The Shift from Love to Freedom is the Turn to the Law that Kills

If the church fell with Constantine, as medieval scholastics describe it, I presume this fall is like the first. The love of God is traded for the law/knowledge of good and evil in which death will become the means to life. The Constantinian corporate version of the Fall imagines peace and harmony will be achieved through war, death, and violence. With Constantine, Caesars, princes, and soldiers, in spite of their killing, were permitted into the church under the legal provisions of just war, which though it was an exception to the rule, would result in a theological shift. The main stream of thought continued to forbid priests to be soldiers, and penance was required of princes or their soldiers who participated in killing. Shedding blood continued to disqualify a potential priest for ordination. Nonetheless, with Augustine’s neo-platonic notion that one could both kill and love their enemy, allowing not only for just war but for the use of the sword against heretics, the equivocal nature of common vocabulary was made to float around the hidden counsels of God. God determines what is good so that his will is the good, and this turns out to be quite arbitrary. As the biblical writer says, “Who oh man are you to question God?” So, if God wills it, by definition it is good.

 The shift in ethics that is occurring in the Constantinian church comes at a steep price, as this requires focus on God’s essence as freedom or will.  Rather than presuming the love of God as primary, the shift in ethics implicitly requires focus on the will of God. This may have been an unconscious necessity, but the point as outlined by Augustine, is to make it clear that God acts “beyond any external necessity whatsoever” so as “to shape the destinies of all creation and the ends of the two human societies, the ‘city of earth’ and the ‘city of God.’”[1] As Brad Jersak sums it up, “Augustine begins with God’s freedom to love and forgive and save, in which he is accountable only to himself. . . But Augustine is quick to add that it works both ways. God is also free to judge and condemn and damn.”

As Ron S. Dart depicts it,  

Augustine took a position at times quite at odds with the Alexandrian Christianity of Clement and Origen. It is in Augustine that notions such as election, double-predestination, God’s sovereignty, just war and God’s willing and choosing reach a place and pitch that has much in common with the God of Biblical Judaism. . .. [We see] in Augustine the return to a willing, choosing sovereign God, not bounded by goodness or justice. Such a God could and would use his freedom to elect whom he willed for salvation and whom He willed for damnation. This is not a god [we can] truly trust.[2]

This focus on sovereignty will continue in the Voluntarism of medieval theology, which will be definitive of the Protestant Reformation. Voluntarism also places God’s will prior to his goodness in an effort to protect God’s freedom, and it is particularly concerned to explain God’s complete freedom. God’s own nature is thought to be at stake and so there is a primary emphasis on God’s sovereign will as the primary attribute of God. His will is absolute, even beyond good and evil, so that it is not good or evil which constrain God, but that which is good is good because God decrees it. God’s will is a singular absolute, as this is thought to be the only way to preserve God’s freedom. Nothing constrains God, so that he can forgive or condemn as it pleases him, and to try to say why he does anything is to endanger his freedom with something other than pure, unadulterated, will. God is God, law is law, power is power, or will is will, and to suggest that any finite category, such as goodness, love, or evil, might impinge upon this absolute freedom of the will is to degrade God’s sovereignty.  

Calvin goes where all before him had hesitated, and suggests that all events, even evil ones, take place by God’s sovereign appointment. There is no difference between God’s permission, God’s purposes, or what God allows or what he commands. Calvin turns to Romans 9, and the example of Jacob and Esau, to argue that what God does depends upon nothing other than God’s will:

You see how he refers both to the mere pleasure of God. Therefore, if we cannot assign any reason for his bestowing mercy on his people, but just that it so pleases him, neither can we have any reason for his reprobating others but his will. When God is said to visit in mercy or harden whom he will, men are reminded that they are not to seek for any cause beyond his will.[3]

Calvin makes it clear, God’s mercy and his condemnation are purely gratuitous: “the covenant was gratuitous at first, and such it ever remains.” While one might momentarily think David bases God’s favor “according to the cleanness of my hands,” Calvin points out that God’s unfathomable pleasure precedes this favor. “In commending the goodness of his cause, he derogates in no respect from the free mercy which takes precedence of all the gifts of which it is the origin.”[4]

Calvin concludes:

The devil, and the whole train of the ungodly, are, in all directions, held in by the hand of God as with a bridle, so that they can neither conceive any mischief, nor plan what they have conceived, nor how they may have planned, move a single finger to perpetrate, unless in so far as he permits, nay, unless in so far as He commands; that they are not only bound by His fetters but are even forced to do him service.[5]  

So, the evil of the devil and the evil of wicked men cannot be permitted to somehow exist apart from the volition of God. As Jersak concludes, “Every act of terror, every rape and murder, every genocide or infanticide, every cancer and heart attack, every famine and plague are all in the service of God’s ultimate purpose: that you would fear him and glorify his name.”[6]

Another way of understanding focus on pure freedom and will is as a turn from the person of God (defined by love) to a focus on impersonal power. Personhood does not really figure into the discussion of freedom, as the normal constraints of personhood are set aside. To say that one’s choices are unconstrained – unconstrained by circumstance, unconstrained by time or place, etc., – in the case of a human is clearly contradictory. Someone constrained by nothing would have to be dead or nonexistent, but of course this is the ultimate constraint. But the same thing holds true for God – to say that nothing constrains his will would mean that his personhood is sublimated or overridden by his arbitrary choices. This is not a description of a person but is a description of pure arbitrary or “gratuitous” power (in Calvin’s words).

I would suggest that the Constantinian shift is a repetition of the Fall – as with all sin. The turn from love to freedom, as definitive of the divine essence, is simply a return to the law. To imagine that there is life in the law is synonymous with the reduction of God to raw power. In this system, one does not speak of relationship, covenant, and love prior to the law, but one begins with the law itself as if it is its own reason. “The law is the law – yours is not to question but to obey.” This primary focus on the law is definitive of the sin which the writers of the New Testament are putting to rest.

Paul explains that the law – the law of sin and death – is the power that has been unleashed on the world and which is being defeated by Christ. The Mosaic law per se, Paul explains, was not the problem, but we can follow what was done with the Mosaic law to perceive the problem. This law was grounded in a promise fulfilled in Christ, but the Jewish inclination is to forget the love, to forget the covenant, and to focus on the marker of the law.

John explains that the law was not an end in and of itself. The law is not grace, the law is not truth, as this is the place of Christ (Jn. 1:17). Jesus corrected, reinterpreted, completed, and suspended the law as he is the final and full revelation of the loving truth of who God is. “God’s essence is not pure will. His essence is selfless love. God’s primary attribute is not freedom. God is first of all good.”[7] We know who God is through Christ, and to presume otherwise is to return once again to the law.

As David Bentley Hart has put it, “It is a sort of ‘oblivious memory’ of Paul’s message that all the powers of the present age have been subdued, and death and wrath defeated, not by the law – which, for all of its sanctity, is impotent to set us free – but by a gift that has cancelled the law’s power over against us.”[8] The sovereignty of man (the man Constantine) and the will of humans are playing the decisive role in the turn from love to freedom. God’s sovereign purposes are thought to reign supreme in the Sovereign Constantine, so that all the benefits of law and freedom seem to be accruing, through history, by a different means than the love of Christ. As is always the case with law – there are advantages to those who wield this weapon. God willed, it was thought, that some be rulers, some be powerful, some be on top. God willed it, that settles it, bow before this casuistry. In Western history the devolving focus on pure will makes it obvious that one can take hold of this force and wield it – should he be uber-man enough. The will to power, the will to freedom, the will to throw off all constraints, except as those constraints accrue to my benefit, describes the modern end of the turn to freedom.  

Throwing off the constraints of tradition and religion and turning to the “I am that I am” of the cogito, founds the absolute law of reason and of the individual. This “thing that thinks” is as mysterious and unapproachable as the God who wills. This autonomous, isolated, immortal, entity, is dependent upon no contingency. There is only the free movement of the will, as neither body nor thought impinge upon this mysterious automaton.  The problem is that this thinking thing is as removed from thought as the council of the sovereign God is from history, from Christ, and from love. The curse of this power is that it operates beyond reach, beyond reality, and beyond love. This thinking thing is constrained by nothing – and this death and nothingness is its curse – the curse of the law.

With Paul we might cry out, “but who will deliver me from this law of death. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! . . . Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Ro 7:25, 8:1).


[1] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions of Saint Augustine, (Minneapolis, MN: Filiquarian Publishing, LLC., 2008), 7. Quoted from Bradley Jersak, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel (p. 314). CWR Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Jersak, 64.

[3] John Calvin, Calvin’s Institutes, 3.23.6. http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books/Calvin%20Institutes%20of%20Christian%20Religion.pdf

[4] Calvin, 3.17.5

[5] John Calvin, Calvin’s Institutes, 3.17.11. Reference in Jersak, 315..

[6] Jersak, 66.

[7] Jersak, 79.

[8] David Bentley Hart, The Hidden and the Manifest: Essays in Theology and Metaphysics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 319. Thank you Matt for this gift that keeps on giving.

A Different Form of the Faith: The Constantinian Shift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for Discerning the Counterfeit Gospel

If the gospel is the most powerful force for good ever unleashed on the world, would it not follow that the most powerful force for evil is a perverted gospel? Isn’t it the case that in the wake of Christianity there has been an intensification of both good and evil, ever increased possibilities for the preservation and destruction of life, such that humankind has taken its longest strides simultaneously in both directions? The works of healing, the spread of agencies and individuals that would relieve suffering and poverty, the heightened focus on humaneness and preservation of life, has been shadowed by systemic genocide, systemic disregard for life, wanton destruction of entire civilizations, and an ever-increased capacity and willingness for global destruction. Passing over objections for the moment (which might argue either that the religion has only produced good or evil), if the best of times and the worst of times have their genesis in Christianity, this would mean that the seemingly internecine disputes within the New Testament pertain universally.

The disputes about eschatology, the nature of salvation, the nature of authority, the diagnosis of sin and its remedy, will turn out not just to pertain to those within the church but will ultimately be of concern to the world. That is, the Jews killed by Germans, the natives slaughtered all over the world by Portuguese, Spanish, English, and American Christians, the Palestinians being displaced on a daily basis due to the support of Christian Zionists, or on this Thanksgiving Day – the natives subjected to Christian’s theft of their food, land and lives, had or have a vested interest in whether Christians see salvation in terms of an “inward spiritual peace” or actual nonviolence.

It turns out that evangelical eschatology is of profound consequence to Palestinians, and that notions of Church unity such as that of Pope Boniface VIII (“it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff”) would result in the death of millions of native peoples. The “Christian Doctrine of Discovery” sought to subjugate indigenous peoples through a combination of military power and conversion to the Christian religion. Pope Nicholas V theologically supported the taking of land and the subduing of all non-Christians, so that Muslims, infidels, and other enemies of Christ could be reduced to perpetual slavery and their lands and goods seized to support the Christian religion. Colonialism, slavery, and genocide developed from the movements and decisions that, in the beginning might have seemed to pertain only to the church. Just war theory, for example, traces its origins to the manner in which Augustine dealt with Christian heretics in North Africa, and future generations would extrapolate from his advocacy of coercion in the church to coercion outside of it. Forced compliance with orthodoxy within the church led to forced conversion and crusades without.

 The people inhabiting “discovered” lands were counted as enemies of the faith so that conquest meant dominion over the land, which as it would develop in Manifest Destiny in the United States, did not allow for Indian ownership of land or any sort of humane self-determination. As late as 1946, Supreme Court Justice Stanley Reed, upheld the notion that sovereignty coincided with being Christian:

This distinction between rights from recognized occupancy and from Indian title springs from the theory under which the European nations took possession of the lands of the American aborigines. This theory was that discovery by the Christian nations gave them sovereignty over and title to the lands discovered. While Indians were permitted to occupy these lands under their Indian title, the conquering nations asserted the right to extinguish that Indian title without legal responsibility to compensate the Indian for his loss. It is not for the courts of the conqueror to question the propriety or validity of such an assertion of power. [1]

The genocide of native peoples, the taking of their land and their lives, became the legal precedent or proof of Christian sovereignty which continues to undergird white supremacy and Christian nationalism. This presumption of a Christian nationalism, of Christian privilege, of equating being a good American with being Christian, overlaps with racial subjugation, showing itself in this political moment.

The fusion of right-wing politics and Christian nationalism pervades evangelical Christianity and has a history reaching back to the Puritan notion that the United States was a “city upon a hill,” which easily morphed into American exceptionalism or “America First.” World War I may have served to permanently forge the notion of America as a Christian nation, as Woodrow Wilson could equate the American cause against Germany with humanitarianism and evangelist Billy Sunday equated the war with Hell against Heaven.

Though there is a long history of ties between the Republican Party and Christian nationalism (see here), Donald Trump has tapped into this understanding with his consistent themes of God and country, calling the U.S. “a nation of true believers” which constitute “one people, one family, and one glorious nation under God.” Echoing his evangelical supporters, he has repeatedly argued that if America remains true to its faith, God will bless the country and defeat its foes. The conclusion of many evangelicals is that the loss of Donald Trump to Joe Biden marks the spiritual demise of the Nation.  

On the other hand, the forces opposing evil can often be traced to a Christian impetus, including resistance to Christian nationalism. Early Christian opposition to violence, abortion, euthanasia, warfare, also had a worldwide impact in the gradual abolition of slavery, the rise of world-wide peace movements, the rise of anti-colonialism, and a trend to a recognition of a universal humanity.  If slavery and colonialism had their Christian justification, it is also true that abolitionist movements and anti-colonialism also had their Christian justification. The famous stories of William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr., women’s liberation, black liberation, third-world liberation, can be matched by less well-known stories of Eastern Christians such as the Thomas Christians of India, the Nestorian Christians who travelled the silk road as far as Japan some 1,400 years ago (long before Xavier’s arrival in the 1500’s), all of whom put the lie to the notion that Christianity is Western, colonial, or tied to national sovereignty.

During the same period in the 1930’s in which Christian nationalism was arising, a counter understanding arose among American Protestants who began to think of Christianity as a global community. This was a natural outgrowth of the global missions movement and the recognition of an international Christian community which was intertwined throughout the world. Even the Presbyterian hawk, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, began questioning nationalism as it portrayed itself in the League of Nations, which he had helped establish. Dulles would mobilize American churches in the 1940’s on behalf of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by which he hoped to curb Christian nationalism. Though he backed American involvement in World War II, it was on the condition that the United States begin building a permanent peace “along internationalist lines of global interdependency, as a nation among nations.”[2]

With the election of Donald Trump, it is Christian believers who have most clearly resisted evangelical, Trump-like Christian nationalism. American clergy united to issue the “Reclaiming Jesus” manifesto which has declared that we are indeed in a fight for the soul of the nation, but claiming Trump’s “America First” is “a theological heresy for followers of Christ.” The statement reads in part,

It is time to be followers of Jesus before anything else—nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography—our identity in Christ precedes every other identity. We pray that our nation will see Jesus’ words in us. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).[3]

Michael Curry and 22 other clergy reminded Americans: “Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries.” They went on to say, “We, in turn, should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants, rather than seek first narrow, nationalistic prerogatives.”

As the group Christians Against Christian Nationalism have put it,

Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. We reject this damaging political ideology and invite our Christian brothers and sisters to join us in opposing this threat to our faith and to our nation. [4]

Nationalism and globalism, colonialism and anti-colonialism, slavery and abolitionist movements, or a full range of modes and means of oppression and liberation, might claim a Christian impetus. There is no sorting out the vast movements of history without turning to the New Testament to discover whether it is primarily promoting inward peace or holistic world peace, a violent or non-violent God, a violent or non-violent atonement.

 This puts a renewed importance on one of the major goals of the epistles of the New Testament and on the work of Forging Ploughshares, to clearly delineate the Christ from the anti-Christ and the gospel from its counterfeit, as Christianity has been deployed to promote the worst sorts of evil and the greatest of the good. The problem may be in discerning the difference and developing the tools for discernment, but this seems to be a time in which discernment is made easy.

Forging Ploughshares is committed to the belief that the key mark of an authentic Christianity and Church is its dedication to nonviolence and peace and that the false gospel does not know the way of peace (Romans 3:17). It may be that the false form of the faith has never been made more evident than at this moment in which thousands have been sacrificed to mammon under the guise of Christian nationalism. There is no question that we are at this moment overwhelmed with a false gospel promoting violence and pledged to narrow nationalistic interests. The false church reigns and bears the mark of the nationalistic beast it serves, but there is at the same time a clear exposure of the motives and means of this false religion.

Is it not now more evident than ever that Christian belief might be put to serving evil apart from taking up the cross and implementing the true peace and love of Christ?  


[1] United States v. Alcea Band of Tillamooks, 329 U.S. 40, 67 S.Ct. 167, 91 L.Ed. 29(1946). “United States v. Alcea Band of Tillamooks Et Al.,” The University of Tulsa College of Law, http://www.utulsa.edu/law/classes/rice/ussct_cases/US_v_Alcea_Band_Tillamooks_329_40.htm. Newcomb, “The Evidence of Christian Nationalism in Federal Indian Law,” 315. Quoted from Ruehl, Robert Michael, “THOREAU’S A WEEK, RELIGION AS PRESERVATIVE CARE: OPPOSING THE CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE OF DISCOVERY, MANIFEST DESTINY, AND A RELIGION OF SUBJUGATION” (2014) at file:///C:/Users/Paul%20Axton/Downloads/Thoreaus_A_Week_Religion_as_Preservative.pdf

[2] Gene Zubovich, “The Christian Nationalism of Donald Trump,” in Religion and Politics (July17, 2018) https://religionandpolitics.org/2018/07/17/the-christian-nationalism-of-donald-trump/

[3] The Statement can be found here: http://www.reclaimingjesus.org/

[4] https://www.christiansagainstchristiannationalism.org/statement

Reason Dependent on a Reified Nothing: From Genesis 3 to Kalām

The concept of nothing or emptiness in Scripture is connected to the concept of creation ex nihilo (creation from nothing), to the idol (which Paul declares is nothing), to the concept of death (the biblical depiction is of being brought to nothing), and to the empty tomb of Christ. It is connected to evil in a twofold sense, in that Paul concludes the idol is nothing (nothingness reified) but then immediately warns that this particular brand of nothingness is demonic (I Cor. 10:19-20). The reification of nothing, or making nothing an absolute something, characteristic of idolatry, is a process that is not halted in being exposed, as it is the characteristic form of sin and evil in which nothing “comes alive.”

One way of characterizing the problem raised by natural philosophical arguments is that the category of nothing or absence is made to come alive through the form of reason in which these arguments are packaged. Nothing and darkness are made a positive experience in Anselm’s cosmological and ontological arguments (“God I have seen you, yet I have seen only nothing and darkness”), which is not just any old mysticism and rationalism, but it is the characteristic form of thought taken up by Descartes and modernity. Nothingness and emptiness have come to play a key role in the “virtual reality” (the marker of nothing, zero, illustrates the necessity of nothing behind the virtual) that is the modern, which is neither recognized as virtual nor equated with sin and evil, as it is the nihilism of foundational reason (nothing made something) that has come to dominate in theology. Below, I sketch the biblical depiction of sin and evil (revolving around nothing (death, absence) made something), which has been obscured, and explain, in part, the how and why of this obscuring as it is interwoven with the rationale of the kalām cosmological argument.

The devilish or the demonic in Scripture, from Genesis 3, is not portrayed as a positive ontological force which opposes God, but as a corrupting sub-personal entity which would alienate and empty out the presence of God. The serpent appears in Genesis 3 from among the creatures, out of creation – it appears and disappears. The perspective sold by the serpent is the immanent frame (a closed universe) in which knowing (epistemology – “knowing good and evil”) is attached to being (ontology – “you will be like gods”). Death is denied (“you won’t die”) but is displaced by the positive knowing and being which, I presume, are not exposed in the subsequent experience of shame and alienation. The isolating, alienating factor of sin, its death denial, and its exponential mimetic desire (in the first pair and their offspring) will all become part of the biblical depiction of sin. What is offered in place of life is death, in place of God shame and absence are held out as divine experience. In place of naming and knowing God, a knowing which refers back to itself (the reduplicated “I”) is taken up.  And this is always what the arche, the principle of the world does; it constitutes a closed world in which nothing is made an absolute impassable boundary. The idol is an unobtainable object which creates exponential desire which gives rise to child sacrifice.

Paul equates sin with this same idolatrous desire which comes to grip everyone, as they are confronted with the law and they find that their own “I” or ego is as unobtainable as an idol. The death connected with this desire can either be a slow masochistic struggle with one’s own body of death, or it can just turn to murder or idolatrous slaughter (Rom. 3), but the point is to gain, through death, what was withheld by desire. This is why Paul connects universal death with the spread of sin, as death evokes the response which characterizes sin.

The mistranslation of Ro 5:12 and Augustine’s formula for original sin (all somehow mysteriously sin in Adam) reverses cause and effect, so that instead of death spreading to all and giving rise to sin, sin is made the cause of death such that anyone subject to death has to have been thought to have somehow sinned. In Paul’s original argument, it is the reign of death which accounts for the spread of sin and not vice versa. Interwoven throughout the passage is the universally observable truth that death reigns (“death spread to all men” v. 12; “death reigned” v. 14; “the many died” v. 15; “death reigned through the one” v. 17; “as sin reigned in death” v. 21). As Paul concludes in verse 21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way around. Sin’s struggle, in Paul’s explanation, is a struggle for existence in face of the reality of death. The biblical picture in Genesis and Ro 5 accords with the obvious reality that we all have the problem of death.

The human project is to extract from the mortal that which is immortal, to make the perishable imperishable and this is what Paul calls sin. Notice that the sequence of events in I Cor 15:55-56: O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” Paul is describing a law, given power, through sin’s orientation to death.  This law of sin and death pertains to any law, any symbolic framework, which would reify nothing.

A different way of saying all of the above, is through a misconstrued creation ex nihilo (as Jacques Lacan first recognized), in which nothing is posited as that out of which every subject generates himself. The self consists of a three-fold dynamic in which the symbolic order (the law) names and posits an object (the ego – the “I”) which is nonexistent, and the drive or dynamic to grasp or obtain, is death or the death drive. In this depiction the human subject is a continually generated creation ex-nihilo. Like Martin Heidegger’s vision of a vase, as structured around and containing nothing, or actually creating a void, this named void describes every idol. This captures Paul’s depiction of the subject that would displace God: the law acts as father creator, and the ego is the object he would draw from the nothing, and this dynamic of death serves in place of life.  On the way to thinking and grasping after being, there is a generation of nothing. But this exercise is continually reduplicated in various human undertakings, whether religious (idolatrous religion but also every sacrificial form of religion), philosophical (Conor Cunningham runs this down exhaustively), or in the philosophical arguments for God

Many things reduce to nothing, but it is the way in which philosophical arguments providing for the initiation of the theological project have introduced nothing into the heart of theology which is my present concern. It is not so much the legitimacy of the various philosophical arguments for God but the form of reason with which they are connected and to which they give rise, which requires scrutiny. As I have previously claimed, the danger with the traditional arguments for God is that they impart the epistemological skepticism upon which they rely as normative. The “reason” that attains God in the ontological argument (on the basis of an incomparable difference) is deployed by Descartes, critiqued but confirmed by Kant, so that the gap between a thinker and his thought, between the noumena and phenomena, or between God and the world, is the implicit necessity which Hegel and Schelling expose. The peculiar modern form of thought, which René Descartes is usually credited as fathering would generate or identify being with thought (“I think therefore I am”).  The move is a reduplication of the lie of Genesis 3 in its claim to life through knowing, and can be directly traced to Descartes’ deployment of Anselm’s ontological argument. Anselm illustrates the same move in both his cosmological and ontological arguments, as in his cosmological argument all thought ceases before the ontological divide but in the latter, there is a singular thought of God or the name of God which begins from the other side of this ontological divide in which immortal being is grasped (though this greatest thought does not allow for any other thought, such as thought of the created order).

 A more obvious and pervasive incidence of the same thing is the Kalām cosmological argument, which develops as part of the Islamic version of scholasticism as an attempt to establish and defend the tenets of Islam. The Arabic Kalām literally means “speech, word, utterance” and is derived from the expression Kalām Allāh (Word of God) and refers to a special mode of thought and argumentation. Kalām denotes then, not just one argument, but the discipline within Islam, and eventually Judaism (as in Jewish Kalām or Kalāmists), which will be absorbed by Christian scholasticism and western rationalism which will foster the same abstraction and the same gap between God and his word. The controversy surrounding the “Word of God” in Islam (is the Word created or part of the essence of God) marks the problem as it will arise in Christian scholasticism regarding the person and work of Christ. The focus on the equivocal or analogous as opposed to the univocal and propositional, describes the gap brought about in the peculiar abstractions surrounding and prompted by kalām.

Knowing God on the basis of the world is obviously very different than knowing God through Christ, which is not inherently a problem, but the first sort of knowing has historically come to interfere with the second order of knowing. It has given rise to a reason to which the Logos of Christ is made to adhere. It is not simply that the argument falls short of the personal God of the Bible, but it fosters a cause and effect notion in which God might be an extrapolated cause of reason, behind or before the universe, but is removed by the very mode of the argument from our words and world.

William Lane Craig, as one of the key promoters of the kalām cosmological argument, posits this gap in God as existing between “His timeless intention to create a world with a beginning, and His power to produce such a result.” The distinction is between “His causal power in order for the universe to be created” and “God’s timeless intention to create a temporal world.” Causal forces exist in time (this side of the nothing in creation ex nihilo) and exist over and against the eternal (prior to nothing) and so the thought (which is eternal), and “God’s undertaking to create” (which has a definitive beginning), must be differentiated.[1] What is implicitly made to differentiate and divide is the nothing, prior to which God only intends to create and after and out of which he creates.

God’s undertaking is the very first event God causes, which posits the same sort of infinite regress the argument rejects. The kalām argument depends on there not being an actually existing series of objects or discrete entities (an infinite library or infinite rooms in a hotel reduces to contradiction as subtraction or addition to either will not register) reduces to a logical contradiction. Yet Craig needs this same discretion to exist in the mind of God so he does not simply fall back on an unreasonable eternity. He insists on this element of the argument to preserve the argument from the unreason it repudiates and builds upon.

This is not so different than imagining that God is self-caused, as if there is a division between the being of God and the cause of that being – one that allows for the thought of God. This supposition, as worked out in Schelling and Hegel, is not simply necessary for God but it is a necessary move to posit reason as its own sufficient ground. Reason as absolute – the reason of God – cannot be constrained or contingent lest it be caused by something beyond pure reason. Eternity, for Schelling, holds out absolute freedom as that which is enjoyed by a Will which wants nothing as it is wanting in nothing. It is actualized – or in the language of Craig, it becomes a causal power – when it actively and effectively wants this nothing (Indivisible Remainder, 23). Only nothing can avoid the possibility of some determinate content, but this is a nothing made something, so that God himself is produced through the creation ex nihilo of pure and perfect reason. The formal conversion of nothing into an actively sought after “nothing” accounts for the absolute “ground” of God’s coming to himself. “The blissful peace of primordial freedom thus changes into pure contraction, into the vortex of ‘divine madness’ which threatens to swallow everything, into the highest affirmation of God’s egotism which tolerates nothing outside itself” (Indivisible Remainder, 23). Otherwise nothing would ever happen. What Schelling and Hegel expose is the necessary role of negation and nothing in absolute reason.  

God serves as his own ground and posits himself in the absolute freedom and rationalism of the enlightenment. An argument which will deliver God, is an argument in which reason is posited as more primary than belief in God.  The strength of the argument depends upon the strength of the reason deployed and absolute reason depends upon a conclusion arriving at the absolute. Craig’s version of the kalām argument depicts the gap of nothingness which the argument brings to life.

The point of the incarnation, the empty tomb, the risen Lord, is to erase the reifying lie inherent, not only to modern rationalism, but surrounding the impetus to alienation and death (he who would save himself). Where the cosmological argument assumes that something exists, then argues from the existence of that thing to the existence of a First Cause or a Sufficient Reason of the cosmos, Christian believers presume to encounter God in his essence in Christ, and this presumption tells us what sort of world we live in. There is no inherent incommensurateness, no gap, no duality, no noumenal/phenomenal split, as creation, language, the world, are perfectly suited to revealing God, but what stands in the way of this revelation is the insistence on a sufficient knowledge apart from the act of God.


[1] “Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause?: A Rejoinder,” forthcoming in Faith and Philosophy. Quoted from Wes Morrison, “A Critical Examination of the Kalam Cosmological Argument,” accessed at https://spot.colorado.edu/~morristo/kalam-not.pdf

Acknowledgement of the Problem of Evil as a Test of Authentic Christianity

John Piper apparently (I am quoting someone quoting – I do not have the willpower to look myself and hopefully it is all a lie) has a best-selling book explaining that the coronavirus is directly caused by God: “It is a bitter season. And God ordained it. God governs it.”[1] Piper maintains (according to my informant, who in a perfect universe would be pulling my leg), God is teaching a series of lessons (the horror of sin, divine judgment is coming, prepare for the second coming, no more self-pity, have joy, become a missionary, and I presume – vote for Trump) but of course as with all such lessons, God is having to kill off those who are paying the price for this somewhat confused lesson.  This sort of blasphemy has a specific genealogy, through John Calvin, that makes it plausible that there is such a book and such an author (to say nothing of his unfortunate readers).  

According to Calvin, what we would call evil, originates in the secret council of God: “The first man fell because the Lord deemed it meet that he should.”[2] “I freely acknowledge my doctrine to be this: that Adam fell, not only by the permission of God, but by His very secret, the council and decree …”[3] “God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it.”[4] In this view, one must learn to delight in the evil caused by God and ultimately to spend an eternity rejoicing at the sight of the damned roasting in hell. There is a majority Christian tradition in which such notions were not open to consideration and if proposed would have been dismissed as sub-Christian or simply pagan. What Calvinism shares with most forms of paganism, is that evil (though it may exist as a word or a concept) is not really a problem but just part of reality (the reality of God in Calvin, or a necessary part of the cycles of karma in Hinduism).

Of course, at the existential level all humans are confronted by real world evil, but it is the Christian religion that has the most acute problem in explaining evil (unless we are counting Calvinism as Christian on this point, which I would not). As Hume states it, the problem Christians have lies in their peculiar understanding of God: “God is omnipotent and yet animals prey on each other and humans suffer all sorts of ailments. If God is willing to prevent evil but does not, then he is not God. If he is able but not willing, God is not good. If he is both willing and able, then why is there evil?” Hume’s argument may not bring the full acuity of the problem of evil to bear, as one might simply conclude there is no God (which may have been his point – though it is not clear that he was an atheist), but of course if there is no God there really is no “problem of evil,” there are just events which might be good or bad but which do not call for explanation.  

One test of whether we still have to do with the Judeo-Christian religion might, in fact, pertain to the willingness to give full voice to the problem of evil. The earliest book of the Old Testament (according to some), the book of Job, goes Hume one better. There is God, there is evil, and the impetus to provide satisfactory explanation in human free will or human evil are pointedly dismissed by God. Job’s friends have a full explanation of evil (which more or less captures every subsequent attempt at theodicy, though even they do not stoop as low as Calvin and assign evil directly to God).

 As Phillip Nemo has put it, “There is an excess of evil – it exceeds the law of the world, it exceeds the scene of the world as a technical world.” Theory and explanation are refused in Job, but what is put in place of theory is the full existential realization of the human plight. As Nemo brilliantly describes, in Job we pass from “speculative aloofness” (the friends of Job – the makers of theodicies) to “anguished situatedness.” It is the difference between the simple judgment – life passes, death comes – to a judgment of value: life passes too quickly death comes too soon. “They were borne off before their time” (22:16). Swifter than a weaver’s shuttle my days have passed” (7:6). There is a maximum amount of anxiety (“While I am speaking, my suffering remains; and when I am not, do I suffer any less” (16:6).  “If I say, ‘My bed will comfort me, my couch will soothe my pain’, you frighten me with dreams and terrify me with visions” (7:13)) – “the personage of Job suddenly appears as eternal, truer than the world.”

The vision of Job is nothing less than the Christian hope vaguely imagined: “This I know: that my Defender lives, and he, the Last, will take his stand on earth. After my awakening, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God. He whom I shall see will take my part: he whom my eyes will gaze on will no longer be a stranger” (19:25-27). This is not an explanation but a vision, which means it is not within the horizon of technical understanding or theory but is more of an existential comfort. But the quandary of Job or his vision more concretely recognized in Christianity does not relieve the problem of evil, in fact the problem of evil is accentuated.

Augustine’s depiction of evil as a privation, that is it has no ontological ground (as in his former faith of Manichaeism), is a step closer to the truth and set in the right context properly accentuates the problem. Yet, I would suggest, Augustine’s theory of privation has given rise to two major problems: a false notion of the real world power of evil and a multiplication of theodicies. If something is presumed to be simultaneously removed from potency and from the good, this seems to be precisely contrary, according to David Roberts, to our experience: “the more evil something is, the more powerful its acts of destruction, the more we feel its actuality . . . and the more we realize the power before which we tremble is not nothing.”

Sin as a nothing, an incapacity, located in the will might be taken as an explanatory unreality – a ground of departure for a variety of theodicies, all of which will maintain either that evil is less real than the good or that evil is the pathway to a greater good. While, as John Milbank claims, this may be doing violence to Augustine, there is certainly a long history of imagining that under Augustinian terms the good makes sense of evil. This entails, as has been demonstrated in Western thought, adherence to the doctrine of progress and the idea that good ultimately triumphs over evil in and through the outworking of their interaction. Thus, someone like John Hick holds that each person progresses through evil to the good in his own life-time and the fall was a necessary inevitability in this journey. Many will assume that free will requires evil (as an alternative, as a result, or as implicit to freedom) – all of which seems to depend on a weak (post-Augustinian (?)) notion of evil. It is not too far off to see this as resulting in Hegelian notions of idealism (the good arises from out of its interaction with evil).

Assigning evil either to privation of the will or to the necessity endured in order to have a free will, as has been done in classical theodicies, seems to ignore the diabolical (Satan inspired) nature of evil in the Bible. The basic premise of Christianity, perhaps affirmed nowhere else but fundamental to this faith, is that the world is fallen, things are not as they should be, death is unnatural, and this evil is not needed as part of a theory of the good or an impetus to progress. Working backward from Christ, we can presume evil requires supernatural intervention, precisely because it is itself unnatural or sub-natural. As David Bentley Hart has put it, “that the universe languishes in bondage to the ‘powers’ and ‘principalities’ of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the Kingdom of God . . . is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender.”[5]

The problem with theodicies is that in explaining evil they imagine the world is somehow ok the way it is, the cross is not really necessary, evil and Satan are not so serious, and we lose the real presence of God in his defeat of evil and our participation in that defeat. Topics I will take up next week.


[1] Thanks Justin.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Ch. 23, Sect. 8.                           

[3] John Calvin, On the Secret Providence of God, 267.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Ch. 23, Sect. 7.

[5] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories (Kindle Locations 1570-1577). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

Resurrection as Sign or Substance of Salvation?

There are two primary ways of narrating the human predicament and its resolution in Christ and these two ways involve the two broadest forms of Christianity found in East and West (categories that are ultimately inadequate). The question that divides is whether sin is the problem which gives rise to death or is death the predicament which gives rise to sin? How one views this choice is determinative of the role of resurrection but it is also the move which will either posit a gap within or organically fuse the sign of the work of Christ with what it signifies.

The problem, giving us two forms of the faith, can be traced to the 3rd century with the Latin Vulgate’s rendering of Romans 5:12 (which describes sin’s universal spread resulting in death rather than death’s spread resulting in sin, as a consequence of Adam), which will not only give rise to Augustine’s notion of original sin but to varying interpretations of the death and resurrection of Christ which will infect even those theologies which may not hold to either Augustine’s theory of original sin or Calvin’s rendering of Augustinian theory. While there are some 20 different “theories” of atonement (which are not necessarily opposed – though some are) there are two basic approaches to understanding the work of Christ: the life and death of Christ are either a direct reversal of sin (a healing or deliverance) rendered directly available through resurrection, or his life and death are a step removed from the primary problem and his resurrection is a sign pointing to the resolution of the problem (as a sign of righteousness (sin defeated), rather than the thing itself). To state it in this broad way I am intending to capture an array of understandings characteristic, in the first instance, of what we might call Augustinian Christianity (in characteristic forms of Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, but also the range from fundamentalism to liberalism) and Eastern Christianity. The ultimate goal (which can only be gestured to in this introduction) is not simply to distinguish forms of Christianity which separate or do not separate the sign and what it signifies but to describe how the life, death, and resurrection of Christ directly reverse the human predicament which is not clear at this point in theories East or West.  This will entail beginning with the person and work of Christ as the interpretive frame for understanding the solution and the problem toward which the solution is directed (an apocalyptic hermeneutic).

There are texts in Scripture which might support either of these understandings (e.g. the cross as a sign or as an organic solution), so it is not enough to demonstrate that his death is a sacrifice, a consequence of sin, or a pathological result of evil. His death might be all of these things but to make it simply any one of these is not an end of explanation nor does it arrive at the fullness of an organic solution. Certainly, his death was at the hands of evil men (as Peter tells it in the first Christian sermon) but does this mean, as Edward Schillebeeckx maintains, “that we are not redeemed thanks to Jesus’ death but in spite of it.” Or does this mean that, as Donald Smythe has put it, “We revere the cross as a sign and symbol of what fidelity to God means?” What Schillebeekx and Smythe are rejecting is the notion that the death of Christ involves an exchange between the Father and the Son, removed from the human context (as in theories of divine satisfaction and penal substitution), but then they too are guilty of reducing the cross to a sign. The cross is indeed a sign of many things, but is it simply a sign of consequences? It is not enough to reject vicarious satisfaction and with it to reject the centrality of the cross, nor are ancient formulations of Christus Victor (the cross as the defeat of the devil) in and of themselves adequate to rescue this centrality. Just as Nicaea and Chalcedon would develop and extend the New Testament understanding of the Trinity, so too we must develop and extend our understanding of the doctrine of salvation.

This will entail not simply a reordering of proof texts (all 20 theories of the atonement have their texts) but beginning from an apocalyptic presumption that the work of Christ not only provides an answer but also unveils (the root meaning of apocalypse) the problem. Christ is the resolution to a problem we do not understand, as stupidity, ignorance, false sophistication, having believed a lie, is part of the problem he exposes (I Cor. 1:20). The answer comes prior to the diagnosis because the disease is one of deception. To begin with sin is to begin with a complete mystery, even in Augustine’s estimate, which will leave salvation mysterious as well.  The diagnosis and remedy entail a holistic inclusion of epistemology, as the life that one relinquishes so as to gain true life (Mt 10:39; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24; Jn 12:25) is inclusive of the life of the mind. Our addiction to one sort of life is characterized by an addiction to a foundational knowledge (our knowing), which is not simply a modern philosophical method. Augustine is not simply mistaken in his creation of his distinctive notion of original sin but in his hermeneutic which presumes to work out Romans 5:12 apart from Romans 5:10 in which the life of Christ is set up as the interpretive frame for understanding sin and death. Our desperate addiction to a form of life that kills is inclusive of a deadly, lying, interpretive frame. The sure sign of this mode of thought is that it begins explanation apart from the cross and presumes sin and death are accessible apart from his death and resurrection.  

In this sense Augustine’s mistake is the mistake of sin. Death as the occasion for sin is always obscured or denied in sin and instead it is made a result to be voided or avoided (through the law). Contractual theology negotiates a way around death, presuming as it does that the law marks the way even for the work of Christ (he keeps the contract where we could not and he pays the price required by the law). Rather than the law marking an orientation to death the law is thought to be the means of life which Christ fulfilled. The lie of sin, that there is life in the law which voids the role of death, is the mark of failed humanity and religion. You won’t die (as the serpent tells Eve) as death is unreal – a doorway to the unfolding of immortality. So too in a failed Christianity, death is made peripheral by either shuttling the work of the cross off to heaven or getting rid of it entirely. A theology which misses the very thing the cross was meant to heal bears the mark of sin. To reverse the problem, as in an Augustinian reading, and to imagine sin has some sort of mysterious coherence apart from its orientation to death (the grab for life) and its disruption of resurrection life, is to not only miss sin (it is made original, mysterious, genetically conveyed, sexual, pertaining to guilt) but to miss how the cross frees from sin (it too is made mysterious, heavenly, pertaining to the mind of God, or simply particular forms of oppression). 

 Given the starting point of the resurrection and our participation in that resurrection (Paul’s starting point in such passages as Ephesians 2) we come to understand how dying to one form of life is actually a dying into life or a dying to death. That is, resurrection as our starting point also tells us that death does not simply pertain to our morality but to an orientation which is death dealing in the living (the opposite of resurrection living). The reason that the death of Christ leads to resurrection is the same reason that our dying with him leads to our resurrection life. Jesus describes it as a germination sort of dying, bearing the fruit of life. To hold back this planting and germination, so as to keep a grip on the life one loves, is to halt life before it begins. To follow Jesus manner of life, in which he takes up the cross, is already to live out the resurrection (to die with him is to be raised with him (Jn 12:24-26)). In this understanding, death need not characterize a person’s life, so death as the controlling orientation is overcome. Death, in fact, is no longer a negative factor orienting life, but dying to this orientation by embracing the death of Christ is the means to life.  

Joseph Fahey recently shared his class notes with me from a course taught by William Frazier. Frazier used a series of questions to bring out the radical but sometimes subtle difference in these two forms of Christianity. In order to accentuate this distinction and to locate one’s own understanding I have copied, sometimes in revised form, a few of these questions below. I provide an explanation below that might aid in drawing out the difference.

1. Death is a mystery that   A. necessarily destroys life    B. potentially enables life.

2. Death is a result of   A. sin     B. creation.

3. The Father saved us     A. in spite of Jesus death    B. by way of Jesus death.

4.  According to Christian belief the Savior saves mainly by    A. bringing about a real change in the world     B. showing the world how to change itself.

5. God accomplished salvation through Christ by   A. reconciling the world to himself   B. reconciling himself to the world.

6. The Christian life is related to death as   A. oil is to water   B. night is to day    C. flower is related to seed.  

7. Of the following alternatives the one I find closest to the Christian truth is that    A. sin germinates in the soil of mortality    B. mortality germinates in the soil of sin.

8. Of the following alternatives the one I find closest to the Christian truth is that death    A. is something that happens to human beings    B. the way human beings happen.

9. Resurrection means deliverance   A. from death    B. through death.

10. Of the following alternatives the one I find closest to the Christian truth is that the resurrection of Jesus   A.  did away with his death   B. derived from his death    C. reversed his death.

The Limitations of Infernalism, Annihilationism, and Universalism

It is not entirely clear how justice might be rendered and the world set right but this is the Christian hope. By “not clear” I mean that the proper understanding of the biblical images of a narrow way, cosmic redemption, punishment of the wicked, eternal fire, the defeat of sin and death, etc., does not resolve into anything approaching full explanation and, I presume, is not supposed to. Part of what hope consists of, in its admitted (and by definition) incapacity to see, is that there are impenetrable categories posing resolutions to overwhelming problems that escape finite imagination and articulation. Biblical imagery of heaven, hell, and the intermediate state of the dead, is simply that – imagery not meant to serve as exhaustive explanation. It is not only that the abyss runs white hot and cold (outer darkness) or that its opposite includes the entire cosmos (all, everyone, everything) narrowed down to a few select individuals, but these categories made to bear too heavy a weight corrupt the explanation, clarity, and primary point of the Gospel. The New Testament is focused on a practical, present tense explanation of salvation, inclusive of an ethic – life in the body – and an insight into the human predicament, which is evacuated of meaning when the primary focus is put on future categories, whatever they might be (which is not to deny the necessity of better understanding these categories).  This is clearest in the case of infernalism (eternal, conscious, torturous existence) but the same point holds for every position regarding the future estate.

Infernalism is connected to various images (it is mistakenly connected to hades – which is the place of the dead) but usually with gehenna or the lake of fire. The problem is, the New Testament nowhere describes the Cross as addressing the category of gehenna or the lake of fire. Yet conceived as the primary human problem, Christ is thought to bear eternal suffering in hell on the Cross.  This makes suffering and death otherworldly spiritual categories, and since Christ’s suffering in this understanding is inward (eternal, heavenly/hellish suffering for and before God) he could undergo this spiritual suffering without incarnation. To follow this logic will land one just short of the antiChrist position of denying that Christ came in the flesh – here he simply need not have come in the flesh.

Though the innate immortality of the soul need not be posited along with infernalism it usually is, for obvious (and less so) reasons.  To imagine God simultaneously sustaining and torturing in hell forever may be disturbing to those not weaned on Calvin’s understanding that God’s love is an anthropomorphism of the saved, trumped by his hate toward the damned.  Indestructibility is apparently our fall back position as portrayed in both the Bible and psychology. Though the serpent or Satan is behind the idea (in Genesis, Hebrews, Romans), better (so goes the lie) to bear a spark of immortality rather than to imagine God alone is immortal (though Paul says as much to Timothy). Freud maintained there is no mortality in the human unconscious.

Infernalism displaces the biblical focus on Christ’s actual death and his encounter with real world evil of the human kind (that killed him). Salvation, love, heaven, election, or nearly any other key biblical term will bear a very different semantic load if God is eternally angry and salvation is from his wrath for a few luckily chosen or choosing individuals. The goodness of this God is suspect and the redemption proposed would be blissful only for those who delight in the torture of others.  In hell, as eternal torturous existence, wrath is on a continuum in the divine nature coexisting forever with love, though Scripture tells us just the opposite.[1]

Annihilationism is an improvement, in many respects, over infernalism: Jesus speaks of a final judgment primarily employing metaphors of annihilation like the “burning of chaff or brambles in ovens,” or the “final destruction of body and soul in the Valley of Hinnom.” Paul indicates as much: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him” (1 Co 3:11–17). Peter concurs: “But these, as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things that they understand not; and shall utterly perish in their own corruption” (2 Peter 2:12, KJV). The predominant O.T. picture is of the wicked being brought to nothing (a few examples must suffice): “For they will wither quickly like the grass and fade like the green herb” (Psalm 37:2). “Evildoers will be cut off . . . the wicked will perish . . . They vanish—like smoke they vanish away” (Psalm 37:9,20).” “‘For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘so that it will leave them neither root nor branch’” (Malachi 4:1).

Annihilationism fits into a continuum with the living death of sin, with death as a visible result of the Fall – finalized in the annihilation of judgment and Christ’s defeat of death. Infernalism creates a cosmological dualism in which the victory of Christ brings resolution for some but leaves evil and rebellion in place in hell. The eternally burning inferno would seem, as Calvin supposed, to make God’s wrath primary and to throw into question the “cosmic” fullness of Christ’s victory. Augustine proposes that it was a necessity to have an eternal torturous hell so that one could understand the difference of being in heaven. Tertullian, before him, speaks of the saved relishing the sight of the destruction of the reprobate.  Aquinas asserts that the vision of hellish torments increases the beatitude of the redeemed. As Augustine describes it, looking upon the punishments they have evaded helps the redeemed to more richly realize divine grace. It seems there is no place for mercy, pity, empathy, or human decency in a heaven dependent upon hell. Strangely, none note that it is precisely this knowledge built on difference (the knowledge of good and evil) that is fallen.

 With annihilationism, death as being cut off from life with God, has its definitive end in Christ’s defeat of death or in the obliteration of dying. Is there a contradiction though, in saying death is definitively defeated if some are dead forever? One might object that annihilation partly shares in the problem of infernalism, in that Christ’s victory cannot be said to be decisive and complete for all. God might be said to be “all in all” (I Cor. 15:28) but not for all. Perhaps nonexistence is not a counter to all in that it is a discontinuous category, though this doesn’t seem to quite work.

This leaves the option of universalism, which would seem to have its support in the continual New Testament refrain that salvation has come to all: God is the savior of all people (I Timothy 4:10). “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (Romans 11:32). “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Romans 5:18). “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men” (Titus 2:11). “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:22). “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32). “. . . making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10, ESV). There are some 40 verses that clearly indicate the cosmic, universal, all-inclusive nature of salvation. Some form of universalism would seem to be undeniable, and I do not mean those forms that squeeze “all” down to a few. 

The danger with universalism is that it would seem to reduce to insignificance the struggles, suffering, choices, and injustices, involved in the reality of life. Certainly, a fluffy, cheap universalism, which would overlook the oppressive nature of evil for bromides of sentimental morality reduces the Christian religion to chicken soup for the soul. Wouldn’t it have been better to save the candle of human struggle if the flame of salvation brightens all? What is the point, the explanation, the reason? Universalism may set forth some sort of soul-making explanation – a grand lesson with no real consequences – but this will not do.

My point with annihilationism and universalism is not to simply dismiss them as inadequate. Infernalism, annihilationism, or universalism (either the cotton candy gnostic kind, or a morally responsible kind), are certainly not equal and need to be sorted out, but the danger is that the imagery of future things is made to bear explanatory weight where the New Testament offers imagery and not explanation. There is progress to be made in recognizing the perversion entailed in infernalism, the role of annihilation, and the clear teaching of a cosmic/universal salvation. The danger though, is to confuse a more just biblical imagery of future eternal categories with explanation. A better understanding may explain more but it is not the role of any image of the future estate of the damned and saved to sum up explanation and understanding.  In fact, a key criterion in arriving at the best understanding is that it allows for the fulness of the biblical focus on a lived salvation.

The end of discussion on the teaching of the New Testament about the intermediate state of the dead, future rewards and punishment, the extent of salvation, should not confuse a better understanding with a full understanding or imagine that this sums up the focus of the New Testament. For example, it may be that one concludes that annihilation is the primary teaching of the New Testament and better fits a loving image of God and best explains biblical imagery of final destruction. This may be a better explanation, but does annihilation provide final resolution to issues of justice or play the role of a theodicy? Does universalism serve any better? The death of six million Jews in Hitler’s gas chambers is not going to be explained, justified, or understood, whatever future estate you might imagine for Adolph, be it conscious torture in hell forever, annihilation, or redemption. Meningitis, rat lung worms, tooth decay, cancer, the suffering of the innocent, the existence of evil, or Hitler, do not fall within the spectrum of understanding and practical action which is the primary explanatory point of the New Testament – though it may touch on all of these issues. Of course, this practical salvation is best served by correctly delineating end time imagery but this image does not serve in place of a lived deliverance from the shackles of sin.


[1] “For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger forever” (Isaiah 54:7-8). “In an outburst of anger, I hid My face from you for a moment, but with everlasting lovingkindness I will have compassion on you” (Psalm 103:9,17). “He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, that we may live before Him” (Hosea 6:2).

Christ Defeated Sin, Death, and the Devil – Not God’s Wrath

The predominant New Testament and early Church picture of atonement, Christus Victor, is that the death of Christ defeated the powers of evil and brought about liberation from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil. For a variety of reasons Christus Victor was displaced.  The rise of Constantinian Christianity left no room for identifying state powers, the emperor, the principalities and powers, with real world evil as the archon or ruling prince, which would have normally been identified as a minion of the world archon (the Prince of this World), was now a Christian. Maybe it was simply that Christus Victor was sometimes ill conceived and poorly illustrated. Origen presumes that if we were bought with a price then it was the devil who demanded and received the payment of the blood of Christ. Gregory of Nyssa pictures the devil as a “greedy fish” and Jesus as the bait; “For he who first deceived man by the bait of pleasure is himself deceived by the camouflage of human nature.” God “made use of a deceitful device to save the one who had been ruined.” Augustine’s original sin mystified sin (see here) and opened the way for a semi-mysterious theory of atonement (divine satisfaction). The crude depiction of a too powerful devil and a deceitful God, the political and sociological shift with the rise of Christianity as the state religion, the development of a competing notion of sin (original sin), resulted, in the West, with a displacement of Christus Victor.

Anselm’s notion of divine satisfaction bears the allure of reasoned argument couched in the implicit metaphor of Roman law.  Anselm’s genius is often overlooked, coming as he does between the giants, Augustine and Aquinas. However, it is Anselm who marks the shift to a philosophical-like argument which, like his ontological argument and his cosmological argument, functions in a necessarily closed system (pure reason).  Both divine satisfaction and penal substitution are focused on an exchange between the Father and Son: an infinite offence against the infinite honor of God requiring an infinite payment so as to avoid infinite punishment. The infinite and divine exchange (between the Father and Son) is such that it tends to leave out finite human concerns, lived reality, and permits no further insight but it succeeds in shifting focus to pure reason. Instead of being ransomed from sin, death, and the devil, the focus shifted to reasoned abstractions – law, the mind of God, justice – so that we are saved from transcendent categories rather than pressing realities. Salvation becomes an exchange removed from the sickness unto death, as the wrath of God (certainly in Calvin but wrath and anger play a key role also for Anselm) is presumed to be the real problem.

As Gustaf Aulén has noted, penal substitution and Christus Victor present opposed views: the Son bears the anger of the Father (the focus of the Cross) in penal substitution, but in Christus Victor the Father and Son are united in the work of the Cross in defeating evil, death, and the devil. Where the resurrection is a natural consequence as the sign of this accomplished defeat, the resurrection seems to be an addendum to the main event in penal substitution. Instead of a ransom price paid to the devil, it is now God who requires and receives payment – a failed or mistaken notion compounded. Though Satan is depicted as “the prince of this world” (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) possessing “all the kingdoms of the world” and deciding upon who administrates his power (Lk 4:5-6) as “god of this world” (II Cor 4:4), penal substitution seems to leave this power in place. The state (including legal, political, and administrative apparatuses) is now part of the divine order rather than minion of the prince (archon) of this world.  Roman law and Mosaic law are so integral to the logic of both systems that rather than displacing the law (summed up by Paul as the law of sin and death) both divine satisfaction and penal substitution leave the law in place as it is the logic of these legal systems which called for the death of Christ, rather than the death of Christ suspending, displacing, or rendering the law unnecessary. In Paul’s language this would amount to a continuation of the rule of the law of sin and death.

Where penal substitution renders the teaching of Christ pre-Christian and thus not an integral part of the salvation of the main event – the Cross, Christus Victor joins the narrative of the Gospels as Jesus casts out demons displacing the Satanic (Math 12:22-29), challenges the principalities and powers at every turn – Roman and Jewish, heals the physically and spiritually sick under the power of evil. This is the inauguration of the displacement and defeat of the dark kingdom with the kingdom of light (continued in the Church). Gospels and epistles are joined in a singular narrative movement of the defeat of evil, death, and sin through Christ and the Church. Instead of sin being a mysterious guilt posing a problem in the inaccessible reaches of the mind of God, sin is here understood to pertain to enslavement to death and evil as administered by the Evil One. We can witness and explain the hold evil has upon us as the Cross exposes the working of the sin system.

Paul describes sin as a fearful slavery from which Christ defeats and frees us (Ro. 8:15). As Hebrews puts it, he freed “those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb 2:15).  The Gospels picture Jesus confronting this enslavement in myriad forms: for Nicodemus and the Pharisees the security of their religion provides life (life in the law); for the woman at the well the security of sexual love is life (looking for love and life in all the wrong places); for Pilate security is provided by Rome (life through state identity). All have entered into a covenant with death in which pride of place, of identity, or of association, wards off death (death as the loss of pride (shame), the loss of place, the loss of identity). In each instance, the encounter with Christ exposes the emptiness of the covenant with death.

In his life and death Christ continually enters that place or circumstance violently resisted by all. His is the poverty of no place (Nazareth, a peasant, a Jew), the humility of being a nobody servant, the shame of associating with social outcasts. As he enters the jaws of death by walking into Jerusalem his walk of death acceptance overcomes and defeats the myriad forms of death denial that would kill him. Peter’s denial is precisely a refusal of death, but so is the betrayal of Judas who most obviously illustrates denial of death as a succumbing to evil.

The Cross is a confrontation, not between the Father and the Son, but the forces of evil (the Jews, the Romans, Judas, and the Judas in all the disciples) which killed him. It is a defeat of the death resistance which would kill the one (the scapegoat) that the Nation might be saved. It is precisely a defeat of nationalism, racism, ethnocentrism, egocentrism, and all forms of evil that would deal out violence and death as salvation.

It is not God’s violence that kills Jesus but the violence of evil. His death confronts and defeats evil and binds the evil one whose singular weapon is exposed as empty by the empty tomb.

The Real Tragedy of Augustinian Original Sin

The mistranslation of Ro 5:12 in the Latin Vulgate obscures (or in fact makes impossible) the meaning of the Greek original but it took the theological genius of Augustine to ensure that this fundamental error would shape Western theology.  What Augustine provides is explanation for the mistranslation “in whom (i.e. Adam) all sinned”: “Nothing remains but to conclude that in the first man all are understood to have sinned, because all were in him when he sinned.” Whatever it means that all were in him when he sinned (Augustine will link it to sexual passion), in some way everyone is born guilty and damned in the eyes of God. Because they are guilty and damned or because they all sinned (mysteriously so even in Augustine’s account), death then spread to everyone. Even for those who have done nothing (infants – presumably upon conception), it is as if they have sinned. The mistranslation reverses cause and effect in Paul’s explanation, so that instead of death spreading to all and giving rise to sin, sin is made the cause of death such that anyone subject to death has to have been thought to have somehow sinned (in Paul’s language).

This mistranslation and misinterpretation make nonsense of Paul’s explanation of the propagation of sin through death and, as a result, in the history of the Western church, sin’s propagation is mostly left a mystery. It is the reign of death which accounts for the spread of sin and not vice versa. Interwoven throughout the passage is the universally observable truth that death reigns (“death spread to all men” v. 12; “death reigned” v. 14; “the many died” v. 15; “death reigned through the one” v. 17; “as sin reigned in death” v. 21). As Paul concludes in verse 21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way around and it is this explanation for the propagation and work of sin (to say nothing of salvation) that he will build on for the next three chapters.

Original sin also directly contradicts what Paul says in verse 14: “death reigned from Adam to Moses even over those who had not sinned in the manner of Adam.” In Paul’s explanation there are those who have not sinned as Adam did (there is no concept for Paul of everyone sinning “in Adam” before they exist) but death reigned even over these.

 Sin’s struggle, in Paul’s explanation, is a struggle for existence in face of the reality of death. In chapter 4 Abraham is depicted as relinquishing the struggle – though he is as good as dead due to his and Sarah’s age and childlessness – nonetheless they believed God could give them life (a son) and this belief is summed up as resurrection faith. It is not clear how resurrection faith would have anything to do with sin were it not for the fact that sin is the orientation to death (death denial) reversed in Abraham and Christ (death acceptance).

We have been so inundated with the notion of an original guilt equated with sin that it has obscured the open and obvious explanation of sin as an orientation to death. Sin reigns in death not simply because people are mortal or already guilty, but because sin arises in conjunction with death in which people deceive themselves into believing life can be had by other means. Life in and through the “I” or ego or life through the law (ch. 7), life in the tower of Babel (the implicit background of ch. 4), all amount to the lie Isaiah characterizes as the – Covenant with Death (Is. 28:15, a key reference for Paul). The irony of sin is that it is a taking up of death – a living death under the auspices of having life – and this deception is the definition of sin.

For Paul, Adamic humanity and those in Christ are two alternative identities (the only two possibilities), and they are ontological poles apart in regard to life and death. Death reigned through the first Adam and life through the second Adam. Sin follows the reign of death and righteousness follows the reign of life in a similar sort of cause and effect relationship. The transgression of Adam resulted in the condemnation to death for all (access to the Tree of Life is cut off) but the one act of righteousness resulted in life for all people and with this life things are made right in a multiplicity of ways (5:18-8:39).

Rather than sin being accessible to explanation, sin is obscured by the theory of inherited guilt and notions of total depravity, which eschew explanation. They completely relinquish the possibility of breaking down the (il-)logic of sin or any notion of how salvation addresses the sin system and its propagation. Calvin’s explanation of Augustine’s doctrine confounds the possibility of explanation, in that he will attribute the propagation of sin to divine ordinance (along with natural inheritance). The result is that sin is not subject to explanation (in light of salvation) but becomes the lens through which salvation is interpreted (Calvin’s system of TULIP).

To state the situation most darkly, a mistranslation gives rise to a nonsensical notion – a mystery – and this nonsensical notion gives rise to an equally mysterious and nonsensical notion of salvation (divine satisfaction and penal substitution) and an entire system which in each of its parts has nothing to do with New Testament Christianity. Total depravity of the entire race gives rise to unconditional election – divine fiat that cannot be penetrated with any insight. This cannot include all (limited atonement) and all of this is built on a flattening out and rendering irrelevant of human will and action (irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints).

There are a series of secondary effects related directly to this failure of thought. Augustine’s theory of original sin was so tied up with his disapproval of human sexuality that for centuries it contaminated all sexual passion with the idea of sin. Though he deems marriage “lawful” he concludes “the very embrace which is lawful and honorable cannot be effected without the ardor of lust. . .. the daughter of sin, as it were; and . . . from this concupiscence whatever comes into being by natural birth is bound by original sin.”[1] Augustine’s convoluted notion that the male alone contains the proper and full image of God while woman is corporeal (defined by her bodily nature), carnal, and necessarily subordinate to the male, is tied to his notion of the original misdeed and its propagation. One wonders if clergy sexual abuse, not just among “celibate” priests, but across the Protestant and Catholic world today is not connected to this degrading of human sexuality. At a minimum the misogyny and anti-sex bias of the Western church has certainly been influenced by this error. The idea of being punished for a crime committed by someone else (for eternity) is unethical but this unacceptable notion gives rise to an equally unfair idea that someone else can be made to bear this punishment for the crime (divine satisfaction and penal substitution).

Perhaps the primary tragedy of this misreading is that it renders Christianity irrelevant to real world problems and the reality of the solution Christ provides. The biblical picture in Genesis and Ro 5 accords with an already recognized reality in that we all have the problem of death. Death for humans is interconnected with what most everyone would agree is evil: violence, murder, war, and the recognition that death accounts for the human sickness at its root in the inward self (death drive, Thanatos, masochism, etc.). If we believe in evil then it has to be connected to the problem of death. In the human psyche our main problem is not some sort of inherited guilt but that we die and how we orient ourselves to this reality. The fact that Christianity addresses this universal and most basic problem is nearly completely obscured by notions of inherited guilt and imputed righteousness which leave out the painful reality of the human condition and its resolution. Paul’s cry, “Who will deliver me from this body of death” (7:24) goes unanswered where Augustine’s mistaken reading reigns.


[1] Augustine, De bono coniugali

The Treatment of Women as a Test of Trinitarian Orthodoxy

The male/female nature of the image in Genesis, as Paul explains in I Corinthians 11, is necessarily plural and pertains directly to gender in that the two are interdependent in both origin and relational integrity (the woman is from the man and the man from the woman and separated from one another they are nothing, v. 11). That is, image bearing pertains to relationship between the two, with God, with the world, and within the self, and this multidirectional relational capacity is interwoven within all these spheres. We might say the Fall of humankind is a failure of gendered identity but of course this pertains to the deep psychology of the individual, relationship to God, or simply the capacity for relationship. The New Testament brings this out most sharply (it is present already in the Old Testament) in that salvation and final redemption are depicted in terms of restored gendered relations: the Church is depicted as bride and Christ as groom, the Kingdom is celebrated as a marriage feast, and the most abiding mystery, male/female unity, is either the vehicle for or analogy of the unity between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5).

Even Paul’s depiction of individual failure in regard to the law is sexualized (in Ro. 7:1-4) in that a woman’s marital status and relational fidelity (adulterous or not) serve to get at the deep psychology of self-estrangement. One can have sexual relations but the status of this act is universally predetermined by the Fall, and of course Paul is not talking about actual sex and marriage but an individual’s internal orientation. Love (of the Christian sort) cannot be coordinated with the body and sex, in Paul’s illustration, apart from the marital-like fusion with the body of Christ. There is a fruitful coordination of love with the body only in being joined to the body of Christ (vs. 4), such that gender fulfillment is salvation.

In both Ro. 7:1-4 and in I Cor. 11, Paul not only depicts human failure and success in terms of gender relations but apprehension and understanding of God, particularly God as Trinity, is interdependent with the full realization of male/female interdependence. “Belonging to another” in Romans (7:4) and male/female interdependence in I Cor. (11:11-12) is to be realized “in the Lord.” In both instances this speaks of a simultaneous realization of right relations between men and women coordinated with a fuller realization and understanding of the work of Christ.

In the case of Romans, Paul is demonstrating that an understanding of God, apart from Christ, will result in a two-fold failure – internal failure within the “I” (“I do what I do not want . . .”) and a failure to know God except as he is wrongly perceived through the law. The sexualized failure of 7:1-3 is more fully depicted from verse 7. It is depicted as an internal antagonism due to a deceived orientation to the law, spelling out the meaning of the adulterous, transgressive, failed relationship described at the opening of the chapter.  Ro. 8 fills out Paul’s sexualized success (of 7:4), in that salvation is depicted as participation in the Trinity in which knowing God takes on the Hebraic sense of knowing (knowing bodily or holistically) in that it is a holistic participation in the Trinity. Through being incorporated into the body of Christ, the Father is apprehended as Abba as one is adopted into His new family and the Spirit enables a new sort of intimate relationship with God. The deep psychology of chapter 8 contrasts with that of chapter 7 in that union with God and others (in the body of Christ) displaces alienation, hope displaces desire, life in the Spirit displaces death, the body of Christ displaces the ego, and God as Father displaces the law (the law of sin and death is replaced with the law of life in the Spirit).  Paul sums all of this up at the end of the chapter as the full realization of love. Love can be coordinated with the body (no more mind body antagonism) through incorporation into the body of Christ, as the rightly gendered relation finally and completely overcomes alienation: nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro. 8:39, NASB).

In the chapters leading up to I Cor. 11, Paul has been attempting to dispossess the Corinthian elite of a domineering, cruel, authoritarian, treatment of the weak in regard to sex, finances, visiting pagan temples, and eating meat. The Corinthians’ conclusion that the idol is nothing is indirectly countered by Paul’s depiction of male/female interdependence. Woman is nothing apart from man and man is nothing apart from woman and it is this separation and alienation commonly portrayed in idolatry.  As in Ezekiel, the idol as male or phallic and the worshiper as a female adulterer depicts an impossibility of relationship. The horse sized phallus (of 23:20), serving in place of God, is not describing intense eroticism but an impossibility of relationship (leading to heightened desire and child sacrifice) created by a false image. The restored image, as a direct counter to the failed image (as nothing), draws a direct correlate between men and women and God and Christ. Just as there is no such thing as the Father independent of the Son (or any one member of the Trinity apart from relation to other members of the Trinity), so too there is no such thing as man apart from woman and woman apart from man. The very notion of self-identity depends upon how we relate to others but this in turn is best apprehended in Trinitarian relations – relations which are extended to include human participation. The unity of the Godhead is reduplicated or repeated in male/female unity (v. 3) – not just analogously but, as with Romans, through direct participation (as depicted in the language of “headship” and interdependence). As with the Trinity, to say that one is not without the other is to preserve the individual identity of each (male and female distinction is Paul’s point in regard to hair length and head coverings) while positing each as internal to, or interdependent with, the other (through the Lord).

The meaning of God’s image in humankind cannot be abstracted or removed from Trinity, as the created image repeats the reality of the relation of God to himself (in the Trinity), and this repetition is the unifying factor of human relationship. This means our practical and lived out comprehension of God (a unity containing difference) will be first and foremost realized in male/female relationship. In turn, our understanding of these relationships (as expressed in both theology and practice) in marriage and, as in Corinthians, in ministry (praying, preaching, prophesying) will be a test of our understanding of God. Thus, I mean my above title to carry a double meaning: (1.) we can see how orthodox our Trinitarian belief might be in the practices (particularly involving our understanding of personhood) to which this belief gives rise and (2.) we can test orthodoxy itself (which I explain below) in its views of gender and in its treatment of women.

In a sort of crude illustration of part (1.): male/female oppositional difference might be extrapolated from tritheism (the persons of the Trinity are separate), the reduction of the genders to a singular substantial humanity (e.g. androgyny, soul body duality) might be connected to modalism (the persons of the Trinity are simply a manifestation of a singular essence), and as in the recent evangelical controversy (appealing to I Cor. 11:3), subordination of women to men finds support in the heresy of subordinationism (the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father). With traditional Trinitarian doctrine as a guide, notions of maleness and femaleness as separate principles, as manifestations of a singular essence, or as one subordinate to the other (e.g. women subordinated to men), should be ruled out of court.

While it is clear that heretical Trinitarian theology has helped produce oppression of women (e.g. primary focus on God as Father connected to patriarchalism, complementarianism connected to subordinationism), can orthodoxy claim to have done better? So to part (2.): Augustine’s convoluted notion that the male alone contains the proper and full image of God while woman is corporeal (defined by her bodily nature), carnal, and necessarily subordinate to the male, shows up an inherent weakness in his understanding, if not in his formulation, of God’s Trinitarian personhood. Is the weakness, as with the Eastern criticism, that he allows for subordinationism? Clearly there is a failure in what he extrapolates from his Trinitarian formula (which seems to protect against subordinationism). Gregory of Nyssa (representative of the East) posits a double creation: the first is non-sexual and purely spiritual and the second is bodily and includes male and female. His Trinitarian formulations, like his view of men and women, is more egalitarian but so too the union (devoid of sex in the case of humans) is left a mystery. As Sarah Coakley notes, the apophaticism of the East may mask and make room for the hierarchical and subordinationist tendencies manifest in the abysmal treatment of women in the Eastern Church.[1]

Personhood as understood through orthodox traditions surrounding the Trinity and applied (as in I Cor. 11 and Ro. 6-8) to humankind should give rise to difference-in-unity in male/female relationship (something on the order of egalitarianism in marriage and ministry).  Why has this not been the case? Maybe because people are sinful, they simply do not live out their beliefs. Perhaps, it is simply not the case that orthodoxy produces orthopraxy? Yet, doesn’t John suggest that belief and practice are necessarily related (those that practice righteousness do so because they know the righteous One, I Jn. 2:29)? Isn’t this the whole point of Christianity – transformation of the mind and transformation of lives? Or is it simply, as Tolstoy would have it along with revisionist feminists, that the Trinitarian formulas as we have them are wrong?

Mine is a more moderate suggestion: I believe there is progress to be made in theology and orthodox theology provides a foundation upon which we continue to build our understanding of faith and practice. The failure of practice does not necessarily indicate an error in theory. However, in the case of Trinitarian theology as applied to gender (a biblical correlate central to Fall and redemption, as I have argued), it indicates a failed apprehension and understanding and shows the work that has yet to be done.


[1] Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Blackwell, 2002) 63-65.