Zen Versus Jesus

Under conditions of tyranny it is far easer to act than to think. —Hannah Arendt

Philosophy may safely be left with intellectual minds. Zen wants to act, and the most effective act, once the mind is made up, is to go on without looking backward. In this respect, Zen is indeed the religion of the samurai warrior. —D. T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture[1]

The humble appreciation that God is working through all peoples, cultures and religions does not mean relinquishing the critical faculty of thought. While it is true the Christian can learn about Christ more completely through encounter with other cultures and religions (this is the very point of mission), it is also true that this humility still calls for a fulness of understanding. It was not uncommon in my experience to encounter in Japan (having spent more than twenty years there), the westerner (or even the western missionary) infatuated with all things Japanese, particularly Zen Buddhism, but what these connoisseurs of all things Japanese usually failed to understand was the xenophobic nationalism often attached to Japanese religion and identity. This in no way cancels out some of the insights to be gained in Zen but it also severely qualifies those insights should one be willing to critically examine the religion, yet the uncritical acceptance of the authority of the Zen master and Zen teaching (particularly about the critical faculty) is the ground for Zen practice.

It is not just that wholesale acceptance of Zen practice entails acceptance of a diagnosis of the human predicament and its solution based on a worldview very much counter to an orthodox Christian understanding, but this practice has been involved from its inception in Japanese militarism, colonialism, and ultimately war crimes (which Japanese Buddhist and Zen authorities have acknowledged and for which they have apologized). As Brian Victoria notes, “The fact is that Zen leaders who supported Japanese militarism did so on the grounds that Japanese aggression expressed the very essence of the Buddha Dharma and even enlightenment itself. Thus, until and unless their assumptions are closely examined and challenged, there is no guarantee that Zen’s future, whether in the East or West, will not once again include support for the mass destruction of human life that is modern warfare.”[2]

Far from Zen being only peaceful it is directly connected to Bushido (the Way of the Warrior) and Bushido and Zen are thoroughly enmeshed in “the essence of Japan.” In the description of Nitobe Inazō, in his book Bushido: The Soul of Japan, Bushido and Zen are integral to one another: “I may begin with Buddhism. It furnished a sense of calm trust in Fate, a quiet submission to the inevitable, that stoic composure in sight of danger or calamity, that disdain of life and friendliness with death. A foremost teacher of swordsmanship, when he saw his pupil master the utmost of his art, told him, ‘Beyond this my instruction must give way to Zen teaching.’”[3] Nitobe, a Christian, describes Zen as awakening one “to a new Heaven and a new Earth.”[4]

Victoria details the key instances when Zen was used to mobilize the country to war. The Chief Abbot of Eiheiji, Sōtō Zen master Hata Eshō (1862–1944) wrote on behalf of the “national spiritual mobilization” the following:

Buddha Shakyamuni, during his religious practice in a former life, participated in a just war. Due to the  merit he acquired as a result, he was able to appear in this world as a Buddha. Thus, it can be said that a just war is one task of Buddhism. Likewise, achieving the capitulation of the enemy country may also be counted as the religious practice of a Buddhist…. I believe the brilliant fruits of battle that have been achieved to date are the result of the power of the people’s religious faith [in Buddhism].[5]

Two Zen scholars, both affiliated with the Sōtō Zen sect, put forth a doctrinal understanding of the relationship between Buddhism and war which enabled institutional Buddhism to directly support Japan’s war effort:

In order to establish eternal peace in East Asia, arousing the great benevolence and compassion of Buddhism, we are sometimes accepting and sometimes forceful. We now have no choice but to exercise the benevolent forcefulness of “killing one in order that many may live” (issatsu tashō). This is something which Mahayana Buddhism approves of only with the greatest of seriousness…. We believe it is time to effect a major change in the course of human history, which has been centered on Caucasians and inequality among humanity. To realize the true happiness of a peaceful humanity and construct a new civilization, it is necessary to redirect the path of world history’s advance from this false path to the true path. Rooted in this sublime view of history, the mission and responsibility of Mahayana Buddhists is to bring into being true friendship between Japan and China.[6]

Zen and Buddhism in general were utilized to mobilize Japan’s invasion and colonial domination of China and much of east Asia. In this mobilization Zen teachers appealed to a long history in which Zen supported warfare and it was common in the process to claim as Furukawa Taigo did, that Japan was not simply the most advanced Buddhist country but the “only Buddhist country.” Thus a means of spreading Buddhism most directly was through colonization, since all of Japan’s neighbors were lacking in true Buddhism. Japan is “presently using the sword in Manchuria to build a second divine country [after Japan], just as it would go on to do in China and India.” Furukawa appealed to all of his fellow believers: “All Buddhists in the country! Resolutely arise and participate in this rarest of holy enterprises. What difference does it make what the League of Nations does? Just who do England and the United States think they are anyway? The arrow has already left the bow. Do not hesitate in the least. A firm will makes even demons run away. The only thing is to push on resolutely.”[7]

Nonetheless Japanese Zen Buddhism is often perceived to be nothing more than a peaceful set of practices through which one can attain an enlightened understanding bringing about harmony and healing.[8] It is not unusual for western Christians to believe that Zen (which accords with both claims of Zen Priests and also Shintoists, who will also claim the same thing about Shinto) is so lacking in doctrine that it can be melded without disturbance with Christian faith. The focus on practice, of course, is not unique to Zen but is the way most religions (outside of the Christian west) are perceived by their practitioners but the mistake would be to imagine that practice does not entail an implicit or explicit worldview. As Bernie Glassman writes, “So if your definition of enlightenment is that there’s no antiSemitism in the state of enlightenment. If your definition of enlightenment is that there’s no nationalism, or militarism, or bigotry in the state of enlightenment, you better change your definition of enlightenment.”[9]  

The Zen practitioner begins with acceptance of “Buddhist” understandings of “enlightenment,” based on the authority of the Buddha (to even use terms like “Buddhist” and “Buddha” is already to have taken a modern stance in regard to the religion which will tend to cover the explicitly polytheistic world assumed by the Buddha).[10] Belief in Buddhist “enlightenment” entails belief in the authority of the Buddha who claimed:

Nobody is my teacher. Nobody is comparable to me. I am the only perfect buddha in the world. I have attained supreme enlightenment. I am conqueror over all. I know everything. I am not contaminated by anything at all… I have all the powers of the omniscient. I am an arhat (someone who has attained the goal of enlightenment) in the world. I am unrivaled in all realms, including those of the gods. I am the victor who conquered Mara.[11]

Being a practitioner at a minimum means taking the Buddha at his word: “Accept what I did not explain as ‘unexplained.’ Accept what I did explain as ‘explained.’”[12] Enlightenment begins by holding to the authority of Sakyamuni’s words; thus, one must rid themselves of metaphysical speculation or any subject the Buddha did not explain. This   subjugation to the authority of the Buddha will be utilized by the Japanese State in its creation of imperial-way Buddhism which translated subjugation of the Buddha into unquestioning subjugation to the Japanese Sovereign.[13]

Setting aside for the moment the fact that the New Testament claims Christ is the light that enlightens all men (John 1:9), one might wonder if the Buddha’s absolute claims are warranted? Buddha spoke these words to Upagu, who if he had caught the vision could have been Sakyamuni Buddha’s first disciple, but Upagu thought the man was a megalomaniac. Richard Cohen raises the possibility of two responses: “Would you have recognized the man as enlightened? Would you have discerned a spirit of universal peace, beyond politics, in words that valorize hierarchy, celebrate raw power, and speak well of battle?” Or would you be “puzzled that anybody would answer these questions in the affirmative. . ..”[14]

Sakyamuni’s claim is beyond the political or the religious as he alone dominates the world, and the claim is that his domination opens the way to full enlightenment. The question, particularly as it works out in the Japanese context, is whether the supposedly apolitical and areligious nature of Japanese Buddhism is simply a means for demanding its universal acceptance. As Victoria notes, “The ‘selflessness’ of Zen meant absolute and unquestioning submission to the will and dictates of the emperor. And the purpose of religion was to preserve the state and punish any country or person who dared interfere with its right of self-aggrandizement.”[15]

Zen has largely been received in the west from writings and evangelism of D. T. Suzuki, who is revered as the “true man of Zen,” yet Suzuki wrote that “religion should, first of all, seek to preserve the existence of the state.” Suzuki was thinking of the state’s invasion of the Chinese mainland and used Zen as a motivating factor as, “the Chinese were ‘unruly heathens’ whom Japan should punish ‘in the name of religion.’”[16] The oft quoted (in both east and west) Zen master Harada Sōgaku wrote, “[If ordered to] march: tramp, tramp, or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom [of Enlightenment]. The unity of Zen and war of which I speak extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war [now under way].”[17] The uncritical seeker after enlightenment must shoot and bang away, not pausing to consider the morality of what he is doing or the strange exclusiveness and inevitable “uniqueness” of the Japanese faith.

Japanese Buddhist practitioners, who are not alone in the pantheon of buddhisms claiming uniqueness throughout Asia, claim to be the one and only true purveyors of Buddhism. Fukuda Gyōei notes “that it was in Japan where “pure Mahayana [Buddhism]” was to be found. According to him, this is because Saichō (767–822), the eighth-century founder of the Tendai sect in Japan taught that “all Japanese had the disposition of bodhisattvas.” As bodhisattvas they were both “treasures and benefactors of the nation.” According to Gyōei, Buddhism in Japan was not Indian or Chinese Buddhism transplanted. The Tendai sect had been established “based on a deep understanding of the Japanese national character . . . as a religion to pacify and preserve the nation,” and this was made possible by the “gracious wish” of successive Japanese emperors.[18]

Dr. Shiio Benkyō (1876– 1971), a Jōdo sect priest who later became president of Taishō University declared that the Buddhism left in India and China is a failure and only in Japan is it “possible to draw near to a Buddhism like that of the time when Buddha Shakyamuni was alive.”[19] Benkyo explains, “Buddhism in India collapsed due to [the nature of] Indian culture. Buddhism in China collapsed because it ran directly contrary to the history and nature of the Chinese state, and was therefore only able to produce a few mountain temples. On the other hand, thanks to the rich cultivation Japanese Buddhism received on Japanese soil, it gradually developed into that which the Buddhist teaching was aiming toward.”[20] Japanese Buddhism is the only authentic Buddhist teaching, precisely because it has grown up in Japanese soil and has been shepherded by the Emperor: “The priceless customs and manners of our country are the fundamental reasons for this occurrence. These customs and manners are to be found throughout the land, but their heart lies with the emperor and the imperial household, through whose efforts they have been guided and fostered.”[21]

Thus all Japanese Buddhism is called “imperial-way Buddhism.” Since the emperor embodies the state, and Buddhism and the state are one, then the emperor and Buddhism are one.

In looking at the past we see that imperial edicts from successive emperors taught us the proper way to make offerings of even a single flower [to the Buddha], or offer even one stick of incense, or read the sutras with the correct pronunciation, or worship in the Buddha Hall. The power to select and protect each of the sects, to determine each and every temple observance—all have their roots in imperial edicts. Japanese Buddhism acts on the basis of imperial edicts. This is what distinguishes it from the Buddhism of foreign countries.[22]

In turn the practice of Buddhism entails a reverence for the edicts of the successive emperors “To venerate the Three Treasures [of Buddhism] means to revere imperial edicts without question.”[23] Japanese Buddhism is melded with Japanese imperialism, xenophobia, and nationalism.

Cohen claims Buddhist enlightenment is on the order of the “Enlightenment” of seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe which “provides the political context for understanding Buddhist enlightenment as the simultaneous, coequal, perfection of rationality, religiosity, morality, and humanity, beyond politics.”[24] Just as western enlightenment is the occasion for marking other peoples and times as part of the darkness (to be set aside or forcibly enlightened), so too in Japan, Buddhist enlightenment is beyond questioning and the politic connected to this enlightenment, associated as it is with the Japanese Emperor, is beyond question. As Saeki Jōin, a Hossō sect priest and chief abbot of Hōryūji, one of Japan’s oldest and most famous temples, writes, “If you receive an imperial edict you must revere it, for the ruler is heaven and the people are the earth.” Jōin concludes: “The emperor, being holy and divine, is inviolable…. The emperor’s edicts, being holy and divine, are inviolable … and they must always be revered.” Jōin defends this on Buddhist grounds,

As expressed in the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha in his compassion regards [beings in] the three worlds [of desire, form, and formlessness] as members of his family. That is to say, he doesn’t think of his family as composed of just his blood relatives, or only the few members of his immediate family, or simply those in his local area. No, his family includes everyone in the whole world, in the entire universe. For him, everyone in the world is a member of his family. In fact, he does not limit his family members to human beings alone. Even animals and all living things are included…. There is nothing that the Tathagata [fully enlightened being] in his great compassion does not wish to save…. There is no one who he does not consider to be his child…. When this faith in the great compassion and mercy of the Tathagata is applied to the political world, there is not a single member of the Japanese nation who is not a child of the emperor…. This expresses in the political realm the ideal of a system centered on the emperor.[25]

Being apolitical and areligious is the means of asserting an absolute and universal hegemony. The Zen practitioner may or may not be fully aware of submitting to the final authority of the Buddha, but anything less than total submission disenables the practice. One either steps into the path of enlightenment, suspending critical thought concerning Buddhist enlightenment, or one does not enter that path. Accepting the practice is itself a metaphysical presumption in that the pragmatic, practical, surface, is given priority.

Cohen compares it to Martin Luther’s nominalism: “surfaces are able to sustain the burden of reality because, in fact, they do re-present an occult reality” beyond comprehension.[26] As he concludes, “let us recall how Luther coaxes readers to adhere to the surface of the Word, thereby avoiding a dangerous fascination with the transcendental unknown.” The commands and practices of the Buddha are like the literal plainness of Scripture. The good Calvinist also, has “the ability to take scripture at face-value, without wrapping it in enigmas,” and this “is possible only for one illumined by the Spirit. Only the elect can accept that god saves some and damns others gratuitously; only the elect can praise this god as perfectly just, when from a human perspective, he appears cruel, random, and malicious.”[27] In the Japanese code of the warrior, the cruelty and bloodletting of the sword must be understood as the loving prerogative of the master, and the Zen Samurai can no more question than a Calvinist the morality of his god.

Cohen defines a Buddhist, “as someone for whom a buddha is an ultimate authority; a Buddhist trusts that, because a buddha is perfectly enlightened, his command dharetha must always lead to beneficial results.” One may have to endure, like the good Calvinist, the seeming contradictory, but there is no questioning of enlightenment as set forth by the Buddha. “Insofar as one is a Buddhist, one’s abstract ideals, concrete cosmologies, economic pursuits, clothing and bodily comportment, even diet, can be traced back to one’s trust in enlightenment.” There may be disagreement among Buddhists over the details, but all agree there is a Buddha who realized unexcelled and complete enlightenment.[28]

This is not to say the Christian should not expect to find God at work in other cultures and religions, but this expectation should not include suspending critical judgment. Too often nationalism, religious fanaticism, and genocidal violence, are overlooked (perhaps set aside as having nothing to do with the religion), and Zen is a key example. The reality of Japanese Zen has a very different history than the popularized version of the religion which accords it only peace and healing.

[1] Brian Daizen Victoria, Zen at War (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2006) quoted from the epigraph.

[2] Victoria, x-xi.

[3] Inazō Nitobe, Bushido: The Soul of Japan, 11. Cited in Victoria, 114.

[4] Nitobe, 11-12, Cited in Victoria, 115.

[5] Buddhist magazine Daihōrin, 36-39. Cited in Victoria, 111-112.

[6] Hayashiya and Shimakage, Bukkyō no Sensō Kan, 4. Cited in Victoria, 104-105.

[7] Taigo Furukawa, Rapidly Advancing Japan and the New Mahayana Buddhism (Yakushin Nihon to Shin Daijō Bukkyō), 51. Cited in Victoria, 110.

[8] For example, Ruben L. F. Habito, The Healing Breath of Zen (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006).

[9] Bernie Glassman Buddhist magazine “tricycle” (1999) Cited in Cohen, xi.  

[10] As Richard Cohen remarks, “What are we to say of a doctrine which is sometimes represented as one of almost perfect Theism; sometimes as direct Atheism; sometimes as having the closest analogy to what in a Greek philosopher, or in a modern philosopher, would be called Pantheism; sometimes as the worship of human saints or heroes; sometimes as altogether symbolical; sometimes as full of the highest abstract speculation; sometimes as vulgar idolatry?” Richard S. Cohen, Beyond Enlightenment: Buddhism, religion, modernity (London and New York: Routledge, 2006) 151.

[11] Raniero Gnoli, ed., The Gilgit Manuscript of the Sakghabhedavastu (Rome: ISMEO, 1977), 1:132. Quoted in Cohen, xii.

[12] V. Treckner, ed., The Majjhima-Nikaya (London: Pali Text Society, 1935), 1:432. Cited in Cohen. 154.

[13] Victoria, 95.

[14] Cohen, xii.

[15] Victoria, xiv.

[16] Victoria, Ibid.

[17] Victoria, Ibid.

[18] Quoted in Ōkura Seishin Bunka Kenkyūjo, Gokoku Bukkyō, pp. 185-209. Cited in Victoria, 97.

[19] Gokoku Bukkyō, 33, Cited in Victoria, 98.

[20] Gokoku Bukkyō, 50, Cited in Victoria, 98.

[21] Gokoku Bukkyō, 50, Cited in Victoria, 99.

[22] Gokoku Bukkyō 50-51, Cited in Victoria, 99.

[23] Gokoku Bukkyō, 130-131, Cited in Victoria, 100.

[24] Cohen, xiii.

[25] Gokoku Bukkyō, pp. 159-160. Cited in Victoria, 97.

[26] Cohen, 157.

[27] Cohen, 157.

[28] Cohen, 161.

Philemon and the Abolition of the City of Man

Slavery is the biblical motif which gets at the all pervasive economic, social, and psychological system of sin and it is against this background that exodus and redemption are also to be understood. Slavery is not simply the biblical metaphor for sin but is the concrete manifestation of what is meant by sin and in turn is precisely that from which Christ redeems. The very term “redemption” means that one’s life is no longer subject to commodification, objectification, materialization, or to circulation in an economy in which human life is reduced to bare life without intrinsic value.

In this human economy, the basic categories human/subhuman, citizen/alien, inclusion/exclusion, sovereign/subject, slave/free constitute the city of man. Being inside the city (with its laws and subjects) and outside the city (where there is no law) are marked by slave and free. The premise of the gospel is that being found outside the city, outside the law, outside the domain of what it means to be human (the exclusion which establishes the inclusion of the city), is the place occupied and exposed by Christ. Christ establishes a new organizational principle, a new family, centered on the koinonia of his body, in which exclusion is no longer the structuring principle of inclusion.

In the short book, Philemon, Paul masterfully knocks out all supporting presuppositions for continuation of a top-down master/slave order. After the gospel and after the writing of Philemon, slavery among Christians would seem to be excluded, and yet the reception of this smallest of books speaks of the troubled reception of the fulness of the gospel. The question arises, with a book like Philemon, whether Christians who fail to recognize the basis of this new koinonia (in which there are no slaves and masters but only brothers and sisters) fail to comprehend the gospel – and beyond this the question is as to where this incomprehension lies?

Philemon seems perfectly clear in its implications. Paul tells Philemon to accept Onesimus back as if he is Paul himself (v. 17). Philemon is to regard Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (v. 16). Paul’s letter is filled with pathos as Onesimus is “beloved,” “my child whom I have begotten in my imprisonment” (v. 10) In Onesimus, Paul says he is “sending my very heart” (v. 12). Paul claims personal kinship with Onesimus and identifies him with his own deepest feelings – the very center of who he is. “If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me” (v. 17). It is doubtful that Philemon will regard Onesimus as anything short of a brother, which is Paul’s appeal: “For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (15-16). Here is Christ’s ethic applied, as Paul identifies himself with the slave, he undoes not only the oppression of Onesimus but the dehumanizing master/slave relationship in which the master too is degraded.

Paul’s point may include the freeing of Onesimus so that he might return to Paul and Paul’s ministry, but his ultimate point is to have Philemon regard Onesimus as a brother. This unity or koinonia is the point of the gospel and the gospel accomplishes these other things (ending slavery, ending oppression, and overturning the city of man) in the process. What is not mentioned, but is very much present in Paul’s maintaining it is Philemon that “owes him his very self” (v. 19), is that a human life is on the line. The unmentionable but lurking reality is that Philemon, as a master, has the right to crucify a runaway slave. Owning another human and denying them their humanity (the very opposite of what Paul has done for Philemon) is part of Roman slavery exemplified in the masters right to crucify his slave. Yet, it is precisely as a slave that Christ dies. Christ’s citizenship, his place in Israel, his existence as being fully human, is denied in his crucifixion, but in this way the counter-economy of the gospel is established. Crucifixion and resurrection remove the fear of death, the controlling factor in slavery, yet Philemon in maintaining the master/slave relationship would seemingly disregard the cross. This is the unspoken fact, but when Paul says charge to me whatever Onesimus owes (ultimately it his life he owes), he is imitating Christ in his willingness to identify with the slave. He is saying – take me not him.

Here is one of the small gems of the New Testament; revolutionary in its implications and a worked example of the apocalyptic implications of the gospel. This small book calls for a reassessment of what it means to be human. It calls into question the very founding structure and economy, the hierarchy of relations, the accepted reality of Roman society. Yet these seemingly revolutionary and obvious implications of Paul’s gospel turn out to not be so obvious throughout church history.

According to J. B. Lightfoot, the ancient church did not pay much attention to the letter because “the gospel is not concerned with trivia.”[1] As Demetrius Williams describes the opinion of the early church,

Although Philemon was included in some early canon lists, there was little to no comment on it because no one apparently found any occasion to mention it. The letter was thought to have no doctrinal content that might have led to its being quoted, no contribution to the development of Paul’s theology, or of Christian theology in general.[2]

Williams describes the early consideration of the letter as being trivial, banal, beneath consideration, and perhaps unworthy of the canon. Because of early attacks on the book, Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350-428) defends the book precisely by changing the import of its message. He “argued that God established different social roles and estates and every individual should stay in his or her proper role” and in some way the book supposedly demonstrates this.[3] Both Chrysostom (c. 347-407) and Jerome (c. 342-420), due to attacks on the book, also attempt to defend it. But as Williams demonstrates, theirs is a somewhat underhanded defense:

John Chrysostom found a purpose for Philemon in addressing the situation of converted slaves. He argued that when a slave is converted and faithfully continues his life as a slave, even unbelievers are able to see that slaves can become believers without questioning the present norms of the society.[4]

Williams follows an established pattern in interpretation of Philemon, in which the book is used to draw moral lessons about knowing one’s place and a demonstration of Paul’s humility, but the remarkable element is the seeming blindness to the moral implications of slavery spelled out in the book. There seemed to be a concern to protect against the radical interpretation of Philemon, and on this basis preserve it as part of the canon. Williams traces this line of reasoning up to and including the Reformers:

Martin Luther, in his 1527 Lecture on Philemon, viewed Onesimus as an example of a person who was misled by the idea of freedom. He argued that Paul respected the established legal rights of property and did not seek to abolish slavery. Calvin, too, affirmed respect for the prevailing order and also emphasized Paul’s request to receive Onesimus back into his service.[5]

There were those who advocated the abolition of slavery among Christians (e.g., the Donatists in North Africa, Gregory of Nyssa, and various anonymous Christians to which Theodore refers), but this radical minority were often silenced by the conservative majority’s appeal to Philemon, as if this book made the case for slavery and conservatism – which in modern eyes it clearly does not. What this history of interpretation seems to indicate is the stifling effects of Constantinianism, imperialism, Christian nationalism, and racism, on the gospel. Given the primary role slavery plays in Scripture, it would seem that to be blind to the gospel’s implication for this institution is simply to be blind to the fulness of the gospel. Perhaps the blindness entails a refusal of the radical nature of the gospel.

In Giorgio Agamben’s depiction, bare life functions as the basic stuff from which truly human life, or life within the polis or the city, is formed, but in this formation, there is a necessary distinction between life inside the city (that life accounted for in the law, in citizenship, in being fully human life) and that life excluded from the city. That is, within life there is a necessary division between mere biological life and the good life of the city, and the marker of these two forms of life is the biological life shared by all humans. Thus “when Aristotle defined the end of the perfect community in a passage that was to become canonical for the political tradition of the West, he did so precisely by opposing the simple fact of living (to zēn) to politically qualified life (to eu zēn): ‘born with regard to life, but existing essentially with regard to the good life.’”[6] Agamben demonstrates that the Aristotelian recognition of an opposition within life between unqualified life (zēn) and good life (eu zēn) is the structuring principle of the judicial and political order constituting the city. For there to be an inside, there must be an outside, so that excluded life is an essential part of the structure of the polis. The politics of human society is the place in which life must be transformed into good life and it does this on the basis of the exception. “In Western politics, bare life has the peculiar privilege of being that whose exclusion founds the city of men.”[7]

The power of the state or sovereign power establishes itself through this power of exclusion, the exception upon which the rule is built.[8] This is the power of the sovereign, to decide the state of exception or to decide who falls outside the city and is thus subject to random killing as in crucifixion. The slave determines the master, and the sovereign, in ordering this arrangement, establishes the law. To challenge this order would be nothing short of challenging the accepted consensus as to what it means to be human.  

Agamben notes that bare life is transformed through a particular relation to language. Through the instantiation of the voice (having a voice in the polis) the division is made within life, as the “politicization” of bare life brings about the good life (or having language – the logos). The fundamental division is not friend/enemy but the division accomplished through language, between bare life and political existence. “There is politics because man is the living being who, in language, separates and opposes himself to his own bare life and, at the same time, maintains himself in relation to that bare life in an inclusive exclusion.”[9] Language, or having a voice in the polis, is the saving element which transforms bare life into human life. Those rendered voiceless (within the city) are synonymous with those outside the city or outside the polis and law.

The choice appears to be between the logos and city of man or the Logos and communion of Christ. There is no question that the implication of the gospel, as Paul presents it throughout his writings and as it is concentrated in Philemon, would challenge the status quo of the law, of social structures as they exist (in Judaism or in the slave trade), and that it speaks of an apocalyptic breaking in of a new order of culture and humanity, and yet the revolutionary nature of the gospel, particularly as it pertains to slavery has a very troubled history as reflected in the enduring nature of slavery and in the troubled reception of this little book. The issue is at the very core of the gospel and at the very core of the construction of human society, and it may be that it is the contradiction of these two realms that has caused this major issue (expressed in this minor book) to be so misunderstood.

[1] Demetrius K. Williams, “’No Longer as a Slave’: Reading the Interpretation History of Paul’s Epistle to Philemon,”

Onesimus Our Brother: Reading Religion, Race, and Culture in Philemon (Paul in Critical Contexts), Matthew V. Johnson Sr., Demetrius K. Williams, et al. (Fortress Press, 2012) 11.

[2] Williams, 16.

[3] Williams, 18.

[4][4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998) 9.

[7] Agamben, 12.

[8] Agamben, 18.

[9] Agamben, 12.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Ibid, Farris and Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[13] McArthur, Ibid.

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

[15] Carson, Ibid.

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

Two Possible Futures for American Christianity Exemplified by Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Christian journey is not simply individual but corporate so that salvation is being joined to a new society (the body of Christ) called the Church. This is not a parallel kingdom, an alternative reality, or (as in Luther’s notion of the two kingdoms) what God is doing with his left hand on earth while his right hand is busy with the spiritual realm in the heavenly kingdom. The tragedy (always subject to reversal) unfolding in the American church, attached as it may be to this two-kingdom notion, might best be recognized (and averted) when viewed in conjunction with the wartime experience of the German church, and in particular, in the lives of the two most famous German Christians. Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer exemplify the outworking of a two kingdom theology and the alternative, respectively, portending two possible theological outcomes in the American context Continue reading “Two Possible Futures for American Christianity Exemplified by Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer”

The Church Emerging from a Failed Evangelicalism: The True Restoration Movement

In the 500-year cycles Phyllis Tickle locates in the history of the Judeo/Christian faith we are one year into the emergence of a new form of Christianity (501 years removed from Luther nailing the theses to the church door, 500 years prior to the Reformation takes us to the Great Schism, when Eastern and Western Christianity split, and 500 years from then takes us back to Gregory the Great and the so-called Dark Ages, etc.) We are well into what I would call the “Great Return,” giving rise to new forms of Christianity (emergent, new monasticism, missional, small church, cyber-church, deep church) most all of which are concerned with a return to forms of church which involve doing life together in some significant form.  While for many this return has meant a return to Rome, Canterbury, or Constantinople, for others it has meant a return to the economic practices of the first church (a shared purse) or a return to the land (sustainable living), or a return to community living (the new monasticism). The way of summing up the failure of evangelicalism and the emerging Great Return is in terms of ecclesiology or the doctrine of the Church: evangelicalism, according to Derek Tidball never had a developed theology of the church and, according to George Marsden, was characterized by a “general disregard of the institutional church;”[1] the Great Return is occurring in the wake of this abandonment of the centrality of the Church with a return to understanding the Church as the substance of salvation. Continue reading “The Church Emerging from a Failed Evangelicalism: The True Restoration Movement”