Reading Paul with Nietzsche

A key Nietzschean concept, which parallels the Apostle Paul’s picture of the orientation of sin, is ressentiment. With both there is the notion of self-deception in which there is an inversion of values and a resulting attack on the persons or power of oppression under the guise of morality. The Freudian notion of repression, which several scholars believe Freud adapted from Nietzsche, gets at the same structure. Freud’s denial of this borrowing may be a case in point of the phenomena itself – he repressed the fact that it was Nietzsche that coined the term das Es (the id) and that his own borrowing of the role of the super-ego and guilt feelings relied upon Nietzsche’s notion of resentment, bad conscience, and false morality. Freud and Nietzsche undermined any notion of stable subjectivity, intelligible knowledge, or accessible coherence to human experience. Freud’s talking cure and Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence would prove incapable of overcoming ressentiment or the repressed forces which enslave. One always arrives too late, as their reaction to the powers that control are masked as a first order moral response but they are negative powers – a supposed humility, patience, and love that represses and produces a self-induced suffering. The resentment is, ultimately, directed against time and finitude so that one becomes morbidly obsessed with one’s own impotence in the face of death and this obsession amounts to its own dying. One pays for life with their own enforced dying and this acquiescence shows forth in a self-punishing payment.

Nietzsche’s reading of Paul follows the standard misreading, which pictures Paul’s motives in turning to Jesus as the result of sublimated ressentiment which needed relief from the crushing demands of God’s law. So, Paul projected his self-reproach onto Jesus, having Jesus accomplish atonement through his execution. The suffering deity found in Christ meets the need of attacking the oppressor – God. Nietzsche’s is a telling indictment of this standard Lutheran misreading of Paul.

Paul, in this understanding, suffers from an introspective conscience in which he recognizes God’s righteousness, the heavy requirement of the law, and his incapacity to keep the law, which gives rise to his sense of wrong and his guilty conscience. He meets Christ and understands that deliverance is now provided from the requirement of the law, as Christ has met the requirements, paid the penalty, and grace is now available in place of wrath and punishment. In other words, the story of Paul’s conversion is like Luther’s – or more accurately Luther’s conversion and theology become the lens for a revisionist understanding of Paul’s conversion. It is necessary to narrate his story in this way (knowing God, the law, one’s incapacity) as it is a link in notions of judgment and justification which depend on universal access to basic knowledge of God (through nature or as a Jew) and the law (the law written on the heart or given to Moses) as the basis for condemnation and release in Christ. Realization of law and guilt serves as an unchanging universal foundation in this understanding, in which incapacity of will is the problem resolved in Christ.

But isn’t Nietzsche correct, that this puts on display a certain ressentiment against God and the law and isn’t the true depiction of Paul an overturning of ressentiment? The presumed access to a right understanding, present in Luther, and denied by Nietzsche is also overtly denied by Paul. Paul, with Nietzsche, presumes he was completely deceived.

Contrary to this typical depiction, Paul narrates his pre-Christian understanding as guilt free and “without fault” in regard to the law. As he describes it in Philippians, he considered himself righteous, zealous beyond his peers, and bearing the highest qualifications and impeccable credentials: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Php 3:5–6). No introspective guilt-stricken conscience here. No notion of a failed works righteousness makes its appearance. In fact, even the notion of an individually conditioned salvation is missing – Paul’s Jewishness, his descent from Benjamin, his thorough Hebrewishness (presumably linguistic and pertaining to family practice) are not things he achieved. These are not earned merits in which he exercised or failed to exercise his will but are corporate ethnic markers beyond his control. His break from his Jewish notion of salvation is not because he felt it inadequate.  It was perfectly adequate, and more than adequate, as he excelled in his pre-Christian self-understanding.

Paul depicts a radical break with his former knowing and his former identity: “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Php 3:7–8). There is no continuum of knowing, no building on the law of the heart, no guilt and relief. Paul is describing an apocalyptic, holistic change in which one world and identity is displaced by another. A deceived understanding is displaced. There is no ethical continuity based on the law leading to a guilty conscience. Paul does not begin from what he knew as a Jew, or his status as a Jew and thus arrive at his understanding of Christ.

Profit and loss are changed up in the economy of salvation as former advantages in attaining righteousness are loss. The previous system is “excremental” or “garbage” in comparison: “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Php 3:8). Whatever he knew previously has been displaced, and not built upon, by knowing Christ. His viewpoint, his knowledge, his ethical understanding, has been turned inside out as the former system, which was to his advantage, he now sees as a disadvantage.

Paul is not describing a progressive realization, a slow conversion, but is juxtaposing two worlds, two ways of knowing, two modes of identity. His former glory is now his shame, and his former sense of his own goodness – his zeal – is evil (the same sort of zeal that killed Christ, the ultimate evil). The very thing he would have counted as part of his basic righteousness, is evil in that it makes him “the chief of sinners” in persecuting the Church. This former knowing was deceived, misplaced, and gave rise to evil. The Jew is at no advantage, and though Paul speaks of the Jew having a knowledge of God it is misguided. You cannot get to the one by clinging to the other; the picture is not one of rightly knowing the law, failing to keep it, feeling guilty, and realizing that Christ accomplishes what one could not.

Far from the usual narrative, Paul is completely positive in his Jewishness, blameless in regards to the law, glorying in his status and accomplishments – all of which describe what he characterizes as “knowing according to the flesh.” The negative evaluation of his former condition only arises in retrospect of having known Christ.  There is no available light (he has even misconstrued Jewish light), no natural knowledge, no sense of wrong, even given the special revelation to Israel, by which Paul might be judged. In his own pre-Christian judgment, he is without external transgression according to which he might be condemned guilty. Paul’s problem is not that he discovered himself guilty and in need of deliverance from God’s wrath. Paul discovers he was completely deceived in regard to his former manner of life.

What is the basis of judgment (if not universal law) and what is the nature of salvation (if not deliverance from the law)? If Paul, by his own description, has ascended to the Jewish theological heights and judged himself flawless in regard to the law and, by the same token, the chief of sinners, it turns out the human condition is much worse than commonly reported. One can be evil in good conscience and precisely by means of a zealously clear conscience. Religion, law, Temple, sacrifice, even of a kind prescribed by God, can be so misconstrued so as to promote evil. And ultimately this is what is at stake in the two ways of narrating Paul’s story and the theologies surrounding those divergent versions.

The very meaning of good and evil is at stake in the two main versions of Christianity. In contractual theology, evangelicalism, and the main stream of Roman Catholicism, there is a naturally given recognition of good and evil. One has light available through law, ethics, conscience, and nature. There is a natural understanding of God (as the singular creator who is omnipotent and omniscient), a given notion of law, and the universal recognition of an incapacity to keep the law. Christ does not displace an already realized understanding but provides relief for this recognized incapacity and guilt.

On the other hand, in an apocalyptic understanding cosmic re-creation through resurrection founds a new form of humanity on a different foundation. The failure of humanity in the first Adam is total: it has cosmic consequences in the reign of death, the law of sin and death, and the subjection of creation to futility. The specific nature of this futility (the root meaning of the word) is that a lie reigns in place of the truth. The truth of Christ is not additional information to what has already been received, but the counter to the lie, an overcoming of the prevailing darkness, and a defeat of the reign of death. The difference between the two comes down to the most basic question: is it the case that what is taken to be good is actually evil (a total incapacity of discernment) or is it simply that good and evil are known quantities and the problem is in the will?

There is no part of the interpretive frame which is not affected by and which feeds into these two understandings. But the point of division is centered on Romans 1:18-32 which can be read as a universal, ongoing condition, or as a reference to Genesis and Exodus which pertains universally. Is Paul telling us how history continues to repeat itself for everyone or is he describing biblical history as it has impacted all people? Do all people know God, realize his basic nature, understand his ethical requirements, and reject him for idolatrous religion – all the time recognizing their incapacity and guilt? Or has the past rejection of God, who was known because he walked in the Garden, revealed himself audibly, manifested himself in various theophanies, and was rejected by the first couple and their progeny (Cain, Lamech, the Generation of Noah, the Babelites, the Jews at Sinai, all of whom knew God or knew of him because of direct, special revelation) impacted subsequent history? The difference between the two readings already depends upon the theology which flows from each. If humans are individualistic, rational, and in possession of the basic truth about God and ethics, then Paul cannot be thought to be describing a corporate condition of history in which the early reception and rejection of God has created ignorance of his existence. On the other hand, if sin is corporate, being found in Adam means that there is a generational accumulation compounding the problem.

Paul’s characteristic way of describing Gentiles is, in fact, as those “who do not know God” (e.g., 1 Thess 1:9; 2 Thess 2:8; Gal. 4:8-9; I Cor. 1:21). He engages what little knowledge of God he finds on the Areopagus (the height of Greek philosophical learning) by proclaiming to them the God which, by their own acknowledgement, is “unknown.” God is unknown because people “were slaves to those which by nature are no gods.” They “have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Ga 4:8–9), not because they have applied themselves to their philosophical and natural studies, but because they have been delivered from slavery to the law of sin and death. Paul depicts human wisdom as no help in knowing God, and perhaps is precisely the obstacle to such knowledge: “the world through its wisdom did not come to know God” (1 Co 1:21) and on the basis of this same wisdom judges the true revelation and deliverance to be foolishness (I Cor. 1:23). This deliverance is not conditioned on their knowing, but as Paul points out, on God first knowing them. The shift is from belief in what is not God, but a dead inanimate object, to the living God (I Thess. 1:9). The passage is from out of a Satanic deception to truth (2 Thess 2:8) and is not passage from a frustrated incapacity of the will.

Romans 7, Paul’s depiction of his own, Adam’s, and every human’s interior predicament, is sometimes taken to be Paul’s depiction of his guilty conscience, but this passage is Paul’s retrospective insight. The law (the prohibition in Eden or the Mosaic law), through the deception of sin, becomes another law (a different law – 7:23), but this law is not available to the understanding or conscience (7:15). It is only as a Christian that Paul can look back on his former life and realize the Mosaic law, like the prohibition in Eden, becomes twisted by sin’s deceit: “this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me” (Ro 7:10). The prohibition and the Mosaic law, in reception and practice, become the law of sin and death as life is thought to reside in the law and true knowledge (God-like) is thought to reside in the law. This is not the truth but the lie, which justification theory or contractual theology, seems to continue to promote.

 Paul depicts the work of Christ, and particularly the resurrection, as deliverance from the law of sin and death, which is not God’s law but the deceived human orientation to the law. The shift is more radical and all-inclusive than we might have imagined as these two laws, two ways of knowing, and two worlds do not intersect. One is either found in Adam or in Christ, and to be found in the first is not an aid but the obstacle overcome in the second. Paul’s picture is that Adam instituted the age in which sin and death rule and Christ is inaugurating a new age. Not as Nietzsche depicts Christianity, as life-denying. Paul depicts the enduring goodness of the material world and God’s purpose is the transformation of the cosmic order, including the body.

Where for Nietzsche, the struggle is all there is, forever, for Paul to die to sin is to break the rule and power of sin and to enter into the reign of Christ. Baptism (dying to sin) is a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ in which there is a fusion with Christ through the Spirit which involves one in a different communion, community, identity, and culture (Rom. 6). For Nietzsche the only hope is to break through the unreality by continually going out in eternal return. Only through knowing and conquering fear of the abyss of suffering is there the possibility of realization of a break through. For Paul Christ’s Kingdom is overcoming and defeating all the dominions and powers of this world and the latter is not preparation for but that which is annihilated by the former (I Cor. 15:24). Paul’s former manner of life was not a propaedeutic to his faith but a deceived “fleshly confidence” – garbage to be disposed of.

If the Victors Write History Where is the Authentic History of the Losers Called Christians?

While it may be hard to trace the survival of the fullness of the gospel in particular periods of church history, to assume that it is fully traceable historically or institutionally would seem to be a category mistake. It would be to assume that the victors are capable of writing a history of losers (those who take up the cross). At the same time, to presume Constantine or the Dark Ages or American Evangelicalism wiped out any trace of the authentic gospel, presumes Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or Protestantism, with their various institutions and formulations, are the sole purveyors of the gospel. I am not suggesting the gospel is to be found in a retreat to human interiority or individuality, though interiority is not excluded, but I assume that the word of the cross is, as Paul describes it, a suspension of the symbolic order in which the law and its oppressive force is rendered inactive. The symbolic order is that place where things are thought to endure, where history is written, where people make their mark, where institutions reign, and it is where order is maintained through an established hierarchy (the arche of this world), but this is precisely what the gospel is not.

The symbolic order or the law cannot be reduced to commands or instructions but includes, in various N.T. illustrations, the institutions and history of Israel but institutions in general (the institution of marriage, ethnicity, social class, etc.). Paul will equate the human struggle on both the cosmic and the individual psychological level as a struggle with the law or the symbolic. In short, the symbolic order is an order of reality which the gospel challenges. This may seem to be an implausible statement, which I want to show to be the case, but then I want to suggest that given this truth, the history of the church will have to be written and read from beneath this suspension of the “given” order of reality. In the case of the American church, this place beneath is exemplified by black experience under the prevailing “white” symbolic order.

 Jesus (in Luke 13:7) uses the same word as Paul in suggesting that the fig tree, representing Israel or the institutions of Israel, should be cut down or rendered inactive (καταργέω). Paul uses a gentler image in depicting childhood as suspended or rendered inactive by maturity (I Cor. 13:11) but he depicts the suspension of the law as on the order of the suspension of a marriage due to death (Ro. 7:2). One order of life, childhood or married life, may hover behind or overhead but it is suspended in the past or in midair by another order. The constraints of childhood or marriage, the limitations – inclusive of rules but also pertaining to vision and capacity, are lifted.

 Paul uses a different expression that gets at the same idea, in suggesting that the Christian identity should not be tied to marriage or society but one participates in these things “as if not” (I Cor. 7). The law is an all-inclusive category for Paul, but it is not the law per se that is the problem, any more than it is marriage or singleness or slave or free that is the problem. It is the arche or principalities and powers of this world which stand behind the symbolic structures, and it is the constraint or oppression which the arche deploy through the symbolic order that is suspended. Paul says that for the Christian these things are rendered powerless (I Cor. 2:6) through the wisdom of God. One cannot escape law and language any more than one can escape marital status or social status but the point is not escape but suspension of the oppressive hold these things can have.

 Ironically, Luther aggravates the problem of the power behind the law by conflating the law with this power and creating a religion that would empty itself of any remnant of law – thus creating the law of no law – or the empty faith in faith of modern Protestantism. The point is not to obliterate or destroy any of these categories but to not let them bind identity. One is not primarily a law keeper or a law breaker (circumcised or uncircumcised), married or single, Jew or Greek, male or female, Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic, Protestant or Anabaptist. None of these categories can bear the weight of prime identity and when they are made to bear that weight, they deal out death in the same manner as those who crucified Jesus (I Cor. 2:8). The Lutheran reaction to the Anabaptists (slaughtering them) makes the point – where the law is the thing, death reigns. Pharisees, no matter if they are of the Lutheran, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or American brand always make the mistake of identifying the sign, the law, or the symbolic order, with the thing itself. This consistently proves deadly.

The “as if not” identity and lifestyle does not concern itself with dispensing with this order, it simply sidesteps its power (through Christ) and does not let it play a determinative role. This suspension of the law, the cessation of its continual condemnation, is as broad and all-inclusive as the symbolic order itself, but now this order no longer oppresses and condemns. The N.T. exposes the pursuit of power as being possessed by power, the pursuit of wealth as an idolatrous succumbing to a poverty of spirit, the attempt to control chaos as being out of control. Or as Paul will depict it, the attempt to conquer the agonistic struggle within is the origin of this struggle. Jesus models a relinquishing of power and control in his lifestyle of poverty, of turning the other cheek, and ultimately in submitting to crucifixion.

Key, in both the N.T. and in the radical reformation, is the presumption that Jesus models the peaceful, suspended sort of life. It is his choice of identifying with the poor that imparts wealth to those who follow him (2 Cor. 8:9) and it is his disempowering cruciform identity which Mary’s song proclaims, “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty'” (Luke 1:52-3). Jesus can walk through the barriers put up by the symbolic order as easily as walking through doors or as permanently as being raised from the dead. One can move through this matrix with him, something like Neo, as it is only binding upon those who imagine it is absolute. The resurrection life-style of “as if not” suspension is captured in a series of images in the N. T. but I presume they are all focused on the same experience of peace, freedom, and unity, which breaks down the walls of hostility definitive of the symbolic order that enslaves and deals out death.

The Hutterites will refer to this experience as Gelassenheit, a term carried over from mysticism which means “having-let-go-ness.” As with Paul’s “as if not” there is an abandonment of self-concern or self-affirmation and a relinquishing of the desire to be in charge or to rule over things.[1] It directly correlates with the situation in Corinthians in which Paul is dealing with rivalries among members at the same time as the church is submitting to the authoritarian super-apostles, who seem to be literally slapping them around. These leaders would extract obedience through shaming or public humiliation and Paul is offering a counter to this illegitimate authority. The Corinthians have yet to completely extract themselves from the illegitimate authority of their culture and Paul is both demonstrating in his own life and telling the Christians that coercive authority is illegitimate. To secure oneself through these coercive principles and powers (arche) is the natural human disposition and Paul is putting into place anarchic Christian communities of those who would resist the powers or arche.

With this understanding in place, that there is both the symbolic order with its all-inclusive structures and there is the gospel’s suspension of the condemnation of this symbolic order, the question is raised as to how to find the church and how to understand its history? Is the Constantinian shift and the empowerment of popes, bishops, and councils to be identified with the church or with its near disappearance? Is the Protestant Reformation a recovery of what was lost? Or as I stated above, while it may be hard to trace the survival of the fullness of the gospel in particular periods of church history, is it a category mistake to assume that it is traceable through “normal” historical and institutional channels?

As I have previously shown, the Protestant Reformation normalized the Constantinian ethic (e.g. just war), the Constantinian relation of church and state (the sword of the prince protects and decides for the church), the Constantinian sense of history (God is at work through the principalities and powers), and the Constantinian ethos (the dualism(s) aligning church and state in the same goal from different directions – the left hand and right hand of God). Prior to the Protestant Reformation there was a concession to Constantinianism which, nonetheless, left intact, at least among the majority of common people, the sense that killing is sinful and the understanding that the core of the church is a realm apart from the violent and oppressive necessities enacted primarily by those at the upper level of society. Though we mainly know of the top of the hierarchy from those who would tell this story as if a singular thing is happening (from their view as enforcers of the symbolic order), if the story could be told from the bottom, or from within the place of the gospel suspension of power, I presume that tales of popes and councils, bishops and kings, would hardly figure into the history at all.

This is the sort of narrative that we encounter throughout the Bible. The history of a people of no consequence culminating in a tale of a crucified carpenter’s son, is meant to cause us to identify with the dispossessed and outcasts, just as Jesus did.  If we read reality and history from the biblical perspective, we understand that the rise and fall of earthly kings, or of the presumed people of importance, are only blinders to the real story culminating in the cross. Perhaps due to pervasive Constantinianism we have trouble discerning the biblical perspective in our own context.

In the American experience it is not Jew/Gentile or male/female so much as white/black which grounds the symbolic order. As James Baldwin describes it, “I was also able to see that the principles governing the rites and customs of the churches in which I grew up did not differ from the principles governing the rites and customs of other churches, white. The principles were Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror, the first principle necessarily and actively cultivated in order to deny the two others.”[2] The dominance of the value system of the ruling culture emptied the gospel for Baldwin. “I would love to believe that the principles were Faith, Hope, and Charity, but this is clearly not so for most Christians, or for what we call the Christian world.” Baldwin describes a Christianity that “has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty” as it has identified itself with “the realm of power.” He describes this Constantinian form of the faith as “more deeply concerned about the soul than it is about the body, to which fact the flesh (and the corpses) of countless infidels bears witness.”[3]

Baldwin is left under the crushing weight of the symbolic order thrust upon him, but James Cone describes the cross as enabling the lifting of the anger and pain entailed in black oppression. “The more I read about and looked at what whites did to powerless blacks, the angrier I became. Paradoxically, anger soon gave way to a profound feeling of liberation. Being able to write about lynching liberated me from being confined by it. The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross.”[4] The countless acts of violence enacted on black bodies in lynching and murder brought Cone to a definitive choice: “Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism.” We must accept, according to Cone, “that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering” and that He identifies with the oppressed and suffering. [5] I believe the liberation Cone describes is not unlike the suspension of the law, the “as if not,” or Gelassenheit in which oppression can be thwarted and freedom and peace realized in the face of death through the work of the cross.

In this understanding, the true history of Christianity can only be written or told by those rendered invisible by the symbolic order. This is not the invisibility Augustine proposed, an otherworldly and indiscernible group of the chosen. This is a form of symbolic blindness in which the suffering are invisible to those who are stepping on their necks. The cross is a means of erasure, a means of rendering insignificant, so that if the history of those who take up the cross is to be written, by definition it cannot be authored by those who crucify. Those who exercise power and violence, whether that of the state or church, may speak with the loudest voices, but they cannot speak for those who witness to an order suspended by the cross.

This history has yet to be written, and perhaps it can never be written, but it is a perspective that must presume the blindness of church history revolving around power and a present church experience that presumes the powerful determine significance.


[1] John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (p. 198). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] James Baldwin. The Fire Next Time (Kindle Locations 247-250). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Baldwin, 376-380

[4] James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (p. 16). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

[5] James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 63-64

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.

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

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

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Love of Knowledge and Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

What Does the Death of Socrates have to do with the Death of Jesus?

I had not been back in this country very long until I was frustrated with the teaching profession. At the time, I doubt I would have blamed it on the caliber of students, because I had not yet been able to discern any caliber, other than one. Then one day in a theology class a towheaded eighteen-year-old (Ryan, as I would learn), who I had not noticed at all in the large class, posed the question, or something like it, in my title above.[1] There is no aspect of the Christian faith to which this question does not pertain. For example, the word from which we get “apology” (apolegein in Greek) means defense, as in the defense Socrates would present in his trial in Athens and the word specifically applies in the New Testament to the trial of Jesus. How we understand these two trials and the two deaths, or how we understand the relationship between Athens and Jerusalem, reason and revelation, law and salvation, is determinative of our understanding of the Christian faith. What I slowly recognized in Ryan’s question, is that the way in which Jesus’ trial and death contrasts with that of Socrates brings out the peculiar nature, not only of the defense of the gospel, but of the gospel itself. So here is a succinct answer to the drawn out course of study Ryan’s question demands.

The trial of Socrates (399 BC) was held to determine the philosopher’s guilt on two charges: impiety against the pantheon of Athens, and corruption of the youth of the city-state. His answer to both charges is to show that it was in devotion to Apollo that he sat out on his course of dialogic questioning. He had been told by a friend that the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi had revealed he was the wisest man in Athens, which caused him to try to prove the Oracle wrong by finding someone wiser. He was simply on a mission to sort out what people actually knew as he assumed he had no great wisdom. He acknowledges his own ignorance but is surprised that this insight alone set him above his contemporaries, most all of whom presumed to have special knowledge. It was in searching for a man wiser than himself, someone who knew his limitations, that he earned the reputation of being a social gadfly. His argument is that he is a good, pious citizen, and not guilty of either of the charges. He is, nonetheless, found guilty and he accepted death by suicide rather than fleeing into exile.

Socrates clung to the city, with its laws, religion, and even its right over his own life and death.  It was his attachment to the city which explains his acquiescence to drinking the hemlock; he could not imagine a world beyond this corporate identity. He died secure in his citizenship without questioning the laws, tradition, or religion, of the society into which he was born. His final words demonstrate as much; “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; pay it and don’t forget.” Asclepius is the god of health and Socrates presumed, as every good Greek would, his prayer was answered in being cured of the disease of life.

In summary, there is no argument about the role of law, religion, or about the foundational role of the city in the trial of Socrates. To read Socrates’ trial and death as parallel to that of Jesus is to misread Christian apologetics and theology (and this is the way it is often read). Jesus trial, and certainly his death, is not an affirmation of the laws and reason of the city but is a challenge to both, so that a Christian defense and theology would undo and reorder human thought and imagination.

In the trial of Jesus in the Gospel of John no judgment is ever formally declared. Beyond this, there is an ambiguity as to who is acting as judge. Jesus is not being judged by Pilate, at least in any formal sense, as Pilate is going to refuse to pronounce judgment.  Pilate attempts to follow his wife’s advice, to “have nothing to do with this man,” and so he “washes his hands” of the affair by simply turning the matter over to the Jews. He suggests to the Jews, “Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him” (19:6, NASB). This is more of a taunt on the part of Pilate, for he knows they have no power to crucify and are precisely forbidden by Roman law to try capital cases and their own law forbids crucifixion.  Pilate repeatedly claims there is “no case against the man” and so he cannot pass judgment and there is to be no trial. When the Jews begin to yell, “Crucify him,” Pilate reiterates that there is “no case against the man.”  The Jewish leaders then suggest that, though he may not have broken Roman law, Jesus has broken Jewish law by claiming to be the Son of God.  For Pilate, this is one more turn of the screw, he becomes “even more afraid.”  Pilate, seems to suspect he is the one undergoing trial and judgment. 

After Pilate declares there is no case and he cannot judge, he has Jesus paraded out in his royal purple robes and his mock crown and declares, “Behold the Man.” Jesus has been beaten and is bleeding, and  Pilate seems to be attempting to reduce Jesus’ importance in the estimate of the crowd, perhaps to save his life through his humiliation. Of course, it is Pilate’s own life that has now slid onto the scale of judgment. The Jews explanation that he claimed to be the “Son of God,” Caesar’s own claim as to source of his authority, directly pits the claims of Jesus against those of Caesar and Pilate.  Pilate’s attempt to reduce Jesus to bare human life, devoid of the dignity accorded the “real” sovereign, and his use of the royal robes and mock crown works against his purpose.  The “mock king” raises questions as to the power and claims of the “real thing.”  “Look at the Man, there is nothing there – right?” The trick not only does not work but seems to backfire.

Pilate asks, when he returns to the Praetorium, “Don’t you understand I am the one with the power in this situation,” and the question behind the question is who is really calling the shots? Jesus clarifies, “You have no power over me whatsoever that is not given to you from the very source from whence my kingdom comes. Your powerlessness is evident, so the ones who delivered me to you bear the greater guilt.” Pilate’s concerted effort not to pass judgment stands in contrast to Jesus’ ready willingness to pronounce judgement. His judgment concerns not just human law, he presumes to announce eternal decrees as to who is more guilty of sin. As he has claimed throughout his ministry, judgment is determined by what you do with him.  “Certainly, those who have delivered me to you are worse off according to eternal judgments, but Pilate, your claims to power are clearly illegitimate. Beyond that, all claims that follow in your stead (those of every human sovereign) are now thrown into question.” At least, this might be implied from the conversation.

When Pilate asks if Jesus is King, Jesus replies, “You are the one who has said I am a king,” and Pilate’s every move says as much.  Jesus acknowledges that his kingdom is not from this world. The tradition surrounding this statement, from Augustine to Aquinas, is not that Jesus is establishing his kingdom elsewhere; rather, it is not established in the mode of this world’s kingdoms.  It is a heavenly kingdom in its origins, but the incarnation and this very moment in the trial are witness to the earthly nature of the kingdom. Their brief exchange leaves Pilate in a panic and he attempts to have Jesus released. The Jews then pull their trump card: “If you release this man you are not a friend of Caesar.”

What happens next heightens the ambiguity as to Pilate’s response.  Jesus stands robed in royal purple and a crown of thorns as a prolonged debate about sovereignty unfolds.  The one who is supposed to represent Caesar is now threatened with the power of Caesar.  Subsequent to John 19:13 (the verse in question), Pilate will change his, “Look at the Man” to “Look at your King.” Pilate, Caesar’s representative, provides the strongest testimony as to Jesus sovereign identity.  At this point, the Jews seem to grow frantic and drop all pretense of a Jewish legal proceeding: “We have no King other than Caesar.” The words on the lips of the chief priests, the representatives of the theocratic government of Israel, is nothing less than blasphemy – the charge they are bringing against Jesus.  Here is the final denouement of their turn from God to kings, as now God does not figure at all into their view of sovereignty. They are abdicating their Messianic hope so as to excel even Pilate in their singular loyalty to the god-king Caesar.  The implication is that they would set aside Jewish tradition and law in their blasphemous absolutizing of Caesar. 

Following the Textus Receptus, John 19:13 is usually translated as, “He [Pilate] brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat” (NASB). However, there is an alternative reading which says, “He led Jesus outside and sat him [Jesus] on the judge’s bench.” In this reading Jesus, and not Pilate, is seated so as to exercise judgment.  Pilate is not simply refusing to judge but is declaring Jesus the rightful judge as well as king, which fits his statement at this point: “Behold your king” (19:14).  Though the people began to shout for his death Pilate is not dissuaded as to Jesus identity, “Shall I crucify your King?” he asks. The one who has been seated in the place of judgment, the one declared “King of the Jews” by the representative of the earthly sovereign, the one pronouncing judgment on both the Jews and Pilate, is the one “handed over” in lieu of judgment.  No judgment is passed by the earthly judges but the succession of people to whom Jesus is handed over declare him innocent (repeatedly in all four Gospels). Ultimately, at the crucifixion, in three different languages, Pilate pronounces Jesus is “King of the Jews.” When told that the sign should read, “he claimed to be King of the Jews,” Pilate refuses to change it.

This reading fits with the accounts of Matthew and Luke in which Jesus is also dressed in a purple robe, given a scepter, hailed as the “King of the Jews,” and it fits the sign Pilate has affixed to the Cross in all four Gospels. It explicitly fits with the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (c. 190 CE), in which the people “put on him a purple robe, and made him sit upon the seat of judgment, saying: ‘Give righteous judgment, thou King of Israel’” (3:7). In each of the Gospels Pilate declares him innocent and refuses to declare a judgment. Jesus is crucified outside of the City of Jerusalem and outside Roman and Jewish legal codes and no judgment is ever passed.

The trial of Jesus serves as a marker of two types of interpretive frames and two types of theology. A theology built upon the notion that Jesus is legally sentenced to death (a strange but common understanding) cannot discriminate between the intent of Pilate, the Jews, and Christ, so that good and evil are fused into a singular purpose. In this understanding, Roman law and God’s law are united to bring about the death of Jesus. God is simply working out his providential intent to punish Jesus under the law so that he might be punished for all. Rome, with its god-Caesar is not being judged, but Rome’s law and justice are perfectly adequate for God’s purposes.  After all, Rome and the Church will unite under Emperor Constantine and this Constantinian Christianity imagines that human law, justice, and government, are in accord with God’s purposes in Christ. In this understanding the economy of salvation works within the economy of human cultures and nations so that salvation comes through Constantinian Rome or Christian America. As Dante will describe Jesus’ trial, it was under a lawful procedure bringing about a just punishment, therefore, one cannot pronounce its proceedings evil. 

Luther, as representative of this understanding, imagines that when Pilate wants to free Jesus and when he declares there is no case against Jesus, this is a temptation posed by Satan. He explains Pilate’s wife’s dream (as a result of which she tells her husband to have nothing to do with this man) as a demon’s intervention seeking to impede the crucifixion. That is, to halt the trial or prevent the death of Christ would be to subvert the divine economy of salvation. In this understanding, Pilate, Judas, the Jews, the Romans, all line up as part of God’s effort to have Jesus punished. Rather than seeing the trial of Jesus as a clash of powers, this reading presumes that God is the puppet master pulling the strings and human law is the instrument he employs. Good and evil are not really opposed to one another, as “all things are working together for good” (to misquote Paul). In this understanding, God’s sovereign purposes are always being worked out, regardless of the particulars, as the eternal trues of heaven render the particular facts of history largely irrelevant. All of history is a revelation of the divine and no particular events can be pivotal.

This Constantinian, Roman, American, Christianity, will account for evil as a necessary outworking of law. For example, Adolf Eichmann, on trial in Jerusalem for playing a key role in the holocaust, uses as his primary defense that he was just a bureaucrat following Hitler’s orders. When pronounced guilty his last words were, “I had to obey the rules of war and of my flag!”  Law is law, and in this very German-Lutheran version of theology, even Jesus death will be explained according to this absolute. The divine economy is not an intervention into, what appears to be unmitigated evil (Hitler is hailed by German Christians as God’s spokesman); rather, salvation is being worked out according to codified human moral standards. Given the theological understanding that human law and God’s law are one, there is no end of “divinely sanctioned” evil.

The alternative interpretive frame and theology is to see the human economy, human government, human notions of law and justice, and human reason as coming into conflict with the divine economy of salvation. If ever there were a point in history where two worlds (two notions of truth, two economies, two notions of justice) stood opposed, it is the trial of Jesus. In this understanding, there are pivotal or significant events in history which pertain to eternity.  Christ is confronting evil in the form of Pilate (Rome’s representative), in the form of the leading Jews (representing Jewish law and religion), and all of these forces unite in the death of Jesus. This is not the law of God but is the culmination of the outworking of the law of sin and death. Christ has not come to fulfill this law but to expose it for an abomination. Under this law, man passes judgment on God incarnate, but the very purpose of the incarnation and this “trial” are to overturn human judgments.

In the trial then, two kingdoms are clashing, two notions of sovereignty are being contested, and truth itself, as it relates to kings and kingdoms, is argued by the defendant and the Roman Prefect.  Pilate’s “What is Truth?”, given this context, reflects, a failure to grasp that truth is not an impersonal, eventless, “what.” With the preponderant claim of Rome upon his sense of order and justice, Pilate could not discern that Jesus was Truth incarnate. His misdirected question betrays his incapacity, despite his prolonged subsequent attempt, to assess the truth of the case. What is ultimately tried and found wanting in the trial of Jesus are human notions of law, justice, and truth.

In contrast to Socrates, Jesus literally and metaphorically died outside the city. Unlike Socrates, Jesus stands in judgment of the logic of the city (of Pilate and Herod, of Rome and Jerusalem), at the same time he witnesses to a truth beyond the city. Socrates accepted his death according to the law while Jesus questioned the authorities and he did not die according to, or within, the laws of the city, but beyond their purview as his was a death of banishment from the city, beyond its walls, beyond its laws, beyond its protection.

The failure to grasp the contrast is evident in arguments, such as those I was taught in seminary, which would presume a universally shared rational foundation (Athens leads to Jerusalem). One need not rely upon revelation to follow Anselm into his greatest thought that can be thought, and Kant suggested that all of the arguments for God were founded in the same ontological presumption. By the same token, a theology which works within the parameters of the law (Jewish, Roman, or a universally shared morality) will interpret the trial of Jesus and his crucifixion (a central part of the gospel), as a direct outworking of a conjoined human and divine will, rather than a clash between the human and divine. Those who take up the cross and follow Jesus, however, do not share the Socratic acquiescence to the city of man and its laws, but join Christ outside the city gates in an alternative kingdom, an alternative logic, and an alternative imagination.


[1] This changed many things in my teaching. I began to notice the occasional bright spots and Ryan helped Faith and I develop an honors program and went on to conquer the world of academia and academic publishing, another story, but we have remained friends over these past 15 or so years. His question was not unlike that of Tertullian, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” with similar implications.

The Church is an Ethic a Liturgy and a Real Presence

One of the key moments in Alexander Campbell’s break with Presbyterianism and denominationalism came when he returned his communion token, unused, to the coffers of the Presbyterians. The token, issued by the Church of Scotland and other Presbyterian Churches, was a ticket of entry showing that the bearer had been duly tested and approved by the clergy to gain access to the Lord’s Table. The tokens were a form of “salvation currency” as the bearer was declared a bona fide Christian (to be denied a token was to lose access to body of Christ). The tokens became sacred objects, some even requested they be put in their coffins at death, and they were a means for clergy (who came to view them as their personal possession) to accumulate power and insure their own station. The system originated with John Calvin and spread to Protestant churches all over the world, including the U. S. The particular thing which may have plagued Campbell, as he purposely put himself at the end of a line of 800 some communicants, was that he realized that his new friends among the Scottish reformers would not qualify for the Lord’s table as they were not of the right party.[1] Continue reading “The Church is an Ethic a Liturgy and a Real Presence”