Friday, September 28, 2007

My mistake in studying second century atonement doctrine

When I first became seriously interested in studying atonement doctrine, one of the places to which I directed study was the theology of the early post-biblical Church. I read through the surviving orthodox second century writings in an attempt to identify their view of atonement. Since people argue so much about how best to interpret the New Testament authors themselves, I felt that the second century writings could provide another vector of attack in determining what the first Christians believed.

So I read through the Christian literature of the second century, taking careful note of references to the Work of Christ, what Christ achieved, and any implications of how his death worked. I tried to be as open-minded as possible, trying to determine whether and to what extent they held Penal Substitution, Ransom, Christus Victor, or Recapitulation. From their words I attempted to try to understand what their logic of salvation was, what they saw Christ as having achieved and done. Thus I attempted to reconstruct clearly their system of atonement in a model that had clear logical steps.

This task largely failed.

About all I managed to gather from that exercise was that Irenaeus seemed to teach Recapitulation (along with much else that was incomprehensible) and that the rest of the writers defied models and reconstructions. Looking back on it, I see that this was one time in which evangelical views I had heard had biased me without my really realizing it. I had been asking the wrong questions, seeking an answer to the question of how Christ's death had worked. There were two problems there that caused this first effort to fail. My focus had been largely on the death of Christ, a focus not really shared by the second century Christians.

More importantly, my focus had been on how Christ's atonement had worked. I had been carefully looking for what are known as "objective" theories of atonement. (An objective theory is one that envisages a supernatural event of atonement happening at Christ's end, eg taking the sins of the world on himself, defeating the devil etc). In doing so I had read straight past all the "subjective" theories of the atonement without seeing them in the text (A subjective theory is where the thing of importance is Christ's influence on us: eg us being inspired to love God when we see Christ's love for us). An Objective theory atonement is something Christ "achieves" or "secures" or "works" or "finishes" instead of us. Our response then consists largely of trusting in his work. Whereas in Subjective theories Christ "inspires" or "influences" or "empowers" for the sake of us whose lives are changed as a result of hearing the message of Christ and acting on it. Thus to generalize, Objective models are completed cosmic transactions of atonement which can be laid out in as logical progressions as a series of true propositions about what happened, whereas Subjective models tend to be more subtle and "relational" - depending on human psychology and specific historical circumstances.

Of the major atonement models generally talked about today there is only really one subjective one - "Moral Exemplar" (Christus Victor can also be interpreted subjectively though). At the time I first looked at the writings of the second century I did not really seriously regard it as a model of atonement, since (1) the presentations I had heard of it sounded very stupid and definitely unbiblical (ie they boiled down to "Christ committed suicide to show his love for us, this inspires people to love him back"), and (2) it is not an objective model of atonement.

So my attempts to find an objective model of the atonement, especially one pertaining to Jesus' death, in the Christian writings of the second century ended in failure. There wasn't one. At the time, of course, I was rather confused because of this. Where was their doctrine of the atonement hiding? It took me more than a year to realize my mistake. Later, when I went looking for a subjective model of atonement, I found answers...

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The best arguments on Hilasterion

A couple of months ago I wrote this post taking a skeptical view of the meaning of the word Hilasterion in Romans 3:25. I suggested that given the total indecision within the last few hundred years of scholarship on the subject that no one can really be sure what the word means. (See also this post by Doug on the meaning of Rom 3:25)

However, I have since that time been reflecting on the subject and looking at the various arguments proposed by scholars. It seems to me to be the case that if you sort through all the scholarly arguments and keep the good ones and discard the bad ones, then all the good arguments point toward one particular reading.

Some linguistic points
Dan Bailey in his recent PHD on the subject points out that scholars have clouded the matter by trying to find the meaning of the Hilas- word group rather than focusing on the word Hilasterion itself. He found that all extra-Biblical occurances of Hilasterion prior to 200AD mean "propitiatory gift or offering", or as one ancient writer puts it: "gifts capable of soothing". These are gifts given to an enemy or an offended person or god in an effort to make peace with them or appease them. Perhaps the most natural English description of this would be "reconciliation gift" or "peace offering". The word does not seem to be sacrificial, for "hilasterion never denotes an animal victim in any known source." The LXX uses hilasterion as the name for part of an altar (ie the Mercy Seat on the ark in the Pentateuch or to the "ledges" on an altar in Ezekiel). These are the only two meanings of hilasterion prior to 200AD.

The Parallel between Romans 3:24-25 and 4 Macc 17:21-22
By far the strongest parallel passage with Romans 3:25 is a passage in the book of 4 Maccabees. It reads:
"they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and the hilasterion of their death, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated." (4 Macc 17:21b-22)

The similarities include:
  1. Numerous key word matches: Hilasterion, blood, ransom, sin, divine
  2. Both speak of the hilasterion as the death of a person. (unique in surviving ancient literature)
  3. Maccabees was written within a century of Romans, and also by a Hellenistic Jew.
The meaning of Hilasterion in 4 Macc 17:22
It is relatively straight-forward to determine the meaning of hilasterion in 4 Maccabees.
  1. The theology of the context. The author makes it clear that God is punishing Israel because they have offended him. Then this group of Israelites have been faithful to God and his Law to the point of torture and death. Their faithful matyrdoms appease God, and oblige him to repay their faithfulness with kindness to Israel. This fits perfectly with the "appeasement gift" meaning of hilasterion.
  2. Grammatically the verse just doesn't make sense if it is read as "mercy seat". To talk of the "mercy seat of their death" is nonsense. It can only be read as "gift of appeasement".
  3. 4 Maccabees is extremely Hellenistic in its language and philosophy. Thus the standard Hellenistic meaning of hilasterion is the most likely intended meaning. The chances of it favoring the LXX meaning of the word over the standard Greek meaning are slim-to-none.
Thus it seems clear that in 4 Macc 17:22 the meaning of hilasterion is "appeasing gift".

The meaning of Hilasterion in Rom 3:25
A number of arguments are relevant, I think in the following order of importance, for why hilasterion in Rom 3:25 must mean appeasing gift.
  1. The parallel with 4 Macc 17:22 is so strong that the meaning of hilasterion is almost certainly identical in both passages.
  2. The idea of Christ as a "gift of appeasement" makes great sense in Paul's theology. Paul elsewhere speaks of Christ making peace, undoing enmity, reconciling us and God.
  3. The statement that Christ was a "mercy seat" makes no real sense. How can Christ be part of an altar? Perhaps it could metaphorically mean that Christ is the locus of the presence of God among men, or perhaps that he is the Holy of Holies, or perhaps that he is the New Temple, or perhaps that he is the place where atonement takes place. But none of this is obvious from calling him a "mercy seat", and if any of this was what was meant, more clarification would be necessary.
  4. Most of recent scholarship believes that Paul's intended audience for Romans was primarily Gentiles. Therefore it makes sense for hilasterion to have its standard Greek meaning rather than any unusual Jewish one.
  5. Stowers in Rereading Romans, claims the Temple of Paul's time had no hilasterion in it. This strikes me as likely wrong, but if true then it implies that the average Jew of Paul's time would have been more likely to use the normal Greek meaning of hilasterion than the no-longer-applicable ancient Jewish one.
Thus the evidence for seeing hilasterion in Romans 3:25 as meaning "appeasing gift" seems fairly compelling.

Who is receiving the Hilasterion?
If this is a gift of reconciliation who is giving it and who is receiving it? Is it a gift from God to humanity, or from God to himself on behalf of humanity? Here the arguments are mixed:
  • If we simply take Paul's words at face value in Romans 3:25 then Jesus would seem to be a gift to humanity from God.
  • This is consistent with the rest of Paul's theology, because he always speaks of us being reconciled to God, and us putting away our enmity against God, and never vice versa. So if makes sense in Paul's theology to see Jesus as the messenger and minister of reconciliation sent to us from God, who is given to us and killed by us in the course of saying "be reconciled to God". (1 Cor 5:19-20)
  • However the strong parallel with 4 Maccabees would suggest otherwise. In 4 Maccabees the martyrs are giving their lives faithfully to God and thereby appeasing him.
  • The idea of Jesus giving his life faithfully to God in order to appease God's anger against humanity has historically been fairly popular in Christian theology - it is Anselm's "Satisfaction" model.
My view would be that ultimately we have to let Paul speak for himself. The meaning of his words must be determined by what he actually says in the passage and elsewhere, and not determined by parallels with other literature or Christian atonement models from a millennium later. The most natural reading of the passage, and of Paul's words elsewhere lends it to being read as a reconciliation offering from God to man.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Lack of books on the atonement views of the second-third century church

One of my main areas of interest is the doctrines of atonement and salvation in the early post-biblical church. For this reason I have a tendency to add to my Amazon wish list any book I come across that is about the theology of the early church.

Today I was reading through my wishlist, trying to work out what to buy and what not to buy. There were over a dozen of these books about the early church in my list, and with the help of Amazon's "search inside" feature and reader reviews I was able to get a pretty good idea of the contents of the vast majority of them. What I consistently found is this:

They talked about the writers of the period. They talked about these writer's doctrines of God, their doctines of scripture vs tradition, their doctrines of the sacraments... these books contained virtually nothing on the subjects of Salvation, Atonement, the Work of Christ, Final Judgment etc.


I would have thought that the basic idea of how a person is saved, and gains a positive final judgment is the one thing worth talking about. It's surely the one thing that matters above all else. Surely if you're going to outline someone's theology the first thing you'd explain is their conception of salvation, what it is, and how it's achieved... not their beliefs about tradition or their thoughts about the deity of Christ. Yet all these works seem to have taken the view that such things simply don't matter and omitted them entirely.

Am I the only one that thinks the atonement and eternal salvation are important? Of all the people who study the early Church writers am I the only one that cares what they thought about how humans can get to heaven and what Jesus achieved?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Molinism, and the Grounding Objection

The question of how to reconcile God’s foreknowledge and human free will has plagued theologians for centuries. A view called Molinism presents itself as a logical explanation of how the two can be reconciled.

The major objection to Molinism is known as the “grounding objection”, and in my opinion it disproves Molinism completely. The grounding objection is the observation that the idea of (libertarian) free will means that people’s decisions can’t be known with certainty before they’re made, but Molinism claims God foreknows them.

Put a little more formally, it looks like this:
A. God foreknows the things he foreknows because they are true. He doesn’t just guess. There is an actual causal connection between something being true and God gaining foreknowledge of it. ie his foreknowledge is causally dependent on the truth of the thing he foreknows. (from definition of Exhaustive Definite Foreknowledge)
B. The truth of X depends on the person’s decision to do X. ie the person’s decision causes the action. (from definition of Libertarian Free Will)
Conclusion 1. Hence God’s foreknowledge is causally dependent on the person’s decision. (from A & B)
D. The person’s decision is indeterministic. (from definition of Libertarian Free Will)
E. The outcome of an indeterministic event cannot be calculated or predicted in advance even if everything is known about the situation and causes of the event. (from definition of Indeterminism)
Conclusion 2. The person’s decision cannot be calculated or predicted in prior to the person making it. (from D & E)
Conclusion 3. God cannot have foreknowledge of the decision prior to the person making it. (from conclusions 1 & 2)

This shows that is logically impossible for God to have definite foreknowledge of libertarian free will decisions. It is very rare in philosophy to get such a clear argument, so this is one of my favorites.

This means that either:
1. God’s foreknowledge is limited to some degree (ie the Open View); or
2. That free will is compatibilist not libertarian.

Of course a person can endorse both 1 and 2 if they wanted. However if Christian rejects Open Theism then, per the grounding objection, they logically ought to endorse 2. But endorsing Compatibilism and rejecting Open Theism seems to inevitably end up affirming double-predestination. So it seems to me that Christians really have a choice between Open Theism and double-predestination.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Indoctrination, Creeds, and 'Scholarship'

I was brought up in a Baptist church that believed in "the bible" only. No one in my presence ever taught any theology, or any statements of faith. There was no interpretation of the bible, no "this is what the bible says". Rather I was simply encouraged to read the bible as much as possible, and I did. In this way I managed to reach an age of about 17 being extremely knowledgeable of the literal content of the bible, but being totally and completely ignorant of the various interpretations of the bible and of theology in general.

My first exposure to real theology was in visiting an Anglican church where the Athanasian Creed was read. I remember reading the line "in this Trinity... none is greater or less than another" and thinking "Um, that's pretty unbiblical: 'the Father is greater than I' (John 14:28)." Of course since that time I have made a fairly serious study of theology and biblical exegesis. But the fact that I was taught the bible and not any theology or creeds as a child continues to profoundly shape my viewpoint.

I have found that not everyone is like me. Many Christians grow up being taught a certain point of view as correct. They get presented with "the truth" about what the bible "really" says and means. They get taught a particular theology. They get given creeds and told that they contain precious truths needing to be defended. From the age of four their parents teach them certain interpretations of the bible as truth. They grow up in churches that endorse the same theological view. Then they go to seminaries who teach them how true and how biblical their creeds and confessions are. Then they become 'biblical scholars' and I get to read their writings.

That process scares me and disturbs me. I grew up as a Christian with no theology I would identify as my own, so I have no theological attachments, no particular preconceptions I am afraid to challenge. At the age of about 19 I simply one day thought "hmm, I should probably do some study of what those various denominations believe and find out who is right." My search has been one of neutral and disinterested curiosity to search out the truth. I did not care in the slightest if the Catholics rather than the Protestants turned out to be right, nor would I lose a moments sleep if I found out that the doctrine of the Trinity was rubbish, and if it turned out that 99% of Christians in history were totally mistaken I would shrug and move on... I was simply curious and had no particular attachments to any doctrines or teachings at all - I wanted to know what I ought to believe precisely because I didn't believe anything at all. Yet unlike me, most Christians have undergone 20-50 years of rigorous indoctrination. I can hardly conceive what that's like. It is also somewhat frustrating, because this part of their background so heavily biases their work in favor of the creeds they have been taught that they do not approach the issues from even a remotely neutral angle.

But what can I do about this? If I read a book by a scholar, and in it they do some study and then conclude that the bible precisely agrees with their own denomination's doctrines, what can I meaningfully get out of that? I can try and separate the bad arguments from the good ones, and I would like to think I'm pretty good at that. But bias can heavily affect the presentation of the evidence itself, which makes drawing any conclusions impossible. I have got to the point of taking the view that systematically biased scholarship is not worth the paper it is written on. I have to wonder though, in what sense can these people be meaningfully be called 'scholars' or said to engage in 'scholarship'. The correct term for a defender of a preset position is an 'apologist'. I'm sure they think of themselves as scholars, and think that their work is really a serious and unbiased study of what the bible really says... and it just happens by pure chance that they always end up concluding the traditions they have been taught are correct.

I have learned from experience to be extremely wary of other people's theological baggage and indoctrination, creeds, or confessions that they bring with them to the study of the bible and theology. Easily the worst offenders at systematic indoctrination and apologetics is the Reformed denomination, and it has reached the point where if I know a person is Reformed I will simply not read their works. But Presbyterians, Southern Baptists, Lutherans and Anglicans can be almost as bad at times, and with all writers it is necessary to keep a look out for indoctrinated bias.

This problem makes biblical studies a lot more difficult than other fields I have studied (ie philosophy, classics, maths, computing). All fields have their crackpots (and philosophy more so than many), but only in biblical studies are there hundreds of people churned out of seminaries per year dedicated to proving the truth of the traditions passed on to them, who will masquerade as scholars and write books defending their preconceived positions that supposedly impartially examine the evidence. It's depressing... how can the field of study advance when there are institutions dedicated to freezing it in stasis due to a perceived attainment of perfect doctrine?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Irenaeus' works

When I first became interested in studying second century Christian theology, one of the first works I read were those of Irenaeus.
Big mistake.
Irenaeus' writings are probably the most difficult Christian writings in the entire patristic period to read. At the best of times he borders on incoherency. He uses some very unclear terminology. He makes prolific use of vivid imagery and totally fails to distinguish between the literal and metaphorical. Irenaeus has some very strange ideas that are not evidenced in other Christian sources from this period. He sees a strong connection between himself and the apostles, yet he gets extremely basic facts about the life of Jesus wildly wrong. Most patristics scholars have taken the same unflattering view on Irenaeus as myself. It was particularly popular to slander Irenaeus in the first 20 years of the 20th century, and though more people seem to like him now, I'm not convinced that this is for any good reason.

My frank advice therefore to anyone interested in studying second century Christianity is to avoid Irenaeus. Start instead with Justin Martyr's Apologies, and the Apostolic Fathers. Then read absolutely everything else from the second century, except Irenaeus. Then move to Origen and Clement of Alexandria in the early third century, and only then, and only if you really really must, go back and read Irenaeus.

I mention this because two blogs I read are starting a series of posts about one of Irenaeus' works. See here and here. I will read with great interest what they have to say about Irenaeus' theology. Because despite having a passing-fair knowledge of early Christian theology and having read Irenaeus' works a few times, I fully confess that I don't understand Irenaeus. From their posts so far it looks like John Behr's translation of Irenaeus' Apostolic Preaching is by far the best translation to read (I have not read it myself).

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Power or Guilt of Sin?

I am reading The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views at the moment, and generally enjoying the food-for-thought it offers.

Something that surprised me in Greg Boyd's section on Christus Victor, was the degree to which the New Testament speaks of sinfulness as being a kind of "power" which rules over humanity and which we thus need freeing from. Thomas Schreiner, who defends Penal Substitution in the book, took issue with this of course and asserted that it is the personal moral "guilt" of sin that is the issue, and thus God's wrath which we need freeing from. Yet he provides little evidence of this beyond his assertion. (pg 51, 68)

Now the New Testament never once mentions the word "guilt" in relation to the atonement, so Schreiner's inability to support his claims is hardly surprising. But it is interesting to realize that the New Testament talks about sinfulness as if it were a power that dominates humanity and holds it in its thrall. Correspondingly, humanity needs rescuing from its domination.

I find it interesting to reflect on the biblical authors' way of viewing sinfulness. Taken too far in that direction and it could seemingly erase moral responsibility, leaving humans totally helpless and trapped by the domination of sinfulness from which we can do nothing at all to be free. Indeed Paul lays this picture on thick in Romans 5-8 and presents a person saying "woe is me, I am trapped by sinfulness ruling over me despite what I want" and then presents Christ as the answer to free the person from the power of sinfulness. I think this depiction is balanced however by language in the other direction elsewhere - given the NT is choc-full of moral exhortation it definitely implies ability on our part to join the fight. I think Boyd has it right when he highlights the war language that depicts a battle, and sees the fight of us and Christ against the power of sinfulness and evil in human lives as an extremely strong focus in the New Testament.

It is interesting how our modern Western worry about guilt before God are just so different to these ideas. Instead of asking "who will save me from the power of sinfulness", we ask "who will save me from God?" Instead of seeing sinfulness as a dominating power we pretend the bible is talking about guilt whenever it mentions sinfulness. People are convinced that guilt is the problem, and hey, the bible might never say it, but they're sure that it's the real problem nonetheless. However much I might disagree with Stendahl, I think he was absolutely on the money in suggesting that we have learned to read the bible in a way that sees talk of "guilt" where there is none.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Romans: Is that you speaking Paul?

Recent scholars on Romans has identified several instances of Speech-In-Character, where the a character other than Paul is speaking. I agree with Witherington's assessment that this is because Paul was writing to a church over which he had no direct authority, and therefore needed to be a bit indirect in his arguments.

It is fairly universally accepted that Romans 7 contains a lengthy monologue by a character who is not Paul who speaks of their struggles with sin and the law. It has also long been noted that Paul often asks rhetorical questions in Romans. Scholars seem to widely agree now that these are mostly not rhetorical questions, but rather indicate a dialogue between two characters.

To give an idea of how endemic this is in Romans:
Romans 1:18-2:16 is sometimes regarded as a dialogue between a gentile moral preacher and Paul. Much of Romans 2:17-4:25 is generally accepted to be a dialogue between Paul and a Jewish teacher of the Law. Romans 7 contains a long monologue by a non-Paul character. Most ancient commentators thought most of Romans 9 was a Jew who was not Paul speaking.

In some places in Romans there is some substantial level of difficulty involved in identifying who the characters are and which one is asking the questions and which one is giving the answers. eg Stowers argues that in Rom 3:1-8 Paul is the one asking questions and the teacher is giving answers. Campbell thinks most of 1:18-2:16 is a Jewish preacher speaking. I think the strength of the parallels between 1:18-32 and the Jewish work Wisdom of Solomon mean that it's the Jewish teacher there, but contrary to Campbell I think the voice changes to Paul in 2:1.

To the original intended audience it would have been clear what was going on because Phoebe whom Paul sent with the letter would have read and presented it in such a way as to make it clear (changing voice, expression, body movements) as she read / presented / acted out the letter. Whereas we do not have that luxury.

Of course this creates substantial difficulties for us in trying to understand the letter. It certainly makes difficulties if we try to "get theology" out of the letter by grabbing a sentence and setting it up as Truth, since it might be in the mouth of one of Paul's opponents.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Romans 7 and the "I"

Romans 7 is remarkable for being a passage on which biblical scholars had an almost unanimous change of view in a relatively short time.

Romans 7 contains a lengthy and passionate explanation about a person's struggles with Sin, Flesh, Spirit and Law. One of the more famous lines reads "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." This passage has often spoken powerfully to people as the see their own life struggles reflected in it.

From the time of the Reformation until 50 years ago, biblical scholarship was deeply divided over one question regarding Romans 7: Is Paul in this passage speaking of his pre-conversion life as a Pharisee or his post-conversion life as a Christian? In other words, should we expect such struggles with sin to exemplify the Christian life, or ought the Christian life be characterized by freedom from sin? The fact that the passage was about Paul was universally accepted - after all, it uses the word "I" constantly, and how could Paul write with such emotion if he was not writing about himself?

Yet now there is pretty much unanimity amongst scholars that the passage is not about Paul. Paul is definitely not the "I" speaking in the passage. Paul is using a standard ancient Greek rhetorical device of speech-in-character and it is that character who is talking. The previous question about whether the struggle with sin describes the Christian or pre-Christian life seems to have also been definitively answered: The character is speaking of their pre-Christian life and their struggles with sin, and looking for Christ to free them from the power of sin and save them from that struggle. It is notable that all the early Greek Christian commentaries on Romans held both these views.

The new question that has scholars engaged is the question of: Who is the character? The main candidates seem to be:
  • Adam himself and his experiences with the command to not eat the fruit.
  • A gentile who decided to start following the Jewish Law.
  • Humanity/Israel personified. ie the passage is the story of salvation history from Adam to Christ like in Rom 5, with humanity/Israel itself as the speaker.
Scholars are divided on these three and no one has yet to produce a compelling argument for one over the others. I have no idea myself which of these three is most likely (I haven't studied the passage too carefully).

On few issues in scholarship is there much level of agreement, so it is quite surprising that there is so much agreement on the subject of Paul not being the "I" in Romans 7 and that there has been a universal change of tune within so short a time-frame. But it also raises a rather important question: If the one passage where we were sure was Paul speaking is in fact not Paul at all, then what about all the other passages where we thought Paul was speaking? More on that later...

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Sanctification vs Justification

It's been traditional since the Reformation to draw a distinction between Justification and Sanctification. This is one of issues where I just can't fathom what the Reformers were thinking, since there seems no good reason for doing this. The two words mean substantially the same thing, and Paul uses them synonymously.

So it was with a sigh that today I read this post endorsing the traditional Protestant separation of justification and sanctification, written by someone who studies Paul's writings and thus ought to know better.

One of the other things that kind of makes me go "huh?" is that if someone demanded of me that I draw a distinction between Sanctification and Justification, then I would split the terms up the opposite way round. That is, the idea that the word "sanctification" in the Bible means what Protestants call justification and that "justification" means what Protestants call sanctification, is a more plausible hypothesis than the opposite. Given the evidence, it's silly to try to split the terms up, but if I had to that's how I'd split them... so I really don't get what the Reformers were thinking when they split them the way they did. Everyone in the church prior to the Reformation had held that they were synonymous and indicative of moral transformation, so why did the Reformers see fit to tamper, and tamper in such a bizarre and unevidenced manner at that? One of the mysteries of life, I suppose...