (But by no means does this inclusion signify the crude pantheistic identification of God and the world, according to which God is the world and only the world.) [17]

Necessity and freedom are not opposed in God, but are inseparable. On a human scale, we come to total freedom, not through resisting the will of God, but by submitting to this will, as this is the fulfillment of our nature. This “necessity” is freedom, and there is no antagonism or contradiction. So too, the divine nature exercises total freedom by acting in accord with this nature, thus there is not a distinction in God, as he naturally is, and God as Creator. God could no more not create than he could not be God. It is his nature to create. “For this reason, we must consider inadmissible and contradictory the anthropomorphic principle that God “freely” (i.e., in the sense of the absence of necessity, not compulsory but inner necessity, of course), or accidentally, as it were, created the world, and that the world therefore did not have to be created.”[18]

This does not mean that creation “completes God” or that the world is divine in a pantheistic fashion. 

 The Divine Sophia exists in a dual mode: in her own mode, which belongs to her in eternity; and in the creaturely mode, as the world. Only such an identification of the two modes of Sophia, with their simultaneous differentiation, can explain why, although God is the Creator, this does not change his divinely sophianic being or introduce in the latter a non-divine or extra-divine principle.[19]

Creation is founded on the wisdom of God, and this wisdom or Sophia, as in Christ, has both its created and uncreated mode. “The LORD possessed me at the beginning of His way, Before His works of old. From everlasting I was established, From the beginning, from the earliest times of the earth” (Proverbs 8:22-23). Wisdom, eternal and uncreated, first puts forth its energy in creation, then becomes incarnate and created. This wisdom is both “from everlasting” or from out of eternity, and then, in subsequent verses, it is conceived or given “birth” (ESV), or “brought forth” (NRSV). As the NRSV translates it, “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.” God creates from out of himself, or to say the same thing, from out of nothing.[20] Divine Sophia is the mode in which creation was brought forth and it is through this wisdom that the divine foundation is provided, but this ground in eternity is not itself divine.

In this sense, creaturely being exists alongside God and not in God. Being is conferred by God onto the world, and thus is laid “a foundation for being in itself.”[21] As Bulgakov puts it, “The trihypostatic God has the divine world in and for Himself. But the being of this divine world contains yet another mode of its being in itself: as content that is independent of its belonging to God.”[22] There is a hypostatic Sophia (joined directly to divinity), and a non-hypostatic Sophia granted being in itself.

Christ is the ideal (telos) of creature and Creator brought together, and Christ’s incarnation is the dynamic goal being worked out (it is in process) in all of Creation. Creation has its own “temporal-creaturely being” and is in the mode of becoming, but this is not alien to the divine foundation, though it is distinguished from the unchanging Being of God. In creation’s being completed the creaturely Sophia is taking on her identity with Divine Sophia.

Bulgakov resorts to a psychological picture of this process. He pictures the I, in language that resembles Freud’s fundamental fantasy, as imagining itself without origin and as self-positing. This has a double sense, in which the self-positing I simply calls upon its own sophianic resources, and reduplicates the fall – or the attempt to have life within itself. As Bulgakov points out, the I is confronted with limitations, and thus its creaturely and divine likeness contradict one another. This contradiction is resolved only where the creaturely consents to being completed in the divine likeness – the universal consent given in Christ.[23]

Divine and creaturely Sophia are joined perfectly in Christ: “Revealed in this world are the same words of the supra-eternal Word that make up the ideal content of the Divine Sophia, the life of God: ‘All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1: 3).’”[24] The life of the Word in the Spirit pervades all of creation – giving being to the Word and through him being to the world. “One and the same Spirit of God gives them being. It is necessary to affirm and understand with all one’s power this identity of the divine and creaturely world, or (what is the same thing) the identity of the Divine and the creaturely Sophia, in their essence, and thus the eternal, uncreated, divine foundation of the world in God.”[25] This is not Gnosticism, Platonism, Aristotelianism, or Thomism, but is explanation of how Christ saves, reduplicating the hypostasis of the first born in the extended family of God.


[1] Fabian Linde, The Spirit of Revolt: Nikolai Berdiaev’s Existential Gnosticism (Stockholm University, Stockholm Slavic Studies 39, 2010) 106.

[2] See the work by Richard Lee May, Gnosticism and Modernity: An Archaeology of the Influence of Valentinian Gnosticism on Modern Systems of Thought Through the Theological Theme of Sophiology (unpublished Dissertation, Canterbury Christ Church University, 2015).

[3] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition) Introduction.

[4] Ibid, 3.

[5] Ibid, 5.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 6.

[8] Ibid, 7.

[9] Ibid, 11.

[10] Ibid, 11-12.

[11] Ibid, 14

[12] Ibid, 35.

[13] Ibid, 35.

[14] Ibid, 37-38.

[15] Ibid, 44.

[16] Ibid, 44-45.

[17] Ibid, 45-46.

[18] Ibid, 46.

[19] Ibid, 46.

[20] Ibid, 63

[21] Ibid, 63.

[22] Ibid, 48.

[23] Ibid, 88-89.

[24] Ibid, 50.

[25] Ibid, 50.

Cluster Bombs for Jesus: The Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit 

The demonization of Jesus by the Pharisees (in Matthew 12:23-29) will ultimately result in his crucifixion. This, combined with Jesus’ teaching, exposes their blind hatred, their taking good for evil and evil for good. He exposes the murderous scapegoating mechanism, which is the true heart of their religion. They have confused God and the devil, such that they would destroy God incarnate in order to save their nation, religion, and themselves. Killing God to save the nation (Israel, in this instance), is the satanic strategy and law of the universe which Christ exposes. The Creator submits himself to the law of his creatures, submitting himself to murder – their salvation system. The strategy is evident in the nuclear strategy (mutually assured destruction), entailing the destruction of the world (in nuclear winter) in order to win a nuclear war, pointing to the law of blind hatred, demonization, and scapegoating always at work in war. Every war is the result of “ultimate injustice,” a desperate “necessity” in which there are no options and all out destruction is the only alternative. The enemy has the power to destroy the nation. They have nuclear plans, weapons of mass destruction, and the devil himself is on their side. The demonized other is beyond the pale – with negotiation or forgiveness unimaginable. The positing of satan – the demonized other – is the satan, which makes forgiveness or empathy or balance impossible.

In the eyes of the Pharisees, Jesus is an evil enemy devoid of the good. His movement must be destroyed. He is the devil, Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, Stalin, Mussolini, and Putin, or the equivalent of every demonized devil, who must be obliterated. However, the charge against Jesus is not yet the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The age of the Spirit is ushered in by the Messiah, inclusive of His rejection and death, exposing once and for all the blind hatred that would kill him and for which he pronounced forgiveness on the cross.

Demonizing Jesus, calling the good evil, and glorifying evil as good, allows no room for the work of life-giving power of the Holy Spirit or forgiveness, but this is not the blasphemy to which Jesus refers. The attack on the Son of Man is not itself the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, as demonizing Jesus, calling the good evil and evil good, is not a peculiar problem of Pharisees or Romans. Demonization is the universal human problem giving rise to violence and war. This is the law and organizing principle of the world which killed Jesus, and this is the mechanism Jesus exposes.

The mechanism of blind hatred, of scapegoating, and sacralizing murder, are forever exposed by the work of Christ, which ushers in the age of the Spirit. The age of the Spirit, or the age of forgiveness, are made possible by the work of Christ. The blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is demonization and scapegoating in spite of Christ’s work. The forgiveness of God is contingent (as outlined in the Lord’s Prayer) upon forgiveness (may I be forgiven as I forgive), most especially of the enemy or the unforgiveable other. Demonization of the enemy, in the age of the Spirit, is the unforgivable sin as it cancels the possibility of forgiveness. The unforgiveable sin, in other words, is projecting the impossibility of forgiveness upon the demonized other.

In church history, the demonization of Jesus is soon reversed, so that the very motive that killed Jesus is turned on the Jews during the crusades. The contagion of violence that killed Jesus, in the ultimate rejection of the Gospel, is taken up in the name of Jesus. Could it be that among the first to commit the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit were those Christians who trampled on the cross of Christ by demonizing and murdering Jews in the name of Jesus? Rather than obeying the gospel command (the forgiveness of the enemy demonstrated and instituted by Christ), Christians, in their antisemitism, cancelled the very heart of the gospel. They are among those who go on “sinning willfully.”

As the writer of Hebrews indicates, it is one thing to set aside the Law of Moses but “How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?” The next verse indicates clearly, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay” (Heb 10:28–30). The unwillingness to suffer, the seeking of vengeance (not allowing for God’s vengeance), the demonization of the other, all in the name of Jesus, tramples upon the cross and the Spirit of grace it provides.

This is frightening at a personal level, as it is easy to demonize the enemy, but it is also frightening at a corporate level, as the contagion of demonization sweeps over people and there seems to be no resisting it. The gospel is the singular point of resistance, the singular place where we should be able to stand back from the hysteria of scapegoating and recognize that all-out violence, that which killed the savior, is the blasphemy from which he would save.

The problem or impossibility of Christian nationalism, is that nations work according to the logic of the scapegoat while Christianity is the exposure of the scapegoating mechanism. The nation state depends upon demonization, while Christianity is premised upon its defeat. The lie of demonization, apart from its exposure by Christ, never sinks in. The projection of evil necessary for war, is the lie which is only incrementally exposed, apart from Christ.

It is obvious that the various military fiascoes of the United States, in Vietnam, Panama, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and now Ukraine are built on a hollow demonization. Evil must be destroyed no matter the cost, or at least this is the narrative which justifies yet one more war. To protect human rights and establish international order there is no end to the human rights violations and chaos required. The justifications are lies, but few seem to notice. Germany had no nuclear weapon, the Japanese were set to surrender before the nuclear holocaust unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the communist domino effect was a hoax, there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Noriega was an American puppet, etc. etc. etc.  The past justifications now stand exposed, and the lying prognoses of easy victory are set aside as the next demon arises. The hoax is forgotten, and pure evil is projected on the next enemy. As Chris Hedges argues, “The U.S. public has been conned, once again, into pouring billions into another endless war. They lied about Afghanistan. They lied about Iraq. And they are lying about Ukraine.”[1]

Yes, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a war crime, but have we forgotten it was provoked by NATO expansion and by the United States backing of the 2014 “Maidan” coup? Could it be, as Hedges argues, that the war in Ukraine is a proxy war serving U.S. interests? “It enriches the weapons manufacturers, weakens the Russian military and isolates Russia from Europe. What happens to Ukraine is irrelevant.” Hedges concludes, “The war will only be solved through negotiations that allow ethnic Russians in Ukraine to have autonomy and Moscow’s protection, as well as Ukrainian neutrality, which means the country cannot join NATO. The longer these negotiations are delayed the more Ukrainians will suffer and die. Their cities and infrastructure will continue to be pounded into rubble.[2]

Indeed, negotiation is the only possible outcome, short of Ukrainian absorption by Russia, yet the United States may reap benefits in resisting the inevitable. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell admitted as much: “First, equipping our friends on the front lines to defend themselves is a far cheaper way — in both dollars and American lives — to degrade Russia’s ability to threaten the United States.” Hedges makes the case that the Ukrainian war is not without vested U.S. financial interests, as “most of the money that’s been appropriated for Ukraine security assistance doesn’t actually go to Ukraine. It gets invested in American defense manufacturing. It funds new weapons and munitions for the U.S. armed forces to replace the older material we have provided to Ukraine. Let me be clear: this assistance means more jobs for American workers and newer weapons for American servicemembers.”[3]

In the Clint Eastwood movie Unforgiven, the old gunslinger is familiar with the sort of demonization that has had to occur to give rise to murderous impulses, but he needs the money. He recognizes the humanity of his victims, and his own cold-blooded willingness to kill is made obvious. Forgiveness is neither given nor a possibility in this black and white world, yet the entire edifice is exposed as a lie, in this most unwestern of westerns.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy has taken on the aura of a white hatted good guy, but is his banning of eleven opposition parties justified, or is his allowing of fascists and right-wing militias to flourish truly serving democracy? Is it even possible to question his saintliness or to question the goodness of Ukraine? Hedges raises the questions,

Why did the Ukrainian parliament revoke the official use of minority languages, including Russian, three days after the 2014 coup? How do we rationalize the eight years of warfare against ethnic Russians in the Donbass region before the Russian invasion in Feb. 2022? How do we explain the killing of over 14,200 people and the 1.5 million people who were displaced, before Russia’s invasion took place last year? How do we deal with the anti-Russian purges and arrests of supposed “fifth columnists” sweeping through Ukraine, given that 30 percent of Ukraine’s inhabitants are Russian speakers? How do we respond to the neo-Nazi groups supported by Zelenskyy’s government that harass and attack the LGBT community, the Roma population, anti-fascist protests and threaten city council members, media outlets, artists and foreign students? How can we countenance the decision by the U.S and its Western allies to block negotiations with Russia to end the war, despite Kyiv and Moscow apparently being on the verge of negotiating a peace treaty?[4]

What becomes obvious, is the bad guys may not be as demonic or the good guys as saintly as there black and white hats indicate. Apart from the necessities imposed by scapegoating, the necessary divisions of one kingdom against another as the logic of this world, the need for enemies might be exposed for what it is. War requires demonization; thus demonization and scapegoating are required for nation building. Where an enemy is lacking one must be created.

If Russia did not want to be the enemy, Russia would be forced to become the enemy. The pimps of war recruited former Soviet republics into NATO by painting Russia as a threat. Countries that joined NATO, which now include Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia, reconfigured their militaries, often through tens of millions in western loans, to become compatible with NATO military hardware. This made the weapons manufacturers billions in profits.[5]  

On Friday, the Biden administration announced it would start delivering cluster bombs to Ukraine. Declared weapons of mass destruction and outlawed by 123 nations – including all of America’s allies – cluster bombs are the short-term equivalent of all out warfare, in which blind destruction of the enemy boomerangs back to kill noncombatants. The bomblets are notorious for producing duds, or the equivalent of small, unexploded grenades which can lie around for years or decades before someone – very often a child, spots the brightly colored objects and sets them off. [6] The weapons pose a severe and lingering risk to noncombatants, having killed or injured an estimated 56,000 to 86,000 civilians since World War II. The Nazi developed weapon, was heavily deployed by the United States in Vietnam, where in an eight-year period the Air Force dropped some 350 million bomblets, which accounted for some 75-90% of American casualties (early in the war) at the hands of the Viet Cong, as recovered duds provided their primary source for explosive devices.[7]

One might suspect, with Hedges, that it is the cabal at the center of the military-industrial-complex that keeps the U.S. engaged in endless conflicts. He claims it is the “pimps of war who orchestrate these military fiascos” and that they “migrate from administration to administration.”[8] While there may indeed by these Dr. Strangeloves, plotting continual war and potentially if not inevitably set to ignite the war which will end civilization, I presume there is a more sinister force at work, a force so powerful as to be the guiding logic organizing human civilization.

The grand tragedy is that this force uncovered and defeated by Christ is thought to be in the service of the good. Cluster bombs, weapons of mass destruction, and ultimately nuclear weapons, may be called for so as to defeat the enemy. It may be that only through final war and world destruction that the battle can be won. This is the lie being posed. Apart from the Gospel, the lie of scapegoating, demonization, violence, and war, are the only alternative. The necessity of violence is only countered in Christ who has defeated and exposed the lie from the Father of Lies.  


[1] Chris Hedges, “They Lied About Afghanistan. They Lied About Iraq. And They Are Lying About Ukraine,” <chrishedges@substack.com> July 2, 2023

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The Editorial Board, “The Flawed Moral Logic of Sending Cluster Munitions to Ukraine,” The New York Times (July 10, 2023)

[7] John Ismay, “America’s Dark History of Killing Its Own Troops With Cluster Munitions,” New York Times (Dec., 4, 2019).

[8] Hedges, Ibid.