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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] Kimel, 109.

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

[7] Campbell, 45.

[8] Campbell, 25-26.

[9] Kimel, 112.

Zen Versus Jesus

Under conditions of tyranny it is far easier 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”