Friday, October 19, 2007

Making sense of 'justified by faith'

In the last couple of months various things have challenged me as to whether the particular nuances of my thoughts about 'justification by faith' are correct.

So I thought I'd sit down and start from what I'm sure of beyond doubt and work toward what I'm totally unsure of.
1. Every single description of the final eternal judgment of God in the undisputed Paulines is a judgment whose criteria is whether a person is good or evil. (This is in line with standard Jewish and early Christian beliefs)
2. The word Dikaiosune itself in Greek means primarily morality or virtue and is essentially moral rather than forensic.
3. Paul firmly believes in the moral transformation of the Christian. He believes that God provides the Spirit which works in Christians to transform them.
4. Paul's theology about what happens to Christians after conversion is therefore fairly straightforward. They receive the spirit, are sanctified, gain real moral righteousness, and achieve a positive final judgment as a result. (It is his theology of conversion, 'justified by faith' etc, that is the tricky part.)

5. The verb form Dikaioo seems to usually mean "to consider/declare/deem righteous", rather than to "make righteous" and so could be said to be forensic.
6. The word Pistis can mean a variety of things, but the ones most relevant to the NT are 'belief' in an idea, 'faithfulness' to a person, and 'perseverance'.
7. Pistis is most commonly used by Paul without an explicit object. When it has one it is most commonly God, and secondarily the controversial pistis christou passages.
8. According to Paul it is definitely good for Christians themselves to have 'faith'. (even the pistis-chrisou-is-subjective crowd thinks it's not just Christ who has faith)
9. Chronologically in a Christian's life we see the flow:
Hear the gospel -> faith -> sanctification -> final judgment
10. Paul suggests that the Galatians received the Spirit after hearing the message and coming to faith.
11. Perhaps the simplest theoretical framework to construct from all of this then is that people come to God in faith and he provides them with the Spirit which empowers their sanctification and leads to a positive final judgment.

The trouble is that while all this doesn't pin down the meaning of the phrase 'justified by faith'. Is it something that happens at the moment of conversion? Or does it mean "we are eventually justified, at the final judgment, as a result of processes that occur that begin with our faith and end with our justification"? That is really quite key to pinning down justification - is it a conversion event, an ongoing process, or an event at the final judgment? I have typically taken the second view, but now I wonder.

As far as 'faith' goes, I have tended to understand it as meaning 'faithfulness to Jesus' and interpret this as meaning means we faithfully follow Jesus' teachings and thus become righteous (ie justified through faithfulness). In support of this view is that sanctification and justification are linguistically synonymous in meaning, and we read in Acts that Christ told Paul to teach that Gentiles are "sanctified by faith in me" (implying that justified and sanctified can be swapped in that phrase). However equating 'faithful' to Jesus to mean 'the faithful following of Jesus' teachings' I have found to be a bit of a stretch. It's possible, but when talking to people about it, I've increasingly found that other people are not very happy to accept it as a natural reading.

Random thoughts...
I think it is not often enough thought about where Paul gets the very idea of 'faith' from. Why on earth does he (apparently arbitrarily) think 'faith' (whatever it is) is so important? From his vision of the risen Jesus? From the Abraham passage? A clear answer to that question would help in understanding what Paul thinks 'faith' means.

'Justified by faith' is not a particularly common phrase in the NT, residing mainly in just two of Paul's epistles. Unless we want to posit a massive split within early Christianity, we need to believe that whatever Paul was on about with his 'justified by faith' terminology was (if it was at all important) held by other NT writers and second century Christians who do not use such terms - and thus that the doctrine is translatable in to phrases and concepts that speak of neither justification nor faith.

Does 'justified' connect with forgiveness of sins? Or repentance? Why does Paul so rarely speak of the concept of 'repentance and forgiveness' so common in Judaism and elsewhere in the NT? Is justification by faith synonymous with that, or something different?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Justifying the ungodly

God, according to Romans 4:5, "justifies the ungodly". There are, as always, many ways this phrase could be read depending on how the key words are interpreted.

The most common Protestant reading would be to take justifies in a legal sense and ungodly in a moral sense, resulting in a reading that God "declares righteous the immoral". Catholics however would generally read both words in a moral sense, resulting in a reading where God "makes the immoral righteous".

New Perspective scholars however seem to almost universally agree that the phrases "Gentile sinners" and "ungodly Gentiles" are proverbial phrases within Judaism of this time. Therefore the term "sinner" or "ungodly" can and does often simply mean "Gentile" or "person who doesn't follow the Mosaic Law", rather than indicating an immoral or wicked person. It has an ethnic/legal meaning rather than moral meaning.

Thus the NPP reading is that God "declares righteous those who do not follow the Mosaic Law". This seems to me to be the best reading and agree with the context in which Paul talks about how Abraham was declared righteous by God before he was circumcised.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Problems with the Gift/Satisfaction theory

The Gift / Satisfaction theory of the atonement that I explained here, is an interesting theory of atonement. It fits well with the culture of the time. We know Jews at this time understood some deaths in this manner (the Maccabean Martyrs), and the language they use about these deaths is very very similar to the language used about Jesus in the New Testament. It also explains the use of generic phrases such as "Christ died for our sins". Three highly competent scholars I am aware of think it is taught by Paul.

Yet I have two issues with it that I just can't get my head around. They just don't make any sense to me, and I just can't understand how they could ever make sense. Both come back to the close link between Jesus and God.

1. Giving a gift to yourself makes no sense. It just doesn't. Sure the concept of splashing out as a reward for your hard work makes sense. But no one expends a great deal of effort simply to gift themselves that effort. If Jesus is in any way God's agent, the idea that he gifted his faithful life to God strikes me as plain nonsensical. It would be fine if he was human and not 'working for' God. But I just can't make sense of the idea of God trying to give a gift to himself. It seems to me that an extremely exceptionally 'low' view of Jesus' divinity is required to make any sense at all of this idea.

2. Why the need for God to give himself 'satisfaction' or a gift? If God wants to be kind, he doesn't need to give himself a gift imploring himself to be kind. To make this work, some reason has to be concocted about God not being able to do what he wants to do until he has given himself a gift to make him want to do it more. Alternatively we could say that God wants to not be wrathful and yet is obligated to be, and so has Jesus achieve satisfaction in order to get out of his obligation that he does not desire to fulfill. That was the line Anselm took. But that idea just doesn't make sense in our culture at all. And I think Anselm was scraping the barrel with this one and that it didn't make much sense in his own culture or the biblical authors' culture either.

So, in short, the gift theory is all very well and has potential. Yet it seems to demand either a fairly extreme disconnection between God and Jesus, or an implausible account of the necessities that God works under. So I can't really get my head around it as a model despite the benefits I can see in it.

So readers! What am I missing? This one has me stumped.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Jesus of the Gospels

When I performed the exercise of reading carefully through all four gospels in at attempt to see how the gospels themselves were trying to present Jesus and his mission, trying not to impose my preconceived evangelical framework on them, and trying to make full use of the large number of scholarly books about the social-cultural background of the time that I'd read, I was quite surprised at the results. First of all, what wasn't there: The gospels spend very little time on questions of Jesus' divinity or the meaning of his death. The Evangelical "gospel" of a divine Jesus in whom we need to place faith in his atoning death in order to be saved is not the focus of the biblical gospels, nor is this depicted as the content of Jesus' preaching.

The Jesus of the gospels is presented as taking up the lead of the Kingdom of God movement, already in motion under John the Baptist. Jesus is perceived by people as a Prophet (he is called a prophet far more in the gospels than anything else). He gets into repeated arguments with people over three issues: Torah (Israelite law and customs), Temple, and Wealth. In all these areas his concern for the poor, needy, sick, and outcasts shows through. The major focus of all these is, time and again, economics! (I was very surprised) The focus is especially the plight of suffering poor compared to the wealth of the rich. His criticisms of the Temple and Torah seem to always be focused on economics and how these institutions are causing poverty and benefiting the rich. The morality discussed in the gospels is most often interpersonal economics related morality.

Jesus' criticism of Torah constantly focuses on how the Pharisees' careful following of Torah is resulting in suffering for the poor and needy. Jesus emphasizes the Torah themes of caring for the poor and marginalized, echoing many of the Prophets in Israel's tradition. His criticism of the temple returns time and again to money, as he sees it as an instrument of oppression toward the poor from whom money is extorted by it. He predicts therefore that God in an act of judgment upon it will destroy the Temple. The "Kingdom of God" idea seems to be based on the concept of a Utopia. The kingdom of God is the conceptual perfect ideal in which everything in the kingdom is as God wishes it to be. In English we might say "A Better Tomorrow" or "God's Ideal for the World".

Much space in the gospels is dedicated to focusing on Jesus building up his movement. He recruits followers and organizes them and sets them about recruiting more. Exhortation to his followers to persevere takes up an amazing amount of space in the gospels (a whopping 30% or so!). Time after time, Jesus warns his followers of hardships and persecutions they may face, of the sacrifices they will have to make, and encourages and exhorts them to persevere with the promise that God will reward them for their actions both in the present life and after death. He warns that they, like himself, may be killed for the cause. I found the theme of secrecy in the gospels particularly intriguing. First Jesus tries to hide his movement from the authorities, telling those he encounters to tell no one about it, though he tells his followers that eventually it will come out in the open. Throughout the course of the gospels his movement grows and his attempts to keep it secret increasingly fail. Finally when he is told the authorities have learned all about him and his movement he begins to confront them publicly.

The Jesus of the gospels is thus primarily presented as a social reformer. He is a social activist, a popular Prophet in the tradition of Israel's history of Prophetic reformers who challenge and are killed by the authorities, a leader of a grass-roots lower-classes movement that challenges the authorities and upper classes in an effort to achieve greater egalitarianism. Call it what you will, but by far the closest parallels are people such as Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, or Robin Hood - people who led movements against the authorities in attempted reform on a variety of social issues, and who enjoyed the popular support of the masses. This concept of Jesus was really quite different to anything I had thought or dreamed of finding in the gospels.

The other thing I found surprising was the huge extent to which Jesus is clearly depicted as a martyr for his cause in the gospels. As his movement increasing becomes known to the authorities and he enters into conflicts with them, he warns his followers of the persecutions and death they may face. He reminds them that God will reward them either now or in the afterlife for doing his will. As he realizes that if he continues his movement he will be killed for it, he makes the painful decision to continue nonetheless. He is finally captured by the authorities who execute him. But his followers then see him resurrected by God, demonstrating that everything Jesus had stood for was true, and they are inspired to carry on the movement.

Now there are certainly further questions that can be asked and issues that border on the periphery in the gospels, where the answers are left vague or unclear: Is Jesus' movement nonviolent? In what sense (if any) does he consider himself a Messiah, or would he prefer to avoid the role of Messiah thrust on him by others? Would he have been for, against, or indifferent to the armed insurrections against Roman rule that engulfed Israel about once a generation? To what extent does he believe in the "communist" type ultra-egalitarian ideals he advocates as general principles universally applicable, as opposed to seeing them as a practical solution to a particular situation at that time and place?

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Satisfaction Model of Atonement

The Satisfaction model is often dismissed by many as being a poor-man's precursor to Penal Substitution. Yet the logic by which it works is quite different to Penal Substitution, and these two models are best not grouped together nor confused. The differences between Satisfaction and Penal Substitution are simple but profound. The Satisfaction model instead ought to be grouped under the broader category of a "Gift" theory of the atonement.

The Satisfaction model is based on principles and ideas that were definitely current in Biblical times. Such understandings could plausibly have been used by the early Christians to understand the atonement. This method of understanding Christ's work definitely was employed by various Christians from the fourth century AD onwards. I am as-yet-undecided about whether the earliest Christians did make use of this model of understanding Christ's death, but I am quite open to the possibility that they in theory could have. The evidence, so far as I have considered it, does not lean clearly in favor one way or the other regarding their use or disuse of the concepts involved in Satisfaction.

Satisfaction is a concept which is generally present in honour-shame societies. When one person or group offends publicly in some manner against another person or group, the offended party is obligated by the rules governing social interaction to respond vengefully ("wrath") in proportion to the offense, otherwise their reputation is damaged. Wrath did not necessarily imply any anger and was an obligatory public action rather than an emotion per se. People could be reluctant to be wrathful, or refrain from wrath if they chose even if they were extremely emotionally angry. It was possible to prevent, or mitigate such obligatory vengeance by the payment of a gift equivalent in value of the offense to the offended party. To understand this in modern day terms, it can be imagined that all offenses are equivalent to stealing a certain amount of money (honour) from the offended person, and thus the situation can be righted either by the person taking vengeful actions to steal that same amount back off you, or someone paying that person the required amount of money.

The gift that was given to remove offenses is called a "satisfaction" payment, because it "satisfies" the offended party, and resolves the situation peacefully. This was a standard practice in ancient society which took place regularly among humans and was believed to also take place between mankind and the gods. By far the commonest forms of sacrifices in the ancient world were thus understood to be gifts to the gods - either "satisfaction" payments to atone for transgressions and thus make atonement for offenses, or gifts that pushed your 'account' into the positives causing the gods to respond with blessings. The same social norms that demanded wrath when slighted demanded that positive favors and gifts be repaid in kind. (I will come back to this positive "gift" variation of satisfaction later, so keep it in mind) With such payments it is the monetary value of the gift that is most important, but the publicity of the payment is generally important too.

The difference between Penal Substitution and Satisfaction is quite well illustrated in the case of sacrifices. A sacrifice which worked by Penal Substitution (which, to the best of my knowledge, there is not a single instance of in any culture) would be thought to supernaturally take onto itself the sins of the offender, and then in its death suffer the punishment deserved for those sins in place of the offender. Whereas a sacrifice that worked by Satisfaction would be a gift of something of value to the god or his earthly representatives in order to appease him. The gift itself could be grain or coin or meat or slaves or land, and if it was meat then the animal would be ritually killed and die a death no more supernatural than any other death (many ancient societies were inclined to see mystical power in all life-forces and thus the need for careful rituals to channel that life properly in death). The ancient world was a relatively coinless society, and meat was rare and very valuable and so was generally used for important sacrifices.

When Anselm popularized the Satisfaction model, he drew heavily on the parallels with his Feudal society and how satisfaction payments worked in it. His society was, in its honour-shame system, very similar to the society of biblical times and thus his model stands as a plausible way people in biblical times could have understood Jesus' atonement. The Maccabean Martyrs are a prime example of the Jews of Jesus' time understanding deaths in precisely this manner. This group of Jews were martyred for their zealous adherence to God's law and were seen as achieving satisfaction for the sins of the nation. Their own faithfulness to God and their endurance of suffering for the sake of doing his will was seen as "satisfying" the wrath of God that had been brought on by disobedient Israel. Equally present in the accounts of them is the 'gift' notion of their faithfulness to God earning a positive balance of divine favor toward them and thus divine obligation to respond to their prayers for Israel. (Satisfaction and gift notions go hand in hand in these accounts, and are essentially the same thing) The Jewish book of 4 Maccabees speaks of these martyrs "propitiating God" and becoming a "ransom" for the sin of the nation, since they provide in their faithful devotion to God a pleasing gift which satisfies him thus appeasing his wrath and paying for Israel to be ransomed. Thus the ideas of faithful martyrdoms "satisfying" God's wrath were definitely present in the Jewish culture of the time of Jesus. But whether any Christians in the New Testament or the next couple of centuries actually utilize these ideas is something I am currently quite uncertain about. It is not their primary understanding of the work of Christ, but it may (or may not) have a fair amount of significance for them. They do not clearly state that they saw Jesus in this manner, but some of their language could potentially be so interpreted.

Differences between the Penal Substitution and Satisfaction models in terms of what happened to Christ on the cross are fairly straight-forward. The Penal Substitutionary model claims that on the cross a supernatural event took place in which the sins and guilt of humans were transferred to Christ and there he suffered God's punishment on our behalf. In the Satisfaction model Christ's death is not supernatural and there is no transfer of sins. Rather his faithfulness to God's will to the point of death is regarded positively by God and as either making satisfaction for human transgression or as achieving a positive balance of divine favor which is then exercised toward Jesus and his followers (more of a "gift" model than what has been historically called "Satisfaction"). In neither version of the satisfaction model does God metaphysically need Jesus to die, but rather Jesus' death epitomizes his faithfulness to God and thus obliges a favorable divine response (according to the social norms of the day it would be extremely dishonorable for God to fail to respond favorably to such a display of faithfulness).

The Satisfaction model is quite interesting insofar as people who loathe the Penal Substitutionary model can happily embrace the Satisfaction model despite the great surface similarity of the models. Steve Chalke would be the most prominent example of this, as he thinks Penal Substitution is "cosmic child abuse" (since in it Jesus suffers the wrath of God) but seems to be quite happy with accepting the satisfaction model and saying Jesus propitiates the wrath of God etc. (This seems to have confused a lot of people who are scratching their heads about how he can reject Penal Substitution so vehemently and yet sign doctrinal statements intended by their authors to endorse Penal Substitution but which are sufficiently vague as to allow for Satisfaction instead) The two models explain a very similar data set but do so using very different mechanisms. The Satisfaction model avoids several of the problems that penal substitution seems to present - eg it doesn't involve the moral transfer of guilt, nor God punishing Jesus. The "gift" version of the Satisfaction theory is even more powerful in the sense that it can explain a very similar data set, but admits many more nuances than even straight "Satisfaction" does and avoids many of the pitfalls that the Satisfaction theory itself falls into. For example, David Brondos in his great little book Paul on the Cross (which I highly recommend as an insightful study of Paul's doctrine of atonement, even though I think he misses some of the most central ideas), totally rejects the literal Satisfaction model and yet advocates the "gift" model (among others) without apparently realizing the existence of any link between this and the Satisfaction model. (ie that the Satisfaction model is just a specialized version of the more general "gift" model)

It is my contention that the Satisfaction/Gift model do not get the air-time they deserve in popular Protestantism. The Satisfaction model is either imagined to be substantially identical to Penal Substitution, or dismissed out of hand as a feudalistic version of it. Yet this seems to me unwarranted. The mechanics of Satisfaction/Gift substantially differ to Penal Substitution, and it has greater explanatory power, far fewer ethical and logical problems, and a hugely better claim to be biblical. I think if many people were more knowledgeable about the Satisfaction/Gift model that they would realize that they "evidence" they see as being in the the Bible supporting Penal Substitution actually supports the Satisfacton/Gift model. Whether such evidence is in reality really there at all is something that I am totally and utterly unconvinced about one way or the other at this stage...

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Evolution of Doctrine: Simultaneously righteous and sinner

An important conceptual change in theological doctrine was Luther's idea of "Simultaneously righteous and sinner" (Simul Iustus et Peccator).

In early Christianity, human righteousness is conceived of as being on a single continuum, with extreme wickedness at one end and godly righteousness at the other end. It is thus a grey-scale which measures morality:
Sinner <------------------------------------> Righteous
The basic idea is that a given human can only occupy one location on this scale at a particular time. Over time they can become better or worse - moral improvement, or moral decline. God is seen as approving of righteousness and disapproving of wickedness. The solution to avoiding God's anger is thus to move across the scale and become a better person, ie to repent of one's wicked ways and change them. This continuum is taken for granted by Christians throughout the first millennia: To become righteous is to cease being a sinner, and vice versa. There is never the thought of a "righteousness" that doesn't entail actually being moral and ceasing from sin.

Luther however took an axe to this continuum and cut it into two. In his system there are two such continua: One measuring human morality as it actually is, and one measuring God's (judicial) view of humans. On one continuum we can be sitting at "world's worst sinner" and on the other at "perfectly righteous" - our true moral state, and our moral state before God, are in Luther's system two totally different things.

The practical outworking of this is that there is no great need for humans to be actually righteous or live righteously, and thus Luther writes "boldly sin... No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day." This is a strikingly different attitude toward sinning compared to that evident in the first millennia writings (see the Desert Fathers for example).

The essential conceptual development at work here is the breaking of the old single-continuum into two, so that you can now be both sinner and saint at the same time, where in previous Christianity being one excluded being the other. In a sense it was Luther's projection of this new model back onto Paul's writings that shaped his entire theology. Paul was reread in light of this double-continua and what now came out of his writings was no longer talk of actual moral righteousness, but rather a way to be righteous before God despite actually being a sinner. Paul's gospel, in Luther's model, is then about how human beings can be righteous before God and sinners in actuality at the same time due to what Christ has achieved. Actual moral change is no longer a prerequisite to salvation, because the continuum that governs salvation and status in the eyes of God is now an independent continuum to that which measures our actual morality.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

How to find or not find the historical Jesus

My general evangelical background influenced me without me realizing it on the subject of the life of Jesus. My understanding of the life of Jesus came to be something like as follows:
He preached that he was God-incarnate, and called people to believe in him that they might be saved. He did miracles to prove this. He died on the cross taking the sins of the world onto himself and thereby accomplishing atonement.
I remember once seeing a discussion about the historical Jesus and the fact that certain scholars thought there was good evidence to prove that various events in Jesus' life (things like baptism by John, controversy with Pharisees, preaching of parables, trial before Pilate) were really historical and not made up by the later Church. My attitude at the time was "what on earth does any of that matter? Those are of zero relevance to salvation."

I felt that all that mattered was Jesus' atoning death on the cross, and the rest of his life was irrelevant, but it had presumably been spent preaching the evangelical gospel. That was the view I had been implicitly taught to hold. The gospel stories were simply interesting stories that made for some nice sermons sometimes but which had no important meaning. It was simply a record of the life of someone who'd lived 2000 years ago and what he'd done from day to day was of no importance compared to his atoning death. The mere words of Jesus written in the gospels were as nothing compared to the reality of salvation available today for those who put their trust in his substitutionary death.

When I began to seriously wonder about the correctness of Penal Substitution, I was left with the question of "so if Jesus wasn't trying to achieve that, then was was he trying to achieve?" With that question in mind I read through all four gospels taking careful notes in an attempt to see how the gospel's presented Jesus' mission and achievements. ie what did the gospel writers see Jesus as having been trying to accomplish and accomplishing? I was extremely surprised by the results of doing this. The gospels were quite clear and unanimous in their presentation of what Jesus and his mission. I could hardly believe I'd never noticed before what the gospels clearly spelled out.

I have since realized that very few people indeed are actually interested in the picture of Jesus painted by the gospel writers. Conservative Christians already have a picture of Jesus in their minds, the Jesus of faith that they believe in. They already know who and what Jesus was and what his mission was, and so they aren't interested in what the gospels say. The gospels are not allowed to differ from the creeds and statements of faith that these Christians already subscribe to. Liberal Christians who want to get away from the Jesus of Faith and back to the Historical Jesus have classically tended to dismiss with a wave of the hand (without even considering it) any picture of Jesus painted by the gospel writers as being the Jesus of Faith and not of history. They put the gospels metaphorically through a shredder and then carefully examine each isolated sentence according to complex criteria for authenticity. After deciding about three sentences authentically go back to the historical Jesus, they use their imaginations to fill in the vast blanks and construct a "historical Jesus" out of whole cloth.

In my view a much better approach in getting at the real Jesus is to take the gospels as whole narratives, looking at the general picture of Jesus that they present and evaluating the plausibility of that picture as an authentic picture of the historical Jesus. It seems that the more we learn about the social context and background of the times in which Jesus lived, the more the picture of Jesus drawn in the gospels seems an entirely plausible historical reality. I have been pleasantly surprised to see so many others arrive at the same conclusions as me on this. All the recent studies of the gospels and Jesus that rely heavily on social-context research all seem to be coming to the same conclusions about Jesus' life and ministry, and also about how we need to study the gospels holistically. I was reading Horsley's great little book Jesus and Empire the other day and laughed at his pithy phrase "we must take our gospels whole" which he used to summarize the concept of holistic gospel analysis I have just mentioned.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Ancient Rhetoric and NT Documents

Ben Witherington on his blog lately has been emphasizing the worthwhileness of understanding ancient rhetorical techniques to aid in our understanding of the New Testament documents. He posts an interesting lecture he gave on the subject.

I have myself found that, in general, understanding better the social and cultural background of the New Testament has helped immeasurably in my understanding of it. That said, I recently read Witherington's allegedly "Social-Rhetorical Commentary on Romans" which failed almost completely to make any worthwhile use of insights about rhetorical techniques and structure (he talked plenty about rhetoric, but it was of no actual assistance in understanding the text), so that tempers my enthusiasm for understanding rhetoric somewhat. I confess, however, to being almost totally ignorant of the structures and forms of ancient rhetoric. So I intend to attempt to remedy this by studying the subject.

I am a bit unsure where to begin my study of ancient rhetoric. I would have thought they'd be a book designed for Classics students titled "An introduction to the standard forms of ancient rhetoric" or "Types of Greek rhetoric and their structures" or something similar. But searching of Google and Amazon has yet to reveal such a book to me. So if anyone knows of one, please sing out. Lacking helpful secondary sources I'm thinking I might start by reading Aristotle and Quintilian on rhetoric.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Evolution of Doctrine: Original Sin

In the history of Christian theology there have been a number of major theological changes made in Western Christian theology over the course of time, often due to the use of inaccurate Latin bible translations.

The earliest of these changes chronologically was the doctrine of Original Sin. The Christian church in the second century AD had nothing remotely resembling the doctrine of original sin as we know it today. The universal view attested is that children are born innocent and that people are guilty only of their own sins. In some writers the concept that Adam's sin damaged the likeness of God within humanity somewhat, and this is viewed as a kind of corruption of the natural order which is inherited - and this is generally taken to explain why humans die. But this is not taken to imply any inevitability to human sinfulness or any damage to free will. There is a dominating belief that through human effort and the assistance of the Holy Spirit and Christ's example, humans can live godly lives that are upright and pleasing to God.

In the late second century, in North Africa, the writer Tertullian protested against the introduction of the practice of infant baptism there. He argued that baptism was supposed to be for the forgiveness of sins, but since infants had no sin the introduction of its use for them was wrong. The widespread thought however seemed to be that there might be some mysterious gracious blessing from God conveyed through baptism, and thus infant baptism quickly became a fairly universal custom.

In third and fourth century North African Latin Christianity, there is a clear trend present towards taking a darker view of the human condition. In the course of these centuries the theologians in this area began to take the view that humanity had been very seriously damaged by the fall, that humanity was bad, that the human will is not capable of becoming good, and that all humans are born guilty of Adam's sin. It appears that a couple of generations after Tertullian, people had started using his same logic backwards: "We baptise infants, baptism is for forgiveness of sin, therefore infants must have sin." Such doctrinal changes were geographically fairly confined. Greek Christian writings from during and after this period reflect an unchanged stance on the subject - eg John Chrysostom (d. 407), states explicitly that infants have no sin and that forgiveness of sin is not the motive for infant baptism.

Nor, it seems, had these innovations reached too far to the west. When a monk from England named Pelagius journeyed to Rome he was shocked by the theology he encountered there. He felt that the teachings of the North African bishop Augustine effectively denied the possibility of good moral conduct and human moral reform which Pelagius (in line with typical Christianity of earlier centuries) saw as the foundations of Christianity. Augustine had gone further than his North African predecessors and actually advocated Predestination, a doctrine that had always previously been strongly opposed by Christians. This led to an extended controversy between Pelagius and Augustine. Scholars are generally agreed that Pelagius' viewpoints by and large were typical of previous Christian orthodoxy (especially the Greek-speaking church at the time, who couldn't read Augustine's writings) and Augustine's were radically new. Nonetheless Augustine managed to use his influence to get Pelagius condemned as a heretic: "it was an injustice that made history" writes the renowned Lutheran patristics scholar Jaroslav Pelikan in his The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (pg 313).

One passage that Augustine drew heavily on in his arguments with Pelagius was Romans 5:12, which in the Latin translation (he couldn't read Greek) said that everyone had sinned "in" Adam. Augustine used this to argue that all humanity was present "in" Adam when he sinned, and thus all are born guilty of sin. His Latin translation was extremely faulty here however, and it actually reads in the Greek that everyone dies "because" they sin or that everyone dies "because of which" they sin.

Thus the doctrine of Original Sin became standard within Latin Christianity. The Greek Christians however (who were at that time a large majority of Christendom), never read Augustine's writings and continued to hold their traditional doctrines. To this day the Eastern Orthodox Christians continue to totally reject the Latin innovations of the doctrine of Original Sin. Unsurprisingly when we turn from history to the Bible, there isn't much in the bible that could lend itself in support to the Latin doctrine of Original Sin. Nor did the Jewish Rabbis teach such a doctrine, and Judaism today rejects any such doctrine.

And that's how the standard Protestant doctrine of Original Sin resulted from the introduction of infant baptism, a bad Latin translation, a conflict where influence beat orthodoxy, and a couple of centuries of doctrinal change.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Attitudes toward second century theology

Sometimes when I read scholarship on early Christianity I am struck by the scholar's superior and disdaining attitude toward these writings. Reading between the lines, I get the impression they are thinking something like:
Gee, these guys' theology sucks. They've just got no idea. They don't get original sin. They don't understand grace. Their understanding of the atonement is woefully inadequate. Their understanding of Paul's theology is non-existent. They've just got no concept of the proper Christianity, the good Reformation doctrine that I hold. Really, they can hardly even be called Christians.
Whereas my attitude has always been that the second century church's theology is of great importance in understanding what the first Christians believed. I take the phrase "modern protestant Christian theology looks nothing like second century theology" to mean "modern protestant Christian theology is badly wrong and has radically departed from authentic Christianity." When I read a scholar who writes "Christians of this period had a woefully inadequate understanding of original sin", I mentally translate this to "Modern Christianity needs to reexamine its doctrine of original sin, because there is a serious mismatch with early Christianity." In my view, it is early Christianity that is normative and to which modern Christianity needs to conform and not vice versa.

Now I'm not for a second saying there was no theological development from the time of Jesus until Origen. Of course there was some development - that's one of my fields of interest. But anyone who thinks there was a world-wide 100% u-turn within Christianity with no dissenting voices within a hundred year period is surely dreaming. So if modern theology is substantially different to second century theology on large numbers of major issues, then it surely demands a serious reexamination of our doctrines. We don't necessarily have to end up agreeing 100% with second century theology - we might identify and avoid some of their mistakes as we study the development of doctrine during this early period... however the fact that their theology differs to ours really ought to ring alarm bells and lead to into a serious reexamination of our supposedly 'biblical' theology. Yet so many scholars seem to take a "no way my interpretation of the bible can possibly be wrong, it's just second century theology that sucks" attitude.

What I find interesting to do, is for each of the differences in theology, to trace the development of doctrine from the second century until today and see where and why changes occurred. It has been this process of study more than anything else that made me lose faith in modern protestant theology. I found what is taught today is simply a result of two millennia of theological development where theological changes happened over the course of time for poor reasons. In basically every aspect where modern and second century Christianity disagree, modern Christianity's reasons for its view are poor and unjustified.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The 2nd century system of salvation

There were three doctrines that I would call fundamental to second and third century Christianity's system of salvation:
1. A works-based final judgment
2. Christ as a teacher of goodness and righteousness
3. Free will

In this period the Christian belief in free will is regularly vigorously defended by writers. It is contrasted to the Greco-Roman concept of Fate (predestination), and also to the gnostic idea of Natures (unchangeable inner natures). The strength of these endorsements of the freedom of the will seem to largely derive from the universal belief that humans would be judged by God in according to their character and deeds. Several writers comment that the fact of God's judgment of us implies that it is within our own power to meet that judgment else we cannot be held accountable. (This is known in moral philosophy as as the "ought implies can" argument, generally attributed to Kant).
This also is clearly defined in the teaching of the Church, that every rational soul is possessed of free-will and volition; that it has a struggle to maintain with the devil and his angels, and opposing influences, because they strive to burden it with sins; but if we live rightly and wisely, we should endeavour to shake ourselves free of a burden of that kind. From which it follows, also, that we understand ourselves not to be subject to necessity, so as to be compelled by all means, even against our will, to do either good or evil. For if we are our own masters, some influences perhaps may impel us to sin, and others help us to salvation; we are not forced, however, by any necessity either to act rightly or wrongly, which those persons think is the case who say that the courses and movements of the stars are the cause of human actions, not only of those which take place beyond the influence of the freedom of the will, but also of those which are placed within our own power. (Origen 230AD, First Principles, Preface 5)
The concept of Christ as a teacher of goodness, monotheism, morality, and righteous living who brings man to the knowledge of virtue and the knowledge of God is easily the strongest view of Christ's atoning work in this period. This conception of Christ as a teacher is universally present and in virtually every writer is the dominant model. Even in the theology of Irenaeus (fairly unique in this period for his Recapitulation (theosis) model of the atonement), the conception of Christ as Teacher is very much present in his writings and is co-dominant with Recapitulation. Emphasis is made at various points by the writers of this period on how Christ is the greatest teacher - the validity of other moral teachers is not diminished by this in their opinion, since all true moral teachers are considered inspired by the spirit that was in Christ. Clement of Alexandria in his work The Teacher (Paedagogus) attempts to demonstrate Christ's superiority to all other moral teachers through showing how he utilized every single form and type of rhetoric and moral exhortation known to Greek Rhetoricians. Origen expresses it with a nice image:
Suppose some one ignorant and uneducated to become conscious of his defects, either through the admonition of his teacher, or simply of himself, and then to put himself in the hands of a man whom he thinks capable of leading him into education and virtue; when he thus surrenders himself, his instructor promises to take away the lack of education and to give him an education; not, however, as though the educating and the escape from the want of it in no way depend on the pupil having offered himself for treatment: he only promises to benefit his pupil because he desires to improve. Thus the Divine Word promises to take away the wickedness, which it calls the stony heart, of those who come to it, not if they are unwilling, but if they submit themselves to the Physician of the sick (Origen 230AD, First Principles, Book 3, Chapter 1.15)
The concept of a final judgment by works is universally presupposed during this period. It is stated as Christian doctrine by the Apologists in their presentation of Christianity to outsiders. It appears explicitly or implicitly in almost every work of this period. The fact of and belief in a final judgment according to deeds is consistently utilized for moral exhortation and to defend the doctrine of a bodily resurrection. Several Christian works from this period argue against the idea of a spirit-only resurrection on the grounds that if only the spirit rather than the body as well were rewarded or punished at the final judgment then that would be unjust since the body participated in the deeds during this life it ought to be punished or rewarded too.
the apostolic teaching is that the soul, having a substance and life of its own, shall, after its departure from the world, be rewarded according to its deserts, being destined to obtain either an inheritance of eternal life and blessedness, if its actions shall have procured this for it, or to be delivered up to eternal fire and punishments, if the guilt of its crimes shall have brought it down to this. (Origen 230AD, First Principles, Preface 5)
In short this trio of doctrines are interconnected and seem to be the universally present in virtually all the writers of this period. (Offhand I can't think of any they aren't in, and certainly no orthodox writer in this period actively denies any of them) Together they form what I would call the "system of salvation" or "atonement theology" of the Christians of this period.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The 2nd century model: Christ as Teacher

In the second and third century AD, by far the most dominant model of the atonement was Christ as a teacher of righteousness. Jesus through his life and teachings demonstrated, exemplified and taught a 'new law' of righteousness. We, by following his teachings and example can become righteous before God.

“At times, in all these writers [the Apostolic Fathers], the saving efficacy of Christ’s work is made to consist mainly – sometimes wholly – in His teaching.” (Hastings Rashdall, The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology, pg 198)
“When we analyse their [the Apostolic Fathers'] utterances, we find that their chief emphasis is on what Christ has imparted to us – new knowledge, fresh life, immortality, etc” (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines [revised edition], pg 163)
“We have already noted the popularity of the conception of redemption as enlightenment among the Apostolic Fathers. It reappears in the Apologists…” (Kelly, 169)
“[In the Apologists] his chief vocation as Savior was to teach men the truth about monotheism and the moral life.” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition 100-600AD, 153)
“Undoubtedly the principal purpose of the incarnation… strikes him [Justin Martyr] as having been didactic. Having forgotten the truth and having been inveigled into ignorance and positive error by the demons, men desperately need the restoration of the light they have lost. As ‘the new law giver’ or again, ‘the eternal, final law, the faithful covenant which replaces all laws and commandments’ , Christ imparts this saving knowledge. It was to bestow such illumination, in particular the realization of the oneness of God and the belief in the moral law, and to restore men by it, that the Logos in fact became man .” (Kelly, 168-169)
“there is a distinct tendency in Tertullian to reduce Christ’s achievement to ‘the proclamation of a new law and a new promise of the kingdom of heaven’, and to represent Him as ‘the illuminator and instructor of mankind’.” (Kelly, 177)
“[Clement of Alexandria's] most frequent and characteristic thought is that Christ is the teacher Who endows men with true knowledge, leading them to a love exempt from desires and a righteousness who prime fruit is contemplation.” (Kelly 183)
“Clement is equally fond of speaking of Christ as the Teacher and the Saviour. And the two words mean for him much the same thing, for it is mainly by His teaching and His influence that Christ saves.” (Rashdall, 225)
“[For Origen, Christ] is ‘the pattern of the perfect life’, the exemplar of true virtue into Whose likeness Christians are transformed, thereby being enabled to participate in the divine nature.” (Kelly, 184)
“[Hippolytus'] most characteristic thought, however, is one derived from the Apologists, viz. that the redemption chiefly consists in the knowledge of God mediated by the Word through nature and history, the law and the prophets, and finally the Gospel: ‘appearing in the world as the truth, He taught the truth.’” (Kelly, 178)
Thus, in summary:
“it is clear that meditation on the life and teachings of Jesus was a major preoccupation of the piety and doctrine of the Church [of the second century].... Christ as example and Christ as teacher were constant and closely related doctrinal themes.... [A common teaching was] salvation through the obedience to the teachings of Christ and through imitation of his example.... the work of Christ was represented as that of the exemplar and teacher who brought the true revelation of God’s will for man.” (Pelikan, 142-152)

PS. If anyone can recommend any good books on second and third century atonement theology I'd be interested to hear.